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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Absent-centred structure in five modern novels : Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow MacLaine, Donald Brenton


Though the notion of absent-centred structure enjoys a current fashionableness in a number of contemporary theoretical discussions, the variety of interpretations, some of them implicitly contradictory, and most of them excessively abstract, prevents "absent-centredness" from being the useful critical category it might be. By surveying the history of the term in my Introduction, and by describing the textual realizations of absent-centredness in a number of modern novels, my thesis attempts to define the term as a special strategy of narrative structure. That strategy is identifiable by such formal devices as indirect narration, anti-climax, cancellation, and negation; and by structuring images of spatial and temporal distortion, especially the anarchist explosion and the urban labyrinth. The introductory discussion of works which might or might not be considered absent-centred fiction demarcates the category more clearly, though my choice of novels for more detailed discussion is exemplary rather than exhaustive. My discussion begins with Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (Chapter II) because, in its use of anarchism, the Dickensian labyrinthine city, and anti-climax, that novel represents, albeit uncertainly, the late-Victorian beginnings of absent-centred structure which James's literary descendents shape more consistently. Hence, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (Chapter III) is governed, paradoxically, by a prominent absence, the unseen and indirectly narrated bomb explosion which operates as a narrative mataphor, for the temporal and spatial distortions of the text are both the logical result of the bomb's blast and a means of circumscribing the absent centre. Andrei Bely's Petersburg (Chapter IV) illustrates best the High-Modernist use of the absent centre, though it relies on the same devices of anarchist plot and foiled explosion which Conrad exploits. And while Bely's Symbolism has a particular Russian coloration, it co-opts, like Conrad's, the same fragmentary features of the bomb-threatened city as images for narrative structure. And whereas Conrad shows us that absent-centredness is an apt description of the moral vacancy which he sees as characteristic of the early twentieth-century West, Bely shows us that it is also an apt description of his mystical and metaphysical view of the early twentieth-century East. Like Petersburg,whose narrative is fragmented more literally than The Secret Agent's, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (Chapter V) exploits the chronological and spatial disruptions which result from explosion. Fragmentation in this work is mimetic of Yossarian's consciousness which, shattered by the realization of Snowden's "exploded" secret, prefers to, but cannot, forget the horror of his comrade's death. As in other works of absent-centred fiction, the hero's hyperbolic fear of his own death is transformed into the fear of apocalyptic nullity. The military establishment which prevents Yossarian's escape from that fear occasions an exploration of the blackly humorous and absurdist nature of a world with no sane centre of control. Most, if not all, of these themes, images, and strategies are gathered together encyclopedically in the most ambitious of these absent-centred works, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Here, the anarchist bomb, metaphor for absence, finds its sophisticated contemporary counterpart in the rocket which, in a rainbow arc from "point to no point," transports apocalyptic absence. Under the shadow of that trajectory moves Slothrop, a failed quester whose grail eludes him and who wanders directionless in the labyrinthine and centreless post-war "Zone" until he disappears from both landscape and text. More reflexive than earlier absent-centred works, Gravity's Rainbow makes us aware that Slothrop's experience in the Zone is also the reader's, for like Slothrop, he searches for a centre in the "zone" of a fiction too complexly structured and too exploded to reveal its unifying source, which can only be, paradoxically, the absent centre itself.

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