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‘Thesis of the Month’ goes to Erica Wickerson, the University of Cambridge.

Where the recent theses of the month have been fascinatingly interdisciplinary, my thesis returns to a more resolutely literary form of analysis.

The point of my thesis was to consider how the subjective experience of time is conjured in words, to consider not just narratives with time machine-style shifts backwards and forwards, or works of memory, or explicit treatises on time; instead I wanted to focus on the individual, subjective sense of time going by as it does for all of us all the time: how can a writer conjure the sense of slowness of a boring talk? Or evoke the swiftness of a summer holiday? How does time appear to speed up and slow down for different characters? And how does an examination of subjective temporal experience disclose broader aspects of subjective experience more generally?

To consider these questions, I constructed an ‘architectural’ model, whereby I viewed each narrative as a kind of building. With this metaphor I wanted to indicate the private nature of narrative: we enter into the internal space of other subjectivities, the narrator acts as a guide through the house, each work has a broader structure but is constructed from the small building blocks of words and sentences. This spatial metaphor is also an attempt to account for the ways in which we may return to previously visited rooms, much like returning to times gone-by. There may be characters inhabiting certain rooms, who inflect our perspective, much like focalisation in narrative. With this architectural model in mind, I sought to combine an intricate analysis of the literary minutiae – considering the effect of particular words, sentences, and literary devices – with an examination of the broader structure of a given work – how the story and plot are put together. Each chapter therefore gradually broadens the focus.  And because I wanted to demonstrate the ways in which an analysis of time may broaden our understanding of the narrative creation of subjective experience more generally, I structured my thesis thematically with chapters on Space, Performance, Symbols and Motifs, Myth, and History. These themes serve to illuminate distinct aspects of narrative time.

Although I wanted to avoid works that explicitly problematise the narration of time, I ended up returning to Thomas Mann. Much has been written on time in works such as Mann’s Der Zauberberg and his Joseph tetralogy, but I discovered that there existed little criticism on time in the rest of his oeuvre. And yet, since his life and writing spanned such a vast historical period, engaged with so many of his predecessors and contemporaries and laid the foundation for so many literary successors, I thought that taking Mann’s works in general (rather than just his temporal works in particular) in comparison with an array of other writers, genres, and styles would allow me to broaden the approach and to indicate ways in which this model has wider applicability.

Having finished my thesis in the autumn, I am now beginning work on a postdoctoral project that builds on my PhD, moving from time in Thomas Mann to space-time in Franz Kafka, which also links back to the last thesis of the month from Nicola Thomas. One of the reasons we find literature so powerful is precisely because of its engagement with the unspoken and perhaps indefinable intricacies of human experience, and it seems that demonstrating why these things matter is now more urgent than ever.

For more about Erica’s research interests see:
https://cambridge.academia.edu/EricaWickerson

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