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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Department of English and American Studies

Dissertation Project Eva Brunner

Narrating the Extreme Self. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell

 

Abstract

 

This dissertation project combines my main interests in literature and psychology. The North American writers Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), Anne Sexton (1928-1974), and Robert Lowell (1917-1977), who all won Pulitzer-Prizes, will be re-read with a focus on aspects of the self. The authors together with other confessional poets originated a new form of subjectivity and treated topics like psychic breakdowns, the relation to the family, their culture, and gender issues. The identity constructions in the work of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell will be analyzed by selecting text samples out of different genres (such as poetry and prose: lately, the narrativity of poetry is assumed by narratologists; see for example Eva Müller-Zettelmann 2002: 129-154) and discussed within the framework of narrative identity theories (Ricoeur 1991; Brockmeier 1999; Kraus 2000 et al.). These theories offer a notion of identity that stresses the fictive element of identity, and is thereby contrary to a search for the ‘real’ identity. They also foster a new approach for the discussion of these texts which have never been criticized with a focus on identity. At the same time, theories of narrative identity can be well applied to these writers' texts. Concerning identity, their writings have many themes and conflicts in common. However, they differ in form and content. Plath, Sexton and Lowell are particularly interesting for a discussion of identity because they wrote their most important works in a time of transition (the 50s and the early 60s) from modernity to post-modernity. Their conflicts, like gender identity and psychic states, were neither addressed in society nor in literature at that time, but became important themes later on.

During the analysis of the literature, the question of the possibilities and barriers of a literary application of narrative identity theories is raised. The underlying notice which leads to the title is that the texts are marked by an above-average subjective perspective with a strong presence of the “I” and the dealing with personal questions. Additionally, the writers themselves can be called extreme characters whose inner worlds are influenced by deep conflicts and struggles leading partly from psychic disorders as the bipolar disorder (manic depression). My thesis is that through this subjective perspective, it is rather the universal individual psychic state and identity problems that are described than that these texts tell something about pathologic individuals with just singular experiences as often assumed.

This project in literary studies discusses and specifies philosophic and psychological identity theories and reaches new results for criticism on these three important American authors. Additionally, it contributes to the research fields of autobiography, poetry, narratology, gender, and cultural history.