Friday, January 27, 2006

"Postcolonial Literature": Problems with the Term

"Postcolonial Literature": Problems with the Term


"Postcolonial Literature" is a hot commodity these days. On the one hand writers like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy are best-selling authors; and on the other hand, no college English department worth its salt wants to be without a scholar who can knowledgeably discourse about postcolonial theory.

But there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty as to just what the term denotes. Many of the debates among postcolonial scholars center on which national literatures or authors can be justifiably included in the postcolonial canon. Much of the traffic on the postcolonial e-mail discussion list involves criticisms of the term "postcolonial" itself. In addition, it is seldom mentioned but quite striking that very few actual authors of the literature under discussion embrace and use the term to label their own writing.

It should be acknowledged that postcolonial theory functions as a subdivision within the even more misleadingly named field of "cultural studies": the whole body of generally leftist radical literary theory and criticism which includes Marxist, Gramscian, Foucauldian, and various feminist schools of thought, among others. What all of these schools of thought have in common is a determination to analyze unjust power relationships as manifested in cultural products like literature (and film, art, etc.). Practitioners generally consider themselves politically engaged and committed to some variety or other of liberation process.

It is also important to understand that not all postcolonial scholars are literary scholars. Postcolonial theory is applied to political science, to history, and to other related fields. People who call themselves postcolonial scholars generally see themselves as part of a large (if poorly defined and disorganized) movement to expose and struggle against the influence of large, rich nations (mostly European, plus the U.S.) on poorer nations (mostly in the southern hemisphere).

Taken literally, the term "postcolonial literature" would seem to label literature written by people living in countries formerly colonized by other nations. This is undoubtedly what the term originally meant, but there are many problems with this definition.

First, literal colonization is not the exclusive object of postcolonial study. Lenin's classic analysis of imperialism led to Antonio Gramisci's concept of "hegemony" which distinguishes between literal political dominance and dominance through ideas and culture (what many critics of American influence call the "Coca-Colanization" of the world). Sixties thinkers developed the concept of neo-imperialism to label relationships like that between the U.S. and many Latin American countries which, while nominally independent, had economies dominated by American business interests, often backed up by American military forces. The term "banana republic" was originally a sarcastic label for such subjugated countries, ruled more by the influence of the United Fruit Corporation than by their own indigenous governments.

Second, among the works commonly studied under this label are novels like Claude McKay's Banjo and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart which were written while the nations in question (Jamaica and Nigeria) were still colonies. Some scholars attempt to solve this problem by arguing that the term should denote works written after colonization, not only those created after independence; but that would be "postcolonization" literature. Few people understand the term in this sense outside a small circle of scholars working in the field.

Third, some critics argue that the term misleadingly implies that colonialism is over when in fact most of the nations involved are still culturally and economically subordinated to the rich industrial states through various forms of neo-colonialism even though they are technically independent.

Fourth, it can be argued that this way of defining a whole era is Eurocentric, that it singles out the colonial experience as the most important fact about the countries involved. Surely that experience has had many powerful influences; but this is not necessarily the framework within which writers from--say--India, who have a long history of precolonial literature, wish to be viewed.

For instance, R. K. Narayan--one of the most popular and widely read of modern Indian writers--displays a remarkable indifference to the historical experience of colonialism, a fact which results in his being almost entirely ignored by postcolonial scholars. V. S. Naipaul is so fierce a critic of the postcolonial world despite his origins as a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in Trinidad that he is more often cited as an opponent than as an ally in the postcolonial struggle.

In fact, it is not uncommon for citizens of "postcolonial" countries to accuse Americans and Europeans of practicing a form of neocolonialism themselves in viewing their history through this particular lens. Postcolonial criticism could be compared to the tendency of Hollywood films set in such countries to focus on the problems of Americans and Europeans within those societies while marginalizing the views of their native peoples.

Fifth, many "postcolonial" authors do not share the general orientation of postcolonial scholars toward engaging in an ongoing critique of colonialism. Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, for instance, after writing powerful indictments of the British in their country, turned to exposing the deeds of native-born dictators and corrupt officials within their independent homeland. Although postcolonial scholars would explain this corruption as a by-product of colonialism, such authors commonly have little interest in pursuing this train of thought.

Although there has been sporadic agitation in some African quarters for reparations for the slavery era, most writers of fiction, drama, and poetry see little point in continually rehashing the past to solve today's problems. It is striking how little modern fiction from formerly colonized nations highlights the colonial past. Non-fiction writers often point out that Hindu-Muslim conflicts in South Asia are in part the heritage of attempts by the British administration in India to play the two groups of against each other (not to mention the special role assigned to the Sikhs in the British army); yet Indian fiction about these conflicts rarely points to such colonial causes. A good example is Kushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) which deals directly with the partition of India from an almost exclusively Indian perspective.

Indeed, "postcolonial" writers often move to England or North America (because they have been exiled, or because they find a more receptive audience there, or simply in search of a more comfortable mode of living) and even sometimes--like Soyinka--call upon the governments of these "neocolonialist" nations to come to the aid of freedom movements seeking to overthrow native tyrants.

Sixth, "postcolonialism" as a term lends itself to very broad use. Australians and Canadians sometimes claim to live in postcolonial societies, but many would refuse them the label because their literature is dominated by European immigrants, and is therefore a literature of privilege rather than of protest. According to the usual postcolonial paradigm only literature written by native peoples in Canada and Australia would truly qualify.

Similarly, the label is usually denied to U.S. literature, though America's identity was formed in contradistinction to that of England, because the U.S. is usually viewed as the very epitome of a modern neo-colonial nation, imposing its values, economic pressures, and political interests on a wide range of weaker countries.

The Irish are often put forward as an instance of a postcolonial European people, and indeed many African writers have been inspired by Irish ones for that reason. Yet some of the more nationalist ones (like Yeats) tended toward distressingly conservative--even reactionary--politics, and James Joyce had the utmost contempt for Irish nationalism. It is not clear how many Irish authors would have accepted the term if they had known of it.

Although postcolonial theory generally confines itself to the past half-century, it can be argued that everyone has been colonized at some time or other. Five thousand years ago Sumer started the process by uniting formerly independent city-states, and Narmer similarly subjugated formerly independent Upper and Lower Egypt. Rushdie likes to point out that England itself is a postcolonial nation, having been conquered by Romans and Normans, among others.

Not only is the term "postcolonial" exceedingly fuzzy, it can also be argued that it is also often ineffective. A good deal of postcolonial debate has to do with rival claims to victimhood, with each side claiming the sympathies of right-thinking people because of their past sufferings. The conflicts between Bosnians and Serbs, Palestinians and Jews, Turks and Greeks, Hindu and Muslim Indians, and Catholic and Protestant Irish illustrate the problems with using historical suffering as justification for a political program. It is quite true that Europeans and Americans often arrogantly dismiss their own roles in creating the political messes of postcolonial nations around the world; but it is unclear how accusations against them promote the welfare of those nations. In addition, when they are made to feel guilty, countries--like individuals--are as likely to behave badly as they are to behave generously.

It may make American and European scholars feel better to disassociate themselves from the crimes of their ancestors (which are admittedly, enormously bloody and oppressive, and should be acknowledged and studied--see resources below), but people struggling for freedom in oppressed nations are more likely to draw inspiration from the quintessentially European Enlightenment concept of rights under natural law than they are to turn to postcolonial theory. Similarly, European capitalist market theory is far more attractive to most people struggling against poverty in these nations than are the varieties of socialism propounded by postcolonial theoreticians.

"Postcolonial" is also a troublesome term because it draws some very arbitrary lines. South African writers Athol Fugard and Nadine Gordimer are often excluded from postcolonial courses, although their works were powerful protests against apartheid and they have lived and worked far more in Africa than, say, Buchi Emicheta, who emigrated to England as a very young woman and has done all of her writing there--because they are white. A host of fine Indian writers is neglected simply because they do not write in English on the sensible grounds that India has a millennia-long tradition of writing which should not be arbitrarily linked to the British imperial episode.

Of those who write in English, Anita Desai is included, though she is half German. Ngugi wa Thiong'o is included even though he now writes primarily in Gikuyu. Bharati Mukherjee specifically rejects the label "Indian-American," though she is an immigrant from India, and Rushdie prefers to be thought of as a sort of multinational hybrid (though he has, on occasion, used the label "postcolonial" in his own writing). Hanif Kureishi is more English than Pakistani in his outlook, and many Caribbean-born writers living in England are now classed as "Black British." What determines when you are too acculturated to be counted as postcolonial: where you were born? how long you've lived abroad? your subject matter? These and similar questions are the object of constant debate.

In fact, postcolonial theoretician Homi Bhabha developed the term "hybridity" to capture the sense that many writers have of belonging to both cultures. More and more writers, like Rushdie, reject the older paradigm of "exile" which was meaningful to earlier generations of emigrants in favor of accepting their blend of cultures as a positive synthesis. This celebration of cultural considerably blurs the boundaries laid down by postcolonial theory.

In practice, postcolonial literary studies are often sharply divided along linguistic lines in a way which simply reinforces Eurocentric attitudes. Latin American postcolonial studies are seldom explored by those laboring in English departments. Francophone African literature is generally neglected by Anglophone African scholars. Because of these failures to cut across linguistic boundaries, the roles of England and France are exaggerated over those of the colonized regions.

It can even be asked whether the entire premise of postcolonial studies is valid: that examining these literatures can give voice to formerly suppressed peoples. This is the question asked by Gayatri Spivak in her famous essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Using Antonio Gramsci's arcane label for oppressed people, she points out that anyone who has achieved enough literacy and sophistication to produce a widely-read piece of fiction is almost certainly by that very fact disqualified from speaking for the people he or she is supposed to represent. The "Subaltern Group" of Indian scholars has tried to claim the term to support their own analyses (a similar project exists among Latin American scholars), but the nagging question raised by Spivak remains.

It is notable that whenever writers from the postcolonial world like Soyinka, Derek Walcott, or Rushdie receive wide recognition they are denounced as unrepresentative and inferior to other, more obscure but more "legitimate" spokespeople.

This phenomenon is related to the question of "essentialism" which features so largely in contemporary political and literary theory. Usually the term is used negatively, to describe stereotypical ideas of--to take as an example my own ancestors--the Irish as drunken, irresponsible louts. However, protest movements built on self-esteem resort to essentialism in a positive sense, as in the many varieties of "black pride" movements which have emerged at various times, with the earliest perhaps being the concept of "négritude" developed by Caribbean and African writers living in Paris in the 1930s and 40s. However, each new attempt to create a positive group identity tends to be seen by at least some members of the group as restrictive, as a new form of oppressive essentialism.

Faced with the dilemma of wanting to make positive claims for certain ethnic groups or nationalities while simultaneously acknowledging individualism, some critics have put forward the concept of "strategic essentialism" in which one can speak in rather simplified forms of group identity for the purposes of struggle while debating within the group the finer shades of difference.

There are two major problems with this strategy, however. First, there are always dissenters within each group who speak out against the new corporate identity, and they are especially likely to be taken seriously by the very audiences targeted by strategic essentialism. Second, white conservatives have caught on to this strategy: they routinely denounce affirmative action, for instance, by quoting Martin Luther King, as if his only goal was "color blindness" rather than real economic and social equality. They snipe, fairly effectively, at any group which puts forward corporate claims for any ethnic group by calling them racist. Strategic essentialism envisions a world in which internal debates among oppressed people can be sealed off from public debates with oppressors. Such a world does not exist.

Similarly, "strategic postcolonialism" is likely to be a self-defeating strategy, since most writers on the subject publicly and endlessly debate the problems associated with the term. In addition, the label is too fuzzy to serve as a useful tool for long in any exchange of polemics. It lacks the sharp edge necessary to make it serve as a useful weapon.

However, those of us unwilling to adopt the label "postcolonial" are hard put to find an appropriate term for what we study. The old "Commonwealth literature" is obviously too confining and outdated as well as being extremely Eurocentric. "Anglophone literature" excludes the many rich literatures of Africa, for instance, written in European languages other than English, and taken in the literal sense, it does not distinguish between mainstream British and American writing and the material under discussion. "New literature written in English" (or "englishes" as some say) puts too much emphasis on newness (McKay is hardly new) and again excludes the non-English-speaking world. "Third-world" makes no sense since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist "second world." "Literature of developing nations" buys into an economic paradigm which most "postcolonial" scholars reject.

The more it is examined, the more the postcolonial sphere crumbles. Though Jamaican, Nigerian, and Indian writers have much to say to each other; it is not clear that they should be lumped together. We continue to use the term "postcolonial" as a pis aller, and to argue about it until something better comes along.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Adrienne Rich's "Living in Sin"

ADRIENNE RICH'S "LIVING IN SIN"

Influenced by Yates and Conrad, Adrienne Rich tried to be the perfect faculty wife and hostess. However, she found this unsatisfying. Rich talks about the gap between literary understanding of how women should live and how they actually live.

"Living in Sin"
The term "living in sin" may be unfamiliar to you - the usual phrase today is "shacking up," as in "shacking up with my old lady." The connotation of "living in sin" is clear - to live with somebody outside the sanctity of marriage is to put your immortal soul in danger. It is also to bring the negative judgment of society down on you.
But while most young people would be scared off by the prohibition, others would be attracted by idea of breaking the rules. The idea of living in sin seemed adventurous to her - exotic and bold.
So, now she's shacking up, or, living in sin. What is this life of adventure like? It turns out to be just like marriage. Dust builds up as in a regular house. The windows get grimy. The milkman clomps up the stairs at 5:00 a.m. In fact, living in sin can be downright seedy. The cat chases a mouse around, and a beetle looks at her from among the saucers. The artist she lives with isn't in the mood to do art (or even to shave), so he wanders off to get some cigs. Either he is immune to the dirt, or he expects her to clean up. Besides, isn't the dirt part of the romance? It's "half heresy" to want the artist's loft to be clean. Yet she cleans up anyway. Why? It's what wives, or "ole ladies," do. She went to bed with the artist, but she woke up with the man.


Living in Sin
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own --
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.


The analysis of Living in Sin

First, the title: Living in Sin. General meaning is that the people are unmarried, sinning by loving without God's blessing. In this poem, it's not stated that they're unmarried, perhaps they are, but the sin is in not loving one another.

>She had thought the studio would keep itself;
>no dust upon the furniture of love.

The "had thought" sets the tone of the entire poem. Obviously there was a shift in perspective from before moving in to after. She thought there would be no work involved, that life would be a happily ever after in a fairytale castle ("furniture of love"). Come to find out, she needs to keep up the studio, and work at her marriage (one would imagine a studio apartment - one big room, no separation or privacy). Also, it means that their love is no clean thing, no purity involved here.

>Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
>the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
>a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
>stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
>had risen at his urging.

I would say that "taps" is the water tap (faucet) dripping, "panes" are the panes of glass. Heresy against God. People aren't supposed to wish for a different life if they're with the one they love - it's supposed to be a blissful forever. She is wishing for a lack of something, whereas he conjures up stuff out of poetry - a piano with expensive cloth, a cat, and a still life of fruit. Particularly, the cat is stalking - harsh wording - a cute little mouse - gentle fairytale image. See later how images of prosperity (stairs up, cheese) are beaten down -- the stairs write under the milkman's feet, the sunlight is cold and comes relentlessly. Her whole fantasy world is getting eaten up by this cat of his.

>Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
>under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
>so coldly would delineate the scraps
>of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
>that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
>a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own –
>envoy from some village in the moldings...

"Not that" refers back to her wish for the beautiful life and she never thought that this would be her reality, the laundry list of frustrations, from waking at five to a stranger's violent (the stairs' "writhing") tromp to the sepulchral (graveyard) bottles and leftover cheese. The food is a remnant of last night's romantic meal (see forward to the "back in love again" that would lead to more wine and cheese), but she has to clean up on the following day. No one mentions that Cinderella has to do dishes -after- the wedding. The bug is definitely not a figure in a person's wishes for marriage.

>Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
>sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
>declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
>rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;

This is the introduction of the husband. While we are processing the previous lines, while she has been pondering this harsh reality, he has been getting up, groggily. The piano (summoned by him) is declared out of tune - just like their love - not only is there grime on her windows, the magic has fled from his items as well. Comparatively, each of his items are dingy: the food (then pears, now cheese) is crumbly, the animal (then cat, now bug) is hiding in the wall.

He looks in the mirror and is indifferent to what he sees. See also her poem "Moving in Winter" for the line, "mirrors grey with reflecting them"
He leaves her, for the trivial cigarettes (at 5am?!).
>while she, jeered by the minor demons,
>pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
>a towel to dust the table-top,
>and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.

While she is thinking all this, he is getting up and leaving. While he is leaving, she is getting up and tidying up the house, keeping up the appearance that everything is wonderful. But it's not.

>By evening she was back in love again,
>though not so wholly but throughout the night
>she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
>like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

In love isn't loving someone, and her feeling isn't complete either. In the night, she wakes with the dread that the milkman today exemplified - that the coming day and every day thereafter will wake her with dread; she will wake to face a grubby man, grimy windows, dusty piano, and yesterday's food. Certainly not living with the blessings of God.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Great Variety of Mood and Tone in the Love-Poems of Donne

The Great Variety of Mood and Tone in the Love-Poems of Donne
(with reference to the poems: The Canonization, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, The Sunne Rising, and The Ecstasy)


John Donne revolted against the Petrarchan tradition in love poetry, with its lovers in flower gardens; its smooth lawns (grass) and gentle and murmuring streams; its goddesses of mythological and pastoral imagery; and its conventions of chivalry. From the time to Wyatt, Surrey, and their contemporaries, English lyrical and amatory poetry had been flowing continuously in the Petrarchan channel. Now, instead, we have a violent assertion of sexual realism. Donne is neither Platonic nor ascetic, but frankly and honestly sensuous. His interest is in his experience of love, and his endeavor (attempt) is to understand it, not to deny or suppress it, and still less to present it untruthfully.
Donne’s reputation as a love poet rest on his fifty-five lyrics written at different periods of his life, but were published for the time in 1633 in one volume called Songs and Sonnets. Donne’s love poem cover a wide range of feeling from extreme physical passion to spiritual love, and express varied moods ranging from a mood of cynicism and contempt to one of faith and acceptance. His love experiences were wide and varied and so is the emotions range of his love poetry. He had love affairs with a number of women, some of them lasting and permanent, others only of a short duration. It would seem that Donne has given as exhaustive an analysis of the psychology of love as he possibly could. He insists that love is properly fulfilled only when it embraces both body and soul. He images the future canonization of himself and his mistress as saints of a new religion of love.
According to Grierson “there is the strain of conjugal love to be noticed in Donne’s Valediction: Forbidding Mourning addressed to his wife, Anne Moore whom he loved passionately and in his relationship with her he attained spiritual peace and serenity.” In the poem, addressed to his wife at the moment of separation, the well-known conceit of the compass has been brought in to prove that physical separation does not affect the union of spirits. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” shows a combination of passion, tenderness, and intellectual content, as perfect as anything in Browning:
Such wilt be thou to mee, who must
Like the’ other foot obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begunne.
(A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, lines 33-36)
Donne’s treatment of love is both sensuous and realistic. He does not completely reject the pleasure of the body even in poems where love is treated as the highest spiritual passion. This emphasis on the claims of the body is another feature which distinguish Donne from the poets both Petrarchan and Platonic schools. Donne claims that love, merely of the body, is not love but lust. But he is realistic enough to realize that it cannot also be of the soul alone; it must partake both of the soul and the body. It is the body which brings the souls together, and so the claims of the body must not be ignored. The beloved must not hesitate to give herself body and soul to her lover even though they have not got married yet. In The Canonization, the lovers unite body and soul to form a ‘neutral sex’ while in The Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, the poet does not consider physical contact as necessary for the continuation of spiritual love. Thus Grierson rightly points out, “neither sensual passion, nor gay and cynical wit, nor scorn and anger, is the dominant note in Donne’s love poetry.”
Donne’s tells us very little about the beauty of the women he loves. He writes exclusively about the emotion of love and not about its cause. He describes and analyses the experience of being in love and the charm of his mistress are either not mentioned at all or can only be guessed from the stray hints that happen to drop.
Neither does Donne accept the contemporary view that marriage alone sanctifies the sexual act, nor the medieval view that sex is alike sinful within or without the marriage bond. According to his view, the purity of the sexual act depends on the quality of the relation between the lovers. If delight in one another is mutual, physical union is its proper consummation, but if the lovers are not inter-assured of the mind, then “the sport” is, “but a winter-seeming, summer’s night”. He may sometimes accept the human laws, which forbid the consummation of love outside marriage, but he does so with great reluctance. Indeed, he often makes the woman’s readiness to give herself entirely, body and soul, to her lover as the test of her love for him. As Joan Bennet puts it, “Donne’s love poetry is not about the difference between marriage and adultery, but about the difference between lust and love.” Further Donne asserts that the sexual act without love is merely lust whether within or outside marriage.
The last stanza of the Canonization admirably sumps up Donne’s sexual metaphysic; that the really valid and complete relationship between man and woman fuses their soul into a complete whole, and they become a microcosm of the loving world. This very attitude is expressed in a number of his other poems. For true lovers the entire world is contracted into the eyes of each other and this world is better because it is not subject to decay and dissolution.
Donne rebelled not only against the sugared sonnets in which the Petrarchan convention found expression, but also against the whole creed of chivalry and woman-worship. For the sugary language, he substituted a more realistic use of words “such as men do use”, and a more dramatic and passionate lyrical verse. As for woman-worship, he looked upon woman as not a goddess but a creature, desirable indeed, though not adorable. However, no poet has at times used the language of adoration more daringly to express the feeling of the moment (The Sun Rising).
There are, indeed, several strands in Donne’s songs and elegies. Some of the love-poems are frankly, even arrogantly, sensual. In others the tears of passion are touched with shame and scorn. Others again are directly and splendidly passionate, like the following: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” (The Canonization). But there are still other poems in which Donne rises to a purer conception of love, neither Petrarchan nor Platonic, but something more concrete than either, compounded of passion and tenderness, mutual trust and entire affection. In The Ecstasy, he sings of the inter-dependence of soul and body.
The dominant note in Donne’s love poetry is neither sensual passion, nor gay and cynical wit, nor scorn and anger. The finest note here is the note of joy, the joy of mutual and contented passion. His heart might be subtle to torment itself, but its capacity for joy is even more obvious. It is only in the songs of Burns that we shall find the sheer (pure) joy of loving and being loved finding expression in the same direct and simple language as in some of Donne’s songs, and only in Browning that we shall find the same simplicity of feeling combined with a similar swift and subtle dialectic: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” (The Canonization).
But Donne does not write only love poems dealing with the heart and the senses. He writes purer poems, in more complex moods. The Ecstasy is a metaphysical poem, not only in the sense of being erudite (learned) and witty, but also in the proper sense of being reflective a d philosophical. The Ecstasy makes us realize fully what Ben Jonson meant by calling Donne “the fist poet in the world for some things”.
Donne’s contribution to love-poetry may then be summed up thus: He introduced a new realism in love-poetry, revolting against the Petrarchan tradition. His poems are an attempt to deal exhaustively with the psychology of love. That accounts for the variety of mood and tone in his love poetry. Some of his love poems cynical (pessimistic) and he mocks at women and at love. Some poems sing of the joy of love and contented mutual passion. He also introduced colloquial language in love-poetry.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Use of Epic Simile in Milton's "Paradise Lost" Book II

THE USE OF EPIC SIMILE
IN MILTON’S “PARADISE LOST” BOOK II
Darman Sitepu
Fakultas Sastra
Universitas Islam Sumatera Utara, Medan

Abstract

This paper will discuss Milton’s employment of epic simile in “Paradise Lost” Book II. Like his predecessors, Milton also uses epic simile to make the main idea in the comparison clearer but at the same time each simile presents vivid picture to the minds of the readers that produces certain sense effects. His employment of epic simile often refers to everyday occurrence, history or even classical mythology.

Keywords: epic simile, comparison, natural, effect, picture

INTRODUCTION
Simile is an expression of the comparison of two unlike objects, usually by using the word like or as such as in: Tom is as ugly as Tony which gives a simple comparison, and Tom is as ugly as Sin is also a simile. Epic simile is an extended simile in which one or both of the objects compared are elaborately described (Beckson and Ganz: 1993). The following is an example of epic simile:
Incensed with indignation, Satan
Stood unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In the arctic sly, and from his horried hair
Shakes pestilence and war
(“Paradise Lost”, Book II, Lines 706-11)

Epic simile is also called Homeric simile. It is generally used in epic poem but it may appear in other forms of literature.
Some critics of epic simile point out that similes are expanded beyond the point of comparison into independent pictures irrelevant to the purpose and that they are therefore excursions of the imagination beyond the needs of the narrative.


In the case of Milton’s use of epic similes in “Paradise Lost”, some critics justify them. Addison, for instance, commented on Milton’s use of epic simile in Paradise Lost:
“There are several nobel similes and allusions in “Paradise Lost”. And here I must observe that when Milton alludes either to things on persons, he never quits his simile till it rises to some very great idea, which is often foreign to the occasion that gave birth to it. The resemblance does not, perhaps, lost above a line or two, but the poem runs on with the hint, till he has raised out of it some glorious images or sentiments, proper to inflame the mind of the readers, and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment which is suitable to the nature of heroic poem.” (Addison, 1710:64)
Boileau, a French author, wrote:
“Comparison in epic poems are not introduced only to illustrate and embellish the discourse, but to amuse and relax the mind of the readers, by frequently disengaging him from too painful an attention to the principal subject, and by leading him into other agreeable images…” (Boileau, 1708:36)
The critics are of the opinion that digressions are justified, firstly because they enhance the poetry by glorious images and sentiments; secondly because they supply variety and relief by introducing scenes outside the proper scope of the story; and thirdly because poetical analogy differs from a prosaic or theatrical one.
There can be no doubt that the variety of scenes and incidents introduced through these similes is of great charm. Milton’s predecessors have also used them for the beauty of independent pictures. But Milton’s similes answer the demands of the narrative. They are images used to portray the scenes, characters and events that compose the poem. They are pictures of ideas and sentiments. They are what may be called transposed description; in order to be effective they have to be detailed.

ANALYSIS
1. The Murmur of Applause is compared to Natural Sound
The first simile occurs in “Paradise Lost” Book II is the one at the end of Mammon’s speech. Fallen angels gave applause to Mammon’s speech. This murmur of applause is compared to the sound of raging winds which has subsided.
He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filled
The Assembly, as when hollow rocks retain
The sound of blustering winds, which all night long
Had roused the sea, now with hoarse cadence lull
Sea-faring men overwatcht, whose bark by chance
Or pinnace anchors in a craggy bay
After the tempest:
(Lines: 284-90)

This simile leads us to imagine hollow rocks which continue to reverberate with the sound of a storm blowing furiously over the ocean all night but the storm has slowed down in the morning, with its low rhythm, lulls to sleep the tired sailors who had kept a watch all night because of the danger faced by their ship. The boat now lies anchored in a rocky bay.
Here we have a very elaborate nature picture, though the phenomenon described is a very unusual kind which would not be visualized by common readers. This simile is exquisitely adjusted to the mood of the applause given by fallen angels to Mammon. The fallen angels express their approval in a low murmur and the subdued approval expresses a sense of relief like that of the sailors who have survived the worst of the storm and have been able to shelter comparative safety.

2. The Exultation of the Fallen Angels is Compared to Joyous Natural Sounds
In the second epic simile, the sounds of exultation of the fallen angels are compared to joyous sounds heard in a valley when the clouds have dissolved and the sun begins to shine again.
Thus they their doubtful consultations dark
Ended rejoicing in their matchless Chief:
As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North wind sleeps, overspread
Heaven’s cheerful face, the louring element
Scowls over the darkened lantskip snow, or shower:
If chance the radiant sun with farewell sweet
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings
(Lines 486-95)

The smiling sky had become overcast and thus appeared to be frowning. In this sullen mood, the sky had driven the snow of the vain over the landscape. If at this time the bright sun, which had been hidden by the clouds, were to reappear, the fields would come back to life. The birds would begin to sing again and the sheep would begin to bleed joyfully again.
Equally joyful is the reaction of the fallen angels to their leader’s announcement that he himself would undertake the hazardous journey and that nobody else needs accompanying him. Here again an elaborate nature-picture is presented to our minds, but this picture is of a familiar kind and would easily be visualized by the readers. In other words, the joy felt by the fallen angels provides an occasion for Milton to bring before our minds a most pleasing scene of nature.

3. The Mood of the Fallen Angels is Compared to the Mood of the Airy Knights.
In the next epic simile, the mood of the fallen angels is compared to the mood of airy knights who fight in the clouds.
Part curb their fiery steeds, or shun the goal
With rapid wheels, or fronted brigades form
As when to warn proud cities war appears
Waged in the troubled sky, and armies rush
To battle in the clouds, before each van
Prick forth the aery knights, and couch their spears
Till thickest legions close; with feats of arms
From either end of Heaven the welkin burns
(Lines 531-38)

Here supernatural image is presented to our minds. We are to imagine that a battle is raging in the sky and that armies are involved in a fight among the clouds.
The fallen angels too have formed fronts to fight against each other in a friendly contest, in the same manner in which the regiments form themselves in the sky.
This simile puts us in the mind of those strange sights which are sometimes seen in the sky and which are supposed to portend misfortune and disasters to human beings on Earth.


4. The Fury of Fallen Angels is Compared to that of Hercules
Then some of the fallen angels are furious and begin to up-root rocks and hill. Their fury at this time is compared to that of Hercules.
Hell scarce holds the wild uproar,
As when Alcides from Occhalia crowned
With conquest, felt the envonemed robe and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines,
And Lichas from the top of Oeta threw
Into the Euboic sea
(Lines 541-46)

Hercules, who was in state of agony, had begun to up root the Thesassian pine trees and flung his servant Lichas into the sea.
This comparison takes us back to one of the most important episodes of ancient mythology. An error was made by the wife of Hercules. Hercules was very angry and he could not control his emotion. As a result, Lichas met the most painful death, he was flung by Hercules to Euboic sea.

5. Satan’s Flight is Compared to a Fleet of Ships.
In the next simile, Milton compares Satan’s flight towards the gates of Hell with the movement of a fleet of ships seen far off at sea.
As when far off at sea a fleet descried
Hangs in the clouds, by Aequinoctial winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the Isles
Of Ternate and Tibre, whence merchants bring
Their spicy drugs: they on the trading flood
Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape

Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole. So seemed
Far off the flying Fiend
(Lines 636-43)

Here again Milton builds up an elaborate picture, and in this case, we are taken to distant places. This simile shows Milton’s love of exotic scenes and associations. We are here to imagine a fleet of ships coming from Bengal or from the spicy Island of Ternate and Tidore and pushing toward the Cape of Good Hope. This fleet of ship would seem to a distant observer to be floating above the water and hanging in the clouds. Thus, here we have a close analogy to the shadowy appearance of Satan’s out stretched figure. The mass of ships would appear indistinct at a distance, just as Satan at this time appeared.

6. Comparison Producing Supernatural Terror
The next epic simile in the poem is not of a delightful kind.
Far less abhorred than these,
Vexed Scylla bathing in the sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore:
Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when called
In secret, riding through the air she comes
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms
(Lines 659-66)


Here dogs, which surround the figure of sin at the waist, are compared to the dogs which tormented monster Scylla and then to the dogs which attended upon Hecate, the queen of witches. Here we have a reference to ancient classical mythology and a reference to folklore. The figure of sin as described by Milton suggests the nymph Scylla after she had been transformed by the witch Circe into a monster. Circe had transformed the body of Scylla from the waist downward into a mass of yelping hounds.
Another comparison brought to the minds of the readers is a terrible picture of the night-hag, a goddess of the under world, thought to be the queen of witches who is fond of infant blood. Thus the two comparisons here are the most frightening and disgusting kind.

7. Satan is Compared to a Comet
When Satan is insulted by the monster Death who utters threats to him and bids him go back to his place of punishment, Satan feels indignant and burns with the fire of rage.
Incens’t with indignation Satan stood
Unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In the Artic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.
(Lines 707-11)

At this time Satan looks like Comet which stretches bright along the whole length of the constellation of the snake holder in the Arctic sky, with its horrid tail portending pestilence and war. This simile again brings before our minds an unusual nature-picture of an exciting and thrilling kind.

8. Comparison of Two Black Clouds, Standing Front to Front
In the next epic simile, Milton compares encounter between Satan and Death to two black clouds.
And such a frown
Each cast at the other, as when two black clouds
With Heaven’s artillery fraught, come rattling on
Over the Caspian, then stand from to front
Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow
To join their dark encounter in mid air:
So frowned the mighty combatants….
(Lines 713-19)

The two combatants come rattling over the Caspian sea and then stand face to face, hovering for a little while, till the winds give a signal to them to clash each other in mid-air. Satan and the monster Death stood facing each other, both equally strong in the same way as those two clouds. Here again, we have an unusual nature-picture which conveys to us potential horror of situation.

9. Satan is Compared to a Monstrous Animal
Another striking simile occurs when Satan is flying through the air. He is compared to the monster Gryphon (half eagle and half lion) flying through the wilderness, over hills and valleys chased the one-eyed Arimaspian who had stolen the gold kept in the custody of Gryphon.

As when a Gryfon through the wilderness
With winged course ore hill or moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold: so eagerly the Fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way
(Lines 943-49)

The point of the comparison is that Satan was traveling with the same energy and the same keenness with Gryphon who flew in the pursuit of the thief. Here we have another classical allusion. The simile has suggested the animal like movement of Satan. Satan is half-flying and half running like an animal which can run or fly at will. The animal alluded by certain ancient writers is Gryphon. Of course the simile brings to the minds of the readers an unusual picture which is far beyond our personal experience or knowledge. Such similes have supernatural effects producing feeling of wonder and awe.

10. Dangerous Voyage is Compared to Two Classical Allusions
The next epic simile contains two classical allusions. One is to the ship called Argo in which Jason and his fifty companions had sailed from Greece in order to obtain the Golden Fleece and the other is compared to the ship by which Ulysses was going.
And more endangered, than when Argo passed
Through Bosporus betwixt the jostling rocks:
Or when Ulysses on the larboard shunned
Charybdis, and by the other whirlpool steered
So he with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on, with difficulty and labour hee
(lines 1016-22)

Both the voyages mentioned are among the feats of epic seamanship in classical poetry. The point of comparison is the danger which Satan was facing in the course of the last stage of his journey. The danger which he faced was greater than that faced by Argo as it passed between two clashing rocks, and also greater than that faced by Ulysses’ ship which had to pass between a dangerous rock and a dangerous whirlpool. This simile again produces feeling of awe and terror in the minds of the readers. Though it serves its basic purpose of impressing the readers on the danger which Satan faced, it also indicates the fortitude and bravery which Satan displayed.

CONCLUSION
Milton uses a large number of epic similes in “Paradise Lost”. In Book II we find a large variety of the use of epic smile. It is noteworthy that each simile shows Milton’s art of comparison and his care of the effects of the similes he employs.
Of course, every simile is intended to make the main idea in the comparison clearer, but at the same time each simile presents a vivid picture to the minds. More often the picture presented is the picture of some natural occurrence or phenomenon. But at a time a simile refers to classical allusion or mythology.
The simile employed by Milton may be realistic or marvelous, natural or supernatural, something pertaining to an everyday occurrence or something unusual or seldom observed. But the important effect of these similes is to contribute to the grandeur of the poem and thus to heighten its epic character.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
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Beckson, Karl and Ganz, Arthur. 1993. Literary Terms: Dictionary. New Delhi: Rupa & co.
Boileau. 1708. French Poet and Critic. London: Oxford University Press.
Demaray, John G. 1991. Cosmos and Epic Representation: Dante, Spenser, Milton and the Transformation of Renaissance Heroic Poetry. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Everett, Barbara. 1980. "The End of the Big Names: Milton's Epic Catalogues." English Renaissance Studies Presented to Dame Helen Gardner in Honour of Her Seventieth Birthday. Eds. John Carey and Helen Peters. Clarendon: Oxford,.
Ferry, Anne Davidson. 1963. Milton's Epic Voice: The Narrator in Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Feeney, D. C. 1986. "Epic Hero and Epic Fable." Comparative Literature.
Featheringill, Ron. 1990. The Tension Between Divine Will and Human Free Will in Milton and the Classical Epic Tradition. New York: Peter Lang.
Holoka, James P. 1976. "'Thick as Autumnal Leaves': The Structure and Generic Potentials of an Epic Simile." Milton Quarterly.
Isitt, Larry. 2002. All the Names in Heaven: A Reference Guide to Milton's Supernatural Names and Epic Similes. London: Scarecrow.
Johnson, Lee M. 1989. "Milton's Epic Style: The Invocation in Paradise Lost." The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lall, Ramji. 1992. Paradise Lost Book II. New Delhi: Rama Brothers
Martin, Catherine Gimelli. 1998. The Ruins of Allegory: Paradise Lost and the Metamorphosis of Epic Conventions. Durham: Duke University Press.
Moeck, William. 1998. "Bees in My Bonnet: Milton's Epic Similes and Intertextuality." Milton Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
MacCallum, Hugh. 1986. Milton and the Sons of God: The Divine Image in Milton's Epic Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Mustazza, Leonard. 1988. "Such Prompt Eloquence": Language as Agency and Character in Milton's Epics. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
Macdonald, Ronald R. 1987. The Burial-Places of Memory: Epic Underworlds in Vergil, Dante, and Milton. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Pres
Nakayama, Osamu. 1987. "'Fairest Fruit and Humid Bow': Milton's Epic Simile and Conception of Time in Paradise Lost." Poetry and Faith in the English Renaissance. Ed. Peter Milward. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.
Shawcross, John T. 1994. "Milton and Epic Revisionism." Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre. Eds. Steven Oberhelman, Van Kelly, and Richard Golsan. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press.
Steadman, John M. 1968. Milton's Epic Characters: Image and Idol. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Steadman, John M. 1976. Epic and Tragic Structure in Paradise Lost. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Julius Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their death"...

“Cowards die many times before their death;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.” [II. Ii. 32-37]


The above lines are spoken by Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play entitled “Julius Caesar”. The above lines are spoken by Julius Caesar in response to his wife’ request to him not to go out of their house on that day since she has premonitions that his life is in danger. Caesar tells her that cowards die many times before their actual death, due to their mental fear of death. The brave only taste death once. He tells his wife that of the many wonderful things in life it seems most strange to him that men should be afraid of death, despite knowing that it cannot be avoided. Seeing that death is not only an inevitable, but also a necessary end, it will come at the time when it due, neither before nor after.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: Portia's Suitors

The Merchant of Venice: Portia's Suitors
by: QueensEnglishGal


Shakespeare highlights three of Portia’s suitors, the Prince of Morocco, the Prince of Arragon and Bassanio. He does this to heighten dramatic tension, as these three men are the most important candidates to win Portia’s hand in marriage. They reveal the contents of the three caskets and their different characters as exposed as being proud, vain and humble. They also emphasize the racial prejudices of Venice a place where many races clash. Their attitudes towards the caskets and their choices indicate what their character is like. This essay will compare and contrast the three suitors and will explore how Shakespeare influences the audience’s attitudes towards the three men.
The Prince of Morocco is the first suitor of the three suitors we are introduced to. His first line is, ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’ (Act II Scene i)
He is anxious to compensate for the colour of his skin. He shows himself to be ashamed and insecure. However his character is proud because after he remarks on his skin colour he proceeds to defend it and boasts about himself, ‘ ...this aspect of mine/ Hath fear’d the valiant…The best regarded virgins of our clime/Have lov’d it too...’ (Act II Scene i)
He challenges Portia to compare his blood with the whitest of men to see whose is the reddest. ‘Bring me the fairest creature…And let us make incision for your love/ To prove whose blood is reddest, or mine.’ (Act II Scene i)
This would be a way to suggest that Morocco was as noble as any white man was because red blood signified courage and virility. A lot of emphasis is placed on Morocco’s skin colour. His long-winded speeches full of false and extravagant praise makes him sound insincere, ‘…all the world desires her; /From all corners of the earth they come,/ To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint:’ (Act II Scene vii) In contrast his exit is short and dignified, in total disparity to his entrance and long speeches before choosing a casket. ‘…I have too griev’d a heart /To take a tedious leave: leave losers part.’ (Act II Scene vii) This indicates he does not easily accept defeat.
He explains his thoughts on each of the caskets as he reads the inscriptions on them. He says the lead casket is not worth hazarding everything for and quickly dismisses it. When he comes to the silver casket he comments, ‘Thou dost deserve enough and yet enough/May not extend so far as to the lady:’ (Act II Scene vii).
He exposes his secret fear that he does not deserve Portia. He considers silver not to be grand enough for Portia and dismisses this casket also. He settles upon the gold casket thinking that ‘what many men desire’ describes Portia. His choice can be explained by the fact that it is only his royal blood and his fortune that lends him respect from the people of Venice. His riches are very important to him. From this we can say that Morocco represents sensual love, a desire for physical pleasures as oppose to those of the mind. This means Morocco judges on outward appearances. The quotation, ‘All that glisters is not gold’ befits his character which is insecure and shallow.
The second suitor is the Prince of Arragon whose entrance unlike Morocco’s is not pre-empted by any comments from Portia. His arrogance and pride are shown through his choice of casket and his reaction to choosing the wrong casket. He comments on the inscription of gold casket, ‘…I will not jump with common spirits/And rank me with barbarous multitudes.’ (Act II Scene ix)
and thinking gold was too common for him he arrogantly discards it. He does not even stop to contemplate the lead casket saying only that it would have to look more attractive for him to hazard anything for it. The silver casket is the one that appeals to him the most because he feels that no one deserving should go unmerited. His arrogance leads him to assume that he is worthy of Portia. Before he opens the casket he says, ‘I will assume dessert…’ . His reaction when he finds that he was unsuccessful also highlights his arrogance because he is so incredulous and can not believe this is happening to him, ‘Did I deserve no more than a fool’s head? / Is that my prize? Are my desserts no better?’ (Act II Scene ix).
He is so crestfallen that one could feel sympathy for him. But he graciously accepts his fate and makes a dignified exit, ‘I’ll keep my oath, /Patiently to bear my wroth.’ (Act ii Scene ix).
His choice indicates that Arragon represents love controlled by intellect because from his viewpoint choosing the silver casket was the obvious and right choice. He was blind to his own pride.
Bassanio is the last of the three suitors and since he has appeared several times throughout the play before the audience know him quite well. He is portrayed as neither proud nor arrogant but shows himself to be nervous around Portia indicating he may be inexperienced with women. This contrasts with the attitudes of the other two suitors, as they are full of self-importance. Their purpose amongst others is to make Bassanio appear virtuous.
He is significant and by far the most important of the three suitors because Portia actually displays interest for him. He also receives a good report from the messenger at the end of Act II Scene ix before he enters unlike the other two suitors. He receives better treatment than the other two suitors do. Portia plays music in the background perhaps to calm him and soothe him into the right frame of mind so that he may choose correctly. She also tries to delay him in taking the test, ‘…for, in choosing wrong, /I lose your company:’ (Act III Scene ii). But he says ‘Let me choose; /For as I am, I live upon the rack’ showing himself to be an impatient and tortured lover or perhaps anxious to lay claim to Portia’s fortune.
His long speeches before choosing the casket are too intense. He does however make some good points and he centres on the saying, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. He talks about religion, cowardice and beauty. He says how one could explain away evil actions by citing biblical quotes, in effect hiding behind religion. ‘…In religion, What damned error, but some sober brow/ Will bless it and approve it with a text’ (Act III Scene ii)
On cowardice he remarks that men could give signs outwardly that they were brave but on the inside they were cowards. He also mentions beauty and how the person who wore the most cosmetics was the least beautiful. He mentions that veils could hide things and fool even the wisest people and the example he gives is a beautiful scarf hides a dark face. This contrasts directly with the other two suitors because they are materialistic and judge by outward appearances. These wise words and also the fact that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain leads him to choose the lead casket. ‘…thou meagre lead,/ Which rather threat’nest than dost promise aught,/ Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence’ (Act III Scene ii) His reaction to choosing the right casket is simply ecstatic and he is rapt. His effusive praise and attempts to sound sincere fail and make him sound insincere.
Shakespeare influences the audience’s attitudes towards the three men in the way that he presents them. The fact that Bassanio receives a good pre-emption gives the audience a good impression of him. However, Arragon receives none and Morocco receives a racist remark before he enters and also after he has left.
Who they are influences the audience too, the Prince of Arragon and Morocco are supposed to be viewed as comical characters. As at the time, England was at war with Spain, Arragon is a rather unflattering stereotype of a typical Spaniard. His arrogance and his failure in choosing the right casket would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience. Also some may find the play on words with his name ‘Arragon’ and ‘Arrogant’ also amusing. The same is for Morocco who is jeered at for his skin colour. Bassanio however is portrayed more favourably, he is a Christian, a Venetian and not proud or arrogant.
The way Portia reacts to them is instrumental in influencing the audience’s opinions of them. When Portia picks on a fault of a suitor it is pounced upon by the audience and when Portia is happy with a suitor (that is Bassanio) then the audience also begins to like him. The audience’s main concern is that heroine of the play is happy with whichever man she marries. Shakespeare has a lot of influence over the audience since it is he who decides how to present the characters and whether to make their personalities likeable or not thus plays with the thoughts of the audience.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Role of Women in George Eliot's "Middlemarch"

The Role's of Women in George Eliot's "Middlemarch"
by Mary Elizabeth Rupp

A major theme in George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch, is the role of women in the community. The female characters in the novel are, to some extent, oppressed by the social expectations that prevail in Middlemarch. Regardless of social standing, character or personality, women are expected to cater to and remain dependent on their husbands and to occupy themselves with trivial recreation rather than important household matters. Dorothea and Rosamond, though exceedingly dissimilar, are both subjected to the same social ideals of what women should be.

Dorothea and Rosamond are on different levels of the intricate social spectrum in Middlemarch. As a Brooke, Dorothea's connections "though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably ëgood'"(p.7). Rosamond is of a slightly lower status, especially given that her father has married an innkeeper's daughter, thus further lowering the family's social rank. Although Dorothea and Rosamond enjoy similar amenities such as servants, the detailed social continuum of Middlemarch separates them.

Dorothea and Rosamond's responses to their respective social classes differ much more widely than the actual social gap between them. Rosamond is particularly aware of her social standing; she "felt that she might have been happier if she had not been the daughter of a Middlemarch manufacturer. She disliked anything which reminded her that her mother's father had been an innkeeper" (p.101). While Dorothea does not dissociate herself from her wealthy peers, she shows an affinity for the lower class by helping to improve the standard of living among them through new cottages. Dorothea's philanthropic view of the lower class contrasts with the distain Rosamond feels for them.

Accordingly, the two women's material views differ as well. Not only is Rosamond painfully aware of her social position vis-a-vis Dorothea's, she actively seeks to increase it by marrying Lydgate. When Lydgate's material wealth reaches its limit and Rosamond's dreams of social supremacy vanish, the marriage quickly deteriorates. Contrastingly, Dorothea relinquishes a great deal of money for her love of Will. Dorothea's lack of concern for material goods and Rosamond's preoccupation with them are a striking example of the disparity between them.

In spite of the vast differences between them, Middlemarch society applies the same tenets to both Dorothea and Rosamond. As females, both women are expected to follow certain social norms that hinder their personal objectives, material in Rosamond's case and intellectual in Dorothea's.

A key function of women in Middlemarch society is that of a wife. Lydgate marries Rosamond expecting someone who will compliment his busy lifestyle by making his home-life pleasant. He compares women to geese and men to ganders when reflecting on the psychological differences between them, namely: " the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander." (p.356) He presupposes Rosamond's obedient devotion. Caussabon, too, expects that Dorothea will aid him in his work. In his proposal to her, he writes: "But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness - " (p.43). His letter is not a profession of love but an indication that he finds Dorothea worthy of assisting him. The men expect nothing but support from their wives.

Not only do the men demand complete dedication, they fail to comprehend the women's autonomous nature. To them, Dorothea and Rosamond entered into marriage not as equal partners, but as compliant, dependent supporters. Caussabon willingly recognizes that Dorothea will assist him with his work but refuses to entertain the idea that she has her own intellectual goals. Dorothea doubts her own intellect but retains her thirst for knowledge. " She would not have asked Mr. Caussabon at once to teach her the languages, dreading of all things to be tiresome instead of helpful; but it was not entirely out of devotion to her future husband that she wished to know Latin and Greek." (p. 64) When Caussabon fails to fully include Dorothea in his studies, he undermines her intellectual ambitions and alienates her within the marriage.

Lydgate's views of women become apparent when, upon meeting Dorothea, he muses that a women with her intelligence and strong views would make a tiresome wife. He seeks a wife who will be complacent and not interrupt his budding career. As such a wife, Rosamond is supposed to occupy her time with trifling pursuits such as needlework and music. Lydgate presumes that Rosamond will help to reduce his debt from within the household by lowering expenditures, but refuses to listen to her ideas about appealing to the wealthy Sir Godwin. This forces Rosamond to go behind his back and ask for a loan herself. Not only does the request for help injure Lydgate's pride, but also, Rosamond's disobedience enrages him. He rebukes her, " - Have you sense enough to recognize now your incompetence to judge and act for meóto interfere with your ignorance in affairs which it belongs to me to decide on?" (p. 665) Lydgate cannot accept anything but Rosamond's ineptitude in managing financial affairs.

In addition to her husband's lack of confidence in her, Rosamond must deal with skepticism from other members of the community. When Sir Godwin receives her letter, he immediately assumes that Lydgate is behind it and admonishes him for dealing through his wife. It does not cross Godwin's mind that Rosamond herself generated the request. In Godwin's reply to Lydgate, he insists, "Don't set your wife to write to me when you have anything to ask - I never choose to write to a woman on matters of business." Lydgate's and Godwin's treatment of Rosamond in the matter of her request reveal general misogynistic tendencies of the society in Middlemarch.

Society puts pressure on Dorothea to conform to its model of the ideal woman as well. After the death of Caussabon, society deems it inappropriate for her to continue living at Lowick alone, managing the parish. Even another woman, Mrs. Cadwallader, warns her, "You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions." (p.537) Society frowns upon the dependence of women, even Dorothea with her great inner strength.

Although Dorothea and Rosamond differ in almost every aspect, their husbands and society consider them simply as women and apply the same standards to each. By holding Dorothea and Rosamond to the same standards and ignoring the vast dissimilarity between them, society minimizes the unique nature of the two women and contributes to the oppression of females throughout the community.