'Midrashic Wishful Thinking' Constructions of Esther in Twenty-First Century Novels

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Published Nov 10, 2020
Wood Sorrel May

Abstract

This paper uses tools from feminist literary theory to analyse three twenty-first century novels: Esther: Royal Beauty by Angela Hunt (2015); Esther: a Novel by Rebecca Kanner (2015) and The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn (2004). The novels are all creative retellings of the Book of Esther, and the paper situates them in the context of a textual reception history which has been characterised by rich and varied ‘aggadic interpretation and a tendency to creatively rewrite, rather than translate, the problematically subversive canonical version. Working from the premise posited by structuralist Gérard Genette, that whenever a text is creatively retold, it is “transvalued” (the derivative text replaces aspects of the target text with the values of its own context), it considers which cultural values are being imputed into twenty-first century retellings of the story. Using Meir Sternberg’s narratological criticism as a framework, which posits that the ways in which readers fill in the “gaps” in texts can either be valid or constitute “misreading”, and drawing upon Daniel Boyarin’s supposition that readers fill in textual gaps with whatever is most culturally contingent, the paper identifies some key “gaps” in the story and analyses how the novels (that is, the “hypotexts”) have filled them. It focuses especially on the characterisation of the main female characters, Esther and Vashti, and the relationship between them. The paper identifies some troubling misogynistic motifs which persist, and are even intensified, in the twenty-first century novels. It also concludes that the detailed characterisation of the characters in the novels, in keeping with the expectations of the novel genre, ultimately constitutes a “misreading”, destabilising the balance of the hypertext.

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Keywords

Esther, Reception History, Feminist Criticism, Narratological Theory, Novels

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Articles