By Jen Ehrlich
Writing a thesis in English literature is always a slightly strange undertaking. You devote a year or years of your life to diving as deeply as possible into novels most people probably haven’t read, and critical theory they definitely haven’t.
It’s a solitary undertaking, in which you surrender yourself to countless hours alone in the library or work space of your choice, fighting with the competing demons of narratology vs. identity studies vs. historicism vs. the blasted text itself — or at least I do.
Even in the best of times, it can be hard to justify such an excursion into the obscure depths of literature here in the heart of Silicon Valley, where science, technology and money are the three kings. And, I am the worst of Valley contrarians. I want to get a Ph.D. in literature — meaning I want to devote my life to little job security, less money and little respect from the general public so that I can study female illness in Victorian novels, 19th-century poems and historic medical texts. Not exactly a common career path.
Trying to finish my thesis at this point in time is an especially strange feeling — a time when it seems that the world is ending, or at least could end, when I am worried about a disease that could be fatal due to my pre-existing condition, when I am even more worried that my father, who had two heart surgeries this fall, might catch it.
Yet these are the times when my work and investigation make even more sense to me. To paraphrase several brilliant professors I’ve known at Stanford, “art for art’s sake is what makes us human.” Stories keep us going through even the darkest of times. Our personal narratives make us who we are, and our collective stories unite us together even when an outside threat works to tear us apart.
When I enter the worlds of “Jane Eyre” or “Dracula,” when I dive into disability theory or the pathologization of female emotion through history, I am confident that I am doing something that matters. Maybe it’s something that only matters to me, but in this time, when the systems and structures we’ve been sold on for so long are failing around us, maybe that is the point. I’m not going to argue that my work is as important as a doctor’s, a firefighter’s or that of the people working to get food to the grocery stores and keep the power coming to our homes. Nor am I under any illusion that it will bring me wealth or fame. But it feeds my soul. It keeps me sane and human and hopeful when everything else has spiraled out of my control. And when I share my work or my thoughts with my friends, I hope it gives them some optimism or enrichment or entertainment too. Because, if I’ve learned anything studying disease in the 19th century, it’s that humans have faced the uncertainty of mass death from disease before, and that art, beauty and humanity will help get us through this.
To learn more about Jane Eyre or Dracula,