Glimpsing the balance between earth and sky: a meeting ground for postmodernism and Christianity in four selected novels by Jeanette Winterson and John Irving

by Edwards, R.S.

Abstract (Summary)
The phrase “glimpsing the balance between earth and sky” in the thesis title is taken from Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In this novel, the central character Jeanette believes she has glimpsed the possibility that human relationships can find their mirror in the relationship with God, as she understands the divine Other. This glimpse has set her wandering, trying to find such a balance.

This examination of four selected novels by Jeanette Winterson and John Irving shows that for Irving, “glimpsing the balance” means in part, giving voice to a strongly “Christian” view of humankind and human nature but in an age where the prevailing intellectual worldview is strongly sceptical of any Grand Narrative. The “voice” expressed in Irving’s work has to be situated, like Winterson’s, as one among many possibilities. Irving’s voice is itself masked as different, other/Other, freakish, in the narrative worlds he creates. Through his use of grotesque comedy as a vehicle for deeper philosophical concerns, Irving asks us: What after all in the postmodern world is the main show?

This thesis argues that if Winterson and Irving are testing or re-presenting a Christian worldview in a postmodern context, than they are asking whether Christianity is capable of assimilating and rising above the worst circumstances the world, writer, and life can throw at it. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson tells a story of “forbidden love”, posed as a direct challenge to the prevailing way of knowing in her character’s community. In Gut Symmetries, she expands this challenge by employing the insights of quantum physics to make sense of the complexities raised by a triangular love relationship.

Irving offers the story of Owen in A Prayer for Owen Meany as the kind of story which might possibly make a believer out of him; in short, that he would have to be a witness to some kind of miracle, something utterly inexplicable. In A Son of the Circus Irving narrates the quest for identity undertaken by an Indian doctor who is in every way a Displaced Person – the condition, he implies, of anyone who purports to find their piece of the truth.

The theoretical concerns of the postmodern project are examined through Lawrence Cahoone’s argument that postmodern writing offers criticism of: presence, origin, unity and transcendence through an analytical strategy of constitutive otherness. In each of their texts, Irving and Winterson are seen to use these four critical elements and to offer a postmodern strategy of re-presenting meaning through “constitutive otherness”. Both writers also employ a strategy of historiographic metafiction (as defined by Linda Hutcheon) as a means of constructing and re-presenting their narrated stories.

Postmodern paradox is compatible with what could be called a Christian plan for living, if the latter is in turn given an appropriate 1990s interpretation. The selected novels by Winterson and Irving are offered as contemporary evidence for this view. This thesis argues that the connection between postmodernism and other worldviews, particularly Christianity, is found in both projects’ process of making meanings through encounters with an other/Other.

Bibliographical Information:


School:Rhodes University

School Location:South Africa

Source Type:Master's Thesis



Date of Publication:01/01/1999

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