A Brief Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’

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Death of a Naturalist

  By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Commentary:

In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole.  This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August.  When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties.  The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!

 In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole.  It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days.  Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory.  It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens.  The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection.  Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.

The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest.  Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.  The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer.  We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.

Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.

The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring.  He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks.

The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’.  We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.

Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!

Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn.

Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn.  Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:

You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’.  These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.

The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs!  As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!

 

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… and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

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Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him.  Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been!  On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart.  As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory.  There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn.  The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.

This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee.  Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.

School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist.  The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:

So this is what is at stake.  That is why he never makes a sound in class.  That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer.  He dare not slip.  If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.

He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic.  He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss.  He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!

Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect.  There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’  In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’,  he is asked by an impatient teacher.  From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions.  But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!

A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic.  Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead?  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it.  Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.

Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work.  It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present.  In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world!  I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society.  In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day?  However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware.  His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written.  Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

 Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips.  Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner!  South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty.  Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa.  His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order.  Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime.  Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!

 For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’.  But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him.  The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother.  Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself.  The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother.  He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’.  He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’  By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’

However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother.  She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe.  He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’

On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment.  He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is.  The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure.  His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’.  He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’  He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’

Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision.  Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison.  Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother.  This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world.  But Boyhood is more than this.  However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’  The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection.  No hope is offered.  There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother.  If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.

Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, The Family: Love it and Leave it.  This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes.  He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can.  Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed?  Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.

About the Author….

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John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

 

 

 

An Analysis of the Character of Christopher Boone

The-Curious-Incident

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century.  Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies.  He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school.  However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.

Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism.  Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up.  His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother.  She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope.  She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad.  He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member.  It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.

Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.

This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on.  Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free.  As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail.  This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired.  Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington.  “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”

Christopher is quite good at puzzles.

****

His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery.  His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London.  Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.

Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.

Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!

Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.  At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s  father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.

***

The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind.  So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated.  With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’.  By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.

“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.

Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.

***

“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.

One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.

If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.

And I said, “What does single or return mean?”

And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”

And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”

And he said, “For how long?”

And I said, “Until I go to university.”

And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”

Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!

****

When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.

Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.

***

And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.

***

“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author  Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”

Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one.  He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey.  Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.

The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations.  And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer.  And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist.  ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

 

 

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An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

– from Death of a Naturalist, 1966

 

Commentary:  This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’.  All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside.  We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens.  Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.

The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son.  In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood.  Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words.  He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’.  The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem.  In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme.  He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm.  Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,

                                                But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple.  The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’.  The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak!  Mark Patrick Hederman OSB,  former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.  Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.

These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman.  He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in  ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’.  The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.

In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman.  His father is ‘an expert’.  He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy.  He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’.  The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’.  His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.  Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

‘Follower’ ends with a jolt.  The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over.  He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,

.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always.

This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.

During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place.  The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure.  He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.

The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish.  It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her).  Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.

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Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

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Modern definitions of the word tragedy don’t help when trying to explain the niceties of Shakespearean tragedy.  Our sensationalist news channels such as Sky and CNN are very quick to bring us the latest tragedy; a passenger jet crashes with the loss of all on board; a bridge collapses causing mayhem for home-bound commuters; a school is in lock-down after a young student kills his teacher and many of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself.   Our modern definition of ‘tragedy’, therefore, is usually synonymous with the word ‘disaster’;  or an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.

These modern definitions do not help us greatly when trying to describe the action in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  The good news is that Shakespeare is clearly following a template, one laid down centuries earlier by Aristotle and others – in fact, it can be said that he invented the sequel!  So, therefore, if you have studied one tragedy well,  you have a huge advantage when you come to study the next one!  However, the sad news for all you aspiring young actors is that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men and secondly, if you happen to be playing the title role in one of these tragedies, then universally you will meet a rather gruesome end.

Shakespeare, the consummate businessman, tended to rotate his dramas, so he knew the audience could only take so much comedy, or history or tragedy in any one season.  As opposed to his Comedies or Histories, his Tragedies always dealt with tragic events and always had an unhappy ending i.e. the tragic hero dies.

Spoiler Alert!  Sometimes, however, Shakespeare’s genius is evident as in Macbeth when the tragic hero suffers a gruesome beheading at the end (sad ending!) but the audience leave the theatre with the knowledge that order has been restored in the kingdom and so Scotland has been rescued from a murderous tyrant (happy ending!).

So, to summarise, no one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic hero sets out on a course of action but because of a flaw in his character evil enters and is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

The notion of the tragic hero is also problematic.  It seems, at face value, to be a paradoxical term, an oxymoron like Groucho Marx’s famous ‘military intelligence’.  Our dramas today, in our cinemas, in particular, give us loads of suited heroes from Spiderman, to Superman, to Batman and these modern heroes always win.  Tragic heroes, on the other hand, always die!

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics and hopefully, the extreme sexism of the following statements will be understood by members of my female audience!  After all, we have to realise that Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s so, inevitably, his tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man such as a King or a great General or a Prince, with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than mere ordinary mortals.  He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias.  He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle.  However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some fatal flaw that contributes to his downfall.  Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy.  Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition.  He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death.  Macbeth attempts the impossible, to usurp the lawful king, and because the means he employs are evil and against the natural law, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.

Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero.  The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, and the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Therefore, Shakespeare, in Macbeth, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for Macbeth while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.

 

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The Theme of Marriage in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

 

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Marriage is the focal point of Pride and Prejudice.  The plot concerns a series of marriages (Four Weddings and a ….. ?), the characters are revealed and developed through marriage and the lessons Jane Austen teaches us are centred around marriage.

Why does Jane Austen choose marriage as her main theme?  In her world, marriage was the ‘only honourable provision’, infinitely preferable to the dependency of spinsterhood or the near slave-labour of being a governess.  Socially, it marked maturity.  When she married and started a family, a woman took her place in society.  So marriage is obviously the focus of interest in Austen’s world.

How does she present her view?  Against a background of conventional contemporary attitudes on the subject, she places a series of actual and possible relationships.  Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas all marry.  Some couples, such as the Bennets and the Gardiners, are already married, and there are a variety of potential marriages throughout the novel.  Through all of these Jane Austen shows us, and Elizabeth, what she considers to be worthwhile in marriage and life.  Elizabeth eventually reaches a real understanding of what a good marriage involves, and she finds it with Darcy.

At first, Jane Austen seems to disapprove strongly of such arrangements.  From the opening sentence of the book, she mocks the link between marriage and money made by Mrs Bennet when talking about Bingley.  Wickham’s fortune hunting is condemned by Mrs Gardiner; his eventual marriage, the result of a bribe, is doomed from the start.  Darcy’s awareness of the ‘inferiority of (Elizabeth’s) connections’ is seen as a major flaw in his character.  All those who scheme for arranged marriages are condemned: Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Caroline Bingley.

From the start, Elizabeth despises those who wed to be ‘well-married’.  She defends before Mrs Gardiner her right to marry without a fortune and implies the same to Mr Collins when he proposes.  She is determined to choose her husband for love, rather than money.  Jane Austen’s influence seems quite clear here.

However, Elizabeth must learn that love is not enough.  Without financial stability, in Jane Austen’s world, people literally starved to death, and the building of a family circle with a sound economic base was therefore highly important.  For example, Mr Collins wishes to marry for his own ‘happiness’, to set an example, to gain Lady Catherine’s approval.  His reasons are selfish, but his intention is sound.  When he meets Charlotte, someone with equal aims, they marry.  Elizabeth is horrified, but the Hunsford visit reveals a marriage that works.  Possessions take the place of affection, but it is a stable social unit and therefore valid.  Charlotte has ‘a degree of contentment’ and by the end of the novel the couple are expecting a child, fulfilling the purpose of this kind of marriage and offering the couple an established place in society.

The success of this marriage helps change Elizabeth’s mind.  After Darcy’s letter and her self-realization, she matures further.  Soon the Wickham she was prepared to marry without money seems ‘mercenary’ for wanting an unequal match.  She still retains her basic belief in marriage based on love rather than practicalities, as when she refuses to agree to Lady Catherine’s marriage arrangements and maintains her right to choose a husband for herself.  But she now also realises how essential practical considerations are, and when she marries Darcy and moves to the comfort and elegance of Pemberley, she has also achieved an adult view of marriage as a practical and necessary financial contract.

It is very obvious to the modern reader, however, that Jane Austen’s view of sexuality seems very old-fashioned.  There is little examination of the feelings and responses sexual attraction can bring.  Sexual attraction comes way down the list of priorities in all but one of the marriages arranged during the course of the novel and then even though we see that Darcy is infatuated with Elizabeth the idea of sex or a sexual relationship seems not to have ever entered her head! (Or am I completely wrong here??). Once respect, regard and love were established and validated by marriage, then sexuality was acceptable and taken for granted.  Outside marriage, sexuality was merely self-indulgent, and therefore a threat to society.

Her views on marriage based on sexual attraction alone changes little through the novel.  She at first responds to Wickham’s ‘beauty… countenance … figure’, but very soon realises that appearance is not everything.  It has to be matched by real worth.  She realises, too, that Darcy’s goodness more than compensates for any lack of ‘appearance’, while he, at first thinking her ‘not handsome enough’, in the end, finds her ‘loveliest Elizabeth’.  Elizabeth continues to question Lydia’s marriage and in the midst of general rejoicing she alone sees the difference between a physically-based marriage and a working relationship.  ‘For this, we are to be thankful?’ she asks.  All this shows what Elizabeth and Darcy eventually learn – that obvious physical attraction may mislead, but once affection brings knowledge of and respect for one’s partner, true love follows.

Jane Austen obviously sees her heroine’s marriage as a model one, the outcome that her readers have been hoping for, and one that rises above the other marriages in the book.  What makes it so ideal?

Their marriage is primarily a sound personal relationship where each person gives something and helps the other to mature.  Secondly, the marriage marks a step to this maturity for each of them.  By learning to put the other first, they have advanced from the self-centeredness of their unmarried lives.  They have learnt to accept responsibility for  each other, and to put their relationship first.  In Elizabeth’s case, this means accepting the importance of marriage as a sound financial and social contract; for both it means realising that infatuation is not the basis for a lifelong commitment.

Chiefly, however, they have matured by casting aside their main faults – pride and prejudice – through their developing relationship.  This maturing of Elizabeth and Darcy culminates in their marriage.  Now the ‘proud’ Darcy and ‘wild’ Elizabeth can take their rightful place in society and form a true family.

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The Themes of Pride and Prejudice in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

 

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The Theme of Pride

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen looks at people who are guilty of pride, and the effects it has both on their lives and the lives of others.  Everyone in the book has some degree of pride, but the key characters are often caricatures of proud people: Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg.  Darcy and Elizabeth develop as characters during the course of the novel and they are also seen to have pride as part of their personality.

Caricatured pride is shown by Austen to be obnoxious.  Lady Catherine is proud because she was born an aristocrat, raised to believe herself to be superior to others.  She is patronising, believes she has a right to know and judge everything and gives petty advice because she needs to feel useful.  She always likes to be the centre of attention, and she expects to be always obeyed.

Lady Catherine is challenged by Elizabeth, who unlike everyone else, is not overawed by her. Lady Catherine is outraged when Elizabeth answers her back at Rosings and later when she barges in to Longbourn.  She tries to bully her at first, ordering her not to marry Darcy and finally insulting her by saying that accepting Darcy will pollute the shades of Pemberley.  She demands instant submission  and when this is not on offer her pride is severely dented.

Mr Collins had long been supplying this need.  He had been raised with ‘humility of manner’, but living at Hunsford has made him a mixture of ‘pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility’ and this lapdog servility makes him even more unlikeable in our eyes.  The key scene showing Collins’s pride comes with his proposal to Elizabeth, where he not only assures her he will not despise her for being without a dowry but tells her that she might as well accept him, for he is the best she can expect.

Elizabeth herself, though chiefly signifying prejudice, is guilty of the pride on which this prejudice is based.  Darcy tells her when he proposes, ‘Had not you heart been hurt … (my faults) might have been overlooked’, and in the key chapter that follows, she admits this.  She has been convinced she was right about Bingley’s treatment of Jane, Charlotte’s and Collins’s marriage, Wickham’s goodness and Darcy’s lack of worth.  She learns that her prejudice has been due to her belief in the infallibility of her own judgement.  Also, she realises her vanity has been wounded.

The distinction between pride and vanity is made early in the novel.  Mary comments that ‘pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us’.  As well as pride, Elizabeth has, therefore, been guilty of vanity.  She has been far too influenced by Wickham’s attention and Darcy’s neglect.  She admits this immediately, making an honest effort from then on to be neither proud nor vain.

The chief representative of pride in the novel is Darcy.  On his introduction in Chapter 3, he is said to be proud.  He seems withdrawn, superior and cynical.  He puts Elizabeth down coldly with a patronising comment about her looks.  Later, despite his infatuation, he feels himself superior to Elizabeth and kindly condescends to ignore her towards the end of her visit to Netherfield so that ‘nothing could elevate her with the hope’ of marrying above herself.  Pride convinces Darcy he is right to interfere in Bingley’s relationship with Jane, and pride keeps him from lowering himself and his family by disclosing Wickham’s bad nature.

By the time he makes his first blighted proposal to Elizabeth, Darcy is firmly established in our minds as the epitome of pride.  The proposal, ‘not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride’, reveals a Darcy who considers he is doing her a favour.  She is outraged and accuses him of ‘arrogance’ and ‘conceit’.  Were he a lesser character, like Mr Collins, for instance, he would have sulked and moved on to fresher pastures, but Darcy, the hero, ponders Elizabeth’s accusations, realises the truth in them and he resolves to change.  At first, we only see his outward transformation, his gentle behaviour at Pemberley, his assistance to the Bennets after the elopement.  It is only after his second and more successful proposal that we see evidence of his complete change of heart.  Loving Elizabeth has made him realise that people can be good despite their humble origins and that love is not compatible with condescension.

We must remember of course that Darcy was never all bad.  Our view of him as such is largely formed by Elizabeth’s prejudice.  His reputation for being proud largely stems from his being shy and his dislike of socialising.  He may put people down, but he also helps them, as friends and dependants.  Remember his housekeeper’s kindly comments: ‘Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw any thing of it’.

By the end of the novel, Darcy still has some pride, but with good reason.  The mature Elizabeth has learnt, as have we, that there is good pride and bad.  ‘Vanity is a weakness’, says Darcy, but with ‘superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation’.  Elizabeth, thinking he is guilty of both, smiles.  But Darcy is right.  Vanity, as seen in Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, Elizabeth, and even in Darcy himself, is wrong, but pride, while also being wrong, can be acceptable if properly controlled.  In many ways, Darcy controls his pride.   The Darcy who saves Lydia and marries Elizabeth is a well balanced mature individual.  He is master of Pemberley and Elizabeth sees this in a positive light; he has many good attributes and a capacity to help his family, tenants and friends.  She defends Darcy to her father, telling him that he is proud, but has ‘no improper pride’.

Lady Catherine and Mr Collins don’t change in the course of the novel but Elizabeth and Darcy do. Having learnt a valuable lesson they both are now ready to take up residence at Pemberley and reign supreme at the centre of Austen’s universe!

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THE THEME OF PREJUDICE

In this age of political correctness and media spin the notion of prejudice, as described in the novel, is very pertinent.  In the novel, Jane Austen talks about the idea of ‘universal acknowledgement’, where society in general takes a united (and she infers, a biased) stand, welcoming Bingley because he is an eligible bachelor, rejecting Darcy because he seems proud and favouring Wickham because he flatters and charms.

Against this background of public prejudice, Jane Austen presents several particular illustrations of people who confuse appearance with reality because of their personal bias.

Mrs Bennet is probably the most humorous example of this, seeing the world in terms of the wealth and charm of potential husbands.  Thus, she is blind to Collins’s faults, is deceived by Wickham, and yet cannot see Darcy’s real worth: ‘I hate the very sight of him’.  (Yet, worryingly, she welcomes Wickham as Lydia’s husband even though he nearly ruined her reputation and the reputation of her family).

There are many examples of social prejudice and snobbery dealt with in the novel (and this overlaps with the vice of pride).  Lady Catherine, Collins and the Bingley sisters all fail to see the real Bennets when they judge them early on.  Look at Collins’s proposal and how he constantly reminds Elizabeth of her inferior position in life, echoing the comments of Lady Catherine at Rosings.  The Bingley sisters spend several sessions judging Jane and Elizabeth on their relatives and their wealth.

Darcy, though in the main clear-sighted and intelligent in his approach to life, at first joins in this social snobbery.  His initial opinion of Elizabeth herself was formed by her lack of beauty and then compounded by her lack of connections.  This snobbery led him to influence Bingley away from Jane and to resist his own infatuation for Elizabeth.  It is only when Elizabeth points out his pride, after his first proposal to her, that he realises his mistake and he makes an honest effort to change his behaviour.  By the end of the novel, he respects Elizabeth’s family and sees only the true Elizabeth, not her social standing.

It is Elizabeth who most typifies prejudice for us.  The first time she and Darcy meet he snubs her and this turns her against him.  From then on, instead of attempting to understand him, she reacts only to his proud outer appearance and delights in fuelling her prejudice as much as possible.  At first, she can be pardoned for disliking a man who has insulted her but, as she admits, her reasons were not sound.  She wanted to score points, to seem clever, and to say something witty.

It is not until the first proposal that Elizabeth begins to doubt her judgement.  After all, she has been prejudiced against Darcy because of his insensitive remarks and in the case of Wickham, her judgement has been clouded by sexual attraction and flattery.  In the crucial Chapter 36, Elizabeth considers Darcy’s letter and there follows a careful account of how she overcomes her prejudice.  At first totally biased against Darcy, without ‘any wish of doing him justice’, she then realises that if his account is true, she must have deceived herself.  Notice how by putting the letter away she literally refuses to see the truth.  Almost immediately, however, her strength of character triumphs, she rereads the letter, and Elizabeth now sees the situation clearly.  She admits to being ‘blind, partial, prejudiced’ and achieves insight into the situation and her own character.  She admits her fault to Jane, and by letting Wickham know that she sees the difference between appearance and reality, she makes a public statement of her new self-knowledge.

She sees things in a clearer light from this point on, viewing Pemberley with unbiased eyes and meeting Darcy with an open mind.  She also begins to understand his criticisms of her family, seeing them objectively possibly for the first time in her life.  Finally, she comes to accept Darcy as an acceptable partner and she works hard to overcome her family’s prejudices against him by presenting him in his true light.

Elizabeth has learnt many valuable lessons at the end of this novel: she now knows that ‘first impressions’ are rarely sufficient and she comes to see the reality of true worth, not the appearance of it.  There may be lessons here for us as well.  Our age is obsessed with image, and spin and outward appearances and social snobbery.  Finding our own Elizabeth or Mr Darcy is not going to be easy either!

 

Character Study of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

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Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth is the central character in Pride and Prejudice – indeed it could be said that Elizabeth is Pride and Prejudice.  She is the main focus of our interest, she is the novel’s heroine, even though she makes mistakes and is not particularly heroic.  Her personality, her attitudes and her development throughout the novel bring together the story and all the other characters.  The novel is concerned with pride and with prejudice and she and Darcy are the main players.  She is Mr Bennet’s favourite daughter and her ‘quickness of mind’ is made evident in her witty and teasing conversations, where she often adopts striking and independent views.  (See Chapters 8,9, and 11, when she is looking after Jane at Netherfield, in her conversations with Bingley, his sisters and Darcy).

She likes to laugh at people, including herself.  She shares her capacity for irony with her father and the narrator.  This allows her to stand back and offer judgements on certain situations.  She often says the opposite of what she really means.  In Chapter 6 (p. 27) she says, ‘Mr. Darcy is all politeness’, as a way of avoiding dancing with him after his rude remarks earlier.

A key passage in reviewing Elizabeth’s growth is Chapter 36 when we see her painfully coming to terms with her mistaken understanding of Wickham and Darcy while reading Darcy’s letter.  She is forced here to confront some of her prejudices and earlier judgements, and in doing so realises that she has not been as sharp a reader of character as she has previously supposed.  She blames herself for not having recognises the smack of ‘impropriety’ in Wickham’s behaviour, but had allowed herself to be deceived by his charm.

Elizabeth’s most appealing characteristic is her independent streak, her ‘self-sufficiency’.  She judges things for herself and she is capable of decisive action as when she calmly, yet firmly, stands up to Mrs Bennet over Mr Collins’s proposal.  She argues later that it is this ‘self-sufficiency’ which made Darcy fall in love with her.

However, though formidable at times, Elizabeth is also emotional.  She feels great affection for Jane  and is concerned for Lydia and Kitty.  She is very close to her father, though she is often exasperated by her mother’s behaviour.  She is very kind-hearted and we see this in her relationships with Charlotte and Georgiana.

She is not faultless, however, and her main fault is her prejudice.  As Darcy is Pride, so Elizabeth is the Prejudice of the book’s title.  She may see and judge for herself, but often these judgements are based on appearance rather than reality, on her strong emotions, not on rational thought.  The two main targets for her prejudice are Darcy and Wickham.  She tells us that from the beginning she meant to be ‘uncommonly clever’ in disliking Darcy ‘without any reason’.  In fact, her initial dislike is seen as being justified because Darcy’s first comment was cruel and offensive.  Afterwards, however, she delights in provoking him, and when he is denounced by Wickham, she is more than ready to believe the accusations made about him.  One moment she is stating firmly that she does not think Darcy capable of such inhumanity, the next she is totally accepting Wickham’s story that he is!  From the start, she is ‘out of her senses’ about Wickham’s looks and charm.  For the next twenty chapters (!) she takes Wickham’s side despite warnings from Jane, Mrs Gardiner and Caroline Bingley, all of whom, ironically, Elizabeth considers to be prejudiced!

Darcy’s letter opens her eyes to the truth.  He has already hinted that she only hears what she wants to hear.  She therefore makes a conscious effort to read his letter openly, and on the second reading does so, analysing it rationally and she finally begins to notice Wickham’s inconsistencies and the lack of any real evidence of goodness on his part.  She finally realises how ‘blind, partial, and prejudiced’ she has been.  She also realises that she has been guilty of the same fault she accused Darcy of having – pride.  She, too, has believed herself to be superior to others, and refused to believe she could be wrong, her vanity fuelled by Wickham’s attentions and offended by Darcy’s.  She realises that ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’.  This is a crucial moment in the novel which marks her realisation of her faults and her decision to change.

Although she is still angry with Darcy, from this point on in the novel we see that she has changed and we see that she does try to see things clearly and without pride.  She admits her faults to Jane, tells Wickham she knows the truth about him, tries to work out her problems honestly and rationally, and from now on values Darcy.  It is her ability to do this which makes her the heroine of the novel.  Faced with the truth about herself, realising she has been badly affected by both her pride and her prejudice, she accepts the fact, thinks about it and acts on her conclusions.  She has, in effect, become a mature adult.

Her views on love and marriage also change.  Jane Austen uses Elizabeth to show us the mature, ideal marriage, and by contrasting through her eyes other, less worthy marriages, we ourselves learn what is best.  Elizabeth, at first, seems very clear about what she expects from a relationship.  As she tells Charlotte, she is not seeking a husband, let alone a rich one.  She despises courtship games, wants to know all about her partner, and when she hears of Charlotte’s engagement, her reaction is ‘impossible!’.  She slowly learns that her prejudice has led her astray.  Her visit to Hunsford shows her that such a marriage is not only possible but a fair compromise.  Darcy’s views, Pemberley, and the elopement show her too that financial and social considerations in marriage are important.  She needs to learn this before she can take a realistic view of marriage as a social union and become the responsible mistress of Pemberley. However, her view of marriage as an equal partnership is a very valid one and her refusal of Mr Collins’s proposal is vindicated.  His marriage to Charlotte works because it is balanced, and all that remains now is for Elizabeth to meet her equal – quite literally she too must meet her match!  Elizabeth needs a real partner, like Darcy.

It is worth your while trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which  Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy.  The fact that she dislikes and provokes him in the early part of the novel may well be a sign of her attraction, but Elizabeth does not admit this.  She claims to find him obnoxious and certainly has no second thoughts about refusing his first patronising proposal.  Not until her visit to Pemberley does she appreciate Darcy’s real worth and his change of heart, and she begins then to feel more for him.  Her view of marriage also begins to change.  She knows that Darcy is correct in his assessment of her family, and Lydia’s elopement only confirms this.  The inequalities between herself and Darcy are eventually overcome, and Elizabeth betters herself by marrying Darcy.  However, she never takes advantage of this.  Seeing Pemberley marks the start of her affection for Darcy because there she begins to appreciate his real character, rather than simply his wealth.

The elopement crystallises Elizabeth’s view of marriage – she now sees the ideal, and realises that Darcy could provide it, ‘answer’ her needs.  His generosity on Lydia’s behalf compounds her feelings and when he returns to Longbourn, Elizabeth is quiet and uncertain; he is now important to her and she knows that she needs his attention and approval.  But first, she must overcome the twin hurdles of Darcy’s family and her own! She defeats Lady Catherine first, defending the right of Darcy and herself to choose their own partner.  Her courage here against the formidable Lady Catherine surely encourages Darcy to propose again.  She then overcomes her own family’s prejudice against Darcy, showing that she is now a truly independent adult and ready to be married.

Her relationship with Darcy is sound.  They communicate well, give each other mutual support and affection and generally are good for one another.  She has found her true partner, with whom she can live at Pemberley, her true home.    At the end of the novel, Elizabeth is the happy heroine, the centre of everything.  She has not only changed herself through her newly found love for Darcy, but she equally has changed Darcy through his love for her.

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Mr. Darcy

Mr Darcy is the hero of Pride and Prejudice.  He is entitled to be considered a hero because he has the capacity to change and mature and because he is a true partner for our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.  When we meet him first, however, he seems to be the villain of the book.  He appears at the Meryton ball and is immediately disliked by everyone because he so obviously disapproves of the evening, will not mix, and seems above himself, particularly to Elizabeth.  What we learn about him later supports this view: he is ‘haughty, reserved ……. continually giving offence’.  These ‘first impressions’ are strengthened by more serious criticisms: his condescending manner towards Elizabeth at Netherfield, his actions to Wickham, his influencing of Bingley against Jane.

By the end of Chapter 33 we, like Elizabeth, have come to form a clear but negative view of Darcy.  Then he proposes, but patronisingly, and they quarrel, gaining self-awareness shortly afterwards.  From this point on, Darcy ceases to be an anti-hero  and begins to change.  We also begin to view him differently.  Once the truth behind Wickham’s assertions and the reasoning behind Darcy’s influencing of Bingley are known, Elizabeth begins to reconsider her opinion of Darcy.  The business with Wickham was, of course, a slander.  Darcy seems to have done all that could have been asked of him and more: to have judged Wickham correctly and to have been generous enough not to seek revenge for the planned elopement with his sister.  Over the Jane and Bingley affair, he seems to have acted honestly, if through pride, and his concern for Bingley’s welfare is touching.

We, like Elizabeth, begin to see things in a new light and to reconsider our own opinion of Darcy.  Notice that in fact the very first impression he gave, at the Meryton ball, was good: ‘fine, handsome, noble’.  We learnt too that he was intelligent and clear-sighted, and his conversations with Elizabeth certainly showed his thought and intelligence.  When she finally realises that Darcy is right for her, she comments particularly on his ‘judgement, information, and knowledge of the world’.  We are made increasingly aware also of Darcy’s real kindness and generosity.  He is an affectionate brother, trusted by Georgiana, a wise and generous landlord and a good friend to Bingley.  His free use of money to help first Wickham, then Lydia, is admirable.

In fact, Darcy’s chief fault is his pride, and this he honestly tries to conquer in the course of the novel.  His is the pride in the title of the novel.  He was brought up to be proud, almost trained to it.  At the start of the novel, he triumphantly defends it, though he realises the importance of controlling it, which he feels he can do.  However, he is wrong.  His pride does lead him to behave wrongly – on three occasions.  He conceals Wickham’s faults because he does not wish the name of Darcy to be humiliated.  He is totally convinced of his own good judgement over the matter of Jane and so influences Bingley accordingly.  Over Elizabeth, his pride causes him to despise her family connections, and though at first he resists, the attraction remains; he sees his own proposal as demeaning, without realising the implications of this for his relationship with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth reacts to his proposal with genuine anger, and for the first time in his life, Darcy’s ‘arrogance, conceit, disdain’ are challenged.  This is, of course, the point of change for Darcy.  He later tells Elizabeth that it took him some time to begin to alter, but in fact, by the next morning, he has understood enough to want to justify himself in a letter.  He thinks over his actions, slowly realising ‘how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’.  By the time we reach Pemberley, he is eager to show his new persona.  His outward manner, unlike so many in the novel, is a sign of his inward change.  He accepts Elizabeth and her relations, and soon after accepts responsibility for Lydia’s elopement and arranges her marriage.  His final proposal expresses his hopes, but not expectations, of being accepted, and he admits his pride, with gratitude to Elizabeth for humbling him.

We must not, however, judge Darcy too harshly.  He is neither vain nor self-centred.  Much of his pride is valid, the natural result of being master of Pemberley, affording him a self-confidence that allows him to help others.  Equally, Elizabeth has coloured our view!  Much of Darcy’s pride is a figment of her own prejudice.  Her final declaration to her father, that ‘he has no improper pride’, says everything.

Although he represents pride in the novel, he is not without prejudice.  He sees beyond superficial appearance more quickly than Elizabeth but nevertheless dismisses her at first glance on her looks alone.  He soon changes his mind but is still put off by her inferior connections and does not consider her on her true merits.  He learns to recognise his priorities after she has rejected his first proposal, and on his return to Longbourn is not disheartened by his reception, also seeing clearly now what he before judged wrongly – Jane’s true feelings for Bingley.

Darcy is, however, generally more clear-sighted than Elizabeth, and points out to her that she is prejudiced.  This is the point of self-awareness for her and completes the circle whereby both hero and heroine are responsible for the other’s maturity.  It is evident that as Darcy develops and matures so too does his love for Elizabeth.  He is, from the start, Elizabeth’s obvious match; the story of their relationship is the story of the novel.  At first, he dismisses her, then is attracted by her ‘playfulness’ and her kindness to Jane.  His love is immature, though, and after her refusal of his proposal, he is forced to reconsider and reassess what she thinks of him and act on it.  Gradually he develops a genuine regard for her.  During the elopement crisis, his awareness and practical help both reflect and develop the growing affection he feels.  One thing is certain; only when Darcy overcomes his faults and infatuation and acts truly for Elizabeth’s sake can he hope to win her.  When he does, also righting the wrong he has done, by persuading Bingley after all to marry Jane, he proposes again.  He is now in a position to receive the ‘happiness’ he deserves.

Darcy and Elizabeth are the one true model union in the novel.  He is good for her; his pride shows her her own and through him, she learns how prejudiced she is.  He alone can stand up to her, balancing her uncontrolled emotion with his controlled rationality.  He ‘answers’ her totally, as no one else can.  Darcy is thus the hero.  He stands head and shoulders above all the other male characters in the novel.  His personality also contrasts with Elizabeth’s, complementing it, as has been said, and forming a true unity.  As her partner, he is as much the centre of the novel as Elizabeth is, though it is not seen through his eyes.  He represents the male ideal: intelligent, rational, shows good judgement and right action, has a handsome, moneyed appearance but is nevertheless valued for his true inner qualities.  He is indeed the ideal partner for our heroine; he is mature and unlike the New Man (Our 21st. Century Model!) he always considers her before himself!

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An Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’

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The beast fable

The critic C.S.Lewis once remarked that the qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral ‘is to know what it is, what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used’.  George Orwell, with nice irony, subtitled Animal Farm ‘A Fairy Tale’.  It is, in fact, an extended allegory.  As a literary term, allegory is not really difficult to grasp.  The writer of allegory describes a subject under the guise of another subject which has apt and suggestive resemblances to the first one.  The allegorical work conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal meaning.  If we read a story and conclude that beneath its surface meaning another meaning may be discovered and that the real point of the story resides in this other meaning, then we may safely conclude that we have been reading an allegory.  Even the least qualified reader of Animal Farm will no doubt reach such a conclusion.

Animal Farm is a special kind of allegory, the beast fable.  Most of us are familiar with this universal literary form through our reading of Aesop’s Fables.  Those who have read the Fourth Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will scarcely be surprised to learn that Swift’s talking horses are literary ancestors of Orwell’s talking farm animals.  A fable is a story designed to inculcate a moral about some aspect of human behaviour.  Sometimes (as in the case of Animal Farm) the moral or lesson is implicit in the story; sometimes it is explicitly stated in brief form at the end.  Like other writers of beast fables, Orwell uses animals and birds to represent the deeds and motives of human beings; like them, too, he has his moral lesson to enforce.

Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution

Every account of Animal Farm traces the fairly obvious parallels between the characters and motives of Orwell’s animals and those of the human beings they represent.  It was immediately clear to his original readers (in the mid-1940’s) that Orwell had written a fairly explicit satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, a circumstance which made it difficult for him to find an English publisher.  The parallels are easily traced.  Major is Lenin, although since he dies before the rising, the identification is not exact.  Napoleon is Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky, whose quarrel with Stalin after Lenin’s death led to his expulsion from the Communist Party and from Russia.  Molly stands for those Russians who fled the country after 1917.  Boxer is an image of the loyal, uncomplaining proletariat, and Moses an unattractive representation of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Battle of the Cowshed is clearly the Civil War that followed the 1917 Revolution; Western countries (Jones and his neighbours) sent troops to the aid of the dissenting White Russians.  The Battle of the Windmill is the German invasion of 1941.  Orwell pointed this out in a letter to his publisher.  He felt that at one point in the story he had been unfair to Stalin.  ‘All the animals including Napoleon,’ he wrote in the Windmill episode, ‘flung themselves on their faces.’  This he wanted altered to ‘All the animals except Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,’ pointing out that Stalin, after all, did remain in Moscow during the German invasion.

The moral lesson of the fable

So much for the main parallels between Orwell’s animals and their human counterparts.  What of the moral lesson of the fable?  His experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his close study of Russian politics made Orwell acutely conscious of what he called ‘the barbaric and undemocratic’ methods of Communist governments.  His main concern in Animal Farm was to make people in Western Europe see the Soviet regime for what it really was.

It appeared to him that since 1930 the USSR, far from moving towards socialism, showed clear signs of transforming itself into a hierarchical society in which the rulers (the pigs of the fable) were no more inclined than were the members of any other power elite to surrender their privileges.  Since it was the common view of Western European socialists that a genuinely socialist regime existed in Russia, Orwell saw it as one of his tasks to dispel this misunderstanding in a story that could easily be assimilated by almost anyone, and that would lend itself to easy translation into other languages.

At the end of Animal Farm it is impossible to distinguish the human beings from the pigs, the latter having entered heartily into commercial and social relations with their former enemies and abandoned the major slogan of the Revolution, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’  In his preface to the Ukranian edition, Orwell made an interesting (and perhaps surprising) comment on his ending.  A number of readers, he felt, might finish Animal Farm with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs (the Soviet power elite) and the humans (the Western capitalist leaders).  This,  he pointed out was not his intention.  On the contrary, he meant the book to end on a note of discord.  He wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference, which everybody thought, had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West.  ‘I personally,’ Orwell observed with satisfaction, ‘did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.’

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A novel of universal political truths

Some of the pleasure of reading Animal Farm lies in the reader’s gradual recognition of the parallels with modern Russian history.  The various identifications can be disclosed rather like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or chalked up on the blackboard like so many equations.  But the question arises: once we have made all the identifications what further interest are we likely to have in a work like Animal Farm?  It might be argued that even as an allegory of Soviet politics, the book has lost some of its original point, since Orwell clearly did not contemplate, for example, such developments as those associated with the Krushchev era, or the astonishing course taken by the Soviet system since the coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985.  Fortunately for Orwell’s reputation, his book is likely to attract readers long after the Russian experience has been forgotten, because it has large implications extending beyond the immediate circumstances of any single movement such as the Russian Revolution of 1917.   In several respects, Orwell’s fable embodies universal political truths.  What he describes is what happens sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, to all revolutionary movements.  The modern Chinese theory of continuous revolution as a means of preserving intact the ideals of the first revolutionaries is an interesting recognition of the dangers (so convincingly illustrated in Animal Farm) which attended all large-scale efforts at the betterment of the human lot.  Orwell’s book is a comment on the failure, as he saw it, of the Russian Revolution to fulfil the expectations of those who saw it marking a new era of true socialist democracy.  But it can also be read as a disillusioned recognition of the apparently inevitable failure of every great reforming movement to preserve its original momentum.  The French Revolution began in unbounded hope for a better world and petered out in the Jacobin terror.

Limitations of the moral fable

In Animal Farm, as in all moral fables, the author starts off with his abstract truth or idea, and uses his story to illustrate this, to give it life.  All the elements in the story are necessarily subordinated to the pattern dictated by whatever precepts the author desires to enforce on the minds of his readers.  Even these bald statements about the literary genre to which Animal Farm belongs suggest its almost inevitable limitations.  The major landmarks of fiction are exploratory in character; their important discoveries about human life and conduct emerge with the progress of the story.  Writers like the Orwell of Animal Farm, on the other hand, give the impression of having made their discoveries before composing their works.  The problem for all those who write fiction to illustrate pre-conceived ideas is that they must force a disorderly mass of experience into conformity with these ideas, which results inevitably either in some falsification of experience, or in a radically simplified view of it.  Inconvenient facts tend to be rigorously excluded.  Orwell, however, in choosing to illustrate what seems to be a universal human experience, is exempt from charges of distortion, whatever may be said about the limitations of his fable.

Orwell was one of those fortunate writers who recognised his limitations, who knew what suited his special talents and what did not.  Readers of his other novels will quickly realise that he found it extremely difficult to breathe life into his characters, none of whom is really convincing or memorable.  There is a sense in which Orwell is not really a creative writer, but a brilliant publicist, journalist, and apologist for liberal causes, who used the conventional fictional framework for his special purposes.  If he could not create life-like characters in his novels, he could at any rate write a great political fable.  What gives Animal Farm its vitality is not the kind of imaginative power one associates with a great novelist.  Such imaginative power was not really needed in this kind of work.  Orwell’s mind was one, which, like Swift’s, often contemplated the great human questions in political terms; like Swift, he found the beast fable an admirable vehicle for political ideas.  The almost perfect correspondence in Animal Farm between form and content at once helps to explain its astonishing popular success and to ensure its survival as a minor classic.

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An Introduction to ‘Lord of the Flies’

 

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Background note…

Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 and in it, William Golding sets out to create a disturbing and dystopian view of the world – a social experiment that goes horribly wrong.  The bleak aftermath of the second war to blight the Twentieth Century is still being felt in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1950’s.  Images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, along with personal war memories and experiences and other atrocities were still very raw in people’s minds.  This powerful novel can be included among other dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.  This genre of dystopian fiction represents the other extreme from Utopias, fictional representations of ideal political states or ways of life, the classical example here being St. Thomas More’s Utopia, a Latin work written in 1516.

Golding, as you will soon be aware, is very concerned with the pervasive influence of evil forces in our world, and he has few allusions about the counterbalancing forces of good.  It is possible to classify Lord of the Flies as a dystopian fable because in it Golding is casting a jaundiced eye on earlier and more optimistic variations on his theme, the best known of these being R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island.   Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of parody of The Coral Island and Golding makes specific reference to it in his novel.  A very brief comparison with Ballantyne’s book helps us see what Golding is attempting in Lord of the Flies.  In The Coral Island, Ballantyne shipwrecks a group of upright, solid, church-going British boys, and allows them to build a decent imitation of British civilisation in their new and primitive surroundings.  In Lord of the Flies, the shipwreck is now a plane wreck; the boys are still middle-class British Christians.  Even the names of three of Golding’s main characters are similar to those in Ballantyne – Golding’s three central characters – Ralph, Piggy and Jack – are caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes .  The vital difference between the two novels, however, is that whereas Ballantyne’s is thoroughly optimistic in spirit and outcome, Golding’s outcomes are disillusioning and pessimistic.

The need for social order

Lord of the Flies is a very grim illustration of the kind of situation that, as Golding sees it, must inevitably arise if the sanctions and controls of society are abandoned.  In this kind of situation, the great majority of human beings (whether boys or men) will choose destructive courses.  There will be the few who will choose order, whose acts reflect human decency and goodness, but they will be outnumbered and defeated by the evil tendencies of the many.  The ethos of Ballantyne’s island was that of the boy-scout camp; on Golding’s the greater number of the boys choose to enact the roles of savages, painting themselves, wallowing in an orgy of animal slaughter, sinking into bestial habits, engaging in torture, murder and sacrifice to false gods.

Speaking of false gods prompts a reference to the significance of Golding’s title for the novel.  This refers to Beelzebub, traditionally the most debased and disgusting of all the devils.  The young British Christians, most of all the choirboys, instinctively chose him, rather than the Christian God as the object of their worship.  This choice bears fundamentally on Golding’s views on human nature.  Golding is, above all, a didactic writer and he is trying, therefore, to teach us a moral lesson here.  One of his primary purposes is to expose what he sees as the shallowness of optimistic theories (he would see them as illusions) about human nature.  At one level, his novel can be read as a strenuous rejection of humanistic theories of human perfection.  It enacts an unrepentant belief in the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin; the doctrine which teaches that the first sin of Adam, as the old Catechism put it, ‘darkened the understanding, weakened the will, and left us a strong inclination to evil’.

A pessimistic world view?

This traditional view sets Golding apart from many of the modern ‘trendy’ currents of thought.  Few of us have escaped the influence of the romantic view of childhood as a time of glorious innocence; the cult of the noble savage has, since Rousseau, enjoyed widespread support in all kinds of fiction.  It was a common Romantic assumption that man was potentially a noble, upright creature if only he could be freed from the fetters of a corrupt society.  Golding is having none of this!  Not for him the vision of the child emerging in clouds of glory, or the inherent nobility of the savage life.  What he finds instead, is that only the slightest push, or the removal of sanctions or firm restraints, is needed for children, as well as for men, to tumble into unfathomable depths of depravity.  In Lord of the Flies he is trying to show us with what frightening ease man and boy can throw off all his superficial decency (‘off you lendings’ in Lear’s version) and regress back to that primitive state where ‘chaos is come again.’

To return to categories and literary genres for a moment, Lord of the Flies is a fable.  As Golding himself points out, the writer of fables is a moralist: ‘he cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it’, very similar to the parables in the Gospels.  No matter how we look on this novel, however, it would be very difficult to describe Golding’s lesson here as a hopeful one.  For him, men are generally vicious, murderous and liable to extremes of self-degradation and animal behaviour.  What most forcibly strikes us as we read this novel is Golding’s intuition that, at best, civilising conventions and rules are passing things, but that what endures is man’s wild irrationality and his destructive urges.  A passing visit to Sky News or CNN or BBC News may confirm this for us on a daily basis!  Who would choose to live in Aleppo in Syria or the many cities in Iraq who have been condemned to untold barbarity in recent times?

 A realistic novel

Lord of the Flies has proved an extraordinary popular book, both from the point of view of general readership and among academics.  Golding may have conceived his novel as an allegory, but he is also a master of realistic fiction, and the book has a striking impact on the generality of young readers, for whom it is, here in Ireland as well as in Britain, a widely prescribed school text.  Golding was a teacher for a number of years, and has an instinctive understanding of, and feeling for, the characters and mannerisms of schoolboys.  One of the striking features of his method is his success in presenting his young characters in terms of idiom and linguistic habit (compare the under-educated, ill-spoken Piggy in this respect with Ralph and Jack).  The novel, for all its allegorical and symbolic overtones, is rooted firmly in real experience.  Physical sensations are admirably and tellingly rendered; the discomforts, unpleasantness, delights and other sensations associated with life on the island are evoked with astonishing realism.  The beautiful descriptions of island and sea are unforgettable.  Golding’s continuous success with the depiction of the physical realities of life, the rootedness of the book in the solid earth, is perhaps its most memorable feature for younger readers, most of whom, it is safe to suggest, can approach it on a realistic level without bothering unduly about its allegorical implications or its status as a moral fable.  Discussing the wider picture, the novel as fable or allegory or simply realistic novel with an eager English class, is one of the great joys and job satisfactions of the teacher of English Literature!

Symbolism

Academics have naturally tended to focus on the allegorical and symbolic features of the book, following Golding himself, who has strongly emphasised these in his critical comments.  There are numerous examples of symbols in the novel.  The shell or conch discovered by Ralph and Piggy has attracted a wide variety of such interpretations.  It is most obviously to be regarded as a symbol of the forces in the boys striving to uphold civilised standards and values.  The character of Simon attracts a good deal of symbolic weight also.  The pig’s head covered in flies is a symbol or sign of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies.  Simon’s hallucination of the monologue from the pig’s head is another symbolic feature.  But whatever importance one may attach to such matters, the vital consideration is that most of the episodes which obviously attract symbolic interpretations also work most successfully at a realistic level, which adds to the great appeal of the novel.

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Dream to nightmare

Golding has a remarkable gift for presenting abstract conceptions in compelling concrete terms.  One of the themes of the book that particularly appeals to younger readers is that it enacts a powerfully imagined version of the dream that most children cherish at one time or another of escaping from the restraints of a society controlled by adults.  What Golding does in Lord of the Flies is bring this dream to life.  But what he also does is to turn the dream into a virtual nightmare.  Escape from the stabilising forces of the adult world, instead of bringing about happiness, results in a riot of destructive individualism.  At the beginning, there is a vague, unsatisfactory sense of kinship and comradeship: Ralph and Jack, the two ‘mighty opposites’ of the later parts of the novel, can, at the beginning, look at each other ‘with a shy liking’.  The collapse of this sympathy, the breaking of most of the bonds of human kinship, is the stark reality which haunts Golding’s fable.  And even when the outside world comes to the rescue at the conclusion of the novel it only brings further reminders of disorder and war with the finding of the dead airman and the arrival of an armed warship.  There is little comfort, then, to be drawn from Golding’s dystopian novel: neither a ‘civilised’ environment nor the lack of it, seem to offer much hope of even limited perfection or happiness to human beings.

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