Exorcising Personal Traumas / Silencing History: Jennifer Johnston's The Invisible Worm

  • Constanza del Río Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana. Universidad de Zaragoza


Jennifer Johnston’s novel The Invisible Worm (1991) is an exemplary trauma narrative, both stylistically and thematically. It centres on the consciousness of its protagonist—Laura—and narrates her painful and protracted psychological process of coming to terms with a past marked by repeated sexual abuse by her father, which culminates in rape, and her mother’s consequent suicide. Yet The Invisible Worm is also a contemporary example of the Irish Big House novel, a genre that articulates the identitarian, historical and social plights of the Anglo-Irish. My intention in this article is to consider how the narrative’s evident interest in the personal dimension of Laura’s traumas works to obviate the socio-historical and political elements that have also contributed to the protagonist’s predicament. I will also analyse the different treatment afforded to the individual and the collective past: while the novel is explicit and optimistic in the case of Laura’s personal story, it remains reluctant to speak out about historical evils, with the result that, at the end of the novel, although freed from her personal traumas, Laura remains the prisoner of her historical legacy.Keywords: Trauma Studies; Irish history; the Irish Big House novel; Jennifer Johnston; The Invisible Worm

Author Biography

Constanza del Río, Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana. Universidad de Zaragoza
Constanza del Río is Senior Lecturer at the Department of English and German Philology of the University of Zaragoza, Spain. Her research centres on narrative theory, narrative genres and contemporary Irish fiction. She has published numerous articles on these subjects and on writers such as Flann O’Brien, Seamus Deane, Eoin McNamee, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, Kate O’Riordan, Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, William Trevor and Jennifer Johnston. She is co-editor of the volume Memory, Imagination and Desire in Contemporary Anglo-American Literature and Film (Heidelberg, 2004) and of Traumatic Memory and the Ethical, Political and Transhistorical Functions of Literature (London, 2017).


American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. DSM-5. 5th edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Backus, Margot G. 1999. The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order. Durham and London: Duke UP.

Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham and London: Duke UP.

del Río, Constanza. 2010. “Trauma Studies and the Contemporary Irish Novel.” In the Wake of the Tiger: Irish Studies in the Twenty-First Century, edited by David Clark and Rubén Jarazo Álvarez, 3-15. A Coruña: Netbiblo.

Edkins, Jenny. 2001. “Trauma, Memory and Sovereign Power.” Unpublished paper presented at the 42nd Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Chicago, Illinois, 20-24 February.

Erikson, Kai. 1995. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, 183-199. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Garratt, Robert F. 2011. Trauma and History in the Irish Novel: The Return of the Dead. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

González, Rosa. 1994. “The Burden of the Past in Jennifer Johnston’s Novels. Thematic and Stylistic Variations.” In Estudios de Literatura Inglesa del Siglo XX (2), edited by Pilar Abad, José M. Barrio and José M. Ruiz, 117-122. Valladolid: Instituto de Ciencias de la Educación, Universidad de Valladolid.

—. 1998. “Interview with Jennifer Johnston.” In Ireland in Writing: Interviews with Writers and Academics, edited by Jacqueline Hurtley, Rosa González, Inés Praga and Esther Aliaga, 7-19. Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA: Rodopi.

Granofsky, Ronald. 1995. The Trauma Novel: Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disaster. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Herman, Judith Lewis. 1992. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. London: Pandora.

Horvitz, Deborah M. 2000. Literary Trauma: Sadism, Memory, and Sexual Violence in American Women’s Fiction. Albany: State U of New York P.

Ingman, Heather. 2007. Twentieth-Century Fiction by Irish Women: Nation and Gender. Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Janet, Pierre. 1901. The Mental State of Hystericals: A Study of Mental Stigmata and Mental Accidents. Translated by Caroline Rollin Corson. New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Johnston, Jennifer. 1991. The Invisible Worm. London: Review.

Kamm, Jürgen. 1990. “Jennifer Johnston.” In Contemporary Irish Novelists, edited by Rüdiger Imhof, 125-141. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen.

Kreilkamp, Vera. 1998. The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House. Syracuse: Syracuse UP.

LaCapra, Dominick. 2001. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Laub, Dori. 1995. “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle.” In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, 61-75. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Leys, Ruth. 2000. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P.

Lynch, Rachael S. 2000. “Public Spaces, Private Lives: Irish Identity and Female Selfhood in the Novels of Jennifer Johnston.” In Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identities, edited by Kathryn Kirpatrick, 250-268. Dublin: Wolfhound.

Macherey, Pierre. (1966) 2006. A Theory of Literary Production. Translated by Geoffrey Wall. Reprint. London and New York: Routledge.

Mahony, Christine Hunt. 1998. Contemporary Irish Literature: Transforming Tradition. London: Macmillan.

Marsh, Robin. 2006. “Ivy over Imperial Ireland: The Irish Big House Novel since 1960.” In Irish Fiction since the 1960s. A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elmer Kennedy Andrews, 51-70. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe.

Moloney, Caitriona. 2003. “Jennifer Johnston.” In Irish Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Caitriona Moloney and Helen Thompson, 65-74. Syracuse: Syracuse UP.

Mortimer, Mark. 1991. “Jennifer Johnston and the Big House.” In The Big House in Ireland: Reality and Representation, edited by Jacqueline Genet, 209-214. Dingle, Co. Kerry and Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble.

Segal, Hanna. 1957. “Notes on Symbol Formation.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 38: 391-397.

St. Peter, Christine. 2000a. Changing Ireland: Strategies in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

—. 2000b. “Petrifying Time: Incest Narratives from Contemporary Ireland.” In Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories, edited by Liam Harte and Michael Parker, 125-144. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Vickroy, Laurie. 2002. Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville and London: The U of Virginia P.

Whitehead, Anne. 2004. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

York, Richard. 2006. “Jennifer Johnston: Tremors of Memory.” In Irish Fiction since the 1960s, edited by Elmer Kennedy Andrews, 263-276. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe.