March 2009 Archives

Social Conditioning

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Ellison's Invisible Man offers personal insight into the dynamic development of a single African American during the period of post-slavery segregation and discrimination. The innocence and trusting, however, embodied in Ellison's narrator is astonishing; it is border-line implausible. Not only does he believe Dr. Bledsoe to be a great man, but he fails to see the manipulative manner in which Dr. Bledsoe treats the white trustees of the college. Even when the president admits to "act[ing] the nigger" (Ellison 141) to move up and forward in life, the narrator maintains his unfounded admiration. He even remembers "the heavy gold chain that hung between Dr. Bledsoe's vest pockets and the air with which he snapped his watch open to consult the time" (Ellison 160) fondly after he has been expelled. It takes an ultimate betrayal by Dr. Bledsoe and the loss of everything tying him to his school for the narrator to become his own man. He was living as a conditioned puppet, mimicking the actions of others in an eternal attempt to please those in power and gain their respect. Being reborn enables him to remake himself as an independent man with morals, values, and hopes that are based in the reality of his experiences, not in the social training he has received.

Mixed Emotions

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Plath, whose father died when she was only eight, carried a heavy weight of abandonment and depression that was translated into her work. She is even quoted as saying "I adored and despised him." These feelings are obvious in many of her poems, but most evident in her poem entitled "Daddy." Her love for him is reflected in the first few stanzas. She refers to the narrator (herself most likely) as a foot and her father as the protective shoe. In the following stanza, she refers to him as a God-like figure reflecting the childhood awe she still possesses of her father. Though she does not go so far as to call him God, he symbolizes an all-knowing presence. Plath's tone becomes bitter at this point when she acknowledges his God-like status in her mind, and yet he has died. She then introduces the idea that the narrator is a Jew going to a concentration camp and her father is a Nazi soldier during the Holocaust. Her father becomes portrayed in increasingly worse manners as he is transformed into the Devil himself. The success of Plath's poem, however, was not her depiction of her own emotions but in her ability to communicate these feelings to the audience on an emotional and psychological level. This ability is not reflected on in "Daddy," but in all her poetry. The influence of her father's memory is also present in much of her poetry such as "The Arrival of the Bee Box" and "Child."

Beating: Musical or Physical

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Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" struck me as having an ironic title that initially brings about nostalgic memories of family times, but in fact describes the daily beating of a small child. Disguised with the idea of "dancing with daddy" that is a fond memory of so many childhoods, Roethke relies on word choice and connotation to communicate the story of child abuse. The dancing makes the "small boy dizzy," but he hangs "on like death:" The kitchen pans are described as sliding from the shelves; this is not something that would happen if this waltz were truly a waltz. The father's hand is described as "battered" and holding the child's wrist, not his hand as would be expected in dancing. "You beat time on my head" is filled with the connotation of abuse, not happiness. Finally, the mother is expected to be rejoicing in this time of family bonding if it were truly a waltz, but Roethke's states "My mother's countenance/ Could not unfrown itself." In addition to the fact that this awful description of daily suffering is cached in the form of a bonding father and son activity, it is one of Roethke's few poems that does not incorporate nature. Roethke's is described as being "engaged in a lifetime love affair with the tiniest, most fragile inhabitants of the natural world" (Conarroe 4) and this is reflected in almost all of his poetry. "My Papa's Waltz" is one of the lone few that does not.

Description: The Key to Connection

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Part of Elizabeth Bishop's unique strength as a poet is her ability to compose pieces that are simple and yet draw the audience into the experience she is trying to describe. In "Armadillo," the audience can both see what she is describing and feel it. In the line "the paper chambers flush and fill with light/ that comes and goes, like hearts" we can see what is happening in our mind's eye and feel the excitement as if we were really there. She employs the same simple yet effective description in "Filling Station." Her words and stanzas are simple, but when the audience reads or hears the final lines "ESSO - SO - SO- SO/ to high-strung automobiles./ Somebody loves us all" they can hear the sounds, feel the emotions, and picture the gas station clearly in their minds eye. Robert Lowell enables his audience to relate to his poetry in much the same way. He uses strong descriptive phrases that enable the reader to connect on a basic sensory level with his poem. Interestingly, Lowell struggled with alcoholism throughout his adulthood like many other poets during that time, yet "The Drinker" is a reflection of the destructive nature of alcohol. The phrase "killing time" is repeated at the beginning and the end. He also references time and its effects on metal such as "The barbed hooks fester." and "even corroded metal somehow functions." Robert Lowell, battling alcoholism, is comparing the destruction of metal by time to the slow destructive of the body and soul by alcohol. It is sad that though he obviously knows it is destroying him, Lowell is addicted.


A Watery Mess

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Painful. Irrelevant. Disjointed. All thoughts that swirled through my mind as I struggled through "Turning wine into water: Water as privileged signifier in The Grapes of Wrath." Initially, I was shocked at the poor stylistic choices made by the author. Without previous explanation, he compared Jesus to two fictional characters as if they were equals, "At the dawn of the common era, John offered Jesus his baptism in the River Jordan. Two millennia later, Casy baptized Tom Joad in an irrigation ditch." Before this rash statement is made, there is no mention of Steinbeck or his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Only a few lines later the author shocks again with his statement that sounds like it was written by a seventh grader "I will argue that the Grapes of Wrath..." I was surprised that someone intelligent enough to compose the rest of the paper would think that such a simplistic thesis, written in first person would be appropriate for an academic article. My disappointment only increased as I read the paper. Either the author's thesis was not broad enough and he simply forgot to alter it or he simply forgot what he was writing about midway through the first page. The article simply ceases to discuss The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, Cassuto focuses on historical facts, Steinbeck's life, and even other works by Steinbeck such as Mice and Men. Much of his evidence evolves around setting or plot. Though quotes are included, they are not from Grapes of Wrath, but historical books. Before Cassuto hurls his paper into left field, however, he makes a valid point that is both non-obvious and provable (if one were to actually use the novel for evidence). Water, as the author states, acts as an "absent signifier" throughout Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Initially, Steinbeck creates the Joad family battling the hardships of thirst and drought. As Steinbeck draws his novel to a close, however, the Joad family is depicted as losing all touch with and concern for the health of the land as a flood threatens their survival. They are no longer tied to the land; "they have become components of the factory." Cassuto's point, however strong and interesting, is lost amid historical summaries, comparisons with other non essential works by Steinbeck, and a short biography of the author.

A Historical Lens

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In his novel, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster suggests to his readers, themselves studiers of literature, that reading must be done from a "perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background" (Foster 228-29). This understanding enables the reader to appreciate the literature more fully and connect with it on a deeper level. While reading The Great Gatsby, one could only understand and appreciate Daisy's actions and struggles looking through the appropriate historical lens. The same is true about Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family's decision to leave everything behind to search for the possibility of a better life in California is not easily understood by a middle-class college student in the twenty-first century. Culturally, historically, and socially, their choice is understandable at the time in which the novel takes place. Without this ability to connect to the expectations of the time in which the novel takes place or even time in which it was written, readers will, more often than not, view the actions of the characters' as irrational and unbelievable. Even though I read both The Grapes and Wrath and The Great Gatsby weeks ago, reading Foster's advice enables me to draw even more meaning from those novels.

The Blind who Should be Leading the Really Blind

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In his novel, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster's idea that characters in literature are blind for reasons is not new nor is it suprising. Foster reminds his readers that "Tiresias is blind but sees the real story, and Oedipus is blind to the truth and eventually blinds himself" (Foster 203). As I read this statement, which I had to reread a few times, I realized Wilder employs the same blindness by one who can physically see in The Skin of Our Teeth. Though this blindness to the truth is more comedic and results in far less tragedy and death, Wilder's Mr. Antrobus is blind to the identity of Ms. Fairweather being the same as Sabina. He is, in essence, blinded by her beauty.

As usual, however, Foster is incapable of stopping with the obvious statement, and moves on to a little writing advice and crops up more and more in his novel as we near the end. He advises "if you want your audience to know something important about your character (of the work at large), introduce it early, before you need it" (Foster 205). This suprised me until I took time to consider it. If, for example, I was reading a novel and about half-way through the author sneaks in a little information that is unnecessary, I would immediately be suspicious. If, however, the information was presented in the beginning when the story is being set up, I would accept it as simply part of the story. This planning speaks, if nothing else, to the great works of art that literature can be. The authors don't make it up as they go along, but begin writing their convoluted stories with an idea and a plan.

Concealed Reality

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            Wilder offers his audiences a range of emotions in his comedic play The Skin of Our Teeth. The absolute outrageous and ridiculous aspects of the play add to its slapstick humor. The characters who are thousands of years old, the ice ages, wars, and extreme floods survived by the characters, and the dinosaurs and mammoths who are not only pets but able to communicate with the human characters in the play help create the absurdity prevalent throughout the play. Beneath the humor and incredible setting and characters lie messages of real humanity.

            The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus speak to the difficulties of marriage, the temptation of Sabina embodies a constant source of lust, and the touching relationship between Henry (Cain) and Gladys and their father Mr. Antrobus offers a realistic break from the twisted plot. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are constantly bickering over their children, their guests, and Sabina, and Mrs. Antrobus harbors a real fear of her husband, "Don't you know your father'd go crazy if he saw that..." (27). When faced with a real fear or even death itself, the family unit pulls together. It is Mrs. Antrobus that Mr. Antrobus calls for when they must board the boat during the hurricane, not Sabina, "My family? I have no family. Maggie! Maggie!" (87). In the end, it is the friendship and love of supposedly thousands of years that is strong enough to overcome lust and temptation. The source of this enticement stems from Sabina, also referred to as Ms. Fairweather whose affection for Mr. Antrobus runs hot and cold when she believes it is to her greatest advantage, when her relationship will bring fair weather. Interestingly, Mr. Antrobus cannot see the similarity between Sabina and Ms. Fairweather, but his wife can. "Hm! She looked like Sabina to me" (68). Mr. Antrobus is, in essence, blinded by Sabina/Ms. Fairweather's looks and charms. Despite this flaw, Mr. Antrobus is redeemed through his obviously affectionate relationship with his two children who, despite their faults, he cares deeply for. He is proud of their accomplishments in school, "You recited in assembly, did you? (She nods eagerly) You didn't forget it?" (48). His final, and most surprising quality, is his openness to caring for others who are less fortunate. He is described initially as being short tempered, but it is his idea to let the cold and hungry people on the street into their house for coffee "a whole pailful...And sandwiches, piles of them..." (36).

            Biblical allusions are also plentiful in Wilder's play. Henry's actual name is Cain, and it is suggested in their very beginning of the play that it was Henry/Cain who killed Abel, his brother. "...he can hit anything from a bird to an older brother - Oh! I didn't mean to say that! - but it certainly was an unfortunate accident..." (11). The flood in which all animals had to be put on the boat in two's was an obvious allusion to Noah and his arc. It is only Mr. Antrobus and his family who gets on the boat with the fortune teller warning the audience "You've had your chance. You've had your day. You've failed. You've lost...A new world to make" (92). The purpose, however, of these obvious biblical allusions is not as easily interpreted. Has anyone else found a purpose of these allusions?