Beth Harper (Comparative Literature) has taken a leave of absence from Yale this year to study Mandarin, even though, as she freely admits, “My project has nothing at all to do with Chinese, but I love learning new languages.”
As befits a comparative literature scholar, she has already studied several languages, including Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and German. She began learning Chinese 110 at Yale last year, and after a the first year courses, applied for a Light Fellowship, which funds intensive language study in East Asia.
“My adviser fully supports my taking a personal leave of absence in order to make the most of this opportunity,” she says. “I’m very interested in working in East Asia in the future, and what with Yale-NUS and NYU-Shanghai perhaps setting a trend, I feel that there may be scope for being part of a truly international liberal arts agenda. As a comparatist, I’ve never really been interested in teaching in one single language department, and I’m a big supporter of more generalist humanities departments in which literary traditions from different parts of the world are studied alongside each other. Thanks to the Light Fellowship’s generosity and my department’s flexibility, I am able to devote a year to the intensive study of Mandarin and hopefully sow the seeds for future projects that will engage with East Asian literature and culture.”
Beth is no stranger to China: she participated twice in English language summer camps at Tsinghua University in Beijing and spent one summer teaching primary school children in Hong Kong. “Chinese was something I knew I would get to eventually, and after I finished my qualifying exams in my third year I decided to take it on.”
When she returns to New Haven, she’ll resume work on her dissertation, under the supervision of David Quint. Her study explores the figure of the child in Western tragedy from the ancient Greek playwright Euripides to the 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine.
“Children are an important and understudied component for understanding the uncanny emotional power of secular and religious tragedy,” she says.
Tentatively titled “Finite little bodies: figuring (out) the children of tragedy from Euripides to Racine,” her dissertation traces how the “frequently doomed children of tragedy give peculiar expression to the central tragic paradigm of human finitude, thereby complicating and undercutting notions that would frame the child as vessel of hopeful futurity and horizon of possibility,” she says. “The study of children represented in tragedy is key to understanding tragedy’s articulation of its characters’ sense of homelessness in the world.”
In the first chapter, Beth examines the children of Troy as they appear in the works of Euripides, the Roman dramatist Seneca, 16th-century French poet Robert Garnier, and Racine. She analyzes what happens to children “as their representation moves from the expansiveness of epic to the enclosed, suffocating domestic space of tragedy; it charts how the mythical children of Troy (Astyanax in particular) continue to exert imaginative influence on tragedians up to the 17th century.” The second chapter studies the children of Greek and Roman myth who are devoured, either metaphorically or literally, by a destructive parent, with a focus on Euripides’ Medea and later versions of the story, as well as on the Phaedra myth. Another chapter treats Shakespeare’s tragic child figures, from the early history plays to Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. Her final chapter is centered on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, as retold by Scottish humanist George Buchanan (1506-1582), French Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605), and Racine (1639-1699). In it, Beth investigates “how the distinction between child murder and child sacrifice alters in an overtly Providential universe.”
Her emphasis is on how these works project the human experience, “transcending the particular time and place in which they were conceived. The tragedies I discuss will be treated primarily as ‘language objects’ in the Barthean sense, rather than theatrical performances.”
In addition to studying the plays, Beth has explored primary sources such as sermons, church registers, pamphlets, statistical analyses, educational treatises, and apprenticeship accounts, funded by a Beinecke Fellowship. “These sources helped me to uncover the real-world lives of early-modern children, whose voices are often absent from the historical record, while accounting for shifting attitudes toward children and the notions attached to the concepts of childhood and adolescence.”
Beth grew up near Haworth, West Yorkshire, not far from where the Brontë sisters lived. She earned an MA in Classics and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge and decided to come to Yale for her PhD, “because I felt there was some justification to the breadth-versus-depth argument. I had spent four years at Cambridge working very closely and thoroughly with a handful of mainly French, Latin, and neo-Latin texts, and though I remain deeply indebted to the excellent training I received there, I have always been something of a dilettante. Yale’s Comparative Literature program attracts an array of genuinely fascinating individuals with interests across languages, genres, cultures, and time periods, and it is a humbling environment in which to spend your time because you realize constantly how little you know. I have the utmost respect for my adviser David Quint, who seems to be equally at home with the intricacies of Homeric and Vergilian epic as with Proust, and who is a constant source of insight and inspiration. I am also very grateful to Katie Trumpener for her unflagging support of my endeavors.”