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February 2009 Archives

February 5, 2009

The Death of the Dream

"'Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.'"
--page 130, The Great Gatsby

I picked this quote because it's wonderfully ironic; Tom seems so hilariously hypocritical here. After all, he's been having an affair with Myrtle, and now he's trying to cling onto this concept of "family institutions" and brings up interracial marriages as if it has any bearing on the subject. Perhaps these "family institutions" don't hold up in light of Tom's affair, but as I read on I realized how much Tom actually believes what he says. By the end of chapter 7, he and Daisy are really behaving like a relatively healthy married couple--with an air of "natural intimacy" (145). It's Gatsby's idealistic view that he and Daisy should be together that hasn't held up; when push comes to shove, Daisy goes to Tom for comfort and not Gatsby. Tom's affair with Myrtle seems comparatively insignificant in light of this; he couldn't even stand to hear Myrtle say Daisy's name. It seems that up until now, Nick has been portraying Tom and Daisy's marriage as so desperately unhappy that we root for Daisy to leave Tom. Then Fitzgerald completely subverts our expectations in depicting Daisy as unwilling to be with the man who seems to be the perfect knight in shining armor to rescue her from this awful situation. I've often heard it said that this book is about the death of idealism, particularly the idealism associated with the American dream. This quote particularly points to the state of the nation at the time and the imperfect lives people actually lead. People don't just uproot their lives to go and pursue their dream; they stay stuck where they are out of fear or the need to be comfortable. In such a world, it does seem impossible that interracial marriage could happen. Nick too feels this sense of impending death as he turns 30--starting what he seems to believe will be "a decade of loneliness" (135). This could be lonely because he's doesn't have faith that he will be able to find a meaningful relationship with a woman given his track record, or because he's a gay man in the 1920's, or any other number of reasons. But the world Fitzgerald paints certainly seems to not be hopeful for anyone, in which no one really lives up to the romantic ideals to which they aspire.

The Rules That Aren't Rules

"Carter employs not only materials from earlier texts but also her knowledge of our responses to them in order to double-cross us, to set us up for a certain kind of thinking so that she can play larger trick in the narrative."
page 35, How to Read Literature Like a Professor

I think it's important to know how all these techniques are being used, and this is a prime example of an author using intertextuality to accomplish a real goal. It's all well and good to understand that authors often reference other works, but if it doesn't really seem to accomplish much of anything in terms of the storytelling I don't think there's much of a point. No literature has real rules, and if it did, it would be pretty boring to read, in my opinion. Any work of art is interesting to me in the way that it consciously breaks the rules. That's why when Carter introduces a character as an Ophelia, but then turns her into a Hero, it makes the audience pay attention. Had she stayed consistent with the reader's expectations, it would have made for a static and uninteresting read. Going against expectations and breaking rules is what really involves a reader. There are no real rules, but you still have to have rules, because if you didn't have rules, you would never know when they were being broken, and you would never understand the significance of them. That was a very long run-on sentence, but I had to break the conventional rules of grammar to make you understand my point about breaking the rules. Well, maybe I didn't have to, but if I were a really good author I would have used that sentence to subvert your expectations and make you think. And that to me is what makes reading a good work of literature worthwhile. To see how the writer will use conventions and then turn them against you. All good writers should be punks; they should buck the system, but still use the system while bucking it. So, it's more like, destroying the system from the inside. Or something like that.

February 12, 2009

The Machine Doesn't Stop

"FIRST REPORTER. Suppose the machine shouldn't work!
SECOND REPORTER. It'll work! - It always works!"
--Machinal, page 82

I chose this exchange between the two reporters in the last moments of the play because it highlights the key motif of machines that's present throughout the play. Every significant moment of Helen's life is punctuated by machines. Her job is dominated by typewriters and adding machines. Her mother finds comforting in listening not to live music, but a radio. Her husband jokingly pulls out a watch and counts out seconds until she finishes getting dressed. Even when her child is born, the sound of riveting can be heard outside the hospital window. The most genuinely excited anyone in this machine-driven world seems to be is when Mother sees that the garbage man has come to collect the garbage. Her "dull voice brighten[s]" when she hears his voice. It's like it's the only sense of control she has over her life--that she can keep things neat and organized by getting rid of garbage. The only scene that's absolutely devoid of machines is Episode Six, in which Helen and the Man share intimate bonding time--the only scene in which Helen really seems to be making decisions for herself.
All this machinery is a really wonderful way to express how little control Helen has over her life. Because this play is pretty expressionistic, we focus on how Helen experiences the world, and her world is very much something that dictates and pounds her into submission. Women of this time certainly did not have the same variety of options as men did; they could work at secretarial jobs or find a husband and have children. Simple, mechanical slots that keep you moving from one stage of life to another, like an assembly line. That's why I think one of the original titles for this play, The Life Machine, is particularly appropriate--everything, from home life to having a baby to death, is mechanized, all of the parts neatly fitting together. Helen is a faulty cog in this machine because she wants something more than just a sturdy mechanical station in life; she actually wants to be happy. Her attempt to escape from her mechanized world causes the system to destroy her.

Let's Get Political

"Writing that engages the realities of its world--that thinks about human problems, including those in the social and political realm, that addresses the rights of persons and the wrongs of those in power--can be not only interesting but hugely compelling."
How to Read Literature Like a Professor

I chose this sentence to focus on because it and the chapter it is a part of particularly relates to Machinal, I think. Maybe it's because it is written to be a direct expression of how one marginalized person views the world, but I feel that this play is pretty darn political. The world order of the 1920's was pretty much ruled by men, and this play challenges the quality of this world by portraying it as a cold unfeeling machine that leaves no room for women to find their own individuality and personal happiness. Even the courtroom proceedings appear to be faulty in their judgment of Helen without considering her unhappiness and inability to understand why she couldn't divorce her husband--they laugh when she says she didn't want to hurt him. Everything is presented very much from one person's point of view, so your sympathy resides with that person and not with the society that condemns her. Had the play been more objective in its storytelling and attempted to realistically portray the world in which Helen functions, she may have come off as an unstable insane person who has illogical ways of dealing with the world. However, because we are allowed to see her inner life and the way she perceives the world, we are able to see how ill-equipped this world is to contain someone who doesn't fit into the preconceived machinelike patterns it imposes on people. While objectivity can help provide a complex view of things and help you consider issues from all sides, the more subjective a work of art is, the more potential for inciting political debate it may have. If you portray things from a very singular viewpoint, more people will be likely to disagree with you, and that's where you can get really passionate reactions. And that, to me, is what's really fun about great art.

February 19, 2009

To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn

"When Shakespeare compares his beloved to a summer's day, we know instinctively, even before he catalogs her advantages, that this is way more flattering than being compared to, say, January eleventh."
--How to Read Literature Like a Professor, page 183

I entirely agree with this quote, and yet my argumentative side is getting restless so I need to let him out. While summer is usually a very pleasant season, there are often quite unpleasant things about it. Summers can be full of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and sweltering heat. Winters can quite unpleasant, but they can also be full of cozy afternoons sitting by a fire, sipping hot chocolate. And lest we forget that the very romantic holiday of Valentine's Day is in winter. Most people do automatically associate summer with good and winter with bad, but is this purely out of our experience with those seasons or has it been somewhat conditioned by years of literature helping to create these associations for us? After all, back in Shakespeare's time, they didn't have furnaces, so winter must have really really been unpleasant. (They also didn't have air conditioning, so summers must not have been so great either, so I don't know what they had to look forward to.) Anyway, my point is that we experience winter in a much different way than a lot of the most influential contributors to English literature did. So maybe our association of summer with good and winter with bad is partially due to hearing poems like "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" over and over again. I don't know. Of course, the fact that we don't have school in the summer is another contributing factor. But still, I think geography and time period are important when considering the implications of seasons; do they tend to have mild winters and harsh summers, or vice versa? How much technology did they have to shield themselves from the elements? I think this also applies to the chapter about geography because you really have to ask where the writer lives and how they might have viewed the north or the south, but I believe I already blogged about that the last time I read this book, so I'll let it pass.

Give me that old-time religion

"Granma, not following the conversation, bleated, 'Pu-raise Gawd fur vittory.'"
--The Grapes of Wrath, page 79
I chose this quote for two reasons: first, because I think Granma and Grampa are hilarious, and second, because religion is depicted very uniquely in the story so far. Granma seems to be devout because she constantly invokes God and wants a grace to be said at the table, but her religiousness does not appear to be extremely sincere; she repeats "Pu-raise Gawd fur vittory" over and over again, even in situations where it is not appropriate such as in the passage I've pointed out. They treat Jim Casy like a profound holy man, although he's given up the preaching game. He too appears to have been going through the motions, preaching about Christian values and then fornicating with the local church girls immediately afterward. He mentions that he never really felt sincere when praying for forgiveness. Granma, while certainly enthusiastic, does not really seem to be religious out of a deep need for spiritual enlightenment but more out of habit; look at that awkward scene in which Casy attempts to say grace, and Granma, not noticing that he's talking about experiencing doubts and going through a spiritual crisis, exclaims "Hallelujah" and rocks herself, "trying to catch hold of an ecstasy" (81). It's interesting to note that Granma often "bleats" these things, like a sheep following the shepherd Jesus referred to himself as. Like a mindless sheep, she follows the shepherd no matter where he leads.
All of the people in this novel appear to be going through an intense amount of social and economic upheaval. In losing their homes and having to uproot themselves to the other side of the country, it makes sense that the characters would struggle with or at least reevaluate their faith. However, Casy's concept of humans and nature being "one thing" that is holy may be a form of faith that the characters will find a more genuine connection with. Steinbeck, in bringing the family together and sending them on a journey (or, as Foster would call it, a quest), certainly seems to be stressing that groups of people, rather than the lone Muley who is losing his grip on sanity, are more likely to survive. Maybe Granma's "herd" mentality will win out in the end. Will this togetherness help them succeed? We shall see...

February 27, 2009

Another one bites the dust

"'They was too old,' he said. 'They wouldn't of saw nothin' that's here. Grampa would a been a-seein' the Injuns an' the prairie country when he was a young fella. An' Granma would a remembered an' seen the first home she lived in. They was too ol'. Who's really seein' it is Ruthie an' Winfiel'.'"
--The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 18, page 230

Chapter 18 was a pretty dramatic chapter; it is roughly halfway through the book and seems to be a major turning point. Both Noah and Granma depart from the family in their own ways. Noah disappears down the river and decides to start a new life. The implications of his name, which associate him with another figure who tried to start life anew amidst water, are pretty interesting. It's like the family is starting to become a sinking ship underneath a whole flood of difficulties. Noah is different from the others because he's slow, or maybe because he's touched by God? Either way, he has a different outlook on things which permits him to strike out on his own and live independently. We could look at Noah as being the poor unhappy one and the rest of the family as being more fortunate for being together, but togetherness is starting to appear overrated. Both Sairy and Granma are sick and holding their families behind. Even though Noah may not have that great of a chance at survival, he still does not have to deal with policemen trying to break up settlements of families by the side of the road. However, Granma's death almost helps the family--when the policemen see Granma's face, they let the family pass without trouble. While Ma is intent on keeping the family together, the family can't help but fall apart and is almost better off in doing so. Steinbeck creates impossible conditions for these characters that are much easier to survive as an individual than as a family. No wonder people look at these "Okies" as subhuman--they are forced to let go of cleanliness and a sense of home and a family just to survive. As the novel progresses, I anticipate the tension between being a family and being an individual will only become greater, and it will become much more difficult to resolve.

February 28, 2009

Some Musings about the Social Conditions of the First Half of the Twentieth Century

This is a blog portfolio for a class entitled American Literature from 1915-Present. We have been reading American works of literature and blogging our responses to them, and this is a collection of the blogs I have posted so far in the semester. It's been interesting to examine the way society has changed through the lens of literature.

These blogs about season and politics in literature as discussed in How to Read Literature Like a Professor demonstrate my ability to locate a quote from the reading and discuss it.

These blogs on "After Apple Picking" and "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost were posted on time.

These blogs on The Great Gatsby, Machinal, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor generated some discussion among fellow students.

My blogs on The Great Gatsby, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and The Grapes of Wrath all demonstrate some of my blogging that wrestled with the readings in a deeper way than in some of my other blogs.

My comments on the blogs of Nathan Hart, Aja Hannah, and Carlos Peredo all demonstrate some interesting discussions I had on classmates' blogs.

About February 2009

This page contains all entries posted to MatthewHenderson in February 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2009 is the previous archive.

March 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.