All posts by MB

Experience, Race, and Gender in Fiction

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Stein’s Melanctha (1909), Anand’s Untouchable (1935), and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) all explore the relationship of class and race. Through the 38 year span in which these novels were published, the gradual expression of race relations changes drastically.  Conrad explores the racial tensions tied to imperialism through Marlow’s close observation of Mr. Kurtz.  Stein stays close to home in her interperspective novel Melanctha, yet ties gender and class together while still depicting an ethnic alternative lifestyle.  Anand, while his novel was published much later, gives the audience a sense of what life is in India’s harsh caste system.  Untouchable explores class closely, but to an English audience, which introduced them to a world other than post-WWI American society.  Finally, Hurston thoroughly captures the relations of gender and race together in Janie Stark.  The novel focuses on her tribulations, instead of a broad sociological effects, allowing the harsh scenes of domestic abuse to expose hidden inequalities other than race.  Over time, fiction writers presented more topics that were not necessarily common knowledge, bringing them to the public eye.  While tackling cultural obstacles is nothing new in writing, the modernists relied on firsthand experience,  allowing for more raw, realistic stories that related to the audience.

Power, Language, and Identity

There is no question that Their Eyes is spearheaded by dialogue. Hurston takes advantage of the familiar southern dialect and guides the novel accordingly.  Jody’s need for dominance over Janie is apparent through his actions, especially during the mayoral speech.

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

‘Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife dont 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).

The contrasting identities of Janie and Jody regarding independence result in a power conflict observed by the town.

“‘Maybe he make her do it.  Maybe he skeered some de rest of us mens might touch it round dat store.  It sho is uh hidden mystery tuh me.’

‘She sho don’t talk much.  De way he rears and pitches in de store sometimes when she make uh mistake is sort of ungodly, but she don’t seem to mind at all.  Reckon dey understand one ‘nother'” (50).

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013.

Limits and Representation of Fictional Knowledge

“How a round base can be adjusted on a round top, how a sphere can rest on a sphere is a problem which may be of interest to those who think like Euclid or Archimedes. It never occurred to Sohini to ask herself anything like this as she balanced her pitcher on her head and went to and from her one-roomed home to the steps of the caste-well where she counted on the chance of some gentleman taking pity on her and giving her the water she needed” (23).

The apparent allusion to Greek mathematicians reveals an untapped well of Bakha’s knowledge.  With that being said, it’s obviously not an interjection by Anand.  This reported discourse stays true to the characters fictional intelligence, proposing a comparison that only one character would make, Bakha, who seeks not only superior lifestyle, but superior knowledge.


Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London: Penguin, 1935.

Short Transitional Chapters

“As I Lay Dying” includes a unique set of brief narrative chapters that break up the inner monologues of each character cleanly.  Although abrupt and blatantly separated, the sections transition into one another smoothly, and stay chronologically seamless between the different characters.

“‘Eat,’ he says. ‘Get the goddamn stuff out of sight while you got a chance, you pussel-gutted bastard. You sweet son of a bitch,’ he says.” (13)

“It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box.” (14)

“As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.” (20)

“It was the sweetest thing I ever saw.” (21)

Jewel, I say, she is dead, Jewel. Annie Bundren is dead” (52)

“Then I begin to run. I run toward the back and come to the edge of the porch and stop.  Then I begin to cry.” (53)

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

Woolf through Peter Walsh

“… there was design, art, everywhere; a change of some sort had undoubtedly taken place.  What did the young people think about?  Peter Walsh asked himself.  Those five years — 1918 to 1923 — had been, he suspected, somehow very important.  People looked different.  Newspapers seemed different.” (71).

It’s important to pay attention to the time period mentioned here.  In 1918, World War I ends, and Woolf is 36 years old, and questioning post-war youth.  In 1922 she has an affair with another woman, Vita Sackville-West.  It’s almost obvious that Peter Walsh’s fear of romantic commitment stems from Woolf’s personal life, and possibly an outlet for pent up frustration.

Woolf, Virginia.  Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, 1925.

Hemingway’s Experience: Death

“‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’
‘No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.’
They were seated in the boat. Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.  In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

It seems as though writing from experience is a common technique for modern fiction writers.  Not only does Hemingway write from his war experience, but he isn’t afraid to include gore (Indian Camp).  Not only does Hemingway enhance the text with descriptive morbid scenes, but he contrasts the melancholy with a glimpse of optimism while tying in the dawn of a new day.



Intentional Juvenile Diction

In Melanctha, both the vocabulary and syntax are undoubtedly simple.  The repetition of names, specific terms, and explanations are tedious, however they offer an unusual argument.  Without heavy description of the setting or characters, we rely on the narration to find feeling through several perspectives.

The Cubist movement was known for its use of simultaneous perspective in painting, much like Stein’s Melanctha. To someone oblivious of a painting that is done by Picasso, they may immediately conclude that the painting’s shapes, colors, and overall execution is simple.  However, the communication being transmitted through the art is carries a larger message.  Although Stein uses elementary words and childish repetition, she is able to convey complicated ideas using each character’s view.

“Melanctha Herbert never really lost her sense that it was Jane Harden who had taught her, but Jane did many things that Melanctha now no longer needed.  And then, too, Melanctha never could remember right when it came to what she had done and what had happened.  Melanctha now sometimes quarreled with Jane, and they no longer went about together, and sometimes Melanctha really forgot how much she owned to Jane Harden’s teaching.”


Stein, Gertrude. “Melanctha.” In Three Lives. New York: Grafton, 1909. Internet Archive.



Conrad through Marlow

There is no argument whether Joseph Conrad was a racist or not.  The blunt, condescending vocabulary in Heart of Darkness comes not from the character Marlow, but from Conrad’s bigoted beliefs.  His depictions of the natives rely heavily on being dubbed savages and figures, rarely as men.  Meanwhile, Mr. Kurtz is heralded as a “miracle” and elegant.

“‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.'”

“‘Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up.  One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.'”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 14. Dover Publications, Inc. NY. 1990.


Writing about… Writing

“… we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our minds.”

“But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in a customary way.  Is life like this? Must novels be like this?”

Like James and Wilde, Woolf is presenting a very metacognitive description of modern fiction.   There are supposed rules for how authors ought to write, but in reality this “criteria” takes away from the imaginative concept of fiction itself.

Writing from Experience

It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.


What James brings to the table here is quite philosophical.  If we are constantly experiencing, then there should truly be no end to what we have experienced.  Not only can we take from what we have honestly gone through in life, but we can take advantage of our endless imagination.   Fiction isn’t necessarily embellishing the truth, it can be entirely produced in one’s imagination. Writers need not rely on first hand experiences to construct a story, but may begin from nothing and create something artificial, yet seemingly real to the readers.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”. <> Longman’s Magazine 4, September 1884