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.