All posts by Amy

Summer Reading Response: Gaston

In “Gaston,” William Saroyan displays how anthropocentrism and realism can work together to eliminate empathy for living creatures and other people. In this piece, we follow a young girl who is visiting her father in Paris. From the nature of this visit, we can clearly see that this girl lives primarily with her mother in New York. Immediately, Saroyan depicts the contrast between her mother and father’s parenting styles. Her father seems to be a dreamer; he appears to be down to earth, connected to nature, and laid back. Her mother, on the other hand, seems to be a realist; she is city-oriented, she frowns upon her ex’s “foolishness”, and she prioritizes humans over other species. Since the little girl is used to being around her mother, she initially sees Gaston as her mother would—she sees it as a gross, inferior bug. However, after her father personifies the bug and calls it “Gaston, the grand boulevardier” (p. 2), she grows to admire and respect it. Unfortunately, her mother then calls the little girl, and convinces her that Gaston is just a “horrible peach bug of some kind” (p. 4) and that her father is foolish. Not only does this negatively impact the daughter’s relationship with her father, but it alters her perspective on living creatures. She starts to take an anthropocentric view on the bug—she treats it as inferior and squishes it. In doing so, she is showing a lack of empathy towards this bug, and also towards her father. In our society, we have developed egotistical ideas that humans are superior to all living creatures. In reality, every species is doing its part to protect and respect the ecosystem they live in—except for humans. All animals, whether a whale or an insect, have a role to play. However, in our colonialist, capitalist, western society, humans have decided that they are supreme beings. When this girl’s father introduced her to this bug, he was attempting to restore her intrinsic relationship with living creatures, as well as her relationship with him. Despite those efforts, she was influenced by her mother to dismiss Gaston and her father. This anthropocentrism serves as a metaphor for her relationship with her father; she admires and respects her father when they bond, but then dismisses him when her mother acts as if she’s the superior parent. Ultimately, this piece exemplifies the toxicity that emerges from beliefs of superiority.

Reflection on Writing 2020-2021

In comparison to September, I believe that my writing has improved. Generally speaking, I think that my ideas and insights have remained fairly consistent. However, the structure of my writing is now better suited to amplify those ideas. This year, we primarily focused on literary analysis. Though we did this in previous years as well, it was never as much of a focal point in our courses. Therefore, to keep up with this analytical content, I had to adapt my writing. In my first few blog posts of the year, I tended to use several short paragraphs, which I now consider to be incomplete and underdeveloped. Often, these paragraphs did not contain assertions, nor the required substance to support any claims. Though these paragraphs weren’t necessarily bad, their style was incompatible with their content. They would be much better suited for contexts like newspaper articles or novels, as I generally wrote them for a wow effect rather than for analytical purposes. Throughout the year, I believe I improved on these grounds. I began writing with the goal of being clear, concise, and analytical. I prioritized the structure of my writing, ensuring that I always used assertions, and consistently supported them with relevant information and quotations. Following this structure has truly helped me write in a manner that compliments my literary analyses, which has benefitted my analytical thinking, as well.

Going forward, I’m hoping to work on my unclear and awkward expressions. This is a challenging error to correct, as there is no simple solution for it. Often, I tend to cram several ideas into one sentence, and I believe this is a primary cause for my awkward writing. In the future, I am going to proofread specifically for this error, in hopes to recognize and correct it. Regardless, I am aware that this will take time and patience, since it can be difficult for me to see these errors in my own writing. One of the best things I believe I can do is continuously exposing myself to good writing. Whether that is through novels, scholarly essays, class handouts or even through my classmates’ blog posts, this is an excellent way to learn. For me, reading is the most enjoyable and rewarding way to absorb good writing techniques and ideas. Therefore, I am looking forward to doing so this summer.

Overall, I believe that my writing has improved, and I am incredibly eager to keep progressing. I strongly believe that everyone’s writing skills have room for improvement, as writing is ever-changing and nonlinear. As we reach new experiences in our lives, we gain more knowledge, perspective, and insight. Though this means that improvements may happen slowly, it also means that they will be inevitable if you keep pursuing growth. Moving forward, I hope to continuously apply what I learn to my writing, in order to improve its quality.

Personal Response to The Awakening

In The Awakening, Kate Chopin invites the reader to question society’s conventionality, using her characterizations of Edna and her foils. From the start of the novel, Edna is never presented as someone who is happily married. She immediately appears disconnected from her husband and children, though she still cares for them. When talking with her friends, they “all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better” (p. 8). This passage shows the sense of  indifference Edna has towards him. Then, Edna is described as, “not a mother woman” (p. 9), furthering our idea of her disconnection from her family. When examining Edna next to Mme. Ratignolle, we can see the clear contrast. Serving as one of Edna’s foils, Adèle is warm, feminine, and “delicious in the [mother-]role” (p. 9). She is someone who believes that, “a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that” (p. 56), contrasting to Edna, who says, “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (p. 56). Chopin uses Mme. Ratignolle to depict the societally conventional woman: an excellent wife, loving mother, and devout catholic. She seems pleased with and admired for her conventional lifestyle, leading us to wonder if this is the best route.

Edna’s other foil, Mlle. Reisz, lies on the opposite side of the spectrum. She is an independent, single woman who lives separate from social expectations. For these reasons, she’s often characterized as unfeminine, such as the diction presenting her as “strikingly homely” (p. 73), with “strong wiry hands” (p. 73) and a “disagreeable” (p. 29) disposition. People don’t like Mlle. Reisz as much as they do Mme. Ratignolle. Due to her lack of conformity, she’s somewhat shunned from society, leading us to believe that traditionalism is not only the best option, but the only one. As the novel progresses, so does Edna’s radicalism. Her mind and body awaken, leaving her at odds with society’s expectations of her. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by questions about priorities: should we relinquish our radicalism to be embraced by society, or should we abandon society to stay true to ourselves? Can radicals and conventionalists exist harmoniously, or must they remain divided? Kate Chopin utilizes these contrasting characters to accentuate the differences between traditional and progressive, allowing us to explore how each side of the spectrum upholds our society.

Along with questions about conventionality, Chopin uses Edna’s romantic relationships to open discussions on the question, What is love?. From her marriage to her affair with Robert, Edna experiences love in several capacities. At the start of her relationship with her husband, Léonce, Edna realizes that she must give up all her dreams of romance, due to the fact that there is “no trace of passion” (p. 21) between the two of them. Edna grows to resent marriage and the restrictions that accompany it. Not only are we shown this indignation through Edna’s words, but also through Chopin’s symbolism. The beginning of the novel showcases an encaged bird, speaking “a language which nobody understood” (p. 1), representing Edna’s captivity in her conventional marriage. This idea is reiterated when Edna  awakens from her previously oppressed state, seeking independence rather than confinement. This is what I believe provokes her subsequent affairs: her desire to self-control, and relinquish herself from society’s hold. As she tells Robert, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (p. 128). Due to this resistance to confinement, it may seem counterintuitive that Edna is falling in love with Robert as she experiences her feminist awakening. However, we soon realize that her love for Robert is completely unrelated to marriage and promise. Love, to answer the initial question,  is a disguise for what the characters truly want from life. Edna sees Robert as an escape from conventional life. He’s exciting and new, and she has no obligations to him. When Robert dreams about Edna, he dreams about marriage. But when Edna dreams about Robert, she dreams about self-governance and freedom. Edna has experienced marriage, and it did not equate to love. She “grew fond” (p. 21) of Léonce, but marriage is a failed experiment in Edna’s mind. Therefore, when Robert tells Edna about his “wild dream of [Edna] becoming [his] wife” (p. 127), she is put off. Chopin has written Robert as a conventional character—one that almost resembles a younger Mr. Pontellier. By doing so, Chopin is accentuating Edna’s ideas about love and marriage. To Edna, those two words are not synonymous. Marriage is a prison that detains, oppresses, and suffocates her. Contrarily, love is an escape; a reflection of Edna’s liberation, a release from conventional society. Does this—the desire to break free—make Edna selfish?

Rather than selfish, I argue that Edna is exploring her identity, self-ownership, and place in society. The word “selfish” has a negative connotation, portraying her as a villain for being unhappy and curious. Through her awakening, Edna becomes more in touch with her mind and her body. She begins to make her own decisions, rather than complying to the subservience that society and her husband ask of her. For instance, when Edna chooses to stay outside one night, Mr. Pontellier orders her to come inside. But instead of “submitt[ing] to his command” (p. 36), Edna doesn’t yield, and asserts herself by saying, “Don’t speak to me like that again” (p. 37). From then on, she decides where she goes and what she does, giving herself where she chooses. Personally, I appreciate this self-exploration. Through several means, Edna is getting in touch with her radicalism, and is fighting against the patriarchal, conventional society. Nevertheless, she has made commitments to her husband and children, which complicates the scenario. Edna’s foil, Mlle. Reisz is able to live an independent, radical lifestyle, because she never makes any commitments to other people. Ultimately, this commitment is what restricts Edna. She cannot continue living as a mother and a wife, but she also cannot live independently without causing scandal. Once again, we see this depicted by bird symbolism: her marriage is compared to a birdcage, and her independent home is referred to as a “pigeon house” (p. 101). She is left with no good options; trapped in between the radical and the conventional—the birdcage and the pigeon house. Once she is exposed to the ideas of self-ownership and independence, how is she expected to return to oppressive mundanity?

I was immensely moved by this novel. Not only does it examine a woman’s role in society, but also her obligations to herself. Edna lives in a society where conventionality is prioritized over self-ownership. Women didn’t have the option to control themselves, making Edna’s resistance to societal norms so radical. Edna doesn’t want the conventional life that has been placed onto her, and instead desires freedom to do as she pleases. Her fight against conventional entrapment correlates with her awakening, leading me conclude that radicalism originates from awareness of yourself and the world around you. Throughout my education on societal standards and the oppressive systems that dominate society, my own radical values have increased. In many ways, my education has “awakened” me, like Edna awakened through her emotional experiences. This novel has allowed me to question my values in relation to conventionality; how I want to conduct my lifestyle and continuously progress.

Personal Response to the Pygmalion Film

In George Bernard Shaw’s adaptation of Pygmalion, Higgins adopts an egocentric saviour complex, the moment he meets Eliza Doolittle. During their first encounter, Higgins uses her accent as an indicator of her social class, then places her into a box accordingly. He doesn’t bother getting to know her, nor does he accept that she’s a person beneath her accent, profession, and clothes. Throughout the play, Eliza is just Higgins’ creature, his sculpture, his game. He has an objective to save her, and he will reach that goal, regardless of whether or not she wants to be saved. In the myth of this story, Pygmalion falls in love with a statue of his own creation. In the film, Henry views Eliza in a similar manner, because he refuses to look past his own prejudices. He transforms her from a poor flower girl to a lady; from rags to riches. He attributes her rising status to himself, which feeds his ego. Later in the film, once Eliza has proved successful, we can see his pride surface. To him, he created her success; she was nothing without him, but now she’s somebody. This nature, Higgins’ self-proclaimed heroism, is often associated with privilege. We most often see similar mannerisms in people like himself: upper-class, rich, white males. He leads a comfortable, high society lifestyle, and expects that everyone wants that. He views people of lower classes as subservient. Therefore, when he decides to ‘save’ Eliza, to transform her into someone that she isn’t, he thinks he’s doing her the utmost service. Since he fails to listen to and empathize with Eliza, Higgins lacks perspective, and his actions fall short. He may think he’s doing a good thing, but that thought process stems to his naivety and privilege.

In response to Higgins’ aforementioned actions, we can visibly see Eliza’s pain. As Henry ‘modifies’ every detail about Eliza—from her accent to her appearance—he’s telling her that being herself is not good enough. Then, when he finally allows the ‘new and improvedEliza to enter society, he instructs her to stick to small talk on two topics: the weather and her health. At social gatherings, she is limited to superficial chitchat, rather than real conversations. She is deprived of authenticity, which essentially tells her that along with her accent and her appearance, her mind is dissatisfactory, too. Finally, in a rare moment of authenticity, Eliza lets her raw emotions surface, showing Higgins and the audience her pain. She had been dragged through this entire process, subject to scrutiny, and still failed to receive a gesture of appreciation from Higgins. Like in A Doll’s House, Eliza is treated as a puppet, with a man serving as the puppet-master! Both Nora and Eliza were forced into inferior, compliant roles, as many women were confined to in relationships. But contrary to most, Nora and Eliza were able to speak up against their mistreatment, which was a luxury that many couldn’t afford. However, when Eliza finally speaks up to Henry, he treats her arguments as invalid and childish, which only increases the pain she feels. Essentially, she is told that she’s inadequate for being herself, but when she changes, she’s still undervalued as a person. It seems impossible for her to truly succeed, to both her standards, and society’s standards.

I was incredibly underwhelmed by the ending of the film. It frustrated me that Eliza ends up going back to Henry, because that negates her prior actions and words! Higgins treats her so poorly, and never once apologizes for his behaviour, yet she still returns to him. He only falls in love with her after he completely changes her, showing her that it’s in fact his adjustments that he loves, not her. When she leaves his house, gaining independence, she shows a great deal of courage and self-respect. Yet moments later, she retracts that boundary-breaking power, and replaces it with a classic ‘happily-ever-after’. This reminded me of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. In this adaptation, we see two endings play out: the traditional one, where Jo ends up in love and married, and the unexpected ending, where Jo ends up independent, single, and accomplished having published her book. This film discusses similar ideas to Pygmalion, regarding the “well-made play”, and endings that will please readers. In these times, endings weren’t desirable if a woman ended up alone. She needed to be married or in a relationship, because how would it be a good ending if she wasn’t? Marriage (or a relationship) was the ultimate conclusion, the best result, the badge of happiness. In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Jo is forced to write her protagonist a ‘happily ever after’ with a man, in order to sell her novel. I wonder if George Bernard Shaw faced the same obligations. I haven’t read the play yet, but I believe the ending is different, leading me to wonder whether this ending was modified for the film audience’s satisfaction. Would the ending be the same if he created the film today, rather than in 1938? How much do societal standards affect the creation of literature? I, personally, would have enjoyed the ending far more if Eliza kept her distance from Higgins. It would have solidified the feminist ideas that she preached earlier. This ending was far too neat and tidy, making it contradictory. Though, in certain ways, this could also humanize Eliza, and show that she prioritizes love above independence (and potentially self-respect, though that’s an entirely different conversation). Unfortunately, this ending tainted certain aspects of the film. However, I’m eager to read the play and analyze the effects of the different endings.

Personal Response to A Doll’s House

Throughout a large portion of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora leads a pleasant, mundane life. Filled with Torvald’s stern finger wagging (p. 113) and Nora’s pretty responses like, “Yes, yes, as you wish” (p. 111), the entire balance of their relationship is established. Nora never threatens Torvald’s “manly self-esteem” (p. 122), so long as he keeps providing her with a comfortable lifestyle and spending-money. Torvald calls Nora his “squirrel”, his “songbird”, his “spendthrift”, and rather than annoyance, she receives those possessive pet-names with affection and silliness. At the start of this play, I was filled with anticipation for Nora’s anger to finally surface. However, at every moment where I felt my own rage toward Torvald, she seems perfectly fine with his patriarchal, paternal actions and words. Their marriage feels more playful than anything else—like a game between a father and his beloved little girl. Torvald indulges on Nora’s frivolity and childlike behaviours, whereas Nora indulges on Torvald’s earnings. It is only at her rather late breaking-point that Nora finally realizes this: the fact that as husband and wife, they have never once “exchanged a serious word about serious things” (p. 182).

Nora doesn’t experience a lengthy buildup to the culmination of this play. She doesn’t gather clues or data points supporting the toxicity of their relationship. She doesn’t consult a friend on her concerns. In fact, she doesn’t even have concerns needing to be addressed, other than the money she borrowed to save Torvald. She appears to lack perspective and intelligence, especially when talking to Kristine in Act I, yet we begin to see that perhaps that’s a product of the environment she has been raised and placed in,

Torvald: You talk like a child. You don’t understand the society you live in. 

Nora: No, I don’t. But I intend to look into it. I must find out who is right, society or me. (p. 185)

Within this dialogue, Torvald attempts to gaslight Nora—to convince her that she’s being a naive child. In return, Nora provides a sophisticated response, questioning the role we all play in society. Is it our jobs to uphold societal standards when they’re perpetuating harm? Is it our duty to combat these stereotypes and norms, in order to create change? If her surrounding society has been teaching her that she’s nothing more than a silly, frivolous, scatterbrained woman her whole life, why would she act any differently? Why would she try to prove them wrong, especially since her life isn’t even bad? She has been assimilated into a typical 19th century daughter and wife—into a doll. The pinnacle of this play doesn’t occur incrementally, it’s more of a flipped switch in Nora’s mind. When Torvald doesn’t defend her after discovering that she borrowed money, she has an important realization: Torvald is only a loving husband in the good moments, which is negated by his anger and distance in this particular bad moment. When she’s conforming to a subservient position as his ideal doll, he’s satisfied, but when she acts like an actual human being—strong, imperfect, and real—he shows hostility.

In several ways, our current society reflects the one presented in A Doll’s House. Femininity is often associated with sensitivity, sweetness, modesty, and fragility, whereas masculinity is associated with strength, independence, assertiveness, and bravery. These stereotypical gender roles continuously put stress on both men and women, not to mention how non inclusive they are to those who are nonbinary. When we assign these qualities and establish this social construct, we are creating a sense of invalidity for many. In this play, Nora tells Kristine about the business she has been conducting, and says, “It was almost as though I was a man” (p. 123). For doing something as unrelated to gender as business ought to be, she feels detached from womanhood. As we witness through Nora, gender norms give people a false impression of who they can and cannot be. They build boundaries, enforce segregation. Then, when people combat these stereotypes, they are often met with problematic, even dangerous responses. Perhaps, breaking down these boundaries is exactly what we need to thrive as a society. Everyone should have the right to emulate and challenge these norms, without being forced to question their own identities (though they certainly can if they want to!). So much has changed between our society and Ibsen’s one, hopefully indicating that this progression will come, as well.

Personal Response to The Merchant of Venice

Love, whether it be romantic, platonic, or familial, is portrayed as impure in The Merchant of Venice. In this play, love is rarely mentioned without association to money or status. We’re introduced to these ideas from the beginning, when Solanio and Salarino claim that the only possible sources for Antonio’s sadness are his fortunes or love (Act I, Scene I, pp. 1-3). This establishes the two main priorities in this play, leaving us with the impression that they’re connected. Money is a reason for love, money helps create love, and money increases the meaning of love. If love is pure, why are Bassanio’s first remarks about Portia based on her wealth and beauty (Act I, Scene I, p. 6)? Love shouldn’t be superficial, but it is often represented as such. If love is pure, why does Jessica need a dowry to marry Lorenzo (Act II, Scene VI, pp. 34-26)? In this scenario, marriage is established as transactional and systematic, so why do we use it as the marker of love? If love is pure, why is Shylock’s heartbreak over his daughter’s departure equally painful due to his love for her, and his love for the money she took with her (Act III, Scene I, pp. 47-49)? Oftentimes, love is contaminated with greed, desire, and immorality; but so are most things. Does that diminish the love’s sincerity and value?

Coinciding with the purity of love, this play demonstrates the prevalence of power’s influence on relationships, causing us to question whether that is moral. If power is involved in the formation and preservation of a relationship, is it genuine? For instance, Portia has power stemming from her beauty, wealth, and status. Without these attributes, Portia would barely have a place in the world, let alone the multitude of suitors she has. Her relationship with Bassanio would be nonexistent, because she wouldn’t be in any position of power. In the play, Portia and Bassanio get married, and in doing so Portia relinquishes her power and wealth to him. Bassanio’s newly acquired possession of control would change the dynamic of their relationship. Suddenly, he runs the household, has the power to control Portia, and is seen as the more important figure between them. Should we let power have such a strong influence on us, or would it be better to disregard it, to combat the inequality rather than enforce it? We can also examine the relationship between Antonio and Shylock, as a representation of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Originally, Antonio has more power than Shylock, since he is a Christian. Using his power, Antonio constantly condemns and mistreats him, which defines their adversarial relationship. Later, when Shylock gains power stemming from the bargain, Antonio is at his mercy. The nature of relationships completely changes depending on power, leading to the discrimination we see from Christians to Jews, the patriarchal relationships shown between men and women throughout this play, and other unhealthy imbalances.

Shakespeare often plays with deceit throughout his literature, in both form and content. On a literal level, we associate deceptive appearances with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises as men; a tactic they used to save Antonio from death. We may also remember when Portia calls herself an “unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractis’d” (Act III, Scene II, p. 54), which we later discover is completely false. She claims that at the beginning of her engagement with Bassanio, when in fact, she is quite brilliant. Digging even deeper, when Portia is acting as Antonio’s lawyer, she delivers a powerful speech about mercy, “The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” (Act IV, Scene I, p. 73). Or, it appeared powerful and heartfelt, until she demonstrated her hypocrisy by not showing mercy to Shylock, merely pages later. This employment of deceit utilized by Shakespeare allows us to question sincerity as a whole; how often are people truly sincere, and how often are they only acting sincere for self-serving purposes? Deception leads to mistrust; a cracked foundation, a flawed reliance on others. The Merchant of Venice allows us to explore questions that may be applicable to ourselves, from a distance. Sometimes, it takes reading about hypocrisy to recognize it in our own lives, and to question how we can avoid the alterable flaws shown in fictional characters.

Letter to Langston Hughes

Dear Mr. Hughes,

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began. It was founded by three black women, in response to a recent murder of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager, in which the murderer was found not guilty. In 2013, I didn’t know of this mouvement, nor the injustice black people faced on a daily basis due to the racism that encompasses the world. I was nine years-old, and I lived oblivious to this, because I could. I never had to be told as a child what to do if I was stopped by a police officer, I never had to be told that people would treat me unjustly due to my race. I was raised in a household where I was taught about racism and how wrong it is. However, I also grew up in a largely white neighborhood, with white privilege; thus, I wasn’t exposed to how severe it was for many.

Even through empathy, I will never truly comprehend how bad it can be for black people. Now, in 2021, I regularly follow the Black Lives Matter movement. However, no form of education comes anywhere near real-life experiences. I still live with white privilege. I have never been in a position of fear due to my race, and I wish you could have said the same. When I read your poetry, anger envelops me. Indignation towards the injustice you had to face. Rage at the racism and oppression that is still pervasive. Resentment towards all white people, past and present, that have suppressed others due to something as beautifully diverse as race. Identity isn’t something anyone should be harmed for; and yet, people who look like me have vehemently forced others into this position, to give themselves a feeling of superiority.

In, “As I Grew Older” and “I, Too,” you speak of the “dream” that many black people have ached for throughout their lives,

My hands!

My dark hands!

Break through the wall!

Find my dream!

Help me to shatter this darkness,

To smash this night,

To break this shadow

Into a thousand lights of sun,

Into a thousand whirling dreams

Of sun! (As I Grew Older, ll. 24-32)

As your life progressed, did your idea of this dream change? If you were alive now, would you feel as if you have achieved this dream, or are still fighting for it? Racism may have improved since your time; however, better doesn’t automatically equate to good.

In a time where hate feels indomitable, your poetry is a reminder of what people have overcome. Although the content in “Negro” may provoke sadness or anger due to the injustice demonstrated within it, it has strong tones of resilience and pride for everything black people have overcome. We see a range of suffering, from,

I’ve been a worker:

Under my hands the pyramids arose

I made mortar for the Woolworth Building. (Negro, ll. 7-9)

to,

I’ve been a victim:

The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.

They lynch me still in Mississippi. (Negro, ll. 14-16)

But despite the centuries of pain and injustice conveyed through this, you still manage to make it a poem raising existential questions regarding identity. Who are we?, one may ask, to which this poem responds,

“I am a Negro:

Black as the night is black,

Black like the depths of my Africa. (Negro, ll. 1-3)

This feeling of identity has an impenetrable strength to it. I can imagine the bond you have created between people who have similar trauma engraved within their identities.  Not only does it show a  progression of black history, it shows hope; hope for the futureーfor the aforementioned “dream”.

In your past society and our present one, harmful stereotypes about black people have been propagated. In, “Deferred,” you broke the detrimental idea that black people were all the same, by presenting individuality through different speakers,

All I want is

one more bottle of gin.

All I want is to see my furniture paid for. (Deferred, ll. 29-31)

Then, in, “Dream Boogie,” you portray the false facades of happiness black workers were forced into by their white employers,

Sure,

I’m happy!

Take it away! (Dream Boogie, ll. 15-17)

In these debunkings, we receive a taste of previous stereotypes, allowing us to reflect on the progression of our society. Did you ever suspect your poetry would be seen by people who weren’t even aware of the stereotypes that were so prevalent for you?

Throughout your diverse collection of poetry, we experience an outpouring of pain, hope, resilience, and strength. We observe a contrast between the beautifully seductive language used in “Harlem Sweeties”, the bluesy humour in “Life Is Fine”, and the powerful, dreamlike imagery in “As I Grew Older”. I wonder if you would be pleased with the impact your poetry has had on people globally, or satisfied with the manner in which we are studying it.

Thank you, deeply, for allowing us to live within your work.

With high appreciation,

Amy Norris

Personal Response to Candide

Candide, by Voltaire, explores the everpresent global issue of happiness; specifically the facades we put up to simulate it. Throughout this novel, we observe a differentiation between optimistic and pessimistic characters; ones who believe happiness is easily achievable, and ones who scrutinize the lack of it. We witness Candide conforming to the philosophy he has been told to believe—that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds—then we see him branch away and truly question his own beliefs on Leibnizian optimism. Amidst that, Candide raises questions regarding our reliance on others to make us happy, and the deception of our appearances.

When Candide first sees Paquette and Brother Giroflée, he claims, “But as for this girl and her monk, I will wager that they are truly happy creatures,” (p. 90) to which Martin replies, “I will wager that they are not.” (p. 90) Brother Giroflée is described as having, “sparkling eyes, a confident air, a superior look, and a proud gait,” (p. 90) and Paquette as, “very pretty and was singing.” (p. 90). Later, after learning the stories of both people, Candide comes to realize that Martin was correct; their happy exteriors did not match their true, “unfortunate” feelings. Paquette tells Candide, “I have to seem in a good mood to please a monk,” (p. 92) which leads to a theory of why we mask our true feelings behind facades of happiness: to please others.

In a way, the satirical genre of the novel coincides with this global issue. On the surface, it’s lighthearted, humorous, and absurd. Yet underneath, it tackles issues of importance. There are a variety of levels at which we can process this story; as we dig deeper, we are exposed to more profundities. This is a parallel to the gradation of happiness we remark in different characters; we must search for their values and emotions, since we can’t necessarily trust what they originally display.

After forming the conclusion, with Martin’s help, that one without sorrows is a “rare specimen” (p. 94), Candide decides, “Well . . . no man can be happy, except for me when I see Cunegonde again.” (p. 100) Candide is tying his happiness to someone else, rather than finding it from within or from a healthy source. Relying on someone else for something as fundamental as happiness is toxic, because if that person lets you down, you’re risking your wellbeing. Throughout this novel, Candide continuously loses people dear to him. In fact, he repeatedly loses Cunegonde; it’s a cycle of being separated then reunited. When Candide is without these people, we see glimpses of unhappiness and pessimism. The first time he reunites with Cunegonde, he’s elated. When he realizes Pangloss and the baron are alive, he can’t believe his luck and joy. However, in the concluding chapter of Candide, he starts finding himself profoundly bored, and even points out, “there is a horrible amount of evil in the world.” (p. 117) The spark of that initial reunion has faded, and the happiness along with it. This is what happens when you tie your happiness to someone; this is why we must find alternative sources for it.

In the final chapter of Candide, he has a conversation with a Turk, who spends his days cultivating his estate with his children. He claims, “Work keeps three great evils at bay: boredom, vice, and want.” (p. 118) After profoundly contemplating this conversation, Candide makes his notable concluding quotation,

“That is well said,” Candide replied, “but we must cultivate our garden.” (p. 119)

We don’t see what Candide does after saying this. We don’t know whether he follows through longterm on this newfound philosophy; whether he combats boredom, vice, and want; whether he’s happy. Is cultivating his garden—himself— a way of finding happiness from an alternative source? This novel allows us to reflect upon our own lives; it allows us to question whether we’re hiding behind a facade of happiness. Beyond that, it prompts us to wonder what we can do to find happiness. If we were to ask ourselves this, and profoundly contemplate it like Candide does, would we reach the same conclusion? Would we find happiness through cultivating our garden?

Personal Response to The Odyssey

Despite being written approximately 3000 years ago, The Odyssey, by Homer, challenges us to question ourselves and our priorities, while simultaneously questioning Odysseus. At the start of his journey, Odysseus longs for action, glory, and excitement. He’s a young man, seeking adventure一something that many young people can relate to. He defends, he fights, he conquers. He builds his reputation, leaving one title for himself: a hero. However, after travelling to Hades and witnessing real death, he aches for life; the mortality of his loved ones, the reconnection with his family, the evasion of death. Odysseus has that life altering moment. He experiences something so significant that he realizes exactly what he wants一needs to be doing. In reality, most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have that momentous experience or realization. There’s no big BOOM!, or if there is, it often blows over quickly, whether that’s positive or negative. Prior to this significant event (Odysseus’ visit to Hades), Odysseus’ personal characteristics and desires are questionable. He allows himself to be tempted by several obstructions blocking his path home, such as the beautiful goddess, Kirke, or the glory of beating the Kyklops, regardless of the effect it would have on his crew. Moreover, Odysseus’ reluctance to travel home to his parents, wife, and child demonstrates how little he prioritizes family. To contrast, after going to Hades, Odysseus’s likeability increases, because he has a sudden shift in his priorities and values. This raises the question, did Odysseus need this profound, life-altering experience to grow? What does that reveal about us? Is personal growth acquired through multiple life experiences, or through one earth-shattering one?

Preceding this event, would we consider Odysseus heroic? Is he a good person? We recognize Odysseus as a hero, but as I was reading The Odyssey, I repeatedly found myself contemplating that. On a spectrum ranging from good to bad, Odysseus is morally grey at best. Yes, he is courageous, intelligent, and brave, but he is also disloyal, hubristic, and hypocritical. During Odysseus’ hard times, I feel sympathy for him. For instance, the scene when he sees his mother in Hades, without knowing she had died, is heartbreaking, because we see vulnerability and tenderness within him. Nonetheless, the brutal deaths of the maids and suitors had me reconsidering my stance on those qualities, due to how rapidly he can turn his compassion on and off.

Throughout this poem, I began to grasp how consistent human nature is. Although we have evolved tremendously on superficial levels, we’re still fundamentally the same as characters in The Odyssey. People still have that unwavering ambition that we see within Odysseus, the wise intelligence Penelope possesses, and the sheer heartbreak Anticlea is pained with. In modern life, we observe Telemakhos’ coming-of-age story retold in many contexts, and we feel ourselves experiencing it. People encounter the same temptations Odysseus does, underneath different, luring facades. The problematic patriarchal society we’re trying to move past is so difficult to conquer, because it’s been rooted in society since before the 8th century BCE. We may think that we’re different to these characters, and in many ways we are. But ultimately, we can see ourselves in them. The reason why we can read a book like The Odyssey and raise questions such as, ‘Why do we suffer?’ is due to the poem’s emphasis on human nature, and our ability to connect with it. As we have discussed in class, it has a different effect on us depending on our life experience and emotional state. The Odyssey was a challenging read, but due to this reason, I’m certain I will one day read it again.

Paradise and Death

Paradise and Death: The Temptations of Odysseus, by Mr. MacKnight,  raises and explores each of the major questions we consider while reading The Odyssey. Whether they’re discussed directly or indirectly, this essay highlights the connections between  each question. In The Odyssey, we travel alongside Odysseus as he encounters gods and monsters, suffers through pain, faces dangerous temptations, and grows as an individual. This analysis connects those adventures with current societal issues, as well as deep-rooted flaws in human nature.

The first question, the nature of the Greek gods, is raised in the discussion about immortality and what gives our lives meaning. As Odysseus encounters the Greek gods and goddesses (Kirkê and Kalypso) he’s tempted by paradisiacal islands and beautiful women. However, after being offered eternal life, he realizes that immortality would render his life meaningless. In Mr. MacKnight’s words,

. . . he longs for Penélopê precisely because she must die. If Penélopê (and Laertês and Telémakhos) were immortal, Odysseus would not be so dissatisfied with Kalypso, so impatient to get home; there would be plenty of time to do everything, without suffering any loss. . . It is because we mortals die that our lives are precious and our actions significant. (p. 9)

This introduces the following question, ‘Why do we suffer?’. Through broadening my literary knowledge, I have recognized a recurring trope that I noticed in this essay and in The Odyssey. Pain shades your life— it makes happiness better and sadness worse. It deepens your understanding of yourself and of the world. It keeps you connected with your emotions, and is imperative to hold onto, 

[Odysseus] wants to live fully, which means living consciously. He doesn’t want to suffer, but when suffering comes he wants to feel the pain the pain of losing his mother, of being separated from his family, or growing old and facing deathbecause only if he is fully conscious of life’s sorrows will he be fully conscious of its joys[.] (p. 14)

This quotation reminded me of an impactful line said in a monologue of a film, “Right now there’s sorrow. Pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.” (Call Me By Your Name) Odysseus’ character and desires have shifted, because he has realizes that repressing the pain is not an option. He doesn’t want to live a life where he is numb to his emotions, like the Phaiákians. Pain is inevitable. We all suffer. It hurts, for some more than others, but it’s essential. This is exemplified when we compare pain to it’s emotionless alternative,

Living in their protected world, the Phaiákians never really suffer, but neither do they feel the unsurpassed joy, the inexpressible relief that comes when suffering ends. And neither do they have that intense appreciation of life that comes from recognizing its brevity, and the inevitability of loss and sorrow. (p. 14)

We suffer because it makes us human. We suffer to feel happiness. We suffer to acquire emotional depth— love, joy, grief, and passion, rather than liking, comfort, suppression and apathy. While visiting Hades, the land of the dead, Odysseus experiences death (without actually dying), which prompts his reconnection with life. He develops a new desire to travel home; a new appreciation for everyone and everything. His motivation is restored, and he wants to return to his family. Like suffering, death has allowed Odysseus to appreciate the alternative. 

In this essay, I observed clear, specific assertions, well-structured paragraphs, literary evidence to support the assertions, and further exploration. I saw a combination of analysis and links to society/human nature, which I admire. The language wasn’t flowery, but the points were insightful and powerful. This taught me that embellished language is unnecessary for impactful writing—something which I will attempt to improve going forward. 

Conflicts representing Antigone: Men vs. Women

Throughout Sophocles’ play,  Antigone, we encounter the recurring conflict between men and women. Although the dispute between Creon and Antigone could emphasize many existential issues, a primary one we are met with is the dominant ideology of patriarchy. Whether enforced by women or by men, the inequality between them is abundantly clear, and equally harmful.

The first demonstration of the societally induced gender roles is Ismene’s line, “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men.” (p. 62) Ismene has made herself and other women inferior to men, because that is what she has been conditioned to believe. She then goes on to refer to women as, “underlings, ruled by much stronger hands,” (p. 62) which reveals the “damsel-in-distress” literary trope we are so often shown.

Later, we develop a sense of Antigone’s opposition to this ideology, when she raises herself onto Creon’s level, rather than making herself subservient to him. She says that she is not going to break the laws of the gods out of fear for, “some man’s wounded pride.” (p. 82) In this quotation, she is creating equality between the two of them, rather than succumbing to their patriarchal society. This, along with her strength to stand up to the man in power in order to defend her beliefs, are few of many reasons why Antigone is still regarded as an early feminist. 

Despite Antigone’s efforts of equality, Creon’s oppression against women is definitely prevalent.The line, “she is the man” (p. 83) insinuates that when you’re brave, accomplished, and successful, you’re a man, and when you’re the opposite, you’re a woman. Why is it that we still use words such as “manly” to replace the words brave and courageous?  

On a slightly more obvious note, when talking to Ismene, Creon says, “there are other fields for [Haemon] to plow,” (p. 89). This is incredibly degrading, objectifying, and upsetting. It affirms that women are just objects used to please men, and are therefore expendable. Creon also advises Haemon, “I warn you… a worthless woman in your house, a misery in your bed.” (p. 93) Is this really how women were regarded? Their only purposes were to carry children and to satisfy men. In so many respects, we are incredibly fortunate for the change that has occurred in this area. And yet, there is still a tremendous number of residual issues from these times, which is concerning due to the amount of time that has passed since this was written. 

I like to point out all the areas in which Creon is a sexist, misogynistic man, but could I expect anything else from people at that era? It was just the way it was, which is appalling, but true. It’s interesting that Sophocles wrote such a powerful, modern woman (Antigone), and such a despicable, sexist man (Creon). I wonder if Sophocles was purposefully speaking on the inequality between men and women, or if he was simply writing a realistic situation, which we now perceive as unjust…
Through all of this, I must ask, why are we defining the conflict as men versus women, when that enforces the segregation between them? We must discard the harmful, antiquated notion that one gender is superior, and we must replace it with actions supporting the claim that we are equal.