Adaptation, Revision, Translation


The articles in this issue all started out as papers presented at an international conference entitled “Adaptation, Revision, Translation: From Life to Art, from the Page to Stage and Screen”, held at Lille Catholic University on 17th-18th June 2016 and organised in collaboration with Liverpool Hope University. The conference sought to place adaptations of all kinds in a theoretical context and to examine several, successful and unsuccessful, attempts to move from one medium to another. For this purpose, the word “adaptation” was understood in the broadest sense, making interdisciplinary and intercultural approaches possible.

Reflecting upon the new edition of her Theory of Adaptation published in 2013, Linda Hutcheon felt that the first version of her study only looked at adaptation “in terms of repetition with variation” (4). She now sees “new forms and platforms” (xix) and wonders “where to draw the line at what we call an adaptation?” (xxiv). In an endeavour to fuel the body of work already available on adaptation theory, this issue explores a variety of avenues. Some contributors have worked on textual manipulations: short stories being turned into novels or “original rewritings” of classic works of literature. History, real crime or personal recollections finding their way into fiction or film also have their place here, whether in literary classics, autobiographical works or glamorous historical bestsellers like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2001). As Linda Seger points out, “adaptation is a transition, a conversion, from one medium to another. All original material will put up a fight, as if it were saying ‘take me as I am’” (2). How novelists, screenwriters, translators and other adapters resist that temptation and engage in the necessary reconceptualising in order to create a storyline and a new work of art is an essential part of our subject.

Some contributors have chosen to reflect, in a more traditional way, on adaptations of particular works of fiction into film or stage plays and, in a less conventional way, on fiction that derives from film or the stage. Translations and adaptations of box office hits into another language and culture are also relevant here. We can thus see in what ways Kamilla Elliott’s comments in Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate may be taken further for, according to her, “if art draws from real life, then an art adapting another art is one step further away from real life as a representation of a representation” (162). However, as we shall see, this does not prevent the adaptation from being a realistic representation of life, sometimes more so than the source work.

The first section presented here, “From Page to Screen”, explores film adaptations of works of fiction, although the four works studied do more than merely adapt a text into a different medium. Erika Thomas’s analysis of Le Feu Follet (1963) also shows how suicide is the result of an inability to adapt in real life, while Gérald Préher’s study of Rich in Love (1993) highlights Bruce Beresford’s portrayal of the American South in the process of adapting to new social conditions. David Goldie uses Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy to show the role of adaptation in all mythopoetic works, whether written or filmed, thus demonstrating the unreasonable nature of much criticism of the films. Jonathan Fruoco examines Terry Gilliam’s metafilmic adaptation of Don Quixote, which is arguably not only an adaptation from page to screen but equally a way of transforming life into art, and vice versa. Finally, Alison Offe’s study of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, examines the double process of adapting the biography of real historical characters into a subjective novel, narrated in the first person, and then into a film with an inevitably different focus.

A second, smaller, section shows two forms of adaptation to and from the stage. Suzanne Bray shows how the author Dorothy L. Sayers adapted her own play, Busman’s Honeymoon, into a novel without changing the essential message or plot. On the other hand, Amélie Moisy uses Ketti Fring’s 1957 play “Look Homeward, Angel”, an adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s first novel of the same name, in order to reveal the flaws in the four main clichés on telling versus showing identified by Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation.

The third section “Adapting for a New Audience” reveals some of the difficulties in the adaptation process. Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero compares two more or less successful attempts to make the biblical story of King David relevant to a 20th century audience and Corinne Oster examines two wholly unsuccessful translations into English and intercultural adaptations of the French hit film Le Père Noël est une ordure, showing clearly why they failed. Louis Daniel Brodsky’s poetic evocation of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in his Mississippi Vistas, although fully comprehensible to those who know the original corpus, remains, as Ineke Jolink demonstrates, somewhat evanescent.

The final section, “From Life to Art”, shows that the source of an adaptation is not necessarily a text or work of art. A.S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”, studied by Peter Merchant, starts with the biography of a historical figure, who serves as a springboard to more contemporary concerns. On a more personal level, Emmeline Gros shows how Julian Green adapts his own and his mother’s memories of the American South in his fiction. The two final articles transform controversial elements of American history into works of art and literature. Clara Juncker presents the African American painter Jacob Lawrence and his politically motivated art, in particular his visual adaptation of the stories he heard in childhood of the Great Migration. Percival Everett’s Watershed, examined here by Françoise Clary, is an equally political work, showing the unfortunate consequences of the United States’ Government’s Indian policy.

The Collins English dictionary defines “to adapt” as to “change something to make it suitable for a new purpose or situation.” This collection of articles shows something of the wide range of things which may be adapted in order to produce some kind of work of art and, we hope, will contribute to a better understanding of how this adaptation may be brought about.

Works Cited

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2006. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Seger, Linda. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction Into Film. 1992. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. Print.

Adaptation(S): Repetition and Novelty Looking for an Author in the Patient’s Narration

Julio Guillén and Julia Martin

The concept of adaptation in psychology usually conveys not only the idea of a specific relationship between an organism, particularly a human being, and the environment, but also of the functional changes needed to find a new balance when changing to a different one. From a psychoanalytical perspective, which is the fundamental theoretical background of this work, we study the modification of the subjective position of a patient while creating a new narrative sequence of his own history in the context of psychoanalytical therapy.


Le concept d’adaptation est utilisé habituellement en psychologie pour designer l’idée d’une relation entre un organisme, en particulier l’organisme humain, et l’environnement, mais aussi pour indiquer les changements fonctionnels nécessaires pour trouver un nouvel équilibre quand cette environnement se modifie. A partir d’une perspective psychanalytique, qui est le cadre théorique fondamental de ce travail, nous étudierons la modification de la position subjective d’un patient par la création d’une nouvelle séquence narrative de sa propre histoire dans le contexte d’un suivi fondée sur la psychanalyse.


        The concept of adaptation in psychology usually conveys not only the idea of a specific relationship between an organism, particularly a human being, and the environment, but also of the functional changes needed to find a new balance when changing to a different environment. From a psychoanalytical perspective, which is the fundamental theoretical background of this work, the environment can only be defined in terms of meaning, linguistic meaning and not instinctual knowledge, and this environment or context is essentially linked to the Other with a capital “O” which is a specific Lacanian notion that guarantees the existence and the stability of this meaning (Lacan, L’Instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud). From a constructivist point of view like that developed by Jean Piaget, adaptation implies two interconnected processes: first, assimilation, which is a conservative process and secondly, accommodation which leads to novelty. It is clear that in this approach, repetition and creation are fundamentally linked to one another (Piaget).

        The meaning of the term “adaptation” in biology or psychology is quite different from its meaning in literature or cinema where it implies a transposition from one medium to another (even if this is not an exhaustive definition). Nevertheless, it is possible for this meaning to open a new perspective, especially for clinical psychology. Let us remember that, even if this is not a logical demonstration, transferring concepts from scientific disciplines to psychoanalysis has always had interesting heuristic effects. The notion of “trauma” from biology and medicine (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle), discourse, metaphor and metonymy from linguistics (Lacan, L’Instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud), spherical mirror experiments from physics (Lacan, Le séminaire Livre I. Les écrits Techniques de Freud), topological constructions like the Möebius band or the Klein bottle (Lacan, Séminaire L’identification), are some examples.


        The word “adaptation” comes from Latin, and is composed by the prefix “ad” meaning “to,” a direction, and “aptus” meaning being capable of, having the ability of doing something. So “to adapt” means to regain the ability to be functional, and the term is used to indicate both the effect of a process and the process itself. In scientific papers or books on adaptation three fundamental characteristics are emphasized (Hutcheon 8). Adaptation is:


1- a product that is an announced and extensive transformation of a particular work

2- a process of creation (re-interpretation or re-creation)

3- a form of intertextuality


        We are especially interested in the second aspect, the creative process, because it necessarily bears traces of the Subject. So, it should be clear that from a psychoanalytical point of view that our main concern is not to study the original object, the new object or their relationship, but rather the subjective position in the adaptation process from a dynamic perspective; the possibility of the emergence of the Subject as an effect of a process will be our central topic here.

        In our Everyday clinical work, we can conceive the idea of “transposition” in several ways:


  • when telling a story about an image while doing a projective test.
  • when drawing a picture from a story that has been told, as in art therapy groups.
  • when creating a new story from a previous one that we have heard, read or been told about.

For psychoanalysis, the notion of transposition, meaning both displacement and translation, was one of the first concepts introduced by Freud to account for psychological complexity. Indeed, it appears in The Interpretation of Dreams where he speaks of the multiple records of perceptive stimuli in the mental system. The concept of displacement, together with that of condensation, is essential to explain the basic mechanism of dream formation: “The dream-thoughts and the dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages. Or, more properly, the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation” (Freud, Interpretation 295).

        As we can see, the idea of a transformation from one form of expression to another seems essential to determine the meaning of dreams. However, one might think that this transformation consists simply in the transmutation of the image, the “film” we have watched in our sleep, into the narrative form through which we are conveying it in the session. Nonetheless, this interpretation suggests that we have taken the word “thought,” using Freud’s definition, in the sense of an iconic representation, an original, primary phenomenon about which we can talk in a session.

        However, the object at stake reveals all its complexity if we follow Freud’s article in detail. The latent content actually consists ofa textthat takes the form of a succession of images during sleep and that the patient shares with the psychoanalyst(or not). It is precisely at this moment, while the patient is talking, and especially when he does so in a psychoanalytical setting, that the Subject is called up beyond the role that the person attributes to himself as a reader or as a translator. The patient may say, for example, “I will tell you what I dreamt, but the dream was longer, more complicated … I have forgotten almost everything.” The “I” designates the storyteller who is unaware of the message concealed in this “series of images” which he calls his dream.

        One of the principal aspects in our previous definition of adaptation was the fact of “consciously” admitting that the adaptation it is a new product and, in so doing, to concede the existence of a previous work that has been modified. In psychoanalysis, we could claim that the “original author” of a dream, but also of a symptom or a delusion, has to be found; in fact, the author has to be created. When talking about a nightmare for instance, we can feel relieved to have been able to escape from it, but to escape from where, from whom?

        It is worth noting that the unconscious is not to be understood as a receptacle where the “authentic content” at the origin of the dream is kept. Rather, it is a dynamic product created along with the possibility of the Subject’s actualization beyond the narrative. It is always incomplete and the “I” in the sentence, not the “ego” as a unified individual image, attests to it by its role as a shifter (Jakobson).

        Later on, in 1915, in the text The Unconscious Freud states: “How are we to arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious? It is of course only as something conscious that we know it, after it has undergone transformation or translation into something conscious. Psycho-analytic work shows us every day that translation of this kind is possible” (Freud, The Unconscious 166). In the same text, Freud, introduces the hypothesis of a double inscription: “….the first, or topographical, hypothesis is that of a topic distinction of the systems Ucs. and Cs. and also the possibility that an idea may exist simultaneously in two places in the mental apparatus indeed, that if it is not inhibited by censorship, it regularly advances from the one position to the other, possibly without losing its first location or registration” (Freud, The Unconscious 175).This hypothesis affirms the existence of at least two copies of the same “idea”. We may consider that the copy shows a distortion compared to the original, but, in a more fundamental way, if we follow Lacan’s reluctance with regard to the principle of identity: A = A, we can say that it is actually the same idea but different, even if this enunciation may seem paradoxical: A ≠A (Lacan, Séminaire L’Identification). Does this difference lie simply in a topographical location, or in nearly imperceptible dissimilarities? Again, we find that the unconscious can only be perceived in terms of movement, here in the process of duplication, in the construction of a “not-identical” copy.


        From a clinical perspective, we will start from the assumption that every statement made by a patient during a session necessarily has a fictional character where the truth of the Subject is at stake (Lacan, Subversion). Here “fictional” can be understood in two different ways: the first, closely associated with the notion of authorship, is the narrative character of a story: every narration implies the shaping of a reality from a subjective point of view. The second meaning of the adjective “fictional” is that of a “fabulous or chimerical invention,” an invention that only finds its justification through the inner coherence of the story being told and not at all through verification in the “real world.” The question of Truth in psychoanalysis, is not a question of verification whatsoever (in particular, during the session, this is stated explicitly while explaining the rules that define the setting to the patient).

        Let’s recall that in Freudian theory the relationship to reality is always “second-rate”, it is always stained by an uncanny feeling and associated with a tendency to escape from it. It always involves an unpleasant sensation. Waking up can be a relief when coming out of a nightmare, but the sensation of the “uncanny” may also arise from the “glimpse” we have of the gap between the two scenes. This impression is masterfully conveyed by Calderon de la Barca in his play Life is a Dream where the main character, Segismundo, is seized by an odd feeling every time he switches from one “reality” to the other.

        As already mentioned, the verbal expression of a dream is not the narrative adaptation of a “film” which we have seen while sleeping. Rather, the dream, like anything that could be considered as a “fact” in psychoanalysis (Ricoeur), is nothing more than the story that the patient tells during the session to the analyst. And it is precisely in the disruptive or missing points of this story, that the Subject may have a chance to emerge.

        The personal history brought by the patient is then to be considered as a “subjective fiction” that may be thought of as a way of dealing with complexity, a construction that offers him a limited frame for the vastness of the world, others and their relationships. It is not a question of mistrusting the patient’s sayings as if he had made everything up, we should not forget that Freud invented psychoanalysis by taking seriously the hysterical symptoms that other physicians thought were ludicrous simulations. We are pointing out here the only way to inscribe the confrontation with the Real that has to be neatly distinguished from reality. In the textual background of the session, the Subject has a chance to appear as a desiring Subject beyond the narrative “I” that figures as a unified “One” throughout his existence; clearly this is true only if his structural position allows such an emergence. Every transposition implies movement from one state to another and so requires the form to be defined, circumscribed, thus giving the impression of a whole.

        It is only when we admit the existence of this finished form that the question of “fidelity to the original,” so impelling when analysing films or lyric adaptations, makes sense. For the patient, the story told in the first person about his own past gives consistency to the “I” and puts forth the problem of author identification. It is clearly a question of the author, and especially of his style, that is at the core of psychoanalytical work.

        A second but also essential element which is part of the concept of adaptation in psychoanalysis, apart from the dynamics of “transposition,” is repetition. It is one of the four basic concepts defined by Lacan in his seminar for the year 1963-1964 (Le Séminaire Livre XI. Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse). Psychoanalytical therapy is always an opportunity to “rethink” reality that leads the patient to rebuild his own history. But repetition in psychoanalysis involves a necessary failure and it is precisely there that the elusive truth (structurally unattainable) can be circumscribed. Then, it is not a problem about “the” original version or about fidelity to reality, because reality, even if it is always related to Truth, is not the same thing.

        When we work on a story, we always produce novelty, even if we may recognize the “old” version. The problem is: how far can we go in reshaping it without losing it completely? And in clinical psychology, if a patient is talking about his own life, how far can he modify his position without losing his own identity at the same time? Obviously, the question of the author is essential in psychoanalytical treatment and it is also a rather curious question since the author of the multiple versions would seem to be the same “person”; this is the perplexing dilemma of the simultaneous unity and division of the self.

 In other words, the problem of the fidelity to the original brings us to the question: who is the author? Listening to his own alternative “versions,” the patient could ask himself if he is being faithful to the self he has always recognized as the true one or to the unfamiliar one who is being revealed through the new version? In both cases, we are talking about unity and we are in the field of an imaginary capture; the word “imaginary” is to be understood in the structural sense of Lacan’s developments. But it’s not in the realm of this imaginary capture that we should seek for the subject: the subject may find a place through an event in the sense Badiou gives the word: “the event is something that appears, that happens as a pure occurrence, it is unrepeatable.” If there is adjustment, it is both by an assumed reading and, at the same time, an assumed re-reading of his own history.

        We will evoke here the psychoanalytic therapy by a Latin American colleague of a patient, Ben, href= »#_edn1″>[1] that we have studied together. We will concentrate only on the elements of his story that may be interesting for this article yet knowing that this restriction will prevent us from giving the whole logical analysis of the case.

        Ben is a thirty year-old man. He was hospitalized after a delusional episode that followed a relationship break-up. At the time of his hospitalization Ben was accusing his family of trying to poison him and, for that reason, had stopped eating. He also told us that thoughts were blurred in his head and that he wanted to get rid of “the shadows that were pursuing him”.

        Ben had been hospitalized when he was younger, due to a delusional episode that focused on the idea of his being the son of a “desaparecido,” a missing person.[2] This idea would never leave him from the moment he “understood everything” after being struck by lightning and falling on his head while at a football match.

        Ben is a writer. From the interviews we had with his parents, we learnt that Ben was a top athlete and that he wrote poems. In fact, he published a collection of poems under a pseudonym which won a prize in a local competition and had very good reviews. The outbreak of the first psychotic episode appeared when his father asked Ben to sign his poems with his real name.

        Ben said that his father was not often at home, and that he wasn’t in the least concerned by his performance at school. He is described as a cold and severe person. Ben said that the poems he writes are “imposed” on him, that he writes them but that they come from the outside. He feels compelled to write them down. One of his requests to the psychoanalyst is to help him get rid of these ideas, together with the shadows that pursue him.

        After many months talking to the psychoanalyst, during the hospitalization and after it, some of his symptoms had notably disappeared, but they reappeared as a consequence of the absence of the psychoanalyst after a few months. Back at the hospital, the psychoanalyst found him in a state of exaltation and the idea of being the son of a “desaparecido” was back again. During a session, while he was talking about this idea, the psychoanalyst, seriously considering the importance of this signifier, told him that the word “desaparecido” refers to someone who has disappeared but that it is also used to designate someone who is absent in an emotional sense, in the same way, as Ben said, his father wasn’t there beside him when he was younger.

        Immediately after this intervention, Ben says “That’s true, I’ve been also thinking that I’ve made up this story just to create the family I’d like to have.” The multiple psychological dimensions implied in this intervention would be too long to analyse (namely the position of the psychoanalyst, the position of Ben, the reference to what had been said, the fact of addressing another person). But it must be stressed that this moment marks a particular point, a critical point in the treatment. Ben started going out again with women, he started writing again, but now he says he will try writing novels. Earlier, he was afraid of writing novels because, he said, “one is greatly exposed when writing fiction.” The poems are not experienced as imposed writings any more. He will sign them with his own first name and recognize them as his own creation.

        Shall we dare to assimilate this transformation to a kind of “adaptation”? Certainly, there is a new author for Ben’s story, or simply, there is an author. Previously, his story “flew from the outside” in his poems, he was obliged to write it down and the “shadows” were still present, at the same time he remained fixed on the hypothesis that had for him a delusional role, an anonymous axiom that he was the son of a “desaparecido.” It was precisely by suggesting the ambiguity of the word “missing” that the psychoanalyst introduced a gap in Ben’s own knowledge, pointing out the multiple meanings of every word. So, what appeared as an absolute autobiographic certainty is be assimilated with the idealized parents he himself had created. In this way, Ben became the author of his story and not just a spectator. He can now invent without losing his identity even if it is partially “amputated.” And it is precisely through this “amputation” that he is able to detach himself from the ideals of his parents who functioned as a monolithic matrix.

        It is this identification as author that allows us to locate the subject of desire at a precise moment. The subject can find a stance at the critical point where the One designated by the “I” in his uttered sentences would otherwise have missed his appointment: been too early or too late.

        Should we, in the clinical psychology framework, keep on looking for the “original” version, the “authentic” version? We think that what really matters is to hold to the differences as much as to the resemblancesso that in the indestructible interval, the Subject as an author may sign his own version and summon other people not only as listeners but as readers of his story. In this way the patient would be able, within a stable social link to the O(o)ther , to find his stance without erasing the uncertainty and the incompleteness of all creation. Like every author, he would become an inventor after passing through the link to the O(o)ther. But, the O(o)ther in psychoanalysis is not an anonymous observer, reader or listener, he should be incarnated in the figure of the psychoanalyst through transfer, always in an ephemeral way, so that beyond any imaginary capture, he may open a symbolic place for the Subject to enter.

        For Ben, as for all of us, it is obviously not only a question of adapting to objective reality that matters. It is not only a question of fidelity to a history where he can recognize himself, but of becoming the author of an alternative version that, pointing out the structural place of the Real, may allow him to find a new place in the world without being compelled to completely obliterate the old one.


Works Cited


Badiou, Alain. “Entretien avec Alain Badiou (1) : Qu’est-ce qu’une vérité ?” Entretien réalisé par Bastien Engelbach. 27 March 2008. Web. 15/06/2018.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Norton & Company, 1959. Print.  

—. The Unconscious. 1915. Translated by J. Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On The History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 159-215. Print.

—. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Jakobson, Roman. “Shifters, Verbal Categories and the Russian Verb.” Russian and Slavic Grammar Studies 1931-1681. Muton Pub., 1984. 41-58. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire Livre I. Les écrits Techniques de Freud. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Éd. du Seuil, 1975, 1953. Print.

—. Le Séminaire Livre XI. Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Éd. du Seuil, 1992, 1964. Print.

—. “L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud.” Ecrits, Seuil, 1957. 493-528. Print.

—. Séminaire L’Identification. Inédit, 62. 1961. Print.

—. “Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir dans l’inconscient freudien.” Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 793-827. Print.

Piaget, Jean. La Naissance de l’intelligence chez l’enfant. Neuchâtel: Delachaux ET Niestlé, 1936. Print.

Ricoeur Paul. “La Psychanalyse confrontée à l’épistémologie. Psychiatrie Française, Numéro spécial “Entre théorie et pratique : fonction de la pensée théorique, 1986. Print.


Julio Guillén has a PhD in abnormal and clinical psychology. He is a lecturer at Lille Catholic University and also works as a clinical psychologist in a mental health clinic in Lille (EPSM Lille Agglomération). His research is focussed on the relationship between fiction, logic and psychoanalysis when defining structures in abnormal psychology. This research relies both on theoretical developments in psychoanalysis and on case studies encountered in his clinical practice and the way patients define the symptoms they are experiencing. Special attention is given to creative narratives as an expression of the subject’s individuality.


Julia Martin is a clinical psychologist. Elle coordinates the mental health network (CAPSA) in Berazategui, in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lectures at La Plata University, Argentina, in the department of Abnormal Psychology. Her research concerns clinical and theoretical approaches to psychoses and also violence against women.


[1] We have changed the name and certain personal details to preserve the patient’s anonymity.

[2] In some Latin American countries, during military dictatorships, thousands of political opponents were kidnapped. No information about their situation was ever given or their eventual death admitted. These “missing persons” are known as “desaparecidos.”    

N°2 | Julien/Julian Green – Adopting/Adapting a Memory of the American South


Emmeline Gros

This paper explores the relationship of writer Julien/Julian Green to the adopted/adapted American South that is portrayed in some of his novels and plays. Julian Hartridge Green (a descendant on his mother’s side of a Confederate Senator who later served as a Democratic Representative from Georgia to the US Congress) is often (mis)presented in French textbooks as “that French writer, born in Paris to American parents” but in US anthologies as “a French writer speaking American.” Writing in both English and French and living almost exclusively in Paris all his life, Green loved to play with the ambiguity of his transnational background: Green liked to define himself as a Southerner (even if born and raised in France) and heavily adopted/adapted the American South in his novels, so much that 6 out of 17 of his novels are set in the American South. The South, it seems, just felt like a home that one could freely adopt, borrow, and even re-purpose entirely (to use Linda Hutcheon’s ideas here). I will try to situate the work of Julien Green in the tradition of adaptation: What is it, in Julian Green’s South, that is recast, rewritten, and transformed? For this French writer who experienced the American South at a distance (through the tales of his mother’s memories and through tales about the Antebellum South only, i.e. before the South lost the war), is the American South adoptable/adaptable and if so, how? 


Julien Green, accueilli à l’Académie Française mais se décrivant pourtant comme “a Southern gentleman”, présenté dans les manuels français comme “cet écrivain français, né à Paris de parents américains” mais que les anthologies américaines se plaisent à définir comme “un écrivain américain de langue française”, semble ne pouvoir entrer dans aucun cadre géographique. Pourtant, Green fait la part belle au Sud dans ses ouvrages, si bien que sur ses dix-sept romans, six sont en effet situés aux États-Unis : la Trilogie du Sud (Les Pays lointains, Les Étoiles du Sud, Dixie), ainsi que Mont Cinère (1926), Moira (1950) et Chaque homme dans sa nuit (1960). Pourtant, si les œuvres de Green adoptent volontiers ce Sud des plantations, qu’y a-t-il de résolument sudiste chez Julien Green ? Le Sud chez Julien Green, semble-t-il, est adapté autant qu’il est adopté, emprunté et réutilisé autant qu’il est remémoré. Cet article cherche à explorer ce qui est refondu, réécrit et transformé dans ce Sud sur papier. Pour cet écrivain français qui n’a connu le Sud qu’à distance (qu’à travers le récit des souvenirs de sa mère et qu’à travers le prisme du Sud de l’avant-guerre de Sécession), le Sud des plantations est-il véritablement adoptable/adaptable et si oui, par quel biais?



Adaptation is “a way of making up for loss, as a means of control, or of coping with privation” (Hutcheon 114).



        In Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon defines adaptation as follows: “an adaptation is […] transposition of a particular work or works. This “transcoding” can involve a shift of medium (a poem to a film) or genre (an epic to a novel), or a change of frame and therefore context” (7-8). This is not the definition of adaptation that will be used in the present article.  Instead, I have decided to apply Hutcheon’s definition of “transposition” as “a shift in ontology from the real to the fictional, from a historical account or biography to a fictionalized narrative or drama” (7-8). In this paper, I am going to focus on this idea of transposition (or adoption) and will look at some works by Julien Green, a French writer (20th Century: 1900-1998) who spent a large part of his life as a writer adopting a region—the American South—and transposing this regional space into a fictional American South, one that he used as the background for most his fictional works. Out of the 17 novels Julien Green wrote, six are indeed “located” in the USA; the Southern trilogy, including Les Pays Lointains, Les Etoiles du Sud, Dixie as well as Mont Cinère 1926, Moira 1950, and Chaque Homme dans sa nuit 1960.

        Obviously, Julien Green is not the only French writer in this case. For Ron Rash, an American poet and novelist from North Carolina, the French sensibility is even particularly well-suited for translating the American South into words. The American sensibility tends to be ‘history is bunk,’” he says. “When I was doing an interview last year in France, a French critic said, ‘When I read Southern writers I get a similar sense of history to our own,’ and I believe that’s one reason the French revere Southern writers so much….” (“Why Southern Writers Captivate”).[1]

        Working with Julien/Julian Green to tackle the question of adaptation (even if in this case, I will be talking of the adoption of a region) makes for a rather challenging exercise. First, Green chose to portray a South that is, one could say, invisible: it is indeed the Old Antebellum South that Green refers to in his works, a South that only his parents experienced, but a South that as a writer born and raised in France, he never experienced himself: as “[t]he youngest of 8 children, Green was not familiar with the land of his forefathers, which his parents and siblings still held dear. Nor was Green familiar with English at first” (Armbrecht 14). Second, the South in Green’s novels is unsayable because Julien Green, as we will see, feels the alienating effect of language, the loss of meaning carried in language itself. We could say that Green’s experience of the South is situated at the affective and sensual levels, more than at the concrete, linguistic, regional, geographical, or physical levels. Green’s early years were indeed nourished by his mother’s stories of the American Civil War, the Secession, and the sense of belonging to the South. His mother’s stories, which were to have a profound effect on the young Green were tainted with nostalgia and melancholy because, as he once said during an interview, “the South had lost the war” (“Visite à Julien Green”).

        Green is quite a peculiar writer. Born in Paris in 1900 of American Protestant parents (his mother being from Savannah, his father from Virginia), Julien Green is perhaps best known to the general reader as the first non-French national to have been elected to the Académie Française in 1971 where he succeeded François Mauriac. Even though elected to the prestigious Académie Française, Green soon grew tired of the organization ‘to the point that he no longer wanted to be part of the Académie Française at all” (Armbrecht 12). In 1996, he publicly declared in a letter to his colleagues, arguing that he felt exclusively American: “je ne fais plus partie de l’Académie Française … [je me] sens désormais américain exclusivement et les honneurs ne m’intéressent pas du tout, quelles qu’ils soient” (qtd. In Le Monde, 16 Nov. 1996).

        This may partly explain why on the French scene, Julien Green occupies “a strange place in the world of French literature, that of the “canonized outsider” (Armbrecht 11). The writer navigated within a liminal space made of altered identities and identifications depending on the needs of a given period of life. His decision to alter his name, for instance, was fed by the need to “hide aspects of [his] identity that [were] problematic” (Armbrecht 14); among those, his American origins that he often downplayed “as a way of fitting in at school. By changing “Julian” to “Julien,” he made his first name seem more French” (Armbrecht 14).

        Yet, and as Daniela Fabiani remarks, Green liked to consider himself as an expatriate. A single quote from Julien Green’s Journal (spanning over more than 70 years) is enough to realize how much Green liked the term: “L’Expatrié. C’est ainsi qu’on m’appelle de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique et que l’on me considère de ce côté-ci. Je veux bien […] mais il me plait d’élargir le sens du mot jusqu’à le faire déborder dans l’infini. Plus j’avance, mieux je vois que nul d’entre nous n’est vraiment chez lui sur la planète” (414-15).[2] Green grew up in Paris with the feeling of being an expatriate surrounded by French people who had never heard of the Secession. There was the constant feeling of belonging to a nation which no longer existed, a feeling that certainly informed most of his novels—including the trilogy Les Pays Lointains, Les Etoiles du Sud, and Dixie, which is partly based on the reminiscences recounted by his mother, but which also contains a rich, authentic, well-researched, historical background shaped by the imagination and vision of the novelist.

        Yet, can an expatriate write about the South? The answer might be “no,” if we indeed take Quentin Compson literally. Quentin Compson’s remark to his Canadian roommate Shreve (that he will never understand Southerners) clearly suggests that writing about the South from a distance, “one cannot have the comfort of understanding a culture via a representative text if the work in question is not believed to embody the essence of its culture” (Karem 12).[3] More complicated maybe, how can a writer, no matter how sensitive he is (to use Ron Rash’s expression) transpose the unsayable?  How can language articulate a reality that was never there or, to be more specific, as a reality that was only experienced at the abstract level, i.e. as the memories transmitted by one’s mother?

        Adaptation studies usually place the question of fidelity to the source text or to the source image at the center of their reflection. One could certainly justify Julien Green’s “Southernness” or “Southernism” in his ability to talk about the South and to point to the authenticity of his observations.Distant Lands/Les Pays Lointains (1987) features a detailed family tree. Drawings and maps complete The Stars of the South/Les Etoiles du Sud (1989). Dixie (1995) mixes romance and historical report: “there are 1900 km between Savannah and Boston” (204).[4] What this shows is that there is indeed an organic relationship between the South and the discourse Green produces.

        Yet, the question of the authenticity of the production, of the final or end-product of the adaptation should not be the main issue to consider when reading books about the South by a French writer. In times of crisis and reconstruction (and to make sure the South would not fade into social obscurity), Southerners themselves understood well how to “appropriate” the South for their own purposes (and so, reimagine a South purged from defeat, segregation, slavery, etc.). These Southerners, we could say, became “adapters” who strived to “purge an earlier text of elements that their particular cultures in time or place might find difficult or controversial; at other times, the adaptation “de-represses” an earlier adapted text’s politics” (Stam 42–44).[5]

        Hutcheon warns that “the idea of fidelity should not frame any theorizing of adaptation today” […] According to its dictionary meaning, “to adapt” is to adjust, to alter, to make suitable” (7). She continues: “adaptation also is not slavish copying; it is a process of making the adapted material one’s own (20). At stake, therefore, is not the question of recognizing the typical elements of Southern identity in such texts. These could be limited to the clichés of mint juleps, magnolias, plantations’ white columns and the like. Southern lovers would then be tempted to seek cultural products of Southern appearance only. After all, one could ask, in the manner of Agrarian Donald David: “Is one necessarily Southern when one writes about negroes, mountaineers, or poor whites?” (qtd. in Karem 19).[6]

        As if sensing that the question of fidelity might sidetrack his own readers, Green frequently expressed a certain desire to keep the South at a distance, or rather the clichés of regionalism at a distance, as if wishing to avoid the labeling that has plagued regionalist authors. Green, for instance, feared that naming his play Sud/South would be a wrong title for it, as it may encourage the public to be expecting a play about the Civil War.[7] Green, like Welty, had understood the burden of being “confined” to the adjective “Southern.” Regional/Southern is indeed a slippery and contested term at best. In her 1956 essay, “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty refers to regional as a “careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; It has no meaning for the insider who’s doing the writing, because as far as he knows, he is simply writing about life” (132). Yet, and even though Green’s first reviews did not much pay attention to Green’s regionalism, the topic was central to many critical discussions. The publication of Green’s works (dealing with the American South) found reviewers and critics struggling to “place” him on the French literary scene. Reviewers regretted the prominence of character over scene, showing well that there was an expectation that the regional setting itself would have primacy within a Southern text. For such critics, Green “had failed to capitalize on his regional particularity” (Karem 19).

        More than a “real” place, the South, for Green (like for so many writers about the South), reads as a mental construct, one that exceeds borders and conquers the writer’s imagination.[8] The South, for Green, is indeed everywhere and nowhere, for it is not unusual to find U.S. echoes in his journal, even when Green mentions his travels around the world. For instance, when Green goes into this old grocery store in Scotland that, he says, is similar to the captivating grocery stores of American villages (“Journal,” 7 juillet 1979, 636)[9] or again, when he mentions Hammerfest in Norway which, he finds “dreary as a small American town […] When I see the streets without trees and the square houses in Hammerfest, I remember the unbearable neurasthenia that I have experienced in small American cities” (“Journal,” 11 juin 1978, 502).[10]

        Green obviously did not want to be objective, arguing that he was no historian nor a writer of sagas and that in his novels, Southern history was but the background on which to write the characters’ destinies and feelings.[11] As Daniela Fabiani recognizes, the South remains an abstraction, because it is essentially crystallized through memories.[12] Green himself admitted that his writing was often guided “by floating images, forgotten impressions, memories and feelings of old times that suddenly came back” (“Visite à Julien Green”).[13] In the Preface to his play South, Green even defined his work as “an exploration into an America that is no more. The shortest way to reach it is through the childhood of the writer and through the family memories he retained” (48).[14]As a consequence, we understand that the South that is seized by Green is best found, not in the burdensome clichés that are usually associated with local color or with Southern writers, but in the disjunction between the South as a source-text and the narrative image that is produced, i.e. in the space of the unsayable.

        The South, for Green, is an “impossible dream” (to use Eudora Welty’s expression, here). This inability to communicate the South is very explicit in the description of the admirable décor of the plantation in Stars of the South/Les Etoiles du Sud,


Thirty stairs led them to a long porch protected from the surrounding gardens with a green painted wooden trellis. The intersection of thousands of rods filtered a soft light and in the background, in this remote place where one could see without being seen, one could avoid being heard. Rocking chairs completed the scene, but Elizabeth and Billy instinctively preferred to remain standing. Admirable setting for secret talks, Billy said with a laugh. But I do not find our South (132-33, my translation).[15]


The South, it seems, remains inaccessible, because it possesses a sort of dream-like quality: “on that night in April the night covered the plantation with its milky light, giving this familiar landscape the unreal aspect of a dream vision despite the extraordinarily precise details” (337, my translation).[16] Describing Ned’s bedroom in Stars of the South, the narrator writes that “his room was loaded with too many dreams, with the minutes that his mother had filled with the dark stories before sleep every night for months … Everything vanished in this new setting. Words did not exist to tell about it” (271, my translation).[17] Elizabeth, the heroine of Stars of the South, experiences a similar reality: “from the lower branches of these old trees […] hung the long curtains of green Spanish moss, stirred by the slightest breeze. Elizabeth felt she was in one of these Southern dreams she had known at Dimwood” (Stars of the South 64).[18] 

        Added to the disjunction existing between source-text and narrative image produced, is Green’s admission that words themselves are unable to convey his thoughts. Green argued that distortion was the words’ raison d’être, even the destruction of ideas: “What words can I use to describe what escapes language?” (109).[19] Kathryn Eberle Wildgen explains that “Green was tormented all his life by the fact that all he had at his disposal for the purpose of communication were woefully inadequate words” (189). Green himself recognized the alienating effect/aspect of language. Tellingly, even if fully bilingual, he chose to write in French.[20] In Le Langage et son double, Green shared his difficulty at expression the same subject with two different media, in two different languages: “Unlike the French language, the English language does not drive me to literary perfection. I feel I’m writing with a trembling hand for fear I should lead my sentence astray” (521, my translation).[21]

        The failure of words to communicate is rendered very explicit and literal in his fiction about the South.[22] In the play South, for instance, the young gentleman from the South, Edouard Broderick, explains that: “My own tongue is astounded by the words it speaks” / “Ma langue est étonnée des mots qu’elle pronounce” (97). Ian, a young officer from the North, is similarly confronted with the failure of language, when he says: “I know only too well that I’ll never be able to express my feelings (…) everything seals my lips” (221).[23] The supremacy of the unspoken thought over words is also present in (Avarice House, Mont-Cinère in French) or in the play South. In Mont-Cinère, we have a clear image of a person struggling with words; Mrs. Fletcher attempts to answer letters, writing down words and scratching them out almost all at the same time (224-25).[24]

        What this suggests is that Green did not simply strive to render pictures of the South (or to photograph the South), but to evoke the ineffable in the Southern world. And there is a need to move beyond impartial observation and explore the subjective experience of visuality and temporality in a society that no longer is. When writing South, Green said that:


the heart pounding, I recognize a southern landscape that my mother used to describe, the huge trees draped in gorgeous finery formed by this strange green Spanish moss. A large Southern plantation, on a Sunday afternoon in April, and over this proud and confident house looms the threat of great destruction […] the earthquake this time and in this part of world I know well, there will be the terrible war which will lay on the floor hundreds of thousands of young Americans (1722).[25]


To do so, and because both fidelity to the source text and the capacity of words to convey the dreamlike quality of its source text are impossible endeavors, Green pictures the invisible and writes the unsayable by his use of the senses in these texts. Such reliance on the sensual and on different modes of engagement with a given reality should hardly surprise readers, for adapting across cultures (or across the Atlantic in our case), is not simply a matter of translating words. Patrice Pavis recognizes that cultural and social meaning has to be conveyed and adapted to a new environment through what he calls the “language-body” (30, qtd. in Hutcheon 149). The intercultural, he says, is the “intergestural” and the visual is as important as the aural.

        Green’s work is replete with visual (using colors especially) and olfactory images that are specific to the South, giving readers a sensory experience of the South: “October was advancing, with its exquisite warmth still full of fragrances invading all the gardens of the city. On the avenues, people were exhilarated by the air coming in sudden gusts that followed the whims of the wind. It was not yet the season for big parties…” (Stars of the South 44, my translation).[26] Here, like elsewhere throughout the novel, the visual imagery is directly mingling with the olfactory.

        At times also, smell triggers the memory of times past. Sometimes a literal sense of smell held in an object is translated, adapted, or metamorphosed into the smell (figurative or real) of a given place: in Stars of the South, the sadness of the young heroine, Elizabeth, is triggered by “an exquisite smell [that] floated in the air around her, and her throat tightened. A magnolia… laden with so many memories, this scent revived a moment forever abolished in the latter days” (85).[27] In this passage, Green names the flora and paints visual images that recall past experiences, memories, colors, and smells. The effect, to use Pearl McHaney’s expression here, is “haunting and foreboding.” It is “is also typically Southern” (5). Of course, the colors and smells of the South—cottonseed-meal-yellow, magnolia, honeysuckle, wet cedars—recalled in the characters’ memories suggest the region’s stereotypes, so much that translating the South and his mother’s memories becomes, for Green, sensing the South. When smelling cedar or magnolias, Elizabeth abandons herself to “a scent [that] was familiar. It was the smell of the South” (90).[28]

        If Green draws on imagery of Southern flowers described in sensory language, other examples also illustrate Green experiencing the South through a confluence of olfactory and aural senses: In his preface to the play South, Green explains how “The magic name of Savannah transported [Green and his brothers and sisters] in a shady city of sycamores and magnolias, buzzling in the early freshness of dusk with the sound of the carriages and their dazzling wheels passing along the brick sidewalks and the houses of rather stern elegance” (South 48).[29]

        There are times, however, when the sense of the South seems insufficient for Green when he is trying to illustrate true abstractions: his play South in particular is essentially the story of miscommunication, of the North not able to understand the South, of lovers unable to communicate, of blind slaves who see better than their own masters the future destruction of a passing order. In this play, the characters are lacerated by the tension arising between deeply felt emotions and their inability to articulate these emotions (Wildgen 190). In Act III, in South, Ian says: “A word would be enough to open your eyes, but that very word, which I won’t speak, would seem more mysterious and more abominable to you than all the rest” (226).[30] The plot is carried along on misinformation, misunderstanding and various false assumptions, usually involving love. Here and like elsewhere in Green’s novels, the central drama is that of the conflict between sin and grace. Once again, how, then, is it possible to explain such a conflict that is infinite, a conflict that is not of a particular place and time, but is universal and unending. 

        Once again, Green resorts to sensory images to explain the subjects of his metaphors: the need for intimacy between two people and misunderstanding of feelings. When describing her encounter with the young Erik Mac Clure, Angelina describes the scene as follows: “It was very dark, but between the branches of trees, the moon cast silver stains on the earth” and continues “Nothing is more real than the earth on a December night. This rough and bare surface, you feel it on your skin like the pain of a burn and like a great rough caress. I felt that between the earth and me there was an agreement like the one between two people who share a secret” (124-25).[31] For such abstract concepts, like sin and grace, like love and death, like human understanding and communication, Green, we could say, draws not on his personal sense of the South, but on what McHaney names the “intimations of the cosmos” that other Southern writers—Welty in particular—employed in their writing (6). In this example, the comparisons begin concretely—the branches of trees, stains on the earth—but then become as abstract as the subjects at hand—the moon, a burn, a caress.  Green reverses the figures: in this instance (and like Eudora Welty), Green makes the subjects (love, miscommunication, sin) clear, but the image that carries the meaning is not concrete, but fantastic, sensory images: a rough caress, the pain of a burn, a moon casting silver stains. Once again, Green intuits that to “understand the world,” whether it is the world of the South, love, or war, whether particular to one place or time or universal and of any or all time, one must “first detect it through the radar net of our senses” (Ackerman xv, qtd. in McHaney 9).

        When Quentin Compson is asked to tell about the South, his roommate Shreve, a Canadian, is trying to make sense of the South as something that is experienced and felt: “What is it? Something you live and breathe in like air? A kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago?” (Absalom, Absalom! 289).[32] Green seems to have understood this need to approach the South as a sensual experience (what Shreve’s lines underline), understanding also what Faulkner (or Welty after him) was suggesting here; that to picture the invisible and to write the unsayable, one must resort to the use of the senses in the texts.

        The end result, as we have seen, is not a photograph of the South, or even a transposition of reality, but what Rouberol names “the presence of a spirit, of all the inheritance and all the experiences of a man rooted in his homeland” (27).[33] And it is precisely because the painting of the South does not result from a pre-established pattern that it can be truly faithful. As Claude Simon notes: “[o]f course, Art testifies, but in the second degree, and it reveals what it does not seek. What is important is what the author says (to him, to his time) against his will … Recognizing a novel’s existence by reference to a so-called reality is as useless as trying to assess the quality of a painting by its resemblance” (“Contre un roman”).[34]

        Green pictures the invisible and writes the unsayable by his use of the senses with two results. First, he creates a sense of the South, through passages that are replete with visual and olfactory senses. Second, Green’s sensory language gives meaning to the abstract, universal concepts such as joy, love, communication, and fear. Referring to the “one thing [that] is consistent among […] many Southern writers, [… that is, feeling] passionately about Place,” Welty once said, it is “[n]ot simply in the historical or philosophical connotation of the word,” “but in the sensory, meaning the breathing world of sight and smell and sound, in its earth and water and sky, its time and its seasons” (Occasions, 245, 165, qtd. in McHaney 2). Like Welty, Green may well have understood that one’s Southernness was probably best expressed in the use of sensory powers, that “great fiction,” as Welty argued, “shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel” (Stories, Essays, & Memoir, 784, 810, qtd. in McHaney 10). 


Works Cited

Armbrecht, Thomas J. D. At the Periphery of the Center: Sexuality and Literary Genre in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar and Julien Green. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Bruinius, Carmen K. “Why Southern Writers Still Captivate, 55 Years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 July 2015. Web. 15/06/2018.

Fabiani, Daniela and D. Vicca, eds. J. Green voyageur, entre identité américaine et conscience européenne, in Julien Green et l’Europe. Paris : Le Manuscrit, 2012. 163-81. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom! Absalom!. 1936. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Green, Julien. Julien Green, L’Expatrié, Journal, 8 février 1989. Seuil. 1990. Print.

—. Œuvres Complètes VI. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1990. Print.

Greeson, Jennifer Rae. Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda with Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.

Karem, Jeff. The Romance of Authenticity: The Cultural Politics of Regional and Ethnic Literatures. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004. Print.

McHaney, Pearl. “Eudora Welty: Sensing the Particular, Revealing the Universal in her Southern World.” Transatlantica 1 (2011) January 4, 2012. Web. 15/06/2018.

McPherson, Tara. Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

O’Brien, Michael. The Idea of the American South: 1920 – 1941. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990. Print.

Pavis, Patrice. The Intercultural Performance Reader. Routledge, 2006. Print.

Raclot, Michèle. “L’imaginaire américain dans l’œuvre romanesque de Julien Green.” Études Greeniennes 1 (2009): 15-29. Print.

Romine, Scott. The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2014. Print.

Rouberol, Jean. L’Esprit du Sud dans l’œuvre de Faulkner. Paris: Didier-Érudition, 1982. Print.

Saint Jean, Robert (de) with Luc Estang. Julien Green. Paris: Seuil, 1967. Print.

Simon, Claude. “Contre un roman utilitaire.” Le Monde, March 8, 1967. Print.

Sorin, Raphaël. “Visite à Julien Green.” L’Express, 18 Jan, 1995. Web. 17/12/2014.

Stam, Robert. “Introduction.” Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. 1-52.

Welty, Eudora. Place in Fiction New York: House of Books, 1957. Print.

—. Stories, Essays, & Memoir. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print.

—. Occasions: Selected Writings. Ed. Pearl Amelia McHaney. Jackson, Mississippi UP, 2009. Print.

Wildgen, Kathryn E. Julien Green: The Great Themes. Birmingham: Summa Publ., 1993. Print.


The Author:

Emmeline Gros is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toulon on the French Riviera. She is also the Chair of the Department of Applied Languages. She specializes in Southern American Literature and has written her Ph.D. dissertation on the figure of the Southern Gentleman and the reconstruction of masculinity in the Post-Civil War years. As a fellow of the Georgia Rotary Student Scholarship, she attended Georgia State University from 2002 to 2008 and then the Université of Versailles St Quentin en Yvelines in France from 2008 to 2010. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis under the international joint doctorate supervision of Dr. Thomas McHaney (GSU, USA) and Dr. Jacques Pothier (UVSQ, France) and has published articles on Ellen Glasgow, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell and given talks about John Pendleton Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and various other American writers.




[1] Rouberol remarks, in particular, “the sentimental attraction of the South for many French people” (11) and gives us a rather exhaustive list of those French works that takes the South for locale: Le Sud by Yves Berger, Louisiana, Fausse-Rivière and Bagatelle by Maurice Dénuzière, or La Nuit du Mississippi by Pierre Danton.” Such a list should perhaps prompt us to ask ourselves, as Jean Rouberol rightly observes, “if one is not witnessing the birth of a French Southern novel, like there is an Italian Western” (11). Trying to identify the reasons that would push so many French writers to “locate” their novels in the American South could be the subject of another paper. One certainly does not need to be a Southerner to write about the South: Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison is a good example, notes Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Though she was born in Ohio, Ownby ranks her among the writers having produced some of the most powerful works about the South over the past 40 years.

[2] “The expatriate, this is what people call me on the other side of the Atlantic and how people on this side consider me. I agree to it [. . .] but I like to expand the meaning of the word Expatriate and look at it as indefinite. The older I get, the more I realize that none of us is really at home on this planet” (my translation). Qtd. in J. Green voyageur, entre identité américaine  et conscience européenne.

[3] Authenticity is problematic: “Although authenticity occupies a central place in critical judgments about marginal literature across the 20th Century, it is nonetheless highly problematic as a category of literary analysis. On what basis should judgments of authenticity be made?” (Karem 6).

[4] In his Journal, 20 May 1959, Green comments on his difficulty producing the decor for his play South: “Dîné chez René Clair. J’ai dit quelques mots de l’époque où se situe l’action de ma pièce, mais j’ai eu de grandes difficultés à faire comprendre le décor. Il a en effet ceci de compliqué qu’on doit avoir une idée de l’extérieur en même temps que de l’intérieur” (in Sud 259). Michèle Raclot, in “L’Imaginaire Américain dans l’Oeuvre Romanesque de Julien Green” explains that “Julien Green ne fait pas des romans historiques mais une épopée du Sud qui est bien plus qu’une simple toile de fond. Le nombre considérable des documents consultés par l’auteur lui a permis de brosser avec beaucoup de fidélité un tableau de la situation du Sud entre 1850 et 1861 : situation économique et politique, discours, élections, faits militaires. La première bataille de Manassas qui clôt le deuxième volume se veut un chef d’œuvre d’exactitude, bien qu’elle soit vécue du point de vue des personnages” (19).

[5] Certainly, and as Romine argues in his book The Real South, the South can be counterfeited and imitated, since the South is increasingly sustained as a virtual, commodified, built, themed, invented, or otherwise artificial territoriality” (9). Greenberg goes further, when defining the American South as “an essentially masquerade culture” (63), in which “appearances are everything and in which a genteel mise-en-scene of southernness is constructed via a carefully manipulated stage set of moonlight, magnolias, and manners” (qtd. in McPherson 150). 

[6] In May 1926, the future Agrarian Donald Davidson published an article examining the emergence of the South as a site of substantial literary production. Davidson called for a “generally autochthonous writer” who was not “narrowly provincial.” He complained that most Southern writers had confined themselves to local color subjects that the “Northern critic” approves: “Is one necessarily Southern when one writes about negroes, mountaineers, or poor whites? He asked. In fact, for many contemporary Southern writers, the old traditions of the South have become burdensome clichés. Pat Conroy, author of “The Prince of Tides,” joked in 1985 that his mother, “Southern to the bone,” once told him, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’” (“Why Southern Writers Still Captivate”). It is thus preferable to understand that “the South that [writers] hold collectively in [their] minds is not—could not possibly be—a fixed or real place. It both exceeds and flattens place; It is a term of the imagination, a site of national fantasy” (1).

[7] “Je crois que j’appellerai cette pièce Le Lieutenant Ian au lieu de Sud qui peut prêter à confusion. En effet, ce n’est pas une pièce historique que j’ai voulu faire” (9 Sep. 1952 à Robert de St Jean) [. . .] “Je ne suis plus sûr du tout que Sud soit un bon titre [. . . craignant] que le public ne soit lancé, à cause de cela, sur une fausse piste et qu’on attende une pièce sur la Guerre de Sécession” (27 Dec. 1952). Quoted in “Présentation.” Introduction. Sud. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.

[8] O’Brien, provocatively described the South as “centrally an intellectual perception…which has served to comprehend and weld an unintegrated social reality… “The South” has taken on a psychological reality” (The Idea of the American South xiv).

[9] : “cette vieille épicerie en Ecosse qui n’est pas ‘sans rapport avec les captivantes épiceries de village d’Amérique’” J. Green, Journal (7 juillet 1979), in Œuvres Complètes, ed. cit., t. VI, 1990, 636.

[10] Green : Hammerfest est “morne comme une petite ville américaine […] Quand je vois les rues sans arbres et les maisons carrées d’Hammerfest, je me rappelle l’insupportable neurasthénie des petites villes américaines que j’ai connues.”

[11] Green : «Je ne suis ni un historien ni un fabricant de sagas. Dans ces romans, l’histoire n’est que le fond sur lequel s’inscrivent et évoluent des destins. Je m’intéresse aux sentiments des personnages. Les événements, victoires ou défaites, n’interviennent que pour modifier la trajectoire d’existences dont j’ai presque tout inventé” (Sorin).

[12] Tout au long de sa vie, “cette identité (…) léguée par sa famille se raréfie du point de vue du contact matériel et se cristallise en mémoire” (Fabiani 168).

[13] Green: “Je me suis plutôt laissé conduire par des images flottantes, des impressions oubliées, des souvenirs et des sentiments d’autrefois qui me revenaient brusquement” (Sorin).

[14] Green : “une exploration dans une Amérique qui n’est plus. Le plus court chemin pour l’atteindre est l’enfance de l’auteur et ce qu’il avait retenu des souvenirs familiaux” (48).

[15] “Une trentaine de marches les mena à une longue véranda protégée des jardins avoisinants par un treillage de bois peint en vert. L’entrecroisement des milliers de baguettes laissait filtrer une lumière adoucie et tout au fond, voyant sans être vu dans ce lieu à l’écart, on pouvait être sûr de n’être entendu de personne. Ne manquaient pas les fauteuils à bascule, mais instinctivement Elizabeth et Billy préférèrent rester debout. Admirable décor pour entretiens secrets, fit Billy avec un rire d’étudiant blagueur. Mais je n’y retrouve pas notre Sud” (132-33).

[16] “Dans la nuit d’avril, la nuit répandit sur la plantation sa lumière laiteuse, donnant à ce paysage familier l’aspect irréel d’une vision de rêve malgré ‘extraordinaire précision de détails” (337).

[17] “Sa chambre de naguère, il l’avait chargée de trop de rêves avec les histoires ténébreuses dont sa mère avait peuplé les minutes d’avant le sommeil, chaque soir, pendant de longs mois… Tout s’évanouissait dans ce nouveau décor. Les mots n’existaient pas pour le dire” (217).

[18] Des basses branches de tous ces arbres centenaires (…) pendaient les longs rideaux de mousse vert-de-gris aux franges sans cesse remuées par la moindre brise. Elizabeth pouvait se croire dans un des rêves du Sud qu’elle avait connus à Dimwood” (Les Etoiles du Sud 64).

[19] “Quels mots employer pour décrire ce qui échappe au langage?” (de Saint Jean and Estang 109).[19]

[20] Memories of Happy Days, his autobiographical work, written in English, this time, was awarded the Harper Prize.

[21] “La langue anglaise ne provoque jamais en moi ce désir de perfection littéraire que me donne le français et j’ai le sentiment de l’écrire d’une main qui tremble toujours de faire dévier la phrase” (521).[21] Cf. Green, Journal 25 juillet 1940. La Pléiade, Tome IV.

[22] Cf. Julien Green, The Great Themes; Chapter “Julien Green and the Literary Artist” pages 187-231. Green argued that distortion was the words’ raison d’être, even the destruction of ideas: “Il y a des jours où ce qui est exprimable me parait si loin de l’essentiel que je me demande si cela vaut la peine d’écrire. Les mots qu’il faut mettre en rang comme de vieux chiens savants, fatigués des tours qu’on exige de leur bonne volonté…” (8 Sept. 38). Or when he says : “les mots provoquent le malentendu ; on dirait qu’ils le veulent et que c’est leur rôle” (30 janv. 39). [“words cause misunderstanding; it looks like it is what they want and that this is their role”.]

[23] Erik Mac Clure, the other young gentleman, traces the same failure in words: “J’ai l’impression que tous ces mots don’t vous (Ian) vous servez dissimulent ce que vous n’osez dire” (221) / “I have the impression that all the words you use serve to hide what you’re afraid of saying” (220). “Pourtant je sens trop bien que je ne pourrai jamais vous dire ce qui est en moi (…) Tout me ferme la bouche” (221).

[24] Quoted in Julien Green, The Great Themes, 190.

[25] Julien Green, Oeuvres Complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Collection de la Pléiade, Tome III. “Le coeur battant, je reconnais un paysage du Sud dont me parlait ma mère, les arbres gigantesques drapés dans les magnifiques oripeaux que leur fait cette étrange mousse vert-de-gris. Une grande plantation du Sud, par un dimanche après-midi d’avril, et sur cette maison si fière et si sûre d’elle, la menace d’une grande destruction (…) le séisme, cette fois, et dans cette partie du monde que je connais bien, ce sera la guerre atroce qui accouchera sur le sol de centaines de milliers de jeunes américains” (1722).

[26] “Octobre s’avançait dans une tiédeur exquise encore pleine des odeurs rodant le long de tous les jardins de la ville. Dans les avenues mêmes, l’air grisait par bouffées soudaines selon les caprices du vent. Ce n’était pas encore la saison des grandes soirées” (Les Etoiles du Sud 44).

[27] Smell comes back throughout this chapter: “la jeune femme dut se laisser guider par la senteur si tristement familière pour trouver enfin, épanouie dans une coupelle de verre, la fleur aux pétales d’une blancheur de lait cernés de sombres feuilles pointues” (85) / “une odeur exquise [qui] flottait dans l’air autour d’elle, et sa gorge se serra. Un magnolia … Lourd de trop de souvenirs, ce parfum faisait revivre un moment à jamais aboli dans la suite des jours” (Les Etoiles du Sud 85).

[28] Also found page 106 in Stars of the South. “le parfum


lui en était familier depuis toujours. C’était l’odeur du Sud” (Les Etoiles du Sud 90).

[29] Also found page 524: “Les pins faisaient entendre le murmure du vent dans leurs cimes, et cette voix douce et confuse semblait chuchoter des secrets dans une langue inconnue.” / “One could hear the wind whistling through the pines, at the top, and that sweet and confused voice seemed to whisper secrets in an unknown language” (Stars of the South 524). In his play South, “Le nom magique de Savannah nous transportait dans une ville ombragée de sycomores et de magnolias, animée dès les premières fraîcheurs du crépuscule par le bruit des calèches aux roues éblouissantes, le long des trottoirs de brique rose et des maisons d’une élégance un peu sévère” (Sud 48).

[30] “Il me suffirait d’un mot pour vous ouvrir les yeux mais ce mot que je meurs de ne pouvoir dire vous semblerait plus mystérieux et plus abominable que tout le reste” (227, Green’s translation). 

[31] “Il faisait très sombre, mais entre les branches des arbres, la lune jetait des taches d’argent sur la terre” and continues “Rien n‘est vrai comme la terre par une nuit de décembre. Cette surface rude et nue, tu la sens sur ta peau comme une brûlure et comme une grande caresse rugueuse. J’ai senti qu’entre la terre et moi il y avait un accord comme entre deux personnes qui se sont dit un secret” (124-25, Green’s translation).

[32] “Tell about the South. What it’s like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all” (Absalom, Absalom!, 142). Exiled in the Massachusetts winter, Southerner Quentin Compson finds himself repeatedly assaulted by the uncomprehending inquisitiveness of his fellow students. As his roommate, a Canadian, collaborates with him telling fact from legend about the larger than life legendary figure of Thomas Sutpen, he tries to get a sense of the region.

[33] “une photographie [du Sud], ni même une transposition de la réalité, mais la présence d’un esprit, de tout l’héritage et de tout le vécu d’un homme enraciné dans son pays natal” (Rouberol 27). As a consequence, and as Rouberol explains that “the Southern writers’ anchoring in a local reality cannot be confused with the will to cultivate the picturesque for itself […] The Southern artist does not reproduce his milieu: he collides with it, he struggles in it, with fury sometimes” (“l’ancrage dans une réalité locale ne saurait être confondu avec la volonté de cultiver le pittoresque pour lui-même […] L’artiste sudiste ne reproduit pas son milieu : il se collette avec lui, il se débat dedans, avec fureur parfois” 25).

[34] See Simon: “Naturellement, inévitablement même, l’art témoigne, mais au second degré, et il témoigne d’autant plus qu’il ne l’a pas cherché. Ce qui est important comme témoignage, c’est ce que l’auteur dit (de lui, de son époque) à son insu… Vouloir faire exister un roman par référence à une dite réalité, c’est comme si on jugeait de la qualité d’une peinture par sa ressemblance” (“Contre un roman utilitaire,” Le Monde, 8 mars 1967). 

Adaptation as Intervention: From Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series to Contemporary Echoes

Clara Juncker

This essay on “Adaptation as Intervention” engages especially with African American painter Jacob Lawrence, who adapted his childhood stories of the Great Migration into sixty small panels with this major change in black Southerners’ lives as his story and theme. Lawrence obviously draws on literary texts with laconic, factual captions on all but a few of his panels, so that the he might reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest. Lawrence’s work also adapts sound and music, photography, cinema and political cartoons into interventionist visual art. This political commitment echoes in works by other 20th– and 21st-century artists, such as Wang Quingsong and the Electric Disturbance Theater, political artists who seek to motivate and activate audiences so as to bring about social change. Writers, visual artists or performers accordingly adapt to and influence political agendas such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.


Cet article sur l’adaptation comme intervention s’intéresse particulièrement au peintre afro-américain Jacob Lawrence qui a adapté ses histoires d’enfance sur la grande migration en soixante petits panneaux prenant ce changement majeur dans la vie des Noirs du Sud comme histoire et thème. Lawrence s’inspire évidemment de textes littéraires avec des légendes laconiques et factuelles sur la plupart de ses toiles, sauf quelques-unes, afin de toucher son auditoire avec des protestations visuelles et verbales. Le travail de Lawrence adapte également le son et la musique, la photographie, le cinéma et les cartoons politiques pour en faire des œuvres visuelles interventionnistes. Cet engagement politique se retrouve dans le travail d’autres artistes des XXe et XXIe siècles, comme Wang Quingsong et le Electric Disturbance Theater, des artistes politiques qui cherchent à motiver et à faire réagir le public afin d’encourager des changements sociaux. Les écrivains, les plasticiens ou les artistes-interprètes s’adaptent et influencent en conséquence les agendas politiques tels que la migration, le travail mondial et la discrimination.


        In her poem “Migration,” written in response to African American artist Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940-41) and itself migrating across three pages, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon writes: “Black is an ardor./Color moving/as wholeness—yellow migrates blouse to light handle to bell green/migrates button to satchel to wall blue migrates coat to sea to night/sky—finds an order” (Dickerman and Smithgall 178). These lines of poetry capture the movement, the colors, the message and the order of Lawrence’s sixty paintings of the migration of 1,648,000 African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North. The first wave of migration occurred during WWI, when 454,000 black southerners moved North, followed by other waves, with 454,000 migrants leaving the South in the 1920s and 398,000 during the Great Depression ( To draw attention to historical discrimination and injustice, Lawrence supplemented his paintings with laconic, factual captions so as to reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest.[1] History matters, as Paul Lauter stresses in his 2007 article “Teaching Protest Literature.” But form matters also, as artists engage with new generations of readers and viewers. Saul Scott notes in “Protest Literature 101” (2009) that, faced with political oppression, “artists will often ‘say the unspeakable’ by coming at it from an oblique angle” (415). This angle may involve the “altered or amended” version of a text that the OED associates with adaptation. From Jacob Lawrence to contemporary projects, artists and academics engage with adaptations from life to art, and ultimately, they engage with adaptations from text or image to activity and activism. By including the surrounding community in their artistic endeavors, the artists hope to bring about change, to call attention to and interfere with injustice and pain. Taken just a bit further, a cultural product—literature, visual art, performance—intervenes in the social environment in which it is produced. Writers, visual artists or performers might accordingly adapt to and influence pressing political agendas, such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.

        Contemporary initiatives, in the United States and elsewhere, also seek through adaptation, further defined in the OED as “bringing two things together” for the purpose of change, to disturb or rebel against inhumanity and inequality. Lawrence’s work inspired a global endeavor among artists to insist on civil rights and visibility. Himself engaged in a project resembling that of radicals such as John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and the Farm Security Administration photographers, Lawrence served as a precursor for Thornton Dial, who in his working-class art revisited African American southerners migrating North. African American artists like Lawrence and Dial shape-shifted, so to speak, into the contemporary Chinese visual artist Wang Quingsong, who replicates their adaptations and interventions. In daring photographs and paintings, Quingsong uses representations of his own body to interfere in the politics of a rising superpower. And along the US-Mexican border, The Electronic Disturbance Theater disturbs, as is the group’s mission, preconceived notions of migration and belonging. These artists articulate in various genres—poetry, novels, photography, painting, film and music—their dissatisfaction with inequality, oppression, and censorship.

        Lawrence sought with his sixty panels, each with a caption, to insert his people into American history by representing the Great Migration. He did not himself experience this massive change in African American life, but migration stories had permeated his childhood. His parents left Virginia and South Carolina, respectively, for Atlantic City, where Lawrence was born in 1917. After his parents separated, his mother left Lawrence and his siblings in Philadelphia in 1924, until she could afford to bring her children to Harlem, where the family settled into a steadily growing migrant community (Schjeldahl 80). Lawrence explains: “I grew up hearing tales about people ‘coming up,’ another family arriving. People who’d been . . . in the North for a few years, they would say another family ‘came up’ and they would help them to get established. . .” (qtd. Gates 20; Lorensen 572). As a high school drop-out, Lawrence worked odd jobs and studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, located in the basement of what would become the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. By 1936, he had rented a corner in muralist and mentor Charles Alston’s studio at 306 West 141st Street, where prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas, would come by. After his 1938 solo exhibition at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., Lawrence participated as an easel painter in the Federal Arts Project of the Work Progress Administration (WPA). He favored epic themes, but because he was too inexperienced for mural commissions, he chose instead to paint narrative series (Schjeldahl 80). He soon produced visual histories of prominent travelers of African descent: Toussaint L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti (1938), Frederick Douglass, runaway slave, abolitionist and orator, (1939), and Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad (1940). This work prepared him for The Migration Series. His choice of silhouettes, the anonymous figures moving through his panels featuring American land- and cityscapes, suggest his growing interest in collective history. He was, as Peter Schjeldahl writes in “Telling the Whole Story,” “The right young man in the right place at the right moment to channel, for all time, the lightning of an epochal circumstance” (80).[2]

        This right young man helped map the lives of African Americans. He shared the vision of Carter Woodson’s movement in 1926 to include black history in American history, as he himself explains: “I have always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools. . . . I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro” (Wheat 14). He sought to historicize the African American experience through his Great Migration paintings, which gave his race a new identity and visibility, both through visual and textual representations. His captions are short and direct, almost tightlipped, so as to reach a broad audience and also, perhaps, to contain his anger at the silencing of African American lives in the dominant culture and history. Jutta Lorensen sees Lawrence as “a painter who worked very consciously in the space of historical elision” (571). Lawrence wanted to adapt American history to include African American contributions, and he wanted to bring about change. In the words of the directors of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Collection, which together house The Migration Series, the work Lawrence researched and produced “was shaped by his immersion in contemporary debates about writing and giving visual form to African-American history” (Dickerman and Smithgall 7). His Migration Series introduced the first leaderless movement for civil rights to American audiences (Grossman 64).

        Lawrence’s interventionist aspirations surface not only in his choice of subject matter―the mass exodus of black southerners to the North that had drastically changed the Harlem community―but also in his adaptations. In “Fighting Blues,” Leah Dickerman quotes from a 1972 interview with Lawrence, in which he recalls the multiple strands of African American culture he encountered at Alston’s studio: “During the ‘30s there was much interest in black history and the social and political issues of the day—this was especially true at 306. It became a gathering place. . . . I received not only an experience in the plastic arts—but came in contact with older blacks from the theater, dance, literary and other fields. At sixteen, it was quite a learning experience . . . .” (Dickerman and Smithgall 16). The four divisions of the WPA cultural program—Writers, Theater, Music and Art—further inspired his formal innovations, which allowed him to increase the impact of his visual art by drawing on various political and artistic sources. His adaptations move across image to text, sound, photography and film, so as to transfer and transform.

        Panel number 1 depicts a crowd of black southerners mostly dressed in dark colors rushing to bright orange ticket counters marked “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis.” Lawrence adapts his visual image into a caption, so as to communicate with audiences through both image and text. These three cities had a chapter each in Emmet J. Scott’s Negro Migration during the War (1920), which Lawrenceread in the 135th Street library in Harlem and occasionally copied verbatim. These topographical alternatives to life in the segregated South exist only textually in the first part of his series, and they reinforce his depiction of the southern prejudice the migrants hasten to escape. Other sources of inspiration include Richard Wright, at this time Harlem editor of the communist newspaper the Daily Worker andco-authoring a guidebook to New York City sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) (Dickerman and Smithgall 15). As the language of race changed, Lawrence kept up his efforts to communicate well. In the 1990s, past eighty years of age, Lawrence revised most of the captions originally produced in 1941 in order to keep up with contemporary viewers and readers. “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” became in 1993 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.” He also revised the Migration captions so that they became shorter, more succinct, to suit the pace and style of late 20th-century addressees.

        Like radical writers of the Depression era—Richard Wright, Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and others—Lawrence also sought to adapt his art to the speech of his people. The Migration Series communicates like an interactive oral performance (Lorensen 583). In many panels, the migrants discuss, listen, or read, thus emphasizing the textuality of the art work, and the political decisions involved in migration. In panel 20, three figures in the foreground and two in the background are immersed in reading a newspaper together, with mostly brown, unobtrusive space between the two groups so as to emphasize their shared activity. Lawrence stresses not only the reading but also the outcome of this engagement with text in his 1993 caption: “In many of the communities the Black press was read with great interest. It encouraged the movement.” In panel 26, two men lean on a brown fence, which fills the space of the panel, along with a blue sky and a barren tree. With the two figures centered in the panel, Lawrence highlights their dialog and interaction, also central to his caption: “And people all over the South continued to discuss this great movement.” Dickerman compares these ongoing conversations to the oral history initiatives of the FWP (19). The end result is political agitation and adaptation. Obviously, Lawrence seeks to reach his readers and viewers, to persuade them, to intervene into the historical moment they occupy together. He creates in his series a communal voice and presents the political agency of his anonymous figures, and of those they face.

        This communal voice sounds like blues and jazz. Lawrence encountered a busy, inspiriting music scene in Harlem, and the sound of African American music echoes in his works, including The Migration Series. Lawrence paints and writes with the passion and personal involvement of a jazz musician. Like a blues singer or a jazz player, he draws on intimate experiences, such as a woman cutting a slab of fatback for her hungry, emaciated son in panel 11, with the caption bemoaning that “Food had doubled in price because of the war.” Panel 6 depicts the interior of a north-bound railroad car at night, a migrant mother nursing her baby while sleeping bodies and the lack of space hint at brutal passages in the African American past: “The trains were crowded with migrants.” Regarding this panel, Jodi Roberts, Curatorial Assistant for MoMA, notes that blues singer Maggie Jones recorded the hit “Northbound Train” in 1925 (Dickerman and Smithgall 58), thus serving as a sound track of sorts to Lawrence’s painting.

        Other jazz or blues recordings also involve experiences suffered and endured. Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” recording in 1939 may resonate in its protest and its silences with panel 15. In this painting a forlorn—even abject—isolated figure sits bent over, literally on the edge of a brown diagonal line that creates disturbance and discord. An empty noose, hanging from a single brown tree branch, occupies the center of the panel, surrounded by pastel blues and streaks of light brown, suggesting, perhaps, more trees and more lynching in the South. As in blues and jazz, sung or performed by African American artists, captions suggest with repetitions and variations the migration experience: “The trains were crowded with migrants” (panel 6), “The migration gained in momentum” (panel 18), “The migration spread” (panel 23), “The migrants arrived in great numbers” (panel 40), “The migrants kept coming” (panel 60). The distinctive colors of the paintings, such as bright yellows, reds and blues, repeated and varied, parallel the prominent meters and the syncopated rhythms of jazz.

        The many repetitions of “the migrants kept coming” and the concluding panel 60, in which the migrants confront the viewer, reinforce the orality of Lawrence’s project and the audience “you.” The migrants transform, in a sense, the viewers into listeners, as if they were a gathering of preachers calling out to congregations, a gospel choir or maybe a silent, attentive club audience. Overall, this orality links up with folk tales and oral modes of communication within African American culture, such as call and response. Both the sounds and the silences of the Migration panels perform the lived and felt African American experiences. Lorensen elaborates: “The last panel shows that the Migration Series is not only interested in telling a story, narrating the events or ‘causes’ of the Great Migration, but interested as well in linking them to the viewer/reader. This culmination has been adumbrated by the ‘migration refrains’ throughout the narration” (583). The sixty panels suggest a community come together, improvising and negotiating an artistic and political agenda as they move along.

The simplicity and directness of Lawrence’s work parallel the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, who also documented the lives and hardships of poverty-stricken Americans during the Great Depression. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with photographs by Walker Evans and text by James Agee, came out in 1941 and, like Lawrence’s Migration panels, this book escapes traditional genre conventions. Apart from Agee’s rhapsody and lyricism, which echo Lawrence’s soundscapes, Evans’s straight-on photography gives to his poor Alabama sharecroppers the dignity and humanity they share with the migrants. In panel 25, the green curtain amidst the rough, brown boards of Lawrence’s abandoned sharecropper’s cabin suggests the efforts of its former inhabitants to decorate the narrow space. In Evans’s photographs, the sharecroppers’ cabins show similar efforts at owning and humanizing their space, and their lives, with paper lace or newspaper clippings used for decoration. The child labor in Agee and Evans’s fields—especially the ten-year-old Maggie Louise Gudger picking cotton—recurs in panel 24, in which African American children work in the fields and carry loads so heavy that most cannot stand up straight. Lawrence’s caption connects this obligatory field labor to the lack of educational opportunities: “Their children were forced to work in the fields. They could not go to school.” Both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Migration Series rely on images for attention, and for intervention.

        Dickerman writes that “enthrallment with FSA photo-culture was strong in Lawrence’s circles” (22). In early 1940, Charles Alston traveled South posing as an FSA photographer and used photos taken in the South for paintings such as “Tobacco Farmer” (1940). This painting depicts a black southerner, dressed in overalls and a blue shirt, in front of a simple barn, with a glimpse of the surrounding fields that make up his world. It helps explain his grim facial expression, and it echoes strongly Evans’s frontal shots of white Alabama sharecroppers taken just a few years earlier. Another of Lawrence’s mentors, Richard Wright, published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States in 1941, with his own and FSA-produced photographs that often resemble a Lawrence panel, both in subject matter and technique (Dickerman and Smithgall 22-23). Wright’s captions are as simple, rhythmic and collective as those in The Migration Series: “We labor in farm factories” (82) and, across two pages “We sleep…” (84) … in wooden barracks” (85). Accompanying a photo of Chicago’s South side, Wright states in his caption: “The streets claim our children” (139). Like others in his circle of artists, Lawrence employed the media favored by his audience and thus adapted his interventions to contemporary platforms especially suited for political persuasion.

        Politicized or radical writers such as John Dos Passos also drew on cinema to reach an audience. In “Grosz Comes to America,” published in Esquire magazine in 1936, Dos Passos wrote: “From being a word-minded people we are becoming an eye-minded people” (105). Both Dos Passos and Lawrence had learned about Sergei Eisenstein’s montage techniques, the former from a trip to Russia and Lawrence from Jay Leyda, assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art (Dickerman and Smithgall 23). Leyda had studied with Eisenstein for three years before he joined MoMA and became a leading figure in Russian avant-garde cinema studies. Dickerman writes that the repetitions of people, metaphors and motifs in Lawrence’s panels constitute a “rhythmic intersplicing of congruent bodies of images, the juxtaposition producing both aesthetic and ideological meaning.” The Migration Series “resembles nothing so much as Eisenstein’s montage: the Soviet filmmaker’s cutting back again and again to the baby carriage to the thrilling Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin is the most famous example” (23). Dos Passos concludes about his own eye-mindedness: “in spite of my early training I tend to take a painting visual end first.” His privileged class and race position aside, he describes to a degree the younger Lawrence’s inspiration and project: “I think something of the sort has happened to many Americans of my generation, and even in a greater degree to the generations younger than us [sic], so that an appetite and a taste for painting is growing up in this country very fast. Display advertising and the movies, though they may dull the wits, certainly stimulate the eyes” (105). Lawrence’s sixty panels work together as a movie sequence, with one frame following the next, and he uses linearity, repetition, juxtaposition, cross-cutting and montage to tell his story as compellingly as a film audience might expect.

        Also, political cartoons have left their marks on Dos Passos’s and Lawrence’s (African) American epics. Dos Passos cites as his inspiration for his U.S.A. trilogy George Grosz, with his focus “not in the studio or in the metaphysics of color but in the everyday life as he saw it of men and women sleeping, dressing, eating, going to work, drinking, making love, and in their dreams and their wants.” Dos Passos concludes about Grosz: “He was a satirist and a moralist” (131). The same may be said for Lawrence, who used the satirical forms of the political cartoon to depict the white authority figures suspended above, and often violating, the everyday lives of his African American protagonists. Like Grosz and Dos Passos, Lawrence inspired, and initiated, contemporary debates about justice, democracy and equality. In Dos Passos’s words, “a satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the incongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible” (131). This naked approach suited the media of Lawrence’s time and landed The Migration Series in Fortune magazine, with four spreads and twenty-six images. His art intervened, as the Fortune editors knew. Lawrence knew it also:


I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education. Today we can’t go about it in the same way. Any leadership would have to be the type of Frederick Douglass. . . . How will it come about? I don’t know. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about. (Wheat 14)


        Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Lawrence reverberates in literary and visual efforts to influence American and global audiences. As Lawrence revised his Migration captions in the 1990s, another artist, Thornton Dial, revisited his subject matter, the African American migration from sharecropping and cotton fields in the South to urban assembly lines in the North. Dial assembled paintings such as “Heading for the Higher-Paying Jobs” (1992) from scrap metal, carpeting pieces and other waste products found in post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama, thus adapting waste to art. Dial put these materials to new use so as to point to the discarding of African American lives and futures, from the civil rights movement to the contemporary financial displacement of the African American work force. Amidst critical discussions of the market and museum attraction to “outsider” or self-taught artists of color over formally trained ones, New York’s Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art jointly exhibited Dial’s assembly paintings and sculptures in 1996; the Whitney Biennial included him in 2000 (Doss 234; Conwill [2]). Dial brought about change not just in making waste and junk serve new functions. Like Lawrence, he also gave visibility to African American folk art and its practitioners. These artists—and their causes—slowly entered dominant cultural institutions and cultures, in the process empowering the African Americans who did not manage to tell—or show—their stories.

        This adaptation of traditional forms and materials to new uses occurs as well in global settings, where protest takes on various shapes. In China, visual artist Wang Quingsong adapts his own body to various political interventions, all calling attention to the lack of freedom and the conformity and materialism of Chinese society. In one self-portrait, he appears with long, wild hair standing straight from his skull, empty patches in between these electrified locks, as if he has torn from his head at least half of his hair strands. His attention-grabbing hair may suggest the creativity inside his brain, as if his imagination is transforming his hair into electric wires. At the same time, his photograph also suggests pain—as in tearing one’s hair—and horror, as if he cannot bear to participate, or to watch, what is outside the frame.

        In other paintings, Quingsong is on life support, the artist now disguised as a university professor sitting down in the middle of a classroom crowded with sleeping students at their desks, each surrounded by tall piles of closed books. The many slogans on the wall, some in English for global audiences (a protest against intellectual colonization?) suggest the brainwashing or mindlessness of Chinese education (“Follow You” 2013). As Quingsong states about his paintings in university settings, “I am talking about the education problem in China. Knowledge is taught but not learnt by many people who fail to understand the real meanings. They don’t know the meaning of studies. They study for their parents, for their grandparents, but never for themselves, for the love of knowledge itself. Therefore, we see so many students trash their books after examinations” ( To protest the Chinese lack of critical thinking, Quingsong appears in “Thinker” (1998) as a praying monk in lotus position, but with a Macdonald’s logo tattooed on the skin of his chest. Drawing on a Buddhist heritage that has gone sour, his tattoo of an American chain brand suggests the commercialization and superficiality of contemporary China. Like Jacob Lawrence, Wang Quingsong uses adaptation to get his messages across and rewrite the official histories of his nation. From painting to body, from text to tattoo, he changes his medium of protest so as to engage his audiences in innovative ways. Quite a few viewers have studied the students in “Follow Me” up close, to figure out what this new medium might be: A painting? A photograph? A happening? A theater performance? A cartoon?

        On the North American continent, adaptations proliferate. The Electronic Disturbance Theater operates along the US-Mexican border by handing out second-hand mobile phones with GPS to illegal immigrants from South America. In the description of this project, “The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT),” the group writes: “Its software aspires to guide “the tired, the poor,” the dehydrated—citizens of the world—to water safety sites. Concomitantly, its platform offers poetic audio “sustenance.” This “poetry in motion” adaptation establishes a “global poetic system” and a grassroots interventionist practice. The project activates sound, images, words and movement across human sensory apparatuses. It aims to have audiences walk with cellphones, so that they may experience from afar the hope and hardships within immigrant bodies, who take steps towards better lives along with those watching and experiencing from their phones, their computers, or from exhibits of various kinds. As the website announces, the tool won the “Transnational Communities Award” in 2008, an award funded by the Endowment for Culture Mexico-U.S., and it also won awards from the University of California, San Diego Center for the Humanities. Some years before Donald Trump took office, a development for disruptive art along the US-Mexico border already seemed urgent. Glenn Beck, conservative author and radio host, declared the Transborder Immigrant Tool “a gesture that potentially ‘dissolved’ the U.S. border with its poetry” (, a change that opponents of Mexican wall construction would undoubtedly welcome.

        As a part of the Poetry Suite accompanying the 2015 MoMA exhibition of The Migration Series, Terrance Hayes started off his “Four Premonitions of Migration” poem by inserting Lawrence’s work into contemporary debates about police killings of black Americans:


To grasp the inextricable ghosts riding you

Into an inexplicable future, you must place your lips

To panel thirteen until you taste something human

In the colors of the dirt. To suit present life

You must revise “The crops were left to dry and rot.

There was no one left to tend them,” to read:

“The cops were left to cry and shoot. No one was left

To defend them. . . .”


His poem begins a conversation with Jacob Lawrence’s art and intervenes through genre- and other border crossings in contemporary racial topographies and ideologies. Hayes zooms in on panel 13 for many reasons. The panel depicts a barren landscape, with brown, naked trees to the left and a multi-colored, abandoned field anchoring the panel at the bottom. Most of the panel is covered by sky, pastel brown and blue, to set off an orange-reddish sun baking from above, with uninterrupted rays downwards. A cloud formation in a darker blue, with whitish areas below, suggests the ghost-like presence that Hayes identifies—the ghosts of southern history and black laborers and migrants’ lives. As in southern landscapes described throughout southern history, the black southerners are present through their absence—the historical elision Lawrence sought to fill. Hayes goes on a similar mission through his poem, which calls for physical contact between artwork and audience—a sensory journey that might enable identification and human response: “you must place your lips/To panel thirteen until you taste something human….” The panel caption lends itself to Hayes’s project: with the substitution of “cops” for “crops,” he signifies on Lawrence’s words and brings together the deadly forces of African American lives, then and now.

        In June 2015, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American novelist, reacted strongly to the sixty Migration panels, all exhibited together at MoMA. The connection she describes is as close as in Hayes’s poem. Danticat felt “glued” to Lawrence’s silhouettes, which “heartbreakingly” showed “black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain” (2). She had just made it through the week of the Charleston murders in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and she longed for the community of Lawrence’s migrants, “for their witness and fellowship” (2). So, Lawrence’s adaptations from life to art continue to inspire and to comfort. Schjeldahl adds: “As with much world-changing art, you can feel that ‘Migration’ is the invention less of an individual artist than of the artist serving as an instrument of invisible, urgent powers.” He also notes that “Lawrence continued to make excellent paintings and prints to the end of his life” (Schjeldahl 82). The young Harlem resident began his artistic and political journey with African American icons and the anonymous migrants during WWI through the Great Depression traversing his signature panels. His interventionist agenda traveled across genres—painting, writing, photography, music, cinema and cartoons—in order to reach the audiences he sought to activate. The recent exhibitions, debates, publications and adaptations of his work suggest that he succeeded, though the problems he took on, like the migrants, keep coming.


Works Cited

“Adaptation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 15/08/17.

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. New York: Mariner Books, 2001. Print.

“Carter G. Woodson Biography.” Web. 10/04/17.

Conwill, Kinshasha Holman. “In Search of an ‘Authentic’ Vision: Decoding the Appeal of the Self-Taught African-American Artist.” American Art 5.4 (Autumn 1001): 2-9. Print.

Dickerman, Leah and Elsa Smithgall, eds. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Reprint edition, 2015. Print.

Dos Passos, John. “Grosz Comes to America.” Esquire 6 (September 1936): 105, 128, 131. Print.

Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Danticat, Edwidge. “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain.” The New Yorker June 22, 2015. Web. 18/05/18.

Electronic Disturbance Theater. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Web. 30/07/18.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “New Negroes: Migration and Cultural Exchange.” Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Ed. Elizabeth Hutton Turner. Washington, DC: Rappahannock P, 1993. 17-21. Print.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.Print.

Hayes, Terrance. “Four Premonitions of Migration.” 2015. Web. 15/05/18.

Lauter, Paul. “Teaching Protest Literature.” The Radical Teacher 79 (2007): 8-12. Print.

Lorensen, Jutta. “Between Image and Word: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” African American Review 40.3 (Fall 2006): 571-86. Print.

Museum of Modern Art. “One Way Ticket.” Web. 10/05/18.

Quingsong, Wang. Official Webpage. 19/04/18.

Saul, Scott. “Protest Literature 101.” American Literary History 21.2 (Summer 2009): 404-17. Print.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Telling the Whole Story: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” The New Yorker (April 20, 2015): 80-82. Print.

Wheat, Ellen Harkins. Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-1940. Hampton: Hampton University Museum, 1991. Print.

Wright, Richard. Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. 1941. London: Lindsay, Drummond, 1947. Print.


The Author

Clara Juncker (Ph.D. Tulane University) is Associate Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. She has published widely in the United States and Europe on Transnational Studies, 19th– and 20th-century American Literature, African American Studies, Film and Literature, Southern Literature, Gender Studies, and Literary Theory. Her books include Trading Cultures: Nationalism and Globalization in American Studies (2002), Through Random Doors We Wandered: Women Writing the South (2002), Transnational America: Contours of Modern U.S. Culture (2004), Circling Marilyn: Text, Body Performance (2010) and The Transatlantic Sixties: Europe and the United States in the Counterculture Decade (2013). 



[1] Lawrence’s paintings can be accessed here:

[2] Another version of this paragraph appeared in Southern Exposure: Essays Presented to Jan Nordby Gretlund. Ed. Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, Clara Juncker, and David E. Nye (Odense, Denmark: The Department for the Study of Culture, 2017), 15-16.

N°2 | From Eco Politics to Fiction: Watershed or Percival Everett’s Adaptation of United States Indian Policy


Françoise Clary

The question of whether the readers of Percival Everett’s Watershed—a novelwhose structure was inspired by of a spy game—should know about American Indian Policy and Indian activism is the main basis of this study. It examines how Everett, as a story-teller, contrives both to re-read from the margins the primary source documents which marked significant formulations of policy in the conduct of Indian Affairs by the United States government and to turn history into fantasy by adapting tribal Indian history, linking environmentalism to Indian activism into fiction.


La question de savoir si les lecteurs du roman Watershed de Percival Everett (un roman dont la construction s’inspire d’un jeu d’espionnage) devraient connaître la politique indienne américaine et l’activisme indien constitue le point de départ de cette étude. Elle examine comment Everett, en tant que conteur, s’efforce à la fois de relire, à partir de la marge, les documents qui ont contribué à la formulation de la politique du gouvernement des États-Unis en matière d’affaires indiennes et de transformer l’histoire en fiction en adaptant l’histoire de tribus indiennes.


Landscapes evolve sequentially

except under extraordinary provocation, or in circumstances not at all to be apprehended, it is not probable that as many as five hundred Indian warriors will ever again be mustered at one point for a fight and with the conflicting interests of the different tribes, and the occupations of the intervening country by advancing settlements, such an event as a general Indian war can never occur in the United States.

(Everett 1)


        This excerpt from an 1873 statement by Edward Pamerlee Smith, who was Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant, opens Percival Everett’s novel Watershed (1996). Interestingly, the extract from Pamerlee Smith’s statement is an essential document for understanding the formulation of policy in the conduct of Indian affairs between1778 and 1883 (Prucha 144-46). Nevertheless, the reader may remain under the spell of an illusion about its significance as it serves as an introduction to a text that mimics the historical approach to government documents, emphasizing a narratorial presence that becomes increasingly apparent. The reason for this commitment to an illusion is that the reader believes he is being given a convincing account of the patterns of Western American Indian history while, to tell the truth, the text is a pastiche of several primary source documents illustrating the history of the relations between the United States government and a minority group. The text can therefore be perceived as an adaptation of the minority versus majority asymmetric warfare that haunts the book.

        Offering a model of a split narrative, intended to outline the contradictory impulses that mark the narration of the American nation, Everett proceeds to explore cultural compromises because they run against the hegemonic, ideological, historical discourse one needs to know when re-reading History from the margins, or even when writing about the margins. Consequently, to elaborate on the issue of adaptation as an epistemological strategy used by Everett to reach a plurality of vision involves contrasting minority belonging and majority belonging, that is, the “nation-centered view of sovereign citizenship” (Bahbha xvii). This involves locating Everett’s perspectival knowledge as he translates it into a novelistic point of view, then examining the creative possibilities of an enunciative split in Watershed and finally focusing on the author’s narrative insistence that identity and cultural difference are as much a question of history as a phenomenological and ideological issue.


Aesthetic Distance as Perspectival Knowledge

        Aesthetic distance or point of view provides a means of transcending the objectivity versus subjectivity debate. It also characterizes the stance that seems appropriate to sociological inquiry about the question of the subalternity of the voice. To illustrate this point, the novelist looks at the history of the relations between the United States government and the Native Americans, claiming that American citizenship and the state itself were founded on the need to dominate the indigenous population. In the process of adapting historical documents for a work of fiction, the author’s point of view as a resource for sociological analysis is therefore seen as the organizing principle in the novel that posits, from the very start, an implicit opposition to white supremacist patriarchy. Going deeper into the adaptation process, we notice that Everett traces a full circle of the history of Indian-white relations, and recounts by means of assembled primary sources, a system in which White equaled citizen, Black equaled slave, and Native American equaled subaltern individual. The chief materials used here show the relationships between the observer’s point of view and those of the people on whom he reports. In Watershed,for example, Everett’s command of his characters’ thoughts and actions allows him to shape various individuals, even though they have a life of their own, because in the adaptation process, the sociological perspective is tied to the historical one.

        Everett incorporates himself into the novel even though he does not intervene openly as the narrator. Indeed, the presence of an observer-reporter is felt from the opening lines since the novel begins with a contradictory point of view. In fact, unlike what can be read in the introductory lines drawn from a primary source document in which the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserted authoritatively in 1873 that “such an event as a general Indian war can never occur in the United States” (Prucha 144), history teaches us that a general Indian war did occur in the United States three years after Edward Pamerlee Smith’s statement—Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man, inspired his people to wage a war of resistance against the United States government policies and mustered a coalition of Native American tribes, the confederated Lakota tribes with the Northern Cheyenne. Under Sitting Bull’s leadership, the coalition of Indian tribes decisively defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, annihilating Custer’s battalions at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana on June 25, 1876.

        By opting for a contradictory perspective in the very first paragraph of the text, Everett introduces Watershed as a biased adaptation of United States Indian policy into a work of fiction, letting it be understood that the history of United States Indian policy was, at times, written from the margins. This is a way for the author to mirror his commitment to the marginal and the peripheral. Undoubtedly, the concept of distance, or even “estrangement,” has an advantage for Everett in his adaptation process in so far as it permits the novelist to have a new approach to the history of the relations between the United States government and American Indians.

        It is in the present that the past is turned into “the past”. In Watershed, a work that draws from “the past” through government documents and valuable sources, such as Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, rebellious or stifling memories converge into a culturally meaningful space/time divide. To portray the disruption of chronology, there is an enunciative split, together with a fragmentation of the past into a variety of stories meant to shape the reader’s views about ethics and politics. First, there is something deliberately unsettling in the way storytelling alternates with italicized excerpts from historical documents that illustrate the evolution of the relations between the United States government and Native Americans, from the founding of the nation to the time of writing. Besides, the same type of combined presentation (documents alternating with narration) is repeated with excerpts providing natural, physiological, or geological data. It is therefore at this primary level of the structural organization of the narrative, hinging either on the history/fiction relationship, as in “Article 4 – The government of the United States and the said Indians, being mutually desirous that the latter shall be located in a country where they may eventually become self-supporting and acquire the arts of civilized life etc…” (Everett 38) or on the nature/fiction relationship, for instance, “Nymphs are meant to be fished near or on the bottom of the water and so must absorb moisture and/or be weighted so they get to the bottom quickly etc…” (Everett 3), that social existence determines social consciousness. Considering that this rising social consciousness is drawn from a specific historical phase of the general development of Indian militancy, we may then hypothesize that the various textual manipulations in the narrative are parts of the process of adaptation achieved by Everett—that of United States Indian policy adapted to fiction.

        As a matter of fact, Indian history finds its way into Watershed through a process of conversion that brings Everett to engage in the reconceptualization of various legislative enactments in the conduct of Indian affairs—more specifically those that highlight aspects of the history of the relations between the United States government and Native Americans. It is, consequently, a social and cultural rather than a historical re-formulation of legislative and administrative history that results from Everett’s process of adaptation of United States Indian policy to a work of fiction. There is, actually, a rich mix of manipulations in Everett’s adaptation process contributing to create a new fictional storyline. Two areas should thus be explored: the introduction of subjectivity of understanding and the use of parody or sociological irony before reflecting, in a concluding argument, on Everett’s decision to adapt United States policy in the conduct of Indian affairs to a rewriting of History from the margins that brings the reader to face the question of the State and Human Rights.

        Alternating upheaval and placidity, the use of the point of view of the observer-reporter in relation to the subaltern population (including African Americans as well as Native Americans) allows the storyteller to cut to the very heart of the questions we may have about the reformulation of History from the margins. The untold history of subaltern voices is reconceived as one in which the ‘sociological present’ of the Indian activists’ protest groups in the Plata reservation—that looking outward for a solution, as the black spokesmen did—is described as a break with the dominant paradigms of preceding generations. Indeed, for centuries, the colored subaltern population was historically dominated—and dealt with as the object of the enforcement of law and order—in the United States: This is part of the untold history that is voiced in Watershed from contrasting perspectives and points of view to adequately articulate the linkage of sociological distance and fictional adaptation of substantive documents which marked significant formulations of policy in the conduct of Indian affairs by the United States government. Without such a distancing as is provided by Everett’s use of point of view as an instrument of self-reflection, a re-reading of History adjusted to national minorities’ denunciation of their being considered as victims of the law would not have occurred. In Watershed,the discourse of the narrator as observer-reporter reflects a transcoding of the observations of Indian activists in the Plata reservation into report form. What is to be noted is that this transcoding of what is observed conveys the enlarged vision provided by the varied perspectives that highlight the opposing viewpoints on the narrator’s principal subjects in much the same way the sociologist Elliot Liebow moves from “inside” views to “over” views when he lays the emphasis on the “more complex phenomena marking the intersection of economic forces, social values, and individual states of mind and body” (29).


Introducing the Subjectivity of Understanding

        The aesthetic point of view chosen by Everett is neither a pure reflection of US Indian policy nor an ordinary awareness of the relationships between the US government and Native Americans. Instead, it combines detachment with intuition while offering a sociological adaptation of Indian policy. Shifts in the reproduction of historically distinct elements of Indian policy are determined by the two main protagonists via a narrative that develops like a spy game with the murder of two FBI agents who were investigating a lake whose water had been polluted by chemicals. These two protagonists are the narrator, Robert Hawks, an African American hydrologist who is brought to testify that the water of the Indian reservation has been polluted, and Louise, the challenging Native American woman who turns out to be the spokeswoman for her tribe in the Plata Reservation. Everett’s modern conception of aesthetic perception emerges in his refashioning of the relationships of a mixed population; that is to say the relationships between white Americans, African Americans and Native Americans. The latter are made to represent the determination of the base, including African Americans, to resist bourgeois ideology.

        It is clear that by opposing United States hegemonic thought and entertaining the idea of “decolonizing” the reader’s mind through a focus on revolutionary Indian activism, Percival Everett aims to teach people how to think critically about history and society. To do so, he relies on the interaction between the information provided by the historical documents and the perspective offered by the adapted fictional text, more precisely Everett relies on the movement to and fro between italicized passages referring to Indian policy, ecology, physiology (Everett 48-49) or geography (Everett 66-67) and Robert Hawks’s narrative in which man as a biological organism must undertake a constant material exchange with nature.

        In Watershed the reader may sense that the story has several different meanings, layer upon layer of significance. In other words, when Robert Hawks, the African American hydrologist, finds himself involved in a fight over Native American treaty rights about the use of water in Indian reservations, he has to fit together the pieces of a rapidly unfolding drama: the casualties caused by spreading disease in the Plata Reservation whose water has been poisoned by chemicals the Army endeavored to get rid of. Meanwhile, the readers are given to see what the author expects or thinks they will see, that is to say a similarity between Native Americans and African Americans’ long-standing claims for civil rights. Indeed, once called back to memory by the hero, the pictures of African Americans’ civil rights protests merge gradually with those of Native American militancy.

        There is ample evidence that the framing effects introduced by Everett in the adaptation of the history of United States Indian policy implicate the responsibility of the government in creating ecological disasters and therefore point to the government’s cynicism in activating Native Americans’ militancy just as it had stirred the African Americans’ battle for civil rights. To lay the emphasis on the struggle led by two meaningful Indian characters, Louise Yellow Calf and Hiram Kills Enemy, is for Robert Hawks, a way to call back to memory his father and grandfather’s fight for rights that were claimed and repeatedly denied. This process occurs, for the most part, in secrecy and silence, combining pictures with words to make messages more memorable. This is not simply a splitting of enunciation, the reader’s imagination is guided by images hanging together in sequences that bring the meaning of the text to life.

        It is easy to see the influence of memory enhancement in the adaptation process thanks to a succession of visual stimuli that have an impact on readers’ attribution of responsibility and their laying the blame on the government. In other words, the interaction between the text and the reader and the use of signifiers map out an overtly political and explicit process that can be summed up in this way: Robert Hawks, the black hydrologist, opens the narrative by recalling the situation that has led him to be sitting on a bench in a small Episcopal church on the northern edge of the Plata Indian Reservation, holding in his hands a Vietnam-era M16, with seven other armed people sitting on the floor and National Guardsmen surrounding the Church. Robert Hawks is looking at an FBI agent sitting on the floor opposite him, hands bound, while another FBI agent is lying dead on the ground outside between two dead Indians. In the structure of comprehension that regulates the text/reader interaction, a racial ambiguity is deftly installed in the novel from the very beginning of the narration through codes that function symmetrically. Assuredly, while a mental association is established between the African American hero and the white FBI agents, a connection is also to be made between the hero and the Native Americans of the Plata Reservation.

        The codes become clearer and clearer as the story tracks the hero’s encounter with the Plata Reservation Indians: “My blood is my own and my name is Robert Hawks” claims the hero at the beginning of the story. The way the African American protagonist asserts his “biological” identity reflects the pride he takes in it, but it also acts as a relativistic referential that contributes to depicting the black hydrologist as a fragment of African American experience involving people of the same blood in the meandering of an intercultural exploration. No doubt the story renders identity a contested subject in a social landscape. What is to be inferred from it? By forcing the reader to reinterpret the US government’s policy towards its minorities from the social clues provided (though some of them are highly ambiguous), Everett exposes unarticulated racial codes. In fact, the whole text highlights the tension between truth and experience because Everett proceeds to adapt the history of US Indian policy for his fiction by framing the concept of causal responsibility for political issues as an essential building block of all social knowledge. The dominant paradigm in Everett’s adaptation of history to fiction is obviously to attribute responsibility to societal forces and institutions.  


Approaching the Adaptation of History from the Margins: Sociological Irony

        No doubt the baffling elusiveness of Watershed results from the multi-faceted construction of Native American culture. First of all, the novel offers practical strategies for new concrete ways of thinking by introducing into the story excerpts from historical documents with perspectives on related socio-ecological systems.

        Everett, just like the protagonist of Watershed is a master of parody, which can be defined, if we refer to Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Parody as “a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion” (6). Yet how is the reader of the adapted text to reach the truth? The counterfactual “truth” undoubtedly depends on a creative confrontation of perspectives. In Watershed,the adaptation process enables the reader to switch from hard historical facts to the ethical values of Native Americans’ culture. For instance, the reader’s perspective on the Indian community of the Plata Reservation opens onto a vision of the genuine simplicity of the American Indians’ way of life, whether it is through the thoughtful relationships Robert Hawks entertains with Louise after giving her a lift or with Billy the shaman. Anyway, all these relationships are based on understanding and mutual respect, as can be seen in the description of the ceremony that takes place at the Indian church: “The singing was repetitive, hypnotic, and beautiful. Much of the beauty was in the disposition of the singers and the listeners’ reception. […] The men took turns praying in Plata, occasionally offering some words of English—for my benefit, I believed.” (Everett 81-82).

        However, the puzzling relationships that develop between the African American Hydrologist and the Plata Reservation Indians may be taken as emblematic of the multicultural play of differences. The use of simplistic bluntness in the Indians’ speech and communication is significant too:


“Do you know the Yellow Calf family?” I asked.


“Do you know Louise?”


“Have you seen Louise?”


“Do you know where she is?” I asked.


(Everett 78)     


        Through the Plata Indians’ inability to join the American public sphere, the bluntness of their speech is meant to express an instinctive act of resistance, and is also an attempt at asserting their identity. It amounts, somehow, to a process in which a self-chosen difference stands in contrast to a functionally imposed diversity of speech, manners and attitudes. In fact, through an insightful handling of relativistic signifiers, Everett gives the reader to understand that social actors create rules by which they make sense of their conduct and govern it. By so doing, Everett introduces two main levels of consciousness into the narrative. The first level is that of the actor in the process of enacting conduct (whether this actor is an FBI agent, Louise an Indian woman or one of the Plata Indians). Then, Everett lays the emphasis on the second level of consciousness by bringing the reader back to the environmental and political issues. For instance, through his focus on nature writing with the numerous descriptions of the pleasure the protagonist takes in fishing or, on the contrary, with the denunciation of the damage caused to the river by an amazing pipeline, Everett sets ecology right in the center of his social analysis. In his adaptation of US Indian policy to his work of fiction, Everett’s aim is clearly to contribute to current efforts to strengthen debates about socio-ecological resilience.

        The social world is presented as an unfolding story. Distance, or disinterested attention, is introduced between the hero—who lives in a withdrawn place—and the surrounding world. Nevertheless, it refers essentially to a two-dimensional mode of perception, a sort of ontological standing apart from conventional categories. Irony, as a metaphor of opposites, a seeing of a political issue from the viewpoint of its antithesis, is used in the novel to bring perspective, though the chief mode of irony in the text is verbal. What can be noted in the author’s use of rhetorical irony is the emphasis put on the transcendent perspective that is achieved through some sort of superior knowledge shared by both the narrator and the reader. Thus, the conversation that goes on between Robert Hawks and the Plata Indians, members of the American Indian Revolution, highlights Everett’s linguistic strategy. Puns and jokes serve a political purpose in the conversation during which John Hat, an Indian activist explains to Robert Hawks why Native Americans consider civil rights as a hoax:


“If you’re an Indian you don’t believe in civil rights. It simply doesn’t make sense. They come and talk about equality again and again, but they always lie.” […]

“Besides,” John Hat continued, “we’re not American citizens. We’re Indians. We’re American Americans. You know, when we get this continent back, all you black people will have to leave.”

They all laughed and I found myself laughing softly with them. (Everett 138)


        The reader is thus made aware that cultural consciousness may be approached from the angle of irony, as when Robert Hawks confesses that he feels more at ease in an Indian Reservation than in an American tavern: “Everyone else was white and I understood why the reservation had felt comfortable to me” (Everett 53).

        The same ironic viewpoint allows Everett to refer allusively to political concerns, as can be noted when Robert Hawks, who is getting more and more involved in the Indians’ struggle against the federal government, starts investigating the dam built illegally on Dog Creek: “I sat on the wall of the dam and looked at it. It was an expert job. Certainly no campers had come up and built it in a week-end. Beavers weren’t the cause—they have no facility with concrete” (Everett 157).

        In such a mode of awareness, the taken for granted world of white hegemony and minority groups’ subservience is disconnected or distanced from real facts by the introduction of humorous understatements. The apparent incongruity of “Beavers weren’t the cause” (of the dam) is in fact made to yield a genuine insight into the US government’s cynicism.


Concluding Argument: Reality behind the Mask, or Adapting US Indian Policy from the Margins  

        The adapted text hinges on the paradox of aiming at objectivity by reporting on the people surrounding the hero while giving the reader to understand that the excerpts from historical documents that determine each story contain the inexpressible. Undoubtedly, the colorful arrangement of mixed people provides a significant means to implement the search for truth. What I suggest is that the reproduction of attitudes, gestures, faces, is basically a means for the author to introduce signs that may remind the reader of the archetypal figure that is supposedly understood. For instance: the rough cops, the self-conscious African American, the tormented Christian middle-class man, the diffident Native American, the resolute Indian activist.

        In this tableau, metaphors are used as a key to model building. Thus, the FBI and the AIR (American Indian Revolution) may be thought of as social metaphors while the representation of the Christian Church can be classified as a mode of social exploitation: “I didn’t need Christianity to dismiss people,”( Everett, 194) says Robert Hawks. In contrast, the Native American Church is described as the ritual enactment of a well-balanced society. We gradually realize that Everett uses the concept of rationality in a way that is reminiscent of Roland Barthes when the philosopher explains in Système de la mode that a similarity of consciousness can exist between unlikely subjects.

        How can we reconcile this use of social metaphors with the search for truth in the adaptation of US Indian policy? What can be noted is that while unearthing fragments of American Indian policy, Everett introduces the notion of “the marginal man”—strongly evocative of Stonequist’s The Marginal Man. A Study in Personality and Cultural Conflict,and his concept of the stranger—in his representation of people who can be perceived as the unfortunate products of the contact or merging of one civilization with another. We therefore reach the conclusion that Everett’s contrast of perspectives may be taken as criteria for the potential fruitfulness of paradigmatic innovations in the adaptation process of history to fiction. On the basis of this concept, cannot we consider that for Everett the right way of approaching history has emerged from minority groups, that is to say from the margins? 


Works Cited

Bahbha, Homi K . The Location of Culture. London: Routledge,1994. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Système de la mode. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967. Print.

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall.  Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. 1968. Boston, Massachussetts: South End Press Classics, 2002. Print.

Everett, Percival. Watershed. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1996. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Liebow, Elliott. Talley’s Corner. Boston: Massachussetts: Little, Brown Book Group, 1967. Print.

Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United Sates Indian Policy. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Print.

Stonequist, Everett. The Marginal Man. A Study in Personality and Cultural Conflict. New York: Russell and Russell, 1937. Print.


The Author

Françoise Clary is Professor emeritus of American literature and civilization at Rouen University. On the roster of American Literary Scholarship, Duke University and a member of the Advisory Board of The Journal of Contemporary Communication, National University of Nigeria she is the author of several books and articles on African American and African literature. Her latest publication is Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River (Atlande, 2016)

N°2 | “Things seen and done otherwise”: Adaptiveness and the Dynamics of Difference in A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia


Peter Merchant


“Double vision,” defined as an awareness “of things seen and done otherwise,” permeates A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, first published in 1992. The fact that its hero is a returning traveller, and an expert on insect behaviour, makes for connections which work both interculturally and across species. The novella’s acknowledgment of a number of precursor texts prompts us continually to refer Byatt’s writing back to the work by others that it artfully reimagines. Finally, Morpho Eugenia sets up an intersemiotic encounter between fiction and film; for a cinematic version was part of the author’s original conception and became a reality just two years after publication. This essay accordingly attempts a comparative treatment of a text whose techniques are themselves comparative. It explores the making of anagrams, through which existing elements are suggestively redisposed, as a parallel to the adaptive impulse and the adaptive act.


La novelette Morpho Eugenia de A. S. Byatt, publiée pour la première fois en 1992, est imprégnée de la “double vision”, définie comme une prise de conscience “des choses vues et faites autrement”. Le fait que son héros soit un voyageur de retour et un expert du comportement des insectes crée des liens qui fonctionnent à la fois entre les cultures et les espèces. La novelette laisse deviner des liens avec un certain nombre de textes précurseurs et incite continuellement le lecteur à se référer à ces intertextes brillamment réimaginés. Enfin, Morpho Eugenia organise une rencontre intersémiotique entre la fiction et le cinéma, car Byatt avait à l’esprit une version cinématographique lors de la conception originale de ce texte, adaptation qui a été réalisée deux ans seulement après la publication. C’est pourquoi le présent article tente de traiter de manière comparative un texte dont les techniques sont elles-mêmes comparatives. Il explore la réalisation d’anagrammes, à travers lesquels les éléments existants sont redisposés de manière suggestive, en parallèle avec l’impulsion adaptative et l’acte adaptatif.



        A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, which in her 1992 volume Angels and Insects appeared alongside The Conjugial Angel, opens with its hero newly returned to nineteenth-century Britain from his travels in South America. We find him physically “constricted,” inside a dress suit borrowed for a ball, but with mental horizons so expanded that he “remembered a festa on the Rio Manaquiry, lit by lamps made of half an orange-skin filled with turtle oil” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 3), and moreover “remembered being grabbed and nuzzled and rubbed and cuddled with great vigour by women with brown breasts glistening with sweat and oil, and with shameless fingers” (7). “Nothing he did now seemed to happen without this double vision, of things seen and done otherwise, in another world.” (7)

        Such “double vision” soon emerges as a resource in which Byatt’s novella is doubly invested. The immediate means of building it in is the intercultural awareness of the hero himself. Simply because he is a returning traveller, all that he experiences back in Britain comes accompanied by a recognition of—as T. S. Eliot put it—“other kinds of experience which are possible” (Eliot 111). That same habitual reference to an indelibly implicit “otherwise” is then transmitted to the reader. The threading through the narrative of the research into insect behaviour which several characters are pursuing invites us to engage in a continual comparison of their world with the ant world. The novella’s discreet homage to a number of precursor texts, taken largely from the nineteenth century, prompts us in addition to compare Byatt’s writing with the work by others which it artfully reimagines. Potentially, too, Morpho Eugenia makes the reader party to an intersemiotic translation of the written into the visual; for the film version which Byatt had in mind from the outset—having by her own account “always seen this tale as a film” (“Architectural Origins” 104)—was shot in the summer of 1994, within two years of the work’s initial appearance in print. The adaptation lent a further layer of irony. A novella that chronicles a coming to terms with the adaptability of life forms, as Darwin’s account of the successive modification of species collides for the hero’s host with the old idea of a divine Designer (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 33), was ministering now to discoveries by its readers about the adaptability of literary texts.

        One work with which Morpho Eugenia is both comparable and contemporary is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, first staged at London’s Lyttelton Theatre in April 1993. Byatt’s novella and Stoppard’s play enjoy a kind of Darwinian kinship, as analogous but separate organisms arising at the same historical juncture and within the same cultural ecosystem. With Arcadia touching upon thermodynamics and chaos mathematics, while Morpho Eugenia is tethered to entomology and the post-Darwinian controversies, an extraordinarily eclectic impulse runs through each and corresponds to the intercontinental reach of the action (out as far as the Amazon in Morpho Eugenia, and Martinique in Arcadia). On the historical level both works connect the 1990s to the nineteenth century, and in each case the point of entry into the past is provided by a young scholar’s stay in a country house. Stoppard’s play puts Septimus Hodge into Sidley Park as a private tutor; and Byatt’s novella sends the scientist-explorer William Adamson, his head filled with foreign bodies, to Bredely Hall, where a foreign body is exactly what he will be. William’s call to Bredely comes, however, some fifty years after Septimus’s summons to Sidley; for, where Stoppard’s setting is Georgian, Morpho Eugenia is steeped in all things Victorian. The terminal dates of the action, which begins a few months after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and ends a few months after the 1863 publication of Kingsley’s Water-Babies, in fact serve to signal one part of the novella’s literary pedigree and to measure two of its principal preoccupations: with Victorian evolutionary theory and with the form of the fairy tale.

        Although the reader is not to know whether William Adamson—who ends by expelling himself from Bredely Hall and returning to the rainforest—lives happily ever after, his beginnings are more straightforward. Byatt herself has traced her hero back to his origin by identifying him as a character “based on Bates and Wallace” (Byatt, Histories 79). William’s background in Brazil and butterflies is borrowed from Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, with the latter also bequeathing the calamity of his shipwreck on the voyage home and even donating his initials. A discreet transposition of these turns A. W. into W. A. and allows William, “because . . . he named the insects in the tropics,” to become Adamson, “the first man in the first Garden” (Byatt, Histories 81, 117). The resulting fictional composite can be projected by Byatt both as a second Adam, born of the Bible and of Milton, and as an eminently recognisable representative of mid-Victorian man, part “Amazonian naturalist” and part “Darwinian agnostic” (Byatt, Histories 79, 118.) Against him Byatt pits the man trying to reconcile Darwin with Design: Harald Alabaster, the clergyman naturalist who rules at Bredely Hall and who himself is ruled by his curiosity about creation. Harald is “one of those entomological aristocratic Victorian parsons with Doubts who contributed so much to science” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). What he needs from William is on one level specialist help with his collection of specimens, on another level a type of gladiatorial combat. As he seeks to preserve what he can of the old order, by defending the territory to which Darwin has forced theology to retreat, Harald relishes the opportunity that William’s arrival affords to test his ideas in the crucible of debate.

        The ten years that William has spent in South America, together with the keen eye for structural similarities and differences that his scientific training has developed in him, impel him at every turn to compare the world which he has just left behind with the world into which his invitation to Bredely Hall has now brought him. While he was abroad, home-thoughts as vivid as Robert Browning’s would come thronging: “I was haunted by an image of an English meadow in spring. . . .” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 30). After his return, whenever he takes in the sights of Bredely Hall he finds himself by the same token thinking of Brazil. The one appears an adaptation of the other. Sometimes parallels of analogy come “pok[ing] their way through the curtains of his inner eye” (63), as when he looks at some “very fine Gothic fan vaulting” and thinks “of . . . palms towering in the jungle” (7). Sometimes what strike him are parallels of contrast: “He felt he was doomed to a kind of double consciousness. Everything he experienced brought up its contrary image from out there” (24). In Brazil William moved among “olive-skinned and velvet-brown ladies of doubtful virtue and no virtue” (5), but the Alabaster daughters to whom William’s work for Harald introduces him—Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid—seem of another substance altogether, as smooth and as precious as the family name suggests: “They were all three pale-gold and ivory creatures…” (4).

        Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid have two half-brothers, Edgar and Lionel, and at least five other siblings who, confined to the schoolroom and the nursery (22), are still at the larval stage. Increasingly, as its size and extent are revealed, the Bredely household comes to mimic the ant colonies which “his ruling passion, the social insects” (10), has led William to research. In the Alabaster family, indeed, this scholar specialising in the dynamics of coexistence and co-operation within specific defined communities would seem to have a subject made to his hand. Not only is there material for study in what turn out to be the tangled interactions of the family members themselves, but William’s own arrival at Bredely Hall will soon set the entire family unit adapting to the presence in their nest of an alien interloper, a stranger different from themselves in both background and values. Another potential series of comparisons arises, linking the Alabasters not with the peoples of the Amazon but with ants and butterflies. A woodland society consisting of ant colonies is chronicled in a text-within-the-text entitled “The Swarming City” (108-16). The principal observers of that woodland society, William himself and Matty Crompton, are annexed loosely to the Alabaster family; and within the hierarchy of Bredely Hall—which can include “various dependent spinsters of various ages,” and “visiting young men” (22)—they occupy a position beneath the queens but above the workers, envisaged by Byatt as “scurrying . . . in honeycombs of corridors” like “female worker ants carrying honeydew and larvae” (“Architectural Origins” 104). Consequently, once the story starts to move back and forth between the buzzing interior of Bredely Hall and the Swarming City that stands in its grounds, a dual perspective opens up whereby the human family and the ant colonies are, in the words of Tatiana Kontou, “arranged together in the narrative to create a double vision of natural and social evolution” (Kontou 126). As in The Insect Play by the brothers Čapek (1921), the insects become interesting both in their own right and for the running commentary that they appear to offer on human behaviour. The kinds of connection suggested may be deceptive, for—as William himself avows—“Analogy is a slippery tool” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 100) which occasionally throws up an “[i]rrelevant” (63) or “specious” (89) resemblance; but they are also illuminating about “human societies” and “human warfare” generally (38, 95), as well as very revealing about the Alabasters alone. Even as the novella resists them it none the less admits them.

        The inset account of the ant colonies is in any case destined to impinge upon the main narrative enclosing it, since it holds an important clue to the shocking dénouement to which the frame story will lead us. That “the female is the object of desire of all males” holds at Bredely Hall, as Sally Shuttleworth points out (Shuttleworth 264), no less than in any insect colony. Just as polyandry is suspected in the Ant Queen (Byatt, “Morpho” 101), so it emerges after William has married her that Eugenia, the eldest of the Alabaster daughters, has a concurrent sexual relationship with her own half-brother Edgar. William, who thought he was marrying a butterfly, “discovers too late that he has married the Queen ant by mistake” (Cheira 135). In the ant world, relatedness between the queens and the males is no bar to mating. The same house rules apply at Bredely Hall. The Alabaster family “had always been very pure-blooded” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 22) and “love each other very much” (8), in all too literal a way. William’s discovery of this brings the novella to its catastrophe, and puts Morpho Eugenia squarely in the middle of the steady stream of English-language narratives of sibling incest, running from 1969 to 2015, which a recent study has uncovered (Kokkola and Valovirta 139).

        By the time Eugenia admits to William that Edgar has been sleeping with her “[s]ince [she] was very little” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 150), it has become possible to see Bredely Hall not just as an ant colony writ very large but as a little epitome of English history. The fact that Edgar was installed as monarch a hundred years before the first William came to the throne should have warned Eugenia’s husband that Eugenia’s half-brother was earlier in line than himself. On the other hand, Harald Alabaster should have known that the theology whose truths he is trying to retexture cannot hope to match the new science which he has invited into his home; this is a contest in which Harald will be the loser, and William the conqueror. The mere names suffice for the post-Darwinian controversies to be represented here as a mid-Victorian re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. The “double vision” of Morpho Eugenia is at this point juxtaposing the 1860s with the 1060s, as well as Britain with Brazil and Bredely Hall with the “Swarming City” of ants. The characters are conceived and developed in terms of events which took place eight centuries before their time. “The Alabasters are the Anglo-Saxons” (Byatt, Histories 81), and must bow to the fitter overseas invader, the better adapted power that comes in and takes over: “I decided quite early to make my hero an Amazon explorer … I called him William and the old collector Harald out of a blatant reference to Scott’s historical vision of old and new rulers, Saxon and Norman” (Byatt, Histories 117). It is as if Victorian evolutionary theory were being anachronistically applied to Ivanhoe, in order to ask whether certain species such as the Normans are better equipped for survival than other species such as the Saxons. Questions of adaptation, therefore, are placed firmly on the novella’s agenda.

        The novella’s method, meanwhile, announces itself no less emphatically as entailing—on multiple occasions—a delineation by negatives. As Britain serves to call Brazil to mind, because “[e]verything . . . brought up its contrary image” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 24), so similar leaps are made which (for instance) link those gathered at Bredely Hall to the Normans and Saxons, or the Alabasters to the ants. The more “blatant” the category transgression, in each of these yokings together, the more vivid the bringing up, and the more profoundly the pictures evoked alter our notions of the things that evoked them. “Things Are Not What They Seem,” the title of one of the nested narratives that Morpho Eugenia accommodates (119–40), is in that sense also a truth which on every level Morpho Eugenia embodies. Throughout the larger narrative in which Matty Crompton’s playful tale is embedded, it applies in matters both great and small. Not only does William twice point to a capacity for mimicry in butterflies, which allows them to mask their true natures (20, 141), but the initial emergence of every butterfly already marks an astonishing transformation of what it once was. “Transfiguration,” says Harald, “is not a bad thing. Butterflies come out of the most unpromising crawling things” (49). The text of “Things Are Not What They Seem” highlights the “transfiguration” (133) of caterpillar into Puss Moth. Matty herself is destined for a metamorphosis. She has appeared drably devoid of sensuous promise—in Byatt’s own words, “a sexless worker” (Byatt, Histories 120)—but, when she comes to speak the same line that she turned into the title of her tale, “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153, 119), it suggests that there is more than meets the eye not just to Edgar and Eugenia but to Matty Crompton too. She loosens her hair and draws herself up to the full height of her name: “’My name,’ she said, ‘is Matilda.’” (157) Their shared scientific enterprise then sees William the Conqueror and the newly transfigured Queen Matilda sailing together into the wide blue yonder, while “their blood swims with the excitement of the future” (160).

        Implicit in the note of expectancy on which the novella therefore concludes are the reader’s expectations of a fairy-tale ending. From the very beginning, in fact, much in Morpho Eugenia has been redolent of fairy-tale magic. The same Arabian Nights tale of Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor which later featured in the title story of Byatt’s 1994 volume The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye makes a contribution here too, as the first of the miniature narratives embedded in the text. On this occasion it is evoked only by fleeting allusion, however, and the reader must reconstruct the tale from the single line into which William’s journal has compressed it: the Prince’s “I shall die if I cannot have her” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 13–14). With pen in hand, in the early hours of the morning, and with Eugenia on his mind, William recalls that impassioned vow and reaffirms it three times before cockcrow. In doing so he is also bringing up, or inviting us to recall, the line—first penned in this same year, 1860—into which Elizabeth Gaskell would distil the essence of her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863): “Give me Sylvia, or else I die” (Gaskell 117). Gaskell draws the character to whom the line is given, Philip Hepburn, as a stolid Yorkshireman, “brought up among the Quakers” (117) and serving in a shop. Overwhelmed, however, by feelings for whose intensity the echo of Rachel’s “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30.1) is left to vouch, he abandons his principles and deceitfully prises Sylvia away from the jolly sailor, Charley Kinraid, who has captured her heart. Byatt’s William, another Yorkshireman whose father “was a successful butcher and a devout Methodist” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 9), seems somebody just as unlikely to suffer life-threatening romantic agony as Gaskell’s Philip; but he is just as unlucky in his choice of romantic object, since Sylvia has given her affections to Kinraid and Eugenia continues to give herself to Edgar. Through replicating the triangular tensions of Gaskell’s novel, Byatt’s novella affords an intriguingly complex example of adaptation by reminiscence in which the Arabian Nights tale that impinges on both works without being named by either becomes a missing link between Sylvia’s Lovers and Morpho Eugenia. This double alignment is typical of the novella’s interest in creating congruence both with the texts that it incorporates into itself and, crucially, with the defining texts of the historical period in which the novella itself is set. For that reason Morpho Eugenia is characterised throughout by the imaginative reworking of nineteenth-century antecedents.

        The novella’s Victorian setting does not in fact exclude texts of an earlier date. William summons up Coleridge (116) and Ben Jonson (66); and Matty, as well as using “a wonderful sonnet by poor mad John Clare” (104), quotes from Keats’s “Belle Dame sans Merci” (152) and from Milton’s Paradise Lost (31, 79–80). Appropriately enough, however, the allusions in Morpho Eugenia tend to concentrate on work written during the lifetimes of Matty and William themselves. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, prominently present in “The Conjugial Angel” as well as in Morpho Eugenia, is quoted here by both William (59) and Harald (87-89). Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad” also features (78-79). Victorian novels are prime providers of material too, with several sources other than Sylvia’s Lovers and several suppliers other than Elizabeth Gaskell turned tellingly to account. Interwoven with the traces of Philip Hepburn in William, for example, are traces of the scientist traveller, Roger Hamley, whom Gaskell put at the centre of her final novel Wives and Daughters (1864–66) and of the drawing master, Walter Hartright, who in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60) was engaged to help with a collection not of specimens but of drawings. Matty Crompton’s metamorphosis into Matilda gives the character similarly divided affinities; she both “suggests Miss Matty . . . in Gaskell’s Cranford” (Sturrock 102, note 4) and, on Byatt’s own authority (“Architectural Origins” 104), “nurses the fire of Jane Eyre.” The naming of the first pair of twins born to Eugenia after David Copperfield’s two wives, Agnes and Dora (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 70), measures the extent to which Morpho Eugenia reproduces classic Victorian fiction.



        These observations as yet are preliminary, rather than conclusive. The hope is that they may lead in the third and final section to firmer findings both about Byatt’s novella in particular and about the general condition, adaptiveness, which it inherits. Morpho Eugenia constitutes a perfect test case because it can be studied initially as interacting with various precursor texts to which it attaches itself through overt or oblique allusion and then, when its own turn comes, as interacted with by a single significant successor. That study can most properly and profitably be resumed after a few moments spent considering, in this second section, how best to understand and characterise the relationship that two texts enter into when one of them derives from the other. It is the kind of relationship most influentially described, perhaps, by Gérard Genette. For him, any pre-existing works which provide the basis for some newer work, “and upon which [the latter] is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary,” are its “hypotexts” (Genette 5). In so far as William Adamson’s story is grafted onto Philip Hepburn’s, for instance, Morpho Eugenia has a “hypotext” in Sylvia’s Lovers; and Byatt’s novella can, by the same token, be treated as a “palimpsest.”

        John Holloway, however, in his essay “Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure” offers an alternative account of the grafting process. The essay is essentially an attempt to outline what occurs in the mind of the reader while that external sequence of cause and effect which we commonly think of as the plot of a story unfolds. Events at the outset will generate a certain set of suppositions; but when succeeding sections of the narrative disconfirm the hypotheses which we have formed, or cause them to come true in an unforeseen way, supposition is superseded. The argument advanced here, and the terms that it uses, could apply equally to acts of adaptation. The “dexterous resumption and modulation” (Holloway 49) of readers’ expectations is just as prominently involved in these. In so far as after we have taken our bearings by material likely to be familiar we realise that we are in fact in another place, the experience is again one of being whisked from the recognition of an apparently predictable pattern to a revelation of unpredicted difference. When an author reworks or refers to a precursor text but does not develop the materials found there quite as the surface resemblance has led us to anticipate, there may be moments of pleasurable surprise when—in Harald’s words—“[b]utterflies come out.”

        Nothing in any of the many hypotexts which are absorbed into Morpho Eugenia better illustrates expectation exceeded and supposition superseded than, from Paradise Lost, Milton’s “High on a throne” opening for Book II. In Matty Crompton’s copy of the poem, this passage might directly face the lines from the end of Book I that she has committed to memory (Byatt, “Morpho” 79–80). The passage is a supersession—or (as is signalled by the first verb in the Book) an outshining—of visions such as Ezekiel’s, setting God on a heavenly throne which seemed made of sapphire stone (Ezek. 1.26). Milton’s “dexterous resumption or modulation” of these sources surprises, of course, by enthroning Satan rather than God:


High on a throne of royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand

Show’rs on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exalted sat. . . . (Milton 110)


In his Dunciad, however (three-book version, 1728-29; four-book version, 1742–43), Alexander Pope would subsequently spring a surprise of his own, ensuring that the dislodgement of Milton’s Satan could be effected with remarkably little fuss:


High on a gorgeous seat, that far out-shone

Henley’s gilt tub, or Fleckno’s Irish throne,

Or that where on her Curls the Public pours,

All-bounteous, fragrant Grains and Golden show’rs,

Great Cibber sate. . . . (Pope 736)


Pope’s Cibber, in the four-book Dunciad, is slotted into the place which previously belonged to Theobald: “Great Tibbald sate” (Pope 371). But really it is Milton’s Satan that both men are supposed to supersede. Cibber does so here by assuming the same position on the shining throne, as well as precisely the same position at the beginning of the poem’s second Book (that is, perched over line 5). Meanwhile, in his dazzlingly indecent variations on the Miltonic original, Pope mischievously misconstrues the golden showers as the sort that might be poured from a slop-bucket or chamber-pot over a piratical publisher in the pillory. The witty rearrangement which results is perfectly in accord both with Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptation as involving “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works” (8) and with John Holloway’s view of supersession as entailing the “dexterous resumption and modulation” of a precursor or precursors.

        That Cibber’s predecessor in his “gorgeous seat” was Satan is signalled not by any phonetic connection between the two names themselves—such as does the trick when E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime (1975) takes the eponymous hero of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (1810) as the foundation for his character Coalhouse Walker—but by the obvious parallels which Pope packs into all that surrounds them. Once Pope’s reader has recognised the lines on Cibber as replicating the syntactic structure which Milton’s description of Satan inhabited, the link is fastened. Pope imitates Milton by shadowing his sentences but within that framework of sameness substituting some words which are different. His own lines at the start of the 1742–43 Dunciad, “The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings / The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings, / I sing,” would be imitated in identical fashion in Crabbe’s 1775 poem Inebriety: “The mighty spirit, and its power, which stains / The bloodless cheek, and vivifies the brains, / I sing” (Crabbe 35). Oscar Wilde’s reputed epigram on inebriety, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes” (Pearson 192), likewise retains the shape of its precursor—the preachy platitude “Drink is the curse of the working classes”—but in doing so applies a savagely subversive internal variation. The opportunity to refresh a stale sentence simply by switching its subject plainly presented Wilde with the type of temptation of which he could get rid only by yielding to it.

        The shuffled words of the epigram, “Work” replaced by “Drink” and “drink” by “work,” contain clues to the techniques of rearrangement deployed in “Morpho Eugenia”; and the tinkering that went on between Milton, Pope and Crabbe suggests that even shuffles so slight as A.W. for Alfred Wallace into W.A. for William Adamson can produce very decisive transformations. Pope, above all, shows such delicacy of touch that it is often only letters, rather than whole words, which he needs to rearrange. The passage on Cibber is a case in point. In an opening line made entirely out of Milton’s materials, except that “which” has become “that” and “gorgeous East” has become “gorgeous seat,” Pope moves the first of the consonants in “East” to the front of the word in order to create a parodic version of Satan’s throne, perfect for the dauphin of Dullness that is “Great Cibber.” (He also establishes the alliterative sequence, G for “gorgeous” and then S for “seat,” which is to return with a vengeance in “Golden show’rs.”) At the end of the sentence he repeats the manoeuvre, this time retaining the consonantal pattern of the “seat” that came from Milton’s “East” but adjusting the vocalic infill in such a way as to advance from “seat” to “sate” and so conjure up the sitting, or squatting, Cibber. Pope’s neat anagrammatic twists on Milton become ways for him to turn the light of Paradise Lost into the darkness of The Dunciad, a poem in which (since its subject is the extinguishing of wit) “Darkness strikes the sense no less than Light” (Pope 553). They are also miniature models of all that adaptation implies. Just as anagrams revolve the letters of words in order to make from them other words, so adaptation rotates the elements of a precursor text in the knowledge that something very different may result.



        At a critical point in the action of Morpho Eugenia, shortly after William has discovered Edgar in his wife’s bedroom, revelation comes couched in anagrams. There are alphabet cards in the parlour, and a word-making game which—like the automatic writing in “The Conjugial Angel”—creates just the conditions needed for meaning and non-meaning to meet (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 152–53). William is dealt the letters PHXNITCSE. He does not at first spot the SPHINX he has been handed, any more than he could see Eugenia as the lethal setter of sexual conundrums that she is, and this oversight costs him his chance of “getting rid of the dangerous X” in a triumphant extraction of the word to which the entire novella is seen by Dirk Vanderbeke as a kind of cryptic clue: “Das ausgelassene Wort ist natürlich SPHINX” (Vanderbeke 436). The word omitted or elided can be no other, that is, than SPHINX. Instead, what William passes on to Matty is a word that more straightforwardly sums up his recognised “ruling passion”: INSECT. She then pointedly rearranges it as INCEST, with the comment “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153). Not only will the suppositions to which William has subscribed about Matty—“She was dry, was Matty Crompton” (105)—very soon be superseded, but all of his expectations concerning Eugenia and what she stood for are already completely confounded. He should have heeded the warning signs that were there to be seen when the first two twins were born: “They don’t seem to resemble me at all” (71). Three further children then also turned out true to type, as “perfect little Alabasters—I only very rarely catch glimpses of myself in their expression” (106). All five may have been fathered not by William the insect expert but by Edgar the incest expert. As Sally Shuttleworth observes, “Harald Alabaster’s sermon on love which begins ‘with the natural ties between the members of the family group … the closeness of brothers and sisters’ . . . becomes, in the light of subsequent revelations, an exposure of the incestuous dynamics which lay at the heart of Victorian ideologies of the family” (Shuttleworth 265). The anagram takes us at a stroke from INSECT and the inner story of the ant colonies to INCEST and the frame story of the Alabaster family, dominated now by an explosive secret. It therefore instantly fastens that connection between its ostensible or “supposed” subject and its actual but veiled subject that operates the whole narrative. Out of the chrysalis of the story we thought we were reading, about insects or about the post-Darwinian controversies, comes a story which we probably failed to foresee.

        Byatt’s anagrammatic play, like Pope’s, accompanies an act of adaptation so bold that the adaptation qualifies as a second piece of significant imaginative creation. While Pope modifies Milton, the “dexterous resumption” in Byatt’s case is of a scene in Nabokov’s Ada:


Ada asked her governess for pencils and paper. Lying on his stomach, leaning his cheek on his hand, Van looked at his love’s inclined neck as she played anagrams with Grace, who had innocently suggested “insect.”

“Scient,” said Ada, writing it down.

“Oh no!” objected Grace.

“Oh yes! I’m sure it exists. He is a great scient. Dr. Entsic was scient in insects.”

Grace meditated, tapping her puckered brow with the eraser end of the pencil, and came up with:


“Incest,” said Ada instantly.

“I give up,” said Grace. “We need a dictionary to check your little inventions.” (85)


The matching moment in Morpho Eugenia is done without dialogue:


William . . . found himself able to present Matty Crompton with INSECT . . . Miss Crompton, her face heavily shadowed in the lamplight, gave a small snort of laughter at this word, considered it for some time, rearranged the cards, and pushed it back to him. . . . There it was, lying innocently in his hand. INCEST. He shuffled the evidence hastily, looked up, and met the dark intelligent eyes. (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153)


A simple juxtaposition of those two passages is all that is needed to reveal in Matty’s anagram the “intertextual reference to Nabokov’s Ada” to which, as long ago as 1998, Sally Shuttleworth very persuasively pointed (Shuttleworth 264, note 22). Ada made the same word from the same letters; on each occasion the context is incest between sister and brother, brought out of the shadows into the open; and, thanks to Nabokov’s lifelong interest in butterfly taxonomy, Ada is no less liberally laced with lepidoptera than Morpho Eugenia.

        Had the big-budget film adaptation of Ada which apparently was mooted (Mazierska 1) ever been made, it would have left the respective life cycles of Nabokov’s novel and Byatt’s novella looking very similar too. Morpho Eugenia in fact promptly crossed from page to screen, enjoying a far faster transition than Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession. Having been shot in the summer of 1994, the film version competed at Cannes in May 1995, went on general release in the UK (with an 18 certificate) in December of that year, and became available as a Film Four video release in May 1996. Throughout that journey, however, it travelled under a different name: not Morpho Eugenia (which might have been met with general incomprehension) but the title, Angels and Insects, that Byatt had given to the volume as a whole. The rebranding of Morpho Eugenia as Angels and Insects—like Whit Stillman’s rebranding of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in his 2016 film Love and Friendship—simply substituted for the original title an alternative and closely associated title, also of the author’s own devising, which more plainly indicated the areas that the action would explore. A certain demonstrable proximity to the source is therefore preserved, while allowance is made for adjustments of which the rearranging of letters in the game of anagrams seems an apt emblem. Having itself reimagined the Victorian narratives that in one way or another it brought up, Byatt’s novella was open to the sort of reimagining on which Belinda and Philip Haas as the two screenwriters, and the latter as director, would now embark. A story which is partly about relocation, with William leaving the Amazon behind him to arrive at Bredely Hall, is itself transposed to a different medium; and there it comes to illustrate, not from the natural world but in the world of art, the very processes of development and variation that fascinate its hero.

        If Tennyson’s In Memoriam can be trusted as a compendium of its concerns, the mid-Victorian generation with which Byatt deals in Morpho Eugenia agonised over the volatility of things that “flow / From form to form” (Tennyson 973). No such misgivings attached, at least on the author’s part, to the transition which Morpho Eugenia made from print to film: “I felt none of the usual novelist’s anxiety about film spoiling something made of words, because I had always seen this tale as a film…” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). Even at the point of its initial conception, Morpho Eugenia was a readily transformable text, and ripe for film adaptation. Its transference to the medium of film of course threw up challenges too. In so far as the text with which they were working refracts Victorian material through a twentieth-century sensibility, Belinda and Philip Haas found themselves (like Harold Pinter in his French Lieutenant’s Woman screenplay) adapting what was already an adaptation. The need to reckon with that knowledge of the book which some who saw the film would inevitably be bringing in, much as William carried his memories of English meadows into the Amazonian rainforest, was bound to pull the screenwriters in one direction; but the conventions of the narrative fiction film would pull them in another, towards the sort of realism from which the novella had worked itself free. In the event they steered a thoughtful course between fidelity to the source and obedience to the mechanics of the medium. Their film version took the story along the same trajectory as the novella, and sacrificed as few of its strands as possible; but it foregrounded some parts of the content more than Byatt herself had done, and made them meet more crunchingly. The first mention of Darwin is moved out of the privacy of Harald’s study into the dining-room where the other Alabasters have also gathered. The tension between William and Edgar is more palpable and becomes evident at an earlier stage. The convergence of the human and insect worlds is underscored at the level of costume design; skirts resemble butterfly wings, and in one scene the dress which Eugenia wears is yellow with black stripes, as if to make her into a human wasp. The connections and comparisons between Brazil, Bredely Hall and the “Swarming City” are emphasised by cross-cutting.

        In this way the screenplay manages to make manifest what had been latent in the novella, where necessarily things were “seen and done otherwise,” and to capture the kind of complexities that literary texts less easily reach. Byatt indeed anticipated as much: “My idea for the film was that the screen would be able to interweave the images of the two communities—ants and people—so as at once to reinforce the analogy and to do the opposite—to show the insects as Other, resisting our metaphorical impositions” (Byatt, Histories 116-17). She not only endorsed what the screenplay attempted but contributed crucially to its development: “The Haases wrote a script both dramatic and intelligently embodying the ideas. We worked together. The project took on life” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104+). The dangers that always attend upon adaptations were thus averted. Just as insects “are all at their most vulnerable at the moment of metamorphosis,” according to William, and at that time “can be easily snapped up by any predator” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 53), so any book which becomes subject to intermedial reworking is correspondingly at risk. It must rely on the scenarist being sufficiently attuned to the source material not to cannibalise it completely. The London Times film reviewer in fact wondered whether the Haases had taken attunement to the point of subservience, for Angels and Insects had to him “the feeling of a film fettered by literature”; but he also found it a “handsome and intelligent” piece of film-making (Brown). The novella’s potentially difficult migration to another medium had, in the end, been sympathetically managed. In the words which Byatt had given to Harald, “Transfiguration is not a bad thing” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 49). And nor, on this occasion, was the “transmodalization” (Genette’s term) that saw Belinda and Philip Haas turn A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia into the film Angels and Insects. Their film stands as a fitting and felicitous treatment of a work which itself reflects on acts of adaptation and is keenly conscious of its own adaptive potential.


Works Cited

Angels and Insects. Screenplay by Belinda Haas and Philip Haas. Dir. Philip Haas. Playhouse International Pictures in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1995. Film.

Brown, Geoff. “Romancing the Stonefaced.” Times 7 Dec. 1995: 37. “The Times” Digital Archive 1785–2011. Web. 11/09/2017.

Byatt, A. S. “The Architectural Origins of a Provocative Film.” Architectural Digest 53.4 (1996): 100-08. Print.

—. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1994. Print.

—. Morpho Eugenia. Angels and Insects. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992. 3-160. Print.

—. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000. Print.

Cheira, Alexandra. “Neo-Victorian Sexual De[v/f]iance: Incest, Adultery, Breaking the Virginity Taboo and Female Sexual Agency in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia.’” Neo-Victorian Studies 9.2 (2017): 126-53. Web. 10 Sep. 2017.

Crabbe, George. A Selection from George Crabbe. Ed. John Lucas. London: Longmans, 1967. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Sacred Wood” and Major Early Essays. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Sylvia’s Lovers. Ed. Nancy Henry, with other critical material by Graham Handley. London: J. M. Dent, 1997. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Foreword by Gerald Prince. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.

Holloway, John. “Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure.” Critical Inquiry 3.1 (1976): 39-55. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda, with Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kokkola, Lydia, and Elina Valovirta, “The Disgust that Fascinates: Sibling Incest as a Bad Romance.” Sexuality & Culture 21.1 (2017): 121-41. Print.

Kontou, Tatiana. Spiritualism and Women’s Writing: From the Fin de Siècle to the Neo-Victorian. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Mazierska, Ewa. Nabokov’s Cinematic Afterlife. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Alastair Fowler. Rev. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson, 2007. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Print.

Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Methuen, 1946. Print.

Pinter, Harold. The Screenplay of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Foreword by John Fowles. London: Jonathan Cape, 1981. Print.

Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt. Corrected ed. London: Methuen, 1968. Print.

Shuttleworth, Sally. “Natural History: The Retro-Victorian Novel.” The Third Culture: Literature and Science. Ed. Elinor S. Schaffer. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1998. 253-68. Print.

Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. Print.

Sturrock, June. “Angels, Insects, and Analogy: A. S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia.’” Connotations 12.1 (2002 / 2003): 93-104. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. London and Harlow: Longmans, 1969. Print.

Vanderbeke, Dirk. Theoretische Welten und literarische Transformationen: Die Naturwissenschaften im Spiegel der ‘science studies’ und der englischen Literatur des ausgehenden 20. Jahrhunderts. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2004. Print.


The Author

Peter Merchant is Principal Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities of Canterbury Christ Church University, in the UK. His recent works include the first critical edition of F. Anstey’s The Statement of Stella Maberly, which includes various related manuscripts (Valancourt, 2017), and a collection of articles coedited with Catherine Waters entitled Dickens and The Imagined Child (Ashgate, 2015). He has also contributed to the following volumes: Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity (dirs. Gibson, Trower and Tregidga, Routledge, 2013) and Home and Away: The Place of the Child Writer (dirs. Owen and Peterson, Cambridge Scholars, 2016).

N°2 | The Amazing Transformation of William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson into Southern Poetry

Ineke Jolink


Conscient de la qualité du recueil de poèmes Mississippi Vistas de Louis Daniel Brodsky, écrivain du Missouri (Etats-Unis), le Professeur James W. Silver l’a défini comme l’hommage intellectuel le plus approprié au créateur du Yoknapatawpha. Dans ces poèmes, des personnages bien connus des romans et des nouvelles de William Faulkner sont évoqués, notamment Addie Bundren, le prêtre Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson, Quentin et Caddy Compson, ainsi que, dans la quatrième partie “Rowan Oak et les fantômes de Yoknapatawpha”, l’auteur lui-même accompagné de sa femme—le somnolant William et la douce Estelle. Cet article se concentre sur l’un de ces poèmes, “Triangle Eternel” ; j’analyserai les moyens narratologiques, poétiques et linguistiques mis en œuvre par Brodsky pour évoquer le moment précis de l’apparition du fantôme d’un personnage sudiste que le lecteur ne peut oublier.


In the collection Mississippi Vistas by the Missouri poet Louis Daniel Brodsky, of which James W. Silver said that they “may well comprise the most appropriate intellectual tribute ever made to the creator of Yoknapatawpha,” such well-known characters from William Faulkner’s novels and short stories as Addie Bundren, the Reverend Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson and Quentin and Caddy Compson are called up, in addition to the author himself and his wife—“sleepy William, sweet Estelle”—in the fourth part of the collection : “Rowan Oaks and the Ghosts of Yoknapatawpha.” This article focuses on one of these poems, “Eternal Triangle,” discussing the different narratological, poetic and linguistic devises that Brodsky uses to evoke the precise moment of apparition of the ghost of this Southern character we cannot forget.


        The writer William Faulkner himself, as many critics portray him, could at times be a pretty “spooky” character. In their little-known book Our Neighbor, William Faulkner, for instance, two aspiring writers from Faulkner’s home town of Oxford Mississippi, Charles Nelson and David Goforth observe: “he [Faulkner] has almost completely cut himself off from any normal trafficking with the town, a fact which indicates that he is not an integral part of it and never has been. Even if he let down his drawbridge he would still be an abnormality” (8). They continue by presenting the figure of the writer in terms of gothic apparition and evanescence: “We have seen him walking late at night through unlighted alleys . . . We have seen him appear suddenly on the street in the middle of the day, looking neither left nor right but straight ahead, then walk unnoticed by all he passes out of sight” (12). What is more, being “afraid to get too near the ante-bellum home of the writer in Oxford, Mississippi,” Faulkner’s young neighbors recognize in themselves the “strange fascination of a moth for a light, yet witnessing the fear the insect lacks” (15). This way the young men clearly identify their sensibilities as gothic, positioning themselves within the most gothic of liminalities, on the threshold between fascination and fear.

        As I have argued elsewhere (“Haunted Borderlands”), to me the Gothic is above all a genre of the in-between, a genre exploiting different types of liminality. Indeed, one may mention as typical gothic characters the ghost, who is between life and death; the werewolf, between man and animal; Frankenstein’s monster, between animal and machine, but also the mulatto, between black and white, in what is known as the “southern gothic”; the cross-dresser or the trans-sexual, between male and female, as well as the adolescent, between child and adult, the source of the “délire de toucher” that Freud mentions in “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence.” Then there is, of course, the liminal setting of the Gothic. First of all, as far as time is concerned: the gothic story tends to take place at dusk, between day and night, at mid-night or “late at night”—in the quote about Faulkner—in any case, between one day and the next; or at the winter solstice, between the disappearance of the sun and its re-appearance. Secondly, as regards place, the gothic story tends to take place in hallways or on thresholds, that is, between one room and another; or on porches, balconies or verandas, in other words, between inside and outside, between private and public. Finally, there is also the affect of the Gothic: liminal states of being and sentiments that are aroused in characters and that are, more often than not, communicated in some way to the reader: the in-between of the real and the unreal, of reality and dream, of consciousness and unconsciousness, of madness and sanity, and always, of fascination and fear, again as in the Faulkner example above.

        The “spookiness” that was attributed to Faulkner himself rubs off, we could say, on his characters. To understand this, we have to remember first of all how important his characters were to the writer. In fact, he saw them as real, as real as his fellow Oxfordians; to quote Faulkner himself, as “people I had known all my life in the country I was born in” (Faulkner at Westpoint 96f). This goes as far as fellow Oxfordians feeling implicated and annoyed, recognizing themselves or their families in stories that were often far from flattering, having such themes as mental retardation, incest and suicide. Nelson and Goforth write, in any case: “you can still see the Vardamans and the Bilbos and the Dewey Dells—if you look hard enough on a Saturday afternoon” (10). Indeed, Faulkner saw his characters as “flesh and blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow” (Faulkner in the University 47). For all the reality that these words are meant to convey, a certain gloominess—a “gothic spookiness”—nevertheless creeps in with this predicate: “cast a shadow.” And, of course, we are instantly reminded of Quentin Compson’s struggle with his shadow in The Sound and the Fury, the shadow that he tries to trample “into the concrete” (109); to tread “into the pavement” (115) or to trample “into the dust” (128). Indeed, Quentin wants to turn himself into a ghost, a phantom, by eliminating his shadow. This symbolic act, on the day of his suicide, places him clearly within the gothic liminality of life and death. But that is not all, the disturbing fact that, as a first-year student at Harvard, he is still a virgin places him in the interspace between child and adult, while his untruthful confession to his father that he committed incest with his sister Caddy positions him on the border between guilt and innocence. And then there is, of course, what we remember from Absalom, Absalom!: Quentin’s gothic relationship to time, his very body “a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts,”; an “empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names” (9)

        The fact that we have moved here from the novel The Sound and the Fury of 1929 to the novel Absalom, Absalom! of 1936 brings me to a last point with regard to Faulkner’s assessment of his characters: their existence independent from the author and the text that created them. As the writer puts it, “there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job” (Lion 244). Again, a certain “spookiness” is introduced, in this case through the phrasal verb “rise up.” Indeed, becoming independent of the writer, the character, like a ghost as it were, crosses the borders between text and life, between fiction and reality, leaving the writer, as Faulkner said, “to trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does” (Faulkner at Westpoint 111). That this can go beyond the borders of the particular book is clear when on another occasion Faulkner argues: “when the book is finished, that character is not done, he still is going on at some new devilment that sooner or later I will find out about and write about” (Faulkner in the University 78). Quentin Compson is, indeed, a good example of such a character.

        First of all, a Quentin-like character—a sort of proto-Quentin—appears in a small handwritten booklet, beautifully illustrated, called Mayday[1] that Faulkner presented in 1926 to the young woman he was in love with at the time, Helen Baird. Indeed, this Quentin avant-la-lettre by the name of Sir Galwyn, is, like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, mesmerized by a girl “with shining hair,” like Quentin passes a last solitary day “travelling restlessly” (27) and also drowns himself in a river. Then, the character appears, of course, under his own name, Quentin, in the novels The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, and Absalom, Absalom!, of 1937, as well as in the short story “That Evening Sun,” published in 1931. Taking these Quentins as one and the same figure presents both a challenge and an opportunity, and most critics who have pondered the issue seem to agree that our interpretation gains in complexity and richness if we do so. Of these Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, in his article “The Resurrection of Characters,” discusses Quentin Compson as an example of the character who remains alive between different works by the same author (309), while Estella Schoenberg’s Old Tales and Talking: Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Related Work, provides a time-table that convincingly shows, at least, the interlocking of history in the two novels. As we know, Faulkner started the whole history of the Compson family, known from The Sound and the Fury and later work, with an image that had haunted him and would continue to do so: that of a little girl climbing a pear tree, showing her brothers below the bottom of her muddy drawers.[2] It is this obsessive image, fraught with gothic notions of purity and sin, innocence and guilt, that links the character and the author. Faulkner, in any case, says that Quentin committed suicide because of his sister’s pregnancy.[3]

        Faulkner’s characters, then, have certainly haunted other writers, as cases of pastiche and several accusations of plagiarism show.[4] Here I have chosen to pinpoint and discuss the moment of Quentin’s apparition in a poem from 1975 from the collection Mississippi Vistas by the Missouri poet Louis Daniel Brodsky. James W. Silver said of the poems collected here that they “may well comprise the most appropriate intellectual tribute ever made to the creator of Yoknapatawpha,” William Faulkner.[5] In these poems, such well-known characters from Faulkner’s novels and short stories as Addie Bundren, the Reverend Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson and Quentin and Caddy Compson are called up, in addition to the author himself and his wife—“sleepy William, sweet Estelle”—in the fourth part of the collection “Rowan Oaks and the Ghosts of Yoknapatawpha.” The poem that I will focus on is called “Eternal Triangle” (51), and consists of 4 stanzas of 9 lines each:


Eternal Triangle


Louis Daniel Brodsky, 1975


         1.      Lilac heather, oleander, crepe myrtle

         2.      Decorate this lost day

         3.      Disappearing through magnoliaed twilight

         4.      Into an ante-bellum evening

         5.      Draped with wisteria and honeysuckle vines.

         6.      Their sweet lingering scents

         7.      Mingle with whiskey sours

         8.      That transport my mind

         9.      Towards a timeless watery vortex.


         10.    Through a carnival glass snifter

         11.    I witness Quentin pass

         12.    Down murky fathoms of the Charles River

         13.    Weighted with six-pound flat irons

         14.    Tied to ideas of pride

         15.    Conceived in shame

         16.    Obsolescent, obsessive, and incestuous

         17.    His drowning confounds me;

         18.    I see his pain in my ears


         19.    Rising inside tiny gurgling bubbles

         20.    Ballooning to the surface

         21.    Like off-key carillon bells

         22.    Transposing old tunes to cacophonies.

         23.    As they go further out

         24.    Their overtones diminish to kisses

         25.    Dripping from his wizened lips

         26.    Reaching to touch his sister

         27.    Before she races from his bursting veins.


         28.    She withstands the pressure;

         29.    His empty admission,

         30.    Conceived to vindicate her unblessed soul,

         31.    Is swallowed whole by a trout

         32.    Skimming for flies in a near-by stream.

         33.    Now I alone exist

         34.    To interpret the persistent echo

         35.    Of the feisty little girl in muddy drawers

         36.    Begging me to take her home


We see that, in the first stanza, an atmosphere is created which contains many gothic elements. Indeed, the poem is set in the classical gothic in-between of “twilight” (line 3), of not quite day and not quite night. At this moment, the day is “lost” (line 2), that is, it has somehow entered a no-man’s land between existing and not existing, disappearing into the liminality of present and past. Situated between the now of the poetic utterance and the then of “an ante-bellum evening” (line 4), it echoes the famous phrase that Faulkner put in the mouth of Judge Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun: “the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

        Flowers and their scents play an essential role here, as there are heather, oleander, myrtle, wisteria and finally honeysuckle. This last flower is, of course, one of the central symbols of the novel The Sound and the Fury, connecting the “curling flower spaces” through which Benjy laments the disappearance of the sister Caddy, on the first page of his section, to the smell of Caddy’s awakened sexuality, which precedes her disappearance, as reported in Quentin’s section. The “sweet lingering scents” (line 6) of these flowers next create an olfactory borderland of past and present, their then mingling with the now of whiskey sours being drunk on a summer’s night in Oxford Mississippi. Thus, at the same time, a liminal space between Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha county, and Oxford, Lafayette county, is created; in other words, a borderland between fiction and reality. The liminality of doubled intoxication—that of flower scent and alcohol—creates, in the last line of the first stanza, the dizzying effect of a “vortex” (line 9). The adjective “watery” attributed to the noun is, of course, rich in associations: from Benjy’s tears to Caddy’s muddy drawers in The Sound and The Fury, and to her being “wet to the waist” in the short story “A Justice.” Having his mind transported towards this vortex, the poet himself is being dragged down into this complex of liminalities: between here and there, between then and now, and between fiction and reality, claustrophobically, as in a whirlpool, without being able to escape.

         The whiskey glass working as a lens, the poet now focuses on the essential scene, while creating a tripling of spatial in-betweens: that of the cities of Oxford, Jefferson, and Boston. It is in this atmosphere, bursting with gothic liminalities, that the apparition of Quentin takes place. Not only his appearance but also his evanescence, as it is clear that the drowning Quentin Compson floats by in the Charles River, that is, he passes. I propose that we look a little closer at the way in which this apparition and evanescence is created linguistically in the second line of the second stanza (line 11): “I witness Quentin pass.” This linguistic structure is a type of attributive clause that is called a small-clause. It can be seen to consist of a verb of perception, here the verb witness, and a complement in the form of a bare infinitive, here the verb pass, or a progressive, as in “I witness Quentin passing.” Here the more ceremonial simple present tense seems, in fact, appropriate.

        The small-clause is special because it includes no truth judgment on the part of the speaker (van der Leek). That is to say, it conveys the experience of witnessing “raw,” without any intellectual mediation. This becomes clear if we compare the linguistic form chosen here with those using the other forms of attributive clause: the toinfinitive clause, the howclause and the thatclause respectively. Indeed, the poet might have said:


I witness Quentin pass. (this is the smallclause chosen here)

I witness Quentin to pass / or I witness Quentin to be passing. (the toinfinitive)

I witness how Quentin passes / or how Quentin is passing. (the howclause)

I witness that Quentin passes / or that Quentin is passing (the thatclause)


In this order, the utterances convey an increasing sense of intellectual mediation or epistemic evaluation. That is to say, the different options, here, run from no use of independently existing knowledge whatsoever, in the smallclause, to the full inclusion of it in the thatclause.

        The semantics of the specific mental activity verb must, of course, allow for this “sliding.” This is why the smallclause cannot be used with a mental activity verb like know, conclude or understand, which are intellectual activity verbs including a truth judgment. Indeed, one agrees on the ungrammaticality of the sentences


I know Quentin pass.

I conclude Quentin pass.

I understand Quentin pass.


In fact, it seems that the verb witness focuses more on a direct experience than on an intellectual, reflective one. In other words, its semantics are not in accordance with the semantics of the that-clause, which are steeped in intellectual mediation. It is this kind of contradiction that makes the phrase combining them—the verb witness and the attributive that-clause—ungrammatical.

        The smallclause, because it focuses exclusively on “raw” experience, is used with great effect by writers to depict states of limited, disturbed or altered consciousness—when intellectual mediation is underdeveloped, degenerated or temporarily dysfunctional—such as those connected with mental retardation, mental illness, situations of extreme mental stress and dreamlike, hypnotic and hallucinatory states, as well as alcoholic intoxication. As I have shown elsewhere (see works cited), great writers, such as Henry James and James Joyce and also Faulkner, use the smallclause this way. Faulkner uses the linguistic structure, for instance, to depict Joe Christmas’s state of mind when he tries to flee the mob that wants to lynch him in Light in August, as well as, in a most complex way, to make clear Rider’s grief after the death of his wife in the story “Pantaloon in Black,” in the collection of stories, Go Down, Moses. But it is especially Quentin Compson’s hallucinatory state of mind on the last day of his life that is conveyed through smallclauses. It seems only right, then, that the poet, who had his mind transported towards the gothic border-space of the “watery vortex,” is seen to inflict a hallucinatory state upon himself, a state in which, indeed, his ghost can appear by means of the small-clause.

        The whole second stanza fleshes out this hallucination, attributing to the passing ghost of Quentin the qualities that we recognize from The Sound and the Fury—the “obsolescent, obsessive, and incestuous” sense of pride that covers up the shame over his sister. And, carrying the story beyond the situation of the novel, the flat-irons Quentin was still carrying around there are now finally put to use to help him drown. The poet’s hallucinatory state is next expanded through a complex smallclause construction beginning in the last line of the second stanza and continuing through enjambment into the whole of the third stanza. This begins with the extraordinary sentence “I see his pain in my ears” (line 18), in which the poet does not just identify with Quentin’s ghost but does so in a clear case of what I would like to call compassionate synesthesia. Synesthesia, the perception of one sensory organ by means of another, is characteristic of new-born babies. It can continue to exist in mentally retarded people, as Oliver Sachs has so beautifully shown it in his book The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat, and as Faulkner showed it so beautifully in Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, or it can re-appear in cases of mental aberration, psychosis especially, such as in Quentin’s section in the same novel.  

        This astonishing expression of compassionate synesthesia—“I can see his pain in my ears”—is then used in a series of small-clauses that sustain the hallucination and therefore the continuing presence of Quentin’s ghost.


I can see his pain… rising…

I can see it ….. inside bubbles ballooning…

I can see them … like carillon bells transposing…


After this, the complex of smallclauses with their triple raw perception is finished. This is the moment of the fully established hallucination, where the hallucinated subject is accepted as real, where he is allowed a presence independent of any observer and where simple present tenses are therefore used. Psychiatrists refer to this stage as psychosis-peace, where the hallucinating subject is no longer between two worlds—the real and the unreal—but has fully entered what the outside world calls unreal, but which he experiences as real.

        It is this moment that turns Quentin from a ghost into a presence, a presence whose lips, wrinkled from being in the water, drip with kisses that are the final result of the bubbles in which his pain was contained. We have here, by the way, a distinct reference to the novel again, to Dilsey’s section, where the black priest calls up the presence of Jesus as well as “still another, without words, like bubbles rising in water” (296). Likewise, in the next image, the sister resisting the pressure—bursting from Quentin’s veins just before his kisses can reach her—is a ghostly echo from The Sound and the Fury, a moment in which the symbolic merging of Quentin and Caddy’s blood takes place. Indeed, this occurs when Quentin is hit in the face by a friend at Harvard and suffers a nose-bleed. In a fully realized hallucination, Quentin’s blood, here, merges with that of Caddy at a remembered moment when she had lost her virginity to her boyfriend and the highly disturbed brother devised a suicide pact as the only way out, applying pressure to her throat with a knife. Resisting him, Caddy then put his hand against her throat. Quentin relives the situation:


I felt the first surge of blood there it surged in strong accelerated beats

. . .

her blood surged steadily beating and beating against my hand

It kept on running for a long time, but my face felt cold and dead… (162)


Obviously, the pronoun it in the last sentence does not refer to Caddy’s blood, as it should grammatically speaking, but to Quentin’s. In this hallucinatory scene, then, some kind of incest occurs; in other words, in Quentin’s delusion his sister’s blood, pulsing under his hand, flows together with his own blood as it runs down his face.

        The image in this last stanza is the poet’s hallucinated superposition of little Caddy’s muddy drawers in The Sound and the Fury, of Caddy’s being “wet to the waist” in “A Justice,” of the wetness of Caddy’s first sexual experience, again in the novel, and of her bursting from Quentin’s dying veins, while he drowns in the Charles River, in the poem. As in The Sound and the Fury, the last thing left of the young man is his “empty admission” (line 29) that he committed incest with his sister, which is insubstantial and useless, “swallowed whole” by a trout (line 31), again a reference to Quentin’s last day in The Sound and the Fury. With this, the presence is gone.


        I hope that I have been able to show that, initiated by the intoxicating atmosphere of flowers and whiskey—and flooded by images of Faulkner’s little girl—the poet has intuitively known to use a series of smallclauses to call up the hero that he could merge with. But neither Faulkner himself nor his alter-ego Quentin Compson any longer being there, it is the poet himself, merged with the ghostly Quentin in the watery vortex of romantic intoxication, who must bear the “persisting echo” (line 34) of “that doomed little girl,” as Faulkner called her (Blotner 211): “the feisty little girl in muddy drawers / begging me to take her home” (35-36). This, of course, is the eternal triangle that the title talks about. The image will stay with the poet, like it stayed with Quentin, like it stayed with Faulkner himself, and, we should ass, like it will stay with all readers of Faulkner’s masterpiece.


Works Cited


Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Bockting, Ineke. Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: A Study in Psychostylistics. Lanham, Maryland: UP of America, 1995. Print.

—. “Mind Style as an Interdisciplinary Approach to Characterisation in Faulkner.” Language and Literature 3.2 (Spring 1994): 157-74. Print.

—. “Haunted Borderlands: Gothic Liminality in Texts of the American South.” Dynamics of the Threshold: Essays in Liminal Negotiations. Eds. Jesús Benito and Ana Manzanas. Studies in Liminality and Literature 5. Madrid: The Gateway Press, 2006. 39-54. Print.

—. “Linguistic Aspects of Theory of Mind: The Example of William Faulkner’s Disturbed Characters.” Theory of Mind and Literature. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2011. 175-87. Print.

Brodsky, Louis Daniel. Mississippi Vistas. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1983. Print.

Claus, Hugo De Metsiers. Brussel: Manteau, 1950. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom! Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Faulkner at West Point. Eds. Joseph L. Fant and Robert Ashley. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

—. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. Eds. Frederick L. Gwyn and Joseph L. Blotner. Charlottesville: The U of Virginia P, 1959. Print.

—. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Eds. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. Lincoln: The U of Nebraska P, 1980. Print.

—. Mayday. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978. Print.

—. Requiem for a Nun. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. New York: Vintage, 1951. Print.

—. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1994. Print.

—. These 13. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental lives of Savages and Neurotics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1989. Print.

Gorp van, Dorien. “A Comparative Study of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.” Doctoral Dissertation defended at the University of Gent, Belgium, May 2007. Print.

Leek van der, Frederike C. “Significant Syntax: The Case of Exceptional Passives.” DWPELL 27 (1989): 1-28. Print.

Nelson, Charles and David Goforth. Our Neighbor, William Faulkner. Chicago: Adams Press, 1977. Print.

Sachs, Oliver. The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat. London: Pan Books, 1986. Print.

Schoenberg, Estella. Old Tales and Talking: Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Related Work. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. Print.

Zacharasiewicz, Waldemar. “The Resurrection of Characters: Aspects of Interconnected Narratives in North American Fiction.” Tales and Their Telling Difference: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Narrativik: Festschrift für Franz K. Stanzel. Heidelberg: Winter 1993. 295-317. Print.


The Author

Ineke Jolink holds doctoral degrees from the Universities of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Montpellier (France). She has taught at universities in the Netherlands, Norway and France, and she was a full, tenured professor at the Catholic University of Paris, where she was Head of the English Department and Director of the Masters program “Textes, représentations et cultures anglo-saxonnes.” Her publications include articles on various aspects of the American South, ethnic literatures, travel-narrative, autobiography, literary stylistics and pragmatics, and cognitive science and literature, as well as a book-length study of the novels of William Faulkner, entitled Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: a Study in Psychostylistics.


[1] In his introduction to Mayday, Carvel Collins argues that although The Sound and the Fury was not published until 1929, Faulkner was already thinking of writing about a “formally well-to-do family” with “a daughter who got in trouble and left home, a mentally defective son, a son who committed suicide, and one who was ‘a sharper’ in Paris in 1925” (25), that is, some time before he wrote the nouvelle for Helen Baird.

[2] “The only thing in literature which would ever move me very much: Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandfather’s funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negroes looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers” (227). Introduction to The Sound and the Fury. Reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition.

[3] This is a problem shared by another character who is very close to Faulkner’s heart, Darl Bundren, who, in As I Lay Dying, faces another type of death, being sent to the insane asylum at Whitfield.

[4] There are at least two clear cases of plagiarism connected with these two novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Indeed, the sixth novel of the British author Graham Swift, Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in 1996, has been seen as a case of plagiarism of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. Darl Bundren is represented, here, by the character Ray “Lucky” Johnson. The question of plagiarism or pastiche is the subject of thesis called “A Comparative Study of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Graham Swift’s Last Orders” by Dorien Van Gorp defended at the University of Ghent, Belgium in May 2007. Van Gorp notices, apart from parallels in characterization and structure, the presence of three types of typical character in both novels: the chapter narrated by a deceased person, the chapter in which the lines are numbered and the one-sentence chapter. In addition to Swift’s Last Orders, there is the case of the Belgian writer Hugo Claus and his 1950s debut novel De Metsiers (translated into French by Marie Hooghe as La Chasse aux Canards (1953), into English as The Duck Hunt (1955), into Japanese as Kamo-ryo (1957) and later, in England, as Sister of Earth (1966). Claus’ editor had asked him to write an American-type book, which the author did in three weeks, calling it a “near-pastiche” without divulging what his model had been (even if he dropped the names of Faulkner and Coldwell). Critics have often argued its “closeness” to As I Lay Dying, but recently its great indebtedness to The Sound and the Fury has been demonstrated by the critic Hans van Straten, who calls it “plagiarism, but brilliantly done” (my translation).

[5] Malcolm Cowley, on the back-cover of the book, admires “their firm design as a whole,” while Lewis P. Simpson talks of “a passionate and revealing confrontation over a period of years between a Missourian of Jewish heritage […] and the past and present dominion of Mississippi, literary and actual.”

N°2 | A Very Bad Santa: Adaptation as Cultural and Linguistic Dissolution in the Translations of Le Père Noël est une ordure


Corinne Oster


The contemporary Western world has been the site of intensive and inegalitarian exchanges between languages and cultures, that translation has been fundamental in shaping. Remakes may be considered as specific types of translation marked by both cultural and linguistic interpretation of previously released or published works, while subtitled versions of films offer a closer “translation”of the original into target cultures and languages. Yet many of these attempts at transferring culture have failed, as demonstrated by one of the most significant failures: the remake and the audiovisual adaptation of well-known French play and film Le Père Noël est une ordure for the American and British markets. Analyzing specific features in each of the currently existing versions of the text makes it possible to look at questions of cultural adaptation and linguistic equivalence.


Le monde contemporain est un site d’échanges tout aussi intensifs qu’inégalitaires entre langues et cultures, que la traduction a fondamentalement contribué à façonner. Les remakes peuvent être considérés comme un cas de traduction spécifique, marqué par l’interprétation culturelle et linguistique de films originaux. Les films sous-titrés quant à eux offrent une traduction plus “proche” d’un original dans la langue-culture cible. Pourtant, force est de constater que nombre de tentatives de transférer la culture échouent, comme l’illustre un de ces échecs les plus patents : le remake et l’adaptation audiovisuelle du film (et pièce de café-théâtre) célèbre Le Père Noël est une ordure, pour les marchés américain et britannique. L’analyse de quelques dispositifs spécifiques dans chacune des versions existant actuellement de ce texte permet d’examiner certaines questions d’adaptation culturelle et d’équivalence linguistique.


        An often-repeated assumption is that the increasing globalization of the Western world has made it easier to adapt cultural products from a source culture to a target culture, and that Western cultures are currently going through a form of universalization which, due to the diversity of languages, partly takes place through translation.

        To be specific, the Western world has been the site of intensive—and inegalitarian—exchanges between languages and cultures, and translation has been fundamental in shaping these linguistic and cultural exchanges, while translation studies, for their part, have been a crucial tool for analyzing and understanding them. Lawrence Venuti has stated that (successful) translations throw bridges between cultures and create new communities that can gather around the translated text (477). Failed translations, however, can be very instructive in identifying the mechanisms at work in this type of transfer. Failed translations and/or adaptations do exist, and they are bound to happen when two cultures fail to communicate properly.

        In 2011 in France, one out of six published books—and one out of three novels—was a translation (Pelletier), and on the French film market, American films ususally perform better than French ones in cinemas (CNC).[i] This apparent homogeneization of culture, however, does not go both ways. On the American market, “[f]oreign-language films [currently] represent less than 1% of the domestic box office [“at a time when Hollywood movies account for 63 percent of the global box office”]” (Rickey; see also Miller). This blatantly inegalitarian transfer naturally raises the question of the hegemony of English (and mostly American English) as the great equalizer of Western popular and literary culture (there is a similar trend with the general linguistic transfer between English and other languages).[ii]

        It is crucial, then, to understand that many French cultural products, seemingly produced in similar cultures, may not be as transparent as their American counterparts seem to be for French people. The case of American remakes of French films is quite revealing in this respect. These adaptations (which can be identified as a form of translation) are what translation theorists would call target-oriented equivalents of French films (resembling in great part what George Mounin described in his study of the 18th century’s “Belles Infidèles”), transposed into the American target language and culture. And, more often than not, these adaptations have merely been pale reproductions of the originals—in part because they are often conceived as short-term consumer products with a limited distribution lifespan.

        There are, however, more fundamental reasons for a failed translation or adaptation, which will be illustrated here through a particular case of cultural transfer: the two existing “translations” of a staple of French comedy: Le Père Noël est une ordure, a work that became famous first as a play in 1978, then as a movie in 1982. The movie and the filmed theater performance still air on French television every year during the holiday season, and although a subtitled version of the film exists, it has never been released in the US or in other English-speaking countries through domestic distribution networks.[iii] A US remake of the film, Mixed Nuts was released in 1994, transposing the diegesis of the original movie into a target American culture (Los Angeles, CA) and experiencing a thorough failure.

        We should keep in mind that the main types of film transfer (remake, dubbing and subtitling) pose distinct problems: on the one hand, remakes deal with the global, semiotic adaptation of an original “text-image” while dubbing and subtitling retain most of the original text-product, and attempt to translate its language within the constraints inherent to dubbing (lip syncing) or subtitling (a short, written text embedded within a moving image).

        This article will first study the translation/adaptation of culture in the remake of Le Père Noël est une ordure, focusing on the reasons for its very existence and analyzing the translation/transfer of humour and of cultural and social class markers—which are crucial in each of the film versions. I will attempt to analyse the reasons for the failure of the adaptation and discuss the concept of “translatability” of such a cultural product. The article will then look, from a micro-structural perspective, at some of the translation strategies present in the subtitles of the French DVD release for international viewers in order to assess the translation of these markers on the textual level. The conclusion will open on the role of English as a hegemonic language when translated texts come from a language and culture with a less central position.


        Translation studies, more specifically what has been termed the “cultural turn in translation studies” (which started with Susan Bassnett and Andre Lefevere at the beginning of the 1990s) insist on the role of culture in the translation process and advocate a cultural, social and political reading of the circulation of translations across the world. These tools have been instrumental in explaining how rewritings, whatever their form, are often manipulated to achieve various goals, whether economic or ideological.

        Remakes, or film adaptations, are a specific type of translation in the field of translation studies, which have traditionally worked within a dichotomy based on two general strategies: source-oriented, and target-oriented translation. This dichotomy was already present in the writings of Cicero or Saint Augustine, who discussed the difference between translating “a word for a word” and “an idea for an idea.” “Word for word” strategies insist on preserving the (often sacred) character and form of the source text in order not to taint it—often at the expense of readability and accessibility by the target reader—while the translation of “an idea for an idea” consists in prioritizing meaning over form, adapting it for the target readership in various degrees. Although it could be tempting to associate subtitling with source-oriented translation strategies and remakes with target-oriented strategies, this opposition remains somewhat theoretical. In the field of written translation, most published translations are target-oriented. But it also allows us to consider a particular policy regarding the importance of the source text: the process of preserving the foreign nature of a text for a target readership or audience (what Venuti terms “foreignization”) is considered by theorists such as Lawrence Venuti, Walter Benjamin, Antoine Berman, or Friedrich Schleiermacher as a fundamental strategy as the preservation of a source culture/language in the target culture/language also allows the latter to evolve and develop through supplementing the existing language/culture with the new one.


Remakes, or adaptations (the word is also used in the field of translation), can be considered as a type of target-oriented translation because they conform to strategies of domestication of the original into the target culture. Just like Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt’s Belles Infidèles, they are loosely inspired by original (audiovisual) works and transformed in order to fit within a different target market and culture. Remakes are not just a matter of linguistic transfer, in which case we could just have a dubbed or subtitled film. They are full cultural transfers in which characters and situations are transposed into a whole new environment (usually the United States), erasing the original location and culture.

        These new cultural objects are not new in the history of translation. Early translators adapted Greek tragedies into Latin, but also into their home culture to make them fit into their environment. In the 17th and 18th century, French writers/translators adapted the works of ancient authors from Rome or Athens and made them “fit” for French audiences, i.e. conform to French taste and mores. During the fascist regimes of the 20th century, the predominant translation strategy consisted of adapting foreign works into the target culture, relocating them into their country and cities. In France, some genres, such as children’s literature, have also been notoriously domesticated and have often transposed their plots and settings into local cultures.[iv] However, this over-adaptative translation trend has slowly lost ground: translators now tend to keep elements of the source culture in their translations, and many rewritings (logically, according to Antoine Berman, as the target text or author becomes better known in the target culture after a first translation) tend to grant greater importance to the original. What is now an obsolete kind of transfer for most literature does not hold for cinema, however, as remakes, whether synchronic or diachronic, have been a staple of Hollywood business since its birth at the end of the 19th century, and are still marked by the cultural, linguistic and semiotic re-interpretation of previously released works.


In his book, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, André Lefevere reminds us that every act of translation takes place within the constraints of ideology:

Translation is, of course, a rewriting of an original text. All rewritings, whatever their intention, reflect a certain ideology and a poetics and as such manipulate literature to function in a given society in a given way. Rewriting is manipulation, undertaken in the service of power, and in its positive aspect can help in the evolution of a literature and a society. (vii)


Even though Lefevere and Bassnett’s statement concerns literature, it can apply to cultural products such as films, and certainly to the rewriting of Le Père Noël est une ordure, whose ideological content, beneath the entertainment, can be clearly identified. The plot is just a pretext for comedy: Le Père Noël… takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline invaded by shady characters. Set in the early 1980s, it is transgressive on many levels. The protagonists are anti-heroes with whom the audience can hardly identify (a homeless drunk who beats his illiterate, pregnant girlfriend; two stuck-up, condescending Catholic volunteers who belittle the very people they are supposed to help; a depressed and duplicitous transvestite, a Yugoslav immigrant who keeps bringing his neighbors disgusting local food specialties…), yet it is also a scathing, politically incorrect criticism of the goody goody moral rigidity of well-meaning French Catholic society. Stuck somewhere between the progressive, post-1968 opening of popular culture and the conservative, traditional French society of the time, it is deeply anchored in French late 1970s culture and has thus become a fixture of both French comedy and “café-théâtre,” a popular form of entertainment that was highly successful with mainstream audiences (many “café-théâtre” performances were also filmed for television).

        In 1994, Hollywood produced a remake of the film ,which was released twice within a year, first under the title of Lifesavers, then Mixed Nuts. Both releases did not succeed in attracting audiences in spite of a prestigious cast that featured many great names of American comedy (Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner, Juliette Lewis…). The film, rated PG13, was a commercial failure under both released titles and went straight to video everywhere.

        The first official subtitling of the original film was released with the DVD produced by French group Studio Canal in 2005, 23 years after the film’s first release. There is no dubbed version of it, partly because English-speaking audiences are reluctant to watch dubbed films, and in part because the attractivity of the film abroad was considered as very limited for budgetting a dubbed version. The subtitled video is available in English only and the subtitles were made by a native French translator, which is unusual since translators mainly translate into their native languages. It is only available on the European market—mostly in England—, and to my knowledge, there is no plan to release it on the American market.[v]

        Obviously, both of these attempts at circulating the film outside France through adaptation or translation have failed. Let us examine the transformations made by Hollywood (remake) and by the French translator (subtitling).


The Film Remake

        In Encore Hollywood, Lucy Mazdon reminds us that “The act of remaking the films and the various ways in which they are received should be seen as related components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2). I shall therefore attempt to determine the nature of this cultural transfer (if there is indeed such a thing), and what within the source text (Le Père Noël…) determines cultural interaction and transfer into the target text (Mixed Nuts).

        Just like in Le Père Noël…, Mixed Nuts takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline that is invaded by unlikely and uninvited characters. The plot of the two movies is almost identical. Most of the dialogues, jokes and situations have been preserved, even if we can note a few omissions (a famous scene in which Zézette, the illiterate pregnant woman, attempts to fill in a social security form has, for example, disappeared from the US adaptation).

        Following a domesticating agenda, the location of the film has been transferred to California, and the American characters, although inspired by the French originals, have undergone significant modifications, especially concerning social class. Zézette, now Gracie (Juliette Lewis), no longer lives in a caravan by the highway with her violent, alcoholic and criminal partner, but runs a used clothing store by the seafront with her boyfriend Felix, a painter who tries to make it in the art world. Poor Yugoslav immigrant Preskovich has been replaced with a student in creative writing (Adam Sandler), whose recurring joke consists in playing the ukulele in just any situation. An evil landlord has been added to the cast, as well as a mysterious “seaside strangler.” The other characters of the original film/play, all dumb, narrow-minded and mean-spirited, have been replaced with imperfect yet good-hearted heroes a (young) American audience can identify with, and on whom the inevitable love stories and happy ending will focus.

        As a result, the provocation and dark humor of the original film have mostly been erased, both lexically (there are no more obscenities) and culturally. The reference to “café-théâtre,” implicit in the filmed version of the play, has also disappeared since most American audiences cannot identify this very French aspect of French culture. Because of the PG-13 rating (targeting families and thus ensuring the highest possible number of tickets), nothing has been left of the original political incorrectness—a notion that is undeniably imbedded in US culture (let’s just mention films such as Sixteen Candles and many teen movies of the 1980s, the films by the Farrelly Brothers, including There’s Something about Mary, released in 1998, just a few years later), as well as cartoons such as South Park, The Simpsons, Daria, or Family Guy. The humour in Mixed Nuts targets the widest possible audience and is supposed to comfort viewers rather than upset them. The representation of social class works to that end: because Hollywood did not want to make gratuitous fun of illiterate homeless people and immigrants, the precarious US population has a future: as artists, writers, wives and mothers. Following the same logic, their death has been ruled out. At the end of the original French play, a gas explosion kills all the characters and annihilates any attempt at a cathartic resolution, one way or another. The end of the French film, although it does not go as far, shows the characters feeding the dead body of a random and innocent elevator serviceman to the animals at a zoo. The end of Mixed Nuts settles all of the uncertainties the plot has created: a final nativity scene shows the birth of Gracie’s child among general bliss, and the seaside murder mystery is resolved, absolving in the process the seemingly gratuitous killing of the random character—who happens to be the serial killer (a resolution which works quite smoothly in a country that endorses the death penalty). What takes place is thus what has been called “normalization” by translation theorists—a frequent phenomenon in translation (if not so obvious), which here has been pushed to its extreme limits, reminding us of Baudrillard’s simulacrum (a copy without an original). What has been created with Mixed Nuts is a product made to fit cultural norms and enact traditional Hollywood propaganda about the pursuit of happiness—a complete misinterpretation of the original film which can be remembered, consciously or not, as an acerbic criticism of fake good sentiments.

        In Le Père Noël…, the plot is also a pretext for the dialogues, refined throughout the multiple performances of the play, both in terms of text and acting. These dialogues have a heavy cultural charge which is lost when adapted into English. The thick texture of the text, its “essence” (as Benjamin might say), or its “poetics” (Meschonnic) have been erased in the process of adaptation and translation.

        Finally, the success of Le Père Noël in the original French is based on the principle of repetition (repetition of the film throughout the years, repetition of the dialogues among fans), which have fostered the creation of a common culture around the film/play. Lucy Mazdon, talking about Austin Powers and James Bond, notes the tendency of contemporary cinema to include intertextual references as a source of audience satisfaction: “The bricolage of post-modernism has become a feature of many recent [Hollywood] films. Indeed, the ability to recognize ‘quotations’ and references has become an important feature of contemporary viewing practices and a rich source of audience pleasure” (qtd. in Durham 8). This repetition as a pleasure principle also applies to the multiple viewings of the French movie, which both strengthen its comedy value and the feeling of belonging to a community.

        It seems that what Lucy Mazdon identifies in remakes as “components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2) does not apply to Mixed Nuts: the exchange is very limited as there is no remaining trace of any of the multiple layers of French culture in the target product, an “ugly infidel” that seems to be a good illustration of the failure of the here omnipresent domesticating process of translation, and a confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s theory according to which meaning is not what is essential in translation. What we have here, rather, as he wrote in 1923, is “the inaccurate transmission of an inessential content” (16).



        Is the subtitling of Le Père Noël a more “faithful” translation of the original film? When compared to a remake, the strategy of translating a film with subtitles is closer to Venuti’s “foreignizing” strategy since it aims at preserving the film within its cultural and linguistic context while providing limited access to its meaning: subtitles are usually short, viewers still have direct access to the original language and setting, and they are made to watch and listen to unfamiliar images and words while reading the subtitles.

        Subtitles are complex devices that have a specific status in translation and are subject to specific restrictions: in terms of length, speed, coherence with the audio and video text. They also have to take extra-linguistic elements into account (setting, sound, light, movement—camera and characters…). With these constraints in mind, which can also be used as tools to help translators through strategies of compensation, subtitles should still take into account the stylistic aspects of the text as much as the meaning it conveys. The text of Le Père Noël, as mentioned earlier, has a specific status in that its script has been carefully crafted and partly conditioned by audience reception through the multiple performances of the play. It could also be argued that it is an illustration of the French tradition of quality dialogues represented, for example, by the texts of scriptwriter Michel Audiard whose lines are also part of French popular culture heritage. It is noteworthy that the text of the play was finally published by Actes Sud in 2000. It would thus seem essential for the translator to account for this, even though the format of subtitles renders the task particularly arduous.

        This analysis will be based on the official series of subtitles,[vi] sorted into different categories: (1) Cultural references, (2) Slang, (3) Accent and “broken French”, (4) Wordplay, (5) Compensations.


Cultural References

        Paul Bensimon says that cultural elements tend to resist the translation process (10), which seems to be proven by the remake of Le Père Noël… As for subtitles, Teresa Tomaszkiewicz lists a number of strategies to translate cultural references in film dialogue and turn them into subtitles (these categories can overlap in some cases; qtd. in Pettit 45).

  • (1) Omission, whereby the cultural reference is omitted altogether.
  • (2) Literal Translation, where the solution in the target text matches the original as closely as possible.
  • (3) Borrowing, where original terms from the source text are used in the target text.
  • (4) Equivalence, where translation has a similar meaning and function in the target culture.
  • (5) Adaptation, where the translation is adjusted to the target language and culture in an attempt to evoke similar connotations to the original. Strictly speaking this can be considered a form of equivalence.
  • (6) Replacement of the cultural term with deictics, particularly when supported by an on-screen gesture or a visual clue. (This category is the only one that is different from the traditional translation categories used in general translation)
  •  (7) Generalisation, which might also be referred to as neutralisation of the original.
  • (8) Explication, which usually involves a paraphrase to explain the cultural term.


        As the chart below shows, subtitles for cultural references tend to be generalized / neutralized: bar tabac, bûche, Fleury-Mérogis have all been replaced with their hyperonyms: party, dessert, jail. One reference is missing: les lépreux de Jakarta have simply become lepers, and Kissinger is used as an equivalent for Albert Simon, an old weather forecaster unknown outside of France, whereas the translator borrows the name of the restaurant, Castel, supposed to remind viewers of high-class French food culture. Naturally, all of these strategies also work within the length requirement for subtitles. The effect of the subtitles, whose “poetics” disappear in translation (partly compensated, though, by the existence of a visual invariant), is merely the translation of meaning while erasing most of the cultural elements in the process.

Cultural references:

Et un bar-tabac qui ferait réveillon en bas de chez vous? Couldn’t you go to a party or something ?  
Et en plus je n’aime pas la bûche. I hate dessert anyway.
Oui, c’est le Noël de Fleury-Mérogis. Yes. To people in jail.
J’ai presque fini les gants pour les petits lépreux de Jakarta I’m almost done with the gloves for the lepers.
Moi-même j’ai fait la connaissance d’Albert Simon. Take Kissinger
J’ai rendez-vous pour le réveillon chez Castel. I have a table waiting at Castel’s  


Slang, Sociolects and Broken Language

        A notorious feature of the original film is the language used by the characters. Pierre, Thérèse, Mme Musquin and Katia speak proper, sometimes very conservative, French, while the language register of Félix and Josette is supposed to mimic that of the lower classes. In addition, the characters sometimes use broken French which is used to create comedy through unwanted puns and plays on words.

        In her analysis of slang in the American film derived from the South Park series, Maria Jesus Fernandez insists that it is crucial to preserve the equivalence of meaning between languages when translating insults and slang:


The attraction of South Park lies in its political incorrectness taken to the highest level. However irritating some viewers may find the film’s reliance upon taboo language, it is essential that the translation of swearing be effective in order to retain the integrity of the film. If the translation is too literal or ineffectual, particularly if it tones down or masks the original text, the result will sound artificially distanced and the comic impact lost. (214)


This is perfectly valid for dubbing. However, we know that hearing slang shocks less than reading it, and subtitles have to take this element into account so as not to hurt the reader’s sensitivity. Authors of subtitles therefore tend to normalize slang and familiar language when they write. Even if compensation strategies may be used, loss is unavoidable.

        At first sight, it seems, however, that usual neutralisation strategies have not been enforced. Slang and profanity are often preserved, and have been used systematically to replace every occurrence of familiar language. One hypothesis to explain this choice is that the author of the subtitles Memni, a French translator, is aware of the importance of preserving this aspect and decided that profanity should be preserved. However, another explanation is that native French speakers often underestimate the need for toning down (written) slang when translating it into a target language which is not their own.

        That being said, we can see that lexicalized collocations (sac à vin, tête d’hareng, tête de veau, pauvre type…) have been replaced with more vulgar equivalents that do not belong to the original language register. This is what we could call “adaptation-amplification” of the original text (as far as language register is concerned). Fabrice Antoine argues that such adaptations are legitimate when lexicalized phrases have aged and are “cumbersome” because they no longer correspond to what the reader/audience would understand today (15), even though, the awkward, dated quality of these expressions is what the French audience appreciates. But the “adaptation-amplification” also comes with a less rich vocabulary (as these amplifications are also normalisations and lexical neutralisations), and while the original dialogue can compensate in part for this loss, a non-French speaker will have a hard time making the difference between familiar language and slang as it is used in the subtitles. The following examples show unusually vulgar English language translations for French slang, as well as “literal” equivalents for vulgar phrases and expressions.



La connasse de SOS ? That cunt from SOS ?
Tête d’hareng ! Fuck off, you scumbag !
Sac à vin ! You sonovabitch !
Casse-toi tu pues ! Go away you asshole !
M’approche plus, tête de nœud ! Get back, you prick !
Tête de veau ! Fuckface !
Je t’encule, Thérèse ! Je te prends, je te retourne contre le mur… Well, Therese, fuck your ass, fuck your cunt…
Je t’encule Josette, tu me baises et je te retourne, je te rebaise et tu me suces, tu m’entends, Josette ? Fuck you Josette !
Mais avec quoi tête de nœud ? Fous moi la paix, four à merde ! Screw you, fuck you, you cocksucker !
Encule-toi tout seul, espèce de malpoli ! Go fuck your own shitty asshole, motherfucker !
SOS mon cul, vieille ???! Je te pète la roulette, peau de couille I’ll burst your asshole cuntface !
Vous en étiez à « peau de couille ». Que se passe-t-il ensuite ? You stopped at ‘cuntface,’ I believe. What comes after that ?
Qu’est-ce qu’elle me dit la mongolienne ? What did that freak say ?
Tu vas voir ce que j’en fais de ta feuille pauv’ conne, va ! See that form, you bitch ?
Je vous conchie ! I piss on you !
Ta gueule Miss Monde ! Tu bouges pas, tu restes là. Stay put, Miss Universe !
Pierre, ils ont aussi buté le travelot! Hey, they bumped off the queen too !


Accents and Broken English (Preskovich / Zézette)

        Preskovich, the Yugoslav immigrant, and Zezette, the illiterate homeless young woman, both speak in broken French, lexically and syntactically. Preskovich’s lines are all characterized by missing determiners (j’ai pris travail de nuit, c’est petite douceur) or truncated sentences (je suis monté pour me joindre ), supposedly syntaxic calques for the structure of slavic languages. Subtitles have neutralized all of this wording and turned his speech into grammatically correct sentences, strategically counting on the audible accent of the character on screen to convey other forms of displacement.

        Josette’s (and Félix’s) speech is mostly characterised by improprieties, often made up by the authors with wordplay (ton tricot de porc / ton tricot de corps, il m’écrase la pomme des dents / la pomme d’Adam). But there are also barbarisms and lexical creations, or vocabulary used out of context (kiki). The subtitles use two general strategies to deal with this: neutralization (kiki becomes dick—a neutralization-amplification) and adaptation (Adumb’s apple / D-shirt), cleverly playing on what Rudy Loock has termed “visual dialect,” i.e. misspelling a word otherwise pronounced normally and using the written misspelling to convey the implied meaning.


Accent & broken language:


1/ Preskovitch :

J’ai pris travail de nuit. I work on the turnpike at night.
C’est petite douceur. It’s so sweet
Non mais c’est vacances aujourd’hui. Je vous ai apporté “doubitchous”. Not at all, I’m off tonight. I’ve brought you some “dubbiccu”
J’ai entendu des pétards, je suis monté pour me joindre. I heard firecrackers. I came for the party.
Je suis passé vous chanter un assortiment. Ca peut vous délecter. I thought I’d sing some folksongs… You’d love them.
Je vous présente toutes mes confuses. Please ex… confuse me.
Non, c’est « kloug ». No, it’s « klug ».


2/ Zézette / Félix* :

Y’avait ton slip et ton tricot de porc, qu’était à bouillir. Your underpants and your D-shirt, you dumb ass!
Il m’écrase la pomme des dents! You’re squeezing my Adumb’s apple.
J’ai les jambes en coton-tige. My legs feel like Q-tips.
Thérèse c’est ma bienfaiseuse. Therese is my benefactoress.
Jprends mes clipes et mes clopes et jme tire d’ici. J’en ai ras l’bol de c’gourbish. I’m splitting. I’m through with this rabbit shithouse.
C’est pas moi qui m’dispute, c’est lui. He started it.
*Ca m’a sanctionné le tendon. It cut a tendon.
*J’ai même essayé d’intenter à mes jours. I even tried to kill myself.
Tu crois qu’il a un gros bazar? Think he’s got a big one ?
Un gros kiki! Parce que Félix il a un très gros kiki. A big dick! Felix has an enormous dick.
Faut vider le déchargeur! Better empty the magazine !
Eh ben tant pire! Tough shit!



        Because of the nature of linguistic equivalence, translating wordplay within the framework of subtitles can be perceived as an additional constraint. Yet, Henrik Gottlieb suggests that it is not, because non-verbal elements can contribute to the solution.[vii] Translating this type of humour is thus not more difficult in audiovisual texts than in regular texts. Yet it is not always easy to do so.

        Below is a short list of “proverbs” (real or invented) and plays on words found in Le Père Noël… The intended effect is usually comedy, and the subtitler has opted for various strategies, which, however, often tend to neutralize the original. A few strategies of compensation can be identified here and there: Black clouds always have a silver lining (a confusion between Every cloud has its silver lining and Black sheep?) In Chaque pot a son couvercle, and with avec brio (with gusto) the translator opted for an (almost) literal translation that respects the intended effect as in the first case, the transformation from a dead metaphor to its literal meaning is what conveys the absurdity and the humour of the phrase, and as the play on words can be preserved in the second one.

        Other lexical creations have been normalized when literal translation was really impossible. The rhyme of Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir, for example, has disappeared and only the meaning of the sentence (lateness means deception) remains, dropping the comic function of the sentence. In other cases, the loss is more problematic because most of the lexical creations serve as markers of social class. Most of these examples come from the characters of Therese, the stuck-up Catholic bourgeois woman, and from Zezette, her “evil double.”



1/ Proverbs (real or invented):

Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir. With them, lateness means deception.
Vous êtes dans une mauvaise passe, mais le bout du tunnel n’est peut-être pas si loin. Black clouds always have a silver lining.
Jeu de mains, jeu de vilains. You hooligan…
Chaque pot a son couvercle. Every jar has its lid.
Il y a un temps pour prendre ses aises, et un temps pour prendre sur soi. Now you have to face up to your responsibilities.  


2/ “Creations”:

Ben oui on vous demande de répondre par oui ou par non, alors ça dépend, ça dépasse. You have to answer “yes” or “no”. “Depends” is too long.
Éboueux ça vous va ? Eh dites donc, pourquoi pas ramasser les poubelles tant que vous y êtes ? Garbage collector ? You’re crazy or what ? He hates collections.
Vous avez qu’à mettre burelier. How about « officiant » ?
Celui qui travaille dans les bureaux. Officiant! Working in offices!
Ah oui, vous voulez dire buraliste ? You mean clerk ?
Mais non, buraliste, ça bosse dans un tabac Come on, clerks work in churches!
Franchement, vous m’avez décrit cette soirée avec brio. Avec qui ? Non, avec personne, avec brio, c’est une expression qu’on emploie. Frankly, you depicted the scene with gusto. With whom? Nobody… Gusto! A figure of speech
Je ne vous jette pas la pierre, Pierre, mais j’étais à deux doigts de m’agacer. I’m not blaming you, Pierre, but I almost got upset.
Je n’aime pas dire du mal des gens, mais effectivement, elle est gentille. I hate to speak ill of people. Such a nice person indeed!
C’est fin, c’est très fin, ça se mange sans fin. Exquisite… No need to be hungry.  
Que Pierre n’ait pas une horloge dans le ventre, je vous l’accorde. Mais de là à lui prêter une liaison… I must admit that Pierre is not very… punctual. But to suspect him of deception…
C’est une petite très courageuse qui a toujours fait face à l’adversité avec beaucoup de dignité. She’s fighting adversity with great dignity.  
La douleur m’a fait dire des choses extrêmement grossières que je ne pensais pas, cela va sans dire. I said such awful things… I didn’t mean them, of course.
Je vais les remiser par devers moi. I’ll store them away.
Nous avons la gentillesse de vous recueillir et vous téléphonez dans les « Dôm Tôm » ! Calling long-distance is the way you thank us ?
Félix est un garçon charmant, certainement bourré de qualités. I’m sure Felix can be nice.
Figurez vous que Thérèse n’est pas moche, elle n’a pas un physique facile. Hey, Therese is no donkey! She isn’t exactly a classic beauty…



Finally, compensation is used for some occurrences that otherwise would have been lost in translation: recurring sexual allusions replace these untranslatable phrases.

Compensations :

Mon beau-frère est terriblement à cheval. My brother-in-law is so terribly stiff.
Plus fort… [scène de la baignoire] Harder
Oui je suis là. [scène de la baignoire] Right here.
– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné
Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher [idem]
– We should take it off the hook
– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…

[scène de la baignoire]

Right here.

– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné.

Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher. [idem]

– We should take it off the hook.

– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…


Conclusion and Proposals:

        This brief analysis highlights the problem of equivalence from French into English, and from French into American English in particular. On a macro-structural level, the analysis raises questions of cultural adaptation, while on a micro-structural level, the remake, and mostly its subtitling for the British market, bring up some problems of linguistic equivalence. As far as the subtitling into English is concerned (which is not a native English subtitle), what we clearly have is an independent “made in France” translation for a narrow British / European market of French film enthusiasts, and the subtitles probably have not been proofread for TV viewing, as they would not have passed the barrier of institutional censorship. The author of the subtitles attempted to preserve the irreverent character of the text (through the heavy use of slang, in particular) but what prevails is still a strategy of normalization, as many of the funny or problematic occurrences don’t really have English equivalents. The film remake has tried to make a popular French film accessible for a US audience, but it has obviously missed its target by turning it into the equivalent of a family movie, privileging a plot without much interest at the expense of the form in the source text. In light of the idea that the success of the original film was reinforced by a “pleasure principle” on the part of regular French viewers, it seems to me that the best equivalence that can be found for this type of cultural product is to be found in sitcom, in which plot is secondary and success is based on the repetition of various situations with the same characters.

        Finally, I wish to insist on the non-egalitarian character of the cultural and linguistic transfer of film and comedies between Europe / France and the United States. The role of English as a hegemonic language has certainly helped to shape a particular type of reception for Hollywood products, generally well-received in our country. On the other hand, as shown in part by import and export figures for French and English language works across continents, it seems very difficult to faithfully adapt a text coming from a culture and language with a less central position (and let us note that British films are even less successful than French ones in the United States, regardless of the language issue). These conclusions can also be read with the tools of translation studies. The original text is unreachable in translation, and maybe even more in this particular type of adaptation, due in part to the institutional and cultural context. However, maybe we should rejoice at the thought that there is such a thing as resistance to uniformisation, and be on the lookout for more faithful equivalents to seemingly “unique” works.


Works Cited

Primary sources

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Jean-Marie Poiré. Trinacra Films, Films A2 & Les Films du Splendid, 1982. 87 minutes. DVD with English subtitles: Studio Canal, 2003.

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Philippe Galland. (Filmed play, recorded for television at the Théâtre du Splendid), 1979. 90 minutes. Film.

Collectif. Le Père Noël est une ordure. Arles: Actes Sud, 1998. Print.

Mixed Nuts. Directed by Nora Ephron. Sony Pictures, 1994. 97 minutes. Film.


Secondary Sources

Antoine, Fabrice. “Argots, langue familière et accents en traduction.” Cahiers Elextra 31. Lille: Université Charles-de-Gaulle, 2004. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 15-25. Print.

Bensimon, Paul. Palimpsestes 11 – Traduire la culture. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998. 9-14. Print.

CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.” Web. 15/05/19.

Durham, Carolyn. Double Takes: Culture and Gender in French Films and Their American Remakes. Hanover: UP of New England, 1998. Print.

Fernandez, Maria Jesus. “The Translation of Swearing in the Dubbing of the Film South Park into Spanish.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Dias Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 210-25. Print.

Gottlieb, Henrik. “‘You got the Picture?’ On the Polysemiotics of Subtitling Wordplay.” Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation. Dirk Delabastita. Namur: St Jerome Publishing & Presses Universitaires de Namur, 1997. 207-32. Print.

Lefevere, Andre. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London/New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Look, Rudy. “Koman traduir l’inovassion ortografik: étude de ka.” Palimpsestes 25. Inscrire l’altérité: Emprunts et néologismes en traduction. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012. 39-65. Print.

Mazdon, Lucy. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. London: BFI, 2000. Print.

Miller, Toby. Global Hollywood. London: BFI, 2001.

Mounin, Georges. Les Belles Infidèles. 1953. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1994. Deuxième édition. Print.

Pelletier, Geoffroy. “Les chiffres de la traduction.” SGDL (Société des Gens de Lettres). Web. 05/06/19. Pettit, Zoe. “Connecting Cultures: Cultural Transfer in Subtitling and Dubbing.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Díaz Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 44-57. Print


[i] CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.”

[ii] The question of the hegemony of English is thoroughly explored in Spivak.

[iii] The French DVD, released by Studio Canal in 2005, does contain English subtitles for international diffusion in zone 2 countries (i.e. European countries), but its distribution in the UK has remained marginal.

[iv] For example, the protagonists of the French translations of The Famous Five (Le Club des Cinq) all have French names and live in Brittany.

[v] From a commercial point of view, Lucy Mazdon notes that Hollywood’s strategy is often to buy the rights to a foreign film and to make sure that the original is not released before the remake in order to short-circuit the original film’s international release.

[vi] I had access to two different subtitles: the official subtitles by Paul Memmi for Studio Canal (2005, i.e. over 20 years after the film’s original release), and an unnamed fansub.

[vii] “[…] rather than rather than complicating the successful translation of wordplay, the non-verbal elements creating the basis of much wordplay in television may indeed act as part of the solution. Thus, translating wordplay in an environment as semiotically complex as a satirical television programme is probably no more difficult that translating wordplay in the ‘words only’ environment of (say) a satirical novel. Although successful subtitling of some of the wordplay found on TV demands media-specific awareness, in the final analysis the overall quality of the outcome depends on the talent of the subtitler” (Gottlieb 207).

N°2 | The Biblical Story of King David Revisited By Joseph Heller in God Knows and Madeleine L’Engle in Certain Women

Anne Frédérique Mochel-Caballero


God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the Biblical story of King David. The first is presented as written by the man himself. The second is the contemporary tale of an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the Biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The two novels differ in tone and style, yet they also have much in common. Both stories depart from the original in letter and sometimes even in spirit. Nevertheless, they both bring the Biblical text to life in a unique way.


God Knows (1984) de Joseph Heller et Certain Women (1992) de Madeleine L’Engle sont deux adaptations américaines de l’histoire biblique du roi David. La première est présentée comme écrite par l’homme lui-même. La seconde est un récit contemporain d’un acteur appelé David Wheaton, fasciné par le personnage biblique et dont la vie ressemble par certains aspects à celle du roi David. Le ton et le style des deux romans sont différents mais ils ont aussi beaucoup de points communs. Les deux histoires s’éloignent du texte original en ce qui concerne la lettre et parfois même l’esprit. Néanmoins, elles rendent le texte biblique vivant d’une manière unique.


        God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the biblical story of King David. Both are retrospective: an aged David reminisces about his life, constantly moving between past and present. But, at first sight, the two narratives seem to take an opposing view with regard to almost every other aspect. The former is presented by the autodiegetic narrator as an account coming straight from the ancient king himself. The latter functions as an analogy: it is a contemporary tale about an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The adaptation of the biblical story is thus achieved using two very different techniques and the way it speaks to the contemporary reader is also dissimilar. Each book focuses on one particular event in the story of David upon which the whole novel hinges.

        In Certain Women it is the rape of David Wheaton’s granddaughter, Emma, by her half-brother Billy[1] and in God Knows it is the death of David and Bathsheba’s baby. As a Christian woman, L’Engle chose to put the emphasis on the female characters in her story and to tell it from their perspective. Even if the third-person narrator is omniscient in Certain Women, the focalization is internal: the reader views the events through the eyes of Emma Wheaton. Therefore the suffering caused by the rape is put into relief, although Emma does not allow herself to be overcome by bitterness. In God Knows, however, the narrator expresses strong anger and resentment because of the child’s death viewed as God’s punishment for David’s sin. Heller seems to be showing the reader what his own reaction would have been in David’s situation[2]: consequently, the contrition expressed in the Bible disappears and revolt is put forward instead. The two books also differ in tone. Heller’s novel characteristically resorts to irony, derision and coarse humour, giving it an iconoclastic flavour absent from Certain Women. Yet, in spite of those differences, the two novels have much in common. Both authors raise a number of serious philosophical and theological questions about the meaning of life, the role of God, and both tackle the themes of love and death with emotion that is not less potent for being hidden beneath the surface in God Knows.


Adaptation in God Knows and Certain Women: Midrash v. Analogy

        According to Linda Hutcheon, adaptations are omnipresent in our culture because of the pleasure they provide which comes “from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (4). She compares adaptation to translation and states that, just as literal translation does not work, there can be no literal adaptation (16). She writes that “proximity or fidelity to the adapted text should [not] be the criterion of judgment” (6) as it tended to be in the past. She defines the process of adaptation as “creative reinterpreting and palimpsestic intertextuality” (22). Among the tools used by storytellers, she mentions the following: “they actualize or concretize ideas; they make simplifying selections, but also amplify and extrapolate; they make analogies; they critique or show their respect” (3).

        Certain Women totally fits Hutcheon’s description of an adaptation. It is inspired by the biblical text but several times in the novel (126, 350), the characters themselves point out that there is no strict parallelism between the destinies of the two Davids. For example, Nik tells his wife, who has just revealed to him that she has been raped by her half-brother: “you’re not a twentieth-century equivalent of Tamar. Sure, I can see parallels, but there’s no preordained necessity [….] free will, Emma, sweetie, not predestination” (224). In The Rock That is Higher, Madeleine L’Engle described how she failed at her first attempt to adapt the story of King David into fiction and how she turned to a contemporary version instead:


I had started out to write a novel about King David’s eight wives, and I realized fairly quickly that I could not put myself completely into the bodies and minds of women who lived approximately three thousand years ago in a culture completely different from ours. I needed a twentieth century point of view. What happened was that my twentieth-century cast took over, and the story of King David became a play that Nik Green, one of the twentieth century characters, was writing. It didn’t mean that I had to live any less with King David and his wives […] but that the story and its marvellous truth was being approached from a different perspective. (16)


        While a claim to be faithful to the original can be found neither in the text nor in the metatext of Certain Women, at the other end of the scale, God Knows claims to be even more authentic than the source itself. Throughout the narrative, David comments on the way his story is reported in the Bible, sometimes complaining about how he is depicted in it: “I hate Chronicles. In Chronicles I am a pious bore, as dull as a dishwasher and as preachy and insipid as the self-righteous Joan of Arc, and God knows I was never anything like that” (9). At other times, he states that he will establish the truth about the way a certain event really happened. For instance, when he describes his battle against Goliath, he writes: “If you want to believe what you heard, I halted along the way to choose five smooth stones out of the brook. That was just for show. Any slinger worth his salt always carries his stones with him, and as I knelt with my knees in the water, I was unobtrusively removing two from the leather pouch at my waist […]” (97). The expression of the title “God knows,” found all along the novel, is his way of saying “this is what I’m telling you and you can believe me.” He rarely openly contradicts the Biblical narrative but mostly resorts to “midrash.”

        This concept has been used by many critics to describe the relationship between the Bible and its rewritings (Carruthers 259). It originally referred a form of rabbinic literature interpreting or commenting on a biblical text in such a way as to clarify a point or illustrate a principle. Midrash often fill in gaps left in the narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Harold Fisch is one of the critics who refer to novelistic rewriting as midrash and he states that “the result is something between interpretation and a new invention, for biblical narratives, by virtue of their polyphonic character, as well as their pregnant silences, are particularly suited to beget other narratives” (18). To him, rewriting necessarily involves filling in the gaps of what is not said in the original text.

        In God Knows, Joseph Heller constantly uses the technique of filling in the gaps and reading between the lines, thus “amplify[ing] and extrapolat[ing]” (Hutcheon 3), as in the following example, where the first sentence is a direct quotation from the Bible and the rest is commentary: “‘But I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, […] the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defiled.’ My voice was filled with righteousness. Ask me to this day what I thought I was talking about when I said ‘Lord of hosts’ and I still will be unable to tell you. I have many phrases whose meaning is likewise unintelligible to me but rhetoric is rhetoric” (99-100).

        Joseph Heller goes further than most authors rewriting Biblical stories. He uses midrash to the point of often contradicting the original text, thus challenging the reader’s certitudes. One of the most unexpected examples is when he makes Solomon, popularly known as the wisest man on earth, an idiot, a cheat who got the best of his legendary sayings from David himself and who only acquired wisdom after he had become king because he asked God to grant it to him (317). This does not contradict the original text per se, but it is highly ironic and comical. Along the same lines, David disputes the modern definition of a Philistine[3] by explaining that they were in reality a refined and cultured people (41). He also debunks the idea that the biblical David was a very pious person, stating that he was full of conceit when he attacked Goliath as a youth (21) or that he was not really furious when the Amalekite announced Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, but secretly pleased at receiving the crown and arm bracelet from him (35). Again, since he is referring to inner feelings, he cannot be accused of openly contradicting the original story.[4] He uses the argument of a discrepancy between words and thoughts even in the case of the most important transformation of all: Heller’s David constantly harps on his refusal to repent after having committed adultery and murder and on his lasting anger against God as a consequence of his baby’s death. To the reader who is familiar with the Biblical character, this change feels the most heterodox because there is clear evidence in the biblical text that David deeply regretted what he had done[5] and that he carried on worshipping God to the end of his life[6]: but if the narrator of God Knows is to be believed, it was just pretence (369).

        The Biblical hypotext is literally present in both novels. In Certain Women it takes the form of direct quotations, for example in the paratext, at the beginning of each chapter, or when one of the characters refers to the Bible (169, 302). In those examples, the text is in italics or in brackets to make it clear that it is a quote. In another example, the words are spoken directly by a character: “Adair laughed ruefully. ‘Poor little Inez. She’s all legs and knobbly knees and elbows. We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts’” (138). Even if there are no quotation marks in that example, the source is easily identifiable first to the attentive reader by the archaic “hath” and then in the next line, by Emma’s answer, explicitly mentioning the Song of Songs. The Bible is also referred to by the characters who read it, preach on it or discuss it on numerous occasions. Finally, there is an intermediary level between the contemporary re-writing and the biblical text itself: it is the unfinished play written by Nik on the story of King David, attempting to do what Madeleine L’Engle could not do and ultimately also failing. The play, which is supposed to tell the story from the perspective of David’s wives, is frequently read aloud by the characters and is a means for the reader who is not familiar with the biblical story to have access to it.

        In God Knows there are more direct quotations than in Certain Women but they are interwoven with the narrative with no quotation marks. However they are easily recognisable because of their style. Indeed, the quotes are taken from the King James Bible and sound very archaic compared to the rest of the text, as in the following example: “‘What shall be done by the king […] to the man that killeth this Philistine and taketh away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’/ ‘Who the fuck are you?’” (92-93).[7] “The frequently abrupt disjunction between the familiar high sentences of the scriptural material and the ‘rude noises’ of the vernacular obscenities and wisecracks” is described by Stephen W. Potts as “the most insistent comic and thematic device in this novel” (99). He asserts that “[s]ince Catch 22, one of the hallmarks of Heller’s work has been the sharp contrast between the often serious matter and the comic manner, a characteristic traditionally central to dark humor” (99).

        Actually, the whole question of intertextuality is dealt with in a playful way in God Knows. It is not just the biblical text that is quoted without indication of origin. Indeed, the novel is peppered with quotations from writers and poets of all periods and styles like Jonathan Swift (247), Robert Burns (310), Lord Byron (237), Charles Dickens (222) or Kafka (120). There is even a whole poem by Shelley, “Ozymandias of Egypt,” in direct speech, presented by David as “another crack at instructing” his son Solomon (317). After a while, the reader finds himself caught up in a tacit game of trying to spot the unidentified quotes. The most frequently quoted author is Shakespeare (100, 170, 189, 207, 228, 269, 364, 433) and it is ironically funny, since David constantly claims to be a true poet and creator and accuses both his son Solomon and Shakespeare of having copied him, calling the latter an “unscrupulous plagiarist” (89). In one sentence, he criticizes Shakespeare, for having “pilfered from Plutarch too, as well as from Saul and me” and in the next, he shamelessly quotes from Macbeth without citing his source: “stupid plots cluttered with warm bodies and filled with sound and fury and signifying nothing” (188-89).[8] He also complains that Solomon got all his Proverbs, his Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes from his father David while at the same time admitting that he himself stole the idea for his celebrated Psalm 23 (349) and several other psalms and proverbs from Bathsheba after telling her she was useless at writing: “‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ […] ‘Are you crazy? How fantastic can you get? That’s crap, Bathsheba, pure crap. Where’s your sense of metaphor?’” (348).

        Although it is not treated humorously, the idea that David might have provided inspiration for Solomon’s Song of Songs is also mentioned in Certain Women (208). Besides, Emma suggests to her husband that one of David’s wives might have authored part of his writings. She is thinking of Abigail rather than Bathsheba: “[…] she’s intelligent and creative. […] why couldn’t Abigail have made up some of the Psalms and taught them to David?” (169). Madeleine L’Engle regretted that “The God of Scripture is seen through male eyes (Jacob, Moses, David), so what we are given is only a partial vision of God” (Rock 27) and we can infer that this was part of her effort to re-establish a certain balance. With that example, we can see that she also resorted to the midrash technique even if she did not use it as abundantly as Heller.

        Both authors turn to the biblical text for inspiration, frequently quoting from it, while at the same time mixing it with their own writing and interpretation. By choosing a contemporary setting, L’Engle departs from the original text—and consequently from the events which inspired it—in a more obvious way than Heller, being “one step further away from real life as a representation of a representation” to use Kamilla Elliott’s phrase (162). However, in reality, David’s claim that he is more faithful to the facts than the source itself is, again, to be understood ironically since the source was to Heller, as it is to us, the only document available to learn about the facts. Heller himself referred to his inability to write a “realistic novel” in an interview: “I can’t deal with facts comfortably. […] In all my novels I try very hard not to let the facts get in the way of the truth” (Swaim). Thus, we can conclude that there is just as much “creative reinterpreting” (Hutcheon 22) in God Knows as in Certain Women.


How the Characters are Made to Come to Life

        Agreeing with Harold Fisch that “the Western imagination cannot escape [the Bible] but neither can it accept it unaltered” (viii), Madeleine L’Engle felt that she needed a twentieth century point of view to be able to reach out to her public. To help the contemporary reader identify with her characters, she chose to leave out some of the more shocking events in King David’s life: consequently David Wheaton does not murder a man to be able to marry his widow, and Abishag, the young virgin who sleeps with the old king to warm him becomes Alice, a mature doctor who looks after him and is legitimately married to him through her own choice, as were all his previous wives. Although two of his sons fight and die as soldiers in World War II, David Wheaton himself does not take part in any wars and the killing of the giant Goliath is merely metaphorical (3). There are constant nods to the original story but in order to suit a contemporary audience and a Western culture, some events or practises that could be perceived as disturbing or unrealistic are left out.

        Certain Women came out in 1992 but the story is principally set in the sixties, when David Wheaton is eighty-seven, and there are frequent analepses corresponding to his past life so the time span covered by the novel broadly corresponds to the first part of the twentieth century. Therefore the questions of the suffering of the innocent (260) and of the possibility of fighting a just war (145) are raised by the characters in reference to the Second World War, making them seem more relevant to the reader.

        In God Knows, all the shocking parts of the biblical narrative are included, and even developed and magnified to create humour. For instance, the story of David being asked to bring a hundred foreskins of Philistines as a dowry to marry Michal is told in just seven verses in the Bible (1 Samuel 18, 20-27) but goes on for ten pages in God Knows (168-78). Heller insists on David’s boyish eagerness to perform his task and even more on the Philistine women’s wailings when they recognize the foreskin of a certain Urgat who appears to have been a favourite among them.

        Despite the apparent lack of effort to try and make the story more palatable, it feels very contemporary and the reader is able to identify with David. To achieve that, Heller employs a device he had started using in Catch 22: he resorts to anachronisms. Just to give a few examples, not only does David use modern American slang and swearwords like ‘motherfucker’ (90), or “you bet your ass” (239), he also has extended geographical and historical knowledge of the twentieth century world. He compares his kingdom to the American states of Vermont and Maine (329), mentions Beverly Hills (56), London (16), Versailles (285) and Scandinavia (172). He refers to the Middle-Ages (311), to the discovery of America, to concentration camps, capitalism, fascism and communism (330-1). He mentions Cinderella (46) and at one point, he parodies a Disney song (175). He is acquainted with orthodontia (62), psychoanalysis (52, 265), miniskirts (35) and the pill (267) and is even aware of the fact that some of the things he mentions have not been invented yet (350). He uses a lot of Yiddish words like “shtupp,” “schmuck” (360), “schvantz,” “teivel,” “naar,” (420) and mentions “kasha varnishkas” (224), a popular Ashkenazi Jewish dish. He is also familiar with the New Testament, which he quotes several times (220, 289, 367). He goes so far as to ludicrously amalgamate Jesus and Marie-Antoinette by quoting them both in the same sentence: “Let them eat cake,” he said calmly. “Man does not live by bread alone” (315). The protagonist is an ancient king but his references are those of a twentieth-century American Jew, just like Heller himself. The anachronisms are so frequent that they make the world described in the novel seem familiar to the reader.

        The biblical text is very simple and narrative and often the feelings of the characters have to be guessed. For instance, in the story of the meeting between David and Abigail, we can deduce from the text that it was love at first sight since David asked her to marry him as soon as he learnt her husband was dead, but Joseph Heller chooses to spell things out in order to make the story come to life: “For the longest time I could not move my gaze from her face. Then I could not take my eyes off her tits. I felt my member harden and begin to stand out” (249). It is all the more unexpected and amusing because it comes after a long passage where the Biblical text is quoted almost verbatim, although without quotation marks, as is Heller’s custom.

        As Robert Merill noted, in God Knows, David is presented as “less perfect… far less pious,” “far more human” (115) than in the biblical text so it is easier for the reader to identify with him. Once more, the two authors do not use the same strategy but the result is the same: the characters feel, at least to a certain point, close to their readers.


Two Emotional Narratives Dealing With Eros and Thanatos

        The central figure of both narratives is a very old man on the verge of death and who had a particularly rich love life. Love and death are central themes in both novels.

        In Certain Women, they are treated very seriously as the reader is made to feel Emma’s sorrow at the idea of parting with her father, but also the pain caused by her rape and the aching of being currently separated from her husband Nik. Yet, the tone of the novel is not pessimistic. Mirroring L’Engle’s own experience,[9] Emma and her family acquire a certain wisdom through their sufferings and learn to deal with them. Thus, the conversations they have are full of sage reflexions on the importance of friendship (160), the acceptance of death (190), and the possibility of learning from mistakes (337).

        Though more humorous, “like all truly grand comic novels, God Knows is ultimately sad,” as Mordecai Richler wrote in The New York Times. Indeed, David is anxious about his coming death and especially about losing his strength and abilities. The former celebrated warrior and lover keeps regretting that he finds himself incapable of making love to Bathsheba one last time. As Heller stated, “[w]hat there is in all my books, part of the central consciousness, is a philosophical despair on the inevitability of age, of ageing, and dying” (Craig 148). David is also described as a doting father who was atrociously hurt when his son Absalom betrayed him and even more when he was killed (255). And of course he never recovered from the death of his baby boy. Although the tone is slightly more jaded, words of wisdom sounding very similar to the ones spoken by the characters in Certain Women can be found in God Knows: “[…] just as the person who wants praise will never be satisfied with praise, the person who wants love cannot be satisfied with love. No want is ever fulfilled” (105).[10]

        Both Davids were accused of being dislikeable. L’Engle’s David can be perceived as self-centred, but he admits towards the end of his life that he made many mistakes: “I have been a selfish bastard all my life. I’ve done what I wanted, even when it’s hurt other people” (291). On the surface, he seems not to care about God. Yet we learn that the reason he does not take communion when he goes to church is that he believes himself “to be unworthy” (61): “I’m just a foolish old man, suddenly remembering how often I’ve forgotten God. And David never did that” (83).

        Heller’s David is arrogant and self-righteous. However, those traits are so grossly exaggerated that they become unrealistic and laughable, for instance when he claims to have invented all the best poems and music in the world (198). He always pretends to know better but, several times in the narrative, it is obvious to the reader that he is mistaken. The most hilarious example is when he accuses Solomon of having preposterous ideas because he has advised him to hide his writings in a cave by the Dead Sea in order to preserve them for future generations, which is of course a reference to the famous Qumran scrolls which came to us precisely thanks to that means (234). It could be argued that the stepping back is done at his expense in order to make fun of him and that the character is still obnoxious. Yet despite all his ranting, complaining, boasting, David appears to be a very lonely character, who wants, most of all, to be loved. Throughout the novel, he speaks very disrespectfully of God, often accusing and insulting him, sometimes even doubting his existence, but his very last words—I want my God back; and they send me a girl (447)—seem to suggest that ultimately, there is a spiritual longing in him.[11] Just like David Wheaton, he is helpless and feels the need to protect himself from pain. Unlike L’Engle’s David, he uses coarse jokes and dark humour as a means to “[distance] and [control] the emotional desolation” he experiences (Craig 153). Although he is a complex and contradictory character, he is also a suffering human being and as such, he awakens the reader’s sympathy.


        Apart from drawing from the same source of inspiration, the two novels have a lot in common as this paper has endeavoured to show. Incidentally, they also had a similar journey. Their authors, who were almost the same age,[12] became famous at the same time, after publishing their first work, which turned into a bestseller, though not without some struggle in both cases: Catch 22 came out in 1961 and A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. God Knows and Certain Women were both written several years later, they were criticized[13] and unfavourably compared to their predecessors.[14] The two novels are not without faults. It can be noticed that they were accused by the critics of having the same shortcomings, namely of sometimes being heavy-handed and a bit long and repetitive.[15] Nevertheless, they are both thought-provoking and bring the biblical text to life in their own unique way.


Works Cited

“Book Review: Certain Women, by Madeleine L’Engle.” Publishers Weekly, September 28, 1992. Web. 15/09/2018.

Carruthers, John. “Literature.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Ed. John F. A. Sawyers. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.

Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Heller’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. Print.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Fisch, Harold. New Stories for Old: Biblical Patterns in the Novel. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1998. Print.

God Knows by Joseph Heller.” “Kirkus Review.” Sept. 15, 1984. Web. 12/08/2018.

Heller, Joseph. God Knows. 1984. London: Black Swan, 1985. Print.

—. “Wired for Books.” Interview by Don Swaim. September 19, 1984. Web. 18/08/2018.

—. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Ed. Adam J. Sorkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 1993. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. New York: Bantam Books, 1982. Print.

—. Certain Women. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

—. The Rock that is Higher. Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1993. Print.

Merill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Print.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. The Milford Series, Popular Writers of Today, second edition, vol. 36. Borgo Press, 1995. Print.

Richler, Mordecai. “He who laughs last.” New York Times, September 23, 1984. Web. 15/05/2018.

See, Carolyn. “Book Review: L’Engle Hero Harps on King David: Certain Women, By Madeleine L’Engle.” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1992. Web. 14/05/2018.

Severo, Richard and Herbert Mitgang. “Joseph Heller, Darkly Surreal Novelist, Dies at 76”. New York Times, December 14, 1999. Web. 15/05/2018.


Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero has a Ph.D in English literature from the University of Picardy Jules Verne, where she also teaches. She is the author of L’Évangile selon C. S. Lewis, Le dépassement du masculin / féminin dans la quête de Dieu (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011), a study of gender in the works of C.S. Lewis. She is interested in children’s literature (particularly fantasy), in representations of the masculine and feminine in literature and in biblical intertextuality.



[1] In the Biblical text, David’s daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13).

[2] In an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said: “David would not have spoken that way. I would have spoken that way.” 

[3] According to the Oxford dictionary, a Philistine is “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Oxford UP, 2017. Web.

[4] He almost never does it. The only real exception seems to be when he claims that he has black hair (103): David is described as being fair-haired in 1 Samuel 16, 12.

[5] For instance in Psalm 51, a prayer written by David specifically to ask God for forgiveness “after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (King James Bible, Ps 51, 1).

[6] 2 Samuel 23 1-7, 16-17; 2 Samuel 24, 10; 1 Kings 1, 18; 1 Kings 2, 3-4.

[7] The first part of this passage is a word-for-word quote from 1 Samuel 17, 26.

[8] “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and furySignifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, verses 26-8).

[9] In Walking on Water, L’Engle wrote how her suffering as a lonely child and, later, her failure to publish her first book, though bitter experiences, had taught her “a lot of valuable lessons” (58).

[10] L’Engle’s phrasing is almost analogous: “Nobody’s needs are ever met. I do know that” (CW, 160).

[11] Heller saw himself as an agnostic (Conversations 75), but in an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said about God Knows: “It’s not an atheistic book; it’s not even an agnostic book.”

[12] L’Engle was born in 1918 and Heller in 1923.

[13] For Certain Women, see for example Carolyn See’s book review in the Los Angeles Times. For God Knows, see Kirkus Review and Potts 101-04.

[14] Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller famously responded, “Who has?”(Severo and Mitgang). Certain Women was described by Publishers Weekly as a “disappointing novel by the Newbery Award-winning CK author of A Wrinkle in Time.”

[15] Concerning God Knows, Potts mentions “redundancy and length” among the issues which surface most frequently in negative reviews of the novel (101). A review in Publishers Weekly describes Certain Women as “heavy-handed.”

N°2 | “Look Homeward, Angel”: Re-Interpreting “the buried life” for the Stage

Amélie Moisy


This article examines Ketti Frings’ play “Look Homeward, Angel” (1957) as a re-interpretation of the novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929), by the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, failed playwright and adaptor. Frings seems to have focused on the notion of “buried life,” central to Wolfe’s work, as she condensed the storyline, developed some aspects, invented scenes, and changed some outcomes. Her work is a re-creation that ultimately proves wrong the clichés on adaptation identified by Linda Hutcheon, for it conveys some of the intimacy in point of view, the interiority, time relations, and other “untranslatables” of the novel. The reception of the play is examined; a critical and popular hit in 1957, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a musical and two TV movies. The article considers the (still widely produced) play as an introduction to Wolfe’s life and work.


Cet article étudie l’adaptation scénique de Ketti Frings du roman de Thomas Wolfe Look Homeward, Angel : A Story of the Buried Life (1929) en tant que réinterprétation de l’œuvre du romancier américain, dramaturge raté qui pratiquait l’adaptation. Dans “Look Homeward, Angel” (1957), Frings semble avoir retenu la notion de “vie enfouie” pour concentrer la diégèse, développer d’autres aspects, inventer des scènes et modifier des dénouements. Sa pièce est une recréation qui dément les clichés sur l’adaptation identifiés par Linda Hutcheon en ce qui concerne le point de vue, l’intériorité, le passage du temps, et d’autres éléments “intraduisibles”. L’article décrit la réception de la pièce en 1957 ; elle remporta le prix Pulitzer et fut adaptée en comédie musicale et deux films pour la télévision. La pièce, souvent produite aujourd’hui, peut être envisagée en tant qu’introduction à la vie et l’œuvre de Wolfe.


        The American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was a failed playwright when he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, subtitled A Story of the Buried Life, in 1929. Ketti Frings (1909-1981), born Katherine Hartley, was a journalist and writer who had had a play on Broadway. Her work had been adapted for the screen, and, as a screenwriter, she had adapted novels such as Jane Eyre (1943) and plays such as William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba (1952). In this article, I look at what instances of adaptation in Wolfe’s novel become in Ketti Frings’ 1957 play “Look Homeward, Angel.” It will appear that the “buried life” was a key concept for both novelist and playwright, though they used different techniques to make it perceptible. I examine how Frings’ changes give a concentrated impression of “buried life,” and how her “comedy drama” proves wrong the four main clichés on telling versus showing identified by Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation, in order to better appreciate its merits as “a (re)interpretation and (re)creation,” to quote Hutcheon’s definition of an adaptation. Finally, I give an account of the reception of the play.


Wolfean Adaptation: Scope

        Frings was dealing with an author who was an adaptor, and had been adapted. Wolfe had studied playwriting at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard. He never had a play produced off campus as he found it difficult to keep to the necessary condensation of drama—he explained that “Welcome to Our City,” for example, with 32 named characters, did not deal with any specific problem because it was meant to reflect “a certain civilization, a certain society. I am content with nothing but the whole picture.” He intended one day “to write a play with fifty, eighty, a hundred people—a whole town, a whole race, a whole epoch” (Nowell qtd. in Donald 98). Instead, he adapted some playwriting techniques to his novel on his home town, in which he reworked true incidents, interspersing dialogue with stage directions, but commenting upon the action at leisure, too. As the groom Hugh Barton’s mother is “taken with a violent, a retching sickness” during the Gants’ daughter Helen’s honeymoon, for example, Helen is shown taking over the sick woman’s care against her will, much as she tends to Eliza’s boarders against her will in the play:


“Hel-en! Oh Hel-en!” Mrs. Barton’s voice came feebly in to them.

“O gotohell!” said the girl, sotto-voce. “Urr-p! Urr-p!” She burst suddenly into tears: “Is it going to be like this always! I sometimes believe the judgment of God is against us all. Papa was right.”

“Pshaw!” said Eliza, wetting her fingers, and threading a needle before the light. “I’d go on and pay no more attention to her. There’s nothing wrong with her. It’s all imagination!” It was Eliza’s rooted conviction that most human ills, except her own, were “all imagination.”


“All right! I’m coming!” the girl cried cheerfully, turning an angry grin on Eliza as she went. It was funny. It was ugly. It was terrible. (LHA 386-87)


And Wolfe readapted the novel into other forms. He was always to adapt fact into his fiction, always to take excerpts from the novels he was working on to market as short stories, first on the advice of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and later with the help of his agent, Elizabeth Nowell. His first short story, “An Angel on the Porch,” taken from the novel, was published before it.

        The “Look Homeward” title lifted from Milton’s “Lycidas” suited this adaptation of stories of Wolfe’s family and neighbors in the South of the USA. The subtitle, A Story of The Buried Life, has many meanings. Wolfe was inspired by Freudian theories on the importance of the formative years to write about his alter ego, the sensitive Eugene Gant, growing up in Altamont. Moreover, the phrase was an adaptation of the notion expressed in Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Buried Life”:


But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course…

(“The Buried Life” 46-50)


        This secret life is the consciousness Wolfe’s characters repress in their everyday business, while questioning in their hearts the course of their existence and the human condition in general. The characters’ lives are also buried in the small town, encompassed by hills, and though many of the characters have dreams, as Janet Savage Blachford has pointed out, only Eugene will “spend [his] fire and restless force” positively.

        Finally, as early as the liminal prose poem, Wolfe introduces the idea that man on earth “remembers speechlessly” a happier preexistence, after which life on earth is a “prison,” and references to the Golden Age recur throughout the book and give it a mythical dimension typical of modernism. The characters have an epic greatness, from the father, W.O. Gant, who is a “Hammer hurling Thor” (286) and the mother, Eliza, who is Avarice personified, to the older brother, Ben, who walks the earth “like Apollo […], trying to recapture the music of the lost world” (557), on a quest similar to Eugene’s.

        The novel Look Homeward, Angel is “organic” rather than synthetic in form; it has over 200 named characters and most editions run over 600 pages. It is famous for its Whitmanesque catalogues seeking to render the sum total of Eugene’s “multiplex” sensory experiences (84), and passages of lyrical prose built up in incremental repetition, inspired by the Romantic poets, as in the passage where Eugene visits Ben’s grave, with its variations on “the leaves were quaking […] Wind pressed the boughs; the withered leaves were shaking” and Wolfe’s “ghost, come back again” motif (578, 581-83). After Wolfe’s death, some passages from his work were published as separate stanzas or, with line breaks, as free verse—in The Face of a Nation (1939)and A Stone, a Leaf, a Door (1945).


Frings’ Adaptation: Concentration

        Although Frings was no Wolfe scholar when she began work on the play for producer Kermit Bloomgarten in the spring of 1957, she brought to the task of reinterpreting Look Homeward, Angel for the stage both a talent for concentration and sensitivity to the Wolfean spirit, as she makes the buried life apparent. Frings had to reduce the scale of the work and the epic nature of the characters; she cut the subtitle and references to preexistence that suggest an alternative to life as a prison, but the characters are concerned with escape—from family ties, and especially from a manipulating mother, as well as escape from the small town and sordid boarding house. She confided in an interview that she re-read the novel several times, but “didn’t read anything else about Wolfe or by Wolfe that might confuse [her]” (Dedmond 44). Visiting Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house, she came away with a feeling for Wolfe’s intense loneliness, which she strove to keep as a central impression, the “buried life” of a play that hinges on, Frings stated, the moment in which the character loses his “blind spot”. Eugene, who has always suffered from a sense of loneliness, abandoned by his girl and having lost a beloved brother, realizes that he must stand alone, no longer tied to his brawling family. To guide her in limiting the action, Francis Dedmond relates,


Mrs. Frings looked for what she called “the point of not-blindness.” “In a play,” she said, “the protagonist should have a blind spot about something. When that blind spot is removed for him, the play is over.” Eugene’s blind spot, she argued, was “the feeling that he must accept the embraces of his family and be bound by ties of family love.” The moment of not-blindness she found in Eugene’s conversation with Ben’s ghost at the end of the novel. “Where, Ben? Where is the world?” Eugene asked. “Nowhere,” Ben said. “You are your world.” Once she found that moment, Mrs. Frings was able to condense the play into a three-week period surrounding Ben’s death. (“Problems” 44-45)


To add to the impression of confinement, Frings restricted the action to Eliza Gant’s Dixieland boarding house and W.O. Gant’s marble shop. Jo Mielziner, who had recently done the stage design for “Death of a Salesman,” arranged a set of a house around which everything was concentrated. It enabled the scenes to flow into one another without stopping. In a step away from literalism, the upstairs scenes were situated downstairs, the shift from the lower level to the bedrooms being made by a revolving stage built inside the living room. The set made simultaneous scenes possible: thus Ben could be seen dying while his mother wrung her hands in the kitchen. The entire house moved forwards and backwards, so that scenes could be played in front of it as well. Mielziner used projections to reinforce the desired atmosphere (“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel’”). What is more, Frings restricted the number of characters to only one of Gant’s cronies, the doctor and the town madam besides the family and the boarders. As in the novel, where all of the characters have a buried life, Frings makes it clear, although she simplifies their longings, that they all want to escape in one way or another: brother Ben to the war in Europe, sister Mabel to stop waiting on boarders, her husband Hugh Barton to a house of his own and a better job, old man Gant to leave his wife Eliza and travel, Eliza to a fine property, the young boarder Laura from her fiancé, Eugene with Laura to end solitude, and, when she leaves him, to university. Again, only Eugene will prevail. As Frings has W.O. Gant prophesy, “You’re going to bust loose, boy—you’re going to bust loose, all over this dreary planet!” (89)


The Playwright’s Hand: Adding for the Gist

        Frings adapts Wolfe’s work into various sub-plots that highlight inner experience and the buried life. She insisted on the strong tie between Eugene and Ben from the beginning, opening on a prose poem that Eugene is writing about his mysterious older brother, which she adapted from the novel—“His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light…” (“LHA” 6, LHA 165). She developed the character of Ben so that his loss takes on its full significance, and when only his voice remains, declaring the famous inner-life affirming “You are your world,” Eugene understands that he must live alone (91). Inner life is made clear as she develops the love affair between Eugene and Laura James, making motives apparent. Eugene is ready to forfeit college for marriage and an end to solitude: “You are my world, Laura. You always will be. Don’t let anything destroy us. Don’t leave me alone. I’ve always been alone” (53). And Laura explains why she leaves Eugene: “The thought of marriage frightened me. I told my fiancé I needed time to think it over. I fell in love with Eugene […] He needs the whole world to wander in—and I know now that I need a home” (81). Frings made Eugene’s going to the University at Chapel Hill depend on Gant selling his shop, then made Eliza refuse to let that sale go through for fear that they would both leave her, and finally made her the means of Eugene’s going as she decides to sell some of her own precious property to save her baby from Laura’s clutches. In these episodes, Frings shows the undercurrents of feeling in the characters. She modified the most famous episode: the angel statue in Gant’s shop is not sold to his friend the madam, as in the short story and novel, but reserved for his own grave, suggesting that long-buried ideals still guide the characters: “… as I looked at [this angel’s] smiling face, I felt, more than anything in the world, I wanted to carve delicately with a chisel. It was as though, if I could do that, I could bring something of me out onto a piece of marble” (51). She changed the behavior of the characters, making Tarkinton, Gant’s neighbor but no friend in the novel, his associate in alcoholic excess, and presenting the town madam as less distinguished than in the book, were she was so regal as to be called Queen Elizabeth: in the play, both sing bawdy songs with Gant. And Frings created new scenes from existing ones, transforming Eugene’s vain attempts to bring down the house when Laura leaves in the novel into a rampage as Eliza and a gleeful Gant start to tear down the boarding house when Eugene is about to leave, giving free rein to their hatred of it.

        Though this last scene, in particular, is “good theater,” Frings does not indulge in overdramatic “showing.” In an opening night review, Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, praised the play and the performances whose “varied tempos” had the “mark of truth.” Looking at some of the variations within the play proves wrong the four clichés Linda Hutcheon lists regarding adaptation, and telling versus showing. In what follows, I do not take the terms “telling” to mean narrative prose, or description, and “showing” to mean all dramatic devices, including dialogue, as is sometimes the case. I follow Hutcheon’s practice of considering that the use of language is “telling” and visual or other effects are “showing.”


Intimacy and Distance in Point of View

        The first cliché, according to Hutcheon, is: “Only the telling mode (especially prose fiction) has the flexibility to render both intimacy and distance in point of view” (52). In Wolfe’s novel, the point of view alternates between third person omniscient, with some passages reading like account books (194-97), and episodes of stream of consciousness, for both of the parents and Eugene. At the end, the reader understands that the ironic or lyrical narrative voice is that of the adult Eugene, looking back on his youth.

        As Manfred Jahn writes, focalization and narration have a place in drama, whether printed text or performance, at the level of the stage directions and arrangement of scenes, and of the character who seems to be presenting the play (9). Frings’ decision to have Eugene writing alone at the start, and Eugene alone on stage again at the end seems to make him the central consciousness of the play, as in the book, though he is not its explicit narrator. Frings also conveys the intimate thoughts of the other characters, like Gant’s “Why here?” of the novel (“And like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!” [15]) that is transformed into the following lines in the play: “Why am I here, now at the rag end of my life? … But why here? Why here?” (39). Yet she does not seek to be sociologically realistic with scenes of account-book factuality, but rather keeps the audience conscious of the characters’ buried inner life. And drama permits revelation in ways that print does not: whether the characters are dispassionate or revealing, intimate thoughts can be perfectly conveyed by showing, as stance, gestures, tone, volume, mimics are all signs that contribute to what Patrice Pavis calls the vectorization of meaning in a performance. He feels, like Eugene Barba, that spectators are “capable of following or accompanying the actor in the dance of ‘thought-in-action,’” of perceiving “the body of the performers and the performance as an auto-biography in the strict sense of the term, i.e. as a writing of the actor’s body as much as the spectator’s, a writing which inscribes itself in the scene” (Pavis 221).


Interiority and Exteriority

        The second cliché Hutcheon identifies is, “Interiority is the terrain of the telling mode; exteriority is best handled by showing” (58). Exteriority can certainly be vectorized on stage through scenery, props, costumes, make-up, lighting and sound effects, and Mielziner’s set and projections were especially effective in creating immediate understanding of the situation at Dixieland: “[The house] has a rambling, unplanned gabular appearance, and is painted a dirty yellow. Most of its furniture is badly worn and out of style. […] The street itself has a feeling of great trees hanging over it” (5). But both interiority and exteriority can be rendered by what Pavis terms the dance, or alternatively, the energy, of performance:


[I]ntonations, gazes, restrained rather than manifest gestures are so many fleeting moments where meaning is suggested, but difficult to read and scarcely externalised. […] The rather unscientific and unsemiological term, energy, can be useful in an attempt to determine what this non-representable phenomenon is: by his presence, movement, and phrasing, the actor or dancer releases an energy which directly reaches the spectator. Such a quality makes all the difference and contributes to the whole aesthetic experience as well as the development of meaning. (Pavis 221-22)


This energy is also conveyed in the way the actors occupy the space inside and outside the house. At the start of the play, for example, Eugene remains onstage in his bedroom composing his poem to Ben as the action centers on the boarders outside, and his posture and gestures reveal his outsider’s status and his feelings about his family just as Eliza’s beliefs about him will be obvious as soon as she calls “Eugene, are up in your room? Eugene?” (10): “He hasn’t anything else to do. Spending his time up there scribbling, dreaming” (11).

        Thoughts can be shown in other ways. Jahn writes of “characters fulfilling the role of internal focalizers” in “memory plays and dream plays” (9). Frings had originally planned a flashback in which Eugene watched a naked black woman from Stumptown (Niggerland in the novel) dance and lure him into the jelly roll, or sex act; but she cut that mental scene because it was “too strong.” It would seem that in the end, Frings resorted to telling onstage to convey interiority in her play. Ben evokes the Stumptown delivery boy scene that was Eugene’s in the novel: “I used to deliver papers there. Sometimes those negra women don’t have the money to pay their bill, so they pay you in jelly roll” (32). Frings also reworked the following passage by Wolfe on Eugene as a baby:


He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never. (LHA 38)


Eugene’s thoughts are given as lines to Ben, which makes him a more insightful and articulate character: of his parents, Ben concludes, “No one really comes to know anyone. […] No matter what arms may clasp us, what heart may warm us, what mouth may kiss us, we remain strangers. We never escape it. Never, never, never” (65). Frings invented scenes to reveal Eugene’s longing for escape from his boarding house and small town existence and his passionate inner life—Laura tells of seeing him throw the Dixieland advertising cards in the gutter and stare at the train at the station; Eugene pumps her with questions about the city of Richmond, and he tells her that when he touches the locomotive the rails send “a message of all the mountains that engine ever passed—all the flowing rivers, the forests, the towns, all the houses, the people, the washlines flapping in the fresh cool breeze… a whole life, a whole country clicking through your hand” (35-36). Thus Frings lets the audience know how the characters’ thoughts resonate with, or range beyond, the confinement symbolized by Dixieland.

        Yet the playwright in Wolfe came through in his “showing” of mannerisms and characteristic phrases, like Ben’s looking heavenward to say “Listen to that,” Eliza’s “Pshaw”s and constant defense of her coffee, or Gant’s “Merciful God”s. And Frings shows us something of Ben’s interiority in his derisive “Listen to that…,” or of Eliza’s, in her defensive “That’s good coffee.” Frings also conveys interiority by showing: when Eliza finally desists from tearing down the house, the different personalities of the avaricious and profligate parents are highlighted:


“ELIZA. Helen, go get the boarders, tell them he’s been drinking, tell them anything, but get them back! […] Hugh, help me clean up this mess.

GANT. Let them go, Miss Eliza. Let the boarders go!”(88)


Relations among Past, Present and Future

        The third cliché Hutcheon lists is, “The showing and interacting modes have only one tense: the present; the mode of telling alone can show relations among past, present, and future” (63).

        As mentioned earlier, Frings dropped the one visual flashback, about the Stumptown jelly roll, so that exposition about the past is spoken, and often blends with telling about interiority. We are told, for instance, about Eliza buying Dixieland, “selling the house that Papa built with his own hands and moving us into this drafty barn where we share our roof, or food, our pleasures, our privacy so that you can be Queen Bee” (42), told about the sinister happenings at Dixieland over the years (72), and about her “hang[ing] on to [Eugene] like a piece of property].” Told too, is time’s elapsing, noted on the program and voiced by the characters “You’ve been so strange all this last week,” (48) says Eliza to Eugene, or “It’s five minutes to dinnertime at Dixieland,” she says (58). Moreover, all of the characters evoke future plans. Their coming to naught suits the buried life theme.

        But onstage, the lighting and projections give an idea of time’s passing, and the actors’ demeanor and tone can show when they are reminiscing about the past. And they can foreshadow the future, as when Laura’s changed attitude is perceptible as she enters Gant’s shop with the picnic basket in Act II, Scene 1. Particularly noteworthy is the final expressionistic tableau of the play, a synthesis of past, present and future made apparent through the vectorization of sound, lighting, moveable set, of the actor’s energy, and of stage props and theatrical and fictional codes (the curtain signals the end, the convention of closure suggests that the final image foretells the future). Eugene is about to leave for university, having lost Ben to death and Laura to a rival. If the stage directions are followed, the final scene presents the future as “The TRAIN WHISTLE sounds;” it recalls the past—and also introduces it into the future, suggesting that Eugene will always carry it around with him: “LIGHTS reveal Dixieland in dim silhouette;” and it shows Eugene’s present resolution as he faces the future squarely: “EUGENE, without looking back, exits. CURTAIN” (92).


“Untranslatable” Elements

        Hutcheon reformulates a fourth cliché: “Only telling (in language) can do justice to such elements as ambiguity, irony, symbols, metaphors, silences, and absences; these remain “untranslatable” in the showing (…) mode” (68). Much is told in speech that would otherwise remain untranslatable, but a great deal is made more poignant through being shown.

        The ambiguity and ambivalence about all the characters in Wolfe’s book is stressed. Though Eliza is more directly responsible for the woes of the dysfunctional family in the play, there is the ambiguity of Gant’s wanting freedom for his son, but constantly tormenting his wife, and of Eugene’s enduring love for his family. Ambiguous, too, is Eliza’s tearing down the house, then refraining. These perplexing evidences suggest the depth of their buried life.

        Much of the irony in the book is turned into humor. Wolfe writes: “But Eliza was not content with [Gant’s stonecutting] trade: there was no money in death. People, she thought, died too slowly. […] So she persuaded Gant to go into partnership with Will Pentland” (17). In the play the passage becomes black humor as Eliza complains about Gant’s tombstone cutting: “in this day and age people die too slowly” (47). At other times, Frings creates burlesque scenes: Gant cries “So you don’t like my wife’s coffee!” while chasing the boarders, and Eliza, destroying the house, automatically replies “Why, law, that’s good coffee!” (88). But Frings introduces dramatic irony in many scenes, as when the audience knows that Gant is watching Eugene secretly fondle the angel in his shop in Act II, Scene 1, or knows that Laura has left Eugene as he trundles to her door with his suitcase in Act III. And there is irony in the denouement of Frings’ plot: the penny-pinching Eliza sells her property at the last minute hoping to prevent Eugene’s marriage by sending him to university; she doesn’t know that Laura is leaving and the expenditure is unnecessary (82). Moreover, Eugene ends up going to university as he had wanted to at first, instead of marrying and getting a job with his uncle. The tangled course of events parallels the Gants’ tumultuous inner lives.

        Frings established symbols, the boarding house and the train standing for captivity and escape, superimposing the two at the end to show Eugene at the crossroads. She kept the symbol of the angel as Gant’s ideal, while the “melt[ing] with ruth” Milton’s angel evokes is all the easier for the viewer as Frings shows something of the inner workings of all the characters—that they all had an ideal of sorts.

        In contrast, Frings invented the spoken metaphor of being fixed in a photograph for the Gants’ unsatisfactory cohabitation, perhaps reworking Wolfe’s references to photographs in other contexts, notably at the end of Chapter 19 of the novel, or “An Angel on the Porch,” where “life was held […] in photographic abeyance” as Gant’s psychic state is compared to three different men viewing old photos (LHA 269). Frings has Ben use the image twice; his dying words are “It’s one way—to step out of—the photograph…” (“LHA” 74).

        Frings inserts dashes in the dialogue and specifies pauses in her stage directions, and a director can effectively place longer silences in several scenes, for example, when Eugene prays for the deceased Ben on the porch while Laura watches unseen—the silences in between the bursts of prayer and Laura’s silence links them in a caring and sorrowful vigil contrasting with the family quarrels shown earlier.

        Finally, telling is thought to render absences best. But Ben’s refusal to have his mother by his deathbed is made evident as Mrs. Pert replaces Helen and Eliza in the bedroom shown on stage, while they are seen waiting down below. Laura’s absence is shown by Eliza taking in her place in the room, by the letter Eugene reads as he hears the train’s whistle, indicating her departure. And Ben’s absence rings out in his disembodied voice in the darkness (his ghost was flesh in the novel). Eugene’s break with his family is driven home as he delivers his line (taken from the novel) after the argument with Eliza about the boarding house—and physically departs from view:


EUGENE. […] And now, at last I am free from all of you. And I shall get me some order out of this chaos. I shall find my way out of it yet, though it takes me twenty years more—alone. (Starts for door.)

ELIZA. Gene! Gene, you’re not leaving?

EUGENE. Ah, you were not looking, were you? I’ve already gone. (EUGENE exits) (“LHA” 85)


But as stated earlier, through vectorization, showing can convey both the lessening and continuance of the familial influence and the weight of inherited loneliness that Dixieland symbolizes, seen in the distance as the curtain falls—an untranslatable element, at least one that is not explicitly formulated in the play.


The Spirit of the Play

        Similarly, Frings identified cuts in her adaptation that nevertheless had a lasting quality. Orientating playwright and cast, they were the buried life of the play; notably, the absent Wolfe fertilized her production. Of the discarded scenes, she wrote, in an article entitled “O Lost!”, “in their brief existence, each gave of its essence, and so deeply enriched all our experiences” (91). She had conjured Wolfe in her original prologue, realizing “I needed him—his image—close by” (91). Yet Frings increasingly felt the play to be her own creation, too. “After a while, as the play grew, I began to have confidence in its own life […]. I gently crumpled the pages of the prologue” (91). Still, her ghost of Wolfe walks through the play, giving Doctor Maguire his lines on the brevity of life: “We can’t turn back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three cents’ worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back” (Wolfe LHA 553, Frings “LHA” 75). Frings’ play, like Wolfe’s novel, highlights the transience of life and the aptness of following the buried consciousness that is within us. “I shall get me some order out of this chaos […], though it takes me twenty years more—alone” Eugene resolves, though his family bury their ideals (85).


The Reception of Frings’ “Look Homeward, Angel”

        Frings’ achievement has been recognized and her adaptation is still unsurpassed. In November 1957 the play, with Anthony Perkins as Eugene, was produced in Philadelphia for a trial run, and then in New York, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. There it ran for 564 performances (Dedmond 56). On opening night in New York, Wolfe’s surviving family members, on whom characters in the novel and play had been based, attended the performance. His sister Mabel (Helen) said, “I went in fear of what I might see or that the audience might titter,” but she found that the spellbound audience reacted with sympathetic silence, applause, and cheers (“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel”). The magazine Theatre Arts of February, 1958 states that “There was nothing but praise from the seven New York newspaper reviewers” on the Broadway opening, citing figures such as John McClain of the Journal-American: “One of the best evenings I’ve ever had in the theatre” (19). In her touching recollection of the original play, Clara Stites, the daughter of Wolfe’s agent Nowell, writes about the fine choice of a lead actor: “[S]he [fell] in love instantly and forever with Anthony Perkins, his lonely tragic being, his yearnings and ineptness, the way his neck [rose] out of his sweater thin and unprotected. He [was] perfect, so sad, so desirous of love…” (100). Some reviews of the production found fault with the quantity of telling material, insisting on the quality of the showing aspects that made up for it:


You will hear, now and then echoes of the effortful rhetoric that has disturbed even Thomas Wolfe’s most ardent admirers […]; there is pretentiousness here and there when one or another Gant stops wrangling long enough to venture on philosophy. But the essential, genuinely exciting theatricality of Miss Frings’ play swallows these small burdens whole. (Kerr)


[T]he text occasionally goes wrong, partly because of the necessity for turning whole paragraphs of description into dialogue […]; partly because a certain amount of original, bridging material had to be supplied, a nearly impossible task in dealing with a novelist who was inimitable (at least this side of parody) in his idiom; and partly […] because Miss Frings […] was unable to tamper with passages that her intelligence must have informed her were ‘literary,’ to put it mildly. But [it is] a fine, moving, and generally eloquent play. […] The play is focused on Eugene and his parents, and they are magnificent. The performances in these three leading roles are really brilliant. (The New Yorker)


Many critics, however, expressed relief that Wolfe’s lyricism was so unobtrusive in the play. John Gassner’s 1958 article lauding the playwright’s choices is typical:


The effect is nothing short of superbly realized personal drama made both stirring and meaningful by the obsessiveness and complexity of human beings. […] But we can permit ourselves the reflection that the dramatization would probably have been a fulsome failure if an attempt had been made to turn the lyricism of Wolfe’s large novel into a lyricism of the stage. A simple, occasionally semi-naturalistic, treatment was the best choice. (Gassner 51)


In the Broadway program, Wolfe’s Harper editor Edward Aswell called it a “final consummation” of Wolfe’s failed hopes to write plays (Doll and Stites 228). Frings’ play received the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play of the season and the 1957-58 Pulitzer Prize, one of the Pulitzer jurors pointing out that Frings had helped Wolfe do what he “could not do for himself” (Fischer and Fischer 256). And indeed, some eight months after the play opened on Broadway, Wolfe’s editor wrote,


There is a great revival of interest in Wolfe, both here and abroad. The dramatization of Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings, which […] has been running to capacity audiences […] is largely responsible for all this. A whole rash of articles about Wolfe has been appearing in magazines. The text of the play has been published in this country by Scribners and has gone into a second printing. It is going to be published in England by Heinemann, and in Germany by Rowohlt, and in Italy in a magazine called Sipario devoted to the best current works in the theater. Arrangements have been concluded to produce the play abroad, in England, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Israel. (Aswell to Flaccus, 18 June 1958)


Frings’ play has continued to give many audiences a taste of and for Wolfe. In addition to the compelling nature of the family drama itself, theater programs often provide information allowing the audience to link it to Wolfe’s novel and life. The play was adapted for TV dramatizations in Germany in 1961 and in the United States in 1972. Although, like her characters, Frings had to bury some hopes (she never adapted other works by Wolfe as she had wanted to (Dedmond 51), and the 1978 musical, “Angel,” only played 5 performances), her adaptation is still widely performed today. Yet a few words of warning are sometimes offered as audiences change. Steven Stanley, in his review of a North Hollywood “Intimate Theatre Company”’s production in November 2013, mentioned its slowness and involved plot, and concluded: “Look Homeward, Angel is precisely the kind of play folks are referring to when they say, ‘They don’t write’em like that anymore.’ Yes, shorter might indeed be more in tune with contemporary tastes. Still, there’s no denying the many pleasures of this lengthy but ultimately quite rewarding mid-20th Century gem.”

        The play, which concerns a family and a teenager, is today a favorite with community theaters and schools. In 2017, for instance, it was put on by the StageCenter Community Theatre in Bryan, Texas, and by the Maine Coast Waldorf High School graduating class. The Texas community theatre’s director let the local paper know that “Children will not relate to the play’s humor and romance the way teens and adults will. People of all ages should know there is brief strong language and alcohol abuse.” And the Maine high school site stated: “Because of the mature themes, sometimes raw language and occasional violent outbursts, parents might find the play’s general intensity inappropriate for children under 12.”

Some productions, like a December 2014 Southern Methodist University production, practice color-blind casting. Here the critic’s warning is literary and biographical in nature:


The Gant family, except for Helen and her husband, Hugh Barton, were played by black students. The other key players were white. Because the roles were so well played, one soon forgot that this casting was inimical to the novel where blatant racism, though authentic, is disquieting to the sensibilities of today. Audience members unfamiliar with the novel and its autobiographical underpinnings would have come away with false ideas about Wolfe’s family and his attitudes, a good reason for being well read. (Casper 118)


But the play, providing meaning on its own terms, can still spark curiosity about Wolfe’s life and work. While Michael Grandage’s 2016 film on the relationship between Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins, Genius, has also led to greater interest in the writer, Frings’ adaptation, covering the earlier years, gives many different types of audiences a sense of intimacy with the young artist to be.


        As a conclusion, in “Look Homeward, Angel,” Frings uses the showing and the telling mode to render the buried life on stage. Though the wordiness of the play has sometimes been criticized, Frings made enormous cuts, and her great talent was adapting Wolfe’s lyricism by putting it to dramatic use. Wolfe’s own dramatic talent, and the “eponymous” nature of his work, whose subject is not just the single man but potentially humankind (see Radavitch 18), bear out Sam Smiley’s belief that drama “inherently moves toward lyric expression. The greatest characters express their dramatic insights and react to their conflicts in poetry; thus, most of the greatest dramas feature great poetic diction” (qtd. in Radavich 16). Including passages of Wolfe’s poetic diction, but synthesizing conflicts and creating her own images to clarify them, Frings selects from and in places amplifies on Wolfe’s range, making her own version of buried life. Performed by gifted actors, it represents not just the Gants’ lot but the plight of all who suffer from a lack of understanding and from obstacles to self-realization—and thus Frings conveys Wolfe’s “essence” (Doll and Stites 228) and fulfills the promise of her own medium, creating community by telling and showing isolation.


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Buried Life.” Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. London: B. Fellowes, 1852. U of Toronto site. Web. 14/06/16.

Aswell, Edward. Letter to Kimball Flaccus 18 June 1958. Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theatre: ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’” New York Times 29 Nov. 1957, Flaccus-Wolfe Archive, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Blachford, Janet Savage. “Studies in the Novels of Thomas Wolfe.” MA thesis. Department of English, McGill U, Montreal. April, 1963. Web. 5/04/16.

Casper, Vivian. “Reviews: Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings.” Thomas Wolfe Review 38.1-2 (2014):115-21. Print.

Dedmond, Francis B. “Problems of Putting Look Homeward, Angel on the Stage.”Thomas Wolfe Review 10.1 (Spring 1986): 44-57. Print.

Doll, Mary Aswell and Clara Stites, eds. In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe. Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1988. Print.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. (Boston: Little, 1987) London: Bloomsbury, 1987. Print.

Fischer, Heinz-D. and Erika J. Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: Discussions, Decisions and Documents. München: K.G. Saur, 2008. Print.

Frings, Ketti. “Look Homeward, Angel. A Comedy Drama in Three Acts. Based on the Novel by Thomas Wolfe.” New York: Samuel French, 1986. Print.

— “O Lost! At Midnight.” Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 30-31, 91. Print.

Gassner, John. “Broadway in Review.” Educational Theatre Journal 10.1 (Mar. 1958): 41-51. Print.

Genius. Directed by Michael Grandage, performed by Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, 2016. Film.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Jahn, Manfred. “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama.” New Literary History 32 (2001): 659-79. Koln U site. Web. 8/04/16.

Kerr, Walter. “Look Homeward, Angel.” New York Herald 29 Nov. 1957, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

“Look Homeward, Angel.” Bryan Eagle. StageCenter Community Theatre site. 2/04/17. Web. 10/06/17.

“Look Homeward, Angel.” Unsigned Review. Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 18-19. Print.

Milton, John. Lycidas. The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900. Ed. Arthur Quiller Couch. 1919. Web. 14/06/2016.

New Yorker Review 7 Dec. 1957 (segments only). Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Pavis, Patrice. “The State of Current Theatre Research.” Applied Semiotics/Semiotique Appliquée 1:3 (1997): 203-30. U of Toronto site. Web. 7/08/18.

Radavich, David. “Genre Intersections in Thomas Wolfe’s ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You.’” Thomas Wolfe Review 40.1-2 (2016): 7-22. Print.

Sloane, David. “MCWS Seniors to Perform ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’” Maine Coast Waldorf High School site. 23/05/17. Web. 10/06/2017.

Smiley, Sam. Playwriting: The Structure of Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Print.

Stanley, Steven. “Look Homeward, Angel.” Stage Scene LA site. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 10/06/2017.

Stites, Clara. “At the St. Regis.” 2002. Getting Tom Right. Dates in Wolfe’s Life, By Elizabeth Nowell. Ed. Lucy Conniff. Thomas Wolfe Society, 2017. Print.

“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel.” Unreferenced review, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel.’” Unreferenced review, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas. “An Angel on the Porch.” Scribner’s Magazine 82.2 (August 1929): 205-10. Print.

—. The Face of a Nation: Poetical Passages from the Writings of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. John Hall Wheelock. New York: Scribner, 1939. Print.

—. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner, 1956. Print.

—. Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Scribner, 1929. Print.

—. A Stone, a Leaf, a Door: Poems by Thomas Wolfe (selected and arranged in verse). Ed. John S. Barnes. New York: Scribner, 1945. Print.

—. Welcome to Our City. A Play in Ten Scenes. Ed. Richard Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. Print.


The Author

Amélie Moisy is an associate professor (maître de conferences) in applied languages at the Université Paris Est Créteil. She is a member of the TIES/IMAGER research group there and of the Thomas Wolfe Society, USA. She has written a doctoral thesis, a book (Thomas Wolfe: L’épopée intime) and many articles on Thomas Wolfe. She has published work on other American writers, and her focus in research has broadened from Southern authors of Wolfe’s era to contemporary Southern writers.