E.L. Doctorow’s fictional autobiography: World’s Fair (1985) as a carnivalesque Bildungsroman
Van der Merwe, Philip
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In World’s Fair (1985) E.L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow (1931–) artistically transforms autobiographical and historical facts and memories of the actual world of his childhood into a Bildungsroman. Doctorow was in his fifties when he wrote this novel, which is widely regarded as more autobiographic than his other Bildungsromane, namely The Book of Daniel (1971), Loon Lake (1980) and Billy Bathgate (1989). This fictionalisation takes place through the use of a retrospective narrator who depicts the memories of his formative experiences as a nine-year-old boy. The novel is marked by a striking structural feature, namely that positive and sombre or serious events alternate. The question therefore arises: Why does Doctorow construct his childhood memoir in this manner? In brief, the answer is that the narrator’s Bildung depends on a carnivalesque dialectic of dangerous and/or threatening events and the relief and/or repair of these same events. This article therefore attempts to make sense of World’s Fair in terms of selected aspects of M.M. Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’. It shows a clear link between, on the one hand, this novel’s status as a Bildungsroman along with the personal growth of the narrator and central character and, on the other hand, a carnivalesque dialectic of seriousness and amelioration. It thus shows that the main theme of the book is, in fact, the reliance of growth on this dialectic. The article begins with a brief analysis of the novel in terms of its semi-autobiographic character and then provides an equally brief overview of Bakhtin’s (1984, 1985) notion of carnival. The main body of the text provides examples from the novel and thus evidence for the above-mentioned dialectic.
- Faculty of Humanities