Forms of retreat and return in the novels of Don Delillo

Wilkins, Daniel (2022). Forms of retreat and return in the novels of Don Delillo. University of Birmingham. M.A.

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This thesis explores themes of retreat and return within the novels of the contemporary American author Don DeLillo. While several of these forms of retreat and return are well-documented in the established body of academic work devoted to DeLillo’s major novels of the 1980s and 1990s, there has been less attention paid to their prominence within his earlier writing. This thesis moves away from existing academic readings of the author’s work as either being defined by a three-part structure, or being categorized into two canonical and precanonical phases, to assess DeLillo’s work as one body. Within this more holistic view of DeLillo’s writing, ideas of retreat and return can be seen as a uniting authorial concern that runs throughout his novels, from the earliest to the most recent.

Throughout the decades in which DeLillo has been recognised as one of the ‘great’ figures in American fiction, his work has featured many expressions of a fixation on forms of personal retreat. Characters in his work repeatedly withdraw from society through physical exile, self-sabotage, fasts, and periods of silence, in retreats influenced by secularised, and often vague, spiritual and religious antecedents. These forms of retreat are often followed by some form of elective or passive return, either physical or spiritual, so that a kind of ebb and flow of retreat and return becomes visible when DeLillo’s novels are viewed as a complete body of work. Alongside instances of characters enacting this ebb and flow, DeLillo’s work has dramatized an engagement with society and history within a context of diminished objectivity. His historiographic work explores a retreat from historical certainty following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This exploration is achieved in part through the fictional rendering of historical figures and events. In his most recent work, DeLillo appears to have enacted his own retreat from the title of ‘great American author’, while returning to some of the figures and fixations of his early publications. Images of ghosts and haunting become increasingly important within this simultaneous retreat and return, as DeLillo’s novels continue to be haunted by events from American history and figures and ideas from his own work.

Finally, DeLillo imagines a near-future in which notions of objectivity appear to have retreated altogether, and in which individual characters retreat into a haunted state of contingency and uncertainty, which nevertheless implies the lasting possibility of return.

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.A.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.A.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of English Literature
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PS American literature


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