Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Looking Glass, and Literature

Virginia Woolf’s philosophy was that literature does not reflect reality.  She explores this idea in, “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A reflection”, where the looking glass becomes a metaphor for literature, and it’s inability to adequately grasp reality.  Like literature, the looking glass provides a picture, which is then distorted with subjective interpretation.  
“If she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand - the imagination,” (page 1226). The reflection itself is not enough. It presents a picture, but no meaning, no motivation.  So imagination and fantasy fill in.  Pure speculation takes over, and the narrator begins probing for hidden meanings that may or may not even exist.  “Under the stress of thinking about Isabella, her room became more shadowy and symbolic the corners seemed darker, the legs of chairs and tables more spindly and hieroglyphic,” (line 1226).  It goes to the ridiculous point of personifying the furniture as secret-keepers.  “Sometimes it seemed as if they knew more about her than we, who sat on them, wrote at them, and trod on them so carefully, were allowed to know,” (page 1225).  Yet, such speculations ignore the fact that mere drawers and furnishings are just that.  They are simply drawers and furnishings.  Speculation and imagination romanticizes and builds them up, but in doing so looses sight of their true nature.  
Isabella herself is treated the same way.  The narrator looking into the mirror imagines Isabella to be a worldly woman of mystery. “She had never married, and yet, judging from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had gone through twenty times more of passion and experience than those whose loves are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear,” (page 1226).  Just as her letters and furniture were built up to be great symbols and hints at her glamorous life, every move that Isabella makes is seen as indicative of some greater truth about her.  Out in the garden she picks a convolvulus flower instead of a rose or zinnia which is more typical for a woman her age. This, “showed how very little, after all these years, one knew about her, for it is impossible that any woman of flesh and blood of fifty-five or sixty should be really a wreath or a tendril,” (page 1225).  The looking glass’s reflection presents a picture, but that is all that it can do.  It cannot reveal Isabella’s real motivations in the matter.  So they are open to speculation.  Perhaps they are a symbol of her true self.  Maybe she just likes those flowers better.  The latter option is boring.  Back to the first one, the interesting one.  “But one was tired of the things that she talked about at dinner.  It was her profounder state of being that one wanted to catch and turn to words, the state that is to the mind what breathing is to the body, what one calls happiness or unhappiness,” (page 1227).
Yet all these speculations made by the narrator are completely off base.  “She stood naked in that pitiless light.  And there was nothing.  Isabella was perfectly empty.  She had no thoughts. She had no friends.  She cared for nobody.  As for her letters, they were all bills,” (page 1228).  Fantasy and imagination completely failed.  They revealed no greater truths about Isabella Tyson.  The reflection in the looking glass is very different from the flesh and blood woman because reality is living.  The reflection is stagnant.  “Meanwhile, since all the doors and windows were open in the heat, there was a perpetual sighing and ceasing sound, the voice of the transient and the perishing, it seemed, coming and going like human breath, while in the looking-glass things had ceased to breath and lay still in the trance of immortality,” (page 1225).  Yes, the fantasies are more entertaining.  But they ignore the actual woman they are trying to analyze. 
The reflection in the mirror can only reveal so much about reality.  It is a superficial view that is given more to subjective rather than literal interpretation.  It’s the same way with literature.  It can provide an image, an impression.  But it only scrapes the surface of reality, and leaves the rest to interpretation.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yeats and Innisfree

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Yeats describes the speaker’s desire to leave the city and live a simple, peaceful life in the country.  A notable aspect of the poem is it’s liberal use of sensory imagery.  Visually, the speaker contrasts the vibrancy and liveliness of the country, where the, “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,” (line 7) with his current position in the dull city, where he stands, “on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,” (line 11).  More often however, Yeats appeals to the sense of sound.  The speaker mentions living, “in the bee-loud glade,” (line 4), mornings, “where the cricket sings,” (line 6), and evenings, “full off the linnet’s wings,” (line 8).  To the speaker, peace does not necessarily equal complete silence.  It simply means that it is quiet enough to appreciate the natural world more fully.  He can be completely immersed, in rhythm with the beating wings and the cricket’s songs.  
According to the footnote, Innisfree is a real island in the region that Yeats spent time in during his youth.  Therefore, Innisfree could also represent the peaceful innocence of childhood, and the speaker’s desire to go back to that.  It is also difficult for me to ignore the name itself.  It sounds like, “In is free”.  The speaker describes that he can still, “hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore,” (line 10) even while in the city.  “I hear it in the deep heart’s core,” (line 12).  Despite social constraints, the speaker is free  within his own memories or imagination.  The country that he so loves is a part of him.  

Brooke's Idealism Versus Owen's Realism

Rupert Brooke was among the first to enlist in 1914.  However, he died of blood poisoning before seeing combat.  Wilfred Owen also enlisted early in the war.  He fought in France and was killed in action in 1918.  Each poet had an extremely different view of the war due to these different experiences, and this was reflected in their poetry.  
Brooke’s “The Soldier” is filled with patriotic pride. The speaker, a solider describes his probable death as a victory for England.  “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England,” (lines 1-3).  His is a worthy and noble sacrifice.  Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, however, has a very different view of death in battle.  “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” reads the first line.  There is nothing noble about dying like an animal.  It is a demeaning and  insignificant death without even the honor of a decent burial.  There is no, “voice of mourning save the choirs -/ The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells; and bugles calling for them from sad shires,” (lines 6-8).    
The second stanza of, “The Soldier” expresses an optimistic hope in life after death.  “And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the Eternal mind, no less/ Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given,”  (lines 9-11).  Death becomes a glorious means of bringing the glory of England to heaven, to create, “an English heaven,” (line 14).  The title of Owen’s play, on the other hand, says it all.  The youth are doomed.  There is no mention of an afterlife, no glory.  There is no great purpose for them.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eliza Doolittle, Changed?

In Bernard Shaw’s, “Pygmalion”, Henry Higgins takes on bet that he can pass off Eliza Doolitle, a lower class girl selling flowers on the street, as a noble lady.  “Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf,” he tells her, “you discrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnat insult to the English language: I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba,” (page 1013).  After six months of education in phonetics, fashion, and manners, Higgins wins his bet.  At a social gathering, an old student of Higgins is thoroughly convinced that Eliza is a Hungarian princess.  The title of the play suggests that Higgins is Pygmalion, and that he creates the new Eliza, his Galatea.  However, it is debatable just how much he created.  
Throughout the play, Eliza does not change.  How others perceive her changes.  In the first Act, Eliza encounters Freddy, Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Clara and tries to sell them flowers.  She is separated by her lowly station and strong, cockney accent.  Clara treats her with disdain.  Freddy is indifferent.  Mrs. Eynsford Hill has only pity and a bit of change.  Yet later, in the third Act, Eliza speaks better and is dressed more fashionably.  Nothing that she says really makes sense.  To cover for her, Higgins says, “Oh, that’s the new small talk.  To do a person in means to kill them,” (page 1037).  Yet, Mrs. Eyensford does not question Eliza’s station.  Clara says that, “I find the new small talk delightful and quite innocent,” (page 1039).  And Freddy is thoroughly enchanted with her, insisting that she does small talk, “awfully well,” and, “going out on the balcony to catch another glimpse of Eliza,” (page 1038) when she leaves.  
Eliza is very much the same before and after her six months with Higgins.  After overhearing Higgins discussing how the whole affair was boring and how he was glad to have it over, Eliza throws his slippers at him.  This is hardly the behavior of the lady Higgins claims to have created.  Additionally, her pride and sense of decency, right, and wrong, are constant throughout the play.  She insists on knowing what exactly belongs to her, “I want to know what I may take away with me.  I dont want to be accused of stealing,” (page 1049).  It’s said in a calmer tone, and with much better grammer, but it echoes her concerns at the beginning of the play when she believes she is in danger of being accused of prostitution.  “I aint done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman.  I’ve a right to sell flowers if I keep off the kerb.  I’m a respectable girl: so help me.  I never spoke to him except to ask him to buy a flower off me,” (page 1010).  A lady in that society is not fit for anything except marriage.  Eliza does not consider herself to be such a lady, however, despite her education.  When discussing her marriage to Freddy with Higgins, she says, “I don’t want him to work: he wasnt brought up to it as I was.  I’ll go and be a teacher,” (page 1062).  Therefore, while her speech and fashion may have been tweaked, Eliza’s character remained constant.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Memory of White

“On the Departure Platform” by Thomas Hardy describes the parting of the speaker and his lover through imagery and impressions.  There is no physical reference to the speaker’s lover, no mention of her beauty.  However, he does mention that as she moved further away, “She was but a spot/ A wee white spot of muslin fluff/ That down the diminishing platform bore,” (lines 4-6).  As her carriage moves further and further away, he speaks of her form as, “that nebulous white,” (line 14).  Later in the poem the speaker says that, “in season she will appear again/ Perhaps in the same soft white array,” (lines 18-19).  White is commonly used to signify purity.  Perhaps the speaker is referencing his lover’s pure nature, which he has come to value.  So when she leaves, that is his lasting impression of her.  White could also be meant as a reference their pure love.  Despite distance, the speaker says that, “We have penned new plans since that fair fond day,” (line 17).  This line also indicates that the white imagery may also be meant to describe the purity of the memory.  Their parting should be a sad memory, yet, he describes it fondly.  It is not tainted with sorrow.  Furthermore, he expresses remorse over the fact that, “nought happens twice thus,” (line 23).  
The speaker also describes the growing difference between himself and his lover as she leaves.  She becomes, “smaller and smaller,” (line 3), as she moves, “down the diminishing platform,” (line 6), until her “nebulous” form vanishes. This imagery could indicate his failing memory.  The details have faded, but he remembers the impressions of her white attire moving further and further and way.  In addition, he remembers the emotion, the passion, and the love that he felt for, “she who was more than my life to me,” (line 15).  And it is these impressions that he treasures and wishes that he could re-experience.  

Margaret and Faith

“Spring and Fall: To A Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a scene in which the speaker approaches a young girl named Margaret. 
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? (lines 1-4)
Here the audience is presented with a vision of golden leaves falling from the trees, The speaker compares these with worldly goods, an image that is enhanced by the golden color of the leaves.  The speaker is referencing the riches that society prizes.  Yet, he says that they do not hold any real value, and will eventually fall to ruin.  They are pretty for now, but their autumn, their season of decay, will come.  Over time, the speaker says that Margaret will realize how meaningless worldly wealth is.  As, “the heart [of Margaret] grows older/ It will come to such sights colder,” (lines 5-6).  
“Sorrow’s springs are the same,” (line 11).  Though Margaret knows that the world is shallow and meaningless, she will still mourn the autumn of society.  Though in truth, “It is Margaret you mourn for,” (line 15).  The decay of autumn reminds her of her own mortality.  Usually, spring is a symbol for rebirth and new life.  Here, it is not so.  I interpret this as a demonstration of Margaret’s lack of belief in God.  She has no faith, no belief in life after death.  Therefore, spring is a source of sorrow instead of an optimistic hope for new life.  
This poem is, perhaps, a social critique.  As society clings to it’s wealth, it forgets it’s faith.  The focus on this world, which is corrupt with base pleasures is only temporary, yet it takes priority over the next world which is pure and eternal.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

In his brilliant masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Oscar Wilde offers a hilarious satirical critique of the society around him.  A running theme is the preoccupation with ideals and appearance instead of reality.  Appearance is so important, in fact, that the characters have to lie extensively and compartmentalize their lives in order to do things that they want to do.  Algernon says to Jack, “You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose,” (page 852).  While telling his ward, Cecily, that he is taking care of his mischevious brother Ernest, Jack actually becomes Ernest and behaves as he wishes.  Ernest is more than a lie, he is an alter ego.  Thus, the discrepancy between truth and appearance is established.  Similarly, Algernon wishes to escape social obligations, but can only do so by pretending to have more pressing social obligations.  His pretense is extremely successful, as Aunt Augusta later argues for the marriage of Algernon and Cecily stating that, “Algernon is an extremely, I may say, an almost ostentatiously eligible young man.  He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (page 882).  
Cecily and Gwendolen both fall in love with “Ernest”. However, they are more interested in the idea of Ernest more than they are of the people they become engaged to.  Gwendolen states that the name, “has a music of its own.  It produces vibrations,” (page 855).  Therefore, “The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend named Ernest, I [Gwendolen] knew I was destined to love you,” (page 855).  Cecily echoes these sentiments later in the second act when she tells Algernon, who is masquerading as her uncle Jack’s scandalous brother, that, “it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest.  There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence.”  (page 871)   Their preoccupation with the name Ernest and the ideals that they have attached to it is so strong that both Algernon and Jack are compelled to be re-baptized and change their names!  Thus, Wilde describes the shallowness of society.  It cares nothing for individuality, for human beings as they really are.  It is merely concerned with reputation. The characters of Algernon and Jack, who have both lied extensively, are not called into question at all.  This is also a critique of social relationships, which are based more on social pretense than a genuine appreciation of individual persons. Furthermore, Baptism and Marriage are sacred sacraments.  However, Marriage is treated as shallow and ideal.  Baptism is thrown about flippantly, without reference to the real meaning of the sacrament.  So it appears that Wilde is also critiquing society’s treatment of religion.  It is merely a social convention, a means to appear more acceptable.