Monthly Archives: July 2014

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In Atonement by Ian McEwan, the editor of the literary magazine Horizon sends a letter to the main character Briony rejecting her work. In it he says, “Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity” (315). I could not disagree more. Writing stems from a desire to create something or send a message. People need this outlet because they are uncomfortable. Discomfort in their homes, political atmospheres, and social circles can

Briony in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

Briony in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

all be inspiration, and what is war if not uncomfortable?

In Briony’s case, it is her discomfort with her lack of control and with her guilt that urge her to write. In the first introduction to Briony as a child she is described as “one of those children possessed by the desire to have the world just so” (4). She has all of her animals and toys lined up and facing the same direction, and her room is pristine. It is proposed that part of her controlling personality included her love of secrets, but that “her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoings” (5). However her “first clumsy story showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: Once she had begun a story, no one could be told” (6). Briony wrote often, sometimes for days without much break, even missing meals. Her stories allowed her to have her secrets, and “Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so” (7). She also experiments with plays, but finds that when actors and other people get involved her control is compromised, which is unacceptable. Her “self-contained world she had drawn with clear and perfect lines had been defaced with the scribble of other minds, other needs” (36). Her need for order is not satisfied by the real world, where other people control some of the outcomes, but rather in her stories she where is all-powerful.

She also writes to curb her guilt over condemning Robbie to prison and to war and for ruining her sister’s happiness.  She thinks that if she writes “not simply a letter, but a new draft, an atonement,”

Briony and Robbie in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

Briony and Robbie in Atonement (2007) from the IMDb photo gallery

then she can be resolved of her guilt (349). She documents what happened, regarding it as her “duty to disguise nothing” (369). However, at the end of her story, instead of having her sister and Robbie die, as they actually did within the world of the novel, she lets them live, seeing it not as a “weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and unite them at the end” (372). This need to change what happened and atone for her mistakes moved Briony to write her story over and over again, finally writing the final draft that allows the lovers to be together at the end. However, because she is all powerful in her stories, satisfying her need for order, she wonders “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” because there is no “entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with or that can forgive her” (371). The discomfort caused by living with her guilt and regret, along with her lack of control drive Briony to write, fueling her stories so that she can create a world in which she would be more comfortable.

Photo citations:

“Photo Gallery.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0783233/mediaindex&gt;.

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Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and Mrs. Dalloway

2 Virginia Woolf from the National Portait Gallery Site

Virginia Woolf from the National Portrait Gallery Site

In “A Room of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf says that the only things a woman needs to be able to write are money and a room of her own. While these things are certainly important, I think she also needs inspiration; inspiration in the form of discomfort. In the case of Woolf, she is uncomfortable with the social status of women, and her writing reflects that, both in “A Room of One’s Own” and in Mrs. Dalloway.

In “A Room of One’s Own” Woolf discusses women in fiction. She focuses for a while on the disparity in educational funding between males and females, which obviously bothers her and fuels her writing.  As she walks through Oxford she considers “An unending stream of gold and silver, I thought, must have flowed into this court perpetually” (P1).  Conversely, when she contemplates the state of female educational institutions she is told that “it was a prodigious effort, and a great deal of time was spent on it. And it was only after a long struggle and with the utmost difficulty that they got thirty thousand pounds together” to start the college (P1).  She even compares difference in meals between the women and the men. When she dines at the men’s college she is served “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves,” but with her female friend she eats “beef with its attendant greens and potatoes — a homely trinity” (P1). This contrast shows the difference in monetary support between the two sexes, and these foods serve as a metaphor for the way men and women are intellectually nourished. Women were not encouraged to learn or given ‘gourmet’ education, whereas men were put into school and taught to grow up to be educated gentlemen.

This lack of encouragement for the intellectual development of women is another topic that Woolf’s dwells on. She wonders about all of the wasted talent that must have escaped the world because women were suppressed and kept away from books and education. She says that when “one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor” (P1).  This zealous description highlights how affected Woolf is by the predicament of her fellow females. She knows that not all women who have the urge to write are as courageous or able as she, and she mourns for past women who were gifted in this way who had even fewer opportunities. She says that “a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty” (P1).

Virginia Woolf and T. S. Elliot from the National Portrait Gallery Site

Virginia Woolf and T. S. Elliot from the National Portrait Gallery Site

Woolf continues her critique of woman’s place in society in Mrs. Dalloway. The very first line in fact, a dramatic declaration, is such a silly, useless, typically feminine thing.  By starting the novel with “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Woolf makes a social comment (12). Not only is this a concern big enough in Clarissa Dalloway’s world to start a novel with, it is obviously unique that she should do so mundane a task herself. This fact shows that Clarissa is spoiled, and it critiques the place of women in society. While the young Clarissa Dalloway had “that woman’s gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be” it is still a “woman’s gift” (88). The strength of the complement is negated within itself. Clarissa’s place in society is very set. She is the wife of a politician, a mother (though not a particularly affectionate one), and a hostess. When they are teenagers Clarissa’s friend Sally urges their friend Peter to “carry off Clarissa, to save her from the Hughs and the Dalloways and all the other ‘perfect gentlemen’ who would ‘stifle her soul’ (she wrote reams of poetry in those days), make a mere hostess of her, encourage her worldliness” (88). This seems to be Woolf’s voice coming through, showing her opinion of the societal norms. The very fact that Woolf writes Clarissa to be discontent in this role shows Woolf’s own discomfort with society’s boundaries. Clarissa “had the oddest sense of being invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only… this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (20). Her complete subjection to her husband is her role, and this is a representation of a societal role that obviously made Woolf uncomfortable.

Photo Citations:

“Virginia Woolf.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 July 2014. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Woolf&gt;.

Virginia Woolf Art, Life, and Vision” National Portrait Gallery, 13 July 2014. Web < http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/virginiawoolf/home.php&gt;

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Henry IV Part I: Performed and Read

In Henry IV by William Shakespeare the uncomfortable inspiration is less obvious than in other literature, but it is certainly present. In the play Shakespeare deals with the history and war of England, he examines human nature and relationships, and he explores what it really means to be a man and to be a king. Is it possible to be a good man, husband, lover, soldier, and king, or is the myriad of masculine definitions too much for one person to embody? Additionally, it is possible that the writing in general was uncomfortable for Shakespeare, for as Samuel Johnson wrote inthe Preface to The Works of William Shakespeare in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, history “is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy” and “in tragedy he was always struggling after some occasion to be comic” (1501)

Any time an author looks too closely at human nature it is uncomfortable, but it is also inspiring. Writers want to share their viewpoint with their audiences. Samuel Johnson wrote, it “is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life” (1500). This close examination is disconcerting, as it is when Shakespeare explores the relationship between Prince Hal and his father.

King Henry IV in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

King Henry IV in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

In the play King Henry IV does “envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blessed a son- / a son who is the theme of honor’s tongue” (I.1).  Whereas with Falstaff Hal is comfortable and joking, Falstaff calls him a “sweet wag” and teases him freely, with the king Hal is ashamed and uncomfortable, feeling unworthy (I.2).  To the king he says “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head/ And…/ Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (III. 2).  Shakespeare explores these the father/son relationships here, and as this is an aspect of human nature, it is uncomfortable. People may not like to think that a father and son could not be naturally bonded or that a prince could prefer a ruffian to his own father.

Shakespeare also examines the definitions of masculinity and kingliness, largely through Hotspur and Hal. Towards the end of the play we see kingly characteristics in Hal, such as when he slays Hotspur but says “brave Percy. Fare thee well, great heart” (V.4). While he did his duty in war, he regretted the loss of life and bravery, just as a king should. Hotspur in contrast is brash and violent, choosing war over staying with his wife and when he says to his her “when I am a-horseback, I will swear/ I love thee infinitely” (II.3).  The audience sees these characteristics in Hotspur and doubts his ability to rule well.

Seeing the production of Henry VI Part 1 in Stratford brought even more depth to the characters and vividness to the scenes. Not only did watching the play make dialogue easier to follow, but made relationships more clear through body language, and moods more obvious. Particularly in reference to cadences of speech and body language, the experience of watching the play was far superior to reading it because even when I did not comprehend the dialogue I could observe body language and tone of voice and expand my understanding. For example, the conversations between Falstaff and Hal were rather confusing to me when I read the play because they changed moods, threw insults, and joked with each other often.

Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

I was sometimes unsure if Falstaff was really being insulting or insulted. Seeing the amusement and camaraderie in the expressions of the actors when one called another a “mad wag” made the jests more obvious and the friendship truer. Additionally the characters came through more vividly when we saw the play performed. For example the way Hal is portrayed through actions that were not necessarily in the written play put his character in perspective. He is much more likable as a character, full of feeling and amusement, but his reckless and imprudent ways are more obvious as well when he is seen drinking and having sex. The play exaggerated his un-princely behaviors, making the changes in his character and relationships even more clear and meaningful. Another example is the way that Hotspur acted, jumping about and laughing wildly really created a countenance of immaturity and brashness. The way he and his wife interacted really clarified the first scene she is in, when she probes him about his stress and sleeplessness. His changes from near violence to softness and love and back showed him to be a bit mad, and their marriage rocky. His character’s instability brings into question whether the roles of masculinity are possible to fulfill all at once, and shows the audience that Hotspur, at least, is unable to do so.

Photo citations:

“Henry IV Parts I & II.” Production and rehearsal photos. N.p., 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/henry-iv/production-photos-part-i.aspx&gt;.

 

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

 

Persuasion- 1995- from IMDb photo gallery

Persuasion– 1995- from IMDb photo gallery

In Persuasion by Jane Austen discomfort can be seen as a catalyst for the story as well. Firstly, in the novel Bath is portrayed as a silly, frivolous place that the main character, Anne, dreads. When Anne’s family moves she wishes desperately to stay in the country instead of moving to London or Bath, as her family decides to do. She “disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her – and Bath was to be her home” (Vol 1, Ch II). It is known that Austen herself disliked Bath. According to the prelude to the novel Austen lived in Bath for about 4 years. This is where her father died, and her family’s economic issues found their beginning. Additionally, when we visited bath and toured the fashion museum and assembly rooms we learned that Austen’s social life was not satisfactory while in Bathe either. Her brother would bring her to the balls and then leave her alone without introducing her to anyone, which at the time made socialization virtually impossible. Thus, it makes sense that Austen’s discomfort in Bath led to her writing about Anne’s dislike of the place. Anne dreads “the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath,” and avoids going there for as long as possible (Vol 1, Ch V). It is also interesting to note that in another of Austen’s novels Emma, Emma refuses to go to Bath, and the frivolous and obnoxious

Assembly Room in Bath Photo by Shannon Adams

Assembly Room in Bath
Photo by Shannon Adams

Mrs. Elton comes from Bath. This, coupled with Anne’s “very determined, though very silent, disinclination for Bath” suggests that Austen’s dislike for Bath served as inspiration for her writing (Vol 2, Ch II).

Another source of discomfort and motivation for writing in Persuasion is the social class and the upward mobility of the naval officer. We discussed in class that Austen was trying to imagine what the new England would look like, and speculation on the future is in itself an uncomfortable activity. Her support of class mobility also suggests that she is perhaps uncomfortable with the current social structure. Both of these discomforts act as inspiration for her writing. It is pointed out in The Broadview Anthology that as the “ terms ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ gradually lost their association with rank, socio-economic boundaries became increasingly difficult to distinguish, and novelists began to focus on the gendered and class behaviors of individuals for their narrative content” (117).  Austen focuses on the naval officer and the opposition to naval social mobility in characters like Sir Walter Elliot who says that ““The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it,” and resists letting his house to an officer (Vol 1, Ch III).  Austen also shows how the officers are generally respectable and polite men like Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth. Even the Musgroves find the Navy to be an acceptable career for their son Richard. Though Wentworth’s original marriage proposal to Anne was discarded because of his social status and lack of fortune, after some time passed and he made his name as a captain in the Navy he is accepted into higher society eagerly. The Musgrove daughters even say how “perfectly delighted they were with him, how much handsomer, how infinitely more agreeable they thought him than any individual among their male acquaintance” (Vol 1, Ch VII). The introduction to the novel points out that by marrying Captain Wentworth “Anne joins the wandering tribe of sailors and their wives; these are socially mobile figures who may or may not have any link to the settled upper classes.” Wentworth gains social worth with his time in the Navy, and when he and Anne get engaged her family does not protest again because “Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, was no longer nobody” (Vol 2, Ch XII). Austen’s allowance for social mobility suggests her support for the changing England she was living in, and illustrates how the developments and uneasiness of the time led her to write in the ways that she did.

Photo citation:

“Persuasion.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/media/rm263429376/tt0114117?ref_=ttmd_md_pv#&gt;.

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Creativity in Times of War

The Receiving Room: 42nd Stationary Hospital by William Orpen

The Receiving Room: 42nd Stationary Hospital by William Orpen

One of the least comfortable things in the human experience is war. As I’ve noted, in Atonement by Ian McEwan, it is said that “Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity” (315). Although it may be true that in the throes of war there may be little time for the frivolity of the arts, there are obviously those who took their inspiration from war instead of being stymied by it. Poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen took the discomfort, horror, and terror that came from their experiences as soldiers in World War I and wrote beautiful, haunting poetry. Both focused on the jingoism and war propaganda. For example, in Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” the final stanza blatantly calls out war propaganda as “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (27-28). The Latin phrase here translates to “It is sweet and seemly to die for your country” (Merriam Webster). This poem paints war to be anything but sweet, as the men “bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington from BBC

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington from BBC

we cursed through sludge” (1-2). The horribly uncomfortable state of the men is obvious, and the use of sound throughout Owen’s poems creates a stunning representation of the horrors of war. The men are “coughing like hags” (2). When they are gassed there is a man “yelling out” “guttering, choking” (11,16). Then the dying soldier has “blood/ come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (21-22). The horrible sound imagery builds on Owen’s already horrifying picture of war. Additionally in Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” there are more sounds that recall the horror of war, such as “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” (3). The “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” are the soldiers’ only mourning sounds, and “bugles calling for them from sad shires” (7, 8).

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “They” focuses on the war propaganda and the ways in which soldiers were affected by the war. While the Bishop in the poem warns that the soldiers “will not be the same” he also says that it’s because “’they’ll have fought/ ‘In a just cause” (2-3). However, the “boys” themselves, tell a more gruesome story. They say

…’We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’ (7-12)

This description of all of the changed men, now individualized by their own voice instead of being described as a simply a faceless mass of soldiers, shows a tiny glimpse of the horror that comes, not just with war, but with the aftermath. At the National Portrait Gallery in London we saw the WWI exhibit which featured a display of soldiers before and after reconstructive surgery. Most of the soldiers had sustained injuries to their faces, and, while alive, few of them looked like they could have been born that way. They were forever physically changed by what they experienced in the war. It was obvious that “You’ll not find/’A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change” (11).

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers from The Rimes Magazine

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers from The Rimes Magazine

The same pains from the aftermath of war can be seen in Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, though his wounds are not physical. Septimus returned form the war with shell shock, and this wound’s invisible nature made it all the more difficult to treat because doctors at the time didn’t understand it. Though Septimus threatens to kill himself and has hallucinations he is simply encouraged to “take an interest in things outside himself,” a recommendation from a doctor who said that he “had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts” (31). It is said over and over that Septimus has nothing wrong with him. His wife is left to think “he was selfish. So men are. For he was not ill. Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him”(33). However, his post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, causes him no end of torment, and eventually leads him to kill himself. He has such vivid hallucinations that when a plane passes overhead he thinks “they are signaling to me,” and he sees the trees “beckoned,” and the leaves were “connected by millions of fibers with his own body” (31, 32). His hallucinations get very intense, and he finds that they “All taken together meant the birth of a new religion—” (32). His trauma has changed him so violently that “he was not Septimus now” (32). All of these representations of the effects of war show the distress and hardship it causes. These horrors, though terrible, are definitely fuel for creativity, as is illustrated by war poetry and the way that war is featured in novels of the time.

 

Photo citations:

“The Great War in Portraits, National Portrait Gallery.” theartsdesk.com, first with arts reviews, news and interviews. theartsdesk.com, n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.theartsdesk.com/visual-arts/great-war-portraits-national-portrait-gallery&gt;.

“Sebastian Faulks on the legacy of the Great War | The Times.” The Times. The Times Magazine, 13 July 2014. Web. <http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article4002416.ece&gt;.

“Your Paintings.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/gassed-and-wounded-6662&gt;.

 

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