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To Realize the Universal

Allegorical Narrative in Thornton Wilder’s Plays and Novels

Hansong Dan

By mapping the contour of Thornton Wilder’s major plays and novels, this book offers a fresh reading of his deceptively unfashionable art of allegorical narrative, and aims to reaffirm Malcolm Cowley’s perspicacious judgment: «(Wilder is) one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America.» After a review of the history and scholarship of allegory, the author chronologically traces Wilder’s extensive, complex and resilient engagement with allegory, a genre employed not only for literary manifestation but for philosophical inquiry. Moving expertly from Wilder’s early religious playlets through his Pulitzerwinning fictions and plays to his largely obscure late writings, this study reveals that allegory and Wilder studies are two mutually illuminating topics. What distinguishes Wilder from other modern allegorists is not only his self-reflexive shuttling between the novel and the drama, but his tenacious persistence on pressing for the sublime universality of our mundane experiences in a postsacral world. Overturning the common characterization of Wilder as a preachy voice of Puritan religiosity, this book argues for the centrality of ambiguity that produces nuanced meanings in Wilder’s allegorical narratives.


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CHAPTER THREE - Wilder’s Bitter Transcendence: Toward a Humanist Allegory 175


CHAPTER THREE Wilder’s Bitter Transcendence: Toward a Humanist Allegory Wilder was always a self-conscious critic of his own art. In his jour- nals, letters, lectures and essays, a frequently addressed issue is the comparison between two genres – novel and drama. In “Preface for Our Town,” published in The New York Times, February 13, 1938, nine days after the play first opened on Broadway, Wilder wrote: The stage has a deceptive advantage over the novel – in that lighted room at the end of the darkened auditorium things seem to be half caught up into generality already. The stage cries aloud its mission to represent the Act in Eternity […] The theatre longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. (CPWT 658) Wilder’s preference for drama was even more pronounced in a later article, “Preface to Three Plays.” Not only did he declare that “the theatre was the greatest of all the arts,” but he explained the reason for preferring drama to novel in writing allegorical narrative: As an artist (or listener or beholder) which “truth” do you prefer – that of the isolated occasion, or that which includes and resumes the innumerable? Which truth is more worth telling? Every age differs in this. Is the Venus de Milo “one woman”? Is the play Macbeth the story of “one destiny”? The theater is admira- bly fitted to tell both truths. It has one foot planted firmly in the particular, since each actor before us (even when he wears a mask!) is...

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