The Power of Silence

Exploration of Muteness in Jerzy Kosinski's «The Painted Bird» and Ken Kesey's «One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest»

by Hasine Şen (Author)
©2018 Monographs 112 Pages


This book discusses silence as a state born either by trauma-inflicted muteness or deliberate abstinence from speech focusing on the mute(d) characters, the nonverbal forms of communication and textual ellipses in Jerzy Kosinski’s «The Painted Bird» and Ken Kesey’s «One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest». Using a methodological approach based on the close reading of the novels, the work proposes that Kosinski and Kesey disrupt the conventional equation of power with speech and present silence as a valiant mode of resistance too. It also explores how the trope of muteness functions as an implicit strategy for the investigation of language itself, its power to create meaning, to control and eventually— silence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Silence as Theoretical Polyglossia
  • Silence as an Elegy to the Death of Language
  • Silence as the Voice of the Crying Wound
  • Silence as the Voice of the Other
  • Silence as Disfluent Speech
  • The Silence of the Text
  • Silence as a Symptom of the Différend and the Language of Homo Sacer
  • Chapter 2. From the Silence of the Victim to the Speech of the Victimizer: Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird
  • Physical and Linguistic Otherness as Silencing Forces
  • The Silence of the Peasants
  • The Boy as the Speechless Animal
  • The Traumatic Origin of the Boy’s Loss of Speech
  • The Mute Witness: Images of Watching/Seeing and Witnessing
  • Baptism into Silence: The Fall into the Manure Pit
  • The Power of Words: From a “Humble Bug” to an “Unapproachable Bull”
  • The Explosion of Muted Power: The Orphanage Experience and the Boy’s Reunion with His Family
  • The Regained Voice: A Symptom of Revenge or a Sign of Individualism?
  • The Muteness of the Text
  • Chapter 3. Speech, Sound and Silence in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Mute Chief Bromden vs. Loud McMurphy: Whose Is the Story?
  • Muteness as Caginess: Chief Bromden as Narrative Panopticon
  • The Archeology of Chief Bromden’s Muteness
  • A Child Should Be Seen, Not Heard: McMurphy’s Muteness
  • Coming Out of the Fog of Silence: The Chewing Gum Scene
  • The Semantic Potential of Laughter
  • The Noise a Name Makes
  • The Sounds of the Ward and Its Surveillance Speech
  • The Combine as a Muting Machine: The Generation of Muteness, Stuttering, and Other Forms of Disfluency
  • Big Nurse as the Silenced “Big Victim”
  • Textual Muteness: Silenced Homoeroticism
  • The Execution Scene: From a Mute Victim to an Articulate Executioner
  • Silence: The Grace of the Stuttering Text
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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The Apostle tells us that in the beginning was the Word.
He gives us no assurance as to the end.
—George Steiner, After Babel (1975)
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus (1921)

What is silence? Is it the opposite of speech, an inalienable part of speech or a language of its own? Is it a sign of subjugation or a symptom of dormant power? If we assume that silence does not merely indicate absence of verbal activity, what is the scope of its potential to signify, to resist and subvert the hegemonic order of discourse? These are some of the questions that triggered my interest in silence and guided me in the exploration of its representation in literature, a field that has indisputably proved its potential to offer enlightening answers while provoking others.

Observed from a mythical-religious perspective, silence is the unfathomable void from which God’s divine Word springs to establish the foundational principle of the Western worldview: in the beginning was the Word. In both the Judeo-Christian tradition and other faith systems, silence is viewed as the necessary condition for transcendent spiritual growth that serves as a protective shield against blasphemous words and helps the believers to still their “inner noise” and render them “ ‘open’ to communication with God” (Szuchewycz, 242). Thus, a retreat into a mountain cave or a monastic cell is not merely a withdrawal from worldly temptations; in essence, it is a withdrawal from speech, as George Steiner marks, since “the Zen koan—we know the sound of two hands clapping, what is the sound of one?—is a beginner’s exercise in the retreat from the word” (1975: 12).

Spiritual practice is perhaps the only sphere where silence has managed to maintain its authority over the sovereignty of the spoken Word. Since the relationship between speech and silence has been structured in Western culture as an extension of its underlying binary logic, speech has been valorized as a marker of authority and source of subjectivity, while silence has been identified with subjugation and nonsubjectivity. The roots of Western oppositional thinking can be traced back to ancient Greece where the art of parrhesia (literally “all speaking”) is viewed as a major rhetorical skill and one of the “prerequisites for philosophy” (Bourgaut, 72). It is not surprising that in a world where oratory is considered to be a main asset, silence is feared and scorned. As Silvia Montiglio ← 9 | 10 → observes in Silence in the Land of Logos (2000), reticence in ancient Athens is linked to servility, scheming, phony citizenship, feminine intrigues, therefore “the ideal citizen of Athens boasted to excel at deeds and at words, but not at silence. Not even as a listener” (291). A similar disparaging attitude is shared by Homer’s heroes too: “Within the context of [his] vocal and verbal dynamics, silence marks a form of block; it’s an anti-heroic behavior, one that befits the anonymous, voiceless multitude” (Montiglio, 6).

If silence is approved at any rate by this logocentric regime, it is acknowledged for its ability to enhance speech, just in the way reticence is promoted as a female asset to underline the authority of male patriarchy. Hence the biblical dictum “A silent and loving woman is a gift of the Lord” (Ecclesiasticus, 26:14) has ramified into numberless saws that present silence as an inalienable aspect of the ideal woman.The proverb “A maiden should be seen, but not heard” which linked the “sexual chastity of unmarried women with their verbal chastity” in Medieval England (Bardley, 126) resounds in a slightly modified form in the contemporary barrios of the United States to express the same fear: “Well bred girls don’t answer back” (Anzaldua, 76). Hence, numberless female characters are condemned, like Shakespeare’s Cordelia, to “love and be silent” (1994:1.1.60), while Hamlet is destined to question, explore, and depart the stage with the enigmatic “the rest is silence” (1974: 5.2.344).

Yet, popular wisdom has born a more common dictum that dissipates the foundational stone of logocentrism: “Speech is silver, silence is gold.” The art of pantomime has likewise demonstrated that “theatricalized silence” can “function as a political tool” and escape the mechanism of censorship because of its nonverbal nature (Law, 158). The epoch of silent films proved that the absence of words is not an impediment for the communication of complex ideas too. The ritualized “minutes of silence” we know from official ceremonies of commemoration also show that silence can be systematized, just like language, into a distinct structure of rules. What are the methods to translate silence into a system of signification in literary practice? What are the vehicles for turning speechlessness into a language or a counter-language? How are these strategies used to question the general problem of the fragility of signification?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (August)
Speech pathology Disability Trauma Homo sacer Différend Textual ellipses
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 111 pp.

Biographical notes

Hasine Şen (Author)


Title: The Power of Silence
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114 pages