All posts by Cecilia

Summer reading response: Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener was shocking to read. I was engaged in the role of the narrator, and I too, became confused, angry, and felt pity. Bartleby is determined to commit a “passive suicide” the moment he showed up at Wall Street. The character makes no mentions of his past, his future expectances, and keeps his basic needs to the very bare minimum. When he was first assigned the job of a scrivener, he worked the longest hours. If assuming he came from the Death Letter Office and has a severe depression, then this could be his attempt at creating a remedy for himself. To me, he shows no will to live. The narrator makes a hint, “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.” For a character that shuts himself in his “hermitage,” he no longer wishes to own anything or have connections with anyone. It also made me think about the job of a Scrivener. How much they resembled printing machines today! How could anyone be happy in a life like this? I have nothing much more to say about the condition of Bartleby. I feel that the entire story is actually involved around the reactions of the narrator. The narrator remains anonymous and tells the story through a first-person perspective, which made me engage in it as if I was the narrator. The story isn’t only about how peculiar Bartleby is, it also includes many details I think are worth examining. These include the narrator’s interpretations of the office environment, his irritation towards the pitiful Bartleby, how his ego intertwined with his sympathy, and his mental debate about moral values such as charity. It is such a complex story (and in such a short length)!

 

Reflection on my writing 2020-21

Compared to the start of September, my writing improved slightly. I feel that I am able to use the language better. It has been hard for me to convert thoughts into words. But now, I write less awkwardly.

As a result, the organization of my paragraphs are clearer. I used to just follow a strand of my logic and write freely. I never considered how structurally clear it is for the people reading it because my writing would (of course) make sense to me. Now I take the habit of creating a small outline before I start.

I still think I have a long way to go in terms of “translating” my thoughts into words. Oftentimes I write awkwardly because I can’t convey my thoughts directly. When I read my old posts, they are unfamiliar as if like I never wrote them. There’s no other way to improve my writing other than to read more and write more. I will write casually as a habit from now on.

Personal Response to The Awakening

I cannot discuss whether or not Edna’s choice to suicide was “right” or “wrong.” It isn’t the right choice to make, but it is her only choice.

As her reputation will likely be ruined, she kills herself to protect her children. “It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Léonce Pontellier—but Raoul and Etienne!” (p. 136). To me, it feels like her children’s presence drove Edna to death.

“The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.” (p. 136)

Her children are her “burdens”. If Edna did not have Raoul and Etienne, she can continue her acts of infidelity even if she ruins her reputation. But because Edna gives birth to her children when she is not prepared to be a mother, raising them is “a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and which Fate had not fitted her” (p. 21). Being a “good mother” like Madame Ratignolle means it is her priority to take care of her children at all times. That is why Edna is particularly “selfish” in a way that she wouldn’t “sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone” (p. 56). Especially after her “awakening,” she realizes that becoming a “perfect mother” requires her to sacrifice too much of her individuality and soul. In order to preserve her soul, she gives her life.

But if Edna didn’t need to worry about her children and runs away with Robert, she wouldn’t be happy either. She knows that her love towards Robert will not last long. Although “there was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert,” she knows that “the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” (p. 136) At this point, Edna is already beyond her younger years of having romantic fantasies. Although she loves Robert, he doesn’t understand her in a way that he, like Léonce Pontellier, doesn’t understand what she means when she says “I give myself where I choose.” (p. 128)

But society, or more specifically, the middle-class society that Edna lives in, will not allow a married woman like her to “give where she choose.” The Pontelliers, like all other middle-class families, need to “observe les convenances” to “keep up with the procession” (p. 60). But the middle-class life is very decent ; Edna’s house is very “charming” (p. 58) and they had servants and cooks. However, she is bound to her home, her family, and the middle-class society.

Disliking the social norms doesn’t justify her infidelity. There is more to why Edna falls in love with Robert and associates with Alcée. At “the beginning of things,” where the world is “necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing” (p. 15), “middle class morality” didn’t exist. But because many people are stuck inside this middle-class life forever, they never “wake up,” and their souls “perish in its tumult” (p. 15). Edna discovered herself at the sea, where life first emerged. The water possesses all the treasures to life. She sees a world without “middle-class morality.” As Kate Chopin writes, and repeats:

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.” (p. 15, 136)

Despite suicide being Edna’s only choice, there is something incredibly sad about the death of a “new-born creature,” a beautiful creature that just began to live. Because she possesses a “ponderous weight of wisdom” that even the “Holy Ghost” is unwilling to “vouchsafe” to a “woman” (p. 15), of course her society wouldn’t tolerate such things.

Personal Response: Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion portrays male chauvinism mainly through Henry Higgins. He is privileged, egoistic, and insensitive towards other people, especially towards women and those from a lower class. He is irresponsible like a child in many ways, yet he can easily determine Eliza’s future.

At the start of the play, Higgins is portrayed as a note-taker. He observes the crowd as subjects of study, not as real, living people. He is unable to show compassion towards those from a lower class and mocks Eliza of her accent when she is worried about being arrested. When Higgins brought Eliza into the lessons, he never once considered what would happen to Eliza after the challenge. Even when Mrs. Pearce warned him about what would happen to Eliza, he confessed that he couldn’t care less. To him, giving Eliza lessons is just a  “fun challenge” to prove his ability and satisfy his ego, but for Eliza, it dramatically changes her life and her identity. It must have been horrible to be given a new identity in a “better life,” but only temporarily so that she would need to fall back into the gutter again. It is incredibly cruel. If Eliza never attended Higgins’s lessons and was always a flower girl, she wouldn’t need to ever worry about “middle-class morality” or be concerned with Higgin’s patriarchy.

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion falls in love with his statue. Although he “talked to it with words of love and brought to it the kind of gifts that are thought to please girls,” (The myth of Pygmalion) a statue is still an object. Eliza as a flower girl is just a piece of ivory. As Higgins taught her upper-class dialect and transformed her into a lady, she is carved into a statue.  But there is no Aphrodite to “bring the statue to life.” From the way I interpret it, when she returned to Higgins at the end, she “transformed” from a statue into a human, or rather, a woman. Although the play makes us wonder about issues regarding the status of women, it is curious why Shaw still decides to use this ending. From the film, I got the impression that Higgins fears Eliza’s parting more because he cannot let go of his masterpiece creation. But I wonder why Eliza feels the need to stay with him. One way to interpret it is that Eliza, although claiming that she now stands on her own, still feels the need for security and status that she would receive from Higgins. Perhaps she has feelings for him as well. As we see from The Merchant of Venice, love, or affection is often accompanied by the desire for power. While Higgins needs Eliza to stay with him to satisfy his ego, Eliza also needs Higgins to secure her social status, and keep her identity as an upper-class lady.

No matter if this ending was a happy one, or how it could have ended differently, I still think the cruellest thing is how Higgins took Eliza in without ever thinking about what would happen to her afterwards. Although the film portrays this casually and even comedically, it is still very difficult to watch. But I enjoyed how these heavy problems are revealed from its light-hearted appearances. The film was entertaining to watch, yet we can unpack many things from it.

 

 

Personal response: A Doll’s House

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was uncomfortable to read for me. I dislike Torvald, not because of how he appears as an antagonist where he loathes borrowing a loan even if it is for his own sake; but it is rather because everything he says is contradictory. When he tells Nora, “I wouldn’t wish you any other way than exactly as you are,” (p. 113) he means that he doesn’t wish Nora any other way than a “song-lark,” a “squirrel,” or a “little spending-bird.” He cannot accept Nora in any other way and calls her “a hypocrite, a liar,” and a “criminal” when he finds out. (p. 178) He cannot accept the depth of Nora’s character and truly treats her like his possession; an object.  When Nora  finally talks to him on equal terms, he said, “you talk like a child.” (p. 185) However, when Nora acts like an actual child and asks for his guidance, he accepts it happily, which I find incredibly hypocritical and uneasy to watch. When Nora leaves him at the end, I thought I would be happy because Torvald is left alone and got what he deserved, but instead, it was not satisfying and I ended up feeling bad for Torvald. “To part—to part from you! Nora, I can’t grasp the thought.” (p. 187) Although Torvald remains masculine and a “husband-like” image throughout the play, he is fragile in the sense that he is afraid of living without Nora, even though he has less to lose than her. However, even though I feel bad for him, I still can’t forgive him especially when he proposed “but then can’t we live here as brother and sister–?” (p. 187) I wonder why do some people think this is even possible? Even till the end of the play, Torvald still cannot understand why Nora decides to leave him and the children, which upsets me the most.

I didn’t like Nora as a character at first, and I didn’t pity her very much or treat her as a victim. I thought she placed herself in the situation, and I particularly didn’t like how she borrowed a loan without understanding exactly how to repay it. “These kinds of transactions, you see, are so extremely difficult to keep track of.” (p. 123) But she didn’t have any other options other than to urgently borrow money to save Torvald’s life. If I were Nora, I wouldn’t have done any better. I also think she is far from ready to raise three children, even with the help of maids and a nanny.

Helmer: Not–? Not happy?

Nora: No; just cheerful. And you’ve always been so kind to me. But our home has never been anything other than a play-house. I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll-child. And the children, they have in turn been my dolls.” (p. 183)

It is not because of Nora’s “moral flaw” that makes her unqualified as a mother. It is because of how she has never fulfilled any duties to herself, or to live as a human being that makes her unable to bring up her children.

I felt very uncomfortable and confused as I read this play. But I conclude it is because of how I was able to relate to it, that I disliked it. However, I think all the characters in this play are equally as pitiful.

 

 

Personal Response to The Merchant Of Venice

Love is such a broad word, but we use it to describe so many things. The Merchant of Venice portrays the complexity of love, as it often associates love with the desire for wealth, power, and beauty.

“Pure Love” is different from marriage. When Portia makes her first appearance in the play, she complains, “But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband.” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 20,21) We see that she desires to marry someone she has affection for, but she has no choice; her marriage is determined by “chance”. As Bassanio opens the casket and marries Portia, we temporarily forget that marriage doesn’t necessary require love. Portia has long hinted to us, “In terms of choice I am not solely led/ By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes.” (Act 2, Scene 1, ll. 13, 14) Thus, there isn’t “pure love” in marriage.

The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo is another example of how we must not confuse marriage with love. There is no doubt that Lorenzo and Jessica adore each other, but there are many hints in the play where Lorenzo associates his affection for Jessica with the amount of fortune Jessica takes from her father. “She hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnish’d with, What page’s suit she hath in readiness.” (Act 2, Scene 5, ll. 29-32) Jessica has “hath prov’d herself” by bringing her dowry and converting to a Christian, thus she is “wise, fair, and true,” and only then can she be “placed” in Lorenzo’s “constant soul.” (Act 2, Scene 6, ll. 53-58)

Jessica’s love towards Lorenzo is not pure love either. As she talks about the “tediousness” of her father and her house, she immediately feels guilty, but quickly diminishes this guilt by thinking about Lorenzo. “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be asham’d to be my father’s child! / But though I am a daughter to his Blood / I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife.” (Act 2, Scene 3, ll. 15-20) If she doesn’t take her own dowry and marry Lorenzo, she will likely marry someone Shylock choses. Then again, we see how marriage doesn’t necessarily require love, and especially “pure and true love.”

In The Merchant of Venice, marriage is portrayed as the exchange of power. And love cannot survive without it. Portia willingly gives Bassanio her “powers”; “yet for you / I would be trebled twenty times myself, / A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times / More rich, that only to stand high in your account / I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, / Exceed account.” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 152-157) This is only possible because Bassanio had chosen the right casket, but Portia’s affection for him is a prominent reason; before Bassanio chooses the caskets, she already admits that “One half of me is yours, the other half yours— / Mine one, I would say: but if mine then yours, / And so all yours.” (Act 3 Scene 2, ll.16-18) If her husband is chosen by “fortune,” she might as well marry someone she likes. But if she was never a noble birth, Bassanio and the other suitors will never pursue her.

The love between Antonio and Bassanio is more ambiguous as it doesn’t perfectly fall into the category of either romantic love or friendship. What Antonio has done for Bassanio is incredible considering that they are known just as “kinsmen,” or friends; but Antonio’s affection for Bassanio is adulterated with a confusion about his sexual orientation, and anti-Semitism, as he prevents Bassanio from committing usury. We can interpret Antonio’s willingness to borrow Bassanio such a large sum of money as his affection towards Bassanio. But we can also see it as Antonio’s only way of expressing a type of love that is not commonly accepted at the time, for a Christian. Other than lending Bassanio large sums of money, there are limited options towards how he can express his affection. From Shylock’s famous speech, we know that Antonio has “hindered” him “half a million” (Act 3, Scene 1, ll. 48, 49) by preventing his friends from committing usury, “and it is very likely that he wants to keep Bassanio out of it too.

Love will always be impure and untrue. Pure love, if it exists, cannot possibly survive on this world without money or power. But is “contaminated love” not love? Shakespeare depicts these complex feelings through the characters in the play. And I think it is very accurate to how humans actually behave. But it also means I can never really find answers to these questions about The Merchant of Venice. It must take a lifetime to completely understand it.

 

 

Letter to Langston Hughes

Dear Mr. Hughes,

You wrote As I Grew Older when you were only about 20 years old. There is almost a sacredness about it. “Bright like a sun—/ My dream.” (ll.5,6) There are no other pronouns other than “I,” so I could only assume that you are the speaker. Your dreams and your hopes, expressed through vague imagery, is unpolished yet impactful.

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! (ll.28-33)

You expressed the contrast between your dreams and the bitter reality by referencing light and darkness. Words such as “shatter,” “smash” and “break” gives such momentum as we picture a strong force penetrating the dark barriers to let light shine through.

When you wrote The South, along with The Weary BluesRuby Brown, and Life Is Fine, your poems have commonly expressed resentment of the present reality. You also seemed to have developed sarcastic humor that reflects the hardships of life, perhaps due to the Blues’ influence. “Life is fine! / Fine as wine! /Life is fine!” (Life is fine, ll.31,32) Life was never fine. I think you have seen and experienced quite a lot more since As I Grew Older, as your poems also tell stories.

Since 1951, your poems have begun to mention dreams again. And not just that, it gives me the feeling that you are combining dreams and reality.

In Montage of a Dream Deferred, you began playing with space and time by arranging short clips of several distinct speakers telling their dreams. Even if it’s something out of the blue like learning French or taking up Bach, or even if all the person wants is one more bottle of gin; through different times and space, these voices all connect.

Then in Dream Boogie, you showed us that it isn’t just the individual dreams that are deferred; collectively, as a whole, the dream of freedom and equality of African Americas are deferred. “Ain’t you heard/ The boogie-woogie rumble/ Of a dream deferred?” (ll.2-4) The low rumblings are not words; it is through the language of music.

“Listen closely: 

You’ll hear their feet 

Beating out and beating out a—

 

You think It’s a happy beat?” (ll.5-7)

You have the power to express this repressed anger through speech and rhythms. And I can only conclude that this is due to its musical qualities, “Hey, pop! /Re-bop! /Mop! / Y-e-a-h!” (ll.18-21) Such a short stanza tells so much. It makes us listen to it, other than to read it.

As time progresses you experimented with different forms and techniques in your poems. you played with not just only imagery but also the other senses such as taste (Harlem Sweeties) and hearing (the Blues, Jazz Ringo, etc.). You experienced life and met other people, and got to know their dreams, not just your own. But it is the same dream. Looking back to As I Grew Older, you stated at the very first line:

It was a long time ago.

I have almost forgotten my dream. (ll.1,2) 

Yet this is a dream you have dedicated to during your entire life. It isn’t just “your dream,” it is a dream of freedom, of everyone’s freedom. You mentioned that the barrier, the “wall” almost cast your dream away, “Rose until it touched the sky—/ The wall.” (ll. 15,16) No matter how much your poems change in structure, what musical form you take on, or what stories you tell, you always attack this Wall that has been ever-present but needs to be broken down. You have always had the same dream.

Sincerely,

Cecilia Chen

 

Candide: Personal Reflection

In Candide, there is a lot packed into a relatively thin book. Beneath the surface of a series of comical but realistic events of 18th century Europe, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz’s philosophy of Optimism and also includes his own philosophical views here and there. Many of them left an impression, but I want to write specifically about the objectification of art and artists in Candide. Objectification is constantly found in Candide, in terms of the objectification of women, various races, and slaves. In this context, I specifically refer to the dehumanization of artists, and the subjective value of the produced art.

When the group watches a tragical play in France, Candide, fascinated by the actress playing Queen Elizabeth, asked “how the queens of England should be approached in France.” (p.76) Candide calls the actress the “queen,” when she is really just a performer.

 “One must make a distinction,” the abbé replied. “In the provinces one takes them to an inn; in Paris one shows them respect while they are beautiful but throws them onto a garbage dump when they are dead.” (p.77)

By making a “distinction” between the different ways of approaching the actress, suggests that stage artists in the provinces and in Paris are valued differently. When in fact, whether skilled or not skilled, they are all performers. “Takes them to an inn,” gives me the visual impression of “pulling” them off the stage, entering reality. It is hypocritical not to realize that the artist isn’t only a role in the play, but is also human, and should be treated as one. Candide is eager to approach the actress offstage, “for she seems quite admirable.” (p.78) To keep their desirability as an actor or actress, performers are expected to keep wearing their roles offstage.

However, admiration and respect does not last long, for when they die, they are refused the “honor of burial” from the Catholic church. This contrast of treatment has nothing to do with their humanistic qualities, but rather it is just because they are performers. Mademoiselle Monime is Voltaire’s reference to his friend, an actress who received poor burial. “She had a noble mind,” (p.78) he writes, indicating that her terrible burial had nothing to do with her personal qualities, nor is something that she deserves. Voltaire calls it “contradictions” and “incompatibilities,” (p.77). The Church does not appreciate the artistic value of the actors and actresses. But just because the plays don’t serve for the Church’s interest, does not mean the actors and actresses are unholy or unworthy of burial.

Nevertheless, Candide quickly moves on in his journey of searching for answers. He visits Count Pococurante. Amazed by his prosperity and lack of appreciation for his collections, Pococurante made me think about the value of art. Count Pococurante claims that he cannot “like a painting unless I can believe I am seeing nature itself,” (p.98) which seems to suggest that art’s value is determined by one’s subjective opinion, or as we say today, art is subjective. The clergymen of the Church, the play critic, (whom Voltaire describes as “serpents of literature,” (p.78)) and Count Pococurante cannot appreciate art, because they ignore and reject the artistic intent of the artists. If you objectify art by giving it a fixed physical value, label the artist, or use art for a purpose, such as satisfying one’s “vanity,” (p.95) there is no doubt that the real message intended from the artists are ignored.

Art, as an everlasting method of communication, along with its communicators, are injured by this objectification. Candide and his group of friends move on very fast in the plot, similar to how fast everything is happening in the world today. But art is always present. It is always there for us to appreciate if we wish to. Compared to other things, there’s only several short passages that mention those issues with art in Candide. But it also matches up to his philosophical remark at the end, “we must cultivate our garden.” (p.119) In this sense, it is very important for one to cultivate one’s own garden. It is impossible to appreciate the value of art when one’s heart has nothing to resonate with it.

 

Antigone: Tragedy

The story of Antigone is a tragedy. Aristotle believes that “Tragedy is an imitation, not of  men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” (ch.6) There is more behind the conflict between Creon and Antigone, no matter if politically significant in Sophocles’s time or not.

Antigone’s actions can be controversial from her character. Although determinedly burying her brother out of hatred towards her destiny and disappointment to the city,  at the same time, she passionately believes that “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature.” (p.86) She desires to be loved, to feel like she belongs, yet she rejects the opportunity. For example, when Ismene offers to die with her, Antigone tells Ismene to “never share my dying, don’t lay claim to what you never touched.” (p.87) In the end, she feels as if she is entirely alone. She cries,

“I go to my rock bound prison, strange new tomb—always a stranger, O dear god, I have no home on earth and none below, not with the living, not with the breathless dead.” (p.103) 

But she was never alone. Her conscious mind persuades herself to believe in a truth different from reality, and it leads to her suffering.

The same goes for Creon. As readers, we may have a negative impression on Creon and easily side with Antigone, but Creon is justifiable in his own way. He carries heavy responsibilities as the King of Thebes.

“Never at my hands will the traitor be honoured above the patriot. But whoever proves his loyalty to the state–I’ll prize that man in death as well life.” (p.68)

Having said that, putting his words into action produces a different effect, especially when the majority disagrees with his actions. And at last, Tiresias tells him, “You have no business with the dead, nor do the gods above–this violence you have forced upon the heavens.” (p.115) Creon used to be a calm and logical thinker, who used to say ” Who in his right mind would rather rule and live in anxiety than sleep in peace? (Oedipus the King, p.193) But it all disappears once he ascends the throne.

Did Creon change as a character? It isn’t necessary to say that Creon now thinks higher of the state’s law over the Gods. In Ancient Greek, it is a part of a citizen’s right and duty to contribute to a polis, a state. It could be viewed as faithfulness towards the gods, but it is also a form of monism. I’ve concluded that Creon does respect and fear the gods, but those gods are the gods of the polis. He isn’t displeasing the gods by ordering the corps to be left bare, because Polynices was a traitor, and a traitor has no rights to be a citizen nor deserving a burial.

Opposite of Antigone, Creon is the embodiment of order and logical reason in the play. But he is punished for his “wisdom” and his pride. The Chorus remarked at the end of the play:

“Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom.” (p.128)

But he was never entirely wrong. Creon represents more of a human to me than Antigone would. In the end, he calls himself “A rash, indiscriminate fool!”(p.127) which he indeed was a fool, but there’s nothing wrong with being foolish. I disagree that Haemon and Eurydice’s deaths are the direct causes of Creon’s foolishness. However sorrowful their endings may be, it is very arrogant for Creon to think that he alone caused their deaths. In Antigone, every character’s tragedy builds upon another’s and accumulates into a collective pain that if enlarged into a greater scale, that the entire human race suffers from.

But these large-scaled sufferings are the pains that we have trouble explaining. It is the pain from our conscious minds, which we take pride in as humans. The pains that we do notice are the small and insignificant ones. It is the basic karmic tragedy, where one suffers because of one’s faults. The tragedy in Antigone is that one is being punished for pursuing righteousness. Isn’t there something beautiful about suffering? I’d like to believe that at least in literature, the tragic story is always the most sincere story.