Thursday, October 27, 2011

Held at Arm's Length

When first introduced to the character of Theron Ware in The Damnation of Theron Ware, the reader is under the impression that he contains some positive and likeable qualities as the main character of a novel. However, through the course of the book, Theron's actions and thoughts manifest themselves to show his true nature. This is extrememly apparent in Chapter 30, where he attempts to talk to Celia, who will not receive him.
It is here, through his actions towards her, and his thoughts of her, that Theron's personality and true character are shown to the reader crystal clear. Depsite what Celia may think of him, Theron arrives with the entire interaction planned in his head. He's under the assumption that he knows exactly what she is going to say, and how she is going to act. When Celia says that she saw him hiding at the depot, he states boldly "Yes, I did both these things...That is not the hundredth part, or the thousandth part, of what I would do for your sake. I have got way beyond caring for any consequences" (301-302). He legitametly expects this grand gesture of romance to win her over, to dash her hesitance. His words hold no weight of actual emotion, and this can be seen when he talks of her negative reaction to his previous words; "Women were curious creatures...some were susceptible to one line of treatment, some to another. His own reading of Celia had always been that she liked opposition...he searched his brain now for some clever quip that would strike sparks from the adamantine mood which for the moment it was her whim to assume" (302). Instead of reflecting on what he may have done wrong in the past, he instead focuses on what else he can say in order to change her mind.
The author, Harold Frederic, actually parallels this early likability of the character through Celia, when she states on page 305, "We were disposed to like you very much when we first knew you." However, she then goes on to state that, "Instead, we found you inflating yourself with all sorts of egotisms and vanities. We found you presuming upon the friendships which had been mistakenly extended to you." His reaction is just as overdramtic as his earlier statements as he turns to leave, but instead, "whirled round by some mighty wind. He came toward her, with something almost menacing in the vigor of his movements, and in the wild look upon his white, set face" (306). This shows that, no matter the outcome of the situation or what has happened, Theron is so sure of himself that he constructs these outcomes in his head. Even when they don't go how he thought, he still tries to convince himself that he can make things work out by saying something stirring, or performing some heroic action.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Identity in Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"

Much like other works we have studied so far, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man once again plays with the reader’s expectations of the narrator. By claiming the work is an autobiography, James Weldon Johnson attempts to instill in the reader the idea that the experiences and characters introduced throughout the story are accurate. On page 1, Johnson even states, “I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the greatest secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions.” However, this book isn’t technically considered an autobiography. Its worth in reality comes with the parallels drawn through Johnson’s life, and the life of the narrator. Through anonymity, and the use of the word “autobiography,” Johnson inhabits the narrator, and attempts to educate and influence his readers of the culturally complicated nature of recognizing oneself as colored, thereby reevaluating ones identity.
            It is readily apparent, more than anywhere else in the novel, that Johnson intends for a degree of anonymity revolving around the narrator and the characters. The narrator is never given a name, and even important characters like “Red” and “Shiny” are never mentioned outside of their respective nicknames. One of the most obvious cases of this is on page 17, when he refers to his partner in a duet as “She of the brown eyes” (Johnson). By doing so, the reader can only really conjure up a mental image of each character based on small descriptions and recognizable character traits. Without a name, the narrator as well as his family, friends, and acquaintances are easier to inhabit, both for Johnson and the reader.
The narrator then begins to explore his identity crisis on pages 9-10. Much as the reader sees the story through the narrator’s influence, the narrator now sees the world through the expectations of his race. “I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea” (Johnson 9). This parallel between this theme of the book and an actual writing technique employed by the author only furthers the point that even though we may be individuals, there are always those outside influences that alter who we are, how we are viewed by others, and how we view the world around us.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Over the past few weeks, especially with Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance, we've talked a lot about the judgment that is often passed upon characters in a book by the narrator. In Puddn'head Wilson, the author, Mark Twain, is the narrator of the story, so a clearer view on the characters is provided, as well as their judgements on one another.
David Wilson, a new resident of the town of Dawson's Landing, comes off as quite a strange character in his first encounter with the others who live there. In a rather strange and almost forgettable conversation about a dog who is howling and barking obnoxiously in the distance, Wilson states to those he is chatting with, "I wish I owned half of that dog." When asked why, he simply states, "Because I would kill my half" (24). Naturally, the group is taken aback by this. "What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half?" (24) one of them asks. Because of this curious interaction, he is thereafter called Puddn'head Wilson throughout Dawson's Landing. Even when Wilson eventually becomes well liked, the nickname still remains, reminding the reader of his peculiar comment, but also of the ability of people to judge someone on the smallest of characteristics.
However, this judgement placed upon Wilson is contradictory to many others throughout the town. Although the focus seems to be on him and his odd habits, one of which is finger printing, there are other characters who act much stranger. For example, on page 30, the reader is told that Mr. York Leicester Driscoll loses a sum of money, and without question blames it on one of his four slaves. Given the historical context of the book, this accusation almost goes without saying. In fact, Twain doesn't even mention any other possibility. Driscoll demands to know who the thief is, and when none of his slaves confess he threatens to sell all four of them down the river, a fate "equivalent to condemning them to hell!" (33). After going back on his threat, and simply selling them in the area, Driscoll revels in his self-appointed mercy, stating, "He knew himself, that he had done a noble thing, and was privately well please with his magnanimity...he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years, and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself" (33). The man sells his slaves, quite likely to a fate worse than they already had, and considers himself a martyr.
Similarly, on page 34, Roxy (one of Driscoll's slaves) cannot stop thinking about his threat to sell them down the river. She decides that she must kill her own child to protect it from such a fate, stating "Oh, I got to kill my chile, day ain't no yuther way...Oh, I got to do it, yo' po' mammy's got to kill you to save you. honey." Even the slightest possibility of a fate worse than death for her child sends Roxy into a paranoid frenzy. However, instead of killing her baby, she exchanges it with Driscoll's child by switching their clothes. Without another thought, she condemns a child to slavery, without a so much as a second glance.
These two specific incidents in the book show that even though Puddn'head Wilson is considered an idiot for making a comment about killing half of a dog, these two characters speak and perform actions just as strange as he, justifying themselves through denial and constructed excuses. However, since no one is around to see them, to judge, they aren't recorded past the narrator's telling. I found it interesting that a man, no matter how liked and active in a community, can essentially be condemned because of one strange comment, especially in a town full of those just as unstable if not more so.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

And Arm and a Leg

As Moby Dick progresses, the reader notices less and less the intense and obsessive passion with which Captain Ahab hunts the white whale. However, in Chapters 100, and 106, this theme is brought to the forefront once again, when the Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby. Capitain Ahab hails the ship, asking them if they've come acrosst the white whale. Captain Boomer shows Ahab his ivory arm, which launches a long discussion about Moby Dick and his whereabouts.
This parallel between the two captains seems similar at first. Both having lost a limb to the whale, they excitedly begin talking about their respective stories, interrupting each other constantly. This is seen on page 337. "'It was he, it was he!' cried Ahab, suddenly letting out his suspended breath. 'And harpoons sticking in near his starboard fin.' 'Aye, aye - they were mine - my irons,' cried Ahab, exultingly - 'but on!'"
The difference is seen when Ahab requests a bearing. When asked if he tried to pursue the whale, Boomer replies, "Didn't want to try to: ain't one limb enough? What should I do without this other arm? And I'm thinking Moby Dick doesn't bite as much as he swallows." Ahab questions more and more until Bunger, a crew member of the Samuel Enderby, states, "This man's blood - bring the thermometer! - it's at the boiling point! - his pulse makes these planks beat!" This is the breaking point for Ahab, and he throws the man agains the deck of the ship, storming off back to the Pequod.
Once there, he splinters his ivory leg on the deck. This simple action symbolizes the difference between Ahab and Boomer. Both pursued Moby Dick, sacrificing something they could never get back, but Ahab couldn't let it go. The splintering of his leg shows his resolve and sanity slowly crumbling. But instead of leaving this obsession behind, on page 355, he blames Moby Dick even further. "Nor, at the time, had it failed to enter his monomaniac mind, that all the anguish of that then present suffering was but the direct issue of a former woe." These two simple excerpts foreshadow the direction that Ahab is heading, and solidify the fact that he can no longer turn back from his journey.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Truth to the face of Falsehood"

Throughout Moby Dick, Melville often writes on the topic of Truth. He uses many characters to convey the importance of this trait, and more specifically uses Ishmael to judge it's usefulness compared to the focus of whaling. However, the symbolic representation of Truth throughout the book is what fascinates me the most, as Melville uses the story of Jonah, Ahab's persistence after Moby Dick, and Ishmael's stress on false descriptions of whales, to compare the image of the whale (particularly Moby Dick) to that of God and hisTruth.

In chapter Nine, Father Mapple preaches the story of Jonah from the Bible. When Jonah attempts to avoid God's word and flee to the ocean, a whale swallows him up on God's command. In my opinion, the whale represents the fate of hell awaiting Jonah if he refuses to follow God. It states on page 48 in a hymn where the whale swallows Jonah, "I saw the opening maw of hell / With endless pain and sorrow there." Father Mapple also preaches of the importance of the story, stating, "The sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God...But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do...And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, where in the hardness of obeying God consists" (49).  

This quote from Father Mapple paralles with Ishmael's persistence in accurately representing the image of a whale in Chapter 55. The story of Jonah, while preaching the value of "Truth to the face of Falsehood," (53) contradicts with the literal truth that Ishmael insists upon when describing whales. Throughout the chapter, he cites numerous times in history and art where whales have been illustrated poorly or completely wrong, and therefore states on page 218, "For all these must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last...The only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself." Ishmael also uses the example of Jonah on pages 215-216, citing it's innacuracy as well. This, I believe, brings the struggle of man's ability to disobey himself that Father Mapple talked of to the forefront of the story unfolding in Moby Dick. Ishmael is struggling to accept any truth but the one he harbors, just like Jonah struggled to accept the truth of God.

Also similar to Jonah is Captain Ahab. Similar to how Jonah ran from God, he is trying to escape from the real truth of his endeavors. A quote from Father Mapple on page 49 highlights this perfectly. While talking of Jonah, he states, "He things a ship made by men, will carry him into the countries where God does not reign, but only the Captains of this Earth." Ahab is so obsessed in his own truths, that he disregards the dangerous nature of it.

Moby Dick can therefore symbolize God, or Truth in this sense. Towards the end of the story in Chapter 54, he seems to be delivering vengeance upon Radney, while also sparing Steelkilt from evil, much like he did with Jonah. On page 212, as Radney along with his other shipmates are attempting to rope and capture Moby Dick, it states, "The whale rushed round in a sudden maelstrom; seized the swimmer between his jaws; and rearing high up wiht him, plunged headlong again, and went down." He also escapes, as it states, "But a sudden, terrific, downward jerking of the boat, quickly brought his knife to the line. He cut it; and the whale was free. But at some distance, Moby Dick rose again, with some tatters of Radney's red wollen shirt, caught in the teeth that had destroyed him." This, to me, represents the deliverane that God exacts upon those who deserve good, and those who deserve evil. Moby Dick spared Steelkilt from exacting revenge and damning himself, and was able to escape being caught in the traps of men that so often lead to their own demise. This shows that, even on teh sea, God is Captain, and his truth cannot be avoided.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ishmael vs. Coverdale!

Interestingly enough with Moby Dick, within the first few pages of the book, one is already able to tell the stark differences between the narrator of the story, Ishmael, and the character of Coverdale from The Blithedale Romance. Right off the bat, Ishmael states his reasoning behind the voyage he is about to undertake. "Having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." For no apparent reason other than the drive for a purpose and something to do (at least this early in the book), Ishmael decides to take his life in this direction.

Although his reasonings seem innocent enough, he does go on to state that, "This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; i quietly take to the ship." For Ishmael, it sounds as though the life he is used to living isn't enough for him. He starves for something more; the idea of being drawn to something like the sea is almost enigmatic. He sums up it up quite simply in fact, saying "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me." Ishmael is deciding upon this trip for himself, and himself alone. However, he is not afraid to admit it, almost citing it as a necessity, or fate, rather than a decision at all.

Throughout The Blithedale Romance however, Coverdale tries to find a much more grander and self-fulfilling reason for his decision to leave the world he know behind for something unfamiliar yet enticing. However far-fetched his ideas are however, he is much more unsure of himself, even going so far as to say on page 8, “Being in truth, not so very confident as to some former periods, that this final step, which would mix me up irrevocably with the Blithedale affair, was the wisest that could possibly be taken.”

This shows the stark difference between the two narrators. Ishmael is willing to admit that his decision is based off of his own needs, where as Coverdale tries to disguise his decision behind the veil of the Blithedale project. It is apparent in his hesitation the night before leaving, as well as the fact that he is enjoying all of his earthly pleasures as quickly as possible before he is no longer able or allowed to. He is to cowardly to admit the decision to move to Blithedale is to better the image of himself, personally and to those he is associated with.

So, as far as the perspective of the story that each character offers the reader, these few lines set the tone for each book. Coverdale is passionate about his decision, but not the actual act of it itself.  Ishmael on the other hand doesn’t have a real need to leave his home, but is doing so based on what the decision entails, a life at sea. Therefore, I trust in Ishmael as a narrator far more than Coverdale. His honesty about the decision he has made allows him to be more impartial to the whole affair, whereas Coverdale clouds the reader’s perceptions of the characters in The Blithedale Romance with his own judgements.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

the Veil of the Narrator

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance is unique in any other piece of literature that I have read in the past few years, in that it relies so heavily on the voice, descriptions, and narration of the main speaker, Mr. Coverdale. This entire story is told through his accounts, seen through his eyes. Never do we jump to the perspective of another character, and so within the first few chapters, we as readers come to know the distinct characteristics and insecurities that make Mr. Coverdale the character that he is. However, there are also consequences of this intense focus on specific perspective, and these consequences reveal some themes presented throughout the book.

By only seeing these characters through the eyes of Coverdale, the reader begins to create opinions that may or may not be true. Coverdale is portrayed as a very insecure and egotistical character. He often over-analyzes situations, comments, and even physical traits of the people he is with, therefore deciding upon an opinion of their character, who they really are as a person. This happens so much, that the reader begins to unconsciously assume that the judgements Coverdale makes on the other characters are true. The reader is manipulated into a false sense of identification, therefore drawing false conclusions on these characters without coming up with their own opinions.

Also, by experiencing the story through the eyes of Coverdale, we are able to get a grasp on his own character, and his true feelings about the idea of the Blithedale utopia. Early in the book, whe he becomes sick and is bed-ridden, he begins to regret leaving his old life for this new one. His selfish nature on the matter is revealed when he states, "In this predicament, I seriously wished-selfish as it may appear-that the reformation of society had been postponed about half-a-century, or at all events, to such a date as should have put my intermeddling with it entirely out of the question." When things are fine, conversation is light, and people are happy, Coverdale is more than willing to accept the ways of their newfound community. But as soon as things get hard, which they always do in life, he immediately withraws from it. It seems almost as though he doesn't really care for the ideals and beliefs of Blithedale, but is more concerned with how he appears in the eyes of others by accepting it.

This scene reveals yet another main theme of the book, which is the inherent selfishness of humanity. Much like in Transcendental Wild Oats, the idea of this utopian society where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is almost an excuse for Coverdale to recieve positive judgement from the people around him. Tie this in with Coverdale's obsessive analyzation of characters such as Priscilla, Zenobia and Hollingsworth, and you have a story that is an interesting study on the fragile nature of acceptance and insecurity.