The dynamics of triangular desire in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century British fiction

Rose De Angelis, Fordham University


This dissertation examines and applies Rene Girard's theory of triangular desire as initially formulated in Mensonge romantique et verite romanesque (1961; translated as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 1965) and elaborated in the critic's later works La Violence et le sacre (1972; translated as Violence and the Sacred, 1977) and Des choses cachees depuis la fondation du monde (1978; translated as Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, 1987). Girard proposes a geometric metaphor to explain the manifestations of desire that permeate love relationships in European fiction during the past two centuries. According to Girard, some other individual, force, or object mediates the intersubjective, linear relationship to form a triangle. In this triangular configuration, the object of desire, whether male or female, stands at the apex of the triangle and commands the competing desire of two rivals: the subject and his rival and model, the mediator. The mediator, who enters and disrupts the linear relationship, fuels the passion of desire in both the subject and the love object, and his or her continued presence sustains the flame (Deceit 2-4). Evaluating both the utility and the limitations of Girard's model, this study examines the psychopathology of passion and power in the triangular relationships represented in seven British novels published between 1860 and 1923: George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860), Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Well-Beloved (1897), Henry James' The Bostonians (1886) and The Golden Bowl (1904), D. H. Lawrence's The Fox (1923), and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915). The dissertation traces the literary evolution of desire in its various gender manifestations from late Victorian to early Modernist narrative. I consider how the nature of desire changes during that period, how the dynamics of desire establish the potential for different affective relationships, and how these readings both ratify and challenge Girard's ahistorical structuralist diagram. Each of these novels tests the limits of Girard's model, presenting triangles of desire that feature elaborate complications of gender, variations of sexual choice, and rotating subjects, objects, and mediators. While Girard's triangular model is not a self-sufficient compass for charting the permutations of desire in narrative, it is a flexible geometrical trope that helps to illuminate the historically gendered development of passion and power.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

De Angelis, Rose, "The dynamics of triangular desire in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century British fiction" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9425193.