Theses Doctoral

Narrative Topography: Fictions of Country, City, and Suburb in the Work of Virginia Woolf, W. G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan

McArthur, Elizabeth Andrews

This dissertation analyzes how twentieth- and early twenty-first- century novelists respond to the English landscape through their presentation of narrative and their experiments with novelistic form. Opening with a discussion of the English planning movement, "Narrative Topography" reveals how shifting perceptions of the structure of English space affect the content and form of the contemporary novel. The first chapter investigates literary responses to the English landscape between the World Wars, a period characterized by rapid suburban growth. It reveals how Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts, reconsiders which narrative choices might be appropriate for mobilizing and critiquing arguments about the relationship between city, country, and suburb. The following chapters focus on responses to the English landscape during the present era. The second chapter argues that W. G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, constructs rural Norfolk and Suffolk as containing landscapes of horror--spaces riddled with sinkholes that lead his narrator to think about near and distant acts of violence. As Sebald intimates that this forms a porous "landscape" in its own right, he draws attention to the fallibility of representation and the erosion of cultural memory. The third chapter focuses on Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a novel in which a cloned human being uses descriptions of landscape to express and, more often, to suppress the physical and emotional pain associated with her position in society. By emphasizing his narrator's proclivity towards euphemism and pastiche, Ishiguro intimates that, in an era of mechanical and genetic reproduction, reliance on perspectives formed in past and imagined futures can be quite deadly. The fourth chapter analyzes Ian McEwan's post 9/11 novel, Saturday--a reworking of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. In reading these two novels side-by-side, it reveals how London, its suburbs, and the English countryside might be imagined differently in the contemporary consciousness. Together these chapters investigate why novelistic treatments of the English landscape might interest contemporary readers who live outside England (and/or read these works in translation), especially during an era in which the English landscape has ceased to function as the real or metaphorical center of empire.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 15, 2012