The language of silence: speechlessness as a response to terror and trauma in contemporary fiction
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Following World War II the novel faced a crisis in its mode of address. How could the human and humane function of language and artistic representation be lent to the depiction of historical terror or trauma? Who has the right to speak on behalf of – or to assume the voice of – victims of such real atrocity? And to what extent can a writer attend to another's pain without aestheticising extreme vulnerability, or losing the reader to indifference or repulsion? The difficulties confronted by the writer of fictional works when addressing such issues as war, rape, domestic abuse, colonisation, slavery, even genocide are not rooted in an inadequacy of syntax; rather they are borne out of the disjunction between the idealistic assumptions that linked language to a sense of humanity, intelligence and the pursuit of goals beneficial to society as a whole, and the extremity of recent acts of human atrocity as conducted not by the savage Other but by modern societies with which the reader would otherwise identify. Since the mid-twentieth century a number of writers have responded to these challenges by forgoing the traditional dialogic form of the novel and electing characters that cannot or will not speak in order to convey, through their speechlessness and – at times – their damaged physicality, the extent of the violence and oppression to which they have been subjected, and the difficulty of assimilating such violence into the stories by which communities, indeed whole nations, define themselves. The unexpectedly large cast of mute characters suggests that silence has a vital role in the literary portrayal of historical trauma. The prevalence of silence in contemporary fiction related to the Holocaust, for example, shows how this group of writers recognises the extent to which this event tested and continues to test literary exploration. Writers the world over continue to refuse to ignore these subjects – indeed, the broken images and fragmented forms common to many of the novels studied in the following pages can be seen as an apt response to the chaos of war and human aggression – but, as is evident from the number of contemporary works of fiction incorporating a mute character, silence has become an accepted and effective tool for the portrayal of historical events of terror or trauma that continue to challenge the ethical boundaries of the imagination.