Separately, Connectedly: Exploring Trauma Through Ekphrasis in Contemporary Novels

Alexandra Cannon

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines ekphrasis as a rhetorical tool to explore, represent, and contemplate trauma affect in contemporary novels. From the Greek phrase for ‘description,’ ekphrasis is part of a long and ancient literary tradition, dating as far back as the ancient depictions of art on urns, weaponry, as well as more disambiguated descriptions of scenes and people. The uses of ekphrasis as a literary device are broad and complex, but its use is under-researched in contemporary novels, and there is a near total absence of investigation into ekphrasis within the novel as a means of contemplating and understanding the affect of a condition that is inherently abstract and disorienting.

Literary trauma theory has evolved considerably in recent years. In keeping with important findings in psychology and psychiatric research, there is a broad recognition that rethinking trauma representation beyond the recitation and reliving of events and into textured descriptions of trauma affect is essential for thoughtful, nuanced explorations of an experience that resists narrative convenience. As a result, there are increased calls to accept and represent its inherent fractured nature and resist the authorial temptation to forge a story around it that fits neatly into a cohesive whole.

This thesis proposes a framework for considering how various aspects of ekphrastic descriptions of real and imagined art as well as their connotative and denotative significance in the novel reveals nuance in the representation of trauma affect through the activation of language and image. The contemporary novels explored herein are: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, and How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Each of these novels present ekphrasis and affect differently, which enables broader testing of the flexibility of the proposed framework.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Greenlaw, Lavinia, Supervisor
  • Eaglestone, Robert, Advisor
Award date1 Feb 2024
Publication statusUnpublished - 2024


  • ekphrasis
  • trauma
  • fiction
  • Contemporary British Fiction
  • American fiction

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