Loyalty is a principle on which many relationships and institutions have been built since the beginning of time. In Shakespeare’s day, if a person was unlucky enough to have his or her loyalty questioned, it could result in their imprisonment, torture, and/or execution. Sometimes they were accused falsely and paid the price for the paranoia that ran rampant at court. Other times, the paranoia had basis and those accused of disloyalty and treason were indeed guilty. Shakespeare captures the predicament of true loyalty versus perceived loyalty perfectly in his play, King Lear, which follows the tragedy and downfall of King Lear when he misjudges the true meaning of loyalty.

Shakespeare certainly had ample enough material to inspire him from current events of the time. One such event was the notorious Gunpowder Plot, which took place a year before the first performance of King Lear, conceived by Catholic citizens who wanted to see England back under the rule of a Catholic. Those same elements defining the story of the Gunpowder Plot are the very elements that Shakespeare uses in King Lear.

The overriding theme of loyalty in the play is a reflection of the overriding theme of loyalty in Elizabethan England. Not only was loyalty to the divinely ordained throne mandated, but also loyalty to the family. The family was considered a microcosm of the kingdom; huge importance was placed on obedience and respect for the hierarchy (Mahabal).  As King James warned Parliament, there was not only the benefit of unity to be considered but the dangers of division (Shapiro 36). The monarchy and stability of the kingdom relied not only on the subject’s loyalty to the monarch but their unity as well.

This idea of loyalty and the necessity of it has not changed since the 1604 when Shakespeare first performed King Lear. Every morning millions of children in the United States pledge their loyalty to the United States government when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. But what is loyalty and is true loyalty rewarded or punished? In this post, the idea of loyalty shown through the dissention of Cordelia and Kent is paralleled with the idea of loyalty through present day whistleblower, Edward Snowden, in order to answer those pertinent questions.

In King Lear, the question of loyalty is presented in the opening scene. King Lear, upon desiring his retirement, decides to split the Kingdom between his three daughters. It is thought that this will also prevent any division or war over the kingdom. Before King Lear divides the Kingdom, he requests that each daughter tells him how much they love him.

Goneril and Regan profess their empty words of affection but Cordelia, whose love is true, refuses to put words to her feelings. King Lear sees this as an offense and a sign of Cordelia’s disloyalty. You mean you’re not going to flatter me? Naturally, He refuses to give her a part of the Kingdom.

Kent, who also holds the King in dear affection, beseeches the King not to do this, that the King is indeed wrong. “Do: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy doom; or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat, I’ll tell thee thou dost evil” (I.i.180-184). Once again, King Lear misinterprets true loyalty from Kent as disloyalty and banishes him. This form of narcissism and ignorance of what constitutes loyalty is Lear’s hamartia, the tragic flaw that brings his otherwise successful reign and life to a heartbreaking conclusion.

We can see the importance of loyalty and the swift action against disloyalty in other Shakespearean plays such as Henry the V when Henry must act quickly and decidedly without mercy upon the conspirators including one he holds dear. In that case, Henry was correct in his actions against the conspirators who sought to harm him. King Lear, however, misconstrues Cordelia’s good intentions for bad. This error in judgement becomes the catalyst for disaster. Though the audience can clearly see where true loyalty lies (Cordelia and Kent) and where true deceit lies (Goneril and Reagan), King Lear succumbs to his ignorance until it is too late. The message Shakespeare sends through the idea of misperceived good and misperceived loyalty is the danger that can befall a Kingdom.

In modern times, the idea of loyalty to one’s nation or sovereign is still as relevant. In present day America, there is no King. Citizens pledge their allegiance and loyalty to the nation, which is composed of the citizens. But when the nation’s citizens find fault in the government’s procedures and politics, as did Cordelia and Kent in Lear, if they are truly loyal then they will speak truthfully and defend the good of their nation against the will of their government. On May 13, 2013, a United States citizen by the name of Edward Snowden released top-secret NSA documents to the world: “‘My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The US government in conspiracy with client states…have inflicted upon the world a system of secret pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge'” (Greenwald, 23).

In explaining his motives for what some could conceive of as treason, Snowden says, “I want to spark a world-wide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance” (Greenwald 18). Snowden goes on to say, “I am not afraid of what will happen to me. I accept that my life will likely be over from doing this. I’m at peace with that. It’s the right thing to do” (Greenwald, 18).  Kent similarly justifies his actions by his loyalty to Lear: “My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it, thy safety being the motive” (I.i.169-171). Cordelia also acknowledges what she has lost through her honesty and true allegiance to the King: “A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue as I am glad I have not, though not to have it hath lost me in your liking” (I.i.257-259). All three clearly act out of their loyalty for their King and nation even knowing the consequences of that loyalty.

It seems apparent from King Lear that loyalty, while noble and good, if not understood by King as it pertains to Lear or nation as it pertains to Snowden, will lead to nothing. Cordelia gave her life as a result of Lear’s lack in understanding her loyalty, and Kent was left to mourn the King he loved. Snowden lives in exile, away from friends and family and the country he loves, and will most likely die on foreign shores. Is loyalty rewarded? In these two circumstances, no, unless of course loyalty is its own reward and doing the right thing for the sake of what’s right. It seems, given the present day circumstances and liberties being eroded through such things as the Patriot Act and gun legislation, people would do well to remember the tragedy that befell King Lear.

“Some sixty versions of the Lear story were in circulation when Shakespeare set about to dramatize the tale of the old King in 1605. Nobody remembers these prior versions today. But King Lear continues to fill theaters” (McDonald 162). Shakespeare’s ability to tap into the psychology of human nature, translating onto paper and stage the emotions, thoughts, errors, brutality, betrayal, heroism, sorrow and all of the other attributes that define man as something divine and something hellish, is nothing less than brilliant. As each generation comes face to face with the Law of Nature and, what some may argue as the universal morality which inevitably conflicts with subjective morality and self-interest, they too will have to struggle with the same themes in which Shakespeare wrote about over four hundred years ago. From whistle blowers like Edward Snowden to the man contemplating breaking his vows of loyalty and leaving his wife, the theme is timeless. Because of this, Shakespeare is also timeless.

 

Works Cited

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2014. Print.

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2015. Print.

McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: And Introduction with Documents. NY: Palgrave. 2001. Print.

Mahabal, Prasad. “Daily Life in England during the Elizabethan Era”. Elizabethan England Life. 2015. Web. 19 Jan 2016.

Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. NY: First Anchor Books. 1997. Print

Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Modern Library Paperback Edition. NY: Modern Library. 2009. Print.

 

 

There are multiple ways to experience life as there are multiple ways to experience literature. We each, individually, experience both in our own unique way, with our own ideologies guiding us, and looking through the lenses of our own subjectivity. This is deconstruction; it does not take the meaning away but multiplies it. Lois Tyson so aptly observes, “Change the lens and you change both the view and the viewer. This principal is what makes knowledge at once so frightening and so liberating, so painful and so utterly, utterly joyful” (9). So it is with Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As O’Connor herself once noted, “there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.” While the author wrote the story, guided by her own subjectivity and looking through her own lens, she acknowledges that her readers may, and some most definitely will, read it through a different lens. In this paper three tenets of deconstruction will be used to analyze “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: Derrida’s idea of impossible aporias or internal contradictions, undecidability and the way in which that erodes any sense of concrete binaries, namely good versus evil, and the concept of tout autre or responsibility to the other.

What is a good man? The question is first posed when the family makes a stop during their road trip to Florida at Red Sammy’s, an old dance hall/barbecue shack. Red Sammy bemoans the fact that you just can’t trust people anymore while wiping his forehead on a grey handkerchief. The color grey comes when you mix white and black. These are two binaries with underlying binaries, good and bad. Symbolically speaking the handkerchief represents the mixture of good and bad and how the two are becoming hard to differentiate between. According to deconstruction theory, there is no one good or bad. The binaries do not take their meaning from each other only, but from other traces left behind by other binaries, likened to a long chain and resulting in a chain reaction.

Red Sammy then proceeds to recount a story about two men who stopped to get gas. They seemed like good enough men to Red Sammy and so he let them charge the gas with the expectation that they would return and pay him. This is one example of undecidability in the form of decisions that can be found throughout the story. From a deconstructionist view, every decision is the equivalent of taking a leap of faith because there is no certainty to how the decision will unfold (IEP). For Red Sammy, he made the decision to let the men charge the gas with the faith that they would return to pay for it.

According to Derrida, the idea of hospitality is one such impossible aporia. “His point is relatively simple here; to be hospitable, it is first necessary that one must have the power to host. Hospitality hence makes claims to property ownership and it also partakes in the desire to establish a form of self-identity. Secondly, there is the further point that in order to be hospitable, the host must also have some kind of control over the people who are being hosted. This is because if the guests take over a house through force, then the host is no longer being hospitable towards them precisely because they are no longer in control of the situation” (IEP).

Initially, Red Sammy has the power to host because he is the owner of the gas station. While Red Sammy does have the power to let the men charge the gas, he lacks control over them which is determined when the men do not return to pay for the gas they charged. When the men do not return, Red Sammy’s act of hospitality no longer has a fixed meaning and can in fact be seen as something other than hospitality. “Often to show how those meanings cannot settle into a stable structure, we would seek out internal contradictions or internal differences that frustrate any interpretations of the text as holding a single, stable meaning” (Parker, 93).

They never returned and Red Sammy despairingly asks, “Now why did I do a thing like that?” The grandmother replies emphatically it is because Red Sammy is a good man. Red Sammy says that things are getting terrible and a good man is hard to find. The grandmother had just pronounced Red Sammy a good man because of the kindness or “hospitality” he showed the two men by letting them charge the gas. But Red Sammy is still pronouncing that a good man is hard to find. So what exactly is a good man?

It is interesting to note that the conversation between Red Sammy specifically and the idea of good and bad more generally is a reference to the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Jewish man is beaten, stripped of clothing, and left in a ditch to die. A priest comes by but crosses the road to bypass him. Then a Levite passes by without helping. The Samaritan, who is the despised enemy of the Jews, comes by and takes him to an inn where he pays for the beaten Jew to be cared for (NIV, Luke 10:29-37). This act of mercy and grace by the perceived enemy is the contradiction that will resurface throughout the story.

The next passage where the idea of “good” is explored is when the family careens off the road into a gulch. The Misfit, who is an escaped and dangerous murderer, comes upon the stranded family with his gang in tow. Upon realizing that the man she is seeing is indeed the Misfit, the grandmother pronounces emphatically that he is a good man. One is left to wonder, if the “hospitality” and kindness Red Sammy showed the men was what determined him to be a good man in the opinion of the grandmother, how she could possibly see goodness in the violence and murder the Misfit takes part in. This but another contradiction. Kindness and evil cannot both denote goodness. Or can it?

The signifier “good” has somehow shifted in its meaning for the grandmother. As Jack Reynolds states, “the meaning of the term changes depending upon the particular context in which it is being employed” (IEP). One explanation of the grandmother’s aporia is explained by Lois Tyson, “Every signifier consists of and produces more signifiers in a never-ending deferral, or postponement, of meaning” (239). The grandmother is relying on other traces of signifiers denoting good such as ethnicity perhaps. In her desperation in the current situation, to rely on the meaning of the signifier “good” as relating strictly to the kindness displayed by Red Sammy would leave her no hope in her current situation that the Misfit might also be good. Therefore she seeks out other meanings of the signifier “good” which she can rely on to convince herself and the Misfit that he is a good man and as such would never shoot her.

In the final scene of the story, we see the grandmother’s tout autre, or responsibility to the other occur. Her entire family has been shot to death one by one and she is now left alone, facing the man responsible for their murders. As the Misfit kneels in front of the grandmother, his face close to hers, she gains a moment of clarity and says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children.” She then makes a decision without knowing the results of that decision but for once, not even caring to calculate the results. For one moment in her life, the grandmother demonstrates what is so incredibly hard to do in this world. She reaches out to touch the Misfit and by doing that offers him unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness, according to Derrida is one of those aporias because the notion of absolute forgiveness “…requires a radically singular confrontation between self and other” (IEP). The grandmother, who has acted irresponsibly throughout the story in regards to her manipulation, is finally accepting the responsibility. “For Derrida, the paradox of responsible behaviour means that there is always a question of being responsible before a singular other (eg. a loved one, God, etc.), and yet we are also always referred to our responsibility towards others generally and to what we share with them (IEP). The grandmother, in reaching out, has found the common bond between herself and the other (the Misfit) and in doing so has revealed that to him. In claiming their oneness in her last words and in reaching out in a moment of grace, the grandmother has become the Good Samaritan.

Regardless, the Misfit shoots the grandmother dead, and as he looks down on her he says, “She would of been a good woman…had it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” And so the final aporia of the story is that perhaps goodness does spring from many different meanings and that it was only through evil that the grandmother was able to become a good woman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. NewYork: Oxford, 2015. Print.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York:   Routledge, 2015. Print

Reynolds, Jack. “Jacques Derrida (1930—2004).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, pp. 107-18.

 

 

 

 

What do you do when you’ve given fifteen years of your life to a man, given up your personal ambitions to give him three children and be a stay-at-home mom, only to discover over the phone that he is indeed ready to divorce so that he can pursue his relationship with the cute blond pharmaceutical sales rep with the apartment in the city and a not so attractive Pug she so cleverly named Toto because she is originally from Kansas? Well, if you’re thirty-four-year-old Maggie Murphy, you silently scream (so as not to wake those three sleeping children) every curse word in the book and when you run out of curse words you invent new ones. You tear the kitchen apart, cleaning out the junk drawer, throwing away old receipts and lottery tickets from years past (ripping them to pieces first), scrubbing the refrigerator and throwing out all of the meat, his meat, because you’ve been a vegetarian for sixteen years. You remember how he said he was also a vegetarian for the first two years you were together, only to find out years later that he did not forgo meat because he was a vegetarian, rather he was too afraid to eat the grade D meat the Navy served. But behind your back he would go to seven-eleven and scarf down a chili dog or two.

You hear the words echoing in your head “…because people change.” And you cry. Tears and snot all intermingle in one disgusting mess and you wipe your face with your sleeve, the same sleeve you used earlier in the day to wipe away your two-year-old daughter’s snot because even though she is your third child you still, for some unfathomable reason, cannot remember to carry tissues. You sink to the floor and think of your husband and the cute pharmaceutical sales rep, who also happens to be a tri-athlete. Triathletes have extremely tight asses you discover, not like the ass of a stay-at-home mom of three, an ass that your children affectionately call the “jiggley”. They are now “in love” and are planning their future together, a future that includes your children, and you feel the rolls of your stomach folding over one another and you try to replace the feeling of self-loathing with the memory of carrying each one of your children. But you can’t so you grab the box of cheese-its on the counter and try the best you can to console yourself in your broken home.

That was Maggie Mae Murphy eight months, four days, and seven hours ago. Since that phone call her life had been flipped upside down. In the first couple of months she was sure he would come to his senses and accept her offer of counseling. Fifteen years and three children and there was not a chance of reconsideration. The “I’m just not sure we can fix it” turned into “It could never have been fixed.” This translated into “You and the family we had were just not worth enough to even try fixing it.” And this broke her heart. It also really pissed her off.

Three scars on her stomach from three cesareans and a mass of stretch marks on her breasts, ten years of devoting herself to the “family” (what the hell is the definition of family these days anyways and if she had to hear one more time that they still were a family just a different kind she would gouge out her eyes) while Aiden filled those years with his shenanigans at the Ratheskellar. He spent those years building his career and his sense of importance in managing multi-million dollar projects at NYU and New York Presbyterian, reveling in his role as father, a role that she supported, reveling in everything but her. She seethed. And she cried. And seethed and cried.

“There are just too many mistakes.” That was his answer when she asked him why he did not want to try to fix things.

“What mistakes? I want you to tell me what my mistakes were. What did I do?!” Her voice rising with each word until her sentence ended in a scream. Shrew!

“What makes you think they were your mistakes?” And so he wiped his hands on his pharmaceutical sales rep’s wallet and walked away.

So she painted each room. The living room she painted butterscotch, a red accent wall in the kitchen, and the paneling in the dining room pastel green, blue, and tan. The latter ended up looking like the Easter Bunny had vomited all over the walls but it was different than before and that was what she needed. She gladly welcomed the Easter Bunny vomit. She painted in anger at first, each roll erasing her memories of what was. These would be walls that Aiden had never seen and never would. These were her walls now. Hers and her children’s. But when she got to the entrance way to the kitchen and began painting over the smudges and dirty fingerprints of her children, her anger turned to something else. Grief. It was an intense sadness that could not be put into words. She realized then that it was not just memories of her relationship, her marriage, she was attempting to erase but her memories of her children. It was not just her marriage that was gone but her family. She could not let go of him without letting go of part of her children. That pushed her over.

She packed away all of the photo albums of their life together. The early years in Virginia and Grand Rapids, and the past eleven years they spent building a life in New Jersey. Their trip to Martha’s Vineyard before children and their vacation to Saint Marten after children. She packed away photos, photos of him, photos of her children, photos of her family. The old family. She packed them all away in a five dollar tub purchased at Wal-Mart, color blue. She packed them away with the love letters they had exchanged the first two years of their love affair. The Navy years. Those letters had gotten her through the bad times in her marriage, the times she had wanted to give in and give up. Fifteen years all packed away in one five gallon tub purchased at Wal-Mart, color blue.

But in the end it did not matter that the walls were painted, the furniture replaced and rearranged, photos, journals and mementos packed away. The pain, the anger, the bitterness, and the confusion were still there. The what-ifs, should haves, and whys were still there. They were haunting the halls of her mind like ghosts. Their echoes were inside of her, the chains rattling in her heart, and they would always be there. That was when she came to the conclusion, which seemed rather logical at the time, that the only solution to the problem would be to kill him. She would kill him and with him all of the rage and bitterness.

 

American author, Richard Wright, was born in Natchez, Mississippi forty-five years after the emancipation of slaves. Though slavery was technically no longer practiced, codes and laws were still set in place which limited the rights and freedoms of African-Americans. It was in this atmosphere that Wright began writing. The focus of this research in regards to Richard Wright’s story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” is analyzing the story through a Marxist lens and identifying how the characters in this story are a part of the capitalist machine in which racism, produced by colonization in the form of slavery, is an important aspect. The components of capitalism- alienated labor, commodification, colonization of consciousness, and the ideology of the rugged individual – will be examined and how those structures work together to move the character of Dave Sanders through the entire story to the very end where his decision to hop the train illustrates the inevitable failings of capitalism.

“From a Marxist perspective, because the survival of capitalism, which is a market economy, depends on consumerism, it promotes sign-exchange value as our primary mode of relating to the world around us” (Tyson, 60). Wright’s story revolves around the seventeen-year-old Dave who so desperately wants to buy a gun because he is sure owning a gun will earn him the esteem of his fellow African-Americans and his white boss, Mr. Hawkins. For Dave, the gun holds a sign-exchange value because he is under the mistaken impression it will cause the men he works with to have some respect for him. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy…and if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him” (Wright, 899, 903). The gun symbolizes not only respect but power, the power that has always eluded African-Americans.

One reason for Dave’s angst and feeling of separation could be seen as a result of what Karl Marx refers to as alienated labor. Alienated labor occurs when the worker is separated from the production, the product of his production, himself, and as a result others. Richard Wright was the son of a sharecropper and so was well familiar with the practice of sharecropping and labor in general for African-Americans in the South. As History explains, many African Americans “went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation” (“Sharecropping”). It is from this feeling of alienation that Dave first begins to want a gun.

Commodification is perhaps one of the biggest traits of capitalism and is illustrated in the relationship between Dave and his family,  Dave and Mistah Joe. The capitalist ideology promotes the viewing of “objects or persons in terms of their exchange value or sign-exchange value” (Tyson, 60). “In a capitalist economic system, an objects value becomes impersonal. Its value is translated into a monetary “equivalent” –  the term capital means money – and determined solely in terms of its relationship to a monetary market” (Tyson, 59). Dave Sanders and his family work, along with other African-Americans, on Jim Hawkins farm for low wages. In this respect, the African Americans laborers hold a value for Mr. Hawkins that is detached and impersonal and merely relates to the cheap labor that benefits him financially. Equally, Dave can be seen as a commodity for the Sander’s family. His labor provides an income that helps support the family unit. But much like the early slaves who were beaten into submission, Dave is also beaten. “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work.  They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me” (Wright, 906). Dave can also be seen commodifying his mother. Her value lies in the fact that she is the one that can give him the money for the gun. He exchanges his sweet talk and words of love in order to gain the money. And she willingly complies.

“To colonize the consciousness of subordinate people means to convince them to see their situation the way the imperialist nation wants them to see it, to convince them, for example, that they are mentally, spiritually, and culturally inferior to their conquerors…” (Tyson, 61). “Whut’s the use talkin wide m niggers in the field…Them niggers can’t understand nothing” (899).  Though Dave is speaking of his fellow Negro workers, he is also (whether he realizes it or not) speaking of himself. “He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze” (Wright, 899). This is another example of the feeling of inferiority that has been colonized in his, as well as other African-Americans, consciousness.

The idea of the rugged individual, and individualism in general, is one of the biggest attributes of the foundation of the American dream. This is encouraged by the competition that capitalism involves. This idea of the rugged “individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, a goal that often involves risk and one that most people would not readily undertake” has been romanticized throughout America’s history. One example of this rugged individual trait is when Dave goes to shoot the gun while plowing the fields. Though he doesn’t go far, he is striking out alone to achieve a goal he has been forbidden to achieve and entails risk if it is discovered. “Although it may sound like an admirable trait, Marxist thinkers consider rugged individualism an oppressive ideology because it puts self-interest above the needs – and even the survival – of other people” (Tyson, 57). In the end of the story, Dave decides he is no longer going to submit to anyone. He digs the gun back up from where he buried it, symbolically digging up the power and illusion of respect, and hops on a train. It could be conceived as a heroic feat but for the fact that has now robbed his family of the extra income and has left them with a huge debt, a debt that he created. In effect, he put his own self-interests before that of his family’s. Though the reader could interpret his actions as those that are “bucking” the capitalistic society that has oppressed him, he is actually participating in it.

Though America has been hailed as a land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity, through the story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the opposite picture is portrayed. Through the character of Dave Sanders, the reader is able to see the incredible failings of a capitalist society selling the American dream especially for a “liberated” race. Through the alienation Dave feels as a result of hard labor without reward or pride, the inevitable commodification which strips away any meaning to be found for Dave in his life or family obligations, the colonization of consciousness and the idea that the consciousness of both whites and blacks have been conditioned to believe in the superiority of one over another, thus retaining the status quo, and the idea of the rugged individual propelling Dave to take his gun, claim his “freedom” and hop the train, the darker side of capitalism is displayed along with the inevitable failings. Wright does well to explore the dark side of capitalism in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” He explores it through the character of Dave Sanders and ultimately shows that there is no escaping the oppression that comes with such a system.

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory the Basics. NY: Routledge. 2014. Print.

“Estranged Labour.”  Marx Engels Collected Works. Lawrence & Wishart. Web. 2 April 2016.

“Sharecropping.” History. A+E Networks Corp. Web. 2 April 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. NY: Routledge. 2015. Print.

—. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. NY: Routledge. 2011. Print

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Ed. Baym, Nina. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 899-907. Print.

 

 

Sometimes I lie awake at night and stare at the ceilin. I hold my hands behind my head for myself a pillow and listen to the night sounds, thinkin I’m sure gonna buy myself one of them feather-filled pillows one day. They’re supposed to be real nice and fine. I wouldn’t much mind havin somethin fine to lay my head on.

I hear the crickets chirp and the bullfrogs croakin like grumpy old men. Kind of like Mr. Blythe down at the hardware store in town. He’s always got a real sour look on his face like he just done bit into a lemon or somethin. Heck, someone should done thrown him some salt. Then I hear little Jay breathin real soft like beside me. I like the sound of his breathin. I don’t feel so lonely. I can even hear the man in Mama’s bed snorin so loud it almost covers the sound of Mamma cryin. Almost. Heck, even the house has a little somthin to say. Floorboards creakin and complainin like they’re just so darn fed up they gonna snap under the next foot that dares step on em.

So here I am, listenin to all the sounds that only come out in the night time, kinda like lonely old ghosts, and I get to feelin lonely myself. Mamma always says a person can feel lonely but they aint never alone cause the good Lord is always with em. I just nod my head and say, “Yes Mamma.” But sometimes, lyin in the dark here at night, alone with the ghost sounds and all my thoughts just kickin around in my head, I wonder.

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” was published in 1869 by Bret Harte. Harte, who lived in Northern California, was familiar with the mining camps of the West and he was a master of portraying the stereotypical characters of the West, from the prostitutes with “hearts of gold” to the stoic, chivalrous, and “coolly desperate” gambler. Harte was also familiar with the greed of the Western gold mining camps where people came to find their fortunes and explored the theme of morally-superior-white-vigilante justice in his writings. In fact, it was because of an article he wrote and published in The Northern Californian, “expressing outrage over the massacre in nearby Eureka of sixty Native Americans, mostly women and children, by a small gang of white vigilantes,” that Harte was fired from his job as assistant editor (351). It is this theme of religious hypocrisy that is explored in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”, but moreover, it is the idea of redemption through the characters as well as nature that makes a lasting and meaningful impact.

The story begins in a gold mining camp in California with the protagonist, John Oakhurst, noting the change in the atmosphere, “There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.” This line is the first indicator that the citizens are not in reality good Christians who are living the good life, but are people who for some reason have decided to put on the cloak of Christian righteousness, which Oakhurst understands to be a dangerous thing if they are not indeed Christians. Harte gives an indication of the local landscape and local morality when he describes Oakhurst “whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots.” In the Bible, Jesus says, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: the Kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11). The color red of the Californian mining camp can be construed as symbolizing the sin of the “righteous” citizens, and Oakhurst – who actually committed no sin other than being a very good gambler- is obeying the words of Christ.

Harte further illustrates the hypocrisy of the town when he writes, “It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.” The hypocrisy in the town’s actions resemble that of the high priest, Caiaphas, in the gospels who calls a secret and illegal meeting of the other chief priests in order to try, judge, and condemn Jesus. Harte then introduces two of the other characters, Duchess and Mother Shipton, who are being banished for their profession. They are prostitutes but it is obvious that they would not be able to sell their wares if there were no buyers. There were indeed buyers and it is those guilty buyers that are exiling the two fallen women. There is yet another correlation to scripture that shows the town is not acting the part of good Christians and are in fact hypocrites. In the New Testament, a woman is brought before Jesus. By law she is to be stoned for committing adultery. Jesus does not stone her but shows her mercy. He then says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

As the group of outcasts, which also includes Uncle Billy who is likely the only legitimately guilty person, are led out of town by an armed escort, the reader catches a glimpse of Oakhurst’s kindness when he trades his horse for Duchess’s mule. Harte then begins to describe the landscape: “A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.” Though Oakhurst cautions against delay and foreshadows the tragedy that is to come when he warns them against, “’throwing up their hand before the game was played out,’” the group decides to stop and partake in a few drinks. It is in this amphitheater, as in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece where many tragedies were performed, that the tragedy of the outcasts of Poker Flat will be played out.

When considering the religious symbology of the story as well as the natural aspect, the following passage is important: “He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at the valley below, already deepening into shadow.” The imagery of clouds is littered throughout scripture and is usually connected to the presence of God. In fact, during the crucifixion, for three hours the sky was dark. Christ, having been innocent, was a sacrifice for the sin of mankind. When considering the fate of the outcasts, they could be seen as having been sacrificed by the citizens of Poker Flat who were gamblers themselves as well as frequenters of prostitutes. In a natural sense, it is easy to assume the increasing danger in the outcasts’ situation knowing that the story takes place at the end of November when snow is likely to fall.

When Harte introduces Tom Simson, the Innocent of Poker Flat, and his fifteen year old fiancée, Piney Wood, the reader begins to get a glimpse at the goodness contained in the outcasts, minus Uncle Billy who steals away in the middle of the night with the mules and provisions. The reader learns that Oakhurst, after having won a significant amount of money from Tom some time ago, gives the money back and advises him to no longer gamble. This is a characteristic far from the swindler that the citizens of Poker Flat made Oakhurst out to be. Mother Shipton and the Duchess transform into something self-sacrificing and angelic: “the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly as though attended by celestial guardians.” Oakhurst, Duchess, and Mother Shipton spare Tom and Piney the anxiety and fear that would surely have overwhelmed them had they known Uncle Billy had stolen the mules with no intention of sending help: “For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality.”

Then the snow comes. Harte describes the brutality of the California Sierras to a tee: “The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white- curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing store of provisions for the morning meal. It was one of the peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a kindly warmth over the wintry landscape, as if in regretful commiseration of the past. But it revealed drift on drift of snow piled high around the hut–a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still clung.” Harte then references Poker Flat using the ironic word “pastoral.” The fact that the outcasts can see the smoke rising from the warm settlement miles away is perhaps the reason they join in the hymn that Piney and Tom are singing, not out of devotion but with defiance: “I fear that a certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the others, who at last joined in the refrain: “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I’m bound to die in His army.”

It is not much later that Mother Shipton does indeed die, having sacrificed her rations so that the young Piney would have a better chance of surviving. It is with Mother Shipton’s passing that the story takes a turn for the worse. The Innocent, Tom Simson, follows Oakhurst’s direction and heads for Poker Flat on snow shows made from a saddle while John Oakhurst decides his game is done. While Oakhurst hands in his cards with a bullet to his heart, it is the picture that Harte paints of Piney and the Duchess that brings the theme home. When Piney and the Duchess truly understand their fate is death, the Duchess asks Piney if she can pray. Piney replies, “No dear.” This refusal to pray is Harte’s separating the truly righteous, in the form of Piney, from the truly unrighteous, the citizens of Poker Flat and their new found religion who surely pray every morning and every night.

Though Nature has seemed impersonal and brutal throughout the story, it is towards the end that Harte uses it in a very personal and beautiful way: “The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” Doves, or white birds, are referenced throughout scripture. They represent guilt offerings and the Holy Spirit. In many respects, the Duchess could well be seen as a guilt offering for the people of Poker Flat. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ as he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on the two women. In this scene, the Duchess’s sins are covered by white just as it says in the Bible, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalms 51:7).

In the end, the outcasts of Poker Flat are condemned to death by the citizens of Poker Flat. But it was their condemnation that ultimately brought out the goodness in them, the parts of themselves that perhaps they had forgotten about or believed no longer existed. And it was through that goodness and their ultimate deaths that they were able to be redeemed and perhaps were able to touch the citizens of Poker Flat and show them the meaning of sin and forgiveness: “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned.”

 

 Works Cited

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

 

She had loved him. It was as though she were waking up from a long sleep to these feelings that she had held for this man all along. Feelings that had been buried, suppressed, in a deep, deep sleep. The wrongs committed could now be thrown into the smoldering rubble in which there still remained enough heat to turn them into ash. The many offenses, his offenses and her own, she had worn like a cloak, a cloak so heavy that she had not realized how it had hampered her movement until she found the strength to shrug them off. She had loved him. She held this old love in the palm of her hand and it glowed warm in the sun and she smiled with remembrance. She had loved him. And it was a relief.

She looked at his picture. She looked at the young face she could barely remember. The eyes that were so bright, so blue. They had dazzled her once. Over the years, through the battles she had stopped seeing them, could not see them through all of the smoke and flames, through the depressed fog. Only now, the war that was their love was over. The flames were dying down, the smoke was just beginning to lift, and like any war-torn landscape, the damage to her heart was devastating. At first the devastation was overwhelming. It was nearly impossible to imagine how this barren broken place could ever be rebuilt. But as time passed, she began to notice that the trees, though scorched still stood. There were green patches of grass, peeking out hesitantly, on the soot blackened scarred ground. And somewhere in the distant she could hear the laughter of children.


“Landscape description was once an important element in novels not only to give meaning and shape to the story but for its strange ability to carry the reader deeply and intimately inside the fiction, to establish the fiction’s truth” (Katz, 6). I find this sentiment to be true, especially in regards to the last bit, fiction’s truth. But fiction is made up, right? Fiction is merely a creation of one’s imagination, yes? While this is true, there still must be truth in it for the reader to have trust, trust in the author and trust in the story.

“This use of landscape as a massive presence in a novel to shape and control the content, direction, plot, and the character’s psychological profiles distinguishes it from mere regionalism or local color” (Katz, 7). In Bret Harte’s, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” we can see how the landscape directs the plot perfectly. In the beginning we are given a visual of red dust coating the boots of gambler, John Oakhurst. It could well be interpreted that John Oakhurst is wiping away the hypocritical sin of Poker Flat, the sin represented by the color red, when he wipes his boots before being exiled by the growing “morality” of the citizens of Poker Flat. As the Norton Anthology mentions of Harte, he was known to “…ridicule religious hypocrisy” (352).

Not only does Harte describe the dusty atmosphere of California, but the magnificent mountains as well: “The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley” (Harte).  But while Harte captures the beauty and majesty of the landscape, he also describes the danger: “As he stirred the dying fire, the wind, which was now blowing strongly, brought to his cheek that which caused the blood to leave it–snow!”(Harte). The mountains and the peril the California Sierra’s offers through its snow storms is pivotal for the plot.

While the dust of California’s Poker Flat begins the story, the pure white snow of California’s mountains ends it. “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned” (Harte). While it was nature and the land which resulted in the demise of the “sinners” of Poker Flat, it was also what brought forth the best in them and eventually redeemed some of them.

Among other local color writers was Kate Chopin. The Norton Anthology explains, “Chopin, who wrote about her own time, did not concern herself with the prewar South , but her depiction of the present revealed the unhappy residues of an outdated social ideology” (551). In Chopin’s, “Desiree’s Baby,” the residue is portrayed powerfully in the relationship between Desiree and her adoring husband, Armand Aubigny, who are both respectable white folk. Armand falls madly in love with Desiree and insists on marrying her even against the words of caution that Desiree’s past was unknown:“What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” (552).

Chopin paints a forceful and compelling scene when Desiree realizes that she is mixed. “The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half canopy. One of La Blanche’s little quadron boys-half naked too-stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers.” This contrast that Chopin makes between Desiree and her baby lying in luxury and the half-naked boy right before Desiree and the reader realizes that Desiree and her baby are both mixed is jarring. Desiree having been blinded by the purity of her love for her baby had not seen it before. Armand having been blinded by his racist inclinations had seen it and ultimately his prejudices triumphs over his “love” for Desiree and she leaves.

Zitkala-Sa, perhaps to me, is the most beautiful and lyrical of the three authors. Perhaps it is because she is a Native American that her words seem to flow so naturally. When I read her words, I am there in her story. In “The Trail Path,” the opening lines draw me in to this time, place, and people that existed long before me: “It was an autumn night on the plain. The smoke-lapels of the cone-shaped tepee flapped gently in the breeze. From the low night sky, with its myriad fire points, a large bright star peeped in at the smoke-hole of the wigwam between its fluttering lapels, down upon two Dakotas talking in the dark. The mellow stream from the star above, a maid of twenty summers, on a bed of sweetgrass, drank in with her wakeful eyes. On the opposite side of the tepee, beyond the centre fireplace, the grandmother spread her rug. Though once she had lain down, the telling of a story has aroused her to a sitting posture.” I am lying on the floor of the teepee and I am looking out through the smoke hole. I can feel the tradition of her people.

The Norton Anthology reminds us, “though often suffused with nostalgia, the best work of regionalists renders convincing details of a particular time and investigates psychological character traits from a broad perspective” (13). From the California mountains and the hypocritical newfound morality of the mining camps to the Louisans South and the ever pervasive prejudice that kills love to the beauty and intrigue of the Native American life, all three stories illustrate how using the landscape and characteristics of an area can deepen the characters, plot, and experience the reader has.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Zitkala-Sa. “A Warrior’s Daughter.” American Indian Stories. n. p. 3 Dec. 2003. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016

Mahoney, Timothy, Katz, Wendy. Regionalism and the Humanities. University of Nebraska. 2008. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a thing like a bubble. There is something wonderfully magical about it, how it holds its shape, its round perfection, and yet you can see right through it.

It lingers, still.

It drifts on currents, rising, falling like a slumbering breath. It holds all of the colors in the spectrum enticing the senses, inviting the senses.

Unrequited love. Love. Unrequited. Untouchable. Unknowable. Suspended. Belief. Suspended belief. Suspended in disbelief.

I could reach out. I could. A finger. A touch. Just one. Just once. I could reach out and touch this one this once. This thing like a bubble. There is something wonderfully magical about it.

This one.

This once.

Unrequited love.

 

I am not prejudice but I do have prejudices. Language prejudice is one. I grew up a minority in a group of minorities, my neighborhood being predominantly African American with a few Vietnamese and Hispanics. While striving earnestly not to develop prejudices, in the end it is inevitable that some will arise. This is not merely and exclusively in regards to Caucasians but to all ethnicities. Growing up, it was very evident that my black classmates could not or would not speak “proper” English. I never chalked it up to them being intellectually inferior, rather deliberately and willfully disobedient and unwilling to be a part of our society. Of course, it does seem reasonable that a race who was subjugated and made to be separate from society might have cause not to assimilate completely into the society that rejected them in the first place. I’ve held the assumption of a willful rejection of society by African Americans by means of their “bad” English (and perhaps there is still some truth in it) for thirty some odd years, but recently am beginning to understand that there is a whole lot more to it. I am now willing to concede that African American Vernacular English is a legitimate form of Standard English and that “There is no causal link between speaking non-standard varieties English—which are spoken by a majority of English speakers in the world—and levels of intelligence or even levels of education” (Olstad).

As stated in Olstad’s article, every language in the world follows a set of rules and AAVE is no exception. Double negatives and g dropping (He don’t know nothin), disregarding the /s/ in the present tense third person (She sing jazz), copula absence (He a pain), the lack of using /s/ in possessive cases (Sula man), and the habitual “be” forms (She be talkin smack). Incidentally, the habitual “be” forms, which imply a continuation, are found in other languages. Two rules I am not as familiar with are the plural absence of /s/ (six bird in that tree) and the remote time been (I been thrown that ax all day). So how can we possibly conceive of AAVE having legitimacy and that speaking AAVE does not correlate to stupidity? There is no finer way than to acquaint oneself with the writing of Maya Angelou.

Thirty six books under her belt, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, three grammys, among her various honorary doctorates and collection of poetry (among so many other amazing accomplishments), Maya Angelou is the epitome of an African American who grew up speaking AAVE as well as being able to speak the standard version. It is through her writing that one can clearly see that AAVE is not merely black people speaking white English bad, but rather a variation of English that grew organically out of circumstances (namely Africans speaking various African languages and being forced to live generation after generation as slaves among white English speakers).

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the rules that govern AAVE can be seen in Angelou’s writing. The use of the double negative and the contraction ain’t (which is not merely confined to AAVE but definitely associated with it) in the following passage is an illustration of AVVE in action.

“Whew, I was glad to get out of there. The calaboose, and the prisoners screaming they didn’t want no dead nigger in there with them. That he’d stink up the place. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one at that” (198).

In the following paragraph of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou writes beautifully and clearly (aside from the comma splice) in Standard English. She uses the copula was to link the subject and predicate and also uses the plural /s/.

“Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death” (198).

It cannot be mistaken that Maya Angelou clearly has the comprehension of Standard English as well as the ability to communicate via Standard English. She is articulate and holds a very prestigious position in our society, serving on two Presidential committees, all the while possessing at her disposal the ability to speak and write in the African American vernacular. While it would be easy and convenient to dismiss AVVE as “bad, black English”, it would also be unjustified, arrogant, and disrespectful. As Adam J. Banks writes in his book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, “…anyone still attempting to argue that Ebonics is a problem…that it is somehow connected to a lack of intelligence or lack of desire to achieve is about as useful as a Betamax video cassette player, and it’s time for those folks to be retired, be they teachers, administrators, or community leaders…”(2011). Our country is a compilation of various vernaculars that add to the flavor and aroma of our country which is built on diversity. It is time to recognize AAVE as one more spice among many.

Works Cited

Olstad, John. “Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martin’s Case Talk Funny, or Could We All Use Some Education? –.” Fully Sic Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martins Case Talk Funny or Could We All Use Some Education Comments. Private Media Party LTD, 22 July 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Escalas, Jennifer. “African American Vernacular English in Advertising: A Sociolinguistic Study.” By Jennifer Edson Escalas. Association for Consumer Research, 1994. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

“01.” Caged Bird Legacy. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Banks, Adam. Digital Groits: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Sounther Illinois UP, 2011. 208. Print.