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Closed Minds and Open Systems: Narrative Voice and Institutional Complexity in the Late Modern Novel

  • Author(s): Shapiro, Brendan Laurence
  • Advisor(s): Godden, Richard
  • et al.


Closed Minds and Open Systems: Narrative Voice and Institutional Complexity in the Late Modern Novel


Brendan Laurence Shapiro

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Irvine, 2015

Professor Richard Godden, Chair

This dissertation tracks the coevolution of narrative and social forms in the twentieth century British and American novels, as their respective societies developed gradually more financialized economies and sophisticated modes of surveillance and information control. To do so, it draws on social-cognitive narratology, sociology, philosophy of language, and Marxist approaches to narrative, tracing the connection between fictional representations of individual language, collective intentionality, and the institutional structures that these ground. The overall goal is less to pursue determinate questions than to follow an ongoing process – the attempts of novelists to create prose capable of assimilating and responding to their rapidly evolving institutional landscapes. This is not to say the project lacks theoretical import: once the dialogue between a given set of social conditions and its narrative representation have been explicated, the details may be used to interrogate established aesthetic categories (I think in particular of some received definitions of modernist and postmodernist narrative), and to shed light on rhetorical considerations that these authors see as emergent from representational concerns.

We begin in the liminally modern setting of Faulkner’s 1920s Mississippi. In the last two sections of The Sound and the Fury, institutional and economic forms remain totally incommensurable, a contrast matched by the chapter’s dissonant narrative voices. Fitzgerald, representing later and more sophisticated social forms, shows more conciliation: in Tender Is the Night, the narrator’s voice internalizes the sort of drama that rives Faulkner’s text. The Human Factor does this one better. To represent voices and social structures that have grown formalized, Greene both nests stories and shows official languages invading characters’ psyches. Greene’s voice employs the sclerotic language of 1970s government bureaucracy in order to explore such adoption as a mode of resistance. Finally, Wallace extends Greene’s formalization, depicting an institution so involuted and all-encompassing that attempts to represent it pull voice toward two extremes: infinite proliferation and obsessive self-reflexivity.

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