Gothic and Grimm: The grotesque and carnivalesque in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Mann’s “Death in Venice”

©3 July 2016 Mary Crockford

For Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, mind-body connection has deep and pervasive significance. Setting, dialogue, interpersonal dynamics, and distortion reveal protagonists embodying trauma and alienation as a result of war and industrialization, evidenced in warped perceptions of reality, and internalization of their trauma leading to deconstruction and death as their only means of liberation. Undermining of traditional family roles for the sake of state and commercial interests exacerbates their trauma through empowerment of commercial and bureaucratic institutions to benefit from social instability and chaos, demanding conformity for purposes of empowering and enriching of the leviathan (beast) of the state. While representing different geopolitical locales and proximity to wartime in turn-of-the-century industrialized Europe, both stories are constructed with elements of the grotesque and carnivalesque to represent the ways in which trauma and isolation lead to the destruction of the physical body.

Grotesque language and symbolism signal personal and interpersonal distortion in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as Gregor’s punishment for transgressing family and employer expectations of unquestioning servitude is internalized, manifesting bodily in his violent transformation into an insect while he sleeps. For the working-class commercial traveler, contorted images and internal dialogue signify an individual living with physical exhaustion as well as profound cognitive dissonance in the face of mass mechinization’s opposition to individual autonomy. Gregor’s saga thus rebels against Europe’s utopian facade by employing “a grotesque realism which mocks dreary officialdom and subverts its values and symbolic orders” (McNally 254) to expose institutionalized urban working-class oppression and suffering. Gregor’s familial home, rather than a source of physical, emotional and psychological stability during times of economic and social upheaval, becomes a microcosmic experiment within WWI Europe’s industrial laboratory which renders Gregor not whole and self-actualizing, but the rejected other or drone who finds himself “slowly retreating, as if being pushed back by a steady and invisible force” (Kafka 7) of external power structures holding him captive to a job he hates, with little hope of paying off parental debt. This retreat from his intolerable reality manifests first psychologically then physically, as a spineless creature embodying learned helplessness, simultaneously hatched and captivated within the walls of his room, where he is forced by his family members’ antipathy to lock his bedroom door “as a precaution so that no-one would have to suffer the view” of his devolving body (Kafka 13). Ironically, Gregor subverts his own assumptions about individual powerlessness, and as a “horrible vermin” (Kafka 1) possessing “the voice of animal” (6), he upends the Samsa household’s relational apple cart and becomes the fearful and mutated monster or beast who is the “essential principle of grotesque realism…degradation…that is the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, and abstract” to his own conception of nothingness (Bakhtin). The liminal animal-human, he inhabits both the real and the unreal, as the “beauty, harmony, and symmetry” of his youthful classical body is “usurped by ugliness, dissonance and irregularity” (Powell 131) so that he can no longer move through the world as before, but wanders the labyrinthine recesses of his mind where his thoughts are still his own. Like the transmuted, un-dead form of Frankenstein’s offspring, as a giant bug Gregor becomes the “cosmic monster” and “master metaphor” for the debased and dehumanized colonial individual (Thomson 80). As Shelley’s Gothic creation is a “strikingly thoughtful, impressively intelligent, and unusually well-read monster” (Bloom 66), Gregor throughout his bestial experience maintains a level of lucidity which exposes the “appalling and unsettling” nature of his ordeal, straddling “the perpetually shifting frontier that lies between ordinary life and the terror that would seem to be more real” (Powell 131) to the reader but for his decidedly unreal appearance. His ironic, detached tone suggests a quiet resignation which denies what the reader recognizes as an undeniably terrifying predicament:

“How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this

nonsense,” he thought, but that was something he was unable to do

because he was used to sleeping on his right, and in his present state

couldn’t get into that position. However hard he threw himself onto

his right, he always rolled back to where he was. He must have tried

it a hundred times, shut his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to look at

the floundering legs, and only stopped when he began to feel a mild,

dull pain there that he had never felt before.

(Kafka 2)

It is only when Gregor invokes the analogy of Hell to describe his life, and is “overcome by a cold shudder” (Kafka 2) at his bodily condition that the full impact of his global abjection is apparent to the sympathetically “transgressive reader” (Booker 243). His physical discomforts – from the “slight itch upon his belly” and “floundering legs,” to his stiff, aching joints upon trying to rise from his bed (Kafka 2) – symbolize the degrading nature of his transformation into the “half-human, half-animal” functioning “as an overt symbol of the emergence of the abject side of human existence” (Booker 219) which defines grotesque art and literature. Like Shelley’s dejected monster with its “numerous grotesque elements” (Bloom 66) such as lumbering gait, malformed speech and simultaneously childlike and violent fantasies, Kafka’s “deployment…of the grotesque” through Gregor’s six legs, deformed mouth parts and befuddled ramblings on everything from his deaf boss to women’s undergarments – conveyed with his “comic and grotesque…deadpan style of narration” (Bloom 138) mirror “the disconcerting tension between humor and fear that is central to existential conditions of other(ness)” linked with the grotesque (Powell 131). Relegated to using his sticky, cumbersome arthropod body parts, and frequently high-centered by his bulging abdomen, Gregor possesses a grotesque potential commensurate with Shelley’s monster as his “fine form of man” is now “degraded and wasted.” Like Victor’s laboratory-born monster assembled from parts of exhumed cadavers, Gregor is little more than “food for the worm” as a universally loathed, ground-crawling, feces-consuming pest (Bloom 67). He persists in trying but fails to rationalize his way around the gross inadequacy of his new body for mastering his environment, as he attempts to allay his father’s and employer’s displeasure for missing work but cannot escape the claustrophobia and “overwhelming sense of entrapment experienced” of his locked bedroom (Powell 132). Attempting to open his door, he sustains painful injuries because his body has been rendered incapable of achieving his need for familial accord, or even the predictability of his miserable job:

Gregor slowly pushed his way over to the door with the chair.

Once there he let go of it and threw himself onto the door, holding

himself upright against it using the adhesive on the tips of his legs.

He rested there a little while to recover from the effort involved

and then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock with

his mouth. He seemed, unfortunately, to have no proper teeth –

how was he, then, to grasp the key? – but the lack of teeth was, of

course, made up for with a very strong jaw; using the jaw, he really

was able to start the key turning, ignoring the fact that he must

have been causing some kind of damage as a brown fluid came

from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped onto the floor.”

(Kafka 7)

The injury to Gregor’s mouth renders him symbolically mute, and his grief-stricken thoughts point to the unconscious role of his own fractured world view in initiating his grotesque state. Where the “dull yellow eye” of Frankenstein’s gothic monster gazes upon Victor “from the dun-white sockets in which they were set” (Shelley 58), Gregor through an insect’s compound eyes takes in details of his environment in miniaturized multiplicity, including the one-dimensional conception of beauty encapsulated in the picture of a “lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa” clipped from “an illustrated magazine and housed in a nice, gilded frame” on his wall (Kafka 2).

Such arrayed images reveal Gregor’s misshapen perceptions of the world and humanity, forming a kaleidoscopic collection of thoughts and memories which expose the failure of Western philosophy and psychology to bring order out of his past or present isolation. This mosaic of fractured thoughts and images results in a textual “assemblage” or “bricolage” effect (Booker 86) of “bits and pieces of seemingly unrelated narrative” located within The Metamorphosis (88). Bricolage, as a dialogic method was emphasized by Derrida for use “strictly within the framework and tradition of philosophy.” Booker later expanded its utility to explain the manner in which Menippean satire, through textual bricolage also “gains effect largely by its sheer difference from the norm” (Booker 87), often through use of the physical body as the site of the “timeless battle between two primordial principles: the grotesque and the classical” (Katkus 1). Kafka’s effective deployment of the “subversive potential” of bricolage lies in the technique’s facility for producing a “seemingly random method of composition in a field where one expects coherence and logic” (Booker 87), mirroring the breakdown of Gregor’s once familiar environment through a prismatic psychological lens which irreparably subverts Western assumptions about the family and home as predictable providers of safety and permanence. This method also gives additional symbolic meaning to Gregor’s deformed, transition-less body which is “fashioned like the dreams of a sick man so that neither head nor foot merge to a whole” (Andriopoulos 23). Using Andriopoulos’ example of “Walpole’s ‘Gothic Story’” for “inverting Horace’s classical aesthetic” criticizing “pictorial representations of monstrous bodies,” Kafka’s bricolage and assemblage techniques in The Metamorphosis affirm a similar “poetics of monstrous architectural and textual bodies” worthy of inclusion in the canons of gothic and grotesque literature (23-24).

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Gregor’s gilded-framed pinup girl is an “enormous, thick-boned charwoman with white hair” who replaces the the Samsas’ housekeeper because Gregor can no longer sustain the family’s standard of living. The charwoman is an androgynous, oversized assemblage of Mr. Samsa’s domineering maleness juxtaposed with Mrs. Samsa’s passive-aggressive female characteristics. The charwoman is herself grotesque as her gender and authority “subversion requires a target” (Booker 87) so she goads Gregor to leave the safety of his room, calling him an “old dung-beetle” and constantly disturbing his peace “for no reason” while he is too “slow and infirm” to protect himself (Kafka 20). Her ogreish appearance and loud, aggressive behaviors traditionally attributed to men, function in his father’s absence to maintain “unbroken power over his son,” and expose Gregor’s view of women as duplicitous, unstable, and by virtue of occupying a position of tacit leadership in the Samsa home, arguably subversive (Preece 35).

Gregor’s role confusion and grief are debilitating and stem from his abjection as the other – the transgressive beast of Grimms’ fables whose “seeping wounds” and “bitter tears” represent both the universal and individual body politic “disrupted…by many forces: violence, death and transformation” in the face of “authoritarian and subversive ideologies in dialogue throughout” his tale (Jorgensen 127). Similarly to banished stepdaughters fed poison apples by “wicked queens” who “demand organs” from huntsmen as proof of death, Gregor is the rejected male heir disgraced and expelled from false Paradise amid a barrage of apples, for the sin of noncompliance with depersonalizing authoritarian edicts. He grows “weaker and weaker” until his father throws a “decayed apple” which lodges painfully in his back (Kafka 24), effectively paralyzing him and mocking his hope of happily-ever-after in Europe’s burgeoning industrial utopia. With each of his father bruising blows, the permanency of Gregor’s alienation and the “crippling effects of unbridled paternal dominance” and socioeconomic indenture become clear (Preece 35). A grotesque and lonely death is inevitable for him as the “tragic, unfortunate creature, yet also likely immortal” (Powell 129) who “playing the martyr” (Kafka 24), releases his maladaptive family forever from the burden of his care by dying. His last autonomous act is to succumb to death, bleeding and blind, leaving the reader alone with a horrifying parting discovery: that Grete is yet another transgressed fairy-tale body in the Samsa family, as her father admires her “well built and beautiful” nubile form, stretching swan-like upon the remaining Samsas’ arrival by tram to “a better location” (Kafka 26).

For Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, degradation of the body by disease and dementia results from transgressing societal sexual mores prohibiting idleness and pedophilia, and he becomes a carnivalesque romantic hero “revealing of or at variance with the cultural norms” of his time (Johnson 83). As an effeminate poet who regards “travel as a hygienic necessity” and admits to being “too much occupied with the duties imposed by his ego” to be “a faithful lover of that gay outside world” (Mann 4), Aschenbach is a caricature of the artist worthy of description as carnivalesque. His rationale for violating ideals of sexual propriety of his time by acting on his pederastic urges – transgressing against his own physical well-being in the process – embodies his ambivalence regarding the buttoned-up (implied sexually repressed) bourgeois social strata from which he ironically benefits as a privileged artist. Proclaiming art to be a form of “war, an exhausting struggle,” he attempts to rationalize away the nagging suspicion that his “masculine and brave” forebears would not have “highly regarded” his lifestyle embracing “that kind of Eros” which has “become his master” (Mann 40).

Creatures of grotesque allure with origins in Greek myth operate as both muse and monster in Gustav’s psychic and visual periphery, as he flees Munich’s hallucinatory phantasms and stone “apocalyptic beasts” signifying “declining resistance” to creative boredom and age. Perhaps worse for the declining artist, his patrician musings also hint at a growing fear of cultural obsolescence as he recalls the ease with which he once “kept the twenty-year-olds breathless with his cynicism about the questionable nature of art and artists” (Mann 9). His increasing susceptibility to fatigue and illness manifest in hallucinatory prefigurations of death as the ever-present specters of war and disease cast “a menacing grimace” over the European continent (1). His precipitous weakening and compulsion to flee his professional and social obligations lays the foundation for Mann’s employment of numerous “fantastic figures and phantasmagorias” (Katkus 2), “mythical manifestations of hybridity” representing the “fluid, transgressive body” or “classical, closed body…broken down into the grotesque, open body” central to the Bakhtinian motif (Arnds 21). Similarly to Kafka’s construction of Gregor Samsa, Mann engages in “intertextual use of folktale and myth” to illustrate Gustav’s “strange distention of the soul” and “juvenile thirst for the distant” (Mann 3) as an act of “protesting against the physical and mental docility prescribed by rationalizing societies in the name of utility and public health” (Arnds 20). While walking through the “increasingly serene paths” of Munich and contemplating a vacation in order to reignite the poet’s “heart of eloquence” within him (1), he encounters the first of many “foreign and far-traveled” apparitions (3) who predict the wayfarer’s “complete loss of peace” (Arnds 22) along the way to his ultimate destruction:

His demeanor — and perhaps his elevated and elevating

standpoint contributed to this impression — was that of cool

survey, audacious, even wild; because, be it that he was

grimacing against the brightness of the setting Sun or that it was

a more permanent physiognomic disfigurement, his lips seemed

too short, the teeth were entirely uncovered, so that they, quite

long and bare to the gums, gleamed white between his lips.”

(Mann 3)

Arnds explains such an intrusive and confrontational visitation as a “manifestation of the trickster archetype” which in fairy tale sits “in the very spot that the harlequin used to occupy in the medieval mystery play – centrally” on the stage of Gustav’s vision, belligerently taking “a position from which he can act and subvert” the weary Aschenbach’s quest for physical and spiritual rejuvenation (22). The “war-like” figure with his iron-tipped walking stick, protruding Adam’s apple, fanged teeth and other attributes of “permanent physiognomic disfigurement” (Mann 3) comprise the “drastically transposed and deformed” body of fairy tales and other “texts of mythical-realism” which translate “the real to the mythical to offer ways of coming to terms with trauma” (Katkus 2). This death figure of classic “Bakhtinian grotesqueness” peers at the ailing artist from behind the “grey zone between the human and the non-human” that is the homeland of carnival’s “cosmic perturbations of the distant past” (Tihanov 5) vivified as ghosts, vampires and other “literary monsters” (Arnds 24).

Similar manifestations of this persistent trickster appear as the “humpbacked sailor” steering Gustav’s ship over “the strip of dirtily iridescent water” in anticipation of leisure, and the smooth-talking “goatish man” with “a cigarette butt between his lips” – literally speaking through both sides of his mouth as he registers foreigners at the pier of the “magnificent city” of Venice (12):

The smooth dispatch of his movements and the empty talk that

accompanied them had something stupefying and distracting,

almost as if he feared the passenger might waver in his

determination to go to Venice. He speedily cashed the money

and let the change fall onto the dirty tablecloth with the dexterity

of a croupier. “Have a nice day, sir!” he said with a thespian bow.

“It is my honor to convey you. . . Next please!”

(Mann 12)

This flattering barker figure “with the physiognomy of an old-fashioned circus director” (11) indicates to the reader that the air of mystery and danger originating in Munich has followed Gustav on his voyage, and now circulates below his feet through Venice’s subterranean canals. The reader shares in Gustav’s epiphany that the man wearing “a bright yellow, excessively fashionable summer suit, red tie, and a boldly bent up Panama hat” is the same war-like ephebe from Munich, now appropriating the “garish dress” of the adolescent boys with whom he keeps company, clownishly popping out his dentures, licking his lips and giving the boys highly sexual “teasing nudges” (12).

Encouraged by the ephebe on the pier who offers him a rose for his “most lovely and beautiful sweetheart” (15) upon his arrival in Venice, and the “mercenary tunes” of the siren-like “musical mendicants,” Gustav pursues Tadzio, a pubescent boy vacationing and staying with his Polish bourgeois family and entourage in the Hotel de Bains. He extends his stay, chasing the boy through Venice with increasing ardor as his behavior becomes essentially predatory. Inverting the fairy-tale trickster motif of the Pied Piper abducting healthy boys for military conscription, Gustav transgresses sexual taboos by feminizing the delicate Tadzio, even entertaining fantasies about his “little Phaecian” sleeping late in bed and enjoying “jewelry, a hot bath and rest” before breakfast (21). On one occasion of stalking he gets close enough to “place his hand upon the crown”of the boy’s head and contemplates warning his “pearl-wearing” mother of the deadly epidemic incubating throughout the city, but “intoxicated” by the boy’s nearness and his own complicity in the city’s deadly secret, stops and declares “I will keep silent!” (47). By his silence, the intemperate artist becomes subversive and grotesque in his own right, no longer only the transgressed but transgressor and destroyer of Tadzio’s young and “docile body” (Arnds 20).

The whispering “rogue” gondolier who conveys Gustav from place to place as he pursues Tadzio is Charon the ferryman of Greek myth, who like the foreigner and ephebe, prefigures Gustav’s death voyage down the river Styx. The ferryman’s deafening hum and vague statements of “you will pay” make him an especially overt and unsettling symbol of Gustav’s paranoia and subliminal death wish (16). The repeat appearances of these grotesquely alluring figures creates a carnivalesque atmosphere of masquerade, their costumes and marred faces offering “complete, if false, messages about identity” and “partial or fragmentary messages” about their purpose (Castle 59). They divert Gustav’s fear and seduce him further from reality, and deeper into the liminal world of decay and death in the watery Venetian underworld.

Even money serves a grotesque purpose in Death in Venice, including the symbolical sealing of Gustav’s fate as he gives the ferryman double the amount of coins others around him are paying, and his spending idle days in the Hades symbolized by the Hotel de Bains, consuming strawberries purchased one evening while following Tadzio, and washed in infected water so he contracts cholera. His gorging on the ripe, red fruits is symbolic of his entrapment in the underworld of Venice, unable to muster “the self-discipline required…to deny and sublimate” his pederastic desires into productive pursuits such as art (Robertson 50). Each episode of hunting Tadzio renders him more exhausted, increasingly liminal in his perceptions, and seemingly oblivious to his own sickness. He continues to deny the growing virulence of the cholera epidemic even after “printed notices…warning the populace of the water in the canals” (38), disappearance of hotel guests “under ambiguous circumstances” (46), and accosting by the freakish lounge entertainer with the “large and nude-looking Adam’s apple” allude to disease and death festering beneath the “disinfectant smell” everywhere he goes (43). The cholera epidemic ravaging Venice, and its concealment by government and merchants renders the city “the Menippean motif of the kingdom of the dead” traditionally associated with “the totalitarian state and its propagandist apparatus” (Katkus 2), but in Death in Venice exposing “the great upheaval of the bourgeois capitalist world-system” (Shookman 114) characterized by the “physical excess and transgression” of Gustav’s tourist experience (Katkus 2).

These death figures, rooted in Jungian/Fryean archetype as well as Greek myth, also act as carnivalesque mockers of the “’antiquated and neurotic underground’ of the German soul” (Robertson 35) which Aschenbach rejects. Through their masquerade as incidental members of the Venetian economic machine, these apparitions are able to function as clandestine extensions of his own psyche, utilizing his “Faustian ‘yearning, hungry unrest for the unattainable’” (35) embodied in the boy Tadzio to lure the artist to destruction through unchecked aesthetic and physical desire. Each phantasm’s disguise “hides something, keeps a secret, deceives” Aschenbach by assuming “a sinister, alienating aspect” which mirrors the “rebellious element” of his own “gay assault on the cultural categories” of the West. Cloaked in their “fragmented and diffused” disguises, their “hallucinatory reversals” of his reality represent the masquerade’s carnivalesque potential for providing “voluptuous release from ordinary cultural prescriptions and a stylized comment on them” (Castle 6). The circus-like Venetian employees and performers like the pederastic “ephebe,” “humpbacked and dirty sailor” (Mann 11) and “part pimp, part gagman” entertainer (Mann 43) reflect Gustav’s closeted homosexual “experiences of multiplicity” and anxiety regarding the adequacy of “both German and broader Western traditions and values” (Johnson 83) to fulfill his aesthetic aspirations. They also personify institutionalized deviance, disease and Death, denied but encouraged by complicit government and commerce which view both the bourgeois and working classes as disposable dual sides of the capitalist Janus coin.

By linking half-animal, half-human figures with their respective protagonists’ death and degradation, both The Metamorphosis and Death in Venice use elements of the carnivalesque and grotesque to demonstrate the body’s “political implications” as the site of “decentered, even dislocated humanism” and societies’ continual “reworking and redrawing…boundaries and cultural taboos” through “the irreverent life of folk (community) culture” (Tihanov 5). The Metamorphosis employs elements of Rabelais’ grotesque open, misshapen, transformed body to convey the trauma and paranoia engendered by Gregor’s “embodied experience” of the traumatized WWI individual (Staiff 213). His is the “metaphoric body” of the rejected son of man and unchecked capitalist society, “the grotesquely” and “severely alienated body” suffering from “the destructive power” of his father and employer which have placed both his future economic security and unique individual “identity at risk” (Ryan 1) for collective gain. Gustav’s embodiment of war, isolation and violence is artistic and more gradual and nuanced than Gregor’s, and facilitated by hedonistic gods and monsters of myth who are both carnivalesque and grotesque, and active agents of his seduction toward a lonely decline and untimely death. Where Gregor’s death is that of the grotesque familial and corporate martyr, Gustav is vulnerable to classification as the grotesque and carnivalesque trickster. By facilitating the destruction of Tadzio’s physical body to gratify his own sexual desire, even going so far as to wear makeup and dye his hair in the hope of being sexually attractive to the child, Gustav himself becomes an ephebe whose “duplicity aligns him with a host of mythological relatives of the Pied Piper as a manifestation of the trickster archetype” displaying “beastliness and satanic nature” (Arnds 22). Both protagonists represent the abject other, disparate casualties of the failed European bourgeois ideal who are at times pitiable, and in Gustav’s case, perverse. Like Shelley’s and Stoker’s gothic “children of the night” (Stoker 14) drained of life even as they “still walk with earthly feet” (34), for Gregor and Gustav intimacy and inclusion are unattainable abstractions, and only the darkness of eternal night brings actualization. It is only through bodily deconstruction and death that each achieves freedom from their unique forms of suffering. In so doing, each serves to “subvert popular notions of romanticism” (Staiff 213) and fairy-tale endings by emerging from behind the mask of the “Miserable One” not rescued or restored to the classical body, but rather immortalized as the doomed man-monster of Menippean satire.

Works Cited

Arnds, Peter. “Of Satires and Satyrs: The Monstrous and the Third Reich in Postmodern Culture About Eastern Europe. Grotesque Revisited: Grotesque and Satire in the Postmodern Literature of Central and Eastern Europe. Ed. Laurynus Katkus.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. 20-25. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World, transl. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington:Indiana University Press, 1984. 19-20. Print.

Bloom, Harold, and Blake Hobby. The Grotesque. New York: Bloom’s Literary, 2009. Criticism. Print.

Booker, M. Keith. Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Transgression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque. Gainesville: U of Florida, 1991. Print. Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-century English Culture and Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1986. Print.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “Quantifying the Grimm Corpus: Transgressive and  Transformative Bodies in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 28.1 (2014): 127-41. JSTOR. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Introduction. Grotesque Revisited: Grotesque and Satire in the Post/modern Literature of Central and Eastern Europe. Ed. Laurynus Katkus. CAm: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. 1-4. Print.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. David Wyllie. N.p.: n.p., 2002. Project Gutenberg., 2005. Web. 1 May 2016.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Ed. Martin C. Doege. Berlin: S. Fischer Verlag, 1912. Web. 10 May 2016.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Netherlands: BRILL, 2011. Google Books. Google. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

Powell, Matthew T. “Bestial Representations of Otherness: Kafka’s Animal Stories.” Journal of Modern Literature 32.1 (2008): 129-42. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2016.

Preece, Julian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Robertson, Ritchie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Ryan, Simon. “Franz Kafka’s “Die Verwandlung”: Transformation, Metaphor, and the Perils of Assimilation.” Seminar 43.1 (2007): 1-18. JSTOR. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein.” (n.d.): n. pag. Planet EBook. Web. 13 May 2016. Shookman, Ellis. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: A Novel and Its Critics. Suffolk:Boydell & Brewer, 2003. Google Books. Google. Web. 15 May 2016.

Staiff, Russell, and Russell Staiff. “Chapter 14 Venice, Desire, Decay and the Travels into the ‘Dark Side.” Travel and Imagination. By Garth Lean. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. 213-25. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1897. Project Gutenberg., 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 May 2016.

Tihanov, Galin. “The Gravity of the Grotesque: Bakhtin’s Dislocated Humanism.” Grotesque Revisited: Grotesque and Satire in the Post/modern Literature of Central and Eastern Europe. Ed. Laurynus Katkus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. 5-17. Print.


Message and Methodology: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Purpose in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

©2 July 2016 Mary Crockford

Mary Wollstonecraft espoused a “moral, regulated liberty” (Burke 12) for women as well as men in a time dominated by the view “that the female pollutes rational debate by allowing a heightened emotionality to get the better of good judgment” (Schulman 43). She did not, however, simply decry this prevailing view, but engaged in a strident “verbal rebellion” against the status quo (45) in her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Vindication, she called upon women “of the different ranks of society” (Wollstonecraft 103) to not only change their sources and thinking in regards to feminine character, but to seek to prove such beliefs wrong by maximizing their intellectual, moral and temperamental constitution through education. It was her assertion that only the adoption of more mature, refined thinking and behavior would elevate their esteem and choices among society through the “attainment of those talents and virtues” and “strength of body and mind” (103) that would render them truly fit to rise up and partake in “the government of the physical world” (104) alongside men in traditionally patriarchal society. Using a “web-like pattern” of interconnected themes or “strands,” Wollstonecraft used the language of relationship and religion to “symbiotically and in concert” advance a series of arguments for the cause of female liberty (Griffin 274), while holding captive an increasingly ubiquitous female and male audience in her call for the elevation of women in public and private life.

Through skillful employment of this multi-strand rhetorical method, as well as her growing “reputation as a radical” in the writing sphere (Griffin 274), Wollstonecraft chastised women of all social strata for helping to foster their own secondary status in society, calling first on “those in the middle class,” to eschew the “false-refinement, immorality, and vanity” which impugned their entire sex as “weak, artificial beings.” She addressed them much as a mother would coddled children living “only…to amuse themselves” and “in a state of perpetual childhood” before and after marriage (103). She further accused them of undermining their own interests and bolstering the view of men as superiorly and solely fit for leadership in public and private life. “Animated by this important subject,” Wollstonecraft with “energetic emotions” but also “force of…arguments” (104) challenged women to cast off the “sickly delicacy” and “false sentiments” of popular reading and entertainments, in favor of self-education and worthwhile pursuits regardless of matrimonial state:

The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly;

yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the

writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them. It is

acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in

acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body

and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of

establishing themselves—the only way women can rise in the world—by

marriage. (Wollstonecraft 104)

By connecting these “strands” of mental enlargement, the body, the marriage relationship, and the world, Wollstonecraft urged her female readers to forsake “much degraded…mistaken notions of female excellence” and “sensual reveries” acquired through romance novels and idle conversation, and awaken to the need to prepare for their rightful intellectual and dialogic position in “the constitution of civil society” (105).

Wollstonecraft did not spare male readers from the “simple unadorned truth” of their role in making of women “insignificant objects of desire” and fertile “propagators of fools” (104). She lamented “the tyranny of man” (104) which through toleration and encouragement of a “puerile kind of propriety” had lowered women to the level of “gentle domestic brutes,” “designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man” (105). While she held women partly to blame for their own societal captivity, she indicts men much more fiercely as earthly tyrants who by virtue of their role as slavemasters, become outcasts of the kingdom of Heaven:

What childish expressions, and how insignificant is the being—can it

be an immortal one?—who will condescend to govern by such

sinister methods! “Certainly,” says Lord Bacon, “man is of kin to the

beast by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a

base and ignoble creature!” (Wollstonecraft 105)

By quoting literary masters of the past who exhorted men to protect women from the dangers of naivete and immorality, Wollstonecraft was not content to merely point out the “very unphilosophical manner” in which the first and following Adams indulged and encouraged women’s subservience in marriage (105); rather, she connected men, both rhetorically and symbolically, to the cause of the Fall itself, and for continuing to allow women to “attain a knowledge of evil” and fall into sin in an effort to secure a husband (106).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in hopes that not only would “a great man arise with sufficient strength to puff away the fumes” of misogyny and female enslavement (109), but that rather than simply wait for him, women themselves would tire of the “overweening sensibility” they had for too long mistaken for virtue and seek their own enlightenment and edification. She urged post-Enlightenment Christians and secularists alike to assist in creating for themselves and their children a “world where sensation will give place to reason” and relationships characterized by “humble mutual love” (109) – a world where men and women were educated, thus joyfully equal. She called upon women “to purify their hearts” and mature beyond “the little vanities of the day,” and upon men to be “wiser than Solomon” and “be made clean” before their wives and families (113). She called upon both to engage in “the serious business” of self-improvement and enlargement of heart and mind so both could enjoy “the blessings of civil governments” (117) and “the sharp invigorating air” of freedom together (116). By weaving together her ideas and arguments with metaphorical connections of female virtue and freedom, and male spiritual and moral fitness, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication has remained effective and relevant centuries later to her intended audience: the whole family of man.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard Classics, 1914.  Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 June 2016.Griffin, Cindy L. “A Web of Reasons: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Re‐weaving of Form.” Communication Studies 47.4 (1996): 272-88. ProQuest Central. Web. 8 June 2016.

Schulman, Alex. “Gothic Piles and Endless Forests: Wollstonecraft between Burke and Rousseau.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41.1 (2007): 41-54. JSTOR. Web. 9 June 2016.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Joseph Black, ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 102-117. Print.

The Disastrous Divisions of King Lear

© January 2015 Mary Crockford

Shakespeare as both poet and playwright had much to say to and about British monarchy. While arguably “an advocate of aristocracy and monarchy” (Farshid 249) if only by virtue of how frequently and diversely he made royalty the subject of his works, his tragedies uniquely depict rulers as teetering on the precipice of failure as a consequence of decisions subversive to vital interpersonal and political power structures. In contrast to Henry V, whom Farshid calls “an astute king who is shrewdly conscious of power relations” and wisely “fortifies the pillars of his sovereign power,’” Shakespeare depicts Lear as “a king who seems to be ignorant of them” (249). Because he lacks understanding of the function of power as either source or spoiler of familial and national security, Lear is a leader in perpetual conflict, internally and externally. As a father, he appears oblivious to the dangers of pitting child against child in a competition for filial affection and inheritance, and ignores the potential consequences of elevating politics and self-interest above his daughters’ well-being, including jeopardizing their future security by bequeathing his holdings to ambitious and greedy men. He is also spiritually double-minded, appealing to divine designation of kingship when it suits him, but then blaming the gods and nature for the problems his decisions and actions cause. But it is his decision to divide his kingdom, by default dividing his household through contrivance of a rivalry between his daughters, which causes him to fail as both monarch and father, and to ultimately destroy every blessing over which he believes heaven grants him stewardship and authority.

As king of Celtic Britain, Lear is accustomed to a political system in which governance takes place “from the top of a hierarchical pyramid…founded on the possession of a large amount of land and the conception of being protected by divine power” (Farshid par. 3). Because of the narcissism inherent in this demigod-like view of monarchy, he displays “the archetypal gangster’s refusal to register the role of others as part of the construct of self-hood” (Griggs 125) and refuses counsel so that his “majesty falls to folly” (Lear 1.1.167). Paradoxically, in spite of his narcissism, as he ages he experiences more frequent “periods of dramatic self-doubt, anxiety and worthlessness” (Segal) which demand constant attention and flattery from those around him to keep his fears and inadequacies at bay. As an aging widower and father, he is also increasingly anxious about his masculine legacy, and parasitically acts to “allay his own anxiety by arousing it in his children” (Greenblatt 1252), a form of emotional vampirism in which sabotaging dependents’ happiness and safety are an acceptable means to avoid confronting his increasingly intolerable emotional, physical and psychological infirmity. Teising describes this paradigm of self-loathing and anxiety transference as “’the narcissistic mortification of an ageing [sic] man’s failure to control what remains enduringly emblematic of his manhood, across time and place,” in Lear’s case his patriarchal identity and control of affairs and persons across his sphere of influence (Teising 2008). While he wishes to retire from the responsibilities and sacrifice of kingship and “Unburdened crawl toward death” (Lear 1.1.43), Lear remains “unwilling to lose his identity as an absolute authority both in the state and in the family” (Greenblatt 1252), in Lear’s own words “The name and all th’addition to a king” (Lear 1.1.152). He calls a meeting purportedly to confer “all cares and business” of the old to the “younger strengths” (1.1.41-42), claiming that by doing so, any “future strife/May be prevented now” in the kingdom (1.1.47-48). In a moment of candor he confesses a “darker purpose” (1.1.37) behind this political action and announces that he will be dividing his kingdom between his three daughters: his oldest daughter Goneril, married to the duke of Albany; Regan, to the duke of Cornwall; and his youngest daughter Cordelia, a young woman of “steadfast honesty” and “sustaining, generous love” who is yet unmarried (Greenblatt 1253), but for whom Lear has arranged two potential suitors. He anticipates that the Duke of Burgundy and King of France will vie first for his favor, then in exchange for Cordelia’s dowry of her third of the kingdom, take her hand in marriage and cement another alliance advantageous to the retiring king. To this end, he stages a public “love test” in which each daughter is commanded to convince him who loves him best, and thus who will receive the “largest bounty” of the kingdom (Lear 1.1.57). It is in this decision that the king’s nature as a divided man is seen in full flower, as he willingly ignites an intra-familial Hobbesian state of war which “inevitably pits humans” – in this case his daughters and sons-in-law – “against one another and makes them not only competitors but enemies” (Slavicek par. 3). It is a test Cordelia fails in Lear’s eyes because her insistence that there is “Nothing” she can say to embellish her love is actually “her refusal to flatter the father she loves” (Greenblatt 1253) with the same feigned obsequium of her sisters. Her simple, sincere statement that “You have begot me, bred me, loved me;/I return those duties back as are right fit” (Lear 1.1.96-97) frustrates Lear’s insatiable need to have his vanity stroked, so he mocks her honest and sincere nature, raging at her, “Thy truth, then, be thy dower!” (1.1.120). In the same breath the spiritually schizophrenic king swears by “The mysteries of Hecate” (the gods) and the “operation of the orbs” (nature) to justify cruelly disowning and banishing his youngest daughter from her home and family (1.1.122-123). He projects onto her his own toxic methods of parenting, and his last words spoken directly to her are an embittered tirade comparing her to a filicidal savage, and as an offspring better unborn:

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee from this, forever. The barbarous Scythian,

Or he that makes his generation messes

To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom

Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved,

as thou my sometime daughter. (Lear, 1.1.114-121)

Lear then heaps similar cruelty onto the Earl of Kent, who as a man of integrity has the audacity to declare “Lear is mad” and challenge the king’s “hideous rashness” for disowning his child (1.1.152). For his just defense of Cordelia, the loyal Kent becomes the next casualty of Lear’s ever present relational sword of Damocles. Lear warns him to “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.124), a foreshadowing of the king’s psychological degeneration beginning with “extreme irritability” and “exhibition of disinhibited thoughts that may be the harbinger of psychosis or his premorbid traits” (Ottilingham). Lear then calls down the wrath of the gods, this time Apollo and Jupiter, to condemn to death the “vassal” and “miscreant” who has in truth been his most faithful adviser (Lear 1.1.185). Kent flees the atmosphere of “banishment” which now permeates Lear’s household, to “shape his old course in a country new” (1.1.189), in soliloquy vowing to return in disguise to serve his master though he “dost stand condemned” (1.4.5-6).

Lear, still hours away from losing all lucidity, is exposed as a man of selectivity in which areas of his life he permits division. His ego-driven decision to base his daughters’ inheritance on them proving who “doth love us most” (1.1.56) is one he happily makes even though it means exploiting his daughters’ desire for security and creating division between them so that he may “Unburdened crawl toward death” (1.1.43). The “us” in Lear’s ultimatum suggests that he sees himself as embodying the three indivisible facets of royal dominion over his fellow humanity and nature, those of “the land, power and kingship, as well as Lear their father” (Lee 274). Though Lear attempts to humiliate Cordelia by stripping her of his affection and her dowry, the duke of Burgundy protests to Lear that “she herself is a dowry” (Lear 1.1.278). The king of France admires Cordelia’s unimpeachable character, and in being freed from her father’s tyranny, declares that she is “most rich, being poor” (1.1.290) and takes her as his wife. Lear, finding no catharsis in Cordelia’s rejection into the arms of the king of France, proves that his divisiveness and instability are as ingrained in his method of parenting as they are in his method of rule; a fact confirmed by Goneril’s declaration that “he always loved our sister most” (1.1.336), and Regan’s confirmation that he “hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.340). Lear proposes an absurdly Solomonesque division of the last remaining tangible signifier of kinghood, his crown, between Cornwall and Albany, thereby conscripting both his sons-in-law into his familial war with a farcical exercise in “the impossibility to divide absolute power…represented by the ‘coronet’” (Slavicek 4). In asking Cornwall and Albany to break the crown in half, the object “necessarily becomes the bone of contention” (Slavicek 4) between the two households Lear now expects to live in on alternate months for the rest of his life.

As his cruel rejection and banishment of Cordelia illustrates, the one thing Lear seems slow to divide is truth from deception when it comes to the true natures of his daughters. His pattern of filial sacrifice extends to scapegoating Goneril for all his failed fatherly miseries, even going so far in his rage to preemptively cut off his future grandchildren from his favor by cursing her with barrenness:

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility.

Dry up in her the organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honor her. (Lear 1.4.291-295)

Clearly, in Lear’s view females are of the more treacherous gender. He curses Goneril that if in spite of his curse she were to become pregnant she would bear a daughter, a “child of spleen” (Lear 1.4.296) as ill-tempered and ungrateful as she is who will “turn all her mother’s pains and benefits/To laughter and contempt, that she may feel/How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child” (1.4.300-303). He is slower to see the faults of his “reptilian daughter” Regan (Greenblatt 1253) whom he swears “shalt never have my curse ” (Lear 2.4.192-194) and who, on his behalf, will “flay the wolvish visage” of the newly delegitimized Goneril (1.4.325). When Regan enters Goneril’s home moments later, Lear continues in his denial of Regan’s true character with his “good hope” (2.4.215) that his middle daughter had no knowledge of the stocking of his disguised servant, Kent. Only the intervention of Goneril to effect a united front against their father distracts Lear from Regan’s exposure as guilty of the offense against her father’s authority.

Violent animal imagery “running throughout the play suggests an obsession with the act of ingratitude,” and Lear’s belief in “a contrast between actions of humans and the natural world in terms of ethics” (Jafari 120). Comparisons of Goneril to a “sea-monster” (Lear 1.4.272), “detested kite” (1.4.274), and the sharp-toothed serpent equate her with “animals known for their ferociousness and preying” (Jafari 120). To Kent he calls Goneril and Regan “pelican daughters” (Lear 3.4.1) after “a bird that was believed to feed his young with its blood” (Jafari 120), intimating that they have cannibalized their father. Even the only source of wisdom Lear hearkens to, his “all-licensed fool” (1.4.206) calls both daughters “she-foxes” (3.6.24) and warns Lear that Goneril would devour him, like a brood-parasitizing bird allowed to dominate its unrightful nest too long: “For you know, nuncle,/The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,/That it’s had it head bit off by it young./So out went the candle, and we were left darkling” (1.4.220-23). The so-called fool’s observation rightly points out “not only a sharp and crude image of ingratitude, but it is also an image of Lear’s own foolishness, his misjudgment, his improvident helplessness, and his egoistic blindness” – all character traits which contribute to his abject failure as a father. His “daughters are human beings, yet cruel as beasts, lacking any sense of sympathy” for him, and as such are “throwbacks in the evolutionary process who have not developed proper humanity” so are little more than animals (Jafari 120). Lear pleads with the gods overseeing the natural world he finds so heartless to “Make it your cause./Send down and take my part” (2.4.220) but it is Regan who takes her sister’s part and the two mock their father’s growing “dotage” or senility (2.4.226). Relishing their father’s humiliation, the daughters unilaterally “negotiate” down the number of knights they will allow Lear to keep should he reside with them each month, systematically decimating the ranks of his retinue from the original 100 down to none. The “she-foxes” through trickery and badgering, succeed in stripping the king of this last remnant of military command and membership in the warrior male community, and Lear the archetypal gangster “is cast out into a parallel wilderness, a castrated patrician for whom death is the only natural progression” (Griggs 129), thus freeing them from responsibility for his care.

The role of nature is critical to the Lear narrative, at times forcing characters forward and placing them in varying degrees at its mercy. Following the banishment of Lear and his unruly retinue from the houses of Albany and Cornwall, Gloucester announces that Lear is “in a high rage” (Lear 2.4.338), “calls to horse” (2.4.340), and has ridden into “the high winds” battering Albany’s castle walls (2.4.343). The horse becomes a metaphorical vehicle for Lear’s final departure from his daughters’ hearts and homes and into the harsh outer world of nature. His call for the animal is also the last of his orders to be obeyed before he is stripped naked of his kingly vestments by the madness he encounters in the torrential downpour.

Lear’s experience on the storm-battered heath mirrors the chaos of his declining mental state. The storm is not only symbolic of the chaos in the king’s mind, but of the outward “chaos that is the by-product of his own faults” (Jafari 120) which results in the downfall of his monarchy and family. The storm’s timing and severity eerily coincide with Regan’s callous and vindictive statement to Gloucester disregarding the dangers of the storm to her elderly and obviously mentally unbalanced father: “O sir, to willful men/The injuries that they themselves procure/Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (2.4.346-48). The storm raging outside reflects the continuing chaos indoors, as the fragile detente between Goneril and Regan begins to fracture as each learns of the other’s affair with Edmund, Gloucester’s “bastard son” who has divided his own family by falsely accusing Edgar of planning their father’s murder. But temporarily, the sisters’ shared purpose of separating their father from his wealth and influence supersedes dividing their ranks of two over their shared lust for Edmund.

When Kent effects a rescue of Lear and brings him into the shelter of a farmhouse, Lear’s madness accelerates and he undertakes “a mock trial of his daughters in absentia” (Ottilingham) with only an “honorable assembly” of Edgar, the fool and Kent in attendance (Lear 3.6.51). As judge he arraigns Goneril then Regan in the person of an empty chair, and hallucinates of his dead dogs that Mack calls “phantoms of Lear’s deteriorating mind” which illustrate that “Lear feels lower than a dog now” himself (270). To allay the anger and grief of the mad king, Edgar proposes “thus throwing my head” to beat back the barking hounds Lear imagines he sees and hears (Lear 3.6.75), metaphorically offering his sympathy and sounder mind to vanquish all symbolic “dogs” who have declared “open season on King Lear” (Mack 270). Gloucester enters and tells Kent he has “o’erheard a plot of death” on the king, and urges him to take Lear to Dover where there they will “meet both welcome and protection” (Lear 3.6.98). In a morbid duplication of Lear’s mock prosecution of his daughters, Gloucester is seized by Cornwall and Regan, who calls him an “ingrateful fox” (3.7.33) and punishes him for helping Lear by having the “vile jelly” of his eyes gouged out (3.7.101). His world now “all dark and comfortless,” Gloucester calls out for Edmund to “enkindle all the sparks of nature” to save him and Lear (3.7.103-105). Regan reveals Edmund’s complicity and to fully avenge his friendship to her father, orders that Gloucester too be “thrust out at gates” to blindly “smell his way to Dover” (3.7.113-14).

The arrival of Cordelia’s company from France finds the mad Lear still one to endanger his subjects, this time for the sake of retaining the makeshift crown he weaves of weeds and flowers. He forces his rescuers to give chase, leaving Gloucester alone, blind and bleeding from the eye sockets, and precipitating a skirmish between Edgar and Oswald, who desires the bounty on Gloucester’s life. Edgar kills Oswald, saving his blind father’s life and learning of Edmund’s complicity in Goneril’s conspiracy to kill Lear. Though Lear had regularly cursed the gods for his unhappiness and suffering, Cordelia blesses and entreats them to help her father, who in his dementia is “mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,/Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds” (4.4.3-4). In compassion she mourns the physical and mental degeneration of a once powerful, proud and self-sufficient man:

All you unpublished virtues of the earth,

Spring with my tears. Be aidant and remediate

In the good man’s distress. Seek, seek for him,

Lest his ungoverned rage dissolve the life

That wants the means to lead it. (Lear 4.5.118-22)

Out on the heath, the leviathan of the state embodied in the king collides even more violently with “nature’s subversiveness in the form of monstrosity” (Lee 275) that gives truth to Lear’s earlier complaint that “Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” (Lear 2.4.307), or as Hobbes put it, “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” (58). But Lear’s experience in the harsh wilderness is not one of immediate death or violence or even abandonment, as he is in fact united with three of the play’s most sympathetic characters: Kent, the now-blind Gloucester, and Gloucester’s banished son Edgar. In such an unprotected and hostile space, soaked by rain and with his only known subject the blinded but loyal Gloucester, that Lear comes face to face with his own blindness to the superficiality of his intemperate knights, former yes-men who like “Goneril with a white beard” flattered him “like a dog” (4.6.115-16) but are nowhere to be found in his time of abject bodily need:

To say “ay”

and “no” to everything that I said “ay” and “no”

to was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me

once and the wind to make me chatter, when the

thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I

found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are

not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.

Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof. (Lear 4.6.117-24)

As a horse had carried him away from Regan and Cornwall’s castle, Lear is driven by the storm toward revelations of his own human weakness and fallibility, and that “he can neither construct nor recover his own kin(g)ship [sic]” (Hecq 24). His monarchal delusions of near-godhood now a mockery, the king now crowned in wilted weeds must also face his legacy of poor judgment, including having taken for granted and often abused those who truly loved him. In ironic commiseration with the suicidally depressed Gloucester, Lear admits that his adulterous friend’s “bastard son was kinder to his father/than my daughters got ‘tween the lawful sheets” (4.6.133-4). His lucidity all but gone, Lear alternates between moments of disorientation and kindness to both Tom and Gloucester, tantrums at the gods, and misogynist fantasies of women as centaurs whose reproductive parts conceal “the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” of hell (4.6.143). Dirty, chilled and damp with his own excretions as well as from the rain, he can no longer distance himself from the degradation of his physical body as even the hand he grabs his crotch with “smells of mortality” (4.6.148). In one of the play’s gentler ironies, Lear, the sighted man long blinded by his own arrogance has seen the folly of his ways, and exhorts the physically blinded Gloucester that a wiser “man may see how this world/ goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears” (4.6.165-66). Still torn between a deposed king’s self-pity and a father’s regret, Lear would actually change places with Gloucester, saying “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes” (4.6.194).

Lear’s most meaningful chance for redemption comes with Cordelia’s arrival, in a rare lucid admission that his betrayal of his youngest daughter was his gravest and most regrettable mistake: “Pray you now, forget, and forgive. I am old and foolish” (4.7.98-99). When both are captured, Lear again asks his daughter’s forgiveness, in his dementia believing the gods and stars he previously railed against would now grant him favor, and that nature would replace Lear’s persecutory beasts with those disposed to kindness toward him and the daughter of his rejection:

So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—

And take upon ’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out,

In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones

That ebb and flow by th’ moon. (Lear 5.3.12-20)


The “stage of fools” (4.6.201) Lear chuckles about on the heath while “preaching” to Gloucester suggests the king, if lucid at that moment, remains callously detached from the immense human suffering precipitated by his “injudicious decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters” (Farshid 249). On Lear’s stage, the king is put out to die in the wilds of his own kingdom, as are his truest friends, one of whom must serve him in disguise or be banished yet again; his fool is hanged while prophesying; Gloucester, a superstitious stargazer once as blind to the natures of his own children as Lear, no longer has eyes; Edmund, a bastard supplanter who stole Edgar’s rightful duchy and imprisoned Cordelia and Lear, dies in trial by combat by his “mad” brother’s sword; and Cornwall is mortally wounded in a duel with one of Gloucester’s servants; Goneril poisons the alcoholic Regan’s wine then kills herself, heartbroken over a self-confessed lecher; and Albany, wise too late to his wife’s adultery and otherwise “Most barbarous, most degenerate” nature (4.2.53), can not save Lear or Cordelia from the destruction that Edmund and the king’s two “Tigers, not daughters” have set in motion (4.2.49).

That Lear’s internal chaos is “initiated by his misjudgments, empowered by his wrath and rage, and spirals down to his fall by his alienation from the human world” (Jafari 120) is enough to make Shakespeare’s King Lear a tragedy. But the far-reaching external effects of his decisions for everyone around him makes his tale a tragedy of cosmic proportions for its scope and degree of human suffering. It is difficult if not impossible to identify a catharsis in a tale in which a father banishes his daughter, who is then imprisoned and hanged after attempting to rescue him and forgiving the unforgivable. It is almost as difficult to locate a satisfactory nexus for labeling King Lear a cautionary tale, for it contains a number of solemn warnings – against pride, vanity, anger and numerous other hamartias that each on their own would prove disastrous for Lear. But his precipitating decision to elevate vanity and pride over the future wellbeing of his family by dismembering his kingdom, highlights the fallacy of a human being believing that as monarch and man he is “invested with all the transferred power” of the state and exists “outside the ambit of contractual parties” (Slavicek 1), so that love and land can be rightly “manipulated and distributed for political/personal purposes” (Lee 274). For Lear not to understand that “it is foul for a royal father to request love in exchange for a portion of his kingdom” is an indication of how profoundly depraved he is and chooses to remain, though it is clear he is losing everyone and everything he claims to care about. That “Goneril’s and Regan’s sweet flattering helps them get part of his territory” (Lee 274), while Cordelia is rejected for refusing to do the same, suggests a perverse capacity to blur the lines between parenting and power, so that Lear’s relationship with his daughters has misogynistic and even incestuous qualities. That one daughter is poisoned by another, one commits suicide and one is assassinated is not a legacy that any responsible, sane father can disclaim. “Mad” Lear, far from ensuring the future peace and prosperity of his kingdom, subjects and family, is a tyrant and gangster masquerading as king. His willingness to create “disarray in family relationships and in the state” (Lee 274) for his own gratification results not in progress and protection, but heartbreaking ruin to both.

Works Cited:

Farshid, Sima. “Divergent Monarchs in Henry V and King Lear.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 1.16 (2011): n. pag. Center for Promoting Ideas (CPI). Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “King Lear.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. New York: Norton, 2012. 1251-1254. Print.

Griggs, Yvonne. “‘Humanity Must Perforce Prey upon Itself like Monsters of the Deep’: King Lear and the Urban Gangster Movie.” Adaptation 1.2 (2008): 121-39. Web. 3 Jan. 2016.

Hecq, Dominique. “Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: The Name-of-the-Father in King Lear.” Colloquy 13 (May 2007): 24-33. Arts Online. Monash University. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Trans. Jonathan Bennett. (2010): 1-76. Early Modern Texts. Web. 2 Jan. 2016.

Lee, Chin-Ching. “From Nature/Culture Dyad to Ecophobia: A Study of King Lear.” Linguistics and Literature Studies 3.6 (2015): 271-77. HRPub. Horizon Research Publishing. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Routledge, 2013. Google Books. Google. Web. 04 Jan. 2016.

Ottilingham, Somasundaram. “The Psychiatry of King Lear.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 49.1 (2007): 52-55. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Medknow Publications. Web. 01 Jan. 2016.

Segal, Lynne. “Chapter 4: The Circus of (male) Ageing: Philip Roth and the Perils of Masculinity.” Ed. Stephen Frosh. Psychosocial Imaginaries: Perspectives on

Temporality, Subjectivities and Activism. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. N. pag. Google Books. Google. Web. 30 Dec. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Lear.” Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. (n.d.): n. pag. Folger Digital Texts. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 31 Dec. 2015.

Slavicek, David Jan. “The Hobbesian State of War in Shakespeare’s King Lear.” Lecture University of Zurich, 2005. English Language and Literature Studies (2001): 1-10. Print.

Teising, Martin. “Narcissistic Mortification of Ageing Men.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 88.6 (2008): 1329-344. Wiley Online Library. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.

Resolving Elizabethan Ambiguities in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus”

© January 2015 Mary Crockford

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is hardly alone among would-be literary “heroes who passionately seek power” (Greenblatt) at the expense of wisdom and morality. Faustus is indeed “a morally barren scholar who rejects divinity in favor of the seductive power of Lucifer,” but to stop there would be to miss how brilliantly Marlowe’s problematic hero personifies the “tension between a Medieval scholastic mindset, based upon religious faith, and the new Renaissance humanist ethos, based upon the pursuit of secular knowledge” (Duxfield 2). Faustus’ famous plea to Mephistopheles, “Resolve me of all ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will?” (Marlowe 1.80) is interpreted by Duxfield as the doctor’s quest for his own unification through acquiring “unequivocal knowledge and a unified understanding of the world” (par. 2). King sees Faust as “a Marlovian and a Renaissance hero” in that “he is strong, proud, and is prepared to take on great forces in order to push the boundaries of his existence” (par. 1). Others like Kostic reference Faustus first as an actual historical figure, a “wicked, cheating, unlearned doctor” as “renowned for his great skill…in chiromancy, necromancy, physiognomy, visions in crystal” and similar dark arts as for his medical skill (Marlowe 209-210). Whatever balance of real or imagined the good doctor is, the centrality of Marlowe’s rendering of the Faustian motif lies in the spiritual price his protagonist is willing to pay for the knowledge he believes will enable him to reach his full potential. The play’s very premise is the problem of rejecting divinity and mastering the world at “the inevitable price of eternal damnation,” so that Faustus’ “contradictory world” is “entirely resistant to unification” (Duxfield par. 2) and he is doomed to failure. But when viewed as a mirror onto Elizabethan society, Faustus is not simply an unsavory, irredeemable tragic hero, but a playwright’s brilliant attempt to make his audience conscious of “the profound ideological and political fracture current in England during the latter part of the sixteenth century” (Duxfield 2).

Faustus’ ambivalence manifests as equal measures of intellectual boredom and arrogance when he “bids farewell to each of his studies” in the play’s opening soliloquy (Greenblatt). That these areas of study are academic ones – logic, medicine and law – is purposeful on Marlowe’s part, as these areas were at the forefront of inquiry for Elizabethan humanists. The practice of medicine seems pointless to Faust, because while he might “heap up gold” (Marlowe 1.15) and cure “a thousand desperate maladies,” a physician can not be “on earth as Jove” (1.76) and “make men to live eternally” (1.23-25). He finds the study of law pedantic so best left to a class of “mercenary drudge/Who aims at nothing but external trash” (1.35-36). By virtue of his superior rhetorical gifts, he argues well and has mastered the works of Aristotle, so in his mind he has achieved “logic’s chiefest end” (1.9-10). For a society which was itself debating how to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of “the admirable Renaissance urge for human endeavor” and the orthodox Christian belief in “the fearful and just punishment of a faithless heretic,” Faustus’ conversations with the devil were not simply entertainment, but vicarious dialoguing through art on issues central to the “religio-historical context” of the period (Duxfield 3).

The theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, still prominent even though Elizabethans “had seen the nation change its official religion three times,” runs through the play (Duxfield 2), suggesting that Marlowe considered spiritual and earthly concerns relevant for the individual and British society. Faustus’s desire to “ransack the ocean for orient pearl,/And search all corners of the new-found world/For pleasant fruits and princely delicates” (Marlowe 1.83-85) points the finger of judgment not at a fictional character with symbolic appetites and damnation at stake, but at a very real British Empire culpable in matters of economic and political expansionism having far-reaching effects on the community of man. Faustus’ misogynistic casting of “a plague” on wives, preference for “a hot whore” and “fairest courtesans” in his bed, and view of marriage as “but a ceremonial toy,” (5.142-147), reflect the fragile feminist discourse in which Elizabethan women rejected the angel/whore dichotomy and sought to become equal partakers in the intellectual, aesthetic and sexual explorations taken for granted by Renaissance men. Faust’s delving into “demonstrations magical” (1.151), rejection of “wise Bacon’s and Albanus’ works” and disdain for the divine law of “The Hebrew Psalter and New Testament” (1.155-6) are just the first steps into his long and excruciating descent from a man “grac’d with learning’s golden gifts” to one who has “fix’d the love of Belzebub” (5.13) and refused “Contrition, prayer, repentance” (5.18) so many times that he is irrevocably lost. One could suppose that Marlowe, in portraying Faustus’ inevitable destruction, either intended or stumbled upon the lesson his failed hero refused to learn – that humility and wisdom, found only in man’s right relationship to God, are in truth the only rational foundation from which Renaissance society could exercise its newborn “golden gifts” of learning and unify and preserve itself.

Works Cited:

Duxfield, Andrew. “”Resolve Me of All Ambiguities:” Doctor Faustus and the Failure to Unify.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (Oct. 2007): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “Dr. Faustus.”The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2012. 1127. Print.

King, Neil. “A Heroic Engagement with the Supernatural — Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” eMagazine 45 (2009): 26-28. Isle of Wight College. Web. 02 Jan. 2016.

Kostic, Milena. “The Faustian Motif in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.”Linguistics and Literature 7.2 (2009): 209-22. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” Harvard Classics. 2nd ed. Vol. 19. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. N. pag., 2001. Web. 01 Jan. 2016.

Death, Devotion and Deliverance – The Meditations and Sermons of John Donne

by Mary Crockford

While Renaissance poet John Donne’s foray into solemn religious writing had its beginnings during his years of law practice, during which time he was also “employed by religious pamphleteer Thomas Morton” (Jokinen par. 8), it was his ongoing battles with life-threatening illness that inspired him to pen his private meditations, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in 1624. Donne’s “preoccupation with the instability of life and the ruthless perpetuity of death” (Fomeshi 77) led him to write “a powerful psychological analysis” of his own mortality in which he “alternates descriptions of bodily decay and medicinal treatment with broader thoughts on the human condition and prayers for spiritual healing” (Fomeshi 79). In Meditation XVII of Devotions Donne penned one of his most famous phrases, which would later be adapted by Ernest Hemingway for his novel “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” in which Donne depicts death as a “bell tolling softly for another” (Death’s Duel) but which each hearer must also answer himself:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. (Donne, Meditation XVII par. 1).

As a man of sorrows “crucified to the world” (Jokinen 10) after the death of his wife and last child to childbirth, dual meanings and connotations such as this were prominent in Donne’s meditations and sermons, and lent emotional depth and multiplicity of meaning as they did in his poetry. While having renounced the Catholic faith of his upbringing many years before, in Meditation XVII Donne nonetheless acknowledges the Christian church as small-c “catholic” and “universal,” so that “all that she does belongs to all” (Donne par. 1). He portrays life as a book, connoting the opening of God’s Book of Life in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, in which Donne saw man’s life as a chapter. As Divine Translator, God not only reveals the meaning of man’s life through experiences of suffering, but does so for the purpose of uniting all members of the suffering church in identification with the crucified and risen Christ:

God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; (Donne par. 1)

Kelly describes Donne’s religious writing as “like the seasons…cyclical in nature, ending up where it began” (par. 2) so it is fitting to the subject of cycles of life and death, and human interconnectedness.  Meditation XVII also contains Donne’s other famous line, “No man is an island,” reflecting Donne’s belief in the church as a body united in suffering who “share in a common humanity” (Kelly par. 1).  While sick and dying in body, he viewed his own affliction as treasure to be valued as one being “matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction” (Donne par. 4).

Donne’s sermons, like his meditations, are rich in the poet’s metaphysical language and imagery. Fomeshi describes them as “intense explorations of the themes of divine love and of the decay and resurrection of the body” (79). In Death’s Duel, Donne’s last sermon presented during Lent in 1631, the metaphysical poet-preacher “effectively conducted his own funeral,” his own translation from physical to divine form, just weeks before his “death from stomach cancer” (79). In the sermon, Donne imagines himself locked in a duel with death, a violent predicament in which he “tries to find a solution to conquer and defeat” it (Zhang & Wang 861). Donne credits God with ultimate sovereignty over “all issues of death” (Death’s Duel, Introduction) and “sees hope in salvation and immortality” through “death’s eventual defeat through resurrection” (Targoff 156). For Donne the widower and father of numerous children who died young, dying — the process of freeing the temporal vessel from the bondage of a sin-sick world — is cruel and begins at birth:

Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age, and age also dies and determines all. Nor do all these, youth out of infancy, or age out of youth, arise so, as the phoenix out of the ashes of another phoenix formerly dead, but as a wasp or a serpent out of a carrion, or as a snake out of dung. Our youth is worse than our infancy, and our age worse than our youth. Our youth is hungry and thirsty after those sins which our infancy knew not; and our age is sorry and angry, that it cannot pursue those sins which our youth did; and besides, all the way, so many deaths, that is, so many deadly calamities accompany every condition and every period of this life, as that death itself would be an ease to them that suffer them. (Donne, Death’s Duel)

As preacher at St. Paul, Donne felt his calling was that of a prophet, who like St. Paul and St. Peter “preached Christ to have been risen without seeing corruption” thus bringing man’s only hope, deliverance to incorruptibility through death (Death’s Duel). Thus victory in the duel against “distempered and diffident death” was a metaphysical one, achieved by sublimation through the “dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave,” culminating  in “ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared…with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood” (Death’s Duel). Donne’s meditations and sermons offered to his parishioners , and for generations of readers since, an honest acknowledgement of the mortal’s duel with death – tempered by his own hope that through resurrection, its cruel sufferings hold no lasting power.

Works cited:

Donne, John. Death’s Duel or A Consolation of the Soul Against the Dying Life and Living Death of the Body. N.p.: n.p., n.d.University of Adelaide Library. University of Adelaide, 17 Dec. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII. N.p.:n.p., n.d. Luminarium. Aniina Jokinen. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Fomeshi, Behnam Mirzababazadeh. “The Concept of Death in John Donne and Sohrab Sepehri: A Comparative Study.” K@ta 15.2 (2013): 77-83. Open Access K@ta. Shiraz University, 3013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Jokinen, Anniina. “The Life Of John Donne (1572-1631).” Luminarium. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Kelly, Liam. “‘Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span…'” The Furrow  57.5 (2006) 300-302. JSTOR.  St. Patricks’ College, 2006. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Targoff, R. (2008). John Donne, body and soul. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Zhang, D. & Wang, D. (2011). “Death image in divine meditations of John Donne.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 1, 861-864.



Queen of Denial — The Mentally Ill Matriarch in Lessing’s “The Grass is Singing”

The corrupted monarch is nearly a trope in the literary sphere, from biblical examples such as the reign of King Ahab, to fictionalized historical accounts such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s MacBeth. In all these examples, kings are raised to and deposed from the throne through familial manipulation, betrayal and even murder. Corrupted queenship is often portrayed secondarily, though corruption is as much a characteristic of Queen Jezebel, Oedipus’ mother and wife Jocasta, and the Lady MacBeth, as it is in their respective husbands. Subversion of traditional gender roles, and established systems of secrecy encourage the corruption of these royal females, who capitalize on their husband’s weaknesses and engage in emotional and psychological manipulation, while these patriarchs adopt a passive or subservient role in order to appease their wives. This gender-subversive dynamic is portrayed in Doris Lessing’s post-colonial trauma novel The Grass is Singing in the case of Mary Turner, whose repressed childhood sexual trauma leads her to undermine her husband’s masculinity and rule of his failing plantation, resulting in devastating consequences as their marriage deteriorates into chaos, mental illness, adultery, and ultimately murder.

Denial of trauma is a foundational theme in Lessing’s novel. Mary’s life unfolds through an agonizingly slow and foreboding series of flashbacks, beginning when she is found murdered. T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” as the novella’s epigraph, reflects not only the “shattered and scattered images” and “fragmented state of the urbanized soul” of Lessing’s post-colonial Rhodesia, but also of the “desacralized environment” of Mary’s body and mind as she lays battered and broken on her doorstep (Berry par. 1). Eliot’s imagery of “tumbled graves,” lifeless “dry bones,” and an abandoned chapel foreshadow the mute interment of matters of great psychological consequence to Lessing’s troubled protagonist. Even before the reader is introduced to her whole back story, it is obvious that personally and geographically, Mary’s life has been one of isolation and abjection drawn along economic, gender and racial lines. White neighbors lived “at great distances from each other” and while supposedly “usually grateful for something to talk about,” her death is labeled “a very bad business” that is best “forgotten as soon as possible.” The community approaches her story, like those of natives who “steal, murder or attack women” (Lessing 7), as “the business of white people” to be “cleared up cleanly and quickly” (8).

Events of Mary’s impoverished childhood lay the foundation for post-traumatic stress disorder in adulthood, as she is conditioned to minimize and repress traumatic events for the sake of everyday survival. She assumes a surrogate caretaker role for her parents, a common coping strategy for children growing up in families characterized by addiction and abuse. Her first encounters with industry are those of “always running across to bring some dried fruit or some tinned fish” from the neighborhood shop for her mother, the same shop that she would later see as “the place her father bought his drink” (Lessing 15). Such patterns affirm a blurring of roles with those of her parents, which escalate as her mother fails to protect Mary from her sexually abusive father, whose abuses are revealed in Mary’s nightmares of forced oral copulation:

Again she was playing. This time her father caught her head and held it

against the top of his legs with his small hairy hands to cover her eyes,

laughing and joking about her mother hiding. She could smell the unwashed

maleness that he father always smelt of. (Lessing, 47)

Mary’s trauma grows increasingly somatic as she enters her teenage years, subverting her ability to engage with male peers as she remembers other occasions when her father “touched her with desire” (Lessing 47). These experiences of subversion of her feminine agency are symptomized through detachment from female peers, and she is unable even in friendship to breach the barriers to intimacy erected by her father’s sexual violation. She views other women’s dating and sexual experiences “with interest and amazement,” marveling “that she had no such problems,” and seems “not to care for men” (16). This embodiment of “low sexual interest and few close relationships” (Yuan et al., par. 8) is a common response to child sexual abuse as “a violent act on the individual’s well-being” (par. 5), as is subconsciously seeking sexual insulation through superficial androgyny or nondescript clothing so as not to be noticed. Mary adopts this coping strategy, changing “her hairstyle and wearing suits to work,” further subverting her own femininity in order to fit professionally and interpersonally into the Euro-colonial “world of men and women living with gender stereotypes” that she is poorly equipped to navigate (Samuel par. 9). She flees in terror from her only boyfriend when sexual potentials emerge and he kisses her, leaving her “disgusted to have him so close” (17). She capitulates to assumptions from others that she “should marry someone much older than herself,” even “someone old enough to be her father,” and she marries Dick, a hermitic farmer and father figure of similarly repressive sexual tendencies toward women (17). It is obvious to readers that Mary is unsuited to Dick, who is burdened with a great deal of debt and while liking Mary, “hates cinemas” and is “uncomfortable with women wearing trousers” (19). After her marriage, none of Mary’s acquaintances from town visit, and love is never mentioned between her and her passive husband. Mary’s precipitous self-exile from an otherwise satisfying single life, along with the reality of the farm’s failure and her own isolation, represent a cataclysmic amplification of her childhood trauma, and she is distressed over her distance from anyone familiar or related to her former life. In such isolation, Mary’s symptoms of borderline personality disorder become magnified, and her “enduring patterns of instability in relationships, goals, values, and mood” and other “maladaptive and inflexible personality traits” interfere with her ability to function as mistress of Dick’s farm (Yuan et. al par. 10). She projects blame upon him for her decision to give up her former life, and engages in passive-aggressive actions to enact revenge. In one instance she purchases a book on beekeeping and sets it before him, then resents his pursuit and failure in the husbandry operation:

He took some of the workers away from their usual jobs and sent them

looking for bees every evening. When they were unable to find any,

though, he began to lose interest, and Mary was amazed and angry to

think of all the time and money that had been wasted. (Lessing 29)

In response to his failure at an enterprise she’d presented in the first place, Mary retreats further into isolation in the farmhouse, a crumbling symbolic castle which becomes a monument to her growing unhappiness. Even the new shop Dick opens, rather than representing a hope for reversal of the couple’s fortunes, reminds her “of the unhappiness of village life as a child” and she sabotages its success rather than suffer the affront of “selling things to dirty natives” (Lessing 30). She channels her growing resentment for what she perceives as his manifold failures into nagging him to exchange his sentimental love of the land for her financial motives, deepening her subversion of his masculine role as husband and master of the farm. She also scapegoats the kaffirs, black servants she “had been forbidden to speak to” and taught to “fear…from a very early age” (22). This culturally ingrained ethos, along with her misery over Dick’s sentimentalism and failures in business, reinforce Mary’s feelings of powerlessness over men, even those subordinate to her. Her hostility and fear reach a fevered pitch and her mistreatment of servants escalates into “the ultimate act of violence” in her role as farm mistress (Samuel par. 18), and she whips the field servant, Moses. This usurpation of Dick’s master role render him an emasculated king, sealing a tacit, MacBethian marriage pact in which Derek Cohen states the “sensitive ‘femaleness’” in her husband’s nature is “visibly belied by her brutality,” and Lessing’s readers are “left in gender limbo” as to who is masculine and who is not (Samuel par. 17). Subsequent bouts of malaria leave Dick not just physically but also emotionally weakened, and as he stays away from the house for longer periods to escape Mary’s increasingly problematic behavior, and it becomes obvious that his kingly troth is to his land and not to his queen. Like Lady MacBeth, it appears at first that Mary has become “stronger than her husband,” but due to her pervasive sense of isolation and having “no way to release the intense feelings” within her, “her defenses begin to fail” and her behavior grows increasingly erratic (Timberman par. 7). Her alienation from Dick, her growing sexual attraction to her house servant Moses, and her racist ideology lead her to use Moses as an instrument of vengeance against all she perceives as wrong with her white, patriarchal urban society. By virtue of her awareness of the colonial “fear of powerful women” that keeps Dick from the house (Samuel par. 20), and her disdain for the native laborers, Mary coopts Moses as a sexual surrogate. She adopts a Jezebel persona, dressing for company in “a red cotton dress and brightly colored earrings of the kind the natives liked so much” and speaking in a “girlish manner” (Lessing 50) which irritates but does not galvanize her weak Ahab, Dick. As failed monarchs, both she and Dick suffer from a degree of cognitive dissonance revealed in their surroundings through torn curtains, broken and dirty dishes, and pitiful food stores that expose the disheveled state of their marriage and home. On rare occasions when visitors come, they find Mary “a little mad” and “crazy” (Lessing 50), and are only marginally sympathetic toward Dick, whose wife has unwittingly upheld the European male’s belief that “women are a dangerous presence” in white colonial society (Samuels par. 20).

Mary is not only psychologically and emotionally alienated from the people around her, but internally is disconnected from her own humanity and from nature itself. Her cumulative trauma and lack of resolution recall Eliot’s Wasteland, as her mind and body become the site of “a form of incarceration” in which urbanization “works to alienate its populace from the non-human world” so that the individual is “locked inside the body as if this were a form of punishment” (Berry par. 1). This urbanization takes the form of repeated, escalated invasions of Mary’s thoughts by her traumatic past, so that her present becomes indiscernible from it and violations of her own and others’ bodies become more destructive. Similarly to Timberman’s description of the murderous Lady MacBeth, Mary’s “agitation, tendency to aggression, desire for death and feeling as if there was no road back” lead to psychic and moral collapse and she commits adultery with Moses even as Dick manages the farm’s affairs nearby (par. 7). When confronted by Tony for the double offense of her sexual indiscretion with a black man, Mary betrays both the servant and the remaining shreds of her matriarchal authority by portraying Moses as her violator, and he leaves the house with “a long, slow, look of hatred” while Mary blames Tony for catching her in secret sin:

‘You sent him away!’ she screamed at Tony. ‘He’ll never come back!

He’s gone! He’s gone! Everything was all right until you came!’ And

she fell to the floor in tears. (Lessing 54)

Mary’s thoughts later that night reveal the ultimate inadequacy of “persistent avoidance of all things associated with the trauma, numbing and lack of responsiveness, and increased alertness to perceived threats” in healing the trauma of child sexual abuse. Upon waking in the middle of the night, her reply to her husband’s concern of “Go to sleep, Dick” reveals the finality of her rejection of Dick as both a marital and sexual partner. What is left of her tenuous grip on reality recedes into the blackness of the night’s storm, and all thoughts of Dick are swallowed in the “colorless and huge sky” of her now borderless psyche. She flees the house in anticipatory terror into “the night that she knew would finish her” at the hands of the objectified servant she only calls “him” (Lessing 55). Her thoughts still manage to become more tortured, and more obsessive as visions of Moses waiting to kill her evoke hysterical laughter and whispers of “He’s there!” (Lessing 56), the “Out, damned spot!” of the final, hand-wringing moments of Lessing’s Lady MacBeth (Shakespeare Act 5, Scene 1). Febrile visions of a spider creeping across her coffin prefigure her death, and the blow of Moses’ weapon against her skull is like Eliot’s “flash of lightning” severing her life from her broken body (The Wasteland, Line 393). In death as in life, Mary Turner embodies the “dry bones” of serialized trauma that like colonialism, are silent before the accusing finger of blame for generational individual and cultural violation.

Works cited:

Berry, Geoffrey. “An Ecomythic Reading of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”” The Trumpeter 31.1

(2015): n. pag. Academia. Web.11 Nov. 2015.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Waste Land. New York: Horace Liveright, 1922;,

2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Lessing, Doris. “The Grass Is Singing.” (1950): 7-58. Andre’s Teaching Files. Penguin. Web. 28

Oct. 2015.

Samuel, Deborah. “MacBeth and Issues of Gender.” Yale National Initiative. Yale University,

1 July 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “Act 5, Scene 1.” The Tragedy of MacBeth. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The

Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Timberman, Heather. “I Dream of Oedipus: Freud’s Interpretation of Macbeth.” 2006.

Cedarcrest College Academic English. Cedarcrest College, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

P., Yuan N., Mary P. Koss, and Mirto Stone. “The Psychological Consequences of Sexual

Trauma.” National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, Mar. 2006.

Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Echoes of Exile: Shades of “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

It is a criticism of some commentators that Old English poetry lacks the psychological depth or circumstantial detail necessary to gain clear insight into an author’s purpose, but such a view is misplaced. Rather, elegiac poems such as The Seafarer and The Wanderer, by way of emotive symbolic language and powerful imagery of the natural world, demonstrate great psychological complexity on the part of exiled heroes seeking both a physical and spiritual home, and existential meaning, amid the ethos of imminent death and violence that comprised daily life in emerging Anglo-Saxon England. When read alongside two Romantic and Victorian lyrical ballads, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, the originative nature of the The Seafarer and The Wanderer as psychodynamically complex treatises on the quest for individual identity can be clearly seen. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s and Robert Browning’s use of a similar “array of spatialized images and themes” as the anonymous Old English poets illuminates the continued importance of such “culturally resonant ideas as exile, enclosure, stasis and movement, binding and release” (Cook, par. 2) to individuals weighing their own psychical and spiritual exigencies against the “epic ambitions that were shaping British imperial expansion” (Leporati, par. 1).

In “Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and the Faith that Comes by Hearing,” Gonzalez describes Rime of the Ancient Mariner as “a master stroke of literary brilliance that weaves a tale of metaphysical mystery, taut nerves, and one man’s encounter with his soul” (par. 1). While this is true of the epic poem, these same words can be applied to the The Seafarer, in which Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner has its symbolic and historical roots. Centuries before, the exiled narrator of The Seafarer undertakes a sea voyage to preserve his life, placed in media res by the author at the center of violent forces of Nature that force him to contend with “estrangement from society” (Ellman par. 6) and “a spiritual hunger for an eternal world” (par. 3) while navigating hazards of geography, wildlife and weather. Rejecting accusations of uni-dimensionality or limited relevance, Ellman describes The Seafarer‘s narrator as “unusually perceptive about himself” and “of the outside world” (par. 7), attested to by his ability to both recall and reinterpret the events of his past, and adapt them to bring order to the “seemingly chaotic orientation” of his present predicament (par. 3). He steers through the “horrible waves’ rolling” and lonely “narrow night-watch” of winter at sea so his vessel is not “dashed by cliffs” (Seafarer 6-7). His “exile-tracks” are violently tossed and he is left “care-wretched” by hunger and cold, and submerged beneath the singular pain of one “bereaved both of friend and of kin” (14-16). Grief assails the outcast thane so that his ship becomes a labyrinthine repository for memories of mead-hall comitatus, but Ellman points out that he is able “to remove himself from his particular milieu and world-view and interpret it” (par. 3) to meet his present psychoemotional needs. The Seafarer expresses the determined hope, innate to his warrior nature and that of his clan, to ever seek and settle a land of promise:

Mind’s desire urges, ever and again,

My spirit to fare, that I, far hence,

foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland should seek. (37-38)

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins more idyllically than the exiled Seafarer’s, with an overtly Christian tone as the ship departs under congregational blessing in view of a church and lighthouse. Coleridge casts a shadow of Germanic mead-hall celebrations as the Mariner detains a Wedding-Guest traveling toward the “loud bassoon” and “merry minstrelsy” of a wedding (Part1). His tale unfolds forebodingly with a storm arising “tyrannous and strong” as with “o’ertaking wings” and blowing his ship and crew southward (Coleridge Part 1). The integrity of mead-hall conduct is invoked by the spiritual and psychological exile the Mariner visits upon his own head when he “cruelly, and in contempt” violates “the laws of hospitality” and kills the innocent Albatross that he blames for leading his ship into the storm (McGann 40). While The Seafarer’s narrator finds “the swan’s song” and the “gannet’s crying and curlew’s sound” (The Seafarer 19-21) a comforting substitute for the harp and “proud and wine-merry” throngs of the mead-hall (29), the Mariner rejects the hand of divine Providence in sending the bird. Instead of recognizing the seabird as “a fitting symbol of transcendence,” (Jung 147) he shoots it with his crossbow. The same “play of salt waves” in which the Seafarer recognized “God’s…awful power” (The Seafarer 101) metes out vicarious punishment for the mariner’s crime against Creation, and with “throats unslaked, and black lips baked” (Coleridge Part II) his men all die from thirst. His resulting isolation and guilt for having done such “an hellish thing” (Part II) amount to self-inflicted exile as his victim’s carcass is draped around his neck and he is left “with no sheltering kinsman” to bring “consolation to a desolate life” (The Seafarer 26). His exile, while due to his own hubris in despising Providence, is as psychologically wrenching as that of the Seafarer’s, whose hearing of the cuckoo’s “mournful voice” causes him to “doubt every affair” (53) and contemplate his finite nature amidst the natural world. Just as the Seafarer recognizes the futility of “manifold treasures” strewn over “the graves of his brothers” (97-98), the sea becomes a grave for the Mariner’s shipmates, and a watery selva oscura the captain or heafodmann must peer into to face and confess his blood guilt:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony…

He despiseth the creatures of the calm,

The many men, so beautiful! And they dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I. (Part IV)

Like the Seafarer, the Mariner counts himself orphaned, and endures “the curse” he perceives in each “dead man’s eye” (Coleridge Part IV) for the next seven days, the same number that God, the Seafarer’s Measurer, labored to fashion “the sturdy foundations…of the earth” and then rested (The Seafarer 104-105). The Mariner accepts the sea-thane’s duty to steer “towards the journeying Moon” and return his shipmates “to their native country and their own natural home…as lords” to be interred with their fallen ancestors (Coleridge Part IV). In hindsight he connects the Albatross’s death with the murder of a benevolent host, but still remains undelivered from the “charme’d water” that “burnt alway/A still and awful red” (Part IV) with the blood of his crew. Coleridge nods to the Seafarer’s truth that it is “no kings and no kaisers nor any gold-givers,” but only “the Measurer’s power” (The Seafarer 67) that causes “this earth-weal” and its seasons to turn (82-83), and he begins to praise even the “shining white” water-snakes who like angels, with “elfish light” become second-chance guides for his ship (Coleridge Part IV). Only then God’s “favor to him comes from heaven” (The Seafarer 107) for the Mariner, and the rotting Albatross falls away from his neck in divine deliverance from his guilt and despair:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

The spell begins to break.

The self-same moment I could pray,

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off and sank

Like lead into the sea. (Coleridge, Part I)

The shamed Mariner’s quest for redemption reflects that of the exiled Seafarer who on his “narrow night-watch” (The Seafarer 6) sailed “hot about the heart” (11) toward the hope of a new land. The “journeying Moon” (Coleridge Part IV) which Jung connected with the “dominating power of the feminine” or anima (Jung 328), would guide the man-of-war’s ship away from the site of violence buried in his subconscious and cleanse him of sin through “the ritual of baptism…symbolically synonymous with fire” (Jung-Rothgeb 102).

Like that of The Seafarer, the “seemingly chaotic orientation” (Ellman oar, 3) of The Wanderer results from the author’s pitting the individual, with his anguished inner landscape of psyche and experience, against the impersonal harshness of outer Nature to “draw a parallel between the temporal journey…and the spiritual journey of the individual soul towards salvation” (Ellman par. 3). Both authors use the “apparent disparity between the beautiful scenes of the physical world” (Neville 40) and the “necessary process of self-enclosure” to “portray the psychologically complex perceptions of the outside world…through the troubled minds” (Elllman par. 1) of exiled Anglo-Saxon warriors suffering “fragmentation of the war-band” and seeking “final inclusion in a heavenly faestung” (Cook 1). These methods of interpreting the exile experience can be seen in Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, a Victorian lyrical ballad whose narrator is a young knight conscripted into certain death at the mythic Dark Tower, in which a beast of nightmare resides. Like the Wanderer’s and the Seafarer’s, Roland’s exile story begins in media res and is tinged with the threat of madness as he traverses internal and external landscapes strewn with images of war and death. “A hoary cripple with malicious eye” and “mouth scarce able to afford/Suppression of…glee” (Browning 5-6) mocks the quest thrust upon him at the bidding of his nation, a “universal plot transcending historic particularities…the familiar psychomachia” (Cook 1) of conscription in the service of imperial power. For Roland, the “ocean-ways” (The Wanderer 3) that separate the Wanderer from land and kinsmen appear as a plain without horizon, a claustrophobic maze of confusing sounds and images that threaten his progress. Bereft of any companion save his own shade pointing him toward his doom, memories of preceding warrior dead spur him on with the hope of eternal communion with them, even if he is forgotten by kin and country who abandon him to die:

While some discuss if near the other graves

Be room enough for this, and when a day

Suits best for carrying the corpse away,

With care about the banners, scarves and staves:

And still the mane hears all, and only craves

He may not shame such tender love and stay. (Browning 31-36)

Roland disorientation amplifies as his thoughts and surroundings grow distorted, colorless, and the skeleton’s spectral finger acts as a compass as steering him toward the impoverished sea-plain before him:

So, on I went. I think I never saw

Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:

For flowers – as well expect a cedar grove!

But cockle, spurge, according to their law

Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,

You’d think; a burr had been a treasure-trove. (Browning 55-60)

Here Browning’s Roland arguably surpasses the complexity of the protagonists of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, and even of Coleridge’s Mariner, as a greater and perhaps permanent measure of madness overtakes the chivalric thegn. Where the “whale-way spirit” and other “delights of the Lord” remind the Seafarer that the “earth-weal still stands eternal” (The Seafarer 63-67), and the Wanderer takes pleasure in “the fallow waves” and “sea birds bathing, spreading their feathers” (The Wanderer 44-45), Roland instead encounters a creature of abomination in the form of a horse, a “stupefied…devil’s stud” wasted to the bone and grazing on leprous, blood-stained grass (Browning 76-78). The gaunt, riderless “brute” (83) and death-stained “grey plain all around” (52) reflect Roland’s weariness with conscription and his deepening psychological disintegration.

Roland’s psychodynamic journey in search of sanity and salvation feels as if it continues much longer than those of the Seafarer and Wanderer, as the knight’s mind experiences “utter rejection and dismissal” (Ellman par. 4) of his hellish surroundings. Still, the warrior’s methods of coping with his growing sense of anxiety and despair are much the same. Browning extends Old English exile story by all but removing his knight-thane’s hope of being counted among the “noble host” whose “most glorious deeds” (The Seafarer 6, 84) would be recited in the mead-hall of chivalry’s court. But as Cobb explains in “The Narrator of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” like the Seafarer and Wanderer before him, Roland tries “desperately to escape the present that threatens him from without” by recalling memories “sipped and tasted like wine” in hopes of obtaining “a few drops of solace” (par. 3). Like the Wanderer, his “mind flies out to the memory of kinsmen” (51) and he revisits more joyful times spent prophesying victory, and of battles won that still echo in the mead-hall of his mind:

I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.

As a man calls for wine before he fights,

I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,

Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.

Think first, fight afterward – the soldier’s art:

One taste of the old time sets all to rights. (Browning 85-90)

Like the Seafarer and Wanderer at various points in their sagas, in spite of supposedly joyful memories from his warrior past, in Roland “Browning paints a picture of a deeply depressed personality” (Cobb par. 2) with little hope of release from his plight. He encounters increasingly disturbing realities along his path that threaten the tenuous comfort his warrior-hall memories provide. As the Seafarer realizes that the kinsman “who owns life’s joy” and “had few baleful journeys” (The Seafarer 27-28) is soft and ignorant of the despair of his exile, Roland is forced to acknowledge the betrayal of a fellow knight once thought a “soul of honour,” lamenting him instead as a “traitor, spit upon and curst!” (Browning 97, 102). Here, a glimpse back to the Wanderer’s memories of his war-torn homeland reveal the complex, existential nature of warrior identity that centuries later continued to inform and shape characters like Roland:

The wise man must realize how ghostly it will be

when all the wealth of the world stands waste,

as now here and there throughout this middle-earth

walls stand blasted by wind,

beaten by frost, the buildings crumbling.

The wine halls topple, their rulers lie

deprived of all joys; the proud old troops all fell by the wall. (The Wanderer 73-80)

Roland’s war-weariness mirrors that of the Wanderer’s. As the seafaring exile remembers “serpentine stains” of blood spilled when “the torrent of spears took away the warriors,” the knight notes the “bloodthirsty weapons” (The Wanderer 10) of his own nation’s lengthy war past, strewn along the wastes. He trudges past machines of war “fit to reel/Men’s bodies out like silk” (Browning 142) and bewails the “Bog, clay and rubble” (150) that now form the pitiful architecture of his surroundings. As Campbell frames it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Roland as the disenfranchised mythic hero must “bring the images of his past back to life” thereby “illuminating hints from the inspired past” that will bolster his confidence in himself and the rightness of his quest. His faith, though fragile, protects him from the extremes of despair that would prevent completion of his psycho-spiritual journey, as twisted versions of wild beasts of Old English poetry appear as omens in Browning’s poem. The Seafarer’s companion eagle and “dew-feathered fowl” (The Seafarer 25) take the form of devilish beasts, tracing a scavenger’s circle above the sea of dust and debris that separate Roland from the Tower:

And just as far as ever from the end!

Nought in the distance but the evening, nought

To point my footstep further! At the thought,

A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,

Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned

That brushed my cap—perchance the guide I sought. (Browning 157-162)

Roland continues on until mountains appear at this side, but questions if they are “some trick” of imagination, or (Browning 169) or trap that will ensnare him just as battering storms and stone cliffs threatened to sink both the Seafarer and Wanderer. But as servant to his faith, the exile’s courage is rewarded and he sees in the mountains “the bosom of mother country” even as their embrace portends the “the imminence of his predestined end” (Crockford par. 6). He imagines the Tower with its “round squat turret” as a ship tossed at sea and then run aground, and he forces his shaking legs to move forward and challenge its monstrous inhabitant:

Built of brown stone, without a counterpart

In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf

Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf

He strikes on, only when the timbers start. (Browning 183-186)

The ends of both the Seafarer’s and Roland’s journeys are accompanied by images of fire. In Jungian theory, fire can represent “the calcinatio” of an individual’s “unmet desires, blocked instincts, passions and rages” (Martin 4). However, the Seafarer’s reference to “being burned up on funeral pyre” (114) in the Germanic culture signifies transformation and the freeing of the soul from the earthbound body into heavenly form. “The dying sunset kindled” as Roland nears the tower also signals his transformation, as well as reclaimed lucidity at the close of his heroic quest:

There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and knew them all.

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” (Browning 199-204)

Roland’s heroic quest is fulfilled alongside the host of transfigured war dead “ranged along the hillsides” (199), his mind and mission purified by heavenly funereal fire. The path he has traveled, though over land and not sea, is nonetheless one of societal alienation and expulsion into a hostile realm, visited by nightmarish beasts and profound mental and physical suffering. In meeting a warrior’s death on the soil of his own homeland, among a host of “sheltering kinsmen” in ghostly form, he achieves the “unmet desires” of the Seafarer and Wanderer to end the “ceaseless and weary motion” of exile (Cook par. 3) and find spiritual rest. But neither exiled warrior’s journey or nature is inferior to Roland’s. Each in fact laid the foundation for the exile’s quest that continues to challenge assumptions about the complex connections that bind the inner man to society, the eternal, and as eternity’s reflection, to Nature itself.

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