Friday, July 13, 2007

More than Meets the Eye: Review of The Portrait of a Lady, and Rethinking Henry James

I've finally managed to finish reading the mammoth of a work that is Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, after having first attempted the task about ten years ago. I never could dive into it then, or the few other times over the years when I took it up again, and I almost gave up on it this time as well. I would have resigned it to mold in the the dusty shelves of unreadable literature in the repertoire of my mind, had I not been encouraged, a while ago, to give up my former prejudice of James.

A few months ago I endured the ordeal of reading What Maisie Knew, which turned me off from James' other works altogether. If I had earlier wanted proof about how odious his works seemed to me, I thought I had it this time. But alas! I was mistaken. An English professor heard of my experiences with Maisie and my distaste for James, and being an Americanist and an ardent James fan herself, she handed me her own copy of The Portrait of a Lady, peered into my eyes, and almost made me promise to give it a good try. Inwardly, I refused to yield, and the book lay where she had left it for a month, by which time she happend to see it, and asked me how I found it. I fumbled for words, making excuses for a busy schedule and the heat of the summer and such nonsense, until her smile fell, she looked at me askance, and said she was sorry and won't ask me again.

A few weeks ago, however, lacking a good book to read, I found James' book and flicked it open to reaffirm my triumph in being right about what a bore it would be. However, I was drawn, somehow, from the first page. It wasn't convoluted like Maisie. And I was genuinely interested in the main characters, though I agree some were "odious" and usettling. I've discovered that James' characters, to me at least, aren't very likeable. They are mostly lofty and distant. However, it's his acute perception of the events in their lives that illuminates the human consciousness that we all share, which makes one reach out to such cold, suave, and often manipulative, characters.

Although I'd agree that James could have made The Portrait half its length, I still think that, if it had to be that long, one ought to read it simply because of the last few chapters. That is where the secrets are revealed and events spiral to a climax. It is the two secrets at the core of the novel that I want to focus on in this post.

The first is Pansy's parentage, and how it links to Isabel, and the second is Isabel's learning that her cousin was the agent of her (mis)fortune.

Like Isabel, even the readers aren't fully aware of the the manipulations of Osmond and Madame Merle, until the very end. James has the satisfaction of manipulating his readers, so that we feel like Isabel in the end. While reading the book, I wondered why hardly any mention was made of Pansy's mother. We never see Pansy talking about her (her father wouldn't have allowed it, no doubt), and even Isabel doesn't push it. Even before the secret is spelled out, we know that three women will be connected: Isabel, Serena Merle, and Pansy. And they are connected not merely by their relationship with Osmond, but also by what he represents. For he is patriarchy at its worst. He controls all three women, and robs them of their freedom. He lusts after Madame Merle (and she for him), but their union is doomed because of her lack of money. While he can afford to act the dillettante, he hasn't the courage or the integrity to take responsibility for his actions. He is too concerned with appearances that would be bought through money alone. Though Madame Merle would have clung to him, he would not let her. The least she could do is look out for her child, and so entrusts Pansy to the care of Osmond. She also believes that money might purchase the happiness she seeks. For all that, Madame Merle is a free spirit. She lives independently and is unobstructed by any man. However, her freedom is circumscribed by her motherhood: She will always be tied to Osmond though Pansy. As a mother she does not want to see Pansy suffer, and has high hopes for her. In the interest of Pansy, Merle manipulates Isabel, evidence as to how the oppressed are driven to become the oppressors.

Both Merle and Osmond conceal the "shame" of Pansy's birth, so that Pansy is elevated to the status of a saint. However, this is an illusion, as Isabel learns later. We do not know if Pansy will ever know the truth about herself, or how she will act. James shows us that neither the shame of illegitimacy nor the devotions belonging to a saint, will bring a woman freedom. Both are just as oppressive. Pansy grows up in ignorance, afraid to even lift a hair to question her father. As Pansy becomes a woman and exhibits a feeble will of her own in her attachment to Mr. Rosier, her father banishes her immediately to a convent. Thus, because of Osmond, we see that sexual awakening is vanquished by the seclusion in a convent. Osmond's actions show men's treatment of women: she is seen as "angel or madwoman"--never a mix of the two, if she was to be accepted. Hence Osmond, though drawn to Serena, rejects her. He tries to "angel-fy" Isabel but when she resists, he abuses her. Only Pansy, ever dependent on him, succumbs fully to his wishes. Pansy is manipulated, just as Isabel is manipulated, but Isabel shows that she is different from Pansy by taking action against her husband. Though we do not know what has become of her in the end, it does her credit, since she can "manipulate" our imaginations into thinking has a chance for a better life.

Isabel's "fate" is set in motion by the actions of her cousin Ralph. Ralph is like God, or the equivalent, providing Isabel with a fortune to dispense with however she chose. One step could lift or ruin her, and poor Isabel makes the wrong choice. Ralph does it out of kindness to Isabel, but he is also interested in spectacle. He wants to see how she fares. As his life is limited, he wants to experience life, in a way, though Isabel. Though he does not confine Isabel in the way Osmond does Pansy, Ralph also gives her something that ruins her. We can only wonder what would have become of Isabel if she never had a fortune. Osmond would never have married her, and she would have sought a less wealthier destiny. Is Ralph to be blamed for giving a fortune to Isabel? Yes, because he wished to view her as an object, and No, because it was also an act of kindness, a chance for freedom for Isabel. However, through Ralph's action, Isabel learns an important lesson in seeing "more than what meets the eye", in questioning her faith in people. She falls from grace, but learns that "if she was hated, she was also loved."

It was over ten years ago since I first saw the film, but I was able to appreciate it more on my second viewing, just recently. The 1996 adaptations did credit to James' work, especially with Jane Campion's mastery of imagery, symbolism, and art direction. There were several notable performances, John Malkovich's Osmond, amongst others.

Though I haven't converted to a James fan, I think he is worth a second look.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Sign of the Times...

So the Spice Girls have confirmed their reunion.! I was stunned as I watched the news on TV.

I can't think of the Spice Girls without thinking of my past, growing up in the '90s. They were iconic figures during my most formative years. I remember waiting in the stores to buy their CDs, trying to memorize the lyrics to their songs, and figuring out what 'Spice Girl' I was ( I think I was a hybrid, though quizzes don't give that option ;)) The Spice Girls seemed a normal part of life, amidst the family dramas, school exams, sports practices, vacations, and social events.

With the best of the Spice Girls coming to an end after their split, it seemed like an era was past for me as well. Then followed important transitions in my life, more 'growing up' and so forth.

But with their impending reunion, and that picture in particular, it seems as if it was but yesterday that they came out with their first album. Though all except Mel C now have children, or are expecting, it isn't visible in this picture. They all look as trim and young as they were. Of course, fashions have changed, but the Spice Girls weren't ones to fuss about that ;)

I hope their reunion turns out to be as refreshing as the memories it kindles.

*Pictures courtesy: Philly.com

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Scandalous Virtue in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

"But sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom."--Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell's last novel was a delight to read, and I am only sorry that she never lived to finish it. Although the ending seems clear, I would still have wished to drink more of Mrs. Gaskell's prose, until the very last drop. The writing, thought not dense, had enough wit to hold the reader's interest. The plot, like the writing, can seem unremarkable on the surface. But a closer look beneath the surface is all that's needed to see contradictions.

The novel is, essentially, a story of relationships, and this is what makes it timeless. We can all relate to feelings of filial affection, parental intrusion, neighbors' reproofs, and sibling rivalry. While Molly appears to be a docile, sheltered girl, we know that this isn't really case. She has lost her mother, a traumatic experience for any child, although how much it has affected her isn't clear until much later. Her father, Mr. Gibson, marries another woman when Molly is seventeen and just on the cusp of adulthood. When the new Mrs. Gibson and her daughter arrive, that is when Molly's (seemingly) idyllic life is about to be turned upside down. Molly learns the nuances of social conduct. She learns to balance her own moral integrity with the social restraint that is required. She also forms new relationships with the Cumnors and the Hamleys, and her behavior brings her just rewards.

In the DVD's commentary, one of the crew members remarked something to the effect of: "Molly is like the sun, with everything else fanning out from her". I wondered how much of this was true. I think it is true that Gaskell meant for Molly to be the heroine. But what I find more interesting are the peripheral characters. They are more complicated, well drawn characters than Molly. In fact, without them, Molly's character would lose much of the luster that she is credited for.


As Mr. Gibson says in the opening lines quoted in this post, I think it is the "foolish people" in this story who steal the show. There's Osborne, who trangresses beyond all the bounds expected of him, and whose actions accelerate his doom. When Osborne marries a girl far beneath him, and fails in his examinations, he questions his worth in the eyes of his proud father. Even when his mother, Mrs. Hamley, lies on her deathbed, Osborne still fails to confess to her. His relationship with his father deteriorates as his marital relationship bears fruit. As Osborne worsens, his wife gives birth to their son, and the child blossoms in health and vigor. Already there is a sense that the old order is breaking down. The Hamleys' station in the social ladder, as Squire Hamley knows it, will no longer be the same. The aristocracy will be replaced by a new class, and in fact, one that includes foreigners, as Aimee comes to live at Hamley Hall. The 'old order' also includes old ways of social behavior, and virtue. It is implied that it is no longer a world full of innocence, but is rather one ripe with dangers--the dangers of change. Osborne's world of poetry is now being replaced by one of science: the days of chivalry and arthurian Romance will give way to enlightenment's Rationality.

Osborne's female equivalent is Cynthia. Cynthia's place in the moral spectrum is even more ambigous than Osborne's. She is, nevertheless, very interesting, and we are meant to like and sympthize with her, like Molly, the heroine we are rooting for. Cynthia is, by all appearances, a coquette, but she isn't a simpleton. Throughout the novel, Molly and Mr. Gibson praise her for her wit. She is kind to Molly and Mr Gibson is fond of her. She is vivacious and lively. Furthermore, she listens with enthusiasm. She is not immune to vanity, however, and that does threaten to ruin her. We find ourselves interested in her "imbroglio", just as much as we find ourselves immersed in Osborne's.

Though raised, like Molly, by a single-parent, Cynthia has had a less sheltered life, which speaks to the status of women in nineteenth-century. Unlike Mr. Gibson who can practice medicine and protect his daughter, Cynthia's mother, Hyacinth, could not do any such thing. The only respectable path open to her was to work as a governess, which meant she had to leave her daughter behind in a school. As Margaret Forster has shown in 'Lady's Maid', it must be very difficult for a woman to secure employment if she had a child of her own. Unsupervised, Cynthia has only herself to turn to for moral guidance. Her mother, occupied with earning her keep, and open to flattery and admiration herself, cannot provide that guidance to Cynthia. So Cynthia falls prey to others' good opinion of her: she craves attention constantly, although she cannot "love deeply " as much as Molly.


Cynthia attracts attention simply by being young, beautiful, and interesting. Young men fall for her more for her beauty than for her wit. They imagine Cynthia as the paragon of womanhood, instead of seeing her for who she is. This masculine definition of her is precisely what she must escape from, but in the absence of a network of women to teach her manners, as Molly has, she becomes a victim. Cynthia is a creation of male fantasies: she is everything men want, and yet, they cannot have her faulty. They elevate her, even when she is fickle, they refute her, even when she says the truth. And as men flock to her, she is blamed for attracting them. Mr. Preston gets aggressive about his demands, even though she keeps refusing him. And Mr. Gibson is unsympathetic to her at one point. While it is easier to forgive Osborne for his scandalous marriage, it is harder to forgive a girl for entangling herself in scandal. This just shows how women can be pliant: Aimee is "sweet and submissive" and so easily controlled, while it is harder to believe that a woman could control a man (e.g. if Cynthia or Molly could control Mr. Preston's apparent vulgarity). Although Cynthia does not love Roger very much, he still pursues her, believing in the image of her instead of the reality. In the end, it is by acknowlegding her fickleness to Mr. Henderson that she gains a partner who now accepts her for who she is. Having learned her mistakes, she vows that she will "place her own happiness before anyone else" in choosing a husband.

If scandal has virtue, we see it in Molly's coming-of-age. Though at the start Molly is inexperienced to matters of sexuality, she changes towards the end. Though docile and proper, and in some ways invisible compared to Cynthia, it is Molly who holds the two biggest secrets at the heart of the novel. She is faithful to her promises of secrecy, and we wonder what would have happened if she acted differently: if she had confessed to Squire Hamley, would Osborne still be alive? If she has confessed her love for Roger, would he still have fancied Cynthia for two years? If she has told her father the truth about Cynthia, would Mr. Gibson have doubted her?

It is important that these secrets pass through Molly because they are necessary for her growing up, for her own "awakening". By knowing Osborne's past, she is aware of a passion that trancends filial duty. Early on, Molly was compared to a little French girl, and this echoes later in the novel, when Molly contact Osborne's French wife, and the two grow close.

Through Cynthia's actions, Molly sees the sincerity and falshood in romantic attachments. She also becomes aware of her love for Roger. She sees that her love for him is constant. His love for Cynthia is steady while Cynthia's wavers. Molly also has a chance to act bravely on behalf of another, to take actions into her own hands, when she helps Cynthia to stave off Mr. Preston. At the same time, she learns that Mr. Preston is not wholly bad. Being in company with Cynthia throws Molly into Mr. Preston's way, which symbolically throws her in the way of sexual awakening.

Finally, it is important to note that towards the end, Molly behaves very much like Cynthia. She is sophisticated, witty, and plays hard-to-get, albeit unintentionally. Molly's earnestly talking to another suitor makes Roger jealous, prompting him to pursue her. The more she resists him, the more he is drawn to her. When Molly falls ill, Roger pays attention to her, in very much the same way he paid attention to Cynthia when she was in low spirits. As Molly grows up in the midst of scandal, and as matters are resolved for the other characters, the novel shows that scandal holds a virtue--a different virtue than one defined by conventional (masculine) terms.

*Pictures credit: Masterpiece Theater

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Lawyer and the Leech

Among the many themes coursing through Dickens' Bleak House and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the theme of the forbidden love affair takes center stage in both novels.

The Scarlet Letter opens with Hester Prynne, holding an infant at her bosom, standing on a pedestal before the villagers and magistrates who question her regarding the father of her illegitimate child. She refuses to answer such a question and goes on to live a secluded life with her baby girl, Pearl, so that she may pay penance for her 'sin'. However, despite removing herself from the public eye, she is never free from scrutiny, especially from the watchful eyes of her ruthless husband, Roger Chillingworth. The person who shares her 'crime' of adultery is also never far away, and ridden with guilt and remorse, his secret slowly consumes him.

The instigator of wounds in Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan preacher who struggles with his love for Hester and his duty towards his faith and community, is Hester's lawful husband, Roger Chillingworth, who claims that he is a physician familiar with herbal remedies. Instead of curing the preacher, who complains of heart troubles, he sets out to do the opposite. As he is aware of his wife's secret, he leaks the information to the preacher by and by in a subtle manner, so that the preacher, naive and unsuspecting, begins to trust his physician and blame himself for his weakness. Eventually, the physician has so much control over his patient that, like a parasite, he gnaws at his flesh and his soul, bringing the pastor to his tragic end.

In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock, who has bottled up a similar secret of her own for many years, finds herself threatened with the risk of exposure, when she recognizes a letter written in the hand of the man she once loved, and then catches a glimpse of their child, whose existence was previously withheld from her.

Here it is the lawyer Tulkinghorn who functions as the leech. Insisting that his only concern is to protect his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Lady Dedlock's husband, he makes it knows to the Lady that he will stick to his word at "whatever the cost maybe to others." Once he puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he taunts Lady Dedlock psychologically and emotionally, which wrecks deeper havoc than anything physical would have done.

Though Lady Dedlock, outwardly, wears the icy reserve she has trained herself to wear for so long, inside she is full of turmoil. Only when we see my Lady in her private chambers do we realize the extent of the pain she carries within her. In the innermost corners of the house she finds a private space enough to betray a little of the emotions she keeps at bay. There she is kind to Rosa, her maid, bestowing a motherly tenderness towards that young girl. And when she is finally left to retire for the night, she is driven frantic with worry, her hair and clothes left in disarray.

But Tulkinghorn is the only other person who is a match for her. He watches her every move and sees the flutter of panic in her eyes that would be undiscernible to anyone else, even her husband. Just as she behaves calm and collected on the outside, Tulkinghorn acts as if her secret matters little to him while becoming just as obsessed with it himself. It affords him an opportunity to manipulate her according to his whims, so that she will be supple under his commands.

Both Tulkinghorn and Chillingorth are driven by a ruthless greed for power. They thrive from controlling their victims, from overpowering them, and seeing them destroyed. They are persons who dismiss the idea of personal freedom and human choice. They are self-intersted individuals, the most perverted of villains, who employ weapons of such emotional magnitude.

While Chillingworth is driven to do so primarily out of a need for revenge, Tulkinghorn's motives are not so clear. Though Chillingworth does not want Hester anymore and believes she is punished enough, he still resents her for protecting the identity of her lover so fiercely. Thus, he sets to give just deserts to Dimmesdale so that Hester will never be able to unite with him. Tulkinghorn, on the other hand, has no interests in Lady Dedlock, other than the fact that she is the wife of a powerful aristocrat, who happens to be his client. He is well aware that Sir Leicester adores his wife. I believe that Tulkinghorn resents Lady Dedlock for her power. She is "not of a great family," but has managed to marry well and carry out her duties as a Lady befitting her new station. She instills both fear and respect in other people. She is admired by high Society for her beauty and her conduct. She can dismiss her irate maid Hortense and just as soon welcome another maid, Rosa, who admires her for her kindness, all at her will. Nothing angers Tulkinghorn more than knowing that Lady Dedlock has worked so hard to mask the enormity of her past. And so, he vows to destroy her, admitting that "the power and force of this woman are astonishing!"(Chapter 41).

Though both Chillingworth and Tulkinghorn are bent on destroying their victims' reputations, Chillingworth succeeds in calling Religion into question, while Tulkinghorn's deeds are focused on the boundaries of a woman's power. Between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock lies a battle of the sexes: when the Lady tries to break free fron the chains that bind her, the male, a lawyer, representing the confines of 19th century Society, is determined to bring her down. Unlike Hester Prynne, who shuns the public and meekly pays penance for her sins, Lady Dedlock is at the center of high society, and tries to bravely retain her power and her dignity until the very end. It is important to note that despite differences in their conducts, there are visceral ties that bind the two women: their daughters, born out of the same sin, are a living testament to their mothers' spirits, courage, intelligence, and endurance.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Fate of Lady's Maids

I've spent the past two weeks with the Brownings while reading Margaret Foster's Lady's Maid and now that I've finished the book, I feel the pangs of withdrawal. I keep waiting to traverse the rooms of Case Guidi, or learn of Mrs. Browning's disposition, or see Pen's frolics, and then it takes a while before I register that it is "all over."

Though I flipped the last page of this book only this morning, I still feel like there is more I'll come home to. The book was long, but I never found it tedious, which surprises me. It was an easy read, and nothing too convoluted or dense like other novels in the same genre that I've read recently. Forster centers the story around Lily Wilson, Mrs. Browning's maid, and so most of the story is told from her perspective. Not being an inquiring sort, or an intellectual, Lily Wilson's life revolves around caring for her own family and her mistress. Thus, the book chiefly, and rightly, deals with the concerns of a servant: we are given insight into the Barrett household, Mrs. Browning's illness and medications, the landscape of different places in England and Italy, and the carnal desires that drive all people, both the learned and the uneducated. In many ways this novel is a study of the 19th century, with a focus on class, especially with regard to that of the working poor.

The novel pays little attention to Mrs. Browning's poetry, or her role as an artist of her time. All we are told is that she is famous, and it ends there. Mrs. Browning also does not discuss her poems with Wilson, and I suppose this is expected as the latter was quite a simpleton compared to the former. But was this so? The novel does not offer easy answers. Lily Wilson, though uneducated, feels a lot more than she is given credit for. She is attuned to the suffering of others, especially that of her mistress, whom she adores. She is not immune to needing companionship and makes a few lasting friendships. She does have maternal feelings and does what is best, in her eyes, for her children. But above all else, she is loyal, and never wavers in her loyalty, even when she is no longer hired by the Brownings.

The fate of Lily speaks to the fate of all women of her class: where does the lady's maid stand in the social ladder? How intimate are her relationship with her employers? How can she continue to be loyal at the price of her family's suffering? Who is to provide for her if she became ill, and more importantly, if she had children?

All these questions point to the "woman question" that was vital to 19th century discourse: What are women to do when they have lost all? How could a single woman surivive if she is barred from advancing professionally like her male counterparts? To what extents would women be driven to stay out of the workhouse and what impact does this have on the rest of the society, let alone the women themselves?

Hortense, Lady Dedlocks's maid in Bleak House, is publicly dimissed by her mistress and struggles to find another suitable position. Unlike Rosa, her submissive rival maid, Hortense is aggressive and unabashed. She is loquacious about her position in life, stressing that she would have no where to go if she were unemployed. This aggression of hers, motivated by the depravity of her situation, does not win her any friends, unfortunately. Everyone rejects her, including Lady Dedlock, who hides behind the veil of her iciness. When Hortense' faith in Mr. Tulkinghorn fails, she takes matters into her own hands. While patience and righteousness might have saved her, or at least prolonged her life, her drastic action, committed out of despair, speeds her downfall.

But I ask: Is the judgement on Hortense fair?

Can a woman, who has lost her employment and is denied help, who is on the verge of entering the poorhouse, only to possibly starve or be exploited there, be expected to make sane decisions? Would it have been far better for Hortense to die than for Tulkinghorn, whose evil deeds wreck havoc on the lives of many more innocent people?

And more importantly, while we cannot esteem Hortense' temper, can we do the opposite for mute submission? Does Lily Wilson's endless sacrifice to her mistress trump over Hortense's efforts to escape poverty?

Who is the better woman?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Persistence of Memories

In a mini-reading excursion I undertook on my own, I read Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter, and Susan Minot's Evening. Both books deal with the role of memories and how they continue to exert their effects long after the events have taken place. I compared these two novels to Penelope Lively's The Photograph, which I had read not too long ago.


In Evening, 65 year-old Ann Lord, the protagonist, is dying of cancer, and in her deathbed, remembers events that happened over forty years ago. That summer weekend long ago, Ann had traveled to Maine to attend her friend Lila's wedding. That meeting was pivotal in her life, for it was there that she met her true love, a man she loved and lost. Realizing the futility of their relationship, Ann later marries three different men and bears five children. But none of them knows the story of their mother: the passion she harbored, the guilt she has bottled, and her courage in striving to lead a happier life for her children's sake.



As Ann starts hallucinating, she recalls vividly the summer of her youth, and it is at this point that her children begin to understand her. As she lay dying, it is Harris' face that she remembers the most, it is the memory of their time together, however brief, that she clings to. However, in learning to deal with her imminent death, she must learn to see her relationship with Harris as more than what she romanticized it to be. She must see the effects of that relationship: the tragedy that befell the Wintennborn that mirrors her inner turmoil, her misjudgement of love, her hard, practical exterior which masked her inner, more sensitive nature that she concealed. As a result, her children were deprived of knowing their mother for the woman she used to be, which increased the distance between all of them.

In Evening, Susan Minot shows that in the last days of a woman's life, what matters most to her are the few moments of bliss that she tasted in her youth. These memories comfort her towards the end of her life, and paradoxically, help her to 'live' at the same time. Ann does not die grieving, but instead, lives her past, a past she has blotted out of her memories while saddled with responsibilities that come from being a wife and mother. Only by re-living her past, and by coming to terms with its effects, could she finally lay herself to rest: only in living could she die.
In contrast to Evening, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, shows that it is not possible to blot out memories of our past, even for an instant, because the past follows us wherever we go. While Ann Lord manges to blot out her memories until the end of her life, the Henrys face dire consequence throughout Memory Keeper, as a result of a single act committed by David Henry.

In Memory Keeper, David Henry is consistantly haunted by his past and never escapes it: his experiences of living in poverty and watching his sister die tragically propels him to try and fix everyone's problem. He becomes a doctor so that she can cure people of disease. But more importantly, he is concerned with eliminating pain and heartache: he could not endure his loved ones facing pain the way he did when he was growing up.

Thus, when his wife gives birth to twins, he sends away his disabled baby daughter, who is born with Down's syndrome, and orders his nurse to put her in a home. He tells his wife later, as she regains consciousness after her birth, that one of their twins has died. When his wife Norah, stricken with grief, plans a memorial services to bring some kind of closure, David Henry retaliates: in a strained manner, he reproaches his wife for having a memorial service so soon, while his wife accuses him of not feeling enough pain for the loss of their daughter. And so begins their path of misunderstanding, that will eventually lead to the family's downfall. Norah, unable to understand her husband's secrecy and emotional distace, copes in her own way by succumbing to different affairs with other men to find relief. David, ever guilty, permits her to do so, even though he is hurt in the process. And their son Paul, the living twin, is also eager to learn more about his father, and feels the void in the family as he watches his parents drift apart.

Norah remembers her daughter at every instant and she at first cannot see Paul without pain, although she learns to support him for what he wants to do, that is become a musician. David expects more from Paul because he feels guilty for giving up his daughter and robbing her of opportunities that his son, born more perfect than his daughter, is given. And while the Henry family breaks down, Pheobe, the discarded daughter, thrives with her surrogate mother, the nurse Carolyn Gill. Though disabled, she learns to surivive on her own, by getting a good education and then a job, all with the help of Carolyn, who fights for Pheobe's rights to a better life.
David's memories of his childhood, watching his sickly sister June die of a heart condition, haunts him all his life, as do his actions of the day that his twins were born. Phoebe is like a physical representation of memory: as the Henry family cannot let go of its memories, Phoebe continues to exist. She shows that memory will live and flourish, and haunt. Her existence causes both pain and joy, just as memories do, as Ann Lord would find at the end of her life. Knowing that Pheobe is doing well does make her father David Henry proud, but the same time, grossly ashamed for what he has done to give her up and conceal that from his wife.

Kim Edward shows us that memory cannot be defined and it will surprise us. Phoebe trancends classification: she has Down' syndrome, but she is also more self-sufficient that what one would expect of her. She does have feelings like a normal person, and more importantly she has enormous capacity for forgiveness and love. She bridges the gap between the two families: she shows Norah that David isn't the epitome of evil when he gave her away, and she shows Paul that there are things he must understand about his father. By leading her life as brightly as she could every day, Phoebe shows everyone that you cannot take life for granted: it is precious, though conflicted. You have to take it day by day, with both its joys and pains, while cherishing it for what it is.

Similar themes are evoked in Lively's The Photograph. Once again, memory re-enters people's lives and changes it in a manner they did not expect. Here, a single photograph is shown to create chaos in the lives of many people. At the same time, we see that the photograph can bring them together. The photograph, in essence, is the representation for memory, just as Phoebe is in Memory Keeper.
In this book, Lively shows the persistence of memory by weaving this story around the absent Kath. From the opening pages, Kath is always there in the lives of everyone who knew her, though we, the readers, never see her. Unlike Phoebe, who is alive, Kath is dead. While Edwards is of the belief that memory will always exist, and take a physical form, even if it is damaged, Lively believes that memory does not need merely a physical form to represent it: it can exist in a metaphysical manner. Even if the matter of the photograph was never brought up, Kath would still continue to fill the minds of all who knew her. Thus, in The Photograph, memory is shown to be even more abstract, but also very tangible, by its abstractness. Memories of Kath fill others' minds in such a vivid manner that it seems like Kath is alive in the flesh; we sense her just as we sense anything else. It almost feels to the reader as if Kath is not dead after all. Lively creates this effect by the title of her chapters: we find chapters with titles of Glyn and Elaine just as we find chapters with Kath and Elaine.
Just as the birth of the twins catalyses the events to follow in Memory Keeper, Glyn's finding the photograph of his wife catalyses the events in this book. The photograph is crucial for Elaine to understand her sister, just as it is important for David Henry, through his journey in the book, to understand his love for his sister and his parents. The photograph leads Elaine to seek Mary Packard, Kath's friend, and to learn another side of Kath that she kept hidden from the rest of the world. It is in understanding Kath for who she was, instead of re-living the memories of who she was perceived to be, that Elaine finally comes to terms with Kath as a person. Kath is given form, to the rest of the characters who aren't given the same insight as us, the readers, when she is perceived as someone real: when she is seen as someone who has known both joy and sorrow.

Like in Evening, The Photograph shows us that memories are strongly tied around death. All three novels force us to question what makes death such a powerful motive for making us confront our deepest desires and our darkest secrets. While death, either our own, or a loved one's, makes us re-live our past through our memories, such a second 'living' is different for each of us: it can either be transient, or it can have lasting effects. While Ann Lord dies after the powerful surge of her memories, Phoebe lives on, and Elaine mends her relationship with her sister and her family.
Do memories cause death or are they an effect? Are memories the means to escape death, or do they allow us to embrace it, unafraid, unprejudiced, and willing?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lady Dedlock's Trap

And I've been caught. I am very intrigued by Lady Dedlock and she continues to haunt Bleak House. As for this fabulous production, I can't commend it enough. Suffice it to say, I think I've endured enough sores and pins and needles while attempting to sit still and watch a series that has more than six hours of viewing time.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I am afraid my ramblings on The Thirteenth Tale will be be withheld momentarily until I find enough time to devote to discussing it.

The days have been very full lately. This semester I had signed up to take two classes and I just finished the coursework for one class. But once I turned in my portfolio for that class, I told myself that I should take a little break before I start on the research paper for the other class. This assignment needs to be 25 pages long and I've finally decided to write it on Kate Chopin's The Awakening. The novel is quite a treasure, really, and provides much food for thought. Edna Pontellier's 'awakening' speaks volumes about the experiences of women in parts of the world in the present day. No wonder the novel is a staple for Women's Studies courses.

I have to spend the next few weeks working on this project and I expect to complete it in June. I can't wait to relax a little this summer.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Child of Rage

Diane Setterfield's debut novel The Thirteenth Tale is a study of the female experience, especially with regard to childhood. She explores the concept of childhood and transition through the prism of twin-ship.

In The Thirteenth Tale, Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer, is invited to write a biography of the famous writer Vida Winters. Through the course of her stay at Ms. Winters' residence, Margart learns the power of Ms. Winters' story-telling, and to distinguish between fact and fiction. Most importantly, she learns to read between the lines, to pay just as much attention to a subplot, as the story being narrated. As Vida and Margaret embark on a journey together, secrets about their pasts are revealed, secrets that connect the two women. Both women come to terms with the ghosts that haunt them, and learn what it is to suffer, cherish, and endure.

As the title of this post suggests, the novel makes references to children, and how they are dealt with in other works of literature. The two most important books alluded to are Brontë's Jane Eyre, and James' The Turn of the Screw. Wuthering Heights also assumes a degree of importance. These novels are seamlessly embedded throught Setterfield's mastery of intertextuality.

The Angelfield family's isolation and lack of parental figures is reminiscent of the Earnshaws in Wuthering Heights and the inhabitants of Bly in James' novel. While the two children, Isabelle and Charlie engage in a disturbing relationship, Miles and Flora's behavior toward each other also raises similar questions. Setterfield's Hester Burrow is the counterpart to the governess in James' story. Both Hester and James' governess view ghosts. Hester, like the governess, is eager to solve the mystery of the children's behavior. Like the governess, she becomes increasingly sexually aware. We learn that Hester and the married doctor, who is a guardian figure for the twins, entertain a scandalous relationship. Children are used as a vehicle to project adult relationships. Setterfield's twins, Adeline and Emmeline, have already had a tainted birth, and now help to bring Hester and the doctor together. Similarly, Miles and Flora are responsible for the governess' awakening sense of sexuality, as shown through Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship. Both novels question the children's innocence: can children be 'tainted'? Can children feel just as adults feel? Are children capable of doing harm? Are children sexually aware?

Tale is similar to Wuthering Heights in its exploration of brother-sister relationships. Furthermore, there are vivid discriptions of violence, much like that found in Wuthering Heights. Just as Catherine and Heathcliff have a relationship that could potentially be called incestous, Isabelle and Charlie's relationship is anything but virtuous. Adeline and Emmeline's relationship is akin to that of soulmates, thus resembling Catherine and Heathcliff's. Hindley's ability to inflict pain is similar to Charlie's. Linton is an absent, but doting father, just as George is to Isabelle. While the Heights has Nelly and Joseph for servants, Angelfield has the Missus and John as its caretakers. The most important point that links Tales to Wuthering Heights is the foundling-child: Heathcliff, when Mr. Earnshaw finds him, is initially dirty and malnourished. Ms. Winter, like Heathcliff, is an orphan and in a similar state when the servants find her, and is brought up in Angelfield as if she was one of the family, while all the time aware of the fact that she will always be an outsider, a charity's child.

Setterfield's novel is densely filled with references to Jane Eyre. Angelfield shares a suffix with Thornfield. The secret is revealed through its connection to Jane Eyre. Just as Jane is an outsider, Ms. Winter represents the rejected relative. Both Jane and Ms. Winter are fond of reading and often steal to the library with caution. Jane is close to Bessy just as Ms. Winter is close to the Missus. The Missus and John have a platonic relationship while Bessy and her John marry while at Gateshead. Aurelius inherits his true 'family' just as Jane finds hers at the end. Both Angelfield and Thornfield burn down, as a result of the "other" women, women who show a split in identity.

This split of identity is shown by the existance of the twins: Adeline and Emmilne are shown to be polar opposites. Emmilines overflows with kindness while Adeline is filled with rage. Adeline is possessive while Emmeline is passive. Emmeline is naive, and albeit, rather dimwitted, while Adeline is more manipulative. In Brontë's novel, Bertha is akin to Adeline and Emmeline, in some sense, is akin to Jane. Emmeline is innocense while Adeline is passion, and its extreme, violence. Tales suggests that these two disparate natures can in fact be united. More imporantly, that they are two parts of a coin, yin and yang; that one will not surivive without the other, just as the twins pine for each other when they are seperated. There is an intangible cord of sympathy that connects Adeline and Emmline just as there is a 'cord of communion' that links Jane and Bertha. It is Adeline's possessiveness of her sister that brings her to destroy the "innocent", the baby, just like it is Bertha's possessiveness that tempts her to destory Jane, and later, Thornfield.

By offering us Ms. Winter, Setterfield suggests that the extremes of the likes of Adeline and Emmeline, Jane and Bertha, can in fact coexist within a single individual. But at the same time, Setterfield also points us that this third person, who outwardly resembles the twins, is merely a ghost. Like a ghost she can exert her influence but also disappear at ease. But I wonder what implications this can have in terms of freedom. While it allows Ms. Winter to gain access to worlds that she would otherwise have been shunned from, she is also not noticed, and has to live in stealth. Her freedom, while immense, is also fragile.
The last few weeks, or months rather, were filled with a flurry of activities. I had had to make important decisions regarding my job and graduate school. Trying to complete the coursework for two classes only made me more frazzled. Campus visits and extension requests aside, I spent the better part of this past weekend attempting to relax and catch up on things I used to enjoy. I watched The Namesake on Saturday and spent all of Sunday (unsual for me!) curled up on the couch, reading Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Intrigued by this story, I couldn't resist putting my thoughts into words and this will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Temptations of the Imagination: A Review of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia

Katherine Pateron's book Bridge to Terabithia is one that speaks to both adults and children alike. It's a story of the bonds of friendship, family ties, courage, and most importantly, the power of the Imagination. Having seen the newly released film, I realize that the story contains a message that strikes the core of the human conscious: we all search for that elusive "other", who is often refered to as best friend, or most likely, soulmate. Jesse and Leslie not only share a beautiful friendship, but they also share feelings that arise from being "different". Their friendship also remains platonic and I believe that it's this very nature of their frienship that elevates this story from being just another teen boy-meets-girl tale. By abandoning their more adult (sexual) desires, and remaining as children, Leslie and Jesse are able to indulge in their imaginations, and in the process find freedom, courage, and a love that transcends the earthly.

The story revolves around two fifth-grade children: Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. Leslie and Jesse's friendship forms when Leslie beats Jesse (the then 'fastest boy in fifth-grade') in a school race. Jesse, though mortified at first, later learns that Leslie is far from a Miss Goody Two-Shoes. She is different from the other girls in school and gets just as many insults from the school bullies for dressing differently (in punk/hippie items), not having a television at home, and living with eccentric parents who are both authors. Jesse's interest in Leslie grows when he hears her read an essay she coined for a class assignment. Her desciption of scuba-diving totally wins Jesse, who is himself a talented artist, prone to sketching magical creatures in his sketchbook, much to the chagrin of his father, who would much rather his son didn't have his 'head in the clouds'. Though both Jesse and Leslie are ignored by their parents, Leslie has a closer bond with her father while the only person in his family who seems to value him is his six year-old little sister May Bell. One day, Leslie and Jesse cross over a little stream (with the help of a rope attached to a tree) and find a forest that Leslie names 'Terabithia'. Together, Jesse and Leslie imagine ruling this Kingdom as King and Queen, respectively, strengthening their fort (a tree house), and warding off their enemies, which include large squirrels, trolls, and giants. Then, a tragic event happens, which tests Jesse's faith in Leslie, their friendship, and teaches him about overcoming his fears and making a difference.

Terabithia represents the Imagination. Paterson's choice of title makes a reference to C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia , in which Terabinthia is a land in the vicinity of Narnia. It is important to note that Terabithia exists when the children are in the land that lies beyond the stream. The children have to cross over to that land in order to construct their magical kingdom. In the land of their every day lives, Terabithia does not exist. Even Leslie, in a house with writers for parents, needs to escape to her own world, away from that of her parents, and she needs an accomplice, a friend who will share her visions and allow them to flourish. Whereas both children were lonely in their respective homes, they are no longer the same in Terabithia, for they have each other and their Imaginations to keep them company there. In this sense, the book suggests that one needs a space that would allow one freedom to imagine, in the vein of Virginia Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own.

The children's friendship blossoms when the two worlds, the World of the Imagination, and Real World, are split. Jesse and Leslie cannot discuss Terabithia in their real worlds. But the book asks the question whether this must always be the case. Can the two worlds coexist, or are they exclusive? Can we build a bridge between the two worlds or are they very distant from each other?

It seems that Paterson is ambigous about answering this question: while it is possible to build a bridge, and Jesse contrives to do that at the end, we also see that the 'bridgeing' comes at a tragic cost. In some sense, Paterson suggests that building a bridge between the Real and the Fantastic, is a task worthy of immense sacrifice. It is the result of a fall from innocence to experience, except that while "They (Adam and Eve) hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,/Through Eden took thir solitarie way," Jesse enters the "New World" without Leslie. However, as he bridges the two worlds, he has his sister's hand to hold onto for support, and so we learn the importance of family. Just as Leslie had taught him to have his 'mind open wide', he applies that and teaches May Bell to do that same.

As humans, we strive to bridge the two worlds. Leslie succumbs to the Imagination more than Jesse. The Imagination, like a temptress, encroaches upon the Rational side of her. She can no longer keep the two aspects of her life (one as a girl in the Real World, and the other as ruler of Terabithia) seperate, and so she attempts to bridge the two first. Thus, Leslie is the first to cross that stream on that fatal day, even though the torrential rain had caused flooding and had probably weakened the rope. She was too eager to escape into her fantasy world, risking her own life in the process. In the absence of a bridge, a safe way of crossing over to the other place, Leslie makes a leap that triggers the events that follow.

Another important detail consists in the fact that on that fateful day, Jesse is out of the country. He is out of the world that foster's his literary imagination. He is out of the dirt and grime of his simple country shack, and the woods of Terabithia. When he embarks on that trip with his teacher, he enters the modern city: he enters Modernity, the World of Rationality. Here, instead of him doing the drawing, he views the exhibits of art by dead painters. Thus, in the modern world, Art is displayed instead of created. The book suggests that while in the city, like the other artists, Jesse the artist, is also dead. He is no longer the one who does the creating, as he did while in Terabithia. In a sense, when Jesse metaphorically dies in the city, Leslie literally interprets this act in the country. As soulmates, Jesse and Leslie need each other to be alive, for their imaginations to soar. Without the other, each feels betrayed, changes, and cannot cope. Incidentally, this idea is also central to love theme in Wuthering Heights.

I could elaborate further about this story, but it would suffice to end this post on this note: Bridge to Terabithia is beyond wonderful. In fact, Wonderful is an understatement. It is one of the best stories I have ever read. With its rich symbolisim, as well as inherant simplicity, Bridge speaks to not only the child, but rather, the human, in all of us. Like the moonbeams Leslie captures in her purse, Katherine Paterson's tale has faithfully captured the essence of what it means to live, love, and endure.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Visual DNA



I found this in another blog and tried it myself. I invite all my readers to try it too! :)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jane Austen - why the fuss?

This interesting article about Jane Austen is worth a read! It contextualizes the discourse in Women's Literature.

Here's an excerpt that mentions the Brontë sisters:

"It's all too graceful and lacks guts, says writer Zoe Williams, who prefers those other 19th Century romantic writers - the Brontë sisters."

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Scarlet Letter and the Elf-Child

As one of the most fascinating characters I've ever come across in Literature, Pearl stands as a symbol of great Art, both through Hawthorne's characterization of her, and her actions through the course of the novel.

We are introduced to Pearl at the very beginning and it could be argued that if it wasn't for her, the novel The Scarlet Letter would not exist. The novel opens with a community of puritans surrounding a scaffold on which stands a young woman, Hester Prynne, Pearl's mother, holding her infant. Hester had been convicted of adultery and had just borne a bastard child. Indeed, Pearl enters the world aware of the scarlet letter A attached to her mother's bosom. When the magistrates of the town demand that she reveal the father of the child so that he too can share the burden, Hester does not comply, but accedes to face the humiliation alone. Later, after her hour of ignominy, Hester takes residence at an isolated cottage, away from the rest of the village, striving to earn a living for her and her child through her handiwork. Thus, from an early age, Hester adorns Pearl in beautiful garments while she remains modestly dressed, her hair covered and the letter A, albeit finely decorated, permanent attached to her bosom.

Removed from the rest of civilization, except on occasional trips to the town with her mother, Pearl is essentialy a child of the forest, for she belongs to Nature. She is allowed to roam freely, make up her own games and playmates, and learn the world anew, a world in which the Nature within is given full rein.

Pearl's external beauty is a result of the innocence and freedom she has within her. She is her mother's companion as well as her savior; she's loving, curious, and brave; she plays with the animals and is one with the plants and flowers. Intrigued by the scarlet letter on her mother's breast, Pearl constantly questions Hester as to its meaning and at one point even tells her she wants to be like her mother. Most of all, Pearl asks for genuine love and affection from Hester and the minister, Arthur Dimmsdale. When the latter refuses to hold her hand in public in the daytime, Pearl is crushed and loses her faith in the minister. To Pearl, who lacks a strong father figure or a happy mother figure, the only symbol of constancy is the scarlet letter. She becomes almost as obsessed with it as the villagers who were responsible for making Hester wear it. She touches it, plays with it, and contructs and imitation of it on the grass during one of her games.

Although the scarlet letter is initially a symbol of punishment, it becomes a source of strength for Hester and Pearl. Hester is able to exert her independence and earn a living of her own because of it. As both Hester and Pearl are marginalized, they have freedom to do things the other townspeaople cannot. Though Hester lacks friends, she is able to form a closer bond with her daughter and learn something from her. Pearl thrives more while being marginalized, for she is able to be 'wild' to her heart's content, just like the reeds that grown on the river bank. Pearl does not govern by Puritan rules but rather, by the laws of Nature. Nature is indeed on her side, for Pearl's existance is a result of love, a feeling that cannot be governed by any law, but the divine. In this sense, Hawthorne equates the Divine with Nature, which translates to Pearl being a symbol of a divine Angel. Further, she is faithful to her feelings, unlike the adults around her, and that is itself admirable. She is passionate and speaks out even if her mother does not. She is protective of her mother and wards off other people who threaten to harm her or her mother.

In a scene riddled with symbolism, Pearl uses the scarlet letter to change her mother. Towards the end of the novel, Arthur and Hester reconcile and Hester convinces him to return to England so that they can live obscure but free lives. In one of the most moving passages of the novel, Hester strips herself of the scarlet letter and hurls it across the ground. She also releases her hair from its clasp so that her rich tresses tumble down in waves about her. She remarks to Arthur that in the forest, at this time, the scarlet letter will no longer burn her even if she wears it, because she is with none other than her companion in 'crime'. As she gets rid of the scarlet letter, she tastes a hint of freedom, even for a brief instance. When Hester calls Pearl, who was playing by herself on the opposite side of the stream, the child refuses to return to her mother's arms. Speechless, and stunned, Pearl points to her mother's chest, and with an understanding sigh, Hester retrieves the scarlet letter, hooks it back in its place and bundles her hair into its previous hairstyle. As she does so, Pearl happily skips over the stream and embraces her mother, for now she recognizes her. Thus, Pearl orders her mother into submission by using the scarlet letter. While it is posession and constancy on Pearl's side, her actions also suggest oedipal tensions, for the child, seeing her mother decked in natural beauty, winning the affection of a man, who is essentially Pearl's father, is roused with jealousy, and so attempts to strip her mother of charms that will win over her own. Hester thus resigns herself to the tribulations associated with wearing the letter A.

It is interesting to note that Pearl is a sparkling character when she is a child. She is repeatedly refered to as elfin, child of the forest, impish, and fairy-like. Through her bright, bubbly, passionate nature, Pearl wins the affections of the townspeople, the minister, and even Roger Chillingworth, the novels antagonist and Hester's legal husband. In the novel's conclusion, we learn that Hester and Pearl leave for England. Pearl is hightly sought-after for she inherits a large sum of money from Roger Chillingworth, upon his death. We are told that she later marries and possibly has a child of her own. Nothing else is mentioned about Pearl, and in fact, we are left to only infer certain facts about her, for she never appears on her own. Why is this so? Why does Pearl assume so little importance towards the end of the novel when she played a prominent role until that point? Does Pearl's transformation into a 'proper woman' in England, her marriage, and motherhood, signify that she is no longer worth talking about?

By taming the elf-child, does Hawthorne applaud Pearl for her sucess, or is he, like the readers, disappointed with her for succumbing to the pressures of a 'modern, rational, ordered' world?

[The insert is from "Pearl and the Scarlet Letter". Wood engraving by George M. Richards. From "The Scarlet Letter" (New York: Macmillan, 1927). ]

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Odds and Ends.

I've had painfully few blog entries this month and I apologize. It was quite remiss of me, but I shall endeaver to make amends. As tomorrow will usher in the month of March (meaning Spring is almost near!), I intend this post to sum up the latest goings-on in my little world.

I've enrolled in two classes this month and the coursework has sucked in most of my free time. For my American Literature class, we read one book per week, which I find to be rather difficult, considering that the prose is 19th century. However, the class is quite interesting as I am learning so much about American History. Along with staples such as Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, we are also reading some obscure books, such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, and William Wells Brown's Clotel. I find it fascinating to compare the differences between British Literature and American Literature. Whereas the former is mainly concerned with issues of class (especially "gentility"), the latter focuses on issues of migration, assimilation, and religion. Hope Leslie, in particular, is an early proto-feminist novel, where Magawisca, an Indian woman, stands as an example of morality and strength. Furthermore, the novel ends with Esther, the meek niece of a Puritan governor, rejecting marriage, but impressing the people around her by her own individuality, nevertheless. I am also intrigued African-American narratives, especially in the comparison between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Clotel.

The other class I am taking is a fiction class in which we write, read, and critique our own works as well as our classmates’. This class is, of course, much more creative than the former, although it is equally hard. There's a substantial amount of writing to do and since the class is small, the instructor insisted that we all had to speak up and give our input. So even if I can manage to not read a book or two (or 4!) for the American Literature class, I cannot afford to neglect any part of the coursework for my fiction class. When I submitted my first story, most people said that although they liked the descriptions, they wanted to see more "action", more on the level of plot. My second story is due this week but it is turning into a hassle because I fear that the plot, though simple, might be difficult to contain within the short-story format. Anyway, we shall see.

I watched the Oscars this Sunday (yes, all of it!) but was rather disappointed with the results. I heard film critics predict, before the event, that The Departed would win Best Picture because the Academy feels be obliged to award Martin Scorsese that honor, since the latter had been making films for a long time. I haven't seen The Departed (political thrillers aren't really my thing) so I can't comment about it. I was rooting for Pan's Labyrinth to win Best Picture in the Foreign Films category but that award was given to a much less well-known film, The Lives of Others. Little Children also didn't get garner any awards, much to my disappointment, since I thought Jackie Haley gave a compelling portrait of a troubled former child molester. I haven't seen Dreamgirls or The Queen so I can't vouch for Jennifer Hudson or Helen Mirren's performance. I think Helen Mirren is a fabulous, accomplished actress though but she did face some tough competition. Then of course, the newspapers and websites were flooded with the "Best Dressed and Worst Dressed at the Oscars" type of articles, some of which were amusing to read with their snide remarks and tongue-in-cheek humor.

My grad schools applications are almost at an end. I have one more school left to apply but that isn't due for a whole month yet. I haven't received any decisions from the schools so that's made me anxious lately.

And last but not least, I couldn’t resist the after-President's Day sales!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sacrifice and Salvation in The Chronicles of Narnia and Pan's Labyrinth

Religion is a central theme to both Pan's Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). With respect to the latter, C.S. Lewis stated that one of his motives for writing the Narnia series is to instill Christian ideology in the minds of young readers. This ideology is projected through the character of Aslan, the King of Narnia. Aslan, though a benevolent ruler, is, nevertheless, "not a tame lion." Besides being valiant, he also reveals his gentler side. The children immediately take to Aslan, obeying his commands while trusting his judgements. Aslan comes to their aid in times of trouble and allows the children's own natures to flourish. Under Aslan's guidance, the children have a chance to test their own faith and bravery, win the favor of the Narnians, and finally rule as Kings and Queens of Narnia. By his ability to create the land of Narnia, enable animals to speak, and act as a guarding for the children, Aslan functions as God. This God is distinctly Christian in that Aslan resembles a Christ-like figure, especially when he sacrifices his life to save the life on another, and thus, save all of Narnia. When the White Witch demands the Narnians to turn in Edmund, the erring Pevensie sibling, for having made false promises to her, Aslan makes a pact with the White Witch to go in Edmund's stead. The White Witch, who is all the more eager to destroy Aslan, immediately agrees since she also fears Aslan's powers. Both Susan and Lucy stare in horror as Aslan is tortured, humiliated, and brutally murdered by the White Witch and her accomplices. However, just as the children mourn for his loss, a miracle happens and Aslan comes back to life. In other words, he is resurrected. He explains to the children that he is able to come back to life because he was innocent to begin with, and had given his life to protect the life of another (in this case, Edmund, whose own innocence he believed in). Aslan asserts that the White Witch, oblivious to the power of love and sacrfice, could weave no spell that could destroy him. Thus, Aslan returns to life and helps to save Narnia.

This notion of Christian sacrifice is also hightlighted in Pan's Labyrinth. Unlike in The Chronicles of Narnia, however, a 12 year old girl functions as a Christ-like figure in this film. She seems to be everything Aslan is not, for she is not male, mature, or strong. Ofelia is thin, wan, neglected, lonely, dreamy, and sensitive. Everything one would not expect in a typical hero. But despite that, she finds the Labyrinth and sets out on a journey to eventually find peace. In the process, she proves her bravery and wisdom. Furthermore, she asserts her belief in faith: she believes in the goodness of Pan's words; she believes in order and harmony; she believes in love and beauty; she believes that goodness will prevail over evil. Like Christ (and Adam), she shows that she too can succumb to temptation. She eats the "forbidden fruit", but later, given the chance to repent for her sins, realizes the extent of her folly and is more zealous in her "faith" (in heeding Pan's words in this case). Although her faith is tested several times, the crucial act occurs towards the end of her journey, when Pan asks her to surrender her new-born baby brother. At this moment, Ofelia finds herself within inches away from attaining her dream. Pan tells her that if she were to obey him, she would no longer suffer under the commands of Vidal's dictatorship, for she would then be transported to her magical kingdom where there would be only peace. Despite the temptations associated with this offer, Ofelia refuses to hand over her baby brother on account of her love for him. She could not bear to have his blood shed in order to attain her dream. She was prepared to save his life rather than her own. Ofelia's sacrifice at the end of the film allows her to transcend the world of mortals. Pan reveals to her that she is the rightful Princess because she distinguished herself through the noblity of her actions, especially with regard to the sacrifice. She cared deeply for the baby and it was vital that a true Princess knew what it was to love another, to give your life to save another's. In the end, we see that Ofelia too is resurrected: she returns to life and is said to have had a peaceful reign for many, many years, adding beauty and love to the world of mortals.

Through the use of Christian imagery, both The Chronicles of Narnia and Pan's Labyrinth show the importance of sacrifice as a means of salvation, teaching the children and other viewers alike that the concept of sacrifice is central to Faith, and that the sincerity of love is what will sustain us in the end. However, it is worth noting that in both these films, strict adherence to Scripture is not maintained. Both these films make use of fantasy. In both, Christianity coexists with something fantastical, primitive, almost Pagan. The world of Narnia is filled with other creatures from mythology, and so is the world of Pan's Labyrinth. Thus, both films show that sacrifice is not only a central element to Christianity, but that it is vital to all types of religions, both the modern and primitive. Furthermore, both films show that it is indeed possible to mix the Pagan and the Christian.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Review of Pan's Labyrinth

Last Tuesday, I had a chance to see the critically acclaimed film Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) directed by Mexican director Guillermo Del Torro.

It is truly one of the most captivating films I have ever seen. Everything about it--from the plot, the special effects, the themes, the acting--contributes to making this film a masterpiece. Out of all this, I think its strength lies in its use of the fairy tale that is at the core of the film. This isn't the first time that the fairy tale motif is used in the medium of film or literature to translate historical facts or explain psychic phenomena. The use of the fairy tale in Pan's Labyrinth enables this film to speak to a variety of audiences, and consequently, allow it to transcend all sorts of classification. In this sense, Pan's Labyrinth rises above the generic, the ordinary. It is neither a children's film nor one exclusively intended for adults. Similarly, there is no restriction in terms of setting: there is a significant time-span: the story of the princess in the underground is ancient, but Ofelia lives in 1944, traversing different time-periods by means of her imagination. While it can fall in the real of science fiction/ fantasy, it also has elements of horror and drama. This is a film, very much like Whale Rider, where fact and fiction commingle seamlessly, where we are what we dream, where strength lies in Imagination.

Pan's Labyrinth is a story about a lonely 12 year-old girl, Ofelia, who goes to live with her pregnant mother and new stepfather in the Spanish country side during 1944. The Spanish Civil-War has just ended and her stepfather, Captain Vidal, is assigned the task of getting ride of an anarchist militia that lurks in the woods surrounding his residence. Ofelia is a very imaginative girl, finding solace in the company of books of fairy tales that she brings with her. One particularly speaks of the legend of a lost princess, who ventured from the peace of the underworld, where she knew no pain, death or disease, to the world of the mortals above ground, eventually forgetting her past and with it, her legacy. The legend predicts that the lost princess will one day return to her Palace, reclaim her identity, and bring freedom and beauty in the world.

It is interesting to note that Ofelia's adventures in the magical realm mirrors the external political conflict taking place around her. As Ofelia finds herself trapped under Captain Vidal's orders, she tries to rebel and so approaches the magical Labyrinth secretly, when no one sees her. As the militia gains power, through the help of the doctor and Mercedes, Ofelia gains more entrance into her magical world. The militia is in fact, fed and nourished, just as Ofelia destroys a horrible toad that was sapping nutrition from the Tree at the center of the Labyrinth. When Ofelia fails her second test, as when she eats the fruit belonging to the Pale Man, she releases a Monster into both her magical world as well as the real world. Captain Vidal gains power this time, capturing the rebel soldiers and torturing them. Concurrently, her mother is weakened by her preganancy, on the verge of losing the baby that sustains her relationship with her dictator husband. When Ofelia is eager to perform the last task and win the Faun's favor, the rebel militia are freed and rises in power. As Ofelia's prophesy is fulfilled, Vidal's regime crumbles and freedom is finally won.

Another instance this film is unique is that it enables women to be agents of Freedom. While the legend spoke of a lost princess who will one day return to restore peace to her kingdom, Ofelia, acts out the princess's valiant deeds. She bravely sets out to perform the tasks the Faun asks of her. As the film progresses, Mercedes, Vidal's housekeeper, also rises in importance. It becomes clear that Mercedes risks her own life and helps her brother and his friends who are in the anarchist militia, despite living under Vidal's roof.

The link between Mercedes and Ofelia is made earlier in the film when Mercedes comforts the friendless, neglected young girl, by offering her comfort and a willing ear. Both Ofelia and Mercedes have poor mother-figures as examples of strength. In Ofelia's case, her mother is weak and sick with a pregnancy, abused her by husband who desires the baby more than his wife. While we know nothing of Mercedes' mother, we do know that she has been greatly influenced by her brother, a rebel fighting for freedom. Ofelia and Mercedes also both rebel, striving to attain freedom: Ofelia tries to return to her fantasy kingdom, and Mercedes wants to stand by her brother's cause, one in which Vidal and his cruel dictatorship is overthrown and freedom and equality will be restored to the people.

Mercedes says, when Vidal confronts her about her ability to carry out espionage under his own eyes, that the reason she was able to get away with her actions was because she, being a woman, is considered invisible. Mercedes asserts that invisibility becomes a source of power for a woman. She need no longer hide behind the shadows, but can use her strength of mind and body to her advantage. Similarly, Ofelia looks timid and lanky on the outside, but is immensely courageous on the inside. In her invisibility, the loneliness that thrust her into the folds of invisibility, Ofelia was able to fill her mind with stories, and being naturally curious as well as neglected, she was able to explore her world and find the Faun, thus being mistress of her own Fantasy story.

Del Torro shows that political freedom is attained alongside freedom of the imagination. When Ofelia's fantasy world is given full reign, only then is Vidal destroyed. Del Torro's stance on women is given most weight at the end of the film, when he links Ofelia to a Christ-like figure. Ofelia, an innocent, virtuous young girl, sacrifices her life in order to save an innocent, and thus, liberate humanity, after defeating evil. By elevating Ofelia to Christ's status, Del Torro's subversive act questions the precepts of religion, Christianity, resurrection, and gender roles.

Along with its thematic elements, stunning visual effects and dedication to the Art of Storytelling Pan's Labyrinth reminds us that belief in the Imagination is vital to the triumph of the human consciousness.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review of Polly Teale's Brontë

I've had a chance to see a production of Polly Teale's renowned play and here are some thoughts:

The play seemed to be a sort of biopic, chronicling the lives of the Brontë siblings from childhood through adulthood. Unlike other versions in this genre, however, Polly Teale's take is an intermingling of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. The play is as much a celebration of the sisters' lives as it is of Brontë criticism, for we get multiple interpretations fused together in this version.

All the actors performed well, delivering their lines with ease. There was also an amusing portrayal of Arthur Bell Nichols as a moony-eyed simpleton (minus the sideburns). With the exception of Anne's characterization, the others were more like their respective stereotypes: Emily was often reserved and rather contemplative, Charlotte seemed bossy and ambitious, Patrick cold and distant, Branwell reckless and weak. Anne, however, was quite bubbly and headstrong. She wasn't portrayed here as someone meek and shy as so many biographies have affirmed, including the biopic The Brontës of Haworth.

What I didn't like about the acting, however, was the over-emphasis on an Irish accent. As it happened to be American actors who performed all the Brontë sisters' roles, the Irish accent came off as a strained imitation, rather than something natural. It is even doubtful that that Brontës' accent, even if it had had an Irish ring to it, would have been as sharp as what it was shown to be here.

With regard to setting, it consisted of a large room with a fireplace on the right, which was near the door. On the left, hanging on the upper portion of the wall was a mirror that reflected the scenes taking place directly beneath. Hinged to the back of the room (facing the audience) were three chests. And finally, in the center of the room were two tables. The first large table was complemented by three chairs and a second lone, smaller table was accompanied by a single chair. There were books and papers strewn all over the tables and near the fireplace, signifying their importance in the Brontës' lives. Teale's using the drawing room, or writing room rather, as the center in which the play unfolds, is an indication of the most crucial aspect of the Brontës lives and works: they are, first and foremost, writers in every sense of the word, and thus, it is only fair that the drawing room remains as the setting for the whole length of the play.

The setting serves as a microcosm of the sisters' inner minds. During the play, the Brontës' characters seamlessly weave in and out of the stage at opportune moments. Just as events take place in the sisters' lives, their characters also have roles within the play, at the same time. For example, as Emily thinks of a story, Catherine Linton enters the stage, armed with a pillow and dressed in a white lacy nightdress. As Branwell cries out his grief over losing Mrs. Robinson, we see Bertha writhing on the floor, her mop of hair shielding her face, giving her an almost animal-like appearance. We, the audience, see the characters on stage as if they were elements of the sisters' own psyche.

Since I am quite familiar with Bronte biographies and criticism, I found many such interpretations of them in this play. However, what I found rather exceptional was the portrayal of the "other woman". In this play, Bertha and Catherine are played by the same actress. The former is scantily clad, with a marked corset revealing a voluptous frame, and a ruffled skirt over which lay remnants of a red, tattered apron. Bertha's hair was untidy and coarse, serving as a reminder of the "unmanageable" nature of her character. Futher, her movements are both ferocioulsy sexual and instinctively animal-like. On the other hand, Catherine Linton appears with her hair tied together in a neat braid, wearing a nightdress of virginal white, her voice soft and melancholy. By having the same actress portray both women--Bertha the madwoman, and an almost angelic, soulful, Catherine, Teale confirms the existance of a split personality for women, a fact prominent in nineteenth-century literature, famously postulated in Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic.

Another woman who takes center stage in the Brontës' lives, especiall Branwell's, is Mrs. Robinson, who ironically does not appear on stage, although she is acted out by both Bertha and Catherine. When Branwell refers to Mrs. Robinson, he stresses her passionate nature, her over-indulgence of feelings, the rawness of her emotions. Just as talks of her, we see Bertha alongside him, her motions highly eroticized. On the other hand, when Catherine Linton speaks of an unhappy marriage, being unable to relate to her husband but yearning to unite with her former love, this is not unlike Mrs. Robionson, who is also a married woman, and whose plight, as it becomes clear, rouses us just as Catherine's does. By aligning Mrs. Robinson with Bertha, who is aligned with Catherine, we see that all those three women are connected: they could be one and the same. Despite Mrs. Robionson's not appearing on the stage, we know that she is in fact there the whole time. Though invisible, she is never absent, a situation that resembles the power of the Brontës to transcend obscurity.

I admire Polly Teale for unearthing some controversial issues that deserve to be examined. By having a drunken, livid Branwell attack Charlotte in an abusive manner, Teale asks us to consider the ill-effects of domestic abuse which was a difficult issue in the Victorian era more than in our present time. Moreover, Branwell's manner of clutching Charlotte, groping parts of her body, strangling and flinging her violently as the other sisters watch in shock and powerlessness, is not far from sexual abuse, hinting the possibility that such an act is not uncommon in middle-class Victorian households such as the Brontës', despite the latter's unwillingness to acknowledge it. In this way, Teale also brings to our consciousness the possibility of incest, which could also explain the siblings' neuroses, especially Branwell's.

Teale's treatement of Charlotte also hinges on turning her into quite an unlikeable person. Fiercely ambitious, repeatedly Charlotte says that she wants to be famous, that she wants to be "forever known". This obsession makes her increasingly dissatisfied with Branwell's failure and his squandering the favors his father has bestowed on him. As Emily defends Branwell, this only makes Charlotte get into rows with her sister. The Charlotte in this play is short-tempered, prone to flights of rage. She can be quite bossy and jealous about her sisters' works, especially Emily's. The play suggests that after Emily's death, it was Charlotte who burned all her letters as well as Emily's second novel that was nearing completion, if not already complete by the time of her death.

Besides focusing on the Brontës' lives as writers, its innovations in stage setting and characterization, its ability to provoke the minds of the viewers and challenge commonly held notions of the Brontes and the Victorians, Polly Teale's Brontë is a play that intrigues and captivates, adding new twists that will appeal to any one--whether you are a Brontë aficionado, or don't have the faintest idea of them beyond English class.


*NB: The picture above is not from the production I saw. Though it is an image taken from another production, this scene closes the play.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not Quite "The Most Enchanting Tale of All"


After weeks of anticipation, I finally had a chance to see Miss Potter. Although the movie started off quite well, I found myself rather disappointed as it progressed. Though a heartwarming tale, which was intended to be a biopic, the movie, I fear, might prove more of a success with young children rather than older viewers.

While Renee Zellweger gives a sparkling performance as the quirky Beatrix Potter, and Ewan McGregor as well the rest of the cast serve to complement her performance, the effect is not enough to erase blemishes in the script. For it is the script that is strongly lacking in depth and purpose. The film is half-way between fact and fiction: it is neither a complete biopic, nor a sophisticated work of art. When the film had a lot of potential to use this ambivalence to its advantage, the result was not quite satisfactory.

A few words will suffice to convey the gist of the plot: Beartix Potter writes a children's book amidst opposition from her family, falls in love with her publisher, becomes rich, eventually marries, and donates money for the purpose of conservation of historic land. A happy ending indeed. Now, tell me, why should someone go and see this particular film with an all too familiar script, if it is like just like any other average film?

The characters aren't shown to have a depth to them. Even Beartix barely escapes this classification. We don't know why exactly Mr. Warren loves Beatrix--is it for her work, or her beauty, or was he merely tired of being single? We don't see why Amelia Warren wishes to befriend Beatrix so much. Although we get a glimpse of Peter Rabbit and his friends popping out of the page, we don't get these creatures' perspectives on the matter.

The romance between Norman and Beatrix isn't explored well enough to be something deeper than a fling. Norman and Beatrix are shown to be "deliriously in love" with one another--but it seems to be more a fever of the flesh (to put it bluntly) than a mature, sustainable, affection for one another. Yes, they are both lovely people, if not at times awkward, but they seem too...nice, too perfect to be real.

I am also not too pleased about the film's handling of Beatrix's imagination. The technique of making her characters come alive at certain moments, sadly, seems more a mockery than a triumph. It is almost like accusing Beatrix of regression rather than affirmation of her identity as a serious author. Perhaps her mother is right in not taking her too seriously after all. Peter Rabbit and his friends are shown to be communicating with Beatrix only so one is left with wondering whose perspective the film is told from: Beatrix's or an omniscient narrator's. I do think the director could have explored Beatrix's relationship with her imagination in greater detail rather than affording spotty glimpses here and there. It is clear that her work makes Beatrix happy, but it isn't clear what about her work drives her unhappy and why she desires more than her work will allow.

Despite its flaws, however, the redeeming features are two fold: the depiction of the Lake District, and critique on the Victorian upper-classes. The Lake District begins to have a character of its own right from the first. The setting provides Beatrix with a freedom (if that is possible in her strict household) to explore the nature around her, and thus help her weave her stories. She intends to live in the Lake District as she finds it a source of inspiration for her writing. Towards the end of the movie, Beartix does establish her freedom as an independent woman by buying a house, and managing her land. Thus, the Lakes, becomes a synonym for freedom through Art.

The humor evoked by Beatrix's family's desperate attempt to maintain their "place" in society is striking. Beatrix's mother is a tiresome snob who does not see her daughter for the talented woman that she is. Also, her attempts at trying to bring suitors for Beatrix's marriage also merit a laugh. An unforgettable character is Beatrix' aged escort, an elderly spinster or widow, who accompanies Beatrix wherever the latter went. It is interesting that Wiggins (as I believe she is called) never says a word in the film, though her expressions are intended to convey the satire embedded into the film.

In conclusion, this isn't a bad film. It is just that I happen to have had more expectations for it. It is worth a watch if one is in the mood for something uncomplicated, fun, and light-hearted, but it does not deliver much more than that.