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.