Archive for Classic Literature

My Top Seventeen Middle Grade Books of all Time!

Posted in Books, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Jessica Crichton

If you follow my blog regularly, you know that I have just begun my final Master’s thesis on middle grade children’s literature. I’ve been asked by more than a few people exactly what kidlit titles a graduate student would possibly want to study, and why. So I decided to post the bibliography portion of my final document proposal here, with a short note on each entry as to the “whys”.

Submitted for your approval: the top fifteen middle grade books of all time, according to Jessica Rising. (Your mileage my vary; in fact, I hope it does! Please add your own entries in the comments below so we can build this list high!)

1) Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Columbus: Weekly Reader Books. Print.

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If you’re breathing, chances are you know who Alice is (though maybe not her last name — it’s Liddell, incidentally), that the Mad Hatter isn’t angry but he is totally nutso, and / or have had some kind of argument over weather Lewis Carroll’s classic work of children’s fantasy is about math, drugs, both or neither. As an undeniable staple of classic kidlit, leaving Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland out of a study on children’s books would be like leaving Shakespeare out of a study on classic adult literature. I, for one, am not about to make that kind of literary foible, you can be sure!

2) Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.

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Written by the daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, The Dark is Rising by celebrated novelist Susan Cooper is a Newberry Honor book, and as been the favorite of many generations of children. It’s classic fantasy with a real-world twist of history and ancient Celtic culture, and a deep resonance of the human condition that few other children’s books have ever emulated.

3) Dahl, Roald. Danny the Champion of the World . New York: Alfered A. Knopf (1975). Print.

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Having published a myriad of well-known and beloved books for kids, Roald Dahl is arguably one of the great pillars of modern kidlit, so leaving him out of the study would be a gross oversight. Still, which of his wonderful, witty kids’ books should be included to represent the whole? That was my dilemma. In the end, I opted to forgo fantastical whimsy in preference for a life-lessons story every kid can relate to. After all, there are enough fantasy stories in my list already, and the whole point of my study is to prove that kidlit emulates the human condition just as deeply and profoundly as its adult counterpart. For anyone who has read Danny, its inclusion for this reason should be a no-brainer. It certainly was for me!

4) Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. New York: Penguin Books (1996). Print.

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Most know of The Neverending Story from the popular 1984 film adaptation. However, Michael Ende’s powerful fantasy book about the importance of imagination and hope in a sometimes fearful world is as relevant to today’s children as it was when it first appeared in Germany under the title of Die Unendliche Geschicte back in 1979. As both a classic kid’s book and a well-known fantasy epic through the last  three generations, including The Neverending Story in my study just makes sense.

5) Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.

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It’s current. It’s popular. It’s a Newberry Award Winner. And, perhaps most importantly, it resonates deeply with modern children. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is such a perfect modern counterpart to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that not including it as at least a comparison between classic and current kidlit would be a terrible oversight. But even beyond that, Graveyard is a great story in its own right, which is a must for inclusion on my list. Plus, keeping up with the times is very important for any serious writer, and while I adore the classic titles I grew up with, there is wonderful kidlit from every era to explore — including our own.

6) Collins, Suzanne. Gregor the Overlander. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print. 

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Gregor the Overlander is a modern middle grade story. It’s also very popular, which speaks for the mindset of today’s children, and the societal impact of fiction on child culture and vice-versa as a whole. Suzanne Collins herself is a highly gifted and beloved children’s writer of our modern age, though her most famous series, “The Hunger Games”, is YA rather than MG, the age-group focus of this particular study.

7) Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins (1993). Print.

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Back to classics! Whether you wanted to or not, chances are you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. For me, it was ninth grade English and I fell in love with it instantly.  There is a reason this book has been studied by schoolkids all over for generations — it is the epitome of the human condition, the very thing that makes literature worth reading, writing and studying. Some would argue that this is more of a YA title than MG. However, I have set up certain conditions (clearly outlined in my full thesis), as to what is considered MG for this study. One of those conditions is the age of the protagonists being between 7 and 12 years. To Kill a Mockingbird fully meets this requirement, and I would feel very remiss to leave it out.

8) L’Engle, Madeline. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Laurel Leaf Imprint, Random House Publishers (2005). Print.

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Best described as a modern classic, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is quickly taking its deserved place among the ranks of the timeless. Though it is usually classified as a fantasy book, Wrinkle actually mixes fantasy with science fiction to form a deeply relevant story that has touched the hearts and minds of children for so many years now. It is also a Newberry Award winner, which I must admit I have been a little biased towards for this study. After all, there is a reason certain titles earn that prestigious award!

9) Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Trophy (1994). Print.

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Like Alice in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an undeniable staple of classic kidlit. That alone gives it an instant place in my study; its timeless ability to fascinate the hearts and minds of children from so many different generations makes it a perfect example of how children’s literature directly effects and mirrors society. Its metaphor, too, is a perfect example of life-reflected-in-literature, which can’t be ignored.

10) Palacio, R.J. Wonder by R.J. Palacio. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers (2012). Print.

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I initially chose Wonder because it is a very modern (published in 2012), award-winning middle grade book that is right now making the rounds of literary fame through book clubs, raving reviews and bookstore center isles. When I chose it, I hadn’t yet read it, and was ready to take it off the list if I felt it didn’t make the cut. Of course, as you can see here that didn’t happen. What did happen was I found yet another wonderful example of the human condition reflected in a children’s book. The lesson in Wonder of not judging each-other is deeply woven into the storyline and narrative style, both with the main character being so unique himself, and the narration switching points-of-view between him and many others in is life whom he has touched. In this way, the story shows that not only does everyone have feelings they aren’t always proud of, but everyone has a story to tell that directly effects how they see others and the world around them.

11) Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief . New York: Hyperion Books (2005). Print.

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The Lightning Thief is included in this study as a modern popular title, with Rick Riordan being a huge success both in middle grade and young adult circles. When studying how literature impacts a society, one must include the literature that society most craves, as it is a direct mirror to the psyche. Also, as a modern adaptati0n of  classic mythology — the precursor to most original fairy tales — Lightning can be studied in relation to the evolution of children’s literature over eons of time. This alone, as I am sure you can understand, is invaluable to my study.

12) Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997. Print.

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It would be a very difficult thing indeed, to study middle grade literature and its place in society without including “Harry Potter”. The impact that JK. Rowling’s boy wizard has had on modern children and modern society as a whole is almost deafening, and that impact is only continuing to grow. My study would literally be incomplete without it, and its absence would certainly remove a large chunk of relevance that I am not willing to lose. Though the later books can be classified more as young adult titles, the earlier ones are clearly middle grade, and The Sorcerers Stone is the very earliest. That, and the fact that it began the whole phenomenon is why I chose this particular title in the series.

13) Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.

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Another Newberry Award Winner, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli deserves its place on this list for its poignant yet simple vision of life as an outsider, and what it means to belong. One argument against children’s books being relevant to deep study is that they are shallow and only relate to the shallow minds of children. Now, ignoring the obvious fallibility of children’s minds being shallow in the first place, Maniac Magee blows that entire argument out of the water. It is simple to understand and entirely relatable for middle grade readers, yet so deeply conveys the human condition that I challenge any adult to read it and not see it as a masterpiece in its own right.

14) Patterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Harper Trophy (1978). Print.

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As another Newberry winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson already deserves a spot on this list. Still, there have been many Newberry winners and honors over the years – including another title by Patterson herself — so why is Gilly so special? Like every book on my list, Gilly reflects society and the human condition, which are key elements in weather a piece of literature is considered worthy of inclusion into the canon of  scholarly study. The story is deep and meaningful, especially to children who feel like outsiders in their world. The themes therein of family, devotion, and the pain of loss are just as relevant to adults as they are to all the children who have read and loved this book.

15) Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover Publications; abridged edition (1998). Print.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is already an undeniable classic. Its inclusion to my study is twofold. One, I simply love Mark Twain and can’t stand to do any study without him included — call me biased. And two, as an acknowledged classic that fits perfectly into my definition of middle grade children’s literature, Huck Finn will lead credence to the study of kidlit as a whole. Win-win!

16) White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952. Print.

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A classic Newberry Honor book, Charlotte’s Web is, like Alice in Wonderland, a staple of children’s literature. The mismatched friendship of Fern the girl, Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig is a perfect example of how children use their everyday surroundings to better understand themselves and others — a lesson that even adults often must continue to learn. The basics of respect and understanding emulated in Charlotte’s Web will continue to be relevant to mankind as we enter a future that is bright with promise, hope, and peace.

17) Snyder, Zilpha Keatley. The Witches of Worm. New York: Dell Yearling, 1972. Print.

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The Witches of Worm was given to me for Christmas last year. Before that, I hadn’t even considered including it in my study, as I didn’t know it existed. A Newberry Honor book, Witches is everything that award emulates — depth, spirit, a reflection of the fear and emotional pain that every human being goes through, no matter what their age. Another book of metaphor, Witches personifies that theme within the mind of its pre-teen protagonist as she struggles to come to grips with the loss of her childhood, and the realization of her mother’s own human failings via her discovery of a very strange stay cat. As a children’s mirror to societal psyche and the human condition, it’s difficult to find a better story than The Witches of Worm.

So, there you have it — the seventeen books I will be studying and critiquing in my master’s thesis on middle grade children’s literature, and why they have been included. Of course, these descriptions aren’t detailed, as this is a short explanation only. However, if you have any questions or relevant additions / arguments to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section. And thanks for reading!

The Hero Within

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Literature, Scholarly, Sci-Fi, Writing with tags , , , , on June 26, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

Hi all! I know I’ve been MIA lately, with my wedding (it was June 10th and amazing; I’ll post about it soon, I promise), and grad school and whatnot, but here’s some work on classic myth that I hope you like, and if you are a writer, I hope y0u can gain some wisdom from it. Please note that it is a VERY concise version of the works cited, as I had to keep it under 8 pages long, and so there are many areas I had to gloss over; I HIGHLY recommend reading the source material, which is absolutely amazing, for more information. As always, if you chose to use any of this for your own work, please cite as needed. Thank you! ~MM

The Hero Within

Mythology as a Reveler of the Human Condition as Seen through the Works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel

“Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence.”

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

It can be argued that the human is separated from the animal in many ways. It can also be argued that there is no separation at all, and that this idea is our own ego and nothing more. Yet it is that very thought that considers the truth within itself, as, insofar as we know at this time, human beings are the only living creatures on Earth who consider this question in the first place. We are a deeply thoughtful, curious, and finite race, continually striving for a deeper understanding of the universe, and all the while, painfully aware of our own mortality. In every human society, every continent on earth, every race, creed, gender and sect, we have always been and even now still are one in this way: we search for truth. And in that search, we have created mythos. These are legends of metaphor that move us beyond our own physical state into a state of spiritual, emotional, and universal transcendence, helping us to define the un-definable within and without ourselves and our reality. In this paper I will discuss this universal search for truth in mythology, as seen through the works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel.

In his famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell gives the reader a unilateral map of the classic mythos of the hero. Likewise, in her work titled From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, Valerie Estelle Frankel takes the reader through a similar mapping for the feminine. For the sake of organization, I will follow their original mapping in this paper as well as I am able.

The beginning of every myth is what both Campbell and Frankel term “The Call to Adventure”. Campbell’s opening example is the classic fairy tale, “The Frog Prince” by Hans Christian Anderson, wherein the little princess drops her golden ball into the pond, and the frog agrees to get it for her in exchange for being allowed to be her constant companion. (Campbell 56-57) Frankel’s example is also a classic Anderson fairy tale, “The Wild Swans”, wherein the princess is given a task to complete at the opening of the plot, of freeing her brothers from a curse, and no matter how many successes she has – marrying a king, having babies – she must complete that original task before the story can end. (Frankel 191-241) This is the main plot. The story hinges on this call alone, even as other, smaller quests happen around it.

“The Call to Adventure” is defined by Campbell as, “a blunder—apparently the merest chance—reveal[ing] an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.” (Campbell 57) As Campbell goes on to say, this blunder is never happenstance, but a manifestation of repressed desires and conflicts within the hero(ine). This introduction of the central conflict that the hero(ine) has both created by his/her blunder and then must overcome echoes deeply within the human condition of search and struggle, and thus the reader is instantly connected on a spiritual level with the hero(ine). This blunder is not always such a blatant one – as in life, often the psychological implications of the Call to Adventure can be disguised as happenstance – but it is always the push of the hero(ine), conscious or not, that gets the adventure moving.

The next stage of the journey, called “The Refusal of the Call” by both Campbell (61), and Frankel (324), is self-defining: the hero(ine), at this point, refuses to go on the adventure for one reason or another. While this refusal is not always a step of every myth-adventure, it is a potent one in those which it exists. Campbell states that this Refusal turns the myth to a negative bent. (Campbell 62) This negative turn can often become the very drive of the myth itself. In her example of the Refusal, Frankel uses the Icelandic/Norse myth of Brunnhild and Siegfried, wherein, faced with expulsion from her home and family, the valkyre Brunnhild begs her father Wotan to put her into a deep sleep until she is awakened by a great hero. “This sleep is a defensive maneuver, allowing the self to deal with the insurmountable stress of change. Thus, heroines appear surrounded by shrouding thorns or rings of fire, forcing away all interlopers.” (Frankel 377) In this way, the heroine’s refusal to take on the adventure of leaving her home and family behind then drives the rest of the myth, allowing Siegfried to take on the mantle of hero, and save the day. As Frankel points out, the psychological, humanistic piece to this is purely defensive. Campbell, too, discusses how the Refusal parallels in metaphor our own life experience: “The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of such desperate fixations… an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships and ideals.” (Campbell 62)

If the call is not refused (and sometimes even when it is), the next step in the hero(ine)’s journey is what Campbell calls “Supernatural Aid”, (65) and Frankel calls “The Mentor”. (442) This is the emergence of the protector, the wise one, etc, who will guide and help the hero(ine) on the adventure. This person can be male or female, but they are almost always old and wise, and often possess both knowledge to bestow and magic and/or talismans of power that they use to help the hero(ine), for varying reasons. Campbell names many examples of this character, including Spider Woman of the Southwest American Indians and the Virgin from Christian texts. (66) Frankel’s example comes from the Vietnamese myth “Cam and Tam”, a similar story to the classic Cinderella tale in which The Blue-Robed Goddess of Mercy helps the abused Tam in various ways to free herself from the horrible life she leads as a servant to her stepmother and stepsister. (Frankel 450-515)

The next stage, both Campbell (69) and Frankel (749) call “The Crossing of the First Threshold”. This is when the hero(ine) makes the choice to set out on the adventure, having been prepared by the Mentor for the ordeals ahead. “Beyond… is dark less, the unknown, and danger…” (Campbell 69). This crossing over is symbolic of the human condition of fighting against the self-preservation instinct in order to grow and become more than we are. Crossing the threshold is the first real, conscious step towards becoming a true hero(ine) in every sense of the word. Where most people – and characters – are happy to stay where they are and live passive, safe lives, the hero(ine) feels a call they cannot fight – the call of destiny. Campbell uses tribal fears of the unknown lurking past the safety of their village as an example of the Threshold. (70) Frankel’s example of the Crossing is a Samoan myth titled “Hina, the Fairy Voyager” (749), in which a young girl, tired of home, goes to find the King of all Fish in his Sacred Isle. She has many trials to get to the Isle, but in the end she is rewarded handsomely for her willingness to cross the threshold.

The next step in the hero(ine)’s journey Campbell calls “The Road of Trials” (82), while Frankel names it “Allies and Enemies”. (863) A conglomeration of this step for both hero and heroine would describe it as the place where the hero(ine) meets new friends, learns of his/her enemies, and adventures around the new World wherein he/she has found themselves, touching on small but significant quests and trials. In this step, the myth deepens for both hero(ine) and reader, as they get to know the adventure as it unfolds. Campbell uses Psyche’s quest for Cupid as an example of the Road of Trials. (Campbell 82-83) For her example, Frankel cites the Mayan myth of Ix Chel, a goddess who, though great trials against her abusive husband the Sun, became the strong protector of women. (Frankel 863-883)

Here is where Campbell and Frankel part ways somewhat, with Campbell’s next steps titled “The Meeting with the Goddess” (Campbell 88), “Woman as the Temptress” (93), “Atonement with the Father” (96), and “Apotheosis” (climax) (107), while Frankel’s are “Taming the Beast: The Shapechanger as Lover” (981), “Unholy Marriage: Confronting the Father” (1166), “The Deepest Crime: Abuse and Healing” (1297), “With This Ring: Sacred Marriage” (1455), and “Of Carpets and Slippers: Flight and Return” (2051). For the sake of clarity and concision, I will discuss these steps together.

Within each of her steps, together which she calls “Meeting the Other”, Frankel steers towards uniquely feminine trials, while Campbell, in his parallel steps, concentrates on the culmination of the quest as a whole, starting with the goddess, and ending with the epoch of the story, wherein the hero finds his inner power and defeats the evil he has sought to this point. To Campbell, the goddess-image is “… mother, sister, mistress, bride… the comforting, the nourishing, the ‘good’…” (Campbell 88) However, she is also “…the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever”.(Campbell 94) Thus, the feminine is the prize that the hero wins, as well as the temptation of the ages. She stands for peace and war, prosperity and want, warmth and cold, life and death, often in-tandem. Similarly, for the hero, the Father is both protector and rival, and the hero must come to a peace with this ancient, unending struggle. Frankel, on the other hand, sees being feminine as a trial in and of itself. The heroine’s fight is similar to the hero’s, but her goal is often very different. The hero wants to restore peace to his world, and that peace is personified in the feminine, while the heroine wants peace within herself, and that peace is embodied not in the masculine, but in her own ability to control her life and her destiny. This is very telling of humanity’s psychological struggle for what ultimately becomes the same goal – peace and prosperity. Unsurprisingly, it is a theme that resonates in myths from around the world, far back into antiquity.

It is of interesting note that here Frankel adds steps that are not included separately in Campbell’s analogies, though each holds a place somewhere within his theory as a whole. These steps, which Frankel puts under the overarching title of “Facing the Self”, (Frankel 1606) are deeply emotional and personal for the heroine. They are called, in order, “The Endless Summons: Descent into Darkness” (1606), “I’ll Get you, my Pretty: Confronting the Deadly Mother” (1752), “Ceasefire with the Self: Healing the Wounded Shadow” (1872), and “The Elixir of Life: Reward”. (1995) Though Campbell does have a separate step for the Reward, this is an inner, emotional prize for Frankel, who also cites a physical reward step as well, discussed later in this paper. “By listening to the whole self, and to others, she becomes a wisewoman and nurturing queen”. (Frankel 2020) By creating specific steps for the emotional, Frankel outlines how the heroine battles inwardly and outwardly often in two different arenas, while the hero, whom Campbell reflects in his meeting of the physical and emotional as one within his steps, battles all things, inside and outside, at the same time.

In the next step, Campbell and Frankel again merge, with Campbell’s step titled “The Ultimate Boon” (117), and Frankel’s titled “Forever Cycling: Rebirth”. (2166) Both steps describe the ultimate physical success of the hero(ine), which is to gain the powers of the god(dess) – often taking the form of a kind of talisman or magic weapon. “To achieve the greatest success, the heroine becomes a ‘goddess’ herself. In this way she achieves enormous power and becomes a guardian for the next generation.” (Frankel 2216) Campbell uses examples from many cultures, from Hebrew Yahweh to Polynesian Maui, to describe this Ultimate Boon. In achieving his or her goal, the hero(ine) transcends beyond him/herself, becoming more than human, and paving the way for the ascension of the next generation. This is a mirror to the human psyche’s quest to become more than it is.

Then comes Frankel’s final step, which she calls “Apotheosis: Mistress of Both Worlds” (Frankel 2274). Campbell, however, splits this final step into chapters, under the simple title of “Return” (Campbell 127). These chapters are titled “Refusal of the Return” (127), “The Magic Flight” (133), “Rescue from Without” (138), “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” (142), “Master of the Two Worlds” (148), and “Freedom to Live” (152). Both stress the importance of the hero(ine)’s return to their own world, and the bringing of the Boon into it for the greater good of all. But this Boon is not the only change in their world. The hero(ine), too, has changed and grown, and transcended their base, mortal ways. “The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is.” (Campbell 154) This ends the hero(ine)’s journey, reflecting the circle and cycle of psychological and spiritual growth for all humanity, yet strengthening that circle for the next journey to come.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pdf file.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle– From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Adventure through Myth and Legend . Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010. Pdf file, Kindle Edition.


Magik of the Bards

Posted in Fantasy, Literature, Scholarly, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

It’s time again for me to start posting my graduate papers! And all the people say, ‘yay!’. This time it’s more of an historic paper, but if you like Celtic myths, lore, and history, you should like this, too. Because I said so. So there! Anyway, I enjoyed writing it greatly (there’s TONS I couldn’t fit into the five-page limit my prof gave me… pfft), and I hope you enjoy reading it, too! ~ MM

Magik of the Bards

An Overview of Ancient Celtic Culture and Faith

 

The Celtic people have always had a prehistory shrouded in mystery. This has not changed much, even with the use of modern archeological technology. In fact, it wasn’t until the 5th century AD that Christian monks began to record with paper and ink the history and myths of the Celts. Before this, with the exception of very few Welsh sagas, all Celtic lore was strictly oral, passed down through generations. (Cortrell and Storm 94) Perhaps this is why the early Celtic peoples have been considered by many to be especially mystifying, and their lore even more so. In this paper I will present an overall picture of that mystifying culture and history, starting with archeological and documentary evidence and moving on to fictional myths and lore from the period. As it is mainly concerned with Celtic mythological lore, the historic portion if this paper will parallel that theme in discussing the history of Celtic faith specifically, and the culture that faith carved out. For the sake of this paper, the terms “Celt” and “Celtic” will be used to identify the Indo-European people of modern-day Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Britain and their ancestors.

The vast majority of what little we know of ancient Celtic history comes from excavations of West Hallstatt cultural grave sites found in modern-day southern France, across Switzerland and into south-western Germany. Like many ancient cultures, Hallstatt society was situated in small, open villages, and mostly dominated by animal husbandry and agriculture, though metalwork was also highly prized. Bronze, iron and gold were used in the making of everything from jewelry to weapons. (Maier 13)  Due to the lack of early recorded evidence, it has been extremely difficult to piece together any solid image of Hallstatt religious rites: “Of the rites which may have accompanied burial, archeological remains… provide only a hazy picture.” (33) However, religious items such as stone effigies, scarlet burial cloaks, amulets and ceremonial chariots, among others found in early Celtic grave sites, all lead historians to conclude that the early Celts did believe in an afterlife, and that their chieftains and kings played a religious as well as a civic leadership role. (21)

It is not until the mid-first century AD that historians find any written evidence of the Celtic people whose prehistoric gravesites offer so much physical evidence — yet no recorded descriptions — of their culture and faith. However, even these recordings leave much to the imagination when it comes to culture and faith, as they only discuss the migration into the Mediterranean of a people who could have come from many different backgrounds, all listed under the description of ‘Celt’, and treated as more of a scourge on the population than a culture in and of themselves. (38-39) Later written details give accounts, both flattering and discourteous, of the Celts only as adversaries of war. (43) While they are often greatly detailed in armory, weaponry and battle tactics, these recordings, too, offer very little in the way of understanding the Celts as a cultural and religious people. Finally, certain classical writers and historians such as Diogenes Laertius and Posidinius did write about pre-Christian pagan/Celtic religious rites, and many of these observations are highly detailed and descriptive. In fact, these classical writings make up the bulk of what we know about Pagan religious practices today. However, the sources for these writings, which are generally believed to be far older still, are unknown, and the writers themselves are not Celts. Therefore these writings cannot be entirely relied upon as accurate or unbiased views into Celtic culture. (59-61)

Though it originated all over Europe and even as far east as Asia Minor, (Cortrell and Storm 94) Celtic culture as we know it today is centered around Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain, with Ireland and Britain having the most well-known histories of the four. Yet here, too, there are issues with archeological and documentary evidence of Celtic culture and religion. Like the earliest gravesites in France, Switzerland and Germany, most archeological excavations of Irish and British gravesites offer little in the way of descriptive documentation. However, archeological explorations of hill forts from the first millennium BC in south and west Britain have painted at least a partial picture of how some of the earliest Celts lived and what they believed: “On occasion the excavations [of hill forts] have… produced evidence of cult sites, which may have been a feature of all these settlements.” (Maier 117) Unlike British sites, however, early Irish sites have given little to no evidence of everyday Celtic life and beliefs, as most were abandoned, leaving behind no substantial traces of human habitation. (118) Grave sites, too, are far less yielding in Ireland, as cremation was a dominant practice in Ireland for a long while. (117)

And so there is little to be found of solid historic Celtic society and religion by the way of traditional archeological and documented/historic means. Still, as a people far more oral than systematic, the Celts did leave us with one very important source of their culture: their fictional stories and sagas, once recited generation-to-generation only by great bards and Druid priests/priestesses, and far more real to the Celts than pen-and-paper ever could be. (138) According to the classic geographer Strabo, who wrote about the Celts around the third century AD, among the religious elite in ancient Celtic society were a group of storytellers and poets called bards: “As a rule, among the Gallic peoples, three sets of men are honoured above all others: The Bards, the Vates, and the Druids…  The Bards are singers and poets…” (62) Considering that the Vates are then described as “overseers of sacred rites” and the Druids as “… natural philosophers… [who] practice moral philosophy…”, it can be deduced that singers and poets – those who recited and sang stories – were considered highly important to the Celts, and in relation, those stories themselves were also very important to their cultural and social identity.

Today, we see most Celtic stories in the form of fairy tales, and, of course, King Arthur’s quests. But these are only the tip of a very vast and deep iceberg. Generally, Celtic stories are classified into one of four categories: the Ulster Cycle, the Historical Cycle, the Finn Cycle, and the Mythological cycle, based on criterion such as characters featured, historical significance, and fictional probability. It should be noted that there are some which fall into more than one category, and some which do not fall into any, as well. (138) Some examples of these stories are, the tales of King Conchobor mac Nessa and his legendary nephew, the hero Cu Chulainn (Cortrell and Storm 118, 120), from the Ulster Cycle, the legends of Oisin and his son Oscar (156, 161), from the Finn Cycle, the stories of Conn Cetchathach and his grandson Cormac mac Airt (Maier 140), from the Historical Cycle, and The Battle of MagTuried (Cortrell and Storm 133, 172), from the Mythological Cycle. Of the four Cycles, perhaps the best-known is the Mytholgical Cycle, which stories deal with faeries rather than mortals as their central characters. These stories, too, are of great interest in Celtic Pagan religious study, as faeries, also known as the Tuatha De’ Dannann or “the people of the goddess Dana”, are often portrayed as god-like creatures, and were sometimes worshipped in Pagan rites and rituals. (172)

It should be noted here that even these stories can no longer be entirely relied upon as accurate representations of pagan Celtic beliefs and culture, as the modern stories we now know were written down by Christian monks after Christianity had already been instilled in the Celtic lands for several centuries: “Whether an accurate picture of the old pagan culture still survived at this time must, in view of the numerous anachronisms and projections of Christian notions and institutions in the past, seem questionable to the extreme.” (Maier 137) That said, these legends and others like them are still arguably the very best lens we now have through which to view pre-Christian Celtic culture and religion, from the point of view of the Celts themselves.

Works Cited

Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Wigston: Anness Publishing Limited, 1999. Print

Maier, Bernhard. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. Trans. Kevin Windle. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Print.

Gothic Dystopia

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Literature, Scholarly, Writing with tags , , , , , , on January 10, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

I’ve been away for a while, working on my wedding plans, midterms and Christmas, not to mention an enormous rewrite of “Guts and Glory”. I hope, in length and quality, this post makes up for it. This is the third installment in my graduate papers series, and by far the most detailed. Below I have pasted my midterm thesis. If you like dystopian literature and/or Edgar Allan Poe, well, I hope you enjoy this!

I’ll be back posting fun shorts soon. Promise! 🙂 ~ MM

Gothic Dystopia

Metaphor of the Fall of Social Conventions

in

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

Dictionary.com defines dystopia as “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” The literary genre of dystopian science fiction is generally said to have begun in 1899 with HG Wells’ publication of The Story of Days to Come. (xtimeline.com) Yet sixty years prior, in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe published his classic tale of a dying noble House, entitled The Fall of the House of Usher. This short horror tale has been critiqued by many literary scholars using a variety of classifications, from vampiristic narrative (Kendall) to the unification of Enlightenment thinking with romanticism (Timmerman), to historical significance and permutations (Dougherty), to name only a few. In this paper I will add to those yet another theme, identifying The Fall of the House of Usher as uniquely and deeply dystopian. Though of course dystopia was not known then as it is today and thus Poe himself would not have called it so, I feel that its image of a dark and twisted future for the upper-classes is very much a precursor to our modern view of dystopian literature. In this vein, I will first discuss Poe’s own personal social status and political opinions, then the political environment of Poe’s larger world, and lastly the themes of a dystopian social downfall in The Fall of the House of Usher itself.

Edgar Allan Poe’s personal social status was unstable at the best of times. Born to thespian parents, Poe’s father David Poe Jr. had been a lawyer before changing his career, though his own family could best be described as middle-class. (eapoe.org) When he was three years old, Poe’s natural parents died. He was then unofficially adopted by the tobacco merchant John Allan and brought up in the upper-class world of private schools and distinguished gentry. His relationship with his adoptive father was always strained, however, and in 1827, after Poe quit college from lack of funds, their relationship deteriorated beyond repair. Not long after that Poe joined the army where he earned the rank of regimental sergeant major and later enrolled at West Point. Once again, without Allen’s adequate financial backing Poe was forced to leave, this time ending up with his aunt in Baltimore. Allan died in 1835, leaving Poe no legacy, and although Poe gained great prominence as a writer and a literary critic, his work brought little income. He supported himself and his wife, Virginia Poe, with various editorial pursuits until her death of tuberculosis in 1847 and then his own mysterious death of brain legions in 1849. (Contemporary Authors Online)

Considering his strained relationship with a gentried guardian who never actually adopted him and who left him nothing, as well as his overall negative criticism by, and snubbing of, his upper-class writer contemporaries (Contemporary Authors Online par 25), it cannot be too far off the mark to assume that Poe’s own opinions on social class and political structure were what we would call liberal today. Even though little is known about Poe’s actual political and social beliefs beyond that he was an idealist and a visionary (Biography.com 3), this fact alone would press one to believe that he felt the class structure of his time was unjust. And when one adds to this his boyhood days with house slaves and merchant sailors while growing up in Allen’s home (Neurotic Poets par 2), the assumed image of Poe as a social idealist and visionary in addition to his well-known artistic idealism and vision can easily be seen.

Still, it is a well known fact that Poe did not subscribe to the idea that works of literature should have a moral. Instead, he would best be described as an aestheticist, having said about his own work, “Beauty… is the sole legitimate province of the poem.” (Canada par 5) Thus, he believed in the aesthetic mantra of art for art’s sake. With this in mind, then, is it erroneous to think that Poe may have put his personal societal beliefs and opinions in his work at all? I would argue that he very much did, even if he did not do so intentionally, as I believe a writer inevitably pours much of himself into his work. To back up this claim, Poe himself based his literary criticisms on a dualistic theory that “…first, a work must create a unity of effect on the reader to be considered successful; second, the production of this single effect should not be left to the hazards of accident or inspiration, but should to the minutest detail of style and subject be the result of rational deliberation on the part of the author.” (Contemporary Authors Online par 22) And so we see that Poe believed a work of literature should, in fact, contain deep-seeded themes that would affect the reader in an emotional way, if not teach an overtly stated lesson. Also, many of Poe’s modern critics compare his oft-used metaphor of a dying young woman with his personal experiences in the young deaths of his mother and his wife, and again with his idealistic view of beauty in life and death (Biography.com 3). So we know that he did include at least some of his own psyche in his work. Opinions on the social order of the day can easily be included under that emotional umbrella.

Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher in September of 1839 while living in Philadelphia with his new wife Virginia. (Scharf 1) Though Poe himself found the height of his success during this time, the social and political order of his environment was highly volatile. Slavery was a huge hotbed topic of the day, an issue that would culminate into the American Civil War only two decades later. (Philadelphiahistory.org) As well, a terrible economic depression gripped America in early 1837, lasting until 1843 and forever changing the standard American social order: “Every class in the community was affected, and economic interests were deeply stirred.” (Rezneck 663) Living in the bustling urban setting of Philadelphia, Poe must have been entirely aware of these issues. Indeed, knowing that he was an idealist brought up by the upper-class and now a member of the financially lower-classes living in poverty (Scharf 1), it is safe to imagine that the economic depression, especially, effected him in a deep way. It is only natural that these deep emotional underpinnings of financial depression and societal ruin would seep into his work of the time.

The Fall of the House of Usher takes place “in the autumn of” an unspecified date, as the Narrator makes his way to the home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. The house, while not technically a barony or lordship, is called The House of Usher by the peasantry around it for the length of generations that the high-class family of Usher has held it. The Narrator’s friend Roderick is the last of that noble line, with only himself and his sister the lady Madeline still living there. Within days of the Narrator’s arrival at the House, Madeline, having long been sick, dies. Roderick, who has been wasting away for some time of the same affection, urges his friend to help him wall her body up in a deep vault below the Narrator’s own room. Once this has been accomplished, Roderick’s mind spirals into deep madness until, in the end, he is certain that his sister is indeed alive, has clawed her way out of her entombment, and is now coming for him. In a terrified stupor he cries out, “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!” (Poe 42) And indeed she has been alive, if barely, and has found her way back to the living only to finally die at the threshold along with her brother, who himself dies from terror as her dead body falls on him. The story closes as the Narrator flees from the House of Usher in horror, leaving it and its ghosts, both literal and metaphoric, to the dark tarn that engulfs it.

The Fall of the House of Usher is ripe with dystopian allegory. For the purposes of this paper I will split these allegorical images of a society’s social and economic downfall into four distinct parts: The physical deterioration of the once proud house itself; the direct connection between the house and its noble family; the downfall of the Usher family from a mysterious disease; and finally, the Lancelot story-within-a-story and the sudden freak storm that together finalize the demise of Usher.

The story opens with a bleak description of the house: “I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom invaded my spirit.” (Poe 25) This description goes on for over three pages and, while no outright assumption is given of what it may have looked like in its heyday, in-between the lines of Poe’s dreary description of the house one can see that it had once been strong and beautiful: “Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity… there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork… Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eves… [yet] the fabric gave little token of instability.” (Poe 28) Inside the house, this theme of the decay of beauty and strength continues: “The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and so vast a distance from the black oaken door as to be altogether inaccessible from within… The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.” (Poe 28-29) Altogether, the home of the Usher dynasty reflects a stark image of its once-proud high-class family, now fallen into decay.

The direct connection of the house to its family is blatant, as told by the Narrator early on: “… I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people… speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other… … in the minds of the peasantry who used it… [the title of The House of Usher applied to] both the family and the family mansion.” (Poe 27)  This connection is thematic throughout the entire story, sometimes restated as blatantly as in the beginning, but most often far more subtlety noted. These subtle hints can best be seen in the physical duality of the house with its current master, Roderick Usher. Take, for example, the initial description of Roderick in comparison of the earlier description of the vast windows of the house as quoted above: “… an eye large, liquid and luminous beyond comparison …” (Poe 29) and this, as compared to the fungi growing on the outside of the house: “… hair of more than web-like softness…” (Poe 29) Indeed, it seems that Roderick and the house are one in the same. This connection is further confirmed in the final scenes when Roderick goes mad from entombing his sister in the vault below. Although he has no concrete way of knowing that she is still alive and has made her way out of the vault, Roderick is not only certain she is coming, but he tracks her progress: “Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste… she now stands without the door!” (Poe 42) It may seem to the discerning reader that the house itself has told him where she is at each moment. Finally, the house’s connection to its master is clinched in its supernaturally violent sinking into the tarn directly after Roderick, its final master, meets his own demise.

When the story opens, both the lady Madeline and Roderick are sick with a mysterious disease that their doctors have been entirely unable to diagnose, let a lone treat. Madeline is further gone than her brother but not by much. The Narrator meets the main physician of the family when he first comes to the mansion: “His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on.” (Poe 28)  The description of “low cunning and perplexity” seems an odd oxi-moron. However, I believe this pertains to the doctor having an idea of what is wrong but also not entirely believing it, as the mysterious disease is far more psychological than physical. Indeed, the sickness is observed in as much a way in Roderick: “His action was alternatively vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision – that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation – that leaden, self-balanced, and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard…” (Poe 30) Even Roderick himself seems to know that his condition is not entirely physical, as he tells the Narrator, “’I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results… In this unnerved, in this pitiful condition I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.’” (Poe 30-31) Taking into consideration Poe’s perceived political and social beliefs and the devastating financial depression of the day, this commentary by Roderick can easily be seen as a direct connection to the uncertainty of future that the upper-classes were feeling at the time.

This disease of fear slowly eats away at both Ushers, just as the economic fear ate away at the people in Poe’s real world, until both Ushers are dead. Madeline dies not only from her disease but from her brother’s premature burial of her body, a metaphor that can easily be traced to the attitude of Poe’s day towards the workless poor: “”Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here. . . .’” (Rezneck 665) Roderick, in a desperate effort to wall away the fear of his own demise, walls away the demise of his sister so that he can’t see it. But still it haunts him, just as the wails of the poor haunted the wealthy during the depression, until he, too, is dead. One can even say that he dies from her own hand, his fear getting the best of him at the end and that fear being clinched in the view of his sister’s terrible state. This can be viewed as a veiled warning that when society ignores its brothers and sisters in need, its own demise cannot be far off.

In the final pages of the story, the Narrator is in his own rooms experiencing a terrible feeling of foreboding when Roderick visits him in a condition that appalls his friend: “…there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes.” (Poe 38) A storm has been brewing for some time before this visit, but the Narrator has chosen not to look at it. Roderick, however, throws open the casements and forces his friend to look. The storm is mostly made up of violent and unpredictable winds along with an “… unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly gaseous exaltation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.” (Poe 39)

The Narrator, fearing the storm and its possible effect on his already mad companion, closes the shutters and forces Roderick to sit and listen to him read a story in the hopes that it will distract them both from the wailing winds and unnatural light outside. The story, not one of Roderick’s favorites, is titled “The Mad Tryst of Sir Lancelot Canning”. Though the hero of this story-within-a-story is not Sir Lancelot, it should be noted that to most, Sir Lancelot is best known for his affair with Queen Guinevere and the resulting toppling of King Arthur’s golden rule over Camelot. As such, I feel Poe’s choice to use this particular character in his imagined title is very telling in the metaphor of the dystopian-esque fall of his own society. As the Narrator begins to read, Ethelred, the hero of the tale, has just decided to force his way into a hermit’s dwelling, being both drunk and in need of a place to stay. There Ethelred is attacked by a dragon and is forced to slay it. During the course of the story there are three distinct points where both the Narrator and Roderick hear literal echoes from the fictional story within the house: the tearing of wood as Ethelred smashes his way into the dwelling, the harsh shriek of the slain dragon in its death-throws, and finally the mighty and terrible ringing sound of the great enchanted bronze shield as it falls to the silver floor, Ethelred having taken it down from the wall. In each instance the Narrator is shocked, so we know that these sounds are not in Roderick’s own head, but quite literal. To his terrified friend, Roderick gives his perceived account of each: “And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield! –say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!” (Poe 42) These three sounds can be interpreted another way as well, when taking into consideration The Fall of the House of Usher as dystopian allegory: The fall of the hermit’s door is the fall of the lower-classes that always comes first in a depression. Then follows the dragon’s protection of the great shield, or the government’s protection of the high-classes and the death-cries of its ultimate fall. Finally, the shield itself falls with a great clangor: the fall of the upper-classes and the end of society as it has previously been known. Taking Madeline’s metaphoric place as the out-of-work masses ignored out of fear by the upper-classes (Roderick), this metaphor finds its way full-circle as she accosts him, thus finalizing her own death as well as his own.

The storm plays a part in all this as well. Raging outside as the Narrator reads the story of Ethelred, it throws a great gust of wind into the chamber, opening the doors and revealing Madeline’s dying form: “… the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back… It was the work of the rushing gust — but then without those doors there DID stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.” (Poe 42) The storm is also the final nail in the Usher coffin, with its gusts finishing a crack down the middle of the house and sinking it into the tarn forever. Metaphorically speaking, I can see the storm and its winds as change, forever altering society (Usher) as it has henceforth been known.

Taking all these things into account, then, we can see that Roderick’s house, family, and physical and emotional state can be seen as a mirror to the misery-filled dystopian future that Poe and many others of his day feared coming from the depression that gripped their world. Thus, while it is not directly considered so, I feel The Fall of the House of Usher can be seen as a precursor to modern dystopia as we now know it.

Works Cited

Canada, Mark. “Edgar Allan Poe: 1809-1849.” uncp.edu, 1997. Web. 4 January 2012. <http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/17841865/lit/poe.htm&gt;

Dougherty, Stephen. “Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe’s Gothic.” Papers on Language & Literature 37.1 (2001): 3. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

“Edgar Allan Poe.” 2012. Biography.com. Web. 04 Jan 2012 <http://www.biography.com/people/edgar-allan-poe-9443160&gt;

“Edgar Allan Poe.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

“Edgar Allen Poe: 1809-1849.” neuroticpoetc.com, 1997-2102. Web. 4 January 2102 <http://neuroticpoets.com/poe/&gt;

“The History of Dystopian Literature.” Timeline. Xtimeline.com. Famento Inc, 2008-2009. Web. 2 January 2012. <http://www.xtimeline.com/timeline/The-History-of-Dystopian-Literature&gt;

Mowery, Carl. “An overview of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher” The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings. New York: Bantam Classics (1982): 25-43. Print

“Poe’s Family Tree.” Family Tree. eapoe.org. Jan. 30, 1998. Web. 2 January 2012 <http://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poegnlgy.htm&gt;

“Quest for Freedom.” philadelphiahistory.org. Web. 3 January 2012 <http://www.philadelphiahistory.org/quest_for_freedom&gt;

Rezneck, Samuel. “The Social History of an American Depression, 1837-1843.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Jul., 1935) 662-687. JSTOR. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

Sharf, Douglas. “Edgar Allan Poe: Biographical Contexts For “’The Fall of the House of Usher’.” American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site. 1 (April 2000) Florida Gulf Coast University. Web. 4 Jan. 2102.  <http://itech.fgcu.edu/faculty/wohlpart/alra/poefall.htm#First&gt;

Timmerman, John H. “House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’.” Papers on Language & Literature 39.3 (Summer 2003): 227-244. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 111. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

© Jessica Sandoval 2012

Oliver Twist and Marxism

Posted in Books, Literature, Scholarly, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on November 30, 2011 by Jessica Crichton

Number three in my graduate papers series. I decided to post this one because it directly relates to my own work, and possibly to yours. I hope it does you some good; if it does, let me know! ~ MM

In Barry’s chapter on Marxist literary theory he defines Marxism (“communism”) as “… the belief in the state ownership of industry, transport, etc., rather than private ownership.” (Barry 150) Though Marx and Engles themselves never had an official stance on literature or the arts in general, many literary critics have used Marxist ideas in their criticisms. The most interesting form of this to me is “Engelsian” Marxist criticism, specifically the idea of “making strange”, an idea that “… one of the chief effects of literary language is that of making the familiar world appear new to us, as if we were seeing it for the first time, and thus laying it open to reappraisal.” (155)

Though, as Barry points out, these “Formalists” were not strictly Marxist in their ideas, many of their members went on to form later Marxist criticisms based on original Engelsian views. For example, the concept of defamiliarisation, or “making strange”, has certainly transferred over to modern Marxist criticism in the idea that “Literature… often tries to repress historical truth, but analysis can reveal its underlying ideology…” (160) This idea, coined by the American Marxist critic Frederic Jameson, reconciles Marxism and psychoanalytic literary explanations.

To put it succinctly, Marxist Criticism then espouses the idea that the Marxist ideal of everyone in a society being equal and thus sharing equally in ownership of industry via the state, is often denied by literature through the assumed fictional world wherein similar ideals are openly shared, but underlined by a more capitalistic moral in the end. Thus, the story “makes strange” factual historic data such as the lives of the working poor by showing it in a far more dramatic, and thus surreal, light than the actuality.

Such as it is in Oliver Twist

Since I first read Dicken’s classic novel as a teenager, I have been somewhat disconcerted by the ending. Oliver, born into poverty of the like Marxism defends against, pushed into the role first of a “machine cog” worker, then of a thief against his own wishes to be good, is saved in the end not by his goodness or by his own intellectual or physical abilities, but because he is in actuality a member of the bourgeoisie himself. In showing the reader Oliver’s world of poverty as a “made strange” literary device through the eyes of Oliver and thus new to the reader, Dickens indeed helps to open our eyes to how it has been for so many and the original push behind Marxism. However, by saving Oliver through a birthright instead of his own abilities, Dickens seems to remove any hope for those who have not been lucky enough to be born into wealth.

This is where I feel the largest difference between Marx and Engles’ view of the world and that of Dickens’. The former, in their “Communist Manifesto”, call for the rights of all people, especially the “proletariat”, or the workers on who’s backs the bourgeoisie have built and continue to build their empire: “The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save their existence as fractions of the middle class.” (Marx and Engles, 4-5) Dickens also shows us early on the terrible exploitation of the lower classes from birth: “…a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse- the humble, half-starved drudge- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world- despised by all, and pitied by none.” (Dickens 1) And, indeed, throughout the whole of Oliver Twist there is a continuation of this theme. However, it is never assumed or hoped that the lower classes will ever become anything more than they are, unlike the views of Marx and Engles, who see within that same class the makers of a revolution: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletariats have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” (Marx and Engles 5) Indeed, as I have said, Oliver is saved by being a part of the higher classes, not by fighting them. Still, Oliver’s new family, though of the bourgeoisie social status, are good people. Marx and Engles themselves admit that this is more than a possibility: “… a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeoisie ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” (4) In his array of colorful characters, too, there are good poor, bad wealthy, good wealthy and bad poor. Yet still the wealthy stay wealthy and the poor stay poor, despite it all. Even Oliver, of whom it could be said wealth is gained in the end, truly only gains his birthright.

I would venture to say that though this is a far less optimistic view than that of Marxism, it is also far more realistic. Which, in the end when viewed through the eyes of defamiliarisation, is quite ironic to me.

 

Works Cited

Barry, Peter.Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press (1995, 2002): 150-160. Print

Dickens, Charles.Oliver Twist.The Literature Network (2011):http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist/2/.Web.

Engles, Frederich and Marx, Karl. “Excerpts from the Communist Manifesto”. (1848) Pdf.

Duel of the Dystopias

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by Jessica Crichton

Recently I picked up a book at Costco: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Having been a longtime fan of Orwell’s 1984, and writing a dystopian series myself, I figured now was the time to finally dive into this titan of classic dystopian literature as well. One thing I learned is that it’s impossible not to compare BNW to 1984 when one has read them both. In today’s blog, I have decided to do just that for your reading pleasure.

First, viability. Of course, nobody wants either of these grim images of the future to come true — I rather fancy Roddenberry’s vision, myself — but if one of them were to happen in our world today, I believe it would be Huxley’s, as Orwell’s wouldn’t last long enough to permeate the whole world. Here’s why: We have Huxley’s dystopia, where the citizens are genetically bred to be happy, and we have Orwell’s dystopia, where the citizens are violently forced to be complaint with the government. Happiness, even fake happiness, is a much stronger and longer lasting system of controlling a human populace. We have seen this fact in our own societies. America, with its rallying cry of “for the people”, grew into THE great superpower of the world in a very short time, and has lasted as such for two centuries, while the Nazi regeme in Germany, with its iron fist of control over its people, lasted only a few years (thank God).  Sooner or later, no matter how strong your control is,  enough people will get mad enough to overthrow a 1984-style government, but if you make your people feel like they are happy and content, your government can go on for much, much longer. For this reason, I believe BNW is more realistically viable than 1984, so round one goes to Huxley. Feel free to disagree with me. I love a good debate.

Second, entertainment value. Nobody expects a dystopian story to be lighthearted or have a happy ending, but fiction is, above all else, an entertainment medium. Both BNW and 1984 are depressing and end badly, as per the norm for their genre, but of the two, I enjoyed 1984 much more. Being a character-driven reader and writer, I have to have characters that I like and want to root for. Orwell’s main character, Winston, was that for me. Rooting for him to escape, caring what happened to him, that made reading 1984 fun. Even the ending worked in that I still cared about Winston, and therefore was genuinely unhappy for him. It mattered because Winston mattered, which made it entertaining. Brave New World, on the other hand, was just depression with no entertainment value whatsoever. The vast majority of its characters had no empathy-rating for me at all.  At first I cared about Bernard, but then he showed himself to be a selfish jerk. Then I cared about  John… until he showed HIMself to be a crazy fanatic. I never liked Lenina, whom I saw as stupid and shallow from the get-go. In the end, the only character that I could truly care about was Helmholtz, who isn’t  even a major character, and is absent most of the time. When the story was over, I didn’t care what happened at all, because none of them mattered, so it didn’t matter. So round two goes to Orwell for being far more entertaining.

Three, social commentary. One of the most important aspects of dystopian fiction is its use of social commentary. After all, the whole purpose of this genre is to point out the flaws in humanity and warn us where those flaws could take us if we’re not careful. Both 1984 and Brave New World are full of these warnings, though the bases of each are very different. In 1984, Orwell warns the reader of what could happen if a world government is formed with the inevitable crushing power over the people, while BNW is all about complacency, and fighting for your right to be an individual despite the cost. One fights against pain, while the other fights for it. In this way I believe both novels work together to give a poingient warning: all things in moderation. So round three is a tie.

In the end, I believe both novels deserve their reputation as grandfathers of the dystopian genre. Please take the liberty to agree, disagree, and/or add more to what I have discussed in the comments. Certainly this is a vast and varied subject, and one I would have a blast discussing with you all.

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