Friday, July 27, 2012

Love's Loss in Literature: Motherless Children

Grimm’s tales and Disney’s extensive film collection are full of motherless children. Little Hansel and Gretel and awkward Bambi must manage the world without the protection and nuzzling muzzle of a mother.

Mother is the vessel for our very existence. She nourishes us and teaches us how to live. Without her, how will her children flourish?

In literature, sometimes they do not flourish at all. William Blake’s little chimney sweep, sorely in need of a parent of either gender, and finding neither, looks to God for his consolation. In his vision, God delivers a pristine heaven where motherless children find joy after a miserable existence on earth.

Listen to Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper,” as performed by Toby Jones:

Motherless children, as implied by Blake’s poem, are also at the mercy of adult machinations. Chimney sweepers were small and little, barely old enough to pronounce the work they sought: sweeping chimneys. They were often unclothed when dropped into the chimneys so that their flammable clothes would not abbreviate their working lives. They were poorly clothed when not inside the sooty brick because they just weren’t worth the expense. They didn’t live long or outgrew their usefulness quickly.

Dickens’s novels are full of children similarly lost and alone in this world. Orphaned Oliver Twist suffers in and out of the orphanage, his future in doubt when he falls into the hands of Fagin who uses him for personal gain. Ebenezer Scrooge is another motherless child, denied the company of his father, condemned to boarding school even at holidays because Ebenezer reminds the father of the wife he lost giving birth to the son.

Little Jane Eyre endures as much hardship as Oliver Twist, and she grows to doubt her very worth in this world because the people entrusted to care for her after her parents pass are spiteful and mean-spirited. Yet Naomi, the motherless child in a contemporary novel, Obasan by Joy Kogawa, also doubts her worth even though loving, devoted relatives care for her after Japan’s declaration of war against the allies during World War II prevents Naomi’s mother from returning to her child. Little Naomi’s transformation from a secure child into an insecure adult suggests that being motherless in this world is the first cause of self-doubt.

Still, more hopeful outcomes for motherless children also exist in literature, and Crescent Dragonwagon’s book for children is an excellent example. In it, the child asks the mother for reassurance about big dogs, thunder, lightning, deep snow, and snakes. The child also fears a world in which others do not like her and above all else, a world in which her mother is not nearby. Dragonwagon writes:

But what if someone hates me?

You feel lonely and sad.  You walk and walk until you come to a small pond. You kneel in the grass by the edge of the pond, you see something move.  You put out your hand and a tiny frog hops onto it.  Very carefully you lift your hand up to your ear and the frog whispers, ‘Other people love you. Maybe that person will love you again, maybe not, in any case it’s all right.’

But what if nobody likes the way I dance?

You go dancing in the woods, alone in the crackling leaves.  One day you meet someone else dancing in the woods and you dance together.  You throw leaves on each other, you lie down in the leaves.  Then you go home and draw pictures and drink warm Milk together.

But what if you die?

My loving doesn’t die. It stays with you, when you remember you and me; you say, ‘What can I do with so much love?  I will have to give some away.’ So you love thunder and lightning, dogs and snakes, snow and planting cabbages.  You dance with other people in the leaves and run away with them. You love them and they love you, and you eat raisins together, so yes, it will be okay.

A mother’s love may not wash away the chimney sweep’s soot. It may not be able to overcome the cruelty of some orphanages or abuse at the hands of adults. It may not be able to erase the wounds that war inflicts upon even those not on the battlefields, but if the Mother can communicate that her love is infinite and immeasurable, the child will have enough with which to thrive.

Reading Challenge: Read some or all of the following.

·      Two William Blake’s poems, “The Chimney Sweeper,” one from Blake’s collection, Songs of Innocence and the other from Songs of Experience
·      Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol or both
·      Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
·      Obasan by Joy Kogawa
·      Will It Be Okay? By Crescent Dragonwagon

Keep a box of tissues by your side for weep you will--for the griefs that small children must bear, for the weight of those griefs upon their small forms, for the adults who could render aid and do not.

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of a motherless child, real or imagined. Make his griefs known and felt. Allow that child to overcome and triumph.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words

We all hope that children will not walk a coarse course in this life.

Coarse describes language, cloth, paths, or thoughts, revealing them to be rough.

Course is a word that means a direction or path. Course can also mean a subject or class that students study in school and one part of a multi-course meal; e.g., the appetizer or entrée.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Love Lost: Regret

Sometimes love, the subject of several recent posts, ends, and its loss produces powerful passages in literature. With this post, we begin a tour of poignant passages inspired by love’s loss, the first from Macbeth, a noble, valued servant and soldier who descends into depravity and despair.

Macbeth’s first love appears to be selfless. He dares death and greatness to defend king and country, pushing himself into the heart of combat where he hacks in half the enemy and wins recognition as well as promotion from King Duncan. Macbeth has saved Scotland from oppression.

But returning from the battlefield, Macbeth’s dark narcissistic love crawls into the light when three witches hint to Macbeth that his ambition to be king may actually be his destiny. Macbeth sends a letter ahead to his wife, advising her of the witches’ prophecy and that King Duncan will grace their estate with an overnight visit.

Lady Macbeth professes to love Macbeth, but her love is not selfless; it is secondary to her first love: power. She thinks little of her husband’s resolve or courage, surprising the audience who is by now fully acquainted with both in Macbeth’s character after his performance on the field of battle. The Lady believes more in her own resolve and courage, especially when wielding power over her husband, and she berates him into plotting Duncan’s murder.

Honor flickers briefly within Macbeth. He changes his mind, explaining to his wife that fate has brought him to a fortunate place and fate may continue to favor him by putting a crown upon his head if only he waits for destiny to unfold. Lady Macbeth, however, belittles him, declaring him too full of the milk of human kindness. She wants to seize the chance that Chance has provided in spite of Macbeth’s reservations. He knows that he cannot turn back from treason and treachery, that he will be a suspect if Duncan dies in his home, and that he will have committed the most heinous crime: patricide. He will have killed the king God ordained, the father of Scotland, and the man for whom Macbeth should be willing to lose his own life. A strike against God, king, and country will condemn Macbeth to eternal damnation even if he enjoys a few days of power and privilege on earth.

But Macbeth is not strong enough to live by his own convictions or experience. He succumbs to Lady Macbeth’s designs and slaughters Duncan in a most cowardly fashion: while the man sleeps. Next, Macbeth slaughters Duncan’s guards who might have stirred up doubt about their own guilt, leaving others to speculate about Macbeth’s role in Duncan’s death. Since Lady Macbeth did not conceive of the guards’ deaths and did not authorize such initiative, she realizes that she has misjudged her husband. Worse, she has misjudged herself and overestimated her own courage. She simply cannot live with her crimes and cannot rest with the burdens of guilt and fear upon her. She goes mad and kills herself.

Upon hearing the news, Macbeth speaks the speech of regret, love lost, of a soul stripped of all its humanity. He says:

    She should have died hereafter;
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

Macbeth acknowledges the loss of his wife and mentions, in passing, that he wishes she’d died later, at a time when he could pause in order to mourn for her, but Macbeth and his castle are under siege. An army marches on to defeat him and reclaim Scotland from bloodied hands.

Soul-stained and weary, Macbeth also acknowledges how fleeting life is, but worse, he admits that his life is without purpose. Life, Macbeth says, is a straight-line march to death, a transformation from flame to ash. A man’s life burns out even as he protests. A man rants, raves; he raises his fist against his inexorable end, grasping for some purpose, some legacy, but in the end, he says nothing of substance, he is nothing of substance. He is so insubstantial that he passes from memory.

Macbeth is regret. He slaughtered his promise when he let his heart of darkness thrive. He loved and lost honor, duty, and wife.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the film, Scotland, PA (2001), a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Identify the characters who replace love with regret, then explain their downfall.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analogy, a tale, or series of metaphors (or similes) making regret real for the reader. I hope I succeeded in the passage below, a tribute to my dear chocolate Lab whom I named Macduff:

            I tried to step over that great chocolate Lab without alarming him, but alarm him, I did. He rose up, as any gentleman would, to clear the path for me, and I careened to the floor, first cracking my knees on the hard, cold tile, amid shattered glass and ice water. When my body came to rest, I lay testing my limbs for snapped bone and seeping blood. Finding none, I looked for him and found him, horrified, frozen. I called to him, and he threw himself against me, his large, square head close to my heart. He seemed to beg that I forgive him, but I already had. Would that he were here now. Would that I could console him and recover him to live longer. Would that his great heart could reside somewhere other than in memory alone.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Macbeth’s story is both tortuous and torturous.

Allow me to repeat that statement: Macbeth’s story is both tortuous and tortuRous.

Almost identical words--except, of course, the second word has two R’s in it.

The first word, tortuous--spelled with one R--describes plots or storylines or even pathways up a hill. It means a story or route that twists back upon itself, one that is complex. Macbeth’s story reveals a man once brave and loyal, but his own ambition and evil nature twist him into someone unrecognizable, a villain and monster.

The second word, torturous--spelled with two R’s--describes a state of pain and suffering. Scotland suffers under the tyrant Macbeth. Lady Macbeth suffers under the weight of her own guilt. Macbeth suffers in the knowledge that his life has come to nothing. In another speech that defines and describes regret, he says:

. . .my way of life
    Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
    And that which should accompany old age,
    As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
    I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
    Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
    Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. (Act 5, Scene 3)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Choose Wisely: The Life You Save May Be the One You Love

A sad statistic about murder surprises many people. It is this: we are much more likely to be slaughtered by someone who has said I love you to us than by some stranger. Love may be a conqueror, but it is not always noble or heroic. Indeed, love sometimes transforms us into monsters.

Consider the sad, tragic tale that unfolds in House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Three characters knit together by volatile threads create a deadly result.

Kathy Nicolo’s burdens are her addictions and negligence. Sheriff’s deputy, Lester Burdon, present at Nicolo’s eviction, sympathizes with her and imagines her to be a victim, one whom he can and should save. But sympathy leads to empathy, empathy to intimacy, intimacy to collusion, and collusion to tragedy when Burdon conspires to reclaim Kathy’s home. He even leaves his own wife and children to save Kathy from Amir Behrani, the new owner of Kathy’s home and an easy target for misdirected wrath. Behrani is an Iranian immigrant attempting his own sort of recovery. He buys Kathy Nicolo’s home at foreclosure prices and plans to flip it in order to acquire investment income and restore his family to their former economic status.

When the lives of Nicolo, Burdon, and Behrani entwine, love becomes a conquering tyrant rather than an instrument of their salvation. Lester’s burgeoning love for Kathy leads him to forsake his family and his duty as an officer of the law. He loses his moral compass, if indeed he ever had one. Kathy’s moral compass is equally broken. She seems to return Lester’s affection, but actually, she enables Lester and draws him on to her own path of self-destruction. Similarly, Behrani believes he acts out of love for his family. He wants to improve their quality of life, but his love, like Kathy’s, is narcissistic. He seeks his own ends at the expense of anyone else’s in the belief that his goals will satisfy their needs.

Love, like coals upon a bed of ash, might burn if anyone breathed upon it, if anyone fed it. But no one can. Kathy, when thwarted, attempts suicide, and love flickers as the Behranis save her life, but Lester misconstrues the Behranis’ actions. Rash and a very poor judge of character, Lester chooses Kathy over duty, Kathy over the moral imperative to do no harm. He holds his weapon against the Behranis and compels them to surrender their home. But just as all three characters have misunderstood each other and their motives, so do the police when called to the scene of a gun drawn in a circle of three men, Lester, Behrani and Behrani’s son. In public view, Behrani’s son becomes a hero, seizing Lester’s gun to save his father from harm, but the police fire upon the boy whom they deem the true threat. Thus, Lester’s aspirations to reclaim a haven for Kathy have become a vendetta. Behrani’s aspirations to reclaim status for his family becomes the instrument of his son’s death. Broken, humbled lower than any court of law would order, Behrani goes home to free his wife from losing her son. Behrani poisons her, then suffocates himself by placing a plastic bag over his head.

Love, misdirected and abused, transformed each character into something hideous. Behrani’s pride flourished and grew tentacles that destroyed. Kathy’s addictions enveloped her house and her rescuer, exposing their frailties and sins. Love conquered all, but did not favor them. Love did not a clear a path to happiness. Instead, Love put up barriers impossible to hurdle.

An equally tragic tale is Emily Brontë’s brooding nineteenth-century novel, Wuthering Heights, a dark portrait of love given and withdrawn, of revenge, and necrophilia involving a waif rescued from a life of poverty and given love by his foster father, Earnshaw, and foster sister, Catherine. But Earnshaw favors Heathcliff and spurns his biological child, Hindley. When Hindley becomes head of the household, he acts upon his jealousy and abuses Heathcliff. Only the love of Catherine could save Heathcliff, and it does until she too rejects Heathcliff, seeing him in the context of his lower class, ill-mannered origins instead of seeing him for the promise within all human beings. Love denied destroys Heathcliff. He dedicates his every pulse of energy to vengeance and destruction even if he destroys himself and that which he once loved in the process.

Once again, Love conquers, but as a tyrant, not a benevolent god, and its manifestations in flawed humans are hideous.

Reading Challenge:

If you have not already read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, do so now. You will also find a good movie version with the same title and directed by Vadim Perelman. I also recommend Wuthering Heights to you. lists seventeen film versions of this book, but if you wish to “read” it on film, the 2009 film for TV remains true to the spirit and facts of the book even though it alters chronology and point of view.

Writing Challenge:

Tell the true or partially true tale of love gone awry--of love that mutates good people into misguided fools or controlling monsters.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

You may have noticed that Behranis, in the post above, refers to Mr. and Mrs. Behrani, characters in House of Sand and Fog, parents of two children, and immigrant victims of the American dream and Mr. Behrani’s ambitions. An apostrophe to transform one Behrani into more than one Behrani is wrong, but to indicate possession, as in Behrani’s ambitions, an apostrophe is essential.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Love Will Find a Way

Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies. It features the four major types of comedy, the classic types of love explained in preceding posts, and develops a treasured romantic theme: love will find a way.

In order to demonstrate all that Twelfth Night offers, I will summarize the story, but I recommend that you read the entire play yourself. An online copy can be read at

Orsino is the Duke of a prosperous, peaceful country, Illyria. Without economic woes or the need to budget for war, Orsino enjoys days filled with music, cards, and thoughts of the Lady Olivia.

Countess Olivia is the great beauty in Illyria. So accustomed is she to men falling in love with her appearance that she takes it for granted and holds such shallow men in contempt. She also has sworn never to marry above her station. In other words, she would marry a count, but not a duke so Orsino is out of the running before the play’s engine has begun to surge.

Olivia also has a tragic burden. She is alone in the world after her father and brother’s deaths. Overwhelmed, she vows never to leave her estate, to wear a veil when in the presence of others, and to weep at least once daily for her brother in the privacy of her suite. Her mourning rituals will continue for seven years so in effect, Olivia has imposed a duty upon herself to become a recluse to honor her lost family.

Under these conditions, no one would blame Orsino for abandoning his pursuit of Olivia and moving on to other, more suitable prospects in love. He does not, however. He imagines that Olivia’s love will be greater and more passionate when she shifts her familial love to romantic love with Orsino as her object. He plans to wait seven long years.

According to the standards of the day, Olivia needs an older male relative to chaperone and protect her. Unfortunately, Olivia’s closest relative is Sir Toby Belch (yes, you should interpret his name as being descriptive of his character.)

Toby lives to drink, party, boast, and use others, foremost among them, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a foolish man, most dull of wit. Toby persuades Andrew to believe he is a viable suitor for Olivia’s hand. With such faint encouragement, Andrew draws upon his meager annual income to stay in Illyria, but Toby uses Andrew's money to gamble and party.

The antics of Toby and Andrew, joined occasionally by Maria, Olivia’s chamber maid, and Feste, Olivia’s hired jester, shape the sub-plot and most of the low humor in the play. Falling down, exaggerated sword play, bodily noises such as belching, and inappropriate actions combine to deliver belly laughs in the play. Their foil in all this clowning is Malvolio, Olivia’s head servant. He is part of a Comedy of Manners thread that satirizes the classes. Malvolio, “full of self-love” (narcissism) believes he is superior to the other servants. In fact, he believes himself so fine that Olivia could and would fall in love with him, lifting him from the serving class to the ruling class. The clowns, led by Toby and Maria, conspire to humiliate Malvolio for being so bold and arrogant.

The inciting complication in the play centers upon Viola, a resourceful, spunky young woman who survived a shipwreck in which her twin brother Sebastian drowned. Rescued by a seaman and delivered to Illyria, she must make her way without relatives, money, or contacts. As a woman, her ability to make her own way in society is impossible, but disguised as a man, Viola can hide in plain sight while she seeks a way to ameliorate her grief and any danger in which she finds herself.

Thus, Viola exists as a foil to Olivia. Both women have lost brothers recently. Both mourn their losses, and both are in need of male protection. Olivia has Toby, but Viola has only herself masquerading as a man who can move about in society without a chaperone. Finally, both women have imposed duties upon themselves: Olivia intends to mourn her brother for seven years; Viola intends to serve as a man without revealing her true identity. And these self-imposed duties jeopardize the life-long happiness for both women.

As a man, Viola introduces the comedic element known as farce, characterized by mistaken identity. She goes to work for Orsino’s court as the young man called Cesario. She chooses to dress exactly as her lost brother did so she could easily be mistaken for her brother if he survives and lands in Illyria himself. Viola also introduces herself as a eunuch so no one, especially her employer, will wonder why she never needs to shave a face on which little grows.

Orsino and Cesario (Viola in disguise) become confidantes quickly. In fact, Orsino trusts Cesario so much that he sends “her” to win Olivia’s heart for Orsino, a task that Cesario is loathe to do because she has fallen in love at first sight (see last week’s post). Worse, Olivia falls for Cesario almost as quickly as Viola falls for Orsino, completing another element in farce, the love triangle (Orsino loves Olivia who loves Cesario who loves Orsino):

  • Orsino loves Olivia for her beauty and the promise of a deep love. 
  • Cesario loves Orsino for reasons hard to fathom, especially because he seems shallow while advising Cesario to fall in love with a younger woman because women lose their looks quickly causing a man’s devotion to wane. He also lets others try to win Olivia’s heart for him rather than engaging in her pursuit himself. Still, when he realizes he’s been duped, that Cesario is actually the woman Viola, he proposes to her without ever having seen her dressed as a woman. He has fallen in love with her character, her heart, and her spirit. In short, he has overcome his immature, shallow manner in favor of abiding love that approaches selflessness.
  • Viola certainly proves her love is as selfless as it is romantic. Even though she would prefer to win Orsino for herself, she suppresses those desires in favor of her duty. She honors Orsino and his choice in love by trying to win Olivia’s heart for Orsino.
For her selfless, resourceful, honorable acts, Viola wins everything she lacks. She gains a husband to protect her, a love to enrich her, and a family, her own brother saved from drowning and a sister, Olivia, who marries Sebastian.

Olivia falls deeply in love with Cesario, in part because her beauty does not transform Cesario into a fawning fool. More important, Olivia falls in love with Cesario’s character. Still in disguise as a man, Cesario can empathize with Olivia’s plight, both in grief and love. Cesario also forces Olivia to surrender her vanity and arrogance. She literally begs Cesario to love her, but Cesario proves honorable and loyal to Orsino's service.

When Sebastian arrives in Illyria, complications arise because everyone believes Cesario and Sebastian to be the same person. When
Olivia throws herself at the man of her dreams and proposes marriage, she is in the presence of an actual man, Sebastian. He quickly agrees because a gorgeous woman wants him. She doesn’t seem afflicted or mad, he reasons, because she manages an estate reasonably well. Thus, love clears the way for both Sebastian, who believes he’s lost his sister, and for Olivia, who knows she’s lost her brother, to find each other. Their loneliness has been erased in favor of love.

The sub-plot characters do not enjoy the same joy. Malvolio, exposed for his ambition, a character defect condemned during the English Renaissance, vows revenge and departs. Andrew learns that Toby is not his friend, that Toby actually holds Andrew in contempt so he leaves with little funds left and his heart crushed. Toby, who has conspired with Maria to humiliate Malvolio, rewards her mischief by marrying her. They depart for their lives together. Antonio, the sailor devoted to Sebastian after rescuing him, also thrives in spite of sword fights undertaken in order to protect Sebastian and a warrant for his arrest. His extraordinary brotherly or  familial love save him from harm.

And Feste, like most of Shakespeare’s jesters, is smarter than everyone else. He observes, comments, and reflects. He will continue to serve Olivia’s estate and skewer foolishness and pomposity wherever he encounters them.

Such a complex story delivers several important themes, and these big ideas shape Twelfth Night as a Comedy of Ideas.

•    Love may conquer all.
•    Love restores us to a state of well-being.
•    Our choices, especially those made in haste, may thwart our happiness.
•    Ambition and pride precede humiliating falls from favor.
•    Duty and love may be difficult to reconcile.
•    The richest, most satisfying love has little to do with appearance alone.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, paying particular attention to the transformations that love delivers. Also, I recommend that you “read” HBO’s film version of Twelfth Night. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.

Writing Challenge:

Read a second Shakespearean comedy. Much Ado about Nothing is a good choice. Kenneth Branaugh also directed and starred in a faithful film version of Much Ado that I urge you to enjoy. As you do, whether reading the text of the play or watching the film, note the similarities between Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing.

•    Each makes use of low comedy through buffoons and flawed characters. Identify them and explain them.
•    Each play is a farce and makes use of mistaken identity. Identity its use in Much Ado and explain its contribution to the overall story and meanings.
•    In each play, one woman is haughty and ill-advised. Who is this character in Much Ado? Write a character sketch explaining what she thinks about herself, what others think of her, and what she contributes to the play.
•    Each play features a man who experiences love intellectually at first, but when love conquers him, he grows. Identify the character in Much Ado and contrast the man he is at the beginning of the play to the man he is at the end.
•    Ambition transforms one Much Ado character into something wicked. Who is this character?
•    Each of the four classic types of love is present: familial, romantic, selfless (divine), and narcissistic. Identify and explain the characters who best represent each.
•    Each of the four types of comedy is present: low, farce, comedy of manners, comedy of ideas. Briefly explain each by identifying the characters that develop those comic threads and how they represent each type.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

I use many bulleted lists in weekly posts (I confess that bullets are one of the few tools that I thoroughly understand when posting online). Correct use of bulleted lists requires that each item be parallel to the others; i. e.:

Be consistent: if using complete sentences, each item should be a complete sentence; if using phrases or clauses alone, then each item should be the same.