Hamlet, Madness, and Misdirections!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on Hamlet, one of the conventions of the revenge tragedy is for the hero to feign madness. Typically, doing so is the way for the hero to avoid or escape suspicion of his intentions to seek revenge on the villain. Now Shakespeare keeps this convention of the revenge tragedy; however, he makes the audience question to what extent is Hamlet putting on “antic disposition” (I.5.172) and how much are his actions signs of his true madness.

Hamlet’s “Antic Disposition”

Madness is a theme that keeps reappearing throughout the play. When we first see Hamlet, he is set apart from the rest of the world of the court by his overwhelming grief for his father. (Though the rest of the court is still in celebration over the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius, he still wears black in memorial for his recently deceased father.)

" 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother" (I.2.77)

” ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother” (I.2.77)

When we get a chance to hear Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.2.129-159), his thoughts turn right away to death: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” Hamlet in these lines expresses his disgust with world of the flesh and longing for death. (Hard to blame him given that his mother just married his uncle within less than a month of his father’s funeral [lines 145-150].)  Hamlet again opens up about his desire for suicide later in Act III, sc. 1 – his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy: “To die: to sleep;/To more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d.” Again, Hamlet views the world as corrupt and life as misery.

hamletcartoonShakespeare’s audience would have recognized Hamlet as suffering a type of mental disorder, known as melancholia. Essentially, those who suffered from melancholia were lethargic and prone to thoughts of suicide. Even in Act II, sc. 2 line 613, Hamlet admits to suffering from melancholy.

Melencolia (1514), an etching by Albrecht Druer.

Melencolia (1514), an etching by Albrecht Druer.

Now here’s where it gets a bit complicated. While Hamlet is melancholic, he also claims to put on an”antic disposition,” or a feigned madness. After his conversation with the Ghost, Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus to swear not to reveal his intentions:

But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’
Or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear. (lines 170-184)

Hamlet claims that he will pretend to be mad, that he will act strangely so that others will not suspect his plan to seek revenge for his father’s murder. Hamlet realizes the precarious situation that he is in: his uncle, whom no one suspects as Hamlet Sr.’s murderer, has married his mother and assumed the throne. As we see throughout the play, different characters, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius (all people who are supposedly close to Hamlet) are sent by Claudius to trick Hamlet into revealing what is on his mind. Through his antic disposition, Hamlet is able to evade all of their attempts. This actually leads into another important theme in the play – truth through play-acting.

“By Indirections Find Directions Out”

I want to focus on two scenes in this section. First is an often overlooked one by students – Polonius’s meeting with Reynaldo (Act II, sc. 2). Let’s set up this scene – Polonius’s son, Laertes, has just left Denmark to return to Paris to continue his studies. Now Polonius, not being a very trusting father, is sending Reynaldo to spy on his son, to make sure that he is not leading a immoral life. Polonius advises Reynaldo to go about doing so by having Reynaldo pretend to know Laertes and imply that Laertes has a tendency towards drinking, fighting, using foul language, and frequenting prostitutes. Polonius believes that through Reynaldo’s lying about his son he will discover whether his son actually is committing indecencies that Reynaldo is falsely accusing Laertes of. Hence, Polonius’s line, “By indirections [lies] find directions [truth] out” (line 66).

Hamlet devises a similar plan to have Claudius reveal his guilt of having murdered his father. At the end of Act II sc. 2, Hamlet comes up with the scheme to have the traveling troupe of actors perform a play that has a very similar plot to that of his father’s murder, which Hamlet calls “The Mouse Trap”. “I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,/I know my course” (lines 606-610): Hamlet believes that when Claudius sees the murder he committed performed in front of him he will be so overcome that he will reveal his guilt.

"The play's the thing/ Wherein I will catch the conscience of the King" (II.2.616-617)

“The play’s the thing/ Wherein I will catch the conscience of the King” (II.2.616-617)

It is in Act III, sc. 2 that we get see this play-within-the play performed. But the question arises of whether Hamlet’s plan succeeds or backfires on him. Consider Claudius’ reaction to seeing the performance – he stands up and says, “Give me some light. Away!” (line 275). Hamlet interprets Claudius’ reaction as a sure sign of his guilt, and many directors have staged this scene as such with Claudius emotionally breaking down. However, there’s an alternative way of understanding this scene. All Claudius does is to ask for some light and then leaves. It could be that Claudius realizes that Hamlet knows the truth and the “light” is not so much exposing Claudius’s guilt to Hamlet but instead allowed Claudius to see Hamlet as only pretending to be mad.

Below is a clip of Act 3., sc. 2 from the 1990 film adaptation of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson. See how the director decides to interpret this scene.

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Hamlet as Failed Revenge Hero

Before diving into Hamlet, I wanted to share with you this video clip I received through a list-serv I am on. So back in 1666, a great fire that burned from Sunday Sept. 2nd to Wednesday Sept. 5th consumed nearly all of London. (Rumors abounded as to who started the conflagration.)  Due to the destruction that this fire wreaked on the city, much of the London that Shakespeare lived in has been  lost. Now through researching documents and painting of what London look liked before the Great Fire, a group of students  from De Montfort University actually virtually recreated London pre-Great Fire. Here’s a clip of what they did. Enjoy!

The History of Hamlet

As I mentioned in my posting on Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is not known for the originality of his plots. Only four  – MidsummerLove Labor’s Lost, The Tempest, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, of his 36 plays did Shakespeare invent a plot for. When it comes to Hamlet, Shakespeare very much lifted the plot of this play from other versions of Hamlet that had been on the Elizabethan stage. Since the 1580s, London audiences had seen different versions of Hamlet’s tale performed. Although the script is lost to us, Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet was the most popular version Hamlet before Shakespeare’s. (Even the acting troupe that Shakespeare was a member of, the Chamberlain’s Men, put on this version of Hamlet in 1594)

The story of Hamlet actually dates back to a 12th-century saga by Saxo-Grammaticus. In this version of the tale, the hero, Amleth, seeks to kill his uncle for having murdered his father and taken the throne from him. A more recent retelling of the tale by Francoise de Belleforest was translated and printed in London in 1570.

My point here is that by the time Shakespeare writes his Hamlet in 1599-1600, his audiences would have been very familiar with the story. (Think about how familiar most audiences today are with story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman!)   Shakespearean scholar, James Shapiro, identifies the Fortinbras subplot as the only part of the play original to Shakespeare.*

I think why Hamlet has endured for centuries is because he has Hamlet actually question his purpose in the play.

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!”

In one of his famous essays (1625), “On Revenge,” Francis Bacon , a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, described revenge as a “kind of wild justice.” As Bacon explains, those who seek revenge often do not control the outcome of their actions: “[V]indictive persons live the life of witches; who as they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate.” He writes that while the initial wrong driving the person to revenge is a crime, the person seeking vengeance does more harm by upsetting the order of law and throwing society into chaos.  Overall, Bacon warns against revenge for personal reasons since doing so leads to destructive ends.

Bacon’s thoughts on revenge open up a window into how revenge is treated in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is categorized as a revenge tragedy. This a subgenre of tragedy that was very popular on the English stage from the late 1580s to the first decade of 17th century. (Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586)  is thought to have started the craze.) The elements of a revenge tragedy include a ghost’s call to avenge his death, feigned insanity, a play within a play, suicide, and a gruesome, hyperbolic bloodbath at the end. (You most likely can already see where these elements are in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Now Shakespeare does not give us a straight forward, simple revenge tragedy. Rather Shakespeare writes a revenge tragedy in which he questions the value of revenge.

Let’s take a look at Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (II.ii.560-617). Hamlet has just watched the lead actor from the troupe that Roscencrantz and Guildenstern have brought to entertain Hamlet give a speech about the death of Priam, King of Troy. Hamlet remarks how at the end of speech the actor describes Hecuba, Priam’s wife, watches her husband be hacked to pieces by one of the invading Greeks. The actor becomes so overwhelmed that he begins to cry. Hamlet uses the actor’s faked tears to scold himself for having done nothing to revenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle (lines 576-582). At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet says he needs to test whether what the Ghost has told is true (lines 610-617). This is a really important moment in the play: Hamlet, rather than just simply acting on the Ghost’s call for vengeance, comes up with a plan to see if he has been told the truth. “I will grounds/ More relative than this” (616-617): Hamlet needs to make sure that he is not acting rashly and so murdering a person innocent of his father’s death. (It would be as if Bruce Wayne questioned whether it would be a good idea to don the Batman cape.) Here’s a revenge hero questioning the grounds on which he should enact his revenge.

The one time Hamlet does act spontaneously comes in Act III sc. 4. After having staged the play within the play and upset the King, Hamlet goes to speak with his mother. Polonius having arranged the meeting hides himself behind an arras to eavesdrop on their conversation. However, when Gertrude cries out for help thinking that Hamlet is about to warn her, Polonius calls out for aid as well, revealing to Hamlet that someone else is in the room. Hamlet, not thinking about his actions, stabs at the arras and accidentally kills Polonius, hoping it is the King.

Gertrude: O me, what hast thou done?

Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the King?

Hamlet does not even know whom he has just stabbed! He merely reacts without considering the consequences and murders a person innocent of any crime. So his attempt to seek revenge results in ends that he does not foresee. Hamlet’s revenge results in a “kind of wild justice.”

Hamlet’s not the only character’s whose efforts to seek revenge result in outcomes they had not planned. Laertes serves as one of Hamlet’s foils, a secondary character whose purpose is to highlight a characteristic of the protagonist. In Act IV, sc. 5, Laertes stages an uprising to overthrow Claudius, who he believes is responsible for his father’s murder. As Laertes proclaims: “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged/ Most throughly for my father” (lines 135-136). Essentially Laertes here claims that he does not care what the results of his actions are as long as he get his revenge. As the plot unfolds, Claudius is able to manipulate Laertes into helping him take part in his scheme to kill Hamlet.

So as you can see from these examples, Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy shows revenge as resulting in consequences that go beyond just the hero’s efforts to fulfill the call to revenge.

*Shapiro, James. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2005.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream – Love, Irrationally

I want to look back a second to my earlier blog post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 . I mentioned that part of what Shakespeare is doing in his sonnet is challenging the poetic form of the blazon , that of comparing one’s beloved to a list of cliched objects of beauty. While the poem undermines our expectations of a love poem, Shakespeare claims at the end that despite falling short of all these benchmarks of beauty (eyes like the sun, lips as red as coral, or breasts as white as snow) he still finds his beloved’s beauty beyond all comparison. How can this be, since Shakespeare has spent 12 lines of the poem arguing for just the opposite? How can the speaker see his beloved as “rare/ As any she belied with false compare”? The answer lies in that the speaker’s perception of the beloved is unique, subjective, personal and cannot be judged by any objective, material standard. In other words, love cannot be explained through reason, which is the major theme of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hermia’s Plight

All of Shakespeare’s comedies begin with the world in a state of chaos. In MND Shakespeare begins with a very common theme to his comedies – true love denied. On the eve of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Egeus brings his daughter, Hermia, and the two rivals for her love, Demetrius and Lysander. It seems that while Egeus wants to give his daughter’s hand to Demetrius, she has been wooed and fallen in love with Lysander. (In Athens, as well as Shakespeare’s England, the father did have legal standing to choose his daughter’s husband.) Through the conversation that follows (Act I, sc. 1, 20-127), Theseus points out to Hermia that she has three options: either marry Demetrius, live a chaste life as a nun, or be willing to die.

Now an important detail that comes out in this opening conversation is that Lysander and Demetrius are equal by almost all measures. As Lysander argues, “I am, my lord, as well deriv’d as he,/ As well possess’d” (line 99-100).  Even when Theseus attempts to persuade Hermia into marrying Demetrius by noting that he “is a worthy gentleman,” she is quick to respond, “So is Lysander.” Now Theseus’ retort is significant here: “In himself he is;/ But in this kind, wanting your father’s voice,/ The other must be held the worthier” (lines 52-55). So the only difference between these two suitors is that one has Egeus’ permission to marry Hermia and the other does not.

If we look at the matter from Hermia’s perspective, the rational choice would be Demetrius: his is the easiest way for her to avoid either death or spending her life in a convent. However, she resists her father’s will, telling Theseus that she would rather waste her life as a nun rather than unwillingly marry Demetrius (lines 79-82). So why can she just not give her love to him and save herself such grief? Even Hermia seems not to be totally aware herself of why? “I know not by what power I am made bold”(line 59): Hermia in this line suggests that it is a mystery why she is resisting her father’s will. The theme that this opening scene introduces is the irrationality of love. It is not that Hermia can point to a specific quality of Lysander’s that makes him the worthier suitor, nor can she put into words her motivation for choosing him over Demetrius and so placing her very life in jeopardy. Her love for Lysander is not rational but irrational.

Helena as fourth wheel

Before the opening scene of MND closes, Shakespeare introduces the final character of the young lovers subplot, Helena. As she reveals to us, Demetrius was once in love with her: “For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,/ He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine”(lines 242-3). In her soliloquy that concludes the opening scene, Helena remarks that she is judged by all of Athens to be as beautiful as Hermia: “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (line 227). So when the two woman are placed side by side, there does not seem to be a rational explanation for why Demetrius would pursue Hermia, who rejects his overtures of love, and Helena, who is head over heels in love with him. You may begin to notice here how Hermia’s situation in a way parallels that of Demetrius’: both of their loves seem to be irrational, causing them grief and frustration, while a logical, easier alternative is open to them.

Helena goes on in her soliloquy to sum up this theme of love’s irrationality: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ Love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/ and therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind” (line 232-235).

Cupid

To translate the essence of Helena’s lines here: love can cause a person to see that which is of little value in the world’s point of view into that which is priceless. Love is a subjective experience, according to Helena, one that does not conform to an outside perspective. For love to “look with the eyes” would mean that there would exist a objective, material reason for a person to fall in love; however, to love with the mind suggests that love does not rest on what everyone else sees. (It might be helpful to read “mind” referring to one’s imagination.) In Act V, Theseus echoes this idea of love’s transformative power when he compares “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet”:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt. (line 6-10)

What connects all of these figures to together is their imaginative ability to perceive the world not objectively but through their own unique perspective.

So while you read MND, see if you can identify other moments in the play where character’s perspective does not reflect what others see.

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How to read a Shakespeare Play

Why is reading a Shakespeare so difficult?

ShakespeareFirst and foremost, one of the reasons why reading a Shakespearean play challenges students is because these texts were not really meant to be read – they were meant to be performed. Unlike reading a novel or a short story, reading a play requires us to stage the play in our mind. All Shakespeare provides is the dialogue; we have to clothe the words in how the character might speak the lines, what gestures they might make, or even how they would dress. To read a play means that you take on the job of the actor, director, costume designer, and set designer.

Now to read a Shakespearean play we must also deal with his language, a version of English that is over 400 years old. (Shakespeare began his writing career in 1588 and retires in 1612, which spans the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of James I’s.) Not only does he use words that are no longer extant, but Shakespeare even invented some words himself. (Click this hyperlink for a list words that Shakespeare coined.)

Moreover, some the jokes or cultural references that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with, are lost on us. Here’s an example from Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, sc. 2, 69-73):

Bottom: I will discharge it in either your straw-color beard…or your French-crown-color beard, your perfect yellow.

Quince: Some of your French crowns have no hair at all, and they you will play barefac’d.

The joke here is a play on words: when Bottom suggests he will play his part wearing a fake beard the color of a French crown, Quince jokes that he would have no beard then since most French, according to the English, had no hair because of they all had syphilis, which was known in England as the “French disease.” (The English and French hated each other at this point in their history.)

Lastly, most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is in verse, generally following an iambic meter. (Take a look back at my blog post on the sonnet form to refresh your memory.) So compounding the difficulties of reading a play written in 1594-5, there’s also the challenge of interpreting the poetic language that Shakespeare uses. Let’s look at another example from Midsummer. Here’s Helena’s response to Hermia’s calling her “fair”:

Helena: Call you me fair? That fair again unsay.

Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air

More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear

When wheat is green. (Act I, sc. 1, 181-185)

Allow me to translate: You are calling me fair? Take that back because Demetrius loves your beauty. Your eyes are like guiding stars and your voice has a more pleasing tune than that of lark singing to a shepherd in springtime. Now, you may ask, “Well, why doesn’t Shakespeare just have Helena say that?” My response, as pitiful as it may be, is that Shakespeare is not read for plot but for the beauty of his language. As Twenty-first Century readers, we generally read for plot, what Margaret Atwood would call, “a what and a what and a what.” The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are not what he is revered for. (In fact, Shakespeare stole his plots from other authors. Only for four of his plays does he come up with his own plots. Can you guess one of them? [Click on this hyperlink for the answer.]) Not too sound pretentious, but it is the beauty of his poetic language that made him immortal.

So how do you go about reading a Shakespeare play?

Start by accepting the fact that you will have to read a line, a speech, a scene, an act, or the entire play more than once. If you rush through reading Midsummer, you will end up more confused about what is going on in the play than not. I recommend that the first time reading through the play should be for plot – figure out what happens in each scene. You might even want to outline the plot for yourself scene by scene.

(Here’s a website that provides a decent overview of the plot. Also, I have no objections about your taking a look at the online SparkNotes summary of the play. For the sake of your blog posts, however, I hope you don’t just read these summaries!)

Midsummer has 18 speaking parts. To complicate matters the two pairs of lovers (Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) form the central plot are easily confused. In Act III, thanks to Puck’s mischievousness, which man is in love with which woman is switch.  In addition to outlining the plot of the play, you may find it helpful to map out the characters as well – what is his/her relation to others in the play.

Lastly, watch a performance of the play. I cannot stress this enough – these plays were meant to be watched not read. Listening to Shakespeare’s verse actually spoken and seeing his characters brought to life on the stage will help you to understand what is happening in each scene. Here’s a YouTube video of a 2007 Harvard-Radcliffe Summer  Theater production. (The play actually begins at 6:28 minutes.)

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William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

In my first blog post on Blake’s poem sequence, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, I discussed the structure of the work that Blake had in mind. Each half of the poem sequence presents two contrary states of humanity – that of innocence associated with childhood and of adulthood’s corruption. So each poem has a companion: for example, there are two “The Chimney Sweep” poems, two “Holy Thursday” poems. As Robert F. Gleckner points out in the excerpt from his article assigned for this unit: “For the serious reader of Blake’s songs…a constant awareness of the context or state in which a poem appears is indispensable” (1230). In other words,  Blake’s poems must be read with the overall structure of Songs in mind to fully grasp what Blake is trying to communicate. By reading each poem by itself we may not understand the poem’s meaning.

For each state, Blake, as the poet, takes on two different voices, one of comfort and joy (that of the Piper) and one of foreboding (that of the Bard). As I pointed out, Blake depicts this change in voice even in the very diction, or word choice, that he uses.

For this blog post, I want to turn to one of the most well-known companion poems from Songs, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Here Blake not only continues developing the themes of childhood and nature vs. industry, but explores the very essence of the Creator.

“The Lamb”

Blake's the lamb

It is probably helpful to think of “The Lamb” as a Sunday school lesson. As with other poems in Songs of Innocence, the voice of the poem is that child speaking about very profound theological issues. Here the poem begins with the child asking the lamb “who made thee.” For the first half of the poem, the child expands this initial question, seeing God as a caring, benevolent figure who clothed the lamb in “softest clothing woolly bright” and led it to feed “by the stream and o’er the mead”(Lines 4 through 6). Like the natural world of the Piper, the poem depicts the pastoral scene that the lamb inhabits. pastoral scene Blake reinforces here the association between innocence of childhood and the purity of the natural world.

In the second half , the speaker answers the question, which is obviously God in the context of the poem. What’s important to take away from this half of the poem is how the symbol of the “lamb” takes on multiple meanings: there is the lamb itself, but also the “Little Lamb” is Blake’s child reader. Finally, the lamb is also God (“He is called by thy name/ For he calls himself a Lamb”[lines 13 through 14].)

I have always found Blake in this poem to capture so well the voice of a child. If you have ever heard a child talk to an animal at zoo or farm, you’ll notice that they speak to the animals as if they were being understood. Even in lines 11 and 12, we can almost hear the uncontainable excitement in the child’s voice as he is about to reveal the answer. Moreover, Blake gives the reader a child’s perception of God, whom the speaker comprehends as both a child and a lamb.

“The Tyger”

Blake's the tyger

“The Tyger” maps onto “The Lamb” in that both poems begin with the question of who created each. Yet unlike “The Lamb,” the answer is withheld from us in “The Tyger” for reasons that will become clear towards the end of the post.

In this poem, Blake presents the darker side of creation – while the lamb lives in the valley feeding by streams and brooks, the tyger roams the forest at night. Where we read of the lamb’s soft wool and tender voice, we now encounter the tyger’s “fearful symmetry”, “the fire of thy eye,” and the twisted “sinews of of thy heart.” While the child’s voice in “The Lamb” finds nature to be only gentle and loving, the voice of experience discovers terror and death.

Now the question that “The Tyger” revolves around is whether God is the one who created this fearful beast. However, the poem is very much concerned with the implications of the question. How can the God of the lamb also be the God of the tyger? How can both animals, and the different aspects of creation they come to symbolize, exist together? Is God responsible for both innocence and corruption? If so, what does this then imply about God’s personality? (Think about lines 17 through 19 :”When the stars threw down their spears/ And water’d heaven with their tears,/ Did he smile his work to see?” To paraphrase Blake here: “When the rest of creation cried out when it saw the fearful beast he had made, did God smirk?” Blake imagines God as a sadist, one who creates the lamb simply as prey for the tyger!)

Now there’s an alternative way of reading the nature of the tyger. This may seem a bit out of left field, but think about the shark in Jaws.

Jaws movie posterThroughout the movie, the shark itself does not actually appear evil; rather it comes to represent Nature as indifferent, cold, mechanistic. (The shark is constantly referred to as an eating machine at times.)

Here's what the prop shark looked like underwater. Interesting it kept malfunctioning for most of production, hence why we don't see the shark until half way through the film.

Here’s what the prop shark looked like underwater. Interesting it kept malfunctioning for most of production, hence why we don’t see the shark until half way through the film.

So it would be inappropriate to understand the shark as sinister, suggesting intent.

Similarly, this conception of the tyger as machine comes through in how the poem describes its creation. Take a look at the fourth stanza: “What hammer? what chain?/ In what furnace was thy brain?/ What anvil? what dread grasp/ dare its deadly terror clasp?” The metaphor that Blake uses for God’s creation is one of metal working. The tools God employs in forging the tyger are “the hammer,” “the chain,” “the anvil,” and “the furnace.”

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772

The tyger becomes less associated with the natural world and more with the industrial world. (Look at the illustration for this poem. The tyger’s eye appears almost machine-like.) Blake offers then a more disturbing implication of the tyger: if the tyger, and by extension creation, is a machine, then are the terms evil and innocence simply projected on to it by humanity? Does humanity exist in a universe indifferent and amoral?  Is God beyond our labels of evil and innocent?

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William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

I included William Blake’s  poem sequence, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, for how powerful these poems are.

William Blake ( 28 Nov. 1757 -12 Aug. 1827)

William Blake ( 28 Nov. 1757 -12 Aug. 1827)

While his poetry may have a nurserysong like quality about them, his subject matter – the exploitation of children by a cruel, industrial society – is for adults. Now, if you haven’t done so, read pages 1221-1222 in The Norton Anthology, which give an overview of how Blake structured Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

In this  post I want to focus on the introductory poems for each section of Blake’s poem sequence. (Later posts will explore the characters that Blake introduces to us, such as the chimney sweep, the lamb, and the tyger.)

The cover pages, Illustrated by Blake, for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

The cover pages, Illustrated by Blake, for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

These opening poems illustrate what Blake refers to as the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”: each sets forth the tone of their respective section of the poem sequence. The theme that unites both of The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is that childhood, which offers a great entrance into exploring Blake’s work.

“On a cloud I saw a child”

Blake is often grouped with the poetic movement known as Romanticism , which included such literary giants as William Wordsworth, Samuel T. Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Shelley. For the sake of our discussion of Blake’s work, I want to focus on how childhood was seen by the Romantics as a sacred, pure, and innocence moment in one’s life.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth writes about the superiority of the child’s innocence over the worldliness of the adult: “Oh dearest, dearest Boy! My heart/ For better lore could seldom yearn/ Could I but teach the hundredth part/ Of what from thee I learn” (“Anecdote for Father”).  As Wordsworth captures here, it is the world that must learn from the child. Part of this praise of childhood was a rejection of society. That is, when the Romantics look at the civilized world around them they saw greed, cruelty, perversion, and the destruction of nature. (The period that most Romantic poets wrote during was 1750-1830, which corresponds to the rise of Industrial Europe.)

Now most Romantic poets wrote about escaping from society into the natural, wild world. Again, Wordsworth captures this sentiment of Romanticism in his poem “The World is too much with us” (page 1363 in The Norton): here Wordsworth finds our  mundane lives spent at earning money and spending it on material possessions as draining our spiritual energies (“The world is too much with us, late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” [1-2]). (By the way, can you identify what type of poem “The World” is?)  Like most Romantics, Wordsworth wanted to flee from the corruption he saw surrounding him.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

(Wordsworth is know for taking very long walking tours of the Welsh countryside.)

Here’s where Blake departs from other Romantic poets. Rather than ignoring the corruption he saw in London and focusing on the beauty of Nature, Blake made the subject of his poems the destruction of innocence he witnessed on the streets of his city.Rather than simply idealize childhood as a sacred moment, Blake wrote about how children were losing their innocence at the hands of the adult world. Blake gives the reader the voice of a child abandoned and sold by his father to work, and presumable suffer an early death, as a chimney sweep.  The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience forces the reader to see the inhumanity that is part of society.

The Piper vs. The Bard

In his poem sequence, Blake offers two contrasting roles he takes on as a poet – that of the Piper and that of the Bard. Let’s start with the Piper. In the introduction to Songs of Innocence, Blake gives us the voice of the Piper.

"On a cloud I saw a child. And he laughing said to me"

“On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me”

The character of the Piper is one common to pastoral poetry, which stretches back to ancient Greece and often dealt with idealized, care-free country life. From the first line of the poem, Blake associates the Piper with nature, for we find him in “valleys wild.” As he walks through the valleys “piping songs of pleasant glee,” the Piper sees a child in a cloud who asks him to “pipe a song about a Lamb.”(Blake might seem here a bit heavy-handed with his use of the Lamb, the Christian symbol of purity and innocence but also sacrifice.) Notably, the poem presents God not as a stern father-figure looking down in harsh judgement but rather as a child asking for a song.

The poem conveys the theme of childhood and its innocence through its simplicity. The wording of the poem seems like that of a child’s: words are often repeated, such as pipe, sing, happy, and hear; and the description of the Piper’s song is fundamental – it’s a “happy” song. In the second to last stanza of the poem, the child tells  the Piper to write down his songs “that all may read.” The Piper then plucks a “hollow reed” and with it “made a rural pen.” Blake’s referring to the reed as a “rural pen” suggests his poetry to be natural, to be linked to the innocence of a child.  Even the intended readers for these poems are children (“And I wrote happy songs/ Every child may joy to hear.” [19-20])

In stark contrast to the child-like quality of the Piper’s voice, Blake opens Songs of Experience with the voice of the Bard, an archaic word meaning poet. The poem opens with the Bard commanding all to take heed: “Hear the voice of the Bard!”

William Blake's "The Voice of the Bard," one of the poems from Songs of Experience

William Blake’s “The Voice of the Bard,” one of the poems from Songs of Experience

Unlike the Piper who gently writes his songs so that all may read, the Bard appears much more authoritative, demanding the Earth rise “from the slumberous mass.” Notice that like the Piper, the Bard is also Divinely inspired for his “ears have heard,/ The Holy Word” (3-4). However, whereas the “child in the cloud” ask for the Piper for “happy songs” about innocence, the mission of the Bard is to threaten the “the lapsed Soul” “weeping in the evening dew” to pay attention to his message.

Another significant point of contrast between the Piper and the Bard is that of their audience. Now I mentioned that the Piper’s songs are intended for children, who are in a state of innocence. However, the Bard’s audience that of a humanity in a fallen or corrupt state. The entire poem develops the metaphor of the Bard’s voice acting as the sun rising and waking humanity from its sinful condition. The Bard is not here to offer comfort but rather announces a warning to humanity and to present a picture of its sins. There is an threatening quality to the Bard’s message. His is the voice that will speak about the iniquity of the world.

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Understanding the Sonnet: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Modernism

When discussing the sonnet in the 20th century, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s name has to appear in the conversation. Millay Not only did Millay find value in the sonnet when other poets were vociferously rejecting it, she also used this traditionally male-dominated poetic form to express female sexuality.  In her sonnets, Millay challenges the role that women often occupied in poetry – that of the object of the poet’s affection.

A Few Figs from Thistles  (1920) is regarded as Millay's most important collection of poetry

A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) is regarded as Millay’s most important collection of poetry

If you think about it, we only ever get one side of the story in a sonnet, the one told from the male poet. Generally, the woman is silent, voiceless. Millay gives voice to the other half of the relationship.

But first I want to turn to the question of why it was such a bold move as modern poet for Millay to write in the sonnet tradition.

Millay and the Value of the Modern Sonnet

Millay’s writing career spanned 38 years: her first collection of poetry, The Lyric Year, was published in 1912, while Second April appeared in 1950. She wrote during the artistic and literary period known as the Modern Era. Though it would be impossible for me to define what the Modern Era, or Modernism, is in the space of a blog post, let me just mention that Modernists valued spontaneity, authenticity, and originality. Modernists wanted to break all existing past forms of artistic expression. They saw rules, conventions, and forms as inhibiting/holding back the artist’s or writer’s creativity.

The sonnet form particularly drew the condemnation of Modern poets. Ezra Pound , one of the most influential poets of the early 20th century, said, “The Sonnet is the devil.”

Ironically, a man who looked like this would call the sonnet the devil!

Ironically, a man who looked like this would call the sonnet the devil!

T.S. Eliot doubted whether poets would even write sonnets much longer.  So for Millay to continue to compose sonnets was going against the artistic current of the period.

Enter Millay’s sonnet “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.” Here Millay argues for the importance of the sonnet, and really all poetic forms. The sonnet details the poet’s struggle to wrest Chaos into Order. Chaos and Order come to metaphorically represent two parts to artistic expression: Order becomes the structure, the means through which the poet can communicate, while Chaos Millay sees as the artistic impulse or creativity. To have Order without Chaos results in empty, passionless poetry; to have Chaos without order gives us poetry that is incomprehensible. Millay’s task as a poet is take that “something simple not yet understood” (Chaos) and hold him “till he with Order mingles and combines.” Being a poet for Millay is negotiating between the desire to break down structures to express an original thought and the need to be understood.

Now in lines four through seven, Millay presents a really disturbing image of her confining Chaos (the impulse to create) to Order (poetic form): “his adroit designs/ Will strain to nothing in the strict confines/ Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape, I hold his  essence and amorphous shape.” Yes, Millay compares wrestling creativity into form as a religious rape! While most of us would hopefully find such imagery as reprehensible, Millay here speaks to her power as a poet, her ability to make Chaos comprehensible through Order.  In line 9, the volta of the sonnet, Millay claims to have finally conquered Chaos:”Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,/ His arrogance, our awful servitude: I have him.” Most importantly, though, is the reversal of power between the sexes here. Millay through her poetry has made the personified male Chaos subservient to her. This leads me to the other facet of Millay’s sonnets…

Millay and the “Free Love” movement

The Free Love movement, the idea of love not confined by marriage or even monogamy, did not start in the 1960s, but actually became popular among the Bohemian culture of 1920s, especially in Greenwich Village. (Millay lived in Greenwich Village for much of her life.)  You may have noticed when reading Millay’s sonnets that she challenges the traditional passive role that women are often placed in within love poetry. Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” not only is told from a female perspective but also presents a frank discussion of female sexuality.

Let’s start with the opening two lines: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,/ I have forgotten” Already there is stark contrast to the idealized love we normally expect in poetry. (For reference, read Elizabeth Garret Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”) The love written about in poetry is supposed to be all-consuming, innocent, and focused on one person. Here the speaker’s sexual liaisons have been so numerous that she has  forgotten the details of the relationships, even their names. The most radical aspect of Millay’s poem is that this is a female voice speaking openly about having many lovers. Millay writes about her sexual freedom in such a frank and unabashed manner – rather than conforming to the sexist double-standard that shames women for engaging in multiple relationships , Millay writes about it honestly.

This is not to say that the sonnet is free of regret. The speaker in the sonnet is later in years. At line 9 (again the volta), Millay offers the image of the “lonely tree” in winter, whose boughs, now empty, were once crowded with birds. The sonnet’s tone is nostalgic, looking back to a time when “summer sang in” her ” a little while.” Interestingly, the root of “nostalgia” is Greek for a type of pain.  The speaker of the sonnet experiences this pain when hearing the rain on the window and then being reminded of “unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry” (lns. 7-8).

This theme of reminiscing, often painfully so, about one’s younger years Millay picks up from Shakespeare. In some of his sonnets, Shakespeare writes about aging, particularly the realization that the lustful days of his youth are gone. Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 best captures this theme:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

To gloss over the situation of the sonnet, the speaker confess to being past his prime and anticipates his impending death. (Notice how both Millay’s sonnet and Sonnet 73 share the same image of a leafless tree in winter.)

"Thus in winter stands the lonely tree"- Millay "That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold" - Shakespeare

“Thus in winter stands the lonely tree”- Millay”That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” – Shakespeare 

However, the speaker finds hope in the fact that his younger beloved see this as well and yet stays with him: “This though perceivest, whcih makes thy love more strong,/ to love that well which thou must leave ere long” (lns. 13-14). The speaker’s beloved beyond his advancing years. This leads me to the final aspect of the Millay’s sonnet. Looking back over the sonnet tradition, the object of the speaker’s affections is often a much younger woman. (Petrarch’s sonnets are thought to be written about his love for Laura de Noves, about eleven years his junior.)

Petrarch depicted here wearing the traditional symbol of the poet, the crown of bay leaves. Laura de Noves depicted as being all sorts of creeped out!

Petrarch depicted here wearing the traditional symbol of the poet, the crown of bay leaves. Laura de Noves depicted as being all sorts of creeped out!

Older women are pretty much absent from sonnets, and yet here Millay’s speaker is a woman looking back on her youth.

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Understanding the Sonnet – Rhythm and Rhyme

So this week we are the beginning of our exploration of the sonnet, considered to be the workhorse of love poetry. The sonnet originated in Italy during the 12th century. However, the Italian Renaissance poets Dante and Petrarch were the ones who really popularized this poetic form. Their work in the sonnet form inspired that of early English sonneteers, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard  who are considered to have written the first English sonnets. In England during the 16th century, the sonnet became the most popular form of poem to write, Poets, such as Sir Phillip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, Lady Mary Wroth, wrote long sonnet sequences that would often tell the story of an unrequited lover’s desperate pleas to the object of their affections. By the time (he writes them around 1593 and publishes them in1609) Shakespeare writes his sonnets, of which there are 154, the sonnet tradition was waning. However, Shakespeare revitalizes the sonnet form, making it uniquely English. (Hence why a Shakespearean sonnet is also known as a English sonnet.) For the past nine hundred, the sonnet has become the most recognizable form of poem.

The way to understand the sonnet is by separating it into two parts: form (rhyme and rhythm) and content (what is it about).  So lets start with the form of a sonnet:

The Sonnet Form: Rhyme

I am going to use quite a few literary terms when writing about the sonnet. You might find it helpful to make a list of them for yourself. The first convention , or rule, of sonnet is that it consists of fourteen lines – this is why the sonnet is sometimes called a “fourteen liner”. There are two rhyme schemes of sonnet. The Italian, or the Petrarchan, sonnet rhyme scheme goes abbaabba cdecde(Refer to the English translation of “Upon the breeze she spread her golden hair” on pg 1090.) Petrarch divided the sonnet into two stanzas – groups of verse that are connected together through a repeating rhyme sequence. The first eight lines are known as an octave ; and the following six lines, a sestet. This rhyme scheme, an octave followed by a sestet, predominated the sonnet tradition until Shakespeare, who really went against the grain by introducing a new rhyme scheme for the sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg. Here’s what this rhyme scheme looks like divided in Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Sonnet 18):

Shakespeare published his sonnets in 1609

Shakespeare published his sonnets in 1609

Instead of the Petrarchan sonnet of a octave followed by a sestet, Shakespeare gives us three quatrains, four lines of verse grouped together by a rhyme sequence, and a concluding couplet.

Line 9 in sonnet is a very important line. Generally, the first eight lines of a sonnet will develop some crisis or problem that the poet faces. Take a look back at Sonnet 18: in praising the beauty of the youth male (yes, Shakespeare wrote this sonnet to a young man), Shakespeare points out how all physical forms of beauty fade – a summer’s day has “too short a lease,” a May flower is subjected to harsh winds, and the Sun’s rays are often dimmed by clouds. How then will the beauty of this young man escape diminishing over time? In line 9, Shakespeare begins to give us the answer – it here that Shakespeare presents the volta, or turn. The volta is the point when the sonneteer offers a response to the first eight lines. Consider line 9 in Sonnet 18: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Shakespeare presents a way for the young man to preserve his beauty for generations to come, and it is through poetry: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,/ So long live this and this give life to thee” (lns 13-14). The “this” that Shakespeare is referring to is the sonnet we just read. (I should point out here that sometimes Shakespeare did break this convention to present the volta in the couplet of the sonnet, such as in Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”.)

Rhythm: Shakespeare gives us blank verse!

No only did Shakespeare introduce a new rhyme sequence to the sonnet form but also a new rhythm. Remember that the sonnet is originally Italian, and the early sonneteers mainly just copied the Italian sonnet form. It was Shakespeare who made the sonnet truly English. One of the ways he accomplished this feat was by introducing iambic pentameter lines to the sonnet. Probably the best way to understand what iambic pentameter is is by defining each word separately.

So what is an iamb? When you attempt to scan, or analyze the rhythm of a line of poetry, you will look for patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Generally, you can group syllables by a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed. Here’s what the first line of Sonnet 18 looks like scanned (the stressed syllables are italicized): “Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day.” Notice how the pattern repeated is unstressed followed by stressed. This grouping of syllables, also known as a foot , is known as an iamb. An iamb is the most common foot of poetry in English.

So what does pentameter mean? A line of verse poetry is defined by the number of feet it contains. Penta (Greek for five) means that the line has five feet, or five repeated patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Again, take a look at the first line of Sonnet 18: “(1) Shall I / (2) com pare/(3) thee to/ (4) a sum /(5) mer’s day.” This line of poetry that has five iambic feet is also known as blank verse. Here’s what Sonnet 18 looks like scanned:

Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day?
Thou art more love ly and more tem per ate:
Rough winds do shake the dar ling buds of May,
And sum mer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Some time too hot the eye of hea ven shines,
And of ten is his gold com plex ion dimm‘d;
And eve ry fair from fair some time de clines,
By chance or na ture’s chang ing course un trimm’d;
But thy e ter nal sum mer shall not fade
Nor lose po ssess ion of that fair thou ow est;
Nor shall Death brag thou wan der’st in his shade,
When in e ter nal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

(Try reciting the poem aloud to yourself with the proper rhythm. Remember that the stressed syllables are those in italics.)

In writing this blog post, I came across this youtube clip of a younger girl, Chloe Louise, who actually raps Sonnet 18 following the iambic rhythm. See if you can hear the iambic pentameter.

Here’s a link to a website that shows you how to scan a line poetry in 11 steps. I think you’ll find it very helpful.

Lastly, here’s a youtube clip of Bringham Young professor Gideon Burton explaining what a sonnet is:

(I would suggest skipping to 8 minutes into the clip, which is where Prof. Burton really starts explaining the sonnet form.)

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Understanding the Sonnet: Henry Constable vs. William Shakespeare

I want to begin with a rather large question: how do we define genius in poetry? In our modern era, we value artists for their originality, breaking through conventions to create a new form of art. However, in Shakespeare’s time, artistic merit was judged by how well an artists worked within given conventions while sometimes slightly bending the rules. In my previous post on the sonnet, I pointed out two major contributions that Shakespeare made to the sonnet form: a new rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) and a new meter, iambic pentameter. For this blog post, I want to discuss how Shakespeare challenges the expectations of what a love poem is.

The Best Love Poem  or the Best Anti-Love Poem

A comparison is the best place to start. Consider Henry Constable’s “My lady’s presence makes the roses red.” Constable’s sonnet retains the same rhyme sequence in the octave as that of the original Italian sonnet: abbaabba. In the first eight lines of his sonnet, Constable works through three different comparisons in which he contrasts his beloved to a rose, a lily, and a marigold. Each flower becomes a way for Constable to praise the beauty of a different part of his beloved’s body: her lips are so red that the roses “blush,” the whiteness of her hands make the lilies envious, and the marigolds believe the sun shines when she walks by them. Line 9, the volta of the sonnet, sums up Constable’s theme: “In brief: all flowers from her virtue take.” To paraphrase Constable here, all flowers take their qualities from his beloved’s beauty. He goes on in lines 10 through 14 to point how his beloved’s “sweet breathe,” “eyebeams,” and tears sustain all flowers by acting as the wind, the sun, and the rain respectively.

“My lady’s presence makes the roses red” is a typical blazon. In a blazon, the poet lists or catalogues the beloved features through a series of comparisons through which the beloved always wins out.  Now in “My lady’s presence” all of the comparisons that Constable uses are fairly conventional.

Here’s where the genius that is Shakespeare comes through in “My mistress’ eyes” (Sonnet 130). From the opening line (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) something strange is happening: shouldn’t his mistress’ eyes be just like the sun? Even in the next line (“Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”), Shakespeare seems to breaking from traditional expectations of a love poem: his beloved’s lips are not nearly as red as coral. In each of the comparisons that Shakespeare sets up (to roses, coral, snow, roses again, perfume, music, and a goddess) he describes his beloved as coming up short. What’s going on here? This is not how a love poem is suppose to work, right?

First off, we need to understand that Shakespeare is intentionally writing against the blazon form, which he is showing as boring, worn out, and cliched.

Second, if we only read the first twelve lines of the sonnet, we could conclude that Shakespeare is being cruel to his beloved, pointing out her shortcomings. However, it is in lines 13 and 14 that we get the volta: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” To paraphrase: “I believe that my love’s beauty is more rare than any other when they are compared.” Shakespeare has just spent the majority of the poem describing how his beloved loses out when compared to the sun or a rose, so how can he make this final claim? The answer lies in his phrase “false compare.” Consider this: are anyone’s lips really redder than coral? Is anyone’s skin whiter than snow? Are anyone’s eyes brighter than the sun? Of course not. In Constable’s sonnet, he only sees his beloved through these very conventional, worn out comparisons. He does not see her as a person. However, Shakespeare rejects these tired comparisons as false and, by doing so, he can see his beloved for who she truly is. Shakespeare looks beyond cliches to the real person of his beloved. On this basis, Shakespeare claims that his feeling for his beloved are more sincere, more original than all other poets’ love.

So I want to leave you with this question: is Sonnet 130 the best love poem ever written or the best poem ever written against love poetry?

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Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”

So you may have found that this week’s reading left you with quite a few questions, such as, “What did I just read?” Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is not a typical short story. In fact, we could even raise the question of whether it actually is a short story or not. “Happy Endings” is an example of metafiction. You may want to think of metafiction this way: it is a writer writing about writing.  To clarify, in metafiction, an author writes a story in order make the reader think about the nature of a story.  With metafiction, the author becomes self-reflective about the act of writing. Did you notice those moments in “Happy Endings” when Atwood comments on the story she is writing? (For example, in plot C, the voice of the author mentions, “…this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later” [767].) Atwood’s goal is for the reader to contemplate what is the essence of a story.

“If you want a happy ending, try A.”

“Happy Endings” primarily consists of 6 different bare-bone plots stemming from the very basic catalyst: “John and Mary meet.” Plot A – the one recommended it we want a “happy ending” – presents the ideal married life of Mary and John: they enjoy well-paying, fulfilling careers;the value of their house skyrockets, their children “turn out well;” they go one vacation;and even get to retire. (Heck, their sex-life together doesn’t even fade!) Atwood offers Plot A as the stereotypical, cliched “happy ending.” The problem with Plot A, at least as far as storytelling goes, there’s no drama. Here the couple does not face any conflict, crisis, or tension. Without crisis, there’s no character development. John and Mary become merely empty names; there’s no reason to care for them. While a “happy ending,” Plot A falls completely flat. (Plot A reminds me of a quotation from Leo Tolstoy: “All families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

Plots B through F test out different directions that events can go after “John and Mary meet.” Each of these plots are remarkably predictable, mainly since they are based on cliched, stock characters. Plot B places Mary in the role of the unrequited lover, just hoping that John, the insensitive male, will come to see how much she truly cares for him. (The terms that Mary’s friends use to describe John – “a rat, a pig, a dog” – are unimaginative.) In Plot C, John takes on the part of the insecure, middle-aged man seeking assurance from a much younger woman, Mary. Plot D is the well recognizable disaster story, like last year’s film “The Impossible”. If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook,”  you are already familiar with Plot E. Finally, Plot F resembles that of the story of lovers caught up in the political turmoils of their time.

However, whatever the plot maybe, we always end with Plot A. The names of the characters may change and “in between you may get a lustful, brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times, sort of” but the ending to the story will always be the same (767). Is this because, according to Atwood, readers will only accept this idealized ending for tales of romance?  Could Atwood be commenting on readers’ expectations for how the story will end when two lovers meet? Moreover, is Atwood claiming there is something false about Plot A? Atwood emphatically states near the end of “Happy Endings” is that “the only authentic ending” is: “John and May die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” Adopting a bleak outlook, Atwood argues that the one ending that we all will share in and so rings true is death.

Now rather than leave us on that depressing note, Atwood offers a bit of hope, “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun” (676). If you consider this statement, Atwood is right. Generally, romantic tales don’t open with the couple being married, with a home and children. Instead, the story of a couple centers on how they get together – what are the obstacles, the emotional turmoil, they face to reach their Plot A? From William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Nicholas Sparks, marriage is a conclusion not a beginning. The drama lies in everything the lovers have to do to reach that point.

“Now try How and Why”

In the final three paragraphs, Atwood identifies where the essence of a story lies.  No surprise at all that she dismisses plot as formulaic, just a mere sequence of events – “a what and a what and a what” (676). Looking back on over Plots A through F, that is all she gives us. John and Mary’s characters are left undeveloped; again, we could interchange their names with those of Madge and Fred, while leaving the plot the same. We don’t care about John and Mary because we don’t have the chance to get to know them.

Also, at the end of each plot Atwood leaves us with the question of what is the point of the story. There’s an emptiness felt after reading each plot. Why tell us the story? Generally, we, as readers, look for authors through their writings to give us some insight into our world. Stories have themes, morals, profound messages that go beyond just the bones of the plot. Consider some of the short stories that we have read so far this term. Is it just that Chopin gives us the story of Louise Mallard’s dying after learning her husband is still alive? Is the importance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” limited to just Gilman’s narrator’s going mad through seeing a woman trapped within the wallpaper? Why does the story of Emily Grierson’s keeping the body of her murder lover in bed with her matter? For Atwood, the plot becomes the vehicle for the author to shows us a new truth.

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