Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of the Arts, English and Media


The central argument of this thesis is that melancholy for the lost primordial object – the mother – is observable in Eleanor Dark’s first three novels: ‘Pilgrimage’, Slow Dawning (1932), and Prelude to Christopher (1934). Unable to be mourned, the lost mother haunts the landscape of Dark’s novels and her characters’ psyches; her simultaneous presence/absence is discernible through Dark’s many allusions to music, the primacy of maternity as a thematic concern, as well as the novelist’s treatment of mental illness. I interpret the inability of Dark, or her female protagonists, to mourn the mother as symptomatic of melancholia – a pathological response to loss that has a history dating back to antiquity.

This thesis analyses Dark’s thematic and textual engagement with melancholia by drawing on Freud’s seminal essay on melancholia – ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) – and Kleinian object relations theory. I contend that ‘Pilgrimage’ and Prelude to Christopher are examples of modernist melancholia: a political literary movement that drew on the symptomatology of melancholia in order to testify to a collective modern inability to mourn. Although not a work of modernist melancholia, I read Slow Dawning as engaging with a distinctly female experience of melancholy for the pre-oedipal mother. Charting the progression of Dark’s engagement with melancholy from ‘Pilgrimage’ through to Prelude to Christopher makes clear that Dark’s choice of the modernist form was irrevocably tied to her thematic and textual engagement with melancholia.

A form of rebellion, revolt, and active social intervention, melancholia has political power. Examining the political potential of Dark’s modernist melancholic texts refutes criticisms of her refusal to participate in collective political action. In contrast to such claims, this thesis regards Dark’s writing as her preferred method of political engagement and argues that her novels signify her participation in public debates and contentious issues of her time. While her engagement with modernist melancholia enabled her to speak to the psychological crisis of her society, the strong feminist content of Slow Dawning and Dark’s critique of the eugenics movement in Prelude to Christopher sees her illuminate forms of social crisis.

FoR codes (2020)

470502 Australian literature (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature)



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.