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Thesis title: Grief and Mourning in the Work of Marilynne Robinson
Start year: 2011
My PhD develops work I conducted during my MA on the writing of American novelist Marilynne Robinson. Robinson’s prize-winning fiction and non-fiction have established her in the last decade as a celebrated public intellectual. A potent nostalgic vision plays out in her fictional depictions of small, 1950s communities within which she focuses on and elevates the quiet sanctity and humanity of individual and family experiences of loss. Her non-fiction work outlines a profound and complex Christian theology which inevitably contextualizes her fictional works. Her essays, lectures and journalism delineate a contrarian world-view which critiques the oversimplified and dominant place of positivism and scientism in twentieth-century Western thought and which can be read to have lead in part to the explicitly twentieth-century pathologization of grief and protracted mourning states.
My research reads Robinson’s writing as it intersects with shifts in contemporary thinking about grief. Bereavement, grief and mourning have only been considered serious topics of study in the West since the early 20th century and the publication of Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. Central to this essay, and almost all subsequent theorisations of grief, are various under-critiqued assumptions including the premise that the bereaved need to “work” through loss to a place where emotions can detach from the dead person and ‘normal’ grief will end. This model dominates bereavement theory across disciplines to the present day and is still manifest in psychoanalytic, psychological and psychiatric interpretations of grief. Literary and trauma studies, and the post-structuralist philosophies that have influenced them, have also been strongly determined by Freud’s ideas. My work allies itself with the growing number of contemporary grief theorists who are dissatisfied with the limits of this dominant model. These include feminist, religious and literary critics who argue that it does not reflect the lived experience of grief and who question whether or not it is a process towards emotional detachment, the assumption that a resolution is always to be achieved or that suffering can always be assuaged. It also includes critics from within the psy-disciplines who consider it problematic to view protracted grief within the medicalized model as a psychological disorder or abnormality to be treated by mental health professionals.
My research works to outline and examine the literary, philosophical and psychological contexts of contemporary bereavement studies including criticisms from within the field. By so doing, I am charting the current place of the largely scientific theoretical interpretations of grief against the parallel yet contentious rise of secularisation, positioning these critically alongside Robinson’s own Christian humanism. Considering the anthropology of pre-modern explanations of grief and mourning alongside ancient and Christian systems of understanding will provide, I hope, a fruitful methodological context for examining Robinson’s work, against a backdrop of complex post 9/11 debates on faith and the limits of science, in which she takes a strong part. My intention is to provide a highly detailed analysis of her fictional metaphors of grief and mourning, read through the lens of her nuanced personal theology, to contribute to and to expand current interpretive and theoretical models of grief in the 21st century.
Bereavement, grief, mourning, Marilynne Robinson, America Literature and Religion
Bereavement Studies, Grief Theory, Contemporary American fiction, Literature and religion, 19th century American writing and Transcendentalism
I am a TESOL teacher, an English tutor and an English teacher trained in the FE sector. I am also a printmaker and a gardener.