Wiki on Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain Removing a Mask.

Check out my new wiki page on Pudd’nhead Wilson.  You will find analysis of how and why Twain chose to use the detective theme in the novel.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Married Vs. Available

Victorian Man and Woman

The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct:  she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.

In her novel, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton allows her characters to make some interesting assertions about the proper behavior of women.  Foremost among these is an idea that we saw earlier in Daisy Miller: that married women are allowed much more freedom than single women, particularly when it comes to flirtation.

Despite no actual wrongdoing, Lily Bart is ousted from polite society for the perception afforded her behaviors only because she was a single woman.  Her initial shaky social footing results from unintentionally borrowing money from Gus Trenor.  The implied result of this transaction to the social elite is that Lily becomes a kind of kept mistress for Mr. Ternor.  This little social impropriety erodes her perceived sexual purity enough that Bertha Dorset is later able to seal her social fate by implying an affair between Lily and George Dorset.

For the characters of Wharton’s novel, there are certain social privileges associated with being married.  These include basically ignoring flirtatious behavior, or even extramarital affairs.  At one point a character comments about Lily, “When a girl’s as good-looking as that she’d better marry; then no questions are asked” (195).  This implies that Lily could flirt or be seen with as many men as she liked if she were married.  This seems like such fuzzy logic.  Just because a woman is married does not mean she is free from improprieties (think of Bertha Dorset).  So I guess I have a hard time understanding exactly why society no longer cares.  I suppose this inexplicable social constraint is exactly why Edith Wharton routinely emphasizes it throughout the novel.  Perhaps she wanted to draw attention to the ridiculousness of it, and how the pointless rule leads Lily down the path to ruin.

Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm  Comments (5)  
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…had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.

Buster Keaton riding on a minauture horse in front of a log cabin.

The wild west.

In his essay on McTeague (by Frank Norris), James L. Caron addresses the humor that pervades Norris’ naturalistic novel.  Caron refers to the content of the novel as a, “general discourse of the laughable that is based on incongruity.”  One of the most striking ways we see this incongruity is when the characters are portrayed as robotic machines trapped in routines they cannot escape.  Caron uses Maria as an example, “Maria exhibits mechanistic behavior whenever she is asked to identify herself: ‘Name is Maria-Miranda-Macapa. . . . Had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.”  But really, almost all the characters exhibit this mechanical love for the routine.  Think of how difficult it is for McTeague to stop his dental practice or how greed makes Trina a slave to polishing and loving her coins.  Caron argues that these behaviors are a source of satiric laughter on the part of the reader, because it is humans acting as machines.

Caron indicates that this regular laughter provides the readers with a sort of nervous release.  Where they laugh at not only the characters, but at themselves who are also trapped in the comedic tragedy of life.  So he argues that naturalism and humor inherently belong together:

McTeague in effect jokingly presents the implied reader with ideas derived from evolution about fundamental aspects of existence which he or she would otherwise repress and provides a momentary relief from critical reason.  In other words, the comic dimension of the narrative allows the reader an opportunity to indulge the liberating effect of laughter in a response to the deterministic tendency of naturalism.

Caron helps to drive this idea home by reminding us of the nervous laughter of Selina at the fight scene between McTeague and Marcus in the park.  Sometimes laughter is the only way to deal with the horrors that life throws our way.

Norris’ naturalism certainly benefits from the touches of humor throughout, in my opinion.  The novel would be much drier, and would not have as much staying power if we lost the horrified humor that pervades it to the very end where we leave McTeague handcuffed to a corpse in the desert.

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Comments (4)  
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Mighty McTeague

Wooden Fist

Fists of Fury

A new game from Visceral Studios: McTeague’s Madness! Play as the mighty McTeague and explore 19th century San Francisco with all of its seedy underworld.  Vanquish your foes with fists made of wooden mallets affixed to the sinewy muscles of your bear-like arms.  Unleash deadly attack combos after filling up your rage meter by adding infuriating members to your social group.  Alternatively,  contain your rage and unleash it in Berserker mode, where your vision is destroyed, but you also destroy everything within a 100 yard radius with an explosion of suppressed rage.

Almost half a dozen professions available!  Knock teeth from their sockets as a dentist, use fishing to capture tasty fish, delve into the depths of the earth with mining, move heavy furniture with a flick of your mighty wrist, or down epic amounts of whiskey as a drunk.

Use your Find Gold ability to discover the minutest traces of the coveted treasure hidden in your home.  Once you have collected all the gold in your home, escape from San Francisco to explore another amazing ability: stealth detection.  Use your newly unlocked ability to evade the scheming Marcus when your Mac sense tingles.

Smash your way to riches with Mighty McTeague!  Available only for Nintendo Wii.

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 11:28 am  Comments (2)  
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Frances Harper posing.

One aspect of Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper, that caught my attention was the assertion that violence, unfair treatment, and domination by the whites against the blacks degrades both.  She has Iola speak to this effect: “A people cannot habitually trample on law and justice without retrograding towards barbarism” (406).  Later, Harper’s minister, Reverend Carmicle says, “You cannot willfully deprive the negro of a single right as a citizen without sending demoralization through your own [white] ranks” (412).  This theme is persistent throughout the novel, and illustrated by the failure or rebuttal of all those characters who fail to treat every individual as worthy of respect. Even the kindDr. Gresham’s request that Iola forget her “drop” of colored blood results in the failure of his courtship.  To deny Iola the identity that she assumed, was an infringement of her rights and lowered his standing.  In contrast, Dr. Latimer embraces both his and Iola’s racial histories and succeeds admirably in his pursuit of Iola, with her regarding him as admirable above all other men.  Perhaps the most obvious of the results of mutual degradation, are the slave owners like Mr. Gundover.  Most of them are subject to death, and the remaining fall into poor health and shadow existences.

Reading this novel really does make me wish that Harper’s contemporaries had heeded her words of warning and realized that maltreatment of other is also maltreatment of self.

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (3)  
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Nature vs. Nurture

FBI Fingerprint Kit

Solve crimes like Puddn'head Wilson!

In Mark Twain’s Puddn’Head Wilson, there are a lot of thought-provoking ideas about racial identity.  Early in the novel, we are introduced to the idea that family history and racial identity are paramount concerns among the families of Dawson’s Landing.  The elite of the town are descendants of FFV’s (First Families of Virginia), and they cling to this title tenaciously.  When confronted with the cowardice of Tom, the Judge Driscoll actually faints away on the prospect that a man with FFV blood could shrink from a duel.

The slaves seem to equally cling to their histories, and accept that their standing in society will never change because of their blood.  Roxy is the only one that intentionally pushes the boundaries in this regard.  Even though she performs the fateful switch to save her son, she never assumes the white identity despite her physical appearance, “She was of majestic form and stature, her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movements distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her complexion was very fair, with the rosy glow of vigorous health in her cheeks…”  Even after being freed, Roxy chooses to serve as a servant aboard a steamer rather than live her life as a free white woman.

We see more glimpses of this seemingly inescapable bondage of blood once Tom discovers he is really a slave.  It is repeatedly noted that he, at least temporarily, becomes meek and afraid to spend time with whites as equals.  That he moves from their way on the street; this behavior attributed to his Negro blood.  Tom even exclaims, “Why were niggers and whites made? What crime did the uncreated first nigger commit that the curse of birth was decreed for him? And why is this awful difference made between white and black? . . . How hard the nigger’s fate seems, this morning! — yet until last night such a thought never entered my head.”

This question seems to be at the center of the novel, but I don’t believe it is ever really answered.  Everyone places their heritage on an unassailable platform, and assumes that it can never be moved.  Tom laments the designation of the black man as the lesser, but seems to accept it rather than dispose of the false racial designation.

The situation is further clouded by the fact that even though Tom grew up as a gentleman, he sinks to base behavior of gambling, selling his own mother into slavery “down the river,” and eventual murder.  But is Twain saying this awful behavior is due to his blood, or due to his indulgent childhood?  If Tom were raised as Chambers, would he have turned out as he did?  Hard to say exactly what Twain was shooting for here.  If only fingerprints could reveal motivations as easily as they do murderers!

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm  Comments (2)  
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Real = Boring?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Illustration

This could be Pen and Tom!

Not necessarily.  We learned in class that Mr. W.D. Howells was a major proponent of the American Realism literary movement.  The Rise of Silas Lapham is a perfect example of Howells emphasizing characters, class/background, and moral choices over action.  We hear about their daily lives: waking up, how they slept, eating breakfast, going to work, riding the ferry, etc.  We also explore, in depth, their social status and perceived morality.  Social status really comes forward when the Laphams interact with the Coreys and morality is mostly concerned with Lapham’s business dealings and Penelope’s obligations to her sister.

The problem is, in my opinion, is a snoringly slow pacing.  Perhaps I’m spoiled by “Sentimental” fiction and I’m just the kind of person that Howells is trying to reform.  But if that is his goal, he has pretty much driven me away because his style of realism offers very little reading pleasure.  His approach to fiction is more like reading a textbook than reading enjoyable literature.

Now, this does not have to be the case.  Some of the authors he supported, such as Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett, provide the same medicine of realism but with a lovely spoonful of sugar that helps it go down.   I felt that W.D. Howells spent way too much effort exploring the motivations of his characters and not enough effort in describing them physically or giving them interesting activities.  With a choice between the daily work and home lives of a family or an adventure down a river with a runaway slave, I’ll take the river adventure any day.

Although Howells crafted a perfect example of realist literature, I can’t help wishing for: The Rise of Silas Lapham and Zombies.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 11:05 am  Comments (3)  
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Not That Innocent

Girl in front of house fire.

The Henry James novella, Daisy Miller, got me thinking:  Is innocence an acceptable excuse for behavior at odds with societal norms?  In the story we see Daisy behaving in very controversial ways for women of the mid-1800’s.  She looks directly at men without blushing, speaks bluntly about her life, travels alone with Mr. Winterbourne after only knowing him for half an hour, and cavorts regularly (unchaperoned) with a handsome, but common, Italian man.  Daisy performs all of these scandalous behaviors with hardly a thought to how they may besmirch her reputation in a Europeanized group of American expatriates.  Although she is unaware of the repercussions, we are told that she is ostracized from the high society that she may have been a member of if she behaved more respectably.  So we may consider her as breaking the laws of the society; the punishment: expulsion.

Winterbourne seems to contend, although half-heartedly, that because Daisy’s behavior is all innocent that she should be excused from the laws.  When confronted by her improprieties, Winterbourne states, “The poor girl’s only fault is that she is very uncultivated” (41).  His feelings that she should be excused because of lack of training continues until he finally sees her at midnight in a private moment with the Italian man.  In this regard, Winterbourne seems to reflect the views of the author who writes, “Poor little Daisy Miller was, as I understand her, above all things innocent. It was not to make a scandal, or because she took pleasure in a scandal, that she went on with Giovanelli. She never took the measure really of the scandal she produced, and had no means of doing so: she was too ignorant, too irreflective, too little versed in the proportions of things.”

A certain level of forgiveness is necessary for people who have not been familiarized with the rules which they are expected to live by, but Daisy Miller took this innocence to extremes.  Even when directly confronted by Mrs. Williams and eventually Mr. Winterbourne she chooses to follow her own ways rather than conform to acceptable behavior.  Eventually we must reach a point where ignoring the rules does carry consequences.  And for Daisy Miller that consequence is death.

~Ruth Nelson

Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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Femme Fatale

Smoking woman

I'm pretty sure a modern version of Jean would look just like this.

“I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!”

The fateful proclamation of the deceitful governess of Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask foreshadows the determination with which Jean Muir pursues her goals of wealth, rank, and marriage. If one were to seek an example of a femme fatale, it would be hard to find a better.  Jean seems to possess an undefinable sway over men, and she leaves a trail of broken hearts in her wake.  The enchantress even confesses to one of her thralls, “I am a witch, and one day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly, bad and lost.  Beware of me in time.  I’ve warned you.  Now love me at your peril.”

Alcott portrays Jean as a paradox.  On one hand she is the perfect woman: demure, caring, selfless.  On the other hand, she coldly calculates the use of her womanly attributes to pursue power and men.  I can’t help but wonder if Alcott was insinuating that all women are behind a mask, that there is both beauty and ambition within all women and it should not be entirely condemned.   Despite her decidedly unwomanly pursuit of a titled gentleman to marry, Alcott is very careful not destroy our affection for Jean at the conclusion of the novel.  Even though Jean has seduced the younger Coventry gentlemen, deceived the entire family, and blinded the elderly John Coventry, we are left with the feeling that she genuinely cares for the older gentleman.  While her behavior was certainly beyond beastly for the 19th century woman, I cannot help but think that a modern woman might be accepted and possibly respected for the same maneuverings.

Ruth Nelson

Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (2)  
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Who Said Latin Wasn’t Fun?

crazy tattoo

Do not attempt this at home!

A caution for Lit majors (and because you need a study break from the constant assault of literature analysis): Latin Tattoos Gone Wrong

Published in: on January 29, 2010 at 8:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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