Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

English

Major Professor

Elizabeth Hirsh

Keywords

Allison, Ellison, Fitzgerald, Harrison, Morrison, Nafisi

Abstract

Cathy Caruth's pioneering study of trauma and the posttraumatic forges a connection between the psychoanalytic theory of traumatic experience and the literary as such. Since trauma defies linguistic processing, she explains, the language used to describe it will always be figural. For this reason Caruth privileges imaginative literature, with its highly mediated nature, as a means of representing the otherwise "unclaimed" experience of trauma. Her influential reflections inform a crucial direction within trauma studies: the search for a narrative voice that articulates trauma effectively.

But how should we think about trauma that is not a singular "event" but a chronic occurrence? Over the last twenty years trauma scholarship has explored how trauma outstrips discursive and representational resources, but has only begun to address the ways gender, race, and class must complicate our understanding of the posttraumatic. I argue that in order to frame an adequate approach to the posttraumatic, we must take account of the cultural, political, and social matrix of trauma. The feminist psychotherapist Maria Root has developed an idea that she calls "insidious trauma" to refer to the cumulative degradation directed toward individuals whose identities, such as gender, color, and class, differ from what is valued by those in power. Though not always blatant or violent, these effects threaten the basic well being of the person who suffers them. Root's conceptualization provides a useful framework for understanding certain long-term consequences of the institutionalized sexism, racism, and classism that systematically denigrate the self worth of the socially othered who are rendered voiceless.

Where Caruth privileges literary representations of the traumatic, I explore how literature can also be a privileged site for the articulation of insidious trauma. My study addresses literary representations of father-daughter incest and the complex trauma associated with it, showing how--in very different ways--six works of modern American literature compel us to confront the traumatogenic nature of social oppression, especially that which is endemic to the structure of the heteropatriarchal family and American racism and classism.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night ambivalently exposes the gendered politics of psychological trauma, particularly the conspiracy of silence perpetuated by a psychiatric culture that revictimizes the female victim of incest. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man uses a story of paternal incest to work through the trauma of racism, challenging stereotypes of black masculinity even as it reinscribes patriarchal phallocentrism. Referencing Ellison's depiction of father-daughter incest, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye marks a watershed in the inscription of incest narratives as it is written mostly from the perspective of what I call a "could-be" victim of incest. Morrison includes the perspective of the father while foregrounding the experience of the daughter, exposing child abuse as an extensive social and political problem ultimately supported by imperialist ideals.

Enabled by Morrison, Dorothy Allison's semiautobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina is narrated by a young "white trash" woman who shares her story of sexual violation in defiance of that culture's patriarchal structure. Conforming to certain class stereotypes of father-daughter incest, Bastard Out of Carolina escaped the hostile backlash provoked by Kathryn Harrison's memoir, The Kiss, whose critical reception suggests that, even while allowing some discussion of incest, mainstream culture continued to collude in its silencing within the context of the white middle-class. Finally, I revisit a particularly infamous literary narrative of father-daughter incest, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, but in terms of the feminist appropriation of Nabokov effected in Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Problematically downplaying the sexual abuse of Lolita, Nafisi appropriates Nabokov's work to bear witness to the patriarchal subjugation of women in her home country, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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