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Of Heartache and Head Injury: Reading Minds in Persuasion

The new intellectual climate inaugurated by the cognitive revolution can help elicit neglected contexts for literary historical study, to pose new questions for analysis and reopen old ones. The current challenge to social constructionist accounts of subjectivity, for example, can lead to a fundamentally new reading of Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion (1818). Austen's was a period when a dominant constructionist psychology—associationism—vied with emergent brain-based, organicist, and nativist theories of mind. Austen pointedly contrasts a heroine seemingly formed by a history of erotic disappointment with an antiheroine, whose character is transformed instead by a severe blow to the head, at a time when brain injury featured centrally in debates on the materiality of mind. Moreover, the novel's innovative narrative style and approach to characterization take up and extend the embodied approach to subjectivity being worked out contemporaneously by Romantic poets and brain scientists alike.

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