English and Modern Languages


Master of Arts (MA)


Karen S Prior

Primary Subject Area

Literature, General; Philosophy; Psychology, Social


Autonomy, Community, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Søren Kierkegaard, Walker Percy


Several critics have suggested that modernity's most fundamental theme is autonomy. Yet, few critics have considered Søren Kierkegaard's thought in relation to autonomous notions of freedom, and even fewer literary critics have considered Kierkegaard's vast influence - particularly on twentieth-century American authors - through this thematic lens. Michelle Kosch has argued that Kierkegaard's notion of despair essentially involves the self's misunderstanding of the nature of his freedom, while Samuel Loncar has argued that Kierkegaard's thought in this regard can be traced back through the German Enlightenment to Immanuel Kant's notion of autonomy. Yet, while Kierkegaard offers a fine critique of autonomous notions of freedom in favor of the self's necessity of God's revelation, he ultimately fails to affirm the implications of his own thought for community life. My argument is that the dialectic of freedom and alienation is compellingly relevant for three Kierkegaard-influenced, mid-twentieth century novels which are concerned with a peculiarly American form of individualism. Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and John Updike's Rabbit, Run are not only Kierkegaardian in the sense that they depict increasingly alienated protagonists pursuing excessive personal freedoms, they are also Kierkegaardian in that they ultimately lack significant depictions of communal reconciliation between self and other. For the three protagonists - Hazel Motes, Jack "Binx" Bolling, and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom - autonomous notions of freedom degenerate into onanistic forms of identity whereby they manipulate others toward the end of their own fulfillment, producing the waste of both an incoherent, dissatisfying identity, and the inhumane diminishment of others. Instead, this thesis argues that the self must be situated within a sense of communal narrative - one which is particularly capable of producing fruitful, unifying, and generative intercourse between self and other, and calls into question those among us whose "freedom" or "rights" would severely undermine it.