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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