16 June 2020

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: Setting As Craft Element

In Mann’s snowbound epic of early 20th century, “an ordinary young man”, Hans Castorp, leaves his familiar home and obligations and travels to a foreign place, the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps, to visit his sick cousin. Instead of his planned three weeks stay, he ends up staying for seven years. Lying leisurely in his lounge chair on the sanatorium’s balcony, a world away from the hustles and bustles of life on the “flatland” down below, Hans begins his journey of “getting used to not getting used to”. During his sojourn, he finds himself questioning the notions of honor and mortality and meditating on the meaning of nature, time, space, love, life, and death. It is a story of initiation and awakening; and its setting serves not only as the geographical reality, but also as one of the agents for change and transformation.

In the opening chapter titled “Arrival”, Hans, as a newcomer, is exposed to the “rarefied” air of the Berghof, the peculiar silhouettes of dense forests, and the surrounding snow-capped peaks. Nature induces unfamiliar feelings and dreams in Hans –  feelings of vagueness, timelessness and dreams which would intensify later on as he ventures higher into the misty region with “eternal snow”. On his fourth day up in the mountain, he takes a walk through the town and a forest of tall pines. After he emerges from the woods, “he was astonished by the splendid view opening up before him – an intimate, closed landscape, like some magnificent, peaceful painting.” (116) The ground is filled with blue bell flowers and gigantic spruces that “stood solitary and in small groups along the bottom of the gorge… One of them, rooted in the steep bank of the brook, jutted across the view at a bizarre angel.” (117) Here, Hans finds a bench by the water. While listening to “the murmur of isolation” reigning above this remote spot and with a nosebleed caused by the thin air, “he found himself transported to an earlier stage of life.” He turns inward and reminisces his pivotal coming-of-age moment in a dreamlike state of mind. In his trance, he starts to awake to his feelings. After he wakes up, he is confused, but he lies there a while longer, “pondering and remembering”, and “tears came to his eyes even as he smiled.” (121) Thus begins his adventure “up here”, together with a wide range of eccentric, comical, and fascinating patients and doctors.

Indeed, Berghof is another world. Apart from its daily sumptuous five meals and never-ending soup, ritualized thermometer readings, mandatory rest cures, lectures on “love-as-a-disease”, giddy flirtations and “feverish” rivalries even among the “moribund”, and a dark room with whirring X-ray machine, there is also the out-of-balance seasons. There are snowstorms in August, warm and brilliant sunshine in winter. In a chapter titled “Snow”, Hans, during his second year at the sanatorium, embarks on a near-fatal skiing expedition into the snowy wasteland. In the beginning the grand landscape “permitted him the solitude he sought, the profoundest solitude imaginable, touching his heart with a precarious savagery beyond human understanding.” (466) But soon he finds himself lost and trapped in the hellish blizzard and his adventure climaxes in a horrifying hallucination. The primal nature “with its fathomless silence did not receive a visitor hospitably.” As Hans senses the “menace of mute, elemental forces as they rose up around him”, he comes to the understanding that nature is not “hostile, but simply indifferent and deadly.” (467) Hans journey consists of not only blissful enlightenment, but also descending to the underworld and finding courage to understand the meaning of life and death.

The setting in Mann’s story is intricately bound up with its plot and themes. It is a space full of distant, dramatic, and mystical atmosphere. It ignites the “alchemistic” spark and transforms the ordinary hero of the story upward to a new height of consciousness and understanding of humanity. Its “eternal” snow and infinite vastness make time “slippery” and The Magic Mountain a timeless art of work. 

Work Cited

Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. Ed. First Vintage International, translated by John E. Woods. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

14 March 2020

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: Details As Craft Element

In Madame Bovary, now viewed as the first masterpiece of modern realist fiction, Flaubert uses detailed descriptions of the landscapes, the scenes, and the psychology of the characters to tell the tragic and ironic story. These precise and vivid descriptions not only construct the building blocks of the story but also create the subtle shifts of emotions in the character and feelings in the reader. On the surface, there appears not that much going on in Madame Bovary; however, the reader is engrossed in the rumbling and bubbling passions underneath that always seem to be about to erupt. In this short essay, two examples are shown on how the action of non-action through details gives the story, in Flaubert’s own words, the “rapidity, clarity, passion of a purely dramatic narration.”

In the last chapter of the Part I of the novel, Emma, the title character, young and dreamy, is stuck in the dreary and passionless married life in the countryside. Often, when her country doctor husband, Charles, was out working, Emma would focus her attention on the green silk cigar case accidentally left from the vicomte, whom Emma had waltzed with on her recent trip to a high society ball in Paris. “She would look at it, open it, and even sniff the fragrance of its lining, a mingling of verbena and tobacco.” (49) Emma suspects it a gift from the vicomte’s mistress, as it “had been embroidered on some rosewood frame, a dainty little implement kept hidden from all over eyes, the occupation of many hours, and over it had hung the soft curls of the pensive worker.” (49) The details of a tiny but significant object signifies Emma’s longing for romantic love and desire for luxury. In her observation, “A breath of love had passed among the stiches of the canvas; each stroke of the needle had fastened into it a hope or a memory, and all those interlaced threads of silk were merely an extension of the same silent passion.” (49) The cigar case is a trigger to her desperate dreaming of a larger life in exciting metropolis; and in result, her behavior shifts: she subscribes women and fashion magazines, delights in “countless niceties” in home deco and clothing, and replaces her servant and turns the new one into her own lady’s maid. In her heart and soul, she now waits for something to happen on the far-off horizon. Ironically, the reader finds out that it is in this same delicate cigar case that later Emma hides the letters from her lovers.

In the first chapter of Part III of the story, Emma reunited with her first platonic lover, Leon. During the prolonged and frantic ride through the city, the action of Emma’s eventual succumb to her second adulterous affair is conveyed through a haunting image:

“Once, at midday, out in the countryside, when the sun was beating down most fiercely against the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand passed under the little blinds of yellow canvas and threw out some torn scrapes of paper, which scattered in the wind and alighted, at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of red clover all in bloom.” (218) 

The zoomed-in description of the Emma’s bare hand throwing out the torn-up rejection letter she had written earlier to Leon moves the plot forward with such an emotionally punched force and rapidity that the reader is drawn into the presence of the material and the scene. When Emma steps down from the carriage and walked away, “her veils lowered, without turning her head,” the reader is not only convinced by the character’s initiation of action but also devastated by its course and possible outcome.

Flaubert’s conviction of employing small yet momentous details throughout the novel paints vivid pictures of the scenes and draws insightful maps of characters’ psyche. These carefully-chosen descriptions tell the reader about the character’s hopes, dreams, and fears. As in the above examples, it is the incisive specificity of the details that leave the reader captivated in the imagined reality Flaubert so painstakingly creates.       

Work Cited

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Ed. Viking Penguin, translated by Lydia Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

15 February 2020

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: P.O.V and Narrative Structure

The historical fiction, Homegoing, spans over three centuries and eight generations. Its author, Gyasi, assigns one chapter to each of the major characters and narrates each chapter from the perspective of the central character, a descendant from either side of Effia or Esi, half sisters born in the African Fante and Asante land where the Atlantic slave trade originates. Gyasi employs the third person limited omniscient POV and presents a balanced and panoramic view from the opposite side of slavery – one side running the business, profiting from it and eventually fighting against it on the African continent; and the other side being sold to bondage on the American continent. These individual voices come together and form a collective vantage point that allows readers to examine and ponder the slavery’s root causes and its dire consequences on the individual, the communities, and the race.

Esi, once the pampered princess of the Asante land, is captured by invaders from another village and was sold to the British colonizers. She was kept in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle before being shipped to the American south. This is the starting point, a point of no return, to “Hell”, as Esi tells the reader: “When she (Esi) wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.” (28) Here, through the third person limited POV, the character reveals and articulates her inner thoughts and emotions: how desperate and futile she tries to cope with the inhuman condition in the dungeon by trying to remember her father’s compound, the respect her father, the “Big Man”, gets from his village, her suitors with bountiful of food and palm wines. The distance between the reader and the narrator is almost as close as with the first person narration. This close and intimate distance gives readers focus to fully stay in the character’s world at the particular time and space.    

The POV works in tandem with the narrative structure of the book to solve the seemingly daunting and ambitious task the author intends to accomplish. Homegoing is an unique novel in a sense that the story is told through linked, episodic stories rather than through a central storyline. Each episode and its central character stands alone, representing the generation he or she belongs: on the American side, there are the sharecropper H for the Jim Crow South, Willie for the Great Migration, Sonny for the Harlem jazz scene in the late 20th century, etc.; and on the African side, there are characters for the exiled king, the warrior queen, and the crazy woman who kills her own two children, people who got caught in the human trafficking, tribal conflicts, and the wars that are turned to produce supply for the slave trade. Reading as a whole, it provides an all-inclusive picture of the history’s stories and lessons.

Towards the end of the chapter of Esi, Esi loses her mother’s stone before the British soldiers take her and other slaves out of the dungeon and march them to the boat. At that moment, the Governor of the Castle, Esi’s brother-in-law (unknown to Esi), looks and smiles at her. “It was a kind smile, pitying, yet true.” Esi tells the reader, “But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarter, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with next wave.” (49) The advantage of using third person limited POV gives the author flexibility what to reveal and how. As the ending of this chapter shows, the zoomed-in moment gives much weight to the scope of the chapter and the whole story.

In the case of Homegoing, it seems that the story is choosing the point of view from which it wishes to be written. What is original and remarkable about the organizing structure of the book is that in each individual voice, readers hear the multiple. The chorus, as a whole, seems to be sung by a single voice, a God-like voice that connects the individual ones and raises them to an epic level.   

Work Cited

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Ed. First Vintage Books. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.

12 February 2020

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Psychological Development of A Character

Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a masterfully and quietly executed tragi-comedy about private agonies of an aging, old-fashioned, and workaholic English butler, Mr. Stevens. Stevens, in his later years of his career, undergoes a transformation in his first-ever week-long motoring trip outside the confines of the estate of Lord Darlington to visit a former colleague, a housekeeper named Miss Kenton, who left twenty years earlier to get married. In his journey, Stevens reminisces and ponders on the dogged professionalism and dignity of his and his father’s work, his disgraced former employer, and most importantly, his relationship with Miss Kenton. Through Stevens’ reflections, subtle emotions beneath his proper and polished narration comes to surface and roil. When the story reaches its climax in the quiet surroundings of a Cornish tearoom, where Stevens meets with Kenton after decades of his self-denial and inability to show his feeling, he finally realizes that because of his blind loyalty and pursuit of the work ethics of professionalized servitude, he has let slip through his fingers what truly matters to him in the remains of his day: the love of his life.

Initially, Stevens does not want to embark the road trip to the West Country to “see around his own country” suggested by his new American employer. “It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.” (4) Stevens reasons to his employer. However, he changes his mind quickly after receiving Kenton’s letter. But then he takes great pains to explain that her letter has only something to do with “professional matters here at Darlington Hall, and I (Stevens) would underline that it was a preoccupation with these very same professional matters that led me to consider anew my employer’s kindly meant suggestion. But let me explain further.” (5) Such high mannered tactics in self-protection and evasion of true feelings run through most of Stevens’ life. Whenever he reaches a sensitive subject, such as later when he questions whether Kenton is driven away by his refusal to admit his feelings for her, he digresses for pages before he continues, “Indeed, all in all, I cannot see why the option of her returning to the Darlington Hall and seeing out her working years there should not offer a very genuine consolation to a life that has come to be so dominated by a sense of waste.” (48)

However, the thick layers of self-denial, or self-preservation in delusions, start to peel off right at the beginning of Stevens’ once-in-a-life-time trip outside his comfort zone. On day one of the trip, the foreshadow of upcoming change in Stevens’ perception grabs the reader: “But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries… I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration…” (24) Instead of the grand cathedral or the charming sights of the city, it is the seemingly plain but “marvelous view… of the rolling English countryside” (28) and the friendly local farmers and townspeople that remain with Stevens when he retreats to his room to rest after a day’s journey. As days go on, Stevens  recalls how Miss Kenton would bring flowers to his room, a distraction to him at the time; how she would argue with him about his father’s “over-working”; how pleasant and nostalgic he feels about their nightly “work meeting” at her parlor over cocoa; how they argued about the staff issues; and how frustrated she feels towards him: “Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” (154).

One of the most profound and hilarious moments takes place on day three of the trip, when Stevens recalls how Miss Kenton wants to know what kind of book he is reading. He remembers the moment as if it is frozen in time:

“Then she was standing before me, and suddenly the atmosphere underwent a peculiar change – almost as though the two of us had been suddenly thrust on to some other plane of being together. I am afraid it is not easy to describe clearly what I mean here. All I can say is that everything around us suddenly became very still; it was my impression that Miss Kenton’s manner also underwent a sudden change; there was a strange seriousness in her expression, and it struck me she seemed almost frightened.” (167)

When Kenton finds out the book Stevens is reading is “simply a sentimental love story”, Stevens begins to defend himself that he is reading it because he wants to develop his command of the English language.

Towards the later half of his trip, Stevens begins to sense the lost opportunity caused by his callousness and lack of empathy towards Kenton’s loss of her aunt. He is aware by now that he is “becoming unduly introspective, and in a rather morose sort of way at that.” (179) He realizes that “when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life;” and he regrets not knowing that before, that “such evidently small incidents would render the whole dreams forever irredeemable.” (179) At the end of his trip, he meets up with Kenton and hears her confess that she has thought about a life she may have had with him. Stevens breaks down at this point: “their implications (Kenton’s confessions) were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.” (239)

The Remains of the Day tells a cautionary tale about a thwarted love and life. Through the pragmatic and formal voice of the protagonist Mr. Stevens, the reader discovers the psychological under-currents of longing and desperation beneath the character’s straight-laced façade. The subtle, enigmatic shift in Stevens’ transformation is achieved through what is not said throughout the text, which makes the final breaking point all the more powerful.  

Work Cited

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Ed. Vintage International. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

19 February 2019

Life of Thoreau and Transcendentalism

Henry D. Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He grew up in a financially stable family and went to Harvard College as did his grandfather before him. At Harvard, Thoreau studied Latin and Greek composition among other variety of courses, such as English, mathematics, history, philosophy, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. Thoreau became an aspiring writer after college, starting to keep a journal in 1837, writing and publishing numerous essays and reviews. However, to make ends meet, he had to work at other jobs. According to The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, he wrote: “I am a Schoolmaster–a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer–a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.” (Walter Harding and Carl, 186) He expressed the advantage of making just enough money to supply his simple living so that he could concentrate on his writing.

Thoreau came of age during the Transcendentalist movement that started in New England in the late 1820s. He was 19 years old when his mentor Emerson published Nature, an essay stating the philosophical foundation of the movement: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;” wrote Emerson in Nature, “we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” The Transcendentalists believe a personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to everybody, and the reliability of one’s conscience because God dwells within the soul of each individual. They believe two indispensable parts, the soul and nature, consist the universe. While Thoreau is a prominent member of the Transcendentalists’ circle, he is also a nonconformist. He values solitary more than group activities; and believes in the power and obligation of the individual to discern right from wrong, independent of the social orders. 

The life experience and the conviction of Transcendentalism prepared and enabled Thoreau to write his best-known work Walden, or Life in the woods, which was published in 1854. In Walden, he declares, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” As Gray points out, this “was not only the creed that Thoreau preached in his writings, along with Emerson, Fuller, and the other Transcendentalists. It was also the creed that he embraced, and tried to follow, in his life.” (121) In the solitary sojourn of the Walden woods for over two years, Thoreau kept up journaling, by then a life-long habit, and used it years later to recreate the experience on paper. Not only the content but also the style of Walden manifests Thoreau’s vision of individualism. It defies any strict genre categorization, such as an autobiography, a spiritual diary, a narrative of philosophy, a journal of nature, and stands by itself on its own uniqueness.

Work Cited:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/emerson/nature.html. Digital. Accessed on October 30, 2018.

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. 2nd Ed. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK. 2012.

Harding, Walter. Bode, Carl. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau. New York University Press, New York. 1958.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, and On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/205?msg=welcome_stranger#linkW1. Digital. Accessed on October 30, 2018.

18 January 2019

Clash of Cultures and Identities in “Daisy Miller” and “On Being Brought from Africa to America”

Daisy Miller by Henry James

In his novella Daisy Miller, Henry Miller sheds light on the clash of two cultures and identities: one is the New World with its freshness, innocence, ignorance and simplicity, while the other is the Old Continent with its Victorian moral codes and rigid social and gender hierarchies. The story’s protagonist, Daisy, a young American tourist, along with her unorthodox mother and spoiled kid brother, represents the new American identity in the 19th century: “uncultured”, unsophisticated, “vulgar”, but fresh, direct, bold, outgoing, and innocent. The story’s other protagonist, Winterbourne, a young American man but assimilated into the European culture, along with his aunt and other Europeanized expatriates embodies the traits of the traditional Old Continent: established, “cultured”, sophisticated, restrictive with rules and behavior codes. The cultural gap of the new and old collides and generates conflict and misunderstanding in character’s perception of each other. The clash hinders further development of Daisy and Winterbourne’s budding relationship and propels the story to a tragic end as Daisy refuses to comply with the social norm of the traditional world.  

The two opposing identities and collision are evident from the beginning of the story when Winterbourne first met Daisy. Other than a cry from Randolph, “He’s an American Man!” there were no other formal greetings or formality discerned so he started to talk to Daisy: “This little boy and I have made acquaintance.” Then he was aware right away that “In Geneva… a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions;” and “he wondered whether he had gone too far.” Daisy, on the other hand, chatted freely, and “was not in the least embarrassed herself.” She glanced at him, and “he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singular honest and fresh.” However, not everyone share this perception. Winterbourne’s aunt refused to be introduced to the “vulgar” family and called Daisy “a dreadful girl”. His other friends asked him to distance himself from Daisy as she was an unabashed flirt and enjoyed the society of many gentlemen and “has gone too far”. Winterbourne was often amused, flattered but also perplexed by her bold and carefree behavior. He was bewildered both by her innocence – “Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Miller looked extremely innocent”, and her flightiness – “He was inclined to think Miss Daisy was a flirt – a pretty American flirt.” To Daisy, Winterbourne was “horrid”, “stiff” on several incidents even though she liked his company and asked him to go to the castle with her in Switzerland and later with her family to Italy. She teased him and complained he should be more direct and gentleman-like, just as her other intimate Italian friend.

The cultural clash and social intersection are demonstrated in an earlier American history in a poem by Phillis Wheatley: On Being Brought from Africa to America. In comparison with Daisy Miller, Wheatley’s poem underlines the racial gap and the spiritual integration. Being snatched from her motherland Africa as a slave, then raised and educated in a white family and converted into Christianity, Wheatley was caught in the two worlds: master vs slave, “Pagan” land vs God’s country, black “sable race” vs white Christian. Ironically and poignantly, she applied her adopted religion, the dominant one, to plead to her readers, the dominant race, that God is a universal savior and his mercy and redemption should be available to all regardless of the color of skin.

Work Cited

James, Henry. DAISY MILLER: A STUDY. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Daisy Miller: a Study

Wheatley, Phillis. On Being Brought from Africa to America. Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45465/on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america. Accessed 17 Oct 2018.

13 January 2019

Working-Class Heroes?

Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854, about a decade after his experience living in a cabin in the woods and not long after the first industrial revolution swept the United States. During the time of his “experiments” in Walden and later the writing of it, the American economy underwent a historical transformation from small independent farmers and artisans, who work mainly for themselves and local markets, to specialized workforce in factories. The process of production was divided into separate tasks, each performed and automated by the machine and the machine worker, who became an invisible and inconsequential peg in the vast profit-driven machinery. The mindless, repetitive and soul-sucking nature of such work replaced the supposedly more intimate and satisfying nature of work with one’s own process, tools and materials. Industrialization also took away the independence and peace of farmers who used to work more in harmony with nature to provide for their family’s basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. It was in time of this technological and economic development, Thoreau expressed his philosophy of work against the potential destruction of human nature, creativity and spirit for the benefits of commerce.

In Economy, the first and the longest chapter of Walden, Thoreau warned his readers not to “become tools for their tools” (33) and urge them to find work they love and suit their talent, to follow their genius, and find time to develop their personal and spiritual growth:

Most men… through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. (4)

In Economy, Thoreau also stated that the pressure to work for any job to live a more luxurious but unnecessary lifestyle arose from the social conditioning and pressure of a society built on the pervasive culture of consumerism. Thoreau argued that excess materialistic ownership or taste, whether it be shelter, clothing, or food, was a shackle to enslave oneself instead of emancipation:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? (3)

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”(12)

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature… He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper… (33)

By working smart and keeping his expense as low as possible, Thoreau could spend majority of his time doing what he loved to do, a type of work that gave him true meaning and purpose beyond a paycheck: writing, reading, thinking/meditating, walking, observing nature:

For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. (65)

The social pressure of work and its damaging impact from a consumer culture is felt in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as well. One example is the tragic life of a secondary character, Pauline Williams, the main character Pecola’s mother. A spiritual, simple, and dreamy young woman from a small rural town of Alabama, after falling in love and migrating to an urban industrial town of north Ohio, Pauline fell prey to the conformity of materialism and style/fashion while her newly-wed husband, Cholly, worked in a steel mill:

Pauline felt uncomfortable with few black women she met. They were amused by her because she did not straighten her hair. When she tried to make up her face as they did, it came off rather badly. Their goading glances and private snickers at her way of talking…and dressing developed in her a desire for new clothes. When Cholly began to quarrel about the money she wanted, she decided to go to work. Taking jobs as a day worker helped with the clothes, and even a few things of for the apartment, but it did not help with Cholly. He was not pleased with her purchase and began to tell her so. Their marriage was shredded with quarrels. (118)

The story in The Bluest Eye spans from the depression era in early 30s to early 40s, about a decade after the second industrial revolution drastically changed the working and social landscape of America again. Though from different time period, the theme of work, or more accurately, meaningless, material-driven work, its impact on personal freedom and growth, its distraction, its hidden and high price paid by the working poor, remains similar in both Walden and The Bluest Eye. Their message continues to be alarming and relevant in the age of digital revolution in which we live now.  

Work Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Economy.” Walden, Four River Press, New York, 2008

Morrison, Tony. The Bluest Eye, Vintage International, New York, 2007

14 December 2018

Getting Back to Nature

The following three poems, in my opinion, demonstrate the complexities and dynamics of how nature is depicted in American literature.

“Song of Nature” by Emerson is an ode to the natural world, whose history, evolution, and cycle is entwined with human history. The poem opens with personal “I” embedded in “night and morning”, “the solar glory”, and zooms out in space and time to “many a thousand summers” and far-away stars. It traces the trajectory of humankind, which was written in the history of rock, fire, sea and the human endeavor of “building in the coral sea” and “planting of the coal.” The poem then arrives at the birth or re-birth of humanity born out of the endless cycle of the universe, out of “spent and aged things…” The idea and theme expressed in the poem correspond with Buell’ point that nature is not just a framing device but it also encapsulates and connects with human history. In search of a human God, Emerson in the end finds heaven in the dewy thorn of the fresh rose and expresses his re-imagining of the divine as immense and visible as nature.

Like “Song of Nature”, “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass celebrates the tangible beauty of nature. Unlike the general, meaningless, and wearisome talk of ideas, the image of “a woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk / of that black birch” and “the bramble of blackberry” illuminate more on the human spirituality and condition. Black birch signifies the “fallen off from a first world of undivided light”, childhood is associated with “river with its island willows” and “orange-silver fish”, and the tenderness of love is manifested in the body, and “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”.

“Mock Orange” by Louise Gluck, on the other hand, uses nature’s image to express the speaker’s anger and disappointment in human relationship. Unlike the pastoral and romantic poems about nature such as “Song of Nature” and “Meditation at Lagunitas”, the poem informs that nature is not all beauty. Look at the mock orange, it is fake and its odor odious and unbearable, it does not bear the real fruit, and same goes with the union of a man and a woman. In this poem, the speaker links her personal story to an image in nature and reminds readers that not all is peaceful, sweet and inspiring. The natural world is full of falsehood as humans “were made fools of”. Nevertheless, the poem shows the intricate connection between human emotions and their perceived environment: on that night, “It is not the moon, I tell you. / It is these flowers / lighting the yard.”