Posted in Literature

Jane Austen: The Outsider Looking In

When you hear the name Jane Austen images of grand old houses, women in bonnets, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy come to mind. We tend to associate Jane Austen with romance and wealthy country estates. However, the real Jane Austen, the woman behind the legacy, is a bit of a mystery.

While many readers and admirers have tried to pigeonhole her into being an Elizabeth Bennet prototype, (as evident by Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the young author in Becoming Jane) the real Austen was at once all of her beloved characters and none of them. She wrote novels famous for their romance, but she died unmarried. She wrote famously wealthy characters like Mr. Darcy and Emma Woodhouse, but Jane Austen herself was never fully part of that world, merely an outsider peeking in. In fact, the real Jane Austen is just as fascinating as some of her most beloved heroines whose appeal is enhanced all the more by the mystery and contradictions that surround her.

Jane Austen was an outsider to the landed gentry that we now associate her with. Her status as an outsider makes her the best observer and critic of this social class, its customs, and behaviors. Perhaps her characters feel real because they were. Writers tend to be inspired by the people they meet and the stories they hear, whether they are aware of it or not. It is not outrageous to think that this was the case with Jane Austen (not that I’m underestimating her creative abilities). Two hundred years later, we still recognize versions of her characters in the people we meet—we all know a babbling and idiotic Mr. Collins, the gigging flirts like Lydia and Kitty Bennet, sour old women like Catherine de Burgh, sweet and often ignored wallflowers like Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot, and even awkward but ultimately loveable loners like Mr. Darcy and Col Brandon. This is a testament to her talents as a writer and as an observer of human nature.


Posted in Literature

Fanny Price Meets Lord Byron

Mansfield Park, Wildfell Hall, Lord Byron, and Me: A Reflection On Inspiration and Influence

Though Jane Austen could never have known it at the time of writing, I can’t help but find (unwitting on Austen’s part) parallels between characters in Mansfield Park and real life scandalous figures in the Regency Era and Victorian Era.

In 1814, Jane Austen published Mansfield Park. However, in that same year, famed poet and public persona Lord Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke (she liked to be called Annabella). The two had met in 1812 and he proposed in 1813, but she refused him. Remember, this would have happened in the same period of time that Austen was writing Mansfield Park and perhaps she heard rumors of Byron being rejected and incorporated them into her latest novel. The idea of a pious and virtuous young woman rejecting the advances of a charming rake makes up the last act of Mansfield Park, where Henry Crawford can be seen as a stand-in for a Lord Byron-esque character, while Fanny Price is an impoverished version of Annabella.

Lovable rouges were in style and would continue to spike in popularity due to the Byronic hero, a favorite trope of two of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily. This archetype is still popular now (look at all of the romance novels featuring reformed playboys and the many Austen readers that think Fanny should have chosen Henry over Edmund.)

There are some interesting parallels between the two couples. Byron made his intentions of marriage known to Annabella’s aunt, who told her niece of his offer. In Mansfield Park, Henry proposes through Fanny’s uncle, whom Fanny feels indebted to, thus changing the playing field dramatically.

While Henry attempts to woo Fanny again after she has rejected him, he soon becomes restless and moves on to committing adultery with Fanny’s very married cousin Maria, which breaks off any hope of romance between Henry and Fanny and then Henry and Maria when he callously rejects the later after ruining her.

Annabella, however, was not so fortunate. She did not have the same resilience as Fanny did and eventually accepted Lord Byron after his second proposal, believing it was her Christian duty to marry him. She, like so many other unfortunate women, believed that she could “change him.”

She couldn’t.

Lord Byron fell on hard times and with that came the drinking and the anger and many humiliating affairs. Their marriage became emotionally distant and mentally abusive. Annabella started to fear for her husband’s sanity. The couple separated after not even two years of marriage.

Byron died in 1824, never seeing his wife or child again. Annabella went on to better things: she became involved with many social causes, even becoming a vocal critic of slavery and calling for its abolition. Yet today Byron is remembered and Annabella is not because while Byron’s poetry has lasted through the ages, Annabella’s work is a shadow, felt on through her influence on others.

Annabella shared her abolitionist beliefs with her friend, the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (infamous in America for publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was highly critical of slavery and helped bring its injustices to the public eye). Stowe later wrote about Annabella and Byron’s marriage, which exposed Byron’s less admirable qualities (such as sleeping with his half-sister and nearly any other woman he could get his hands on).

Part of what makes Annabella memorable today, apart from her failed marriage, is her intelligence. Annabella had a particularly great education for a woman at the time, so much so that she developed a love of mathematics and science. Her daughter Ada would inherit her mother’s love of mathematics and is now famous for her work with Charles Babbage’s precursor to a computer, earning her a place in history as the first computer programmer (before the computer as we know it was even built). While the fictional Fanny Price had less of an education, showing a devotion to reading more than math, it is fun to imagine her daughter becoming a mathematic or scientific genius!

Jane Austen published Mansfield Park before Byron and Annabella married and then their subsequent estrangement, so she might have been only loosely inspired by Byron’s (then rejected) initial proposal. But another famous English writer was certainly inspired by the failed marriage in its entirety, which became the basis for another underrated but important English novel—Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Bronte’s novel is notable for being one of the first realistic portraits of an abusive relationship. Her Helen Graham (a stand in for Annabella who is just as virtuous and morally strong as Fanny Price) did stand up for herself and finally slammed the door in her husband’s face, a slam that reverberated throughout literature long before Henrik Ibsen’s Nora from A Doll’s House slams the door on her own unhappy marriage. While Fanny never literally slammed the door in Henry’s face, her loud and clear declaration of “Never, never, never” is just as impactful. After all, Fanny Price is not one to “act,” as she admits earlier in the novel.

The ties between the Byron’s unhappy marriage and Henry Crawford’s failed courtship with Fanny Price might seen tenuous compared to the strong bond between the Byron’s marriage and Bronte’s Wildfell Hall. Still, it is likely that Austen was inspired by the latest news and gossip of her day the way modern writers are influenced by our generation’s latest news. A writer can’t help but be influenced by the world around them and I doubt Jane Austen was an exception to this rule.


Posted in Literature

“June Cleaver Loses the Apron”

Women, for many decades, had assigned roles in literature with authors following the rules of society that tell them how to portray females in their plays and other art forms. Women in literature were maidens or sirens, wives or prostitutes, and most heroines had to be pure, innocent, and virginal.

As the literary form known as the novel came into being, women started to be portrayed a little bit differently than before. One of the writers who took advantage of this was Eliza Haywood, whose short story Fantomina: Love in a Maze, helped break the rules of how women were portrayed in fiction by making its heroine a sexually curious young woman who desires a man sexually, a role only men had played previously in novels.

Several hundred years later, Edward Albee captured the changing gender roles in America after the Women’s Rights Movement and both World Wars, in a time that was beginning to push for social changes with the Civil Rights Movement and the First wave of Feminism. The cultivation of these ideas comes out in his most famous play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? where he challenges the typical stereotype of gender roles in a marriage. Both authors challenge the typical roles of women in literature by portraying their main female character as being the opposite of society’s expectations of what a woman should be, despite the fact that the time periods each author wrote in had a very different climate concerning the rights of women and the topics of sexuality and marriage.

Fantomina and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf center on two very different women, both of who are the exact opposite of society’s expectations for the role that they, as women, must play. They differ in how each author portrays these women and the time period each author wrote them in.

The unnamed heroine in Fantomina is filled with sexual desire for Beauplaisir, a man she disguises herself for to keep herself interesting for sexually. The heroine, whom for simplicity’s sake will be called Fantomina, was written in a time when women had very few rights and were basically property of their husbands or fathers. Fantomina disregards social roles of the time when she thinks: “Men…have no cause to scorn our easy weeping, wailing sex!” (Haywood 2754) Fantomina defies both of these rules by having no father mentioned, and no husband to speak of, and is instead subservient to her mother, Beauplaisir, and her own sexual desires. Despite this, she still believes she is in control of her own situation by doing “beyond what almost any woman but herself ever did” (Haywood 2745). Her new-found power in her sexuality makes her desire freedom as she never has before. She does not understand women’s desire to “make their life a hell, burning in fruitless expectations, and dreaming out their ways in hopes and fears, then wake at last to all the horror of despair” (Haywood 2751). Though eventually she tires of her taste of sexual freedom, having bitten off more than she can chew, by becoming bored with Beauplaisir: “she began to grow as weary of receiving his now insipid caresses as he was of offering them” (Haywood 2756). Even though she is, in the end, submissive to her mother’s control, Fantomina is the exact opposite of what society tells her to be by acting on her sexual urges and fulfilling her desires in a time when women were meant to be virgins before marriage.

Martha, the main female character of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf may be as lusty as Fantomina is, but besides their lusty dispositions, the two heroines are extremely different. Martha does not take no for an answer. She is loud and crude, while Fantomina is innocent and naïve. Martha is a middle-aged wife, while Fantomina is merely a young woman. Fantomina nearly worships her lover, Martha, on the other hand, calls her husband a “FLOP! A great big fat flop!” (Albee 84). When Albee was writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the idea woman was represented in the T.V. sitcom “Leave it to Beaver” character June Cleaver: she was the perfect wife, always in the kitchen, obedient, loving, and motherly. Martha is none of the above. Martha is abusive to her husband, she does not take orders, she is cruel to George, and she is childless, and the only time she steps foot in the kitchen is to pour herself another drink. George, her husband, even remarks on how Martha is constantly “ridiculing [him], tearing [him] down” (Albee 91). Martha even punches George during a humiliating boxing match, which counts as physical abuse, even if she does it as a jest. She threatens her husband when he tries to stand up to her: “I’ll make you sorry you made me want to marry you…I’ll make you regret the day you ever decided to come to this college. I’ll make you sorry you ever let yourself down” (Albee 173). Martha defies nearly every aspect of what the fifties’ and sixties’ society thought women should be.

Haywood wrote Fantomina centuries before Edward Albee was even born, long before the idea of women’s rights came into formation. This shows in her writing and plotting at the end of the story where Fantomina is forced to redeem herself after “sinning” and “degrading herself” with her lover by becoming a nun. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? does not have a tacked-on ending and Martha never attempts to redeem herself for her actions, nor is she forced to by society. Albee wrote the character of Martha during a time when American societal and gender norms were beginning to be challenged. The Women’s Rights Movement had happened fifty years earlier, and the Feminist Movement was about to take place. Men had left for war only to return home to find that their wives had taken their place at the head of the household, becoming the breadwinner by themselves. Martha challenges the typical role of females in entertainment at the time by representing the male fear of what this “new, independent” woman could be: pushy, rude, and mean. Both writers use their heroines to challenge social norms, but for Haywood her story of Fantomina comes off as a cautionary tale of girls who give in to their sexual desires, while Albee directly challenges American society’s rules through the character of Martha.

Despite the differences between the two main characters and the time period both stories were written in, Albee’s play and Haywood’s story both feature two strong women who, perhaps unconsciously, attempt to defy stereotypical roles of women at the time their story is set. Fantomina does not succeed in her quest for lust and independence, as few women did at that time, while Martha, though she is independent, ends the play in tears, having been broken down—not by society as Fantomina was—but by her own treacherous womb, unable to conceive. Martha’s independent nature and her abusive behavior is shown to be a façade, something for her to hide behind so that she can forget about the pain she feels inside. Both characters were born too early; their personalities are those of twenty-first century women: free, independent, and able to do what they want when they want to. Neither fully succeeds in obtaining the freedom they want because someone or something inside of them pulls them back to their harsh, unfeeling reality. Society and its beliefs is a chain around their necks, pulling them back into the dark waters of obedience and silence and while Fantomina drowns in the watery grave society has made for her, others, like Martha, keep swimming, reaching for the light and the freedom that awaits for them above. These two characters, and others like them, have helped, in one way or another, pave the way for stronger, more iconic female characters to appear on the literary scene. By defying society’s rules of how a woman should be written, Haywood and Albee have, whether they meant to or not, shown that women in literature should not be simply labeled as Virgin Mary’s or Mary Magdalene’s, June Cleaver’s or terrible shrews—women in literature, like in life, can be as diverse as men are and should be.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Signet, New York. 1983. Print.

Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. New York. Print.

Posted in Literature

The Madness of Cassandra

Cassandra, a character found in Homer’s epic The Iliad and Virgil’s The Aeneid, has become the poster child for characters in literature who can see into the future and whose miraculous gift has become a curse. She was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, who had fallen in love with her, but when she refused his advances, he cursed her: yes, she could see into the future, but no one would ever believe her visions. Because of this, Cassandra is seen as a mad, insane woman who predicts death and destruction everywhere she goes. Other characters shrug off her words, not knowing that she can see into the future, and that her warnings hold true. Of all the female characters found in myths about the Trojan War, Cassandra appears most often, after Helen, the woman that the war started over. Writers have been fascinated by Cassandra, painting her as a tragic victim of circumstance, someone whose genius is overshadowed by their apparent insanity.

The princess of Troy, Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, can be found in many works of ancient literature. Cassandra appears only briefly in The Iliad, but her character is important to the contemporary literature and mythology of the time. She is a footnote in this text, but a reference to her appearance in a larger number of works. In Homer’s epic about the Trojan War she makes her first appearance in the last book, being the first to see King Priam return home with the body of Hector, her dead brother. It is stated that “No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman, none before Cassandra” (Homer 24.819-820.) Homer’s way of phrasing this sentence is done to show that Cassandra can see what others cannot, hinting at her gifts of prophecy. Upon seeing the body of Hector she screams with “her scream [ringing] out through all Troy” (24.826). Cassandra is typically seen screaming and wailing in ancient literature. She can be seen screaming again at the end of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and her screams are mentioned in The Odyssey when Odysseus visits the Underworld and sees his dead Agamemnon, who tells him that “the death-cry of Cassandra, Priam’s daughter—the most pitiful thing I heard!” (Homer 11.476-477). Cassandra’s screams echo throughout Greek mythology and literature.

Cassandra is mentioned early on in Virgil’s The Aeneid, via flashback, warning the Trojans not to accept the gift of the wooden Horse offered by the Greeks, but she is ignored. Virgil writes, “Cassandra’s lips unsealed the doom to come: lips by a god’s command never believed or heeded by the Trojans” (2.330-332). Little do they know that the wooden horse is filled with Greek soldiers who sack the city once night falls, just as Cassandra predicted. Aeneas speaks of a man, Coroebus, who had earlier come to Troy seeking Cassandra’s hand in marriage, but was unsuccessful. The narrator laments that he was “deaf to what his bride foretold!” (Virgil 2.462). Cassandra’s unheeded warning of the destruction of Troy is her most important action in the mythology surrounding the Trojan War, but her story does not end here.

Virgil depicts Cassandra, like her mother Hecuba and her sisters, clinging to the idols of Gods and Goddesses at an altar during the sack of Troy, “enfolding holy images in their arms,” hoping the Greeks will not hurt them in this sacred place (Virgil 2.669-672). Their hope is vain for the Greeks capture them anyway. Aeneas watches in horror as Cassandra is “dragged by her long hair out of Minerva’s shrine, lifting her brilliant eyes in vain to heaven—her eyes alone, as her white hands were bound” (Virgil 2.533-537). Like most of the surviving women of Troy, she is taken to a camp outside the burning city where plans are made to divide the women up amongst the Greeks as war prizes, as concubines, as slaves.

The enslavement of the remaining women of Troy, especially its royal family, is at the center of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women. Cassandra becomes the war prize and mistress to Agamemnon. As she leaves the camp, she comforts her mother, Hecuba, saying that her “marriage will destroy those whom thou and I most hate”—the Greeks, especially Agamemnon, who would die because of his involvement with the Trojan princess (Euripides 4). A Greek soldier, Talthybius, remarks that people might have heeded her warnings if the god Apollo had not “turned thy wits astray” (Euripides 4). The tragic conclusion to Cassandra’s part in Greek literature is found in another play.

The prophetess eventually predicts her own death, just as she had the destruction of Troy. In her most famous moment in all of Greek literature, she partakes in a “mad scene” in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. Here her “insanity” or “prophetic” ways are seen in full force as she screams, rants, and raves of visions of death that will soon befall Agamemnon, the Greek general who has taken her as a war prize, and Cassandra herself at the hands of Agamemnon’s wife. She even hints at events that would occur in the rest of the trilogy of plays written by Aeschylus, known as the Oresteia, which covers the events after Agamemnon’s death. Up until this point in the play, Cassandra has remained silent, kept in the background, like she is in most pieces of ancient literature covering this time period. Now she is, possessed by the god Apollo, and in a trance she rambles about the fate that will befall the house of Atreus, to which Agamemnon belongs, featuring betrayal, murder, cannibalism, and matricide. As much as her death pains her, Cassandra knows it will also cause pain to her enemies, the Greeks, chanting that her “death is edged the double-biting sword!” (Aeschylus 25). She walks offstage to her death, knowing full well what is in store for her at the jealous Clytemnestra’s hands.

Cassandra is always associated with madness and prophecy. In fact a disorder known as the “Cassandra Complex” is named after her, describing valid concerns, medical or otherwise, that are dismissed. In literature, Cassandra is sometimes portrayed as being just as beautiful as Helen of Troy, and Homer even compares her to the goddess of love, describing the princess to be as “golden as goddess Aphrodite” (Homer 24.820). But no matter how beautiful she may be, Cassandra is always seen wringing her hands anxiously, telling the audience and other characters of their future deaths, visions which are never believed by anyone until it is too late.

The Trojan princess Cassandra is defined by her skills as a prophetess in literature, while the other characters in these works of literature believe her to be insane. She is a victim of war, a victim of the curse brought on from what should have been a wonderful gift. The character never fully gets her due in The Iliad or The Aeneid, but she has become a popular figure for modern writers to feature in novels about the Trojan War. Her story is haunting and tragic, being just as moving as the story of Achilles, Hector, or any other tragic hero of Greek Mythology. She does not have the physical strength of the heroes of The Iliad, but her downfall as charted over the course of several plays and poems has stayed with readers for centuries, with her screams of pain and fear echoing throughout literature as the years pass, unheard by all, except for the reader.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. “Agamemnon.” Greek Texts, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.


Euripides. “Trojan Women.” Greek Texts, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013


Greek Myths. “Myth of Cassandra.” Greek Myths-Greek Mythology, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.


Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Classics, 1981. Print.


Posted in Literature

Ophelia in the Water

Or, The Danger of Female Passivity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Of all of William Shakespeare’s female characters, Ophelia is remembered as being one of his more passive, yet endearing heroines, from arguably his most famous play, Hamlet. She is frequently associated with water since her cause of death was drowning, and artists typically depict her last moments as being tranquil, yet Ophelia herself is seen as an object of tragic, fragile beauty. Most readers see her this way: as a passive, tragic victim who is unable to fight back against the many people—especially men—who keep pulling her apart. Ophelia is surrounded by men who use her as a pawn in their quest for vengeance or power. First there is her father, Polonius, and then there is her brother, Laertes, both of whom are seen constantly putting her in her place, telling her to be virtuous, and telling her how to behave. Hamlet, Ophelia’s possible lover, emotionally abuses her in cruel, public ways. Even Gertrude, the other main female character in the play, never shows any true hints of kindness towards Ophelia, and she too, like everyone else, uses the girl for her own benefit. Shakespeare also victimizes the character of Ophelia.

The main oppressive male-figure in Ophelia’s life is her father, Polonius. Fathers dominated young women at the time for the first few years of many girls’ lives until they were married off, only to be dominated by their future husbands. Polonius, though he is typically played as an almost fool-like character, is not without his menacing moments, most of which occur when he is with Ophelia. He puts her down emotionally when he scoffs that she speaks “like a green girl,” someone naïve in the ways of the world, as if he is almost saying so sarcastically (Hamlet 1.3.110-111). Polonius disapproves of the time Ophelia is spending with Hamlet and is frequently seen criticizing her because of it. He tells her to respect herself more, in the name of her virtue, or she will turn him into a laughing stock, a “fool,” not seeming to care about the damage it would do to her reputation more than his (Hamlet 1.3.118). He crushes Ophelia’s dreams of Hamlet, telling her that Hamlet’s words, which he equates with a flame, give “more light than heat” and that she must not mistake them “for fire” (Hamlet 1.3.125-126, 129). He adds more salt to this wound by summarizing his point with “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers” (Hamlet 1.3.134-135).

Polonius continually says similar lines to Ophelia, not simply beating a dead horse, but near to the point of emotional abuse. Polonius damages her even more by forcing Ophelia to give him all of the letters Hamlet has written to her, which Polonius then takes to the King and Queen for them to read. This would have been severely humiliating for both Ophelia and Hamlet, if he knew about it. Then to add even more insult to injury, Polonius and Claudius, the king, use Ophelia as bait to see how insane Hamlet has become. As part of the rouse, Polonius has Ophelia read from a prayer book to make it look like she is alone, which is also a subtle way of telling her to be virtuous around Hamlet, especially since her father and the king are watching their every move.

Her brother, Laertes, does little to comfort his sister. Laertes in the third scene of the play, the first time he is seen speaking to Ophelia, repeats several times how she should fear Hamlet’s advances. He says that the “best safety lies in fear” (1.3.47). He tells her how Hamlet’s affections towards her are “not permanent, sweet, not lasting” (1.3.9). Polonius and Laertes both remind Ophelia that Hamlet is a prince and that she would never be considered as a potential bride for the future king of Denmark. No young woman wants to hear the word “never” in relation to her potential lover, but here her family does not hesitate to tell her this.

Though perhaps the cruelest torment Ophelia receives is at the hands of the play’s protagonist, Hamlet. He denies that he ever gave her the trinkets she wishes to return to him in act three, then he proceeds to tell her that he loved her once (Hamlet 3.1.125), but retracts this by declaring that he never loved her (3.1.129). Hamlet cruelly tells her that she should not have believed any loving word he ever spoke to her (3.1.127), proving to Ophelia, in her mind, that her father and brother were right: that Hamlet was using her all along, that he never loved her. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia breaks her heart even more, taking away any hope that someone would be on her side. These words are a knife in Ophelia’s heart, but Hamlet has only begun to insult her. He calls her two faced in the famous line “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (Hamlet 3.1.155-156). Hamlet torments her even more by telling her that she should marry a fool, because a wiser man would realize that she would turn him into a monster and inevitably cheat on him (Hamlet 3.1.150-151). He then says that even if she is chaste and virginal, she will still be the subject of gossip, a woman with a ruined reputation, even if she is, in fact, innocent (3.1.147-148).

To top it all off, Hamlet, famously, tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.131). At first glance, he seems to be telling her that she would be better off as a nun. This line would have been quite offensive in Shakespeare’s time since the term “nunnery” was sometimes used in place of the word “brothel.” Nunneries were also places where girls who had become pregnant out of wedlock went to deliver their babies, repenting their “sin” at the command of society. By telling Ophelia to go to a nunnery, Hamlet is comparing her to someone who has had a child out of wedlock, a sexually loose woman, and a prostitute. Hearing these words would be absolutely heart wrenching for someone like Ophelia, someone who may have never done anything wrong, accused of crimes she has not yet committed.

Hamlet treats her so unfairly, so cruelly, that his insults have just added a lot of fuel to what was already a big fire, Ophelia is ripped apart by the one man who has treated her fairly, the man who had once said that he loved her. The fact that Hamlet, the possible love of her life, kills her father is the last straw and Ophelia’s sanity slips away. The next time she appears in the play she has already become completely insane, happily throwing away her mind as easily as she gives away flowers. She is symbolically deflowered and literally insane.

After being treated so harshly by the men she called family and the man she loved, Ophelia’s treatment at the hands of society is equally terrible. Gertrude, the queen, refuses to speak to Ophelia once she has become insane. Some film adaptations of the play have Ophelia imprisoned at the beginning of this scene, none more so than Kenneth Branagh’s film, where Ophelia is kept underneath the palace, where she is treated like an inmate in a mental hospital, and she even wears a costume that resembles a strait-jacket. This harsh treatment of Ophelia on screen is the visual equivalent of Ophelia’s treatment verbally and emotionally by the other characters who seem to care little for her.

When Ophelia eventually drowns, Gertrude witnesses the girl’s death, yet the queen does nothing to save her. Gertrude, like everyone else, turns her back on this poor girl, letting her drown, and metaphorically letting her sink deeper into her insanity. Even after her death, Ophelia is still treated like an object, not a real person. A priest nearly refuses to give Ophelia a Christian burial, preferring to throw her outside the graveyard since she has possibly committed suicide (Hamlet 5.1.203-206). Laertes compares Ophelia to an angel and Hamlet only now that Ophelia is dead, declares his love for her, but this is done to Hamlet’s benefit alone because Ophelia died believing no one really loved her (Hamlet 5.1.216). After her funeral, she is not mentioned again. No one in the entire play truly cares for Ophelia, and if they did they never showed it to her when she was alive or even after her death, saying only polite words to her casket the way society dictates. The tears of Laertes and Hamlet might be less for Ophelia, but more for themselves.

Like many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, Ophelia’s struggles take a back seat to Hamlet’s, the protagonist’s trials. In today’s post-new-wave-feminism society, female readers especially might find this to be a rather interesting idea. Shakespeare’s female characters typically stay in the background, coming up to center stage only for brief moments to advance the hero’s pain. Take for instance Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, another passive victim in a similar vein to Ophelia, a young woman who is savagely raped and horrifically mutilated mere hours after her wedding, a tragic character that rarely speaks (she is unable to speak for most of the play). Yet, her pain and suffering is not the focus of the play. What she has endured occurs to give Titus, the main character, more motivation, and there is no scene of Lavinia being comforted after her ordeal. Another example of this is Cressida from Troilus and Cressida, who, despite her name being a part of the title, and most of the plot revolving around her, she actually is only in a few scenes—and she is the heroine. Yes, Ophelia is a supporting character, she is not the heroine, but the image of this melancholic young woman drowning has become nearly as famous as the popular image of Hamlet holding up Yorick’s skull in the graveyard. The fact that Ophelia and her death especially are mainly used by Shakespeare to give the character of Hamlet, not Laertes, Ophelia’s own brother, more emotional turmoil, says a lot about the treatment of the character—she is a plot device. It is ironic that a character whose actions are so passive in the story, is still being twisted around by the author as a plot device, never given the credit she deserves even by the author that created her.

Ophelia is a victim in many senses of the term. She is passive, she is seen as someone’s property. Ophelia is used as a spy, as bait, but never once is she given the respect she deeply deserves. After being used by her father, brother, lover, and nearly every other major character in the play, Ophelia seems to have finally broken down. So it is fitting, almost, that this woman who was so passive in her life, lets herself drown, never taking the effort to save herself. After all, if she were to survive she would still have to go back to being insane in a cruel, heartless world, being a pawn in someone else’s plans once again.

Posted in Literature

A Stoning in the Town Square

Comparing Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

Context: This feature article explores the themes of community endorsed violence in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. The two stories have remarkably similar (and disquieting) scenes where the local community gathers together to send one (or, in the case of the former story, two) members to their ensured and brutal deaths.

War and other forms of violence and brutality seem to be firmly rooted in the culture of the world, as if it were wired into every man’s DNA. Violence has long been a popular topic in literature, but it has rarely been examined and analyzed the way it is in today’s society, which is just as obsessed with violence as it ever was. The themes of violence, war, and brutality have become even more prevalent in today’s media, such as through the news, film, television, and literature. Violence can sometimes be linked to human behavior, situations, culture, and even tradition in the media. Two beloved authors have explored this last topic especially in their most famous works of literature: Shirley Jackson in her classic short story about tradition gone horribly askew in The Lottery, and Suzanne Collins in the bestselling series that started with The Hunger Games, a popular piece of dystopian literature for young adults. Both stories explore particularly heinous acts of violence due to traditions in two very different communities. The violence that comes with each community’s annual traditions is brutal and shocking, stealing the innocence of the children involved and taking the lives of one unlucky person each year, yet the reasons for these traditions, the community’s reactions to it, and the actions of each story’s heroines are not the same.

The unnamed village in The Lottery gathers every citizen in the town square and by the luck of the draw pick one chosen individual to be publically stoned to death. The country of Panem, featured in The Hunger Games, hosts an event each year called the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children and teenagers fight to bring honor and glory to their district. Before analyzing the violent traditions each community takes part in, one must examine the communities themselves. Both of these communities feature miners and can be thought of as poorer areas of their country. The characters in both pieces of literature feel real and are identifiable, even behind the veneer of the wholesome small-town attitude the village in The Lottery holds, or the strange appearance of the grotesque people that populate Panem. Underneath these important, yet shallow, similarities, lies a few very fundamental differences. The village in The Lottery is meant to feel like a typical, contemporary, all-American community filled with characters everyone can recognize, which is done to make the ending scene featuring the stoning of an innocent woman all the more shocking. The Hunger Games takes a very different approach. The novel begins in District 12, the poorest district in all of the country of Panem, a place where starvation is rather common. Panem is thought to be the country of America many years in the future; hence the reason this novel is typically placed under the sub-genre of dystopian literature. District 12 is a place many readers would not typically recognize nor identify with. Setting the book many years into the future makes the moral of the story come across as a warning of what could happen, as opposed to showing the reader what might as well be happening to them now, which is the purpose behind The Lottery.

Each community holds tradition very dearly to their hearts and minds, with these annual rituals occurring for well over a good part of the century. The love of tradition is most evident in Jackson’s The Lottery, plainly stated through the line: “but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represent by the black box” that symbolizes the lottery itself (Jackson 1). Even though no one knows for sure why the villages mentioned in The Lottery hold a public stoning each year, just it has always been done for as long as they can remember, the act is still done each year without fail. While The Annual Hunger Games have been held for nearly a hundred years, about as long as the Lottery has been held, but the purpose of the games is well known. After the country of Panem’s government, called The Capitol, squashed a nation-wide rebellion, each district that participated in the rebellion “must provide one girl and boy, called tributes, to participate” in the Hunger Games (Collins 18). “Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins” (Collins 18). Katniss realizes that by holding the Hunger Games, the annual slaughter of children and teens, each year is “the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy” (Collins 18), believing that the Capitol is sending a message loud and clear: “ ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you’” (Collins 19). While several people in both communities disagree with these brutal, sadistic traditions, no one raises their voice to speak out against it, except for the heroines.

The Lottery and The Hunger Games feature similar enough characters and center on two outspoken heroines who refuse to stay silent about the injustices their community faces. Tessie from The Lottery and The Hunger Game’s iconic heroine Katniss share another similarity: they are both, in one way or another, outsiders. Tessie arrives to the annual Lottery late, showing how she does not fully care for the rules, even at a subconscious level. She runs her mouth enough that her husband tells her to “shut up” because she is embarrassing him by not conforming, despite the fact that she has spoken up as a way of saving his life from the possibility of public execution (Jackson 4). Instead of accepting her fate quietly, Tessie fights back and screams for mercy at the prospect of her approaching death. Katniss is also a rebel, though instead of simply speaking out against injustice, which she knows could get her and her family killed, she chooses other, subtle ways to rebel against her community. She crosses over her district’s boundaries and learns how to hunt, an act which is unthinkable for most citizens of District 12, but her ability to hunt by using a bow and arrow ends up saving Katniss’s life when she enters the Hunger Games. When her younger sister, Primrose, is chosen to be a tribute, Katniss steps up and volunteers to enter the games in her sister’s place, something few people in her district have ever done. Even though she believes by saving her sister’s life, she has just sacrificed her own, Katniss is able to survive the brutal Hunger Games and come out as the year’s victor. Despite her forward nature, Tessie is stoned to death, while Katniss survives, eventually becoming a symbol of rebellion, whereas Tessie is merely a victim of a tradition that has gone very wrong.

The arcatypal heroine fighting injustice is not the only type of character both stories share. Jackson’s grumbly Old Man Werner is similar to the cruel President Snow that rules Panem. Both of these characters are elderly men in their respective communities who are directly affected by change and do their best to reinforce tradition. President Snow is the most powerful leader in the country, while Old Man Werner is simply just another citizen of the village. Werner is like many people from an older generation who complains about the changes in society and how things are not “the way they used to be” (Jackson 5), though his words are heard by many and repeated throughout the story, he as a person is harmless while tradition is the real villain of the story. The polar opposite of this is President Snow: Snow is the true villain, he continues with the tradition of the Hunger Games and never challenges it, knowing full well the cost of the games. He is extremely powerful and no one dares to fully challenge him until Katniss unwittingly sparks a rebellion against him.

Then there are the characters of Mr. Summers, who runs the lottery, and Effie Trinket, a woman who overseas the choosing of tributes for the Hunger Games. Both appear to go along with each society’s violent traditions, full of smiles and laughter. Mr. Summers goes along with the village’s practices without question, he runs the show, never caring about anyone but himself it seems. At first glance Effie appears to be the same way, merely a puppet of the government, coming across as shallow and uncaring, but her façade of compliance seems to crack as the series progresses, making Effie’s alliance to the government anything but solid.

Each story has a typically innocent and pure young girl involved in the events of the plot. Nancy and Primrose are both twelve years old and are examples of femininity compared to the more outspoken heroines, garrulous Tessie and the rebellious, nearly masculine, Katniss. In the reaping (the act of choosing tributes) and lottery scenes, both of these girls are depicted as wearing skirts, while most of the other characters’ attires are not mentioned, along with their ages. The fact that they are both twelve years old show that they are caught between their childhood and the conformity that the adults in their communities exemplify. Nancy is a footnote in The Lottery, being mentioned briefly as Tessie’s daughter. The reader does not see or hear of her reaction to the death of her own mother. Primrose, however, is a much more important character in The Hunger Games because she is Katniss’s little sister, the sister she loves so much she practically sacrifices her own life to save Prim’s. Prim cries as Katniss is taken away to what might be her death. Primrose is caring and loving, while possessing the gentle feminine attributes her sister Katniss lacks. Prim represents innocence, an innocence that is chipped away throughout the series.

Innocence plays a part in both of these works of literature. In both stories, children are innocent victims of vicious traditions such as murder, yet they are also complicit in the murder of others. Little Davey, Tessie’s youngest son, is given a few pebbles to throw at his own mother once she’s been chosen for the ritualistic stoning the community takes part in each year. Similarly, children from the ages of twelve to eighteen are pitted against each other to survive in the Hunger Games. Even at the young age of twelve, these tributes must quickly learn to kill to survive unless they wish to be brutally murdered themselves.

The village in The Lottery murders one of their own by ganging up on the chosen person as a group and stoning the said person together as a vicious example of mob mentality. The tributes in Panem’s Hunger Games must learn to survive typically by themselves. Sure some alliances are formed amongst the tributes, but they all know that sooner or later they will have to kill each other until only one survives. In the slaughterhouse known as the Arena, each tribute is deprived of their dignity and honor, stripped to the most basic of instincts: survival. There is no mob mentality here, only the will to survive to see another day. This makes each tribute’s plight from children with morals to vicious killers all the more tragic. The absence of peer pressure and passion makes their actions barbaric and animalistic by comparison. The participants have not only had their innocence stolen from them, they have seen it torn from them by choice and necessity because the Arena is no place for the innocent.

Suzanne Collins has stated that The Hunger Games was based off of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Roman Gladiator games, and today’s violence obsessed media. Shirley Jackson would later state in the School Library Journal that The Lottery was written “to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Despite these long running bloody traditions, the loss of innocent lives, both stories hold out hope for the future, a future without these unmerciful killings. Despite the popularity of the annual lottery that takes innocent Tessie’s life, one citizen of Jackson’s nameless village mentions that several villages nearby have decided to give up holding the lottery, while Collin’s Panem is last seen in The Hunger Games beginning to plan a revolt on the Capitol, and believing they will defeat the country’s tyrannical government because this time they have a symbol of hope and justice for their rebellion: Katniss. Both works of literature were written as a reflection of past and present societies that are filled with violence while being a glance into a future that might exist if people do not take a stand against violent rituals similar to the lottery and the hunger games that take the lives of innocent people all for the sake of tradition and conformity.

Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Corporation, 2008.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker, 1948.

Margolis, Rick. A Killer Story: An Interview with Suzanne Collins, Author of ‘The Hunger Games’ | Under Cover. School Library Journal, 2008.

Posted in History, Literature

Feasts and Tigers: Titus Andronicus On Film and Stage

Context: William Shakespeare’s scorned and much maligned play Titus Andronicus contains enough violence that would even make seasoned modern viewers cringe. Yet in 1999, one fearless director, Julie Taymor, decided to adapt the little seen play in to a feature film. In this feature article I have compared the original text to its film adaptation. This article functions as both a review and an in-depth examination of both film and play. A word of caution: neither film nor play were meant for the squeamish. This article is not afraid to tackle the difficult and violent subject matter.

Spoilers and descriptions of graphic content to follow.

There’s a famous saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. One Roman general would disagree. Titus Andronicus believes that revenge is a dish best served with the meat of your enemies carefully spread across the plate.

Some critics have dubbed William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s worst play, others call it his most violent and cruel play, but to fans, the play about revenge is a hidden gem that has been ignored for centuries. I tend to agree with the latter.

After reading the play many have asked why Shakespeare would write such a play, a play that features scenes and themes of rape, murder, war, and cannibalism portrayed on and off stage. At the time Shakespeare wrote Titus, the revenge tragedy was a popular form of entertainment, which was usually filled with excess bloodshed and cruelty done in the sake of a character’s revenge. One can imagine Shakespeare hearing about the popularity of these plays and thinking to himself: “you want bloodshed, cruelty, and revenge? I’ll give it to you!” From these revenge plays, Titus Andronicus was born.

The Plot

Titus Andronicus takes the idea of a revenge tragedy to the next level. It is part exploitation, part revenge tragedy, part historical drama based in mythology, and part…well, Shakespeare. The play starts off with Roman soldiers returning home with victory to Rome after years of fighting the Goths, a Germanic people, right as the old emperor dies. The General of the Roman army is Titus Andronicus, a cold-hearted man who has spent most of his life on the battlefield it seems. He brings home with him several prisoners of war: the Goth Queen Tamora, her three sons, and a Moor named Aaron. While the two princes, Saturninus and Bassianus, fight over the throne, Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son as part of a fake sacrifice and also out of revenge for the many sons he has lost in the war. Tamora swears revenge on Titus, willing to do it by whatever means necessary.

Saturninus, a hotheaded fellow, is crowned emperor and decides to free the Goth prisoners and takes Tamora as his wife. Aaron is revealed to be Tamora’s lover and he too is in on this plot of revenge. He turns Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, from two young men in love with Lavinia, Bassionus’s wife and Titus’s only and beloved daughter, into cold-blooded rapists and killers. In a blood-curling scene, the brothers kill Bassianus as Lavinia is forced to watch, she is then dragged off deep into the woods where she is raped and mutilated. The boys cut out her tongue and cut off her hands she can’t reveal the names of her attackers. Feeling squeamish yet? Two of Titus’s remaining sons are arrested for the death of Bassianus and Titus lets Aaron cut his own hand off because he, not thinking anything through at the moment, believes that this will get his sons back. So in this version of Rome the saying goes as “a hand for a life” instead of “an eye for an eye”? Titus’s sons are killed anyways and Aaron leaves laughing with glee at his villainy.

Lavinia is able to write the name of her attackers in the ground by holding a stick in her mouth. Titus realizes what has happened and he too swears revenge, except he will go further than Tamora ever planned: he will commit one of the ultimate sins. Titus tracks Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia’s rapists, down and kills them.

Then in the play’s most notorious scene: he has Saturninus and Tamora eat her own sons unknowingly after Titus baked them into a pie. Some say revenge is dish best served cold, but here it served piping hot and it must be oh so tasty. Yes, if you thought that rape and mutilation were the most disturbing scenes this play could come up with, you have misjudged the depravity of Shakespeare’s mind. The play ends with Titus killing Lavinia, out of “mercy” (like an honor killing), then Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Titus’s eldest son Lucius kills Saturninus as Lucius’s son (Young Lucius) watches. Can you guess what this play is a commentary about? Violence.

Shakespeare might have written Titus Andronicus as a way of mocking other playwrites at the time who wrote gruesome revenge tragedies, but the play ends up becoming the very same revenge tragedy it might have started out mocking. Titus is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated and conflicted tragic heroes, or one of his worst villains depending on how one views him. This is a man who starts off at the top of his power and by the end of the play has been banished from his country, stripped of titles, has had most of his children killed with his favorite child raped and mutilated, and reverts to insanity as a way to cope with his personal tragedies. His insanity sets the stage for Hamlet who would enter Shakespeare’s mind a few years later when the Bard was at the top of his game.

Titus on Film

In 1999, Julie Taymor decided to adapt Titus Andronicus into a film, which she merely titles “Titus”. It would be Titus Andronicus’s first time on the big screen after a few made for television adaptations by the BBC in the past. Here the $25 million budget shows and is put to good use because Taymor’s adaption is Shakespeare like most have never seen before. Shakespeare’s writing is filled with anachronisms. Taymor takes this to the extreme. Her film takes on “2,000 years of violence,” as Taymor is fond of saying.

In a film very visually based, the most outstanding visual is also the most tragic: her uncle approaches Lavinia in a swamp right after she has been raped. He asks her to speak, but as she opens her mouth no word comes out, only a ribbon of blood. This visual is scored by the film’s most heartbreaking part of the score. The film is very surreal and is geared towards Shakespeare fans and art-house viewers alike, not the rowdy masses.

Play vs. Film: Changes

The most noteworthy change from text to film is Taymor’s use of Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson. Young Lucius is almost the film’s visual narrator, despite the fact that he rarely speaks. He shuttles the film from one scene to the next and is present for the film’s climax, a statement on how violence is witnessed by children. The film’s ending shot is a major change from the play. Young Lucius decides to stop another generation of violence from occurring, so he takes Aaron’s newborn son and approaches the rising sun, symbolic of the film’s message: violence ends lives, but violence can end, maybe through the lives of our children. It is a beautiful and poetic image that will last with the viewer for days, giving them hope of a new tomorrow after a two and a half hour bloodbath.

Set Design & Costumes

The film’s sets and costumes are a mixture of ancient and modern styles. Titus and his soldiers in the opening of the film wear Roman soldier garb: armored to the nines. Lavinia wears dresses throughout the film and her costumes in her first and last apperances are framed with veils—black for her introduction as a way to show she is morning her brothers, and white (a symbol of the virginity that was taken from her) for the day she dies, in a sick twist on the typical clothing a bride would wear. Lavinia and Tamora both wear red at the height of their revenge: Tamora’s coat is red in the scene before Lavinia’s rape when Tamora refuses to save the girl, while Lavinia wears a red dress when she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Saturninus is fashioned after fascist dictators from the thirties and everything from his car to his costumes reflect that. Chiron and Demetrius’s costumes at times are clearly influenced by the rock and grunge style at the time, but also by the costumes of the underage gang members in “A Clockwork Orange”—emulating a mix of modern and futuristic violence in their clothing. Aaron wears black and navy blue trench coats throughout the film, almost as if it’s shielding him from the blackness inside his cold soul. Titus’s armor disappears over the course of the film until the film’s climax where he wears a chef’s uniform. The Goths have tattooed bodies that in some moments, especially in some of Tamora’s scenes, almost look like snakes are crawling up her arms. Tamora’s makeup is especially reptilian at times, mirroring how she easily sheds her skin to be whatever she needs to be to get revenge and regain the power she so easily lost. The costumes in Taymor’s film are rife with meaning and symbolism.

The Performances

Taymor’s film has a lot of great actors in it and they give great performances. Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, an odd choice of casting considering the cannibalistic ties to his most famous performance in “Silence of the Lambs” where he plays a cannibal. Hopkins performance took a while for me to warm up to since he plays the part at once subtly and over the top in the same scenes, but over time I have grown to see the brilliance in his performance. He becomes the tragic figure quite nicely. Jessica Lange is Tamora, a revenge goddess with the body a sexy siren on the outside while playing a bloodthirsty mother within. Harry Lennix gives a blood curdling performance as Aaron—he becomes a devilish figure that will frighten many viewers with his intensity. When he is given a long monologue where Aaron discusses his evil deeds, Lennix’s performance will make your heart stop in those moments. This is by far the best performance of his career. Another standout is Laura Fraser as Lavinia who must transform from the picture of innocence into another vengeful woman. Alan Cumming’s portrayal of Saturninus is that of a weak man with a big temper, a dangerous person to be near when his anger is roused. The whole cast portrays their characters at the top of their game, never slipping out of character for a minute, and, like the director, not afraid to make bold choices.

The Music of Titus

Another benefit of moving the story from stage to screen is the score. Musical scores can help enhance the mood of a film and Elliot Goldenthal’s score here follows this rule. When Titus and his soldiers first enter the film the score bursts to life, filling speakers with the sound of ancient chanting in the piece entitled Victorious Titus. Another standout piece is Pickled Heads, which plays over the scene where Lavinia manages to scribble the names of her rapists in the dirt. The music becomes a frenzied rush of muffled words and instruments playing incredibly fast, almost like music one would hear at a dance, but set with the visuals the piece becomes a terrifying nightmare as we see Lavinia’s surreal portrait of the rape in her memory. Her rapists are depicted as tigers lunging towards her while the music joins forces with the battling images of reality and Lavinia’s surrealistic nightmare. The score jumps between somber and brassy, unsettling and jazzy, making the listener hanging on every note. The music ties in very well with the visuals and after viewing this film several times I can’t hear one without picturing the other.

Social Commentary

The film adaptation and the play Titus Andronicus have a social commentary at the heart of it. The film depicts the dangers of violence in general, while the play reflects the problems of excessive violence in the literature of the time. The clearest example of this is in the film when Demetrius, one of Lavinia’s rapists, is playing a violent video game while smoking a cigarette as images of a half naked women and violence flash across the screen. Both film and play are a commentary on violence and the culture surrounding violence.

Verdict: A Tough to Stomach but Necessary Viewing

I, personally, would highly recommend reading the play, seeing it preformed, or even viewing the film. Titus Andronicus is a fascinating play and has inspired a creative film and several interesting takes of the play on stage. The violence in the play and the film will upset many viewers, but that is the point of the play. The film is a very good adaptation because it transfers its message successfully to the screen while still being a highly creative and intelligent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays.

Posted in Literature, Writing

Using Language and Writing Style to Convey a Character’s State of Mind

Context: As the title states, this article is centered on how you can use various writing styles and word choice to convey one of your character’s state of mind in a novel. I hope aspiring novelists like myself will enjoy this article.

After many years I can still remember the first time I truly recognized how writers can use grammar, language, and certain writing styles to convey a state of mind.

I was in middle school and I had just read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. The book covers a mentally handicapped man named Charlie’s experiences while going under a series of surgeries and tests that should increase his intelligence. As is the case with most science fiction stories about playing God: “be careful for what you wish for because you just might get it.” Or in Charlie’s case: you will get what you wish for and then you will loose it…and having gotten your wish is the most painful part of all. It’s like the old saying “better to have loved than to have not loved at all,” except love is substituted for intelligence and the chance at an extraordinary life.

What makes the book unique is how it shows Charlie’s progression and his subsequent regression: through grammar, spelling, sentence structure, language, and Charlie’s changing writing styles. The story is told through a series of progress reports Charlie writes documenting the procedure. In his first couple of entries he has horrible, childlike spelling which makes certain words almost illegible, but as his surgeries continue his writing improves, he can spell words correctly, he uses a more intelligent vocabulary, he writes in complex sentences, he has correct grammar, and soon his writing barely resembles the scribblings of the man the reader met in the first few pages. But Flowers for Algernon is a tragedy, so the results of the surgeries wear off and Charlie regresses: he starts to misspell words, he goes back to writing simple and grammatically incorrect sentences, and he becomes childlike once more, but this time reverting back to his old self is incredibly painful for both Charlie and the reader, which we can tell simply by looking at his writing style.

This stylistic choice on the part of the writer is what makes the book as memorable as it is. If the book had been written in third person with a narrator telling us about Charlie’s experiences, the reader would have been left cold by the clinical nature of the story, but by telling the story in first person and having the chapters of the book written as Charlie would write them makes us understand and empathize with the character all the more. Compare this to the novel Forrest Gump or psychological evaluations of the mentally handicapped. Which is more empathetic towards the patient? Which form makes the reader understand the patient better?

On another note, what about grammar and sentence structure in films and television programs? I have a request for you, my reader: first read or watch a film adaptation based off of a work by William Shakespeare and pay attention not the visuals in the film but to the language. Then follow this up by watching an episode of HBO’s The Wire immediately after. The sudden change in language is really jarring, as it should be. Yet both use language to convey a character’s state of mind. Shakespeare’s characters pontificate and monologue, they ramble with flowery words that are too poetic to be made up on the spot. Then examine the language characters use on The Wire. They swear. They shout. They spit out their words quickly using a language that is their own. Each work conveys something about the characters’ states of mind and their environment through how the character speaks.

Here is another example: read a chapter from a book by Jane Austen and then follow it up with reading the dialogue from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy is well spoken and well read, which can be seen in his dialogue, while Huck and Jim can barely read, if at all, and they talk in their own vernacular. I’ve found that reading the dialect heavy dialogue in Mark Twain’s most famous books to be a nightmare: it is like attempting to wade through mud in a slimy swamp: you can barely move and it is exhausting to get through. This is probably why I do not appreciate Twain’s writing the way I do other writers: it’s all about the language.

A character’s use of language is just as important as the writer’s use of language. It can tell use about a character’s background, their intelligence, their education, their class, their race, their ethnicity, even their gender. Every character you read or write should not sound the same, just as every person does not sound the same. A writer’s use of language can place you inside a character’s head and environment or it can alienate you from the story completely.

Read More:

You can read Flowers for Algernon here:

Here is a great essay which can help you understand Huck’s vernacular:’s-vernacular-throughout-the-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn/)

Posted in Literature, Writing

The Meat of a Sentence, The Taste of Writing Styles

Context: This brief article covers my opinion on the need for unique writing styles and how too many writers today lack that unique and memorable voice.

I have noticed that today when it comes to fiction and movie scripts most people when writing for the masses write nearly the exact same way: as simply as possible. Sentences in fiction have become shorter and easier to read. Eleven year olds are able to easily comprehend a book for adults. The way that books and movies are now being written is to make it as easy to read as possible for the sake of massive public consumption.

I, as both a writer and a reader of various books with an interest in film, abhor this trend involving the dumbing down of writing style and language for younger readers and viewers all for the sake of public spectacle. You can tell this because I didn’t simply write: I don’t agree.

I like it when writers let their own unique writing style and personality shine through. I enjoy the quirks and signature moves that show up in a writer’s work.

In film, a lot of film buffs can spot when a film is using Hitchcockian Lighting, since there is a heavy use of shadows in a shot, evoking Film Noir (a film genre that is also easily identified by its use of light, or lack thereof, in a scene). These signature styles should be available in how books are written too.

We remember Mark Twain for his colorful characters and use of southern dialects when writing dialogue. Fans of detective novels and pulp fiction can tell when someone is trying to sound Chandleresque, a reference to the sentence structures writer Raymond Chandler was fond of using in his hard boiled detective novels, particularly those featuring his most famous character Philip Marlowe. A writer like Vladimir Nabokov is celebrated for writing such splendid sentences that can be cleverly unwound like a puzzle, while sounding lyrical at the same time. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing has a pulse no other writer can mimic, the Beat Generation also has a style and pattern to its writing that separates it from other works of literature.

Yet today a writer’s personal style has been ignored in favor of easy to read books that can be flipped through on the beach or on the subway, books have turned in to a blockbuster industry, particularly books for children and young adults, and have turned away from the thought provoking nature of past literature so that younger readers can read these books at ease without any spot of trouble.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I feel like we are missing something in books today. The old masters of language have been replaced by poorly written bestsellers. Dialogue in film has turned from the skillful style of David Mamet and in to explosions, screaming, and short, choppy sentences that can be easily translated in to other languages so other countries abroad won’t have to read too many subtitles.

I believe we become better readers when we challenge ourselves by reading fiction that does not simply tell a story at face value, but uses the prose as an art form, juggling entertainment with wit, intellect, allegories, political resonances, and style at the same time. When you write, write with style, because the flavorful taste of one lyrical sentence on the tongue is more satisfying than that of a speedy, sloppily made fast food meal-like book.