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Specificity of Setting

The four novels Heart of Darkness (1899), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Whose Body? (1923), and Untouchable (1935) are all very specifically set in a particular place, time, and society.  Through abundance of detail, the authors  make the specific setting of each integral.  It would be nearly impossible to give one of these books a different setting without destroying them.  Imagine trying to set Heart of Darkness in France or Untouchable in modern day.  It could never work.


An interesting continuity which lends itself to this trait is that they are all set at or near the time they were written.  The authors were writing about the world around them, and could draw detail from real-life observation and experience.


In Their Eyes Were Watching God, men and women have very different roles. The role of women is defined by men. Women are left with stereotypical positions in society and marriage is important because women are defined by their relationship to men. Intelligence and authority are considered masculine qualities. If a woman were to display these characteristics, she would be considered too manly. Women are also treated as the lesser gender in As I Lay Dying. They are expected only to reproduce and care for the child. Cora believes that “A woman’s place is wither her husband and children…” Also important to note, female sexuality is not to be discussed. Again in Heart of Darkness, women are ignored. Marlow seems to believe that women exist separately from men. The men have a dark world and they must protect the women from it. Marlow works to protect The Intended’s idealism and her opinion of Kurtz. Finally, in Melanctha, we see a woman’s rebellion against the expected. She does not desire to be a mother or housewife. She wants to be an individual, which is not what is expected of women in these works. These authors address the problem of gender roles. In these works women are treated as the lesser gender and expected to perform defined roles. If they do not conform they are often shamed or considered too masculine.

Historical Line: Personal Growth

The personal growth of the individual.


The Jolly Corner: Brydon is forced to grow up with his return to America by overcoming his fears as well as falling in love. He learned to let go of his past insecurities and come face to face with himself, something he feared doing because he was not entirely proud of who he was. He also learned to trust another person and allow her into the deepest corners of his heart where is the most susceptible to be hurt. However he allows her there anyway, which is a testament of his growth (James 1908).


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Stephen grows as an individual through his growing opinions of different yet very influential institutions in his life. His ability to form an opinion on his own based on the personal experiences he had is a sign of maturity and growth. Furthermore, his decision to leave and pursue his desire to express himself in other lands also shows his growth as he is gaining the courage to try new things in new places.


Untouchable: Bakha’s growth is related to his view of his personal situation. He wants to grow in status to be higher than an untouchable. He also wants to be given the respect he does not get in his home or community and so he worships the British and their ability to take power. The novel looks at various solutions to his problems, which include the acceptance of a new religion (something he dismisses), a voice on behalf of the Untouchables (something he is interested in) and the introduction of a flushing toilet (which he believes will solve his problems). The novel does not give a definite answer as to whether he will continue to be engrossed with the British or if he will listen to Gandhi’s words and fight for his respect. However we do get to see that a spark has been lit, and perhaps as time goes on it can be assumed that the spark turns into a full-fledged fire. Bakha must grow as an individual to truly understand Gandhi’s words in his situation however the reader can see that he has come a long way from where he was in the beginning (Anand 1935).


Their Eyes Were Watching God: Janie’s relationship with the three men gave her experiences she would not have otherwise seen. She grows by learning to become an independent individual and how to become a woman, rather than just a girl. With each new significant relationship she enters and leaves, she learns something from it, growing as a person (Hurston 1937).


Granted, many of these examples of personal growth can also be argued as a sign of lack of growth. However it is all perspective. To some, making the decision to leave one’s homeland to explore and discover is a sign of growth but to others, it may be a sign of immaturity and lack of dedication or responsibility. However it can also arguably be a sign of growth or the desire to grow. It is all about perspective. I think this is apparent and recurring in all of the above examples.

Race and Class

Heart of Darkness, Melanctha, Untouchable, and Their Eyes Were Watching God all present images of a set of people different from the author. To differing extents the authors try to make the these “others” believable and to present their speech.  While race is the defining characteristic in three of the novels, it is class that marks the dividing line in Untouchable.

The historical arc of these four novels with respect to race and class is one that shows an increasing degree of identification with the oppressed race or class. In Heart of Darkness Conrad does nothing to make the africans seems human. He includes common steroetypes of the time to insure they are seen as lesser than whites. In Melanctha Stein makes a concerted effort to illuminate the lives of blacks in America. However she still falls into the use of stereotypes and a dialect that assumes ignorance. Untouchable by Mulk Raj Ananad argues for the basic humanity of all people. There is little of the superior attitudes seen in Heart of Darkness and Melanctha. Their Eyes Were watching God takes a further step in not just dropping the racism, but by presenting african americans as fully realized people and not trying to excuse  the faults of the characters.


Class and Structure

The texts Mrs. Dalloway, Untouchables, Their Eyes, and In Our Time are all completely different yet have a theme that runs throughout them. Throughout each one I noticed a reoccurring theme of social class and structure. Each one displays evident class differences and it affects the entire structure of the novel. Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa is consistently affected by social class; she is an upper class woman who hates where she is. She despises being wealthy and upper class because she doubts her decision to marry Richard the entire novel. In Untouchables Bakha is considered a lower class citizen, he is the one who cleans the system and keeps the place clean. He is the lowest of the low and the separation is evident. Their Eyes displays a black community. Already we see a social class separation especially when they had the flood that killed many people. The black men were forced to separate the whites and the black dead people from each other. In Our Time shows some social class differences through the way the different characters speak and where they live. It just shows so much evidence of social class differences and the theme is reoccurring throughout all the books.

Not only that but Mrs. Dalloway, Untouchables, and In Our Time there is a use of parataxis throughout the three.

The Doctor

“Mischief unravels and the fine high hand of Heaven proffers the skein again, combed and forgiven!” (Barnes 24).

I’m going to be honest, I don’t really understand a lot of what the doctor is saying. However I think in this conversation, he is talking about how religion is almost meaningless because God will forgive you of your sins regardless. I don’t think he’s really a religious man and believe that you are born a Christian and so you will die a Christian and God is happy enough with that.

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.

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.

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.