Mad Pursuits : Therapeutic Narration in Postwar American Fiction

Abstract: Mad Pursuits: Therapeutic Narration in Postwar American Fiction examines three mid-century American novels—J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)—in relation to the rise and popularization of psychoanalytic theory in America. The study historicizes these landmark novels as representing and interrogating postwar America’s confidence in the therapeutic capacity of narrative to redress psychological problems. Drawing on key concepts from narrative theory and the multidisciplinary field of narrative and identity studies, I argue that these texts develop a multi-layered, formal problematization of therapeutic narration: the narrativization of the self through modes of interpretation based on character action and development. The study, thus, investigates how the texts both critique the purported effectiveness of being healed through narrative means, as well as how they problematize their society’s investment in this method. I propose that the novels ultimately explore submerged possibilities for realizing what I call fugitive selves by creating self-representations that negotiate and exceed the confines of the paradigmatic models of plot and character of the period.In Chapter One, I argue that the ego and pop psychological movements during the postwar era encouraged the American public to define and realize psychological health, success and happiness through narrativized means. I show in Chapter Two how careful differentiation between narrative levels of interpretation in The Bell Jar reveals the novel’s complication of the self created in narrative, with and against the socio-cultural scripts and therapeutic assumptions of the period. Chapter Three concentrates on The Catcher in the Rye’s various methods of de-composing the narrative identity of the subject created through developmental and therapeutic narration. In the final chapter, I read Invisible Man as a satire of postwar psychoanalytic theory and method specifically concerning racialized narrative identities, and as a reflection on a method of enduring psychological illness. The Conclusion brings together several argumentative strands running throughout the dissertation regarding what the novels contrastively reveal about the perils, and even the possibilities, inherent in the narrativizing of the self in early postwar America.