Friday, January 7, 2011

Numbers in Literature Add Up

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Sir Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has one year plus one day in which to show up and bare his neck for the Green Knight. The self-absorbed knight who takes the young girl’s maidenhood in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” has one year plus one day in which to discover what women want most before he must return to the Queen with his report. Surely, the allotted 366 days have some significance. Surely, two tales from the Middle Ages do not accidentally or arbitrarily use the same number of days in which to complete a quest. But what does the number of days mean?

Three hundred and sixty-six days for a completed quest allude to one of the important biblical numbers and represent the sacred number three and its multiples

The Middle Ages follow a time of pagan kings and warrior tribes known as Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Over the centuries, these kings converted to Christianity and began to add details from biblical stories to their own tales. The numbers three (3) and seven (7) became important to them because both were deemed perfect representations of completion. God, the Father and Holy Ghost are three, the Holy Trinity, and God completed creation in seven days; thus, these numbers become talismanic to the converts. They showed their belief and conversion by incorporating three, seven, and their multiples into their old heroic tales.

When William conquers the area that will become Britain, in 1066, he unites the country and its people with one ruler, one brand of government, and one religion, transforming a piece of ground and its people into a nation. Story-tellers and subsequent writers, including the monks who recorded much of the oral tradition, continue to fold together the pagan and the sacred with new resolve.

Are other numbers equally significant? Are there numbers in addition to three and seven that are archetypal?

Well, four (4) is certainly a contender. Consider the ancient riddle put to Oedipus by the Sphinx: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening? A man! He crawls as an infant, walks upright as a man, and needs the help of a cane as an old man. What time of day is not part of this riddle? The night when man needs no legs at all; he lies down for an eternal rest.

Not only does our life cycle mirror the times of day, it also matches the seasons. In our spring, we are babies, children. For our summer, we grow ripe, mature. We produce families of our own as we build for a future. In the autumn, our work becomes less important, and our vitality begins to fade. In winter, we are through. Our time comes to its end.

Other allusions* include numbers associated with dates such as May 1, April 19, December 7, and September 11. These historical dates take on iconic power, and an author’s use of them enriches the story told.

May 1, for example, signifies struggles for independence and equity, particularly related to workers’ rights, especially for a shorter work day. In Russia, May 1 was known as the International Workers’ Solidarity Day. Should you read a story wherein May 1 is prominent, search the story’s details for big ideas related to overwork, fights for recognition, and rewards equal to labor.

To complicate your analysis, you must consider the story’s context because May 1 also has to do with spring and beginnings. In my childhood, teachers taught us to create May baskets and recreate Maypole dances, traditions now faded and gone. The baskets, usually filled with Spring’s flowers, were given to family and neighbors on May 1 as gestures of kindness. The May Pole dance seems to be rooted in rites of Spring as well.

April 19, known as Patriots’ Day, is now infamous because of the violence committed by Americans against Americans outside Waco, Texas, in 1993, at the Branch Davidian compound; in Oklahoma City, 1995, at the Murrah Building; and at Columbine High School in Colorado, on April 20, 1999, one day after the killers’ intended massacre date of April 19. What has made April 19 so significant in the troubled minds of David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold is its Revolutionary origins. The cause for which men took a stand on April 19 at Lexington and Concord in 1775--independence from oppression at the hands of the British--has, in the late twentieth century, become more associated with stealth, fire power, and body counts.

September 11 is similar to April 19 with one major exception: the violence committed against America in 2001 was perpetrated by outsiders, but both dates are now easily associated with days on which innocence died. Not only were children damaged irreparably, but children and adults who have little to do with politics or policies, foreign or domestic, were slaughtered in an effort to strike at the resolve and will of a people. Now experienced and less innocent, the people proved their strength and they triumphed. They also showed their humanity because fear shook the foundations of their faith and democracy itself. Both April 19 and September 11 now suggest some very big ideas that authors develop into themes or overall meanings.

So when reading, consider the numbers and what they might suggest. Consider the dates and do a little research to see if the historical background in any way enriches or perfects your understanding of the overall story.

*Allusion. A reference to events, people, and art that has preceded the work in which the allusion appears. Most allusions refer to Greek and Roman mythology or the Bible. Allusions enable authors to add multiple layers of meaning to his or her work with a word or phrase or date.

Reading Challenge:

Read W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Consider the significance of the date and how it informs your understanding of the poem.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Writing Challenge:

Consider the significance of July 4 or July 14 or any of the dates mentioned in this post. Build a story that develops the archetypal meaning of the date selected.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): How to Write Numbers Correctly

Write in words any number that can be written in a couple of words. So:

Correct: I will be twenty-three in three months and six days.
Incorrect: I will be 9 in three months and 6 days. (Be consistent!)

Rules that have not changed over time.

o Never begin a sentence with the numeral; always write out the number if you must begin a sentence with it. (Two thousand people attended the rally or On the first of April, 2,000 people attended the rally.)
o Use common sense: if two numbers placed side by side would be confusing, then revise or spell one out. (On April 1, 2,000 people attended the rally or see the second example above.)
o Spell out simple percentages. (One-fourth of the eligible registered voters participated in the election or Only one-fourth of the eligible registered voters participated in the election.)
o Complex fractions and numbers that include a decimal point should be written using numerals. (Only 5.8% of the registered voters determined the winner or The recipe includes one cup of vegetable oil, but 1 ½ cups of the oil may be replaced by applesauce for a low-fat version.)
o You may write centuries or decades as numbers--unless, of course, the word is the first word of a sentence--or you may spell out the century or decade, but be consistent throughout the document. (During the sixties, many men grew their hair longer or During the ‘90s (or 1990s), only a few men still had long hair.)
o Dates may be written in several ways, including a) January 1, 2011, b) 1 January 2011, c) New Year’s Day, 2011, and d) the first day of January, 2011. Note that in formal writing, you should spell out the month, avoiding numerals, hyphens, and slashes; e.g. 1-1-11 and 1/1/11.