Date of Award

4-21-2008

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Robert Sattelmeyer - Chair

Second Advisor

Janet Gabler-Hover

Third Advisor

Calvin Thomas

Abstract

“Resisting the Vortex” examines the tenuous role of the abject in Melville’s early writings. While much psychoanalytic criticism on Melville and his works is driven by Freudian and Lacanian analyses, my study explores the role(s) of women, particularly that of the mother, through the lens of Kristeva’s theory of abjection. I suggest that Melville’s depiction of the abject evolves and becomes more apparent as his writing career progresses. I include Typee, Mardi, Moby-Dick and Pierre in my analysis since these texts demonstrate the evolution of Melville’s relationship to the abject mother. I argue that throughout each of these works, the female (and some of the male native characters as well) are depicted in terms that are similar to Kristeva’s concept of the idealized chora and the abject mother. While the male protagonists of Melville’s early works are drawn to women who seem to embody the chora (the energies and drives that are regulated by the mother’s body), they recoil from women who are abject and seem to threaten their sense of identity. Although man must reject/abject the mother in order to maintain a sense of autonomous identity, he still longs to recreate the symbiotic relationship he once had with the mother as an infant. He seeks the language of the mother’s body – that of the semiotic, which issues from the chora, – in an effort to return to the safe haven of the womb. This tension between maintaining a sense of identity that is separate from the mother while simultaneously longing to return to the mother, is evident in each of Melville’s aforementioned works to varying degrees. However, it is in Pierre, a work that chronicles a young man’s attempt to escape the suffocating influence of his mother, that the threat of the abject becomes the central theme of one of Melville’s novels. Ultimately, man should strive to balance his need for an autonomous identity with the realization that he may never fully “escape” the mother’s presence in his life. Unfortunately, Melville’s leading men fail to recognize this paradox and the consequences are dire.

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