Religious imagery in nineteenth-century French slavery narratives

  • Helen McKelvey

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis builds upon the growing and dynamic field of Francophone Slavery Studies by revealing the long-overlooked role that religion plays in fictional narratives of slavery by early nineteenth-century French writers. The authors studied are both canonical and non-canonical, male and female, and the integration of archival sources into my study constitutes a distinct methodological trait of the thesis. Close textual analysis of my corpus is anchored in a rich critical framework of historiography, Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, Theology, and literary criticism. Collectively, these works demonstrate the powerful range of ways religion was used as a framing device in the representation of slavery in early nineteenth-century French literature. The (ab)use of Christianity in literature as a justification for slavery is juxtaposed with its role as a keystone in abolitionist writing, such as in the œuvre of Sophie Doin. Beyond Christianity, the portrayal of religious beliefs and practices from around the Atlantic Triangle provide us with crucial insight into the French understanding of race and identity at the turn of the nineteenth century, showing how French authors used religion as a multifaceted device to illustrate racial difference and explore fears of revolution in the French colonies. Bringing questions of identity and otherness back to France itself, this thesis considers the figure of the black woman religious, examining how her experience of the convent, both physical and spiritual, can be simultaneously oppressive and liberating. By illuminating the foundational role played by religion in the nineteenth century, and by drawing attention to its echoes in twenty-first century novels dealing with historical slavery, this thesis contributes to ongoing critical discussions about the legacy of slavery and the enduring power of literature to draw attention to, and even challenge, the injustice of slavery across space and time.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAHRC Northern Bridge DTP
SupervisorMaeve McCusker (Supervisor) & Steven Wilson (Supervisor)


  • Slavery
  • nineteenth century
  • religion
  • literature
  • postcolonialism

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