Toward a Rewriting of Classic Literature:
Biblical Rewriting in Modern Western Fictions
指导老师：外文学院英语系 卢丽安 副教授
Abstract: Rewriting of classic literature can be found in many literary works. This research
approaches this problem by analyzing three literary fictions of the twentieth century, which rewrite
three different biblical stories. In addition to the textual analysis comparing the three rewrites with
their respective source texts, focus is also put on the reception of these works. Keywords: the Bible rewriting canon cultural studies
Intertextuality, a poststructuralist term coined by Julia Kristeva, “is used to
signify the multiple ways in which any one literary text is made up of other texts, by
means of its open or covert citations and allusions.” (Abrams 317) According to
Kristeva, a text has two axes: a horizontal axis that connects the author and the reader
of a text, and a vertical one that connects the text to other texts (69). The latter
connection is involved both in the writing process where an author creates a text by
borrowing or alluding to prior texts, and in the reading process where a reader thinks
of one text when reading another.
The intertextual relationship between texts is created most commonly in
rewriting. Throughout western history, a lot of great works have been rewritten,
among which there are James Joyce’s Ulysses (which rewrites the Homeric epic of the
same title), Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (which rewrites Charlotte Brontë’s Jane
Eyre), Michel Tournier’s Friday and John Maxwell Coetzee’s Foe (both rewriting Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), and the list goes on.
The source texts offering inspiration for latter rewrites are always the literary
classics, such as Shakespeare’s dramas, ancient Greek and Roman mythologies,
world-famous fables and fairy tales, etc. In a word, the works whose contents – be its
characters, plots, dialogues – are familiar to the readers are usually the ones that are
constantly rewritten by writers of the later generation.
In addition to being a religious holy book, the Holy Bible itself is also a literary
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现代西方小说中改写经典文学的现象与问题分析 work. The first book of the Holy Bible, “Genesis”, tells the story of the first man and woman, and of their descendants. The four Gospels in the New Testament tell
basically an identical life story of Jesus Christ. These stories are familiar not only to
western religious believers, but also to other non-believers around the world.
Since the stories in the Bible are familiar to people, the Holy Bible has always been an abundant source for rewriting. Even great writers have attempted to rewrite
biblical stories, famous or less well-known. The most celebrated rewritings include
John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which retells the stories of Samson in Judges, Oscar
Wilde’s Salome, whose story is told in the gospel of Mark, though only obliquely.
On account of the importance of the Bible as a work of literature and as a source
of literary rewriting, this paper intends to reflect on the problems of rewriting biblical
literature by closely examining three examples of modern western fictions: The
Diaries of Adam and Eve (1905) by Mark Twain, “The Gospel According to Mark”
(1970) by Jorge Luis Borges, and A History of the World in 10? Chapters (1989) by Julian Barnes.
The three fictional narratives will be examined on their respective allusions to
the Bible. The research will focus on how the ancient stories in the Holy Bible are
revisited and revived, to what extent and on what aspects they are rewritten, be it the
theme, the characters, or the religious doctrines.
Since rewriting of biblical stories is concerned with religion, attention will also
be attributed to the research of the authors’ religious background: What religious
attitude does the author hold toward biblical rewriting? Is he a strong believer of
religion? What is his intention in rewriting the chosen biblical stories? Other things
such as the authors’ life experience and literary characteristics are also within concern.
Literary texts, positioned within the scope of cultural studies, are taken as
cultural products, and therefore, to understand the impact of particular texts, the
interplay between production, distribution and consumption must also be reckoned.
Under such circumstances, a study of literary texts has to include not only the study
on the part of the authors, but also that on the part of the readers and on the part of
those who make the authors’ works available to readers. Therefore, in addition to the textual analysis of the authors’ rewrites, focus will also be put on the reception of
It is equally important to take into account the social environment which makes it
possible for the readers to get to know the author’s works. Why are these rewrites
accepted by the authority while others are not, and therefore are kept out of the
In a word, this research intends to approach the problem of biblical rewriting
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复旦大学 论文集（2007） through the vision of cultural studies, and explore why these rewrites are accepted.
This thesis will approach the problem of rewriting biblical stories in four
chapters. Chapter 1 will give a brief account of the three chosen texts. Chapter 2 will
examine the three texts closely of their respective allusions to the Holy Bible, and
explore the intentions of the authors in rewriting the Bible. Chapter 3 will elaborate on the reception of the three rewrites. Chapter 4 will be a conclusion.
Chapter 1 Literature Review
1.1 An Overview of the Selected Texts
1.1.1 The Diaries of Adam and Eve (1905)
The Diaries of Adam and Eve (Diaries for short below) is written by the world-famous American humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), in his later years. It
consisted originally of two novellas: Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1893), and Eve’s
Diary (1905). Most of Extracts from Adam’s Diary had been finished before 1893, when Twain was invited to write a humorous piece about Niagara Falls to be part of a
souvenir book for the 1893 World Fair to be held in Buffalo, New York. At first he
declined, but later inspiration stroke him that he relocated the story of Adam’s diary to an Eden that contained Niagara Falls, which was published first in The Niagara Book.
Eve’s Diary was written as a contribution to the 1905 Christmas issue of Harper’s
Magazine. Hoping for the magazine to publish the two diaries together, he considered
revising Adam’s by cutting seven hundred words and writing some new pages in
Adam’s voice to be included in Eve’s Diary. However, the magazine published only
Eve’s Diary, and the two first appeared together in The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories in 1906.
As the book title reveals, this novella is written in the form of diaries, narrated
respectively in the voice of Adam and Eve. The two diaries have a basically identical
background of time, beginning from when God created Adam and Eve until Eve’s death.
1.1.2 “The Gospel According to Mark” (1970)
The title, “The Gospel According to Mark” (“Gospel” for short below), has a clear air of biblical allusion to the gospel of Mark in the New Testament. It was originally written in Spanish, by the famous Argentine writer, poet and scholar, Jorge
Luis Borges (1899-1986), and was included in his collection of short stories, Doctor
Brodie’s Report (1970). It was first translated and published in English in 1972.
The protagonist of this story, Baltasar Espinosa, was a medical student from
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Buenos Aires. He was invited to spend the summer months at La Colorada ranch,
where he met the foreman Gutre and his family, who were descendants of Scotland
natives, and were hardly educated. One day, a storm struck, and the ranch was flooded
and isolated from the outside world. Espinosa came across an English Bible in the
house and read the Gospel according to Saint Mark to the Gutres, who, seemingly
having understood what Espinosa had read to them, regarded him as Jesus Christ who
was able to rescue them from the flood and others. Finally, after another storm broke
out, the Gutres crucified Espinosa for the purpose of their salvation.
1.1.3 A History of the World in 10? Chapters (1989)
Novelist Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, UK in 1946. After his graduation
from college, he worked as lexicographer, journalist, literary editor, before he took up
the writing career and published his first novel in 1980.
This novel, written in 1989, A History of the World in 10? Chapters (History for
short below), is distinctive in its form. As its title suggests, the whole book contains
10 full chapters and one parenthesis, half in length of the others. Each chapter has
little relationship with one another at surface except that the stories are all about boats
on the sea. The book opens with the first chapter “The Stowaway” which retells the
biblical story of the Flood and Noah’s Ark. The story is told in the voice of a
woodworm that got stowed away on Noah’s Ark. As a participant in the biblical event, it discloses information that is not told in the Holy Bible, such as the loss of Noah’s
fourth son, Varadi (in addition to his three brothers, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who are
recorded in the Holy Bible) and his ship with one fifth of the species that are on it.
1.2 A Justification of the Choice of the Texts
The three authors (in the order of the publication years of the three selected texts
by them) came respectively from North America (United States), South America
(Argentine), and Europe (Britain), the three major continents (as well as countries) of
the western world, which makes the research on the modern “western” fictions
representative in a balanced way. The three texts are written respectively in the early
twentieth century (1905), mid-twentieth century (1970), and late twentieth century
(1989), which reflects a general western rewriting tradition throughout the twentieth
The sources of these three rewrites, as well as their ways of rewriting, are
different. Twain’s Diaries and Barnes’ History rewrite two different stories in the Old Testament, while Borges’ “Gospel” rewrites one in the New Testament. Mark Twain used the story of Adam and Eve to construct the whole novella, while Julian Barnes
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复旦大学 论文集（2007） used Noah’s Ark only as some sort of prologue to introduce his writings.
The three texts, as well as their authors, were all well-known in their own age
and after. All the three authors are well educated, and have achieved their literary
success world-wide, and therefore represent the elitist culture. Their achievements are
the focus of this research, and the three rewrites will be studied in terms of their
production, their publication, readers’ reception, as well as the interactive relationship
between the previous three elements.
Chapter 2 Biblical Allusions? But Why?
2.1 The Diaries of Adam and Eve
This book title has a clear indication to the archetypal characters in the Holy
Bible. Mark Twain, the famous American humorist, picked up the story of the first
couple in the world, and rewrote their story in his characteristically humorous tone.
The most obvious example comes in his retelling of the story of Abel and Cain.
The Bible says that Cain, a tiller of the ground, and Abel, a keeper of sheep, were both
children of Adam and Eve. They both gave offering to the Lord, who, however,
favored only Abel and his offering. The enraged Cain therefore killed his brother,
Abel. (Gen. 4.1-8) Twain comments on this event, in the voice of Adam, with a single
sentence, “Abel is a good boy, but if Cain had stayed a bear1 it would have improved
him.” (18) He implies that if Cain had not grown up, he would not have killed his
brother. In this way, he teases the basic Christian tenet.
Despite such literal “disrespects” to the holy book, Twain’s intention of writing
this book is not to express his dissatisfaction with Christianity. He wrote this book
more as a love story, because he was personally enchanted with the story of the first
couple in the world. Besides this book, he also wrote several other related stories,
including That Day in Eden, Eve Speaks, Adam’s Soliloquy, A Monument to Adam,
Twain wrote this book as an affectionate tribute to his recently deceased wife,
Olivia Langdon, who passed away one year before the book was finished. At the end
of Eve’s Diary, Twain says, from the mouth of Eve, that
“It is my prayer, it is my longing, that we may pass from this life together ….
But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong,
I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me – life without him
1 As the story goes, when Adam and Eve first saw the baby, who walked with four legs, they did not know that this
was their child. They thought this might be a bear. So when Adam said “if Cain had stayed a bear”, he meant “if he
had not grown up”.
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would not be life.” (40)
On the surface, these words seem to be a woman’s tribute to a man, yet when you
discover that they actually come from a man, you will immediately realize that they
are actually a man’s comprehension of the unfailing love of his wife. Twain concludes
the story with Adam standing at Eve’s grave, saying, “Wheresoever she was, there
was Eden.” (40) This is what Adam says of Eve, and moreover, what Twain said of his
2.2 “The Gospel According to Mark”
This short story employs the same title of the second book in the New Testament.
Unlike Twain’s Diaries, this short story does not employ the biblical character, Jesus,
as the protagonist. But for the title, the relationship between this story and the Bible
may be too implicit to discover. Borges did not borrow the characters, or the events
with ease. Instead, he took the frame structure of the gospel of Mark, and filled in his own elements to show his reflections on certain problems.
The gospel of Mark in the Bible relates the story of Jesus. It has two main themes,
the first of which is the preaching and miracles of Jesus, and the second is his
crucifixion and resurrection.
In Borges’ “Gospel”, the experience of Espinosa, the protagonist, resembled to
that of Jesus. Although he was not consciously preaching, his reading of Mark’s
gospel to the Gutres as an exercise in translation had practically made him a preacher
in front of the Gutres. Besides, after he stopped the bleeding of the girl’s lamb with some pills, the uncivilized Gutres thought this was a miracle, and considered Espinosa
almost as powerful as Jesus. From then on, their attitude toward Espinosa totally
changed. His “timid orders” “were immediately obeyed” (170). Moreover, the Gutres “liked following him from room to room and along the gallery that ran around the
house” (170), just as the believers who followed Jesus.
After listening to Espinosa’s “preaching”, however, the Gutres, who seemed to have understood what he had read to them word for word, imitated the sacred texts
and crucified him. They “mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the
back part of the house” (171), which reminds the readers immediately of the soldiers
who mocked Jesus in the Bible (cf. Mark. 15.19).
Such implicit allusions to the Holy Bible are everywhere to be found in the novel. With these allusions, Borges questions the formation of ideology, and, to some extent,
religion’s influence on people.
Unlike Twain’s humor, Borges’ way of questioning is “irony”. How the Gutres
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became faithful in the doctrines of Christianity, and how they understood the doctrines
are the two most important ironies on the thematic level. The Gutres were preached to
believe in the Bible by a “freethinker”, “whose theology was rather dim”, and who
only “felt committed to what he read to the Gutres”. Moreover, they believed in these
doctrines only to the extent that they thought the behaviors in the Book could and
should be imitated, so they crucified Espinosa in the hope of being rescued from the
devastating storm. After “the new storm had broken out on a Tuesday” (170), they
pulled down the beams from the roof of the shed, which were supposed to protect
them from the storm, to make the cross (171). Their idea that the crucifixion of
Espinosa, instead of a safe shed, was able to rescue them from the storm, is exactly
where the irony lies.
2.3 A History of the World in 10? Chapters
Compared with the previous two narratives, Barnes’ is more complex and multiangular. This novel is not about the Bible; nor is it about religion, to be strict. It is more, as its title suggests, about “history”.
In the flow of Barnes’ retelling the biblical story of the Flood, he is writing his version of “history”, which is somewhat different from the biblical history. For example, when it comes to the three sons of Noah, the Bible tells us that “Noah had
three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Gen. 6.10). However, according to Barnes’
History, he had another son, Varadi, who was not mentioned in any history books.
Barnes says that Varadi, the youngest and strongest of Noah’s sons, and his ship “had
vanished from the horizon, taking with it one fifth of the animal kingdom” (5-6).
Whether Varadi really existed or not is not the concern of Barnes. His concern is
on the relationship between “history” and “reality”. He further develops this view in
“History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There
was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a
tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One
good story leads to another.” (240)
His view of history is clearly revealed in these sentences. He points out the difference
between “history” and “reality”, with the story in the Bible as a prologue, and more
other stories that follow.
Chapter 3 Rewriting the Bible: A Canonization of Literary Fictions
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The criteria of canons are long under discussion. And the most controversial
problem is “Whose canon it is?” Since the process of canonization is more or less
influenced by some authoritative powers, canons inevitably reflect the values of those
powers. For example, in medieval Europe, the choice of canons is greatly influenced
by the power of courts and the power of churches. The authority of these canons
relied much on the powers that supported them.
However, in modern times, the authority of the powers of schools, of courts, and
of churches is greatly challenged. And with the rise of western Marxism and the
theory of cultural production, literary works are taken as cultural products, and
therefore follow the principles of markets. As a result, the choice of canons goes into
the hand of the producers, the consumers and the spreaders of these literary products.
In the modern process of canonization, there are four elements that influence
authors’ creation of works and their reception: the publishers, the readers, the critics,
and the social environment. Of these four elements, the first three interact with the
works (and the authors), and meanwhile they interact with each other. The last
element influences all the above elements, including the works (and the authors).
In order to make the above mode more understandable, I make the following
Then I will explain in detail this mode, and apply it to the reception of the three Environment fictions within discussion.
3.1 The Influence of Publishers on the Reception of the Works
The publishers may be one of the most important elements in the reception of the
works, since it is they who make the works available to the readers. They are
specialists in knowing what kind of books is most likely to be accepted and liked by
the readers (or the market). They represent, to some extent, the taste of the mass.
The authors of the three narratives are all well-recognized writers. The publishers
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have published many of their works, which are nearly all among the bestsellers. So
the publishers are more confident in their works, and are therefore more willing to
publish them. In this case, there is very much likely to be a Matthew Effect (i.e. the
famous writers will have more chances to publish more popular books, which make
them even more famous; while the less famous writers will lose more chances to
However, the choice of the publishers is based on economic concerns. Their objective is to make more money with these books. Therefore they put little emphasis
on the instructive function when they choose the canons.
3.2 The Influence of Readers on the Reception of the Works
The readers are the recipients of the work, and are therefore an important element in the process of canonization. It seems impossible to canonize a work which
the readers do not like. But what are the criteria of readers in choosing what books
they like to read?
Literature, as a form of art which is different from other products, should meet the aesthetic needs of readers. Generally speaking, literary canons should be written in
good language with outstanding writing skills. The three authors discussed above are
all well-educated, which ensures that their works are mostly of high quality. This is a
fundamental qualification of their success.
However, good master of language and excellent writing techniques are not the only concerns of the readers, if not the least important ones. We have found enough
modern works that are written in plain language, but still intoxicate the readers. In
addition to the aesthetic concerns, readers also have a concern of the emotions that are
shared between them and the works (or the authors). This emotion may also be one
that is shared among all human beings. The most obvious example lies in the success
of Twain’s Diaries. The love between Adam and Eve arouses sympathy in the heart of
the readers. This common emotion that is expressed by Twain in memory of his
deceased wife, is shared not only between the readers and Twain, but among all the
people who desire to love and to be loved.
Readers’ likes may not be sufficient for canonization, but at least a work without
readers’ likes is even less likely to be canonized. Western people’s familiarity with the
Bible makes the three fictions more approachable and appealing to the readers. They share more easily with what the authors intend to express. If Twain had told the same
love story, but without Adam and Eve as protagonists, this novella might not have
been so successful. If Barnes had not begun his novel with a period of history that is
less familiar to the readers, they might be difficult to share Barnes’ view of history.
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3.3 The Influence of Critics on the Reception of the Works
A critic is, first of all, a reader. Yet, he is different from a reader in that he is, to
some extent, more knowledgeable than ordinary readers. The knowledge empowers
him to canonize works. The critics may help the ordinary readers to understand and
appreciate the works of some so-called “elite” writers. For example, since Barnes has
a strong educational background in modern languages and literature, his novels
usually contain lots of allusions, and are hard to understand for ordinary readers.
Critics play an important role in making his works known to the readers.
However, the knowledge of critics is a two-edged knife. It brings the critics
superiority above the readers, and meanwhile, it alienates them more or less from
ordinary readers. Their choice of canons may be too specialized.
3.4 The Influence of Authors’ Works on Publishers, Readers and Critics
Since one important function of canon is instruction, the publishers, the readers,
and the critics are all likely to be instructed by the works (and the authors). And one
of the motives why authors write the works is to communicate their values to the
outside world with intention to change the values of others. By such means they
influence the reception of his works. That’s why the three elements and the works are
Barnes, for example, tends to communicate his view of history with the outside
world, and convince others of his view. With his efforts, people’s view of history may
3.5 The Interactions between Publishers, Readers and Critics
The publishers influence the reading of readers by deciding what books are
available to them, and are influenced meanwhile by the readers in meeting their taste,
if they want to make more money on them. The critics influence, and are influenced
by both the publishers and the readers. It is a force between the other two: by
criticizing, the critics infuse the ideology they think a society should hold onto the
publishers and the readers, intending to normalize their thinking and behaviors; on the
other hand, since their act of criticizing is passive (i.e. they can only criticize what the
publishers have published and have made available to the readers), their criticizing is
limited within publishers’ economic concerns and readers’ likes.
Therefore, the process of modern canonization is a process that involves different
forces, and it is a process of the interaction of these forces.
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