Unlocking the
modern novel

Unlocking the
postmodern novel

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unlocking the novel
a guide to modernism and postmodernism

It's all been done before: postmodernism is palimpsest

So you’ve somehow managed to get yourself embroiled in the world of postmodernism. I feel for you, my friend. I really do. I have to admit, when I first encountered postmodernism, or pomo, I wasn’t quite sure what it was, or if it even existed. I mean, just what is postmodernism anyway? Out there on the internet (a very pomo piece of our reality) are hundreds of different answers to this question by hundreds of different people. The fact is that no one really seems to be able to define what postmodernism is, except by defining what it is not. I have my own definition of what postmodernism is, and I hope it can help you to gain a better understanding of postmodernism as a whole.


What They Tell You Postmodernism Is


The title there begs the question: Just who are They, and what do They want? Well, They are the establishment of literature critics, English professors, and so-called experts who have a line on what they think postmodernism is. The fact is no one seems to know. Some, like this overview of postmodernism define the concept only in examples. Others, like this site on postmodernsim, can only define postmodern by contrasting it to the modernist movement before it. Neither of these approaches comes close to creating a unified definition of postmodernism.


It’s true. No one is really sure just what postmodernism is. Ask a few people and you will receive wildly different answers, everything from: a union of classical styles to pop culture sensibilities, to the rejection of the modernist search for meaning, to well, simply happy chaos. Some pomo authors, like John Barth, felt like everything had been done before, and all that was left was to re-do it, but with style and flair, and a penchant for low-brow giggles. Others will begin to speak to you of intertextuality, which is the intrusion of the author or his persona into the story, letting you know that the book knows it is a book. Some people will talk of the blurring between the lines of fact and fiction, as is often the case in the works of Tim O’Brien and Maxine Hong Kingston. Still other people will talk to you about magic-realism, which is the use of the supernatural to help illustrate the truth of a fairly mundane situation. The interesting fact is that postmodernism is all of these things, and more besides. The real problem is in trying to nail this genre down to a single, simple description; a single, best definition. I think I may have stumbled upon a potential answer to this problem, and I hope it can help you to better handle the postmodern novel.


Postmodernism Is Palimpsest


Okay. I know. It seems no one can accurately define postmodernsim and now I offer you palimpsest. Just what is palimpsest? I’m glad you asked.


Palimpsest comes to us from the Greek word palimpsestos, which literally means: to rub clean. Back in the day writing paper was hard to come by, and blackboards and such weren’t invented yet, and so the ancient Greeks would write their grocery list on their papyrus paper or sheepskin scrolls, and when they were done with them, they would scrape the writing off with a sharp rock and then make their new grocery list right over the old one. An interesting effect of this rubbing clean was that often last weeks grocery list would still be legible under this weeks list. What does this have to do with the postmodern novel? Man, I'm glad I have an audience as sharp as your self to ask these insightful questions!


Postmodernism is palimpsest in that postmodern novels are often written over the master narrative. What? What is the master narrative? Oh, I’m sorry. The master narrative is the traditional views, writings, works and thoughts concerning, well, everything. The master narrative is the original idea in its original form. 


Perhaps an example is in order. Unless you’ve been living at Walden you’ve probably heard of Austin Powers. Several years ago, Mike Myers, the pomo comic genius that he is, decided to make a movie that would poke a little fun at Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. Myers invents Austin Powers, a British secret agent with an overactive libido and bad teeth. Myers wanted to utilize some common British stereotypes (like poor dental hygiene) to redefine just what a British secret agent might be. The master narrative in this case would be Fleming’s original James Bond character while Myers’ Austin Powers represents the postmodern palimpsest. The referrals to the original Bond character are seen clearly in the Austin Powers films in the hokey villains, strange gadgets and both Bond and Powers’ prodigious success with seducing their female counterparts. So you see, Austin Powers is written over the original James Bond concept.


Now that we have an understanding of both what a master narrative is and what palimpsest is, let’s apply it to a postmodern novel.


Toni Morrison’s Beloved as Postmodern Palimpsest


While editing The Black Book, Toni Morrison encountered the historical account of Margaret Garner, a slave woman from Kentucky who, during an 1850 escape attempt to Cincinnati, was compelled to execute her children rather than see them returned to a life of slavery.  Morrison felt a need to relate both the facts and truths of Margaret Garner’s case to the reading public in an effort to redress the master narrative.


Slave narratives, like Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglas’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas and My Bondage and My Freedom, were frequently written in an effort to persuade white Northerners to aid the cause of Abolitionists. Because these narratives were being used to appeal to such a narrow audience for such a narrow goal, they were often modified and edited in order to provide the best possible point of view that would appeal to the wealthy and politically powerful white Northerners. Often accounts of the brutality and dehumanizing conditions of slavery were omitted or downplayed in an effort to not offend the delicate sensibilities of the target audience. After the abolition of slavery in America in 1866, the plight of the African-American community, the former slave community, was largely ignored. The victory had been won. Why continue to champion the cause of freedom when all people were now free?


Morrison’s novel, Beloved, addresses these issues that are missing from the master narrative of American slavery. However, Morrison’s novel also allows various other master narratives to be read behind the words of her work. Below I provide a Choke-Cherry Family Tree of the narratives Morrison accesses in her novel.   


Factual Narratives  


Levi Coffin’s Account of the Margaret Garner Case 

The slave narratives of Jacobs and Douglas (see above)

Literary Narratives


Greek Tragedy of Medea

Gothic Horror of Horace Walpole

The Nineteenth Century Novel

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

Writings of Virginia Woolf


The factual master narratives that Morrison over-writes in her novel may seem to be lacking, but we have to understand that Margaret Garner, an illiterate salve woman, had no voice in her own trial.  All the accounts of her ordeal and her terrible dilemma related to us through:

1.                   The slave bounty hunters who re-captured her

2.                   Re-related from a second-hand hearing by Levi Coffin

3.                   Abolitionist Newspapers relating the story in a sensational fashion to gain support.


Morrison re-tells a tale that in its original form was already a third or fourth hand account of Margaret Garner’s own master narrative. 


Morrison’s literary heritage is a bit more easily seen and traced. Though the actual incidents of the death of Margaret Garner’s oldest daughter are drawn from the facts of Margaret Garner’s case, we can’t help but relate the death of that child to the death of Medea’s children, at her own hand. The magic-realism of the haunting of the house by the spirit of Beloved owes its literary origins to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, which is often recognized as the first gothic-horror story. The form of Morrison’s novel is the traditional form of the Nineteenth Century novel in that it relates the events in the lives of characters in a basically linear fashion and from the point of view of a third person narrator. Morrison actually wrote her master’s thesis on Faulkner and Woolf, and owes much of Beloved’s concerns with the South and the roles of women in the South to Faulkner’s seminal novel, and much of the interior monologue used in the latter chapters of the book to the innovations of Woolf in the early Twentieth Century. 


I hope that my definition of the postmodern novel has, in some way, given you some insight into what postmodernism is. I, like Michael Berube, truly believe that postmodernism will only be defined in retrospect. In other words, give it a few years, we’ll all figure postmodernism out when we can look back on it and see it accurately. In the meantime, I will maintain that the only common thread throughout what we currently call postmodernism is palimpsest. Happy reading! 


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"It's all been done before: postmodernism is palimpsest" was created by Brandon Pennington, a student at Shepherd College.