Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Michael Trask


Mind Against Matter uses cognitive literary theory to explore a set of contemporary texts that emphasize characters’ feelings of alienation and isolation from their social and material worlds. Focusing on novels by Nicholson Baker and David Markson, short stories by David Foster Wallace, and the film The Truman Show, I consider how these texts focus on characters’ individual, subjective experiences while deemphasizing their physical environments and social contexts. I argue that by privileging subjectivity in this way, these texts portray their characters as independent, to varying degrees, from their material and cultural surroundings. The texts isolate individual consciousness, causing their characters to live in mental worlds of their own making. While the novel, as a genre, often depicts alienation as a condition deriving from a character’s status as a social outcast, the texts featured in this study treat it as a condition inherent to consciousness, derived from what their creators envision as an inevitable separation of mind from world. Rather than bemoan alienation as a loss of social connectedness, these texts portray it as inherent to mental life.

The chapters of this dissertation explore the particular visions of alienation that emerge in each of these texts. In a chapter on Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, I argue that Howie, the novel’s protagonist, views his mind as a machine that operates according to self-sufficient, automatic processes. My analysis of David Markson’s final novels demonstrates that Markson portrays artistic creation as a process through which individual consciousness is isolated from society. David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion treats alienation as a general human condition, as Wallace’s interests in loneliness and solipsism derive, I argue, from his assumptions about the individualized nature of consciousness. Finally, in a chapter on The Truman Show, I argue that the film’s sense of paranoia stems from its protagonist’s sense of being alone in his worldview. I thus present a corpus of works that maintain a close, limited focus on singular fictional minds, shutting out social and physical environments in order to depict the mind as a cloistered, self-enclosed entity. My analysis highlights the ways in which the philosophical underpinnings of these narratives render consciousness as an isolating force, stranding fictional characters on mental islands of their own making.

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