Light in the Blood and The Language of Freedom: Narrative Form in E. L. Doctorow

  • Nicholas Murgatroyd

Student thesis: Phd


Light in the Blood uses Ovid's Metamorphoses as a starting point for a novel that features change, imagination and horror, and which, like Ovid's original work, incorporates elements of several genres. Set in modern day Constanța in Romania, where Ovid was exiled by Augustus, it follows the experiences of five authors who are on retreat near the city and preparing for a debate on Ovid's legacy. A storm at the beginning of the novel releases mysterious energies, after which a giant cockroach begins to haunt one of the writers, two of the writers are brought together as lovers who unknowingly re-enact versions of Ovid's most famous love stories, and Ted Nowakow, the most famous of the authors, mutates into a wererhino. In his transformed state, Ted suffers from fugues in which the more savage side of his nature takes control. The first murder he commits in this fugue state prompts the police to come to the retreat, but they seem powerless to prevent further murders and are unwilling to believe that there could be a monster loose in the forest surrounding the retreat. As the novel progresses, the remaining authors begin to fear that something is hunting them down, and it becomes a question of which one of them will survive. Despite the novel's several fantastical elements, it is deliberately located within a realistic world because part of my interest lies in exploring the relationship between reality, language and imagination, in the framework of both the late postmodern era of hyperreality and celebrity culture and the legacy of the Cold War. Although the novel features writers as its central characters, through the use of Ovidian echoes and motifs I hope to move it away from a simple consideration of the fate of fiction/writing in the twenty-first century and towards a renewed awareness of the power of creativity and the imagination, and its close relation to terror.The Language of Freedom: Narrative Form in E. L. Doctorow examines how Doctorow uses narrative form to subvert the discourse of what Raymond Williams terms 'the dominant culture'. Moving beyond both the categorisation of Doctorow as a Leftist writer and the critical focus on his treatment of history, I consider the way in which his work resists monological representations of reality and instead promotes fiction as a democratic arena in which the novelist remains free to present alternative readings to those of the dominant culture. An integral part of this study is an examination of Doctorow's potential intertextual relation to Herman Melville and the legacy of American Democratic Idealism. My first chapter focuses on encyclopaedic narrative forms in The Book of Daniel and City of God. It includes a survey of the main theorists on encyclopaedic literature and a study of how Doctorow's novels fulfil the categories they identify, but attempts to move beyond some of their critical strictures to consider how Doctorow's use of this form destabilises claims to total knowledge on the part of the government and other institutions. My second chapter considers Doctorow's use of genre fiction models in Billy Bathgate and The Waterworks. I argue that these two books represent a return to genre writing that was inspired by Doctorow's frustration with trying to write political fiction in the late Cold-War era. The chapter investigates the novels' submerged political content and examines how they can be read as critiques of the Reagan and Bush Sr administrations, as well as meditations on the nature of democracy in the United States and of the role of the political writer within it. Throughout both chapters I make extensive use of E. L. Doctorow's newly available archive in order to offer insights into the thinking behind the novels.
Date of Award31 Dec 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorIan Mcguire (Supervisor) & Maria Hyland (Supervisor)


  • doctorow
  • melville
  • encyclopaedic narrative
  • genre
  • reagan

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