Chris: February 2009 Archives

Prison Walls and Scrap Piles

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"The one-eyed man watched them go, and then he went through the iron shed to his shack behind.  It was dark inside.  He felt his way to the matress on the floor, and he stretched out and cried in his bed, and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness."

Steinbeck, chapter 16 page 181

Steinbeck presents an interesting character at the scrap yard that Al and Tom visit for Dodge parts.  The one-eyed yard tenant is virtually the only tenant still in business.  While he is working and at least has his necessities, he feels very sorry for himself as a result of his missing eye.  What I find interesting is the chance that Steinbeck might be speaking of the prisons within the world.  There are, of course, the penitentaries where convicts are locked away, but perhaps the worst prisons of all are not those forged of iron and sandstone, but those errected by the walls of loneliness and/or ignorance.

The worker has every chance to merely do something for himself, but he has chosen to lock himself away within the prison of solitude and self-pity.  His prison walls are those of being alone: he is with piles of scrap cars and the structure of a shanty for quarters.  Steinbeck could be trying to tell us that people in general, especially those who are depressed, or of the Depression, can be their own prison-wardens.  Take for instance the gas station manager from earlier in the novel: he chooses to sit around and let the bigger stations run him out of business instead of packing up what he still has and going to attempt and get a better start elsewhere.  Steinbeck is displaying a breed within the novel.

People can be their own worst enemies.  The fact of the matter is that Steinbeck sets up certain characters as either feeling self-pity and/stubborn ignorance.  It is a time in which people cannot afford to do such things.  Hence, I think that may be part of the reason why Steinbeck shows these people, basically as, I'm sorry to say it, failures.  They have locked their minds and bodies away in their own personal prison and will never feel the relief of parole as they deny themselves the chance.

Spirits Within

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"Joad dug at his rolled coat and found the pocket and brought out his pint...He unscrewed the cap and held out the bottle.  'Have a little snort?' Casy took the bottle and regarded it broodingly.  'I ain't preachin' no more much.  The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more.'"

Steinbeck, page 20

And so the preacher no longer has much spirit? It would seem as though he's taken an occassional liking to another vintage.  I'm not saying that he's an outright alcoholic, but it is interesting how Steinbeck plays with the words here.  Casy makes the claim that he is basically all preached out and that no one has much need for his services anymore.  Thus, he feels no remorse when he accepts the drink from Joad.

He may be lacking the Holy Spirit, but by golly, why not have a few gulps from the canteen? I found this little pun to be interesting.  Whether or not feels that the alcohol is merely the acceptance of a friendly gesture, or perhaps a means of putting some form of spirit back in to himself, it is amusing to see the scene play out within the novel.

The Never Ending Story

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"[T]here's only one story."

Foster, page 185

Within this interlude, Foster reapitualtes his ideas about the continuing story.  Life is cumulative of a vast variety of situations and circumsatnces, but then again, are there really that many? I get what he's saying.  When literature is wittled down, the struggles are one of several: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. machine.  How much does that emmulate within the real world and history? Wars, hurricanes, and flawed engineering are all ways that these problems are presented within life.

Literature is merely an element within life: a component.  Many tales have been told in new ways with new spins.  One example is Homer's "The Odyssey" (the tale in which the struggle to return home is embodied) was transformed into the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Allusions, symbolism, remakes, spin-offs and quoting are all means by which literature and its co-workers (film, plays, etc.) become capsulated within a cycle of never-ending recycling, reformatting and restating.  Life is much the same way: as long as man exists, he will have to face the same struggles that he has had to face since the dawn of time.

Money: Practical, Love: Impractical

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"Love! -what does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?"

Machinal (Mother), page 17

Money seems to make the world go round, doesn't it? Well of course it does! (according to mother)  The young woman (Helen) is in quite a bit of a dilemma: she is faced with marrying someone that she does not love and her mother is putting the idea of love down.  Why would her mother be so cold as to scorn love?

The obvious reason is stated right within the quote.  Love is not as practical as a means of currency.  Money is practical and can provide for the human necessities and desires.  Love, on the other hand, merely is an emotion that is too much of a commodity to worry about.  But why is that so? I have only read about half of the play thus far, but it is interesting to speculate about love.

Almost immediately following the above quote, the young woman asks her mother if she had loved her husband.  The mother is confused at this question.  Perhaps she never truly loved her husband, but had only married him in order to have a means of living.  Maybe it goes deeper than that.  What if she had experienced the pain of a broken heart, perhaps displaying love for her husband but not receiving any in return? Either way, she holds love as an impractical idea.  It cannot do the work of the world for her, and hence, the young woman must marry in order to survive.  Love is a commodity that is too expensive, too unpredictable, and too unreasonable to consider.

Whatever reason(s) or lack thereof that the mother had for shunning love, one thing is certain: the young woman is lost without some deeper connection. 

Following in His Footsteps, Not Making Them

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"But a Christ figure doesn't need to resemble Christ in every way; otherwise he wouldn't be a Christ figure, he'd be, well, Christ."

Foster, page 122

How true this is! It is possible to be like someone, but if you overlap in every way, chances are you're one of three things: identical twins, a really creepy, over-the-top wanna-be/stalker, or simply the same person.  With the case of Christ figures, it makes sense that the figures would only emulate various specified qualities and traits of Christ, because if the figure was exactly like Christ in every way, chances are, the character is Christ.

The interesting point that Foster makes about this pick and choose trait idea is that a Christ figure does not always have to be a particularly good person.  Less than stellar characters can possess the traits of Christ, as well.  Merely stating this shakes up the mind.  What?! A Christ figure that isn't a goody-two shoe! Perposterous!

Unfortunately,I am unable to think of a literary example off of the top of my head, so I will resort to a film reference.  I am guessing that I am one of the few that has seen the 1942 John Wayne movie "The Flying Tigers" about American P-40 fighter pilots who flew for China against Japan during WWII.  In the film, John's best friend is a hot-shot, big-mouth, ego-driven, show-off pilot who cares only for himself.  Yet in the end, he sacrifices his own life in order to stop a Japanese supply train from getting weapons to the soldiers.  Now I know that he doesn't fit all of the qualifications, but he does...give his own life for the safety of others, is about the age that Jesus was when he died, and face death without pleading or begging.  This man was a slightly despised character up until that point: the figure merely has to emulate some of the qualities....not be Christ.



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"[T]here's no such thing as a wholly original work of literature."

Foster, page 29

Originality is slipping away from mankind, so it would seem.  I just had a discussion with a friend yesterday about music originality: Rhiana basically using the entire song "Tainted Love" as a basis for her song "SOS", M.C. Hammer's "Can't Touch This" utilizing "She's a Super Freak", and Vanilla Ice's obvious plagarism of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" in "Ice, Ice, Baby" (which he was rightfully penalized for).  My apologies for the music rant, but what does this say? There is a desire to reuse, reformulate, and in a sense, recycle things of old and transform them into something "new".

Perhaps there is a desire to do so, but could it just be that we've already touched upon all of the major ideas.  I must agree with Foster with regards to the reusing of themes and ideas.  Archetypes and allusions fill our culture.  Music comes to a point where we have to go retro and remix older genres into new ideas.  The same happens with literature.  All of the basic plot ideas and scenarios are out there in the literary world (note that I say basic...there's always room for creativity).  Hence, it would seem that originality is only partially dead: the themes are reused, but the manners of conveying them are revealed anew to the world through contemporary settings and characters.  It is in this regards that originality is struggling....the themes will always be one of mankind's, the world's, or nature's struggles, but it is the delivery that should be at least a new facade.

Automobiles and People: Both Can Wreck

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"We saw the three or four automobiles and the crowd when we were still some distance away.  'Wreck!' said Tom.  'That's good.  Wilson'll have a little business, at last.'"

Chapter 7, pg 144 (in Penguin Popular Classics edition)

The above quotation blatantly refers to the scene of bustling bystanders surrounding Myrtle Wilson's death.  Tom Buchanan in his ignorance (innocent of the knowledge of the event, but equally subjective to his own arrogance) looks brightly upon the prospect of George having some work, that is until Tom discovers that the wreck is his own mistress.  This is one wreck that George cannot fix....even with the murder of Gatsby. 

The wreck is much more encompassing than a simple case of Gatsby's car plowing through Myrtle Wilson's body, thus depriving it of life.  There are multiple wrecks.  With the death of Myrtle, George seemingly loses what sanity he might have had, Tom's secret life with Myrtle is gone but its existence is about to come clear to George, Gatsby is indirectly doomed by Tom's self-defense, and of course, Gatsby's car is in need of a new fender.

 Fitzgerald displays how the wreck is a destructive force of epic proportions in multiple ways.  In a sense, he virtually removes the objects from the story and leaves the people.  The damage to the car is superfluous compared to the blows dealt to Myrtle, George, Tom, and Gatsby.  Perhaps they were all wrecks to begin with? This incident acted as the catalyst in order to expose them for what they really were.

Myrtle had no chance of being truly happy with an abusive lover and a dense husband.  George was on a collision course with reality from the start: the fact that he was walked all over only packed the pressure tighter and permitted a greater explosion.  Tom is a brute and would never truly understand how to fit in with society and not be a complete hypocrit.  Poor Gatsby was doomed to disappointment when he first set out on trying to win Daisy over through his money.

So as you can see, both automobiles and people can wreck.  Some simply wreck with greater force and degree.

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