Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eliot's Four Quartets

My initial reaction to the Eliot’s Four Quartets is the resemblance to The Waste Land. Most obvious likenesses are the structure of the division of sections in The Waste Land and the division in Four Quartets, as well as the concern for the spirituality of the world, or the seeming lack of spirituality. The Four Quartets is a new experience for me with Eliot. My knowledge of Eliot prior to this class revolved mostly around The Waste Land, which though it is a great poem, it leaves little hope in the reader. Four Quartets is a much more uplifting poem and it seems like it highlights the lesser known parts of Eliot’s life. As Eliot begins the poem musing on time and how it works or perhaps why it works, I began thinking of his poetry and the ways he attempted to “make it new.” As the poem begins “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future (1-2, 1)”, I am reminded of his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” As time is something that Eliot wrestles with throughout the poem, it seems that the ways in which we be part of time, or control or dominate time, is through our work, the poet through his poetry. The time past (the works of past authors) becomes time present when they are brought together and made “new” by the modernists, becoming “present in time future.” As I said Four Quartets reminded me of The Waste Land though brighter, there does seem to be a slight return to the pessimism of The Waste Land in the second and third part of the Four Quartets. It seems that Eliot, or the speaker of the poem is questioning why it matters to learn the past, though I take this to be a part of the process of one understanding life during World War II. It’s interesting how Eliot brings the four sections together using many of the same themes and elements from The Waste Land such as the river and fire and water. Four Quartets is obviously far more favorable of religion than The Waste Land. Throughout the many references to Christianity and the Bible in The Waste Land, I always felt that Eliot was not interested in them for their spiritual guidance. Four Quartets makes it much more obvious that Eliot was a religious man and likely devout after his conversion to Anglo Catholicism. Four Quartets definitely gives me a new understanding of Eliot, though I feel I can only scratch the surface of understanding the poem.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"I Will Not Cease From Mental Fight"

It is a bit shocking reading some of the opinions and political views of the Modernists in Sara Blair’s article “Modernism and the politics of culture.” It is especially alarming considering the experiences most of them no doubt had living through both world wars and the rise of Hitler. Reading Woolf’s essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” makes it clear that they were not unaffected by these experiences. Yet, it did not seem to affect them in the anticipated fashion that Woolf herself seemed to be affected. To be fair, I realize that the article does speak mostly about the Modernists on the right and Ezra Pound specifically. However, Woolf’s essay about the German air raids in London makes it difficult to imagine that anyone might support Fascism and Hitlerism. I really liked some of the analogies that Woolf drew between the desire to support one’s country and the tyranny of World War II, as well as the subtle indications about the status of women in the country. As she compares the sound of the planes above to a “sawing” sound at her brain it is as if she is implying this issue of women’s freedom is one that gnaws at our brains. She goes on to point out “Women of ability-it was Lady Astor speaking in The Times this morning-are held down because of a subconscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men” (2). This is a very clever suggestion on Woolf’s part, that the very enemy the men of the country are fighting against is themselves. The Englishmen (or American) are as guilty as the Nazis, and the oppression of women is likened to the genocide of Hitler’s army. What is even cleverer, is that these are not even Woolf’s words, but a quote from Lady Astor. In the way that Woolf is taking the ability of the English to lay all the blame on the enemies of England, I believe she is taking the ability of women to lay all the blame on men for their oppression. She says later, “the young airman up in the sky driven not only by the voices of loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himself-ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition” (2). Anyone that would argue that it is impossible to turn off those voices or ancients traditions, Woolf argues that it is in fact possible. It is so possible that she creates an analogy of childbearing and maternal instincts to compare, arguing that these two can be subdued. The indication it seems Woolf is making here is that maternal instincts are not instincts at all but the result of a woman’s “education, training, everything…” (2). I think this essay is amazing in light of the politics surrounding the Modernist era. Woolf’s ability to control and manipulate language is very impressive, especially in such a short speech. The arguments in this essay are pretty much the same as those in A Room of One’s Own, and yet she is able to make the same impact in 10 minutes. In fact, this essay effectiveness lies in its comparisons within war.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Room of One's Own

This is my first time reading Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and it was very different than I expected. I never realized the relationship Woolf weaved together between women and fiction, and after reading it’s obvious why the book is such a seminal text in feminist writings. Again, the narrative seems to begin with little plot though there are chapters, which is relieving! The metaphor of the fish in chapter one struck me as very interesting as I was considering the circular narrative structure that Woolf’s uses so frequently (as well as other women writers). The narrator is walking along the campus of Oxbridge caught up in her thoughts that she describes as “very exciting” like a fish that “darted and sank” (5). As her imagination wanders, so does her path, and the woman finds herself off the gravel path into the grass which is only allowed for the scholars of Oxbridge. It is at the moment the Beadle rushes her back into her place that she realizes her “little fish” has been sent “into hiding” (6). Because of the narrator’s position as a woman her thoughts and ideas are prevented from the same linear thought process as a man’s within the space of Oxbridge. It’s no surprise that this would manifest itself in one’s writing as a female. The chapter then becomes a subsequent chain of interruptions to the narrator’s thoughts and ideas. As Woolf explains at the beginning of her speech she intends to blur the lines between fact and fiction, claiming “fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact” (4). The narrative certainly does that, as the reader is often torn between time and space as Woolf speaks as narrator, and as the unspecified and unnamed narrator speaks. Chapter two reflects the ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction especially where women are concerned. When the narrator researches the literature on women and men she notes the astounding differences in opinions on the nature of women by male contemporaries. Are women “capable of education or incapable,” do women have souls “or have they not souls” (30)? The narrator points out that “wherever one looked men thought about women and thought differently” (30). The status of a woman during that time however, clearly showed that the general consensus believed that women were not worthy or capable of the same access of education that men were. The narrator’s research into the interest of women by men reflects the confusing distinctions between fact and fiction. The narrator or Woolf, or both, seem to put a lot of emphasis on the ultimate achievement a woman may make is being a poet, which I found interesting. I didn’t think that Woolf wrote poetry herself, or that she valued it more highly than prose. As the narrator contemplates the status of Amy Carmichael as a novelist, she thinks that Carmichael could one achieve the goal of poet with a little money and a room. Does that mean the poetry is the ultimate achievement in Woolf’s eyes? This reminded me of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, as well as Sylvia Plath. Esther’s character was always concerned with being a poet, though she never did to our knowledge through the novel, which could arguably be due to the limitations she struggled with as a woman. Likewise, Plath also feared being defined for her prose work (especially The Bell Jar) rather than her poetry. Is the suggestion that the natural way of women’s writing, or the “women’s sentence” is that of poetry rather than prose?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Hours vs. Mrs. Dalloway

My reading of Mrs. Dalloway this past week is my second reading of the novel. I have to say the second time around it is certainly more enjoyable! I would assume that any one's first encounter with Virginia Woolf's prose is momentarily confusing. I certainly do not mean to say that I did not enjoy it the first time I read it, only that my concern was focused primarily on the form, as well as understanding the shifts in narrative. My second reading allowed me to apply much more attention to detail, as was already familiar with the "plot" or lack there of. What particulary stood out to me in this reading was sparked while I was reading the supplementary reading, Erwin Steinberg's article "Mrs. Dalloway and T. S. Eliot's Personal Wasteland." I enjoyed it especially due to the alternate reading of the character of Septimus. Traditionally, the character of Septimus is generally treated as the foil for the character of Mrs. Dalloway, which Woolf supported herself. However, Steinberg's article laid out a convincing argument otherwise, which I enjoyed. The article, though it was focused on the correlations between Eliot and Septimus peaked my interest in Woolf's original intended title for the novel. Again, I realize that Woolf's intention to name the novel The Hours initially is no new information. However, as I was reconsidering the character of Septimus, I began to consider the impact of the novel if Woolf chose to keep the title of The Hours. Of Course, Woolf did not choose to keep the intended title, which means there must be some significance in the change (as I believe the title of a work is very, very, important).

Obviously, to change the novel to the title Mrs. Dalloway, makes the novel a novel about Clarissa Dalloway. Well actually, it makes it a novel that identifies with the Clarissa Dalloway that is the married woman, wife of Richard Dalloway. Therefore, to be more specific, the title refers to Mrs. Richard Dalloway. While I'm inclined to believe that the change in the title makes the novel about Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf did not choose to name the novel Clarissa, but only Mrs. Dalloway. I believe (speculating of course), if Woolf kept the intended title Clarissa would not be the character that we can assume survives. Though the last section of the novel appears to be the frivolous and selfish concerns of society men and women, Clarissa is obviously struggling within. The death of Septimus allows her to deal with her own dissatisfaction in life while she is ultimately able to praise Septimus for his choice, because he is able to be true to himself, something that until this moment Clarissa has not been able to do. The novel becomes Mrs. Dalloway because Clarissa ultimately understands herself as she is, though it cannot be Clarissa because unfortunately it taken Clarissa much of her adult, married life to come to this realization. Finally, I believe the shift to Peter's point of view solidifies Clarissa's identity as the main character of the novel. The narrative is a shift to another character's gaze of Clarissa, reiterating her identity, both within herself, and among others.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Katherine Mansfield

I really enjoyed these stories by Katherine Mansfield, particularly “Prelude” and “Bliss.” I noticed some similar characteristics about Mansfield’s stories compared to Woolf’s short stories from last week. One of the major things I noticed was there seemed to be little attention to plot throughout the stories. In “Prelude” the narrative is circular once again, with a lot of stream of consciousness between the different thoughts, especially those of the women. The narrative slides from one woman’s thoughts of her previous home to another’s dissatisfaction with life. There is a lot of attention to detail as the children notice everything around, especially with close attention to the colors around them. The attention to color is something I noticed somewhat last week, though I am noticing it more in Mansfield’s stories this week. So much attention to detail, while little attention to plot appears to be a reoccurring theme in the modernist stories. I wonder, as these are the second group of short stories we’ve read, if this is not a characteristic that is particular to women. Are Woolf and Mansfield purposely writing this way to show the difference between women’s thought process and a man, or is this just a new way to write? It is obvious that Mansfield, like Woolf, is interested in women and their rights. In “Prelude” Linda and Aunt Beryl are taking tea while Beryl begins to dream of how her life might be without her husband and Linda suffers from headaches. It is clear that these women are not happy in their current place in life. While Linda’s happiness is a little less obvious, Aunt Beryl is likely suffering from depression, though there are enough indications that she would be believed simply to be crazy. Aunt Beryl knows that having “money of her own” is enough to give her the independence she needs, but instead by the end of the story she is just left to feel “flippant and silly” about herself. “Bliss” reminds me of Mrs. Dalloway with the narrative that is structured around one day that looks toward a dinner party. However, the character of Bertha is very different than the character of Mrs. Dalloway. Bertha seems stereotypically characterized by feelings and her lack of control over them. There is so much focus on this “bliss” that Bertha keeps feeling everywhere she goes and I’m not quite certain what to do with it. She is clearly a na├»ve character, though at times it seems she knowingly ignores the truth. It is almost as if Mansfield is suggesting that Bertha does suffer from “hysteria.” Bertha does note that she is becoming “hysterical” though she does not use the word in that context. “Bliss” also explores the nontraditional sexual attraction. It is interesting that when Bertha realizes her attraction to Pearl, she finds for the first time that she is attracted to her husband. These themes seem to be an early experiment in breaking the traditional structures of narrative and sexuality.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Woolf's Short Stories

One of my initial reactions to Virginia Woolf’s short stories is a bit of confusion! I remember feeling this same way as I read Mrs. Dalloway! Shortly into Woolf’s stories I realize my confusion, and return to the beginning of the story. For me, these short stories are evident of some of Woolf’s first experiments in of circular story lines and stream of consciousness. “A Haunted House” is a perfect example of this experimenting. The story is very intriguing, though I cannot pinpoint what exactly is happening. It seems that the narrator is jumping in time and space much in the way Eliot does his poetry, especially in “Portrait of a Lady.” In one moment, the reader is identifying with the speaker who seems to be the new occupants of the house, while in the next it feels as if the speaker is the previous owner. In “An Unwritten Novel” the same stream-of-consciousness and ambiguous narration occurs. This short story is particularly interesting however, because it seems as if it could be a precursor to Mrs. Dalloway. I suppose it is the author, perhaps Woolf, speaking to her characters, as she creates them and their situations. Once again, time and space are being challenged and explored through a circular narrative. Also, in “An Unwritten Novel” there seems to be a focus on distinctions between the urban and the natural world. As setting of “The Haunted House” seems to be separated from the urban cities and away from the chaos that is throughout “An Unwritten Novel.” “Monday and Tuesday” seems to weave the two distinctions together with the heron weaving through the urban setting “lazy and indifferent” (18), and the fleeting characters are overly concerned with trivial things unable to notice the heron. “A Unwritten Novel” begins with the predicaments of the urban world, as the writer’s character is troubled by all that may appear in the Times, and there is the looming presence of war. Another element that struck me as I was reading was Woolf’s focus on women. Though this may not necessarily be a modernist characteristic, it is definitely a clear concern for Woolf. “The Society” (while not assigned) is an interesting play on an allegory of a group of women. “The Mark on the Wall” reminded me a bit of the Charlotte Perkins Gilmore and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story seems to explore the difference in the way women process thoughts or go about the creative process. Though there is no final action of the character going mad, the woman of the story obsesses over this mark in the wall, which in turn allows her to muse over a range of topics that could be possible inspiration for writing. Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” who was prevented from writing, this narrator is free to flow from topic to topic in her mind, and return when she determines the time to return is appropriate. The stream-of-conscious flows through this story making it appear to be a very feminine attribute of the narrative process.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prufrock and His Problems

James Torrens' essay "Eliot's Essays: A Bridge to the Poems" relates some interesting correlations between our previous class discussion and this weeks readings. As we talked about the Modernists' struggle with Romanticism, particularly Eliot's, Torren's essay in many ways kind of subtley insinuates more correlations. I have always found Eliot's essay "Hamlet and his problems" amusing simply because I also don't really like Hamlet! I have always been baffled as to why the play is rated so highly among Shakespeare's other plays. Hamlet annoys much in the way I would think the character of Prufrock would annoy me if he were to be a character in a play!

It does seem that Prufrock is a sort of satire on the Romantic character or even on a character similar to Hamlet. Also, as Torren's writes, "'Prufrock,' like Hamlet, can be interpreted as a 'form of emotional relief' for the author" (48). If Eliot is relieving his own "problems" through Prufrock, it is interesting the romantic nature of the character. Eliot and the others Modernists clear aversion (except of course when they're not being clear), to the Romantics plays out well within the character of Prufrock. If the speaker of the poem is Prufrock, his inability to make decisions and his fear of growing old, reiterate Torrens' interpretation of Prufrock as "the hyper-self conscious modern, [who] would love to be heroic-to be both the romantic hero and the philosophical hero raising the great questions about human aloneness before the Absolute" (48).
But, alas, he can't make up his mind!

The epigraph from Dante’s Inferno suggests further suggests Prufrock’s indecisiveness between the romantic hero or the philosophical hero. The speaker is telling his story, though only under the pretense that his story will not ultimately be told, because as he knows, stories never return from the hell he is in. Yet, he likens himself to John the Baptist (though not as a prophet), and Lazurus, raised from the dead (and can return and tell his story). This is Prufrock, (or possibly Eliot’s) “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Prufrock begins with a story that he wishes not to be repeated, though in a matter of minutes through the poem, he is the varying storytellers. Prufrock appears to paralyzed by his romantic tendencies, though he is telling his story through tradition, and through the story of others before himself. Prufrock may actually be able to achieve what Hamlet could not according to Eliot, the objective correlative. Shakespeare failed by making Hamlet the character too much of his own emotion and self. Eliot, ( or so he thinks) achieves through Prufrock and his “love song” the objective correlative of perhaps his own emotion. Shakespeare tried to create a separated emotion but Eliot achieved this, as Torrens’ calls it a “form of emotional relief” for the author. I can’t help but think when I read particular criticism by Eliot of another author such as Eliot or Shelley, how he fails to realize at times his own similarities. Eliot wants to hate the Romantics, yet he creates a character in Prufrock that is arguably, much like himself. Eliot seems through Prufrock the one that cannot “emerge from the pain of mere velleity” (Torrens 48).