Janet Bertsch. Storytelling in the Works of Bunyan, Grimmelshausen, Defoe, and Schnabel. Rochester: Camden House, 2004.  152pp. ISBN 1 5711 3299 6.

Gerd Bayer
Erlangen University (Germany)

Gerd Bayer. "Review of Janet Bertsch, Storytelling in the Works of Bunyan, Grimmelshausen, Defoe, and Schnabel." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/baybert.htm>.

  1. In her short religious essay on redemption, Janet Bertsch analyzes the role of storytelling in a number of early modern prose texts. Despite what the title seems to imply, Bertsch’s monograph is not so much concerned with narratological aspects of the works she discusses; in fact, narrative theory remains as absent from her argument as does the criticism on early modern prose writing. What holds together her chapters on the four rather distinct writers mentioned in her title is rather a prolonged interest in the role that storytelling plays in the various texts she discusses as a means of enlightening readers about the appropriate way of applying the Bible to their lives. At a time when post-structuralism questions the very stability of the linguistic sign and the elusiveness of différance, a notion at best admitted indirectly in this book (84, 135), Bertsch holds on to the essential universality of the divine revelation (et verbum erat deum) and presents some of the most influential early modern prose narratives as examples of Christian conversion experiences.

  2. Focusing both on figures in the text that function as intradiegetic readers and on actual, real-world readers, this monograph discusses the community of readers as a congregation in search of redemption. This process relies on “the proper way of reading and using language exercised by a member of the elect” (16), a process that Bertsch describes, with reference to Martin Luther, as “universal and eternal” (17) and which she presents as, apparently, untouched by the vagaries of translation. The discussion of the “emotional bond between the receptive listener and the narrator” (35) might have benefitted from being framed in the language of, say, reader response criticism or Bakhtinian dialogics: Bertsch’s study, however, presents its analyses quite unperturbed by existing critical traditions, causing her, at times, to make odd claims. For instance, in her treatment of the consequences of Christian’s conversion in The Pilgrim’s Progress, she confuses diegetic levels by claiming that while the protagonist has in fact truly entered the Celestial City, both real readers and Bunyan as the author are left (intradiegetically?) outside the gates (41), assuming that they have not yet been fully converted. Bertsch’s belief that Bunyan’s text still has the power, in the twenty-first century, to “convert” should be applauded (41); how many Bunyan readers are touched by the text in such a manner must, however, remain speculation.

  3. The strength of this book lies in those sections where the author offers close readings of passages from the primary texts. For instance, when discussing the rhetorical and stylistic devices employed in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bertsch argues that Bunyan presents the “lack of coherence” in the stories told by unbelievers as “grave signs of their inability to progress along the path of salvation” (29). Her reading of storytelling thus presents different narrative strategies as allegories of religious insight. At the same time, Christian’s increasing understanding of Scripture relates directly to his growing ability to narrate his own conversion experience, thus following a process that, in the first chapter of this study, is compared to Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Religious conversion is repeatedly shown to derive directly from “pious conversation” (34) aimed at a listener. Explaining the significance of this device to modern readers, Bertsch shows “how important it is for believers to share and compare their stories in order to make sure they are not incomplete or heretical” (34). While theoretical approaches like Hayden White’s notion of emplotment or trauma theory’s understanding of truthfulness in the stories of victims might sit oddly next to this approach based in biblical exegesis, Bertsch brings out a number of similar textual markers in the works she analyzes.

  4. It is not only literary critics interested in the recent developments within theory who may at times become impatient with this book’s willful disregard for any of the established theoretical directions in favour of an under-theorized notion of readerly community in search of a religious experience: Bertsch’s frequently expressed opinion that communal story-telling could replace the reading of the Bible might be equally unwelcome to orthodox Christian readers (for instance 44, 56, 72, 107). The description of the protagonist in Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus as “godlike” narrator seems to transcend the need for biblical reading (67). Along similar lines, the discussion of Defoe and Schnabel presents their fictions as moving beyond an allegorical engagement with the Bible; instead, they use realism as a means of adapting the Scriptural teachings to a reality that nevertheless remains under direct divine guidance. Schnabel’s text in particular is described as a replacement of the Old Testament that applies “language in a direct, honest and utilitarian way” (120). At the beginning of this utopian novel, the protagonists also have to undergo a conversion experience that enables them to accept divine guidance. Empowered by this enlightened state, they form communities of story-tellers that are freed from sin. Following this model, Bertsch argues, actual readers should form similar groups as a means of benefiting from the moral teachings of Schnabel’s work (130). While thus presenting early modern prose narratives as guide books for religious conversion, Bertsch carefully differentiates between Protestant and Catholic notions of sin and redemption that lead to literary representations that are quite diverse, following the faith of their authors (52); Catholicism’s notion of redemption is clearly presented as an undesirable option (104). One section of the book that sets out to move beyond this biblico-centric reading is the conclusion, where the author discusses, albeit rather cursorily, the generic instability of early modern prose narratives as a possible reason for the relative lack of coherent narrative strategies as well as for the frequent allusion within the works to their own poetic process and the resulting need to address the reader directly, be that through paratextual address or intradiegetic readers that advise the actual readers about the desired interpretation.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).