Saturday, April 4, 2009


There's a character in Suttree who lives in an old home near the river and watches from an upper window so that he can call down "a dull mutter of invective and sullen oaths" on Suttree and whoever else walks from the river to Knoxville proper via a garden shortcut. He's crippled, reportedly a former reverend, and has been castrated by his own hand—"Trimmed himself. With a razor. Just sliced em off," according to one character.

After a long absence from his shantyboat during which he takes up with a prostitute named Joyce, Suttree returns to his former digs, and he hears the old man as he passes by his house:
Ah he's back, God spare his blackened soul, another hero home from the whores. Come to cool his heels in the river with the rest of the sewage. Sunday means nothing to him. Infidel. Back for the fishing are ye? God himself dont look too close at what lies on that river bottom. Fit enough for the likes of you. Ay. He knows it's Sunday for he's drunker than normal. It'll take more than helping old blind men cross the street to save you from the hell you'll soon inhabit.
Near the end of the novel, McCarthy refers to this man as "old broken Thersites." I didn't know what that meant, so I looked it up. Thersites, it turns out, is a minor character in the Iliad who criticizes Agamemnon and Achilles. I came across this interesting passage from literary critic Kenneth Burke, who sees in Thersites a literary strategy that McCarthy is clearly employing through this "crazy reverend":
If an audience is likely to feel that it is being crowded into a position, if there is any likelihood that the requirements of dramatic "efficiency" would lead to the blunt ignoring of a possible protest from at least some significant portion of the onlookers, the author must get this objection stated in the work itself. But the objection should be voiced in a way that in the same breath disposes of it. 
A perfect example of this stratagem is the role of Thersites in The Iliad. For any Greeks who were likely to resent the stupidity of the Trojan War, the text itself provided a spokesman who voiced their resistance. And he was none other than the abominable Thersites, for whom no "right-minded" member of the Greek audience was likely to feel sympathy.
McCarthy has the "eunuch" inveigh against Suttree and criticize him in the most moralistically religious terms, but in putting this vicious critique in the mouth of such a despicable and pathetic character, he undercuts that criticism and suggests that it misses the point.

Anyway, I thought the idea of Thersites was interesting—the idea of an author bringing in a voice or a perspective that needs to be acknowledged but that the author also wants to undercut. (I suppose this idea is also related to Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia—the novel as a site for a variety of competing voices.) 

Can you think of any other examples of Thersitism?


Anonymous said...

Joyce (James Joyce, not Suttree's prostitute) employs dueling narrators in book 12 of Ulysses, narrators whom my grad school professor identified as a thersitic first-person narrator at odds with the epic third-person voice. I don't remember that chapter well enough to be able to say what part of the reader's objections to the epic this Thersites might embody, but I believe that he finally chases (or is party to chasing) our hero from a bar amidst a hail of anti-Semitic rhetoric hurled with Polyphemic fury.

framiko said...

Great example. Thanks!