Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The historian Samuel Hynes has observed that World War I was not only the greatest military and political event of its time but also the greatest imaginative event. Soldiers and civilians struggled to comprehend the war’s devastation and the changes it produced while medical practitioners and artists examined the war as a site of extraordinary trauma. My project explores two of the many archives of trauma: the medical discourse through which trauma was defined; and representations of trauma in a variety of English language novels from the early and mid-twentieth century. I begin with a historical survey of the medical discourse of trauma and its relationship to literary texts in the modernist period, continuing into the period following World War II. I show how the contemporary discourse of trauma has tended to reduce this complex experience to a limited narrative. In this dominant formulation, many different events, incidents or processes may cause psychological trauma, but they all produce a debilitated, devastated, damaged psyche unable to express or heal itself. This narrative began taking shape after 1980, when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was included in the DSM. My analysis challenges several aspects of contemporary trauma theory. I propose alternatives to the ways in which trauma is used in literature and the way trauma theory is used in literary analysis. I focus on the relationship among combatants, noncombatants, and civilians in order to show that trauma is not the only response to combat and that combat is not the only source of trauma—even war-related trauma. I conclude by arguing that a rigorous exploration of the ethics of aesthetic representations of trauma can expose a number of conventional and misleading assumptions about trauma, war, and war narratives.
Eilefson, Sarah Louise, "The Trauma Thesis: Medical and Literary Representations of Psychological Trauma in the Twentieth Century" (2015). Dissertations. 1635.
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Copyright © 2015 Sarah Louise Eilefson