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American Fiction

Black Boy by Richard Wright Chapter One Analysis

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse chapter one of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It will be argued that Black Boy owes much to Naturalism and develops Wright’s interest in isolation and individualism, issues that were explored in The Man Who Lived Underground (Wright, 1942). Richard Lehan explains Naturalism as deriving “mainly from a biological model” (Lehan 1995 p. 69) that is based on the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Naturalism considers characters objectively, almost scientifically, as being products of their environment. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an example of the genre showing the distorting effects environment has on his characters. Naturalism shows us that characters become more grotesque the further they are removed from nature.

Black Boy is based upon Wright’s experiences growing up in the South. It is set during the height of the Jim Crow Laws. Black Americans faced segregation and violent racism. The reality of segregation became deprivation and lynching. Black Boy, in the tradition of Frederick Douglas and W. E. B. Du Bois, has a purpose: enlightenment rather than entertainment. Black Boy is a protest novel. James Baldwin, Wright’s protégé, in Everybody’s Protest Novel says “Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant” (Baldwin, 1949, p 1659), a reference to the protagonist in Wright’s Native Son. His point being that “the avowed intention of the protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed” but its actual, unintentional, purpose is “to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe” (Baldwin, 1949, p.1657) – to become white.

Narrated from the perspective of Wright as an adult the text is not strictly autobiographical, the full title is Black Boy A Record of Childhood and Youth. Timothy Dow Adams argues that the version Wright creates of himself in Black Boy uses falsehood as a metaphor for survival. In a letter to W. D. Howells on 14th March 1904 Mark Twain wrote:

“An autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell (though I didn’t use that figure)–the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.”

Despite the fictional aspects of the text the truth of it is that the South was poison for black people and the only sensible course was escape.

Wright’s first memory is of a four-year-old boy burning down his house, symbolic of the protagonist’s central developing characteristic of self-reliant individualism. Defying white authority, symbolised by his parents on pain of death, he states “… I was chastened whenever I remembered my mother came close to killing me” (Wright 1945 p5). The chapter’s dominant theme concerns the failure of his parents and ends showing his father a broken “my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city” (Wright, 1945, p.33). Wright’s parents repeatedly fail him. Self sufficiency is a necessity due to his immediate environment. After the beating scene follows a list of imaginative, sensory experiences linked to nature, juxtaposing harsh reality against naturalist imagery is a naturalist technique. It reveals that Wright must interpret life himself: “Each event spoke with cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings” (p. 5). Imagination is important for Richard’s understanding of reality; it gradually develops throughout the book to the point where he becomes aware that there is a different way to live, in the North. The reality of Wright’s environment limits his experience to boredom, hunger, fear, and hate so imagination becomes a defence against the effects of reality and assist his education. The importance of education is a recurring theme. The text itself, as a protest novel, informs and educates.

When talking about Memphis Richard asks a number of questions. His mother answers dismissively – he must discover reality for himself. The chapter’s purpose becomes clear: it is an explanation for Wright’s individuality and internalised isolation from family life and the black community.

Parental and familial violence occur frequently in the text; he refers to white violence as the “white threat”. The first chapter portrays violence as controlling, symbolised by parental violence. His father is a shadowy figure who he is frightened of; he is hungry after his father leaves home. Hunger becomes a dominant theme, symbolising deprivation and those environmental factors that have behavioural effect. Ironically, his mother is a cook. Awareness of the inequality and stark binary between white and black, an awareness that develops to a deep-rooted hate as the book progresses, begins here:

“Watching the white folk eat would make my empty stomach churn and I would grow vaguely hungry. Why could I not eat when I was hungry? Why did I always have to wait until others were through? I could not understand why some people had enough food and others did not.” (Wright, 1945, p. 19)

When the minister calls at the house, Wright goes hungry. He must fight for food, when his mother forces him to confront a gang. He overcomes the gang and feels safe to roam the streets of

Memphis only to become an alcoholic.

In the orphanage, he learns to distrust authority, symbolised by Miss Simon. When she tries to win his confidence, he rejects her:

“Distrust had already become a daily part of my being and my memory grew sharp, my senses more impressionable; I began to be aware of myself as a distinct personality striving against others”.

As hungry in the orphanage as when outside he runs away. Associating the orphanage, symbolic of the state, with deprivation: “Ought I go back? No; hunger was back there and fear.” He is aware that he has nothing to run to, “In a confused and vague way I knew that I was doing more running away from than running toward something.” The theme of escape runs through the text. The family constantly seek an escape from events: culminating in Richard’s escape from the South.

His Father “was always a stranger … always somehow alien and remote” (Wright, 1945, p 8). Wright “never laughed in his presence” (Wright, 1945, p 8). Portrayed graphically in the scenes involving the kitten, is the distorting effect of Wright’s environment, its lynching is symbolic of Wright’s strength of will, capacity for extreme violence and the white practice of lynching blacks for minor misdemeanours. Wright’s literal interpretation of his Father’s words is judicial in application and horrific in effect. Symbolising how words, like those abolishing slavery, can create horror, like the Jim Crow laws. Wright asserts his own power but its may have contributed to his father’s departure.

In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin explains parental violence in the context of environment and the “poison” of racism and seems to excuse severe chastisement:

“When one slapped one’s child in anger the recoil in the heart reverberated through heaven and became part of the pain of the universe.” (Baldwin, 1955, 1690)

He maintains “tough love” was necessary to prepare one’s child for the unnatural life of coping with white “poison”:

“It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create

In the child – by what means? – a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.” (Baldwin, 1955, 1690)

In Nobody Knows My Name (

Baldwin, 1961) he seems to contradict this and disputes the idea that Black African Americans cannot transcend their teleological view of the world. He criticises Wright’s portrayal of black people as victims. In Notes of a Native Son (Baldwin 1955) he portrays himself as aggressive, throwing a water mug at a diner waitress who refuses to serve him – in other words he fights back. Wright portrays himself as a victim of his environment which caused parental rejection (as he sees it). Wright clearly says “How could I have turned out differently?” (Wright, 1945, ?)

In a scene at the end of the chapter, in a time beyond the end of the text, Wright describes a meeting with his father, twenty-five years after he saw him with that “strange woman”:

“…when I tried to talk to him I realized that though ties of blood made us kin, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers speaking a different language, living on vastly different planes of reality.” (Wright, 1945, 32)

The last two scenes explain Wright’s isolation within his own community and highlight its significance to the text. Parental rejection is one explanation for Wright’s feelings of difference and developing desire to escape the South. He rejects his father at the end of the chapter, telling how he succeeded where his father failed. His opinion of his father is the justification for his escape:

“…my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, who had at last fled the city – that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.” (Wright, 1945, p.33)

Portrayed as a victim of white landowners, his father is unable to learn the meaning of loyalty, sentiment, tradition, joy or despair; he is a product of his environment, a metaphor for the shortcomings of blacks in the South, victims of a racist and segregationist environment. His father is “a creature of the earth” (Wright, 1945, p. 33).

The first chapter sets the scene for Wright’s isolation from others in his environment. He cannot rely on parents or wider family. His brother rarely figures in his life. This chapter symbolises Wright’s future resistance to the white South’s attempt to impose an identity upon him. This is symbolised in his refusal to accept the authority of his parents, family and wider community. This resistance features throughout the text. The remainder of the novel completes the story outlined in this chapter: charting the assertion of Wright’s own sense of self, individuality and ultimate escape from the distorting environment of the South.

Word Count 1500


Adams T D (1985) I do believe him though I know he lies: Lying as Genre and Metaphor in Richard Wright’s Black Boy Prose Studies 8.2 pp175 – 87 Routledge: NewYork

Baldwin J. (1955) Notes of a Native Son in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed Gates Jr. J. R. and Mckay N. Y., Norton:New York (pp.1679 -1694) Baldwin J. (1961) Nobody Knows My Name Random House:

New York

Bell B. W. (1987) The Afro-American Novel and Its



University Press:


Cleaver E, (1924) James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays Ed Kenneth Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall Inc:

New Jersey

Gibson D B (1986) Richard Wright’s Black Boy and The Trauma of Autobiographical Rebirth, Callaloo( No. 28, Richard Wright: A Summer Special Issue.) pp. 492-498. Lehan R (1995) The European Perspective in American Realism and Naturalism ed. Pizer D.


University Press:

Cambridge (pp 47 – 73)

Petry A. (1998) The Novel as Social Criticism: Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition Eds. Patricia Liggins Hill, et al, Houghton Mifflin:

Boston pp. 1114-1119

Poulos J H (1997) Shouting Curses: The Politics of “Bad” Language in Richard Wright’s Black Boy The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Winter), pp. 54-66

Schiff E (1979) To Be Young, Gifted and Oppressed: The Plight of the Ethnic Artist MELUS, Vol. 6, No. 1, Oppression and Ethnic Literature. (Spring), pp. 73-80. Shin A; Judson B (1998) Beneath the Black Aesthetic: James Baldwin’s Primer of Black American Masculinity African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Summer)pp. 247-261.

Ward Jnr, J. W. (2004) The African American Novel: Everybody’s protest novel: the era of Richard Wright Ed. Maryemma Graham, Cambridge University Press:


Weiss A (1974) A Portrait of the Artist as a Black Boy The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 28, No. 4. (December), pp. 93-101. Wright R. (1942) The Man Who Lived Underground in The Norton Anthology of African American Literatur eed Gates Jr. J. R. and Mckay N. Y., Norton:New York (pp.1414 – 1449) Wright R (1945) Black Boy Vintage:


Mark Twain: Realism and Huckleberry Finn

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Is Mark Twain a Realist, nothing more and nothing less? As well as considering the meaning of Realism in a literary context this essay will critically examine the issues raised by the question with an analysis of Chapter XXXI, in which Jim is “stolen” and Huck decides that he will help Jim though he believes he will go to hell for doing so. In so doing it will be seen that the assertion is too narrow.

One view is that Realism is not attainable: it is simply impossible to represent reality within a literary framework, K. Dauber (1999, p. 386), considering Realism, argues that we can only get near to it in the imagination of the reader. The use of metaphors and similes assists us to create, within our own imagination, a landscape within which plausible events occur as part of an understandable and plausible plot. Dauber, strictly speaking, is correct, however Realist texts do exist, in considering them we need a guide as to what it is that makes them Realist.

A descriptive term like Realism is useful to the reader. D. Pizer considers that “descriptive terms” such as “romanticism, realism and classicism are valuable and necessary” (1961, pp.263 – 269). His starting point is George Becker’s definition. Becker based his definition upon readings of European and American fiction since 1870; dividing realism into three categories: the realistic mode, realism of subject matter, and philosophical realism, Pizer considers “the realistic mode” based on three criteria: “Verisimilitude of detail derived from observation and documentation” (1949, pp.184 – 197). The use of various dialects (discussed in the preface), detailed

descriptions of the river and nature are Realist observations. The style fits the first part of this definition.

Secondly is “reliance upon the representative rather than the exceptional in the plot, setting, and character” (1949, pp.184 – 197). A slave’s escape from captivity and recapture is plausible and thus Realist.

Thirdly is “an objective….rather than a subjective or idealistic view of human nature and experience” (1949, pp.184 – 197). Observations and descriptions of slavery, life in the South and on the river are objective. In chapter XXXI, Huck must decide between a moral obligation to contact Miss Watson and his debt to Jim for his help on their journey down river. The text of Huckleberry Finn up to, and including, chapter XXXI conforms to Becker’s “realist mode” definition. On this basis, Twain is a Realist.

However, categorisations are just guides as to what we may expect from a text or writer when categorised as Realist, Romanticist or Classicist. Twain explains his style in the preface. From this preface, Twain clearly considered it a Realist book. It is

clear and generally agreed amongst critics, that up to and including chapter XXXI, Huckleberry Finn is a realist text. Given the difficulties facing a slave on the run, within the contemporary context of its setting, it is plausible that Jim would face capture and be either lynched, mutilated or at least beaten if caught. However, one cannot consider Twain was “nothing more and nothing less than a Realist” in the

context of this chapter alone. Critics, in the first half of the twentieth century, focused on the ending or “evasion” for analysis. Since the mid Twentieth Century, attention has focused on issues of race, gender and sexuality. Many view the ending as disappointing: described it as an anti climax, even “burlesque” (De Voto, 1932). Tom Sawyer’s scheming to set free an already free slave is a betrayal and even “whimsicality” (T. S. Eliot (although he also argues that this is the only correct ending)). The style of the ending is different from the preceding text, it is more slapstick and humorous.

Ernest Hemingway (1935) claimed, “All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn”, but continued: “if you read it you must stop where the nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. This is the real end. The rest is cheating”. De Voto (1932) considered the last eleven chapters fell “far below the accomplishment of what had gone before…this extemporized burlesque was a defacement of his purer work” (Cited by Hill, 1991, p 314). Tom Sawyer describes it, an “evasion”. It certainly detracts from the power of chapter XXXI: Huck’s rejection of Southern values, its belief in slavery and the superiority of whites. The “evasion” is the missed opportunity to emphasise this rejection by descending in to whimsicality and burlesque. The problem with Hemingway’s advice is that the book does not end at Chapter XXXI. Full analysis requires a complete reading.

The whole thrust of the ending, from when Tom returns to centre stage is that of comedy and farce, it is as though Huck is acquiescing in Tom Sawyers pranks and wild schemes. L. Trilling (1948) argues that Huck is simply deferring to Tom by

giving him “centre stage”. Eliot agrees, but then argues that it is right Huck does give way to Tom. The style of the book comes from Huck and the river provides form: we understand the river by seeing it through Huck, who is himself also the spirit of the river and like a river, Huckleberry Finn has no beginning or end (cited by Graff and Phelan, 1995, pp 286 – 290). Therefore, Huck, logically, has no beginning or end: as such he “can only disappear” in a “cloud of whimsicalities”. For Eliot this is the only way that the book can end. However, Eliot and Trilling rely on the fact that the River, Huck and Jim are symbolic, that they are allegorical. This suggests that the later chapters of the book are Romantic in style. The entire book must be considered in the context of the ending (however much it may disappoint), it is more a Romance; and to say that Twain is “nothing more and nothing less than a Realist” is thus incorrect.

However, what is Romanticism? In the United States Romanticism enjoyed philosophic expression within the movement known as Transcendentalism, in the texts of Emerson and Thoreau. Symbolic novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville emphasized concern with Transcendent reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne in the preface to The Scarlet Letter, The Custom House, writes, “If a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.” Romance offers a symbolic view of the world and, in that context, a historical representation of current issues is crucial (M. Kinkead-Weekes, 1982, p.74). Symbolism and allegory are fundamental to a Romanticist text: “astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility” R. Chase (1962, p13).

Eliot’s interpretation, when considered in this context, asserts that Twain was not in fact writing as a Realist exclusively or, arguably, at all.

Hemingway does receive support in his argument that the ending “is cheating”. From Leo Marx, in his 1953 article: “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn”. He agrees that the ending does not fall within the realist tradition and offends plausibility in several ways: Miss Watson would not free Jim, the interjection of humour is “out of keeping” with the rest of the book: Huck’s easy transformation from bravely assisting an escaped slave and agonising over this moral position maturely, to clown; is not plausible. To assist in humiliating Jim, a slave transformed to “freedom fighter”, when known, by Tom at least, that he is free already (however implausible that may be) is at odds with chapter XXXI and all preceding chapters.

The ending reflects a conflict within Twain represented by Huck and Tom, he wanted to criticise Southern society but also to gain its approval. He does this by “freeing” an already free slave, so of the two white heroes, neither transgresses the law, nor break any moral codes of the South, and Huck is saved from going to Hell. This marks a massive retreat from the powerful, and arguably most dramatic, scene in the text: the decision of Huck to reject that society’s values and go to Hell, rather than betray his friend Jim. Marx may have been critical of the ending of the book in terms of content, but, in his 1956 article, which examines the literary style of Twain in Huckleberry Finn, he considers use of language and the “book’s excellence”. He

concludes the article by eulogising the text as one “which manages to suggest the lovely possibilities of life in

America without neglecting its terrors”. The two articles when read together are a powerful argument in favour of categorizing Huckleberry Finn as a Romance Twain a Romanticist rather than “Nothing more and nothing less than a Realist.”

J. M. Cox (1966) challenges Marx’s assessment: postulating that it is a story about a boy who has found himself, through force of circumstance in a difficult position. The reappearance of Tom in the story is a relief to Huck. By deferring to Tom at this stage, Huck is acting within character as developed earlier in the text: happy to be free of the responsibilities thrust upon him. However, this analysis disregards the moral development of Huck in the text up to and including Chapter XXXI and the maturity of his moral deliberations.

Marx, and others, are attempting to impose a political agenda that is not evident from the text; succumbing to the fashion that it is necessary for a hero to have an agenda. Huckleberry Finn is a child’s book. To impose sub texts involving subtle critiques of racial, gender, sexual and political issues misses the point entirely and is an over intellectualisation: blatantly ignoring Twain’s instructions at the beginning of the book (R. Hill, 1991).

If following Hemingway’s advice then Twain is no more and no less than a realist, but is not to read the book in its entirety: Chapter XXXI is not the end of the text.

Twain has succeeded in creating a work of fiction that engenders precisely the kind of debate that he ironically dissuades the reader from indulging in: a literary masterpiece that stubbornly refuses to fit neatly into any categorization at all. To say, “Twain is a Realist nothing more and nothing less” is thus inaccurate.

Word Count: 1609


George Becker, (June 1949), pp. 184 – 197, “Realism: An Essay in Definition”, in Modern Language Quarterly

Richard Chase, (1957), The American Novel and Its Tradition, Anchor Books p. 13

James Cox, “Attacks on the Ending and Twain’s Attack on Conscience”, in Mark Twain: The fate of Humor, University of Missouri Press (1966); excerpted in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp.305 – 312

Kenneth Dauber, (Summer 1999), “Realistically Speaking: Authorship, in late 19th Century and Beyond”, in American Literary History, Vol. 11, No.2, pp 378-390

T. S. Eliot, “The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End” reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 296 – 290

Ernest Hemingway, 1935, Green Hills of


Gerald Graff and James Phelan Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, (1995) St. Martins Press

Richard Hill, (1991), “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1991): reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 312 – 334

Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (1982), “The Letter, the Picture, and the Mirror:

Hawthorne’s Framing of The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne New Critical Essays, Vision Press Limited, p. 74

Leo Marx, (1953), “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” The American Scholar reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 290 – 305

Leo Marx, (1956), “The Pilot and the Passenger: Landscape Conventions and the Style of Huckleberry Finn”, in American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, (May, 1956) pp. 129 -146

Robert Ornstein, (1959), “The Ending of Huckleberry Finn”, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 74, No. 8 (Dec., 1959), pp. 698 – 702

Donald Pizer, (1961), “Late Nineteenth Century American Realism: An Essay in Definition”, in Nineteenth Century American Fiction, Vol. 16, No.3 (Dec 1961), pp 263-69

E. Arthur Robinson, (1960), “The Two “Voices” in Huckleberry Finn”, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 75, No. 3. (Mar. 1960), pp. 204 – 208

Lionel Trilling, (1948), in Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1948 Rinehart edition, excerpted in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 284 – 290

The Scarlet Letter and Guilt

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will consider how the theme of guilt is represented in The Scarlet Letter, by discussing how it is portrayed and symbolised within the text. To do so it will be useful to have a working definition of guilt. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines guilt as being “culpability” and a guilt complex as “a mental obsession with the idea of having done wrong”. Obviously there are various levels of guilt depending upon the seriousness of the transgression. In the case of The Scarlet Letter the wrong, or sin, is adultery: a very serious breach of Christian morality. The way in which each of the parties, to the sin, deal with their guilt is different, the female, Hester, has no option; she cannot conceal the sin, for obvious biological reasons. Dimmesdale has a choice; however, his choice of secrecy is dependant upon the complicity of Hester. He chooses to remain quiet supported in this by Hester. Nonetheless, this sin causes Dimmesdale to suffer an immense guilt complex, consumed with guilt it becomes a “mental obsession” which ultimately destroys him. He does however seek to rationalise it. At one point in Chapter X Dimmesdale asks the Physician:

“Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!” To be answered:

“Yet some men bury their secrets thus,” Dimmesdale then attempts to excuse this concealment:

“True; there are such men, but, not to suggest more obvious reasons, it may be that they are kept silent by the very constitution of their nature.”

He then continues to excuse his secrecy as being to the benefit of all, by allowing him to continue to preach, but it is clear it is causing him considerable internal conflict: a guilt complex.

Hester deals with her guilt in an open way, wearing elegant clothes when leaving the prison and embroidering a fancy letter ‘A’ to wear on her chest. She wears this letter on her chest long after she is required to do so. She is clearly not suffering from a “guilt complex”; she has confronted the transgression for which she has “culpability”. She does not suffer from a guilty conscience in the same way as Dimmesdale, so does not suffer the same physical and mental deterioration suffered by him.

To consider the way in which

Hawthorne intended to represent the power of guilt it is useful to consider his own beliefs. He was arguably considering a puritanical view of guilt and seeking to represent its different forms. The issue was considered in some depth by Herman Melville, in his essay, “Hawthorne and His Moses,” Melville describes

Hawthorne’s soul as “shrouded in a blackness” (Melville, H., 1994). Melville believes that the origin of this darkness and black mode of thinking derives from that:

“…Touch of Puritanical gloom… [which] derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity from Original Sin, from whose visitations,

in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always wholly free.” (Melville, H., 1994)

Melville’s view that

Hawthorne’s darkness is rooted in Puritanism is reasonable. The implication, by Melville, being that Hawthorne represents guilt in The Scarlet Letter as something from which no-one can be truly free, whether it is accepted head on, and confronted, or not.

Hawthorne arguably identified himself with the theories of John Calvin, which are fundamental to the to a Calvinist Puritanical faith. Henry James states that:

Hawthorne found the necessary darkness… in his Puritan heritage… and [would] capitalize on the darkness latent in

America’s Puritan history and heritage”.

It would be an error to argue that

Hawthorne was preaching a wholly puritanical message in the Scarlet Letter with guilt as a symbol for it. For while Puritans do believe that Original Sin effects the whole of society, and that we are all sinners, they nonetheless believe in the possibility of redemption from this Original Sin. That redemption is possible: with the appropriate behaviour and a sense of guilt, shame and conscience. However, they also believe that the method of expression of guilt is important in this regard.

Hawthorne, in the text, did not represent that all members of society can purged of the guilt of sin: even though Dimmesdale did eventually confess, and suffered from a deleterious guilt complex, the sin he committed is represented as being ultimately responsible for his death. This representation of the power of sin and guilt opposes the Transcendentalists view, with which Melville sympathised, that all members of society can be redeemed through the power that is innate within all individuals. (O’Toole, H., 2003). They do not believe in the ultimate power of evil, which is represented by

Hawthorne in the demise of Dimmesdale. The text represents a belief that evil, sin and guilt must be confronted head on. In the depiction of the differing effects that guilt have upon Hester and Dimmesdale, the text argues that the only way to deal with sin, guilt and a guilt complex is to confront it, but not all can do this, and even if done, not all are truly redeemed. In the depiction of Pearl as being a quirky individual, fond of the woods (a suggestion of evil) and in some way different is another representation of guilt and sin as being pervasive in the damage that it can cause. The message is that even third parties, who are themselves innocent of the sin but nonetheless products of it can suffer. It is represented in the same way that all humans suffer because of Original Sin. (Melville H., 1994)

It is clear that one of the main themes of the book is guilt and conscience. Furthermore hidden guilt is represented as more harmful than open guilt. Hester is labelled as openly guilty of a transgression, with a scarlet letter ‘A’ and imprisoned because of it. Initially she is mocked and badly treated by her small community, but as the years pass she earns the respect and forgiveness of those who initiated the punishment. Kinkead-Weekes makes the point that there is a suggestion, in the text, that open acceptance of sin and guilt is represented as empowering:

“By accepting punishment and guilt, Hester is educated and strengthened by suffering, and acquires a power for good beyond the scope of the rebel of the opening.”

However, she accepts responsibility more so than suffering from guilt as a mental obsession. The fact that she embroiders a fancy letter ‘A’ and wears it long after she is required to do so suggests pride more than guilt.

Dimmesdale, in refusing to admit to his sin, is condemned to suffering from a guilt complex, a secret that he can share with no one, except God. This guilt complex is added to because Hester, whilst accepting guilt and punishment, is keeping it a secret as well. She is being punished while he continues to retain the respect of the community. By not confessing he is able to continue in his pastoral role, albeit riddled with guilt; this makes him a hypocrite also. He is aware that he will never be free of this guilt complex until he confesses, however, he keeps the secret and his mental and physical health deteriorate to such an extent, because of the guilt complex and shame, that when he does finally confess he dies. His character is portrayed as quiet and pious, but his failure to confess and his continuing to preach the importance of confessing sin render him a coward as well as a hypocrite. He rationalises that, were he to confess, he would not be able to help anyone and thus excuses himself; this representation of guilt is manifested as a fundamental weakness to his character. Occasionally he contemplates his hypocrisy but never finds the courage to confess, he begins to suffer considerable anxiety because of this weakness. The guilt in Dimmesdale is represented as a powerful force for harm; this is because it is hidden, not accepted and furthermore, is compounded by hypocrisy. The power of guilt is further represented

when Dimmesdale subjects himself to self flagellation, and by carving an ‘A’ onto his chest hidden from view, like his guilt. Notwithstanding this punishment he still suffers, the point being made that guilt and secrecy are deleterious. Contrast this with the open guilt of Hester, she is openly labelled, which is ultimately empowering, allowing her to rise above her sin, guilt and shame and to emerge with the respect of her community, and the love of her daughter. Dimmesdale suffers for seven years before finding the moral courage to confess and overcome the weakness in his character. The confession is public and made during a sermon. It is also the conclusion to the plot and the climax to the text, but shortly after relieving himself of this burden he dies, in Hester’s arms. The ultimate power of hidden guilt, and the resultant guilt complex and shame, to destroy a person, is amply made. Kinkead-Weekes makes the point that an acceptance of sin and a feeling of guilt are represented within the text as a positive power for good, when he says of Dimmesdale:

“…his most guilty suffering produces his greatest power for good”

Guilt in the Scarlet Letter is being represented as both a positive and negative but inevitable human emotion. The text represents guilt as an emotion from which all must suffer in a Calvinistic puritanical way, that is, as fundamental to the human condition. The text demonstrates that confrontation of sin and the acceptance of punishment lead to redemption in the guise of Hester. Hiding sin and a refusal to openly accept guilt cause shame, misery and, in its ultimate manifestation, death in the guise of Dimmesdale.


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Oxford Dictionary,

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Bartleby the Scrivener “I prefer not to” A consideration

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will explore the significance of Bartleby’s words “I would prefer not to” when seeking to understand the text, Bartleby the Scrivener.

The lawyer narrates the story from his own perspective and employs Bartleby. In order to understand why Bartleby was actually declaring his preference not to conform it is necessary to examine how he should have behaved. The narrator employed Bartleby because he could read and write, whilst he would be a professional writer unlike Melville, however, his work would be completely unoriginal and would involve mindless copying. The nature of such employees was such, at the time, that the lawyer did not even check his references, judging on appearance and manner alone. This makes the point that Bartleby was effectively no more than a machine, one among many thousands of similar white-collar workers in Wall Street. As such, his individuality and his uniqueness had no point within the society within which he had to exist, whether he preferred to or not. Melville is, of course a Transcendentalist. As such, he considered intuition to be highest form of reason and imbued with divinity, one’s individual potential will facilitate an individual path to God. (O’Toole H., 2003.)

As Heather O’Toole states:

”Transcendentalism depends on a complete adherence to the self and individual experience. This premise is a highly democratic concept, for it regards the importance of internal authority and individualism over external authority and mass consciousness.”

Transcendentalists believe in the possibility of positive change and the ability of each individual to attain divinity or communion with God from a reliance on their innate goodness and reliability and faith in their own instinct. This is in direct contrast to the Calvinistic Puritanical view that man is inherently evil and all but irredeemable. They believed that everyone had within himself or herself divine reason and must be free to achieve their full potential. Because of this fundamental philosophy, Transcendentalists favoured reforms. Many effective opponents to war, capitalism, and slavery were Transcendentalists. They argued that right and wrong are perceptions of the mind and not matters of reason. Transcendentalist believe that only one God exists and is manifest in all religious traditions; if every man has within him Divine reason, they contended, every person must be free to realize their fullest potentiality. If people could do so, then it would be possible to realize Heaven on Earth. (Sten, C. W., 1974)

The story effectively takes place in three phases: these being the appointment of Bartleby and his increasing resistance to the Wall Street routine, followed by attempts at cajoling his conformity by the lawyer and concluding with the retribution meted out by that society when Bartleby fails to conform. Throughout the story Bartleby is portrayed as being isolated, mysterious, and surreal almost. He is also portrayed as being different and alone, but not in the sense of being lonely, to emphasise the fact that he is exercising his own free will, he is not associated with anyone and thus not subject to undesirable influence, he is relying on his own instincts to make his own decisions. The phrase “I would prefer not to” is an understated way of refusing to conform, he is demonstrating the power of the individual to resist a communal pressure to comply. The activity that he is employed to carry out, writing, is on the face of it, intellectual, stimulating and original, however, it is reduced to “mechanical reproduction ruinous to the minds and bodies of the workers”. (Weinstein, C., 1998) What should be a deeply personal and individual activity is corrupted by capitalism. There is a good deal of irony in the fact that he and his colleagues are hired to copy but that his colleagues in Wall Street do not copy his behaviour, and as such his actions are ultimately futile, in so far as they achieve no change.

Bartleby, by uttering the words “I would prefer not to” effectively, as Cindy Weinstein states, “goes on strike without ever asserting that he has done so”. By using this phrase, Bartleby forces the employer, and narrator, to think carefully, and in some depth, about his expectations of his employees and the power within that relationship that up until that time he had taken for granted. The phrase is the driving force for the whole story. The narrator becomes more and more frustrated as Bartleby uttering this phrase defies him repeatedly. The narrator actually reconsiders his role and “begins to stagger in his own plainest faith”, doubting the rules upon which his own society, as he perceives it, is at fault. (Weinstein, C., 1998).

There is an element of irony given the narrator’s profession, which of course deals in rules, protects capitalism, and defends the principal of ownership. As the story progresses the narrator actually comes to believe that Bartleby may have a point and that “all the justice and all the reason is on the other side” (Melville H., 1853). He even begins to view the conditions in which the scriveners work as being oppressive, detailing other men’s wealth in writing and copying endless documents to protect the principle of ownership in the political superstructure of capitalism; which is of course epitomised in Wall Street itself. The phrase “I would prefer not to” also suggests a mooted rebellion against capitalism, and many Transcendentalists were opposed to Capitalism on philosophical grounds.

Melville’s vivid use of imagery in the description of the office in which Bartleby is “entombed” allows the reader to imagine a lifeless, claustrophobic room, as the narrator states “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’”. The use of the green flimsy screen, to separate the narrator from the workers, symbolises the fragility of the class divide. This is emphasised when the narrator considers the alternative should Bartleby’s actions prove to be copied (again symbolic irony) by others in Wall Street. Of course, the entire system of property owning, and the principle of ownership itself, is dependent upon accurate and reliable record keeping. Bartleby in “preferring not to” check his work and thus safeguard the reliability of the information that they are recording is highly significant. The narrator eventually abandons Bartleby by moving away from him. (Marx L., 1953)

The symbolism of the green flimsy screen is important: it demonstrates the delicate nature of that which separates the classes, rendered even more precarious when Bartleby utters the words “I would prefer not to”. It also evokes an obvious image of something green and thus nature, this in turn is juxtaposed against the dim almost dingy image of the office environment that Melville describes. This negative description of the working environment, for Bartleby his home, together with the negative portrayal of the tedious nature of the work is an indictment of capitalism. Humans, reduced to the role of machines, forced to comply with a way of living that will not allow them to achieve their full potential, become subsumed within a group. The character of Bartleby neatly portrays the fundamental beliefs of Transcendentalism at the same time as showing that they may ultimately not be achievable. The ultimate tragic demise of Bartleby demonstrates that his stand was futile. (Widmer K., 1969)

The phrase “I would prefer not to”, on a close reading and consideration of the text, conveys the message of the whole story in one phrase: It is saying that as humans we should all be able to live as we would prefer and emphasises the importance of self in striving for divinity. It is therefore extremely useful, and important, when analysing the meaning of the text.

BibliographyAnderson, Walter. “Form and Meaning in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’” Studies in Short Fiction 18 (Fall 1981): 383-93.

Marx L., 1987, “Melvilles Parable of the Walls”, in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, Bartleby the Scrivener and Other Tales, Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia, pp.11-29

Melville H., 1853, Bartleby the Scrivener : A Story of Wall-Street

O’Toole H., 2003.The Blackness of Men’s Souls: Why Nathaniel Hawthorne could not Embrace Transcendentalism. Bridgewater, Virginia,


College Press.

Sten, C. W., 1974, “Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville’s Dead Letter to Emerson.” Modern Language Quarterly 35: 30-44

Weinstein, C., 1998, “Melville, Labor, And The Discourses of Reception”, in The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Robert S. Levine, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, pp. 202—223

Widmer, K., 1969, “Melville’s Radical Resistance: The Method and Meaning of ‘Bartleby.’” In Studies in the Novel 1 (1969):pp 444-58.

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion – Essay

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse, compare and contrast the representation and interrogation of American culture in an era of post-modernity, considering, in so doing, the writers’ styles, techniques and choice of theme.

Maria represents modern

America: self indulgent, shallow, self-harming but regretting a loss that she engineered herself. The abortion symbolises the loss of traditional values, that are replaced by selfish and uncaring attitudes, exemplified by Maria and the other main characters in Play It As It Lays.

In A&P Sammy represents those trying to break out of a fixed dominant culture of capitalism, powered by consumerism and work. He wants to be free, to live the perfect consumer life. Sammy’s character fantasises about parties that Maria is likely to attend, he would probably envy Carter’s life but not Maria’s.

Post-modernism describes a broad change in attitudes and thinking which began in the early part of the twentieth century. Postmodern thinker Jean-François Lyotard (1984) believed Postmodernity represented the end of the process of modernity, leading to quicker cultural change. “Post-modern” refers to a belief in the collapse of absolute truth or identities and “grand narratives.” These would include the Bible, Koran and Maos Red Book. Jean Baudrillard (1998) argues in a philosophical treatise, Simulacra and Simulation that society substitutes all reality and meaning for symbols and signs and what we know as real is a simulation. The simulacra are the signs of culture and media creating the “reality” that we perceive. Society becomes overwhelmed with imagery, man made sounds, media and advertising. This simulacrum eventually becomes hyperreal, more real than real, presupposing reality. Apathy and misery break down Nietsche’s feeling of ressentiment (a state of repressed feeling and desire which generate of values.) Our misconceptions of reality shaped by simulacra create our values, which are thus distorted. Hollywood and

Las Vegas deal in imagery and copies or representations of things, or simulations. Play It As It Lays is set in Hollywood,

Las Vegas and the Desert, all of which are shown to be empty in different ways. Maria, Carter, BZ, Helene and the actor, with others, create artificial reality. Baudrillard (1998) would say they are simulacra. If so, they are also the victims of suppressed ressentiment. For example Maria is devoid of feeling and BZ kills himself. In A&P, the environment is also artificial, it is a sales environment, fluorescent light, air-conditioning, images of goods, advertising and packaging are all aiming to influence behaviour by making a visitor buy things they may not need or want.

Thematically throughout the text Didion asks us to consider life in an era of post modernity. What if our life was a void of artificiality, lacking in morals, where recreational drugs are the norm, conversations and beliefs are vacuous and where people had no feelings for each other? Maria inhabits this world symbolising American post-modern attitudes. In A&P Sammy imagines the life that three women live, he is so drawn to this illusory life that he quits his job to go and find it. We read hints of Maria’s inner self. The redeemable part of her character and America Maria tells us that causing the emptiness is the abortion. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘There’s no point.’ ‘No point in what.’ ‘No point in our doing any of those things.’ He looked at her for a long while. ‘Later,’ he said then. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘It’s all right.’ (p.133)
The abortion symbolises the loss of values that have been replace by simulacra. The extract below refers to it obliquely:
They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino.”(p. 133)Maria by the end of the book is in complete despair and despondent. In a very short chapter, entirely in italics to emphasise it is Maria speaking, chapter eighty two shows that Maria is looking ahead to a simple life canning fruit, but acknowledging her past misery and her problem with “as it was”.“I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing.’“(p.209)

This emptiness is reflected in the images of the desert. By chapter eighty four, Maria is observing closely small incidents. A hummingbird flying, coins falling in water and sunlight. Maria visualises like a film, in short scenes, becoming artificial, confirming her status as simulacra and victim of simulation.

Sammy as a character is not as developed, the length of the piece does not allow it. We learn of his misogyny but are not shown the things that really move him, other than his desire for a different life. His perception of “Queenie’s” life can only be based on what he has seen and read or heard, Baudrillard’s simulacra.

Play It as It Lays in its style reflects post modernist thinking; replacing the grand narrative with smaller narratives. A&P must make a point concisely. Economy of language, precision of imagery and dialogue is fundamental to its success. Updike demonstrates care and precision in his use of language and grammar, in his use of quotation marks in A&P. For example:

The girls, and who would blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.

Sammy quitting is the significant event in the story; he has used quotation marks to emphasise it in the middle of a longer sentence. Updike wants us to read closely. Showing the reader the feelings of a young man spontaneous but uncertain.Play it as it lays employs a cinematic style, short scenes. The chapters are not always in sequence, films are not shot sequentially. In many chapters, the style is like a script. Short chapters, for example chapter forty, suggest life is a random set of scenes, no purpose or great plan. This chapter is mainly dialogue; the purpose to demonstrate a spontaneous, privileged and self-indulgent life and Maria controlled by BZ. Like a scene in a script. Imitating

Hollywood and showing the shallowness of characters. Chapter twenty six shows her asserting herself, using the word “very” repeatedly shows she can do virtually whatever she wishes whenever she wants with no consequences. Didion explores the effect of a nakedly capitalist, consumerist and privileged environment, where inhabitants do not interact on any emotional level, on Maria. The defining moment in the book is the pregnancy and abortion, which changes her life and makes it mean nothing.

The male characters have no genuine feeling for her and often hurt her, like Carter, who made her get the abortion. The abortion is central to the character’s thinking and actions thereafter. It surfaces in her conscious when pushed there by her subconscious, depicted in dreams, which get progressively worse. Maria regrets the abortion and explores guilt. The hypnotist sessions are examples. She seeks to regress to her foetal state. When asked if she can remember is evasive and talks about traffic. Does she know her foetus was aware? She hints at it when expressing concern at what happened to it and grieves for it. The dreams are also simulations, the hypnotism seeking to recreate as a memory an existence is a simulacra. She dwells on it throughout the book:

“ …she bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it. (p.114)

This passage shows us that she believes it to have been a baby. She then tries to diminish this by referring to it as tissue. She has trouble with “as it was” because of this event.

Simulation is symbolised by the drugs and alcohol consumed that influence her dreams, her perception of reality and distort her values. The theme of distortion, the tools that are available to alter perception, and thus reality, runs throughout the book. Sleeping pills, tranquilisers, cannabis, alcohol and tobacco are all used. An unseen third person narrates the story. The reliability of the information provided by the narrator may be questionable when Maria provides it to the narrator. She is like a person with no ressentiment.

The protagonist in A&P is a man. Didion is a woman but Maria is not portrayed sympathetically. She does something many may disagree with, has an abortion. Sammy on the other hand is a young, attractive, heterosexual modern day knight in shining armour. He makes a sacrifice on behalf of three damsels in distress. A hollow gesture, it is a symbolic protest against consumerism, the values and rules that accompany it. The store represents

America, the manager the government, the sheep or shoppers are the people. Sammy rejects this society, symbolising youthful rebellion, which is often shallow and short-lived. He longs for the life that he imagines “Queenie” and her friends live. Imagining that life, informed by what he has seen or read in the media, or film, or heard on the radio. Simulacra, he has no idea of what her life is really like.

Sammy is a hero, albeit misogynistic. In his consideration of the three women, Sammy dwells on their physical attributes and attractiveness in a lingering manner. The reader gets the sense of ogling and scrutinising objects of desire rather than human beings. The descriptions are long and detailed, this contrasts with the descriptions of older women which are very brief. He gives the most attractive one a name, “Queenie”. She is the queen, the most beautiful. He judges women purely by appearance.Maria is a character with whom many readers would not identify and toward who would have difficulty feeling any sympathy. She is promiscuous and does not even apologise to Carter for being pregnant with possibly another man’s child. Abortion at the time the story is set was at the cutting edge of liberal and modern thinking, illegal and unacceptable in many states. Casual sex was also an emerging pastime and not widely approved of. Maria is an anti-hero. Many modern anti-heroes encapsulate the rejection of traditional values; they are reckless and self destruct. Maria does this here. There is no redemption or success for Maria. She is self destructive and reckless repeatedly, taking drugs, confronting car thieves and sex with strangers. Sammy also, in his decision to quit the store, but is portrayed more positively and humorously than Maria. There is no grand gesture from her, just nihilism followed by a retreat into hospital. She is hiding from a reality that she has only imagined. In the last chapter she tells us that “On the whole I talk to no one.” (p213). A&P’s theme considers transition to adulthood. Acting or thinking differently from immediate family, friends or colleagues, possibly disappointing or alienating them. The change is profound for Sammy. He is 19, finished school, bored and working. The girls unwittingly make him think he may miss out unless he asserts himself. His parents helped Sammy get the job. He lives at home in the environment his parents created. He is working class, implied by his memories of parties at his parents’ home: lemonade for the neighbours, Schlitz in tall glasses if the party is more sophisticated. He imagines well-dressed people eating gourmet snacks and sipping exotic drinks from frosted glasses, he longs for the girls, especially “Queenie”. Sammy rejects his role quitting his job and removing the class uniform asserting his individual identity, not his parents’ or A&P’s. Rejecting Stokesie’s life, of being trapped, he is a shallow character who sees women as objects, feeling sorry for a man who has a relationship, implying that he wishes only to use women. He gives lengthy descriptions of the three single and young women but older and married women with children are dismissed as “witches” or “marrieds”. His parents’ think what happened was sad. At the end of the story, Sammy knows how hard the world will be from now on. He does not think it sad though. Symbolising freedom, individuality and sexual liberation are “Queenie” and her friends. Wealthier, younger, attractive and wearing fewer clothes than an average shopper does. The manager, representing the government, chides them for being different. “ “We are decent,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A&P must look pretty crummy ” .

Unwritten and little spoken about standards of decency are at issue. Queenie is flaunting this code in front of the A&P manager. Petty rules made by Government are represented here.

Maria fails to have meaningful lasting relationships, it is not clear if this is her choice. Sammy does not want a relationship. All of the men Maria deal with are powerful or successful, Carter, BZ and the actor with the Ferrari. They all abuse or use her. On the other hand, like BZ, perceive her to be her screen persona that he then falls in love with. Showing the destructive power and futility of such simulacra, he kills himself. This incident shows how desensitized and remote from the pain of others Maria has become to hide her own interior pain. She has no values and has lost all ressentiment. Men view her as an object, for their own gratification. They have money and power, so can and do use her. Sammy can only express a misogynistic view of women and make a futile and empty gesture. He cannot act on his misogyny, like BZ and Carter. No women have any intelligence for Sammy; they are pure objects, to satisfy the “male gaze”. Updike shows us this attitude concisely:

“You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)…”

The manager insults the three girls openly and without a second thought and so they leave. This is a minor incident but demonstrates patriarchal power.

Didion exposes this power naked and raw, dragging the reader into a heartless male dominated artificial world. She uses the environment of the desert to show us the emptiness that Maria feels. With Hollywood and

Las Vegas she shows us the emptiness of post modern humanity and the effect it has on victims like Maria and Kate. Updike shows us in an understated, light hearted and humorous style the power of men, capitalism and the power of dreams to influence behaviour.

Bibliography Updike, J. “A&P.” 2004, Literature, A Portable Anthology. Ed. Janet Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl and Pete Schakel.

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Wolff, C. G. “Play It As It Lays: Didion and the Diver Heroine.” Contemporary Literature 24.4 (Wint 1983): (pp. 480-495.)

Bush, M L, 1984, The Use of Narrative Devices In the Fiction of Joan Didion.




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