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.

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.”

23 April 2018

Psychic Distance

In the beginning of drafting a short novel, I have to consider different options of point of view and narrative space, as well as their pros and cons. To brush up what I have learned on this topic, here are a quick review and some examples. Hope this will help you in your reading and writing.

Outside POV: Panoramic view

  •  Dramatic or Playwright POV

Excerpt from Hills Like White Elephants by E. Hemingway:

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

The girl did not say anything.

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’

‘Then what will we do afterwards?’

‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’ ‘What makes you think so?’

‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’

Combination of Inside & Outside POV: Panning Out and Closeups

  •  Omniscient

 Grapes of Wrath Chapter 7, page 77-78:

“A lot and a house large enough for a desk and chair and a blue book. Sheaf of contracts, dog-eared, held with paper clips, and a neat pile of unused contracts. Pen- keep it full, keep it working… Owners with rolled up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses…”

“Lookin’ for a car? What did you have in mind? See anything attracts you? I‘m dry. How about a little snort of good stuff? Come on, while your wife’s looking’ at that La Salle. You don‘t want no La Salle. Bearings shot. Uses to much oil. Got a Lincoln ‘24. There‘s a car. Run forever. Make her into a truck.”

*This also includes Direct Internal Monologue (the car dealers) Many, many shifts of temporal and psychic distance in this book

From War and Peace by Tolstoy:

“When Boris came into the Rostov’s dining room, Natasha was up in her room. Hearing of his arrival she almost ran down to the drawing room, red in the face and radiant with a more than friendly smile.

Boris was still thinking of the little Natasha he had known four years ago dressed in a short frock, with brilliant black eyes darting out form under her curls, all wild whoops and girlish giggles, so when he saw a totally different Natasha coming into the room he was quite taken aback, and the surprise and delight showed on his face. Natasha was thrilled to see him looking like that.”

  •  Limited Omniscient

From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London:

“…Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious…”

  •   Diminishing First Person

From The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald:

“…One autumn night, five years before, they [Gatsby & Daisy] had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete…”

Inside POV: Only Close-ups

  • First person: most fall into this internal
  • Third person: 2 kinds— A) Interior monologue:

From The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen:

“She had to catch her train. As a woman whose utter dependability was the keystone of her family life she was not willing to return to the country, to her husband, her little boys, and her sister, without the objects she had come up to fetch. Resuming work at the chest she set about making up a number of parcels in a rapid, fumbling-decisive way. These, with her shopping parcels, would be too much to carry; these meant a taxi—at the thought of the taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I’ll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off . . . She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.”

B) Stream of Consciousness:

From James Joyce Ulysses:

“He walked on. Where is my hat, by the way? Must have put it back on the peg. Or hanging up on the floor. Funny I don’t remember that. Hallstand too full. Four umbrellas, her raincloak. Picking up the letters. Drago’s shopbell ringing. Queer I was just thinking that moment…”

28 August 2017

Creating Lively Characters

The two main characters, the mother and the daughter, in the prose poem Girl by Jamaica Kincaid come alive and believable for me. Both of them have preferences, wants, conflicts, histories, flaws, and surprises. The mother wants her coming-of-age daughter to grow up as a proper and respectable woman based on her own life experiences and wisdom. From her long lists of advice and folk knowledge – how to make abortion-inducing medicine, how to deal with men and relationships, and how to fit into the community, I can sense a complicated life she has lived. Stemming from a deep love and natural motherly protection for her daughter, her advice nonetheless sounds smothering and oppressive, like many mothers do. Her worry and frustration about her daughter becoming a “slut” create conflicts within herself and with her rebellious daughter. The mother surprises me though as not just a typical caring, practical and suffocating mother when she tells her daughter: “this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you.” This suggests that the mother was once a spirited and rebellious young girl herself.

The daughter in the story defies her mother by interjecting objections to her non-stop worrying and scolding. The daughter’s raised voices, only twice and in italics in the text, catch me off-guard and let me see her nature of rebellion. I can imagine and see her life as living with such an over-bearing mother. She does not go to the church, and she wants to live on her own terms. I do not see the daughter’s flaws unless I count teenage angst and rebellion as such, which I do not as they are part of a growing up experience for most of us.

The story has a unique structure with no conventional beginning, middle and end, and this leads to no character change for both protagonists. After reading it, I wonder how the conflict between the mother and the daughter has evolved, and if either of them undergoes any transformation. I think there are opportunities for the lists to go on more to indicate such changes and to make the story to have a even more satisfying closure for readers.