The Spark of the Text: Toward an Ethical Reading Theory for Traumatic Literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Steven Todd Atchison (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Scott Romine

Abstract: This study examines the discursive act found in the writing and reading of trauma literature and argues for a theory of empathetic reading based on an ethical-aesthetic approach. An ethical-aesthetic approach offers an interpretive theory that examines how writers and readers may construe textual depictions of trauma that generate emotional response. I apply Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic theories to demonstrate how readers and writers, alike, make meaning through a self-conscious awareness of their relationships toward the text. Empathetic readers come to the act of reading from an ethical stance that respects both the sites of the writer and of the text. This process yields a critical aesthetic interpretation through cognitive (identification) and ethical value judgments that illuminate a reader's reaction with the work. This study analyzes various genres of trauma literature that represent varying perspectives of truth: life narratives represented in testimony, autobiographical fiction with its blurred boundaries, and fictional novels depicting historical traumas. Each genre's features define the means of textual representation, thus readers make cultural assumptions about representations of truth represented in the genre. They expect testimonials to deliver words-equal-truth as in Elie Wiesel's Night or the narrative embellishments of memoir found in Ishmael Beah's use of pathetic fallacy in A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier. When addressing each genre, I consider how the writer employs literary narrative devices that evoke a cognitive-emotional response in the reader. Moreover, I examine the ethical implications found in fictionalized representations of real atrocities in the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Toni Morrison, as these authors of fiction respect the sites of trauma while not trivializing nor dishonoring its victims. Both Foer and Morrison use concepts of co-creating, by inviting the reader to fill in the gaps or participate in the formation of the text, as a means to amplify a moral awareness of handling difficult representations. My analysis of these works illustrates Bakhtin's discursive theory of co-experiencing an utterance, or "utterance-as-text," that demonstrates the personal chaos brought about through the lived experience of writing and reading trauma literature. This co-experience, whether through writing or reading, leads one to a self-reflective positioning of an ethical secondary witness via the text.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2008
trauma literature, ethical-aesthetic approach, readers and writers, Elie Wiesel, Night, Ishmael Beah, A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier,
Psychic trauma in literature
Ethics in literature.
Reader-response criticism.

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