Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction

Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction

Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction

Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction

Synopsis

"This study explores the vestiges of primitive sacrificial rituals that emerge in a group of canonical modernist novels. It argues that these novels reenact a process that achieved its seminal expression in the Genesis story of "The Binding of Isaac," in which Abraham, prevented from sacrificing Isaac, offers up a ram in his place. Abraham's gesture breaks with the archaic practice of human sacrifice but implies the necessity of finding a substitute victim." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

In from ritual to romance, whose role in inspiring T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is well known, Jessie Weston argued that medieval grail legends, although clearly based on ancient vegetation rituals, had largely subordinated these primitive sources to strikingly new literary purposes. Using Chrétien de Troyes's Percival as her example, Weston pointed to the fact that its author had integrated his ancient ritual materials into a work that was primarily about the exploits of a medieval knight: “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us. It is the story of Perceval li Gallois, not the Ritual of the Grail, which fills the stage” (161–62).

A similar transformation may be observed in modernist fiction, which frequently features a protagonist beneath whose ostensibly realistic adventures we detect perceptible mythic resonances. On the one hand, we find in these novels the modernist equivalent of Percival: solitary figures who are variously named “the governess,” “Edward Ashburnham,” “Kurtz,” “Gatsby,” or “Lily Briscoe.” Each of these figures, in obedience to the conventions of novelistic realism, is placed in a reasonably plausible story that is not overtly related to primitive rituals. At the same time, however, the authors of these novels often disturb their realistic surfaces with incongruous details that suddenly allow us to glimpse their mythic substrata. Invariably, this involves the revelation of a sacrificial ritual directed against a protagonist who has been made vulnerable by his or her solitude. Thus, the governess in The Turn of the Screw will refer to herself as an . . .

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