Literary Criticism of John Donne, Anton Chekhov, Ruth Hall and Joseph Conrad. by Daniel Bruno
Perspectives on “The Sun Rising”
“The Sun Rising” is inspired by the ecstacy of love and its interruption at the break of dawn. The sun is personified as the speaker asks questions designed to instill a sense of the sanctity of romantic love, which is the theme of the poem. A solipsistic and righteous tone is used and the symbols, metaphors, and theme work together to reinforce the poem’s organic unity.
The first symbol is the title itself – “The Sun Rising.”
It symbolizes the birth of a new day, the beginning and continuation of all endeavors great and lowly. It also brings the end of night, and for Donne a disturbance to a cherished world lost in the eternal moment of love: “Busy old fool, unruly sun,/ why dost thou thus,/ Through windows and through curtains, call on us?” (lines 1,2,3). The righteousness of tone is felt from the beginning as the speaker addresses the sun as a busybody, a Peeping Tom with nothing better to do than invade the privacy, or sanctity, of his love affair.
This theme of the sanctity of romantic love is savored by the sense of utter inconsequentiality of the world outside the bedroom. Peasants are just as so many drones in a colony of ants: indistinguishable and picayune. “Call country ants to harvest offices…” (line 18). They, along with late schoolboys and grumpy apprentices, are of the sort worthy of morning calls to rise. They are, for the speaker, of the mundane: “Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/ Late schoolboys and sour prentices…” (lines 5,6). Even the king pertains to the mundane: “Go tell court-huntsman that the king will ride.” (line 7). These lines were written at a time when royalty was a genuine player on the political world arena. For the speaker, honor represents just another aspect of the profane–honor being “mimic,” a sycophantic scurrying for position in a world reduced to status-seeking, while wealth is mere alchemy, fruitless Medieval experiments to turn base metals into gold. All of this is chaff compared to the treasure lying next to him: “…compared to this,/ All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.” (lines 23,24).
The first stanza is capped with “Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.” (lines 9,10). Thus like God, and knowing no limits of space or time, love is holy, and its sanctity more worthy than all the wealth of the world or the status of kings.
Righteousness is matched by solipsism in tone, as we see in the metaphor (line 21): “She is all states, and all princes I.” She is as his dominion; he is her sovereign. Together, they are all of creation: “Nothing else is.” (line 22). In the solipsistic universe of the speaker, the bedroom, as site of his sacred love, is the center around which the sun, in Ptolemaic fashion, revolves: “This bed thy center is; these walls thy sphere.” (line 30).
In line 23 royalty is alluded to once again: “Princes do but play us…” This time a metaphor symbolizing the day to day affaires d`etat, the intrigue, subterfuge and political maneuvering amongst monarchs, says these pale in comparison with the lovers’ own intrigue and affaire de coeur, once again pointing to the consecrated, or sacred, nature of their love.
A dab of humor is added when the speaker calls upon the sun to check in tomorrow, but late, and see “Whether both Indias of spice and mine/ Be where thou leftist them, or lie here with me.” (lines 17,18). It is as if to say “Go away! There’s no wrongdoing to illuminate here!” This ties right in with the righteous tone to give it an indignant voice.
The organic unity of “The Sun Rising” is underscored by the various elements we have touched upon. The righteousness of tone suggests transgression committed. That transgression would occur by sunlight merely peeping through the shutters conveys a sense of divinity, or of the sacrosanct, as if of a Pharaoh’s tomb, to that which lies behind the shutters. Solipsism might then be compelled, and righteousness justified.
My question to Donne is:
Would thou not welcometh a little light
That thou mighteth thus behold the beauty
That layeth next to thee in the night?
While not an autobiography, Ruth Hall closely parallels the life of Fanny Fern. Her successful marriage and happiness as a young mother, the death of her firstborn and her husband, and her ensuing economic dependence on reluctant in-laws were the tests, trails and tribulations from which she emerged victorious. Her hitherto unmatched and meteoric rise as a professional writer and ancillary economic power inspired Ruth Hall, and while not overtly political, challenged the status-quo viz. women’s position in society. It is a novel pregnant, as it were, with a polemic against the patriarchal society Fanny Fern observed in her day. The literary critics, true to form, and all of whom, coincidentally, were men, reacted negatively to the publication of Ruth Hall, insisting that…it is not proper in a woman to be so unfeminine as to criticize…her father, brother, and in-laws. Fern was compared to Goneril and Regan, and the book was described as “abominable,” “monstrous,” “overflowing with an unfemininely bitter wrath and spite.” 1
Economic independence is the central theme of Ruth Hall. The “moral” of the story, as developed through the plot, is that a woman’s salvation lies in her adaptation to the male, moneyed society of the marketplace and the business world. Its revolutionary role as a “rags to riches” story of a widow who surmounts all odds through her own talents instead of through marriage notwithstanding, Ruth Hall is a classically American novel that gives insight into the ethos of the culture that produced it. The term “revolutionary” clearly does not apply here to a radical change in the economic structure of society, but rather to a rearrangement of the power alignments associated with the control of wealth. 2 And that is what this reader found most interesting about Ruth Hall. Fanny Fern’s feminism derived from the exigencies of her own life experience and her feminist theory is empirical. Fern’s writings on women’s rights and the treatment of children were generations ahead of their time, and her belief in society’s obligation to “life’s unfortunates” would not enter into policy making in this country until the welfare state of the 1930s. But what of the rest of Ruth’s “sisters” toiling for $0.75 a week as seamstresses? Will they all become successful businesswomen? Even if they were shrewd enough or talented enough to do so, will that business-world that Ruth so deftly maneuvers have room for them all? Who would be left to sow garments? Not only is this question left unanswered by the novel, it does not exist in the novel. Fern’s feminist political theory as it had developed at that point was not a class conscious theory and was revolutionary, but limited to the bourgeois sense of the word.
Ruth Halls journey from a prosperous middle class lifestyle to the life of a pauper, a working class single mother reduced to piece work, and back again as an independently wealthy woman, is instructive to the fluidity between classes in the U.S at that time. As de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America: “When all privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are available to all, and a MAN’S (my emphasis) own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to him.” 3 Thus the “American Dream.” Fern takes this dream and makes it true for women. In the socially immobile and stratified societies of aristocratic Europe, where one’s lineage, accent, and even the shape of one’s nose and chin conveyed social position, 4 such class peregrinations would have been unthinkable for a man or a woman. Hence the classically American values of social mobility which made a Ruth Hall, albeit female, possible in America.
Rugged individualism is the other classic American value we see shining through in Ruth Hall. She is made of the same stuff that homesteaders, cowboys and ’49rs are made of: self reliant, daring individuals struggling to survive and overcome opposition greater than themselves. Once she enters the male world of competition, she needs that same individualistic self-assertion American society encouraged in men.5 Ruth Hall’s success at the end of the novel is marked by the acquisition of bank stock worth ten thousand dollars-a very American ending.6 She makes it to the top and, in both real life and in the novel, exhorts all women to follow in her footsteps. For Fanny Fern, financial independence, even more than the vote, was the key to women’s rights: When you can, achieve financial independence, freedom from subjection may be gotten by the fruits of your own labors,…when you have done all this, you may rightfully demand-even the right to vote…7 What a revealing quote! Fern asks women to “make it” economically before insisting on what was rightfully theirs anyway. The irony is that the “myths,” semiotically speaking, of upward mobility and rugged individualism, so quintessentially American, grounded in precepts of democracy and the rights of the individual, would find employment in explaining these implied opportunities away as far as women are concerned.
Through my reading of the work, my completion of the statue, as it were, as Rosmarin would put it, demonstrates the ethos of Fern’s time, an ethos that she too was a part of. Fanny Fern was the great equalizer for women.
Putting my ideas into words was the most problematic aspect of this paper. There was however, no other choice for me. This is how I see the novel and, admittedly, I bring my ideological baggage with me just like the next gal. Did that sound fanny?
Ruth Hall is a profoundly political text. Political for its feminism and a call to economic arms, eventhough only a few women will have the firepower, as it were, to do battle using a Fanny Fern prescription. It makes good material for a New Historicist analysis but, alas, the “New Historicist” group in class was most unreceptive of my ideas, and found more pleasure in eclectic, desultory, and ahistorical discussions about child abuse, the need for a New Historicist to apologize for having a viewpoint, and the possible benefits if doing a “skit” in class.
One criticism that may be levied this paper is the lack of direct quotes. I feel that the discursive nature of the text dispenses with that objection, since one of Fern’s major tools is the use of understatement and the reader must read between the lines to understand the novel at all. A good example of this is Fern’s artful portrayal of a brothel through exclusive use of innuendos.
1. Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall. Rutgers University Press, 1986 p.xvii
2. ibid. p.xxi
3. Solomon, Jack. Signs of Our Time. Harper and Row, 1988
4. ibid. p.62
5. Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall. Rutgers University Press, 1986 p.xxv
6. ibid. p.xxvi
7. ibid. p.xxi
The New Criticism is a variety still evolving into itself. This outlook, a branch of Formalism from the school of Objectivism, “eschew [s] reference to the biography of the author, to the social conditions at the time of its production” [handout]. It concerns itself with image, symbol, and meaning over character, thought, and plot. But where are image and meaning created if not in the mind of the author? And where does symbol come from if not from culture?
The objectivist critic sees literature as superceding the subjectivity of author [storyteller] and reader [listener]. This is a Structionalist approach. The New Critic, on the other hand, views literature as referential. This writer would argue that literary points of reference cannot exist outside of the author’s
experiences and states of being and are of necessity shaped by them.
Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
This essay will of necessity deal with Heart of Darkness.
It will attempt to make a few observations using a semiotic
approach in a very brief look at the assumptions of the culture and author that produced the work as well as the myths upon which the novel rests.
Let us go straight to the “heart” of the matter and expose some of the untruths which Conrad apparently expects everyone to bring to the novel as he did.
Conrad paints a picture of an honest ” You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie…” (p.41) Marlow sincerely struck by the disparity between the hype of the colonizers’ “civilizing” mission and the genuine aim of Imperialist machinations in Africa: ” It was as unreal as…the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern.” (p.39). ” To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose…than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” (p.45)
Marlow is contrasted with Kurtz, a deranged lunatic brimming with bestial, bizarre and sadistic urges but also chock full of lofty and high flying double-speak: “…there was nothing exactly profitable in the heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts…some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.” (p.73) Kurtz is the quintessence of Imperialist hypocrisy in Africa. We
are presented with a man envied by all upwardly mobile
functionaries in the colony. A man whose particular tastes call for human heads adorning his encampment. Kurtz is a veritable “Lord of the Flies,” his savage instincts allowed full reign, a blind reign of terror and genocide in search of ivory profits at any cost. Cost, that is, to the indigenous people. And all done, of course, in the name of “civilization.”
It is more than likely that Conrad formulated Kurtz from real-life observations while on a trip to the Belgian Congo in the 1880s. And Marlow, our steamboat captain protagonist in Africa for the first time, is probably a reflection of Conrad (the sailor) himself. Conrad may have considered himself radical in suggesting to 19th century Europe that, as Kurtz so potently illustrates , the conquest of Africa was something more sinister than a proselytizing mission. But his mythology and racism are the same, and are reproduced in Marlow. He (Marlow) compares his own fireman – an African – to a dog trained by his masters: ” He was an improved specimen…to look at him was edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.” (p.51) Throughout the text pejoratives are used to describe the Africans. Pejoratives for a people he knows nothing about. For him, therefore, they are inferiors. “…strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language.” (p.83) “…and what he (the fireman) knew was this – that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry…” (p.52). Marlow is deaf and dumb
to the language of his own fireman yet claims to know what his thoughts are. Through his own shameful ignorance and arrogance he projects a condescending stereotype on the fireman, which brings us to the great myth of Western civilization: its pre-eminence over everyone else on the planet. Ergo a “divine right” to civilize (read colonize or neo-colonize) the rest of the world for its own good. Heart of Darkness is predicated on this myth.
Conrad presents Kurtz as an unscrupulous man but of a good plan gone bad: ” What redeems it is the idea only.” (p.21)
Thus Kurtz is presented as the “dark” figure for which he is – ironically sent to bring “light” to a “dark” people on a “dark” continent living in the heart of “darkness.” But Conrad would have us believe that the “civilizing” missions themselves were not ignoble, and that the people on the receiving end of the missions were in the “dark,” thus using Kurtz’s “heart of darkness” as a metaphor for the supposed backwardness of the Africans. It is precisely this misconception that is “dark.”
This essay will use Reader Response criticism to examine Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog.
In the beginning of section I Gurov is cynical and condescending towards women, “to whom he referred as the lower race” (paragraph 4). Nevertheless, it was in their presence that he found himself most comfortable, being “…bored and ill-at-ease in the company of men…” (paragraph 5). He despises women yet adores them, “attracted to them by some invisible force.” (paragraph 6). Either his attitudes towards women are schizophrenic, or he has love/hate feelings for them, “received from bitter experience.” This “bitter experience” has taught him to seek the upper-hand in his love affairs and he analyzes Anna Sergeyevna as a tiger would stalk its prey: “Her expression, gait, dress, coiffure, all told him that she was from the upper classes, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time, alone and bored.” (paragraph 9).
For her part, Anna Sergeyevna was “quite unable to explain whether her husband was a member of the province council, or on the board of the zemstvo, and was greatly amused at herself for this.” (paragraph 18). This demonstrates that she married for reasons other than love, and flaunts her lack of interest in her husband as a signal to Gurov.
The Lady with the Dog
A Feminist View
Women writers and women readers have always had to work against the grain (Seldon p. 128). It is logical that feminist criticism will also work against the grain regardless of the critic’s gender.
Let us examine the multi-dimensional pathos around Chekhov’s themes of lovers who cannot marry and that of love’s regeneration of Gurov by a young woman.
Gurov cannot do without the company of women and yet he describes them as a “lower race.” His experience of intimacy with women is limited to casual affairs and an unsatisfactory marriage. “And he told himself that this had been just one more of the many adventures in his life, and that it, too, was over, leaving nothing but a memory” (p.172). According to Seldon, “The shaping conventions of…romantic pursuit have a `male’ impetus and purposeness (p.133). Thus Gurov is repulsed by women “over whose features flitted a predatory expression, betraying a determination to wring from life more than it could give…” (p.169). But is this not characteristic of his own predatory, lecherous behavior? Why should the women with whom he has liaisons be held to higher standards than himself?
Gurov’s behavior to Anna Sergeyevna at the beginning of their love affair is characterized by an absence of emotional involvement. In one scene, Gurov eats a watermelon while Anna Sergeyevna weeps over her seduction. Gurov seduces Anna, yet tells her she is seductive; she is repentant and guiltfull for being seduced; he is “bored to death” with her remonstrances for what is for him ” the insulting indulgence of the fortunate male, who was, moreover, almost twice her age.”(p.172). For Gurov, Anna is just another encounter to be added to a string of conquests and then to be forgotten. “It appears that… male authors are compelled by their gender to reproduce the oppressive sexual politics of the real world in their fiction.” (Seldon p.134).
The story might have ended with Anna’s forced departure from Yalta, but it is now that the story takes an unexpected turn. Back in Moscow, Gurov was prepared to regard his affair with Anna as no different from all the others, but it “takes on a new and increasing significance in his life” (Cockerell p.89). We are given the first hints as we read: ” all was clear in his memory as if he had parted with Anna Sergeyevna only the day before. And his recollections grew ever more insistent.” (172).
Presently, love will launch Gurov on a journey of transformation to something higher. “This little woman…now filled his whole life, was his grief. his joy, all that he desired.”(p.175). For the first time in his life he is in love; his whole being is engaged and committed to another person. Gurov is shaken by a sudden recognition of the hypocrisy of his own bourgeois stratum of society and the emptiness of his own life as a jaded philanderer: “What wasted evenings, what tedious empty days! Frantic card playing, gluttony, drunkenness…the greater part of one’s time and energy went on business that was no use to anyone…you might as well be in a madhouse or a convict settlement. (173). Chekhov’s portrayal of a quasi-misogynist
male regenerating into a man capable of genuine love–for a woman–is bound to be of interest to the feminist critic. “This is more than simply acting on one’s desire, since Gurov’s innermost and newly awakened sense of values enables him to distinguish between what is true and what is false.”(Cockrell p.91). The feminist critic will take note that Gurov’s affair with Anna inadvertently acts as a vehicle to his own maturation.
Chekhov has presented us with a sexist character whose life undergoes a transformation. As Gurov calls his life and the lives of others into question, he will reconsider his attitudes towards women. His love for Anna paves the way to a new vision of the female half of humanity–and of all humanity. It could be argued that The Lady with the Dog is progressive vis-a-vis the protagonist’s changing attitudes towards Anna and by extension, women.
A revisionist rereading in search of patriarchal portrayals of women will, I believe, also reach this conclusion. If we look for a “binary logic” pairing all that is good with male characters and vise versa with female characters, we will not find such a logic. Gurov’s character leaves much to be desired, and Anna is an active participant as the both of them together look for solutions out of their quandary at the end of chapter IV.
My own thinking and writing processes in The Lady with Dog: A Feminist View, could be described as an attempt to apply some of the basic concerns of feminist criticism I learned in this course. Writing from a feminist viewpoint was not my first choice because I felt it should be left to women to express themselves and only women are genuinely qualified for that.
I chose The Lady with the Dog because the interplay between the two main characters is shrouded in the conventions of 19th century moralism and makes good material for analysis of the Victorian attitude towards women.
To me, this short story has positive implications because its central character moves to a more profound appreciation of life–including women. But if we ask if the story is written from an exclusively male point of view, we must answer, without equivocation, yes. Gurov is a predatory male; his tone is “of one male relating an exploit to another male in the masculine vocabulary with its point of view.”(Seldon p.133). Is it therefore the case that the female reader is “coerced into reading (it) as a man?”(Seldon p.133). I think the answer to this question is also yes. What would we have to say if Chekhov had written the story from Anna Sergeyevna’s point of view? Should we penalize Chekhov for writing from the point of view of a Gurov? I think not. In the words of Michelle Barret, “…feminist critics must take account of the fictional nature of literary texts and not indulge in `rampant moralism’ by condemning all male authors for the sexism in their books” (Seldon p.135).
Chekhov, after all, was a man, and would be expected to write about the world as he saw it–as a man. What about Gurov’s sexism bordering on lechery? Is this character an insight into Chekhov’s mindset or more a reflection of what Chekhov “reads” around him when he relocates to Yalta in 1898? From here a psychoanalytic method might shed some light, and a reader response critic could examine the one element which would predominate in answering that question–the reader’s interpretation.
Gurov seduces Anna, disingenuously asking “What shall we do? We might go for a drive…He looked steadily at her and suddenly took her in his arms and kissed her…” (paragraph 25). Later on in the story, Anna Sergeyevna becomes pensive and says to Gurov “It isn’t right…you will never respect me anymore.” And Gurov replies: “Why should I stop respecting you?” All the while he disdains her, and inspite of her repentant tones, Anna discreetly admits that she too “…wanted something higher…I was burning with curiosity…and…could no longer control myself,” i.e. she came to Yalta looking for an affair and escape from her dull life in the town of S.
By paragraph 117 Gurov examines his face in the mirror for what seems to be the first time in years and realizes that “only now, when he was grey haired, had he fallen in love properly, thoroughly, for the first time in his life.”(paragraph 120).
He reads himself in an entirely new light and will reread his past and his future. Looking into the mirror is a moment of reckoning for him.
Our first impressions of Gurov are of a cynical Don Juan who goes from affair to affair like a bee goes from flower to flower. By section IV however, he is a different man; shot, as it were, by Cupid’s arrow for the first time, and unable to forget unremarkable little Anna. Almost forty and experiencing his first love, he begins to doubt the jaded, bourgeois lifestyle he has always known: “What wasted evenings, what tedious, empty days!…What on Earth are all these people, this orchestra for?” (paragraph 75). Only now is he beginning to learn what is meaningful in his life, and the changes he goes through are akin to those of an adolescent: “He hardly knew himself. He only knew that he must see Anna Sergeyevna…”(paragraph 76).
Gurov reads himself and his life in different ways as his affair develops with Anna. Perhaps he will begin to read women differently as his attitudes are changed by his feelings towards her. Indeed, he is beginning to re-read the meaning of his life and the lives of others: “What wasted evenings…” Perhaps what was supposed to be just another vapid encounter in an endless string of affairs will turn out to be the catalyst for a re-reading of his role in society as events lead to a “stage rehearsal” of revolution in 1905.
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