Date of Award

Fall 2022

Degree Type

Restricted to Claremont Colleges Dissertation

Degree Name

English, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jonathan Lethem

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Mark Eaton

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Wendy Martin

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2022 Philemon J Roh


Contemporary literary fiction, Belief, Secular age


While the “spiritual” nature of contemporary literary fiction is easier to identify in the works of the outright “religious” (e.g., Marilynne Robinson), there are others traditionally viewed by the critical establishment as “secular” (e.g., Jonathan Lethem) for whom the concern is a bit more subversive, a backdoor or, as John McClure puts it in his book, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007), a “crasser” spirituality, so to speak. But even between these two apparent, yet ultimately, false poles—the religious and the secular—there are others for whom the concern falls somewhere in the murky in-between, like Zadie Smith and the late David Foster Wallace. The point is this: in our “secular age,” and I use this term as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor does in his book A Secular Age (2007)—“a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”—it seems that writers have not turned their backs on the complex workings of, and more importantly, longings for the “spirit,” however defined. This dissertation argues that at the core of our lived, secular experience, there is a yearning for something more. Indeed, what constitutes that “something” is up for debate. What isn’t, at least for the writers I examine here, is that we all yearn, that there’s nothing esoteric about this chase for what Taylor calls, “fullness.” It’s universal. My claim then is that writing in and perhaps against this secular age betrays a kind of yearning to assuage this common dissatisfaction, a sadness, according to Zadie Smith, so deep “you can taste it in your morning Cheerios.”