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Memory, emotion and empathy in literary memoirs in English

posted on 2023-08-21, 23:29 authored by Merril Ann Howie

We know that skilfully crafted autobiographical writing can engage the reader emotionally, but further investigation is needed into how this intersubjective process works both textually and cognitively. With the aim of developing a transdisciplinary understanding and elucidation of this dynamic literary and cognitive interrelationship, this thesis examines the literary memoirs of four successful and skilled writers in English: Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Helen Garner and Joan Didion. My analytical focus encompasses both representation and impact: firstly, I investigate how these acclaimed authors construct vivid representations of autobiographical memory and emotionally engaging prose; and secondly, I explore how, in turn, these textual constructions provide compelling invitations for reciprocal autobiographical and affective readerly involvements. Incorporating contemporary research from cognitive science and cognitive literary studies into my critical literary analysis, I conduct a broad--‐ ranging transdisciplinary examination of the affective textual and cognitive mechanisms of these authors’ much--‐lauded life--‐writing texts—specifically chosen for their widely acknowledged capacity to engage readers emotionally. This study identifies potentially potent interactions among memory, emotion and empathy—three components that are crucial to the production of affective intersubjective autobiographical exchanges—focusing particularly on the mediating role of imagery in that dynamic. My goal is to develop our understanding of the effective and affective textual construction and cognitive reception of these autobiographical texts. 


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Portraying and perceiving multisensory ‘movies-in-the-brain’ Hilary Mantel’s memories of childhood -- Chapter 2 The ‘myriad shimmering associations’ of Mantel’s early memories -- Chapter 3 Remembering the imaginary literary landscapes of Janet Frame’s childhood -- Chapter 4 ‘feeling that moved alive beneath the surface’ the emotional dimensions of Frame’s early memories: the literary imaginary and family life -- Chapter 5 Helen Garner’s mid-life memories: collaborating with the autobiographical— past, present, prospective -- Chapter 6 Garner’s mature age remembering the affective power of collaborative portrayals -- Chapter 7 The rhetorical rhythms of remembering: penetrating the polish of Joan Didion’s prose -- Chapter 8 Contrary motion: rhythms of reminiscence, sideswiping emotions the asymmetric undercurrents of Didion’s polished prose – Conclusion -- Works cited

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Department of Media and Communications, Creative Arts, Languages and Literature

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Antonina Harbus

Additional Supervisor 1

Marcelle Freiman


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