Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Diversity of Social Classes and Cultures

The novels, “Untouchable,” by Mulk Raj, “Mrs. Dalloway,” by Virginia Woolf, and “Melanctha,” written by Gertrude Stein, all deal and touch upon social issues; the books themselves are a window into the fictional lives of characters that reside in these social but extraordinarily different classes. In Virginia Woolf’s fiction, Mrs. Dalloway is apart of the aristocracy and is a female patrician, whose soul desire is to host elaborate, and elegant parties for the community in order to find and attain a sense of identity and belonging. A sophisticated women dealing with issues that pertain to lost lost and self-identity. Septimus, an educated veteran who has returned from the First World War, suffers from shell-shock and post-traumatic stress disorder. Where as, Bahka, the protagonist in the “Untouchable,” faces challenges that severely limit him as a human being. He belongs to a civil class that puts him lower than the rest of his community: he is seen as a pariah, a sweeper, an “untouchable,” due to his position as a cleaner of latrines. In Stein’s, “Melanctha,” the author gives us a window into the life of a young, attractive, African American girl, who is on her journey to find lasting happiness, sensibility, and ultimately, stability in her life as she becomes a woman. Unfortunately, due to Melanctha’s personal behavior, she is outcast by the community and left alone by even her closest friends.  All three 20th century novels deal with social classes and issues that may have been unaware or overlooked by society until they were written.

Overhead to in Their Head

Heart of Darkness (1899) focused on imperialism and how it affects life in Africa through the perspective of Charles Marlow. In the story, most of the conflict was reflected externally and viewed through a narrator who had strong emotions towards the events but no lacked in focus on how it affected him, psychologically. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) marks a turn as even though everything is in third-person, the narration focuses on Stephen and both his internal and external conflicts as he grows up. This conflict even spills into the third-person narratives on many occasions. The progression that I have noticed is that the focus of the narrative started with a wider picture, where the narrator is not mentally attached to the story. Joyce’s novel marks a turn where character’s thoughts affect the delivery of the narration. This turn leads to novels like As I Lay Dying (1930) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937.) Both stories matter entirely because of the narrator. Faulkner’s novel is delivered with the focus on individual characters and how their thoughts directly affect their narrative. Hurston, on the other hand, still had a third-person perspective, for the most part, but the story was still Janie’s. Every emotion that she felt, whether conflicting or not, is there to be heard. As time progresses, the stories go from character driven to being the characters.

The Differences in Communities

  • Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  • Whose Body, Dorothy Sayers (1923)
  • As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930)

All these works represent community and social gatherings shown through different cultures and social levels.

The novel Mrs. Dalloway and Their Eyes Were Watching God explicitly portray social gatherings through the meetings of crowds of people whether it is out on the street or outside on the porch of one’s house. During those gatherings the crowd is left to ponder about a situation they are encountering or about a person. In Mrs. Dalloway, the crowds all gather to find out what the loud crash sound was. In Their Eyes Were Watching God the women all gather around the porch to gossip about Janie and the return of her presence sans partner.

Along, with those two novels, the novel As I Lay Dying features a small community of a family and the novel Whose Body features a community of people trying to solve the mystery. Through these four novels, they represent a different version of community.

The Evolution of Lower Class Speech: Stein, Faulkner, and Hurston

In the novels/novella Melanctha (1909), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), respectively, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston are faced with the task of speaking for characters that are of a lower class than his/her own. The characters in Melanctha do use the correct vernacular dialect. Stein modified black speech to create a unique way of speaking, which many critics refer to as “Steinese.” The aesthetic of the “mask of dialect” appeal to many African American readers; however, some critics argued that the inaccurate portrayal of black life was Stein’s way of compensating for her social distance (white privilege) from her characters. In As I Lay Dying William Faulkner avoids stereotypes associated with a white middle/lower class farming families by using narratives to display each character with a unique way of speaking and thinking. For example, Dewy Dell’s speech may seem uneducated and incorrect, but she is actually using words that are unique to her, not to the lower class. Considering the amount of education and experiences Dewey Dell has been exposed to, she is not unintelligent. Dewey Dell’s older brother’s speak differently than she does, in order to show that every person in the lower/middle class does not speaks the same way and that they have varying levels of ability and knowledge. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston respectfully incorporates the black vernacular into her writing, like many other writers successfully did in their post World War I works during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston accurately uses vernacular language tied to gender oppression and conformity. There is an overlap between the narrator’s idiom and the character’s idiom, creating a sympathy between the two, thereby showing that the black vernacular language has expressive power. From 1909 to 1937 there is a gradual evolution of writer’s abilities to give lower class characters language that accurately portrays their ways of social living, yet without abiding by stereotypes.

Historical Line: Urban Society

  • Henry James, The Jolly Corner (1909)
  • James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1918)
  • Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body? (1923)
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

These works, to a greater or lesser degree, represent urban life, whether in New York City, Dublin, or London. Two trends, specifically, seem to stand out:

First, the idea of communal social interaction. Only explicitly seen in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a sense of shared consciousness among the denizens of the modern city, who experience the same locations and events, as well as the same sorts of social interactions.

Second, and more applicably to all four texts, is a sort of “urban mystery.” The Jolly Corner and Whose Body? are mysteries, peripherally in the case of the first and primarily in the case of the second – but Portrait and Dalloway also explore the mystery of the human consciousness, particularly Portrait’s first half, where the reader is meant to feel “lost” within the sea of human history and culture.

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.

World War I and the rise of Modernism

After World War I, many novels used characters that related their wartime experiences in a post-war time frame.
This reflects the change of the thoughts and feelings from pre-war sentiments towards modernity. In Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and As I Lay Dying (1930), we have two characters, Septimus and Darl, that have both returned from the war and have gone towards madness in silence. This is also reflected in In Our Time (1925) through the terse style of Hemingway, which is indicative of the reporting of the events of war. This shows that many of the generation that went through this war period became hardened and lost individuals due to it.

Whose Body? (1923) and Mrs. Dalloway both embody the post-war rise of highly concentrated and urban centers that is found in London. This is done in Mrs. Dalloway through the shared experiences found in the fast-paced change in focalization in this work and the shift from scientific deductive methods in traditional detective novels towards an intuitive detective method in Whose Body?.

upper social/lower class

“Whose Body?” Sayers (1923), “Mrs Dalloway” Woolf (1925), “As I Lay Dying” Faulkner (1930) and Ananad’s “Untouchable” (1935) focus on social class as one of the many themes. Sayers focuses on a character Peter Wimsey has money and is willing to help solve cases. Mrs. Dalloway is a part of an upper class society as well and they are able to have parties/social gatherings. We mainly see the upper classes not worry about many things for instance when mentioning the war Mr. Dalloway comments that only thousands of men died in the war which is incorrect since it was actually a whole generation of men who died. The upperclass is perceived to be people who have money, hold parties and are willing to do things at their own pleasure because they are allowed to along with the fact they have money. “As I Lay Dying” gives us two doctors one who is part of the upper class Peabody based on how well educated he is and then wee McGowan who is not well educated in certain senses when it comes to practicing medicine. It also shows what the poor side is like especially not educated for instance Darl, Anse, Cash, Dewey Dell, Vardman and Jewel speak differently which makes the audience think that they are not educated compared to the other two novels that spoke proper and they did not have any grammatical errors. “Untouchable” on the other hand mainly focuses on the lower caste and shows the readers what it is like to live in this part of the caste system and how horrible it truly is.

class and culture

A noticeable theme running through many of the works we read is class. It plays a role in Untouchables, Melanctha, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and even, in a way, Heart of Darkness. In all these novels there is a class of oppressed and a class of opressors.
I think what is interesting is that though Heart of Darkness was the first one published umongst these works, its class issues are very imperialist. The other novels deal with class within one country but Heart of Darkness deals with class between two cultures in which class is defined differently. Untouchables deals with class between two cultures too but msot of the conflict is between indians in the novel.

Heart of Darkness- February 1899

Melanctha- 1909

The Untouchables-1935

Their Eyes Were Watching God- September 18, 1937



Style and Race

Melanctha (1909), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), In Our Time (1925), As I Lay Dying (1930),

Even with the extensive amount of time between Melanctha, Mrs. Dalloway, and As I Lay Dying is separated by at most by 21 years the style of writing in a stream of the characters consciousness can be seen throughout. In Melanctha and Mrs. Dalloway nothing really breaks up the conversations and actions from one character to another, everything flows right into another, unlike in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. In their books each chapter is broken up into separate pieces. For Faulkner each chapter we saw in the perspective of that one single character which helped form an individual idea about each character, whereas the stream of consciousness in Melanctha and Mrs. Dalloway was a continuous stream. In Our Time by Hemingway was also broken up into individual pieces like Faulkner’s. If you read the chapters that coincide with one another a different picture and story is seen. One of the biggest differences I saw within these books is between Melanctha and As I Lay Dying is when it came to race. These two books are published 21 years from one another. The differences in style can be seen from the way it was written, Faulkner’s style of different characters point of views as a chapter and Steins way of a continuous stream of contentiousness, to the style of speech and the identification of character differentiation. In Melanctha we could clearly see which characters were considered black and who weren’t. There was an out word expression and even in the actual style of dialog was different, but in As I Lay Dying it’s not as clear of a picture. In Faulkner’s book the black character is harder to pick out and seems to not even be present despite taking place in the Deep South.