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

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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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Contemporary Aspects of the Novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

 

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Hard Times is unusual in several respects. It is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels, barely a quarter of the length of those written immediately before and after it.[1] Also, unlike all but one of his other novels, Hard Times has neither a preface nor illustrations. Moreover, it is his only novel not to have scenes set in London.[2] Instead, the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill town, in some ways similar to Manchester, though smaller. Coketown may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.

While the novel is neither gripping nor memorable it is interesting to examine it from a 21st-century standpoint.  And as we try to fathom the political manoeuvrings of  Mr Trump (a very Dickensian character!) and Lady May (another one!) we begin to realise that the more things change the more they stay the same!  The family theme is a perennial one as is education.  Everyone has problems with them and there are always controversial views about them which lead to much debate. The Environment and the workplace are central to modern life.  We are all too aware that some of our world leaders today are in denial about such issues as global warming and climate change – and you know what they say: ‘De Nile is not just a river in Egypt’!  Industrialisation and its effects were seen as major problems in Dickens’ time, as they still are today.  Trade Unions are still an important force in our modern workplaces. Teenagers are big business today and a central core of modern society.   In Louisa and Sissy Jupe we can recognise the first faint traces of the modern teenager, with minds of their own, rebellious attitudes and a power of expression.  Marriage breakdown is certainly one of the major social problems in our modern world.  Louisa’s tragic and arranged marriage foundered on the rock of incompatibility, which is the most frequently cited reason for the breakdown of marriage in the modern divorce court.

The Gradgrind family, around whom the story evolves, are no more curious than any comparable family in the present era.  While the imagination and the spiritual side is stifled they are well-fed, as well-educated as the narrow curriculum and method permitted and live in a comfortable house.  The father, Mr Gradgrind, is an authoritarian figure to his teenage son and daughter.  Yet halfway through the story, he is there when his daughter needs him.  He is willing to support and harbour her in her hour of need.  He also learns from his mistakes and is ready to admit them.  I think he is a very good father.  He is basically a very good human being.  Professionally he is stifled by the constraints of a utilitarian system of education.  Is he any different from today’s teacher who cajoles, pushes, and encourages students towards those elusive points for College entrance?   Is he any different from today’s ambitious parents who make great sacrifices to give their offspring a good start in life?  He is, in a sense, a ‘single’ parent due to his wife’s inability to function as a normal mother.  She is a pitiful hypochondriac who seems to derive no pleasure whatsoever from life.  Mr Gradgrind is a gentleman and a patient one.  He seems to have the patience of Job.  He gets on with his job and provides for his family.  He rarely raises his voice to his offspring and certainly never his hand, which we must admit is a curious and admirable situation, certainly in a Victorian household.  One of the most contemporary aspects of Mr Gradgrind is his very generous fostering of Sissy.  He has a sense of responsibility towards young people.  He is prepared to take Sissy into his home and provide her with education and sustenance and a family life.

In the opening chapters of Hard Times, the education system is hammered home.  Facts alone count.  The imagination cannot be given free rein.  It must be stifled.  The education system is not child-centred, but facts-centred.  Before we proclaim our horror let us scrutinise the modern day pressures of imparting knowledge.  Are students today still considered to be ‘vessels’ into which teachers pour the main points of novels, poems, and drama?  Now and again teachers dream of being inspirational but then the grim shadow of the curriculum hovers (and visions of A’s, B’s and C’s) and their dreams of emancipating the shackled student fade into oblivion.  If we sat for awhile and compared and contrasted the square classroom where facts predominated with its modern counterpart we might end up concluding that very little indeed had changed.

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Louisa, a teenager in the beginning of the novel who bears a remarkable resemblance to her modern counterpart.  Louisa emerges as a real live girl of the 19th. Century.  She is a bright girl who has an imaginative and spiritual side despite attempts to suppress it both at home and at school.  The friendship that develops between her and Sissy is solid.  They have little in common financially, socially or intellectually, but both have kind hearts.

There is a nice balance of giving and receiving in the friendship.  It is mutually advantageous.  In the earlier section of the novel, Louisa listens to, encourages and comforts Sissy when she confides in her over her learning difficulties at school.  The two teenagers closeted together in the study is a nice touch.  As talent and ability continue to vary in every age surely similar scenes are replicated today in many a home and classroom.  Later in the novel, Sissy Jupe will amply repay her loyal friend.  As young women now, Sissy will become a tower of strength to Louisa in her emotional turmoil.  The teenage friendship has matured.  It will last a lifetime.  Many a modern woman must find solace in the comfort and chat of a woman friend, when life strikes at them, when they are experiencing difficulties with the opposite sex, be it husband, fiancé, partner or friend.  The urge to confide is intrinsic to the human psyche.  It is an enduring trait.

Recent times have seen marriage under attack on all sides.  Louisa’s leaving her husband is a prelude to the modern dilemma of marriage breakdown.  There are thousands of solutions put forward.  Marriage guidance counselling is available and yet we are no nearer to resolving the situation than Louisa was on that terrible night of her life, when confused and desperate, she returns to her father’s house.

Work is a major part of life throughout the ages.  There have always been problems associated with work and labour.  The gruelling conditions of the workers in the factories are in sharp contrast to working conditions today.  Yet there are some echoes from the Dickensian age in our world today.  Air pollution is still a problem in many industrial areas today.   All around, even in some rural areas, there are chilling reminders that the problems of environmental pollution are far from solved.  When we see the murky waters of our major cities and the inevitable accompanying stench we can wonder if we are any different from the grim industrial smoke-filled Coketown.  The workers had practically no rights in the Victorian age.  The small beginnings of a Trade Union, whose principles were orchestrated by Slackbridge, have gathered such momentum over the intervening years that the clout and power of the Trade Union movement is a dominant feature of modern society.  Yet we only have to look at some recent disputes such as between Ryanair and its ‘baggage-handlers’ to realise that there are still employers who would refuse their workers what modern society considers a basic right – the right to be represented by a Trade Union.

To conclude, maybe we begin to realise, having read the Hard Times, that the more things change the more they stay the same!  Our world still revolves around the home, the school and the workplace.  Environmental influences are as important and far-reaching then as now and the stifling of the imagination and the emotions can often set in train a chain of tragic circumstances from which there is no escape.

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Notes on ‘Hard Times’ – by Charles Dickens

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 THE THEME OF HARD TIMES IN THE NOVEL

  • The theme of ‘hard times’ applies to all characters in the novel – those exploited and those who exploit.
  • Coketown is depicted as a cage that imprisons all – it is a microcosm that comprises of good and evil.
  • Hard times evolve from the greed for wealth and power. The Government Inspector is ready to fight all England instead of trying to help all England.
  • The educational system is geared only to service industry and to maintain the status quo (Nothing to do with the rock group!). Children are deprived of their childhood fantasies – in school, they become ‘little pitchers’, ‘vessels’ into which facts are poured.
  • Workers and children are both depersonalised by the system- all are mere cogs in the system. They are referred to only as ‘Hands’.
  • Kindness and charity are frowned upon. Betrayal of workmates is encouraged – they are asked to spy on one another, Tom sets up Stephen as a fall guy.  Slackbridge ensures that workers boycott Stephen – ‘Private feelings must yield to common cause’.
  • Stephen’s life is plagued by his drunken and immoral wife, he is too poor to pay for a divorce.
  • Gradgrind is a prisoner of his own system and is unable to visualise the humiliation that lays in store for Louisa. His ‘hard times’ come at the end of Book II when he realises what he has done to her and Tom: ‘And he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet’.
  • Sissy has her ‘hard times’ at school and when she suffers the loss of her father.
  • Coketown is ugly, a mirror of the hard times associated with those who live there. The river is black – the town a blur of soot and smoke. It is a triumph of FACT.  Monotony is the keynote – the streets are all alike.
  • There is, however, an underlying craving for music and dancing and amusement – the circus will shortly come to fulfil this desire. ‘There is some love in the world and it is not all self-interest.’  With these words, Mr Sleary sets the standard of the circus world of which he is the Clown King.  His philosophy of ‘people must be amused’ (without the lisp!) is in sharp contrast to the Hard Fact men who only succeed in bringing ‘hard times’ for all.

 

IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM IN ‘HARD TIMES’

 Nature Imagery

  • Sowing, Reaping, Garnering.
  • In the opening Chapter: ‘plant nothing but else but facts – root out everything else.’
  • Gradgrind’s hair is described as a ‘plantation of firs’
  • The ray of light irradiating Sissy and Bitzer.
  • Light/Darkness: the inner radiance of Rachael lifts the gloom from Stephen: ‘the light of her face shone upon the midnight of his mind.’ Rachael’s candle.  In Book III Chapter I  Sissy is described as ‘a beautiful light’.
  • In Book I, Chapter 10 nature has been replaced by wheels and the machines are described as ‘mad elephants’.
  • In Book ii, Chapter 7 Bounderby grows cabbages in his flower garden! This is typically Utilitarian – you can eat cabbages.

 

Mathematical Imagery

  • This is first used to symbolise the educational system: ‘Girl number 20’
  • Gradgrind is described in mathematical terms – ‘square finger’, a man of calculations, ‘rule and scale and multiplication tables in his pocket ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature – a mere question of figures, of simple arithmetic.’
  • Stone Lodge is seen as ‘a calculated, cast up, balanced and proved house – all ruled straight like a botanical account book.’
  • ‘metallurgical Louisa’ and ‘mathematical Thomas’ (Indeed we can go further and say that Tom is only interested in Number One!)
  • Gradgrind proves by statistics that the disparity in ages between Louisa and Bounderby is no bar to a successful marriage.
  • The Government Inspector sets out the requirements for wallpaper and carpets – these are combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures ‘which are susceptible to proof and demonstration.’ There is no beauty outside of mathematical exactitude.
  • The ‘monotonous vault of a schoolroom’ kills Fancy.
  • Of Gradgrind it is said, ‘his head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts within.’ The children are described as ‘vessels’.

Animal Imagery

  • Bitzer’s eyes are described as ‘the antennae of busy insects.’
  • Sparsit – a hawk concealed beneath the mildness of a dove;
  • she is seen as a ‘dragon’ – she watches Louisa and Harthouse with ‘hawk’s eyes’. She is associated with nasty, creepy things – worms, snails, adders as she goes through the woods to spy on them.
  •  In the novel, the machinery in Coketown is compared to ‘mad elephants.’
  • There is much Fairytale imagery in the novel – the teacher is seen as ‘a dry ogre’, ‘a monster in a lecturing castle.’ Louisa is the Snow Queen with a frozen heart.  Coketown is seen as a ‘monstrous serpent’ by day.  The Blue Books are reminiscent of Bluebeard.  Sparsit considered herself to be the ‘Bank Fairy’. The people of Coketown referred to her as the ‘Bank Dragon’.

Symbolism

  • In the novel, there is a war being waged between the Heart and the Head, between Fairytales and Mathematical imagery, between Fact and Fancy.
  • The mill is symbolised by the ‘mad elephants’ – the factory is a living thing.
  • The characters are symbolic: Sissy represents simplicity; Gradgrind symbolises materialism; Harthouse represents cynicism/lack of principle; Stephen Blackpool stands for all victims of social oppression; Sleary stands for imagination and true love; Rachael represents virtue, goodness, compassion; she is ‘sweet-tempered and serene’.
  • Dickens overdoes the symbolism with many of his characters and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind who Choakumchild, Bitzer, Slackbridge or Bounderby represent.
  • Sparsit’s Staircase (Chapter 27) is hugely symbolic: it charts Louisa’s approach to moral ruin as she descends Lower and Lower (Chapter 28) until she is Down (Chapter 29) ‘lying insensible at his (Gradgrind’s) feet.
  • The smoke and soot from the serpentine chimneys symbolise the uncertainty of the workers.
  • The sun symbolises the freedom of the next world which can only be attained by suffering.

 

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Two Sample Answers on ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

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It has been suggested that Dickens, the social crusader, outdoes Dickens the novelist.  Discuss with apt reference from the text of Hard Times. Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

Dickens is rightly regarded as a crusader against injustice; all his novels are concerned with one or more of the defects of society as a whole or of the individual human being.  ‘Hard Times’ is a case in point.  There is a formidable list of points raised in this novel to suggest that Dickens is attacking various aspects of society or the attitudes of individual human beings to particular groups of their fellow men.

In his opening chapters, there is a clear criticism of the educational system that encourages or permits little children to be treated as receptacles for Facts poured into their heads and forbids or discourages the exercise of their imagination.  He refers to the children as ‘little vessels’ ready to have gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.  With this, he associates the process of depersonalisation that is carried into the factory.  At school Sissy Jupe ceases to be a person; she becomes ‘Girl Number Twenty’.  In the factory, Stephen Blackpool, like his co-workers, is merely one of the depersonalised ‘Hands’.  In the confrontation between him and Bounderby in the chapter ‘Men and Masters’, Dickens puts words into Stephen’s mouth that show that the greatest grievance of the working class is that the employers look on them as so much power and treat them as figures in a sum, without feelings or souls.  Dickens makes the point himself when he shows that even Louisa when she visits Stephen to offer him help, realises that she has never thought of the working class as individuals, but by hundreds and by thousands – as ants and beetles.

Dickens, however, may not be attacking merely the upper middle class but also the attitude of people to their fellow men.  M’Choakumchild and Bounderby may not be upholding a system, but may be merely indifferent to the children and the workers – or perhaps being merely selfish: ignorant workers are less likely to be troublesome than educated ones.  To support the argument that Dickens is attacking the attitude of individuals to their fellow men, Dickens has created Slackbridge, the Trade Unionist who is painted as a rather dangerous demagogue who attacks the oppressors of the working class while himself hounding one of his fellow workers.  Dickens’s intentions are clear: he condemns Slackbridge by his description of him; he is less honest, less manly, less good-humoured than the workers he addresses.  He is cunning rather than simple, and his words are ‘froth and fume’.  In his condemnation of Stephen as a thief, he places himself alongside Bounderby who, like him, finds Stephen guilty without evidence or without trial.

Dickens also attacks theoretical political economy, (or the economic system based on self-interest).  He ironically points out the inhuman aspect of the theory of political economy through Sissy who considers the first principle of this science to be ‘to do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’, and who cannot say whether a nation is prosperous or not until she knows who gets the money.  Statistics, to her, are ‘stutterings’ and percentages cannot be applied to people.  (There are often echoes of this in our day: the ideal family is said to consist of 2.4 children!)  To support her, Dickens shows the Circus people as a closely-knit, interdependent people who, besides relying on one another in the Ring, have an untiring readiness to help and pity one another.  They are outside the Utilitarian system and are a living criticism of it.

It is clear therefore that Dickens carries the crusader’s banner.  However, this is not to say that this aspect of his work outdoes his importance as a novelist.  (You are free to argue otherwise if you wish.)  He was not just a reformer or a sentimentalist.  His genius lay in his ability to create a world.  He tells a story peopled by characters – good and bad.  The good ones, like Sissy and Rachael, may not be totally acceptable to modern readers because the cynical twentieth-century cannot accept a human being who never has an impulse to be ungenerous; the bad ones are nasty and always acceptable.  Dickens, with his brilliant use of imagery, makes them real: Bounderby, the Bully of Humility, the bag of wind who is deflated (temporarily) by the revelation of his real origins; Harthouse, with his vicious assumption of honesty in dishonesty who is finally overcome by one whose only weapons are virtue and a complete lack of sophistication.

In between these are the more credible characters.  Louisa and Tom are victims of a stifling and cruel educational system.  Our reactions are perhaps of pity rather than rage at the system.  Bitzer, too, evolves from it; he is a victim rather than a villain.  He rejects Gradgrind’s bribe to free Tom, not because he is heartless or cruel, but that he is the perfect product of his education.  The test of the success of a novel is the reader’s response to the characters depicted.  So, if one rages at Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit and gloats over their exposure; if one is pleased that the Circus Folk, who are natural enemies of the utilitarian system, overcome Bitzer; if one suffers with Louisa and hopes that Gradgrind will mellow, then the novel is, for that reader, a novel, not an attack on a political system.

Even though he laughs ‘with a touch of anger in his laughter’ Dickens makes us laugh at the boy who would not paper a room with representations because he would not paper a room at all, he would paint it.  We laugh at the Circus Folk and the idiocy of Mrs Gradgrind.  Such things are above and beyond a social documentary.  Perhaps if he seems to over-emphasise certain points by repetition e.g. ‘No little Gradgrind…’ it is primarily to elicit sympathy for his good characters or to make us condemn his villains.

He may be over-anxious to point to the flaws in society as he is when he interpolates his own views directly, but he reflects his own age, his own life and his own thinking.

 

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Josiah Bounderby of Coketown

Whereas Bounderby is incapable of change and ends as he began, a monster of Utilitarianism, Gradgrind learns from experience, and when he changes it is for the better.   Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

This statement is true for a number of reasons.  Bounderby is incapable of change, largely because he is a caricature.  Gradgrind is forced to change and ends the novel a sadder and wiser man.

 Bounderby is the quintessential ‘self-made man’.  He is inflated like a balloon – full of wind.  He is the villain of the novel.  Dickens ensures that we abhor this ‘Bully of Humility’.  He is physically repellent and he has an obnoxious manner.  His ‘humility’ is false.  He is a liar.  He exploits his employees.  To him they are mere ‘Hands’.  His attitude to Stephen is disgraceful when he asks for advice on getting a divorce and later he tries to exploit him further.  When Stephen refuses to co-operate he is sacked and when money is stolen from his bank he accuses Stephen and puts a price on his head.

 Bounderby, the industrialist, is indeed a monster.  He is aided and abetted in his efforts by his friend Thomas Gradgrind MP  Dickens savagely attacks this attitude which puts profit before all other considerations.  Indeed it can be said that both these men have much in common.  They are intimate friends and desire to be closer through the marriage of Louisa to Bounderby.  They are both pompous, self-opinionated and insensitive to the feelings of others.  Gradgrind worries about Bounderby’s disapproval, ‘What would Mr. Bounderby say?’  However, there are also serious differences between these two men.  Foremost among these is the fact that Gradgrind is not a hypocrite.  He does act in good faith.  He thinks that Thomas and Louisa are getting the best education.  By the end of this novel he acknowledges the failure of his system and takes responsibility for it, ‘I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.’

Dickens ensures that Bounderby is caricatured as a comical ‘Mr. Pickwick’ figure and he is cruelly exposed at the end of the novel.  He behaves very badly in Book III when Gradgrind is confronted.  He is seen to be crude and intolerant.  He acts the Bully to the end whereas Gradgrind is patient, submissive and humble.  Bounderby’s end is ignominious – he makes a vainglorious will, he dies in a fit, and his estate is whittled away by the courts.  He has no redeeming qualities.

It must be emphasised that Gradgrind, too, is a monster of utilitarianism and he indeed is the chief apostle and promoter of this rather inhuman political philosophy.  He, too, is the focus of attack by Dickens.  He puts his faith in statistics and in the ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by the evangelists of Utilitarianism – Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.  (Two of his sons are called Adam and Thomas!)  He is shown to be a man of ‘realities’, of ‘fact and calculations’.  We first see him in the Model School.  His aim is to prepare his pupils for a mechanical world – his graduates are robotic creatures devoid of sympathy, love or imagination.  He raises his five children (two daughters and three sons) by these rigid principles.  They grow up on a diet of ‘-ologies’.  He becomes a leading MP in the ‘party of weights and measures’ – one of the Hard Fact men.  He is an ’eminently practical man’.

However, he is not all bad – he has virtues such as courage, honesty and charity.  He takes in Sissy despite Bounderby’s protestations.  He is forced to admit the failure of his system with Louisa and Tom.  By the end of the novel, his world, so carefully built, is collapsing around him.  He is pained by Louisa especially since he agreed to the marriage and he proved by statistics how successful it should be.  Ironically, he is the one who introduces Harthouse to Louisa and Bounderby, thereby destroying the marriage he had done so much to promote.

Gradgrind, therefore, unlike Bounderby is capable of change and development.  He is forced to face unwelcome facts (!).   He is no longer certain.  He is a humbled man: ‘The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.  The only support on which I leaned …. has given way in an instant.’  The Gradgrind we see in Book III is hardly recognisable.  He has abandoned his philosophy of facts and becomes a caring father to his children.  This change comes and he is saved when Stephen dies and he realises that Tom is the bank robber.  He seeks help from Sleary.  He pleads emotionally with Bitzer to have ‘mercy and pity’.  He acts to clear Stephen’s name.  He realises that Sissy – the great ‘failure’ of his system – is now indispensable to his household.  His younger children will be spared the worst effects of his system. (Isn’t this always the case?!!).  Dickens is at pains to show how disastrous this system is but he is also at pains to point out that Gradgrind and the other promoters of the system were not evil – they were often caring and well-intentioned, even.  At the end – in the future – we see him ‘converted’ as he makes his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.

Gradgrind, now, unlike Bounderby, is a much sadder, wiser man.  He now knows the meaning of love.  He realises that there is a ‘Wisdom of the Heart’ as well as a ‘Wisdom of the Head’.  He benefits in the end from a form of ‘poetic irony’ in that his early isolated act of kindness to Sissy proves to be the means of his redemption.  He has changed for the better while poor Bounderby, our other monster, is cruelly depicted as a ‘Noodle’!

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Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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The function of imagery in everyday speech or writing is, primarily, to explain some point, or to make more vivid an idea or sentiment.  Imagery helps to heighten the atmosphere and to develop a theme.  Many of these images may symbolise for the author some significant occasion or thought that is not so easy to grasp by the reader.  The following ideas may help in developing a deeper understanding of the events and characters which make up this novel.

NATURE IMAGERY

In ‘Silas Marner’ nature imagery is used extensively.  Eliot compares the Lantern Yard sect and its interminable discussions on salvation to ‘young, winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight’.  It is a vivid image of the misguided young people who seek without success a way to God.

Silas’s life in Raveloe is compared to a spider weaving ‘from pure impulse, without reflection’.  This conjures up a vision of a creature in mental semi-darkness working to a fixed pattern without joy or without understanding of what he is doing.  Later, his life is described as an ‘insect-like existence’: he sits weaving ‘towards the end of his web’.  The spider image suggests an unlived-in, musty, dusty, soul-less house.  In the Rainbow Inn the farrier tells him that his eyes are like an insect’s so that he can’t see much at a time.

Godfrey, should the Squire disinherit him, would be ‘as helpless as an uprooted tree’.  We are given the idea of dead wood, useless for anything but burning, unable to grow or develop.

In Chapter II Eliot contrasts the rich world of Raveloe with the frugality of Lantern Yard: ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’, ‘careless abundance’.

Silas’s love of his earthenware pot shows that ‘the sap of affection is not all gone’.  He gives life to the pot; it has been ‘his companion’, ‘always lending its handle to him’, wearing an expression of ‘willing helpfulness’.  This personification sadly emphasises how starved of human affection Silas is.

The presence of a wife and mother in the home is described as ‘the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen’.   This suggests the continuous outpouring of love and fear of God given as a kind of nourishing food.

Nancy Lammeter is equated with the sun – the Lammeter household is ‘sunned’ by her smile.  She would have drawn Godfrey safe to the green banks where it was easy to step firmly, but he allows himself to be dragged back ‘into the mud and slime’ by his association with Molly.  The contrast is vivid.

The loss of Silas’s gold left his soul ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert’.  The desert may be associated by contrast with the plant images – growth and fruitfulness – that occur regularly in the story.

In relation to Silas’s first visit to the Rainbow Inn and his involvement with the villagers, Eliot says, ‘Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.’

In connection with Godfrey’s reliance on Chance, Eliot says of Chance that ‘the evil principle deprecated in that religion (i.e. Chance) is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’.  This is an image of the Biblical notion that bad seed brings forth bad fruit.

Eliot introduces the notion of Eppie’s mind growing into knowledge and Silas’s mind growing into memory.  This is a striking image of the future and the past growing towards one another; she clings to him, he to her.

The Squire’s anger is compared to ‘fiery volcanic matters that cool and harden into rock’.  It is an excellent image of a man who decides explosively in anger  and will not change his decisions even though reason tells him he is wrong.

In spite of Dolly’s efforts to befriend him, Silas is still the ‘shrunken rivulet’ with only this difference, ‘that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction’.  This is an excellent image as it helps us to see him in terms of the rise and fall of a river.  It also points to the flood that will be released with Eppie’s coming.

The story of Eppie’s arrival and Silas’s new relations with the villagers is shown by Dolly in the imagery of Nature: ‘…..It’s like the night and the morning, the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest – one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how or where.’

In Chapter XVII when Nancy’s attention has been drawn to the people heading towards the Stone-pit, she looks out on the churchyard.  Her uneasiness is compared to the raven ‘flapping its slow wing across the sunny air’.  It is a realistic image; the raven is a symbol of death and disaster.

There are some remarkably descriptive nature images in the novel, e.g. in Chapter II there is the picture of the Raveloe world.  In Chapter X there is a striking picture of Christmas Day.

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IMAGERY OF GOLD

The image of gold is important.  As money it represents the downfall of Silas; in the form of Eppie’s golden hair it brings about his salvation.  The story commences with the theft of the money from Lantern Yard and Silas’s loss of faith in God and his fellow-men.  In Raveloe his future is all dark: ‘the little light he possessed spread its beam so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night’.  Later we read that his future was all dark, for ‘there was no unseen love that cared for him’.  This darkness will be replaced by the shining life of his new God – gold!   ‘How the guineas shone!’  When he loses his new god  he will be dark again until the real gold – Eppie – will save him.  He loves his gold for itself, not for what he can buy.  When it is stolen he has nothing left.  It had given him a purpose; it had been a ‘clinging life’.

There is an image of a locked casket with its treasure inside to describe Silas before the theft.  Now the casket is empty and the lock broken.  A casket keeps things in and his heart is imprisoned with his gold.  The empty casket shows that his love has fled, but it also leaves a way open for his love for Eppie.

His first sight of Eppie is startling.  Before his fit he has been thinking of his gold; the first thing he sees when he recovers is gold.  ‘Gold! – his own gold brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’  A contrast is made between the soft warm curls of the child and the hard coins.  He believes that the child has come instead of the gold – that the gold has turned into the child.

Later, Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas with his gold and Eppie’s living gold which forces his thoughts onwards.  The gold demanded that he should stay increasingly longer at his monotonous weaving; Eppie calls him from it.  Money is no longer important since Eppie has replaced it.

The finding of the gold in the quarry infects Godfrey and Nancy with such a feeling of shame that Dunstan has been a thief.  It has already caused Dunstan’s death.

Silas admits to Eppie that, at times, he had missed the gold, but that now it means nothing, so when Godfrey tries to use it as a lever to persuade Silas to surrender Eppie, he is doomed to failure on this point.

It is only at the end Godfrey realises that he himself had rejected the most precious gold of all.

 

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IMAGERY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Light and darkness have a symbolic meaning in the novel.  The symbolism is uncomplicated.  It first appears in Eliot’s description of the young men in Lantern Yard as young birds ‘fluttering forsaken in the twilight’ – people who have lost their way in the semi-darkness.  In Lantern Yard the blackness of the night may symbolises Silas’s ‘frustrated belief’ – suggesting a kind of hell on earth.  Even the future is all dark because, paradoxically, there is no Unseen Love that cares for him.

The description of Squire Cass’s parlour with the fading grey light falling dimly on the walls may symbolise the decadence of the Cass family and the absence of the guiding hand of a mother and wife.

Eliot prepares us for the theft of Silas’s gold by her description of the mist turning to rain.  Dunstan’s dark deed is in contrast to the bright fire in Silas’s cottage.  The darkness will hide him, but it will also make his way so hazardous that he will slip.  The light from the cottage may symbolise the gold that has tempted him.  Light will later save Silas from his greed.

When the child, Eppie, crawls towards the light in Silas’s cottage she is leaving the blackness of Molly’s life as well as the darkness outside.  She may symbolise the light she will bring to Silas so that he, too, can leave his darkness.  The end of the snowfall and the parting of the clouds may symbolise the beginning of the break in the clouds that have overhung his life.

Dolly says of Eppie’s coming – ‘it’s like the night and the morning’ – the one goes, the other comes and ‘we know nothing how or where’.  Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas and his gold with Eppie’s m world of life – the former has been hidden in the darkness and the latter loves sunshine.  There is also a contrast between the brightness in Silas’s eye and the light of the candle that falls on the gold (after the gold has been found).  The light in his eye is an inner light; the candle-light is dim by comparison.

On the visit to Lantern Yard, Eppie is uneasy at the darkness of the place.  This may also symbolise the lack of spiritual light there.  When they return to Raveloe, Silas says that he has had ‘light enough to trusten by’.  Light has overcome darkness.

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SYMBOLISM

Some of the characters and many of the things in the story may have a symbolic function, e.g. the broken piece of pottery that Silas puts together may symbolise the spark of affection that still exists within him.  We have already dealt with light and darkness as symbols.

Among the characters, Eppie may symbolise salvation.  Dunstan – evil; Squire Cass – the decadence of the landed gentry; Dolly Winthrop – faith.  The villagers in the Rainbow Inn may symbolise certain types in our own world.

Lantern Yard may represent the gloom in the lives of the members of the sect.  The proximity of their place of worship to the jail may also stand for the restrictions and lack of freedom there.

When the child, Eppie, is carried to the Red House by Silas there is a symbolic and prophetic rejection of Godfrey by the child and an acceptance of Silas when she looks away from Godfrey and slowly turns to Silas.

The furze-bush where her mother had been found is a symbol to Eppie of her own past and also perhaps of her mother.  The furze is thorny, as Molly’s life had been.

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Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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  1. Theme of Redemption

This theme may be divided into two parts, (a) the salvation of Silas Marner from the mental and spiritual disintegration which is taking place within him because of his disillusionment with and rejection of God, and because of his miserliness and withdrawal from society, and (b) the salvation of Godfrey Cass from spiritual destruction because of his secret marriage to Molly Farren and, later, his decision to disown his own child.

There is the notion of the purging of a tragic hero through suffering in the case of both of these characters, but one of them – Godfrey – is, in the end, denied what he demands most.  Yet both of them come to acquire self-knowledge.  Silas says, ‘I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.’  Godfrey, too, has consolation, ‘And I got you Nancy, in spite of all, and yet I’ve been grumbling and uneasy because I hadn’t something else – as if I deserved it.’

Eliot may be trying to point out that, without contact with other human beings, the heart dries up.  Silas rejects the notion of a loving God and of belief in his fellow-man as a result of his experiences in Lantern Yard.  God turned from him in the drawing of the lots; William Dane and Sarah betrayed him at the human level.

In Raveloe ‘there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst, and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him.’  Even his simple impulse to help Sally Oates rebounds on him, and he becomes more isolated.  Money now becomes his new God.  What affection he has left is bestowed on inanimate things – a small brown pot and his gold.  He becomes a miser.

The theft of his gold is the beginning of his salvation.  It brings the sympathy of the villagers – especially Dolly Winthrop.  He feels conscious of ‘dependence on their goodwill.’  The coming of Eppie (perhaps an Act of God) brings him consolation for his suffering.  He begins again to trust a human.  He accepts Dolly’s advice that Eppie should be christened, although he does not know what this means.  With Eppie he lives again.  When he brings her to the village he is met with ‘smiling faces and cheerful questioning.’  She has replaced his gold.  He has been out of touch with Nature as he was in Lantern Yard.  It is Eppie who brings him back to it.  There is no more betrayal.  When Godfrey asks Eppie to come with him, she stands with Silas.

Godfrey’s faults are the result of his weakness of character.  He has a ‘natural irresolution’, ‘moral cowardice’, and is ‘indecisive’.  His marriage to Molly is a result of weakness but also of pity for her.  His motives for concealing the marriage are selfish – fear of discovery, his father’s anger, the loss of his inheritance and of Nancy.

His silent reaction to the news that Molly is dead is a sinful fear that she may not be dead.  His rejection of Eppie is a spoken one.  He disowns his moral and paternal obligations and lacks the moral courage to give up Nancy.  He is now living a lie and tries to justify it by assuring himself that he is thinking only of Nancy’s happiness.  He is punished by a childless marriage.  He has, however, a conscience about Eppie and almost accepts his childlessness as a punishment.  Further punishment and suffering come with the shame of Dunstan’s theft, but he accepts God’s will for the first time and admits his secret to Nancy.  He bitterly realises that Nancy would have gladly accepted Eppie had she known the situation.  He is further punished by Eppie’s rejection of him. His redemption comes in his realisation of the truth that ‘there’s debt we can’t pay like money debts.’  He has suffered, but recognises the injustice of it.  He, too, has some consolation in Nancy.

  1. Theme of Isolation and Communication

The degrees of isolation and communication through which the central character – Silas – passes are extreme.  One might divide his life into four distinct parts – distinct because he is subject to a change of disposition each time.

  1. There is his period in Lantern Yard.
  2. Then his first fifteen years in Raveloe during which he becomes dedicated to his gold and so more isolated.
  3. Next comes the short period after the theft of his gold when he is deprived of any comfort and has only limited communication with the people of Raveloe.
  4. Finally, Eppie arrives and Silas is no longer isolated.

In Lantern Yard he is immersed in the life of the sect.  He shares the rigid, Calvinistic society of his fellow-believers, the companionship of William Dane and the company of Sarah.  His self-doubting is offset by William’s certainty – although in the end of this period God seems to desert him.  William falsely accuses him of theft and Sarah deserts him, he has been relatively contented.

When he arrives in Raveloe he is a stranger and, so an object of suspicion.  He hates ‘the thought of the past’; there is ‘nothing that calls out his love and fellowship towards the strangers in the village.’  He contributes to his own isolation in his failure to invite anyone to visit him and his failure to mix with others except on business.  The riches of Nature are in contrast with the narrow, frugal life (physical and spiritual) of Lantern Yard.  There is no ‘Unseen Love’ that cares for him.  The children fear him and the villagers wonder at his solitary isolation.  The results of his impulsive desire to help Sally Oates are disastrous. He refuses to exploit the villagers and they drive him back to isolation.  His attempt to establish a relationship has, through no fault of his own, driven a wedge between the villagers and him.  Money now becomes his god.  He still retains a spark of affection but it is for inanimate things like his broken pot.  When his gold is stolen, the disaster seems worse than that of Lantern Yard.  His soul is ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert.’  Yet his impulse is to go for help.  He goes to the Rainbow Inn.  It is here that he communicates with others.

Afterwards the neighbours try to ‘get through’ to him.  He is not yet one of them, but is affected by their anxiety to help.  He feels that people might help him.  Their kindness may spring from their recognition of suffering – ‘pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment.’  Although he still feels desolate he is now aware that he depends on others.  Yet he is not cheered by Dolly as ‘human love and divine faith have not yet been released in him.’

The coming of Eppie changes everything.  It makes the villagers more actively sympathetic.  She unlocks the door to his happiness within the community when he determines to meet the neighbours for her sake.  He acquires knowledge of life from his new acquaintances.  As he grows older, his eyes ‘seem to have gathered a longer vision as is the way with eyes that have been short-sighted in life.’  This may be symbolic of his spiritual outlook.  Eliot says that a sense of presiding goodness and human trust come with all pure peace and joy.  The human trust is important; he had lost it after Lantern Yard.

He has a bad moment when Eppie speaks of marriage.  Is his gold again being stolen?  But she reassures him.  His final trial comes when Godfrey arrives to ask for Eppie.  Silas’s decision not to stand in her way is heroic, but he has no need to fear; he will never again be isolated.

Godfrey Cass may be included as one whose failure to communicate contributes to his unhappiness.  The Red House atmosphere is not conducive to communication, as love does not exist within it.  His lack of true communication with Nancy prevents him getting to know her until it is almost too late.  He is afraid to tell Squire Cass of his marriage to Molly, a social inferior, because he fears the Squire’s reaction and because he feels that he will lose Nancy.  He again fails to communicate when he denies knowledge of Molly and then rejects his child.  When he finally tells Nancy of the marriage, she tells him that she would have accepted Eppie.  He now realises that his reticence has been for nothing.

Again, when he calls Silas to surrender Eppie, he shows his inability to understand Silas by speaking in terms of bodily warts and money and by painting Eppie’s future as a lady and contrasting it with the rough life before her if she remains with Silas.  It is only when he faces the truth and accepts the justice of his punishment that he is saved.  He now knows himself and is rewarded when Nancy’s eyes and his ‘meet in trust’.

  1. Theme of Chance

In Chapter XI Eliot personally intervenes to comment on Chance – ‘In this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called old-fashioned.  Favourable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’  she personifies Chance as a deity, ‘the mighty creator of success and its worship is a religion of these people.’

Godfrey is always hopeful that something will turn up to save a dangerous situation.  As a result he finds it hard to make a decision about anything.  So he falls back on ‘casualties’ (accidental happenings).  He fails to admit his marriage to Molly Farren because he feels that, the longer the interval before revelation, the more chances there are of deliverance from some of the unpleasant consequences to which he may have subjected himself.  When Dunstan fails to return from the sale of Wildfire, Godfrey asks himself why he should cut off his hopes by his own admission of his misdeeds.  If Dunstan fails to return soon everything may blow over.  When the Squire tells him to propose to Nancy with the half-threat that the Squire may himself speak to Nancy’s father he flies to ‘his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences – perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence’.  Not until Eppie rejects him does he face the truth and accept the consequences.

 Silas Marner, too, at one stage leans on Chance.  He, like the Lantern Yard brethren, believes that Chance in the form of ‘trial by lot’, reflects God’s judgement.  When his innocence is not borne out, he rejects God.  Later, after Eppie’s coming, he agrees with Dolly that there is good in the world.  He feels that the ‘lots’ were compensated for by Eppie.  ‘There’s dealings with us – there’s dealings.’  Eppie, too, has arrived by Chance.

  1. Theme of Love

Love runs through the novel as a recurring motif.  It is associated with other themes.  Its absence may be noted in Lantern Yard where the devotees have been taught that they are miserable sinners, so that they are prepared to believe in the sinfulness of their brethren and to punish it without an impulse of charity or human pity.  Each thinks only of his own salvation.  Lantern Yard also suppresses Silas’s love of Nature.

Yet, in Raveloe, Silas feels ‘a rush of pity’ for Sally Oates.  He also shows grief for his broken pot, but his affection is for inanimate things.  At first the villagers in Raveloe, because of their superstition, contribute to Silas’s loveless life by withholding whatever neighbourliness they might normally bestow on a fellow-human.  His miserliness saps his love for other human beings; gold is his true love.

His love is rekindled, albeit slowly when his gold is stolen.  He feels pity for Jem Rodney whom he accuses of the theft, realising the injustice of the accusation. (This is an echo of what befell himself in Lantern Yard).  His apology is, in effect, a gesture of love.  The kindness of the villagers to someone in trouble is an indication that love is there if he can meet it half-way.  Dolly Winthrop is in the vanguard of human compassion; she is ‘mild and patient’ and helps those who need help.  This is true love.

The coming of Eppie brings true love into Silas’s life; not alone the love she gives to him and the love which he bestows on her, but also the friendship and sympathy of the villagers.  Her pranks and naughtiness make him realise that love makes claims on him, yet he cannot really find it within himself to punish her.  After sixteen years with her he has acquired the ‘mild, passive happiness of love-crowned age in his face.’  Eliot says that, because of his love and the seclusion of his cottage, she has been preserved from the coarseness of village talk and habits, so that she has a touch of refinement.  In the end his love for her is repaid by her declaration of love for him and her rejection of Godfrey.  He now asserts his trust in God.

Godfrey and Dunstan have been deprived of love since their mother’s death.  Their father is weak in character and self-indulgent.  He rules his household by fear.  He lacks courtesy and makes no attempt to understand his sons.  Dunstan has no saving graces; he is entirely lacking in love.  Godfrey shows his weakness in marrying Molly Farren, but he is conscious of the harm he has done to her.  He loves Nancy Lammeter and sees her as his loving wife, but even in his love he has no real knowledge of her and so postpones admitting to her his unfortunate marriage.

Eliot says ‘…..the yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature’, and that the affectionate-hearted Godfrey is becoming bitter and subject to cruel wishes (presumably for the early death of Molly).  When he hears that she is dead, his fear is that she may not really be dead.  He then rejects his own child – Eppie.  This is the antithesis of love.  There is happiness and love in his marriage to Nancy, although it may be asked if Nancy falls short of love in her refusal to adopt the child.  When Godfrey finally admits to his marriage to Molly, their eyes meet ‘ with awe in them, as at a crisis which suspended affection.’  Is there a temporary cessation of love here on Nancy’s part?  She speaks of a chance lost of having a child to love her.  After their abortive attempt to persuade Eppie to live with them, they again look into one another’s eyes.  It is now that, although Eppie has rejected him, he knows that Nancy truly loves him, ‘And I got you, Nancy, in spite of all.’

 5. Theme of Nature

Eliot believed that Nature is an influence in developing the human person.  Silas rejects Nature in Lantern Yard, briefly returns to it to aid Sally Oates and then, under the influence of Eppie, finally returns.  Eppie’s wish is for a garden.  This may indicate her simplicity and that Nature is sufficient for her.  It is also possible to discuss human nature under this theme.  (See further notes on Nature Imagery here.)

 

  1. The Theme of Knowledge

The theme of Knowledge has some importance in the novel.  There is a suggestion that knowledge of oneself and others, or the lack of it, plays an important part in both characterisation and plot.  Eliot, speaking of the Lantern Yard sect with its constant discussions on the possibility of salvation, says it resembles ‘young winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight.’  This suggests a misdirected search for knowledge that is in contrast with Dolly Winthrop’s certain trust in ‘Them above’.

The superstition of the villagers in Raveloe that helps keep Silas in isolation is a result of their fear that Silas possesses knowledge that they do not have, and their belief that knowledge and skill come from the devil.  When his gold is stolen, the villagers see him as without knowledge and so, godly.

With the coming of Eppie, Silas acquires knowledge from his now sympathetic neighbours. His discussions with Dolly also help him towards religious contentment.  He also gains self-knowledge when Godfrey cannot begin to understand why Silas might not wish to part with Eppie.  Yet Eliot says that it is only the want of sufficient knowledge that allows him to be deliberately unkind.

Godfrey also undergoes a journey towards self-knowledge.  You might try to map this journey yourself using the incidents in the novel.

 

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‘Of Mice and Men’: Brief Analysis of Characters, Metaphors and Themes.

 

Courtesy of carra-lucia - books .co.uk

Courtesy of carra-lucia – books .co.uk

The title that Steinbeck finally chose for his novel emphasises the unpredictable nature of existence as well as its promise, George and Lennie’s blasted dream to ‘live of the fatta the lan’.  Taken from a poem by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, the novel’s title suggests the transitory quality of even ‘best laid schemes’.  Burns’s poem tells of an unfortunate field mouse whose home is flattened by a plough:

But Mousie, thy art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft a-gley

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain

For promised joy.

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Steinbeck 

CHARACTER PROFILES

GEORGE: George is the story’s main protagonist, a small, quick man with well-defined features.  A migrant ranch worker, George dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own place and be his own boss, living off the land.  The hindrance to his objective is his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie, with whom he has travelled and worked since Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom George knew, died.  The majority of George’s energy is devoted to looking after Lennie, whose blunders prevent George from working toward his dream, or even living the life of a normal rancher.  Thus, George’s conflict arises in Lennie, to whom he has the ties of long-time companionship that he so often yearns to break in order to live the life of which he dreams.  This tension strains George into demonstrating various emotions, ranging from anger to patience to sadness to pride and to hope.

LENNIE:  George’s companion, the source of the novel’s conflict.  Lennie, enormous, ungainly, and mentally slow, is George’s polar opposite both mentally and physically. Lennie’s ignorance and innocence and helplessness, his childish actions, such as his desire to pet soft things, contrast his physical bulk, making him likeable to readers.  Although devoid of cruel intentions, Lennie’s stupidity and carelessness cause him to unwittingly harm animals and people, which creates trouble for both him and George.  Lennie is tirelessly devoted to George and delights in hearing him tell of the dream of having a farm, but he does not desire the dream of the American worker in the same way that George does.  His understanding of George’s dream is more childish and he grows excited at the possibility of tending the future rabbits, most likely because it will afford him a chance to pet their soft fur as much as he wishes.  Nevertheless, a dream is a dream, different for everyone, and George and Lennie share the similar attribute of desiring what they haven’t got.  Lennie, however, is helpless to attain his dream, and remains a static character throughout, relying on George to fuel his hope and save him from trouble.

CANDY:  He is the old, one-handed swamper who is the first to befriend George and Lennie at Soledad.  He is humble and weary and seems to be at the end of his line after Carlson shoots his last possession and companion, his old, blind, dog.  ‘When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me’, Candy confesses to George and Lennie, hoping for a similar fate as his dog.  But when he hears the two talking of their little place, Candy offers all his money and his meagre services to be in on the dream.  His substantial sum of money and the fact that he knows of a place make it impossible for George to refuse him.  Candy clings to this hope of a future as a drowning man would to a piece of driftwood.  It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement and indignation, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley’s wife.  And when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and shatters the reality of the dream, Candy becomes hopeless and full of anguish, the broken shell of a man.

CURLEY:  He is the boxer, the son of the boss, the angry and hot-headed obstacle to George’s attempt to keep Lennie out of trouble at Soledad.  Insecure because of his size and over-protective of his wife, Curley is eager to fight anyone he perceives as a threat to his self-image.  Lennie unwittingly incurs Curley’s antagonism simply because of his size, and the reader immediately braces for future confrontation.  Curley remains undeveloped, forever little and forever mean, poking his head in at various points in the novel, either to look for his wife or to stir up trouble on account of her.

CURLEY’S WIFE:  Nameless and flirtatious, Curley’s wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad: ‘Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up.  You wasn’t no good’, he says to her dead body in his grief.  The workers, George included, see her as having ‘the eye’ for every guy on the ranch, and they cite this as the reason for Curley’s insecurity and hot-headed temperament.  But Curley’s wife adds complexity to her own characterisation, confessing to Lennie that she dislikes Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone to talk to.  Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood, but it went unrealised, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.

CROOKS:  called such because of a crooked spine, Steinbeck does not develop Crooks, the Negro stable buck, until Chapter Four, describing him as a ‘proud, aloof man.  He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs’.  Crooks is bitter, indignant, angry, and ultimately frustrated by his helplessness as a black man in a racist culture.  Wise and observant, Crooks listens to Lennie’s talk of the dream of the farm with cynicism.  Although tempted by Candy, Lennie and George’s plan to buy their own place, Crooks is constantly reminded (in this case by Curley’s wife) that he is inferior to whites and, out of pride, he refuses to take part in their future farm.

SLIM:  The tall, jerkline skinner whom Steinbeck describes as something of a living legend: ‘He moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen.  He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders.  He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule.  There was gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke ….. His hatchet face was ageless.  He might have been thirty-five or fifty.  His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.’  Slim lingers in the shadow of this overwhelming description throughout the novel.  He serves as the fearless, decision-maker when conflicts arise among the workers and wins the confidence of George, offering advice, comfort, and quiet words of wisdom.

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Speed Read 'Of Mice and Men' (Courtesy of www.irisreading.com)

 METAPHOR ANALYSIS

 CANDY’S DOG:  ‘A dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes’, Candy’s dog is a far cry from his sheepherding days.  Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog: ‘Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism.  He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself.  Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?  And Candy is left with no other option, but to shoot his longtime companion.  This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves top be no good to George and no good to himself.  Steinbeck re-emphasises the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good.  And when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunk house, Steinbeck having placed him outside with the dog, away from the other men, his gun shot saved for the novel’s end.

THE CRIPPLES:  Four of Steinbeck’s characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel.  They are physical manifestations of one of the novel’s major themes: the schemes of men go awry.  Here, to reiterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry.  It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme.  And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person’s will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie’s dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.

 SOLITAIRE:  George is often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while he is in the bunk house.  He never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task.  Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters in the novel, who have no one but themselves.  It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be ‘solitaire’, to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man.

THE DEAD MOUSE AND THE DEAD DOG: These two soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills are both metaphors and foreshadowing devices.  As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it.  Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless.  The dead mouse is also an allusion to the novel’s title – Of Mice and Men, a reminder that dreams will go wrong, even the desire to pet a mouse.  And because bad things come in threes, Lennie’s two accidental killings of animals foreshadow the final killing of Curley’s wife, an accident that seals his fate and ruins the dream for him, George and Candy.

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Steinbeck 6

THEME ANALYSIS

When discussing the various themes in Steinbeck’s novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line from one of Robert Burns’s poems: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglay.’  Translated into modern English, this line reads: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’  This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel’s action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come.  For, indeed, the novel’s two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves.  The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfilment.

This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream.  George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labour.  Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sow with no one to take anything from them or give them orders.  George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other.  But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.

All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person.  Curley’s wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope.  Crooks’ situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America – the oppression of the black people.  Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognised as a human being, let alone have a place of his own.  Crooks’ hopelessness underlies that of George and Lennie’s and Candy’s and Curley’s wife.  But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better.  Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death.  Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes.  Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel’s title, that to dream leads to despair.

Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie.  The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other.  Their companionship contrasts with the loneliness that surrounds them – the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of Curley’s wife, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple – and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included.  And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well.  And can we call it friendship?  Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie.  As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he, ‘can’t get rid of him’.  Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie.  He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself.  Most likely it is a combination of all these motivations.  Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie poses for the both of them.  George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel.  This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie’s company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.

By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him).  The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream, and he is forced to admit that it has gone hopelessly awry.  His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker.  Slim’s comfort at the end (‘You hadda George’), indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one’s dream in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise, the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.