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The Flirt's Tragedy

Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction

Richard A. Kaye

Publication Year: 2002

In The Flirt’s Tragedy, Richard Kaye makes a case for flirtation as a unique, neglected species of eros that finds its deepest, most elaborately sustained fulfillment in the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novel. The author examines flirtation in major British, French, and American texts to demonstrate how the changing aesthetic of such fiction fastened on flirtatious desire as a paramount subject for distinctly novelistic inquiry. The novel, he argues, accentuated questions of ambiguity and ambivalence on which an erotics of deliberate imprecision thrived. But the impact of flirtation was not only formal. Kaye views coquetry as an arena of freedom built on a dialectic of simultaneous consent and refusal, as well as an expression of “managed desire,” a risky display of female power, and a cagey avenue for the expression of dissident sexualities. Through coquetry, novelists offered their response to important scientific and social changes and to the rise of the metropolis as a realm of increasingly transient amorous relations.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv-iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

Many individuals helped with the writing of this book. I would like to thank U. C. Knoepflmacher for his patient, expert, and always spirited attention, Talmudic in its intensity, to the details and substance of my writing. To Elaine Showalter, whose good humor, erudition, and warm encouragement have been everywhere in evidence, my fondest gratitude....

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Introduction: Fiction and the Poetics of Flirtation

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pp. 1-50

“All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting,” observes the narrator of Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality (1991), noting the stories of Madame de Lafayette’s Princess of Clèves, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginia, Eugène Fromentin’s Dominique, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Knut Hamsun’s Victoria, Romain Rolland’s...

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Chapter 1: Dialectical Desires: The Eighteenth-Century Coquette and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Fictional Character

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pp. 51-83

Despite her ubiquity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and British literary narrative, the figure of the coquette has eluded a sustained critical consideration in discussions of the novel. Although both men and women may play at flirtatious games, it is largely the coquette who in the novel of realism becomes the living symbol of a dangerous...

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Chapter 2: The Flirtation of Species: Darwinian Sexual Selection and Victorian Narrative

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pp. 84-117

Of the many propositions advanced by Charles Darwin, that which has endured as the most controversial, although until recently the least explored by literary critics and cultural theorists, addresses the question of “sexual selection” in the natural world. First presented at length in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin’s theory of...

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Chapter 3: George Eliot and Thomas Hardy: Flirtation, Female Choice, and the Revision of Darwinian Belief

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pp. 118-150

The two major Victorian novelists who consciously acknowledge and assimilate Darwinian structures of thought throughout their writing, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, had long been absorbed by the latent, prickly subtextual predicament raised by The Descent of Man: what might occur if the female grew to relish too greatly the initial stages of sexual...

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Chapter 4: Deadly Deferrals: Henry James, Edith Wharton, Gustave Flaubert, and the Exhaustion of Flirtatious Desire

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pp. 151-176

By the end of the nineteenth century, in works as different in tone, style, and subject matter as James’s Daisy Miller, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, novelists increasingly represent the female flirt as a social menace, her strategies not only perniciously insincere, a threat to customary methods of unraveling identity, but unnatural as well. The coquette...

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Chapter 5: “Acceptable Hints of Infinity”: Dissident Desires and the Erotics of Countermodernism

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pp. 177-206

In 1882, at a reception at the Washington home of Judge Edward G. Loring, Oscar Wilde met Henry James, then the toast of literary salons in America for recently having published both Washington Square and Portrait of a Lady.1 There began the end of one of the most unlikely friendships in international letters. Wilde, appearing in knee breeches and...


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pp. 207-234

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 235-240


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pp. 241-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780813922003
E-ISBN-10: 0813922003
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813921006
Print-ISBN-10: 0813921007

Page Count: 246
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 759159932
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Flirt's Tragedy

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Mate selection in literature.
  • Seduction in literature
  • Man-woman relationships in literature.
  • Nischik, Reingard M.
  • Darwin, Charles, -- 1809-1882 -- Influence.
  • Women and literature -- English-speaking countries.
  • English fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Courtship in literature.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Desire in literature.
  • Women in literature.
  • Sex in literature.
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