Referentiality and transgression: representations of incest and child sexual abuse in American literature of the twentieth century

Nesteruk, Peter (1994) Referentiality and transgression: representations of incest and child sexual abuse in American literature of the twentieth century. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis will consider the incest theme in twentieth century American literature. Antecedents will be considered, especially the rich traditions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the main focus will be on three writers central to the American canon: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov. All three of these writers have produced texts in which their claim to literary fame and their appropriation of the incest theme are inextricable: namely, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, and Nabokov's Lolita. I will conclude with a chapter which examines how this debt to literary tradition, this canonical pride of place of the incest theme, has been transformed in its trajectory through the latter half of the twentieth century.

In the thesis, I will examine the utilisation of these 'variations on a theme' as a form of rhetoric manifesting itself in a wide variety of uses and readings. Pertinent aspects would include: symbolic appropriations with pretensions to universality; transgressive modulations manipulating reader affectivity; referential modes attempting the delineation of a particular - or their collective combination. All of these uses of the incest theme will be seen to participate in the propagation of various codes of normative behaviour, ethics, critiques, or political polemics. The incest theme will be tracked both as a form of didacticism and as a form of literary pleasure. The representation of incest will be observed in its combination with other important literary themes: courtly love, childhood, and their inversions. It will be linked to an aesthetics of transgression and to the representation of child sexual abuse. Its combination with the latter will also provide the grounds for a comparison of child sexual abuse, 'actually existing incest', and the many other uses of the incest theme. The contexts of these uses will also be considered. If I were to attempt to reduce this thesis to a simple proposition, I would suggest that the importance of the incest theme has been due to its rhetorical versatility, its role as a signifier of the limit (of the family, of society, of civilisation, of the representable), and of its ready utilisation for literary shock, the vicarious enjoyment of the second-hand, or, in what amounts to the same thing, literary pleasure. These factors delineate the importance of the incest theme to literature in general, and to American literature in particular. The literary utilisation of the incest theme suggests that the most efficient way to say anything effective is still to make use of that which hides behind the barrier of the unsayable.

After giving a summary of the chapters of the thesis, the rest of the introduction will introduce the issues that form the background to an informed evaluation of the place of the incest theme in modern American literature. This background features three inter-related areas; the controversies around the incest taboo, the emergence of child sexual abuse, and the concept and representation of childhood. I will suggest that the issue of child sexual abuse is key to any referential,analogical, or comparative approach to the reading of the incest theme in literature (most especially in those examples which include an adult/child or adult/infant age differential). I shall begin with some definitions of incest, and its relation (and non-relation) with child sexual abuse. 'Incest’ can, of course, mean very different things in literature, in philosophical speculation, in the social sciences, or in the discourses of welfare or feminism. This difference of discourse, a difference of 'register' or genre', suggests that 'translations' between discourses need to be observed carefully. A comment on the American context will be relevant to the discussion of recent American literature. These issues are inextricable from the representations and conceptualisation of childhood that our period has inherited from the past, particularly the traditions and writing of the previous two centuries. I will attempt a brief summary of the concept of childhood, including its transformations up to the seventeenth century, its rationalisation in the legal and medical discourses of the eighteenth century, and its recent evolution. A comment will then follow on the influence of this inheritance upon the emergence of a recognisable child theme in nineteenth century literature (the origin and role of social and literary clichés). As recent theories of incest, sexuality, power, and representation play an inseparable part in any understanding of these issues, I shall complete the introduction with a 'rough' model of the workings of incest and its relationship with representation based upon these recent developments.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Keywords: American literature, Incest, Mass media, Performing arts
Subjects: P Language and literature > PS American literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of American and Canadian Studies
Item ID: 11276
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 13 May 2010 10:19
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2017 15:37

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