Sum of the Parts: The Trilogy in McCarthy, Roth, and Morrison

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This dissertation examines the function of the trilogy form in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Philip Roth's American Trilogy, and Toni Morrison's Love Trilogy. The Border Trilogy is comprised of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain; the American Trilogy is comprised of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; and the Love Trilogy is comprised of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Written in the waning years of the twentieth century, McCarthy's, Roth's, and Morrison's use of the trilogy ran counter to the formal practices of postmodern fiction and to the ideological predilections of contemporary criticism. They used the trilogy form to apprehend an extensive history out of the rubble of postmodernism, which often militated against such large-scale attempts at representation. What the three authors end up producing are contemporary versions of grand narratives, appropriate for the end of the twentieth century: individual novels that are discrete, localized, and contained within themselves, but also epic cultural geographies whose breadth exceeds the limits of the single novels. Taken as a whole, the three books in each trilogy demonstrate that history must be diversely narrated and the storytelling structures that constitute that history should be shuffled, alternated, and changed up as necessary. No one single novel is sufficient to the task of encapsulating that multiplicity of narrative approaches--not even literary monoliths like Beloved or American Pastoral. The three novels in each trilogy must be read together in order to comprehend the narrative largess of late twentieth century American history.

To paraphrase Hayden White, the authors in this study use the trilogy form in order to investigate how histories get invented, not found. McCarthy, Roth, and Morrison deploy the trilogy to configure--to invent--this history as a problem of scale, identifying coordinates and providing a way to cognitively map the past so that we gain a sense of its totality, to use Frederic Jameson's word. Once we can apprehend the totality of he past, we can begin to make sense of it.