Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Female Condition in Wharton

While reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of the major themes that sticks out to me is the struggle of leisure-class women to have a sense of purpose in their lives. Discussing an evening of bridge-playing, Lily urges Judy to think of “my career” (43). The fact that Lily’s lifestyle is a representative reflection of the tasks at hand for well-to-do women of the era, this offers a bleak and limited array of prospects for women. What might Lily be talking about when she discusses her “career?” One can only assume that it entails the process of marriage for a woman. As we have already learned about Lily, she is that she “is horribly poor-- and very expensive” (8). This creates a pretty negative picture for her as a character, because it becomes clear over the course of the novel that what she considers her career is the process of marrying into money.

But IS this actually a negative perspective? While outwardly there are some distinct similarities, projecting the 20th-and-21st-century perspective of “gold-digging” is not necessarily a fair assessment of the female condition in this time period. For one thing, there were limited (from my understanding, virtually no) vocations for upper-middle and higher economic class women to be active or successful in (Edith Wharton, as we discussed in class today, could be considered a notable anomaly, as she procured substantial wealth through writing in her lifetime. Still, she was not exactly born into poverty, and it is often said that one needs to have money to make money).

While a modern reader could be quick to criticize the lifestyle, materialism, and goals of Lily as a woman, it is key to acknowledge that women have a drastically different situation and more vocational options than they once had. Also, most of us as readers have different perspectives of the value of money than turn-of-the-century aristocrats, a period which Wharton depicts as a time dominated by men with money and women who spend money. While Lily and her ideals are not necessarily the most identifiable for this era (or for debt-ridden WSU students) I think that it is key to take a step back and acknowledge Wharton’s novel as a benchmark; it is indicative of a transitional period in women’s rights. Suffrage and vocations for women were not all that far off.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A McBook Full of Despicable Characters. But...

After our discussion of naturalism on Tuesday and its continuation on Thursday, I am reaching a better understanding of the context from which McTeague arose. Looking at his character, he starts out as a bit of a simpleton, but someone who appeared more or less harmless but for his brute strength, not unlike Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I would go so far as to say that the McTeague we saw early in the novel was more like a Forrest Gump on steroids. We se a simple man who didn’t need much but “to eat, to smoke, to sleep, and to play upon his concertina” (5). As the story progresses, we see a shift in this character, as he descends to having more animalistic characteristics, eventually becoming utterly wretched and despicable.

The first step that McTeague takes along this decline is in Trina’s series of dental appointments. His lust-driven, animalistic urges give way to the little bit of sense that he may have floating around in his thick skull. As he finally gets his girl, the story takes more of the form of a conquest than of anything resembling “love.” Perhaps more disturbing than the fact that McTeague’s brute strength won over is the fact that Trina not only gives in, but actually somehow almost likes it. She describes this as “that strange desire of being conquered and subdued (103). The problematic thing about Trina is that her submissiveness is frustrating. Furthermore, both characters simultaneously become more and more corrupt. While McTeague becomes more of a massive, brutish animal, Trina becomes ever more like Zerkow, finally rolling in her bed of gold coins in the ultimate gratuitous display of greed and miserly materialism.

It is definitely discouraging to see so many character either start out bad (Zerkow with his over-the-top stereotypes as the greedy Jew, Maria as the kleptomaniac, etc), but the small bit of redemption is in the beautiful little courtship scene that plays out between Ms. Baker and Old Grannis. This courtship drastically contrasts with the direction that the other characters are going in their downward spiral to baseness (or deadness, which seems to be the trend of late in the middle 2/3rds of the novel). I am cautiously optimistic about one thing in this book, and that is the wishful thinking that nothing happens to tarnish the side-story of these two old people who have found each other. Sentimental? Yes!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Be Ware of Corruption

After finishing Harold Frederic’s “The Damnation of Theron Ware” (quoted rather than italicized due to my ignorance of underlining on Blogger), I have to say that I was glad to see Theron rejected by Celia, Forbes and the rest of this new and strange culture that he had come to admire. I wouldn’t have felt this way earlier in the book, but his abysmal, paranoia-fueled mistreatment of his wife, and his sudden distaste for his own life (which, of course, he has made for himself) warranted this let-down. However, assessing the overall authorial intent of this work is somewhat complex and multifaceted based on the way the novel ended. One reading is that the stagnant ways of “Primitive Methodism” and other insular communities of worship create a closed-minded, bigoted and backward thinking population, as is the case with Octavius. Contrasting this with the new and comparatively progressive, adaptive lifestyles that the Irish residents share enhances this social dissonance, highlighted by the fact that “The church is always compromising” as Forbes explains, evolving to be accommodating and inclusive, which is a stark contrast against the ideals of the local Methodists (231).

In the end, it is clear that Ware is a spineless character who, in his efforts to stand for something, instead falls flat. Let’s look at the strikes against him:

1). He is unfaithful to his wife, a character he professes from the beginning to be a good wife whom he has been happy with up the point of meeting Celia.
2). He displays despicable amounts of jealousy and distrust toward his wife and her supposed infidelity, which is blatantly hypocritical in light of his own infidelity.
3). He abuses funds of his church to sneak off to New York, all the while “committing adultery in his heart” with no apparent shame in doing so.
4) He complains of his mistakes that have led him to become a clergyman, and despite this and his other numerous faults, he continues in the profession, only leaving when he has become heinously corrupt as a man of the church and as a man in general. And the list of his decline as a person continue to accumulate…

After all this, his statement that he may end up being “a full-blown senator” is especially telling; he is certainly corrupt enough to fit in well with the political world (326).

Examining where Ware started from within this novel and then contrasting it with where he ends up, I had wishfully thought that Ware would fall out of religion and become a more virtuous person because of it, but it turns out that his damnation was complete. Because of his corruption, he now has no place in the town of Octavius. On the other hand, Celia and the educated catholic community saw him as “unsophisticated and delightfully fresh and natural,” which condescends upon his inadequacies that he also perceives, and which in reality should be insulting (305). However, his corruption from this simple small-town minister to the role of a despicable adulterer leaves him absolutely nowhere to go, save for far away from the mess that he has brought himself to.

Looking at where Ware ended up, his journey parallels a fall from Paradise; here he is in a quiet little town, and the “illumination” and knowledge of new and broader ways to think end up corrupting him, and he falls from grace and is cast out of the society, or garden, if you will.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Coming of Age in "Ex-Colored Man"

After reading the first four chapters of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, I have found the unnamed protagonist to be a likeable character with tremendous potential to find real, lasting success in turn-of-the-century America. However, poor decision making has riddled the characters attempts at this so far. Specifically, the moments when the character reaches a crossroads, he seems to invariably make the wrong turns. Having both a stable job and a sudden streak of good luck in gambling, he declares, “I at last realized that making cigars for a living and gambling for a living could not both be carried on at the same time, and I resolved to give up the cigar-making” (Johnson 52). Here is a character who is so well-spoken and grounded in a seemingly rational mindset, yet he comes to some of the least rational conclusions.

Having not read ahead to establish a better understanding of the overall direction that he is headed as a character, I can only speculate. So far, I am seeing the narrator make so many poor decisions amidst the potential for such opportunity, and I come back to this thought: he is a young man. While I believe that the racially volatile dynamic of post- civil war America is a prevailing lens through which to examine the story as a whole (or half, as that is all that I have read up to this point), I still think it is key to acknowledge that this work is revolving around the young life of a boy becoming a man, and I’ll be the first one to admit that young adults make some pretty ridiculously irrational decisions from time to time. Based on these observations, I expect this narrative to adhere to the inverted slave narrative structure that we have discussed in class, but I also see this work in some ways taking the form of a coming-of-age story. In the traditional "Bildungsroman," the character's personal growth transitions the character into being more dependable, and I see this as probable for the narrator.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Complex Social/Racial Commentary in Twain

After completing train's work, I decided to provide some of my closing thoughts on the debate over whether racist leanings of Twain are exposed in the text. The short answer is that I absolutely do not believe that. The long answer...

Mark Twain is so widely known for his anti-racist commentary that I am implored to see this as one of the prevailing themes of Pudd’nhead Wilson, but the problematic conclusion complicates this reading. Finally, the white man formerly known as “Chambers” gains status as a full citizen and a white man. This produces a complicating factor for his character: in this text, we are drawn as readers to feel a sense of justice in that Tom, the real Tom, has “White” status. However, 21st-century society conditions us to acknowledge the fact that it shouldn’t matter what his status is. Isn’t a person a person?

From Chambers’ perspective, his sudden realization of white privilege becomes awkward; here is a character who is not up to speed with the cultural expectations of a white heir to a large sum of money (166). In a way, this supports the ongoing “nurture” side of the argument. Though the real Tom is certainly a better person than his changeling counterpart, his slave upbringing has denied him the social wherewithal to adapt to the environment that dictates he immediately become cultured.

Meanwhile, and perhaps most shockingly, we observe the fate of the despicable character that the real Chambers turned out to be. Is it really just that he gets sold down the river? Let’s look at his strikes against him:

1) Personality: he’s a gambling, snooty, awful person and we as readers immediately wish the worst for him, right?
2). He killed the man who he grew up believing to be his uncle.
3). He was an irrepressible burglar and conniver, not a virtuous character at all.

So… it is just that he be sentenced to prison, so is it also just that he be sold down the river? This gets to the heart of the trickier elements of Twain’s craft; while we may wish the worst for this character, if we support the end that he came to, we also implicitly support slavery in a way. While I believe that Twain had this in mind in writing this complex social commentary, these points definitely lead me to understand how so much controversy and debate simultaneously enshroud and enshrine the work.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ahab a Monster?

Approaching the end of Moby-Dick, I had little question that the novel would end in a showdown between Ahab and the whale, since Ahab has focused so much energy and internal turmoil on his desire to kill the whale. Clearly, vengeance was at the forefront for him, but I was still surprised with Ahab’s statements in the chapter, “The Pequod Meets the Rachel.” Upon discovering that this ship had encountered the white whale, he exclaims, “where is he?-- Not killed!-- Not killed!” (396). This outburst demonstrates that Ahab is not so much concerned with the death of the whale as he is with actually contributing himself to the whale’s death. While this is a classic characteristic of vengeance, I was still surprised at his refusal to believe that anyone else might take credit for the whale’s killing.

Ahab’s obsession became even more twisted as the plot continued, but his construction of the harpoon using his crew members’ blood marks an even more heightened level of anguish for Ahab, but it was also the point at which I had no question that he, not the whale, was the monster (403).

However, in a manner typical of Melville’s style as I have observed it up to this point, he throws in an immediate complication that leads me to challenge my perspective on Ahab. In chapter 132, “The Symphony,” Ahab delivers to Starbuck a heart-wrenching account of his four decades of struggles at sea and the wife he has left behind. Ahab goes so far as to swear by land and the prospect of home, exclaiming, “by the green land; by the bright hearth stone” (406). Suddenly exposing his longing for home, why can’t he bring himself to heed so many others’ warnings, turn around, and return home, if he still has one? The internal anguish we’ve seen throughout the book suddenly adds another side to the coin here, but why couldn’t Melville add this substantial depth to Ahab’s character earlier in the story?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

White Whale

Here are some interesting bits about a white Humpback whale that has received quite a lot of media attention lately: