Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2017

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Branch, Lori

First Committee Member

Diffley, Kathleen

Second Committee Member

Folsom, Ed

Third Committee Member

Stewart, Garrett

Fourth Committee Member

Nabhan-Warren, Kristy


This thesis, “Make-Believe: Uncertainty, Alterity, and Faith in Nineteenth-Century Supernatural Short Stories,” illustrates the confluence in nineteenth century America of a philosophical investment in uncertainty and the emergence of a genre suited to its expression. I argue that supernatural short story collections, characterized by stories with explicit fantastical elements or which leave open that possibility, helped voice and explore uncertainty as a critique of prevailing master narratives of both Enlightenment rationalism and religious orthodoxy. My study examines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales (1856), Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903), whose fantastic elements question the confident subjectivity shored up by rationalism and the sense of totality it projects. The genre’s insistent uncertainty conditions a reader into an alternative posture of openness to possibilities—an openness which, at its most ethically effective, describes a means to approach alterity without the totalizing certainty which so often reduces the other. The terms of faith are crucial here, as a means to lend numinous or transcendent meaning to the world beyond the reach of, and therefore setting limits on, rational materialism. But faith also functions on an ethical and interpersonal level, in the act of believing the testimony of an other despite the assumptions of the self. As the century progresses, this genre was taken up by authors with identities more vulnerable to society’s master narratives and the power structures they uphold. My final two chapters demonstrate how the supernatural uncertainty in these collections provided not just a theoretical model for approaching otherness but a specific articulation of the oppressions which certainty enables and the openness which the supernatural helps to found.


Ethics, Faith, Nineteenth-Century, Short story, Supernatural, Uncertainty


v, 267 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 255-267).


Copyright © 2017 Justin David Cosner