Category: Uncategorized


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

October 24th, 2013 — 10:05am

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.

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Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.

As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.

When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.

His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.

Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.

When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.

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The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.

Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.

BIG MISTAKE.

The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.

Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.

At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.

Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.

There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.

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The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.

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Thug Notes

October 16th, 2013 — 8:24am

I have never been more excited to hear the term “what it is” than when watching Thug Notes.

Thug Notes is a series of classic literature summary and analysis, all spoken in slang and “gangsta” vernacular and it is BRILLIANT. I cannot stop watching them. I was introduced to them through The Great Gatsby video and have been sharing them with my students ever since.

Over the summer, I found some of the novels I had forced my students to pretend to read, and I sent them the link to Lord of the Flies, so they would be able to pretend they had read them even better. Sparky Sweets, Ph.D, provides a legitimate analysis and commentary that had my students saying, “ohhhhh, so THAT’S what you were talking about!”

Yes, students. Behind the tattoos and basically everything else about us, thugs and your English teachers are the same.

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31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

October 10th, 2013 — 10:12am

Animal Farm was published in 1945 by George Orwell. As previously discussed, Orwell loves himself a dystopia — in this case, the dystopia is exploring the world of Communism and the rise of Stalinist Russia under the guise of animals.

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On Manor Farm, everything is going along as farms generally do, though Farmer Jones is known to be a tad bit cruel — he sometimes gets drunk and forgets to feed the animals, so that’s not the best animal ownership. Old Major, an old boar, gathers all of the animals together and tells them that he had a dream that animals controlled their own fates, as humans are parasites on the animals — they don’t do any work yet get all of the gain from the animals’ work. He calls his ideas “Animalism,” and the farm animals all agree that would be a wonderful way to live. They end their meeting by signing a song taught to them by Old Major called “Beasts of England,” all about the animals’ greatness.

When Old Major dies, two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up Old Major’s cause, organizing the animals against Farmer Jones, who leaves the farm when the animals attack him and his workers. The animals renamed the farm Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism:

1. Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes on four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Everything goes well on Animal Farm — all of the animals work, though they begin to notice that the cows milk is disappearing. Snowball is educating all of the animals, while Napoleon takes the puppies born to the two dogs on the farm and teaches them in secret, to the point where the animals don’t remember their existence. Mollie, the pony who enjoyed the finer things in life and had ribbons in her hair, leaves the farm when she is made to work, while Boxer, the carthorse, takes up the slack, making “I will work harder” his personal motto.

A schism between Napoleon and Snowball emerges, especially over the building of a windmill to bring power and productivity to the farm — Snowball is for it, Napoleon is against it. During a debate in front of the animals, Napoleon gets up and whistles, and a pack of dogs come charging at Snowball, chasing him off the farm. The animals realize that Napoleon has been training the puppies into his personal security team. Another pig, Squealer, convinces the animals that Snowball has been against them the entire time and that Napoleon has been singlehandedly working for the success of Animal Farm.

Things get bleaker on the farm. The animals begin to notice that the commandments are changing, small adjustments made to them until they’re finally changed to one single commandment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Boxer becomes hurt and Squeaker tells the animals that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken to an animal hospital, but Benjamin, the cynical donkey on the farm, reads the side of the truck that comes for Boxer and sees that Boxer has been sold to a knacker for slaughter, and the money is going to buy whiskey for the pigs.

Years pass, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes, and carry whips. Napoleon also begins doing business with local farmers and invites them all over to a dinner, where he tells them that he’s changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The other animals, who look in the window at them, realize that they can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the men.

Animal Farm is a condemnation of Stalin and his regime, as Stalin was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II and was looked upon favorably by the British people, much to Orwell’s distaste. He wrote Animal Farm to show the brutality of the Communist Party, and parallels can be made to every character:

Old Major – both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the fathers of Communism.

Napoleon – Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1930 until his death in 1953.

Snowball – Leon Trotsky, a rival of Stalin exiled from Russian and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

Squealer – the Soviet press, which Stalin controlled throughout his rule.

Minimus – the takeover of art by propaganda in a totalitarian state that aims to control what its citizens think.

Boxer – the male working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Clover – the female working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Mollie – the selfish and materialistic middle-class.

Benjamin – those who were aware of Stalin’s unjust and oppressive policies but did nothing to try to stop them.

The Dogs – the Soviet secret police.

Moses – organized religion.

The Sheep – the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

Mr. Jones – the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century.

Mr. Frederick – the Fascist Germans/Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Pilkington – the Allies before World War II, particularly the British.

Mr. Whymper – capitalists who got rich doing business with the USSR.

It’s the symbolism stuff that English teachers’ dreams are made of. Just think of the essay topics!

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Beach Reads / The Awakening by Kate Chopin

August 5th, 2013 — 6:03pm

I recently read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for book club. In The Awakening, published in 1899, Edna Pontellier is living an average life with her husband, Leonce, and her two sons in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she is “awakened” to her true self by falling love with a young man, Robert, while summering on Grand Isle. Edna realizes that she has been denying herself of a life by settling for a man she doesn’t love and children that she’s sacrificing her self for, as well as a society that will never allow her to truly live her life the way she would like.

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When the book was published, it (and its author) was very scandalous and controversial. The Awakening is a book that focuses on women’s issues without condescension or judgement — Edna is who she is, without apology or explanation. Her struggles are some that women in the 21st century struggle with, as the demands on women have not changed since the 19th century — women are expected to keep the house, raise the children, support the husband, and now are also expected to have a successful career at the same time, and all with a smile on their face. The idea that women could possibly want more than what they have or dislike their role in society or be sexually attracted to someone that was not their husband or have an affair and sex with someone that they didn’t love, much less that Kate Chopin (who was a single mother of six, mind you) would write about these things, was too much for audiences (men) to bear, and the novel was censored upon its publication.

While not necessarily a “light summer read” that most people would choose for their poolside reading, the novel takes place on the beach and has some wonderful imagery and descriptions of the ocean.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

If that doesn’t make you want to book a trip to the ocean, I don’t know what will.

I live on the Gulf Coast, so I know that not every experience at the beach is a happy one — the same sun, sand, and surf that we enjoy in the summer can be a devastating hurricane or a shipwreck, also. Still, nothing says “summer” than a beach read, and even in the winter months a book about the beach is familiar and somehow makes you warmer.

Some good ones (read them in the next few weeks of summer or when you need a vitamin D blast in the winter):

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Art of Keeping Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
Swim by Lynn Sherr
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

July 8th, 2013 — 11:57pm

I don’t know how this book isn’t on the 100 Best Novels list, but I’m assuming that it’s on someone’s 100 Best Books list, so I’m going with it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1937 and is lauded for being an outstanding work of African-American feminist literature both by and about a woman. Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the first all-black towns in the United States, and her father became the mayor. Throughout her life, Hurston remained influenced by her life in the South, even after moving to the North and becoming associated with the Harlem Renaissance — Hurston traveled through the South, collecting stories and serving as a cultural anthropologist. With Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston actually was criticized for her portrayal of African-Americans living their lives in happiness and without any struggles that were plaguing the rest of her Harlem Renaiisance contemporaries. Richard Wright reviewed the book by saying, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh.”

Ouch.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God gets a lot of flak for Hurston’s portrayal of her characters satisfied with their lives, yes, but also for the use of vernacular dialect, which is so strong that it takes a lot of concentration to follow what the characters are saying.

“Please God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time.”

I mean…..what?

This isn’t very good poolside reading, which is unfortunate as that’s where I read a majority of this book (hey there, summer vacation!). My book club had chosen this book for June and I had procrastinated so poolside it was!

The book begins with Janie Crawford walking home and being observed (and gossiped about) by the neighbor women sitting on a porch. Her best friend, Pheoby Watson, sees her and goes to her house to find out where she’s been and where her younger husband is, as she’s arrived alone. Janie decides to tell her so that she can relay the tale to the other gossiping women. She begins with her childhood, which seems a strange place to start when the question was “where have you been for the past two years?”

Janie was raised by her grandmother, called Nanny, who is a former slave, after her own mother runs off and leaves her. Nanny was raped by her white master and thrown out by his wife after she gives birth to Janie’s mother, and then Janie’s mother is raped by her teacher, so Nanny doesn’t have the most trust in men. When Janie is sixteen, she is overwhelmed by her developing sexuality (which she compares to a blooming pear tree) and kisses a neighbor boy, much to Nanny’s chagrin when she discovers them. Nanny decides that she wants better for Janie, whether Janie wants it or not, and marries her off to Logan Killicks, an older farmer. Janie wishes to marry for love, as she was inspired by the bees pollinating the pear tree, but Nanny isn’t trying to wait around to see Janie be used and abused by a man — she wants what she could never have, security and happiness, and seeks an established man who can take care of Janie.

Nanny dies shortly after the marriage, which is lucky, as Janie finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage, as Logan wants a worker rather than a wife. A man named Joe Starks walks by the farm one day and he and Janie flirt. He’s a smooth talker and she’s been starved for attention, so she leaves Logan and marries Joe, who she calls Jody. Jody has heard of a town in Florida that is being run by Negroes, and he means to go down and buy some land there.

When Janie and Jody get to Eatonville, they find that it’s without leadership and the residents themselves have no ambition to make the town anything other than a few sporadic farms. Jody buys land from the neighboring landowner and starts building a town, creating a store and a post office, and serving as a landlord, as he parcels out the land that he’s bought. He’s a natural politician and soon becomes the mayor, postmaster, and storekeeper. Unbeknownst to Janie, she has a place in Jody’s world, but it’s not one she anticipated — she’s become a trophy wife, as Jody won’t let her associate with the other people in the town. On the surface, she submits to Jody’s vision, but her internal monologue remains as passionate and spirited as ever.

Twenty years go by and Janie is thoroughly disenchanted with the lonely life she lives with Jody and she finally asserts herself one day in the store when Jody insults her appearance:

“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”

Jody is so embarrassed and pissed off by Janie making fun of him in front of some men from the town that he beats her, moves into a downstairs room, and refuses to talk to her. It’s then that Janie notices that Jody is starting to look older, thinner, and sicker than he was before. Jody refuses to let Janie into his sickroom, until she has enough and forces her way in. She berates him for the way she’s treated her, and as she’s telling him what a terrible husband and person he’s been, Jody dies. As she realizes he’s dead, she lets her hair down (as tying up her hair had been one of Jody’s rules for her, to keep men from lusting after her gorgeous hair) and contemplates her new freedom.

After Jody’s funeral, Janie relishes her independence — she ignores suitors, as she enjoys being in charge of her life for the first time in forty years. However, one day at the store, a younger man comes in to the store and talks to her. His name is Tea Cake and he’s twelve years younger than her and is just dreamy. He’s also unemployed, but that doesn’t matter to Janie, who sells the store and goes with Tea Cake to Jacksonville. The book suddenly becomes How Janie Got Her Groove Back.

They get married in Jaacksonville, but it isn’t all wedded bliss — one night, Janie wakes up and the money she has kept secret from Tea Cake is gone, and he doesn’t return all day. Janie is sure that Tea Cake has only married her for her money, but he comes back the next day — it turns out his theft of her money was a moment of weakness, but Tea Cake is an accomplished gambler and wins all of her money back and then some. Oh, okay.

After Jacksonville, they travel to the Everglades (or as it’s called in the book, “the muck”) to work during the bean harvest season. They have a spartan lifestyle, but Janie finally has the love that she’s always wanted. But alas, disaster strikes — two years after their marriage, the Everglades are struck by a hurricane that becomes lethal when it hits the dyke of Lake Okeechobee. As they’re trying to survive the flooding, Janie grabs the tale of a cow that is already inhabited by a dog, and Tea Cake gets bit by the dog as he’s saving her from the dog’s attack.

They survive the hurricane and go back to the Everglades, but about three weeks later, Tea Cake starts feeling ill and acting strangely: he gets headaches, fevers, he can’t drink water, he wakes up in the night with savagery that manifests by hurting Janie. Janie calls a doctor, who tells her that the dog that bit Tea Cake must have had rabies and given him the disease. That never ends well.

Sure enough, Tea Cake gets sicker and sicker and has increasing bouts of madness to the point that Janie checks to make sure that her rifle is loaded. Tea Cake becomes convinced that Janie is cheating on him and he comes at her with a pistol. He points the gun at her and when she realizes that he isn’t going to put the pistol down, she grabs her rifle and they shoot at the same time — Tea Cake’s bullet hits the wall and Janie’s bullet kills Tea Cake. She cradles his body and weeps.

Rabies or no rabies, Janie has killed Tea Cake and is put on trial for his murder. The town is split between the black and white citizens — the black people oppose her and think she should be found guilty, where the white people find her justified. Sure enough, the all white jury find her innocent and let her go.

She took a room at the boarding house for the night and heard the men talking around the front.

“Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her.”

“She didn’t kill no white man, did she? Well, long as she don’t shoot no white man she kin kill jus’ as many niggers as she please.”

“Yeah, de nigger women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet’ not kill one uh dem. De white folks will sho hang yuh if yuh do.”

“Well, you know whut dey say ‘uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.”

Janie throws a lavish funeral for Tea Cake and invites all of Tea Cake’s friends — when they show up, they apologize for wanting her to be thrown in jail, but Janie’s too heartsick from the loss to care. They ask her to stay in the muck with them, but she can’t face it without Tea Cake, and decides to head back to Eatonville with a package of seeds she plans to plant in memory of Tea Cake.

There Janie wraps up her story to Phoeby, who is thoroughly impressed; Phoeby promises to not let anyone criticize Janie. Janie tells her that she knows the women in the town will gossip about her, but she doesn’t care — she feels sorry for them as they don’t know what love really is and that they have not truly lived for themselves.

“…Love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

When Pheoby leaves, Janie thinks about Tea Cake. At first, she remembers his body and is upset, but then she thinks of all that Tea Cake has given her and realizes that he’ll never be gone when she can remember him and he will always be with her. He showed her the horizon, and now she feels at peace.

This book is considered a feminist book, which is valid — Janie is discovering her identity as a woman with her own thoughts and feelings, and the struggles that she overcomes by men who don’t allow her to be a person — it’s no coincidence that her first two husbands’ names are Killicks and Starks. Tea Cake, though he’s a much better husband to Janie in that he loves her and doesn’t stifle her in that he encourages her to pursue her interests and try new things, is guilty of a major no-no where it comes to women — at one point, he hits her.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

Um……….no.

Now, I know this book is about a different time and culture, but the idea that Tea Cake, the man who is the love of her life and the person who makes her feel like a natural woman and the wind beneath her wings hit her because he needed to show POSSESSION?! That is the same sentiment that made Jody tell her to keep her hair pinned up. Not cool, Tea Cake.

Other than that, Janie accomplishes personal growth by the end of the novel, if not because she has experienced love, then because she has become so self assured and self satisfied that she doesn’t care if people gossip about her. That is truly what every woman strives for.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

April 16th, 2010 — 7:22pm

So I kind of cheated this week.

There was a release of a new printing of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle with an Edward Gorey-esque cover that was irresistible. So I forsook The Ginger Man briefly and read that instead.  Ooops.

Most people are familiar with Shirley Jackson by either her short story “The Lottery,” in which a seemingly modern village holds an annual lottery to choose who will be sacrificed and stoned to death by the townspeople, or her novel turned Owen Wilson/Catherine Zeta-Jones/Liam Neeson movie The Haunting of Hill House. And if you are familiar with those works, you know that the Shirley Jackson oeuvre can be downright creepy.

Such is the case with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which opens with the narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, stating that the villagers have always hated them (them being Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian Blackwood). Indeed, the first chapter goes on to describe Merricat making her weekly errand run in the village and being harrassed by children and adults alike, the children who taunt her with a playground rhyme:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

The rhymes origin is from an event at the Blackwood house that occurred six years earlier — one night at dinner, the girls’ parents, their younger brother, and Uncle Julian’s wife were all murdered by arsenic that had been mixed into the sugar bowl and used by the family to sprinkle sugar over their dessert of blackberries. The only ones to survive were Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper, Uncle Julian, who didn’t use a lot of sugar but has been ill from aftereffects of the poison since then, and Constance, who never took sugar on her berries. Because Constance fixed the dinner and had washed the sugar bowl, she was the main suspect, even going through a murder trial until she was acquitted of the charge.  However, the people of the village still believe that Constance was the murderer and have since ostracized the family, turning Constance into an agoraphobe; she hasn’t left the confines of the house and the yard in six years.

And so they have lived in their somewhat peaceful existence. Merricat is a bit of a feral child, or at least a whimsical one — she makes little protection spells by nailing her father’s old things to a tree or burying things, like a box of silver dollars, and she runs around the land around the house with her cat, Jonas. Constance seems to spend her day cooking, taking care of Uncle Julian, and shaking her head and saying, “Silly Merricat.”

But of course, there is a change in the air. The change in question is the sudden arrival of their cousin Charles, who claims to be their father’s brother’s son. He tells them that his father would never allow him to contact them while he was alive, but now that his father is dead, he has come to do his family duty by showing up at the their house, moving himself into their father’s old room, appraising all of their things, and making thinly veiled threats to Merricat, who is instantly suspicious of him:

“Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me. I thought of seeing him dead. “Cousin Charles?”
“Well?”
“I have decided to ask you to please go away.”
“All right,” he said. “You asked me.”
“Please will you go away?”
“No,” he said…”As a matter of fact,” he said, “come about a month from now, I wonder who will be here? You,” he said, “or me?”

Okay, maybe not so thinly veiled. But Merricat retaliates by listing all of the poisonous mushrooms in their yard, so that shuts him up for a while.

Charles argues with Uncle Julian, who is constantly confused between what is and what isn’t reality (at one point, he says that “my niece Mary Katherine died in the orphanage of neglect” when she’s standing in the room with him, which makes you wonder for a split second if you’re having a “The Sixth Sense” moment), and Merricat runs off to their old family shed and talks with her dead family members, who all fawn over her in a way that is super super creepy. She returns to the house for dinner, and when Constance sends her upstairs to wash her hands for dinner, she notices Charles has left a lit pipe in his room. She pushes it into the wastebasket that is filled with newspapers and innocently reports to the table for dinner.

Of course, a fire breaks out and Charles freaks out and runs to the village to get help, as if the fire burns down the home, then where would he get any more money? The villagers come to help, but they are overcome by the mob mentality and their hatred and fear of the Blackwoods, and they begin destroying the downstairs rooms, breaking and smashing things, all the while chanting the playground rhyme. Constance and Merricat hide in the woods, where they can watch and listen to the mob from a safe distance. Charles attempts to steal the family safe and it’s reported that Uncle Julian has died, presumably of a heart attack. While they’re watching the chaos, Merricat lays a bomb:

…and I said aloud to Constance, “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. “The way you did before?” she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”

Wait…..WHAT!?

Yes. It turns out that Merricat was the one who poisoned and killed her family. But that’s really all that the book gives you. There’s no explanation, no reasoning behind it. Just an admission that’s almost an aside. All she says is that she put it in the sugar because she knew that Constance never took sugar. I don’t even know.

After the villagers leave, Constance and Merricat go back to the house and salvage what is left. Only the rooms in the top floor of the house burned, so they make do with the bottom floor and whatever material goods they have that the villagers didn’t destroy. Speaking of the villagers, they appear to be contrite about how they’ve treated the girls and begin to leave offerings of food and casseroles on their front porch. Constance waits until the cover of darkness to retrieve them, to make sure they’re really gone and no one can see them. The sisters live in the house on their own, and the final lines of the novel are:

“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

Um, yeah. Okay.

To me, the most frustrating thing was the lack of explanation of the family’s murders. Merricat is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. She’s eighteen years old, but has definite childlike qualities, such as her “protection spells” and the way she plays in the yard and in some ways the way she talks to Constance. But does that have something to do with the reason behind her poisoning the sugar? There was obviously some sort of intent behind it, as she tells Constance that she purposefully chose the sugar because she knew that Constance wouldn’t eat it. And, hi, why is Constance not freaked out about her little sister being a killer? The language is very straight forward, which also adds to the appearance of Merricat being an innocent child. Until she starts listing off how many ways she can poison you.

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