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III - Real and Imaginary Meetings

When the Novel Meets the Bible. The Flood in Four Contemporary British Novels

Ewa Rychter
p. 183-195


L’article se concentre sur quatre romans modernes britaniques où sont réécrits des récits de la Bible sur Noé, l’Arche et le déluge: A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters par Julian Barnes, Boating for Beginners par Jeanette Winterson, The Book of Mrs Noah par Michele Roberts et Not the End of the World par Géraldine McCaughrean. Nous nous proposons d’examiner la question du secret à la lumière des arguments de Derrida. Cet angle d’approche nous amène (1) à caractériser la relation entre la fiction moderne et la Bible, (2) à projeter un éclairage nouveau sur la passion dans le récit du déluge, et (3) à montrer comment ces éléments détruisent le postulat de Derrida quant à la symétrie sécularisée entre les Ecritures et la littérature.

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1Though the number of the recent British novels inspired by the biblical narrative of the Deluge does not in itself justify the use of the term “flood” to collectively describe them, the relative popularity of Noah’s story should at least give us a pause. The Flood has attracted more attention from British novelists than any other biblical narrative. In Christopher Brookmyre’s Not the End of the World (1998), Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog (2011), the Flood narrative constitutes an important intertext. In Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners (1985), Michèle Roberts’s The Book of Mrs Noah (1987), Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), Geraldine McCaughrean’s Not the End of the World (2004), the biblical Deluge is recreated as the full-blown “Re-Scriptures” (Boitani vi), as rewritings that re-open and renegotiate the scriptural narrative. The Re-Scriptures preserve all the major coordinates of the hypotext (high water, Noah and his family, plus the boatful of animals), simultaneously forcing the readers to re-cognise those now de-familiarised, yet still identifiable narrative building-blocks. The frame sustaining the whole novel or a gangplank connecting narrative margins with more prominent elements, the biblical Flood story seems uniquely captivating to contemporary novelists. Why?

2Predictably, more than one explanation is possible. First, as the biblical analogue of the shipwreck, the Deluge is a traditional image of crisis affecting not only individuals but also whole communities. Thus, the Ark “serves as a microcosm and can represent larger sections of human society” (Landow 116). With its image of the cohabitation of all creation on one vessel, the Flood narrative can easily resonate with the post-Windrush problems of contemporary multicultural Britain. Once the scriptural myth of God’s wrath and His deliverance of the elect few receive what Landow calls a post-Christian “intonation” (49), the narrative becomes a handy, if somewhat ironic, metaphor of the late modern inequality, non-toleration, vindictiveness and sanctified violence taking place within the confines of the floating, island-like ship. Hardly a safe haven for all passengers, the Ark proves a particularly apt metaphor for late twentieth century Britain, whose “social cohesion and political consensus appeared to have evaporated” (Dix 107), and whose structural congruence seems as implausible as a peaceful coexistence of humans and the whole animal kingdom crammed into one boat.

3Contemporary apocalyptic anxieties and the various related forms of “endism” can be another explanation of the popularity of the Noah story, itself probably the oldest biblical apocalyptic text (Pippin 1). “With the end of the Cold War, ... the most immediate vehicle of apocalypse – global nuclear war – seemed to have evaporated. Millennial anxieties were thereby channelled into a proliferation of alternative forms: global warming to wayward asteroids to millennial bugs” (Bentley 6). Next to the widely felt forebodings about environmental disaster, there emerged deep concerns about “the end of alternative futures, the end of idealism, the end of culture, the end of value, and the end of meaning” (Bentley 7). To mediate both types of anxieties (one concerning a material, the other a more discursive end), some contemporary novels reach for the narrative of the Deluge, which on the one hand foregrounds the intertwining of human and animal life and survival, and on the other hand, offers a litmus test for human values, morality, culture. “Apocalypse is a semantic alchemical process … [which] burns and distills signs and referents into new precipitates” (Berger 7), or drowns (nearly) everything in order to pass judgement on the current societal conditions and bring to the surface its revealing remnant. Thus, the apocalyptic flood depicted by Barnes, Winterson, Roberts or McCaughrean, extracts from the late twentieth-century the basic coordinates of its culture, condenses them to fit a ship, and unveils its moral vacuity, ecological ignorance, propensity for fanaticism, and intolerance.

4There is one more possible explanation of the fact that some contemporary novelists and the biblical Noah come to meet at the cultural crossroads today – an explanation on which the rest of this paper will concentrate. The attractiveness of the Flood story seems to lie in its current, conflicted status, in its suspension between the headline-making discourse which relates the text to the world and gathers evidence for its “documentary” status (e.g., the famous Black Sea flood hypothesis proposed in 1998 by Ryan and Pitam, or the notorious literal Deluge propagated by creationists), and the less flashy discourse resistant to referential gestures and uninterested in the true/false distinction applied to the Deluge account. It is as the crossroads of such desire to test, authenticate the story (to amass geological and archaeological testimony) and the refusal to seek authorisation or proof, that the story of Noah and the Ark keeps fascinating contemporary novelists. A narrative of a free-floating ship disconnected from the known reality and yet anchored in the larger-than-life divinity seems perfectly tailored to accommodate a reflection on the status of literary fiction and on its relationship with authoritative texts from the past. It enables novelists to re-examine the shape of what James Wood calls the “broken estate” (xv), which in the nineteenth century “soften[ed] and merge[ed]” the differences between the Bible as a collection of “supernatural reports” (Wood xv) – a referential discourse – and fiction as pure, authentication-shunning make-believe. What impassions Winterson, Barnes, Roberts and McCaughrean about the Flood narrative is also that which Jacques Derrida labels “secret” (and which will be discussed in more detail later in this paper): the groundlessness, non-responsiveness of the story which will never reveal the secret of what “really happened”, but which will keep arousing passion for the text’s enigma. “There is something secret. ... One can speak of it ad infinitum, tell stories about it, utter all discourses which its puts to work and the stories which it unleashes or enchains, because the secret often makes one think of these secret histories and it even gives one taste for them” (1995, 26-27). Characteristically, the “secret will remain secret, mute, impassive... foreign to every history... foreign to speech” (Derrida 1995, 27).

5The Flood novels by Winterson, Barnes, Roberts and McCaughrean stay tuned for the complexities such secrecy produces. On the one hand, the novels purport to reveal some secret(s) the biblical text allegedly suppressed, tinkered with or replaced with orthodox, anthropocentric, or patriarchal elements. Winterson divulges that there were other survivors besides Noah and his family, that God was actually created by Noah, that the Eve story was an intentional blame-laying on women. Roberts tells a story about Noah’s wife – a character biblical authors “completely forgot to put in” (70), focusing on feminine independence and creativity, censored by the biblical account. Barnes has his stowaway character reveal the darkest secrets of the Flood episode: Noah’s cruelty, vindictiveness, envy; the true number of ships; the actual duration of the deluge; the dignity, sensibility and moral superiority of animals. McCaughrean unfolds the secrets about human stowaways on the Ark, about Noah’s daughter never mentioned in Genesis, about other survivors whose level-headedness and benevolence contrast with Noah’s blind fundamentalism and Shem’s ominous desire for power. Compared with those novelistic revelations about the Flood, the Bible seems unreliable, manipulative, exceeding selective and deliberately misleading.

6Interestingly, however, the demystifying effect of the unrelenting disclosure of secrets is problematised by the fact that the revelations are themselves largely unreliable. While the novels expose the Bible as deceptive or erroneous, they simultaneously parade their own “authenticity” “asserted tongue in cheek” (Stahlberg 36). We do not trust Winterson’s Frankenstein-like story of Noah the predeluvian scientist, creating God out of the defrosted gâteau. Neither do we take as true Barnes’s unicorn aboard the Ark, or McCaughrean’s animal focalisers. Thus, the unveiling of the allegedly buried secrets of the Scripture proceeds through highly dubious, overtly untrustworthy narratives. One cannot believe the Bible (“the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims” (Wood xv) is gone), yet one cannot believe the novels either. The novels insist on the disclosure of biblical secrets, making no secret about the absurdity of their own revelations. What (if anything) is actually revealed in this conundrum of secrecy?

7The paradox of this secrecy is not easy to unravel. First, the novels’ passion for unveiling is played out on the Bible positioned as fiction, i.e., “as a kind of novel” (Wood xv) stripped of the status of absolute truth. “Even were the narrators not so forthcoming with their desire to unmask the ʻtruth,’ the content of these novels would betray itself as fiction (and so, in turn, cast the Bible as fiction)” (Stahlberg 36). Such ideas as sheltering all animals on one ship or the story of a unicorn have the effect of assigning both the novels and the Bible as make-believe. Admittedly, the Bible can be accepted only as “discretionary magic” – as part of the domain of “not quite” and “as if”, where belief is not abandoned but softened, attenuated, and turned into a choice – rather than as something one “cannot choose not to believe” (Wood xiii). But those fragments of the Bible which visibly rely on the non-discretionary magic (on “impossible happenings” (Wood 236) like the Flood), and threaten fiction insofar as they “seduce our scepticism” (Wood 236), come to be unmasked and their mechanisms are revealed. Fiction, “despite its being a kind of magic, ... is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity” (Wood xiv), and this enmity informs the “debunking” edge of the Flood novels.

8Second, as Jacques Derrida argues, in literary fiction a special type of secret is cultivated. Unlike the common secret, whose multilayer structure invites uncovering and penetration, this secret cannot be deciphered because it does not have any hidden behind-zone, any depth where some precious meaning would lie dormant. Fictional characters and events “have no consistency, no depth beyond their literary phenomenon, the absolute inviolability of the secret they carry depends first of all on the essential superficiality of their phenomenality, on the too-obvious of that which they present to view” (Derrida 1992, 153). In literature, we have only words, and there is nothing outside the verbal frame which would confirm or annul the (non-)truth of those words. Discussing Baudelaire’s narrative “Counterfeit Money”, Derrida observes that the statement “It was the counterfeit coin”, with which one character comments his own alms, is unverifiable and has to remain enigmatic. Nobody in the story tests the coin to confirm or invalidate the truth of the alms-giver’s statement, so “[w]hether or not we take him at his word, we have only his word” (Derrida 1992, 151). While the reader may speculate about the hidden truth of the money, there is no way of establishing the coin’s authenticity or its lack. The coin’s status is a secret whose hypothetical content will fascinate readers but which will stay inaccessible and unreadable. Similarly, whatever speculation about the outside-of-the-Bible the Flood novels propose, however revelatory the cognitive frame they construct for the scriptural account, they do not determine the truth of the story but make its “inviolability” visible. Literature offers an enigma “spread on the surface of the page, as obvious as purloined letter” (Derrida 1992, 170), or as conspicuous as an Ark on the flat surface of the flood waters. With the secret structured in this way, the gesture of unveiling is on the one hand impossible, yet on the other hand, irresistible because (paradoxically) its unreadability provokes the undying desire for disclosure. Thus, the Flood novels are impassioned by biblical “secrets” whose “truth” they quite knowingly leave untouched.

9The complexity of Barnes’s, Roberts’, Winterson’s, and McCaughrean’s concern for secrets is visible when one notices that on the one hand, their novels foreground the moments of discovery, and relish the exposure and intimations of the so-far unknown details, yet, on the other hand, they contain scenes that highlight the pointlessness of seeing certain issues as secret. The Flood novels both point to the obviousness of the alleged mysteries, address the problem of the supposed hidden truth metafictionally, and abound with images of secret compartments, stowaways, conspirators, secret messages and mysterious communications. Thus, in Winterson’s Boating for Beginners, a contemporary archeologist, digging at Mount Ararat for the remains of Noah’s Ark, stumbles across a message in a bottle, which makes it clear a woman named Doris survived the Flood. Doris was able to stay alive because she learned early enough about the oncoming cataclysm from Noah’s daughter-in-law, who spied on God and Noah when they secretly met in the Gaza Strip. Noah and his crew survived because they had a high-tech, fibre-glass ship. The Genesis version of the Flood (authored by the then famous romance writer) deleted this information, creating instead “a text full of mystery and beauty” (Winterson 137). Amid those compromising disclosures, however, there is a metafictional passage which argues that biblical narratives are not to be thought of as faithful recording of events but as stories that “explain the universe while allowing the universe to go on being unexplained” (Winterson 66). It does not matter what (if anything) lies behind the “preposterous” and “downright manipulative” stories in the Bible because it is their “effect” (Winterson 66), their power to impassion, that counts. Winterson’s jarring meditation, cutting through the dense tissue of secret-chasing in the novel, does not cancel secrecy as such but reworks its meaning. Having taken so many liberties with the Flood narrative, having hypothesised wildly about its secrets, Winterson admits the disclosure of secrets is not the priority.

10In the first chapter of A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters the number of secrets imparted on the reader is impressive. “You presumably grasped that the ʻArk’ was more than just a single ship?” (Barnes 4), asks the focaliser. Elsewhere, he teases, “I mean if you look round the animal kingdom nowadays, you don’t think this is all there ever was, do you?” (Barnes 13) and explains that on the ships there were creatures like behemoths, basilisks, griffons, sphinxes, hippogriffs, and unicorns. Barnes’s stowaway unravels the darkest secrets of the Deluge: Noah was not only a drunkard, but also a despicable and cruel man; Ham’s wife smuggled a lover aboard one of the ships, hid him in a specially-made, secret compartment, and got pregnant by him; Noah’s family killed animals out of stupidity, bigotry, religious prejudice, revenge, envy, or dietary boredom. All of those “revelations” (Barnes 25), however, are framed by the stowaway’s observation that humans are “strangely incurious” (Barnes 25) and/or very likely to pretend they have forgotten the inconvenient aspects of their past. Such pretence and incuriosity is what makes Noah’s descendants overlook the obvious and be surprised by something hidden in plain view. “It surprises you that guns kill, that money corrupts, that snow falls in winter” (Barnes 29). Humans call a secret that which they do not see because they never stop their “willful averting of the eye” (Barnes 29). Significantly, this purloined-letter-effect frames the central secret of Barnes’s narrative: the identity of the stowaway focaliser. Though the narrator discloses he is a woodworm only in the last sentence of his testimony, his identity is not a true enigma. Actually, the woodworm quite openly introduces himself somewhere in the middle of his account, using his Latin binomial name Anobium domesticum. The “strangely incurious” reader will miss the tell-tale remarks about eggs, larvae, chrysalis, imago, pupation, or about the “fine syringe filled with a solution of carbolic acid in alcohol” (Barnes 18), so lethal for the narrator’s future descendants. The woodworm’s disdainful quip on people’s inability to read the Bible and understand, could be applied to the readers of his own narrative: “Ha! Even the least subtle mind can decode that” (Barnes 17). The decoding does not involve the search for events or meanings behind utterances in Barnes or in the Bible, but the perception of what those utterances present to view, their too-obvious dimension which “cannot be seen, quite simply. No more than a word” (Derrida 1995, 30).

11In Roberts’s The Book of Mrs Noah, most revelations are concerned with women. The part of the novel rewriting the Flood story concentrates on the patriarch’s wife, on her relations with her husband and with one of her daughters-in-law. The narrator divulges that the Deluge makes her “excited and pleased” because she is “escaping from a life that wearies ... [her]” (Roberts 78). On the Ark, both men and women took turn in dealing with domestic chores, dividing up all household tasks and facing up to “the end of civilisation as … [they] know it” (Roberts 80). It turns out the narrator not only created a lot of the vocabulary available until today, but also acted as the inventor of writing, as well as initiated an alternative post-deluvian covenant which renounced her husband’s mastery of the earth and its creatures. Admittedly, the disclosures are interspersed with scenes that undermine the allegedly mysterious character of (scriptural) revelation and secrets. Building the Boat was not God’s revealed plan, but a very practical idea put forward by the narrator, intercepted later by Noah/Jack and announced as God’s will unveiled. Noah/Jack positions God as someone mysterious, concealed in secret holy places, someone that “comes veiled in a golden mist, like the smoke of a heavenly fire, ... wraps himself in the clouds and holds the sun in front of his face” (Roberts 73). For his wife, “God is all over the place”; its presence is so obvious she keeps “tripping over God at the oddest times” (Roberts 73). Characteristically, both the woman’s God and the woman herself are there in plain view – the former as everyday life companion, the latter as half of the surviving humanity; yet, both remain unacknowledged by the obscurity-privileging Noah/Jack. Moreover, when Noah’s wife articulates aloud the story’s obvious fact – “your God is just copying me” (Roberts 77) – her “revelation”, though immediately suppressed and silenced by Noah, features as a secret de Polichinelle, i.e., a secret which is not a secret for anyone in the story. Thus, also in The Book of Mrs Noah, secrecy is revealed to have the purloined-letter structure.

12McCaughrean’s Not the End of the World rewrites the biblical story in such a way as to uncover the so-far unacknowledged secrets of children’s life on the Ark, and simultaneously, to reflect on the possibility of the secret as something “heterogeneous to the hidden, to the obscure, ... to the invisible” (Derrida 1995, 26). Noah’s daughter, Timna, herself a secret obscured by the Genesis text, hides two stowaways she and her brother scooped from the water: Kittim, a small boy, and his infant sister, the Baby. Significantly, though Timna believes the children to be rather well concealed, their presence on the Ark is secret to no one except Noah and his two elder sons, too engrossed with themselves to notice the unmistakable signs of small children’s presence on the ship. Suffering from loneliness, Timna imagines friends/demons and secretly talks to them, while Kittim, who is similarly lonely and whom Timna also imagines to be a demon, paints human figures on the walls, risking exposure in front of Noah’s sons. When Timna’s sister-in-law’s secret plan of poisoning her husband is revealed, she accuses Timna of having a demon and concealing it at the bottom of the Ark. Shem’s subsequent demon-hunting and Noah’s exorcisms, meant to force the demon out of its hiding (be it Timna herself or the ship), are futile because the only demon afflicting all the creatures in the Ark, operates in full view, and therefore, manages to remain secret. “There is no demon, Shem,” Timna observes wryly, “unless it’s you” (McCaughrean 150). McCaughrean’s novel juxtaposes secrecy conceived as a dissimulated representation (which requires the observer’s peering behind the written text/the appearance in order to find the supposed truth) with secrecy understood as the invisibility of the evident (which suspends such depth-reliant approach).

13The novels discussed here do not refrain from the pursuit of secrets, but neither do they insist on the Dan-Brown-like triumphant disclosure of the alleged scriptural enigmas. Rather, they establish the discursive space where it is equally impossible to resist the urge to uncover secrets and to definitely, authoritatively demonstrate what their hidden content is. It seems that the biblical story about a single vessel tightly packed with representatives of the whole creation is the proper frame to reflect on the (im)possibility of the secret. How can anything stay hidden in such a place? How can anyone not try to conceal themselves in a place like that? Within the Ark space, both the biblical and literary secrecy can be pondered and mulled over, their respective structures revealed, their public availability – perhaps never much of a secret – finally and effectively gestured towards. And, most importantly, interesting aspects of the encounter between the novel and the Bible can be brought into full view.

14According to Derrida the special secret harboured by literature is of biblical origin. The scriptural (or “abrahamic”) secret is defined by the singularity of the bond between God and human beings, by the uniqueness of the tie between God and his creation. When God calls Abraham, Abraham chooses God, sacrificing his relationship with his son, and preferring “the secret that ties him to … [God]” (Derrida 2007, 5) over all other bonds. When only Noah finds grace in the eyes of God, this divine preference undoes the relationship with all other creatures who subsequently die in the Flood. The effect of this unconditional relationship is the “absolute desacralization of the world” (Derrida 2007, 22) due to which nothing in the world is considered worthy of devotion or respect. The Flood which destroys all life on earth is a hyperbolic dramatisation of God’s singular attachment to one man, the only one that persisted in his dedication to God. Yet, the Flood is also a sign of God’s betrayal of his creation which he himself made wicked at its heart. Noah’s righteousness – his own secret/unique commitment to God – proves all the more noteworthy when we notice that, as Derrida indicates, God first made the mistake of creating humans capable of evil, and then punished them for their evil with the Deluge. Thus, Noah is a man who is singularly faithful to his Creator despite the Creator’s error, and a man who is, in a sense, more virtuous than God. Seen in this way, God’s fidelity to Noah, expressed as the obliteration of the rest of creation, cannot but involve a remarkably vertiginous structure of forgiveness: God’s pardoning a life to emerge from Noah’s family, and God’s “ask[ing] forgiveness of his creation, of his creature as of himself for the error he has committed...” (Derrida 2007, 18).

15The biblical secret feeds on the absolute faithfulness of Abraham to God and of God to Noah, yet simultaneously requires that Abraham betray his son, and God betray his creation. As Derrida contends, literature partakes of biblical secrecy, both revealing this filiation and betraying the secret tie. While the scriptural secret hinges on the absolute and exclusive relation with God, and precipitates the devaluation or sacrifice of the world, literature betrays this secret, sacrificing its bond with the Bible, depreciating the Scriptures and preferring the world to it. The biblical secret is repeated although the original pattern of preferences and devaluations is different. “If literature ... ʻdesacralizes’ or ʻsecularizes’ the Scriptures, ... it repeats then, lays bare before the world, returns to the world, the sacrifice of Isaac” (Derrida 2007, 22). Just like the Bible, literature selects, prefers one thing to another, and does the inevitable (there is always something/someone betrayed, left behind or overboard) for which forgiveness cannot but be asked. The other side of the exclusive bond is forgiveness, which, as Derrida claims, is asked in equal measure by Abraham, God, Noah and literature, all guilty of some perjury, all preferring one singular bond over another.

16The problem Derrida leaves undiscussed is whether the relationship between the Bible and literature can be smoothly applied to narratives which, like the Flood novels, nest within the Scripture, embracing and betraying it at the same time. Do those novels secularize the Bible? Do they share the forgiveness constitutive of secrecy in the Bible?

17In their re-scriptures of the Flood, Barnes, Roberts, Winterson, and McCaughrean bring to light and criticize the biblical “desacralization” or denigration of the world – an effect of Noah’s unique, yet inherently wrong, relationship with God. In Not the End of the World, Noah forbids accepting any of the encountered survivors into the Ark, booming instead towards them, “The thoughts of their hearts are only evil … . I will destroy man from off the face of the earth and beasts too, and every creeping thing. For I am sorry that ever I made them” (McCaughrean 18). Moreover, acting in the name of God, who wanted all evil eradicated from the post-deluvian world, Noah orders that his daughter (allegedly possessed by a demon) be killed, and himself becomes the vehicle of evil. In McCaughrean’s novel, the complete dedication to God actually means total disrespect for all life. In The Book of Mrs Noah, Noah/Jack communicates God’s decree according to which humans “shall become the masters of the earth” (Roberts 85). Since his wife refuses to treat animals as slaves or ever kill any of them, and Noah/Jack remains faithful to his God, they part their ways. The cost of keeping the secret tie to God – as Roberts implies – is the continuation of cruelty and the separation from the creative, compassionate feminine part of humanity. A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters reduces the singular bond between Noah and God to an exclusive and profitable contract. “There was something a bit sinister about Noah’s devotion to God; creepy, if you know what I mean. Still he certainly knew which side his bread was buttered. ... The pay-off for all that obedience was the permission to eat whichever of us Noah chose for the rest of his life” (Barnes 22). Barnes perceives Noah’s unwavering fidelity to his divine “role-model” (21) as the root of human narrow-mindedness and of the centuries-long irreverence people display towards animals. In Boating for Beginners Noah’s secret relationship with God “the Omnipotent Stockbroker and ... the Omniscient Lawyer” (Winterson 30) is a shamelessly capitalist deal in the context of which God works miracles enabling Noah to become fabulously rich and influential. Also, the rather perverse secret shared by God and Noah (namely, that Noah is God’s “mother”, whose child is the quickened and still-evolving defrosted ice-cream) is the basis of the absurd dietary regulations enforced by Noah (fridges and frozen food are prohibited). Thus, for Winterson the singular attachment to God facilitates exploitative relations between human beings and sanctions irrational laws.

18By playing down the unconditional fidelity of the bond between God and Noah, and by simultaneously emphasizing the destructive effects of this exclusionary relationship, the Flood novels both reveal and betray scriptural secrecy. They are unfaithful to the secret relationship between God and human beings, narrated in the Bible, but forge their own singular bonds with the world desacralized by the Scriptures. What in the Bible seems desacralized and sacrificed for the sake of keeping the Noahic secret, in the Flood novels becomes the preferred object, while God is in a way sacrificed or secularized. A special status is ascribed to animals in Barnes, McCaughrean and Roberts, whereas Winterson’s and Robert’s novels remain singularly loyal to women, and McCaughrean is steadfastly devoted to children. In uncovering the character of the biblical secret, the novels also reveal why the Bible should ask forgiveness: “not for having lied ..., for having perjured, ... [or for] some misdeed” (Derrida 2007, 4), but for having preferred one singular (and, as the novels are at pains to show, disgraceful) devotion over all other (more sensible) commitments.

19Contrary to what Derrida contends, however, the Flood novels avoid asking forgiveness for their secularization of the Bible. We could speculate about some deeply buried, quite un-Derridean secret request for forgiveness they hide from view, but it is quite conspicuous that they are more intent on making sure the Bible cries for pardon rather than on securing their own exculpation. They force the Bible “to swallow twentieth-century models of thought or events that it simply cannot digest without poisoning (or deconstructing) itself” (Sherwood 204). Or, to change the metaphorics, they admit a lot of the twentieth-century mentality on board of the Ark story, dangerously overloading the ancient narrative. Thus, confronted with feminist, liberal humanist, animal welfare, anti-capitalist questions, the biblical story of Noah proves too small a vessel to accommodate those issues, and can only reveal its inadequacies and ask forgiveness for what seems a narrow-minded attachment to the divine. While for Derrida literature “cannot not be an heir to the Bible, there borrowing its meaning from forgiveness but at the same time asking forgiveness for betraying it” (2007, 8), the four British Flood novels seem not to see any reason for remorse. If God and his faithful, fleshed out by the novelists from the biblical raw material, are really guilty of the unforgivable and inhuman actions the novels relish in, asking forgiveness for betraying him would qualify as one of those “impossible happenings, ghoulish returns” fiction should eschew (Wood 236). The impossibility of forgiveness frames the Flood novels, least/most secretly in Roberts’ novel, which starts and finishes with “I touch his [Noah’s] cheek with my finger. I should ask forgiveness. But I can’t. Not yet.” (8, 286). Also, the novels suspend their call for forgiveness because they colour their betrayal of the biblical with an evident faithfulness to it: they prefer the Bible to all other available narratives; they maintain and flaunt an exclusive bond with it. Though Barnes, Roberts, Winterson and McCaughrean secularize the Bible, they simultaneously perpetuate its unique relationship with Western culture. No ultimate damage is done to the Bible – similarly to Barnes’s woodworm, who announces he ate very little of the Ark woodwork and therefore did not do much harm to it, the novels seem to suppose that though gnawed at and punctured, the Scriptures will stay afloat in contemporary culture, just as the Ark did before.

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Barnes, Julian, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, London: Picador, 1990 (1989).

Bentley, Nick, “Introduction: Mapping the Millennium: Themes and Trends in Contemporary British Fiction”, British Fiction Of The 1990s, N. Bentley, ed., London: Routledge, 2005, 1-18.

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—, “Passions: ʻAn Oblique Offering’”, On the Name. T. Dutoit ed., D. Wood, J. P. Leavey, I. McLeod trans, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, 3-31.

—, “Literature in Secret: An Impossible Filiation”, A. Kotsko trans., <>.

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Landow, George P., Images of Crisis. Literary Iconology, 1750 to the Present, Boston and London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1982.

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Stahlberg, Lesleigh Cushing, “Refuse, Realism, Retelling. Literal and Literary Reconstructions of Noah’s Ark”, Subverting Scriptures. Critical Reflections On the Use of the Bible, Benedix, Beth Hawkins ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 23-39.

Winterson, Jeanette, Boating for Beginners, London: Vintage, 1999 (1985).

Wood, James, The Broken Estate. Essays on Literature and Belief, London: Plimco, 2000.

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Bibliographical reference

Ewa Rychter, « When the Novel Meets the Bible. The Flood in Four Contemporary British Novels », Caliban, 33 | 2013, 183-195.

Electronic reference

Ewa Rychter, « When the Novel Meets the Bible. The Flood in Four Contemporary British Novels », Caliban [Online], 33 | 2013, Online since 09 December 2013, connection on 16 April 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Ewa Rychter

The Angelus Silesius College, Wałbrzych, Poland.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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