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?