Friday, November 26, 2010

The Mother Figure: A Conventional Literary Archetype

At the end of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath a starving man suckles at the breast of a young mother. Such an image scandalizes some readers, but this moment in literature is a classic example of another conventional literary archetype, the mother figure.

Mother is the womb, the safe haven where needs, both biological and psychological, are met. She is the crucible in which a fetus changes to become male or female and develops unique features. Mother is the receptacle and the nest.

Mother is also the nurturer. Her body sustains the fetus and infant. Her responsibilities include growing and providing foods that help children thrive. She also nourishes the spirit, kissing boo-boos to make them better and healing wounds seen and unseen. A mother’s love restores us to a state of well-being. She makes us whole because the metaphorical umbilical cord connecting mother and child cannot be severed. Mothers sense when their children are in need. They are aware of subtle differences in their child’s cries, they guide their children in the direction of their true talents, and they differentiate their methods according to the needs of each child.

Mothers are selfless. A mother will take the lesser portion so that her child will not be hungry. She will wear tatters in order to send her child into the world well-dressed. She will push her child to the front and recede into the background unless her child faces foes and competitors. Then, Mother will stand like a shield between her child and oncoming arrows. She will also forgive and love eternally.

Mothers are teachers. By example, they teach love and empathy. They also teach civility and etiquette, and perhaps most important, they teach children to hold in their selfish impulses in favor of sharing and caring.

Mother Nature is perhaps the classic example of mother as womb and nurturer. Earth itself sustains her children, providing beauty to feed the heart and mind, food to feed the body. Her Greek identity is Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, of the sanctity of marriage, and of the cycle of life. She is the mother who mourned her daughter, Persephone, while she was in Hades with her husband. Her heart and the world became wintry awaiting the rebirth of joy and bounty in the Spring and Summer.

Ma Joad, another character from The Grapes of Wrath, also exemplifies roles of mother as safe haven. She is fierce in her ability to weather all hurts without withering. She knows that her family’s hope and strength begins in her; she will endure and persevere to sustain them.

Leah Price, one of the heroic women in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, is selfless. She surrenders her role as dependent in order to provide for her family, taking up the duties of hunter when Nathan shirks them. She sees beyond race and time to the beauty of her husband, Anatole, and all of the Congolese. She chooses to live in Africa, enduring all the hardships of the land. She dedicates her life to love: loving her husband, her biological children, and Africa. She sacrifices in order to improve the lives of others. So does Erin Brockovich, as portrayed by Julia Roberts, when she eats a can of tomatoes and uses her last dollars to buys her kids food.

Elbows off the table, cover your mouth when you cough, and don’t talk with your mouth full are all directives from Mom. She teaches children to apologize, do their best, and play nicely. Ms. Rain, the GED teacher at Precious’ alternative school, is an excellent example of the mother figure as teacher in the movie Precious. Ms. Rain prepares Precious to earn a diploma, she provides her with life skills, and she models love and kindness, two gifts that Precious has never known.

Authors use these expectations of mothers to guide the reader’s understanding of the character and to develop overall meanings. Sometimes, the mother figure does not fare well against the cultural expectations. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is one who fails to put her own desires aside and help her son overcome his grief. Ingrid, Astrid’s mother in the film version of White Oleander, rationalizes that placing her daughter into the foster care system is acceptable parenting. We, the viewers, recognize the mother’s utter selfishness, her failure to provide a safe haven, to nurture, and teach.

Through literary mothers who fulfill society’s expectations, readers witness the godlike qualities within human beings. From mothers who fail, we learn that innocent children pay for the sins of their elders, that their promise is often thwarted by adults who cannot live up to the demands of parenting.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The mother, Orleanna, is a complex character who must make difficult choices. She fails and triumphs as a mother.

Writing Challenge:

Write a fabulous reality in which a mother figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As promised, the meaning and use of e.g. is the subject this week. It means for example so writers use e.g. to introduce a paradigm, illustration, or example for a statement; e.g.,

Elmore Leonard often creates fabulous realities; e.g., gangsters discuss the meanings and uses of i.e. and e.g.

Here’s a trick to remember when and how to use these Latin abbreviations:

In other words and that is are translations for i.e. Both feature the letter I as does i.e.

For example is a translation for e.g. Both feature an E.

By thinking of I or E, you should be able to differentiate between i.e. and e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, November 19, 2010

Father Figures: The Fifth Conventional Literary Archetype

In less than one week, in thousands of home across the land, the patriarch of the family will stand at the head of the table to carve the traditional turkey for the Thanksgiving gathering. His role as leader of the family is time-honored and symbolic. He is a literary archetype, one being reinterpreted by the new family constructions and gender considerations in the Western world, but one that will nevertheless endure for its roots are as deep as Greek mythology and Biblical precepts.

Father is the Creator. In religions across time and nation, he is the giver of life. Whether the creator is a spirit imbued in nature and man or a figure such as Yahweh, men, ancient and modern, tell each other stories about the spark that ignited the world and its inhabitants. Many of these stories portray that spark as a creature resembling man himself.

Father is also the protector
. Prometheus risked his personal well-being to steal fire from the gods in order to protect mankind. With Prometheus’ gift of fire, men were able to cook foods, warm themselves, and shed light upon complex mysteries such as disease. In other words, with fire, men became self-sufficient, and Prometheus is the mythological Father figure who made it possible.

Father is furthermore the leader. He guides his children through the maze of existence, endowing them with precepts and purpose. He directs units as small as the family and as large as an entire nation. He explores the wildernesses and frontiers, rendering them useful and ordered.

Many works of literature play into these paternal roles, and many play against them.
In Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Baba gave life to Amir and Hassan. When forced to choose between them, Baba chooses Amir, protecting him from the Russians and the Taliban, sheltering him in the United States, and insuring that Amir’s dreams come true. In Shakespeare, father figures often create chaos instead of a new Eden. Claudius transforms Prince Hamlet’s home into “an unweeded Garden,” suggesting that the Creator has indeed abandoned his creation.

Similarly, fathers may fail to protect. Baba fails Hassan because the father is ashamed of creating a Hazara son. Baba abandons Hassan to the care of a foster father, Ali, and departs Afghanistan, leaving both in a war-torn country. Nathan Price, husband to Orleanna and father of four girls, is a villain in The Poisonwood Bible because he ignores his fundamental paternal duty: to protect and provide for his family. Macbeth’s evil is apparent when he fails to protect the father of Scotland, Duncan, and fails to care about Scotland’s welfare once Macbeth realizes his ambitions to become king.

The examples of Baba, Nathan Price, and Macbeth also demonstrate authors playing against conventional literary archetypes. Baba teaches his son, Amir, that the most egregious sin is to tell a lie, yet he lives a lie by denying his son, Hassan. Nathan Price may have deep spiritual convictions that lead him to Africa, but he cannot lead villagers to salvation while he himself belies a fundamental truth about fathers: they are responsible for the health and welfare of their family. Macbeth commits the same crime except that his family consists of an entire nation whereas Nathan’s consists of a wife and daughters.

What writers do as they play into and against convention is facilitate our understanding of a character’s true nature and overall meanings. From the fathers who err and fail, readers learn that failing to uphold moral virtue leads to ruin. From literary father figures who try to protect and lead, whether they succeed or not, readers infer that good and great men place the needs of others above their own.

Reading Challenge:

Fathers and Sons” by Ernest Hemingway, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and King Lear by William Shakespeare are five diverse works of literature featuring father figures, some of whom aspire to fulfilling their roles as protector and leader and some who fail as archetypal fathers.

Writing Challenge

Write a fabulous reality in which a father figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Elmore Leonard has written many novels that I have enjoyed and many have inspired screenplays. One of the better known novels that became a successful movie is Get Shorty. I like to think Leonard’s keen ear for dialogue, his excellent use of irony, and his satirical tone are the reasons.

In that book and film, gangsters discuss the correct use of i.e. and e.g. Ray Bones, the thuggiest of the thugs, uses i.e. incorrectly. Chili Palmer, the most imaginative of the criminals, the one who aspires to wealth without the risk of prison, suggests that Bones should have used e.g. instead. Bones’ muscle, the bone-breaker and bodyguard, arbitrates, coming down in favor of Chili’s understanding of the Latin abbreviations.

The great joke is that gangsters care about the nuances of language and Bones, like so many of us, confuses the two. So for all you Bones out there:

The Latin abbreviation i.e. roughly translates to mean in other words or that is. For example:

Get Shorty mocks Hollywood by suggesting that loan sharking and making movie deals are similar; i.e., Leonard portrays Hollywood as a world wherein the borrower is servant to the lender.

Next week: The Latin abbreviation e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Innocent: A Fourth Conventional Liteary Archetype

We envy babies for more than their dewy, rosy skin, so soft and warm. We envy their weltanschauung. For children, magic operates in the universe, and all things are possible. Such is their state of innocence.

I still recall when my daughter lost some of her innocence. She asked Santa for an impossible gift: an animated Santa that, like Salvation Army bell-ringers, jangles a bell, the sound signalling much joy to come. Perhaps someone, somewhere made such a toy, but if so, it was not made in the year she asked for it. Friends and near strangers in other states searched for me; family in other cities looked. No such Santa was for sale.

I bought a Rudolph instead. His nose shone red and when squeezed, his belly sang endless, childish Christmas tunes, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” while his head rocked from side to side. A friend at work wrote a note from Santa, explaining that he could not give up the Eve to ring a bell for her, but Rudolph, due to clear skies around the world, had volunteered to await her morning. The note replaced cookies in a plate that had been left for the big guy; my husband drank the milk.

Despite my clever ruse, my daughter was not fooled. She played along as she tried to sort out the probability of a world-wide conspiracy that told children of a Santa that could not, in fact, deliver the goods, but years later, she told me that she knew, on that childhood Christmas morning, that Santa Claus was but a myth. She had moved one step along the game board of Life from innocence to cynicism, and that is what happens to The Innocent, another conventional, archetypal literary character.

Some time later, in her fourth-grade year, my daughter asked for a haircut just like her teacher’s. I had no problem with her request because, after all, it is her hair, but I hated to see her beautiful long locks go and missed them when they did. She missed them immediately. She looked in the mirror and did not see what she had hoped to see. She grieved. She sobbed. She asked me how long before her long locks returned so I did what any self-respecting parent of virtue might do: I lied. I plucked a number from the mesosphere and said, “three months,” believing that in three months, my daughter would no longer feel the sting of loss and short hair. I was so wrong.

When the world had grown three months older--something I had not guessed that my daughter would keep track of--she asked me if something were wrong because her hair did not fall below her shoulders after three months. Like a beetle pinned to the science-project board, I was caught so I admitted that I had lied--a so-called innocent lie to make her feel better.

Her eyes widened. She stared, and her mouth gaped a bit before she said, “You lied” as one might say, “Did you say cancer? I have cancer?” Her tone was flat, the tone of someone who knows the language is English but cannot comprehend the words at all. In expression and words, she conveyed her disbelief in the possibility that I had lied.

For days, she wrestled with the truth and quizzed me about other possible lies. We had many frank conversations, and I apologized over and over. But no apology could alter the outcome: my daughter’s innocence had been stolen again. She had to face the truth that a parent may not be able to stitch bad patches together into one huge good. In fact, my daughter now realized, even parents may dissemble, wearing the face of someone trustworthy to mask the hideous lying face below.

This is the stuff of literature and literary archetypes. The innocent is a character, usually adolescent, who comes closer to the truth of adults. He learns that even the myth of Santa does not apply to the poorest among us. He watches sitcom families live in impossibly nice homes and apartments, realizing at last that his own family will never have the means or opportunity to live as they do.

The innocent knows at all too young an age that bullies exist. Worse, sometimes those bullies are his own parents who beat, scald, batter, and isolate him. He bumps into a schoolmate and learns, upon being shoved down, that sometimes people are cruel for no reason whatsoever. He watches his father or mother walk out the door, never to return. He confronts the finality, the irreversibility of death, and his entire weltanschauung inevitably shifts.

Sometimes, even when innocence dies abruptly, the characters live happily ever after. Cinderella is a fine example of that. She, we presume, once had a loving mother. After her mother’s death, her father remarries, only to leave her in the care of a step-mother who despises the child who did not come from her own womb. The wicked step-mother uses Cinderella as a servant, casting her into the ashes of existence where no remedy or kindness lays. Cinderella, however, at least in Disney’s famous version, has a fairy godmother who facilitates a good outcome. Cinderella finds a fella who takes her away from all her misery, into a palace, where he cherishes her all her days.

In Cinder-Edna and Ever After, a film starring Drew Barrymore, the happy ending results from Cinderella’s own grit. She knows what is right. She possesses a healthy, vital dose of empathy for others who suffer. She has little to call her own, but she is whole and content. Who then could not fall in love with such a woman?

More often, the ending is not a happy one. Usually, the adolescent grieves as Jem did after a jury of white men finds an innocent black man guilty of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem learns a lesson that we all must learn at some point, in some way: our neighbors may not have our best interests in mind when they act and decide.

Sometimes, the innocent becomes bitter and runs from others, as Chris McCandless did after he condemns his parents for their actions (from Jon Krakauer’s analysis of Chris in Into the Wild). At other times, the ending is tragic as it was for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Rescued from the streets, Heathcliff’s benefactor, Mr. Earnshaw, pampers the waif, making him equal and even superior to his own son, Hindley. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley takes his revenge upon Heathcliff, evicting him from the house, denying him an education, and forcing him to live among the filthy. With his innocence restored by Mr. Earnshaw, then stripped by Hindley, Heathcliff becomes a twisted, bitter man, bent upon revenge and dedicated to cruelty. He never enjoys peace or finds happiness.

Reading Challenge:

Read a Stephen King novel or novella, featuring adolescents. Christine or “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” in a collection entitled Different Seasons will serve. Note the role of The Innocent in these.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story about a day or time when you lost a measure of your own innocence. What new conclusions did you draw about the universe and people as a result?

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Since I confessed to telling a lie in this post, I think it’s as good a time as any to review the uses of lie and lay.

First, lie can be a noun or a verb. George Washington supposedly said, “I cannot tell a lie,” and I confessed to having told my daughter a lie about hair growth. Both of these are examples of lie as a noun.

Lie is also a verb
and is used as a verb in the following examples:

• I would like to live my life as a dog because then I would only be required to lie down all day while my food digested.
• Each afternoon, I lie on the couch to rest my body while exercising my mind with Jeopardy.
• We now know that lying in the sun to tan our hides is a very bad idea.

Lay can also be a noun or a verb although the use of lay as a noun is definitely not polite in all social circles. As a verb, lay means that a human places something or someone who is no longer alive somewhere. For example:

Lay your coats on the bed in the front bedroom please.
• Mr. Jones was laid to rest today in Green Lawn Cemetery.
• “The chicken laid 3 eggs today--very unusual.”

The most important point to keep in mind when you review the examples above: lie is for humans; lay is for non-human or dead humans. Easy? Well, you would think so, but lots of people cannot keep the two sorted out, especially when other verb tenses come into use.

Here are the primary tenses for lie and the correct word:

• Every day, I lie down for a nap between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.
• Yesterday, I lay down for a thirty-minute nap at 3:30 p.m.
• Tomorrow, I will lie down for a nap in the afternoon.
• All my life, I have lain on my couch for an afternoon nap.
• I must have been asleep lying on the couch when you called.

See one problem? The past tense of lie is lay. With that one confusing exception, the differences between verbs and their tenses are distinct.

Here are the primary tenses for lay and the correct word:

• Each evening, I lay my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom.
• Yesterday, I laid my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom so that I could arrive at work earlier than the day before.
• Tomorrow, I will lay out the clothes that I must pack for my vacation.
• All my life, I have laid a wreath on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day.
• Your wallet is laying on your dresser.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Femme Fatale, Another Conventional, Literary Archetype

Speaking of heroes, as I was last week, we should consider a challenge oft faced by heroes: the femme fatale, another literary archetype. She is, as Margaret Atwood described her in a poem entitled “Siren Song,” a seductress who lures men, even heroic men, to their doom. The Siren herself says:

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

Yes, heroes and ordinary men sense the danger in associating with the femme fatale, but her pheromones or beauty or mystery reels them in anyway.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, creates a convoluted, prolonged test to prove that Arthur and his men are neither pure nor heroic. Gawain is the knight who accepts the challenge. He must deliver an axe blow to the Green Knight, who picks up his head and rides off to become whole again. In one year and a day, Gawain must follow the Green Knight to bare his own neck for an axe blow.

While searching for the Green Knight to fulfill his quest, Gawain stays at a castle for several days. There, the Lord’s wife tries to seduce him. She teases him, kisses him, bares her breast, and tries to bribe him with a jewel, but Gawain remains devout: honor to God and King first; women, especially married women, last. When the Lady finally realizes that Gawain will not succumb to her physical temptations, she offers him a simple green scarf that, she promises, could save his life. Gawain folds. Now his priorities are: his own life, honor to God, then honor to King.

The problem is that Gawain has agreed to give the Lord of the castle anything Gawain receives during the day, while the Lord is away, hunting. Gawain has been faithful to this contract until he receives the green scarf. He does not want to give up his chance to live so he compounds his sin by lying to the Lord who is, of course, actually the Green Knight, thanks to magic stirred up by Morgan le Fay. So the Lord, a.k.a. Knight, knows that Gawain has lied to him when they meet on the next day, the day that Gawain may die.

[If you have not read the tale, I encourage you to do so. You’ll find plenty of asides about the ways knights dressed for battle, about quests, and about how hunters field dressed deer and birds. You’ll also find a titillating tale of temptation.]

Spoiler Alert: Gawain lives, thanks to the green scarf, but he must endure the Green Knight’s mockery for having flinched and lied. In truth, however, the Green Knight chastises Gawain far less than Gawain chastises himself. All in all, the tale upholds the reputation of Arthur and his knights, proving them to be men of conscience, men who strive for excellence even if they stumble now and then.

This tale from the Middle Ages reveals what the femme fatale does. She is a temptress who tries to de-rail the hero, to distract him from his noble purpose. Such a woman is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the foil to Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Another such woman is Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, a film whose title aptly describes the femme fatale. Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) falls for Alex’s come hither wiles, and he believes her when she says that it’s just sex. He learns that she lies, and he almost loses the prize at the end of his quest: a loving wife and happy family.

Some of my favorite femme fatales are found in film noir. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyk in a funky wig) tempts the good, upright Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) in about the same time as it takes to say “baby, baby, baby”--which Walter says a lot in the film by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Phyllis’ lure seems to be an ankle bracelet that wraps itself around Walter’s conscience, choking to death every one of his principles and ethics. Her kisses convince him to murder her husband after Walter writes an insurance policy that promises Double Indemnity if a fella dies by falling from public transportation. Her kisses do not warn Walter that she will shoot him, but she’s such a lousy shot that Walter has time to drive back to his office, dictate the whole, sorry, sordid tale, and try to die before the coppers arrive. Alas, Walter does time for his fatal crime.

So you might conclude that a femme fatale may draw a man to his doom or merely waylay him on his way to something grand and noble. And. . .you’d be right.

Reading Challenge

Choose a Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, or Walter Mosley novel. You’re quite likely to find a femme fatale and a variety of heroic figures.

Writing Challenge:

Using specific, concrete language and detail, describe a femme fatale you’ve known and possibly loved. For the ladies among the readers, describe the gal who stole your man. Feel free to create a “fabulous reality” by embellishing.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Several years ago, one of my students shared the following with me: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar” (James D. Nicoll). We enjoyed laughing about the fact that English vocabulary has grown because we freely borrow words and phrases from other languages, phrases such as femme fatale, a phrase that I have italicized throughout this post. The reason is common courtesy: if at least one of the words is unfamiliar to English speakers, then italicize both words so the reader will not puzzle over them and will quickly recognize them as being from another language, in this case French.

Technically, I did not have to italicize the phrase more than once, the first time I used it. Thereafter, I could have used the normal font. I elected not to do this because the entire blog is about a conventional, literary character that I have chosen to call the femme fatale. Thus, italics helped me emphasize the term as I explained it, and emphasis is one of the chief uses of italics.

Many foreign words are well-known to English readers. Femme fatale and blasé are but two examples of words stolen in French alleys to bring into the bright, light of common English day. Neither one must be italicized today, but again, to emphasize a term being explained, italics are appropriate.

The German word, weltanschauung, on the other hand, is less familiar to English speakers and readers. An italicized font would be useful, but italics are not even required for weltanschauung because it has a place in the dictionary among other English words and phrases.

So if the word is uncommon and foreign, italicize it. If the word, though uncommon and foreign, is in the dictionary, you may omit the italicized font. If you wish to emphasize the word or phrase, foreign or not, italicize it.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach