Identity in the early fiction of Alan Paton, 1922-1935
Levey, David Norman Ralph
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The thesis represents an attempt, within the broad field of religion and literature and of identity studies, to read the early unpublished fiction of Alan Paton, dating from approximately 1922 (the end of his student days) to 1935 (when he became Principal of Diepkloof Reformatory). It is pointed out that research into the interrelationship of literature and religion, while well-established in a number of countries, is lagging in South Africa, and it is believed that the present thesis is the first full-length work of its kind, at least as far as South African literature in English is concerned. The writer advances reasons for his explicitly religious and hermeneutic approach to questions of human identity, as found in Paton especially, and focuses these on two particular areas: narrative identity, as propounded in the later work of Paul Ricoeur, and relational identity (to the other human being and to the Other, God), as theorised by Emmanuel Levinas in his later writing. In order to contextualise the study in Africa and in South Africa, brief attention is accorded to writers such as Soyinka, Mbiti and Mbembe and to current debates regarding white identity in South Africa. To lend a sense of historical context, Paton's work is viewed against the backdrop of identity in colonial Natal. The overall approach adopted may be described as broadly, but critically, postmodernist. Paton's earliest, fragmentary novel, 'Ship of Truth' (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, 'Brother Death' (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story 'Little Barbee' (1928?), his short story 'Calvin Doone' (1930), his third novel, 'John Henry Dane' (1934), and a novel or novella, 'Secret for Seven' (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive. Various suggestions are made for future research: into South African literature from a religious perspective, into other aspects of Paton's works, and so forth.
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