Condé’s 1986 novel
I, Tituba, Black Witch
is one of a number of
concerns the events of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Condé combines this
historical background with elements of magic realism, in a revealing, first-person
narrative, that explores issues such as feminism, slavery, religion, and race.
What stands as the most interesting feature of the novel is the interaction of
this content with its postmodern form and style. This essay shall explore the
ways in which
I, Tituba, Black Witch of
can be considered
through the characterisation, the interaction with and use of history, and
through the blending of fact and fiction into something that defies genre
conventions and questions the nature of reality.
An important way in which
Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
(abbreviated from now on to:
can be read as postmodern is
through the use of
characters from other texts. Condé transplants Hester, from Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s 1850 novel
The Scarlet Letter,
into her text, and has her
interacting with Tituba. This technique is metafictional in the way that it
draws attention to the constructed nature of the text as fiction. Condé also
transplants a large amount of characters from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play
, such as Tituba, Samuel Parris, Sarah Good, Abigail Williams and
Ann Putnam. This intertextuality not only draws attention to the construction
of Condé’s work, but to the constructed nature of
and Hawthorne’s fictions.
However, only a certain amount
from Miller, since Condé is putting real
historical figures into her text. The names Tituba, Samuel Parris, Sarah Good,
Abigail Williams etc. all belonged to real people who were involved in the
Salem witch trials of 1692; Tituba
was even recorded
as having a husband named John (
, 1996, p.
xxi). Condé uses extracts from the transcript of the ‘real’ Salem witch trials,
in chapter three of part two, also known as “The Deposition of Tituba Indian”.
This shows an interaction and intertwining of history and fiction, as these
factual words fit in amongst the plot events of Condé’s novel. However, Condé
censors the date used at the beginning of the first chapter, where Tituba
describes her conception, “one day in the year 16**” (1986, p. 3). What is
particularly interesting about this is that readers
the century in which Tituba was conceived, to give a feeling for the sort of
historical background that is used to frame the narrative, but the specifics
are left out, possibly to allow for historical inaccuracies and distance her
characters from the ‘real’ events. In addition, this also acknowledges that
about the figure of Tituba that Condé
adapts. Elaine G.
states that with regards to
Tituba, the “Salem records provide very sparse details” (1996, p. xix), and so
in terms of the grand narrative of the Salem witch trials, Tituba plays a very
small part. Condé’s novel is postmodern in the way grand narratives are
treated. Jean François
stated that the “grand
narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it
uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of
emancipation” (1984, p. 37).
acknowledges the inadequacies of history to properly document this key figure
in the Salem witch trials, and by extension, highlights the inadequacies of
with regards to
Understanding the historical
is the key to recognize
Condé’s postmodernism. The character
could be read
Condé’s re-contextualization of a historical figure, putting her in a
contemporary time and place, but giving her dialogue and thoughts suited to a
different period in time. This
can be seen
Tituba’s sexual understanding and her liberal attitudes towards sex at the
beginning of the novel, which can be considered a very modern, feminist
viewpoint. Tituba acknowledges that she only wants John Indian for sex; she
“I knew all too well where his main asset lay” (Condé,
1986, p. 19). Also, Tituba is aware of her own body and what gives her
pleasure; in a masturbatory scene which may seem out of place, Tituba not only
locates her “pudenda” but uses it until she “gushed a tidal wave that flooded
[her] thighs” (Condé, 1986, p. 15). Tituba’s sexual exploration and
self-awareness ruins the reader’s suspension of disbelief and clashes with
their previous expectations of what historical fiction is.
postmodern to the extent that it takes someone left out from certain grand
narratives, because of their race, gender and culture, and gives them a voice.
It is surprising to get the inner thoughts of a historically oppressed figure,
but also surprising to get such intimate thoughts that are unrelated to their
oppression. Condé is quite literally giving Tituba a voice through her use of
first person narrative. Perhaps Tituba
is being re-written
as a way of giving this
underrepresented person from history the feminism she desperately needed.
Regarding grand narratives, it is
important to note how the Puritan characters in
“Condé regards her depiction of Tituba as a
fantasy, but takes quite seriously her depictions of the Puritans that makes a
reclamation of Tituba an urgent artistic and political choice” (2009, p. 413).
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that Condé’s choice of Tituba as subject,
and her particular representation, is highly political.
Condé’s Puritans are not entirely free from politicised alterations. While most
of Condé’s Puritans seem to behave in a manner appropriate to the time in which
the novel is set, our first impression of Elizabeth Parris is somewhat
different. Elizabeth talks openly about her sex life and her menstruation,
stating that her husband “takes me without removing either his clothes or mine,
so hurried is he to finish with the hateful act” (Condé, 1986, p. 42).
Elizabeth’s character is only partially ‘believable’ in this sense, since our
modern perception of Puritan women from the 17
century is one of
modesty and restraint. In addition to being open with a woman of a different
race and class, Elizabeth is also surprisingly self-aware of the attitudes she
and the other Puritans possess, since she stopped talking ‘as if she had said
too much’ (Condé, 1986, p. 38). She says too much for other Puritans and too
much to suspend disbelief. It could be argued that the text exhibits here what
calls second order simulation, where something
“masks and perverts a basic reality” (1988, p. 423).
However, how possible is it
to truly know
what the Puritans and Tituba would have been
like? How far can we assume the plausibility of character from over 300 years
ago, and how
could it possibly be known
would have thought? Postmodernism suggests that the nature of reality is
questionable because the difference in individual experience means
that there are no universal experiences, and thus, no way in which
to represent anything considered a universal experience
. By extension,
it means that one person cannot fully understand the experiences and viewpoint
of another person. So it is futile to attempt to understand the characters in
as historically (in
or ‘of their time,’
because they are not only historical figures, but Condé’s fictional creation.
Condé could even be highlighting the problematic nature of attempting to
understand reality by the confines of cause and effect, reality and fantasy.
What real obligation is there for Condé to make her characters historically
accurate, other than conforming to genre conventions?
Another way of reading Condé’s
character is as though she is one of many possible versions of Tituba,
simultaneously existing in the realm of fiction with other
Since the historical
records are so lacking in certainties for her, there may be an acknowledgement
that since people now will never know what the ‘real’ Tituba was like, that
fictional appropriations are the most suitable way in which to understand her.
Arguably, the particular Tituba that is found in
, one who exhibits and questions a lot of 20
century feminist ideas, is not supposed to represent the final word on the
‘real’ Tituba, or be the
If Condé’s Tituba is one of many, then attention is drawn to the construction
of this character, and thus to her being fictitious, which brings us to
metafiction. The suspension of disbelief in
is shattered early in the novel with many characters speaking and acting as if
they exist in a different
than the one
Condé appears to present. Despite the recognisable historical background,
Condé’s characterisation and narrative style highlight what Patricia Waugh
considers the most fundamental aspect of metafiction, that “composing a novel
is basically no different from composing or constructing one’s ‘reality’”
(Waugh, 2002, p. 243). This aspect of the novel is postmodern because of what
it suggests about the nature of reality. Exploring one of many possible
versions of one person suggests that ‘reality’ cannot be fully understood since
no experience of it is universal, reality is subjective, and thus there is
possibly no such thing as ‘reality’. Condé’s Tituba is as ‘real’ as Miller’s
Tituba, or the historical Tituba.
is less about considering which version of Tituba is most ‘real’ and accepting
that all of them are creations, even the historical Tituba, who has been formed
in our minds by (an absence of) historical records from the time, and framed by
the societal attitudes she faced and that we use. To re-visit
: “It is no longer a question of false
representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no
longer real” (1988, p. 424).
In fact, it is because Condé gives
her novel a historical background that we can consider it especially
interesting as a postmodernist text. There are arguments that suggest that
Condé is applying pastiche to her representation of Tituba. Pastiche is an
important technique in postmodern art, found
not only in
literature, but architecture, sculpture and photography
argues that the work “illustrates significant
problems in such appropriations of history for particular purpose or artistic
aims” (2009, p. 413). It is certainly true that the character of Tituba problematizes
the idea of appropriation for political purposes – in
this case, feminist – due to her displacement in time. Condé creates a
deliberately jarring disparity between the setting of the novel and a select
few of the characters. This not only draws attention to the text’s fictional
is ridiculing the idea of giving late 20
century feminism to an historical figure alive more than 300 years prior; it is
more satire, or parody, than pastiche.
may be referring directly to
which appropriates the Salem witch trial narrative
critiquing McCarthyism. There is a certain irony and
knowingness in Condé’s representation of Tituba; we, the readers know she is a
character and not ‘real’ (unlike Miller’s representation), Condé knows she is
not real, and the character Tituba is very aware of her feelings and actions,
that may suggest she is in on the joke too. In addition, Condé is refusing to
conform to the boundaries of what most readers consider to be historical fiction,
in which we would assume characters that are based on real people would act as
we suspect people of that time would, or were at most ‘ahead of their time.’
Nonetheless, while Condé is using this appropriation to highlight the problems
in such a technique, she is still using it. The feminism of
may create dissonance within the
text, but whatever Condé’s intentions
still asking questions about feminism and bringing it to a certain readership.
has been appropriated
purposes of highlighting the flaws in appropriation, which is postmodern in its
, it is not only historical figures that Condé
appropriates. Her postmodern reference to Hester from
The Scarlet Letter
similar to her use of Tituba. Hester is a feminist figure in
feels that “life is too kind to men, whatever their
(Condé, 1986, p. 100) and she recognises the hypocrisy of her situation since
“the man who put this child in my [her] womb is free to come and go as he
pleases” (Condé, 1986, p. 97). Hester’s feminism transplants her outside of her
historical and social context, into some place more modern, much like Tituba.
Hester even uses the word “feminist” (Condé, 1986, p. 101) around 1692 in the
chronology of the text, but ‘feminism’ was coined over 100 years later, in
century. In fact,
the term ‘feminist’, meaning an advocate of women’s rights, only existed from
Hester is partially a point of
comparison for Tituba. Condé could be using the interactions between these two
characters to demonstrate that modern feminism is conflicted on some issues.
Tituba is aware that Hester disagrees with her opinion of relationships, since
she avoids talking about John Indian because she ‘knew only too well what she
would say, and… wouldn’t be able to stand it’ (Condé, 1986, pp. 100-101).
, Hester is used to reveal further intertextuality,
since it could be argued that Condé is likening Hester towards Charlotte
Perkins Gilman, when she says that she would like to write a book “where I’d
describe a model society governed and run by women” (Condé, 1986, p. 101), a
passing reference to
, there is humour in Condé’s Hester, when Tituba
addresses her as mistress Hester says “don’t call me mistress” (Condé, 1986, p.
95). There is dramatic irony in that the reader knows Tituba would address an
authority figure as mistress, but that Hester would know it to mean a woman,
like herself, that was part of an extramarital affair. Hester, in Condé’s novel,
with a self-awareness that can be described
as postmodern, relying on Hester being characters in more than one piece of
Ultimately, the most postmodern
aspect of the characters of Hester and Tituba is that they receive the same
treatment by Condé, despite one being ‘real’, and the other ‘fictional’.
Interestingly, Hester has a ‘real’ past in the form of
The Scarlet Letter
shapes her future in a different text, and yet the more historical Tituba has a
or at least uncertain past,
shaped by her treatment (or the lack thereof) by grand narratives. What this
achieves is a blurring between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fictional’ in such a
way as to question the nature of reality. Condé does not preserve Hawthorne’s
representation of Hester, though they have a lot in common. It is the
simultaneous presence of the fictional and ‘historical’ pasts of Condé’s
characters that provokes questions about what we
. There is the argument that neither has any reality, only it
is perhaps more legitimate for Condé to appropriate Hester for her own
purposes, for she only ever existed in fiction. Unlike with Tituba, she
cannot be accused
of trying to re-write history, by
appropriating figures from the past for her own political purposes.
postmodernist thought suggests that her Tituba can be
one of many. Condé is not trying to change any ‘real’ Tituba, for that Tituba
never truly existed. Arguably,
simulation. Considering whether
of a basic reality” or “bears no
relation to any reality whatever: it is its own simulacrum” (
, 1988, p. 423), there are arguments for either
side. For the former, the absence of a basic reality can relate to the absence
of a reality for the ‘real’ Tituba, which Condé fills with her particular
feminist creation. And there is strong evidence to suggest that this creation
is a simulacrum which bears no relation to any reality, since
is such a bricolage of fictional characters, historical figures, genres
(magical realism, historical fiction, satire etc.), different ideologies and
cultures, not tied down to their particular context, that there is no reality
it could possibly be based on.
Finally, as a counterpoint to this
could be argued
making a clear distinction between
‘real’ and ‘fictional’. Her character of Tituba
can be read
as a humorous take on what the ‘real’ Tituba could never have been, by
exaggerating her feminist tendencies. In addition, Tituba’s magical powers
could be used
in an argument against any ‘reality’ in the
text. Though a lot of Tituba’s magic is implied, readers get the sense that she
makes Susanna Endicott ill with her powers (“an inconvenient and humiliating
sickness? Which one would I choose?” [Condé, 1986, p. 30]), and uses animal
sacrifices to conjure the spirits of Mama Yaya and
While I feel this argument is significantly weaker than any argument that
suggests that Condé is questioning the nature of reality, it
that this is one of many possible readings.
I, Tituba, Black
Witch of Salem
can be considered postmodern because it is an example of
metafiction, it uses intertextuality, it plays with genre conventions, it
interacts with history, it questions history and its grand narratives and
especially because it questions the nature of reality.
I, Tituba, Black
Witch of Salem
allows for multiple interpretations, and when applied, these
interpretations are paradoxical. Condé’s novel can be read as either
, or 4
can be taken
seriously, or as a parody.
It should be re-read because it demands that we as readers think about the
nature of fiction and history’s use of narratives, as well as how people,
images, and stories
can be appropriated
purposes. Through challenging the perceived difference between ‘historical’ and
‘fictional’ narratives, this novel makes us think
history’s treatment of oppressed groups.
, J. (1988) ‘Simulacra and
Simulations’, in Lodge, D., and Wood, N. (ed.)
Modern Literary Theory and Criticism: A Reader
. New York: Longman, pp. 423-430.
, E. G. (1996)
Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies
. New York: New York
Condé, M. (1992)
I, Tituba, Black
Witch of Salem
. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hawthorne, N. (1991)
. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press.
, Z. (2009) ‘Historical Fiction and
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
African American Review,
, J. F. (1984)
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
. Minnesota: University
of Minnesota Press.
Miller, A. (1981).
Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Waugh, P. N. (2002) ‘Metafiction’, in
Nicol, B. (ed.)
Postmodernism and the
Contemporary Novel: A Reader
. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.
. This article
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International Licence (CC BY).