Vol. 18, no. 2 (2022): Stephanie Day Powell

Punching Through the Line: Reading the Book of Esther with Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”

Stephanie Day Powell, Manhattan College


Increasingly, scholars are arguing for trauma-informed methods to attend to the often-circumscribed nature of narrated grief in the Bible. To date, however, little work has addressed the transmission of biblical trauma, that is, how certain forms of suffering live on in subsequent rehearsals and continue to affectively shape us. We find evidence of such transmission in the reception history of the book of Esther. While Esther has been designated as burlesque, satirical and carnivalesque writing, it has also been characterized as a response to trauma. The application of the “strange humor” of parody, festivity, and laughter in the midst of the danger and violence recounted in Esther has typically been lauded as a subversive strategy of survival for the Jewish community. However, comic analyses have rarely included an adequate appraisal of the costs of sublimating the book’s traumatic core in this way. To trope the words of comedian Hannah Gadsby, the book of Esther’s use of comedy “freezes an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and seals it off into jokes.” Drawing on the comic philosophy of Gadsby’s stand-up performance, “Nanette,” this essay first reevaluates previous comic readings of the biblical narrative. Esther’s comedic frame, we find, is implicated both in the narrative suppression of violence directed against women in the text and in post-biblical justifications of violence directed at ethnic “others.” Second, Esther’s potential to perpetuate trauma by way of fusing anger to laughter is analyzed in light of its legacy in certain Jewish postmemories, particularly in connection with the observance of Purim. Finally, employing Gadsby’s insights into the “transmutation of trauma,” strategies for “punching through the line” of Esther’s comedic limitations are considered with discussion of Patricia Cronin’s 2015 sculptural installation, Shrine for Girls, Venice and Amos Gitaї’s 1986 film Esther.

Key words

Amalekites; Biblical studies; Biblical Reception; Patricia Cronin; Esther; Hannah Gadsby; Amos Gitaї; Humour; Postmemory; Purim; Trauma; Violence

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