Memory, history, and identity: The trauma narrative in contemporary North American and British fiction

Jonathan Daniel Sabol, Fordham University


The dissertation investigates five contemporary British and North American novels that take traumatic amnesia as their theme. These novels depict characters whose memory loss follows individual or communal acts of violence, often horrific in their brutality. Murder, for example, figures prominently in four of the five novels, which include Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996), Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods (1994), and Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000). The protagonists in these texts suffer violence, commit it against others, or frequently do both, so that they are positioned as both victim and perpetrator of acts they cannot fully recollect. Where murder performs a negligible role, as in Julian Barnes' satirical England, England (1998), I am able to locate a conceptual violence, associated with the construction of national identities, which induces a cultural amnesia. In each case, I argue that these divergent novels deploy traumatic amnesia as a common trope because they offer the contemporary novelist an opportunity to reflect on the ethics of representing historical acts of violence. On the one hand, these novels suggest that we should not force personal and historical traumas into narrative form because the dependence on coherent linear memory distorts, dilutes, or otherwise misrepresents the trauma. On the other hand, these novels concede that the compulsion to tell the traumatic story often proves overwhelming, despite the inherent limitations of narrative form. The dissertation tries to makes sense of this contradiction, asking why so many contemporary novelists depict traumatic violence as something that demands but stubbornly resists representation. The answer suggests that if the desire to make violence into a communicable story is to retain value, the narrative act of reconstruction must remain an unfinished process that never completely satisfies our demand for meaning.

Subject Area

Literature|Canadian literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Sabol, Jonathan Daniel, "Memory, history, and identity: The trauma narrative in contemporary North American and British fiction" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3271274.