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.