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Minor Characters Have Their Day: The Imaginary and Actual Politics of a Contemporary Genre
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Minor Characters Have Their Day:
The Imaginary and Actual Politics of a Contemporary Genre

Of course, fair's fair, men will have to set about reclaiming the Heathcliffs and Rochesters from romantic stereotyping too, to say nothing of poor old dusty Casaubon. It will be a grand spectacle.

J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

Over the last several decades, a vibrant transnational genre—a genre constituted by the conversion of minor characters from canonical works into protagonists—has been simultaneously flourishing and hiding in plain sight. In 1966, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea was published and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was first performed. Aimé Césaire's A Tempest (1969) and John Gardner's Grendel (1971) followed close behind. While scholars are well acquainted with these radically experimental antecedents, they have been slow to notice the highly conventional popular genre that has surfaced in their wake, a genre perhaps most visible in Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) and the Broadway musical adapted from that novel. Since the early 1980s, a series of writers have followed Rhys's paradigm by constructing narratives around the perspectives of socially marginal figures in canonical works, often seeking to critique the ideologies underlying the manner in which those works represent minor characters—or their failure to represent socially marginal figures at all. This subset includes Christa Wolf's Cassandra (1983), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (2001), and Margaret Atwood's [End Page 139] The Penelopiad (2005). But as the mention ofWicked might suggest, contemporary authors have put the genre I call "minor-character elaboration" to varied use. Novels such as Robin Lippincott's Mr. Dalloway (1999) and Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia (2008) follow Gardner's lead, paying homage to their illustrious forebears. Others, such as Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2004)—which makes a protagonist of the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women—seem little interested in dialogue, polemical or otherwise, with their predecessors and use them merely as pretexts for the creation of historical fictions. In the vein of Grendel and Wicked, many works—including John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius (2000), John Scieszka's brilliant The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf (1989), and Jon Clinch's Finn (2007)—the story of Huck's abusive, alcoholic Pap—imagine the perspectives of famous villains. These subgroupings overlap, of course; many minor-character elaborations blend homage, critique, historical fiction, and humor.

Scholars who have commented on isolated examples of minor-character elaboration have focused on how these works seek to undermine or subvert their precursor texts. More specifically, commentators have understood such texts to be "giving voice" to previously "silenced" characters and applauded them for doing so. Eileen Williams-Wanquet's comments regarding Marina Warner's Indigo (1992)—a doubly-plotted novel, half of which makes a protagonist of Shakespeare's Sycorax—are emblematic: Warner "gives back a voice to the silenced female presence in The Tempest who never appears onstage" (274). Or consider Marta Bryk's contention that Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (1990) offers an "act of historical reparation" (205) for the injustice done to the "maidservant who has been denied the right to speak" in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (215). Similarly, Linda Schelbitzki Pickle writes that Wolf attempts to "scratch away the entire male tradition" by "letting Cassandra speak for herself" (34). The authors of minor-character elaborations have often formulated their projects in these very terms. On the second page of her novel, Wolf has Cassandra ask: "Why did I want the gift of prophecy, come what may? To speak with my voice: the ultimate" (4). In The Penelopiad, [End Page 140] Atwood intersperses chapters of Penelope's narration with verse sections "sung" by a chorus of the twelve maids hanged by Odysseus. In the last of their droll ditties, the maids make their plea: "we had no voice / we had no name . . . we took the blame / it was not fair / but now we're here . . . / now, we call / to...