Announcement: The Jane Austen Project

January 1, 2009

Over the next three months, I will be reading through the major works of Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. To supplement this project—and to serve as an addendum to The Modern Dash—I have created a new Web blog: Reading Jane Austen. There, I will be writing a log of my thoughts and criticisms of Austen’s work, as it is read it.

The specifics of the project can be found at RJA, so I won’t repeat them here. However, my introductory post is especially worth taking a look at, as it offers a frank discussion of my decision to do this as an extensive topic. There will undoubtedly be some overlap between my writing at the other site and the content written here. Hopefully, the Jane Austen Project will allow me to better understand the 19th century, and by extension give me some background on the roots of the Modernism movement.

Let me know if you have any suggestions; I invite participation, as always.


The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Primer

November 22, 2008

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto reads much like a Macbethian melodrama: the courtly intrigues, the hints at supernatural deviances, and a plot that seems to have been birthed with a stage in mind. One almost expects a scene divulging dialogue such as “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

Walpole—like Shakespeare—held an interest in storied courtly intrigue set abroad. Otranto is purported in the first edition’s preface to be set in medieval Italy, a non-fiction happened upon by chance—and painstakingly translated—for the benefit of English readers. Of course, this is all a fabrication by the author as an attempt to increase the dramatic potential of the work.

Just as mystery, horror, and related genres capitalize on fear of and fascination with the unknown and grotesque, so too does subversion of the authenticity of authorship draw readers/viewers into a story by way of intellectual narcissism. When the author is taken out of the creator–object–viewer equation, the experience changes dramatically. Instead of using the time and place of the author as a rubric to judge a work, the energy that would have otherwise been spent on a more grounded analysis is turned back on the viewer, like Narcissus grasping at his own reflection in the pool. Instead of the origin, there is only the destination; the reader is pulled in by the author’s invisible hand. And self reflection can be a frightening thing.

This effect points at the importance of the author’s presence and explicit participation.

This concept, which I might term the “primacy of authorship,” or having to do with “subversion of the primacy of authorship,” is a fundamental part of fiction, and touches upon (or brings to mind) questions of validity, plagiarism, authorial integrity, and origination.

In the case of Horace Walpole, his absence from the bylines of his first edition was an attractant to readers. In its preface, the pseudonymous editor/translator feigns to offer an analysis of the text:

Though the machinery is invention, and the names of the actors imaginary, I cannot but believe that the groundwork of the story is founded on truth. The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle.

Yet, the account of what happens to Manfred and his kin is anything but real: a giant helmet falls from the sky to crush his son, an event that would traumatize anyone.

The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune happened, and above all, the tremendous phænomenon before him, took away the prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it.

To modern readers, Otranto has many elements that might seem familiar. (The book was first published in 1764). Of course, there is the castle. And while it may be popular to apply to this construct the title of character unto itself, I don’t think that’s what Walpole had in mind. That is, I think he was more interested in how the various characters react to, and are affected by, their environment. Replete with creaking floorboards, whispering winds, and trap doors, the castle leaves a lasting psychological impression.

The story’s horrific moments—the destruction of family members by both supernatural and accidental means, danger of imprisonment by a maniacal tyrant, and fear of banishment and familial ostracism from said tyrant—push romanticism into the grotesque.

1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
2. Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Berkshire: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Adam Bede II – Hetty’s World

November 15, 2008

Continuing my survey of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I now turn to a second important female lead: Hetty Sorrel. Ultimately (that is, by the end of the book), I hope to make some conclusion about the author through her treatment of these two characters.

The introduction of the young Hetty into the plot of the novel doesn’t come for several chapters (or around 60 pages in my edition). The change in scope toward adding this character represents—in my reading of the text—a change most of all in tone. At this point in the plot, we have seen the calm and rational rejection by Dinah of Seth Bede, relative to male-female relations. However, Hetty’s opportunities for romantic consorting seem to be founded on—and cause for—emotional distress.

Enter Captain Donnithorne, in Chapter 7, “The Dairy”:

Hetty blushed a deep rose-colour when Captain Donnithorne entered the dairy and spoke to her; but it was not at all a distressed blush, for it was inwreathed with smiles and dimples, and with sparkles from under long curled dark eye-lashes; and while her aunt was discoursing to him about the limited amount of milk that was to be spared for butter and cheese so long as the calves were not all weaned, and the large quantity but inferior quality of milk yielded by the short-horn, which had been bought on experiment, together with other matters which must be interesting to a young gentleman who would one day be a land-lord, Hetty tossed and patted her pound of butter with quite a self-possessed, coquettish air, slily conscious that no turn of her head was lost.

Eliot then goes into a long description of Hetty’s beauty, complete with her characteristic personal views on the matter, with direct address to the reader. And as the commentary progresses, I get the feeling that the author is tantalizing the audience with will-she-love-hims and what-comes-nexts. From the beginning, there is no doubt of the soap operatic nature of the plot; the ‘narrative interjections’ as I might call them, imply as much.

Fast forward in time a bit and to provide some background on Adam relevant to Hetty, Dinah is visiting his mother in an effort to console her over the death of her husband (and Adam’s father). When speaking with Adam that night, the following description is given:

Dinah, with her sympathetic divination, knew quite well that Adam was longing to hear if Hetty had said anything about their trouble; she was too rigorously truthful for benevolent invention, but she had contrived to say something in which Hetty was tacitly included. Love has a way of cheating itself consciously, like a child who plays at solitary hide-and-seek; it is pleased with assurances that it all the while disbelieves.

In chapter 9, aptly subtitled “Hetty’s World”, we are provided with a measure of the inside mind of Hetty Sorrel, and the vanities which might later set her up for destruction.

“Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her,” Eliot claims. In fact, she’s quite aware of the beauty that she has been given, and—to the extent that a young girl of the working/lower class can—uses it to her advantage. There was Kyle Britton at Hayslope Church, Mr. Craig the gardener (though he was “near forty”), and Adam Bede. Nevertheless, her view of the world is formed by social and familial pressures:

Hetty was quite certain her uncle wanted her to marry him. For those were times when there was no rigid demarcation of rank between the farmer and the respectable artisan…

…and though she [Mrs. Poyser] and her husband might have viewed the subject differently if Hetty had been a daughter of their own, it was clear that they would have welcomed the match with Adam for a penniless niece. For what could Hetty have been but a servant elsewhere, if her uncle had not taken her in and brought her up as a domestic help to her aunt…

Yet, she is not terribly interested in Adam, but “she liked to feel that this strong, skilful, keen-eyed man was in her power…” In her mind, she is fully in control of this admirer, and “took care to entice him back into the net by little airs of meekness and timidity, as if she were in trouble as his neglect.” Subtle mastery over her admirers is a matter of pride for Hetty. In her prescribed world of milking cows and babysitting younger family members, she has but one natural advantage.

In my next entry on Adam Bede, I will attempt to look at how the entry of Arthur Donnithorne changes this equation for Hetty.

1. Eliot, George. Adam Bede. New York: Oxford University Press; 1996.

Announcement: The Short Story Project

October 27, 2008

The Modern Dash Projects

To assist me in organizing information, I will be—over time—initiating topic-related projects. As relates to The Modern Dash, the goal of these projects will be to help facilitate conversation and allow for the metaanalysis of literature and other art related to the study of Modernism.

As an ongoing TMD project, I will explore the short story as it relates to Modernism. I have already touched upon stories by Irwin Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. There will be more to come! For example, already on the docket are future readings/analysis of works by Franz Kafka and Jorge Borges. I am particularly interested in the short stories that shed light on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So, there will be more Shaw and Fitzgerald. And to test the genesis of the short story as a narrative form, I’ll be reaching back to Victorian works and beyond.

I welcome any suggestions by TMD readers. Of course, keep in touch and help contribute to the Short Story Project.

The Short Story Project Key Questions

  1. How did the short story arise as a mode of literary and rhetorical communication?
  2. What restraints and freedoms are given to short story writers?
  3. What is the “most efficient” method of narrative locomotion for the short story medium?
  4. How does the short story serve Modernism as a literary/aesthetic movement?

Ideally (though I don’t have a specific date in mind) I will some day be able to answer these questions. Or, at least, I will be always progressing toward some final answer, ever refining the thoughts that give meaning and association to this topic.

Coming Soon: My Reflection on The Modern Dash

Within the next few weeks, I will be writing a reflection on what this web log means to me. Certainly, this site is young and has a lot of space to cover. However, I feel that I have gained a sizeable knowledge of how things will look in the future. The Short Story Project is a look at that future.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House”: Epitomically Wilde

October 26, 2008

Other than being referred to as “the house of Lust” in a near-final stanza, “The Harlot’s House” makes no mention of the overt sexual underpinnings that might be expected of a poem with such a name.

Yet, the connection is there. Why is “Lust” the only word that breaks the line capitalization rule used here? Why is it acceptable to name such a place while leaving out the details, as if the reader possesses some assumption about how this type of setting plays into the meaning of the text?

I submit that this poem represents a transformational moment in the story of Oscar Wilde—a characteristic example of the author as a mediatory between the Victorian and the decadent.

Published in 1885 when Wilde was 31 years old, “The Harlot’s House” incorporates imagery of nature, the supernatural, and courtly ritual to create an atmosphere of transitory sublimation—as if from a dream. The most pungent text of the poem, and which happens to include each of these three, comprises the fourth stanza:

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Wilde seems to call upon gothic imagery to get at the flavor of the setting. The house is described as a place where spectres dance while musicians play Strauss’s “Treues Liebes Herz.” The figures are “wire-pulled automatons,” who are joined by a “clockwork puppet” and a “horrible marionette.”

Toward the end, the speaker interacts with this dubious environment:

Then turning to my love I said,
“The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.”

But she, she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in;
Love passed into the house of Lust.

The last stanza:

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandaled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

This final text offers a foreboding image. The effect of the house on the speaker’s love is negative, as I read it. Drawn in by the lure of the violin, she is transformed. However, she affects the house as well: “Then suddenly the tune went false, / The Shadows ceased to wheel and whirl…” Ultimately, the final line, “Crept like a frightened girl” seems to speak to the transformative or affective nature of the house—or whatever it represents. The line hints at a loss of innocence; a division has been created between the lovers. To say the least, its break in the syllabic rhythm is jarring.

Of interest to me is what the imagery of the activities going on in the house might mean to Wilde and his audience. The figures in the house dance a “slow quadrille” and a “stately saraband;” these conjure thoughts of the Victorian. And Wilde corrupts them, by either (1) presenting them as being performed by the strange and exotic—arabesques, shadows—or (2) by the transformative event that occurs toward the end. Here, Wilde seems to offer a parody of Victorian sensibilities.

One commentary, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, labels decadence as “a term used in literary or art history for the decline that marks the end of a great artistic period.” Of course, this only superficially touches upon the complexity, subtlety, and social implications of the artistic and literary tendencies of the end of the nineteenth century.

Wilde’s contributions to the “decadence” movement have been greatly documented; I intend to touch many of these comments in the future at The Modern Dash.

1. “Decadence.” Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. 4th ed. 1996.
2. Wilde, Oscar. “The Harlot’s House.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1688-1689.

Catharsis in Joyce’s “Eveline”

October 4, 2008

A whistle calls. Pulls.
Young and old the same.
Consented away, toward a distant unknown.
Tales of distant countries.
The air whispers terror.
This old country,
Still, pulling.

If there’s one thing to take away from “Eveline,” it’s the scene; the moment frozen in time which Joyce has set up to epitomize his short story anthology. With “Eveline” he ratchets it up a notch.

Change is uncomfortable. Relocating one’s body—truly affecting it—is the ultimate expression of change; change can result in a backfire, of sorts. Paralysis: the inability to move, no matter how strong the desire.

Eveline is set to leave the country with Frank. The tickets are bought, the boat has a schedule which will be kept. In the final moments, flashes of memory come, to tempt and remind her.

For Eveline, marriage is advancement, not just financially, or a move toward independence, but in womanhood.

Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been.

Yet, she worries about how she is perceived: “What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow?” Say she was a fool, perhaps;” and yet, she is conscious of her duties to family, to those who depend upon her:

She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could.

In her last moments, her mother had given out a cry. “Derevaun Seraun! Drevaun Seraun!”

She is stuck between desire and commitment, or two conflicting commitments. She feels compelled to “escape,” but when Frank calls, she “answers nothing.” When it came down to finally taking the plunge, she hesitated; “she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty.” Frozen, Eveline is stricken by the nausea of indecision. Standing there on the dock, all perception is culminated toward that moment in time; the pressure is building up to now.

In these final words, Joyce sets the scene, one of conscious incapacitation:

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish!

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes game him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

The words are their own commentary. For both Eveline and her mother, their respective cries are a catharsis—a release. Yet, Eveline grips the railing.

1. Joyce, James. “Eveline.” Dubliners. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 36-41.

Dehumanization and Mutilated Form: Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque

September 28, 2008

We made our way across the sodden mess
of souls the rain beat down, and when our steps
fell on a body, they sank through the emptiness.

– Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto VI (translated by John Ciardi)

Much about Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime poetry suggests that he’d traveled through the depths of a Dantean pastiche. Yet, despite being clearly affected by his experiences in the muddy trenches of The Great War (and in which he was twice wounded), he lived a long life—the literary prime of which was wrought out of such times. The sense of multi-persona living that Sassoon inhabited is shown in the names of two memoirs he penned: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

In April of 1917 when Siegfried Sassoon returned to England from the front lines of World War I, he brought with him two important career-influencing effects: the Military Cross and a sense of disenfranchisement by shellshock. In the poems he would subsequently write about his experiences, images of death and dehumanization prompted by mechanized warfare were prevalent. Most aptly hellish are his descriptions of the mutilated human form.

In “The Rear Guard” (1917), Sassoon describes the frustration of a soldier navigating through the postscripts of battle. The second stanza:

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.
‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep)
‘Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’
Savage, he kicked a soft unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

Sassoon’s description shows the state of the soldier. The figure is “Groping along the tunnel, step by step” (in the first stanza), and “Alone he staggered on…” (in the third stanza). These phrases point toward a physical and psychological detachment, well known effects of intense combat. (This is a theme that was alluded to in my previous post discussing Sally Carrol’s predicament in Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”). Normal sensibility and judgment are stripped; basic survival is priority; the human form becomes something as mud to be treaded upon, “muttering creatures.” This intimate understanding of an isolation from the normal leads me to believe that Sassoon experienced these feelings and psychological effects.

Sassoon’s style was sardonic at times, and showed an awareness of the dichotomies that pitted the ideals versus the realities of war; in “They” the Bishop notes after seeing the deformed bodies of the wounded, “The ways of God are strange!” Sassoon always attempted to reveal a learned-by-combat truth, perhaps one only learned therein.

“The General” (1917) shows Sassoon’s disdain for the military leadership:

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Of course, Sassoon is referring here to the wasteful way in which human and equipment capital were deployed by the generals. World War I is generally thought of as one in which the technologies had surpassed the strategies, leading to such stalemates as were experienced in the trench-fields of Europe.

Sassoon’s criticism of the ideals held by the citizenries of each side is evident in “Glory of Women” (1917)—which shows an acceptance of malleability as a way to describe the negatives of the war:

You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Commentary on the warped human and domestic forms is not unique to Sassoon.

Erich Maria Remarque’s scathing novel of the romanticization and realities of World War I, Im Westen Nichts Neues (1927), gives a picture of a group of Germans affected by the war. (Im Westen Nichts Neues is transliterated from German to “In the West Nothing New” but was popularized—and is known in English—as All Quiet on the Western Front). Here, the strength of autobiographical reflection is made through statements such as “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” Remarque fought for the Germans and was wounded in the war.

One scene in his book describes an advance on a German position by French troops:

We recognize the smooth distorted faces, the helmets: they are French. They have already suffered heavily when they reach the remnants of the barbed wire entanglements. A whole line has gone down before our machine-guns; then we have a lot of stoppages and they come nearer.

I see one of them, his face upturned, fall into a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.

In 1930, Lewis Milestone adapted the book for film:

The students clear out of the classroom as they join the parade going on in the street. Milestone—and Remarque—offered substantive coverage to the soldier’s experience off as much as on the front lines. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

“Why did you risk your life bringing him in?”
“But it’s Behm! My friend…”
“It’s a corpse, no matter who it is.”
The recently recruited young men are in stark contrast to those affected by time spent in the trenches. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Retrospectively, the 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is surprisingly realistic and violent for its time. In this image, the battle recounted by Remarque is presented in full effect by Milestone. Decapitation and dismemberment serve to separate and unravel the fibers of normal psychosocial constructs.

The main character visits home. Here, he is shown to be an avid lepidopterist. By this time in the story, he has matured, but his family and former school teacher hold on to an unshakable idealism.

The main character’s—and the movie’s—final moments are a clear indictment of the senselessness of the war. Image taken from Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
1. Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Signet Classic, 2001.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front. Dir. Lewis Milestone. Perf. Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray. Universal Pictures, 1930. DVD.
3. Remarque, Maria Erich. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1975.
4. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Rear-Guard.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1961.
5. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The General.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1961-1962.
6. Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Glory of Women.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1962.
7. Sassoon, Siegfried. “They.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1960-1961.