Vital Grace: Bodies and Belief in American Fiction
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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This dissertation challenges a persistent association of religious thought with an emphasis on transcendence that denies the importance of bodies. The authors whose work I explore—Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Andre Dubus, and Marilynne Robinson—are all interested in the mystery of bodies and the relationship between temporal experience on the one hand and spiritual experience on the other. Considering elements of these authors’ personal theologies, I arrive at a deeper understanding of how belief informs differences in narrative praxis and contributes to their distinct aesthetics of embodied experience. Chapter One pairs O’Connor’s reverence for Thomas Aquinas and Henry James with Gérard Genette’s theory of focalization to illuminate how O’Connor uses shifts in narrative perspective to embody sin and spiritual growth for her characters. Chapter Two examines how Updike’s adolescent and elderly characters discover grace in their material surroundings even as their growing or aging bodies force changes in their physical orientation toward the world. Chapter Three considers Dubus’s Catholic understanding of ritual as vital to a physically, ethically, and psychologically sound existence, and Chapter Four examines how Robinson, informed by a Calvinist belief in total depravity and human sacredness, depicts existence as a physical and spiritual wilderness, in which human particularity creates the need and means for interpersonal forgiveness, understanding, and love. The range of bodies represented in these texts is diverse, and my project makes plain the extent to which these authors embrace varieties of religious thinking that include intense, nuanced, and vividly rendered interest in the physical world.