Mareike Woelky

PhD Candidate

Dissertation Abstract

Telling Stories of Loss - The 'Work of Mourning' in Contemporary American Literature and Theory

In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler argues that grief confronts us with an enigmatic trace that lies at the heart of human self-consciousness. The process of mourning reveals the ways in which our ties to others not only constitute and compose, but also - when severed - undo and discompose us. Employing relational concepts of identity formation, Butler argues that the attempt to transform the immediate experience of grief into a coherent narrative account must fail because grief displays “the thrall in which our relations with others hold us,” often interrupting “the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide” and thus challenging “the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.” In order to explain the relation that we have lost, we must submit to a process of detachment that reduces our relationality and consequently allows us to assume a self-reflective narrative perspective. My dissertation focuses on texts that, because they grapple with this exact transformation of perspectives, must inevitably come to terms with the suggested unaccountability of grief.

The beginning of the 21st century has witnessed a renewed literary interest in the subject of mourning. Certainly related to both the well-established field of trauma theory and the discourse on individual and national processes of mourning in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, narratives focusing on moments of severe rupture have re-emerged at the center of literary awareness. My twofold approach will observe both the discoursification of grief in the field of theory and its narrativization in contemporary American literature. My analysis will link both the response to loss and the translation of the same into the form of biographical narratives to processes of identity destabilization and regeneration. I am interested in finding out whether these narratives can be read as strategies of survival because they re-construct biographical significance by re-establishing order and coherence in the form of a written story.

While works by contemporary critical thinkers Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida, whose preoccupation with grief coincides in their interest in narrative, will provide crucial insights, Roland Barthes’ Camera Ludica (1981) and Mourning Diary (2010) will provide the focal point of the analysis. Issues of failing recognition, sustained mourning, and the impossibility of closure and consolation circle around the question whether the lost person can be recaptured and recognized in the photographic image or expressed and kept alive in the process of writing.

After having surveyed sociological and theoretical perspectives on grief, the literary analyses that will constitute the second half of my thesis will be devoted to Joan Didion's autobiographical memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Siri Hustvedt's novel What I Loved (2003), and Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2002). While each representing a different literary genre, all three texts essentially document their narrator’s attempt to translate a life that has been severely ruptured by the death of a significant other into a coherent narrative account. All three narrators use the autobiographical account as a device for restructuring their broken worldviews: their stories either perform or retrace the experience of grief. They portray the mourner’s disordered or ‘magical’ thinking, describing intense phases of self-estrangement and social alienation and repeatedly declaring themselves incapable of forming a chronologically and causally coherent narrative. While thus defying accepted notions of closure and questioning commonly held definitions of a successful narrative, they however, simultaneously produce the same. My dissertation project thus seeks, among other things, to answer the question whether the experience of loss can, in fact, be narrated and which form and function such ‘works of mourning’ can and must assume today.

Mieke Woelky earned a BA degree in German Literature and American Studies from the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin before moving on to the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, where she received a MA degree with a focus on literary and cultural studies. Mieke Woelky is the recipient of a scholarship from the Humboldt Universtiy, which enabled her to attend the undergraduate program of Bard College in New York. At the moment, she is a second-year doctoral candidate at the interdisciplinary Graduate School of North American Studies (FU Berlin).

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft