Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

Franz Kafka’s absurdist short story ” The Metapmorphosis” opens with Gregor Samsa waking up to discover he has been transformed into a monstrously sized cock roach. The scene that ensues is a comedy of errors where Gregor struggles to get out of his room while his family attempt to placate his office manager and reassure him that Gregor will be at work. When his transformation is discovered, Gregor frantically looks to stops his officer manager from fleeing, knowing that his position as travelling salesman would be lost.

Now Kafka drops the reader right into the midst of his story, with Gregor’s transformation – why it happens – left an unexplained mystery. Rather, what Kafka chooses to focus on is Gregor’s contemplating his life as a salesman: ” ‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘what a hard job I picked for myself!'” Gregor laments the isolation, the weariness, and the anxiety that comes with his work.  What keeps Gregor in this job is his family’s financial dependence on him: we learn that his father had been out of work for five years, while his mother and sister have become reliant on their maid for much of the household chores. With his transformation, Gregor no longer is able to support his family.

Gregor’s transformation into a cock roach leads to his existential crisis. Here’s a very basic understanding of existentialism. Does a dog ever wonder what it means to be a dog? Or how to be a dog? A dog just knows he is a dog. A dog does not question his “doggi-ness.” Humans, on the other hand, are constantly faced with these questions. We wonder what is our purpose, how are to act as humans, what is our role, etc. For some, the presence of a Divine entity supplies these answers, yet, in a secular world, these existential questions persist. Humanity is plagued or, from different perspective, has the freedom to search for meaning, which may or may not exist.

To return to Gregor’s situation, we are given no reason for this transformation, no meaning behind his becoming a cockroach. In his new condition, he struggles to act as a human and to find what his role in the family. However, there is no place in the world for him. His family confines Gregor to his room, while at one point, his father nearly kills him. In the absence of Gregor’s financially taking care of his family, they have all take on work outside the house. Finally, the family decides they no longer can care for Gregor. He no longer has a role in their world and and is rejected by his family. His family, too, has gone through a metamorphosis, particularly his sister, Grete, who has “blossomed into a good-looking and well-developed girl.”

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Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”

So who are “good country people”? Are they “the salt of the earth,” as Ms. Hopewell? Are they those who simply haven’t “taken off the blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see,” as Joy/Hulga claims? Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” explores this tension between mother’s and daughter’s points of view.

The story opens with Mrs. Hopewell, a divorced landowner, and her thirty-two year old  daughter, Joy. Mrs. Throughout the story, Mrs. Hopewell defends her belief in “good country” against her daughters cynicism and nihilism. (Nihilism being a philosophy that sees religion or any belief in a Divine Power as false and used to keep people in subjugation. To perceive that all that exists is what we experience in the physical world liberates an individual, according Nihilism.) For Mrs. Hopewell, the belief in “good country people” becomes central to her worldview, the belief in salvation of the world. (Did you notice the significance of her name- Hopewell?) As she responds to Manely’s challenge, “Why, I think there aren’t enough good country people in the world […]I think that’s what’s wrong with it!”

Counterpoised to Mrs. Hopewell is Joy/Hulga’s view of the naivete of those her mother calls “good country people.” The passage Mrs. Hopewell finds underlined reveals Joy/Hulga’s nihilism:

“If science is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing.”

To unpack this key passage, science’s goal is to prove the lack of connection between the physical and spiritual, to show existence is entirely confined to our material reality and empty it of any Divine presence. Reading this passage attacks the very core of Mrs. Hopewell’s belief structure.

Enter into this dispute Manley Pointer, a travelling Bible salesman. For Manley, “good country people” becomes a term to manipulate others. He uses the term to win over Mrs. Hopewell: “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!” He pretends to share her belief that true morality exists among these “real genuine folks,” among whom Mrs. Hopewell claims to be.

For Joy/Hulga, Manley is seen as again those unenlightened whom she sees herself above. The night before her rendezvous with Manley she dreams of seducing him. However, what happens reverse Joy/Hulga’s expectations. Having encouraged her up to the barn loft, Manley pressures her into showing him her prosthetic leg and having him remove it. Manley then goes on to reveal his own nihilism: his guise as “good country people” is a ploy to sell Bibles and lure vulnerable women into stealing  from them. As he claims, “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.”  O’Connor leaves us with both Mrs. Hopwell’s and Joy/Hulga’s worldviews having been exploded.

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Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” an excerpt from The Invisible Man

William Edward Bughardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was the first black person to earn a doctorate in America and would go on to be a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. In 1909 he founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, what Du Bois is most remembered for is his writing examining the position of black people in America during the Jim Crow Era. In The Soul of  Black Folks (1903), Du Bois writes:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, 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; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

What Du Bois describes here is the psychological impact of racism on black Americans:  to live and be part of a country that treats them with contempt. To be black in America is to have two identities: yourself and that which is imposed on you by a society that rejects you. As Du Bois understood racism from a sociologist’s point of view, America does not allow a person to be both black and American.  With Du Bois’s lens of being black in America, I want to turn to Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” an excerpt from his masterpiece The Invisible Man.

“…our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days”

The excerpt you read opens with Ellison’s narrator, who is left nameless throughout the novel, recounting his grandfather’s dying words. His grandfather, having been born a slave, claims black people must live with their “head in the lion’s mouth” and that the only means of survival is “to undermine ’em with grins.” The narrator’s parents are perplexed by these words, and they hang over the narrator as a “curse.”

The narrator tells the story of having been invited to give his valedictorian speech to a group of leading white men at an evening event. Contrary to the narrator’s expectations, the event turns out to a drunken, violent gathering. When arriving at the hotel, the narrator finds that he is forced to participate in a battle royal, where a group of young black men are blind-folded and set upon each other. As they enter the hall, the narrator is taken back to see these pillars of the white community drunk, gluttoning themselves, and smoking cigars. The narrator witnesses a stripper performing for these white men, who are barely stopped from raping her. Following the stripper’s escape, the narrator and the other young black men are thrown into a box ring and threats of violence a hurled at them. The fight concludes with the the group of young black men forced to scramble for money on an electrified rug.

Throughout the violence and humiliation suffered, the narrator continues to worry about giving his speech: “The harder we fought the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?” Ellison emphasizes here the absurdity of the narrator’s wanting to win the respect of these “leading citizens.” Finally, the narrator delivers his speech, with a swollen eye and a mouth full of blood. The narrator speaks about casting buckets down, citing Booker T. Washington who advocates that the way for the white South and black people to coexist was for the former to see the latter as source of labor. Many criticized Washington for arguing black people to become subservient to whites. As a reward for his speech, the narrator is given a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.

While the narrator and his family prize the scholarship, his dream of his grandfather taking him to the circus undermines it. Here the scholarship is revealed to be a short message:

“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

The danger of the education will received is that it will be another form of control, just as the Battle Royal had been.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits”

On the surface, Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” seems a rather simple melodrama. The story opens with Misse May Banks bathing, waiting for her husband, Joe, to come home. He enters with his weekly ritual of throwing nine silver dollars into the kitchen. The newlywed couple play fight and flirt. After dinner, Joe tells Missie May about Slemmon, a supposedly wealthy ice cream-palor owner who had recently moved to Eatonville. That night Joe introduces his wife to Slemmon. The betrayal! Joe comes home to find his wife in bed with Slemmon. In the midst their scuffle, Joe grabs Slemmon’s gold-plated fifty cent piece. The couple become estranged for a period. One morning, after making love, Joe leaves the gold-plated fifty cent piece on the bed for Missie May. As she examines it further, she discovers that the piece is only gilded gold, having only a thin layer of gold sheeting over it. (A fake, in other words!) The story concludes with Missie May giving birth to a son, and Joe continuing his tradition of throwing money in the doorway of their home.

“The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood”

What a strange ritual Missie May and Joe shared: Joe’s throwing nine silver dollars through the doorway before coming into their home? Hurston in this story explores the economics underpinning marriage, how the roles in the couple’s marriage are defined through financial transactions.  To Joe’s tossing the money through the door, Missie May playfully responds: “Nobody’s ain’t gointer be chuckin’ money at me and Ah not doe’em nothin.” Missie May, even a mock fight they have, points to the financial exchange between husband and wife.

In staying with this flirtatious ritual, Joe must provide the nine silver dollars as almost an entry fee. In away, this exchange reinforces the home is Missie May’s domain. As she reminds, “Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath.” In other words, Missie May’s status as a “real wife” comes from her efficiency at household chores. What Hurston does in her account of the Bank’s marriage exposes the Gender Division of Labor, how in modern Western understanding of marriage women’s labor is confined to the domestic realm, while men work in the public sphere.

Missie May’s betrayal of Joe, her having sex with Slemmon, is a betrayal on two levels then. First, on an emotional level, Missie May commits adultery. On another level, she violates this Gender Division of Labor. “Oh, Joe, honey, he said he [Slemmon] wuz gointer gimme dat gold money and he jes’ kept on after me-,” Missie May explain that she slept with Slemmon as an financial arrangement. She would then be the one to bring money into the home, not Joe.

The ending provides a questionable restoration of Joe and Missie May’s happiness. Having given birth to a son, Joe travels to Orlando to purchase her some candies and presents, as he had done before. When he comes home, he throws 15 silver dollars across the front door. Missie May’s value has increased. I think what Hurston does so well in this story in exposing the disturbing aspect of Joe and Missie May’s flirtations in the beginning of the story. Hurston shows Joe being as much at fault for perpetuating the economic exchange within in marriage. Like Slemmon, he too engages in buying Missie May’s labor, sexual and domestic. The final scene loses its romanticized ideal and is reduced to Joe’s paying Missie May for her labor.

 

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Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carry”

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” published in 1986, would become the opening story to his acclaimed collection (1990) titled the same. O’Brien is widely considered the author that has shaped U.S. understanding of the experience of soldiers during the Vietnam War. In this story, O’Brien recounts Lt. Jimmy Cross’s psychological trauma at witnessing Ted Lavender’s being shot and killed by a sniper.

This story has much that is problematic with it. For example, did you notice how the Vietnamese become mostly a backdrop for the emotional drama the US soldiers experience? Alpha Company’s burning of the village along the Than Khe is almost incidental to the main plot. Critics of O’Brien see him as erasing the Vietnamese and their suffering to make the war almost exclusively about the Americans. Acknowledging this concern, I wanted to focus this blog post on how war is both disorienting and alienating for those fighting it.

“Imagination is a Killer”

Similar to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” O’Brien story jumps around in its timeline and space. The central event of the story is Ted Lavender’s death, which is revealed at the  beginning.  However, O’Brien does tell his story chronologically, but goes back and forth from Cross’s obsessing over Martha and cataloging the equipment his men carry. What should probably catch our attention is how little time O’Brien spends on Lavender’s death.

…when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhoooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing.

When the story begins to return to Lavendar’s death, it seems to just veer off to talking about all that the soldiers carry with them or Cross’s thoughts about Martha and her  world that is completely foreign to him. Now consider the scene O’Brien presents when Kiowa keeps trying to talk about Lavender’s death with the rest of the men and their response to shut down the conversation. Much like the men, except Kiowa, want to avoid thinking about Lavender’s death, the story mirrors their reaction by diverting our attention elsewhere.

“…there’s a definite moral here.”

The predominant trope that O’Brien employs is the cataloging all of the equipment by weight and the personal effects each soldier carries with them.   O’Brien uses these lists to reveal the emotional weight that burdens them as well:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangible, but the intangible had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

What O’Brien draws our attention to is the greatest weight they carry with them is the fear of revealing their fear: “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” In other words, they all share this sense of humiliation of not living up to the expectation of being a solider, of not pulling your weight. As O’Brien writes, “It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.” Being a soldier, for O’Brien, becomes more of a part that each man must play rather than an innate quality.

This theme of playing the part of a solider is how Cross reacts to Lavender’s death, which he takes responsibility for. Cross burns Martha’s letters and will throw away her lucky pebble and commits to acting more like a commanding officer:”[B]ut from this point on he would comport himself as a solider.” As Cross reflects on how he will change, he becomes very conscience of his mannerism: “He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, and he would issue the SOPs in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, an officer’s voice…” Again, O’Brien presents being soldier as a form of play-acting. War, in this story, alienates soldiers from themselves.

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Ray Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains”

I have to confess, the most luxurious, decadent purchase I have made in the past 3 years has been an automatic grind-and-brew coffee maker! Being able to walk downstairs smelling the freshly brewed coffee and having my cup ready has transformed my mornings. In “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” Ray Bradbury reveals the danger in my new morning routine.

Much of science fiction has been devoted to problematizing our belief that technology is inherently beneficial to humanity. A great example of this comes in Jurassic Park (1996): in a twist on the Frankenstein-motif, scientist genetically resurrect dinosaurs, who ultimately take over the theme park. As one of the characters, Dr. Ian Malcolm, succinctly articulates this tension – science is about the “could” and does not consider the “should.” Science fiction has then an either-or/zero-sum approach to technological advancement.

What’s most interesting about Bradbury’s short story is presents the future as neither a dystopian or utopia . The reader is simply shown a world where technology has continued without humanity, a world indifferent to our absence.

The story opens with the automated house starting its morning routine: a synthetic voice chimes, “Seven o’clock, time to get up,” while breakfast is prepared by the kitchen. This world is not unfamiliar to us today. With the emergence of The Internet of Things , we have gained the ability to our homes control the temperature, monitor the front door, let us know when we are low on milk, and even feed out pets.

Only as the story moves the reader to home’s exterior do we learn what has happened to the McClellan family who once lived in the home:

The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

Bradbury reveals we are in a post-nuclear holocaust world. The “photographs” here are the burnt outlines of the family the moment they were incinerated. Bradbury draws from the images of the aftermath following the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most disturbing about Bradbury’s future is how technology will simply go on without us. The home, who turns out to be the main character, is indifferent to the absence of the McClellans.  A moment this becomes most evident is when the house selects a poem to read, Sara Teasdale’s “There will come soft rains.” Teasdale undercuts the humanity’s vanity arguing for Nature’s indifference:

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The question that we as readers must address is whether Bradbury’s story is a warning about our seeking salvation in technology or simply the inevitable result of our advancing technology, a world without us.

 

 

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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

How do rituals organize our modern lives? How do we lose the original meaning of rituals? In what ways do we use rituals to sanction meaningless violence? Shirley Jackson explores these questions in her much anthologized short story, “The Lottery.”

The story opens innocently enough on June 27th with three boys, Bobby Martin, Harry Jones, and Dickie Delacriox, putting stones in their pockets. Today is the lottery, about which the reader gets let information. Early on we learn that the lottery is run by Mr. Summers, and the entire village must participate in it. We are not told its purpose, and its original intent seems to have been lost to all the village except for Old man Warner. He hints at the lottery was believed to be connect with a good harvest, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” An atmosphere of anxiety pervades as each family gathers for the ritual.  The heads of the family each come forward to take a slip of paper from an decaying box. We then learn that Bill Hutchinson has chosen the slip with a black circle on it. Tessie Hutchinson protests that Bill was not given enough time to choose. Each member of the Hutchinson family, including their children Bill, Jr., Nancy, and Davy, select slips of paper. Tessie discovers she has selected the final black circle. The story closes with Tessie being stoned to death. (Even Mrs. Delacroix picks a rock that she must lift with both hands!)

The question Jackson puts front and center is why the village still goes through with the lottery. As Mr. Adams points out, other villages have stopped the lottery, to which Old Man Warner rebukes him. Most seem to have either forgotten or ignored that the lottery comes out of the irrational belief that through ritual human sacrifice the village will enjoy a good harvest. The ritual of the lottery has lost its solemnity – Ms. Summers laughs during the selection and “much of the paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago.” People had talked about making a new box, “but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.”

So, again, why do the villagers adhere to this tradition? Does it comes out of a sense of fear? Is it just blind, unthinking devotion to rituals outdated? Or is it that the lottery becomes an outlet for the violence lurking just below the surface of society?

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“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

I really hoped you enjoyed reading this story. What Gabriel Garcia Marquez brings us into a world where angels, people transformed into spiders, and an acrobat has bat-like wings exists in a mundane world we can still see ourselves in. The story opens with Pelayo and Elisenda, nursing a sick child, discover a angel has fallen into their courtyard. Now, we have be made to think of angels as beautiful figures; however, what imagery does Marquez use to describe this angel:

He was dressed like a rag-picker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had.  (380)

This is an angel, when examined up close, is “much too human.” His wings are more buzzard-like, having lost many feathers with parasites. As the narrator remarks, “nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.” Herein lies the tension – the angel is both magical and real, existing in the fantastical and the everyday.

Yet, Marquez takes our attention away from the angel to refocus it on how everyone attempts to understand this enigmatic creature. Pelayo and Elisenda seek out the advice of the neighbor woman, who advises them to club the angel to death. The Father Gonzaga seeks to test the angel against canonical knowledge – does the angel speak Latin? The townspeople treat him like a roadside attraction: they throw breakfast leftovers at him in the chicken coop. Finally, Elisenda capitalizes on the angel, charging spectators 5 cents.

The inability for anyone to understand the angel speaks to the idea of magical realism. As Luis Leal defines it, “In magical realism, the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts…” The pleasure of magical realism lies in the wonder and confusion, the events that challenge our perception of reality.

 

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Poe’s “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale”

Edgar Allan Poe was the champion of the short story form. As he outlines in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, the short story is the highest literary form a writer could aspire to:  “Were we called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which next to such a poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius…we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale” (945).

Poe’s praise of the short story draws much on Aristotle’s idea of unity. Aristotle’s Poetics identifies three type of unities: action, time, and space. Summarizing, a story must focus on a single plot happening over the course of no more than 24 hours and be confined to a single space. For Poe, the short story best exemplifies Aristotle’s unities in the following ways:

  1. The short story cannot require more than an hour or two from the reader. If the reader has take a break from reading the story, the overall effect of unity is destroyed. As Poe writes, “But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention” (945). The novel, in how long it takes to read, allows the world to intrude on our experience. We become distracted by our mundane lives and so lose the experience of the work as a whole.
  2. The short story writer has an extremely limited space to draw the reader into her story. Compared to the novelists, the short story writer must be skillful enough to ensure that every word, sentence has purpose: “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he failed in his first step” (946).

I think it is helpful to read Poe’s argument for the short story as the highest literary form in dialogue with Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” Consider the effect that Hemingway was able to achieve by just presenting the brief conversation between the American and Jig in “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Exploring a Diseased Mind

What Poe does in arguing for the short story as being the highest literary form is gives us a lens to understand his own writing. That is, since Poe sees the significance to every word, sentence of a short story, then we as his  reader must unpack the importance of his own words.

So, let’s turn to “The Cask of Amontillado.” I am sure some of you are probably already familiar with the story: Montresor, the narrator, recounts his luring Fortuntato down to his ancestral crypt with the promise of tasting a very rare wine, Amontillado. In enacting his revenge for Fortunato’s having insulted him (more on this soon), Montresor chains his victim to a wall deep in the crypt and then walls him in.

While this may seem like a simple story, Poe presents some urgent questions:

  1. Why does Montresor not explicitly say what insult Fontunato had leveled against him? How does withholding this key piece of information perhaps influence the reader’s perspective of the narrator? Are we meant to become more disturbed by Montresor’s actions given that he does not present a rational motivation?
  2. The second sentence of the story has Montresor refer to his interlocutor: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat.” Who is the “you” who is so close to Montresor’s heart – the reader? If so, does Montresor attempt to implicate the reader in the murder? Could it be that the horror of Montresor’s actions has caused him to distance himself from them? Is Montresor speaking to himself, driven mad with guilt? (This is a trope that Poe has explored before in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.”)
  3. Finally, Poe provides a twist at the end of Montresor’s confession (?) – his walling Fortunato up happened 50 years ago! Why recount the story now? Notice that Montresor can recollect such detail after 50 years. What does this say about the effect his actions have had on Montresor?

Poe may actually intend “The Cask” not be so much about the gruesome death Montresor had condemned Fortunato to but rather delving into the psychological effect living with his action has had on the murderer.

 

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“. . . he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”

Readers of Paradise Lost have argued this perennial question of Milton’s problematic depiction of Satan. As William Blake so beautifully puts the pro-Satan reading, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In The Satanic Epic (2003) Neil Forsythe actually takes this reading, which was popular among such Romantic poets as Byron, Keats, and Percy and Mary Shelley, to another level, arguing that Milton fully intended Satan to be the hero of the poem.  (For those fans of Animal House, you’ll recall that Prof. Jennings [Donald Sutherland] suggests this reading to his class of undergrads, before confessing that he finds Milton to be as dull as they do. Blasphemy, I say!)

The best reading against seeing Milton as writing essentially a satanic epic comes from Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Essentially Fish’s interpretations boils down to this: the poem lures the reader into admiring Satan only to yank the rug out from under in pointing out that this is only due to the reader’s own sinful state. Or as my friend, Bob Kilker, brilliantly summarized at a party: “The poem has you start to like the character only to say, ‘No, you idiot. He is Satan!’”

It is a shame, I suppose, this film wasn’t released three years ago, during Milton’s quadricentennial. Yes, the boy of Bread Street, nicknamed the “Lady of Christ’s College” by his classmates at Cambridge, turned 400 years young on December 9, 2008.

The “Onslaw Portrait”

To commemorate his birthday, numerous books were released, offering new perspectives of the poet who claimed to explain the ways of God to man. In anticipation of the quadricentennial, Laura Lunger Knoppers and Greg M. Semenza edited a collection of essays entitled, Milton in Pop Culture (2006). The topics range from examining PL’s influence on horror films to exploring Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as a re-imagining of PL.

What I have found really interesting in looking back over the scholarly literature that has come out since then is how our generation looks at Milton. Two excellent biographies have been published since 2008, each giving complementing picture of the English Virgil. Anna Beer’s Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2008) situates Milton in the turbulent world of London during the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration.  For Beer, Milton was first and foremost a denizen of London. Milton’s life really was contained to a just a few blocks. As Beer points out,

“Back in 1608, [Milton] had been born in Bread Street; his school, St. Paul’s, was his nearest grammar school, just a few yards from his home; even when he returned from the transformational journey to Italy, he only moved to lodgings in St. Bride’s Churchyard, at the other end of Fleet Street, less than a mile from Bread Street. His first children, and his first pamphlets, were produced in Aldersgate Street, north of St. Paul’s, also the home of the Simmonses, the printing family that had been so important to his writing.” (388)

Beer does touch on such issues as Milton’s complicated marriages (he was three times a husband) and his strained relationship with his daughters, Mary, Anne, and Deborah (while Milton essentially cut them out of his will, they did steal their blind father’s books to sell). However, the thrust of Beer’s biography is directed towards contextualizing in the 1640s pamphleteering and his position as propagandist to the Cromwellian government. Beer rightfully remarks that “John Milton almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist, of writing as a political vocation” (121). Milton found the times apt for his belief in the power of the writer. In 1642, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber, the state body that censored the presses.  For a piece writing to be published, the king had to grant the printer a license to do so. Now that this was no longer the case, London saw a flood of pamphlets, the modern day equivalent of the blog. This was Milton’s moment: he would go on to write pamphlets promoting ideas like divorce based on irreconcilable differences (The Doctrine and Disciple of Divorce [1643]), the moral necessity of the freedom of the press (Areopagtica [1644] ), and the right of the state to execute a monarch (Eikonoklastes [1649]). Eventually on March 20th, 1649, Milton took up the position of Sectary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s regime, his responsibilities being translating the government’s correspondence and defending the government in print.

In John Milton: A Hero of Our Time (2009), David Hawkes focuses on Milton’s own belief that he was destined for greatness.

 Turning to Milton’s youthful poetry, Hawkes finds a young man essentially writing his own autobiography.  Particularly in “Ad Patrem,” Hawkes argues that the young Milton attempted to convince his father that the investment that he has made in John’s education will return many times over. (At 32 years old, Milton was still shiftless, living in his family’s home and visiting the books sellers at St. Paul’s. By this point, Milton had really only produced one memorable poem “Lycidas,” a eulogy to his dead Cambridge classmate, Edward King, and Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle for the Earl of Bridgewater.) As Hawkes reads the autobiography that Milton constructs for himself, his intellectual legacy – his poems and prose – Milton had already foreseen. While lamenting that fact that “Milton is now read mostly by reluctant undergraduates and studied in detail by their tutors,” Hawkes adroitly demonstrates the relevance that Milton’s writings have for the modern rise of religious fundamentalism and the phenomenon of paperless currency (how money is rapidly losing its materiality and possessing an almost “magical” quality). For one considering delving into Milton’s bio, I would recommend these two biographies: where Beer gives us a Milton who is a product of his time, Hawkes allows Milton to speak to our own.

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