- Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction
René Girard’s ideas on the origins of culture in sacrificial substitution have decisively influenced many of us working in literary studies, and Thomas Coustineau’s book is a recent example. Citing William Johnsen’s pioneering work (see, for example, Violence and Modernism: Ibsen, Joyce, and Woolf), Coustineau argues for a relation between literary structure and sacrifice in specific works of five canonical modernist writers: James, Conrad, Ford, Fitzgerald, and Woolf. In each, he notes, sacrificial structure comes to the fore, and the novelist fulfills his modernist credentials by having the narrator jump to the defense of the persecuted victim of the community in which they find themselves.
But unlike other modernist productions, these particular works distinguish themselves by staging the inadequacy of even these demystifying gestures, recognizing them as neo-sacrificial in so far as they identify, in place of the scapegoating they expose, another agency responsible for the crisis. Such substitutive repetition of sacrificial behavior, even in the context of recognizing sacrificial dimensions of the narrative before them, stands, Coustineau asserts, in marked contrast with the hallmark works of our culture to which Girard draws our attention—Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, passages in the Hebrew Bible (on the binding of Isaac, for example), passages in the Christian Gospels (where the innocence of the victim becomes explicit), or certain plays of Shakespeare—all works where such neo-sacrificial behavior is finally averted or even enacted but, in any [End Page 932] event, exposed to the light of day. In essence, modernists demystify persecution. But our best writers of these narratives, Coustineau maintains, expose the concomitant substitution and remystification of new sacrificial gestures. Such exposure aligns these writers, if not these narrators, with the oldest and most important works of our literary tradition, works that in this regard have legitimately been designated as classics.
For example, in chapter 1, Coustineau examines the actions of the new governess of James’s The Turn of the Screw who defends her young charge against the sacrificial behavior of the schoolroom community (for what is commonly assumed to be some unspecified sexual misdemeanor) only to repeat the destructive behavior of the former occupants of the house in which she works, resulting in the child’s death. He draws our attention to James’s prefatory reference to the Salem witch trials and to the frame story in which the current horror story is given as a Christmas entertainment on the death of a child, references that serve the same duplicitous function and offer this story of rivalry, persecution, exposure, and sacrificial repetition as James’s exposure of a peculiarly American (perhaps Puritanical) obsession with ghosts, goblins, and witches leading to real deaths.
Similarly, in chapter 2, Coustineau examines Marlow’s defense of Kurtz (against the exclusionary behavior of the company for which he works) in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness only to discover, in turn, Marlow’s own exclusionary gestures against women, black Africans, and others. These gestures are identified with the European project of extracting ivory that Conrad criticizes. Coustineau notes, for example, that Chinua Achebe’s famous rejection of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist,” and of his book as a projection of European anxieties on Africa, ironically reproduces the same scapegoat dynamics the author of Things Fall Apart so powerfully challenges when he collapses the difference between Marlow and Conrad.
In chapter 3, Coustineau presents John Dowell’s account, in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, of the sad story of an acquaintance persecuted by a social community unable to countenance his raging sexual desires, which Dowell then replicates in his first-person narrative to the reader, as the very scapegoating behavior he attributes to this community. Dowell, in turn, denounces his acquaintance’s wife and his own wife.
Coustineau suggests, in chapter 4, that the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby adopts his rich neighbor, Jay Gatsby, as the model of his romantic fascination and hero worship (not the least because of his lavish opulence and wild parties). This hero worship...