This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

From Trauma to Testimony: Resilience in Four Contemporary Novels




Soderstrom, Dorothy

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




As the work of eminent literary trauma theorists Cathy Caruth and Elaine Scarry has persisted as integral to the field, literary trauma studies now has a twenty-year legacy prioritizing the silencing and shattering impact of trauma, largely neglecting the role of literary testimony. The intervention in my dissertation, From Trauma to Testimony: Resilience in Four Contemporary Novels, attempts to fill this gap by continuing to shift the conversation toward an emphasis on the testimonial component of trauma in literature. The four novels in this literary study of trauma provide strong and powerful representations of testimony and stand as examples of effective expressive writing in fiction. As the characters of these texts speak their suffering, they offer trauma testimony that reveal levels of post-traumatic growth that can be measured at the textual level through informed, close reading and quantified through the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count computer-based textual analysis tool. Further, the authors of these novels create fictional records of historical and personal traumas as they publically inscribe these stories, thus preventing their potential historic erasure. Chapter 1 charts the post-traumatic growth of Amabelle Désir in Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998) through the evaluation of her narration and coping mechanisms as she survives the Parsley Massacre of 1937. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the multi-vocal narration of Julia Alvarez’s Mirabal sisters of In the Time of the Butterflies (1995) reveals each sister’s unique courage to speak back to Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Chapter 3 positions the different testimonies of Barbara Kingsolver’s Price women in The Poisonwood Bible (1998) as indicative of their success and failure to effectively renegotiate their trauma through testimony. Lastly, Chapter 4 follows Sheri Reynolds’s Ninah Huff in The Rapture of Canaan (1995) as she speaks back to her oppressive community and liberates herself and others. My study reveals that the diverse depictions of these characters’ coping mechanisms and fictional representations of trauma testimony demand pluralistic interpretations of literary trauma theory that prioritize the role of testimony instead of emphasizing, as first-wave trauma theorists have, the crippling impact of silence in the wake of traumatic experience.