Tuesday 30 July 2013

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

"Life is hard. Vae victis! The wretched must suffer."

This is Saul Bellow's first novel and there is the pervasive sense that he was still in the process of developing his craft. It lacks the author's usual fluid prose, charm, wit and pathos. Instead, the writing is cold, stagnant and purposefully self-indulgent. The novel does have its brief moments of inspiration and philosophical insight but even at 140 pages, the prose is very slow to read through. Nothing of real significance happens in the story, although that is the author's intention--the protagonist named Joseph (no last name is ever given) finds himself stuck in perpetual limbo; his unstable and disenchanted mind is influenced by prolonged idleness as he waits to be drafted into the army. 

At the beginning of the novel,  Joseph feels the need to defend the art of journal writing to himself and by association, the reader as well: 

There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom. (1)

Keeping a diary or a journal has often been perceived as a feminine activity (writing about one's 'feelings' is not considered manly) and Joseph attempts to subvert this gender stereotype by advocating its value as an effective means of self-reflection; a way to make sense of the external world. After being rejected from being inducted into the army, he ironically perceives that the journal entries will be a way to reassert his masculinity--in essence, great men don't have to commit heroic deeds on the battlefield; they can also be recognized as 'great thinkers.' Joseph finds himself conflicted over choosing the contemplative or active life although it becomes explicitly clear which path he decides to take by the end of the novel. Thus, the entire novel consists mostly of Joseph's introspective musings and inner dialogue--the perfect literary platform for Saul Bellow who enjoys exploring human consciousness and grappling with complex philosophical ideas. Unfortunately, the narrative's deliberate torpidity is  aggravating; the self-reflective, metaphysical concerns far too excessive. Dangling Man seems like a precursor to Herzog in aesthetic approach (the latter engages in letters) but obviously not as polished or self-contained.

With the outbreak of WWII, Joseph is living in an age of "hardboiled-dom" filled with violence, destruction and chaos. Men are supposed to enlist in the army and join the fight overseas instead of being like Joseph--staying indoors, scribbling in their diaries, acting indolent or wandering around aimlessly. Then again, Joseph is not entirely to blame since it is not that he does not want to join the army to fight for the freedom of his country--they made a mistake assessing his application form and there was some kind mix-up so now he has all this extra time before re-enlisting. He loses track of time and soon cannot distinguish between the different days of the week. He becomes isolated, wholly preoccupied with his own thoughts where suffering from estrangement eventual leads to bizarre behavior, psychological break-downs and even outbursts of violence.

The novel covers a wide variety of subjects including morality, death, reason, imagination, ideal construction vs. the real world, the power of art but it strongly emphasizes the universal human struggle for freedom. Or as Joseph calls it,  "pure freedom" which is the penultimate human quest: 

We are all drawn toward the same craters of the spirit--to know what we are and what we are for, to know our purpose, to seek grace. And, if the quest is the same, the differences in our personal histories, which hiterto meant so much to us, become of minor importance. (114)

Whether it is a a type of self-imprisonment as experienced by Joseph or the structural functionalism of society, I am inclined to agree with this eloquent and profound statement. As individuals, we are constantly struggling to free ourselves (both internally and externally), desperately trying to find purpose to this incomprehensible concept called 'life.' Perhaps it is love, a career or religion that gives life meaning but it is all subjective. For Joseph, it seems that art and the imagination might be the answer but the novel remains ambiguous on this issue.

Even though Dangling Man is disappointing in many different aspects, it still showcases a young author in the transition of becoming a great writer. Learning from his mistakes and developing his own voice, Saul Bellow will later go on to establish himself as one of the great American writer's of the 20th century. Besides, nobody's perfect.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project

Monday 29 July 2013

It's Monday! What are you Reading?

Thanks again Sheila from Book Journey for hosting this weekly meme! This is a great way to share what you are reading at the moment with other book bloggers, help plan your reading week and perhaps even get recommendations. 

Right now, I am completely immersed in this novel:

I still can't believe it took me so long to finally get around to reading this Russian classic. Perhaps it has something to do with the wonderful translation by Peaver/Volokhonsky because I did attempt to read the Constance Garnett version years ago only to abandon it because something about the prose didn't seem to work for me. This is like an entirely different novel. Even though I am only a 1/4 through, it is safe to claim that it is a masterful and I can already anticipate that it will become one of my favorites.

What is everyone else reading?

Friday 26 July 2013

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”

Sometime in the early 1900's, a young English woman named Adela Quested arrives in India
accompanied by the elderly Mrs. Moore with the the prospect of marrying her son, a government official stationed at Chandrapore. Adela has a romanticized idea of the East only to be severely disappointed upon discovering that the British Raj is a painfully dull place without any excitement. She longs to see "the real India" but her circle of European colonizers find her request oddly amusing since they perceive the natives with racist and discriminatory attitudes. They cannot fathom why a rich young woman is at all interested in associating herself with primitives rather than forming relationships with her own people: "Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," said Mrs. Callendar (27). This is just one of the many derogatory remarks aimed at Indians and their culture throughout the novel. The only people other than Miss Quested who are more open minded about British-Indian relations is Mrs. Moore and Mr. Fielding--the latter being one of the more important figures in the story who rejects British imperialism on account of defending his Indian friend, a doctor named Aziz who is convicted of sexually assaulting Adela during an excursion up in the Marabar caves. This causes the racial tensions to escalate even more dramatically. The British are quick to believe that the India man is guilty because of course, he's an uncivilized minority and it is in his nature to act immorally towards women. Aziz is given the due process of law but something unexpected occurs during the trial that radically disrupts British authority in India. 

Certainly, one could do a close-reading and examine the precarious relationship between east and west, social hierarchy, the emergence of nationalism or even gender (especially in relation to the Indian "purdah" where women are not allowed to be seen in the presence of men during social situations) but that seems unnecessary for me to do considering my aversion to this novel.

A Passage to India has so much potential to achieve greatness but fails to deliver an engaging story with convincing characters; the depiction of colonialism is oversimplified; the narrative takes many nonsensical digressions and Forster gets far too carried away with his excessively pompous style of prose. Many claim that his writing is poetic but I find it downright obnoxious and annoying. Enough already with the colorful descriptions of the hot weather and the landscape. Yes, India is known for its sweltering temperatures, we get it. You made that painfully clear the first twenty-seven times, Mr. Forster. Not to mention, a lot of the narrative is confusing or incoherent because he is keen to bombard to reader with an onslaught of extraneous details (sometimes stretching for several pages), which makes the story such an incredible chore to get through. Talk about a snore-fest.

Perhaps this novel created some controversy when it was published in 1924 since Forster is fairly critical of British imperialism but it seems severely dated. Its status as one of the great novels of the 20th century and high praise from many readers is baffling to me.
Forster's writing is priggish and dull. Sure, there are brief moments of insight or beauty but not enough to sustain the entire narrative. After being disappointed with Howards End and now this one, I have no intention of reading anything else by E.M. Forster in the near future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Thursday 25 July 2013

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

 "All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural."

Well, it turns that out my initial positive feeling after reading the first couple pages of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye were short-lived and quickly replaced by indignation. This novel tries too hard to be some kind of bizarre satire but ends up as nothing more than an affectedly quaint and nonsensical farce without any substantial value. The characters are all flat; their motivations entirely incomprehensible. Muriel Spark can often be applauded for her sly wit, snappy dialogue and wildly humorous stories but none of these attributes are found here. I didn't laugh once. However, I will admit that some of the dialogue is slightly amusing in a droll way but rendered inconsequential since it is not supported by engaging characters or a credible story, which drifts around without any purpose. The only true redeemable quality here is the Penguin edition's snazzy cover-art. Feel free to admire the striking photograph from afar but I would not recommend venturing to read any of the written content inside.

Let me try and attempt to describe the basic plot and perhaps, highlight some of its many absurdities. A Scottish man named Dougal Douglas  arrives in the town of Peckham and gets two jobs working for rival textile factories as a consultant on the board of Human Resources to investigate and better understand the discontent amongst workers. The main problem is the increased absenteeism and slacking on the job. Dougal describes his field of research as the study of "industrial psychology" (84). In order to fully understand the situation, he decides to personally interact with the workers and establish relationships with them in order to derive a more thorough understanding of the labor unrest spreading in the small town. Spark alludes to the negative effects of capitalism but never fully engages with the issue. This ambiguous approach to narrative recurs throughout the rest of the novel where she cruelly teases the reader by introducing various ideas, characters or plot developments that seem important but contain no value and go nowhere. Dougal is also keen to point out to others that the two bumps on his head are the result of having his horns removed--of course, the implication that he is the devil incarnate. Unfortunately, Spark gives the reader no reason to care. The story could have potentially been a lot more interesting as an allegory but she decides to indulge in ridiculous inanity instead. 

Dougal makes friends with a young man named Humphrey who is a Marxist but referred to as a "union man" although has no affiliation with factory work. He is engaged to marry a teenager named Dixie who holds down two jobs because she wants to save money for the marriage. Unfortunately for her, she is left at the alter by Humphrey for reasons that are never explained. There is also a gang of young thugs lead by Trevor who want to run Dougal out of town and these two find themselves in physical confrontations on more than one occasion. Additionally, a wandering evangelist, a managerial typist, an old landlady with visions of her dead brother walking around the street and a woman working with Dougal to write an autobiography of her life growing up in Peckham all get mixed up in the baffling plot. Dougal is a strange character who is prone to to acts of impulsive behavior: dancing with a trash-can lid, having an emotional break-down at work for "losing his girl," getting into bar fights and his obsession with a tunnel excavation taking place in town. The wild story is all over the place and includes blackmail, violence and even murder but it's all pointless.

It's almost as if Spark had a general idea of what she wanted to write about but couldn't figure out where to take the story, so instead of tossing it in the rough draft pile she decided to string a bunch of arbitrary plot threads together with the hope that utilizing ambiguity would somehow amount to something meaningful. Wrong. I want my time back Miss Spark, this novel was terrible.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

To the Lighthouse: An In-depth Analysis

This blog hop for July has been a lot of fun and I am glad that so many people are interested in reading my favorite classic novel: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. However, it occurred to me that I have not written extensively on it at all and decided to read it again this weekend. Not surprisingly, I ended up loving it even more and can safely say without a shred of doubt that it is now my favorite novel of all time. I wanted to write a more comprehensive review than the one previously posted a few years ago but ended up getting carried away and wrote an essay instead. There are endless ways to approach this marvelous work but I decided to focus on the character of Lily Briscoe and the feminist undertones percolating throughout the novel. There will obviously be some spoilers here (albeit, minor) but I doubt anyone will want to read this long essay anyways. Still, I do plan on writing more about this novel again sometime in the unknown future.

Lily Briscoe: The Liberated Female Artist
By Jason C.

In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the struggle to obtain and assert female autonomy is constantly threatened or undermined by a society built upon the foundations of patriarchy. The clash of gender ideologies permeates much of the novel and Woolf emphasizes a subversion of traditional female gender roles through the character of Lily Briscoe. She represents an idealized feminist woman who challenges male hegemony to achieve a sense of individuality. Her finished painting and epiphany at the end of the novel serves to establish her role as a truly liberated female artist.

The desire to break away from conventional female cultural norms and stereotypes in order to achieve autonomy can only be fully realized when she experiences the “vision” after the completion of her painting at the end of the novel. Woolf is keen to stress Lily’s role as an outsider attempting to analyze and comprehend her precarious social predicament. Her status as a middle-aged woman, who values artistic achievement over the prospects of marriage becomes increasingly difficult to maintain against the circumscribed expectations of society. The pressure to conform to specific female gender roles weighs heavily upon her conscious: “Even while she looked at the mass, at the line, at the color, at Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the window with James, she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest someone should creep up, and suddenly she would find her picture looked at” (13). Lily suffers from a moral crisis over her desire to pursue art as a vocation because of gender inequality and male prejudices imposed upon women. She is challenging the status quo by picking up a paintbrush and experiences a pervasive sense of guilt as if committing a heinous crime. Lily is fully aware of the gender stereotypes and impediments of circumstance that society places upon women, which explains her shrewd disposition to remain inconspicuous. Considering that she is adamant to conceal her painting from prying eyes suggests that her art is essentially metaphorical: a radical political statement of feminist ideals. Yet, she is not confident enough in her abilities to showcase this controversial work to a judgmental public. Her personal independence from the negative influences of male hegemony is directly linked to the aesthetic development as an artist; thus, it is only after reaching a satisfactory level of creative expression that the submerged metaphor becomes most vivid.

Indeed, since Lily is unable to obtain an empowering sense of female liberation until she has finished the painting at the end of the novel, the first section emphasizes the juxtaposition between her destabilized sense of self as an artist and as a woman living in a world ruled by patriarchy. The tenuous relationship between the subjective and the objective self is a cause of great psychological distress because of her shifting attitudes towards female gender roles. Lily’s first appearance in the novel provides a suitable qualification of her social status as an outsider. She is introduced through the perspective of Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the openly transparent window of the cottage with James, her youngest son. They are both having their portrait painted by Lily who is looking at them through the window from a position outside on the lawn: 

Lily’s picture! Mrs. Ramsay smiled. With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; but she was an independent little creature, Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it, and so remember her promise, she bent her head (13). 

Woolf is deliberately stressing Lily’s position as an outcast both literally and figuratively by utilizing the window as a metaphor – a reflective looking glass where she simultaneously perceives herself as a distinctive contrast to the female idealism embodied by Mrs. Ramsay and as someone who can only be an objective spectator because of her non-conformist ideals. Furthermore, it is Mrs. Ramsay who is comfortably stationed behind the window within her nest of security while the stigmatized younger woman is outside in the chaotic world of immorality. She is not a mother of eight children like Mrs. Ramsay; instead, Lily yearns to be an artist and the consequences of such a decision is that she must remain on the margins, looking through the window into a society unwilling to fully accept her idiosyncratic lifestyle. If the window is to be understood as an implacable barrier that prevents her from gaining access to this social world, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is only through art that she can vicariously experience assimilation and still retain her independence.

Moreover, Mrs. Ramsay’s physical description of Lily as having “Chinese eyes” and a “puckered-up face” is condescending but also highlights another qualification of Lily’s inferior social status. Here, Mrs. Ramsay is under the assumption that Lily is still unmarried because she does not possess the standard of beauty that most respectable men would find attractive. In contrast, Mrs. Ramsay is often praised for her beauty whereas Lily eschews vanity in the pursuit of artistic achievement. The acknowledgement of Lily’s painting as trivial and that she will “never marry” further asserts her haughty superior status. However, she also contradicts conservative values by envying Lily’s autonomy as an “independent little creature” and she still agrees to pose for the portrait despite her disapprobation towards women who take up the occupation of painting. This dichotomy between Lily and Mrs. Ramsay will progress throughout the novel but as is evident with these lines, the subsequent contrasts are not always so clear-cut in their dualism. Woolf purposefully employs contradictions and ambiguity to emphasize the anxieties that can accompany generational conflict.

The dialectical interaction between the subjective and objective self to achieve female autonomy takes place largely within Lily’s own mind. Woolf uses the narrative technique of “stream-of-consciousness” in a variety of innovative ways but most importantly, it provides access into Lily’s fragmented psyche where she attempts to find a resolution to these opposing female gender ideologies. She is often frustrated with nagging doubts concerning whether or not she should simply conform or continue the fight against female oppression. For instance, early in the novel Lily conjures up a scenario in her imagination involving a devious Mrs. Ramsay who reproaches her for not finding a husband by saying, “there could be no disputing this: an unmarried woman (she lightly took her hand for a moment), an unmarried woman has missed the best of life” (36). Mrs. Ramsay’s solicitous concern is indicative by “lightly” holding Lily’s hand but there is also a hint of pity in the action. Lily is aware of Mrs. Ramsay’s disapproval of her because she is perceived as committing sedition against the established order by remaining single and taking up an artistic vocation. The internalized dialogue is a method to work through the problem. Mrs. Ramsay’s predisposed belief that a woman’s genuine happiness can only be obtained through marriage is in direct conflict with Lily’s own ideas of female independence. The repetition of the words “unmarried woman” reveals the tremendous concern this issue has on Lily’s consciousness. She fears that a possible negative consequence of not settling down with a man and raising children will cause her to “miss the best of life” -- the implication that an intelligent woman should not waste her time with trivial endeavors such as painting. 

Despite the inexorable pressure to conform to societal norms and values, Lily still maintains a sense of resistance. The narrator describes her defiance as thus: 

Yet, as the night wore on…gathering a desperate courage she would urge own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty (and she was childlike now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool. (36)

The opposing female gender ideologies of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are drawn together once more; however, this passage is most explicit in supporting female independence at the expense of social solidarity. Lily must hold steadfast to a wavering inner strength (“desperate courage”) in order to persevere against the oppressive influences of patriarchy (“universal law”) but the most striking aspect of these lines is that she is not vehemently averse to the idea of marriage; rather, she simply desires the freedom to make her own life choices (“she was not made for that”). As an artist, the preference for solitude over companionship makes sense (“she liked to be alone”) and though she is willing to endure scornful derision from others, there is still the possibility that her efforts will be in vain with Mrs. Ramsay abrasively calling her a “fool” for choosing to paint instead of finding a husband.

If Mrs. Ramsay personifies the conventional Victorian woman, it seems appropriate to acknowledge Mr. Ramsay as the apotheosis of patriarchy. His friend Charles Tansley can be distinguished as a man that attempts to emulate similar hegemonic values (perhaps even to a larger degree than Mr. Ramsay) but he lacks the dominating authority of his respective host. Mr. Ramsay is the central figure of authority in the household because the structural hierarchy is primarily based on rank and gender. Women do not possess the same rights or privileges as men and are therefore expected to remain subservient. Her initial impression of Mr. Ramsay is that of an imperious and narcissistic brute but her feelings towards him oscillate dramatically over the course of the novel. For instance, she retracts her previous view of Mr. Ramsay by admiring his egotism as an attractive quality: “But in her opinion one liked Mr. Ramsay all the better for thinking that if his little finger ached the whole world must come to an end” (33). This hyperbolic statement entirely contradicts her notions of female independence because it reinforces gender hierarchy. Mr. Ramsay is being compared to a sovereign ruler or a martyr figure whose actions and circumstances influence his obedient loyal subjects; of course, those being his family and others belonging to his social network. She then goes on to criticize his insulting arrogance: “He asked you quite openly to flatter him, to admire him, his little dodges deceived nobody. What she disliked was his narrowness, his blindness, she said, looking after him” (34). Again, Lily clearly disapproves of Mr. Ramsay’s male egotism but the significant words here are “narrowness” and “blindness” because they emphasize the negative qualities of male hegemony. Since Mr. Ramsay is absorbed in his own narcissism and prejudices towards women, he remains ignorant to the needs of others around him. 

Lily’s inconsistent evaluation of his character may be surmised by what has already been remarked, as paradoxical: “A bit of a hypocrite? she repeated. Oh no – the most sincere of men, the truest (here he was), the best; but, looking down, she thought, he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…” (34). The vacillation between these contradictory attitudes further emphasizes Lily’s disjointed state of mind on the perplexing issue of gender. To praise him as “sincere” and as the “truest” only to quickly retract these statements and call him “tyrannical” shows that she is restlessly engaged in the analytic process of taking disparate elements of inherent male gender roles and trying to formulate a unified conclusion. Unfortunately, Woolf is reluctant to provide any definitive answers to Lily’s dilemma and instead, effectively employs paradox to create discourse. For instance, Lily condemns Mr. Ramsay’s despotism but the underlying paradox implies that she cannot fully abhor him because it is the patriarchal system that influences his male gender identity. One further point should be made: the troubling paradoxical fusion of attraction and repulsion towards both Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay cannot merely be interpreted as an accurate depiction of the sexual politics operating within the novel’s culturally specific landscape for the primary reason (albeit, perhaps obvious one) -- we are working with a piece of fiction. Woolf is stressing the overt tension between ideas; she is interested in examining dichotomies such as gender through paradox as well as metaphor in order to deconstruct and synthesize meaning. 

The battle of the sexes – more specifically – the subversion of conventional female gender roles and the assertion of male hegemony are rendered aggressively unstable during the dinner party scene. Lily is promptly challenged by social decorum to defend the honorable womanhood of her maidenly disposition against Charles Tansley’s rugged hyper-masculinity; a confrontation with an ironic twist where she experiences both stinging defeat and triumphant revelation. The metaphorical implications surrounding Lily’s art takes on even greater significance as she faces the abasement of social interaction:

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash, she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space…She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree. (61)

What is being fashioned here is not merely Lily’s art as a means of escapism or refuge from male hegemony. On the contrary, it is a metaphor that recapitulates the central theme of her desire to break free from the bondage of female oppression. The symbolism of the tree is worth a closer look since it is an important recurring image that will take on even greater significant meaning by the end of the novel. By projecting an impression of the unfinished painting in her mind, she is able to contemplate the aesthetic process: there is an imbalance of “awkward space” and placing the tree in the middle of the frame will act as a counterpoise. The question asks itself, what is the significance of the tree and how does it relate to the implied metaphorical conceit? One possible interpretation is that the tree underlies what has been hinted at earlier in the novel; namely, that it represents Lily herself but with a different persona. She is no longer going to remain self-effacing on the margins of society as an outsider looking through the “window” just because she refuses to accept cultural gender roles. Accepting this premise, “the awkward space” stands in for society because although gender inequality exists, women such as Lily do possess more independence than the previous generation. This awkwardness can refer to the discomfort associated with the implementation of new female gender roles that subvert male hegemonic values. In short, moving the tree to the middle implies Lily’s own personal transition from isolated repression to the forefront of fighting for blatant political change. Thus, the tree itself transforms into a metaphor: a radical declaration of the liberated female artist.

Charles Tansley’s vain superiority and impertinent attitudes towards women is explicitly evident with lines such as, “For he was not going to talk the sort of rot these people wanted him to talk. He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women” or “It was the women’s fault. Women made civilization impossible with all their ‘charm’, all their silliness” (62). The repetition of the phrase “silly women” distinctively channels notions of patriarchy but the specific use of the word “condescended” plainly refers to a reversal of gender hierarchy where class structure, though not always successful, determines authority – or, perhaps to put the matter more succinctly, Lily is a threat to Tansley not only with these so-called elegant feminine “charms” but also because of her privileged social rank. 

Taking the role of the objectified other, Lily is psychologically afflicted by Tansley’s intense male hegemony: “Then why did she mind what he said? Women can’t write, women can’t paint…why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and painful effort?” (62). The imagery of the wilting corn stalk struggling to position itself upright in order to grow healthy again is an effective contrast to Lily’s own conflict against patriarchal authority. She too needs to exert “a great and painful effort” (another reiteration of the “desperate courage” mentioned earlier) to rise up and challenge these antagonistic forces of patriarchy. At this particular moment during the gender debacle, Tansley manages to obtain the upper hand by resorting to sadistic tactics. Here, one notices that Lily takes a serious affront to his hostile comment that women lack artistic talent (“women can’t write, women can’t paint”). Unwilling to admit defeat, she attempts to prove his prejudice as erroneously fallacious: “She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the tablecloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else” (62). The functional aspect of her painting as a metaphor takes precedence; it can be wielded as a powerful weapon against Charles Tansley and all of the male hegemonic values associated with his character. Once again, the image of the tree returns, though this time, it takes on a slightly different contextual meaning. The insistence that she “must move the tree” and that everything else is irrelevant suggests a real urgency to finish the painting as opposed to before when she speaks hypothetically by saying, “Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle” (61). The contradistinction between “must” and “shall” seem obvious enough. The crucial point is that the implications of the tree metaphor are now modified as a severe protest against male tyranny. 

In contrast to Lily and the noble Ramsay family, Charles Tansley’s inferior social status renders him emasculated and reticent during the majority of the dinner conversation. To a certain extent, he shares a similar discomfort of exclusion experienced by Lily although for different reasons; it is class, not gender that act as constraints. He is denied the opportunity to properly assert his male egotism and Lily cleverly uses his discomfort to her advantage by refusing to help him escape from this unpleasant situation while in the process, unequivocally denounces male hegemony. She refers specifically to female gender roles as a “code of behavior” that is immorally absurd because women are supposed to remain submissive to the male subject in order for them to wholly assert their authority (66). Lily purposefully takes a political stand to infuriate Charles Tansley even more by remaining silent: “So she sat there smiling” (66). Here, Lily achieves a small victory and her smile is not sincere in the least; rather, it comes across almost like a sneer of derision. Unfortunately, her act of rebellion is ephemeral and she reluctantly accepts defeat once Mrs. Ramsay intervenes. She observes the psychological battle going on between Lily and Charles and decides to put an end to it by throwing a harsh gaze in the direction of her younger female friend. The two women reach a tacit understanding: if Lily is not “nice” to Mr. Tansley, the dinner party will be ruined and by implication, the entire social order will collapse (66). This apparent contradiction in Lily’s moral principles is another instance of the novel’s complex shifting gender ideologies. She undoubtedly wants to separate herself from Mrs. Ramsay but is still influenced by the authority of the older generation.  

Yet, her decision to conform against her better judgment is not to say that the issue of gender in the novel is resolved; it is only a minor setback in the journey towards establishing female independence. The metaphorical conceit of Lily’s painting suggests that the possibility to obtain and assert female autonomy still exists: “For at any rate, she need not marry, thank heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle” (74). The painting is a source of personal solace and redemption. The tree metaphor takes on another layer of meaning as it moves even closer to the center of the frame (“more to the middle”): the renunciation of marriage as a “degradation” and “dilution” is obviously not an indication that she is willing to relinquish to patriarchy. Ironically, ten years pass before Lily returns to the Ramsay cottage and is able to actually finish the painting.

Glossing over the second and third section of the novel may seem unwarranted but for our purposes, Lily’s finished painting is the most significant metaphor that most accurately establishes her role as a truly liberated female artist:

There it was -- her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and cross, its attempt at something. It would be hung up in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps: they were empty; she looked at her canvas; blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (154)

The striking final image of the painting with a definitive line drawn the middle is open to a host of interpretations and reflects the complex ambiguities of the novel. If we accept Lily’s rejection of patriarchy and the assertion of female independence as a metaphorical conceit, the implication is that Lily does achieve success in this enterprise but whether or not it is possible for her to maintain this new sense of identity in the future remains uncertain. To accuse Woolf of being deliberately glib would be a serious misreading because she has been subtly working towards this powerful moment of revelation, especially with the emphasis placed on the symbolism of the tree. The first two parts of the novel are meticulously constructed around patterns of thematic progression towards Lily’s climactic moment of transcendence. The resolution of her fragmented self and conflicting gender ideologies is unified by the aesthetic principles of artistic creation. Prior to drawing the vertical line, her painting appears to be a chaotic design with “lines running up and cross” as an “attempt at something”, implying that it is not representational of a particular subject or object; rather, her painting is some kind indefinable image. Thus, it seems rational to conclude that the painting is indeed a metaphor because the “blurred canvas” also suggests an abstraction of ideas where there exists a deeper meaning beneath the convoluted surface of green and blue lines.

Lily Briscoe’s concern with the artistic quality of her painting, whether or not it will endure the test of time (an echo of another persistent theme in the novel) and lamenting the deceased Mrs. Ramsay (the “empty steps” she used to sit on) all contribute to this “sudden intensity” of inspiration to draw a line down the “center” of the canvas. After ten long years, she finally completes her painting (“It was done; it was finished”) by moving the tree directly to the middle, which provides the frame with equilibrium. The tree, of course, is no longer recognizable because it transforms into the last stage of metaphorical development as a line segment. The “vision” can be seen as both the flood of memories from the past leading up to the completion of the painting and an epiphany that is represented by the metaphorical conceit: a potential resolution to repudiate male hegemony and embrace female independence. The vertical line represents a division from the old system of subservience and misogyny; that is, it not only establishes Lily’s own sense of female individuality as an artist but also symbolizes feminist principles pertaining to egalitarianism and the rights of women.
Works Cited
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1994.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Teaser Tuesdays: The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers! 

Trevor was seen to approach Humphrey and hit him on the mouth. The barmaid said, 'Outside, both of you.' 

Is that an awesome cover or what? Penguin editions rock.

Oh, Muriel Spark, you never fail to make me chuckle. This is a humorous scene because it is totally unexpected.  It's been far too long since I have read anything by her. Not to mention, after recently finishing the dull and laborious A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, I am in the mood for something light and entertaining--so far, Muriel Spark is delivering the goods. She tends to be hit and miss for me but so far, I have a good feeling about this one.

Monday 22 July 2013

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“It's silly not to hope. It's a sin he thought.”

It took me a while to warm up to Ernest Hemingway but after finishing The Sun also Rises and now The Old Man and the Sea, I can see why he is held in high regard. After several negative reactions to his style of writing, especially in relation to the dull and overrated  A Farewell to Arms, I was completely discouraged from reading anything else by him. Luckily, I decided to give him another chance and not only was I completely enthralled by this novella, but it exceeded my expectations in every possible way. It may be a very simple story but it packs such a powerful emotional punch right to the gut. For me, Hemingway is the anti-thesis to Faulkner; his terse and distilled style of writing is in contradistinction to the latter whose prose tends to be poetically verbose. I mean Faulkner no disrespect and this is not meant to be a slight against him; however, there is something very appealing about Hemingway's simple and concise approach to narrative. The use of repetition, sparseness and transparency in his writing is mesmerizing to behold. Or it can come across as contrived and aggravating depending on how the reader approaches the text. 

Hemingway presents a simple story and yet, there seems to be so much subtext lurking beneath the surface. Similar to the elusive marlin that the old man is trying to catch, the implicit meanings make themselves partially visible; they are difficult to fully grasp and then quickly submerge back underneath the murky depths of the narrative. As one of those quintessential American Classics, it has been analyzed to death and there exists so many different interpretations especially in relation to the use of symbolism.

The religious parable angle is noteworthy but I am still unsure of how everything completely fits together within this particular context. Is the marlin supposed to represent Christianity (the symbol of the fish) or is it supposed to be the Leviathan? Is Santiago a martyr figure? There also seems to exist some critical undertones towards capitalism. Perhaps one can criticize Hemingway for championing male chauvinism or masculinity but I do not think the power of the story is strictly devoted to one gender since it's various ideas are universal. Personally, the novel is most meaningful to me as a story of determination, morality and redemption: the human struggle when facing adversity. One must overcome fear and do whatever is necessary to succeed. Santiago becomes an idealistic figure in his simple way of attempting to challenge the forces of nature to achieve his goal.

The ending is incredibly poignant and left me close to tears. Santiago sets out on a dangerous quest to catch the giant fish; he pushes himself to the limit, enduring much pain and suffering and although he defeats the mighty beast, he also returns home defeated. What exactly is Hemingway trying to say here? Again, I am not entirely sure but it seems to me that perhaps the fish represents the old man and they share a kind of symbiotic relationship. Thus, Santiago's real fight is not with the fish, but with himself--shattering any disillusions to prove his self worth; a way for him to seek validation for his existence in an incomprehensible world. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and the story is simply about an old man who is a fisherman by trade, veers off course one day and does battle against nature and a giant fish.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Friday 19 July 2013

Book Blogger Hop: July 19th - 25th

The Book Blogger Hop is hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The hop's purpose is to give bloggers a chance to follow other blogs, learn about new books, befriend other bloggers, and receive new followers to your own blog.  Cool beans, count me in. 

Here is this week's question: What is your favorite classic novel?

This is a difficult question because I adore so many classics but if I had to just choose one, it would have to be To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. There are days when I actually think it may just be my favorite novel of all time. I wrote a short review of it here but would like to reiterate that it still stands as the most beautifully written, emotionally powerful and sublime literary work that I have ever read.


Tuesday 16 July 2013

Teaser Tuesdays: Valis by Philip K. Dick

  •  Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read 
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) 
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

"I am illuminated by holy light fired at me from another world.  I see what no other man sees."

The protagonist, with the hilarious name Horselover Fat, believes that some divine entity in the universe is transmitting information through him. This novel is such a crazy and wild ride that only the great science-fiction master Philip K. Dick could write. I can't stop reading it!

Monday 15 July 2013

The Saul Bellow Project

My obsession with lists and reading projects continues. Having recently been mesmerized and now currently obsessed with the writings of Saul Bellow, it seems fitting that he should be the first of several authors whom I plan on reading their entire literary output. Considering my unpredictable schedule and capricious mood swings, I do not plan on proceeding chronologically through his oeuvre; nor is there a specific deadline in my mind to finish this projectas long as it gets done one day. 

June 10, 1915 
Lachine, Quebec, Canada

April 5, 2005 (aged 89)
Brookline, Massachusetts, USA

Some interesting facts:
  • As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet.
  • He was married five times and had a child at the age of 84!
  • Winner of multiple National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for literature. 
Novels and novellas:

    Other works:
    • Mosby's Memoirs and other Stories
    • Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories
    • The Last Analysis – Play
    •  Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor
    • To Jerusalem and Back (1976) – Memoir