Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


French Studies

Document Type



In her 1982 groundbreaking work on the epistolary form in novels, Janet Gurkin Altman gives a working definition of epistolarity which will be a guiding concept for this project; she defines it simply as: “the use of the letter’s formal properties to create meaning…” (Altman 4). Of course, to create meaning is a complicated endeavor. How does one create meaning from the letter’s formal properties? The contemporary authors who engage with epistolarity do so on several levels from the thematic to the structural. From novels that have several characters engaging in letter dialogues to one-sided exchanges that bear more resemblance to a diary than to a series of letters to a correspondent, the epistolary genre pushes the boundaries of public and private and creates questions about audience and intent that are not present in other forms. Within the last half century, the epistolary narrative has re-emerged in the works of marginalized authors from various linguistic and national backgrounds. Taking tropes from earlier epistolary texts, these contemporary authors create texts that maintain the intimate feel of earlier novels while also changing the genre to demonstrate their knowledge of trauma, exile, and psychoanalysis, an awareness that has permeated Western consciousness in the twentieth century. In the body of this project, I discuss epistolary novels by three very different authors: Gisèle Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia, Linda Lê’s Lettre morte, and Amélie Nothomb’s Une forme de vie. Despite being from different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, these authors share two common interests: the French language and the use of the epistolary form. Additionally, these authors have all had a traumatic experience of diaspora and/or exile that has shaped their development as writers. Using Freudian theories of ego, melancholia, and narcissism, I contend that the self-reflective nature of the epistolary narrative is particularly conducive to exploring the psychological difficulties that result from this traumatic exile. Specifically, in the texts that I examine, writing letters becomes a melancholic act in which the letter writer seeks to reconnect nostalgically with a past that never existed.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Jensen, Kate