Literary scholars have generally been loath to analyze description as a practice and technique; as such, it has long suffered from critical disengagement. Academics disparage descriptions as long-winded, unnecessary rhetoric which readers skip on a regular basis. And yet, for unfathomable reasons, authors continue resorting to descriptions in their texts.
The purpose of Cynthia's dissertation is to uncover the motivations underlying authors’ persistent recourse to descriptions. To that end, Cynthia examines 18th-century French and Italian novels and focus on a particular kind of descriptive element: characters’ “literary portraits”. Cynthia will show how in the 18th century, literary portraits were more than just sums of characters’ physical descriptions and moral traits. Instead, their function was to convey meaningful, crucial information that would eventually influence the outcome of a given text. In addition, Cynthia will demonstrate how this narrative function, disguised as “mere” description, was deployed along three main axes: aesthetic, ludic and pedagogic. Each axis will constitute a chapter of the dissertation, showing, respectively, how literary portraits were justified by three core concerns: aestheticizing the narration, entertaining readers, and instructing them in morality.
A diachronic perspective will identify a century’s worth of patterns and differentiate substantial, long-term changes from fleeting fads, while an interdisciplinary approach will uncover how literary descriptions borrowed/lent techniques from/to other fields of knowledge, such as esthetics, fine arts, anthropology, natural history, and medicine. Cynthia's approach, based on the analysis of descriptive practices, will bring to light the cohesive aspects and interactive relations between those seemingly disparate fields.
Cynthia Laura Giancotti-Vialle is a 5th year PhD student in the French and Italian department at Stanford University. She holds a B.A. in French and Chinese Languages and Cultures from the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy and an M.A. in 19th c. French Literature from Paris VII-Paris Diderot. Her current area of research concerns descriptive practices in 18th c. fictional works, but is also interested in modern life-writing and fictional representations of violence against women.