Sunday, April 24, 2011

Optional Work: Breath, Eyes, Memory

I chose this book as my optional choice for this time period because I had previously read Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying for a class on literature of the New Immigration. While Brother, I’m Dying is more of a memoir/social criticism, this novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory is considered while fiction, but is still based in Danticat’s experiences as a Haitian girl who has spent time in both Haiti and the U.S.A. It is beautifully written, and my best way of describing it would be with the short phrase “hauntingly powerful.”


To my surprise, this novel has been categorized as young adult fiction…although I am not sure why I am surprised since I rarely feel like books that are placed in that category should be labeled as such. Especially books containing such difficult material as this one does, but there you go. Perhaps I am not giving our youth enough credit – who knows?

I could say it is “Haitian-American” fiction, but that feels like such a cheat since I am sure people only want to call it that because Danticat is herself Haitian-American. But of course, the book does deal with what it is like for a girl raised in Haiti until the age of 12 to be transported, rather suddenly, to New York City to live with a mother she barely knows. During the course of the novel, the narrator, Sophie, will return to Haiti two more times: once for a visit with her aunt and grandmother, and then again when (spoiler alert!) her mother commits suicide and is buried in the family plot.

The other genres I can think of would actually be better explained in relation to theme.


Probably the best theme to start off with would be that of racial, as through it we can cover so much. The book not only deals with how others treat Haitians in New York City, but also what it is like for a Haitian, specifically a Haitian girl and woman, in Haiti. The intense conflict that is carried throughout the novel for the female characters comes from the Haitian tradition of the mothers believing it is necessary to “test” their daughters. What that means is that (brace yourselves) the mothers feel the need to be convinced that their daughter has remained pure by inserting their finger(s) inside of their vaginas to see if they go in. If they don’t, then the daughter has passed; if they do, the daughter has failed. This “testing” is what causes Sophie to later have problems being intimate with her husband. It is also is what indirectly causes her to leave home, and she forcefully (brace yourself again) breaks her hymen just so the tests will end. Her mother then, of course, believes she has been impure and, while she doesn’t necessarily kick Sophie out of the house, Sophie feels she might as well leave anyway, so she does, and runs off and marries her husband. Healing only begins for her after she returns Haiti the second time and confronts both her and her mother’s demons.

Another theme related to race is linguistics as the Haitian characters sometimes speak English, sometimes Creole, and sometimes French. Also, through the use of their extremely colorful and vibrant language, many different stories and folk tales are told as entertainment, warnings, advice, and instruction. Some are incredibly lovely to hear, while others are downright horrifying.

The “testing” also leads into the theme and issue of gender identity. Because of the “tests” she had to endure as a teenager, Sophie later has issues being intimate with her husband. The experience is painful for her and she doesn’t enjoy it. It also doesn’t help that the first time she has sex with her husband she gets pregnant with their child. Also, Sophie herself is a product of a rape that took place when her mother was 16 and living in Haiti (this would be the demon I referred to earlier). This causes Sophie’s mother, Martine, to have recurring nightmares for 25 years – nightmares that get worse when she finds herself pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. The experience of being pregnant again pretty much drives her crazy, resulting in her feeling the need to stab herself 17 times to kill the baby, and also herself. Before her death, Martine does tell Sophie that the one positive result of the rape was that it made the tests stop.

The issue of gender identity is also told in another way through Sophie’s aunt Tante Atie (her aunt) who was supposed to marry one of the men from her hometown, but that was until he met someone else and decided to marry her. She grows up and never marries, but instead raises Sophie until her mother moves her back to New York, and then she moves in with her mother, Sophie’s grandmother, to take care of her until she dies. Because of this, Tante Atie doesn’t even see a need for her to marry and have kids as she feels that her place in society is with her mother and her estate.


It both impresses and angers me that this book was published when Danticat was only 25 years old. Like I mentioned before, Danticat grew up in Haiti and had the similar experience of being moved to the U.S.A. as a child to be with her parents who had been living there separate from her and her brother. Like Sophie, Danticat grew up in the midst of all of the political violence, traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people. Also, “testing” has been a Haitian tradition for centuries. There is an obsession with women’s purity and the virginity of young women is placed on a very high pedestal. An entire family will experience deep shame if they find out their newly married daughter was not pure for her husband. And future husbands seek out women who are known to have been untouched. What happens in the novel is that while Martine feels the need to test Sophie once she realizes she has a love interest, Martine herself has been sleeping with her boyfriend, Marc, even though they aren’t married.

And those are my thoughts on this fascinating and gripping book. I am not sure if I will be able to post next week because of my impending preoccupation on my final exam next week. If I do, it will probably be on another optional work. When summer finally does arrive, I will have to move back to some of my neglected required works if I ever hope to conquer this list.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Optional Work: Pride and Prejudice

The following post is on a novel that is very dear to my heart. It is my favorite work by Jane Austen and one of my favorite novels ever. It is, to me, lovely and perfect in every way and the author is one I credit with getting me interested in literature while I was high school. Up to that point in my life, my interest had mainly been on writing and not so much reading. My mom basically informed me that the movie “Clueless” (one of my all-time favorite movies) was taken from Austen’s book Emma, and that was the end of it. Also, Pride and Prejudice is one of those books that actually get better for me every time I am forced to read it by a professor. Actually, it is the only book that has done that to me, as every other book I have been forced to reread, no matter how much I like it I begin to resent it a little although the level of enjoyment remains pretty much the same. If you have yet to discover Jane Austen, I recommend Pride and Prejudice as your starting post as it is one of her more popular novels and it is fairly short.


The phrase “comedy of manners” might be the best way to describe this novel. Also the word “satire” will fit very well too. Both labels fit very well with the general theme (to be discussed more later on) of the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people. While Elizabeth Bennet is of a lower social order than that of Mr. Darcy, she is still intelligent and witty, and in the end proves to be a better match for him than someone of higher breeding, such as Caroline Bingley. Mr. Darcy, who is incredibly wealthy and well-bred, is, at least in the beginning of the novel, extremely distant, rude, and over-bearing. And both of them, despite their intelligence, are guilty of misjudging the character and motives of others. But even beyond the novels primary couple are many examples of both the successes and accidents that being either “well-bred” or not can bring about. For instance, while Elizabeth is intelligent and well-adjusted despite her breeding, her youngest sister, Lydia, is not, and therefore enters into a ruinous situation and marriage as she does not manage to shake off the influence of her father’s apparent apathy and mother’s silliness (which she seems to have inherited).

Austen makes it very clear that neither being well-off or not so well-off makes a person immune to behaving badly. There are examples of good and bad on both sides and the results can be traced back to their upbringing. And like many satires, while a lot of the situations are comical, there is a very serious side to them where the reader realizes that if these people and situations were placed in the real world, they would not be as comical so much as somewhat tragic.


As already mentioned and somewhat discussed, the theme of upbringing and its effects on young people is extremely prevalent. To illustrate this even more, I will work with mostly the Bennet family. Mr. Bennet, it is made clear, married the ridiculous Mrs. Bennet because she was pretty. She is indeed ridiculous, and now they have five daughters. He now secludes himself in his library for the most part and basically avoids his wife and at least four of his daughters. Since Elizabeth is his clear favorite and the one that most takes after him, he is closer to her than he is to basically anyone else in the family. Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculousness has seemingly been transferred mostly to the youngest daughter Lydia, who is just as silly, and has managed to get the second youngest, Kitty, to follow along with her in ever asinine endeavor she comes up with. In the middle is Mary, who has inherited her father’s loves of books, but is not at all social and doesn’t really desire to be. And then there is Jane, the oldest and the sister Elizabeth is closest too. She is, simply put, all that is sweet and pure and good. But, that is all that she is. She isn’t assertive in any sense, probably because she has never found any reason to be with her silly but determined mother on one side, and intelligent but fiercely independent Elizabeth on the other.

The pitiful marriage between the girl’s parents has affected them each differently. It isn’t about social standing and wealth for Austen when it comes to how children will be affected. Lydia’s fate isn’t blamed on the fact that she was brought up in a lower social order, but the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet both have failed as parents.

Another theme I think worth exploring is that of marriage, as there is a lot of it. I always like to go through the five main marriages or couples in the novel and try to determine which are successful and which are not:

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: This marriage is almost (or maybe completely, as I have yet to see anyone successfully argue otherwise) unanimously believed to be a failure. Mr. Bennet no longer participates within the family at all while Mrs. Bennet is a silly fool whose only occupation is to see her daughters married to anyone who will take them, no matter how unworthy. She takes ill when Lydia, her silliest yet favorite daughter, runs off with the reprehensible Mr. Wickham as this mean her reputation is ruined, but she is miraculously cured once she hears that they have married. One article I read asserts that there marriage is not even a joke, as there is not much funny about it. Ouch.

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth: Success! Biggest success story of the novel. They are both intelligent and (in the end) deserving of each other AND they will further challenge each other to grow. I could never praise this couple enough, so I’ll stop here.

Mr. Bingley and Jane: This is the one that hurts my heart, because while we root for these two crazy kids to get together, I cannot, in good conscience, rule this marriage a success, because while they are two pure and sweet and good people who found each other, they won’t challenge each other in any way or grow together. I envision their marriage as consisting of long sitting sessions on the porch of their giant house just sitting and staring at each other shyly without either having the will enough to start a real conversation. Sad but true.

Mr. Wickham and Lydia: Tragic failure of the worst kind. She runs off with this guy, who already tried to take advantage of Mr. Darcy’s younger sister years before, and he has no intention of marrying her. Mr. Darcy has to swoop in and save the day, basically paying Mr. Wickham to marry Lydia so that she and her family are saved from social disgrace. Now this guy is married to this awful girl, and being paid money he didn’t earn, and in the end he still ends up squandering it, leaving the two of them in perpetual need. Basically, the cycle is starting all over again the these tow taking the place of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, although this time, things seem somehow much much worse.

Mr. Collins and Charlotte: The jury is still out on this one, because while we like Charlotte, but think Mr. Collins is an idiot, and readers typically hate the fact that Charlotte feels she has to marry this awful person in order to avoid being an old maid, she does get to marry someone in order to avoid being an old maid and therefore being a burden on her family. Poor Charlotte doesn’t have many prospects, so she accepts the proposal of someone who wishes to marry her. It is just too bad that the someone is a dry, annoying, small-minded man. We feel bad for Charlotte, but she professes she is happy to finally be able to run her own home. It isn’t the best deal ever, but it works for her. Kind of.


The novel was originally titled First Impressions, which I think is extremely appropriate given that the reason so many of the conflicts in the story come about is because of first meetings not going the way they should have because rumors and preconceived notions get in the way. People more or less make up their mind about someone before they have officially met just by the way they walk into a room.

The title was eventually changed before publication, upon which it was received favorably and has remained popular ever since. There are forever film and television versions of the story coming out, as well as novels that attempt to continue the storyline where Austen had left off.

Also, Austen wrote about what she knew. This whole business of women scrambling to get married once they hit their teens or “come out” was a very real issue. Women could not own property, so the problem with the Bennets having five daughters is that once Mr. Bennet passes on, there will be no one to take care of them or their mother. My question has always been, if all five daughters do get married and Mr. Bennet dies, who is taking in the mother? That is a conversation I wish Austen had written about.

I am not sure what I will cover next week. Most likely it will be something optional as the required texts I have left are too heavy for me to attempt to read with any sort of critical eye while class is still going on. There will be something though, maybe…well, hopefully.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Optional Work: Titus Andronicus

A leather journal cover
based on Titus Andronicus
by Immortal Longings.
Copyright 2008

And finally we have arrived at the last of the three optional Shakespeare that made it onto my M.A. reading list, and the last of the six Shakespeare plays that I will be dealing with for the purpose of this blog. Titus Andronicus is one of my absolute favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and after I first read it I realized I must have a thing for revenge stories because this work is bloody and so gory, both things I usually don’t go for, that there had to be some other reason why I love it so much. I will definitely enjoy writing about this work and I may actually like discussing it when it comes up during my M.A. exam.


This play is unashamedly tragic. I mean just awful stuff happens all the time to both innocent and thoroughly evil people. Not only are people killed, but people are also raped, severely dismembered only to be killed later, and one character even unknowingly consumes the remains of her children. It is by far Shakespeare’s bloodiest work and it is believed among many to be his earliest tragedy. However, although it is his most gruesome work, it does not stand alone as his only revenge tragedy. Other plays of Shakespeare’s that can fit this category are Hamlet, Macbeth, and even Julius Caesar.

Unlike tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus does not shift from comedy to tragedy, but remains a revenge tragedy throughout (with people like me still laughing at certain part…yes, I have issues). It cannot be considered a history play because while it contains the names of real historical people and events, they are taken from different points in Roman history and put together in one play.

In total there are 14 killings, nine of which occur onstage, six people with body parts chopped off in some sense, one rape (well, one person raped, but possibly two or three times over), one live burial, and once act of cannibalism. One of my theories as to why this play isn’t performed much not only has to do with the mass amount of violence that occurs onstage, but also the fact that oftentimes there are so many dead bodies on the stage that it would be exceedingly difficult for the actors to work around them. It would be like actors having to do the final scene in Hamlet with dead bodies everywhere, but only this time for the entire two-hour play. And how do you depict a woman who has had both hands chopped off and her tongue ripped out without freaking out the audience? Icky…


Revenge, blood, death, destruction, and chaos. Just a massive amount of violence to occur on a live stage.

The story of Procne and Philomela that is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been closely linked to Shakespeare’s story of Titus Andronicus. In Ovid’s telling, Procne avenges the dismemberment of her sister Philomela whose tongue is cut out after she is raped by Procne’s husband. Procne proceeds to then kill her own son and feed him to her husband. Yikes… Shakespeare has violence-hungry Titus (who by this moment in the play has lost his mind) revenge his daughter, Lavinia, who has been raped by Tamora’s two sons and had her tongue ripped out, by killing said sons and feeding their remains to their mother by means of a baked pie. This, however, is just one of the many end products of a long cycle of revenge that started at the very beginning of the play when Titus comes home from winning a war against the Goths, the people that Tamora was formerly queen of. Not only has Titus defeated Tamora’s homeland in battle, but his first order of business upon his return is to kill Tamora’s oldest son by lopping off his arms and legs. Tamora then (with the help of Aaron, her Moorish boyfriend on the side) proceeds to have Titus’ two sons falsely charged of murdering the Emperor’s brother, the punishment for which is death (by beheading). But this isn’t enough - Aaron wants Titus to needlessly cut off his hand in order to add insult to injury. So he tells Titus that the judges might consider letting his sons go if he cuts of his hand. So Titus, like any loving father, has his hand cut off, but his sons are beheaded anyway. And this is what sets him off to kill Tamora’s sons, bake the pie, and on and on it goes. Tamora is also the one who has her sons rape Lavinia.

And it isn’t so much that violent things happen in the play that make Titus Andronicus so horrible, but the fact that the acts are so savage and Shakespeare handles them in such a matter of fact way is I think what gets us. In Romeo and Juliet, after Mercutio is stabbed he continues to talk for what feels like forever (seriously, what is that?). In Titus Andronicus, the one-line stage directions simply say that people are stabbed or killed, and then you never hear from them again, and have to assume that their body is just laying there awkwardly on the stage. The one death that stands out in my mind as the most needless is when Aaron kills the nurse who has brought him his newly born child simply because he (quickly) decided that one too many people know about it, and since she is standing there, he simply kills her. No appeal, no reprieve.

Also, the ridiculous amount of violence goes well with how ridiculously evil Aaron is. Sure, Tamora is evil too, and Titus is no saint, but at least Tamora is driven by the death of her oldest son early in the play. Aaron makes it very clear that he enjoys doing evil and that his only regret in life is that he couldn’t do a little more. He also states that if he did ever do one good deed in all of his life, then it is the one thing he repents of from his very soul. And as much as the audience hates Aaron, there really aren’t any other characters that they can relate to. Lucius may be as close as we can get, but he isn’t onstage enough, and while we do feel incredibly bad for Lavinia, it is still difficult to identify with her because of the insane nature of her dismemberment – she can’t talk because she has no tongue, and she can’t even make hand gestures because she is left with two stumps at the end of her arms.

At the end of the play, the only survivors are Lucius (Titus’ oldest son), Marcus Andronicus (Titus’ brother), young Lucius (Lucius’ son), Aaron, and Aaron’s infant son, and even not al of them will survive very long. In the final scene, Aaron is being taken away to be buried alive chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation. Oddly enough, after reading all of the horrifying violence of the previous five acts, this death seems incredibly tame.


Not at all surprisingly, Titus Andronicus lost popularity during the Victorian era because if its incredible amount of gore. It is Shakespeare’s most violent play and possibly his most criticized. The lurid amount of violence, along with the lack of inspired verse, has also caused many critics to doubt whether it was Shakespeare who actually wrote it. Even so, it was incredibly popular when it first came out; much like Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was despite its violence. In fact, some believe that Shakespeare was doing a parody of a Marlowe play because that is the only way they can explain why he would have written such a violent work.

So that completes the series on Shakespeare. Next week, I will most likely cover Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another optional work from my list that has made it onto my list of favorite novels. It is nothing like Titus Andronicus, which is a good thing. As much as I like Titus Andronicus, it isn’t the kind of thing we need to be exposed too very often.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Required Work: Pearl

I can’t believe it, but the completion of the following post means I am actually done with the earliest time period that is represented on the M.A. reading list. If it weren’t for this Medieval literature class, I know I would have avoided this material until I had no choice but to face it. This is not the kind of stuff I read unless someone else assigns it to me. And I am so grateful to be able to benefit from lectures on not only Pearl, but also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Beowulf even though I have read it four times. The following comes straight from my notes, so let’s see what we got…


For the most part, Pearl qualifies as a dream vision: a first person singular narrative popular in Medieval literature and not always written in poetry (although this one is). Its popularity could have been because it sought to take the reader to a place that was better than the one in waking reality. People liked the idea of having a sort of gateway to the inside. Dreams were accepted as a rhetorical device to tell about ideological truths. People could use them to learn from both their differences and similarities to waking life.

The dream vision usually has a prologue that explains the circumstances of the dream vision; a body in which the narrator falls asleep and thus has the dream; and finally an epilogue that interprets the dream with a following resolution. The content can vary as in the dream can be political, satirical, religious, romantic, etc. They are, however, often about love while exploring capital “l” love.

There are different causes for dreams, different types of dreams, and different dream vision applications. For Pearl, the cause of the dream appears to be somnium animale – emotional or mental. The dreamer is distraught over losing his daughter, so he dreams about her and the heaven she is now in. As for type of dream in regards to Pearl, I will go ahead and go with somnium – enigmatic. I think this is a dream that is more mysterious than it is prophetic or oracular. And as for the dream vision application, Pearl is a personal dream with personal implications and a universal application. It is both proprium (individual) and commune (concerns dreamer and another person). I suppose because of the universal application, it could also be generale – can be applied to everyone on a cosmic scale. The poem is not inspired by philosophy or didactic religion, but more mysticism, or the idea of knowing more than our senses will allow – the struggle to know beyond the limits of knowing.

Pearl is also powerfully lyrical and musical, and it can qualify as an elegy as it commemorates the death of someone, and it consoles both the narrator and the reader. There is some debate in there, as well as mystic vision as I mentioned before, with a touch of courtly romance.


Other common elements of the dream vision include a kind of crossing of borders (which our dreamer here attempts to do in jumping into the river but ultimately fails); a purpose or lesson; a dreamer that is somewhat na├»ve; and a dream guide. In Pearl, the dreamer is definitely less mature than his dream guide despite the fact that she is supposed to be is dead daughter. Rarely in literature does the child serve as the wise one and instruct the parent, but that is the case with Pearl. Of course, she has crossed over to the other side, and that gives her the knowledge that anyone left on Earth would not have. Therefore, what she says isn’t just a point of view but the truth.

This poem is also circular, like a few other works on the M.A. exam reading list. At the beginning the narrator calls his daughter a rose, and at the end he calls her a rose. At the beginning he reaches for her, and at the end he reaches for her again. At the beginning he likens her to spice, and then he does it again at the end. Also, the general lesson of Pearl is that all humans are sinners, but we are to attempt to be sinless, which in the end is impossible. We can become less sinful, but never sinless, however it is mandated to us that we try, but we really can’t succeed. The narrator is being told that can’t physically “get there” while he is living on Earth, but he should try. He is basically being told that what he wants is beyond comprehension, and he should accept that, but try for it anyway (I know, I know, my head hurts too). What he shouldn’t be trying to do is reaching for her physically, which is what he tries to do at the end. He is given a glimpse at the city we will never see while we are living, but it is one we should be reaching for. And this city is the same city that John speaks about in the book of Revelations in the Bible. And given this lesson that is clearly presented to the narrator and to the reader, one thing critics have had a hard time agreeing on is whether or not the narrator actually learns this lesson. Does the narrator progress? We really don’t know. But the poem’s point comes across whether the narrator gets it or not.

Another theme (if you can call the ramblings I just completed a “theme”) in Pearl is that of a world around us more structured and organized than we know. This is can be seen in the physical structure of the poem itself. The entire poem is 1212 lines. The very middle of it falls 600 lines in and 600 lines from the end, with lines 600-612 doing something else entirely. Line 612 ends the middle break of the poem with “The grace of God is enough for all,” and that’s the lesson. The narrator’s reality is framed all around him, but all he is allowed to see for now is a very small part, because the rest is beyond comprehension.
Also, the poem’s structure adds to its circular nature because the narrator goes from the garden, to terrestrial paradise, to approaching the river, then the debate with his guide ensures, then he find the river source and the new Jerusalem, and then when he tried to reach that new Jerusalem he ends up awake back in the garden. Trippy.

Also a running theme of “enough”. Interesting little tidbit: the word “satisfaction” literally means the making of enough. And then there is the theme of small reason versus right reason. There is thinking in accordance with heaven, and not using reason to get you somewhere. Sometimes using rational reason can get a person nowhere. My professor put it as “thinking about thinking properly.” However, as necessary as right reason is, it isn’t sufficient or “enough.” Again, you can’t do it on your own, but you have to try.

To sum it up, Pearl is a literary representation of the difficulty of human knowing. It is a vision of an allegory (parable) that is carefully constructed and layered with puns and imbedded modes of meaning. There is a fundamental opposition between the poem’s clarity and the degrees of ambiguity and evasiveness of the meaning. In other words, it is full of paradoxes, and somehow, that is the point. It is truth that is hard to accept (and understand for the most part).


The poem introduces the age-old debate of whether salvation is enough or if people can earn their way into heaven. This debate is what will later split the Catholic Church and cause Martin Luther to change history the way he did.

Something else for the historical section – there are of course many other examples of dream visions from both the classical and the biblical. In classical plays characters were constantly consulting oracles, and of course in the Bible I almost immediately think of Joseph and his dream that basically angered all of his brothers and caused him to have a very hard early life. I mean, if your sibling said they had a dream which foretold you eventually bowing down to them, what would you do? Now, I would hope your answer would not be “sell them into slavery,” but that is what happened to Joseph. And then of course there is Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, who had an angel of the Lord come to him in a dream telling him not to divorce Mary since the child she was carrying was of the Holy Spirit. Authors don’t seem to do the dream vision thing so much anymore, but there is no shortage of Medieval examples.

Next week I will most likely take on one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare plays, Titus Andronicus, thus completing all of the Shakespeare plays on my reading list. If you haven’t read Titus, just think of the movie "Kill Bill" (the first one), but in Elizabethan.