Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

            Ellen Olenska is a captivating woman. Unlike May, she not afraid to speak her mind, and she frequently spends time with people that the high-class New York society might consider to be “less than desirable”. Newland Archer is intrigued by the way her mind works, and he is in love with the womanly courage she possesses. Instead of abiding the rules set for her, Countess Olenska chooses to make her own decisions, such as leaving her husband, the rich Count Olenski, even if it means facing social consequences. Her decision leads to coldness from her own family, whispering, and gossip on her “foreign” behavior. However, Ellen Olenska is not a “beautiful” or “pretty” woman in terms of the traditional standards of aesthetic beauty during that time period. When he is reintroduced to her at the opera after years and years of not seeing each other, Newland Archer views as a run-away wife that has become washed out and old in comparison to the young and vibrant May Welland. He finds her dress to be in bad taste, and the low-cut top to be scandalous. “He hated to think of May Welland's being exposed to the influence of a young women so careless of the dictates of Taste.” (Wharton) But as the story progresses and Archer increasingly gains affection toward this character, Ellen Olenska’s physical description changes. Rather than a critical analysis of her physical flaws, the narrator and Archer begin to concentrate more on her assets and her charm. That charm influences his overall view of her, and he falls in love with everything that she is and represents. Ellen represents everything that will become “new” New York society in the future, and this is reflected through the descriptions of her physical beauty which Archer might consider beautiful but does not abide to the traditional standards. In contrast, May Welland is representative of the “old” New York society. She abides to the invisible rules set for her by her parents and the older generation. She knows how to be sweet and the definition of a “perfect wife”. She is young, pretty, and vibrant. However, as Archer is exposed to Ellen Olenska’s way of looking at the high-class New York society and starts to dislike the conformity that is expected, he starts seeing the flaws in May Welland’s beauty as well. He notices that her eyes are blank, and he becomes increasingly impatient with her lack of curiosity and lack of desire for what he considers to be “freedom” for women. He also realizes that his marriage to May Welland will be nothing more than “a dull association of material and social interests" (Wharton). Therefore, Archer and the narrator’s view of her physical beauty changes as well. He describes her eyes as being "almost pale in their youthful limipidity" and her face as being “"the vacant serenity of a young marble

athlete"(Wharton). Wharton’s sudden yet subtle usage of words like “vacant” and “limpidity” goes far to describe May Welland as simply pretty and empty rather than beautiful like before. And these changing perceptions of beauty reflect Newland Archer’s changing perception of the high-class New York societies. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Love Song of Newland Archer

In these last chapters, Newland Archer makes his final decision to run away with Countess Olenska and live the life that he’s been meaning to live. His actions and words show increasingly more affection towards Ellen Olenska, even in front of his wife, May, and the other families. May has become much more aware of his feelings and has become somewhat frantic. For the first time, things seemed to have been going his way. Newland Archer is able to talk himself out of the so-called “business trip” that he had told May he was going on, even though he was really meaning to see Ellen. In addition, the grandmother’s health recovered enough for her to regain control and force the family to continue giving Ellen her allowance. Ellen is then able to separate from her husband, the Count Olenski, and return to Europe. Unfortunately for Archer, he is not able to join Ellen, nor is he able to give a final goodbye. He is forced to stay at home once May unveiled that she was in fact, pregnant with his child. With everyone in the family, including May, suspecting that he was having an affair with Ellen Olenska, Newland and May decide to throw their first large party as a send off for Ellen. There, Newland confirms his belief that everyone believes him to be unfaithful to May and he watches as the families all regain their warm reception of Ellen. They treat her with the utter most respect, and she is sent off with the blessing of the high-class New York society. With May being pregnant, that would have been Archer’s last chance to be with Ellen. However, he chooses to stay married to May until the day she dies. He has three children (2 boys and a girl), one of whom gets married to one of Beauford’s “bastard children”. However when his eldest son takes him to Europe and gives him the chance to meet with Ellen Olenska after all these years, Archer simply walks away from the opportunity, stating that he was “too old fashioned”.
            Newland Archer’s indecisiveness that continued until the last chapters of The Age of Innocence and his never ending thoughts of regret reminded me a lot of the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S Eliot. Like the speaker of the poem, Newland Archer throws away an infinite amount of opportunities for him to see Countess Olenska and get out of his “pretend” marriage with May. Instead of acting upon his thoughts and desires, Archer often ponders and second-guesses his intentions until the opportunity has passed. He keeps questioning his own happiness and the shoes that the high-class New York society expects him to fill, much like the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, who keeps asking, “Is it worth it?”  The speaker also asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” which is similar to the hesitation that Newland Archer feels because of the society’s invisible rules that require a husband to stay with his wife, remain discreet, and above all else, to not create any disturbances. But society is not the only thing that holds Archer back. He is also afraid of the truth and possibility. At the very end of the book, Archer is given the chance to see Ellen Olenska; she had invited both him and his son, indicating that she has not forgotten them or that she still holds affection for him. However, Newland dismisses the opportunity and offer by telling his son that he is “old fashioned” and walking back to his hotel. He is afraid that Ellen Olenska might have changed, that he, himself might have changed, and that their love might have faded away. And so he tells himself, “It’s more real to me here, than if I went up”, signifying that he, like the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, would much rather dream and imagine the possibilities than to claim them and take charge of his own destiny.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Mental Traveler" vs. Grendel

Grendel by John Gardner and William Blake’s “Mental Traveler” both deal with the same loss of innocence and change that occurs when infants are exposed to experience. In the “Mental Traveler”, Blake states that “For there the Babe is born in joy”. The same can be said in Grendel’s case. Grendel starts off being quite content with his world; he considers himself a part of his mother, “She loved me, in some mysterious sense I understood without her speaking it. I was her creation. We were one thing, like the wall and the rock growing out from it.” (page 17, Gardner) Ignorant and without any of his own thoughts, ideas, or philosophies, Grendel in chapter 2 is virtually untouched by the world. All he knows is the pounding of his mother’s heart and the warmth of her loose skin. However, when he meets man, everything changes. The same can be said for the infant in Blake’s “Mental Traveler”. When the baby is first born, he is joyful and ignorant; he has no contact with the outside world. However, when he is given to a n old woman (aka exposed to a human), everything changes. She “nails him down upon a rock,” and “catches his shrieks in cups of gold.” It is not said explicitly whether the old woman was what caused the infant to shriek or if he was even shrieking before the encounter, but the fact that they mention this after he was passed to the old woman is significant, as if she was the cause of his sudden misery. In a sense, the old woman is much like the dragon that appears in John Gardner’s Grendel. She “Cuts his heart out at his side, / To make it feel both cold and heat”, which is somewhat equivalent to exposing the baby to the world. She is giving him the experience of cold and heat or good and evil. The dragon appears to become Grendel’s mentor for the same reasons that the woman is the one caring for the baby, to expose him to the world. Up until that point, Grendel has known two things: the shielded cave that he was born into with his mother and the idealistic, meaningful world that the Hrothgar’s tribe (human society) has created. The dragon gives him a chance to feel “cold” by exposing him to what the reader might consider “the truth”. However, like the “Mental Traveler” his transformation and maturity does not end there. Grendel constantly shifts back and forth between the dragon’s philosophies and the philosophies of the shaper just as the female and male in Blake’s poem are constantly growing old and becoming younger. It is a cycle that has no end. As Grendel dies at the end of the novel, another being will probably appear to take on his role of the “monster” in order to make the human society function, and then the dragon will probably reappear to explain the universe as he sees it, without meaning. 

The Helpless/MIA Mother Trope

I picked up on the lack of a mother figure in the teenage protagonists’ lives in the fifth grade. Disney Channel’s show, Hannah Montana was “the biggest thing” in my class back when Miley Cyrus could still be tamed. I suppose the show followed the typical Disney format: a girl and her best friend, a dorky father, a close guy friend (and potential romantic interest), and a MIA mother. When I picked up on the detail that Hannah Montana’s mother never showed up on set (they implied that she died), I started noticing it in other movies, TV shows, and books too. Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, Harry Potter (both of Harry’s parents died, but Luna’s missing a mother too), The Golden Compass, To Kill A Mockingbird… the list is endless, but what’s most notable is this trope seems to appear most frequently in stories that are aimed toward teenagers. The mother is not always dead, sometimes she has simply disappeared without any explanation at all or she is present but hardly mentioned other than when she is being criticized. And this “helpless mother trope” is most notable in the two most talked about book series by teenage girls in the last couple years: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins and the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. While the mothers are somewhat present within the story, appearing every so once in a while, the only thing the protagonists, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen, have to offer their mothers is pity. It is clear that the female protagonists in the two series feel that they are more mature, dignified, and stronger than their mothers. In fact, the role of parent and child reverses within the story so that the protagonists are constantly taking care of/looking out for their mothers. Their attitudes toward their mothers are not subtle in any way at all; in fact, the pity mixed in with a good dose of teenage arrogance appears within the first chapter of both series. Within The Hunger Games it appears on the first page, “In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.” (Collins) While Katniss’s commentary on her mother’s beauty might not seem like much, but historically, beauty has been a key aspect in a female’s worth. While The Hunger Games is a more contemporary piece of work, in this quote, Katniss’s commentary on beauty is about more than aesthetics. She is subtly showing disapproval and disappointment in her mother’s lack of vitality and pity in her growing age and helplessness. Her attitude towards her mother is far harsher than her attitude towards Prim, and this is confirmed a few pages later. Her mother is helpless and clueless, dependent upon her children as shown on page 11, “They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. Ale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more?” (Collins) In Twilight, Bella views her mother in a more positive light. She doesn't hold any past grudges or much criticism in her parenting in comparison to Katniss, but she treats her mother like a child. She is concerned for her well being, and it is implied that the mother cannot take-care of herself, “How could I leave my loving, erratic, hair-brained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still...” (Meyer). This helpless/MIA mother trope that is used over and over again within teen series has one important job, and that is to force the protagonists to act beyond their age and be portrayed as being much more heroic, responsible, and caring than they actually are. Despite their intentions and actions within the present, the trope gives the reader a kind of assurance that “Yes, the protagonist is a good person. She is a hero”. But the truth is, if the writer spent more time developing the protagonist and less time assuring that the reader that the character is likable, we might end up with mothers that are substantial characters and more than skimpy placeholders held up by a trope.  And this is one of the many reasons why I can’t approve the usage of this particular trope wholeheartedly; it seems that the majority of the time when it is being used, the author is simply getting lazy in their character development. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Do I Love Thee?

How Do I Love Thee?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height 
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight 
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. 
I love thee to the level of every day's 
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight. 
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; 
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise. 
I love with a passion put to use 
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. 
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
With my lost saints, -- I love thee with the breath, 
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose, 
I shall but love thee better after death. 
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” illustrates an undying love that lasts for the ages. Formatted in a Petrarchan Iambic Pentameter form, the poem follows the traditional expectations of a Petrarchan sonnet. Made famous by the Italian poet, Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet which gained immense popularity in the Romanicism period often deals with the subject of love. Like the classic Petrarchan sonnet, Browning reveals that her love for her husband is equally timeless. Thus, she ends the sonnet with the line, “I shall but love thee better after death” reiterating the point that this love is not just a passing feeling but one that will last for eternity, even after death. Browning attempts to do the impossible: counting exactly how many different ways she loves her husband. She uses many comparisons to do this, particularly emphasizing how her love reflects the nature of man. “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;/ I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise” in lines 7-8 focuses on the nature of man and his existence throughout the ages. By doing so, Browning is making a statement that her love is instinctual, ever-lasting, and predestined as man’s existence has been. She loves “with a passion put to use/ in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.” (lines 9-10) which is a reference to the innocence and unhindered passion that only exists in childhood. She trusts her lover with blind faith-“my childhood’s faith” (line 10). A child’s faith is undying just as her loyalty to her lover is. Line 11, in which Browning states, “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose” conveys that this love is untainted by her past experiences. Like the childhood faith, the experience that comes with growing older often leads to disappointments and let downs. Browning hints that she too has been disappointed, betrayed, and hurt by others that she has loved in the past by including this line. However, she is not bitter about the experience. Instead she seems to have turned around those unpleasant experiences, putting them to good use as a way to compare how she feels about her lover now. So instead of using malicious language or cool indifference to reference the others that have caused her to lose her love in the first place, she calls them “lost saints”. These “lost saints” can be an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost or the biblical story of how Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve before their fall, the ones that she had loved seemed to be harmless and possibly “saint-like”. However, after the experience that opened up her eyes to betrayal, hurt, and disappointment, their saint-like image was lost. So although they are the same people, with the acquirement of this new knowledge and experience with love that leads to Browning’s lost love, these “saints” are metaphorically banned from Browning’s own Garden of Eden. Finally, as a bold conclusion, Browning ends her sonnet by pledging to give her life for this love if God so chooses because her lover is “smiles, tears, of all” her life (line13). 

The Ever Changing Cinderella

The first “Cinderella story” that I had been told came from my mother. It was a big fat lie, at least in the eye of my preschool-aged self who found a great many differences in the story I had been told and the “real” story that everyone else had known. For one thing, my Cinderella was a doctor. She never married the prince, never sought help from a fairy godmother, nor did she ever seek out wealth through romance. In contrast, Disney’s Cinderella (the one everyone but I was familiar with) kept kindness and beauty close to her heart. She was graceful and seemed to have the magical ability to talk to animals. Everyone loved her, except for her evil stepmother and stepsisters who were simply jealous of her lack of personality. Looking back, I should have found my mother’s retelling of Cinderella much more appealing. The girl saved her village from an infectious disease by building a hospital and becoming a doctor; she single-handedly convinced the prince to give funding to the hospital by winning her over with her charms, wit, and intelligence. She stood out from the other girls because she was more than a pretty face. In contrast, the Disney’s Cinderella seeks romance and a night of fun at most, and her prince falls in love with her beauty, completely disregarding everything else about her. But the classic Cinderella story has evolved over time, reflecting our society’s view of women. In the third grade, Disney’s shallow, objectified, helpless, and simply-a-princess-out-of-sheer-luck Cinderella redeemed herself in the book, Ella Enchanted. She kept all the magical elements of the original story and all of the more historical “kingdom” elements. However, compared to the Perrault version, published in 1697, and the Brothers’ Grimm version, there is a drastic change in the expectations and values in women. Ella in Ella Enchanted may have a fairy godmother and an evil stepmother but she wins over the prince with her sense of wit, humor, and bravery in addition to her natural beauty. Her main focus in this story is not to marry the prince, but to gain her independence. She refuses his marriage proposal by saying, “No, I won't marry you. I won't do it. No one can force me.” (Levine) as an act of disobedience. At the same time, Ella is not untouched by the traditional gender roles imposed upon her. When the prince chooses to dance with her out of all the other ladies at the ball, she feels honored. Although she seeks her own freedom, her desire for marriage, romance, and status is undeniable, as shown by this passage, “‘would you favor me with a dance?’ Over all the others I was his choice! I curtsied, and he took my hand. Our hands knew each other. Char looked at me, startled. ‘Have we met before, Lady?’” (Levine) As society itself changes the perception of women and their values, the classic story of Cinderella is retold to reflect those changes. The more modern retellings add wit, humor, and intelligence to the list of characteristics that Cinderella is known for rather than sticking to the original “kindness of heart” and beauty only. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in]

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


I have never understood the use of parentheses in poetry. Frequently they can be used “wrong”. One might assume that since it’s poetry, anything goes, but that is not the case. Poetry, while often shorter and harder to decipher than prose does have rules to a certain extent. Throwing around parentheses within the lines of your poetry might give the poem an air of sophistically, a look that is “edgy” and modern. But a “good” poem (which is of course relative to the reader) concerns itself not only with its appearance but with the meaning being conveyed. And what makes a poem successful is its ability to convey the meaning effectively. For years, I had thought e.e. cummings merely threw around grammatical mistakes and strange formatting to “defy the system”, but I was wrong. There is a clear purpose to his unusual style if only one would take the time to look just a bit deeper. His poem, “[i carry your heart with me(I carry it in]” reads as two poems.  

Here is the poem excluding the section in parentheses:

i carry your heart with me
i am never without it
                        I fear

no fate I want
no world
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart

Here is the poem exclusively with the section in parentheses:

(i carry it in
My heart)  (anywhere
i go you go my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing my darling)

(for you are my fate,my sweet)
(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
And the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
Higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

(I carry it in my heart)

The phrase “i carry it in my heart” repeats a few times within the course of the poem. But every single time it appears, it appears within a set of parentheses e.e. cummings plays with his formatting, giving it a visual element as well. The parentheses represents the cavity of his heart, and by doing so (and keeping it consistent throughout the poem ) e.e. cummings paints a picture in his reader’s mind not only through his words but through formatting. He’s able to convey two messages, one being an intimate confession of love and the other being about the life he carries in his heart. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

shaper vs. dragon

In John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, the universe is split into two: good and evil. In general, the shaper is perceived to be “good”. In the human societies, he gives men purpose. He defines “good” and “bad”, and records histories. Grendel, our narrator, is conflicted with the shaper. He is moved by the shaper’s song and the meaning that he reveals in this universe, but at the same time he sees through the lies that the shaper creates. The shaper rewrites history to glorify humans and their wars. The Danes believe his lies easily, but Grendel is not that naïve. He was present for the events and remembered them differently. However, there is a part of him that wants to believe in the shaper. He asks his mother in the earlier chapters about their existence and purpose in the world, but she simply conveyed to him through her body language, “don’t ask.” In the shaper’s version of the truth, Grendel is a monster born from the fight between two brothers, Caine and Abel. His miserable life is explained by the fact that Grendel was on the losing side and had God’s wrath brought down upon him. And while the story of Caine and Abel does not change any aspect of his life, it does establish a role for him to fulfill. The dragon on the other hand, offers no explanation for Grendel. There is only one truth: we all are born and we will all die. Life is a pointless accident. It starts and ends quite suddenly. In the long run, his actions will not matter. Fate is already set, and as time passes everything would be forgotten. The dragon has the ability to see the past, present, and future, but he does nothing to change the future. He tells Grendel, “  My knowledge of the future does not  cause the future. It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past.” (page 63)The actions that will be remembered will be misinterpreted as “good” or “evil”, regardless of intentions. While the shaper seems to be a vital part of the human society, giving them  reason to live, it is Grendel himself that motivates the humans. Like the dragon whose desire and purpose in life is to seek out gold and sit on it,  the humans are driven by their desire to defeat Grendel. So in the end, it is not the shaper that drives the humans, but Grendel himself. However, it is unclear whether fate is driving Grendel to make certain decisions.  The real question is what is driving Grendel to be the monster he is. The dragon would interpret his actions as being Grendel’s free will. However, according to the shaper, his actions would be due to the forces of “good” and “evil”. In the end, after the 5th chapter, Grendel seems to have chosen the dragon’s side. He is set free to go on a rampage after basically told that he should “do as he likes”. This unfortunately will have dire consequences on the Danes. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Valentine

 A Valentine

For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
Brightly expressive as the twins of Leda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that nestling lies
Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines!- they hold a treasure
Divine- a talisman- an amulet
That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure-
The words- the syllables! Do not forget
The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor
And yet there is in this no Gordian knot
Which one might not undo without a sabre,
If one could merely comprehend the plot.
Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering
Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus
Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing
Of poets, by poets- as the name is a poet's, too,
Its letters, although naturally lying
Like the knight Pinto- Mendez Ferdinando-
Still form a synonym for Truth- Cease trying!
You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do. 
- Edgar Allan Poe

Throughout his poem, “A Valentine”, Edgar Allan Poe conveys his advice to his lover about life and its hidden meanings by comparing it to poetry and writing. In the third line he tells her that she “shall find her own sweet name”, or her own meaning and purpose in life. Names are not only used for simple identification and to minimize confusion; they also represent a being and their actual identity. It comes to be “who they are” and defines their physical and mental being. So he words the line carefully to place more than one meaning. The second reason for that particular line about her “own sweet name” might also be hiding a clue because he goes on to say that it “lies / Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.” Edgar Allan Poe may have hidden his lover’s name within the lines of this poem, hiding it from the rest of the readers. The word “page” also carries a second meaning. He might be using the pages of a book as a metaphor for the blank canvas of her life that she will fill with her own meaning. Her true purpose would then be “enwrapped from every reader”, because it is impossible for a person to truly understand the intentions of the writer. “Search well the measure- / the words- the syllables!” refer not only to the structure of his poem, but to the small clues that life leaves as well. He tells her that there is “no Gordian knot/ which one might not undo without a saber, /if one could merely comprehend the plot.” He alludes to the era of Alexander the Great when he speaks of the Gordian knot. The Gordian knot is often a metaphor for a unsolvable problem. Again, he compares life to a work of writing, explaining to “his valentine” that there is no problem that cannot be solved if only you can understand the plot. The plot, of course, refers to the “greater plan” or fate. However the poem takes a sudden twist of darkness in line 13, “Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus” Perdus can refer to several things. Originally a French term, “perdu” is a soldier assigned to an extremely hazardous duty ( The second meaning is hidden, concealed, or obscured. ( In this context, Poe is probably using the first definition. “the leaf” in line 12 can be  an allusion to the Tree of Knowledge. We seek out the meaning of life but cannot comprehend what is written on the leaf.  The “three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing” can be referencing the words, “I love you” since poets are frequently known as hopeless romantics. As for “as the name is a poet’s, too,” Poe is telling her that he cares for her so much that his name, which consequently is 3 “words” long, has become “I love you”. But “I love you”, like “the knight Pinto-Mendez Ferdinando” or Fernando Mendez Pinto, who was a Portuguese explorer and writer known to have recorded his adventures with many lies in between that no one is sure how truthful his tales are, the phrase is naturally used for lying. However his feelings are genuine, they “form a synonym for Truth”, his truth. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Comparing Wineburg, Ohio and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

WInesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories written by Sherwood Anderson, deals with the overwhelming loneliness and disillusionment that sometimes comes with growing old. Similarly, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” addresses the confusion and hopelessness of growing older.  The loss of youth is expressed through lines such as “I grow old…I grow old…” (line 120) and “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (line 122) The peach in line 122 bears connotations of sex and sweetness, both which are often saved for the young. The speaker’s constant questioning throughout the poem: “To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?” (line 38), “Do I dare / Disturb the Universe?” (lines 45-46),  and “So how should I presume?” (line 54) also serves to put an emphasis on the self-doubt the speaker feels, indecisiveness, and inability for the speaker to act out on his desires. Similarly, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio characters encounter this same problem. The majority of them are grotesques that cling to their “truths” or desires. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, the characters in Winesburg, Ohio waste their time asking questions, dappling in self-pity, and giving into self-doubt. They deny themselves the company and understanding that they seek through their inability to act on their desires. Instead, they waste their time by praying, speaking to imaginary characters that they made up inside their heads, and creating shapes of figures out of pillows in their bed. J. Alfred Prufrock’s question, “So how should I presume?” is equivalent to that of Elizabeth Willard’s praying in “Mother”. The questions and praying are only a distraction, an excuse to not fulfill their desires. Elizabeth Willard has every capability to leave Winesburg, Ohio. She has the money; her father gave her eight-hundred dollars before he passed away. In fact, she hid the money in the walls, and it remained there until the day she died. In the same way, J. Alfred Prufrock, who we assume is the speaker of T.S. Eliot’s poem, has the potential and means to do the simple things he keeps asking the reader and universe permission for. He asks, “how should I begin?” instead of simply starting, and seems to be confused and apprehensive about going through with the simplest, most trivial things. He is extremely concerned about what others think of him as he goes over how he looks in lines 40-45, “ With a bald spot in the middle of my hair- / (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin- / (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) “Like the characters of Winesburg, Ohio it is what others think of them that leads to their isolation; it is their inability to connect and understand one another.  In Sherwood Anderson’s “Loneliness”, the character, Enoch, could not connect with others because he could not express how he felt. This inability to express himself could have been caused by the self consciousness he felt as others judged his artwork. The speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” also experiences isolation and loneliness as he cannot express himself. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mad Girl's Love Song

Mad Girl's Love Song

By Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

            The poem, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath, is a villanelle which is characterized by 19 lines and 5 tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes with the first and third line of the first tercet alternately repeating until the last stanza. The last stanza includes both repeated lines. In this piece, the two repeating lines are, “(I think I made you up inside my head.” And “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead”. These two repeating lines play to the title, Mad Girl’s Love Song, by mimicking the words uttered by a “mad girl” in her brief moments of sanity before she dives back into her own insanity. There’s almost a schizophrenic kind of quality about the phrase “I think I made you up inside my head”. By adding the two extra words “I think”, she changes the meaning drastically. Without it, “I made you up inside my head” sounds confident, sure, and sane. By adding, “ I think”, Plath gives us the impression that the speaker is unsure of the divide between reality and her imagination.
            Plath also makes several allusions within the context of this poem. Nearly the whole fourth stanza is a religious allusion. She mentions God, Hell’s fire, Seraphim, and Satan. In the first line of the fourth stanza Plath states, “God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade;” God represents the structure, stability, and presence of religion in her life. So when she tells us that “God topples from the sky”, she implies that her belie in religion has faded along with “hell’s fires”. Seraphim refer to the celestial beings that appear in the Hebrew Bible. Though the word “seraph” can translate into “the burning ones” these beings with six wings and four heads that surround God are what our society knows as angels. Satan’s men, probably refers to the damned. In this stanza, the speaker expresses that her faith in religion is lost, and that she does not believe in heaven or hell.
            In the last stanza she writes, “I should have loved a thunderbird instead;” A thunderbird is a creature that appears in Native American mythology. This bird is capable of creating storms and thunderous noise with the flapping of its wings, and he is known to be intelligent, powerful, and wrathful. It is peculiar that she chooses this particular bird, especially since it is wrathful. Plath conveys the speaker’s need for loyalty and security by alluding to the thunderbird. The speaker would be willing face the wrath of the thunderbird and the storms it creates as long as it returns back to her. The second line of the last stanza, “At least when spring comes they rear back again” further emphasizes the speaker’s desire for consistency with her lover.

            Since this poem appears in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, this too, may be slightly autobiographical. The publication date of this poem is in 1953, and since her marriage to Ted Hughes was in 1956, it is quite possible that this poem is about him. The lines, “I dreamt you bewitched me into bed/ And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane” refers to a lover of some kind. And Plath herself described Hughes as “ "a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer"”, so since she writes that the lover “sung me moon-struck”, the poem very well might be referring to her soon to be husband, Ted Hughes. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Winesburg, Ohio : "Adventure"

In “Adventure”, Sherwood Anderson introduces the character of Alice Hindman. Like many of the other characters, such as Wing Biddlebaum, her dreams are taken away at a young age through a series of unfortunate events. In Alice Hindman’s case, she has an affair with an older (married) man named Ned Curie who worked at the Winesburg Eagle and “falls in love”. He promises to come back for her one day as he moves to Chicago, but he forgets about her. Alice, however, cannot forget about Ned and she wastes her life away, waiting for him to come back. Sherwood Anderson makes a point to call her “the girl who had been loved” even though she was the mistress to Ned Curie and not the wife. It’s curious that she receives that title/name even though in reality, Alice had never been truly loved. Everything about their relationship was built on impulsiveness. As their relationship is described, Anderson chooses to give the impression that their affection for one another was all hype. Ned Curie was driven by the excitement of it all: “Alice was then a very pretty girl and Ned Currie took her into his arms and kissed her. He became excited and said things he did not intend to say…” (page 103-104) Alice on the other hand, was in love with the idea of love: “… and Alice, betrayed by her desire to have something beautiful come into her rather narrow life, also grew excited. She also talked. The outer crust of her life, all of her natural diffidence and reserve, was torn away and se gave herself over to the emotions of love.” (page 104) It is curious that even after Ned leaves for Chicago, she continues to be in love with Ned Currie until the age of 27, when she realizes that he isn’t going to come back for her. She clings to the idea and dream that he will come back and create a perfect life for the two of them. Like the other grotesques in this book, Alice Hindman is lonely and alone. To fill the gaps created by the loneliness and Ned’s betrayal, she chooses to cling to her truth. Her “truth” is the fantasy that Ned still loves her and that he will come back for her. And like most of the characters in this book, Alice does nothing to try and change her life. Instead, she waits for an outside force (Ned Currie) to come and save her. It is this idleness and refusal to take up her own destiny that makes her a grotesque. There is also something significant about the use of motifs such as darkness, nakedness, and the window. At the end, Alice realizes that “Many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.” When she comes to this realization she had just come back from running outside naked after looking out the window for some time. Her lack of clothing symbolizes her rebirth, while her decision to run outside after looking out the window shows that she is done with waiting for Ned to come back. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Death As A Narrator: The Book Thief

The most interesting thing about Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, is probably the way the extraordinary story is being told. Unlike most books who has an omnipresent voice that we know as the narrator who is never identified or the protagonist of the novel tell the story, Markus Zusak personified a state of being known as Death and created a character that is sympathetic, slightly cynical, yet humorous, and relatable. The character of death is not cold and malicious, instead the author surprises the reader by creating a character that is warm and sympathetic to the characters he follows. Like the dead, he is a victim to circumstance and he frequently questions his purpose and the intentions of his creator, much like the humans do. He is as much an observer as the reader, but because he is Death and life and death are the two common denominators for humans, he becomes the glue to the entire novel. He is able to spy on the lives of characters that have never interacted with Liesle, and he is able to express their last dying thoughts. Since The Book Thief does take place in Nazi Germany and death was rampant during that time with the concentration camps, battle fields, disease, and starvation, having a narrator that is Death makes the cold cruelty an underscore to the setting which the reader cannot forget. Even in parts of the novel where the worries of the war and conflict are forgotten and Liesle lives the life of a seemingly ordinary child, Death is present. He becomes both an insightful narrator and a constant foreshadowing device.  
            Because it is written in media res, meaning that Death already knows the ending to Liesle’s story and he constantly gives us sneak peaks to the ending, the narrator often gives away blunt truths or details to the end of the story. Though he is kind to the dying and even more sympathetic to those that have been left behind, he cuts right to the cold, hard truth. It is this no nonsense attitude that shapes his character, and gives the novel a new dimension. From the very first page, he has been extremely honest and even blunt to the reader. He delivers uncomfortable and sometimes upsetting news in a straightforward way that sometimes forces the reader to contemplate universal ideas such as death. In the second paragraph of the novel, he states, “Here is a small fact. You are going to die.” And it is his honesty and bluntness in handling this tale that makes every moment touching and genuine because with such a narrator, nothing that occurs within the novel feels forced or faked. While the narrator has never interacted with Liesle face-to-face, through a series of many unfortunate events, he has gotten a glimpse of her time and time again. Liesle manages to escape death many times, much like her father, and somehow these “almost” interactions make the ending where Liesle is able to embrace Death without any grudges or hard feelings believable. Circumstance brings the two characters together, just as it brought Max and Liesle together. And while Death is a personified figure, he is as lost as any of the other characters are. He interacts directly with a reader, just as a human might, and leaves us with a lasting thought with his final comment: “A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans.” 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798” Within the Pages of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was a writer of the Romanticism Period, and her work reflects the many characteristics of her era. The Romanticism Period that dated from 1800 to 1850, was in part brought to its peak by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their dual publication of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of their poetry, marked the beginning of the period. As the period emerged, the pattern of intense love of nature, focus on the supernatural, feelings dictating logic, and interest in the mysterious became common place. Mary Shelley’s work, Frankenstein, which was published during the Romanticism Period’s peak, was no exception. Though the work can be characterized under the sub-genre of Gothic Literature as well, her story fits right in with her era. Her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, frequently compares his ambitious work of science to the supernatural, specifically alluding to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and God.
On page 155 of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley directly quotes lines 77 to 81 of Tintern Abbey,
“The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,”
This particular excerpt of poetry from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13th 1798” is quoted in Frankenstein after Clerval (Victor’s closest friend) is killed by Victor’s own monster, and Victor reflects on his life, on the beautiful scenery around him, and on Clerval’s memory. Mary Shelley uses this particular work of poetry to enhance the essence of Clerval, who was tranquil, light hearted, kind, and poetic. Victor Frankenstein describes Henry Clerval this way:
“He was a being formed in the ‘very poetry of nature.’ His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the worldy-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. But even human sympathies were not sufficient to satisfy his eager mind. The scenery of external nature, which others regard only with admiration, he loved with ardour”
Henry Clerval was a true romantic and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is able to represent this character well. The speaker of the poem is much like Clerval; he becomes one with nature over the course of the poem and talks about his memory living on within himself even as he leaves the beautiful scenery of Tintern Abbey. At the same time, this poem also captures Victor’s feelings towards Henry Clerval. What he felt towards his friend was “a feeling and a love”. Victor, being isolated throughout much of the novel, does not interact with too many people. He cares about very little besides his scientific work, Elizabeth, and Henry Clerval. This makes losing his best friend very hard. Mary Shelley often shows nature and Victor’s ambition in a flattering, idealistic, romantic light, and often compares the two. It makes sense that she compares Clerval, who can be considered “a part of Victor Frankenstein” to the nature around him which is brought up so often throughout the novel.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Amber Spyglass and Religious Allusions

            After analyzing Frankenstein in AP Lit and reading How to Read Literature like a Professor, my eyes were opened up to the subtle religious allusions that exist within the book I read. In particular, my mind was drawn back to a book I read back in middle school: The Amber Spyglass. The Amber Spy Glass was the third and concluding book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It featured, a girl, a boy, daemons, witches, magic, different worlds, and a war that would determined the fate of the universe. All in all, it sounds much like any typical fantasy novel for adolescents. However, what stuck with me in this particular novel was the way these young characters dug deeper into controversial topics like religion and the way the author actively made allusions to the bible. In a sense, this story is a retelling of Paradise Lost, but instead of the ending being tragic, their sin is seen as something beautiful and natural.
            The wording and references to religious imagery can be spotted in this passage:
“She could see him quite clearly, even at that distance; the moonlight was brilliant, and her eyes were adjusted to it. She looked through the spyglass, and put the matter beyond doubt: it was a human figure, radiating Dust.
            He was carrying something: a long stick of some kind. He came along the path quickly and easily, not running, but moving like an athlete or hunter. He was dressed in simple dark clothes that would normally conceal him well; but through the spyglass he showed up as if he were under a spotlight.”
            In this passage, the character being described can be considered to be a Christ-like figure. The figure is wearing simple clothes, holding a stick, and is being illuminated. Though they didn’t mention long hair or a beard, this description is enough to covey the image of Jesus.

            This passage is practically a direct retelling of the story of Eve and the apple, “So the snake said, “Put your foot through the hole in the seedpod where I was playing, and you will become wise.” So she put a foot in where the snake had been. And the oil entered her blood and helped her see more clearly than before, and the first thing she saw was the sraf.
            However, instead of the new gained knowledge from the snake leading to tragedy, this Eve is almost rewarded for her “sin”. It is not seen as something bad, but rather, something that should be celebrated. The knowledge that she was exposed to, enlightened her. The snake comes up many more times throughout the novel. He is hidden within the sleeves of Sir Charles, and it is implied that the snake is his daemon. And if the snake truly is his daemon, a reflection of himself, then Sir Charles could be a character representative of Satan in this series.

            In fact if you look at the His Dark Materials series as a whole, the trilogy itself is one giant allusion to the Bible. It retells the origin of sin, and asks the same questions of existence and God. However, what differs is its interpretation. It changes the point of view so that sin becomes something natural and something necessary for happiness and life to exist. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rereading The House on Mango Street

            The first time I read The House on Mango Street, I was in the eighth grade. I was thirteen and still naïve, even though I thought I knew everything about the world already. I recall liking the book, and as an adolescent I could connect with the many “coming of age” themes that were featured within the many short stories within the novel. But when I picked this book up again during the summer, I found that I missed a lot of key points within the story. I began to see things that my younger self skipped over or simply erased because she couldn’t understand or relate to the experience. It was similar to the experience I had during freshman year, when a friend and I were discussing the book, Speak. I had read it in the fourth of fifth grade because an older family friend gave us a box full of her books when she went off to college. During the discussion my friend brought up the question, “Weren’t you a bit young for that?” I didn’t understand. When I read the book around age 11, I vaguely recalled a story about a girl who struggled in school, hated her teachers and peers, cried a lot, and was unfairly blamed after calling the cops at a party. What I didn’t realize however, was that Speak’s plot revolved around the protagonist getting raped. I liked the book, but I had not processed the entire story. In fact, I had missed its main point. Her actions (doing poorly in school, being suddenly introverted, and hating everyone around her) were due to her guilt and anger surrounding the incident (which was not explicitly mentioned but implied).
            When I picked up the book, The House on Mango Street, once more I opened my eyes to a multitude of things I failed to catch before. Here is an excerpt from the story, “The Family with Little Feet”

            “Them are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops, but we just run.
            On the avenue a boy on a homemade bicycle calls out:
Ladies, lead me to heaven.
            But there is nobody around but us.
            Do you like these shoes? Rachel says yes, and Lucy says yes, and yes, I say, these are the best shoes. We will never go back to wearing the other kind again. Do you like these shoes?”  (Cisneros 41)

            At age 14, I thought the story was playful, entertaining, and rather humorous. These young girls (who were probably around my age or a bit younger) walked down the street in pretty high heels like they were at the top of the world. At age 14, I didn’t see the harm in doing so. I thought the man who warned them by saying that they were “too young to be wearing shoes like that” was just jealous and too old to relate. But now I see why Sandra Cisneros chose to add these minor characters and pieces of little dialogue. The House on Mango Street is told from the perspective of a young girl, and so often, even darker experiences are told from an innocent, naïve point of view. Keeping the dialogue of older, more experienced characters within the story helps the reader understand the situation more clearly. They reveal the intentions and opinions of the people on Mango Street, the adults (and or society). And the way these serious topics are addressed so casually and off-handedly by minor characters is jarring. It leaves us feeling concerned, uncomfortable, and slightly scared for the young girl who knows very little about the world. Older audiences are able to see the sexualization of the young girls and the objectivity that sometimes comes with being female. And so when the boy calls out, “Ladies, lead me to heaven” we know that the girls shouldn’t be flattered like they are in the story. They should be scared and slightly creeped out that the boy is checking them out and viewing them that way. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, certainly makes a number of references to the Bible and sin, in general. She alludes to the Garden of Eden, Satan- the fallen angel, and the forbidden knowledge. And as AP Lit students we debate back and forth about whether Victor Frankenstein is truly evil, whether he is just another victim to fate, and whether he is sinning by trying to play God. But what is sin, exactly? Is sin equivalent to an evil deed? Is it the same as doing something morally wrong? Is sin in our intentions or in the actions we take? And without understanding how sin ties into Frankenstein through Biblical allusions, we cannot understand the text to its full extent.
            Sin is by definition the “transgression of divine law or a violation of moral principle” ( But most of the time, religious passages are often open to interpretation and morality is defined by each individual. It does not explicitly state in the ten commandments that “thou shall not create a monster from dead human body parts”, but Mary Shelley puts in subtle hints that lead the reader to find the answer as to whether Victor Frankenstein was simply ambitious and curious or out right sinning. At the end of chapter III, she writes from the point of Victor Frankenstein, “ Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.” As Thomas C. Foster wrote in How to Read Literature like a Professor, an illness or injury is hardly ever just “chance” in literature. It is nearly always a physical manifestation of the character’s internal conflict. If Victor Frankenstein had simply pursued the creation of the monster out of pure curiosity and to expand his knowledge of the sciences, then he probably wouldn’t have suffered from illness nor have felt “nervous to a most painful degree.” On top of this, Mary Shelley chose to write explicitly, “..if I had been guilty of a crime”.
            Sin is nearly impossible to define. It changes from situation to situation and it differs from person to person. However, based on the wording within the passages of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley seems to be pushing her readers into coming to the conclusion that Victor Frankenstein was most certainly committing a sin. Now, was this a sin because he chose to play the part of God and obtain the power to create his own living creature? Or was it the fact that Victor mirrors Eve, who was seduced by Lucifer to pick the apple from the Tree of Knowledge?

Here are the Ten Commandments:
  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
-  Exodus 20:1-17

Based on the Ten Commandments from the Bible, one can potentially put Victor’s actions into breaking the first or second Commandments. He had made himself a God by creating his own creature, breaking “You shall have no other gods before me”. And if one views Frankenstein’s monster as a part of Victor, he would have also broken the second commandment “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.” The monster considers Victor to be his creator and his god, and seems to worship him, “Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit” (Shelley, XVII). And so, worshipping Victor as an idol, the two of them would be breaking the 2nd commandment.