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Durham e-Theses
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The Contemporary Novel and the Brain

RILEY, NATALIE (2020) The Contemporary Novel and the Brain. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



This thesis examines the influence of embodied accounts of the mind on literary representations of mental life in the contemporary novel. It identifies a new cohort of British and North-American authors who address the close relationship between mental experience and the physiological vicissitudes of the brain. Moving beyond critical accounts that view the intercourse between literature and science as symptomatic of a long-standing territorial dispute, this study draws attention to a broader range of literary responses to the mind sciences, and in doing so, demonstrates the significance of recent debates surrounding determinism and plasticity, mind and body, and self and society, that have emerged in the age of the brain. Reading these writers in the context of wider scientific, philosophical, and cultural narratives, this thesis offers new ways of understanding how the embodied mind and embrained body challenge traditional understandings of human knowledge, identity, and agency.

Chapter 1 explores the influence of neo-Darwinian ideas about the brain on A. S. Byatt’s representations of language and memory. Chapter 2 follows by examining genetic determinism in the writings of Ian McEwan, where the close and causal relationship between genes and brains gives rise to a mechanistic portrayal of the human mind. Chapter 3 focusses on Richard Powers’ narrative account of consciousness, which fuses a cognitive capacity for storytelling with the evolutionary history of the brain. Drawing upon feminist and phenomenological theory, Chapter 4 investigates the association between neuroanatomy and gender politics in the work of Siri Hustvedt. Chapter 5 explores Sarah Hall’s interest in heightened forms of embodied experience that intuitively refuse the easy reduction of mental life to a series of brain states. Focussing on losses of bodily agency, this chapter examines how Hall probes the explanatory gap between the empirical vision of the sciences and experiential accounts of mind.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2020
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:22 May 2020 14:16

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