Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Theroux has written in the Author's Note to My Secret History the following disclaimer: "Although some of the events and places depicted in this novel bear a similarity to those in my own life, the characters all strolled out of my imagination." Despite this statement, Andre Parent has a surprisingly...

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Theroux has written in the Author's Note to My Secret History the following disclaimer: "Although some of the events and places depicted in this novel bear a similarity to those in my own life, the characters all strolled out of my imagination." Despite this statement, Andre Parent has a surprisingly large number of parallels to Theroux: both were brought up as Catholics in Massachusetts, both went to Nyasland (Malawi) as Peace Corps volunteers, both married British women, became successful writers, and eventually set up dual households in the United States and in Britain.

Like Saul Bellow in Humboldt's Gift (1975), and John Irving in The World According to Garp (1978), Theroux is writing in the semi-autobiographical fictional tradition. Although this method is widely acknowledged, Theroux's disclaimer hints at his discomfort with personal revelations.

Another literary influence on My Secret History is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) and his treatment of the theme of the foreign exploitation of undeveloped countries. The character of Rockwell, for example, illustrates the tendency of foreigners to reshape an existing culture, to "improve" it, without considering the effects on the people. Rockwell, a Peace Corps worker, demonstrates his social insensitivity by creating an elaborate latrine for the African school based upon the architecture of the Alamo, while Andre's desire for unlimited and guiltless sex leads him to exploit local women.

The character of Andre has literary precedents at various stages in his life. The young Andre is reminiscent of James Joyce's character Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1916). Both Andre and Stephen are constantly oppressed by the consciousness of guilt because of a Catholic upbringing. At fifteen, Andre is reminiscent of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (1951): full of anger, rebellion, and indignation. For instance, Andre enjoys shocking people by declaring that he is a Communist.

Finally, as a man with two lives, Andre resembles the anonymous author of the Victorian novel, My Secret Life (1890). In My Secret Life the author recounts his rebellion against Victorian sexual repression; ostensibly he acts normally, but secretly he indulges in sexual exploits that are excessive and perverse. Although Andre is living in America during the 1950s, his statement that "everything enjoyable made me feel guilty" strongly connects him with the repressive lifestyle of the Victorians. Ultimately Andre, like the author of My Secret Life, escapes, not by abandoning what he considers sinful, but by living a dual existence.

Interestingly, in Riding the Iron Rooster (1988), Theroux mentions reading a Chinese novel, Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus), similar to My Secret Life in that it was banned due to its eroticism. Theroux explains that he marveled at its blend of "manners, delicacy and smut" and suggests that if the Chinese were allowed to read the book, "they would discover a great deal about themselves": that what a society chooses to hide can be very revealing.

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