Dionysos and Vlepo: Picaresque Partners

Though as a class we are continuing forward on our journey through Percival Everett’s works and are currently reading I am Not Sidney Poitier, we are still thinkING about the first work we read by Everett: Frenzy. This thinking is in part a necessity since we are to complete a rewrite of our first Frenzy essay by mid-November. However, even when the rewrite of this essay is completed, I believe we will all find ourselves, at one point or another, thinking back to Frenzy. Our reading of Frenzy has impacted us as readers insofar as that it taught us how we should read and why this kind of reading is important.

In class today we were deliberately asked to think back to Frenzy and contemplate its status as a picaresque novel. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines a picaresque novel as “a novel that realistically recounts the adventures of a carefree but engaging rascal who always manages to escape by the skin of his or her teeth” (Murfin and Ray, 382). It further stipulates that the picaresque novel be episodic and that these “episodes” feature a consistent central character who is typically the first-person narrator of the novel. Furthermore, picaresque “heroes”, or picaros, represent static characters since they do not learn or grow as a result of their episodic tribulations. Finally, picaresque novels usually convey some kind of satire. This satire often takes form as a “punch-up” to the class system, being that the narrator usually comes from a low social class.

With this definition in mind, it is clear that Frenzy embodies a picaresque novel, though the grounds on how it does so are murky since no one character possesses all the requisite traits outlined by the Bedford. We see the “carefree but engaging rascal” take shape in the god, Dionysos, whose lackadaisical yet charismatic nature garners him throngs of followers but gets him into trouble with nonbelievers, like Pentheus and Kadmos, who feel threatened by his wit and apathy. Furthermore, Dionysos is static throughout Frenzy, though it is arguable that he perhaps wishes that this were not the case. Despite Dionysos’ efforts to understand human emotion and experience it himself, Dionysos is ultimately unable to do so by the novel’s end.

However, Dionysos’ character does not cement Frenzy‘s status as a picaresque novel, since there are many ways in which Dionysos fails to satisfy the Bedford’s definition. First, Dionysos is not the narrator of Frenzy, in fact, his thoughts, feelings, and motivations are all opaque to us as readers and perhaps to Dionysos himself. Second, Dionysos does not come from a low social class. Instead, he exists at the arguable pinnacle of the Ancient Greek class system, being that he is a god and is able to induce obedience and adoration in his worshippers.

Finally, Dionysos cannot be the complete “picaro” of Frenzy because he does not escape the novel alive, as he is killed by his mortal servant, Vlepo. However, it is important to note that Dionysos does have some picaresque escapes. For example, Dionysos narrowly escapes the wrath of the Edonians as depicted on page 134 of Frenzy where Dionysos slithers away into the sea whilst his Maenads are slain.

Vlepo represents the aspects of a “picaro” that Dionysos fails to. Vlepo is the first-person narrator of Frenzy who is consistently sent inside various objects and people by his divine master, Dionysos. Vlepo’s experiences inside these objects can be considered episodic, as the scenery and characters Vlepo observes are varied and distinct. It is also worth noting that Vlepo satisfies the role of a “picaro” in that he appears in every scene in Frenzy, whether as a character taking part in the action or as an observer.

Additionally, Vlepo allows Frenzy to weave satire into its narrative, as Vlepo represents a member of a lower class, being that he is the servant of Dionysos. As Dionysos’ servant, Vlepo is often ripped from his reality and hurtled inside different objects so that he may gather information useful to Dionysos.  Vlepo is sent on these “quests” against his consent and is frequently pained by what he observes.

.Frenzy “punches up” at authority figures, as is displayed by Dionysos’ dependence on Vlepo. While Dionysos controls what Vlepo sees by placing him in different objects, Dionysos is controlled by how Vlepo sees. Dionysos relies upon Vlepo’s perceptions of the situations Dionysos thrusts him into. Without Vlepo, Dionysos would be blind to understanding the desires, emotions, and motivations of both his worshippers and his enemies. This satirizes the idea that a god, or any authority figure, is all-knowing and all-powerful.

However, Vlepo on his own cannot grant Frenzy status as a picaresque novel for he does not exemplify the same roguish-ness that Dionysos does. Where Dionysos lives without care, Vlepo’s essence is comprised of caring. Vlepo’s purpose is to serve as an empathetic channel for both Dionysos and the reader.

Therefore, Frenzy cannot be regarded as a picaresque novel without the existence of both Dionysos and Vlepo, as they represent complementary aspects of the Bedford’s definition. Without Vlepo, Frenzy is unable to express its satire and loses its episodic nature. Without Dionysos, there is no charming but careless rogue to amuse us throughout the story. In conversation with Euripides’ The Bacchae, we as readers can see that it is through the addition of Vlepo that Everett is able to take The Bacchae, an Ancient Greek origin story, and transform it into a picaresque novel rife with effective and maybe even unexpected social satire.

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