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Our Fanatics: Figurations of Religious Fanaticism in Ian McEwan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Marilynne Robinson


Our Fanatics: Figurations of Religious Fanaticism in Ian McEwan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Marilynne Robinson examines how three contemporary novelists complicate oft-repeated accounts that oppose religious fanaticism to reasoned argumentation and secular politics. My dissertation features novels that focus intently on the interiority of protagonists who encounter figures of religious fanaticism, portraying religious fanaticism as something to be negotiated rather than defended against. By analyzing twenty-first century novels that variously figure religious fanaticism in oppositional, paradoxical, and genealogical terms, this project examines how religious fanaticism is constitutive of—rather than external to—the worlds of these novels.

The first chapter reaches back to Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1998), comparing it to his 9/11 novel, Saturday (2005), and, more recently, The Children Act (2014). I argue McEwan’s novels frame religious fanaticism as a form of irrational certainty that generates epistemological uncertainty for the novels’ protagonists. These texts frustrate a simple triumphant narrative whereby secular rationalism prevails over religious fanaticism. More recently, however, McEwan’s fiction resolves such tensions with increasing authority, gradually eliminating the experimental dimensions of McEwan’s early work. Chapter two features Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (2003), which develops an apparently paradoxical religious fanatic— politically admirable but privately violent. I investigate this paradox by analyzing the novel’s cyclical plot, which echoes the Catholic liturgical calendar and which distinguishes it from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), a comparison that has dominated Adichie’s critical reception. The third chapter reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy—Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014)—as an extended meditation on the lingering effects of religious fanaticism across the generations of a small mid-Western town. The trilogy’s genealogical figuration of religious fanaticism ties abolitionism to civil rights activism, delivering a resounding critique of “mainline” Protestant disavowals of such fanaticism.

The religious fanatics that appear across this dissertation cannot be described in any easy sense as “ours.” My title draws attention to the smaller, subtler way that these novels approach religious fanaticism through intimate relationships and private spaces, positioning religious fanaticism as internal to communities, to families, and, particularly in Adichie and Robinson, to Christian traditions.

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