Margaret Atwood

Stories That Tell Themselves

I have written in the past—for instance, here, herehere —about theology embodied in a work of art. Embodied Theology occurs when a religiously devout writer, composer, or artist incarnates faith in the very form and fabric of his or her work. Literature, for instance, can be about some doctrine or belief; it can also enact it. The simplest examples are “redemptive” storylines (think Les Mis), or Christ-like protagonists (think Harry Potter). Yet it can be far more subtle than this. Perhaps a Christian interprets the entire concept of narrative—rising action, climax, falling action—as a version of the great Creation-Fall-Redemption story, then writes a fantasy to bring that narrative to life. It could be argued that Tolkien did this in Lord of the Rings. Or, in contrast, perhaps a “tragic sense of life” cuts short that satisfying trajectory, ending a tale in the horror and meaningless of sinful temporality. Flannery O’Connor does this in many of her stories.

Embodied Theology is an implicit, rather than an explicit, expression of belief. It is subtle and integral. It moves deeper than symbolism, allegory, or allusion. It shapes the work along every step from the choice of genre to use of technical elements, not merely in plot or theme. Dante’s cosmic faith came to life in the numerology of  terza rima and in the inhabited spheres of his astronomy. Milton’s guided the character development of his humanized Messiah and his epic structure. C. S. Lewis’s shaped the seven-fold metaphor of his Narnia books.

This concept of embodiment is not limited to a profound expression of theology. Any deeply-held convictions can serve as the mold for art: political, social, ethical, or philosophical. Until recently, however, I did not pause to think about how literary theories could function in this way. I had, of course, thought quite a bit about how the study of literary theory could stifle creativity and spoil the poetic voice. What English major doesn’t worry that analyzing poems will kill them, or that reading Derrida will implant a permanent deconstructionist as internal narrator?

But the academic study of literature will not kill a really robust talent. In fact, truly elastic genius can turn abstraction into story. There are, I discovered, ways of creating Embodied Literary Theory.

I recently read four novels that each brought to life a particular literary theory. They were simultaneously works of literature and works about literature. They transformed my perspective, giving me an optimism about the simultaneous co-habitation of the Ivory Tower and the Attic Studio. These four novels were not of equal value, however, and did not achieve that dual purpose equally well, reminding me yet again that the talent must be robust and flexible to absorb higher learning and still produce compelling fiction.

The first two books are both by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011).  Middlesex engages with ideas about the social formation of gender identity, debates about nature vs. nurture, concepts of self-determination, and what is known in the academy as “queer theory.” It puts these ideas, quite literally, into the fictional body of the main character; the protagonist, Cal, is hermaphroditic. Eugenides also plays with a century’s worth of theorizing about narrative, using this to shape the circularity of the persona’s tale. Yet not for one page does Cal seem to be a walking personification: he is a three-dimensional character whose life and storytelling—amoral and disturbing as they are—emerge organically and persuasively from his evolving identity.

 The Marriage Plot  wears its theory on its face. The story is about literary theory: the main female character is an English major, studying the historical development and eventual death of “the marriage plot” in British novels. And the book also does literary theory: at the very end, the pessimism about the death of marriage proves true. The whole novel, in retrospect, appears to have been designed to make one ending, about the endings of novels, possible. Here, the theory is less implicit and more explicit, which makes it (arguably) less persuasive as theory and less successful as literature.

My next example takes a different approach altogether. Rather than driving towards a pre-determined ending, The Handmaid’s Tale by  Margaret Atwood ends in indeterminacy. That move itself is a sweet bit of  poststructuralism. But what happens after the ending is even more interesting. At the risk of “spoiling” one surprise, I will reveal that the epilogue to this terrifying dystopic tale is a mock-scholarly talk at a fictional conference. A scholar gets up to discuss his “discovery” of the “manuscript” of the entire preceding book, turning a chilling novel into a commentary on questions of narrative reliability, interpretive reading, and the very nature of truth. It is a brilliant move.

Finally, let me indulge my admiration for the most admirable work of Embodied Literary Theory I have ever encountered. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the most skillful example of this type of writing to date. It is Possession by A. S. Byatt. From beginning to end, through each twist of this nerd’s mystery adventure, Byatt packs in the academic content. I could detect traces of her high school English classes on literary terms, undergrad literature courses on devices and analysis, and rigorous grad school examinations of the novel’s modernist permutations and anxieties of influence. On fire with a passion for beautiful words, conflicted by pedantry, driven by an isolating ambition, eaten up by sexual confusion, compelled towards narrative closure: this describes the characters and the book itself. It is masterful. It is beautiful on many levels, and it shows just how perfectly a writer/professor can unify her two vocations. It is a novel about how stories are told, and it is a novel in which the story is told in just those ways it examines. It is all the more complex because the characters themselves realize that they are in a story with a certain shape, and they accept the narrative inevitability of their final acts—in this tale—with a scholar’s delight in accuracy.

So for those who worry that studying the material you love will strip it of its pleasure, take heart! If it is indeed the field for you—and if you are for it—its pleasures are endless. From the panic of youthful encounters to the intellectual joys of mastery, the material you love will reward you. You can consume it or create it—or both, at once.