Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Shame vs. Embarrassment

During last week’s class my professor went over a few more topics and issues concerning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For this week’s blog post, I have decided to focus on the themes of shame vs. embarrassment as they apply to this work. Hopefully I will succeed in differentiating between the two where I can, and showing how they play out during Sir Gawain’s adventures.

First off, shame is external while embarrassment is internal. Gawain finds out that the external and internal are not the same. Shame is assigned to you, while embarrassment comes out of you. Until the matter is in the public eye, there is no shame. Gawain becomes embarrassed when he realizes that he is not what he thought other people thought he was (now say it five times fast). He has an identity related to what people think he is, but his idea of what that is turns out to be wrong. He then goes back and attempts to reclaim his identity by publicly accepting that he did something wrong, thus assigning his own shame. He even decides to wear a bright green belt as a “badge of false faith” as a continual reminder to himself and everyone else of his failure. However, his attempt to redefine his identity fails as the others decided to also wear a bright green belt, seemingly in an act of solidarity, as they acknowledge his failure only as much as they acknowledge that they all have failed in some way. And to be completely fair, Gawain is the only one who stepped up to take the challenge so that King Arthur did not have to; therefore causing the others to fail the initial test of courage. So in a way, their act of solidarity makes perfect sense, even though it means Gawain is not special in his embarrassment. Plus, since Gawain is acknowledged as the best knight, it would make sense that the others would want to be like him, even if that means that they are all flawed individuals.

So is Gawain at fault? Is he the villain in this? The “confessions” of Gawain (or lack of them) seem to ask if Gawain has actually done anything wrong. He is still a hero in the end, he just also happens to be human. And with the theme of renewal and the start of the new year, and of course the fact that the Green Knight decides to not chop off his head, it is like Gawain gets a restart. And when he does put on his “badge of false faith,” everyone else laughs it off and decides to wear their own. Ultimately, he is just a human being who held himself up to a higher standard that not everyone has adopted.

Next week I’ll jump back to Shakespeare until the class goes over Pearl. I cannot believe that out of all of the sections on the M.A. exam reading list, I will actually be done with the earliest and most difficult period first. But I guess that is what happens when you avoid the poetry…

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