Bookends 2012 Panel: Taboo

Edel Mulcahy: “‘Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy’: Incest and its consequences in Middle English Exempla”

-Incest as one of the last remaining taboos (Game of Thrones as contemporary example)

– Literary depictions of incest in Medieval period referred to as “cursed stories”

– This paper will examine incest in Middle English Exempla

– Incest as widely discussed  topic in Medieval period (contemporary concern amongst church hierarchy over what constituted incest)

– Medieval writers depicted varied accounts of incest

-Exempla did not ignore incest but used as a cautionary tale

– Used topic as means of exploring God’s capacity for forgiveness

– Women were often the aggressor (women, like their ancestor Eve, have insatiable appetites)

In contrast to Romance narratives in which an elderly father attempts to seduce his daughter

– “The Life of Secundis” – Secundis returns from study like a pilgrim – when he returns home he decides to test what he has learnt about the “lustful nature” of women by seducing his mother

– He lies in bed with her but doesn’t sleep with – her obliviousness to his identity,  in the context of the story, excuse her behaviour

– Removal of the father leads to disorder

– again emphasises forgiving nature of God.

– “The Tale of the Incestuous Daughter” – focuses on importance of divine forgiveness

– Wanton daughter contrasted with devout mother

– daughter sleeps with her father which leads to her eventual murder of the resultant children

– Father seeks repentance – but daughter blames him and ultimately kills him in a brutal manner

– She thus prevents him from undertaking a penitential pilgrimage and thus receiving forgiveness

– Incest is always followed by murder (usually infanticide or patricide)

– Daughter repents before bishop – demonstrating that no sin is too great for God to forgive

– Stories emphasise the importance of confession and repentance

– In Romance tales, it is the father whose desire instigates incest

– it usually propels the daughter from her home

– daughter usually confined to home, but incest narrative gives her an incentive to travel and have adventures usually unavailable to a woman at the time

Kate Kirwan: “Hester Prynne: Sexual Deviant”

Despite the complexity of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the character of Hester Prynne is eternally associated in the lexicon of popular culture with sexual transgression and fallen womanhood

– For example, the troubled character of Audrey Horne in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks uses this name as an alias when she sneaks into a brothel, and the character of Niles and Frasier’s adulteress mother in the sitcom Frasier is named Hester

-However, Hester Prynne is in fact a far more complex character

indeed, while the letter “A” in Hawthorne’s novel initially stands for “adultery”, it eventually comes to have a number or possible (more ambiguous) meanings such as “angel”, “artist” and “able”.

-Kirwan explores some of the different ways in which contemporary literature has reappropriated the figure of Hester Prynne

Hester as America’s first feminist – refuses to surrender her illegitimate daughter to Puritan town elders and supports her small family by working as a seamstress

– Conde’s I Tituba– Hester appears in the jail where the eponymous Tituba is awaiting trial for witchcraft

– Voice she gives to Tituba is not appropriate for the sexually constrained Puritan period

-The character of Hester possesses a fierce, if anachronistic, passion for women’s rights

-Seizes control of her own destiny by committing suicide and bequeathing her feminist spark to Tituba

– John Updike also reappropriates the figure of Hester Prynne

– adultery as “our inherent condition”

– sex and religion reduced to corporeal rather than spiritual entity

– reduces act which ruins Hester to a natural human urge

– Whereas in Hawthorne’s novel she is repentant – Hester is haunted by her act

– Christopher Bigsby’s first Hester novel explores her early life – her relationship with the much older Chillingworth

– Chillingworth in this version is a darker figure

– In Bigsby’s novel Hester does not plan to meet Chillingworth in the new world – she is escaping him (whereas in Hawthorne’s novel she is planning to meet with him and only commences her affair with Dimsdale  when she thinks her husband is dead)

– This Hester also writes a journal which goes against the Puritan idea that private self should be kept hidden.

– In Updike’s novel S.  she is unapologetic about her affairs – she has the capacity to liberate herself and speak her mind

– Updike’s Hester is a more human figure than her literary predecessor

– One of the most complex versions of Hester is in Updike’s Roger’s Version – Hester’s infidelity is exaggerated in Roger’s imagination

-Updike considers Chillingworth to be the most sympathetic character – Hester in Updike’s version is, consequently, cold and distant

– Hester Prynne represents many of the complex traits of femininity

– Modern versions of Hester  are important because they reappropriate her as a figure who has made a mistake and is redeemed rather than simply as the figure of promiscuous, corrupt fallen woman

– These contemporary reimaginings of Hester present her as a complex figure rather than as the clichéd figure of the “fallen woman” she has become in popular culture

– Hester is a product of a culture in which women didn’t have agency or voice – these modern appropriations attempt to give her a voice of her own

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Categories: Bookends 2012, Live Blogging, postgraduate conference, University College Cork | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Bookends 2012 Panel: Taboo

  1. Pingback: Positively Deviant! | Medieval Pilgrimage

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