Thursday, April 15, 2010

Society vs "The Beast"

As I started reading The House of Mirth, my thoughts were focused mainly on Lily Bart's responses to situations, and I became interested in her personality, but towards the end of the novel, and after some class discussion, something that seemed more important to me came to mind. Rather than focusing on Lily Bart's character, I examined the social constraints that were placed on her, and the role that "society" in general took in the book. It occurred to me that Lily would have little to no problems if it weren't for society's rules and expectations of her as a lady, and how these severely hindered her choices as an individual.

Then I thought about McTeague, which portrays society as being the thing that keeps "the beast" within a person. Norris represents society as a sort of refining agent to people, protecting them from their natural impulses and such. After McTeague and Trina are brought into poverty, the "veneer of civilization" wears from the two and they participate in what appears to be almost primal instincts, on the verge of inhuman.

Once I noted the differences between these, it caught my interest that the two authors apparently thought about society in completely different ways, owing to what I'm not sure at this point, but I'd like to find out. So my paper will, rather than compare the characteristics of Lily Bart and Trina, attempt to make clear the differences between the portrayal of society, and possibly try to explain these differences.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lily Bart

Edith Wharton's House of Mirth has been, for me at least, a kind of revelation of the social constraints that Lily has been affected by. The fact that she is a member of "higher society" at first seems like a blessing, due to the company with which she can surround herself, and the availability of money. However, this same restraint has led her to depend upon a certain lifestyle, involving large amounts of money. Her habits of vacationing, gambling, etc have become an important part of who she is in this novel, and as such, there is no way for her to marry solely for love. This is one of the issues in the book that I find mildly disturbing. For a person's lifestyle of these activities to be more important than a quest for love is disappointing to me. If it weren't for this attitude towards money, and consequently, class, Lily Bart would have been in a good position to marry Selden. But since he was just not up to her monetary standards, she deemed him unfit. It seems to me that this is, or should be, discussed as a problem in society, rather than a component.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Thoughts on Greed and McTeague

So when we watched the movie today in class, I was kind of surprised. After all the talk of naturalism, and the criticisms of it, the concept still didn't appear to be all that bad. When critics claimed that McTeague only showed the gross sides of human nature, leaving out all that is good, I internally argued. But if the film Greed is an accurate portrayal of what Norris had in mind, then I'll side with the critics. Rather than being about the plot, the film seemed to me just to exaggerate the beastly aspects of the characters. In the book, I pictured McTeague as having at least some sort of emotion, some caring in him, even if he was dumb. Something in the text made him seem like an almost normal person, capable of these human emotions. In Greed, McTeague's personal attributes were almost nonexistent. From what I saw, the closest thing to emotion that this character had was when he was begging Trina to let him in. Maybe I'm being too harsh on the film, but it was hard to get past the exaggerations that may have been necessary due to not having characters speaking.

On a different note, I actually felt some sympathy for Trina in the movie, but none whatsoever in the novel. McTeague's biting and beating her didn't affect me while reading, but in the film when she showed McTeague her hand, I felt sorry for her. To be honest, this struck me as the part of the movie with the most humanity. The fact that Trina didn't let her husband in because of his past actions, and then him threatening her again, seemed like something that could happen.

The tinting of the gold and canaries was a weird effect. I understand that the gold was important to all of the characters in the novel, and the canary important to McTeague, but the act of coloring these things, while the rest of the movie is black and white seems to be a little over-the-top to me. The novel appeared to be focused mainly on people's responses to situations, and what happens when they're pushed too far. The emphasis on the gold and canaries in the movie seems to make the story about those things, rather than the people involved.

The whole thing just seemed strangely done to me, but I'm no expert in 1920's films. They went by a different set of rules, and had to exaggerate for effect, whereas today a few words would do the same. All the things I've criticized about the movie probably are the things that made it understandable to people who may have not read Norris's book. So I'll just leave it at that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


This book was actually a shocker to me. With all the references in the beginning to McTeague's stupidity, his ignorantly bliss outlook, I didn't imagine that he would end up the way he did. For that matter, I didn't foresee Trina's transformation into a money hoarder either. The first half of the book had me thinking that it would turn out to be an elaborate love story. There were clues against this early on in the book, but it was hard to take them seriously. After McTeague lost his job and Trina began her serious hoarding, that theme became clear to me. Even though I knew what to expect from then on, in terms of the money conflicts, I found myself getting angry at Trina's character. All she could say was how poor they were, when she had more than enough money to live off of stashed away, constantly trying to add to it. When she became so obsessed, I drew the parallel between her and Zerkow and figured she'd die, but not at the hands of McTeague.

The theme of a person spending his/her entire life collecting things, money for example, only to never see them put to use is something I can identify with. Never being wealthy, it was always easy for me to question rich people's lack of generosity and/or willingness to spend their money.

All in all, this book was enjoyable to me, even when after reading the first fifty pages or so, I was dreading having to read the whole thing. The themes and reality of the situations kept me interested.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Rise of Silas Lapham

When I started reading this, the whole thing seemed to move along very slowly, not necessarily deliberately, and the plot didn't seem very substantial. Everyone in class seemed to agree with that, and most seemed to not like it at all. However, as I moved through the story, the two separate plots emerged and then came together. Howells's ability to make the common interesting is very good. Silas and his family experienced what are probably common situations, and through the use of empathy, Howells makes the reader care what happens.

This is the whole idea of realism, as opposed to romanticism. I'm going to side with the realists, and presume that everyone has a life worth hearing about, that nothing really is ordinary. The commonality of the characters and their actions makes this kind of writing more relatable than romances, and thus has more of an impact on people. And even if the readers haven’t experienced the same things, the realistic happenings can serve to shed more light on the human experience.

But back to the novel. In class we talked about the two different plots: Silas’s act of self-sacrifice, in return for moral satisfaction, and Pen’s more realistic approach, which some may call selfish, for love. The two plots parallel each other throughout the book, until Silas sacrifices everything to walk away with clean hands. He even refuses the one chance he has to reclaim his material wealth. At this point, Pen has her chance to get what she wants, and takes it. I think I was the only one in class to see the difference I’m trying to show in these two actions, though.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Behind a Mask

Behind a Mask is well, surprising. Given the time it was written, and especially the author, I was not expecting to read a tale of deceit, lies, and manipulation – especially by a woman. But Alcott created Jean Muir as such, and while not the most favorable protagonist, she demonstrates a lot of craft and cunning. The immediate foreshadowing of Jean’s true character was interesting, and left me hoping for some sort of redemption for the girl who had undoubtedly led a hard life. But as the story drew to a close, and all Jean did was complete her despicable plan, I was left with much sympathy for the victims of her plot.

The other works from this course so far have upheld the view of women in their traditional roles as domestic, weak, and rather unintelligent, but this blew those ideals away. I’m not familiar with other tales of this era that have similar concepts, namely the powers that women can hold over unsuspecting men, but I would be interested in reading more.

I am left questioning the plausibility of such a case, though. A family of either nobility or wealth falling victim to a poor woman’s con game seems almost far-fetched, and I’m not sure if Alcott is trying to imply something about wealthy families or just demonstrate her cleverness.

The class discussion today revealed to me that as Jean Muir was doing all of this "behind a mask," Alcott in a way was behind the same kind of mask in creating the story. The whole concept of people either assuming the identity of another, or just different roles to serve different purposes fascinates me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Joaquin Murieta

As I was reading this book, the first thing I noticed was how much action it had. There seemed to be very little meaning, or room for interpretation. It was a struggle to try to remember how much gold Joaquin and his banditti plundered, how many of his followers were killed, or how many people he and his followers had slain. With all of this to focus on, it was very easy to take this book at face value.

One thing that I did manage on my own was to try to delve into Joaquin’s motives and character. It was fairly easy to see that he chose the lifestyle of thievery and murder because of what Americans in general had done to him. When he tried to play by their rules, it didn’t work out, so he set about making his own to go by. The fact that Joaquin still went about things in a somewhat honorable fashion, i.e. not killing those who had helped him, and not killing women and children, was almost admirable, of course this was through the author’s perspective. Other than this, there didn’t seem to be much to the book.

In class today, we discussed the book in a little further detail, and people seemed to have the same opinions, only differing in who liked Joaquin as a character, and who didn’t. But when we looked at the poem in the beginning of the book, and talked about that, I had a kind of revelation. Given the time period, and circumstances, the poem seemed to be the underlying theme of the entire book. The lines “And well this Golden State shall thrive, if, like its own Mount Shasta, sovereign law shall lift itself purer in the atmosphere – so high that human feeling, human passion, at its base shall lie subdued;” jumped out at me. I made the connection that this was a transcendental reference, speaking of higher law than what man can construct, and something man should yearn to comply with. When Joaquin tried to go by “the law of the land,” as established by Americans, it was full of injustices, and he followed a way that, at least to him, seemed more just than the pre-existing ways.