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.

Genre

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.

Theme

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.

History

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.

Genre

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.

Theme

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).

History

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.

Genre

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.

Theme

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.

History

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.

Theories

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.