0 13 2011

Oral History and Revenge in Annie Proulx's "The Half-Skinned Steer"

Ellen Boyd


Stories are the recordings of history and serve as reminders of personal and cultural struggle. In The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition, Gisli Sigurdsson writes that before the development of written language, oral history "became a kind of knowledge bank" (57) in which stories of success, as well as those of tragedy, were retold to subsequent generations. A study conducted by Daniel Bertaux and Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame concludes that "earlier generations may very well determine the shape of the trajectories of future genera¬≠tions through what it passes on to them [. . .] for the purpose of generating foreseeable conduct" (87). While this study provides evidence that positive behaviours may be transmitted to descendents, it also implies that destructive acts may be channelled through history and generate foreseeable negative conduct. The pain of struggle, revenge, and retaliation arises from behaviours which may be perpetuated across many generations; often the original source of the feud is forgotten, yet a desire for vengeance persists.

The originating concept for Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx's story "The Half-Skinned Steer" is, as the author notes, "based on an old Icelandic folktale, 'Porgeir's Bull'" (Proulx 10). Proulx's reconfiguration of the themes of revenge within this tale demonstrate how 'old' thinking can slow progress and resurrect long-forgotten grievances. In "The Half-Skinned Steer", the author relocates and remodulates the traditional folk tale to address particular issues and behaviours - work ethic, diet and vengeance - within the setting of the contemporary American West. This article will examine the ways in which Proulx reconfigures the Icelandic folktale "Porgeir's Bull" to explore intersecting themes of persistence, human arrogance, and nature's revenge on man.

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ISSN 1749-9771

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