Situated at the intersection of postcolonialism and affect studies, this essay explores the significance of wonder in Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees (2013). In her novel, Yanagihara provides a detailed account of an anthropological expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu, where a “lost tribe” is rumored to be living. As is typical of such discovery narratives, the affective response of wonder initially dominates the discourse. Over time, however, this sense of wonder is transformed into the more durable feeling of curiosity, which in turn initiates a dialectical interplay of opposites—bringing together the familiar and the strange, the legible and the opaque, the boring and the fascinating. Although the narrator, Norton Perina, does everything he can to sustain this dialectic, the attenuated form of wonder that drives his curiosity eventually dissipates, giving rise to a debilitating sense of apathy and indifference. This is a process that occurs not once but three times within the narrative—under quite different circumstances in each case. In the first instance, the trajectory belongs to the category of the ethnographic; in the second, it acquires a broader postcolonial significance; and finally, in the novel's tragic conclusion, readers are exposed to its potential psychological consequences, as a displaced sense of “wonder” resurfaces in the pathological form of a pedophilic encounter.

You do not currently have access to this content.