Leanne Waters is a published Irish writer based in Dublin 6. She was born in Dublin in 1990 and lived in Rathsallagh, Shankill until 1995. When she was five years old, she moved to Bray, Co. Wicklow with her parents and older brother and sister. Leanne attended St. Fergal's Primary School and later went to Loreto Secondary School Bray. In 2009, she enrolled at University College Dublin to study English Literature.

In November 2011, Waters had her first book published with Maverick House Publishers. The non-fiction title My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia detailed Waters' personal battle with bulimia nervosa and attracted national media attention at the time of its release (see Media & PR page).

Waters worked as the Features Editor in the UCD University Observer and won the award for Journalism relating to Mental health and Suicide prevention at the 2011 National Student Media Awards. She took a one-year leave of absence from her studies after the publication of her first book to focus on her writing career. Around this time, she also traveled through Europe, Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa, as well as working in New Delhi, India for a period of time.

Waters is now in her early twenties. She returned to University College Dublin in September 2012 to complete her degree in English Literature. She will be graduating with a BA in English in 2014 and has been accepted for an MA in Literature and Modernity in UCD starting in September of the same year. She has been signed for representation by literary agent Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency in London.

Leanne Waters is deeply engaged with critical writing and has written many essays on literary works and authors. These include the works of Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Godwin, Ben Jonson, Edgar Allan Poe, Pat Barker, JM Coetzee, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, E.L. Doctorow, Emile Zola, George Eliot, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and many more (see Blog page). She regularly engages with and writes on the theoretical works of Slavoj Žižek, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Karl Marx, Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucalt, Fredric Jameson and more.

Her main literary interests are the contemporary historical novel, postmodernism, the 'big house' novel and the Victorian Gothic. She also has a great passion for Irish fiction and drama and enjoys the works of Kate O' Brien, Colm Tóibín, Frank McGuinness, Brian Friel, Anne Enright, Samuel Beckett and Conor McPherson.

Leanne Waters now lives in Rathmines, Dublin with her partner. She is also an enthusiastic painter with a love of art, ranging from Vermeer, Caravaggio, Manet, Degas and Renoir, to Le Brocquy, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon.



Academic Essays: George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil” (March 2014)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

The Blood Transfusion Scene: Bertha as the Failed Hero?

In her article on “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil”, Kate Flint comments: “The intake of male blood, through the combined power of Meunier’s body and profession (for class as well as gender boundaries are traversed in this transfusion), gives Mrs. Archer new power to speak” [Flint, 470]. I would like to form an argument around Flint’s focus here on the idea of male penetration and suggest that the character of Bertha could be read as feminism’s failed hero.

Taking flight from Flint’s point, Meunier authoritatively states: “I should use my own blood – take it from my own arm” [Eliot, 39]. The use of the word ‘should’ in this instance is suggestive: it renders Meunier – the scene’s figure of authority [both in his masculinity and occupation] – as the sole executioner of the experiment in blood transfusion. He alone makes the decision to carry out the experiment and ‘opens’ himself up, along with Mrs. Archer. In short, Meunier at once becomes both patient and doctor; he is the giver of life in a double sense. The ‘should’, therefore, signifies responsibility, while the repetitive emphasis placed on the fact that it is taken from his own arm would seem to represent the doctor in a most self-sacrificially benevolent fashion. The misogynist implications this makes are unavoidable: man becomes the giver of life to ‘Woman’, both practically and symbolically. In this short scene, he comes to define her very existence in a manner that is analogous to Simone de Beauvoir’s theories in “The Second Sex”, in which Woman’s subjectivity is expounded as the Other to male subjectivity: “To pose Woman is to pose the absolute Other, without reciprocity, denying against all experience that she is a subject, a fellow human being” [De Beauvoir, 1266]. Indeed, Mrs. Archer’s subjection to such an experiment in the first place seems to displace her as a fellow human being, in that Meunier has only previously practised the operation on “animals that have died of this disease” [Eliot, 39].

Thoroughly confined to her role as Other [and apparently little above the rank of a dehumanised animal], Mrs. Archer, in her deathly state, is compelled to accept male penetration in the form of a phallic needle full of blood. She depends on this penetration for the “wondrous slow return of life” [Eliot, 41]. One could even make the argument that this scene is somewhat akin to a symbolic miscarriage, in which Mrs. Archer becomes impregnated, produces a temporary spark of life, which is then ultimately lost once again.

Bertha, by contrast to her maid, seems to [at least attempt to] resist male penetration throughout the course of the novella. Latimer’s clairvoyant capabilities become another form of penetration within the story. He intrudes into the minds of others and, recalling Freud’s theories on castration anxiety, the act of penetration “became an intense pain and grief” [Eliot, 13-14]. One need only consider the anxiety caused by the repeated visual loss of the penis during intercourse to connect Latimer’s ‘pain and grief’ to the loss of his male subjectivity to “the souls of those who were in close relation to him” [Eliot, 14]. The construct of this ‘male subjectivity’ seems already weakened by comparison to Alfred and in those comparative terms, Latimer is described as a “fragile, nervous, ineffectual self” who retains “a sort of half-womanish, half-ghostly beauty” [Eliot, 14]. Latimer’s feminisation once again resurrects notions of an Oedipal Complex, in which his masculinity is removed by the threat of another male. And so, despite the perturbation generated by Latimer’s mental penetration of others, the act seems absolutely necessary in defining his subjectivity in specifically male terms.

This ability collapses when he is confronted by Bertha, who: “made the only exception, among all the human beings about me, to my unhappy gift of insight. About Bertha I was always in a state of uncertainty” [Eliot, 15]. While Latimer still retains his previsional ability to foresee a possible future with Bertha, he cannot intrude into her mind and, consequently, cannot define who she is/her subjectivity. In this way, Bertha resists passing into the realm of Woman, in which male thought systems silhouette the female subject in their patriarchal terms. In “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”, Slavoj Žižek discusses the construction of the Ideal-Lady as a result of the mortification of the flesh and blood woman, stating: “the Lady is the Other which is not our ‘fellow-creature’ […] Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal” [Žižek, 2408]. Yet, Bertha does not allow herself to become this mere mirror for Latimer. She refuses to be his idealised Other: “I am unable to define my feeling towards her […] she was the very opposite, even to the colour of her hair, of the ideal woman who still remained to me the type of loveliness” [Eliot, 15]. Bertha’s ability to escape typification renders her as a feminist dissenter from the patriarchal codes under which female characters such as Mrs. Archer are compelled to act. Indeed, Bertha’s inner thoughts only become revealed to Latimer after their marriage [after she has already become something akin to Latimer’s ‘property’ in the system of patriarchy]. Notably, he can penetrate her fully immediately after the death of his father, the last of the threatening male figures who represent the danger of castration in Freudian terms.

Upon mental penetration, however, Latimer’s narcissistic projections are deflated and he is forced to accept the “traumatic dimension” of her reality as woman and not Woman [Žižek, 2408]. He is forced to see himself as she truly sees him: “I saw myself in Bertha’s thought as she lifted her cutting grey eyes, and looked at me: a miserable ghost-seer, surrounded by phantoms in the noon-day, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still, without appetite for the common objects of human desire, but pining after the moonbeams. We were front to front with each other and judged each other” [Eliot, 32]. In this way, Bertha’s reality as a conscious, thinking, fellow human being – with a reality and subjectivity all her own – means that she becomes an equal to Latimer’s fragile sense of masculinity and his desire to be a male subject like Alfred or his father. As an equal, she could be said to act as the emblem of feminism, a hero in the feminists’ pursuit.

She becomes symbolically undone, however, at the blood transfusion scene. Mrs. Archer, as a creature of patriarchal conditioning, looks at her mistress from her death bed with “a look of hideous meaning in her eyes” [Eliot, 40]. The hideous meaning here implies Bertha’s dissent from the role assigned to her by the social system in which she operates. This meaning seems to become unconsciously clear to Latimer, who questions “how that face of [Bertha’s] could ever have seemed to me the face of a woman born of woman” [Eliot, 40-41]. When Mrs. Archer awakens from her deathly state, she meets Bertha with “the recognition of hate” given to social dissenters [Eliot, 41]. And so, woman is turned against woman in this scene and, without solidarity, feminism falls to pieces. Mrs. Archer physically points her hand at the dissenter and calls out feminism’s hero: “the hand that Bertha had thought for ever still was pointed towards her” [Eliot, 42]. This moment seems almost biblical, recalling Matthew 18:15, in which one is asked to point out the brother or sister who has sinned. It could even be correlated to Judas’ physical betrayal of Jesus; where Judas uses his lips, Mrs. Archer uses her hand. In either case, a religious dynamic is possibly added to this situation and Bertha, as a feminist who resists male penetration, does so against both the institution of patriarchy and religion. Mrs. Archer states: “You mean to poison your husband” [Eliot, 42]. In doing so, she becomes the penetrated tool of patriarchy, set against her own sex and those who would seek to equal or overthrow the masculine power-system.

Yet, there is a sense that though Bertha has failed to resist male penetration fully [after she is married and immediately after the death of her father-in-law], she has destabilised patriarchal sensibilities, even if only for a moment. It is stated, for example, that even Meunier: “looked paralysed; life for that moment ceased to be a scientific problem to him” [Eliot, 42]. Meunier becomes temporarily paralysed in his acting role as the male authority figure and the ‘scientific problem’ here could be read as his biological understanding of the differences between men and women. Its suspension is caused because, despite what he believes ‘scientifically’ of Woman, woman can be as equally threatening as man.

**Note 1: The notion of male penetration into the female psyche could be expanded into a discussion on the author herself, in that she purposely [maybe ironically?] chooses, firstly, to use a male pseudonym and, secondly, to write in the first person singular with the use of a male subject.

**Note 2: There is a complication here in that Bertha was physically trying to kill her husband. This would suggest that either she has already failed in her feminist pursuit for equality and her act is one of defeated frustration; or, that she does not seek equality, but complete, matriarchal usurpation of male power. There was not enough scope in this one entry to fully work this out.

**Note 3: The fact that Mrs. Archer comes to life as a result of Meunier’s blood seems reminiscent of the way in which Eve is ‘crafted’ from the rib of Adam, again underwriting de Beauvoir’s theories of how Woman’s subjectivity is crafted through its status as Other to that of the male.

Works Cited

Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009. Print.

De Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1265-1273. Print.

Flint, Kate. “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 51:4 (March 1997): 455-473. JSTOR.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 2407-2427. Print.

Academic Essays: Samuel Beckett’s “Play” (March 2014)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters.

Fight for Survival: The Complicity of Light and Sound in Samuel Beckett’s Play

In his seminal work The Principles of Human Knowledge,George Berkeley states: “esse est percipi” and underwrites the way in which the self is constructed through the acknowledgement of an other [Berkeley, 25]. In the case of Samuel Beckett’s Play, this acknowledgement is established through the double perception of both light and sound. The audience becomes the ultimate other and is essentially begged to reify the existence of M, W1 and W2 through its perception of the visual physicality of the characters [established through light] and its perception of their history and identities [established through sound]. In this way, light and sound become unified in their necessity to qualify the reality of these ‘characters’.

The first mode of perception to consider is that of the visual. M repeatedly asks the question: “Am I as much as … being seen?” [Beckett, 317]. The importance of this question can be correlated to the thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger, which is today known as ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ and involved placing a cat in a box with a vile of poison. Being unobserved, the wave function of the cat is increased to infinite numbers in that it could be alive or dead [or, technically speaking, not even in the box anymore, as quantum physics would not entirely rule this out, merely consider it as highly improbable]. After a period of time has elapsed, this creates a paradox: the unobserved cat is temporarily both simultaneously alive and dead. Only when it is observed is the wave function of the cat dramatically decreased to just one possibility. It exists, either dead or alive, based fully on the observation that has been made. Thus, by Schrödinger’s logic, only when something is visually observed can it exist in one moment in time and space.

Beckett’s characters seem to be aware of the necessity of their audience’s observation. Angst surrounding the concept of the self is made evident early in the play, with W2′s quote: “what do you take me for, a something machine?” [Beckett, 309]. A machine, firstly, suggests an inanimate existence and ‘something’perpetuates the ambiguity of this ‘thing’, its inherent lack of definition. M in particular is obsessed by the eyes upon him [1], stating: “And now that you are … mere eye. Just looking. At my face. On and off […] Looking for something. In my face. Some truth. In my eyes. Not even” [Beckett, 317]. The ‘you’ in this instance would seem to refer to the audience, who is reduced to one mere eye, without which they could not perform the act of looking, the purpose of the theatre and indeed the purpose of M’s very existence. Moreover, the fact that the ‘something’ the audience is looking for is found in the face would suggest that this ‘something’ is an identity. Facelessness implies a crisis of identity and indeed M’s contention of ‘not even’ reinforces his anxiety about his own ‘nobodyness’. It is possible, however, for M to be both nobody and still in existence, but this is dependent on “ a single mobile spot […] swivelling at maximum speed from one face to another” [Beckett, 318]. Light is the absolute necessity for visual perception: without light, the characters could not prevail, in the same way Schrödinger’s cat would continue in its superpositions without the light that confirms its single position to the eye. Darkness becomes the ultimate enemy in the fight for survival and W1 goes so far as to call the increasing darkness a “Hellish half-light” [Beckett, 316]. Here, she consciously revolts against her own extinction into a dark abyss.

Yet, light alone does not constitute the characters’ being entirely. It requires sound to further articulate their existence. Their visuality alone, for example, does little to render them animate beings: “Faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns” [Beckett, 307]. Even in light, the characters cannot escape their own amalgamation with the lifeless urns, which are themselves symbols of death, of lifelessness. Jacques Derrida states that: “There is nothing outside of the text (there is not outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte)” (Derrida 158). If this is true, then language – as a system for reality, as a signifier, or just simply as a physical text – becomes the life-giving observer to all of humanity, which cannot be recorded outside of it. Only through language can humanity in its entirety be brought into a comprehendible existence. Jacques Lacan argues that: “the subject, too, if he can appear to be the slave of language is all the more so of a discourse in the universal movement in which his place is already inscribed at birth, if only by virtue of his proper name” (Lacan, 1170). In Lacanian terms, identity is formed in the Symbolic Order, the realm of language. The emphasis here is on one’s name, the first linguistic definition of the self. Again, the crisis of existence is already well established by virtue of the characters’ namelessness, in that they are simply called M, W1 and W2. Without names, they fail to ‘be’ in the Symbolic Order.

In a fashion that is analogous to M’s concern over being seen, W2 metafictionally asks the audience: “Are you listening to me? Is anyone listening to me?” [Beckett, 314]. In this instance, W2 seems to implore the audience into the act of listening. She requires their audible perception for the establishment of her own subjectivity and therefore sound is aligned with light in its importance. Furthermore, the speech taking place on stage surrounds a history, the characters’ personal pasts. Their past becomes the Derridean ‘text’ outside of which nothing exists at all. To not narrate their past in language, in sound, would mean that it is “as if … [it had] never been” [Beckett, 312]. W1′s obsession with telling “the truth” underwrites her anxiety about the fictional nature of history, in that it can only be delivered through the narrative tool of language/speech, which fictionalises it to a degree and possibly undermines its reality [Beckett, 313]. Without history, W1′s attempt to ‘be’ is damaged. If she is both nameless and undocumented, she fails to occur at all. Her ‘truth’ is the ungraspable truth of her being.

And so, light and sound become unified through their necessity for existence. Without light and sound, M, W1 and W2 are nothing. W1 seems to acknowledge this complicity, stating: “Silence and darkness […] They being one” [Beckett, 316]. If silence [the inarticulation of the self] and darkness [that which makes the observable unobservable] are one, then by oppositional standards, so too are light and sound. Indeed, by scientific terms, there is no difference between physical sound waves and light waves. They are distinguished only through the frequency of their peaks and troughs. All information in the universe is a product of disturbing or agitating the air at a certain frequency; looser wave patterns [slower frequencies] produce sound, while tighter wave patterns [faster frequencies] produce light. Both, however, are ultimately the same. This is true of quantum physics and also of Beckett’s Play.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. “Play”. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works. Ed. James Knowlson. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. 305-320. Print.

Berkeley, George. The Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “That Dangerous Supplement”. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. 141-164. E-book.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1169-1181. Print.

[1 While the text itself does not explicitly qualify the genders M, W1 and W2, for the sake of convenience, I will use male gendering for M and female gendering for W1 and W2].

Academic Essays: Alice in Wonderland (March 2014)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters.

The Trial Poem & Alice as The Pre-Mirror Stage Infant

A Lacanian reading of the verses imparted at the closing trial scene of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides a broad scope for understanding this particular poem within the context of the novel as a whole. Lacan’s Mirror Stage and his understanding of the way in which identity is formed in the Symbolic Order lay the foundations for this reading. To begin, Lacan writes that: “the subject, too, if he can appear to be the slave of language is all the more so of a discourse in the universal movement in which his place is already inscribed at birth, if only by virtue of his proper name” (“Agency of the Letter”, 1170). The complicity between identity and name is key to Lacan’s argument and is reflected in Alice’s struggle to stabilise her ever-changing self. Alice states that: “I must have been changed for Mabel” (Carroll, 15). The White Rabbit later mistakes her for “Mary Ann” (Carroll, 31). Finally, when asked the seemingly simple question of who she is, Alice tells the Caterpillar: “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir […] because I’m not myself, you see” (Carroll, 45). For Alice to explain the ‘self’, she must first give that self a definite name. Without a name, Alice lacks a Lacanian ‘I’ and the confusion of naming is emblematic of the ongoing crisis of identity Alice is experiencing. (As the famous song goes, “Who the fuck is Alice?”).

A vacuum is created around the subjectivity of Alice, who can only attempt to define herself through a Derridean othering of what she is not: “Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and – oh dear, how puzzling it all is!” (Carroll, 14). (Needless to say, this othering fails. This will be discussed below). The puzzle within this statement is the problematic status of personal pronouns, which become meaningless against one another. This is exemplified perfectly in the trial poem: “I gave her one, they gave him two,/ You gave us three or more” (Carroll, 135). I, you, he, she, it and they give little signification in terms of identity. Like Alice, the poem’s ‘characters’ are nameless and therefore void of identity. Moreover, what causes the complication here is that these pronouns lack distinction from one to another, just as Alice lacks distinction from she, despite asserting that she herself is I. The ‘other’ is obliterated and the pronouns become one anarchic consciousness. This is reminiscent of the infant prior to the Mirror Stage, when it fails to recognise the gap “between the Innenweltand the Umwelt” (“Mirror Stage”, 1166). The Mirror Stage establishes the relation between the soon-to-be-subject and its environment, whereas before this phase these two do not require a ‘relation’ because they are one and the same. As with the trial poem, there is no ‘other’ because the infant believes its consciousness, that of the mother, and indeed all reality, are one. And like these personal pronouns, the infant has not yet been divided into “two opposed fields of contest” (“Mirror Stage”, 1167). A unified consciousness seems very apt, given that all the characters and scenarios detailed are figments of just one mind: they are all connected by and enclosed within Alice’s dreamworld. The Cheshire Cat tells Alice: “we’re all made here. I’m mad. You’re mad […] You must be […] or you wouldn’t have come here” (Carroll, 67). Madness, in this sense, seems to be Alice’s (and the reader’s) acceptance of the dreamworld’s reality. The landscape of Alice’s imagination is all-encompassing and breaks down boarders and divisions, as when cats eat bats and bats eat cats (Carroll, 4). Like the infant who has not yet recognised its own bodily frontiers, Alice has not experienced limitations between where she ends and the world begins. In the dreamworld all is one: to become bigger or smaller in size, she must merely eat or drink. The space, then, – or at least her relation to it – is bendable. If she can grows in size, then space must surely contract to accommodate this. Equally, when she shrinks, the imaginative space expands accordingly. Baby and mother are one, and Alice and Wonderland are one. The environment functions, in the infant’s mind, alongside it, just as the imaginative landscape alters in response to Alice (think, for example, of her sea of tears: “I shall be punished for [crying] now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!” [Carroll, 17]).

What I am ultimately suggesting here is that Alice is potentially the metaphorical representation of a pre-Mirror Stage infant. Returning to language and nominal representation, Alice cannot maintain a Lacanian ‘I’ because, like the infant, she herself is not yet a subject in the Symbolic Order (at least, not in the world beyond Wonderland). The trial poem asks the question: “What would become of you?” (Carroll, 135). Because this is all taking place within Alice’s mind, it is perhaps safe to say that she is unconsciously asking herself this question. I emphasise unconsciouslyhere because this concern of who she is/will become is a question articulated with words, for which the pre-Symbolic infant has no capacity. While this brings an unavoidable complication to this discussion, I believe it can parallel (if only marginally) with it. Alice’s thoughts are buried deep within the realm of the imagination (Wonderland). Speech within Wonderland is nonsensical (“The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English” [Carroll, 74]). And so an argument could be made that the nonsensical essence of language within Wonderland (something akin to the uncontrollable and often incomprehensible depths of the Id) is reflective of a metaphorical lack of linguistic ability, as can be seen with Lacan’s infant. Indeed, the first time Alice actually speaks outside of the Wonderland is when she is confronted with the otherness of her sister (the mother-figure, perhaps). Her awakening into the real world is analogous to the infant’s awakening in the Mirror Stage. With this comes the realisation that reality does not operate as a single consciousness, but as a continuous relation between the fragmented Innenwelt and Umwelt. Like a child, she wakes up with a scream, confronts her separation from the surrounding environment (Mirror Stage) and then finally speaks for the first time in real terms (Symbolic Order). In this graduation, Alice stages a microcosmic, hyper-rapid enactment of the infant’s development into the subject.

To be a subject, she must have a command over language, something that becomes a perpetual obstacle throughout the novel: “she hardly knew what she was saying, and the words came very queer indeed” (Carroll, 116). This same obstacle persists in the trial poem and causes difficulty in subjectivity within the poem: “you had been/ (Before she had this fit)/ An obstacle that came between/ Him, and ourselves, and it” (Carroll, 135). It is not impossible that the you in this sense is the developing subject (or the language it commands). With mastery of language comes a division in this unified consciousness, causing the split between these pronouns. The she having the fit could also correlate to the developing infant during the trauma of the Mirror Stage. A complication with words seems to lead inevitably to a crisis of identity. The trial poem opens with: “They told me” and thus establishes speech as the foreground for self-assertion: ‘they’ exist because they are speaking in language and ‘me’ exists because it is listening in language (Carroll, 134). The rest of the poem is then riddled with speech-related terms such as: “mentioned”, “said”, and “sent them word” (Carroll, 134-135). Words are indispensable in the formation of the ‘I’ and the silencing of these words leads to a breakdown of the speaker’s subjectivity: “For this must ever be/ A secret, kept from all the rest, between yourself and me” (Carroll, 135). A secret denotes silence, the abandonment of the language of Wonderland. The consequence of this is that the identity of the poem’s speaker is unknown and, quite simply, the poem ends. This abrupt ending of the poem coincides with the end of the novel in its entirety: this is the final poem Carroll chooses to close his story with. It is interesting that the last poem should be one used as evidence in a trial. I believe what is on trial here is Alice, the metaphorical infant, and whether she is ready to become a Lacanian subject. This evidence poem is evidence of the self. The personal pronouns who are all one represent what Alice must leave behind in order to become the subject: the belief that reality works as a single consciousness directed by her. The infant’s unconscious, unprepared for the split that will occur in the Mirror stage, desires to keep mother and child/Alice and Wonderland “Exactly as we were” (Carroll, 135). Nevertheless, Alice progresses further and further to her awakening, her narrative Mirror Stage. The poem ends with a secret: it is perhaps the silencing of Wonderland’s false language (the indecipherable language of the unconscious), which will make way for Alice’s passage into the Symbolic (the language of identity within the real world). Indeed, Alice herself accepts the meaninglessness of speech in Wonderland. In response to the trial poem, rather than attempting to find meaning as she has been throughout the novel, Alice states: “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it” (Carroll, 136). In this way, she turns her back on the nonsensical language of the dreamworld (or the unconscious) and instead paves her journey towards the Symbolic. This is emphasised in her weighted use of the I in this statement, which can be read as the declaration of the Lacanian ‘I’: the subject of the Symbolic.

**Note 1: I’m aware there are several holes in this argument – the main one being the writing of the narrative through language that Alice has not yet got if she is in fact a metaphorical Lacanian infant. BUT, the fact that the narrator is third person could remedy this issue?

**Note 2: While I did not have the scope to cover it in this short blog, the oral fixation throughout the novel could be related to the audible production of language through the mouth.

**Note 3: On revision, I also think the argument surrounding the flexibility of space could be developed further through a discussion on time. The connection between time and space is apparent in the cyclical nature of time (“‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles’ […] ‘But what happens when you come to the beginning again?’” [Carroll, 77]). The tea-party scene is exemplary of this connection. Time goes round and round, just as the Hatter, Hare and Dormouse move around the table in space. Constantly beginning over and over again could be indicative of the way in which Alice is caught in her metaphorical infancy. She grows physically, but not psychologically or linguistically. Therefore, the movement being explored here is a circular one and never goes forward. (At least, not until the very end, when Alice grows/matures uncontrollably, at which point the dream ends and Alice graduates from the childhood panorama that is Wonderland. Again, this was not within the scope of the trial poem and could not be thoroughly discussed within this entry (although – while a stretch – an argument could be made for circularity in terms of the trial poem’s dogmatic rhyme scheme and the sense of going in circles from one personal pronoun to the next).

Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Puffin Books, 2008. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1169-1181. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytical Experience”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1163-1169. Print.

Academic Essays: Narrative Abortion & The Fictions of Language in J.M. Coetzee and Pat Barker (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Narrative Abortion: The Fictions of Language in J.M. Coetzee and Pat Barker

In her work on the social construction of oral history, Elizabeth Tonkin states: “We inhabit language and language inhabits us. A main means of communication, we can’t think without it, and while it has many rules that can’t be broken if we are to communicate at all, there are also rules that can be bent, so that skills in playing with language are everywhere recognised as artistry” (Tonkin 75). It is Tonkin’s notion of artistry that forms the bedrock of this argument. If to use language is to create art, then everything delivered through that language becomes a fiction of subjectivity; the subject, of course, being whoever is doing the speaking, or the listening. This means that the various gifts of language – communicating, recording and story-telling – are deeply embedded cells within this accepted fiction. My concern here is what happens when those who record – or, more specifically, those who use language to establish history and to deepen the relief of memory – come to the realisation that their tool of recording (language) is in fact a tool of fictionalisation. In other words, to put history or memory into writing is to construct an artificial signifier in place of the event or thing itself. Contemporary historical novelists such as J.M. Coetzee and Pat Barker seem to understand this and I argue that the ultimate outcome of this realisation is narrative abortion. Examining Coetzee’s novel Foe and Barker’s The Eye in the Door, it becomes clear that characters in both history and fiction are brought into existence only through observation. Without record, without language, they would cease to exist at all. Once acknowledged, characters and events are metafictionally exposed by their authors as constructs. Language inhabits not only the author’s ability to record, but record’s ability to be. It is because of this realisation that narrative abortion occurs. This is not to say that these characters or events are themselves fictitious, but rather, that they can only be depicted through their own narrativisation. Thus, the operation is abandoned as unworthy of that which it attempts to convey.

In nineteen-thirty-five, physicist Erwin Schrödinger made public his thought experiment that is today known as ‘Schrödinger’s cat’. The experiment involved placing a cat in a box with a vile of poison. Being unobserved, the wave function of the cat is increased to infinite numbers in that it could be alive or dead (or, technically speaking, not even in the box anymore, as quantum physics would not entirely rule this out, merely consider it as highly improbable). After the elapse of some time, this creates a paradox: the unobserved cat is temporarily both simultaneously alive and dead. Only when it is observed is the wave function of the cat dramatically decreased to just one possibility. It exists, either dead or alive, based fully on the observation that has been made. Thus, by Schrödinger’s logic, only when something is observed can it exist in one moment in time and space. The same can be argued of human history. Jacques Derrida states that: “There is nothing outside of the text (there is not outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte)” (Derrida 158). If this is true, then language – as a system for reality, as a signifier, or just simply as a physical text – becomes the life-giving observer to all of human history, which cannot be recorded outside of it. Only through language can history and memory be brought into a comprehendible existence. This is true of historical figures and fictional characters also and is exemplified in the construction of Coetzee’s Susan Barton. Barton’s existence seems characterised by the attachment of a weighty question mark. Her very being is repeatedly destabilised in the novel and Susan wonders if she is a ghost: “And I bring these women trailing after me, ghosts haunting a ghost” (Coetzee 139). If she does exist, it is in a fragmentary fashion, as seen in the ‘second’ Susan Barton who claims to be her daughter. This figure tells her: “My name is Susan Barton” (Coetzee 91). Thus, whether or not this is true, the reader is presented with multiple Susan Bartons. It becomes clear, however, who the ‘real’ Barton is through the character of Foe. Only through Foe’s observation can Barton exist at all. She tells him: “Will you not bear it in mind, however, that my life is drearily suspended till your writing is done?” (Coetzee 63). As such, Barton is written into existence through Foe’s acknowledgement of her and her story. He becomes the God-like creator of who she is and Barton herself comments that to eat from Foe’s table is to eat “The food of gods” (Coetzee 127). Moreover, despite her attempted refusal to be crafted in this way, Barton seems to acknowledge the encroachment of Foe’s observation (his story) in the ongoing construction of her existence. She defiantly states: “All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world” (Coetzee 131). And yet, the existence Susan wants to tell of herself – her life on the island with Cruso and Friday – has been expressed only because she was telling it to Foe, her vital acknowledger. Thus, she is “father-born” at the hands of Foe’s artistry (Coetzee 91). Observational acknowledgement is something she cannot get from either Cruso (whose history is not documented and therefore non-existent) and Friday (who can not speak; whose observation is undetermined due to his own inarticulation). Without Foe, therefore, Barton will become a ghost of who she is. She will suffer the “the pain of lack” that her spectral double suffers (Coetzee 91): the lack of substance, of selfhood, of existence. Observation and composition become intertwined and provide the only means to self-definition.

The same can be said of Barker’s Billy Prior. As with Barton before him, Prior’s existence is destabilised in the novel through the prevalence of an alternate self; a “co-consciousness” that is reflective of Jekyll and Hyde (Barker 143). His initial disturbance with the haunting possibility of a human eye watching him becomes all the more poignant when he is proven justified. The human eye watching him is in fact his own. His ‘inner’ Eye. Prior blatantly forms the connection between the Eye and the ‘I’. He tells Rivers: “‘eye’ was stabbing myself in the ‘I’” (Barker 75). In Freudian terms, the ‘I’ in this instance is Prior-the-Ego and the Eye is Prior-the-Id. Prior’s repression of the Id and the things the Eye (of the Id) sees is to protect the reality (or fantasies) of the Ego (the “I”). It results in the shutting of the ‘door’ between the two. The door acts as both a symbol of the repression of the Id, as well as a barrier (a split) between the Ego and Id and Prior’s two personalities. After undercutting the very existence of Prior as a character in this way, Barker then metafictionally calls attention to the reader’s role in acknowledging his existence. Without the reader’s observation, Prior cannot exist in much the same way Barton cannot exist without Foe. Thus the act of reading becomes the definitive observation. Prior is being acknowledged and it is by the Eye of the reader, who becomes the necessary witness to his struggle against post-war obliteration. The reader breaches the barrier (the door) between reality and fiction and becomes the Eye of not only Prior’s existence, but the historical existence of war and all the individuals that comprise it. Prior is tormented by “The constant surveillance” (Barker 75). The surveillance in this case is the twenty-first century perspective; both that of the author and that of the reader. It is the way in which we are viewing characters such as Prior through a lens, like a peephole in a door through time. Our surveillance ensures his existence.

Only after this vital observation has been made can a moment of narrative realisation occur. It becomes clear that that which has been observed only exists because it has been artificially crafted through language. It has been represented in fiction and has no reality outside of that fiction. Thus, ironically, the observable has been fictionalised because of language’s attempt to capture its reality. Frederic Jameson seems to support this and writes: “History is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but [. ] as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and [. ] our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious” (Jameson 35). Jameson here asserts that without narrative, there is no accessible history. Yet to narrativise is to commence in a process of selection. In this way, language becomes a tool of conquest; our language is that of the victor and, as Winston Churchill is famously quoted, history is the narrative of victors (Rodwell 131). This means, as Don Trent Jacobs points out, that: “The language of conquest is ultimately a language of deceit” (Jacobs 18). Deceit is found in the deliverance. Therefore, what is left out is just as important as what is left in (perhaps more important) because it deepens the relief of that which is selected. The mysterious history of Friday, for example, is inaccessible because it is untellable. It resists its own fictionalisation through art and consequently, avoids becoming a story of deceit, told in a language of conquest. Barton states: “[..] many stories can be told of Friday’s tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday who is mute. The true story will not be heard until by art we have found a means of giving a voice to Friday” (Coetzee 118). On the one hand, Barton acknowledges that to tell history is to create art. On the other, she highlights the importance of what is not being told. Who Friday is, what is history is, remains a truthful absence because it is never told. As Marc Augé states, “tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are” (Augé 18). The wave function of Friday’s past and all his memories are infinite, undetermined and, consequently, all completely true and false at the same time. All this because his history lies in a state of oblivion.

Barton herself feels a compulsion to narrate and questions her own process of fictionalisation in the text. In addressing Foe, she seems to address the reader directly: “[. ] you have me under your eyes, you are not blind [. ] Listen! [. ] Why do I speak, to whom do I speak, when there is no need to speak?” (Coetzee 133). It is here that narrative realisation can be seen. The character within the novel is metafictionally aware of the fact that she has been “called into the world from a different order” (Coetzee 135). She now knows of her own fictional status. In writing to Foe, she realises that the ‘you’ she has been referring to is also the reader and her author; a point made unclear in the opening of the text. The sight of Friday’s missing tongue is an abhorrence to Barton, a threat because of what it represents: silence. She showcases a subconscious awareness that in silence she ceases to exist. Barton fears that: “a yet more hideous mutilation might be thrust upon my sight” (Coetzee 119). This is the mutilation of her reality; the moment of epiphany when she realises her own fictitious existence in language and the fact that to be truthful is to be silent, to sink into Friday’s oblivion. Everything she truly is cannot be told and thus she will exist in fiction exclusively or not at all.

Like Friday’s tongue, Prior’s blackouts pose a threat: “The gaps in his memory were increasing both in length and frequency, and they terrified him. Like the undiscovered territory on medieval maps, Rivers said. Where unknown, there place monsters. But a better analogy, because closer to his own experience, was No Man’s Land” (Barker 176). This shared threat is that of obliteration. Prior is terrified because he has no memory of these blackouts and as a result, cannot historicise them; he cannot narrate them. Without narration, they cease to exist, even in the context of fiction. Therefore, Billy Prior does not exist in these gaps. In the unknowable of that which is not recorded, he temporarily becomes ‘No Man’ before being brought back to narrative life as a Dr. Jekyll character. After all, being a “deeply divided man” is better than being no man at all (Barker 141). And yet, at the same time, the blackouts also help to constitute the ‘reality’ of Prior in those moments in which he does exist: “The definition of oblivion as loss of remembrance takes on another meaning as soon as one perceives it as a component of memory itself” (Augé 15). Prior’s fragmented existence paradoxically relies on the blackouts to constitute his history, his memories and thus who he is in the given moment. Further, Prior acknowledges that all these components of his being cannot exist outside of language. In a similar fashion to Barton’s metafictional realisation, Prior acknowledges that his existence is dependent on the language that fictionalises him. The aforementioned Eye of the reader watches Prior from behind, fully loaded with the contextual knowledge of the war and the collective narrative of his time. Prior knows he is being observed: “Sitting with his back to it was worse, since there’s nothing more alarming than being watched from behind. And when he sat sideways, he had the irritating impression of somebody perpetually trying to attract his attention” (Barker 40). The metafictional awareness of this observation, which Barker lends to Prior (as Coetzee did to Barton), provides a comment on his somewhat resentful understanding of its necessity. The twenty-first century, post world-war Eye is the Žižekian “big Other” to which Prior will always perform because he has been artificially written by the observation of that Eye and without it, he could not exist (Wood 60). Prior’s blackouts and Barker’s choice to use these gaps act as metafictional tools in her text. They are an unequivocal discussion on the importance of that which is not narrated; a suggestion that the erasure of history is potentially the only means of keeping its reality in tact.

Indeed, even the word history is indicative of its narrativisation. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, provides the following definition of history, n.: “A narration of incidents, esp. (in later use) professedly true ones; a narrative, a story. Now arch., Caribbean, or as applied to a story or tale so long and full of detail as to resemble a history in sense” (OED 1b). What is interesting about this definition is the poignancy of phrases such as ‘professedly true’, ‘story’ and ‘to resemble a history in sense’. All of these align to given an ambiguous grounding to the factual execution of history. By these standards, it seems history is a mere fiction that need only imitate a truth, but not be a truth itself. Indeed, ‘history’ cannot be written without ‘story’. Thus, in their metafictional exposure of these characters’ fictionality, both Coetzee and Barker make undisguised acknowledgements of their own artifice. As David Attwell contends, they provide “[. ] discourses whose purpose is to attempt to realize the identities of the subjects concerned through their emergence into language [. ]” (Attwell 594). In short, Coetzee and Barker as authors accept that to narrate, to record in language, is to write fiction and create art.

It is in the realisation of language’s fictitious effect that narrative abortion finally occurs. Firstly, there is the literal abandonment of Barton’s narrative in Foe when the narrative voice shifts to an unknown speaker who does in fact transform Barton into a ghost by echoing her haunting words: “The staircase is dark and mean” (Coetzee 113, 153). Thus, this turn in narration means that Barton has at last been written out of existence and is a mere spectre in the remaining chapter; she haunts its pages in impression, but never in substance. Moreover, this abortion seems prophesised earlier in the text, when Barton and Friday come across “the body, stillborn or perhaps stifled, all bloody with the afterbirth, of a little girl, perfectly formed [. ] barely an hour or two in the world” (Coetzee 105). In retrospect, it becomes clear that this aborted child was Susan Barton herself, another ‘double’ that predicts her ultimate abandonment. Like the child, Barton is a fully formed being, stifled through her inability to truthfully tell her story. Or, she was possibly a stillborn from the beginning, in that she was always doomed to non-existence because she is unable to escape her own artistry. But more than this, language itself seems to be aborted with the closing narrator, whom one could argue is Coetzee himself, the “conjurer” of the different order whom Foe spoke of (Coetzee 135). In the final paragraphs of his novel, Coetzee abandons language almost entirely. He states: “this is not a place of words [. ] It is the home of Friday” (157). A novel is a place in which stories are told and yet Friday’s story is never heard at all. The home of Friday is a place of inarticulation. Coetzee suggests that the novel, therefore, does not serve narrative, but instead serves the dynamics of meaninglessness. In the act of articulation, meaning itself is lost. The moment the narrative is produced, that which it signifies sinks into oblivion and is instead replaced by a word, an artificial and empty stand-in. Words, therefore, are mere impressions of the thing itself, as Barton has been an impression also; a ghost. Words create an etymological diffusion of meaning. Coetzee is recognizing the falsity of language and the façade of meaning in which it is attired. By drawing attention to the artificiality of language and meaning, Coetzee acknowledges his own work as an artifice and metafictionally invites the reader to do the same. In this way, inarticulation – the loss of history, memory and record – is the only truth. Meaning is everything that cannot be expressed and thus Friday’s home of that which is unspoken becomes the home of both the reader and the writer. The writer, because he cannot faithfully deliver meaning and the reader, because he cannot objectively decipher it. Meaning is lost in both the act of writing and the act of reading and so Coetzee’s text becomes an abortive narrative, obliterated through its own deliverance and closing in this abandonment, offering the text up to the reality of meaninglessness.

A similar process can be seen in Barker’s novel, when Sassoon comments: “I keep thinking how big it is, the war, and how impossible it is to write about [. ] now I think I can see all of it, vast armies, flares going up, millions of people, millions, millions” (Barker 220). Here, Sassoon expresses many of the anxieties that seem to plague Barker as an author of World War One literature, the most notable being: how does one capture the immensity of war and trauma in language? Ultimately, like Coetzee, Barker implies that one cannot; that language, in its system of signalling, its system of impressionism, can do little more than give a sense of what once was, but never fully encapsulate it, never fully reanimate it. The meaning of war seems lost in the language of war literature itself. As Manning points out: “It’s. ungraspable [. ] I don’t mean you can’t grasp it because you haven’t been there. I mean, I can’t grasp it and I have been there. I can’t get my mind round it” (Barker 169). Manning’s strained words here act as a reminder that the issue at hand is not Barker’s inability to fully capture war experience, but rather, language’s inability to do so. Manning cannot exhaustively express his experiences because he is required to do so through the insufficient medium of language. Indeed, he cannot even process it in his thoughts because, returning to Elizabeth Tonkin’s opening assertion, thoughts are themselves formed in language. And so, the reality that one cannot record history sufficiently through language is made to sting acutely and this realisation is abortively left hanging in the air without resolution by the end of the novel. To do one’s duty as an historical fiction writer would, technically, mean resurrecting the experience of war in a ‘real’ sense, which is impossible through the fictionalisation of language. Therefore, like Prior, it seems Barker simply can’t bring herself to say “I did my duty” at the novel’s close (Barker 266). Instead, her final actions can be read through those of Billy Prior, in that they both “watched for a while, then turned away” (Barker 266). These are the final words of the novel and so it concludes in an act of abortion, both of history and of the language that engulfs its unavoidable fictionalisation.

And so, in reflection, it is evident that both J.M. Coetzee’s Foe and Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door abort the struggle. They observe their historical subjects, fictionalise them through narrative and when this is metafictionally realised, these historical novels undergo a swift and final abortion.

Works Cited
Attwell, David. “The Problem of History in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee”. Poetics Today 11:3 (Autumn 1990): 579-615. JSTOR.

Augé, Marc. Oblivion. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Print.

Barker, Pat. The Eye in the Door. London: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Coetzee, J.M. Foe. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “That Dangerous Supplement”. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. 141-164. E-book.

“History”. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 6 December 2012.

Jacobs, Don Trent. “Introduction”. Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti- Indianism in America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. 18-28. E-book.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act”. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981. 17-102. Print.

Rodwell, Grant. “Whose History? Historical Fiction and the Discipline of History in the Classroom: Varying Views of the Past”. Whose History?: Engaging History Students Through Historical Fiction. North Terrace, South Australia: University of Adelaide Press, 2013. 129-149. E-book.

Tonkin, Elizabeth. “Temporality: Narrators and Their Times”. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 66-82. Print.

Wood, Kelsey. “For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor”. Žižek: A Reader’s Guide. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2012. 55-64. E-book.

Academic Essays: Blackface Minstrelsy & the Destabilisation of Racial Identity in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Blackface Minstrelsy and the Destabilisation of Racial Identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In her work on the legacy of blackface minstrelsy, Alice Maurice comments: “In place of a simplified, nostalgic patriotism tied to blackface and entertainment, multiple forms of identity exchange are imagined […] What is on display here is the endless exchange itself, the ecstatic spectacle of the individual dissolving into the mass” (Maurice 218). Taking from Maurice’s focus on the exchangeability of identity, I argue that blackface minstrelsy destabilises representations of racial identity. With reference to the 1853 play Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is the contention of this essay that both African-American and Caucasian identities alike are presented as performative and, also, subordinate to the dominant narratives of western civilisation. This can be explored in three major ways: firstly, through the theme of dislocation; secondly, through the marketability of human bodies; and finally, through the pervading religious narrative of Christianity.

The first point to consider in this discussion is the nature of the American identity, which Todd Kennedy insists is an identity whose genesis is founded in its own dislocation. In his consideration of French-American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Kennedy writes: “Crèvecœur effectively defined American identity as being forged by means of our shared uprootedness and sought to unify the nation through its disunity […] Lacking the tyranny of traditional ‘roots’, Americans constructed a concept of self that is manifested in time and space, rather than in shared psychology […]” (Kennedy 59). Kennedy’s emphasis on the importance of spatiality suggests that geographic dislocation is an inherent quality in the American identity of ‘disunity’. It is this dislocation that is essential to understanding and thus destabilizing racial identities in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. George, for example, epitomises the African-American displacement experienced in the text. He tells Mr. Wilson: “[…] what country have I, or any one like me, born of a slave mother, sir? I haven’t any country, any more than I have any legal father!” (Uncle Tom 15). What is keenly experienced in this outburst is George’s inherent sense of removal in the construction of his own subjectivity. His heritage is one that has been forcefully removed from Africa in the slave-trade and so he is both homeless and fatherless. Yet, what George calls attention to here is in fact his own ‘Americanness’; his place within the dislocation and disunity of the American identity. This would suggest that the American identity overrides that of the African-American. More than George’s own feelings about his home (or lack thereof), however, is the geographic movement of characters within the play, who spatially scour the American landscape in pursuit of a somewhat Babylonian promise of the North. Upon taking flight, Eliza states: “I’m going to try and find Canada […] try and meet me in the kingdom of Heaven” (Uncle Tom 11). This seems an unequivocal alignment between the promise of the North and a place of divinity. If one chooses to invest in this alignment, then, what becomes evident is that Eliza’s journeying to Canada is a journey towards heavenly sanctity and stability. She is searching for the definitiveness of an African-American home. Only in doing so can she subsequently solidify her own place within it; her own African-American identity.

This perpetual movement, this dislocation, in the African-American identity is reflected perfectly in the deliverance of blackface minstrelsy. In the case of blackface minstrel performers, the relocation of the black identity moved beyond both Africa and the South; instead, it was given its new definition in a human body, in what Eric Lott describes as: “[…] the process by which black people were divested of control over elements of their culture and generally over their own cultural representation […]” (The Seeming Counterfeit 226). With white men assuming the hyperbolic stereotypes of African-American culture, the identity of the black man was dislocated once more and placed in the body and language of a white man. The problem posed by this relocation, however, is that the aforementioned representation metafictionally exposes itself as performative. It draws attention to its own artificiality and, consequently, the artificiality of the imposed ideologies surrounding African-American identity. In his work on the black psyche in western civilisation, philosopher and academic Cornel West writes: “To put it bluntly, every major institution in American society […] attempted to exclude black people from the human family in the name of white-supremacist ideology. This unrelenting assault on black humanity produced the fundamental condition of black culture – that of black invisibility and namelessness” (Cornel West Reader 101). Blackface minstrelsy encapsulated this exclusion in both its assumption of supposed African-American culture, as well as its dehumanisation of black characters. Haley, for example, remarks: “[…] you look after these nigger creatures as if they wer’ real human beings. You don’t know ‘em as I does. They arn’t got no feelings, more nor a alligator” (Uncle Tom 6). In this statement, Haley strips African-American slaves of their humanity and reduces them to a level of primitive animality. But what draws attention to the irony of blackface minstrelsy is West’s definition of black culture; the ‘invisibility’ and ‘namelessness’ that condition it. In dislocating the African-American identity, the Caucasian identity becomes misplaced also. Minstrels assume the face – the identity – of another race and as a result, they make their own ethnicity invisible and their own identity nameless as actors. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George pretends to be a white man. He dresses as “a gentleman, accompanied by a SLAVE” (Uncle Tom 14). This masquerade can thus be broken down as follows: a white identity assuming a black identity, assuming a white identity. The confusion and somewhat carnivalesque nature of this depiction calls into question the stability of racial identity itself. The body becomes little more than a canvas upon which a race may be painted – may be artificially constructed. This realisation consequently fragments the human body in its scramble for racial clarification. It falls into utter disunity in its role as racial signifier. It is in this disunity, however, that one may find an identity to subordinate all racial notions of self: going back to Todd Kennedy’s assertions, this is of course the American identity. Thus, racial identities within the play are dissembled and the patchwork reunification of the body comes about only through the unifying disunity of the American self.

Along with the uprootedness of the American concept of self, racial identities are further destabilized in the text through the dominant capitalist narrative instilled throughout. The African-American identity, for example, is undercut by its marketability as a commercial commodity. Both the individual and collective black narratives are written over by the dominant capitalist narrative of western society. Thus, the dehumanisation of black bodies discussed earlier comes to the fore from the beginning of the play, with Haley’s inspection of Uncle Tom’s physical condition. He demands: “Let’s look at your teeth, old boy. I say, friend, (to SHELBY) I don’t care if I trade for that nigger” (Uncle Tom 5). Here, Haley speaks of Tom as though he were a horse at market. Tom is reduced to the level of inventory in a capitalist commerce. The same can be witnessed in the auction scene of the play:

THOMPSON Well then, sell this little vagabond—I
can make nothing of her; I bought the little wretch as
a boy, at Marsden’s sale, and never discovered my
mistake ’till I got home.
AUC (to TOPSY) You’re a gal, I calculate?
TOPSY I don’no–
THOMPSON Speak more respectful, or I’ll have you
TOPSY You’re right, I guess.
AUC What’s your name?
TOPSY Don’no—but if mas’r calls me right, tan’t a
pretty ‘un.
AUC Are you a Christian?
TOPSY Don’no.
AUC Not know your religion!
TOPSY Oh yes, massa, I’m of the nigger sort
(Uncle Tom 20).

In this scene, Topsy seems to have been stripped of everything that makes her who she is; from gender, to name, to religion. This dehumanisation of black slaves within the play means that the idea of an African-American identity becomes somewhat fictionalised through its status as something to be bought and sold on a market. Just as the slaves’ physical abilities are being sold within the context of the play to work, so too are tropes of ‘slave/black culture’ being sold outside the context of the play to entertain[1]. Speaking about the popularity of blackface minstrelsy, Eric Lott writes: “Part of a general emergence of artisan culture into national view, the minstrel vogue, along with mass political parties and the penny press, helped to create or organize a new public whose tastes the popular amusements now represented for the first time” (Love and Theft 64-65). Part of these tastes included the comedy and music of blackface minstrelsy. Singing and dancing is introduced in the very first scene of the play, which opens with:

Our work is done—our toil is o’er,
Massa says we work no more
While de moon is peeping;
Sing and prance, let us dance,
While de world is sleeping.
Uncle Tom, Uncle Tom, Aunty Chloe, and Joe,
Come along, join the song, and hear the merry banjo
(Uncle Tom 4).

These elements of music and buffoonery in the blackface minstrelsy culture are akin to the representation of ‘bling’ in contemporary hip-hop music – what Nathanael West refers to as the “paraphernalia of suffering” (Miss Lonelyhearts 30); cultural tropes to be sold to the public. It is in this very sale, however, that the black identity is also sold, as it propagates a hyperbolic rendition of the nature of the African-American identity. This is something Lott has described as the “business of staging or manufacturing ‘race’, that very enterprise also involved it in a carnivalizing of race […]” (The Seeming Counterfeit 226). And so the African-American identity becomes fictionalised and destabilised as it is produced, manipulated and manufactured by western capitalism.

The same, however, can be said of the Caucasian identity in the meantime. If a fiction of the African-American identity is being sold in tickets at the theatre, so too is white identity being sold in exchange for that very masquerade. White minstrels essentially sold their racialised bodies to the public in a manner that is little above the production of the golliwog doll: a commodity of mass consumerism. More specifically, they bargained their faces, the masks of their racial identities. One may even argue that the African-American identity became assimilated to Caucasian identity in the realm of segregation; if for no other reason, then merely because it had entered the body of white entertainment in the first place: “The salient sign of the black person’s humanity – indeed, the only sign for [South Carolina senator John C.] Calhoun – would be the mastering of the very essence of Western civilization, of the very foundation of the complex fiction upon which white Western culture had been constructed” (Gates Jr. 2431). However, what is being argued here is not the amalgamation of one racial identity with another, but rather, the fictional state of both racial ideologies. Blackface minstrelsy was a racial ideology, which had to be performed by actors on a stage, not merely enacted in day-to-day life. While this performance of racial identity became a commodity in itself, even more specifically linked to the dogmatic narrative of capitalism was the donning of commercial paraphernalia: clothes. Costumes and cosmetics were the capitalist means of performing a race[2]. While on stage, minstrels performed the role of black race via costumes and blackface makeup and yet, offstage, those same actors performed the role of white race in the same way. Sujata Iyengar likens this use of fancy-dress to cross-dressing of the Renaissance and states that: “We might call such painting ‘blushface’ make-up, or gender masquerade, by analogy with blackface make-up, or racial masquerade. Blushface and blackface could work together on the […] stage to create and ironize fictions of sexuality and power” (Iyengar 136). The irony that Iyengar refers to here seems to be the belief in a constructed identity at all, be it built around a Butlerean notion of gender, social power or – in the case of this argument – race. The essence of this irony can be captured in the later performances of African-American minstrels after the turn of the century. Performers such as Bert Williams (1874-1922) showcased what was supposedly his own racial identity, while in the meantime, was initially perceived to have been white beneath the theatrical facade. Reflecting the character of George, what was produced was a black identity pretending to be a white actor, pretending to be a black man[3]. Once again, racial ideology and the archetypes of racial identity became not only ironical, but utterly fragmented in the performance itself.

The final aspect to consider in this discussion is the way in which racial identities become subverted to the dominance of Christian narrative. In their work on representations of a black Christ, Laura A. Reese, Roland E. Brown and James David Ivers support the statement that: “Those who imagine a black Christ reject the idea that the only way that African Americans can approach God is through the conduit supplied by the dominant group, that being the image of a white Christ […] The black-Christ centered community is said to have its genesis in enslavement with the subsequent struggle to gain individual and group recognition and autonomy from the white body of Christ” (Reese 522). The importance these authors place on the depiction of the black Christ underwrites the significance of the portrayal of Uncle Tom within the perimeters of the play. As the figure of Christ sacrifices his body for the redemption of mankind’s sins, so too Uncle Tom sacrifices his body to physical labour for what he considers the greater good of the social order. He states: “No, no! I ain’t going; let Eliza go, it’s her right […] If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why let me be sold; I spose I can b’ar as well as any on ‘em. Mas’r always found me on the spot—he always will. I never have broke trust, nor used my pass contrary to my word—and I never will. It’s better for me alone to go than to break up the place and sell all” (Uncle Tom 11). This consideration for the community plays into both the construct of racial identity, as well as the construct of religious identity. Tom, therefore, becomes equated with a white Christ. Indeed, his death at the end of the play has resonances with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as both perish with the objective to save future generations:

“TOM. It will [be well], it will—but not here—in another place—where we shall all serve one blessed Mas’r, who will care for good white man and the good black man all as one. (GEORGE sobs) Don’t feel so ! mis’r George—gib my lub to my dear old ooman, and if you can make the children of poor Uncle Tom free, you will! (GEORGE wrings his head) Missy Cassy—be good, and in your last hour may you be as I am—happy—bless you !—bless you, George Harris !—bless you, dear—little—mas’r George ! (kisses his foreheadhe is supported while he places his hands together in prayerhis head falls backslow music) TABLEAU” (Uncle Tom 30).

As can be seen in the closing words of the play, like Christ, Tom embodies a prophetic voice with which he blesses the characters. He also concludes his life in a state of prayer and with the essence of Christian purity. Who exactly the children of ‘poor Uncle Tom’ are is a question that begs further interest. On the one hand, Tom’s African-American identity has been usurped by the white-Christ identity. On the other, the usurpation could be seen in reverse: has the white-Christ figure been redefined on African-American terms? If so, it could be the foundation of images seen in African-American poetry less than seventy years later, such as in Langston Hughes’s poem “Christ in Alabama”, in which he opens with the controversial statement: “Christ is a Nigger” (Hughes 269). Regardless, the image of these children opens the doors of ambiguity. They could be the children of the African-American identity; they could be children of Christianity; or, equally, keeping with Tom’s namesake, they could be the future generations of America and a part of the aforementioned American identity of disunity. What becomes important here is that the figure of Uncle Tom feeds into and is produced by all of these narratives of identity. In this alignment, all at once, Tom is showcased as the figure of America, a Negro, the black Christ and, potentially, the white Christ also. Thus, through the pervading religious narrative of Christianity, Uncle Tom breaks down not only religious ideology itself, but racial ideology also. Like Schrödinger’s cat, the wave function of Uncle Tom’s identity is given limitless potentiality. The portrayal of this character surmises the infinite number of identities he can perform, all of which become a fiction through the undefined exclusivity of just one.

The same can be argued of blackface minstrel performers themselves. They adopted a racial identity as their own while on stage, only to resume a second offstage. Moreover, in playing Uncle Tom specifically, minstrels automatically adopted all the identities that are encumbered in that very character. Whether Caucasian or African-American, blackface minstrel performers were forced to look at themselves and be looked at in a fashion that resembles W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of the double-consciousness. He writes: “[…] the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro […]” (Du Bois 12). The very actors who participated in blackface minstrelsy required at least a sense of this double-consciousness. They took on the role of Uncle Tom and of America, as well as the simultaneous role of both the black and white Christ. Their professional identity as racialised clown was defined by the ‘eyes of others’, which watch in ‘amused contempt and pity’. This would mean that even Caucasian minstrels bear that same double-consciousness, which Du Bois argues is so inherent to the African-American psyche. If this is the case, then that very psyche crosses racial boarders and thus, breaks down racial identity altogether.

Eric Lott refers to blackface minstrelsy as “a complex dialectic: an unsteady but continual oscillation between fascination with ‘blackness’ and fearful ridicule of it, underscored but not necessarily determined by an oscillation between sympathetic belief in blackface’s authenticity and ironic distance from its counterfeit representations” (The Seeming Counterfeit 227). The ironic distance from counterfeit representations that Lott speaks of is the fact that blackface minstrelsy failed to propagate archetypal racial identities. The artificiality of these representations and indeed, of racial ideology, would not and could not permit this. And so, ironically, as has been argued, blackface minstrelsy such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin succeeded in the destabilisation of these racial identities. It did this, as outlined above, through dislocation, commodification and finally, through the existence of multiple identities, such as those surrounding the figure of Christ.

Works Cited
Anonymous. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York, 1853. Victorian Plays Project @ National University of Ireland. Web.  3 November 2013.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008. Print.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 2430-2438. Print.

Hughes, Langston. “Christ in Alabama”. Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond. Ed.

Anne P. Price. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003. 269. Print.

Ieyngar, Sujata. “Whiteness Visible”. Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Colour in Early Modern England. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 101-170. Print.

Kennedy, Todd. Hitting the American Highway: The Ontology of the Hobo-hero in Twentieth- century American Culture. South Carolina, ProQuest, 2007. 59-95. Print.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

Lott, Eric. “‘The Seeming Counterfeit’: Racial Politics and Early Blackface Minstrelsy”. American Quarterly 43:2 (June 1991): 223-254. JSTOR.

Maurice, Alice. “From New Deal to No Deal: Blackface Minstrelsy, Bamboozled and Reality Television”. 191-222. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. Ed. Stephen Johnson. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Print.

Reese, Laura A., Roland E. Brown and James David Ivers. “‘Some Children See Him…’: Political Participation and the Black Christ”. Political Behaviour 29:4 (December 2007): 517-537. JSTOR.

West, Cornel. “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization”. The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999. 87-118. Print.

West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts and the Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2009. Print.

[1] This trend continues today with the use of figures such as Uncle Ben for marketing.
[2] Race constructed by means of cosmetics is a controversial issue today. The Guardian newspaper has documented the grievances of black women in the UK who complain of a lack of makeup products designed for their [contd. p.7] own skin tones. Performance of one’s own racial identity, in other words, remains a troubled issue.  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/14/makeup-for-black-women-high-street
[3] While this essay does not have the scope to cover this issue further, it may be of interest to note the counterparts of such performers. Other versions and inversions of the Bert Williams dynamic exist: modern musician Marshall Mathers (stage name ‘Eminem’) is a white man adopting the idiosyncrasies of performative black culture, while showcasing an awareness of his own whiteness through limited self-censorship concerning matters of race. Similarly, the character of Epicoene in Ben Jonson’s Renaissance play Epicoene, or, The Silent Woman is a boy playing a girl who is, in fact, a boy.

Academic Essays: Attacks on Time in Joseph Conrad and E.L. Doctorow (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Attacking Time: The Fear of Modernity in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks

In her conclusion on Victorian writings about risk, Elaine Freedgood asks the following question: “The need to be relieved of the permanence of risk has been an often-neglected or contradicted feature of the landscape of modernity: does the very phenomenology of modernity include an acceptance of risk as ineradicable?” (Freedgood 171). This consideration would seem to suggest a late-Victorian anxiety surrounding the arrival of modernity at the end of the nineteenth-century. It questions the enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for progress and underwrites a fear-fuelled wish to remain in the given moment. It is this very anxiety that forms the bedrock of the following argument. Literary texts set at this transitional historical moment, such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks, are indicative of the existence of anxieties regarding the encroachment of modernity. I argue that both novels showcase not only a reluctance to progress, but also a desire to freeze time. Ultimately, however, the arrow of time is an unstoppable force that will not yield to these desires. Time will inevitably continue to move forward.

The first argument to consider in this discussion is the authority of Conrad and Doctorow’s narrators; both of whom betray the initial indication of anxiety. Edward Said emphasises the importance of Conrad’s narrator in stating: “Every experience begins for [Conrad] in the presence of speaker to hearer and vice versa” (Said 132). Here, Said seems to claim that experience – or perhaps, reality – is often defined by the position of the narrative voice. Moreover, he insists on the way in which Conrad gives unparalleled power to his speaker. He likens the interaction between narrator and reader to “an inert substance like silver given power over life. Such a substance is felt mistakenly to be capable of embodying the visible, the timeless, the unmediated possession of all reality” (Said 132). It is interesting that Said should choose to group reality with timelessness in his assertion, as Conrad’s omniscient narrator seems to find his[1] power in this very timelessness, thus enabling him to enforce his own design on reality within the text. The speaker’s authority comes from being able to be in two places at one time. This is exemplified on a microcosmic level perfectly when Mr. Verloc prepares for bed. It is stated that Verloc “pulled up violently the venetian blind […] a fragile film of glass stretched between him and the enormity of cold, black, wet, muddy, inhospitable accumulation of bricks, slates and stones” (Conrad 42). Here, the speaker is given two distinct positions on either side of Verloc’s window. One the one hand, he is permitted into the intimacy of Verloc’s bedroom, the private domain. At the same time, however, the narrator is capable of detailing the aesthetics of the city, from coldness to wetness. These are things that neither Verloc nor the reader can feel, as Verloc remains behind his glass pane and the reader remains outside the world of the narrative. In this way, the narrator displays his ability to manipulate time. He has defied it by spatially inhabiting two places in one moment. Time, therefore, is presented as artificial and easily corrupted and its authority in the novel is usurped by the dictates of narrative voice. This manipulation governs not only this one scene, but the structure of the plot in its entirety.

Ossipon states in chapter four that “There’s a man blown up in Greenwich Park this morning” (Conrad 52). With the presumption that this man was Verloc, the novel then continues in its established linear progression. It is only in chapter eight that a major disruption in time occurs. The speaker pulls the reader back to a time before the explosion and in doing so, steers the reader away from major revelations of the plot. This reconfiguration bends time, metaphorically at least, to the will of the narrative voice. The need to control time in a non-linear fashion suggests the narrator’s desire to slow it in its one-way development. It reflects the anxieties seen in characters within the novel. Michaelis, for example, shows a hesitancy for progress and for change while debating with Ossipon: “Preparation for the future was necessary, and he was willing to admit that the great change would perhaps come in the upheaval of a revolution […] He would have it advance its tenets cautiously, even timidly, in our ignorance of the effect that may be produced […]” (Conrad 37). In this scene, Michaelis’s overly-cautious attitude to the future parallels the motives of the narrator: both are fearful of the modern age and as such, each attempt to slow down the progress of time through manipulation (in the case of the speaker) and procrastination (in the case of Michaelis).

The same disposition is experienced in McIlavine’s narration in The Waterworks. He remarks: “I want to keep the chronology of things but at the same time to make their pattern sensible, which means disrupting the chronology” (Doctorow 123). McIlvaine undercuts the authority of time here not only through dissembling its progressive arrangement, but also by suggesting that time is nonsensical. Reality is no longer ‘sensible’ under the authority of time and so McIlvaine explains his own methodology and justification in rearranging how the reader experiences time. He implies that only through his disruptive narrative authority does reality become comprehendible. As such, time becomes untrustworthy within the text. As with The Secret Agent, McIlvaine’s narration embodies the restlessness surrounding progress in the novel. He himself is anxious about the dawn of modernity: “I define modern civilization as the social failure to keep all children named. Does that shock you? In jungle tribes or among the nomad herders the children keep their names. Only in our great industrial downtown they don’t” (Doctorow 83). McIlvaine associates modernity with the loss of identity. The youth he speaks of can be read as the offspring of modern times, the new generations. To lose their names is to lose the ground-level foundations of who they are. It is this element of modernity that makes McIlvaine reluctant to progress, both as a character and as a narrator. Furthermore, he later writes: “The way enlightenment comes…is in bits and pieces of humdrum reality, each adding its mosaic bit of glitter to the eventual vision” (Doctorow 89). The vision McIlvaine refers to here is the vision of modern times. It appears the enlightenment these times provide is not good enough for this narrator. The ‘humdrum’ reality it provides is so subpar that McIlvaine takes it upon himself as speaker to rearrange reality in his distortion of time. He invites the reader to accept his craftsmanship as truth, as he does with his own newspaper: “My greatest pleasure…reading my own paper as if I had not constructed it myself […] What else did I have to assure myself of a stable universe?” (Doctorow 14). McIlvaine’s destabilisation of time becomes the stabilising factor of his reality and consequently, the reality of the text itself. It creates a tension in the question of fact and fiction; his assurances are fictitious in nature and the development of time is the factual reality McIlvaine tries so desperately to undercut and avoid. As with Conrad’s speaker, the authority of time is subverted in order to adhere to the greater authority of the narrative voice. The attempts made to control time suggest both narrators’ unwillingness in allowing time to move forward. They wish to stop progress and, consequently, the dawn of modernity.

Even more conspicuous than mere narrative strategy, each novel makes a blatant attack on time, both physically and metaphysically. These attacks are reflective of the individual’s fear of modernity, who acknowledges that against the disproportionate strength of modernity, he will face death. This is an idea borrowed from Walter Benjamin, who states that: “The resistance that modernity offers to the natural productive élan of an individual is out of all proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person becomes exhausted and takes refuge in death” (Benjamin 45). It seems the only outcome can be either death of the individual, or death of modernity itself. In the case of Conrad’s anarchists, for example, Verloc is conscripted by Mr. Vladimir to launch a bomb attack on Greenwich Observatory, the point at which all celestial observations are made and which acts as a compass to the universal time of western society. Vladimir’s objective in destroying the synchronisation of time is made clear when he comments: “The demonstration must be against learning – science” (Conrad 25). Vladimir wishes to disrupt the progression of scientific development; a progression that is bringing civilisation into modern understanding. While differing from the desires of Vladimir, Verloc agrees to this mission for a similar purpose. He justifies his task of destroying time because he believes “it would be unwarrantably rude to refuse immortality” (Conrad 28). The focus on immortality here is indicative of Verloc’s insistence on staying in his current state, in his current moment. He himself wants to remain timeless. The onslaught of modernity, however, crushes this desire, as it brings with it Verloc’s own aging and ultimate demise. This is a fact that seems almost unspeakable to Verloc: “Mr Verloc intimated in a throaty, veiled murmur that he was no longer young” (Conrad 16). Thus, the attack on time stands as a resistant effort against both modernity and the mortality of Verloc himself.

Doctorow’s characters display an equally desperate dream of immortality, as Marshal Bruce Gentry contends. He writes: “McIlvaine is one more old man feeding on the young, artificially kept alive until he finishes his story, at which point he expects to die” (Gentry 74). Like Verloc, McIlvaine attempts to breach the dictations of time by destroying it, even if only temporarily. He is desperate to keep things as they are and attempts to hold on to that image, almost like a photograph, echoing Benjamin’s words: “When one knows that something will soon be removed from one’s gaze, that thing becomes an image” (Benjamin 53). For example, McIlvaine closes the narrative with the yearning to halt the ever-moving city in the given moment, stating: “But my illusion was that the city had frozen in time […] all still, unmoving, stricken, as if the entire city of New York would be forever encased and frozen, aglitter and God-stunned” (Doctorow 253). While McIlvaine acknowledges the impossibility of his desire, he nevertheless forces the reader into one final disruption of time: temporal suspension. And so, despite McIlvaine’s imminent death in old age and his awareness of time’s forward-wheeling motion, he leaves the novel in a moment of postponement. In doing so, he constructs one last frontier against time and will eventually die, as a character at least, in a combative state. Going beyond this, however, McIlavine’s reasoning for this hostile demeanour can be found in his thirst for immortality, which is in itself a denial of time’s pursuit. McIlvaine confesses this himself: “I’ve given myself so completely to the narrative […] when the story ends, I will end” (Doctorow 236). He has fruitlessly attempted to establish immortality in the indestructibility of language. Perhaps this is why McIlvaine feels “a peculiar sort of injustice had been done” to Dr. Sartorius when he was denied a trial (Doctorow 236). Like McIlvaine, Sartorius seeks immortality; not to defy time, however, but to move with it into modernity in a state of perpetual applicability. He tells McIlvaine: “I have no other means of experiment than my person” (Doctorow 240). Not only does this suggest Sartorius’s intention to continue his scientific experiments, but it also underlines the doctor’s equally “self-serving” objective (Doctorow 236): to be imperishable against the flow of time.

Yet what becomes clear in this discussion is that the attacks made on time in each of these novels are futile. The progression of time and the oncoming reality of modernity will not yield. In her work on famous time-orientated texts, Eva Brann states: “in 1927 Sir Arthur Eddington introduced the phrase ‘arrow of time’, which is now used in at least six contexts” (Brann 15). It is the first of these listed contexts that is most relevant to this argument, which Brann describes as follows: “In thermodynamics the directionality of time is expressed in a number of converging ways, as the dispersion of heat, the running-down of isolated systems, the increase of entropy or disorder, the loss of information” (Brann 15). Eddington’s arrow of time is a single-routed force, which finds its grounding in the notion that inevitably, with time, everything disintegrates into non-existence. Despite the attacks made on time, as discussed, what becomes evident is that time will ultimately conquer all in its path. This is a reality that both The Secret Agent and The Waterworks cannot escape. The anxiety about this understanding, which seems laced into the fabric of these stories, can be found in their use of the grotesque. Conrad’s work, for example, creates a circus-like cacophony of physically deformed figures. His anarchists seem to range, without any degrees of grey, from the severely obese to the painfully emaciated. Verloc, firstly, is constructed in the former state. In describing him, Mr. Vladimir comments: “He’s fat – the animal” (Conrad 14). In doing so, he dehumanizes Verloc and demotes him to a level of primitiveness in the civilized hierarchy. The grotesque nature of Verloc’s deformed body aligns his aesthetic animality with his own degradation. And yet, to be of the other extremity is depicted as an equally monstrous design, as is demonstrated by the description given of Karl Yundt: “When he rose painfully the thrusting forward of a skinny groping hand deformed by gouty swellings suggested the effort of a moribund murderer summoning all his remaining strength for a last stab” (Conrad 32). Here, Yundt’s somewhat gnarled appearance is associated with sickness and even death. In both cases, the characters are portrayed in a process of degeneracy; on the one hand, Verloc degenerates into animal savageness and on the other, Yundt degenerates into the two biggest threats to mankind. Conrad’s use of the grotesque in this way, therefore, keeps in step with the arrow of time and the dissolution of isolated systems; in this instance, the system is the human body. Indeed, much of the novel’s concerns are about this very disintegration with time. The contemplations of Winnie’s mother at a later stage encapsulate these concerns perfectly: “The first sense of security following on Winnie’s marriage wore off in time (for nothing lasts), and Mrs Verloc’s mother […] reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world” (Doctorow 119). Here, Winnie’s mother echoes the reality of Eddington’s arrow of time; that same reality which the narrator and anarchists alike attempt so desperately to avoid. This is an unequivocal indication that the passing of time and the genesis of modernity bring with them an age of aging and of social decomposition. Or, in the words of the Professor, modernity’s inevitable debut will coincide with the existence of “our sinister masters –the weak, the flabby, the silly, the cowardly, the faint of heart, and the slavish of mind” (Conrad 222).

The civilisation and cityscape in The Waterworks offer a similar representation of the grotesque and, consequently, of degeneration. Like many characters in The Secret Agent, there is an abundance of physical deformities in Doctorow’s text: “I saw only undersized beings on whose faces were etched the lines and shadows of serfdom. God only knows where they slept nights” (Doctorow 118). Figures like these suggest the wasteful effect of time on the human body; the literal starvation of an entire civilisation, whose history is carried with them and whose future is defined and limited by the reaping nature of time. Moreover, the animal savagery seen in the physicality of Verloc is comparably represented in the barbarism of human action. After learning of Martin Pemberton’s resolution to exhume the body of Augustus Pemberton, Harry Wheelright states: “[…] my friend had every intention of exhuming his own father. Good God! These are modern times! Our city is lit in gaslight, we have transcontinental railroads, I can send a message by cable under the ocean…We don’t dig up bodies anymore!” (Doctorow 105). What Wheelright implies here is a presumed enlightenment that has attached itself to modernity. He lists the accomplishments of civilisation in its development of industry and telecommunication, as if the grotesque remained an impossibility in its definition. It is reminiscent of McIlavine’s aforementioned concerns over the nameless children of modernity (Doctorow 83). He makes the point of comparing modern, western civilisation to jungle tribes and insinuates the maturity of these tribes by comparison to the primitive degeneration of the city and its inhabitants. McIlvaine’s concerns prove quite justified. New York itself becomes a cesspool of the grotesque:

The old life, the past. So it was a pungent air we breathed […] and our blood was roused to churning ambition. Almost a million people called New York home, everyone securing his needs in a state of cheerful degeneracy. Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by (Doctorow 13).

Like the human bodies of The Secret Agent, the collective body of New York becomes disfigured. It is transformed at such a rate of rapidity that “this hideous industrial monument” begins to resemble an entity as diseased and contaminated as the body of Karl Yundt (Doctorow 214). Based on the statement above, it seems even the mighty city cannot escape the pressure of time. The degeneracy experienced in each text serves a reminder of the way in which time continues to move forward. Time’s one-way flow ensures that all matter and energy in the universe is diminished into the ultimate condition of inert uniformity. Despite the anxieties expressed in these texts and the depiction of the desire to stop time, the dawn of modernity remains inevitable.

To once again consider the initial question posed by Elaine Freedgood, Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Doctorow’s The Waterworks would certainly seem to associate modernity with the potentiality of risk. Each narrator attempts to avoid or undercut the dawn of modernity through their manipulation of time. They wish to slow it down, even defy it entirely. More than this, however, individual characters are so disturbed by the risk of modernity that they make unequivocal attempts to destroy time as a means of preventing progress. Both the Greenwich explosion and the metaphoric freezing of the city are indicative of the fear that drives these characters’ actions. Yet, in spite of such anxieties, the pursuit of time is ultimately presented as relentless. As Benjamin points out: “The hero is the true subject of la modernité. In other words, it takes a heroic constitution to live modernity” (Benjamin 44). The ‘heroes’ of Conrad’s and Doctorow’s texts epitomise a failed and degenerate constitution in the face of modernity. The grotesque portrayals of both people and the city in these novels acknowledges the state of degeneracy which affects everything. As McIlvaine concludes so accurately: “everything changing, modernity driving all before it” (Doctorow 228). Thus, these texts seem to adhere irrevocably to the reality that, ultimately, time will move forward and continue in its path. While modernity will call for its heroes, time will be the annihilation of all those unable or unwilling to keep up.

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”. Selected Writings, vol. 4. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2002. 39-67. Print.

Brann, Eva. “Time among the Physicists”. What, Then, Is Time? Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001. 12-15. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Doctorow, E.L. The Waterworks. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Freedgood, Elaine. “Conclusion”. Victorian Writing About Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 170-173. E-book.

Gentry, Marshall Bruce. “Elusive Villainy: The Waterworks as Doctorow’s Poesque Preface”. South Atlantic Review 67:1 (January 2002): 63-90. JSTOR.

Said, Edward. “Conrad: The Presentation of Narrative”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 7:2 (January 1974): 116-132. JSTOR.

[1] The gender of The Secret Agent’s narrator is never specified. For the sake of convenience within this essay, I will be referring to the narrator as a male-gendered speaker, though this bears no weight on the arguments made herein.

Academic Essays: Tom Ripley as Both Detective and Criminal (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Detective and Criminal: The Qualifications of Tom Ripley

In his work on the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Peter Thoms writes: “Poe’s Dupin, who assumes an oppressive power in trespassing upon the private lives of others […] is not the criminal’s opposite but a tainted figure who is entangled in the very world he seeks to explicate” (Thoms, 136). In this way, Thoms makes the suggestion that the divisions between detective and criminal are blurred and that they could, characteristically at least, be one and the same. Kate Summerscale, author of the bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, would seem to concur with this, as she traces the etymology of ‘detect’, noting: “The word ‘detect’ stemmed from the Latin ‘de-tegere’ or ‘unroof’, and the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus, ‘the prince of demons’, who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside” (Summerscale, 157-158). Thus, taking these two statements into consideration, it seems that villainy and immorality are characteristics that both the criminal and the detective have in common. I would like to take this assertion further and argue that, going beyond mere mutual traits, the detective and the criminal can physically be the same person. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley provides the perfect candidate for this paradoxical persona in the figure of Tom Ripley. I argue that Tom Ripley’s qualifications to be simultaneously the detective and the criminal can be seen in the following ways.

Critic Edward A. Shannon writes that: “In the novel, Tom’s behaviour is not explicitly homosexual; rather it conforms to Jagose’s model, violating sexual norms generally taken to be constant” (Shannon, 22). Taking from Shannon’s point, Ripley’s sexuality remains an ambiguous aspect of his construction. On the one hand, his infatuation with Dickie could be read as having strong homosexual undertones: “Dickie was not on the steps or on the parts of the road that he could see. Maybe they were sleeping together, Tom thought with a tighter twist of disgust in his throat. He imagined it, awkward, clumsy, unsatisfactory for Dickie, and Marge loving it” (Highsmith 60). The revulsion that Ripley experiences here is palpable. It is not impossible that this could be indicative of jealousy, a consequence of some form of homosexual lust for Dickie, which would support Neil Gordon’s discussion on Ripley’s “unstated homosexuality” (Gordon, 18). This theory appears slightly undermined, however, in two ways. Firstly, while Ripley showcases an awareness of the attraction he feels toward Dickie, he does so with the character of Cleo also. Despite the platonic nature of their relationship (which mimics his platonic interactions with Dickie), Ripley nevertheless observes: “[Cleo’s] red lips parted in her long, pale face, and she brought her hands down on her velvet thighs” (Highsmith, 21). This description is wrought with sexualised imagery, lending a focus to arguably some of the most aesthetically enticing components of the female body. And yet, these observations go right over Ripley’s head and with Cleo and Dickie alike, Ripley never acts on any of his attractions. While one could argue that this indicates his bisexual orientation, Ripley’s lack of interest in either of the sexes would seem to flatly contradict this. He remains aloof and asexual to both, or, as Marge puts it: “All right, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life” (Highsmith 94). Secondly, Ripley himself seems to acknowledge his own sexual ‘nothingness’ and comments: “[…] one could loathe Freddie, too. A selfish, stupid bastard who had sneered at [Tom Ripley] just because he suspected him of sexual deviation. Tom laughed at that phrase ‘sexual deviation’. Where was the sex? Where was the deviation?” (Highsmith, 113). In making this statement, Ripley gestures at his own asexuality and highlights the fact that in order to deviate from one orientation or the other, one must first be either heterosexual or homosexual; an idea that Ripley blatantly mocks. The question ‘where was the sex?’ becomes poignant because of its pointed absence in his persona.

The same can be said of many of Ripley’s detecting predecessors. ‘Where was the sex?’ is a question that could be put to a host of celibate investigators in literature. J. Kenneth Van Dover acknowledges this absence and contends that: “Loyalty to the client is the professional standard of the Hard-boiled world; loyalty to the partner or the friend is the personal standard. Loyalty to the female [or, in this case, potentially male] beloved appears conspicuous by its absence. The Classical detective was […] apparently asexual (Dupin, Holmes, Thorndyke, Van Dusen, Vance, Queen, Poirot, Maple, Wolfe) […]” (Van Dover 102). This alignment in habit between Ripley and the ‘classic’ giants of detective fiction, however, does little but depict mere similarities in their sexuality. What marks the difference is the fact that while these detectives borrow criminal attributes, they are not themselves criminals. Ripley, on the other hand, acknowledges his own criminality: “He didn’t want to be a murderer. Sometimes he could absolutely forget that he had murdered, he realised. But sometimes – like now – he couldn’t” (Highsmith, 197). Ripley not wanting to be a murderer is reflective of his shared asexuality, in that he constantly relocates and disrupts his own characterisation: one moment he is potentially straight, the next he is gay and ultimately, he is neither; one moment, he is Dickie’s friend and then, in a moment of unavoidable remembrance, he is his murderer. What all this means is that, in more ways than one, Ripley has the capability to ‘swing both ways’, as it were. This unique talent is one of the ways in which he is qualified to be paradoxically both the detective and the criminal; it is because his character manoeuvres in and out of varying states of sexuality and criminality so fluidly.

Moreover, the story is set at an historical moment of destabilisation. It is post-World War Two, with the tensions of the Cold War already in full swing. Shannon states that: “David Cochran even writes that ‘[m]uch of Highsmith’s work can be understood as a sustained metaphor of the Cold War’ (160). With America in ascent and Europe still reeling from World War II, Tom Ripley represents a brutal new world order […]” (Shannon 25). This new world order is identified by its dislocation, alienation and deconstruction of things that once seemed secure. Once more playing into Ripley’s characteristic (or, non-characteristic) fluidity, the context of this novel situates a fragmented figure at a fragmented moment in human history. Ripley’s character is reminiscent of Marshall Berman’s seminal work All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, in which he states that people: ”[…] are moved at once by a will to change – to transform both themselves and their world – and by a terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart. They all know the thrill and the dread of a world in which ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction” (Berman 13). Ripley is the all-encompassing epitome of the modern paradox and, as with everything else, seems to have the ability to melt into air: “He went on packing. This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody […]” (Highsmith 148). In fact, it is Ripley’s ‘nobodyness’ that gives him power. In being no man, he becomes the everyman of post-war modernity, so blank he can be both detective and criminal and never detract from his role as one by simultaneously being the other. He can end Dickie’s life both physically and on paper at a whim, an act that seems to call back the duty of a soldier at the Front: kill, or be killed; kill Dickie Greenleaf, or kill Tom Ripley. This state of chaos is reflective of the pandemonium of war, both physical and ‘cold’, which questions who is the real criminal.

Likewise, the same consideration can be applied to the detective/criminal binary. Thoms writes: “detection becomes a kind of thievery as the investigator assumes possession of the hidden story and of the characters contained within it” (Thoms, 142). The detective and the criminal are alike in that they both gather the secrets of the hidden story, one perpetually hiding them and the other gradually revealing them. The importance of the detective is stressed by Ripley’s own anxieties when he fears discovery: “Everything depended on what kind of man the detective would be.Everything depended on the first impression he made on the detective” (Highsmith, 199). Tom’s ability to manipulate the classic detective figure shows, if nothing else, his alignment with such a figure, because he is both criminal and detective. In the blank canvas that is Tom Ripley, these two contradictory concepts of self compound uneasily into one. Lee Horsley puts this down to Ripley’s commonality and states that: ”The emphasis […] is strongly on [Tom Ripley’s] typicality, his American versatility and blankness of character. Viewed in this light, his ability to reinvent himself as the occasion demands […] is symptomatic of the widespread tendency to evade […] responsibility. He has the optimistic American belief in fresh starts, the standard delusion of noir protagonists. Our dominant impression of Ripley is not of psychological imbalance but of rational self-interest, and in fact part of his insidious appeal lies in his sheer pragmatism” (Horsley 119). While Horsley’s comments could equally be the description given of a detective, a noteworthy factor of Ripley’s ability to ‘reinvent himself’ comes in his ability to masquerade. After he has assumed the identity of Dickie it is stated: “He had done so little artificially to change his appearance, but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now. [. ] It was Dickie’s best and most typical smile when he was in a good humour” (Highsmith, 97). What this resurrects is the many disguises of detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, who “not only […] assume[d] many different disguises in order to trick or mislead the culprits of his cases, but he also disguised himself in order to establish contact and rapport with clients” (Abrell, 404). In the case of both Ripley and Holmes, disguise is used as a means of hidden identity and manipulation. The difference between these two, however, is in Ripley’s sophistication of disguise. While Holmes is famous for altering his appearance, Ripley’s strength is in his ability to adopt and imitate the very essence of Dickie, his way of being. By this standard at least, then, Ripley triumphs as the trickster-detective, even against the mighty Holmes.

Ripley’s own facelessness is integral to his ability to go unnoticed. In his discussion of the detective story, Walter Benjamin writes: “The original social content of the detective story focused on the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big city crowd” (Benjamin, 23). Indeed, Ripley’s lack of individuality, his need to inhabit the life of Dickie Greenleaf, would suggest that he meets the criteria to be Benjamin’s man of the crowd. He states further: “Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd. This unknown man is the flâneur” (Benjamin, 27). Benjamin’s description here serves not only to align the flâneur with the detective but also serves to detail Tom Ripley, who, as has already been discussed, is the everyman who goes unnoticed amidst the public mob of modernity. On the one hand, both the flâneur and Ripley wish to interact with this crowd, while on the other, isolation seems a prerequisite of the classic detective. This tension is a point that John Dale picks up on and he comments: “Highsmith’s rather unique contribution lies precisely in her complex and compelling portrayal of a central duality or ambivalence in the individual’s attempt to interface with the world, and of a keynote contradiction between her protagonists’ urges to self-alienate and to engage” (Dale, 406) Like the flâneur and, as Benjamin asserts, the detective, Ripley stands just barely on the outskirts of the crowd – far enough to allow for his somewhat voyeuristic gaze, but never so far as to remove him from it – watching on, constantly observing: “It was strange to feel so alone, and yet so much a part of things, as he had felt at the party. He felt it again, standing on the outskirts of the crowd that filled the square in front of Notre Dame” (Highsmith, 99). Once more, it is Ripley’s nothingness that seems to equate him with both the Benjaminian flâneur and the figure of the detective.

What all this returns to again and again is Ripley’s qualifications as the perfect candidate in being both detective and criminal, and the majority of this rests on his ability to be changeable; in appearance, in identity and even sexuality. What becomes clear is that Ripley is simply a vacuous entity into which any persona can be injected and lived out. Even his nationality is undetermined.While I am in agreement with Horsley’s conjecture that Ripley is a blank canvas, this is not because of his American status, but rather, his lack of nationality altogether. Ripley himself abandons his ‘Americanness’ when he imagines what onlookers would say about him: “Is he an American! I think so, but he doesn’t like an American, does he?” (Highsmith, 30). Everything that defines who he is becomes an uncertainty, including his heritage. In his transformations between detective and criminal, Ripley’s body seems to host its own revolution of selfhood and purpose. This is a telling point, given Ripley’s hometown; he believes he is “a cringing little nobody from Boston” (Highsmith, 215). It is interesting that Highsmith should choose to trace her protagonist detective/criminal from Boston, the origin of the American Revolution. In his discussion on masculinity and the double, Daven Greven writes: “manhood’s center cannot hold […] manhood is split” (Greven 23). As Ripley causes a split in himself and antithetically combines the detective and criminal, so Boston caused the macroscopic split in America that combined African-Americans and Caucasians in the war over slavery.

However, Ripley does not represent the American Revolution specifically, but rather, portrays the processes that lace aforethought-oppositions together. While the world of modernity struggles through its own fragmentation, Tom Ripley melts into air, or – as the case may be – water. The ongoing water imagery throughout the text serves as a reminder of the fluidity, the changeability, which has been discussed so far. Yet, Ripley is uneasy about water in the text: “The expanse of water between the San Marco boat stop and his steps seemed interminable. The steps were covered now except for the upper two, and the water swept just over the surface of the third step, stirring its moss in a disgusting way” (Highsmith, 180). What so sickens Ripley is in fact his own nothingness. On the water is where his greatest transformations occur and it is in these transformations there is the scope for an argument to made of Ripley’s subconscious awareness of his “forgettable face” (Highsmith 26). Ripley takes a ship over the ocean to Europe and becomes a detective; he murders Dickie in a boat in San Remo and becomes a criminal; and finally, Ripley concludes his episode in Italy in Venice, a city that is sinking into the water. When he departs, he is again a detective, considering pursuing Mrs Cartwright in Crete. Like the water trope used throughout the novel, Ripley physically moves around the globe, he changes as waves on a shore change and when he reaches land, he is starting “a new life with new attitudes, standards, and habits” (Highsmith, 143). Furthermore, water has the capability of changing its physical values from liquid to gas and Ripley mirrors this in his ability to shift from detective to criminal.

What is important to remember, however, is that in all Ripley’s alterations from detective to criminal, he is foundationally both, in a process that is similar to the Jekyll and Hyde complex: “I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” (Stevenson, 56). In this way, while being a detective, Ripley is never not a criminal also. And while being a criminal, he never ceases to be the all-seeing detective.

Yet, though we have established that Ripley is a criminal, it could be argued that we have only concluded that he is like a detective, but not actually a detective in essence. This can be cleared up in the very act that drives the entire plot. Ripley becomes a detective at the beginning of the story, the moment he meets Herbert Greenleaf, who states: “If you [Ripley] or somebody like you who knew him could get a leave of absence, I’d even send them over to talk to him […] If you did go, I’d be glad to take care of your expenses, that goes without saying” (Highsmith, 7). In this way, as with other detectives, Ripley is hired to find someone. Mr Greenleaf pays for his services in locating and retrieving his son and thus Ripley embarks for Europe out of what Van Dover has called ‘loyalty to the client’. Ripley’s inability to accomplish his mission is not, however, his denunciation of the role of detective. Instead, it comes out of loyalty to his friend, Dickie and it can be argued, therefore, that Ripley simply exchanges his ‘professional standard’ for his ‘personal’ one, both of which define the Hard-boiled politics of the detective, whatever the morals beneath.

A final point to consider in this discussion is how far does Ripley take his dual role of both detective and criminal and what is its impact on the reading of the narrative? Thoms writes that: “The reader becomes a detective and the detective a reader” (Thoms 133). This is undoubtedly true of Tom Ripley. In the act of staying undetected, Ripley himself must detect via the reading of Dickie’s letters, both official and personal: “Along with Marge’s letter came one from Signer Pucci, saying that he had sold three pieces of his furniture for a hundred and fifty thousand lire in Naples” (Highsmith, 103). Dickie’s letters become Ripley’s entire source of information into both Dickie’s life and finances, as well as into his own status as fraudster and whether he has been discovered.Reading, in this way, becomes the definitive act of the detective. However, if the reader becomes the detective and the detective a reader, it can equally be said that the writer becomes the criminal and the criminal the writer. Once again, this paradox can be seen in Ripley. As the criminal, Ripley writes the crime as he goes along, from murder to fraudulence and murder once again in the case of Freddie. But Ripley becomes a true writer within the text through his forgeries. Ripley perfects not only Dickie’s writing voice (“there were probably too many commas […] he knew Dickie’s general style”), but his physical penmanship also: “He had signed the register with Dickie’s hasty and rather flamboyant signature with the big looping capitals R and G” (Highsmith, 96, 92).

And so, writing itself is paralleled with criminality. This creates an interesting dynamic in terms of the position of the text’s author. Like the criminal, the author creates the crime inasmuch as Ripley does. Her pen is his pen and thus, while it is easy to see how Ripley can be both detective and criminal, he goes a step further in his role and self-reflexively throws a metafictional spotlight back on his author. Highsmith, like Ripley, also becomes both the detective and the criminal; reader and writer. It is for the reasons stated herein that Tom Ripley becomes the perfect candidate, with all the necessary qualifications, for being both detective and criminal in just one person, one body.

Works Cited
Abrell, Ron. “Mr Sherlock Holmes: Teaching Exemplar Extraordinary”. The Clearing House 52:9 (May 1979): 403-407. JSTOR.

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”. Selected Writings. Vol. 4. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2002. 3-92. Print.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London and New York: Verso, 1983. E-book.

Dale, John. “Crossing the Road to Avoid Your Friends: Engagement, Alienation and Patricia Highsmith”. Midwest Quarterly 51:4 (June 2010):405-423. EBSCO.

Gordon, Neil. “The Talented Miss Highsmith”. The Threepenny Review 81 (Spring 2000): 16-19. JSTOR.

Greven, David. “Contemporary Hollywood Masculinity and the Double-Protagonist Film”. Cinema Journal 48:4 (July 2009): 22-43. JSTOR.

Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr Ripley. London: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.

Horsley, Lee. “Fatal Men”. The Noir Thriller. Ed. Clive Bloom. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 103-124. Print.

Shannon, Edward A. “‘Where was the sex?’: Fetishism and Dirty Minds in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley”. Modern Language Studies 34:1/2 (April 2004): 17-18. JSTOR.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. 2-70. Print.

Summerscale, Kate. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or, The Murder at Road Hill House. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.

Thoms, Peter. “Poe’s Dupin and the power of detection”. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 133-147. Print.

Van Dover, J. Kenneth. “The World of the Detective Story”. We Must Have Certainty: Four Essays on the Detective Story. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2005/ 62-115. E-book.

Academic Essays: The Narrative Voice in “The Seafarer” (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Christian Didacticism and the Journeying Dead: The Subordination of the Narrative Voice in The Seafarer

It is my contention that in The Seafarer the autobiographical voice of the speaker undergoes a significant transformation, by which it becomes the voice of all those who have departed from earthly life, as they journey from one life to the next. In this way, the narrative voice is subordinated to the symbolic portrayal of Christian doctrine and the means through which one must reach heaven. The Christian doctrine, in this case, relies heavily on the processes of penance and purification, as will be discussed.
In his work on Irish affinities in The Seafarer, Peter Orton writes: “There is, as we have already seen, some textual evidence of compulsion, but no specific explanation of why the seafarer had to go to sea in the first place, so we cannot assume even that he went to sea voluntarily, let alone out of a devotion to God […]” (Orton 217). As a possible answer to this question and one potential reading of the poem, I argue that the depiction of the sea and indeed the sea journey itself are metaphorical symbols of the death of man and his journey to a Christian heaven. It is through this reading that one may begin to understand the ‘compulsion’ of the seafarer’s journey, with death being inescapable and the ultimate compulsion of all mankind. There are, as Orton has pointed out, suggestions throughout the poem that this journey was not the choice of the seafarer. The speaker writes, for example: “Calde geþrungen wæron mine fet, forste gebunden, caldum clommum” (Seafarer 8-10). On the one hand, loaded words such as geþrungengebunden and clommum imply the constriction of the narrator’s current state; that he has been forced into the given position. On the other hand, it is what constricts him that seems interesting. It is by calde and forste that the seafarer can no longer wander freely. These icy aesthetics that keep him chained are indicative of the coldness of death and thus the possibility of the speaker being already departed from this life is introduced from the beginning of the poem. By this means, the speaker is converted into the voice of all those departed from life. This is an idea that Julienne H. Empric seems to play with in writing: “[…] the reader or listener journeys from life experienced by a man, to life experienced by Man through images which are at first concrete […] to images more abstract and universal, of temporal losses and finally of eternal joys” (Empric 23). Moreover, the autobiographical voice here is already overcome by other forces and from the onset, autobiographical elements of the poem become subordinate in importance.

Adding to this, the frozen imagery used throughout the first half of the poem also becomes indicative of the transitional state of the seafarer’s existence. It is stated that: “ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ winter wunade wræccan lastum, winemægum bidroren, bihongen hrimgicelum” (Seafarer 14-17). In this case, the speaker’s autobiographical experiences become bound up in the temporality of seasonal change. The fact that he wanders in winter suggests that his trials will eventually be at an end and that this season will pass. Equally, the seafarer is bihongen hrimgicelum, which serves as a reminder of the impermanence of that which holds the seafarer in chains. Icicles are subject to melting and the reader is lead to believe in the narrator’s ultimate emancipation. This can be read as the transient existence between earthly life and heavenly deliverance. It seems the seafarer is on a journey, moving from the coldness of death toward the ever-lasting life of “þa ecan eadignesse” (Seafarer 120). The ephemeral nature of this transition is encapsulated by the setting of the journey also; he is travelling across the “iscaldne wæg” (Seafarer 19). The ocean is an entity in perpetual flux. It is always moving and always changing and therefore the use of this setting for the traveller’s journey suggests two things: firstly, as has been outlined, the temporality of this condition and secondly, the process of change in which the speaker finds himself. It is the site of his spiritual transformation, his spiritual awakening. The seafarer goes so far as to state that: “Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað, wongas wlitigað” (Seafarer 48-49). He insists here on the arrival of spring, a new season and the promise of new life. This once again reinforces the spiritual nature of his journey, as well as its ultimate objective.

This interpretation could certainly seem to provide at least one possible reason for the dual voices of the “sylf” that so concern Michael Matto (Seafarer 1). He considers the following: “What does the narrator of the Old English poem The Seafarer mean when he declares his intention to tell a soðgied, or ‘true story’, about his sylf? Criticism on The Seafarer has long focused on the question of the sylf, particularly in regards to the number of ‘selves’ doing the telling” (Matto 156). It is for the reasons above that the varying sense of sylf in The Seafarer can be understood as, not multiple voices, but one voice in a process of transformation. The metamorphosis itself can be seen when the seafarer comments: “Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan, min modsefa mid mereflode ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide, eorþan sceatas” (Seafarer 58-61). In this moment, what becomes clear is that the narrative voice is becoming one with the natural imagery and God’s creations of purity. Colin A. Ireland is the first to align the presentation of nature and the presence of God, in writing: “[…] the God who directs the natural world, and wilderness in particular, had a deep significance for both English and Irish religious and ascetics. It was, in fact, the communion with untamed nature that put the exile in touch with God” (Ireland 7). It is fair to say, then, that as the seafarer’s voice becomes amalgamated to the sounds of nature: he is being brought closer to God. The seafarer himself is becoming purified and cleansed through his seafaring penance. In this way, the narrative voice is being subordinated to the dominance of a Christian voice, a didactic doctrine; it is changing in its purpose and consequently, as the poem moves forward, the speaker’s voice alters in its deliverance, offering an explanation for the impression given of multiple speakers. To a degree, Matto also seems to agree with this, stating: “The seafarer’s soðgied can thus be considered a technology of the sylf in that its purpose is analogous to the purpose of the idealized monastic private confessional – to reach a state of spiritual cleanliness through the articulation of one’s experiences” (Matto 165).

The second half of the poem is exemplary of the conversion that has taken place and the way in which the autobiographical voice has become subservient to the Christian ethos. Firstly, the speaker makes it unequivocally clear that he is no longer a member of those living on earth. He writes: “Forþon me hatran sind  dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif, læne on londe” (Seafarer 64-66). In making this claim, the seafarer discusses earthly life as if he is no longer a part of it, another suggestion of his own death. The world of the living is deade to him, as he is deade to it. His soul has taken flight and as a result, he is no longer interested in: “hringþege, ne to wife wyn ne to worulde hyht, ne ymbe owiht ells” (Seafarer 44-46). Antonina Harbus seems to concur with this estimation of the seafarer’s soul, in remarking that: “Critics have debated the meaning of the reference to the apparent flight of the mind, or more often the soul, in The Seafarer and The Wanderer. F. N. M. Diekstra considers the reference to be to the metaphorical flight of the soul during contemplation […]” (Harbus 36). The contemplation that Harbus discusses is, I believe, the penance the soul of the narrator must endure before he may enter the kingdom of heaven. And, more importantly, this flight of the soul is the flight of the soul after death. Having now left his earthly life, the seafarer informs the reader that he is seeking “elþeodigra eard” (Seafarer 38); a destination which could be interpreted as the kingdom of God. Therefore, the seafarer’s journey is in search of heaven. It seems undeniable that he eventually reaches this sanctuary when elþeodigra eard is no longer a foreign place to him, but a “ham” (Seafarer 117). And so the traveller, now at rest, urges others to find their way to this ham in saying: “Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen, ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen, ond we þonne eac tilien, þæt we to moten  in þa ecan eadignesse” (Seafarer 117-120).

But what right has the narrator to deliver this Christian message of didacticism? On the one hand, as has already been explored, the seafarer’s soul has undergone a process of purification, as he has submitted his voice into the purity of God’s natural creations. On the other hand, he has fully endured his penance; a penance which he describes as: “ymb yða gewealc” (Sefarer 46). His penance, in short, has been that he “hafað longunge” to enter the kingdom of heaven in the first place (Seafarer 47). Now at the end of this journey, this penance, the seafarer is in a position to pass on his learned Christian wisdom, as part of the chorus “in heofonum” (Seafarer 122). This correlates with T.A. Shippey’s focus on the shift from the self to the ‘us’ at the end of the poem: “The Seafarer uses icmemecmin twelve times between lines 1 and 37, five times again between lines 58 and 66, and then as with The Wanderer never uses the first-person singular again – though the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ are used six times in The Seafarer’s concluding eight-line exhortation […] the second half of each poem is much more similar to the general, impersonal, story-less advice so often found in the ‘wisdom poems’ […]” (Shippey 147). And so, it is clear that the seafarer’s voice becomes one facet of a host of voices that symbolically deliver a Christian message. Rather than using his voice to tell of his own soðgied, he uses it as a symbol of Christian didacticism:

Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan, ond gewis werum, wisum clæne, scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan wiþ leofne ond wið laþne bealo, þeah þe he hine wille fyres fulne oþþe on bæle forbærnedne his geworhtne wine. (Seafarer 109-115).

The seafarer himself acknowledges the subordination of his own autobiographical voice. He asserts that: “Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ; cymeð him se deað unþinged. Eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ” (Seafarer 106-107). As such, the narrator symbolically submits his own autobiographical reminisces to the will of Christian doctrine. He does this willingly and is consequently enabled to deliver that message of purity and penance. The closing “Amen” of the poem reinforces this fact in a significant way (Seafarer 125). It concludes the poem like a prayer and insists that this is no longer a soðgied about the sylf; it has, therefore, come a long way in its transformation from the beginning. Instead, this is a Christianity-riddled message about the means by which the seafarer has made his autobiographical voice subsidiary to the symbolic voice of Christian morality.

Works Cited
Empric, Julienne H. “‘The Seafarer: An Experience in Displacement”. Notre Dame English Journal 7:2 (Spring 1972): 23-33. JSTOR.

Harbus, Antonina. “The maritime imagination and the paradoxical mind in Old English poetry”. Anglo-Saxon England 39 (December 2010): 21-24.

Ireland, Colin A. “Some Analogues of the O.E. Seafarer from Hiberno-Latin Sources”. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 92: (1991): 1-14.

Marsden, Richard, ed. “The Seafarer”. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 223-230.Print.

Matto, Michael. “True Confessions: The Seafarer and Technologies of the Sylf”. Journal ofEnglish and Germanic Philology 103 (2004): 156-179.

Orton, Peter. “To be a Pilgrim: The Old English Seafarer and its Irish Affinities”. Lexis and Texts in Early English: Studies Presented to Jane Roberts, Volume 133. Ed. Christian J. kay and Louise M. Sylvester. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001. 213-223. E-book.

Shippey, T.A. “The Wanderer and The Seafarer as Wisdom Poetry” Companion to Old Engish Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: Vrije University Pres, 1994. 145-58. Print.

Academic Essays: The Cross in “The Dream of the Rood” (December 2013)

*Please Note: The following blog is entirely the work of author Leanne Waters. Many entries are academic essays submitted by Leanne Waters to the English department of UCD and belong to their author only. The publication of these works is entirely for educational purposes and is not to be plagiarised in any way, or assumed as the work of any individual but Leanne Waters. 

Bridging the Gap: The Creation of Unity through the Representation of the Cross in the Dream of the Rood

In the case of the Dream of the Rood, it is my contention that the representation of the cross is emblematic of the unity of the poem’s three major figures: the dreamer, the cross and Christ. I argue that the role of the cross is to bind these three characters together[2]; firstly, in terms of warrior camaraderie; secondly, in terms of narrative voice; and finally, with regard to action and function.

In his work in The Cambridge Old English Reader, Richard Marsden comments: “The device in the present poem allows the poet to express the physical suffering of Christ through the parallel experience of the cross […] the Christ of The Dream of the Rood is an heroic, warrior-like figure who actively embraces his fate and eagerly ascends the cross. In turn, the cross is required to show its loyalty by being complicit in Christ’s death” (Marsden 193). As such, Marsden immediately sets up the well-established correlation between the depiction of Christ and that of the cross itself. This parallel is founded almost entirely on the camaraderie of a war environment. For example, we see how the cross aligns itself with men of war in lines such as: “Nu ðu miht gehyran, hæleð min se leofa, þæt ic bealuwara weorc gebiden hæbbe, sarra sorga” (Dream of the Rood 78-80). The pointed use of min in this statement implies the rood’s complicity in the ‘war’ that is the crucifixion of Christ. It assumes the cross’s position of soldier through its own inclusivity. Moreover, the rood is forced to endure the physical pain of Christ through suggestively combative depictions: “Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere. Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed, begoten of þæs guman sidan, siððan he hæfde his gast onsended. Feala ic on þam beorge gebiden hæbbe wraðra wyrda” (Dream of the Rood 48-52). In these lines, it becomes evident that Christ’s pain becomes synchronized to that of the cross. This is taken even further and in the more literal way of experience when the rood states: “Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe […] Is nu sæl cumen þæt me weorðiað wide ond side menn ofer moldan, ond eall þeos mære gesceaft, gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne” (Dream of the Rood 75-83). It is clear from lines such as these that the cross acts as a direct parallel to Christ in the portrayal of the Passion. Like Christ, the cross endures many hardships, is mocked, buried and resurrected into celebration. Indeed, Catherine E. Karkov agrees with Marsden’s interpretation, commenting on the language used to create this simultaneity: “The Crucifixion in the Dream of the Rood is couched in heroic language with Christ as a warrior […] doing battles with the aid of the cross to redeem man’s sins” (Karkov, 118).

It is this loaded use of language that enables a connection to be established between the aforementioned and the figure of the dreamer. While the cross parallels Christ, so the dreamer parallels the cross. The author accomplishes this through the use of violent verbs, as when the cross tells of his “dolg” (Dream of the Rood 47). These wounds can be easily equated with the metaphorical wounds of the dreamer, who claims: “ond ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum” (Dream of the Rood 13-14). In this way, the dreamer becomes entangled in the story and suffering of Christ; he bears his sins as Christ bore the sins of the world. It is only through the cross – the bridging entity of the poem – that this becomes apparent. It is important to note here the stress that critic Michael James Swanton lays on the body of Christ. He states that: “The attribution of personality, and therefore volition, allows a moral as well as physical parallel to be established between Christ and the cross […] However, in coalescing the persona of the cross with that of Christ himself the poet draws upon a concept implicit within the traditional liturgical use of the cross and explicitly propounded in the Paulician doctrine that the real cross was not the gallows but the body of Christ himself” (Swanton, 68). Following Swanton’s point, Christ bears the burden of worldly sins on his body at the scene of the crucifixion; consequently, the cross then bears Christ on its ‘body’, reflectively experiencing the same sufferance. Now, it seems, even the dreamer bears the wounds of the cross on his body; in the crevices of his dream, his mind. Moreover, he experiences the wounds of sin, just as Christ also does and so it seems the connection has come full circle. Thus, through the effects of the war environment, these three characters become intricately intertwined in the representation of the body. The cross, in this case lives up to its own name as a ‘cross’ between one war-torn body and one sin-torn body, making the circle – the union – complete.

The linkage goes beyond this, however, as the representation of the cross becomes the interweaving voice of three narratives. This argument lies in the layered structure of the poem and its use of narrative within a narrative. This textured approach to communication means that one story cannot be told independently of another. The dreamer opens his narrative with the imperative of “Hwæt!” (Dream of the Rood 1). While there are variations in translation, if we interpret this opening as a command for attention – a call for readers and hearers to listen – then The Dream of the Rood sets the stage for a rhetorical objective: to involve the narrative of the listener in the story that is unfolding. Marsden seems to agree with this in writing: “Re-enacting Christ’s passion, burial and resurrection, the cross effects the transformation of the poet-dreamer from the anxious and confused sinner of the opening lines to the confident, evangelising Christian of the poem’s conclusion […] The poet no doubt aims to stimulate the same sort of response in his reader” (Marsden 192). What becomes apparent from both the dreamer’s insistence on the imperative of his story, as well as Marsden’s incorporation of the reader, is that this is a poem that aims to encompass narratives in uniformity. The portrayal of Christ’s story of the Passion only comes to the dreamer through the medium of the cross’s narrative voice. In this way, the rood again plays the role of mediator, integrating one narrative with another and bridging the gap between the two. The rood goes so far as to openly acknowledge and accept its role as messenger and tells the dreamer: “Nu ic þe hate, hæleð min se leofa, þæt ðu þas gesyhðe secge mannum” (Dream of the Rood 95-96). This is an unequivocal indication of the cross’s purpose: to amalgamate the narrative voices of the story in the pursuit of unity. Carol Braun Pasternack seems to agree on this note and remarks: “Kintgen […] and Hieatt […] have both demonstrated the way ‘echoic repetition’ of words and formulas associates elements in the poem and connects sections, weaving a formal as much as a thematic unity, associating the dreamer with the cross, the cross with Christ and so on” (Pasternack 169). The cross ultimately proves successful in its union of narrative voices, as it is only through each of these individual stories that the poem becomes one cyclical structure. The end of the poem, for example, concludes with the prophetic words of the dreamer, who then tells of Christ: “þa heora wealdend cwom, ælmihtig god, þær his eðel wæs” (Dream of the Rood 155-156). Therefore, the dreamer, who began discussing his own experience, finishes with the story of Christ. The two narratives have, consequently, become inseparable[2] through the connecting story of the cross.

More than mere narrative, however, the actions of the dreamer correspond with those of the cross and ultimately, with those of Christ. The common thread shared by all is in the role each of them play as “reordberend” (Dream of the Rood 3). The functionality of each figure is to deliver a message. Christ delivers the message of God, while the cross delivers the story of Christ and finally, the dreamer narrates his vision to his reader. Once again, the representation of the cross is essential to this functional unity. It is only through the cross’s instruction that there can exist any link between the function of the dreamer and that of Christ. The cross commands the dreamer: “Nu ic þe hate, hæleð min se leofa, þæt ðu þas gesyhðe secge mannum, onwreoh wordum þæt hit is wuldres beam, se ðe ælmihtig god on þrowode for mancynnes manegum synnum ond Adomes ealdgewyrhtum” (Dream of the Rood 95-100). In this way, the cross becomes the unifying force that combines the purpose of Christ with the purpose of the dreamer, as well as itself; they are the reordberend who hold the poem together in interrelated relationships of symbiosis and become somewhat of a holy trinity in the execution of their shared stories. Britt Mize comments on this point also and states: “The use of the term reordberend in line 3 perfectly encapsulates the tension implicit in this contrast between vision and action, between silence and society […] the word stresses the importance of communication, the only possible mediation between the private and the public. These same opening lines, with their statement that the speaker wishes to proclaim his vision, emphasize that he is himself now taking on the role ofreordberend to humankind” (Mize 145). It is only through the communication that Mize discusses that coherence can be found in the deliverance of the poem and, as exemplified, it is only through the representation of the cross that this communication is established in the first place.

Works Cited

Karkov, Catherine E. Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 101-141. Print.

Marsden, Richard. “The Dream of the Rood”. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 192-202. Print.

Mize, Britt. “The Mental Container and the Cross of Christ: Revelation and Community in The Dream of the Rood”. Studies in Philology 107:2 (Spring 2010): 131-178.

Pasternack, Carol Braun. “Stylistic disjunctions in The Dream of the Rood”. The Dream of the Rood: an Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf. Ed. Albert S. Cook. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. liv-lv. Print.

Swanton, Michael James, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970. 58-78. Print.

[1] I am here drawing on a class presentation I gave earlier in the semester. While I am referencing some of the material used in that presentation, I have endeavoured to add a further complication to my argument: this is that the representation of the cross does not only parallel the figure of Christ, but also the dreamer, thus acting as a bridge between the two. I felt this was an important point to clarify, as it is inherent in the evolution of my previous ideas.

[2] This is a point that has resonances with the arguments made on The Seafarer. While this essay does not have the scope to make a worthy comparative, these texts may make excellent points of comparison and contrast in relation to one another.

Academic Essays: The Symbolic Function of the ‘Eye’ in Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door (Oct 2013)

In consideration of the concept of the Eye in Pat Barker’s novel, two major suggestions are made. The first is the suggestion of surveillance and more importantly, the anxieties that accompany it. The second suggestion calls into question the notion of observation and existence and follows the thinking of physicist Werner Heisenberg.

When Billy Prior is first introduced to the Eye of Beattie’s cell door, she comments how, after being sent to Wandsworth, William is tormented by “being watched all the time” (Barker 36). Immediately, Beattie aligns the Eye with the concept of surveillance; something that persistently haunts Prior throughout the novel, as he finds it impossible “to tell whether a human eye was looking through the painted one or not” (Barker 68). By further corresponding the Eye to the human eye, Prior opens the floodgates of anxiety surrounding both social and individual surveillance. How this particular kind of watchfulness manifests throughout the novel can be explored in a number of ways.

Firstly, it can be understood in terms of national surveillance, a naturally prevalent theme in a work of war fiction. Political espionage in this case, however, does not focus on enemy infiltration as regards war tactics, but rather on the condemnation of homosexuality. With the ongoing tension surrounding the Permberton Billing trial, Charles Manning feels the threat of exposure, of being seen. He reconsiders his attendance to Wilde’s Salome, but ultimately decides that: “To back out now would simply reveal the extent of his fear to to to… to whoever was watching” (Barker 23). The anxiety that is felt in this case is undeniable and moreover, is linked unambiguously with the intrusive power of surveillance. Manning experiences this watched state as one of perpetual exposure: “Like being naked, high up on a ledge, somewhere, in full light, with beneath him only jeering voices and millions of eyes” (Barker 26). The Eye on homosexuality becomes the Eye of the masses and indicates a mob mentality and a threat that is inescapable in Manning’s state of public nakedness. Drawing on Manning’s discussion of scapegoats, Rivers notes that: “Maud Allan was in the firing line almost by accident. The real targets were men who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform” (Barker 161). Thus, Rivers clarifies what has already been suggested very overtly throughout the novel: to be a homosexual is to operate on a subpar level in relation to the status quo. This is an offense that the text suggests is more criminal than war, something that is not to be associated with the heroes of war, as Sassoon points out: “Can’t have the Glorious Dead commemorated by a sodomite. Even if some of the Glorious Dead were sodomites” (Barker 260). In bringing it all back to the Eye of the door, it seems that the ‘door’ of the closet is intended to remain firmly shut by national authority. The Eye, therefore, functions as a means to ensure that that door will never be opened.

While the anxieties touched on here revolve around social surveillance, there is another – arguably more important – form of watchfulness, which is founded in a personal Eye. This is most evident in the case of Prior’s split identity. His initial disturbance with the haunting possibility of a human eye watching him becomes all the more poignant when he is proven justified. The human eye watching him is in fact his own. His ‘inner’ Eye. Before coming to this conclusion fully, however, Prior himself blatantly forms the connection between the Eye and the ‘I’. He tells Rivers: “‘eye’ was stabbing myself in the ‘I’” (Barker 75). If considered under Freudian terms, the ‘I’ in this instance is Prior-the-Ego and the Eye is Prior-the-Id. It is Prior’s subconscious that watches him so intently and while Prior is consciously aware of this surveillance to a limited extent, it does not become fully realized until he is seen in a physical fugue state: “But he doesn’t know anything I know. Only it’s… it’s not quite as neat as that. Sometimes I see things he can’t see, even when he’s there” (Barker 239). His subconscious sees and processes things that Prior’s conscious won’t or can’t process. His ‘I’ cannot see everything, but his Eye is ever-watchful. It is clear, therefore, how Freudian repression is brought to the fore through Prior’s ‘Hyde’ personality. Prior’s repression of the Id and the things the Eye (of the Id) sees is to protect the reality (or fantasies?) of the Ego (the “I”). It results in the shutting of the ‘door’ between the two. The door acts as both a symbol of the repression of the Id, as well as a barrier (a split) between the Ego and Id and Prior’s two personalities. Yet try as he might, Prior cannot fully escape the perpetual surveillance of the Eye through that door. His anxiety is a consequence of his inability to fully shut the door and protect himself from the images the Eye sees; both from his childhood and from the war. Towers’s eye is what links this trauma back to Prior’s experiences in France. The watching eye, which Prior held in his hand is transformed over time into Prior’s own eye. When Towers’s eye can no long physically watch him, Prior’s subconscious replaces it in function, so that Prior cannot forget or ignore the ongoing surveillance of trauma. This is made apparent at the novel’s close when Prior touches the Eye that has caused him such turmoil: “[…] he put his finger into the hole [of the eye] until it touched cool glass. Towers’s eye, he remembered, lying in the palm of his hand, had been warm” (Barker 265). The restoration of order can thus only be achieved through the disassociation of Towers’s eye with Prior’s Eye. In this way, the trauma caused by Towers’s eye is resolved in Prior’s subconscious, in his Eye. No longer a repressed memory, the text suggests that the Id has come to terms with the trauma and therefore Prior need not repress it any longer.

The final aspect to consider in relation to the Eye of Barker’s novel revolves around Heisenberg’s studies in observation. He argues that only when something is observed can it exist. Drawing on the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, Heisenberg and indeed physics as a whole base almost all understanding around the notion that without observation there can be no existence. Observation, through this understanding, becomes the ultimate Eye. This is particularly poignant when considered in relation to the act of reading and, more specifically, the character of Prior. Prior’s very existence is destabilized in the novel through the prevalence of an alternate self; a dual “co-consciousness” that is reflective of Jekyll and Hyde (Barker 143). By undercutting the very existence of Prior as a character in this way, Barker metafictionally calls attention to the reader’s role in acknowledging Prior’s existence. Without the reader’s observation, Prior cannot exist.  Thus the act of reading becomes another layer of the Eye. Prioris being watched and it is by the Eye of the reader. The reader becomes the necessary witness to Prior’s struggle against post-war obliteration. The reader breaches the barrier (the door) between reality and fiction and becomes the Eye of not only Prior’s existence but the historical existence of both war and all the individuals that comprised it. Prior states that: “I was attacking what seemed to me the most awful feature of their situation, which is the eye. The constant surveillance” (Barker 75). The surveillance in this case is the twenty-first century perspective; both that of the author and that of the reader. It is the way in which we are viewing characters such as Prior through a lens, like a peephole in a door through time. The Eye of the reader watches Prior from behind, fully loaded with the contextual knowledge of the war and the collective narrative of his time. Prior knows we are watching him: “Sitting with his back to it was worse, since there’s nothing more alarming than being watched from behind. And when he sat sideways, he had the irritating impression of somebody perpetually trying to attract his attention” (Barker 40). The metafictional awareness of this surveillance, which Barker lends to Prior, provides a comment on the act of reading historical fiction and the way in which it potentially influences how the reader sees both the characters and the plot. The twenty-first century, post world-war Eye is the Žižekian Big Other to which Prior will always perform because he has beenwritten by that Eye and because he is being read by that Eye. Thus the symbolic function of the Eye is turned back on the reader and results in our watching ourselves. The reader’s Eye watches Prior, but ultimately, Prior also becomes the Eye that watches us.

Barker, Pat. The Eye in the Door. London: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Academic Essays: “I’m not hurting you, madam?” - A Feminist Reading of Zola’s War Discourse in his Destruction of Women (Oct 2013)

In their long established work The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write that: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx 3). It is the here-quoted opening assertion that forms the bedrock of this feminist reading, which argues that Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise constructs a battle of the sexes or, it may be argued, a battle of classes. He does this in two major ways; firstly, through his transformation of the Ladies’ Paradise into a battle ground and secondly, through his destruction of women and the female body. Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, I contend that this is a battle that the Woman will ultimately lose. While putting a glove on the hand of Madame Desforges, Mignot’s innocent question of “I’m not hurting you, madam?” is given extra poignancy in light of the above contention (Zola 101). The destruction of women is what ultimately defines Zola’s war and confirms male dominance throughout the text.

Upon first enquiring about work at the Paradise, it is noted how Denise immediately experiences the threatening nature of Mouret’s store. It is said that: “She was so lost and small inside the monster, inside the machine, and although it was still idle, she was terrified that she would be caught up in its motion, which was already beginning to make the walls shake” (Zola 49). In this way, Zola sets up the war-like design of the Paradise. It becomes a dangerous force, a machine on the brink of explosion that seems to threaten society. The language Zola uses here equates the Paradise – and capitalism alike – with the hazards and might of an earthquake. In doing so, the Paradise becomes, spatially at least, a warfront.

Key to this depiction is the figure of Mouret himself, who reigns as dictator and warlord of the Paradise and thus epitomizes Marx and Engels’ assumption that: “To be a capitalist is to have not only a purely personal but a social status in production” (Marx 19). The ultimate capitalist, Mouret forcefully asserts his domination over the consumer masses of women and reinforces the brutality of his (male bourgeoisie) class: “He had even conquered the mothers themselves; he reigned over them all with the brutality of a despot, whose whims were wrecking families. His creation was producing a new religion […] it was part of the recurring struggle between a god and a husband, the ceaselessly renewed cult of the body, with the divine future of beauty” (Zola 427). Like historical figures of dictatorship, Mouret establishes his war on women through the subversion of both religion and the family unit; the latter in particular, which has historically been aligned to the feminine realm within patriarchal societies. His role as “a man of action” (Zola 94) in the landscape of the Paradise battle ground is to expose his “mechanism for crushing people [specifically women], and its brutal operation […]” (Zola 389). His presence, therefore, as well as the way in which Zola chooses to represent him, act as little more than a reinforcement of Zola’s war discourse and the players within it.

Zola takes his war discourse a step further and along with threatening implications and the despotic figure of Mouret, appeals to the reader’s senses. He uses sensuous imagery and acoustics to align the Paradise frontier with the chaos of battle. While waiting anxiously for customers to his big sale, Mouret notes the “deathly silence of the hall” (Zola 95). This haunting acoustic emptiness, the lack of life, foreshadows the damaging effect of Mouret’s exploitation of women. When Mouret is finished with his undressing and redressing of women, he will have killed the very thing itself and instead replaced it with the fictitious concept of Woman. In this way, in ideological terms at least, a death has occurred in Zola’s battle of the sexes; the obliteration of women in exchange for Woman. Equally, the imagery used to portray the Paradise itself aligns it with warfare in descriptions such as: “[…] there was an explosion of white bathed in flames […] There was nothing left but a blinding white light in which every tone of white was dissolving, a dusting of stars snowing in the general whiteness. In the midst of this blazing scene Mouret was still looking down at his nation of women” (Zola 426). The destruction and carnage encapsulated in this visual is indicative of the war that has taken place. It mutates traditionally images of beauty and finery and reveals them to be little more than blazing portrayals of annihilation. Indeed, even the employees fail to escape the combative nature of the store: “there was an endless scurrying of employees, their arms in the air, parcels flying above their heads; and all this was taking place in a storm of shouting, figures being called out, confusion growing and exploding in a tremendous din” (Zola 276). The repetition of words such as ‘explosion’/‘exploding’ are suggestive of the pandemonium of war; its chaotic essence and the disorder it results in. Thus the Paradise vista is utterly transformed and accentuates the fact that amidst the splendor of (a male-constructed) patriarchal bourgeoisie, there lies an insidious battle for dominance and control.

A final aspect to consider in Zola’s construction of a battleground is the Paradise’s use of advertisement. We are told that: “The Paradise was now spending nearly six hundred thousand francs a year on posters, advertisements, and appeals of every kind […] Newspapers and walls were plastered with advertisements, and the public was assailed as if by a monstrous brass trumpet relentlessly amplifying the noise of the great sales to the four corners of the globe” (Zola 393). The forceful nature of these advertisements elevates them to a level beyond mere persuasion. Rather, I contend, the systematic means of ensuring the public’s constant exposure to the Paradise is reflective of wartime propaganda. It uses relentless rhetorical invasion as a means to conquer and dominate. In this way, the Paradise – the battleground of the sexes – can never be fully forgotten. In attempting to be women outside of the realm of Mouret’s store, the female public are perpetually reminded of the social enforcement of the Woman and therefore will never fully escape it.

As such, with the establishment of the Ladies’ Paradise as a war environment, Zola launches his capitalist onslaught on women, who – in the guidance of a Marxist reading – he turns into “mere instruments of production” (Marx 22). The ideological replacement of flesh-and-blood women with the concept of Woman has already been touched upon. To build upon this, however, the creation of Woman is also aligned with the creation of a new commodity, as seen in Mouret’s understanding of their usage:

And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, adulated and humoured in her weaknesses, surrounded with attentions, she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood […] Mouret thus allowed the brutality of a Jew selling a Woman by the pound to show through […] They all belonged to him, they were his property, and he belonged to none of them. When he had extracted his fortune and his pleasure from them, he would throw them on the rubbish heap for those who could still make a living out of them (Zola 77).

It becomes clear very early on in the novel that in the capitalist battleground of the Paradise, women serve the role of products for exchange on a market. Paying with “flesh and blood” (Zola 75), women undergo a process of commodification and furthermore, propagate the disturbing war discourse of death, sacrifice, compromise and exchange. Once in the public world of commerce, women become sellable, exchangeable and at times worthless. Put quite simply, women are exchanged for Woman and Woman, as a commodity, is little more than a prostitute in the world of capitalism.

Zola’s attack extends further than mere ideology, however. He persists forthright in the disembodiment of the female form also. Like the sectioned Paradise, the female body is broken up into pieces as women purchase various items of clothing for various parts of the body. The mannequins – the physical representative of Woman – are the perfect example of this: “there was an army of mannequins without heads or legs, nothing but torsos lined up, their dolls’ breasts flattened under silk; they had the disturbing lewdness of the disabled” (Zola 409). Here, the construction of Woman at the hands of patriarchal capitalism finds itself fragmented, flattened under the materials of the Paradise itself and ‘disabled’, placed into a gendered position of incapacity. Again, Zola’s ‘army’ of mannequins is an army in pursuit of the destruction of women; an enforced bourgeois ideal that seeks to mutilate the body of women, as well as the concept.

And yet, there does remain a popular argument against this reading and against Zola’s warlike annihilation of women. This centres around Denise’s supposed ‘conquering’ of Mouret, who “felt an irrational need to be conquered” (Zola 429). And yet, what contentions such as this fail to acknowledge is the journey which Denise herself has undergone throughout the entire novel. She has become assimilated to the world of commerce (as well as its patriarchal ideals) and immersed herself in the capitalist machine of the Paradise. Denise herself acknowledges this:

She had to witness to the bitter end the inexorable workings of life, which requires the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion, moved to ears and brotherly love for the whole of suffering humanity. For years she had been caught in the wheels of the machine. Had she not shed her own blood in it? (Zola 388).

Thus, I argue that it is only through her destruction as a woman (and her rebirth as Woman) that Denise becomes equipped to ‘conquer’ Mouret, making this very victory superficial beneath the surface. While she may have conquered Mouret the man, Denise has not conquered Mouret the capitalist who has left for his legacy the perpetually turning wheels of the Paradise and the Woman ideology it created and maintains. While the class struggle between Denise-the-Woman and Mouret-the-man has arguably been resolved, the war between the bourgeois class and the ‘women class’ will inevitably continue in its history.

Works Cited:

Zola, Emile. The Ladies’ Paradise. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2012. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford:

Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Print.

Academic Essays: Authority in Jane Austen and Ian McEwan (May 2013)

The Exploration of Authority in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Ian McEwan’s Atonement

As this essay will contend, English novels such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Ian McEwan’s Atonement offer clear representations of the loss of authority. In addition to this, however, the authoritative deficit experienced in each text is counterbalanced with an omnipotent narrative commentary, as will be discussed. This contention can be best explored through four major arguments. Firstly, the absence of father figures in these novels perpetuates a disruption of the social order. Secondly, the failure of personal command is expressed through the deterioration of the ill or injured human body. Thirdly, the ironic use of the country house motif further highlights a lack of stability within the texts. Finally, this essay will then consider the execution of metafictional narrative authority as a means to counterbalance the aforementioned arguments.


In her essay on Jane Austen and female authorship, critic Deborah Kaplan comments on how: “the novel, like the psychoanalytical models applied to it, emerged in patriarchal cultures […] and celebrates bourgeois family life under the rule of the father” (Kaplan 534). Drawing on Kaplan’s argument, the role of the father in the social order of family life seems imperative. As such, the absence of a father figure can denote a serious lack of authority within the family unit. This loss of authority can be seen in Austen’s Mansfield Park, following the departure of Sir Thomas Bertram to Antigua. Upon deciding to perform in a play, Henry Crawford very poignantly asks: “what should prevent us?” (Austen 122). In doing so, he reminds readers of the missing authoritative force that should prevent such an act of misconduct. Edmund’s feeble attempt to dissuade the would-be actors from their pursuit of performance reinforces an awareness of that absence and the dangers such liberation poses. He states that: “my Father would totally disapprove it […] he would never wish his grown up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict” (Austen 125). However, what becomes clear is that Edmund’s bid to act as surrogate father to the unruly ambitions of the young people proves to be completely insufficient. Far from preventing his peers’ endeavours, he ultimately joins them in accepting the role of Anhalt and, as Anna Lott points out, “the Bertrams transgress the unstated rule of the absent Sir Thomas” (Lott 275). Sir Thomas himself later acknowledges his own errors in the upbringing of his children and it is stated that: “Here had been grievous mismanagement […] Something must have been wanting within” (Austen 459). Again, this epiphany draws attention to an absence that existed long before Maria’s affair with Mr. Crawford. The emphasis on the absence within is a reminder of Sir Thomas’s journey to Antigua and the negative impact of his vacancy within the family. This acknowledgement, therefore, highlights the irrevocable necessity of the father figure in the social order.

Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement offers a similar example of social disruption. It is in the absence of Jack Tallis, for example, that Lola is assaulted on domestic territory. When Mr. Tallis calls to inform his wife that he will not be home as expected, it is stated that Mrs. Tallis “rose immediately, without any start of surprise […] and called out as she always did” (McEwan 153). The familiarity with which Mrs. Tallis receives the news suggests that this absence is a regular occurrence and that the household is almost constantly without a father figure for guidance. In his work on McEwan and postmodernity, Bruno M. Shah states: “McEwan depicts a world wherein God’s significance lies in his indifferent absence” (Shah 39). Thus, it may be worthwhile to weave from this statement a broader concept of fatherhood. Here are two notions that parallel one another in a number of ways; firstly, there is God, the father of spirit, whose apparent role is one of moral guidance and spiritual salvation; then there is Jack Tallis, the father of flesh, whose role implies social instruction and physical protection. If, as Shah claims, the God-father fails to fulfil his role, then it seems the flesh-father is destined to do the same. Both are absent and as a result of this missing fatherly authority, “the worst” occurs with regards to Lola and Mr. Tallis is urged to return home (McEwan 154). Furthermore, this absence gives rise to a threat of a different nature, as David K. O’Hara argues: “[Briony’s] father, hardly a physical presence anymore, is away on business in London. Left to her own devices […] young Briony Tallis takes solace in her own imagination” (O’Hara 76). Here, O’Hara highlights the hazards of imaginative liberty and suggests that the dangerous threat of Briony’s unrestricted imagination is a result of Mr. Tallis’s absence. This is especially true in considering the inconsequentiality of Mrs. Tallis’s rule: “Whenever Mrs Tallis exercised authority in the absence of her husband, the children felt obliged to protect her from seeming ineffectual” (McEwan 128). Now ungoverned by authoritative leadership, Briony creates a fiction in her head of a maniac [Robbie] and feels compelled to “protect her sister against him, and then find ways of conjuring him safely on paper” (McEwan 157). It is this fiction that will ultimately separate the lovers and thus, lead Briony down her lifelong path of atonement. If, as O’Hara suggests, these imaginings could have been avoided merely by the presence of the commanding father figure, then the consequences of that absence become all the more poignant.


A second loss of authority explored in these texts is that of personal control, as seen in the case of Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park. It is described how: “Tom had gone […] to Newmarket, where a neglected fall, and a good deal of drinking, had brought on a fever” (Austen 422). In many ways, Tom’s ‘fall’ from health may be read as his punishment at the hands of the author due to the “thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits” (Austen 458). Stefanie Markovits, for example, argues that Austen essentially punishes her characters for their immoral actions. She writes: “Mansfield Park renders action a suspect category: good manners are not a guarantee of good morals; you must be good, not just do well. While principles must be active, bodies must not be” (Markovits 785). As such, Tom Bertram’s fall from health is reflective of the fact that he has already fallen from morality. Consequently, Tom loses not only his desire for the life of independence he previously lived, but also his physical ability to maintain that lifestyle. This is evident when Tom expresses “extreme impatience to be removed to Mansfield, and experience those comforts of home and family which had been little thought of in uninterrupted health” (Austen 424). No longer independent to live as he always has, Tom’s physical incapacity strips him of all personal authority and brings him back to the security of the domestic environment. Moreover, his ill-health diminishes his own capacity to take care of himself. Along with Edmund, for example, Tom was once described as having “all the grandeur of men” (Austen 12). Now however, Tom’s illness has reduced him to descriptions such as “the poor invalid”, “poor Tom” and he requires his younger brother’s attendance (Austen 422-423). As such, Tom’s loss of personal command seems to have delivered him to the authoritative level of a mere child.

            Like Tom, Robbie Turner’s loss of personal command in Atonement is as a result of his physical condition. After being wounded with what he assumes to be “A piece of shrapnel perhaps”, Robbie’s health begins to wane (McEwan 192). As a result of what is later discovered to be septicaemia, Robbie becomes somewhat fragmented as his mind starts to hallucinate. While at Bray Dunes, for example, Robbie decides to double back on his long journey in the hope of conversing with the dead: “But first he must cover the miles again, and go back north to the field where the farmer and his dog still walked behind the plough, and ask the Flemish lady and her son if they held him accountable for their deaths” (McEwan 263).


In this way, Robbie’s loss of authority can be seen in the dislocation of his mind from his body and his inability to align the two against the reality he faces. While Tom struggles with a lack of independence, Robbie contends with a lack of subjective unity. In his work on subjectivity and the body, Keith E. Collett remarks: “McEwan’s work deals with the struggle of the male subject within the postmodern environment of dislocation and fragmentation” (Collett 67). This statement becomes all the more poignant in consideration of Robbie’s physical position within the novel; he is dislocated from his home, from Celia and now, from his own body. Robbie himself briefly acknowledges this dislocation: “It was his mind. Periodically, something slipped. Some everyday principle of continuity, the humdrum element that told him where he was in his own story” (McEwan 246). Moreover, the psychological fragmentation displayed by Robbie is emblematic of the wider fragmentation of war, which leaves in its wake: “vehicles, bomb craters, detritus. There were more bodies” (McEwan 241). As such, Robbie’s loss of authority over his own mind and body is indicative of not only his personal disunity, but of the chaos of humanity in its entirety. 


Another argument to consider regarding the loss of authority in these novels is the ironic use of the country house motif, a symbol of fixed stability and safety from the outside world: “To be married is to be well-housed in the ideal materialization of the matrimonial state that is the space of the country house” (Kagawa 125). Yet in spite of this assertion, authors such as Austen and McEwan portray country homes that are often under threat from the outside world. In Mansfield Park, for example, the intrusion of public theatricals into the domestic space signifies the compromised authority of the home. Edmund tells his brother how the staging of a play at Mansfield would “be taking liberties with my Father’s house” (Austen 126). The elder Bertram brother retorts to this claim with: “His house shall not be hurt” (Austen 126). The focus in this exchange is on the well-being of the home, which is almost like a personified entity. What remains important is that the perimeters of the home are not breached by the intrusive otherness of the public world. Lott agrees with this and writes: “Edmund’s attempts to contain or control the danger of the theatricals by refusing to allow outsiders to participate demonstrate the family’s fear of the widespread danger […]” (Lott 283). While ultimately the country house is protected against public theatricals with the return of Sir Thomas, it remains vulnerable to the encroachment of the city. This is best seen in the disruptive role of the Crawfords, who “had been mostly used to London” (Austen 41). The day at Sotherton, for example, provides a suggestive parallel to the breach of the domestic space. While awaiting Mr. Rushworth’s return with the key for the ha-ha gate, Mr. Crawford tells Maria: “I think you might with a little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you […] could allow yourself to think it not prohibited” (Austen 98). In this instance, the gate – like the supposedly sturdy walls of the country home – is a barrier against the evils of the outside world; one that must not be penetrated. Yet, under Mr. Crawford’s ‘outsider’ influence, this frontier is dismissively ignored. Thus the protective barricades of the domestic as a whole are severely compromised and the traditional authority of the country house is undercut.

The same ironic vulnerability can be seen in the Tallis home in Atonement. Stephen Siddall comments on this lack of security in saying: “McEwan describes the driveway and, especially, the fountain in ways that both evoke the timeless security that the house in its landscape should provide, but which also undermine the potential idyll with social and aesthetic dislocation [emphasis added]” (Siddall 59).


Greater than the mere descriptive passages of the home, however, the Tallis estate – as with Mansfield before – comes under the threat of the outside world and consequently, loses its authoritative place within the country house motif. This is most evident at the close of the novel, when readers discover that Briony has “turned into the drive of Tilney’s Hotel” (McEwan 363). In the case of the Tallis home, the invasion of the outside world has triumphed and the domestic landscape has become public property. Briony herself feels this betrayal against the once-sacred country house and comments: “We were slowing now to let some golfers and their caddies cross. I couldn’t help thinking of them as trespassers” (McEwan 363). The irony here is that the country house, which traditionally offered stability, has now become a transient concept that is open to invasion. More importantly, it is no longer a space that embodies protection, but rather something that needs to be protected: “from a distance it had a stark and unprotected look” (McEwan 363). It is this ironic exposure of the once ‘safe’ country house that further demonstrates the loss of authority explored in these texts.

            The final argument of this essay considers not the loss of authority within the stories themselves, but instead, the maintenance of narrative authority by their authors. Through the strategy of metafiction, authors such as Austen and McEwan subvert their own depictions of lost authority and remind readers that these portrayals have always been fictitious constructs. In doing so, they showcase a narrative authority that counterbalances the arguments of above and provides a deeper layer of complexity in the exploration of authority as a whole. In her commentary on Mansfield Park, Felicia Bonaparte states: “Not infrequently in the narrative, and often in a mocking way, she [Austen] calls our attention to the fact that she is structuring her story not in imitation of life but in imitation of fiction, of the conventions of the form” (Bonaparte 46).


Bonaparte’s contention here can be seen in the many metafictional intrusions the author makes throughout the novel. A perfect example of this can be found in the final chapter, when Austen writes: “My Fanny indeed at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything” [emphasis added] (Austen 457). The use of the term ‘my’ in this instance highlights the reality of Fanny’s fictive makeup; Austen is calling attention to the fact that Fanny Price is a literary invention and that her course throughout the novel has been very carefully coordinated by her creator. Moreover, the use of the word ‘must’ here seems to be a comment on the genre of novels themselves. Erika Wright states that: “Novels trained their readers to expect conflicts that get resolved, longing that gets rewarded, beginnings that necessarily and steadily move toward an end” (Wright 378). As such, Austen uses this ‘must’ to subtly remark on the expected convention of novel endings. Fanny, in this case, must have been happy because such is the conventional fate of the novel heroine. Austen accentuates this reality both here and elsewhere in the novel, as when Maria and Mr. Rushworth dance “with each other at a proper number of balls” (Austen 39). Again, Austen is honing in on the conventionalities of novel-writing; she does not feel the need to specify a number, as she makes it clear how both she and her readers know what to expect. This kind of strategy ensures that Austen’s presence and her commentaries on the craft are not easily forgotten, thus solidifying her narrative authority throughout the text.

            Equally, McEwan’s somewhat macabre control over Atonement inscribes his place within the novel as its creator. While Austen’s metafictional discussion focuses on novel conventionality, McEwan’s discourse centres on the creation of fiction and its relationship with interpretation, as Brian Finney contends: “I read this novel as a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction” (Finney 69). This concern can be traced, firstly, through Briony’s own writing, which shows a literary lineage as the young author grows. Briony’s literary journey begins on the very first page with a Victorian melodrama: “At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue […]” (McEwan 3). Her progression from this form of writing into a later modernist style that “owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf”, evokes a sense of historical awareness (McEwan 312). The author is clearly embedding Briony’s text – and his own – within a literary history and begins his metafictional discourse with the making of fiction through the ages. However, more conspicuously, McEwan takes this discussion further through his subversion of reader expectation, as Pilar Hidalgo points out: “the reader discovers on the last page of part 3 that he or she has been deceived about the nature of the narratorial voice of the novel” (Hidalgo 85). Hidalgo is remarking, of course, on the revelation of Robbie and Celia’s deaths, which have been written out of Briony’s novel. In first-person narration, Briony states: “we will only exist as my inventions” (McEwan 371). She therefore draws attention to the God-like status of the author and the narrative authority that has always belonged to the author. Moreover, in passing this remark, Briony also draws attention to the fact she is not the real inventor; her own creator is McEwan himself. This supposed betrayal of reader expectation exists not for the sake of cruelty, but rather, to comment on the necessity of interpretation alongside creation in determining the outcome of the story. The lovers’ fate is dependent on both the author’s creation and also, the reader’s analysis. It is through this metafictional commentary on the process of invention that McEwan determines his narrative authority throughout the text and moreover, how he includes the reader in that authority.

In conclusion of the arguments made above, both Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Ian McEwan’s Atonement explore the loss of authority in a variety of ways. They do this through the absence of father figures, the portrayal of the ill and injured physical body and finally, the irony of the country house setting. Yet, despite these depictions, both authors demonstrate a narrative authority, which is expressed through the use of metafiction. In doing so, they remind readers of the fictive status of these texts. Thus, they undercut their own portrayals of lost authority and give a fresh dynamic to the exploration of authority as a whole.

Works Cited 

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin English Library, 2012. Print.

Bonaparte, Felicia. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery: The Ordination of the Text and the Subversion of ‘Religion in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park”. Religion and Literature 43:2 (July 2011): 45-67. EBSCO Premier.

Collett (II.), Keith E. Subjectivity and the Body in Novels by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Will Self, and Jeannette Winterson. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2008. 63-102. Print.

Finney, Brian. “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement”. Journal of Modern Literature 27:3 (Winter 2004): 68-82. JSTOR.

Hidalgo, Pilar. “Memory and Storytelling in Ian McEwan’s Atonement”. Critique 46:2 (January 2005): 82-91. EBSCO Premier.

Kagawa, P. Keiko. “Jane Austen, The Architect: (Re)Building Spaces at Mansfield Park”. Women’s Studies 35:2 (March 2006): 125-143. EBSCO Premier.

Kaplan, Deborah. “Achieving Authority: Jane Austen’s First Published Novel”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37:4 (March 1983): 531-551. JSTOR.

Lott, Anna. “Staging a Lesson: The Theatricals and Proper Conduct in Mansfield Park”. Studies in the Novel 38:3 (Fall 2006): 275-286. EBSCO Premier.

Markovits, Stefanie. “Jane Austen and the Happy Fall”. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 47:4 (Autumn 2007): 779-797. JSTOR.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

O’Hara, David K. “Briony’s Being-For: Metafictional Narrative Ethics in Ian McEwan’s Atonement”. Critique 52:1 (January 2011): 74-100. EBSCO Premier.

Shah, Bruno M. “The Sin of Ian McEwan’s Fictive Atonement: Reading his Later Novels”. New Blackfriars 90:1025 (January 2009): 38-49. EBSCO Premier.

Siddall, Stephen. Landscape and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 56-59. Print.

Wright, Erika. “Prevention as Narrative in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park”. Studies in the Novel 42:2 (Winter 2010): 377-394. EBSCO Premier.

Academic Essays: Scene Analysis of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” (March 2013)

The Failure of the Owning Self:

A Short Scene Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

As this analysis will contend, the use of things to represent the self who owns emphasises the illusory nature of individualism. The owning self fails to construct an autonomous and stable entity and consequently, fails to omit itself from a broader collective. This can be best explored through the Professor’s relationship to his detonator in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. More specifically, a close reading of the Professor’s conversation with Ossipon in chapter four of the text highlights two major arguments in relation to the above contention (Conrad 50-52). Firstly, the Professor’s reliance on his detonator gives way to the creation of fictitious ideologies and highlights the transient status of individualism. Secondly, the Professor’s bomb offers a false sense of security and thus blindly leads to the entrapment of the owning self within the wider collective.

It is clear that the Professor constructs his subjectivity almost exclusively through his detonator, claiming that his character is established via “Force of personality” (Conrad, 51). If the force in this instance is solely the Professor’s bomb, then his personality is determined only through ownership and possession of a material thing. The act of owning in this way becomes the foundation for the Professor’s individualism. He states that: “What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. […] Therefore I am deadly” (Conrad 51). Here, the Professor seems to manipulate René Descartes’ assertion that “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes 20). Instead, he centres his very existence around his bomb and the self who owns becomes the definition of the self in its entirety; as such, the Professor’s Cartesian creed becomes ‘I have, therefore I am’.

It is this dependence that gives rise to apocryphal ideology. The Professor’s ideological self, for example – his enforced brand of ‘deadly’ individualism – is thus marked as ephemeral. It depends upon the transient state of having and calls attention to the fact that the removal of his perfect detonator would surely strip him of his constructed subjectivity and the “superiority” he believes it gives him (Conrad 51). The Professor’s individual ‘am-ness’ therefore is little more than an evanescent belief, which could not exist without the use of things to represent it. He claims that his character “stands free from everything artificial […] I depend on death” (Conrad 51). However, he fails to acknowledge the artificiality of an ideology that finds a bedrock in a bomb; something that is, in many ways, out of his control. Moreover, his ability to inflict death on himself and others is circumstantial and the threat of this power being removed is not only possible, but ever-present in the wider context of the novel.

The transitory calibre of the Professor’s ideology is reinforced by the language he uses throughout this passage. The very accusations he makes against the propagandists ironically act as mirrored truths regarding himself. He tells Ossipon: “You see, you can’t bear the mention of something conclusive” (Conrad, 51). Yet, as has been touched upon, the instability of the owning self is in fact a model for inconclusiveness. There can be only indeterminacy in the reliance on temporal things, or at the very least, things that are not guaranteed to be within his control at all times. Verbs such as “depend”, adjectives such as “bound”, along with nouns such as “restraint” and “connection” all suggest a tone of hindrance (Conrad 51). This sense of restriction satirically accentuates the insufficiency of the Professor’s authoritative self. Because it relies on possession for the source of its power, the limitations of his individualism thus permeate through his own speech patterns. Furthermore, along with hinting at this encumbrance, he also exposes the mock capacity of his identity, notably using words such as: “impression”, “artificial” and “posturing” (Conrad 51). In making his allegations against the revolutionists, the Professor unknowingly redirects the focus back onto himself and leaves his thing-inspired ideology at a point of vulnerable exposure. Therefore, what becomes clear is that the hyperbolic emphasis he places on falsity does little more than imply that he and the propagandists are “Like to like” (Conrad 52).

More than merely failing to construct a stable notion of individuality, the Professor’s relationship to his bomb also paradoxically places him firmly within the wider collective of social convention. In this passage, he tells Ossipon: “You revolutionists […] are the slaves of the social convention, which is afraid of you; slaves of it as much as the very police that stands up in defence of that convention […] It governs your thought, of course, and your action too […]” (Conrad 52). Once again, Conrad plays with irony. While the Professor so pointedly condemns the politics of Ossipon and his fellow propagandists, he also inadvertently unveils his own inability to escape the broader social narrative.

Drawing on Frederic Jameson’s thinking on dialogism in the expression of opposing class discourses, the Professor here highlights the plight of every character in Conrad’s novel, even beyond this one passage. For example, while his detonator is emblematic of his anti-establishment persona, it also blinds him from the realisation that he himself works under a shared social code. To create his individuality, the Professor must carry his bomb, the material thing that represents his removal from and resistance to social convention. To form any means of resistance, however, the Professor overlooks the necessity of that very convention. In order to resist, there must be something to resist to. His detonator, therefore, functions contradictorily as the symbol of his individual ideology, but also, as the reminder that he is participating in a larger social dynamic. His own resistance thus becomes his active contribution and, in this sense, the Professor is a ‘slave’ like the revolutionists. He cooperates as an antagonist within the unity of a common code in a process he himself calls “counter moves in the same game” (Conrad 52). Adding to this point, the Professor specifically refers to this dynamic as a “little game” (Conrad 52). The adjective here is indicative of the fact that this game is taking place within the broader context of a political collective and is a mere discourse in a wider social sphere. As such, the Professor’s ownership of a material thing in defining his individualism is in itself defined by an inescapable composite.

Lastly, it is worth noting the Professor’s statement that this game showcases “forms of idleness at bottom identical” (Conrad 52). The term idleness in this case suggests that only action is the realisation of ideology. Once more, the Professor does little but draw attention to his own state of ideological paralysis. Considering this statement in the broader context of the novel, it is important to remember that his detonator – the symbol that ensures his characteristic “safety” (Conrad 50) – is never used. If the bomb never goes off then consequently his own individualism is never realised. By virtue of the fact that the detonator is the Professor’s only means of resisting the social order, then his place within the wider collective is solidified by his inability to accomplish this resistance, even on his own terms.

To conclude, this passage highlights two major considerations in relation to the use of things in representing the self who owns. Firstly, it exposes the Professor’s individuality as transient and dependent, and secondly, it showcases the inability of his would-be individualism to remove itself from a wider collective; both of these arguments are made evident through the Professor’s relationship to his perfect detonator, as explored. Therefore, it is feasible to say that the utilisation of things in Conrad’s The Secret Agent successfully depicts the failure of the owning self and the artificiality of individualism. 

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Descartes, René. “Of the Principles of Human Knowledge”. Selections from the Principles of Philosophy. Middlesex: Echo Library, 2009. 19-41. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Oxon: Routledge, 2002. Print.

althairuniverse asked
Hi Miss Waters, So sorry to bother you. Just wanted to say I am a massive fan and I am so shocked that I have only just found your tumblr. My name is Gillie and I'm in my second year at University studying Journalism. I struggle with essays but I'm not sure how I struggle. I just feel like I blab on and don't make a good academic essayist but this is a requirement for the course. I read lot and have everything I need for the essay. Just wondering do you have any advice? Thankyou in advance xoxo

Hi Gillie, thanks for your message (and good lord, call me Leanne or else I’ll feel like my mother!) I’m no guru when it comes to essays but I think organisation is the key and it’s good structure that has helped me keep a solid 4.0 GPA for a long time now. Use a four-point plan (or a 3-point plan) i.e.

Let’s say I’m asked to write a 2,000 word essay. This is how I would (and always do) break it down:

Introduction – 150 words

  • Make a thesis statement - You will make a number of arguments throughout the essay but they should all feed into one overall contention. Now your grader knows exactly what you’re going to be arguing for the entire essay right from the word go.
  • Outline how you’re going to argue your contention. I usually go with four arguments. (As in, This contention can be seen in four major ways, which include…) Now your grader knows almost exactly what you’re going to talk about in your essay and your intro is done.

Argument 1 – 425 words

  • State very clearly what your argument is
  • Show evidence of your argument in the given text you’re looking at for your essay
  • Support your argument with critical reference (i.e.) someone who has made academic commentary on this topic and agrees with you (always cite, never plagiarise to any extent!)
  • Finally, explain how this argument contributes to your overall contention (your thesis). And do the same for each of your four arguments

Argument 2 – 425 words

Argument 3 – 425 words

Argument 4 – 425 words

Conclusion – 150 words

  • Pull your 4 arguments of above together and summarise what you have said for each. Then make clear once more how all this proves your original contention in your introduction.

I’ve done this for literally every single essay I’ve ever written regardless of what’s being asked. Once you have a solid structure, you can make very clear arguments and it becomes easier to organize what it is you’re trying to say. Obviously, don’t forget to format correctly and use paragraphs where necessary (I’m sure you don’t need me telling you things like that!) and cite all your references, both to your primary text and your critical support. I have recently put up several academic essays on my blogs for educational purposes. You should perhaps read one or two to get a better idea of how the structure works out. The Dickens essay or the Godwin essay might be the best ones to look at for structural purposes. And of course, you don’t always need to use 4 arguments, that’s just what I tend to do. If you have 3 good arguments, then redefine your word allowance on each argument accordingly. I would avoid going beyond 4 arguments though, as I’m sure you have a limited word count. I know Journalism is not the same as literature, but I do very much believe that the same rules apply. I hope this has helped in some way. The very best of luck in your studies!


Academic Essays: Violence & Masculinity in Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia” (March 2013)

Violence and Masculinity in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia: A Feminist Reading.

The exploration of violence and masculinity in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia acts as a means to question performative gender roles and moreover, to accentuate the failure of misogynist patriarchy within Cather’s text. This contention can be argued through four major incidents revolving around, firstly, the concept of masculinity and secondly, the intrusions of violence within the narrative. These include Ántonia’s rejection of a performative female role; Lena Lingard’s enabling presence in the development of male subjectivity; Wick Cutter’s attempted rape of Ántonia; and finally, Pavel’s feeding of the bride to the wolves.

            In his seminal work on “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”, Slavoj Žižek bases his thesis around the creation of the fictitious Ideal Lady and states that: “Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal” (Žižek, 2408). Taking from Žižek’s argument, the dynamic of the relationship between Jim and Ántonia calls into question the gendered subjectivity of both. Ántonia’s assumption of a masculinised persona from an early age subverts her own femininity and, in turn, compromises the ideological bedrock upon which Jim must build his own notions of masculinity. Ántonia tells Jim: “I ain’t got time to learn. I can work like mans now” (Cather, 70). In doing so, she not only comments on her androgyny, but equates masculinity with physical labour; something that Jim is not, nor will ever be, familiar with. If working on the farm is masculinised, then it means that the scholarly work Jim ultimately dedicates himself to is feminised in exchange. Thus, Ántonia inverts the normative gender roles within Jim’s scope of understanding and leaves him “feeling vexed” (Cather, 71). 

More than merely complicating the development of Jim’s male subjectivity, however, Ántonia fails to satisfy his expectations of the feminine Ideal. She rejects the Žižekian Lady forthright and Jim notes how: “Ántonia ate so noisily now, like a man, and she yawned often at the table and kept stretching her arms over her head, as if they ached” (Cather, 72). In order to accomplish Jim’s self-indulgent Ideal, Ántonia must become a blank canvas on which he may begin to create his own subjectivity. This would require what Žižek describes as the “mortification of the flesh-and-blood woman” (Žižek, 2409). Ántonia must adopt the femaleness of a “space that is not a space” (Kroetsch, 112). She must become an empty vacuum – a non-entity – which Jim can then fill with his growing ideologies of both masculinity and femininity. However, Ántonia disappoints him in this regard and her loss of femininity becomes antagonistic and dangerous to the domination of misogyny. This is clear when Jim’s grandmother expresses her fears of Ántonia losing her “nice ways”, to which Jim notes: “She had lost them already” (Cather, 72). Ántonia has not just lost her nicefemale ways in this instance, but has shattered Jim’s illusionary Lady, undercut his masculinity by comparison and threatened the extent of his gendered authority within his own narrative. Opening a discussion on the position of Willa Cather, Deborah G. Lambert states: “Although such a woman is, and knows she is sexually female, in her professional life she is neither female nor male” (Lambert, 677). Lambert’s reflection on Cather becomes very poignant in this argument and brings to light how Ántonia, like Cather herself, must become somewhat genderless in order to succeed in her labours. Jim’s evident frustration at her rejection of a gendered identity only stands to further insist the failure of patriarchal command over both Ántonia and Cather’s text as a whole.

In stark contrast to Ántonia’s masculinisation, Lena Lingard’s sexualised femininity functions as an enabling presence in the development of male subjectivity. Lena becomes the epitome of man’s other and a necessity in the formation of Jim’s concept of masculinity. Simone De Beauvoir writes that: “To men’s eyes the opacity of the self-knowing self, of the pour-soi, is denser in theother who is feminine” (De Beauvoir, 1268). Working off this contention, Jim may thus know himself as a man only through knowing his opposite; in this case, Lena as a woman. His reunion with Lena while he is at university confirms that Jim is in a process of stabilizing his masculinity – or at least attempting to – after the threats that Ántonia posed to it while growing up. Regarding his relationship to Lena, Jim comments: “Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man” (Cather, 148). Lena Lingard’s conformity to the Žižekian Lady-Thing allows Jim to project his ideological masculinity through her. As is made evident by this statement, Jim believes he has finally, if only temporarily, found stability as a masculine subject and a fixed certainty within the text’s depiction of paternalism. 

Once again, however, his ability to perform adequately within the perimeters of paternal masculinity is disrupted. This time, with Ántonia only a mere remembrance, it is Jim himself who undercuts his gendered identity. He discontinues the relationship with Lena, claiming: “I even tried to persuade myself that I was standing in Lena’s way – it is so necessary to be a little noble!” (Cather, 155). This confessional statement suggests Jim’s uncertainty regarding the motives for his decision. As such, the stability that was momentarily stumbled upon becomes unravelled and Jim fails to live up to the version of masculinity that Lena has so adequately outlined for him. Instead, like Ántonia before him, Jim rejects the paternal gender role to which he is assigned and prioritizes his academia; a career that has already been feminised to a certain extent by Ántonia’s masculinised labour work, as argued above. In this way, Jim’s dismissal of Lena Lingard’s enabling otherness reinforces the fact that not only have the performative gender roles been resurrected and undermined, but patriarchal domination has failed in the construction of male subjectivity. Jim’s recurring dream of the sexualised Lena also contributes to this failure. He states that: “I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Ántonia, but I never did” (Cather, 123). In the case of Jim’s relationship to Lena later in life, he actively chooses to renounce the prescribed patriarchy. But when it comes to Ántonia, he is simply unable to assimilate to it. Jim’s inability to sexualise the androgynous Ántonia once more highlights the deficiency of patriarchal masculinity.

It is Judith Butler, of course, who underpins the aforementioned argument on the performative nature of gender roles. In her discussion on “Gender Trouble”, she claims that: “gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real” (Butler, 2541). This is never more true than in Jim’s illusionary construction of masculinity, as explored in the previous two cases. Along with providing theoretical support for the above assertions, Butler also grounds the third argument of this essay in stating that: “This ‘body’ often appears to be a passive medium that is  signified by an inscription from a cultural source figured as ‘external’ to that body” (Butler, 2542). It is here that a discussion may be opened on the intrusions of violence within the narrative. The presence of violence may be argued as an external force with which the body must contend and thus the ramifications of violent inscriptions are paramount in understanding both gender roles and patriarchy. 

With this in mind, the first incident of violence to consider is Wick Cutter’s attempted raped of Ántonia. Fearing Cutter’s return to his home in the night while she is alone and in a state of vulnerability, Ántonia urges Jim to take her place. Thus, upon the predicted return, Jim states that: “The hand that held my shoulder was instantly at my throat. The man became insane; he stood over me, choking me with one fist and beating me in the face with the other, hissing and chuckling and letting out a flood of abuse” (Cather, 135). Jim’s exposure to this brutality is underscored with the knowledge that this was initially intended as an act of sexual violence. The fact that he has taken Ántonia’s place is poignant in understanding how this scene of violence has once more, inverted the prescribed gender roles of patriarchy. The assault highlights Jim’s emasculation; he has literally taken the place of a woman and his body becomes feminised through violent inscription. 

More than merely questioning illusionary gender dictations, however, the attack undermines the heteronormative compulsion of patriarchal society. The suggestion of sexual male-to-male aggression and the homoerotic implications this makes, once more dismantles the stability of Jim’s masculinity. After the attack, Jim comments that: “I heard Ántonia sobbing outside my door, but I asked grandmother to send her away. I felt that I never wanted to see her again. I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness” (Cather, 135). The ‘disgustingness’ to which Jim refers is not merely the physical injuries suffered by his body, but more importantly, the figurative inscriptions to his hetero-male subjectivity. The hostility Jim vents towards Ántonia, therefore, is a manifestation of Jim’s frustration with his compromised masculinity and the failing system of social patriarchy; neither of which could have been realised without Cutter’s display of midnight violence. 

The second intrusion of violence to consider is Pavel’s savage murdering of the Russian bride. In her discourse on sexuality in the work of Cather, Blanche H. Gelfant claims that: “the real danger to man is woman…his protection lies in avoiding or eliminating her” (Gelfant, 74). This statement is never more applicable than in the case of the Russian brothers’ tale. When hungry wolves descend on a wedding party and the brothers’ sledge comes very nearly under siege, it is stated that: “He [Pavel] called to the groom that they must lighten – and pointed to the bride…Pavel knocked him [the groom] over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him” (Cather, 38). What physically takes place here is of monumental importance to patriarchy; Pavel felt the need to sacrifice a woman onboard his sledge in order to survive. The literal survival of the Russian men in this instance becomes the figurative survival of male dominance and patriarchy. Accordingly, it is the female subjectivity – represented here in the physical body of the only woman – that must be thrown to the wolves to ensure the continuation of male supremacy. Drawing on Gelfant’s argument, Pavel’s story is emblematic of the elimination of the physical woman and more notably, female subjectivity; a contention that finds its roots in the aforementioned work of Simone De Beauvoir. Even Jim – who is in the midst of establishing his own masculinity – admits that this story gives him a “painful and peculiar pleasure” (Cather, 39). This admission only serves to reinforce the paternal mentality that Jim is then attempting to assimilate to. 

However, the failure of this patriarchal act becomes evident upon learning of the brothers’ fate: “they had been alone ever since. They were run out of their village…Wherever they went, the story followed them” (Cather, 38). The irony that this reality presents is that while the symbolic act of murdering the female body was intended to promote misogynist dominion, that very act then diminishes it. It is the brothers who suffer the inscription of this violent patriarchy and are haunted by the ramifications of that violence for the rest of their lives. It must also be remembered that the sacrificing of the female body also came at the cost of the male body of the groom. Therefore, an act that seems to champion paternal authority is destabilized by the fact that it is that very ideology which is thwarted in the process. 

In conclusion of the arguments made above; the masculinisation of Ántonia in the form of farm labour jeopardises a patriarchal understanding of both her own femininity and Jim’s masculinity; Jim’s rejection of the sexualised otherness of Lena’s femininity discredits his devotion to the paternal construction of masculinity; the sexual implications of Wick Cutter’s onslaught violates Jim’s understanding of gender roles; and finally, Pavel’s sacrifice of the physical female to the wolves and consequent exile from his community accentuates the failure of misogynist dominance. Therefore, as is clear by the arguments presented here, the exploration of violence and masculinity in Cather’s text challenges prescribed gender roles and gives prominence to the failure of patriarchy within the novel.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 2540-2553. Print. 

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print. 

De Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1265-1273. Print. 

Gelfant, Blanche H. “The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia”. American Literature 43:1 (March 1971): 61-82. EBSCO Premier.

Kroetsch, Robert. “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space”.Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House: Five Decades of Criticism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 111-120. Print. 

Lambert, Deborah G. “The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Ántonia”. American Literature 53:4 (January 1982): 676-690. JSTOR.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 2407-2427. Print.