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Apocalyptic Patterns in Twentieth-Century Fiction

David J. Leigh, S.J.

Publication Year: 2008

David J. Leigh explores the innovative influences of the Book of Revelation and ideas of an end time on fiction of the twentieth century, and probes philosophical, political, and theological issues raised by apocalyptic writers from Walker Percy, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams to Doris Lessing, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo. Leigh tackles head on a fundamental question about Christian-inspired eschatology: Does it sanction, as theologically sacred or philosophically ultimate, the kind of “last battles” between good and evil that provoke human beings to demonize and destroy the other? Against the backdrop of this question, Leigh examines twenty modern and postmodern apocalyptic novels, juxtaposing them in ways that expose a new understanding of each. The novels are clustered for analysis in chapters that follow seven basic eschatological patterns—the last days imagined as an ultimate journey, a cosmic battle, a transformed self, an ultimate challenge, the organic union of human and divine, the new heaven and new earth, and the ultimate way of religious pluralism. For religious novelists, these patterns point toward spiritual possibilities in the final days of human life or of the universe. For more political novelists—Ralph Ellison, Russell Hoban, and Salman Rushdie among them—the patterns are used to critique political or social movements of self-destruction. Beyond the twenty novels closely analyzed, Leigh makes pertinent reference to many more as well as to reflections from theologians Jürgen Moltmann, Zachary Hayes, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Paul Ricoeur. Both a guidebook and a critical assessment, Leigh’s work brings theological concepts to bear on end-of-the-world fiction in an admirably clear and accessible manner.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

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Contents, Acknowledgments

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pp. v-ix

I would like to thank the following readers and scholars who have helped with earlier versions of this book: John Mahoney, John Perry, Joseph Schner, Louise Sunadarajan, Lisa O’Neill, Daniel Lenoski, and members of the English Department at Seattle University, where I have taught for the past twenty-five years. I also want to express my gratitude to Marquette University for hosting ...

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pp. ix-xvi

This study arose from questions that students and colleagues were asking me in the last decade of the twentieth century: Why are there so many novels about the end of the world? Why are major critics like Kermode, Frye, Derrida, Bloom, and Ricoeur speculating about the “sense of an ending” and writing about the book of Revelation? The most obvious answer is that the past century ...

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One: Introduction: Ultimate Issues in Apocalyptic Literature

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pp. 1-21

Although Karl Barth found during his graduate studies that eschatology was merely “a harmless little chapter at the end of dogmatic theology,” he was one of several modern theologians who made the study of last things one of the first things in Christian thought. Yet he and other twentieth-century thinkers do not talk much about fire and trumpets and judgment ...

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Two: A Literary Reading of Revelation in a Postmillennial Age

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pp. 22-36

Most of the modern novelists we will explore do not retrieve apocalyptic patterns in a scholarly fashion. Their acquaintance with the Bible often came through childhood experiences of Protestant sermons or adult readings of the book of Revelation without the benefit of erudite commentaries. ...

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Three: The Ultimate Journey: The Quest for Transcendence and Wholeness in the Apocalyptic Worlds of Walker Percy, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo

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pp. 37-68

How does a twentieth-century novelist dramatize the quest for transcendence and human wholeness in a secular apocalyptic world? That is the question we will explore in a reading of a modern novelist, Walker Percy, and two postmodern writers, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. What is often noted about these three authors is that they have a shared literary ...

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Four: The Ultimate Conflict: The Cosmic Battle in the Violent End-times of C. S. Lewis and Russell Hoban

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pp. 69-104

As we have noted in our study of Revelation, one of the dominant patterns is that of the cosmic battle. This central conflict between the forces of the divine (God and the Lamb) and the forces of evil (Satan and the Dragon) has inspired the imaginations of many novelists in the twentieth century. From H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds at the turn of the century, through ...

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Five: The Ultimate Union: Person, Community, and the Divine in Doris Lessing’s Apocalyptic Fiction

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pp. 105-128

The ultimate state of human existence in the 1970s novels of the Nobel Prize–winner Doris Lessing has been the subject of much controversy. In terms of eschatology, the study of ultimate temporal and metaphysical states, the plots of her novels suggest a final state that is apocalyptic, in both meanings of the word: a final catastrophe and a final revelation. ...

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Six: The Ultimate Cosmos: A New Heaven and a New Earth in Three Science Fiction Writers: Arthur C. Clarke, George Zebrowski, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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pp. 129-150

Science fiction has confronted eschatological issues since its beginning in utopian fantasies and romances during the eighteenth century. Science fiction writers have created narratives within the framework of the four types of eschatology described by John Davenport in the introduction to this book: prehistorical protoeschatology, in some scientific origin or mythic stories that never deal ...

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Seven: The Ultimate Self: Death and Dying in John Updike and Charles Williams

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pp. 151-183

We have explored twentieth-century novels that dramatize the ultimate journey, the ultimate cosmic battle, the ultimate union of human and divine, and the meaning of a new heaven and a new earth in an ultimate cosmos. In this range of apocalyptic fiction, few authors sought to portray the first of the “four last things,” namely, the dying process itself. After Tolstoy’s ...

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Eight: The Ultimate Challenge: Apocalyptic Liberation and Transformation in African-American Writing: Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison

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pp. 184-205

How does humanity go about overcoming death and bringing life to a world on an ultimate quest for transcendence and in a battle for community that will lead to a “new heaven and a new earth”? After our long survey of apocalyptic patterns in modern novels, we now come to the struggle of writers who are meeting the ultimate challenge: how to find a way of transformation and liberation. ...

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Nine: The Ultimate Way: Apocalypse and Pluralism in the Postcolonial Fiction of Salman Rushdie and Shusaku Endo

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pp. 206-224

When we move from British and American novels to international fiction in the late twentieth century, we find a much more religiously complex use of apocalypse. In this chapter, we will explore the postcolonial setting as a site for conflicting views of apocalyptic fiction. First, in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, we will explore the mixture of nationalist and ...

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Ten: Conclusion

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pp. 225-236

What conclusions can we draw from our study of these fictions of the ultimate conclusion? Each of the seven groups of apocalyptic novels suggests conclusions about the importance of literary genre, the significance of philosophical implications of apocalyptic narrative, and the possible future of apocalypse. The literature of apocalypse helps us to explore the meaning ...

Works Cited

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pp. 237-249


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pp. 251-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780268085674
E-ISBN-10: 0268085676
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268033804
Print-ISBN-10: 0268033803

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008