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ENG 211 Study questions and commentary
Terms in this set (19)
"One Good Story, That One"
Who is telling the story?
To whom is he telling it?
What is the story "about"?
What "story" would the narrator prefer to tell?
The "good story" in fact comprises a "story-within-a story": the Native narrator recalls how he recounted a "creation myth" for a non-Native audience, although he would much rather have told a contemporary tale, describing events which had just happened, which interest him more, and to which he cannot help returning. His preference for contemporary stories may also reflect Thomas King's preference in story-telling:
Rather than try to unravel the complex relationship between the nineteenth-century Indian and the white mind, or to craft a new set of images that still reflects the time but avoids the flat, static depiction of the Native and the two-dimensional quality of the culture, most of us (Native authors) have consciously set our literature in the present, a period that is reasonably free of literary monoliths and which allows for greater latitude in the creation of characters and situations, and, more important, allows us the opportunity to create for ourselves and our respective cultures both a present and a future. (King xii)
The first word, "alright," suggests that the narrator is ready to begin, that his audience should pay attention, but there is also the suggestion that the story is being made up as he goes: like any oral story, it is improvisational. There is also some doubt as to which story he is referring when he tells of its "origins"— the story which comprises the frame (the visit of anthropologists), or the story which he tells them. The "origins" of the story are not so distant in time, after all, since "Yellowknife" is a relatively recent White government town. He then sets the stage for the first telling of the story—the occasion being a visit by White anthropologists, on an earnest fact-finding mission. They are identified only according to their skin colour, in a kind of reversal of the stereotyping to which Natives have been subjected by Whites, and the implication is that they are rather uninteresting because not sufficiently exotic, even though one might look like "Little Joe"—an allusion to the youngest son, played by Michael Landon, in the 1960s American television series, Bonanza. The narrator sees his audience in terms of popular culture images, just as Natives have been viewed by Whites. The narrator's speech also parodies a kind of "pidgin English" typically ascribed by non-Native authors to Native speakers. There is a tone of disingenuous simplicity to this story—the misspelling of the English name for the river, for example—"Saint Merry" instead of "Saint Mary," suggesting that "saints" mean nothing to the narrator, whereas the Native names for the river do mean something. He and his friend also share a joke in their own language about the immobility of the audience, the inflexibility of the White men, whereas the Native way is to move things around, like "Ka-sin-ta," the river. This is what the narrator proceeds to do with his "story"—moving things around, integrating Judeo-Christian images and names into what his audience believes is a Native myth: he in effect tells them back their own story of Adam and Eve.
It begins, like most folk tales, with "once upon a time," as if he were addressing a group of children. He then comments briefly on the literal significance of this cliché, suggesting that it reflects a White preoccupation with time, even though there is no specific time frame for a creation myth. The myth itself, as the narrator suggests, is absurd: but ironically, it also reflects the acquisitive, materialistic nature of White society, and so in a sense is a "true" story. The naming of the animals parodies the Bible's proclivity for lists and naming, although the narrator substitutes names in a Native language (which Thomas King has refused to identify or translate, since that would spoil the point of the joke). He also parodies the names of Adam and Eve: "Adam" is pronounced like an imprecation—"ah-damn," whereas the archaic word for the early nighttime—"Eve"—is changed to the more colloquial word, "Evening." The narrator is more sympathetic to Evening, since she is willing to share, like an Indian, whereas Ah-damn and "god" are authoritative and judgemental, like White men. Nor does "sin" in the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden figure very big in this version of the story. The values in the Judeo-Christian myth are again called into question.
The response of the anthropologists is one of embarrassment and they beat a hasty retreat: they may have perceived they were being gulled. The narrator offers no comment to his friend when they leave, but the coyote tracks on the floor suggest that the trickster has been present all along; perhaps the narrator is himself a trickster figure—telling yet another "Coyote" story. As Margaret Atwood points out, this is a story about an Indian who refuses to comply with the expectations and assumptions of White men: he "withholds his authentic 'Indian' tales and hilariously subvert[s] a central and sacrosanct 'white' story" (250).
The title, then, is ironic, humorous, and ambiguous. To which "story" is it referring? Is there a suggestion that this "good story" is a good joke on the audience?—or that through its retelling of another myth is it reflecting contemporary values?
"A Rose for Emily"
How does Faulkner organize the story's plot?
What conflicts does Faulkner introduce?
Who is the narrator?
What does this narrative perspective contribute to the story?
What is the function of the Miss Emily's father in the story?
What kind of relationship exists between Miss Emily and the townspeople?
What symbols does Faulkner use in the story?
What is the significance of the title?
"A Rose for Emily" is William Faulkner's most anthologized story. Previously dismissed by critics such as Lionel Trilling as a trivial, gothic story of madness and necrophilia, "A Rose for Emily" has been reappraised numerous times with attention to the carefully crafted plot structure and the narrative perspective.
The story is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Often readers have difficulty putting the events of the story into sequence, because the story begins with the death of Miss Emily and then moves backwards and forwards in time. Several critics have dated the events of the story, and while there is disagreement amongst them, they date Miss Emily's birth somewhere between 1850 and 1864, and her death between 1924 and 1938 (Moore 195). It is not necessary to fix the chronological dates, however, to understand Faulkner's story, but it is important to consider the temporal setting, or historical context, of the story. The first three paragraphs of the story introduce the reader to that context. Miss Emily is described as old-fashioned in these first paragraphs: she is a "fallen monument," "a tradition, a duty and a care"(143). Miss Emily's house is also described in detail, and although it remains standing, it has lost its grandeur and it is now surrounded by industrialization: "cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps" (143). A fallen monument in its own right, Miss Emily's house is now "an eyesore among eyesores" (143). In the third paragraph some of the town's attitudes are revealed—about Miss Emily, and about class, gender and race. Colonel Sartoris, the mayor of Jefferson in 1894, paternalistically remits Miss Emily's taxes (because of her "august" name, and in a way that "only a woman could have believed" ), and "father[s] the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron" (143). The movement in the first three paragraphs, then, is from specific to general, from Miss Emily to her house to the town.
Paragraph 4 introduces "the next generation," and thereby introduces one of the conflicts of the story: the old generation (represented by Miss Emily, Colonel Sartoris, Judge Stevens, Tobe) versus the new generation (represented by the new mayors and aldermen, and later by Homer Barron). Miss Emily clearly represents a past generation: "(Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.)" (144), and comes into conflict with a present, or new, generation interested in progress and industrialization. Other conflicts are also represented in these expository paragraphs: Miss Emily versus the townspeople, individual versus community, men versus women, gentility versus working class.
The story is divided into five parts, and in each part of the story more is revealed about the townspeople and their attitudes towards Miss Emily, and in each part one memory randomly triggers another, which accounts for the discontinuous temporal flow. In the second part of the story, for example, the narrative flashes back thirty years. The chronology is further disrupted in each section of the story, as the narrative shifts, seemingly randomly, from past to present to past. These shifts in time develop the conflicts set up in the exposition of Part I.
These "random" movements in time suggest that the narrator is an objective observer, but a closer look reveals that the narrator is actually very subjective and manipulates the story, "a kind of mystery story whose plot turns on the discovery of the corpse of Homer Barron" and the suggestion of necrophilia (Sullivan 162). For example, the narrator pays careful attention to the length and colour of Miss Emily's hair. After the death of her father, Miss Emily's hair is cut short; several years later "her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray" (148). The importance of this description is revealed in the final words of the story, when on the pillow next to Homer Barron's decayed body is found a "long strand of iron-gray hair" (150). The narrator also attempts to conceal Miss Emily's murder of Homer Barron by introducing the smell, which we later understand to be the decaying of Homer's body, before Homer himself enters the story.
The organization of the story's details suggests an objectivity that is underscored by the story's unusual narrative point of view: a first person plural, indicated by the use of the pronoun "we" throughout the story. The narrator appears not to interpret, to comment on, or to explain the details of the story, but simply to recount them. The narrator also identifies with both the men and women of the town, and the old and the new generations—the narrator becomes a representative spokesperson for the townspeople. However, like the expository paragraphs that open the story, the narrative organization and perspective reveal a great deal about the narrator's and the townspeople's attitudes.
Miss Emily's relationship with the townspeople is an ambivalent one. They simultaneously resent her, revere her, pity her, and respect her. She is a "high and mighty" Grierson (145), who is humanized when the death of her father leaves her "a pauper" (146). She is in constant conflict with the townspeople, refusing to pay her taxes, refusing to accept condolences when her father dies, and refusing to explain why she buys arsenic, despite the townspeople's attempts to control her. Any affection they feel for her is driven by curiosity. When Miss Emily withdraws and becomes isolated the townspeople's curiosity intensifies; when Miss Emily is outgoing the townspeople become withdrawn—"we sat back to watch the developments" (148). Both the narrative perspective and the relationship between Miss Emily and the townspeople develop the conflict between individual and community.
Miss Emily refuses to accept the passage of time, and "A Rose for Emily" is the story of what happens to someone who denies that passage of time. She is locked in the past, by her own actions, by her father's actions, and by the townspeople's attitudes towards her. She refuses to accept the death of Colonel Sartoris (144), the death of her father (146), and the death of Homer Barron. Her father refuses to allow her suitors, and his domination over her is depicted in the following description:
None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching the horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. (145)
Miss Emily's father's domination is further represented in the symbolic crayon portrait of him first seen in her house (144) and later seen above her bier (149). The townspeople are equally unwilling to allow Miss Emily independence. When she and Homer Barron are seen courting publicly the townspeople believed "even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige." (146)
At Miss Emily's funeral, the confusion of time is very apparent:
the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years. (149)
Time functions as both structure and theme in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," but there are other elements of the story that contribute to the themes, including characterization and symbols.
Miss Emily's house is a central symbol in the story. Miss Emily clearly represents the last of the old generation, and the description of her (in paragraph 6) describes a woman as decaying and stubborn as her house. Miss Emily's house is also symbolic of Miss Emily, and Miss Emily is closely connected to her house by all of the townspeople; when the smell develops in Part 2 of the story, Judge Stevens explicitly conflates the two: " 'Dammit sir," Judge Stevens said, "will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?' " (145). Of course, it is not Miss Emily who smells bad, but her house. Miss Emily's house remains a mystery to the townspeople, very few enter it, and Miss Emily herself remains a puzzle to the townspeople. They can only ever speculate about what she will or will not do. For example, when Homer Barron and Miss Emily are courting the townspeople speculate: "She will kill herself," "She will marry him," "She will persuade him yet" (147). It is not until Miss Emily's death that the townspeople freely enter the house, and then come to understand something of Miss Emily's life and feelings.
Miss Emily herself is also a symbol in the story. She symbolizes the decaying Old South after the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the ambivalence expressed towards her may be interpreted as Faulkner's own ambivalence towards the antebellum South. Miss Emily's relationship with Homer Barron is equally symbolic in these terms. Homer—a Yankee, a Northerner, a labourer—comes to Jefferson to build roads, thereby representing progress and the future.
The title of "A Rose for Emily" is also symbolic. Although roses do not appear in the story, the room in which Homer Barron's body is found is "furnished as for a bridal . . . the valance curtains of faded rose color, . . . rose-shaded lights" (149), suggesting Miss Emily's love for Homer. A more grotesque interpretation of this final scene is that Homer is the rose—preserved by Miss Emily, who is determined to hold on to her first and only love at any cost. Faulkner himself has described the story this way:
Here was a woman who had had a great tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute, just as if you were to make a gesture, a salute to anyone; to a woman you would hand a rose . . . . (Jeliffe 71)
What is the relationship between Vanessa and Piquette, and how does this relationship change?
How are the Metis represented in the story?
What do the loons symbolize?
What does Vanessa mean by the last sentence of the story?
How does Laurence connect the personal with the political in "The Loons"?
How does Laurence control the narrative perspective in "The Loons?"
Like Faulkner's story, "The Loons" is narrated in the first person, but Laurence's narrator is also the protagonist of her story, who recounts the events of one "peculiar" summer when she is eleven. This summer brings Vanessa MacLeod into direct contact with Piquette Tonnerre, someone who exists for Vanessa on the periphery: "She dwelt and moved somewhere within my scope of vision, but I did not actually notice her very much" (188). Piquette comes into focus for Vanessa when her father, Manawaka's doctor, invites Piquette to spend the summer with the MacLeod family at Diamond Lake. After that summer Vanessa's feelings towards Piquette change from discomfort to curiosity to embarrassment.
Piquette's presence at the Diamond Lake cottage raises several stereotypical responses to the Metis, all of which are disparaging and damaging. Grandmother MacLeod's extreme prejudice causes her to reject Piquette outright: "if that half-breed youngster comes along to Diamond Lake, I'm not going" (188); Vanessa's mother is willing to accommodate Piquette despite reservations about her cleanliness and influence on the MacLeod children, but this is self-serving—allowing Beth MacLeod to escape from her mother-in-law. Vanessa becomes actively interested in Piquette when she realizes that Piquette is "actually Indian, or as near as made no difference" (189), and romanticizes her into a "junior prophetess of the wilds, who might impart . . . some of the secrets she undoubtedly knew—where the whippoorwill made her nest, how the coyote reared her young, or whatever it was that it said in Hiawatha" (190). Vanessa's images of Natives are drawn solely from literature, and these representations are only superficially positive. When Piquette doesn't reveal nature's secrets, Vanessa concludes "as an Indian, Piquette was a dead loss" (191). The sad irony of this statement becomes apparent at the end of the story. Vanessa's father, as Piquette herself acknowledges, is the only character who displays any real sympathy for her, and she tells Vanessa that "Your dad was the only person in Manawaka that ever did anything good for me" (192).
Vanessa's father's sympathy for Piquette is closely associated with his understanding of the story's central symbol: the loons. Vanessa's father draws her attention to the loons and predicts their fate: "My dad says we should listen and try to remember how they sound, because in a few more years when more cottages are built at Diamond Lake and more people come in, the loons will go away" (190-91). Years later when Vanessa visits the lake, after the deaths of her father and Piquette, she realizes that the loons are no longer there. The loons become associated with death and loss, and while symbolic of Piquette, they are also an allegory of Canadian history.
It is the sound of the loons that is first described by Vanessa—"that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home" (191). Once the cottages at Diamond Lake encroach on the loons' territory—when Diamond Lake has been renamed Lake Wapakata, the small pier has been replaced with a government-built pier, and Galloping Mountain has become a national park—the loons disappear. "Perhaps they had gone away to some far place of belonging. Perhaps they had been unable to find such a place" (194).
Like the loons, Piquette and the Tonnerres are unable to find a place of belonging. They speak neither Cree nor French, but broken English; "they did not belong among the Cree of the Galloping Mountain reservation, further north, and they did not belong among the Scots-Irish and Ukrainians of Manawaka, either" (187). Their home exists on the edge of the Manawaka, and was meant to be temporary, Jules Tonnerre arriving "the year that Riel was hung and the voices of the Metis entered their long silence" (187). The sounds and the silence of the loons are echoed in the sounds and the silence of the Metis. When Vanessa encounters Piquette as a young woman, she recognizes in Piquette what she hears in the loons' cries—"self-pity" (192) and "terrifying hope" (193); when Vanessa learns of Piquette's death soon after, she responds with silence. Vanessa's personal loss—of her father and of Piquette—is connected through the symbol of the loons with the Metis' loss of their land and their culture. Vanessa's realization at the end of the story, that only Piquette "had heard the crying of the loons" (194), signals the loss of her political innocence. Vanessa faces the reality of Canadian history at a direct personal level.
The narrative voice in "The Loons" is carefully controlled; Vanessa recounts her experiences as a twelve year old girl, but at the same time reflects as an adult on the significance of the events. Presenting two points of view simultaneously allows the reader to see what Vanessa sees, but also to understand what Vanessa does not. This creates a tension between innocence and maturity that is also evident in James Joyce's story "Araby."
What do the first three paragraphs tell us about the setting of the story?
How old is the narrator of "Araby"?
How is Mangan's sister described in the story?
Why does the narrator go to the bazaar?
Why is Mangan's sister not named?
What does the narrator realize at the bazaar?
What is the significance of the religious imagery in the story?
The first three paragraphs of "Araby" introduce the physical setting of the story—North Richmond Street—but also establish the mood of the story. The residents of North Richmond Street are Catholic and working-class. The street is twice called "blind," emphasizing the literal limits of the street and the figurative limitations of the city. The mood is further established with the descriptions of brown and sombre houses, musty air and dark streets, yellowing pages and straggling bushes, dark muddy lanes and dark dripping gardens, ashpits and odorous stables, and the interplay of light and dark imagery, all of which suggest economic and spiritual poverty. "Araby" is the story of a young romantic boy who lives in this unromantic environment, and the motif of blindness and sight permeates his character development.
The narrator, who isn't named, behaves like a young boy experiencing his first love. He lies on the front room floor to watch Mangan's sister from the window, follows her to school, and is tongue-tied when she speaks to him. And yet, he describes his infatuation in language that belies this immaturity: "What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts" (130), and that suggests his sensual desire for her: "The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat. . ." (130). When she finally speaks to the narrator, he is overwhelmed by her attention, and barely able to speak. This immature infatuation with Mangan's sister causes the narrator to foolishly promise to bring her something back from the bazaar.
As the story progresses, and the narrator's love for Mangan's sister deepens, he becomes increasingly isolated. Once part of the boys freed from the Christian Brothers' School who play and hide in the shadows of North Richmond Street, the narrator now finds consolation in his isolation in the top floors of the house. This isolation intensifies as he travels alone on the train to the bazaar—"a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but . . . I remained alone in the bare carriage" (131), and culminates in his discouraging encounter with the young woman at the bazaar, who is engaged in a flirtatious conversation with two young men. The narrator ends the story alone and in darkness.
The contrast between reality and the idealized is resolved at the bazaar. The magical name of the bazaar—Araby—awakens fantastic images in the boy's mind, casts "an Eastern enchantment" (130), and provides an escape from the harsh realities of his life. The boy's uncle accentuates this theme on the evening of the bazaar, when he returns home late and visibly drunk, and is left singing "Arab's Farewell to his Steed." Both the boy and his uncle seek escape from the realities of their Dublin lives. The story ends with the boy's epiphany. Ironically, it is in the darkness of the closing bazaar that reality pervades and insight comes to the narrator: the bazaar holds no enchantment; his relationship with Mangan's sister holds no love. The narrator's understanding that his love for Mangan's sister has been in vain is further underscored by the fact that Mangan's sister is not named.
Joyce's style in "Araby" is distinctive. The Catholicism that pervades the community also pervades the narrative. The boy relays the story of his love for Mangan's sister in religious language and imagery. She appears to him in a halo of light; "her name sprang to [his] lips at moments in strange prayers" (129); it is a convent retreat that prohibits her attending Araby; the closing bazaar is like a "church after a service" (131). For the boy, sensual desire and religious adoration are conflated in his idealization of Mangan's sister, in whom he confuses secular desire and sacred faith. The negative imagery of the closing bazaar indicates that it is the repression of the church that dominates; the boy's world is "hostile to romance" (129). For example, the "two men . . . counting money on a salver" (131) is a biblical allusion to the moneylenders in the temple in Matthew 21:12-13.
As with Laurence's story, the narrative is carefully controlled. Joyce utilizes three "moods" of narrator: "the simple naďf, a poetic romantic, and a harsh adult censor" (Morrissey 48). This allows the reader to experience the headiness of first love as well as the anguish of his initiation into adulthood along with the boy, while simultaneously recognizing the retrospective mature voice. The boy's voice and the adult voice remembering childhood experience converge in the closing sentence of the story, where the boy's epiphany contains the story's climax, falling action and resolution; and the boy's loss of romance and innocence.
How would you describe Bertha's character? Is she a static or dynamic character?
How would you describe Bertha's relationships with her daughter, her husband, and her friends?
What does Bertha discover at her dinner party?
Is Bertha a reliable narrator?
What themes does Mansfield develop in the story?
What imagery does Mansfield use to develop these themes?
What does the pear tree symbolize?
The protagonist in "Bliss" is Bertha Young, whose immaturity is signaled by her name. Although Bertha is 30, married, and a mother, her behaviour in the opening paragraphs of the story is youthful and exuberant. It also seems, early in the story, that Bertha has superficial concerns and relationships. For example, her preoccupation on this day is a dinner party, the preparations for which include matching the fruit to the carpet, and her interaction with her daughter seems very detached—"'You're nice—you're very nice!" she said, kissing her warm baby. "I'm fond of you. I like you'" (135).
It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that, despite her claims to be overcome with bliss, Bertha is not satisfied with her life. As she considers the details of her life, she rationalizes her happiness by acknowledging that she has "everything," but the sentence structure of this paragraph suggests that she is at best convincing herself of her happiness, and at worst deceiving herself. Her earlier comment: "No, no. I'm getting hysterical" (134) causes the reader to wonder of she is not hysterical already, because she is unable to express her feelings and because she recognizes the speciousness of her marriage. Her closest relationships exemplify the lack of real communication in her life: "she loved Little B so much. . . . She didn't know how to express it" (135), and her concomitant desire for that communication. When her husband calls to say he will be late to dinner, "She only wanted to get in touch with him for a minute" (135).
Bertha's relationships with her dinner guests also prove to be shallow. The Norman Knights, flat characters who are indistinguishable (their nicknames are Face and Mug), and the fatuous poet Eddie Warren are satirized by Mansfield for their pretentious superficiality. They make "a decorative group" (139), but they do not share Bertha's bliss. Miss Fulton, however, does. Bertha is in love with Miss Fulton, as she always was in love "with beautiful women who had something strange about them" (135), and Bertha experiences the connection and communication she craves with Pearl. Bertha and Pearl share the bliss of the evening: Bertha is able to guess "Miss Fulton's mood so exactly and so instantly" (139), Miss Fulton gives Bertha "a sign" of their shared bliss, and they share perfect understanding as they stand together gazing at the pear tree. Or do they?
During the evening, surrounded by her modern friends and Miss Fulton, Bertha reaches maturity—she physically desires her husband. There is a great deal of irony in this, because Miss Fulton is the catalyst of Bertha's desire. It is through her desire for Miss Fulton that Bertha comes to desire her husband: "What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing—blazing the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?" (138).
Although the story is narrated in the third person, it is a limited omniscient third person and the reader has access only to Bertha's thoughts and feelings over the course of the evening. The result is a very subjective and unreliable point of view. Bertha's perspicacity proves to be wholly flawed, as she misconstrues her mood, misunderstands Miss Fulton, and is betrayed by her husband. Her discovery of Miss Fulton and Harry at the door throws into question all of her insights of the evening, and confirms the reader's suspicions. What Bertha and Miss Fulton actually share is Bertha's husband. Pearl's mysteriousness, Harry's late arrival followed so closely by Pearl's arrival, Harry's rudeness towards Miss Fulton, all take on new meaning after this discovery. Like the young boy in Joyce's "Araby," Bertha experiences an epiphany, but for Bertha the epiphany doesn't lead to any resolution.
A number of themes develop in this story, the most obvious being the cliché that ignorance is bliss. But a more complex theme is found in Bertha's realization that her marriage is a sham, that her domestic bliss is a fallacy. For Bertha, the realm of domesticity provides both delight and security, but also proves to be disturbing, offering confinement and exclusion. Ultimately, Bertha is excluded from meaningful relationships with both her husband and Pearl by the discovery of their affair. Furthermore, Bertha's life is circumscribed by her marriage—you will remember that she lamented at the outset of the story "How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it in a case like a rare, rare fiddle" (133). What she will do with these realizations is unresolved. Where Bertha's desires lie, with her husband or with Pearl, is also not resolved.
All of these themes are developed carefully throughout the story, through Mansfield's meticulous attention to ostensibly trivial details. Mansfield uses the female, or yonic, symbols of fruit, flowers, and the moon to infuse this story with sensuality. Visual and tactile images dominate the story, for example, the "tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink . . . white grapes covered with a silver bloom," (134), "'the white flesh of the lobster' and 'the green of pistachio ices—green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptian dancers'" (139). Moonlight also infuses the story. From her name, to her entrance "all in silver"(138), the "silver fillet binding her pale blond hair" (138), "her heavy eyelids" (138), her "cool, sleepy voice" (140), and "her moonbeam fingers" (142), Pearl Fulton embodies the moon. Bertha's desire for Miss Fulton, and then for her husband, is accentuated by Mansfield's sensuous imagery and symbols.
The most complex symbol in "Bliss" is the pear tree, which is steeped with implications. When it is first described attention is paid to its perfection—it is in full bloom, with "not a single bud or a faded petal" (136). But, the beauty of the tree is sullied by the cats, creeping across the lawn. The beauty of the garden, with its central pear tree, and the lurking, ominous cats evokes the Garden of Eden, the apple tree, and the serpent. When Bertha dresses for dinner, she unintentionally mirrors the pear tree. The simile becomes metaphor when Bertha's "petals rustled softly into the hall" (137). Now Bertha is the pear tree, or more accurately the pear tree has become a symbol of Bertha, "a symbol of her own life" (136), seemingly also perfect. The pear tree also serves to connect Bertha to other characters in the story, and symbolizes different characters at different moments in the story. On page 140 its flowers are silver, "silver as Miss Fulton" (139), and it is what connects Miss Fulton and Bertha. In this erotically charged description the pear tree becomes an incarnation of Harry—something that Bertha and Miss Fulton share. This discovery was foreshadowed by the lurking cats in the first description of the pear tree, and the later phallic description of its quivering up to touch the moon. Miss Fulton's final words to Bertha are "Your lovely pear tree!," presumably a veiled reference to Bertha's husband. Bertha ends the evening, and the story, looking out the window at the pear tree, which was "as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still" (142). The fundamental change that has occurred in Bertha's life is belied by the static pear tree.
"The Story of an Hour"
Why is Mrs. Mallard's heart disease introduced in the first sentence of the story?
What is Mrs. Mallard's reaction to the news?
Describe the setting in paragraphs 4 to 6. Is this significant?
What are the "daring" themes of "The Story of an Hour"?
Do you agree with the doctors' final evaluation of Mrs. Mallard?
What ironies do you find in "The Story of an Hour"?
"The Story of an Hour" is an extremely brief short story; it records only one hour of Louise Mallard's life and takes the reader only a few minutes to read. And yet, the story is surprisingly complex. In this brief story, Chopin provides a fully developed plot—the assumed death of Brently Mallard, Mrs. Mallard's receipt of that news, her grief over and then acceptance of that news, and her own death—while also creating a story that is rich in paradox and irony, in setting and theme.
From the opening line of the story, we learn that Mrs. Mallard's health is poor. She suffers from "heart trouble" (95). The significance of this is fully realized when the shock of seeing her husband at the end of the story causes her death. But this heart disease also accounts for Richard's and Josephine's careful treatment of her—tenderly but quickly breaking the news of Brently's death, for example—and therefore is essential to the entire story and not just her reaction to seeing Brently again. Ironically, if Richards had not "hastened" (95) to break this news, Mrs. Mallard would not have suffered this fatal shock.
Mrs. Mallard receives the news of her husband's death with full understanding of its gravity. The third person narrator emphasizes that Louise does not experience "a paralyzed inability to accept its significance" (95), and the "storm of grief" (95) that follows reinforces the fact that she realizes the magnitude of what she has just been told.
The storm of Mrs. Mallard's public grief passes quickly in the temporal organization of the narrative, and contrasts with her private response to the news in her room. In the confinement of her room, Louise Mallard finds release. The death of Brently Mallard is juxtaposed against the promise of life—the setting outside Louise's window is "all aquiver with the new spring life" (95). Behind her closed door, she drinks in "a very elixir of life through that open window" (96); she experiences a "monstrous joy" (96). Brently's death, then, signals Louise's rebirth. You will have noticed the numerous paradoxes Chopin is incorporating into the story. The Mallard's marriage itself is represented paradoxically. Mrs. Mallard loved her husband—sometimes; Brently Mallard "had never looked save with love upon her" (96), and yet she welcomes his death as an escape from an oppressive marriage. Chopin's description of Louise as "young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression" (96), and Louise's thought that "A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime" (96), comment pointedly and negatively on this marriage. Many readers have extrapolated this to be a comment on the position of women in nineteenth-century marriage. Louise's joy over being released by her husband's death from her marriage daringly flouts the conventional expectations of the dutiful wife that were current in Chopin's time.
Louise's triumph is brief. The moment she accepts her freedom, she leaves her room; the moment she leaves her room, she loses her newly gained freedom. As Louise Mallard descends the stairs, Brently Mallard opens the front door and Louise Mallard is shocked to death. The doctors' explanation is the final irony of the story. Mrs. Mallard did die of joy, but it is not the joy of seeing her husband again.
"The Lamp at Noon"
How is the wind depicted in the first paragraphs of the story?
What is the basic conflict?
What does the wind represent?
How does Ross describe the house?
Why does Paul retreat to the barn?
What does the lamp symbolize in the story?
What is the effect of the last line of the story?
Sinclair Ross's stories have been termed "regional" because they grow out of a particular setting and a particular time, and show the effects of the natural environment on the lives of the people in their struggle for survival. Ross has also been called a "realist" because he uses detailed descriptions of place, painting a portrait of the Saskatchewan prairies with evocative diction. The adjectives and verbs associated with the wind, for example, are suggestive of madness and death: "demented," "keening," "a wail . . . that died every minute or two" (155). The relentless wind, combined with the "impenetrable fog" (155) created by the concomitant dust, creates a strong sense of foreboding. This foreboding intensifies as Ellen, while waiting for Paul to return at noon, reflects on their bitter quarrels at breakfast and on the previous day, quarrels which are attributed to the wind: "the dust and wind that had driven her" (156). The harsh "d" sounds emphasize Ellen's desperation and the wind's ferocity. Ellen and Paul's discordant relationship is also embodied in the wind: "there were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued" (156); and Ellen's anxiety is revealed through Ross' use of punctuation: "Tense, she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening" (156). By setting off "tense" and "listening" from the main clause of this sentence, Ross stylistically confirms Ellen's tension, and makes it tangible to the reader.
In her introduction to the 1968 edition of The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories, Margaret Laurence notes "the outer situation always mirrors the inner. The emptiness of the landscape, the bleakness of the land, reflect the inability of these people to touch another with assurance and gentleness" (134). Ellen desires Paul's presence, his strength, his support, but he is unable to accommodate her, and the implication is that this is because of the effect the harsh prairie environment, and in particular its recurring wind storms, has had on him:
Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance—there remained only a harsh and clenched virility. . . . (156-57)
Ellen, too, is physically and emotionally battered by the environment: with "lips pinched dry and colourless [hers] was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing" (157); she, too, is unable to go to Paul when she needs him most.
The conflict introduced in the exposition of this story, then, is twofold: the struggle between Paul and Ellen, and the struggle of Paul and Ellen against the elements. Ellen and Paul are in conflict over their future, as Paul repeatedly rejects Ellen's pleas to leave the farm and its wind-stripped, over-worked land. It is the wind that negatively impacts their relationship and provides the basis for their arguments, but the personification of the wind also positions it as the antagonist that contributes to Ellen's state of mind. The wind drives her to madness, while it simultaneously functions in the story as a metaphor for her madness. The wind penetrates Ellen's mind the way the dust penetrates the house. Through the personification of the wind, Ross examines "the psychological impact which environment has on his individuals and their relation with others" (McMullen 10).
Another important aspect of the setting is the house. The house, which should provide shelter for Ellen and her family against the wind, is unable to withstand the force of the wind and sifting dust. Rather than feel comfort in the house, Ellen feels confined, isolated and fearful. For example, she is too obsessed with fear to comfort her crying child, and standing "white and breathless in the middle of the room" (156) she is unable to reach out to her husband. Paul's arrival at noon does not alleviate Ellen's fears, and another quarrel ensues, during which Ellen expresses her fears, and foreshadows the story's ending: "I'm so caged—if I could only break away and run" (159). Paul's reaction is to escape the house emphasizing the rift between them and highlighting Ellen's loneliness.
Paul escapes the house to the barn, where he finds himself in "peace and darkness" (159), and he takes comfort in the animals sheltered there: "At a whinny from the bay mare, Bess, he went forward and into her stall. She seemed grateful for his presence, and thrust her nose deep between his arm and body. They stood a long time motionless, comforting and assuring each other" (159). This physical comfort is never experienced by Ellen, but it is the catalyst for Paul's understanding of Ellen. In the barn Paul ponders his plans, his vision of the future, and his quarrels with his wife. The limited omniscient narrative point of view allows the reader a glimpse of Paul's hopes and dreams (perhaps in an effort to build sympathy for his character) and his sudden understanding of Ellen's despair. What follows is Paul's vision of Ellen, "running, pulled and driven headlong by the wind" (160), a vision that conflates the wailing wind with Ellen's cries while it simultaneously foreshadows the resolution of the story. Resolved to talk with Ellen "when the wind was down," Paul finds "already the wind was slackening" (161). The wind calms at the promise of conciliation between Paul and Ellen. When Paul finally returns to the house, he finds it empty, "the lamp blown out" (161).
The extinguished lamp represents Ellen's loss of hope. The lamp figures prominently in Ross's story. It is referred to three times by the second paragraph: in the title, and in the opening sentences of paragraphs one and two, indicating its symbolic significance. Conventionally a symbol of illumination and of hope, the lamp is "transformed into an emblem of struggle and despair" (Warren 126) in this story. It is lit at noon, a time when it should not be needed, and Ross draws our attention to the shadows that it casts on Ellen's and Paul's faces, and in the kitchen that it is intended to light. As in Joyce's "Araby," darkness and light, seeing and blindness are a repeated motif, and Ross also repeatedly describes Ellen's eyes, and Paul's vision. As mentioned, Paul is sustained by his vision of the future, but when the wind storm subsides, Paul sees the reality of his beaten fields: "suddenly the fields before him struck his eyes to comprehension" (161). Paul now sees, and understands, what Ellen has always seen—that their future on this land is hopeless. Paradoxically, the lamp is extinguished when Paul reaches this understanding.
Ellen's wide, immobile eyes, which indicate her ability to see the truth, are also a sign of her madness. The story closes with Ellen incognizant of her child's fate. As the sun sets in the wake of the wind storm, Ellen speaks the final words of the story: "tomorrow will be fine" (162). However, the death of the child invalidates her final words. "Their tomorrow will not be fine. In an ironic reversal, now Paul sees the real world, but Ellen, who viewed reality too clearly to be sustainable, has passed into an illusory world" (McMullen 19).
Setting, symbol, character and mood are inextricably intertwined in this complex story. For example, the setting becomes symbolic and the landscape becomes character. Acting as an antagonist to Ellen and Paul, the "dust-mad wilderness" (156) both causes and correlates with Ellen's state of mind. Sinclair's "skillful use of landscape to reflect inner reality while the same landscape as outer reality serves as primary antagonist and contributes to mood is one of his most remarkable achievements" (McMullen 41).
How is the "The Boat" narrated?
What does the boat symbolize?
Characterize the narrator's mother and father.
What does the father's room stand for?
What is the effect of the literary allusions in "The Boat"?
What other symbols does MacLeod use in the story?
What are the central themes of "The Boat"?
What is the effect of the final two paragraphs of the story?
"The Boat" is a first person recollection of childhood framed by an adult narrator. The story opens in the present, and in present tense, as the narrator awakes into "the terrible fear" (256) that he has overslept. This fear is accompanied by "the call and the voices and the shapes" (256) of his past, and the narrative quickly becomes one of remembering and memory. The narrator recounts his earliest recollections of his father and his mother—separate memories which are hinged together by the boat—after which the narrative shifts into past tense, signaling that this is pure retrospection. The story returns to present tense in the final six paragraphs, as the narrator returns to the guilt of his present.
The narrator's first descriptions of his mother and father reveal much about their character, and about the significance of the boat in their lives. The boat, as you have probably already surmised, is the central symbol in this story, and it represents family, tradition, and life to the narrator, his immediate family, and his extended family. As a child, the narrator became aware of his father and the boat simultaneously. MacLeod uses metonymy, a form of metaphor, in this scene where the child recognizes no separation between boat and father: "The floor of the boat was permeated with the same odour and in its constancy I was not aware of any change" (257). The mother, too, is conflated with the boat: "Jenny Lynn had been my mother's maiden name and the boat was called after her as another link in the chain of tradition" (257).
While the boat provides the family's livelihood, it also separates them and becomes a source of conflict between characters. The mother embraces the boat and all that it stands for. She is a woman "of the sea as were all of her people, and her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes" (258). The father dutifully fulfills his obligation to his family (both ancestral and living) by carrying on the tradition of fishing. The sisters reject the boat for "effeminate strangers" and eventually leave their family and community. The narrator, himself, wishes; "the two things [he] loved so dearly did not exclude each other in a manner that was so blunt and too clear" (266). These two things are fishing and books.
The narrator's mother and father are incompatible characters. She is a traditional woman and is happiest when engaged in work related to the boat: making lunches, repairing clothes, knitting lobster traps. She runs "her house as her brothers ran their boats. Everything was clean and spotless and in order. She was tall and dark and powerfully energetic" (258). Conversely, the narrator's father is physically and emotionally brutalized by his life on the boat.
My father did not tan—he never tanned—because of his reddish complexion, and the salt water irritated his skin as it had for sixty years. He burned and reburned over and over again and his lips still cracked so that they bled when he smiled, and his arms, especially the left, still broke out into the oozing saltwater boils as they had ever since as a child I had first watched him soaking and bathing them in a variety of ineffectual solutions. The chafe-preventing bracelets of brass linked chain that all the men wore about their wrists in early spring were his the full season and he shaved but painfully and only once a week. (266)
The brass chains, so vividly described again in the final paragraph of the story, imply that the father is chained to this life as he must wear these bracelets all season, unlike the other fishermen who need them only in the spring. He turns to his room and his books for respite.
The father's room is "a room of disorder and disarray" (258), "so filled with books as to be almost Dickensian" (267). This room separates the mother and father, as he indiscriminately and voraciously reads through the night. She, however, finds books a "colossal waste of time" (260), and she no longer sleeps in this room with her husband. She despises all that this room, and its books, stands for, for it is when her daughters discover the room's books that they are lost to her. The hatred the mother feels for the books, and the room that contains them, reveals her fear of losing her family and her family's traditions. These fears prove not to be unfounded. What the mother perceives as threatening, the father covets as liberating, and it surprises the narrator to learn, at 15, that his father had always wanted to go to university. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that MacLeod incorporates many literary allusions into this story, both explicitly and implicitly, which add richness to his narrative. For example, the description of the father as "Our Ernest Hemingway" recalls Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, while also implying the father's suicide.
The irreconcilable conflict between the mother and father leaves the narrator with an untenable choice, and choice is one of the main themes in this story: "how sometimes choices are foisted upon you and sometimes you make your own" (MacLeod, "Interview" 266). The narrator is faced with the choice of following the family tradition of a fishing life or pursuing his education. And he must make this choice more than once. His father's illness results in his stopping school to help the family prepare for the fishing season, a decision his father gently persuades him to reconsider (265). The next day, his return to school provokes his mother's anger: "I never thought a son of mine would choose useless books over the parents that gave him life" (265). Later, because his father has given his life to free the narrator from a life of fishing, the narrator chooses a career as a university professor, vicariously living his father's dream. MacLeod implies that this choice is not a choice at all. The narrator's choice to teach "at a great Midwestern University" (256) does not assuage the guilt of his father's possible suicide, implied in his quiet response to the narrator's promise to remain and fish with his father as long as his father is alive (267), and the narrator's inability to save him on that last day of the last season. The narrator (like his father before him) spends "a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations" (267).
The final two paragraphs of "The Boat" indicate the intensity of the narrator's guilt—over the choice he has made, the death of his father, and the loneliness of his mother. Both paragraphs have parallel beginnings: "It is not an easy thing to know that your mother . . . . . (268), "But neither is it easy to know that your father . . . (269). In addition to parallel sentence structures, MacLeod uses many other rhetorical strategies to express the haunting guilt that plagues the narrator, for example, the alliteration that describes the narrator's mother's life and his father's death: "she looks through her lonely window" (268); he succumbs to the "suction of the sea" (269), and the deliberate repetition of "and" to join the clauses and sentences indicates the unrelenting culpability the narrator feels. The graphic description of the father's body reinforces the brutality of the sea on him, but it also fortifies the guilt and the responsibility that overwhelms the narrator as an adult. While little remains of the father "physically" (269), the narrator's insomnia that opens the story emphasizes that there is much that remains emotionally and psychologically. In these final two paragraphs it is clear that the mother is bound by the sea, and the father is brutalized by it, and that they remain as irreconcilable as the narrator's choices.
"Heart of Darkness" 1
Who is the narrator of Heart of Darkness?
What is the initial setting of this novella?
What mood is created in the opening section of the novella?
What imagery is introduced in these first pages?
How is Marlow characterized?
Heart of Darkness uses a narrative technique called a frame-tale. The novella begins with an unnamed seaman narrating the tale, but the narrative perspective shifts quickly to Marlow, the protagonist and central narrator, whose tale is framed by the opening and closing paragraphs of Heart of Darkness. The frame narrative was a popular narrative convention in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and Conrad uses it to establish a setting and a context for Marlow's story, introduce imagery that will recur, and create a mood appropriate to Marlow's tale.
The novella opens late in the day on the Thames, while the characters wait aboard the Nellie for ebb tide to begin their journey. The narrator reflects on the significance of this river, and its contributions to history, civilization and imperialism, while at the same time remarking on the sinking light:
It had known and served all of the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin . . . . they had all gone out on that stream, bearing the sword and often the torch, . . . bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seeds of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, . . . (4)
In the midst of these descriptions of the "brooding gloom" of dusk (2, 3, 5), at the borderline of civilization, Marlow speaks for the first time, saying "this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth" (5). His comment, combined with the descriptions of the encroaching darkness, the mist, and this history of men who have come to and left from this place, contributes to the pervasive mood of meditation, reverence, and foreboding.
The prominent pattern of imagery in these first pages is the interplay between darkness and light, light becoming synonymous with civilization, and darkness synonymous with the savage and the unknown. Darkness is also a metaphor for the story itself. Although it will be told chronologically, its meaning will be found in the patterns of imagery, in the "spectral illumination of moonshine" (6) rather than in the pattern of events themselves that will be recounted in one of "Marlow's inconclusive experiences" (9). The other pattern of imagery is concomitant with setting—the boat, the river, and the tides introduce the journey motif that is central to Heart of Darkness.
Marlow is Conrad's famous narrator who appears in "Youth," Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim. In the opening pages of Heart of Darkness Marlow is described in detail three times (pages 2, 5 and 8), twice in a Buddha-like pose, indicating his meditative mood and the potential significance of the tale he is about to tell. Marlow resembles an "idol" as he embarks on a tale intended to show the effect of his experience rather than the experience itself: "It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me" (9). So, while Marlow is presented as a seaman with a "propensity to spin yarns" (6), he is atypical in many ways. The frame narrative is important in establishing Marlow's character, because it "may initially promise detachment and security, but these both soon prove to be illusory" (Knowles 13). The narrative shifts into Marlow's tale and we are engaged in a story that is "not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light" (9). The ambiguities in Marlow's character are extended into the ambiguous borderlines throughout the novella. Marlow, who is:
dramatized as a decent English sea-captain from the 'ranks', has an inordinate habit of being ambushed, challenged, and finally suspended between finely shaded alternatives. Another set of borderlines emerges through the teasing narrative possibilities associated with Marlow's address to his audience. (Knowles 13)
"Heart of Darkness" 2
What is the significance of the maps Marlow describes?
Why does Conrad include the story of Fresleven?
Where does Marlow's obsession take him and how is this place described?
What do the knitting women represent?
What is the narrative purpose of the doctor?
How does Marlow feel about where he is going?
Despite his claim that he won't recount what happened to him personally, Marlow does recount the events that led up to the tale he is about to tell. Recalling his childhood passion for maps, Marlow is still fascinated by the blank, the white, and the dark spaces on maps, and he is drawn to one river in particular: "a big mighty river, . . . resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land" (11). In rhetoric that evokes the proverbial biblical snake, Marlow says: "The snake had charmed me" (11). This imagery continues when Marlow describes the map in the company office:
There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, . . . . However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake. (14-15)
The colours on this map represent colonial expansion: the red, for example, is the colour of the British Empire; the yellow is the empire of the Belgian King, Leopold II.
Marlow's obsession with maps and the exploration of "blank spaces on the earth" (10), causes him to resort to unlikely measures to secure an appointment as a riverboat captain. Even though Marlow believes that women are "out of touch with truth" and "live in a world of their own" (19), he puts the women to work. His aunt is able to get him a position because the death of Fresleven, a Danish captain who had "been killed in a scuffle with the natives" (12) over two black hens, has left a job open. While this mention of Marlow's predecessor is brief, it is a very good example of Conrad's use of foreshadowing and his ability to imbue the seemingly incidental with significance. Fresleven, "the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs" (12), is violently transformed by his time in Africa, and acts against his nature, thereby suggesting the power of the continent over civilized behaviour, and positing this as a possible outcome for Marlow himself.
Marlow prepares for his new appointment with a visit to the Company's headquarters "in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre" (13); this allusion to the Book of Matthew signifies the hypocrisy of the characters in Heart of Darkness and their work as agents of imperialism, which will be slowly revealed:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)
The ominous note sounded by this biblical allusion intensifies when Marlow encounters "two women knit[ting] black wool feverishly" (15) in the Company waiting room. This is yet another allusion, this time to the Fates of Greek mythology who determine the course of human lives, and Marlow tells us that he often remembers these two "guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as if for a warm pall" (16), who looked on him with indifference. Finally, Marlow meets the Company doctor, who dutifully measures the crania of everyone who goes "out there," although he never sees them again and acknowledges that "the changes take place inside" (17), making his observations "in the interests of science" (17) rather fruitless. All of these encounters, and the menacing atmosphere in this "city of the dead" (16), instill uneasiness in Marlow before he even begins his journey, and intensify the uneasy atmosphere established in the novella's opening pages. It also influences the way Marlow feels about the job he is about to undertake: "instead of going to the centre of a continent, I [was] about to set off for the centre of the earth" (20). Marlow is taking a journey to the heart of Africa, and an archetypal journey into the human heart.
The imagery, metaphors, motifs and symbols—darkness, light, the snake, the biblical and mythological allusions—introduced to this point in the narrative will repeat and expand through the rest of the novella, and are pertinent and appropriate to the central themes of the novella: the barbarity of imperialism and the inherent evil of human nature.
"Heart of Darkness" 3
Plot the action to the end of Part II.
Who does Marlow encounter along this part of the journey? What is the significance of each of these characters?
What does Marlow hear of Kurtz before he meets him?
What similarities does Marlow share with Kurtz?
How does Marlow feel about the Eldorado Exploring Expedition?
What does the spontaneous fire at the Central Station symbolize?
What changes does Marlow undergo in this part of the narrative?
How are Africa and the Africans represented in Parts I and II of Heart of Darkness?
When and why does the first narrator break into the story?
Who is "the Girl," and why is she out of it?
What does Marlow reveal about Kurtz in the final pages of Part II?
The story of Marlow's journey recounts several events, but often the action of the plot is lost in Conrad's impressionistic style. It is worth taking time to plot the remaining events in Part I and Part II of the novella before considering what they represent for Marlow, and what they represent within the narrative as a whole.
After leaving Brussels, Marlow travels by French steamer along the coast of Africa (20-23).
Thirty days later, he arrives at the mouth of the Congo, where he transfers to another steamer that takes him 30 miles up the river to the Company station (23-24).
Marlow arrives at the Outer Station, where he meets the Company chief accountant who is the first person to mention Mr. Kurtz to Marlow (24-32).
Marlow leaves the Outer Station and treks 200 miles to the Central Station. This trek takes 15 days (32-35).
When Marlow arrives at the Central Station, he learns that his steamer has sunk and it will take several months to repair. Here he meets the Central Station manager who informs him of Kurtz's illness, and the brickmaker who expounds on Kurtz's good qualities (35-48).
An unexplained fire breaks out at the Central Station (40).
Marlow continues to wait for the rivets he needs to repair the steamer (49-52).
The Eldorado Exploring Expedition arrives (53-54) (End of Part I).
Marlow overhears a conversation about Kurtz between the Central Station manager and the leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition (55-59).
The two-month journey to the Inner Station begins (60).
Fifty miles below the Inner Station, Marlow comes upon an abandoned hut, where he finds a note advising "Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously" (67-68).
The journey continues, with a final stop 8 miles below the Inner Station (69-70).
In the morning fog, Marlow's crew fears they will be attacked (71-78).
The steamboat is attacked 1 ˝ miles from the Inner Station. The helmsman is killed (79-85).
Fearing Kurtz is dead, Marlow throws his shoes overboard (86-87).
Marlow arrives at the Inner Station, where he is met by the Russian sailor (96-100).
After leaving Brussels, Marlow meets more representatives of the Company, including the Company's chief accountant, the Central Station manager, and the brickmaker. Despite the chief accountant's impeccable appearance and meticulous bookkeeping, and Marlow compliments the accountant's work ethic and ability to maintain "civilized" dress, Conrad's choice of nouns: "a sort of vision," "amazing," "miracle" establish irony, indicating a discrepancy between Marlow's perception and Conrad's intention. Marlow is less pleased by the manager of the Central Station, who angers him immediately by not offering him a seat after his twenty-mile walk, and as Marlow describes the manager's appearance he comments, "he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness" (36). Marlow is disquieted by the manager's stealthy smile, which seemed to Marlow "a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping" (37). Finally, Marlow meets the brickmaker, whom Marlow discerns is connivingly ambitious.
These three characters introduce and develop an important motif of Heart of Darkness: the hollow man. Marlow describes the Company accountant as "a hairdresser's dummy" (30); Marlow wonders, after meeting the Company manager, if "Perhaps there was nothing within him" (37); and Marlow recognizes in the brickmaker a "paper-mache Mephistopheles" (45). Mephistopheles, from the medieval legend of Faust, is the evil spirit to whom Faust trades his soul. Cast out from heaven, Mephistopheles is synonymous with Satan, and appears in literature in Christopher Marlow's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588), and Goethe's Faust (1808, 1832). Marlow comes to the realization that there is no substance to these Company agents—no moral integrity, and that the "flabby devil" (35) is indeed in charge. Like the majority of the characters in Heart of Darkness, these characters are symbolic. You will have noticed that none of these characters are named; they are known only by their occupations. The motif of the "hollow man" will culminate in the disembodied voice of Kurtz.
Marlow learns about Kurtz incrementally from each of these characters. The Company accountant tells Marlow that Kurtz is "a very remarkable person" (31), sending in as much ivory as all the other company agents combined. The Central Station manager echoes these sentiments, confirming that Kurtz is "an exceptional man" (38), whose illness has left the manager very anxious. It is from the brickmaker, however, that Marlow gets the most information about Kurtz: "He is an emissary of pity, science, and progress" (44), "a prodigy" (43), "a 'universal genius'" (49). It is also the brickmaker who instills sympathy for Kurtz in Marlow, by establishing a connection between them: "you are of the new gang—the gang of virtue. The same people who sent him specially also recommended you" (44). You should note that Marlow himself has been described in very similar language:
I had been represented . . . as an exceptional and gifted creature—a piece of good fortune for the Company—a man you don't get hold of every day . . . . Something like an emissary of light. . . . (18)
Conrad explicitly constructs parallels between Marlow and Kurtz, and Part I ends with Marlow "curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all" (54). The implication is that Marlow shares these "moral" ideas, which distinguish him—and Kurtz—from the other Company agents.
The Eldorado Exploring Expedition certainly does not share these moral ideas, and their arrival at the Central Station is presented by Marlow as "an invasion, an infliction" (53). Laden with loot and airs, the members of this expedition repulse Marlow. "To tear treasure out of bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe" (54). The unusual syntax of this sentence draws attention to the harsh alliteration of t's, reflecting the rapacity with which this treasure is attained. Taken together, Marlow's attitude and Conrad's style may be understood as an indictment of colonial expansion.
The violence of colonial expansion embodied in the Eldorado Exploring Expedition is also present in Conrad's imagery. For example, Marlow equates his journey with a descent into Hell—"I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno" (27). The unexplained fire at the Central Station is a phys ical manifestation of that inferno, symbolic of the hell in which Marlow finds himself. As well, there are repeated images of death: the Swede's suicide (24); the over-turned railway car, decaying machinery and rusty nails at the Company Station (24); the "steady buzz of flies" in the "grove of death" (32). The Africans living and working at this station are part of this imagery of death. Shackled together or left to die slowly, they are "nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation" (28), and Marlow is "horror-struck" by the depraved treatment of these "creatures."
The brutality of the setting and the brutality of the colonizers reveal a latent brutality in Marlow's character. He finds himself "getting savage" (39) after his twenty-mile hike through the jungle, and by allowing the brickmaker to believe that he had influence in Europe, Marlow "became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims" (47). When the arrival of the rivets seems imminent, Marlow and the boiler-maker inexplicably "behaved like lunatics" (52). These are portentous moments indicating that Marlow is not impervious to his surroundings. Marlow has his own propensities for savagery and madness.
Marlow blames these changes on a lack of work. He values work—"I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself" (51). Marlow loses himself when he is idle, and he feels idle and isolated at the Central Station, "away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion" (21). Marlow is acutely aware of the absurdity of the "work" that takes place at the Station: the futile attempts to douse the fire with a leaky bucket, the brickmaker who doesn't make bricks, "these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard (39). Of this work, he says: "I've never seen anything so unreal in my life" (39); "It was as unreal as everything else—as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern" (42). The fruitlessness of the colonizing impulse is further embodied in the impotent puffs of smoke from the French man-of-war "shelling the bush" (22), the "objectless blasting" to build a railway (25), and it hearkens back to the pointless measuring of skulls by the Company doctor.
Juxtaposed against the futility and sloth of the colonial agents, and the imagery of death and decay that is associated with those colonial agents, is the "wild vitality, . . . intense energy of movement" (21) of the Africans. Conrad repeatedly contrasts the Europeans and the Africans. Described by Marlow as "Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place" (62), he approves of their restraint in the face of "lingering starvation" (76), comparing them favourably against the "unwholesome pilgrims" whose greed is unrestrained. The ambiguity of this is clear: as Conrad attempts to invert the characteristics stereotypically associated with each race, Marlow's pejorative language subverts that inversion. Any sympathetic representation of the Africans is further undermined by the representation of them as part of the landscape. They spring from and vanish into the wilderness at will, and are glimpsed as "a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage" (64). The "incomprehensible frenzy" of these "rudimentary souls" that "howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces" exceeds Marlow's understanding.
Marlow also describes the coast of Africa as an enigma: "There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black. . ." (20). This personification of Africa emphasizes its power, and its danger—its darkness. As Marlow travels deep into Africa, it is described in language that intensifies its mystery: "inscrutable" (61), "impenetrable" (60), "implacable" (61), "immense" (46). For Marlow, traveling up river is also a journey back in time—to an unearthly, primeval place. This creates a dreamlike quality in the narrative, which, when combined with the personification of Africa, invites the allegorical reading that Marlow's journey is a journey into the human heart. The faintly heard drums suggest a heartbeat.
The first narrator breaks in at two crucial moments in Marlow's story. Both interruptions occur as Marlow veers away from the chronology of his story to clarify his relationship with Kurtz, and both of these instances occur before Marlow has arrived—in his story—at the Inner Station. These moments foreshadow the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz, and build suspense as we anticipate that meeting. The first intrusion follows Marlow's description of Kurtz as "just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?" (47). The narrator interrupts with a remark on the darkness: "It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another" (48). Marlow's audience understands the story no more than Marlow himself understands Kurtz at this point, and probably no more than Conrad's readers understand Marlow's tale at this point. Here, Conrad also associates Marlow's entry into the heart of Africa, and the darkest part of his narrative, with the "pitch black" on the Thames. The second interruption occurs after Marlow has expressed his disappointment over Kurtz's supposed death, which means Marlow will never hear Kurtz's voice:
. . . of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness. (86-87)
This is followed by "a profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, . . . it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame. The match went out" (87). Just as the promise of Kurtz's enlightenment is lost to Marlow, so too is Marlow only momentarily illuminated. In both instances, Marlow is also stressing the impossibility of conveying this story and its meaning: "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream" (47); "This is the worst of trying to tell" (86). The correlation between the darkness of the setting and Marlow's need to "see" and understand Kurtz is obvious, as is the correlation of the first narrator's descriptions of Marlow with Marlow's descriptions of Kurtz.
The girl, who is mentioned briefly at this point in the narrative (88), is Kurtz's fiancée, "his Intended," and it is through her introduction into the story that the truth about Kurtz is revealed, although not to her: "I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie" (88). Marlow's dismissal of her is symptomatic of Victorian ideologies about women—that they require protection from the public world—and necessitated by the imminent, climactic meeting between Kurtz and Marlow towards which the narrative and the journey have been slowly moving.
Marlow's expectation "that in the blinding sunshine of that land [he] would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" (26) is fulfilled when he meets Kurtz, but is confirmed before that meeting. Prior to recounting his arrival at the Inner Station, Marlow provides a revealing glimpse of Kurtz's current state: "The wilderness had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation" (89). Marlow is overcome by the knowledge that Kurtz, a man with whom Marlow has been associated and for whom he has felt sympathy, a man who represented the best of colonial values, a man who represents all of Europe, has succumbed to the darkness. Kurtz's moral deterioration is signified by his greedy claims that everything belongs to him, "My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—" (89), and by his commissioned report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which ironically ends with Kurtz' savage scribble: "Exterminate all the brutes!" (92). Marlow is anguished to learn that Kurtz lacks restraint.
"Heart of Darkness" 3
Plot the action of Part III.
What is the significance of the Russian sailor who greets Marlow at the Inner Station?
What do the ornamented posts Marlow sees at the Inner Station represent?
Does the relationship between Marlow and Kurtz change?
How is Kurtz described in Part III of the novella?
What does Marlow mean when he says Kurtz is "hollow at the core"?
What happens when Marlow confronts Kurtz?
To what do Kurtz's last words—"The horror! The horror!"—refer?
Why does Marlow lie to Kurtz's Intended?
What is the effect of that lie on Marlow?—on Kurtz's Intended?
Part III deals with Marlow's meeting with Kurtz, his journey out of the heart of darkness, and his final meeting with Kurtz's Intended. The events in Part III unfold as follows:
The Russian sailor greets Marlow at the Inner Station and praises Kurtz (101-110).
Marlow notices that the "round knobs" on the posts are skulls (106-107).
Kurtz appears, carried on a stretcher (110-112).
Kurtz's mistress arrives (113-114).
Marlow overhears an exchange between the Company manager and Kurtz (115-117).
Before leaving the Inner Station, the Russian sailor explains that Kurtz ordered the attack on the steamer (117-118).
Marlow wakes in the night and discovers Kurtz is gone (119-122).
Marlow confronts Kurtz in the jungle (122-125).
Back on the steamer the next day, with Kurtz, Marlow begins the journey down the river (125-130).
Kurtz dies (131).
Marlow falls ill (131-133).
Back in Europe, Marlow is sought out three times—by a Company representative, a cousin of Kurtz's, and a journalist—for information about Kurtz (133-136).
More than a year has passed since Kurtz's death. Marlow visits Kurtz's fiancée (136-146).
Marlow prepares his audience for Kurtz by detailing the influence of Kurtz on the Russian sailor who greets them at the Inner Station, and by noting the row of posts surrounding the station. The Russian sailor fills a gap in the narrative by providing information about Kurtz's actions: "To speak plainly, he raided the country" (104); and yet, the sailor doesn't blame him, for "you can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man" (104). The Russian sailor, dressed in motley and thereby marked a fool, forgives Kurtz his crimes because of his extraordinariness; he fears and reveres Kurtz, but ultimately escapes Kurtz unscathed both emotionally and physically, perhaps because, unlike Kurtz and the other Europeans in Africa, "he surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but the space to breathe and to push on through" (102), or perhaps because "no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil: the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil" (90).
The depth of Kurtz's devilry is now exposed. The posts, which Marlow had seen and remarked on during his approach to the Inner Station, are, it is now revealed, topped with human skulls, "not ornamental but symbolic" (107) of Kurtz's lack of restraint, his barbarity, and his madness, which is put down to the effect of the African wilderness on him.
They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. . . . (107-108)
Some critics have argued that at this point in the novella, the relationship between Marlow and Kurtz changes. Up to this point, Marlow perceives Kurtz as an ally against the corrupt colonialism he has witnessed in Africa. With the knowledge that Kurtz is more corrupted than any of the agents he has met so far, Marlow is no longer faced with simply rescuing Kurtz, but with the need to understand Kurtz. As he tells his audience on the Nellie, "I am not trying to excuse or even explain—I am trying to account to myself for—for—Mr. Kurtz—for the shade of Mr. Kurtz" (91).
Marlow's, and the reader's, first view of Kurtz is of a dying man on a stretcher, a shadow of the Kurtz that Marlow expected to meet. Paradoxically, this physically weak Kurtz wields inexplicable power at the Inner Station. Kurtz's power over the natives stems from "unspeakable rites" which are hinted at by the impaled skulls and his magnificent African mistress, but—on Marlow—Kurtz's real power is his eloquence. Kurtz is an "apparition," an "animated image of death" (111), but his voice amazes Marlow. "A voice! a voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating" (112). Is Conrad suggesting another parallel between Marlow and Kurtz here?
The climactic meeting between Marlow and Kurtz is presented as if a dream. The confrontation occurs after midnight, with Marlow in a half-awake, narcotic state. Marlow pursues the crawling Kurtz, an indication of his regression from civility to savagery, into the heart of the jungle, where Marlow "confound[s] the beat of the drum with the beating of [his] heart" (121). Conrad's symbolism is clear. The battle that will ensue is fought in Marlow's unconscious, that Marlow's confrontation with Kurtz is Marlow's confrontation with his own soul. Certainly there are enough parallels between the two characters to deduce Kurtz is Marlow's alter ego; Kurtz is the incarnate evil in Marlow's (and all men's) soul. This is further confirmed in Marlow's statement: "If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man" (124).
Marlow "rescues" Kurtz, and so begins the much quicker journey downstream and out of the heart of Africa. It is on this journey that Kurtz breathes his final words, "The horror! The horror!" (130), and then dies. The meaning of Kurtz's final words has been debated for decades; perhaps Kurtz is denouncing his career, perhaps he is judging the abominations in which he has participated, perhaps he is recognizing the human capacity for evil. In Kurtz's cryptic last words Marlow sees a victory, which binds him interminably to Kurtz and leads to the lie that ends the story.
In the meeting with Kurtz's fiancée that concludes Marlow's story, and that emphasizes the impossibility of communicating Marlow's experiences with Kurtz and in Africa, Marlow lies to Kurtz's Intended, allowing her to believe that the last word he spoke was her name. This is a "trifle" (145) a harmless 'white lie,' that protects the girl's ideal of Kurtz, protects "that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her" (142). In this scene the symbolism of white and dark is fully destabilized. Kurtz's Intended is dressed all in black, still in mourning over a year after Kurtz's death. As dusk falls, the drawing room with its "cold and monumental whiteness" (139) grows darker "with every word spoken" (141). Marlow leaves Kurtz's fiancée unenlightened—because the truth is too dark—in the darkening drawing room where the grand piano stands "like a somber and polished sarcophagus" (139), recalling the "whited sepulchre" simile Marlow used earlier to describe this European city. This description of the setting here confirms the hypocrisy that pervades the novella. Marlow appropriately recognizes a lie carries "a taint of death, a flavour of mortality" (47). The lie on which the colonial endeavours in Africa are based: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing" (58), is certainly tainted. Kurtz and Marlow are both complicit in the philanthropic pretence of imperialism, Kurtz because he succumbs to the darkness, and Marlow because he lies for/about Kurtz. Marlow's return to Europe dramatizes the warning that "the danger is in Europe" (58).
"Heart of Darkness" 4
How is Heart of Darkness structured?
What is the significance of the first narrator's statement that "Marlow was not typical... and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (5-6).
Is Marlow a reliable narrator?
Why does Marlow tell the story of Roman conquest of Britain?
How is imperialism treated in this novella?
There is a clear pattern of movement in the novella, from Europe into the heart of Africa and back again, and Marlow's journey in Africa takes him from the Outer Station to the Central Station to the Inner Station—where he finds Kurtz—and back again.
The novella itself is divided into three parts, which correlate with Marlow's journey. Part I takes Marlow to the "heart of darkness;" Part II, which is the heart of the novella, finds Marlow deep in the heart of darkness; Part III brings him out of the heart of darkness and back to Europe.
The structure of the novella is mirrored in the narrative pattern Marlow's story is embedded in the frame narrative, and Kurtz's story is at the heart of Marlow's narrative.
Conrad's style also structures the novella. According to Frederick Karl, Conrad shapes his novella,
in large and in details: through doubling of scenes and characters, through repetition, analogy, duplicating images, through difference of tone. From the beginning, when the ancient Romans on the Thames are contrasted with the modern Europeans on the Congo, Conrad used heightening and foreshortening, contrast and comparison to give the novella form. Most obviously, Marlow's peaceful setting on the Nellie is set off against his nightmarish Congo riverboat setting; in a different way, Kurtz's two fiancées are contrasted, each one standing for certain values, indeed for entire cultures, in conflict; further, the jungle is set off against the river, with jungle as death, river as possible relief; in another way, Kurtz is compared with other forms of evil, with the deceptive smoothness of the station manager, with the hypocrisy of the pilgrims; the pilgrims in turn are ironically compared with the savages they condemn, with the pilgrims less Christian than the pagan natives; within the natives, the tribal savages are contrasted with those exposed to civilization, detribalized as it were, the latter already full of wiles and deceit; light and dark, the painter's chiaroscuro, hover over the entire story, no less important here than in Milton's Christian epic, Paradise Lost; day dream and night dream form contrasts, worked out in the play between expectation and consequence, between professed ideals and realistic behavior, between Kurtz's humanitarianism and his barbarism, between Marlow's middle-class sense of English justice and the Congo reality, between the fluctuating love-and-hate which fills both Kurtz and Marlow. (Karl)
Marlow's atypicalness as a story-teller is important because this encapsulates the style and the imagery of the tale. Marlow's tale is both obscured and illuminated by Conrad's style and imagery. Darkness is exterior and interior, setting and consciousness, in Africa and in Europe. Darkness envelops the narrative and is its focus. Images of darkness and light, while pervasive, are inconsistent. Light denotes civilization for Africa, and understanding for Marlow, while Conrad's repeated inversions of white and dark—for example, "blinding sunshine" (26), "white fog . . . more blinding than the night" (71) undermine typical associations, and the novel ends with truth as darkness. Conrad's style is equally oblique. Marlow's tale is a fragmented story, of seemingly disconnected events, like a dream: "Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares" (23). All of this is symptomatic of the ambiguities at the heart of Conrad's novella: how to represent the unrepresentable struggle within the human soul, how to speak the unspeakable horrors of colonialism.
Marlow foreshadows the situation in Africa when he comments on the Romans who conquered an "uncivilized" Britain centuries ago, suggesting that such imperialism is universal and repetitive. Heart of Darkness ends with the first narrator noting "the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (146), thereby intimating imperialism is a repeating cycle—only the place of the "darkness" changes. But, the comparison is also presented to distinguish between the conquering of Britain and the colonizing of Africa; the first is "only brute force" (8), the second is a "devotion to efficiency" (8) and is redeemed by the "idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea" (8). This distinction, however, is belied by the tale Marlow tells.
Heart of Darkness has been read as a scathing indictment of nineteenth- century imperialism, and that may be why Marlow goes to Africa for a Belgian Company, as the Belgian King Leopold's Congo Free State was the site of the cruelest and most rapacious colonization. There is much to support an anti-imperialist interpretation of Heart of Darkness. For example, Marlow explicitly states: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much" (8). Marlow sympathizes with the natives and their treatment, he derides the pilgrims and the Eldorado Exploration Expedition, and he distrusts most of the company representatives he encounters in Africa. He sees Europe as the source of danger, sardonically claiming "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" (91) and blatantly exposing the lie on which imperialism was based. But, there is also much in Heart of Darkness that subverts its anti-imperialism.
The principal limitation in Conrad's critique of imperialism is his unquestioning (or unwitting) acceptance of European ideologies about Africa, for example, his acceptance and perpetuation of the myth of Africa as the Dark Continent to which Europeans must bring 'light.' Marlow commends the British Empire when he notes the "vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that real work is done in there" (14), on the map in the Company office. Conrad also adheres to the disturbing view that Africa causes "madness" and you will recall Marlow's own brushes with madness and savagery throughout the narrative. Objections to Conrad's writing recognize:
The fact that in Heart of Darkness Conrad sets out to question the nature of man in a specific historical context characterized by imperialism.
That what starts off as a subversion of the ideals of imperialistic discourse is in turn subverted by an artistic process which becomes too dependent on stereotypes of the time, especially when Marlow starts sailing up the Congo River.
That these stereotypes are part of a long-standing tradition which has been harmful to blacks for centuries. (Zhuwarara 221)
Like much else in this novella, Conrad's representations of Africans are ambiguous. First presented as vital and wild (21), they are also presented—in what is meant to be a sympathetic description by Marlow—as depraved and dying. Despite these seemingly different descriptions, they share the basis of disparaging stereotype: the African as savage. As Marlow travels deeper into the heart of Africa, Africans are merely dehumanized glimpses of "eyes," "arms," "limbs," but always threatening. Much debate has come from these portrayals. Chinua Achebe has called Conrad "a bloody racist," who uses Africa as a backdrop for his allegory of man's descent into evil. In a more tempered response, Rino Zhuwarara asserts "while critical of imperialism, [Heart of Darkness] reinforces unpalatable stereotypes about Africa. The moral revulsion of both Marlow and his author, Conrad, at the sordid nature of imperialism is not strong enough to transcend racial boundaries" (Zhuwarara 239).
While Chinua Achebe castigates Conrad for using Africa as a backdrop for one petty European's descent into madness, it is impossible to read the novella without acknowledging the "abominations" for which Kurtz is responsible, and the significance of the relationship between Marlow and Kurtz. Kurtz, who carries into Africa an ideal, is morally transformed into his own idol. He no longer advocates an ideal, but is worshipped as an idol, not only by the natives but also by the Russian and to some degree by Marlow. Marlow metaphorically repeats Kurtz's experience and by the final scene Marlow's ideals, too, have been transformed. This examination of human nature is interwoven with and inextricable from the darkness that is simultaneously setting, style, symbol and theme. From the title itself, to Marlow's final words "too dark—too dark altogether" (146), darkness is pervasive. What Conrad leaves his readers to ponder are the equivocal meanings of darkness.
"Once More to the Lake"
How does White graphically establish childhood memories in the first paragraph?
What words and phrases in the first paragraph evoke a sense of passing time?
How does White link the generations and show the recurring patterns within families?
"You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing." Can this be seen as a comment on the structure of the essay?
What does the lake come to represent for White?
"The years were a mirage and there had been no years." In what sense has time stood still at the lake?
What is the significance of the tarred road (59); the disappearance of the middle track in the road (61); and the outboard motors (62)?
What images of death are there in this essay?
What is the effect of the long sentences?
Is there a mood of nostalgia in this essay?
In his philosophy of life and in his approach to style in writing, E. B. White resembles his predecessor in American literature, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Both men advocate simplicity as a way of life, and as a way of writing. In his most significant work, Walden, Thoreau tells of his two years' sojourn by Walden pond in New England. During this time he attempted to live freely and in harmony with nature, withdrawing from the life of "quiet desperation" which most people live. His intuition of timelessness within time, his sense of the seasonal rhythms and of the harmony which can be achieved between human beings and their world is expressed in clear, plain, yet sensuous images (images appealing to the senses):
In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed with the wrecks of the forest. Formerly I had come to this pond adventurously, from time to time, in dark summer nights, with a companion, and, making a fire close to the water's edge, which we thought attracted the fishes, we caught pouts with a bunch of worms strung on a thread, and when we had done, far in the night, threw the burning brands high into the air like skyrockets, which, coming down into the pond, were quenched with a loud hissing, and we were suddenly groping in total darkness. (158)
On the surface of Thoreau's pond or of White's lake can be seen an image of life's temporality, but in their depths the more elemental, timeless aspects of life. Thoreau, like White, sought the higher laws of the spiritual life in nature. For both writers, fishing becomes a way of casting for significance, and a way of establishing serenity and wholeness:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. (Thoreau 88)
The lake in Maine is White's Walden pond. It has a spiritual significance for him, and a reality which extends beyond the temporal. His trip back with his son is a pilgrimage, an attempt to rediscover what is real and important.
There are several references to passing time and premonitions of death at the beginning of the essay. You may have noted several of them; for example, "the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening" (58), which suggest the ceaseless passage of time and the cold chill of death. But once he is at the lake, White is aware of the timelessness of the place, in fact so much so that he experiences a sense of dislocation and feels that he has become his father: "The small waves were the same . . . and the boat was the same boat" (60). There are brief moments when he detects the encroachment of change, and his feeling of security and peace is jarred—the dirt road has been tarred, the middle track made by the horses which used to draw the wagons has been overgrown, noisy outboard motors have replaced the less obtrusive sound of the inboards. There is even a sense of the irretrievable past in the recognition that, as he has grown older, his choices have been reduced: "For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative" (61). In this image of the road of life, there is an allusion (or oblique reference) to "The Road Not Taken," a poem by another writer from New England, Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference. (Selected Poems 72)
The pervasive mood of happiness and tranquility which accompanies the perception that "the sun shone endlessly, day after day" (63) begins to darken with the coming of the thunderstorm. Although the storm itself is an exhilarating experience, an explosion of sound and movement, followed by a cathartic calm, it leaves behind it for the author an emotional void into which the cold thought of death irresistibly intrudes itself. Even though the rhythm and pattern of life continue through the generations, for the individual death inevitably comes. Note the placing of the key words "vitals," "icy garment," "groin" and "chill of death" in the last sentence. Human life, from the perspective of the "gods" is brief and insignificant.
White evokes a sense of the ongoing life and timelessness through the use of long sentences, which add detail after detail in series of phrases and clauses; for example:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fadeproof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end. (61)
(There is also an allusion to the Lord's Prayer in this evocation of the eternal in the temporal.) Similarly, on page 64, just before the final insight, White conveys the euphoric feeling of aliveness in the long, almost delirious sentence beginning "Afterward the calm." The concluding sentence, however, is ruthlessly short, as he comes to an abrupt realization of his own mortality.
White makes extensive use of significant detail in this essay—a precise, evocative use of nouns and adjectives which paint a picture for the reader, but also suggest more than the literal meaning. His sensuous description, that is, the use of images which appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, is obvious in the first paragraph on page 59:
"the lake was cool and motionless"—touch
"the bedroom smelled of the lumber"—smell
"stillness of the cathedral"—hearing
Even the sounds of the words arouse particular feelings in the reader—of calmness or reflectiveness, or of exhilaration.
Although "Once More to the Lake" appears to be "unstructured," a closer inspection will reveal a carefully contrived movement back and forth through time. The essay starts from the point of view of the author as a child, or his memory of how he saw things as a child. The startling association of ringworm with the father rolling in the canoe provides an insight into the child's way of seeing his world.
The first paragraph introduces the father-son combination, and the second develops this relationship in the present circumstances. For example:
"One summer . . . my father"
"I took along my son"
The essay then proceeds through a series of associations, the details of the present taking the author back to the past: "You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing." The reference to the remoteness of the lake, its "primeval" quality, shifts to a reference about the encroachments of the present fast-paced material society, to the "tarred road" (59). The essay concludes abruptly in the present with the realization of the inevitable conclusion of life. There is, then, a kind of chronology, interspersed with trips back to the past. The author moves through the week day by day, even though the week seems endless. However, you will probably agree that this essay is more "descriptive" than "narrative" in form; and it is very definitely a personal essay—the reflective voice of the author is clearly heard.
What does Forster's wood represent?
How does Forster show the relationship between personal behaviour and political ideology?
What is the effect of the humour in the essay?
What is the effect of the short sentences?
What is the purpose of the biblical allusions, i.e., references to the Bible? What do such allusions presume about the reader?
How does Forster use literary allusions, i.e., references to Shakespeare and Dante?
As does White, Forster begins his essay in an informal, personal way, with a casual reference to A Passage to India and its reception by the American public. But the tone, which reflects the author's attitude towards the subject, is quite different. It is heavily ironic. Forster views his own foibles in a detached, dryly humorous way. The irony becomes more trenchant when Forster turns his attention to the political foibles of governments, and the acquisitiveness of whole countries. Space exploration is acquisitiveness on a universal scale. The political philosophy of the "Bolshies" (the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, led by Lenin) advocated the redistribution of wealth and property amongst the workers, but they proved to be just as aggressive in their pursuit of power and territory as any capitalistic regime. Basically, however, Forster is attacking the human propensity towards ownership, the desire to acquire things at the expense of other people, and at the expense of the self.
Satire diminishes or derogates a subject "by making it ridiculous, and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation" (Abrams 166). Satire may be directed against individuals (personal satire), institutions (political or religious satire), or general human follies and vices (as in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels). It works through exaggeration, over-simplification, understatement and humour.
Forster uses humour to entertain the reader, to effect the satire, and to undercut any tendency towards a heavy moral tone in the essay. In other words, he doesn't want to alienate the reader by preaching, but he does want to convey an important point. He engages the intelligence of the reader by using such devices as the pun or play on words. The words "heavy" and "weight" have a double meaning: Forster uses the literal significance to make clear the metaphorical significance. Thus "feel heavy" can mean "feel oppressed, burdened, weighed down, impeded" in a spiritual sense, just as excess flesh can make one "feel heavy" in a physical sense. Similarly, "men of weight" can mean "men of substance, of consequence, of social significance," but Forster makes it increasingly clear that he is referring to excess flesh as a metaphor for excess acquisitiveness and greed. The repetition of "men of weight" and "makes me feel heavy" has the effect of weighing down the reader; that is, the sounds of the words themselves are ponderous and "heavy."
Forster begins each paragraph in the essay with a limited personal view and expands this view through biblical and literary allusions to grandiose visions of the past and future. For example, in the last paragraph on page 66 he starts with a twig and inflates his view to encompass a conquest of the universe. This extreme jump from the insignificant to the grandiose is certainly humorous, but it is primarily an attempt to convince the reader that individual attitudes and philosophies can affect the rise and fall of countries and empires (such as that of Alexander the Great) and even humanity's place in the universe. Materialism has far-reaching ramifications. By moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, from a wide scale to a small (Dante's Divine Comedy to blackberries on page 68), Forster deflates any tendency towards heavy preaching, but further develops and exemplifies his main idea or thesis. He ends the essay, as he began, with a self-deprecating personal reference.
You have probably noted that Forster approaches his main points by way of questions. The theme of the essay is presented in an interrogative form, "What is the effect of property upon the character?" The essay then proceeds to answer this question with four clearly defined responses. These rhetorical questions provoke the reader to thought. They also can serve a rhetorical function—that is, they can be so phrased as to admit only one response, as on page 68. Forster is clearly asking himself these questions, forcing himself and us to examine what seem to be automatic responses: "And, if it does, should I not own it best by allowing no one else to walk there?"
Forster's style is clear and simple to the point of calculated naivety at times. He uses a combination of long and very short sentences for particular effects. The short sentences at the beginning of each paragraph provide a direct response which is then explored in detail in the following more complex sentences. For example, the steadily increasing burden of property, each acquisition entailing an increasing servitude to "things," is conveyed by the parallel sequence of clauses and the repetition of key words in the sentence on page 66: "They point out what is perfectly obvious, yet seldom realized: that if you have a lot of things you cannot move about a lot, [that furniture requires dusting], [dusters require servants], [servants require insurance stamps]." The sentence structure suggests that one thing leads inevitably to another.
Forster usually has a strong moral purpose in his works. Some of his short stories, "The Other Side of the Hedge," for example, are parables, and this essay too can be seen as a kind of parable which illustrates the effect of property on character. This anti-materialistic view is at the heart of Christian teaching, and so it is appropriate that Forster refers to the Bible to further clarify and substantiate his argument. The biblical allusions provide a larger frame of reference and a kind of moral and religious authority, and provide other examples of the same human dilemma. In English literature you will find many references to the Bible: it functions as a "touchstone" for spiritual dilemmas, but of course such allusions assume a close acquaintance with the Bible, which is no longer the case with an increasingly secular, multicultural readership. The allusion to the Kingdom of Heaven is from St. Matthew 20:23-24:
23. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
24. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
The allusion to Ahab and the vineyard is from 1 Kings 21. Ahab was a king of Israel who with God's help had repossessed much of the land lost to the Israelites in battle. But, not satisfied with the land he had, he coveted the vineyard of his neighbour, Nabath. When Nabath refused to surrender the inheritance of his fathers, Ahab's wife, Jezebel, concocted a plan whereby Nabath would seem to be a blasphemer. Subsequently the poor man was stoned to death, and Ahab seized the vineyard.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is in Luke 16:19-31. In this parable, the rich man, Dives, who refused food to the beggar, Lazarus, finds himself in hell when he dies and sees Lazarus (in a vision) in heaven. His request for water is refused because he did not share what he had in life with others. Forster implies through his reference to the stone wall, that the rich man he knows is building for himself an even more impenetrable hell. He will not even be able to get a glimpse of heaven because the walls are too high. You will have noted by now that the image of hell recurs in the essay. Forster suggests that we construct our own personal hells through greed and selfishness.
Great literary works also provide "touchstones" for themes and images. Shakespeare's lines are quoted extensively, not only by erudite writers and thinkers, but also by people who have no knowledge of the source of their quotation. Forster refers to one of Shakespeare's sonnets from the "Dark Lady" sequence, Sonnet 129, which deplores the effects of lust on a young man:
Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
(The Norton Anthology of Poetry 90)
Lust for property is like lust for a woman—both are enticing while unobtainable, but once possessed, they become burdens to the spirit, and poison to the mind.
Would you call "My Wood" a descriptive or a narrative essay? Are not both elements, especially the descriptive, used to persuade? Could this essay then be termed "persuasive"? You can see that a classification of literary forms is not that simple.
"Politics and the English Language"
How does Orwell immediately establish a common point of view with the reader?
What does Orwell consider "bad" writing in the samples he quotes in his essay?
What is the function of a metaphor, according to Orwell?
How "fresh" are Orwell's images in this essay?
What are the effects of "pretentious diction"?
What is the great enemy of clear language?
What is "political euphemism"? Why is it used?
George Orwell presents his argument clearly and logically in this persuasive essay, and provides convincing evidence through examples and lists. Each point advances the development of the main idea or thesis, and is linked to the next point.
The logical structure of the essay is apparent in the first paragraph, which Orwell writes as a syllogism. A syllogism is a form of argument which consists of two given or assumed propositions or "premises" with a common term, and from which a third proposition is deduced:
first premise: Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.
second premise: it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it "because" our civilization is decadent and our language . . . must inevitably share in the general collapse.
conclusion: It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism.
In the second paragraph, Orwell points to the fallacy in this syllogism, after acknowledging what degree of truth it contains—that "the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes." His counter-argument is signalled by the word, "but," and in it he introduces another seminal point, that "an effect can become a cause." After supporting this apparently paradoxical refutation with an example to which the reader can relate, i.e., alcoholism, he moves to the thesis statement, identified by the emphatic indicator, "the point is." He then develops and illustrates his thesis by demonstrating just how language can be used for political purposes.
Orwell graphically illustrates his contention that metaphors should be fresh and original through his own use of imagery, which is appropriate for the context and often humorous as well as original; e.g., "like a cuttlefish squirting out ink" (79), "like cavalry horses answering the bugle" (79-80). The image of garbage recurs in the essay, to convey his disgust with slovenly language; e.g., "there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors"(72), "one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase . . . or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs" (82). Not all of his similes are novel, however, particularly for Canadian readers, e.g., "like soft snow" (79).
Orwell's next words of advice are to use simple, active verbs instead of verb phrases or passive verbs, and again his examples seem to substantiate his preference. Might this style become rather monotonous, however? Would it always be appropriate for the ideas, particularly if they were complex, abstract ideas? Certainly, Orwell's style suits his subject, but can a style be prescribed for all subjects, for all writers? Isn't style an expression of the individual? Do you detect some irony in the conclusion to the section on "Operators or Verbal False Limbs" (73), where Orwell "concludes" his advice by trailing off with a trite phrase, "and so on and so forth"?
For Orwell, however, there is much more at stake than "style." Pretentious diction and meaningless words camouflage or distort the truth; they talk around or evade the subject, instead of clarifying just exactly what is happening—a technique which we witness daily on our televisions and radios and in our newspapers, especially in respect to the atrocities of war perpetuated in the name of peace. The political purpose of such language is to deceive, to render a population complacent or servile. Orwell does not hesitate to provide a catalogue of such "swindles and perversions." His blunt language is, however, also emotionally and politically charged, and this is most apparent in his uncompromising generalizations: "In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing" (77). "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness" (76).
According to Orwell, thoughts are shaped by language just as much as language is shaped by thoughts. In other words, ideas exist only in their verbal articulation—not in some "pre-literate" form. Writing should be a continual process in which ideas are explored and clarified.
Orwell suggests six rules for writing (81), with the proviso that any "rules" may be disregarded if they result in saying something "outright barbarous." He does not define "barbarous," however, implicitly assuming a basic "decorum" of "civilized" language or style.
In his conclusion, Orwell returns to his thesis, in which he repeats that he has "not here been considering the literary [i.e. "creative"] use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought" (81). He believes strongly that freedom and justice depend on an accurate use of language, the attempt to express clearly and precisely what we believe and think, and what we witness. His final description of "political language" is persuasive because of the mass of evidence he has provided, and the clarity and logic with which he has presented his thesis; it also works very effectively on a rhetorical level, juxtaposing incongruities, and balancing phrases: "Political language—and with certain variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind" (82).
"I'm Not Racist, But . . ."
How does Bissoondath introduce his topic?
How does Bissoondath define racism?
Why is racism dangerous, according to Bissoondath?
What connection does Bissoondath see between racism and multiculturalism?
Identify a syllogism in Bissoondath's essay.
What rhetorical devices does Bissoondath use to persuade his reader to his point of view?
Bissoondath begins his essay by juxtaposing a positive simile that describes Canada with the distasteful issue of racism. He follows this with a series of similes in the introduction to suggest that racism is common across cultures and races. According to Bissoondath, this neither excuses nor simplifies racism, but highlights its dangers. The effect of the "menu" of racisms Bissoondath serves is compounded by the numerous racist epithets in the second paragraph, which appeal to ethos and disconcert the reader.
The essay then incorporates several anecdotes to define racism and to challenge Bissoondath's audience's views of racism: the naive friend who unintentionally uses racist language, the friendly mover who believes one race drives badly (and believes he knows why), and the oil company executive who rejects East Indian tenants. All of these anecdotes are examples of the "I'm not racist, but . . . "credo. Bissoondath argues that they are correct: they are not racist. This may challenge our own belief that this prefatory phrase is a clear indication of racism. For Bissoondath, this is insensitivity and stupidity, but not true racism, which he defines as "pure racial hatred" (84). True racism is, he believes, based on "willful ignorance" and is "thankfully rare" (84). That true racism is dangerous is emphasized in the examples of it that Bissoondath provides, the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but Bissoondath sees other understated dangers.
Multiculturalism is one of those dangers. The syllogism Bissoondath uses to persuade his reader is:
Premise A—Racism is based on stereotype
Premise B—Multiculturalism indulges in stereotype
Conclusion—Therefore, multiculturalism perpetuates racism.
Bissoondath buttresses his argument with a series of rhetorical questions. These questions serve two purposes: they provide examples of the issues that multiculturalism in its current form fails to address, and because they are deliberately left unanswered they illustrate the easy perpetuation of stereotypes Bissoondath claims need to be examined. Other dangers are racism's vulnerability to manipulation, and the corollary exploitation of the word itself.
In a very short essay, Bissoondath uses several recognizable rhetorical strategies to advance his arguments: similes, syllogism, rhetorical questions, alliteration, and parallel sentence structure. The alliteration and parallel structures are most apparent in the final paragraphs, in which Bissoondath criticizes Canada's multicultural policy as "superficial and exhibitionist" (85), and cautions individual and community impressions and responses. The rhetorical questions, for example, are all posed in parallel form: "Do those men . . . ?," "Do those women . . . ?," "Do those people . . . ?" (85). He advocates incredulity when faced with racism's alliterative "rhetoric of retribution," presented for "personal, political and professional gain" (85). Here harsh alliterations (r and p) and parallelism combine to indicate Bissoondath's cynicism. The longest paragraph of the essay ends with the aphorism (a succinct, balanced statement of a general truth): "racism for one is racism for others" (85).
While Bissoondath's essay is obviously persuasive, would you describe it as personal or impersonal, formal or informal?
"Why We Crave Horror Movies"
What tone does King's essay take?
Is this tone appropriate for King's subject?
In what respects is King's essay an expository essay?
For whom are horror films most appealing?
Is King writing to persuade?
What is his main point?
The informal, conversational tone of King's essay is established in the first sentence: "I think we are all mentally ill" (86). This tone is maintained throughout most of the essay, by the point of view and the diction King chooses. The first person pronoun, "I," shifts quickly to the first person plural pronoun "we," establishing a familiarity between the authorial voice of the essay and the reader. King's reliance on slang and clichés, such as "four or five bucks," "tenth row centre" (86) also reinforces the informality of the essay.
"Why We Crave Horror Movies" is an expository essay because it explains the human appetite for horror. It uses causal analysis—the examination of the reasons for or consequences of a subject, question or problem—to develop its thesis. This essay examines both the causes and the effects, reasons for and consequences of, watching horror movies. The title of the essay and the posing of the question "Why?" to open the third paragraph prepare us for an explanation of these reasons: for the thrill, for reassurance, and for fun. The thrill of the horror film is explained with an extended metaphor in paragraph 3; the horror film is the roller coaster of movies. The reassurance of the horror film is explained with an example; Die, Monster, Die! exemplifies the conservativeness of the horror film.
Both of these paragraphs (the third and fourth of the essay) maintain the informal tone with which the essay opens. However, when the reason becomes more serious, the language becomes more formal. When King states that horror films are appealing because they are "a very peculiar sort of fun" (87), a fun contingent on the terror of others, there is a noticeable change in diction. He explains: "horror movies provide psychic relief on this level because the invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely" (87).
The complexity of the "fun" of the horror film also requires several paragraphs to explain, and King uses several rhetorical devices to delineate the "fun" of the horror film. Having established the seriousness of his argument, King returns to the conversational tone and the playful figurative language that dominates the essay. His examples are drawn from popular culture and expressed in colloquial language: Jack the Ripper, the Cleveland Torso Murderer, the sick baby joke, "our rotten puke of a sister" (88). He personifies our emotions, for example, as a body with muscles that require exercise. He uses simile, comparing our wicked, worst emotions to hungry alligators. All of these images effectively alleviate the serious subject of human evil, making it more palatable, which King believes is also the job of the horror film itself.
The final two paragraphs signal a shift in the development of King's essay. The earlier "Why?" becomes "Why bother?" (88), and the effect of the horror movie is now briefly explained. Keeping the alligators fed keeps the peace. Underlying all of the exposition of this essay is the assumption, and implicit argument, that horror films are beneficial. For King, the horror movie is cathartic and necessary. It exercises socially unacceptable emotions while keeping them controlled.
"The Female Body"
What prompts Atwood to write "The Female Body"?
What is the effect of repeating "topic" in the first paragraphs of the essay?
How is Atwood's essay structured?
What stereotypes of women does Atwood challenge in her essay?
Does Atwood use particular sentence patterns to convey her message?
Is Atwood's essay humorous?
Is "The Female Body" an essay? Why or why not?
Atwood's essay begins with an excerpt from a letter. The letter is from The Michigan Quarterly Review, and requests that Atwood submit a piece of writing on the "capacious" topic of the female body. The cynical tone of Atwood's essay reveals her reaction to this request and her derision of the objectification of women.
By calling her own body a "topic," Atwood foregrounds the central idea of her essay, that women have traditionally been viewed as objects. Repeating "topic" after every adjective that describes her own body personifies the "topic" and dehumanizes the body, which only acts "as if it were flesh and blood" (90) when it is actually a "hot topic." This irony, combined with the repetition, is also one of the techniques Atwood uses to create humour while still giving her subject serious consideration.
Atwood's essay is structured in an unusual way. The essay classifies the attributes and uses of the female body into seven separate sections, further conveying the objectification of the female body. A summary of each section might be:
Part 1—the female body as a topic
Part 2—the female body as a sexual object
Part 3—the female body as a scientific object
Part 4—the female body as a toy
Part 5—the female body as a commodity
Part 6—the female body as a reproductive body
Part 7—the female body as fragments
Each section challenges the stereotype it presents. For example, the second section of the essay presents the sexualized female body. It contains only one sentence, an extensive list of female accessories. These accessories keep the female body adorned as well as controlled. By making "head" the last item on the list, Atwood puns on the expression "bed head," but also suggests that the female head is perceived as an accessory, and a less important one than the others. Atwood uses a similar strategy in section five of the essay. Here she presents the material objects the female body has been sold as or used to sell, again in lists. She includes another pun in these lists: "a nutcracker: just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut" (91). Puns, a figure of speech that creates ambiguity by presenting words with two meanings or two similar—sounding words, typically create humour. For Atwood they also allow her to express her disdain for the ways that the female body is used and perceived.
Atwood also manipulates sentence structure to convey the ideas of her essay. She effectively employs a variety of sentence types in "The Female Body" in order to achieve particular purposes. She writes of the two halves of the female brain, "[t]hey're joined together by a thick cord; neural pathways flow from one side to the other, sparkles of electric information washing to and fro." This compound sentence in which the independent clauses are joined by a semi-colon, not only combines parallel ideas—that the halves of the brain are joined by a cord and that neural pathways flow between them—but the sentence also emulates the subject matter: the independent clauses, like the brains, are connected. Atwood follows this sentence with a sentence fragment, "Like light on waves," which foregrounds the fragmentation of the image of light reflecting on waves. Two simple sentences complete the paragraph: "She listens. She listens in." These sentences are startling—they stand out because of their simplicity—and they echo, just as overheard voices echo in the mind. (Birks, Eng and Walchli 225)
"The Female Body" is primarily an expository essay developed using classification, but it does contain other methods of development. The essay defines the female body, as well. It also presents a narrative in the fourth section, and a comparison in the final section of the essay. Each section is deliberately organized to underscore the idea contained in that section. For example, the sixth section, in which the female body is reduced to its reproductive function, is the shortest of the essay. By presenting her essay as a series of separate fragments and combining several methods of development, Atwood uses form effectively to accentuate content.
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