Love texts : the Lacanian gaze in epistolary literature in the 21st century

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The purloined letter has become a symbol of seduction, confession and betrayal. This thesis explores the origins of the epistolary novel, its enduring influence and its place in contemporary literature. It asks: If letters do not exist, will epistolary novels exist? And how long will contemporary authors continue to find inspiration from an old-fashioned form? Three case studies are considered: Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” (2001), Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin” (2003) and Damon Galgut’s “In A Strange Room” (2010). Each novel draws on the epistolary tradition, exploring universal themes of absence, exile, loneliness and grief through the eyes of the bereaved lover who writes. The seductive power of epistolary literature can be situated within Jacques Lacan’s gaze theory. The gaze sets up an inherent secret, revealing the truth only in the final dénouement. It anticipates the voyeuristic reader, compelling him or her to watch. A creative work accompanies this thesis. In “My Grandfather’s House” draws on all the usual epistolary themes: love, exile, trial and self-identity. The primary source is a bundle of love letters written from my grandfather to my grandmother, in 1941. These are contained within the structure of three letters – one to my grandfather, one to a former lover and one to my young sons. A reflective chapter considers the gaze in my own work, and the circumstances in which ‘found’ letters should be read and published.
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