Barbara Kingsolver’s Singing Shepherd: The Lacuna as Pastoral Elegy
Since the 1990s, the number of novelists of ideas writing in English who have chosen the humanistic literary tradition broadly termed pastoral as a generic and generative device has become marked. Ian McEwan (Black Dogs 1992), Philip Roth (American Pastoral 1997), J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace 1999), Pat Barker (Double Vision 2003), Amanda Lohrey (Vertigo: A Pastoral 2008), Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna 2009), Jonathan Franzen (Freedom 2010), Damon Galgut (In a Strange Room 2010), Alan Hollinghurst (The Stranger’s Child 2011), and Helen Macdonald (H. is for Hawk 2014) have each adapted this ancient mode not to indulge escapist fantasies of harmonious rural life in Tuscany but to respond to the way we live now in a time of postcoloniality, perpetual war, environmental degradation, and the displacement and destruction of human and other animal populations. While Virgil is not the only pastoral influence – Franzen’s Freedom, for example, responds directly to pastoral romance in the form of The Winter’s Tale – he is central to this literary historical dialogue. As ‘a poet of ideas’ (Davis viii), Virgil confronts, records, and remembers through the pastoral his own context of social and political upheaval. Imperialist war and the consequent displacement of shepherds like Virgil’s Meliboeus and Moeris that haunt the Eclogues persist in contemporary re-readings and are joined by the spectres of postcoloniality and environmental degradation.
In this essay I will situate Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a tradition that traces a path back to Virgil by way of two intermediary elegiac pastorals: Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel: A Story of a Buried Life (1929), and John Milton’s Lycidas (1638). The Lacuna, like these precursors, is elegiac in that it celebrates as it mourns the loss of a poet-shepherd, and in that sense echoes a lament for the loss of a way of life that is the effect of the destructive violence that is the text’s context. Kingsolver's pastoral text is part of what has become a subgenre of literary fiction – she is not alone in seeing something useful in terms of meaning-making in the mode she has chosen. Like their literary precursors, urban protagonists in the recent novels I have listed retreat to an isolated space, where they discourse on socioeconomic power politics with each other and with the more-or-less wise shepherds they encounter.
- Judith Seaboyer — Judith Seaboyer teaches Victorian and Contemporary Literature at the University of Queensland. Her current research interests are the pastoral in contemporary fiction and the pedagogy of better reading.Full details →