Thursday, December 23, 2010

Moby Dick (See, I told you it would be back...)

I know I said I was not going to post again until after the New Year, but I got bored one day and decided that this chart would prove useful. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Required Work: Song of Solomon

Ambiguous ending alert! Just thought I would go ahead and rip that band-aid right off. As someone who appreciates closure, I figured I would go ahead and forewarn you that Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has an ending that remains (and will probably always remain) open to debate. But I will also go ahead and assert that it isn’t the result of sloppy writing, and it also is not an ending that Morrison tacked on simply because she needed an ending. I do believe it is intentional, and even for those of us who appreciate closure and become frustrated with unanswered questions in literature; I do believe she achieves the effect she was going for…whatever that was.


There are a couple of options we can go with here for Song of Solomon. Clearly, it falls into African-American literature. And here I am going to make a brief point that was brought up in the class I just finished: just because the author is of a certain race it does not automatically make their works “African-American literature” or “Jewish literature” or “Latino/a literature,” etc. The genre should be applied when considering the actual work, and not necessarily the author’s background. Both Robert Pinsky and Philip Roth are Jewish, but my professor would argue that Roth’s novels can be described as Jewish literature much more readily than can Pinsky’s poems. Although, and this is another issue, certain authors, such as Roth, do not appreciate these types of labels. They tend to be a result of readers and critics attempting to put authors in a box and keep them there, and no artist wants that. Song of Solomon, however, does qualify as African-American literature as it focuses on the experiences of an American-American community in early 1930s America.

This novel is also part slave narrative as it tells the story of Milkman’s great-grandfather, Solomon, and his escape from slavery by flying back to Africa. This also gives the novel the feel of an African folk tale as flying is a major theme in different ways. But more on that later.

The book can also be seen as a Bildungsroman as it does follow the moral and psychological growth of Macon “Milkman” Dead III from birth to adulthood (and arguably to death). Probably the biggest change that occurs within Milkman is his decision at the end to stop running from his best friend, Guitar, who is attempting to kill him (although I guess that would make him more of a former best friend). Instead of continuing to run, he turns and faces him, and the novel ends with the reader not knowing if Guitar succeeded, or if Milkman came out the stronger man, or if neither happened, or even if both happened. I will further discuss this event, as well as Milkman’s great-grandfather, in the Themes section.


Race is obvious, as is Milkman’s quest for identity as a black man in 20th-century America, so let us move on.

Flying becomes a central theme from the very first chapter, as the reader is shown the note of Mr. Smith, a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Agent who is getting ready to attempt to fly from the Mercy Hospital building to the other side of Lake Superior. What he learns of course is that only birds and planes are meant to fly (and much like the ambiguous ending, I feel like it is never really clear whether Mr. Smith died or not, but I am not certain on that so don’t take my word on it). Even before this though, in the epitaph, flying is brought up: “The fathers may soar/and the children may know their names.” The narrator asserts that when Milkman learns at the age of four what Mr. Smith had already learned, that being able to fly was a gift that humans were not meant to have, that he became “saddened” and had subsequently “lost all interest in himself.” Later, Milkman will have dreams of flying, and still later when he visits the town of Shalimar with is aunt, Pilate, he learns of his great-grandfather’s escape from slavery by flying to Africa. In the final pages in the book, after Pilate is mistakenly shot and killed by Guitar (which is a heart-wrenching scene by the way), Milkman realizes that she too was able to fly “without ever leaving the ground,” making the idea of flight a much more symbolic or even spiritual thing than a physical one. And just a few short lines later, Guitar and Milkman have their final confrontation where Milkman finally gains his own freedom in much the same way his great-grandfather did. Whether he lives or dies, Milkman has learned that “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Flight is presented as one of the only ways to achieve freedom on an otherwise suffocating existence.

Because of this open ending, this book reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The poem within the novel is a 999-lined poem that is written entirely in heroic couplets…except that last line…which happens to rhyme with the very first line of the poem…therefore throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem is this weird (but oddly fascinating) continuous loop. Morrison achieves the same thing because while Milkman learns to fly, the reader isn’t sure if is has resulted in his death. But if we go back to the beginning, the novel opened with a man attempting to fly from the hospital in which Milkman is born in shortly afterward, thus creating another weird and fascinating loop. Through flight, the novel continuously rejects the idea of closure. The three men that “fly” are the three men whose endings we are not sure of: Mr. Smith, the great-grandfather, and Milkman himself. Instead, all of these different narratives interweave into each other. And gaps within the narrative get filled in because the reader is compelled to circle back re-read certain narrative sections.

Another theme within the novel is that of biblical names. There are Milkman’s two sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalena called Lena. There is his aunt, Pilate, who is actually the most nurturing and almost divine character in the book, despite her name. There is Milkman’s mother Ruth, and Pilate’s granddaughter Hagar, who is in love with Milkman and is actually the first person who tries to kill him because of that love. Then of course, there is Solomon, who only exists in the past, but is the one who, as far as we know, first achieved flight.


The book was published in 1977, but the story begins in 1931 with Mr. Smith’s flight and Milkman’s birth. It is mentioned that Guitar is a member of the Seven Days group, a group of black men that commits revenge murders against white people in response to the brutal murders that were taking place against innocent blacks at the time. Every time a black person was murdered unjustly (or the murder is at least deemed unjust by the group), one of the members picks and kills an innocent white person. Now I have not been able to find anything on any real Seven Days group that existed in the mid 1900s in America, but that is not to say that groups like this didn’t exist at the time of such racial tension in this country.

As Milkman looks deeper into his family’s history, the reader is shown the effects that slavery could have had on the African-American family long after it has ended. One of the effects is Milkman’s quest for identity as a black man. The effect of geological displacement of African-Americans because of slavery is also explored.

Also, at the beginning of the novel, it is explained that Milkman will be the first black baby born at Mercy Hospital, and that the only reason it is being allowed is because Ruth is the daughter of a black doctor.

Although I did enjoy this book, I do have to wonder why this book was chosen as a required work over Morrison’s Beloved or The Bluest Eye. I am glad it was chosen over those two in the sense that it doesn’t make a reader’s soul cry in the way that the other two would (at least they did for me). If this is the first book by Morrison that someone picks up, at least they won’t be immediately turned off by the severity and despair that the other two are so heavily with.

Next weekend is of course Christmas weekend, so I will be taking another break while enjoying the holiday season with my family. The following week, however, I plan to have finished Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. So until them, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Required Work: The Canterbury Tales Part II

Well, I managed to at least finish the last four stories of The Canterbury Tales that are required for the M.A. exam. One fun thing I realized about the edition I am using is that it does not include the Parson’s Tale, and after managing to print off a Modern English version of it from, I realized why. The tale is incredibly long and not really a tale. Fortunately, the exam only requires that the Prologue be read. I will discuss it later, after I first talk about the Clerk’s Prologue and Tale, the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale, and the Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale.

Clerk’s Prologue and Tale

The Clerk tells the tale of Griselda, a young wife whose new husband puts her through bizarre and brutal circumstances in order to test her loyalty. The torture she undergoes recalls the Biblical book of Job. The Clerk is portrayed as a diligent and well learned scholar, but the moral of his story is unclear and may have been left open-ended by Chaucer on purpose. On the one hand, he advises women to ignore Griselda’s passive acceptance of her husband’s cruelty. But on the other hand, he encourages everyone to face adversity with her same amount of fortitude.

Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

Descriptions of the Pardoner as well as certain clues in his tale suggest that although he is a man of religion, he suffers extreme spiritual as well as sexual poverty. He admits to abusing authority and selling fake relics to make money. He tells a folk-tale of Oriental origin that has many versions. It involves three drunken and debauched men who attempt to find Death, but because of their own greed and subsequent plots to kill each other, they find Death by actually dying themselves. Despite the sins of the Pardoner, his teaching is ultimately pretty good.

Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale

The prologue to this tale links it with the preceding Monk’s Tale about criminals and fallen heroes that is interrupted by the Knight. Because the Monk refuses to alter his story, the Host allows the Nun’s Priest to tell a new one. The new story actually follows a similar theme, but is more of a parody and has a happy ending. He tells the story of a rooster who is captured by a fox due to his own pride. However, the rooster manages to escape the fox because he manages to play on the fox’s pride. The story ends with the moral to be careful regarding reckless decisions and of those who flatter you.

Parson’s Prologue

The Host asks the Parson for a fable, a form that achieved success with the Nun’s Priest. However, the Parson refuses and instead condemns fable stories as folly and decides to therefore tell an improving tale in prose since he can neither rhyme nor alliterate. The tale that follows is the longest of all of the stories by the Pilgrim’s, and is really more of a treatise on virtuous living. It is not clear to the reader why Chaucer would choose to end The Canterbury Tales in this way, but the Parson does appear to be a positive character, and the general theme surrounding him is that we all need to help others to achieve salvation.

So there it is, one more monster has been slain. I hope (and “hope” is the operative word here) that I will have finished Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde by next week. I figured that if I have to choose one optional work from the Pre-1500 period then it might as well be one by an author that already has a required work. Plus, I was able to find it in a Modern English translation. If I don’t manage it (and this is a real possibility), then I may be exploring Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon instead.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Required Work: The Canterbury Tales Part I

Now this is what I mean by a monster novel (or at least a monster collection of short stories). Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was written in the late 1300s, in Middle English, and mostly in prose. It is one of those books that just seem much scarier than it actually is. After reading the first half of what is required from the book for the M.A. exam, I realize that even with the dominant prose style, this collection of stories is actually quite accessible. Of course, it helps that the version I am using, the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, has the Middle English text on one page and the translation on the facing page. Almost needless to say, I am paying pretty much little to no attention to the Middle English. It would not do me any good to even try as I would get nothing out of it. But even so, I do like the fact that the Middle English is still available to me in the same volume.

For the sake of this blog, I will approach The Canterbury Tales the same way I did Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I will begin with the usual information about genre, theme, and history, and then move into a short description about each individual tale covered on the M.A. list. Today I will cover the half I have already read, and hopefully by next week, I will have already finished the remaining stories so I can post about them as well.

And now, on with the post…


The Canterbury Tales is often called the first book of poetry in English. It is also recognized as the first anthology of English short fiction. It falls into the same genre as other works of the day as a collection of stories put together into a frame narrative or frame tale (an introductory story is composed to set the stage for the stories that follow). The Canterbury Tales differs from other stories of its type in that the stories within it are greatly varied. While other collections focused on a central theme, such as religion or politics, Chaucer used the setting of a pilgrimage as reason to have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds tell very different and distinctive stories. This makes The Canterbury Tales more about the characters than a central theme, and allowed Chaucer to showcase his ability in multiple genres of fiction.


As mentioned above, there is not a central theme such as religion, which was the popular one in Chaucer’s time that holds all of the different stories together. Some stories are funny, some are more serious, some have a lesson, and some appear to be just a story. The overarching theme seems to be the pilgrimage, which is the reason all of these characters are even together in the first place. However, Chaucer ignores the actual progress of the trip. There are no mentions of the amount of time that is passing or of any specific locations or landmarks along the way. It is generally believed that Chaucer left this work unfinished, which I am willing to buy as it doesn’t appear that the group ever reaches their destination (please feel free to correct me if I am wrong on that one as I have yet to actually finish the book).

A competition is introduced as something to do along the way, so what follows is this collection of various tales. A lot of the time one story will be in response to another (like the Miller with the Knight’s tale), and sometimes a storyteller will be momentarily interrupted by another traveler (like the Wife of Bath). The storytelling that occurs is definitely more of an interaction and not at all anything formal.


The Canterbury Tales was written during a time in England when the Catholic church The Great Schism (two different men were claiming to be the true Pope, a disagreement driven more by politics than any real theological differences). Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is also mentioned as a specific incident involving pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who claimed to be collecting from a hospital.

Also occurring during this time were the Peasants’ Revolt and events ending in the deposing of King Richard II.

The religious views of the different characters seem quite diverse, but they still all fall under the established Church of England. Both the Pardoner and Summoner, however, are portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and even abusive. The tale of the Friar is about a summoner who works on the side of the devil. The Second Nun tells a tale about chaste women bringing people to the church by example. The Monk and the Prioress, while not as corrupt as the Pardoner or Summoner, still fall short of what they are supposed to be.

The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England, the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury was a popular pilgrimage destination. Miracle stories connected to the remains of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a dispute between church and crown, sprang up shortly after his death. The pilgrimage ties all of the stories together and allows a collection of Christians to strive for heaven despite weakness, disagreement, and diversity.

So that is what I have for genre, theme, and history. I will now continue with brief descriptions of the General Prologue, Knight’s Tale, Miller’s Prologue and Tale, and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.

General Prologue

The collection opens with The General Prologue which basically sets the stage and introduces each of the characters the reader will encounter. The order the pilgrims are introduced places them in a social order with nobility, craftsmen, and then peasants at the end. It also sets up the competition and introduces the reader to the narrator.

Knight’s Tale

This tale deals with many typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas. It is written in iambic pentameter and uses 10 syllables per line. It is a story about how even two noble knights who are close like brothers can still be torn apart and have a vicious feud over the love of a woman.

Miller’s Prologue and Tale

The drunken Miller actually interrupts the Monk before he can tell his tale. The Miller even asserts that his tale as noble much like the Knight’s, but because he is drunk, he cannot be held accountable for what he actually says. It is a vulgar tale that is in direct contrast to the tale of the Knight. While the Knight told of courtly love, the Miller tells of a landlord being proved a cuckold as his young wife carries on an affair with someone else.

Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

This is probably the most well known tale of the collection. Her prologue is actually twice as long as her tale, and it explores the role of women in the Late Middle Ages. The length of the prologue may just show how she likes to talk about herself and enjoys being the center of attention. She establishes herself (or at least tries to) as an expert on marriage because she has been married five times and has ready justifications and reasons for each of them. In short, a knight commits a rape, so the Queen punishes him by sending him on a year-long quest to find out what it is that women really want. If he can’t get the correct answer, he loses his life. While on his quest, he meets an old woman who agrees to give him the answer in exchange for a future favor. He agrees, returns to court with the old woman, gives the Queen the correct answer, and is therefore saved. As her favor, the old woman demands that the knight marry her despite his protests. While in their marriage bed, he confesses his unhappiness to his new wife and admits that it is because she is ugly and low-born. She gives him a choice between ugly and faithful, or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice over to her, and is therefore rewarded with her transformation into a beautiful woman who remains faithful. Moral of the story: husbands are rewarded if they let their wives have mastery over them. Take that as you will.

For next week, if I finish the rest of The Canterbury Tales, then I will post on the remainder of the stories. If not…well…we’ll see.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Required Work: Waiting for Godot

For this week’s post I am going to explore the confusing yet somewhat surprisingly popular play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. As mentioned in the post for Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Beckett wrote in what became known as the theater of the absurd (two pages into the play and you begin to understand what that means). I have actually read several other works written by Beckett, including another of his plays, Endgame. Reading Beckett’s other work did help me better understand this one. And as usual with plays, it is probably a good idea to watch a performance of Waiting for Godot as plays are meant to be seen and not read.


Of course, there is the genre of the theater of the absurd. The play completely violates ordinary expectations, and the characters actions seemingly make very little sense. Beckett’s play has also been described as expressionistic minimalism. There is never a change in scenery, the characters stay in one place, and they seemingly will continue to stay in that place until Godot comes. But the assumption at the end of the play is that Godot never will come, and not only have these characters been waiting a long time for him, but they will continue to wait apparently until the end of time. This endless waiting for something causes many critics and readers to link Beckett with existentialism. They even want to walk away, but are paralyzed in place simply because they feel they have to wait for Godot. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a hope or saving force that will never actually come.

The cover of the play also announces that it is a “tragicomedy in two acts.” This is yet another one of those works on the M.A. list that is funny in spots, but ultimately it is incredibly depressing and void of hope (there seems to be a lot of those on the exam list). The back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon can be quite funny at times. In fact, for me, this play is an example of repetition used effectively (unlike that travesty of a novel I wrote about last week*). But of course, there are darker elements: at one point Estragon suggests that both he and Vladimir hang themselves; the mistreatment of Lucky as Pozzo’s slave; the fact that Estragon seems to spend every night in a ditch and is continually beaten by a group of men; and of course, that awful reality that these men are simply fated to live this same terribly bleak day over and over.


The very first words in the play are “Nothing to be done,” uttered by Estragon after multiple attempts to take his boot off. Beckett was a man that chose his words carefully. He was an Irish born writer who studied in England and spent most of his life living in France. The original text was actually written in French, and Beckett has been quoted as saying that he prefers to write in French because his vocabulary in that language is much more limited than it is in English. I believe (and I could be wrong on this) that his point is that if he writes in French, he has to pay more closely to what he is putting down on paper because the words do not come to him as naturally. Beckett actually loved language and loved words, and for proof of this I recommend you refer to his novel, Watt, where the narrator obsessively explores a situation of issue by playing out every possible scenario or combination (i.e. “my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s…). Apart from a somewhat philosophical soliloquy by Lucky, there isn’t much extensive rambling in this play. Everything is fairly minimal, and a lot of the dialogue is used over and over again as the characters discuss the same issues. I am not sure if these issues of Beckett’s language would necessarily fall under theme, but it is important to the play and something that stands out to anyone who has read or seen it.

The general overarching themes seem to be along the lines of desperation and hopelessness. The mean are desperate enough to result to suicide, but even that means of escape is thwarted, twice. The first time they just realize that they both may not die and that would leave one of them alone, and that is completely unacceptable. The second time their “rope” breaks (Estragon’s belt), leaving them nothing to hang themselves with. They are waiting for Godot, seemingly so they can leave, but because he never shows up, they do suggest that they go without him, yet they never move from where they sit or stand. For me, this is a picture of utter hopelessness.


The original French text was written between 1948 and 1949, and some would argue that it captures a general feeling that followed World War II.

Because of it is an absurdist play, its out of the ordinary dialogue and sequence of events have invited misinterpretation after misinterpretation. Beckett quickly became sick of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations. He asserted that people were overcomplicating things. Nevertheless, there are political, religious, psychological, ethical, and even homoerotic interpretations. And the fact that the play was so open to a variety of readings led Beckett to sanction a famous mixed-race production of the play , which of course led to many more misreadings and misinterpretations. So my advice, do not try to fight the text. If you feel like you are trying to “win” or “defeat” it, then you are probably trying too hard.

Next week there will not be a posting as it is Thanksgiving break and I will be enjoying time with my family. So I will say Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading.

*See the title of last week’s blog post.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Optional Work: American Pastoral

I am going to start off by saying that I do not like this book at all. The only other book I have read by Philip Roth is The Counterlife, and I didn’t care for that one either. American Pastoral does not make any sense, has absolutely no closure at the end, and it is a book that employs painful repetition and run-on sentences as literary devices. I can’t for the life of me understand how this book won a Pulitzer, but nevertheless, it made it onto the M.A. list. This is the type of book that makes me ask the question I posed in my second blog post.*


Genre becomes an interesting subject with this book because of its title. When it comes to literature, a pastoral typically portrays real life as an idyllic condition. But the characters in this book have lives that are anything but idyllic. For some of them, their lives may look idyllic on the outside: Swede was the popular blonde haired, blue eyed jock from high school who grew up to marry Miss New Jersey, have a baby girl, and inherit his father’s business, but this isn’t the whole story. Without giving too much away, things make almost a complete 180 for the Swede and it is clear that this is not the ideal. The point may be that the American pastoral does not really exist, and to portray anyone’s life as such is a lie. Swede Levov is part of a Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S. looking for the American dream, and at one point it would appear that they had achieved it. But in reality, they have gone from the first generation being poor immigrants, to the latest generation being terrorists. So the question really becomes how much have the actually accomplished?

The novel is of course fiction, but to take it one step further, this isn’t just a book telling the story of Swede Levov. It is actually the story of Zuckerman, a man who knew of the Swede in high school, imagining what the Swede’s life was really like, and that is the story the reader is getting. So we aren’t even getting the story by way of the usual narrator, but we are getting a story of what one of the characters imagined had happened. But in the end, he is simply doing what fiction writers do, and that is he is making everything up.


The main theme for me is what I mentioned under genre, which is the idea that the American dream isn’t real. But of course, there are many more themes that can be taken from the book.

For me, it is kind of weird to think of conflict as a theme, as all stories inevitably have some sort of conflict going on. But one of my classmates pointed this out and there are a few good points that can be taken from this. The characters, and mostly the main character Swede Levov, are trying to resolve the conflict between their past (the paradise remembered), and what has happened since to give them their future (the fall, and the paradise lost). There is conflict between people, generations, personal histories, family histories, and even American history.

Roth also makes use of repetition, mostly to emphasize a point, and a lot of the time it will be at a high intensity moment. The points could have been made in a different (and often much shorter in my opinion) way, but Roth chooses repetition instead. The repetition occurs usually when a certain character is making a speech or ranting, or when two or more characters are arguing. Instead of the argument being resolved, at least one character, and usually the one that is the most aggressive, will end up reiterating the same point over and over, therefore causing the argument to go nowhere.

There is also a running theme of shifting perceptions. On first sight, the Swede’s life can be seen as idyllic, but a deeper look will prove that it isn’t. The reader can see Swede as an idealist always trying to believe the best. However, his brother is a cynic and sees reality for what it is. However, this can also show cynics to be as deluded as idealists are, but in a different way, as nothing is purely either one way or the other. There is a real difference between perception and reality, for everyone. Jerry, Swede’s brother, actually says it best on page 35:

“…you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”

Perhaps if the Swede was able to see this, and also his other limitations, he may have been able to better cope with the tragedies that befell him.


American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain are part of a trilogy, as all of them include a character by the name of Zuckerman. They are also a part of a bigger collection of Zuckerman books that are nine books in total. In most of the other Zuckerman books, the character is known for frequently being in and out of the beds of different women, and he often gets in trouble for it. In this book however, Zuckerman is both impotent and incontinent after having surgery on his prostate for prostate cancer. Plus, he isn’t even the main character of the book, Swede is.

Also, the real Upsala College (the college the Swede attends and where he meets his future wife) closed its doors in 1995 due to financial difficulties. The book was published in 1997.

There is a part near the end of the book where Swede’s parents are obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Nixon will end up being the first American president to resign in disgrace, and this disgrace happens to link up with the deterioration of Swede Levov’s life.
After World War II, there was a rise in ethnic literature in America. Roth was often lumped together with other Jewish authors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (which Bellow began to resent after awhile). Roth actually did not appreciate having his literature tagged as Jewish-American fiction. He felt that it was a label “made up to strengthen some political agenda.”

So, if you actually liked and appreciated this book and choose to use if for your exam, then I really do hope this post will be of use to you, despite buy personal objections to the novel. As for my class, this was the last book we are covering that is on the M.A. exam; therefore, next week I will cover a different work on the list, and most likely one that is required.

*Please see the title of my second blog post

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Optional Work: Glengarry Glen Ross

Once again I am covering a play that is on the M.A. list, but one that I did not choose myself. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play that has also been made into a movie starring a good amount of Hollywood Heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. If you do choose this play for your exam, I highly recommend you see a production of it, or at least the movie, as, like most plays, it was meant to be seen and not necessarily read. Also, because of the plays pacing and rhythm that has become to be known as distinctly Mamet, it is actually quite difficult to read.


Mamet did not write in the Theater of the Absurd as Harold Pinter did with The Homecoming. Mamet’s plays have been viewed as realism as it is possible to relate to the characters, despite the language being somewhat exaggerated and the pacing of the dialogue far more intense while still maintaining a sort of poetic form. With Pinter, the characters were almost completely unpredictable, and it was difficult to know what their motives were. With Glengarry Glen Ross, it is clear that these are desperate men just trying to make a living.


Profanity and lots of it. Not really a theme as much as it is a literary device on Mamet’s part. There really is no need to go into it…if you read or see the play, you’ll encounter it. The use of it is intentional, brutal, aggressive, and in your face, just like the characters.

The way Mamet uses the language in general is brilliant in its simplicity. You can tell who is speaking by the dialogue. All characters use ellipses, but in different ways. You can immediately tell by the first page that Levene is someone who is generally struggling – to communicate, to sell, and to live. Williamson is always in control. He pauses, thinks before he speaks, is always calm, and always has a point, while many of the others are just talking. Aaronow is too weak to communicate his own ideas, and can only seem to repeat everyone else’s.

All of them, with the exception of Baylen, the detective, are always trying to sell something: Levene tries to sell Williamson on the idea of giving him the good leads even though he isn’t that great of a salesman; Moss tries to sell Aaronow on the idea of stealing the leads and making some real money for the both of them; Roma attempts (and almost succeeds) is selling Lingk a piece of property down in Florida; and the Roma oddly takes the place that Levene held at the beginning of the play in trying to sell Williamson in giving him the good leads, thus leading to the idea that Levene is what Roma will be in about ten years.

Another theme is the Neurosis of Masculinity. All of them want to be the top dog. They are all hunting, but instead of hunting in a pack, they are each going solo and turning on each other. In this scenario, Williamson would be the symbolic female of the group as he is the only one is on salary and has no need to hunt, instead, he lives off of the collected revenue of everyone else. Williamson can also represent women in the workplace and how men react when they are forced to deal with this new sort of competition. Even Lingk, who is not a salesman but a potential customer, wants to be a top dog like Roma. Even after he realizes he has been betrayed, he is the one who apologizes and states that it is his wife that doesn’t want to buy the property.

Two solid quotes on the issue of manliness in this play: 1. P. 75 Levene: A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours (interestingly enough, so is he); 2. P. 20 Leven: Now I’m a good man (meaning not necessarily a moral man, but good at being a man).

This play has also been viewed as both capitalism without mercy, and capitalism gone awry.

It also seems to address that eternal question: How much of life is free will, and how much of it do we have absolutely control over? Is there such a thing as free will, or is some unknown entity pulling the strings all of the time? Levene seems to believe in luck and streaks, while Roma believes in making his own luck, and he is the one who is currently the successful salesman. So who is right? What do you do with the hand you’re dealt?


Bill Bryden, the director of play at the National Theater, described Glengarry Glen Ross as “a way of explaining Nixon’s America through seven of its citizens.” This play first premiered on stage in 1983, which is of course well after Nixon’s America. However, the 1980s were the “me” decade and the men in this play are definitely looking after themselves and no one else.
The 1960s saw the creation of the Peace Corps. There was also John F. Kennedy’s altruism and the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In the 1970s, the economy went south, the Vietnam War was over (and we lost), and Jimmy Carter is mocked for his attitude of self-sacrifice. Enter the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan emphasizes trickle down economics, the central idea of which I will very loosely summarize to mean that if you look out for your self and do well, everything else below you will fall into place. Also the age of excess and of never having enough. This is the America that these seven men are attempting to survive in.

This play has also been considered a sequel to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because here are four salesmen (plus Williamson) with very little hope, nothing left, nothing to grasp at, and get you get the sense that even for the ones that are doing well (like Roma), the success is short-lived and they all eventually end up like Levene.

So, for all of you Mamet enthusiasts, I hope this was at least somewhat helpful. This play was definitely easier for me to grasp that The Homecoming, but I can’t say that helped me like it any better. I do appreciate what Mamet has done here, but I probably need to at least see it performed before I can say that I “get it.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Required Work: Middlemarch

I decided to go ahead and attack the monster that is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I have been told that Middlemarch was not included in the list of questions for this semester’s written portion of this exam. Therefore, there is a good chance that it will be included in the exam for the next few semesters. With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and post on it for those of you who will be taking the exam in spring 2011.


As usual, Middlemarch can fall into a few key genres. The title page of the first edition of this novel has a secondary title of “A Study of Provincial Life.” While “provincial life” is a very broad area to cover, Eliot does just that, making this book panoramic. It has multiple plots with many characters, all of which interlock and interweave with each other (much in the same vein as Dickens’ Bleak House). There are many underlying themes beneath the main ones, thus giving the reader a very broad look at provincial life in England while still focusing on one small fictitious town.

Middlemarch could also be thought of as a work of realism. The reader becomes aware of different broad issues of the day through the voice and opinions of the novel’s characters. Such issues include the Great Reform Bill (explored further in the History section below); the beginning of the railways; the death of King George IV and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence; the state of contemporary medical science; and the effects of unwelcome change to a small community set in its ways.

And through the above issues that are brought to light comes a sometimes biting social commentary, especially when it comes to education and social class. The character of Rosamond Vincy is Eliot’s example of what happens to the women of the time who have received the so-called “proper” education. Also, her marriage to Lydgate is an example of many marriages of the time that include a seemingly intelligent man and a seemingly deserving female that has the right dowry to secure such a match. As for social class, this is not a book that simply follows the rule that all rich people are bad and every person of a lower social class is humble and good. Dorothea is fairly well off even before her marriage to Casaubon, and even though she may be somewhat self-deluded and overly idealistic, she really wants to help people. But of course, there are a handful of wealthy characters in the novel that seem to only want to do harm to others, and there are people in the lower class that are some of the most admirable characters in the book. However, the example of Dorothea shows the reader that it isn’t important how much money people in the novel have, but how they use it.


As mentioned before, the theme of education shows prominently throughout the novel. Rosamond Vincy has received a first-rate finishing school education that has done her absolutely no good. She is an opposite to Dorothea who has a thirst for the purposeful education that was generally denied the women of the age. Lydgate is a young up and coming doctor, so of course he has received a great education as well. But it does not help him in choosing a wife, as he chooses Rosamond Vincy to his eventual peril. Also, Rosamond admires him at first because she is attracted to his knowledge, and the idea that he being rich will place her in the upper classes of society. Interestingly enough, Dorothea is attracted to her future husband, Casaubon for much the same reasons, except for the higher society part. However, both women soon have there expectations dashed when they realize their husbands are not who they hoped they would be. Casaubon is a boring, almost useless man as he refuses to finish the project he has been working on for years because he insist on publishing something that would be beyond criticism. Lydgate, despite all of his knowledge, is unable to come off as arrogant to the people of this small community, whom he obviously views as somewhat backward and behind the times.

Another theme that was mentioned in the genre section is that of social class. All of the characters fall within very distinct social classes. At the top are Sir James Chettam, Casaubon, and the Brooke family, which includes Dorothea, Celia, and their uncle. The merchant and professional class includes the Vincys, and the laboring class is represented by the Garth family. Mr. Vincy does not push either of his children, Fred or Rosamond, to work hard at moving up in society, because he believes that his son will receive an inheritance upon the death of wealthy old Mr. Featherstone (he doesn’t), and that his daughter is pretty enough to marry up (she doesn’t). These types of hopeful yet unrealistic expectations lead into another theme of the book: self-delusion.

Many of the main characters are incredibly idealistic and na├»ve. Even the ones with the best intentions remain self-absorbed and out of touch with reality, causing all of their grand plans to fail miserably. Those who learn from their mistakes go on to live happy lives in the end (Dorothea, Ladislaw, Fred, etc.). Those who don’t learn continue to spin their wheels until the axe finally falls (Lydgate, Rosamond, etc.).

Dorothea deludes herself into thinking that marrying Casaubon will allow her to a great help to the aging scholar in his intellectual pursuits. But, she is so deluded that she does not realize he is not actually producing any work.

Fred deludes himself into thinking (with the aid of his father) that he will receive an inheritance after the death of Mr. Featherstone, so he doesn’t work very hard at school. But when Mr. Featherstone does finally die, he receives nothing. After this rude awakening, Fred is able to let go of his delusion, learns to work hard, and therefore wins the heart of his beloved Mary Garth.

Lydgate chooses his wife based on her looks and not at all on any knowledge of her actual character. He deludes himself into thinking that her look and family connections are enough to make the marriage work. But, Rosamond actually end up driving the couple further and further into debt with her extravagant expenses, and even refuses to cut down on spending because she wants to have the appearance of an upper class lifestyle.

Rosamond deludes herself into thinking that marrying a doctor will give her that final push into higher society. But, Lydgate continues to mount up debt, mostly because of her, and she actively resists curving their spending. She sees herself as a wronged princess, even though she is the one who is both scheming and manipulative. She may be the only one who does not suffer much from holding onto her delusions. Sure she comes to realize what being married to Lydgate really entails, but he eventually gives in to her desires and becomes the kind of doctor he never wanted to be so that they can be financially successful. Plus, after Lydgate’s death, Rosamond manages to marry someone even higher up in status and who will indulge her every want, thus living happily every after.


The first one-volume edition of Middlemarch was published in 1874, though it was serialized between 1871 and 1872. The book is set in the time period of the Great Reform Bill. The bill basically introduced changes to the electoral system of both England and Wales. It took away seats in the House of Commons from small cities with small populations (places that Middlemarch would resemble) and gave them to large cities that were popping up during the Industrial Revolution; therefore, making the vice of the small townspeople even harder to hear. The act also increased the amount of people that were able to vote in elections. This issue is reflected in the political work of Mr. Brooke and Ladislaw, and also the aversion to change in the people of Middlemarch.

Lydgate brings up many of the issues of modern medicine and science. He is an advocate for the new way of treating patients, but the older more established doctors of Middlemarch resent him, as do some of the patients. His lack of tact and social grace also contribute to problems, leading to his mounting debt due to lack of patients.

So there she is. I have to say I actually enjoyed Middlemarch a great deal. It is intimidating, and it also one of those books that you can sit down and read for five hours and not feel like you got anywhere (900+ pages will do that to you). But I do see its value and its place on the M.A. exam list. Next week I will explore another work that I did not choose personally, but that we are reading in my class. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play by David Mamet, a man that was heavily influenced by Harold Pinter, whom I explored last week. Until then…

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Optional Work: The Homecoming

As promised, I will cover Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming. And I will try my absolute hardest to devote the same amount of attention to this work as I would to one that did make it on my personal M.A. list.


Pinter wrote in the genre known as the Theater of the Absurd. Playwrights of this genre (including Samuel Beckett) liked to violate ordinary expectations. The characters do not behave plausibly and there is rarely a real resolution by the end of the play. Pinter also liked to rely on gestures and action rather than the words. A gesture was supposed to stand on its own and need no explanation.

Pinter was also a fan of grotesque humor. The audience laughs at things that are bizarre and dark and strange. We are given the option to either laugh or cry, and most of us choose laughter.


A question that my professor posed: Is this play about the manipulation of power?
All of the men in the family, with the exception of Sam, try to dominate Ruth and control her, but in the end she is the one who becomes completely free and ends up controlling the entire situation. It turns out that she can play the game better than they can. One by one, all of their attempts to control Ruth fail and each man slowly becomes like a child with her. Joey, the youngest, spends two hours up in the bedroom with her and gets nowhere. Lenny talks about his violence towards women to her, but is completely disarmed by Ruth when she states that she could take him. Max is all about controlling his entire family, but openly expresses his fear that he may now be too old for her. He is even initially upset when he thinks that Teddy has brought home a prostitute; then he is ready to turn Ruth into one. He is okay with the idea as long as it is under his terms, but in the end, it is all under Ruth’s terms. And even Teddy, her seemingly passive husband, tries to control her by taking her back to America, and at the end he is leaving without her.

An underlying theme throughout the play is the tension and conflict between the U.S. and Great Britain. The return of the oldest son, Teddy, and his wife Ruth from the U.S. is a symbol of Britain’s relationship with the U.S. Teddy’s initial move to the U.S. is also a symbol of brain drain from England. Teddy is the one member of the family that received an education, and he is now teaching philosophy in the U.S. English colleges suffered greatly after World War II and a lot of the best and the brightest went to America. Also, while Britain is grateful to the U.S. for saving them, deep down past that gratitude is resentment (Why you not me?). Teddy’s brothers and father feel the same way. They are glad to see Teddy, but resent him for being the one to escape this incredibly toxic environment. This also ties into the theme of control because Teddy is the one who escaped Max’s control by going to the U.S. Max then tries to regain his control through Ruth, but that does not work either. Sam is the one family member who shows any feeling about Teddy coming home. He is happy to see him, and he is also the one who was a soldier in WWII. He welcomes Teddy, the new American home. Sam represents that part of Britain that remembers being saved by the U.S. and is still grateful.

This play could also be viewed as what could happen to a family of males when the one central female character is taken away. In the middle of the play, it is discussed that one of the walls in the house was removed but the structure wasn’t damaged. Teddy then also mentions the death of his mom, hinting that her removal did cause some structural damage to the family. Therefore, when Ruth comes into the picture, she somehow becomes both the family’s mother and prostitute (really makes you wonder what happened to the mom).


As mentioned under themes, this play has an undertone that explores the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain. Pinter published the play in 1965, and it was written during that part of the 60s that we don’t really think of as “the 60s.” England was still recovering after WWII and almost all British colonies had become independent. However, they were undergoing a cultural revolution. It was the period of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, etc.

This was also written at the time of the deterioration of the nuclear family.

Brief Notes on the Characters

Max was a butcher, and Lenny is a pimp. Both men had or have careers in trading flesh.
At the end of the play, Ruth calls Teddy “Eddy.” It is almost as if she forgot his name. This shows that their relationship is not especially close.
Jessie, the mother, was where the boys learned their morals, according to Max. If the play is to show what they learned from her, then how were her morals? Also, the name “Jessie” means gift from God. If she is dead, then the men have been abandoned by God.
Teddy is smart but largely useless. He is an observer, and even admits that, but it means that is all he does and he remains completely detached. He uses big words that don’t really mean anything of substance.
Joey is supposed to the one who is young and virile, but he is the one who spent two hours with Ruth and did not get anywhere.
Sam’s death is ambiguous, but either way, that family really doesn’t react at all. He was the one serving as the new mother figure after the mom died, but now that Ruth is here, there is no need for him.

Well I tried my best. To be honest, this play still baffles me a little bit. But as usual, I was able to get more out of it once I attended class and heard other people’s opinions.

As for next week, I am torn between William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and the required work of Middlemarch by George Eliot. Let me know if anyone has a preference.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pale Fire: More Issues Resolved

I have returned safely and without sunburn from a three-day music festival in Austin, Texas. The weather was perfect, the bands were great, and I ate way too much festival food for way too much money. Basically I did exactly what I set out to do.

As promised I will revisit Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. My professor and class mates were able to shed a little more light on this complex novel. What follows are the holes that we were able to fill in as a class.


It was discussed that this novel can be seen as a brilliant satire on what we all do as scholars, i.e. we read way too much into something that should just be appreciated for it beauty and artistry. The foreword even makes a great parody of the arrogance of the literary scholar. On one level, Kinbote reads “Pale Fire” the poem as a veiled story of his life, but any objective reading would prove Kinbote to be a fool. It is a book about reading and how we read. Nabokov did believe that literature was to be enjoyed and that we must “read with our spine and not with our skull.” He had no interest in using literature to promote any political cause or understand society better.


There is the theme of couples. The 999 line poem is written entirely of heroic couplets. Of course, for it to be completely successful, the poem would then have an even number of lines. The story is supposed to be that Shade was killed before the last line for the poem was completed. However, the last line does rhyme with the very first line, causing this sort of cyclical masterpiece. Nabokov did believe that reading was not about getting to the last page, but about the journey. Also, both Shade and his wife are troubled when their daughter, Hazel, cannot successfully “couple” with a male. In fact, she eventually kills herself after a failed attempt to “couple” on a blind date. There is also a large amount of tension in the Shade household due to Kinbote’s constant intrusions not allowing Shade and his wife to just be a couple.

The story also has a sense of paradise lost, as do a lot of Nabokov’s novels. Kinbote has lost the paradise of Zembla forever. He was the king, and now he must not go back. He even has an assassin come after him after he has fled. Kinbote has lost his throne, his home, and even his freedom as he tries to start a new life somewhere else. Also, Shade has lost his daughter to suicide, and a large amount of the poem “Pale Fire” is about her death and his thoughts on whether or not there is an afterlife, and if there is, is there any way we can communicate to those on the other side while still alive on this earth.

The names of the characters are also not at all by accident. “Kinbote” in Zemblan means regicide. Kinbote, who is the real King Charles of Zembla, now goes by the name Kinbote and in effect kills himself. The name “Shade” goes along with the notion of a pale fire. Shade could just be a double for Kinbote, a pale imitation, like a reflection in the mirror is just a “pale fire” of our real selves. Also, the name Gradus means shade in Zemblan, and he often goes by the name of Jack Grey. And the poem is full of references to shadows, mirrors, reflections, etc.

Another theme is Kinbote’s obviously lack of ability to grasp certain cultural references in Shade’s poem due to the fact that he was not raised in America. There are a couple of references to baseball, but Kinbote fails to recognize any of them. With the first reference, he believes is has something to do with a Keats poem, and with the second, he only mentions soccer and cricket.


As mentioned under theme, many of Nabokov’s stories have a sense of paradise lost. Nabokov’s family was exiled to Europe from their home in St. Petersburg, Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his childhood in St. Petersburg as very near perfect. Everything is described to be very idyllic and comfortable. He was forced out of that and moved to England where he would receive his degree at Trinity College at Cambridge. From there he would rejoin his family in Germany, and then later move to France. He was then forced from France during World War II and fled to America, where he lived until after the success of Lolita made him financially independent and he moved to Switzerland, where he would remain until his death. So not once, but twice, was Nabokov forced from his home due to war and conflict.


Here I thought I would just list several of the theories that different scholars and critics have offered as a way to read Pale Fire.

1. Shade is a figment of Kinbote’s imagination. Kinbote gave the poem he himself wrote a fake author so that he could provide commentary on his own poem. This would make sense of when Kinbote claims that the poem has no reality on its own. Also, on page 299, Kinbote tells of how he basically bribed Gradus into admitting that he killed Shade, thus forcing him to become this character.

2. Kinbote is a creation of Shade. Again, so the Shade can write a commentary on his own poem and put two works into one. *Something interesting that supports both 1 and 2 is the fact that the two characters share a birth date.

3. Kinbote is a deranged biographer, much like James Boswell was for Samuel Johnson. The epigraph at the beginning of the book is a quote from Boswell’s biography on Johnson. Boswell pestered Johnson for years to be able to write his biography and Johnson kept refusing. Eventually, Boswell wrote the biography anyway. Kinbote maybe could not wait for Shade to die so he could write the biography, so he killed him.

4. Kinbote’s commentary on “Pale Fire” is really just a long suicide note, and Kinbote kills himself after he finishes it.

5. Kinbote is simply a lunatic. He is definitely the classic unreliable narrator. And he could be just imagining that all of this is about him, despite the actions of the other characters suggesting that it isn’t. At one point in the commentary, he even admits to fabricating lines that he put into the poem and then falsely attributes to Shade (P. 227-228). The note he put in about these lines is actually extremely long and detailed, but he made up the lines and now wants us to ignore the commentary after we have read it.

6. The reader really can’t say whether or not “Pale Fire” is a great poem. Because of Kinbote’s unreliability, we do not know how much he has given or taken away from Shade’s original.

*Just one last special note about the index. The longest entry in Kinbote’s index is his own entry. A real scholar providing commentary on a work would be self-effacing. Kinbote is the opposite, and makes his presence felt throughout the book.

Also, look up the entry for “word golf.” I think you will be pleasantly surprised…or frustrated.

There now, I feel much better about this book. Next week I will discuss a play that is on the M.A. exam list as optional, but I actually did not choose it. We have gone over Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” in class, and since I have the notes for it, I figure I would go ahead and post about it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Optional Author: Flannery O'Connor Part II

And we’re back! Here are the last three stories from Flannery O’Connor that made it onto the M.A exam list.

Good Country People

This is definitely my favorite story. It is just so bizarre and strange, and yet it makes some good points.

Hulga (whose real name is Joy, but she changed it to the ugliest sounding name she could think of) lives at with her mom, Mrs. Hopewell, whom she pretty much despises. She is one of O’Connor’s many characters who is dependent on her mother and resents her for it. Hulga also has a Ph.D. in philosophy but does absolutely nothing with it. What she does do with it is decide she is an Atheist, which also annoys her mother.

Mrs. Hopewell is a well-meaning but incredibly vapid woman. She sticks to stock phrases such as “it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round,” “that’s life,” and “good country people are the salt of the earth.” She manages to fit all three in one breath while talking to one Bible salesman she has already decided is a good country person. However, at the end of the story the reader is shown that he is anything but.

Manley Pointer is a Bible salesman who keeps a hollowed out bible that contains a flask in his briefcase. Despite all of her knowledge and pride, Hulga manages to be completely taken in by this guy and gets her fake leg stolen by him. The situation is made even more interesting (if you could imagine that) by the fact that it all seems to be about control for Hulga. She took control of her own name by changing it, and became annoyed when a friend of her mother’s actually started using it, thus taking away its ugly power. And before Manley took her leg, Hulga was okay with what was happening between, especially since she probably believed she was the one seducing him. And yet, he was the one who demanded she say she loved him, and he is the one who made off with the fake leg. Hulga is another educated character that O’Connor has no mercy on. And the fact that she is an Atheist puts a nail in the coffin.

So why is this funny? She is an annoying and prideful woman has her fake leg stolen by a Bible salesman. I really don’t feel I need to say more than that.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Julian is another educated character that now depends on a mother he hates and actively seeks out ways to upset. He wants to be a writer, but right now he sells typewriters and doesn’t make enough to move out on his own.

Julian’s mom is somewhat vapid like Mrs. Hopewell from “Good Country People,” but there are some differences. First, Julian’s mom is not even given a name, so I have to keep referring to her as Julian’s mom. Second, her sense of identity is rooted in her family’s former wealth. She now insists on essentially living in the ghetto because it is the same are her family used to live in when they were wealthy and had their own plantation and slaves. She can’t accept that her family has come down in the world, and she resents that a lot of black people have come up. This actually has a lot to do with the title. The idea that “everything that rises must converge” is a principle of physics. In this story, as the black people rise along with the white people, the two are going to inevitably collide. This it what happens in the end, which results to Julian yelling at his mother like she is a child, which results in her stroke and possibly death (not sure as the ending is somewhat ambiguous). However, black and white people are not the only things that collide – there is also Julian and his mother. Julian condescends to his mother because she is an obvious bigot and is stuck in the past. But Julian is just as racist as she is, just in another way. One of his chief fantasies is to bring home a black woman and tell his mother he is in love. He is okay with using black people so long as they upset his mom. Julian professes to not be controlled by his mother but he so clearly is (methinks the lady doth protest too much).

An interesting note about when Julian says “[I am] not controlled by [my] mother.” For the most part, O’Connor’s stories are written in the third person, but often there will be lines like this one that show that maybe her stories are coming from just one point of view. This can be called limited third person, selective third person, selective omniscience, or relative discourse. In other words, it is first person parading as third.

So why is this story funny? Julian’s mom wears this hideous hat that she is so proud of, only to see a black woman get on the bus with the exact same hat. This same black woman is the one who knocks her down at the bus stop when she condescends to give her little boy a nickel. Sure there are no missing limbs, but still, it has its moments.

The Artificial Nigger

This story involves Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson’s big trip to the city. Mr. Head is hell-bent on teaching his grandson a lesson in pride by knocking him down a few pegs with a trip to the scary city. The thing is, as annoyed as he is with Nelson, he hopes the city scares his grandson to the point where he’ll decide to never leave him.

There aren’t any educated people for O’Connor to pick on, but Mr. Head is so disgustingly racist that there is a deep sense of satisfaction in the reader when he gets himself and his grandson lost in a predominantly black neighborhood in the big city. Also, his attempt to teach Nelson a lesson backfires when he denies being related to his grandson. The people around can tell that the two of them are obviously related, and now he has also hurt his grandson. Nelson won’t even speak to his grandfather, and Mr. Head is guilt-ridden, knowing what he did was unforgivable.

The ironic thing is, this trip to the city does scare Nelson, and by the end of the story he declares, “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!” But this victory comes to Mr. Head after he has grasped the depravity of what he has done and is now ready to “enter Paradise.” In other words, if I understand O’Connor correctly, Mr. Head is ready to die now after what he has done.

There is an actual artificial nigger in the story. It is a plaster figure that Mr. Head and Nelson encounter while lost in one of the suburban neighborhoods of the city. It is about Nelson’s size but is falling apart. It is clearly old and hasn’t been kept up. The central image to the story is falling apart. The two of them stare at it in wonder, and it seems to bring them back together after the terrible moment of the betrayal. “They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.”

So why is this funny? Early in the story, while Mr. Head is still trying to teach Nelson a lesson, a black man walks past them on the train. When Mr. Head asks Nelson “What was that?” Nelson simply answers that it was a man. When asked for clarification, he says it was a fat man, and then he guesses an old man. Upon learning that it was a nigger, Nelson is surprised. “’You said they were black,’ he said in an angry voice. ‘You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don’t tell me right?’” Good stuff.

There will not be blog post next week as I will be out of town at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (Woo-Hoo!). I just don’t see myself being in the mood to delve into great literary works after spending three solid eight-hour days in the sun with thousands of other music lovers. Therefore, I will return the following week (hopefully free of sunburns) with a re-examination of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Optional Author: Flannery O'Connor Part I

I am actually pretty excited about this one. All of my other blog posts on either writers I have to read or writers I have chosen have been full of snide remarks and comments questioning their merit as literary. And while that will continue here, at least this time I am doing it with the author and not at them. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are unapologetically southern and fall into that category where they are both funny and horrifying…but mostly funny. And for some reason, that appeals to me.

This is “Part I” because the class only got to discuss one of the four stories that are on the list. I’ll discuss “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after I post the usual business of genre, themes, and history.


O’Connor’s writing has been thrown into the genre of southern gothic along with other southern authors, such as Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Southern gothic novels contain grotesque and fantastic incidents that are set in the south. What is interesting about this genre when it comes to O’Connor is how she felt about the term “grotesque.” She felt that any writing by a southern author will appear to be grotesque by any northern reader, except when it is actually grotesque, and then the northerner will read it as “realistic.” O’Connor wrote about experiences that the reader would not normally encounter in everyday life. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” an annoying grandmother inadvertently causes a car accident that results in the death of her entire family (not from the actual car accident thought); in “Good Country People,” a woman gets her fake leg stolen by a Bible salesman; in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a woman is hit and suffers a stroke after offering a child a nickel; and in “The Artificial Nigger,” a grandfather coldly denies being related to his grandson after the boy finds himself in trouble in the big city. None of these incidents are “everyday,” but they are slightly horrifying. And when O’Connor writes them, they become humorous. Of course, what makes O’Connor southern gothic is also what causes her stories to be categorized as dark comedy.

O’Connor’s stories could also be satire. The people she writes about and subsequently makes fun of (and sometimes judges and condemns) are unmistakably southern. In her stories, there are details and images included that would only be found in the south. She exposes the deep rooted racism of the south, and usually her most racist, bigoted, and hypocritical characters are the ones who meet the worst end – usually death or some other violence. And while O’Connor was proudly southern, she was also proudly Roman Catholic. The characters in her stories that fail to keep Jesus in the center meet with either humiliating or emotionally devastating circumstances (sometimes they’re the same). Basically, if you’re a character in an O’Connor short story, you better love Jesus as well as ALL of his children.


Southern is obvious, so let us move on.

And although she was very Roman Catholic, she mostly wrote about Baptists. This could be because Catholics were scarce in her part of Georgia. And as far as the southern reader goes, Baptists were probably more relatable.

Racism is also obvious, but the first time you read O’Connor (or at least the first time I read her), is appears that she is racist. But once you realize that all of the racist characters, overtly or otherwise, do not meet a favorable ending, it is clear that she is making a point here. Most of her characters are white, but the presence of black people is felt through how the white characters feel about them.

Disabilities and missing limbs are also common, sometimes for the sake of humor. And the ones with the disabilities or missing the limbs are not always sympathetic.

O’Connor also shows no mercy to the educated. O’Connor went to college herself, but she shows absolutely no mercy to those in her stories that went to college, but do absolutely nothing with it. Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” went off to college only to return to live in his mother’s house and sell typewriters. Hulga in “Good Country People” got a Ph.D. in philosophy, but she also lives with her mother and does nothing with her knowledge.

Final thing about themes (although this really isn’t a theme): the titles of O’Connor’s stories tend to be declarative statements. Other story titles include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” and even “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Another commonality about her titles is that they are hard to connect with her stories. Try it…you’ll see what I mean.


Most of O’Connor’s short stories were written in the 1950s. This is the age that projected the idealized nuclear family (Leave it to Beaver). All houses looked the same, and Eisenhower was seen as a symbol of complacency and conformity. Interestingly enough, some of the best art, film, literature, and music that came out of the 1950s were usually the kind that went against this conformity. This was also when censorship was challenged, and by the end of the 1950s, Nabokov’s Lolita was available in the U.S. Another kind of important note about the 1950s: it was the decade that started with Jim Crow laws, and ended without them.

O’Connor wrote at the tail end of the short story age. She did also write novels, but her greatest contribution to literature was definitely her short stories. In the present day, short stories have become like poetry: they have a limited readership and very few writers (as in none) can make a living off of it. Sad but true.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Grandma is the center of the story, which is right where she wants to be…and then it gets her entire family killed. She is self-centered, selfish, manipulative, racist, sneaky, proud, and super annoying. The car accident the leaves her family stranded as sitting ducks in a ditch is all her fault, no if, ands, or buts about it. But even as her family (which includes her son, his wife, their son, daughter, and baby) is killed off by criminals who actually may have stopped to help until she opened her mouth and identified who they are, she is only thinking of herself. She never admits her mistake, never apologizes, never even says goodbye as they are taking her son away to shoot him. What she does say is “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” Nothing about her son, nothing about her grandchildren, nothing about the baby. It appears that the killer finally shot her only because she talked too much. Absolutely awful and horrifying.

So why is it funny? Because the woman subsequently gets herself and her entire family killed because she hid her cat in the car. The grandma is so awful, but in reality, we all know someone like her. It is funny because it is true, but it is also funny because it reaches that point where it is so terrible that you can either laugh or cry. And somehow, O’Connor gets the reader to choose laughter.

So that is Flannery O’Connor for now. Next week will cover the final three stories on the M.A. exam list, including my personal favorite, “Good Country People.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Required Poet: Sylvia Plath Part I

While we actually read quite a few of Sylvia Plath’s poems that made it on the M.A. exam list, we really only got to talk about “Daddy.” And since I already feel incredibly inadequate when dealing with poetry, not to mention Sylvia Plath’s poetry, I think I will just cover this poem for now. Hopefully I will have the chance to get a better handle on the other poems later. But until then…


Plath was most often grouped with the Confessional Poets. The Confessional Poets tended to draw on painful personal experiences for their poetry. The experiences are usually embarrassing and unflattering, and often deal with issues of mental illness, sexuality, and pretty much any kind of family dysfunction.

Other Confessional Poets of the time included Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke (who shares the same item number as Plath in the M.A. exam list), and Anne Sexton.


As far as “Daddy” goes, one common theme throughout the poem is that of the Holocaust. Plath paints her father as a follower of Hitler, with German words sprinkled throughout the poem. To take the metaphor just one more step further, in stanzas seven and eight, Plath begins to describe herself as a Jew.

The other prominent theme in this poem is that of death. In line six, Plath declares “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” Plath’s real father died of complications after his leg was amputated when an infected toe became gangrenous. With this in mind, this line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, she does proceed to “kill” him in the sense that she makes him out to be one of the most deplorable type of people on earth – a Nazi (she also proceeds to liken him to the devil and a vampire). She mentions the actual death in line 57 (“I was ten when they buried you”), and then admits to the purpose of her own attempted suicide in lines 58 and 59 (At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you). And because she died before she had her chance to kill him herself, she “made a model of [him]” in line 64. Her model of him is the model she is making in the poem, and then she proceeds to slowly kill him. Plath is so obsessed/upset over her father’s death that the two declarations that she is “through” do not at all ring true.

Another interesting thing about this poem is that it is written in the style of a nursery rhyme. When it is spoken in such a way, its adult themes and issues become even more disturbing.


In 1962 when this poem was written, the Holocaust was not talked about as readily as it is now. This choice of metaphor was actually quite shocking at the time. And what makes this even more interesting is that Plath’s father was incredibly anti-Nazi.

And as already mentioned, Plath’s father died after a complication from a surgery. It was a completed accidental death, but Plath seems to blame him for dying too soon, even though she vows she would have killed him herself anyway. Plath proclaimed that her father was an autocrat and that she both despised and admired him. She admitted to wishing him dead, but when he did die, she imagined she had killed him.

So that is what I have for “Daddy.” Next week I’ll be able to cover all of the stories by optional short story writer Flannery O’Connor that are on the M.A. exam list. I am actually really excited about that as I love her stories and I am interested to see what my professor has to say about this southern writer.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Required Work: Tom Jones

This book is long. Like Bleak House long. Even reading a summary just now almost put me to sleep.

Although this book is almost twice as long as Invisible Man, this post probably won’t even be half as involved as my post was on Ellison’s novel for two simple reasons: 1. It has been a few years since I have read Tom Jones, while I was able to post of Invisible Man in just a few days after I had read it; and 2. I didn’t get the following notes from a lecture. I am basically pulling from my memory and the summary I just read. And to make things even more difficult, this isn’t exactly a book that a lot of people have read (or at least finished). I may force myself to watch the movie at some point, because I am definitely NOT rereading it.


To me, Tom Jones reads like a very long and convoluted romantic comedy. Tom truly is a good person and wants very much to do what is right, but his temper, and his appetite for food, alcohol, and women constantly get him into trouble (although in almost every instance, Tom can honestly say, “Hey, she came onto me!”). There is one woman, Sophia Western, whom it is obvious Tom wants to end up with, and Sophia cares for him as well. But Fielding keeps these two crazy kids apart for 800+ pages through various misadventures, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. There are family members who think Sophia can do better, enemies who want Tom to do worst, women who want Tom for themselves, and then there is just Tom, who is fully capable of creating his own trouble. Most of the adventures have a comedic tone to them, with Tom and Sophia being united in an ending that everyone saw coming. See? Just like a romantic comedy.

Tom Jones is also very much a social commentary and satire. Upon publication the book was condemned by critics for being lewd and unseemly. However, what really seemed to upset them was Fielding’s funny attack on 18th century British society and its hypocrisies. Throughout the novel, Tom Jones is looked down upon for being a foundling and/or bastard, when really has one of the purest hearts of the entire cast. This criticism of class friction served as Fielding’s social commentary. And while they are intent on looking down on him, they are still very willing to use him to get what they want, which usually involves the wealth of the man who raised him, Squire Allworthy. Fielding makes the point that the family you are born into does not determine the quality of your character.

And of course, Tom Jones fits the category of a Bildungsroman. The book follows Tom from adolescence to adulthood, but also follows him from the English countryside to London after he leaves Squire Allworthy’s house. Tom does undergo a change as well. He remains a good person, but at the end of the novel, the narrator states that whatever tendency he had towards vice had been corrected by staying in contact with Squire Allworthy, and also by his marriage to Sophia.


One thing that always comes to mind when I think of this book (besides its length) is the intrusive narrator. Fielding wrote the book with a third person omniscient narrator. Of course, readers are more used to being directly addressed when it comes to first person narrators, but Fielding allows his narrator to not only know everything, but also tell the story as he is a participant. Many times throughout the novel, the narrator will stop the flow of the story, usually right before a crucial revelation, to go off on some tangent that could not be further from the reader’s mind. We are given intricate details we never asked for (maybe this is where Dickens got this from), and it almost seems as if this unseen narrator is enjoying telling the story. Fielding managed to create an omniscient narrator that the reader has a hard time trusting.

There is also a running theme of travel and escape. After Tom is basically kicked out of Squire Allworthy’s house, he travels from the English countryside to London. Sophia, who escapes her father’s house, also makes the same journey with her maid. Someone is continually after the both of them. With Sophia it is usually someone trying to return her to her father so she can be forced to marry Blifil, and with Tom it is often someone he has offended, or a woman he has recently slept with. Of course, the physical journey across England serves as a metaphor for the bigger journey of Tom’s transformation from a lusty hot-headed boy into a responsible man. But with escape and travel often being one and the same in the novel, I do wonder if Fielding is making the point that, much like Sophia, Tom isn’t just traveling, but also escaping.

Now, this probably isn’t a theme so much as it is something that just keeps happening, but even when just going through the summary I lost count of the number of women that threw themselves at Tom, one of which he later believes is his real mother (she isn’t though so it isn’t weird after all). Like I said, probably doesn’t count as a theme, but I felt I should bring it up.


Tom Jones is one of the earliest English prose works describable as a novel (also included in this category are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Published in six parts in 1749, it was criticized for its inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity and was seen as a “low” novel.

Fielding modeled the character of Sophia after Charlotte Cradock, the woman he elopes with in November of 1734. Tragically, Charlotte died of a fever in Fielding’s arms in 1744. He would actually go on to marry Mary Daniel, the family maid, in April of 1747.

As for next week…I really don’t have a plan. I’m sure I’ll come up with something, but as of right now, it is a surprise.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Required Work: Invisible Man

Right out of the gate, my professor decided to start the semester off with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is the longest book of the semester, and also the only one that is a required work on the reading list. Obviously, it is truly a great thing to be able to benefit from an expert’s opinion when it comes to any books from the list. Ideas were presented that I would have never thought of. And since this is an intense book (with a capital "I"), it really helped to be able to process it with other students and therefore gain further insight into Ellison’s world.

The following is my attempt to put my notes together in a coherent format that will hopefully benefit everyone. I do wish we were spending a little more time on the book, but from the looks of the syllabus, the class will have to move on if we are going to cover everything.


Oh this is complicated.

I guess I’ll go ahead and start with the Bildungsroman: a German word that describes a novel that explores the moral and psychological growth of the main character, usually from adolescence to adulthood (For this novel, this genre is appropriate, but there is still some debate over whether it works for Huck Finn. On the one hand Huck does decide he would rather go to hell than to turn Jim in. But on the other hand, the novel does not follow him into adulthood, and he doesn’t change completely. My advice: pick one viewpoint and argue it well). The novel begins with the nameless main character graduating from high school and delivering an excellent speech…so excellent in fact, that he is offered the chance to deliver it again in front of some very important people. He does eventually get the chance to deliver that speech, but only after being forced to take place in a battle royal where young black men are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of rich white men. I’ll spare you the terrifying details (I’ll let you discover those little gems on your own), but throughout the entire episode (which lasts a horrifyingly long 18 pages) the narrator keeps wondering when he will be able to give his speech. He is so focused on receiving approval that no matter how much he is put through, he just wonders when it will all end so that he can have the big moment he is promised.

So the narrator starts from a young man who is desperate to please, and ends up as the invisible man: he realizes that everyone seems to have their own agenda and plan for his life, none of which end up working for him. In fact, not only do they not work for him, but they all seem to end in disaster. He definitely changes both morally and psychologically before the novel’s end.

But of course, since this is a book by an African-American author written in the early 1950’s, the racial themes and social justice issues cannot be ignored. The novel can be described as a social commentary, or even a protest novel in the same vein as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (who Ellison actually worked for at tone point in his life). The only problem with the novel being associated the genre of protest novels is that Ellison was attempting to go beyond what protest novels were doing during his time. Ellison wanted to move beyond the anger and resentment of protest novels and couple it with artistry and creativity. Of course, he was criticized for this (by black and white people), but I think the novel is still plenty angry, and why can’t a protest novel also be creative? Anyway, the point is that this is a tricky genre when it comes to this book.

Another genre that I find very intriguing when it comes to Invisible Man is that of the epic. There are even various references to The Odyssey that I will bring up later in the theme section. The narrator goes from attending an all black college in the Deep South to becoming a great lecturer for the Communist party in New York City. When that also falls apart on him, he is literally forced underground.

The thing about an epic is that by the end of the story, the hero has accomplished feats so amazing that he has literally made a name for himself. He has become so great that poets will sing of his name for the rest of time. But at the end of Invisible Man, the narrator still doesn’t have a name. His name is often referenced, and he is even given names by other characters, but in the end he just embraces his invisibility. Definitely a genre worth looking into for this book.


I’ll go ahead and throw out the easy one: unreliable narrator. Pretty much anytime the narrator is not omniscient, they are unreliable. Add to the fact that this guy has been severely hurt and damaged over and over again, and the reader is dealing with someone that cannot be trusted to give a clear-headed objective account of his own past.

While the narrator is being expelled from college, the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, explains to him that "The white folk tell everyone what to think- except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about." Later on, towards the end of the novel, Brother Jack is reprimanding the narrator for going forward with an action without passing it through the committee first. Brother Jack has to explain the narrator that when it comes to helping the community, "[They] do not shape [their] policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. [Their] job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them." This is interesting on two fronts: 1. the first instance is a black man talking about white people while the second instance is a white man talking about black people. 2. In the grand scheme of the entire novel, the narrator is really telling the reader what to think. With the examples he has given us, it really is no surprise we have a hard time trusting him.

Now for another somewhat obvious theme, but one that is a little more fun. The novel is full of references to the eye/seeing/invisibility (it’s in the title and the first line of the book)/blindness. On the first page, the narrator explains how people don’t see him, and throughout the novel we realize that no one really did. Everyone seems to only see in him what they can get out of him for his own purpose. The general public seems to be blind to him as a person. He is also blind to the fact that everyone is just using him. He is so needy for both approval and attention that he blindly follows all authority until the circumstance explodes in his face (at one point, there appears to be an actual explosion). Then there are the allusions to the eye. In order to keep from getting away from myself, I’ll just list them and try to keep from explaining each one in detail: 1. Brother Jack’s fake glass eye pops out, 2. Homer Barbee, the preacher who gives an incredibly moving speech about the founder of the all black college the narrator attends turns out to be blind, 3. Homer the poet, who is attributed the authorship of both The Iliad and The Odyssey, is believed to be blind, 4. The narrator works for Liberty Paint for a very brief time, and their specialty is Optic White (which interestingly enough can only be made by adding ten drops of black to a white mixture),and 5. Many many more that I have probably missed.

All of these issues with eyes and blindness could be why the narrator has such a natural inclination and talent towards making powerful and moving speeches. He uses the power of his words to move people. Of course, Homer Barbee does that as well, and as much as he is attempting to move those students towards respect for the founder, at the end of the day he is still blind (in more ways than one). For Invisible Man, a blind man making a motivational speech seems more like someone trying to pull something over on some eager and gullible students. In other words, it is another instance of someone telling someone else what to think.
And now, fun with names!
The narrator: doesn’t have a name, but is given a few. Even more interesting as it appears that Ellison took great care in the names he gave to all of his other characters. Also, in The Odyssey, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody," (or "No one," depending on your translation).Homer Barbee: as already mentioned, Homer is the blind poet we credit with The Odyssey. Jim Trueblood: he embodies a lot of the stereotypes white people attributed to black people at that time – illiterate, incestuous, poor, etc. Oddly enough, he eventually gains more support from the local white people than he does from blacks. Brother Tod Clifton: The word "Tod" means death in German. In Old Welsh, "Clifton" means bridge between two mountains. When he dies near the end of the novel, it could mean the death of the purpose the Brotherhood wished to accomplish through him.And that is really the best I have. I would mention some others but I fear the rest of what I have sounds like I am reaching.


Really only a few quick (hopefully) points I want to make here.

This book was published two years before the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, where the idea of separate but equal was pretty much found to be not true in the U.S.

As mentioned before, Ellison was friends with Richard Wright and even worked for him, although he did not entirely agree with all of Wright’s political views.

The college that the narrator attended appears to be modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, which was an all black college at the time, and also the college Ellison himself attended. Booker T. Washington, whose name actually comes up in the novel at one point, was at one time the president of Tuskegee. When the narrator reaches Harlem, he ends up as a sort of rival to the fanatical black nationalist Ras the Exhorter, who does not believe that black people should be working with white people. This rivals a similar conflict that happened in history between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Interestingly enough, it mirrors another rivalry that would happen later in history between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ralph Ellison’s middle name is actually Waldo. That’s right; he was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone else whose name comes up twice in the book. The first time he is mentioned by the white trustee that he is driving around the college. The narrator mentions that he has never read any of his work, but intends to. The second time it is the name of a different white trustee the narrator is attempting to get a job from upon arriving in New York. He doesn’t get the job, making the point that you can’t depend on your namesake. This hints at the final point the nameless narrator will learn at the end of the novel – you have to make your own way.

So that is Invisible Man. It makes such a difference when I have a professor explain pretty much every little thing to me.

Sadly, I don’t have that luxury with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. I did read it awhile ago for a class, but I have since forgotten a few things and thrown away my notes. Even so, I will do my best. I can take the time to do it because my class will be exploring poetry for the next two weeks. Also, it is my first request from a fellow student who will be taking the exam in the spring. Honestly, I was avoiding doing it, and this gives me a reason to get it over with.