“Life, about change”: symbolism and money in Ali Smith’s Hotel World’

People go past. They don’t see Else, or decide not to.
Ali Smith, Hotel World, p. 39.

From ‘[t]wo ten pence pieces’ and ‘a handful of coppers’ to ‘the five pound note’, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) is a novel that is strewn with money; indeed, the language of ‘capital, transaction, and accumulation’ that pervades every interaction between her characters reflects the contemporary status of capitalism as the dominant world order.[i] It is a world order that was anticipated by Francis Fukuyama who, after witnessing the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, proclaimed that the ‘end of history’ was at hand:

‘the [twentieth] century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’.[ii]

Unlike Fukuyama, who revels in the ‘ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy’, Smith rejects capitalism as an inherently oppressive system that repeatedly disenfranchises the poor. Her criticism echoes Jacques Derrida’s own disavowal of contemporary capitalism in Specters of Marx (1994):

‘it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy […] never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity’.[iii]

Specters presents a theory of ethics that demands a ‘certain responsibility and answerability’ from society in response to the injustices of capitalism; in Hotel World, Smith repeats this demand.[iv] Indeed, the novel begins with a testimony from the ghost of Sara Wilby, who returns from beyond the grave with an urgent ‘message for you’ (‘[y]ou. Yes, you. It’s you I’m talking to’), insisting that the reader pay attention and ‘[l]isten’ (pp. 30-31). As Smith exposes the violence of a system that is built on the exploitation of labour, the reader, in turn, is asked to bear witness to the harsh reality of these injustices.

Yet if, as Esther Peeren argues, the ‘ghostly system of capitalist production […] renders labor and its value invisible’ by ‘mak[ing] workers converge with their labor’, then how can it be possible to bear witness to the ‘invisible’ iniquity and oppression of a ‘ghostly’ system?[v] For example, the current alarming rise in homelessness is a result of the inequalities inherent within capitalism, a connection that Smith makes explicit in the novel through the headlines on the newspaper pages that Else, a homeless girl, wraps around her feet for extra insulation; the headlines read, ‘BRITAIN MASSIVELY MORE UNEQUAL THAN 20 YEARS AGO. ONE IN FIVE PEOPLE LIVES BELOW BREADLINE’ (p. 45). As Peeren identifies, however, the victims of these social injustices often ‘resemble dispossessed ghosts in that they are ignored and considered expendable’; indeed, passers-by ignore Else on the street, not seeing her, or ‘decid[ing] not to’, as she is made invisible by the dispossessing system of capitalism that marginalises her suffering (p. 39).[vi] How, then, does one act ethically and bear witness to the spectral?

Using Derrida’s concept of conjuration as a theoretical framework, I argue that Smith finds the answer to this paradox of bearing witness to the spectral through money; she commodifies the body and pathologizes money through the abject in order to conjure the exploitation of labour under capitalism. Thus, Smith ultimately causes the ‘magical spell’ of capitalism ‘to be undone and the reality of exploitation to be revealed’.[vii]

In Hotel World, Smith converges the human working body with the corporate ‘body’ of the Global Hotel. Whilst remembering the events surrounding her death, Sara’s ghost states that she had been working as a maid on the top floor of the hotel, which:

‘used to be the servants’ quarters two hundred years ago when the house had servants in it, and after that the house was a brothel and up there was where the cheap girls […] were put to sell their wares (p. 6).

Through the history of the corporate hotel, Smith creates a continuity of human labour that demonstrates how the worker’s body has been commodified under capitalism. It is from this top floor of the hotel that Sara then falls to her death in the dumb waiter. The reoccurring image of the long, vertical shaft of the dumb waiter is repeatedly associated with the human body: Penny, a guest, is ‘appalled’ by the dark ‘nothing’ of the shaft that ‘[runs] the length’ of the hotel ‘like a spine’ (p. 145) ; Else imagines a wall ‘made of phlegm’ inside her that ‘goes from her abdomen to her throat’ and mirrors the ‘hotel wall’ against which she rests her back (p. 40); Lise, the receptionist who worked at the Global Hotel before her illness, describes her bodily illness as a fall, ‘as if she had been upended over the wall of a well’ and ‘had been falling in the same monotonous nothing way for weeks’ (p. 84). By conflating the corporate ‘body’ of the hotel with the human body, Smith then pathologizes capitalism, specifically through money.

The material body of money, as Derrida asserts, provides the means through which to reify the abstract system of capitalism; it conjures the specter. Derrida defines the act of conjuration as that which ‘makes come’ what ‘is not there at the present moment of the appeal’.[viii] To conjure, then, is to make visible that which was previously there but invisible. Money, described by Derrida as the ‘[a]pparition of the bodiless body’ of capitalism, can therefore be understood as fulfilling this role of conjuration; its material form provides a ‘body’ for the otherwise ‘bodiless body’ of capitalism to manifest itself. Thus, money in its material form reifies the specter of capitalism, conjuring what was abstract and invisible into a real and visible form.

In Hotel World, Smith pathologizes capitalism by constructing money as waste. She continuously divests coins of their monetary value: a copper coin ‘tastes like meat gone off’ (p. 38); a homeless woman’s coins are ‘piled like a mistake, like rubbish’ by her side (p. 67); and the hotel receptionist carries a ‘wastepaper basket full of small change’ (p. 113). More specifically, money is routinely compared to bodily waste. After putting some coins into her mouth and spitting them back out, Else describes them as looking like ‘shining sick’; similarly, the taste of the catarrh that she frequently coughs up also reminds her of the ‘taste of money’, ‘always lurking at the back of her throat’ (pp. 37-38). As forms of bodily waste (‘sick’, ‘catarrh’), money is abjected, cast off and purged by the human body. In her essay, Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva discusses the abject, and the state of abjection. She describes the ‘spasms and vomiting’, the ‘repugnance’ and ‘the retching’ that turn her away from ‘body fluids’, ‘defilement’, and ‘shit’, all of which she categorises as the abject; it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection’, Kristeva states, ‘but what disturbs identity, system, order’.[ix] By constructing money as bodily waste to be purged and rejected by the human body, Smith pathologizes capitalism through the abject. She suggests that capitalism is not an abstract or spectral economic system, but something violent and threatening that ‘disturbs’ by dispossessing the poor and the vulnerable through systemic oppression.

The language of money that structures every aspect of the novel reflects the contemporary culture of consumerism and commodification. As Catherine Belsey identifies, however, there is one aspect of the human experience that resists commodification:

‘[t]o the degree that [the] postmodern condition implies an unbridled consumerism, the cultural logic of late capitalism, pleasure for cash and a product to gratify every possible impulse – if not, indeed, to construct the impulse in the first place – love is a value that remains beyond the market.[x]

For Smith, the human emotion of love serves as an antidote to the violence of capitalism. Indeed, when Sara’s ghost proclaims that ‘[l]ife’ is ‘about change’, change refers to money, but also recognises the potential for a transformation that, for Smith, is motivated by human love that ‘cannot be bought’.[xi] Whilst sat begging for money outside the Global Hotel, Else remembers putting a coin into her mouth with a past boyfriend, musing that:

the taste was metal. After that when Ade had kissed her he tasted of metal too. He passed a ten pence piece into her mouth, in past her teeth and off his tongue, flat on to her tongue like a communion wafer (p. 37).

For Else, the taste of the coin now reminds her of the man she once loved, who had ‘kissed her’ and ‘tasted of metal too’. Smith reinscribes the coin with a symbolic value that is not monetary, as suggested by its comparison to a ‘communion wafer’. A similar reinscription of the value of money also occurs when Clare, Sara’s sister, meets Duncan, the only person who witnessed Sara’s death in the Global Hotel. While recounting Sara’s death, Duncan tells Clare that Sara had ‘bet him a fiver she could get into the lift’; now unable to pay his debt to Sara, Duncan gives Clare the fiver instead (p. 204). Clare accepts the money and addresses Sara in her interior monologue, stating, ‘I put the five pounds in the cabinet too I won’t ever spend it it is yours […] I will keep it for you it is worth more than anything’ (pp. 215-216). By keeping the five-pound note ‘flattened […] out between two books’ in her cabinet, Clare removes the note from being circulated again, and imbues it with non-monetary value as a memorial for her dead sister (p. 216). Smith suggests that love, purer than the capitalist desire for consumerism and commodification, is a transformative agent that reinscribes monetary value with a symbolic value that is far deeper, more intimate and, ultimately, more human.

In her foreword to Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2013), Marina Warner states that Smith’s fiction ‘quests’ to ‘reinvigorate the important things that matter to life, grappling with the meaning of love and loss without shying away’.[xii] In Hotel World, Smith criticises the contemporary culture of capitalism and commodification, under which the vulnerable are regularly disenfranchised. By amplifying these marginalised voices, Smith asks the reader to bear witness to the systemic injustices of capitalism; indeed, she asks the reader to hope for better by prioritising the ‘important things that matter to life’, such as love and compassion. When Sara’s ghost returns from beyond the grave, she returns with a message for everyone, from ‘the people in the cinema queue’ to the ‘check-out girls’ at the supermarket, and to the reader:

‘[h]ere’s the story.
Remember you must live.
Remember you most love.
Remainder you mist leaf.’

Cover Image:
Front Cover of Penguin’s 2002 edition of the novel. See Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2002).

[i] Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin Books, 2002). All further references to this novel are to this edition, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the body of the post.

[ii] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989), 3-18 (p. 1).

[iii] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 85. From this point onwards, I will give the title in shorthand, thus referring to Specters of Marx as merely Specters.

[iv] María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, ‘The Spectral Turn/Introduction’, in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, eds. by María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 31-36 (p. 33).

[v] Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 21.

[vi] Ibid, p. 14.

[vii] Ibid, p. 21.

[viii] Derrida, Specters, p. 41, emphasis in original.

[ix] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 2-3.

[x] Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 72.

[xi] Ibid, p. 72.

[xii] Marina Warner, ‘Foreword’, in Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. by Monica Germana, and Emily Horton (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. viii-ix (p. ix).

Written by Akancha Gurung.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


Wilderness, Ecofeminism and Patriarchy in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’

‘Once upon a time there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America’.

– Theodore Hovet, ‘Once Upon a Time’, p.68

Throughout the literary tradition of the American short story and, most interestingly, short stories belonging to the nineteenth century, concepts of the wilderness are inextricably linked to the underlying gender politics of American society. More specifically, the wilderness accentuates the constraints of the patriarchally-endorsed social system of the period that sought to oppress and constrain female identity. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1886 A White Heron, the wilderness becomes collocated with the characterisation of their respective female characters; characters find themselves dominated under the fallacy of ‘frontier mythology’, a belief that resulted in the assumption of masculine superiority over women and nature. In this text, female characters are identified with the natural wilderness to accentuate the constraints of a society that demarcated women as inferior. However, it is through this same collocation with the natural world that women challenge and rebel against these rigid gender constructs. The female characters defy enforced gender norms, using their relationship with nature to resist patriarchal subordination.

From the very beginning of Sarah Orne Jewett’s short story, Sylvia’s alignment with nature is demonstrated through her harmonious relationship with the wilderness that surrounds her. This harmony extends into the nature that lies beyond human ownership in the narrative; not only does Sylvia have a peaceful relationship with the nature found on her Grandmother’s farm, but also the wilderness that extends into the heart of the woodland.[1] This relationship is so profound that, even with the absence of light on her walk home with her Grandmother’s dairy cow, Mistress Mooly, ‘their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see or not.’[2] Sylvia is clearly conflated with her companion in the passage; her eyes, as well as her feet, become shared with the animal she directs home. Such harmony is placed in direct contrast to the discordance experienced by Sylvia during her early years in the city; Jewett’s narrative states that the ‘little maid […] had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town’ (p.119) before being removed to her Grandmother’s farm. Although attempting to grow in the ‘crowded’ environment of burgeoning capitalist industrialisation, Sylvia ultimately finds herself unable to flourish in her birthplace.[3] In this way, Jewett emplaces an opposition between the city and the wilderness; despite her numerous attempts to grow and mature in her original city home, Jewett suggests that the virginal young ‘maid’ (p.119) cannot reach her full potential in the town. This appears to almost immediately change when she is removed to her Grandmother’s farm, where she is able to flourish and be counted by ‘the wild creaturs’ as ‘one o’ themselves’ (p.122). As Elizabeth Ammons expands, ‘Sylvia is nature’s child […] repelled by the city but so at home in the woods that the birds and the animals share their secrets and the earth itself’.[4] Aligned with nature, Sylvia finds herself in direct opposition to the world of the city she left behind.

‘Repelled by the city’, Sylvia finds herself similarly repulsed by the appearance of the hunter, a figure whose ‘clear whistle’ through the forest leaves her ‘horror stricken’ (p.120).[5]

Further aligned with nature through the compound noun ‘woods-girl’, Sylvia’s horrified reaction to the hunter is revealed to have stemmed from the hunter’s likeness to the ‘great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her’ (p.120) during her time in the city. From this introduction, the hunter is immediately polarised from the wilderness he walks through; in his comparison to the ‘red-faced boy’ (p.120), who is described in language laden with violent sexual undertones that Richard Brenzo declares suggests an ‘obvious […] fear of rape’, the hunter is placed in complete opposition to the tranquillity of the woodland.[6] This secularisation is compounded through the hunter’s ‘clear whistle’ (p.120); unlike ‘a bird’s whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness’ (p.120), the hunter’s whistle is defined by its ‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’ tone (p.120). The hunter thus becomes an invading presence; his whistle directly contrasts with the lyricism of the bird song, breaking the harmonious tranquillity of the woodland and introducing discordance into Sylvia’s peaceful walk home. It is the ‘determined’ nature of his whistle that further leads to Sylvia’s denouncement of him as an ‘enemy’ (p.120).

However, despite the clear discordance that the hunter’s presence creates in the landscape, the hunter remains oblivious to his effect on Sylvia and the surrounding wilderness. Rather Jewett suggests that, regardless of the cost that his actions have on the wilderness, the ‘young sportsman’ (p.125) will continue his pursuits if only for his own personal gratification. The hunter enforces his own masculine superiority over the landscape he wanders through; this extends to the inhabitants he encounters along his way. The power of his whistle, enough to silence and overpower the wilderness surrounding him, also overpowers and silences Sylvia herself. In this way, the hunter displays notions of heightened masculinity; his characterisation appears founded in ‘frontier’ notions of rugged masculinity. Frontier mythology, derived from Euro-American colonisation and expansion across Northern America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, essentially led to America becoming ‘a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.’ [7] Characterised by a rejection of Eurocentric ideology, the movement resulted in the creation of American nationalism and democracy; simultaneously, it also led to a romanticized notion of rugged masculinity that placed man as both the caretaker and conqueror of this ‘new America’.[8] Enacting his own version of rugged masculinity, the hunter attempts to conquer both Sylvia and the wilderness through displays of masculine violence and control.

Through the hunter’s alignment with ‘frontier’ notions of masculine supremacy, the world of A White Heron clearly becomes enmeshed in ecofeminist criticism. First theorised and coined by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1874, ecofeminist theory examines the collusive relationship between women and nature in order to demonstrate how social norms exert unjust dominance over both. [9] Historically typecast as chaotic, women are characterised throughout literature by their inferiority to the supposedly more rational and ordered male gender. Due to such literary archetypes, these depictions result in the creation of a masculine fallacy in which men are suggested to be dominant over both women and the wilderness. As Miles and Shiva assert, there is a ‘relationship of exploitative dominance between man and nature (shaped by reductionist modern science since the 16th century), and the exploitative and oppressive relationship between men and women that prevails in most patriarchal societies […]’.[10] This ‘exploitative and oppressive relationship’ is embodied in the hunter’s actions; the hunter conquers and controls the wilderness through an ‘oppressive’ killing of the woodland inhabitants.[11] When interpreted using an ecofeminist discourse, it becomes apparent that the hunter’s desire to control the wilderness is further enmeshed with his desire to conquer Sylvia. In an action not too dissimilar to the animals the hunter preys upon Sylvia does not ‘dare to look boldly at the tall young man’ (p.121). Like his prey, Sylvia similarly shies away from the hunter; she becomes subordinated through her fear of the ‘enemy’, an outsider that comes to threaten the very foundations of her Eden-like world.

Sylvia, despite her superior knowledge of the wilderness, finds herself placed in a position of inferiority due to the imposition of nineteenth-century social values onto the wilderness. Through this same imposition, Sylvia finds her autonomous voice muted. Although having physically witnessed the heron, the presence of stranger essentially silences her. As the two search the forest for the ‘elusive’ white heron (p.124), Sylvia ‘did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first’ (p.124). The hunter, imposing violence onto the one peaceful setting, imposes a patriarchal social system on the landscape he walks through. [12] As Robert Brault expands:

as the educated outsider, he [the hunter] seeks to impose his value system on a community in which he does not participate. The ornithologist, and the patriarchal society that created him, define culture/civilisation as superior to nature/culture, justifying a hierarchy of domination that destroys the reciprocal relationships developed through years of living interaction.[13]


Sylvia, once free to roam the wilderness around her, finds herself ultimately trapped within this ‘value system’ that seeks to destroy her ‘reciprocal relationships’ with the natural landscape.[14] Sylvia finds herself silenced in the same way as the ‘piteous’ ‘thrushes and sparrows’ that the hunter kills, who drop ‘silent[ly] to the ground, their songs hushed and their feathers stained […]’ (p.124). As Theodore Hovet furthers, ‘there seems little doubt that a symbolic connection exists between the birds killed, stuff, and mounted on the [hunters] wall and the fate of the woman possessed by the modern American male and placed on the domestic pedestal’.[15] Sylvia, silenced by the hunter’s patriarchal power, thus finds herself threatened with this fate that would leave her possessed solely by him, the embodiment of ‘the modern American male’.[16]

However, it is this same ‘fate’ that is inscribed on nineteenth-century women that allows Sylvia to challenge and refute her patriarchally subordinate position; Sylvia essentially uses her silence as resistance to the hunter’s imposition of destructive social values on the natural landscape. Through the removal of her ‘song’ (p.129), Sylvia resists the temptations presented by the capitalist patriarchal society that the hunter embodies; she refutes the offers of money and sexual fulfilment that the young man proffers her. This rejection is demonstrated through Sylvia’s refusal to ‘tell the heron’s secret and give its life away’ (p.124), despite finding the white heron’s nest in ‘the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh’ (p.127). In the same way as the heron, who is found to have built its nest in the dead remains of a highly poisonous plant of European origin, Jewett suggests that Sylvia will also rise above the poisonous temptations of the hunter’s violently sexualised world.[17] In refusing to reveal the heron’s location, Sylvia ultimately finds herself able to make a nest out of what is left of the world that essentially ‘dies’ for her when the hunter leaves ‘disappointed’ and empty-handed (p.128); she is consequently able to restore harmony to the wilderness. In doing so Sylvia refuses to be ‘placed on the domestic pedestal’, made into yet another ‘wretched geranium’ (p.120) that is stifled in a city founded on a fallacy of masculine supremacy and fuelled by capitalist egotism.[18] ‘Once upon a time’, as Hovet concludes, ‘there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America.’[19]

Cover Image- Front cover illustration by Barbara Cooney, as taken from the 1964 edition of Jewett’s text. 

[1] In A White Heron, Jewett creates clear distinctions between the different kinds of wilderness in the narrative. Within the story, the natural world of the farmland comes to be distinguished from the nature that lies beyond human ownership; this is shown in the woodland in which the heron makes its nest. This motif is later internalised in the representation of the white heron itself. For more information, see Nicole Steurer, The Function of Nature in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ (Munich: GRIN Publishers, 2003).

[2] Sarah Orne Jewett, ‘A White Heron’ in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 118-128, p.119. All further references to Jewett’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[3] The Industrial Revolution, beginning after the end of the American Civil War, led to the creation of burgeoning commercialism. This, alongside the rapid increase in job opportunities, led to the creation of metropoles and the rise of both capitalist ideology and more specified social roles for men and women to abide by. For more information, see Richard Franklin Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialisation, 1877-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] Elizabeth Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, Colby Quarterly, 22 (1986), pp.6-16, p.7.

[5] Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, p.7.

[6] Richard Brenzo, ‘Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia’s Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’, Colby Library Quarterly (1978), pp.36-41, p.37.

[7] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 5.

[8] For more information on the Myth of the Frontier, see Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York City, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1948).

[9] Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004).

[10] Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993), p.3.

[11] Miles and Shiva, Ecofeminism, p.3.

[12] For more information on the social positions afforded to women in nineteenth-century America, see Tiffany K. Wayne, Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2007).

[13] Robert Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance: An Ecofeminist Reading of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ in New Directions in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism, ed. Andrea Campbell (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp.74-90, p.87.

[14] Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance’, p.87.

[15] Theodore R. Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” as a Fairytale’, Studies in Short Fiction, 15 (1978), pp.63-68, p.67.

[16] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.67.

[17] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hemlock [Accessed 20/03/2018].

[18] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”’, p.67.

[19] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.68.

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

The Racialised ‘Other’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

‘Everybody remembers the first time that they were taught that part of the human race was Other…It’s as if I told you that your left hand is not part of your body.’
-Toni Morrison

Throughout American history and literature, race has always played a huge, and often debilitating, role in the construction of Black American identity. This is most notably seen through the differentiation between the ideal of ‘Americanness’ and the alienated Black African American. In the cult novels of Post-1945 America, Black characters consistently find themselves trapped by societal conceptions, ideologies, and notions of inferiority. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird undoubtedly highlight these oppressive principles. The novel evokes American racist societal concepts, as well as use discriminatory racial tropes, to highlight and essentially criticise the fragmented nature of Black American identity in post-war American  society.

Black American identity is most clearly stifled by the notion of ‘Americanness’, an ideology that seemingly suggests the true embodiment of the ideal and ‘true’ American are middle-aged, white Protestant men. The Marlboro man, a figure created to sell

The Marlboro Man 

Marlboro cigarettes, appears to be the true embodiment of this notion; his rugged individualism, independence and, most obviously, his position as a white American serves to highlight both his position as an individual, whilst also representing simultaneously a mass of individuals. This ideology, defined as ‘a system of ideas that governs the way we experience the world’,[2] singlehandedly foregrounds the oppressive racial attitude towards the Black African American, who in turn is seen as the ‘Other’ figure. This notion of ‘alien’ races and cultures was paramount to both the political and cultural movements of Twentieth-century America. This paranoia and fear of the other is highlighted through earlier war propaganda posters, such as America’s 1918 conscription poster entitled ‘Destroy this Mad Brute-Enlist’[3]. The representation of the German enemy as a looming African gorilla serves not only to accentuate the fear of the ‘unknown’ and enemy ‘Other’ of the German cultural movement, but can also be read as accentuating the fear of ‘known’ alien threat to white supremacy- the Black African American.

invisible man
Harry R. Hoops, Destroy this Mad Brute Enlist- US Army.

This ‘known’ internal threat grasps the helpless female figure (reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty and, therefore, a metaphor for America itself) in his right arm, whilst also carrying a bloodied bludgeon in his left hand. Such propagandist pieces ultimately led to the formation and continuance of a handful of discriminatory racial tropes; as Tommy L. Lott argues, the metaphor of the Black African American as an ape-like figure ‘satisfies the need to provide a biological justification of antiblack racism, and supplies a convenient rationale for ongoing subordination of Black people.’[4] The representation of the Black man as an ape is perhaps most popularly demonstrated through King Kong[5], created in 1933, which plays on the notion of the predatory sexual nature of the Black individual, as well as notions of violent primitivism. King Kong encapsulates and plays upon the supposed violent hyper-sexuality of the Black Man; popular portrayals of the Black American as barbarous and primitive continue to pervade to this day.

This same racial typecasting is demonstrated through Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. The reader finds the construction of Tom’s identity based almost solely on a handful of prejudiced tropes, the most obvious of these being the Myth of the Black Rapist. Angela Davis, who coined the latter term, argues, ‘In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by racism.’[6] This trope, built on the stereotype of Black men being hyper-sexual and dangerous, is foregrounded in the film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. The film famously depicts a white woman throwing herself off a cliff to escape from the barbarous Black rapist.[7] As explained by Michael Phillips, ‘The Myth of the Black Rapist provided a powerful counter-discourse’ that led to ‘Negrophobic images of the black man as ravishing beast’, which suffused ‘the language of even counter-hegemonic movements’.[8]

Despite there being a forty-five-year difference between the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Birth of the Nation, this racial stereotype clearly comes to shape the way in which Tom Robinson is portrayed and framed for the sexual assault of Mayella. Despite being physically handicapped and the blatant fraudulence of Mayella and her father’s testimonies, Tom Robinson is still asked if he is ‘strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor?’.[9] Regardless of his clear innocence, the court continues to focus on Tom’s strength in a negative light. The verbs ‘choke’ and ‘sling’ highlight Tom Robinson’s conceptualisation as a barbarous and dangerous primitive. This negativity is clearly still informed by such prolific cultural creations as the ape-like other presented in Destroy This Mad Brute-Enlist; his identity, therefore, is colluded with the criminal ‘other’, an alien figure that is in complete opposition to the pure white ‘ideal’ of Americanness. This same ideological stereotyping informed the outcome of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African American men falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. All 19 men were convicted and 18 were sentenced to death. Although later acquitted, the case undoubtedly represents the prevalence of the stereotype of the African American man being sexually primitive and violent.

It is apparent, then, that the violent actions of a minority of African Americans come to encompass the entire community. Ellison’s criticism of this is further apparent through Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, who declares ‘you know the truth, and the truth is this: some negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral…but this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men’ (p.226). However, despite Atticus attempting to rebel against the idea of the African American as a criminal other figure, his call for social equality is entirely undermined by his use of the term ‘negroes’. In using the latter phrase, Atticus further accentuates the notion of the Black African American as ‘Other’; they are a ‘different’ ‘race of man’, singled out for the colour of their skin and the ingrained ideology that preaches African American’s to be alien to the true notion of Americanness. Although Atticus attempts to bring justice to the court system by banishing such racist tropes as the Black rapist figure, he in fact complicates and inhibits further the racial identity and progression of the Black American. He unwittingly comes to represent the figure of the White Saviour, a ‘genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower-or working class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate’.[10] Through this embodiment, Atticus allows the reader to feel morally superior and comfortable with the trial. Consequently, morality is racialized as white, with the Black man being presented as incapable of saving themselves. As argued by Roslyn Siegal, ‘[T]he Negro[…] is usually depicted as stupid, pathetic, defenceless and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence, to save him.’[11] Rather than representing one truth, then, the figure of Atticus perpetuates another racial trope, one that suggests the Black American to be both morally and physically inferior.    The exploitation and monopolisation of the Black African American figure by white supremacist figures is also apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird. The motif of the Mockingbird greatly accentuates this notion. Upon Scout and Jem asking Miss Maudie why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird, they are told that:

‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird. ‘

Miss Maudie’s explanation contains several troubling aspects; in particular, it suggests the only reason for not killing a Mockingbird is due to their entertainment value, not for their sentient nature and individual identity. This disturbing idea, when coupled with a reading of Tom Robinson is being a major Mockingbird in the tale, suggests that Tom should only be kept alive for the sake of ‘us’, ‘us’ in this instance being the white American population of Maycomb County. Tom is only there to ‘sing’ and please the community, performing menial, low wage work to please the white superior figures. As Isaac Saney argues, ‘by foisting this Mockingbird image on African Americans, the novel does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’; rather, Miss Maudie’s comment simply states ‘that Black people are useful and harmless creatures- akin to decorous pets…’.[12] Ultimately, it is this same ‘dancing’ and Tom’s frequent attempts to please Mayella, a figure of white ideal ‘Americanness’, that leads to his death. His identity is essentially belittled to little more than his aesthetic use and his physical ability to work and entertain.

Featured Image: Front Cover of Heinemann’s 2003 edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

[1]  Toni Morrison, as cited in Toni Morrison, ed. by Jill L. Matus (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1998), p.23

[2] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 2003), p.4

[3] Harry R. Hoops, Destroy this Mad Brute Enlist- US Army, 1918, Colour Litograph, 106 x 71cm. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010652057/ (Accessed 18/12/2016)

[4] Tommy L. Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p.7

[5] See King Kong, dir. By Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (RKO Pictures inc., 1933)

[6] Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983), p.173

[7] See Birth of a Nation, Dir. By D.W. Griffith (Epoch Producing Co., 1915)

[8]Michael Phillips, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), p.30

[9] Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (London: Arrow Books, 2006), p.217. All further references to Lee’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[10] Matthew Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), p.1

[11] Roslyn Siegal, ‘The Black Man and the Macabre in American Literature’ in Black American Literature Forum, 10.2 (1976), pp.133-136, p.136)

[12] Isaac Saney, ‘Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010), pp.58-62, p. 60-61.

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

Immortality and Transcendence in John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death’
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, l.51-52.

The wish for transcendence adopts an arousing vision for the second-generation Romantic poets, as they strongly believed in the healing power of the imagination and the ability to escape real life with their creative thoughts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers a theory for creative transcendence in one of his famous passages in Biographia Literaria (1817). He establishes a harmonious relationship between the ideal world and the real world: ‘[the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create: even where this process is rendered impossible’.[1] Shortly after Coleridge’s work was published, poets including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley shed a new light onto the transcendent powers of poetry. Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) explores the transcendent influence of the human mind through the presence of nature as an immortal symbol. The use of imaginative transcendence from a real world to the ideal in both poems exposes the transition of multiple other binaries. The wish to transcend between the real and ideal can question whether the human imagination is subject to the limitations of human experience.

In Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird is presented as an immortal icon. The speaker admires the happiness that the nightingale possesses: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness’.[2] The nightingale embodies an excess of joy which is incomparable to the speaker’s. The superlative ‘too’ portrays the extremity of the nightingale’s immortality, invoking an excess of emotion onto the speaker. The overbalance of pleasure from a natural object links to the themes encompassing the Sublime. In The Prelude, William Wordsworth recognises nature’s superiority in the lines:

‘The Power which these/
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus/
Thrusts forth upon the senses.’[3]

The all-consuming ‘Power’ of the bird’s songs in Keats poem invokes a raw emotion that shows how the transcendence is initiated by a Subliminal, aesthetic experience.

Whilst the nightingale is an immortal entity, it is also a bird of darkness. The dark imagery in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ resembles the death-wish of the speaker; there is ‘no light’ (l. 38) except from where the breeze causes the trees to part. The stanza is full of absences and presences caused from the transcendence from reality to the ideal, reflecting the glimpses of life and death:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
(ll. 41-52)

Keats’ bird is invisible in the shadowy forest of ‘embalmed darkness’, resembling the death-wishes connected to the transcendent thoughts of the speaker. The dark imagery plunges the speaker into confusion; he ‘cannot see’, blinded by the powers of his imagination. Furthermore, he addresses the nightingale as ‘Darkling’ to emphasise his loneliness in a dark world. Although the nightingale is immortal in the ideal world, Keats is suggesting that when combined with the real world, the bird brings deathly connotations because of its black colour. He views death as a welcomed prospect; ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’. Death to Keats seems partly desirable because of the mortality of the world he lives in. The presence of the nightingale in reality makes him see death as an escape to release him from his troubles. The dark symbolism of the nightingale draws a close association between life and death, which blurs the boundaries between the two.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contrasts the immortality of the bird with the reality of mankind to remind us of the permanent sorrow in the world, emphasising the human desire to escape it. The speaker wishes to ‘fade far away’ from the death and decay of the real world:

‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan’
(ll. 21- 24)

The verb ‘dissolve’ stresses Keats’ desire to disappear from the destructive world around him. The added emphasis of ‘dissolve’ in parenthesis separates the word away from the rest of the stanza; resembling Keats distancing himself from the decay of reality. Furthermore, the imagery of the miserable men visualises a world of grief and suffering that is not apparent in the nightingale’s world. The sensory ‘groan[s]’ interfere with the beauty of the nightingale’s song that ‘Singest of summer’ (l. 10). This contrast grounds Keats in the realms of reality and stops him from transcending. The regular rise and fall of the iambic pentameter syllables arguably represent the sound of a heartbeat; further keeping Keats connected to the physical body whilst transcending to an idealised state. This suggests that the mortality of the world cannot be escaped even if mankind wishes to be free. With regards to Keats’ poetry, Bernice Slote summarises that ‘because of the particular poetic quality of his life, Keats’ poems are nearly always viewed autobiographically’.[4] Contextually therefore, it is likely that Keats is referring to the death and sickness occurring in his life at the time he wrote the ode. His family’s misfortunes and impending struggle with tuberculosis enabled Keats to envision a world surrounded by life’s suffering and decay. This belief is exemplified in his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818:

I compare human life to a Mansion of Many apartments… [in which occurs the] sharpening of one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man- of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.’[5]

The degenerated earth that Keats lives in opposes the nightingale’s infinite life; as the bird ‘wast not born for death’ (l. 61). The age and decay of the real world in Keats’ ode contrasts with the state of the bird to suggest that mankind is inferior. Combining the world of imagination with the real world is important to Keats because without imagination, the real world is confined to ugliness. On the other hand, merging the two worlds with the speaker’s imagination shows how one cannot simply transcend into the other. Earl Wasserman argues that Keats’ juxtaposition of immortality and pain emphasises the instability of reality, ‘for the perfection of the nightingale’s happiness underscores an uneasiness of the poet’s’.[6] In a universe of suffering and pain, seeing the nightingale triggers the speaker’s imaginative thoughts. Keats binds a world of pain and fear by forging the ideal and real world as one: ‘Still wouldst though sing, and I have ears in vain-/ To thy high requiem become a sod’ (ll. 59- 60). In these lines, Keats is implying that even with the joyous sounds of the nightingale, death inevitably still surrounds him. It is not a jubilant celebration of life but a ‘requiem’ for the dead.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ highlights his awareness of the transcendent power of art when he rides on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ (l. 33). Furthermore, Keats transcends beyond admiring the nightingale when he notes that ‘Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes’ (l. 29). The nightingale is no longer an aesthetic beauty but a metaphor for poetic inspiration. For Keats, the power of poetry is not the only motivator for his transcendent experience. The poem’s rich imagery of intoxication emphasises a desire to escape into a world of hallucinogenic bliss. The imagery of the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ (l. 17) suggests that alcohol is an overwhelming factor to the quality of Keats’ thoughts. The plosive alliteration is onomatopoeic and captures the action of sparkling wine fizzing. The ‘winking’ is suggestive of bubbles forming and bursting, which personifies the alcohol as opening and shutting like an eye. This can allude to Keats’ imagination flitting from reality to the ideal through the influence of alcohol. The ode begins with ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’ (ll. 1- 2) to suggest that the speaker is drinking to escape his misery. The decadent start of the poem concentrates on the suffering of the speaker, through the repetition of the first-person determiner ‘my’ to emphasise the speaker’s unstable state of mind. The ‘drowsy numbness’ adds delusion and portrays the real world as blurred and uncertain. Furthermore, Keats uses Greek myth in his ode to express his desire to transcend from the uncomfortable reality of modernity. Greek myth is used to describe the transcendence of Keats flying to the nightingale ‘Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards’ (l. 32). In Greek myth, ‘Bacchus’ is the god of agriculture, wine and fertility; encompassing the earthly consciousness of the real world. To ‘not’ use reality as a way to transcend to the ideal suggests that alcohol is an insufficient source of inspiration for his imagination. John Strachan disapproves of Keats’ work, describing it as ‘neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium’.[7] In disagreement with Strachan’s criticism, the intoxication of the speaker in the ode can be seen as a symbol of the real world’s chaos as opposed to the poet himself. Keats criticises the self-indulgence of mankind and shows its interference with the poetic inspiration.

Featured Painting:
Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845, Oil on Canvas, 114 x 97cm, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. The Floating Press (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 365- 366.

[2] John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1464- 1466 (l. 6) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 554- 558.

[4] Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958) p. 4.

[5] Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May, 1818 in Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

[6] Earl Wasserman. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953) p. 188.

[7] John Strachan, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on The Poems of John Keats (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 39.

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Unattainable Perfection in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To the Skylark

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;

Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, To The Skylark, ll. 13- 15

Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ is a poem that encapsulates a clear yearning for the blissful joy and unattainable perfection that the skylark comes to represent. Herbert Grierson and James Smith argue that the speaker’s admiration for the skylark encourages him to ‘escape from human life… into the joyous, free and irresponsible life of Nature’.[1] The speaker is captivated by the bird’s beautiful music and longs to experience its happiness too:

‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love and wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
(ll. 66- 70)

Here, the ‘flood of rapture so divine’ conveys the overwhelming immortality of the skylark’s song. The fluidity of its music is reflected in the stanza’s form; the fifth line of the stanza is longer to suggest that the sound is ‘flood[ing]’ over the quatrain. In comparison to overflowing water, the poem’s form is uninterrupted and continuous. The enjambment between lines 68-70 linguistically presents the music as unblemished, as well as displaying the speaker’s thoughts as gushing and all-consuming. His admiration for the immortal bird transcends him into a fantasy of desire. Shelley inscribes the skylark as a representative of inspiration when he asks it to ‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird’.

Death is not so much desired in Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’. The bird is compared to ‘a glow-worm golden’ (l. 46). The glow-worn itself is hard to see in the ground, yet the light it radiates is prominent. This is arguably a comparison to the skylark who cannot be seen by the speaker yet it’s beautiful music can be heard. The glow-worm’s luminescence underground suggests that it is a symbol that prevents death. Its ‘golden’ description portrays the bird as a beacon of hope and guidance for the speaker who is surrounded by darkness. Similarly, the paradoxical simile ‘like a star of Heaven,/ In the broad day-light’  (ll. 18- 19) alludes to light imagery in order to show how the skylark is ever-present in both light and darkness. This imagery complements a later piece of artwork by Samuel Palmer, ‘The Rise of the Skylark’ (1839). In the painting, there is no sign of the bird aside from in the title. The multi-coloured, bright sky represents the joyous nature of the skylark and the prominence of the sunlight is captivating in comparison to the dark land. In the centre of the painting is an opened fence, which can symbolise the gateway for mankind to escape the fields of reality and join the skylark through an imaginary transcendence.

Similarly, Shelley suggests that because man is restrained by sorrow, he cannot transcend to the life of the perfect skylark:

‘If we were things born
Not to shed to a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.’

Without the imperfections of human life, we still cannot compare to the ideal. This extract contradicts the concept of ‘tabula rasa’, as even when humans are ‘[re]born’, they will not be entirely pure from worldly grievances. Shelley is recognising that the world is full of joy and sorrow, yet the skylark’s world only embodies joy. The paradox of happiness and sorrow within mankind is discussed in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.[3]

Hence, hearing the skylark reflects Shelley’s keen awareness of the mixture of his personal sorrows and the pure joy from his imagination; he compares the mortality of the real world with the immortality of the imagined to suggest that mankind will always be tainted with an unfavourable ‘humanness’.

In Shelley’s poem, it is the speaker’s intense wish to reach the bird which alludes to his unfulfilled desire. The use of incessant questioning emphasises the inadequacy of the imagination in poetry: ‘What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?’ (ll. 31- 32). The anxious questioning of this stanza closely links to an extract from Shelley’s essay ‘On Life’ (1819):

For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?… I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.[4]

Here, Shelley is mirroring the same ravenous desire that is apparent in ‘To a Skylark’. It emphasises an insufficient understanding of the imagination, as the skylark cannot answer Shelley’s questions. The strong longing for answers opposes what Keats terms ‘Negative Capability’: ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[5] This concept requires the poet to maintain an aesthetic distance from the object, and not give himself over to it. In the poem, the speaker sacrifices them self to the bird because it is seen as a more powerful entity than them. It can be argued that, in ‘To a Skylark’, the skylark is not merely a bird but also a metaphor for creativity and poetic impulse. It is evident that the creature is a natural metaphor for poetic expression with the simile ‘Like a Poet hidden’ (l. 40). This metapoetic characteristic is common in the second-generation Romantics. Jeffery Cox observes that poets like Shelley offer a self-awareness in their work, which is ‘shaped as much by editor’s pens and government writs as it is by some internal muse’.[6] Shelley finds himself less immersed in the moment compared to his predecessors, entering a circle of poetry that associates with the external world.[7]

Stewart Wilcox observes that Shelley also enters a delusional state in his poem, yet not through alcohol but by the ancient concept of ‘furor poeticus’.[8] When escaping under the power of the skylark’s song, Shelley is possessed with a ‘harmonious madness’ (l. 103). Scholars consider the Romantic period to be the beginning of scientific inquiry into ‘poet madness’.[9] It is believed that a poet’s inspiration comes from the transition of thought beyond their own mind, leaving them in a state of divine frenzy. Shelley’s oxymoron, ‘harmonious madness’, reimagines transcendence to the ideal as an experience that is creatively debilitating as well as inspiring.

The chaotic tendencies of the imagination are also reflected by the temporal and eternal states of transcendent experience. The eternal quality of the bird in ‘To a Skylark’ is inscribed in the lines:

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun
(ll. 13- 15)

The dynamic verbs ‘float’, ‘run’ and ‘begun’ present the bird and the imagination as boundless entities with an everlasting existence. This eternality is also reflected in the form of Shelley’s poem; the regular rhyme and consistent meter mirrors the triumphant music of the skylark and the blissfulness of the ideal world. The poem ends with the speaker announcing, ‘as I am listening now’ (l. 105). The present progressive verb ‘listening’ suggest a continuation of the imagination and a wish for Shelley’s transcendent thoughts to continue.

For Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ illustrates a journey forever striving to obtain a happier ideal. The immortal bird singing beyond the boundaries of human life brings an allusion of the unescapable facts of human existence. Shelley longs to be transported to the idealistic world of the skylark. Although Shelley shows an awareness for the real world’s limitations, he is less defeated and more motivated by his imaginative power. It is the transcendence from reality to the ideal that allows both poets to encounter the beauty of the imagination whilst also reveal the damaging truths of reality.

Featured Image– Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, Oil on Panel (30.8 x 24.5cm), National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

[1] Herbert Grierson and James Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (London: Peregrine, 1947) p. 335.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘To a Skylark’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1215- 1217 (ll. 66- 70) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1233- 1247.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘On Life’ 1832 in Approaches to Teaching Shelley’s Poetry. ed. Spencer Hall (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990) pp. 111- 113 (p. 111).

[5] John Keats, ‘To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817’ in John Keats Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 40- 42 (pp. 41- 42).

[6] Jeffery Cox, ‘Keats Shelley and the Wealth of the Imagination’ Studies in Romanticism, 34 (1995) pp. 364- 400 (p. 367).

[7] See John Keats ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ for another poem about the self-awareness of art and poetry.

[8] Stewart C Wilcox, ‘Sources, Symbolism and Unity of Shelley’s Skylark’ Studies in Philology, 46 (1949) pp. 560- 576 (p. 575).

[9] See Joseph Meringolo, The Sanity of Furor Poeticus: Romanticism’s Demystification of Madness and Creativity (University of New York, 2014).

Written by Emily Warren.
© 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.] <https://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/fig >

5) ‘sycophant (n.)’, Online Etymology Dictionary [n.d.] <https://www.etymonline.com/word/sycophant&gt;

Written by Sophie Shepherd
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