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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Alymer Maude, Louise Maude

Feeding the Ghosts

Feeding the Ghosts - Fred D'Aguiar Throughout Fred D’Aguiar’s factually-based novel one character is described and portrayed in full detail and complexity: Mintah. D’Aquiar’s novel chronicles the events aboard the slave ship Zong, where—under orders by Captain Cunningham—the crew throws 132 slaves overboard. In theory, Captain Cunningham issues the orders to “save” the rest of the crew and slaves from disease. In reality, the captain decided they will save on rations by reducing their “stock” and that the slaves, weakened by disease, would fetch more money (from the insurance company) dead than alive.

Of the 132 slaves thrown overboard, Mintah is the only one able to save herself. In saving herself from an almost certain death, Mintah becomes an enigmatic figure: part ghost, part savior, part pariah, part historian. Mintah’s role already differed from those of the other slaves because she could speak and write English. Further, she knew the First Mate Kelsal’s unsavory past and is able to “name” him, figuratively and literally. It is her knowledge of Kelsal, more than her rebellion, which prompts Kelsal to order her overboard initially. Mintah’s story, both before being thrown overboard and afterwards, form the novel’s core.

Most of the imagery and symbolism used throughout the novel, relate to Mintah’s vision of her world, a world comprised of sea, land, and wood. In simple terms, the sea represents death and despair; land, a lost paradise; and wood, hope and salvation.

Hard Times

Hard Times - Charles Dickens In Hard Times (1854), Louisa Gradgrind’s is crushed from the beginning, flattened under the relentless regime of her father’s curriculum of facts. There were no nursery rhymes or childish jingles in her background; she never hears of the “Famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb, and has only been introduced to a cow as a gramnivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs” (8–9).

Her father’s method, however, not only extinguishes Louisa’s imagination but her capacity to love as well. Even her father’s later recognition of what he has done, and Louisa’s rekindled affections for Sissy Jupe cannot change the influence of her background, and in Dickens’s projection of their futures, Sissy is shown happily married with many children while Louisa will never see “Herself again a wife–a mother—lovingly watchful of her children…” (273–74).

Craft of Revision (Custom)

The Craft Of Revision (American Public University System) - Donald Morison Murray Practical, but self-evident. A comp teacher should already know these things.

A Little Princess (Penguin Classics)

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett Though I wallowed in Burnett’s A Little Princess as a girl, in re-reading it as an adult and considering the movie adaptations, it is hard not to view it through a postcolonial lens.

The 1995 movie adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess begins with the voice-over of Sara Crewe, the main character, stating, “A very long time ago there lived a beautiful princess in a mystical land known as India . . ..” Against the otherwise blank screen, a small circular image of the imaginary princess appears, then dilates to reveal the fantastic space of Sara’s story, admitting the audience into its secret spectacle.

The “mystical land known as India”--this exotic spectacle--functions as a key element in both of the original Burnett works, the 1995 movie, and two earlier movies (the 1986 Wonderworks film and the 1939 Hollywood film). Indeed, though the 1995 film’s first scene does not derive directly from any part of Burnett’s story, it reinscribes a number of ideas that do appear in Burnett’s novels and the other two films. Access to the vision of India is, in all of them, a connection to the power of empire. Sara is a “little princess” because she imagines India.

In the 1995 film, Sara tells a story about Princess Sita and her husband, Prince Rama. Rama attempts to protect Sita by drawing a magic circle around her, explaining, “So long as you stay inside it, no harm can come to you.” But when Sita hears what seems to be Rama’s voice calling for help, she leaves her circle and is soon threatened by a ten-headed demon. Although Sara appears to be controlling events in this “mystical land” by narrating them, and while the plot of her story suggests her own ability to transgress boundaries, Sara’s symbolic authority remains circumscribed and entirely derived from her father. It is Ralph Crewe’s position as a wealthy Englishman and an officer of the Raj that enables the representation of India as a commodity and spectacle--as Crewe calls it, “the only place that stirs the imagination.” He passes on to Sara his view of imagination as a resource, a “magic [which:] has to be believed, that’s the only way it’s real.” Or, as Sara refers to it in Burnett’s book, “the Magic that will never let the worst things quite happen.”

Sara, a dutiful daughter in all three film adaptations and Burnett’s two versions of the story, faithfully produces “magic” whenever she becomes particularly needy, and--like her father--uses the spectacle of India as her impetus. It is this dependence on colonialism that marks the story as essentially Victorian, even more than the references to period objects, class relations, and so forth [Burnett’s first version of the story, Sara Crewe, was published in 1888; the longer novel, A Little Princess, was published in the 1905.:] Sara may lose her father (permanently in the Burnett novels, temporarily in the films), she may seem to lose her social position and become a servant, she may seem to be rebellious or transgressive, but she is still a “princess,” a true daughter of the Empire.

Imperial India is hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard’s term: an object fetishized by its loss, a reality rendered unreal by its “hallucinatory resemblance to itself” (“Symbolic Exchange and Death”). Producing language, narrating India, Sara is also reproducing the same ideological structures that generate the plot-problems she is trying to overcome. Her every effort to retain self-respect in her poverty reinforces her difference from the story’s other poor characters; her friendly gestures toward the Indian servant Ram Dass reiterate her standing as a member of the Raj’s officer class; her ability to survive without her father demonstrates her dependence on the symbolic economy she inherited from him. A Little Princess, in text and film versions, sets forth the hyperreal spectacle of empire in a particularly clear way.

Moll Flanders (Wordsworth Classics)

Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe The Fortunes & Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders &c.
Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .
Original title page for Moll Flanders

The character of Moll Flanders has traditionally baffled critics.

Is she an ironic character? Is she truly penitent? How may her inconsistencies be justified? Critics have asserted there is irony in Moll Flanders but it is not in the book; that is, we--as readers--may appreciate irony in Moll's character but Defoe does not provide it. What may be easier to demonstrate, then, is that "Defoe's attitude toward Moll is consistent, even if Moll herself, ironically or otherwise, is not" (James 203). Whatever the critics propose, for readers, Moll emerges as irascible, vibrant, and wonderfully complex. Moll also shows the limited choices for a woman of her time.

Moll Flanders, as the description from Defoe's original title page suggests, is a novel written in the confessional mode. As readers of this type of work, our role is akin to that of a priest: we listen to the confessions and tacitly provide understanding or forgiveness. To elicit our sympathy, Defoe places Moll in an environment not only hostile but enticing, a world, he would have us believe, that tempts and lures an otherwise virtuous individual into a life of crime.

Moll’s world, ostensibly mimetic, is really portrayed with great selectivity. Many characters—even those as important as her first lover—are not even named; settings are often depicted as just “a house” or “the street.” What does loom large on Moll’s horizon is money. Again and again, Moll focuses on money and the material; early on, she defines herself in terms of her net worth.

Moll’s indoctrination into a materialistic world starts in childhood. Orphaned, Moll is raised by an elderly woman who feels amused pity for Moll’s desires to become a “gentlewoman” and let Molls live with her rather than go into service. The ladies of the town, curious about the “little gentlewoman,” visit her and soon begin to give Moll gifts of money and fine clothes. When Moll’s elderly guardian dies, one of the families that had shown an interest in Moll takes her into their home. Though poor, Moll describes how she receives an education equivalent to that of a gentlewoman. By a twist in circumstances, Moll gets an early “taste of genteel living” (9) far above her actual station.

Although Moll describes herself initially as “very sober, modest, and virtuous” (12), she is led into a liaison with the eldest brother in the household. His dominance soon takes hold, and Moll describes his tactics in terms of lures: “he began with that unhappy snare to all women, viz. taking notice upon all occasions how pretty I was” or “After he had thus baited his hook” (13). Though Moll admits her strong passion for the elder brother, her stronger passion soon becomes clear. After an initial episode of kissing, the brother gives Moll money. Moll’s reaction is telling: “I was more confused with the money than I was before with the love, and began to be so elevated that I scarce knew the ground I stood on” (17). On a subsequent occasion, he gives Moll a “handful of gold” (18), and its glittering reality becomes the dominant image in Moll’s landscape: “As for the gold, I spent whole hours in looking upon it; I told [and yes, this is the right word:] the guineas over and over a thousand times a day” (19).

To gain Moll’s complete surrender, the brother offers her a silk purse with a hundred guineas in it and the promise of one hundred guineas annually until he marries her. With irony intended or unintended, Moll’s passion and greed gain equal footing: “My colour came and went, at the sight of the purse and with the fire of the proposal together” (22), and Moll succumbs to his advances.

Significantly, money and attendant material possessions are foregrounded while the rest of Moll’s setting recedes into the background. The elder brother—as we could predict—does not marry Moll and her reluctant marriage to the younger brother, done only out of financial necessity, receives a rapid narration. Molls tells us there is little worth describing, “…I lived with this husband, only to observe that I had two children by him, and that at the end of five years he died” (51). Typically, Moll assesses her present situation in terms of money, a description more graphic and several lines longer, than that of her five years of marriage.

Moll’s early adventures set up her pattern of behavior. Despite her professed good intentions, when push comes to shove, Moll consistently acts out of self-interest. Moll’s hostile world tempts her with material gain, she succumbs, eventually has some type of downfall, and then defines her outcome in terms of her current net worth. Moll’s patterned conduct puts the reader in an interesting situation. Moll may momentarily hesitate and try to rationalize a forthcoming seduction or theft, but we never doubt the outcome.

However, in a society that would otherwise provide little choice for an unattached woman, Moll’s ability to silence any internal qualms greatly increases her freedom of movement. While we might find her attempts at rationalization or short fits of morality funny, Moll Flanders is a complex character. Ultimately, she is not simply funny nor simply tragic, but fully realized and equipped with powers of resourcefulness and self-preservation that might have been admired in a man.

Villette (Modern Library Classics)

Villette - A.S. Byatt, Charlotte Brontë, Ignes Sodre What is it about Brontë that pulls a reader in so quickly? Many years ago, when I was in seventh grade, perhaps, I remember starting Jane Eyre. Within a page, I was hooked. I couldn't put the book down and knew my mother would soon be announcing "Bed time - it's a school night!" I raced against time, and then begged to read just a little longer, a little longer. Similarly, when I was thinking about Villette which I hadn't read for a while, I opened the book just to scan it a bit and soon read over 50 pages before I came up for air.

Though equally compelling, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe (Villete) couldn't be more different. Where Jane is all fire and rebellion, Lucy is restrained. Where Jane would rush in and fight against injustice, Lucy observes but does not act.

The world of Villette initially appears as dark and claustrophobic; where movement is circumscribed, measured, and almost ritualistic in its repetition, and movement of any distance--such as Lucy Snowe's voyage from London to France--is undertaken only in desperation. We wonder why Lucy fears movement and gravitates to such womblike settings.

Her description of her past homelife--following her last visit with the Brettons--is vague: "a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished" (94). Our conjecture from Lucy's skeletal narrative is that her family has died and further contact with the Brettons, useless. Alone, and in need of employment, Lucy's conditions literally propel her into motion. Her employment appears custom-made. Unwilling to join life's mainstream, Lucy cares for an invalid, Miss Marchmont, in a cramped home described as ...
Two hot, close rooms thus became my world; and a crippled old woman, my mistress, my friend, my all. Her service was my duty....I forgot that there were fields, woods, rivers, seas, an everchanging sky outside the steam-dimmed lattice of this sick-chamber. I was almost content to forget it. All within me became narrowed to my lot. (97)

When Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy again trudges reluctantly into motion, and in taking the position of governess at Madame Beck's, trades the two boxes of the "Marchmont" world for a whole building of little "boxes" at the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. The school, ruled under the intense surveillance of Madame Beck, appears at first a dark, dismal place. Lucy's description, as she is led to her quarters, presents a cramped, dreary setting of "former nuns' cells" so overheated the "air" is "oppressive" (130). At this point, we want to shout at Lucy, "Get out!" as we, too feel as though we are suffocating.

Of course, the point-of-view in Villette also constricts our focus. Philip Momberger states "this narrowing of scope is well adapted to Charlotte Brontë's purpose, for it allows maximum concentration on her abiding interest: the experience of a single consciousness" (340). And Brontë's focus is inward; the first-person narration allows Lucy to slowly reveal herself--her psyche--as she moves from passivity to action and consciously shapes her world, a world where choice can make a difference.

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - E.D. Hirsch Jr. To some degree, E. D. Hirsch’s contention that we need a type of “cultural literacy” or common coinage to communicate with one another intelligently—his notion of the liberal arts—is akin to applying a cosmetic. Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams) would have viewed Hirsch's project skeptically. Adams possessed “cultural literacy” in abundance yet he pauses at the end of each chapter in his carefully wrought autobiography, to remark that his education, so far, “was a failure.” What Adams seeks far transcends the simple “stockpile” approach to liberal education. Adams recognizes that cultural literacy must be processed and integrated before it is of any worth. For Henry Adams, education will always be a failure in the sense that it cannot be possessed completely, nor should it.

Hirsch has defined culture as, “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted though language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” Hirsch goes on to say that “Culture also refers to refined music, art, and literature; one who is well versed in these subjects is considered “cultured.”

The book's appendix provides a 63-page list of items of the names, concepts, phrases, etc., that Hirsch feels every cultured/educated American should know. For example, here’s short excerpt from the “P” list:

Princess and the Pea
the prism
private enterprise
private sector
probate court
procrustean bed
prodigal son
profit sharing
pro forma
programming language
progressive education

Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (Penguin Classics)

Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady - Samuel Richardson, Angus Ross

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a nun or a convict.

In my romanticized view, both situations provided a room and isolation. What more could anyone want? Space and isolation: the perfect ingredients to read endlessly and without interruption.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and my notions about being a convict were particularly skewed. There’s nothing romantic about being imprisoned, and Clarissa--more than most fictional characters would have much to say on the topic.

* * *

There are characters who float away almost as soon as you’ve put down the book, while others, even years later, remain vivid. I’m not sure what accounts for this.

The unabridged version of Clarissa exceeds 1500 pages, and yet the novel doesn’t seem that long. Though critics, such as V. S. Pritchett, have coolly and dismissively categorized the book as exemplifying the “principle of procrastinated rape,” the plot is secondary; Clarissa’s character animates this novel.

In contrast to a heroine like Moll Flanders bustling about in her world, Clarissa’s movements are small, and we perceive her world as though through a microscope. Clarissa is ill equipped to deal with her hostile environment – a world of materialism and hypocrisy. Clarissa doesn’t have the flexible morality that would serve her well. She operates by a strict code of moral conduct, and her disinclination to adapt guarantees her downfall--at least by the norms of her society.

The details of Clarissa’s setting are scant. Richardson creates here a mindscape rather than a landscape. In this blank world, the details that remain—a desk, a key, a lock, a room, a coffin, etc.—gain a heightened significance. From the beginning, the images used form a pattern of obstruction and closure.

The female code of conduct in the eighteenth century creates blockage as well. For example, women were not able to able to express their feelings during courtship. A humorous illustration of the problem this code creates occurs with Arabella and Lovelace. Lovelace initially courts Arabella but has become attracted to Clarissa. He cannot simply “dump” Arabella without causing serious offense. Cleverly, Lovelace uses punctilio to his advantage. He asks Arabella some question requiring immediate consent (we are not told what), since he knows—to not appear overeager—Arabella must deny him. While Arabella mistakenly believes Lovelace is simply playing the courtship game, Lovelace is now free to act as though he thought Arabella’s denial was final and move on.

Not surprisingly, the choice of a woman’s suitor depended largely on what her family dictated. But Clarissa cannot acquiesce. Her family’s choice, Mr. Solmes, is unthinkable. To Clarissa, he is the antithesis of subtlety and decorum, a “monster in her eye.” Marriage to him would represent a bondage so extreme Clarissa declares, “I would rather be buried alive, indeed I had, than have that man!” However, in this instance and in others throughout the book, Clarissa may as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue. Her mother ignores the remark, apparently interpreting it as babble.

Significantly, none of the other characters understand Clarissa either. Even her closest friend, Anne Howe, often underestimates her strength of will, and advises her to marry Lovelace long after Clarissa has rejected him entirely, having judged his actions unspeakable. Clarissa moves toward further alienation. Her actions--deriving from a moral code far above that of her society--create a situation where she is continuously misunderstood. Further, Clarissa becomes literally alienated as her setting becomes more confined. Her main activity—writing in her closet—illustrates her isolation. When she again refuses to marry Solmes, her family’s restrictions effectively turn her bedroom into a prison.

Her family’s confinement underscores their naïve belief that by shutting her up they may appropriate her person. Unlike Solmes and her family, Lovelace operates on a higher plane. He realizes Clarissa exists as a plenitude of one, a world within herself, hermetically sealed and inviolable. Lovelace’s aim is more demonic. He wants to shatter her resolve, for it is just this self-sufficiency that maddens and threatens him. Even Lovelace, though, cannot destroy her.

It is Clarissa’s character that makes this story compelling. In the face of pressure and humiliation, her fineness remains intact, and she never yields.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan - Jamie Zeppa This book is a gem.

When Jamie Zeppa tires of her doctoral studies and ponders whether the world might offer something more, she spots an announcement for a teaching opportunity near Tibet. The book Zeppa creates about her experience in Bhutan represents travel writing at its best. In theory, travel provides knowledge. In reality, many people leave dumb and come home just as dumb. Zeppa’s journey transforms her, and she gains wisdom in its truest sense, a combination of knowledge and humility.

Time may be the largest barrier to comprehending another culture. Zeppa, who describes her three years in Bhutan in the book, Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey into Bhutan, comments on the need for time to even start assimilating a culture. Zeppa remarks that, in contrast to rapid traveling and arriving, “Entering [a culture:] takes longer. You cross over slowly, in bits and pieces” and—after a great deal of time—“You are just beginning to know where you are” (emphasis added, 101). Further, voluntary travel—to use James Clifford’s distinction—whether done by members of a “shopping-mall society” or not, may be marked by scanning as its initial perceptual mode.

Before Jamie Zeppa travels to Bhutan to teach in a remote village, she first receives a thorough orientation on Bhutanese history, culture, customs, and language. Even when armed with quite a bit more knowledge than most travelers would possess, initially Zeppa really cannot “see” or interpret Bhutan. Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, seems small, cluttered, and old to Zeppa, and she scoffs when she is told “Thimphu will look like New York to you when you come back after a year in the east” (15). Zeppa grows impatient at a bank where people push and shove rather than forming lines, while the bank clerk, chatting idly with a guard, blithely ignores them all. Silently, Zeppa fumes, “Do these people have all the time in the world or what? (23). The food and water terrify her, and when traveling to her village, Zeppa thinks the landscape looks blank: “The country seems almost empty to me” (30). Finally, she loses her bearings entirely: “Somewhere south is Pema Getshel. Somewhere west is Thimphu. And beyond Thimphu—but no, I am too tired to retrace the journey mentally. I want to just click my heels three times and be home” (38).

Prejudiced by her own cultural baggage, initially Zeppa sees Thimphu as unimpressive, disorganized, and inefficient. The surrounding landscape seems vacant and desolate. After spending five months in Bhutan, Zeppa re-sees her surroundings vibrantly: “The rains have turned Pema Gatshel a thousand shades of green: lime, olive, pea, apple, grass, pine, moss, malachite, emerald. The trees are full of singing insects, flowers, birds, hard green oranges, children” and then remarks: “It’s hard to believe now that I once thought this a landscape of lack” (137). Zeppa could only see the landscape after she learned what to see.

Provocatively, Zeppa’s culture shock occurs both arriving and “returning.” When Zeppa travels back home to visit, after having spent two years in Bhutan, she finds Toronto enervating. She views her surroundings as “glossy and polished and unreal,” and is “overwhelmed by the number of things” (262). Television is “incomprehensible,” the “images fly out of the screen too fast.…Ten minutes of television exhausts” her for hours, she’s “shaken by the traffic, the rush, the speed at which people walk,” and she finds the “number of stores…overwhelming” (263). Zeppa’s reactions demonstrate that her inability to “interpret” her home now parallel her earlier inability to make sense of Bhutan. Significantly, Zeppa’s confusion, her sense of being too slow in the midst of so much “rush and blur,” emphasizes the steady scrim of images typifying industrialized culture (267). In short, Zeppa has lost (at least temporarily) the ability to “scan”—the mode of perception that may be necessary to decipher the contemporary “society of spectacle.”

From a negative standpoint, scanning may mark our present perceptual mode and suggests a type of seeing characterized by superficiality. In a more positive light and in the terms of travel, scanning may be inevitable. When Jamie Zeppa arrives in Bhutan, she can do no more than skim its surface and her vision, her ability to interpret her landscape is similarly compromised when she arrives in Toronto, after being away for two years. Zeppa’s and any other traveler’s ability to remember the journey may fare no better. Just as the initial perception of travel is partial at best, the journey’s recollection, i.e., the “stuff” of travel literature, becomes distorted by the degree our cultural lens blinds us to the journey initially, the amount of time we can spend within a culture, our imperfect memory of the journey itself, and the changes that will occur once our memories have been exposed to the shaping forces of narrative.

Jamie Zeppa, similarly, understands that she will always remain an outsider in Bhutan but wishes—nonetheless—to present her fragments as honestly and completely as possible. Though Zeppa often finds Bhutan a kind of Shangri-la, she presents its political complexity unflinchingly, and never pretends to understand or agree with it. Zeppa recognizes that sight itself does not bring knowledge. What she learns most of all is that “[t:]ravel should make us more humble, not more proud. We are all tourists, I think. Whether we stay for two weeks or two years, we are still outsiders, passing through” (204-5). At best, Zeppa might feel she reaches an enlightened confusion, and perhaps this is the most that any traveler can attain.

adapated from a prior publication

Women of the Silk: A Novel

Women of the Silk - Gail Tsukiyama Beautiful story of China and the silk factories, primarily set during the 1920s and 1930s. A story of friendship between women, the strength of such bonds, etc. Done with Tsukiyama's incredible mastery of language and subtlety.

Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics)

Jane Eyre - Michael Mason, Charlotte Brontë [The picture disappeared which made the comments rather irrelevant.:]


…Oh course, Rush Limbaugh is nuts.

In December 2007, on a radio show with an audience of 14.5 million, Limbaugh asked this question about the former first lady's presidential prospects, after an incredibly unflattering picture of her had surfaced: "Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis? I want you to understand that I'm talking about the evolution of American culture here, and not so much Mrs Clinton," Limbaugh told his audience. "It could be anybody, and it's really not very complicated. Americans are addicted to physical perfection, thanks to Hollywood and thanks to television” (news.com.au).

Interestingly and at the same time, we have John McCain, another presidential prospect, who was 71 years old [11 years older than Hillary Clinton:]. Somehow this is different. Society has agreed that women age, and men grow more distinguished. Ah, bullshit. McCain looked plenty old and acted like an irrational coot.

However, the more important point is how little we've changed. Women still must be beautiful. And, for the most part, beautiful women still populate contemporary fiction. Consider how brave it was, then, for Charlotte Brontë to insist on a "plain" heroine. Brontë emphasizes Eyre's plainness as if challenging the reader to reject her. The impact of presenting such a heroine may be gauged by a male critic (a 19th century Limbaugh) in the Westminister Review (1858), who writes, "Possibly none of the frauds which are now so much the topic of common remark are so irritating, as that to which the purchaser of a novel is a victim on finding he has only to peruse a narrative of the conduct and sentiments of an ugly lady" (Showalter 123).

Despite ignoring the classic paradigm of either having a beautiful heroine or a heroine--ostensibly plain--who later "blooms," Brontë makes us forget that neither Jane nor Rochester are physically attractive. From the opening scene, Jane's personality dominants the horizon. Having endured the young master's abuse for some time, Jane strikes back and, as punishment for her passion, is banished to the red room. The room is chill, garish, and where Mr. Reed died. Jane's cries to be released are ignored, and she falls into unconsciousness.

Although Jane suffers no lasting harm, her thoughts before she is thrust into the room isolate well why her path will be harder than fate had dictated already:
I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child—though equally dependent and friendless—Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for me more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would have been less prone to make me the scapegoat of the nursery.

While beauty and its attendant charms would have made Jane’s life easier, it would have lessened her complexity as a character. Again and again, Jane cannot sit back and depend on the free pass beauty often accords, but must choose to give up or to fight her way through. Jane chooses to fight, and it is her passion, wit, and intelligence that make her an unforgettable heroine.

The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories - Angela Carter
Hey there Little Red Riding Hood,
You sure are looking good.
You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.
Listen to me…
I don’t think little big girls should
Go walking in these spooky old woods alone.
—Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, 1962

In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s uses a decidedly feminist slant to re-tell familiar myths and stories. “The Company of Wolves,” for example, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of the myths embedded in the more modern versions of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Interestingly, the earliest versions of the fairy tale were primarily oral and far more risqué. These versions included sexual elements such as the wolf (actually a “werewolf” in the oldest versions) telling Red Riding Hood to throw her clothes, one by one, into a fire (Leeming and Sader 391). Further—in these early versions—Red Riding Hood tricks the wolf by pretending that she needs to go outside to relieve herself. Once outside, Red Riding Hood quickly removes the rope attached to her, ties it to a tree, and escapes (Bushi). In these original versions, Red Riding Hood outwits the fox, and the sexual overtones are explicit.

By the time Charles Perrault wrote his version in 1697, the story had been sanitized into a lesson on young girls’ morality. In Perrault’s version, the story serves to warn young girls about the threat men pose to their sexual innocence, but does not include the mother’s warning to “stay on the path,” that appears in most later versions (such as that of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in 1812). Instead, Perrault ends his tale with an overt moral warning: Young ladies—in particular, well-bred and attractive young ladies—should not be beguiled by men’s wolfish charm (3). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms’ version [originally called “Little Red-Cap”:], far more familiar to American and English audiences than that of Perrault, casts Little Red Riding Hood as a younger girl (i.e., even more vulnerable) and begins with the famous warning: “[W:]alk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path.” Predictably, Little Red Riding Hood forgets her mother’s warning, strays off the path, and gets “deeper and deeper into the wood.” Once in the woods, Little Red Riding Hood’s troubles begin. Ultimately, a hunter, who just happens to be passing by, saves her.

Of most significance is the decided shift the fairy tale has undergone through time. In the original versions, Little Red Riding Hood saves herself and is never gulled by the wolf. In versions dating from the seventeenth century onward, the girl strays from the path, actually believes the wolf might really be granny, and is saved by a huntsman. Further, in the Grimms’ version and its modern variations, Red Riding Hood’s comment at the end of the story demonstrates that she has learned her lesson: “As long as I live, I will never by myself leave the path, to run into the wood, when my mother has forbidden me to do so.” However, the fairy tale’s other messages to young women are more embedded and more destructive: We are easily distracted and disobedient; we are not safe alone in the woods (traveling off the beaten path); we are fairly stupid; we get ourselves in trouble; and we need to be rescued by a man.

In contrast, Angela Carter’s short story, “The Company of Wolves,” restores the tale’s original elements—such as the overt sexuality and a heroine who is resourceful rather than helpless—but adds a feminist perspective. Carter’s heroine is “strong-minded,” packs a carving knife in her basket of goodies, and is powerful because of her virginity:
“She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space…she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.”
Further, in Carter’s version, Red Riding Hood does not just protect herself, but controls the “game.” The seduction scene plays out like a modern slasher movie. As the girl—at the wolf’s bidding—removes each item of clothing and ostensibly becomes more and more vulnerable, we begin to see her as a victim. Just as we become lulled by the predictable script in motion, the girl, now completely naked, responds to the wolf’s threat, “All the better to eat you with,” by bursting into laughter: “[S:]he knew she was nobody’s meat.” Even given the background Carter provides in the story’s beginning, the scene startles. We knew the girl was strong, independent, and armed. However, the pattern of woman-alone-traveling-alone-helpless-alone-victim is so embedded in our consciousness that we are caught off-guard.

And, that is precisely Carter’s point.

Adapted from a prior publication

Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics)

Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov at his most creative and ingenious. The book could be read as parody of literary criticism at its worst, and is often screamingly funny. Some critics are a bit like Kinbote and try to make the work fit their thesis, much like the legendary host, Procrustes, who lopped off the arms or legs of his guests to fit his bed.

Kinbote's insane asides and manic determination are the core of the book - Shade's poem is ho-hum and probably deliberately so. Even the index is funny! And indexes are funny - and often an accurate glimpse into the author's ego.

The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
One of the questions the novel raises is who is the hero?

From our perspective the disappearance of the hero is nothing new. When Hemingway wrote this book, the lack of a clear protagonist was not yet a tradition. Certainly, there was literature featuring anti-heroes, but in this novel, it is not even clear if there is a central character.

Even Hemingway did not seem entirely sure. The story of how Hemingway revised the novel is a fascinating account on its own. One point that emerges in looking at his rough drafts is Hemingway's ambiguity concerning whom he intended as the main character. Originally, the book started with two chapters on Lady Brett Ashley, beginning with the line, "This is a novel about a lady."

In another deleted section, Jake Barnes makes the following statement: "Now you see. It looked as though I were trying to get to be the hero of this story. But that is all wrong. Cohn is the hero. When I bring myself in it is only to clear up something. Or maybe Duff [Brett:] is the hero. Or Nino de la Palma [Romero:]. He never really had a chance to be the hero. Or maybe there is not any hero at all. Maybe a story is better without a hero" (Svobova 31).

In a 1926 letter to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway proposes yet another hero: [the story:] "is a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero" (Letters 229). Or, as Hemingway suggests in a 1926 letter to Fitzgerald, maybe it is just a story about "how people go to hell" (Letters 209).

Certainly Cohn, Brett, Jake, and Pedro Romero do not align as neatly into categories of good and bad as Philip Young's analysis of Hemingway's "code" would have us believe. Robert Cohn's grief at having been rejected by Brett is balanced by his earlier rejection of his wife and three small chilren as well as the expedient rejection of his subsequent mistress, Francis Clyne. Yet, in some ways, despite his romantic posturing, Cohn seems more alive than characters like Mike--lost in a drunken stupor--or Count Mippipopoulos with his leaden philosophy of value exchange.

Brett, though described by Cohn in glowing terms, "There's a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight," proves to be something less than "fine and straight." Seemingly pointless details and Brett's actions often show her to be a bit duplicitous.

Romero, for all his grace under pressure and perfect technique, has an unformed quality. He is a pretty boy, the child Brett refers to when she states she is not going to be one of those bitches who ruins children. Romero has youth, beauty, and the support of the crowd. Perhaps more heroic is the courage of Belmonte--the aging bullfighter--who works in pain and faces the contempt of a crowd expecting him to live up to a past reputation mythic in proportion. Jake, too, shows steady courage in a no-win situation. Trapped in the living hell of desire without hope of fulfillment, Jakes manages to salvage some dignity, to carve out a code of conduct as if his life had meaning.

Most of these characters lead lives of quiet desperation and aborted desires. Hemingway may have had this loneliness in mind when he considered using two lines from Andrew Marvell's poem as the novel's original epigraph:

The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace


Mythologies - Roland Barthes, Annette Lavers In high school, I used to attend the wrestling meets. I'm not sure why. I hated spectator sports, having endured a brief period of sullen cheerleading where I found myself unable to whip up a frenzy over first downs or sis-boom-bah on command.

Among the high school wrestlers I watched, there were some who elicited greater and lesser degrees of sympathy or repugnance, while one--though otherwise an inarticulate hulk--was transformed on the mat into a figure of grace, performing pins swiftly and cleanly. Barthes' wrestlers comprise more explicit types, e.g., the bastard, the image of passivity, the image of conceit, the bitch, etc. Wrestling, in Barthes' view, becomes a starkly defined conflict, where virtues and vices as personified by the contestants, engage in a battle that is a virtual psychomachia.

Barthes' world of wrestling, then, emerges as allegory in its purest, most elemental sense. Wrestling's landscape, drained of entity save the combatants, emerges as the opposite of mimesis. Here, time and causality recede into the background. For Barthes, wrestling, like biblical narrative, occurs on a horizon so blank, every gesture becomes a clear act of signification. The rapidly changing positions of the wrestlers splinter the narrative into thematic junctures, like a slide show where each frame of action, perfectly fused with meaning, replaces another.

Our interpretation at these points of thematic juncture involves a movement into myth--as Barthes explains it--for we simultaneously generalize and impoverish the meaning of the action on the wrestling mat. Within the construct of myth we create for wrestling, there operates a coherent system of conduct, a sort of decorum of indecorum, where "foul play" becomes "legitimitized," but the "absence of punishment" (29), the rupture of the tit-for-tat balance, is taboo.

Wrestling, Barthes proposes, provides intense satisfaction for its audience, where for once there is "an ideal understanding of things; ...the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction" (29).

In this essay, like the others Barthes presents in this collection, he emerges for me as the sharpest and most provocative of those writing on semiotics and structuralism.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
One of my all-time favorite novels. Most of all, I fell in love with the language in this book.

There's not really any way to spoil this novel, as so much is revealed in the first chapter. And, this book is driven by its characters and its language, rather than plot.

Their Eyes Were Watching God demonstrates the dual potential of language. Language may be used as an instrument of truth to express love, self-fulfillment, and honest emotions. Conversely, language may also be used as an instrument of deceit. In its negative sense, language may be used as a means to limit the freedom of others or, through gossip, to pry into others’ lives. Clearly, Janie Crawford, the novel’s protagonist, is affected by both aspects of language; though language often hampers Janie’s freedom, as she grows in confidence and maturity, she is able to overcome the negative language of others and to control her own use of language.

Hurston introduces the negative use of language early in the first chapter. When Janie returns to Eatonville after having left with a younger man, the townspeople assume and hope she is returning in defeat. Rather than wishing Janie well, the porch sitters wait eagerly to get the “dirt,” so that they may dissect Janie’s life and feel better about their own. Hurston provides an articulate description of the porch sitters’ motivation and use of language:
These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were one, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. (2)

Gossiping gives the porch-sitters power. Janie, however, has learned a great deal during her life’s journey; rather than trying to hide her life and give the townspeople any opportunity to speculate on her life, Janie tells the simple truth. Significantly, Janie tells her entire story to her closest friend, whom she knows will be honest. Janie even encourages Phoeby Watson to repeat her story to the entire town. By revealing her life completely, Janie usurps the porch-sitters’ power. Janie is willing to give the narrative of her life to Pheoby because her trust in her friend is absolute: “You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf” (4). Janie recognizes Pheoby’s language will be just as true as her own.

As Janie recounts her life, the oppression language has caused her immediately becomes evident. As a young girl of 16, a flowering pear tree “speaks” to Janie of love and fulfillment. When her grandmother (Nanny) sees her kissing a boy beneath the tree, she immediately calls to Janie and, in her speech, ultimately uses language to limit Janie’s world and freedom. Ironically, Nanny starts her speech by explaining how she always wanted to have a “voice”: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do … Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me” (15). Despite Nanny’s own desire for language and power, her solution for Janie’s life takes away Janie’s voice and nearly destroys her. To ensure that Janie will have security, Nanny pressures her into marrying Logan Killicks, a man far older than Janie whom she does not love.

[While I don't think discussing the plot lessens your enjoyment of this book, there may be spoilers ahead.:]

Janie cannot communicate with Logan on any level, verbally or sexually. By the time Janie meets Joe Starks, his smooth-talking charm captivates Janie immediately. His language seduces her. Yet, Janie does not succumb completely; she realizes Joe Starks also falls short of the kind of love she envisioned at 16 when she was dreaming under the pear tree. Hurston depicts Janie’s hesitancy accordingly: “Janie pulls back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he speaks for far horizon. He speaks for change and chance.” Janie sense of uncertainty, her intuition that something is lacking in Joe Starks, for all his sweet language, quickly becomes evident after she leaves with him and travels to Eatonville.

For Starks, language is power; language does not have to be truthful as long as it gets him what he wants. With incredible speed, Joe meets with the Eatonville townspeople and tells them what they need. Before Joe puts their needs into words, the townspeople had been relatively content. Joe’s words inspire awe but also make the townspeople feel small and ignorant. Janie soon realizes that Starks never stops talking and that his talk has only one purpose: to increase his power and self-worth. In many ways Starks’ treatment of the townspeople mimics the power tactics and condescension white people have often used to disempower African-Americans. Not surprisingly, Starks’ overpowers Janie the same way he overpowered the townspeople; Janie is forced to tie back her beautiful hair and remain silent while she works in the store. When the townspeople encourage Janie to speak, Joe makes Janie’s position clear: “Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech- makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home.”

Despite Janie’s seeming submission, she is less a woman beaten than a woman in hibernation; Janie is simmering. After years of Starks’ overbearing abuse, Janie chooses to talk again when Joe berates her for not cutting his tobacco properly, and—in front of all the people in the store—tells her she has become old and unattractive. Infuriated, Janie retaliates and tell Joe, “When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life” (75). The remark stuns both Joe and all the men in the store. Not only has Janie fought back but also, in one powerful sentence, she crushes Joe’s manhood. After nearly 18 years of silence, Janie’s short speech defeats Joe entirely. Shortly before Joe dies, Janie speaks again and tells Joe of his cruelties and inadequacies. Unlike Joe, who liked the sound of his own voice, throughout their marriage Janie spoke when it was necessary and then spoke only the truth.

In contrast, Janie begins to speak a lot more after Joe’s death. Her re-birth is particularly evident when a stranger, a young man named Tea Cake, comes to town. Unlike Logan Killicks or Joe Starks, Tea Cake treats Janie with equality and delights in her conversation. Their romance stirs up the town gossips who immediately begin speculating that Janie is acting like a fool, that Tea Cake, a man 15 years younger than Janie, must be after her money, and that Janie should still be in mourning. Janie discounts the judgments of the porch-sitters, recognizing that their supposed concern masks their jealousy and self-righteousness.

When Janie leaves town to meet Tea Cake in Jacksonville, her re-birth is complete. Though their marriage is occasionally volatile, they speak the language of love. With Tea Cake, Janie has found the promise suggested so many years ago under the pear tree. Even working in the Everglades “muck,” Janie feels alive and is able to find joy and happiness despite her limited circumstances. Mrs. Turner, a smug “mulatto” proud of her light coloring and disdainful of the other people living in the “muck,” provides one of the few overt references to race. Mrs. Turner, impressed by Janie’s light coloring and “class,” tries to befriend her. Both Janie and Tea Cake recognize that Mrs. Turner hates her own race and speaks the language of hate, a philosophy Hurston depicts as follows: "Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself [Mrs. Turner:] was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness.”

Following the aftermath of Tea Cake’s death, the trial, and her eventual acquittal, Janie realizes that she needs to go home. Her life has come full circle, and the love she has experienced with Tea Cake will remain with her as long as she remembers him. In part, she will keep his memory alive through language, just as she does when she tells Pheoby every thing that has happened. Throughout her journey, Janie has learned both the oppressive and the liberating power of language. Ironically, Hurston also felt the negative power of language. Although Hurston later received negative reviews for her use of language in Their Eyes Were Watching God, like her protagonist, Janie Crawford, Hurston preferred to tell it as it is. Deliberately, Hurston uses the nuances, rhythms and dialect of the African-Americans she portrays to preserve the richness of their language. Like Janie, perhaps, Hurston defied the mores of her culture and chose the language of truth and love over conformity.

adapted from a prior publication