Document Type

Graduate Student Project

Publication Date

Spring 2020


Julia Kristeva’s seminal theories of the signifying process and the abject illuminate texts that challenge readers’ expectations. Kristeva’s psychoanalytic and linguistic ideas build analytic links between texts as seemingly disparate as Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando and William Shakespeare’s late 1590s play Titus Andronicus. In this portfolio, I will apply Kristeva’s distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic to elucidate the multiple meanings of nature in Woolf’s Orlando, as well as utilize Kristeva’s notion of the abject to analyze the narrative breakdown of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In doing so, I will trace the development of Kristeva’s ideas since their publication and situate them in a modern critical context.

Although Woolf and Shakespeare may seem to have little in common, these outwardly mismatched texts share an important element: they defy narrative convention. Orlando and Titus Andronicus both challenge readers’ expectations of how a narrative should be shaped. Orlando is labeled a biography but is really a novel based loosely on Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. The title character lives for three hundred years but is only age thirty by story’s end, and starts life as a man but wakes up one morning suddenly and without surprise as a woman. Titus Andronicus is famous for its seemingly gratuitous gore: rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and more murders than any other Shakespeare play. The action revolves around horrific violence and lingers uncomfortably on the wordplay surrounding it. The story leaps the boundaries of what should be shown on stage and how it should be discussed. Each of these texts, despite vast differences in authorship, time period, genre, and theme, refuses conventional narration, forcing the reader into active, curious participation. Kristeva’s psychoanalytic framework provides an entry point to explore these unexpected narrative structures.