"We Have Come of Age": Growing Bodies in the Twentieth-Century Irish Novel

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McGovern, Kelly Jayne Steenholdt
Richardson, Brian
Twentieth-century Irish culture -- shaped by, for instance, the Catholic Church, nationalist narratives of blood sacrifice for "Mother Ireland," and the experience of emergence from colonialism--put special pressure on the meanings attached to bodies in narratives of both individual and national maturation. This dissertation examines the human body's role in Irish novels of development, tracing specifically how Irish authors deploy the growing body in relation to the self-cultivating subject of a Bildungsroman (or "coming of age" novel). This project shows that Irish social conditions provoked urgent reworkings of generic conventions, and impelled Irish authors to develop sophisticated strategies for representing growing bodies in narrative. Through close examinations of four novels, this project identifies four facets of the role the growing body can take in fictions of development. The introduction provides an overview of the absent body, the body that grows in passing, the body growing sideways, and the unnarratable body. Individual chapters examine these respective facets as they manifest in James Joyce's highly influential Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), John McGahern's The Dark (1965), Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's The Dancers Dancing (1999), and Anne Enright's The Wig My Father Wore (1995). Chapter one describes how Joyce largely reserves Stephen Dedalus's body from representation so that other developmental aspects feature more prominently. Chapter two examines McGahern's representations of the real, material growing body's volatility and entanglement with forces beyond the subject's autonomous control as a strategic response to the post-Independence Irish social environment. Chapter three asserts that Ní Dhuibhne depicts a female protagonist filling out and experiencing lateral, or "sideways" modes of growth to expand the possibilities for narrating Irish female identity and to denaturalize nationalist representational strategies, while chapter four identifies the protagonist's growing body as an unsayable and indeterminate thing at the center of Enright's experimental text. The coda considers the contemporary moment of instability and recession against claims that Ireland "came of age" in the 1990s, taking stock of the growing body in the "Celtic Tiger" literary moment and grounding this stock-taking in earlier representations of development that mobilized bodily growth to tell stories.