Posts Tagged ‘ethnicity’

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

This group of stories was written by Lawrence in his twenties, leading up to Sons and Lovers and World War I. I’m reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. Antony Atkins, and there is a choice I would not have made. Atkins orders the stories chronologically, from the earliest known draft, instead of in the sequence Lawrence chose. DHL was an obsessive reviser, so it seems plain to me that the arrangement of the stories would have been agonized over as much as any of his other changes, particularly since Atkins’s notes highlight the frequent revisions and the specific changes Lawrence made each time. I’m not saying that studying them chronologically has no value, merely that I think there is more value in reading an author’s work in the manner in which he published it.

“The Prussian Officer” is the last story to be written, but Lawrence puts it first and uses its name in the title, so I guess he considered it either the best or most important. Publishing in 1914, at the beginning of a war, I can see the expedience of that choice. TPO is the gay story of the bunch, but it’s written at a time when there was no cultural vocabulary for that, so it’s painful. The Captain is infatuated with the soldier who acts as his servant, but he can neither express nor accept his own desire, so it comes out in dangerous ways. Instead of kissing him, he kicks him. The only way his cultural background will allow him to touch this younger man is violently, so he does. This kid gets really hurt. The servant is straight, though, so he doesn’t kiss back – he kills him. With his bare hands. As with most of the stories, it’s really sad and completely preventable.

“The Thorn in the Flesh” is the second story, and second-to-last written. It’s also about a German soldier who accidentally hurts an officer and gets in trouble for it. I think that, as he traveled about and saw more of the world, Lawrence became less tolerant of authority, particularly in the military context. Atkins includes in an appendix an earlier version of this one called “Vin Ordinaire,” and it helped me understand the story and its revision better. In describing the accident, the earlier version is much clearer – I couldn’t visualize what was happening in the later version. The earlier story seems to come from the soldier’s point of view, and everything revolves around him. He runs off to his girlfriend’s house, and even the sex is centered on him. There’s a line about how Emilie is only half satisfied, but Lawrence sort of drops her. The later version, the one he published in the book, is much more centered on her. The accident is vague because she probably only had a vague sense of the details. Her consciousness is moved to the forefront, and it highlights her virginity and her pride in her virginity, then her changing outlook after she loses that virginity. And, in the later version, she spends the night with him instead of with the governess, so she gets complete satisfaction. The early version is a lot like the other early stories, but the later one seems to have challenged him more. I envision Emilie knocking on the door of his brain, demanding a better ending and more attention, until he finally rewrote the thing.

Most of the stories in the book rely on his own early experience, like Sons and Lovers. As you would expect, they’re about the everyday lives of coalminers in the Midlands. My favorite of the volume was “Daughters of the Vicar,” about two girls raised in isolated snobbery in a little mining village. The story is about their marriages – the first marries this curate with Short-Man Syndrome, which means that he is keenly aware of his physical inferiority and overcompensates with intellectual prowess and the power to force other people to do what he wants. The older girl is drawn to his power, and as such is a little afraid of him and not much attracted to him. The younger sister is in love with one of the miners, a curiously self-conscious young man who did a stint in the navy to get out of town but came back from homesickness. For me, their love affair is one of the most intense parts of the book, so it’s no surprise that Lawrence put it third after the German soldier stories.

At last she wanted to see him. She looked up. His eyes were strange and glowing, with a tiny black pupil. Strange, they were, and powerful over her. And his mouth came to hers, and slowly her eyelids closed, as his mouth sought hers closer and closer, and took possession of her.

They were silent for a long time, too much mixed up with passion and grief and death to do anything but hold each other in pain and kiss with long, burning kisses wherein fear was transfused into desire. At last she disengaged herself. He felt as if his heart were hurt, but glad, and he scarcely dared look at her.

The ones in the middle are a little forgettable. No doubt true to the life, but not every aspect of life is interesting, you know?

The final story in Lawrence’s arrangement is the one most frequently anthologized, “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” A miner’s wife gets angry at her husband for staying out late, then she finds out that he died in a cave-in and she and his mother prepare the body for burial. There are two topics that interest me here, and in the less memorable stories. (1) The sharp visual contrasts in miner’s lives. They work underground all day, so their skin is as pale as anything. But, despite their bright whiteness, they get covered in coal dust, so when they come home they’re nearly black. They move back and forth between black and white, and while they’re black they communicate that darkness to the rest of the world. Darkness defines the miners’ professional lives, and it stains the rest of their existences too. Washing is one of the most important activities of the evening, because that is the transition between workplace filth and domestic cleanliness. This casting of white as normal and black as deviant probably affects Lawrence’s ethnocentrism, evident throughout his career. (2) The unknowableness of other people. The mining stories are full of this sense of isolation and social ignorance. We can never completely know what is happening in another person’s mind, so even if we spend years sleeping in the same bed we can never fully know another human being. This knowledge frequently comes too late, after the characters have to suffer for their presumption. This theme is stressed in the version of “Chrysanthemums” Lawrence chose for publication, but Atkins includes an earlier version of the ending which focuses instead on the consequences of poverty. As Elizabeth is preparing her husband for his grave, instead of thinking of how little she really knows him, she thinks about how working long hours in a dangerous job for little pay has affected him over the years.

Let Education teach us to amuse ourselves, necessity will train us to work. Once out of the pit, there was nothing to interest this man. He sought the public-house where, by paying the price of his own integrity, he found amusement, destroying the clamours for activity, because he knew not what form the activities might take. The miner turned miscreant to himself, easing the ache of dissatisfaction by destroying the part of him which ached. Little by little the recreant maimed and destroyed himself.

It was this recreant his wife had hated so bitterly, had fought against so strenuously. She had strove, all the years of his falling off, had strove with all her force to save the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength. In a wild and bloody passion she fought the recreant. Now this lay killed, the clean young knight was brought home to her. Elizabeth bowed her head upon the body and wept.

If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, poverty focuses our attention at the bottom, with keeping ourselves fed, sheltered, and sexually satisfied. Safety is a higher level of concern that, at home, the miners can achieve, but not at work. As such, women are in some ways better off than men, but in most ways not. The difficulty of being a miner’s wife is one of the primary themes of the collection. After safety, people need love and belonging, and most of Lawrence’s characters can achieve that, though Elizabeth is in some doubt. Esteem is more difficult to accomplish – no student of gender interactions will be surprised at how little respect husbands and wives can show each other. [Notice, I said can; it’s not inevitable. The old saying goes, Familiarity breeds contempt, and spouses generally become quite familiar with each other over time. Maybe clinging to unknowableness is Lawrence’s way of establishing more mutual respect.] And finally, few of Lawrence’s characters meet their full potential – self-actualization – because of their economic and social limitations.

Atkins’s edition also includes “With the Guns,” which was considered uncollected until the sixties. It’s a nonfiction piece about Lawrence’s observations of European soldiers before WWI got started, and it seems to give a key to his writing choices. This scene involves the shots fired by modern artillery:

I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at. Evidently they were directed against an enemy a mile and a half away, men unseen by any of the soldiers at the guns. Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know. Only the officer was shouting the range again, the guns were again starting back, we were again staring over the face of the green and dappled, inscrutable country into which the missiles sped unseen.

What work was there to do? – only mechanically to adjust the guns and fire the shot. What was there to feel? – only the unnatural suspense and suppression of serving a machine which, for aught we knew, was killing our fellow-men, whilst we stood there, blind, without knowledge or participation, subordinate to the cold machine. This was the glamour and the glory of the war: blue sky overhead and living green country all around, but we, amid it all, a part in some iron insensate will, our flesh and blood, our soul and intelligence shed away, and all that remained of us a cold, metallic adherence to an iron machine. There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear, only a mechanical, expressionless movement.

Lawrence’s love for nature seems to have been awakened by watching the Bavarian artillery. There was a time when war meant pitting men against men, where the stronger or more determined man won. World War I seems to be the beginning of drone strikes, where an obedient soldier manipulates fire on an impersonal target he is given, like the faceless NPCs of shooter games. Modern warfare denies our common humanity; it transforms living beings into cogs of a machine, a machine designed to bring death to whatever comes within its sights. In contrast, there is the beauty of sky and vegetation, life all around the machinery of death. The thing that really twists my perception here is that death is an inherently natural process that has been hijacked by technology – war denaturizes death. There is no inevitability, no sense of continuity, no circle of life. One moment someone is there, breathing and digesting and loving and sweating and alive, and the next moment he is gone, arbitrarily, purposelessly.

Maybe if we loved nature more, we would have found a different kind of warfare. Instead of increasing tools and separating the combatants, we could have reclaimed a style of war that more closely mimics nature, one that celebrates the physical reality of two men’s bodies coming together, struggling for dominance, where the strongest will to live wins. More primitive, no doubt, but where honor, strength, and determination really matter, where there is more to defending family and resources than what you see in a video game. I’m not suggesting that there is a good type of warfare; I’m just saying that our current method of managing conflict to maintain peace is ineffective, in part because it removes the human element from both sides.

War is awful. Killing another person is (and should be) a traumatic experience. Making it easier to kill others, both logistically and psychologically, which is the aim of military technology, is not a worthwhile endeavor. Some things are supposed to hurt, so that we learn not to do them.

My inner tween is rolling his eyes and saying “Oh my Gooooooooooood this book wasn’t long enough.” It was published posthumously, so Lawrence may not have been done with it. More than half of this book feels like exposition, and once we get to the place where I feel like he is ready to get into the story it’s over.

The Virgin Protagonist is named Yvette. She grew up in this awful vicarage with a power-hungry grandmother and an overly judgmental aunt. Her mother ran off when she was young, so they keep throwing that in her face. Her father the rector is still in love with the woman he thought she was, so the aunt has to keep all her venom a secret, hissing at Yvette’s door when she’s almost asleep. Creepy.

Six young rebels, they sat very perkily in the car as they swished through the mud. Yet they had a peaked look too. After all, they had nothing really to rebel against, any of them. They were left so very free in their movements. Their parents let them do almost entirely as they liked. There wasn’t really a fetter to break, nor a prison-bar to file through, nor a bolt to shatter. The keys of their lives were in their own hands. And there they dangled inert.

She’s out with friends one winter day and they run across an encampment of Roma. The girls of the party have their palms read, and Yvette makes eye contact with one of the men. The grandmother tells her about a dark man who’s going to be important to her, and it really seems like she’s pushing Yvette into the arms of her married son. He doesn’t have a name until the last page, when Lawrence and Yvette suddenly realize that that may have been important. I’ve remarked on Lawrence’s unfortunate attitude toward ethnicity before, and here it’s at its worst. This man, mentioned in the title, enormously important in this girl’s life, and he’s just called the gipsy, because his ethnicity is the only important thing about him. He’s very sexy, he’s attracted to her, but. He’s rough trade, not someone you introduce to your parents unless he’s just selling copper pots.

In order to delay the inevitable, Lawrence has Yvette meet a disreputable couple from outside of town. He’s a beautiful young ex-army guy, and she’s a soon-to-be-divorced Jew. As with The Sexy Guy, her racial features are highlighted as her only distinguishing traits, and her racial otherness gives her the freedom to relax society’s strict code of sexual ethics. For Lawrence, you can do whatever you like so long as you’re not British. But wait, is the Jewish woman a citizen of the United Kingdom? Doesn’t matter. For persons whose ancestors come exclusively from northern Europe, country of origin is important. For others, not so much. Here in the United States, ethnic Jews and Roma are considered white, but Lawrence doesn’t treat them as such. He has to make them as different from the rectory family as he can, and racial characteristics are easy to focus on.

Lawrence is setting up an ideological contrast: the white English family is constricted by social codes, which they value more than freedom or life. Their law kills. The ethnically other characters reject and/or are rejected by society, but they have the freedom to do as they like. They are in touch with passion, the forces of life. Their anarchy brings life. I’m not saying this was the most culturally sensitive way to prove this point, like showing the value that minorities bring to society by perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians are good at math, but for the 1920s it was brave to cast these people as the goodies and the traditional British family as the baddies. In this book, Lawrence represents a step forward from where society had been, in terms of racial equality, but from where we are now, it’s a step back.

But, having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we have certain expectations regarding the representation of the sex act. The marketing for the book encourages these expectations: “The last and most provocative novel from the genius of D. H. Lawrence”, and “The minister’s daughter. Her father taught her about God. The gipsy taught her about Heaven.” But no. Just, no. She plays back and forth, will she act on her feelings for him, won’t she, but in the end she does nothing. The Roma are leaving town, and he comes back to say goodbye, even though they’re barely even friends. A flash flood tears through the valley where she lives, and he saves her by pulling her into the house. They run up to her room because it’s the most structurally sound. It’s February in northern England and they’ve been caught in a flood, so they have to guard against hypothermia, which they do by getting into bed naked together, but it’s not so much sexy as a medical emergency.

The vice-like grip of his arms round her seemed to her the only stable point in her consciousness. It was a fearful relief to her heart, which was strained to bursting. And though his body, wrapped round her strange and lithe and powerful, like tentacles, rippled with shuddering as an electric current, still the rigid tension of the muscles that held her clenched steadied them both, and gradually the sickening violence of the shuddering, caused by shock, abated, in his body first, then in hers, and the warmth revived between them. And as it roused, their tortured, semi-conscious minds became unconscious, they passed away into sleep.

Instead of having sex, they have a nap instead, and he’s gone before she wakes up. She finishes the book in many ways as much a virgin as she was at the beginning. The man himself, the act of making love with him, these concrete things are not important. It’s the abstractions that matter. He represents an ideal, a feeling that she wants to repeat and dedicate her life to. He wakes her up to the importance of love and sex, but he’s not the one to fulfill her desires. If one is inclined to read symbolically, the flash flood in a narrow valley could represent female sexual desire, or sexual fulfillment, but it’s dangerous, and could kill them both. The flood does destroy the house, so the rector’s family has to split up and move away for a time, so maybe Yvette’s sexual awakening is going to ruin her family as they fear, but the book ends before we see what happens. Lawrence suggests and gestures toward things instead of describing them explicitly.

If the book is provocative, or at any rate more provocative than Lady Chatterley, it’s in the representation of the church. This isn’t Scenes of Clerical Life where we see the private lives of pastors and their foibles that make them lovably human. Lawrence practically puts horns on Yvette’s father and claims that his religion is death. Life is in the mountains. It’s in nature, love, and sex. Abstaining from life-giving activities is a slow torture that leads to corruption of the self/soul and death. The respectable life of Yvette’s family is a form of voluntary pointless misery; she can choose not to perpetuate the unhappiness, but she has to choose to do it. We see her begin to choose life, but we don’t see the consequences; we don’t see her happier, freer life. I want this book to be only Act I, not the entire piece. Maybe she does move on, maybe she doesn’t. There’s so much indecision in Yvette’s character that I can’t say for sure what will happen now. But she’s begun, and that’s the important thing.

I think back over the men I was attracted to before I came out of the closet, celebrities, students, friends. I wasn’t ready for gay sex then, so any attempts would have ended in disaster. But seeing them, and especially seeing my response to them, taught me important things about myself. If Yvette were ready for sex, she would have taken that gypsy man without question. He’s definitely available. Even without consummation, she learns important things about herself: how she feels about her father’s house and relatives, what kind of man she finds attractive, and why she’s not attracted to the single men in her own social circle. When I look at this story as a reader who wants a repeat of that scene where Lady Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper do it doggy-style in the woods during a rainstorm, it seems like a lost opportunity. When I look at this story objectively, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to her. Yvette is learning, but she’s not finished. When she’s older, when she’s ready, she’ll find a man to have sex with and I’m sure it will be lovely. Right now, she’s at a time of her life where near misses are enough.

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.

 

This one has been floating at the edge of my life for quite a while now. My ninth grade students had to study it this past spring, and now some of my intermediate language students are reading a simplified version. One of the advanced students retold it for her “Write a love story” assignment, so I decided to stop fighting the world’s tide and reread it.

One of the things that strikes me is how unified the play is. Typically Shakespeare gives a minor plotline that converges on the main story, like the Fortinbras part of Hamlet, or the Beatrice and Benedick love story in Much Ado. There’s some displaced focus when we think of the Capulets’ scheme to marry Juliet to Paris, but that part is so closely tied to Juliet’s despair that it doesn’t feel like an interlude.

When I was in grad school, my Shakespeare professor made the comment that things don’t make much sense to us in Twelfth Night because it’s a world run by teenagers, Olivia and Orsino being fairly young. I think R+J has the same feel, even though the parents are more adult. I’ve met some people who became parents as teenagers and have become unusually mature for their age group; I’ve also met some who abdicate responsibility for their children (giving them to Juliet’s Nurse, for example), and so they never really grow up. Lady Capulet is actually a sizable role, but she’s not the type of parent I want to be.

Reading it this time, my attention was centered on Friar Laurence. I suppose that’s because, as a teacher, he is the main character I have the most in common with. He wants to fix all of society’s problems, but in aiming too high he kills his students – an outcome I have avoided, and hope to continue to avoid. I was also struck with the similarity between him and Benvolio; they both try and fail to keep the peace, and they serve the same function, the innocent witness who reports the murders. And for all that he is typically portrayed as getting drunk with Mercutio at the Capulets’ party, there is something a little monastic about Benvolio.

I watched the video of a performance at the Globe Theatre, which I can now compare with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films. In this performance, Romeo and Tybalt are black; I can appreciate the effort to get some different ethnicities into the play (Friar Laurence is a nonwhite New Zealander), but did they have to make the two murderers black? And no one else? In terms of racial stereotypes, this is not exactly a step forward. I prefer Luhrmann’s choices, of using black actors as the authority figure and the victim. Mercutio gets caught in the middle of a fight between white people, which is sort of what happened to the entire continent of Africa. If Adetomiwa Edun were amazing as Romeo, like Harold Perrineau is as Mercutio, I might not have been too bothered, but frankly, I thought most of the Globe’s cast was fairly wooden. Romeo bounces all over the stage like a nutter on Ritalin, even when he’s supposed to be desperate because of Rosaline’s indifference. Benvolio is one of those guys whose acting style is, “The director told me to stand here and talk, and on this line he told me to walk to this point and watch Romeo talk.” There’s very little natural movement or heartfelt emotion. I was impressed with Fergal McElherron, who plays three of the minor parts but plays them all very differently, and their Mercutio, Philip Cumbus. The audience pretty much ignored the verbal sparring and laughed only at the sex jokes, but Cumbus managed to do both very well. I like my men to be a little cocky, and Cumbus and Perrineau both do Mercutio very well. That being said, I prefer Zeffirelli’s take on the death scene: in his film, Tybalt and Mercutio only play at fighting; it’s not serious until Romeo comes between them and Tybalt accidentally kills him. The Montagues laugh all the way through his “plague on both your houses” speech because they still haven’t figured out that he’s being serious, or that he’s been seriously injured. Luhrmann’s film is more violent in general, so when Mercutio gets stabbed with a shard of glass it’s upsetting but not surprising. The Globe’s fighting is always straightforward, which in some ways robs it of the shock that the other two films have.

I have never been terribly interested in Romeo. He’s always so generic. All anyone cares about is whether he’s handsome, and actors generally are, so there’s not much to say about him. I’m a much bigger fan of Tybalt. Especially John Leguizamo. He’s so badass. I suppose there’s a part of me that responds to Tybalt’s rage; for a single-emotion character, I always find him very appealing.

But what about Juliet? I find Zeffirelli’s Juliet completely forgettable (my apologies, but that’s the most complimentary I can be). Claire Danes is fine I guess; her Juliet is very similar to her Beth March, sweet and innocent and affectionate, the kind of girl every boy wants to marry. But Ellie Kendrick really makes Juliet interesting. Danes is educated and intellectual in her real life, but I didn’t see much of that in this performance. Kendrick’s performance is the first smart Juliet I’ve seen. Unlike most of the actors, with her I could tell that she knew what her lines meant. She doesn’t just reel them off as quickly as she can so that no one can understand her (Romeo and Benvolio, I’m looking at you); she puts thought and expression into everything. I found myself growing impatient with the scenes that didn’t have her in them; she was clearly the best part of the show. I especially liked the scene where Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment; I felt like I was watching a mad scene in an opera, as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Juliet has an Ophelia quality that most of them lack.   When Danes pulls the gun on the priest I’m always a little confused at her sudden intensity, but Kendrick makes a believable transition between happy innocence and suicidal grief. And yes, her characterization here is similar to her role in Being Human, so maybe she’s a cute nerdy girl in real life, but that’s not really a problem for me. Every actor brings to a character some aspects of her real self; the trick to good acting is knowing which aspects to bring to which character. Like any other art form, acting is a mode of self-expression.

No matter what people say, Romeo and Juliet is not the greatest love story ever. It has become one of the most recognizable, the most copied, the most archetypal, but never the greatest. Two kids fall in love and kill themselves a few days later – this isn’t a grand passion, it’s deranged. Let them live in love for more than a week. Let them overcome obstacles instead of faking suicide (and then really committing suicide) at the first hurdle. Capulet has nothing but good things to say about Romeo at the party, but Juliet never gives her parents a chance to approve of the match. Basically, these kids would rather die than tell their parents they’re dating. The behavior of the fathers at the end of the play makes me think that they could have buried the hatchet without their children dying – the marriage with no possibility of divorce (or annulment, since they consummated) would have done the trick. It’s not like they took ten minutes to think about it; they jumped straight into reconciliation as if they’d been wanting this for a long time without knowing how to do it without a pretext.

Maybe this play is like Oliver Twist; I’m getting too old to enjoy it. My own love stories are very different. I might be attracted to someone at first glance, but I need more than a few flirty puns to fall in love. And I can recognize the difference between infatuation and real love. I may fall in love quickly, but I’m not going to let it cripple or kill me. I’m determined to stay alive no matter what my emotional state may become. If getting divorced didn’t kill me, I’m not going to let anything else.

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”