In Literature, what is Pastiche?

Mary McMahon

The literary term "pastiche" is used in two slightly different ways, and the concept can be found in other arts, not just literature, ranging from architecture to film. In the first sense, a pastiche is a form of homage which is accomplished through imitation. In the second definition, a pastiche is a medley of items which are imitative in origin. The term can be used in a derogatory or complimentary way, depending on the work under discussion.

Within a novel, pastiche can be used for either positive or negative effect.
Within a novel, pastiche can be used for either positive or negative effect.

The origins of the word lie in an Italian word meaning "medley," a reference to a type of cake or pie which is made from a broad mixture of items. The idea behind either form of pastiche is that it integrates themes, ideas, concepts, and characters which have already been seen and used before. These items are integrated in a new work because the author finds them interesting, compelling, or useful; a pastiche is not plagiarism or outright imitation, but a more complex literary concept.

A famous example of a "Hamlet" pastiche is "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead".
A famous example of a "Hamlet" pastiche is "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead".

In the first sense, a pastiche is often constructed as an homage or send-up of a noted author or genre. For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a playful take on Hamlet; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is another take on Hamlet which takes on a more serious tone. Authors may produce a pastiche which imitates another author's style, borrows characters used by an author, or plays with an entire genre in literature. The numerous novels featuring the famous detective Sherlock Holmes written long after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are pastiches, for example.

Pastiches of Sherlock Holmes' stories are numerous.
Pastiches of Sherlock Holmes' stories are numerous.

In the sense of a medley, a pastiche can sometimes be successful, and sometimes be a total disaster. Some authors are very adept at weaving in many themes and concepts to create a rich and complex work, while others create a hodge-podge of items which feel incongruous and do not work together. This type of literary pastiche may be used to juxtapose characters and styles, or to illustrate the universality of themes; to borrow from Hamlet again, for example, an author could opt to create a re-telling of the story set in space in an Old Western style, integrating three very different thematic elements.

Popular culture is filled with imitation, sometimes entirely unintentional. Some themes have been used so many times that authors utilize them unconsciously, blissfully unaware of their origins. A true pastiche, however, involves a conscious decision to integrate elements of literary style from previously published works.

Authors may produce a pastiche which plays with an entire genre in literature.
Authors may produce a pastiche which plays with an entire genre in literature.

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Discussion Comments


There is a lot of literature based on the Alice in Wonderland books. Shortly after the first book was published, a writer named Anna M. Richards wrote a book called A New Alice in the Old Wonderland. It was about a girl who had read Alice in Wonderland and visited the place herself. From what I understand, she meets all of the same characters, though her experiences differ.

There are still writers creating retellings of the books. More recently there have been a lot of graphic novels and comic books telling the story of Alice in Wonderland. Many people think that these types of books are a great addition to the series. Of course, some of these works beg the question of what, exactly, can be considered original literature. I think this is a problem with a lot of literature written in pastiche. But there are some really great works written in this style, and I would be wary to write it off completely.


Reading this, I immediately thought of the Broadway play Wicked. The play is based on a relatively recent novel, 'The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West'. I think this is one really excellent example of Pastiche and how this literary tool is also used to explore another view of a classic story.

In 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', we only see Dorothy’s view of the events. 'The Life and Times' adds another layer of complexity to the story that is very intriguing. It tells the story from the view of the witches of Oz and creates a history of their lives that is both complicated and interesting.

I think this novel also uses the concept of pastiche very well because it doesn’t just copy the events of 'The Wizard of Oz', it creates an entirely new story that can stand in its own right.

While I know that there are many other works of literature that are created in this way, 'The Life and Times' was the first that I thought of. I’m interested to know what other novels people think of -- did anybody else have one come to mind?

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