Confirmation in Clouncagh 1963

The accompanying film clip records the parishioners from Knockaderry and Clouncagh gathering for the Confirmation ceremony which took place in St. Mary’s Church in Clouncagh in 1963.  The ceremony was conducted by the Very Rev. Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick and he was assisted by Rev. Fr. Costello P.P.

The occasion was filmed by John Joe Harrold and we are grateful to jdtvideo for uploading the very historic footage to You Tube for our enjoyment.

 

 

Girls Confirmation Photo 1963

Included in photo is Bishop Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick, and Canon Costelloe.  The teachers are Miss Margaret Droney and Mrs. Eilish Hickey.

Back row: (left to right): Marie Sheehy, Eileen Lynch, Mary Cregan, Ann Quaid, Margaret Cregan, Violet Hennessy, Kathleen Chawke.

Front Row: Nora O’Gorman, Bridget Downes, Bridie Chawke, Catherine Butler, Jacinta Scanlan, Margaret Sheehy, Christina Quaid, Mary Curtin, Mary Noonan, Mary Chawke.

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Boys Confirmation Photo 1963

Canon Costelloe is at the left at the back, Bishop Murphy is in the centre at the back and on the extreme right is Master Micheál de Búrca.

Back row: (left to right): John Guiry (R.I.P.), John Wall, Patsy Downes, John Collum, David Noonan (R.I.P.), William Hickey, Michael Moloney, Donie O’Sullivan, Michael Dowling.

Third row: David Downes, Jack Hennessy, Eddie Liston, John O’Gorman, Paddy Curtin, Philip Hickey, Liam O’Sullivan, William O’Connor, Jerry Hennessy, Eddie O’Connor.

Second row: Ted O’Gorman (R.I.P.), Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Paddy Walsh, David Guiry (R.I.P.), Bernard Mackessy, Jimmy Dowling, Eddie Dillon, Harry Maune, Gerard Moloney (R.I.P.), Tom Scanlan.

Front row: Michael Cunningham, Thomas Butler, Michael Dowling, Liam Doherty, Noel O’Gorman, David Collum, Joe Dowling, Christopher McCabe.

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Sources: Knockaderry Clouncagh Christmas Annual 1986 and Kno0ckaderry Clouncagh Annual 1990.  Thanks to jdtvideo for making footage available on You Tube.

A Room With a View

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THE HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND

This review and notes are based on the Merchant Ivory Film of A Room with a View, which  was directed by James Ivory and produced in 1986.  It is based on the novel of the same name, which was written by E.M. Forster in the early 1900s and set in 1907, at the end of the Edwardian era.  This was a moment in British history when Britain was still an imperial power.  It is an old love story with a happy ending (much like Pride and Prejudice).  The film was shot on location in Tonbridge Wells, Kent and in Florence, Italy.  In 1987 the film won three Oscars (and a further six nominations) and also won five BAFTA Awards and one Golden Globe.

THE STORY

Lucy Honeychurch, a young English lady, is on a visit to Florence in Italy, chaperoned by her cousin Miss Charlotte Bartlett.  They had been led to believe that they would have a wonderful view at the Pensione Bertolini, but this is not the case when they arrive.  Another couple, a father and son, overhear them when they express their dissatisfaction and they promptly offer to exchange rooms.  Charlotte is offended at this presumption for her young cousin’s sake, especially when the young man is dangerously attractive.  However, the Reverend Beebe, the rector of Lucy’s parish at home in England, happens to be staying there as well.  He offers to act as an intermediary and the rooms are exchanged without further ado.

The next morning, Charlotte tours the city with Eleanor Lavish, a lady novelist whom she had met at dinner the night before.  Lucy goes for a walk alone and she witnesses a violent street fight where a young man is seriously injured.  She becomes weak and faints from the shock.  Luckily, George Emerson, the young man she had met in the Pensione, is there to help her back to her room.

The following day, the visitors in the Pensione arrange to go sightseeing as a group and the Emersons also are part of the group.  George and Lucy become separated from the others and he kisses her in a cornfield.  Charlotte witnesses what happened between them and after they return to the city she arranges for them to leave their rooms the next day.  The women agree not to tell anyone what has happened to Lucy.

Back in England, Lucy accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr. Cecil Vyse, who is a rather pompous, arrogant snob.  By a chance arrangement, the Emersons take a house in the area, close to the Honeychurch residence.  Lucy’s brother Freddy, and the Rector, Mr. Beebe, invite George to go swimming in a nearby ‘lake’ on his first day in Summer Street.  The men are quite spirited, and they chase each other around the lake for fun.  Unfortunately, this occurs at the same time as the ladies are taking their afternoon walk in the woods and they see the men in all their naked glory!

Now that George has arrived and Freddy befriends him, he is invited to the Honeychurch home regularly to play tennis.  Lucy is perturbed by George’s renewed proximity.  The contrast between George and the stuffy Cecil is very obvious and this unsettles Lucy.

When Charlotte comes to stay with the family, she is very concerned for Lucy in case the presence of George will do harm to her engagement to Cecil.  One day, Cecil is reading and criticising what he considers to be a dreadful novel and both Lucy and George are listening.  The book happens to be by Eleanor Lavish, the woman who stayed in the same pensione in Florence as they did.  The novel is set in Florence and Cecil reads a paragraph describing exactly where and when George kissed Lucy.  On the way back into the house, George kisses Lucy again out of sight of the others.

Lucy is upset by this and hurt that Charlotte has told Eleanor Lavish after they had agreed not to tell anyone about what had occurred in Italy.  Lucy asks George in the presence of Charlotte to leave.  George gives a passionate account of his love for her and tries to make her see that Cecil only cares for her as he would a prize possession.  Lucy denies the fact that she may love George, but all the same, she breaks off her engagement with Cecil soon after this.

When George sees that Lucy will not have him, he decides to leave Summer Street because he cannot bear to be near her.  Lucy is surprised and shocked to see the furniture being removed from the house.  Mr. Emerson talks to her and makes a heartfelt plea to her to stop denying the truth.  Realisation dawns on her that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View.

THEMES 

The themes which we will consider and touch on here are: Love versus hatred, The importance of social class and self-deception and self-realisation.

A Room with a View, deals with the discovery that real love is a powerful and regenerative force: essentially it is a love story with a happy ending.  In the film, Lucy Honeychurch experiences a transition from a superficial understanding of love to a full understanding of its power and potential.  The film uses many devices to illustrate this change:

  • The language of the characters
  • Their actions and gestures
  • The symbolic use of landscape and flowers
  • The metaphor of a room with a view.

Unlike a play and a novel, which rely heavily on the reader’s ability to interpret the subtlety and significance of images or references made in the texts, A Room with a View can guide the viewer to their meaning by using effective cinematography.

In the opening sequence of the film, the courtyard view which Lucy has from her window is very disappointing.  She was expecting a spectacular view of Florence and this indicates to the viewer Lucy’s desire for new experiences.  The room with a view becomes a metaphor for Lucy’s desire to live an exciting and full life.

Lucy’s disappointment with the restricted view is captured by the close-up camera shot of her face.  This is intensified by her costume and by the incessant chatter of her cousin Charlotte.

In the dinner sequence, the camera focuses on a large question mark which George Emerson has arranged with the food on his plate.  He deliberately shows this question mark to Lucy so that it becomes a symbolic representation for the viewer of their quest to find a meaningful and passionate existence.

The film clearly shows, even in the opening sequences, that the conventions which govern English society are useless in Italy.  This is reflected in the open and direct manner of Mr. Emerson who offers Lucy and Charlotte the opportunity to change rooms.  Mr. Emerson’s passionate plea that they should have a view indicates his emotional nature and affinity with the workings of the human heart: ‘I don’t care what I see outside.  My vision is within.  Here is where the birds sing; here is where the sky is blue.’

To emphasise Emerson’s passionate nature even further, the camera focuses on his face, which changes from a look of congeniality when he first suggests the switch, to a rising colour in his cheeks and a pleading look in his eyes.  The shot also captures his emphatic gesture of beating his chest with his fork as he speaks, to indicate that his heart is where he feels life most powerfully.

The dialogue between Lucy, Charlotte, Mr. Beebe and the Misses Alan, as they discuss Mr. Emerson’s proposal, illustrates the conflict between the dictates of society and individual free will.  Miss Catherine Alan’s opinion, that things which are indelicate can sometimes be beautiful, is a philosophy which Lucy adopts for her stay in Italy.

When Charlotte accepts the Emerson’s offer, she takes the larger of the two rooms for herself, explaining to Lucy that it belonged to George: ‘In my small way I am a woman of this world and I know where things can lead to.’

The ambiguity of this statement is apparent and hints at the physical attraction which exists between Lucy and George.  It is also quite a pathetic statement, and though the viewer is not prone to like Charlotte at this stage in the film because of her ramrod stature, her severe hairstyle and her irritating personality, it does evoke a sense of empathy with her for her repressed emotions.

This shot is followed by the image of Lucy lying on the bed the next morning with a vertical strip of sunlight partly illuminating her face and body.  This sensual image is enhanced when she rises from the bed and opens the window onto a panoramic view of Florence.

These images of Lucy along with her passionate piano playing indicate her desire to be free to experience all aspects of life and also to be free from the constraints and petty rules of society.

The sequence of shots in Santa Croce illustrates the Emersons rejection of social norms and the religious hypocrisy of people like the Rev. Cuthbert Eager.  Mr. Emerson even makes fun of Giotto’s frescoes because he sees no truth in them.  While this statement might appear like ignorance to art historians or religious zealots, it is not meant to be blasphemous; rather it reflects his belief that spirituality alone, faith without emotion, cannot sustain the human heart.

 The close-up camera shots which move rapidly from fresco to fresco illustrates their disproportion to real life figures.  These shots can be contrasted with the opening of this sequence where, through a high camera angle, Lucy wanders through the vast space of the church on her own.  This contrast emphasises Lucy’s individualistic nature, which instinctively reacts against society’s expectations.  This point is also highlighted in her dialogue with Mr. Emerson who pleads with her to help his son to stop brooding: ‘I don’t require you to fall in love with my boy but please try to help him’.

The ambiguity of this exchange is further emphasised by Mr. Emerson’s reference to the ‘everlasting why’ which he says George is trying to answer and also to his belief that there is ‘a yes and a yes and a yes’ which lies at the side of the everlasting why.  These statements reflect an inner sensibility in Emerson to recognise an openness to love and passion in his son and most importantly a recognition of these qualities when he finds them in Lucy.  Emerson’s riddles are comparable to the cryptic language of the Fool in King Lear, the purpose of which is to provoke deep, soul-searching contemplation and honest interaction between characters.

While the Santa Croce sequence is taking place, Miss Lavish is leading Charlotte on a tour of the ‘real’ Italy.  The camera follows them down little alleys and side streets, soaking up the atmosphere of Florence.  As they pass down one side street, three local Italian men try to catch their attention.  The individual responses of the women are interesting.  Miss Lavish seems to be oblivious to them but the camera focuses on Charlotte’s face, which reflects a sense of repulsion and scorn.  This reaction illustrates Charlotte’s inability to cope with raw passion and desire.  Miss Lavish, on the other hand, seems to have a rather lax attitude towards the rules which govern society.  They both try to be individualistic, self-sufficient and daring and both are opinionated and headstrong.  There is, however, a sense of innocence about them, as though they know the theory about love but have little actual experience of it.  This is illustrated by the over-sentimentalised love story which Miss Lavish writes, using Lucy and George as her protagonists.  Her philosophy that ‘one has always to be open, wide open to physical sensation’, is applied to Lucy when she describes her as a ‘young English girl transfigured by Italy’.

 The irony of this statement is emphasised in the next sequence which catapults Lucy into this very ‘transfiguration’.  The camera, having cut to Lucy, follows her across the piazza, widening into a high angle shot so that the frame encompasses the width and breadth of the square and Lucy is swallowed up into the crowd.  The camera then focuses on close up shots of various sculptures of classical figures holding decapitated heads and figures bearing swords and clubs, engaged in various acts of barbarity.  These shots, accompanied by ominous background music, are indicative of the terrible violence which Lucy is about to witness.  What looks like a fist fight between two young Italian men, suddenly turns to murder when one of them is stabbed.  The stabbing indicates the evil nature of humanity when passion overrides moral judgement.  It is juxtaposed with Lucy’s discovery of real love and thus serves to contrast the struggle between the destructive power of hatred and the transforming power of love.

 After the brawl in the piazza there is a low camera angle and close up shot of the victim’s face, so that the frame encompasses his mouth which is covered in blood and his eyes which reflect the horror of his attack.  The impact of this scene on Lucy is captured in the slow camera movement which lingers on the victim’s face in a moment of tension and drama, indicated by the swell of dramatic music in the background.  It is as if the blood which drains from the young man’s body is also being drained from Lucy, and the high camera angle which captures her fainting spell illustrates the subconscious impact which the event will evoke in her.  When George Emerson rescues Lucy from the frenzied crowd, the camera cuts back and forth between the victim’s predicament and Lucy’s attempt to disengage herself, both mentally and physically, from George.  Her awkwardness at this point reflects the intimacy that has occurred between them, an intimacy which would be frowned upon by society.

Her attempt at aloofness fails because he tells her that something tremendous has happened between them.  Lucy’s notion that after the upheavals experienced by people in their lives, they return to their old life is rejected by George, who tells her that this is not so with him.  His words are graphically illustrated by their close proximity to each other on the bridge and when he throws her pictures, which are covered in the victim’s blood, into the river.  The camera follows the pictures as they are swept away by the swift flowing waters, metaphorically representing the passion which has been ignited between them.  From this moment onwards every time Lucy and George encounter each other, the viewer is aware of the attraction that lies between them.  This is evident in their gestures and interactions with each other and most particularly in the amorous eye contact made between them.  All these relationships are highly charged with dramatic tension because of their forbidden nature.  They illustrate very effectively the possibility of desire creating strong characters or contemptible individuals.

 In the sequence where the company drive out in two carriages to see a view, the theme of love versus hatred is evident.  As they drive, Rev. Eager reprimands Phaethon, the young Italian coachman, for his intimacy with the young girl who accompanies him.  Their display of affection conflicts with Eager’s clinical unemotive personality and his patronising attitude to Lucy.  Ironically, while he points out various buildings and houses which he recognises, the driver and his companion continue to caress each other and it is obvious that Lucy finds their actions much more interesting than Rev. Eager’s conversation.

 Her curiosity is illustrated when the camera focuses on her as she spies on the lovers through Miss Lavish’s binoculars.  In this interesting shot the camera allows the viewer to see Lucy’s point of view.  The frame is confined to the close-up of the lovers’ kiss.  This emphasis on Lucy’s curiosity parallels her desire to experience passion and prepares the viewer for her climactic encounter with George later on in the sequence.

Later George and Lucy encounter each other in a secluded part of the view and finally succumb to their desires and they embrace passionately.  Their abandonment of proper etiquette is reflected in the scenery, which is untamed and surrounded by luscious greenery.  Ironically, it was Phaethon, the young Italian driver, who guided Lucy to George.  The paralleling of the Italian and his lover with George and Lucy emphasises the importance of love in the film.  The comparison between the Italian’s relaxed image in the carriage when Lucy comes upon him and her sensuous image in bed at the beginning of the film, reiterates her latent desire.

When Charlotte finds George and Lucy embracing, the look of repulsion on her face symbolises her suppression of emotion but when compared to her earlier conversation with Miss Lavish about a woman marrying a lover ten years younger than her, this seems contradictory.  The tone of the lovers’ conversation infers the scandalous nature of such behaviour but it also illustrates the emptiness of Charlotte’s existence; she can only talk about such passion while Lucy actually experiences it with George.  However liberating this experience is for Lucy, it becomes a burden which she must hide from her own conscience, her family and the other guests in the pensione.

It is interesting that after this episode, Charlotte continually orders Lucy away from the window in her room, but symbolically Lucy is drawn back to it again.  It is as if having once experienced such passion she is ensnared by it and wants to explore it more fully.

The sequence which takes place in England allows the viewer to contrast the dull conventionalism of English society with the open and unpretentious society of Italy.  This contrast is reinforced by the formality of Cecil Vyse’s proposal to Lucy.  The stylised position of their bodies as he proposed illustrates the emotional distance between them and is emphasised by the camera movement out through the drawing-room window to give the viewer Mrs. Honeychurch’s point of view of the setting.  The dialogue between Lucy and Cecil cannot be heard because the dialogue Mrs. Honeychurch has with her son has precedence.  Their dialogue implies Freddy’s dislike of Cecil’s pomposity and unsuitability for Lucy.  Her acceptance of Cecil’s proposal is her attempt to purge herself of the memory of George Emerson.

Cecil’s unsuitability for Lucy is reflected very well in Mr. Beebe’s face when Cecil tells him about the engagement.  The camera holds on Mr. Beebe and the viewer witnesses the mingling of his shock and sadness.

Subconsciously Cecil is probably aware of his unsuitability for Lucy because it is inferred when he suggests that she is more comfortable with him in a room than in the open countryside.  It is most definitely evident in the way he kisses her.  This shot reflects his inexperience and sexual indifference to her, while Lucy displays an avid desire for a passionate embrace.  Lucy’s disappointment with Cecil is reflected by the close-up camera shot of Lucy’s face, which highlights her bewilderment at expressing so much unrequited passion.  It is also evident in the dissolving of this frame into the sequence in the Italian countryside where George Emerson first kissed her.

In the London sequence when Cecil and his mother talk about Lucy it is in the tone of having acquired a possession.  This attitude is highlighted when Mrs. Vyse watches the reactions of her guests to Lucy’s piano playing.  The claustrophobic room where this sequence takes place also illustrates that the acquisition of objects is more important to the Vyses than self-knowledge or real feelings.

 The shot which focuses on the faces of Cecil and his mother captures their conspiratorial gaze and also forces Mrs. Vyse to look up at Cecil while he is talking.  This inference of Cecil’s superior attitude is reflected in his dialogue about the education of his children in the future.  The sense of confined space in this frame, suggested by the vast array of ornaments in the room, is paralleled to Lucy’s encounter with Cecil on the landing before she retires to bed.  The sense of awkward anticipation in her gestures underlines her inner frustration with Cecil’s lack of passion.  Their incompatibility is carried into the next sequence which contrasts the Vyses’ home with the Honeychurch’s’ sprawling house and gardens and the horseplay of Freddy and Lucy.

 The arrival of the Emersons in Summer Street propels the theme of love into the foreground of this sleepy, contented little place.  The first suggestion of the upheaval which their arrival will bring about is the swimming sequence.  The close camera shots of Freddy, Mr. Beebe and George Emerson frolicking and carousing about the place naked is symbolic of the raw and primitive passion which exists in human beings and which must find expression.  The seclusion of the frame with the three men surrounded by bushes and trees is contrasted with the long-distance shot of Cecil, Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy.

 When Lucy, Cecil and Mrs. Honeychurch come face to face with George and Freddy, their reactions are typical.  Only Lucy, who makes a tentative effort to shield her eyes with her umbrella, finds the episode humorous, while Cecil attempts to beat an escape route through the undergrowth with his cane, in order to avoid confrontation.

 Constantly in this film Cecil is used as a medium through which the upper classes are ridiculed and this is obvious in his self-delusion and his blindness about what is really going on around him.  He becomes a source of fun and is ridiculed.  This is illustrated in the sequence where Lucy and George embrace in the garden while Cecil reads Miss Lavish’s book about their first encounter in Italy.   Cecil is incapable of seeing things as they really are.  He is content in his delusion but outside influences force him to suffer for his ignorance.  Cecil is very pompous, dismissive and critical of other people.

 Lucy finally breaks off her engagement with Cecil.  This sequence takes place at night and Lucy’s delivery of the bad news, while she tidies the drawing room, begins politely but increases in vehemence.

The final sequence of the film reiterates the symbolic importance of a room with a view.  The close-up camera shot of George and Lucy, framed by the open window, against the backdrop of Florence in the distance, captures their love for each other.  The evils which exist in A Room with a View, therefore,  are found in the repression of society, the snobbery of class distinction and the inability to express openly the passions of the heart.

 LITERARY GENRE

This film is a classic romance, a love story with a happy ending.  Before the end, however, both Lucy and George Emerson must overcome obstacles to their love and in the end, they are happily reunited once again.

The viewer is expected to suspend disbelief concerning the numerous rather extravagant coincidences in the plot – the initial confusion over the room, meeting with George at the street fight, the great coincidence that there was a novelist present to enshrine the illicit kiss in fiction, and the even greater coincidence when that novel is read by Cecil in the presence of Lucy and George, etc. ….. !

PLOT

The plot of the film is straightforward.  The heroine and hero meet in a hotel in Florence and are attracted to one another.  The hero falls in love immediately but the heroine will not allow herself to do so.  They meet again in England and eventually marry despite their social backgrounds.

SETTING

The film is set in Florence and Summer Street in England.  It begins and ends in Florence, and it begins and ends with the view from the hotel window as the main focus.  The rest of the film is set in England.  There is only one brief visit to London when Lucy goes to stay with Cecil’s family.

VISUALS

The Florentine scene with the view as the main focus is a striking part of the film.  When the tourists go on their day trip the attractions of the Italian countryside are emphasised.  Art is an important topic and there are many shots of the architecture of Florence.  The stone carvings on the streets and the inside of a church, Santa Croce, are examined.  Pictures in the Art Gallery in London feature and Cecil compares Lucy to a Leonardo painting.  George and Lucy kiss in a beautiful cornfield and later on in a green countryside.  The colour green is evident everywhere.  The lush landscape of England is seen in the season of swimming and tennis parties.

CAMERA SHOTS/ANGLES

There is nothing unusual about the camera shots or angles: they reinforce and aid the leisurely flow of the story.  There is one flashback sequence when Cecil is clumsily venturing to kiss Lucy on the mouth and she cannot help remembering George’s passionate embrace in Italy.  This is shown briefly on screen accompanied by passionate music.  This is a very effective device as the difference between the two men is revealed and from here on in the film, the audience become alienated from Cecil.

There is clever use of camera shots in the cathedral in Florence.  An obedient crowd of tourists rotate their heads in the required direction when their guide indicates an important feature of its architecture.  The camera switches to the particular feature and back to the crowd in readiness for the next swivel of heads.  This happens a few times and it arouses the viewer’s curiosity.

When the men are bathing in the lake near Summer Street their enjoyment of the afternoon is clearly established in the viewers’ minds before the ladies and Cecil are introduced.  The camera changes from the men to the women a couple of times to heighten the suspense of the approaching discovery.

LIGHTING

There are no major changes in the lighting in the film.  Italy and England in the summer time are awash with light.  England indoors is often in shadow, this sometimes varies depending on the scene.  When Lucy is breaking up with Cecil the room is particularly dark.  Most of the shadowy lighting reflects their relationship.

MUSIC

The music varies with the scenes.  When emotional scenes are being shown, it is often subtle, and particularly romantic when Lucy and George are kissing.  There is a strong beat which heightens the drama when the fight occurs.  Near the conclusion, the music reaches a crescendo when Lucy realises who she really loves.

LANGUAGE

The accents of the actors are clearly distinguished.  Cecil Vyse, in particular, has what he considers to be a superior accent.  His speeches are in a haughty tone and this is more exaggerated when he is criticising or demeaning someone.  His affected language makes him both sound and look ridiculous.  Mr. Emerson speaks with a plain and unadorned accent to indicate a more honest character who speaks his mind.  He stands out in contrast to Cecil, and in particular to the company he meets in Florence and in England.

SYMBOLS

The piano is a key symbol in the film.  Lucy plays it regularly, expressing her strongest emotions through her playing.  It is Mr. Beebe who is struck by the fact that her personality does not match the way she plays.  He makes the point that if Lucy lives as she plays, ‘it will be very exciting for us, and for her’.  He suspects that she will break out someday and, ‘One day music and life will mingle.’

CULTURAL CONTEXT

Society is a central issue in the film.  For the Edwardians, social position was everything.   English hypocrisy and pretentiousness is highlighted here.  Social snobbery is rife.  Charlotte’s attitude towards Mr. Emerson in the pensione is a striking example of this.  The Miss Alans, an elderly couple, also illustrate this.  They both sympathise with Charlotte and Lucy for having to endure Mr. Emerson’s insistence on exchanging rooms.  Cecil is depicted as an insufferable snob, who sneers at everything that does not match his standards.  Ironically he shows how social standings and gentility do not always go together.  He is quite rude about Lucy’s brother Freddy because he is not an academic.  He also makes Lucy’s mother feel that she is not good enough for him.

Social snobbery at its worst is evident when Lucy visits Cecil’s home.  When Cecil and his mother discuss Lucy’s potential, it is as if they are discussing the potential of a new household acquisition. In the end, however, Lucy has the courage to overcome the social barriers that divide her and George and she decides to follow her instincts.  Much of the film concentrates on Lucy’s emancipation from the restrictions imposed upon her by the society that surrounds her.

The culture of England and Italy are also contrasted in the film.  The English visitors are restrained by their code of behaviour.  The Italians, who are only briefly introduced, are uninhibited, and are puzzled and slightly amused by the prudish behaviour of the English.  Charlotte Bartlett typifies this particularly English approach.  The rector, Mr. Eager, is also easily horrified at what he considers to be a blatant show of sexuality when he sees the young Italian driver embracing his girlfriend.

Therefore the viewer is presented with two very different cultures in this film: upper-class England and Florence.  England is emotionally restricted, bourgeois and staid.  Certain codes of behaviour are rigidly adhered to and women have to travel with a chaperone.  The stiffness and formality of this lifestyle is represented in the clothes of the time, manners, language and physical movement.  Florence, on the other hand, is rich, relaxed and flamboyant.  The social atmosphere is open and bright with streets full of life and endlessly fascinating.  The viewer sees the beautiful, airy streets and squares, stunning monuments and impressive architecture.

The colour and variety of the Italians engage the viewer, and the contrast between the social mores of the English visitors is marked.  The Italians chat easily to foreigners and just as easily get caught up in violent street fights.

And so, in the end, realisation dawns on Lucy that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View – and like all good love stories, they both live happily ever after!

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

 

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The Theme of Pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE THEME OF PREJUDICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Elizabeth Bennet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Darcy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

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A novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’

This novel lays claim to being (probably) the most memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’, the jazz-age America which came to such a devastating end with the Wall Street Crash at the end of that crazy decade.  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s finest achievement, is interesting as the record of an era and  of the disillusionment felt by thoughtful, sensitive people with established institutions and beliefs and in their sense of moral chaos in America after the Great War of 1914-1918.

Such was Fitzgerald’s success in expressing what was widely regarded as the spirit of the twenties that he was virtually credited with inventing the period.  It was inevitable that he should be honoured with such dubious titles of distinction as ‘the laureate of the jazz age’ and ‘the novelist of the American dream’.  It is true that he is remarkably successful in rendering some of the essential features of an exciting time.   Sometimes it seems that Gatsby captures the moment and renders a more convincing account of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ than many a historical document.

The fragile, rich, drifting world of the twenties was the emotional heart of Fitzgerald’s life, the source of his happiness as well as his misery.  Gatsby is a reflection of his passionate involvement in the issues of his day, but also of his ambivalent attitude to what he saw and experienced.  It is, however, more than that.  In 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling remarked that  The Great Gatsby was still as fresh and as relevant as when it first appeared in 1925, and that it had even gained in stature and relevance, something that could be said of few American novels of its time.  Sixty five years after Trilling’s comment, there is little evidence that interest in the novel has in any way declined.  Indeed, its popularity has been enhanced by Hollywood film producers who have brought the novel and the era to the silver screen with great success and acclaim.

The American Dream

The Great Gatsby is, like many American novels, about an American dream, one dreamed by the romantic, wealthy bootlegger who gives the book its title.  Gatsby’s dream begins when, as a poor young man, he falls in love with Daisy, a girl whose charm, youth and beauty are coloured and made glamorous in his eyes by a lifetime of wealth, whose very voice, he notes, ‘is full of money’.  His dream that Daisy may become accessible to one of his class and background is nourished by two circumstances: the war makes him an officer, and his post-war activities elevate him to riches.  Gatsby must, however, learn that such things will not bring Daisy wholly within his reach and that however ardently he may pursue it, his dream cannot be realised simply because he wills it.

Class differences

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald is dealing with an important social theme.  He is fascinated by class distinctions and their relationship with the possession of wealth.  This places him firmly in the tradition of the great classical novelists.  The English novel originated in an age (the early eighteenth century) when class structures were drastically disturbed.  Most of the major English novelists have since continued to be absorbed by class differences, and to draw heavily on these and their influences on human behaviour and attitudes.  Think of the dominance of class and money in the novels of Jane Austen.  Although there is an evident ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude to those who possess great wealth, the established rich, they still represent what Lionel Trilling calls, ‘the nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him’.  Fitzgerald deals with the trappings and symbols of this American aristocracy, the great one being money.  In one of his stories, The Rich Boy, there is this telling comment:

Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.

Readers of Gatsby will recognise that it is mainly about what money does to those who possess it in abundance.

There are, of course, two main versions of wealth in The Great Gatsby, dramatically contrasted throughout.  This contrast gives the book much of its interest.  Gatsby himself is the newly-rich tycoon, the boy from Dakota who thought he had to get rich quickly to win the love of a rich girl.  His wealth gives him a vulgar neo-Gothic mansion, an incredible car, and garish clothes; it causes him to assume uncharacteristic stances and attitudes, including ‘an elaborate formality of speech’.  All of these things placed side by side with the grace and ease associated with the representatives of the established rich, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, appear ludicrous.  Gatsby is, from one point of view, a vulgar upstart who purchases his standing in society by giving mammoth parties patronised by all and sundry.  (Check out Fitzgerald’s descriptions of these parties).  His great wealth, for all his efforts,  cannot imitate the effects produced by that of the Buchanans.

The world of the Buchanans

But the contrast is not entirely, or even mainly, in favour of the established rich.  Gatsby, for all his lavish vulgarity, turns out all right in the end in the eyes of the reader; the Buchanans do not.  Gatsby is using his money as an instrument with which to achieve something, to further his aim of enriching his life; he has a capacity for wonder, for excitement, not shared by the Buchanans.  Their wealth and that of their associate Jordan Baker is sterile, which induces a tired, bored attitude to life.  “We ought to plan something,” yawns Jordan, ‘sitting down at the table as if she were getting out of bed’; and again, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow … Everybody thinks so.”

What Fitzgerald establishes in the scenes involving the Buchanans is that their money has drained away their emotions.  Daisy’s pattern of living, based as it has always been on the security of possession, has given her the habit of retreating in the face of responsibility into ‘their money or their vast carelessness’.  This aspect of the mentality of the established rich is more than once contrasted with Gatsby’s heroic, if ludicrous, romantic idealism.  He watches outside the Buchanan house after the accident, seeking to shelter Daisy from its unpleasant consequences.  She is seated with Tom over a plate of cold chicken and two bottles of ale (‘an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture’) when Nick arrives.  Gatsby looks at the latter ‘as though his presence marred the sacredness of the vigil’.  The vulgar tycoon can also be the chivalrous, incorruptible upholder of ideals, however, mistaken these may be.

Gatsby’s world

The superficial beautiful world of Tom and Daisy is just as ludicrous in its way as the one Gatsby creates around himself.  Gatsby’s world is, of course, a pathetic attempt to reproduce that of people like the Buchanans; by aping its surface, he fondly imagines that he can capture its heart.  His provision for himself of an acceptable background is part of the elaborate, absurd pretence.  As he reveals these fictional details, his speech becomes stiff and stilted, he chokes and swallows on the phrases:

I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle west – all dead now.  I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years.  It is a family tradition.

Almost all of this is false, of course, the truth being less flattering: ‘An instinct towards his future glory had led him to the small Lutheran college of St Olaf’s in Southern Minnesota’.  His stay at Oxford is short and undistinguished.  But the attitudes of the Buchanans are exposed by Fitzgerald to as pitiless a scrutiny.  Here is a sample of what passes for thinking among them on ‘serious’ issues:

This idea is that we’re all Nordics.  I am, and you are, and you are, and – After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again – And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art and all that.  Do you see?

The narrator Nick caraway remarks at the beginning that one of the things his father told him was that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’  It is, oddly enough, in the socially deprived Gatsby rather than the long-established Buchanans that the ‘fundamental decencies’ are most in evidence.

 Balancing two worlds in the novel

‘The test of a first-class intelligence,’ Fitzgerald remarked, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’  In The Great Gatsby, he holds contrasting ideas simultaneously on some major aspects of his material and successfully integrates opposing arguments and points of view.  The most obvious instance of this is when he oscillates between imaginative identification with the splendours of rich society and a recurring tendency towards objective analysis of its limitations.  The boredom, limited emotional range and narrowness of mind of the Buchanan set is very cleverly conveyed in the dialogue, but against this, he can also convey in a very sensuous way the attractions of being very wealthy:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’; while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.  At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with the low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

But a more significant tension is that between the responses called forth by the two sides of Gatsby’s nature, as they are revealed in a few critical episodes and mediated to us through the play of Nick’s judgement of the events and his responses to them.  The central passage of the novel, taken in conjunction with Gatsby’s own account of his background, provides a good example of the ambivalence with which the hero is regarded by his creator:

I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then.  His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of god – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would like to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.

The obscene, gargantuan vulgarity of his weekend parties is evoked with sober irony:

Every Friday, five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.  There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb!

 Gatsby as a tragic figure

If this were all there was to Gatsby, we would read the novel as a satire on contemporary manners.  Fitzgerald’s first publishers did, indeed, call the book a satire, but it is only incidentally so: principally in the contribution of the minor characters, and in the occasional comment on the incongruous activities of the major ones.  But the story and the main character are tragic.  The tragic implications of story and character arise chiefly from Gatsby’s redeeming qualities.  Like Fitzgerald himself, Gatsby is a romantic, and in the end meets the fate of all romantics: disillusion, a sense of inadequacy in the face of experience, a deeply felt sense of failure.  His romantic dream is centred on Daisy, an unworthy object as he finds out too late.

Gatsby’s romanticism is stressed throughout the book.  It sometimes involves an endearingly childlike attitude to experience, a sentimental attachment to anything associated with those he loves, not found in any of the other characters.  ‘If it wasn’t for the mist,’ he tells Daisy, ‘we could see your house across the bay.  You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’  This green light acquires a symbolic force.  In a famous passage at the close of the novel, we are reminded of the sense of wonder Gatsby experienced when he first noticed the light at the end of daisy’s dock; it comes to stand as a memorial to his romantic idealism:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …  And one fine evening – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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A sense of the past

Gatsby has the characteristic romantic preoccupation with the past.  This is beautifully evoked by Fitzgerald in a telling passage, which reveals some of the hidden springs of his failure and of his tragedy.  His great delusion is a sad and common one: that the past can be restored and duplicated, and the effects of the passage of time erased.  Gatsby wants Daisy to abandon Tom Buchanan so that, after she is free, she may go back with him to Louisville to be married from her house, ‘just as if it were five years ago’.  When caraway tells him he can’t repeat the past like this he can see no reason whatever why: ‘I’m going to fix everything just as it was before.’  His longing to do so is perfectly comprehensible.  His life has been disordered since his parting with Daisy: he wants to ‘recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy’.  He returns in his poignant day-dream to a starting place, to a scene with Daisy, described in heightened, poetic, emotionally-charged language, that can make sober realities pale into unimportance.  The incident takes on almost an absolute value, for us readers as well as for Gatsby.  Little wonder that he wants to begin again from such a point:

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight.  They stopped here and turned toward each other.  Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year …

His vain hope of recapturing such a past is finally extinguished by Tom Buchanan’s exposure of his activities during the intervening years.  The romantic cavalier is mercilessly stripped of his glamour: ‘He and Wolfstein bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter … I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him.’  Tom reduces Gatsby’s thrilling aspirations to the level of the sordid: ‘I think he realises that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’  The end of the quest for lost happiness is tellingly rendered:

But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room.

Fitzgerald the moralist

Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a moralist.  He once gave as his reason for writing fiction ‘a desire to preach at people in some acceptable form’.  Moralists often find their natural outlet in satire, and Fitzgerald was gifted with a keen satiric eye and a keen sense of the absurdities of human nature.  Tom’s defence of ‘civilisation’ against the ‘inferior’ races provides a good example.  There are more good satiric portraits of minor figures like Catherine and Mr. McKee:

Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face … He informed me that he was in ‘the artistic game’, and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made a dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall.  His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.

But these, and the description of the massive vulgarity of the Gatsby residence are isolated patches; Fitzgerald was much more attracted to the affirmation of what he saw as the good than to the denunciation of the bad.  The positives celebrated in The Great Gatsby are the simple virtues: the hopeful, wondering, questioning attitudes of mid-Western America, o the ‘broad, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio’, over against which, in rich contrast, is the urban sophistication, culture, boredom and corruption of the jaded East.

 Flaws in the novel

The significance of the title of the book in relation to all this is often missed.  Gatsby is great is so far as he stands for the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald identified with the mid-West; he is a vulgar, contemptible figure in so far as he revels in the notoriety that his worldly success lends to his name.  He is, of course, a man of limited understanding, failing at once to appreciate his own real claims to recognition (his idealism, his high romantic aspirations) and to recognise his error in thinking that he really belongs to the world he has entered.  In its way, too, the novel is limited in its treatment of its central figure.  After all, we are expected to find the supreme value of the story and its hero in its romantic aspirations, in his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’.  There is no voice in the novel, no point of view which seems to question the adequacy of this attitude.  To many readers, it must seem a poor enough one in face of the complexities of actual living.  What is perhaps more disturbing is that the novelist himself seems to find Gatsby’s romantic stance entirely adequate.  A remark of his seems to bear this out:

That’s the whole burden of the novel, the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.

If this is the best that can be set over against the amoral world of the established rich, many readers will leave the book down with a sense of disappointment.

Merits of The Great Gatsby

Against this, however, one must stress the considerable virtues of The great Gatsby: its poetic quality (Fitzgerald was a devoted reader of T.S. Eliot, who influenced him here), its almost flawless structure, Fitzgerald’s mastery of technique.  His use of detail to suggest symbolic meaning is particularly impressive.  Here it is interesting to note that one of the best symbols in the book, the grotesque eyes of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard came to him by chance.  His publisher had a dust jacket designed for The Great Gatsby, a poor quality picture intended to suggest, by means of two enormous eyes, Daisy brooding over an amusement-park version of New York.  Fitzgerald’s brilliant reworking of this in the book is a tribute to his intuitive skill.  Again, the slow, gradual presentation of Gatsby is a tour de force.  We are more than half-way through the book before we know the important things about him.  The evocation of atmosphere and background is memorable and utterly satisfying; a detail or two will often suffice to fix indelibly a scene, a character or a mood:

With an effort Wilson left the shade and support of the doorway, and, breathing hard, unscrewed the cap of the tank.  In the sunlight his face was green.

One must not ignore the intelligent use by Fitzgerald of Carraway as narrator; a good deal of the colour and subtlety of the novel arises from the response of the narrator’s judgement and feelings to the events he describes.

Finally, the power and impact of the book are greatly enhanced by Fitzgerald’s concentration of his story and theme into a relatively few telling scenes.

About the Author....

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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940), known professionally as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer, whose writing gives us a memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’ and  of the Jazz Age. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald is considered a member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: This Side of ParadiseThe Beautiful and DamnedThe Great Gatsby (his best known), and Tender Is the Night.  A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.  Fitzgerald also wrote numerous short stories, many of which treat themes of youth and promise, and age and despair (Wikipedia).

 

 

An Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’

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The beast fable

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

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

Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution

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

The moral lesson of the fable

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

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

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

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A novel of universal political truths

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

Limitations of the moral fable

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

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

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An Introduction to ‘Lord of the Flies’

 

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Background note…

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

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

The need for social order

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

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

A pessimistic world view?

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

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

 A realistic novel

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

Symbolism

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

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Dream to nightmare

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

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An Introduction to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

 

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This novel, first published on this day, 16th July in 1951, by the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, belongs to a category of fiction made popular by writers as diverse as Dickens and Joyce.  It is Bildungsroman, or novel about upbringing and education – a novel of maturation.  The heroes of novels of this type are invariably young people or children seeking to find their identities and roles in the big bad world.  Nineteenth-century examples are David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861), both by Charles Dickens.  The most famous twentieth-century example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  Probably the most famous example from American fiction before Catcher in the Rye was the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Many of these novels go far beyond the treatment of the educational development of the central figure, and concern themselves with profound spiritual and moral experiences.

 The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the efforts of an adolescent American to relate to a grown-up world that he finds deeply flawed and fundamentally unsympathetic.  The central figure, Holden Caulfield, leaves his boarding school and spends a weekend in New York City.  Here he finds himself alone in what he sees as a grown-up world of corruption, unkindness and hypocrisy.  The main theme of the novel is Holden’s resistance to growing up into this kind of world, which, as he sees it, undermines youthful innocence and integrity.  The novel has no real plot.  It consists mainly of the observations of Holden on his experiences, particularly on the ‘phoniness’ of those he encounters.  His attempt to reconcile himself to the values of the adult world is a failure.  He retreats from this failure into mental illness, and writes his story while under psychiatric treatment.

Resistance to loss of innocence

The title of the novel is a glance at Holden’s dream of protecting other, younger children from the curse of maturity, of saving such innocents before the world corrupts them.  One of Robert Burns’s most famous songs has the line, ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’, Holden has misheard the words and thinks the line should go, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.  He uses the mistaken version as a slogan for his own dream-activity.  He will catch the innocent children who play in the ryefield because they are in danger of falling over the unseen edge of a cliff.  His vision of his saving role is pathetic in its futility:

 ‘I thought it was “If a body catch a body”,’ I said.  ‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going.  I have to come from somewhere  and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.’

 An uncaring adult world

Part of Holden’s depression arises from his awareness of himself as an innocent abroad in a world of phoney values, a world which, like Holden himself, needs love but does not know where to find it.  It is, in many of its manifestations, a world that believes that it can get on without love, or even without decency.  What passes for love in the adult world through which he moves is little better than selfish exploitation.  Most of those with whom he comes in contact are crudely dismissive of him and his concerns (the taxi-drivers, for example), try to exploit him for money, like the offensive pimp in the hotel, or seem ready to abuse him sexually, like Antolini, his former schoolmaster, to whom he turns in desperate need for help and advice.  It is not surprising that Holden cannot form a viable or stable relationship with adult society.  That society cannot give him the love and affection for which he craves.  These values seem to be associated in his mind with two things: death and the innocence that disappeared with the loss of childhood.

The death-motif and its association with love appear from time to time in Holden’s references to his much-loved brother, whose death from leukemia has blighted his family.  His longing to preserve innocence in a world given over to destroying it makes him the idealist who rubs obscenities off walls so that small girls will not have to see them.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, who clearly approves of his hero, raises fundamental questions about man’s inhuman treatment of his fellow-men.  What, we are forced to ask, makes New York an abode of indifferent, uncaring individuals?  Is the answer to be found in some radical flaw at the heart of human nature, or in society?  The novel suggests that human nature is not primarily to blame for the sufferings which Holden and others like him have to endure.  Salinger conveys a sense that the world is populated by fallible, foolish, pompous, careless, morally weak individuals rather than by evil ones, and that human beings are potentially loving and joyful if only society will permit them to satisfy these basic longings.  It was this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye that caused it to appeal most widely to a generation of American students in the nineteen-fifties.  As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, the novel was,

‘a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against what the adult world was doing, or failing to do’.

Holden’s depression

The Catcher in the Rye has a single unifying theme: the nervous breakdown or intensifying depression of a sixteen-year-old boy.  The progress of Holden’s psychiatric illness is chronicled not from its origins but through its critical phase.  This is done with remarkable understanding of how depression actually works, and how it affects behaviour and the processes of thought.  Salinger is particularly impressive in his handling of the correlation between depressive illness and physical symptoms.  As his depression intensifies, Holden experiences psychosomatic symptoms, which feature a morbid fear of painful death (‘I figured I’d be dead in a couple of months because I had cancer’) and much physical distress (‘The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow’).  What we learn about him from his own narrative of his life makes his depressed state comprehensible enough.  The death of his much-loved brother Allie from leukaemia is one major influence on his mental and emotional states, leaving him with a grievance against the unfairness of things.  His emotional difficulties are not eased by his relationship with his parents.  His mother has been depressed since Allie’s death, and is not a positive force in his life, while his father, preoccupied with being successful, never discusses problems with him.

Holden is thus deprived of the parental guidance every adolescent needs.  His lack of emotional stability is not surprising.  The boarding school to which he is sent is no substitute for his parents.  His primary need is for the kind of understanding and sympathy that will see him through a difficult period in his life.  Whenever he seeks this from his acquaintances he is rebuffed or ignored.   As he ruefully remarks, Stradlater is not interested in a person’s ‘lousy childhood’, while Ackley will respond only if yelled at.  Both Ackley and Stradlater make little of the few achievements that might give Holden some badly needed self-confidence and self-esteem.  When Holden puts a heartfelt question to his history instructor (‘Everybody goes through phases and all, don’t they?’), the latter cannot answer him.  His old girl-friend Sally Hayes can do no better than the others in providing the understanding he needs if he is to keep depression at bay.  Carl Luce, an ex-schoolmate now at Columbia University, responds coldly and unfeelingly to Holden’s plea for help in sorting out his mental and emotional confusion, callously advising him to see a psychiatrist.

As a final despairing gesture, Holden turns to a man he respects, his teacher Mr. Antolini.  The latter can help him no more than the others could.  He lectures him at length, but fails to notice how deeply disturbed he is.  At this stage, Holden is at breaking-point, descending to deeper levels of depression, while Antolini is telling him that an academic education will give him an idea what size of mind he has.  Salinger provides some obvious pointers to Holden’s lack of mental stability in his numerous self-contradictions.  Our hero tells Antolini, for example, that a teacher at Pencey, ‘was intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn’t have too much brains’.  He also claims that there were a couple of classes he didn’t attend for a while, but that he didn’t cut any.  The outcome of the episode with Antolini is that Holden is more depressed than ever.  Convinced that society has finally failed him, he decides to run away and pretend to be a deaf mute, so avoiding, ‘any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody’.  He will make no further efforts to gain the understanding of other people, and will renounce the ‘phoney’ world.

Phoebe, an agent of redemption

If he is to be redeemed from his hopelessly depressed state, this must now be through the voluntary, unsolicited intervention of somebody else.  His sister Phoebe becomes the agent of his redemption from total despair.  When Phoebe insists on running away with him, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take responsibility for her, and decides that he must go home, not for his own sake, but for hers.  This gesture of submission is rewarded with a fleeting spell of intense happiness, lovingly described.  The sight of Phoebe going round and round on the carousel fills him with inexplicable joy and tranquility, although the contradictory account of how he fares in the rain is a sinister indication of his confused mental state:

‘My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round.  I was damn near bawling.  I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all.  I wish you could’ve been there’.

 After his painful quest, involving disappointment, frustration, bitterness, depression and disillusionment, Holden has at last found something beautiful in a world he has so often condemned as ‘phoney’.  This does not necessarily mean that he novel has a happy ending.  We know that the carousel will have to stop, and Holden and his sister will have to return to the world from which all his instincts have been urging him to escape.  The best things that life has to offer him are the few fleeting moments of exaltation he has experienced watching Phoebe on the carousel.

Holden’s distorted view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye is often read as a sympathetic account of a good-natured, sensitive boy confronted by a cruel, dishonest world, populated by freaks, exploiters and phoneys.  The following is typical of his view of other people:

 I was surrounded by jerks.  I’m not kidding.  At this other tiny table, right to my left, was this funny-looking guy and this funny-looking girl.

It is clear from the novel that Salinger likes Holden and expects his readers to like him, but the question must be asked, how likable is he?  Does he deserve to be taken at his own valuation as an idealist who suffers at the hands of others?  Are we to applaud his trenchant exposures of virtually all those who cross his path?

The presentation of Holden involves an obvious paradox: the childlike idealist with the vulnerable, sensitive nature can appear heartless and cruel in his comments on almost everybody else.  There is the curious fact that although he is constantly protesting against the phoniness of almost everybody else, he himself is far from exempt from this fault.  In this context, phoniness means hypocrisy, empty, insincere moralising and fraudulent attitudes and behaviour.  It is true that Holden is upset by such things; as he puts it, they cause him to ‘puke’.  The only people he can think of as being free from phoniness are his sister Phoebe, the two nuns he meets in the sandwich bar, and children in general.  Were he also to look more closely at himself, he would have to acknowledge that he shares the qualities he condemns in others.  He often tells lies, often pretends to be someone he is not, and can be quite bitter in his comments on his friends, while at the same time pleading for charity and kindness towards himself.

The key to Holden’s character is his mental confusion.  This shows itself particularly in his inability to see people and their activities in proportion.  Again, his lack of a proper sense of proportion expresses itself in an outrageously exaggerated habit of speaking.  By referring to almost everybody and everything in grossly inflated language, he can make relatively innocuous circumstances sound wicked and dangerous.

It is not enough for him to describe a woman who sits next to him at the cinema as the slightly inconsiderate person she is; he feels obliged to describe her as being ‘about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf’.  He doesn’t like Ossenburger the undertaker, and takes exception to the man’s religious inclinations.  His dislike vents itself in great crude fantasies in which Ossenburger features as a monstrous fraud who shoves corpses into a sack and dumps them in the river, who prays fervently to Jesus to send him more corpses and who bores a captive audience with ‘about fifty corny jokes’.  He describes places and their atmospheres in the same wildly exaggerated fashion, particularly when their impact on him is unfavourable.  A hotel lobby cannot seem merely stale-smelling to him; it must convey the impression of ‘fifty million dead cigars’.  No wonder Phoebe tells him, ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening.’  This is because his view of reality is hopelessly distorted; his depressed state makes him so utterly negative about experience that he cannot see that even the worst people and situations have some redeeming qualities.

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Amongst Women by John McGahern

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AMONGST WOMEN

 John McGahern

 About John McGahern (1934 – 2006)

One of Ireland’s most widely read authors John McGahern was born on November 12th, 1934.  The family lived in Leitrim until his mother’s death in 1945, when they moved to their father’s home at the police barracks in Cootehall, County Roscommon.  In his early twenties McGahern worked as a teacher and wrote an unpublished novel, The End and the Beginning of Love.  His first published novel, The Barracks (1963), won the AE Memorial Award and earned him an Arts Council Macauley Fellowship.  His next novel, The Dark (1965), was widely praised and drew comparisons to James Joyce, but it also offended the Archbishop of Dublin and the state censor, who banned the book and he was also sacked from his teaching position.

He refused, however, to capitalise on this notoriety, instead continuing to publish quietly.  Three novels followed – The Leavetaking (1974), The Pornographer (1979), and Amongst Women (1990; winner of the Irish Times Award and short-listed for the Booker Prize).  McGahern’s four volumes of short stories were published in The Collected Stories in 1992.

His final novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (published in the United States as By the Lake) is an elegiac portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. McGahern himself lived on a lakeshore and drew on his own experiences whilst writing the book. Lyrically written, it explores the meaning in prosaic lives. He claimed that “the ordinary fascinates me” and “the ordinary is the most precious thing in life”.  The main characters have – just like McGahern and his second wife, Madeline Green – returned from London to live on a farm. Most of the violence of the father-figure has disappeared now, and life in the country seems much more relaxed and prosperous than in The Dark or Amongst Women.

During his writing career, he served as a visiting professor at Colgate University and the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and he was writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin in 1989.  He died from cancer in the Mater Hospital in Dublin on 30 March 2006, aged 71. He is buried in St Patrick’s Church Aughawillan alongside his mother.

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Historical and Literary Background

This novel is set in Ireland in the years following the Irish War of Independence.  We hear references to reviving Monaghan Day, which is obviously a tradition of the time.  The story is set in the country and outlines the position of the family of the time.  It may be worth mentioning that Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger was written about rural life in Ireland about this time also.  Are there any similarities between Moran and the character of Paddy Maguire?

During these years, post War of Independence and pre World War II, McGahern tells us family bonds were strong.  The Moran family is united, in spite of their father’s erratic temperament.  Luke is the only exception to this happy picture of family solidarity.

Women married securely in this society.  Secure jobs such as the civil service were recommended.  Study at the university was not financially possible for Sheila.  The profession of doctor is also not acceptable within this family because the doctors had emerged as the bigwigs in the country that Moran had fought for during the war.

We also see the faithful practice of the rosary.  This is a prayer that is said by the family every night.  Moran makes use of this to assert his dominance over the family while refusing to face his own shortcomings.

One of Moran’s big fears is being poor.  For this reason he is miserly with money and even though he eventually gets two pensions he still exerts a tight control over the finances.  He also takes pride in the land he owns.  He uses the land as a refuge, many times escaping from the house to work furiously at hay-making or reaping whenever he loses control of himself.

At the end, on his death, Moran is given the typical Republican burial with the tricolour draped over his coffin. (Check the front cover of the novel!)

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Dr. John McGahern by Zaan Claassens

THE STORY

The story is based on the Moran family who live in Mohill, Co. Leitrim.  The house is called Great Meadow.  The story is told in flashback and is framed at beginning and end with Moran in a depressed state and wishing for death.  Moran is an old Republican who was a guerrilla leader in the War of Independence.  His wife is dead and he is left to bring up their five children; three girls and two boys.  Luke is the oldest and he has gone to work in London because he will not tolerate his father’s violent behaviour.  Moran can never forget the authority he wielded during the war and tries to behave in the same way within his household.  He continually uses the rosary to regain control and power over his family.  Moran marries a girl called Rose Brady when he is beginning to get old.  Initially Rose is very idealistic about the marriage, but she soon discovers the true nature of Moran and his capacity for violence and dark moods.

Rose is a very selfless person who clearly loves Moran in spite of his strong character and difficult temperament.  She encourages the girls to become independent and achieve the best they can in life.  Maggie settles in London and eventually marries, as does Sheila.  Mona gets a good job in the civil service and remains single.  Michael, the youngest, leaves and marries.  Luke’s refusal to return to Great Meadow, the family home, frustrates and angers Moran greatly.  All the rest of the family visit him regularly in spite of the fact that he has been domineering and violent.  They are all happy together and have learned to accept Moran’s peculiar temperament.  Moran dies at the conclusion.  Everyone except Luke turns up at his funeral and acclaim him as a truly great and heroic man

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 LITERARY GENRE

This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the third person omniscient narrative voice.  It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the period following the War of Independence.  There are no official chapters; the narrative is broken into sections separated by a short space.  Much of the story is told through dialogue, which gives a vivid insight into the various characters.   The first section is written towards the conclusion of the story when Moran becomes sick.  The rest of the story gives an extended account in flashback about the life of the Moran family in Great Meadow.

There is a great similarity between Amongst Women and William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear.  By insisting that each of his daughters proclaim her love for him to win her share of his kingdom, Lear sets in motion a plot that reveals the complex dynamic at work among an elderly patriarch and his three daughters.  Like King Lear, Amongst Women investigates the love between a father and his children, the struggle to maintain strength in advancing age, and the difficulty of negotiating between independence and an identity tied to family roots.

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THEMES AND ISSUES

There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel.  The main themes dealt with here are:

  • Power/Control/Patriarchy
  • The Family
  • The Role of Women

Power/Control/Patriarchy

Moran has been a guerrilla fighter in the War of Independence.  He never got used to the failure of that war, and so he tries all his life to master his family and dominate them.  It is only when he feels he is in control and the centre of things that he can manage to deal with issues in life.  Much of his power is achieved through violence and physical abuse.  He also uses the rosary as a weapon to establish his control in the house.  When he marries Rose Brady things change slowly but subtly.  He verbally abuses her several times but her firm reaction chastens him and shows him the need for self-control.  When there are difficulties with young Michael who begins to drink and womanise, Moran threatens to use physical violence to control him, as he had once done with Luke.  Michael runs away to England and gets a job.  Moran is left on his own with Rose and simply becomes more introverted and depressed.  As an old man he loses the ability to exert control through his mood swings and violence.  He changes and writes a letter of apology to his oldest son Luke who has left him a long time ago.

***

 Amongst Women can be seen as a critique of patriarchy.  McGahern connects nationalism, Catholicism and patriarchy in an unholy trinity.  In the novel McGahern is turning away from the Big House novel, that had played such a big part in earlier Irish fiction, to what might be termed the small house novel, portraying rural Catholic family life.  In the novel death frames the novel, but the intervening narrative is an extended flashback to family life in Great Meadow with Moran bestriding his little kingdom as a crusty, would-be Colossus.  The relationship between him and his wife and children is the principal focus of this plotless novel.  The focus is on scenes in which some or all of the family are assembled and the narrative moves in and out of the consciousness of various members of the group.   In this novel, for the first time in his writing, the subject of patriarchy assumes a central theme.

‘Only women could live with Daddy,’ Moran’s alienated son, Luke, comments, and the novel, to some extent, endorses this viewpoint.  Moran is first encountered ‘amongst women’, an ailing old man fussed over by his wife and three daughters.  The theme of the relationship between power and gender is announced in the opening sentence.  Moran’s physical weakness has transformed relations between him and his womenfolk to one of fear on his part and dominance on theirs.  However, even at his most physically incapacitated, Moran has still not lost his hold over his daughters: he ‘was so implanted in their lives, that they had never left Great Meadow’ (p.1).

The narrative pulse of Amongst Women is one of homecoming and leave-taking: welcomes and farewells at the train station; cars turning in the open gate of Great Meadow under the poisonous yew; children leaving home to embark on their adult lives, all but one drawn back with increasing frequency as the years pass; happy family reunions and the sad final reunion at Moran’s funeral.  Initially the rhythm is homecoming, and the verb ‘come’ is repeated seven times on the first page.  The reader is being drawn into this world where Moran is at the centre.  By the end of the second paragraph we have been introduced to its setting and principal characters: the ‘once powerful’ Moran, his second wife, Rose, his three daughters, Maggie, Mona, and Sheila, his younger son, Michael, and the eldest, Luke, distinguished from the rest by his refusal to come back to Great Meadow.

Patriarchy in Amongst Women can be seen to derive to a great extent from patriotism.  Moran is the hero of the War of Independence, who has failed to make a successful career in the Irish army in peacetime, directs his frustrated drive for power into a diminished form of home rule.  His status as a former guerrilla fighter is repeatedly emphasised at the outset by the device of juxtaposing two episodes which celebrate his youthful exploits as leader of a flying column, thereby ensuring that all his subsequent conduct is ‘placed’ in the light of this wartime experience.  Monaghan Day, a fair day in late February when he received an annual visit from McQuaid, his former lieutenant, and the two reminisced over their youthful heroics, is Moran’s equivalent of Remembrance Day.  The novel opens with his daughters’ revival of Monaghan Day when Moran is old and ill.  On this occasion he deglamourises his role as freedom fighter and refers to his flying column as ‘a bunch of killers’ (p.5).  That he has never lost his own killer instinct is demonstrated next morning when he rises from his sickbed to shoot a jackdaw.  His targets may have diminished, but he is still prepared to resort to violence to assert his limited power.  The incident rather pathetically demonstrates his present impotence, yet he himself uses it to illustrate his connection between intimacy and mastery:

The closest I ever got to any man was when I had him in the sights of my rifle and I never missed. (p.7)

Moran is at pains to tell his wife and daughters that his flying column did not shoot women or children, treating both categories as minors or inferiors.

Beginning on P. 8 we are given another flashback to the last Monaghan Day.  In this episode Moran’s bullying of his teenage daughters is contrasted with his inability to gain power over McQuaid.  He terrorises his daughters, so that in his presence they ‘sink into a beseeching drabness, cower as close to being invisible’ (p.8) as possible, but it is obvious now that his power does not extend outside his own family.  McQuaid, who has long outstripped Moran in terms of worldly achievement, is happy to indulge in war memories for an evening, but he is unwilling to perpetuate his former role of junior officer.  His visit brings something of the secular, commercial outlook of modern Ireland into the pious, traditional world of Great Meadow.  Here again the rhythms of arrival and departure are evident as the annual ritual of Monaghan Day is brought to an end with McQuaid’s abrupt exit.  Henceforth, the cars that turn ‘into the open gate under the yew tree’ will convey returning Morans.  From here on Great Meadow becomes a house hospitable only to its own family.

As has been said already, Amongst Women offers a penetrating critique of patriarchy.  McGahern goes even further and shows that patriarchy as a refuge of the socially ill-adjusted and emotionally immature man and asks probing questions about the cult of family.  Moran has transformed his inadequacies into a show of strength by making his home his castle.  Denied a role as founding father in the Irish state he sets up his own dominion.  Actually, Great Meadow, bought with his redundancy pay from the army, should be a monument to Moran’s failure to live up to his youthful promise.  Though it is not an ancestral home it becomes, under his regime, a family seat, more cut off from the life of the surrounding village than any Big House.  Because of an inability to relate to his fellow-villagers, Moran turns his family into a closed community and the absence of any outside contacts further strengthens his own paternal supremacy.  He successfully indoctrinates his children with the idea that such reclusiveness denotes exclusiveness, that to be ‘proud’ and ‘separate’ is a mark of distinction, to be friendly and extroverted a sign of commonness.  House and family are connected in exhortations to his daughters: ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.’ (p. 82).  He thus forges an association between family and farmstead, roots his children in a ‘perpetual place’.  As the founder of a new dynasty Moran acts as if he were self-propagated and never refers to his own parents.  His cult of family does not include any filial loyalties which might conflict with the prior claim of being a Moran of Great Meadow, so he actively discourages his wife’s visits to her family home.

Moran’s family is an extension, a ‘larger version’ of himself.  When he promotes the values of home and family he is obliquely bolstering his own self-importance.  The ‘good of the family’ provides him with a virtuous, unselfish motivation for suiting himself.  When he is about to remarry, for instance, he tells his daughter Maggie that he is doing so in the best interests of the family, though it has just been revealed to the reader that his only motive is his own future welfare.  He also repeatedly stresses that all his children are equal, further emphasising his own unique superiority.  The ex-officer promotes esprit de corps, though his theatre of operations is a hayfield and not a battlefield: ‘Together we can do anything.’  Such affirmation of solidarity and de-emphasising of individual differences serve to bind the family into ‘something very close to a single presence.’

In view of the novel’s critique of patriarchy it is interesting to note the effect this has on his daughters at the end of the novel.  Turning the page at the end of the novel, we are given a glimpse of what ‘becoming Daddy’ means.  A reversal of gender roles takes place as brother and husbands, seen from a patriarchal perspective, are transformed into wives.  It is obvious that Moran’s honorary male daughters have inherited his contempt for the feminine, which they associate with levity and amusement:

‘Will you look at the men.  They’re more like a crowd of women,’ Sheila said, remarking on the slow frivolity of their pace.  ‘The way Michael, the skit, is getting Sean and Mark to laugh you’d think they were coming from a dance’ (p. 184)

Their exclusiveness as Morans of Great Meadow is such that it does not even embrace their own husbands and children.

It is also worthwhile to consider here the links between Catholicism and patriarchy.  These links are forged in the novel by its most repetitive narrative ritual and the family prayer from which it derives its title.  Moran’s devotion to the rosary is explained on familial and patriarchal grounds.  ‘The family that prays together stays together,’ he observes, quoting the Rosary-crusader priest, Father Peyton.  As in many Irish homes, (in the past?)  the rosary in the Moran household is a public prayer that reinforces a hierarchical social structure: it is presided over by the head of the family and the five decades are allocated from eldest to youngest in descending order of importance.  Though the rosary repeatedly pronounces Mary as ‘Blessed … amongst women’,  because she was chosen to be the mother of Christ, in the Moran household, the character, blessed amongst women, is Moran himself.  He even manages to die ‘amongst women’, since his son Michael is temporarily absent!  The Rosary is peculiarly identified with Moran and it is a very clever device used by McGahern to emphasise the narrative repetitiveness, which is a feature of this novel.  Over and over again the newspapers are spread on the floor, Moran spills his beads from his little black purse, and all kneel in prayer.  The stability conferred by ritual and repeated phraseology underscores the disruptions and changes that the passage of time brings to Great Meadow.

Yet we should not be over negative in our assessment of Moran and his little kingdom.  He does exhibit some inherent attractive qualities.  Indeed his portrait is the most imaginatively generous picture of a father in McGahern’s many novels and short stories.  He radiates enormous energy and this surely can be seen as a redeeming feature.  He also shows great anguish for the son who is lost to him and he also shows a certain bafflement and frustration in the face of oncoming death.  In particular he is associated with the annual haymaking, an activity shared by the whole family.  From distant London or Dublin, Great Meadow in summer appears a therapeutic, pastoral world: ‘The remembered light on the empty hayfields would grow magical, the green shade of the beeches would give out a delicious coolness as they tasted again the sardines between slices of bread: when they were away the house would become the summer light and shade above their whole lives’ (p.85).  Such memories turn Moran’s children into true Romantics, sustained ‘amid the din of town and cities’ by images of their fatherland.

Therefore, McGahern manages to balance the attractive and the repellent aspects of patriarchy in this novel.  The glorious revolution that brought about the Irish State is so remote by the time of Moran’s death that the fellow revolutionary who tends to the faded tricolour on the coffin seems as old as Fionn or Oisín.  Nevertheless, the legacy of the War of Independence, seen by some as a triumphalist, masculine ethic of dominance, has been passed on to the next generation.

Irish people everywhere seem to have an often inexplicable affection for their country, whether they be urban, suburban, rural or living in Boston.  This love for ‘the ould sod’ is turned on its head here in this novel in McGahern’s examination of home, farm and fatherland.  Idyllic though Great Meadow often appears, access to it involves passing under ‘the poisonous yew.’

The Family

In Amongst Women we see the powerful bond of the family and how it can withstand so many difficulties.  Even though Moran is stubborn and mercurial in temperament, the family remain strongly bound together.  Together they feel invincible in the face of the outside world, and when they gather together at Great Meadow, each member feels bound by this strong family unit.

 The novel pulls us into a tight family circle with its first sentence – ‘As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters’ (p.1).  A ‘once powerful man’ (p.1), Michael Moran was an officer in the Irish War of Independence in the 1920’s.  He was intelligent, fierce and deadly, but like many soldiers after a war, he felt displaced, unwilling to continue in the military during peacetime and unable to make a good living in any other way.  ‘The war was the best part of our lives,’ Moran asserts.  ‘Things were never so simple and clear again’ (p.6).  While the army provided the security of structure, rules, and clear lines of power, Moran’s life after the war has consisted of raising two sons and three daughters on a farm and scraping out a living with hard manual labour.  A widower, Moran confuses his identity with the communal identity of his family in a gesture that divides and conquers.  Moran’s daughters are ‘a completed world’ separate from ‘the tides of Dublin and London’ (p.2).  As such, he can control them, as when he discourages one from accepting a university scholarship.  No longer powerful, Moran is repeatedly described as withdrawing into himself ‘and that larger self of family’ (p.12) in order to channel his aggressions into a shrunken realm he attempts to control.  He can be tender with his children, but he also berates and beats them.  His adjustment from guerrilla fighter to father is never complete, and the question of how to maintain authority over children while allowing them room to grow is central to the novel.

Nowhere is this struggle between dependence and independence more pronounced than in the character of Luke, the oldest son who runs away from Moran’s overbearing authority, never to return.  Rejecting his father, Ireland, and all of the violence and provincialism he associates with both, Luke flees to England.  He ignores all but one of Moran’s many letters, and he doesn’t return to Ireland except at the end of the novel when his sister gets married.  ‘Please don’t do anything to upset Daddy,’ one of the sisters pleads, typically trying to placate her father.  ‘Of course not I won’t exist today,’ Luke replies (p.152).  His best weapon against Moran’s control is absence.  Whereas the daughters, ‘like a shoal of fish moving within a net’ (p.79), find individuality painful compared to the protection of their familial identity, Luke gains strength in departure.  ‘I left Ireland a long time ago’ (p.155), Luke announces gravely.  As it does for Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, life in Ireland seems like imprisonment.

‘I’m afraid we might all die in Ireland if we don’t get out fast’ (p.155-156), says Moran’s younger son, Michael.  Like other Irish writers, McGahern asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality.  How does the political turmoil which has long suffused Irish history affect the smaller unit of the family?  How do other elements of Irish life contribute to familial dysfunction?  In the claustrophobic world McGahern portrays, escape proves sustaining for a character like Luke, but it is not an unequivocal good.  Luke is strong but cruel like his father.  His sisters, on the other hand, not only fail to break away from the family, but by the time of their father’s death, ‘each of them in their different ways had become Daddy’ (p.183).  Their identification with and loyalty to Moran threatens to subsume them, but it also gives them a kind of strength, as Michael seems to understand: ‘In the frail way that people assembled themselves he, like the girls, looked to Great Meadow for recognition, for a mark of his continuing existence’ (p.147).

The Role of Women

(This theme has obviously to be examined in the light of what has already been said about Patriarchy.)

With the exception of Moran and his young son Michael, this story centres on many women characters.  Rose Brady is the main character who makes life bearable for everyone in Great Meadow.  At every stage she is deeply loyal to Moran and never allows herself to criticise him or his fickle actions in front of  the others.  She loves him deeply and when he treats her badly she is quick to assert her rights.  She does this in a quiet but strong way.  She becomes a strong moral power in the house, and through this strength she manages to control Moran and get him to change his bad temperament subtly.

When Moran marries Rose it is obvious that he never intended a marriage of equals.  She is to serve as a loyal and devoted second in command and at some future date, when his children have departed, to become his sole subordinate.  Rose, a woman in her late thirties at the time of her marriage, is ideally suited to the role of compliant wife and surrogate mother.  Her previous profession has been that of valued servant: a children’s nursemaid, and the valet her former master would have chosen had his wife permitted it.  She has acquired the social skills that please employers, learned to indulge their whims.  That she is good at ironing takes on a metaphorical significance, since she has spent much of her married life ‘smoothing’ out household difficulties.  She is attracted by Moran’s aloofness and, ironically, she sees marriage as an opportunity to become mistress of her own establishment.  For all his local notoriety as a strategist in the war, Moran doesn’t seem to be able to exercise much control in the matter of his marriage.  He is continually out-manoeuvred by Rose, who mounts a shrewd, tactical campaign to get her way when he would prefer to retreat or delay.

Once married, Rose proves to be an angel of the house: a kind, caring, capable homemaker, whose warmth and good humour contrast sharply with Moran’s sudden rages and unpredictable mood swings.  Her genuine interest in each child’s welfare contrasts with Moran’s inability to value his children’s individual identity and autonomy.  However, it must be said that Rose colludes in perpetuating Moran’s patriarchal regime.  She is unfailingly loyal to him and she refuses to entertain his children’s criticism of his petulant behaviour.  In his children’s presence she always refers to Moran as ‘Daddy’, the title by which he himself insists that they address him.

Rose’s strategy is to become indispensable to the household.  The tea-ceremony on her first evening is very revealing of the future status quo.  She takes on the role of a kind of superior servant, co-opting the girls as helpers, and humouring her disgruntled husband by treating him ‘like a lord’:

Rose and the girls smiled as the tea and the plates circled around him.  They were already conspirators.  They were mastered and yet they were controlling together what they were mastered by. (p.46)

Later on this is viewed in a more negative way:

Then, like a shoal of fish moving within a net, Rose and the girls started to clear the table. (p. 79)

Here the women are seen as victims, trapped in the tense atmosphere which Moran generates.  A shift in power relations has occurred and Rose is no longer in control.  Her status is now equal with that of Moran’s children.

The power struggle between Rose and her husband centres on two episodes.  In the first he is compelled to apologise and she is rewarded with a mini-honeymoon, but she has been made aware of his ‘darkness’ and decides to concentrate her strategy on diverting his attacks – cutting him off at the pass, so to speak.  In the second episode he embarks on a prolonged campaign to crush her and she attempts to conciliate and pacify him, until she discovers that she can ‘give up no more ground and live’ (p.71).  Her tactic now is to threaten to leave him, a shrewd stroke; since she knows that Moran is already obsessed with Luke’s departure.  This power struggle between the two is several times alluded to in military terms.  It is a ‘hidden battle’ from which she, apparently, emerges victorious, her objective having been to ensure her ‘place in the house could never be attacked or threatened again’ (p73).  What she has settled for, however, is the limited right to be treated like a member of Moran’s family, to swim like a fish in his net.

Moran’s daughters adapt to life by avoiding confrontation.  Indeed, there seem to be very limited options in counteracting Moran’s dominance.  Compliance, continual confrontation, or departure are the three choices facing Moran’s household.   The strategy of the womenfolk, at least, is to ‘slip away’ or try to appear invisible.  Such evasion is a tactical manoeuvre, a recognition of their own defencelessness.  Beneath their cringing exterior, Mona and Sheila each conceals a forceful character.  Mona is ‘unnaturally acquiescent’, ‘full of hidden violence’; Sheila, even as a young child, knows better than ‘to challenge authority on poor ground’.  They bide their time until their jobs in the Civil Service set them free from Moran’s daily oppression, though Sheila comes near to confrontation before surrendering her opportunity to attend university.  They show their attitude to parental domination in their advice to Michael, to make the best of it until he has finished school and is in a position to choose a career of his own.

In view of their unhappy childhood why do Moran’s children, with the exception of Luke, turn Great Meadow into a place of pilgrimage and their father into a cult figure?  What McGahern presents in Amongst Women is the charisma of patriarchy, which consists in its exercise of sole and absolute authority, the power to approve or disapprove, endorse or withdraw support, affirm or reject, and thereby, to nurture an emotional dependency.  Though in their last years at home, the Moran children flourish under Rose’s benign dispensation, their primary relationship is with their father.  Because his second marriage does not occur until his daughters are in their teens, Rose’s advent does not alter Moran’s status as a dominant single parent, the permanent emotional focus of their lives.  They never allude to their dead mother, and the novel ignores the ‘umbilical debt’, according her no influence whatever on their upbringing.

A large part of the fascination the handsome Moran holds for Rose and for his daughters is sexual.  Rose loves him; his daughters also experience an ‘oedipal’ attachment.  He is their ‘first man’.  He looks on their husbands and male friends as rivals and is content when these prove ‘no threat’ to his primal place in their affections.  Neither Maggie nor Sheila marry dominant men, and Mona resists marriage altogether.  Sheila is the only one to violate this ‘incestuous’ relationship with her father when she leaves him in the hayfield to go indoors and makes love to Sean.

As the novel ends the reader’s sympathies are drawn towards the ailing and dying Moran, so that we share the family’s grief at his death.  His corpse is taken to the church on a ‘heartbreakingly lovely May evening’ and buried on a morning when the ‘Plains were bathed in sunshine’ and ‘the unhoused cattle were grazing greedily on the early grass’ (p.182).  The sadness of this final parting from the fertile spring world is rendered all the more poignant by the baffled love Moran experiences for his own land in old age.  He is shown walking it, ‘field by blind field’, ‘like a blind man trying to see’.  In his last month he repeatedly escapes from his sickbed to stare at the beauty of his meadow.  At the end of his life Moran eventually arrives at a deep appreciation of the ‘amazing glory he is part of’ (p.179).  Maybe this final epiphany is the blessing he always craved and was unable to receive, a blessing hinted at in the name Rose?

barrie_cooke

John McGahern, oil on canvas, by Barrie Cooke, 1997/8.

GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

This is a realistic novel, which traces the history of an Irish rural family in the early twentieth century.  McGahern focuses on one family and one house and we follow the subtle changes that take place in the comings and goings of various members of the family.  He has created a microcosm in Great Meadow from which to view and comment on the changes which have come about after the War of Independence.  Even though there is a timeless quality to the novel and no dates are mentioned we are being asked to pass judgement on the new State that has emerged and was beginning to find its feet under the influence of the 1937 Constitution.  De Valera’s vision of this New Ireland eulogised the role of women as mothers and home-makers and he painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside:

A land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.

McGahern in Leitrim and Kavanagh in Monaghan both knew that the realities of life for poor, farm families were radically different from this version offered by de Valera.

McGahern shows  that the power of family bonds to withstand all difficulties is clearly evident throughout every aspect of this story.  At the centre of this story is Moran and his wielding of mesmeric power over his children but it obvious also that Rose Brady is truly the moral centre of the novel.  It is she who silently manages to improve things within the Moran household, and by doing this she controls a good deal of the violence latent in Moran.  It is her undoubted love and loyalty to Moran and her spirit of self-sacrifice in the household, which creates this extraordinary bond of strength which each of the members feel among themselves.

The implication at the conclusion is that Moran’s family is stronger than ever in their love and allegiance to one another.  They truly recognise that Moran played a central part in all their lives.  Their attendance at his funeral strengthens this bond between them even more.  They realise that each one of them, in different ways, has truly imbibed Moran’s beliefs and values.  They remain loyal to his person and beliefs in spite of everything.  Only Luke remains obstinate in his decision not to return home – a reminder that even he has inherited a great deal of stubbornness and pride from his father.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sampson, Denis. 1993, Outstaring Nature’s Eye – The Fiction of John McGahern. The Lilliput Press, Dublin.

Quinn, Antoinette. 1991, A Prayer For My Daughters: Patriarchy in Amongst Women in The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Special Issue on John McGahern), Volume 17, Number 1, July, 1991

John-McGahern(6)

‘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.