Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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Essay, Feminism, Non-Fiction, Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race

I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, but I do remember thinking, “I need to read this soon.” As a white male feminist, I am always trying to listen more and talk less, both about race and about women’s issues. I don’t mean that I’m silent about issues (far from it). I talk about equality, social justice, etc. all the time, and rather loudly, to the chagrin of many of my social media followers, I’m sure; but I prefer to listen to the voices of women when there is a conversation about women’s issues, to the voices of black men and women when there is a conversation about race, to the voices of native Americans when there is a conversation about indigenous peoples’ rights, etc. So, I have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, by the rampant misogyny exposed by our most recent presidential election, and by the racism and white nationalism that is becoming ever more public and present in our society, to make conscious efforts to listen harder and to read more, so that I can be informed about others’ experiences and what I can do to be an ally (the same consideration I hope folks give to LGBTQIAA+ issues).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a title from an intelligent and accomplished black feminist woman who said she has stopped talking to white people about race. Who needs to hear the message more than white people? How could she do this? Why is she giving up? All of these rather selfish and short-sighted questions arose immediately upon seeing the title, so I purchased the book in hopes to find answers. What I got, however, was not just the writer’s rationale for turning her attention elsewhere, but a host of thoughts on issues about intersectionality, race, gender, class, and British history. In addition, there was excellent insight as to what I can do as an ally, personally, but also how I can encourage positive ally behavior in others. I don’t know if these last benefits were even intended by Eddo-Lodge, but I hope to take the lessons and run with them anyway.

The book itself stems from a 2014 essay that the author first published on her blog. So many people begged her not to stop talking. Others completely agreed, understood, and supported her. And still others tried to turn the conversation and make it about themselves (no surprise to anyone with a history of feminist thought or activism, right?) I think the most important feature to come from the expansion of the post into a more formal, critical work, is the exposure of Britain’s deeply-rooted institutional history with racism. In many ways, Eddo-Lodge’s analysis of British history reminded me of what our own history of race has looked like in the United States, especially our issues with structural racism and the misunderstandings about it. The real damaging power of racism is not what happens on the individual level, but within all the systems that our citizenry, society, government, politics, and economy rely on to function.

In every area, white people (and white men, especially) have had an advantage. But the conversation keeps stalling at the point where individuals feel targeted. When we mention “white privilege” or “male privilege,” to someone who benefits from these, for example, they often take it as a personal attack and feel offended that we are blaming them for something they have no control over; on the contrary, where the conversation needs to go, Eddo-Lodge says, is beyond the personal and to the structural: we are not talking about your racism or your gender, but about the systems in which we all exist and where some people have a distinct advantage because of race and gender (and class). So, how do we help advance the conversation and encourage people to move beyond their first reactions based on their own personal and identifiable experiences (I was poor, too – I worked three jobs – I paid for my own college – nobody gave me the promotion, I worked 10 years for it –  my family came from nothing – etc. etc.), and toward the bigger issues?

I’m not sure Eddo-Lodge answers the question. I’m not sure there is any single answer to this question. But perhaps writing books like this one, reading books like this one, and encouraging others, who would not normally pick up books like this one to do so, is as good a start as we can possibly make. Have the hard conversations. Welcome people into the difficult and sensitive conversations.

Michael Oatman once wrote, “it’s odd to educate oneself away from one’s past.” History, written by the winners, is a powerful tool, and it hasn’t often told the whole story. Maybe the best thing that allies can do is to begin helping others, and themselves, to fill in the gaps and widen the lens. I hope people like Reni Eddo-Lodge keep talking, and writing, because their voices are crucial to this goal, and to the eventual possibility for a more just society.

Notable Quotes

“When I talk about white people, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (87).

“White support looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations. Support looks like white advocacy for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces. White people, you need to talk to other white people about race” (215-16).

“Combing through the literature on clashes between black people and the police, I noticed another clash – one of perspective. While some people called what happened . . . a riot, others called it an uprising . . . I think there’s truth in both perspectives, and that the extremity of a riot only ever reflects the extreme living conditions of said rioters. Language is important” (53).

“When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people. The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands easily, like a water-snake toy” (64).

“I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional [racism] because I think it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions” (64).

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2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics, Drama, Feminism, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Play, Susan Glaspell

Thoughts: Trifles (1916) by Susan Glaspell

9780874406382Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) is a one-act play that would ultimately inspire another of her works, a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers.” The story is loosely based on an actual event, the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell reported on while working as a journalist in Des Moines, Iowa. Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, but the wife denied it. Although she was convicted, that conviction was eventually appealed and overturned.

Glaspell is an essential early feminist writer, one who was directly influenced by the likes of Kate Chopin and Fanny Fern; alas, she is often overlooked in feminist literary studies. For those unfamiliar with Glaspell, this short one-act play (my copy was only 26 pages) is a great place to start. The play is funny but poignant. It is a brief, direct example of Glaspell’s primary concerns – the inequalities between women and men, and the culture’s preoccupation with gender roles (stereotypes). It is ultimately a harsh exposé on the patriarchy’s oppressive control over women’s lives.

As its title suggests, the “trifles” of this play are “women concerns,” which men look at as relatively nothing in comparison to “real” (that is male) problems. Glaspell’s approach, however, which sets-up two distinct narrative points of view, one female and one male, creates an interesting and often comic tension between the main characters – the men and their wives. The house which serves as the play’s setting functions as both a crime scene but also as a home, and the characters, depending on their sex and their “purpose” or “role,” will view the house as one or the other of these things (the men treat it as merely a crime scene, the women cannot detach the house from its function as the home of their friend and neighbor who has been accused of murder).

51aea1cdd79ba.preview-620What is most interesting about this play is how much of a wallop it really packs. It is deceptively simple, not just because it is short, but the language, scenery, dialogue, stage direction – everything about the play is designed to be easy. Everything, that is, except for its subject matter. A reader (or audience member) could easily lose herself in the comedy of the situation, in the banter between husbands and wives, or in the knowing looks passed between the ladies, but the reality of the play, the feminist charges being raised and the dark, despondent yet somehow liberating mood created by the plight of the play’s absent Mrs. Wright (pun intended?) creates a rich paradox impossible to ignore.

The final moral crisis, which the women must face together and alone, reveals much about the meaning of justice and the role of women in seeking or fulfilling that justice. Although it is the men who “own” the law (quite literally, as the two male characters represent the police force and the county law offices), it is the women who will determine Mrs. Wright’s fate.

Notable Quotes:

“I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John.”

“Women are used to worrying over trifles.”

“She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was thirty years ago.”

“I know how things can be–for women. I tell you, it’s queer . . . we live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.”

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Book Review, Classics, Feminism, Fiction, Horror, Mini-reviews, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Supernatural, Thriller

Spooky Reviews: Doctor Sleep, Hill House, and Macbeth

16130549Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.75/4.0
YTD: 58

Doctor Sleep is the long-awaited sequel to one of Stephen King’s most popular novels, The Shining.  In it, readers are given the opportunity to witness Danny Torrance as a seriously screwed up but equally well-intentioned alcoholic adult.  While some of the suspense of its prequel has not been carried over into this revisit, still King proves why he is a master of his craft and fans of the original will probably not be disappointed by this follow-up.

The story begins with Danny as a child, just a few short years after the events which took place at the infamous and nefarious Overlook Hotel.  Danny and his mom are living alone, relatively happy and healthy.  Danny’s connection with the Overlook and the otherworldly in general has, for the most part, dissipated.  At least, that’s the way it seemed.  Soon enough, we learn that the dead still visit young Danny – and he must reach out to his old mentor, Dick Hallorann, to learn how to lock away the demons for good.  Ultimately, Danny grows up allowing his mother to believe that his “shining” has dulled – he, like the girl he will one day meet- would rather deal with his abilities on his own, leaving his mom free of the worry and pain which would surely haunt her life, had she known how upsetting his own was.

As an adult, Danny becomes an alcoholic like his father.  He hides this, too, from his mother (who must surely have known on some level).  He travels the country, a homeless drifter, drinking, screwing, and working jobs just long enough to make a few bucks.  Eventually, he sleeps with a woman who, along with her son, will haunt Danny’s memories for years to come.  After this lowest-of-low experience, one which the reader should learn of on their own, as it is an anchor to Danny’s life trajectory, Danny eventually ends up in a small New England town where he meets the girl who change forever.  His relationship with her is one of mentor and mentee, and it aids in Danny’s road to sobriety.  There are others out there like him and Dick, after all, and this girl is more powerful than any he has ever met.

Just like those who shine for good, however, are those who exist from evil.  Vampire-like beings, once human, they feed off of the power of the shining.  This power is, of course, most concentrated in children.  These parasites, an ancient, powerful, and enormously wealthy and well-connected community,   travel the country in their R.V.’s, unassuming middle-aged and elderly folk whom nobody would bat an eye at, but who lure and kidnap children, torture them for their “steam” (what they call the excretions of their shining) and then kill them.

Eventually, psychically, their leader, Rose the Hat, crosses paths with Danny’s young apprentice, Abra.  At this moment, the scene is set for a battle that will come – that must– come; a showdown between good and evil, between shining and vampire.  Abra, Danny, and a few companions must face, head on, this enormous evil force and defeat it once and for all, or die trying.

Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is an intricate, well-developed, and moving sequel to a King masterpiece.  While it is not quite as horrifying as his earlier works, King’s talents as a story-teller remain unquestioned.  The emotional depth and strength of characterization he brings to this one, too, are admirable, particularly as King’s earlier works tended not to be much concerned with character development (they were much more about creating a mood of suspense or terror than about telling any one person’s story).   I was skeptical about the book at first, and remained so for the first couple dozen pages but, in the end, I find myself thinking about the book quite a bit – even weeks after finishing.  The mark of a good story, no?

Notable Quotes:

“After the things that she had seen and been through, she knew that shadows could be dangerous. They could have teeth” (7).

“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser” (83).

“In her head every superstition and old wives’ tale still lived . . . she knew superstition was shit; she also spat between her fingers if a crow or black cat crossed her path” (88).

“Perhaps kids really did come into the world trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth had so confidently proclaimed, but they also shit in their pants until they learned better” (123).


51NlY23zNHLThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 56

This has been one of the most surprising reads of the year for me, so far.  I’m not sure why I didn’t realize that this Shirley Jackson is the same Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery,” but it didn’t take too long to figure it out.  The Haunting of Hill House is simply overflowing with the most luxurious, sumptuous, sensual language imaginable.  It’s freaking beautiful – and it’s a horror story!  Well, sort of.  I would consider it to be more of a psychological thriller, akin to, say The Sixth Sense, but it is typically considered one of the best “horror” books of all-time, so there we go.

Anyway, what did I love about this book?  Well, the plot.  The characters.  The language, especially.  The book’s opening paragraphs are some of the best I have ever read, from anyone.  It’s the kind of story introduction any writer would dream of crafting – perfection.  The rest of the book is much of the same.  Romantic language that flows into the most bizarre, eerie plot situations.  Eleanor Vance’s troubled mind, Theodora’s narcissism and lesbian inclinations.  Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their dunderheadedness.  Doctor Montague’s obsession with the other-worldly, an obsession which leads to tragedy.

On the surface, the book is a supernatural tale about four people who visit a haunted house, each for his or her own reasons.  Dr. Montague and his assistant, Theodora, are researching psychic phenomenon (specifically something called “haunting”).  The doctor is an occult scholar who has invited Eleanor there due to her documented experience with poltergeists.  The fourth is Luke, who is the future heir to Hill House.  Initially, the house seems a bit haunted, but in an “isn’t that odd?” sort of way – doors closing by themselves, strange noises in the night, etc.  Soon, though, the house begins to flex its muscles, almost as if awakening from a deep slumber.  It begins to recognize the people living inside of it, and the house sets its sights on one visitor in particular.

Beneath the veil of “thriller” are the many deeper elements of the story.  Jackson is positing feminist ideals, presenting lesbianism in an off-hand, natural sort of way (quite unheard of in 1959), and engaging her readers in questions of science, religion, and human relationships.  It is a complex, multifaceted novel, of which the supernatural is only the method, rather than the theme.

Immediately upon finishing this book, I went out and bought another Jackson novel (Hangsaman) and also watched two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House.  The first version (1963) departed slightly from the book, but it was much more true to the story than the remake (1999) and much the better film, overall.  The remake was, in fact, quite terrible.  In any event, the book is one of my favorites of the year – Jackson is a brilliant writer, one whom I regret not having really investigated sooner.  I could see myself spending a great deal of time studying her life and works sometime in the future.

Notable Quotes:

“Some houses are born bad” (70).

“It was said that the older sister was crossed in love, although that is said of almost any lady who prefers, for whatever reason, to live alone” (77).

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone” (3).

“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”

“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”

“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”


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American Lit, Anita Loos, Book Review, Epistolary, Feminism, Fiction, Gender Studies, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, PhD

Thoughts: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

512704Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 11

I first read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in graduate school (2007?), as part of a 20th Century American Literature class. I loved that class, and the professor, because we read primarily unexpected texts – important ones, and ones which said much about the culture and politics of the time, but books which are nonetheless often overlooked, particularly in the classroom setting (such as Nathanael West’s, Day of the Locust, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, etc.). What I loved about the book when I first read it was its humor. Anita Loos’s protagonist, Lorelei Lee, a genuine flapper and perhaps America’s first sensational gold-digger, is also the epitome (perhaps the originator) of the all-too-recognizable “blonde joke.” Her story is one of “education” and “morals” – a girl who is on a journey to improve herself, except that improvement, in Lorelei’s case, simply means getting her hands on as many jewels and as much money as she possibly can.

Along for the ride is Lorelei’s best friend, Dorothy, who, while a flapper, is much more sensible than Lorelei and truly is in search of love, rather than money – a claim Lorelei makes of herself all along, but the evidence repeatedly says otherwise. Dorothy is outspoken and direct about what she wants, and this attitude – though feminists might champion it- cause Lorelei to think that it is Dorothy who is in need of “education” and “improvement.” The joke, of course, is that it is Lorelei whose choices are highly suspect and rather immoral.

Upon reading the book for a second time (this time for a Gender Studies course in my doctoral program), I find that I love all of the same things, including the humor, the wit, and the wild adventures, but I also responded strongly to the bond between Dorothy and Lorelei and also to the subversive themes, particularly women in traditional male roles (dominating sexual/romantic relationships, traveling abroad without chaperones, etc.). Much of what this book is about, and why it is so great, can be summed up by the following passage:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of a gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

The spelling and grammar errors, the flippant attitude, the game of conceal and reveal (quite prevalent in this book – she has a lot of sexual encounters, for instance, though she never, ever specifically mentions them. She does, however, mention that this “diary” of hers might be given to a gentleman, one day, so we know she’s not revealing everything), the faux-innocence, it’s all here. What is interesting about Lorelei is that she seems to think that everything is a result of fate. She never takes responsibility for the things she does, though she is a character of extreme agency. For instance, when the above scene is referred to again later, Lorelei never says “I shot the man;” instead, see says that “Mr. Jennings came to be shot.” This victim-esque mentality comes about in many ways, as when she is “abused” by wealthier men and women, whom she will later exact revenge upon (though she was in the wrong in the first place), or in her general gold-digging nature – she believes she is a girl “that things happen to,” which leaves her free to make all sorts of dubious decisions and not feel any kind of guilt or remorse about them. She is a woman with a bad reputation (which even Dorothy jokes about, though Lorelei never “gets” the joke) – she’s understood by others to be sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt, yet she doesn’t see these things in herself; ironically, she ultimately seeks “saving” (rather than “education”) by marrying a religious man who works as a censor (hilarious considering both Lorelei’s personality as well as Anita Loos’s career as a screenwriter).

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_posterThis book has received wide and varied reactions, from James Joyce who fell in love with it and reserved his ailing eyesight for the serial installments (the book having first been published in chapters, through Harper’s Bazaar) and Edith Wharton, who called it “the great American novel;” to William Faulkner, who absolutely loathed it. Many people are familiar with the 1950s film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The film, too, is brilliant, but readers should keep in mind that the two are very different. Much of the book’s essence is changed to suit the 1950s mentality and to strengthen the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy (a relationship which is often stained in the book, but which is paramount in the film). Leaving the film aside, which one might argue is perhaps more feminist, the book is deceptively complex. Lorelei comes across, in her diary, as a type of brainless valley girl, full of “Like’s” and “So’s;” but this is Loos’s genius. She exposes the underbelly of 1920s hypocrisy and morality in a raw and humorous way. As Loos herself mentions in the introduction, this book was enormously popular in Russia, where it was likened to the dreary, often fatalistic social works of Tolstoy and this is because, leaving out the humor, Loos’s depiction of the world, of capitalism, sexual commodities, body image, and the treatment of women, is all very bleak. It’s a fun ride but, somehow, a dangerously serious one, too.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Studies, Feminism, Women’s Literature, 1920s American Literature, Flappers, Jazz Age, Modernism, Epistolary.

Notable Quotes:
“Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.”

“Does this boat go to Europe, France?”

“Memory is more incredible than ink.”

“I always think that the most delightful thing about traveling is to always be running into Americans and to always feel at home.”

“Fate keeps on happening”

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Annamarie Jagose, Book Review, Feminism, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literary Theory, Literature, Margaret Walters, Non-Fiction, PhD, Queer Theory, Theory, Thomas C. Foster

Brief Thoughts: 3 Texts on Literary Theory

39933How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
YTD: 07

Goodreads Summary:
What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface — a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character — and there’s that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text keeps escaping you.
In this practical and amusing guide to literature, Thomas C. Foster shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock those hidden truths, and to discover a world where a road leads to a quest; a shared meal may signify a communion; and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just rain. Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the perfect companion for making your reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.

My Thoughts:
Lots of helpful tips, useful references, and practical advice. It’s certainly not critical theory, but that shouldn’t be what one expects going into this text. It’s a “literature made easy” type of guide, but it’s good for what it is. Easy to read & added plenty of texts to my “to read” list. For English majors early in their programs or for casual/recreational readers who would like to get more from their reading experience, this book could offer some valuable tips. It also added quite a few titles to my wish list!

74661Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters
YTD: 08

Goodreads Summary:
“This is a historical account of feminism that looks at the roots of feminism, voting rights, and the liberation of the sixties, and analyzes the current situation of women across Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, particularly the Third World countries. Walters examines the difficulties and inequities that women still face, more than forty years after the “new wave” of 1960s feminism–difficulties, particularly, in combining domesticity, motherhood and work outside the home. How much have women’s lives really changed? In the West, women still come up against the “glass ceiling” at work, with most earning considerably less than their male counterparts. What are we to make of the now commonplace insistence that feminism deprives men of their rights and dignities? And how does one tackle the issue of female emancipation in different cultural and economic environments–in, for example, Islam, Hinduism, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent?”

My Thoughts:
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” This quote by Rebecca West seems to sum up the history and mentality of Feminism; that is, by virtue of defining it, one practically undermines it. Labels are almost exclusively heteronormative and patriarchal, so to use them is to counter the work of feminist thought. All-in-all, I find the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” extremely helpful, useful, and accessible. Feminism was no exception. Walters outlines the history of feminist thought from the 11th Century and up to modern-day. The major theorists, such as Judith Butler and Mary Wollstonecraft, are given ample attention, as are more obscure writers and historical figures. Walters also includes many of the opposing forces as well as the “in-fighting” between different branches of feminism, all of which helps one to understand the larger theory and its place in time, history, and relation to other schools of thought. Highly recommended for those interested in literary and or feminist theory.

239907Queer Theory: An Introduction by Annamarie Jagose
YTD: 09

Goodreads Summary:
In Queer Theory: An Introduction, Annamarie Jagose provides a clear and concise explanation of queer theory, tracing it as part of an intriguing history of same-sex love over the last century, from mid-century homophile movements to gay liberation, the women’s movement and lesbian feminism, to the re-appropriation of the term “queer.” Carefully interrogating the arguments of supporters and opponents of queer theory, Jagose suggests that its strength lies in its questioning of the very idea of sexual identities. Blending insights from prominent queer theorists such as Judith Butler and David Halperin, Jagose argues that queer theory’s challenge is to create new ways of thinking, not only about fixed sexual identities such as heterosexual and homosexual, but also about other supposedly essential notions such as “sexuality” and “gender” and even “man” and “woman.”

My Thoughts:
Plenty of useful information and great discussion of various arguments surrounding gay/lesbian studies, feminism, gender, and identity – but the text seemed to be much more about those elements than about Queer Theory, specifically. Granted, there’s a history leading up to Queer Theory & the fact that Queer Theory is ever-changing (by virtue of its being “queer” and therefore resistant to definition, a characteristic it shares with feminism) would make it hard to write an “About Me” book on Queer Theory. Still, I was slightly troubled by the overwhelming amount of time spent on discussing lesbian(ism) and their perpetual outsider status (outside feminism, outside queer theory, outside heteronormativity, etc.), especially the arguments which made homosexual (or gay, or queer, depending on whom is identifying as what) men the greatest “enemy” to the lesbian woman. Those arguments were not the author’s (Jagose) but there was much attention paid to them by her. And I realize I’ve littered this response with pronouns and descriptors galore, which means I’m an enemy of the queer and the feminist schools, for sure.

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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Art, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Feminism, Fiction, Fictional Biography, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literature, Monthly Review, Sexuality, Time, Virginia Woolf

Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

46133

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 5

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time. At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Ultimately, after trips abroad and back home again, Orlando’s story is one of exploration and being open to the many possibilities of life. He is a writer, first, who spends hundreds of years working on one short poem called “The Oak Tree,” a strong symbol of nature’s presence and dominance throughout the passage of time. Orlando witnesses the world-changing, from the sexual freedom and marriageless years of the Elizabethan period, to the stringent, stuffy, prudish world of the Victorian age. At a certain point, he (now she) wakes up to “the present” and is terrified, realizing that she suddenly exists in the now, and it is a now that she no longer recognizes, where women are property, where love is regulated, and where art and literature exist only in the past.

There are two main characters in the novel; the first is Orlando, who changes from male to female throughout the long passage of time. The second is actually the narrator – a third-person, mostly omniscient but nevertheless unreliable “biographer,” whose tone and style change throughout the book, as Orlando and his life are changing. One could argue, though, that the true characters are actually gender (identity), sexuality, and time: these are the ideas explored most intricately and most often throughout the course of the book and they are certainly front-facing; the narrator/biographer views time and Orlando in opposition to how opinions and practices of sex and gender are viewed differently at various points in history. Other characters (of the usual sense) include Sasha, Orlando’s true first love, a Russian princess; Shel, Orlando’s husband who is actually a woman (or who, at least, has the qualities of one); the Archduchess Henrietta who is actually Archduke Harry (perhaps the only truly homosexual character, as the others whose genders bend throughout could truly be said to be of the opposite gender, psychologically and even physically, after their changes, while Harry is simply a man who cross-dresses as a woman and who loves Orlando as a man); and certain historical figures, like Nick Greene (poet/critic), Queen Elizabeth I, and Alexander Pope.

Orlando, though massive in scale, brilliant in conception, and beautiful in prose, was actually considered by Woolf to be a “writer’s holiday,” so to speak. She refused to allow gender nor time to constrain her writing, which is evidenced by the fact that Orlando, who begins the story as a man and ends it as a woman, 4 centuries later, only ages 36 years in the process. Woolf’s secondary aim, aside from bending time and gender, is satirizing Victorian biographies and novels which traditionally emphasize truthfulness and fact (though they are obviously fiction). What is most fascinating for me is the fact that the book was, for Woolf, a game of sorts – a lighter satire and departure from her more rigid works; yet, this one is incredibly important and speaks seriously, though fantastically, to issues of self-discovery, truth, art, and gender. The exploration of the many time periods, from Elizabethan to the early 20th Century, particularly in terms of the literary arts in any given movement, will be fascinating for serious readers, but the beautiful and sensuous prose (less explorative than other works, making it more accessible) as well as the unusual topic and uninhibited re-imagining of reality and time make this a unique, awe-inspiring read for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Time, Art, Literary History, Nature, Truth, Poetry.

Notable Quotes:
“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy” (45).

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill” (75).

“Bad, good, or indifferent, I’ll write, from this day forward, to please myself” (103).

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high” (149).

“Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s” (173).

“Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors” (199).

“We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person” (243).

“For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253).

“Our most violent passions . . . are the reflections we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time” (323).

Orlando is Book 1 for my B2tC Challenge; Book 9 for my Classics Club List; & Book 3 for my 2013 TBR Pile.

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