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Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried & Tina Chen

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse the assertion Tina Chen makes, in her 1988 article entitled Unraveling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, that:

“O’Briens vexed preoccupation with the disjunctures that make history unreliable and memory the condition for narrative is engendered by the impossibility of ever achieving an unproblematic return home – whether that return is to family, community…or nation” (Chen T, 1998,p.79)

In addition Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is analysed to determine how helpful this statement is when reading the texts. The four constituent parts of Chen’s statement will be analysed: issues concerning displacement, unreliability of history in a postmodernist context, memory as a condition of narrative and exile.

Both texts have links to the Vietnam war, O’Brien was a participant and Vonnegut’s story was written, at least partly, during it and the Cold War and concerns the

Dresden massacre at the end of World War II. In the sixties, against the back drop of McCarthyism, the Kennedys were assassinated, there was a fear of Communism and television as a tool of political influence was being developed in the West. There was a real fear that there would be a Nuclear War. It is against this backdrop that the war was fought and during this time O’Brien experienced war and Vonnegut wrote an anti war novel about it. The quotation in issue is prefaced by an assessment of combat as being a world without rules and the contradiction between “personal memory” and “official history”.

By the mid 20th century there were a number of structural theories concerning human existence in the quest for certainty and explanation. In the 1960′s, the Structuralist movement, based in

France, rejected the existentialist theory that we control our own destiny; structuralism argues that individuals are the product of sociological, psychological and linguistic structures.

Michel Foucault, disagreed with two basic premises of structuralism. First he argued that there were no definite supporting structures to explain the human condition and because he did not accept the existence of any paradigm that would explain behaviour, did not believe it possible to view any society or text objectively. Roland Barthes extrapolated this theory to literary texts and argued that the truth of a text lay with the reader rather than the author. For Barthes the author was, like God, now dead. There are therefore multiple meanings, readings and authorities. This chaotic and fragmented theory is the theoretical basis of postmodernism’s experimentation with form and content.

Both Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried can be defined as postmodernist because both narratives includes the author as characters that discuss the texts self consciously. In The Things They Carried the author and narrator both have the same name. Traditional boundaries between the author and characters is blurred in The Things They Carried by this device and completely removed in Slaughterhouse Five. The other traditional boundaries that exist between history and fiction, truth and lies, historical sources and stories are all blurred and deconstructed in these texts. Postmodernist texts, amongst other things, question accepted versions of history, and the value of official history. However it is not a precise term and not easily defined. Linda Hutcheon says Postmodernism is a contentious and ambiguous label explaining that Postmodernism is “not so much a concept as a problematic: a complex of heterogeneous but interrelated questions which will not be silenced by any spuriously unitary answer” (Hutcheon 2002). Metafiction is a more specific description of these texts, they both link and question history telling and story telling. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as:

“a term given to fictional writing which self consciously and systematicxally draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.” (Waugh, 2, 1984).

Vonnegut poses the question to the reader: how do you write about a massacre? The difficulties are summarised when the novel both explains itself and confirms its status as metafiction:

“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” (Vonnegut, 1969)

The things they carried exhibits metafictive self consciousness when considering the process of writing. The structure of stories, what makes a good story and how to identify one are all addressed by the narrator. Whole chapters are devoted to form and content in the chapters entitled How to Tell a True War Story and Notes.

“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be sceptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”

“In other case you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” (O’Brien, 1991)

When telling the story of the six-man patrol in the chapter How to Tell a True War Story Sanders says “this next part…you won’t believe.” Going on to explain why: “Because every word is absolutely dead-on true.” This phrase highlights the problem of a story based on memory: if it is so unusual as to be implausible it will not be believed (without firm evidence) even if true; if the story is bland and sanitized it will lack credibility. Chen argues that The Things They Carried is about “the need to tell stories, the ways to tell stories, and the reasons for telling stories.” (Chen, 1988, p.94). She argues that the stories serve the purpose of rationalising alienation and provide it with a purpose or explanation. This contrasts with the recounting of history in which official stories often serve the purpose of concealing and obfuscating the truth.

The conflict between anecdotal evidence and official history is examined in Slaughterhouse Five when Billy Pilgrim is in hospital in a room he shares with a Harvard history professor. He has an official version of the

Dresden bombing. He tells the historian he was there; he is in fact an eye witness. The historian is uninterested in his account and prefers official sources; however, because it had been kept a secret there was very little detail of it recorded in the Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two. He is sceptical when Billy Pilgrim tells him he was there. He does not ask him about it. He simply states that “It had to be done” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 144) and “Pity the men who had to do it” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 145). The professor did not consider that the suppression of the event was wrong and agreed with it: “For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 140). This encounter between an establishment historian and a witness that is ignored is symbolic of the scepticism with which a postmodernist text treats history.

How much of each book is autobiography is ambiguous. Science Fiction is utilised by Vonnegut to explore the relationship between fiction and reality. At the self declared start of the text (chapter two) we learn that Billy Pilgrim has “come unstuck in time” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 17) and is a time traveller.

Dresden as an event is fact and the introduction of Billy Pilgrim, displaced to the extent he cannot maintain temporal stability, is a demonstration of the effect of war on an individual as distorting. He is displaced in time, exiled from reality, a metaphor for the psychological effects combat causes. The narrator in The Things They Carried is ostensibly the author and as such is a major character, however in Slaughterhouse Five the story is about Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut is a minor character.

The Things They Carried is not a collection of short stories, but neither is it one story. The structure of the book reflects the way in which a veteran soldier may talk about memories of war and conflict: discrete events and stories, some first hand, but many, like the chapter Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong – second hand hearsay, often embellished, but still “true”. The stories would alter on the re-telling. The stories are true to the teller but the listener may discern subtle or gross distortions of the previous version.

In the chapter Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong the reliability of war stories is examined in the guise of Rat Kiley as story teller:

“For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.” (p. 87)

As an optometrist Billy Pilgrim helps others to see more clearly, but he cannot see life clearly because of the war and its effect upon his psyche. He has a breakdown and becomes isolated in the imaginary world of the Tralfamadorians, the zoo and the cage he is kept in are metaphors for the isolation felt by many veterans of all conflicts: “survivors guilt”. Each death in the text is followed by the refrain: “so it goes.” This is a reference to the Tralfamadorians view of death that no one truly dies because of the structure of time. It is natural for Billy Pilgrim, having learned to see time and death differently, to want to correct the erroneous view of time and death that others have andhe tries to do this on a radio show.

In The Things They Carried the relationship between fact and fiction are constantly evaluated, the technique used by O’Brien is more subtle than Vonnegut’s but the preoccupation of both authors with truth is characteristic of Postmodernist texts. The protagonists and narrators both share the same name and characteristics and some aspects of personal history: education, the draft experience and actually fighting in Vietnam and

Dresden respectively. But O’Brien has no daughter that he could take back to

Vietnam, as the protagonist has. The book, in the preface, is dedicated to “Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” (O’Brien, 1991). This suggests to the reader that the text is autobiographical but it is not. The text often contradicts itself, leading the reader to question the authenticity of the text. When discussing Curt Lemon’s death the narrator describes the incident leading to his death as “exactly true” but later in the text says he has told “many times, many versions” of the same story and then narrates another.

The function of stories in The Things They Carried is considered in detail by Tina Chen. She argues that the stories and bodies are metonyms of

Vietnam. She argues that the use of metonymy “works simultaneously in The Things They Carried to mask and expose the construction of Vietnam as imaginary homeland, the trope that governs the consciousness of the work” (Chen, 1988, p. 84) Her main point is that the use of metonymy infuses the text, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s pebble is a metonym for home, as part of the shoreline and “by extension America” (Chen, 1988, p. 85). Home for Cross is symbolised by Martha, however his image of home is a fantasy, she does not love him and never has. When he returns home she rejects him and is cold towards him. This is the reality that most veterans faced when returning home. The psychological impact of the experience is such that there is a sense of separateness felt by them. They are internally isolated because of the experiences. This displacement is examined in the chapter Ghost Soldiers. Subsequent to being forced to leave the combat zone because of an incompetent medic O’Brien wants revenge. Ostensibly because of the pain he suffered. But the real pain is that of being separated from his platoon. Sanders does not want to help O’Brien in his quest for revenge saying:

“People change, situations change. I hate to say this man, but you’re out of touch. Jorgensen – he’s with us now.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 197)

It is at this moment that O’Brien realises that he has been displaced form where he felt at home: in combat: “I felt something shift inside me. It was anger partly, but it was also a sense of pure and total loss: I didn’t fit anymore.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.197). Chen explains this feeling of displacement by arguing that

Vietnam had become home for O’Brien. His need to write stories, like the need of an old soldier to reminisce, about

Vietnam is similar to Rushdie’s explanation of exile for Chen. This theme of a combat zone, and the feeling of belonging within it, as being so profound that it replaces home is argued by Chen. Her theory explains Bowker’s displacement and isolation in Speaking of Courage, in which he drives round and round a lake, he thinks about

Vietnam and considers that “The town seemed remote somehow.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.140). The constant driving in circles symbolises the endlessness of the effect of combat and that war stories never end. The chapter immediately following it is Notes, a metafictive chapter in which we are told Bowker kills himself.

A letter Bowker sends O’Brien supports Chen’s argument that

Vietnam becomes home. In it he says “That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him…Feels like I’m still in deep shit.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 155)

Bowker was killed in a “shit field” and sunk into it, becoming part of the land, part of Vietnam, his body a metonym of

Vietnam. Bowker is attempting to articulate that he is also part of Vietnam, which it is now his home and why he feels exiled in

America. This idea of the dead and living becoming part of

Vietnam is explored in the chapter Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong. An implausible story of a girlfriend who is flow over from

America is told in which she transposes from feminine to masculine in behaviour and then to savage as she becomes part of the land. Whilst officially listed as missing “Mary Anne was still somewhere out there in the dark.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 106) Her transformation, symbolic of the effects of combat, is so stark that “She was ready for the kill.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.107).

Chen’s thesis is that

Vietnam is a metaphor for home. The soldiers who went there were never able to return, they became part of

Vietnam, they are completely changed by their experiences and are never able to return to their previous way of life.

Vietnam is portrayed, for Chen, “as a corporeal entity…Depicted as a living organism”. The stories that make up the text serve the purpose of re-animating these bodies. In the last chapter the narrator explains how stories can revive life, “in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly that which is absolute and unchanging.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 229) His stories can make the dead walk: “Linda can smile and sit up.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 229). In Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to re-animate the dead, people do not die because everything exists at the same time. Billy Pilgrim’s role in the text and being “a spastic in time” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 17) is the authors device to show the reader the effects of war and death on combatants. He is exiled in time. Chen’s analysis of The Things They Carried helps the reader to understand that Billy Pilgrim is symbolic of displacement and exile.

Word Count 2150

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Lake of the Woods” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1. (Spring, 2003), pp. 106 – 131. Naparsteck M (1991) An Interview with Tim O’Brien, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1. (Spring, 1991), pp. 1 – 11. O’Brien T (1991) The Things They Carried, Flamingo:


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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


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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

Astrophel & Stella VI: A Sonnet Explicated

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Titles are important when considering any text but are of particular importance when considering poetry. Stella is from the Latin word for star and Astrophel is derived from two Greek words: astro which means star and phil which means lover. Astrophel and Stella VI is part of a sequence of sonnets. A typical sonnet sequence has many conventions. Opening and closing sonnets will usually inform the remainder of the sequence. These sonnets tell the story of a developing relationship between two lovers, the sonnets focus on changing emotions of the speaker. The sonnet is fourteen lines long, there are two basic forms eight lines followed by six with a

volta on line nine or, as in the instant case, four quatrains followed by a couplet that contains the twist.

The first sonnet in the sequence describes how the poet is struggling to find words to describe his love, how he cannot study the writing of others to find inspiration in the same way that Shakespeare did. In sonnet VI he returns to this theme and describes why he cannot copy other authors and poets. Iambic hexameter is utilised throughout the sonnet

Sidney was particular in his use of metrics, but the use of rhyme is not conventional. There are no polysyllabic rhymes and each line is end-stopped. The meter and unconventional rhyme scheme emphasize the narrator’s meaning that Astrophel is a unique poet who follows no formal patterns or rules of convention. The language is rich, and full of imagery, held together by the accurate use of the meter. . In lines 1 to 11 he effectively provides a list of various conventions traditionally used when writing sonnets.

In some sonnets the message is that love is a force which can overpower us and will make us suffer. The use of oxymorons (a term that is self-contradictory) is almost obligatory, he points this out vividly, and utilises the convention, when he refers to: “living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires”. The use mythology within sonnets of the period is also discussed in the poem and again the convention is adopted when

Sidney refers to the various disguises used by Jove or Zeus to get to the women he wanted:

“Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires, Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;” He refers to how some poets of the time and classical poets would use references to a pastoral tradition, in which ladies and gentlemen masquerade as shepherds:“Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires, Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein”Incorporating the device of the “conceit” or comparisons to describe the act of writing the sonnets is utilised and described when he writes how:“…tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words:” The twist in the sonnet is contained in the couplet at the end of the sonnet when he describes how he can say what he feels and how he loves as well as any of them without the use of such rigid formulae when he says that all he to do is to softly say in a trembling voice “that I do Stella love”. Structurally, in sonnet VI of Astrophel and Stella, the lines are full of images of opposites, and contrasts such as pastoral imagery being next to images of violence and pain. Astrophel, the narrator, argues that poets, with all of their technical rules for the use of language in a sonnet, are restricted and repressed in the manner in which they are permitted to express themselves because of this strict adherence to a body of rules. Whilst he amply demonstrates his skills in the use of these conventions he is nonetheless being critical of them and essentially saying that he can be poetic with the best of them, but his love is so powerful that words and expressions cannot describe adequately his love for Stella; he is only able to feel, sense and think about it. In the second poem the title provides the reader with a clue that the lover to be discussed is untouchable or unreachable in some way. Shirley strictly adheres to the convention of iambic pentameter in the form of the poem and utilises rhyme throughout it. In the same way that Astrophel, as the narrator in Astrophel and Stella VI is discussing and describing the love he has for a woman, so in this piece the narrator is describing his love for a woman. The difference is that he woman does not appear to exist. The theme is that of the unknown or unknowable mistress. Given the uniqueness of the topic is is a challenging subject for the renaissance poet. The poem opens with moving lines that describe the frustration of the narrator in his desire to love and to speak to his lover. It provides an image of pent up frustration. The poem goes on to describe how much he would be able to love this idealized beauty. (Richmond H. M. 1959). The poem however, in dealing with a non existent lover may be described as dealing with the frustrating evanescence of some idealized sexual fantasy; love is seen as being distinct from a corporeal body and able to exist independently. The use of references to the senses which are themselves intangible lends weight to this image. By its nature, because the poem is dealing in what would be a paradigm of feminine beauty and grace, but which does not exist, it dwells more upon the egocentric, introspective thought processes and emotions of the writer, a man, rather than those of the subject matter, a woman. Utilising this particular lyrical renaissance device and in adhering to strict conventions of rhyme and meter and structure the narrator is reducing women in general to the status of desirable object that will be able to satisfy the sexual frustration of a lonely man. The view that women were mere chattels was reinforced with legal precedent at the time of writing. (Norbrook D., 1984). The strict adherence to rules of writing by Shirley would strongly suggest his belief in that particular rule set. In contrast

Sidney is challenging the standardised format, in his discussion of love, which would tend to suggest that he is challenging the status quo. He uses poetic structure as metaphors for the way in which women must abide by man made rules and is saying that even without these rules, which by implication he disagrees with, he is simply in love.


Richmond H. M. 1959, The Intangible Mistress, Modern Philology, Vol. 56, No. 4. pp. 217-223.Corns T., ed., 1993, The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvel, Cambridge,


University Press.

Norbrook D., 1984, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, Croom Helm.Rivers I., 1994, Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry,

London, Routledge.Wilcox H. ed., Women and Literature in Britain 1500 – 1700, Cambridge,


University Press

Anthony and Cleopatra is a Tragedy? Scene I Analysis

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will analyse the way in which Act I scene I contributes to the effectiveness of

Antony and Cleopatra as a Tragedy.

In the play we see from the opening scene that the great soldier Antony has been caught between two godheads: on the one hand his duty, that is, his manly responsibilities as one of the triumvirs of

Rome; on the other his pleasure and all consuming infatuation with the Queen of Egypt. The basic question and premise of the play is posed from the opening lines, when Philo is discussing the infatuation that

Antony has for Cleopatra, with Demetrius, he is criticising the great soldier for becoming so infatuated and neglecting his duties. He has been rendered a “strumpets fool”, the basic question then posed by the play is will the strumpet win out or will Antony choose


The main purpose of the opening scene is to make the point that we are picking up the story of

Antony’s fatal love for Cleopatara half-way through. He has already embarked on the cycle of self destruction that marks out a tragedy before the story begins. To that extent the contribution Philo’s speech, in Act one scene one, makes is to tell the audience that we have a great soldier who has fallen for a beautiful woman. However, this woman is a dark character and temptress who is corrupting the hero’s manliness. This in turn is signalling the tragedy that is to follow.

The play was originally produced without act and scene divisions; however, the play divides logically into five acts. The five basic stages of a tragedy can be divided up as follows:

  1. The anticipation stage, this involves the hero’s feelings of incompleteness being satisfied by an object of desire (usually a woman).
  2. The dream stage, in which the hero becomes committed to a course of action which initially goes well; almost as if the hero is able to deal with the two godheads he is been caught between.
  3. The frustration stage is when things begin to go wrong for the hero; in attempting to reconcile the demands of the two godheads he may commit further foolish acts, usually dark deeds involving killing people.
  4. The nightmare stage sees the hero losing control completely, he becomes increasingly desperate and despairing, and one or both of the godheads will close in on him, isolating him further.
  5. The destruction or death wish stage will see the hero either killed by the opposing forces or, as in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, commit suicide. (Booker, C., 2004)

In terms of the complete five-stage cycle of tragedy the play picks up the plot at the frustration stage. The first two acts show Antony making a final effort to fulfil his manly duties by returning to

Rome to deal with Pompey. He even marries Octavius’s sister to reinforce his efforts to regain his Roman identity. He fails of course, the lure of Cleopatra being to strong for

Antony to resist. (

Baldwin T. W., 1963)

Scene one of the first act is providing back story to the plot. It is providing the audience with background information. A great soldier has been rendered “womanish” by Cleopatra. We are informed of the character of this woman in the opening speech. Furthermore his heart which once would “burst the buckles on his breast” is now nothing more than “the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust”. We are immediately informed that

Antony is going to suffer because of his involvement with this dark character of Cleopatra. Female sexual desire is portrayed as being so threatening to a man and so powerful that even a great soldier like Antony is reduced to a fool by it, he is portrayed as having become womanly, a negative state in the play.

As the scene proceeds the two main characters are discussing their love, the opening line from Cleopatra “If it be love indeed, tell me how much”, in other words, prove it. This informs the audience that we are now at the frustration stage.

Antony will now be forced to choose between the two godheads. This is further reinforced when they are interrupted by an attendant advising them that there is news from Rome, Antony cannot be bothered to deal with it, he is absorbed by Cleopatra.: “grates me, the sum”, he is offended and wants the news to be brief. Cleopatra then taunts him by belittling his sense of duty to

Rome as if it is an alternative only for his love for her. The audience are again being told in the dialogue that Antony is dealing with a woman who is going to make him choose between her and


Antony reassures Cleopatra by stating:

“let Rome in

Tiber melt, and the wide arch

Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space…..”

This is a clear indication that Antony is not necessarily going to choose

Rome. He then discusses with Cleopatra what they are going to do that night, a clear indication that it will be erotic as it was the previous night: “Come, my queen, last night you did desire it.” Thus the scene is set for the remainder of the tragedy. It is clear that

Antony has become involved with a woman that will cause his downfall. This is achieved in this scene by way of back story. Cleopatra signals her jealousy of Rome when she questions

Antony’s love. We are already aware of the fact that Demetrius and Philo view the relationship negatively from

Antony’s point of view as he has become more womanish. Womanliness is portrayed from the first scene of the play as negative and this reinforced later on in the play when Cleopatra is referred to as a whore; Caesar informs Octavia of the whereabouts of her husband by stating:

”Cleopatra hath nodded him to her.

He hath given his empire up to a whore”.

Antony’s inability to resist the charms, and his love, of a dark temptress, in the guise of Cleopatra, is the essence of the tragedy that unfolds. The unwillingness of

Rome to allow him to succumb to his desires is the other godhead that he is torn between. Scene I of Act I, contributes to the play’s effectiveness as a tragedy by telling the audience immediately that a once great warrior has been virtually emasculated by the affections of a lustful whore (Callaghan D., 2001); furthermore that he is ignoring his duty to

Rome and because of this there will be conflict and tension. The scene allows the play to conform to the five classic stages of tragedy with the use of back story to provide details of the first two stages. This is repeated in the play, for example, when Enobarbus recalls the time when Antony first saw the temptress Cleopatra when he arrived in

Egypt, describing the beauty and desirability of Cleopatra, reinforcing the theme of the play that female sexual desire is potentially a destructive force for men.


Callaghan D., 2001, A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Booker C., 2004, The Seven Basic Plots, Why we tell stories,

London, Continuum

Ridley M. R., 1954, The Arden Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, Ninth Edition,

London, Metheun & Co. Ltd.

Barton A., 1994, Essays Mainly Shakespearean, Cambridge,


University Press

Andrews, J F., ed., 1993, William Shakespeare:

Antony and Cleopatra.

London, J. M. Dent,

Baldwin, T. W., 1963, Shakespeare’s Five–Act Structure, Urbana, Illinois,

University of

Illinois Press.

Charney, M., 1963, Shakespeare’s Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in
the Drama
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University Press.