29 April 2016

Protagonists are not Always Good

In my Introduction to Literature course, one of the first things we learn are the elements of plot, specifically protagonist, antagonist, internal and external conflict, and Freytag's Triangle. I argue that they need to understand what happened before they can delve into why it all happened.

When we start talking about protagonists and antagonists, they immediately tell me it's good guys and bad guys. I don't know who is teaching it this way in high school (grade school?), but I want to find this person and have a nice sit-down with him or her. This idea is so ingrained in their heads that I swear half of them still are running with it at the end of the semester despite my continual protests and awesome handouts.

Just so we are all on the same page:

Protagonist: main character
Antagonist: person or thing that works against the protagonist

So at its most traditional, Harry Potter is a protagonist and Lord Voldemort is an antagonist. Harry being all "I want a normal life" and Voldemort being all "I must kill you Harry" which, obviously, prevents Harry from that normal life fantasy. This is an example of a traditional external conflict.

But not all books follow such a traditional structure. For example, some stories have internal conflicts where the protagonist and antagonist are the same person. Think Hamlet and his non-stop pontificating over what he should do about his father's murder. It's Hamlet v. Hamlet ladies and gentleman.

Also, a pro does not have to be a good person. Actually a pro can be a very, very, very bad person like in American Psycho or Lolita. Here are 18 more books with nasty protagonists if you are interested.

Who do you think they left off the list? Who are your favorite bad guy protagonists?

26 April 2016

Traditional Wins in Early American Lit

I recently posted a review of Henry James's Daisy Miller in which I remarked that the overall plot of the novella suggests that the traditional views of acceptable behavior and thought win out over the progressiveness of American culture. The novella challenges the status quo through the character of Daisy, who we are clearly supposed to identify with, and yet her comeuppance is quite drastic, suggesting a less-than-stellar recommendation for defying tradition.

Possibly the most remarkable example of the traditional or dominant culture winning in early American Lit is the story of Phillis Wheatley, a slave living in the mid-1800s. While the white family she - quite literally - belonged to is alive, Wheatley enjoys a privileged position in society, even traveling to Europe and socializing with aristocracy and dignitaries. When that family passes, however, Wheatley loses her status and eventually dies in abject poverty. Despite being renowned in the Western world as a great poet, the American public refused to support Wheatley.

It is arguable that the dominant culture, white American culture, won out long before Wheatley's fall to poverty and eventual death. Wheatley's acclimation to white America was astounding, she even went so far as to write the following in one of her poems:

"'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God".

She believes that her arrival in Western culture which brought her to Christianity is a blessing despite the fact she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For a modern reader, this is, I think, rather distasteful; although she does lighten the horror by using this opening as a way to introduce the idea that while "some view our sable race with scornful eye" Americans need to know that "Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train". Still, by saying that African-Americans need to be "refin'd" she is letting white American culture win.

Strangely Wheatley's life story and James's fictional one seem to contradict each other regarding the progressiveness of American and European society. In Daisy Miller, it is the Americans who are progressive; whereas the opposite is true in Wheatley's case. Europe would not countenance a female who disregarded the boundaries of her gender; America would not support an African-American who disregarded the boundaries of her race. This makes me want to read more works about the collision of European and American society in regards to gender and racial equality. Was Europe open to racial equality but bound and determined to deny women? Was America okay with progressive women but adamant against equality across race? If you have any suggestions on relevant books, I would love to hear them!

James and Wheatley both feature two cultures colliding, and it is clear that all parties are effected by the clash, but in all both cases, the dominant culture wins. Overall, do you think these authors are challenging the status quo or supporting it?

19 April 2016

Americans and the Other

Nothing binds Americans together more than the foreign “Other”, especially in the context of war.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was tiredly sitting on the “L”, on my way to work in downtown Chicago. I didn’t make it two steps into my building when we were sent home for fear an attack on Chicago was imminent. Over the next year, I was impressed, frustrated, and disgusted by the American reaction to the tragedy. Patriotism skyrocketed, flags were flying everywhere, and Americans were joining together in solidarity. Well, Americans that didn’t look like the people who attacked the country anyway. Those Americans were being ostracized and demonized.

David Foster Wallace, in his article “9/11: The View from the Midwest”, really captures the feel of those days. When explaining the unity of Americans at the time, Wallace points out the strange truth about flags: “If the purpose of a flag is to make a statement, it seems like at a certain point of density of flags you’re making more of a statement if you don’t have one out” (Wallace). The sense that not joining in the unified display of patriotism was an indication of hating America or sympathizing with terrorists was very real. When threatened by an outside force, America joins together in an almost obsessive way, and there is certainly a negative reaction against those who do not join in the spectacle of unity.

Whitman, in “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice” and “First O Songs for a Prelude”, discusses American unity in a much more positive light. Wallace’s undertones suggest a possible falsity to the displays of unity; he points out that his fear over not having a plastic flag is rather macabre when so many just died - the unity of the living subjugating the loss of the dead. Whitman’s discussion, however, proposes this unity is a favorable attribute.

In “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” Whitman argues that the only way for peace and freedom to flourish is through love. I think his poem would have been useful in the days after 9/11. Arguing that “the continuance of Equality shall be comrades”, Whitman’s words may have discouraged the rampant hatred that sprung up against the Middle East, against Muslims, against anyone who looked in any way like the terrorists.

Whitman again addresses this unity in his poem “First O Songs for a Prelude” which is about the way his community quickly “threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand” to join in the war. He speaks of all the men, listing various jobs they have, leaving to fight, arming themselves, “blood up”. The men join together in arms, the mothers sadly, worriedly support their sons' decision to join, all are working together towards the united front.

In “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice”, Whitman says “affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet”, and I certainly hope this is true. This theme of Americans joining together in solidarity – whether to fight or to support the fighters - seems common in American war literature.

Obviously patriotism is still alive and well in America today, but do you think the extremes of it are actually polarizing the country?

17 April 2016

Sunday Spotlight: Laziness

Every Sunday, I highlight one thing: one book, one idea, one dish, one person, one show, one anything. Today, the spotlight is on:
as illustrated by this photo of Carter
Now, laziness is defined as "a disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself" and I suffer from it every single time my mother watches my children on a weekend or weeknight. I'm the master of productivity from Monday to Friday and when my kids are with me on the weekends. But on the occasional night the kids stay over at grandma's or the random Saturday she takes them to have some playtime, I lose my shit.

I'll get a few things done. The necessities like homework or, actually that's it, just homework. But once that is done, I got nothing. I will sit and stare at the massive mess in my living room. Toys everywhere. I will contemplate upon the laundry that is piling up downstairs, the dishes that may or may not be precariously stacked on top of each other on the counter, that DIY project I have NEVER EVEN STARTED, my closet which has all of my clothes haphazardly hanging in no order whatsoever.

But instead of using my alone time to power through my disgustingly long list of things-to-be-done, I end up sitting on the couch, nothing tv playing in the background, and really just staring off into space. This is, of course, followed by increasing feelings of guilt and regret and promises to do better next time as the hour gets closer and closer to the pick-up-the-kids time.

I have the ability to act, the ability to be awesome and organized and clean and on-top-of-things, I just don't have the inclination.

Lazy Trisha. Aaaahhhh. :)

12 April 2016

Sartor Resartus: Faith and Doubt in Victorian Britain

David Amigoni, in Victorian Literature, remarks that Victorian society revolved around oppositions: rural and urban, modernity and historicity, progress and tradition, and science and faith (5-6). Continually stuck in a fight between opposing and contradictory ideologies, the Victorians were probably relieved by the permission to doubt granted them in chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Book Two in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.

Sartor Resartus, often referred to as Thomas Carlyle’s “spiritual autobiography”, follows the main character, Diogenes, as he “gains an education steeped in the traditions of the Enlightenment which destroys his belief in revealed religion, but leaves him little or nothing positive to embrace” (Trela). All of this leads to a crisis of faith which we see in “The Everlasting No”. Diogenes goes through a period of doubt in “The Center of Indifference” but then he realizes that he must embrace the divinity of the universe as expressed in “The Everlasting Yea”. Diogenes's path, and much of his reasoning, mirrors that of Carlyle himself as he worked through his own crisis of faith (Trela). By putting his own spiritual journey out there, himself a great man known for his intellectualism and his faith, Carlyle gave Victorians permission to question the traditional views and dogma of established religions.

The argument Carlyle makes that might have helped allay Victorian anxiety is that doubt increases faith. Carlyle writes that readers can’t “call our Diogenes” wicked due to his crisis of faith because “unprofitable servants as we all are, perhaps at no era of his life was he more decisively the Servant of Goodness, the Servant of God, than even now when doubting God’s existence”. Carlyle contends that true faith requires challenge and that “a tearing down or questioning of the beliefs of one faith is in fact the preparation for a newer, richer, and truer form of belief in a new era” (Trela). He gives Victorians permission to question their faith and to modify it for a new generation: “In every new era, too, such Solution comes out in different terms; and ever the Solution of the last era has become obsolete, and is found unserviceable. For it is man’s nature to change his Dialect from century to century; he cannot help it though he would” (Carlyle). Victorians embodied change and that spilled over into faith; as Amigoni states, “religious faith in a stable creation was never far from intellectual skepticism engendered by a sense of impermanence in Victorian society and culture” (Amigoni 6). For a society in the midst of tremendous change in all aspects of life, a society steeped in tradition, simultaneously hanging on to and rejecting ideologies of the past, permission to change must have been comforting.

Then again, even with the relieving messages in the text, Victorian society may not have benefitted from Sartor Resartus at all as it received a “bewildered reception with the audience of its day; neither Tories, Utilitarians, nor Whigs really understood it…due to Carlyle’s intentional disruption of the expectations of his British audience’s na├»ve realism” (Baker 225). Even if the text was understood by a broad audience, the Victorians never had a massive revival of faith, at least not to the “Everlasting Yea” extreme.

As with Victorian times, contemporary western societies may feel relief or even vindication at Carlyle’s contention that doubt is a path to a stronger faith. Doubt in a higher power permeates western culture as, again like with the Victorians, science continually answers those questions once put to God and experience and humanity deny tenets of organized religious dogma once held fast. Also like the Victorians, contemporaries seem stuck at Doubt, never quite making it to the Everlasting Yea.

Do you think people appreciate permission to doubt? Does doubt actually increase faith?

Works Cited

Amigoni, David. Victorian Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. Print.

Baker, Lee C. R. “The Open Secret of “Sartor Resartus”: Carlyle’s Method of Converting His Reader”. Studies in Philology 83.2 (Spring 1986): 218-235. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. eBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide. Web. 6 March 2016.

Trela, D.J. "Carlyle, Thomas 1795-1881." Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Ed. Margaretta Jolly. London: Routledge, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

10 April 2016

Sunday Highlight: Sexing the Cherry

Every Sunday, I highlight one thing: one book, one idea, one dish, one person, one show, one anything. Today, the spotlight is on:
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Before I delve into the what of it, may I remark on the why of it. Why focus on this for a Sunday Spotlight - and before I've even finished it - because I am finding it awesome, truly amazing work that I am consuming in a consciously slow manner in an effort to draw out the experience. Now then, the what of it from our friends at GoodReads:

In a fantastic world that is and is not seventeenth-century England, a baby is found floating in the Thames. The child, Jordan, is rescued by Dog Woman and grows up to travel the world like Gulliver, though he finds that the world’s most curious oddities come from his own mind. Winterson leads the reader from discussions on the nature of time to Jordan’s fascination with journeys concealed within other journeys, all with a dizzying speed that shoots the reader from epiphany to shimmering epiphany.

And one from Winterson's website:

Sexing the Cherry celebrates the power of the imagination as it playfully juggles with our perception of history and reality. It is a story about love and sex; lies and truths; and twelve dancing princesses who lived happily ever after, but not with their husbands.

Typically I prefer my own summary, but I find that what I focus on in the novel seems to be not what others highlight and what I am getting out of it offshoots of the interpretations of others. All of this is why I am loving this experimental and eccentric work. The writing is gorgeous, magical even, but it is also chaotic. Winterson's non-linear, ambiguous narrative which beautifully blurs the line between the world and the mind, the past and the future, fascinates the reader into falling into the world of the story for long stretches of time.

Side Note: Way back in 2010, Ana over at things mean a lot posted a mini-review of this novella, and I said I really needed to pick it up since I'd had it on the shelves for quite some time. Six years later, I finally am reading it. In other words, WIN.

Side Side Note: The title is really deceptive. This book is, more than likely, not at all at all what you think it's about.

07 April 2016

Review: Lady Audley's Secret

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is the novel I am analyzing for my final research paper in Graduate Studies in Victorian Literature. I am a huge fan of Wilkie Collins and sensationalism, and yet I had never read this novel which, along with Collins's The Woman in White, is a hallmark of sensational fiction.

In this strangely swirling tale, Lucy, a governess, marries Sir Michael Audley, a much wealthier man. It is their story. Simultaneously, Robert Audley reunites with an old friend, George, recently returned from Australia and looking for a happy homecoming with his wife. It is their story. And it is the marriage of these two stories that really sets off the mystery.

This is one of those books that is difficult to talk about for fear of revealing anything that will be more exciting if revealed by the text. Of course, the mystery itself is actually not much of a mystery in my opinion. I - and I think most readers - knew very early on what Lady Audley's secret is. Sort of like Victoria's secret, Lady Audley's is not exactly well hidden.

What is so intriguing about this tale is not the mystery, it's watching Robert decide if he wants to actually solve it and it's contemplating Lady Audley's actual culpability and motivation. Despite the relative obviousness of the text's twists, the novel remains suspenseful throughout, and I was flipping the pages as fast as I could without losing the intricacies of the plot.

The real niggling sensation for Victorian readers, the tingle up their backs, probably centers on the destruction of the domestic sphere. The home was a place of safety, wives a tranquil calm away from the storm of the public sphere, and yet in Lady Audley's Secret the home becomes a place of horror - and not in any Gothic, supernatural way. By taking a basic tenet of traditional Victorian ideology, a truth they held dear, and defamiliarizing it, Braddon certainly increased both shock value and social commentary.

The novel brings up very powerful points regarding womanhood in the Victorian Age and specifically the role of a wife and mother - the two roles a woman was encouraged (required?) to strive for and succeed at according to a strict set of guidelines and traditions. Still, this is a sensational novel, not a realist one, and any social commentary is secondary to the spectacle which is the focus. A thinking reader can see the difficulty of Lucy's position and pontificate on what Victorians called "The Woman Question". The problem of direct social commentary on the role of women is complicated by Braddon's - and many other author's - contrary desires: to say something important and to have a bestseller, an issue I may actually tackle in a future post.

Of course any discussion of the novel would be remiss without pointing out the amazingly obvious, in my opinion, homosexual undertones in the relationship between Robert and George. An even more controversial issue than The Woman Question, homosexuality, or at least homosocial desire, abounded in Victorian literature, and yet it was a subtle inclusion, a suggestion, a coded language even. Perhaps a Victorian can read the novel and see a simple friendship, but many a modern reader sees much, much more in the relationship between Robert and George.

Ultimately, this is a riveting tale that is both a landmark novel in Victorian and sensationalist literature and also simply good read.

05 April 2016

The Sun Also Rises and The Yellow Wallpaper

The female narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" and the lead female character in The Sun Also Rises are two extremely different personalities, highlighting extreme responses to gender-based expectations of behavior in American culture. One submits completely to male power; the other defies it just as completely.

The unnamed narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper", despite her own contradictory opinions, acquiesces to the expectations of the men in her life who function as authorities, as parents almost. She knows that her husband's prescribed treatment for her "nervous condition" is not helping; she even knows that she is, in fact, getting worse. Despite her knowledge, she cannot break free of the constraints put upon her by a society which removes personal power from the hands of women and places it directly into the hands of the men in her life. The narrator is at the mercy of her husband and brother.

In The Sun Also Rises, Brett, conversely, defies the expectations of her gender, adopts masculine traits, clothing, and hair styles, and continuously acts according to her own preferences. She is in charge of her own life in a way the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is not and cannot be. Most of the criticism that focuses on Brett as a “bitch” looks primarily at "the ways in which she dominates the various male characters" (Yu). This domination is quite opposite from the complete and utter submission of "The Yellow Wallpaper's" narrator. She is not pliable or content but she is compliant; Brett, however, "unlike most women of the nineteenth century...is always in control of her surroundings" (Marney). I'm not quite sure how much happiness Brett's agency gave her though; although certainly more than the unnamed narrator who just goes batshit insane.

Only 34 years separate these two stories. Do you think gender expectations changed that drastically from 1892 to 1926 or are these each extremes of their time?