Footnotes: A Common Device in 20th Century Fiction

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers (1923), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916) all utilize the device of footnotes  to bring forth a message to the readers.

Jeri Johnson, who wrote the introduction of Portrait: ” ‘Epiphany’: a word which Joyce appropriates from the lexicon of the sacred to that of the profane” (XXXVI).

Joyce, J. (1916). A portrait of the artist as a young man. (p. XXXVI). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sayers: “Lord Peter’s wits were wool-gathering. The book is in the possession of Earl Spencer” (4).

Sayers, D. (1923). Whose body?. (p. 4). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, INC.

Anand: “The Hindus do not allow a person to die in bed, but bring the dying to rest as near the earth as  possible; the idea being that from the earth we come, to earth we return.” (81).

Anand, M. R. (1935). Untouchable. (p. 81). London: Penguin Books.

Hurston: “A beating with the fist” (98).

Hurston, Z. N. (1937). Their eyes were watching god. (p. 98). New York: Harper Perennial.

The literary-historical trajectory that can be noted from these novels is that they each serve a purpose that fits the time and/or tone of the stories.  For example, Sayers’ novel is not meant to be taken seriously because it is a satirical detective story, so the footnote is consistent with the story and also meant to entertain the reader.  Joyce’s novel, although the footnote was not an original part of the story, still helps the reader understand a theme that will be seen throughout the novel.  Anand and Hurston’s stories are written later in the 20th century, and they both serve to make clarifications for the reader in terms of customs and the meanings of phrases.  The footnotes are for the most part continuous in that they are granting the reader clarifications.  However, Hurston’s novel in particular is the most controversial (a joke about violence?) and also is the novel that is published the latest.

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