Theory Teacher's Blog

mo’ po-mo re-visions (for summer reading)

In our class, we just finished reading Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World, which one could classify (if one were prone to classifying) as a postmodern and postcolonial revision of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter — a revision that, in my view, beautifully expands the scope of Hawthorne’s investigation of the paradoxes of language, culture, and social institutions by having a Hester-like figure leave New England for India and eventually fall in love with a Hindu raja.

Mukherjee is certainly not the first to re-write The Scarlet Letter and definitely not the first to re-write a classic, and so in this blog, I want to give you some ideas for your summer reading. For instance, John Updike re-wrote Hawthorne’s classic three times: Roger’s Version, A Month of Sundays, and S. In addition, there is I, Tituba by Maryse Conde and The Scarlet Letter Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks. And those are just the best of the bunch, as there is quite a bunch of scarlet literature, including a recent Korean film noir called The Scarlet Letter. And revising old work is nothing new, as we know that West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet which in turn is Pyarmus and Thisbe.

We can raise a bunch of questions about revisions. What makes a revision a postmodern revision rather than just a borrowing or immitation. I don’t think we’d call West Side Story postmodern, but we would call Tom Stoppard’s brilliant and hilarious revision of HamletRosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — postmodern.

And perhaps more to the point (because classification schemes quickly get boring), there are various ways to think about a revisions as you are reading it.

The old T.S. Eliot sort of way is to appeal to the literary tradition and to universal archetypes. This idea is what, perhaps, inspired James Joyce to write Ulysses which uses the Odyssey myth to structure one day in the life of an ordinary man. And perhaps also it inspired Ernesto Quinonez’s  Bodega Dreams, which thinks about the myth of the American Dream as it rewrites Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby in Spanish Harlem. Likewise, Emile Habiby’s brilliantly satirical The Secret Life of Saeed rewrites Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in modern-day Israel/Palestine.

However, what I’m sure you all noticed with Mukherjee’s novel is that these novels don’t just appeal to universal archetypes, immitate the older classic, and borrow the plot. They do something else as well. What’s important about their revision is precisely the revision — the difference. So often the revision will, like Rosencrantz and Guildsenstern are Dead, tell the story from a different point of view — the point of view of minor characters. And Jean Rhyss’s postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea invents a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s famous Jane Eyre that investigates the issues of race and colonialism that are marginalized in Bronte’s novel. In this way, the new work actually critiques the old work by offering a point of view that was repressed or even displaced in the old work.

And some novels not only foreground a point of view that was previously in the background. They also deconstruct the so-called archetype. Nobel prize winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee deconstructs Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in his novel Foe by ironically showing the way in which stories get written and published. This novel would be a wonderful follow-up to this theory course and to the postcolonial literature course that you took. And another nobel prize winner Toni Morrison deconstructs the Dick and Jane children’s books in her novel The Bluest Eye. . . . I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Happy reading!!!

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May 8, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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