Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lily's death

After reading the article for the prĂ©cis assignment this week, it made me see that rather than just being a tragic ending to this novel, Lily’s death could be symbolic of a number of things. Like the article suggested, it could represent the death of the lady. In the 20th century this lady of leisure had to die in order to make way for the new working woman. In order for modern women like Nettie and Gerty Farish to grow and flourish, women like Lily could not exist anymore. For Wharton personally it represented a transition into a new type of fiction, this book was a turning point in her life as a writer. It may also have represented Wharton’s longing to escape the lady’s world she felt so trapped in. Writing this death and dramatic exit from society could have been Wharton’s way of expressing her secret desires.
Whether it was an accident or suicide, Lily’s death appears to suggest that the only escape for women in this society, who could not find a suitable husband or money, was death. Without a wealthy husband or good standing in society, she had little hope of surviving on her own, or of somehow working her way back up the social ladder. Or maybe this was just the way Lily viewed her world.
The symbolism of Lily’s hallucination before her death has also led to a number of different interpretations. To some this scene is regressive, and to some it is hopeful. Some suggest that is symbolizes her retreat to the safety of infancy, she wanted to escape the pressures and difficulties of adulthood. Others argue it represents hope, holding the baby symbolizes the future Lily could have had, as she realizes she could have been happy with Selden. After seeing Nettie’s life and happiness, Lily may finally have begun to understand that money is not needed to find happiness. Showalter argues that this was Lily’s awakening, as she began to see how Nettie’s life could be fulfilling.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lily and society

In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s struggle to survive in a strict society reveal a lot about her character, and possibly Wharton’s own beliefs of society in this time period. Lily is a confusing character. In some ways she defies the expectations of her time, but in other ways she conforms to them. While at first she seems to care little about society’s expectations of her, as we learn more of her hopes and plans for marriage, it becomes clear that she isn't as independent and defiant as she first appeared.
At times, especially early on in the novel, she appears to be a strong, independent woman. She has waited longer that was acceptable to get married, and even with so much pressure on her to marry soon she still takes her time, and turns down offers. Just the fact that she turns town marriage proposals from wealthy men is quite defiant. For example, Rosedale offers her the wealth she claims to be looking for; “I wanted money, and I’ve got more than I know how to invest; and now the money doesn’t seem to be of any account unless I can spend it on the right woman. That’s what I want to do with it: I want my wife to make all the other women feel small” (228), but she turns him down. Accepting his proposal would have been an easy solution to all her problems. She would have been wealthy, and probably accepted back into the society she is to desperate to stay a part of. But saying no to his proposal and continuing to reject the expectations society has placed on her hint at a part of her character that is rebellious. She is continuing to act according to what she wants, rather than what is expected of her.
However, as the novel progresses and we begin so see more of Lily’s character, she seems in many ways to conform to the social boundaries and expectations of that time period. She is desperate to fix her tarnished reputation, rather than searching for happiness she tries to find ways to climb back up the social ladder, and accumulate wealth to continue her extravagant lifestyle. She doesn’t consider marrying for love, she is still heavily influenced by the idea that in order to secure a future for herself she must marry a wealthy man. This does not fit with the image of a defiant woman, breaking the strict rules of society, as Lily is prepared to marry a man for money, even at the expense of her own happiness. Maybe this is Wharton suggesting that even rebellious women can’t escape the future society expects of them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Naturalism, Negativity and McTeague

The ideas and beliefs of naturalism are fascinating, especially how much it differs from transcendentalism. It is interesting to see how people can have such opposing views of humanity, the world, and nature.
Since learning about it, it becomes clear how much these views influenced the writing of McTeague. The comparisons of humans to animals are frequent, such as in chapter 2 when Trina is unconscious in McTeague’s dental chair. McTeague has an inner battle with the animal in him; “It was the old battle, old as the world, wide as the world – the sudden panther leap of the animal, lips drawn, fangs aflash, hideous, monstrous, not to be resisted, and the simultaneous arousing of the other man, the better self that cries, “Down, down,” without knowing why; that grips the monster; that fights to strangle it, to thrust it down and back” (21). What this scene also implies is the pessimistic view of naturalists, that humans are naturally bad. McTeague has to fight down his bad instincts, although they are so strong that they come close to winning, and he kisses Trina. Additionally, the way men and women are presented in this novel seems similar to animals. They have very distinct and separate roles, men are stronger while women are submissive.
Adhering to naturalism, McTeague offers a very pessimistic view of humans and society. The whole tone of the novel seems negative, there are few positive characters or aspects to it. Things that at first seem good don’t turn out to be so positive. For example, when Marcus gives up Trina and allows McTeague to be with her, it seems he is a good character and a good friend, he is more interested in the happiness of the people he cares about than his own. But this good deed turns sour when Trina wins the money. Marcus’ reaction makes it clear that he is no better than anyone else, in fact he may be worse because of the way he values money over love or happiness.
In McTeague Norris highlights all the ideas of naturalism, and presents characters that embody it. They are negative, materialistic and hopeless. They provide a pessimistic view of humanity, and can’t escape the negative paths their humanity has determined for them. While naturalism claims to be about what is rather than what should be, these negative ideas for humanity seem a lot worse than what is. While there is a lot about humanity that is negative, this novel and naturalism both ignore good aspects. It seems in naturalists’ world there is no room for any hopeful or positive characters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pudd'nhead Wilson

A key theme in Pudd’nhead Wilson is the idea that people are defined by how they are perceived in society, and how much the images placed on people by those around them can affect their lives. What this novel highlights is just how hard it is to escape the stereotypes and ideas people and society place on you.
As Twain states from the beginning, Pudd’nhead Wilson was forever plagued by the image placed on him after one misinterpreted comment. He could have been successful, but the image the community had of him, as a fool, a “pudd’nhead”, prevented anyone from taking him seriously. Once these images stick, everything the character does is seen through the lens of that image. For example when Judge Driscoll tries to prove Pudd’nhead Wilson’s image wrong by showing them Wilson’s calendar, everyone uses his calendar as supporting evidence for the idea that he is a pudd’nhead.
Similarly, Roxy was condemned by the perception that she was black. Despite looking white, the one drop rule meant everyone in the community saw her as black. She could not escape this, and because she was seen as a slave no one guessed at her intelligence. This also links back to the idea of nature versus nurture. Roxy must have been brought up knowing her place in society, being told she was black even if she didn’t look it. Just like how Chambers (the real Tom) grew up knowing people saw him as a black slave, he must have known he was not highly valued in society. Because of this he was submissive and took orders from Tom. Even at the end when he discovers who he really is, he still cannot simply become white, the effects of how people are viewed in society are so strong that it can influence a person’s character.
The point I’m trying to make is that, whether by society or nurture, people are put into certain categories, images of them are based on small incidents or one drop of black blood, which are hard to get rid of. The result is that sometimes it shapes their character, and sometimes it holds them back. What this novel highlights is just how hard it is to escape an image once people see you a certain way. Whether it’s being viewed as a pudd’nhead, or being viewed as black.
Additionally, what the cases of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Roxy highlight is just how wrong these perceptions can be. Twain displays how much of a constraint these perceptions can put on people, with the example of Pudd’nhead Wilson. He couldn’t build a successful career in the community once they all believed he was an idiot. But it also shows how sometimes these images can become beneficial, such as in the case of Roxy. She was able to pull off her scheme because no one would ever expect a slave to have her intelligence.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Queequeg and Coverdale

What I found interesting about Queequeg’s coffin, in chapter 110, ‘Queequeg in his coffin’, was that it reminded me of Coverdale’s melodramatic response to his illness in The Blithedale Romance. Although both characters actions were similar; both were convinced they would die, so prepared for death, they seemed shockingly different. I think it reflects the differences in their characters. While Coverdale is a drama queen, Queequeg is wise and realistic.

Coverdale was dramatic, that fact is clear. He hugely overplayed his illness, and this illness gave an early clue to his character. It hinted at his dramatization, and had implications for the novel as it cast doubt on his entire narrative. Coverdale is convinced he is going to die, despite what others tell him, and talks of his “weakly condition”. Queequeg reacted to his illness differently, being realistic about the idea of death and suffering quietly, much unlike Coverdale. Coverdale drags his illness out for a long time, unlike Queequeg’s illness which only lasts a few days and is contained in one short chapter. In strong contrast to Coverdale, Queequeg remains strong despite his illness, as Ishmael describes; “a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened” (Melville, 364).

While Coverdale’s illness displays his dramatic personality, Queequeg’s illness has the opposite effect. It displays him as person who is realistic; he knows that recovery is unlikely on a whaling ship with scarce access to medical care. It shows the strength of his character that he can come to terms with the fact of his death, rather than using his illness for attention and sympathy the way Coverdale does.

Queequeg wills himself back to health, contrasting to how Coverdale gets better despite his negative assumptions. Coverdale, if anything, does the opposite of willing himself back to health by wallowing in his illness and imagined death sentence.

Queequeg’s illness also takes on another meaning, which Coverdale’s does not. It may have been a form of foreshadowing, although Queequeg did not die from that particular illness, preparing a coffin somewhat foreshadowed the tragic ending of Moby-Dick. Preparing a coffin could also represent Queequeg’s wisdom. He knows death is inevitable in the hunt for Moby Dick, and has already come to terms with what is likely.

Even the people around each character emphasize the differences in their charachters. Ishmael looks on at Queequeg’s illness with awe. While Hollingsworth tries to convince Coverdale his illness is not so bad, as he tells him “You are not going to die, this time, … You know nothing about sickness, and think your case a great deal more desperate than it is” (Hawthorne, 43).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hell on a Whaling Voyage

Building on what I’d discussed previously about Melville’s representation of the human soul in the chapter ‘Brit’, and his likening the ocean to God, the chapter ‘Try-Works’ conjures up an alternative image of the sea – the image of hell. The try-works are now in use and so the fire on the ship is overwhelming.
There are numerous biblical references throughout the novel, but in ‘Try-Works’ Melville conjures up an image of hell; “shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night” (327). The hellish red fires on the ship are surrounded by the dark sea, and ocean full of unknown horrors, and the black night. At one point Ishmael becomes disorientated in the dark, and loses his bearings. He describes how a “stark, bewildered feeling, as of death” (327) came over him.
When Ishmael describes the harpooneers ‘huge pronged forks’ (327), it brings to mind images of the devils fork. These references to the devil hint at the horrors of whaling, and the way the harpooners violently kill the whales.
There are many other references to hell in this chapter; “devils in the forking flames” (328). These references could mean a number of things. Is Ishmael becoming disillusioned with the whaling voyage? Has he begun to see just how dangerous it is, that death is almost certain. The idea of almost certain death, combined with having to violently kill whales could be a situation close to hell for some. Alone in this darkness Ishmael begins to see things differently; “Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others” (327). He may be starting to see the realities of the voyage he is on, and his doubts are represented by these hellish images.
It is also interesting how he refers to the whale as a burning martyr in this chapter, supplying its own fuel to burn its own body. The way he refers to the whale as a martyr could be ironic, or maybe his is hinting at his admiration and respect for whales. They are creatures Melville finds so fascinating that he wrote a whole book about. Since the only way to become so familiar with whales is in a whaling voyage, maybe Melville does view them as martyrs. He makes a biblical reference about the day of judgement when the whale has died, could this be interpreted to mean he believes whales have some form of judgement day? He has applied human traits to whales before, presenting Moby-Dick as an evil whale, so it makes me wonder how Melville views whales.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Historic Whalers

 In chapter 82, “The Honor and Glory of Whaling”, Ishmael reveals his admiration for historic whalers. He talks of the stories of Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo. As the name of the chapter suggests Ishmael believes there is great honor and glory in whaling, and he uses these mythical stories as justification for his belief. He suggests the fact that whales live and are caught in the ocean makes it a more heroic task; “Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St. George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale” (285). While his images depict whaling in such a heroic light, I fail to see what is so glorious and heroic about it. While I understand that whaling is an extremely difficult and dangerous task, they are not fighting off whales that threaten their community, or predators endangering the lives of their families. They are simply hunting. They spend months chasing whales only to brutally kill them, for no purpose but their own economic gain.
The way Ishmael tells these mythical stories also gives an insight into what he thinks is important in storytelling. Ishmael focuses on the parts relevant to his point, and twists stories to suit the message he is trying to make. For example he claims the dragon St. George killed was actually a whale. If he can claim a dragon was actually a whale it makes me wonder what else he thought it was appropriate to change. This throws much of the novel and the mythical stories he had told about Moby-Dick into doubt.
The way he criticizes the people who look for the truth in these myths suggests he places less value on truth when trying to make a meaningful point. He might believe that a story which strays from the truth, or embellishes it, is ok because of the message it conveys. In chapter 83, “Jonah Historically Regarded”, he talks of the criticisms of the story of Jonah and the whale. He disregards Sag-Harbor’s ideas which go against the story, but argues for the reasons why it is true. While some argued a man could not survive in the gastric juices in the whale, Ishmael chooses to believe the arguments that Jonah stayed in the mouth of the whale, or took refuge in a dead whale. He seems so desperate to believe this story is true, that he disregards some explanations in favor of more unrealistic ones.