Spotlight on…Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’

‘”It’s illegal to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, right?”
“It is.”
“Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”’

I must admit, I usually find myself disappointed by highly praised literary works. I have lost count of the amount of award winning texts that have left me cold despite the hype generated by the established critical panels. With this in mind, I picked up Paul Beatty’s fourth Man- Booker winning novel The Sellout, fully expecting disappointment. However, Beatty’s novel not only completely proved my assumptions to be ill-founded, but has also firmly rooted itself as one of my favourite reads of 2018. Uncomfortable, heartbreaking and yet jarringly hilarious, The Sellout takes aim at racism and the lasting impact of white supremacist ideology on the black community. Through savage wit, Beatty forces the reader to face the deep underlying social tensions that still prevail throughout American society.

Focussing on a protagonist known only by his surname, ‘Me’, the novel follows the narrator in his radical and outrageous scheme to reintroduce segregation in his impoverished neighbourhood of Dickens. It is through this quest that the reader is made aware of the clear hypocrisy between political correctness and the reliance on racial stereotyping in American media. This hypocrisy is outlined from the very start by our protagonist, who declares:

‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of THE United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.’

Addressing the reader, Beatty eviscerates the adverse racial tropes commonly used by the media; in doing so, he not only highlights the ridiculousness of such typecasting, but refuses to offer any easy explanations for his protagonist’s actions. It is in the destruction of these harmful cultural assumptions that Beatty’s angry humour is not only the most pervasively biting, but also the most successful. In the current climate of political violence and racial tension, Beatty’s scathing novel never loses sight of the fundamental issue at its very centre; the continuing institutionalised oppression of the black American community. Despite its title, Beatty’s novel is far from a sellout.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Transgression of heterosexual marriage in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’
-Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, p.5.

Marriage is typically based on a mutual love and desire. However, in The Little Stranger, Waters subverts the social understanding of marriage, and instead uses marriage to satisfy a queer ulterior motive. Faraday’s sudden longing for Caroline is unsettling when contrasted to his earlier unfavourable descriptions of her appearance. He describes her as androgynous with ‘boyish shoes’ and her feminine body parts (hips and bosom) are described with negativity as ‘wide’ and ‘large’. Even after becoming engaged to Caroline, therefore supposedly feeling love and desire towards her, Faraday describes her face as masculine by using the words ‘strong’ and ‘angular’. The text says, ‘I couldn’t believe that I had ever found [her face] plain.’1 Faraday’s description of Caroline is hardly praising her beauty or expressing a profound attraction. Instead, he appears repulsed by her fleshly female form. A poetic literary technique, the blazon, dissects the female body and typically praises its

beauty. Faraday subverts the traditional blazon, which is commonly associated with Petrarchan love, and instead he describes Caroline in a basic and simplistic way. Faraday transgresses typical expectations of heterosexual relationships where desire and attraction are fundamental. His reoccurring criticism of Caroline’s appearance is implicit of no attraction, lust or desire towards her, which jars with his sudden desire to marry her. Instead, it is implied that Hundred’s Hall is the object of his desire. Caroline summarises this herself as she says, ‘Do you really [want me]’ ‘Or is it the house you want?’(p.448) The queer projection of desire onto the house transgresses typical expectations of marriage. Heterosexual love becomes spectral as desire is displaced onto a house, rather than Faraday’s own fiancé. The relationship, therefore, becomes merely functional as a way to guarantee possession of the house, and challenges social ideologies of romantic love.

Even as a small child Faraday is infatuated with Hundred’s Hall. On his first ever visit, he took an acorn out of the wall which he felt entitled to own. Faraday describes this event by saying, ‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’(p.3) Faraday defines his feelings towards the house in relation to heterosexual desire, which transgresses the typical social ideologies of desire. Desire is displaced onto an object, rather than a person. The queer attraction to the Hall is intensified when Faraday describes the feeling of the acorn in his trouser pocket. The text says, ‘I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement.’(p.3) The hard lump in his pocket appears phallic, especially as he refers to a ‘sick’ excitement, immediately portraying Faraday’s perverse attraction to the house. The queer sense of desire Faraday feels towards Hundred’s becomes intensified as the novel continues, and when he sees an opportunity of gaining ownership (through marrying Caroline) he becomes obsessed with the idea. Heterosexual love and marriage become a socially acceptable way of satisfying his queer obsession of the house. Caroline becomes aware of Faraday’s ulterior motives for marriage. When Caroline calls off the engagement, Faraday asks, ‘[h]ow can you say all of these terrible things? After all I’ve done, for you, for your family?’ Caroline responds by saying, ‘You think I should repay you, by marrying you? Is that what you think marriage is- a kind of payment?’(p.448) Caroline appears to be aware of Faraday transgressing the social and cultural norms of marriage. For Faraday, marriage becomes a disguise and excuse which allows him to satisfy his queer obsession with the house.

Featured photo: Book cover of The Little Stranger, Sarah Walters. Reprint edition (May 4, 2010)

1.Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago Press: London, 2009) p.323 All further references are to this edition.

Written by Sarah Culham.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


Conscience and Morality in Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear

‘In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality – heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities […] that is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood – for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we know the rules’.
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear,
p. 88-9.

Graham Greene classified his novel The Ministry of Fear as an entertainment, due to its espionage plot. However, many critics would disagree, arguing that it contains serious underlying themes.[1] The narrative focuses on the protagonist Arthur Rowe’s struggle with grief and his journey as he comes to terms with his mercy killing of his wife. Focusing on the character’s own identity and conscience, Greene brings into question the meaning of morality and the definitions of good and evil as his protagonist struggles to perceive himself as an innocent man.

Opening with the presentation of a village fete, the protagonist enters a state of nostalgia; this is triggered by the innocence of the event and the childhood memories that this evokes. The author leaves the reader feeling empathetic; it becomes clear that the character Arthur Rowe is a lost man searching for his childhood innocence and naivety. In his search for release from the burden of guilt, the protagonist reverts to his past in an attempt to recreate the childlike innocence that he remembers, refusing to accept this as an unattainable goal. Throughout the novel, Greene focuses on the theme of childhood versus adulthood, as Arthur Rowe, an adult man, reminisces about his own childhood, avoiding the horrors that his adult-self has experienced. The protagonist often looks to children’s literature and, through these references, Greene indicates the problems that come with looking to fiction as moral guidance. Whilst describing his reading of these children’s stories, the narrator states that he does so ‘not so much because he liked them as because he had read them as a child, and they carried no adult memories’.[2] The protagonist is clearly using literature as a means of escape from his adult identity, rather than facing his guilt. He narrates that ‘in childhood we live under the brightness of immortality – heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities […] that is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood – for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we know the rules’ (p. 88-9). He recognises that adult literature is tainted and confused by complexity and ambiguity through experience, looking to simplistic childhood literature as a moral guidance.

In Book Two of the novel, Greene disorientates the reader by introducing Arthur Rowe as Digby; this disruption reflects the confusion and disorientation that the character also feels. Mary Ann Melfi notes that ‘subconscious growth in Rowe’s case is an inadvertent process wherein the subconscious takes control, working at its own pace. Here, the conscious mind relaxes, and the subconscious fulminates before manifesting itself.’[3] The protagonist’s forgetting of his identity works as a kind of healing process, administered by his own subconscious. His own pain and vulnerability become unbearable and, rather than facing his fears and facing himself, it is easier to forget and live a lie. The character’s conscience is so burdened with guilt that he entirely recreates his own identity, erasing the torturous memories of his wife’s death in a final desperate attempt to move forward. His disturbing memories have been erased and at this point in the narrative he is demonstrated to be at peace, viewing himself as an innocent man. The character of Digby represents the Arthur Rowe that would have been had he not killed his wife and suffered with the guilt. Arguably, the character has achieved his goal of innocent content through the erasure of his adult memories. However, this is shown to be only a temporary state, in which his subconscious is allowing him to heal and decipher his identity without the pain of facing his crime head on. As Arthur contemplates his childhood, he reflects on the fact that ‘he learned before he was seven what pain was like – he wouldn’t willingly allow even a rat to suffer it’ (p. 88). The reader learns of the character’s inability to witness pain and suffering due to his empathetic nature. As Digby, the protagonist feels great sympathy for the character of Stone; he remarks that ‘he felt capable of murder for the release of that gentle tormented creature’ (p. 141). Despite his identity being entirely forgotten and recreated, the sense of empathy that Arthur Rowe possessed seems ever-present. His core human nature remains the same, indicating a contingency and suggesting that even Digby, undisturbed by the burden of an ill wife, would have committed the same crime due to his own moral code. The protagonist’s tendency to empathise and pity others has ultimately led to his mental destruction; through Digby, it becomes clear that this is inherent in his human nature.

Featured Image: Front cover of the 1974 Penguin edition of the novel.

[1] James M. Welsh and Gerald R. Barrett, ‘Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear: The Transformation of an Entertainment’, Literature and Film Quarterly, 2 (1974), p. 312.

[2] Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), (pp.20-1). All other references are to this edition and are given in parenthesis in the main body of the text

[3] Mary Ann. Melfi, ‘The Landscape of Grief: Graham Greene’s ‘The Ministry of Fear’’, South Atlantic Review, 69 (2004) <http:// > [accessed 19 April 2018] pp. 54-73, p. 64.

Written by Amy Fretwell.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Freedom in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

‘What I do I do because I like to do.’
-Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, p. 31.

Anthony Burgess’ novella, published in 1962, invites discussion on the question of what is true freedom, and how much of it should we be permitted to have? T. H. Green’s definition of true freedom includes negative freedom, as well as positive.1 This is indicative of the idea that when freedom is desired, this idea of true freedom may not be implied. Instead, he suggests a sense of freedom with limitations, in which individuals are not free to do entirely as one wishes due to the potential negative consequences of this, as the more desirable concept.

Burgess’ protagonist, Alex, demonstrates Green’s idea of true freedom, as he is initially free from coercion or restriction and regulation. He also seemingly possesses the freedom to do as he pleases, committing monstrous crimes for his own pleasure. Although, as a society, we may supposedly crave a full sense of freedom, it is clear through characters such as Alex, that this complete sense of freedom may be detrimental to the community and therefore limitations must be enforced. The character narrates that ‘what I do I do because I like to do’, exemplifying his freedom of choice at the beginning of the novella and his application of this full sense of freedom.2 On the issue of morality, Burgess tells us in his introduction that ‘The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities’.3 Through the obscenities and gruesome crimes that the protagonist and his gang commit, we learn that with freedom comes moral choice and with good comes evil. Therefore, if we, as a society, allow freedom to be used for good, then it inevitably will be used in the same way for evil.

Once Alex’s actions have been altered by the aversion therapy, the state have influenced and limited his sense of true freedom, manipulating his freedom to act as he chooses, as well as removing his freedom from coercion. However, Sumner argues that Alex’s choices were never free for him to make, as he has always been manipulated by the state. He contests that the character’s criminal actions, and even the cause of these, being the desire for criminality, are ‘socially or institutionally conditioned.’4 This idea suggests that, although Burgess depicts the authoritative state to deprive Alex of his free will, and freedom to choose to act independently, in fact, the protagonist did not possess this to begin with. Sumner argues that Alex acts against the state, as his personal form of resistance. He furthers these ideas, claiming that ‘In a social and political register, Alex is forced to choose between totalitarianism and anarchy. That choice is false and, if anything, testifies to a lack of individual freedom. If there are no good options, then individual choice is a mere abstraction; one might as well flip a coin.’5 Although the character seemingly actively chooses to behave violently and break the law, Sumner argues that this, in fact, is his choice between two options dictated to him by the authority, and therefore, he does not possess the true concept of freedom. Alex is a product of the totalitarian state and he is therefore conditioned to behave violently as his form of resistance.

Featured Image: Front Cover of Penguin’s 2013 edition. See Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Classics, 2013).

1. T. H. Green in Adrian Blau, ‘Against Positive and Negative Freedom’, Political Theory, 32. 4 (2004) [accessed 2 May 2018] p. 549-50.

2. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Group, 1972), p. 31. All other references are to this edition and are given in parenthesis in the main body of the text.

3. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1986), p. XIII.

4. Charles Sumner, ‘Humanist Drama in A Clockwork Orange’, The Yearbook of English Studies: Literature of the 1950s and 1960s, 42 (2012) [accessed 1 May 2018] (p. 57-7).

Homoeroticism and Doubling in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

‘The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.’
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, p.8.

The Labouchere Amendment (1865) meant that ‘any man committing acts of sodomy would be sentenced to life imprisonment’. 1 In Victorian English society, therefore, homosexuality became synonymous with secrecy; fear of societal ruin arrest led to a repression of unbridled sexuality.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, public opinion is of great significance to the characters, framing and ultimately shaping their respective identities. In Dorian Gray, when informed of Sybil Vane’s suicide, Harry tells Dorian that ‘one should never make one’s debut with a scandal’. 2 This fear of public perception not only results in the repression of sexuality, but clearly informs Victorian Gothic’s preoccupation with the ‘doubled’ self. It is this fear of public condemnation that provides the purpose for Dorian’s doubling; it is only through his doubled ‘Other’ that Dorian’s repressed sexuality can successfully be expressed. This distinctly echoes the anxieties of the period. Public knowledge of homoeroticism was feared as it was punishable by law. In this way, the doubled figure comes to physically manifest the excess of the protagonist’s sexuality. In Dorian Gray, Basil’s painting of Dorian comes to act as Basil’s double; it is in Dorian’s portrait that his secret desire for Dorian is implicitly hidden from the public sphere. Clearly, Basil has created his own double in Dorian Gray as he informs Harry that he has put ‘too much’ of himself into the picture and therefore cannot be exhibited for this reason. Again, by failing to exhibit the picture Basil reinforces the fear of public judgement as he worries that exhibiting the picture will allow people to discover his secret. Additionally, Basil explains:

[…] every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.’
(p. 8)

Here, Basil alleges that the painting itself says more about the artist than the sitter; this indicates that the picture is more of a reflection of Basil than Dorian. Therefore, Basil has created an image of Dorian so that he can express his sexuality secretly; the picture consequently acts as Basil’s double, physically manifesting his desire for Dorian. When confessing his feelings to Dorian, Basil notes that ‘When you were away from me you were still present in my art’; this corresponds with the argument that the picture is a way in which Basil can express his desire for Dorian without doing it directly (p.97-98).In relation to this, Ed Cohen states that ‘Dorian is an image – a space for the constitution of male desire’ and that he ‘provides a surface on which the characters project their self-representation’. 3 Therefore, the ‘projection of self-representation’ results in the doubling of characters in the text. The painting allows both Basil and Dorian to convey their homoerotic desires without public judgement.

However, the picture also serves as Dorian’s double, mirroring his deteriorating moral conscious. When first noticing the change in the picture after Sybil’s death, Dorian states that the picture ‘was to bear the burden of his shame’ from ‘wild joys and wilder sins’ (p. 90). Dorian, doubled with the picture, allows it to be punished rather than himself as he explores deviant sins and homoerotic desires. Before being murdered, Basil asks Dorian ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ (p. 127). The fatality of the relationships between Dorian and other men can, once again, be related to public opinion and perception. As we see with Alan Campbell, Dorian holds many secrets that these other young men fear being made public (p. 144). In the same conversation with Basil, Dorian informs him that all humans have ‘Heaven and Hell in him’ (p. 132). Presented in the picture of himself, Dorian’s ‘Hell’ is able to be kept hidden from the outside world. Philip K. Cohen writes:

‘[…] the deliberate fragmentation of self through split consciousness. In order to avoid responsibility for participation in life, the self divides into contemplative and active halves, becoming distributed between participation in life and observation of that involvement as though it were art.’ 4

Here, Cohen indicates that the gothic double in Dorian Gray allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for their sexuality. Both Basil and Dorian can freely explore their sexuality without facing their problems directly or taking responsibility for themselves, suggesting that the author views this expression of sexuality as both necessary and yet sinful. Supporting this, Cohen writes that the ‘fatal issue of these two works suggests the cul-de-sac Wilde faced. While he considered homosexuality a sin, he saw that an existence of repression and hypocrisy was also damnable.’ 5 Therefore, the doubling in these texts, especially Dorian Gray, can be seen as reflecting the contrasting opinions in relation to homosexuality. In order to avoid repression but also avoid directly expressing homoerotic desires, the double represents a way in which sexuality can be expressed indirectly. In this way, the double life of the characters is openly commenting on the hidden lives of the homosexuals in the Victorian era.

Featured Painting: Ivan Albright, Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943, Oil on Canvas (85 x 42in), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.

[1] Kathryn Simpson, ‘Duality and homoeroticism in Dr. Jekyll and Hyde’, Gothic Blog (2017) <> [accessed on 3rd April 2018].

[2] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 84. All further references to this edition.

[3] Ed Cohen, ‘Writing Gone Wild: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation’, PMLA, 102.5 (1987), 801-813 (p. 806).

[4] Philip K. Cohen, The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde (New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1976), p. 138. All further references to this edition.

[5] Cohen, The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, p. 107.

Written by Dionne Rowe.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Resisting Slaveowner Stereotypes in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of West India Proprietor

“I was tempted to tell him- ‘Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave.’”
-Matthew Lewis, Journal of West India Proprietor, p. 62.

As the slave owner of two plantations, Lewis found himself in a difficult position of power at a time of political reform. His autobiographical Journal of a West India Proprietor, depicting his travels in 1818 to his two inherited Jamaican plantations, provide an account of slavery from the perspective of the slave owner. From the very beginning of his travels, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lewis’s conduct and subsequent treatment of his slaves is heavily influenced by the changing social climate; he essentially performs his own act of ‘resistance’, revolting against the norms of the typical slaveowner. Elucidating on the position of the colonial slaveowner during the nineteenth century, Carl Plasa argues that Lewis is ‘awkwardly placed’ ‘in a system increasingly contested on moral grounds whilst its importance was ceasing to exist within Britain’s changing imperial economy (p. 59).1 This awkward placing significantly influences the representation of both Lewis’s interaction with his slaves, as well as his resistance in presenting his enslaved workers as oppressed individuals. As a result of this, Lewis introduces his audience to his Cornwall plantation as place of Utopia. Throughout his account, Lewis continually seeks to affirm the happiness and ease of his slaves:

‘Whether the pleasure of the negroes was sincere may be doubted; but certainly it was the loudest I had ever witnessed: they all talked together, sang, danced, shouted.’2

Despite clearly recognizing his own hand in the oppression of his slaves, he appears to rely greatly on the delusion of his slaves being liberated human beings. Lewis frequently attempts to justify his actions and position as slave owner throughout journal, which has resulted in the text being highly controversial and heavily critiqued since its first publication. As Maureen Hankin outlines, Lewis’s journal ‘exemplifies how under pressure of contradictory impulses, the text hovers between uncertainty and aggressive self-justification as a representation of the British colonial slaveholder’ (p. 141).3 Lewis certainly epitomises the morally-torn slaveholder. He frequently seeks to justify how idyllic his ‘workplace’ plantations are through comparisons with the western world. As he remarks, ‘I believe their [the slaves] condition to be much more comfortable than that of the labourers of Great Britain’ (p. 62). These comparisons, deployed with the purpose of diminishing the concept of slave suffering, are inconceivable to the benevolent reader’s knowledge of slavery and its distressing history.

Lewis continues to resist the concept of both slavery, as well as his own part in its history, through his repeated attempts to persuade his audience of the equal rights that his slaves obtain. He frequently alludes throughout the journal to his attempts to give his slaves a ‘voice’; this is shown through a court hearing, in which Lewis states that ‘they are not obliged to believe a negro witness, but I maintain that he ought to be heard’ (p. 222). In doing so, however, Lewis presents the slaveowner as a figure of respectability and reasonableness as opposed to a gate-keeper of liberty. His delusions continue through his attempts to defend his own position of power; he states that ‘I am not conscious of having omitted any means of satisfying my negroes, and rendering them happy and secure from oppression’ (p. 203). His continual bribes of holidays, presents from England and his granting of wishes to the slaves reinforces his notion of the plantation being a stable and safe environment to its workers; this Utopic vision is in stark contrast to the legitimated place of imprisonment that Lewis continues to upkeep.

This resistance to slavery and his own personal collusion with the trade is furthered in Lewis’s censorship of the word ‘slave’. His loathing towards the term is documented in his introduction to a black servant, who remarks to Lewis ‘Massa not know me; me your slave!’; this results in Lewis feeling ‘a pang at the heart’ (p. 62). It is in this exchange that the reader begins to see how elements of the plantation life weigh heavily upon Lewis’s conscience; this results in his refusal, and subsequent denial, of the suffering inflicted by his actions upon the lives of his slaves. Lewis, humiliated by this conversation with his servant, writes that he was ‘was tempted to tell him- ‘’Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave’ (p. 62). However, Lewis appears oblivious to the clear hypocrisy of his suggestion; despite replacing ‘slave’ with ‘negro’, he still justifies this with the qualifier ‘my’.

As the journal progresses, Lewis furthers his attempts to relieve his slaves of some of their discomforts. Further into his stay, Lewis demands that the use of the cart-whip be diminished, an instrument used as a means of punishment and control over the slaves. In this way, Lewis resists the expected conduct of the slaveowner; he states advice from one of his own slaves, remarking ‘he said that kindness was the only way to make good negroes and that, if that failed, flogging would never succeed’ (p. 165). In considering an opinion from one of his ‘inferiors’, Lewis attempts to distinguish himself from the nature of many atrocious slaveowners in history that sought to silence and oppress the people they ruled. However, despite resistance on Lewis’s part to inflict violence on his ‘workers’, this act of resistance is still fraught with contradiction. Although his refusal to inflict ‘any punishment’ on a slave ‘however great the offence might be’ (p.196) is deemed a humane gesture, it remains an inherently contradictory one as he still uses his white privilege to enslave other humans against their will.

Regardless of Lewis’s repeated attempts to resist the concept of slavery and the position of slave owner, his Utopian vision is ultimately demonstrated to be little more than a delusion built by the author in an attempt to free himself of his torment and guilt in participating in the horrific trade of human lives. Lewis’s Utopian vision is undermined throughout by his devotion in recording incidents of slave revolts. One such account details the rebellion of a ‘black servant girl’ who ‘stood by the bed to see her master drink the poison’ (p. 179). These accounts of rebellion against white oppressor figures, although only briefly mentioned in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, clearly demonstrate the horrific sufferings of the victims at the very heart of the transatlantic slave trade.

Featured Image- Cover Image taken from HardPress Publishing’s 2012 edition of Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.

1. Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009) p. 54

2. Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) p. 61. All further references to Lewis’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

3. Maureen Hankin, ‘Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24 (2002), 139-150 (p. 141)

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Exploring the Meaning of the Fig Tree in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

‘I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest.’
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, p. 73.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is full of interesting symbolism and imagery. The most iconic image, however, is the fig tree that torments protagonist Esther. She first encounters it in a story about the relationship between a Jewish man and a Catholic nun. Esther returns to the image later as she considers what career path to take and spirals into panic about her future:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple pig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. 1

In this passage, Esther worries about the different opportunities available and believes that if she picks one she cannot pursue the others. Society forces women to choose one path because they are unable to be both career driven and a mother figure. The fig tree is contradictory, however, because it could be perceived as a positive image due to the limitless possibilities that life can give. On the other hand, Esther finds the amount of choices overwhelming as she believes that she can only have one. The conflicting nature of the fig tree represents Esther’s inner turmoil between conforming to the expected role of a young woman in New York and her desire to be an individual. Perloff suggests that during this period ‘female roles are no longer clearly defined, women are confronted by such a bewildering variety of seeming possibilities that choice itself becomes all but impossible.’2 Perloff’s statement sympathises with Esther’s struggles and it is often a common dilemma that young women have, even during the present day. Each branch represents a different choice. Therefore, the fig tree can represent how society – and Esther herself – enforces pressures upon young women to restrict themselves to one path in their lives.

Although the fig tree highlights the struggle of young women in society, it is Esther’s inability to decide on a career path or future that shows her unstable mindset. The fig tree paralyses Esther and forces her to watch herself starve to death which foreshadows her later suicide attempt, offering a warning to the reader of the seriousness of her unhealthy mentality and inability to decide. Esther witness her actions from afar which suggests a detachment from her mind, implying her mind is not at one. The disassociation could indicate she does not feel attached to the aspects of herself that are mentally unwell or is in denial. Stephanie Tsank proposes that ‘Esther’s inability to make decisions about her future has to do with her negative perception of self and her belief that she is unqualified to make such a decision’.3 Tsank’s view focuses on Esther’s internal struggle which is more crucial to understanding how her illness dangerously impacts her thought process compared to society’s influence. As Perloff suggested, many women were confronted with the restrictions of womanhood, yet not all of them suffered with mental health problems. This raises the strong possibility that mental illness can be attributed as much to the individual mindset and personality as to societal influences.

The symbolism of a fig itself expands on Esther’s inner turmoil. Esther describes the fig as ‘fat’ and ‘purple’ which implies an exotic, sensual fruit due to its Mediterranean  origin.4 The colour purple is often associated with royalty, luxury, and wealth which suggests the choices are initially met with pleasure due to the vast amount of opportunities. Furthermore, figs are full of rich flavour suggesting that the positive associations imply Esther is initially inspired by the prosperity. The end of the passage shows the figs wrinkle and turn black, losing their richness, which symbolises the consequences of Esther’s indecisiveness and the loss of all options. This change represents Esther’s transformation as she sinks deeper into depression further on in the novel. The inside of a fig evokes sensual imagery and has links to fertility and female genitalia. In Greek, the word for fig (sykon) is the same word for vulva which directly links the two, providing the reader with an image of sexuality.5 These associations can be applied to Esther as her virginity is another personal choice and shows her struggle to find a sexual identity. She never experiences healthy relationships with men or strong enough relationships with women to discuss these issues. The fig tree is also biblically significant as Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves from this tree to hide their shame and sin after eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, by linking these religious associations to Esther’s indecisiveness, the suggestion is that Esther feels shameful towards her confusion. Although the pressures of society can influence Esther’s attitude towards her future, the symbolism and meanings of figs demonstrate that it is her own inner struggle, turmoil, and anxiety that causes her to have such a distressing view of her future.

Featured Image: Front cover of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)

1) Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), p. 73. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

2) Marjorie G. Perloff, ‘”A Ritual for Being Born Twice”: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’’, Contemporary Literature, 13.4 (1972), 507-522 (p.515)

3) Stephanie Tsank, ‘The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study’, Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath, 3 (2010), 166-177 (p. 175).

4) The Columbia Encyclopaedia, 6th ed., ‘fig’, The Columbia University Press [n.d.] < >

5) ‘sycophant (n.)’, Online Etymology Dictionary [n.d.] <;

Written by Sophie Shepherd
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Racism in Eudora Welty’s American Short Story Where Is the Voice Coming From?

In the short story Where Is the Voice Coming From?, Eudora Welty writes from the perspective of a white, underprivileged and jealous man. Driven by feelings of hatred and frustration, the narrator recounts his murder of his black neighbour. Based on the true event of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963, Welty exemplifies the racially fuelled conflicts that she witnessed throughout her lifetime in the American South; this is furthered through the basing of her fiction town, Thermopylae, on the capital Jackson. By basing her text on a true event, the author prompts the reader to question the fraught racial bias prevalent in American society by highlighting the horrific treatment of the black community. Narrated by the killer, Welty gives an insight into his motivations behind the murder; in doing so, she allows the reader to experience some level of sympathy for the character. As William Murray expounds, Welty avoids a straightforward assault on the people of Mississippi […] instead of a simple vilification of individuals, she delivers depictions of injustice that illustrate the complicity of the southern environment as a whole.’1 Rather than focusing on individual prejudice Welty, as Murray states, allows readers to place blame on the social systems for racial violence.

Welty demonstrates how the racial tensions in society incite hatred on both an individual and personal level. Her murderous white character believes that he commits his crime for personal reasons, refusing to accept that he was manipulated into possessing a discriminatory doctrine by the larger system that he is adhering to. The narrator repeatedly says ‘I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction’, exposing his naivety and passivity as he abides by the racist system in place; he fails to realise or admit that he did not act solely out of personal choice.2 The character epitomises the superiority that white men felt entitled to in the Southern state; he feels cheated by his black neighbour and is drawn to act on his jealousy. Although the character appears to believe that he acts on his own accord, this hatred is in fact sparked by a belief in white supremacy, a sense of entitlement enforced by society. His victim, Roland Summers, leads a desirable lifestyle which remains unattainable for our narrator despite his position as a white American citizen.

Welty uses the short story style to provide a  glimpse into the white perspective, as well as the hatred that aroused by the community and the media. At the beginning of the story, whilst viewing Roland Summers’ face on the television, the narrator says to his wife ‘“You don’t have to set and look at a black n*gger face no longer than you want to, or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s still a free country”’ (p. 396). Immediately, the narrator  illustrates his sense of superiority; he believes that he and his wife should not have to be subjected to viewing a black man on their TV screen. He goes on to state ‘I reckon that’s how I give myself the idea’ (p. 396). Although recognising that his crime was initially provoked by the media, he continues to adamantly declare that he formulated the idea himself. The attack, the narrator demands, is a personal attack.

Although the narrator is adamant that he acted alone, succeeding in this way to carry out his own sense of justice, it may be argued that he does feel a sense of remorse for his crime. Although the narrator continues to deny this remorse, Daniel Wood suggests that it is in the dropping of the murder weapon at the scene that implies a feeling of guilt.3 Despite his apparent pride and sense of achievement as he recounts the murder, this sense of guilt and remorse is made apparent through his continual attempts to justify his actions. Welty furthers this idea of the murderer’s remorse, through the format of the short story. The text acts as a recounted narration, and therefore a confession by the criminal. He also states that ‘I reckon you have to tell somebody’ (p. 399), insinuating that he felt burdened by his crime and unable to live with himself, without confessing. This is illustrated by Welty’s attempt to explain the murder by choosing not to demonise the murderer, but rather portray him to an extent as a victim of societal manipulation. Essentially the narrator is little more than a product of society, who fails to recognise societies control over himself. Welty therefore allows us to sympathise with her villain; this is particularly shown at the end of the story which concludes: ‘I set in my chair, with nobody home but me, and I start to play, and sing a-Down. And sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a down, down, down, down. Down’ (p. 401). Welty succeeds in humanising her narrator by the end of the text, engaging the reader with a sense of responsibility for the racism that provoked the attack. In this way, Welty demonstrates that the racial tensions that existed require a shared responsibility by all members of society. As the narrator himself declares, ‘“At least I kept some dern teen-ager from North Thermopylae getting there and doing it first”’. In this, the narrator attempts to justify his actions by suggesting that the murder would have been committed with or without his involvement.

Featured Image-
 Portrait of Medgar Evers, taken in 1958 by Francis H. Mitchell. Associated Press/Ebony Collection.

1. William Murray. ‘Learning to Listen: The Way a Society Speaks in Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators”, Eudora Welty Review (8), 2016, p. 109.

2. Eudora Welty, ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?’ in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (1974; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 395-401 (p. 397) All other references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.

3. Daniel Wood, ‘At a Loss for Words: Subtext, Silence, and Sympathy in ‘Where Is the Voice Coming from?’, Eudora Welty Review (3), 2011, pp. 110-111.

Written by Amy Fretwell
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.