PhD abstract, PhD viva

PhD Success

Congratulations to Shaymaa Abdou (Arabic, supervised by Professor Daniel Newman), who successfully defended her PhD thesis on Friday 13th November. The thesis is entitled ‘Narratives of Selfhood: A Study of the Arabic Biographical Novel, 1967-2010′.


Scholarship on the Arabic novel often approaches it in light of questions of national consciousness, identity formation and contact with the West. This study relates the traditional fictional narrative of individual self-development found in biographical subgenres of the novel such as the Bildungsroman, autobiographical and confessional novels with these scholarly enterprises. It explores how biographical forms, as found in the post-1967 Arabic novel, have reflected an individualistic worldview that began as a reaction to certain collectivist ideas inherited from a previous generations of writers and intellectuals. The individualism of biographical forms is shown to be a reaction to the literary conventions associated with the themes of national identity and the Western encounter.

The New Sensibility movement that evolved during the period that the study covers is analysed in relation to various Arabic texts from eight countries. Theories of intertextuality provide the interpretive tools to discuss the links between those novels and the changes in genres over time. Gérard Genette’s concept of hypertextuality is one of such tools used to analyse the relationship between the contemporary texts and their predecessors, and Bakhtin’s ideas on utterances and speech genres allow me to interpret the implied writers’ views on the values associated with the literary convention in which they are participating. I use three prototypical narratives to summarise the elements of the established literary conventions and the presuppositions of the writers and readers.

The study focuses on two recurrent themes in the contemporary biographical novel; political activism and immigration. It shows how these two topics were developed literary codes that contemporary writers gave new significations. In prototypical narratives, they were literary vehicles for imagining a unified community, and in the late twentieth century they transformed into narratives of self-discovery and individualistic emphasis on uniqueness and agency. By focusing on certain attributes of the biographical form, such as the spontaneous desire of the individual and the persistent motif of the double, I show how this particular subgenre of the novel was used to disturb the collectivist ideologies and stable speech genres that had become prevalent by the latter half of the twentieth century.


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