Category Archives: Literary Analysis & Critique

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea”

Much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry tends to personify Death as the final, and therefore, most powerful of entities conceivable.  In “The City in the Sea,” a young Poe dreams up a dwelling for Death to reign as sovereign, and illustrates the trademark gothic imagery that will come to identify the poet’s literary career.

Poe gives clear and detailed descriptions of this city of Death:

Lo!  Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

The second to last line above is the most intriguing, as it suggests that the moral character of a person is of no importance in determining one’s future destination in Death’s lonely kingdom.  This contrasts sharply with Western conception of an afterlife that claims to take into account one’s moral standing.  Adding to this is the suggestion that Death is not just a transitional figure between realities (as commonly believed), but an eternal presence for the souls who pass into his city; Poe’s Death is all-encompassing in his reign, and like Hades, disinterested in our mortal nuances, as seen by the images that accompany his city:

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing in ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

Death’s dwelling is of no comparison to anything we can conceive of, for ours is a world of motion, his of eerie calm.  And despite the fact that both good and bad reside within his place of sovereignty, his city is one of gloom for all:

No rays from the holy heaven come down

On the long night-time of that town;

But light from out of the lurid sea

Streams up the turrets silently–

Gleams up the pinnacles far and free–

Up domes–up spires–up kingly halls–

Up fanes–up Babylon-like walls–

Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers–

Up many and many a marvelous shrine

Whose wretched friezes intertwine

The viol, the violet, and the vine.

Death city is one of elegance, and glamor, but ultimately it lies cold in sight.  The sun does not shine on its inhabitants, and the lights that do breach the city walls come as a haunting reminder of that beyond the melancholy shores, lies a livelier place.  The structures are impressive, but they are empty in tone, serving as no substitute to the artistic touch that the warmth of a living soul can create.

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

This is the second time that Poe has bothered to pen these lines to emphasis how even the seemingly unbound sea lies restrained by the city’s lifeless hold.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seem pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down.

While all else in the city murks into one endless sea of melancholy, Death stands clearly visible to his subjects.  He is the true constant keeping all else still–the inescapable Lord of his domain.

There open fanes and gaping graves

Yawn level with luminous waves

But not the riches there that lie

In each idol’s diamond eye–

Not the gaily-jewelled dead

Tempt the waters from their bed;

Poe’s intent is to subtly impress onto the reader the horror of timelessness that accompanies this city.  It is more imposing than the force of gravity, for at least gravity allows its subjects the privilege of feeling the passing of time through its affects.   Also, by taking away the value of finite existence, all the petty values that give our minds rest are deprived from our very being.  To exist in such a state is not to exist at all.

For no ripples curl, alas!

Along that wilderness of glass–

No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea–

No heavings hint that winds have been

On seas less hideously serene.

To move with no feeling of motion, to breathe with no sensation of breath, is a sentence worse than physical torment could ever be.  In such a realm, one would eager wish to endure all the flames of Hell, just so one can know to have felt something again.  What are we as living beings in this world, if we are forbidden from feeling the world around us?–Nothing!  Nothing, but empty phantasms.  Forced serenity is the most dehumanizing form of torture to a lively mind.

But lo, a stir in the air!

The wave–there is motion there!

As if the towers had thrust aside,

In slightly sinking, the dull tide–

As if their tops had feebly given

A void within the filmy Heaven.

Besides the shift in imagery, a reader should take note of the prose Poe uses in this half of the stanza.  It is the towers which appear to hold the ultimate power over the forces of nature, and all else.  But the towers are inseparable from the city, which is inseparable from its sovereign and creator, Death.  Therefore, Death’s dominion extends further beyond the gates of his city–possibly even above that of “filmy Heaven”?  For if all souls are subject to Death’s domain, what purpose lies there for Heaven, at all?

The waves have now a redder glow–

The hours are breathing faint and low–

A shift in imagery is still occurring, as Poe is continuing to introduce the concept of motion into this once motionless world.  However, even though the first six lines of the stanza are ambiguous about the malevolence of the changing scenery, the two that follow above end any positive impressions the reader may have forged about the coming events.  (At no time are reddening seas, and faint breathing a sign of benignity.)

And when, amid no earthly moans,

Down, down that town shall settle hence,

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,

Shall do it reverence.

Hell has risen on earth, out of the same melancholy sea.  But what took Hell a thousand thrones to rule, Death did with just one.  For that, even the Devil must pay his respects to his ominous superior, whose authority not even beneficent Heaven can reprimand.

Bibliography

Poe, Edgar Allan.  “The City in the Sea,” 1831.

Alfred Tennyson’s “The Poet’s Song”

It has always somewhat saddened me how, whenever I casually inquire a group of minds as to the authorship of the lines, “Tis better to have lost and loved, Then never to have loved at all,” the most likely response (at least, in my experience) is to attribute the words to William Shakespeare, or even Charles Dickens.  Although his influence within the realm of British poetry and the common anglophone vernacular are enough to place Alfred Tennyson’s name amongst the giants of what makes up early modern literature, the fact remains that the man is relatively unknown to the layperson who more than likely has made use of one or more of his charming phrasings.

Tennyson’s poetic talents were best displayed through his idylls, which intimately capture the world through the senses of the subject narrating the simple, yet engaging, prose.  Tennyson excelled when he wrote candidly of the world he observed around him, often without resorting to the great emotionalism of the Romantics he admired, preferring instead to employ a reserved tone to inspire the feeling he wished his writing to convey to the reader.  His lesser discussed prose, “The Poet’s Song,” is a perfect illustration of Tennyson’s artistic approach.

The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,

He pass’d by the town and out of the street,

A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,

And waves of shadow went over the wheat,

And he sat him down in a lonely place,

And chanted a melody loud and sweet,

That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,

And the lark drop down at his feet.

Tennyson’s opening lines work to convey the movement’s of the poet in tune with the harmony of nature; hence, the explicit indication of the poet’s scant interaction with the urban world he passes by, in contrast to the vivid details given about the natural world he observes.  The reason for this distinction suggest that the poet is by virtue of his character more in touch with the underlying order of life, rather than the artificial constructs that compose metropolitan living.  His chanting of a melody into this tranquil world further symbolizes his interest to gain a oneness with its features, so much so that it awes the creatures who come to hear it.  The poem goes on to state:

The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,

The snake slipt under a spray,

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,

And stared, with his foot on the prey,

There is a subtle shift in the tone here (carried on from the last two lines of the previous stanza).  Whereas the poem began indicating the desired unity of the poet with the natural world, this same unity is now causing an obvious break in the normal flow of this natural order.  Thus, although the poet is harmonized with the natural world, he nevertheless is distinct from its actual cycle.

And the nightingale thought, “I have sung many songs,

But never a one so gay,

For he sings of what the world will be

When the years have died away.

The poet’s role within the natural order is to capture the moment for the posterity of those who will yet be born to enjoy the times.  He is an observer to it, but ultimately also the source that defines it.  The sweet song of the nightingale, passing and unrecorded by time, do not compare to the gravity of the poet’s song, which serves as the reference–the very embodiment of the era of the days, and world he observes.  So much so that, once the years have died away, the poet’s prose will come to simply be the moment for those who look back on it from the perspective of what will by then be a changed world.

Tennyson’s “A Poet’s Song,” is a testament to the first person who chose to sing his words rather than state them.  And the reason why such song’s still remain with us to this day, rather than having been lost to time.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: An Analysis

It is not a hyperbole to say that the final year of Edgar Allan Poe’s life also produced some of the darkest and most sensitive work composed by the poet.  Reading through “A Dream Within a Dream” one is almost inclined to believe that the man understood that his days were coming to an end.  The prose is always reflective, laced with a somber dose of melancholy; yet, filled with unavoidable regret and frustration.  Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the prevailing anger of the hopeless writer at the various circumstances that have brought him to his lowly point.

The poem begins like a dying man’s final plea for understanding from a life that has granted him so much torment during his time within its clutches:

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

The poet appears to be prepared to say his farewell through these opening lines, but also offer a last elucidation into his troubled mind.  The last two lines may read as a concession to the frivolous pursuits of one’s past interests, but if read with the line that precedes it the message takes on a much more affirmative tone than a reader might expect from a shame induced defense.  The man understands that it is too late to bother with vacuous humility about one’s misdeeds, and instead opts to simply give his closing testament of his dire state of mind–offer his own epitaph, if you will.

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

The question asked is much more complex than its simple framing might suggest.  When a man reaches a point in which his past desires,  dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway?  Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes?  And if so, is there any use in pursuing one’s hopes to begin with?  Or as Poe puts it:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Every matter we dedicate ourselves to will some day decay to nothing more but a faint memory–a dream within a dream.  Although it seems apparent when stated in such terms, the actual prose of this first stanza of the poem presents the blatant fatalism of its message in a much subtler tone.  The sort a dying man might present to ease the misfortunes that have haunted his life.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand–

Now, the reader is given a clearer description of the poet’s current circumstance.  The usage of “roar” and “surf-tormented” brings up images of anguish, but the poet’s allusion to an unruly sea as the source implies that the troubles of his life are ultimately pangs that life has thrust upon him (and not the result of self-inflicted foolishness).  The last two lines here are important, for they reference the poet’s still vivid recollection of past valuables amidst his gloomy memories.  But rather than give him solace, these few redeeming moments are the most painful of all to bear:

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep–while I weep!

Edgar Allan Poe is a man whose life is filled with more tragedies than his writings could ever express.  Having lost his parents, his wife, seen much of his literary career dismissed to the margins by his colleagues, reduced to the state of an impoverished drunk, he now stands crying in isolation, trying to hold on to the tiniest of golden moments he can recall in life, but finding himself powerless in capturing them for any meaningful comfort:

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Whereas the poet began his prose in collective reflection, the endeavor appears to have been too much for his fragile mind, as he now tries to plea with the phantoms of his past.  The desperation in these final gasps reveals much about the writer’s final mental state.  Far from being ready to make peace with his life’s torments and losses, and despite his previous insistence how his hope has flown away, his self-pity still prevents him from giving into the apathy he seems at times to crave.  This is evident by how he finishes his prose by repeating his once exclamatory statement, as a hopeful question for mercy from some undisclosed fate:

Is  all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

For someone like Edgar Allan Poe, who at this point in his life had nothing more to hold onto but his dreams–his fading memories–nothing would have been more desirable than the reassurance that this sole valuable of his was more than a mere intangible thought.  But given how the poet’s life ended within the same year that this poem was published, I am skeptical as to whether he ever managed to truly convince himself of this dying wish.

George Orwell’s 1984 and Perfect Hoplessness

I believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most important pieces of social commentary of the 20th Century.  Unlike other dystopian novels, 1984 is unique in its narrative of hopelessness and despair, by virtue of the author’s refusal to grant his protagonist a final means of escape.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is an earlier novel that follows a similar theme of the lone individual trying to hold on, both physically and mentally, against a totalitarian power that is seeking to subdue his will.  But, even though some might view the fate of Huxley’s protagonist John as tragic, in comparison to the fate of Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, Brave New World actually concludes on a moment of defiance by the individual against the oppressive system–a faint murmur of hope in human dignity is still salvaged.  Orwell’s 1984, leaves no room for such salvation.

To me, this message was not apparent the first time I read the book, not until I finished it all the way through.  Witnessing the glimmers of defiance Winston shows throughout his interrogation, convinced me that somehow, by some means, he would be able to combat against his oppressors and triumph over them in the end.  This feeling was intensified to its peak when Winston, feebly, abandoning all care for argument or rationale, lashes out at the source of his misery, “I don’t know–I don’t care.  Somehow you will fail.  Something will defeat you.  Life will defeat you” (p.269). The retort of a man that has been taken to breaking point, but is still trying to push forward for the sake of something–anything–better, than what is presently staring him in the face.  The novel implies that even Winston’s interrogator was fleetingly taken aback at the sudden burst of indignation, causing him to launch into an array of verbal battery battery against the defiant prisoner:

“Do you see any evidence that this is happening?  Or any reason why it should?”

“No.  I believe it.  I know that you will fail.  There is something in the universe–I don’t know, some spirit, some principle–that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know.  The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”

“Yes.”

“If you are man, Winston, you are the last man.  Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors.  Do you understand that you are alone?  You are outside history, you are nonexistent / And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself superior” (p. 269-270)

What I love about this scene is the sheer insubordination show by the wholly helpless Winston.  The resolve to forgo all pretense of humility, and openly declare his superiority to the authority that is eager to rob him of his humanity.  Unfortunately, without wanting to give too much detail away, the enthusiasm raised in this dialogue disappears as quickly as it comes.  The world Orwell has created is perfectly hopeless, one in which the future can only be accurately described as, “a boot stamping on a human face–forever” (p. 267).  But none of this can truly sink in to the reader, even through all the torture and pain and anguish, not until the haunting final four words are read.

Bibliography

[All quotations used from the following citation]

Orwell, George.  1984.  “Part Three: III,” (Signet Classic: New York), 1949, 1977 reprint.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and the Theme of Class Inequality

Edgar Allan Poe is the undisputed master of horror fiction [suck on it, Stephen King].  In his short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe explores the depth of self-indulgence, health paranoia, and the futility of the affluent members of society attempting to survive a social crisis by gating themselves off from the rest of the suffering masses.

Poe begins the plot of his story by informing the reader how, “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.”  The severity of this disease is so dire that for those unfortunate enough to contract it:

There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.  The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

The last words in that passage are particularly important to the narrative.  Unlike many of the stories being composed at the time (and even now), in which social turmoils are depicted as experiences of moral growth for most of the characters, Poe is willing to explore the limited extend of our moral virtues; concluding that there exists a point at which human decency and empathy will be easily abandoned in favor of self-preservation.  The sovereign of the land, Prince Prospero is the base embodiment of the aristocratic, affluent few in society, who in time of need do not reach out to alleviate the suffering of their subjects, but instead find it more convenient for their own survival to horde the necessities to survive from the dying masses:

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

The Prince, and his aristocratic peers, closed themselves off in happy oblivion within their gated community, indifferent and unconcerned about the horrors that dwell beyond their blissful experience.  So lost do they become in the fanciful, carefree world they have created for themselves that, years into the epidemic, “while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad,” the now fully secluded Prince still manages to, “entertain his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”  It is important for a reader to pause and reflect at the message the author is trying to convey.  The world is literary dying around the last few people who have the means to fortify against the affliction, and their primary interest is in vainly entertaining themselves with balls and masquerades.  Not worrying about finding a cure to the ailment, or constructing a plan by which society is to be preserved and protected through the crisis.  Nothing but a relentless desire to indulge in the splendors of life with equally heedless peers.  Never have the words out off sight, out off mind been more apropos than they are to this scene.

Throughout the prose, Poe spends a significant amount of time detailing the eloquent and expensive features of the castle the aristocracy has confined itself in.  Primarily, this is done to fully draw the reader into the features of the plot; secondarily, it serves to demonstrate the vanity of the upper-class characters, who see no peril, no anguish, no need, as important as their want to remain undisturbed and unaware about the worries of the sickly masses.  However, behind this mode of self-sustained obliviousness, lies a state of constant paranoia for the affluent citizens.  This is best illustrated by the way Poe uses the motion of a gigantic ebony clock (time serving the role of a commodity that no amount of wealth or power can control) as a source of anxiety for the masqueraders.  With every noise and movement emitted by the ebony clock, “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”  And with the passing of each such moment, the occupants of the castle vowed mirthfully to each other not to let the ominous thing have the same affect on them again, only to fail as soon as, “there came yet another chiming of the clock.”

Having demonstrated the state of badly concealed apprehension exhibited by the party guests, the narrative goes on to suggest how the main distraction that exists for the masqueraders is Prince Prospero’s eccentric decorative feats created specially for the evening.  Both the Prince, and his fashionable embellishments of the seven chambers making up the ballroom halls, are described as “bold and fiery,” but also repeatedly referred to as mad (either directly, or by implication).  To suit his taste for the evening, the Prince had made it a requirement for the masqueraders to disguise themselves as grotesquely as possible; a request that appears to have been wholly lived up to by the attendees.  (The reason for this request appears to have little cause other than for the Prince to further illustrate his eccentric flair, but it cannot be ruled out that the underlying cause could have something to do with the Prince’s desire to show how he is unaffected by the nervousness about death that his fellow aristocrats seem to be displaying.)

As the night wanes on, the aristocratic masqueraders find themselves more and more confined, as they densely pack into one chamber, while abandoning others.  The source for this behavior is the arrival of a guest no one had previously noticed, despite his striking appearance:

And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive, of disapprobation and surprise–then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

The physical appearance of the mysterious figure was one that deeply disturbed the otherwise grotesquely shrouded party attendees, because, “his venture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”  His costume was that of the Red Death.  Here, the aristocrats, who have spent years hiding away blissfully from the terror and despair that surrounds them, are at last forced to see firsthand the image that is the cause of their self-imposed confinement–the real source of their relentless anxiety.  Prince Prospero’s reaction towards the stranger was immeasurable rage:  “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?  Seize him and unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise.”  This expression of outrage is noteworthy, because it is coming from a man who showed no consideration for the suffering of his own subjects, who holds no regard for anything beyond his own self-indulgence, but is now screaming in all righteousness about being mocked–about being offended–eager to uphold to some murky semblance of principle.  Nonetheless, despite the Prince’s stern command, no one dared move towards the intruder, causing the Prince himself to “rush hurriedly through the six chambers / He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure.”  The chase did not last long, as the figure suddenly turns to face the Prince, “upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.”  All pretense has now been abandoned by the masqueraders, for the stranger was not a costumed intruder, for “now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.”  The disease the inhabitants of the castle had spent so long to shelter from had at last penetrated through their iron gates, “and the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.  And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

If there is one theme that Poe pointedly captures in his haunting story, it is that, ultimately, when it comes to disease carrying pathogens, it doesn’t matter how much wealth or power you possess.  It doesn’t matter who–or what–you are, or where you reside in your social pecking order.  Disease does not, and cannot, care about the arbitrary caste system or social mores your particular culture has decided to embrace; it is nature’s perfect equalizer.  The only thing disease knows is to spread and kill indiscriminately.  And once the pathogen carrying corpses of the lower classes begin to pile up all around your gated community, no amount of affluence will protect you from the fate that it carries.  It’s very poetic, in an eerie way.

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Threat of Art

To mention the word controversial in the same sentence with Oscar Wilde is to be repetitive.  And the Irish writer’s The Picture of Dorian Gray–his only published novel–is nothing less but a testament to the man’s gift for astute social observation and spectacular prose.  If you have not read the work, I would advise you to do so immediately, as it stands as a superb contribution to the ranks of both romantic and gothic literature.

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was instantly denounced by critics for its espousal of homoerotic and hedonistic indulgences.  So much so that Oscar Wilde saw it necessary to add a Preface to the original text as a defense of his work.  But the short Preface should not be seen as just a rebuttal to Wilde’s critics, instead it reads as a promulgation of art as a whole, and a denunciation of the cynic whose mindset is too narrow to grasp the fact that even though great (as well as bad) works of art are on display for the public, the true power lies in its strength to move the individual’s heart and mind.

Wilde begins the Preface by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” adding, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.”  Here, Wilde is addressing the specific critics of his novel, noting that it is not he, the writer–the artist–who is to blame for the offense taking by the audience of his work.  For, any perverse imagery that is elicited by the sensitive reader is a demonstration of the perversity of the reader’s own mind, and not necessarily that of the author or his prose.  Wilde’s further scoff against the fault of being corrupt without being charming is clearly an allusion to his title character Dorian Gray, who through all of his moral corruption at least manages to remain charming (and beautiful) to the world, something that his real life critics–who see fit to designate themselves as his moral superiors–don’t manage to do, in Wilde’s eyes.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”  It must have been telling for Wilde how all the critiques being leveled against his novel only focus on what are perceived to be obscenities within the text, and never the text itself.  If a book is rubbish than let it be shown how it fails to meet the value of worthwhile literature, and we can move on to better things.  But to deride a novel because it presents a topic a person does not wish to be discussed, or raises issues the public would rather be kept out of sight, is to reveal more about one’s own flimsy convictions than that of the author’s.  Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “No art is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.”  Any moral foundation that is distraught in the process couldn’t have been too sturdy to begin with.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”  We are the arbitrators of the mediums we choose to entertain ourselves with, thus when we feel repulsed by a piece of art, it is our responsibility to step away from it in bad taste–not to dictate to others about the need to stifle the offensive material.  If I shout out a cry of fear that something will corrupt society, you can rest assured that what you’re hearing is nothing more but a deep-seated panic that something will corrupt me.  But if a person is already at this stage, then he is already completely corrupted by the source of his worry.  He has already embraced the splendor of the art’s power, drawn into it to the point of drowning within it, and is now paddling anxiously to get back to the safe shore–away from the sea of unknown euphoria.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Unlike other disciplines, art holds no immediate pragmatic worth to the structural progress of human societies.  Buildings are not art for the sake of being art, they have an intended use.  Same goes for nonfiction books, whose goal is to inform, and not necessarily inspire the reader’s imagination.  Wilde was right that art, created solely for the sake of being admired and revered, is objectively useless.  Because its use resides within the subjective mind of those who care to indulge within its beauty.  And for those who don’t, any harm perceived is only made viable by the internal recesses of one’s own depraved mind.  That is the real threat of art.

Bibliography

Wilde, Oscar.  The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  “The Preface,” Barnes & Nobel Classics (New York: 2003), pages 1-2.