ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945

Lecture 14

 - Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior


In this lecture at the midpoint of the course Professor Hungerford takes stock of the syllabus thus far and to come by laying out her guiding thesis of the Identity Plot, a rubric for understanding novels in the twentieth century as, she argues, the Marriage Plot is a rubric for understanding novels in the nineteenth century. Referring to examples throughout the syllabus, but especially Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Hungerford describes the overriding tendency of American novels written after 1945 to explore the tension between individual and collective identities and to interrogate the artistic and political stakes of competing notions of authenticity.

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The American Novel Since 1945

ENGL 291 - Lecture 14 - Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

Chapter 1. Course Thesis: The Identity Plot [00:00:00]

Professor Amy Hungerford: It is the seventh week of term, and in this class, if you have kept up, you have read nine novels in seven weeks. So, if you kept up, I want you, right now, to pat yourself on the back. Oh, I don’t see a lot of patting. Okay: if you just missed one novel. Okay. I don’t want to look. Do your patting later. Let me say that you have broken the back of the course, not to use too violent a metaphor. It’s the seventh week. We have six weeks left. In those six weeks we have five–count them–five novels. That’s it, and one of them you get to choose. So, instead of doing two novels in a week, you’ll have a week and a half for one novel. This is a much more humane pace. Why are you laughing? It’s not funny. You also, of course, have Spring Break. If you use Spring Break wisely, read, in a somewhat leisurely way, in Myrtle Beach, as you’re relaxing on the beach, Blood Meridian–excellent beach novel–you’ll be in great shape. You’ll be riding high through the rest of the term, easy-peasy, okay. Why did I do that to you these last three weeks? Why did I do that? Well, one reason, as I said at the beginning of class, at the beginning of the term, is that I did not want you to be crushed after Spring Break. I wanted you to be crushed now, so it’ll be better later. But there’s another reason.

So, why didn’t I just drop one of those novels? Well, my lecture today is, in part, an answer to that question. A syllabus is not a parade. It’s not a succession of novels that passes by, and we wave, and we catch whatever candy or beads they throw at us, and then we go home at the end of the day with sore feet from standing too long. It’s not like that. A syllabus, at least in this kind of class and with me teaching it, is an argument. It’s an argument about a whole historical period. It’s an argument about a chunk of literary-historical history. It’s an argument about the evolution of an art form in a particular place and time. In order to preserve that quality of a syllabus, you have to read quite a bit. Reading quite a bit means that you can begin to see the lineaments of larger trends and movements in that historical period. It allows you to amass enough evidence to build an intellectual understanding of what’s going on in this period. If I had dropped a novel, there are certain kinds of arguments I would not have been able to make, and the argument that I’m going to make for you today would not be as compelling as I hope it will be.

So, as in the Franny and Zooey lecture, I tried to demonstrate for you in a very self-conscious way how literary scholars make local arguments that take into account an entire novel, its major features, and use the evidence of detail at the level of text to support those kinds of claims. Today I’m going to make a much broader argument of the kind that literary scholars are often interested in making. I’m going to make an argument about a major trend in this period, and to do that I will use evidence, and I’m going to call on you to help me put together the evidence for broader claims that cross novels. An argument of this kind has a different quality from those more local arguments about individual novels that I’ve made each week. It’s different in the sense that I want, and most literary scholars want, such arguments not to be totally counterintuitive in the way that you can sometimes take pleasure in making a reading of a local novel counterintuitive. For the big arguments, you want to be able to account for what is obvious about the period, but perhaps has not been justified as an analysis of the period. So, you want a sense of inevitability, that this argument you’re making explains all kinds of things that people have always noticed about that period. In the same way that, when I lectured on Franny and Zooey, I asked you what was obvious to you about the novel and then my argument went around and spoke back to those things at different points. So this general argument aims to speak to those obvious parts, but it speaks more strongly to those obvious perceptions, and so I’m launching into a different kind of argument.

What I want to talk to you about today is a particular narrative form and convention, and I’m calling it the Identity Plot. Certainly, I am not the first scholar to think about identity as a form of narrative in this period, and it’s precisely because I am not the first that I can give it this sort of name. There is so much work that’s been done excavating how identity works in the novel in this period that it has become something we know a lot about. What hasn’t been said before is that it has this particular name, and I use this name because, for me, the Identity Plot, which I will explain in a few moments, fulfills much the same function in fiction of this period as the Marriage Plot did for the Victorian novel. So, any of you who have taken the Victorian novel class, Professor Yeazell’s course, or have studied or just read a lot of Jane Austen novels, Dickens novels and so on, you will know what the Marriage Plot is. The Marriage Plot is that engine of storytelling that makes novels hang on a structure of a couple and the question of whether they will get together or not. Now, there are all kinds of stages in that development, the development of that narrative. Are the couples from the same social class? Are they from geographically contiguous places? Do they have personalities that match? Do their parents agree? Are they related to each other secretly (always a problem)? There are all kinds of things that can go wrong for a couple trying to get together, and the Victorian novel was very good at generating narrative from all those kinds of complications. Then, there are different kinds of outcomes that you can have in the novel governed by the Marriage Plot. One is the comedy. That’s when you get married at the end, the couple gets married. Then there’s the tragedy: They don’t, and they should have, and we all know it. So, Pride and Prejudice would be an example of the former kind; Anna Karenina perhaps an example of the latter kind, even though that’s a novel really about adultery. It totally depends on the conventions of the Marriage Plot. The Identity Plot works in much the same way.

So, what is the Identity Plot? I am going to give you an unusual sight in my class now, and that is Power Point. I think I’m sort of surprised and delighted by this myself, so we’ll see how it works. So, if you’re taking notes, which I encourage you to do, you will find there are bolded words that you can copy down. The Identity Plot: Narrative Form in Post-1945 Fiction. Isn’t that snazzy? Okay. (Oops. I’ve already made my first technological mistake. There we go.) Six elements of the Identity Plot. Make sure you capitalize “Identity” and “Plot,” please, and also give me credit in the footnote of your notes for that phrase. The narrative of the Identity Plot novel revolves around the question of how to define and understand a character’s identity (big surprise there). And, number 2: the character needs to be a member of the minority within a larger society. I am not going to ask you to volunteer examples of these, because it’s just too obvious that our last three or four novels each feature one of these characteristics, or all of them. The third one is absolutely crucial to the development of the Identity Plot, and that is that the character is also at odds with the minority group of which he or she is a part. This is important, because without it, the Identity Plot gets really boring. It doesn’t have a lot of complication. If all you have to do is realize, as you’re going about your life, “wow, I am a member of X or Y group. Great. I know who I am now. Done.” that is a really short story, actually, and it’s not a good short story, either. There is just not enough resistance to the evolution of the plot, so it’s really important.

The drama of the Identity Plot depends upon this. Furthermore, the character in question needs to be conflicted about his or her difference from the majority and about his or her difference from the minority group. Can anyone think of an example of this? Can anyone think of an example? Yes, Eli.

Student: Woman Warrior.

Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely, yeah. So in case you didn’t hear Eli, Woman Warrior is a great example of this. Maxine (that’s what I’ll call her when I’m talking about the character Maxine Hong Kingston) Maxine feels alienated from Chinese culture because of the misogyny she perceives in that culture, but she also turns to Chinese culture as a way to identify herself and to give her a positive self-image, as in that story of the woman warrior (which I actually didn’t ask you to read, but there are other examples in the stories that I did ask you to read, chapters that I did ask you to read, to give her that sense of grounding as a person). Other examples. How about in The Bluest Eye? Yes.

Student: Franny and Zooey.

Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. I think Franny and Zooey really does fit this model. Yes. There are lots of different ways of conceiving what it means to have a minority group at work in these novels, and I think Franny and Zooey definitely imagines a minority group as the Glass family. They’re big enough to be a group. There are lots of children, so you get that sense that they’re a clan; they’re sort of a tribe of themselves. They have this peculiar quality, their intellectual sort of complexity, and also their artistic gifts, especially their gifts in language. And there is a conflict between Franny and Zooey, and Zooey is really held out as the custodian of the Glass family identity, so it’s he who instructs Franny and brings her finally back in to the fold, and that’s an example of the comic ending.

Other examples from other novels. Can anyone do this for Bluest Eye? How might Pecola be an example of this? Okay. Let me do it. Pecola goes up to the whores’ apartment and finds there a kind of love and acceptance from those women that does not judge her for her ugliness, that surrounds her with a rich verbal culture as well as a culture of affection. It is a group that has seceded from the black community itself but still maintains a certain tie. Remember the prostitutes’ admiration for the good Christian woman. That ties them to the prevailing norms of the black community. So, Pecola finds an ideal black community within that small apartment, but she is alienated from that positive black self-image that she sees in those women by her desire to identify with white beauty, to have blue eyes, and so that’s how she would embody this. Frieda is also an example of this, Frieda and Claudia. So, actually, if we take the example of Claudia, Claudia wants to be like, remember the girl they called Meringue Pie, the light-skinned girl? She wants to be like her, but at the same time she recognizes a certain insipid quality to this girl. She doesn’t have the kind of strength that Claudia and Frieda, with the addition of Pecola, have as a little group that doesn’t pass judgment on their own blackness. So that, again, between Claudia, Frieda and Pecola there is another small idealized black community, but Claudia is somewhat conflicted, both about her membership in that little group, and her difference from the influx of white blood into that community, and white aesthetic into that community. So, she echoes, in a less dramatic way, the same kinds of conflicts that you see in Pecola.

The fourth quality of the Identity Plot is that authenticity and origin are always at stake in the character’s quest for personal identity, even when those things are absent. So, in the Woman Warrior, we have an excellent example of this, in the beginning of the last chapter that I asked you to read, after she tells the whole story of Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid going to find Moon Orchid’s Chinese husband and confronting him with Moon Orchid’s status as the first wife. After you get this whole richly imagined story full of dialog, the next chapter begins:

What my brother actually said was “I drove Mom and second Aunt to Los Angeles to see Aunt’s husband who got the other wife.” “Did she hit him? What did she say? What did he say?” “Nothing much. Mom did all the talking.” “What did she say?” “She said he’d better take them to lunch at least.” “Which wife did he sit next to? What did they eat?” “I didn’t go. The other wife didn’t either. He motioned not to tell.” “I would have told. If I was his wife I would have told. I would have gone to lunch and kept my ears open.” “Oh, you know they don’t talk when they eat.” “What else did Mom say?” “I don’t remember. I pretended a pedestrian broke her leg so he would come.” “There must have been more. Didn’t Aunt get in one nasty word? She must have said something.” “No. I don’t think she said anything. I don’t remember her saying one thing.” In fact, it wasn’t me my brother told about going to Los Angeles. One of my sisters told me what he had told her.

The layers of inauthenticity in the origin of this story are deep. There is no sense that the story we have just been told in great detail has any basis in fact, and yet this is a book that is patently autobiographical. It plays up the inauthenticity and the unreliability of this voice. We know that we cannot trust the details of what is given to us, and yet the narrative tries to seduce us with them, tries to persuade us by their very dramatic quality, and their detail, and by the way these stories embody the voices of their characters, that these are real stories. So, the voice in Kingston that purports to be a source of identity formation–she’s going to write herself into being–is an inauthentic voice.

Now there was a controversy about Maxine Hong Kingston. Actually, it’s been going on for many decades. It goes on today. There is a scholar of Chinese American literature named Frank Chin. He’s also a novelist himself. He has accused Kingston and a few other writers, in the starkest terms, of being fakes and of being against Chinese culture and of being puppets of white culture. Kingston’s use of Chinese literature has come under particular attack from Chin, and this happened in one of its incarnations or one of its iterations of this feud between the two. It actually happened at a conference, face to face, and I know you must think that academic conferences are always a thrill a minute. It’s not really usual that they are, but I guess in this case it was. So, Frank Chin, I guess, shouted her off the stage. I don’t know all the details, but it was very exciting, I’m sure. Nevertheless, the argument is serious. It’s an argument about authenticity, the authenticity of Kingston’s use of Chinese literature. So, imagine someone saying to John Barth, “Wait a minute. You changed the story of The Odyssey. You’re a fake.” That’s essentially what Frank Chin says to Maxine Hong Kingston. It has a kind of traction to a certain audience, because the purity of an origin of that kind matters, if you think that that’s where authenticity of an identity resides.

So, if it’s a cultural identity at stake, the authenticity seems to matter in a different way. Now, Barth can give us a different kind of example of this. Authenticity: Is Menelaus’ voice in The Menelaiad really his own? Is there some being left over that’s apart from that voice? He says, “My voice diddles on.” Well, who’s the “my”? Is he just reducible to that voice? Is he Proteus? Is Proteus him? Has his identity been lost in his wrestling with that changing god? The question of authenticity haunts Menelaus. It haunts Ambrose when he is in the throes of passion and he feels alienated from himself. “This is passion. I am experiencing it.” That’s a kind of inauthenticity. He can’t be grounded in the origin of identity that we think of as the body. So, a lot of these novels make a problem out of authenticity. When it doesn’t seem like a problem, a novel is making a certain kind of claim about identity right off the bat, and that’s that authenticity doesn’t matter. But in the context of the Identity Plot you know that it’s on the radar screen even if it isn’t something that is in the novel itself; it’s there by its negative.

Finally, there are comic versions and tragic versions of the Identity Plot, just as there are of the Marriage Plot. So, the comic version gives us characters that come to peace with their identity. My favorite example of this is actually a novel we’re not reading in this course, although I could have added it, couldn’t I? I could have done ten novels in the first seven weeks. I won’t ask you to read it. It’s Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven. In this novel, this is the most extreme example I know. I can’t remember the full details, now, but in that novel there is a native American woman. There is a native American child who’s adopted, forcibly, in the forcible adoptions, by a white family. I think this is how the story goes. And, eventually, after the Indian family tries to get that child back, it is discovered that the adoptive mother was, in fact, a member of that tribe by a very diluted blood line. And the adoptive mother marries the child’s full-blood grandfather: perfect, perfect comic ending for an Identity Plot novel. I would say that The Bluest Eye is our tragic version of this, where Pecola will never be at peace. She is in fact deranged by her conflicted relationship to identity.

Chapter 2. The Roles of Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction [00:26:04]

Now, here is where we need a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. Now, I could get in to lots of trouble for these claims. They’re fairly broad, and ideally I would want to give them more nuance, but I think it’s useful to think about this distinction. Incarnations of these kinds of narrative conventions that we think of as literary use those structures of narrative as something to play off of or something to inhabit while they do a whole bunch of other things. Think of the ways that Humbert and Nabokov use the conventions of Romantic language to make us believe that Humbert really loves Lolita. There is something operatic about the extremity of the situation we’re given, the extremity of the use of those conventions in Lolita. Well, in this case some of our Identity Plot novels use that plot to say something about language, about literary history, about tradition. Some of them simply give us aesthetic pleasure, like the pleasure that we can get from watching Barth use words, make them funny, be clever with them. So, they may deliver an artistic satisfaction that has nothing to do with the Identity Plot itself.

Then there are incarnations of it that don’t reflect on any of those aesthetic issues, don’t reflect on the history of the literary tradition, don’t engage questions about language, that deliver instead conventional, predictable satisfactions of the genre, and these we would call genre fiction. And, if you recall, Nabokov talks a little bit about pornography as genre fiction that gives you that predictable mechanical frisson of pleasure at the predictable place, and he describes Lolita as rejecting the convention of pornography. You can think about his description as applying also to the Identity Plot, that sometimes it functions, and I think the Kingsolver novel really is a good example of this, where there are predictable pleasures of the child being enveloped by a loving family after all the complications of her identity, finally it can all be resolved, or there’s a kind of pleasure in that feeling that it could never be resolved, that tragic feeling. So, there’s genre fiction that can end that way too. So, other examples of genre fiction: of course, the detective novel is another. My argument today is not to say that this is the only convention that our novels are working with. The detective genre is present in Crying of Lot 49. That’s something that you can think about productively when you think about Oedipa’s search for knowledge and clues. There is a way that Pynchon is playing off that convention as well. To make the distinction is not to reject one for the other, so literary fiction and genre fiction are both part of what literary scholars use to make especially these kinds of broad-scale arguments.

So, it’s not really enough, if you want to argue about a whole period of literary history, to only skim off the very most literary works. Your argument doesn’t have a lot of historical purchase if you do that. If your ambition is to talk about more narrowly the evolution of an art form, that’s a very legitimate move to make, to skim off just those literary examples, but if your ambition is to say something through your discussion of literature about culture, about politics, about any other set of issues, philosophical, historical questions, you want to be able to demonstrate that the things you’re seeing in literary fiction have a wider purchase and have grabbed hold of the imagination of a larger set of people than the people who read high literary novels. So, you can make different kinds of claims depending on what combination of these kinds of examples you use.

Chapter 3. Multiple Forms of Identity [00:31:12]

The Identity Plot obviously has infinite variations. I mentioned just a few to get you thinking about them. The character seems to be a member of the majority group. This is actually, in one sense, Franny and Zooey’s case, as you mentioned. It seems like they are much more in a majority. They’re white; they are from an upper-class section of New York; they’re distinguished by their family’s intellectualism. Similarly, Ambrose could be said to be in the majority group, and certainly by the definition of someone like Morrison or Kingston, that fiction–they’re members of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage, the members of Ambrose’s family. But, if you recall, in Ambrose His Mark the family is eccentric. They, too, are marked by their difference from the churches in town, the independence of their thinking, the skill with which they carve; they have artistic skills. The character does not seem to be conflicted about his membership in the minority group. This can happen. Where do you get the drama, then? Well, sometimes you get the drama from the efforts of the majority group against that piece. Will that person betray their group or not? So, that’s where the narrative tension can come, if you see this variation. The character resists the whole idea of having an identity that’s stable. You might think of Kingston as an example of this, although I think you can argue it both ways. Certainly, she’s not going to think you can have an identity that stays still. All those self-revisions, even just from that little passage that I read about where her story comes from, that’s a suggestion that she’s committed to an identity that’s changeable.

As this period moves on towards the end of the twentieth century, that variation is much more common; it gets more and more common. The critique of identity in theory, in the world of literary theory–think of the work of Judith Butler for example in the late ’80s and stretching into the present–very influential on undermining the idea that you could have a stable identity at all. And that’s where that term “essentialism,” identity essentialism, comes from. That’s a very negative idea by now, by this point, but in the 1970s, and I would argue that in Morrison’s work, you see still a commitment to the idea that you can really be in a peaceful way African American, and that that’s a stable, grounded identity, or even that you can be white as a stable, grounded identity. So, I think some writers earlier in the period persist in that idea, even while most have gone to the sense that identity is not stable. There may be multiple characters whose identities are at stake in the novel, and some subplots might end up as tragedies, some as comedy. You can have a variation with fiction based on fact. We’ve seen that both in Richard Wright, and now in Kingston. It raises the stakes of the fiction, and it suggests its purchase on the real to write a fiction that is sort of autobiography, based partly in fact or mostly in fact. It suggests that what’s going on in the fiction is actually very close to what we live, and that’s a kind of claim for fiction in and of itself.

And this is an example, this last one: Identity is not based on race or ethnicity. When we think about identity, we usually think of race or ethnicity but sometimes minority status is going to be claimed or identity is going to be claimed on religious or philosophical grounds or just on the grounds of personality difference, someone who’s strange. Salinger is sort of fond of this. Catcher in the Rye is an example, I think, of this, where Holden Caulfield is at odds with his world because he just sees things really differently. One of the kinds of claims that you have to be prepared to make, if you’re making these broad period-based claims, is that your claim is specific to your particular time period. Now, you have to define your time period. I am dealing with post World War II American literature, somewhat arbitrary cutoff for some scholars. I think there are reasons to think that it is a real cutoff, having to do mostly with the changes in the American cultural mass market in the years after World War II. There are Identity Plots all over in the history of literature. So, the plot of mistaken identity is a staple of Renaissance comedy. Think of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. Secret identity is a staple of Gothic fiction. This happens a lot in Dickens, other kinds of Victorian fiction. Artistic identity. Think of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s novel about the artistic formation of a person. That’s especially important to Modernism. And you could also say that Woman Warrior is an example of that version of artistic self-creation. Racial identity.

There is a wonderful book called Our America by Walter Benn Michaels. He argues very persuasively that there are whole ranges of genre fiction in the 1920s that are working out the logic of race, of a nativist logic of race in the early twentieth century, that these novels are governed by that logic. So, you have to be prepared to explain how your feature is different from other incarnations in the history of literature. My contention is that the Identity Plot, as I am describing it, becomes a preoccupation of both literary and genre varieties of writing in this period, so that suggests its scope, that it’s not just the concern of a few writers; it’s the concern of lots of writers. It’s different in the degree of its presence. So, while Walter Benn Michaels argues very persuasively for the racial logic of popular Westerns, for example, or for its relevance to Willa Cather’s work, it doesn’t sit at the center of the plots of those novels in the same way. He can tease out the logic, but it’s not because that logic is what the whole novel’s drama hangs on. Some of the drama hangs on that, but in the novels I am talking about in this period, it has risen to the level of formula such that you can hang the whole plot on that structure, and it’s recognizable, immediately recognizable.

Chapter 4. Definition Through Delimitation: The End of Identity and the Rise of History [00:39:43]

So, that’s what I mean when I say in the next bullet point that it achieves a kind of solidity of formulaic structure. And finally I want to argue, as I have been doing in passing in the last few lectures, that these novels are working very closely with things that are happening in the culture in general: so, that tension between activism and personal growth in the 1960s as modes of social action, the question about whether you can intervene in politics through culture, is everywhere in the 1960s. And you can see it come to a head in the 1990s with the culture wars, when both liberals and conservatives begin to fight over, especially over, the syllabi of courses like this. So, if you think that it’s worth fighting a political fight over the syllabus that we all read, you are already committed to a cultural politics.

So, the end point of this is a very widespread argument in the 1990s about where politics happens, and that argument revolves around novels that feature the Identity Plot ‘cause those are the kinds of novels that people thought of as either advancing or resisting the hegemony of a white Western tradition that was oppressive to minority people. By the way, this final incarnation of the Identity Plot is going to be very important to us when we read The Human Stain. That novel is deeply embedded in that final iteration of it. How else do you know it’s a dominant convention? Well, it has an end. This is another way you can locate its historical specificity. So, it has its limits, and you can see it coming to its end when you see more elaborate embellishment and variation on that formula, that writers of ambition have to push it further and further. Even writers of the genre fiction versions have to address an audience looking for the familiar pleasure, but with just enough difference. You can think of those Hollywood chase scenes. They all look so much alike, but the new ones always have to have just that little bit more interesting special effect, or that much more dramatic car flying off some high parapet. Same thing with any narrative formula.

And there comes a time when writers of ambition simply change the subject. And I’m going to argue that even though Roth is still thinking in these terms, the other novelists that we’re reading–starting next week and into the end of the semester–are beginning to change the subject. So one subject that comes up very powerfully in those novels is the subject of history. It’s not unrelated to identity, but it is distinctly different. And so, in Cormac McCarthy for example, there is a palpable engagement with history. And in Edward P. Jones, in a novel that really seems like a classic outgrowth of the Identity Plot novels, especially of Toni Morrison, is really much more about the terror of history than it is about the dramas of identity. So, we will see how that subject gets changed. When we read the Woman Warrior we might feel that it is very, very conventional because it does so much of what I have just described that the Identity Plot does. I think, in a way, that would be shortchanging it. Some novels look dated or look formulaic because they have been incredibly successful, and I think The Bluest Eye and Woman Warrior are examples of those kinds of novels.

Woman Warrior, and this is one of Frank Chin’s quarrels with it, is widely, widely taught. I always think hard about including it on my syllabus. Sometimes that’s a reason to include it on a syllabus, as evidence in an ongoing, unfolding argument; sometimes it isn’t. In this case I have decided pretty securely that it is; it belongs here as a piece of evidence in this unfolding argument about what’s happening in the historical period. Woman Warrior is widely taught. It is one of the foremost examples of this kind of identity writing. It has some literary satisfactions. Some of those stories are really compelling. She’s very good at limning a character. She’s wonderful at reproducing the dialog. She reflects on the quality of writing. She is self-conscious about the construction of her narrative. And so, we can see an artist telling the story of her own coming to being as an artist in the way she tells these stories. There’s all kinds of things you can close read in here. I’m going to run out of time. Let me just show you one thing. This is at the very end at 207. This is when she is told the story about her grandmother taking the family to the opera, and how bandits tend to rob the houses that have been abandoned while families are at the opera. Instead, in this case, the bandits attack the audience. In the experience the family’s all broken up in the attack:

By daybreak, when my grandmother and mother made their way home, the entire family was home safe, proved to my grandmother that our family was immune to harm as long as they went to plays. They went to many plays after that.

The grandmother’s logic is completely twisted here. It’s turned upside down. It doesn’t make any sense. They got attacked when they went to the play, so they go to plays in order to stay safe because they happened to survive that attack. The reason why we’re given that logic is that this book is full of stories about insanity. And remember, from the story about Moon Orchid, insanity in this story is defined as telling one story over and over again, insisting on the same story. She becomes paranoid, essentially a paranoid schizophrenic. That means that sanity, healthiness, is found in multiplicity, illogic. It’s a kind of contradictory claim about the status of sanity and storytelling. So, the illogic of this little moment at the very end of the book reaches back to all those other examples of illogic and insanity that we see throughout: classic new critical technique for building the meaning of a certain trope across the writing.

The other thing, also, of course, to think about, is the fact that this takes place around plays, that it’s art that’s held out as being the lucky thing. It’s art that’s at the center, and this of course, especially the play, reaches back to Maxine’s descriptions of her childhood drawings where she painted page after page after page of black, worrying her teachers, but for the young Maxine what she saw in a black page was the curtains of a theater ready to open, endless possibility. So, it’s that very appreciation of the play, of the dramatic, shared by the grandmother, repeated even in this inarticulate artistic creation of the child that builds the sense of artistic identity as an inherited one. So, I’m not going to go on with this, but I just show you that little passage and suggest some of the ways that it’s built up over the course of the book to show you that Kingston’s novel or autobiography–even though it fulfills the convention so completely that it looks like genre fiction–if you locate it in 1976 when it was first published, it’s not at the end of a long line of these; it’s at the beginning. So, it is one of the first popular books to bring together Barth’s insights with those of the identity politics beginning in the ’60s.

So, Morrison and Kingston, both, are some of the first to take modernist self-consciousness about writing and combine it with this interest in identity. So, that’s why I think it sort of doesn’t do her justice to see this as genre fiction, as too predictable, because it was one of the early versions of it. So, next week we’re going to start reading Housekeeping–just hold on one sec–and I want you to think about whether Housekeeping fits the Identity Plot model, and, if it does, how it does, and if it doesn’t, how it doesn’t. That Identity Plot model was very influential in its early reception, so I want you to think about how that worked. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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