Blitz Baby: The Importance of Naming and Identity

I was only about halfway through the book when I had time to view the film, so I broke my cardinal rule of not watching the movie before reading the book. As I almost always like musicals, I was surprised that I didn’t immediately like Absolute Beginners. That doesn’t mean I never will, because often, I’ll return to a movie I didn’t like simply to discover what it was I didn’t like about it. However, I could tell right away why I didn’t like it—the movie didn’t fit the images I had created in my head. The colors felt too flashy. The characters a little too farcical. However, it was in watching it that I made an interesting discovery. As I was watching, I thought, “I truly don’t remember his name being Colin. How did I miss that?” As I had left my book at home, I read the Wiki for the movie and learned that because the narrator is never given a name in the book, the character was named after author Colin MacInnes.

As I’m sure many of you have figured out this semester, I have a thing for names, and as such, I’ve been thinking about this name issue for a week (as well as listening to a loop of David Bowie singing the words “Absolute Beginners,” as that’s all I can remember of the song, running through my mind). In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare asked us to consider “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare II, ii). But names are so much more than what we answer to. Names are the first form of identity we receive from our parents and the beginning of our own personal histories. Names often reflect our family heritage, our roots, our starting point. Names are the starting point of the identities we form for ourselves by either rejecting or embracing them.

In not having a name, that first form of identity, the narrator has the ability to be anyone he wants to be. He has the ability to code switch with the variety of people he comes across. I feel this is why I didn’t notice he had no name. We don’t know much about the identity of the narrator, but through his narration, we learn much of what he is not, who he does not identify as. We are focused on figuring out who he is not rather than who he is. By the end of the novel, even the narrator is not sure who he is while traveling hoping he can pass for “cousin Frank or someone” or simply as a name unticked on a checklist (284). Through all he has seen, he still hasn’t figured out who he is. That is, after all, the aim of being a teenager, isn’t it? Determining who we are by eliminating who we are not? Teenagers are merely at the start of the journey of self-discovery—the absolute beginning. Which is interesting that the narrator is not, in fact, a young teenager. He is nearing the end of his teenage years. He has learned much about people in his dealings with the many social groups he encounters.

Thursday night, we ended the conversation by discussing how the narrator, his father, his father’s history, and London all fit together, and how those factors led to the narrator never actually leaving London. After much consideration of this discussion, I remembered the first encounter with the narrator’s father. In this encounter, Verne, the stepbrother, tells the narrator that his father “stays because he’s afraid to go, and she keeps him because she wants the place to look respectable” (MacInnes 46). In looking at this line in light of the ending, we can see that the narrator, like his father before him, is afraid to leave London. He roams around the airport seemingly determined to leave, but at the last second, stays. We can continue seeing London as a character—and in the maternal role—and in that, we can see that London keeps the narrator—a young, middle-class, white male—because she needs him to keep the sense of respectability. The narrator must stay in London in order to keep Britain white. London in the role of parent, can be compared to the narrator’s mother with her “mounds of highly desirable flesh [. . . and] real brains” (37) and only using those brains to “make herself more appealing, like pepper and salt and garlic on an overdone pork chop” (37).  London, much like the narrator’s mother, works hard to cover the flaws rather than fix the underlying issues.

I know this post feels a bit disjointed, but I’m going to try to pull it together here. In conjunction with the importance of naming and the role of parent, the only name the narrator is given is “Blitz Baby” (37). As I said previously, names are the first identity we each receive. Names are not something we choose for ourselves. Yes, we can choose to legally change them, but not until we’ve spent a good portion of our lifetime with those names. Name are given to us by our parents. As the narrator sees London in the role of parent, we must now ask who gave him the only moniker we read? The narrator’s mother calls him this name in reference of his entrance into the world during a blitz; however, does it come from London’s position in the war? Does London saddle the narrator with the moniker? By his mother giving him this name, we can see that it’s in a mocking tone. If we can see the name as coming from the city itself, we can read the name as a badge of survival. We can see his roots began deep and early within the underground of London. The narrator gains his identity from the position of his birth within London. The narrator’s name, Blitz Baby, defines his heritage, his point of origin, and quite possibly his ending point due to his reluctance to leave his home. He may not like the name, but he has embraced the home which gave it to him and his place within it.

 

MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby Ltd., 1959.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Wernstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010.

Subculture and Sh*t on Your Shoes

As someone who was never really one of the “cool kids” growing up, I was always envious of those who fit in because their parents could afford to buy them the style to fit in. But for a while, I did try to fit the mold. From my best friends’ closets, I borrowed pink cowboy boots and Roper jeans so tight they should’ve been illegal. The point is this, though I tried to fit in with the real farm kids—am I the only one who feels it’s weird that they are the cool ones in this scenario—by dressing the part, but I could not. I was called out for being a city-dweller by a boy I really liked because he was certain the bottom my boots had never stepped into a manure-covered cow pen. I was a phony, and they could spot me a mile away. It didn’t matter that I dressed like them, I could not assimilate into their farming culture. I lacked the authenticity required to know the reasoning behind the style. In short, I hadn’t earned the right to wear those boots. When I look back at the memories of those kids sitting on the backs of their mud-covered trucks in their boots and Wranglers, I realize that they all looked the same. Their clothing choice was more about function rather than form, and there was no uniqueness to any of their styles. Their style fit the conservative nature and lifestyle of farmers and ranchers.

Because of that experience, I recognized that I didn’t need to fit a particular style to be me. Though late 90s-rural-cowboy-chic is still all the rage in my small hometown, and I still do not fit in despite the fact that my boots definitely have seen manure since high school. I’ve accepted the fact that I simply cannot embrace that authentic look because I am able to blend into other groups, and I’m okay with that. I’m a student, a teacher, a wife, a crazy cat lady, a cowgirl, a basic girl, a foul-mouthed conservative, a total walking contradiction—and so many other identities. I cannot limit myself to dressing for one identity.

 

 

Today, it feels more that the clothes do not necessarily define who you are, but more who you are not. Clothes are a new way of code-switching based on one’s senses of style. Many people do not define themselves, their political leanings, or their social awareness by their wardrobe; however, in not defining themselves through clothing choice, choosing instead to stay on the outskirts of multiple choices, they can disguise themselves. I think that’s why we had so much trouble during our class discussion while trying to come up with new groups who are identified purely by their styles. People are too busy anymore to define themselves by one aspect. People no longer base their identities on one aspect, but they rather embrace a multitude of aspects that create each individual’s uniqueness. Though some people may sometimes joke about each person being a unique snowflake who deserves special treatment, isn’t that what we all angle for? We all want to be seen as the unique blend of bit and pieces that we are.

Hebdige claims subculture comes from “the construction of a style, in a gesture of defiance or contempt, in a smile or a sneer. It signals a Refusal” (3). This line resonated with me because of my previous experience dabbling with my own attempts to define myself with a particular fashion style. Though the style in the big metropolis of my rural hometown may not be so much in defiance of anything and more to do with functionality, the reluctance to change over multiple generations is also a refusal. However, along with the Hebdige’s signal of refusal comes the acceptance that “there’s a time and place for everything” (95). In his explanation of this idea, Hebdige tells us that in relenting to changing one’s fashion choices for situations, we are commodifying our style and ideals.

Unfortunately, or possibly thankfully, many of the fashion choices many of us have made in our youth haven’t followed us permanently into adulthood. We reach that time when we recognize that perhaps our style many not be the most effective way to communicate. To be accepted into mainstream society—and let’s face it, that is where we find the jobs—we must recognize Hebdige’s time and place to put away our style and adopt an entirely new style or discover new ways to incorporate the old with the new. It seems as though today we all have to eventually put aside the notion of form before function for the sake of maintaining a job—or adulting, as the kids say these days.

Though I still wear my own boots once in a while when I go home, I no longer do it to fit in with any crowd, but I might do it because I want to remember that part of me who did. The part of me who grew out of that desperate need to fit in to that crowd, I eventually grew into the person with many identities and many sets of shoes that I’m pretty comfortable with today—I guess you could say I found the shoes I was willing to step into the manure with. But I certainly don’t take note of anyone’s commentary about not having sh*t on my cowboy boots. They’re way too expensive.

 

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. TJ International Ltd., 1979.

Manipulation in “To Bed with Grand Music”

While I truly enjoyed the story of Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, I have to admit that I did not like the protagonist, Deborah. I felt pity for her, as well as anger and frustration at her. During the beginning of the novel, I felt that poor Deborah was manipulated by not only the men she slept with but also the members of her own household. Deborah’s mother, Mrs. Betts, and her mother’s helper, Mrs. Chalmers, seemed to fuel Deborah’s less than enthusiastic thoughts about being an essentially single mother rather than boost Deborah’s spirits and encourage her engagement with her young son.  I feel that even her husband, Graham, manipulated Deborah’s feelings from the beginning with his giving her permission to sleep around as long as she didn’t fall in love. After finishing the novel, however, I had to rethink if Deborah was manipulated at the beginning of the novel or if her stealthy role as manipulator began on the first page.

Had Graham not broached the subject of allowing Deborah to be physically unfaithful to him during the length of time he’d be gone, would she have sought the company of other men? Would she have had that niggling thought in the back of her mind that if Graham was going to sleep around, why shouldn’t she? Throughout their conversation, it seems as though Deborah is protesting a bit too much when after professing her faithfulness, “She stopped and wondered frantically, isn’t that enough to make him say the same, if I can do it, he can. But he remained silent, and she drooped a little” (2). Though she wishes to remain faithful to Graham, Deborah cannot even remain faithful to herself because she doesn’t know who she actually is.

Through Deborah’s lack of knowledge of her own mind and heart, she even appears to manipulate her own thinking. I think she wants to appear as though she wants what she’s supposed to, to be happy caring for her son and waiting patiently for the return of her husband, rather than actually wanting it. She manipulates herself into thinking that Mrs. Chalmers and her mother are better equipped to take care of her child simply because Deborah herself wants to be free of the responsibility. What angered me about Mrs. Betts agreeing that Deborah needed to move to London and take a job is that Mrs. Betts knows all along that Deborah is a manipulator and would twist the situation to her benefit. Mrs. Betts coddles Deborah and shows her own poor parenting skills when she tells Mrs. Chalmers that “I’m sorry she had the baby so soon. [. . .] it’s not doing her or the child any good, her staying here and feeling thwarted and unhappy” (14). Rather than telling her daughter to “buck up” and face the responsibilities of her own life, Mrs. Betts allows Deborah to go thinking that as a mother, Mrs. Betts still knows best, knows her daughter best, and how to keep her happy.

Though Deborah’s manipulation of others begins almost immediately, her skills greatly improve and her manipulative attempts are much clearer toward the end of the novel, especially in the manipulation of Mrs. Chalmers and Ken Matthews. Through a manipulation of her physical appearance, Deborah shows her own recognition of her skills. She knows that she cannot appear in her identity as the London mistress/burgeoning socialite and recrafts the simple girl she was prior to London for her meetings with Ken. By choosing to involve her son and his wellbeing in her manipulation of Mrs. Chalmers, Deborah reaches a new low.

Though I felt sorry for Deborah in that she was looking for purpose and companionship but not necessarily love, she looked for that companionship in the wrong places beginning with a rekindling of her school relationship with Madeline. Though Deborah recognizes the irresponsibility associated with this choice, she does nothing to repair the damage to her marriage and her soul, and instead chooses to relish in the lavish lifestyle associated with being the mistress.

Deborah degrades herself through her multitude of lovers (I had to make a list to keep them straight), and shows that she values herself through how she can manipulate her situation or her next lover into providing for her lavish lifestyle, and only continues to value her pre-London lifestyle, including her child and husband, by the financial freedoms it has granted her. Deborah no longer values her life and purpose as a mother and wife or even as a useful wartime worker; she only values her skills as a manipulator. Deborah started as a poor country woman whom the world felt sorry for, but ended up biding her time as she blossomed into the fashionable and manipulating mistress she always wanted to be.

 

Laski, Marghanita.  To Bed with Grand Music. Persephone Books, Ltd., 2012.

The Intolerable Burden of Truth – Stacy

After the first few pages of Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, I wasn’t sure if I would like it or not as I’m not usually one who takes the mocking of any religion lightly. However, this book has ended up being my favorite of the class thus far. As a devout Catholic, I couldn’t help but notice striking similarities and yet vast differences in the Creed which the church of Holy Hitler sings at the beginning of Swastika Night and the Creed which I profess every Sunday. However, by page seven when the Creed compares Christian women to the lowly worm, I didn’t so much feel offended, but saddened for those fictional followers of the Holy Hitler church.

The Creed begins by professing the belief in “God the Thunderer” as creator of the physical earth and in God the Thunderer’s Heaven, and in “His Son our Holy Adolf Hitler, The Only Man. Who was begotten, not born of a woman, but Exploded!” (5) “From the Head of His Father” (6). I found the wording of this Creed interesting in comparison to the Nicene Creed said at the Catholic Church in which we as a congregation profess that we believe rather than an individual belief. The punctuation present within the Hitler Creed is interesting as well especially with the period following “The Only Man.” I had to look at it twice to make sure it wasn’t a comma as it feels like this should blend into the next sentence of “Who was begotten”. By calling “Holy Adolf Hitler, The Only Man”, the narrator is showing how important Hitler considered himself and himself alone.

In the first paragraph, I recognized in Hermann something that I face every once in a while—feeling alone in my head and getting so distracted that I’m just going through the motions at church. Unlike Hermann, I don’t usually get distracted by the young choir boy, but rather the screaming child in front of me, or the sniffly old man behind me, or the young lady wearing too much perfume, or… well, you get the picture. This disturbance of attention is something any churchgoer faces at least once—it’s that Sunday we’d rather have stayed in bed, would rather be doing anything other than sitting in the uncomfortable pews listening to a priest, whom we like most days, drone on. We pretend to pay attention, but things like the pitchy singer in the choir and the crying kid a few rows in front of us are enough to drive our attention to the cleaning that needs to be done at home, the dinner that needs prepared, the homework piling up, to anything that isn’t related to the task at hand: worshipping God. But still we stand, sit, kneel, repeat all on cue because that’s what we’re supposed to do when we go to church. It’s not that we do not feel devotion to God at that time, but just like Hermann, we get easily distracted. So we follow along repeating the prayers and the Creed we memorized eons ago not daring to ask: do I really still believe this?

Hermann had been repeating the words of the Creed since he was nine, and his devotion didn’t seem to waiver as his attention span may have. He showed his great devotion to the Holy Church of Hitler in his thoughts as a Nazi, and when those thoughts strayed, he was able to snap himself back into the herd mentality and put those errant thoughts back in order. Seemingly, Hermann would have continued to profess his faith until the end of his life had Alfred not interrupted the simplicity of Hermann’s life by allowing him to be told things (62). Had Hermann been able to view Alfred as lesser than himself, as a foreigner was according to the Creed, perhaps Hermann could have rejected Alfred’s invitation to meet with von Hess and not received the intolerable truth of his god.

Though von Hess felt that “intolerable burden” (54) as the only man left in the world to know the truth about Hitler’s origins as a man rather than from the miraculous explosion from God the Thunderer’s head, he bore that burden until he was able to pass that information to the next generation. Von Hess could have easily taken the truth to the grave in the same manner as those family members before him, burned the book as not to be branded a heretic of the Holy Church of Hitler, and received the posthumous accolades associated with being a Knight. However, he did not. Von Hess could have adopted another son, but did not feel it was right to burden a Knight’s orphan with the truth, he felt it was acceptable to burden Alfred, a lowly Englishman, with the truth. Though Alfred did not seem to think of the truth as a burden, he was still tasked with its continuity. In Alfred, von Hess discovered a kindred spirit “seeking light in darkness and harmony in confusion” (55). I found it interesting that Alfred admitted to losing his faith at sixteen, the same age von Hess was when he learned the truth through the passing down of the book. Von Hess did not have a chance to lose his faith because like Hermann, von Hess had his faith ripped from him. The two men, Alfred and von Hess, approach the concept of truth differently, but still the same appeared to have the same ideas of its worth.

Though we may have found the concept of an “Exploded!” (5) begotten Hitler as God both laughable and somewhat frightening, we have seen in our lifetimes the powerful effects of people who claim to be deities, prophets, and/or direct descendants of God. We only have to look at the crimes committed in the names of the many religions which have “become very debased and impure” (73) corrupted by imperfect men. These modern day “prophets” are often revealed to have a psychopathic complex similar to that which Hitler displayed in his lifetime. Though we cannot doubt the power these prophets and leaders have on the weak-minded herd and the weak-minded, society continues to cast doubt on all things men believe in because we don’t believe in them too. After all, “Weak men cannot bear knowledge” (65). Not all men can bear that intolerable burden of truth.

It Suits Me: The Importance of Naming – Stacy

In her Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith had to choose her character names and attributes with care to avoid offending those who served as models those characters. By selecting to use events from her actual life, she risked the threat of libel. Smith had to learn to refashion and blend fiction with fact to create alternate tellings of her real life stories and events. In showing so much care to protect herself from those who would sue her, Smith shows she would go to the same amount of care in crafting for her alter ego, her semi-autobiographical self, an interesting and provocative name to suit not only herself but the events she’s recreated in her novel. Smith created for herself a name to hide behind and create subtle and not so subtle differences in real life events and fictional events, and in a way, she treated herself as a character within her own novel, protecting her own name and life events against libeling herself. In creating her own likeness, Smith is able to show those aspects of Pompey’s life which matter the most to both the author and character.

In Novel on Yellow Paper, great importance is placed on the name of protagonist Pompey Casmilus. In his article “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”, Stephen James call Smith’s moniker choice “a sheer oddity of using two male names for a female protagonist (a gender bending tendency that persists through the work of ‘Stevie’ nee Florence Margaret Smith)” (243). However, it’s not simply important that Smith chose for the protagonist two male names, but the names of two males whom Smith considered powerful through history and mythology. By selecting two powerful males, Smith is, in a way, harnessing for herself the power of not only the male gender, but that of the two individuals: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a respected Roman military general; and Casmilus, an obscure name for the Greek god Hermes, who a quick internet search informs us is the Greek god of boundaries, merchants, travelers, and thieves, served as a messenger of the gods, and acted as an intermediary between the divine and mortal. Armed with this knowledge, the first word in Novel on Yellow Paper, Casmilus, takes on deeper meaning. The name first comes to the reader in the form of one of Smith’s poems, and as such recalls the feeling of one invoking a Greek muse. The calling of Casmilus feels like a petition for intercession to that realm between fiction and reality.

In looking at the words of Smith’s poem, one can see the importance of the aspect of hiding one’s identity. Smith’s poem begins with the lines “Casmilus, whose great name I steal, / Whose name a greater doth conceal” (Smith 9). By admitting that she’s stealing the name, the speaker of the poem reveals a sense of dissatisfaction with her own name and an interest in hiding or concealing her own identity by sidling herself along with the “name a greater doth conceal”. In disguising her identity with Hermes, the god who travels between, we can see the importance of Pompey’s concealed identity and gender from the reader, and possibly from herself. Pompey conceals her identity through her clothing choices and through the words she uses to describe herself, a girl and a woman. Even Pompey’s choice to remain unmarried and immersed in the male-dominated corporate world could be seen as a screen to conceal her gender. Pompey clearly traverses the in between realm just as her namesake.

As important as the names are which serve as Pompey’s new suitable name, the name Pompey replaces (and conceals) is equally important: Patience. Pompey states, “Patience I was christened, but later of when I got grown up and out and about in London, I got called Pompey. And it suits me” (Smith 20). Not only does a refusal of the name Patience go against the very act of being patient, it goes against her christened name, and, therefore, against the patriarchy of religion. However, the name does show passivity in that she “got called Pompey” rather than the stealing of her surname as the beginning poem claims. In this instance, Pompey does not inform the reader of the circumstances of how she earned the nickname of Pompey and does not disclose the person who gave her the nickname. It may not seem important; however, if the giver of the nickname was a male, she could just as easily be falling under the rule of the patriarchy again by allowing one of its members to name her. However, in true Pompey fashion, she might have given up the virtue of patience in order to claim the name for all its meretricious decay and elegance that suits her just fine (20).

James, Stephen. “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”. Essays in Criticism, vol. 66, no. 2., 2016, pp. 242-259. Project Muse. www. http://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/2/242.full.pdf+html.

Smith, Stevie. Novel on Yellow Paper. Virago Press Ltd. 1936.

 

The Traditional Mechanism -Stacy

gearsSeveral words throughout the pages of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes resonated with me; however, none so much as these: “Even Laura, introduced as a sort of extra wheel, soon found herself part of the mechanism, and interworking with the other wheels, went round as busily as they” (44). These words both delighted me and made me incredibly sad. In Part 1 of Lolly Willowes, Laura Willowes is presented as a woman without a home struggling to define herself. Being forced to leave her family home and succumb to being passed between family members, Laura shows that she is merely that extra person who must be accommodated as she is defined by her place in the family. She doesn’t fight against the definitions her family assigns to her and accepts what they tell her she will or won’t like based on the notion of family tradition.

Being defined by one’s station in life is not fulfilling as we can see in the case of Laura/Lolly Willowes.  There seem to be many opportunities for Laura to choose to define herself through her interest of botany and flowers as well as her enjoyment of running her father’s household; however, the only time she takes charge of her life is when she makes the decision to move to Great Mop. It is only when she announces her decision to Henry and is told there is no money to fund such an “impractical” (95) expenditure that will only serve to make her ill when Laura decides to stands up for herself. Laura’s spine seems to have grown overnight to buck the family tradition.

Once Laura moves there, she becomes yet another “extra wheel” in the workings of the small town. Though Laura feels a sense of escape of being an aunt and newness in Great Mop, but soon she develops her routines and life is similar to that of London. She walks, she looks at flowers, she reads her guidebook. Though this makes her happy for a time, she cannot link the wheels of her previous life with those of her new life as is shown by the great upset Titus causes when he moves to Great Mop. One cannot leave behind the person one was in an effort to become an entirely new being. A residue of the former life will always remain to keep pulling the memory backward. Because she never made peace with her role as Aunt Lolly, Laura couldn’t seem to let that go. She even seems to forget the person she has tried to become in coming to Great Mop when she is tending chickens with Mr. Saunter and “[forgets] where and who she was, so completely had she merged her personality in to the henwife’s” (134).

I feel there is a part of Laura who is happy having slightly less agency and without knowing definitively who she is, where she’s going, or who exactly is in charge of her. When she speaks to Satan in the guise of the gamekeeper and he states “I hope you will stay here, Miss Willowes” (186), her response is “full of doubts” (186) making her proclamation of the pleasantry of being in the country seem forced. It isn’t until the Devil “takes matters into his own hands” that Laura feels “assured” of her place (192). It almost seems as though she cannot be happy without someone being in charge of her fate other than herself. Though the Devil gives the illusion that Laura is in charge, the question remains, is she really? When she states “I’m sure I shall never wish to escape you” (210), she is handing over what is left of her agency to yet another male figure for an illusion of belonging and happiness.

The illusion of Laura’s happiness in her roles throughout Lolly Willowes reminds me of Chris Baldry’s happiness as discussed by Kitty and Jenny in the beginning of Return of the Soldier. Both of those ladies assumed Chris was happy until he returned and they discovered perhaps he wasn’t as happy as he appeared to be. In her role as Laura at her father’s house, Laura appeared happy to her father and brothers. In her role as Aunt Lolly, she appeared happy to her nieces and nephew, her sister in law and brother. In her role as Laura of Great Mop, she is inconsequential. No one either cared to ask if she was genuinely happy, they simply assumed that she was happy or they didn’t care, she simply acclimated herself into each mechanism she joined. Once an “extra wheel” in the mechanism, always an “extra wheel” in the mechanism.

Those Secret Exquisite Moments – Stacy

rose_redandwhitestripe

 

I wanted so badly to enjoy reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. This novel was my first encounter with Woolf’s work, and as such, I was excited, I was ready to be enticed, I was ready to be enchanted by the words of the celebrated author. However, I did not have that experience.

I recognized immediately that page one contained no chapter heading. I was not concerned at first; however, after I read for several pages, twenty or more, I realized there are no separate chapters. The novel is written as one long chapter. I found this phenomenon to be vexing as there were no natural stopping points. I felt as though the book should be read in one long frenzied, and frantic sitting. The frantic need to reach the end of the work increased to the point I felt as though I were anxiously experiencing moments of Woolf’s madness imprinted on the pages the further I read.

From our classroom discussion, I knew of the tunneling through multiple consciousness style of writing, and I expected I would enjoy reading from the multiple personalities. As I began, I expected a visual shift as a cue to a change in consciousness, but as such clues are not always present, I often felt I could not follow the swift changes. At several moments, I felt as though the characters were experiencing thoughts of obsessive-compulsive disorder through the listing of items. At first, I felt the listing was all in the mindset of Clarissa Dalloway as a matter of thought organization when she begins by stating the names of flowers available at Miss Pym’s: “delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises” (12). However, the repetition of the listing so quickly on the next page felt as though it were not so much an organization, but a problem. The action is repeated once again in the consciousness of Lucrezia Warren Smith in the form of a multi-step sequence: “Her words faced. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and tower; bleak hillsides soften and fall in” (23).  Through the purposefulness of this action, I felt more anxious.

Other moments, I felt as though the characters’ thoughts felt extraordinarily fragmented within the same paragraph. Though Clarissa Dalloway appears to recognize this fragmentation, she makes it appear more purposeful as facets of the whole. She explains the difficulty and exertion it takes to put oneself together as “[. . .] she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman [. . .]” (36). Though I did not feel the joining together of myself in the way of a faceted diamond, I feel as though I did experience a fragmentation of my thoughts alongside the pages which led me to a feeling of isolation which was reflected  in the thoughts of Septimus Warren Smith when he claims “he could reason; he could read, Dante for example, quite easily [. . .] he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then—that he could not feel” (86). Because I know nothing is wrong with my brain, hopefully, much like that of Septimus, I must find fault elsewhere in the world of Woolf.

Though I did not enjoy the reading of Mrs. Dalloway in its entirety, I felt I glimpsed the “secret deposit of exquisite moments” (29) through lines which were truly remarkable moments of literary ecstasy. These were moments in which I could see the landscape of London unfolding in waves before my eyes, the many colors of nature (especially through the multiple red and white flowers) blossoming across the pages, and the lives of the characters unraveling like seams.

 

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.

Knowing is Half the Battle: The Full Story Makes the Difference

As I read Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier over the summer, I found it to be a short and quaint novella with some rather unlikable characters; however, I soon learned that I received an edition that did not contain the introduction or appendices. As such, I was unable to capture how the subtle nuances of West’s life such as her relationship with H.G. Wells and his wife, and her convoluted relationship with her illegitimate son, and how much of her own life is reflected throughout the pages of this novel as presented through the introduction. Through the additional materials, I also learned about the prevalence of repression training for soldiers and the social class dichotomy of the lady and the woman presented through Kitty and Margaret and how that distinction affected women’s roles. As I had already formed an opinion of the story without the extra information conveyed through the appendices and introduction, I wondered if my opinion would be changed with the addition of this new knowledge.

When Kitty is first presented to the reader, one can see that she is a woman of importance, one who has been accustomed to being obeyed and catered to. I originally felt resentment for Kitty as the way she chose to present herself is infinitely better than the lowly Margaret and the sad and lonely Jenny; however, in comparison to the other characters, Kitty is merely presenting herself as the picture of the proper lady. Throughout the novel, Kitty continues to show disdain at the overall sense of shabbiness exhibited by Margaret as well as a desire toward keeping the Baldry home and its material objects safe and tidy. However, Kitty’s materialistic attitude can be read differently in that she is being a good steward of that which has been given to her. This alternate reading may also show that she cares for those under her charge as she explains to Chris that her mending basket is full of “Clothes for one of the cottagers […] With all the land you’ve bought there’s ever so many people to look after…” (68). Kitty is merely fulfilling her role as lady of the house in a more materialistic manner by protecting the household goods including those of the cottagers on the estate.

In the role of the lady of the house, Kitty can be likened to a soldier on the home front. To fulfill her duty as a soldier, Kitty practices the repression of her grief over her son and the sadness of watching her husband leave for war in order to maintain the responsibilities she has taken over for Chris during his absence. By viewing Kitty in this role of the soldier of the house, one can see that she is merely completing her duty by turning away Mrs. Grey when she arrives with news of Chris’ failing health. Kitty’s aloofness may appear that she is more about concerned about protecting the house’s best interest against the possibility of being caught in a costly scam than in news of her husband; however, like a good soldier, Kitty trusts the government to inform her of issues concerning the state of her husband and continues to repress any grief over his unknown condition.

Though Kitty may not express outward concern for those under her care, as she exhibits when she tells Jenny “don’t begin to fuss” (49) over lack of word from Chris, this does not mean that she does not care for the wellbeing of her husband and those around her. Upon my initial reading, I took Kitty’s statement to mean she was not concerned about her husband and seemed almost glad he was gone. However, by learning the importance of the lady of the house and the repression training experienced by soldiers, one can see that acting aloof and distancing oneself from the goings on of war shows that Kitty is practicing this same repression. As Kitty is filled with a happy relief when Chris is cured and returns “Every inch a soldier” (118), one can read Kitty’s actions as not those of a jealous woman attempting to win back her husband, but rather are the actions of a lady of the house returning her lost soldier to the home front in order to earn a reprieve for her efforts.

 

 

  1. At the beginning of the story, Jenny expresses a desire to keep Chris safe and “seal[ed] in this green pleasantness of his wife” (48). Is it simply that Chris is stuck in time with Margaret that upsets Jenny at the revelation of Chris’ illness? Would Jenny have been a champion for Chris to come back to the present time had he been sealed in a happy past with Kitty?
  2. At the end of the story, Jenny claims Chris looks “Every inch a soldier” to which Kitty replies with satisfaction “He’s cured!” (118). Do you take this to mean Chris had always appeared to have repressed his feelings regarding a dissatisfying home life prior to the war and losing his memory was an opportunity to bury those feelings he repressed? Or do you feel that this return to the “every inch a soldier” persona is Chris now repressing the disappointment he feels about regaining his lost memories and grief?
  3. Is Jenny’s change of allegiance from Team Kitty to Team Margaret due to Jenny’s misunderstanding of Kitty’s detachment to Chris after his return? Or has Margaret genuinely won Jenny over? Or do you feel that Jenny recognizes how Chris would have been a different person had he been coupled with Margaret?
  4. After a second reading, I still found Kitty an unlikable character. Although I feel I better understood her motives, I found the repression of her grief for the losses of her husband and son to make her distinctly difficult to relate to. Do you feel Kitty’s repression is what makes her unlikable?

 

 

Work Cited

West, Rebecca, Bernard Schweizer, and Charles Thorne. The Return of the Soldier. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2010. Print.

The Poetic Definition

I love poetry explication. The way one definition can change the entire scope of a poem has always fascinated me. When I realized last week’s readings were poetry, I was enthralled. However, we did not speak about my favorite of the poems from the reading in class: Madeline Ida Bedford’s “Munition Wages.” The heading tells the reader it “focuses on the unthinkable materialism of these lower-class workers but remains silent about the war itself” (129). I read the poem with this type of speaker in mind. By looking at the poem from the standpoint of a lower-class worker, and “A woman, too, mind you” (Ln 3), I feel that it expresses not only the ironic feeling of someone who has not been appreciated but also someone is expected to live and think in a certain way, especially regarding war. Though the speaker of the poem does not mention the word “war”, the meaning can be implied by looking at the different definitions.

I feel that the speaker is being a little sarcastic when she claims “I spends the whole racket / On good times and clothes” (7-8). The word racket is what stands out to me as there are several definitions of the word, each changing subtly the meaning of the poem.

If we take the definition of racket as “a large, noisy, or exuberant social gathering or event,” one can see that the poem changes focus from the lower-class materialism to a commentary about the war. The meaning changes from I spend my whole paycheck on frivolous things to I exercise my rights to enjoy all that I can while I’m still around as one of these rounds might come back around and get me.

By looking at racket as the British slang definition of “a dishonest or fraudulent line of business; a method of swindling for financial gain; a scam,” one can see that the meaning has changed focus again to looking at war as an illegitimate way to earn a living and why would one spend that money on anything other than frivolity. However, in looking at this from the lower-class worker’s point of view, one can question whether there is enough money left after 5 quid a week to spend on such frivolities.

The sarcasm continues with the lines “Are yer kidding? / With money to spend!” (21-22) and “It is jolly worth while” (32). But the subdued ending of the poem tells of a sad fate that would be the end of the munitions worker. By stating “If I’m blown to the sky / I’ll have repaid mi wages / In death—and pass by” (34-36), the speaker of the poem recognizes that the fate of the soldier can also be her fate. This particular set of lines gives the feeling that perhaps these wages have not yet been earned by the worker, or that by contributing to the sin of war, the wages will most definitely be death.