This Is How Biblical Intertextuality Works, Too

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 192–93:

“It is this quality of the novel, its built-in need to return and repeat, that forms the physical basis of the novel’s chief glory, its resonant close. . . . What rings and resounds at the end of a novel is not just physical, however. What moves us is not just that characters, images, and events get some form of recapitulation or recall: We are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values. Coleridge pointed out, stirred to the observation by his interest in Hartleian psychology, that increasingly complex systems of association can give a literary work some of its power. When we encounter two things in close association, Hartley noticed, we tend to recall one when we encounter the other. Thus, for example, if one is standing in a drugstore when one first reads Shelley, the next time one goes to a drugstore one may think of the poet, and the next time one encounters a poem by Shelley one may get a faint whiff of Dial and bathsalts. The same thing happens when we read fiction. If the first time our hero meets a given character it occurs in a graveyard, the character’s next appearance will carry with it some residue of the graveyard setting.
The effect can be roughly illustrated this way. Let a represent a pair of bloody shoes, first encountered at the foot of a willow tree, b; let c equal an orphan home, first encountered in a thunderstorm, d; and let e represent a woman’s kiss, experienced on a train, f. If a (the bloody shoes) is mentioned later in the story, it draws with it a memory of the willow (b . . .). In the same way c produces [d] as an echo, and e produces [f]. . . . Compared to what actually happens in fiction, this . . . is simple and crude in the extreme . . . Even at the end of a short story, the power of an organized return of images, events, and characters can be considerable. Think of Joyce’s “The Dead.” In the closing moments of a novel the effect can be overwhelming.”

My own opinion now: I think the best novelists are in many respects copying what the biblical authors have done.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. I really like this post. These comments from Gardner are facinating when considered in light of the Bible. Now, I know you and I aren’t going to see this the same way, Jim, but I think Gardner is hitting on MUCH of what the author of Matthew’s gospel was doing in his birth narrative. However, where you likely see divine connection between OT to NT (Moses to Jesus, Israel’s failings to Jesus’ fulfillment, etc), I tend to think that the writer of Matthew used these motifs to create a narrative that theologically frames Jesus in a way that he felt best communicated him to his Jewish audience.

    As I shared with you earlier, I don’t think that the flight to Egypt or the visitation of the magi are factual, but are literary devices used theologically. Matthew uses them as Gardner describes in your post.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *