When analyzing fables, it is likely that the reader will search for a moral lesson with a clear resolution, and that the protagonist will likely be exactly as they appear – but in Kiran Desai’s The Sermon in the Guava Tree, the moral truth and the protagonist’s characterization stray from traditional fable in that they neither typical nor “perfect.” At first, when we are introduced to the protagonist, Sampath, he is described as a “dreamy” and “childlike” character, which would give any reader the impression that he is harmless and perhaps a bit naïve; however, we quickly learn that Sampath has some underlying selfish desires that come to fruition through his cunning manipulation of his neighbors. Sampath’s desire to convince a whole community that he is psychic is rooted in his desire to acquire fame and fortune, and he gets both, as he is published in the newspaper, and as his neighbors cater to his needs at his beck and call. The key facet of this story is that Sampath is never exposed for his deception, and he gets everything he wants. The end! Some readers might argue that his narrative doesn’t convey a lesson or truth, because he is rewarded for being a liar, but I would argue that the lesson is one about the Indian class system, rather than one about simply being rewarded for greed.
The largest reason why this fable highlights Indian class is because the final doctor Sampath’s family consults for his supposed insanity recommends him an arranged marriage. Following the doctor’s order, we are given a detailed and disheartening glimpse into the misogynistic stipulations set for Indian brides-to-be. Many of these are superficial, as they pertain to her appearance, her expected silence, and most importantly, her family’s wealth. This directly connects with Sampath’s father’s excitement when he says, “They could be rich!” At this moment, it is revealed that the story is clearly taking a humorous, lighthearted approach in critiquing the structure of the Indian class system. It is implied that success and fortune must be attained dishonestly, and therein lies the (im)moral truth that Desai wants her readers to discover.
Many of Margaret Atwood’s short stories, like “Death of a Young Son by Drowning,” employ natural plots and themes with narrators who often connect the emptiness of the wilderness to their own narrative. Similarly, in Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” the reader is able to peer into the narrator Lois’s disconnected relationship with the wilderness, as she reflects on the trauma of the disappearance of her childhood friend Lucy in the woods at Camp Manitou; this tragic event changes Lois’s perspective of not only the wilderness, but of her own sense of belonging and identity, lasting even into her disconsolate adulthood. Her inability to cope with the loss of her friend (along with her family tensions following her parents’ divorce, and later, the death of her husband) has subsequently left her feeling isolated and quite lonely.
At first, it struck me as odd that Lois collects paintings that only depict vast, empty wilderness, given her contempt for nature, but upon further analysis, I discovered that the paintings are an act of self-sabotage for her. I believe that they reveal a sort of sadistic nature in Lois, as she reopens her childhood wounds in the way she observes them; she describes them as making her feel “wordless unease” (as opposed to, perhaps, peace and solidarity), and she calls each of them “a picture of Lucy.” She claims that “everyone has to be somewhere,” and that Lucy “is entirely alive” within her paintings. This toxic and illogical emotional process does nothing but perpetuate Lois’s extreme depression, and her deficit of interpersonal communication leaves her with nothing but herself and her indissoluble loss. The empty spaces she obsesses over are representative of her own emptiness, of course, but they also connect with the Gothic elements Atwood applies throughout the story. The looming senses of both mystery and fear, which are often characteristic of Gothic literature, are more than evident here, as Lois’s clear struggle with her lack of closure in Lucy’s disappearance leaves her invariably “searching” for her. In this way, Lois’s Gothic narrative is separate from a realistic one, as she spends her time immersing herself in her trauma, rather than coping with and conquering it.
James Joyce’s (in)famous parallel of Homer’s Odyssey, entitled Ulysses, differs from the original literature in that the reader is given much deeper insight into the experience of the wife figure, Molly Bloom, who is the parallel of Ulysses’ wife, Penelope. The episode entitled “Penelope” is told solely from Molly’s perspective, whereas the original telling of Odyssey is told from Ulysses’ perspective, and focuses on his journeys with very little acknowledgement toward his wife’s experience during his absence. What we do know about the wife figure, however, is that Penelope remains faithful to Ulysses while he is gone, and in Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom does not. Because of this significant contextual difference, it is easy to speculate that Molly is an impure, petty character, while many readers who read "Penelope" through a feminist lens (like myself) argue that Molly is a pure, curious, and loving character who simply desires - and deserves - more from her husband, Leopold, and longs to fill her sexual void in order to truly live her best life.
Molly’s long, rambling soliloquy is told in the form of a stream of consciousness that is broken into eight “sentences.” The narrative form Joyce uses tells us a lot about Molly’s character; the lack of punctuation represents her inability to slow down and control her thought process, and because of this, we are given a coherent timeline of her relationship with her husband. The reader, therefore, is able to observe how their intimacy has dissipated since their youth, and how this has led Molly to pursue intimacy outside of her marriage. Joyce’s decision to incorporate the stream of consciousness narrative form also connects with some of the absurd themes that are recognizable throughout “Penelope;" some of these themes include the quest for self and isolated existence. These themes stray from traditional literary themes, like society, culture, "ideal" love, religion, etc. Molly’s character aligns with the absurd, as she is trapped in a marriage devoid of intimacy, and takes it upon herself to explore her identity and her desires with her side piece, Blazes Boylan. Molly is fully aware of Blazes’ seedy intentions with her, and she has no desire to have a future with him; there is certainly no real connection or love between them, and she knows that. She only seeks intimacy with him because her husband won’t provide that for her anymore. She loves her husband, but she is sexually fulfilled by Blazes, because he allows her to take control over their sexual encounters. At the end of Molly’s soliloquy, she reflects fondly on her courtship with Leopold, and remembers when he called her his “mountain flower” when he proposed to her. This connects with the natural and, more specifically, the floral imagery scattered throughout her passage, as Molly proves to the reader throughout that her adultery does not dismiss her love for her husband.
Female sexuality and a clear deficit of autonomy within romantic relationships are both human experiences that women were forbidden from challenging during the Victorian time period. Because of women’s often forced restraint surrounding the matter of female sexuality and romantic disparity, it is no surprise that Mina Loy’s poem “Songs to Joannes” was received as especially shocking and risqué for its time. Loy conflates romantic and indecorous imagery in order to construct a narrative that highlights both the speaker’s struggle with gaining control over her sexuality, and the function of traditional romance within her relationship.
“Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
‘Once upon a time’
Pulls a weed white and star-topped
Among wild oats sewn in mucous-membrane
I would an eye in bengal light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva
These are suspect places
I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal to the bellows
Coloured glass” (Loy, 53).
In the first stanza, the speaker uses traditional language such as “Once upon a time” and “Cupid” to contrast her use of explicit language, such as “erotic garbage” and “pig,” in order to provide the reader with an understanding of the dark nature of her romantic relationship. As readers, we can gather that the fairytale-like “fantasies” and expectations of her relationship are very much overshadowed by her erotic thoughts and desires. This stanza, however, is quite timid compared to the second stanza, in which the speaker shifts to a more unbridled and vulgar tone; she utilizes bright and orgasmic language, such as “sky-rocket,” “bengal light,” and “constellations” to convey the nature of her sexual thoughts. Her use of the isolated phrase “These are suspect places” works to shift her vulgar tone back to one that is more complicit and withdrawn, as she therein acknowledges the fault in her thoughts, and her desire to suppress them, due to their stigma. In the final stanza of this passage, the speaker woefully describes her feeling of being trapped within the “coloured glass” of her “lantern,” which refers to her experience of being sexually stunted in her relationship. Her clause “trimming subliminal flicker” refers to her previously mentioned “bengal light”; she recognizes that she is forced to restrict her erotic nature within a relationship that employs strict sexual limitations for her, and she uses her experience to highlight the complex and universal feminine struggle of gaining autonomy in a culture that denies women the liberty to fully explore their identity in both sexual and romantic relationships.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” one of Oscar Wilde’s most popular and fantastic works, parodies the Victorian systems of lies, truth, and the morality of both. First, let’s take a close look at the title. 'The importance of being earnest,' put simply, translates to the Victorian value that earnestness, or truthfulness, is a valuable trait for anyone to have. The problem with this title is that it doesn’t make much sense at first, given that the upper-class socialites we encounter are nothing short of deceptive; herein lies the hypocrisy of Victorian culture that Wilde wants to critique, and wants his readers to critique. Protagonists Algernon and Jack both fabricate alter egos for themselves, which remarkably resemble the idealistic and artificial qualities of Victorian art. In this way, the reader can equate their narratives with (falsified) works of art.
Classes play a large role - no pun intended - in Wilde’s play. Of course, the upper-class characters display arrogant behavior reflecting upper-class values surrounding wealth and status, but the lower class characters, such as Lane, give us a different perspective of Victorian society. Historically, servants in literature are typically put on display, and are rendered as joke-making and overall useless characters that serve as comic relief to the reader. Lane, although a jokester, is given more of a dynamic character, as he opens up more about his personal life (which is shut down by his boss, Algernon) and experiences more than the average servant. In this way, Lane is given the opportunity to poke holes in upper-class system of hypocrisy through a lower-class lens, which contrasts the perspective made visible through the upper-class lens by pompous characters such as Lady Bracknell.
Overall, the backward portrayal of morality within the play aims to challenge the construct of morality that even we, in the twenty-first century, employ. Wilde’s presentation of the different kinds of “earnestness,” such as pretentiousness and monotonousness, makes the claim that one person’s idea of sincerity or morality does not accurately reflect what sincerity and morality really are, because these ideas are subjective. Some of the apparent lies told in the play are later revealed to have glimmers of truth in them; this leads the reader to discover that the characters who fully embrace “immorality” might just have better chances at living “virtuous” lives. Of course, that conclusion is dependent on what those words mean to you.
In the twenty-first century, divorce has become much less of a taboo than in previous time periods. In fact, our view of divorce has come so far that it has become an epidemic for many couples today who find themselves stuck in miserable marriages! However, divorce has not always been so normalized. If we take a look at George Meredith’s Modern Love sonnets, we are able to connect this couple’s painful, failing marriage with its Victorian time period, when divorce was expensive, scandalous, and overall, not a viable option for many at the time. Under these circumstances, readers can empathize with their decision to stay together... maybe. The first sonnet in Modern Love is told in a third person perspective, and it gives the reader a deep understanding of the wife’s feelings surrounding her marriage, and how her emotions affect her husband, as well:
“By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him.
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
each wishing for the sword that severs all.”
If we take a look just at the first two lines, it is clear that her husband is aware of her pain, and that he is even trying to comfort her, with his “hand’s light quiver by her head;” his hand’s quivering is indicative that he, too, is upset by her weeping. Her being “strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,” and “dreadfully venomous to him,” implies that she feels that perhaps she is toxic figure in their relationship, and that she is treating him unfairly by being married to him when she doesn’t love him anymore. The problem is that she can’t vocalize it. She then reflects on a time when she did love him, as she references her “Memory and Tears,” which make her wish even more “for the sword that severs all,” or divorce. This could also be subliminally foreshadowing her tragic end in sonnet 49; either way, it is clear that both parties are on the same page, but neither want to admit that their marriage should certainly be over. When analyzing sonnet 17, we are given a glimpse into the façade they create as they entertain their guests:
“At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
It is in truth a most contagious game:
HIDING THE SKELETON, shall be its name.
But here's the greater wonder; in that we,
Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted looks, Love's ephemerioe,
Shoot gaily o'er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine.”
This unsettling narrative, told from the husband’s perspective this time, shows the reader how good this couple is at “hiding the skeleton,” or keeping the secret, of their failed marriage. In fact, they are so good at pretending that they are “enamoured” with each other that they are able to “waken envy of [their] happy lot.” He refers to this charade as a “contagious game,” and later refers to himself and his wife as “true hypocrites;” this clearly demonstrates that they both feel guilty about keeping up this act, and the dark diction he uses in this sonnet further iterates how gravely their predicament is affecting not only them, but also the people they care about. Finally, in sonnet 49, we see their marriage come to and end… but it doesn’t end in the (more) ideal solution of divorce:
“He found her by the ocean's moaning verge,
Nor any wicked change in her discerned;
And she believed his old love had returned,
Which was her exultation, and her scourge.
She took his hand, and walked with him, and seemed
The wife he sought, though shadow-like and dry.
She had one terror, lest her heart should sigh,
And tell her loudly she no longer dreamed.
She dared not say, 'This is my breast: look in.'
But there's a strength to help the desperate weak.
That night he learned how silence best can speak
The awful things when Pity pleads for Sin.
About the middle of the night her call
Was heard, and he came wondering to the bed.
'Now kiss me, dear! it may be, now!' she said.
Lethe had passed those lips, and he knew all.”
The recurring theme of silence once again presents itself, as her husband realizes that “silence can best speak the awful things when Pity pleads for Sin.” Although her husband does not appear to be explicitly misogynistic toward his wife, it is still important to note that all of the sonnets are told exclusively from either the husband’s perspective or in third person; this further exemplifies the wife’s silence, as she is never given a voice in any of the sonnets. The dark, erotic themes of silence, skeletons, and death tie together in the end, as she secretly poisons herself, giving her permanent silence. These themes also connect with the title, Modern Love, because Meredith is trying to convey a clear message about “modern” marriages in the Victorian era; he believes that the failed marriage this poem is portraying is representative of many marriages in the Victorian era. I believe that his goal was ultimately to lead Victorian readers to the conclusion that although the couples they know may appear to be in love, they probably have a few skeletons in their closets, too.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a saying that everyone and their mother is familiar with, but maybe one that not everyone truly grasps. Femininity in nineteenth century art, whether it be oil on canvas or written literature, is often represented in hyperbole and in an idealized, toxic, and objectifying narrative. Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” focuses intensely on both the female and male spheres, and particularly a male artist’s obsession with fabricating a “perfect” yet nameless woman, whom he desires, within his art. When focusing on the pervasive patriarchal perspective here, it is crucial that we examine Rossetti’s personification of the nameless woman depicted in the paintings, and what it does; “One face looks out from all the canvasses” and “…she with true kind eyes looks back at him” leave us with the unsettling truth that the only power the muse in these paintings is given is her existence, and the sole purpose of her existence is to “feed” the artist’s desires. This could almost be romantic, if perhaps the artist actually painted her accurately, and not in the whimsical and idealized way he does. Although the real woman that the artist’s portraits are based on has been erased, Rossetti still gives the fallen model power through her female gaze, as she “looks back at him,” thereby deconstructing his narrative and forcing us, as readers, to confront his desires and their true basis.
In Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” we are given a wholly female perspective as two virgin sisters are implored by goblins to “come buy” fruit, or more accurately, they are taunted and tempted by the goblins to compromise their boundaries and sacrifice their virginity. The rapid pace of its iambic tetrameter, paired with the repetition of “come buy, come buy,” leads me to feel that this poem is conveying a much more sinister tone than what its fantastical and fairytale-like components try to disguise. The relentlessness of the goblins (or more accurately, the men in this poem) works to teach young girls how much power men had over the consequences for “fallen women” in the nineteenth century, let alone the influence men had in female sexuality in general. The close (and alleged lesbian) relationship sisters Laura and Lizzie have blatantly resists the goblins’ demands, and gives female readers the reassuring sentiment that female relationships protect women from patriarchal dangers, such as the rape culture we see being quite literally promoted in “Goblin’s Market.”