Chelsea Tarwater ‘14

Hometown: Sevierville, Tenn.
Major: English literature for teacher licensure
Senior Study Title: When They Touched Me I Died: A Modern, Queer Revisiting of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson
Advisor: Dr. Will Phillips


Thesis Abstract

Chelsea Tarwater has been “obsessed” with the character of Quentin Compson from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury since she was a freshman in high school.

When it came time to write her Senior Study, the English literature for teacher licensure major had already identified her topic.

“I’ve had his voice and his story stuck in my head since high school, so writing about him for my Senior Study was very important to me,” Tarwater said.

She decided to focus directly on Compson, primarily through the lens of queer theory, a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s from LGBT studies and feminist studies.

“A queer reading of Quentin Compson isn’t a new concept, but it’s a fairly radical method of exploring the character,” Tarwater said.

According to Tarwater, the act of “queering” is radical in that the theory removes authority not only from the author, but from the society that surrounds both the author and the reader.

“‘Queering’ can loosely be defined as the act of pulling out the possibility of a queer identity from an otherwise heteronormative piece of work in an overarching heteronormative canon,” Tarwater said.

In her Senior Study, Tarwater covered essential elements of plot, characters and setting, a queer reading of Quentin’s narrative and the process of modernizing all of these factors. The project culminated with a creative chapter, which is a short story version of Compson set in 1990 that further explores a queer reading of his character and his world.

Through research and writing, Tarwater said she discovered that Faulkner’s characters are capable of standing up to the test of time.

“I changed their setting and their context entirely, and there was basically nothing I could do to alter the character that wasn’t inauthentic – or, at least, inauthentic to my experience of them,” Tarwater said. “I could still write them with all the same characteristics and they make sense, and I think that says a lot about the integrity of Faulkner’s work.”

Tarwater said that she was also able to engage in the history of queer men in the South during the research process.

“It was absolutely fascinating because it’s not a history that you ever get to learn about,” Tarwater said. “People have had to piece it together and fill in blanks that were either deliberately censored or deliberately hidden. Reimagining my own conception of history with more of those blanks filled in was a really great process.”

Her Senior Study advisor, Associate Professor of English Dr. Will Phillips, said that while he wrote his master’s thesis on Faulkner and has read widely about both the author and gender, he had not previously examined closely the interpretations of Compson as queer.

“Through Chelsea’s research, she presented a compelling reinterpretation of some books with which I was familiar, giving me new ways of seeing them,” Phillips said. “I really enjoyed it.”

According to Tarwater, although her finished thesis was over 100 pages long, it could have been much longer because of the amount of material she discovered. She said that her first semester of writing was overwhelming in terms of the amount of research she found, particularly regarding Faulkner. Phillips was essential to helping her remain focused, she said.

“Dr. Phillips was indispensable when it came to guiding my questions and reigning in the chaos. I would come to the meetings looking dead-eyed and having missed a deadline, and he could get me right back on track,” Tarwater said. “I definitely couldn’t have completed it without his help, and I’m not sure there was another faculty member who could have pushed me to do as much as I did, like adding on an additional chapter than planned.”

Phillips said that Tarwater’s thesis was close to what he sees as an ideal version of a creative thesis.

“Chelsea was motivated by a long-time interest, which led to a thorough research effort that in turn enriched the reactive process, leading to a creative piece that was complex in its conception and excellent in its execution,” Phillips said. “This project seemed, for Chelsea, to be a long-time ambition and a labor of love. She was already an accomplished writer, but some of the planning and structure that goes into writing a stream-of-consciousness style forced her to stretch her creative abilities, in addition to the challenges of writing her story, but with another’s characters and world.”

Tarwater said her main goal after graduation is to pursue secondary education as an English teacher, but she is also planning to build a creative writing portfolio to apply to MFA programs in a few years.

“I've never been very sure-footed when it comes to my writing abilities, but finishing this project went a long ways towards steadying me, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity and the guidance I've received,” Tarwater said. “Although the content of my thesis itself won’t have a huge impact if I’m teaching at a high school level, the ways it helped me focus in on a subject I was passionate about and use that passion to create a large-scale project is definitely a skill I want to pass on to my students.”

Along with earning exemplary Senior Study, Tarwater received the Edwin R. Hunter Award for Excellence in Research in English or American Literature, which goes annually to the senior judged to have produced the most outstanding Senior Study in English or American Literature.

Tarwater is the daughter of Michael and Pamela Tarwater of Sevierville, Tenn. Her brother, Jordan Tarwater ’13, is an MC alumnus. She graduated from Sevier County High School in 2010.

Story by Mary Moates '14, Communications Assistant