Beth Hightower

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“For the Dead”: National Identity and the Ethics of Representation in Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes
Department:
English, Psychology
Term:
Spring 2017

This project explores the intersection of first-person Holocaust accounts and the modern French literary canon in Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel Les bienveillantes. Holocaust literature generally draws the narratives of victims into the discursive center, giving a voice to the heretofore voiceless. Littell, however, subverts this eyewitness frame by using it to tell the story of an SS officer who helps carry out the Holocaust, a perpetrator rather than a victim. Through its invocation of the banality of evil and its use of direct address, Les bienveillantes suggests that the reader is complicit in these crimes. My research on Les bienveillantes seeks to understand how Littell blurs the lines of responsibility and of the right to lay claim to narrative for and through his text. I will investigate Littell's self-conscious positioning of Les bienveillantes as a French text within a Holocaust testimonial framework in order to determine to what extent the novel’s ethical framework emerges from the morally relativistic strains particular to French literature, versus to what extent its style, perspective, and authorship show it to be a text of truly international origin.