Trauma, healing, mourning and narrative voice in the epistolary mode

Louw, Bronwen Mairi (2015-15)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2016

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The epistolary mode in fiction has long been associated with the expression of trauma experienced by women who are confined to a private, domestic and interior space. However, this mode also, paradoxically, opens up this space because the sending of a letter to an addressee invites the letter’s fictional recipient to act as witness to the letter writer’s account of her painful experiences. This thesis will, firstly, provide a brief historical overview of the development of epistolary fiction and will then set out to examine how epistolary narratives position the external reader in relation to the private exchange between narrator and trusted confidant. This voyeuristic position influences the way in which the text will be read regardless of the historical context in which the text is written. The period on which this thesis focuses is the 1980s to the turn of the millennium during which feminist ideals spread and found reflection in literature. This study analyses how Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter (1981) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983) appropriated the epistolary mode to reveal and critique the silencing mechanisms suppressing its female narrators who write from within societies where multiple forms of marginalisation continue to constrain women and limit their engagement with the public sphere. Although the narrative voices of the two novels differ, both narrators use their letters to work through their experiences of trauma and heal through the process of sharing their recollections with another. In Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) no such resolution is possible for its narrator writes to her husband who has been killed by their son. This thesis will demonstrate that Shriver’s novel, while sharing many of the features of the epistolary mode, unsettles the certainties that underpin the reader’s associations with the mode. Whereas Bâ’s and Walker’s novels affirm the importance of motherhood, female connections and self-determination for women, Shriver presents us with a pessimistic text with an ambivalent, unreliable narrative voice which calls these affirmations into question. Her novel uses the epistolary mode to show that motherhood is embedded in socio-political issues that continue to constrain women. We Need to Talk about Kevin inflects motherhood with the prominent debate about school shootings and its attendant culpabilities, as well as the narrator’s struggle with constructions of nationality, belonging and identity. This study will show that, as such, this text demonstrates a shift in how the epistolary mode is used. Its prior associations with healing from trauma through corresponding with an empathetic witness have made way for irremediable mourning and absolute isolation. The epistolary mode in this novel is used to articulate alienation from the historical precedents set by the mode itself.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: In fiksie hou die epistolêre modus lank reeds verband met die uitdrukking van trauma soos ervaar deur vroue wat tot ’n private, huishoudelike of interne ruimte beperk word. Hierdie modus bied egter ook ’n paradoksale oopstel van hierdie ruimte, want met die stuur van ’n brief aan iemand word die brief se fiktiewe ontvanger uitgenooi om as getuie van die briefskrywer se weergawe van haar pynvolle ervarings op te tree. Hierdie tesis sal eerstens ’n kort, historiese oorsig van die ontwikkeling van epistolêre fiksie bied en sal dan ondersoek instel na die wyse waarop epistolêre narratiewe die eksterne leser ten opsigte van die private briefwisseling tussen verteller en vertroueling posisioneer. Hierdie voyeuristiese posisie beïnvloed die wyse waarop die teks gelees sal word, ongeag die historiese konteks waarbinne die teks geskryf word. Die tydperk waarop die klem in hierdie tesis val, strek vanaf die 1980’s tot die millenniumwending, waartydens feministiese ideale wyd versprei en neerslag in letterkunde gevind het. Hierdie studie ontleed hoe Mariama Bâ se So Long a Letter (1981) en Alice Walker se The Color Purple (1983) hulleself die epistolêre modus toe-eien om die stilmaakmeganismes wat vroue-vertellers onderdruk (diegene wat vanuit samelewings skryf waar veelvuldige vorme van marginalisering voortdurend vroue aan bande lê en hulle omgang in die openbare sfeer beperk), bloot te lê en te kritiseer. Al verskil die narratiewe stemme van die twee romans, gebruik beide vertellers hulle briewe om deur hulle traumatiese ervarings te werk en genesing te vind in die proses van herinneringe met iemand anders deel. In Lionel Shriver se We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) is sodanige berusting onmoontlik, want die verteller skryf aan haar man wat deur haar seun om die lewe gebring is. Hierdie tesis sal aantoon dat Shriver se roman, hoewel dit oor baie van die kenmerke van die epistolêre modus beskik, die sekerhede wat die leser met die modus assosieer, ontwrig. Terwyl Bâ en Walker se romans die belangrikheid van moederskap, vroulike verbintenisse en selfbeskikking vir vrouens beaam, bied Shriver aan ons ’n pessimistiese teks met ’n ambivalente, onbetroubare vertelstem wat hierdie bevestigings bevraagteken. Haar roman gebruik die epistolêre modus om te wys daarop dat moederskap in sosiopolitiese kwessies wat voortdurend vroue inperk, veranker is. We Need to Talk about Kevin vervleg moederskap met die prominente debat oor skoolslagtings en gepaardgaande toerekeningsvatbaarhede, asook met die verteller se worsteling met konstrukte soos nasionaliteit, tuishoort en identiteit. Hierdie studie sal aantoon dat dié teks as sodanig op ’n verskuiwing in die wyse waarop die epistolêre modus gebruik word, dui. Vorige verbande met genesing van trauma deur briefwisseling met ’n invoelende getuie, moet opsy staan vir onherstelbare rou en volslae afsondering. Die epistolêre modus word in hierdie roman gebruik om aan vervreemding van die historiese presedente inherent aan die modus self, uiting te gee.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/97859
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