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Trauma Narratives of the Vietnam War

Author LiuXiao
Tutor NingYiZhong
School Beijing Language and Culture University
Course Comparative Literature and World Literature
Keywords Tim O’Brien Vietnam War Narratives rhetorical narrative criticism trauma theory
Type PhD thesis
Year 2008
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As one of the most outstanding figures in contemporary American literature, Tim O’Brien has become an author of Vietnam experiences. He is known for his unique ways in depicting that war and its influence on the Americans in general and the Vietnam veterans in particular. Thus he has also been regarded as one of the most celebrated Vietnam novelists. However, this label has resulted in critical focuses on his earlier works rather than on the later ones, i.e. the works after 1990’s.In recent years with the broader context of cultural studies, critics of O’Brien have drawn on increasing study of traumatic experience both in the field of literature and a variety of clinical and theoretical disciplines, and have found that for O’Brien, Vietnam is a place he associates with traumatic experiences and that his writing is a fictional representation and even a mimicry of their symptoms. This perspective has thrown a new light on O’Brien’s works as a whole by combining his personal experiences with his writings.Treating O’Brien’s works as trauma narratives, the present dissertation aims at studying from the perspective of rhetorical narrative criticism Tim O’Brien’s works , especially those after 1990’s. It is hoped that by drawing on previous criticism in the field, the present study could arrive at a more comprehensive interpretation of O’Brien’s trauma narratives through close readings of individual texts.The whole dissertation consists of three parts: Introduction, the Main Body and Conclusion. The introductory part presents a brief outline of the study.Chapter One begins with the introduction of the key ideas and reading principles of rhetorical narrative theory as a theoretical framework. After defining the trauma narrative in the present study, it gives a general account of the rise of trauma study as well as its relationship with fiction writing. Then it offers a general view of the characteristics of Tim O’Brien’s trauma narratives based on his Vietnam experiences.Chapter Two analyzes O’Brien’s work The Things They Carried (1990). It first relates the traumatic symptoms of the character narrator to the personal experiences of its creator. Then through the analysis of implied author’s employment of the second person narration and the manipulation of focalization in the course of narrative communication, it points out the complexity of this process in terms of gender and racism.Chapter Three aims at relating embedded and embedding narratives to trauma representation in In the Lake of the Woods (1994). It analyzes how O’Brien manages to extend the representation of personal trauma to the exploration of collective atrocity through the relevance of narrative levels to his own personal experiences, and thus launches a criticism of contemporary American history and cultural realities. Also analyzed are the presentation of violence and its resultant judgments on the readers’ side.Chapter Four studies another trauma narrative Tomcat in Love (1998) in terms of un/reliability of the narrator. After pointing out the relevance of the character narrator’s telling mode to the real author’s recovery through personal trauma narration, it explores multiple purposes of the implied author and his narrative ethics. Then an analysis is made concerning the presentation of female characters and the reader’s ethical judgments.Chapter Five discusses the latest work of O’Brien, July, July (2002). It begins with the analysis of the unique features of this work in comparison with the previous three narratives, and points out its relevance to implied author’s narrating purpose, i.e, to present a collective trauma of the whole Vietnam war generation. Then it analyzes the control of distance and focalization to show the implied author’s concern of the individual’s psychology as well as his shifted attitude toward gender. Finally it explores the author’s use of collective trauma and his endeavors to affirm the importance of writing and narrating traumatic experiences for personal recovery.The Conclusion summarizes what has been discussed in the previous chapters. After mentioning the uniqueness of O’Brien’s trauma narratives, that is, a combination of personal traumatic experiences, testimonies of others and literary imagination, it concludes with the significance of the present study, namely, to arrive at a much more comprehensive interpretation of O’Brien’s works through this new perspective and thus to promote the study of contemporary American literature as well as post-classical narrative criticism.

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