Saturday, 25 January 2020

Transfiguration of the Hero

When in Ursula Le Guin’s utopia The Dispossessed the hero Shevek embarks on a sexual partnership with the marine biologist Takver, the two of them take a room together at the northern end of the city of Abbenay: ‘The move was not complicated … Shevek brought a box of papers, his winter boots, and the orange blanket.  Takver had to make three trips.  One was to the district clothing depositary to get them both a new suit, an act which she felt obscurely but strongly was essential to them beginning their partnership’.

A similar sartorial moment befalls William Guest in News from Nowhere, on the morning after his return from old Hammond’s long lectures to him in the British Museum: ‘I dressed speedily, in a suit of blue laid ready for me, so handsome that I quite blushed when I had got into it, feeling as I did so that excited pleasure of anticipation of a holiday’.  Guest’s new clothes don’t have the happy sexual meaning of Takver and Shevek’s, but they too mark a significant new phase for him: departure from London and travel up the Thames.

In both these instances we are surely in the presence of what narratologist Vladimir Propp, in his pathbreaking book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), describes as Function XXIX: ‘THE HERO IS GIVEN A NEW APPEARANCE (Definition: transfiguration.  Designation: T)’.  Of the four variants there listed, we are in Morris and Le Guin dealing with number three: ‘The hero puts on new garments’.  That both utopias thus deliver function XXIX so neatly prompts a more general question: how useful would Proppian narratology be for the analysis both of particular utopias and of the genre of utopia itself?  Has anyone tried out a Proppian study of either The Dispossessed or News from Nowhere; and if not, why not?

1 comment:

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