As the semester closes I began looking towards the overall scope of the books we’ve read – what themes did we start with, and what all has been brought on board as we chugged along?
One of the topics I resonated with most this semester was the idea of searching for the self, and once found, finding an avenue to express that self. Where have the characters been able to look in the uncertain, dangerous, sensational times of turmoil the books feature? In Return of the Soldiers we had women waiting on men, both figuratively and literally – their selfhood determined almost entirely by their ability to satisfy Charles’s wife searches only for his approval, his relative searches only for glimpses of the old him – even his old teenage lover drops her life [and husband!] to care and entertain and restore him. In Swastika Night we had women with even more restrictions. With no place in the actual world, the book used this loss of self to highlight women’s actual importance (the sermon-giver slipping up to tell the women to bear girls instead of boys). Again and again, characters are used as vehicles to highlight the importance of one thing: their ability to both hear and be heard.
Almost all the characters we read this year struggled from some form of suppression – an inability to speak, an inability to be heard, or an inability to be comfortable with letting others express themselves. The characters who survived were those who were able to express; the characters who didn’t implode from internal pressures. In Mrs. Dalloway Septimus dangles back and forth, unable to talk, and on the rare occasions he tries he is cautioned or discredited back into silence – by both his wife and his doctor. Though Deborah takes what she wants during her husband Graham’s absence in To Bed with Grand Music, she is never allowed to openly discuss the world she wants to live in – instead she has to perform an act with her mother and caretaker, pretending at every turn that her actions have her child’s wellbeing at heart.
On the other hand, White Teeth opens with Archie saved by a rapping on his car window – an invitation for verbal exchange, and though speech, survival. In Absolute Beginners our unnamed protagonist deals with the multiplicity of free speech, it’s positives and negatives. And so survives.
I realized: it’s hard to talk about a concept that doesn’t yet exist formally. As humans we require language to bridge the gap between the turmoil of emotions and the regulated facts of the known, of the packaged and boxed. When PTSD was merely termed shell shock it was harder to grasp not only the problem but the implications of the existence. Before the oppressed women and minorities placed direct verbal confrontation on their plight the concept of their injustice was much easier to ignore. In reviewing the literature read this semester, a great thesis for the class would be that the advancement of language is crucial and in fact a prerequisite requirement to change itself. Until the vocabulary is created, repression and subsequent suppression is all we have.