Category Archives: Being a Bookworm

“The Fountain Overflows” by Rebecca West

What is an artist in The Fountain Overflows?

During the Modern period of literature, writers continually asked questions about “high” art and its relationship to life—to politics, “low” art, literary tradition, and popular culture. Having lived through the Modern period, Rebecca West discusses
these questions in The Fountain Overflows (1957). Throughout the novel, West constructs a dichotomy between two characters—Cordelia, the Not-Artist for whom art is a means; and Rose, the Artist for whom art is an end. Yet West’s definition of the “artist” remains ambiguous; instead of strictly delineating the “artist,” the novel instead presents a fluid view of art and the artist.

 

Feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West (1892-1983) is most famous for her novella "The Return of the Soldier," the first English-language book written about shell-shock, and her reports on the Nuremburg trials.

 Constructing a Dichotomy: Cordelia and Rose’s Contrasting Views of Music

 An “artist” is someone who makes or does art; to decide who is an “artist,” one should first define “art.” Therefore, to understand West’s presentation of the artist or musician in The Fountain Overflows, one must first discuss Cordelia and Rose’s opposing views of music. For Cordelia, music is a means to an end—for example, Cordelia plays music to
garner praise: Cordelia is “not an artist”[1] because “there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the
desire to please.”[2] Music, for Cordelia, is a path to relative financial stability: when their mother asks why she wants to
perform professionally, Cordelia cries, “Because I want the money.”[3] Once Cordelia has enough money to live independently, she will use her violin-playing to leave her family.[4]

For Cordelia, music is something good and beautiful that she can use. When Rose, looking through a window, watches Cordelia performing for a large crowd, Rose realizes that Cordelia has accomplished something good in spite of her dreadful violin-playing: she has given her audience a glimpse of beauty. Rose explains:

‘Certainly Cordelia had not given these people music. But she had given them something, something, something which reminded me of the hour we had just spent on the Thames, watching the glassy river run past our plunging oars, the water netted like cracked
glass…the glassiness of glass.’[5]

Rose does not say that Cordelia gave her audience “music” as Rose defines music. Yet Cordelia’s “music” has done something good: the beautiful sight of Cordelia playing the violin “refreshes the eye like water.”[6] Cordelia’s impassioned response to Cousin Jock’s despair emphasizes her view of music as a means: “What’s the harm in cancer,” she cries, “if there’s all this
music in the world?”[7] If music can ameliorate or even cure cancer, then music is a beautiful means to a good end.

In contrast, Rose—who says of herself, “I was really a musician”[8]—does not even think to use music as a means. For Rose, the physical world cannot be an end, and thus does not matter nearly as much as music. Throughout the novel, Rose, Mary, and her mother—those in the family whom Rose considers truly musical—express their ultimate unconcern for physical ends with the phrase, “It will be all right.”[9] For “true” musicians such as Rose, music is the only end.

Moreover, in the final scene—the most important scene in this discussion—Rose experiences a crisis: she realizes she does not understand music and doubts her identity as an artist. Here West presents music, not as a good and beautiful thing that one
can use, but as a non-thing, as a question. Mary tells Rose that “music” is about people like Rosamund: “about life….and specially about the parts of life we do not understand.”[10] For Mary, who “can’t say” what she means, music is something one does; a
musician struggles to understand life “by explaining it by music.”[11]

Rose, who has just admitted to failing to understand Rosamund,[12] then asks herself: “What was music? I suddenly felt sick because I did not know the answer.”[13] Rose the character now begins to doubt that she is an artist: “[I]t was idiotic that I should become a musician. I had no musical gifts.”[14] Rose the character—although she knows that music is not a beautiful thing as
Cordelia supposes—does not yet fully understand that music is an action as Mary does. Yet Rose the narrator does understand: by asking the question “What is music?” Rose confirms herself as an artist; by seeking to understand music,
Rose is doing music.

Rose learns this lesson only moments later, when their host asks her and Mary to play Schumann’s duets. Instantly the sisters agree—not because they will be paid extra for playing an extra song, but because they love the song. The sisters were
“fascinated” by the duet which, as they had “never been taught” it,[15] they had to discover on their own; Rose talks of the duet as a question that she and Mary struggled to answer, as a place she and Mary had to discover, as a part of life that is difficult to understand. Then Rose realizes that, by questioning the nature of music, she is, and has been doing, music: “I was a musician in my
own right, though I could not yet say to what degree….so I went with my sister back into the concert-room.”[16]
When Rose realizes that music is something one does—a quest to understand life’s paradoxes—she reclaims her identity as an artist. Thus, West presents the artist as someone who, like Rose, struggles to understand life.

 

West published her semi-autobiographical novel "The Fountain Overflows" in 1957.

Deconstructing the Dichotomy: Pride, Aristotelian Happiness, and Water Imagery

But the dichotomy between Cordelia the Non-artist and Rose the Artist is too simple. West complicates her depiction of the artist in several ways. For instance, Rose and Mary’s motivation for practicing the Schumman duet supports an interpretation
of music as a means: they studied it “simply for” their “own amusement,”[17] to make themselves happy. Happiness can be considered the end of all human action; as Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics:

“[W]e also choose them [goods or actions] for the sake of happiness, supposing that through them we shall be happy…Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of all things achievable in action.”[18]

If Rose and Mary play the piano because it makes them happy, as the word “amusement”[19] suggests, then they use music as a means to attain happiness. Moreover, by playing music, Rose and Mary struggle to comprehend “the parts of life we do
not understand”[20]—they use music to understand life. Therefore, Cordelia’s understanding of music as a means to an
end is correct. If Cordelia understands the nature of music and Rose does not, then Cordelia might be the Artist and Rose the Non-artist.

West further complicates her depiction of the artist with water imagery. The novel’s final image is of water sweeping Rose away: “I was swept on by the strong flood of which I was a part.”[21] This image, following Rose’s re-affirmation of herself as an artist, decisively undermines it. Rose has recently compared her artistic parents to “two springs” that flow down a mountain and into the world “as a great river.”[22] It is possible that Rose has no more musical talent than Cordelia, and that
both girls think of themselves as “artists” (though they mean different things by the word) simply because their parents are artists. West’s title—The Fountain Overflows—supports this reading.

But not even West’s water imagery is simple. She applies this imagery, not only to the Aubrey family, but also to the “young composer” Rose and Mary meet at the end of the novel. West carefully juxtaposes him with Cordelia, noting that “he was
as essentially musical as Cordelia was unmusical”[23]; also, he has “grey eyes clear as water”[24]
and Cordelia “refreshes the eye like water.”[25] He is musical, and Cordelia is not; yet both receive the water imagery that
refers most powerfully to Mr. and Mrs. Aubrey. Since West graces both Cordelia and the characters Rose thinks “artistic” with water imagery, one infers that the nature of art and the artist is fluid, like water.

Conclusion

The Fountain Overflows ends with an image of a flood—thus, the reader may infer that such imagery is vital to one’s understanding of the novel. Although Rose the narrator constructs a dichotomy between Cordelia the Non-artist and herself as
the Artist, West’s own definition of an “artist” appears to be fluid. For West, an artist both uses beautiful music to bring happiness to oneself and others and “does” music in a quest to understand life’s paradoxes—although the second use of music might be “higher” or more important, pursuing the first makes a person no less an artist.


[1] Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (London:
Macmillan, 1957), 128.

 

[2] Ibid., 129.

 

[3] Ibid., 139.

 

[4] Ibid., 383.

[5] West, 285.

 

[6] Ibid., 285.

 

[7] Ibid., 305.

 

[8] Ibid., 145

 

[9] Ibid., 1, 8, 18, 28, 33,
40, 55, etc.

 

[10] West, 390.

 

[11] Ibid., 390.

 

[12] Ibid., 390.

 

[13] Ibid., 391.

 

[14] Ibid., 391.

 

[15] Ibid., 392.

[16] West, 392.

 

[17] Ibid., 392.

 

[18] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by
Terence Irwin (Indianaoplis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), I.7.5,
8.

 

[19] West, 392.

 

[20] Ibid., 390.

[21] Ibid., 392.

 

[22] Ibid., 391.

 

[23] Ibid., 391.

 

[24] Ibid., 391.

 

[25] Ibid., 285.

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Good and Evil in ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie

How does Rushdie Represent Good and Evil in The Satanic Verses?

“The just,” Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “is something human.”[1] For Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, good and evil are something human. Rushdie gives a dialogic representation of good and evil, especially of the latter; each character (including the nebulous narrator) identifies different people, ideas, and institutions as “evil.” Although one could say that this multiplicity of voices supports moral relativism, it accomplishes something slightly different: Rushdie’s dialogic representation of evil grounds “good” and “evil” in the psychology of particular human beings, encouraging his readers to understand other human beings before judging their actions or beliefs as good or evil.

Dialogism and Evil

All the characters in The Satanic Verses employ their equal and unique voices to declare their own views of good and evil. Since the
omniscient, unidentified narrator[2] speaks to the reader throughout the story as a character, the novel presents no single authoritative voice. “I’m saying nothing,” the narrator says. “Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone.”[3] Here the narrator refuses to impose his or her perspective on the story. Since the novel lacks an authoritative voice, all the characters’ differing opinions on good and evil carry equal weight; thus, the novel lacks an absolute standard of good and evil. What one can gather from the different characters’ statements is that good and evil are human things, not divine. For instance, several characters associate “evil” with a particular culture: the Imam defines “evil”
as “foreignness”[4] and Hind calls London “a demon city.”[5] Other characters condemn ideologies and institutions as evil: Sufyan,[6] Jumpy,[7] and Mishal and Anahita[8] reject the British government that oppresses Asian immigrants; and Sisodia
censures Indian religious beliefs and practices.[9] Others denounce certain people as evil: Salman attributes evil actions to
Mahound,[10] and Mrs. Qureishi calls her son-in-law “a woman hitter” and a “devil.”[11] Each of these voices present evil as a human phenomenon, not as something supernatural. A few characters such as Ayesha[12] and Mahound[13] attribute evil actions to spiritual figures. Hence, while the novel presents no absolute standard for good and evil, the majority of voices in this democratic novel declare good and evil to be a human phenomena, identifiable in human institutions, ideas, and hearts.

 Saladin’s Story: Evil and the Human Psyche

When Saladin is transformed into a satyr, people don't see him as a kindly pan-flautist like this satyr, but as a monster.

More specifically, the plot reveals that evil is grounded in human nature and psychology, as shown by Saladin’s story: his transformation into a “demon”[14] and his crime against Gibreel and Allie stem directly from his childhood in India and relationship with his father. Saladin—who pursues his idea of “the good,”[15] that is, Englishness—finds himself morphed into a living representation of his idea of “evil.” As India is filled with “rubble, litter, noise,” and “disorder”[16]; so Saladin-satyr is “loud, stench, hideous, outsize, grotesque.”[17] The old Indian pedophile’s “fleshbone”[18] is even mirrored by Saladin-satyr’s “phallus, greatly enlarged and embarrassingly erect.”[19] Saladin becomes a caricature of his father: Changez is tall,[20] so Saladin grows “to a height of over eight feet”[21]; Changez is domineering and cruel,[22] so Saladin gains remarkable “Powers[23]; Changez is superstitious,[24] so Saladin asks a “Moroccan priest” for help regaining his human form.[25]
Tellingly, Saladin snaps at his father before his transformation, “Whatever I am, father dear….I owe it all to you.”[26]
Thus, when Saladin appears to be “the incarnation of evil,”[27] he does not embody a universal absolute evil, but the particular evils that have traumatized his psyche.

Throughout the novel’s middle, Saladin-satyr struggles with his transformation and with human nature and evil. Saladin initially thinks that his metamorphosis has fundamentally changed his being: “He chose Lucretius over Ovid. The inconstant soul…A being going through life can become so other to himself as to be another.”[28] After incorrectly deciding that his “essence” has completely changed,[29] Saladin revises his view—he has not truly changed at all, since man is essentially evil: “Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”[30] Saladin comes close to an accurate understanding of his psyche when he
recollects Niccolò Machiavelli’s life: although the Florentine politician sacrificed everything to fight for democracy and freedom, his name has become “a synonym for evil.”[31] One may call Machiavelli an “evil” traitor and sycophant because he worked for
the tyrannical Medici, but by doing so, one forgets that Machiavelli’s actions stemmed from a particular political and personal situation.

Saladin does not understand the full significance of his Machiavelli allusion until after he has betrayed Gibreel and Allie. Rushdie brackets Saladin’s wicked deeds with references to Shakespeare’s Othello,[32] aligning Gibreel and Saladin with Othello and Iago. According to Professor Wormersley, Iago does not trap Othello with his schemes; rather, “Iago and Othello create a world
together” that inevitably leads to tragedy.[33] This reading of Othello does not interpret Iago as “pure evil” and instead thinks of Iago as a psychologically complex human. Gibreel and Saladin reflect this view of Othello: Gibreel’s “maw of the black hole”[34]
parallels Saladin’s “new, dark world”[35]; both choose to take “the left-hand path”;[36]  the narrator calls the two men “conjoined
opposites.”[37] Hence, if Saladin is Iago, then Saladin has not completely transformed into “the incarnation of
evil” as he thinks.[38] Instead, Saladin’s wicked actions simply stem from his very human psyche. Although Saladin has regained his human form, his scheme to destroy Gibreel and Allie’s relationship shows he has inherited his father’s deceitful cruelty. As Changez’s theft of the wallet showed an infantile lust for control, so Saladin’s phone calls to Gibreel and Allie are an “infernal, childlike evil.”[39] Like Iago’s treacherous acts, Saladin’s betrayal does not confirm him as absolutely evil, but rather merely human: “His humanity is sufficient form and explanation for his deed.”[40]  Saladin—like Machiavelli and Mohammed[41]—is
not a supernaturally evil figure; he is human, and must be judged accordingly.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote 'The Prince,' in which he infamously appears to support tyranny, after his family was banished and he was tortured by a tyrant.

After his crimes, Saladin comes to understand human evil by reconciling with his father and confronting Gibreel. Saladin returns to India to visit his father, who has been transformed by cancer. As Saladin’s metamorphosis did not fundamentally change his soul,
but only emphasized already-existing evil aspects of his psyche; so Changez’ cancer has not abrogated his self, but only abolished the evil aspects of his character: the cancer “stripped him of his faults, of all that had been domineering, tyrannical, and cruel in him, so that the mischievous, loving and brilliant man beneath lay exposed, once again, for all to see.”[42] While Saladin has always envisioned his father as absolutely evil, he now understands that Changez is only a human with human flaws. Moreover, Changez’s
death teaches Saladin that evil is inherent to human nature: after witnessing “the dawning of a terror”[43]
on his father’s face as he dies, Saladin wonders, “‘Why the horror?”[44] By using the word
“horror,” Rushdie alludes to Kurtz’s last words in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “‘The horror! The
horror!”[45] The dying Kurtz comprehends with terror the depravity of human nature; in The Satanic Verses, the dying Changez and his son reach the same realization—evil is human.

Saladin’s confrontation with Gibreel cements his new understanding of human evil. After Gibreel murders Allie and Sisodia, Saladin recognizes his guilt: “he was going to die for his verses, but could not find it in himself to call the
death-sentence unjust.”[46] This statement indicates that Saladin has realized two things: First, he
understands that his transformation into a satyr did not mark a fundamental change in his identity[47]—Saladin,
a human, was already evil—and thus he is morally responsible for betraying Gibreel. Second, Saladin can empathize with Gibreel’s mental instability, even though Gibreel betrayed him: Saladin, seeing from Gibreel’s point of view,
feels “oddly detached from events. –Like Gibreel when the sickness came.”[48] Having learned from his father’s illness and death that humans are inherently evil, but not completely evil, Saladin can judge Gibreel’s “evil” actions
appropriately. Saladin can “no longer believe in fairy-tales”—he can no longer blame his and Gibreel’s evil deeds on supernatural forces, as he knows that evil is human.

 Conclusion

Rushdie’s novel presents a bleak view of humanity—the qualification that man is not completely evil does little to brighten
the statement that evil itself is human. Moreover, The Satanic Verses explicitly critiques Muslim theology, questioning its distinctions between good and evil in a way that unsettles any religious person in the postmodern era. If one is disheartened by Rushdie’s depiction of human nature, religion, and good and evil, one must note the final page of the novel: “It seemed to him [Saladin] that in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt—in spite of his humanity—he was getting another chance.”[49] Like Saladin, Rushdie’s readers have been unnerved by their journey to a new perspective on evil and humanity; yet like Saladin, one has been given an opportunity to approach others with empathy and humility, knowing that everyone is merely human.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianaoplis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999),
10.

[2] Rushdie never reveals his narrator’s identity, but one may infer that the narrator is a supernatural figure, due to his or her omniscience about the story’s spiritual aspects. Yet it remains unclear if the narrator is a demon (perhaps even Satan, as seen on
page 95) or an angel (perhaps even Allah, as seen on page 423). Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random
House, 1988).

[3] Ibid., 423.

[4] Rushdie, 212.

[5] Ibid., 258.

[6] Ibid., 261.

[7] Ibid., 426.

[8] Ibid., 253, 267, 272, 292,
296.

[9] Ibid., 533.

[10] Ibid., 376.

[11] Ibid., 240.

[12] Ibid., 498.

[13] Ibid., 125-6.

[14] Ibid., 294.

[15] Rushdie, 265.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] Ibid., 298.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Ibid., 163.

[20] Ibid., 36.

[21] Ibid., 300.

[22] Changez takes the wallet Saladin finds only to force thirteen-year-old Saladin to use it to pay for his father to live lazily in London (Rushdie, 37-44).

[23] Ibid., 298.

[24] Ibid., 41.

[25] Ibid., 251.

[26] Ibid., 46.

[27] Ibid., 265.

[28] Rushdie, 297.

[29] Ibid., 285.

[30] Ibid., 422.

[31] Ibid., 415.

[32] Ibid., 439, 481.

[33] Professor Wormersley, “Othello” (presented at the “Shakespeare’s Tragedies” lecture series at Oxford University, 25 January
2011).

[34] Rushdie, 479.

[35] Rushdie, 433.

[36] Ibid. 362, 433.

[37] Ibid., 441.

[38] Ibid., 265.

[39] Ibid., 459.

[40] Ibid., 481.

[41] Ibid., 415.

[42] Ibid., 538.

[43] Rushdie, 545.

[44] Ibid., 546.

[45] Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness,” Heart of Darkness and Selections from The Congo Diary, (New York:
The Modern Library, 1999), 86.

[46] Rushdie, 560.

[47] Ibid., 265-6.

[48] Ibid., 560.

[49] Rushdie, 561.

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10 Mystery Must-Reads

Today I feasted on book jacket back covers in Barnes & Noble. A delectable hour of literary hors d’oeuvres, all served fresh from the authors’ imagination-oven-things (extended metaphor, don’t fail me now!). I methodically grabbed each book on the New Mystery shelves, flipped it over, read the back. If the one-hundred word nibble animated my taste buds, I feverishly thumbed the
author and title into my phone, feeling like a hunter-gatherer ant sending out pheromones screaming, “Dinner time! Come and get it!”

Ok, extended metaphor fail. But this book list shall not fail. I’ve selected the following ten from my initial mob of twenty-five. Some are straight from the presses, but others have sat on the shelves since I was in swaddling clothes (or waist-high straight-legged jeans and round plastic glasses…yay, 90s!). None, however, are stodgy Golden Age formulaic tomes—these are exactly the sort of books a budding twenty-first century crime novelist should read. So pull up your library’s catalogue and get ready to click “search”!

Alan Glynn, Winterland (2010)

The pinnacle of emerald noir, Glynn’s new novel exposes how greed, globalization, and the Great Recession have gorged on Ireland, transforming the island into a nation of ‘Jobless Paddy’s. It’s more a thriller than a mystery proper—the protagonist,
Gina, is the victim’s blood relative, and probably doesn’t know what she’s doing. But Winterland is about ordinary people suffering ordinary, overwhelming pains—in other words, all of us.

Steve Hamilton, The Lock Artist (2010)

Mike Smith can break into anything, anywhere. He’s been mute for a decade. Hamilton writes the tale of how Smith breaks into his own past to discover the secret of his silence. It’s the most original for a psychological thriller I’ve come across in a while.

Henning Mankell, The Fifth Woman (2004)

Mankell’s police procedurals starring Kurt Wallander were popular with English-literate readers long before fellow Swede Steig Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo stole the limelight. Considering Mankell’s innate skill and years of practicing his craft, the Anglo-American crime fiction crowd has few better ways to view is favorite genre through a different cultural lens.

Anne Perry, Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel (2011)

Charlotte and her copper hubby Thomas Pitt apparently take on assassins and spies to save the British Empire in this Victorian gambol. Fun summer reading—but we’ll see how it fares next to my Victorian-Edwardian-Great War mysteries of choice, Elizabeth Peters’ intergenerational Amelia Peabody series.

Spencer Quinn, Dog on It (2009)

Cat cozies are so cliché. But dog n’ detective romps?  Nearly unheard of! Although the scent of yada-yada-I’ve-seen-that-before rises from the missing teen daughter plot, innovative charm wafts from Chet and Bernie. Pismo Beach + Dog on It = happiness.

Steven Saylor, Roman Blood (1991)

Gordianus is a “finder,” an ancient Roman sleuth hired by Marcus Tullius Cicero (yup, that dead politician/philosopher some honors girls all had crushes on freshman spring….) to ferret out who really committed the crime with which Cicero’s client, Sextus Roscius, is charged. It’s a historical mystery, but far from being a nostalgic Victorian cozy like Treason at Lisson Grove, it’s a serious legal thriller spiced with moral grit and political gore, the hallmarks of the dying Roman Republic.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Roseanna (2008)

The Birmingham Post praises Sjöwall and Wahlöö as “the best writers of police procedural in the world.” Obviously I want to know why the level-headed Midlands folk think thus. Written in the 1980s, this first novel in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck
series details their protagonist’s hunt for the villain who killed Roseanna on an idyllic day at Lake Vattern.

Frank Tallis, Vienna Blood (2008)

Everyone loves best-buds sleuthing teams—from Holmes and Watson to Shawn and Gus—and Tallis knows it. Turn-of-the-century Viennese psychologist Max Liebermann helps his Detective Inspector buddy solve a crime connected to Mozart’s The Magic Flute! A must-read for me because (1) I love Vienna, (2) I’ve seen The Magic Flute, (3) It’s set only a decade before my novel is, and (4) My sleuth is a psychologist as well. Also, its title bears a happy resemblance to Saylor’s novel’s, so obviously I’m meant to read both. As are you.

Victoria Thompson, Murder on Bank Street (2008)

Another turn-of-the-century venture, Thompson’s novel explores the underbelly of New York from her midwife sleuth’s POV. The tenth book of the Gaslight Mysteries series, Murder on Bank Street delves into the protagonist’s past….and unearths her husband’s murder. Thompson fans expostulate enthusiastically an Amazon; I think I trust them.

The Best American Mystery Stories: 2010.

Edited by Lee Child and Otto Penzler, this collection of twenty short stories represents the best up-and-coming crime writers in America. If you want to know how the genre has morphed this year, here’s the place to look.

Enjoy! 🙂

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Emma Formatted to Fit Your Screen: Andrew Davies, Douglas McGrath, and Sandy Welch’s ‘Emma’s

Do screen adaptations of Austen betray her writing
or, as Butler has claimed, signify its universality? Discuss with detailed
reference to particular adaptations.

In 1957, George Bluestone asserted that adapting a novel for film is a mistake because film is an essentially inferior art form to the novel and thus cannot avoid butchering the source text. [1] As cinematic art developed, scholarly opinion changed, until now critics such as Marc Di Paolo can “assume that a film can have artistic merit” and that “a film can—at least in some manner—be ‘worthy’ of the culturally treasured source novel that it is based on.”[2] By 2000, it was possible for Deidre Lynch to suggest that “[t]o concentrate on whether the meanings of the novels have been ‘misrepresented’” in Austen film adaptations “is to defer more interesting if more difficult questions.”[3] Yet this traditional question is precisely the one at hand—whether or not Austen film
adaptations are valid. I will first address literary critics’ views of what it might mean for a film to “betray” Austen, and then analyze three adaptations of Emma from the scholars’ perspective: Diarmuid Lawrence and Andrew Davies’ telefilm Jane Austen’s “Emma” (1996), Douglas McGrath’s Miramax film Emma (1996), and Jim O’Hanlon and Sandy Welch’s television miniseries Emma (2009). Using these films as examples, I will argue that Austen has universal appeal, and discuss whether it is grounded in nostalgia for her world or love for her characters.

 

Betrayal and Fidelity on the Screen

“Betrayal” implies relationship. Interviews with Jane Austen’s “Emma” screenwriter Andrew Davies and with the Miramax Emma director and screenwriter Douglas McGrath reveal that both filmmakers, even in the absence of copyright restrictions on Austen’s work, believe they have a responsibility to Austen. “You can’t change the actual story,” said Davies. The “certain amount of liberty” a screenwriter must take when adapting a novel to film, for Davies, is justified because every novel has “hidden scenes” that the author “didn’t get around to writing herself.”[4] Similarly, McGrath praises Austen as “a good collaborator” because of her
“superb dialogue,” “memorable characters,” and “extremely clever skill for plotting.” Like Davies, McGrath sees himself as working with the person Jane Austen; as with any “collaborator,” he has agreed to honor her work.

But what does it mean to “honor her work”? Presumably, it means adhering to her text; yet critics mean different things by “adhere to the text.”  John Wiltshire, [5] Neil Sinyard,[6]  and Di Paolo[7] compare Austen adaptations to critical essays that emphasize particular aspects of a work to the expense of other facets to make a point. Since Austen’s novels have been adapted to film several times, “the weight of responsibility” not to betray Austen “is shared by other, parallel, literary adaptations.”[8] No film need be “definitive”—a relief to filmmakers, since no 120-page-screenplay adaptation of a 400-page novel can be.

Helpfully, Geoffrey Wagner invented three classifications for film adaptations of novels: “A ‘transposition’ follows the novel closely; a ‘commentary’ alters the novel slightly, with a new emphasis or new structure; and ‘analogy’ uses the novel as a point of
departure.”[9] Sue Parrill offers Pride and Prejudice (1995), which takes nearly all its dialogue from the novel, as a “transposition”; Mansfield Park (1999), which “reinterprets the novel” from a postmodern view of its historical context, as a “commentary”; and Clueless (1996), Emma retold in 1990s Los Angeles, as an “analogy.”[10] Implicit in Wagner’s classifications is the belief that any film that corresponds to a category does not “betray” Austen—even the revisionist Mansfield Park and contemporary Clueless. Further liberating film adaptations, Brian McFarlane told the Literature/Film Association that “with film adaptations….playing around is more effective” than “fidelity.”[11] In the last fifteen years, many literary critics have accepted that films—as different than yet equal to novels—cannot “definitively” represent Austen’s work, and thus that filmmakers should concentrate on making excellent films. Such a critical consensus indicates that the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” film adaptations—between “betraying” and remaining “faithful” to Austen—has been deconstructed in favor of a confidence that adaptation has something
interesting to say about Austen.

“Emma”: Social and Psychological Order in the Opening and Closing Scenes of Three “Emma” Adaptations

Emma, as Austen’s most complex novel, spawns the most divergent interpretations.[12] According to Di Paolo, critics tend to see Emma either as a “domestic Bildungsroman” or as “a social critique.”[13] The three most recent Emma adaptations fall into these two groups: the Miramax and BBC versions are Bildungsromans, and the Meridian/A&E version a social critique. Additionally, one can categorize the films according to Wagner’s standards: the Miramax is a transposition; the BBC slips between transposition and commentary, highlighting minor themes, supplying new dialogue, and yet faithfully representing the plot and characters; and the “Marxist”[14] Meridian is clearly a commentary. In each of these films, the filmmakers especially use the opening and closing scenes to communicate their readings of Austen’s novel.

The Opening Scenes

From its first scene, Diarmuid Lawrence and Andrew Davies’ verson highlights Emma’s social context—class divisions in Highbury. According to David Monagham, screenwriter Andrew Davies renders both the novel’s “Burkeian view of the social contract”[15]
and its historical context, namely the lower classes’ “discontent…in the wake of the French revolution.”[16] For Burke and Austen, “society is not frozen into a state of immutable perfection,” but is “a living organism” that “must either grow or wither and
die.”[17] Davies asserts that Highbury’s small community, led by its insular upper class, is too static to survive the nineteenth century’s social changes.

In his essay “Emma and the Art of Adaptation,” Monagham describes how Davies establishes his reading of Highbury
in his first scene: working-class thieves raid Hartfield’s chicken coups, observed by a sleepy and bored Emma. Emma’s depiction in this scene contrasts with the lower-class characters’: she is captured by a still camera, framed by a white window, and moves slowly, while the thieves’ running feet are followed by the camera. The upper-class, static Emma is separated from the turbulent
lower-class. In the next scene, Mr. Woodhouse tells Miss Taylor not to marry Mr. Weston as they and Emma ride in a carriage past Highbury’s poor; Davies juxtaposes the inert upper class—represented by Mr. Woodhouse’s hatred of change—with the need for change. In the third scene, the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Weston run to their carriage, followed by the camera like the chicken
thieves. The upbeat music, moving camera, and jostling carriage indicate that marriage represents healthy change in Davies’ Highbury.[18]

In contrast to Davies’ telefilm, Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996) focuses on Emma’s peers as her pertinent social context,
prompting Carol M. Dole to criticize the McGrath film for ignoring Emma’s social context and perpetuating
the “American ‘myth of classlessness.’”[19] Nevertheless, McGrath’s film depicts Emma
as a Bildungsroman,[20] showing how Emma matures by interacting with her friends until she can marry
her dearest friend, Mr. Knightly. McGrath’s opening sequence features portraits of the important characters: Mrs. and Miss Bates, Mr. Elton, Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightly, Mr. Woodhouse, and Emma. The characters pictured here constitute Emma’s social context, as the narrator’s first line emphasizes: “In a time when one’s town was one’s world, and the actions at a dance excited
greater interest than the movement of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run.”[21]
The camera, fittingly, moves from the spinning globe to Emma’s face. McGrath’s ironic opening line indicates that Emma’s interactions with her friends will teach her that she does not know “how this world should be run.” McGrath is
interested in how the society fosters the individual. For instance, in the first scene, Emma tells Mrs. Weston: “Such happiness this brings to all of us.”[22] The camera again focuses on Emma’s painted globe, which symbolizes Mrs. Weston’s inclination to indulge Emma and allow her to waste her gifts instead of using them to help her peers.[23] Mrs. Weston’s decisions—like each character’s—do not affect only her, but her peers.

Emma’s relevant social context in screenwriter Sandy Welch’s Emma (2009) is even more limited than in McGrath’s film; Welch
begins with a prologue sequence dramatizing Emma, Frank, and Jane’s childhoods. As Emma says in the first episode, “Jane, Frank Churchill and I are bound together in a mysterious sort of way.”[24] The prologue shows how the tragedies in Emma, Jane, and Frank’s childhoods are aberrations in Highbury’s social order: an upper-class family becomes poor, two mothers die, and two children leave and “trust their fortune to strangers.”[25] The rattling carriages that carry Jane and Frank from Highbury represent social disorder. Yet Welch, like McGrath more interested in psychological than social order, emphasizes how Emma, Jane, and Frank’s childhood experiences of loss and loneliness affect their actions as adults.

In the first scene, Welch reveals how Mrs. Woodhouse’s death affects Emma’s childhood. A young Emma plays with dolls beneath a table, the table’s legs and curtains surrounding her, isolating her from the other people in the room. As Emma hears Miss Bates talk of Jane, she rolls her eyes at Miss Taylor, already rejecting Jane’s friendship. Mr. Woodhouse shushes Miss Bates lest Emma should
hear of Jane going to the seaside with the Campbells; thus, the sea represents maturity, liberty, and community for the viewer, who sees the child Emma still trapped beneath the table, alone with her dolls. With the prologue and first scene, the film presents Emma as alienated from others by her mother’s death.

The Closing Scenes

Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong as Emma and Mr Knightly in Andrew Davies' adaptation

Having established their favored interpretation of Austen’s novel, the filmmakers must conclude by consummating their themes. In Davies’s telefilm, the opening scenes’ contrast between chaos and immobility merges in a dance’s orderly movement. The camera
follows Emma as she trots agitatedly after discovering that Harriet loves Mr. Knightly, and cuts quickly from Emma to Harriet as they nearly collide and nervously tell of their engagements. After Mr. Knightly promises both
“stability” and “change” to his tenants, [26] the three happy couples dance together, surrounded by both upper- and
lower-class characters, as an unmistakable image of “class harmony.”[27] Although the dancing couples would make an ideal final image, Davies concludes with a second chicken raid. Monagham argues that the second raid depicts Highbury as a nineteenth century wasteland that can only be healed by the balance between stability and change that marriage offers.[28]
Yet while the opening scenes presented marriage among the upper class as heralding change to a proper social order, the second raid implies that marriage alone cannot heal Highbury.

In contrast, the McGrath film lingers on the proposal itself, presenting Mr. Knightly as Emma’s most important friend. Mr. Knightly and Emma say the word “friend” and its variations eight times during the proposal scene,[29] climaxing with Mr. Knightly asking Emma to marry him: “Marry me, my wonderful, darling friend.”[30] Moreover, while the novel nods at the “iron sharpens iron” element of their friendship,[31] McGrath highlights their friendship’s improving nature by adapting Austen’s
line: “I’ve humbled you, and I’ve lectured you, and you have borne it as no one could’ve borne it. Maybe it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.”[32] McGrath shows that Emma’s close friendships, particularly with Mr. Knightly,
have matured her so that she can now marry Mr. Knightly and integrate with society.

Mr Knightly (Jeremy Northam) proposes to Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) in McGrath's adaptation

Additionally, the post-proposal scenes highlight only Emma’s most important friends: Harriet occupies the two scenes before the wedding, which features Mrs. Elton, Frank and Jane, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston. As the wedding segues into the portraits of
Emma and her friends from the film’s beginning, the narrator says, “[T]he wishes, faith, and the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the
union.”[33] The portraits—including one of Jane, Frank, and Mrs. and Miss Bates, who do not leave Highbury in McGrath’s film—are neatly arranged beneath that of Mr. and Mrs. Knightly, visually representing the consummation of Highbury’s social
order brought about by Emma’s marriage.

As the Welch Emma’s prologue narrowed Emma’s society further to just her, Jane, and Frank, the film’s conclusion
emphasizes their connection. Welch’s proposal resembles Austen’s more than McGrath’s in that hers, like Austen’s, contrasts Frank and Jane’s secret engagement with Mr. Knightly and Emma’s honesty towards each other.[34] While Emma and Knightly use the word “secret” twice to describe Jane and Frank in the film, they speak of their “honesty” towards each other eight times.[35]

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma and Mr Knightly in Welch's adaptation

In the following scenes, Emma reconciles with Frank and Jane, who show no sign of leaving Highbury. Frank, whom Emma had previously called a “little lost boy,” has finally “come home” to Highbury with Jane;[36] as the lonely children who lost loved family members find love again, social order is restored. But as the Davies film refused to end on a romanticized image of social order, Welch disrupts the newly-restored order. Emma says good-bye to her father and—echoing Jane and Frank’s departures in the
prologue—is handed into a carriage by Mr. Knightly as they head to their seaside honeymoon. In this final scene, Welch combines the images of social disorder and psychological isolation established in the prologue and first scene to comment on Emma’s character at the story’s end. For Welch, Emma’s marriage has ended the isolation caused by her mother’s death. When the sea was
first mentioned in the first scene, Emma was trapped beneath a table, playing with dolls by herself. In the last shot, Emma and Mr. Knightly gaze at the sea, holding hands. Emma’s interactions with Jane, Frank, and Mr. Knightly have taught her to be honest with people, not to manipulate them like toys. More importantly, Emma’s mature honesty has enabled her to escape her isolation.

Conclusion

As the three different Emmas indicate, the broad possibilities for Austen adaptations stem from the novels’
intellectual richness and their universal popularity. Julian North,[37]  Andrew Davies,[38] Judith Lowder Newton,[39] Diedre Lynch,[40] Douglas McGrath[41] and others attribute Austen’s modern popular appeal to nostalgia for a pre-industrial age of politeness and beauty. One could also attribute Austen’s 1990s popularity to politics: according to Marilyn Butler, Austen is
an intellectual conservative whose ideals of moral and social order are uniquely ground in the actual world.[42]
The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990,[43] and the Treaty on European Union’s signing in 1992[44]
may have attracted filmgoers and readers anxious about society and politics to Austen in the 1990s.

Fifteen years after Davies’ and McGrath’s Emmas, there is no consensus among film and literary critics about which film is
“better”; yet it seems that the former has fared worse than the latter. In 2008, Paul Mavis of DVD Talk criticized
the Lawrence-Davies adaptation for being “miscast,” “misdirected,” and “not very funny.” To Mavis, Kate
Beckinsale’s Emma is “bitchy, snotty,” and Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightly is “too stern and cross”[45]—characterizations
in tune with Davies’ depiction of a complacent, static, and supercilious upper class. Mavis’ review reveals that the social commentary in Davies’ film negatively affected the characters’ portrayals, which has caused the film’s reception to grow colder with the years. In contrast, Hilary Schor noted in 2003 that McGrath’s Emma “seem[s] classic to most viewers” because of its “strategic deployment of characters’ voices.”[46] As the McGrath film used society to further character development, critics’
continued positive reviews of his film suggest that Austen’s popularity has more to do with her characters than with her world. Therefore, as Welch’s film developed Emma, Jane, and Frank’s psychologies even more thoroughly than McGrath’s,
it is likely that critics will still view the latest Emma adaptation positively in another decade. If so, McGrath’s and
Welch’s Emma adaptations demonstrate that Austen’s loveable characters—not her beautiful, pre-materialistic, orderly
society—render her work universal.


[1]
Marc Di Paolo, Emma Adapted: Jane
Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film
(New York: Lang, 2007), 12.

[2]
Ibid., 12.

 [3] Deidre Lynch, “Introduction: Sharing with Our
Neighbors,” in Janeites: Austen’s
Disciples and Devotees
, edited by Deidre Lynch, 3-24 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2000), 5.

 [4] David
Goldman, “Jane Austen’s Emma: Meet
the Production Team” (1996): http://www.pemberley.com/janeausten. Quoted in Gina
Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald, “Introduction,” in Jane Austen on Screen, edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F.
Macdonald, 1-8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.

 [5] John
Wiltshire, Recreating Jane Austen (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2001), 5. Quoted in Di Paolo, 8-9.

 [6] Neil
Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of
Screen Adaptation
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 117. Quoted in Sue
Parrill, Jane Austen on Film and
Television: A Critical Study of the
Adaptations (Jefferson, North Carolina:
MacFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002), 5.

 [7] Di
Paolo, 16.

 [8] Ibid.,
16.

 [9]
Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and Cinema (London:
Tantivy Press, 1975), 222-226. Quoted in Parrill, 9.

[10]
Parrill, 8-9.

 [11] Brian
McFarlane, “It Wasn’t Like That in the Book,” Literature/Film Quarterly 28:3 164-169 (2000), 165. Quoted in
Parrill, 8.

 [12] Di
Paolo, 19.

 [13]
Ibid., 22.

[14]
Di Paolo, 105.

 [15] David
Monagham, “Emma and the Art of
Adaptation,” in Jane Austen on Screen,
edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald, 197-227 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003), 200.

 [16]
Ibid., 202.

 [17]
Ibid., 203.

[18]
Monagham, 199-212. Jane Austen’s “Emma”, DVD, directed by Diamuid Lawrence (London:
Meridian [ITV] /A&E, 1996).

 [19] Di
Paolo, 8.

 [20]
Ibid., 22.

 [21] Emma, DVD, directed by Douglas McGrath
(Santa Monica, California: Miramax, 1996).

[22] Emma, McGrath.

[23] For
Hilary Schor, the globe represents the power Emma exerts on the people around
her, which is clearly supported by the
narrator’s ironic comment that Emma “knew how this world should be run”
(Hilary Schor, “Emma, Interrupted:
Speaking Jane Austen in Fiction and Film,” in Jane Austen on Screen, edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F.
Macdonald, 144-174 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 147-8). Yet
in the first scene, Emma, Mr. Elton, and Mrs. Weston discuss Emma’s skill (or
lack thereof) evidenced by the globe, which justifies my interpretation of the
globe’s symbolism.

 [24]
“Episode 1,” Emma, DVD, directed by
Jim O’Hanlon (London: BBC, 2009).

 [25]
Ibid.

[26] Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

 [27]
Monagham, 211.

 [28]
Ibid., 211.

 [29] In
Austen’s text, Emma dignifies both Mr. Knightly and Harriet by calling each one
her “friend” twice, and Mr. Knightly only once says the word “friend” (Jane
Austen, Emma [London: Dover
Publications, 2011],  368-375).

[30] Emma, McGrath.

 [31] “I
have blamed you,” Mr. Knightly says, “and lectured you, and you have borne it
as no other woman in England would have borne it” (Austen 373).

 [32] Emma, McGrath.

 [33] Ibid.

 [34] Austen’s diction in the proposal scene emphasizes
truth and deception: “blind” or “blindness” appears six times (Austen 368),
“secret” (369) and “concealment” (372) once each, and “truth” four times
(372-3).

[35]
“Episode 4,” Emma, DVD, directed by
Jim O’Hanlon (London: BBC, 2009).

 [36]
“Episode 1,” Emma, O’Hanlon.

 [37]
Parrill, 38.

[38]
Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, The
Making of Jane Austen’s Emma
(London: Penguin, 1996), 7-8. Quoted in
Parrill, 123.

 [39] James
Thompson, “How to Do Things with Austen,” in Jane Austen and Co., edited by Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson, 13-32 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 23.

 [40]
Lynch, 6.

 [41]
Parrill, 6-7.

 [42] Marilyn Butler, Jane
Austen and the War of Ideas
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1-3.

 [43]
“Margaret Thatcher (1925 – ),” BBC
History
, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/ thatcher_margaret.shtml
(accessed 5 April 2011).

[44]
“1980-1989: The Changing Face of Europe—The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” Europa: The History of the European Union, http://europa.eu/abc/history/1980-1989/index_en.htm
(accessed 5 April 2011).

 [45]
Paul Mavis, “Romance Collection: Special Ed. (Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet
Pimpernel, Emma, Tom Jones, Jane Eyre, Lorne Doone, Ivanhoe),” DVD Talk, 2 June 2008, http://www.dvdtalk.com
/reviews/33453/romance-collection-special-ed-pride-and-prejudice-the-scarlet-pimpernell-emma-tom-jones-jane-eyre-lorna-doone-more-the/

(accessed 5 April 2011).

 [46]
Schor, 145.

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“Dubliners” by James Joyce

Is it helpful to look at Dubliners as “[a] series of epicleti” or as “epiclets”?

Considering the ambiguity of “high” modernist texts, the reader welcomes any indication of the author’s intentions for a work. For instance, one cheers James Joyce’s description of Dubliners in a 1904 letter as a boon: “'[A] series of epicleti… I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” Some critics have interpreted “epicleti” to refer to “epiklesis,” the word Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians use to refer to the invocation of the Holy Ghost at the Eucharist. Thus, each short story would be a symbolic invocation or Eucharist.[1] Other critics, however, have read Joyce’s unclearly-written word as “epiclets,” which would characterize each story as a little-epic. Thus, with Dubliners, one finds it difficult to defend only one interpretation of a modernist work as valid, even if one believes in authorial intent. Reading the stories as invocations or as little epics helps the reader to the extent that it encourages one to notice Joyce’s plot structures, diction, and symbolism.

“The Sisters”

Although Joyce may have changed his conception of Dubliners as invocations after 1904—or never intended them to be invocations at all—one finds it helpful to read “The Sisters” as showing the failure of invocation and what Joyce sees as the detrimental effects of Catholicism on Irish society. The first Dubliners story, it cannot be read well as a “little epic”—it bears only negligent resemblance to Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey either in its structure or imagery. One could construe the story into a “Telemachy”-like structure: the narrator describes his ordinary life learning from the priest,[2] which is disturbed by the priest’s death.[3] The priest’s death could be seen as a call to adventure, as the narrator feels “freed” by his death.[4] But one cannot stretch the story any further to adhere to a Homeric epic structure.

In contrast, “The Sisters” reads well as a story of invocation. It begins with the death of Father Flynn, a priest who took his duties very seriously, perhaps too seriously from the narrator’s point of view—and certainly from Joyce’s. According to the characters, Father Flynn was “queer” [5] because he believes he committed a sacrilege: “It was that chalice he broke.”[6] Father Flynn apparently dropped the chalice used for the Eucharist during Mass. Yet the reader remains uncertain to what extent this was a sacrilege: “[T]hey say it was all right,” Eliza says, “that it contained nothing”[7]—that is, it did not contain wine that the invoked Holy Spirit had transformed into Christ’s blood. Nevertheless, the story’s first invocation destroys Father Flynn.  Because he “was too scrupulous always,”[8] Father Flynn feels as guilty as if he had actually spilled Christ’s blood: “That affected his mind,”[9] Eliza says. Father Flynn’s “queer”[10] behavior manifests itself as a preoccupation with confession: one night, other priests find him “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself.”[11] Notably, the two topics the narrator recalls Father Flynn teaching him about are “the duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and the secrecy of the confessional”[12]; because of his error, Father Flynn cannot mentally separate the Eucharist from confession. Even when the narrator dreams of the priest, he realizes that Father Flynn “desired to confess something.”[13]

Yet as a priest who receives confessions and prays for his congregation, he has no one to whom he can confess besides the Holy Spirit.  In the story’s second invocation, Father Flynn hides in “his confession-box” at night and “invokes” the Holy Spirit to intercede on his behalf.[14] Although Father Flynn feels his “invocation” to be absurd—while he prays, he appears to be “laughing-like softly to himself”[15]—it appears that his invocation was, in the end, successful. Twice Eliza refers to Father Flynn’s “death” and “corpse” as “beautiful.”[16] Although “he was not smiling,”[17] he looks “peaceful and resigned.”[18] Joyce describes Father Flynn’s face as “copious,”[19] which usually refers to an abundant amount of food. Father Flynn has, in death, come to mirror the Eucharist: the bread and the wine are united in Father Flynn’s coffin as his body and the “chalice.”[20] Thus, Joyce’s diction indicates that Father Flynn’s second invocation was successful—he has died reconciled with God and with himself. Yet Joyce undermines the Eucharistic image of Father Flynn’s death with his final line: “when they saw that, that made them think that there was something wrong with him…” (ellipsis in original).[21] As the last, open image is of Father Flynn confessing his sin, the reader feels that Father Flynn will continue his invocation, “laughing-like,”[22] throughout eternity, in complete paralysis and futility. 

Furthermore, the narrator’s won attempt at invocation fails: during his visit to the deceased priest’s house, the narrator “pretended to pray” but cannot “gather” his “thoughts” because he is distracted by the physical world: “I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back.”[23] Joyce undermines the entire idea of “invocation”—although the Incarnation sanctified the physical world, and physical elements undergo apotheosis at the Eucharist, both events have failed. If the physical world still bars people from communing with God, then the physical world has not been redeemed: the narrator unwittingly undermines invocation as he wanders “along the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows” instead of praying for the priest’s soul.[24]

Reading “The Sisters” as a story of invocation or an “epicleti” thus helps the reader see Dublin’s religious inertia. The story both begins and ends with Father Flynn’s “paralysis,”[25] trapped in a futile Catholic society. In contrast, the narrator has been “freed” from the priest’s freezing influence, and can enjoy walking in the sunshine.[26] Thus, Joyce reveals that by abandoning the Catholic faith and its rites of invocation, Ireland may ameliorate its paralysis.

“Araby”

As Joyce continued writing Dubliners, it appears he followed his own advice and abandoned the idea of the stories as “invocation”—if he had intended them as “epicleti” in the first place. Although “Araby” could be read as an “invocation” story, it is actually more helpful to read it as a “little epic.” Joyce uses Catholic imagery in the story:  the narrator refers to his affection for his friend’s sister as a “chalice”[27] and describes the empty bazaar as marked by “a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”[28] One could further point to the drunken uncle’s late arrival to dinner[29] and the “porcelain vases” that “stood like eastern guards”[30] as perverted images of the Eucharist. If so, Joyce shows invocation’s futility as in “The Sisters”: the narrator looks desperately “up into the darkness,” not into the light of God.[31] For the “Araby” narrator, invocation will not heal Ireland’s paralysis.

In contrast, one can read “Araby” as a sort of “Telemachy.” The story begins with a clear depiction of the narrator’s ordinary world at home[32] and continues with a call to adventure in the form of his friend’s sister: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.”[33] After accepting her call, he endures various trials: “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.”[34] Having successfully endured his tests, the narrator takes on a greater duty: since his lady cannot visit the Araby bazaar, and he to go in her stead and bring her a gift.[35] Like Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator must leave his home to find something and bring it home. When the narrator reaches his destination, he cannot acquire a gift for the girl and must return empty-handed. While watching the young English people flirt, he realizes that he has idealized romance, and that love in the adult world is a Waste Land—the Englishwoman’s “tea-sets” and “great jars”[36] are as empty as his “chalice.”[37] Like Telemachos, the “Araby” narrator—the last of Joyce’s children protagonists—has come of age during his “epiclet.”

“A Little Cloud”

“A Little Cloud,” however, is more ambiguous; one can read it either as an invocation or as a little-epic. Joyce does not point the reader in either direction: for instance, he only uses Catholic imagery with Gallaher’s “catholic gesture”[38]; the “winds” in the Byron poem,[39] which could stand for the Holy Ghost; and Little Chandler’s son and wife, which could stand for the Christ child and the Virgin Mary.[40] If the final scene is an invocation, Little Chandler invokes himself and his own powers: “Could he not escape from his little house?”[41] “Could he, too write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse?”[42] When Little Chandler realizes that invoking his own ability is useless, he yells another request at his son: “Stop!”[43] Subtly increasing the story’s ambiguity, Joyce refers to Little Chandler’s wife and son as “a young woman” or “its mother”[44] and “the child” who is “Mamma’s little lamb of the world”[45] which could connect them to Mary and the Christ child. If so, then Little Chandler is rebuked for invoking his own powers instead of asking his family for help; his “remorse” at the story’s end would indicate he has learned that both his duty and his source of strength are with his family.

Yet one could also read “A Little Could” as an “epiclet” begun in media res. Little Chandler has previously received a call to adventure and refused it: “Eight years before” he sent his friend Gallaher out of “dear dirty Dublin”[46] to “the great city London.”[47] Now Gallaher returns from his quest with a boon for Ireland: himself and his accomplishments as “Ignatius Gallaher of the London Press!”[48] Gallaher’s homecoming acts as another call to adventure for Little Chandler, who feels that “[e]very step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own sober inartistic life.”[49] After a moment of “indecision”[50] Little Chandler opens the door into the bar—crossing the first threshold—and is greeted by Gallaher as “old hero.[51] His conversation with Gallaher awakens in him a desire to travel: “Could he go to London?”[52] Until the story’s end, Little Chandler does not realize that the adventure he needs is psychological, not physical: “A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind”(emphasis mine).[53] Joyce shows that leaving Dublin will not necessarily solve Little Chandler’s problems—while he longs for someplace “beautiful,”[54] Gallaher can only tales of metropolitan “immorality.”[55] The story’s end suggests that Little Chandler needs to learn “to live bravely” at home.[56] One could read Little Chandler’s ambiguously-delineated wife and son as Penelope and Telemachos. Homer’s Odyssey is the tale of a man desperate to get home to his wife and son; perhaps if Little Chandler leaves Dublin, he will spend the rest of his life wishing he had stayed with his family.

Conclusion

The Dubliners stories, like other “high” modernist works, can be read in various ways due to their characteristic ambiguity. Thus, Joyce’s description of Dubliners as a “series of epicleti” would illuminate one’s reading of the work—if one knew precisely what he meant by “epicleti.” “The Sisters,” the first story, reads well as an “epiklesis” in the Catholic sense of “invoking” the Holy Ghost; yet the other stories lend themselves to multiple interpretations, including that of the stories as “epiclets.” Since one cannot know Joyce’s exact meaning by “epicleti,” attempting to find the story’s “meaning” using this idea is futile. Nevertheless, thinking of the stories as “invocations” or as “little epics” helps one to notice Joyce’s charily-selected diction and imagery, and thus to read Dubliners better.


[1] “James Joyce: Notes (1) – Textual History,” Ricorso: A Knowledge of Irish Literature, edited by Bruce Stewart (http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/j/Joyce_JA/notes/notes1.htm).

[2] James Joyce, “The Sisters,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 10-11.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 15. 

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 15. 

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 15. 

[12] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 11. 

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth in our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26, KJV).

[15] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 15. 

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 13. 

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 16. 

[22] Ibid., 16.

[23] Ibid., 12.

[24] Ibid., 10. 

[25] Ibid., 7.

[26] Ibid., 10.

[27] Joyce, “Araby,” Dubliners (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995), 27.

[28] Ibid., 31.

[29] Ibid., 30.

[30] Ibid., 31. 

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid., 26-8.

[33] Ibid., 27.

[34] Ibid., 27.

[35] Joyce, “Araby,” 28.

[36] Ibid., 31.

[37] Ibid., 27.

[38] James Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 71.

[39] Ibid., 77. 

[40] Ibid., 78.

[41] Ibid., 77. 

[42] Ibid., 78.

[43] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 78.

[44] Ibid., 78. 

[45] Ibid., 77-9. 

[46] Ibid., 69.

[47] Ibid., 65.

[48] Ibid., 67. 

[49] Ibid., 68.

[50] Ibid., 69. 

[51] Ibid., 69.

[52] Ibid., 77.

[53] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 68. 

[54] Ibid., 70.

[55] Ibid., 72.

[56] Ibid., 77.

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Truth and Reality in “Crime and Punishment” and “Midnight’s Children”

“What’s real and what’s true,” for both the postmodern Salman Rushdie and the Russian Orthodox Fyodor Dostoevsky, “aren’t necessarily the same” (Rushdie 87). Although separated by 120 years, the two writers’ epic novels struggle with the same questions about the relationship between the physical world and truth. By the end of Midnight’s Children (1981) and Crime and Punishment (1865), both Rushdie and Dostoevsky promote “truths” that contradict the historical-physical world’s “facts.” The different “truths” determine the novels’ different ends: Rushdie’s multiplicitous, relative “truth” leads to despair, while Dostoevsky’s irrational, absolute “truth” leads to hope. 

In Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, truth is independent of facts. Truth does not reside in the physical world’s facts, but in how one interprets the facts. Thus, the same historical fact can mean different true things to different people. Early in the novel, Rushdie’s narrator Saleem defines truth: “True, for me, was from my earliest days something hidden inside the stories Mary Pereira told me: Mary my ayah who was both more and less than a mother…True was a thing concealed just over the horizon” (Rushdie 87). Truth, for Saleem, is not something imbedded in historical events, but in the stories one tells about the past. Saleem mentions his ayah Mary to clarify his view of truth as separate from historical or physical facts. Mary Pereira switched Saleem and Shiva when they were infants; therefore, while Saleem is the illegitimate child of William Methwold and Vanita Winkie in fact, Saleem is the son of Ahmed and Amina Sinai in truth. Saleem’s true identity is not constrained by the physical facts of DNA. Therefore, truth for Saleem resides in the story one tells about facts, not in the facts themselves.

Thus, Saleem does not become distressed when he accidentally reports erroneous facts. After he records the date of Gandhi’s assassination, he realizes he has offered the wrong date. The “error in chronology” (Rushdie 189) however, does not scandalize Saleem: “But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time. Does one error invalidate the entire fabric?” (Rushdie 190). No, Saleem implies; one unintentionally incorrect fact does not undermine the story’s truth. After all, Saleem is telling the story of his “India”—not the historically factual India, but the true India that Saleem knew and experienced. Since Saleem cares more about the truth in his story than the facts of Gandhi’s assassination, he will not correct his mistake. The one historical error cannot disrupt the true story because truth is independent of facts.

On the other hand, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, truth for Rodya and Porfiry—a former law student and a police officer, respectively—is rooted in facts or pieces of evidence: one can use one’s logic to reason from facts to truth. Influenced by nihilist and rationalist philosophies, Rodya believes truth is located in the physical realm—in facts such as events, objects, or actions. He repeatedly contrasts a tangible fact with an ephemeral and ethereal idea: “They have no facts, however,” he thinks, “not a one—it’s all a mirage, all double-ended, just a fleeting idea” (Dostoevsky 268). The image of a “mirage” that is “fleeting” emphasizes that a fact, its opposite, is physical and adamant. Moreover, Rodya characterizes a “fleeting idea” as “double-ended”—unlike a fact, an “idea” is uncertain and equivocal; it can mean more than one thing. Thus, in contrast to a “mirage” or “fleeting idea,” a fact according to Rodya is physical, absolute, permanent, and conclusive. For example, Rodya accepts Porfiry and Zamyotov’s behavior at the police station as facts; he attempts to reason from those facts to the true motives behind their behavior. When “Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him somehow with obvious mockery,” Rodya analyzes Porfiry’s glance (Dostoevsky 253). According to Rodya, the fact that Porfiry would “wink” (Dostoevsky 254) proves a certain truth—that “he knows” of Rodya’s crime (Dostoevsky 251). Likewise, when Zamyotov says that Rasolnikov spoke “cunningly” (Dostoevsky 253), Rodya accepts Zamyotov’s choice of words as a fact and then tries to interpret it: “Why did Zamyotov add that I spoke cunningly?” (Dostoevsky 254).  According to Rodya, if truth exists, one can only reason to it by starting with facts.

But facts, according to Porfiry, are unreliable and deceptive. Thus, Porfiry’s definition of a fact includes intangible things such as psychology and human nature. Unlike Rodya, who believes that ideas are “double-ended” or inconclusive (Dostoevsky 268), Porfiry suspects physical “evidence” that can stand up in court as “double-ended”—from personal experience (Dostoevsky 340).  In one case, a man turned himself in for murder. Although the man “presented facts” and “described circumstances,” in the end the man turned out to be innocent (Dostoevsky 345). “When he learned that he had given a pretext to the murders,” Porfiry says, “he became anguished, stupefied, began imagining things, went quite off his head, and convinced himself that he was the murderer!” (Dostoevsky 345). If an insane but innocent man can use accurate physical facts to prove his guilt, then a wise policeman will not wholly trust facts.

Instead of trusting physical facts as a place to begin looking for truth, Porfiry turns to psychology: “It’s human nature that helps the poor investigator out” (Dostoevsky 342). Porfiry believes that psychology enables detectives to predict with “mathematical” precision what a criminal will do (Dostoevsky 340). He describes an intelligent and educated criminal’s behavior to Rodya, explaining why a good policeman would not bother to arrest such a murderer: “Psychologically he won’t run away on me, heh, heh!…He won’t run away on me by a law of nature, even if he has somewhere to run to” (emphasis in original, Dostoevsky 340). A sophisticated murderer, Porfiry says, will continually return to the police station because he wants to see how well he has tricked the policemen. As a “moth” will always hover by a “candle,” the intelligent murderer will never be very far from the police station (Dostoevsky 340). Therefore, even if the intelligent murderer has left the police with no physical evidence, the murderer’s own psychology will work against him, forcing him to surrender himself to the police. Psychological facts, for Porfiry, are a reliable source of truth.

Thus far, Rushdie’s and Dostoevsky’s views of truth have been opposites: Rushdie presents truth as independent of facts; Dostoevsky, as dependent on facts.  Yet by the novels’ ends, both authors complicate truth. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem makes ironic transition near his narrative’s end: Saleem began the story resigned to making factual mistakes if it meant avoiding life’s terrifying “absurdity” or meaninglessness (Rushdie 4); but he ends to story intending to distort historical facts to ameliorate his fear of Shiva. After relating his experiences during Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, Saleem informs the reader that his tale has not been completely accurate: “To tell the truth,” he writes, “I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie—although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data” (Rushdie 510). In this passage, Saleem notes two ways that his story diverges from historical facts. First, Saleem’s “excessively romantic” details embellish the “meteorological data” (Rushdie 510); yet the essential facts of Indira’s Emergency remain intact, and Saleem’s flourishes highlight a truth about the Emergency’s facts. (Rushdie 510). Second, Saleem’s “lie” about Shiva rejects the historical facts (Rushdie 510); Saleem does not embellish the historical facts to communicate truth, but rather hides the facts to avoid the truth.

Saleem has defended the first case as tactic to fight the meaningless he fears: a fact “can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view” (Rushdie 230). Understanding a traumatizing historical event from one’s perspective helps one defeat “absurdity” (Rushdie 4). Yet Saleem cannot justify the second case; he calls his story of Shiva’s death an “out-and-out lie” for which he feels “shame” (Rushdie 510). Because he fears Shiva, Saleem has slipped from relativism into deception and knows his culpability. One historical “error” made to avoid “absurdity” is honorable (Rushdie 190, 4); but an “out-and-out lie” prompted by fear of death forces the liar into the absurd. Saleem’s story—which began as a war against “absurdity” (Rushdie 4)—ends with despair: Saleem describes his own ignoble death and the endless cycle of “midnight’s children” who are “unable to live or die in peace” (Rushdie 533). Once Saleem abandons his truth that is independent of facts, despair alone remains. 

Yet Sonya’s truth—also independent of facts—gives her hope. In contrast to Rodya and Porfiry, Sonya does not value the physical world as a source of truth.  With a faith that contradicts reason, Sonya clings to a spiritual truth that she cannot articulate: God is just and good. Sonya, in spite of her factual suffering and poverty, refuses to doubt God’s love and provision. When Rodya lists the horrible things that will happen to her, Sonya insists that God will protect her: “God won’t let it happen!” “God won’t allow such a horror!” “And what would I be without God? (Dosteovsky 320, 321, 323). Rodya realizes that Sonya—a young woman of “character” and “education” forced by poverty into prostitution (Dostoevsky 322)—should have gone mad long ago. “What sustained her?” Rodya wonders. “What does she expect, a miracle?” (Dostoevsky 323). Finally Rodya realizes that Sonya’s truth alone keeps her from going mad. He calls her “a holy fool” (Dostoevsky 324); Sonya cannot articulate the truth in which she has faith. When Rodya laughs, “But maybe there isn’t any God,” Sonya can only protest nonverbally: “She looked at him with inexpressible reproach, was about to say something, but could not utter a word” (Dostoevsky 321). She cannot speak the truth, because the truth is beyond rational knowledge, beyond physical facts.

Nevertheless, Sonya’s truth ultimately triumphs. Rodya—still convinced that Porfiry has no facts—confesses his crime to Sonya and tries to extrapolate from the facts of his crime to the truth of his motivation. He offers six possible “truths”: he killed Alyona to rob her (Dostoevsky 412), to become a Napoleon (Dostoevsky 415), to support his mother and sister (Dostoevsky 416), because he was mad (Dostoevsky 417), because he “wanted to dare” (Dostoevsky 418), and because he wanted to see whether he “was a louse like all the rest, or a man” (Dostoevsky 419). He can logically support each truth with the facts; yet not a single truth sufficiently explains his crime. Each truth is limited to physical phenomena (hunger) and human nature (desire for power); yet truth, as Dostoevsky wants the reader to understand, is metaphysical. In contrast to Rodya’s multiplicitous, inadequate explanations, Sonya finally speaks the single truth that neither Rodya nor Porfiry can see: “You deserted God, and God has stricken you, and given you over to the devil!…you understand nothing, simply nothing!” (Dostoevsky 418). Sonya’s spiritual truth, not Porfiry’s psychology or physical evidence, alone convinces Rodya to confess. In the end, her truth alone draws Rodya to repentance: “Can her convictions not be my convictions now?” (Dostoevsky 550). Sonya’s truth—though its “infinite happiness” still contradicts the factual, “unbearable suffering” she and Rodya must endure (Dostoevsky 550)—brings them both “new life” (Dostoevsky 549).

At the end of Midnight’s Children and Crime and Punishment, Rushdie and Dostoevsky have both abandoned facts—Rushdie, for a death-giving lie; and Dostoevsky, for a life-giving truth. Thus, Rushdie’s work reveals that relativistic truth ends with meaningless and despair, while Dosteovsky’s novel shows that metaphysical truth leads to hope. If Dostoevsky is right—that spiritual truth transcends the physical realm—how important are facts to truth?

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, F. M. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Random House, 1981.

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“If We Ask Anything According to His Will, He Hears Us”

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we ask of Him.

–James 5:13-15

 Earlier this evening, I wrote a brief theology of prayer based on James. Now, I must contemplate the following question: “What do you fear to ask God for? Why do you not have confidence in that request? How can you find confidence in that request?”

I feel tricked. Two pull questions in one night about prayer? But I also know how dense I am—usually God has to repeat a point over and over until I get it. My assumption, then, is that there’s something God wants me to learn about prayer tonight. Tonight, as I can’t escape that I’m-about-to-cry feeling; as I’ve spent a day fighting the when-I-think-about-everything-I-have-to-do-I-feel-nauseated feeling; as I listen to Christmas music not to reflect on the miracle of God with us, but merely to stay sane. Tonight, I have something to learn about prayer.

Since I haven’t a clue what it is, this blog post is going to be a lá Virginia Woolf or James Joyce—that’s right, stream-of-consciousness.

So here goes.

“What do you fear to ask God for?” (Resist the urge to edit the sentence’s preposition error!) I can trace my most common requests over the years:

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t ask for wisdom; it’s both the oldest and most persistent of my requests. I don’t think I’m wise, so I keep asking. I don’t know if that means God hasn’t given me wisdom, or if I just don’t see it.

 Every time we’ve moved, I’ve begged God for friends. Sometimes He’s given them; sometimes He hasn’t.

In middle school, I asked for courage and comfort, but mostly for answers. A friend died, and I didn’t understand how God could let that happen. I can’t say that I ever got what I asked for, but I did make it through.

In high school, I asked for perseverance, confidence, patience, strength, and joy. I know God gave me the first four. But joy?

I still ask for joy, alongside other things: peace, love, energy, and more wisdom. Now that I’m a quasi-adult, I ask for physical things, too: a job, a car, a place to live, a roommate, a mentor, a church, a top-50 grad school, a solid resume.

But what do I fear to ask God for? Well…I fear to ask God for things that hurt to think about. Things that, when they came to mind years ago, I could forget by doing homework. Now, when those things come to mind, I feel so sick that not even homework distracts me.

Sometimes, I do ask. But often I don’t. It hurts too much. And I suspect I don’t entirely believe that God is listening. If He isn’t, then by thinking about those things, I suffer for nothing. Even if He is listening, I don’t entirely believe that He’s disposed to give me what I ask. Which John says is absurd: “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us” (1 John 5:14).

In my last blog post, I came up with two reasons why God might not give me what I want: (1) Either it’s inappropriate for me, or (2) I just don’t ask.

I know this. And yet I rarely ask.

It’s nonsensical. I value rationality. I can argue myself into or out of most things. But I can’t convince myself to ask for those things. I know my motivation is entirely emotional and irrational. And I hate it.

“Why do you not have confidence in that request?” I know the answer to that, too. But I don’t particularly want to share that on the Internet. Because it’s my heart’s little secret from my head. Typing it out would hut like nothing I’ve ever known.

“How can you find confidence in that request?” Ironically, it seems the only way I can find confidence in my request is if that request is answered.

I’m sorry I’m being so cryptic. But when Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” he meant two things: First, it’s almost impossible to accurately understand what’s in a person’s heart. Only God can really do that. Second, even if someone has come to a sketchy understanding of her heart, it’s not something for other people to know. Aslan only tells you your story—no one else’s.

And so I’ll stop here.

 **Note to Dr. Vincent, if she reads this: I did my best.

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