Category

Littérature

Category

Littérature : française, britannique et américaine.

In an article entitled The Family in Modern Drama, Arthur Miller insisted that all “great plays” finally grapple with one central issue: “how may a man make of the outside world a home?”. Making of the outside world a home would imply being “well-liked”: managing to turn anonymous, business relations into close family ties – that is to say being able, like Dave Singleman, “to go… into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (p.63). In Death of a Salesman, the dream of social success cannot be disentangled from the idyllic vision of society as a large, tightly-knit family.

Yet, there is every reason to believe that Dave Singleman, as his patronymic shows, is a bachelor, when the foundation of the much-vaunted American ideal remains the nuclear family: the nuclear family as an agent of socialization and as a stabilizing influence.

Precisely in Death of a Salesman spectators are given privileged access into the private sphere of a family and occasionally turned into voyeurs. It seems that far from offering a secure, reassuring nest the family also reverberates the tensions of society at large in the 1950s.

1. The Green World patriarchal clan

Willy, through his conversation with Ben (38-41) harks back to his infancy. The image of the father is mythologized by both sons – the elder Ben and the younger Willy – even if Father Loman deserted his wife and children to lead an adventurous life.

The mother is hardly ever referred to. She must nevertheless have had a hard life to provide sustenance and comfort for her two sons. When Ben followed in his father’s footsteps by running off for adventure, Mother Loman still had Willy to look after. Willy, who recalls sitting on “Mamma’s lap” (38), suffered from his father’s absence. The lack of paternal care resulted in his feeling “kind of temporary about (himself)” (40). Mother Loman’s caring presence is trivialized: “fine specimen of a Lady, Mother” (35) and the “old girl”, when reunion with the vanished father is Ben and Willy’s single purpose. Ben started off for Alaska hoping to find his father (37) and Willy elects a father-figure through his total devotion for Dave Singleman, another salesman.

Willy has remained so obsessed with the myth of his Father that he entreats Ben to tell Biff and Happy about their grandfather, so they can learn “the kind of stock they spring from” (38). So, in a way, it is as if all the Loman men sprang directly from their father’s side and as if their mother had had no part to play in their birth. An edenic myth is implied which seems to preclude, or at least downplay woman’s role in the procreation process.

Lots of critics have debated the tragic dimension of Death of a Salesman. Two levels have often been considered: the notion of genre, by referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, and the possibility of a new approach to tragedy, that would be concerned with the response of mankind to rapid technological advance.

The generic discussion (from genre) has often borne on an opposition between social drama dealing with the little man as victim of an oppressive, social and economic system, and tragedy in which the transcendental aspect is emphasized.

Miller himself has reflected on this issue in a seminal essay Tragedy and the Common Man (The New York Times, February 27, 1949). It is clear that Death of a Salesman raises the possibility of a modern tragic because unlike the absurdist theatre (Ionesco and Beckett), it postulates that ‘life has meaning’.

The question of the tragic in contradistinction to social drama will be treated along three axes.

Firstly, it can be argued that Death of a Salesman is more than social document that it creates a modern myth through a central symbol: salesmanship (Eugene O’Neill : The Iceman Cometh).

Secondly, we may wonder whether or not Loman is invested with a tragic dimension.

Thirdly, is Death of a Salesman a ruthless indictment of the American Society, along Marxist or, at least radical (in the American acceptation) lines, or does it go much beyond its social and historical context to bring about tragic catharsis in the audience?

Social testimony versus tragic myth?

The contemporary absence of tragedy

According to Miller, the absence of tragedy in contemporary American drama (1949) can be explained by the fact that man’s motivations are increasingly accounted for in purely psychiatric and sociological terms.

Literature tends to suggest that man’s miseries are born and bred within man’s mind: this is the psychological argument or, that society must be held responsible for man’s distress because of the deterministic laws that govern it – this is the point made by sociologists. In each case, the possibility of the tragic is denied because tragedy stems from an individual choice to assess, then to call into question and ultimately to rebel against the order of things.

“The thrust for freedom is equality in tragedy which exalts” (Tragedy and the Common Man, p.5)

If Willy Loman is simply considered as the poor, helpless victim of capitalist big business, then he is deprived of any tragic dimension. If he is merely a cog in the gigantic capitalist wheel that eventually crushes him to death, he is denied a tragic dimension. If he’s driven to madness, he has no tragic potential either.

A democratic tragedy

In our modern society, the agon (the contest, the struggle that is central to tragedy) can no longer be induced by a confrontation between the tragic hero and the Gods imposing their will on human mortals, as happened in Greek tragedy (Oedipus). The Gods have been replaced by the enslaving forces of modern society. Death of a Salesman is more subtle, sophisticated than the standard propaganda play of the 1930s, denouncing the evils of capitalism (The Adding Machines, Elmer Rice or the plays by Clifford Odets Awake and Sing).

The scene in which Loman is given the axe (p.59-66) is imbued with a certain ambiguity, a certain complexity, that make for tragic tension. It does not show a ruthless executive consciously firing the trusted employee, out of calculated mercenary motives.

The irony resides in the discrepancy between Howard Wagner and our preconceived representation of the capitalist businessman. Howard is the “nice guy”, cornered into a situation that he is at a loss to handle nicely, which only makes the ugliness of it all even worse. There is no manichean opposition, it is more a case of a little man being fired by another little man (only a little higher up in the social scale).

In Howard’s presence, Willy is not simply confronted to the employer, but also to the doting father, who enthuses over his beloved children. Just speaking about his daughter, Howard exclaims “she’s crazy for me” (p.60) and of his son he says “five years old, Willy!” to point to his precocity and intelligence.

Both men (Willy and Howard) are not fundamentally different, at bottom, they just happen to find themselves into different social camps, at this point in time. Thus ambiguity gives tragic potential to the scene because “in tragedies and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man” (Tragedy and the Common Man).

This is precisely the exact opposite to the Theatre of the Absurd, from which meaningfulness has been dismissed, and also very different from what happens in propaganda plays which set simplistic oppositions between the goodies and the villains.

Death of a Salesman: the play's structure, a memory play photo

If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be divided into chronologically organised sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night); Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness. In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.

The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.

‘A mobile concurrency of past and present’

(The expression is by Miller, from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p.26)

Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman both past and present are given theatrical representation. There is no clear cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teenagers and adults successively.

There are no flashbacks in Death of a Salesman. Better than the erroneous term flashback, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata. In a way, Willy is schizophrenic; overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say the salesman as he used to be. Similarly, the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.

The dramatic unities, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston; New York but also the Prairie – through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity. In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.

In the Great Gatsby, characters are not introduced in a traditional way. They are not described in any detail and cannot be studied separately. Thanks to his “ideographic” method of character-portrayal, Fitzgerald suggests one idea through an attitude, a gesture but does not provide a final explanation. It is up to the reader to reconstruct the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole.

The author’s technique is close to the Joycean “signature” when the character is broken down into its separate parts, and one or two of the parts are made to stand for the whole. Thus, Gatsby’s presence for example is signalled by his indescribable smile (54, III) or by his colourful suits, his hollow-eyed stare or Wolfshiem’s by his hairy nostrils. This is a stylized method of presentation, a virtual iconography of character whereby the soul of a being is shown forth through one exterior element.

This study will fall into parts: in the first one, we will see how characters are gradually characterized by the readers from a few signs and in the second one, we will demonstrate that characters must be understood through their relationships with objects.

A stylized technique of characterization

Ambiguous signs

Instead of the over-detailed description of 19th century novelists, we find in the case of each character a few signs that may be contradictory. It is often a material or a physical detail that points to a moral dimension of the character, as with Hawthorne and Melville.

Daisy’s voice is alluded to several times in the novel. It is because of this voice that Gatsby falls madly in love with Daisy: “I think that the voice held him most – that voice was a deathless song” (end of chapter V, p. 103). Yet, Nick realizes on the first he visits the Carraways that Daisy’s voice lacks sincerity, and that it gives away Daisy’s duplicity: “the instant her voice broke off… I felt the basic insincerity of what she has said” (p.24).

From these two contradictory signs, the magic power of the voice and and the insincerity of that same voice an interpretation is suggested. The meaning is finally made explicit by none other than Gatsby during the night of the accident. The latter, thinking back to his past, recalls his first date with the woman whom he was to love so much ever after. It so happened that Daisy had caught a cold so that her voice was huskier (VIII, 155). At that point in time Gatsby realized that the charm and youth of that voice was very much a matter of wealth. Daisy’s melodious voice was not so much due to genuine passion as to the glamour of money (VIII, 126).

From an opposition between two signs the reader is left to infer meaning. For instance, Wilson the garage-owner is first seen as a passive, ghastly silhouette “a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome” (II, 31), but this lack of presence is contradicted by the end (chapter VII, VIII) when he turns out to be a destructive force bent on taking vengeance on his wife’s killer. Our first impression of the man is therefore not borne out by the story’s denouement.

The term quest immediately calls up the fairy tale motif or the German Märchen (Tieck; Grimm). The quest has been studied by Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.

In a tale, the hero attempts to escape from his humble origins to claim a higher ascendency or a royal lineage. James Gatz from North Dakota had never really accepted his parents who were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people : “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all”. James Gatz denies his social as well as biological parentage to aspire to a more glittering and glamorous future. He therefore creates an exalted image of himself : he yearns to become a demi-god (“he was a son of God”). So James Gatz’s quest consists in proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty and powerful. Now this may only be achieved through personal enrichment.

The quest pattern is also closely bound up with the romantic desire to transcend the limitations of the Self. The aim of such a quest is therefore to assert the primacy of the imagination over reason in a materialistic and philistine world. Fitzgerald often recalled his great admiration for the poet Keats and he went as far as to claim that he intended to “write prose on the same lines as Keats’ poetry” (Sheilah Graham, College of One, Harmondsworth, 1969). So even if the novel’s action is steeped in the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking America of the Jazz Age, it is nonetheless imbued with Romantic idealism. In a way, The Great Gatsby may be interpreted as a downright rejection of everything that is earthbound, mundane and devoid of spiritual lift.

“Real time” versus timeless ideality

Time is the real enemy in the Romantic World. Keats, whose influence should never be underestimated, is constantly striving to attain a transitory moment of vision which will defeat time, even if he never loses sight of the chronological succession of events altogether.

Gatsby’s self-creation and transcendentalism

James Gatz refuses the constraints and limitations of his social milieu. He spurns the historical determinism that results from being born in a rather destitute family. By turning down his tie with his biological father, Jay Gatz lays claim to an existence outside history, that is outside time. His first romantic aspiration is to prove he is not in any way bound by the fetters/shackles of time.

In fact, James Gatz will be who he chooses to be, he will be his self-creation, a byronic Romantic rebel who hates anything that excludes the imagination. The emphasis on the power of the imagination probably owes something to the transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henri Thoreau). The latter rejected Calvinism and the materialism of society. Emerson and Thoreau asserted their beliefs in the possibility of spiritual communion with nature. They also insisted on each individual’s capacity to fulfil his own potential by relying on the force of his intuition. Transcendentalism praised self-reliance, that is to say a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions in order to create one’s true self.

A refracted vision of America

The Great Gatsby is like a mirror of the America of the 1920’s. America in the Great Gatsby is a fundamental notion and the novel cannot be studied without the historical context of the time.

The novel reflects the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties and the opposition between East and West.

The Great Gatsby emphasizes the strange association between materialism and spiritualism, which is crucial to the Puritan ethic. Gatsby is seeking wealth because he is pursuing an idealistic vision.

A corrupted vision

The Crack Up (1937) is a collection of short stories by F.S. Fitzgerald where he tried to catch the mood prevailing in the 1920’s.

The mood was characterised by hedonism, the search for pleasure: “America was going on the greatest gaudiest spree in history”. Spending money in order to be part of the show means society is more based on appearance than substance.

The time of the action is the summer of 1922. America, after World War 1, has become the most prosperous and thriving nation in the world. It is the period of the Golden Boom (America has sold weapons and has become rich) and widespread corruption is at its apogee.

Bribery was a frequent practise. It has been shown by historians that after the Civil War, corruption was nothing compared to the Roaring Twenties. Even if 1850’s carpetbaggers took advantage of the situation of that time, it was far less important than in the 1920’s.

Corruption also marks the weakening of spiritual and moral values. After the butchery of World War I, disillusion had set in and therefore isolationism was striking rich.

In the 1920’s, political circles were also corrupted. Warren Harding, president from 1921 to 1923, was marked by a series of scandals. In the summer of 1923, the president died in mysterious circumstances.

The 18th Amendment of the Constitution, voted in January 1920, laid down that producing and selling alcohol would be forbidden. The Prohibition, also known as “the noble experiment”, triggered an increase in delinquency.

Al Capone belonged to that context. In people’s collective mind, the image of the bootlegger was worshipped and admired because the bootlegger was the man who dared to resist, to rise against the law.

The historical background

The Great Gatsby is based on a series of events published in the newspapers. F.S. Fitzgerald did not invent all the facts : he shows to shape and create a character who was emblematic of his time.

In The Great Gatsby, apart from Gatsby, we find characters based on real figures such as Meyer Wolfshiem, who is actually Arnold Rothstein, a master of the New York underworld.

In Chapter 4, at the metropole, the guy shot down was based on reality, it actually happened before the novel was written: he was gunned down because he had ratted on Becker, the corrupt NYPD chief.

The results of the 1919 baseball championships were fixed. In the text, Meyer Wolfshiem is responsible for tampering with the results while in reality, it is all Arnold Rothstein.

In chapter 4, we learn that Wolfshiem lives above the laws : “they can’t get him old sport. He’s a smart man”. Arnold Rothstein was nicknamed “the brain”, “the bankroll”, “the Morgan of the Underworld”. A Morgan is a magnate, a nabob, a tycoon in the capitalist 19th century.

Gatsby’s models in real life

One of Fitzgerald models for Gatsby came from a trial that took place in New York: the Fuller-McGee case. Edward M. Fuller, one of the two men, had been a neighbour of Fitzgerald’s in Long Island.

The Fuller-McGee case concerned illegal speculation. They both had been partners in a brokerage firm. Yet, it was soon discovered that they had cheated people. Later on, it was proved that Fuller and McGee were acting for Rothstein, the head of the New York underworld.

We can suspect Fitzgerald is to Fuller what Nick Carraway is to Gatsby.

Gatsby has earned a lot of money very quickly, more or less illicitly. He also polished his manners: “it took me three years”.

Gatsby is said to have had a hand in “the drug business” and in “the oil business” : there is no precision and his business remains quite vague.

The clue to the truth is that Gatsby must have earned a lot of money through shady dealings and illegal transactions. This is spelt out at the end of the book, after Gatsby’s death, when Nick answers the phone call: “Young… in trouble. They picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter”.

We can therefore conclude that Gatsby has been involved in the trafficking of bonds.

Both the novel and the American society correspond to the beginning of a modern era. America is a direct consequence of the age of reason (18th century). Indeed, the first settlers intended to escape the tyrannical power of absolute monarchs.

The novel is also the result of a revolution :

  • social revolution: when the middle-class asserted its cultural autonomy
  • idealogical change that put the single individual at the centre of the world

Yet, there are profound contradictions:

  • America did not offer favourable conditions for the birth of the novel. The notion of class, and love and marriage are central to the novel.
  • the 18th century and 19th century novels are about chasing a husband.
  • the European novel favours a plot with a domestic story and marriage E.g.: Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary.
  • the American novel avoids treating passionate relationships, focuses on male characters, and turns away from Society to Nature. E.g. Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans.

American novels dream of the innocence with the first settlers bu Puritanism and the notion of guilt proved to be fundamental in American literature. This feeling of guilt included the rape of nature and the exploitation of the Natives.

The Lost Prairie

The early 19th century can be described as an American Epic. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales gave America legend and myth.

The two main themes are:

  • the settlement: how pioneers got used to a new life in the American wilderness;
  • the frontier, which can be described as an ideal boundary between two cultures: the “civilized and cultivated” society, and “wild and lawless” tribes. The frontier is also a limit pushed further westward.

Settlers and trappers and the Great Prairies

The central character found in Cooper’s Tales is a trapper surviving by catching small animals: Natti Bumppo. He’s a white man who has lived with the Natives and respects them. He’s suspicious of progress. He’s a typical American hero – a poor lonesome trapper.

The notion of solitude is significant. According to Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, democracy is about a world of lonesome men owing their allegiance to no none, men who are neither servants or bondsmen. Self-reliance is key although man is constantly watched by God’s invisible eye (puritan view and the sense of guilt).

The Frontier is a virgin land, the New Eden, the biblical Promised Land. The utopian territory is soiled and tarnished, corrupted : by invading those new virgin lands, the conquerors brought along their greed for money, their lust for power, and their selfish appetite. As a consequence, their adventures are bound to damage what they most cherish, respect and admire.

The land is turned to a battlefield opposing white men against themselves and against Native populations. The dream of purity and innocence turns into a sanguinary and bloody battlefield.

East and West, North and South

The East represents industrialisation, urbanisation, corruption and sin while the West represents the last rampart against encroaching civilisation, the last space of innocence and purity.

The North is Yankee, modern and industrial while the South is Dixieland, with the colonial south, agricultural and colonial area with the cotton fields There is a clash between conservative (South) and modern/liberal (North).

We can see these oppositions in very famous pairs of characters: Cooper’s Natty and Chingachgook, Melville’s Ishmael and Qeequeg, and Twain’s Huck and Jim.

The Prairie’s posterity

Novels have often recounted a flight or escape towards a mystic and idealised West. In Grapes of Wrath, a bunch of dislocated farmers are making the same journey as their ancestors, their eldorado being California.

In the 1920’s – 1930’s, America had become a modern country and the far west was still very much synonymous of freedom and anarchy. American novelists are like their books, escaping their familiar environment (Huck escapes with a runaway slave for instance).

In the 1920’s, American writers left America for Europe, they were the writers of the “Lost Generation”: Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein all came to France to write about America.

In the 1950’s, the writers of the “Beat Generation”, such as Jack Kerouac, went to California : San Francisco was then identified as the ideal of freedom.

Yet, the journey is not always physical. It can be symbolic, a retreat from society by getting isolated: Emerson went to Concord, Thoreau went to Walden, at the fringe of society.

The realist jungle

Urban America was depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

America is going to deal with metropolis in a simplistic and manichean vision which opposes the Prairie, synonymous of innocence, with the City, a place of evil and corruption.

This innocence was destroyed by immigrants as men broke what has been their dream. The vision of the city reminds us of biblical references: buildings and skyscrapers are reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, their dreams of going beyond and transgressing human limitations.

Romance is the universe of the prairie whereas the novel, with its elements of realism, deals with the shabbiness and ugliness of the city.

Introduction

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born in 1931, who studied literature in Toronto. In the 1960s, she was a graduate specialist in Harvard and then came back to Canada to teach literature. She was a well-known poet with The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Life before man (1979), The Robber Bride (1993).

Margaret Atwood is a very prolific artist, involved in the feminist movement and human rights issues on the international scene. She takes an interest in the narrative form and draws on different literary genres : Gothic romance, fairy tale, spy thriller, science fiction and history. She challenges the limits of traditional genres.

She takes an interest in social and political issues :

  • relations between men and women
  • fundamentalism and excess of puritanism
  • ecological interest
  • strong defence of basic human rights
  • a warning against oppression

She takes side to protest : The Handmaid’s Tale is a protest, a denunciation of the American way of life and imperialism :

In the States, the machinery of government is out of control, it’s too big […], it runs right over your great democratic ideals.

— Margaret Atwood

America is a starting point to denounce politics. The Handmaid’s Tale encourages a wider view and is set in no specific space and time.

Summary

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in  a near future in the USA. A group of the right-wing fundamentalists has assassinated the American President, over-thrown the elected Congress and denied both jobs and education to women. All this was facilitated by technological progress:

All they needed to do is to push few buttons. We are cut off.

The Handmaid’s Tale, p107.

They established a new republic called Gilead, on patriarchal lines, derived from the Old Testament in the Bible, 17th century American puritanism and the American New Right from the 1980’s. Women became slaves and homosexuals “gender traitors” (p53). Homosexuals, old women and non-white people are sent to the colonies because they are unwanted.

Infertile women (the result of pollution and nuclear plants accidents leading to a rise in birth defects) are sent to the colonies as well.

Fertile women are indoctrinated by the “Rachel and Leah Centre”, also known as the “Red Centre” and parcelled out to “Commanders”. They are called Handmaids and have to bear the children of the elite.

Women are pressed in 1 of 8 categories :

  • Commanders’ wives
  • Widows
  • Aunts
  • Handmaids
  • Marthas
  • Econowives
  • Jezebels
  • Unwomen (sent to the colonies)

Men do not escape characterization either:

  • Commanders
  • Sons of Jacobs
  • The Eyes (of the Lord)
  • The Angels
  • The Guardians of the Faith

Offred is the narrator of her own story. She is the speaking voice of the novel. As a handmaid, Offred’s body is at the service of a Commander, “for reproductive purposes” (p316). She’s a “national resource”. Yet, she resists the all-powerful patriarchal laws based on the Bible to tell her story of the silenced female servants.

From the opening line, we are presented a survival narrative and a female resistance :

  • survival of love : affair with Nick
  • flashbacks, sudden jumps backwards in time
  • focus on pre-Gilead (pornography, artificial insemination) and the moral decay associated to such a period.

Her discourse of survival revolves around various contemporary issues : religion (fanaticism and excess), feminism (patriarchal control of women’s bodies), ecology (troubles), a critique of the return to traditional values, and the paradoxes of contemporary feminism.

The historical notes make the epilogue. They give another view on Gilead’s regime and make you think. The narrator is Professor Piexoto, and his speech is delivered at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in the year 2195, a long time after Offred’s narrative. We are encouraged to believe Offred’s story.

The two goals of the historical notes are :

  • fill in some of the background information regarding Gilead and tell how Offred’s story is discovered.
  • it never stops to charge us readers, especially on questions of interpretation : it’s a totally different story with prejudiced views of Offred’s story.

As a conclusion, we shouldn’t forget that the whole novel is full of irony. The truth is out there and not in Piexoto’s speech. Truth is never to be found. We have the power to choose, to take some distance from what we read. All has been set to make the readers think : “are there any questions?” is addressed to the readers. “Context is all” (p202) : it smacks off the puritan ethos/values.

The New Right is represented by Reagan and Bush. It was very powerful and harked back to puritan inheritance. Gilead is an extreme yet satirized version of the ideology. To what extent does Gilead endorse the shackles (values) of Puritanism ?

  • absolute authority over the population by a male elite acting in the name of God.
  • biblical references  to underwrite its choices and attitudes. (“The penalty for rape is death”) :

It’s a way of imposing a new ideology:

  • intolerance towards the others
  • very rigid hierarchy, with categories of people
  • imposed common rules : self-denial, obedience, strict upbringing and education of women.

Women are supposed to be productive : it’s a narrow-minded and puritan attitude. Offred is nameless : she’s “Of Fred” and “offered”.

Offred is the woman on whom puritan values are applied :

  • side of the captors: she analyses the system.
  • side of the prisoners : she tells her own story.

Offred is not simply a witness, she reveals details on an unknown community. She’s challenging the system. She’s faithful to her values and expresses her distress in theocracy (the combination of politics and religion).

Offred is part of Atwood’s life because she expresses her own distress and disgust for the American system.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a dedication “For Mary Webster…” – Mary Webster was a witch, hanged in the 1680’s and also Atwood’s relative – “and Perry Miller”, who was a great scholar in Harvard. The dedication is a combination of puritanism of the 17th and 20th century, which shows that history repeats itself. Gilead is not the first society poisoned with fanaticism (not the first and won’t be the last) – Roumania with Ceaucescu springs to mind but there heaps of examples.

We have to be careful and avoid a nightmare like Gilead for our own future. Theocracies should not prevail as the price exacted is slavery and all loss of freedoms.

Utopia and Dystopia

Utopia was first defined in Plato’s Republic (-350 BC). Imaginary and fictions and ideals were praised by Thomas More in Utopia (1516). The better society coincides with the discovery of America.

When you imagine a better society, you condemn the ills of your own society. Thomas More dreams of another society, where you demand social and technological improvements.

Utopia is nowhere to be found. I’m not being critical, utopia is nowhere. It’s a creation of my own. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a utopia for Offred but a dystopia, with an imperfect society but maybe she’s describing a utopia with dystopian elements : a negative vision of tyranny, an ecological disaster. She tells about the negative side of the system and the limits of utopias (which are two in the novel : Gilead and the feminist utopia : how sectarian thinking leads to chaos).

Margaret Atwood rejects the “unique thought”. The exploitation and servitude of women make up the dystopia, as well as the denounciation of totalitarianism (p115) and the denounciation of the dangers of propaganda through the manipulation and abuses of language in Gilead : “Aunts” and “Angels” bear a reassuring emotional connotation when they are in fact instruments of oppression. Offred will find indirect ways of denouncing the system put in place in Gilead.

A Midsummer Night's Dream : synopsis photo

Act I

Scene 1

Theseus and Hippolyta look ahead to their wedding day, in four days’ time. Hermia plans to defy her father and elope with Lysander, but Helena reveals their plan to Lysander’s rival, Demetrius.

The scene takes place in Athens. The characters are :

  • Duke Theseus
  • Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. 
  • Egeus and his daughter Hermia
  • Two suitors : Lysander and Demetrius

Hermia is in love with Lysander. Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius or die. Helena loves Demetrius.

Scene 2

A group of craftsmen from Athens have decided to stage a play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. They cast the play and plan the rehearsal.

Peter Quince is a carpenter. He wrote the play and organized the rehearsal. Nick Bottom is a weaver. He wants to play every part of the play.

The secret rehearsal takes place in the wood.

Act II

Scene 1

The King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania, quarrel in the wood over possession of a human boy. In revenge, Oberon sends his helper Robin for magic juice to put on Titania’s eyes, which will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. When Oberon observes Demetrius spurning Helena, he decides that the magic juice should be applied to Demetrius’ eyes too, so that he would fall in love with her.

Scene 2

Oberon anoints the eyes of the sleeping Titania. Robin, however, mistakenly applies the juice to Lysander, who suddenly falls in love with Helena and abandons Hermia.

Act III

Scene 1

The craftsmen arrive in the wood to rehearse their play but their performance is disrupted by the mischievous Robin who uses magic to give Bottom the head of an ass. After the others have fled from him in terror, Titania awakens and, under the spell of the magic juice, falls in love with the transformed Bottom.

Scene 2

Demetrius has met with Hermia, who continues to reject his love. Oberon observes them quarreling and realizes that Robin’s intervention has misfired. Trying to put the situation right, he applies the juice to Demetrius’ eyes when Helena is nearby : as a consequence, Demetrius and Lysander become rivals for Helena’s love.

Helena believes both of them are tormenting her, with the connivence of Hermia. To prevent violence, Oberon orders Robin to intervene, drawing the lovers apart. Once they have grown weary and fallen asleep, Robin puts an antidote juice on Lysander’s eyes to take away his love for Helena. There is no fear of tragic ending.

Act IV

Scene 1

Oberon and Robin remove the magic spells from Titania and Bottom, and the King and Queen of Fairies are reunited. Theseus and his companions, out early in the morning, discover the four lovers, who explain their changed feelings. Theseus overrules Egeus’ objections and declares that the two young couples shall be married alongside Hippolyta and him. When everyone has left, Bottom awakens and reflects on his strange “dream”.

Scene 2

The other craftsmen are lamenting Bottom’s loss and the consequent cancellation of their play, when he arrives to announce that all is well and their play may be staged after all.

Act V

Scene 1

On the evening of the three marriages, Theseus agrees to the staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. The play is badly written and acted but this increases people’s entertainment.

When all the humans have gone to bed, the fairies enter the house and bless those who reside there and their children to come.

Robin stays behind to deliver an epilogue. The play concludes where it started, in Athens.

Here is an analysis of each chapter in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee : chapter analysis photo

A general summary

In Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee recalls his childhood and adolescence. He was one of seven children in a close family headed by his mother : he grew up in England, in a Cotswold village governed by tradition.

The book is organised in accord with his own early exploration of his widening world. He examines his infant sensations, his cottage, his yard, his village and Cotswold valley, then local superstitions, village education, his neighbours, public tragedies, private life-stories, his childhood games, village celebrations, sexual initiations, and the eventual changes as his childhood, his close family life, and the traditional village life pass away for ever.

Chapter 1 : First Light

In this chapter, Lee gives a three-year-old’s perceptions and misconceptions : small in relation to objects around him, Laurie crawls among “forests” of household objects : he believes autumn is a season and the war’s end means the end of the world. Lee uses metaphors and similes (often of water) to communicate the child’s sense of adventure.

This chapter introduces most of the themes that will be developed in the story throughout the different episodes of Laurie’s childhood : the importance of family ties, the constant presence and role of the women in his own development and the absence of a father, the magic in the world surrounding him causing numerous fears, the importance of the seasons and the overwhelming presence of nature and death.

Chapter 2 : First Names

The second chapter is divided into three sections. It begins in dark winter with peace and the men returning from war and it ends in the “long hot summer of 1921”. It roughly has to do with night-time feelings: dreams, terrors and superstitions.

The village legends : ignorance and superstition were common features shared by all the people of the village, and they led them to fear a world which seemed totally unpredictable and was governed by magic laws. Some animals or natural phenomena were given a particular meaning and there were ill omens that brought bad luck to those who crossed their path.

The village freaks : the freaks such as Cabbage Stump Charlie, Albert the Devil, Percy from Painswick… were all more or less physically or mentally peculiar. The reader might be surprised at the number of handicapped people who populated the area. This phenomenon could be explained by the fact that there was so great mixing of the population, which led to the problem of consanguinity. Besides, diseases and malnutrition must have led to further handicap. These freaks with their “cartoon” nicknames were probably the most striking and frightening people whom the little boy had heard of or seen in his narrow world.

The flood : the chapter ends then with another apocalyptic scene : the flood following a particularly dry summer. This part enables the narrator to emphasize the role religion played for the villagers at that time. In their eyes, the world was driven by magic forces that could be influenced, either by appeals to god, the Christian God, or if this did not work, by resorting to other methods: “as the drought continued, prayer was abandoned and more devilish steps adopted”.

Chapter 3 : Village school

The third chapter focuses on Laurie’s school experiences, from his first day of the Infant Room to the day he left Miss Warldey’s Big Room forever. The realization that he had to leave the house one morning and go to school came as a shock.

This second stage in the process of growing up proved as frustrating and painful as the first one (leaving his mother’s bed): he discovered a world which appeared to be hostile, violent, and full of dangers. It is as if his progressive discovery of the world followed a recurring pattern : shock, terror, the impression of being alone in an hostile world, then a final, unexpected rescue when things seemed to be at their worst.

School was the place where Laurie learnt how to discriminate between right and wrong, which was his first step toward losing his innocence. School was also the means through which tradition was perpetuated. It enabled the children to accept those who, for some reason, were different, by forcing them to mix together.

Chapter 4 : The Kitchen

In this chapter, he presents his home life – centered on the kitchen – on a typical day (using the same pattern as in other chapters), thus he catches the atmosphere which was predominant in his early childhood. He emphasizes the importance of the light in the room and the necessity of a good fire. Laurie Lee’s mother’s behaviour around the fire suggests that keeping the fire alive was a question of life and death.

Chapter 5 : Grannies in the Wainscot

Chapter 5 is devoted to the history of the Lee’s seventeenth century Cotswold house. It was once a country manor, then a “public beer-house” or a pub, and it was later divided into three “poor cottages”. In the other two cottages lived Granny Wallon and Granny Trill, two old ladies who were life-long enemies. Their death happened sometime during Laurie’s childhood.

Chapter 6 : Public Death, Private Murder

The events recounted here (Vincent’s murder, Miss Flynn’s suicide and the death of old Mr Davies) date back to an early period of Laurie’s childhood. Following the recollection of those tragic events, the narrator reflects upon the values and beliefs of the people in this valley, insisting once again on the durability or persistence of ancient traditions and attitudes.

At that time, death was no directly feared. What the villagers seemed to fear most was the presence of ghosts, haunted spots, ominous sighs from the sky, weird looking creatures which were actually substitutes for death itself. The villagers’ metaphysical fear of death had shifted to other objects.

Chapter 7 : Mother

A whole chapter is dedicated to Laurie’s mother. It encompasses her whole life, from her birth to her death, at which time the narrator was an adult. He insists on his mother’s personality and the characteristics that made her so unique, so exceptional. It is no surprise that Laurie Lee’s mother should occupy the central chapter of the book : in the same way, she occupied the center of his life when he was a child.

Chapter 8 : Winter and Summer

Life in the village was dominated by two main seasons – Winter and Summer. In chapter 8, Lee condenses a childhood of summer and winter days into an account : one typical winter day and one typical summer day. The chapter is constructed on a symmetrical plan : early morning lights and sounds, then outdoor activities, helping farmers with their cattle and playing with other boys, then roaming the countryside in the evening.

In the week before Christmas, they spent the evening singing Christmas carols in the whole area. Each section revolves around Jone’s pond, which is described at length.

19th century literary movements : Realism and Naturalism photo
Jean-François Millet, Des Glaneuses, 1857.

Introduction

Realism and Naturalism are a reaction against Romanticism (imagination, poetry and prose, as well as the main themes : nature, exoticism, history, and heroes depicted as exceptional individuals) because it was thought to have lost touch with the contemporary.

Three revolutions took place during the 19th century : the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the moral revolution.

In Great Britain, the Victorian Era lasted from 1837 to 1901. In the USA, the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

The industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution was started by the invention of the steam machine (coal, railways, factories). All this happened in the cities : the increase of the population led to misery and social problems such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, prostitution… There was a shift from a belief in progress to an increasing pessimism.

The scientific revolution

The Scientific Revolution expanded in the transport revolution, started by the steam engine:

  • 1830: Manchester-Liverpool railway
  • 1869: Transcontinental railway in the USA
  • Thomas Edison invents the gramophone, the light bulb and the electric chair
  • Pierre and Marie Curie discover radioactivity…

The world was changing extremely fast.

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is at the origin of a philosophical theory called Positivism. He devised the “law of three stages” : (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive.

The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity’s place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind’s accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence.

Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important. The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Science is paramount and can give man absolute knowledge and power.

The moral revolution

The moral revolution marked the end of the hypocrisy of the Victorian morality. In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin suggested for the first time that man descended from apes : there was no need for God, just a struggle for life (“survival of the fittest”). Darwin influenced Marx (communism and class warfare) and Nietsche (vision of super-man).

Conflicts and struggles define the future of society. It was a time of intense philosophy, and moral and scientific changes.

Realism

Realism is the fact of being faithful to reality. It was a movement away from romantic illusion, in order to get closer to the social and psychological reality of the time. It is the belief there can be a correspondence between reality and its representation.

Reality is a subject matter : the life of ordinary people in ordinary situations – for instance the bourgeois middle-class as exceptional people are not realistic. Balzac talked about every classes of society but very often, he selected.

Reality is also a matter of verisimilitude : how characters are determined by their environment, chronological narratives, psychological dimension of the characters, presence of an omniscient narrator.

Realism in England

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a realistic who lived during romanticism but she was not romantic at all. She described middle classes in the countryside (how to get married) with two types of heroines : romantic on the one hand and reasonable and realistic on the other hand.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) defined realism with a strong social dimension : he portrayed the working class and the poor, and dealt with poverty and revolt against injustice. Dickens’ characters are defenseless orphans in a cruel world and his novels were used for social reforms.

In Oliver Twist (1838), there is sentimentality and pathos (influence of melo-drama) but also humour and caricature to alleviate tensions.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is evil, ugly, red-haired and smelled a fish. This romantic realism depicted social problems as well as imagination and sentimentality.

L’autre soir, tranquillement installés dans le canapé au coin du feu, nous dégustions un bon plateau de fromage et prenions connaissance des résultats de cette vie politique actuellement tourmentée, lorsqu’une question d’orthographe pour le moins brûlante a interrompu notre bouchée de Maroilles.

Questions d'orthographe : "1, 9 gramme ou 1, 9 grammes" ? "moins de deux heures suffira" ou "moins de deux heures suffiront" ? photo

Faut-il écrire: “1,5 million” ou “1,5 millions” ? “1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ?

Puisque, concernant ce sujet, les articles sont quasiment inexistants sur le web et les grammaires peu prolixes, j’ai compris qu’il était grand temps d’élucider ce mystère.

J’ai sorti mon ultime outil, mon bon vieux livre vert de grammaire* qui fait plus d’un millier de pages en papier à cigarettes avec de tout petits petits caractères. Je dois écrire ici que je suis extrêmement et paradoxalement attachée à ce livre vert de grammaire qui fut le bourreau de mes nuits durant deux années de préparation au CAPES puis à l’Agrégation. J’ai consacré un nombre d’heures infini à m’efforcer de comprendre puis d’engloutir ce millier de pages qui recense et finalement, expose l’implacable logique de toutes les subtilités offrant toute leur saveur à la langue française. J’aime donc intimement ressortir ce bon vieux livre vert de grammaire de mon étagère, qui me fait revivre ces moments d’intense concentration finalement couronnés par la satisfaction d’avoir progressé, ne serait-ce que très humblement.

Alors, faut-il écrire “1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit 1.9 gramme.

  • L’explication :

Peu importe la présence de la décimale, c’est le numéral “un” qui commande l’accord. De fait, l’accord se fait au singulier. Très logiquement, le verbe se conjuguera lui aussi au singulier.

La même règle s’applique à des tournures telles que “plus d’un” : l’accord du verbe se fait au singulier car le numéral “un” est considéré comme le noyau du groupe nominal. Ainsi, on écrira “plus d’un citoyen est venu”.

Faut-il écrire: “1,5 millions de votants” ou “1,5 million de votants” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit 1, 5 millions.

  • L’explication :

Les numéraux cardinaux sont en principe invariables, à l’exception de un, vingt, cent, millier, million, billion et milliard. Ils sont considérés comme des noms.

Avec le substantif numéral million on fait toujours l’accord avec son complément, y compris lorsque celui-ci est implicite. Ainsi, 1, 2 millions de votants se sont déplacés aujourd’hui.

Faut-il écrire: “moins de deux heures suffira” ou “moins de deux heures suffiront” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit “moins de deux heures suffiront pour effectuer ce trajet”.

  • L’explication :

La logique est exactement la même lorsqu’il s’agit d’expressions telles que “moins de deux”: là encore, c’est le numéral “deux” qui commande l’accord. Puisque “deux” est pluriel, on accordera le verbe au pluriel et on écrira donc : “moins de deux heures suffiront pour effectuer ce trajet”.

Ca y est, on peut enfin terminer cette bouchée de Maroilles…

* Si vous aussi, vous souhaitez vous plonger dans ce bon vieux livre vert de grammaire que je vous recommande chaleureusement, en voici les références : Martin Riegel, Jean-Christophe Pellat, René Rioul, Grammaire Méthodique du français, PUF, 1994. A la fac, on l’appelait le “RPR”, acronyme formé des initiales de ses trois auteurs. Un nom comme cela, ça ne s’oublie pas !

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