Pounding the world with a fish of steel
Joined: Sat Apr 18, 2009 5:30 pm
Location: United States
Thu Apr 12, 2012 10:27 pm
Now that I'm thinking about it, I should probably give a few examples of my scholarly writing as well.
Here's an essay on Doctor Faustus from my Brit Lit class, demonstrating Marlowe's subversive undertones:
That Demon Totally Symbolizes Peace and Love: Understanding
Marlowe’s Unorthodox Intentions in Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is one of the quintessential dramas of the Renaissance, dealing with religious issues like free will and demonology that were hot topics in the late 16th century. However, as time goes on, many scholars have come up with new ideas as to what Marlowe’s intentions were with his masterwork. This is a good thing, though, because prompting discussion is a good thing for the academic community, and can only serve to deepen understanding. Therefore, I will be looking at two scholarly articles written about Doctor Faustus, summarize them, and then offer my own analysis, which will culminate into a look at how all three interpretations complement each other.
The first text is an article by Suzan Last called “Marlowe’s Literary Double Agency: Doctor Faustus as a Subversive Comedy of Error,” which appears in the 24th volume of Renaissance and Reformation, and it serves to interpret the play as a parody; “[b]y parody I mean, not the traditionally conceived mocking of evil to be found in conventional morality plays, but a subversion of that very convention, creating a turnabout in the ideology expected of a typical morality play” (24). Unfortunately, most of the scholarly community disregards the comedy in Doctor Faustus, because much of it is perceived to be added in by various writers to make the play more popular in what is called the 1616 “B-Text” of Doctor Faustus, contrasted with the 1604 “A-Text” which was written earlier and didn’t include much of the comedic scenes, but it was a man named W.W. Greg who argued that the comic scenes in the B-Text were, in fact, very much in Marlowe’s style and were based on his English Faust Book source (24). So, in a strange twist of fate, the A-Text, the version that was written earlier and is much more somber in content, is the abridged version while the B-Text, full of bawdy humor and parody, was actually the version with the most critical authority!
Despite its authority, Last tells us that critics still refuse to give the B-Text any sort of critical agency because the comic scenes supposedly detract from the deeper themes of the play. While many big-name critics have settled into the “A-Text Camp,” Last stands strong with the B-Text, stating that she believes that, more so than the A-Text, it “effectively demonstrates how Marlowe reshaped the ideology of the morality play and of conventional tragedy by giving them a comic sensibility, creating an essentially questioning and subversive form of drama” (25-26). From here, she spends a while commenting on the challenges Marlowe had to overcome to create said comic sensibility along with his subversive intentions. For example, outright parody of religious doctrine was dangerous during the Reformation, so Marlowe would have had to hide his parody “with a mask of orthodoxy” (27). Last also points out the brevity of the play’s epilogue, pointing out its use of alliteration and its description of “unlawful” knowledge and heavenly power basically showing the church’s imposition of limitations on the people (31). The result is that the epilogue uses more burlesque language and poetic devices to put less emphasis on the moral we’re supposed to learn, almost as if it was a last-minute decision, just because an epilogue that tells us “Don’t do it!” is merely what ought to be said to not let the play end on vicious parody of the church (31).
The remainder of Last’s article points out more examples of Marlowe’s subversive themes, which are worth reading, but for the purposes of this essay, this is as far as we need to go to understand Last’s point that Marlowe heavily parodied orthodox beliefs while hiding under a guise of orthodoxy in his infamous B-Text of Doctor Faustus. For this article in particular, I agree with the ideas that Last raises about Marlowe subverting orthodox doctrine with his silly comic scenes and his only-there-to-please-the-churchgoers epilogue. Having read the B-Text of the play, I must agree that it is a more complete and comprehensive text than an edition without the comic scenes would be, and I couldn’t imagine the A-Text being very interesting or subversive without them. I was also quite suspicious of the epilogue when I first read it, because Marlowe put great effort into the play that precedes it, filling it with very verbose verse, and the epilogue’s brevity and obligatory moral was startling, to say the least.
Our second text is called “Imperialism as Devilry: A Postcolonial Reading of Doctor Faustus,” which appears in a festschrift known as Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide, written by one Toni Francis. In this essay, Francis states that it’s not the church that Marlowe is criticizing; rather, it’s England’s rampant colonialism that is the subject of the story (“In Doctor Faustus, ‘the devil’ indeed wears many hats.”) (111). After her introduction, Francis gives us a detailed account of England’s imperialist activities, from extensive pirating of Spanish ships to forceful colonization of the Americas. Much time is spent on this history lesson, but it is not in vain—it is imperative that we know the extent of England’s drive for power in order to understand Francis’ historical interpretation of Doctor Faustus and its anti-imperialistic themes.
After we learn about the colonial escapades of Queen Elizabeth and her pirate gang, Francis dives right on into the main idea of her essay by saying, “The majority of critical analyses of necromancy and witchcraft in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus have remained focused on religious or philosophical issues, with few alternative treatments of the metaphorical significance of Faustus’s decision” (114). She points out that one leading interpretation which doesn’t focus on the religious or philosophical is that Faustus can be seen as a metadramatical playwright, while another popular interpretation begs the question whether Faustus really became a practitioner of magic or not (114-15). Francis then comments that, while Faustus claims necromancy is the last great intellectual challenge, the notion of necromancy all but dissipates when Mephistopheles enters the picture (117). Necromancy seems to be at the center of the story, but we never see any actual practicing of magic or any magical rituals (Mephistopheles seems to arrive because of Faustus’ spell, but he arrived to claim his soul, not to follow his orders), so it becomes obvious to Francis that necromancy is really just a cover for a deeper idea: “I question whether this play was ever meant to probe the actual practice of dark magic, or whether necromancy—and more specifically, selling one’s soul to the devil—can be interpreted as a metaphor for a more contemporary form of soul-selling—that is, England’s violent and gluttonous domination. . .as England’s descent into Hades” (117-18).
She follows this thought up with examples from the play, as any good scholar would, particularly displaying Faustus’ imaginations of England’s colonies and the riches they contain. Francis raises the point that, while Faustus claims that knowledge is his prime goal, it’s actually wealth and power that drives him—this should be sending up red flags and alarm bells with the words ‘Imperial England’ inscribed on them to the reader at this point (118). Faustus merely wants control over goods and people, and his previous obsession over knowledge was either a cover-up or a vehicle he planned on using to obtain said control. In the last pages of this article, Francis drives her point home by including the greatest colonizer mentioned in the play: Lucifer himself. The entire soul-selling deal being a metaphor for colonialism becomes obvious when Francis states: “Faustus’s deal with Mephistopheles is also closely linked to colonization in the play. Lucifer, a colonizer of souls, constantly attempts to ‘enlarge his kingdom’. After the signing of the contract, Mephistopheles asks Faustus, ‘shall I have thy soul?’ adding, ‘And I will be thy slave’, thereby suggesting that Faustus, in selling his soul, assumes the role of the slaver” (120). In other words, when Faustus subscribes to the imperialism of Lucifer, he gains power over his very own personal demon slave, Mephistopheles—the metaphor should be obvious at this point, especially considering that, while Marlowe was writing, England was constantly founding new colonies, reaping the benefits of wealth, and exerting its power over its inhabitants. The very fact that Faustus’ language is wrought with images of power and domination, mostly in the context of the play’s phony necromancy, is especially damning in light of his role as a symbol of English imperialism.
I must also agree with the points Francis makes in her article, because I find her analysis of Faustus as an imperialist figure simultaneously enlightening, amusing, and interesting. While I’m not sure if I subscribe to her ‘imperialism is the one and only thing necromancy can be linked to and that’s final!’ approach, I can certainly understand it as another vital interpretation of a text like Doctor Faustus which contains many, many symbolic riches for scholars to mine and quarry. And as I mentioned, the history lesson in the first few pages may seem like it goes on forever, but it was good to know in order to understand the article; but then again, isn’t it always a good thing to understand historical events and the movements they influence, anyway? On that note, I suppose it’s time to bring my own interpretation into the fray, because I, too, have opinions as to what Marlowe intended with Doctor Faustus.
In my interpretation, Doctor Faustus is a cautionary tale regarding the nature of humanity, seeking knowledge and power merely for the sake of having knowledge and power, displaying how greed and recklessness will ultimately lead us to our untimely ends. The introduction of the play makes Faustus look like an honorable scholar, seeking knowledge to make the world a better place; however, he learns quickly that human knowledge and human power have their limits, but that’s not going to dissuade this hungry mind from the knowledge he seeks! While Faustus seeks knowledge to make great strides for the sake of humanity at first, his true intentions become very obvious very quickly when he begins his pursuit of necromancy: “All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command” (1.1.55-56). In fact, when Faustus makes the deal with the devil to obtain the power he seeks, his first impulse is to tell Mephistopheles, “I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live, / To do whatever Faustus shall command,” asserting his power the very second he believes he obtains it (1.3.35-36).
So now that Faustus has this incredible power and can theoretically do anything he wants with it, he settles for asking Mephistopheles questions about the heavens instead of, you know, actually visiting them. All this phenomenal cosmic power, and the best thing he can think to do is ask a servant demon questions he doesn’t even know the answers to! And if you think that’s a waste of power, then the scene where Faustus and Mephistopheles play tricks on the Pope is cause enough for any reader to grind their teeth in frustration:
MEPHISTOPHILIS. To make his monks and abbots stand like apes,
And point like antics at his triple crown,
To beat the beads about the friars’ pates,
Or clap huge horns upon the cardinals’ heads,
Or any villainy thou canst devise,
And I’ll perform it, Faustus. Hark, they come! (3.2.83-88)
The use of the word ‘villainy’ is especially irritating, because with the powers of all the demons and all of Hell behind him, calling Faustus’ tricks on the Pope ‘villainy’ is entirely ludicrous, and only serves to further prove how Faustus has squandered his power for the sake of petty amusements and parlor tricks. Of course, the frustration the reader feels towards Faustus is well-founded, but Marlowe could be asking: could we do any better if it were ourselves who held such power? Thus, why I and possibly many others refer to Doctor Faustus as a cautionary tale: if such an intelligent man like Faustus can be sidetracked into playing goofy pranks with his infinite power, then we, too, would be suckered into such trivial acts. While necromancy and the divine are definitely things humanity wasn’t meant to mess around with, Marlowe could also be extrapolating this lesson to also mean that absolute power was also never meant to be wielded by mankind. As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
All three of these interpretations deal with entirely separate issues, but I believe that they all tackle the same idea: the concept of necromancy, as it appears in Doctor Faustus, is merely a façade used to tackle other issues. Whether you want to say that Marlowe was making fun of the Church, or that he was equating demonology to imperialism, or that he was telling us to mind our limitations, you’re always going to be right on some level. And after all, that’s part of what makes Doctor Faustus a great play instead of just a good play: a good play will service you with memorable characters and dialogue, while a great play will provide those things as well as provide some food for thought to all those who attend. Some may not be able to digest their meal, while others will find many subtle tastes and textures to enjoy.
Francis, Toni. “Imperialism as Devilry: A Postcolonial Reading of Doctor Faustus.” Doctor
Faustus: A Critical Guide. Ed. Sarah M. Deats. London: Continuum, 2010. 111-23. Print.
Last, Suzan. “Marlowe’s Literary Double Agency: Doctor Faustus as a Subversive Comedy of
Error.” Renaissance and Reformation 24.1 (2000): 23-44. Print.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The Longman Anthology of
British Literature. Vol. 1B. 4th ed. Gen. ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar.
New York: Longman, 2010. 1110-60. Print.
Here's an essay about postmodernism yayyyy~
So It Goes:
Postmodern Worldviews in Invisible Man, Jazz, and Slaughterhouse-Five
Sometimes in life, you stop and ask yourself: Who are you? What kind of world do you live in, and what, if anything, do you see that others cannot? In your world, is there anything that lies beyond what you can see, or do you always try to see the other side of the coin? Does your society exist in deep darkness and corruption, or is your community one of honesty and high standards? Are both true? What about the people you see around you; are they all conspiring in some hidden agenda, or are they just living out their lives the best they can? What kind of world do you live in? Who are you?
Many of these questions, possibly even all of them if you want, cannot be answered with much certainty because they require you to be subjective--the answers will always be shaped by your individual opinions, biases, and interests. Subjectivity is the name of the game, and it not only makes these questions difficult and vague, but also makes our world more interesting for us as human beings. After all, we are a species that has made its fame in its ability to analyze a situation and solve problems; the invisible, indiscernible nature of our species presents another great mystery for us to solve, and whether we realize it or not, each one of us works towards an answer to many of those above questions in our daily lives. In our efforts to understand the world around us, we form our own opinions and come to our own conclusions--in essence, our perceptions of society and humanity become our paints and the world is our canvass.
Postmodern literature is a prime hunting ground to those exploring the issues of self and “the other,” because postmodern authors, along with the modernists, realize that most individuals are incapable of changing the world around them or even their own destinies. However, unlike the modernists, postmodern authors focus with great intensity on the individual during his or her travels through their reality—in other words, the often-bizarre world of postmodern literature is often more true to life than many other genres because of its emphasis on the individual in a world he or she cannot change, though this does not stop these characters from changing the ways they adapt or perceive it. Utilizing three texts, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, I will demonstrate how each respective narrator’s worldview is changed by their experiences in a unique and subjective manner, how their perceptions change in the face of harsh, unforgiving reality, and how we, the reader, can interpret and see the world in which these characters live, merely by their testimony and experience.
Ralph Ellison’s time-honored classic, Invisible Man, is a prudent starting place for our discussion, as it was not only the first to be written, but also one of the first great works of postmodernism. In this story, a young, nameless black college student awakens to his invisibility during the many tribulations in his life. First, he is put through a demeaning battle royale before giving his senior speech, then he is sent away from college when he takes a school trustee to the sharecropper shacks by the river, then he looks for work in the city where he is tossed from place to place like old garbage, and just when he thinks he finds his true calling in a Communist-esque “Brotherhood,” he learns that he is merely being used by his superiors to look good to the public eye. Through these crucial two years of his life, the narrator undergoes a drastic transformation: from an optimistic, bright-eyed college student to a cynical, short-tempered recluse who curses those who refuse to see him.
Aside from the prologue and the epilogue, as well as the final few chapters, our invisible man seems to have an unquenchable optimism that remains blind to the back-stabbings he constantly endures. He does not realize right away that he was never to show Mr. Norton, the school’s proprietor, to the sharecropper shacks down the road from the university lest he be removed from the school’s roster, nor did he realize that Dr. Bledsoe’s letters of “recommendation,” given to him on his merry way to New York City, were really a condemning occupational death sentence as well as a giant middle finger—he simply doesn’t know any better, and the narrator’s tone seems oblivious as well. The son of Mr. Emerson, whom the narrator meets on his job hunt, hesitantly reveals Bledsoe’s betrayal to him; “[T]o help you, I must disillusion you,” he says before handing him the letter (Ellison 187). This was a pivotal turning point for our narrator, but it’s during his stay with the Brotherhood that he begins to understand that he’s being double-crossed by everyone in his life, particularly when the other members shun him and demean him when he handles a few speeches with emotion rather than academics. From this point, the narrator begins to make his own decisions, finishing his transformation from naïve gofer to wizened recluse. “What endurance I had in those days!” he says early on. “What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!” (30)
In fact, long before he wises up and leaves both society and the Brotherhood to the wolves, he never even knew how to think for himself. He even plays into the inherent racism of the times, most notably during the first chapter when he presents his speech after the battle royale. Bloody and bruised, in front of a raucous, rude crowd, he tries to give his speech and “resolves to recite every word and to observe each intonation as he had practiced them,” as scholar Valerie Smith puts it (194). While not explicitly mentioned in the text, Smith reasonably asserts that the invisible man does everything in a slow and meticulous manner because of his cautious nature. Even though the crowd taunts and disgraces him, he doesn’t even mind it (or at least he doesn’t let on that he does), because he mistakenly believes that “[t]he mere possibility of a reward justifies any insults and indignations to which he may be subjected,” according to Smith (194). The truth is that no man should endure such violence and humiliation in hopes for a treat, and it’s not until his eventual rejection of the Brotherhood that he sheds this naiveté; sacrificing pride and dignity for hollow rewards is how he lived most of his early life.
Because the narrator was only whipped into shape because of the injustices he faced, we can gather that the invisible man’s world is one of corruption and deception, where you can either live inside the system and endure its torments, or live outside the system alone and unseen. Personal freedom and happiness were not among the goods he was allowed. In this society, he is an unknown figure, almost a shadow, even: “[N]ot only is he without recognizable substance and, thus, invisible; he is, as Ellison says in the epilogue, a disembodied voice without a face. He is an idea, an abstraction, a painful memory of a wasted life full of disillusionment” (Tate 265). As Claudia Tate points out in this statement, the invisible man is the result of his environment, and his environment is one where he is a faceless, nameless black man to be used by his superiors and thrown away when he outlives his usefulness; “[H]e haunts us with the truth that the fate of utter and devastating disillusionment is not reserved for him alone” (265).
In his time, our invisible man sees some terrible things (including but not limited to: riots, police brutality, and city-wide revolution), but the horrors of his reality seem to pale in comparison to those of Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s acclaimed pseudo-autobiography, Slaughterhouse-Five. In this story, Billy Pilgrim recounts almost simultaneously the many life-shaping events of his life, including his service in World War II, the life and death of his wife, and his current life at home with his daughter. Billy also is kind enough to tell us about the Tralfamadorians, aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who give him the ability to see and live in four dimensions to facilitate the simultaneity of his life’s experiences. Possibly the most important event in Billy’s life takes place during World War II, when he is captured by Axis soldiers (along with other American troops) and sent to a work camp in Dresden, where he bears witness to the infamous fire-bombing that took place there.
Both Invisible Man and Slaughterhouse-Five carry a dark view of the world in which they take place, but while the former states its case with solemn seriousness, the latter uses humor and sarcasm and various incidents of Billy telling us, “So it goes” when things go wrong. Billy attributes this phenomenon to the time-traveling Tralfamadorians:
“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’” (Vonnegut 27)
Because Billy buys into this mindset, it’s not altogether surprising that he uses the phrase quite often, especially given the fact that he’s been through numerous traumatic experiences such as being in World War II and in an airplane crash.
Writer and scholar Scott MacFarlane elaborates on this verbal peculiarity present in Slaughterhouse-Five with the following: “At every reference to death in the novel—over one hundred times—the author reflects on the occasion by stating: ‘so it goes.’ Initially, the phrase seems to imply that this is just the way it is. Over the, [sic] course of the novel, the number of ‘so it goes’ begin to mount like a death toll” (MacFarlane 148). This would give us the impression that Billy simply does not care about any of these horrible things that happen to him, but his blasé reaction to death unusually is not only comical and dark; it’s a facade he uses when facing life, signifying deeper inner turmoil: to survive, to be able to wake up and look at himself in the mirror, he must employ comedy as a coping mechanism.
Whether Billy really met aliens, or whether he invented them out of depression, the inclusion of the Tralfamadorians is a sign that Billy refuses to come to grips with the world as it is and must invent some new way to look at life and death before his sorrow overtakes him, to reduce the pain death leaves in its wake at Billy’s feet. Scott MacFarlane explains that Billy’s life “is beset, at every major juncture, with the question of why he seems singled out to survive when so many of his fellow soldiers in Germany, his fellow optometrists after a plane crash he is in, or his wife en route to Billy’s hospital bed after the crash, all die” (148). These incidents, for the most part, are all handled with irony and humor, seemingly derailing their importance in his life, but upon closer inspection it’s apparent that Billy Pilgrim is far from detached; much like the invisible man, he begins his journey as a bright-eyed young man (“He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.” (Vonnegut 31)), but war and death have taken its toll on his psyche, reducing him to a schizophrenic mess who must believe in the Tralfamadorians so that he can keep his grip on reality. The result is Billy’s becoming “unstuck” in time, seeing all the fragments of his life simultaneously. MacFarlane states that the fragmentation of Billy’s mind is appropriate, as Slaughterhouse-Five “challenge[s] the way in which the reader looks at the world by first fragmenting how the world is presented” (154).
While it’s apparent to see how Billy’s depressing worldview is a result of its fragmentation, that doesn’t always necessarily mean fragmentation will always lead to eternal sorrow and sad times for all; we now turn our attention to the 2nd part of Toni Morrison’s ongoing series of the black experience in America, Jazz. Much like our previous two texts, Morrison presents us with a world going down the tubes, viewed by a narrator whose voice shapes that very world. The story follows the aftermath of a shooting carried out by a cosmetics salesman named Joe Trace; Joe had gotten involved with a girl named Dorcas, whom he shot, when his marriage with his wife, Violet, begins to grow stale. Afterwards, Violet seeks to learn more about Dorcas and her family, while Joe languishes over the murder. The couple are eventually brought back together by Dorcas’ friend, Felice, who reignites the sparks of passion in Joe and Violet.
Unlike Invisible Man and Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator in Jazz doesn’t seem to be the main character (or any character at all), though s/he cannot help but exist inside the world they display, alongside the other characters. Author Matthew Treherne picks up on the fact that the narrator seems to know more than they should if they were a literal character, stating: “[S]he seems to speak her language. The conspiratorial ‘Sth’ and phrases like ‘quiet as it’s kept’ are suggestive of a privileged position of knowledge within her group. So she seems to speak with authority” (Treherne 201). From one chapter to the next, the narrator is our source of information (as a narrator should be), but is often stymied by his/her own subjectivity. The narrator seems like s/he knows everything and nothing at the same time because, while s/he can certainly chronicle events with ease, getting into the characters’ heads proves to be difficult and often speculatory. “I like to think of him that way,” the narrator says during the flashback incident with Golden Gray (Morrison 150). S/he tries to paint the truth of this young man, but ends up telling two versions of the story with her own opinions shaping the narrative; how could we possibly know what Golden Gray was truly like when the narrator isn’t even sure?
Of course, though, the narrator situates him/herself amidst a world where people are disconnected and hard to pin down: Violet and Joe both have very few friends, lost their parents, and have moved away from the South; Dorcas lost her parents as well, and she doesn’t get along with her aunt; Dorcas’ aunt, herself, begins to form an unsteady friendship with Violet, the woman who “went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face” (3); Golden Gray, a young man who appears in flashback, feels no human connection to a pregnant, feral black woman he ends up caring for. The characters are all so distant, not only to the reader but also to each other, but they also have the potential to grow closer to each other, as Joe and Violet do with Felice’s help. In fact, the characters’ disconnection could be the fault of the narrator, who at first feels distant from his/her subjects because, as hinted in the final pages, the narrator is the novel itself (“If I were able, I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” (229)).
Treherne is aware of the narrator’s identity and comments that the novel “suggest[s] that relationship[s] with others can be a form of freedom—and the narrative text can become a place where such freedom might be found” (210). Perhaps the characters only seem so distant from each other because the novel intended it that way, saying “What, I wonder, what would I be without […] aching words that set, then miss, the mark? (219). Throughout Jazz, the narrator had planted small seeds of hope amidst “I the eye of the storm” so that his/her readers would spend more time in the text, piecing together the human puzzle that is Joe, Violet, and Dorcas.
Another important point to consider with these characters is that they are not the kinds of people you meet in everyday life. People on the street would double-take at the sight of Joe or Violet, because they would be shocked by the sight of a manic-depressed black man and a bitter, unsociable black woman, as insensitive and stereotypical as it sounds, but that’s our society and we aren’t usually accustomed to people who fall outside the norm. In fact, it seems like Morrison purposefully went out of her way to ensure that her characters were stark, fresh and unique, so that they would stand out more—to remind us that people are not all the same. The same goes for the narrator, really, who is more bold and haughty than we would come to expect of a narrator. In his essay on Toni Morrison, scholar Michael Nowlin notes that “[i]f in the end the narrator of Jazz recognizes her own hubris and salutes the freedom from representation that her characters enjoy, she finds social responsibility nonetheless by reinhabiting the lonely haven of her textual domain,” (166). Because Morrison’s characters aren’t chained down by stereotypes, they not only come alive on the page in ways that benefit the reader, but also reinforce the fact that they are realistic. Not only does Morrison craft a story that’s more true to life than most nonfiction, she brings something else to the table; with Jazz, unlike the other two novels previously discussed, we have hope for our world and our society. As surely as Joe and Violet could reconcile despite an affair, a murder, and the fragmented City imposing its isolation on them, the same should be true for the rest of us.
By now, I hope you can appreciate how the narrator’s tone, along with his or her experiences, can have a tremendous effect on how their perception of society at large can be changed, and that is true for us as readers also. Each of us face each day with our own lens of ideas and beliefs to see through, and it is through those lenses that we shape our world. The invisible man saw a world of corruption and sought refuge from it; Billy Pilgrim bore witness to a world of war and death and found solace in his imagination; Jazz fought to find connection and knowledge in her world, but came to learn that the world is what you make of it, and you are free and encouraged to do so. Each narrator has come to terms with their society, and their journeys are now made famous through text for us to read and interpret. So then, as you think on these things and continue on your own journey, I must ask you again: Who are you? What kind of world do you live in?
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
MacFarlane, Scott. “Slaughterhouse-Five (1969): So It Goes.” Bloom’s Modern Critical
Interpretations: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Ed. Harold Bloom. 147-62. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
Nowlin, Michael. “Toni Morrison’s Jazz and the Radical Dreams of the American Writer.”
American Literature 71.1 (1999): 151-74. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2010.
Smith, Valerie. “The Meaning of Narration in Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A
Casebook. Ed. John F. Callahan. 189-220. Print.
Tate, Claudia. “Notes on the Invisible Women in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Ralph Ellison’s
Invisible Man: A Casebook. Ed. John F. Callahan. 253-66. Print.
Treherne, Matthew. “Figuring In, Figuring Out: Narration and Negotiation in Toni Morrison’s
Jazz.” Narrative 11.2 (2003): 199-212. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2010.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1991. Print.
An essay on feminist literature:
Male Influence? In My House?
It’s More Likely Than You Think!
In the world of feminist literature, there is a tendency or trend for the author to create a story in which there is a small amount of male characters. This is understandable, as throughout history, most literature was written by men about men, so this trend could either be seen as revenge for years and years of being ignored, simple reciprocation of the formula to correct those authors in their mistakes, or perhaps something as simple as a shift in storytelling styles. Regardless of which is true, in many of these novels, when men are included, the role they play is often that of a malicious and ignorant oppressor, or of an underplayed and unimportant authority figure. It’s pretty infrequent to come across a strong, benevolent male figure in feminist writings. Sure, this can be seen as a generalization, but generalizations often hold some grains of truth.
Of particular interest in this essay will be the rather tricky subject of how parental influence (particularly that of the father) plays a part in the development of literary characters in the place they call home. Traditionally, in Western culture, the father is supposed to be the pillar of provision and justice in the home with the mother being the pillar of education and nurturing instinct. The father is the one who works his back-breaking job, gets his pay, and returns home to be faced with any decision mete out any justice that need be addressed. The mother, then, is the one who keeps the house tidy and teaches the children how to be hard-working and upstanding, productive members of society. In the case becoming more common as the years go by, where both father and mother have to work, or in situations when their roles are reversed, these still-normal homes have all those roles covered, and the parents are responsible for making it happen.
In this same Western tradition, both parents must work together to ensure their child grows up to be a normal, functioning human being, just as their parents believe they are. There exists a household relations research magazine called Adolescence, with an article by Susan D. Witt, where she emphasizes how important that parental interaction is, stating, “Parental attitudes toward their children have a strong impact on their developing sense of self and self-esteem, with parental warmth and support being key factors” (Witt). In a world where things are kept simple and easy to understand, this would be how every parent raises their children, and how every home operates: two loving and caring parents who watch over and raise their child in a positive, constructive environment. More often than not, the opposite is true, and it’s more likely for the father to be an abusive figure than the mother, which then becomes a very potent literary device.
In the two novels I will look at, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the household and its operations are not as simple as prescribed by Western tradition. On the one hand, this could be seen as a literary device: why would we be interested if a normal, functional family was involved? Often, in literature, we want to see situations that are deviant from the norm, because we want to experience different worlds seen in different ways. On the other hand (the cynical one), it could be that these dysfunctional homes are, perhaps, more normal than the “normal” household. For most of us, we could count the number of “normal” families we know with our fingers, but we could create a laundry list of households where chaos reigns and the “ideal” household seems like a delusion.
The protagonists of these novels would tell you themselves that the dream of normalcy is just that. In Bastard Out of Carolina, we follow a young girl named Ruth Anne, nicknamed “Bone,” as she grows up in an abusive home with her indecisive mother, Anney, and the tyrannical Daddy Glen. Periodically throughout the novel, Bone would receive a verbal and physical beating from Daddy Glen (even, in the climax of the novel, a sexual assault), but would never be brought to any sort of justice. He’d plead and crawl back to Anney, claim he had no idea what came over him, and everything would be all fine and dandy for everyone…except, of course, for Bone. The result is a young girl slowly being turned into a self-hating, everyone-else-loathing, and violent human being, partly because of her mother’s ignorance, but mostly due to her father’s relentless tyranny.
To Bone, it’s unsure whether Anney is the lesser or greater of two evils; on one hand, she isn’t the one who beats her on a regular basis, and she tries to be kind and gentle to her daughter, but Anney only momentarily acknowledges that the abuse happens, buys Daddy Glen’s weak and miserable excuses, and pretends nothing ever happened. It is important, however, to look at Anney’s situation: She was practically forced into marriage because of her illegitimate daughter, Bone, and to leave that union would be social suicide. In order to keep her family together, her social status relatively stable, and her daughter off the streets or in Daddy Glen’s sole custody, it could be possible that Anney must overlook the periodic beatings and abuses for the greater good of keeping the family together. Anney is a tough character to judge, as her actions could be seen as selfless sacrifice for the sake of unifying her broken family.
Daddy Glen, on the other hand (just how many hands does this essay have?), is not so hard to pass judgement upon. He is the weak link in his own family, and now he’s stuck in a rushed marriage with a woman he probably does love, a temper that flares more often than the Sun, and a rebellious child who will forever be a black mark on his social status (illegitimate children are just so darned inconvenient that way!). To top it all off, Bone seems to generally dislike him, anyway. His own insecurity and Bone’s contempt for the man are probably what set off the initial sparks in their enmity-heavy relationship; Daddy Glen has to prove that he’s a real man by putting his insubordinate daughter in her place! Looking back on the traditional family roles mentioned at the beginning, neither Anney nor Daddy Glen are properly fulfilling their roles set by our Western standards; they are a far cry from the ideal parents.
Eunjoo Woo, an author whose book details conflicted mother/daughter relationships in various works of fiction, including Bastard Out of Carolina, puts more emphasis on Anney’s influence in the story, opening one particular chapter stating, “Dorothy Allison presents her traumatic childhood and how the mother/daughter relationship influences her own development from a little girl to an independent woman” (Woo, 16). In Woo’s analysis, he explains how Dorothy Allison related her own youth into the character of Bone, placing most of the impact of what she has become on her mother’s influence. Allison relates her own experiences, at least in part, into the novel through the eyes of Bone, and Woo says that this relationship is what inspires the most change in Bone throughout the novel. I happen to disagree with him, and place that influence instead on the more oppressive figure: Daddy Glen.
Two authors, Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman, have penned an article called “Father-Daughter Incest,” where they explore the effects of extreme paternal abuse by studying 15 volunteers who have been molested or raped by their fathers at a young age. At one point, they discuss the psychological effects that the victims of incestual rape come to terms with: the young girl learns the hard way that “[h]er initiation into the patriarchal order begins with the realization that she is not only comparatively powerless as a child, but that she will remain so as a woman” (Herman, 262). When Daddy Glen beats (and eventually, rapes) Bone, he is trying to reinforce that helplessness onto her, to show her that she will never be more powerful than him (“You think you’re so grown-up. You think you’re so big and bad, saying no to me. Let’s see how big you are, how grown!” he tells her during the rape scene). Bone defies him every chance she gets, and it’s no surprise that she works so hard to be independent and strong, because she wants to escape that feeling of helplessness Daddy Glen imposes upon her, and so she grows up to defy him the best way she knows how: she chooses a life of lesbianism. That’s some major influence.
After that lovely topic of discussion, it’s time to switch gears and take a look at Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which tells the story of two girls who grow up in a household that, not only is deprived of male influence, but also of any permanent guardian for them. Ruth and Lucille are brought to the town of Fingerbone (Ruth? Fingerbone? Don’t tell me there’s no correlation going on!) by their mother before she commits suicide, leaving them in the care of their aging grandmother. After her death, the girls are then under the care of their great-aunts, Lily and Nona, who find the task of watching over two little girls in between rounds of pinochle to be more than they can handle. When the girls’ Aunt Sylvie is in the area, Lily and Nona contact her and immediately convince her to be Ruth and Lucille’s guardian. Sylvie is a transient, and it has a strange effect on the girls’ upbringing, causing them to go their separate ways: as Christine Caver writes in her article, featured in American Literature, Lucille “desires warmth, nourishment, and acceptance by her peers, her neighbors, and her stereotypically traditional home economics teacher” (Caver, 111), while Ruth follows in Sylvie’s footsteps, becoming a more free-spirited and carefree individual who cares nothing about her “inability to conform” to society (111).
Problem is, obviously, there is a lack of any sort of male influence in this household. If the house itself weren’t hand-built by the girls’ grandfather, it’d be hard to guess whether the building would have walls or not, considering how casual and open Sylvie keeps the place. We do get some mention at the beginning of the novel about the grandfather; he worked diligently at the railroad station and he kept a tight-run ship at home. He wasn’t a tyrant like Daddy Glen, by any means, but he knew what he wanted and how he wanted it. The original intent of looking at this novel was to find the effects of patriarchal rule in the novel, but rather, instead of searching in vain for any traces of male influence in this dysfunctional family, it would be more efficient to look at what could be the result of the lack thereof.
For one thing, it’s very easy to notice that there are almost no strict guidelines to be followed for Ruth and Lucille (Aunt Sylvie seems almost bemused when they skip school), and as a consequence, there’s pretty much no need for any disciplinary action to be taken. Aunt Sylvie really lucked out on this, as Ruth and Lucille are quite well-behaved on their own (possibly due to their own father’s influence in infancy?). Also, if I did not overlook anything that occurs in the novel, there really is no steady income pouring into the house, and there seem to be very few major decisions that have to be made, though the ones that do pop up are very major. So then, that totally negates everything the traditional paternal unit of the family is supposed to do. How does this affect Ruth and Lucille in the long run, I ask.
Well, surprisingly or not, depending on your views, the girls get along just fine without any of that pesky masculine influence. Because of the lack of paternal support, they learn how to be self-sufficient, and the lack of discipline seems to force them to whip themselves into shape by themselves. Under Sylvie’s extremely lax reign, the girls forge their own identities, and learn how to survive on their own (well, maybe survive isn’t the right word, as Aunt Sylvie is still responsible for meal preparation and bill paying). This entirely female household seems to fly in the face of all that is holy and traditional; surely, this peace is doomed to end, and those uppity women will learn their place and find a good man! Because everyone eventually goes their separate ways, living what I assume to be happy lives, it’s up in the air what this novel says about the importance of male influence: is it necessary, or does it just get in the way?
One theory is that Housekeeping is a novel about women (in particular, Ruth and Aunt Sylvie) who reject the normalized, patriarchal way of life in favor of a freer, more liberating lifestyle. In her own book, entitled Gender Trouble, author Judith Butler explores the topic of femininity as standing up against the suffocating, oppressive male hegemony prominent in our society. Butler writes that the very idea of sex and gender is a falsehood, designed to keep two sides separate and unequal. The very identification of women based on their sex, she says, “is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and, hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men” (Butler, 19). In layman’s terms, gender classification is a male invention used, in many ways, to define women as something subhuman, in order to keep them restricted from gaining the same power men themselves wield. Marilynne Robinson’s novel can be read in this light, sharing the same idea (although less accusatory) that masculine influence would only serve to tear their home apart, rather than bring it together.
By looking at these two novels, you could convince yourself that male influence in the home is something to be avoided, and with good reason: the home with a father figure is governed with fear and tyranny, and the home without a father figure is a haven of freedom to (most of) its inhabitants. But then again, it’s important to keep in mind that these novels are works of feminist literature; the authors most likely aren’t trying to tell us all men are evil (Bone’s uncle sets out on a manhunt to find Daddy Glen and make him pay for his abuse, and Ruth’s grandfather was an overall good, hard-working guy), but the entire point is to encourage and empower aspiring young women to find their own place in the world. Bastard Out of Carolina and Housekeeping are novels by women for women, with the goal of inspiring other women to stand up for their independence through the hardships and journeys taken by the young protagonists; it’s just circumstance that one features a tyrannical beast of a man, and the other hardly has any men at all.
Abel, Elizabeth, and Emily K. Abel. "Father-Daughter Incest." The Signs Reader:
Women, Gender, & Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977. 257-78.
Butler, Judith. "Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire." Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 1-34. Print.
Caver, Christine. "Nothing Left to Lose: Housekeeping's Strange Freedoms." American
Literature 68.1 (1996): 111-37. Print.
Witt, Susan D. "Parental influence on children's socialization to gender roles".
Adolescence. FindArticles.com. 28 Apr, 2010. Web.
Woo, Eunjoo. "Cultural conditioning and mother/daughter conflicts in the development
of identity and voice: The autobiographical fiction of Dorothy Allison, Wan-So
Pak, and Maxine Hong Kingston.” ETD Collection for University of Rhode
Island (2001). Print.
And lastly, a paper about the concept of an "eco-hero":
The Road Less Traveled: The Three Steps of the Eco-Hero
in Ishmael, Walden, and My Year of Meats
Taking a look around us, it’s easy to see that we’re not doing a good job running the world we claim to have conquered. We place great monuments on land which we are said to own, but the earth always finds a way to topple them; we ceaselessly invent new ways to make our lives easier and more convenient, but our days just seem to get shorter and busier; we harvest the beasts of the earth, perfecting new ways to prepare and slaughter millions of farm animals, but we still find ourselves plagued by diseases originating from them. These problems, and many more, have been set loose in our society in the name of progression, but there are those who take a stand. In both real life and in fiction, the “eco-hero” emerges to stand up for the natural world, whose voice we have tried for so long to block out. By analyzing three key texts, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, we can build a more detailed profile of the kind of figure I consider to be an eco-hero. The main character of each text personifies the three steps required for a hero to become an eco-hero: first, he must identify the cause of the natural world’s destruction and raise awareness; second, he must separate himself from that cause, in order to prepare himself to solve the problem; finally, he must take action to solve the problem.
Our first hero, the unnamed narrator of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, represents the first step of identifying the problem and raising awareness. In the course of the story, he meets a super-intelligent gorilla named Ishmael, who begins to teach the narrator about the two different types of people in the world: the Takers, who harvest the earth’s goods for their own benefit and live in opposition to nature (a.k.a. us), and the Leavers, who harvest the earth’s goods in a more conscientious manner, living in accord with nature (a.k.a. cultural groups like the Native Americans). The narrator, through Ishmael’s teachings, realizes that the lifestyle adopted by modernized countries like the U.S. cannot possibly last, and that everyone must be taught what he has been taught. “The premise of the Taker story is the world belongs to man,” the narrator states near to the end of his journey. He continues by saying, “The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world” (239). By the end of his learning experience, the narrator has come to learn that, in order to prevent the human race from destroying itself, mankind must cease its relentless assault on the natural world.
This narrator evolves into an eco-hero role through his sessions with Ishmael, and spends the majority of the novel learning what the chief problem in the world is—thus why he exemplifies the first step of the Path of the Eco-Hero most of all. Of course, we are left with the option to assume that he follows up on his knowledge and takes action to solve the problem, but my choice to represent him as the first step was deliberately due to the bulk of time dedicated to it. Unfortunately, our narrator hits a brick wall: it’s easy enough to get a message across, but getting others to follow your example is not a simple task (“[What] the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and […] that it’s destroying the world.”) (253). This particular eco-hero has come across a dilemma, but there are others who know how to proceed once the problem has been identified. In particular, we now switch gears to Walden, the almost-legendary natural literary work of Henry David Thoreau. Because it is a work of nonfiction, it only makes sense to state that our second eco-hero is Thoreau himself. The plotline behind Walden is fairly simple: Thoreau,
having grown frustrated with the state of society and its stresses, ventures out of the city to the titular pond in order to lead a simpler life. He builds himself a small cabin, observes the local wildlife as well as the local human visitors, reads, and writes on philosophical notions that occur to him during his stay. This outing is described to us in detail, from season to season, for a period of a little over two years, until he finally bids farewell to his second home and goes back to normal life. All the while, Thoreau impresses upon us the importance of reawakening from the stupor of daily routine and live life more fully than the day before. From this synopsis, it’s not obvious how Thoreau counts as an eco-hero; so he stayed in the woods for a while and wrote some philosophical stuff about it, so what? Well, let’s just say he discusses more than just the colors of the leaves.
Unlike the narrator of Ishmael, Thoreau discovers the problem with his society almost immediately: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he clearly states early on, and continues by saying, “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work” (8). People have no life and no will of their own; everything comes down to work and routine and drudgery with some amusement as an afterthought if there’s time. The majority of Walden, however, displays Thoreau’s idea of how to best remove ourselves from the problems that plague society society—the second step the eco-hero must take. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau tells us early on, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach” (90). With this passage, along with the text’s continual urging to awaken or reawaken ourselves, Thoreau is prescribing that, in order to solve the problems that persist through his society (and even ours), we must leave all of our needless complications behind us and live life to its fullest with only the essentials of life, hopefully shaking many people out of the trance-like state they find themselves entering in their daily lives. While Thoreau pushes and urges us strongly to follow (though not mimic) his example, the change he brings about is more passive than active. This is why he represents the second step of the eco-hero’s journey.
To complete our journey, the third step the eco-hero must travel is exemplified by Jane Takagi-Little, protagonist of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. Jane works as a journalist when she is commissioned by a Japanese production company creating a TV show called “My American Wife!” in which a special sponsor-approved, beef-based, home-cooked meal is the centerpiece amidst an “everyday” American family. Beef-Ex puts on a good show of being a clean, modern meat production company, but under the surface, manipulation and cover-ups are the name of the game, and Jane learns that DES, a chemical which has been known to cause high estrogen in men and infertility in women, may exist in large quantities in the facilities (and proof even shows up later on). Little by little, Jane opposes the production company in order to not only create a more accurate portrait of America for the Japanese audience, but also to expose the seedy underbelly of the meat production industry.
Jane personifies the third step of the eco-hero’s journey because she not only discovers what is wrong with her society in regards to the natural world and separates herself from it, she spends much of the novel actively fighting to solve those problems. When taken to an actual slaughterhouse in the desert southwest, Jane expresses a lot of distress regarding the chemicals fed to the animals. Not only is Jane fighting for human safety, but she also exposes the hideous treatment and living conditions that the animals must endure: “Stepping into the slaughterhouse was like walking through an invisible wall into hell. Sight, sound, smell—every sense I thought I owned, that was mine, the slaughterhouse stripped from me, overpowered and assaulted” (281). Blood all over the floor, feces everywhere, cows and chickens force-fed growth hormones and sanitation chemicals—it was not a pretty sight for Jane and her camera crew to see. And all of this horror was captured for the world to see. Whether or not she could change the world, you could count on the fact that she was going to try, and thus Jane rises from being just a humble reporter living in a cramped apartment to a heroic figure in the reader’s eyes.
For our heroes—the nameless narrator guided by Ishmael, Thoreau, Jane and her entourage—the path leading to what is right and what will keep humanity going is a long and arduous one. Even knowing this, all of them have risen to accept the challenge, and we as readers are encouraged, in all three texts, to do the same. Whether we’re saving the world from ourselves or embarking on a journey of self-discovery, we have an example to follow and learn from. Optimism is a trait shared by all three authors, and it’s with this optimism that they envision a better world for future generations. The implication is that, while we may have come this far and some things cannot be changed so easily, we still have time to correct our mistakes and set ourselves on the right path; to take our first steps to become an eco-hero ourselves. The most important thing we learn from these authors is that, no matter what, the first step must be taken while we still have time. “There is more day to dawn,” says Thoreau. “The sun is but a morning star” (333).
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of my senior thesis on my hard drive, so you'll just have to suffer without it. Enjoy all my lesser essays!
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