English Language and Literature ETDs

Publication Date

Summer 8-1-2023


This dissertation is about teeth- rather, how they are portrayed in British colonial discourses of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and their development as a commodified material object associated with purity, lands, and visceral emotionality. What do teeth specifically, and orality more generally, mean to eighteenth and nineteenth-century readers in relation to the logics of white possession? How did objectified subjects react to and respond to the affective tension created by this objectification? Teeth are represented in relation to feminine purity throughout British writing from at least the 1600’s. However, between 1770-1900, teeth gain additional cultural meanings, most often appearing within commentary about the diets, consumption, land-resources, and perceived sexual-moral purity of those whose common lands were targeted for resource extraction and enclosure. This was primarily true of people whose land-based spirituality, including Irish Peasants and Indigenous people of the Americas, stood in opposition to British imperial agricultural and resource gains. Teeth and their affectively-charged presentation within texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century began to symbolize power exchanges where human and land bodies were ‘dispositioned’ through phrenology, dentistry, and agricultural discourse of “use value” versus “waste value.” As a fetishized commodity, the teeth of colonized and working-class people were stolen or sold to fill aristocratic mouths, whose voracious hunger for resources was projected onto those they villainized and objectified. The project examines how teeth gain increasing cultural and medical significance simultaneously as increases in colonization, industrialization, and traces from the discourse of “the savage” are circulated in Britain, Ireland, and the Americas and how the value system behind the discourse is responded to.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Dr. Gail Turley Houston

Second Committee Member

Dr. Sarah Lynn Townsend

Third Committee Member

Dr. Sarah Raquel Hernandez

Fourth Committee Member

Dr. Carolyn Lesjak

Project Sponsors

Bilinski Dissertation Fellowship, Gallagher Scholarship for Research in Ireland and Europe




Teeth, Imperialism, Commodity Fetishism, Britain and Ireland, Embodiment, Affective Orality

Document Type



Long Nineteenth-Century, History of Dentistry, Capitalism