A Little Less Talk: Feminist Listening in Twentieth-Century Southern Women's Novels
“A Little Less Talk: Feminist Listening in Twentieth-Century Southern Women’s Novels” examines listening characters in novels by Eudora Welty, Zora Neal Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers in order to examine how they reinforce, challenge, or disrupt what has been described by rhetorical scholars and social linguists as hegemonic discourse. In particular, this dissertation examines how listening characters negotiate the gendered dynamics of listening within the particular historical, cultural, and social contexts characterizing the Southern United States in the early twentieth-century. While listening characters have been considered minor, insignificant, or mere plot devices by past literary scholars, this project asserts that these characters make major contributions to discourse in the novel and to narrative more generally. The dissertation, which builds upon recent work in feminist rhetorics, is a necessary complement or corrective to the focus on women’s “voice” that emphasizes speaking characters and ignores listening ones. The project argues Southern women novelists foreground listeners, highlighting the ways female and male listeners behave, react, and respond to speakers and demonstrates the benefits or consequences of sharing information with another person.
This dissertation expands the work of Krista Ratcliffe to define feminist listening as active listening, which empowers both the speaker and listener through a process involving empathy, dialogic retention, and reciprocity. Employing this heuristic to evaluate listening skills in fiction, this dissertation examines a spectrum of listening types and categorizes listeners according to their behavior: silent, strange, hostile, deliverer. Furthermore, the project adds to scholarship on the rhetoric of gossip in fiction and its relationship to listening. This dissertation contributes to the study of American literature, Southern literature, rhetoric, and women and gender studies through the examination of the listening character and by putting rhetorical theory in conversation with literature, particularly twentieth-century Southern women’s novels. Overall, my dissertation concludes that these Southern female authors use listening within their works to interrogate its social dynamics and intersections with discourses of gender, race, class, religion, and disability in the Southern United States in the early twentieth-century.