Tuesday 8 September 2009

Kenneth M. Craig on Esther

Kenneth M. Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox, 1995).

Craig’s study of Esther draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin particularly his notion of the ‘carnival’, which he developed most fully in Rabelais and His World (1965).

In his Introduction, Craig offers an overview of Bakhtin’s work along with an apologia on the appropriateness of using Bakhtin (whose work focuses mainly on the novel genre) for an ancient narrative such as Esther. He argues that what Bakhtin means by ‘novelistic discourse’ is not restricted to the novel, but may be found in a variety of genres, ancient and modern.

The ‘literary carnivalesque’ is characterised by parody, reversals, crownings and uncrownings, a sense of play, and the relativising of so-called stable structures. Craig argues that Esther represents an early example of such ‘literary carnivalesque’, in which a ‘folk-carnivalesque base… has been collected and artistically rendered’ (34).

The images of the banquet and the market, according to Craig, suggest a function of creating an unofficial culture of the ‘folk’ which is opposed to the ‘official’ culture of the king and his court. The ‘reversals of situations’ in the Esther narrative are also seen as evidence of the carnivalesque, where such reversals are a central feature. Furthermore, the violence of Esther 8 and 9, out of proportion to what has gone before, is explained as an element of the carnivalesque. In all, Craig’s work suggests a virtual one-to-one mapping of Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’ on to elements in Esther.

It may come as no surprise to hear that, according to a number of reviewers, the links in some places are somewhat artificial and forced. While there are clearly comic moments in Esther, the narrative as a whole is quite different from forms of carnivalistic discourse. For instance, the threat of extinction of an entire people is serious and dark, and quite removed from a playful, relativistic, folk literature reveling in egalitarian values.

On balance, while Esther may reflect elements of the literary carnivalesque (as well as other genres), it probably should not be classified as a literary carnivalesque.

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