All posts by ES

How authors use their own socio-geogaphical similarities or differences to write: “Melanctha” (1909), A Portrait (1916), In Our Time (1925), As I Lay Dying (1930)

Stein: American (self-)exile writing in Paris
Joyce: Irish (self-)exile writing in Paris
Hemingway: American (self-)exile writing in Paris
Faulkner: American writer from the South

Gertrude Stein writes “Melanctha” in a geographical and social context that is certainly alien to her by trying to convey the experience of blacks living in a town called Bridgepoint, a predominantly black community based off of an American city. As a result, the glimpses into the setting are mainly provided by an unusual dialogue that acts as community gossip, with Melanctha’s own experience being constantly filtered through other people’s relationships with her. Stein’s style of using dialogue to show community, paired with the strangeness of the dialogue reflects her conscious difficulty in understanding the African American experience, due to both her racial and geographical differences. James Joyce writes an autobiographical novel, so the socio-historical context of his life became A Portrait’s context as well. Stephen shares Joyce’s previous experiences with Irish nationalism, authority of the Catholic church, political unrest, religious divides, and even his ultimate exile. By using a context that he lived through, Joyce maintains more authority, guidance, and criticism toward his character than Stein. Hemingway’s choice to write about experiences during and after World War I is also slightly autobiographical because of his own service in the war. However, the fact that he too goes into exile yet writes a novel that addresses his home country directly is different from both Stein’s and Joyce’s experiences of exile. In Our Time, written while he lived in Paris, addresses the American community about the emotional damage of war, but his inter-chapters focus on warring itself, as well as Spanish bullfighting, somewhat internationalizing the message. Moreover, Hemingway’s work is didactic, showing his confidence over the experience about which he writes and reflecting that his exile was a strength for his writing, for it appealed to his American audiences but addressed international violence. Faulkner, who was from Mississippi, writes through the lens of magical realism to portray the absurdity of life in the rural South. Knowledge of Faulkner’s own experiences growing up in the South creates a sort of incompatibility, since the novel is at times hard to believe, such as when Jewel is away in town yet he narrates his mother’s death. Such moments of unlikelihood provide the reader with a paradox of Faulkner’s own understanding of this setting, in which he lived through the American South yet still cannot comprehend the unbelievability of it.

In total, Stein is unable to understand the community she writes about, Joyce has an absolute grasp over the context of his character, Hemingway is able to deliver a message about his home and his lived experiences overseas, and Faulker shows a difficulty in explaining the context in which he grew up. As time passes, the use of socio-geographical experiences in modern literature (in these four stories) begin experimentally, with complete and deliberate distance by Stein, then the authors begin to bring the contexts of the stories closer to their own experiences. However, the later novels, which are all purposefully autobiographical to some extent, continue to create distance between one’s own lived experience and the possible lived experiences of their characters.

Names and Autonomy

“‘And now we’ll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks.’

The burst of applause was cut short by Joe taking the floor himself.

‘Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home'” (43).

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.

This moment reflects the themes of both being silenced and being named in Hurston’s novel. When Joe does not allow Janie to speak it is a sharp denial of Janie’s human right to speech because of her gender. Its problematic effect is heightened because this is the first time in which Janie is called “Mrs. Mayor Starks,” with Joe’s following clarification of “mah wife.” This denotes ownership, but it is also follows a theme in other parts of the book, such as when she is called Alphabet, which is before she even realizes the color of her skin. This shows that when names are imposed upon Janie, it stifles the progress of Janie’s self-actualization and self-determination, in turn stifling the novel itself.

The Hyperawareness of Caste

“Bakha picked up the packet and moved away. Then he opened it and took out a cigarette. He recalled that he had forgotten to buy a box of matches. He was too modest to go back, as though some deep instinct told him that as a sweeper-lad, he should show himself in people’s presences as little as possible. For a sweeper, a menial to be seen smoking constituted an offense before the Lord” (42).

Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London, England: Penguin Books, 1940. Print.

This moment, among many others, features Anand’s use of excessive clarifications of caste distinctions, representing Bakha’s hyperawareness of his own class and his subordinate relation to other characters in the novel, something he perceives through aesthetics and standards created by his society and forces him to understand himself solely in terms of his relationship to others.

Supplementing the Narrative

“Watch yourself,” Cash says.
“I’m on it now,” Jewel says. “You can come ahead now.”
Cash takes the reins and lowers the team carefully and skillfully into the
stream.
I felt the current take us and I knew we were on the ford by that reason,
since it was only by means of that slipping contact that we could tell that we
were in motion at all. What had once been a -flat surface was now a succession
of troughs and hillocks lifting and falling about us, shoving at us, teasing at
us with light lazy touches in the vain instants of solidity underfoot. Cash
looked back at me, and then I knew that we were gone. But I did not realise the
reason for the rope until I saw the log. It surged up out of the water and
stood for an instant upright upon that surging and heaving desolation like
Christ. Get out and let the current take you down to the bend, Cash said. You
can make it all right. No, I said, I’d get just as wet that way as this
The log appears suddenly between two hills, as if it had rocketed suddenly
from the bottom of the river (147-48).

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. Print.

The italicized excerpt from one of Darl’s chapters changes tense in the middle of scene in which the wagon turns over into the water, a scene that is progressing in the story, shifting from present tense narrative with direct-reported discourse, to past tense narrative and indirect discourse, and then back to present tense and direct-reported discourse. This peculiar moment seems as though it was placed into the story a-chronologically in order to supplement the story in a later edition, as though at the time of the experience, Darl could not possibly have comprehended his surroundings enough to fully tell the story, highlighting the problems that can occur when narrative attempts to convey experience.

Time and Authority

“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one” (111).

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997. Print.

The striking clocks in Mrs. Dalloway appear multiple times throughout the novel to allude to time as a controlling force as it “upheld authority.” As the people of London walk through expensive, aristocratic Harley Street, Woolf illustrates that all the people of London, despite which class they belong to, will eventually fall to the fate of time and temporality.

Wimsey the Obvious

“The deuce you have–what an energetic devil you are! I say, Parker, I think this co-operative scheme is is an uncommonly good one. It’s much easier to work on someone else’s job than one’s own–gives one that delightful feelin’ of interferin’ and bossin’ about, combined with the glorious sensation that another fellow is takin’ all one’s own work off one’s hands. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, what? Did you find anything?” (Sayers 29).

Sayers, Dorothy. Whose Body? 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 2009.

This passage contains many examples of Wimsey’s dialect, characterized by unfinished present progressive verbs and the act of spouting out all of his ideas as they come into his head. This type of dialogue is different from both Stein’s “Melanctha” and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For example, Wimsey’s dialect differs from that of Melanctha because it is rather common or believable, while Melanctha’s dialect is skewed to fit into Stein’s own writing style. Rather that structuring sentences in strange ways like Stein, Sayers merely uses dialects of voice or accents. Furthermore, Whose Body? clearly lacks the free-indirect discourse of a modern novel like Joyce’s and focuses more on direct reported discourse. Because of this, Wimsey’s thoughts come to the reader clearly and easily, unlike Joyce’s style of vague and “infected” narration in which the reader is unsure of whose thoughts he receives.

Jeff and The Reader trying to understand Melanctha

“‘Sometimes I certainly don’t rightly see Melanctha, how much more game that is than just the ordinary kind of holler.’ ‘No, Jeff Campbell, and made the way you is you certainly ain’t likely ever to be much more understanding.’ ‘No, Melanctha, nor you neither. You think always, you are the only one who ever can do any way to really suffer.'”

Stein, Gertrude. “Melanctha.” Three Lives. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. 106. Print.

The first thing that is worth noticing about this section of dialogue between Melanctha and Jeff is Stein’s emphasis on their inability to understand each other. Stein constantly portrays Melanctha as stubbornly insisting that she is right, yet we never know what she is truly feeling. On the other hand, the reader actually does hear Jeff’s thoughts, and we can understand his own doubts and assurances as they come and go. Therefore, the lack of understanding between Jeff and Melanctha is actually more focused on the reader’s inability to understand Melanctha and what Melanctha wants–we have the same struggle as Jeff.
This specific portion of dialogue, Jeff is expressing to Melanctha how he has very little reverence for her type of “bravery” or “suffering,” in which she constantly allows herself to be hurt and then “hollers” about it. He calls it the “ordinary kind of holler,” trying to show her that she is no more brave or understanding than people who provoke fights and trouble, only to later regret it. These sentiments seem to attack the core of what Melanctha wants: “excitement,” something Jeff believes blacks should stay away from. However, Melanctha refuses to accept these sentiments, insisting that Jeff is just of a different “way” and therefore he can’t be “understanding.” This idea that one must be a certain “way” to really understand and to really suffer is one of the tensions between Jeff and Melanctha: Jeff, while living his regular life, did not know how to suffer until he comes into contact with Melanctha, whose strong emotional ways teach him to suffer. While the reader can see the harsh effects of Melanctha’s ways on Jefferson, we are not sure if Melanctha is changed by Jeff.

Childish Games of the Empire

“I kept to the track though–then stopped to listen. The night was very clear: a dark blue space, sparkling with dew and starlight, in which black things stood very still. I thought I could see a kind of motion ahead of me. I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seen–if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game.”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness”, 172. Oxford: Oxford NY, 2002.

This passage continues Conrad’s thematic comparison between childishness and imperialism. Marlow’s chase through darkness in search of Kurtz mirrors the chase for ivory that he is supposed to be on, but he is preoccupied with other issues. Clearly Kurtz takes the place of the ivory in Marlow’s eyes. Marlow makes a contradictory statement by saying that he was “cocksure of everything,” but later reveals that he had at the time been unsure if he has even seen Kurtz. This image mocks the assurance of those empires who make guesses of where they can find wealth then send men to go excavate it (while “chuckling” to themselves). The parallels between his silly game and imperial conquest create a frame of both satire and criticism in Heart of Darkness.

Modernity: Beyond the Chains of Time and Space

“The rushing after lost time, the frantic quest for the present, the rage to be “contemporaries of all mankind” (as Octavio Paz put it) — all these things are typical of the search for a way to enter literary time and thereby attain artistic salvation.”

Casanova, Pascale. “The World Republic of Letters”. transl. M. B. Devoise. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999. pp. 91.

This passage portrays modernity in a peculiar way. The term “artistic salvation” is intriguing in the way that it captures the intentions of so many authors across time. Salvation means that the work will be preserved from being harmed or lost, thus placing the work in a realm outside of time and space, free from the changing trends and modes of literature. Of course, we can consider this to be what happens to a book when it becomes a classic, but Casanova uses this to point out the contradictions of being “modern.” If a classic, a book that has been preserved, is beyond the chains of time, then the quest for being modern is also the quest for writing something outside of time (“literary time”), not the quest to be “connect[ed] with fashion” (91).

James’ Impressionism

“The only effectual way to lay it to rest is to emphasize the analogy to which I just alluded–to insist on the fact that as the picture is reality, so the novel is history. That is the only general description (which does is justice) that we may give the novel. But history is allowed to represent life; it is not, any more than painting, expected to apologize.”

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction” in Partial Portraits. London; New York: MacMillan & Co. pg. 379

James’ analogy between pictorial art and fiction is a fascinating theme that has added so much to modern fiction. The mere process of using one’s art to comment on his own medium seems to be a common feature of modernism. James’ thoughts on writing the novel take me back to Picasso and Warhol, painters who, through their own work, asked, “What constitutes as art?” changing the purpose of painting thereafter. Since then, art has become much more self-indulgent, and the beauty of art is in the variety of impressions that different painters are able to display through their respective lenses of creativity. In the past, when painting had many more utilitarian purposes, art was meant to appease those who paid for it. For example, painters like Rembrandt who portrayed nobility still altered the reality of the portraits, but they did so in order to portray what the noblemen wished to look like. Likewise, when historians have portrayed reality in the past, they have also done so in order to appease those in power. James wishes to highlight that the novel, like modern painting, has the feature of freedom, and that is beautiful. The freedom to create a work that is solely from one’s imagination, one’s impression of reality, is the Art of Fiction.