University of Sussex
Barratt, Harriet Beatrix.pdf (2.63 MB)

Objects of illness: Winnicott, materiality, and the patient experience

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posted on 2023-06-09, 21:19 authored by Harriet Barratt
This thesis explores the role and representation of material objects in experiences of illness, recovery and disability. It argues that periods of ill health, broadly defined, can be transformational to unconscious processing, specifically via the testing and strengthening of individuals’ relationships with external, material objects and people, and with ‘internal objects’. It also positions the literary text as a form of ‘holding environment’ – a key Winnicottian concept. Across five chapters, I demonstrate that literature and experiences of the material environment may equally be used as a site of return to a grieved lost object; that illness and play share a role in processing traumatic external reality, complicating definitions of health and ill health; that textual and material objects may act as ‘containers’ of unintegrated emotions, a phenomenon that includes the tendency of literature to ‘contain’ and perpetuate problematic tropes of disability, even as it claims to offer a radical rejection of them; that an attention to narratives of lived, material experiences of illness and disability offers a way to restore an emphasis on the individual subject; and that illness can be represented as a restaging of early infantile anxiety-situations, shaking object relations. The scope of this research covers psychoanalytic, literary and auto/biographical writing from the twentieth and twenty-first century. Using in particular the work of psychoanalytic theorist Donald Winnicott, I look at literary and autobiographical writing by Virginia Woolf, Patrick Hamilton, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Melanie Klein, alongside anonymised patient oral histories and supporting material. The methodology combines close textual reading with critical contextualisation and an account of psychoanalytic object relations theory in the context of illness, disability and ill health. This thesis makes a contribution to literature, material culture, psychoanalysis and the medical humanities by making the case for a renewed emphasis on relationality, materiality and supportive ‘holding environments’ in interpretive work within the critical medical humanities and, more broadly, within healthcare delivery.


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University of Sussex

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