Let’s Talk About That Movie

(Mainly I want to talk about it because it was so weird in comparison to the book, and I want to sort of muddle through my thoughts on that weirdness)

So Absolute Beginners is both a novel and a movie. The two are related, really, only in title, having been published, what, about 30 years apart or so? Sure, both stories feature British postwar teenage cameramen in love with fashion gals who do whatever it takes to get ahead–but after that basic setup the book and the movie go in quite different directions. We might be able to blame part of this on David Bowie–apparently the guy’s stipulation for allowing the use of his music was him having a part–but that seems rather unfair to Bowie, at least in the sense that it is very difficult to blame production decisions on just one person when it comes to film (or video games, or TV shows). It is a bit safer to say that the plot alterations to Absolute Beginners between the novel and film originated from numerous separate individuals. The question then arises, however, as to why the plot was altered so dramatically. Our unnamed narrator/Colin’s father, for instance, has next to no role in the film, beyond a musical number about how he knows his wife has “relations” with their tenants, but says and does nothing so as not to rock the boat. That’s a pretty dramatic role alteration from, you know, “near-central cause of the narrator’s abortive decision to leave the country.” As a whole, generational themes (that is, how the teenager subcultures interact with/react against their parent cultures) are almost entirely subsumed by racial themes when comparing the film to the novel. One might be able to presume that this is a result of the differing time periods of the two media (the novel is postwar, where generational identity was a pretty big deal, whereas the film is a product of the 1980s, where racial tensions were… high, to say the least), but I don’t know. Something feels rather reductive about effectively just saying, “Oh, they’re each a product of their times,” and leaving it at that. I feel like there has to be a bit more to the changes.

Of course, by “a bit more” I don’t necessarily mean “a deeper meaning.” One of my main thoughts about the changes made in the film is that they are quite hamfisted. The race riots become West Side Story-esque dance numbers, and the “corrupt corporate executives seek to tear down local housing for a fancy resort” plot feels more than a bit cliche (let’s put it this way: If Emperor’s New Groove did it–as great as that movie is–then it’s been done before). A big part of me honestly believes that the changes came as a result of everyone on the production board getting really excited about converting the book into a musical, and forgetting what the hell the book was trying to point out. For instance, we talked in class about the rather uncomfortably imperialistic undertones of the narrator’s actions in the final pages of the book (when he is greeting the black plane passengers). This moment (and others earlier in the text, like the chat between Cool and the narrator where the narrator finally learns that racial tension exists) provided incredibly strong commentary about privilege and how privilege drastically skews the perception of even the most well-meaning of individuals. That moment is completely gone from the film, replaced by a neat bowtie ending where a single street fight apparently ends all the riots–though, keep in mind, that street fight only ends by Cool deciding not to kill his white opponent, after a clear struggle, as though a black man must actively restrain “violent impulses” or something. Yeah, that’s… problematic, to say the least. What I’m trying to say is that, even though the film decided to focus on the racial themes of the book, it did so in a manner that is less sensitive and respectful of those themes. Why? How? How does one fixate on a theme and work with that theme so poorly compared to a text that splits its attention between multiple themes?

Well, part of the explanation might be that focusing on the racial themes was the movie’s downfall. Absolute Beginners the movie wanted so hard to tell its audience that racism is bad and everyone has the same gooey nougat/caramel/Bavarian creme filling (pick your favorite)–but by fixating so heavily on those themes, the movie went from “biting commentary” to “hitting the audience over the head with an anvil” levels. It is hard to be delicate or precise with an anvil, to say the least.


Applying Subculture

Hello from Maui, folks! Wow, I actually felt a little jealous of myself just for typing that.

So I read a really fantastic book recently. Can you guess what it was called? (Hint: Look up)

Why do I bring up Ready Player One on this blog, though? It is neither 20th Century nor British, and for most academic folk it probably wouldn’t be categorized as literature–so there is literally nothing within the title of this class that this book should connect with.

Except, you know, for the fact that we just read Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige lays the groundwork for really quite a lot of the layout of and language used in regards to culture and subculture today, so we owe much to the guy. That said, in doing just some very idle research into some background for the text, there are quite a few critiques of the work–though, many of those critiques center on, basically, “I’m American and what is this?” That is, since America has different perceptions of class boundaries compared to Britain, the methods by which Hebdige classifies subcultures makes less sense across the Atlantic–and, boohoo, Hebdige, in talking about British youth cultures, makes British references that go over American heads.

These critiques don’t hold much weight when it comes to the content and context of our class, but it does make it rather more difficult to identify subcultural boundaries within American culture. However, I think Simon, in his response paper, has hit on a valuable point for any cultural identification of the sub-stuff: dread.

The concept of “dread as currency” is something both British and American cultures can identify with. Heck, America can definitely identify with it, given that half of all of our socio-political arguments ever seem to be “X behavior/Y social group/Z commercial trend is DESTROYING AMERICA.” This is where Ready Player One comes into the discussion.

If you haven’t read this book, you should. If you lived through/appreciate things from the 1980’s, it’s like a love letter (more like a marriage proposal) to everything that made up American nerd culture during that time period–and that brings me to my point/soapbox for the day. Ready Player One is all about “nerd” culture: all of the music, (board) games, clothing styles, (card) games, television shows, (video) games, and attitudes that made a person a nerd during the 1980s.

Here’s a short plot blurb before I make my point: the richest man in the world has died, and he has left his inheritance (a twelve-digit figure) to whomever can find the “Easter egg” within his crowning achievement: the OASIS, the virtual-reality simulation “game” that has now effectively replaced the Internet and become the central hub of, well, everything. Said richest man was absolutely, utterly obsessed with 1980s culture, and has left clues to finding the Easter egg in the form of riddles referencing such culture. Cue a culture boom, where everything from goofy hairstyles to 8-bit videogaming is back in vogue. The most dedicated of the searchers for the Easter egg come to be known as “gunters” (short for “egg hunters”) and searching for the egg is considered a full-time job–if most likely futile.

How does any of this apply to “dread,” or even “subculture?” Well, let’s look at gunters, and the classic 1980s nerds that they descend from. While the OASIS allows anyone to look like anything they want–it was originally a virtual-reality online game, after all–gunters are typically the only ones who take advantage of this fact. Most people will look like themselves–if rather more attractive than normal–but gunters could be elves, dwarves, ogres, demons, angels, tentacle-monsters, you name it. Add to this the basic requirement of being a “proper” gunter (encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop culture), and one can guess if someone is a gunter generally based on whether or not they look like a D&D character/sci-fi cosplayer. There’s the “style” part of this whole subculture thing; just like skinheads and punks and Teddy boys and all the ones Hebdige talks about, gunters are pretty easily identifiable by sight–and that sight is usually “pretty weird.” But beyond sight, what makes a gunter a gunter is what they do. They trawl around the OASIS, searching for something most people believe may not even exist. However, the fact that they continue to search, despite five years of failure at the start of the book, is onerous–to certain high-powered members of the central culture, at least. IOI, the company that controls basically everything, is also looking for the Easter egg (because guess what I forgot to mention? The Easter egg is the richest man in the world’s inheritance, which isn’t just his money; it’s the OASIS itself. Get the egg, get full control of the biggest data entity on the planet), and the fact that they have competition is aggravating at best, and terrifying at worst. All it takes is one gunter getting lucky, and the entirety of IOI’s carefully-built dominance over the American consciousness could be thrown out the window. If IOI can’t get a foothold on the OASIS, they might as well not exist.

The conflict between the gunters and IOI is actually remarkably symbolic of the conflict between culture and subculture. Culture fears subculture specifically because it does not follow the rules culture has laid out. Culture fears that if a subculture becomes too popular, those rules will be thrown to the wayside. Power and control are made by rules. Thus, if culture’s rules are not followed, culture has no power (no, we’re not getting into the whole “responding against rules gives those rules power in it own way” thing). British and American subcultures may be categorized by different qualifications, but both countries can agree on that basic point: culture holds power, and fears that subculture may subvert that power.

Basically, what this nearly-one-thousand-word ramble is getting down to is this: read Ready Player One.

Well, also I guess it could be getting down to “culture conflicts with subculture not because of style of dress, but because style of dress is one of several signifiers (and a very visual one) of a subculture’s popularity, and primary culture fears that a subculture could get so popular that it undermines the power primary culture holds,” but mainly I think everyone should read Ready Player One.


The Third Man Annotated Bibliography–and a brief blog post

Bibs! Git yer bibs here!

So, I really, really like archetypes and mythology. As in, I could probably just wax philosophic about the Hero’s Journey for hours (yeah, ha–guess what a large part of my project is?). This is cool personal information and all, and I am sure everyone reading this is just over the moon about getting to learn about my interests, but what the crap does that have to do with The Third Man? A surprising amount, actually.

See, you’ll have to take a look at the annotated bibliography for a bit of this, but in doing my research for this book I came across two articles. One article talked about how Holly/Rollo Martins (either deliberately or purely by amusing accident) engages in many behavioral and narrative tropes from the Western genre–which he writes for a living–to both his detriment and success in different ways. The tropes I refer to are such things as “the lone wanderer entering a new town and swiftly exposing a diabolical plot” (though which “plot” is diabolical–the police’s or Harry Lime’s–changes throughout the text), “the bar fight” (where Martins fails to even throw a punch before he’s taken down), “the shootout” (a solemn execution, in the sewers, of one friend by another, instead of a tense, middle-of-town showdown) and so on.

The other article was a discussion of platonic metaphysics, and arguments against certain aspects thereof (specifically, how some of the characteristics of forms, as they were originally defined, were contradictory and caused the Theory of Forms to implode). Platonic metaphysics–which is a field of philosophy, not of, you know, physics–is really freaking complicated, and I already talk about this particular little bit in the bibliography, so I’m not going to shove an icepick through anyone’s skull by going over the stuff again. What I will go over again (sort of), is how idealization seems to function within The Third Man: characters truss up other characters as being different (better, nicer, more religious, more selfish, more brutal, more naive, et cetera) than they are in reality, and it is these clashes of idealization and reality that drive much of the character interaction and ultimately much of the narrative.

These two articles (or at least the things they make me think about) come together in an interesting way in my head: few of the characters within The Third Man actually feel like they are interacting with other human beings. Martins immediately identifies Calloway as “the sheriff,” for instance, and acts belligerently based on that identification–but is later forced to confront his misconceptions of both Calloway and Lime, changing his attitude. Anna Schmidt spends most of the narrative calling (in the film, at least) Holly Martins Harry, implying that she views him as, effectively, a replacement for Lime–and reacts quite negatively when he proves that he most certainly is not. What I am trying to say, basically, is that (most of) the characters in The Third Man think that everyone around them is a caricature, not a person, and they idealize those “caricatures” based on first impressions into simplistic “people-forms” instead of actual people. When their idealizations (which do not have to be positive–remember, we’re talking platonic ideals here, which just means “essential, timeless version”) are then contradicted, the characters in The Third Man react, often becoming quite upset.

Interestingly, thinking about the characters in the story in this way actually makes Harry Lime the character who is most true to himself and others: he is at least honest about the fact that he views other people as caricatures.

-Eliot Sherman

The Madonna-Whore Complex

The posts that we have so far on To Bed With Grand Music have stolen all the cool concepts like the body as currency and manipulation within the text–just to name two of the many. So, what I am going to do is discuss an interesting psychological concept/trope that I’ve come across recently, using some of the least academic sources I possibly can: frickin’ Wikipedia and bloody TvTropes. If you take a look at either of those links, they talk about a concept first named by everyone’s favorite discredited father of psychology and all-around pervy dude Sigmund Freud, known as either the “Madonna-Whore Complex,” or more simply the “Virgin-Whore Complex.” As the above screengrab from the webcomic Sinfest fairly aptly details, this concept centers around the belief that a woman can only be one of two things: a pure “Madonna,” innocent, nurturing, and domestic; or a shameless “whore,” legs a-spread for all to partake in. Both links note that this is, in general, a complex that forms within the male psyche, and was first formulated by Freud as an attempt to explain why husbands seemed to stop finding their wives sexually appealing.

Now, I am not going to claim anything like “Laski was an avid reader of Freud and knew of his Complex,” but there seems to be at least something potentially productive about thinking about how the Madonna-Whore dichotomy might play out in To Bed With Grand Music. During class I ended up getting rather fixated on the fact that Deborah’s mother separated women into two separate categories of “Mothers” and “Wives.” The dichotomy Mrs. Betts set up was not what caught my attention, so much as a particular detail that came after her categorization: “wife” was not the original word Mrs. Betts wanted to use. Whatever the actual word Deborah’s mother used internally to define the “wife” archetype in her own mind, it seems fairly safe to argue that she did a last-second word swap because she viewed whatever word she really wanted to use as crass or unpalatable–implying that the word would have had rather more of a negative connotation than “wife” does.

Mrs. Betts does not really describe her two archetypes to Deborah, so we are forced to interpret the implications of the titles she chose to use for said archetypes, in order to try and make a guess as to what the difference between the two is. However, since we also know that “wife” was not Mrs. Betts’ first choice of title, we are left with interpreting “mother,” and from there making a determination of what “wife” might really mean on the basis of what “mother” isn’t.

So: a “mother” would, presumably, be a nurturing figure, raising and caring for the child or children that she is mother to. This nurturing aspect, if it is the basis of the archetpye, however, would extent to beyond just children; the “mother” would tend to and work to uplift those around her (friends, family, spouse, etc.), and even the environment in which she exists (home, garden, neighborhood, etc.). In other words, if I refer back to the ways in which I differentiated the Madonna and the Whore, the “mother” seems to fit pretty well with the Madonna.

If, then, we are to conflate the mother and the Madonna–at least just for the sake of this blog post–and we can really only properly interpret the wife in relation to what it is not (that is, the mother), what do we get? Well, if the mother is nurturing and domestic, the wife would be not-nurturing and not-domestic. Instead of raising and caring for others–in effect, giving of her time, deidcation, and resources for the sake of another–the wife would make use of others–taking from them. Instead of treating the home as her domain, public spaces would be her stomping ground. Basically, yeah, I’m saying that Mrs. Betts totally meant to say “whore” instead of “wife.”

Now, where the crap am I going with this? Honestly, I am not too sure. I’m mainly caught up in the fact that I can sorta-kinda see a parallel between Mrs. Betts’ rhetoric and a psychological concept. That said, the chat between Deborah and her mother happens fairly early on in the story–so, is it possible that much of the narrative could be viewed as Deborah perceiving her mother’s argument about feminine archetypes, and reacting to that in some way? Just something to think about, I guess.

-Eliot Sherman

We’re All Just Kind of Objectifying Jerks

I think one of the more interesting things that came from doing the annotated bibliography for Swastika Night was coming across “Reading the Archaeology of the Body” by Rainer Mack. If you’ve read the bibliography I put up, you’ll know the article has next to nothing to do with Swastika Night, beyond sharing thematic similarities. That being said, those thematic similarities are very freaking powerful.

Let’s break this down: one of the big themes of Swastika Night is the treatment of women, Hitlerism having reduced one half of humanity to a position more in keeping with breeding stock than with rational, thinking creatures. Effectively, woman in the year of our Lord Hitler 720 is little more than an unfortunately-necessary object for use in the production of more lovely little Aryan boys.

According to Mack, this might actually be more along the lines of “a depressing par for the course” than “holy crap what a terrifying view of the future.”

Speaking primarily about the Venus of Willendorf (that’s her up top) and other related pieces of Upper Paleolithic archaeology, Mack’s article discusses a paradigm of “association of the feminine with objecthood (other) and the masculine with  subjecthood (self)” (Mack 82). While Mack tries to keep this paradigm attached to “Upper Paleolithic culture,” one must keep in mind that Mack’s article begins with a discussion of an 1866 Gustave Courbet painting titled The Origin of the World, which seems to espouse a rather similar paradigm. Heck, Mack himself notes that the language used by John Onians to describe the Venus of Willendorf seems to apply just as well to Courbet’s painting. I’ll drop said language here for posterity:

“For those areas of her body which are shown in all their rounded perfection are precisely those which would be most important in the preliminary phases of love-making, that is the belly, buttocks, thighs, breasts and shoulders, while the lower legs, lower arms, feet and hands are withered to nothing.”

Of course, Mack (and other folks like Onians that he’s discussing) does maintain a focus on the sexual objectification that women are subject to, something that Swastika Night makes it clear that women are far removed from in this Nazi-run future (until a certain blond bombshell hits–geddit? ‘Cause the girl is blonde, and “bombshell” is a term used to describe attractiveness, but also a particularly “mind-blowing” piece of information, and… and… sigh, the joke, it is ruined). However, I think comparing the Venus of Willendorf–and The Origin of the World by extension–to the breeding stock in Swastika Night can still be quite productive. The women in the novel might not be sexualized, but their fertility still exists and is flung in Hitlerdom’s collective face every day. Both the Venus and The Origin of the World focus a lot on the fertile aspects of women, wombs and breasts and all. The men of Swastika Night might no longer view the women as attractive creatures, but the men are certainly very much still fixated on the women as productive, which, according to Mack, is something that men have apparently been obsessing over since the Upper Paleolithic period at the very least.

So, yeah. Objectification. What a wonderful time-honored tradition to have, eh guys?

-Eliot Sherman

Swastika Night Annotated Bibliography

And a prostration before the council. (And because hey, the book makes a nod at Japan so why can’t I?)

Get your bibliography here.


I’ve been a bad student.

I can make excuses about my lack of presence on this blog lately–“Ooh, I’m getting married and ~it’s just sooo busy~” “Do you know how obnoxious it is to try and get a late course change done properly?” “Teaching is hard boohoo” and yadda yadda yadda–but frankly, the ultimate issue here is me. I’ve been a bad student. I haven’t been doing what I’m supposed to. For that, I am sorry. You’ll see proper blog posts from me again soon.


Sorry, guys.

-Eliot Sherman

The Double-Standard

As inspired by the three excellent posts we currently have up, and the documentary Strong Sisters.

Let’s take a look at a few different things. First, a comic.

Yeah, it’s funny. It’s also freaking depressing. One of the things that struck me the most about the documentary was the fact that one of the main concerns leveraged at feamle politicians was the “who’s looking after the kids?” bolshevik. Our society seems to have this weird thing going on in it where women absolutely MUST be the primary caregiver for a given pair’s children, despite everyone always being ~so proud~ when a man is ~courageous~ enough to stare at his phone, ass parked on a nearby bench, while his kids are playing in the park. The disconnect between the two concepts is mind-boggling. A man somehow showcases inner strength and character by doing what women are supposed to do, even though by doing what women are supposed to do the man is making the woman become a “failure” by preventing her from fulfilling her “primary function?” Is this some of that patriarchal, imperialist crap or something? By wresting control of a situation from a woman, a man shows his power, or some stupid thought like that? Note as well that the non-parents in several panels seem to default to thinking that the single dad “does it better” than the mom as well. Ain’t that a slap to the face…

Anyway, I’m deviating from the point I’m trying to make. Most of the mothers shown in Strong Sisters took a third option and chose to bring their kids in to work whenever they could. While I would consider this an elegant solution (gets the kids exposure to political discourse early, forms strong bonds among various political individuals by becoming “extended family” to the kids, helps cross-party solidarity by providing a physical example of what everyone is ostensibly there to help nurture and protect, et cetera),  I can’t help but wonder if some of these women have had their careers undermined in the perceptions of the Old White Guys. Bringing a child in to the congress/senate during meeting-times may very well have had certain folk thinking that a) the woman is “wishy-washy” by not wanting to choose between career and family, or b) the woman should be focusing on her “primary function” and not bothering with this playing at politics. As the comic points out, people seem to automatically think that children are supposed to be the sole focus of a woman’s life–so what happens when someone with that default thinking is confronted with a woman who contradicts that bass-ackwards thinking?

Here’s the thing, though: even the women in Strong Sisters seemed to default to thinking they should be solely dedicated to their kids. I don’t know if it was the women simply reacting to cultural perception or not, but I don’t think I recall a single moment where the idea of the stay-at-home dad was considered an acceptable counterpart to the housemom. I do recall a moment where one interviewee said something along the lines of “nobody can replace Mom,” which is something I’d agree with, sure–if someone is serious about taking up the role of “mother,” and acts upon that, then it’s next-to-impossible for another individual to take up the mantle as well. Similarly though, nobody can replace Dad–and yet nobody ever seems to blink an eye when Dad is hardly ever around. The documentary took some steps to counteract this response by noting that many of the young fathers getting into politics were also taking steps to have their kids around, but frankly I got the sense that this was rather more optional for a male than it was for a female. Though I have to wonder, again, how much of that sense of “optional versus mandatory” came from these women responding to social pressure and stereotypes as best they could.

Let’s look at another thing: a certain commercial for a feminine hygiene company.

Please tell me people have seen this stuff before. Always makes a pretty damn good point. To do something “like a girl” should not for some reason mean that one does something objectively worse than other people. Strong Sisters is making the same point, though it also presents a point that the Always ad campaign only kind of touches on: to do politics (or other activities) “like a girl” inherently means that one does not do politics “like a boy.” The actions taken by males and females are not–and it seems like one of the themes of the documentary is that such actions should not be–interchangeable. Men and women approach action differently, but “different” is not a qualitative judgement.

However, what the Always campaign also presents quite subtly is another point: beyond male and female difference, no two people do anything the same way. Everyone performs action differently from everyone else. Take a look at how the different girls in the video above run or throw. They all showcase power and speed, most certainly–but their forms, their styles, are very, very different. This is a vital point to make, especially when it comes to females in politics. A still image from the documentary struck me hard: at one point, roughly two-thirds through the film, a shot of a political committee was shown–and it was roughly eight Old White Guys, a woman, and a black man. The Smurfette Principle and the Token Minority were disappointingly in effect, probably purely to fulfill a demanded quota at the worst, and to “attain a feminine/minority perspective” at the “best.”

Let me go informal-second-person for a moment: hell no, you moron, you aren’t getting a cultural perspective from one damned person. You’re getting an individual perspective, just like you’re getting with all your damn white, male friends. Our political system is quite possibly one of the best examples of the idea that one person cannot properly represent an entire population (and this is a point that Strong Sisters makes frequently, noting that one can only attempt to represent one’s specific, narrow slice of culture “as best as possible”), so why the hell do we still think that token minorities can do so on damned committees?

I’m annoyed by this thought, you might say.

Hopefully, we’ll all eventually wise up and start treating people as people instead of category-fillers like a on freaking sports team, but Cynical Eliot is coming out at this point, so I’m going to grouch about how long that’ll take for a bit.


Liminality and the Monster

“She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8).

That quotation right up there is, to me, one of the most interesting and compelling passages that exists in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Being the musings of the eponymous lady, those few sentences above reveal a significant amount of Clarissa Dalloway’s psychological profile. She feels adrift in the sea of humanity, within arms reach of thousands of other people yet at the same time completely separate from other human beings. She feels alone in the crowd.

She finds herself, basically, within a twisted state of liminality.

If that link didn’t work for ya, “liminality” is a concept in Cultural Anthropology described as “A transitional or indeterminate state between culturally defined stages of a person’s life, spec. such a state occupied during a ritual or rite of passage, characterized by a sense of solidarity between participants.” The first part of this definition is easy to apply to Clarissa as she functions in the novel: she exists in an indeterminate state, as expressed by the quotation above, whilst she prepares for the British social ritual that is the upper-class party. I’m not exactly the feminist scholar of the group, but I do kinda live on the Internet, and when the British Library tells me that “expectations about family and domestic life as the main concern of women” being the same post-WWI as pre-WWI, I’m inclined to believe that venerable institution. In other words, “dancing and grand social parties” were still the name of the upper-class-British-woman game during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. The Party (capitalized for emphasis) was the social ritual of the British female upper class, both the attending and the throwing thereof. As such, it really comes as no surprise that Clarissa Dalloway would be stuck in a state of liminality during the preparation of her own party.

“But wait,” says the voice in my head, “didn’t that definition of liminality up there mention something about ‘a sense of solidarity between participants?’ Mrs. Dalloway certainly doesn’t seem to be feeling any solidarity with anyone in that quote you started this off with.”

Well, voice in my head, you’d be right–Clarissa Dalloway definitely doesn’t seem to be feeling any connection to the crowd around her during her musings. That’s why I called her state of liminality “twisted.” This seems to be Clarissa’s ultimate struggle throughout the novel: she feels she no longer has anyone she feels capable of connecting with. Her husband can’t even say “I love you” when he comes home with flowers (Meghan’s analysis of this scene is awesome–read it!), her old friends (and flames) Peter and Sally are now more attached to, respectively, India/their many children, and her daughter spends most of her time with a Catholic tutor that Clarissa can’t stand. The sense of camaraderie that is supposed to assist an individual through the state of liminality thus appears to be lost to poor Clarissa Dalloway.

Then, Septimus Smith commits suicide.

I’ll get back to that moment in a bit–first, I need to talk about another concept that has a lot to do with liminality: the monster.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “monster” is derived at least in part from the latinate term “monēre,” which means “to warn.” Being either powerful, or frightening, or both, monsters act to warn members of a given culture away from certain activities or behaviors or places or ideas. Monsters in this sense (as “warnings”) have been frequently treated as threshold guardians–between life and death (e.g. Cerberus), between the mortal world and some sort of otherworld (Valtiel in the video game Silent Hill 3), et cetera–to the point that certain figures could be argued as be “monsters” without being spooky beasties or misshapen horrors (Uriel guards the gates to Eden, for instance). Ultimately, even a human could be argued as being a “monster,” at least in the sense that a human can guard a threshold–and, in turn, allow passage through a threshold.

We can now get back to Septimus. Even as he is unsettling to those around him, even his own wife, Septimus eventually is the one that helps Clarissa overcome her state of liminality: “She felt somehow very like him–the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (182). Septimus warns Clarissa of the risk of losing sight of concepts like “beauty” and “fun,” and in so doing acts as a sort of monster (a frightening thing, a dead man, mentally sick in his final days), but also a companion. It is with a dead war veteran that Clarissa is finally able to discover a sense of solidarity, passing through the threshold of liminality into a more strongly-realized personal character. What, precisely, the nature of this more strongly-realized character is is beyond the reader–the book ends quite soon afterward–but Clarissa is unquestionably revitalized after the revelation of Septimus’ death. Her time of liminality has passed.

-Eliot Sherman


Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2005. Print.



(I could have sworn I posted something before this, but alas, I appear to have been derelict in my duty)

Sadly, I don’t have a ton to say about The Return of the Soldier. This is most likely because I’m a scrub at the game of Life (thus my inability to come to class), and so missed lots of-from what I can tell by the blog posts–really interesting and productive discussion.

That said, from what I’ve seen of the blog posts thus far, we haven’t talked about something I find very interesting about the construction of the novel: the viewpoint character.

In a somewhat more traditionally-constructed story, the viewpoint character and the “main” character (I hesitate to use protagonist in this situation, for reasons we’ll get to eventually) would be the same. This makes sense: if you’re going to be following the escapades of x person, would one not hope to see the perspective of x person? Or, if you’re not going to see x person’s viewpoint, should the perspective at least be that of someone very close to x person? To stop using math terms in a gawl-danged English class: Shouldn’t the viewpoint character in a story about a returned soldier either be the returned soldier, or said soldier’s wife (i.e. Chris or Kitty)?

The Return of the Solider doesn’t go that direction, though. Instead, we see the events of the story through Jenny’s eyes–quite possibly the least-attached character to the narrative, given that her only connection to the players involved is that she’s Kitty and Chris’ cousin. Why would West choose to have her narrator be the character with presumably the least stake in the events of her narration?

Personally, I think it has something to do with the themes of repression and detachment we’ve all been talking about thus far. To have the novel narrated by Chris would be make the narration hit too close to home for the repression-trained soldier, and the long paragraphs of Jenny’s internal monologuing would be impossible for such a fellow, lest the entire premise of the story fall apart around the readers’ ears once Chris first started thinking about his situation and the claims being made by those around him for more than a few sentences. Kitty might have worked as a narrator, but the story would have been very different if she were. Instead of the exploration of the feminine and its almost mother-maiden-crone sort of style that we have currently (to justify: it’s interesting that we have three women, one of whom–Kitty–is first presented as, hallucination or not, caring for a child, another–Margaret–who is immediately described as “middle-aged,” and a third–Jenny–who is given no indication of being married [unless I totally missed it]), we would instead have a story about one woman’s desperate journey to remind her amnesiac husband of their ~true love~

Except, we probably wouldn’t even have that, because even if Jenny isn’t the “main” character, she for darn certain seems to be the protagonist.

Allow me to explain: what is the protagonist of a story? I would argue it’s less the viewpoint character or the focus character, but instead the character who acts, who makes things happen (the antagonist, then, is the one who acts contrary to the protagonist–though this definition does not presuppose either side making first action, simply that the two forces act against one another). Who pulls Margaret back in to try and explain to Chris his delusions? Who asks Chris “what seems real to [him]?”

Jenny. Jenny does things, where Chris and Kitty talk and worry and sigh.

But why is Jenny acting so darn much, when she, as noted before, seems to have the least connection to the narrative? Again, we go back to the themes: repression and detachment. Chris is so busy repressing, even without realizing it anymore, that he can do little else. Kitty is too attached to what she views as the way things should be that she cannot pull back to consider how to get from point A (repressed Chris) to point B (memory-returned Chris). Jenny, however, is fully aware of the horrors of the war (don’t believe me? Just look at the sorts of things she talks about when she first thinks of Chris, of the soldier trodding through the “brown rottenness” of the battlefield and the like), and also just detached enough from the situation, while still caring about it, to be able to have the desire and will to make something happen.

-Eliot Sherman