Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Michael T. Williamson
Each of the primary texts I examine—The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth (1964), The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal (1969), The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. by George Steiner (1979), Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (1979), Europe Central by William T. Vollmann (2005), The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (2006), and Either/Or by Thomas Keneally (2007)—offers narrative depictions of Holocaust perpetrators that resist monolithic or absolutist presentations of evil. By deliberately frustrating our expectations and emphasizing the perpetrators’ ambiguity, these texts serve to defamiliarize Holocaust perpetrators, paradoxically, by refamiliarizing them—in other words, by foregrounding banal aspects of the perpetrators’ character and depicting them as more than one dimensional murderers. While efforts to “humanize” Holocaust perpetrators have traditionally been condemned as transgressive acts on the behalf of authors, I argue that such depictions may serve instead as a catalyst for an ethical revaluation on behalf of readers. Through their complex depictions of perpetrator subjectivity, these texts prompt in readers the discomfiting acknowledgement of the perpetrators’ position as a part of—rather than an aberrant divergence from—modern history. This acknowledgement, I suggest, is capable of eliciting a renewed ethical awareness of our collective past, present, and future.
In addition to negotiating critical treatments of each of the novels I’ve chosen, my analyses draw heavily upon the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt. The shift in Arendt’s characterization of Nazi crimes from “an appearance of radical evil” in 1951 to “the banality of evil” in 1963 provides an interpretive framework through which I examine these depictions of Holocaust perpetrators. Additionally, I argue that the outrage sparked by the 1963 appearance of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—the text for which, in large part due to this very outrage, Arendt is best remembered today—carried implications for the reception of Holocaust fiction, and more specifically its considerations of perpetrator subjectivity, whose reverberations continue to resound even now, more than half a century after its initial publication.
Wassel, Adam M., "More Than Murderers: Confronting Perpetrators in Holocaust Fiction" (2017). Theses and Dissertations (All). 1562.