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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 18:42 EDT

What Is A Human Being In The Late 20th Century?

June 14, 2010

The view that human beings are individuals and not mere components of a social context gained ground in the late 1980s and the 1990s. A doctoral thesis in Comparative Literature from the University of Gothenburg shows that this change is made evident in how novelists have portrayed their characters and depicted issues of identity.

Kristina Hermansson’s thesis A Separate Room explores five Scandinavian novels from the 1990s authored by Ninni Holmqvist, Hanne Ørstavik, Jon Fosse, Magnus Dahlström and Kirsten Hammann. The title of the thesis alludes to Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own from 1929. In this modern classic, the author raises the question of the right to a personal space, a right she means should apply to all human beings and not only to a limited male elite. In the more recent literature studied by Hermansson, this view of the individual is taken as a given; instead they tend to problematise the process of individualisation and its effects.

Hermansson has studied how the novelists depict their subjects’ self-perceptions and ability to be part of social relations. The study analyses both how the authors portray their different characters and how they express different views of identity in the studied books.

‘An ambivalent subject emerges, one who is stuck between two conflicting sets of expectations. At the same time as she feels pressured to display a fairly stable identity, she feels she needs to be capable of turning herself into a unique individual over and over again since norms keep changing’, says Hermansson.

The thesis is rooted in identity theory from the late 20th century. The conclusion is that two pools can be identified in the contemporary discussion. One describes human beings as individuals with a solid core; the other focuses on how subjects are portrayed and established in a social context.

‘The studied texts reveal the weaknesses inherent in both pools’, says Hermansson. ‘There is also an air of both old-fashioned romantic clich©s and contemporary popular psychology. All in all, my thesis shows that human beings are depicted in partly new ways. Subjects in the novels are all locked into the individualistic perceptions of individuals being strong and autonomous, at the same time as they portrayed as highly insecure and unable to maintain meaningful social relations. Similar to the novels they are part of, the subjects do not adhere to a traditional line of development.’

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