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Dead Women Talking

Figures of Injustice in American Literature

Brian Norman

Publication Year: 2012

Brian Norman uncovers a curious phenomenon in American literature: dead women who nonetheless talk. These characters appear in works by such classic American writers as Poe, Dickinson, and Faulkner, as well as in more recent works by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Tony Kushner, and others. These figures are also emerging in contemporary culture, from the film and best-selling novel The Lovely Bones to the hit television drama Desperate Housewives. Dead Women Talking demonstrates that the dead, especially women, have been speaking out in American literature since well before it was fashionable. Norman argues that they voice concerns that a community may wish to consign to the past, raising questions about gender, violence, sexuality, class, racial injustice, and national identity. When these women insert themselves into the story, they do not enter precisely as ghosts but rather as something potentially more disrupting: posthumous citizens. The community must ask itself whether it can or should recognize such a character as one of its own. The prospect of posthumous citizenship bears important implications for debates over the legal rights of the dead, social histories of burial customs and famous cadavers, and the political theory of citizenship and social death.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

I loved writing this book. To be sure, the labor was difficult and occasionally drudging. Still, the conversations it allowed—among colleagues and students, as well as with the texts themselves—reminded me what it means to devote one’s life to literature and to the kinds of questions it allows us to ask of ourselves...

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Introduction: Recognizing the Dead

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pp. 1-21

As a general rule, dead women are rather quiet. The same goes for dead men. But in American literature, the dead talk more often than we might expect—especially women. They appear in works by such classic American writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and William...

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1. Dead Woman Wailing: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

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pp. 22-35

When we look in the darkened corridors of American literature, we find dead women talking. They emerge from the cellars, catacombs, garrets, and forgotten wings of what Wahneema Lubiano calls the house that race built. When they thrust themselves into well-lit parlors, they evoke matters...

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2. Dead Woman Dictating: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

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pp. 36-50

The Fall of the House of Usher” tells the story of crumbling aristocracy and its uncanny posthumous return. Thus, Poe helps us consider whether class status can travel across oceans, nations, and generations. A corollary question is, must it? In fiction, the dead don’t necessarily mind their stations...

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3. Dead Woman Rotting: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

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pp. 51-66

Beloved stands as the most iconic dead woman talking in American literature, with Madeline Usher and James’s dead servants as her key progenitors. Her most fully realized predecessor, though, is Addie Bundren, the mother in William Faulkner’s 1930 modernist masterpiece As I Lay Dying. The...

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4. Dead Woman Cursing: Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens

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pp. 67-76

If Addie’s dying wish is independence from the living, we do right by turning away. But more often the absence of women from living memory and daily life is a social justice issue. The literary tradition of dead women talking, then, holds the power to correct such injustices through a concrete means by...

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5. Dead Woman Wanting: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

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pp. 77-91

When dead women talk in American literature, they are often met as invaders, prompting fatal encounters with a buried and perhaps unwelcome or ugly past, as we see at Usher and Bly. In other instances, the living may be the intruders upon the dead, as we see with Addie Bundren and perhaps...

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6. Dead Woman Heckling: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

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pp. 92-109

Of all the dead women talking in American literature, perhaps the most irresistible is Ethel Rosenberg. She appears at the end of Part One of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia set in New York City during the Reagan era. Ethel is her familiar self: the Jewish mother who, along with her...

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7. Dead Women Gossiping: Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

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pp. 110-125

In The Satanic Verses, a masterpiece of magical realism, Salman Rushdie famously asks, how does newness enter the world? The tradition of dead women talking prompts a follow-up question: what if that which is new mingles with the dead, the half-buried, the forgotten, and the reviled? The fantastic...

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8. Dead Women Healing: Ana Castillo’s So Far from God

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pp. 126-142

We have seen that when dead women return home in American literature, they allow—or sometimes force—a community to confront the presence of past injustices. But how, Chicana writer Ana Castillo asks, might such women advance the presence of justice, rather than merely mark its...

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9. Dead Woman Coming of Age: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones

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pp. 143-160

It is a dubious proposition to presume the wishes of the dead. When we take our cues from the dead themselves, their visions of justice may surprise us. For Addie Bundren, for instance, justice is being buried away from the husband and children that violated her aloneness. With Addie’s lesson in...

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10. Dead Woman Singing: Suzan-Lori Parks’s Getting Mother’s Body

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pp. 161-175

As The Lovely Bones demonstrates, by the twenty-first century the tradition of dead women talking is a familiar device, occasionally bordering on a gimmick. This may signal a new era in which such women become less uncanny and therefore less able to disrupt a community’s sense of itself or...

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11. When Dead Women Don’t Talk: Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman”

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pp. 176-184

Once we begin to account for all the dead women talking in American literature, we also notice when dead women don’t talk—even when we might wish them to. After all, anything is possible in the realm of literature, so it should be conspicuous when corpses simply remain silent. When dead...


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pp. 185-198


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pp. 199-215


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pp. 217-223

E-ISBN-13: 9781421407999
E-ISBN-10: 142140799X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421407524
Print-ISBN-10: 1421407523

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012