L’action se situe au sommet d’une montagne, le Helseggen, sur la côte de Norvège dans la province de Nortland. Le panorama est effroyablement désolé: les falaises surplombantes dramatiquement noires, l’océan extraordinairement hurlant et mugissant, la tempête déchaînée. Dans la mer se forme un grand tourbillon, le Maëlstrom, véritable gouffre:
» Le bord est marqué d’une écume lumineuse mais pas une parcelle ne glisse dans la gueule du terrible entonnoir à la prodigieuse puissance de succion. «
II. Les personnages
Narrateur – héros : marin norvégien, homme simple, prématurément vieilli par une aventure extraordinaire qui lui a brisé le corps et l’âme et qu’il raconte au guide qui l’accompagne.
Narrateur – témoin : (guide) homme cultivé, impartial, qui se documente, critique ce qu’il a lu par rapport à ce qu’il voit. Effrayé par le spectacle, il ne peut s’empêcher d’avoir le vertige.
Dans le prélude à l’incident, le marin raconte sa vie quotidiennement aventureuse avec ses frères. Ils possèdent un sémaque gréé en goélette et pêchent habituellement parmi les îles où les violents remous de la mer donnent une bonne pêche, à condition de profiter du répit de quinze minutes pour se lancer à travers le canal principal du Maëlstrom au-dessus de l’entonnoir, et de profiter du vent favorable.
» Spéculation désespérée où le risque de la vie remplace le travail et où le courage tient lieu de capital. «
Une saute de vent extraordinaire surprend les pêcheurs: le bateau dérive à la merci des courants. Le narrateur et son frère se cramponnent et comprennent avec horreur qu’ils courent droit sur le gouffre dans un vacarme assourdissant.
"Le bateau semblait suspendu comme par magie, à mi-chemin de sa chute, sur la surface intérieure d’un entonnoir d’une vaste circonférence, d’une profondeur prodigieuse."
Puis la descente ralentit et des rayons de lune pénétrèrent dans l’abîme. La barque n’était pas le seul objet qui fût tombé dans l’étreinte du tourbillon. Il décide donc de s’attacher à une barrique et de se jeter à la mer. Le bateau sombre alors, emportant son frère. La tempête s’atténue soudain et il est rejeté à la côte. Un bateau le repêche mais il est devenu complétement méconnaissable :
» comme un voyageur revenu du monde des esprits. «
IV. Le Fantastique
Les détails du paysage concourent à donner plus de réalité au conte et à créer une atmosphère inquiétante et dramatique: couleur noire du paysage, déchaînement des éléments atmosphériques. Les personnages sont des êtres ordinaires présentés de façon à renforcer la véracité du conte.
Quant au phénomène lui-même, l’auteur insiste sur sa réalité et sa puissance. Il avance une explication scientifique et naturelle. Mais de l’avis des deux narrateurs "pour concluante qu’elle soit sur le papier, l’explication devient inintelligible et absurde" à coté du tonnerre de l’abîme, ce qui laisse le lecteur perplexe.
Le phénomène qui paraît surnaturel s’allège grâce à une explication scientifique d’une loi naturelle: le principe d’Archimède. Finalement, le conte se rapproche plus de l’étrange que du fantastique.
Une époque lointaine, moyenâgeuse (présence de châteaux) dans une région centrale de la Hongrie aux moeurs si étranges que l’on croit à la métempsycose. (transmigration des âmes d’un corps dans un autre). Tous ces éléments accentuent le dépaysement et donnent au lecteur le sentiment étrange qu’il est dans un autre monde où tout est possible.
II. Les personnages
Le Comte Berlifitzing: est à peine évoqué, ce n’est qu’un » vieux radoteur infirme qui n’avait rien de remarquable si ce n’est une antipathie invétérée et folle contre la famille de son rival « et une passion pour les chevaux et la chasse. Le Baron Frédérick de Metzengerstein: est décrit comme n’ayant pas dix-huit ans, cruel et débauché. Pour lui, seul compte son rêve fou de puissance et de domination.
Le cheval: est de « couleur feu, sans nom » (d’où un doute sur son identité), ombrageux, intraitable, féroce, démoniaque, colossal, « impétueux, hors nature ». Il a des performances surnaturelles: « il fait reculer d’horreur la foule » et pâlir son maître devant « l’expression soudaine de son oeil sérieux et quasi humain ». Il est l’incarnation du mal ou tout simplement du diable, ce qui fascine Frédérick.
Deux familles nobles de Hongrie, les Berlifitzing et les Metzengerstein sont opposés par une haine ancestrale et une prédiction mystérieuse :
« Un grand nom tombera d’une chute terrible, quand, comme le cavalier sur son cheval, la mortalité des Metzengerstein triomphera de l’immortalité des Berlifitzing ».
Le jeune baron de Metzengerstein ordonne de mettre le feu aux écuries de son rival le comte Berlifitzing. Pendant ce temps, il médite devant une tenture de tapisseries représentant des figures fantastiques et est attiré par l’image d’un cheval énorme appartenant à un ancêtre sarrasin de son rival et derrière lui son cavalier mourant sous le poignard d’un Metzengerstein. Quelques instants plus tard, on lui amène un coursier tout à fait semblable, portant les initiales du comte et qui semble s’être échappé des écuries en feu de Berlifitzing dont on annonce la mort horrible.
Le baron apprend alors que le cheval de la tapisserie a disparu en y laissant un trou. Malgré ce sinistre présage, il entreprend de dompter sa nouvelle monture. Mais la bête farouche le subjugue tellement qu’il ne peut plus se passer d’elle. Par une fantastique nuit d’orage, la bête l’entraîne dans une course effrénée pour le ramener un peu plus tard dans le brasier de son château qui a pris feu à son tour. Le récit se termine sur la vision apocalyptique d’une ombre gigantesque en forme de cheval, se déployant dans le ciel au-dessus des ruines, sous les yeux horrifiés des spectateurs impuissants.
IV. Le Fantastique dans Metzengerstein
Todorov définit le Fantastique ainsi: « c’est l’hésitation éprouvée par un être qui ne connaît que les lois naturelles face à un événement en apparence surnaturel ».
Dans Metzengerstein, Edgar Poe essaie de nous prouver qu’il ne croit pas vraiment à la métempsycose : « de ces doctrines elles-mêmes, de leur fausseté ou de leur probabilité, je ne dirai rien » .
Mais son récit nous entraîne, à une époque reculée, dans une région aux moeurs étranges et aux superstitions tenaces. Edgar Poe nous fait assister à la réincarnation d’un être humain sous la forme animale d’un cheval, réincarnation qui lui permet d’assouvir la vengeance qu’il n’a pas eu le temps d’accomplir avant sa mort. A ce titre, on peut dire que Metzengerstein est un conte fantastique, voire surnaturel.
1806 Mariage le 14 Mars de David Poe Jr et de Mrs Eliza Hopkins. Tous les deux sont acteurs dans la même troupe et connaissent des difficultés matérielles de toutes sortes. 1809 Naissance d’Edgar Poe à Boston le 19 Janvier. David Poe disparaît. 1811 Mrs Poe joue à Richmond où elle meurt le 8 décembre de tuberculose pulmonaire à l’âge de 24 ans. Edgar Poe est recueilli par les Allan et s’appellera Edgar Allan Poe. John Allan est un riche négociant en tabac. 1815 La famille Allan va en Grande-Bretagne ,en Ecosse d’abord, puis à Londres où le jeune Edgar fréquente l’école des demoiselles Dubourg (dont le nom reparaît dans Double Assassinat dans la rue Morguepuis Manor House School à Stoke Newington (qui servira plus tard de décor à l’action de William Wilson). Poe y reçoit une solide formation intellectuelle. 1820 Retour à Richmond. Poe fréquente diverses écoles privées.
1826 Il entre à l’Université de Virginie. Il y étudie le français, l’espagnol, l’italien et le latin. En décembre, John Allan le retire de l’Université pour l’employer dans sa maison de commerce. 1827 Poe refuse de se plier à ses exigences et se rend en avril à Boston pour s’engager dans l’armée américaine sous le nom d’Edgar A. Perry. Au début de l’été, il publie son premier livre Tamerlan et autres poèmes. 1829 Mrs Allan meurt le 28 février. Poe entreprend des démarches pour entrer à West Point. En décembre, il publie son second recueil de poèmes, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlan, suivis de poèmes mineurs.
1830 Il entre à West Point. 1831 Il est expulsé de West Point. Il s’installe à New York où il publie Poèmes d’Edgar Poe, deuxième édition. A Baltimore, il échappe à l’épidémie de choléra, on en retrouve le souvenir dansdeux contes: le Roi Peste et Le Masque de la mort rouge. 1832 Le Philadelphia Saturday Courrier publie plusieurs de ses oeuvres: Metzengerstein, Le Duc de l’Omelette, Un événement à Jérusalem, le Marché manqué et Perte d’haleine. 1833 Il obtient le premier prix d’un concours de poésie Manuscrit trouvé dans une bouteille. 1834 John Allan meurt sans rien laisser à Poe. 1835 Poe fait paraître quatre contes dans le Southern Literary Messenger : Bérenice,Morella, Lionnerie et Aventure sans pareille d’un certain Hans Pfaall.
1836 Poe épouse le 16 Mai sa cousine Virginia Clemm alors âgée de moins de quatorze ans. 1837 Il quitte le Messenger. Le propriètaire de la revue lui reprochait se crises d’éthylisme. En juillet à New York paraissent les Aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym. En septembre Ligeia est publié dansThe American Museum. 1839 Poe publie à Philadelphie un ouvrage de vulgarisation: Initiation à la conchyliologie. Il devient secrétaire de direction de Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Il y publie des poèmes et les contes suivants: L’homme dont il ne restait rien, La chute de la maison Usher,William Wilson, Conversation d’Eiros avec Charmion, Morella.
Directions de magazines
1841 Poe devient secrétaire de direction de Graham’s Magazine. Il fait paraître dans cette revue: L’homme des foules, Double Assassinat dans la rue Morgue, Une descente dans le Maëlstrom, L’Ile de la fée, Colloque entre Monos et Una, Ne pariez jamais votre tête au diable. 1842 Virginia a sa première hémorragie. Poe est démoralisé. En avril paraît La vie dans la mort, et en mai Le masque de la mort rouge. Malgré son succès, sa situation matérielle ne s’est pas sensiblement améliorée. Il publie Le jardin paysage et Le Mystère de Marie Roget dans The Ladies’ Companion.
1843Le Coeur révélateur paraît dans The Pioneer et Le Puits et le Pendule dans Gift. En mars, Poe se rend à Washington pour réunir l’argent nécessaire à la fondation de The Stylus, revue dont il serait le seul maître, et aussi pour tenter d’obtenir une sinécure dans un ministère, mais il s’enivre et échoue dans ses démarches. Il se trouve à son retour dans un grand dénuement. Le Dollar Newspaper publie le Scarabée d’or qui connaît un immense succès. Le U.S. Saturday Post publie Le Chat noir et le Saturday Courier, De l’escroquerie considérée comme une science exacte.
1844 Publication du conte Les Lunettes dans le Dollar Newspaper. En avril, Poe s’installe à New-york, il publie Le Canard au ballon dans le New York Sun. Il est obligé d’écouler sa production où il peut: L’Enterrement prématuré dans le Dollar Newspaper, Révélation magnétique et L’Ange du bizarre dans le Columbian Magazine, la Boîte rectangulaire et L’homme c’est toi dans Godey’s Lady’s Book, La Vie littéraire de M. Thingum Bob dans le Southern Literary Messenger. Il collabore pour gagner sa vie au New York Mirror.
1845 Publication de La Lettre volée dans Gift, Le Corbeau dans l’Evening Mirror, La mille deuxième nuit de Shérazade et La Barrique d’Amontillado dans Godey’s Lady’s Book, Petite Discussion avec une momie dans l’American Review, La Puissance de la parole dans Democratic Review, Le Démon de la perversité dans Graham’s Magazine. En Octobre, il devient propiètaire du Broadway Journal. En novembre, publication d’un recueil de poèmes: Le Corbeau et autres poèmes.
1846 Poe cesse de s’occuper du Broadway Journal qui cesse alors de paraître.Il est souvent trop malade pour travailler et la santé de sa femme lui donne de plus en plus d’inquiètudes. En décembre, le Saturday Evening Post et le New York Express font savoir à leurs lecteurs la détresse de Poe et invitent ses admirateurs à lui venir en aide. 1847 Mort de Virginia Poe en janvier. En mars, le Columbian Magazine publie Le Domaine d’Arnheim. 1848 En juin, publication d’ Eurêka, poème en prose. En novembre, Poe tente de s’empoisonner au laudanum, en vain. Il est malade et atteint de congestion cérébrale, il continue de boire beaucoup. 1849 Publication de Mellonta Tauta dans Godey’s Lady’s Book, de Hop-Frog, de Von Kempelen et sa découverte, de Mettre des X dans un paragraphe dans The Flag of Our Union raître. Poe semble souffrir de la folie de la persécution. En Août, il fait une conférence très écoutée sur " le principe poètique ". Le 3 octobre, un typographe du Baltimore Sun le trouve inanimé dans la rue. Poe meurt le 7 octobre au Washington College Hospital sans avoir repris connaissance.
1848 Publication dans la Liberté de penser de la première traduction par Baudelaire de Révélation Magnétique. Baudelaire avait découvert Poe l’année précédente. 1856 Publication des Histoires Extraordinaires, traduction Charles Baudelaire. 1857 Publication des Nouvelles Histoires Extraordinaires, traduction Charles Baudelaire. 1858 Publication des Aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym, traduction Charles Baudelaire. 1863 Publication d’ Eurêka, traduction Charles Baudelaire. 1865 Publication des Histoires Grotesques et sérieuses, traduction Charles Baudelaire.
Auteur américain de la première moitié du 19ème siècle, très prolifique puisqu’il a écrit plus d’une soixantaine de nouvelles et de poèmes, Edgar Allan Poe s’affirme en tant qu’écrivain de grande renommée, reconnu prestigieux en France grâce au poète Charles Baudelaire qui, en traduisant ses oeuvres, leur a conféré une beauté et une pureté exceptionnelles.
Malmené dès l’enfance par la vie, assoiffé de tendresse, malchanceux en amour, hanté par ses phantasmes et ses démons intérieurs, névrosé au plus haut point, la littérature lui sert de catharsis et lui permet d’exorciser ses dieux noirs. Incompris de ses congénères romanciers de langue anglaise, mais sincèrement loué et admiré par des poètes tels que Tennyson, Yeats et Mallarmé, écartelé entre névrose et lucidité, Poe refuse d’accepter ses défaites et prend souvent le parti de rire de ses misères plutôt que d’en pleurer. Ses oeuvres sont autant de cris de souffrance, dans un monde qu’il ressent comme hostile, peuplé de silence et d’infinie solitude. Son humour est l’expression de ce désespoir courageusement camouflé, de ce défi du vaincu à l’égard d’un destin qui l’accable.
Analyste lucide raisonnable, capable de démonter n’importe quel mécanisme, Edgar Poe est à l’origine du roman policier en littérature. Les Histoires Extraordinaires, les Nouvelles Histoires Extraordinaires et les Histoires Grotesques et Sérieuses sont dominées par le plus instinctif des sentiments, la peur. L’univers des contes d’Edgar Poe est un monde de cauchemar, peuplé de paysages nocturnes désertiques et silencieux, ponctués de demeures lugubres et mystérieuses, où vivent des personnages déséquilibrés, à l’hérédité chargée, s’adonnant parfois à l’alcool et à l’opium, se sentant traqués et menacés au point d’en perdre la raison ou la vie dans des circonstances horribles.
Si la vie ne fait pas l’oeuvre d’un écrivain, du moins entre-t-elle ici largement dans celle d’Edgar Allan Poe, au point qu’il nous a semblé indispensable de relater sa biographie qui éclaire le lecteur dans une saisie intelligente de son oeuvre.
Mythe de la vérité, la tragédie d’Electre est le récit d’une vengeance qui s’accomplit à ce titre. Le conflit qui structure la pièce lui donne unité et profondeur.
Mais quelles sont les origines et les règles de la tragédie grecque? Quel mythe est à l’origine du drame d’Electre ? Quelle est l’originalité de Giraudoux par rapport aux célèbres dramaturges que furent Eschyle, Sophocle ou Euripide?
I. Naissance de la tragédie
A. Origines religieuses du théâtre
La tragédie est née à Athènes au Vème siècle avant Jésus-Christ. Issues du culte de Dionysos, les représentations dramatiques ne cessent de revêtir un caractère sacré comme en témoignent les faits suivants:
l’autel, autour duquel le choeur évolue, est placé au centre de l’orchestra de forme circulaire.
Le célèbre théâtre grec d’Epidaure s’élevait dans l’enceinte sacrée d’Asclépios, où « aucun enfant ne devait naître et où l’on ne laissait mourir que des acteurs tragiques sur la scène ».
Sur les fauteuils du premier rang des gradins de ce même théâtre, on lit encore les inscriptions suivantes: Prêtre de Zeus Olympios – Prêtre d’Apollon Délios – Prêtre des douze dieux – Prêtre d’Asclépios…
Les représentations, qui ont lieu deux fois par an, coïncident avec les Fêtes lénéennes, en février, et les grandes Dionysies, à la fin mars.
A la fin de la représentation, le poète paraît, la tête couronnée, comme il était d’usage dans toute cérémonie religieuse.
Le costume des acteurs n’est autre que celui des prêtres de Dionysos.
Le masque dont ils se couvraient toujours le visage demeurait une survivance des anciens rites.
Le choeur, dont la participation au drame est incessante, avertit le spectateur que l’action se déroule sur un autre plan que le plan humain.
B. Des fêtes de Dionysos à la tragédie
C »est du nom « bouc »- en grec « tragos »- sacrifié aux dieux lors des grandes Dionysies, que provient le mot « tragédie ». Entre les hymnes, que des choeurs chantaient en l’honneur de Dionysos, vient s’intercaler un récit, ou grave ou gai, emprunté à la vie d’un dieu, d’un demi-dieu ou d’un héros, mimé puis joué. Le drame est né.
C. Le théâtre grec
Les représentations ont toujours lieu en plein air.
Dans la structure du théâtre d’Epidaure, on distingue quatre parties:
l’hémicycle, avec ses gradins creusés au flanc de la colline
l’orchestra, circulaire, enclavé aux trois-quarts par les gradins
Le proscenion, terrasse peu élevée située derrière l’orchestra
La scène, bâtiment où les acteurs se costument, situé derrière le proscenion, et dont les murs soutiennent les décors (Les décors d’abord massifs, en plein bois, ne sont peints que bien plus tard).
Les interprètes de la tragédie grecque -tous des hommes- se composaient de 15 choreutes et de 3 acteurs, jamais plus de trois, qui, grâce au masque, pouvaient chacun jouer plusieurs rôles. Les uns et les autres, tirés au sort, pouvaient aussi bien être choisis parmi les métèques que les esclaves. Le chorège, citoyen riche, tiré lui aussi au sort, avait charge de nourrir et d’entretenir acteurs et choreutes.
Les acteurs étaient vêtus de costumes somptueux, ceux des prêtres de Dionysos: tunique aux longues manches, descendant jusqu’aux pieds. Ils remontaient leur ceinture pour se grandir et chaussaient de hauts cothurnes.
Les masques étaient faits d’un assemblage de chiffons stuqués, pressés dans un moule et recouverts d’un crépi de plâtre.
ous son manteau richissime, vert ou pourpre, rehaussé de broderies d’or, l’acteur ainsi vêtu, ainsi chaussé, ainsi masqué, produisait un effet bizarre et surhumain.
D. Structure de la tragédie grecque
La tragédie grecque a une structure immuable: elle se compose d’un prologue, de trois épisodes et d’un exode.
Il n’y a aucun entracte entre ces cinq actes. Seul intervient le choeur qui, par la voix de son chef, le coryphée, ou de toutes ses voix, dialogue avec l’acteur.
Aussitôt après le prologue, par cinq rangs de trois choreutes chacun, le choeur fait son entrée sur un pas gravement dansé. Cette danse consistait en une suite de mouvements appelés "marches" et de poses appelées "figures". La figure rendait l’expression de la personne; la marche l’action et la passion. Par exemple après le meurtre d’Egisthe dans l’Electre d’Euripide, le choeur se mettait à danser une danse plus vive.
La tragédie classique est régie par la règle des trois unités:
unité de temps
unité de lieu
L’action de la tragédie classique se déroule, en effet, en un jour, de l’aurore au coucher du soleil. C’est dans le temps qui sépare les différents actes que l’action évolue, chaque acte permettant de prendre en compte l’évolution qui vient d’avoir lieu.
Dans la mythologie grecque, le destin se déchaîne souvent contre un petit nombre de victimes désignées, coupables d’arrogance, de démesure: c’est le cas des Atrides qui expient le crime de leur aïeul.
II- Le mythe d’Electre dans la tragédie grecque
A. Une malédiction divine implacable
Le mythe d’Electre apparaît dans la littérature grecque dès le VIIIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ et se développe surtout dans trois grandes tragédies du Ve siècle avant Jésus-Christ.
L’histoire d’Electre, c’est d’abord une affaire de famille, celle des Atrides, qui doit son nom à Atrée, père d’Agamemnon, tragiquement célèbre parce que sa haine pour son frère Thyeste a fait basculer tous les membres de cette famille et leur descendance dans un univers particulièrement sombre, où se conjuguent cruauté, monstruosité et démesure. C’est l’acte de Tantale, grand-père d’Atrée, qui est à l’origine de cette malédiction. Tantale, bien qu’admis à la table des dieux, s’était rendu coupable de plusieurs fautes graves à leur égard. Il les avait offensés par son orgueil démesuré, leur aurait donné à manger son propre fils Pélops, qu’il avait immolé, et leur aurait dérobé leur boisson et leur nourriture, le nectar et l’ambroisie. Pour tout cela, il fut condamné à un supplice éternel dans les Enfers: dès qu’il voulait boire ou manger, eau et nourriture se dérobaient. Pélops, ressuscité par les dieux, obtint par ruse la main d’Hippodamie, fille d’Oenomaos, réputé imbattable dans les courses de chars. Malheureusement, infidèle à sa promesse de donner la moitié de son royaume au cocher Myrtilos qu’il avait soudoyé, il fait jeter celui-ci à la mer, qui avant de mourir le maudit à son tour, lui et sa descendance. Obéissant à cette fatalité, les deux fils de Pélops se haïssent et s’affrontent. Si Thyeste séduit la femme d’Atrée, Atrée tue les enfants de son frère, les lui fait manger et lui révèle l’horreur de ce festin ! A son tour, Thyeste lance la malédiction sur Atrée et toute sa descendance.
Un autre enfant, né de l’union incestueuse de Thyeste avec sa propre fille, va accomplir le destin de sa race. Il se nomme Egisthe et, non content d’avoir séduit la femme d’Agamemnon, il tue ce prestigieux cousin, roi de Mycènes et « roi des rois ». Sept ans après la mort de son père, Oreste, fils d’Agamemnon, écarté d’Argos par sa mère y revient pour retrouver sa soeur Electre, qui le pousse à accomplir son inexorable destin. Aidé par Electre, Oreste venge la mort de son père en tuant Egisthe et Clytemnestre, et reprend le trône d’Argos. La fortune dramatique du mythe d’Electre repose sur les possibilités qu’offre une telle histoire par la dramatisation de ses éléments constitutifs :
personnages hors du commun,
interrogations sur la liberté et la responsabilité.
Un tel mythe favorise, par la richesse des thèmes qui s’entrecroisent, une large interprétation.
B. Electre et les dramaturges de l’Antiquité
Dès l’Antiquité grecque de nombreux poètes et dramaturges se sont intéressés au personnage d’Electre. En 458 avant J.-C., Eschyle compose et fait jouer sa trilogie de l’Orestie ( trois pièces traitant le même thème). La première tragédie évoque le meurtre du roi (Agamemnon), la seconde la vengeance (Les Choéphores) et la troisième le châtiment du fils (Les Euménides).Le sens du sacré parcourt l’ensemble de l’oeuvre. C’est un ordre d’Apollon qui conduit le bras meurtrier d’Oreste.
Vers 415 avant J.-C., Sophocle reprend le sujet dans Electre, mais il le conçoit très différemment. C’est lui qui fait de la jeune fille l’âme de la vengeance. Etre de passion et de démesure, elle clame sa haine en accompagnant les cris de l’agonie maternelle de sa propre joie. A la même époque, Euripide propose une autre version d’Electre, donnant à la pièce des allures de "tragédie bourgeoise". Si l’héroïne se déchaîne toujours contre sa mère, c’est pour des raisons humaines et mesquines. Venge-t-elle un père ou assouvit-elle une haine de femme ? Incohérente, elle succombe brutalement au remords et aux larmes, sitôt le crime commis, comme purgée de sa haine.
C. Electre et la scène moderne
Le mythe d’Electre est ensuite abandonné et il faut attendre les XVIIème et XVIIIème siècles pour voir les dramaturges reprendre le mythe. Crébillon fait représenter en 1708 une Electre qui ne manque ni de puissance, ni de violence.
Voltaire, qui donne un Oreste en 1750, ainsi qu’Alfieri avec ses deux pièces Agamemnon et Oreste (1783), créent un contexte et des personnages moins violents, plus loin de l’univers d’Eschyle.
Proposant une approche plus nouvelle de la tragédie d’Eschyle, Eugen O’Neil compose Le deuil sied à Electre en 1931. Enfin Sartre, en 1943, propose sa propre démarche avec la représentation de sa première pièce, Les Mouches , où Oreste et Electre, dans un "théâtre de situations" y deviennent les conquérants pleinement responsables de leur liberté.
III. l’interprétation de Giraudoux
Dans l’interprétation d’Electre, en 1937, mise en scène par Louis Jouvet au théâtre, Giraudoux respecte la tradition antique, l’époussette et la modernise. Le drame giralducien se déroule suivant la règle des trois unités conformément à la tradition grecque:
Unité de lieu: Giraudoux choisit de faire faire à Oreste une visite guidée mythologique du palais. (Lire: »La fenêtre au jasmin ».)
Unité de temps et d’action: l’acte I se déroule depuis la fin de l’après-midi jusqu’au milieu de la nuit, l’entracte occupe une partie de la nuit, et l’acte II commence peu avant le jour pour finir à l’aurore. Giraudoux concentre volontairement sa pièce sur une durée très brève: l’action dure au total une douzaine d’heures. Mais on voit qu’ici Giraudoux a respecté la règle tout en le renversant de manière parodique: l’action commence en fin de journée pour s’achever le lendemain au lever du soleil!
De même que tout en respectant la règle de l’unité de temps, Giraudoux réserve le temps qui sépare les deux actes au sommeil des héros, c’est-à-dire à l’inaction! Les éléments tragiques d’Electre se retrouvent aussi bien chez les dramaturges de l’Antiquité que chez les auteurs modernes:
la fatalité, le « fatum », cette force supérieure qui détermine tout par avance est bien présente. Ainsi, Electre doit "se déclarer", mais également Egisthe, Agathe et Clytemnestre. Chaque personnage agit en fonction d’un rôle déterminé par avance. Chaque événement est inéluctable, des révélations au meurtre final.
Le divin est représenté de trois façons différentes :
par les Euménides, déesses de la vengeance,
par le mendiant, dont l’identité est ambiguë: homme ou dieu ?
par l’oiseau qui plane au-dessus de la tête d’Egisthe.
l’état de crise sur lequel s’ouvre la pièce -réactions au mariage d’Electre- détermine les conflits entre familles et au sein des familles. Aux conflits familiaux s’ajoute la crise politique: menace d’invasion d’Argos par les Corinthiens.
De plus, pas de tragédie sans transgression : en évoquant l’abominable festin d’Atrée dans son exposition, en suggérant l’inceste latent, l’amour interdit d’Electre pour Oreste, en créant une Electre implacable de démesure et d’orgueil, Giraudoux respecte les fondements du tragique et demeure fidèle à ses modèles grecs.
Toutefois Giraudoux se démarque de ses prédécesseurs.
Dans son Electre en deux actes et en prose, Giraudoux supprime les choeurs. Le rôle de celui-ci est assuré par le Mendiant et les Euménides. Les Euménides, divinités de la vengeance, petites filles au début de la pièce, sont de la taille d’Electre à la fin. Elles représentent le destin en marche. Le Mendiant, témoin, détective, accoucheur de vérité, joue le rôle de porte-parole du destin qu’il met en lumière. Il commente les paroles et les actions des personnages. Il est l’interlocuteur des protagonistes Egisthe et Electre qu’il guide et éclaire dans la voie qui les mène à la réalisation de leurs destins réciproques.
Dans l’entracte, le Lamento du Jardinier rompt l’illusion scénique pour rappeler aux spectateurs ce que la pièce ne montre pas, la devise de la vie qui, pour lui, est « Joie et Amour ». Giraudoux conserve les personnages et la trame du mythe antique mais les vide de leur signification première en substituant à l’émotion sacrée la fantaisie railleuse, l’incongruité des anachronismes et le jeu parodique qui réduit la majesté divine à la trivialité humaine. Les dieux, cruellement absents ne sont évoqués que par leur indifférence. Enfin, Giraudoux diffère du ton tragique par le style de son écriture, qui se manifeste par:
Le style dramatique de son écriture est qualifié de précieux par sa recherche du mot précis, par l’importance de la métaphore et de l’antithèse comme moyens stylistique pour suggérer une image digne et poétique de la vie en opposition aussi avec un aspect plus prosaïque de l’humanité. Exemples: – Giraudoux aime déployer toutes les nuances de la langue, jongler avec les mots, jouer avec les synonymes, utiliser les divers registres de langue: par exemple le terme "se déclarer" expliqué par le mendiant pour éclairer le double sens du verbe: « dire » et « devenir ce que l’on est » :
« Quel jour devient-elle Electre ? » (I, 3).
– En particulier, il aime les énumérations de termes concrets et abstraits mis sur le même plan, comme dans I,3 :
« Pourquoi les orages survolent-ils nos vignes, les hérésies, nos temples… »
– Dans Electre, les animaux sont utilisé comme des symboles. En parlant de sa haine, Electre dit :
« Elle te lèche comme le chien la main qui va le décupler. Je sens que tu m’as donné l’odorat de la haine ».
D’ailleurs la métaphore se poursuit en filant l’image du chien de chasse: « J’ai pris la piste ».
Le burlesque consiste à parler des réalités élevées en style familier, il est omniprésent dans le théâtre giralducien. Le comique résulte du jeu des disproportions, souligné par le jeu des anachronismes comme pour le mendiant qui parle de la "faute originelle" ou des "honoraires et (de) son pourcentage" dans la bouche d’Egisthe.
– On trouve aussi des associations bouffonnes de l’abstrait et du concret du style :
« elle va (…) monter le prix du beurre et faire arriver la guerre ».
– La fréquence des coq-à-l’âne, des conversations décousues ou des alignements de séries d’antithèses fait penser à un jeu gratuit tels les "couplets" du mendiant sur les hérissons à l’acte I, scène 2.
En se démarquant des représentations tragiques d’Electre de ses prédécesseurs, Giraudoux recommande plutôt un art de vivre, qui consiste à faire front, s’il le faut, avec courtoisie aux forces qui nous détruisent et d’apposer à ces forces le sourire de l’acceptation et le sentiment très vif de la fraternité humaine. Giraudoux préconise une sagesse à la mesure humaine en s’efforçant d’exorciser le tragique et de délivrer l’homme de la fatalité géographique, historique et culturelle.
En se réappropriant le mythe d’Electre, Giraudoux a su séduire le public moderne grâce au pouvoir magique de mots capables de représenter et d’ordonner l’univers à la dimension humaine. Le jardinier explique dans son Lamento, en dehors de l’action de la pièce, le vrai sens de celle-ci :
« Joie et amour, oui. Je viens vous dire que c »est préférable à aigreur et haine. »
In Miller’s mind, Death of a Salesman was not an abstract concept but the concrete image of an enormous head that would be on stage, opening up the play, so that spectators would be able to see inside. It was a very ambitious idea and the original title was The Inside of his Head.
In Death of a Salesman, the spectator is plunged into the main character’s head. There is no linear onward progression – it is a play with interruption and the striking characteristic of Death of a Salesman is its uninterrupted dramatic tension. Tragic density can be found from the beginning to the end.
Miller: ‘it is not a mounting line of tense, nor a gradually come of intensifying suspense but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already been contained’.
Hence, everything is in place at the beginning and the music takes a great deal of importance for it is used to set the mood. It is time now to make the difference between the different kinds of plots.
The external plot represents the succession of events perceived by Willy Loman (present – objective reality). The internal plot deals with Willy’s stream of consciousness -his memories and obsessions (subjective reality). The music points to the fact we move to the character’s present to his past.
I. The external plot
Death of a Salesman is made up of two acts without any scenes. The requiem is a burial scene. The play is about the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life; it starts in ‘media res’, i.e. in the middle of an action that has already begun.
Act I starts on Monday night and at the end of it, all characters go to bed.
Act II is about Tuesday’s events at 10am. The action is no more limited to the Lomans’ house -the two sons go the restaurant… At 6pm, they go out with two girls. Later, they found Willy sowing seeds. There is an argument, a show down between Biff and Willy. Then, a car is heard roaring in the night. The curtain falls.
The requiem recounts the day of the funeral, which is not precisely set in time. Let us say out of time. It does not conclude convincingly the play. It is rather open.
The play also has a subheading, which is ‘Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem’. We can deduce a tension between the private sphere (son/father – husband/wife) and the requiem for it is public, attended by lots of people. Willy Loman is both a private character, nonetheless with a public dimension. Both public and private, he stands for the average American.
A. Act One: from fantasy to concrete decisions
Act I shows how the initial state of despair caused by Willy’s professional incompetence is replaced by decisions to change things: ‘everything will be allright’. Act I establishes :
Willy’s mental collapse [Exposition: p7-14]
Biff and Happy’s incapacity to face up the real [Complication: p14-21]
Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes [Crisis: p41-48] [Resolution: p48-54]
1. Willy’s mental collapse
Miller: ‘the ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset’. The play is set in motions when Willy comes back home late.
The first symptom we get is the fact Willy shifts between morbidity and optimism -p8: ‘I am tired to the death‘ and later ‘God dammit‘, full of energy. Such abrupt changes a mind point to a character who is cracking up.
Second symptom : Willy has a tendency to contradict himself -p11: ‘Biff is a lazy bum’ and later ‘such a hard worker’. We cannot expect coherence from Willy.
Third symptom : Willy is in a state of mental hyperactivity. His mind is overacting and he cannot see things clearly. His mind has run out of control. He is confused and no longer able to make sense of reality. For instance, he takes the Studebaker for his old Chevvy. The allusion to the need of change glasses may be seen as Willy’s incapacity to bring reality into focus.
2. Biff and Happy’s incapacity to cope with the real
Biff has returned home after a long absence and the night before he has had a quarrel with Willy – ‘did he apology this morning’ (p11). It is proleptic of the end of Act II. There are close links between the events occurring in Act I and Act II. The argument probably occurred shortly after Biff got off the train: it is not represented on stage but only alluded to.
Biff and Happy are not able to face up the reality. They are constantly trying to divert their attention from real facts. The choice of the names indicates their reluctance to face reality.
Happy: a cliché like ‘happy-go-lucky’ (= avoid difficulty). Happy is only interested in leading a carefree life, earning just enough money, working in an office without any decisions to make. Happy represents the city man, the city dweller. He proves his powers as a womanizer and makes a point at seducing his bosses’ wives.
Biff: can be read in reverse (fib = lie). A fibber is a person who tells lies not to face the truth. He is a character who tends to deny reality because it is upsetting and disturbing.
None of them is ready to deal with Willy’s problems. Biff has chosen to escape the family to live on a ranch. He is a drifter, he went to Nebraska, Dakotas, Arizona, Texas (p16). He represents two American stereotypes: the man on the move and the man living close to Nature (escaping modern world and cities). There is a refusal to assume responsibilities.
The point of the play lies in Biff’s attitude for he is always repeating he is not responsible: ‘just don’t lay it all at my feet’ (p45). The other point is the terrible secret shared between Biff and Willy. Biff does not want to come back on it: ‘it’s between me and him. That’s all I have to say‘ (p45).Both shirk their responsibilities. Biff’s role is more important than Happy’s.
3. Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes
The crisis from p41 to p48 is momentarily solved p48-54. Linda tells her sons and the audience that a moment of crisis has been reached: ‘a terrible thing is happening to him‘ (p44).
The function of Linda is to establish Willy’s significance as a human being. Willy Loman could be a type (low man) but he is a human being with private emotions and personal feelings. Linda permits a shift of perspective. She contributes to create a realistic dimension: she constantly reminds Willy of practical details of everyday life (unpaid bills, repair jobs or equipment that need to be replaced). She is a warrant of objective reality.
In Death of a Salesman, a lot is seen through Willy’s consciousness. It is tempting to say that most of the play is a representation of Willy’s mind. Yet, Linda’s offers an exterior viewpoint; spectators are invited through Linda to see Willy from the outside.
Linda is a protagonist, an intermediary between the audience and the play. She soothes Willy, on whom she lavishes motherly care and raises the alarm by calling the boys’ attention on their father’s suicide attempts. She has a passive role but she can evaluate the situation and prompts her sons to act.
At the end of Act I, Linda has succeeded in transforming the mood of the play from fantasy and obsession to resolution and determination:
Willy will talk to Howard
Biff is to pay a visit to Bill Oliver to get a new start in life.
B. Act Two: projects dashed by reality
Act II is action-packed. New places are introduced:
Howard Wagner’s office
Frank’s Chop House
The theatrical technique is more sophisticated. A telephone conversation establishes another action and reports Biff’s visit to Bill Oliver. Miller created a higher sense of suspense by using a theatrical prop -the telephone- so that the audience can participate to the reported action. It creates a sense of action: Miller uses alternatively theatrically represented scenes (Linda on the phone) and reported episodes (Biff’s visit to Oliver). The telephone creates dramatic tension. New characters are introduced:
Jenny: Charley’s secretary
Stanley: the waiter
Miss Forsythe and Letta: two broads
1. The staging of physical action
Act two shows the physical display of action. Emotions and feelings are translated into physical movements. This tone of action is set right from the beginning of Act II. Apathy is replaced by movement: ‘I’m gonna do it‘ says Willy (p57).
The point of Act II is to demonstrate that all this energy will prove to be wasted. It brings no tangible results. Willy only manages to get the axe: ‘I think you need a good long rest‘ says Howard (p65). Biff only manages to get into trouble, to get himself in a tight spot by stealing Oliver’s fountain pen. Linda herself cracks up.
2. Failures to communicate
A stock of theatrical devices in the play is used in the play. First, there is exchanges at cross purposes when two characters are talking of two different things (not on the same wavelength). Then dramatic irony, when spectators understand more than the character (the audience knows that Biff was not received by Bill Oliver but Willy does not (p.85)).
A two-level dialogue appears when Willy talks to Linda (present reality) and to Ben (imaginary): the communication is not immediate but hampered because reality and hallucination interfere with one another.
In Act II, a scene is symbolic of the (in)capacity to communicate: the scene in which Willy visits Howard, who is more interested in his recording machine than in talking. The recording machine, which should help communication, creates an obstacle to communication, a barrier between Willy and Howard. It is emblematic of the difficulty to communicate.
3. Lies and delusions
In Act II, lying is an important topic and even becomes a necessity. For instance, Biff cannot tell Willy what happened at Bill Oliver’s. He understands that telling the truth might be lethal and kill his father for Willy has just been sacked, p.84: « there’s a big blaze going all around. I’ve been fired today ». This image is hyperbolic: it is a traumatic experience for Willy. Biff cannot add disaster after disaster. He avoids speaking the truth to protect his father, not letting the cat out of the bag.
Later on, Biff finally says: « so I’m washed up with Oliver ». It is too much for Willy to hear: he is carried back into the past. When Biff says « I kept sending in my name », what Willy hears is « Biff flunked maths ». This scene of the past is less tragic than the present one. The past is a protective screen that allows Willy not to be confronted with the harshness of life.
4. The final showdown
The showdown has been prepared. When Willy called on Bernard, the latter made an allusion: after going to Boston, Biff has never been the same again. The audience understands that something important took place in Boston.
Some of Miller’s moral principles are explained. Miller believed that writing a play is to make a moral statement. The message could be that sooner or later facts must be faced or there comes a moment when one must assume full responsibilities for the consequences of one’s deeds.
Biff is going to force his father to recognize a few things:
Willy is a coward: he intends to commit suicide with a rubber pipe. But Biff takes it off: « Allright phony! Then let’s lay it on the line. » (p.103)
Biff makes a painful revelation: « I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail. » (p.104). All his father’s ambitions are ruined.
Willy is under the illusion he will make money and rise in society. What Biff pushes Willy to accept is that they are simple ordinary people: they are « a buck an hour ». There is no need to build castles in the air and to lie to oneself.
When Biff and Willy are about to fight, the dramatic tension turns into high emotional pitch because emotion prevails: Biff bursts into tears and holds on to Willy. It is an important stage in the play when Willy becomes aware that his son has never stopped loving him. Willy is reinforced in his determination to pass on a legacy: his life insurance.
C. The Requiem
Is an important passage two. It is characterized by 2 ideas. First, it is subject to several interpretations because of equivocation. Lots of critics were disappointed by the requiem: it does not provide a final ending and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Then, despite the tragedy, it seems that characters have not changed in any significant way.
Happy still repeats the same rubbish: « to come out number one man ». He continues denying reality and even passes moral judgement « he had no right to do that ». Happy is the same as ever.
Biff has not changed his projects (go back West and run a ranch). He seems to have learn no lesson and he is committed to searching through movement and space what he could find in relationships. Going West is a way of escaping reality and the changing world. He praises his father and his manual abilities: what he likes is not the fighting man but the figure of a settler who built his house.
Charley makes a lyrical speech, turning salesmanship into poetry. The survival of the salesman depends on his capacity to convince with his words. The potential buyer must dream. It is a positive image of Willy’s destiny.
Linda has the final word. Here again, ambiguity prevails. Linda truly loves Willy but her love has not permitted her to understand the man. Love is powerless: « I search and I search and I search , and I can’t understand it ». She is too immersed into realism to see there was a spiritual dimension in Willy in climbing the social ladder. Not pure ambition but something highly respectable.
II. The internal plot (stream of consciousness)
If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be subdivided into chronologically organized 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. « A mobile concurrency of past and present »
(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 (language) – 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 teen-agers and adults successively.
There are no flashbacks in DS. 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 units, 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.
B. A survey of the episodes of the past
The past is deeply subjective. It is not uniform. It takes many different shapes.
First there are scenes that are fully immersed within the past (the boys simonizing the Chevy ; the episode of the punching ball ; the cellar full of boys ; the contrast between Bernard the anaemic and Biff an Adonis). Here is a survey of the main episodes that are plunged in the past (music; different lighting)
[21-29]: the united family and their neighbours
[30-31] the same family scene is taken up and prolonged – Bernard is used as a choric voice « If he doesn’t buckle down he’ll flunk math » (31)
[36-41] Ben’s first visit: some horseplay between Ben, Biff and Happy (38) « Never fight fair with a stranger, boy » (38)
[66-70] Ben’s second visit. He’s got a proposition for Willy. Willy turns it down. This second visit happens to be on the day of Ebbets Field Tournament.
[91-95] The climactic episode of the past: Biff finds out his father in a Boston hotel with his mistress: Miss Francis: a traumatic episode.
All these episodes are framed within the past.
2. Double exposure
The action unfolds simultaneously in the past and in the present, through Willy’s split consciousness. The effect is achieved through a montage dialogue.
[34-36] The card game scene in stichomythic dialogue. It prepares the shift into the past. As soon as Charley leaves, we enter the past: « through the wall line of the kitchen ».
Stichomythia: form of repartee in drama: the words of the locutor and those of his interlocutor echo each other. One character takes up the words of his opponent, thus creating antithesis or parallel syntactic constructions:
WILLY: Naa, he had seven sons; There’s just one opportunity 1 had with that man…
BEN: I must make a train, William. There are several properties I’m looking at in Alaska.
WILLY: Sure, sure! If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different.
CHARLEY: Go on, you’d froze to death up there.
WILLY: What ‘re you talking about?
BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska…
WILLY: Sure, tremendous.(35)
[86-91] the restaurant scene, and simultaneously, allusions to the day when the Regents results were disclosed – Bernard’s choric voice may be heard and little by little echoes from the Boston hotel become more and more perceptible.
[106-108] Willy is conversing with Ben and, at the same time, answering Linda’s repeated invitations to come to bed.
Spectators do not lose sight of the present context but are made to understand that suddenly Willy has lapsed into a mental vision and therefore cut himself off from his immediate environment.
[64 bottom of the page] in Howard Wagner’s office, Willy stares at the empty seat and addresses Frank, who is of course absent, long dead and gone…
 In his garden, as Willy discusses with Ben’s ghost, spectators realize that the ghost is very much a figment of Willy’s distorted mind. In fact it is Willy talking to himself.
4. Mnemonic mise-en-abime
From mnemonic (memory), hence a memory within a memory.
[29-31] The scene is set in the past, it stages Willy and Linda, when they were younger, from this first recollection emerges another recollection (a memory within a memory). In this second recollection the Woman (Miss Francis) appears, first her voice can be heard. Her laughter permits the shift from one level of the past to another. It seems that the mistress is laughing at the wife’s generous remark:
LINDA: To me you are [slight pause] The handsomest. (First temporal level)
From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman …(Second temporal level).
The stocking is the metonymic object which brings together the two women in Willy’s life: Linda is darning her stockings while Miss Francis is offered brand new ones by Willy: « And thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings. » (30); So, this memory within a memory contributes to increase Willy’s sense of guilt.
C. Subjective characterization
Willy spends most of his time on stage, in a continuous flow of words. He engages in conversations with characters who, like his sons or Charley, belong to his real, immediate environment. But he also discusses with figures who surge up from the inner world of his consciousness: Miss Francis; his older Brother Ben or Frank Howard.
In this sense Death of a Salesman can be regarded as a « psychomachia ». Willy, like Everyman the mediaeval character, generates other personalities, which are mental creations, and represent fragmented aspects of himself. These imaginary presences are like mirrors or doubles illustrating facets of Willy’s splintered personality.
Psychomachia: from psycho: mind and makhe (Greek): fight, so antagonistic forces that are fighting inside the protagonist’s mind.
1. The ideal types in the fantasy realm
Since everything is supposed to be strained through Willy’s consciousness, the play’s structure also depends upon the characters’ proximity to him.
The most distant the characters are, the most idealized they are. Thus Willy’s father is the absolute’ ego ideal. He is referred to twice in the play: during Ben’s first visitation (38) and briefly when Willy calls on Howard Wagner (63).
Willy’s father is a part-mythic, part allegorical figure that belongs to his very earliest, and vaguest childhood recollections: he is a fantasized image, a romanticized Father figure, or the paradigmatic embodiment of the heroic pioneer.
Ben represents an ideal figure that stands closer to reality. In Willy’s consciousness, Ben bridges the gap between the realm of fancy and the reality level. It is Ben’s qualities of toughness, unscrupulousness and implacability in the pursuit of gain, that Willy wishes for himself and wants his sons to emulate.
Dave Singleman represents success that is potentially within reach. Singleman offers the perfect illustration that being well-liked is the surest and shortest way towards success.
Now Death of a Salesman demonstrates that the high values incarnated by these various ideal figures do not find any close correspondences or parallels in Willy’s actual life. All the characters who surround Willy in the present, fail to live up to the status of those idealized types.
2. Real characters falling short of Willy’s ego ideals
The dramatic structure of Death of a Salesman may be ascribed to the tension between Willy’s fantasizing episodes, that are peopled by mythic figures, and his having to come to terms with real, unexceptional characters.
Biff most closely resembles his grandfather, through his preference for leading the life of a drifter (adventurer) out West. He has a touch of the artist and dreamer in his temperament. Yet he also breaks his father’s absolute ego ideal by turning out to be a loser, a failure : « and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life« (17)
Happy could correspond to Ben but only in a debased way. He shares his uncle’s unscrupulousness and amorality, but lacks his sense of purpose. So, again, he somehow belittles one of his father’s ideal types. Though his philandering (girl chasing) and nursing of injured pride, he also reminds his father of parts of himself, which he would much rather ignore.
Charley is Dave Singleman brought down to earth. Indeed he has none of the flamboyance and panache of the adventurous salesman. He is salesmanship domesticated. Charley is the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense businessman. It is all the more humiliating for Willy to depend financially on Charley, as Charley’s example of success is in contradiction with Willy’s romanticized vision of capitalism.
One of the weaknesses of Death of a Salesman could come from the fact that the Requiem violates the subjective approach that Miller adopted in the first two acts. The Requiem is flagrantly outside Willy’s mind. This may be the reason why the consistency of vision that had been achieved through Willy’s consciousness is eventually lost. The irony of the play is that most of the action only goes on within the protagonist’s mind. It is ironical because what is needed is not imaginary action but real one: decisions that might change the course of things. By removing Willy from the play before the end, some of the tension that had been achieved through he « memory play » is lost.
In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald condensed the story’s events. It appears that two important changes were introduced:
Fitzgerald suppressed a long episode of Gatsby’s childhood in order to heighten the sense of mystery surrounding his protagonist’s youth. This fragment was then turned into a short story Absolution that was published in a review Mercury.
The second important change concerned the order of the events and the fact that in the original version it was Gatsby who spoke.
In the final version, all the action unfolds during one summer – from mid June to early September – and the geographical location is confined to New York, Long Island: East Egg and West Egg. The tragic dimension is also increased due to the facts that all the events have occurred before the curtain rises.
I. Scrambled chronology
The story’s events have apparently been scrambled, but it is in fact the sign of artistic order. Besides we get to know Gatsby much in the same way as in real life we become acquainted with a friend, namely progressively by fitting together fragments that are picked up as we read the novel.
First Gatsby appears to Nick as a pictorial vision, an emblematic figure that is almost unreal in the night: « fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion…regarding the silver pepper of the stars » (p27). Then through Nick’s narrative we move forward and backward over Gatsby’s past.
A. The framing narratives
The opening and the closing pages of the novel frame Gatsby’s story: in the first chapter from the beginning down to ‘glittered along the water'(11) and in chapter IX from ‘One of my most vivid memories.'(182) down to the end, what we have is a prologue and an epilogue that embed the events of the summer 1922. In both the epilogue and the prologue, which correspond to the time of writing, Nick is back in the Mid-West and reflects on his past experience.
There is a network of correspondences and sharp contrast between the prologue and the epilogue. At the outset it is Nick Carraway’s ambivalent attitude that is highlighted; he was taught by his old man not to castigate the others: ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'(7) and admittedly he is rather prudent in his comments. Yet at the novel’s closure it is clear that Nick has in the course of the novel learnt from first hand experience. He no longer refrains from censuring those who have disappointed him: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money…'(186).
By contrast, for all his moments of hesitancy Nick cannot bring himself to indict Gatsby: ‘Only Gatsby…was exempt from my reaction…Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.'(8) Nick who learns intolerance and moral indignation, notwithstanding his father’s early recommendations, cannot run down Gatsby in the same manner as he criticizes Gatsby’s debauched (profligate) guests. Gatsby may well have been a poseur, a racketeer and a megalomaniac but Nick eulogizes him right through to the end because he was also an idealist. Precisely the framing passages explore the riddle, the enigma that is at the heart of Nick’s fascination for Gatsby.
B. Backward and forward movements over Gatsby’s past
The summer of 1922 serves as a thread on to which the beads of Gatsby’s past life have been haphazardly strung together. The extent to which Fitzgerald has muddled up the chronological sequence of Gatsby’s biography is immediately striking.
It is not until the last chapter that we find a direct reference to Gatsby’s boyhood through Mr. Gatz’s testimony: « Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something…He told me I et like a hog once, and I beat him for it. »(180).
The next episode in Gatsby’s life story is the protagonist’s encounter with Dan Cody which is recounted in chapter VI. Then the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy, which actually took place five years before the action in the novel, is related through three separate narratives: Chapter IV, 80-84; Chapter VI, 117-18 and Chapter VIII p. 154-57 but from various points of view and with various degrees of fullness: thus we get Jordan Baker’s version and Gatsby’s own version, but in each case the characters’ testimonies are reported by Nick.
Next Gatsby’s war experiences and his trip back to Louisville after his discharge are told in chapter VIII, p. 158-9. Finally Gatsby’s entry into his mysterious occupation in the underworld through Wolfshiem’s agency is briefly presented in Chapter IX, pp. 177-9.
II. The dual structure
A. The ‘hour- glass’ novel
Gatsby may be described as an hour-glass novel; it is built on a principle of symmetry. The first part of the novel comprises the first six chapters; in these chapters the characters are introduced as well as their environment. The first six chapters also provide Nick’s surmises and conjectures on the subject of Gatsby’s mysterious personality. Nick’s interpretations succeed one another and cancel each other out in Chinese box structure.
It is not before the end of chapter six that Nick begins to comprehend Gatsby’s secret motivations in life: « He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy ».(117). The end of chapter 6 marks a turning point in so far as Nick fathoms the depth of Gatsby’s passion and also the strength of his absolute dedication to one single purpose.
The last three chapters do not provide any supplementary information. They take up the scenes, situations themes and even images of the first part but lend them new meaning. Each scene is repeated but with contrary implications; each episode is duplicated but in an inverted way. It is as if each scene from the first part were acted out again in the second part, as if the first half of the novel were reflected in the second half that would be like a shattered mirror distorting the initial episodes.
B. A pattern of inverted correspondences
A scene from the first part of the novel can be paired off with a corresponding one from the last three chapters. The scene at the Buchanans in Chapter I (11-26) can be contrasted with its counterpart in chapter VII (121-126). Yet all the main features of the first episode are reversed in the second. Details about the setting to begin with: it is no longer dusk but noon, it is no longer balmy and mild but boiling hot.
The tableaux have common points : two women in white sitting on a couch at the center of the room. But whereas in the first scene the women seem to be floating about weightlessly, in the second one they are dragged downward , pulled down, as it were. The couch itself has become heavy and cumbersome. The allusions to the phone call are also symmetrically arranged but there is a reversal; Tom is no longer called by his mistress but by his mistress’s husband.
Whereas in Chapter one Nick is the innocent one who requires information from the others, Jordan Baker as it turns out : ‘Why – ‘ she said hesitantly. ‘Tom’s got some woman in New York'(21), in chapter VII Nick is the one who provides the information: ‘Its a bona-fide deal. I happen to know about it'(122). This time the deceiver is no longer Tom who doublecrossed Daisy in Chapter I but Daisy who asks Tom to fix a drink to take advantage of his absence to kiss Gatsby.
Finally whereas in Chapter I Nick stares at Gatsby holding out his arms towards the green light on East Egg, in chapter VII it is the house in West Egg which Gatsby points out to Tom: [Gatsby] raised his hand and pointed across the bay. ‘I’m right across from you’ ‘So you are.’ (124)
In both cases the scene at the Buchanans is followed by a trip to New York. In the first example the journey to New York is the next scene to be narrated even if some time has elapsed. (See the time gap between chapter 1 and chapter 2). In the second example the expedition to New York follows immediately on the meeting at the Buchanans, which suggests that in the last three chapters the pace (tempo) of the narrative quickens.
In either case there is an impromptu party; at Myrtle’s flat in the first instance, and at the Plaza, on the South Side of Central Park, in the second one. In both cases Tom and Nick stop at Wilson’s garage and each time Nick is stunned by Dr Eckleburg’s giant empty sockets. Yet whereas during the first journey on the train Tom is cocksure and self-assured in the second one, by car, Tom has become edgy and diffident since ‘His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control'(131).
The melodramatic element prevails in this second journey to New York as Tom’s jealousy is aroused: ‘I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.'(136) The wedding party that is taking place below is a reminder of Daisy and Tom’s own wedding which is narrated by Jordan in the very same Plaza Gardens in Chapter IV (82-4).
To sum up whereas the first half of the novel builds up the myth of Gatsby and blows it up to gigantic proportions, the second half of the hour-glass novel (consisting of the last three chapters) is a downward spiral deflating this myth.
With Tom’s mounting jealousy, the car crash and the final shooting tension rises (soars) and the drawn out, protracted descriptive scenes of the parties in the first half of the novel are replaced by an action-packed sequence which eventually touches off the final downfall: loss of illusion together with the ultimate crack up.
III. Confusion and dizziness
Fitzgerald’s novel conveys the giddiness of the twenties, it calls up something of the inebriated, staccato rhythm of the Jazz Age. The technical mastery resides in the seemingly patchy and disjointed structure to picture a universe that is on the brink of collapse, on the edge of the abyss. It is obviously not a matter of pure coincidence that Tom should allude to oncomingFitzgerald’s novel conveys the giddiness of the twenties, it calls up something of the inebriated, staccato rhythm of the Jazz Age.
The technical mastery resides in the seemingly patchy and disjointed structure to picture a universe that is on the brink of collapse, on the edge of the abyss. It is obviously not a matter of pure coincidence that Tom should allude to oncomingdisasters through an earth-sun holocaust: ‘the sun’s getting hotter every year …pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite the sun’s getting colder every year.'(124) disasters through an earth-sun holocaust: ‘the sun’s getting hotter every year …pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite the sun’s getting colder every year.'(124)
A. Unfinished business, uncompleted action
Fitzgerald strikes out at the dissipated, loose morals of his age by making confused and fragmentary his fictitious world. When Nick eventually escapes from Myrtle’s party, he finds himself with McKee, the photographer (4344). They are first shown almost plunging down the elevator shaft (44).
Then there is an ellipsis, Nick finds himself at McKee’s bedside. Snatches of disjointed speech are uttered without any explanation, the reader does not grasp what these words may refer to as they are separated by suspension marks: ‘Beauty and the Beast …Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse ….Brook’n Bridge…'(44) Are they tips for horse-racing, senseless words pronounced by an intoxicated chap, this is hard to decide. In a world in the grip of vertigo it is hardly surprising that the narrator should find himself unable to make sense of what he perceives.
Significantly enough a number of characters do not finish their sentences. For instance Gatsby’s finely worded repartees are often interrupted midway: ‘Gatsby began leaving his elegant sentences unfinished. ‘(70) or ‘I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now'(71), the lyrical flight is suddenly brought to a halt for no perceptible reason as if the speaker gave up any idea of making an impression on his interlocutor.
Similarly other characters abruptly interrupt their speeches by unexpected lapses into silence. Wolfshiem fills in unspoken words by a wave of his hand: Mr. Wolfshiem swallowed a new sentence he was starting and lapsed into a somnambulatory abstraction'(76) Daisy’s voice breaks off. ‘Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated ! The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said'(14) Tom’s gibberish invariably ends up with a dash: The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and -(20)
B. Disjointed time and hurried movements
Summer heat and a mood of overall confusion combine to create the dominant atmosphere in the novel; Gatsby is clocked on fast time, sometimes the tempo speeds up to such an extent that it induces a sense of vertigo: ‘It was nine o’clock – almost immediately afterward I looked at my watch and found it was ten.'(43)
Characters are simultaneously pulled forward and backward in time. Past and future are mixed as when Daisy asks Gatsby how long ago it is since they last met: ‘Five years next November’.(94) Night and day overlap, on the broiling afternoon of the tragedy a silver curve of moon already hovers in the sky. One season overlaps with another, Daisy always misses the longest day of the year because summer advances before its appointed time.
Characters are often shown on the move; in cars or on trains. The time flux is graphically made present through the road (as in a road movie) ‘I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.'(142) or by the current, through the sea image: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'(189)
It is invariably this tension between moving on, progressing and regressing, being propelled into the future and being thrown back into the past which informs the narrative. At the very moment when the long awaited dream seems about to be attained (chapter V), everything topples, collapses. Hence all those allusions to wrecked cars, wrecked lives and to broken noses that ironically comment on the broken central dream. Everything in the novel is punned upon, jokingly counterpointed, burlesqued or jazzed up. The novel reverberates the motif of dashed hopes and shattered ambitions through less serious anecdotes.
The paradox of The Great Gatsby is that it creates an apparent impression of chaos and disorder when, in actual fact, it is a tightly knit, carefully worked out narrative.
Through his seemingly random construction, Fitzgerald captures the mood of confusion and of a loss of values that is so typical of the Jazz Age. From many respects, it can be argued as a novel of the modern city and of its erratic movements. The Great Gatsby creates a sense of illusion out of the raw stuff of the materialistic world: costly cars, luxurious interior settings and trendy garments. Yet magnificence and the fragility of magnificence are evoked almost in the same breath.
The Great Gatsby is the third novel of Fitzgerald, published in 1925 after This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922).
It is a turning point in Fitzgerald literary career because it was to improve on his previous works: he tested new techniques and insisted on the novelty of his enterprise: ‘I want to write something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and ‘intricately patterned’ (letter to Perkins, agent at Scribners).
Indeed, Fitzgerald devoted a lot of care and attention to pruning unnecessary passages and tried to introduce editing methods (just like a film-maker) to re-arrange his story in movie sequences.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s main innovation was to introduce a first person narrator and protagonist whose consciousness filters the story’s events. This device was not a total invention since a character through whose eyes and mind the central protagonist is discovered is to be found in two of Conrad’s books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.
As usual with this device, the main protagonist remains strange and shady. This technique reinforces the mystery of the characters. The second advantage is that the mediation of a character-witness permits a play between the real and the imaginary. This indirect approach is inherited from Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hence, it is difficult to distinguish between true representation and fantasizing. For Emerson, vision was more important than the real world.
I. Nick’s vision: the ‘modified’ first-person technique
The story is narrated through a ‘modified’ first-person viewpoint:
it is not the main protagonist (Gatsby) who recounts his own story but a secondary character, Nick Carraway, who is successively suspicious, wary and eventually fascinated by Gatsby. Nick is not trustworthy, not fully reliable: he oscillates.
whenever Nick cannot obtain a first-hand version of facts, he does not hesitate to quote other sources. For instance, Gatsby’s love affair is told by Jordan Baker (chap.4 p80). Nick reports her words but the problem is that she is said to be a liar: how far can she be trusted ?
Nick is obliged to reconstruct an event through the collage of different testimonies. Nick uses his logical mind to come up with a definitive story, a result of words that have been filtered by different minds.
That is why this first-person viewpoint is modified: Nick can only rely on what he has been told.
II. Nick Carraway: a privileged witness
Nick is not a random choice, it is very well calculated. He was the best possible witness to let the reader discover Gatsby. Indeed, through coincidence, he happens to be Gatsby’s next-door neighbor (p11).
Besides, Nick has not vested interest in hobnobbing Gatsby. He has no axe to grind. Yet, without being acquainted with Gatsby, Nick is nonetheless a relative of Daisy and consequently introduced to the Buchanans and to Gatsby’s story.
A. An eye-witness account
Nick witnesses some of the events of Gatsby’s last summer and sometimes participates in them. He has two functions: seeing and acting. The emphasis is put on visual perception. The act of seeing creates mystery instead of providing information. A lot about Gatsby’s life is bound to remain unfathomable: there is more in Gatsby’s life than Nick’s eyes can meet. Nick’s scope of vision is limited. Yet, Nick is a good observer and can draw his own conclusions. He can analyze Gatsby’s facial expressions and put a meaning on his gestures. See chapter 5 with the re-union between Gatsby and Daisy.
He is sometimes over-informed. When Gatsby dashes into the kitchen, Nick is made privy of his companion’s feelings. Through Nick’s agency, the reader is provided with the real feelings of Gatsby: ‘this is a terrible mistake‘. This tends to suggest that Fitzgerald tried to favor the sentimental dimension of his character at the expense of his ‘business’.
B. The accounts of other people
Nick picks up most information about Gatsby and Daisy through other people’s accounts -mainly gossip and public rumors. The accounts repeated may be unreliable and called into question. Through the gossip of the beginning, Gatsby is almost all the time presented with a mixture of awe and dread, making him an outsider. Nick is just echoing: ‘German spy during the war’, ‘he killed a man once’. Nick almost believes it: ‘he looked as if he had killed a man’.
Nick has a varying attitude towards Gatsby. He passes on to the reader a lot of rumors which might prove later to be contradictory. Nick plays the role of the chorus in ancient tragedy and is the link between the reader and Gatsby.
C. Nick’s reconstruction of events
Nick is a self-conscious narrator; he is aware of the difficulties of writing a report that would approach the truth. He uses his critical judgement to form an opinion not only on the events but on himself writing these events. For instance, p62: ‘reading over what I have written so far, I’ve given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me’.
There is a sense in which the The Great Gatsby would concern Nick. Through the events of the summer of 1922 and his writing, Nick has changed. When he is involved in the action, he is a belated adolescent but he is an adult when writing back after two years. Chap7: ‘I was 30. Before me stretched the portent menacing road of a new decade‘ (p142). In a way, he has gained knowledge, passing from innocence to the consciousness of the complexity of the world.
III. Nick Carraway: an unreliable narrator
All the characters are not depicted with the same clarity. Those described with most lucidity are those for whom Nick feels indifferent: Catherine, Myrtle Wilson and Mc Kee.
In contrast, the closer the characters get to Nick and the more blurred they prove to be: Gatsby and Daisy, as if Nick was afraid to jump to conclusions concerning Gatsby. Because Nick participates vicariously in Gatsby’s adventures, he finds it difficult to come to a clear cut picture of the man.
A. Nick’s subjective account
Nick is unreliable: he has a romantic turn of mind pushing him to idealize certain characters. He is bewitched by Daisy’s voice, which he compared to a nightingale. He is in love with Daisy himself but remains aware of her selfishness and is not shocked by her carelessness.
Nick is influenced by his upbringing in the MidWest and stands for certain moral principles: ‘I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known’ (p66). He is a prig, smug and self-righteous MidWesterner. He is spineless (not very brave) and easily influenced. He is lured to the glittering false world of appearances. Nick is like all men looking for glory and high hopes (dream of making lots of money in a short while) provided they find out how it is possible. We cannot expect Nick to be totally objective -he is taken in by all those fake appearances.
B. Nick’s distorted vision
Fitzgerald’s novel emphasizes the difficulties of getting a clear picture of reality and it also underscores the impossibility of adjusting one’s eyes to obtain a faithful reflection of the ‘outside world’. From Dr. Eckleburg’s gigantic spectacles on the advertisement to the Owl-Eyed man’s thick glasses, the eyesight is a recurrent motif, a metonymic allusion to the possibility of getting a distorted representation of reality.
It is often suggested that Nick is unable to get a clear picture of whatever goes on. Myrtle’s party in Chapter 3 offers a good example of the narrator’s distorted vision. There are several instances of misperceptions. First Nick does not see properly an over-enlarged photograph because he is standing too close to it: he sees ‘a hen sitting on a blurred rock’ but then taking a few steps backwards the sight changes into ‘a bonnet, and the countenance of a stout old lady’.
The lesson could not be clearer; namely, it is indispensable for the narrator to bring the ‘outside reality’ into focus. Indeed Nick’s vision is too often distorted either because lie has overdrunk: ‘everything that happened had a dim, hazy cast over it…the whisky distorted things.'(chap2, p35) or because lie is in a dream-like state: half awake, half asleep as if sedated: ‘I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door’ (90).
Nick is also haunted by nightmarish visions. After the scene of the accident, in chapter nine he tells a fantastic dream reminiscent of a painting by El Greco (p183), which duplicates through its odd, baroque and surreal aspect the scene in chapter 3 at the end of Gatsby’s party when a car loses a wheel. (p61)
C. Nick’s own process of initiation
Even if Gatsby is the novel’s main protagonist, the novel bears witness to the process of initiation undergone by Nick. Gatsby, after all, does not change in the course of the story, lie is and remains a static figure until the very end before being murdered when it finally dawns upon him that the Daisy lie worshipped was no more than an illusory creation.
On the opposite, Nick goes through different stages as the lie tells the story. Nick’s viewpoint evolves and his changing outlook bestows a further dimension on the novel.
First Nick overcomes his moral prejudices and strikes up a personal relationship with Gatsby (chap. 4). He stops being a Middle West prig with too simple a notion of right and wrong. Then lie is given access to Gatsby’s past and Gatsby’s love quest; lie is thus made alive to the power of illusion: ‘the unreality of reality’ (p106) to give life a sense of purpose.
Nick, it should not be forgotten, had up until the novel’s beginning, led an aimless existence, lie was unmotivated by his work as a bondman and used to let himself be carried along by events. In this respect, his encounter with Gatsby proves a decisive step forward.
With Gatsby’s death, Nick is made aware of the barrenness and sterility of the East, of a world that is ‘material without being real’. As Gatsby’s former acquaintances each in their turn finds an excuse for not attending his funeral, Nick realizes that the spree has ended once and for all. The show is over and the actors have made their exits. Nick’s process of initiation ends with his sudden realization that his fascination for a gleaming, dazzling East was unfounded.
After Gatsby’s death there remains nothing in the East but void and emptiness: the only music and laughter that Nick can hear are imaginary, hallucinatory: ‘I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter’ (p187).
The introduction of a first-person narrator who reflects the main protagonist’s personality is the best way to conjure up a sense of mystery that cannot be solved. When all has been said and done the fact is that Gatsby remains elusive, indiscernible and unfathomable. Therefore the character’s myth is never ever broken up.
Nick’s encounter with Gatsby is a decisive step in the narrator’s progress towards adulthood. Writing retrospectively this biographical fragment is for Nick one way of consolidating his adulthood. Ultimately the memory of Gatsby is the only treasured possession that Nick may bring back to his native Middle West.
I. Defining the (literary) self and the nation: representative figures
As an aesthetic phenomenon, Modernism refers to a period that ended in the late 1930’s to early 1940’s. The term "modernism" was first used in Germany in the 1890’s, the period in which Modernism is said to have appeared. Unlike such terms as "Romanticism" or Classicism", Modernism does not refer to the qualities of works of art in a particular period: it is based on the idea that works of art represent a rupture, a break with the past.
Historians say that Modernism is the result of the general transformation of society caused by industrialism and technology during the 19th century. It was in the big urban centers of Europe that the industrial innovations, the social tensions and the economic problems of modernity were most intensely manifested. Therefore, it was also in those cities that the first manifestations of modern art appeared. During the two decades before World War I, the legitimacy and authority of public institutions were decreasing. Those public institutions were no longer universally accepted after World War I and this vacuum was filled by the arts.
Many artists believed it was now the function of art to define and to orient the expectations of both the individual and the collectivity. This vision of the function of art reflects an entire moment in the history of western societies, especially European societies. Marked by the revolutionary effects of industrialism, this moment in history also reflected the collective belief that conventions and institutions were not eternal: like any social formation in a capitalistic system, those institutions were subject to perpetual change.
At the level of artistic production, this collective consciousness of permanent change found its most radical expression in subversive aesthetic practices. For instance, in Dada, the creation of Tristan Tzara, expression seems to be based on radical rupture. The "raison d’être" of artistic production was to negate all social and aesthetic conventions. Every artistic work was supposed to be a new and marginal form of expression. Moreover, every artistic attempt was a form of engagement with social and historical change.
How can we define American Modernism and its representatives in relation to this definition of European Modernism ?
First, it is important to notice a major contrast: while for the European modernists, art represented a dynamic engagement with historical change, for most American modernists, art was seen as a continuous effort to develop the individual character of the artist and his artistic identity. In this sense, the early American modernists were more in continuity with their mid-19th century predecessors. Writing at a remove from society, their art (contrary to the European modernists) was less obsessed by experimental innovations or social change. For most American modernists, developing an individual character and a literary voice was an act of self-marginalization from society (a materialistic society based on the logic of business and the accumulation of money). It is no surprise that many critics consider Henry James the first modernist author.
His conception of art reveals a man committed to an artistic vision that both expresses and attacks the spiritual emptiness of materialism and the pursuit of enrichment. However, H. James did not think of his art in terms of historical mission or social critique. Instead, he considered that the highest expressions of art are those that exist beyond historical contingency. In this sense, the first American modernists were the descendants of H. James. Their common relationship to James and to each other is their belief that they were at the margin of their culture. What made them different from such a culture was their strong resolution not to be influenced by its commercialism and its bourgeois consumerism.
Among these first modernists, we find such representative artists as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Williams Carlos Williams. For this latter, being an artist or a writer meant first and foremost standing at the margin of a country dedicated to business. In his book-length-essay entitled In the American Grain (1925), Williams Carlos Williams tried to describe the alienated experience of the poet in an American society dominated by materialistic bourgeois ideals. He also tried to describe the sense of sterility and isolation of individual existence in a materialistic society. This book describes an America alienated from its past and its monumental nature. For Williams, past and nature are the sources of vitality and creative energy:
"Bill Bird (a publisher Williams had met in Paris) says that Americans are the greatest businessmen in the world: the only ones who understand the passion of making money: absorbed enthralled in it. It’s a game. To me it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well. Imagine stopping money making. Our whole conception of reality would have to be altered."
Even in his judgement of American language, Williams thought money making would "infect" daily and literary discourse. The mission of the poet was therefore to renew the use of language and to adopt an original diction. As his long poem Paterson indicates, this original diction should reflect the vital energies of life, the opposite of the energies dedicated to economic production and consumption.
II. Others literary figures
Unlike Williams, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound developed their mature literary vision in Europe. Still, their aesthetic and intellectual evolution reveals their deeply American concerns. In the history of modernism, Eliot and Pound figure as powerful catalyst, poets who brought about change and exerted significant influence over other literary figures. Even when they settled in London, Eliot and Pound had been, in different ways, deeply influenced by the French Symbolists and the more recent French poetry and literary criticism. To a great extent, such poetry and literary criticism allowed them to evolve beyond conventional literary criteria and poetic practices – it allowed them to discover the possibility of new and original modes of literary criticism and poetic expression. As far as poetics is concern, both poets found in European and cultural heritage a vast source of inspiration.
Concerning Eliot, Europe – with its rich past – provided the ideal imaginary scene for the poet seeking to create a literary identity and a world vision. In this respect, Eliot’s entire oeuvre can be considered as an expression of the internal drama of his intellectual and artistic development. When The Waste Land (1922) appeared, not only was it considered a highly accomplished poem, it was also viewed as a historical document: a testimony of cultural anxiety that signaled a deep transformation in human sensibility. However, recent studies have indicated that The Waste Land is a more personal than historical testimony: it is the testimony of a tormented sensibility struggling to find spiritual assurance in a world of spatio-temporal fragmentation, a world governed by the fragmentary logic of capitalistic instrumentality. Throughout his oeuvre, Eliot tries to oppose a total vision to the fragmentary world of modernity. In both his plays and poems, the quest of the total vision emerges as an attempt to situate the self in relation to the restored cultural and religious tradition of the Western world. Needless to say, Eliot’s vision of a restored Western world tradition stands in stark opposition t the project of modernity as a whole. In Eliot’s world vision, this project was systematically associated with American capitalism and its European variant. Hence, the primordial ideal of the artist is to develop an identity removed from the increasing materialism of the modern world: a world in which, as he said, "the acquisitive, rather than the creative and spiritual instincts are concerned".
Facing the bourgeois consumerism of an increasingly instrumental capitalist society, many American modernists shared Eliot’s conception of the literary persona. According to those modernists, the only form of cultural production offered by a consumer society is mass-culture. They saw the self-marginalization of the artist as a necessary condition of literary freedom and inspiration. Many writers were preoccupied with cultivating their own artistic freedom. Therefore, they resisted what they considered as the superficiality of mass-culture. In the years following World War I, some were disillusioned enough by the materialism of American culture to live for Europe (E. E. Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein). Although they were collectively called "the lost generation", these authors were bound together more by their artistic sensibility than by a set of common beliefs. Europe, mainly Paris, provided the authors of the lost generation with a perfect cultural atmosphere in which they could develop a sentimental attachment to Paris. Gertrude Stein captured the literary importance of Paris when she said that Paris was "where the 20th century was".
A note on the literary scene, modernism is also the age of the literary magazine and the magazine of political and cultural critique. The early and mid-twentieth century saw the appearance of such magazines as The Masses (1911), Poetry (1912), The New Republic (1914), The Seven Arts (1916) and The American Mercury (1924). Each magazine served as an important forum for cultural criticism, fresh political debate and avant-garde hysteric ideas. Radical cultural transformations were the order of the day. The editors of The New Republic, for instance, proclaimed at the goal of their magazine was "less to inform or entertain its reader than to start little insurrections in the realm of their convictions". The Seven Arts presented many of America’s most important literary voices: Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell. In the 1920’s, The Dial emerged as the most prominent literary monthly in America. Its contributors included writers of international fame such as Thomas Mann, Jules Romain, and William Butler Yeats. Among the newly celebrated American writers, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings and Hart Crane were also published in The Dial.
Sommaire de la série History of American Literature
Emerson’s literary and philosophical importance in the American renaissance and after it has always been associated with his lasting influence in two domains of American intellectual and social life:
The emergence of an America romantic sensibility.
The emergence of a characteristically American conception of individual consciousness and actions.
For the first time in America, Emerson gave full expression to a philosophy of romantic idealism. He thought that the spiritual and intellectual ideals of the 18th century, the principles of the Age of Reason, had ended in sterility. Emerson’s ethic of self-reliance represents the necessity for the individual to question most of all forms of social conventions and to refuse his ideas by the accepted standards and values of society. Also, it represents the necessity for the individual to think and act according to his standards.
But this self-reliance can also be interpreted as moral relativism and as a certain cult of individualistic power. Indeed, Emerson’s philosophy does reflect a certain fascination with power. Very often, he seems to be too enthusiastic about all manifestations of energy, personal force and superior vitality: "power first. In politics and in trade, pirates are of better promise than talkers and clerks": it’s a philosophy of action. Such ambivalent affirmations show a great deal of the liberating potential of Emerson’s philosophy but evidently, they also hide a dangerously anarchistic potential that can not be denied.
Henry David THOREAU
Is the spiritual son of Emerson: he did what Emerson said and tried to act according to the philosophy of self-reliance. One of the most important observations that can be made about Thoreau’s life as a man and as an artist is that he considered freedom as the highest ideal of society. His life as a writer and as a thinker was dedicated to the freedom of trying new ideals and new experiences. Also, freedom for Thoreau meant the possibility for the individual to discover himself and to live his life against social conventions. In order to accomplish his ideal of freedom, Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. This decision was essentially determined by three tendencies in Thoreau’s personality:
As a man, he wanted to explore and discover new aspects of his own personality.
As an intellectual, he wanted to experiment with a new form of life different from life in an organized complex capitalistic society.
As a writer, he wanted to explore and experiment with his own writing. In this respect, Thoreau’s experience marks the beginning of the essay as lived experience.
Concerning Thoreau’s experience as a writer, his poetry and prose reflect the work of a very careful artist: great deal of attention to the nuances of the language. It may appear spontaneous, even like conversation but it is not. His prose is carefully studied. He’s always addressing the reader.
Walden is representative of Thoreau’s style. It is quite artful and elaborate. Yet, it appears to be artistically modest. The ideals are complex and sophisticated. Yet, it appears to be simple. Simplicity in Thoreau’s is not just a literary characteristic of Walden, which also incarnates the ideal of an intellectual who wants to limit life to the simplest activities. Thoreau came to Walden Pond in order to make a fresh start, to see intellectual and natural experience directly. He did not look for inspiration in books but in Nature. He established a real tradition of individualism: life in Nature is by necessity a separation from society and its conventions. Consequently, the writer’s position outside society becomes the best place to observe society and its institutions with critical eyes.
Through this return to Nature, Thoreau wants to move away from the regulations of a materialistic and instrumental society. He wants to reorganize his life according to his own philosophy. At the beginning of the essay, Thoreau uses ironic expressions for his new experience: "a private business". To call this escape from the materialism of society a "business" is irony and Walden becomes the story of this escape. It reminds us of Zen Buddhism or Hindu mysticism: his life in nature seems to be a form of sacrifice in order to reach a higher transcendent state of being. Even when Thoreau describes himself building his cabin, we have the impression that the business of building is also a religious ceremony of purification and renewal. Therefore, Thoreau belongs to the American tradition of renewal, a sort of symbolic baptism of the individual through an escape to nature.
Is much more pessimistic about human nature: he didn’t believe in a new beginning: to him, the past comes back to haunt the present. He wrote short stories and novels with a complex and disturbing aspect of American life. His literary imagination was strongly influenced by his early life in Salem (Massachusetts) where he was born. The history of Salem and American Puritanism presented the context in which he developed his ideas about human nature and the ambivalent nature of human psychology, and about sin and guilt, the dangers of the intellect and the risks of passion.
Later, when he lived in Concord (Massachusetts), Hawthorne dedicated his efforts to sketches and short stories, called "allegories of the heart". His novels are "romances". In both short stories and novels, Hawthorne was excellent at describing the complexities and ambiguities of human psychology. According to Hawthorne, human mind is determined by a division between sensuality & repression of the sensuality, between conformity & individualism. It is also the scene of a dialectical conflict between good and evil. His fictions represent the co-existence of contradictory forces on the individual. Hawthorne is a romantic author whose short stories and novels are marked by a concern with the American past with the role of the creative artist in a materialistic society. He insisted on the importance of human emotions and imagination, and on the dangers of cold intellect.
Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe criticized Hawthorne for being too allegorical in his style. Hawthorne himself admitted that his allegorical style is vague and not easy to understand: "I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in these blasted allegories". In his "allegories of the heart", Hawthorne uses symbols in order to represent the narrow separation between good and evil in the human mind. Through his allegorical technique, he shows that humankind can never solve the mysteries and the ambiguities of a divided human psychology. Hawthorne’s moral and religious concerns are central to his literary symbolism. His most representative symbols were derived from puritan history of New England. He developed his themes about good and evil around the historical events and the personalities that influenced New England culture and society.
Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands in the literary history of America as the poet who has generated the most dramatic and lasting transformations in American poetry and in the function of the American poet. Indeed, Whitman redefined poetry and the role of the poet in, at least, two important ways:
In terms of aesthetic practice
In terms of the social position of the poet as an active participant in a democratic society
As far as his aesthetic practice is concerned, Whitman considered the poet essentially as an experimental artist first and foremost: the poet’s function is to create both new forms and new themes for poetry. The poet must re-create a literary tradition: conventions were out. In Whitman’s dynamic and revolutionary conception of poetry, there are 2 important consequences:
Rhyme would not matter: would have no importance at all.
Uniformity in the structure of stanzas should be abandoned.
Concerning the thematic content of a new poetry, Whitman also expressed his opinion quite clearly. The new American poet would avoid sentimental poetry and simplistic moralization: he is no longer a moral teacher. Also, exaggeration in style and in subject would be replaced by realistic descriptions of life and its impressions. Whitman would abandon any sentimental idealism.
As far as his intellectual influence is concerned, he believed reading literary texts should not be limited to an elite of intellectuals. Whitman thought it was possible to include the people in the experience of literature. He wanted to make of literature a popular art: the poet can come to play an important role in exalting the people. Through his capacity to sing (= to exalt) and encourage the people, the poet also indicates the way to collective self-realization and self-realization for each individual. Whitman therefore believed that literature, as an instrument of communication, was also a democratic instrument. With Whitman, we realize that his analysis of democratic society can not be separated from his conception of poetry. This relationship is reflected in the poem Song of Myself. According to Whitman, Song of Myself depends on the creative participation of each reader. It is in this context that he defines the great poet as a bridge between the reader and society at large. It is this definition of the poet that he affirmed in the opening lines of Song of Myself:
"I celebrate myself and sing myself And what I assume you shall assume".
Sommaire de la série History of American Literature
I. Washington IRVING: evolution, nostalgia and imaginary compensation
Irving was not under the influence of sentimentalism or romanticism, the two big influences of that time. In a way, he was the perfect incarnation of the American early literary development. He was a figure of literary transition in a society where American literature was still a hybrid. Irving’s artistic opinions and his style changed dramatically over time but we can detect certain opinions and thematic elements that dominate his early as well as his later works. One of the most important things about Irving is the nostalgic consciousness of change and the evanescence of things and people. This melancholic sensibility is to be found in all his works. Other distinctive aspects of Irving’s writings are:
The transformation of material reality through fantasy and imagination. Such a transformation allows the author to represent reality as a fable.
The use of humor: human enterprises as trivial and ridiculous (cynicism and bitterness).
The use of sentimentalism to describe scenes and characters.
On the whole, Irving emphasizes narration and description rather than analysis and critic. This choice can be explained for he did not consider his prose as an expression of political or cultural positions (consciously). Irving started his literary carrier writing satirical pieces of journalism about the New York cultural and social scene, especially about the Theater circles. We can see that his humor and his early satire were a collage of rational critic, nonsense humor and irony.
In his satirical works, he turned all human beings into fools including the writer himself: that’s self-reference (makes funny comments about himself as a writer), a very modern way of writing. He gave full expression to the sense of his satires and historiobiographies (history in a novel or in historical books); it showed his sharp sense of satire. In 1809, he wrote A History of New York from the creation of the World to the end of the Dutch Dynasty, which is a parody of the New York Dutch descendants and an ironic questioning of objective historical facts and historiographical skepticism. The narrator is Dietrich Knickerbocker. It’s not a monumental but an ironic history. Behind the irony, there is a very serious historical effort on the part of Irving. He rewrites history from his own point of view: it’s very modern. As he develops these two themes, the narrator of the book sees this historical monument of human accomplishment as a monument of human ridicule: he turns it upside down.
In 1815, Irving sailed to Liverpool and traveled extensively in Europe. His English travels inspired The SketchBook of Geoffrey Crayon, a collection of 33 essays and stories. The narrator of his book is the sentimental G. Crayon who expresses his attachment to British culture and its old monuments. The SketchBook is essentially homage to English scenes and English writers. It is conservative in its cultural views and antiquarian in its aesthetic inspirations. Indeed, Crayon doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for tradition, aristocracy and rurality rather than for innovation, democracy and urbanization.
Rip Van Wikle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are his most distinguish pieces. These excellent short stories present a mixture of fantasy and realism, of fable and fact. As far as the use of fantasy is concerned, the short stories already announced the narrative art of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Presently, the legendary opposition between New York and New England, Sleepy Hollow, is comic variation on Gothic fiction (develops an atmosphere of terror, horrifying, macabre and where strange events happen). Throughout the narrative, Irving metamorphoses the setting of the story (the Hudson River Valley) into a fabulous landscape where we can follow his analysis of American history, although we know that the images of the history are the product of his wild imagination and fantasy. The historical context of Sleepy Hollow is that of a rapidly changing American in the face of America: it reflects Irving’s profound fear of America’s territorial expansion and its rapid socio-economic transformation. In this sense, Sleepy Hollow is found on a profound sense of melancholy and nostalgia, as ideal rural past.
In this, Irving proved to be an author with profoundly American impulses. He faced a country plunging into change, development and expansion but at the same time, when he’s trying to understand this country; he expresses his nostalgic desires to preserve the eternal arcadia of the colonial vision. His paradox is the American one.
During his diplomatic service in Spain, Irving turned to biography: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus represents an important change in his literary life. In this biography, he kept using the narrative techniques that he used in his novels, mixing history and fiction. In his historic books, he abandoned his ironic tone: it became more serious and formal despite the fact that he kept using the narrative techniques. All his novels are the products of very precise researches. However, Irving did not define such works as purely economic literature. In The Conquest of Granada, he described Granada as somewhat "between history and romance". From this period, The Alhambra is the only book that can be compared with the SketchBook.
In 1832, after 17 years in Europe, Irving returned to the USA that was in full expansion and he realized that its New Frontier was a big source of literary inspiration. During that period, he traveled extensively in the West. Results:
A Tour of the Prairie (1835)
Asteria and The Adventure (1836)
Irving has always been interested in the Frontier. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, in a way, Irving thought of his western books of the 1830’s not just as literary experimentations but also as a concrete contribution to the west world expansion of the USA and the realization of his "manifest destiny".
II. James Fenimore COOPER: the voice of the Frontier as general critique
Jacksonian democracy’s rise and its effect on the Frontier represent the most important elements in the historical background of Cooper’s fictions. 1829-1837: democratic populist campaign based on a fight for poop people (land, farms and realization of the American dream) but no place for Indians. For Cooper, realizing your dreams is a good ideal. But it does not come without the extermination of Puritans entities: Indians and Nature.
Cooper’s role in this history of American literature: his representation of the Frontier certainly appears as his greatest contribution to an authentically American literature. Cooper transformed the American Frontier into a symbol of a national myth. Among the general public, Cooper is known for his leatherstocking tales (main character: Natty Bumpo):
The Pioneer (1823)
The Last of the Mohicans (1823)
The Prairie (1827)
The Pathfinder (1840)
The Crater (1847)
The Last of the Mohicans
Compared with the other leatherstocking novels, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is the most complex and dramatic. It’s complexity and dramatic powers come from the ambiguities of the Frontier itself. Similar to Captain Smith’s vision of nature, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Frontier as the scene of constant struggle. His characters are more characterized by action than reflection. In Cooper’s fictions, action and struggle very often degenerate into violence and absurd tragedy. This representation of the Frontier shows an understanding of American history in general as an ambiguous and complex process in which the people struggling to possess and keep the land are subjected to natural and historical forces they can not control: Nature is seen as bigger than man in tragic view. Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans often describes scenes of a devastated Nature, scenes that powerfully suggest the theme of what America has lost, the grace of primitive natural beauty. Nature is humanized: we can’t remain indifferent. Along with the poetry of its natural scenes, The Last of the Mohicans also reflects Cooper’s sense of realism. Indeed, judged by the standards of his time, his wilderness fiction as the whole follows very closely the best sources of Indian studies that existed in the early 19th century. Moreover, Cooper met and spoke with the most important Indian chiefs of this period. He overall pictured that general picture we get in his narratives: the tragic, dramatic and ambiguous change. Even his most courageous and energetic characters find themselves incapable of facing the forces of Nature and History. According to Cooper, the phenomenon of settlement is the ideal metaphoric expression of the tragedy of American civilization. But, in Cooper’s narrative vision, the Frontier is also an image of the sense of opportunity that comes from with change. In this description of the process of settlement, Cooper describes with eloquence the hopes and aspirations of the pioneers and simultaneously the Indians’ feeling of loss and displacement.
The vastness of Cooper’s historical vision, the complexity and tragic sense of this Frontier can be seen in his first Frontiers novel, The Pioneers, which shows Cooper’s profound attachment to the Frontier as a philosophy of life based on hope, with its suggestion of autobiographical nostalgia. More than anything else, the autobiographic element shows the eloquence with which Cooper described the Frontier. Again, as in his other narratives of Nature, Cooper’s conception of the Frontier is never simplistic. On the one hand, he describes the daily life of the pioneers and their relations with Nature in idyllic terms. On the other hand, behind the Frontier idyll, there is the irreversible march of historical process. The settlers’ irresponsible destruction of natural resources is a dramatic reminder of human intrusion upon the wilderness. The complexity of Cooper’s narratives of a Frontier resides in the ambiguity of his feelings toward the settlement process. In The Pioneers, one has certainly the sense of his enthusiasm concerning America’s conquest of Nature; however, we also feel his profound anxiety as an unstoppable march of civilization. In this sense, his works are the first expression of a really ecological consciousness. Although the question of ecological danger was a serious subject for Cooper, he found the social disorder that comes with economic changes even more problematic. In this sense, the social themes of his novels have a prophetic quality. They tell of the limits and dangers of Jacksonian democracy and its proclamation of the possibilities on the individual. He saw in it the future destruction of America’s sense of community and responsibility. In the final analysis, The Pioneers and its contrast between Nature and civilization is less pessimistic than some of Cooper’s later novels.
Indeed, The Pioneers offers a harmonious synthesis between the European and Indian past. The American Frontier is supposed to be the neutral ground where the synthesis is supposed to happen. This trend to make a synthesis of the past and the present, development and wilderness, the American people and Native Americans, seems to be the result of a division within Cooper himself. This particular aspect of his fiction reflects his own role in the settlement of American, which is full of contradictions. On the one hand, Cooper grew up in a Frontier community, believed in the ideal of success through progress: his imagination was influenced by the beauty of Nature and by the hopes of building a civilization. On the other hand, for he grew up in a Frontier community, he knew more than anyone else the ecological and ethnic disasters that the Frontier communities created. So, his fiction can be considered as the product of his contradiction.
Cooper placed the settlement setting on a fantasy island in the Pacific. The Crater is perhaps America’s first really allegorical novel. It offers a symbolic representation of America’s evolution from a hopeful past to a chaotic present to an apocalyptic future. As in Cooper’s other settlement novels, the settlement on his imaginary island is confronted with the outside dangers of Indian tribes. Eventually, the community succeeds only to realize that the most serious danger to the development of the settlement comes from the community itself.
Cooper’s change from the ambiguous optimism of The Pioneers to The Crater‘s vision of disorder is also a personal change. This change marks his move toward an increasing position with social order. Cooper’s later novels show how deeply he felt the necessity to put a sense of order into his social vision, the vision of a society of a society developing beyond control. Despite his conservatism, Cooper was no extreme conservative but moderate. However, his positions were misinterpreted: his argument for a re-consideration of the principles of American democracy, his critic of mad development and ecological irresponsibility were considered as conservative. His opinions were seen as an expression of unhappiness with the very existence of democracy as a system. In fact, the negative things that Cooper associated with Jacksonian Democracy were not just the negative aspects of a political system but of an entire philosophy, of an entire society. Through his novels and political writings, Cooper wanted to expose several social and economic symptoms:
Explosion of cities aligncenter upon the accumulation of capital.
Disintegration of civility and social coherence.
Generalized materialism and the collapse of small communities.
In the final analysis, Cooper’s greatest accomplishment as a novelist does not reside in his critic of the abuses of Jacksonian Democracy but in his transformation of his personal contradictions into an imaginary scene of truly mythical dimension. His works remained as essential models for an American literary sensibility and its mystique of Nature. They also represent the first model for a sensibility committed to ecological responsibility and cultural tolerance.
Sommaire de la série History of American Literature
I. The Puritan New World vision in the longer schemes of things
English Puritans can be divided into several groups. Most of the Puritans remained in England. They accepted the principle of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with the Separatists (no affiliation with authority and the English protestant church). They were persecuted and many of them had to run away and come to the New World.
To many Puritans, Christopher Columbus’s passage in America was one of the most important historical events as the sign of a bigger historical destiny, as well as Gutemberg’s printing press (1456) and the Protestant reformation: 3 events, at the same time geographical, textual and religious, marking the beginning of a New World.
Gutemberg’s invention was particularly important for the New -England Protestants for their frequent use of texts (major means of communication). The Puritan society was a unique form of society in the sense that they defined their identity essentially by means of texts. Throughout the 17th century, colonial identity was the product of two things:
Literature or texts
And concrete movement in social and geographical space.
This particular form of identity can be seen through different aspects of literary expression: the Puritans used these aspects as sermons, declarations, covenants, controversies and statements of purpose. Therefore, the lasting effect of the printing press on colonial America is to be found in its contribution to the emergence of a national identity based first and foremost on language and writing. It was first by means of publication that America declared to the world its identity as a nation and trough an effect of discourse that she defined proclaimed and projected its past, its present and its future.
II. Realizing the vision: the image of the future played out in the New World
As far as the Puritan world vision is concerned, their conception of their role in the discovery of America is profoundly religious: it’s unseparable from the biblical metaphors of the Apocalypse and the coming of the millenium. Indeed, their historical and geographical position in America is closely related to their biblical definition of themselves and of America. In the bigger divine plan, the Puritans are God’s chosen people. Their destination, both spiritual and geographical is America, the new Israel that marks the beginning of the millenium. In this context, it’s also important to add that the millenium utopianism of the Puritans goes hand in hand with their political and religious beliefs.
Through a characteristic synthesis, the Puritans defined their system as a church-state. They believed this religious political system should be a model for the Christian world. The Puritans considered their historical role in the New World as that of a universal community organized under a "federal" or "national" contract, called a covenant. Therefore, in John Winthrop’s words, the new church-state was supposed to be "a city upon a hill", a universal "model of Christian charity" (taken from the sermon he made abroad the ship The Arbella in 1630). But, with the beginning of the Restoration in 1660, the Puritans lost all hope of spreading their universal vision through England. The realization of the Puritans’ vision was turned fully toward America and, consciously or unconsciously, the second or third generation of Puritans adopted European metaphors of America, those that they used in their futuristic vision of both land and history.
Thus, the imaginary visions of America as utopia became synonymous with the New Heaven promised by the Revelation (the Apocalypse). In this apocalyptic vision, geographical and literary exploration, textuality and religious imagery are unseparable. These three aspects of the Puritan New World vision represent their most lasting contribution to the American sense of community and identity. From the Declaration of Independence to the notion of the Manifest Destiny (John L. O’Sullivan) to the New Frontier (John F. Kennedy), the USA has always seen its confrontation with the future as a sort of battle of the wilderness: the nation’s representation of itself reminds us of the Puritans and their imaginary vision of the New World: the vision of a nation in danger, of a plantation facing a complex and hostile environment, of a unified community gaining strength from the challengers of its environment. Throughout this vision, we found three fundamental elements of American identity:
The imaginary projection of nature as the scene of an especially American self.
The representation of a self that uses such a scene to enact a specifically American mode of self-realization (in the future).
The conscious or unconscious references to biblical imagery and the biblical conception of history: American as a necessary self fulfilling promise.
Sommaire de la série History of American Literature