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Collective Trauma versus Individual Trauma : A Literature Analysis


In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the trauma of Addie’s death is taking it’s toll on every character that the reader is introduced to. While each character is also dealing with their own personal trauma’s at the time, the addition of Addie’s death and burial arrangements, produces stress between the character’s themselves and the internal conflict each of them faces. Doctor Peabody words, “That’s what they mean by the love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us, … carry stubbornly and furiously with us into the earth again.” (Faulkner, 46) excellently exhibits the thematic notion of the novel, covering the collective trauma of Addie’s death. The particular situation Peabody is referring to is Jewel refusing to show up to Addie’s bedside before her passing even though he’s her favorite although he’s a brat. The social family dynamic of As I Lay Dying is as Addie describes “we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching” (Faulkner, 172). Addie’s metaphor allows the reader to have a double context to it; it can be seen as a collective trauma that the character’s experience due to their family situation or it can be introspective for each character’s dilemmas (Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, Darl’s World War I shell shock, etc). While Faulkner’s novel could easily be argued as primarily collective trauma, the individual scenarios that the character’s have as underlying emotions seem to more than just white noise in the event of Addie’s death. In fact, the build up from each of the character’s situations allows for Addie’s death to be the collective event of the novel that weaves them all together as the spider web analogy that Addie herself created.

In contrast, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three things I Know for Sure can be seen as solely an individual trauma novel right off the surface. Nonetheless, Allison’s inclusion of the traumatic events that the women in her family also had to endure, adds a collective dynamic to her novel; allowing it to also be seen as every woman’s story. The juxtaposition between Allison’s poetic language that primarily covers the entirety of the novel and her direct language that is used for the explicit individual trauma should be the primary example that Two or Three things I Know for Sure is also a collective trauma. Allison’s memoir includes poetic language such as “Love was a mystery. Love was a calamity. Love was a curse that had somehow skipped me,... Sex was the country that I had been dragged into as a unwilling girl - sex, and the madness of the body. For all that it could terrify and confuse me, sex was something I had assimilated. Sex was a game or a weapon or an addiction. Sex was familiar. But love - love was another country.” (Allison, 55); however, Allison reveals her abuse by saying, “The man raped me. It’s the truth. It’s a fact. I was five, and he was eight months married to my mother.” (Allison, 39). The language in Allison’s novel various between depicting collective or individual trauma. For example, Allison plainly depicts her mother’s death as plainly as, “My mother died at midnight on a Saturday” (Allison, 12); while the language is direct as her abuse, her mother’s death is viewed as a collective trauma for her and her sisters as they all “become Mama” (Allison, 16). The collective web of stories that Allison ties together of the women in her family and all the trauma they endured, allows for her memoir to be seen as every woman’s story.

Different definitions and understandings of trauma made possible by representing traumatic experience as collective and as individual phenomena also depend on the genre of the novels. Trauma is strongly correlated to truth in the reader’s eyes about the trauma that the author is relaying. When a reader goes into a novel knowing it is fiction, they are able to displace themselves from the situation even though they are capable of relating to particular situations. However, when a reader begins a novel that is labeled as non fiction, they are expecting the entirety of the novel to be truth spewing from the author’s finger tips. Thus, truth is a strong correlating factor between As I Lay Dying and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure due to the fact that Faulkner’s story is fiction and Allison’s is a memoir. The viewpoint of trauma varies based on the genre due to the fact that with fiction, typically the reader is experiencing the trauma alongside the character so the trauma is almost more raw than a nonfiction story where the trauma is obviously experienced in the past. Although most authors draw their stories from their personal experiences and a fictional story may hit close to a reader’s heart, a nonfiction novel is expected to be pure truth, thus, the trauma is viewed through a skewed lens on the reader’s behalf.

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