Religion in Second Class Citizen

The concept of religion in Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen is interesting. Adah discusses religion throughout the novel. She sometimes discusses the goddesses of her traditional Igbo religion, and at other times, she talks about Jesus. It seems Adah believes, or at least wants to believe, in something, she just is not sure what. I think this confusion has to do with the colonizers and the religion they brought with them. I believe the influence of the colonizers and their religion mixed with traditional African religious concepts for Adah. I also believe Adah’s religious experience could be exemplary of the religious experience of post-colonial Africa as a whole, stuck between two cultures—their traditional one and British culture.

I think this conflict functions in Second Class Citizen in two important ways. First, in Adah’s understanding of Britain and the British culture, and secondly, in Adah’s view of Jesus and herself. Adah’s understanding of England before she moves there comes from, I assume, the stories she has heard from the colonizers and the “been-to” Africans. She idealizes England. Once she gets there she sees the country for what it truly is and realizes the error she made. Adah’s conception of England, as a better place than Nigeria, is probably a result of the presence of the colonizers in Nigeria. They brought their culture and presented it as better, or civilized. Adah accepts this premise and choses British culture over her traditional culture.

In accepting the culture of the colonizers and idealizing England, Adah also adopts the religion of the colonizers. She accepts it so much that she begins to see herself as a sort of messiah figure. Several times in the course of this novel, Adah compares herself to Jesus. This is interesting for so many reasons. First of all, it is almost an appropriation of the British culture for her own purposes. This seems fair, in some way, considering what Britain did with the cultures of the countries it colonized. Adah, when she arrives in England, comments that if she “had been Jesus, he would pass England by” (Emecheta 36). If I understand correctly, Adah’s idea of Jesus came from England, so this seems slightly Ironic. I think Emecheta could have several motives for this use of religion in Second Class Citizen. I wonder if one might be pointing out flaws she sees in religion. Despite this, I see a strong emphasis on the importance of some sort of faith. So, maybe it is more to point out the damage colonization did as far as culture goes, especially since Adah seems lost and without a true culture of her own in England.


The Rhetoric of Fear

One thing I didn’t consider when reading Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style was the idea of fear. When the concept of fear was brought up in class discussion, I remembered reading Hebdige as an undergraduate. When I read an excerpt from this book then, I remember assuming fear was the reason the subcultures, specifically punk, were brought back under the control of hegemonic society. I felt the group in power acted quickly, before these subcultures became something to really fear. Of course, I don’t, and I don’t believe Hebdige does either, believe that the punk subculture was a true threat, except to those who wanted to keep power, the ruling class. The threat then is not physical, the subculture posed no actual danger; instead, the punk subculture threatened to disrupt the social system, or to create noise. So, I guess what I think was happening was a creation of a fear that was easily eliminated. The punk subculture was allowed to exist for a time before it was converted through the commodity form and the ideological form. Then, the punk subculture was made out to be something that dangerous that was quickly converted. Fear, then, was used during this time, but in a much different way than it is used today. In Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, it seems those in power did not actually want society to fear. At least, they wanted to show that anything that could potentially be feared was easily controlled by those in power. I imagine this has a lot to do with the time. The country has just come out of another war and is trying to re-build. Those in power, probably, want the British citizens to have confidence in their country. It makes sense that the power structures of Britain did not want people to fear. In our society, however, it seems all those in power want us to do is fear. Without getting too political, one simply needs to look at recent tactics used in this election to see the scope of the rhetoric of fear. Fear seems to be used to control us, or at least convince us of things that are not necessarily true. I find it interesting to look at how this rhetoric of fear has changed. Also, I have to wonder about subcultures today. We had a hard time identifying any true subcultures, in the way Hebdige describes them. If there were a significant subculture that rose up, I wonder what the reaction would be in terms of the rhetoric of fear?


Mrs. Chalmers

Mrs. Chalmers, one of the many interesting characters in Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, is a widow whose husband died while serving in the navy. When we discussed the various categories of women in the novel (mother, wife, mistress, and widow), the only widow we discussed was Mrs. Betts. I think it is important to consider the role Mrs. Chalmers plays as well. She is a widow without children of her own, that would seem to make her redundant (in this society) since she cannot fill either of the two roles Mrs. Betts prescribes to women—wife and mother. Mrs. Chalmers, one might guess, is free. She appears to be a woman outside of the strict categories imposed on her by society. Mrs. Chalmers, however, desperately tries to be a mother to Timmy. There are several moments throughout the text where Mrs. Chalmers feelings about Timmy are clear. Quite early in the text, though, Mrs. Chalmers agrees to Deborah going to London to look for a job. The narrator informs us that she would have agreed to anything “so long as it would bring closer her ultimate possession of Timmy” (Laski 20). Mrs. Chalmers doesn’t simply care for Timmy; she wants to possess him. Her desire to own Timmy reflects a desire to go back and fill the role she missed, the role of mother. Despite her opportunity to escape, Mrs. Chalmers tries desperately to fill one of the two roles, as if there is nothing else for women at this time. Mrs. Chalmers does not know what to do or be if she cannot be either wife or mother. Interestingly, Deborah, who is both a wife and a mother, is the one who is able to escape these strict female roles. Deborah can escape her role as mother because Mrs. Chalmers is there to be mother to Timmy.

Laski, Marghanita. To Bed with Grand Music. Persephone Books, London.



Death as an Ally

Like many others, I had a difficult time getting in to Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. I kept struggling to pin down a plot which consistently evaded me. Despite this, certain passages in this novel deeply resonated with me. One in particular comes after Pompey discusses her revelation concerning suicide as a young child and recommends teaching young children about suicide. This passage was intriguing. At first, I was taken aback by the suggestion. By the end of the passage, Pompey almost had me convinced. I love the following passage (so much so that I’m going to quote the entire thing):

So I think every sensitive young child should early learn this. It is a great source of strength and comfort. It is so possible that things may become more than we can bear, is it not? That is not my thought at all. But rather, it is so possible that we may be afraid that things will become more than we can bear. There is a very deadly sort of slave feeling in this thought. For if we think this and become undone by our fear, we may too anxiously placate our fellow-beings, who appear to us to be in more authoritative positions and to have more of power than we over the things that oppress us. But with death as our immediate ally, such thoughts vanish. (Smith 159)

Pompey’s mastery over death, which she gained by realizing death will come at her call, removes her fear. This passage, I think, discusses Pompey’s place as a woman in society. Just from reading the beginning of Swastika Night, I think this idea of women’s place in society will continue to be important. Pompey addresses the oppression women face, but she also presents it as a deadly thought the oppressed convince themselves of. The thought that a certain group of people, in this case, women are inferior creates this unbearable fear and this “deadly sort of slave feeling.” This sort of brainwashing that convinces the oppressed of their inferiority seems present in Swastika Night too, at least in what I have read so far.  When one is overcome with the sort of feelings Pompey is describing, the only option is to make death your ally. Pompey suggests there is a power in knowing you can summon death at any moment.



Better the Devil You Know

I was honestly a little disappointed with the ending of Lolly Willowes. I was reading with the expectation of some great awakening in Laura that would free her from the life she has been forced to live. I thought she was going to be independent, but instead she is merely passed on to another man.

Throughout the novel, Laura is handed from her father, to her brother, then she is briefly alone (but still seeks out a man in the form of Mr. Saunders). When Titus comes to Great Mop, she is once again under the authority of a man. Satan provides her escape from Titus, but still he owns her, she is not independent.

Laura seems to consider belonging to Satan to be a better option; she even seems to think she is free. The choice to become a witch seems to be not a choice at all, but rather something that happens to Laura. She has been chosen by Satan, not the other way around.  Laura’s relationship with Satan reminds me of a captive with Stockholm syndrome and the captor who completely controls his victim. As Naomi mentioned, Satan tells Laura “you are in my power. No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise…you will never escape me, for you can never wish to” (210). This quote suggests that Laura has no agency and that she can no longer feel anything. She will be happy as a witch because she has no other option.

Satan, in this sense, seems to represent just another member of the patriarchy. A man who takes Laura under his authority. I suppose for a woman like Laura in a society like London in the 1920s there are no options. If she has to be under someone’s control might as well be the devil.

For the Birds

There are so many interesting aspects of this novel that I still want to discuss. One that I am still not completely sure what to make of, and one we didn’t address in class, is the bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway.

As I was reading, I noticed bird imagery and descriptions of people as birds constantly.  Two birds are mentioned on the first page alone—A lark and a rook. I figured this would be a topic that had been written about at length, but I couldn’t find much in the library databases, or even by doing a general internet search, that discussed the use of birds in the novel. Eventually I uncovered a couple of sources that discussed the bird imagery, but not in very much detail. One source, a blog post on Blogspot,  tracks the instances of bird imagery in the novel.

In trying to decipher these images, I  thought about what birds can represent. The obvious things that come to mind are the juxtaposition of freedom in flight and life in a cage, the migratory nature of birds, the use of the term “bird” to refer to a young girl, and the fluttering nature of the smaller birds. The metaphor is complex, though,  because of the variety of birds used. Clarissa is described as a jay, Septimus as a hawk, Sir William Bradshaw as a swooping bird of prey, and Lucrezia as a little hen. The most obvious distinction here is between the male and female characters. The males are powerful, large birds of prey and the women are fragile little birds. The birds, I think, represent the character’s place in society.



Illustration of a Jay from the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSBP).

There is so much I could say, but for now I want to focus on Septimus as a hawk. The idea of danger seemed to come up in this novel a few times. One of my favorite lines in the novel is “she [Clarissa] always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8). I love this line because, to me, it serves as a commentary on the novel itself–which takes place over the course of just one day and becomes quite dangerous at points. The day could be seen as dangerous to Septimus since he doesn’t live through it, but Septimus can also be seen as a danger to the society he is part of. He sees things for what they really are and ignores the conventions of his society. Septimus, thus, represents a threat to that society.

Another interesting aspect of bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway is the beak imagery. I’m not sure I want to venture down this road, but this  (on p.47 of the google book) excerpt from The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness by Thomas C. Caramagno discusses the implications of a “beak.”

My final guess as to the reason for all the bird imagery may be far-fetched, but the birds may represent the meaningless of (most) of the characters’ lives and their society.The use of the phrase “for the birds” was used during the first half of the 1900s, according to The Free Dictionary, and it was used to refer to something worthless or something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. This seems an apt description for the London society Woolf paints in the novel.


The Empty Stage

Of all the lingering images in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, the one that struck me this time, one which I actually didn’t pick up on the first time I read the novel, was the empty stage. This image is most apparent in the fist chapter of the novel. It occurs first on page 50 of the Broadview edition: “the lawn that already had the desolation of the empty stage.” I bring up this image because I think it is very important in not only understanding the perfomativity of life at Baldry Court, but also understanding Chris.  Jenny describes herself and Kitty as performing certain duties or “roles” for Chris, but it is when he leaves that the stage is empty. This image suggests Chris is also performing for them, which actually makes a lot of sense since Jenny believes him to be the happiest man alive, but he is actually, as suggested by Dr. Anderson, discontented with his life. It appears that life is just one big performance at Baldry court.

The other interesting aspect of this image is Chris as an actor. Thinking about Chris as an actor instead of merely a soldier ties in with our discussion of war last Thursday. Jenny describes Chris leaving for the war as a switching of roles. He walks around the house and the grounds, almost as if saying goodbye to the role he has been playing,  and then “put(s) on his Tommy air” (51). Our footnote helpfully informs us that a Tommy is “A British private soldier” (51). This image is so interesting, and it actually stuck with me for days after reading the passage. I think that war was quite a foreign concept for many of these men, one that probably scared them. I read Chris putting on this air as a sort of resignation to the reality before him. The only way he can face it is by treating it as another role, since he has become used to playing a role anyway. In this moment, Chris becomes “The Soldier.” This is very poignant when thinking about the last lines of the novel where Chris once again becomes “every inch a soldier” (118). Up to this moment, at the end of the novel, Chris has been genuinely happy, not playing a role. When his memory returns he is once again “The Soldier.” This description is so definitive, almost as if when Chris is acting a soldier that is all he is capable of being.

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. Broadview editions, 2010.