Monday, January 14, 2013

A Lesson from Huck Finn

Mark Twain was an insightful commentator on life. Throughout the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s characters show readers how pride and ignorance combined contribute to hostility, violence, and acts of injustice. These actions produce a cyclical pattern that is difficult to break. It often takes the sincerity, humility and honesty of someone young and untainted, someone with fresh ideas to begin to break through the cycle.
It is easy to see the pride and ignorance of Pap, Huck’s father. Surely his drunkenness exposes his violent nature in many ways. But after Huck has lived with the widow for some time and has become more educated himself, he no longer fears his father. He just sees him as a mean, old man. Even Pap’s drunkenness though is a commentary of the state of many other characters in the novel. Pride and ignorance have a way of consuming people and causing a state of drunkenness.
When Huck meets the Grangerfords, he goes to great lengths to show how educated and proper they are. But at the same time, we see how uncivilized they have become. The family feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons has continued for generations, even to the point that Buck doesn’t know how it began. Both families are old, well-established families, but they have allowed pride and ignorance to consume them both figuratively and literally. By the end of our encounter with these families, most of the members have killed each other off. The young Grangerfords girl eloping with the young Shepherdson  boy was not enough to tide their hostility. In a drunken stupor, they allowed this event to culminate their hatred.
The setting of the novel was during the time of slavery in the South. It was pre Civil War. But it is easy to see parallels between the previous scene and the impending war. Of course, Twain had access to the events of the war. Honest Abe was not enough to stem the tide of violence and to keep the country united. Pride and ignorance had such a firm hold on the people, that like the Grangerfords and their neighbors, the Shephersons, they engaged in a bloodbath with neighbor fighting against neighbor, and brother against brother. And the younger ones, like Huck with the Grangerfords, were left to sort things out and try to make sense of it all.
The novel further shows the plight of Huck and Joe seeking their own freedom from oppression. Huck is fleeing his abusive father; and Joe, not wanting to be sold away from his community and family, is fleeing from the widow. Yet with the turn of events in their journey, they keep heading further and further south, or deeper and deeper into slave territory. This imagery further shows how difficult it is to break the cycle of violence and injustice that pride and ignorance produce. It isn’t until the end of the novel that Huck learns that his father is dead and Joe learns that he is a free black man.
History shows how destructive pride and ignorance are. But each new generation seems to have to relearn that. Mark Twain had a strong hold on human nature and his works help us to see our humanity with all its flaws and all its wonderful capabilities. Huck, as a sincere, young lad, was able to see past Joe’s color and see that he was indeed a man. Of course, Huck was not capable of changing the world as he knew it, but his own world’s view was changed forever. Even though pride and ignorance are consuming evils that produce hatred, violence, and injustice (to which Huck was certainly exposed), Huck’s life’s experiences lifted him above such common evils. Twain lived in an era when the cycle of ignorance and pride that was reflected in slavery and post slavery years was beginning to change. His character Huck is a small part of that change.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Failed Love

Failed Love                                                              

Failed love, resulting in broken hearts, is an on-going topic in literature. We can all relate to the intensity of feelings that surround us as we hopelessly fall victim to the snare of love. Love often creeps open us unawares; and, so often, the object of our infatuation is totally oblivious of our true feeling. Even when love lasts long, one of the lovers may be struck more deeply and crave more intimacy, never feeling that his or her deepest desires are understood. The speaker of “The Broken Heart,” written by John Donne, shows the consistency with which love occurs in the world, while at the same time denouncing love as a demon that steals from us our hearts and being. He conveys these attitudes through the use of form, rhyme, figurative language, and imagery.

Each stanza of the poem follows an ababccdd rhyme scheme. It is interesting to note that the abab at the beginning of each stanza could represent each part of a couple, and then the ccdd couplets could represent a marriage or unity. Yet the speaker conveys that he feels love is not consistent and love does not leave him whole, but fractured. In a sense love does not exist in time, and love is timeless. It cannot last for one hour, yet it can burn up ten loves during that time (lines 1-4). One can enter a room with his heart in his bosom, and leave the room without his heart (lines 19-20). He intimates that love swallows you whole and does not take the time to savor or cherish you; rather it devours you (line 14).

The iams in each line give a steady marching sound. Life does continue to march onward whether the lover is ready or not. Most of the lines contain eight syllables, excepting the second b line and the last couplet dd. These lines are out of sync with the rest of the poem. This could suggest that the lover is out of sync with his ability to express, contain, or retain his love. He speaks to the lover he cannot see, telling her that his heart was stolen when he first saw her (lines 17-18). He uses a pun with the word trifle, expressing that he feels slighted and that his lover has played with his heart leaving him nothing but grief (lines 9-12).

The speaker reasons with himself that if there were nothing to begin with, then nothing is lost (line 25). But his attitude throughout the poem shows that love has robbed him. Maybe if he could have expressed himself better, his love would have loved him and had pity on him. But with only one look towards her, all of his confidence is shattered (lines 21-24). The imagery of his tattered heart is carried further as he describes his heart as “rags of heart” (line 31). His experience with love has made him diminished, and he feels entirely hopeless. In sad abandonment he announces that he “can love no more” (line 32).

Lost love is a timeless theme. We can sympathize with the speaker’s attitude that love is all-consuming and devouring. He has felt drained and shattered by the experience, and he relates those feeling to us through the use of form and rhyme, language and imagery. He determines to tell the reader that he will never love again; and yet, in truth, the speaker implies that he will. Love can devour ten within an hour’s time (line 4). As the rhyme and rhythm and form continue to work the same throughout the poem, love will again work its untimely deed upon the speaker and upon the readers as well.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Women, Not Objects


            In comparing the poems “To His Coy Mistress,” written by Andrew Marvell, and “My Last Duchess,” written by Robert Browning, it becomes clear to the reader that the speakers of both poems hold attitudes of superiority to their women lovers. While the first speaker entreats his would-be lover with careful persuasion, and the second speaker entreats his audience with careful justification, both of these gentlemen expose that they feel deserving of mastery over their women merely because they are men. This is exposed in the attitudes that are portrayed through the use of figurative language, imagery, and tone.
            From the opening lines of “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker uses his words carefully to seduce his lady. He explains that if he had forever to wait, she could keep her “coyness” and remain shy and careful (line 2). In working to entice her, the speaker expresses many niceties to gain her favor. He uses extreme hyperbole throughout the poem: he’d “Love her yen years before the Flood” and “Till the conversion of the Jews” (lines 8 and 10), if there were time enough for that. Using the word “vegetable” (line 11), he produces a pun. He could lose his vitality or masculinity if he had to wait any longer to have sex with her. With further exaggeration, he spills over compliments of adoration: “An hundred years should go to praise thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; two hundred to adore each breast, but thirty thousand to the rest” (lines 13-16). For the speaker, the argument for “deserts of vast eternity” (line 24) lacks the passion of the here and now. He questions why she would prefer a drought over the riches that he has to offer her. His attitude is condescending towards this woman as he tries to persuade her to give up her youthful “lust” before it is eaten up and her desire vanishes to “ashes” and her “quaint honour turns to dust” (lines 29-30). He presupposes that her desire must be as great as his. This speaker has confidence, but his confidence is born in his attitude that men are indeed superior to women.
            In contrast, the speaker in “My Last Duchess” does not have the confidence to persuade his lady, nor does he have the desire “to stoop” (line 43) in any way to gain her favor through explanations or enticements. The first speaker was willing to woo his woman; the latter speaker felt his woman should feel wooed and privileged just because he had chosen her and given her a “gift of a nine-hundred-years old name” (line 33). He exposes to the reader that he is superior to his duchess by birthright and gender. The speaker further shows that he feels his wife gave far too much attention to everybody and everything else. “She liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (Lines 23-24). He seems to think that her best smiles and her best praise were only to be bestowed on him, since he was the one so deserving of her love and her favor. He could not distinguish her gratitude to others and her delight with the world around her from her love for him. “Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast, the dropping of the daylight in the West…all and each would draw from her alike the approving speech” (Lines 25-26 and 29-30). He thought that she should act just so, and be happy just so much, and save the self of her that he wanted, just for him. Unlike the speaker in “To His Coy Mistress,” the speaker in “My Last Duchess” is plagued by feelings of jealousy and doubt; and he, therefore, must exert his masculinity by proving that he has power over her. Because he was unable to hold her to the moments where he saw her as perfect, he tried to capture that moment in her portrait. He did not want to have a living, breathing, thinking, rapturous woman in the way the first speaker did; he preferred to have a dutiful wife that fit his view of what she should be. After her death, he has control of her. “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall” (line 1), he says. “And there she stands” (line 4). Now he can enjoy the passionate, beautiful glance that was caught in the portrait and keep it only for himself, and expose it only when he wishes and to whom he wishes. “The curtain I have drawn for you” (line 10). So, while we cannot really see the portrait the speaker is telling us about, we see her quite clearly through the speaker’s attitude towards her. In life, he appears to be truly disgusted because she is genuine and not mere art. In death, he has reduced her to a piece of artwork meant just for him. But his thirst for control brings him to desire a new duchess. In looking for a new wife, he again wants her to be tamed as "Neptune...taming a sea-horse" and “cast in bronze” (lines 54-56).
            Both poets use their speakers to express the feelings held by men of that era. They felt that a woman’s main purpose was to bring delight to her lover. Everything else should be secondary to that. While the speaker in “To His Coy Mistress” uses strong flattery and persuasion to woo his love, the reader is unable to ascertain his true desires from this lustful moment. Would he indeed love her from all eternity to all eternity if she were to give herself to him? Or once he had accomplished his quest, would he then abandon her for another lustful and more immediate attraction? It appears more clearly that the speaker in “My Last Duchess” would again grow tired of his new duchess in the same way that he did his old and cast her off onto another wall to be looked upon only when he desired to do so. The first speaker reveals to the reader both his desires for mastery over his woman and the list of reasons why he is entitled to this mastery. The latter speaker reveals that he will have control of his duchesses both past and future because he is entitled to ownership of their movements and behavior in every way. Both speakers present a thorough justification for their premise that their women should be constantly and quickly at their disposal, and they reveal these attitude through powerful figurative language, imagery, and tone.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Grand Designer

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
Robert Frost

The Grand Designer  (Written in Sep 2012)

In the modern sonnet "Design," written by Robert Frost, we find an orderly form that contributes to the construction of an orderly purpose. Frost uses an abba rhyme scheme, and his closing two lines form a couplet. Frost constructs this poem much like the spider that carefully weaves his web in order for purpose to follow construction. He does this well through the tight parameters of the sonnet, along with his careful use of figurative language, symbolism, and imagery.
Throughout the poem, Frost careful chooses the words he uses. These are words marked with alliteration, consonance, and assonance. Upon review of these words, the reader realizes that such words are captivating. The sounds are pleasant, so the reader is drawn in much like the moth is drawn to the web. Examples of alliteration include "heal-all, holding," "mixed ready to begin the morning," "snow-drop spider, "flower like froth."  Also there are many words in lines 9 through 13 which begin with "w." Some examples of consonance include "dimpled spider,” “fat and white," and "flower to do with being white." Assonance is found in the words "like a white," "mixed ready to begin," "a snow-drop spider," "a flower like froth," and "spider to the height." The mere elegance of the sound of these words is beautiful to hear, just like the spider’s web glittering in white light is beautiful to behold.
The most reoccurring symbol is found in the word white. Usually white represents goodness and purity. It this case, white acts as a lure. Even the heal-all flower, which is usually blue and has healing effects, is white in this poem. The reader might view Frost as a fatalist in seeing his use of white and light versus darkness and night. Indeed there is ambiguity found in these symbols. But Frost is showing that there is order in things both great and small.
The profound use of imagery is largely purposeful throughout the poem. It is easy for the reader to picture the scene in his mind’s eye. The beauty of the alluring whiteness is shown in opposition to the idea of a witch’s broth. The usually blue heal-all is also white, furthering the idea of good versus evil. This concept can even be traced back to the Garden of Eden where there was found the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in opposition to the Tree of Life. There is order in the design of the universe as there is order in the design of the poem. Truly the white moth filled the measure of his creation, as did the spider. Frost’s poem “Design” shows faith and hope in the purposes of a Grand Designer as he experiences order in the world with things both great and small. On a much smaller yet magnificent scale, Frost is the grand designer as he develops order in his poem through his skillful use of poetic literary devices.  

Soul and Body Free

(Written in Sep 2012)                                              

Kate Chopin effectively creates the element of surprise in "The Story of an Hour" as the narrator carries the reader through the series of emotions experienced by Mrs. Mallard in an evening's hour. We learn much about this "feeble woman" in a few short paragraphs, and this knowledge leads us to greater questions concerning the role of women during this era and the effect of servitude on an individual. Although the overall tone of this piece is tender, the reader is carried through a series of tonal shifts that are produced through the powerful diction, symbolism, and imagery conveyed by the narrator.
In the first paragraph, the tone is rather tense and foreboding. The characters are cautious and uncomfortable in breaking such formidable news to Mrs. Mallard. The "broken sentences" and half concealed "veiled hints" show how difficult it is for Josephine to impart the news of Mrs. Mallard's husband's death to her. Mr. Mallard's friend Richard confirmed the knowledge of his death through "a second telegram." From the beginning, we sense the gentleness and tenderness that the narrator conveys through the actions and attitudes of the other characters towards Mrs. Mallard. Because of her heart trouble, great caution and gentleness are apparent.
Once the reader is introduced to the situation and Mrs. Mallard's overall condition, the reader is taken aback by Mrs. Mallard's reaction. Here the narrator conveys that her reaction is abnormal. While most women in this situation would act in disbelief, or "with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance, Mrs. Mallard wept with "wild abandonment" in Josephine's arms. As the reader gains more knowledge in the later narrative, he or she is led to question whether Mrs. Mallard is really expressing deep sorrow, feigning sadness, or expressing excited relief from years of captivity. Here the tone is rather tragic and unusual at the same time.
The narrator allows the reader to see into Mrs. Mallard's heart and her true feelings after Mrs. Mallard resorts to "her own room alone." The imagery throughout the narration is remarkable. The first things Mrs. Mallard faces are "the open window" and "a comfortable, roomy armchair." Certainly, the open window is representative of the new possibilities available to her now that her husband is gone. This is further confirmed when she views "the open square." Before this though, she sinks into the chair "pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul." Mrs. Mallard is feeling the weight of everything that she has endured for many years. But once her eyes focus on the "open square," she sees all the new possibilities that are available to her now as a widow. Her senses become alive as she beholds "the tops of trees...aquiver with the new spring life," as she smells "the delicious breath of rain," and as she hears a peddler, someone singing, and "countless sparrows...twittering in the eaves." In noticing life beyond the walls of her home, Mrs. Mallard is beginning to feel full of hope and life. These are evidently foreign feelings to her.
The imagery of the "patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds" allows the reader to feel Mrs. Mallard's emotions further. In a few short moments, she continues to see her husband's death as an event that is offering her new opportunities, new life, as she is suspended in "intelligent thought." The patches of blue certainly do indicate those things that are ahead and "coming to her." There is uncertainty in "the sounds, the scents, [and] the color that filled the air." But there is also great anticipation. As her "bosom rose and fell tumultuously," Mrs. Mallard is flooded with the emotion of being free. In the privacy of her own room, she is allowed to experience these new emotions and the consequences of them. No one is present to encourage her to beat them back in order to protect her delicate heart and feeble disposition. "Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body." In her comfortable chair, she has experienced a profound renewal of life. Here the narration conveys a tone of thankful relief. The character has endured her lot in life well, and now she is finally free to pursue her own dreams, her own interests. She is free.
Further reflection shows that "she would weep again" when she saw her husband's "kind, tender hands folded in death." But she quickly "saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come" which she would own. The tone of joyful rapture quickly takes over as "she opened and spread her arms" in welcome of owning her own life. "'Free! Body and soul free!' she kept whispering." The "very elixir of life" was pouring "through that open window." The narrator helps the reader to feel the triumphal victory that Mrs. Mallard is experiencing through the choice of words used and through the powerful use of imagery.
Unfortunately, for Mrs. Mallard, her new-found victory is short-lived. She discovers that her husband is still alive when Brently Mallard returns home unaware that there had been an accident. The doctors said that Mrs. Mallard "died of heart disease--of the joy that kills." But the reader has seen the events of this evening's hour and knows that Mrs. Mallard's hopes were too soon shaken.
The narrator takes the reader through the series of emotions felt by Mrs. Mallard. With great delicacy, the narration shifts from surprise, to relief, to anticipation, and back to surprise, but always with an overall tone of great tenderness that is expressed and developed for Mrs. Mallard through the actions of the other characters, through the imagery that conveys approaching possibilities, and through the symbolism found in those possibilities that represent freedom for Mrs. Mallard. Yet Mrs. Mallard's abrupt death leaves the reader pondering the causes of her malady. Once she has had a mere taste of belonging only to herself, she can no longer fathom giving her life back to another.

Blanche's Demise

Blanche's Demise                                                                             

            In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams shows dysfunctional characters who are trying to adapt to a changing America. The South has undergone limited growth since the Civil War; in fact, the social elite have all but faded out of existence. Still they have the memory of their roots. There are newer immigrants who have not yet established their place in society as accepted Americans. Blanche, a wilting Southern Belle, has lost her home in Belle Reve and her reputation as a school teacher. This, and a number of other losses, ultimately leads to her final demise. We see that Blanche is ill-equipped to deal with life in the early 20th Century, and her desire to hold onto the past makes it impossible for her to move forward into the future.
            In the opening scenes, we witness Blanche's snobbery. She feels that riding a streetcar has demeaned her. When Blanche sees her sister's living circumstances, she views them as far below adequate. The memory of her losses, and not being able to accept those losses, are always at the forefront. We further witness that she has not learned any coping skills with which to deal with her losses, make new goals and establish a new direction, and put her life's experience to positive use. Instead Blanche turns to hard alcohol as a means of momentarily drowning out her memories, which causes her to sink further.
            Blanche's suitcase full of furs and jewels indicates her desire to hold onto her wealthy past. But we find out that none of them is real. Everything in Blanche's life appears to be imitation. Even the memory of her youthful marriage to a fine, kind gentleman is marred by the realization that she wasn't his only love, but that his desires led him to have relations with a man older than himself. Homosexual relationships were considered reprobate, and Blanche ends up telling the man she loves that he disgusts her. His suicide is a critical cut off point to Blanche's more favored past and the uncertainty of the future she is forced to face. Failed marital relationships, manifest in divorce or suicide, were also extremely taboo. So Blanche is left with the weight of carrying the memory of driving her husband to suicide and the circumstances surrounding that. She has no one who can help shoulder this burden during this time period, and the ugliness and guilt of the memory swallows up her ability to move forward.
            Blanche loses her grand estate of Belle Reve. There are bills to pay and things to keep up. But the ruin of her life is further manifest in the falling and loss of her estate. She dramatically relates to Stella that she had sweat blood and tears in trying to save Belle Reve, but that it was beyond her ability to do so. Certainly, even fortunes run out when one has no business sense. Blanche's inability to convert what is necessary into an active plan of attack leads her to squander away her fortune. She wasn't ready to part with Belle Reve, but she could have been better off had she sold it while it was still viable instead of waiting for its ruin.
            Blanche's period of life as a schoolteacher proves to be disastrous. Not only does she have multiple affairs with rich gentlemen who can supply her with a taste of the grand lifestyle to which she wants to be accustomed, but she also seduces young boys that she teaches. She certainly is sinking into a life of make-believe trying to obtain favors from wealthy pursuers. But they are just businessmen who are passing through the small town. Her need to recapture her youthful love that was lost to her is further demonstrated while she is in Stella's home and kisses the newspaper boy. Blanche's emotional state has never progressed beyond the point of the young Southern woman who lost her beautiful husband. Because she hasn't moved on emotionally, she also still views herself as young, and she is still trying to recapture the girl that died along with her husband.
            When Stella is at the hospital in labor with her first child, Stanley comes home, and his morbid sexual desire, plus his thirst for control, moves him to rape Blanche. An already non-coping Blanche is now left to utter ruin and despair. Stella refuses to believe Blanche when Blanche relates the incident to her. If she were to believe Blanche, Stella could not cope with her own situation. So she chooses to sacrifice her relationship with Blanche in order to move forward herself. This becomes the final breaking point. In Stella's rejection of Blanche, Blanche has lost everything. Her one connection to reality has abruptly denied her. Blanche never developed any coping skills with which to move into the future. While all of the characters in this play are ill-equipped to merge into a changing society, when Blanche's one safe link to the past is taken from her, it is more than she can bear, and insanity takes over.