Date of Degree
Edmund L. Epstein
Mary Ann Caws
English Language and Literature
The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the ritualization of death in British literature of the interwar period and its implication for narrative and genre. The authors under consideration include poets of the Great War (Robert Graves, Charles Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg, the Sitwells), and later writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Ivy Compton-Bumett, and James Joyce. Using the methodology of ritual studies, an interdisciplinary approach combining the perspectives of religion, anthropology, and literary criticism, I examine how these texts create a fictive space in which death can be ritualized and how this process makes narrative meaning.
The fictive space of the text becomes a space for survivors to discover or construct meaning where there may seem to be none. This ritual process may manifest itself in a number of ways: through parties, celebrations, and dinners, through storytelling, and through the presence of traditional elements of death ritual such as wakes and washing. These elements, and their use in the production of narrative meaning, are key in the poetry of the Great War. However, the ritual process may also fail, as it does in many texts I examine from the 1930s. This points to a failure in the attempt to give meaning to the life of an individual and to that dead person’s story, a failure which has implications for the construction of narrative.
Further, the texts under study reveal the process of reinvention of ritual and tradition, and the intersection of past and present, through the deployment of spontaneous, transformative performance. I argue that this use of ritual subverts the use of genre, particularly those of romance and comedy, in my discussions of Mansfield, Woolf, Vera Brittain, and James Joyce. It is my hope that this focus on ritual in Modernist and interwar texts will provide a new perspective on the construction of narrative and genre, particularly in its relation to the representation of the individual, and the meaning granted that representation.
Utell, Janine Marie, "Play for Mortal Stakes: Funerals as Modernist Acts of Fiction" (2003). CUNY Academic Works.