Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Although I have never read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, I have read the first few pages on, and the uncanny ability for an author to attempt to write about the devastating realities of war when he has never experienced it himself is remarkable. The intricate details embedded in this novella portray the human mind and spirit in the heart of the Civil War. A brief synopsis is given below:

"The story revolves around Henry Fleming, a member of the 304th regiment of the Union Army. At the start of the novel Henry is eager to show his patriotism in battle but when faced with the savagery of death he flees the frontline. Throughout the novel Henry struggles with his courage in the face of the horror of war. The Red Badge of Courage is a classic modern depiction of the psychological turmoil of war from the perspective of an ordinary soldier."

I’m not sure how many people are already familiar with this book, but it appears to be a tremendously interesting and heart-wrenching story that will remain with anyone who reads it. Moreover, it seems especially relevant to our own historical context.

Note: I just wrote about the book below before I realized that it’s not an American novel. So I will just say this is more of a personal recommendation rather than one to be used for class.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, originally published in 1866, has been sitting on my book shelf for awhile now. I’m not sure how many people have already read it, but the general summary on the back of the book is very intriguing:

"A desperate young man plans the perfect crime—the murder of a despicable pawnbroker, an old woman no one loves and whom no one will mourn. Is it not just, he reasons, for a man of genius to commit such a crime, to transgress moral law—if it will ultimately benefit humanity? So begins one of the greatest novels ever written: a powerful psychological study, a terrifying murder mystery, a fascinating detective thriller infused with philosophical, religious, and social commentary.

Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in a garret in the gloomy slums of St. Petersburg, carries out his grotesque scheme and plunges into a hell of persecution, madness, and terror. Crime and Punishment takes the reader on a journey into the darkest recesses of the criminal and depraved mind, and exposes the soul of a man possessed by both good and evil…a man who cannot escape his own conscience."

I have read Notes From Underground by this author a couple years ago, and I thought he had a very intriguing perspective on life (however dark), and it has stuck with me. This particular novel, based on the synopsis, seems to relate to Joaquin Murieta’s rise above governmental law, and his choice to abide by his own moral code. A subject of ethics is very interesting to me since it’s something that we face every day, sometimes unconsciously, and this novel allows for a critical analysis and interpretation of these more pressing issues. I believe it’s important to choose novels that can, in some way or another, be applied to our own lives.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

gambling with money, love, and death.

Spoiler alert-- just in case you haven't read the rest of the book.

Gambling, and the luck associated with it, consistently appears throughout Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Lily Bart, the beautiful young protagonist, loses her spending money when she gambles at the socialite parties. With the help of Gus Trenor, she also gambles on the stock market. More importantly, Lily gambles on love; instead of accepting a marriage proposal from one of the various suitors, she insists on staying in the "game" so that she can win a “better hand.” In doing this, she pushes her luck to the limits.

This also shines a light on her struggle between the happiness of true love and the happiness of wealth. She values social status and money above all else—even if it means denying her truest friend, and ideal match, Selden. In this novel, money seems to drive the plot, define the characters, and classify their level of power and social rank.

Lily ends up losing a large sum of money in the stock market, finds herself in poverty, unintentionally makes Bertha Dorset an enemy who then spreads hurtful rumors about her, and it even seems like she has an unlucky death. Of these, the latter is most intriguing to me, as Edith Wharton never really clarifies whether Lily meant to overdose on her sleeping medication, or if she only took a little extra because she wanted to sleep longer:

“But this was the verge of delirium... she had never hung so near the dizzy bring of the unreal. Sleep was what she wanted—” (Wharton 361).

“She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in doing so—she remembered the chemist’s warning. If sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking. But after all that was but one change in a hundred: the action of the drug was incalculable, and the addition of a few drops to the regular dose would probably do no more than procure for her the rest she so desperately needed....” (Wharton 362).

Thus it seems it was merely a poor mishap in an extreme desire for rest, but a little earlier than these passages Wharton writes, “It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance... it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life” (Wharton 359).

So, perhaps her death was accidental, but did Lily really care at that point? This last powerful and beautiful passage seems to describe Lily's life as a meaningless existence, in which it may be better for her to die rather than endure this despair, and tragically empty reflections on her life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Erich von Stroheim’s dramatic silent film, Greed, was a very interesting visual representation of Frank Norris’ McTeague. The exaggerated facial expressions and gestures added more emotion to the film, but detracted from any realistic qualities of people in general. More than anything, I believe the music was a great contribution to the various themes and movements of the plot. If feelings were sounds, I would say the soundtrack to Greed hit it spot on.

The importance of gold in the novel was not reduced by the film; placing handcrafted tints of color on every gold object was an intriguing method to capture its significance. Norris is using gold to portray the corrupting influence it has on human nature, and I was glad that this symbolism was not abandoned in the movie.

Still, from the clip of the shorter version of the film we watched in class today, I believe that the novel is a superior production of the story. The type of acting necessary to accomplish the same emotions that were conveyed in McTeague made the entire film a little unrealistic. However, I also have to understand my own bias, since I have experienced life from a much different cultural and historical vantage point. This may detract from my ability to fully appreciate the silent film for its true quality. After seeing Avatar in 3D, this kind of movie just doesn’t quite measure up.

Cutting down the film to only about a quarter of the original is disappointing. It is rare to find a director that is eager and willing to produce a movie so close to the storyline of the novel. Although I’m sure none of the major events were eliminated, important secondary characters were probably lost, as well as interesting details that may have provided more insight and depth into the study of human flaws.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the junk dealer.

In Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague, Maria Macapa takes all the miscellaneous items she has accrued to the junk dealer, Zerkow, to exchange for money. “Absorbed at once in the affair,” Zerkow presents an excitement for the revelation of Maria’s things (28). The narrator continues on to describe the contents of her pillowcase:

Then a long wrangle began. Every bit of junk in Maria's pillowcase was discussed and weighed and disputed. They clamored into each other's faces over Old Grannis's cracked pitcher, over Miss Baker's silk gaiters, over Marcus Schouler's whiskey flasks, reaching the climax of disagreement when it came to McTeague's instruments (28).

Most of Maria’s “junk” surpasses Zerkow’s interest, except for the gold fillings — this grabs hold of his utmost desire. It is crucial to notice his sexually suggestive language conveyed in his reaction as they reach the “climax” of disagreement over McTeague’s gold:

Zerkow drew a quick breath as the three pellets suddenly flashed in Maria's palm. There it was, the virgin metal, the pure, unalloyed ore, his dream, his consuming desire. His fingers twitched and hooked themselves into his palms, his thin lips drew tight across his teeth (Norris 28).

In this passage, Zerkow is lusting for the gold, the “virgin” metal. As Maria “shut[s] her fist over the pellets,” she consequently denies Zerkow the object of his desire (Norris 29). Yet Zerkow would stop at nothing to have it, and the tone of their haggling reveals aggression.

After the bargain was complete, Zerkow offers Maria a drink and asks her about the gold dishes her father owned in Central America. In his anticipation to hear the story, Zerkow “was breathing short, his limbs trembled a little. It was as if some hungry beast of prey had scented a quarry. Maria still refused, putting up her head, insisting that she had to be going” (Norris 29). This is an explicit example of his consuming desire for gold. However, it appears to me as though gold is replacing the female body as an object of sexual desire, and the quarry symbolizes the female body acting as a barrier in which men must violate to claim the gold that’s hidden from them.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

you reap what you sow.

Pudd’nhead Wilson contains all the elements of a nineteenth century mystery: swapped identities, role reversal, masterful disguises, a terrible crime, a detective, a courtroom drama, and a surprising, rather twisted ending to the novel. However, the bigger picture radiates from the southern culture, and the skewed moral codes of society. Mark Twain writes, “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro” (29). The real criminal is not a character in Pudd’nhead Wilson. The real criminal is society— racial prejudice, slavery, and the undercurrents of the savage treatment inflicted upon fellow human beings.

In the beginning of the novel Mr. Driscoll’s slaves are lined up and questioned about the money that had gone missing on more than one occasion. After being threatened to be sold down the river, all three of them cry out in fear: “I done it! I done it! I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!” (33). This is the catalyst that causes Roxana to switch the babies; she would rather die than see her son sold down the river. After having done so, Roxy justifies her action by thinking of the story about the queen. She exclaims, “Dah, now—de preacher said it his own self, en it ain’t no sin, ’ca’se white folks done it. Dey done it—yes, dey done it; en not on’y jis’ common white folks nuther, but de biggest quality dey is in de whole bilin’” (37). A black child (according to the “one-drop” rule) became a king, while the queen’s own child was sold down the river; thus, fair is fair. The white people are being whipped by their own inhumane laws. So my question, which is rather a more philosophical question of ethics, is simply this: does this make it right?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

double design.

In their dire circumstances of confliction in the ethics of love, the Lapham’s turn to Reverend Sewell for help, and thus his words become a “central ethical premise” in The Rise of Silas Lapham: “‘One suffer instead of three, if none is to blame?’ suggested Sewell. ‘That’s sense, and that’s justice. It’s the economy of pain which naturally suggests itself, and which would insist upon itself, if we were not all perverted by traditions which are the figment of the shallowest sentimentality… we are all blinded, we are all weakened by a false ideal of self-sacrifice’” (241). Neither a strict guide for moral conduct or for economic organization, Sewell’s “economy of pain” is a combination of the two. It is illustrated by Sewell, and I believe by Howells, as a fair, humane way to distribute and manage pain, and ultimately minimize human suffering as much as possible. If Pen sacrifices her own love for Tom, and his love for her, and Irene cannot have him, then Sewell is merely suggesting that it is irrational for all three of them to have to endure this pain. This approach is appropriate for the ethical dilemmas regarding humanitarianism as well as capitalism in The Rise of Silas Lapham.

On another note, I noticed as Silas and Persis Lapham are making plans for a new house, through their discussion with Seymour, the architect, Howells’ designs a parallel between the architecture of the house and the architecture of his novel. The architect sketched his idea on a scrap of paper: “‘Then have your dining-room behind the hall, looking on the water… That gets you rid of one of those long, straight, ugly staircases,’ – until that moment Lapham had thought a long, straight staircase the chief ornament of a house, - ‘and gives you an effect of amplitude and space’” (41). Effectively, this double staircase, which intersects in many ways, and comes together at the top, is symbolic of Howells’ two plots involving bankruptcy and love.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

naive innocence.

Daisy Miller is portrayed as an ignorant, animated, and flirtatious character in the novella by Henry James. Her charming face and vivacious personality makes a remarkable impression on everyone that lays on her or witnesses her acts colliding with the customs of European society. However, European social rules were too conservative for Daisy Miller, and she constantly pushes the limits, always doing exactly as she pleases. I believe it was her deep fondness of “society” that made it difficult to put boundaries on her lifestyle. The tension increases exponentially as she develops an “intimate” relationship with the handsome Italian man, Mr. Giovanelli. Pretentious women, such as Mrs. Walker, begin to turn a “cold shoulder” to Daisy Miller, as she continues to flaunt herself around the community of Rome. Henry James illustrates the distinction between American values and European etiquette. However, over a century later, our society’s standards and way of life have become much less rigid in countries all over the world.

In the end of the story, Daisy throws caution to the wind by visiting the Colosseum with Mr. Giovanelli after eleven o’clock in the evening, as it was a wonderfully romantic to see the impressive structure dusted in moonlight. Winterbourne chances to see them, and fears for the pretty young woman’s safety: “‘I am afraid, that you will not think Roman fever very pretty. This is the way people catch it’” (55). Daisy Miller retorts, “‘I never was sick, and I don’t mean to be! I don’t look like much, but I’m healthy! I was bound to see the Colosseum by moonlight; I shouldn’t have wanted to go home without that; and we have had the most beautiful time, haven’t we, Mr. Giovanelli? If there has been any danger, Eugenio can give me some pills’” (55). After reading, two burning questions arose about Miss Daisy’s intentions: (1) Is she responsible for her own death? (2) Did she enjoy making a “scandal,” and perhaps forged a close relationship for Mr. Giovanelli to make Winterbourne jealous? The latter, of course, comes from Daisy’s insistence that Winterbourne be informed that she was never engaged. My answer, the way I interpreted Daisy Miller, is similar for both. I do not believe that she is directly responsible for her tragic fate, nor did she deliberately try to make Mr. Winterbourne envious of her closeness with Mr. Giovanelli. She appeared to me to be too “innocent” and far too na├»ve to thoughtfully conduct either of those actions. Her impulsivity and negligence may have played a hand, but her intentions were not to bring upon her own dreadful end or to engage in trickery or obscenities in their culture. Moreover, the Colosseum, oftentimes held gladiatorial shows, battles and hunts involving animals, as well as many other events, usually held by families of power and prestige. This seemed to convey more symbolic meaning in the place Daisy caught her fatal illness, as well as to the theme of social status.