Remainder by Tom McCarthy

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The characters in the novels of the postwar moment are characterized by a determined, almost defensive normalcy. Characters that break the mold of the defined “normal” flaunt their otherness in the face of the conventional, challenging the ordinary. While these characters delight readers with their unapologetic oddness, they also confront society’s vision of normality causing the normal characters to react to this challenging of their values. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the nameless protagonist has suffered a mysterious accident, causing him to have to relearn basic physical behaviors. While he reviews how to perform physical tasks, his cognitive and emotional capacity has clearly been affected. He no longer feels natural in the world he inhabits, rather he feels as though he hardly exists. After winning eight and a half million dollars in a settlement, the protagonist is able to pursue his bizarre fantasy of acting out mundane scenarios over and over; these re-enactments make him feel real, even though the events are entirely staged. Fascinatingly, the supposed “normal” characters are roped into his concept, accepting his orders in return for money. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has managed to involve an enormous number of people in his fantasy, people who seem to do his bidding without questioning his motives. The protagonist in the Remainder spreads his “otherness”, expanding London’s perception of the “normal” through his re-enactments. However, his disregard for human life surpasses the sphere of the natural and enters into the realm of the deviant and inhuman.

The protagonist’s greatest desire is to feel natural and real in a world of which he no longer feels a part. He believes there is too much thought associated with his actions, which frustrates him immensely: “That’s the way I had to do things after the accident: understand them first, then do them.” (McCarthy, 14) He watches a movie starring Robert De Niro, admiring the naturalness of his motions, his realness: “He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” (McCarthy, 24) Initially the protagonist sees himself as abnormal and De Niro as normal, the unnaturalness of his movements a sign of unusualness. His friend, Greg convinces him, however, that unnaturalness is actually more ordinary than naturalness. “You’re not unusual. You know what you are?…You’re just more usual than everyone else.” (McCarthy, 24) In this scene, our protagonist is deemed extra-ordinary, which begins his foray into extraordinary behavior. Thus, it is in a desire for normalcy, that the protagonist delves into the distinctly abnormal.

The protagonist’s plans start relatively small. He initially wants to create a house for himself that mimics a scene that may or may not have happened. When in the bathroom at a party, he has a moment of intense déjà vu when looking at a crack in a wall. This moment of memory or imagination makes the protagonist feel real for the first time since his accident. He thus decides he will spend his money on re-enacting this scene perfectly: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would.” (McCarthy, 67) Thus, begins his concept of re-enactments. He hires a logistical “executor”, Naz, to help him realize his vision. (McCarthy, 77) Naz doesn’t treat the protagonist’s requests as odd, rather he responds as though the desires are perfectly natural. Naz’s enthusiasm for tackling logistical challenges quells any unvoiced doubts he may have about the sanity of the project. The protagonist recognizes in order to construct his fantasy world he will have to, “buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as [he] told them to.” (McCarthy, 69) Naz responds to the protagonist’s bizarre requests succinctly and unquestioningly. When the protagonist describes a certain woman he would like to be a part of his re-enactment, “There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me…her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly…She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her,” Naz simply replies, “Understood…who next?” (McCarthy, 87) Naz’s affinity for logistics causes him to lose sight of the normal and be sucked into the protagonist’s otherness. Neither the protagonist nor Naz considers the lives of these re-enactors; they do not acknowledge that a continuous and physically exhausting job, dependent upon the whims of the protagonist could be unethical. While the protagonist has suffered a trauma, Naz has not, evidencing that the protagonist’s zeal and otherness is spreading to Naz who was previously “normal”.

The intricacy and immensity of the protagonist’s vision causes Naz to hire a huge number of staff members:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators, and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards. We fired the interior designer and hired another one. We hired people to liaise between Naz and the builders and managers and supervisors, and people to run errands for the liaisers so that they could liaise better. (McCarthy, 111)

As the staff grows, the protagonist’s sphere of influence grows larger, causing a large number of “normal” people to become involved in his abnormality. As the protagonist is the narrator, readers have little insight into the minds of his staff; however, their participation in his project suggests complicity. None of the people the protagonist hires to participate in his re-enactments question why he is doing these re-enactments. The only questions they ask are logistical. When explaining the pianist’s role in his re-enactment, the protagonist says, “You make mistakes…then you go over the passage you got wrong again, slowing right down into the bit where you messed up. You play it again and again and again—and then when you’ve got down how to do it without messing up, play it some more times, coming back to normal speed…you with me?” The pianist’s only response is, “I make the mistakes deliberately?” (McCarthy, 119) The obedient and unthinking behavior of the protagonist’s staff is nearly as odd as the protagonist’s vision itself. The protagonist spreads his peculiarity with the simple incentive of money. The compensation for their actions cause the staff not to question the idiosyncratic vision the protagonist is attempting to realize.

While the protagonist shows a blatant lack of concern for the convenience of his employees, even employing children at all hours to satisfy his desires, his re-enactment of a shooting reveals his lack of reverence for human life. He procures the part of the street where the shooting took place, not imagining that this re-enactment could be upsetting for the family of the dead man. He is only concerned with the “realness” of the event and must re-enact it. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it is real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings…but they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities.” (McCarthy, 185) While the protagonist may not show reverence for the dead man’s life, he does actually honor him in his own way. “This man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extend of having no more consciousness of them.” (McCarthy, 198) The supposed “normal” people are not having the same semi-reverent experience with the dead man; none of them have undergone a trauma like the protagonist. Their concept of humanity should not be affected, yet, they participate in a re-enactment that, in their view, should be considered unethical. These people should be held to a higher moral standard, yet the prospect of money causes them to forget their qualms about impersonating a recent death. The protagonist has extended the morally acceptable with and money.

As the novel progresses, Naz becomes increasingly affected and obsessed with exacting the protagonist’s vision. It isn’t the re-enactments themselves that excite him, rather the opportunity to put all of his logistical genius to work. The narrator notes a change in the behavior and demeanor of Naz, “He’d always been dedicated to my projects…but back then his dedication had been purely professional. Now, though, his inbuilt genius for logistics was mixed with something else: a kind of measured zeal, a quiet passion. He defended my work with a fierceness that was muted but unshakable.” (McCarthy, 233) Naz is grateful to the narrator for allowing him into his fantasy, providing him the opportunity to exert his logistical abilities. He says to the narrator, “‘Thank you…for the…just for the…I’ve never managed so much information before…’ His eyes were sparking now.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s suspicions are confirmed, “Yes. Naz was a zealot—but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, driven onwards, on towards a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s abnormal desires allow Naz a professional opportunity that is inconceivable in the normal world. He pushes the boundaries of conventionality, which then allows Naz to also pursue his passion. However, Naz’s zealotry for his work soon competes with his humanity.

The narrator decides that he would like to re-enact a bank heist. He procures a warehouse and meticulously plans out the event. The narrator soon realizes that his re-enactment would be more genuine if it were a real bank heist. He decides to plan a re-enactment without obtaining permission of the bank or telling the re-enactors that the heist is real. The re-enactment becomes a real robbery. “In law we’d be robbing a bank. There were no two ways about it. In the eyes of the staff, the customers and bystanders and police it wouldn’t be a performance, a simulation, a re-staging: it would be a heist—pure and simple, straight up.” (McCarthy, 263) The narrator and Naz plan the heist, but soon realize that there is great potential for information leakage about their plan. Naz comes up with the plan to kill all of the re-enactors in planes. “One way to guarantee there’ll be no information leakage…is to eliminate the channels it could leak through.” (McCarthy, 274) When the protagonist asks Naz what he means by ‘eliminate’, Naz replies: “‘Eliminate…’ his voice was shaking so much it reminded me of spoons in egg-and-spoon races, the way they shake and rattle—as though the task of carrying what it had to say were too much…‘Remove, take out, vaporize.’” (McCarthy, 274) The narrator is unperturbed about the deaths of hundreds of people. His reply to Naz’s suggestion is, “Wow!…That’s beautiful.” (McCarthy, 276) At this point of the novel, the complete inhumanity and extreme otherness of the protagonist becomes clear; “I lay there for the rest of the night, picturing planes bursting, flowers dehiscing. I felt happy—happy to have seen such a beautiful image…My pyramid was like a Pharaoh’s pyramid. I was like the Pharaoh. There were my loyal servants…my reward to them was to allow them to accompany me on the first segment of my final voyage.” (McCarthy, 276) His lack of compassion for human beings and concern for human life turn his oddness and peculiarity into deviance.

The bank heist goes horribly wrong. One of the protagonist’s hired re-enactors is shot and killed during the re-enactment. “The only thing that moved was a deep red flow coming from Four’s chest. It emerged from his chest and advanced onto the carpet…‘Beautiful!’ I whispered.” (McCarthy, 291) It is not only the protagonist’s lack of concern about his employee’s death that point to his complete ambivalence toward human life. The fact that he does not know any of his employees’ names and refers to them as numbers further emphasizes his unnaturalness and inhumanity. When the other re-enactors try to call off the re-enactment, they realize that they have been duped, that the re-enactment was a real heist.  Naz’s reaction to the failure of the re-enactment and the messiness of the mistakes cause him to break down. “It wasn’t dramatic or hysterical: it was more like a computer crashing—the way the screen, rather than explode or send its figures dancing higgledy-piggledy around, simply freezes.” (McCarthy, 297-298)

Though the protagonist is responsible for the death of Four, it is still possible to consider his death an accident. However, that is not the case with the death of Two. The protagonist blatantly and needlessly shoots Two, simply because he feels like it. “Two was as far from me as Four had been when he, Two had shot him, Four, in the back…I shot him. It was half instinctive, a reflex, as I’d first suspected: to tug against the last solid thing there was, which was the trigger…but I’d be lying if I said it was only that that made me pull the trigger and shoot Two. I did it because I wanted to.” (McCarthy, 299)The protagonist feels no guilt or shame when Naz sees Two’s body. The protagonist cheerfully says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (McCarthy, 300) At this point the normal and the deviant separate. While the protagonist is untroubled by the murder he just committed, Naz is unable to cope with the reality of death, particularly one that is messy and disorganized. “Naz didn’t answer. He just stood there, looked up, closed down, vacant.” (McCarthy, 300) While Naz is able to plan the conceptual murders of hundreds of people in planes, when faced with the reality of death he shuts down. Perhaps normal isn’t the right word for Naz, however he is more certainly more so that the protagonist who cheerfully considers the death of two of his nameless employees as “beautiful”. It is the protagonist who infects Naz with the his vision, the prospect of exercising his logistical genius with an intricate project. However, Naz is not entirely soulless. He is horrified at the prospect of a dead man in front of him, while the protagonist’s reaction to the death is happiness.

The narrator, in his effort to feel real and normal becomes abnormal and deviant. Though his actions allow for the gainful employment of hundreds of people, and provide professional opportunities for people like Naz, his expansion of the realm of the normal snaps with his decision to kill all of his employees. His enormous amount of wealth allows him to challenge the status quo without being challenged by dubious staff. His oddness is initially acceptable, despite some of his unethical practices, like making people, adults and children work extreme hours and failing to learn his employees’ names. However once humans are harmed in the execution of his fantasy, he enters the realm of positive evil. While a character like Naz is certainly changed and affected by his association with the narrator, his humanity is not entirely lost like the protagonist’s. He still regards murder with shock and horror, rather than an unconcerned euphoria. While the protagonist expands London’s concept of normal, he eventually crosses the line. His otherness becomes blaring and unacceptable in the face of normality.

The Third Man by Graham Greene–The Bloody Fool: Rollo Martin’s Determined Belief in Harry Lime

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In Postwar Britain, the concept of “belief,” the trusting in the existence of something without tangible proof, was considered quaint and naïve. The “believers” in this period are viewed with the same sympathetic mirth as those who sleep with their doors unlocked only to have their mattress full of hundred dollar bills raided in the night. The viewers feel deep compassion for these people, combined with a peculiar envy for their innocence that is quickly combated by a “well, they had it coming” grimace. This compassionate vindictiveness is captured in the literature of the time. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopic government eventually thwarts Winson Smith’s belief in the existence of a possible future without Big Brother. In Kazou Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens’ belief in his employer’s goodness, and thus his value as a small influencer of the world’s improvement, is crushed with his acknowledgement of Mr. Darlington’s role as Hitler’s pawn. In both cases the “believers” are faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts their belief, however, it is only with reluctance that the protagonist eventually accepts the truth. Similarly, Rollo Martins in Graham Greene’s The Third Man doggedly sticks to his belief that his best friend, Harry Lime, is a good person, despite the evidence to the contrary. Martin’s belief in the goodness of Harry Lime, despite its erroneousness is what sets him apart in a world without faith or optimism. There is virtue attached to a character that refuses to acknowledge the corrupt state of the world, retaining faith in the notions of friendship and loyalty. Thus, Rollo Martins, through his naive beliefs, points towards a better world.

When Major Calloway informs Rollo Martins that Harry Lime, “was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city,” (Greene, 25) Martins is entirely unwilling to accept this fact, even though it comes from a police officer, a person of authority. Martins immediately begins to size up the space between him and Calloway to see if he can reach him to hit him. At this moment Calloway thinks, “Martins, I began to realize, was dangerous.” Martins dangerousness, however, does not simply boil down to his propensity towards violence, rather it has more to do with his unwillingness to accept information, his questioning of authority, and his resolute belief that Harry Lime is a good man, a victim of police incompetency. Martins immediately places his suspicion onto the police and away from Harry Lime, “I’ve always hated policemen. They are always either crooked or stupid.” (Greene, 26) Martins goes as far to associate himself with Harry Lime’s work, so firm is his belief in Harry’s innocence, “Because if Harry was that kind of racketeer, I must be one too. We always worked together.” (Greene, 26)

Martin’s naïveté is highlighted when he recalls their early friendship, which provides the reader with a view of Lime to which Martins is entirely unaware, “But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.” (Greene, 24) While Martins remains blissfully oblivious of the implications of this statement, Calloway and the reader are immediately suspicious. Calloway replies, “That was convenient for Lime,” (Greene, 24) suggesting that Harry had manipulated Martins in the past, and perhaps is not the hero that Martins believes he is. Martins catches the insinuation in Calloway’s statement and replies angrily, “What the hell do you mean…That was my fault not his. He could have found someone cleverer if he’d chosen, but he liked me.” (Greene, 24) While Martins places the blame on himself for being caught after executing Harry’s plans, he similarly places the blame on the police for Harry’s alleged reputation as a racketeer. “I suppose there was some petty racket going on with petrol and you couldn’t pin it on anyone, so you picked a dead man. That’s just like a policeman.” (Greene, 24) Martins’ denial of the possibility of Harry’s culpability highlights his loyalty as well as his foolishness and naïveté.

When Calloway produces evidence of Harry’s wrongdoing with his dilution of penicillin, Martins cannot help but question his belief in his friend, however it takes Calloway several attempts to convey the reality of Harry’s crimes. “They begin to dilute the penicillin with coloured water, and, in the case of penicillin dust, with sand. I keep a small museum in one drawer in my desk, and I showed Martins examples. He wasn’t enjoying the talk, but he hadn’t yet grasped the point.” (Greene, 80) Martins’ faith in Harry Lime is so firm that he cannot initially understand the severity of Lime’s crimes. He replies, “I suppose that makes the stuff useless.” (Greene, 80) Calloway explains that the harm caused by the diluted drug is worse than simple ineffectiveness; indeed, the diluted penicillin caused infections, unnecessary amputations, and deaths. Then Calloway plays his trump card, bringing up the undisputable evil of poisoning innocent children. “But perhaps what horrified me most was visiting the children’s hospital here. They had bought some of this penicillin for use against meningitis. A number of children simply died, and a number went off their heads. You can see them now in the mental ward.” (Greene. 80-81)

Martins’ loyalty to Harry is so paramount, that even the use of innocent children doesn’t entirely convince him. He replies, “You haven’t showed me any evidence yet…” While Martins is determined to believe in his hero, Harry Lime, without any evidence to his goodness, he is unwilling to accept the horrors his hero is accused of without sufficient evidence. Once the proof is presented, however, Martins feels his world crashing around him. “If one watched a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years ago in a school corridor.” (Greene, 82) While the reader watches the dissolution of Martins’ belief in Harry Lime, Martins still questions the charges leveled against his hero. “Are you certain that he was the real boss.” (Greene, 82) Martins’ faith stretches far enough to invent yet another conspiracy that could clear his friend, “Suppose…someone had got a line on him, forced him into this racket, as you forced Harbin to double-cross…And they murdered him in case he talked when he was arrested.” (Greene, 82-83) Even after Martins is presented with evidence against Lime, he is still determined to explore every avenue that could possibly clear him. He is unwilling to give up his belief until he is entirely certain of Harry’s culpability, until he is faced with Harry himself.

It is only when Martins is faced with Harry Lime’s lack of guilt at his victims’ deaths that Martins’ belief in Harry’s goodness is finally crushed. Martins says, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you ever seen any of your victims?” (Greene, 104) Martins’ use of the word victims shows his acknowledgement of Harry’s guilt. Harry reinforces Martins’ condemnation with lack of empathy for his victims:

Victims?…Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there…would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—for ever. If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. (Greene, 104)

Harry’s commoditization of human beings with his monetary language, this behavior is in direct contrast with Rollo Martins worshipping of Harry Lime. He sees Lime asbeing larger than life, while Harry sees humans as dispensable dots. His lack of concern for his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt further dehumanizes Harry when he admits to setting up her arrest. “The price of living in this zone, Rollo, is service. I have to give them a little information now and then.” (Greene, 105) When Rollo asks would have happened her he replies unconcernedly, “She’d have been sent back to Hungary. There’s nothing against her really. A year in a labour camp perhaps.” (Greene, 105) The success of Harry Lime is achieved by his use of the people who believe him, the people who love him. Thus belief, as much as it is innocent and noble, also makes one vulnerable to manipulation.

As Harry Lime dies, he whispers to Rollo Martins, “Bloody Fool.” (Greene, 117) Rollo explains to Calloway that he wasn’t sure who the words were referring to. “I don’t know whether he meant that for himself—some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate…—or was it for me—with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.” (Greene, 117-118) It’s also possible that Harry Lime is calling Martins a bloody fool for continuing to believe in him throughout their friendship. Indeed, Martin’s assertion that Harry could be capable of any sort of contrition shows that he is still a “bloody fool” when it comes to Harry Lime.

While readers view Rollo Martin’s belief in Harry Lime as virtuous, they also look at him in frustration. Martins’ refusal to accept Lime’s guilt when there is more evidence for it than his innocence may be glorified loyalty; it could also be called naïve and stupid. Rollo Martins’ idealism and optimism remind readers of the world they wished they lived in, while bringing awareness to the danger of reality. Belief without evidence puts one at risk for manipulation and deceit, and crushing disappointment. Postwar Britain was clearly in a cynical state, longing for the ability to believe, but struggling with the risks of doing so.

 

The Vengeful Villain and the Guilt Ridden Tyrant: A Comparison between Shakespeare’s Richard III and Pushkin’s Boris Gudunov

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Boris, the protagonist of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Richard of Shakespeare’s Richard III are vastly different characters despite their similar aspirations.  Both wish to occupy a throne that is not rightfully theirs and both succeed by killing those people who are obstacles to that goal.  Although parallels can be drawn from their actions, their characters greatly differ in their emotional state.  While Boris is racked with guilt and haunted by visions of his victims, Richard is cool and calculated and feels justified in his evil acts.  These character traits are particularly visible in their soliloquies.

In Boris Godunov’s soliloquy, he complains how although he is Tsar, he is still unhappy. “This is the sixth year of my peaceful reign. But my heart has had no happiness.” (Line 2-3) He is not satisfied with his reign, because he is plagued by guilt.  His conscience will not let him rest.  He is despondent and says, “Nothing can assuage our sorrows in this world; nothing, nothing…except perhaps our conscience. When healthy, it triumphs over evil.” (Line 39-42) He is completely unable to be satisfied with his position that he sacrificed so much for.  He is haunted by his past evils, especially the murder of the young Dimitry, “Bloody little boys before your eyes…” (Line 50)  He concludes that, “He’s pitiful whose conscience is not clean.” (Line 52) In can be inferred that Boris finds the atrocities committed not worth the position he has gained.  He now realizes that a clean conscience is more valuable.

In contrast with Boris’ guilt, Richard feels his evil deeds are completely justified. He feels he is entitled to a bit of revenge because of his deformity.  “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, /deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ into this breathing world scarce made half made up.” (Line (19-21) He feels that because he was deformed, his killings allow for a wicked sort of justice.  He chooses wickedness, in a calculated decision.  “I am determined to play a villain.” (Line 30)  He knows his actions are wrong and evil, however he feels no remorse whatsoever.  In his mind, the evil he is responsible for is justified because he was forced to bear his deformity.  He is well aware that he is evil, “And if King Edward be as true and just/ As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,” (Line 36-37) yet he feels no remorse.  He takes odd pleasure in his knowledge that he is evil and cunning, not good.  He is hardly haunted by his guilt as Boris is.

Although Boris and Richard are similar in that they usurp the throne by killing innocent people, their feelings about these actions are vastly different.  Boris feels guilt and regret at his actions and therefore cannot enjoy his position. Richard in contrast feels his actions were justified.  Because of his disfigurement, he feels he has the right to be evil.  He is comfortable with his role as the villain while Boris struggles with it.  Richard revels in his poisoned character and Boris is destroyed by his.  Although there are certainly parallels between the two characters, their emotional state is vastly different.

The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Wife of Bath is one of the most surprising and thought provoking pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. Although Chaucer is the writer of her prologue and tale, it is appropriate to talk about the Wife of Bath as her own person and to view Chaucer as a medium. It is unclear whether Chaucer agreed with her views on women, yet he allowed this type of character a tale, giving rarely heard characters a voice.  In a deeply patriarchal society, she advocates for women’s sovereignty in marriage. The most admirable aspect of her case is the cool method of reason she employs. The subordination of women in this period was largely due to certain parts of scripture. The Wife of Bath cleverly turns these writings on their heads, reinterpreting the words with precision and cleverness. She also plays upon the medieval stereotypes of women: their inability to reason, their incapability to keep a secret, in order to strengthen her argument. Instead of introducing new ideas, which would likely have immediately put her readers and listeners on the defensive, she utilizes the very societal views that have subordinated women to her advantage. The Wife of Bath chooses unlikely but nevertheless exceedingly effective sources in order to defend her own choices and advocate for the sovereignty of women in marriage.  Despite her evident intelligence, The Wife of Bath seems to have committed a great folly by only seeking physical sources of pleasure and maintaining her outer beauty. She has failed to upkeep her soul by following simply the letter rather than the spirit of religious law. In several ways, The Wife of Bath asserts herself in medieval literature as an unprecedented advocate for women’s rights.  However, she is also a deeply sinful character whose noble views are developed through selfish motives.

The Wife of Bath has had five legal husbands. She has waited for each to die and has promptly remarried.  Though this certainly is not advisable behavior, the church allows it.  She refers to the story of Jesus reprimanding the Samaritan woman for having five husbands, “Thou hast had…five husbands, and he whom now thou hast is not thy husband.” (219) The Wife of Bath denounces this text on the ground that it is confusing, “But what He meant by it I cannot say. All I ask is, why wasn’t the fifth man the lawful spouse of the Samaritan?”  She raises another question in order to distract from the criticism of which she is also guilty. She then notes that there is no place in scripture that gives a number limit on spouses, “All my born days, I’ve never heard as yet of any given number or limit.” (219) She feels that it is unjust for others to frown on her numerous marriages because she has technically broken no law.  “He named no figure, neither two nor eight—why should fold talk of it as a disgrace?” (220) She uses this uncertainty to her advantage by addressing a concrete and more easily interpreted piece of scripture, God’s demand in genesis, to “be fruitful, and multiply.” (Genesis 1:22) She claims Genesis is “A noble text, and one I understand!” (219)

The Wife of Bath cleverly points out the hypocrisy of people judging her marriages by referring to King Solomon who had countless wives. She also mentions Abraham and Jacob, two men who are very revered in the church who both had more than two wives. The Wife of Bath feels she is completely entitled to her five marriage, “Blessed be to God that I have married five~ Here’s to the sixth, whenever he turns up.” (220) She feels no shame because, as she points out, she is in good company. Because God did not expressly forbid multiple marriages, The Wife of Bath sees no problem in them. “Now can you tell me where, in any age, Almighty God explicitly forbade all marrying and giving in marriage? Answer me that!” (220) By omission The Wife of Bath claims there is implicit permission to marry as many husbands as she can, to follow his clear advice in Genesis, and to ignore the vague passage about the Samaritan woman.

Though certainly a woman is allowed to remarry after the death of her husband, the motives for remarriage seem less than holy.  She does not view marriage as a sacramental binding of souls through God, but as an exchange of wealth, most commonly land or property for sex. Her first three husbands, who she claims were “good,” were old and wealthy. “The three good ones were very rich and old; but barely able, all the same, to hold to the terms of our covenant and contract.” (224) The Wife of Bath was not in love with any of these men, but used them as a means to accumulate wealth. “And I can tell you it meant nothing to me. They’d given me their land and property.” (224) It is therefore not the number of marriages, but the insincere nature of these unions that make her a sinner.

The cruel treatment of her first three husbands was appalling.  She refers to her marriages as “covenant and contract” (224) implying that her marriage is both a covenant and a business deal.  This dualistic nature insults the institution of marriage.  Her older husbands married her because she was young and beautiful.  She married them because they had money.  The exchange of money and property for sex defines the “contract” of her marriages.  Once married to her husbands, she was immediately owner of their property.  Her side of the “contract” was not always upheld.  She would manipulate her husbands, denying sex and only giving it for personal gain. “And they’d made over to me al their land, what point was there in taking pains to please, except for my advantage, or my ease?” (224) This manipulation of her husbands undermines the validity of her marriages.  They become business transactions rather than a covenant between a loving couple and God.

The Wife of Bath’s fifth marriage differs from the first three due to her motives and the ensuing power struggle between her and her husband. Unlike her previous marriages, she is older than her husband.  Her motives are for the first time love instead of money,” My fifth husband—may god bless his soul!  Whom I took on for love, not for gold.” (232) In her old age, she plays a similar role as her first three husbands.  Her husband, young and handsome, presumably married The Wife of Bath for her money.  After he had gained her land and property he did not hesitate to restrict her behavior, “To him I gave all land and property, everything that I had inherited.  But, later, I was very sorry for it—He wouldn’t let me do a thing I wanted!” (235) He even beat her horribly, “Though he’d beaten me on every bone, how quickly he could win my love again.” (232)

The reader may think that The Wife of Bath has gotten what she deserved, as she became like her previous husbands that she mistreated; however she does reverse her circumstances with this seeming impossible husband. Her husband frequently read an antifeminist text.  When The Wife of Bath tears three pages out of this book her husband goes berserk, “And up he jumped just like a raging lion, and punched me with his fist upon the head till I fell on the floor and lay for dead.” (239) Instead of allowing her husband to gain sovereignty with his physical strength, she cleverly manipulates the situation to her advantage.  By acting as though this beating will kill her, she fills her husband with fear and regret.  After this episode, her husband grants her the power in her marriage, “He gave the reins to me, and to my hand not only management of house and land, but of his tongue, and also of his fist.” (239) Once she was granted power, she argues that peace ensued in her marriage. “From that day on we had no more debate.”  By showing the results of this marriage, she shows that having women in power produces a natural equality.

In the medieval era it was considered proper and holy for widows to remain virgins.  This is clearly not the course The Wife of Bath chose. While she acknowledges that virginity is indeed the holier vocation, “I’ve no hard feeling if Maidenhood be set above remarriage. Purity in body and in heart may please some.” (221) She does not apologize for not practicing this lifestyle, but argues that there is a place for remarriage in society, even if it is the less revered. She uses Christ as a model for men, showing that if women should all be virgins, like Mary, so should all men sell all of their belongings and give that money to the poor.  Christ did not bid all men to do this, nor did he demand all women to remain virgins.  “But Christ, of perfection the spring and well, did not bid everyone to go and sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, And thus to follow in his tracks.” (221) She knows that her way of life is not the holiest, however she argues that it is not a condemned life either.  “I’ve no objection to virginity. Let them be loaves of purest sifted wheat, and let us wives called mere barley-bread, and yet as St. Mark tells us, when our Savior fed the multitude it was with barley bread.” (222) Wives, though they are not as holy as virgins, still play an essential role in God’s kingdom, the producers of new life.  Somewhat ironically, there is no mention in The Wife of Bath’s tale of any children.  It is impossible to tell certainly whether any of her five unions produced children, however the fact that she does not reveal that she was a mother in this argument suggests that she had no children.

The Wife of Bath also uses physiological evidence of human sexual organs as an argument that God intended for these organs to be used.  “And tell me also, what was the intention in creating organs of generation, when man was made in so perfect a fashion? They were not made for nothing you can bet!” (222) She refuses to accept the assertion that these organs were created solely for urination and gender distinctions.  “They were fashioned for both purposes, that’s to say, for a necessary function as much as for enjoyment in procreation wherein we do not displease God in heaven.” (222) She does quickly amend this statement by saying that just because one has sexual organs, they are not obliged to use them for procreation. “But I’m not saying everyone who’s got the kind of tackle I am talking of is bound to go and use it sexually. For then who’d bother about chastity? Christ was a virgin, though formed like a man, like many another saint since time began.” (222) Her acknowledgement that virginity is a holier calling than being a wife allows her to argue for the necessity of wives without appearing pompous and self-important.

The Wife of Bath cleverly uses existing stereotypes about women in medieval culture to argue for female sovereignty in marriage. In the medieval era, women were seen as incapable of reason.  Ironically, with her very astute reasoning skills, The Wife of Bath allows this usually restricting view to provide wives with power. “One of us has got to knuckle under, And since man is a more rational a creature than woman is, it’s you who must forbear.” (230) She flatters men, claiming that they have superior reasoning skills, and uses sycophancy to sway her audience.  By claiming men are more reasonable, she makes them think they should be willing to exercise patience with their unreasonable wives. If they deny this claim, they deny that they are reasonable. She cleverly traps men into granting their wives power with their own ego.

The actual Tale that The Wife of Bath tells is also an argument for the sovereignty of women in marriage. She tells the story of a knight who rapes a woman and is subsequently sentenced to death. In order to avoid this sentence he must discover “the thing that women most desire.” (241) He searches in vain for this piece of information until he comes upon an old hag who gives him the correct answer on the condition that he will do anything that she asks him after his life has been spared. He tells the court the thing women desire, “Women desire to have dominion over their husbands and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them.” (245) His life is spared.  The knight is quite pleased until the old hag demands that he marry her immediately.  Because he gave his word to do whatever she wished, he marries her secretly. When she sees his displeasure with her age and appearance, she gives him a choice, “To have me old and ugly till I die, and to be to you a true and faithful wife, and never to displease you all my life; or else to have me beautiful and young. And take your chances with a crowd of men all flocking to the house because of me.” (249-250) The knight sees the wisdom of this woman and gives her the right to make the choice, “Choose either of the two; what pleases you is good enough for me.” (250) When the knight gives the old woman sovereignty in their marriage, she becomes both beautiful and faithful.

Possibly subconsciously, this hag could stand for the person The Wife of Bath wishes she could be and dreads to become.  The hag is ugly and old, characteristics The Wife of Bath realizes she is developing.  And yet, the hag is unselfish and wise, understanding virtue, while The Wife of Bath certainly does not.  The fact that the Wife of Bath is on a pilgrimage, combined with the inclusion of a character like the hag in her tale suggests that she does want to repent for her sinful life.  Indeed, she says in one of the few sincere lines of her prologue, “Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!” (234) Even though she feels some regret for her previous actions, she has no intent upon changing her method of living.  She is now searching for a sixth husband to support her, even though she realizes her way of life is not holy. Though the Wife of Bath is an unprecedented advocate for medieval women’s rights, her moral flaws cannot be ignored.  Her motives for speaking for women are not for the greater good of society, but to improve the ease and acceptability of her own life. The Wife of Bath is a literary character to be admired and revered in terms of her views and rhetorical skill.  However, her lack of virtue undermines the reader’s respect for both her as a character, and the intelligent things that she has to say.

On Climbing Ben Nevis

Sonnet. Written Upon the Top of Ben Nevis

By John Keats

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud


Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!


I look into the chasms, and a shroud


Vapourous doth hide them, –just so much I wist


Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,


And there is sullen mist, –even so much


Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread


Before the earth, beneath me, –even such,


Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!


Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,–


Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,


I tread on them, — that all my eye doth meet


Is mist and crag, not only on this height,


But in the world of thought and mental might!

 

My friend Charlotte is clever. She didn’t ask me, “Hey Cher, how would you like to climb the tallest mountain in Britain”, or “How about a trek with the mountaineering club.” No, she said nonchalantly, “Do you like John Keats.” I said that I did.  “How would you like to hike up the mountain that was John Keats’ inspiration. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Before I knew it, ten of my precious pounds were in the grubby hands of the mountaineering club.

 Two days before the climb we received an email.  “Please meet us in front of the sports center at 6:00 AM. If you are late we will leave without you. Bring a head torch and a compass.” 6:00 AM? A head-torch?  The night before my roommate Harriet and I said tearful goodbyes in case I didn’t return the next day.

 My alarm went off at 5:25 AM. I slept in the clothes I was planning on wearing just to avoid an extra step. Luckily, out of concern, Charlotte’s roommate Catherine had brought two pairs of hiking boots up. “You cannot climb a mountain in trainers.” Thank God for Catherine. She was so right.

Charlotte and I trudged to the sports center sporting hiking boots, thick socks, layered leggings, sweatshirts, hats, and a waterproof (A.K.A. Raincoat). We had a map of Ben Nevis in a waterproof folder and blister Band-Aids in our rucksack. We felt pretty damn prepared.

We arrived at the sports center. It was still pitch dark.  We hopped in a van and slept on each other’s shoulders for three and a half hours until we arrived.

When we got there it was snowing. Not just gentle flakes falling gracefully, but actually snow-snowing. Charlotte and I looked at each other, and looked up at the mountain.  Here goes nothing.

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Our first mistake was we brought no money. Ben Nevis is about a six-hour hike and we were allowed eight hours. There’s a pub at the base of Ben Nevis but we couldn’t very well stay there for two hours without buying anything. Luckily our friend Erik was on the trip and spotted us four pounds.

We began our ascent, passing sheep and climbing over boulders. Here’s the thing about climbing a mountain: it is all uphill. I don’t think I entirely appreciated that until it was too late. We were climbing a mountain. There was no going back. I consoled myself with the fact that I would undoubtedly return with amazing Instagram photos.

ImageI thought about John Keats. He probably didn’t have hiking boots. He probably hiked up this mountain in loafers armed with nothing but a notebook and a sense of wonder. We had hiking boots a waterproof, and a map in a folder. We could do this! Once we hit the first viewpoint I understood the reason he climbed the mountain just to write a sonnet.

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We continued trekking, stopping occasionally to eat a Pop Tart or apply a blister Band-Aid, but we were making good progress. Suddenly I didn’t feel powerless or tired. I felt like the queen of the world.

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We made it to a frozen lake and decided to stop for lunch. We sat on a snow-covered rock in the bitter cold, “like water nymphs” we joked. Charlotte munched on pita’s spread with Nutella while I ate a rock hard loaf of cheesy bread.  We finished as quickly as we could. Some huge crows were starting to loom closer to us.  Plus it was much warmer while we walked.

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We reached the top of the damn mountain. It was worth it. It was.  We felt accomplished and wonderful, until we realized we had to climb back down.

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We slipped down the mountain. The icy rocks yielding under our boots. By the time we made it to the pub we were exhausted. Charlotte fell asleep on a couch after spitting some cheesy garlic bread.  I closed my eyes contentedly too realizing that Charlotte Gorman and I, two wee American girls in a strange country, conquered the tallest mountain in Great Britain.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

I have to say, I never really realized how anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice was. I can’t believe they let us read it in high school. Shakespeare has so many good plays to choose from, it baffles me that they would assign one of the most blatantly controversial.  Then again, we do also read books that deal with racial issues, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tortilla Curtain, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, just to name a few, but most of those are written by people writing about people with racist values. The writer disagreed personally, and wrote about it as a way to discuss racial issues that are present in today’s society. But was Shakespeare himself anti-Semitic? Daniel Hannan, a writer and journalist answer’s this query in his article in The Telegraph “Was Shakespeare Anti-Semitic:

“No, of course he wasn’t. His universalism, his grandeur, the wholeness of his understanding,       makes such questions meaningless. Shakespeare cannot be confined by any set of beliefs: his genius always bursts out, putting both sides of a case far more eloquently than any other advocate. When you try and conscript him to a narrow cause, you make yourself look narrow. Shakespeare’s canon will broaden your experience more than your experience can ever broaden it.”

 Okay, fair enough. Shakespeare is a god, who transcends prejudice, but can his work The Merchant of Venice itself be anti-Semitic? Can a god create something flawed?

 The character of Shylock is a fully human villain.  His motives go beyond that of your average stereotypical bad guy.  When you employ a stereotype as a character it is often hard to make them seem human.  Shakespeare of course can’t create a two-dimensional character so Shylock breathes life into the negative Jewish stereotype: clever, lacking compassion, and loving money.  Because Shylock is so well developed, he is hated as a person, not just as a character giving the play itself not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones. (This is ironic because Shakespeare was actually a moneylender himself and a greedy harsh one at that. He once had a man arrested for only a few pounds. Did he write himself in as the villain?)

 Shakespeare’s skill may have fueled anti-Semitic thoughts for generations. I suppose there is some responsibility that comes with genius.

 Though Shakespeare does put down one group of people in The Merchant of Venice, he also elevates a group that is hardly recognized: women. Portia and her ladies maid, Nerissa embody virtue and sensibility as well as loyalty and cleverness. They manage to free Antonio from Shylock’s grasp, and scare their husbands into fidelity all in one night. Great work ladies! In all seriousness though, Portia is one of Shakespeare’s few heroines who is truly in charge of her own destiny.  Possibly because she holds an economic position above her husband, she is able to treat him as an equal. 

Though I find the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice disheartening, I do enjoy reading a Renaissance play in which women are treated with respect. 

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Image** SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read this book and are still hoping to be surprised by the ending do NOT continue reading, no matter how provocative this bold, starred writing is!**

I admit somewhat ashamedly that A Tale of Two Cities is the first Dickens novel I have read.  I’m certain it won’t be the last if Dickens’ other novels are half as good as this one.

A Tale of Two Cities is a masterfully constructed novel, providing both a perspective on the French Revolution, as well as telling a story with unparalleled characters.  I have heard Dickens referred to as “the best ‘describer’”. I am certainly inclined to agree.  Dickens does not describe his characters in the classic sense.  He does not bore the reader with details of their physical appearance. Instead he allows the characters to speak through themselves through actions and relationships.  The characters, instead of appearing dull and two dimensional, live in a three dimensional, realistic world.  Two characters that are particularly well created are Sydney Carton and Miss Pross. 

Sidney Carton is a mixture between Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean and Eponine.  Like Jean Valjean, Carton undergoes an incredible transformation upon meeting Lucie (who is not unlike Cosette).  His unrequited love for her, like Eponine’s for Marius, does not end in bitterness and hatred, but in a selfless sacrifice so that their love can live in happiness with their lover.  The final chapter of A Tale of Two Cities  is both heart wrenching and inspiring due to the character development of Sydney Carton.

Miss Pross is a more amusing character, a no nonsense governess who is simultaneously a proper Englishwoman and a tough lady.  She will do anything to protect her “ladybird” and does so near the end of the book.  Miss Pross faces Madame Defarge (a character similar to the female Thénardier), a woman carrying both a knife and a pistol.  Miss Pross transforms herself from a comic, somewhat insignificant character, to a heroine in this scene. 

A Tale of Two Cities is a masterpiece combining expert storytelling with incredible characters. I am officially a Dickens fan. 

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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**Spoiler Alert! If you want the ending of this book to be a surprise do not continue reading, no matter how alluring this bold, starred disclaimer is.**

Nineteen Eighty-Four completes the triad of classic dystopia books, joining A Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately Nineteen Eighty-Four is my least favorite.  Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four honestly made me nauseous. While A Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 leave the reader with some semblance of hope; a glimmer of faith in the human condition, Nineteen Eighty-Four does not.  I like to think that the human spirit cannot be completely destroyed. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think that if faced with pain I would wish it upon someone I love.  I think that there is a part of us that the government cannot touch.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a society completely controlled by the government.  Having emotions against the party is considered dangerous.  Everyone is under constant surveillance, even within their own home.  The protagonist, Winston, remembers life before the party was in power and wishes to return to that time.  He lives in a world full of disgust, fanaticism, and anxiety. Winston carefully begins to rebel against the party with his illicit girlfriend, Julia, who also is an enemy to the party.

Once Winston is captured by the party he is tortured mentally and physically,(at one point putting his face in a rat cage to be devoured unless he surrenders himself to the party) until he is able to be reintroduced into society.  He is no longer a danger to the party. He betrays everyone, including Julia.  By the end, he is only capable of loving Big Brother. He is unable to muster up emotion for other humans. He has been indoctrinated beyond return.

I don’t think that the human soul is that weak. I don’t think torture can distort human nature so much that they would betray those they love.  I think George Orwell is wrong. I’m not scared for the future, so long as human beings retain their ability to love, we’re going to be okay.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

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If there was a female Henry James, it would be Elizabeth Bowen.  Her plots are not driven by  events, but by small gestures of characters.  Her characters are similar to James’ in both Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove.  There is a plain, innocent heroine: Portia, who isn’t terribly likable, but hey, she’s better than all the other twisted, manipulative characters we’re faced with. 

The story proceeds (at a snail’s pace) as Portia falls in love with Eddie, a slippery, creepy lay-about who has absolutely no business dating Portia. Though he clearly has no feelings for her, they proceed with a semblance of a relationship.  Meanwhile Portia writes about her life with her brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna, including details of her illicit relationship with Eddie.  Unknown to Portia, Anna reads her diary whenever Portia is out.  

The Death of the Heart certainly succeeds in revealing the pettiness of the upper middle class.  By creating a character like Portia who is too innocent and naive to realize what is proper, forms a juxtaposition with Anna and Thomas.  Portia’s social mistakes combined with the reactions of Anna create a parody of the upper middle class.  

The ending of the book was the real disappointment. I am happy to go though 400 pages of inaction if I am to witness a victory of some sort. This is where Bowen deviates from James.  James creates an ironic victory for his heroines, while Portia still seems like a naive little girl. She has not stuck it to her brother and sister in-law, she simply runs away and hides like a  child. There is no conclusion, no resolution, simply a vague open-ended finish. 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

 

I know this is the third Shakespeare post in two weeks, but let’s be honest, Shakespeare is probably the most prominent literary figure…ever. So bear with me…

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The main issue I had with this play was the concept of love at first sight; Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love the second they lay eyes on each other. Let’s keep in mind that Miranda has only laid eyes on two men: Prospero, her father, and Caliban, her servant. No matter how good looking Caliban was, I can’t imagine he was very clean, so when a somewhat well groomed Ferdinand appears of course Miranda is smitten. That doesn’t make their love divine or special. Ferdinand just didn’t have much competition. 

I do have to give Shakespeare a little credit for creating a strong female character in Miranda. It is she who proposes to Ferdinand. Feminism appears in a Miranda because she hasn’t been exposed to the poisons of societal perceptions and standards