Monday, August 1, 2011

Fantasy’s Effect on Young Readers Through Tolkien’s Ring

In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis writes about the chief function of literature as an art form. Lewis writes:

[It is] an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves . . . we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own . . . the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. What we receive is conveyed to us, in literature at least, partly by the object: its design, the adjustment of chronological and causal order, its images, contrasts and language (Lewis 104).

The fantasy genre allows readers to escape into an unknown world—surrendering the reader to its panic or beauty. Throughout Lewis’ critique of literature as an art form, a difficult question arises: How does high fantasy lead children to knowledge of self and the world around them? The answer lies in the importance of introducing fantasy to young readers early on in childhood. Through the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, we will recognize how character, setting, and imagery thrust young children into foreign environments, causing them to learn deeply rooted values, hidden themes, but—most importantly—connections within themselves.

In fantasy literature character is paramount. Through well-rounded characters, children grasp concepts early on of what it means to be heroic. In John Gardner’s novel Grendel, Gardner defines the motives of a “hero” through Unferth, a young knight about to be eaten by a monster. Unferth yells petulantly, “Go ahead, scoff. Except in the life of a hero, the whole world’s meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what’s possible. That’s the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately. But it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile” (Gardner 89). These heroic values can be applied to Frodo and Sam in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam face an impossible task in their want to destroy the “one ring.” It is through their journey together that children reading the story will be introduced to the value of friendship, and the deeply rooted theme of unconditional love.

In Tolkien’s The Retun of the King, there are two moments at the end of the novel where the value of friendship and the theme of unconditional love are present. Yards away from Mt. Doom, Frodo falls to the ground in exhaustion wanting to give up. Sam heroically pulls him on his back replying, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go” (Tolkien 919). A few pages later the ring is destroyed, and facing certain death by lava, Frodo turns to Sam and exclaims in exhaustion, “I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam” (Tolkien 926). Upon reading both of these passages, the child will most likely “not” look up at her mother and cry “there is a theme of unconditional love here,” but rather interpret it through what author Gregory Bassham calls, “bracing moral power” (Bassham 248).

In his essay entitled, “Lewis and Tolkien on the Power of the Imagination,” Bassham brings attention to how fantasy can activate our moral imaginations at distinct levels in The Lord of the Rings. Bassham writes, “. . . Tolkien’s heroes inspire us as moral exemplars. When we read of the selfless, dogged persistence of Frodo, the indomitable courage of Sam . . . We are moved, energized and uplifted. We dream of better things and desire to grow” (Bassham 248). Here the child will have an internal response to Sam “helping” Frodo up off his feet, and “sharing” in his burden by carrying him on his back. These values noted in The Lord of the Rings are important for they will enhance the child’s ability to relate humanely with other children and society as a whole.
Setting is an equal important component in fantasy—for it can drive a story’s central conflict, enrich its overall meaning, but most importantly introduce a major theme to young children—the journey. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a quest fantasy which begins as quest fantasies should—with a call to action. However, Tolkien uses the physical setting of Bilbo Baggins’ hole in the ground to introduce the reader to a creature of cleanliness and safety—a creature who “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected” (Tolkien 3).

In the very first paragraph Tolkien writes, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort” (Tolkien 3). Tolkien is setting the child up by placing the physical setting indoors or in the interior. Conflict arises when the “unexpected party” arrives. Soon we witness Bilbo being thrust into the exterior; heading out into the unknown on a perilous journey.

In Chapter Eight entitled “Flies and Spiders,” Tolkien presents nature in an unkind light when the party must travel through Mirkwood alone—without Gandalf to guide and protect them. This is important, for Tolkien separates the company from the parental role of Gandalf. What Tolkien is suggesting to children is a simple truth: A time will come one day in your life when your parent’s won’t be there to guide and protect you—you will make your own decisions in what path to take in life.

The hostile environment of Mirkwood forest presents another theme—that of suffering. Tolkien writes, “It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending” (Tolkien 129). In his essay “The Gospel of Middle-Earth according to J. R. R. Tolkien,” author William Dowie writes, “Suffering, as a necessity of life and an integral part of personal growth, is bound up with the task” (Dowie 275). The success of the company escaping out of Mirkwood through trial and tribulation is a testament to their splendor of courage through hardship. Through their example children can apply their own demonstrations of courage—big or small. It is through the company’s suffering that a freedom of will is affirmed.

Lastly, it is in Tolkiens use of imagery that children learn there is such a thing as good and evil in both the imaginative world of Tolkien—and their own. Tolkien communicates this connection through the ferocious battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s use of violence is acceptable according to Dowie, because it leads to “strong moral compassion[s] for the enemies” later in the novel (Dowie 277). Dowie writes:

The men of the West can go to battle with such fierce intensity against the orcs and the winged Nazgul because while they are set in their course of power and destruction, they are wholly evil, given over to their own self-love and to the service of their Dark Lord. Because the opposition is stark, violence is necessary and good. (276)

Children will make similar connections in their own reality. In history they will learn of World War II, making literary and historical connections. How millions of people fought an Axis power, similar to Sauron’s military and how great numbers of “ordinary” people fought to be free.

Dowie remarks that one thing readers of all ages pick up on is the theme of power in The Lord of the Rings. Dowie writes, “As far as power is concerned, it is in the realm of the Dark Lord. The way of the Fellowship is the way of renunciation of power. The story constantly sounds the theme that the great deed must be accomplished humbly” (Dowie 278). Proving this point we turn to The Fellowship of the Ring. A council is being held at the “last homely house” of Elrond, and the Fellowship is deciding the easiest path to take in destroying the one ring. Elrond suggests two options: “to send it over the Sea, or to destroy it” (Tolkien 259). The first option is more crass then “humble.” Here, young children will read Gandalf’s wise words, speaking “. . . for good or ill it belongs to Middle-earth; it is for us who still dwell here to deal with it” (Tolkien 259). Children gain a simple truth: that you can’t run away from your problems forever; there are times in life when you need to stand your ground and face your fears.

In the end, introducing high fantasy to children at a young age carries many benefits. In her book Powerful Magic: Learning From Children’s Responses to Fantasy Literature, Nina Mikkelsen writes, “When children are deeply engaged with fantasy literature, we see live circuits of response that reveal more about the books children read, their ways of reading and composing, and their own child worlds” (Mikkelsen 22). Through J. R. R. Tolkien children have a deep engagement in the text, for Tolkien goes to great lengths weaving a story filled with recognizable values, themes, which in turn allow children to make connections—and to start applying this self-learned knowledge. Through character, setting, and imagery, the success of high fantasy literature serves the ultimate purpose: it broadens our perspective over the ordinary world, and shows us what ordinary individuals can achieve.

Works Cited

Bassham, Gregory. Lewis and Tolkien on the Power of the Imagination. Ed. David Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Dowie, William. The Gospel of Middle-Earth according to J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell. New York: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1971.

Lewis, C. S. An Experiment in Criticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Mikkelsen, Nina. Powerful Magic: Learning From Children’s Responses to Fantasy Literature. New York: Teachers College Press, 2005.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
---, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
---, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Major work by said author. Book Three.

Works Consulted

Burke, Eileen M. Literature For The Young Child. 2nd ed. Boston: Simon & Schustur, 1990.

Glover, Donald E. C. S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Babylon Revisited: A Prosperous City

In “Babylon Revisited,” F. Scott Fitzgerald creates a sweeping theme of redemption. Fitzgerald wastes no time stylistically structuring his story with powerful imagery, explosive language, and flawless use of symbols in his weaving together of a short story filled with emotional hostility, and brutal pragmatism.

Like a wound that never heals, this bleak atmosphere seeps from the first page through stark images. Fitzgerald writes, “The stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar anymore...he felt the stillness from the moment he got out of the taxi and saw the doorman.” Charlie is revisiting a nightmare past, where all familiar places and faces are strange and alien to him. Fitzgerald feeds this bleak imagery of the past further by supplementing Charlie’s environment with superfluous characters—who endow little praise to his character, but rather take part in “reading a newspaper” (which contain forgotten events of yesterday), or reminiscing of long ago, reckless days, “Remember the night of George Hardt’s bachelor dinner?”

This atmosphere continues through Fitzgerald’s clever writing, giving the reader snapshots and snippets of Charlie’s own internal reluctance in his returning to the bar that helped perpetuate his own downfall. Charlie reminisces, “Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once-clamorous women’s room. When he turned into the bar he traveled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit...the place oppressed him.” Charlie’s newfound strength is confirmed with his reluctance to go back to his old self through his conversation with Alix the barman. Alix offers Charlie a drink—in which Charlie refuses, replying “No, no more...I’m going slow these days,” and when reminded of his drunken (embarrassing) past “I’ll stick to it all right...I’ve stuck to it for over a year and a half now.” Through this dialogue we gain valuable information about Charlie’s character—that he’s been sober for over eighteen months and that he’s sticking to it.

The setting of “Babylon Revisited,” is equal in importance to that of the time period in which it takes place. When the market crashed in the United States in October of 1929, it threw America into the Great Depression. “It left millions of Americans, who formally prospered during the roaring twenties, out of work, disillusioned, and blaming themselves (DuBois). Fitzgerald wanted his protagonist (Charlie) to be affected by the times, but more importantly, to gain enlightenment with his mind, body, and spirit.

The theme of redemption gains here and builds more steam through Fitzgerald’s use of emotionally charged language. With a surgeon’s steady hand, Fitzgerald opens up Charlie’s mind by letting the reader hear his inner monologue, a very important component in Babylon. Charlie speaks to himself, “He believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything else wore out.” Charlie views himself as a “reformed sinner,” and his character builds sympathy from the reader through this emotionally charged language.

This building of sympathy for Charlie continues as he visits his old stomping grounds, and relives a hazy eyed ambiguous past. “He passed a lighted door from which issued music, and stopped with the sense of familiarity; it was Bricktop’s, where he had parted with so many hours and so much money.” Fitzgerald builds this theme further by presenting a moral to the reader, “Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.” This is a beautiful line for we the reader can identify our own lives with Charlie.

Fitzgerald’s use of inner monologue, thought provoking morals, and emotional dialogue (best exhibited going home in the taxi cab between Charlie and Honoria, in a ‘On The waterfront’ revealing moment), propel the reader in viewing Charlie as a man who has truly repented. “They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him, because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw certain sustenance from his strength.”

The title “Babylon Revisited,” is taken from the capital of Babylonia, a city noted in the Bible for materialism and luxury and the pursuit of sensual pleasure, and wickedness. In their book “Signs & Symbols,” authors Mark O’ Connell and Raje Airey refer to Babylon as a city “so splendid, that no city on earth may be compared with it. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, it became the antithesis of paradise and the heavenly Jerusalem, and symbolized the profane.” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Charlie’s Paris as a direct opposite to Babylon.

Fitzgerald craftily takes Charlie’s new found sense of redemption and brutally challenges it with powerful symbols from his past. Fitzgerald uses Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles to entice Charlie back to his drunken days. The two begin to strip apart Charlie’s new found armor through snide, objectifying remarks, “Charlie, I believe you’re sober, I honestly believe he’s sober, Dunc. Pinch him and see if he’s sober.”

Lorraine’s letter recounts all the crazy times they had in Paris and (in a begging tone), wants Charlie to find his old self again, “You were so strange when we saw you the other day...we did have such good times that crazy spring, like the night you and I stole the butcher’s tricycle...everybody seems so old lately...I’ve got a viral hang-over.”

Fitzgerald brings the two back later, during a crucial moment for Charlie in winning custody of Honoria. Lorraine and Duncan unexpectedly visit Charlie at Marion’s, bringing with them (old baggage) talk from long ago times. “They were gay, they were hilarious, they were roaring with laughter. For a moment Charlie was astounded; unable to understand how they ferreted out the Peters’ address. The two invite Charlie to dinner, and Charlie declines telling them he’ll phone. Lorraine nastily spits, “All right we’ll go. But I remember once when you hammered on my door at four A.M. I was enough of a good sport to give you a drink.”

Lorraine and Duncan are “objects” from Charlie’s past that represent all the bad moments in Charlie’s past. This symbol of the past being represented in the future is so powerful that Marion misinterprets them and our protagonist losses everything he’s been fighting for—that of custody of his daughter Honoria.

An antithesis between Charlie and Marion Peters is also noted. Fitzgerald uses Marion craftily, for the two are foils of each other. Charlie uses Marion’s belligerence for his benefit, thinking, “Her very aggressiveness gave him an advantage, and he knew enough to wait. He wanted them to initiate the discussion of what they knew had brought him to Paris.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald succeeds in the end by using many literary techniques in weaving this vast tapestry of redemption which was lost—but is now found.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Lesson Before Dying: A Meaningful Life

In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines creates a sweeping theme of social injustice through a young black man named Jefferson who is sentenced to death, for a crime he did not commit. Throughout the novel, Gaines wastes no time stylistically structuring his story with powerful imagery, explosive language, and a flawless use of symbols, weaving together a story filled with emotional hostility and brutal pragmatism. Through these three literary devices we witness, but more importantly learn a lesson before dying; that “Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free” (Gaines 251).

Like a wound that never heals, the bleak unjust atmosphere seeps from the very first chapter through stark imagery. Gaines begins by creating three distinct barriers between Jefferson and the rest of civilization through key descriptions of what is seen and heard in the courtroom. The first barrier comes from the godmother’s “blind” perspective. Separated and seated two rows behind Jefferson, Gaines writes, “She just sat there staring at the boy’s clean cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer” (Gaines 3). This perspective of Jefferson’s “head” and not his “face,” conveys an individual who has no distinguishing features—no uniqueness.

The author reinforces this separation with what is heard in the courtroom with the second barrier. Gaines writes, “It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor . . . pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom” (Gaines 4). Using the courtroom’s rails as a clear separation from society, the reader views Jefferson as a trapped animal caught in a pen surrounded by wolves.

The third and most important barrier in the novel is skin color. In his review of author Derrick A. Bell Jr.’s book, Race, Racism And American Law, Professor A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. discusses how racism should be discerned in a society. Higginbotham writes:

[. . .] racism may be viewed as any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of his or their color. Even though race and color refer to two different kinds of human characteristics, in America it is the visibility of skin color—and of other physical traits associated with particular color or groups—that marks individuals as targets for subordination by members of the white majority (Higginbotham 1045).

The skin color of the judge, and each member of the jury is white, permanently reinforcing the unjust society Jefferson is up against—for his skin is black. These three barriers—viewer perspective, spatial division, and racism—created by stark imagery, elicit an immediate impression about Jefferson’s character. He is an animal trapped in a pen. These significant barriers are emphasized to increase the readers hope for Jefferson’s survival.

The theme of social injustice builds more steam through Gaines’ use of emotionally charged language. Aware of how the jury perceives his client, Jefferson’s attorney tries to reduce Jefferson to the lowliest of things—a hog. In the first chapter, the defense argues, “What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentleman? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (Gaines 8). The purposeful use of the word “hog,” ties in nicely to Gains’ use of imagery. This is more powerful in its literal subjugation of Jefferson as an intellectually inferior thing—in this case a filthy swine.

This building of injustice continues later in the novel when Jefferson wants an unusual last meal. Jefferson proclaims to Grant, “My last supper. A whole gallona ice cream . . . ain’t never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone . . . but now I’m go’n get me a whole gallon” (Gains 170). The word choice used here is important for it connects Jefferson to a simple childhood social injustice. Gaines mocks the idea that, as a youth, Jefferson didn’t have the freedom of choice even as to the amount of ice cream he could have. That it would be on a condition of death—that he could have all the ice cream he wants.

It is at the end of the novel in which Gaines questions our own system of laws, writing his most powerful declaration towards the social injustices exhibited in post World War II America. He writes, “Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? . . . no, his peers did not judge him—and I will not believe” (Gaines 251). Here, Gaines declares that the playing field wasn’t level. That the scales of justice where weighted down in favor of a conviction. This conviction is based on skin color. It is not a product of legitimate evidence. Gaines uses emotionally charged language to cement an understanding that racism has haunted Jefferson from the moment of birth.

In the end, it is Ernest J. Gaines use of unblemished symbolism that propels the novel’s theme of social injustice. In chapter five the American flag is portrayed as a dead thing. The author writes, “We pledged allegiance to the flag. The flag hung limp from a ten-foot bamboo pole in the corner of the white picket fence that surrounded the church” (Gaines 33). The American flag represents democracy—the ultimate symbol of equality. The American flag typically evokes powerful emotions of pride, and patriotism in a culture. Here, Gaines represents the flag as a lifeless, unobservant, dead object—blind to the injustices facing Jefferson.

One of the most powerful symbols in the novel is the diary grant gives Jefferson in jail. In his book “Black Metafiction,” author Madelyn Jablon writes, “By giving Jefferson a pencil and a tablet, Gaines signifies on the trope of the talking book and the role of literacy in the crusade for civil rights. Writing is evidence that the black man is not a hog, but—as Jefferson writes—a youman” (Jablon 91). In the diary Jefferson finds his voice, and gains strength—transforming from a scared animal trapped in a pen—to that of a man. Jefferson writes, “good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin . . .” (Gaines 234).

A Lesson Before Dying is a commanding piece of literature which echoes one of the strongest textual examples of social injustice in post World War II America. It accomplishes this through Gaines’ use of potent imagery, loaded language, and unblemished symbolism. Through these three literary elements, Gaines succeeds in offering up a character separated by the barriers of society, and cast down to the lowliest of creatures. In the end we are left with a man striped of freedom because of his skin, but who has found freedom in his mind.

Works Cited

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Higginbotham, A. Leon Jr. “Review: [untitled] Race, Racism and American Law by Derrick A. Bell, Jr.” The University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 122, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp 1044-1069. JSTOR. Ovitt Library, Northridge, CA. Nov 20.

Jablon, Madelyn. Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness In African American Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Carriage of Death: The Meter is Running

If you heard the slow methodic steps of horses, the soft squeaks of wheels rolling ceaselessly in your direction, and with a turn of the head, you noticed death was at the reins—would you be content? In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” imagery is used to illustrate a woman’s acceptance of the afterlife. Through positive images, Dickinson touches our senses and unfolds a cycle of events in a carriage ride with the Grim Reaper; fortunately for the reader—Dickinson has left us an empty seat.

A positive connotation is employed in the first stanza of the poem through a simple economy of words. Dickinson writes, “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—” (lines 1-2). These two lines set the overall tone of the poem: that of acceptance. In the first line our speaker is caught up in the joys of life, and her attempts to avoid death are obvious—not stopping for him. It is in the second line, with the word “kindly” (2) that we feel a sense of humility. Here the speaker is embarrassed, and we the reader blush with her—for no one escapes the inevitable.

The image of the carriage represents the end result of our lives; symbolic of the ferryman we all pay to cross the river into the afterlife. The carriage further embodies a characteristic aura of safety. It is a comfortable, slow, and simple mode of transportation; fitting in nicely as a “literal” vehicle to push the tone of the speaker’s willingness to ride with death. This powerful image is pursued further through an equally powerful word: “Immortality” (4). The term suggests that the speaker’s life is unfinished—that more awaits her in the spirit world. We come to the realization that she is unafraid through the serene nature of her actions, as well as those of Death. Dickinson writes, “We slowly drove—he knew no haste / And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too” (5-7). There is a clear relationship between the speaker and death, in that both are teammates not wanting to upset each other through their actions. Death does not ride the carriage harshly, which would strike fear in our speaker, and in return our speaker gives death her undivided attention.

Dickinson throws in physical settings to add to the overall atmosphere of acceptance, striking our senses hard with sound. Dickinson inks, “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess—in the Ring—” (9-10). The lines create a sad impression of her past, for she is now a mere observer of life—not a participant. The sound of the children laughing at recess causes us to wonder if she was a school teacher watching her pupils play, or, if indeed this vision was of her own childhood—seeing herself as a little girl unaware of the brevity of life.

As if the sound of children at play wasn’t enough, Dickenson attacks our senses of smell and sight to personify the peaceful acceptance of the speaker. Dickinson writes, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain— / We passed the Setting Sun—” (11-12). Both images are golden in color, and both communicate the cycle of life—for the wheat is portrayed with human qualities, “Gazing Grain” (11) dependent on the warmth and light of the sun for its vitality, and in return the “Setting Sun” (12) represents a cycle’s end. The two images connect to the speaker, for she too was once dependent on the wheat which gave her body vitality, but now like the setting sun, in death—she must eventually rise again.

It is in the last stanza we see this rebirth in our speaker. Dickinson writes,

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity— (21-24)

The images offer us a speaker who has become death and is reflecting, centuries later, upon her life on earth. Time holds no significance for her anymore because life is cyclical—it is everlasting.

It is in Emily Dickinson’s use of imagery that we view a woman calmly accepting the next stage of her journey—that of the afterlife.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 6th ed. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Australia: Thompson, 2007. 954.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Everyday Use: Quilting Our Identity Through Feminist Theory

In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” symbolism is employed to show the clashing of rural and urban identities between mother and daughter. It is through character, physical setting, and objects that Walker weaves a tapestry of conflicting points of view, and begs the question—how is feminist theory represented in “Everyday Use,” and how is it representational in the everyday world?

In his book, "Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self," author Lois McNay latches onto a very powerful quote by Michael Foucault. Foucault remarks:

One must observe also that there cannot be relations of power unless the subjects are free. If one or the other were completely at the disposition of the other and became his thing, an object on which he can exercise an infinite and unlimited violence, there would not be relations of power. In order to exercise a relation of power, there must be on both sides at least a certain form of liberty (McNay 67).

Dee Johnson, changing her name to that of an African root-oriented name, is a specific and significant “power” choice by the character. In "Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women," author Nancy A. Walker discusses the importance of names in terms of ones identity. She writes, “Names are closely tied to identity, and the claiming or conferring of a name is an indication of selfhood” (61). In “Everyday Use,” we see this “indication of selfhood” in Wangero, who remarks, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker 2440). Dee went back to her African name because it reacquainted herself with her roots. When masters endowed names upon their slaves, it indicated a sense of ownership and property over them. Wangero feels that if she went by the name given to her by her mother, she would lose her self-identity.

The difference in styles of clothing between Mrs. Johnson and Wangero adds deeper literary symbolism to their characters’ points of view and how they are represented, as “female,” in the world today. Mrs. Johnson reflects, “In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day” (Walker 2437). The unappealing flannel nightgown and overalls; with their rough texture and confining shoulder straps, are indicative of the clothing worn by her ancestors, who labored in the fields, constrained by the chains of slavery. Mrs. Johnson’s clothing contrasts that of Wangero, who enters into the story wearing, “A dress so loud it hurts my eyes . . . earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises . . .” (Walker 2439). Wangero enters, wearing a head-turning outfit proclaiming her new identity. According to her mother, this new sense of self occurred at an early age. Mrs. Johnson remarks, “At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was” (Walker 2438). This is a clear feminist “power position” through which Wangro has adopted supremacy over her mother. Mcnay writes, “Practices of the self are situated at this level of power relations, at the point where individuals autonomously order their own lives and, in doing so, attempt to influence other individuals” (Mcnay 67). Society has conditioned Wangero and she has succeeded in removing both outward and inward traits of her former self, and has clothed herself in a new identity that is meant to be seen and heard—a new identity, which tries to influence her mother and sister to “get with” the times.

The physical setting of Everyday Use is a key factor that unites the conflicting views of Mrs. Johnson and Wangero’s newly found “I am Woman” attitude. Isolated from society, the house represents a clear distinction between mother and daughter; the sophisticated urban individual vs. the simplistic rural individual. In his essay “Everyday Use and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Escaping Antebellum Confinement,” Dr. Charles E. Wilson, Jr. writes, “Although Dee insists that she wants a better life for her family, she in fact luxuriates in their poverty” (Wilson 176). To articulate his point, Dr. Wilson cites Alice Walker’s line, “she never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (Walker 2439). The house, with its embarrassing structure, symbolizes everything Wangero despised of her former self, yet she uses the house as a diving board to show her refinement as a woman. A board in her mind which propels her into the upper, “correct” echelon of feminist ideology.

If the house represents the diving board, which launches Wangero to her idealized self, then the yard is its swimming pool. The yard represents a powerful invitation for Wangero to dive into the family again—to rekindle lost conversations. Walker represents the yard as, “. . . an extended living room” (2437). Living rooms signify togetherness and communication amongst family members. According to Dr. Wilson, “The care they take in preparing the yard is indicative of their deep pride in their domestic life. . . by extending the living room of her yard, Mrs. Johnson welcomes those who will accept her hospitality” (Wilson 175). This interpretation skillfully shows a contrast to Wangero’s own self-pride in her ability to escape self-servitude—and her inability to speak the same language as her mother. In her book, "What is a Woman? And Other Essays," author Toril Moi writes:

There are situations in which we freely choose to be recognized as sexed or raced bodies, where that recognition is exactly what we need and want. Identity politics starts with such identity-affirming situations, but unfortunately goes on to base a general politics on them, thus forgetting that there are other situations in which we do not want to be defined by our sexed and raced bodies, situations in which we wish that body to be no more than the insignificant background to our main activity(Moi 203).

We can apply Moi’s theory to Wangero, who views the yard as a representation of “Dee,” her former self trapped on the outside of society—on the outskirts of individualism. In order for “Dee” to be representational in the everyday world, she needed to become Wangro—distancing herself from the yard, as best she could.

At last, it is Alice Walker’s use of objects that makes self-identity, with its strong feminist undertones, the prevailing theme of the story. When Wangero arrives she carries a Polaroid in her hand—and is a tourist to her family. Walker writes, “She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me” (Walker 2439). The lack of dialogue during these pictures suggests the lack of communication between mother and daughter. Wangero doesn’t bear gifts for her family, or even attempt a sign of affection with a hug or a kiss. We see Mrs. Johnson’s irritation at this in a stressed sounding line, “Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead” (Walker 2439). In "Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader," author Cellestine Ware makes an astute observation about black feminism in her essay, “The Relationship of Black Women to the Women’s Liberation Movement.” Ware writes, “Black society has patterned itself closely on white people, but since blackness connotes ugliness and evil to whites, black women have been despised as coarse and animal-like in their sensuality. They have been despised both by whites and by their own people” (Ware 98). Wangero’s initial intention with the Polaroid is to catalog her family. To show her family in their worst light, to promote her own superiority. This self-serving want fills the third characteristic in Joreen Freeman’s “The Bitch Manifesto,” for ‘bitches’ are “. . . independent cusses and believe they are capable of doing anything they damn well want to” (Freeman 227). There is no debate, to the mothers dissatisfaction with Dee’s new found identity, for in the end she doesn’t relinquish the quilt to Dee—the tourist. Thus, Mom theorizes Dee is acting like a ‘Bitch.’

The quilt is the most powerful symbol in the story in that it transcends time and place for the Johnson’s heritage. In her essay, "African-American Women Writers, Black Nationalism, and the Matrilineal Heritage," Joan S. Korenman writes,

We see further evidence of Dee's shallow trendiness in her desire for the hand stitched quilts. Whereas her sister Maggie wants the quilts because she was close to the grandmother and aunt who made them and who taught her the art of quilting, Dee covets them simply because such artifacts of the Southern black heritage are now in vogue (Korenman 2). The grandmother and aunt who made the quilts accomplished two goals: they created a work of art, and they created something used everyday. The patchwork of the quilts binds together all of the symbols used in the story by proclaiming to Dee that wisdom is something that cannot be taught in school.

In the end, the reader recognizes that Dee has forgotten her heritage and has lost her identity. When Dee made the decision to abandon her home and family, the result was a complete de-construction of her past. She did not appreciate that wisdom is a series of patches sewn throughout a lifetime, not to be suddenly unraveled and never pieced back together again. By noting different theorists like Foucalt, Moi, and Ware who have looked through a feminist lens, and by analyzing the text with its various symbols, we the reader can surmise that Dee can hide behind the trappings of everyday life—or she can put them to everyday use.

Works Cited

Freeman, Joreen. "The Bitch Manifesto." "Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader." Ed. Barbara A. Crow. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 226-232.

McNay, Lois. "Foucault And Feminism: Power, Gender, and the Self." Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Moi, Toril. "What is a Woman? And Other Essays." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Korenman, Joan S. "African-American Women Writers, Black Nationalism, and the Matrilineal Heritage." CLA Journal 38.2 (Dec. 1994): 143. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Oviatt Library, Northridge, CA. 8 May. 2009 .

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Norton Anthology of AfricanAmerican Literature. 2nd ed. ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 2437-42.

Walker, Nancy A. Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Ware, Cellestine. "The Relationship of Black Women to the Women's Liberation Movement." "Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader." Ed. Barbara A. Crow. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 98-112.

Wilson, Charles E. ““Everyday Use” and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”: Escaping Antebellum Confinement.” Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writing. ed. Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. 169-81.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Milton’s Triple Threat Liberty & Companion Poems

Part 1: Triple Threat Liberty

In Areopagitica, John Milton writes, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (746). A religious, domestic, and civil liberties foundation is built upon that sentence. Without it, not just a civilization—but man himself would fall from the grace of God. Through this rational, we can argue that liberty of conscience is Milton’s ultimate goal.

For religious liberty, or liberty from church government, Milton uses history and the Bible as his weapons of choice. In Areopagitica, Milton politically showcases how during the first 800 years of civilization, nations had no internal mechanism/system for censorship regarding printing—and that it was the church which began filtering what the public read. Milton writes, “[...] the Popes in Rome, engrossing in what they pleased of political rule into their own hands, extended their dominion over men’s eyes as they had before over their judgments, burning and prohibiting to be read what they fancied not” (724). If the church decides which language is “blasphemous,” “atheistic,” or just pure “libelous”—does this not go against the worship/image of God? For Milton writes, “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God” (720). Using history, Milton is arguing that the institution of church government is an assault on liberty, for church government should not indoctrinate public discourse or be involved in textual censorship.

Milton further supports this, by using the virtues the Bible presents as a source for his argument supporting independent civil reasoning. In The Reason of Church Government, Milton writes, “[...] church discipline is platformed in the Bible, but that it is left to the discretion of men” (642). Milton is arguing for choice or “free will.” In his book, Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England, author Blair Worden writes of Milton’s intellectual reasoning in using historical and biblical references. Worden writes:

Milton brought to politics the ideal of freedom that he had worked out in religion. In religion God gives his servants the freedom of choice . . . [he] wants them to be independent of all man-made ideas and institutions that stand between him and them. They attain their salvation by their own exertions, and their faith by their own enquiries. The growth of their faith takes them from spiritual infancy to adulthood, from credulity to thought, from ‘custom’ (that rooted antagonist of ‘choice’) to truth. (228)

In order for true liberty to bloom, the scanning and censorship of church governments must not take place for, as Milton argues, “we then affect a rigor contrary to the manner of God and of nature, by abridging or scanting those means which books freely permitted are, both to the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth” (733). Thus, in order to be truthful to God—we must be truthful to ourselves.

In issues concerning domestic liberty, Milton turns his attention to issues of marriage in his essay, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In it, Milton argues how canon law hinders/misinterprets the law of scripture. According to author Lana Cable, in her book, Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire, Milton is offering a “true doctrine . . . one which returns marriage back to its original conception” (144). Two key examples of his argumentative prowess are as follows: First, Milton links the word “custom” to the visual impairment “blindness.” Milton writes, “[...] error supports custom, custom countenances error; and these two between them would persecute and chase away all truth and solid wisdom” (697). Milton’s argument is clever, for when an individual indulges in custom, he indulges in a refusal to think new thoughts, but more importantly—a refusal to question old ones. Milton’s rational behind his doctrine (all the while structuring his argument with veiled personal experiences with his own marriage), is to show how “custom” has always been the great teacher—how its teachings can lead to “counterfeit knowledge” (697).

Milton’s second argument comes in the form of a simple question: why are we arranging our domestic lives around custom? If internal, natural, truthful forces (ex. “I do not identify with my wife Mary Powell”), are being ruled by external forces of convention (ex. “the law says, that unless she dies/I die/or one of us commits adultery we cannot separate”)—is that not a lie to nature?

In a want to show that this is an affront to God’s highest one will standard, Milton argues for domestic liberty by showing biblical contradiction. From Genesis 2:18, Milton quotes God, writing, “It is not good,” saith he, “that man should be alone. I will make a helpmeet [an individual suitable to Adam] for him” (707). Milton weighs this biblical verse with his own conclusion, “[...] that in God’s intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage” (707). In her essay “Milton’s Claim for Self and Freedom in the Divorce Tracts,” author Jennifer L. Nichols places Milton’s argument in perspective. Nichols writes:

Law has no power to unite two souls and bodies that are by nature contraries [...] Milton’s polemic reduces itself to a neat syllogism: God allowed his holy people to divorce in the Old Testament; God cannot will two contrary things; therefore Christ, who is God, cannot have forbade divorce in any of his teachings while on earth and must, since he is bound by the law of noncontradiction, permit it even under the new covenant. (196-97)

Current canon law is “custom;” custom is “blindness;” blindness leads to “error;” which makes the three a contradiction to God’s will.

John Milton’s essay, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, takes a stance on civil liberty in that societies should be governed by reason, not the customs of tyranny. Using the powerful symbol of the eyes, Milton suggests that man should use their own sight (judgments), and not base decisions through the external eyes (orders) of others. Milton offers this suggestion when he writes, “[...] it is the vulgar folly of men to desert their own reason and shutting their eyes to think they see best with other men’s” (760).

With this argument, Milton further reminds humankind of the word “power.” Milton writes, “It being thus manifest that the power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferred, and committed to them in trust from the people” (755). In his book, Ideas in Milton, author William J. Grace comments on Milton’s reasoning, writing, “Milton’s applications of the law of nature was that a free people is not bound by the statute of any preceding parliaments but by the law of nature only” (25). Using the argument of “natural birthright” (756), and juxtaposing it with law as “custom,” Milton cleverly argues that man should look within themselves, creating a society in their own image, with their own power, and above all other things—not give in to the rule of tyranny.

Part Two: The Companion Poems

Does the epic poet privilege day to night, or night to day? Is leisure more important to the epic poet than work? The answer to both of these questions lies in the word companion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines companion, n.1 as, “one who associates with or accompanies another; a mate; a fellow; a sharer or partaker of.” In John Milton’s L’ Allegro and Il Penseroso, day shares equal importance with night, and leisure shares equal importance with work; for if the epic poet chooses one lifestyle over the other, then he would represent a single (companionless) bookend—and the books would fall off the shelf.

An epic poet should be a well-rounded, creative individual, versed in the humanities, as well as one who doesn’t neglect human interaction and exploration. L’ Allegro represents humankind’s apprenticeship in life. Social interaction, music, laughter, and exploration are paramount features in a poem whose kingdom is ruled by “Mirth” (line 13). The atmosphere presented in L’ Allegro is one of pleasure and love. Milton writes, “To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore” (16). “Bacchus,” is the god of wine, and wine can symbolize celebration. Concerning pleasure, Milton further comments, “Mirth, admit me of thy crew / To live with her, and live with thee / In unreproved pleasures free” (38-40), and for love, Milton inks, “And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew, / Fill’d her with thee a daughter fair / So buxom, blithe, and debonair” (22-24). Milton uses these lines to suggest that man should partake in the sweet fruits (liquors) of life, and drink its pleasures. Life is live theatre, and we learn through our companionship with reality.

This is in sharp contrast to the atmosphere presented in Il Penseroso, where introspection is ruled in “Melancholy[s]” (12) realm. Here the mood has shifted from the external pastoral images of “The upland Hamlets will invite” (92), to the internal towers of ones mind with “Or let my Lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some high and lonely Tow’r,” (85-86). The contrasting imagery of both atmospheres causes the reader to view L’ Allegro as Milton’s externalization model of gaining knowledge through apprenticeship, and Il Penseroso as a internalization model of gaining knowledge from within.

Milton uses the imagery of the moon in Il Penseroso, to reinforce the idea of gaining inner knowledge through the solitude of night. In their book, Signs & Symbols, authors Mark O’ Connell and Raje Airey comment on the moon representing “inner wisdom,” writing, “The moon is a great reflector and embodies the qualities of receptiveness that are necessary for the intuitive process and to experience feelings” (120). Inner knowledge leads to the recognition of truth: the young man gains wisdom, not in a day, but “Till old experience do attain” (173).

In the end, the style of language Milton employs’s between the two poems is important for it unifies the conclusion that both lifestyles (companionship between day/night; leisure/work), are vital to the epic poet. Before one can become an epic poet, he must first be an apprentice, for the external/internal exploration of life must occur early in life. In Greg W. Zacharias’s essay, “Young Milton’s Equipment for Living: L’Allegro and Il Penseroso,” Zacharias emphasizes:

In his writing outside the twin poems Milton not only asserts his belief that together the sensuous and intellectual would contribute to a fuller life for everyone, but, through the symbolic action of his poems, Milton implies that this way of living is fundamental for the epic poet. (12)

The epic poet’s body and mind must offer itself nakedly to the world—and be its companion.

Works Cited

Cable, Lana. Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1995.

"companion, n.1" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 13 Oct. 2009 .

Grace, William J. Ideas in Milton. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

Nichols, Jennifer L. “Milton’s Claim for Self and Freedom in the Divorce Tracts.” Milton Studies. 49 (2009):192-211.

O’ Conell, Mark and Raje Airey. Signs & Symbols. New York: Hermes House, 2004.

Worden, Blair. Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zacharias, Greg W. “Young Milton’s Equipment for Living: L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.” Milton Studies. 24 (1988): 3-15.

Works Referenced

Miller, David M. John Milton: Poetry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Smith, Nigel. Is Milton Better than Shakesphere?. MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Compact 6th ed. Australia: Thompson, 2007.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

“A&P”: Conformity Can Be Found in Aisle Eight

Through setting, John Updike grips society’s post-WWII suburban values, and squeezes them through a grinder—dripping its sour underbelly of phoniness. Updike’s use of physical and historical settings assists in the creation of conflict, the building of plot, and – in the end – a complete, dynamic character that refuses the call of conventionality.

In “A&P,” Updike uses the physical setting of the store to showcase Sammy’s restless aversion to working there. The supermarket presents Sammy’s identity and individuality with limits. There are boundaries to his imagination – Sammy is inside, and he cannot leave until his shift is over. The environment is so confining that Sammy can’t even leave his post at the register, and is restricted to a few square feet of space. Updike takes the dreariness of the physical setting and injects them into Sammy, which in return offers the reader his mood, “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle,” and “usual traffic” (221) . Sammy reflects on those around him, and inner conflict builds.

Updike’s use of the historical setting helps in the overall plot development of both Sammy’s character and the story itself. In the very first sentence, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” (220), the reader suspects that a line might have been crossed – socially – in the sand. Our suspicions are confirmed when Updike whispers to us a few paragraphs later with the cultural conventions of the town, “...our town is five miles from the beach...and our women generally put on a shirt or shorts or something before they get out of the car into the street” (221). The moment the girls enter the store they are the subjects of indirect scrutiny (Sammy noting every feature on their bodies), and direct scrutiny by Lengel. Lengel remarks, “But this isn’t the beach” (222), and then later to Sammy, “It was they who were embarrassing us” (223). This strict convention – predicated on the town’s cultural values – influences the characters’ actions.

In the end, it is Sammy’s environment that motivates him for a change in scenery, and a realization that the world is a lot harder than he thought.