Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Nancy K. Miller

Committee Members

Ammiel Alcalay

Sondra Perl

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


Gender; Memoir; Narrative; Sexuality; Trauma; War


Trauma Studies is predicated on the idea of unspeakability: events that are experienced as deep psychic wounds break the frameworks for understanding, resulting in an inability to translate the experience into language. Scholars who study the literature of trauma are thus faced with this central paradox: how do writers speak the unspeakable? Trauma literature is generally regarded as texts that not only are thematically centered on a traumatic event or series of traumatic events, but also structurally reflect the symptoms of trauma. Thus the formal qualities of trauma narratives include fragmentation, contradiction, repetition, circularity, and intrusion, such that these texts come to embody trauma itself. The structure, then, does some of the work of silently speaking traumatic aftermath.

What is missing from most analytical approaches to trauma literature, however, is a consideration of how subject positions contribute to traumatic experience. Issues of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other culturally constructed categories of identity -- factors that are critical to the politics of speaking and silencing -- have been suppressed in favor of a unifying and universal theory of trauma. Gender, in particular, is a key element not only in what kinds of trauma one might be vulnerable to, but in the very notion of trauma itself. This dissertation examines the historical development of trauma and PTSD in conjunction with shifting notions of gender in order to construct a framework with which to analyze the literature of trauma. With a focus on war narratives, this dissertation investigates how gender roles position subjects as victims of trauma, how gender ideology influences the ways in which trauma is internalized, how gender norms determine the ways in which trauma is externalized in narrative, and how the subject's gendered identity is produced through traumatic experience. Thus, this project's investigation will go beyond an examination of the similarities and differences between men's and women's stories, in order to analyze the role of gender difference in the very process of bearing witness.

The texts selected for this investigation represent some of the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, wars that also ushered in radical changes in the ways that gender has been configured. Beginning with World War I and the emergence of shell shock, I begin my analysis with Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. From there, I examine Elie Wiesel's Day, the third and final installment of his Holocaust trilogy. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is the central text for my analysis of Vietnam War literature. For my final chapter, I examine two works written by female veterans of the war in Iraq: Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams and Shade It Black by Jess Goodell. These works are just a few examples of texts in which gender and trauma work with and against each other in the task of speaking the unspeakable.