Alienation as a fictional construct in four contemporary British novels : a literary-theoretical study
Senekal, Burgert Adriaan
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This study discusses Melvin Seeman's 1959 theory of alienation within a postmodern, post-structuralist and systems theory context. Seeman's five aspects of alienation, namely powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement are re-evaluated while taking into account Von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory and interpretations thereof, Even-Zohar's Polysystem Theory, post-modernism, and structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives. More recent contributions to alienation research are discussed, particularly where sociological and theoretical changes have forced a re-evaluation of his original conception. Felix Geyer (1996), Arthur G. Neal and Sara F. Collas (2000), and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman (1998) provide the crux of the discussion on the reevaluation of Seeman's theory. It is argued, in following these researchers, that a post-modernist and systems theory approach favours a reduction of Seeman's five aspects to four by omitting self-estrangement, since the self is argued to be relationally constituted (by e.g. Vorster (2003), Von Bertalanffy (1969), and Wilden (1981)) and therefore self-estrangement is already contained within the other four aspects. The re-evaluated remaining four aspects of Seeman's theory of alienation are thus applied to the chosen four novels belonging to contemporary British Fiction: Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, Martin Amis's London Fields, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Pat Barker's Regeneration. It is argued that Seeman's theory of alienation is applicable to contemporary British fiction, and thus how his theory manifests in the chosen texts is analysed. Each of the chosen novels is contextualised, bearing in mind the oeuvre of each author, the socio-historical system, and the contemporary British literary system. A short discussion of contemporary Britain is provided to situate the texts within the cultural and political milieu of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This is done in order to provide the reader with essential background information where it aids the interpretation of the texts, since all four texts engage with the socio-historical milieu in which they were created. Barker's Regeneration is however a historical novel set in the First World War, so wherever necessary, the context of the novel in the early twentieth century is sketched. The proven hypothesis of this thesis is that Seeman's sociological theory of alienation can be applied to literary texts, since the chosen novels do manifest the same characteristics that he identified within the field of sociology. It is shown how each author and each text foregrounds some aspects and backgrounds others, and how particularly powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, and social-isolation manifests in each text. McEwan's The Child in Time highlights social isolation, in particular with the dissolution of the heterosexual dyad after the couple's child is abducted, and shows how meaningless manifests when different genders attach different meanings to actions. Amis's London Fields highlights normlessness through the character of Keith Talent in particular, and obliterates meaning by making the characters' world a television-controlled simulacra, and adding the motif of darts to indicate how superficial culture has become. Welsh's Trainspotting emphasises social isolation and normlessness in depicting the marginal subculture of drug-users in Leith, Edinburgh, whose relationships are as superficial and void of morality as in London Fields. Barker's Regeneration illustrates powerlessness in particular, as it depicts soldiers returning from the trenches of the First World War who suffer from war neurosis as they are stripped of their decision-making rights. Rivers's theory of war neurosis argues that it is powerlessness that leads to war neurosis, and he links psychological symptoms to what is seen amongst the female population during peacetime, suggesting that it is powerlessness which leads to psychological breakdowns in males and females. Alienation, in one way or another, thus is a central aspect to the main actions and imagery employed in the chosen novels. Discussing these texts from this theoretical frame of reference contributes to the understanding of some of the seminal works of contemporary British fiction.