Date of Degree

6-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Comparative Literature

Advisor

André Aciman

Committee Members

John Brenkman

Giancarlo Lombardi

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | Modern Literature

Keywords

object, realism, archive, materialism, psychological, character

Abstract

In the past twenty years, ambiguous yet meaningful encounters with objects have become a trope in contemporary fiction. Collections and archives, found objects and commonplace articles of modern life have especially substantiated literature that engages themes of displacement and selfhood. The method of incorporating objects into these works ranges from explicit cabinets of curiosities to more subtle appearances, but in each case material reality is the conduit for fundamental expressions of character. These authors draw the reader’s gaze toward an object as a way to indirectly articulate subjective experience, conspicuously displacing the central concerns of a text. This study examines how this outwardly misleading focus might be an effective technique for representing the psyche.

Using insights about language, memory, and identity from the personal writing of Roland Barthes, each chapter surveys the objects in prominent works of fiction: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, the “Seasons Quartet” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. As a whole, the study contends that these authors use objects to dramatize the psychological conflicts of their characters by personalizing the encounter with material reality. Furthermore, it posits that objects might retain a fundamentally linguistic quality when arranged in a work of fiction, and could therefore be “read” as part of the text on the page. The object serves as a meeting place between the subjective and the social in these works, and as such invites multiple associations that transcend limitations of individual perspective.

Not only does this use of objects present an evolution of narrative symbolism, it illustrates a style of realism, one that might be called diligent, in which a steady focus on objects reveals a psychological drama indirectly. What is overt about the object at times indicates what is understated about the character, and this staging of passive or circumstantial narration reflects modern demands of representation. This study analyzes such realism through the lens of object relations, and evaluates the implications of this trend for the form as a whole.

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