Sunday, August 28, 2011

Optional Work: Gulliver's Travels

You know, popular culture has really ruined this story for me. As a kid and as a teenager I believed Gulliver’s Travels was all about a man who somehow ended up in a world where the inhabitants were much smaller than he was in size and they therefore took him to be a giant and tied him to the ground. This is the scene most mini-series promos would show, and this seems to be most often the scene chosen for the cover art (I present exhibit A to the right). However, while I did enjoy the book, it isn’t quite as fun as all of that…it is just as silly, but not as fun.


Gulliver’s Travels is a satire that uses fantasy to evaluate and criticize different issues of the society Jonathan Swift would have been familiar with. The book presents a satirical view of the European government, and also of petty differences between religions that cause great conflict. Through Gulliver’s travels to many different lands over four parts in the book, the point is seen that no form of government is completely ideal: the land of the giants has streets filled with beggars; the land of the talking horses (no joke) does not have a word for lying, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do it in their own way; the land of the tiny people only six inches high is viewed by Gulliver as being vicious and unscrupulous; and the floating island is full of intelligent people interested in science and discovery, but they have no idea how to use their research (or sometimes do the research itself) in a way that is actually useful. All forms of government that Gulliver encounters have good points - Gulliver is even reluctant to leave the land of the talking horses, the Houyhnhnms (no, I don’t know how to say it either) – but none of them are perfect. And oftentimes Gulliver is able to discuss the European form of government with the rulers of whichever land he is visiting, and the land of the giants in particular, who enjoy public executions, see Europe as vicious and unscrupulous, which is the same way Gulliver viewed the Lilliputians.

The book in its entirety is far too deep to be considered a children’s book. However, it is often classified as such because of the popularity of the Lilliput section (the people six inches high) as a children’s story. It is even possible to buy the book with only an edited version of the Lilliput section inside.

The book could also be seen as a parody of the travelers’ tales literary sub-genre.


As mentioned under the genre section, Swift satirizes different forms of government and different beliefs as he travels from place to place. When entering each land, Gulliver meets and describes the people, and once they have figured out how to deal with his presence, the reader then gets a closer look at the people and how they operate as a society. Eventually, a massive flaw is pointed out and then Gulliver either escapes, or is rescued, or is expelled (sadly, form the one place he wanted to stay), or simply leaves and returns home.

Gulliver also ends up on the shores of these places mostly by accident, and these accidents become more difficult to maneuver as time goes on. First he is shipwrecked, then abandoned, then attacked by pirates, and then, as if being attached by pirates wasn’t bad enough, he is attacked by his own crew. He doesn’t choose to end up in any of these places. Gulliver’s love of travel proves to be his downfall. Despite his continuous misadventures and stronger and stronger vows to never travel again after each one, Gulliver finds himself going back out again only to have another accident happen to him and throw him onto a strange land. He does eventually stop traveling, but only after (spoiler alert!) the Houyhnhnms, whom he adored, expel him because, although he looks like the savage human Yahoos they rule over, his intelligence is considered a threat to their current way of life. So Gulliver returns home, only to be disappointed and disgusted in all other Yahoos, which would include his wife, family, and most tragically, himself. He becomes a recluse, and spends several hours a day talking to the horses in the stable. This is also the final stage in Gulliver’s transition from a cheery optimistic travel to a reclusive man disenchanted with the entire human race, not just Europeans, which are both groups he is more than annoyed to be a part of.

Each of the four parts and four lands are usually contrasts to another one that Gulliver visits. In Part I Gulliver is small, in Part II he is big, in Part III he is wise, in Part IV he ignorant. Also, in Part I, the country is complex, in Part II the country is simple, in Part III the country is largely scientific, and in Part IV the country is based in the natural. The lands also contrast with their respective counterparts in how they compare to Europe. To Gulliver, the Lilliputians are vicious, but the Brobdingnags (land of the giants) think the same of Europe. Gulliver also thinks the Laputians are unreasonable, but they Houyhnhnms think the same of the human race. So as Swift criticizes others, he turns the tables and has his own land as well as the human race criticized.

Also, no matter what types of adventures or misadventures Gulliver has on a respective land, he finds at least one person he treats and communicates with as a friend.


It is said that Gulliver’s Travels can be read as a rebuttal to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Swift may be going against Defoe’s optimistic outlook on human capability that I even feel is present in both Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Gulliver’s adventures would definitely refute the idea that the individual precedes society due to all of the different pictures of government and society Swift gives his readers.

Much of the material in Gulliver’s Travels reflects Swift’s own experiences in politics. For instance, before the Tory government fell, Swift had wished to stay in England and receive a church appointment there. However, Queen Anne did not reward his political efforts of the preceding years, so he had to settle for the Deanery of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. When the Whigs returned, Swift left England and returned to Ireland in disappointment like an exile. This situation mirrors what happened to Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms. He wanted to stay, but he was deemed to dangerous because of his intelligence and ability to reason, so the expelled him with little care to how he felt about it. It was after all of this that he would write Gulliver’s Travels, and Alexander Pope (who I will cover soon) was among his friends that helped him publish it under the pseudonym of Lemuel Gulliver.

Next week we will take a quick detour into the linguistic with Sonja Laneheart’s African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education, and Identity. The post will definitely have a different feel, but hopefully I can still make some sense of the research Dr. Laneheart and others have done in the field of the language of African American women.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Required Work: George Washington Gomez

This book was a very pleasant surprise. Much more engaging than I thought it would be. And I was happy to say I was never bored with it. I certainly see why UTSA thinks it has the necessary attributes to be a required work. It is a novel that details the historic struggle of Texas border towns around the time of World Wars I and II. For me, it served as a fresh perspective that readers rarely get from popular fiction.


The full title of this book is George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel. So I am going to go with that genre: Mexicotexan. And after reading it, I really can’t think of another genre more fitting. It isn’t so much a novel about the struggle between the US and Mexico, but more just Texas and Mexico, although the white men and women in the fictional town of Jonesville being representative of most white Americans at the time cannot be ignored. At one point, Paredes depicts a family in Colorado and the man of the house makes it very clear, while remaining remarkably polite (sorta…ok not really…but I felt like he really tried), the he was not a fan of Mexicans. So while the novel focuses on the white Texans, the prejudice isn’t exclusive to just them. Also, the term “Mexicotexan” can apply to the novel’s main character, George. Sometimes he is Gualinto, and sometimes he is George. And then, sometimes he is Spanish, or Indian (Native American). He spends most of the story switching between identities depending on the situation and sometimes his mood. Perhaps Paredes called this a Mexicotexan novel because, when it comes down to it, the book, nor George/Gualinto, isn’t one or the other, but both.

This is also a coming of age tale that starts just before George is born and follows him into adulthood after he has a wife and is starting a family. The novel chronicles the life of a young Mexican male who is supposed to grow up to be a great man that helps his people, despite the extreme prejudices against him in this border town.


The massively over-arching theme of this story is one of identity. Gualinto’s father decides to name his son George Washington Gomez because he wanted his son to have a name that meant something because he desperately wanted his son to grow up and be a great man that would help his people. And with that decision, let the life-long identity crisis commence.

As I mentioned before, throughout the novel and his young life, George switches between being Mexican, and being Texan (for lack of a better term…”American” just didn’t feel right to me). At the same time, he seems to switch between being proud of his Mexican heritage, and being deeply ashamed. Sometimes he wants to identify (only) with his Mexican friends and classmates, and other times he holds onto opportunities to be distinctly different from them and be recognized as such. His family is often a significant influence in his decisions to switch back and forth. Sometimes he is fiercely proud of them and is therefore not only fiercely Mexican, but also ready to be fiercely violent towards Anglos. But other times, he is deeply ashamed of them and does not wish to be considered to be in their same category.

Another issues explored in this book is that of the educational system and how the schools in border towns handled children who mostly (or only) spoke Spanish upon going into school. The fascinating thing about the stories concerning George’s early education is that it wasn’t necessarily the Anglos who treated him terribly. Possibly the worst teacher he ever has is his first teacher who mercilessly taunts, tortures and abuses him in front of the entire class, and she is Mexican. Over time, George grows up and does well in his studies and goes off to college, just as his family would have wanted. But the road along the way is not without its struggles and tensions between the Anglo and Mexican students in the class, despite some well-meaning teachers who try to keep the peace.


The first thing that fascinates me about this book is that Paredes wrote it in the 1930s while in junior college, it wasn’t published until 1990. It is like the readers of the future get a real glimpse of what it was like for a Mexican male to grow up in a Texas border town before, during, and after The Great Depression. Paredes himself experienced the double life of American and Mexican culture growing up in Brownsville, Texas, the town that the fictional Jonesville was modeled after.

In 1958, Paredes published With His Pistol in His Hand which told the story of Gregorio Cortez and his issues with the Texas Rangers. Within the work, Paredes portrayed the Rangers in a negative light, which was pretty unheard of in the history of that organization. The Rangers also don’t come off too favorably in George Washington Gomez. The same year that With His Pistol in His Hand was published, Paredes was hired by UT Austin to teach, therefore forever altering the face of the curriculum. He would join the Chicano movement along with Tomas Rivera, and would found the Center for Folklore Studies as well as the Center for Mexican American Studies. Basically, this guy had a whole lifetime of achievements before his story was even published. He was 76 before his most well-known novel would ever hit the shelves. So it is never too late to write.

Next up: Gulliver’s Travels.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Optional Work: The Sound and the Fury

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, the title of this blog post is correct – this book was optional. And yes, I still chose it.


William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury will fall into the Southern Gothic category (think Flannery O’Connor). It’s horrifying; at times it is violent; extremely unorthodox; and the ending of a Southern Gothic novel rarely provides the reader with a solution by the end of the novel, but instead leave everything open-ended, as if the problems and issues will continue in the story long after the reader has stopped paying attention. All of the above holds true for The Sound and the Fury.

The entire novel also has a constant sense of uncertainty, like everything will come toppling down at any moment. But while the reader is waiting for everything to fall apart, Faulkner will then explore social, political, and racial issues of his made up town and of the American South. Some stuff is kind of funny, while most of it is so not; some of it is extremely profound, while other parts are extremely benign; some characters are all that is good, while others embody everything that is evil; and overall, the mixture of the sacred with the profane is what can make the general tone of this book so disturbing. Flannery O’Connor managed to balance this so perfectly that I would start laughing and then feel bad that I was laughing. With Faulkner, there are only super-rare occasions where I even have the slightest inclination to laugh, at least with this particular book. I found I spend most of it either deeply saddened or extremely frustrated.


Throughout the novel, Faulkner goes in and out of narrative styles, the most daunting of which being stream of consciousness, a technique pioneered by European writers, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The novel hits you right in the face from the very first section with Benjy as the first narrator – he’s the youngest of the four Compson children and has a severe autism that causes him to not differentiate between time periods, among other things. Oh yeah, and no one tells you that going in so while he is mentally going back and forth in time without any indication, the reader has to follow along as best as they can, only to realize later that not everything that just happened took place in the here and now. Awesome. His section is the least straightforward, with the most stream of conscious. His sister Caddy (the only one of the Compson children not to get a narrative section) is the only one who truly cares for him, while everyone else views and /or treats him like a burden and a source of family shame. Naturally, he adores Caddy, and also feels it when she is away from home.

The stream of conscious is less in the second section, which is narrated by Quentin, the oldest Compson child. But while it is less, it is not completely diminished as his story includes the events that lead up to his suicide. So as the section progresses, Quentin becomes more and more unhinged and the stream of conscious increases until the section ends. And the “Quentin” that Benjy talks about in the section before is sometimes referring to his brother Quentin, and sometimes referring to his niece Quentin. Unlike the other characters in the story, Benjy doesn’t differentiate between the two when he talks about them, which is yet another element of the first section that immediately puts readers in the dark searching for much needed clarification. When Benjy switches between the two Quentins, he is not only switching between people, but also time periods, since at the time Benjy tells his story, his brother Quentin has been dead for 18 years (*shudder*), which means Quentin’s section and suicide took place 18 years earlier than the first section. And something else that links the two sections is the close relationship the narrator’s have with their sister Caddy. While she is more of a caretaker for Benjy, Caddy and Quentin were best friends. But his inability to handle Caddy’s promiscuity and marriage, and also the oppressive and cynical attitudes of his father, are what is causing Quentin’s mental anguish. He is obsessed with Caddy’s virginity and purity, and the fact that Caddy no longer has either contributes to him taking his own life.

The third section is the most straightforward narration the reader receives so far, and it comes from Jason, who is arguably the least likeable of the Compson children. He is single-minded, materialistic, quick-tempered, egotistical, racist, and inherits the cynicism of his father. He is also obsessed with his sister, but in a different way, as he hates her and blames her for what has happened to his family. He now treats his niece terribly and has been stealing the money that Caddy sends to her daughter for her years. This section actually takes place the day before Benjy’s, and everything sort of culminates in the fourth section which takes place the day after Benjy’s section.

And who tells the story in the forth section? Apparently it is either Faulkner, or just an unknown third person omniscient narrator. Thankfully, this narrator can differentiate between time periods and isn’t in a state of near depression, and is able to just tell the story straight. The section actually focuses a lot on Dilsey, the matriarch of the black servant family that helps a lot with Benjy. What I seemed to get the most from this section, besides answers to a lot of questions I had for the first 264 pages, is that the mother, Caroline, is one of the most useless women in all of literature…and I have seen a lot of useless people in the many books I have read. She’s neurotic, abusive, a hypochondriac, and her favorite child seems to be Jason. Really? Really. First of all: isn’t rule number one of parenting the fact that parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children? And who would pick Jason? Seriously? Seriously. Caroline treats Dilsey terribly, and just seems incapable to doing anything for herself. Blech.

So what do we have here: shifting narrative voices, shifting time period (with and without notice), and a common obsession between the three brothers with the one sibling the reader does not get to hear from, and that’s Caddy.


I just have to start with the title, which comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth is making his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy and there are many other lines besides the title that fit The Sound and the Fury perfectly. In many ways, the novel is “a tale told by an idiot,” not only because of Benjy, but also because Quentin and Jason are not exactly the most competent narrators ever. Sure, Jason can tell a straightforward story, but can you trust him? Also, the “dusty death” could reference how the Compson family no longer has the prominence it did, and they could represent the decline of the traditional and wealthy Southern family after the Civil War. And of course the lines “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” almost speak for themselves. If you aren’t saying something meaningful, then it is just noise.

Faulkner was concerned with the idea of how the traditional Southern family can withhold their same ideals after the Civil War. With the Compsons, what results is that their traditions turn into modern helplessness, in which people like Quentin can’t survive, but jerks like Jason can. Now that is tragic.

And I hate to be this person, because I wince whenever I am told this by my professors, but this truly is one of those books that you should read twice. I was lucky (I think…) because I was assigned the book twice: once in high school and once as an undergrad. I hated it in high school, and then I loved it in college and still do. Just saying…

Next week I’ll move onto Americo Paredes’ George Washington Gomez, and also perhaps some Gulliver’s Travels.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Required Work: The Blazing World

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I began reading Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World; and now that I have read it I still am not exactly sure what has happened. It involves different worlds from our own – some pre-existing, some created – different types of creatures exist in these worlds and their ruler does what she can to make it a utopian society, and then Cavendish herself shows up at one point and…yeah, it all gets to be a bit much for me. So hopefully, I can make some sense of it here.


This story is part satire, part romance, part adventure, part autobiography, part science fiction, and complete utopian fiction.

My extremely brief version is as follows: A woman is kidnapped by a man who is completely enchanted by her and the ship sails towards the North Pole where the entire crew dies from the cold except for her. Through the North Pole the ship enters a different world of talking animal-like people, who are also so enchanted by the woman’s beauty that they take her to their emperor and he makes her his empress. The new Empress then has all of the animals separated into groups and has them each research different aspects of their world and report back to her. She also asks them various questions about their religion, politics, and how they keep their world peaceful. At some, I’m not sure where, spirits come into play (of the dead and of the living of different worlds) that the Empress is able to communicate with, one of which is Margaret Cavendish. Both the Empress and Cavendish each decide that the power each currently holds in their respective worlds isn’t enough, so they attempt to create their own worlds to govern. From what I could tell, this project is eventually abandoned and Cavendish expresses her desire for other countries of her world to submit to the country she is from (which appears to be England). The Empress agrees to use her world’s resources to help invade the other areas so that they submit to England. The invasion is successful, the Empress and Cavendish eventually part ways, and the story ends in what I assume to be a “happily ever after” type ending. Weird, wild stuff.


Since this is utopian fiction, the central theme appears to be one of maintaining peaceful control of one’s country/realm/world/whatever. In the beginning, the Empress is very interested in how the world she had been brought to is governed and how things are decided and how the people practice their religion, all while maintaining peace and avoiding a revolt. The Empress herself employs different methods of maintaining peace while still holding onto her control. The balance between having subjects that obey you out of fear and subjects that obey out of love is brought up at several points, and the Empress often employed the first to get the people’s initial obedience, and then she would move into the latter.

The focus then seems to shift from peaceful control to simply more control under one ruler. Both the Empress and the Duchess (Cavendish) take on attempting to make their own worlds to control; worlds that they can first create to their liking and then rule as they please. The story ends with a battle to help England, although it is not called England in the story, subdue surrounding countries under the English monarchy. The Empress agrees to come to the world of the Duchess and help her country achieve this goal. Many times throughout the battle, the Duchess will first attempt to get other countries to submit without and destruction of property or loss of lives, and if that fails, she would then move on to destroying small pieces of land, before moving onto bigger areas and cities. In the end, the Empress, Duchess, and all of England comes out victorious, and the Empress returns to her world.

Throughout the story, there is very little action compared to the conversations that take place between characters. Most of these conversations involve the Empress in some way, and it isn’t the usual kind of dialogue that we would be used to in a typical piece of fiction. These are conversations (and quite involved ones) about government, religion, science, philosophy, etc. There is lots of debating not only between the Empress and whoever she is talking to, but also some debate between different groups within her world. And because of the arguments that ensue between the different groups, the Empress will threaten to take away their means of research (telescopes and such) and destroy them so that they never have reason to argue and fight again. Overall, the Empress is concerned with maintaining both peace and control.


Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was an aristocrat, writer, and scientist. She wrote poetry, philosophy, prose romances, essays, and plays. She published her writing under her own name in a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously. She addresses multiple topics ranging from gender, manners, and power; to science and philosophy; to animals and animal protection. The Blazing World is also thought to be one of the first examples of science fiction. Some critics suggest that she was full of herself, possibly because of her assertion in her epilogue to The Blazing World that she was the Empress to the philosophical world. Yeah, I guess that is pretty ballsy of her…

Now I will commence psyching myself out for William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. For me, it is on the same scale as Moby Dick even though it isn’t as long and is much more enjoyable. But it is dense, and half the time you have no clue what is going on.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Required Work: The Rover

I honestly thought I had gone over all of the plays on the list already, but turns out, Aphra Behn’s The Rover is also a play. This is what happens when you don’t look into the literature before you try to dive right in.


The Rover is considered to be a Restoration Comedy – meaning it was performed in stage between the years of 1660 and 1710. For the 18 years before 1660, the Puritans had banned public stage performances. So at the re-opening of the theaters in 1660, there was a significant resurgence of English drama, with the comedies being notorious for their sexual explicitness. Crowds also enjoyed the topical references and inter-twining plots, both of which are heavily featured in The Rover.


For me, the general over-arching theme seems to be the English vs. the Spanish. People get in fights, blood is drawn, people are put in prison…sometimes the Spanish are fighting amongst themselves, and the same is often true of the English, and it is mostly all over the love (or lust) of a woman. The main issue here is that Belvile, an English Colonel, is in love with Florinda, the sister of Don Pedro, a noble Spaniard. While Florinda reciprocates Belvile’s feelings, both Don Pedro and his father prefer that Florinda marry Don Antonio. The secondary plot centers on the womanizing Willmore, the Rover, and his pursuits of Angellica, a beautiful and rich widow, and Hellena, sister to Florinda, who is supposed to be a nun. Willmore finds himself in trouble with not only Angelica, who soon realizes that he is not the type to remain faithful, but also with his friend Belvile due to Willmore’s inability to keep himself out of trouble and follow through on the most simple instructions because of his love of women and alcohol. It is difficult to say if there is actually a winner between the Spanish and English as almost all of the conflicts appear to be resolved in the end and most of the principle characters end up married off or appeased in one way or another. However, Behn was known for including politics in her work, so these feuds between the Spanish and English were not included on accident.

Most of (but not all) of the bawdy talk and sexual explicitness comes from Willmore as he expresses his views on women and shamelessly pursues him. There are also multiple scenes in which some of the women are in situations where they could be raped. In one scene, Blunt is ready to take advantage of any woman who comes near him as an act of revenge on another woman whom he believed to be in love with him, but turned out to be a thief and a prostitute. Florinda walks into his presence at just the wrong moment, but thankfully is saved by Belvile and with the help of Frederick. Also, as you can probably already tell, the plot of this play is pretty intricate and everyone’s plot line interweaves with everyone else’s. Audiences of Behn’s time would have loved this.


As I already mentioned, this play was written during the Restoration period for English drama. Behn was known for treating any Puritan characters in her plays harshly, and was also not very friendly toward the Dutch either. Before becoming a playwright, Behn was a spy for Charles II against the Dutch. Unfortunately for Behn, then King was slow to pay her, and he may not have at all, so she tried making money with her writing. Behn was able to make a good deal amount of money from the long run of The Rover.

The play’s subtitle, “Banish’d Cavaliers,” refers to the exiled Cavalier forces during the parliamentary and military rule after the English Civil War. Behn based her play on Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, or The Wanderer. It is said the Charles II loved the play and was actually very much in favor of sexual references in the dramas of the Restoration period. Willmore also proved to be a popular character, so Behn did a sequel four years later.

As promised I should be able to tackle Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World next week. I might (and the operative word here is “might”) also finally bite the bullet and cover William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I have actually read this book twice already and enjoy it a great deal, I just haven’t been able to get up the courage to try to talk about it and explore into such detail as this test will require. However, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away…

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Required Work: Oroonoko

I guess when I said I would be done with slave narratives as far as the list is concerned, I wasn’t exactly telling the truth since Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko does tell the story of a man who is African royalty by birth but is captured and brought over to the West Indies as a slave. The main difference between this story and the actual slave narratives I have covered is that this one is a work of fiction and Oroonoko could represent several different people.


I would be willing to call this a slave narrative if it wasn’t for the whole fictional part of it…which all of it is. Behn was a political writer of fiction, and while this isn’t really a book about the evils of slavery (another thing that distinguishes it from actual slave narratives), Behn was concerned about the issues of natural kingship and the idea that in order for a place to thrive it needs a strong ruler.

The story could be considered as Restoration literature, as at least half of it takes place in the New World, there are elements of courtly romance between Oroonoko and Imoinda, and it contains a great deal of the heroic tragedy. Both Oroonoko and Imoinda are separately captured and taken to Surinam in the West Indies to be slaves. Before this, Behn tells of the courtship between Oroonoko and Imoinda that takes place before she is summoned to be part of the king’s Otan (a.k.a. harem). Oh yeah, and the king is Oroonoko’s grandfather (awkward!). Only after they are both captured and brought to the New World separately and reunited are they then able to be together. But they are only able to be together as slaves, and not in their previous royal splendor.

The great tragedy of the story is not just in the fact that Oroonoko was of noble African blood and dies as a slave in a land far from home. The tragedy is also in how he died and what he had to go through to even get to that point. Behn writes the story almost as a tribute to him and his noble character. Not only did this man of noble African blood die a slave, but he did so after attempting to lead an eventually unsuccessful slave revolt, and killing a very pregnant Imoinda (she begged for it...after he suggested it) before making a planned attempt on his own life. However, he is ultimately dismembered in one of the most gruesome death scenes I have ever read. Needless to say, he does not die with the dignity that Behn felt someone like him deserved.


One of the more notable features of the novel is Oroonoko’s continuous insistence on the sacred nature of a king’s word and how a king should never betray his oaths. The work is also noticeably anti-Dutch and anti-democratic as Behn believed in monarchy, and was a former spy for Charles II against the Dutch. Also the dominant male leaders of the story are often accompanied by strong female companions. Imoinda, being the best example, is supportive of all of Oroonoko’s decisions, even the one that includes him killing her so that she and her unborn child may escape the bonds of slavery. Also, Imoinda fights by Oroonoko’s side while other women in the story urge their counterparts to surrender.

Several times throughout the story, the features of both Oroonoko and Imoinda are described as European and that both have a definite presence about them. The beauty of Imoinda incites love and lust in all men, white or black, and Oroonoko’s appearance causing almost everyone to see him as a man of leadership. Even though their skin is still dark, their European features give them favor with almost everyone.

Something that stood out to me throughout the whole story, and somewhat bothered me, was the narrative voice. It is a strange cross between third person omniscient and first person, as the narrator could not have been present for absolutely everything Oroonoko went through in order for it to be truly first-person, yet they cannot be completely omniscient as they identify themselves as someone who knew Oroonoko while he was a slave in the West Indies. Also, often while in the middle of describing some of the atrocities that befall Oroonoko, the narrator will begin validate their own lack if involvement in any attempts to help his situation, or explain away any guilt they may be feeling, or any guilt that reader would want to assign to them. Scholars have gone back and forth since the story was written in attempts to figure out if the narrator is supposed to be Behn herself. There are some signs that say yes, and then there are other factual details about the narrator’s life that do not line up with Behn’s. Other scholars attempt to go even further and figure out whether Behn had ever been to the area in which Oroonoko served as a slave, or whether she took accounts and descriptions from others and used them in her own story. But of course, some of her descriptions are just too spot on for other scholars to ignore.


The years 1688 was a time of serious political conflict in England as Charles II had died and James II, who purported Roman Catholicism, had come into power. Oroonoko’s constant reiteration of the sacredness of a king’s word and how it will always be kept had to have struck a chord with those who were suddenly looking for a way to get a new king. Behn was very big on loyalty to the throne and felt that the loss of a king only hurt the country he ruled. This may have been closer to the point Behn was trying to make as opposed to making an attack on slavery, which is what many scholars and critics have wanted to believe the story is about. Most likely, Behn was not necessarily against slavery; otherwise she would not have married a slave trader.

There were numerous slave revolts in the English colonies lead by Coromantin slaves, and Oroonoko is described as being from “Coromantien.” Oroonoko could be representative of the many slaves who have revolted. There were also revolts led by indentured servants, and there is one case of a white man who made a plot very similar to Oroonoko’s and ended up taking his own life while in prison for his attempt.

This is also one of those stories that people have claimed was the first English novel, but as usual, such a claim is hard to sustain. I will probably always think of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones whenever I hear the phrase “first English novel.” I have a hard time calling Oroonoko a novel in general only because it is so short…not that I am complaining about the length, because I am so not.

Next post will be Behn’s bawdy play The Rover, and hopefully after that I will be able to tackle Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Required Work: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

I just have to say that I am so glad this is the last traditional slave narrative that I have to read for the M.A. list. I’ve learned a lot, and I always enjoy reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, but I think I am over the topic of slavery for awhile. Equiano’s narrative does have the distinction of mostly taking place at sea as opposed to a plantation or a house in the southern U.S. He served a great deal on ships and continued to do so even after he bought his own freedom. So that, at least, was a nice break from what I am used to.


This is of course a slave narrative and was eventually used as a model for subsequent slave narratives. It is also a coming of age story as it follows Equiano from his life in Africa where he was kidnapped as a young boy and put into the slavery system, all the way through his many adventures through slavery and eventual freedom. It is also full of adventure as Equiano takes many voyages to and from Europe, the West Indies, America, and Africa.


The main over-arching theme throughout the book is that of the voyage or journey. There is the initial slave voyage that Equiano takes from Africa, to the Americas, and eventually to England. This same basic voyage was also taken by Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Phillis Wheatley in different forms. Of course, neither Douglass nor Jacobs were born in Africa but were instead born into slavery in America, but both ended up in Europe to join the abolitionist movement. Equiano would then repeat this journey in different variations over time as both a slave and a free man, mostly by choice but often by force.

Another voyage that Equiano takes is from slavery to freedom, which is true for all traditional slave narratives. And a parallel journey that is common to many slave narratives is that from heathenism to Christianity. This journey isn’t discussed much with Douglass and Jacobs, but Wheatley talks about this in her poem “On being brought from Africa to America,” and of course, most of her poetry is overtly Christian and speaks of the grace of God and the joy of knowing Him. Equiano often struggles with his faith and goes through many periods of self-righteousness as he harshly judges those around him who do not know God and/or do not act like they do.

The final journey that is common to most slave narratives is that from being only acquainted with an oral tradition to being able to read and write English. This is what helped spur Douglass on to escape and obtain his freedom, and it also plays a large role in the life of Jacobs. Wheatley is unique in that she benefited from a progressive master who made her education a priority after realizing how quick she was to pick up language and literature. Equiano is able to use just his ability to speak English to get out of many situations and gain favor with certain people. Because he can speak and understand the language of the English he is often seen as more civilized and worthy of slightly more respect. The journey to literacy is most often a key in slave narratives as most of the masters have a strong aversion to teaching their slaves, due to the common belief that this knowledge will lead to ideas of freedom and their eventual escape. For Douglass, this proved entirely true and he was successful. Also, this leads to slave narratives such as the ones I have covered and their use in the abolitionist movement.


Upon its publication, The Interesting Narrative was not only a great work of American literature by a new African American author, but it also made Equiano’s fortune and allowed him to work according to his own interests.

The book also presents the two differing views of slavery in Africa, of which he was a part before after his initial kidnapping, and the more brutal brand of slavery in America.

As usual, people were surprised at Equiano’s eloquence as not only a writer but also as a speaker. And of course, people have debated whether the accounts he gives in the book are entirely accurate. The book surprised many with the writing quality and, just like every other slave narrative we have discusses, was used in the abolitionist movement and was one of its most lasting contributions. Equiano became involved in the abolitionist movement in Britain, where he eventually settled down after travelling and started a family.

I may be doing two posts a week from here on out. Next week I hope to cover Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and The Rover.

Required Poet: Phillis Wheatley

I have to start off by saying that I honestly did not connect to Ms. Wheatley’s poetry at all. Something about it just did not resonate with me and I found most of it to be somewhat boring. My only exception would be “On being brought from Africa to America” as I liked its honesty and the fact that a point is strongly made in only eight lines. But despite my lack of interest in her work, I respect Phillis Wheatley a great deal acknowledge her incredible education for a woman of her time and her contribution to African American literature. Of course I will be dealing with four of her poems, but also one of her letters, as well as a poem that was dedicated to her by another African American poet, Jupiter Hammon.


Wheatley was the first published African American poet and first African American woman whose writings were published. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is credited as having helped create the genre of African American literature.


There were three main elements that Wheatley was known to use in her poetry: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. The Christian themes are almost overwhelming if not for the presence of the solar worship, which Wheatley brought with her from Africa. The worship of the sun gods depicts Wheatley’s African culture, which also accounts for her use of different words for “sun” so much in her poetry – words such as Phoebus, Apollo, Aurora, and Sol. Of course, “sun” can also be written as “son,” making a pun on Christ, the son of God, and therefore referencing her religion and biblical ideas on writing.

Classicism is the use of language that maintains the formal aspects of language while refusing the norm and this is what makes Wheatley’s poetry stand out. She not only beat the odds in becoming a published African American woman, but also managed to find a voice of her own in the process and develop a style that was unmistakably her own.

A large number of her poems are dedicated to famous personalities, with an even larger number of them being elegies to people who dies, famous or otherwise. She rarely referred to her own situation as a slave, with one of the few exceptions being in my favorite poem “On being brought from Africa to America.”


As usual, for any African American writer of the time, many white people refused to believe that Wheatley wrote her poetry, and she defended her literary ability in court in 1772. The resulting signed attestation by a group of Boston luminaries that examined her was published in the preface of her book of poetry. Wheatley’s education, that was given to her freely, which is much different from most of her slave counterparts, was not only an excellent education for a slave, but for a woman as well. By age 12 she could already read Greek and Latin classics and the more difficult passages of the Bible. Because of her literary ability, her master, John Wheatley, removed her from household labor and made her education a chief concern.

Upon the death of John Wheatley in 1778, Wheatley was legally freed and later married. Although, after her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, she became impoverished and died the same year at the age of 31. Needless to say this is an incredibly sad way for her life to end after it having started off so well despite the fact that she was taken from Africa and made into a slave. She never completed another volume of poetry and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hard to believe for someone who had been honored by many of the founding fathers, including George Washington.

And now, I will make an attempt to talk about each item individually.

On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield

This is one of her many elegies dedicated to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, and English Anglican priest who spread the Great Awakening in Britain and the British North American colonies. Strange to relate, Whitefield actually advocated slavery and asserted that the south could not be prosperous without it. Of course, he also owned slaves himself and had a plantation of his own that he made money from, so he did have his own interests to take care of. However, he was known to treat his slaves well and other slave masters despised him, while his slaves were devoted to him. This makes for a very complicated reading of this poem. It is overtly Christian and mentions the sun, much like the others, but how do you praise a man who preached for enslavement and oppression of your own people for his personal gain?

On Being Brought from Africa to America

This one is my favorite and the one of the few in which Wheatley mentions her own enslavement. In this short poem Whitley describes her journey from Africa to America in order to be enslaved as a great blessing as it brought her out of her “pagan land” and made her a follower of Christ. She ends with telling all Christians that even those with dark skin can be redeemed by God.

To The University of Cambridge, in New England

Once again, Africa is referred to as a “land of errors” with “dark abodes.” Wheatley rejoices at having escaped such a place and landed in America. She then proceeds to overtly and boldly encourage her audience to embrace Jesus Christ while they still have time – redeem their souls before it is too late.

To S.M., a Young African Painter, on seeing his Works

This poem is not as overwhelmingly Christian in its themes as some of the others and leans more towards the sun worship that would be a part of her African heritage. There is mention of the “poet’s fire,” “radiant hinges ring,” and the “rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes.” Wheatley also mentions the muses and tells them to cease at the end as the gloom of night as caused her to no longer see the image before her.

Letter to Rev. Samson Occom (Feb. 11, 1774)

This is a letter Wheatley wrote to the Rev. Samson, a Native American Presbyterian clergyman who was the first Native American to publish documents in English. He was exposed to the teachings of Christian evangelical preachers during the Great Awakening. He was never paid the same as white preachers and spent much of his life in poverty. Wheatley is responding to a letter Occom wrote in which he addressed the natural rights of black people. Once again, Wheatley mentions the “thick darkness which broods over the land of Africa.” She then continues to assert that while of course the slaves would long for freedom, as it is natural for every human being to do so, it may be necessary for them to remain in their current situation if only it means them coming to Jesus and being enlightened. She also believes that God should “grant deliverance in his own way and time,” and in the meantime the slaves should see the “absurdity of their conduct.”

An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley by Jupiter Hammon

Jupiter Hammon was born a slave in New York and died a slave, even though he was a published poet, could read and write, and delivered “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York” that has since been widely published and anthologized. Hammon was a devout Christian and believed in a gradual emancipation, probably because he felt that slavery was so engrained in American society that sudden emancipation would do more harm than good. Although he never identifies himself in the poem, it is believed he felt he could relate Wheatley beings as they were both Christian African American poets born into slavery. Much like many of Wheatley’s poems, Hammon’s poem is overtly Christian and he entreats her to continue reaching to God and let him light her way.

Up next, Olaudah Equiano…yeah, I’m not sure how to say it either.