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.