Breaking the back of words: Violence and storytelling in twentieth century novels by American women of color

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Lindsey Tucker - Committee Chair


The four novelists who are the focus of this study expose the complicity in violence of the dominant culture's normative forms, and draw on traditional narrative strategies to counter both violence and the language which produces it. Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and Louise Erdrich revise the novel form, bringing into it elements from African and Native American oral narrative traditions, in order to tell the stories that grow out of their culture and experience. The works I study here foreground acts of violence, articulating acts heretofore "unspeakable" in American fiction, and revealing the violence inherent in the family and community relationships and the social, economic, and intellectual forces that subjugate females, servants, and persons of color.Using the work of Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gayle Greene, Molly Hite, and others, I argue that these writers bring materials and forms from oral narrative traditions into dialogue with the forms and conventions of the written novel. By representing in their texts elements from folk and oral cultures, these writers allow the interplay of voices that Bakhtin posits as the defining characteristic of the novel. Elements in each work play on literary and social stereotypes and previous works in the American canon, a technique that Gates has defined as signifyin(g). The authors are also concerned with escaping destructive plots such as those of the revolutionary martyr and the doomed Indian. Such escape from coercive plots is a project of feminist writers discussed by DuPlessis and Greene; however, the novelists I treat here use techniques fundamental to the African and Native American oral traditions from which their works are partly derived. Further, I follow Hite's practice of striving to read the works of women of color not as flawed attempts to emulate European-derived male styles, but rather being careful to assume that what the author wrote was what she intended to write. This practice includes interpreting texts in light of both the European and the Native and African American traditions that inform them.


Women's Studies; Literature, American

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