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  • An Eloquent SilenceSilent Women in Three Novels by Patrick Modiano
  • France Grenaudier-Klijn (bio)

Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings.

—Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Trauma and Silence

Well-accepted arguments and convincing rationales have established the benefits of "speaking out" in the context of trauma therapy. While it would be misleading to infer that silence is systematically portrayed negatively within the psychoanalytical sphere,1 it remains nonetheless true that, as Carol A. Kidron neatly summarizes, "well-being is thought to be contingent on the liberation of voice."2 Indeed, in the eyes of most psychoanalysts, secrecy, silence, and muteness are seen negatively. Thus, a majority would be inclined to denounce the "insidious effects" of silence, deemed susceptible to "intensif[y] the impact of trauma."3 Within such frame of reference, silence is first and foremost pathological. Conversely, talking and testimony are highly regarded; patients are encouraged to "break the silence" while traumatized communities are invited to "go beyond silence."

While more readily accepted within the sphere of post-Shoah writing,4 the symptomatology of silence is nonetheless frequently denounced here too. In the aftermath of a traumatic past, silence and secrecy may be viewed suspiciously as dangerous "weapons" playing in the hands of perpetrators. In such a reading, the repression of the past would be seen [End Page 23] as conducive of denial and deemed susceptible to lead to a repetition of the trauma-inducing event/s. Indeed, as Jill Petersen Adams reminds us, novelists of the Holocaust, such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, but also Charlotte Delbo, have turned down the idea that the Shoah is "incommunicable," seeing such a notion as "ethically and politically dangerous."5 If Levi argues against the ambiguity, and laziness, of silence, Wiesel denounces the link between silence and forgetfulness,6 and Delbo forcibly asserts that "nothing must escape language."7 That said, it is important to bear in mind that most Holocaust narratives and essays are articulated around what Sara R. Horowitz deems an "essential contradiction": "an impossibility to express the experience, coupled with a psychological and moral obligation to do so."8 The ethical responsibility incumbent upon Holocaust authors and scholars can therefore not be swept aside, nor overlooked the complications brought about by the articulation of silence, language, and verbalization. Lastly, the language used to describe and qualify the rhetoric of silence within the field of contemporary, postmodern Western literature again tends to emphasize its negative traits. As Janis P. Stout observes, silence is "more likely . . . to evoke a set of connotations having to do with death, emptiness, alienation, and perhaps unutterable revulsion, unspeakableness."9 Naturally, not all writers and literary commentators share this view. Some practitioners have defended the "virtues" of the unsaid (le non-dit) and drawn attention to the rhetorical power of silence. In their reading, silence is no longer understood exclusively in an antithetical relationship to voice, nor perceived solely as a sign of failure or refusal. Nonetheless, just as silence and trauma do not make easy bedfellows, the inscribing of silence in the fictional world of a novel requires prudent and mindful handling if one is to avoid falling in an abyss of ambiguity. Nowhere is it more evident than when a male novelist chooses to make his female protagonists silent, as is the case of the figures we will shortly turn to.

Silence has to do with power. It has the power to repress and deny, to resist and defy. It can be a prison, whose shackles one should attempt to break, as much as a protective shroud, in whose embrace one can find refuge. Ultimately, when considered in relation to trauma, femininity, memory, and writing, silence challenges facile binary constructions and [End Page 24] demands to be deciphered as symptomatic of a complex and sophisticated authorial intention.

Silence, Trauma, and Female Characters

In a short article focused on the silence of Ada, the heroine of Jane Campion's The Piano, Mary M. Dalton and Kirsten James Fatzinger sum-marize the triangular relationship between voice, silence, and female emancipation as follows: "For late twentieth-century writers, scholars, and activists, voice achieved through breaking silence has been a prevailing empowerment metaphor for...


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