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I really struggled to craft a methodology for my literature research project. I remember going to Dr. Brown multiple times, telling him “I have no idea how I’m actually going to study all this stuff.” I even told him once that I wanted to completely change my research topic, because I couldn’t come up with an objective methodology that wasn’t just “I read this book… and here are my thoughts!”.
Literature research papers are written like essays; often times, researchers interpret works through a certain perspective, and write their research articles by drawing quotes from the source material, or from other scholarly works, to argue why their interpretation of a book is correct. Unlike science papers, there are no clear “introduction,” “methodology,” and “results” sections. I definitely took a few creative (read: replicability-reducing) leaps in order to produce a rigorous method that would score well on the AP Research rubric. Oh, the wonders of fitting one’s academic interests into the strict mold that is Collegeboard curricula!
My research project’s methodology is adapted from Jonathan Bassett’s research paper “Death and Magic and Clive Barker’s ‘Lord of Illusions’: A Terror Management Perspective.” In this paper, Bassett studies the 1995 horror and film noir movie Lord of Illusions through TMT concepts. The author explains how “the movie illustrates the powerful psychological aversion to reminders of death and corporeality” (Bassett 68). He makes observations about the plot and characters through terror management vocabulary such as “death anxiety” (Bassett 67). He also pulls quotes from interviews with the film producer Clive Barker, drawing conclusions about the producer’s intent. Bassett justified his use of TMT lens by explaining how a movie that heavily features death imagery should be interpreted through “a theoretical lens that gives death and equally prominent place in human psychology” (68). Ultimately, Bassett is able to derive a new meaning from the film: “What is to be avoided is allegiance to any worldview that attempts to negate death anxiety at the cost of infringing on personal freedom and the welfare of others” (77).
However, this is the only currently-existing research paper that connects TMT to fiction; no research has linked TMT, or the dual-process model, to literature. Similarly, Bassett’s research was limited because he did not provide a clear method for evaluating terror management concepts in fictional work. Thus, this research study aimed to fill in this research gap by not only applying TMT to literature, but also by generating a systematic TMT framework that could be used to connect further fictitious work to the dual-process model of TMT.
In my study, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will be evaluated against TMT. I selected Cormac McCarthy not only because of my personal connection to his novel The Road (see last week’s story about the sibling rivalry with my brother), but also because of McCarthy’s prominence as a modern American fiction writer. As the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he has been described as a “cult figure with a writer’s writer” (Woodward). When being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, authors James Joyce and William Faulkner commented on his “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences” (Woodward). Thus, McCarthy is a prominent modern American writer whose ideas are likely to guide the future of American literature.
Furthermore, because McCarthy is renowned for his “bleak, blood-drenched, nihilistic vision of human life,” The Road heavily features death (Romeo). Similar to how Jonathan Bassett justified the use of a TMT lens to study Lord of Illusions by explaining that “death is the most prominent visual element of the film,” the prevalence of death imagery and symbolism in McCarthy’s The Road indicated that there was a significant body of text that TMT could be applied to, in order to generate a new understanding of both TMT and McCarthy’s literature (Bassett 68).
I first re-read The Road to remind myself about the overarching characters, plot, and themes in the novel. (I also re-read that novel because it’s just that good. If there’s anything you take away from reading my blog, it’s to READ THIS BOOK!). Before collecting data on The Road, I generated a spreadsheet with the terminology from the dual-process model. As I read The Road, I copied quotes from the books into the data table. I sorted the quotes according to strict definitions I created myself, which were based from TMT terminology. Whenever I encountered a line in the book that fit into the definitions of “death anxiety provocation,” “proximal defenses,” or “distal defenses,” I copied the entire paragraph that this line came from, in order to understand the context surrounding the specific element of the dual-process model.
Fig 1. Data table used to collect quotes
|Death Anxiety Provocation||Proximal Defenses||Distal Defenses|
Fig 2. Definitions
|Death Anxiety Provocation||Text mentions thoughts, actions, or descriptive language that involves dead or deceased subjects, or the word “dead” or “death”|
|Proximal Defenses||Text mentions a character’s physical response to death anxiety|
|Distal Defenses||Text delves into a character’s thoughts or conscience in response to death anxiety|
Categorizing quotes from The Road according to strict definitions allowed me to understand the function of plot and character in McCarthy’s literature through the lens of TMT’s dual-process model.
Today’s quote, from page 74 (yup, we’re moving chronologically here folks): “He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”