February 28, 2014

The Question of American–ness

The setting of Death Comes for the Archbishopis a peculiar one because it is situated in the newly acquisitioned state of New Mexico, which in turn complicates and heterogenises the idea of what can be considered American. It is a complex state filled with a variety of characters (Indians, Mexicans, white Americans, with a French bishop and vicar as its two protagonists) and spoken in a variety of languages (even though the novel is written primarily in English the dialogue is supposed to be in Spanish with the occasional smattering of French).

There are two instances when Father Vaillant, in particular, blurs the distinction between multiple nationalities. In Book 7, Chapter 1, he tells Latour: "I have almost become a Mexican! I have learned to like chili coloradoand mutton fat. Their foolish ways no longer offend me, their very faults are dear to me. I am their man!" And then in Book Eight, "Gold Under Pike's Peak", there is a peculiar instance when Father Latour and Vaillant are both informed of the gold rush situation at Colorado. Absent of "hospitable Mexicans" and populated by "saloons ... gambling rooms ... wanders and wastrels [and] many honest men", Father Vaillant remarks, "So now I must begin speaking English again!" - a curious remark to be made in a largely English-dominated country which nevertheless stresses the heterogeneity of America's culture and spoken language. There is also a particular anti-American sentiment in the way how personal wealth is portrayed and viewed in Friar Baltazar and Padre Martinez.

But there are instances as well when we are reminded of how intrinsically American the state of New Mexico can be as well. There are occasions in the novel when we see Father Latour tending to his garden, recalling the mythic image of the European immigrant farming in the colony; meta-fictively, Carter's own lush descriptions of the New Mexican landscape represents a kind of colonialism as well. Secondly, in the second-to-last scene of the novel, the motif of conquering and braving towards the new frontier is recalled once again when Latour remembers the moment when his journey to America first began: the image of the "diligence... already rumbling down the mountain gorge".

February 12, 2014

Beyond Race?

I was figuring out what to say about Emperor Joneswhen I came across Edward L. Shaughnessy's essay "O'Niell's African and Irish-Americans: stereotypes or 'faithful realism'?". According to him, O'Niell "achieves whatever universality his art my claim":

Accepting Nietzsche's "death-of-God" proclamation, the playwright nevertheless sought to invest his characters with a dignity denied by the narrow assumptions of the prevailing literary naturalism. (Indeed, he once proposed to call his work "supernaturalism.") All persons, without regard to the accidents of birth (place, endowment, and race), suffer the ineluctable condition of humanity: the tragedy of time. In this sense O'Niell is more concerned with "fate" than with determinism. Therefore, his major black plays finally deal less with racial matters than with the more fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Beyond what one might consider stereotypically black about Emperor Jones(the manner of speech, most crucially), it is most important to consider how Jones breaks out of the stereotype of the subservient and submissive black slave. He is armed with agency (or, freedom of movement), with political power (of which he is stripped, but seeks to regain) and with the power to kill (his armed gun). It is not his racial situation that entraps him, but his ego; he is not killed out of folly but out of guilt. O'Niell's assertion that his work is "supernaturalist" depicts him as a playwright more concerned with the tragedy of one's habits and actions - transcending the typically naturalistic point of view that one's fate is determined by wat has been given/endowed/provided at birth. (On the flip side, one might say that Jones' death is brought about because Jones aspired to a position of power as Emperor he was never destined to have.)

January 31, 2014

Christ–like imagery and its implications on black salvation

This notion of "black salvation" began in Chapter 11 of Du Bois' The Soul of Black Folk and culminated (in my opinion) in Chapter 13 - and it begins with Du Bois explicitly referencing his first born son to the coming of Christ. "Unto you a child is born", begins Chapter 11, which is a reformulation of the prophecy of the Messiah's arrival in Isaiah 9:6. The rest of the chapter thus continues with the Christ-like descriptions - "the world loved him; the women kissed his curls, the men looked gravely into his wonderful eyes, and the children hovered and fluttered about him" - but the potential of any salvation this child might bring is destroyed when Du Bois notices a tint of gold in his son's hair and a bit of blue in his eyes. It is destroyed because the moment Du Bois notices these physical features, he is made conscious of the fact that they are in the "Land of the Color-line", and that "the shadow of the Veil" (later referenced as the "Shadow of Death") has fallen across his child - the reality of a race-conscious society.

In Chapter 12, Du Bois' tale of Alexander Crummell's life is framed in the opening paragraph as an extension (of sorts) of Chapter 11 when he describes Crummell as having crossed "the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death". Can Crummel therefore be seen as the man Du Bois' child could have become? Is Crummel the man from whom salvation comes ("Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world") precisely because he has managed to survive? What does this therefore imply about how the black race might be saved - is it only religion? In some ways I can't help but feel that Du Bois' earlier arguments about the value of education and other avenues of self-improvement become diminished in retrospect.

Chapter 13 is significant in the way it seems to be the most fictional chapter in the book. It clearly has the sense of being a parable, with a lesson to teach - but the lesson is a despairing one when we see the black John realising that the South is an unredeemable place.

January 26, 2014

The economic problem of womanhood

I became increasingly conscious of the fact that Lily's hamartia - "money!", a fact which she acknowledges to both herself and Selden - echoes a deeper and more problematic tragedy for our protagonist. When she realises that her lifestyle is financially unsustainable, she too realises that not only is her entire beingeconomically unsustainable, the economy itself refuses to sustain her. As she once said very succintly in Book 2, Chapter 12:

I have tried hard - but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap - and you don't know what it's like in the rubbish heap!

It is telling that as Lily sums up her fate and position in life she continually defers to the word "one" in a constant reminder that she has been raised in a way that has only allowed her a single position in life, the further implication being that the economy (or society - one finds both domains to be the one and the same in the material, affluent world of House of Mirth) itself only has one position for Lily: to be a man's wife. Having been raised as such ("Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose"), it is no wonder that she both scoffs at the wage-earning woman and fails at her subsequent efforts to be one; but her great tragedy is seen when she chooses to continually reject offers of marriage in her aspiration for greater, "nobler" values (might one dare say it? i.e. love, or in some cases, the possibility of greater wealth in another man).

The novel thus establishes a conflict between two versions of womanhood, with being a wage-earner at one end and being blissfully married at the other - but this is also conflated with being a working classwage-earner versus an upper classmarried woman. This conflict of difference gets dashed away when Lily is confronted by the image of Nettie Struther, whose kitchen is at once shabby and yet warm and comforting in her marital, conjugal bliss.

And then this sets up a second conflict of womanhood - that between being independent/single and being dependent on a man. Lily is constantly tempted by the latter and reverts, in what seems like a show of strength, to the former. But again our confidence in Lily wavers when that final image of her cradling a baby comforts her to sleep at the end of the book. What does that mean for the empowered, independent female? Must a woman be eternally resigned to her single fate as a child-bearer? Can she be anything more?

January 19, 2014

The importance of likeability in characterisation

As I read The BostoniansI felt somewhat guilty, not to mention conscious of the fact that I liked Basil Ransom more than Olive Chancellor: from the first page Basil is presented to us as a man away from home in poor circumstances, seeking to create a better life in New York, his wit, humour and sardonic insight made apparent in the narrative. Olive, on the other hand, is presented to us "tragically shy" and subject to Basil's subtle ridicule for being inflexible and rigid by nature: "the simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who takes them easy. He perceived very quickly that Miss Chancellor belonged to the former class." Crucially this dynamic between the reader and the two characters become paramount as we watch, in parallel, Verena's internal struggle over who has the hold over her heart as Olive's nerves overwhelm her characterisation while Basil turns from the kinsman of a friend to lover in romantic conquest.

This element of likeability - who we as readers prefer, sympathise and gravitate towards - show that more often than not, one's stance is simply not enough to win people over in any sort of campaign for sociopolitical change. We see this in people's gravitation towards Verena as opposed to Olive, in spite of the fact that both women share the same views with regards to feminism and female emancipation. More tellingly is Basil's position as a seducer, and how potentially destructive and easy it is to fall into the traps of oppositional politics: like Verena's father, Basil assumes his position by physically having his hands on her as he drags her out of the music hall and away from her lecturing career.

January 04, 2014

Parallels in "The Town Ho's Story

When I read Chapter 54 of Moby-DickI was initially under the impression that its plot and characters were a reflection of the larger plot happening in the novel; by the end my impressions of "The Town Ho's Story" were both strengthened and weakened all the same. By this I mean that there was no longer any doubt that the chapter was meant to be a compressed version/allegory of the novel or a Moby-Dickin miniature - at the same time however the relation between the characters of "The Town Ho's Story" and the crew members of the Pequodbecame less concrete.

One of the main things I realise is that the novel is in a constant battle with ambiguity; one of Ishmael's key struggles during his voyage on board the Pequodis his desire to understand and define what cannot be easily understood or defined. (Look, for example, at the chapter in which Ishmael struggles with how to define the symbolism that surrounds the whiteness of the whale, and the almost incessant desire to recount every possible cetelogical detail which nevertheless leaves him more in doubt over what can be/is known about whales.) It's easy to declare that the Town-Ho's leak connects it to the Pequod's leak as well, or how Radney is the foil to Ahab while Steelkit is Moby-Dick - but it is also possible to see how Radney's crooked jaw bears resemblance to the whale, or how Steelkit is both Starbuck and Ishmael as well. The fact that the Town-Hosurvives while the Pequoddoes not is ironic as well, making it more unable to clearly delinieate any allegorical connection (or key, for the matter) between "The Town Ho's Story" and the novel.

November 10, 2013

Black and White Mixes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

One of the most surprising things about Uncle Tom’s cabin for me was the way that mixed race people were described and treated. Firstly I had no idea mixes were as common as they appeared to be in the novel, and I certainly had not idea that successive generations of mixing regularly took place – even to the point where George and Eliza can pass as white when travelling.

Obviously these mixes aren’t the product of star-crossed love but rape incidents of masters raping slave girls. It was also interesting and unsettling that, as Stowe notes towards the end of the book, one of the reasons for this process of mixing was that as slave girls became increasingly mixed (when “quadroons” for example, began to appear) they became even more attractive to potential white masters (who are pretty sickeningly described as “connoisseurs” in the closing chapter.)

It’d be interesting to know how common ‘light-skinned’ slaves were, and if this affected the social dynamics of slave communities themselves (George marries the equally light skinned Eliza) and indeed if lighter skinned slaves were treated differently by white masters. Did their lighter skin afford them any privileges or did masters tend to think of them as an embarrassment, if slaves were thought of in the same terms as beasts of burden – as Legree pretty explicitly says – raping one would surely dent the reputation of an aristocratic land owner. Or perhaps being a mix is treated as irrelevant, the one-drop rule again, after all George and Eliza’s racial position isn’t specified until about half way through the book.

October 26, 2013

Was the Utopian Project a Failure?

One of the strange and interesting things about Hawthorne’s novel was his choice of having the action play out against the backdrop of a self-sufficient, utopian commune. At first glance it would appear that the commune is a failure – all of the named characters that were part of the commune end up leaving, and at the end of the novel Coverdale reflecting that its failure was “well deserved, for [its] infidelity to its own higher spirit.”

What I find strange here is that we see no others, bar the central four, leave the commune for any reason. And the reasons for the protagonists leaving aren’t at all to do with the daily labour of running the commune, or with its place in the larger economic system of the country (its exact Geographical location is unspecified though). In fact every indication of the commune we see suggests that it is successful, visitors regularly come to watch the workers, and it us thought fondly of by those living in villages nearby. The only people who dislike it, Coverdale tells us, are other farmers, who pale in comparison.

So why the bleakness at the novel’s conclusion? Well the obvious answer is, Coverdale is depressed. It’s kind of a subtle thing but I think it’s really interesting to see a representation of that weird phenomena. It’s difficult to take an objective, big-picture look at the world around you, particularly the institutions and communities you are an intimate part of, without having your subjectivity influenced by various personal events in your own life. Good or bad. If you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend it’s easy to think that the NHS sucks, top to bottom. If you’ve just been offered a job it’s easier to remember how superior the heal system is to many other countries globally, and to remember times when you or your family have been treated very well. How do you deal with this? Is it enough just to be aware that it happens?

October 19, 2013

Treatment of Slaves as Status Statements

One of the most interesting aspects of Douglass’s narratives was the way that white slave owners used their relations with slaves as a method of projecting status, and how these differed from region to region. Contrasting the Southern slave owners who wish slaves to project frightened, deferential attitudes to their masters, and Northern slave owners whose reputation rides on whether or not their slaves are fed adequately.

Another interesting facet of this is how it filtered down into the communities of the slaves themselves. Douglass talks of how slaves vigorously defended their masters as being superior (morally, economically and in terms of their education) to the masters of other slaves – but when talking with other slaves of the same master, decrying their treatment. It’s strange how the language of status differentiation trickled down from white masters to black slaves – it would also be interesting to see if there was perceived superiority in slave communities between different roles (house slaves/field slaves etc.)

October 12, 2013

Subjectivity, Realism and Religion

The most obvious major theme in Wieland is objective reality vs. subjective perception. Over the course of the novel we see a number of mysteries and supernatural phenomena, but by the end they are all discovered to have concrete, material explanations, even slightly implausible ones like Carwin’s crazy ventriloquism talents (saying that Clara’s father’s spontaneous combustion is an obvious exception). It seems that for Brown there is an objective true reality out there – it may not be the one that we perceive but it does exist. It can, and should, be engaged with.

Theodore and his father view the world through a distorted, fanatical lens, and Brown makes no attempt to present their viewpoints as anything other than incorrect. This is interesting given that we don’t see a denouncement of religion as a concept in Wieland. Clara is explicitly religious, she’s concerned for her own chastity and she considers the fate of her soul after death. These don’t ever really seem to be treated critically – only Clara’s considering the possibility of heavenly and demonic voices is debunked by Carwin’s confession – so is Brown saying religiosity is good if you don’t take it too seriously/far?

Also interesting here is that we never really see religion enacted externally by anyone. We never see anybody praying – apart from when Clara’s father prays at his temple to his (invented?) god – nobody goes to church, nobody gives anyone religious lessons or rants until the final quarter of the book. In fact Theodore’s fanaticism comes pretty out of the blue. Everybody is personally religious but it doesn’t seem to tie them together in any real way – similar to Crevecoeur’s writings from week 1.

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