The Genesis of a Good Writer

My Creative Writing instructor once commented that a student should take a class in the book of Genesis before studying any American literature. He was not being religious, in fact, he’s a Buddhist. He simply mentioned that so many authors make allusions to Genesis. These writers are not trying to slip Christianity into their work. They are merely taking advantage of a wonderful collection of literary prototypes found in a concise text.

It’s more than Paradise Lost

  • Frankenstein – God creates Adam, and the Doctor creates his Monster.
  • Billy Budd – Capt. Vere refers to Billy as one who “in the nude might have posed for the statue of young Adam before the fall.”
  • The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson – Twain set this tale in Dawson’s Landing, MO, which is supposed to be a type of Eden, or, Paradise Restored, if you will.
  • Catch-22 – speaking of Eden, the reader is supposed to understand Yosarian’s escape to Sweden as a return to the Garden of Eden.
  • A Separate Piece – Gene’s fall is typical of Adam’s fall, and subsequently, mankind’s fall. Also, the tree serves as a symbol of Gene’s, and hence, man’s sins.
  • Absalom, Absalom –Just as Cain kills his brother Abel, Henry murders his half-brother Charles Bon.
  • The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde ­– the struggle between Jekyll and Hyde also mirrors Cain and Abel.
  • East of Eden – This also plays on the on the Cain and Abel story, but inverts it, or possibly, grays some of the black-and-white of the Genesis account.
  • Moby-Dick – As Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert by Abraham’s wife, Melville’s Ishmael appears to have been sent out into the lost world of a whaler on the ocean by the society.
  • The Great Gatsby –the residential block that resembles a ladder is supposed to imitate Jacob’s ladder that expands from earth up to Heaven.

You’re Not Writing Bible School Curriculum

Just because you make some Biblical allusions does not mean you are being preachy. No one would think of Faulkner or Steinbeck as defenders of the faith. It’s just that within the book of Genesis there lies a rich and concise source of universal archetypes.

Why would we writers not avail ourselves to these? Such references can give your story a familiar hook others can latch on to. Biblical allusions add a depth to your writing, just as Classical references do (maybe I’ll blog about that sometime soon). So if anyone ever catches you rummaging through Noah or brushing up on your Abraham, and they ask, “What are you doing?” then you just tell them, “I’m trying to be a great writer!”

Do you have an opinion about this? Are there any other classic tales with references to Genesis that I left out? Let me know in the Comment section below.


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6 responses to “The Genesis of a Good Writer

  1. psjohnston

    How do I follow your blog?
    Love to have you follow me: Pat

  2. Don’t forget Hamlet, who sees his mother’s remarriage as an “unweeded garden,” and whom is told by his dead father:

    ‘’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
    A serpent stung me — so the whole ear of Denmark
    Is by a forged process of my death
    Rankly abus’d — but know, thou noble youth,
    The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
    Now wears his crown.’”

    • hey richard, good to hear from you again so soon. i didn’t think i got them all. i pulled out the ones i could remember. thanks for the hamlet reference. it is an excellent example. thanks for reading, friend.

  3. Mark

    The great bulk of western literature owes a debt to the entirety of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, not just the book of Genesis. And no need to be sheepish about acknowledging that fact. Most of the great stories are covered there, after all–love, loss, betrayal, damnation, salvation, etc. It’s the key text of our civilization.

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