Personal Response to Tess of the d’Urbervilles

My opinions on Thomas Hardy’s classic story Tess of the d’Urbervilles can perhaps be best described as “complicated.” For various reasons, this was decidedly not a book I enjoyed reading. Nonetheless, I still understand the reason for its influence, respect the skill that went into writing it, and fully believe it deserves its status as a work of classic western literature.

Beginning with perhaps the most consistent factor that contributed to my irritation with this book, I found its writing style to be plodding at best and nearly infuriating at worst. I must make it clear that I understand the subjectivity of this critique; typical writing technique has doubtlessly changed dramatically in the many decades since the work’s initial publication, and elements that I find unenjoyable were likely widely liked and accepted. However, while reading I couldn’t suppress the urge to pull out a pen and cross out all the superfluous words or even rewrite entire sentences (this coming from a person whose writing is frequently acknowledged as being somewhat meandering and wordy). As much as I dislike using the word “boring” to describe any literature, classics in particular, Tess of the d’Urbervilles truly tested my commitment to that philosophy. Still, there were a few standout examples of scenes in which this style worked in the story’s advantage, mostly when the author was trying to convey a sense of dread, suspense, or anticipation prior to a major event.

Regarding the content of the book itself, my feelings become a bit more nuanced. I can’t deny that this story was genuinely able to induce a powerful emotional response, mostly manifesting in the sheer detestability of one Alec d’Urberville. Unfortunately, most of my other responses to the events of the book were likely not the intended ones. The second half of the book essentially boils down to a constant string of escalating misfortune for the titular character, eventually culminating in her death by hanging. This undoubtably had the intended effect of creating sympathy for Tess, but after a time this omnipresent misery became not just tedious, but comedic. After a time, this rendered Tess to a thoroughly flat character, one who seemingly only existed to be used as a plaything by the universe itself.

I didn’t enjoy Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I simultaneously find myself harboring a begrudging sense of respect for it. Despite the tedium of the writing style and narrative, the story is undoubtably successful at doing what it tries to do. Tess is a very sympathetic character, and in this case her relative blandness works in her advantage. My first instinct when writing a sympathetic character is to give them a likable personality or compelling goals so that, when bad things happen to that character, the audience feels bad for them. Tess goes about this somewhat backwards. We don’t feel bad because misfortune befalls a person we like, we feel bad because misfortune befalls someone who so clearly deserved none of it. Whether that character is likable or not is largely irrelevant, and that appears to be the point. Tess doesn’t have to be Tess, she could be any woman made to suffer horribly for events beyond her control, and a complex endearing personality would only detract from that core idea. This is the story’s strongest element, and this is why it’s remembered all these decades later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is not a classic because of the way it’s written or the strength of its protagonist, it’s a classic because of the ideas it presents. In the case of a story like this, I say with no small hint of vexation, that’s what really counts.

Practice Paper 1 Reflection

Based on pretty much all the feedback I’ve received for each of my in-class essays, although my most frequent error appears to be how I incorrectly format citations, my greatest struggle is how my analytical interpretations tend to lack sufficient depth. In my most recent practice paper especially, my analysis of the poem The Beaks of Eagles largely neglected imagery, sound effects, and tone, instead focusing almost entirely on structure and content rather than technique. Examining these aspects doubtlessly would’ve enhanced the essay as a whole.

Slaughterhouse Five Personal Response

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a confusing work in nearly every dimension, being a fundamental self-contradiction almost by its premise alone. While the author/narrator establishes right from the get-go that the book is a reflection upon one of the most brutal massacres of the Second World War, this central thesis is set against the absurd and iconic sci-fi elements, used to justify a non-linear narrative progression that places the focal character’s death smack in the middle of the book. With its narrative style, structure, and technique as borderline incoherent as this book so often is, we can (perhaps ironically) see the impressive degree of care and thought that went into crafting as bizarre a story as possible.

Starting with perhaps the least odd aspect of the book’s structure, the narrative features two separate framing devices, one held inside the other similar to a nesting doll. The famous non-chronological narrative, seemingly brought on by the protagonist’s abduction by four-dimensional aliens, serves as a frame for the story. Meanwhile, the first chapter, which is narrated by Vonnegut himself, frames and contextualizes the book itself. This, interestingly, achieves something most authors deliberately strive to avoid: pulling the audience out of the story rather than into it. Because we, as the audience can clearly see from the start that this is a work of fiction, Vonnegut invites us to take his story at more than just face value; to suspend our suspension of disbelief. The author has spoken to us directly, so he must have something to say, therefore we must listen.

Then, in a strange twist of technique, Vonnegut subverts his subversion by creating deliberate ambiguity in the narrative, obscuring any deeper meaning the text might have. Throughout the course of the novel, we only know one thing for certain: the city of Dresden will be destroyed, and Billy Pilgrim will witness it. This singular anchoring event functionally serves as the book’s climax. Although it may not be obvious upon a casual reading, the events leading up to Dresden’s destruction are in perfect chronological order, emulating traditional narrative progression. From this perspective, Billy’s time-traveling fills the role of character backstory, contextualizing the events we see by providing additional insights on the character, allowing us to sympathize with him less by knowing who he was before, but more who he will become. Had the time travel been excluded from the narrative, these insights would be absent, and Billy Pilgrim would be an empty character.

However, because Vonnegut has acknowledged the fictitious nature of his work, we are incentivized to examine the story critically and make sense of the madness. Despite this, it is unclear if there is any sense to be made, or any deeper meaning to be found. One might interpret the book as having any number of hidden messages: messages relating to war, life, death, humanity, or reality itself. However, just like the book itself, these messages always return to the destruction of Dresden, and little more can be gleaned from the text then the author’s statement of “I was there.” Nevertheless, Vonnegut has already done what he set out to do. By planting an overwhelming sense of confusion in the reader’s mind, the book has forced the audience to examine it on a deeper level than they would have otherwise, and possibly even form their own insights.

A Quick Examination of an Essay Analyzing a Book I Read Once

Keith Byerman’s essay, entitled Walker’s Blues, attempts an analysis of Alice Walker’s famous novel The Color Purple by likening the work to a classical fairytale in its structure, themes, and narrative elements. This thesis is the basis of most of Byerman’s arguments, but it’s something I quickly took issue with, as the comparison ultimately presents “fairytale” as synonymous with “optimistic,” describing the world of the story as “A faerie world where coincidences and transformations are possible” (59), implying reality is above such frivolous imaginings. The essay then goes on to synopsize the vast majority of the novel in a long-winded manner that serves nearly no purpose in informing or evidencing the conclusion it ultimately presents, that the novel is an inherent contradiction between its folk imagery and fairytale values. However, I would be lying if I said that Byerman didn’t strike gold a few times throughout the essay. For example, his understanding of the character Shug Avery. Instead of a mystical being come to whisk the protagonist away to a better life, she is grounded in the story by her relationships to the people around her. This is a genuinely astute interpretation, and one that I’d much rather read an essay discussing.

A Reflection on Orwell

I’d be genuinely surprised if I had a conversation with someone who hadn’t at least heard the name George Orwell. Of all the words to describe the works and legacy of Eric Arthur Blair, “influential” is probably the most apt, and decidedly the one that appears in the most academic literature related to him (citation needed).

Up until quite recently, I was somewhat unsure of the reason for the enduring power of his writing. I was familiar with a few of his works, namely 1984 and Animal Farm, but never having read them it was unclear to me what all the fuss was about. Well, I still haven’t read either of them, but since then I have read several of his other articles and essays, and from those I think I might have a slightly better understanding of what the big deal was.

I found myself surprised at how engaged I was by Orwell’s essays. No matter the content, it was immediately clear that the author knew exactly what he wanted to make the audience feel, and how to make them feel it. It took me a bit to figure out, but I largely attribute this to his writing style. The best way I can describe it is “calculated.” When writing, particularly in an academic setting, it’s extremely easy to go too far in terms of description, and employ words that complicate one’s writing to an unnecessary degree, functionally turning it into a wall inaccessible to many readers. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell explicitly states that he strives to avoid this pitfall, as well as other common practices which he believes accomplishes the same effect of obscuring the meaning and emotion behind writing. This, I believe, is the key to the effect Orwell’s writing has on a reader. His essays are not written as essays, they’re written as stories. Orwell doesn’t make his point with words, he makes his point with emotion, which is induced by words.

English DP1 Year-End Reflection

This whole school year has been an interesting and novel experience, and although English class is usually my strongest subject, my DP1 Literature course presented quite a few new challenges and ideas. Examining works of classical literature and poetry gave me the opportunity to internalize techniques and styles to implement in my own writing projects, not to mention several works (namely Candide, The Merchant of Venice, and A Doll’s House) being extremely enjoyable and memorable reads in their own right.

Personal Response to The Awakening (Kate Chopin)

I’m not quite sure what to think about this one. Kate Chopin’s novel, entitled The Awakening, is generally considered her magnum opus, as well as what incited the end of her writing career as a result of it’s “scandalous” message.  Naturally, it should be fun to examine.

The thing that struck me with the most force and frequency was the writing style and structure. There’s a lot of description in this story, and as a result reading it can often feel like a chore. As a direct result of this, The Awakening is extremely slow paced. In addition, the story’s narrative structure is a little bit odd. The best adjective I can use to describe it is “meandering.” In the moment, very few events have a lasting impact on future events; the characters just jump from one location to the next, dialogue is said, people and things are described, Edna (the protagonist) reacts, moving on. Combined with the lack of rising action, falling action, or any real climactic event, the reading experience in general feels rather flat. The way I say this makes it sound like a detriment, but while it may have negatively affected my enjoyment of the story, it definitely serves a purpose. The Awakening is a story-driven character study, and choses to express its ideas through a slice of life format. Chopin is, through these largely disconnected events, showing us Edna’s gradual journey towards self-actualization. Each event doesn’t necessarily contribute to the story, but together, they create a well-developed character arc for the protagonist.

In class discussions, the topic of Edna’s morality was frequently brought up. These were discussions that I didn’t often participate in, as my own thoughts on this topic were not really fully formed, and as of right now, they still aren’t. My current interpretation is that Edna is written as a flawed, fallible character, with goals and desires that conflict with the world around her, rather than an objectively “bad” or “good” person. Weather this was an active decision on the author’s part, I’m not sure, but it certainly helps Edna feel like a real person, with real thoughts and emotions. The parts of the story in the middle and end when Edna began exercising her agency were easily the most enjoyable scenes in the entire book for that very reason.

Personal Response to A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth-century stage play chronicling a young woman’s brief but powerful journey of self-realization, is one that certainly turned (not to mention reddened) quite a number of heads back when it was first produced. Viewers were so outraged by the story’s conclusion that Ibsen was forced to write a second, more ‘appealing’ ending, which completely undermined its intended message and Ibsen himself described as a “barbaric outrage.” It is partially these themes and ideas which the contemporary audience found so offensive that make the play so interesting to examine in depth.

For me, easily the most impactful element of the entire play was the character Torvald Helmer. Although any surface level description of his character would paint him as a caring, protective individual, every single one of his lines I read made me dislike him more. Ironically, this is indicative of how well the character is written. His saccharine, borderline creepy interactions with Nora create a sense of unease in the audience, slowly building up to the conclusion when his pleasant veneer falls away, before being replaced just a little bit too quickly. However, one of the most unnerving things about Torvald is it’s clear he’s not being intentionally harmful or malicious. His worldview and experience have simply shaped him into an individual who always wants to be in control of every situation, something he himself probably doesn’t even realize.

A relatively minor detail that I personally appreciated is that the play takes place entirely within one room of Nora and Torvald’s house. Although this is most likely just a matter of it not being feasible to switch out or move around so many props between scenes, this choice in setting creates a subtly constrictive atmosphere for the entire play. Every relevant interaction and conversation takes place within this one room, illustrating how this house is literally Nora Helmer’s entire life and how trapped she is by it.

All of these little events and clues culminate in the conclusion of the play, easily the part that sparked the most controversy among the contemporary viewers. It’s at this point that Nora realizes the harm done to her by her father and husband, describing herself as a “doll,” treated by both of them as a plaything rather than an actual human being. Seeing Nora finally accept what the audience has known for the entire play is an exceptionally cathartic moment, as is her decision to leave behind her old life so that she can discover who she is beyond the influences of others. In mid-eighteen hundreds society, when women’s social duties were extremely family-centric, it’s no surprise that such a narrative development would be so controversial. However, this may be one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of the entire play, a fact that the play’s audience obviously missed due to it not fitting into their fragile worldview. Hilariously, this is probably proved Ibsen’s point.

The Merchant of Venice

William (Billy) Shakespeare has a considerable roster of famous plays to his name, notable among them is The Merchant of Venice, which in the modern day is mostly known for its portrayal and treatment of the character Shylock, the only important Jewish character in the play (unless you count Jessica), and also its main antagonist. However, there’s much more depth to this play beneath what made it infamous, and certainly warrants exploration.

To first address the elephant in the room, almost everything about Shylock is extremely fascinating to examine. First and foremost, Shylock’s religion is not incidental to his actions (His Jewishness is not just a random character trait added to make him extra detestable for the audience of the time), nor is it the direct cause of them (He doesn’t want to kill Antonio because “he’s Jewish and that’s just what Jewish people do”). Instead, Shylock is pushed to breaking by the actions of others, mostly the constant discrimination from the titular merchant of Venice, Antonio. This combined with his famous monologue, in which he berates to minor characters for refusing to acknowledge his very humanity solely because of his religion. This is easily the most powerful scene in the play (at least to a modern audience), and its inclusion makes Shylock a much more sympathetic character to a degree that I doubt it could have happened by accident. Ultimately, this leads to his actions throughout the play being extremely understandable, although whether or not he was justified is another debate entirely. If the reader so chooses, this play can be interpreted as an examination of the horrible effects of prejudice on society as a whole.

While the subtext surrounding Shylock is extremely interesting, the character Antonio is almost equally so. His narrative role is that of the protagonist, but it feels like he appears much less frequently than most of the main cast, mostly because of his lack of influence on the story. His most frequently discussed trait is his blatant antisemitism, but like Shylock, his negative qualities are not his only qualities. His genuine love for his friends is his primary motivation for the entirety of the story, which would normally be considered an undisputed virtue. However, the extreme selectiveness of this trait is his main flaw. His  affection towards his friends comes at the cost of his affection towards everyone else. Just like his supposed antithesis, Antonio is a much more complex character than he first appears.

The interpretation of this play as an examination and deconstruction of prejudice and antisemitism is reinforced by the fact that almost every character is a colossal hypocrite. Throughout the play, there are frequent examples of characters making statements that directly contradict with their previous or later actions (Bassanio giving away his wedding ring the day after he said he’d never part from it, Antonio going to Shylock for money after years of abusing him, the Venetian court sentencing Shylock to essentially a life of exile from his own culture with only half of his possessions immediately after pleading he be merciful to Antonio). This subtle bit of thematic storytelling adds a lot of nuance to the narrative, presenting the supposed antagonist in a more positive light that the title character. This likely would have gone completely over the head of the contemporary London audience, so whether it was intended by the playwright is difficult to verify. However, our removal of several centuries from the play’s debut allows us to look at it from a much more objective angle.

Reflection on the Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, born at the turn of the 20th century, was an extremely influential poet and social activist for the duration of his career. Through his various works, he made an incredible effort to bring awareness to, and fight back against, the discrimination faced by African Americans (as well as other unfortunate citizens looked down upon by contemporary American society). These themes are the most easily noticeable recurrence throughout his various poems, but the ideas and styles they present are absolutely worth deeper examination.

Hughes’ poetry is extremely varied all across the board. Despite the similar themes and subject matter, of the ones I’ve read, no two poems sound exactly the same. They might have a different tone, or a different rhythm, or sometimes no rhythm at all. Surprisingly, although I personally prefer some of these styles over others, Hughes managed to write all of them with a considerable amount of talent, and no lack of emotional weight. Above all else, each of these poems is intended to speak to people, but in different ways. Some are intended for those at the top of the American social hierarchy, to make them understand the plight faced by all the people below them. Others are intended directly for those on the bottom, less intended to create sympathy than to inspire.

Something I personally found interesting (and appreciate) about these poems is that, regardless of how somber the tone may be, it’s rare that they lose their optimism completely. Life is Fine, which shows it’s narrator on the verge of suicide, implies that he found reason to keep living, ending with the phrase, “Life is fine!” For another example, Let America Be America Again goes into great detail explaining the wrongs committed throughout America’s history, simply stating that the reality of the nation doesn’t live up to it’s promise. However, it ends with the hopeful declaration that fulfilling that promise still isn’t out of reach.

In the end, I really appreciate the worldview and ideas Langston Hughes’ poetry presents, as well as the styles used to express those ideas. Any reader can tell that there’s a lot of emotion and talent behind these words, and considering the subject matter and time in which they were written, that means a huge amount.

Personal Response to Voltaire’s Candide

Candide, possibly French writer Voltaire’s most famous work, is a satirical novel that follows the adventures of the titular character and a revolving door of companions as he embarks on a worldwide journey to find his one true love/cousin and prove that the world doesn’t totally suck.

I went into Candide completely blind, but although I have a mild interest in classical literature, I didn’t expect any surprises from it. This is probably why I was completely caught off guard by the book’s hilarious wit, brisk pacing, and rather progressive themes considering the time in which it was written. All of this made it a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, something I enjoyed considerably less was the story’s consistent cynicism, a worldview I personally find exceptionally grating. Fortunately, the humor and absurdity of the situations Candide and his companions constantly found themselves in counterbalanced this to a degree.

Easily the most interesting thing about the work, in my opinion, was it’s ending. Upon initial reading, it struck me as rather bittersweet. However, after a reread and further consideration, I suspect it was intended to be a happy ending for all the major characters. The reason for my initial interpretation, I think, was because the pace of the ending was so much slower than the rest of the book, and considerably lacking in humor. The bulk of the book, despite depicting the genuinely awful suffering of the protagonist and his friends, is often so absurd (especially to a modern audience), and filled with so many witticisms, that the audience perceives it instead as an epic adventure rather than Candide being unceremoniously jerked around by the string of fate. By the time we reach the conclusion, which is peaceful by comparison, we, the audience, don’t find it as entertaining as what came before, and therefore register it as bittersweet, despite the characters arguably being happier.

Although the story was likely intended with a message, I believe how that message is received by the audience is highly dependent on the individual reader. For example, I interpreted it as “Life won’t always be good, and suffering is inevitable, but one always has the power to make it better,” but I can easily see how someone else could come away from it thinking the message was “Life is unfair, so the best one can do is to keep their head down and work.” Neither of these messages are objectively wrong, but I doubt either are what Voltaire himself intended.

Personal Response to Homer’s Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem that chronicles the 10 years of absurd and fantastical adventures that befall war hero Odysseus, is an extremely famous historical work that most people are at least somewhat familiar with. However, due to the density of the text, not many (myself included) consider it for casual reading. So when I ultimately picked up a copy of The Odyssey for the first time, there were a few elements that came as a surprise. The most notable of these was the extremely prominent dissonance between the cultural values of the time The Odyssey was written and those of modern society. Of course, this was not entirely unexpected, as the inequalities of ancient Greek society are rather well known. Still, the dramatic clash was a bit of a shock for me, particularly the attitude towards vengeance and justice, which in this poem are presented as synonymous.

Putting aside the cultural dissonance, there were quite a few things about the poem that I genuinely enjoyed. The writing style, for one, I found very appealing, though this is more likely a factor of the translation rather than the text itself. The characterization of Odysseus I also appreciated. Rather than a flawless hero, the poem’s emphasis on his cunning (demonstrated throughout), his penchant for weaving complex lies, and his apparent lack of remorse, combined with genuinely positive attributes such as unwavering determination and love for his family, make him a much deeper character. Odysseus himself is the main standout of The Odyssey.

While there was a lot of good in The Odyssey, there was one main aspect of the poem that slightly soured my experience. Again, I probably should’ve expected this, but I was quite disappointed by just how little time was devoted to Odysseus’ iconic homeward voyage. Following along with his journey throughout the various monster-inhabited islands of the Mediterranean Sea was easily the most interesting part of the story, and I do wish we were treated to a more detailed account.

Pastiches of Great Expectations

Passage 1:
… That was the time when the truth was made clear, by the dark stars whose light reddened with Lord Eshan’s fury, and by the cathedral, once so opulent, and the monuments built in Her honour, which crumbled to dust; that Kasavionos, Varokira, Azanak, Tesiran, and Ganok, the ancient rulers of Eshara, were once more free to conquer; and that the western countries of Jahion and Cerrus, lands of rivers and mountains and deserts, would soon take up arms in preparation for a war; and that the northern land of Kanar would do the same; and that Eshan the Creator in her anger would not intercede; and that Simon, once named Edward Alder, stood at the center of it all, not knowing what to do.

Passage 2:
A regal man, in a long grey coat, with white streaks in his dark hair and beard. A man with dark eyes, and with a sharp nose, and with mechanical implants in his fingers. A man who had once been a lord, and once been wealthy, and once been respected, and once been powerful, and had once fought, and had once killed; who now watched and listened, and saw and heard; and who always waited in the shadows for his time to come again.

(NOTE: Both of these are derived from the events of a story I intend to write. The first describes the circumstances leading up to the finale, and the second a major antagonist)

Antigone (or Creon’s Rotten, No-Good, All Around Crappy Day)

In Antigone, a tragic play written by Sophocles around 441 BCE, the titular character is not actually the protagonist. Although the actions of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, do serve as a semi-inciting incident, I interpreted the real main character to be Creon, who I originally expected to fill the role of antagonist. Creon, entirely through his own decisions and actions, loses his son, his wife, and his niece, all over the course of the day.

Despite this, and despite being the play’s protagonist, Creon is definitely not a sympathetic character, meaning he doesn’t fit the generally accepted definition of a tragic hero. This play is a tragedy, not because of Creon’s suffering, but because of the suffering his selfish actions cause the innocent people around him. At the end of the day, almost all of Creon’s family is dead, not through their actions but his own, and the play’s depiction of his grief and regret is extremely powerful.

Initially, I found the narrative of this play extremely underwhelming. The differences between the Creon portrayed in Oedipus Rex and the Creon portrayed in Antigone annoyed me personally, since I couldn’t understand how such a drastic change in attitude could have come about. However, with my new perspective of Creon being the protagonist rather than the antagonist, combined with the punch packed by the dramatic conclusion, this play left an impression on me much greater than the one left by Oedipus Rex.

Response to Oedipus Rex

Although I had never read Sophocles’ original work for myself, I was already quite familiar with the story of the titular Oedipus, King of Thebes, when I was assigned to read it for English Literature class. Nevertheless, the play still managed to surprise me, particularly in its structure and characters.

The play begins well into Oedipus’ personal narrative. at this point, he has long since defeated the Sphinx by solving its famous riddle, married Queen Jocasta, become King of Thebes, and had several children. This was the first thing that struck me as surprising, as I expected the play to retell the whole story, starting with a baby Oedipus being given to a shepherd on the slopes of a mountain. Instead, the play is structured similarly to a classic whodunnit as Oedipus and Jocasta try to expose the murderer of King Laius.

I found Oedipus’ characterization to be largely consistent. He was represented as a brave and sympathetic man, albeit slightly dull and prone to fits of temper. The same can be said for the other characters prominently featured in the play, them being Jocasta, Creon, and Tiresias.

The role of the Chorus also came as a surprise. Originally, I had assumed that they served as a narrator of sorts explaining the events of the play but never acknowledged by the characters themselves. This was not the case, as they were instead written as a representation as the common people of Thebes, frequently interacting with the named characters.

I was particularly struck by the ending. Once the final twist was revealed, the main character emotionally falls to pieces, and the dialogue is so well written that every word Oedipus spoke felt like a punch in the gut. The conclusion of Oedipus Rex was extremely powerful, and provoked much more of an emotional response from me than I expected of an ancient Greek play.

Response to The Slaughterer

The Slaughterer was probably the story on this list that left the greatest Impact on me. Despite the shortness of the story, the gradual degradation of the protagonist’s sanity is truly visceral, leaving an Impression on me that I can best compare to the first time I watched The Matrix. In all, this Is the most compelling argument in favour of veganism I’ve ever heard.