British Literary Crusade
A blog delving into British texts from the last 200 years
The time has come for my final blog of the British Texts 3230 Class! The final topic will be Kiran Desai’s “The Sermon in the Guava tree”. Falling under this week’s analysis of hybrid identities, Sampath, the main character who decides to call a random guava tree his home after running away from his parents, is at a crossroads of society. In this short story Desai is showcasing the merge of India’s culture from being very invested in lore and pious belief to skepticism and science. As well, she disparages the age-old practice of high, preposterous standards of young women looking to become a bride. Disguised in what appears to be a funny story of a cunning, potentially-actually crazy young man is the political and societal commentary of one who is fed up with the stubbornness of her culture.
At the beginning of the story, as Sampath climbs a tree in the forest because of his unhappiness with his parents and home, his family treats him harshly and unforgivingly as they try to get him to become sensible and descend from the tree. A crowd forms around him in his new home, and he starts spilling secrets about crowd members, as he worked at the post office and secretly viewed all the letters being sent around town with local gossip. What started as insults becomes praise as the town starts to think he is a sage, all-knowing young man that has come to give them help with their problems. Desai shows how quickly the Indians revert to their antiquated lore beliefs, throwing modern science and intelligent thought to the wayside. Sampath’s family sees him as a moneymaker and now encourages his arborous behavior.
On the third and fourth page, Desai takes a different tone and speaks about the “prerequisites” for a woman who wants to marry, as in how she should look and act. “She should be fair-complexioned” and with her eyes should be “lowered and head bowed”. Desai is frustrated with India’s confinement of women to certain careers and aspects of life. Desai herself is an example of an Indian woman who has risen above that damnation, becoming a critically-acclaimed author and reaching world recognition. A wonderful, engaging and thoughtful short story, and a wonderful way to end my British Texts analysis the last 6 weeks. Thank you to those who have been reading these entries!
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CoolIn Nadine Gordimer’s “The moment before the gun went off”, the reader is suspended in time right before and after a gun was shot and a bullet hit Lucas’s brain. The gun misfired from Marais Van der Vyver’s truck as it was going over a pothole. Lucas, who we will later find out is Van der Vyver’s son, is a black farm hand while Marias is the white owner of the farm in South Africa during the apartheid era. Marias’s inner thoughts are explored in detail as he quickly realizes the effects and possible interpretations of the accident that just occured on his hands.
Van der Vyver knows that questions will be asked, “there will be an inquiry”, and that he will be blamed for “killing” his black farm hand, molding into the image of a racist white man that the apartheid movement of South Africa is looking to vilify. The truth is that Lucas wasn’t murdered, and Marias had no ill intent, but Van der Vyver knows his image is as good as gone in the eyes of his constituents as well everyone else who will read the scalding headlines to come.
His problem is that he is stuck between two lies. He doesn’t want to expose his nefarious activities with a black woman that eventually birthed Lucas, as that would ostracize him from his white friends. At the same time, he is being vilified for “murdering” a black farm hand by the black community, and thus lies his conundrum. My favorite line from the short story is “How could they know that they do not know”, as it is a universal perspective on fault. There are some things that people accuse others of when they don’t know the full story, but they don’t know that they don’t know.
The parallels to our current protests over the killing of George Floyd to the expected outcome of the killing in this book are chilling. “When the police stations burn with all the evidence of what has happened now, and what the law made a crime in the past”, Gordimer writes in this story. The Minneapolis 3rd Precinct station was burned down last week in the riots, and millions of Americans are showing their anger and noncompliance with current police and government officials.
A scathingly relevant story and a searing new perspective on blame, Nadine Gordimer makes us all think before we accuse, regardless of what race or ethnicity you are.
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In Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece entitled “Heart of Darkness”, my first novella explored on the blog, he brings to life the contrasting worlds of London and the Congo. Told to the crew of a ship onboard a vessel in the river Thames by a fellow crew member named Marlow, this tale follows him from the alleged “biggest and the greatest town on Earth” to a “prehistoric Earth” in the heart of Africa. Cannibalism, savagery and death follow this journey to the Congo, but the title of “heart of darkness” doesn’t necessarily describe the land of endless ivory and hippopotamuses, but rather the London he left. Our current and historical perspective of the countries Europeans conquer is heavily biased by the effects of our unwanted presence, and doesn’t show the nature of the land before invasion.
Africa becomes a “project” for Europeans, a means to get filthy rich, albeit unfairly. The bodies and culture slaughtered in this business venture are evident to readers, but swept under the rug mentally by the perpetrators back then. The apparent horrible treatment of native Africans is only accepted by Mr. Kurtz, who then goes insane as his own greed surpasses his realization of harm. The characters in the book think that by going back home to London they will regain their sanity, but London is an uncivilized mess in a very similar way. Children are forced to work for too long when they are too young. Industrialization was the only concept that mattered, and human decency was pushed aside for the potential profit. Marlow foreshadows this dark London on the second page as he begins his tale of the Congo, stating that London “has been one of the dark places of the Earth.”
The end of the book ends dramatically with the union between Mr. Kurtz’s Intended and Marlow as they discuss the man’s legacy and final words. Marlow lies to this woman who adores Kurtz, choosing to preserve his image and therefore preserve her sanity if he dies the same man she knew him to be alive. Conrad teaches us the power of perception and the lengths people will go to maintain it with Kurtz’s unremitting quest for ivory, as well as how he attempted killing his fellow white men aboard the steamer. Killing them before they reached him would make them think him dead rather than see his current state of disarray. Despite this, Conrad as well shows that those efforts are often worthless, and in our final moments, do nothing to spare us from Death who has an appointment with us all. “We live as we dream, alone.” Kurtz dies alone. Marlow’s brash shipmate dies alone. All of the black men working for the Company die alone in the forest. I believe Conrad is teaching us to find that want for remembrance futile, and focus on life as you live it.
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The Other Boat, a short story by E.M. Forster, dives into scandalous water, both literally and figuratively as it discusses homosexual and cross-ethnic love. Set on a ship travelling from Britain to India, Forster showcases those differing cultures, and in his opinion of them, through the dichotomous relationship between the main character Lionel, his mother Mrs. March, and his lover Cocoanut. The entire story can be distilled into opposing sides, with Mrs. March and the fellow white aristocracy onboard upholding the British tradition of white supremacy and constraint, while Cocoanut represents the “third world” tradition of individual freedom and self-expression. England vs. India. Old vs. New. Lionel is ripped at the seams by those forces, his duty pulling him to English ideals and his passion pulling him towards the other. This proves too much for the young man, and the story ends violently with Lionel’s murder of Cocoanut and suicide by diving into that scandalous water I spoke of earlier.
As the ship gets farther and farther away from the British port on its way to India, the pull of English ideal weakens on Lionel, and the man finds himself in bed with Cocoanut where he once was repelled at the sight of him because his skin wasn’t quite so fair. Mrs. March had a similar revelation on her journey back to England from India at the beginning of the book, though she quells her inner curiosity. As she is passing through the Suez Canal and by Jerusalem, “she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. Is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?”. Her closeted view is challenged, but not changed by the force that transforms Lionel.
Society and the ship, as a microcosm of that society, are sequestered. Colored people aren’t allowed anywhere near the white people, but Lionel’s coincidental pairing with Cocoanut as a roommate enlightens him to the other side. What ultimately leads to the murder and subsequent suicide is Lionel’s realiziation that his responsibility lies with rejoining the exclusive ranks of white division from the other people, and that tension with Cocoanut rises to a lethal level. A Romeo and Juliet-esque affair concludes the abhorrently unchristian short story that Forster so brilliantly created.
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In this week’s blog, I am diving into three poems, all written by poets during World War 1. These voices from the war tackle what it means to be a soldier in three very distinct ways, and of course, the poems aren’t the most optimistic literature you’ve ever read. The first poem is “Glory of Women” by Siegfried Sassoon, then “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg and finally “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen. Written in the very early 20th century, women were just getting voting rights, gender equality was at the forefront of societal issues, and men were cajoled into serving in a war that ended with 40 million lives lost.
Each of these poems revolve around one driving factor, and that is blame. These men are sitting in trenches, hungry, thirsty, rotting, and wondering why on earth they decided to join the war. Naturally, they find people or objects to blame for their misery. It is very evident who is blamed in “Glory of Women”, as you might be able to tell from the title’s inherent irony. Sassoon berates women for their hypocrisy, only lauding soldiers with memorable stories and profiting from employment while the men are off at war. “You make us shells”, as the women literally produce bullet shells for the war, but also make shells out of the men they are sending the bullets to, only liking them for the accolades on their chest and disregarding the shell of a human they become. In “Break of Day in the Trenches”, Rosenberg blames the rat that happens to jump into his hand, envying its ability to run from one enemy’s base to another unscathed. Rosenberg is stuck to die in his trench while a measly rat can go wherever it pleases. In “Strange Meeting”, the undead soldier that Owen finds in hell blames war itself for his death, in that countries go to war blind and kill countless men for no reason. Those that aren’t killed wish they were because of PTSD and other mental ailments that will attack them the rest of their lives, and Owen expresses that in the line “Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were”.
While dark, these poems express the helplessness and utter misery that one experiences on the battlefield. Each poet approaches that dread in varying levels of figurative and literal meaning, with Sassoon’s literal and accusatory tone , Rosenberg’s understated and morally-ambiguous style, and Owen’s drawn-out and righteous tendencies. War was able to siphon their fear into powerful poetry.
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Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a fierce farce and a timeless theatrical masterpiece that takes double entendre to new heights. Wildean humor is unmatched in its impudence and hilarity. Set in the Victorian Age in which we are currently studying, Wilde found great success with this play, but soon after was imprisoned because of a scandal involving John Douglas who exposed his homosexuality to the public. His greatest climb became his biggest fall, as he never wrote another dramatic work following imprisonment.
To be Ernest, or not to be earnest? That is the question. That’s what the entire play revolves around. The literal name Ernest is a commodity passed around from Jack to Algernon to the grave and back to Jack very quickly throughout the piece. It signifies the boyish nature of mischievousness in its nature of human duplicity, but also shows the girlish whims of giving affections to a name. The other earnest, the adjective, is the ideal that the English population strived for at the time. To be earnest means to “proceed from an intense and serious state of mind”, as the lovely Merriam-Webster defines. That definition exemplifies the Victorian tendency to act posh and maintain moral rectitude. It is important in the play to act earnestly, just as it is important to quite literally be named Ernest.
It seems as if every line in this play is a jab at some societal structure in England at the time. Most of them revolve around the detached nature of the aristocracy, and Wilde lives for quaint and concise lines of dialogue that sting the reader or listener with thought-provoking venom. My favorite line from the play exemplifies this idea.
“The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” - Wilde
I love this because not only do I actually agree with the assertion of the quote, but it is Wilde in his greatest form. He lives for instructional quips.
Being a musical theatre major, I’ve had to read the play in the past, and every read rings true in infinitely varying ways. That’s one of my favorite things about literature actually. As your world changes because of age and experience, your literary environment and interpretation does as well. Not to delve too deeply into postmodern criticism, Wilde was a literary genius who perfectly encapsulated the Victorian mindset, but even he couldn’t predict the modern equivalent of that mindset. Humans now exhibit those same qualities on social media and throughout the internet, placing importance on the superfluous nature of Instagram and mind-numbing depths of Facebook.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a phenomenal duplicity of entertaining theatre and insightful societal remarks. Perhaps if Wilde had, by some wild chance, a brother named Ernest, his imprisonment could’ve been averted and blamed on that terrible invalid...
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Delving into the intricacies of Michael Field's poem 'Maids, not to you my mind doth change', there is a treasure trove of hidden meaning and lessons that, like poetry so often does, enlighten the reader to wildly different perspectives. Michael Field doesn’t exist. The authors behind this poem are two lesbian, female writers named Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. They wrote behind the facade of a male because their homosexual love was potentially life-threatening if discovered, and if they wrote about loving women from a man’s perspective, readers would just think the poem is about heterosexual love. A genius societal loophole, their poems are interpreted in completely different ways when one knows about the real authors.
Specifically to the poem in question, a dichotomy of belief is evident, even in the first stanza. Men and women, gay and straight, freedom and subservience, these conflicting values collide at the beginning and set the stage for the authors’ themes and lessons. The words allurement and estrangement in lines two and three convey the masculine tendency to confine females into stereotypical gender roles, alluring them into their position and estranging them once there.
Lines five and six introduce a love interest in the poem, and I believe show a dual audience that Bradley and Cooper wanted to reach. The line “Between us is no thought of pain” speaks to the lover specifically as having a harmless relationship, but I believe the authors wanted to express that genders don’t have to be always in dispute on which is more privileged. A middle, equal ground is possible for all genders, and should be strived for.
Throughout the rest of the poem, that balanced relationship is explored through varying, potentially-treacherous scenarios that a couple goes through. Patience lost and bruises withstood, the couple endures them perfectly with the aid of the gender equality described before.
An extraordinary poem in its construction and context of authorship, Bradley and Cooper inconspicuously weaved radical views into seemingly well-trodden romantic poetry. It’s a 19th century finesse of timeless proportion and recognition.
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In Sarah Stickney Ellis's book 'The Women of England', and specifically in the first chapter assigned for class, the inflammatory opinions of a religious and self-domesticated woman run rampant. In what could be considered a womanly manifesto, Stickney degrades the state of women across England at the time, 1839, accusing them of inadequate realization of their feminine duty and blaming current and future civilizational perils on the females' inability to provide for their home. There is no doubt in her mind, the only solution to the "problem" arising is divine devotion and brain and physical domestication. Women are meant to be in the house, tending to duties around the home and solving problems at the beck and call of the opposite sex, Stickney thinks. What I find fascinating is the shortsightedness of an extremely educated woman, and the cognitive brainwashing power of nurture over the, in my opinion, indisputable equality of nature. Tying into the idea of spherical separation of genders, Stickney argues for the continuance of the age-old career sequestration where men conduct business and women conduct cakes. Stickney argues this pursuit is the most noble and fruitful of any a woman can engage in and fulfills the effeminate soul of every woman. It's so fulfilling that women who domesticate themselves never become envious of luxurious lifestyles of higher class citizens and think their position in society is right for them.
Reading this scarily reminded me of the commandments of civilization outlined by Aldous Huxley in his oddly perceptive novel called Brave New World. Huxley’s second suggestion for a utopia, outlined in the foreword, is the science of human differences. It is finding the right fit in society for each individual, and then, most importantly, getting them to like and cherish that position over any possible envy of higher, richer classes. Stickney’s appraisal of women follows the same vein of manipulating peoples’ lives without them realizing it.
Stickney was holding onto values that were quickly eroding beneath her. It’s fascinating that certain figures can hold values that now seem so contrary to common sense. The values of presentism make me bite my tongue, but the apparent moral contradiction to confine your own gender pushes me forward. Stickney’s apparent formal education seems ironic when paired with the adolescent ideology of gender inequality. The only reason I can come up with for her adamant demands at female domestication is that she has some monetary or status gain from the blocked ascension of female rights. At a time when the feminine perspective was finally being celebrated and explored in classics like Jane Eyre, Stickney sticks to the ways of old and instructs women to put down their pens and pick up ladles. Her passion is admirable, but her convictions are deplorable.