The romantic hero in a postmodern world: American culture and moral responsibility in the fictions of Morrison, Naylor and Pynchon

Eunice Kudla Madison, Purdue University


This dissertation investigates literary heroes in postmodern fiction. According to current descriptions of contemporary fiction, especially postmodern fiction, ethical heroes have all but disappeared from literature; many critics believe that postmodern fiction is dominated by the anti-hero that developed under modernism. In On Moral Fiction, for example, the late John Gardner stated that postmodern authors show no interest in critiquing social problems, presenting moral dilemmas, or reflecting ethical values through heroic characters. He claimed that contemporary authors only use their art to continue the narrative experiments of their modernist predecessors and to promote their own ideological positions. In the following chapters, these assumptions are tested through readings of three contemporary novels: Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, and Thomas Pynchon's Vineland. My investigation focuses on the values shared by their respective protagonists. Relying on the insight of Bakhtin, who believed that the moral conscience is guided by love, sentiment, and a responsibility for others, not by formal ethical concepts, I explore how the heroes in these novels reflect his theory of moral responsibility. By combining close character analysis with an analysis of narrative strategies, I also shall show that Morrison, Naylor and Pynchon combine sophisticated literary techniques with sentimental and clearly ethical characters to offer a dialogical critique of monological portraits of responsible behavior. The analyses in the following chapters clearly indicate the presence of ethical and sentimental contemporary heroes—heroes who resemble their romantic predecessors more closely than they resemble the anti-hero of the modernists. Ultimately, the results of my investigation recommend a qualification of the consensus that postmodernist fiction is characterized by cynicism and dominated by the anti-hero. The willingness to forego residual prejudices against sentimental heroism leads to the discovery of additional postmodern heroes. ^




Major Professor: G. Richard Thomposon, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Literature, American

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