Saturday, December 30, 2006

Poor Peter! : The Case of the Missing Men in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Centered around a community of spinsters, Gaskell’s provincial novel Cranford is mainly concerned around the life of Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns, as narrated by a Miss Mary Smith, who, by revealing so little about her own life and thoughts, adds a layer of mystery to a novel that can otherwise appear to be as tranquil as the pastoral farmland that envelopes Cranford.

Despite its sometimes unconnected, and often trite, stories, I found that the novel's strength lies in its portrayal of women's lives. Here we see all classes of women, from the stately Mrs. Jameison to Miss. Matty living in genteel poverty, to her maid Martha, who fosters such devotion to her mistress. The women struggle with coping with changes in a society that transforms from an artistocratic or agricultural to mainly an industrial one. As the economy shifts, the results affect women who have no external means of income through marriage or family. The plight of an unmarried woman, represented by Miss Jenkyns, is of utmost importance, since her survival is at stake.

In Gaskell's novel, it is imperative that the plight of spinsters should receive due consideration on the condition that there is an absence of men. To achieve this end, Gaskell removes from the setting any man who could potentially assist the women.

Captain Brown, a kind, admirable soul who is introduced in the first few chapters, has his life cut short as he dies trying to valiantly rescue a child from a train track. The old bachelor, Mr. Hollbrook, who had once wooed Miss Matty, is also made to die a tragic death just as his romance with Miss. Matty is rekindled in the glow of middle age. Signor Brunoni, who charms all the ladies of Cranford with his tricks, is injured soon after, his recovery prolonged until the end of the novel. Mr. Hoggins, the wise but bourgeois doctor, is ridiculed for being stuck with an indecorous name. The narrator's father, who is Miss Matty's financial advisor, hardly enters Cranford, but is just allowed the the occasional visits by his daughter.

But all these absences have none of the drama associated with that of the Poor Peter, Miss. Matty's younger brother, who, when a mischievous lad, had been publicly flogged by his father, the Reverand Jenkyns and soon after, had bid goodbye to his family and disappeared out of England. Poor Peter's disappearance affects everyone in his family and the uncertainty associated with his disappearance, teases the characters as well as the readers invested in Miss Matty's life, to seek help for her through him on account of him being the means of rescuing Miss Matty from her financial burdens.

Although Gaskell prolongs his re-entry, his reunion with his sisters at the end of the novel hints at something more than a fairy-tale ending. The brother had come to rescue his sister at a very critical time, but was his appearance after all these years strictly necessary? Is this Gaskell's way of surrendering to male power, in that, although her female protagonist struggles to live on her own, in the end she will need the assistance of a man to survive? Why does Gaskell, at the end, seem to approve of patriarchal forces that govern society? Does she suggest that efforts to create an all-female utopia is futile and if it is so, is it the women, with their catty behavior, that are to blame, or men, with their ability to work, that are the saviors?

Poor Peter's disappearance is also reminiscent of Frederick Hale's absence in North & South. Both men's disappearances profoundly affect their respective sisters' lives. But why does Gaskell use this motif in both these novels? I wonder if such an event is drawn from Gaskell's own life, or whether it is solely a plot filler. It is also when their brothers are away that the women grow as individuals. Just as Margaret Hale's love for Thornton is tested, Miss Matty learns to make her own decisions without living under the shadow of her older sister or her favored brother. The pain these protagonists undergo because of the apparent loss of their brothers also suffices to make them into stronger, more independent women. Moreover, in removing the men from the women's lives, Gaskell, a female novelist, has the satisfaction of annihilating men and resurrecting them, a task afforded to no one less than God.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Brontëan excerpt

The following is part of the first draft of my personal statement:

"The sun had begun its slow descent, filling the horizon with an almost ethereal glow. It was a crisp, cold day and the wind howled, as my hair, which had tumbled loose from its clasp, spun in waves across my face. I had just passed the Haworth Churchyard and an Inn called the “Heathcliff” and now found myself on a solitary pathway that would eventually lead me to Top Withens, a decrepit barn house reputed to have been the setting for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The wind’s cry grew urgent just as I tasted the drizzle of rain with its tinge of regenerative freshness......."

As these lines seem more like belonging to a creative writing piece rather than a research proposal, I declined to use any of them for the actual assignment. Which is quite sad, really, because writing it was fun while it lasted ;)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Aftermath: Round One

I am finally back from a rollercoaster ride of writing my personal statement, contacting faculty, filling in applicaiton forms, and getting them sent in time. I can't believe I survived it, really.

After I wrote the first draft of my personal statement, I was shocked to learn that it was too "personal" and so I had to rewrite it in the space of barely two weeks. Now this is two weeks of juggling full-time work, making arrangements to get my transcripts sent from various colleges, visiting my professors, and trying to eat and sleep just enough to be able to think clearly the next day.

Rewriting it proved to be such a herculean task that a part of me is still doubtful about whether the second draft will do. For one, I had to come up with a focus: I had to elaborate on what aspects of Literature I want to study, mention relevant scholars/critics, and also tie in how this relates to my aspirations and what I will bring to the program. When a friend read my second draft she remarked that she got lost reading it for it seemed like a literature paper. Which is not a good sign either because in trying to be focused, you don't want to appear unreadable. Thus followed another few days of agonizing whereby I had to call in sick to work, squat on my bed in my sparsely furnished room, undergo painful cramps in my arms and legs because of oversitting in a dark and cold room (for it hadn't occured to me open the shades or control the temperature), and end up feeling like Lear's Gloucester (who had his eyes plucked out) because of the stress of it all.

Then just as ten o'clock loomed near, there I was, frantically filling in the application form for Uni #1 and just as I had finished sending it in, I learnt, from an academic forum, that I oughtn't to have mentioned something in my personal statment, which lead to a few minutes of trauma induced by a mixture of panic and regret. When I felt stable enough to work on filling in Uni #2's applications, I deleted that problematic line from my personal statement, and sent in the complete form at about 11:30 pm. Within the 29 minutes I had left (for the application system closes at 12:00 midnight sharp), I completed application form for Uni #3 and at 11:55, just as I sent it in, recieved a horrendous pop-up informing me that that "some numbers are missing from Page 1, Question 2", which meant I had scroll all the way back to that page, and then fill in the missing info and by this time it was 11:58 pm! In the space of a minute, and I am certain time froze that instant, I somehow miraculously managed to click "SUBMIT"at 11:59 pm, just before the server would have closed down on me, preventing me from applying there, perhaps forever.

And so I slipped back to earth after all those adrenaline rushes and near-nervous breakdowns. In all my years of schooling and being in college, I have rarely experienced something equal to the stress that ensued in the past two weeks. Everything else was put on hold, including reading blogs I love as well as books (yes, books!), laundry, grocery shopping, phone calls, and socializing, and instead all my energies were spent in reading literary criticism and editing my own drafts, which kept changing every day as I had more material to add.

Although the process is far from over, as many other deadlines are coming up in the next few months, I am quite relieved that I sent in three applications for now. It is never advisable to wait till the last minute to send them in, but given the circumstances, I think I had no other choice but to do so. It is far better to have worked hard on the personal statement instead sending in a poorly written one that doesn't fit the purpose.

I feel like I am now treading on thin ice--the ice of relaxation because I am still unsure, after being away from it for so long, whether the ice is indeed safe to skate. The dance might have to wait, but I am glad I can catch a bit of the rush--and float on the transitory wings of freedom.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Whose dream is it?

The romantic comedy 13 Going on 30, like most romantic comedies, is light and fluffy, with the classic formula of a heterosexual couple's being destined for each other since childhood, falling in love as adults, and marrying each other with the assumption of "living happily ever after". It's very sweet, saccharine sweet in fact. While deficiencies might exist in the plot, the humor written into the script does more than merely amuse the average viewer, for it serves as a vehicle for exposing hypocrisy, deceit, and crumbling values found in a particular setting.

Though it is by no means stellar as a movie, I did find the imaginative aspect of the "magic wishing sparkles" worthy of notice. Jenna Rink, an "ugly" teenager who longs to have larger breasts and be the most popular girl in school, is presented a doll's house constructed by her rather portly but good natured best friend Matt on her 13th Birthday. Matt also sprinkles some "magic dust" on the roof the doll's house, telling Jenna that the dust would make her wishes come true. When the most popular girls in school arrive and then, instead of socializing with her, slight her and play mean tricks on her, Jenna hides in a closet and cries, wishing that she could be "30 and beautiful". Unwittingly, some of the magic dust shakes off the doll's house, which she had stowed away in that very closet, and lands on Jenna's head as she makes her wish so that the next thing we see is that she wakes up, utterly confused, in a high-end apartment in New York City, wearing a seductive red lingerie that barely covers her voluptous body, as a naked man lies, softly cooing beside her on her bed.

Although Jenna is shocked to find out that she is suddenly 30 and sexually active, no one else seems to show any signs of seeing anything out of the ordinary. Jenna finds out that instead of the shy, socially awkward 13 year old girl she used to be, she is now a popular chief editor for a fashion magazine in New York. Furthermore, she is has also a social butterfly, and from her 13th birthday, had gathered a different circle of friends, cutting ties with her best friend Matt.

Over the course of the movie, Jenna tries to find her identity: though everyone believes her to be snotty Jenna Rink, the fashion editor, she is still very much an innocent 13 year old inside. She seeks Matt, who is a photographer by profession and also engaged to another woman, in order to ask him if he can help her understand what had happened to her overnight. Matt and Jenna rekindle their past friendship and slowly this blooms into something deeper, as Jenna realizes she is no longer a young girl, that she does harbor feelings for Matt that are above the platonic. After soliciting Matt's help with a project for her company, she learns the degree of how despicable her conduct was in the past. She lacked values, she was selfish, and she indulged in unethical behavior in terms of breaking company rules of confidentility. When her coworker finds out that she had been divulging her company's secrets to the competitor, she exposes Jenna in front of the whole staff, causeing her to resign her job. More than losing her job, Jenna is distraught at finding how reckless she had lived her life. In addition, she fears losing Matt, who is caught up with his plans for his impending wedding rather than smart over Jenna's betrayal about using him in a mercenary fashion.

On the day of his wedding, Jenna goes to her home and searches for the doll's house. Just as she shakes it, whispering a wish, some magic dust, which had continued to cling to its roof all those years, now sprinkles on her, giving her a chance to have her wish come true. She had upbraided herself for her behavior at work and to those she loved and wished she could get her old self back so that she can start over, erasing all the unhappiness she had caused to those around her. Moreover, she wanted a new beginning with Matt, for she has fallen in love with him.

As her wish comes true, Jenna Rink is once again 13 years old, hiding in her closet in her room. The 13 yeard old Matt comes to find her and she hugs him and willingly tells him she would hang out with him and that they could have so much fun together. She no longer covets beauty and popularity but simply the warmth of a sincere friendship, a frienship that continues and matures into love, ending in Jenna and Matt marrying years later.

Though it is 13 year old Jenna Rink who wished on the magic dust, this is reversed at the end of the film, for it is the 30 yeard old who wishes she could be 13 and start her life over. Perhaps it is the 30 year old who wants the innocence of her past. Perhaps it is the 30 year old who we have seen all along, trying to explain her selfish behavior, so she imagines her wishing over the dust as corrupting her when she was 13. Perhaps the older Jenna Rink was fooling us, the viewers, too, in that maybe the confusion she showed was actually feigned.

So whose story is it? The 13 year old's or the 30 year old's?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

On the Use (and Misuse) of Standardized Tests.

After months of waiting, I finally took one of my exams today, which has allowed me time to post this entry. I found the exam tedious and silly, and if hadn't been for admissions purposes, I would not suffer myself to endure another moment preparing for standardized tests such as the GREs.

I believe that the GREs don't provide any more information than that already found on a candidate's trasncript. The SATs and the GREs are supposed to test you on your verbal and quantitative ability. But honestly, could the admissions committee not learn that from your transcript? If they see that a candidate applying for programs in the Arts, for example, has taken science classes with quantitative components as well as basic math classes (including advanced Calculus), is that not enough for this particular candidate to enter Graduate school? After all, how much use would finding the lowest factor of a random set of numbers be of use to this particular student? Isn't it more important for her to spend her time on her actual subject, Art in this case, rather than studying for something that might ultimately not help her in a substantial way?

This way of measuring one's Quantiative ability also affects Science majors who, for the most part, are more familiar with number-crunching and generating graphs than Humanities majors. Consider the case of a Chemistry student who is working on her senior thesis, which is a year-long project, involving sufficient research and handling of science literature. If this student, who is plotting graphs and and working with data for a project that she has designed and executed after careful study with an adivsor, is now asked to generate numbers for seemingly random mathematical questions that have little basis for application in her current study, could she be expected to perform the same way in these 2 hours as she does during the course of working for her year-long thesis? The answer is, No. Unlike working on a long, complicated project, the GRE requires you to generate answers to much more simpler questions fast. I have heard of some Math majors who have found the Quantitative portion challenging simply because the test asks you for answers under time pressure without allowing you any time to get to know your subject or each question under consideration.

When a student's verbal ability could be discerned from her trancript as well as her writing sample, I don't see the point of having a standardized test to confirm her verbal ability. If the student is able to communicate well in her writing and it appears to be so from her personal statment, where she tells the admissions committee about why she wants to pursue the subject, then of why should there be a test to see how many words she knows in English or the degree of reading comprehension she can perform in a limited time? While the GRE prep-books vary in the length of their word-lists, which are basically a compilation of lists of "hot GRE words" that one must know in order to "ace the test", many of these lists contain these words in isolation--for they just list the meaning or at least one possible sentence in which the word can be used. Without being familiar with how these words are applied in various situations, merely memorizing them from such lists would not be enough. And if the GRE verbal sections tests students on these "hot words", then it does not do justice to those students who would not have been familiar with the application of these "hot words" outside the prep-book realm. For example, if the student is not a native spearker or has had limited access to literary journals or sophisticated newspapers, they would not fare well when tested on such words. Such a test does not measure the student's intelligence as much as how many words she knows. In this sense, since the amount of words one knows is also related to socio-economic factors, the results need to be carefully analyzed along with other information about the student. If all admissions committees were able to devote as much attention to a single candidate's admission file, it might be able learn as much about the applicant as possible, including the factors that affected her acadmics, and then make a a fair decision based on her credentials.

As for Starndardized Tests and their effect on the Imagination, I feel that this warrants a seperate post altogether. However, I would like to make a few points in this post. Firsly, nothing kills the Imagination more than adherence to formula, to stringent rules. And nothing a student would encounter throughout her schooling would be more formulaic than Standardized Tests. Secondly, there appears to be a sort of double-standard amongst scholars. In order to study "Literature", which includes reading works of Fiction, they maintain that you must not be imaginative yourself. Otherwise, this tendency to imagine could make it harder for you to do well on Standardized tests which are based on spewing out facts rather than testing you on the depth not just of how much you know of the subject, but also the extent of your wish to learn it. For example, if a student wishes to study James Joyce, she must not even attempt to imagine and discover what it means to produce a "stream-of-consciousness" narration for herself. All she needs to do well on the Literature GRE test is to memorize a tedious list of facts, which are in fact, things she must as a future-scholar, question rather than accept. If she failed to do well, she could be barred from entering Graduate school where she had infact planned to study Joyce in the first place.

I understand that objectivity is necessary for scholarly work, but how objective is earning a higher score (through largely rote learing and memorization) or a lower score (due to use of the imagination and unwillingness to accept facts) on a Literature standardized test. How is this not misleading?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Moving Lessons

I finally managed to find an apartment to move into this month and though at first it seemed ideal-too ideal in fact-I was proven wrong once again. Having endured listening to my narrations about the travails of moving, a coworker remarked, giving me a friendly and sympathetic pat on my arm, "And so you shall learn".

The following lessons I've learnt contain within them metaphors for other aspects of one's life as well.

*When the first apartment you visit is really hideos, everything else you see afterward looks much better, thus serving to only deceive you in the long-run. So don't fall for false-charm, mere illusions, the first good one just because what you had seen before that was awful.

*Do look at the state of the closet before you sign the lease. If the closet is falling apart, either get it fixed before you move in, or better yet, don't move in for this might foreshadow other pressing problems you would rather not be invovled with.

*Try to move in with a friend or at least a friend of a friend, or friend of a friend of a friend or....(you get the picture). But seriously, it is much better to room with someone you have some connection with, someone whose background you'd be able to verify. Even though your roommate does not have to be your best friend, you want her to be something close to a friend at least. You do not want to live in a hostile environment with someone who you cannot get along with, whose tastes do not agree with yours. When living together, make sure you can be friends first.

*Visit the apartment more than once to test if the heaters are working well. You do not want to be left alone shivering on a cold winter's night simply because the landlord has slacked off and didn't check on the heating in your room, which your rent is supposed to pay for. Become familiar with the place and investigate core devices like the heater and windows.

*Buy furniture before you move in. You do not want to contract a backache/neck-ache/headache, the day after sleeping on a mat on the hard floor which would prevent you from celebrating your first day of the move-in. Plus, you don't want to sleep so close to the floor that you start worrying if there are mice scuttling around without your knowledge. Do get a full night's rest, especially on your first night there.

*Be aware that you are no longer in a house. This means you can no longer take for granted that the kitchen equipment is for everyone to use. The last thing you need is to be snubbed by your new roommate, where she requests that you "kindly ask her permission first before you use anything that is not yours". Again,this could create household tension so take this with a dose of humor. Laugh it off if you can, instead of burning with embarassment. We all make mistakes and do buy your own toaster-oven if you don't have one already. They almost always come in handy ;)

*It is wise to err on the side of caution than otherwise. You want to make sure the neighborhood is relatively safe and that the building is free from theft and the like.

*Ask about where you'll be doing your laundry and once again, don't assume you are in a house and that you can do it in the basement. All places do not operate that way. You don't want to be walking to a laundromat, lugging loads of laundry, when there is a snow storm outside and you are wearing your last pair of clean underwear.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Madame Bovary's Legacy of Unfulfillment.

In Flaubert's classic novel, Madame Bovary, the protagonist who is also the title character faces a grim life of domestic disappointment. Married to a man of mediocre intelligence and naivete who fails to recognize her needs as well as her tendency to go astray, Emma Bovary grows increasingly despondent with her domestic life, becoming physically ill in the process. Neither her removal to the country for a "rest cure" nor the birth of her baby daughter Berthe brings her the sort of joy she seeks. For she wants above all else, excitement in her life, passion, warmth, and freedom to act as she chose devoid of having to maintain homely decorum. In order to escape a life of stagnation, she resorts to having affairs with several men, taking care to carefully conceal them from the eyes of her husband who is wrapped up in his own simple thoughts befitting a country doctor. Unable to wholly win the love of the sort of man she desires, finding either one's affections lacking or her own passion for him insufficient to sustain the relationship, and burdened by debts and public exposure of her scandalous relationships, she commits suicide and dies in agony through eating arsenic. The tragedy of Emma Bovary is a result of her extreme desire, for she is passionate, excessively so and is devoid of an equal who could complement her.

In a similar vein, Kate Winslet's Sara Pierce of the recently released movie Little Children is dissatisfied with her role as a suburban housewife, stay-at-home Mom. She is distinguished from other suburban women of the neighborhood by her physical seperation from them as well as her pensive expression, as is shown in this still. Like Emma Bovary, she does not find motherhood satisfying and she longs for excitement, someone to ravish with her potent desire, a desire she is forced to keep bottled up in her middle-class suburbian surroundings. When she learns that her husband does not find her enough to please him, she seeks to experiment her sexuality on her own terms. She embarks on an affair with Brad Adamson, a stay-at-home Dad struggling with his own problems, who lives nearby.

It is interesting that Sara is the one who initiates the relationship, as much as Emma Bovary is in Flaubert's novel. Sara's connection to Emma is delineated later in the movie when Sara's friend invites her to attend a Book Club meeting where the members were discussing Flaubert's classic. When it came to her turn for comments, Sara remarks by defending Emma's actions, concluding that Emma had no choice but to give up her life of repression for one of passion, one of hunger. She stresses that although she doesn not condone Emma's unfaithfulness, she does admire her power of rebellion, her "hunger". The other women in the Book Club circle listen to Sara in awe and many agree with her, hardly realizing that Sara was able to speak so earnestly by living Emma Bovary's life herself.

Nevertheless, despite seeking to change their situations, both Emma and Sara lead lives of unfufillment and thwarted hopes. Emma dies a bitter death after entangling in financial difficulties, and unable to confess her scandals to her husband and fearing exposure. Sara cannot fully comprehend why she desires Brad and in what way. It is not clear if she loves him or if she is only temporarily distracting herself from her troubles by sleeping with him. She is a character who is incomplete. Like she reveals in the middle of the film that although she started studying for a Master's degree in English, she did not complete it, she does the same with her affair with Brad: she starts and although it is explosive, she does not complete it. In the end, Sara does return to her life with her young daughter, athough we do not know if she will tolerate the waywardness of her husband, remain a stay-at-home Mom or whether she will seek a better life for herself. Just as the movie does not give us the answers, we are left perpetually in doubt.

We, the viewers, are also left unfulfilled.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What is in between "Between"?

In a memorable end to the movie The Hours, Nicole Kidman, who plays Virginia Woolf, is shown wading through the river just moments before she drowns. Her last lines, addressed to her husband Leonard, are as follows:

"Leonard, always the years between us, always the years, always the love.
Always the hours."

I found the word "between" rather ambigious in meaning and wondered if I am alone in thinking so.

What does "between" in that line mean? Does Woolf mean the years she and Leonard had together? Or can it mean the years they differed from each other, the years apart they seemed emotionally? Is what she says on the surface meant to mask the unhappiness she felt within regaring her relationship with her husband?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Writing Laura Brown

Occupied with working on my graduate school applications and apartment hunts, desperately desiring the escape into Fiction, the World of the Imagination, I found myself pondering about Laura Brown's position in Michael Cunningham's The Hours.

I wondered why Laura Brown is written into the novel. What is her role? Is she necessary?

Of all the characters in the novel, Laura Brown was the one I liked the most. Virginia seemed too absorbed and convoluted, which isn't necessarily bad, but these qualities did place a barrier between the reader and the writer. Clarissa seemed too giving, too mellow, and rather superficial in her ability to erase any discomfort she might feel.

Virginia is a character struggling with her Art: for she is an artist first and foremost. For that character to find happiness, she must have the freedom to write, a room of her own, which is denied her when her husband removes her away from the sparkling brilliance of London into the dreary confines of a country estate, for the sake of a "rest cure", an attempt to cure her mania. Virginia, despite her struggles, is a great novelist for she works hard at her craft, as if it is the only thing that matters.

Clarissa, with her poise, demeanor, and connections to the rich and famous, appears rather shallow at first. Although she does exhibit having experienced the semblance of an "awakening" by the end, I found the effect quite flat. Whereas she had been previously satisfied with giving lavish dinner parties, entertaining famous people, and being faithful to her long-term lover Sally, her "unraveling" to Louis, and Richard's catastrophic death have shown her that it is the moment that matters, that everything else is secondary. Though Clarissa is shocked by her friend--and ex-boyfriend's--sudden demise, she does not weep and in fact, a part of her contemplates suicide. But only for a fleeting moment. We later see her, after hearing Laura Brown's confession, making love to Sally, who has had her own awakening, values her partner, and is eager to reignite the flames of their relationship. But what has changed for Clarissa? Will she be satisfied with her relationship with Sally? Will she continue to give lavish parties? Will she accept her daughter's friendship with a working-class woman? More importantly, how much will she want?

Laura Brown is in between these two characters, quite literally, as is shown on the DVD and book cover. Laura Brown is neither as absorbed in her work as Virginia, nor is she superficially satisfied as is Clarissa. Whereas Virginia commits suicide and Clarissa mildly contemplates it, Laura comes within inches of taking her own life, only to disregard the thought, with a momentary lapse in time. While Virginia dies and Clarissa lives, Laura is caught being both dead and alive: she "dies" when she leaves her life of being a suburban mother and she lives when she creates a life of her own in Toronto, away from family responsibilities. It is Laura's nearness to death that brings her closer to Virginia than Clarissa, as is shown in her proximity to Virginia in the DVD cover.

But what is Laura Brown's role in The Hours? She is Richard's mother and Richard influences Clarissa. Richard's earlier experiences with Laura are described in the book and they have no doubt influenced the boy as he became a writer. So one possibility is that Richard's ability to write is a result of Laura's influence on him, his witnessing her depression, and along with it, her desire, a desire potent enough to destroy the structure of the family. Aside from being Richard's mother, Laura also is the link between Virginia and Clarissa. Unlike Clarissa, it is Laura who is obsessed with Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia's novel. After she has learnt to find peace in a moment and to seek her freedom through her reading of the novel, she conveys this message to Clarissa. Clarissa now knows that it is possible to "look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.". Maybe this message could only be transferred from one female onto another, and therefore Richard would not suffice. As the DVD cover shows, Laura is in a row behind both Clarissa and Virginia, thus signifying her function as a link between the other two women. Her position also reveals a hierarchy, in that she seems subordinate to both Virginia and Clarissa. Perhaps this "position" addresses the very question I posed about Laura Brown's role in the beginning of this essay: How important is Laura in relation to the other two?

Could the novel survive without Laura Brown? I believe not. For if that were the case, there would be no Richard Brown and no one to influence Clarissa. In short, we wouldn't have a story.

Could Laura survive on her own? I am not sure. She tries to live on her own, she deserts her family, choosing life over death. But what sort of life is that? Did she not feel remorse, guilt at what she has done? Could her newly-discovered freedom compensate for what she had left behind? By writing Laura as he had done so in the novel, Cunningham empowers and disenfranchises her at the same time. She is powerful in that she has access to the past as well as the future: Virginia writes the character of Mrs. Dalloway but it is Laura who can physically touch this character. Conversely, Laura knows two Mrs. Dalloways: one from Virginia's novel and one from real-life and it is because of Laura that the two can merge for Laura is the reader, the interpreter of Virginia's novel.

Though powerful, she is also trapped. Cunningham has placed her in two worlds: she inhabits in the past and the future at the same time. Even though she approves of her leaving her family, she is reminded of her position as a mother, one who hurt her family, when Richard dies, a position that will be branded on her all her life.

Paradoxically, Laura Brown, a woman who seeks her own freedom is trapped by Cunningham's writing her into his story.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Novelist (maybe?)

Despite having to prepare for another exam I am taking next month, and possibly a second one the same month, writing my Personal Statement, applying for my post-graduate studies, switching apartments, and working a full-time job, I have decided to take the plunge and try this anyway:

I have wanted to write a story for a while and this would have seemed like the ideal month to try and work at it along with a group of other writers had it not been for the timing especially as I am saddled with so many other priorities. However, I have decided to do what I can anyway, even if it is only a short story.

For today marks the start of the National Novel Writing Month and I am a:

I hadn't noticed it before but I ask: Why is there a man in that icon and why is that the only one availabe for participants to use?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Meddling Middlemen (and women)

Many of my coworkers are women in their early or mid-thirties and it so often happens that the subject of our converstations revolves around relationships and the joys and pains of having to live with a man (and bear his babies too!). Aside from those that claim to be bursting with matrimonial bliss and others that pine for a breath of "singledom", there is a good number that is baffled at the scarcity of men--of the potential husband types that is, instead of the ones solely looking to get laid. Today our converstation turned to the virtues of online matchup sites, which pride in being able to help thousands find their corresponding soulmates. These matchup sites, the most famous-at least in our sphere-being eharmony, rely on you becoming a paid member, sometiems requiring you to take a personality quiz, and depending on your responses, finding other people whose responses closely match your own. The match of responses is a correlation of the degree of manners, interests, and temperament you would share with your potential love interest (provided of course, that the relationship is allowed to blossom further). In this way, the matchup sites function as middlemen in relationships, a notch short of the traditional matchmaker in the styles ranging from the meddlesome but good-natured Mrs. Jennings to the officious Lady Russell, whose intentions strive to seperate two people who are otherwise madly in love with each other.

For a younger crowd for whom the marriage arena is only a distant possibility, there are the Facebooks, MySpaces, LiveJournals, and Friendsters. Most young people (for now the Facebook has allowed highschoolers to sign up) visit these sites to "network"--meaning keep track of their friends' whereabouts (in other words, affairs such as which couples have broken up and who is in a relationship), connect to old classmates (more out of curiosity rather than driven by any genuine affection), and potentially find a date to hang out with on an otherwise uneventful Friday night. Though all of these reasons seem removed from the more serious purpose of networking, there are a few people who visit these sites to land a job. It is now possible to find out what a long-lost friend is doing in a wildlife reserve in New Zealand and ask her if her team could use an ecologist who specializes in a rare breed of birds that is only found in and around New Zealand. If you are lucky, you might actually be on the plan to New Zealand sooner than you think while the rest of your friends are struggling to find jobs back home.

However, the virtues of such sites are undercut by their ability to meddle with people's lives. For one, going on the Facebook can lead to a severe bout of procrastination each day, leaving chores undone and rising the levels of agitation. Just as relationships can be fostered, they can also crumble. A friend of mine didn't include her relationship status in her profile, which made her boyfriend very upset to the point of paranoia. He insisted that her not acknowleding their relationship is an indicator of the lack of her feelings for him while she maintained that he is unduly jealous since all he should care is how they feel for each other, regardless of whether the whole world knows of her feelings for him or not. Their relationship was rocky for a long time on account of this until my friend gave in, acknowledged their relationship online, mentioned his name, and managed to finally appease his anger. The said couple, for all the world knows, is now doing well.

How tiresome being a middleman could be didn't strike me until I found myself in such a position a few days ago. When a friend of mine felt unwell, her boyfriend contacted me and asked me to check up on her since he was traveling at the time and was unable to spend a lot of time with her. When I mentioned to her about her boyfriend's contacting me on account of concern for her, I sensed a little edginess in her response to me--as if my communicating with him (which he initiated) was not very welcome. Her boyfriend, unaware of what passed between my friend and I, contined to ask me about how his girlfriend was doing and I could not help but feel a little uneasy for the last thing I needed is any suspicion from my friend, especially when it was unwarranted.

It is ironic that when a middleman exists to connect two parties, it can also do the opposite and tear them apart. I wonder if this is a result of the fragility of human affections: are we just as prone to trust people as we are to mistrust them? If we are walking on a tight-rope of emotions in which extremes exist on either side, is this act one of strengh or weakness?

Friday, October 20, 2006

As I had mentioned in my previous post about mirrors and how they affect our characters, here's a fitting poem by Sylvia Plath:


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful---
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Of ghosts of people past..

And by people I mean one's self. Each of us changes as our lives are affected. What we are one moment can significantly differ from what we are the next.

In Jane Eyre (2006), we are shown Jane as she looks at the mirror before and after key moments in her life. Jane's face appears not-so-plain, in fact, quite pretty, with the curls of her hair falling in waves about her, right after the fire when Rochester holds her hand. Then we see a dejected Jane looking at the mirror and drawing her portrait while comparing it to the exterior beauty of Blanche's countenance. After the interrupted wedding, we see an even more dishearted Jane attempting to slip out of her wedding clothes on a day that, instead of consecrating her love for Rochester and binding her to him forever, only served to tear her away from him.

In each of these moments, Jane is a different person: whereas she didn't know anyone could care for her before, after the fire, her feelings for Rochester are awakened, as well as a burgeoning sense of her own sexuality. She is now a woman who has come face to face with the potency of her feelings. While painting her portrait, she aims to rid her self of any hope she might entertaing of Rochester's prefering her over any other woman. After Rochester proposed to her and Jane has received her first kiss, we see her face aglow, with faints tints of blush and twinkle in her eyes. Later, as she resolves to leave Rochester, we see her feelings reflected in her ashen face and sorrowful eyes.

Each view of Jane's face in the mirror shows us a Jane who is different from any other. One moment she is a naive child, the next she is a woman beloved. One moment her insecurities consume her, the next she is bursting with anticipation with the prospects of a full and delightful life. Then right after, we see her crestfallen but bent on seeking her own freedom, a destiny shaped by her indomitable will.

I wonder if the ghosts of ourselves remain static or evolve along with us. Does Jane the naive girl maintain her naivete or does she die in order to become a Jane who delights in the warmth of Rochester's embrace? Can the two Janes coexist or can only one inhabit the body at one moment in time? If so, is each person provided a regiment-an army composed of themselves at various moments in time-arming them, comforting them, entertaining them, deriding them, along this Battle of Life?

The question of our multiple selves struck me yesterday when I had had to sit for an exam. Before I walked out the door, I happened to brush my hair and that was when I looked at myself in the mirror, with a face that revealed how giddy and restless I felt within. I remember thinking to myself that the same person who will walk out the door of my room will not be the same who steps back later that night, for she would have taken a test that could potentially decide the course of her career, her life.

I wonder what the woman who stared at the mirror yesterday makes of me as I write this. I wonder if she is still there.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

On missing the memory...

I wonder if we remember things not as they are, but for what they've made us feel. Often, we'd rather be duped into thinking something existed when that was not the case, simply because we would rather keep the memories of it unsullied by any new knowledge brought on by an awakening.

Consider this: A woman uproots from her home, disperses like a seed in the wind, and settles in another town far away. Often she remembers her life in her old hometown. And she weeps. She misses her friends and family. She misses the glow of sunrise every morning, the smell of dew on the oven-roasted farmstead, the shards of quiet scattered over provincial land. In reality, she knows that the flowers reek of rank odor. It intoxicates her and so she drinks. But, instead of rotting, the flowers need to be buried, or else any other vegetation in the vicinity will be stifled by that odor of venom, that potion of Death. For it is in burial that life finds release.

Often, the memories we yearn to hold on to are of things that we wish had happened, of events that were mere illusions. We refuse to let go because these memories, with their dubious origins, have touched us in a manner that nothing real has. Unable to renounce those feelings that have so possessed our hearts, we continue to cherish memories of things that never happened. We would rather live with the illusion of capture because living free without is unbearable.

And we miss the memory of a memory.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A review of the BBC's Jane Eyre: Episode 3

This episode was just as good as the previous one, and proved to be quite faithful to the novel, in terms of the dialogues used. Ruth Wilson overrides Toby Stephens for her portrayal of Jane, especially in the emotionally charged proposal scene where she literally proposes to Rochester, claiming to be his equal, an independent person with heart and soul, and a right to love and be loved. Though there was an adequate amount of chemistry shared between the two leads, Rochester's sincerity of intention is marred by our knowledge of his conduct towards Adele, Pilot, Blanche, and Jane. For this episode, more than the earlier ones, emphasizes the connection between the women.

Firstly, it is revealed that Bertha isn't very different from Jane after all. She was courted by Rochester, who would have been just as much of a "botanist" then as he is now, and she is the mistress of Thornfield, a house Jane has come to like dearly. What is striking is that there are allusions to the color red throughout the series. Jane is shut up in the red room, she later wears a bright red ribbon on her collar which contrasts sharply with the sombre grey of her dress. As for Bertha, we see her scarf flapping in the wind in more than one occassion (perhaps the same one that she used when she seduced Rochester in the West Indies), she wears a bright red silk dressing gown after she is married to Rochester, and her room in Thornfield is not a dark dungeon, but one filled with bright red wallpaper (perhaps alluding to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminst critique in The Yellow Wallpaper). Furthermore, she wears a red gown when she attacks Rochester. Because we know how much the Red Room frighted Jane as a child, we can imagine how being locked up in such a room would have been for Bertha, and Jane could have sympathized with her on the same account. Also, in reference to Gilman's work, Bertha's madness could have been a result of being locked up in a room with bright red wallpaper. Bertha is not without feeling, without the ability to comrehend, for we see that when she first arrives in Thornfield, Rochester looks towards the doorway while her glance is directed in the opposite direction, towards the home she left behind. There is hint of sadness on her face, especially in the expression of her eyes, just before Rochester leads her to what would eventually result in a nuptial torment for both.

Jane's connection to Bertha is shown through the style of their hair. Just before Jane gets sets off to get the church to marry Rochester, she has a little wisp of a curl, which had loosened from the rest of her otherwise plain hair style, and now framed one side of her neck. In Rochester's flashback scene, we see that Bertha also had curls in her hair when Rochester was attracted to her. Furthermore, the curls fall on one side of her neck and are of a larger mass than Jane's. Perhaps this is to highlight women's wanton nature, thus alluding to Eve with her serpentine curls.

Blanch is another "other woman" who is connected to Jane in a manner other adaptations of the novel I have seen have not highlighted. Although she is pompous in her comments regarding "the subject of governesses", she is not without a human side. I felt sorry for her when Rochester termed her "heartless" in episode 2. In this version, we are further left in doubt about what she and Rochester discussed before she went away. Questions remain: Did he explain to her that he did not love her? Did her tease her? Or worse, insult her? She leaves not with a venomous mood, but rather, with a dejected air of a woman who could possibly have suffered much, whehter at the hands of a man or Society at larger (including her family, lead by her mercenary Mama) for whom she is nothing but a pawn in an intricate game of Matrimony for sole purpose of gentrification.

Although they are not excessively fond of each other, Jane harbors affection for Adele, a motherless child deprived of love from her benefactor, who could also be her true father. Just before Jane enters the carriage, Rochester says gruffly something like "Not you! You cannot go like this". We are not sure whether he is refering to Adele or Pilot, until Pilot slips out of the carriage. This scene is very similar to the scene in episode one when Rochester commands "Sit!" and Pilot sits, after which he clarifies, "Not you Pilot", saying that he is not used to being too civil. Adele is also physically similar to Jane, for she has dark features and sharp, thick eyebrows.

Rochester is the man who connects all four women: Jane, Bertha, Blanche, and Adele, and when his actions are portrayed as dubious, we are not sure what to make of him. In episode 2, we are literally left in the dark because the film does not allow light to fall on the faces of Jane or Rochester as they hold hands in after the fire. In episode 3, Rochester's face is witheld from us when Jane accepts his proposal. When we had seen Mrs. Reed's cruelty through the eyes of a child, why are we not shown Rochester through the eyes of a woman?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Things an English major will find amusing

I was delighted to learn that one of my coworkers was an English major in college (and who is inclining towards attending grad school). However, we didn't get many opportunities to talk about our interests and foster an english-major-bond until today. Although she was into early-modern literature while I lean towards Victorian literature, we found that we both like the Romantics, and are fascinated with Byron.

My supervisor asked this coworker to show me how to create records for students and teachers on our office database. So in order to create fake records for the purpose of practicing using the database, she and I made up names and details...of characters we found intriguing and whom we both could snark about.

Our first candidate was Byron and these were the details we came up for him:
Name: Byron, George Gordon
Office: English Department
Hired by: Me! (insert my name), Chair of the English Department
Passcode: IloveGus

The next candidate was Blake
Name: Blake, William
Office: English Department
Hired by: My coworker (insert her name)
Passcode: visionaryiam
Home address: I-8 Little Lamb, Tiger's Lair.

Highly amused by this diversion, I decided to make one for Charlotte:

Name: Bronte, Charlotte
Office: English Department
Hired by: Me, Chair of the English Department
Passcode: albionsmarina
Home address: Parsonage Road, Haworth, Yorkshire.

Sadly, these records were temporary and I was left bereft when Byron, Blake, and Charlotte "expired" (from the database, that is).

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On ageing and other matters...

Lately I've spared my journal from being peppered with "confessional" posts and the like, vignettes of challenges and triumphs I've encountered on my journey through the forest we call Life. I've had good reasons to. There's a quote by D.Blotcher that reads, "Learning is not a spectator sport". I realized now, looking back on the recent "past", a past that feels like ages, that I've learnt so much in these few months than I've ever done for many years put together.

I cried on my graduation. I felt torn away from my "family", my college, my professors, the environment in which I met my closest friends, the place where I started discovering who I was as a person. I felt as if I was a foster child being taken away by the state because my foster parents couldn't afford to keep me anymore, though they assured me that they'd continue to have a fond affection for me. I cried because I hadn't realized how well I was taken care of until that moment, how well my needs were met, because no matter how many times I might have complained about deficiencies in college, little did I know what was in store for me upon graduation.

On the day of graduation I learnt that I had made a mistake. Because I had not applied to graduate schools the previous year, I did not see any prospects of being in a similarly intellectually-engaging environment. I knew I'd have to "wait out" this year by either working for my keep or vegetating and preying on others' hospitality, not to mention, expenses. I had to enter the workforce because I couldn't really afford to not do so. Besides, I figured that the Working World might give me experience and insight, and perhaps, direct me onto a path I really feel comfortable in.

But one can't simply decide to work and expect a fairy to take care of everything else, for with the decision to work comes the decision about living arrangements and managing finances. Since I was working, I've had to conduct apartment searches, interview potential roommates, witness the horror of homes that are abused by their tenents simply because the latter care more for frivolty than hygiene, learn the tricks of trade, get along with my coworkers, and find time for myself and maintain my sanity in the midst of all this chaos. Add to this further anxiety brought about by preparing for exams.

Over the course of two months, I think I've grown up ten years. I've had to endure impolitic employers, question my own sense of ethics, and make crucial decisions about my welfare. This time has been very rough indeed, for I've had a bad experience at my first job. The stress had also taken a toll on me both emotionally and physically and just as I learnt to stand up, I had to deal with falling down. But life is an eclectic mix: there are roses amongst the thorns, for we understand compassion once we've endured hardship, we delight in the glow of kindness after we've tasted the shower of injustice.

On that reflective note, I hope to now get back to my studies and better prepare myself for the impending exams I'll have to take. It is hard to restrain from roaming around the Blogosphere, but the reign of Priorites might keep me at bay for a while.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A review of the BBC's Jane Eyre: Episode 2

This episode was a lot more promising than the previous one, and actually made me want to watch the earlier one again just to make sure I haven't nursed any unwarranted misonceptions about that one.

But what struck me most in Episode 2 was the wonderful chemistry that both Ruth and Toby had while the they played the leads. The exchanges the two shared were very intimate and yet, very convincing. Rochester's face is full of contrasts as he conducts himself in jest and earnest, depending on the situation. Even after the Ingrams arrive, he does not ignore Jane, but is aware of her presence, her feelings. He is also not without pity for Blanche, even though he is the chief mastermind behind the board game he plays with his guests. He also betrays feelings for Adele, for we are allowed a glimpse of his face when Jane talks about the plight of children who are deemed "evil" by their elders. Ruth's expresions are the most poignant, however, for she manages to speak without words. The day after the fire, she can barely eat and her face is flushed. Most striking is her reaction to the letters that are placed in front of her in the kitchen. She is in the throes of anxiety until Mrs. Fairfax reads to her about the news of Mr. Rochester. She also inquires pointedly and replies vehemently when Mrs. Fairfax speculates on the match between Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram, a girl "considerably younger than the Master". It is clear by this stage that she harbors an attachment for Mr. Rochester, an attachment she can barely contain within herself.

However, despite both characters' rather liberal, though strained, display of their mutual affection, the movie does suggest that tensions are still very much rife.In the famous sexually-charged after-the-fire scene, Ruth and Toby are seen as silhouettes, the light barely illuminating their frames. When Rochester and Jane share what appears to be an embrace, with their faces turned toward each other, it is just that: an appearance. And the whole scene being conducted in the dark suggests that we are also in the dark about what we know of how they feel.Why else would the filmmakers conceal Jane and Rochester's expressions from us, the viewers, when we are shown much else that the characters undergo? Even early on in the second episode, we are given hints that things are not what they appear to be; that we cannot trust what we see. In this sense, how can we expect Jane to trust so easily? Should she not be more cautious in her dealings with Mr. Rochester, in the readiness with which she falls in love with him?

Though generally more annoying than otherwise with her prattle and constant pirouettes, Adele manages to invite sympathy from the viewers in this version because we see Jane aligning with her. Jane is able to defend the fate of unwanted children because she has experienced what it feels like to be despised by those who were her caregivers, namely her aunt Reed. By stating that "every child needs to be loved", she speaks for herself as well, with a hope of confronting the sufferings she had endured in her youth.

Finally, an interesting addition in this version is Rochester's hiring a woman to play the role of the Gypsy while he hides behind the curtains and watches the scene enfold. Whether she is geniune or counterfeit matters less than Rochester's having access to the women, in such a way that he watches them unfold like a play. Unlike other versions, he is now seeing Jane from the point of view of a third party, in fact, he sees her just the way we do. Also, for the first time, we see Jane betraying shades of her feelings to another woman, who is a woman, instead of Rochester, the man who pretended to be a woman. This matter raises questions about gender roles. Would a woman reveal as much to another woman as she would to a man? What was Rochester's motive behind pretending to be a Gypsy woman? Did he want to hear Jane confess in a manner he knew she never would to a man? Would Jane have differentiated between the two genders? Would she have been just as likely to say the same to a man as she would to a woman?

More importantly, I ask, should such a difference even exist?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Standing Up for One's Self: Female Empowerment in the films of Niki Caro

This weekend, I had the opportunity to watch North Country, starring Charlize Theron, a film directed by New Zealand-born director, Niki Caro. Caro is an internationally acclaimed Director and screenwriter, having made her breakthrough entry with Whale Rider, a film about a Maori girl's challenging the mores of her society, which was released in 2002. While Whale Rider proved to be more than a coming-of-age movie, North Country spans beyond the arrears of laws governing sexual harrassment. What struck me was that both films centered on female protagonists who fought for their freedom, and eventually changed the way their societies viewed women.

The heroines in both films are isolated beings. In Whale Rider, Pai is a girl-child who should not have been born, for her mother had died in child bed, along with Pai's twin, a boy who would have been the leader of the Maori people, had he lived. Pai is left under the guardianship of her grandparents, although her father, who lives in the city, visits her often. Pai is a quiet, introspective child, eager to win the respect of her grandfather, who is a commanding figure in society. Pai knows that she is of a noble line, that the blood of her ancestral Maori tribal leaders flows in her veins, but having had the misfortune to be born a girl, she is hampered from being a leader to her people. Instead, we watch painfully as Pai is shoved to the sidelines, ignored, trampled by others less generous and intelligent then her, namely her grandfather and the boys he trains so as to create a leader of the Maori people out of at least one of them.

In North Country, Josey Aimes is in a similar predicament. Having left her abusive husband and having two children to take care of, she is eager to take on any job that will help her make ends meet. She agrees to work in the mines despite her father's disapproval and she resists against the injustice she witnesses at work even though her co-workers fail to support her. Moreover, even as a teenager, when she had the choice to give her baby up, she made the unconventional decision to keep her child. Both Pai and Josey are in a class of their own.

Caro contrasts her protagonists with the other women around them to enhance their unique characters. Pai's grandmother, though loving, hasn't been able to win over her grandfather, and hasn't been able to provide Pai the kind of support that she needs. The absence of other women around her forces Pai into seclusion. Josey's co-workers are shown as weaker women, and in some cases, foolish and selfish, when contrasted with Josey, who stands up for her rights amidst considerable opposition from her parents as well as society.

The kind of freedom that both women attain at the end of each film is one that is universal, that reaches beyond merely gender equality. At the end of Whale Rider, Pai manages to change the fate of her community, the law of her land. She is restored to her rightful position as the leader of her tribe, winning the respect and admiration from her grandfather and others around her. Josey changes labor laws enabling women as well as men to have more protection and rights at the work place. Both Pai and Josey ensure that minority voice will not go unheard, that the powerless can become powerful, and that justice will prevail.

Both women are changed through the course of each film. Pai sneaks in on the lessons that her grandfather teaches to the young boys in her community. She is fiery and her physical aggression increases with her emotional turmoil. By the end of Whale Rider, Pai's grandfather apologizes to her and she wins his love, a love she has been searching for all her life. In addition to her plight at work, Josey also deals with troubles at home, namely with her parents and her kids. As she gains justice for herself as a worker in the mines, she also regains her rights as a daughter and a mother. Her parents forgive her for their past prejudices and learn to see her for the wonderful, brave daughter that she is. Her son views his mother in a new light, one full of wonder and respect, instead of being ashamed of her for being a mother who "spoke up" too much. Emotional relationships are mended as legal rights are obtained.

What I found most intriguing about both these films is Caro's association of female empowerment and the gigantic, the mystical, the sublime. Both films have large, powerful landscapes that play important roles. In Whale Rider, the sea is a source of power, especially because it contains the whales whose existence is important to the survival of the Maori people. In North Country, the Minnesota mine, with its large cranes, machinery, land mass and work force, is just as important at the characters themselves. As the film progresses and freedom is won, the landscape changes from the frozen winter to bright colors of spring. We move from the dirt and grime of the mines when Josey is at her lowest to the warmth of a home fire when the family reunites at the end.

By aligning female struggle with the whale in the sea and the land used as a mining site, Caro suggests that the female who is also a creature who is also the sea, which is as expansive as the land isno longer alone, for she has a friend in the Nature around her. A single girl-child has the power to move an ocean, for she in imbued with the mythic power of the whale. Despite the harsh conditions found in the mines, a single woman outcast has proven that the land poses less of a danger than the evil lurking in the hearts of the people walking its grounds.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A review of the BBC's Jane Eyre: Episode 1

I regret to say that the first episode fell short of my expectations. And I did try not to bank on it too much, given the fact that probably no adaptation will ever measure up to my very own version of the story. I did have a lot of faith in this one. Especially because of Ruth and Georgie and Sandy Welch. I did so love how Sandy did North and South. There the camera work was magnificent and the scenes were evocative, superior to that found in Jane Eyre.

Nevertheless, here are a few comments and observations:

The young children weren't given enough film time and the Gateshead/Lowood scenes were so glossed over it is quite painful to witness. There's no mention of Miss Temple and her influence, and we don't even feel too sorry for Helen Burns or the other children (what did they die of again?). And do the Reed's have a maid called Bessie? Are we to feel sorry for little Jane Eyre or not? Poor Georgie didn't even get a proper chance to prove herself. I think knowing Jane as a child is so vital to understanding her as an adult that in reducing and glossing over what is left of her childhood, they have deprived us from knowing parts Jane fully. Adele is ignored in this version yet again. Although the actress who played her seems considerably older than 8 years of age, she isn't given much emotional spotlight. She does little than sing and dance, and hardly betrays feelings of loss.

Then we move to the Thornfield scenes. I would like to know if we will ever hear Bertha's laugh. I mean Jane goes through the first episode without hearing Bertha at all. Perhaps they meant to use the scarlet scarf flapping in the wind (which is quite obvious a symbol to me) as a substitute for Bertha's laugh. Jane hardly encounters Grace Poole in the first episode. They have made Mrs. Fairfax take the role of cook as well, for there are many scenes of her in the kitchen (Were they toning down the status of the gentry, like they did in the recent adaptation of Pride & Prejudice?) Ruth's expressions were quite good, but I think she also had a lot of potential that could have been used if the scenes were written better. While they have economized on the lanaguage, I am not sure that the technique merits applause because I fear that they have overdone it. The language seems rather too trite, bordering on breaching decorum. While Jane says little, we are able to overlook this fact in the book primarily because we have access to her inner thoughts. The first episode showed a Jane who doesn't seem to be very curious, unlike some of the other Janes I've seen. Again, this is because we are not shown much interaction with Bertha/Grace Poole.

As for Toby, his rendition of Rochester did not move the way I had hoped. He looked grim and melancholy and snarked at times..but I think he was just..just..that, without many other Rochesterian idiosyncracies. For one, he really is quite good looking for the role! I didn't get a chance to feel sorry for this Rochester in this version (I think the truncation in dialogue is to blame for this) and I couldn't really sympathize with Jane for falling for him so easily here. He seemed to be flirting overtly with Jane, who is not without her coquettish responses. The way he said "Sit" was so disturbing, when Pilot sat instead of Jane!! However, I might have to wait till I see the rest of the series to give a verdict on him.

Perhaps the film makers were trying to highlight Rochester's character as a person who thinks of those below him as animals. First he orders Jane to sit like Pilot and then he compares her to an insect that undergoes metamorphosis (and he has such a flair for Natural Science in this version!).

The first episode did highlight the evolving romance. Jane seems to be falling for Rochester instantly, as he is with her. Also, we get a peak into Rochester's study, when Jane ventures into it incidentally. Such an act is not unlike Elizabeth Bennett's trailing into Darcy's billiard's room in the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice, or M. Paul's leaving presents for Lucy Snowe in Villette. All three cases strive to stregnthen the intimacy between the leads, thus rising the sexual tension, which seemed to be a core factor in this adaptation.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Limits of Sex in "The Full Bronte"

The Bronteblog mentions an article by Lucasta Miller, in which she investigates how these seemingly virginal sisters came to write some of the most passionate novels in English Literature. In an attempt to explore the "lust on the moors", she resorts to analysing factual details about the Brontes' background. However, because so much of what we know of the Brontes' is a mixture of fact and fiction, she is not free from falling into this trap. Of particular note is her assertion of Branwell's fathering an illegitimate child, a matter that is merely conspiratorial in nature. Further, she states that Emily was "shy to the point of antisocial and happy only when at home with her own family".

I refute such a belief about Emily, or anyone that is reserved. For how do we know if they were just shy, or bored with the people and world around them? What if one is just happy with the thoughts buring in their own heads that they don't need to resort to seeking 'friendships' with others? And I certainly don't think that one must experience a conventional romantic relationship in order to write about it. Emily might have been a recluse, but maybe she appeared to be so in front of those indivuduals who she deemed were 'incompetent', unable to comprehend the breadth of her intelligence. No doubt, for they might have been burnt by her intensity, of mind, of spirit.

I don't understand why so much disbelief is raised about anyone who can write a passionate, erotic story without having experienced sex. I would like to pose the question, what is sex? If sex is a means of rousing one's self and drowning in orgasms of ecstasies, then could not this pleasure be attained by other ways than sleeping with someone within the confines of the bedroom? I know it is possible for the mind to take intense delight in learning for learning's sake. There is a preculiar thrill one gets after mastering a foreign language, in solving a math puzzle, in crafting a story, in making patterns on a canvas. These are all very active, very involved acts, that employ, if done earnestly, every inch of one's being.

When the human capacity for action is so enormous, why limit pleasure to the single act of having sex in a conventional sense? After all, is pleasure something we want to limit? If pleasure is finite, why do we spend our entire lives seeking it? Surely, we also don't spend our entire lives having sex and sex only!

In discussing the lives of virgin women writers, we tend to ask more questions of their love lives than their inner lives, the lives they lived in their heads. We try so hard to find explanations in conventional form: there's the theory that Emily must have been in love with a young man, or else she could have not written Wuthering Heights. In trying to find such simple solutions, people are in fact limiting themselves. They are limiting their own imaginations from exploring the paths previously untrodden. They are tying to define the indefinable.

But I ask, is that not just as cruel, if not more, as Heathcliff, the character's, "revolting scenes" of violence? And more importantly, who is to judge?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hamlet's Oedipal Complex

From left-right: Polonius, Gertrude/Ophelia, Hamlet/Fortinbras, King Hamlet/Claudius, Leartes/Horatio.

Yesterday I had a chance to catch a production of Hamlet performed by Actors from the London Stage. This version had only 5 actors, who took on multiple identities, a technique that reveals different strands of Hamlet criticism, all packed into a single performance, a single writing.

Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, was played by the same woman who played his lover, Ophelia. By doing so, this version emphasizes the oedipal tensions inherent in the play. In the original version, Hamlet seems obsessed with his mother's sexual appetite, and her marriage to his uncle soon after Hamlet's father's death. Towards the end of the play, Hamlet steals into his mother's closet and implores her to shun her lustful nature and to remain faithful to the memory of his father. Many adaptations have exploited this scene in bodice ripping ways on screen, where Hamlet is not much younger than his mother, who is a beautiful, voluptious, scarcely-clad seductress. However, this version went further to suggest that she could in fact have been his lover, for she plays Ophelia. In the original play, Ophelia, Polonius' daughter, is Hamlet's lover, who he later torments and accuses of betraying him.

When Hamlet claims to see the ghost of his father, we can't help but question his credibility. Was the apparition a manifestation of Hamlet's scattered thoughts that was spinning out of control? Was the ghost nothing but voices that Hamlet heard in his own head? Was the ghost something the guards made up on a whim as they were searching for new leader? And more importantly, we wonder what the ghost's purpose was in appearing in front of Hamlet.

In this version, the same actor played the ghost as well as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who Hamlet believes is the cause of his father's death. By doing so, this version suggests that perhaps Claudius could have duped Hamlet, played a trick on his sensiblities. Also, this makes Hamlet's oedipal complex seem more aggessive because his anger at Claudius then translates to his anger for his father, whom he cannot quite bring himself to admit openly. Thus, the father figure is split in two to reveal the love/hate aspect of Hamlet's relationship to that individual, his overwhelming desire for his mother, and jealousy at being unable to unite with her. Morever, the ghost doesn't appear in front of Hamlet in this version, but rather, behind him, so that we really are not sure if all this is just a construct in Hamlet's mind, a mere conjecture.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I was surprised to see Tara Fitzgerald nude in the movie I Capture the Castle. She did manage to play the character of Topaz, the Mortmain children's eccentric, artistic step-mother with relish, though!.

The only other movie I've seen in which she acted was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where she played Helen Huntingdon. If we intertwine fact and fiction, then it is rather amusing to speculate Helen Huntingdon as Topaz!

Also, let's not forget Mrs. Reed, whose character Tara portrays in the new adaptation of Jane Eyre. Being neither awkward nor ungainly, at least she can carry herself well! ;)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

In The Eyes of the Beholder: The transformation of Nanny McPhee

A few days ago, I watched Nanny McPhee, starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, and many other quite popular British actors. The movie was based on the Nurse Matilda stories written by Christianna Brand. The story revolves around the lives of the Brown children and the change in their behavior that takes place when Nanny McPhee arrives to take charge of them. Emma Thompson, who penned the screenplay, explained that she had had to change the name of Nurse Matilda, the central character of Brand’s original version, to Nanny McPhee, in order to appeal to a wider selection of audience; many people are not familiar with the term 'nurse' being referred to a nanny as it had been the case in the past. Additionally, the name 'Matilda' conjured up visions of Roald Dahl's young heroine, so that had to be changed to 'McPhee' so it is more fitting to this Nanny, a much older character.

The film begins with a portly woman dressed in cap and nanny's garb, bursting out of the Brown household, screaming for her life. She is the 17th Nanny the children have managed to drive away with fright, for their latest trick was pretending to 'eat the baby', the baby being little Aggie, the youngest of the Brown fry. Mr. Brown learns that this is only yet another act put on by the children, who are, in spite of their naughty behavior, quite clever little things. A busy widower with a lot of mouths to feed and under the patronage of his rich aunt-in-law who insists that he should remarry for the sake of the children, Lady Adelaide, Mr. Brown is unable to control his children and just as he begins to despair, he hears a voice telling him, that what he needs is Nanny McPhee. A day or two later, when the children wreck havoc in the kitchen after having their cook (played by Imelda Marsden), bound and gagged, to the cooking board, Nanny McPhee arrives mysteriously, and contrives to stop the children from destroying the kitchen, and almost burning the baby. Nanny McPhee tells Mr. Brown that she is to teach them 5 lessons and the way she works is that when someone needs her but does not want her, she will stay, but when someone wants her but no longer needs her, she will go. Over the course of the movie, the children not only learn these lessons, but also use their wisdom and affection to change the people around them.

What I found most intriguing is the portrayal of this Nanny. Unlike the other governesses, Nanny McPhee is dressed in black, foreshadowing the mystery that surrounds her. The first impression of Nanny McPhee is stirring: she is horribly ugly. "Ugly". She is big boned, stout, with wrinkle, mottled skin, a large nose that resembles a potato, two huge warts with hairs growing on them, and a large tooth sticking out of her mouth that is "the strangest tooth one ever saw". Everyone is disgusted by her appearance, including Mr. Brown, and to some extent, even the children, though they are more intimidated by her power. When they refuse to obey her, she punishes them until they have to surrender and apologize. When they pretend to be ill with the measles, she gives them a taste of their own medicine and when they are hesitant to mind their Ps & Qs, she shows them the consequences of their actions.

Nanny McPhee is a character of power and fantasy. Her appearance is mysterious and so is her departure in the end. She disappears whenever she pleases and does not seem to reside in her room like any normal nanny, as evidence by Simon's visit to her room. Although she brushes her sudden appearance off as, "I did knock", Mr. Brown (and the viewers) are baffled when we not only don't hear the knock, but are certain she appears from thin air. Like little Tora Brown, we too cannot help noticing when her warts suddenly disappear although the other changes that happen to her are subtle until the end when they are pronounced. Nanny McPhee maintains her power as long as she remains ugly. When thing are set right by the end of the movie, the Nanny acknowledges that she has to depart, and so we no longer are invited into her magic. It is almost as if our ability to live in fantasy ends when the Nanny becomes beautiful. It is as if only an ugly 'witch' can wield magic.

The change in Nanny McPhee's grotesque appearance follows the change in the children. As the latter learn to behave better, Nanny McPhee becomes more beautiful, less hideous. Her warts disappear, along with the ungainly tooth, her sagging skin resumes its elasticity of youth, and her body regains its graceful curves. By the end of the movie, we are left with a glowing, ethereal figure of Emma Thompson, the actress as we know her. She has shed the monstrous exterior of the middle aged Nanny and now plays the role of a fairy-godmother sort of character, for she converts Evangeline, the scullery maid, into a "beautiful princess", a snowy wedding gown in tow, removing the obstacle of the 'evil' woman, the atrocious Mrs. Quickley, so that Mr. Brown is free to marry the girl he has been waiting for and the children can get a rightful second Mama.

As much as the story has a simple fairy tale ending, it questions our sense of beauty and morality. What are we to make of the transformation of Nanny McPhee? Is she really more 'beautiful' in our eyes by the end? And more importantly, I ask, Why is she not allowed to remain ugly through to the end? Why are the children not allowed to see through her exterior and grow to love her for her kindness and sense alone?

The work, both the original story and the adaptation, creates an illusion of beauty in a material sense. By showing the changes in the Nanny's appearance and correlating that with children's behavior, the film suggests that how we view someone depends on what is inside ourselves. When the children were intolerable imps, they could see her as nothing but grotesque. Even Mr. Brown, becasue of his neglect of the children and preoccupation with work, views Nanny in the same light as the children. However, as the household begins to change, Nanny does so as well. When all the lessons are taught and true love enters everyone's hearts, Nanny McPhee turns into a beautiful woman, almost resembling a fairy princess. No one seems to look at her in awe at the end, for they are wrapped up in their own happiness. The film suggests that as people find happiness within themselves, they see everything around them as beautiful. So this begs the question, "So what did Nanny McPhee really look like?" Was she always beautiful but we never viewed her that way in the beginning because we are shown what she looked like through the eyes of the wicked children? Or are the viewers like the children, in that we are flawed to begin with, and are reminded of the injustice present in our own hearts just like the children's?

But I maintain, Why must she turn beautiful in the conventional sense? Even if such a change on the other characters is necessary, why must this manifest in the triumph of conventional standards of beauty? Why is an ugly woman not allowed to win and stay the same?

Is it so, Charlotte?


"Now Charlotte, she's got a strong libido, that she does"

Monday, September 11, 2006

Reading and Creativity

Today's post on Bronteana quotes an article by Karen Utley, which posits that the "Imagination deficit could cripple society". Utley analyses the imaginative minds of the Bronte sisters, C.S. Lewis, and Agatha Christie, and concludes that unlike the children in the past who immersed themselves in books, children in the present day are spoon-fed information through high-tech means such as the Internet and video games. She claims that, "[the electronic entertainment industries] saturate young minds with ready-made, pre-imagined adventures", which works to their disadvantage when it comes to their ability to imagine on their own. While she insists on the importance of the Imagination for our survival, she does not present a solution besides deriding the influence of modern technology and declaring that "parents and teachers [should] take defensive action to protect children's imaginations."

I think what Utley suggests in her article, though she doesn't quite phrase it, is that children must have enough exposure to books. They must have other diversions than playing video games or surfing the net. The act of reading and conjuring up pictures in one's head from the words printed on a page is no easy task. The child must have patience and willingness to delve into the world of the book she is reading. As her reading capacity improves, she moves from picture books to classic works of Literature, and as she analyses, she begins to delve deeper into emotions, the human condition. She must imagine to feel, and vice versa. The great works of literature are enjoyed best after close study and this helps sharpen the child's analytical skills.

In contrast, most video games hardly invite such critical analysis, let alone that of human emotions. When a child plays a video game, she isn't invited into imagining a world like she must do when she reads, and instead, the world is provided for her. She is told what she must do to win that 'round', how many points she must get, how many hurdles she must pass, and what she is to expect when she reaches the next 'round'. In a lot of cases, she is told what to expect in the end if she wins, even before she starts the game! There is little complexity in setting, plot, and hardly any character study. The characters are usually static: for example Sonic the Hedgehog is still his happy go lucky self, even if he gets beaten to a pulp by enemies or wins a lottery. We are not invited into his mind or other details that help us perceive his mind in the manner that is found in literature, because this isn't the primary focus of the video game. It's goal is to entertain differently.

TV programs differ from well written books in that the latter demands more engagement with the readers. The reader gets intimate with the characters because of her investment in the story. A lot of TV programs show us what each character looks like, and how they feel; the TV program is someone else's interpretation of a story/event while the book, through intimacy with the reader, directly speaks to the reader without an additional middleman, an additonal barrier. Thus the reader is more involved as a result of the imagination necessary in order to brings the characters to life.

The Imagination has the ability to turn abstract things to reality. Utley argues that, "Progress in arenas from social reform to technological invention would be crippled if people lost their ability to imagine a better world. Tolerance and empathy depend upon the human capacity to imagine all the implications of the Golden Rule." The strength of the imagination depends on the opportunity to engage as much of one's mental capacity to feel as is possible. Life is not merely a video game where dexterity can make or break or score. We live in a world with real people with real emotions. And what better means than good books to teach us of our history, our own natures?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

On Illusions

I always make sure I am armed with at least one book in my (rather large) messenger bag when I set off for work in the morning. The commute is relatively long and besides, reading bits of a good book helps me jump-start my day, giving me glimpses of another world I could inhabit when the monotony of Wold of Work tends to weigh me down, which is often the case. Despite efforts to economize on the contents of my bag, I still manage to retain my uncanny habit of never being able to pack light.As a result, my bag was quite heavy this morning, for it also contained an unopened bottle of water. As I waited to board my train, I pulled out the first book I had brought with me and one one I was on the verge of finishing and started to read it. When I finally reached the end, I felt exhilaration...and relief. I had finally finished this book that I had been reading for over a week now, when it should only have taken me not more than few days. I soon slipped the book back into my bag and waited.

Nothing happened.

My bag was as heavy as ever. Not an ounce of it had changed.

It took me a while to realize that in some strange sense (subconscious, no doubt), I had assumed that finishing the book would have reduced the load in my bag. I had finised reading L.M.Montgomery's A Tangled Web, and I must say that the book was rather heavy in a literary sense, for it was very character-centered. And there were too many characters to keep track of. Untangling the tangled web of mulitple plots in the novel took some energy and when I reached the end of the book, I expected, in scientific terms, to feel the effects of 'work'. I believe I must have confused mental strength with the physical, the tangible. I had expected the literary contents of a book to somehow affect the physical weight of my bag. I had expected a reward and wished it to manifest in the form of easing the physical burden that strained my bones. I had confused the tangible with the intangible.

The results of our mental endeavors are not immediately apparent in the manner of those belonging to their physical counterparts, and can surpass the familiar, the conventional. The pleasures of reading are limitless; Imagination prevails.

Speaking of illusions, another example presented itself while I waited for my train, listening to the audio episodes of the BBC's Jane Eyre starring Ciaran Hinds and Sophie Thompson. Although I did not approve wholly of Thompson for her rendtion of Jane, on account of her unconvincing tone and over-emphasis on the theatrics, I thought her casting proved to be an interesting study. The only other period movie that I happened to watch where Sophie Thompson had a significant role in was Emma. There Thompson played Miss Bates, a nosy but harmless spinster who is mortifyingly snubbed by Emma, while Knightley defends her. Miss Bates is at the margin of her society, lives with her deaf mother, is very plain, poor, and has little prospects. When a rich woman such as Emma snubs her in a public gathering, Mr. Knightley, the kind hearted soul that he is, chides Emma and desires to take sides with Miss Bates. He also takes pity on her family, especially regarding the welfare of her neice Jane Fairfax.

Miss Bates' character, at least outwardly, has similarities to Jane Eyre herself, in both her appearance and station. Having Sophie Thompson play the role of Jane Eyre after she had played the role of Miss Bates, seems, in a strange sense, as if she is telling us another side to Miss Bates' story. We are invited to think of the possiblities that could happen in the life of this otherwise lonely middle-aged spinster. We can't resist asking, What if she was younger? What if she met a man she loved? What if others snubbed her and she still retained her integrity?

In other words, what if Miss Bates was like Jane Eyre?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

What does a girl really want?

Yesterday I happened to watch What A Girl Wants starring Colin Firth and Amanda Byrnes. The movie has all the ingredients of a chickflick, replete with the Cinderella-like ending. However, despite the subtle presence of this fairy tale in many other films, this one has no qualms about projecting it from the very beginning. There is the poor little girl who gets the Royal treatment and wins the admiration of her Superiors. The elements of fantasy include lavish settings, a debutante ball, charming men, ugly sister and nasty (potential) stepmother.

Byrnes plays the role of Daphne, a 15 year-old American teenager who finds out that her father is British and embarks on a life-changing tour to England to reunite with him. On learning her identity, Henry Dashwood's (Firth) life begins to change. An important political figure engaged to a woman with similar leanings, he is on the verge of gaining prominence in the eyes of the public, when Daphne steps into his world. Thereafter, he is enchanted with her free spirit, candor, and simple elegance that is far removed from the superficiality, greed, and the stifling formalities revolving around him. The more he gets to know Daphne, he increasingly becomes frustrated with his present situation, leading to a (predictable) climax, that works to both his and Daphne's favor.

Despite the weak plot, I liked the theme of the little girl searching not only for her father, but for love and acceptance from him. Along the way she manages to teach him important lessons about life and love. While this theme is not uncommon in children's literature, this movie is rather unusual in that it involves a much older protagonist. I still would have approved of this if it wasn't for the fact that the film makers had to sneak in a romantic interest for Daphne. Pairing Dashwood's character with a potential lover is forgvible since he is a middle aged man and the chances are that one is likely to find him attached to someone. However, to do the same for Daphne is unnecessary. I think the story would have worked better if it was about Daphne's finding her father without her also finding a lover.

Learning about, and finding, one's self is a difficult quest that warrants considerable study. Daphne's life back in American lacked something vital: the presence of a strong male figure, a father. So she sets out to find him, to fill this void in her life, NOT to find a boyfriend. I think the mistake with a lot of such movies is that they try so hard to satisify every whim of the viewers. I suppose simply having a teenager seek her father is not enough and they've had to provide her with a boyfriend just to feed our romantic fantasies.

But I ask, How can Daphne possibly give enough of herself to both her father and her boyfriend at that point in her life, while she is only beginning to know each of them? Why could just knowing her father not suffice?

I can't comprehend why the inclusion of a romantic interest is absolutely necessary in the vast majority of movies we see today. We continually see heroines fall in love before they know about themselves. It is almost as if the boyfriend is a temporary relief, not a permanent cure, for their afflictions, especially if these have to do with their own natures. In Daphne's case, she seemed perfectly happy as a young girl, with only the absence of father clouding her happiness. If she is to got to England to find her father, then what role does her boyfriend perform other than being the garnish on the cake?

If a garnish is what is needed, then why should it appear in the form of a boyfriend? Why can it not take the shape of something little related to conventional romance? Like what if Daphne learns more about her English grandmother? Or what if she converses with the Queen? Or better yet, what if she develops a talent for hunting (which the British royals are fond of)? There are thousands of possiblities, and yet, the boyfriend seems to be the popular addition. Even so, such films don't get into any depth of a relationship beside the superfical, such as "Oh his accent is so cute!", or "He is the hottest boy in school!"

Can a girl not want a deeper relationship with her parent? Can a girl not be allowed to discover herself and her personal accomplishments removed from being muddled in love with an equally naive boyfriend? This ending of this films seems to suggest that what a girl wants isn't just the love of her parents, that this is somehow not enough. If her happiness is still incomplete, why should it always be the boyfriend who fills this place?