In this essay, Center for Fiction favorite Sheila Kohler discusses the trend of reinterpreting characters from classics into new works of literature. Kohler herself will be diving into the celebrated character of Sonya from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in a forthcoming novel.
Why have certain modern authors like John Gardner, Jean Rhys, and Kamel Daoud taken up a preexisting and much admired masterpiece and given voice to one of the characters, antagonists or anti-heroes in the previous text? How did they dare to use a beloved classic and interpret it through new eyes? How much have they accomplished here?
Why did John Gardner in 1971 decide to write from the point of view of the monster, Grendel, from the ancient text of Beowulf; or Jean Rhys in 1966 give voice to Mr. Rochester’s Creole wife, Antoinette Cosway, who becomes Bertha, the mad creature in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s nineteenth century Jane Eyre; and most recently why did Kamel Daoud in The Meursault Investigation decide to write from the viewpoint of the brother of the unnamed and murdered Arab in Camus’s The Stranger originally written in 1942?
What are these authors trying to say through these different voices? What have they tried to accomplish here? Why do these novels engage our attention? What makes these voices ring true and have a unique meaning for us? How much of the previous work is preserved and why? Could they exist without their forebears? How much of the success of the new novel depends on the fame of the original?
In the case of Grendel, John Gardner has dared to tell his tale through the voice of the “evil one,” the anti-hero, the destructive force in Beowulf. Using the lens of existentialist philosophy, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and indeed Sartre’s voice, Gardner enables us to enter the monster’s mind, his childhood, his motivations, and even to understand why he acts as he does. Gardner shows us the absurdity, the banality, and the inevitability of evil. The monster is seen from within, but also from without, by the dragon who proclaims Grendel gives meaning to life because he is the “unknown fear,” the source ultimately of all art.
With Wide Sargasso Sea we have a first person narrator again, which enables Jean Rhys to enter a woman’s mind and her life closely and vividly. She is the Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway who is used by those around her in a patriarchal and corrupt society, where she is renamed the prosaic Bertha by her English husband. She is taken from her native Jamaica and shut away in England where she becomes the “madwoman in the attic.” Here too we are brought to understand her “madness” which seems the inevitable product of an unjust and racist society.
The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, writing in 2014 has taken up the text of The Stranger and given a name, Musa, to Camus’s unnamed Arab who is killed so randomly and absurdly on the brilliantly lit beach in Algiers. In The Meursault Investigation, his brother Harun tells his story, ruminating on his solitude, and his anger, a stranger among his own people.
All three of these authors have created convincing and original characters, though it is certain that part of our interest is gained by the satisfying echoes we find here of a great work of art we know well. All three of these authors exploit a famous work successfully, using our modern preoccupations and interests, and a wider tolerance of diversity and difference to shine a light into the darkness and complexity of human nature.
Sheila Kohler is the author of ten novels: The Perfect Place, The House on R Street, Cracks, Children of Pithiviers, Crossways, Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness,Becoming Jane Eyre, Love Child, Bay of the Foxes, and Dreaming for Freud. As well as three collections of short stories: Miracles in America, One Girl, and Stories from Another World. Kohler has been awarded the O. Henry twice, the Open Voice Award, and the Smart Family Foundation prize, and The Willa Cather Prize judged by William Gass for One Girl, the Antioch Review Prize, and two stories have been included inBest American Short Stories. She was nominated for an Impac award. Sheila Kohler has taught creative writing at Bennington, City College, The Chenango Valley Conference at Colgate, Sarah Lawrence, The New School, Suny Purchase, the West side YMCA, and in Montolieu, France at Brooklyn College. She was a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in 2003-4 and a visiting writer at the American Academy of Rome in 2012 and 2013. Her new memoir, Once We Were Sisters was published in January.