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The Language of Self

Strategies of Subjectivity in the Novels of Don DeLillo

Phill Pass

The Language of Self explores the portrayal of subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s fiction. It proposes that his characters’ conception of self is determined by the tension between a desire for connection and a longing for isolation. The particular form taken by this language of self is shown to be both shaped by, and in turn formed through, an interaction with larger, social constructions of agency. In order to explore this phenomenon from both an individual and a social perspective, the author undertakes detailed close readings of DeLillo’s texts, informed by nuanced theoretical analysis which stresses the symbiotic interaction of social and individual context.
This method informs the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections. The first, entitled ‘Dasein’, conceptualises how DeLillo’s characters navigate between isolation and connection, shaping a particular enunciation of self which reflects the balance they strike between self and other. ‘Phenomenology’, the second section, explores how DeLillo’s treatment of language and image alters this balance and examines the sustainability of each enunciation of self. The final section, ‘Das Man’, addresses how the language of self shapes, and is shaped by, a wider social context.


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In Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld, Nick Shay narrates the experi- ence of looking out over a darkened New York City during the Northeast blackout of 9 November 1965. Nick’s narration forms the final note of the novel’s fifth section, ‘Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry’, one of a series of ‘selected fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s’.1 Of particular significance is the concluding paragraph of Nick’s vignette: I didn’t call Marian. I felt a loneliness, for lack of a better word, but that’s the word in fact, a thing I tried never to admit to and knew how to step outside of, but some- times even this was not means enough, and I didn’t call her because I would not give in, watching the night come down. (DeLillo, 1997, p. 637) While the above quotation will receive detailed analysis later in the mono- graph, for the moment I will focus on a series of questions which it suggests: why does Nick not wish to call Marian? Why would such a call be consid- ered giving in, and a giving in to what? What is so dangerous in the act of naming loneliness? How can Nick usually ‘step outside’ of such a feeling? What does it mean to be outside of what the Self feels and experiences? And what are the mechanisms by which this state is achieved and maintained? What underlies these dif fering questions is that they are concerned with the manner in which...

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