Trauma Narratives in Post-War and Postcolonial Fiction
“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
- Laurel K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss
“The traumatized soul finds no rest in conditions of peace. It’s forever questing for violence, for action, for the same combination of factors which gave rise to it in the first place.”
- Matthew S. Williams
From a hunting-gathering economy and communal property, societies have developed to today’s market-oriented, profit-driven economies and privatization. In the span of history, the transitions and developments of nations are determined by its struggle for survival. These include the desire to expand territories for raw materials and showcase of power which have led to the wars and conflicts that we know from our history books.
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We now live in an age of global economies, high-tech industries, cyber technology, and an even more complex geopolitics. Modernity has caused a lot of suffering aside from its advantages. We have advanced in curing a number of diseases, replaced manual labor with automated machines, revved up academic research and discovered alternative energy resources yet we still face socio-political, economic, cultural and environmental issues today. These include demanding jobs but below average salaries, unmet social needs and services, political instability and even environmental disasters. These lead to civil unrest, rise of assorted nationalist and separatist movements and other issue-specific mobilizations, and even armed resistance.
There are also intangible forces at play which contribute to humanity’s dilemma. Traditional values, social constraints, taboos, inequalities, and the role of religion reinforce the contradictions experienced by an individual. One should also keep in mind the role of history. Stronger nations invade and occupy smaller and weaker ones to expand their influence and enforce them to be their subjects. A good example for this is the Spanish colonization of the Philippines and the historical events that followed. These unsettling experiences demoralize people and poses great effects to their mentality.
This paper will explore the function of literature as a testimony of traumatic experiences and as an embodiment of individual and collective memory. The works of John Updike, William Golding and F. Sionil José, a Filipino English-language writer, will be the focus of this research of post-war and postcolonial fiction. Their works can be read as manifestations of trauma and demonstrate the psychological effects of historical and catastrophic events such as armed conflicts and the post-war, postcolonial condition as they are experienced by the characters in their novels.
In addition, we will look at the authors’ style of writing in preserving memories of psychic pain and suffering and how successful they are in representing traumatic experiences in fiction. Using different literary theories, we will also try to explore several issues such as identity, social and gender roles and social classification among others. Through reading these literary texts, we can hope to see more in the historical realm and uncover long forgotten issues of the past and link it to the present.
My thesis is divided into several parts. The first part will define trauma and establish the existing theoretical bases of its studies in literature. Here I shall determine how trauma is represented in literature and how it contains memories of pain and suffering and how it functions in its recollection. Trauma will be analyzed in this chapter as not being a theoretically ‘fixed-in-time’ phenomenon but rather unpredictably experienced through different contexts that reminds a traumatized individual of a horrifying experience.
The next chapter is where I look at the thin line between trauma and fiction. I shall recall the basic functions of literature and understand the significance of trauma in literature. There is that difficulty of articulating memories of a dark past and an overwhelming experience whether it is recent or long forgotten, and through writing fiction an individual is provided an opportunity to express it in a less obtrusive method instead of an intrusive one-to-one conversation. I shall also evaluate the healing function of writing trauma in fiction as an individual and a collective.
The following chapter will be the introduction of the works of John Updike, an American writer, William Golding, an English writer, and Francisco Sionil José, a Filipino English-language writer. Here I will discuss the contexts of trauma in their works and tackle the themes in their works, as well as, the different literary elements that complete their whole work that embody memories of a traumatic past such as memories of war, resistance, and other modes of violence.
The last part will be the conclusion and synthesis of the significance of writing trauma narratives in fiction and the highlights of representation of memory and trauma.
II. Theories of Trauma
Theories of trauma are not new in the field of literary studies. In her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth states that the issue of trauma is derived from different discourses which include psychiatry, psychoanalysis and sociology that addressed the questions after catastrophic wars (Caruth 3: 1995). Today, there has been an even more increasing interest in trauma as a research topic in literature. Works such as Laurie Vickroy’s Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction and Debora Horvitz’s Literary Trauma: Sadism, Memory, and Sexual Violence in American Women’s Fiction are some of the recent studies.
By 1980, trauma became a “solid status of inquiry” and became known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association (Caruth 3). This phenomenon included what the soldiers experienced after combat such as symptoms of “shell shock, combat stress, delayed stress syndrome, and traumatic neurosis” (Caruth 3). Due to its official recognition as a pathological classification, it provided means in diagnosing other reactions to extreme events that affect the human psyche. These include not only the effects of fighting in the battlefield or aftereffects of an environmental disaster, but also rape, child abuse, and other violent situations (Caruth 3).
In her master dissertation, Minczingerová points out that traumatic experience “fails to be integrated into the consciousness and continues to haunt the survivors later on through flashbacks, dreams and intrusive thoughts. (2)” In the most general definition, Caruth defines trauma as an overwhelming experience of sudden catastrophic events (Caruth 29: 1996). She further states that:
From [Freud’s] early claims, in the Project for a Scientific Psychology, that a trauma consist of two scenes—the earlier (in childhood) having sexual content but no meaning, the later (after puberty) having no sexual content but sexual meaning—to his later claims, in Moses and Monotheism, that trauma occurs only after latency period, Freud seems to have been concerned […] with the way in which trauma is not a simple or single experience of events but that events, insofar as they are traumatic, assume their force precisely in their temporal delay.
(Caruth 9: 1995)
This brings us to Michelle Balaev’s point in literary criticism on trauma in fiction in which she underlines the importance of “the relationship between psychic trauma, memory and landscape.” Her interest on the concept of trauma is not it being a temporal but rather a spatial phenomenon since it is not just registered in one setting but rather experienced further and tends to “resurface in flashbacks, nightmares, and repetitive reenactments (Rodi-Risberg 2012).”
As a subject that involves the human psyche, it is imperative to discuss the contributions of Sigmund Freud to the field of trauma studies. Minczingerová points out that:
He is still a prominent figure at least in the cultural and literary studies of trauma (even though he is often dismissed in therapeutic and medical discourses), and also because this thesis draws upon some of his concepts, albeit, as it will be pointed out, in a slightly different way from Freud’s intended usages (3).
Freud was troubled about the soldiers who returned home after the First World War who “displayed symptoms of what came to be known as shell shock (Minczingerová 3).” He coined the term “repetition compulsion” which concluded his observation that a person who experienced an overwhelming situation such as war tend to be obsessed at reliving or reenacting the event.
A. Running away as a defense mechanism in Updike’s Rabbit, Run
Around 1958, John Updike suffered an existential crisis, one that have been brewing for several years. He explained in his work Odd Jobs, “Amid my new responsibilities, I felt fearful and desolate, foreseeing, young as I was, that I would die, and that the substance of the earth was, therefore, death.” He was saved from this abyss by two writers, namely, Søren Kierkegaard (Danish existentialist writer) and Karl Barth (German theologian). Aside from giving answers to his religious and philosophical questions, both writers provided Updike the necessary tools to create his own theological and aesthetic vision which have influenced his literary writing, circling on matters of moral debate and goodness of man. And Rabbit, Run tells us a story of a person going through this kind of conflict, his contradictions in life and how he deals with them.
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The central figure of the novel is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, 26-year-old, former high school basketball MVP, who is trapped in a failing marriage, and has a life full of frustration, dissatisfaction and weariness that results to his escapism and therefore hurting those around him. He is married to Janice Springer-Angstrom only because he got her pregnant with Nelson, who is now a toddler. Wanting to escape, he abandons both Nelson and Janice who is already pregnant with their second child Rebecca June. He goes to his former coach Marty Tothero to ask help or guidance with his life. Instead, they go out to see girls and Rabbit meets Ruth, winding up together. While living with Ruth, Jack Eccles, a young local minister, tries to fix Rabbit and Janice’s marriage. At first, Rabbit was dismissive about the idea of going back to her but when he realizes she was going to labor, he leaves Ruth and rushes to the hospital. After seeing Janice’s condition, Rabbit sort of falls in love with her again.
Rabbit then becomes consumed with his carnal desire for Janice but she (after a 9-month pregnancy, being left by Rabbit for another woman, and a hard labor) did not have the capability of having sex with him. It was that night when he wanted to make love with her but then she shoved him off telling him that she is not a whore. This frustration pushes him to walk away again. This time, making Janice even more miserable, thinking that Rabbit left for good. She continues her drinking and smoking habit but even worse this time. One day, she got so drunk that she drowns their baby, Rebecca, in the bathtub. Upon hearing the news, Rabbit goes back home. At the funeral, he tells Janice it was his fault. But at the end of the day, he lashes out and puts the blame on Janice. He runs away again, going back to Ruth. Apparently, Ruth is pregnant and Rabbit is the father. He is happy and he tells her he wants them to get married. But Ruth tells him that there will be nothing between him and her and the baby if he does not divorce his wife, Janice. He agrees to this term, then decides to go out and buy some food. On the way, he starts to doubt his decisions, the hard choice of leaving Janice for Ruth and the future of his son, Nelson. All these put him on so much pressure so he, as you may expect, runs away again.
Rabbit Angstrom’s story does not require much philosophizing. His leaving is an impulsive action to escape from being trapped in a net. To understand his life, we must look at the political events and other historical forces at that time, which he barely was aware of. Through this method, we will be aware of the apparent themes in this novel. He was born in the thirties when critical historical events were happening and affected the international scene, mainly the Great Depression which was the best platform for other world powers to invade weaker nations. When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the president of the United States, he initiated the social welfare program called “New Deal” to combat the effects of and recover from the Great Depression. Employment rate skyrocketed due to America’s participation in the Second World War that resulted from the economic and political crisis. This has led to forcing most men to the combat field and women taking over men’s jobs. Returning from the battlefield, men grew weary and women returned to their mostly boring domestic roles.
Rabbit, being one of those who gave service during the war, came back home wanting to satisfy himself with all the pleasure he can get. But he feels incomplete and unsatisfied which led him to seek for divine guidance that can light up his way or at least a human being he can look up to like his coach Tothero. He goes bored and weary of old age so he wants to relieve his younger days. This can be seen in the opening of the novel when he joins a group of young boys playing basketball and also his giving in to his sexual fantasies. However, Janice and Nelson plus his personal issues with his parents keep him anchored. This is why he always tries to run from everything, to taste freedom and find a new purpose in life. But while he runs away, everything catches up with him.
Janice, who I consider a victim of her environment, is bound to an unpleasant fate. Getting pregnant before marriage was considered immoral during her younger days so she was forced to marry Rabbit. However, their marriage somehow locks her down as well. Women were expected to play domestic roles and Janice, probably thinking of achieving greater things in life, became frustrated and bored resulting to her being alcoholic and a smoker. Moreover, the media influenced many housewives on the illusion of beauty. It should be noted that Barbie became a popular icon during that time and other famous women who were considered models of perfection. Ideal families were also portrayed on regular television shows which motivated women to struggle for a perfect household. Somehow, this fact pressured her too, aside from Rabbit’s departure and living with another woman that led to her despair.
Looking at the novel critically, we will realize that Rabbit’s actions are connected to his environment. It begs the question how he was raised by his parents and if he had a healthy childhood. His search for the divine, for someone he can look up to reveals the fact that he is yearning for parental love that his parents was probably not able to satisfy. A scene in the novel when Rabbit sneaks to his parents’ house and looks through the window, and describes how his parents take care of his son Nelson, means that there is inside of him a longing for affection. Yet he cannot go back to his childhood and make things happen the way he wants it to be. This creates a feeling of nothingness inside of him. However, given his freedom as an adult he is completely free to do anything. But with no one who can genuinely guide him will eventually lead to his downfall.
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