Disparities Between Theory and Practice

Why did George Eliot portray peasants as she did in Silas Marner? Well, why not look at her comments in “The Natural History of German Life”? This hermeneutic appears neat and systematized, but at the same time, it highlights the difficulty in constructing a consistent system to interpret an inconsistent human being. In “Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context,” Lyn Pykett examines the complications that ensue when literary critics attempt to read and digest Victorian periodical writing. The temptation to use nonfiction as “secondary confirming evidence” of an author’s fictional views and ideas is strong– and it happens much more often than scholars would probably like to admit (Pykett 102).  Like Pykett, however, I agree that an author’s nonfiction must play some role in our understanding of that author’s other works; how important that role is, exactly, is harder to pin down.

These periodical writings are useful as cultural artifacts. Yet when determining how much an author’s periodical writing is a product of her culture, we run up against a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario: does the press shape society, or does society shape the press? It’s almost as frustrating as asking whether novels shape our theoretical framework, or whether our theoretical framework shapes how we read novels. Pykett quotes James Mill, who observes, “Periodical literature depends upon immediate success. It must, therefore, patronise the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power” (105). At the same time as the periodical press provided an avenue for those not in power (i.e. Victorian women) to challenge the majority opinion, these marginalized opinions began to push their way to center stage and effect change. The answer to both questions, of course, has to be yes; the influence is mutual.

I believe that one solution is to read these Victorian periodicals as an indication of what topics possessed cultural relevance. Like we read Middlemarch, we should not seek to systematize “Victorian culture” as a monolithic entity; rather, we should seek to enter each article as a different perspective on the same body of current social issues. When applied to individual authors, then, I believe that periodical articles are useful insofar as they highlight what topics were in that author’s mind at the time. Though nonfiction pieces such as Eliot’s “Natural History” or “Notes on Form in Art” should not be used as a systematic proof of an author’s consistent approach to writing, they are useful if we view them as explorations— tentative theories or approaches that the author could challenge or revise at a later time.

While this approach does not provide a satisfying, tidy hermeneutic, I do believe it is more holistic. We’re all human. We make mistakes; we revise our ideas when we encounter new evidence or gain new experiences. It’s certainly unfair to interpret an established literary critic’s theories by a paper he/she wrote in grad school, yet we tend to hold our authors to an unrealistic standard of consistency (and perhaps even possess the illusion of our own eternal consistency). Giving up our need to systematize might just help us remember to accept what we don’t understand, explore mysteries (but admit our limits), and remember to enjoy texts at face value again.

Rebecca West–Return of the Soldier

The Role of Kitty in Return of the Soldier

After completing West’s novel Return of the Soldier, I find it highly ironic that the wife of the title character, Chris, is rarely mentioned.  One would suppose that a loved one of the the title character would be mentioned more, but Kitty is not.  An obvious reason for this is because Chris does not remember his wife after returning to war.  He has no recollection of his past with her, so Chris does not remember his wife, West will not place her frequently in the novel.  Like in Chris’s mind, Kitty must be in the background of the plot.

By looking closer at the personalities and behaviors of Kitty, we see that Kitty is not very helpful or sympathetic towards Chris and his lack of memory.  She expects him to remember her, and when she discovers that he does not, she does not try too hard to understand.  Her first (and final, really) attempt to jar his memory involves Kitty dressing up in an elegant gown and covering herself with jewels.  “It seems so strange that you should not remember me,” she remarks and then indicates of the jewels:  “You gave me all of these” (27).  Perhaps our lovely wife is so disconnected from her husband that she does not deserve a place in the foreground of the plot.  Because Chris embodies the War in the novel, a parallel between Kitty’s disconnect with her husband and with an understanding of the War is present.

Thus far, Kitty has served as a symbol of Chris’ memory loss and a lack of understanding of the War.  It is true that she is not directly present in the novel, but how curious it is that West gives the closing lines of her novel to Kitty!  Once Chris is reminded of his past and remembers who he is, Kitty watches him walk back to the house.  Jenny believes that he looks “every inch a soldier,” and Kitty exclaims that “he’s cured!” (90).  West interjects a preposition in Kitty’s exclamation that reveals a bit more of character: with satisfaction.  How are we as readers supposed to interpret this?  Did all Kitty desire was for her husband to return to normalcy?  Why couldn’t she have accepted him in the state of mind that he was?

I believe that in giving Kitty the last line, and such a powerful last line, emphasizes an understanding of the War from a female perspective.  Judging by Kitty’s reactions in the novel, West feels that women do not fully understand the War or anything that caused the War.  Kitty is happy that her husband is “cured,” which means that he is back to his normal self.  We see a return of the soldier, but is this return good?  Are we to celebrate with Kitty, who appears to be wildly disconnected from reality, or are we to question this return?

West, Rebecca.  Return of the Soldier.  United States: The Century Co., 1918.  Print.

Battle of the Sympathizers- The Return of the Soldier- Rebecca West

The story in The Return of the Soldier is told from the perspective of Jenny, who is supposed to be an unbiased narrator.  While reading the story we encounter three other characters, each of whom we end of feeling some kind of sympathy towards.  So the main question here is who, if anyone, are we supposed to feel sympathy for?

The first character who we begin to been sorry for is Margaret, who was judged from the beginning by Kitty and Jenny because of her lower class standing.  While trying to do the right thing and tell Kitty about her husband’s memory loss, she was called a liar from the very beginning.  Kitty refused to believe anything that she said, mostly because she was poor and Kitty assumed that she was trying to scam her to get money.  Later in the story we begin to feel sorry for Margaret again because of her unhappy marriage and the fact that the old Chris who she loved has now come back into her life.  This conflict between Margaret’s love for Chris and her conscious telling her that she should not love him makes the reader feel her inner struggle and sympathize with her.

Next, the reader feels sympathy for Kitty, despite her mistreatment of Margaret and annoying, uncompromising nature.  Kitty has been told by a complete stranger that her husband has been in an accident and lost his memory.  Not only does Chris not remember her, but he’s also in love with another woman!  It is, indeed, hard to not feel some kind of sympathy for Kitty.

We often forget to sympathize with Chris, who has lost 15 years worth of memories.  He awakes, thinking he’s 15 years younger than he really is, in love with a married woman, and unaware that he, himself, is married.  He has to accommodate Kitty, who doesn’t even remember, while trying to fight his uncontrollable love for Margaret.  He has been told that his father and butler died, and at the end of the story, that his son has died as well.  Further, as soon as he regains his memory, we know that he will have to eventually go back to the war because he has been “cured.”

So, which character deserves our sympathy? Or are we supposed to sympathize with all of them? Can be truly sympathize for both Margaret and Kitty at the same time, who both want Chris?

I really don’t like Jenny

As I’m reading The Return of the Soldier, it is hard not to roll my eyes at our untrustworthy narrator, Jenny. What are we supposed to make of her?

Jenny is jealous and petty, she is snobby, she assumes much of her companions and their backgrounds, and overall I just don’t think I’d like her much as a person. It is difficult to understand why West would provide us with such an untrustworty and frustrating narrator, would it not have been better to tell the story from Chris’s point of view? From Kitty’s, the poor wife? Jenny is supposed to provide us with an unbiased–third person point of view, but as well all know, she is the furthest thing from unbiased that one can get. Though Jenny tries to sound more likable, the small commentaries she makes here and there ensure that I will never truly appreciate her as a narrator, she is simply too unreliable, assumes too much, doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. Perhaps that’s the whole reason why she’s the narrator and not somebody that is actually affected by the story–maybe West wansn’t quite sure of what to make of her characters…

Why Jenny?

The Return of the Soldier is told in first person by the cousin of the soldier, Jenny. Why does Rebecca West use a seemingly arbitrary character to filter the story of Chris, Margaret, and Kitty?

Jenny could be a third party who allows the reader to better get to know the characters. Chris, being shell shocked with no memory of Kitty, is not a reliable source. Besides his obvious bias, through his point of view the reader would lack half of the story completely. Jenny is the only character to know the recent relationship of Chris and Kitty, but is not too biased to learn the story of Chris and Margaret objectively.

Perhaps Jenny is meant to bring the reader into the story as a character themselves. Jenny does not reveal much back story about herself. She doesn’t even seem to have much characterization besides her relentless prejudice against the poor. Jenny is almost a reader rather than a character as she learns about the story along with us and shares common prejudices at the time. Maybe West means for Jenny to be the embodiment of the reader in a way. West might be creating a character for the reader to relate to as an observer of the story, and in turn makes the reader more invested. Jenny says of love, “So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends…that I knew that it was the most significant as it was the loveliest attitude in the world”, so too does the reader not realize the importance of love until they experience it first hand in the role of a character (West 70).

Source: West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

The Waste Land: Section Four

Death by Water

Section four of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is the shortest section, but it is still quite significant to the poem.  In summary: Phlebas has died by drowning.  In his death he has “passed the stages of his age and youth” and has forgotten about the typical worldly concerns.  Eliot seems to present a simple message, but it is the latter half of this section that reveals more of what Eliot is trying to convey to his audience.

What is interesting about Phlebas’s death is how Eliot describes it.  He “rose and fell,” indicating a sort of cyclical event (line 316).  Once his body is in the sea, the ocean “picked his bones” (line 316).  Section four lacks sympathy; one could almost accuse Eliot of apathy, for he does not romanticize the death scene at all.  Linking his death to a cyclical event doesn’t give his death much importance at all.  The image of the ocean picking Phlebas’s bones is grotesque, but we have to wonder why they ocean current does this Phlebas’s body.  Phlebas is not special to the ocean.  He is just another body, insignificant and unimportant.  Eliot’s footnote on the title of the section states that “this section has been interpreted as signifying death by water without resurrection” (emphasis added).  Phlebas is not going to resurrect from his watery grave, nor will he ever see life on Earth again.  By pairing the above images and this footnote, it is clear that Eliot does not consider Phlebas’s death important because death happens to everyone.  All will die.

But is this death supposed to be a bad thing?  For the entire poem, Eliot describes a waste land, and we get an idea of how terrible a place this really is.  In the second section of the poem, recall that Madame Sosostris pulls a card of a “drowned Phoenician sailor,” and warns “Fear death by water” (lines 47, 55).  Phlebas confirms what Sosostris warns, dying by drowning.  However, in the section following “Death by Water,” images of water are used greatly.  Often Eliot repeats “if there were only water” in conjunction with the desolate and barren images in section five.  The phrase “if only” indicates a deep need and hope for water; it is ardently desired in section five, though Phlebas died by water.  Perhaps Phlebas’s death could be seen as a release from the present waste land.  Now that Phlebas is dead, he does not have to endure a dreadful life as described throughout the entire poem; sadness, anger, and death do not affect him anymore.  He is now beyond this earthly realm, so could death by water be an escape?

Could dying be better than living in the Waste Land?

United Nations

In the fifth and final stanza of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the “wasteland” is physically portrayed as a dry mountain area. Metaphorically, this is the world of sorrow and war. This section seems to become more global, since it does not have specific depictions of any one character, as the previous sections had. Therefore, this final section seems to be representative of a universal wasteland rather than any one in particular nation.

One of the most important imageries in this stanza is the water imagery, or the lack of water. As the stanza goes on however, Eliot reveals the wind which he says is, “bringing rain” (Eliot 395). With the rain comes hope. The water in the dry land represents a solution found in man. The dry land, or the warring world, seems natural and unavoidable, yet the key to the rain is in the behavior of man when he listens to natural law, in this case, thunder.

The importance of what the thunder says is revealed in the footnote. The “Da” references an Indian fable in which thunder commands to “control yourself”, “give”, and “be compassionate” (401). The rain in this dry wasteland comes when man learns to be moral, give, and be compassionate. The only alleviation from the drought in this world is for humanity to come together. The rain, for Eliot, is provided by man being compassionate to his fellow man. The drought in the wasteland is the war brought on when men are selfish and uncontrollable.

Although Eliot does imply some sort of hope certainly, the wasteland remains isolated. The prison imagery leads us in to the ending. Eliot leaves us with a reminder that, “thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (415). He provides an answer saying to unite, but he admits that humanity cannot come together entirely. Even as men and nations work together, individuals will always be locked alone in his own psyche. Coupled with Eliot’s note on Bradley’s quote, “…the whole world for each is particular and private to that soul”, the prison imagery reveals to the reader that even as nations unite, they can and must always be separate, even as individuals are separate (2308).

As in the first stanza, Eliot is speaking to the nations during war. He believes that they must work together, or the world will always be a wasteland. No nation is exempt. He references many different literatures from different languages to tell all peoples that they must be responsible for this natural law, no exception. In the twentieth century the world becomes more global creating new problems which cause world wars. As the world becomes more global, so does Eliot’s fifth stanza when he deals with these issues and states that the nations must make a bond, yet they cannot give up their individuality. No Hitler should bring them together as one nation, but they each have a command, given by nature, to hold true to national responsibility, and only then will there be “shantih”, or a peace above all understanding (434.) Until then, there will always be war.

Virginia Woolf–“Professions for Women”

A Question of Identity

Woolf and her fresh opinions about the role of women in society are quite well known.  Regarded as an ardent advocate for females’ rights, it is no surprise to find these same undertones in her essay “Professions for Women”.  Woolf tackles Coventry Patmore’s ideas behind his poem “The Angel in the House” and addresses a dichotomy between herself and this Angel in the House.

Though we know her so well, let us not take this essay too lightly.

Woolf opens up her essay by faithfully telling her readers that “it is true I am a woman” (2152).  However, as she continues her essay into a discussion of Patmore’s poem, her language shifts, and she creates this separation between the woman in Patmore’s poem and herself.

She admits that, if she were to continue her job writing reviews, she needed to “do battle with a certain phantom…and the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House” (2153).  Why does Woolf feel so separated from this other woman?  Shouldn’t she feel somewhat connected to her, being a woman herself?

“I did my best to kill her…Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

Obviously, Woolf and the Angel hardly had an amiable relationship—but what a threat to one’s identity!  This lack of connection between Woolf and the Angel stems from oppressive nature of the Angel .  Perhaps Woolf feels so separated from the Angel because the Angel isn’t truly female.  Woolf uses fantastical imagery to describe the Angel, as stated previously, so one could question the humanly qualities of such a phantom.  Does the Angel encompass legitimate ideals for women, or is it even possible for a woman to be an Angel of the House?  Did Woolf overreact to the Angel, or was Woolf correct in thinking that the Angel is so incredibly idealistic that she strips other females of an identity?

Is Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women” too drastic?

In her essay entitled “Professions for Women”, VIrginia Woolf tells women that they must kill the angel in the house. This ideal form of a Victorian woman was charming, unselfish, and completely sympathetic at all times. Although the stereotype and expectations are both harmful and overwhelming for women, a complete eradication of this type of woman also seems a bit drastic. Consequently, is it possible that all types of women can be accepted simultaneously? If Woolf simply means that society should stop expecting this angelic form of a woman, then her point seems reasonable. However, if she means for all women to stop valuing domesticity and being sweet, then her goal is hopeless. The domestic and loving woman is both embedded in culture and religion. As a result, instead of advocating for the eradication for an entire group of women’s identity, simply moving for the widespread respect of all women and their life decisions would be more realistic.

Mansfield’s Garden Party

Why was everybody so upset with Laura when she wondered whether the party should continue after a death outside the gates of their estate? And what is the significance behind Laura’s fickle-ness on the subject?

In Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” Laura struggled with the fact that a man had just died, and her family was hosting a garden party on that very same day, and she struggles with the fact that they are celebrating when a man has just died. When Laura suggests post-poning the party, her mother and her sister react very strongly, her sister saying “Don’t be so absurd” and her mother only caring whether or not the man died in the garden. When Laura resolves to ask her brother, he needs only to comment on her hat for her to completely forget about it.

I suppose that the reason why everyone reacted negatively to Laura’s concern is because all the preparations had already been made, and the mother and sister explains that Laura need not concern herself with the lower classes. The women seem to think that it is their duty and responsibility to go through with the night’s entertainment, with the mother saying “it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everyone’s enjoyment.” As for Laura’s short term memory on such a shocking event, I think it is a reflection on the view of women, they are petty and fickle, and everything’s ok so long at the party went well, their womanly duties were fulfilled.

Ghosts of Feminine Ideals in Woolf’s “Professions for Women”

In her piece “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf details her conflict with an embodiment of the Angel in the House. The Angel, described as a phantom, is killed by Woolf in the process of her becoming a writer. This battle between the two creates an interesting question: Does the tentative and transitory state of female prominence, or inclusion, in the literary sphere depend significantly on the Angel in the House ideal being eradicated entirely? The act of writing can occur exclusively in the household, as Woolf puts it “on five hundred pounds a year.” However, for women to succeed at writing, according to Woolf, the voice provided by the Angel in the House must be erased because women cannot think independently and freely otherwise. This idea may seem extreme, especially considering the time period that Woolf conceived it in. Instead of keeping the ideal or removing it entirely, can a medium or balance be obtained? Can women think independently without being viewed as fallen or corrupted? Can an angelic women come to be perceived as one that thinks for herself, or will predetermined prejudices prevail and free thinking women be condemned?

Contradictory Statements- Professions for Women- Virginia Wolf

 

In the Victorian Age, genteel women were looked down on for working. Supposedly, this view had changed but it seems that she is trying to make writing look easy and effortless. Woolf is trying to make it appear as if it is not work. She describes her writing simply as moving a “pen from left to right.” If she really wants to get rid of these stereotypes, why is she including them in her writing?

One of the reasons I think she would do this is to add a layer of complexity to her writing. She writes about how she is sure she has killed the Angel of the House, but is not sure if she can tell “the truth about [her] own experiences as a body.” Her excluding the frustrating nature of her work is another way for her to reiterate her point. She does not feel like she is able to tell the truth about her experiences, so she doesn’t.

Another reason could be that Woolf is just not aware of it, which still adds a beautiful complexity to her writing. She wishes to get free from these hindrances to her writing but she hasn’t been able to. She still suffers underneath them and tries to make light of her work. For example, she tells the reader she wrote a novel because she wanted to buy a car. Instead of admitting that she wanted to write a novel, she made the reason frivolous and shallow. But then why would she do that? So people won’t know how much important her writing is to her? As self-protection for if the novel is bad? Or maybe she makes it seems like it was effortless so that she can be hailed a genius?

I have no idea. She is either a woman stuck under the conventions she wishes to get rid of or she is a genius writer who knows exactly what she is doing. There may be another option in there but I can’t think of it.

Textual puzzle-“Professions for Women” by Virginia Woolf

Woolf, in her essay titled “Professions for Women,” gives a vivid description of how she kills the idea of the Angel in the House in her life, in order to free herself from the confines of what society has decided about who a woman should be.  There is a slight problem with her “killing” of the Angel in the House; she doesn’t know what a woman should do after this event takes place.  There is nothing wrong with her breaking free from the mold of the perfect woman that society is trying to fit her in to, but she isn’t really sure what she, or women in general, should do after this takes place.  This makes her argument for the figurative killing of the Angel in the House seem odd, because she doesn’t have a definite answer for what is to come afterwards.  It could be argued that this gives women a chance to make a name for themselves and create a new identity for women, now that the Angel of the House is gone.  It would be interesting to see how many women would have been open to this idea outside of where Woolf was giving her presentation, because of how natural society made it seen for women to portray the role of the Angel in the House.

The Garden Party: Why must one go everywhere?

It’s no surprise that the very Victorian mother Mrs. Sheridan is not affected by the death of Mr. Scott and doesn’t want to venture down to the quarters of the lower-class. She is happy with the illusion of her garden party. However, Laura’s curiosity and sentimentality forbids her to think in such a way. She feels uneasy living in the safety of the garden party. Yet, when she is walking to the poor quarters, her mind is filled with “kisses, voices, and tinkling spoons”—thoughts of the garden party. Yet, she determinedly travels down into the poor underworld. At one point, the narrator curiously says, “One must go everywhere; one must see everything.” What does this mean?

The statement could just mirror the fate of Laura. She can’t remain in the world of garden parties and innocence forever. She must trek down into reality and see death. It is merely a rite of passage. However, the grammatical voice suggests that the narrator doesn’t only have Laura in mind. “One” seems to refer to society as a whole—society must go everywhere and see everything. By 1922 when “The Garden Party was written, the world had seen World War I and all of its atrocities. The statement could be a reminder that world cannot remain in balance forever, but society must progress through peace as well has turmoil. The statement could also be a call for exploration. In order to understand the world, you must step out of the illusions we’ve created and investigate every aspect of the world, searching for answers. This exploration is even hinted at during the closing of the story. Laura can only mutter the words, “Isn’t life—“, and isn’t able to complete the statement. Life, its mysteries, its joys, and the reason for suffering cannot be ascertained unless one goes everywhere and sees everything, searching for new ways to understand.

What is life?

 

Katherine Mansfield’s Garden party reflects on the reality of death through the eyes of a young girl. In the end, after seeing her dead neighbor’s face, Laura says, “isn’t life-” (2356). Why does Mansfield leave this fragment so open ended and what does it mean?

One possible answer is that the comment on life was traumatic. Although the sight of the dead man, is portrayed as a positive image, perhaps the reverse state, life, is now considered negative. The preceding positive statements are followed by a “but”. “It was marvelous. But isn’t life-” (2356). This construction makes it seem as if the explanation that cannot be put into words, is contrasting with the marvelous death and therefore may be conveying the traumatic experience life is in comparison.

Another interpretation is that the line is cut short, just as life is. As many lives, one after the other, start and stop too soon, so does Laura’s repeated fragments. Even though life ends in death, humanity continues its feeble attempt to finish its statement. Perhaps Mansfield is simply saying, there are no words for what life is, because one has to experience it to know. She reveals the brevity of life, but also leaves room for the reader to decide what life is by their own experiences of it. Life is short, life is sorrowful, life is ironic; all of these and more are answers to this shortened question. Mansfield simply lets us know, we can only know it by living it. As it says of Laurie, “No matter. He quite understood”, so Mansfield says of the reader, you know, you also have experienced it (2356).

Source: Mansfield, Katherine. “The Garden Party”. Handout English 3351. Print.