Book Review- “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Author                                      Nathaniel Hawthorne

Category/ Genre               Fiction- Classic/ Gothic Literature/ Gothic Romance/                                                                      Psychological Romance/ Romanticism

 

First published                      1850

 

Author biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His ancestors were Puritans and fierce persecutors of the Quakers. Some of them had conducted hearings during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. His father was a seaman who died of yellow fever when Nathaniel was four years old. His mother sold everything and left Salem to live with her wealthy brothers.

He was a voracious reader right from his childhood years. He was greatly influenced by the allegories and symbolism in John Bunyan‘s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress‘, Edmond Spenser‘s ‘ The Faerie Queene‘ , by the works of eighteenth-century novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet and Sir Walter Scott‘s historical romances. He moved back to Salem after college in 1825 and started writing novels for the next 12 years. His first novel, ‘Fanshawe‘ was published at his own expense, but he later retrieved all the copies and burned them. Similarly, his first compendium of stories, ‘ Seven Tales of My Native Land‘ was burned for want of publishers. His stories appeared in many magazines, some of which he happened to be the editor and he was finally recognized with the publication of stories titled ‘Twice Told Tales‘.

After getting married to Sophia in 1842, he moved to Concord and formed friendships with Transcendentalist writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. The Hawthorne family returned to Salem in 1845 where he wrote ‘Mosses from an Old Manse‘ which brought critical acclaim but little financial success. President James K Polk, appointed him as the surveyor of the Salem Custom House, a position that he lost when Zachary Taylor, a Whig, became president, since he happened to be a democrat. In 1849, he started writing ‘ The Scarlet Letter‘ satirizing the Custom House, its officials and the Whigs who deposed him from his position.

In 1852, they returned to Concord and later he was appointed to the post of American Consul in Liverpool, England. He again returned to Concord in 1860, where he published a collection of English sketches titled ‘ ‘Our Old Home‘ in 1863. He died in 1864, leaving behind several unfinished works.

The historical context of The Scarlet Letter

In order to understand the story setting and themes, a basic knowledge of history of the Church and the Christian religion in Europe is necessary.

The major religion in Europe for 1200 years was Catholicism. A German monk, named Martin Luther in the 16 th century started a movement to split church in Christian Europe into those of Catholics and Protestants. He challenged the authority of the Pope and teachings in Catholicism, that led to a revolt in Europe known as Protestant Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and founded the Anglican Church or Church of England with himself as the head, as the Catholic church denied him permission to divorce. Another figure, John Calvin of Switzerland took Luther’s ideas of original sin further and founded the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination that became the central tenet of the Puritan Movement which flourished in England and English colonies. Some of the Puritans who enforced stricter moral codes did not accept the Anglican Church and facing persecution from the Anglican Church, fled to America where they established colonies based on strict religious principles like the The Plymouth Colony and The Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England.

The Plymouth colonists were referred to as Pilgrims or Separatist Puritans who separated entirely from the Anglican Church, whereas the Bay colonists did not separate entirely from the Anglican Church believing in reforms from within. The latter came to be known as Congregationalist Puritans.

Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter‘ is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1640’s. The Puritan societies were strict theocracies. They believed in the importance of communities, the idea of the original sin, hard work leading to material success and the notion of predestination. Their laws were very strict and punishments stricter that included public ridicule, placement in stockades, imprisonment, flogging, drowning , hanging and crushing under the stones.. The complex notions of strict hard work and morality is known as Puritan Ethics nowadays.

Dissenters were common among Puritans, the famous ones like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from the colonies. The progressives of New England fought to relax the orthodoxy, that led to The Half-way Covenant which allowed direct church membership. The orthodox crowd saw this relaxing as weakness and infiltration of Satan into the communities of Salem that culminated in The Salem Witch Trials which started in 1692, imprisoning, torturing and executing many people. Hawthorne was aware of and embarrassed by the participation of his ancestors in the witch trials. His concerns were aired through the novel Scarlet Letter that deals with themes of sin, punishment and redemption.

Major Characters of the novel

1. Hester Prynne. Hester is an English woman who is sent to live in the American colonies by her husband, Roger Prynne, an aged scholar without much of feelings for the young Hester.

2. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Arthur Dimmesdale, an unmarried man, is the pastor of Hester’s congregation, her lover, and the father of Hester’s baby, Pearl.

3. Pearl. Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

4. Roger Chillingworth. Roger Chillingworth is the name Hester’s husband assumes after he finally arrives in America.

Summary

The story begins with the public judgment of Hester Prynne, a married woman who had been sent by her husband to live in America, for adultery. This occurs in June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston. A crowd has been gathered there to witness her punishment of public humiliation by making her stand on the scaffold for hours and wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest for the rest of her life. She refuses to disclose the name of her child’s father after repeated cajoling and questioning by the Reverend and minister of the church.

Amidst the crowd, she recognizes her husband, who assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth who vows to find the father of the child. He questions her about the father of the child, Pearl, inside the prison where he impersonates as a physician and threatens to kill him if Hester revealed her husband’s identity.

Following her release from the prison, Hester and Pearl settle down in a small cottage at the edge of the town where she sustains herself by commissions of needlework from the townsfolk. As Pearl grows, she becomes fascinated by the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her mother’s dress and becomes capricious, unruly, and intractable. The people assume her to be a witch and the church attempts to separate her from the mother.

Hester goes to speak to the Governor to pre-empt this separation where she finds Reverend Wilson and Dimmesdale with him. When Pearl was asked about catechism, she refuses to answer though she knows it, thus jeopardizing her guardianship. Hester appeals to Reverend Dimmesdale who requests the Governor to let Pearl live with her mother.

Reverend Dimmesdale’s health begins to falter and the townspeople tasks Chillingworth, the newly arrived physician to live with and take care of him. Chillingworth doubts that the reverend’s illness is psychological from some unconfessed guilt and he continues to stress him out psychologically. One evening, he discovers something on the chest of the sleeping reverend when his vestment falls aside- a scarlet ‘A’.

Tormented by guilt, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold where Hester had stood years before when he sees her and Pearl passing by and calls them to join him. Still, he is unable to acknowledge them publicly. He sees a meteor in the shape of A, when they see the shadowy figure of Chillingworth passing by the square. Hester decides to break the vow and disclose the identity and vindictiveness of Chillingworth to Dimmesdale and does so during their secret meeting inside the forest. She removes the letter A for a short while but has to wear it again following Pearl’s insistence. Hester cajoles the reverend to take a ship out of Boston to Europe where they can start a new life and the minister seems to gain newfound energy.

After he returns to the town, Dimmesdale again becomes crestfallen, he recognizes that he is dying and he becomes a changed man and abandons the journey to Europe. Hester is told by the captain of the ship that Chillingworth has also booked a seat for the ship’s journey.

On Election Day, Dimmesdale is about to give a sermon before the townspeople, but he stumbles and falls. Upon seeing Hester and Pearl amidst the crowd he climbs to the scaffold, confesses his sin dying in Hester’s arms. The crowd witnesses the scarlet letter A imprinted on his chest. Chillingworth loses his desire to revenge, dies shortly afterward, leaving his will and wealth to Pearl who moves to Europe with her mother and later marries a wealthy man.

Years later, Hester returns to Boston, starts wearing the scarlet letter A again and forms a solace to other women. When she dies, she is buried near the grave of Dimmesdale and they share a simple slate tombstone with the inscription “On a field, sable, the letter A gules“.

Analysis

The story is rich with symbolism and allegories. Hawthorne was one of the major symbolists in American literature. The Puritans saw and interpreted the world in symbols and allegories. An event as the passing of a meteor had religious and moral interpretations for them, while the places like the scaffold in the story are symbols of sin and punishment.

Hawthorne turns the symbols upside down in the novel. The sketch of Hester, an embodiment of sin for the Puritans, is drawn in the light of sympathy for a human being with heart and emotions and a courageous lady who fights her sin wearing the scarlet letter. Dimmesdale who otherwise would have been saintly is portrayed as morally weak, not able to confess his sins publicly until the last moment. Chillingworth, who would have been a betrayed husband, turns out to be a devilish offender pursuing an evil goal of revenge. The Puritan mentality is subverted through the portrayal of his characters. At the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale confesses his sin, the Puritans deny to see the truth. Hawthorne exposes the grim reality beneath the ostensibly pure Puritan culture. Reverend Wilson is symbolic of the Church and the Governor is symbolic of the State. The scarlet letter A, light and darkness, color imagery, and the settings of the forest and the village all are symbolic.

Hester is symbolic of a sinner who gets punished by the stigmatization by the scarlet letter A. The irony is that despite repressing her vitality for years, she turns from a victim branded by the Puritans to a decisive and sensitive woman helping others. In the course of time, the letter ‘A’ representing “Adultery” comes to be viewed by the townsfolk as”Able” and even”Angel”. The stigma of the letter gradually transforms into something that could inspire awe or even great respect.

Dimmesdale is a symbol of Puritan hypocrisy. His public piety is a facade while the inner torture, shame, and worry of exposure of sins make him a coward and a sinner exactly like Hester.

Pearl is the strongest symbol and allegory in the novel. She is the “living hieroglyphic ” of sin. She is “devil’s work” to the community. For Hester she is both symbol of sin in flesh, she is happiness and reminder of torture, someone who is loved but also someone who is a symbol of retribution to her sins. She is beyond the mind of the Puritans, a natural law unleashed, the freedom of unrestrained wilderness, and the result of repressed passion. Hawthorne uses the mirror and reflection of Pearl on the brook as symbols of the artist’s imagination of Pearl.

Chillingworth is a symbol of evil, and lack of compassion. Hawthorne compares him to a snake, an allusion of the Garden of Eden. Pearl sees him as Black Man and warns her mother to stay away from him.

The scarlet letter A is the most symbolic of all. It is a sign of adultery, penitence, and penance. It appears as a meteor in the sky, a sign of the dying Governor becoming an angel, letter A made of eel-grass by Pearl, on Hester’s dress arranged By Pearl with prickly burrs, the letter A on Dimmesdale’s chest and that on the epitaph of Hester’s tombstone. While the letter A as the meteor is taken for an angel, that on Dimmesdale’s chest is a sign of his secret sin. The letter on Hester’s chest is seen by the community as a symbol of punishment and redemption first, but later as “Able” and “Angel”. The letter literally changes the meaning of Hester’s existence in the minds of the townsfolk.

The contrast between light and darkness, sunshine and shadows, noon and midnight highlights the good and bad sides of the characters as they evolve through the storyline. The dark clouds and the dense, dark forest where Dimmesdale meets Hester are symbolic of the weighed down guilt of the lovers. Though sunshine flickers around, it does not shine on Hester until she lets down her hair, a sign of approval from God for truth, grace, and happiness.

Darkness and grey shades are hallmarks while describing Chillingworth and the Puritans. When Hester comes out of the jail she squints at the brightness outside, the light of the day. Similarly, Dimmesdale’s confession occurs at noon, the bright daylight a symbol of exposure. When previously he stood at the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, it was nighttime, that indicates concealment of his private confession. Their grave is amidst the gloom, the dark Puritan presence, where the letter A on the gravestone shines bright, the only light there.

The symbolism of colors is very strong. Red appears on the scarlet letter A, Pearls dress, meteor, the roses, and Chillingworth’s eyes. Black and grey colors are associated with Chillingworth, Puritans, gloom, death, sin, and the narrow path of righteousness through the dark forest of sin.

The village and the marketplace with the scaffold and the prison are symbols of Puritan rigidity of laws and sin and punishment. The Church and the state are enforcers of the laws to contend with. But the forest is symbolic of freedom governed by the laws of nature, though it is home to the Black Man. Here Hester is free to let her hair down or remove her cap. The village is symbolic of rigid man-made Puritan laws. The brook is symbolic of the boundary between these laws, that Pearl refuses to cross to the Puritan side when called by her mother. The forest could also be taken as the moral wilderness that Hester and Dimmesdale find themselves in. It is also a sign of temptation by Satan luring the souls to sin.

The Gothic elements used in the novel categorize the work under the genre of Gothic Romance. The Romantic authors of the nineteenth century and their successors like Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Stephen King, all use elements of Gothic in their works. In Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the Customs House and the Governor’s house to give the Gothic touch to the novel. Crime, physical deformity in the characters, darkness, shadows, moonlight, and an overall dark and gloomy atmosphere throughout is a characteristic of Gothic novels. Hawthorne has skillfully used all of these here. He imagined the novel as a psychological study of the human mind, of the dark recesses inside the mind, that makes the novel in the genre of Psychological Fiction. Even though the setting of the novel is historic in Puritan Boston, the reality is intersected by Hawthorne’s imagination from the beginning until the end of the novel.

There are various interpretations of the devices used in the novel. Hawthorne’s ability to deploy these devices that contrast and change freely with context and characters is one of the main reasons why this work is a peerless Romance novel, a timeless classic and a creative masterpiece of all times from a genius who sought to define romance in world literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book review and analysis- ‘Heart Of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

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Author– Joseph Conrad

Genre– Novella/ Fiction/ Roman-à-clef / Colonial literature/ Frame Story

Themes– Colonialism/ Racism/ Savagery versus Civilization/ Exploration/ Time/ Hypocrisy of European Imperialism/ Absurdity of evil

Introduction

Joseph Conrad (born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), Polish by birth, was the only child of the Polish poet, writer, translator and political activist, Appollo Korzeniowski. Homeschooled by his father, he introduced little Conrad to the works of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and other Polish authors. His career as a sailor began in 1873. His first novel is ‘Almayer’s Folly’(1895). The novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s most famous, influential and controversial work, was first published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1899 as a three-part serial story and published as a book form in 1902.

Summary

Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Charles Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel, Marlow narrates his tale. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but initially narrated by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie.

Marlow begins by briefly explaining London’s dark history and the Roman invasion to his companions. Then, London might well have been a dark place where the Romans struggled to adapt. ( They had the bond of the sea between them. The Thames is described as a venerable stream, a conduit of history, of Romans, triremes, Gauls to the once dark England. It had served the great knights-errant of the sea like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, generals of East India Fleets, bearers of the spark from the “sacred fire”( civilization).

Marlow was a seaman who”still followed the sea“. He was different from other seamen leading sedentary lives without an eye for the mystery and with a disdainful ignorance. But, for Marlow, ‘ the sea was the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny‘. He loved to spin yarns as hazy as the halo enveloping the glow. With his typical ascetic gesture, Marlow embarks on the story of his travel to the farthest point of navigation, the impact it had on him, how it enlightened his shadowed mind with the somber, pitiful light, though it was hazy.

Voyages had always awed Marlow and after a journey through the East, he hankered for an adventure, but to a relatively unexplored place, a blank space on the map that had captivated him as a child, a delightful mystery, later filled with lakes and rivers, a place of darkness. He was charmed by the huge snake with its head on the sea, its body curving, the River Congo, like a silly little bird. Marlow, with the influence of his aunt, got hold of an appointment as the captain of a river steamboat. He got the job in place of a Danish captain who was killed in an altercation with the natives( Conrad describes the Company building in Brussels as a “whited sepulcher“.This is an allusion to Mathew in The Bible. Similarly, he sees two women knitting as he enters the building. This is another reference to his sealed fate- The Greek Mythological Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible)).  Marlow had been told about the sublime nature of the captain who went out for a noble cause, that changed after the interactions with natives, transfiguring him to a killer( example of contradiction that Conrad uses in the novella). The natives left his body to rot, fearing the supernatural voodoo hoodoo possessed by white men and had fled the village.

Conrad uses the symbolism of the silent knitting women for the tight-lipped, know-all,  rules-based control of the Company over its employees. They are symbolic of sealed destiny, knitting black wool for a warm pall. ” Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” The non-disclosure agreement that he signed indicates this and he got the air of something not quite right from the start itself. Even the clerk’s sententious, resolute reply and the doctor’s farcical questionnaires, zany actions and prescient warnings gave an eerie feeling to Marlow. From the start, it is clear that Marlow was not blindfolded by the specious appearance of the glorified Company as an ‘ emissary of light weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. He mentions how out of touch women like his aunt were, who got carried away by this rot let loose in print and talk.

Marlow left Brussels in a steamer and along the way, his perspectives of the coast of Africa and the natives began to unroll. The coast he glimpsed was featureless, still in the making with a monotonous grimness( in contrast to other places with an enigmatic appeal, mute with an air of whisper  ‘ come and find out’). He describes the forest with the huts dotted in the midst as ‘ God-forsaken wilderness‘. Even the names of trading places seemed to him ‘ to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister black cloth’. ( The symbolism is less like that of a percipient interpreter of the ambiance and more towards a prejudiced mind contrasting it as a mere backdrop with farcical characters). Marlow describes the native boatmen as having ‘ faces like grotesque masks‘, yet, realizing that they were vital humans still, took comfort in straightforward facts. But that wouldn’t last long as he witnessed a French warship insanely firing into the continent without any trace of an enemy. He describes the feeling like a “lugubrious drollery” (Another instance of oxymoron from Conrad). He got a general sense of death, of a vague and “oppressive wonder” as the steamer moved along the river, ” a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. The skeptical and cynical tone of the Swede captain about the activities of the Company staff roused him to be on the qui vive.

A rocky cliff, with houses and mounds of turned-up earth, reminded him of “inhabited devastation” where black, naked people moved like ants. He witnessed decayed machinery, rails, and mindless toil by the natives for no purpose other than just toil. The naked chained toiling men with “death-like indifference” were less like enemies, and more like criminals punished by an outraged law, an “insoluble mystery from the sea”. Though not prone to emotive excesses, the sight triggered a moral disquietude in him and he discerned the hypocrisy hidden among the lust of the red-eyed, rapacious devils committing a pitiless folly in the name of enlightenment ( Conrad satirizes the Company many times using his witty styled prose One example of this is the sentence in which he describes the purpose of a purposeless trench dug by the natives – ” it might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”). ( Another example of allusion is seen in the sentence describing the feeling he got when he stepped under the shade of trees- “it seemed to me that I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” – alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy). The natives were not enemies or criminals, not even humans, but black shadows of disease and starvation.

Marlow witnessed with horror, the collapsed, weak and dying men scattered on the earth and left to die. (Conrad’s descriptions and adjectives seem a bit inflated and egregious. He describes them as phantoms and creatures!!). The scene is contrasted with a well dressed, preened and primed colonist, an accountant that Marlow met in the station office, so uncanny that he took it first for a vision. Even the groans of a dying native or the buzzing flies in his office did not move him from his work. The kept-up appearance in that demoralization awed Marlow, something which he tallied with character, accomplishment, and backbone(Though a minor character in the novella, the Accountant mentioned above symbolizes the studied obliviousness and the blatant nonchalance of the Company towards the subjects). Marlow got an initial picture of Kurtz, described as a remarkable individual who sent much of the ivory from the Central Station, from the Accountant.

After a 200 mile grueling tramp, on the course of which he noticed the solitude of hills ablaze with heat, ruins of huts without the dwellers, Marlow reached the Central Station where he learned about the sinking oh his steamer. The meeting with the general manager, a successful, cold, blue-eyed man, with a stealthy half-smile brought the picture of the character, Kurtz again to Marlow. ( There is an allusion to the Arthurian round table here. This man had built a round table for dining, partly to fend off the altercation among his white staff as to who should sit where and partly to imply his sitting position, wherever it was, to be the first and the rest nowhere). He learned of the perils in the upper stations and to Kurtz and the much-needed exigency of action to evacuate the stations and Kurtz whose fate was unknown and guessed at. Marlow was assigned the task to regain the sunken steamer and mend it in three months’ time. He started working on it, turning his back on the goings-on there, still appalled at the “faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence”( an allusion to John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress‘), whose “imbecile rapacity for ivory blowing like a whiff from the corpse“.

Months passed by and the futility and hypocrisy of the Company dawned more and more on Marlow. (Conrad employs the symbolism of the manager carrying water in a pail with a hole at the bottom to douse a shed-fire that was blazing with all its might). He encountered Company ‘pilgrims’ with job descriptions on the face of it, but ill-intentioned to make wealth from the ivory trade, intriguing, plotting against, and slandering others, an unreal setting as feigned as the philanthropic pretense of the Company, their talks or show of work. He exclaims, ” By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at the halter”. This would provoke sympathy and even the most charitable of saints would act in response. Marlow gradually got more information about Mr. Kurtz as an emissary of pity, science, and progress, yet the sensation of absurdity overcame him as he was unable to bring up an image to mind no more than one of an angel or a fiend. He stared with horror at how a native was beaten for the shed-fire and the black shadows moving listlessly on the station ground in the backdrop of a silent forest. The staves in the hands of the Company staff, the mystery, silence and the concealed reality of the place perplexed him. Marlow’s work of overhauling the steamer got suspended due to the nonavailability of rivets, a straightforward errand in itself, but taken precedence by other obscure missions in the station.

Marlow learned more about Kurtz from the manager who told him that Kurtz is supposedly ill. The dubious disposition of the manager and his feigned concern for Kurtz made Marlow suspect his involvement in wrecking the steamboat to intercept the supplies from reaching Kurtz. The suspicion turned true when he overheard the conversation of the manager and his uncle about the former’s fear of losing the managerial post to Kurtz and the latter’s assertion of the power of the jungle to do away with him. Having had the steamboat repaired, Marlow left for the Central station along with the manager, some agents and a crew of cannibals to take relief to Kurtz. Nearer to the Inner station they were attacked by arrows by some unknown natives which killed a henchman and Marlow got disappointed that Kurtz might have been killed by those natives as well. Marlow felt a kind of distant kinship and regret for the dead helmsman.

And when they reached the Central station, they encounter a half- English, half- French man, a frail. sick, bald man, Mr. Kurtz. He had lost his mind in the wilderness, where civilizational instruments of checks and balances are absent. Having been assaulted by the power of darkness, ordinary humans would not thrive there or else one needed to be an exalted creature, deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Hence the faith and devotion in the back-breaking business of ivory trade. When Marlow met Kurtz, he was out of his nerves that caused him to preside over midnight dances and rites. Marlow found a pamphlet written by Kurtz in which he exhorts the Whites to appear as supernatural beings to savages and to approach them with the might of a deity. He had pictorialized an exotic immensity ruled over by an august benevolence. Amongst the eloquent, burning words and the altruism was the postscriptum ‘exterminate all the brutes’. Kurtz emerged as a composite character with the power to charm and frighten the savages and for commanding misgivings as well as camaraderie among the whites. Kurtz had a Russian assistant, who explained to Marlow the reason for the attack by the natives, they did not want Kurtz to be taken away, they adored him. As Marlow approached the hut, he distinguished the ball shapes on the stakes around it as human skulls.

The native’s heads, those of rebels, on the stakes struck Marlow as symbolic rather than ornamental and laid bare the brute who had done this for the gratification of lust or fulfillment of something wanting in him, though there was nothing profitable behind this act. Kurtz might have been bewitched by the solitude of the wilderness that avenged him for the invasion and echoed within his hollow core the deficiencies he harbored. The natives adored Kurtz to the extent that they crawled before him on all fours. The Russian, Kurtz’s last disciple seemed to fawn over him subserviently and exclaimed his feelings at how Kurtz was abandoned by the Company people.

Kurtz was taken on a stretcher to the steamboat and when the boat started to move, the natives and his mistress appeared at the shore. His health deteriorated and the steamer broke down the river, while he handed Marlow a heap of letters for safekeeping from the Company people. He died uttering the words “horror, horror” and got buried in a muddy hole.

The narration ends with Marlow visiting Kurtz’s fiancee and handing over the private letters and a portrait to her. When asked what his final words were, Marlow lied to her that it was her name. The anonymous narrator now resumes his narrative and the narrator looks at the overcast sky over the Thames that seemed to lead him into the heart of an immense darkness.

Character analysis of Kurtz

One of the most impenetrable characters in twentieth-century literature, Kurtz is an embodiment of oxymoron and symbolic of not just the darkness inside the empire, but an amplification of greed and lust harbored by all men. He is at the same time a brutal tyrant as well as a god-like cult figure among the natives. The evil at the core of the empire is personified as Kurtz. The Company feels his actions menacing as he turns out to display his intent without the sugarcoating of the ostensible enlightening narrative of the empire. Though his intent was philanthropic at the beginning ( enlightening the natives as the symbolism in his painting suggests), the coercive power of the dark jungle remolds him into the actual brute that he becomes.

His unsound methods in trading ivory without the veil of good intentions make him a thorn in the eye of the Company people. While Brussels is a white sepulcher of hypocrisy, Kurtz does their bidding brazenly. Marlow explains this clearly in the sentence ‘all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’.

Review and analysis

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a contemplative sailor, who describes the journey up the River Congo into the heart of Africa to meet an ivory trader named Kurtz. The dark episodes and the absurdity of evil of European colonialism and imperialism are brought to light in this short novel. The characters are based on real-life that includes the novella in the Roman-à-clef genre. Like Marlow, Conrad traveled through Congo in 1890. He describes the novella as ‘ an experience pushed a little beyond the actual facts of the case’.

It is not an easy read, an intricate work of art, a Byzantine composition, intentionally made arduous for the reader to feel the grueling journey through the jungle, though Conrad’s witty slices are scattered throughout. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but narrated initially by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie. The narrator’s ideas of colonial Europe and its imperialistic exploits and ambitions, underpinned by lies, changes after listening to Marlow’s perspectives on the characters. Heart of Darkness fundamentally points to the darkness inside the heart of civilized Europe during colonialism. What makes it an arresting read, is the gradual unraveling of the horrors perpetrated by the ostensibly civilized colonizers that Marlow happen to encounter in Congo, one that instigates him to see through the facileness and dig into the shallowness, a self- seeking exercise in a way, and fathom out the darkness beneath the civilized whiteness.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century signified the heydays of European colonialism( a scramble for Africa and division of the continent under many European powers, though Belgium was the worst) and the concomitant atrocities and genocides. The accounts of Henry Morton Stanley about his travels through Africa ( Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa and Through The Dark Continent) were best-selling books in Europe at the time and the greedy King Leopold II of Belgium colonized Congo under the guise of civilizing the people and dispensing largesse, in effect plundering its wealth(ivory and rubber) and capitalizing on slave labor, whipping them with chicotte (dried hippopotamus skin) and beheading them( The historian Adam Hochschild‘s book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ deals with these atrocities). Conrad’s novella is the real-life scenario of Leopold’s Congo, the atrocities he had witnessed during his travels, slavery, murder, only the names altered, the events are a fervent recountal of facts that had existed in broad daylight.

The 1979 film, ‘Apocalypse Now‘ was inspired by this novella though the setting was changed to jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The movie explores America’s military involvement in Vietnam and the figurative “darkness” that led to the apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight. In T.S Eliot‘s poem ‘The Hollow Men‘, he uses a sentence from the novella, “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” as the epigraph. The essential hollowness in the core of the white colonialists is the gist of Heart Of Darkness. The work has inspired writers like William Golding ( The Inheritors), T.S Eliot( The Waste Land), Orson Welles, George Orwell (1984) Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and Francis Ford Coppola ( 1979 film Apocalypse Now). The capacity of his work to instigate debates, criticisms or even polemics and the staying power makes it one of the best classics in English literature.

The novella broke the generally embraced narrative conventions of the time for its ambiguity( “foggishness” in Conrad’s words) that Marlow uses for the subjective perception of conflicts and horrors. It’s somewhat interesting that Conrad, not a native English speaker, learned the language when he was in his twenties. He has once said that he would prefer French to the English language without clean edges and whose words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions. Ironically, this could be one reason for the palpable ambiguity in the novella. It is a classic that captivated many readers and irked a few critics like the British novelist, E.M Forster for the ambiguity and the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe for the implicit and explicit racism in it. Achebe denounced it as the work of a bloody racist in his 1975 lecture. The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” Achebe dismisses Conrad’s adjectival insistence as not a mere stylistic flaw or felicity, but a trickery to induce a hypnotic stupor in the mind of readers by the bombardment of emotive words and though regular readers usually bypass such tricks and baits, here Conrad had chosen the subject astutely and assumed the role of purveyor of comforting myths- one that would not put him in conflict with the reader’s mind or one for which he would not have to contend with any resistance.

In Achebe’s words,” [Heart of Darkness has] Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world”

“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.”

“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad”.( Source-http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html).

It is exactly the sort of mythologizing Africa( as a place of savages and cannibals) and racism sticking out like sore thumb amidst Conrad’s main purpose of unveiling the dark colonial legacy, that is rubbing up critics like Achebe the wrong way. In his 1958 novel, ‘Things Fall Apart‘, Achebe documents the spiritual history of Igbo people, their rich and civilized life before European colonization. The novel critiques Conrad’s work as not differentiating myths from facts when approaching the subject of Africa and seeing it through the white colonizer’s prism.

The title has aroused one of the most critical debates in the history of literature. Though from Achebe’s perspective, these allegations are true, more so as the reader attempts to step into his shoes and read the book, it is unjustifiable not to take into consideration the period during which the novella was written, the historical context and the zeitgeist captured during the middle and late nineteenth centuries when neither colonialism nor racism at their pinnacle was reckoned as ills or evil, but as run-of-the-mill and the travel writings and art projected and cemented the savagery as a pivotal and constant theme in them. A novel or any work of art was read/ seen for its literary qualities/ aesthetic values only. So, the then critics focussed on the form of the novel only. At the time Conrad, a creature of his time, would probably not have been able to present anything other than an imperialistic world-view. Though he criticizes imperialism, he finds it unavoidable in the end in part by vindicating Kurtz.

Contradictions and ambivalence abound in Conrad’s writing. Taking an example, Fresleven, the Danish captain has been described as a sublime soul who ends up murdering a native. Another example is the accountant, whom Marlow meets at the company station in Congo, who maintains an immaculately clean suit and coiffed hair despite the filth and chaos reigning the station- a light in the darkness. his views on life are ambivalent. Conrad begins the story by glorifying the idea of colonialism but shatters it by expounding on the horrors of Belgium Company in Congo. His justification of colonialism as “devotion to efficiency” transforms into”robbery with violence“. He repulses at how the natives are treated, still, they have never been conferred the equal human status as the colonizers. Near the end, Conrad describes life as ” that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose”– at once meaningful and meaningless. Whether these were adjectival flaws on his side or studied insertions are still debated.

The veil of hypocrisy employed in vindicating the purposes of imperialism is torn off to expose the nefarious activities of the company men. They describe their activities as ‘trade’ and ‘civilizing missions’ all the while suppressing and exterminating the natives. Though we feel that Marlow is trying to expose the hypocrisy, he has objectified and dehumanized them and they are just a framework for him to philosophically self-contemplate and expound on an existential struggle( Marlow refers to the native helmsman as a piece of machinery and Kurtz’s African mistress as a piece of statuary). This kind of implicit racism is much more sinister than the explicit one as per Conrad’s critics.

Kurtz’s madness is employed to gain the reader sympathy. Whether the Company or the natives are responsible for his madness is hazy. Similarly, Marlows moral confusion and absurdity in the judgment of evil, insanity and social values are evident in the part where Kurtz’s homicidal tendencies and a leaky bucket evoke the same reactions from him. Marlow is trapped between the devil and the rock and is forced to choose the lesser of the two evils- a hypocritic Company or rule-defying Kurtz.

The pointlessness and futility of the European mission in Africa are elaborated by a few instances like a French warship firing at an invisible enemy, the pointless attempt to extinguish a burning grass hut, and the random hole digging by slave laborers. The hollowness and moral bankruptcy of the colonizers is alluded to in the description of the chatty brickmaker with a forked beard and hooked nose (alluding to Devil) who he meets at the Central Station. He describes him as “papier-mache Mephistopheles” ( A demon in German folk-lore, he appears as the devil who tempts Faust into selling his soul in the drama ‘Faust‘ by Goethe and in the 16 th century English play ‘Dr. Faustus‘ by Christopher Marlowe). The brickmaker has ” nothing inside but a little loose dirt”. The same allusion is applied in the case of Kurtz. Marlow describes the African wilderness whispering to Kurtz-  “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Later, as Kurtz lays dying, he is described as a “hollow sham” of his later self.

Heart of Darkness was not the only artistic work where critics missed the racial content during those times. The famous art critic John Ruskin did not acknowledge the racial content of JMW Turner‘s painting The Slave Ship. Though, there were westerners like the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer who was a theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician( he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) who sacrificed his brilliant career to serve the people in the same heart of Africa that Conrad describes as the seat of savagery, during the same time frame. This equivocality of perspectives is something to give thought to, during the period when the book was written and also while reading this book at any time period.

The way by which a reader approaches a work, literary or art, depends on many factors like how subjective or objective he/ she is, whether biased or unbiased, level of emotiveness in sympathizing/ empathizing/ hating/ liking a subject/ character and so on.  The senseless murder by the character, Mersault in Albert Camus‘ ‘The Stranger‘, the imprudent murders by the character Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky‘s ‘Crime and Punishment’, the abhorrent repulsive transgressions and sin of the deluded pedophile Humbert Humbert in Nabokov‘s ‘Lolita’– these are a few characters that linger and blemish our mind like indelible blotches. We adore these masterpieces, yet, when we read them, we get to encounter the goods and evils alike but never can/ never do we vindicate the evils they had done, the reader should never be short-sighted to blindly follow what the characters say or do. Exactly so, as an unbiased and impartial reader, though I could think highly of this masterpiece, notably Conrad’s use of foggy adjectives, symbolisms and imageries, his virtuosity for story-telling, modernist style, attempts at tearing the facade of colonialism……..the apparently misplaced adjectives seem a bit convoluted when he describes the savagery of the indigenous people in ostensibly racist terms with contradictory symbolisms and imageries, as something so bestial as to be inclined to spawn madness in a white colonialist man. Never can I vindicate or sympathize with a character like Kurtz. We are reading it in the 21- st century, and hence it is absolutely impossible to ignore the explicit racism while Conrad describes the African subjects in the darkest of tones and be impersonal to his narrative, though his intent might have been sublime in exposing the raw Company and its deeds. It is hard to leave the racist tones out of the picture, though there is a specter of the intentional fallacy while judging and critiquing any artwork, more so something that has famously triggered debates, through the frame of reference of a historian or psychologist.

All of which eggs on the mind to question the definition and criteria of the civilized-  is it skin color? Is it the ability to read, write, communicate, dress up? Does it make the colonialists civilized or any better than a bunch of hoodlums, taking into account their hooliganism and plunder of the colonies, seizing hold of their wealth, thrusting them to indigence and ill-health? Naked, dark or savages, let them be, they never traveled west to invade or plunder the hypocritic, self-proclaimed “civilized society”. They led their own lives, followed their rituals or practices, living as units and families in communities without engendering any harm to the outside world, disconnected from the “civilized” society until the scramble for Africa took root, not for the ostensible humanitarian purpose but for looting and repressing them. Barring a few egalitarian souls like Albert Schweitzer, all of the “civilized” west from the Dukes and Monarchs to their minions in the lowest rung, men and women of letters including, literally and figuratively committed unpardonable, execrable barbarities in the colonies, which in itself is the single most reason to debar them from the canonical “civilized” society. And it is not cumbersome for the reader to discern, in whose heart the darkness dwells.

 

 

Book Review-“Orlando” by Virginia Woolf

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Title-                  Orlando

Author-             Virginia Woolf

Genre-              Fictional biography/ historical biography/ fantasy/ satire/                                                             modernism/magical realism

Theme-            Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/                                                              conformity/ flow of time/ identity

 

Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Through the work, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.

It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.

Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual, so on this account the work is a fiction-biography fusion or autofiction. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare‘s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)

The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.

The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.

Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.

Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).

Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!

A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander PopeRape Of The Lock), Joseph AddisonSpectator) and Jonathan SwiftGulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).

The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. (Sasha is said to the fictional form of Violet, Vita’s former lover) Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.

In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.

Copyright © deepanairrp

 

Book Review ‘To The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.

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Author- Virginia Woolf

Genre- Fiction/ Modernism

Theme- Time

My review

Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather than actual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.

It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.

The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.

Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.

Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.

Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.

Copyright © deepanairrp

‘Crime And Punishment’ – By Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Literary Movement   – Realism.

Literary Genre  – Psychological fiction, philosophical fiction.

Setting    –    Russian Empire, St. Petersburg.

 My review

My third try beating the brain out, mustering all idle neurons on the qui vive for delving into the allegories and nuances of Raskolnikov’s thought process that is something akin to a weathercock. The first two readathons seemed like Chinese arithmetic, more like the transcript of Graeco- Roman theatre played in St. Petersburg, that my muddle-pated neurons couldn’t make the head or tail of it nor read between the lines. One of the best ten classic fictions of all times couldn’t be a no-brainer either- Cela va sans dire. So this time, the lecture notes, analysis and summary at the ready and at a click of the mouse helped to see the lost thread in a new light. And the translation by LarissaVolokhonsky and Richard Pevear is on par with the work itself.
               

                 Intellectually exacting and viscerally overpowering, the metaphysical elements are still beyond me. Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller, a rigmarole of a crime, no less than murder, justified by the logic of the protagonist, a new esoteric theory put forward by him, that had been put to test. The rationales of the murder are multifarious- poverty, inequality, tug of war between his moral compass and necessitude to name a few. As Sonia( the protagonist’s future lover) mentions in the story, no matter what, the hideousness of the crime merits confession and so punishment as no one could take a life for whatever reason. 
           

                Dostoyevsky’s novels are the culture media of new ideas and propositions, by and large, those that had been making rounds in 19-th century Russia in particular, insanity theories, for instance. They depict the societal milieu and vices like drunkenness, debauchery, adultery prevalent during the century. The Marxist theory of dialectical materialism( conflict as caused by material needs) is alluded to in a conversation between the protagonist and others in the novel.

             Nineteenth century Russia was a breeding ground of intellectuals and the burgeoning readership buttressed the literati in propounding various theories, out of the box at times, and to make them seep into the minds of masses. Strikingly, many parts of the novel betray the thought processes and religious convictions of the author. Critics inveigh against his support for the Tsars and antisemitism ( ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ has repulsive instances of this), his anti-Jewish stance much more toxic than Charles Dickens, notoriously known for his execrable antisemitism.

The untrammeled masterpiece of Gustave Flaubert- ‘Sentimental Education’

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Gustave Flaubert was a nineteenth-century French novelist, whose works include the famous ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Salammbo’.

‘Sentimental Education'(1869), when published, was something of a shock that left most of its readers receiving it in a cold, hostile way. It is a Naturalist novel belonging to the genre Bildungsroman or apprentice-novel(coming of age novel), a boho work in the nineteenth century France.

By the same name, Flaubert had written another novel(1845) when he was twenty- three, before this one. That too was an apprentice- novel. The 1845 novel depicts the relative nature of success and failure in the contrasting areas of Art and Life on the same line as Goethe in his ‘Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship’. But, the conclusion of Flaubert was the polar opposite of Goethe who glorifies the bourgeois life to Art.

In Flaubert’s antithetical representation of Art and Life in the first ‘Sentimental Education’, the protagonist who embraces Art succeeds, while the other one fails. But this has something to do with the France of 1840s where Art was epitomized and the bourgeois way of life( Tatigkeit) deplored. In his second Sentimental Education, a certain haziness of conclusion is felt, though the perspective of readers from a particular period of time is significant. A reader of today could feel his aesthetic and perfectionist style, as compared to the common readers of the 1860’s France. Still, contemporary Naturalist novelists of Flaubert’s time, like Emile Zola had recognized it as ‘ a most audacious and difficult composition’. During his time, such an attempt at Realism was literally unheard of.

What makes the narration distinct is its uninterrupted flow just as the daily life in France of that time. And such a realistic approach to fiction was unprecedented at that time. According to Flaubert himself,’ It is too real and what’s lacking is falseness of perspective’.

Set in the backdrop of the 1848 Revolution, the story revolves around Frederic and his unconsummated love. This makes the novel, in the genre of historical fiction as well. At one time, while writing it, he had even mused of how the background could swamp the foreground of the novel in the case of a historical fiction.

Frederic’s chaste and virtuous love for Madame Arnoux has its echo from Flaubert’s fruitless love for Elisa, a woman considerably older than himself. His passion for Elisa leaves its thinly veiled marks in most of his initial semi-autobiographical works. For Frederic, Madame Arnoux is an ideal like Art, an angelic soul, a beatific presence, not to be defiled. Such a romantic passion had indeed been out of the box in the bourgeois society of France. The ideal of Madame Arnoux is contrasted with the reality of Rosanette, a harlot.

Flaubert was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. He used to revisit and edit his writings many times until it peaked the artistic perfection of ‘ prose with the rhythm of poetry’. He was not as prolific in churning out works as his contemporaries, due to this. Marcel Proust had mentioned the poetry of Flaubert’s prose in his 1920 essay. The scrupulous portrayal of life won him as many critics as admirers. His romantic cum realist writing style has greatly influenced many 20th-century writers like Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Deslaurier is the other main protagonist in the novel, who sacrifices his life for power as Frederic did for love. Both turn out to be unsuccessful in their respective endeavors, yet possessing the world wisdom to laugh off their follies in a bantering way, in the end. It is difficult for those without a firm grip on the history of French Revolution, art and literature of the nineteenth century to grasp the arts vocabulary in the novel( a profusion of luminary names in the arts and philosophy fields flash by, whom I am not at all familiar with, so that was cumbersome). Sentimental Education is a literary masterstroke, not easy to read, but, familiarizing us with Flaubert’s style on each re-read.

 

 

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders- A challenging read.

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The 2017 Booker Prize winner, Lincoln in Bardo is historical fiction, a bold and intrepid venture by George Saunders. Seemingly an impossible task, this one knocks your socks off in every possible way. 

Set in the backdrop of civil war, Saunders has woven it out of a single thread, an incident in 1862, which to a casual observer might seem inconsequential on the face of it. President Lincoln’s ten-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever and a grieving Lincoln had been reported in newspapers, making multiple visits to Oak Hill Cemetery Georgetown where the boy was interred in a crypt, holding the body on his lap. Building upon this episode, Saunders has framed an innumerable array of ghosts, roving about in a state of afterlife known as ‘the Bardo’ in Buddhist culture, the boy’s ghost one among these. Each one holds on to the belief of their existence and aliveness, fancies a journey back in time to the previous place and is ensnared in dreams not materialized, lust, vindictiveness, redemptive ambitions, compunctions and all those temporal afflictions and aspirations of the earthly-minded.

Hoping against hope, they go on doing their utmost to perennialize their actuality, fighting back the angelic demons and bottling up their own innate urges pertinaciously so as to cling on to that realm. But before too long, they succumb to the irrefutable factual verity of the final exit and break loose from the material realm to a spiritual one, the novel, thus sailing smoothly to its denouement. 

Throughout the course of a profusive avalanche of spirits, the novel subsumes a few mortals, Lincoln one among them, their respective realms amalgamating at times. Saunder’s prose is enthralling and embosomed by magical realism redolent of Garcia’s works. Set in Fournier typeface, the print is appealing, all the more reason to read this one though secondary. 

And to be honest, I loathed it proportionately as I liked it. As much as the seductive prose, polyphonic and spectral, peppered with worldly wisdom to boot, the cacophony was overpoweringly insufferable. I could bear with a few ghosts, but not a whole lot of them. The more you start to get engrossingly near, unwittingly getting teleported to the uncanny dimension, the more cacophonous and psychedelic it turned out to be. In fact, to cut a long story short, the read was cerebrally and spiritually exacting by all means. For all it’s title, the novel is not an exclusive Lincoln story, but a hotchpotch of personified diaphanous shadowy apparitions roaming around Oak Hill Cemetery, ruminating their past, their present and future crisscrossing each other.

While not intending to sound captious in the least, this analysis could yet be taken as one that borders on subjective, this is what I have felt straight from the shoulder.

Still, I am in awe of the author who dared spin such a scenario from a flimsy thread, a roiling torrent of dissonant speechification, of getting carried away in its vortex of magical realism!

Copyright © deepanairrp

A short review of ‘Eugene Onegin’ and four tales from Russia’s southern frontier by Alexander Pushkin

One of Pushkin’s greatest work, Eugene Onegin is a novel-in-verse. Composed during a long period which included his years in exile, this narrative poem has been translated into English prose form by so many authors. This particular translation by Roger Clarke is concise and includes cardinal notes on Pushkin’s biography, his four other poems from Russia’s southern frontier and the historical background of the composition of his semihistorical melodrama Poltava, a forbearer of Russian historical novels. His distinct style, the gradual transformation from romanticism to realism and adroitness in clubbing fiction to historical events is on full display in these five works. A must-read for those who love Russian literature.