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"Through the Eyes": Reading Deafened Gestures of Look-Listening in Twentieth Century Narratives


Voicelessness is arguably the endemic trope of modernist literature. Writers began to push language out of shape; experiment with the visual and the aural; invoke the silent and the explosive--all in an effort to access a voice that could speak articulately above the din of modern violence and mechanization. "Through the Eyes" examines the ways in which women writers in particular attempted to address the failure of language to talk about trauma, illness, war and the body.

Borrowed from a moment of communicating "through the eyes" between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, I deploy the theoretical trope look-listening as a critical strategy engaging rather than censuring the body. As such, I utilize sign language--the literal and visual language of the Deaf--critically in order to evoke a reassessment of the fragmented paradigm of modern language and literature through a realignment of expressive and receptive modalities. Building on the burgeoning fields of Disability and Deafness studies, Feminist discourses, Queer theory, and linguistic anthropology, I suggest a new narrative of vocalized bodies.

Beginning with an examination of William James' stream of consciousness alongside the cherology, or syntax, of signed languages this dissertation reveals the ways that sign's iconicity, movement, and multiplicity are ideal vehicles for sketching the life of the mind. Virginia Woolf's experimental novels, then, reveal "moments of being" as "moments of deafness." Carson McCullers' literal deployments of deafness underscore distinctions between hearing and listening, between speech and speaking, and the violent consequences for failed communication. Joy Kogawa's Obasan, a narrative in which "voice" has been obliterated by government mandate, is revealed as a traumatic narrative that can only be told through a language that doesn't involve telling. I conclude with Monique Truong's Book of Salt, a re-telling of modernism from an outsider's perspective, to show how the potential for look-listening works in a critical modality of deaf-blindness. Such a conclusion reconceptualizes the expressive and receptive modalities of the hands and tongue to offer a more active look-listening that serves as a counternarrative and a companion to seminal modernist narratives.

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