Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. pp. 296).

Author Erich Remarque’s book, All Quiet on the Western Front, takes place during World War I, with Germans defending against the French. Germany's “Iron Youth,” represented by Paul Baumer and his friends, begin the war as barely-adult schoolmates who enthusiastically, naively join the war. Unaware of the harsh realities of combat, they quickly find out that war is really a living hell disguised as both earning chivalrous honor and giving vital patronage. If not dodging bullets, shunning gas attacks, or engaging in trench warfare, Paul battles the threat of starving to death and losing mental stability. Paul must face the awful reality in which he finds himself and prepare for his return, permanently changed.

This paper will focus on two unmistakable anti-war themes that Remarque uses to de-glamorize war and expose its hardships. Saturated with a clearly pessimistic picture of war, the first theme that Remarque expresses through the characters (and their attitudes) is that war is inane, yet inescapable. For example, the “Iron Youth” in this case are baited with tempting traps of implied obligation to fight for their country—whether or not they have actually seen a Frenchman, or more to the point—want to kill one. The second theme of focus is that war destroys a soldier’s psyche. Crucial comradeship for example, on the front, bestows rewarding benefits of companionship to the lonely soldier who is separated from missed family and friends. However, the precarious lifespan of these family-like army friendships (that are subject to the permanent effects of bullets, bombs, and death, etc.) is temporary. To say the least, exhaustingly and constantly dodging death, then dealing with major losses amongst comrades could only cause the soldier’s emotions to sever and his heart to harden.

The first theme is that war is horrible, yet unstoppable. In the begginning, Paul and his friends were encouraged to join and fight a war driven by intellectual adult minds, but not theirs (i.e. young soldiers who were actually doing the fighting). By mentioning Kantoreck, the academic instructor who encouraged Paul and friends to join the fight, Paul describes his frustration for such non-soldiers by describing them as people like Kantoreck who think they knew what is best, but really make no significant sacrifices or contributions (e.g. engaging in combat, offering their lives for their country, etc). In the following passage, Paul admits his naivety, and their deception:

The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with greater
insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We
had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us
only in clever phrases and in cleverness. / While they continued to write and talk, we saw
the wounded and dying, While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing,
we already knew that death-throes are stronger. (12)

By saying that his generation is trusted more than the non-soldier patriots like Kantorek, he means that without actually experiencing war first hand—that a human being is more than disposable chemicals in a mind riding a horse named soldier, they’re minds blanketed by shear ignorance (and pointless patriotism). Further, Paul looks for an answer to the reason for war, to actually explain the experience, but “never quite succeeds” (19). But, he appears to accept the fact that fighting for one’s country is the only answer to this big war mystery.

On one occasion, Paul recieves leave from the army and returns home temporarily. He finds it difficult to understand or relate well to the people back home. While the soldiers on the front desire peace and wish for an end to the hardships, the hometown non-heroes enthusiastically talk about pressing on to Paris. During an evening at the Pub, Paul respectfully disagrees with a non-soldiers opinion to march on through Paris: “I reply that in our opinion a break-through may not be possible. The enemy may have to many reserves.” Despite his informed response, the non-soldier simply “dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it” (167). Furthering their deception and fueling the national pride, Paul feels misunderstood and does not belong:

They talk to much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just ot sit quietly, like this. / They are different men here, men I cannot properley understand, whom I eny and despise. (169)

The second theme goes beyond facing harsh ridicule from the beer hall citizens; a war instead, kills a soldier’s psyche. Remarque makes this clear. Paul watched many, if not all, of his friends die. He describes his vile surroundings and tells of the atrocities non-soldiers will never see: “We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the net shell-hole. / We see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces…life is at en end. Perhaps withstanding the bouts of fear and death could renders much worse damage than from an actual bullet or a sharp bayonet.
The only redeaming quality that war can offer is, as Paul argues, is “comradeship” (26).

Comradeship is crucial for the soldiers because it helps the keep their wits, and cope with loss. Paul describes the feeling of losing these key companions as, “a vast, inapprehensible melancholy” (121). For example, one day, the French came and began attacking the village. While evacuating, Paul and his friend Kropp were hit by flying bullets. They were bandaged up and sent on a train back home. After a few weeks, Kropp's leg is wrought with infection and amputated at the thigh. Shortly after their friendship is severed by circumstance: Paul is sent back to the war, and Kropp is sent home.

The hardest loss was that of Kat. He was the last of Paul's friends to die in the war. He acted as Paul's friend and mentor, bonded by the hardships of the war. Then, in October of 1918, Paul finally fell. The book describes his death as, "...his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come" (296). Shortly afterwards, the war ended.

In conclusion, this book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but instead, gives a realistic view of the hellish misery the soldiers experienced. Even though the bitter war did eventually end, and peace was reached, the soldiers who survived physically suffered broken spirits. Remarque, wants the reader to understand that war is terrible, to make sure that an abhorrent event like fighting a war, is not incorrectly associated with chivalrous honor and vital patronage.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Tempest - Shakespeare

Long since the first critic put his pen to paper to prove why a piece of literature or art was good, bad, heretical, or even a treasonable offense, have facts been bent and spun in order to further a particular agenda; and while most every critic hails Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a thinly-veiled political commentary, it too falls prey to the convenient emissions and wild distortions that plague the world of criticism. “Traditional” critics revere the play as a complete, thematic work of art that passively reflects the social and political conditions in which it was written. “Post-colonial” critics, however, purport that traditionalist ignore the implied politics that the power of art and order suggest and that the play is conflicted in ideas. While these two very different readings of The Tempest have long thought to be at odds with each other, an in-depth analysis shows that both readings have their merits, share many of the same critical short-comings, and are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Traditional critics acknowledge the politics evident in the play. The Tempest, like almost any piece of literature, passively reflects the politics in which it was written; but by turning the play into nothing more than a vehicle for Shakespeare’s political agenda, the reader is blind to the many virtues this masterpiece possesses.

The plot did not involve the purposeful overtake of a land. Prospero and Miranda were deceived by Antonio and did not willingly leave their home. They made the best of the island once they got there, and that involved getting help from whomever they could find on the island.
One cannot overlook the fact that this play includes many characters and subplots, which are similar to other plays Shakespeare has done. The character Ariel is similar to that of the many fairies in Midsummer Nights Dream and Caliban is similar to the many servant characters found in almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. The idea of an overthrow of royalty has been present in other Shakespeare plays such as Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello. Shakespeare could very well be continuing with a systematic way of writing that has always worked for him. Just because The Tempest happens to involve the landing on an un-colonized island by royalty, on cannot assume Shakespeare was writing a political commentary on colonialism.

In any post-colonial study there exist a tendency to promote and side with the non-westerner, the indigenous inhabitant victimized by imperial conquest. This bias would obviously emotionally cloud the mind of any critic, who feels like he must apologize for the historical acts of the westerners. Post-colonial critics have been accused of presenting Shakespeare’s plays as monarchial ideological retrograde and reducing the importance of the relationship between the text and the context in which it was written, focusing on politics at the expense of textual, artistic, and formal merits of the play, and is disrespectfully attacking Shakespeare’s body of work.

Critics have time and time again equated Prospero with Shakespeare, and assume the character serves as a voice for the author. It is important, however, that we question the one-sided and convenient politics of this assumption, and research a higher, more realistic critical position. Prospero, though at first presented in a god-like manner, is later faulted with a bad temper and limited insight. In Deborah Willis’s, Responding to the Challenge she notes the faults that Shakespeare intentionally worked into Prospero’s character.

“While we are at first led to see Prospero as a wonder-working and benevolent ‘god of power’ his displays of bad temper, to Miranda and Ariel as well as to Caliban, raise doubts in subsequent scenes.” (Pg 264)

Later, when assessing Caliban’s character, Prospero’s understanding of character seems to be binary and very limited. He describes Caliban as a “born devil on whose nature / Nurture could never stick”. (4.1.188-89) Shakespeare, however, paints a very different, infinitely more complex version of Caliban for the reader, a “noble savage”, and at times half-human, capable of learning languages, enjoying music, and forming relationships with others. Willis states, “Caliban’s speeches encourage the audience to sympathize with his suffering…” (Pg 264)
Shakespeare’s mind obviously created and contained that of Prospero and Caliban, but he creates realistic, three-dimensional characters out of both, removing the god and beast, conqueror and conquered ideology often wrongfully assumed about this play. Ironically, Shakespeare who is himself seen as capable of recognizing the humanity as well as the bestiality of Caliban, continues to be equated with Prospero, an ethnocentric, aristocratic colonist.
There is a notable undertone in contemporary critical writing, apologizing for past imperial conquest and resulting enslavement of indigenous peoples. While evaluating the merits and faults of both post-colonial and traditional critiques of any work makes any binary argument much more difficult to further, it indeed is the only path to a balanced and comprehensive evaluations incorporating the pluralisms, conflicts, and, consequential, human aspects of any work of art. The Tempest should be regarded as a successful, entertaining endorsement of the political environment in which it was written, while hinting at the prevalent apprehension felt about the imperial conquest and future colonization that was happening at the time.

House of Mirth - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth presents the reader with a comprehensive tour through New York’s early twentieth-century aristocracy. The novel closely follows Lily Bart and her desperate, scrambled attempts to gain ground and secure a position and among the ultra-rich. Many of Lily’s escapades orbit around Lawrence Selden, a well-to-do lawyer who has taken a fancy to her empty but intriguing person. At one point he even makes plans to propose marriage. While at times it seems Lawrence Selden may be seeking Lily Bart’s affections, his character is nothing more than an extension of Wharton’s bitter resentment towards everything that Lily’s character epitomizes, the value that high society had placed on wealth and physical beauty.

Wharton paints a character devoid of any meaningful virtues, while simultaneously using Selden to demonstrate how others relate to and view depthless vanity. In her “The Daughter’s Dilemma: Psychoanalytic Interpretation and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth”, Ellie Sullivan implies that beauty is the essence of a woman, “Lily incarnates in a static manner…what Edith Wharton herself must have taken to be the essence of a woman-beauty.” (Pg 469) This idea of physical beauty defining the woman, however, is exactly what Wharton is depreciating through Lily and Selden. Throughout the novel, Lily’s beauty is noted and praised by friends and admirers, but her person is empty and her life tragic. The author makes a poor example of Lily and leaves the reader frustrated and annoyed with her beauty and resulting character flaws. Wharton never intended for Selden to end up with Lily; rather, she wanted to punish Lily’s character by damaging her pride and leaving her with nothing. She needed something valuable to take from Lily in the end, as punishment for being who she is. “But the hour sped on and Selden did not come…She understood now that he was never coming” (pg 177). Wharton is teaching a lesson through Lily’s story. She shows that proper etiquette and extraordinary gook looks, does not determine or guarantee anything.

Despite the fancy he has taken to her, Selden too does not regard physical beauty in itself as a virtue or “the essence of a woman-beauty”. This is evident towards the beginning of the novel when Wharton writes, “He had a confused sense that she (Lily) must have cost a great deal to make…He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external.” (Pg. 27) Selden looks down on Lily for her dependence on beauty and her underlying but obvious motives of marriage. Their relationship is based solely on physical appearance, witty banter, and pride. Selden often remarks at her beauty, and perhaps in a way makes him thinks he cares for her; but his feelings run shallow, demonstrated by his easy and instantaneous disregard for any past feelings or possible future he had with her.

Both Selden and Wharton imply that Lily’s real person never developed but was usurped and then tarnished by her beauty. Later in her essay, Sullivan states, “But Lily is ‘mentally paralyzed’ in not knowing how to put her beauty to use in her search for love, a husband, money, a protector, a sponsor, even a career.” (Pg 469) Had Lily been simple looking, her life and relationships would be of a completely different nature, sincere and free of the tarnish that her vanity introduces. In “Death by Speculating: Deconstructing” by Margot Norris likens Lily to a portrait, “But the deeper implication is that the tableau’s “realism” derives from the fact that Lily never looks like a “real” woman at all, that she always looks like a portrait of a woman…” (Pg 441) This statement reveals much about Lily’s character. The real Lily is limited, a woman who has been forever trying to imitate the well to do and convince them she is of their class. The fact that her mother was originally poor and after marriage tried very hard to keep up appearances influences Lily, who appears to be imitating her mother who is imitating the upper class. This cycle goes on and on, reinstating the irony of the social hierarchy, as Lily knows it.

Throughout the novel, the reader sees Lily make one poor, capricious decision after another, largely due to the idea that her worth and future lay solely in her beauty. Lily assumes that her good looks will get her what she wants but is repeatedly met with failure in her conquests. “But could she not trust to her beauty to bridge it over…” (Pg 173) First, we see her beauty and resulting character deter Selden from proposing marriage, and later Wharton attributes Lily’s beauty as the source of her trouble with Mr. Trenor. Had Lily been plain looking and convinced Trenor to help her out financially because she was a friend of the family, he probably would not have expected sexual favors in return; but because Lily is beautiful and uses that as leverage in dealing with Trenor, he assumes she is offering herself in return, which ultimately leads to her demise.

Both Wharton and Selden resent Lily’s good looks and ability to rely on them for a livelihood and station. While Wharton is able to give us all of the angles of Lily’s thoughts and her inner struggles, Selden provides an outsiders perspective the reader can relate to. Wharton obviously loathed the characteristics defining Lily’s person and uses Selden to furtively pass her ideas on to the reader.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Road to Fame

Despite the many advances in architecture, city planning, and literature in England during the Middle Ages, women contributed little to the recorded history of that era. It is safe to assume that the female gender of the period did, in fact, contribute on many levels to the advances made by that society; but for whatever reason, they were excluded from the written accounts, and thereby excluded from the volumes of English history. Because it is unrealistic to make a blanket statement regarding the notable contributions of women during this period, it must be noted that there are a few exceptions: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. How did these two women gain centuries of fame, while other women disappeared through the cracks of time? While each managed to gain exceptional recognition during her own lifetime and well beyond (as well as a more prominent position for women in general), they each achieved different reactions and historical permeations with their own unique approach.

Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe, a middle class wife and mother of 14, managed to plant herself in history as one of the female Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages. Whether or not Kempe’s goal was to make a sociological impact, she did just that. Because the Catholic Church was the authority at this time in England, there was a good chance that any proclamations made regarding the Church would be listened to, or at least acknowledged.

Kempe’s famous account of her mysticism was recorded by one of her sons according to her dictation. He writes, “And when she had long been labored in this and many other temptations that men weened she should never ‘a scaped or lived.” Although it is known that she was not the writer of the text itself, it is clearly Kempe’s voice that comes through. What is notable about this line from the first chapter of her biography, entitled Her First Vision, is that she uses the third person in reference to herself. This reference subtly establishes legitimacy to her story. If someone other than Kempe is reporting these visions, then authenticity is that much easier to achieve.

Adding even more to the legitimacy of her trials, Kempe goes on to humble herself in this line: “And then our Lord Jesus Christ with great sweetness spoke to this creature, commanding her to go again to her husband.” Kempe references herself as a creature which establishes even more credibility because it reveals humility and modesty, essential characteristics of notable mystics and religious persons.

While not unheard of, the abstention of sex between married couples was, at the time, still considered very unusual and somewhat wrong (though I assume it is even more so today). Because it was considered a woman’s obligation to submit herself sexually to her husband, the idea of abstention sounded absurd in context. Strangely, Kempe managed to excuse herself from this obligation, if you will, by maintaining that it was the will of God:

“Sir, if it like you, ye shall grant me my desire and y shall have your desire. Granteth me that ye shall not come in my bed, and I grant you to quit your debts ere I go to Jerusalem. And maketh my body free to God so that ye never make no challenging in me to ask no debt of matrimony after this day while ye live, and I shall eat and drink on the Friday at your bidding.”

Of course, it is unfair to say that Kempe simply did not want to have relations with her husband, so she decided to quote a higher authority; but whether or not she was the main source of this major decision, Kempe’s execution of her mystic revelations was quite successful—she achieved her desire and ensured herself a spot in history.

Yet another reason for Kempe’s fame is the subject matter in which she records. Referring to Kempe, her writings read, “And the foresaid creature wept and sobbed so plentivously as though she had seen our Lord with her bodily eye suffering his Passion at that time.” This passage reminds the reader that Kempe is announcing her special status to the world—whether in pride or not. She was chosen to be revealed visions from God, while others, perhaps more worthy (in their minds), more chaste and more pious were not given such a gift. Furthermore, Kempe’s line, “But they knew full little what she felt” is worthy of mention in the same light. She is referring to the “others,” those who did not like or understand what she was experiencing. She possessed an envied gift, causing all to take notice.

Lastly, Kempe’s behavior in public is almost shocking for a woman at that time. Her actions were conspicuous and drew much attention. In chapter 28, entitled “To Jerusalem,” Kempe’s encounter of vision during her pilgrimage are described:

“And when they came up onto the Mount of Calvary she fell down that she might not stand nor kneel but wallowed and wrested with her body, spreading her arms abroad, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart should ‘a burst asunder, for in the city of her soul she saw verily and freshly how our Lord was crucified.”

It is not so much that Kempe begins to act like a man, but she begins to act unlike a woman. This outrageous behavior can be seen as empowering for women at the time since it drew much attention, but Kempe was never punished for it. This could pave the way for other, more rambunctious women to come after her.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, whose real name is unknown, was a female Catholic mystic just like Margery Kempe. Unlike Kempe (but equally as conspicuous), Julian’s behavior involved a turning away from the outer world, and a lifelong quest to understand the Divine.

In her book, Showings, Julian describes the visions she received and the holy mysteries that were revealed to her. In chapter 60, entitled “God as Mother”, she writes:

“To motherhood as properties belong natural love, wisdom and knowledge—and this is God. For though it is true that our bodily bringing forth is very little, low and simple compared to our spiritual bringing forth, yet it is he who does the mothering in the creatures by whom it is done.”

By feminizing God, Julian empowers woman. The “mother” becomes an important figure, replacing the father figure in prominence since he does not nurture as the mother does. Although Julian did not, presumably, intend to push away the father figure (indeed, she says “father and mother” at one point), her emphasis on the nurturing side of God places the feminine in an important light.

Part of a small majority of women in the Middle Ages who could read and write, Julian went beyond this education by possessing a thorough understanding of the Bible and other religious writings. She writes in chapter 38 of her Showings:

“In the New Law he brought to my mind first how Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Thomas of India, Jude, Saint John of Beverley and others, also without number, are known in the Church on earth with their sins, and how these sins are no shame to them but have been transformed to their glory.”

Julian proves herself to be well-read and educated in this passage, something imperative to securing a place in written history at that time.

Julian not only understood the complexity of Catholic doctrine, but contributed a new interpretation of it to history. She writes, “So shall they be rewarded by different joys in heaven according to the pain and sorrow they have caused the soul on earth.” This reworking of theology in a positive and not necessarily heretical light would guarantee her a spot in the Church’s history of theologians.

Finally, like Kempe, Julian announces her special status inadvertently. She writes, “And I had a strong, deep conviction that it was he himself and none other that showed me this vision.” She is announcing to all who read her work that she is special, she has been chosen by the highest authority—God.

Women as Mystics

Because women have long been perceived as the feeling, sensitive gender, it was assumed that they would not contribute anything of seriousness to the study of God and the Church. However, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich completely reverse this supposition because their sensitivity and feelings are what enabled them to connect with God and receive his messages. Because the Divine is considered to be unnoticeable to the senses, that that is precisely why they, women, were able to sense His presence, while others could not.

Rather than a united effort towards women’s liberation or modern feminism, the actions and accounts of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich are reflections of two unique women and a distinct representation of their personalities. They each responded to a similar call in very different, individual ways. Because of this, their separate accounts and writings cannot be dismissed as a calculated move towards the overthrow of man, but rather, a sincere attempt to reveal their passion and beliefs.

Voices: Achebe vs. Flaubert

While authors Gustave Flaubert and Chinua Achebe keep their narrators at a distance from the subjects they discuss, the narrators differ in their approach to their subjects, revealing the author’s own attitudes. Achebe’s narrator in Things Fall Apart subtly reveals the flaws of the tribal people as well as the foreign missionaries, all while maintaining a fairly neutral stance. Like Achebe’s narrator, the narrator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary subtly reveals his general attitude towards the world by focusing on character flaws, but instead of highlighting the even distribution of blame between characters, his narrator emphasizes the romantic elements of the world in which the story takes place.

Things Fall Apart is a somewhat impartial glance at tribal society and the effects of colonialism on that society. Achebe chooses to focus on the deterioration of the Igbo people due to the efforts made by the missionaries, which would lead one to infer that Achebe, himself, blames the foreigners for the fall of the tribe. But, the author gives just as much attention to the extreme violence of the tribe and the internal conflicts that exist, suggesting that Achebe does not see either issue as the sole catalyst for the decline of the Igbo society, but rather portrays the collision of both cultures as the reason for their descent. Achebe’s narrator does not criticize this tribal society for its non-western traditions and violent ways, nor does he praise them for these attributes—he simply reports in great, at times loving, detail the ways of the Igbo people and the destructive personal history of one man, Okonkwo.

It should also be noted that the narration establishes in Okonkwo a shaky and troubled character hidden by outward physical strength, reinforcing the idea that Okonkwo’s personal descent is well in the works before the missionaries arrive. If Achebe sincerely wanted to blame the missionaries for ruining this tribal society, he might have had his narrator omit damning details such as the scene where Okonkwo beats his wife, kills his adopted son, and displays irrational behavior, which would have painted him as the saint and the missionaries as the devil. Instead, the narrator wields his literary sword evenly and reveals not only Okonkwo’s flaws, but the hypocritical and dominating nature of the English missionaries.

In the narrator’s portrayal of the Igbo tribe, war is as common as eating. In this sense, the conflict he relates between the tribal peoples and the foreigners is another kind of war—a war in which the English win.

Although Flaubert is prodded as one of the first realist writers, his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, is much more romantic than realistic. The beginning of the novel is very much grounded in the realist way, but a transition begins during the second part of the novel which pushes the story into the romantic realm. Part One establishes the reliable facts and history of each character, as well as motives for future actions. Because the narrator gives the reader enough realist elements to allow their belief in the characters’ existence, it is that much easier to believe that the ridiculous events that they participate in do, in fact, occur.

The realist elements are strong in Part One, and the detail that Flaubert’s narrator goes to is great. An example of this can be seen when Emma and Bovary meet for the first time and he touches her slightly, causing her to blush:

"Mademoiselle Emma saw it, and bent over the flour sacks. Charles out of politeness made a dash also, and as he stretched out his arms at the same moment felt his breast brush against the back of the young girl bending beneath him. She drew herself up, scarlet, and looked at him over her shoulder as she handed him his whip. " (Flaubert 20)

That kind of detail definitely paints a picture for the reader.

The narrator brings romantic sensibilities in through the character of Bovary Sr., who is portrayed in a somewhat negative light (lazy, gambling, etc.), but the idealistic and impractical wants of this character lead him to romantic ventures. Romantic elements surface again in Part One of the novel at the wedding of Emma to Bovary. The wedding itself is not as notable as the scenes after the wedding. The image of Emma’s father standing in the road, watching his daughter—his only family—ride off to start her life is romantic to the nth degree. While he is happy for her, the imminent loneliness creeping into his life becomes evident. He recalls the bittersweet memories of his own wedding and the happy years he had with his wife before she passed.

Even more notable is that Emma does not match her father’s love for her. She is portrayed as somewhat complacent, going along with what is expected. This, of course, changes erratically throughout the course of the novel, when Emma turns into an adulterous, eccentric woman.
Achebe’s narrator tells a tumultuous story with an impartial, but sometimes warm, voice, while Flaubert’s narrator describes extreme characters and happenings with a calm, but sometimes bitter, voice. Both narrators remain fairly distant from their subjects, but general feelings and attitudes of the author’s seep in through the tone of their narrators when they slip out of indifference, if only for a moment.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Gay

The uninformed reader may interpret Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, as a light-hearted celebration of humanity; but one who is keen to Wilde’s personality and personal history will certainly note this novel as much a celebration as it is a satire, subtly implemented but dripping with bitterness. Although Wilde crafts an accessible and humorous account of aristocratic life, he fails to omit his own hostility towards the upper-class, his own class, in the make-up of the story. Because he fuses the genres of satire and honest comedy, using elements from both, one can easily see that The Importance of Being Earnest cannot fully be categorized as either.

To recognize the ambivalent nature of Wilde’s play, one must become familiar with his personal history in order to clearly identify the two genres in his play. After understanding certain aspects of Wilde’s life, it becomes quite sensible that a man with essentially two lives, two conflicting natures, would write a play conflicted in motive.

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 to a philandering Doctor and a feminist poet. He was given a privileged education and lived a rather posh life. Wilde attended Oxford and received his degree in 1878. He began his career writing art reviews and articles for magazines (Layman).

Wilde worked as an art reviewer in 1881 and soon embraced the idea of art for art’s sake. He eventually became widely known as one of the most fervent advocates for aestheticism. Rupert Hart-Davis explains this turning point in Wilde’s life,

He was the most articulate and popular spokesman in the late nineteenth century advocating the doctrine of aestheticism, which insisted that art should be primarily concerned with ‘art for art's sake,’ not with politics , religion, science, bourgeois morality, or other intrusions. ‘All art,’ he said, ‘is quite useless’ (Layman).

Obviously, despite his notorious cynicism (which was apparent from his first literary works), Wilde had a true appreciation for the arts.

He eventually gained celebrity among the cultured European crowd. His career began to take flight when he was involved in writing several “farcical” plays. It was during this time that he married his friend’s sister, Constance Lloyd. They had two children and he continued to write, despite often negative reviews from such writers as Henry James and Bernard Shaw. Hart-Davis writes of such reviews in his The Letters of Oscar Wilde, “James McNeill Whistler, who, with increasing acrimony, accused Wilde of pretentiousness and plagiarism” (Layman). He goes on to write of the reception of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, “Widely reviewed, the novel generated considerable distaste, even revulsion, among many reviewers because of its suggestion of homosexuality” (Layman).Despite such instances, his success eventually grew, spurring several tours throughout America, Canada, and Europe.

The most pertinent and conspiratorial chapter in Wilde’s personal life began in 1891. With only nine years of his life left, he met Lord Alfred Douglas, and soon initiated what was then referred to in the Victorian Period as “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name” (Kanfer). Wilde had since gained notoriety for his promiscuity with young boys, making his affair with Douglas more expected than surprising. Hart-Davis writes,

Wilde was also self-destructive, for his progressively compulsive homosexuality…arising from a need for inner stability but resulting in increasing guilt and inner division, led him into experiences with ‘renters’ (male prostitutes) as well as casual pickups. It was, he said, like ‘feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement’(Layman).

While his love affair with “Bosie”, as he was called, was kept quite under wraps from the general public, word eventually got out causing Wilde’s wife to leave him and Wilde was accused of homosexuality by his lover’s father (Hart Davis). Wilde considered this the undoing of his career and the cause of his demise, saying of Bosie,

My genius, my life as an artist, my work, and the quiet I needed for it, were nothing to him when matched with his unrestrained and coarse appetities for common profligate life: his greed for money: his incessant and violent scenes: his unimaginative selfishness.... I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him to dominate my life(Hart-Davis).

Wilde was soon imprisoned for sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor, most of which was in solitary confinement.

Armed with the knowledge of Wilde’s dramatic personal history, one can attempt to deconstruct his most notable play, The Importance of Being Earnest, and strip it to its two conflicting voices: Satire and sincere comedy.

The Importance of Being Earnest as a satire is quite digestible. Knowing that Wilde was often attacked by literary critics, one can filter out lines in the play that target the critics specifically and recognize the bitterness behind them. This is evident when Algernon says to Jack,

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers (Wilde 6).

Although this is obviously meant to be humorous, that does not excuse it from inferring more. Oddly enough, the critics and writers alike responded rather positively to the play. Hart-Davis writes, “H.G. Wells applauded the work, saying, ‘delightful revival of theatrical satire’” (Layman).

The most important reason one might consider this play a satire is the issue of Wilde’s homosexuality. The pertinence of this matter of Wilde’s lies in his possible motives for cynically targeting the aristocracy in his play. While he was known to keep company with the upper class, the aristocracy never fully accepted him, socializing with his celebrity but criticizing his personal life. While his homosexual tendencies would not cause as much as an eye twitch in the 21st century, homosexuality, and sexuality in general, was not something to be publicly tolerated. In her article, “The Bi-Social Oscar Wilde and ‘Modern’ Women,” Margaret Stetz writes,

Victorian homophobia, which was by no means confined to muscular men of the Rudyard Kipling and W.E. Henley type, but was also shared by women—even by sophisticated, intellectual, “modern” women (Stetz).

It is just as easy to find evidence in the play of his resentment for the public disapproval of his personal life. The criticism of upper-class follies appears when Gwendolen says to Jack of her mother,

Although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you (Wilde 17).

It is hard to overlook the thinly veiled bitterness in this passage. Wilde points out the hypocrisy of people who criticize his flaws while being equally marred themselves.

Wilde attacks this shallowness throughout the play, as seen when Gwendolen explains why she loves Jack, “We live in…in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name Ernest” (Wilde 10).

Although there is much evidence that this play is written in a satirical fashion, there is also support of it as an honest comedy. Knowing that Wilde was a subscriber to the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” one would easily discount the play of having any substance or motive beyond pure, innocent comedy. Hart-Davis addresses this possibility, saying in reference to the characters of this play,

“The wit of the amoral dandy, who, in embodying the artistic ideal, is principally concerned with the beauty and perfection of phrasing rather than with its truth or moral vision”(Layman)

He goes on to say, “Wilde absorbed the idea that art was superior to life and that the one obligation was to transform life into art--to be as ‘artificial’ as possible” (Layman). Since Wilde fervently supported aestheticism and artificiality, The Importance of Being Earnest can be classified as a purposely artificial and aesthetically pleasing (the words used), and nothing more.

After weighing evidence of The Importance of Being Earnest as both a satire and an honest comedy, it is important to address the most compelling reason to consider the play as not fully either. Wilde struggled internally throughout his life with spirituality and material gratification. Margaret Stetz addresses this issue, perhaps unintentionally, saying in reference to Alice Meynell, a friend of Wilde’s “Meynell had converted to Roman Catholicism, a move that Wilde himself was several times on the verge of making.” (Stetz) In fact, Wilde did convert to Catholicism on his deathbed despite his firm loyalty to aestheticism—a testament to his dual personality.

Hart-Davis provides testament to this duality of Wilde’s play, saying, “Wilde's ironic use of the double, or doppelganger, perhaps unconsciously parallels the psychological division within himself” (Layman). With equal evidence in favor of the play as a satire and an honest comedy, as well as the recognition that these genres are conflicting in nature, it is easy to classify The Importance of Being Ernest as only partially earnest.


Kanfer, Stefan. "Feasting With Panthers." New Leader 06

1997. 11 May 2005 <>.

Layman, Bruccoli C. "Oscar Wilde." Dictionary of Literary

Biography,Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945. Ed. Stanley Weintraub, and Rupert Hart-Davis. Pennsylvania State University: The Gale Group, 1982. 204-218.

Stetz, Margaret D. "The Bi-Social Oscar Wilde and "Modern"

Women." Nineteenth-Century Literature 2001. 11 May 2005 <://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0891-9356%28200103%2955%3A4%3C515%3ATBOWA%22%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Z >.

Wilde, Oscar, and . The Importance of Being Earnest.

Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Borderlands - Gloria Anzaldua

The “borderlands” as explained by Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera is not merely the literal territory in which her identity was formed but a mental state of being that exists indefinitely, containing several unique characteristics that help one to identify other groups that occupy a similar figurative space.

One of the major aspects of the “borderlands” as Anzaldua describes it is the fragmentary nature that it entails. She refers to this when she writes, “Living on the borders and in margins, keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity…”(Anzaldua 25). In this passage, the author refers to her identity as one that is potentially in pieces. Because she has multiple ancestry lines, she suffers from being categorized as “not whole.” Instead of denying it, however, she acknowledges the patchwork qualities of her identity and reveals even more of the internal strife suffered by one with torn motives and loyalties. If she assimilates into the Anglo culture, she would be considered a traitor to her people; but if she lives in the Anglo world while fully embracing her Chicana heritage, she would be completely marginalized and alienated from her surrounding world. Anzaldua’s goal for herself and others that are afflicted by the fragmentary status of living on the “borderlands,” is to be fully each element that makes up her being, rather than being part of a larger whole.

Anzaldua makes a point of addressing the duality of living on the “borderlands.” While she makes the obvious point that living on the “borderlands” threatens one’s identity because it is not of the majority on either side of it, she presents a positive aspect to this state as well. The author explains how living on the border can actually support one’s identity in some ways. Since the person is identified by not just one specific culture, but usually two or more, the “borderlands” is the only place where a person can experience all of their cultures without completely assimilating to any particular one and

foregoing all of the rest of their heritage. The only flaw with this proposed plan, is that the “borderlands” itself creates an identity that is even more specific and narrow. If one veers too far towards any particular part of the combined culture, then they will be targeted for tyranny.

Because the “borderlands” serves as both a vessel of support and danger, the person living on it must develop a keen sense of awareness, which is another characteristic of people like Anzaldua. Since persecution is a reality, from all sides, one must be fully prepared and alert to the threats that target the minority culture. This necessity to survival results in heightening of the senses. There are benefits to this hyper-awareness, including a perception that is often not accessed by those comfortable enough to not care.

A border in Anzaldua’s world is that which lacks legitimacy as seen in the first chapter when she writes, “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them,” (Anzaldua 25). She emphasizes the vagueness of this term by explaining the ease with which the outside and inside of a border are identified, in comparison to the border itself which lacks such a definition.

Anzaldua is a proud, lesbian Chicana who might appear to be in a very similar predicament as gay couples seeking to be married with children. This is true, but not in the sense of connection merely through homosexuality. Both are marginalized by their vague status in relation to a larger sphere, and suffer by their inability to assimilate without losing some part of their identity.

Gay couples seeking to model their family after the typical American family module are presented with an identity crisis, similar to that presented in Borderlands/La Frontera. Since many homosexual people reveal their sexual preferences to their families and friends as a way of “coming out,” one can see how these people might seek acceptance from the gay community and culture after facing rejection and alienation from their own families. It is after assimilation into the gay community that the average homosexual person finds a long-term mate. Couples that choose to marry and adopt position themselves awkwardly on both sides. Since marriage and children have traditionally been the keystones of the heterosexual union, other gay couples may see this step as a betrayal. These people feel that their counterparts are foolishly trying to emulate the very people that have shunned and rejected them in the first place.

This is not the only cause of turmoil within the gay community. Homosexuals also suffer amongst themselves when they adopt children, but are not allowed to be married. Gay marriage is considered illegal, which illegitimates the home that they are trying to create. Theoderek Wayne explores this side of gay unions when he writes, “The illegality of same-sex marriage fosters a feeling of alienation among homosexuals.”

Gay couples seeking this merger may encounter friction from their community, but it is the majority, or heterosexual society, that will pose the largest threat. State Representative Randy Ball argues in his article against gay adoption:

This issue has to take into consideration the influence that

religion has on the public. Throughout our society is the

deeply rooted Judeo-Christian ethic that holds that homosexuality

is immoral and that we should not put children into that


Gay marriage and adoption are threats to physical reproduction and the destruction of the family unit as society knows it today, however minuscule the chances of it occurring are. Because homosexuals have prided themselves on the severe difference between their lifestyles and that of heterosexuals, it is with justification that heterosexuals discover the new invasion of their “territory” as a threat, not only to their pride but to the future of their society. The majority feels threatened because homosexuals as a group have embraced a lifestyle that is not popular with the heterosexual family. Their reason for doing this is to erase the negative stigma that goes along with their preferences and at the same time form an identity that is theirs to revel in.

It is because of the opposing forces of both their gay community and the majority of modern society that gay couples wishing to unify and raise children are faced with a very difficult decision to make. One option for them is to fully embrace their gay community and way of life as separate and the conceptual opposition of the heterosexual lifestyle and risk being ostracized by the majority. Their other option is just as unappealing and involves risking what identity they have embraced and leaving the defined space of homosexual to enter into the unknown sphere of marriage and parenthood as a gay couple. This move does not come without the threat of possibly encountering hate from both sides of the figurative border.

The challenge for these particular gay couples, from Anzaldua’s perspective, is to overcome the tendency to identify themselves as part homosexual (their partner choice) and part heterosexual (their lifestyle choice). Instead, empowerment will come from identifying themselves as fully each element of their being. This change in the definition of their “category” will actually create a new and separate category, or a third state of being. Just as Anzaldua considers her borderland culture a separate one unto itself, gay couples seeking marriage and children will legitimize their existence by embracing their identity as separate.

Anzaldua presents many difficulties that accompany life on the “borderlands,” but she does manage to convey a general feeling of acceptance. She explains the hardships of this existence, but shows the contentment and pride that can be reached with true exploration of identity. Just like Anzaldua, gay couples seeking the family life are not completely barred from this altered existence. Life on the “borderlands” can limit the expression of the several parts of one’s existence, but can also give one the opportunity to create a new identity and experience.


Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. Ed. Joan Pinkvoss. San Francisco, Aunt Lute

Books, 1999.

Ball, Randy. “Should Gay Couples be Allowed to Adopt?” The Daily Item. Bucknell

University. 11 August 2002. http://www.orgs.bucknell.edu/flagb/


Wayne, Theoderek. “Private Freedoms, Public Legislation: A Case for Same-Sex and

Polygamous Marriages Using John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.” 24 July 2002.http://