Friday, May 20, 2011

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus was published in 1984 and is Carter's penultimate novel. It is generally considered to be her best work and won the James Tait Black Memorial award that year. Carter herself was both a novelist and a journalist.

Part I: This section is told through an interview conducted by Jack Walser, an American journalist, of a winged "aerialiste" named "Fevvers" in London, 1899. Fevvers, accompanied by her foster-mother, an old woman named Lizzie, generally get the better of the young American's predictably constructed questions. Fevvers has complete control of her narrative. She was hatched from an egg, found abandoned by Lizzie, and taken to Ma Nelson's brothel, a tight-knit community of sisterhood. Through Fevver's point of view, Carter's depiction of prostitution at Ma Nelson's signals that there is nothing shameful as long as relationships remain reciprocal and the freedom of choice is held up on both sides of the transaction. At Ma Nelson's brothel, Fevvers grew her wings, and slowly learned how to fly. As a young girl, her job would be to pose as Cupid at the brothel, and later, as "Winged Victory," carrying with her a sword. Ma Nelson's death in a terrible accident (she was run over by a carriage) led to the dispersal of the sisterhood. Fevvers tells how the former prostitutes do well, finding opportunities either in business or marrying, totally capable, having been fortified by their time at Ma Nelson's, to find their own way about the world. Fevvers, still an adolescent, goes with Lizzie to live with Lizzie's sister and brother-in-law, who have an ice-cream shop. When the family comes upon hard times, however, Fevvers decides to take up an offer of employment at Madame Schreck's establishment, a macabre place where men satisfy warped desires of their souls. This is a very different place from Ma Nelson's brothel, where men satisfy bodily desires. Madame Schreck's place is a kind of freak museum: its major characters include a Sleeping Beauty, the dwarfish Wiltsire Wonder, the transsexual Albert/Albertina, and Fanny with eyes on her nipples. There is also a black slave named Touissant who doesn't have a mouth but can write. Fevvers joins this crew, and learns all of their sad stories and how they each ended up at Madame Schreck's. One day, Fevvers tries to revolt against the enslavement of Madame Shreck, only to be carried away by a disturbed Rosicrucian man whom Madame has sold her for a high price. This man believes that if he should kill Fevvers in a sacrifice, he will be able to cure his own impotency. Luckily Fevvers escapes him because she has Ma Nelson's sword with her and she gets back to Lizzie and her family. She hears that the rest of the individuals back at Madame Schreck's have also effected their own escapes. Soon, an opportunity to join the circus arises, and Lizzie and Fevvers depart together. This is the end of the interview; exhausted and enchanted, Walser gets the idea that he will join the circus so that he might continue to get his scoop.

Part II: Narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator, this section follows the circus to St. Petersburg. The circus is headed by Colonel Kearney (accompanied always by his clairvoyant pig, Sibyl). Walser has joined as a clown. The circus camp is a lively, carnivalesque place. Its primary characters include apes that can learn in a classroom setting from a professor ape, a waifish girl named Mignon and a brutish Strong Man with whom she frequently has sex with, Buffo the clown (the leader of the clown troupe, who proselytizes about the privilege of how clowns "make [them]selves" and how clowns are even like Christ because they "subject [them]selves to laughter by choice), the Princess of Abyssinia and her tigers, and a host of elephants. Walser witnesses Mignon being brutally beat up by the Strong Man after he sees Walser attempting to save her from an escaped tiger. Mignon's story is given as a side narrative: it is a story of orphanhood, living on the streets, being taken up by the abusive charlatan Herr M. who had her impersonate dead daughters to fool grieving parents, and finally being passed on to the circus as the Strong Man's object of violence and sexual abuse. After being badly beaten up by the Strong Man this time around, Fevvers and Lizzie take her up, cleaning her up and, since she sings (without knowing what she sings, but nevertheless has a lovely voice), encourages the Princess to incorporate her into the act with herself and the tigers. The princess will play the piano, Mignon will sing and dance with the tigers. The women keep the Strong Man away from her. Walser is falling in love, meanwhile, with Fevvers. One night, Walser gets pulled into Mignon and the tiger's singing and dancing act, and afterwards, the Strong Man beats him to a pulp. On another night, Buffo goes crazy and nearly kills Walser. That same night, a tigress is shot to death because it was about to attack Mignon. Colonel Kearney's circus seems to be falling apart. Fevvers is still the most popular act, and she nevertheless pulls off success. Afterwards, the Grand Duke is so impressed with her that he invites her over. Fevvers, lured by his riches, decides to go and leave Lizzie behind. There, the Grand Duke very nearly succeeds in "diminishing" her into an egg and making her his toy (the narrative's use of the word "diminishing" highlights the relationship between his attempt to literally make her smaller and his demeaning her by seeing her as an object for his own use and pleasure). Luckily, she makes an escape, though barely: the Grand Duke manages to break her sword.

Part III: While on a train going through Siberia, there is a big explosion. Fevvers frantically searches for Walser but cannot find him. All of the other circus characters, minus the tigers and elephants, seem to have survived the explosion. Nearby the site of the explosion is a penitentiary started by one Countess P., who had murdered her husband. The aim of her panopticon-shaped penitentiary was to gather together all female murderesses and to try to make them penitent and reformed--her logic was that somehow that would transfer to her own reformation. Despite the extensive disciplinary system which she puts in place, one inmate, Olga Alexandrovna, finds a way to initiate contact with another inmate via a squeeze of the hand. Eventually, secret exchanges of glances and messages written in blood and excrement lead to a large scale revolution and the prisoners escape. They pass by the train wreck and see Walser amidst the rubble, still alive. They decide to continue on their way, intending to form an all-female Utopian community. Fevvers and the others soon find out that the terrorists who blew up their train were a group of peasant men who had heard a rumor circulated by the Colonel that Fevvers was marrying the Prince of Wales. The peasants thought that she might help them curry favor with the English royal family, who might then help them curry favor with the Tsar. The Colonel's rumor was just a publicity stunt, unfortunately; by now, the Colonel was already thinking about how to turn the train incident into good publicity for the circus. One of the peasant convicts decides to tell the party that the rest of his men will probably go on a shooting spree so the circus members decide to send in the clowns to entertain the men and to try to make them desist from violence. During a storm which hits as the clowns are performing, the circus members make their escape. They find an old music maestro in an abandoned conservatory who joins their party. Walser, meanwhile, has been caught up by a Shaman-led tribe and has lost his memory of who he is. The Shaman makes him drink his urine, and Walser has hallucinations. Though Walser remembers snippets of his past life--a song fragment, an epithet, for example--he is unable to piece together the whole. The tribe's mode of living is described as a kind of living in the present with no sense of history, and one of its central practice is the sacrifice of a bear. Walser becomes fully integrated into the tribe, and the Shaman even begins to think of him as a potential successor. Fevvers decides to go after Walser (Lizzie goes with her, but the Princess, Mignon, and the old maestro stay behind to form a musical group together) arriving on the scene of a sacrifice, however, interrupting the ritual and making quite an impression by spreading her wings (except one of them is broken, so she only spreads one of them). In the end, Fevvers and Walser consummate their love, with Fevvers on top smothering Walser below. Walser doesn't really recover his old self the American journalist, but this is a good thing: he now asks actually important questions of Fevvers like "What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love?" There consummation then, is the true "interview." The novel ends with Fevvers's unrestrained laughter seeping out and infecting all the inhabitants across Siberia.

Female sexuality and desire: At the heart of Carter's novel is a strong, female character who is importantly erotically charged, unafraid of expressing her own desire (sexual or otherwise), yet not at all conventionally "feminine" about this eroticism and desire. Fevvers's eroticism is an overpowering one which makes Walser feel "vertigo"; their final consummation underscores her dominant position. She is big in stature, and comfortable as such. Her sexuality is also a much more expansive one than one which focuses on romantic attachment. I would describe it as closer to a maternal sexuality, which asserts its overwhelming power to comfort, to nurture, and to love all creatures, male or female.  
Gender performativity: The notion of gender performativity is strongly suggested in Carter's text (even if before Butler's formalization of this concept in Gender Trouble, 1990). The circus more generally suggests the importance of masks and therefore the constructedness and performance of identity. For the female characters in the novel, gender performance is an important means through which they may expand and/or question traditional constructions of femininity. Standing as "Winged Victory" in the brothel, Fevvers suggests the association of stalwart strength with the female body. Her trapeze routine proclaims a freedom of movement and being which ignores and is completely unfazed and unaffected by the gaze of the audience, whether male or female. The expansive, maternal actions of Fevvers, Lizzie, or Ma Nelson are also all gender performances which suggest that to be female is actually something which might contain male sexuality: it isn't a maternity that is confined to the small space of the domestic sphere, it actually can bring about the re-making of the world. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Fevvers, Lizzie, and the Princess working together to make Mignon's soul/self and in doing so, also remaking the Strong Man's soul, who as a result of Mignon's transformation, himself becomes more compassionate and expansively loving.
Postmodernism: Like Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Nights at the Circus ascribes to the fluidity and instability a levity and playfulness (which also often verges on the gothic; "carvinalesque" might encompass both levity and gothicism). The process of Walser's "deconstruction" from the young American male journalist out for a bold adventure, to Walser the clown hiding behind a mask which becomes more and more real as time goes by, and finally his amnesia in joining the Shaman's tribe is fairly humorous. The ease with which Fevvers whittles down his "masculine" journalistic confidence in the categories of fact versus fiction, and cows any notion he might have of virility as stronger than the female not only deconstructs him, but belittles and diminishes him in such a way that makes his initial confidence seem comedic and absurd. In the end, however, Fevvers gives him back a measure of control (since now he is a postmodern subject capable of taking charge of constructing his own identities, having realized identity to be fluid): "We told you no other lies nor in any way strayed from the honest truth. Believe it or not, all that I told you as real happenings were so, in fact; and as to questions of whether I am fact or fiction, you must answer that for yourself!"
Female socialism: There is a strong thread of female socialism in Carter's text, which jives historically with the late nineteenth century/early twentieth-century associations of the New Woman with leftist socialist reform. Ma Nelson's brothel, the female prisoner's going off to form their own utopia and less obviously, the community to springs up around Mignon, are each examples of all-female societies which are based on love, cooperation, and shared visions of effecting social progress through shared and mutual burdens.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Walcott’s most ambitious book-length poem, Omeros, was published in 1990. Shortly thereafter in 1992, he won the Nobel Prize. “Omeros” which is a corruption of “Homer” refers to a tradition of thinking of the West Indies as a potential site for a new civilization which would aspire to the heights of ancient Greece. The primary setting for Omeros is Walcott’s native St. Lucia, which had earned the epithet, “Helen of the West” in the midst of England and France’s colonial rivalry over the island.

Omeros is divided into seven books and sixty-two chapters, a kind of dual scheme. Each of the chapters are further divided into sub-sections. Formally, the poem is a hybrid form: it is in loose hexameter much like Homer’s, but with occasional pentameter and tetrameter lines which suggest a more folk-like character. The stanzas are mostly tercets reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy without, however, the strict rhyme of terza rima.

Book 1: This initial book focuses primarily on introducing the major characters on the island of St. Lucia. In the opening scene, Philoctete is hewing trees to make canoes and displaying his work for tourists. We are introduced to Seven Seas the blind man, who doubles as one of the “Omeros” figures throughout the work. Ma Kilman owns the oldest bar in town, and her belief systems are a mix of Obeah African origins and Catholic influences. Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, originally from Ireland, have committed themselves to living abroad, though Major Plunkett adamantly tries to super-impose a Westernized history of St. Lucia, meticulously and obsessively drawing correspondences between St. Lucia and Homeric myth. In particular, Plunkett is obsessed with the pretty native woman, Helen, who for a time was the Plunkett’s maid. Achille is Helen’s lover but he is involved in a rivalry with Hector for her love. Helen is fairly proud of her beauty, and Maud resents her presence and influence on her husband. A cyclone’s destruction is described in great detail in this book, and the difficulty of maintaining order over the landscape greatly bothers Plunkett, whose primary occupation is that of a pig farmer. Finally, the poetic “I” (who is Walcott) intrudes into the first book as a kind of character living alongside the rest of the characters. He is told in this first book by his father in a kind of dream-like vision (Warwick Walcott died when Derek was a one year old) to find a way to give voice to the people of the island.

Book 2: This second book breaks chronological time and space through a flashback to Plunkett’s ancestor, a midshipman during the battle between France and Britain in 1782 over St. Lucia. The French are defeated, though the young midshipman perishes. One of the slaves which the English take is Afalobe, whom they rename Achilles. Back in the present time, there is an election—Philoctete and Hector join Maljo’s “United Love Party,” but they are defeated. The election scene demonstrates a failure of self-government after the colonial encounter, and how elections don’t have much of an impact on the everyday lives of the citizens. Major Plunkett, meanwhile, struggles with his fascination for Helen in a vivid scene where he can’t bring himself to scold her when she takes one of Maud’s bracelets. Helen moves in with Hector, preferring him to Achille. In order to make more money, Hector gives up fishing for the more lucrative (but far more oppressive and constrained) work of driving a passenger van. Helen announces that she is pregnant, though she is unsure whos’ baby it is. She boldly asks Maud to borrow money. At the close of the book, Achille is out on his fishing boat, In God We Troust, and begins to fall into a sort of hallucinatory vision of the Middle Passage. He wonders, for the first time, about his own identity.

Book 3: This shorter book describes how Achille goes back in time to the slave trade and back to his ancestral African village during a kind of dream or hallucination. He meets his ancestor Afolabe and learns about his origins--the different rituals and customs which Achille then realizes to be in the shadows of St. Lucian rituals and customs in his present-day life. Achille also witnesses the brutal scene of his ancestor’s enslavement through a raid. Afolabe enslaved becomes renamed as Achilles, a name which he accepts because, beaten down, it is simply easier to do so. When Achille makes him temporal and spatial return, he evinces a new interest in dispossessed peoples, including the Native Americans. His perspective has become more global.

Book 4: As if matching Achille’s now expanded perspectives, Book 4 opens up new geographic and temporal spaces. The first part includes scenes of Walcott’s own divorce while in New England, the Wounded Knee massacre in December, 1890 and the perspective of Catherine Weldon, a white woman who sympathizes with the Native Americans. Like Achille during the slave raid in his ancestral village, Catherine cannot do anything but witness the massacre of over one-hundred Native Americans by the U.S. cavalry. Walcott links the breach of contract in his own marriage to the breach of contract in the treaties signed between the Native Americans and the United States government. Book four also contains an extended imagining of Walcott’s own father, Warwick (who died when he was one) telling him he needs to visit various capitals of the Old World before he will be able to understand the experience of his colonial native home. Warwick Walcott tells his son that journeys are circular.

Book 5: On is father’s advice, Walcott visits four destinations: Lisbon, London, Dublin, and the Aegean Islands. Each of these four places has unique significance for the poet: Lisbon was an important site for the African slave trade, London bears the weight of being the center of English imperialism, Dublin called up associations with literary forebears like Joyce since Walcott analogized between the colonial subjection of Ireland and of the West Indies, and finally the Aegean Islands represent the cradle of Western civilization. What the poet learns, finally, is not to imitate, or use the structures that belong to these centers of (literary) culture to write the literature of the Caribbean but to focus more on gathering material from the immediate world around him.

Book 6: Back in St. Lucia, Hector is in a fatal accident because of his reckless driving of his passenger van (called the Comet). Achille and Helen reconcile after Hector’s death, and Achille also honors his friends memory. Maud also dies in this section, succumbing to cancer. After his wife’s death, Plunkett realizes the great burden which he has placed on his Irish wife who has always wished to return to Dublin, though she had learned to live in St. Lucia. He realizes too that his obsessive project of trying to find Homeric parallels to “build a history” for St. Lucia was futile: “Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow?” Walcott, of course, has the same realization and essentially repudiates the methods of his own poem. The other major event which happens in this book is Ma Kilman’s successful healing of Philoctete’s shin wound. She finds a cure by following a trail of ants into the mountains to a specific African herb. Thus, the book is largely about reconciliations, and these reconciliations mirror the poet’s own maturing process and reconciliation to the native colonial landscape.

Book 7: Omeros is a character in this final book that serves as a kind of guide to Walcott. He underscores the lesson which Walcott has already learned, that he should concentrate on what he sees in his surroundings rather than worry about framing his account with appropriately authoritative literary structures. Major characters like Major Plunkett and Achille have also learned to be more present and aware of their surroundings; Plunkett gives up the project of writing a history and bringing English “order” to the land, and Achille returns to his original work of fishing. The final lines suggest a sort of continuity between the lives that these characters now live and the natural landscape: “When he (referring to Achille) left the beach the sea was still going on.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations was serialized in Dicken’s own periodical All the Year Round in weekly installments from December 1860 to August 1861 (the American serialization in Harper’s actually began a week earlier due to lighter copyright restrictions in America). All the Year Round, unlike his previous periodical, Household Words, gave prime space to serial fiction—this was a successful move for Dickens, as AYR’s circulation ended up greatly exceeding HWs.  

Great Expectations is narrated retrospectively in first-person by Pip, who introduces himself to his reader explaining that he called himself "Pip" because his father's family names was Pirrip, and his Christian name was Philip and as an infant, he couldn't really pronounce either. Early in his life, since he was an orphan, he lived with his sister, the formidable Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband Joe, a poor blacksmith whose own upbringing under a tyrannical father who beat him and his mother led to his being particularly mild-mannered before the tyrannical Mrs. Gargery. One day, Pip was at the graveyard looking upon the graves of his parents, when he encounters an escaped convict, who demands that Pip bring him back some "wittles" and a "file" to saw away the iron chain around his leg. Frightened by the man's threats that he will send a young man after him to devour his liver if he fails to obey him, Pip steals food from Mrs. Joe's pantry, saves food from his own dinner, and steals a file from Joe's workshop to take to the man the next day. When he delivers the food and the file the next day, Pip encounters briefly another convict. During the course of Christmas dinner, some soldiers come and tell them that there have been two escaped convicts and that they need Joe's help to repair some broken iron cuffs that they had found. The men at dinner (including Joe, Mr. Wopsle, the church clerk, and Uncle Pumblechook, a relative to Joe, in addition to Pip) go out with other members of the village to seek out these escaped convicts. They are found in the marshes, and Pip watches as "his" convict maintained a hold on the other convict, apparently thinking it good that they had been caught in order that he might turn in this other convict. Pip's convict also frees Pip from suspicion by telling the sergeant that he had stolen food from the Gargery's. The convicts are carried back to the hulks, prison ships bound for Australia.
For the most part, Pip wasn't receiving much of an education, except for when he would go to "learn" from Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt. This aunt, however, was often asleep, so really, Pip learned more rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet from a girl named Biddy who worked for her. Eventually, the plan was for Pip to be apprenticed to Joe, but in the meantime, he is summoned to a wealthy old woman named Miss Havisham’s house. Prior to his regular visitations to Miss Havisham’s, Pip encounters a stranger in a pub while with Joe, who has the file which he gave the convict at the beginning of the novel. This stranger gives Pip some money.

At Miss Havisham’s, relatives surround her, fawning on her and clearly interested in her fortune.  Miss Havisham lives with a young beautiful girl named Estella; Pip becomes smitten with her and starts to feel ashamed of his own poverty and lack of education. This, of course, is Miss Havisham’s plan: because her fiancé had left her years ago, out of spite she has brought up Estella as a haughty temptress and torturer of men. Miss Havisham enjoys watching Pip play cards with Estella, and also engages Pip to accompany her on a circular route around a room where she has kept her (decaying, cobwebbed) bridal cake and decorations. All of the clocks in Miss Havisham’s house are set to twenty to nine, the time when her lover left.  One day at Miss Havisham’s, Pip encounters a “pale young gentleman” (later revealed to be Herbert Pocket) who challenges him to a fight. Pip has no choice but to fight, and Pip actually emerges victorious though he feels badly and fears retribution. Retribution doesn’t come, however, and he forgets the incident for the time being. 

Eventually, Miss Havisham allows Pip to be apprenticed to Joe, but having been exposed to Estella, Pip is ashamed of Joe’s illiteracy and desires a better life for himself. He engages Biddy to continue to teach him to write. One day, when Pip is given a half-day off and so is Joe’s surly journeyman, Orlick (who severely dislikes Pip) he goes back to Miss Havisham’s to catch a glimpse of Estella. She is, however, not there. On his return home, Pip finds that Mrs. Gargery has been horribly beat up and close to death. Mrs. Gargery is revived, but she is now basically an invalid. The weapon left beside her seemed to Pip to be the convict in the graveyard’s iron, but Pip doesn’t say anything. Orlick is a suspect because of a recent quarrel with Mrs. Gargery, but for the time being, they cannot find out the suspect.

About four years into his apprenticeship, Pip is met with a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers who informs him that Pip has an unknown benefactor who has intentions of making Pip into a gentleman. The one condition is that Pip should not seek to find out who the benefactor is. Pip, of course, thinks it is Miss Havisham and Miss Havisham has no qualms in making those around her believe this to be true in order to inspire their jealousies. Pip is to go to London to study under a tutor named Matthew Pocket; Pip associates this name readily with one Sarah Pocket often at Miss Havisham’s so his suspicions that Miss Havisham is his benefactor are strengthened. Pip has also seen Jaggers at Miss Havisham’s before. Armed with “great expectations,” Pip becomes a proud figure before Biddy, who has come to live with them since her great aunt Wopsle died, and Joe. Pip’s retrospective narrative perpetuates an ironic distance between the Pip excitedly making his preparations to go to London (going to the tailor and buying new clothes) and the mature narrator-Pip. The first volume closes with Pip setting off for London in a stage-coach.

In London, Pip is met by the son of Matthew Pocket, Herbert, whom he recognizes as the pale young gentleman. Later, Pip finds that his tutor (who lives in the suburbs) has a rather difficult wife, who resents that he is a private tutor, fancying herself royalty by birth. The Pockets have a household of children that Mrs. Pocket basically neglects; nurses pick up the slack. There are two other pupils of Matthew’s, Bentley Drummle, of baronet origins, and Startop. Pip soon decides to take up as Herbert’s London roommate in Barnard’s Inn and the two become great friends. Herbert is a bit naïve as far as making money goes; he wishes to become an insurance magnate but doesn’t seem to have much idea as to how to go about this. Meanwhile, Pip becomes better acquainted with Wemmick, Jaggers’s clerk who seems all business while in London, but allows Pip a look into his private life during Pip’s visit to his cottage which indicates that he is man of depth and feeling. Wemmick has made his dwellings meticulously charming and self-sufficient apart from the whirling world of London, and there, he takes care of his aged parent. Pip also visits Jaggers’s home, and gains no such knowledge of any sort of inner depth to the lawyer—Jaggers manipulates Pip and his companions (Drummle, Startop, and Herbert) to share more than they should about themselves at dinner while he himself remains tight-lipped about himself. Jaggers is every inch the professional and does all that he can to eliminate the humanity and the personal in his interactions with others. There is a mysterious female housekeeper at Jaggers’s who seems very afraid of him. Oddly, Jaggers shows to the dinner party her mangled wrists and says something about the strength of her hands.

One day, Joe comes to inform Pip that Miss Havisham would like to see him. On his way back to his hometown, Pip shares a coach with the stranger who had given him money in the public house and overhears that the money had been from the convict that he had seen in the graveyard. Pip decides to stay at a hotel instead of with Joe, and there he sees in the newspapers that Pumblechook has been opportunistically telling everyone that he had been Pip’s mentor in the past. Pip still harbors the great expectation that he will get to marry Estella and again he is disappointed when he sees her again. Miss Havisham offers no promises, and Pip has a strange interaction with Estella in which she informs him that she has no heart. Back in London, Pip confesses his love for Estella to Herbert, who gives him the good advice that maybe he should’t set too much on just “expectations.” Herbert and Pip attend a production of Hamlet (which Pip has heard about from Joe) featuring none other than Mr. Wopsle who has given up his religious occupation for acting. The next day, Estella writes him to tell him that Miss Havisham wants him to accompany her from London to Richmond. Pip of course obeys but nothing comes of his “expectations.”

Meanwhile, Pip and Herbert are getting into debts and the two of them, since neither of them are good at managing their practical monetary affairs, crunch numbers to very little purpose. Pip gets a note letting him know that Mrs. Gargery has finally died and he goes home for her funeral. The reunion with Joe and Biddy is bittersweet, and when he leaves and promises to be back more often, Biddy expresses her doubts and Pip feels her to be harsh even though she is probably correct.

When Pip reaches his twenty-first birthday, he begins to get a direct income of 500 pounds a year from his unknown benefactor. Pip decides to anonymously use his money to set up Herbert as a partner in a merchant business with a man named Clarikker. Estella, now established in London at the house of one Mrs. Brandley’s, receives visits from many suitors, Pip included. She doesn’t treat him as she does other suitors, however, telling him that she deliberately doesn’t deceive him like the others. Drummle emerges as more and more of a likely match for Estella. Two years later, at midnight one night, Pip’s convict shows up at his apartment for shelter. Pip learns that he is called Magwitch, and that he was his true benefactor, having earned money in Australia as a sheep farmer and feeling for the little boy who had once done him a kindness. Pip hides Magwitch (now under the name Uncle Provis) and involves Herbert. When Magwitch tells his life story to Pip, they realize that the other convict in the marshes, Compeyson, who betrayed Magwitch was also Miss Havisham’s betraying lover through a connection to her half brother Arthur. Pip is crushed by all of this information, decides that he should no longer use the money of his benefactor, and goes to Miss Havisham’s Satis House one more time to say good-bye to Estella before thinking to renounce his chances with her forever. At Miss Havisham’s, Pip learns that Estella has finally been engaged to Drummle. Miss Havisham seems to pity him, weirdly, but this is no solace. Pip walks all the way from Satis House to London, where he receives a note from a porter near his apartment from Wemmick warning him not to go home. The next day, Wemmick tells him that Compeyson is in London seeking Magwitch. Herbert has removed Magwitch to his intended Clara’s house, where she lives with her drunk father. Herbert and Pip plan to help Magwitch escape on the river and Pip buys a rowboat for the purpose. At the theater one night, Mr. Wopsle tells Pip that he saw Compeyson (recognizing his face from the night of Magwitch’s struggle with him in the marshes) behind him; Pip realizes that Compeyson is onto him.

More mysteries are solved for Pip when he goes to dine with Jaggers one day: Magwitch is actually Estella’s father and Jaggers’s housekeeper is Estella’s mother. Apparently she had strangled a woman to death and Jaggers had defended her successfully and set up her child, Estella, with Miss Havisham. Pip goes to Miss Havisham to confirm the story and finds her in an apologetic state. Before Pip can stop her, she has set herself on fire out of remorse. Pip manages to rescue her though she becomes an invalid. Back in London, Herbert nurses Pip back to health from his burns, and soon afterwards, Wemmick gives the signal that they should attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of town on the following Wednesday. Pip receives an anonymous summons from someone threatening his “Uncle Provis” if he did not meet them at the sluice-house near the lime-kilns near his native town by the marshes. Pip impulsively follows the note, feeling responsible for Magwitch and is unfortunately seized by Orlick at the sluice house who, before killing Pip, confesses the murder of his sister as well. Luckily, Pip is rescued by Herbert and Startop, who have found the note and rushed over.

Back in London, they attempt the escape. Unfortunately, they are caught by a galley that demands the surrender of Magwitch. Magwitch sees a man on the galley and rips off the wrap covering his face, revealing Compeyson. Pip’s boat capsizes, and Magwitch and Compeyson wrestle in the water as a steamer passes over them. Compeyson is drowned, but Magwitch emerges alive though badly wounded. In prison, Magwitch is sentenced to death. He dies before his execution however, and Pip doesn’t reveal to him that his fortune has been confiscated so that he might die thinking he has made Pip a gentleman.
At the end of the novel, Herbert’s firm does well enough for him to establish an Eastern branch in Cairo. He asks Pip to go with him to be his clerk, but before he accepts, Pip goes to his hometown once again, hoping to marry Biddy, realizing at long last that she was the one whom he should have loved from the first. He is shocked to discover, however, that she and Joe had married. Pip, Biddy, and Joe reconcile as Pip asks for their forgiveness for his pride and blindness. They graciously tell him that there is nothing to forgive.

Pip goes off with Herbert and successfully makes a living, returning eleven years later to find Biddy and Joe with a child named Pip. Pip has heard that Drummle has died, having treated Estella badly during their marriage. In the (unpublished) original ending, she has remarried a doctor, and he runs into her in London where she is in a carriage. Little Pip is with Pip, and she assumes he is his son and Pip doesn’t correct her. Pip says that she seemed changed and that “the suffering had been stronger than Miss Havinsham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” The revised ending was more sentimental: Pip meets Estella back at the abandoned Satis House, and Estella reveals how she has changed in dialogue with Pip. They resolve, at the end, to part as friends, and as Pip watches her leave, he says he sees “the shadow of no parting but one” in the serial version (signaling the shadow of death), but cancels “but one” in the volume edition. 

One of the most commented on and interesting features of the narrative is Pip’s first-person retrospective account. Because it is a retrospective account delivered by a mature narrator who feels quite differently than the Pip he is describing at each stage of his story, a number of more complicated narrative effects are enabled. I will discuss two in particular here: first, the retrospective first-person account enables a narrative of withholding, and second, it enables a narrative which constantly ironizes and undermines Pip’s younger self.  

Withholding begins with the very first scene, in which the narrator Pip styles the Magwitch graveyard scene as if it is a random episode from the younger Pip’s life. The fact that it ends up being a kind of originary scene for Pip’s bildungsroman is withheld basically until the revelation that Pip’s benefactor was Magwitch. Also withheld is the significance of the unnamed town near the marshes which Pip grows up in: in the context of the global network, it turns out to be an important stop which connect the empire (significant because of convict deportation to Australia) to London which is further inland (I’m indebted to Jonathan Grossman’s reading of Great Expectations and transport networks here).

Pip’s depiction of his younger self is severely ironic especially when he narrates how he treats Biddy and Joe once he goes to Miss Havisham’s and begins to have “expectations.” The mature narrator makes the reader complicit in critiquing the young Pip. This early irony has a larger significance, however, when we consider the how the novel is really in the end about how his “great expectations” fail to become more than just “expectations.” The title itself becomes a bittersweet, ironic commentary on upward social mobility: a convict with the best of intentions fails at vicariously moving up on the social ladder through Pip even when he ends up with a lot of money.

Ultimately, there is something incredibly imprisoning and limiting about the entire (global) network of social relations where its players are constantly unable to exert agency to bring about the fruition of their hopes or expectations. And, it isn’t just Pip and Magwitch who get trapped—Estella is the other obvious example of a character who becomes trapped by circumstances which she is largely powerless over. The only characters who can finally live out “good lives” are those who essentially live without expectations of upward mobility or ambitions to live better: Biddy and Joe are one such example, and Wemmick is another. Biddy and Joe are content to live in the town near the marshes without knowing any more about the outside world than is necessary for a peaceful domestic life—when Pip tries to reveal more to Joe, he says that he would rather not know. Wemmick’s home away from his professional life similarly shows him extricating himself from the networks in which he cannot be but a partially blind agent: at his private cottage, though humble, he controls everything from food production (he has livestock and gardens) to the drawbridge which shuts his cottage out from the outside world every evening.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Edition: Armadale (Penguin Classics)
Wilkie Collins's longest sensation novel Armadale was serialized in Cornhill Magazine from November 1864-June 1866. Cornhill Magazine was begun in 1860 by George Murray Smith (who employed Dickens's rival, Thackeray, as its editor) and aimed to be "safe" and "respectable" in its content. Armadale, then, was perhaps a mistake on Smith's part--its serialization alongside two conservative pieces of domestic realism, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Trollope's The Claverings indicates its significantly different register. Responses to Armadale, despite Collins's popularity through such previous works as The Woman in White (1859-1860), were generally negative and circulation of Cornhill actually declined significantly during Armadale's serialization. The respectable middle-class reading public particularly felt the character of Lydia Gwilt to be far too radically immoral for detailed depiction; in this later period, Collins's sensational fiction had reached more polemical heights than before. 

Armadale commences with the two travelers arriving at the town of Wildbad in 1832. They are a surly Scotsman by the name of Mr. Neal, and Allan Armadale, a man nearing his deathbed, accompanied by his wife and baby son. Armadale is an Engishman of the West Indies, and his wife a beautiful woman of mixed blood. Armadale is in a state of paralysis when he arrives in Wildbad and needs someone to help him complete a final letter addressed to his son, to be delivered to official representatives and read by his son when he is of age. Because he wants to hide the contents of this letter from his wife, Mr. Neal ends up being the only person around fluent enough in English to complete the task. He begrudgingly agrees, and reads aloud the completed portion of the manuscript first to make sure of any necessary corrections.

This manuscript reveals the story of how Allan Armadale was once Allan Wrentmore until he inherited the Armadale estate in Barbadoes from his godfather. His godfather had thrown off his own son on account of some misdemeanors he had committed. The stipulation attached to the inheritance was that Wrentmore would take the name Armadale. Afterwards, Armadale needed a clerk to manage the estate, and hired Fergus Ingleby, who is later revealed to be the original Allan Armadale. "Fergus" takes revenge by taking Allan "Wrentmore" Armadale's place in a marriage arranged by Allan's mother to the daughter of Mr. Blanchard of the wealthy Thorpe-Ambrose estate in England. When Allan arrived at Madeira where he was to meet his future wife, he finds that Miss Blanchard has already married "Fergus," thinking him to be her arranged lover. A young maid, Lydia Gwilt, helped forge letters from Mrs. Wrentmore in order to bring about the marriage. Allan Armadale challenges "Fergus" to a duel, but "Fergus" is a no-show; he and his new wife sail for Lisbon in a timber-ship called La Grace de Dieu. Armadale engages his services on another vessel which Mr. Blanchard hires to capture the couple. La Grace de Dieu is wrecked during its voyage, and the members of Mr. Blanchard's vessel go on board to make rescues. Armadale locks "Fergus" in his cabin and leaves him there to drown. Armadale was never prosecuted for murder and he went back to the West Indies, taking on his current wife and making his life over again. Here, the letter ends. Armadale enjoins Neal to write the rest of the letter, which tells his son to avoid contact with the son of the true Allan Armadale and his widow, who had been born after his death. As it turns out once again, both boys, Armadale's own son and the widow's, are named Allan Armadale. Armadale's warning exhibits his superstitious belief that no good can come from the second generation of Allan Armadales meeting.

The narrative skips here to focus on the original Allan Armadale's widow and her son. This portion of the narrative is given as memories of Mr. Brock, a bachelor clergyman. As this widow was estranged from her two brothers as a result of her marriage, she took her son with her to Somersetshire, raising him in isolation and allowing Mr. Brock sole responsibility for the education of her son. When her son reached the age of sixteen, Mr. Brock came across a strange advertisement asking for the whereabouts of Allan Armadale (placed by the party responsible for delivering the murderer's letter to his son). The widow knows that the advertisement doesn't refer to her Allan, and begs Brock to destroy the newspaper and keep it from her Allan. Soon after a stressful visit from a mysterious veiled woman (later revealed to by Lydia Gwilt), Mrs. Armadale dies, and makes Brock promise her that he will keep her son away from the other Allan Armadale, the son of his father's murderer, and also Lydia Gwilt, the maid who forged the letter to enable her marriage.

Prior to Mrs. Armadale's death, a swarthy young man stricken by fever arrives to Somersetshire, and he is taken in. Allan Armadale, because he has grown up in such isolation, is open to new acquaintances to a fault, generously paying the young man's medical bills. When the young man comes to his senses, he says his name is Ozias Midwinter, and it turns out he has enough money to pay his own bills. Nonetheless, Ozias feels great gratitute towards Allan, and a sort of friendship blossoms between the two young men. Ozias leaves for London after recovering, though at Allan's prompting, leaves Allan his London address.

After Allan's mother's death, Mr. Brock writes to see if her brothers will take up friendly relations with her son. One of the brothers refuses, and the other has died, but the son of this deceased brother agrees to let bygones be bygones. Allan, however, has very little interest renewing contact with relatives that had shunned his mother, and instead goes with Brock on some travels which Brock hoped would help the grieving young man. They begin their travels in Paris, and Allan insists on seeing Ozias in London. Ozias is away on business when Allan calls on him in London; later when they meet up, it is revealed that Ozias has inherited some estate from relatives. Almost simultaneously, Allan learns that he is the owner of the Blanchard estate of Thorpe-Ambrose because of three unexpected deaths in the family. In order to give the ladies at Thorpe-Ambrose some time to grieve and to get their things in order, Allan decides to go on a yachting-cruise (his passion was building his own yachts) for two months. Ozias and Brock accompany Allan on this trip, during which time Ozias receives the letter intended for him from his father--he confesses to Brock that he is in fact Allan Armadale, but had thought nothing of staying away from his new friend until this letter came into his hands. Indeed, Ozias has had a hard life: after the death of his father, his mother married Mr. Neal, and the two of them shunned him and treated him badly. He eventually ran away, taking a bunch of odd jobs here and there, receiving his new name from a gipsy man who took him in. For most of his life thus far, Ozias had been shunned and shown no pity or kindness; eventually he wound up in a bookshop, where he spent many an hour finding solace in books. The kindness of Allan Armadale, then, was one of the first he had experienced. Brock, though initially mistrustful of Ozias, accepts Ozias's confession to him as a sign of his goodness, and tells Ozias that he believes he will break the spell of his father's superstitious letter and be a friend to Allan, provided he didn't reveal his true identity. Meanwhile, Brock is called away for clergyman duties, and the two young men are left alone together for the remainder of the yachting cruise. In an incident during a moonlit night, the two of them wander out to check out a wreck, which turns out to be none other than La Grace de Dieu. Ominously, their own boat slips away and the two men are stuck on the same vessel where Ozias's father had murdered Allan's father. During the night that the two men spend on the wreck,  Allan has a frightening dream involving the following episodes: himself before a sunset and the "shadow of a woman," before a room with a "shadow of a man" where the man causes the shattering of a statuette, and finally before the "shadow of a woman" passing a glass to him via the "shadow of a man" and himself falling to the ground after holding the glass up to his lips. Ozias fears that this is a dream of the future, and that he himself is the "shadow of the man" and decides to write an account of Allan's dream down. Their friend, a Doctor Hawbury, puts Allan at ease by coming up with a "scientific" explanation for his dream consisting of linking elements of his dream to various everyday happenings Allan encountered in the last few days.

Coming upon his new estate, Allan decides to engage Ozias as his steward, not accepting a refusal. They learn that members of the town have contrived to throw a grand public reception on the occasion of Allan's arrival; Allan, wanting to avoid the ostentation goes to his new estate in secret. This turns out to be a bad idea, because the members of the town feel snubbed by him and he has much difficulty making amends. At his estate, Allan makes the acquaintance of Major Milroy, whom he has chosen to live as his cottage tenant over an old lawyer who has served his family for years--Allan peremptorily made his decision with the flip of a coin, without thinking he might offend the lawyer. Milroy has an invalid wife, and a young daughter, with whom Allan immediately begins a kind of flirtatious relationship. Meanwhile, Lydia Gwilt has been exchanging letters with an old woman named Oldershaw--these letters show a rather strained relationship between the two, but nevertheless, between them a plan to install Lydia as the governess for Milroy's daughter in order that Lydia might eventually win her way to becoming the new Mrs. Armadale is agreed upon. After all, Lydia looks young and charming for her age despite being thirty-five. When Mr. Brock sees Oldershaw and Lydia (recognizing Lydia in her veil from her visit to Mrs. Armadale in Somersetshire) in London speaking of Allan, he warns Midwinter that the veiled woman may be coming to Thorpe-Ambrose. Oldershaw sees Mr. Brock surveying them, and boldly comes up with a plan to waylay Brock: Lydia should dress up her Oldershaw's housemaid as herself in the veil, and this housemaid should pretend to get on steamer to Brazil. Oldershaw has a story for Mr. Brock: that her mistress was going back to Brazil to meet her husband, and that she was indeed the woman who had seen Mrs. Armadale and felt sorry for extracting money from her on her deathbed.

Midwinter meets with an old man named Bashwood, who has come for the purpose of coaching him in his stewardship duties. He seems unaccountably sneaky and obsequious, and Allan doesn't much like him. Allan soon decides to throw a picnic, inviting the Milroys, two of their friends, a widow and her curate son, and also the new governess since she is due to arrive on the day of his picnic. With the aid of Pedgift Jr., the son of the lawyer that Allan has taken into his service, the picnic is a great success, despite the somewhat unpleasant company provided by the widow and her son. Lydia Gwilt arrives during sunset, and Midwinter reminds him that the sunset and the "shadow of a woman" was part of his dream. Allan manages to maintain his levity, and is soon taken in by Lydia's great beauty. Midwinter has received a letter from Brock describing the features of the housemaid as Miss Gwilt's, and as a result, manages to allay Midwinter's anxieties because the Miss Gwilt he has met does not look like the woman of Brock's description.  Lydia Gwilt, meanwhile, manages to enchant both Allan and Midwinter (and Bashwood, who soon becomes a kind of pawn for her). After Allan confesses to Midwinter that he is in love with Lydia and wants to marry her, Midwinter decides to leave for a time, citing his own anxious composition as an excuse. After he leaves, the invalid Mrs. Milroy's jealousy of Lydia Gwilt grows, and she comes up with a plan to check her reference "Mrs. Mandeville" (really Mrs. Oldenshaw), hoping to dig up some dirt on Lydia. Having found out from her daughter that Allan seems interested in Lydia as well, Mrs. Milroy dispatches Allan to travel to London to try to speak with Mrs. Mandeville; because Mrs. Oldenshaw has reverted to her old name, Allan has a hard time finding her. Pedgift Jr., savvier than Allan, manages to suggest a connection between Lydia and a certain house of Pimlico, an unsavory establishment connected to a "beauty doctor." Wishing to save face for Lydia, Allan refuses to admit his findings to Mrs. Milroy, who then gets her husband involved.

Soon, Allan finds himself with a bad name as far as the estimation of everyone else in the town goes, between the Milroy's anger over his refusal to reveal what he has found, and everyone else finding his secret digging into a woman's past to be highly inappropriate. Lydia herself decides to discontinue her service with the Milroys, cunningly underscoring her own respectability even though she is unable to answer unspecified charges against her. Pedgift Sr. writes to Allan, who has remained in London during all of this, strongly suggesting that he come back and show his face so people don't think he's trying to avoid the situation. In London, Pedgift tells Allan that he does not trust Lydia, and as a result of his great experience as a defense lawyer working for the most hardened criminals, can say with no small degree of certainty that she is no innocent woman. Using the safety of Miss Milroy as pretense, Pedgift manages to convince Allan that they need to dispatch a spy to watch Lydia's movements. Allan is reluctant, but wanting to be chivalrous to the poor Miss Milroy, agrees. When Midwinter returns from his leave, he runs into Lydia, who tells him that Allan has sent a spy to watch her. Midwinter, because he is in love with her, is furious on her behalf and can't control himself when he meets with Allan who tells him she tells the truth. Despite Midwinter's remarkable amount of self-control thus far, the two men's tense disagreement over Lydia Gwilt leads to the shattering of the statuette in the drawing room, just as Allan had dreamed.

The next section is told primarily through Lydia's letters to Mrs. Oldershaw and her diary. Horrified at the statuette incident, Midwinter runs away, but still, he seems fatally drawn to Miss Gwilt, and the two acknowledge their love for one another. He also decides to tell her who he truly is and the entire story. Miss Gwilt, however, likes to Midwinter about her own identity, refusing to acknowledge that she was the former maid of Mrs. Armadale. Midwinter departs to London to get a job as a journalist, and alone and pushed to the wall with debts, Lydia comes upon an old letter from a man ("a villain") with whom she was once associated telling her about a resolute woman who once impersonated someone's widow. This sets the wheels turning in Lydia's head: she might marry Midwinter and take the name Mrs. Armadale since that is who he really is, do away with Allan, and then come back to Thorpe-Ambrose with the marriage certificate saying that she is Mrs. Allan Armadale. These nefarious plans Lydia Gwilt hatches all on her own, and for the time being, she withholds these plans from Mrs. Oldershaw.

Allan and Neelie have reached a point where they have regained such an interest in one another that they plot to get married. Lydia overhears them while they consult volumes of law to see if they might get married. They determine, finally, that Allan should go to London to consult someone for help. Lydia takes this opportunity to also go to London, and at the train station, she contrives to make Allan her travel companion, leading to rumors that she and Allan Armadale went away together to get married. Before leaving for London, Lydia sends an anonymous letter to Major Milroy warning Miss Milroy against Allan Armadale, suggesting that his affections may be elsewhere. The result is that Major Milroy stipulates that Miss Milroy will go to school for six months and cut off contact with Allan; if the two of them should still wish to marry at the time, he would condone it. Lydia suggests that in order to kill time, Allan should take his yacht and meet herself and Midwinter after they have married in Naples, where he will be working for a while as a foreign correspondent. 

Bashwood has happened to see Allan and Lydia at the train station and becomes extremely jealous and angry that Lydia has deceived him since he had thought he was on her side against Allan. Furious and yet still madly in love with her, he decides to consult his son who is in the spying business to uncover Miss Gwilt's past to him. Jemmy, Bashwood's son, learns that Miss Gwilt had in the past poisoned a husband, and gotten off with just the minor charges of robbery. Subsequently, she had married a Captain Manuel (who already had a first wife) but he ditched her. It was at this point that she had tried to drown herself (an incident which precipitated the deaths of Allan Armadale's relatives and his coming to own Thorpe-Ambrose). 

By the time Jemmy tracks Lydia down, she has already married Midwinter, but Bashwood and Jemmy don't know it is Midwinter because the wedding registry reads Miss Lydia Gwilt and Allan Armadale, Midwinter's true name. After the two of them are married, things aren't great between them because Midwinter ends up being a kind of workaholic at his journalism. He also becomes extremely nervous, renewing his fears about Allan's prophetic dream. Soon after their marriage, Mr. Brock dies, and leaves a letter for Midwinter encouraging him to stick by Allan because he believes in him, and his faith leads him to believe that all will be well should the two of them remain close friends. Thus, Midwinter is torn between needing to stay away from Allan because of the superstition and his father's letter, and sticking with Allan because of Mr. Brock's encouraging words. 

Allan's yacht actually does get wrecked on his way to Naples, but he survives. He then engages an old yacht, but has some trouble securing a crew for a cruise he wanted to take. It happens that at Naples, Lydia encounters her second husband, Captain Manuel, who has become an impoverished chorus singer. When he asks her for money, she lets him know that Armadale is a rich man, naive, and in need of a crew. When Manuel asks her what her interests as far as the Englishman Armadale goes are, she refuses to give him any more information. Luckily for Lydia, Midwinter's superstition has been at a high due to the third scene in Allan's dream playing out recently when Lydia mixed a glass of lemonade, handing it over to Allan via Midwinter (she doesn't quite confess in her diary that she has slipped something into the drink but it is strongly suggested--Allan doesn't drink, though, because he smells brandy, which he avoids). Because of his superstition, Midwinter thinks that he and Lydia should not going on the cruise with Allan lest they inadvertently harm him. Allan Armadale's fate indeed seems sealed as he sails off with Manuel and his band of cutthroats. 

During a storm, the crew nailed Allan below the decks and shattered the sea with the ship's wreckage, themselves taking off. News was borne that the yacht had been wrecked with all on board, and Lydia sets off for London intending to claim herself to be the widow of the late Allan Armadale. Despite some misgivings because of her true love of Midwinter, she still decides to act in her own self interest. In London, she finds Dr. Downward (of the house of Pimlico) involved with opening a sanitarium. Lydia manages to get him to sign that he had witnessed the marriage of Lydia and Allan, but as the lawyers were considering her claim, Allan Armadale wrote a letter declaring that he was alive, having escaped from the wreck with the aid of one man in his crew. He is recovering abroad, and will return soon to London. When Midwinter returns to London, Lydia repudiates him and declares herself the widow of Allan Armadale. Her last resort is to get Allan into the sanitarium the doctor has started--she sense someone to tell Allan at the station that Neelie was in the sanitarium. Since Midwinter also waits for Allan at the station, he too decides to go to the sanitarium with his friend. The men are each assigned to a room and Lydia's plan is to pump carbon dioxide into the room Allan is staying in. Things go awry when Midwinter has switched rooms with Allan, again because of Midwinter's superstitious forebodings. Lydia nearly kills Midwinter, rescuing him just in time. In despair for her evil acts, she actually closes herself into the room after pumping it full of the poisonous gas. Lydia dies, and in the end, Midwinter becomes a  successful writer, and Allan and Neelie get married and take up their place at Thorpe-Ambrose.

Armadale is told through a mixture of an unnamed narrator and letters. Beginning with the March 1865 installment (entitled, "Lurking Mischief") there is a marked switch of focus as Lydia Gwilt takes center stage: her exchange of letters to Mrs. Oldershaw and her own diary take over the telling of the story. Lydia's diary, which she says she begins in order to keep track of all her lies so that she won't mess up, is the perfect substitute for the semi-omniscient, unnamed narrator. Her diary does in fact become a kind of substitution for the narrator, who all but falls out of the second half of the novel. From the March installment onwards, it is Lydia Gwilt who controls the narrative more than any other character: she eventually even writes out Mrs. Oldershaw when she decides to withhold information about her plan to impersonate Allan Armadale's widow. With great skill, she maneuvers herself so that she has more information on others than she has on them, listening in on Allan and Neelie's plans, gaining Midwinter's confidence, and even reading Brock's final letter to Midwinter. Even the Bashwood episodes in the second half of the novel are just a kind of distraction, in which Bashwood's temporary ascendancy to privileged information about her is quickly neutralized by a few sweet words she doles out to him.
Lydia's scandalization of contemporary audiences may have been exacerbated by the omniscience which Collins allows her because of the way in which her omniscience changes the reader's relationship to her and to other characters. Through Lydia's eyes, for example, Allan Armadale seems more and more incompetent and vapid; her accounts of his inability to talk about anything except for yachts and love (for Neelie) are cutting and humorous, tending to seduce readers to sympathize with her. This seems to be Collins's project the whole way through, as Allan naivete is given from the start, but nowhere is it as negative of a trait as it is from Lydia Gwilt's perspective. More broadly, Collins's novel is scandalous because it perpetuates complicated reversals in the alignment between how sympathetic a character is and traditionally respectable social identities. Those of the most "respectable" backgrounds--Allan Armadale and Neelie Milroy--are highly unsympathetic: they are boring, they can barely understand books, they can't manage everyday affairs, they lack social graces, and they talk and think of nothing beyond conventional topics (leisure travel and marriage) for gentlemen and ladies (marriage). In contrast, those of more questionable backgrounds--Midwinter (whose racial otherness is another strike against him) and Lydia, find joy in books and writing, feel moved to depths by great music (Lydia listens to Beethoven) and works of art, and deftly manage their everyday affairs. Though these alignments explode conventional associations with respectability, in the end, Midwinter's capacity to turn his "smarts" towards good and Lydia's inability to do the same seems to return the novel to a more conservative middle-class myth of social upward mobility: though cast about by the world, the individual might triumph and win, through righteous means and his own ingenuity, a respectable place in the social hierarchy. Cornhill's readership, indeed, was all about classes of people who aspired to social advancement through honorable pursuits like education and industry. Yet, the very end, no consideration of Midwinter versus Lydia can cast aside the question of gender: in allowing readers access to Lydia's first person account via her diary, the reader gains insight into many instances where Lydia considers avoiding the evil act of doing away with Allan Armadale but then ends up sees no other way out of the miseries heaped upon her by her place as a woman. After her marriage to Midwinter, he has his career to focus on and she feels neglected and crushed by the abandonment--she really has nothing else to occupy her mind than to plot and plan in her diary. She confesses that there were times when she thought Midwinter's love might be enough to convince her to leave off her plans, but Midwinter's love fails because he does not prove to be a lively companion to her. A good marriage is the one thing that might save a woman, and having no other alternatives, she turns her unused "smarts" to something else, and in this way joins the ranks of many other smart Victorian female characters like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharpe, Middlemarch's Dorothea, or Miss Marjoribanks's Lucilla, who all manage to find different ways to spend their talents and intellectual energies within the constraints of their social position as women.

Monday, May 9, 2011

High Windows by Philip Larkin

High Windows was first published by Faber and Faber in 1974 (hardback) and 1979 (paperback). The collection is Larkin's final one, second perhaps only to Whitsun Weddings (1964) as far as critical attention goes. Many of the poems in the collection were written in the 1960s, however; certainly the subjects Larkin references (the sexual revolution, disconnection from world war, declining religiosity, generational conflict, and so forth) are recognizably of the "60s." Larkin's poetry is considered as part of "The Movement," which reacted to (modernist) poetic obscurities with a characteristic clarity of language and form while also eschewing the direct social and political commitments/stances of poets like Auden (other writers of "The Movement" include Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, Robert Conquest, and Ted Hughes).

Sterile environments:
Several of Larkin's poems in this collection vividly describe sterile, indoor environments which seem to stand for the emptiness and imaginative sterility of modern, urban landscapes (often in contrast with imaginatively fertile--but disappearing--pastoral landscapes). "The Building" describes a hospital, though the poem never names "the building" a hospital, in order to clear his descriptions of the building of prior associations. The result is a starkly defamiliarized image of a hospital as not a place of hope or scientific triumph over disease and death, but a "clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend / The thought of dying, for unless its powers / Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes / The coming dark, though crowds each evening try / With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers." In the sterile corridors, where people wait, not knowing if they "will be out by lunch, or four" or if they "have come to join / The unseen congregations whose white rows / Lie set apart above," nature (in the form of the flowers) seems weak and not to mention dead.  "Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel" presents a Hopper-esque loneliness inside of a deserted station hotel, where "Clusters of lights over empty chairs / That face each other, coloured differently" stand, and where "the dining-room declares / A larger loneliness of knives and glass / And silence laid like a carpet." Things typically used for sociability unused and lights wasted on nobody emphasize the sterility of these objects apart from human life. The final lines, italicized ("Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages") contrasts the sterility of these objects with nature, which continues to have an existence beyond everyday human commerce.
Religious substitutions:
"The Building's" religious diction (see above, "congregation," "cathedral," "transcend") links modern hospital buildings to churches of the past. The church or the cathedral are no longer places of worship in a world no longer devout or even spiritual at all; yet, the poem suggests that the impulse for worship remains and can be seen in gestures like the "weak, propitiatory flowers." "Vers de Societe" comments on the relationship between a completely secularized world and the rejection of solitude. Nowadays, "how sternly it's instilled / All solitude is selfish. No one now / Believes the hermit with his gown and dish / Talking to God (who's gone too); the big wish / Is to have people nice to you, which means / Doing it back somehow." These lines suggest that the justification for hermitage was religious, and without religion, there is no longer a justification for solitude. "Virtue is social," the new creed proclaims. The poet asks, in the end, "Are, then, these routines / Playing at goodness, like going to church?" expressing the same sense as in "The Building" that despite the disappearance of God, there remains in a secular society an impulse towards worship and ritual. The "new" rituals replacing going to church in "Vers de Societe" are dinner parties and small talk.
The first stanza of "To the Sea" introduces images of people enjoying the seaside, "Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps" and the second stanza explains their significance by referencing how these enjoyments continue into the present: "Still going on, all of it, still going on!" The poet's outburst on these things "still going on" sounds like surprise, though it is a pleasant one--in the final stanza, the poet lingers on the value of continuing such rituals: "It may be that through habit these do best, / Coming to water clumsily undressed / Yearly; teaching their children by a sort / Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought." "Show Saturday" perhaps contains one of the strongest expressions that new, secular activities actually do maintain some kind of important value, though it might not be a religious one. After the people leave the colorfully described Bellingham Show, the fair which the poet describes, he gently adds a kind of blessing: "Let it stay hidden there like strength, below / Sale-bills and swindling; something people do, / Not noticing how time's rolling smithy-smoke / Shadows much greater gestures; something they share / That breaks ancestrally each year into / Regenerate union. Let it always be there."
Generational conflict, legacies:
As mentioned briefly above in the publication history, High Windows is laced with references to the 60s, and so one of the collection's recurring themes is the conflict between generations and relating to this, anxieties about legacies. In "High Windows" the problem of how the older generation always thinks the later one has it better is explored. The poet, watching kids sexually "free" and using birth control, thinks "I know this is paradise." But then he imagines others of the previous generation thinking about the "freedom" of his own increasingly atheistic and secular age: "No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that..." This reflection prompts a turn in the poem, and the final stanza rejects these limited and adolescent senses of freedom with a sublime thought (beyond words) of a more radical and truer freedom beyond human understanding: "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / the sun comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless." Larkin's famed "This Be the Verse" alludes to Old Testament language of the sins of the fathers revisited on the sons to reject "mum and dad." Most of the poem is colloquial like its opening ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad") but reaches for a much more serious and graver notion of the human condition in the lines "Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf." These lines asks us to take seriously the condition of generational trauma; despite the ways in which people joke, in a post-Freudian era, of the ways in which parents "fuck up" their children, there is real pain in the misery which parents pass on to their children. "Posterity" is Larkin's poem in the imagined persona of his own biographer, Jake Balokowsky, who is an academic who doesn't much care for his subject matter: "'I'm stuck with this old fart at least a year; / I wanted to teach school in Tel Aviv, / But Myra's folks'--he makes the money sign--'Insisted I got tenure. When there's kids...'" While the poem ironically comments on the distance between how the biographer views his work (something to make a living) versus how others might idealize his work (a genuine intellectual pursuit), it isn't a poem which simply critiques the biographer's cynical attitudes. The lines clearly suggest that he does have something else he would have liked to do, but that the institutions which control modern academia and modern "living" more broadly don't allow him to pursue these alternatives. Thus, Larkin's legacy is not so much debased by Balokowsky but the institutional  conditions under which "biographies" are manufactured. "Sympathy in White Major" is another poem with a clear persona whose ironical position in toasting himself emphasizes the emptiness of common ways in which people remember each other. The speaker offers a laundry-list of his accomplishments which are all bromides: "A decent chap, a real good sort, / Straight as a die, one of the best, / A brick, a trump, a proper sport, / Head and shoulders above the rest; / How many lives would have been fuller / Had he not been here below? / Here's to the whitest man I know--" Though such praises are definitively rejected in the letdown of the speaker's final line, "Though white is not my favourite colour," the poem leaves us wondering what other legacies are possible in remembering those who have gone. "Dublinesque" offers a different kind of memorial through the image of an Irish Catholic funeral hearse being followed down the street by "a troop of streetwalkers / In wide flowered hats, / Leg-of-mutton sleeves, / And ankle-length dresses." These images are suggestive of a kind of rustic mourning which Larkin seems to find much more genuine in its remembrance: "There is an air of great friendliness, / As if they were honouring / One they were fond of...And of great sadness also. / As they wend away / A voice is heard singing / Of Kitty, or Katy, / As if the name meant once / All love, all beauty." The name doesn't even really matter, genuine affect is in the rituals of their procession, their dress, their clapping and their singing.
Death, dying, aging:
Larkin explores death, the process of dying, and the changes in consciousness in old age in poems like "The Old Fools" and "Sad Steps." The persona of the speaker in "The Old Fools" goes through various stages of wrestling with what happens in old age: In the first stanza, he adopts a tone of superiority, asking crude questions such as "Do they somehow suppose / It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools...?" The second stanza attempts to describe, from a distanced, materialist point of view, what happens in death: "At death, you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see." The "oblivion" which comes with this breaking up, the speaker muses, was also there before life. The third stanza is more speculative and imaginative, and tries to think of being old in terms of a vivid metaphor, in which being old is "having lighted rooms / inside your head, and people in them, acting," but that the people and these rooms seem more and more distant and unrecognizable. The fourth stanza ends with the futility of speculating, since, as the speaker says in a matter-of-fact way, "We shall find out." "Sad Steps" also pictures the gap in consciousness between the young and the old. The speaker, an old man "Groping back to bed after a piss," sees the moon behind the curtains, and thinks that it is a reminder of youth: "The hardness and the brightness and the plain / Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare / Is a reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young; that it can't come again, / Bur is for others undiminished somewhere." The "strength and pain" is interesting, because it prevents us from reading the poem as simply an old man wishing to be young again. What is the "pain" of youth which the old don't feel? Is it of desire, ambition, in contrast to the humbled existence of the old man's "[g]roping back to bed after a piss?"
Nature's healing/pastoral traditions:
Much of Larkin's poetry contains Hardy-esque pastoral elements, in which nature offers a kind of continuing, healing force in face of man's destructive tendencies, his suffering, and his death. In "Forget What Did," the poet wants to give up writing painful diary entries, and desires that the blank pages fill with "celestial recurrences," a phrase which vaguely suggests renewable cycles in nature ("celestial" even suggests a divine quality, rare in Larkin's poetry). "The Trees," made up of three simple stanzas of abba, explores how trees also die eventually ("Is it that they are born again / And we grown old? No they die too.") but that each year, the blossoms still insist, "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh." Nature then, is not apart from humanity in that it also "dies," and so we might tale a lesson from its blossoms to begin afresh time and time again in our own lives. "The Trees" imparts renewal and continuity which humans ignore in face of a greater preoccupation with mortality. Other aspects of nature seem timeless and eternal, like the sun in "Solar"; the poet imagines the continuous giving and bounty of the sun in these lines: "Our needs hourly / Climb and return like angels. / Unclosing like a hand, / You give for ever." Larkin's appreciation for nature and the pastoral tradition manifests itself also in less optimistic poems; "Going, going" laments the certainty of the disappearing natural landscape in England. Finally, in other poems where humans encroach on or pollute the landscape, there remains a solace expressed in nature overwhelming resilience. The grotesque habits of the "Card Players" (one of the only sonnets in the collection) in a Dutch tavern seems to go through a partial purification process at the end, by "Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!" More dramatically, in "The Explosion," when a mine explodes, nature stops for a second, in an aestheticized pause: "At noon, there came a tremor; cows / Stopped chewing for a second; sun, / Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmer." This might seem like a portrayal of an indifferent nature, but the brief, aestheticized pastoral moment ushers in a heavenly vision of the dead beheld by the miners' wives in the next stanza: "The dead go on before us, they / Are sitting in God's house in comfort / We shall see them face to face."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Translations by Brian Friel

Irish playwright Brian Friel's Translations was first performed in September 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland. Its production was managed by a theater company founded by Friel and actor Stephen Rea.

Act I: The action is set in a small Irish town called Baile Beag in August 1833. At the "hedge-school" held in an old barn in general disarray and filth, Manus, the son of the old schoolmaster, Hugh, is managing things before his father arrives. Manus tries to get Sarah, a woman with a speech impediment, to correctly pronounce basic phrases of introduction. Meanwhile, another pupil, Jimmy (also known as the Infant Prodigy) spouts phrases of Greek and Latin. Otherwise, we are to assume they are all speaking in Irish. Soon Maire, a young, attractive woman appears. Manus tells Maire about how someone named Biddy Hanna asked him to write a letter to her sister in Nova Scotia, and how Biddy Hanna was so clueless as to have asked Manus to write, "Thank God one of them new national schools is being built" without realizing that he was the son of the schoolmaster. Maire brings news of English soldiers living in tents in the town. Soon Doalty and Bridget arrive; Doalty is drunk and boasts about his ruse, shifting the poles of a "machine" that the English soldiers were using to confuse them. Manus explains that his father is late because of a christening he was attending. Maire and Manus seem to have intimate relations, and she asks him if he's going to apply for a job at the new national school. Manus says no because his father is going to apply for it and he doesn't want to be in the way of his father. Maire hints that she wants to go to America to escape from her rather large family ("There's ten below me to be raised and no man in the house.") The group talks about the new school, which will be mandatory for children 6-12 and which will operate in English. Hugh arrives, and conducts his "lesson" by imparting them news and stopping at certain words to ask his pupils about their Latin origins. He tells of the christening, the arrival of Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers and his partner Yolland--the Englishmen, who are conducting an ordnance survey of the area, and of how he will be running the new national school. Suddenly, Owen, Manus's brother who hasn't been back in six years comes in and receives a hearty welcome for all. He is a "city man," and announces that he has brought with him Lancey and Yolland. Owen brings them in and serves as a (mis)translator as Lancey and Yolland explain their project. Lancey says that they will be making a comprehensive map of the entire country, in order that they might better assess taxation policies. Owen's somewhat lazy translations help the Englishmen to convince the Irish that the project will be for their own good. The act ends with Manus expressing concern that Yolland can't even pronounce Owen's name, calling him "Roland," and Owen reassuring him that it is just a "name."

Act II, Scene 1: The act opens with Owen and Yolland working together to Anglicize the names of local Irish landmarks. Owen criticizes Yolland's "romantic" view of the Ireland; unlike Lancey, whom Yolland describes as "[t]he perfect colonial servant," Yolland's imagination is prone to wandering, idealizing Owen's family and friends and ascribing a kind of Edenic status to the Irish landscape. He still can't pronounce Owen and proves generally unaware of Owen correcting him because he's so caught up in his own speechifying. An encounter between Hugh and Yolland ensues in which Hugh reveals that he has never heard of Wordsworth. This becomes an opportunity for Yolland to idealize Irish literature and myth. Yolland tells Hugh that he's learning to speak Irish, though Hugh doesn't much care. After Hugh leaves on some errands, Yolland confesses to Owen that he fears that the colonial project is "an eviction of sorts" and is ethically uncomfortable with his own part in the project. Owen shrugs off Yolland's "romanticizing" and essentially says that the old Irish place names are part of myths that people who live there don't even remember anymore. Yolland finally listens to Owen when he says his name isn't Roland. He is ashamed and horrified but Owen puts him at ease. Manus arrives and announces he has gotten a job at a school on an island called Inis Meadhon fifty miles away. Manus is reluctant to speak English even though he knows it because he resents colonialists like Yolland. Maire also comes by, and Manus tells her the good news as well. They all congratulate Manus. Maire and Yolland communicate with some difficulty, through Owen--she says there will be a dance at Tobair Vree, a name which Yolland has just learned and he is clearly overjoyed that he knows it. Drunk by this time, Yolland shouts out a bunch of Irish names of places and humorously throws in Bombay and Eden into the mix.

Act II, Scene 2: Maire and Yolland hold hands after the dance, and though they don't understand each other, they both talk. Maire comically tells him her only phrase in English: "In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypoll." Yolland lists off Irish place names, Maire corrects him. Eventually they kiss, and Sarah sees them.

Act 3: In the schoolhouse, Owen continues to work on place names. Manus comes in with a travel bag, about to leave. Apparently something has happened to Yolland because Yolland is missing. Manus asks Owen to tell the people at Inis Meadhon that he might be a while before going to the school. Manus leaves, and Sarah stutters sympathetically, "I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, Manus." Doalty and Bridget arrive on the scene, bringing news of more English soldiers arriving and how Hugh, drunk, had been yelling out names at them ("Visigoths! Huns! Vandals!"). Maire comes in, talking of Yolland. She also doesn't know where he is, but caught in her own romance, starts listing off place names in England associated with Yolland. Lancey comes in and asks Owen to translate to everyone that if Yolland is not found in a day, they will shoot all the livestock in the town. In forty-eight hours, they will evict people and level their lands. Bridget rushes off to hide livestock while Doalty thinks about fighting the English. Jimmy and Hugh arrive, with Jimmy talking about how he's going to marry Pallas Athena. Hugh remarks while looking at James, how "it is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. James has ceased to make that discrimination." Hugh then concludes that they need to keep "renewing those images" to keep a culture alive. Hugh says he will teach Maire English because in his mind, he's made a kind of compromise wherein he wishes the Irish to claim English for themselves because it will be the only living language. James blathers on about endogamein and exogamein, marrying in and out of one's tribe (he's referring to himself in considering marriage with Athena, but also his comments clearly apply to Maire). The play ends with Hugh trying to quote ineffectually from the Aeneid, focusing on a passage telling of how Juno wanting to make her city the capital of all nations, but couldn't because of the destined rise of Troy.

Though Friel has been cited as saying that Translations is really just about language, it is clear that contained in the concern about language are very specific identity politics relating to Northern Ireland's encounter with England from colonial times into the times during which Friel was writing. Friel's own biography provides a useful context for the identity politics which Translations works through. Born in 1929 in Killyclogher (rural Northern Ireland), Brian Friel was actually registered as "Bernard Patrick," "Bernard" being a part of a trend to discourage Gaelic sounding names. "Bernard Patrick" might be a kind of symbol of a destabilized identity which mediates between his father's rural nationalism and his own move towards a more moderate "citified" position which critiqued, among other things, the backwards educational systems perpetuated by the Catholic Church which feared, above all, Anglicization. Translations certainly comments on the inadequacy of the kind of education which Hugh and Manus provide; the students learn in a filthy barn, the snippets of Latin and Greek which Hugh throws out at his pupils are meaningless and farcical. But at the same time Friel critiques a position which gives in entirely to the Anglicization processes promoted by the imperialists. Maire's budding Anglophilia is deeply satirized by her equally meaningless romance with Yolland, and Lancey's extreme measures deployed to find Yolland are absurdly punitive. Yolland's romanticization of Ireland and conflation of the poor, rural landscape with Eden is also satirized. It seems hat Hugh's idea at the end of the play that the English language must be accepted but re-colonized/re-appropriated by Irishmen is the moderate position towards which the play finally settles on. The image of Greece's destruction and the inevitable rise of Troy provides an allegory for Northern Ireland's destruction and inevitable Anglicization. Friel seems to advocate, finally, some kind of compromise position, but perhaps Hugh's forgetfulness as he recites the lines signals that this is in no way an easy compromise to hammer out.