Monday, April 11, 2011


Psychologists have determined that human behavior is determined by not only how a person is hard wired (nature) but also the experiences and environment we experience (nurture). The history that each human has can directly alter that person’s attitude and habits. While this means that a mean spirited person by nature can be induced into a kind being simply through the environment they are in, a normally kind person can easily be broken and become cruel and harsh if they grow up in the right environment.

In Beloved, each character struggles to make a living in the present in spite of horrific encounters in their past. Each character underwent several experiences prior to the start of the novel that have not only altered their perceptions of reality but also heavily influenced their future. This is particularly notable in Sethe’s character. Slavery rarely left a positive mark on its hapless victims, yet Sethe’s encounters with a cruel master scarred Sethe likely beyond her own comprehension. She was whipped. She was milked like a cow. She was characterized as subhuman by a group of students. She witnessed her husband disappear. By the time she escaped and endured the great burdens of running north (a trial made worse by pregnancy), Sethe carried tons of baggage from her time with slavery and was desperate to keep everything she loved (her children) from facing its might. Therefore, when her former owner came to take her back, in an act of fearful haste she killed one of her children and planned to take all of their lives along with her own. She kept her children out of slavery, yet she now added this event to the emotional baggage she already carried.

Sethe cannot avoid her past; no matter how hard of a lock she puts around the events that scarred her the first time, her unhappy past cannot remained bottled up in a tin case. This is best seen in Beloved’s ghost. As long as a person is remembered, their memory can still haunt an individual even beyond the grave and since Sethe put so much weight upon murdering Beloved, she allows fragments of an unhappy past action to collide into modern experiences. Beloved thrives off of Sethe’s memory of the past, loving when Sethe tells stories from her time as a slave and vanishing when Paul D comes (and thus allowing Sethe to have a positive future). The ghost is constantly causing turmoil in 124, yet Sethe refuses to completely forget about the past and Beloved cannot live without Sethe’s memory. Therefore, Beloved gradually forces all events that could possibly distract Sethe from the past away from Sethe. As a result, Sethe is forced to live in the past and cannot escape the stranglehold it has on her existence.

However, although happiness is ultimatly moving beyond the scars of the past, Sethe keeps herself protected from the society that, while it caused her great harm, is the only hope she has of recovery. As a result of slavery, Sethe has placed a barrier around herself and every person she loved. In spite of being surrounded by death and frequent warnings, Sethe loved Halle, Baby Suggs, and her children beyond all comparison. Yet because of the atrocities of slavery, the normal materialistic nature of a mother became an all-but-penetrable guard of her loved ones. While she loves her family dearly, Sethe refuses to “lay it all down; sword and shield” and allow the “cruel” outside world to enter the lives of her or her children. This barrier is reflected in Morrison’s use of trees; ancient entities that make up the physical sanctuaries that Denver and Sethe hide behind to escape the real world. Sethe’s past sowed seeds that, while they protect her and her children to remain beyond slavery, they also keep her locked within her tragic past. Possible happiness remains beyond her asylum and, unless she dropped her guard it would be beyond her reach. Paul D was the first person to challenge the fortress, yet in spite of the remarkable progress he made he recognized that he was “not an ax” that could cut down the trees inside of Sethe. Sethe’s past kept her from progressing into the future, until the entire town exorcised Beloved, her past could not allow her to find happiness.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Stranger

Camus wastes no time in conveying the feelings (or lack thereof) of Meursault at the start of The Stranger. For the first part of the novel, Meursault is shown as unfeeling and uncaring, taking what most would consider the ups and downs of life (Love, his mother’s death, etc.) only by going through the motions. Yet Meursault also makes no bones about making his actions seem legitimate. Instead, he is candid about his lack of emotion and refuses to lie about it. However, Meursault’s character changes dramatically at the end of the novel. While throughout the novel Meursault has hints of emotion, by the time the trial begins he starts to feel the hatred of the jury and almost seems to enjoy their hatred, refusing to mitigate his dire situation. This transformation to a more emotive state is fully realized when he is finally condemned to death. Meursault spends the time left in his life reminiscing about the details of his life, finding solace and genuine happiness just as he is called to be executed.

Meursault’s change in personality ultimately spawned from abandoning the nonchalant existence he lived prior to his murder. Camus has a cynical view on the ruts men seems to be stuck in and believes that, until man breaks free from monotony, man cannot find emotion (including happiness) even in the extremes of death and love. While events that send Meursault out of his rut occur in the first few chapters, for a majority of his days the reader gets the impression that he is entrenched in routine and is truly apathetic towards what he is doing. Yet Meursault also wishes to live his life to the fullest, knowing sooner or later that we are all going to die anyways. In the last chapter of the novel, Meursault states that, “there was nothing more important than an execution,” and it was “the only thing a man could truly be interested in.” For the common man, a public execution is the only chance one has of witnessing death; the inevitable end of one’s existence that “all would be condemned [to] one day.” Meursault’s knowledge of his death is best exemplified by the use of the sun. The sun appears throughout the novel as the force that “pushes” Meursault through his mother’s funeral, the murder, and the trial. The strongest example of this meaning, however, occurs while he is in prison. Meursault knows that the guards will come at dawn to take him to the guillotine and he waits through the night for the sun to rise, signaling his doom. Although Meursault does not give much thought to his death before his sentence, he does realize that his life is short and, as shown through the use of the sun, he is willing to go to extremes to break through the confines of conformity and live his days like they are his last.

Once one broke through the monotony, one could truly find happiness in every aspect of one’s life. While Camus is critical of the routines man locks themselves into, he also believes that the second we break away from our Sisyphus-like fate society can realize what a good life we live in spite of the routine. For instance, in the first part of the novel Camus uses the relationship Salamano and his dog as comedic relief, halting the serious tone of the novel to mock the insane routine and anger-filled relationship these two beings have. It is clear that the man hates the dog the first time the two are brought up, yet the second the dog has gone missing, Salamano misses the dog, remembering that, in spite of the feuds that they would enter, “he was a good dog just the same.” Meursault has similar revelations while incarcerated. When his mind is not focused on death, his thoughts are directed towards the little pleasures he experienced prior to the murder. The room that he complained was “too big” for him in Part I, Chapter 2 soon became a preoccupation, spending days remembering every small detail of his abode. The feeling of being submerged in water that he held in indifference before the murder soon became a desire for him within the walls of the prison. The time that Meursault is in prison gave him an appreciation for his former life that he could not have gained otherwise. Although Meursault viewed his life as meaningless, his experiences of abandoning the routine of his life gave him a greater appreciation for everything in his life and, by the eve of his execution, he was ready to “live it all again.”

Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky’s view of 19th century Russia is anything but positive. Most characters in the story are poor and weak. Characters that are richer (the pawnbroker and Svidrigaylov) and those with a significant amount of power (Luzhin and Porfiry) are portrayed as antagonists and often abuse characters who do not wield the same level of power. This is best exemplified in Luzhin’s abusive treatment of Sonya who only gets some monetary compensation in return.

For most characters in the novel, money is the only way characters can find happiness. In a society that can barely afforded to rent out a subpar flat, what would be considered greed becomes the only hope to maintain any standard of living. Escaping these conditions is a goal for many characters; a goal that is only accomplished through money. The overwhelming poverty that each character faces forces many into shady behavior. The most obvious two are Sonya, the woman who is forced to become a prostitute in order to bring in some income for her family, and Raskolnikov, who murdered the pawnbroker in order to earn enough cash to get him out of poverty and into college again. However, their actions are not motivated by greed. Raskolnikov constantly states that he planned to take only enough money to get him back on his feet and nothing more.

In spite of the dire nature of Russian poverty, pride ultimately prevents the poor from reaching economic happiness. Although Katerina and Raskolnikov are poor, they believe that they are above the trappings of poverty and are higher in society than they are in reality. At her husband’s funeral, Katerina attempts to use nice place settings in order to give her humble abode some aristocratic regality in hopes that she will not be “criticized by [her neighbors]” for her lack of class. Even Raskolnikov has the “pride of the poor” and, although he receives plenty of money from others, he refuses to spend the money properly and throws out economic opportunity in order to uphold his “extraordinary” image. Characters receive many opportunities to escape poverty, yet pride blocks any opportunity to escape their situation in life and achieve happiness.

That is, assuming economic success actually equates to happiness. Although economic success seems to guarantee happiness, even the aforementioned “rich” characters did not obtain happiness through their wealth. Instead, their happiness (in addition to income gains) comes from abusing the poor. Since the lower classes of Russian society are desperate for money, the upper classes can easily manipulate these characters by promising them monetary gains in reward for helping them. Svidrigaylov was easily manipulated by his Marfa Petrovna in order to get himself out of debt, yet once he murdered her Svidrigaylov attempted to use the money he earned to manipulate Dunya into not marrying Luzhin. Although poor characters seek money in hopes that they may find happiness, money does not grant rich characters happiness and instead gives the wealthy the ability to attack the poor.

Economic happiness is a near impossibility in Russian society. Pride and abuse from upper society keep the wealth in the hands of the rich. However, even if the poor found wealth, money does not guarantee happiness for the character.

Henry IV, Part I

This is a story of rebellious men attempting to get what they want. In a society fragmented through Henry IV’s murderous usurpation of power, there are naturally those who felt disenfranchised by the new leadership and wish to (yet again) put a new king in power. This faction puts their faith in Hotspur to lead a rebellion that would force out the current king and satisfy their grievances.

Of course, Henry is forced into keeping his kingdom in order. However, his own house is also coping with Hal’s “rebellion” from the court life Henry wishes him to live. Much like Hotspur and the rebels he leads, Prince Hal wishes to secede from his father’s wishes and, for most of the novel, Hal spends most of his time at the pub with Falstaff; a seedy character that Henry does not want his son associating with.

Both “rebellions” failed. Hal gradually started associating himself with his father rather than Falstaff and, although the decision was mostly Hal’s, his rebellious behavior stopped at a halt. Once Hal gave up his “rebellion,” he could focus on helping his father crush Hotspur’s rebels with Hal killing Hotspur himself.

For Hotspur and Hal, rebellion is their attempt to achieve happiness. Hotspur’s dissatisfaction with Henry’s rule led him to rebel, hoping that his wife’s line would be restored to the throne after Richard II’s death. While he held several grievances towards Henry IV’s rule, Hotspur has a stake in Henry’s demise; if the rebellion succeeds, then he and his wife had a chance to rule. Hotspur rebelled for large personal gains; gains that would ultimately grant Hotspur happiness. However, physical rebellion is much easier to crush and Hotspur was killed by Hal, ending his dreams for happiness alongside his life.

Hal’s rebellion also spurted from desires to gain happiness. Throughout the pub scenes early in the play, Hal constantly shows contempt towards the life his father lives. Although Hal claims his behavior is to make his kingship seem much more dignified, the true reason Hal came to the pubs in the first place was to escape court life. His rebellion is successful up to the start of the novel; while Hal does not hold a completely flattering view of Falstaff and pub life in general, Hal found happiness in the ignorant and ignoble environment of the pub. However, as Hal’s view of Falstaff starts to worsen after he attempts to rob travelers and the demands Henry IV places on Hal grows, Hal’s definition of happiness changes from escaping his father to embracing his father. Hal then rebels against Falstaff. Hal starts escaping pub life and contemplates killing Hotspur on the field of battle in order to regain his honor in the eyes of his father.

While Shakespeare makes it appear that the success of the rebellion determines whether or not an individual finds happiness, both of Hal’s rebellions did create both positive and negative consequences. Whether Hal was rebelling from his father or Falstaff, the act of disobeying the two polarized father figures in his life created a near-schism between them and Hal. Although Hal found happiness in pub life, he also found that his father disapproval, going as far as to wish Hotspur was his son over Hal. Conversely, as Hal starts migrating away from the pubs Falstaff warns Hal that, by completely banishing the pub from his life Hal would lose ties to the world itself.

In this Part of Henry IV, rebellion is the only way for characters to truly find happiness and, although the success of the rebellion ultimately determines how much the character find, rebelling always produce a negative effect on the rebel’s happiness.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Oedipus Rex

Fate was a force to be reckoned with in Greek society. No matter how far one runs from it, destiny always catches up to a person and wreaks the same havoc it would have done otherwise.

Case in point: the tragedy of Oedipus. The man was destined to kill his father and marry his mother; an atrocious situation that no sane man of any society would even attempt to cause wittingly. Wishing to avoid his fate, his parents gave him to a shepherd to be left in the wilderness to die. Yet Oedipus is “saved” by the same shepherd, who gives him a life. Unwittingly, however, Oedipus performed all the atrocities he was destined to do. Everything appears hunky dory from the eyes of any person watching from the eyes of the citizens until the unexplained murder of Oedipus’s father must be explained. Oedipus had no idea what he had done, so he put together clues that came from various civilians to eventually realize his tragic fate. He then gouges out his own eyes and banishes himself from the kingdom.

Greek Tragedy 101: The main character always experiences a fall from status that stems from a tragic flaw. Oedipus experienced many such falls; a fall from status, a fall from pride, and a fall in happiness. As the audience learns from the prologue, Oedipus was a great ruler that managed to keep his domain in relative prosperity for most of the time he was ruling. Yet the second the plague beset the kingdom, his prosperity fell as he put together the pieces to the mystery of the murder. While Tiresias warns him of the danger of wanting to know more about the murder, Oedipus keeps asking questions to him and to everyone around him. When the truth is revealed, however, Oedipus is devastated and “blinds” himself to everything.

His parents wanted what would be best for, not only their sake, but for Oedipus’s sake. To their knowledge, they could alter their son’s fate simply by sending him off to some far away mountain to die. Yet in altering one simple event they actually set the prophecy in motion. No one knows whether or not Oedipus’s fate would be the same if they were blissfully ignorant of the future, but in actually trying to find happiness his parents ultimately caused the events they feared. If fate destined one’s unhappiness, then there is absolutely nothing to mitigate the events of the future.

If fate is ultimately unhappiness, then ignorance of it is happiness. The tone of Oedipus Rex starts out fairly cheery, but as the story progresses and Oedipus realizes his fate, the tone becomes progressively darker in character. Even as act 1 unfolds, Oedipus is very prideful and overly confident that he is innocent. As Tiresias, Kreon, Iokasta, and the messengers gradually reveal his fate, the king quickly realizes what he had done and his mood dampens to a much more somber and serious tone. Once the truth is fully revealed, however, he becomes ashamed of his actions and wants to return to a happy time when he was not aware of what he had done and does so by blinding himself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Sun Also Rises

Let’s just get this out of the way nice and early; no one is happy in this novel.

I mean, sure that doesn’t mean each character is doom and gloom every sentence of every chapter, but even when the characters seem happy it almost seems like they are faking the emotion. Part of the problem is that Hemmingway’s writing style is brief, to the point, and leaving no room for description of emotion of any sort. But even then, the topic of any conversation changes so fast that it is impossible to get any sense of emotion from any character. The reader knows that the characters have some sort of feeling going on, but outside of anger each display of emotion seems to carry a very “distant” quality; it’s there, but it is not a strong showing.

One of the underlying reasons for the unhappiness is WWI. While it is only mentioned a handful of times throughout the plot, it seems to have had a profound impact on society as a whole. The most prominent representations of this are Nick’s injuries. It is never bluntly said what happened, but it is implied through some passively revealed information that it was likely a plane crash of some sort. While it is only mentioned only two or three times, it apparently had a profound impact on his character as a whole. In fact, a lot of information about the war is given in this manner. One image that comes to mind is the one legged soldier that appears at the very end of Nick’s travels. It’s not hard to spot a soldier with one leg, but instead of the huge spectacle our society makes of it Hemmingway shows us this image as if he was just saying something as petty as “The sky is blue.”

Perhaps this is just his way of showing what society wanted to do at that time; circumnavigate or forget the past. At the time, World War I was the largest conflict that the world had ever faced and, also unique to this war, nearly nothing positive came out of the war unless one really wanted World War II. War injuries, damages, and deaths are not the sort of images that can go unnoticed, yet that is exactly what Hemmingway is suggesting. Even to non-war topics, every character wants around their past as if, somehow, they could reclaim the happiness they had before the war. Brett wants to evade her past with her first husband who was extremely violent to her. Robert wants to recover the confidence he lost in his first two relationships. Each character has these types of scars that are either diminished in importance (they wanted to forget it) or expanded to where their character is altered (they wanted to change the past). Only by changing the past a character could obtain happiness.

And no one could. The war left a huge scar in society that was seemingly impossible to hide or heal. Sure people tried to forget the past conflicts, but the secret in hiding is the easiest one to be reminded of. Symbols of the repressed past appear everywhere and the reminder releases the stress and pain locked inside of a person. That is why the society seems angry and angst-y to an audience who does not have the same vantage point as Hemmingway. Brett is the best example of this. Her controlling and violent husband caused Brett to become extremely cautious of any man who wanted to have her as his and his alone. This causes not only her adulterous personality, but she runs away from any man who could not let her, as Romero said, “Go away from him.” Because she falls in love so frequently, her experiences are brought to the surface and her character becomes cowardly and defensive.

These scars were impossible to circumnavigate, so people turned to monetary possessions as a way to become “happy.” The void the war left in the lives of so many had to have been filled by something and, like an old man going through a midlife crisis, the first thing they turn to are any sort of expensive object so they can try to fill the void and at least seem like they are happy to others. Bill, at one point, tries to persuade Nick into buying a relatively useless stuffed dog, saying that it might “mean the world to [Nick] after he bought it.” A stuffed dog is a pointless possession to own, but what if that one object managed to fill that void and bring peace to that person? Until a person had found that one object, they kept buying up useless odds and ends until they finally found happiness.

Yet, according to Hemmingway, that too was impossible. The war left such a huge void that there was no way to forget about it and no way to fill it. Since happiness was on the other side of that divide (in the past), Hemmingway believes that it is impossible to be happy.

So, just to clarify, none of them lived happily ever after. The end.

The Odyssey (+ Big Question)

How does the society contained within the finite walls of this story define happiness? Is it possible to be truly happy?

A man, separated from his homeland for many years, must fight foes in all shapes and forms in hopes that he can finally make it home. On his long and perilous journey, he must use his strength, intelligence, and courage to face every obstacle that comes in his way. Yet, there is a fourth force in this man’s mind; the will to return to his family, reclaim what is rightfully his, and defeat the suitors that he knows are just dying to fill his shoes in his absence. Though this man, who we shall refer to as Odysseus, had all three traits, it is only through the fourth that he is able to conquer all the trials and eventually return home. There is something very cathartic about Odysseus’s homecoming because it is the culmination of all of his willpower and perseverance that he is back in the loving embrace of his wife and his child in a familiar land. While we cannot say this about every character (Here’s looking at you, Cyclops, Suitors, and Odysseus’s shipmates), nearly every character in the novel reaches some sort of happy ending.

There must be forces at work. Some may blame writer’s intent. Others, the internet should it have been around in ancient Greece. Personally, I blame the Greek idea of fate. Wyrd up…

Look at the three examples of the characters that I listed and some similarities come up. They all either die or suffer extreme pain at one point or another, yet at the same time they all did not obey the god’s demands at one time or another. In Greek society, a Cyclops is a person that doesn’t fear the gods like a good Athenian or Spartan would (thanks to whoever brought that up in one of the discussions) and, despite the extenuating circumstance of being Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops in the poem still does not believe in the gods and got a nice stake in the eye for not doing so. Odysseus’s men disobeyed Odysseus’s and the god’s will not to kill any animal on the island of the sun and their boat was struck by lightning and leaving the men vulnerable to the swirling maelstrom Charbyds. The suitors broke Greek custom and likely ordinances of the gods in some way through their greed, lust, and overall bad conduct as a guest and were slaughtered en masse by Odysseus and Telemakhos. Despite the more human nature of the gods, their powers gave them supremacy over Greek civilians and their word was to be obeyed if one liked their life. Should their rules be broken, the human’s fate would certainly take a turn for the worst.

So what about Odysseus? Why did he survive when he certainly was not in the best of terms with Poseidon? Except for the Cyclops incident, he followed nearly every supernatural being’s demands even when those around him were intent on doing otherwise. And they rewarded him with being able to return to his homeland to be happy. It is possible to be happy in this society as long as obeys the gods.

Well, what does this look like? For Greeks, happiness can come in a variety of forms. The first and most prominent is kinship. Greek society is very communal in nature; from Homer’s perspective, feasts and parties are a very common occurrence and almost seem to be happening daily. However, until Odysseus had lost his men and dealt with Kalypso for a very long period of time, these lavish parties were nowhere to be seen. Notice how the only completely obedient man was the only one to see one of these parties let alone civilization again?

The second form of happiness stems from the first one; possessions. The idea of sacrifice stems from the idea that one is killing the best of the flock in order to repent for a misdeed. Any animal is valuable not only because it is a sign of status if one owns enough (as kings did), but they were useful as a source of food and other materials. It was certainly a punishment that most would want to avoid, but the gods could as just as easily killed off animals through other means. The suitors were such a force; while Odysseus was gone, their ravenous feasting had its toll on the royal heard, punishing Odysseus for his actions even further. However, being loyal to the gods brought in riches in all shapes and forms. One benefit to going to a feast in a foreign land is that it is customary for the host to give gifts to the guest and, as already stated, only those who are in good terms with the gods can receive such happiness.

The final form is increased strength and ability in battle. Greeks valued war heroes above most of their population and, by extent, being able to come back from war with kills was a huge status boost. Odysseus was a war hero, but it was through the grace of the gods through which he gained his strength. Athena was always with Odysseus and his son, giving them both strength and cunning in large conflicts. One interesting point to note is that, from the Cyclops to the beginning of book 5 (during Odysseus’s fall from grace with the gods) Athena made very few notable appearances and it was only when he had endured most of his suffering when she makes a re-appearance, granting him passage from the isle and strength in the final battle. While Odysseus was not killing in a time of war, the strength he gained from favor in the eyes of the gods allowed him to successfully come home and fend off the suitors.