Estranged Labor and Love in “Two Blue Birds”

D. H. Lawrence’s “Two Blue Birds” may be read as the story of three individuals’ alienation from themselves, from one another, from language, and from the rest of the world. The two women in the story could hardly be more different, yet they both experience alienation from Cameron Gee. Miss Wrexall’s alienation is the most obvious and wretched; the secretary is “slavishly devoted” to Mr. Gee, but insufficiently recompensed in all respects. Mrs. Gee is also estranged from her husband, whom “she could not live with”; from her home, in which she is a “super-guest”; and from her lovers, who are of little interest to her. Mr. Gee is alienated from the production of his work as well as from his wife and others, for he lives in “comparative isolation.” Only Mrs. Gee realizes the state of alienation that she and others are in, marking her as the most philosophic (or at least, most contemplative) of all the characters. It may seem that her teasing of Miss Wrexall is entirely malicious and founded on envy, but I shall argue that Mrs. Gee is motivated by a salvific desire to free the secretary from the bonds of servitude, and, simultaneously, to restore her husband’s independence.

In “Two Blue Birds,” all the characters have difficulty communicating their feelings and ideas to one another. Alienation from language most readily concerns the writer Cameron Gee, but the two other characters are far from exempt from this type of alienation. Miss Wrexall may be responsible for producing drafts and copies of Mr. Gee’s manuscripts, but she is not the composer of the words for which she makes shorthand marks; she is alienated from language in the sense that the words she transcribes are not her own. Moreover, while working, she is “too busy to have any feelings, except one of elation at being so busy.” That she takes such immense pleasure in her productivity indicates that her master’s interests dominate her own. Even Mrs. Gee, who jots down neither her husband’s ideas nor her own, is not spared alienation from language. Despite anyone’s best efforts to express a sentiment verbally or otherwise, his or her declarations will never actually represent that sentiment; as soon as one utters a phrase – for example, “I love you” – the phrase becomes a thing distinct from, and set against, the actual feeling of love. So Mrs. Gee is alienated from language, just like everyone else, but she has recourse to subtler ways of expression that are much more powerful than words; she uses her eyes “to speak many inexplicable dark volumes.” Despite her self-professed incompetence, Mrs. Gee is the most perceptive and least alienated character.

“Volumes” is also a pun on the books that Mr. Gee writes (or, rather, dictates). Ironically, he who has the greatest facility with words experiences the greatest alienation from language. Mr. Gee can never find the right words to express his ideas; when he dictates a magazine article to Miss Wrexall in the garden, he continually edits his sentences. On one level, he is estranged from the process of writing as he employs a secretary, and on another level, he is alienated from the words he uses, which will never suffice to express his thoughts. Also, the material comforts provided by Miss Wrexall and her mother and sister may seem to benefit Mr. Gee, but they actually cause him to “[deteriorate] from easy comfort.” Profiting from the hard work of others has its drawbacks, which Mr. Gee is oblivious to. As Mrs. Gee perspicaciously reflects, the “perfectly devoted, marvelous secretarial family…were bad for him: ruining his work…ruining him with their slavish service.”

It is notable that Lawrence mentions Mr. Gee’s “beating time with his dangling hand,” as Miss Wrexall takes down his words, twice in the same paragraph. In beating “a sort of vague rhythm to his words,” Mr. Gee tries pathetically to compensate for his alienation from the physical process of artistic production (i.e. typing or writing). Further, it seems as if there exist no outlets through which he may convey his emotions. Mrs. Gee’s feelings towards her husband are telling: “Whether she herself…wanted to be kissed by him, even that she was not clear about. She rather thought she didn’t.” Mrs. Gee would not be gratified by her husband’s kisses because she knows that they will be insincere at worst and insufficient representations of his feelings at best.

Mrs. Gee tries to make Miss Wrexall realize that her relationship with Mr. Gee has made her unhealthily subservient to him, but the little secretary tearfully refuses to acknowledge the baseness of her position, preferring instead to believe the myth that she “was happy working for him” and that Mr. Gee “gives [her] everything, everything.” Miss Wrexall initially protests that she “was happy working with him,” but then revises this statement by averring that she “was happy working for him.” There is, of course, a big difference between the two assertions; the first implies a relationship of equals while the second implies one of unequals. Pushed to exasperation by Mrs. Gee’s “raillery,” Miss Wrexall concedes, for a moment, that she occupies a position of inferiority in her relationship with Mr. Gee, but repeatedly insists that she “was happy.” Was she truly happy or is she simply employing casuistries? Does Mrs. Gee (and by extension, philosophers) err in assuming that slaves are invariably disaffected? And doesn’t Mrs. Gee acquiesce by responding, “Go on being happy working with him…If it makes you happy, why then, enjoy it!” At first blush, it may seem like such is the case, but her diction reveals her belief that happiness is only possible in relationships of equals, and even there it is not always guaranteed, as her own relationship with her husband illustrates. And a short while later, Mrs. Gee tries one final time to make Miss Wrexall aware of the cost of her bondage: “Why, I should say you got nothing out of him at all, you only give! And if you don’t call that making yourself cheap – my God!” After hearing all this, Miss Wrexall still does not wish to reclaim her independence – or does she? Or will she later? Perhaps in spoiling the “beautiful relationship” between her husband and the secretary, Mrs. Gee succeeds in planting the seed of enlightenment and revolutionary sentiment in Miss Wrexall. As for Mr. Gee, his wife’s contradicting him foreshortens his power as master, and brings into sharp focus his alienation from the people closest him.

According to G. W. F. Hegel, the slave in a slave-master relationship may initially feel grateful towards his master for giving him a job, but when his condition gets bad enough, when he reaches a state of abject immiseration, he will then yearn for – and contemplate means of – liberation from that which controls him. Thus, a slave’s insistence of his happiness would be regarded as factitious by a (Hegelian) philosopher, who considers the slave’s freedom to be delimited and diminished by his relationship to his master, who is actually as dependent on the slave as the slave, on the master. Mr. Gee depends on Miss Wrexall not only for her secretarial services, but also for his status as her master. Likewise, Miss Wrexall could not be a slave without a master. If she stopped laboring for Mr. Gee, their relationship would be abolished and they could confront each other as equals. But this is precisely what Miss Wrexall seeks to avoid; she refuses to acknowledge the fact that her relationship with Mr. Gee is inimical to her freedom, as she derives a “deep satisfaction” from working twelve hours a day.

The alienation of language is an inescapable problem whereas the alienation between people can be reduced, if not totally overcome. By the end of “Two Blue Birds,” the three characters are ruffled and displeased, but they are not worse off than they were in the beginning. A crucial change has taken place: Mrs. Gee has forced Mr. Gee and Miss Wrexall to confront the fact of their estrangement from each other and from themselves; she has shone a light on the problem, proffered a solution, and attempted to reason with those who would rationalize. And that is all a philosopher can do. In time, Miss Wrexall may well abandon the place around her master’s feet and, uplifted, gain the air.


Enchantment: A Questionable Index of Love in “Araby”

In James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” the callow narrator acts on his adoration for a girl he hardly knows, only to realize at the end how blind he has been to the reality of his circumstances. The nameless boy is infatuated with Mangan’s sister, whose influence is such that she clouds his vision of reality. The word “Araby” holds no significance for him until he hears his beloved utter it, at which point the allure of the unknown is conflated with the image of Mangan’s sister, who is simply sublime in the eyes of the youth. The narrator’s eyes “were often full of tears and at times a flood from [his] heart seemed to pour itself out into [his] bosom” (Joyce 22). He is inundated with fatuous emotions that flummox him and make him rashly conclude that he is in love.

What most attracts the narrator to Mangan’s sister is her superlative physical beauty, which compels the young boy to apotheosize her. “Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.” This muted image of fertility and sexuality can be traced back to Greek mythology, where there are many hieros gamos, or holy marriages, between sky gods and earth goddesses (e.g. the union of Zeus and Hera, and Cronus and Rhea). The rain represents a deification of the masculine and the earth is the incarnation of the feminine. The narrator is so enchanted by Mangan’s sister that he pays no heed to the negative consequences of his obsession with her. When he begins to do poorly in school, he fails to consider her as an albatross, and adopts a perfunctory attitude to something he once enjoyed; he “had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between [him] and [his] desire, seemed to [him] child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play” (23). The boy loses control of his senses, which “seemed to desire to veil themselves” (22). He looks through the eye of his imagination rather than through an objective eye. It is only when he gains physical distance from the object of his thoughts that he is able to free himself from the reign of his imagination.

The boy has little patience for the vicissitudes of reality and is repulsed by the merchants he sees on Saturday evenings in the marketplace. He imagines that he is an intrepid adventurer carrying a sacred “chalice” and wandering amidst an inferior crowd of “drunken men,” “bargaining women,” “laborers,” “shop boys,” and “street singers,” who are his “foes” (22). Yet he does not register that his dream of winning the affection of Mangan’s sister is predicated on commerce; he wants to buy her a gift at the bazaar, he wants to buy her love. As the boy navigates his way to the station, “the sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to [him] the purpose of [his] journey” (25). Only when he arrives at the bazaar and sees that there is no suitable gift does he conclude that the foundation upon which he had hoped to build a relationship with Mangan’s sister is tenuous and unstable. In Caroline Norton’s poem, The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed, which the narrator’s uncle starts to recite, an Arab sells his beloved horse and then changes his mind, returning the gold for his horse (“The Arab’s Farewell to His Horse”). The narrator of “Araby” returns the two pennies[1] to his pocket, not because he realizes that no ware can sufficiently express his love for Mangan’s sister but because he questions his motive for coming to the bazaar. He invokes an image of “the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to [the salesgirl’s] stall” (26) which calls to mind the horse stable mentioned at the beginning of the story as well as the “shop boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks” (22). Guards themselves are not valuable – it is what they are guarding that is of value. At the bazaar, the “guards” are conspicuously guarding nothing. Where there is supposed to be substance, there is instead a dark vacuum, which drains the narrator of hope.

In “Araby,” light has a more sinister quality than darkness. Descriptions of Mangan’s sister always involve light illuminating her white figure and she is idealized by the youthful narrator to such an extent that she seems like a divine vision rather than an actual person. While she is reduced to a beautiful simulacrum of an idea, the objects in “Araby” are anthropomorphized; houses “gaze at one another with brown imperturbable faces,” (20) the train “crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river,” (25) and “the high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me” (24). Whereas the boy and his friends cast shadows as they gambol outdoors, Mangan’s sister is never accompanied by a shadow. Indeed, light seems to radiate from her and it is precisely this alterity that draws the narrator to her as a moth is drawn to a flame. Light insidiously distorts reality by casting an illusory veil over the eyes of those who fall under its enchantment. Rather than lighting up houses, the streetlamps on North Richmond Street illuminate the “everchanging violet sky” in their vertical ascent (21). The emphasis is placed on phantasmagoria rather than something concrete and tangible like the denizens of the street. The boy’s introduction to the fair is marked by “the lighted dial of a clock” and at the bazaar, the words Café Chantant are writ in colored lamps (25). In these instances, light is associated with mutability and transience, and has the power to occlude reality and bring forth an unreality.

The magical quality of light heightens the allure of Mangan’s sister, Araby, and the exotic and unknown. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) two men are deceived by two women on the Avenue that is notorious for its gas lamps that shroud everything in illusions. One of the men is a young artist who pursues a bewitching woman, whom he considers a pure aesthetic inspiration. Later, he finds out that she is a prostitute and his despair at having found out such a disturbing truth drives him to use opium to sustain his idealized vision of the girl in his mind. In contrast, the much younger protagonist of “Araby” does not attempt to further ensconce himself in a dream world once he finds out that reality does not live up to his imagination. Undeluded and ashamed, he gives up his quest to win the heart of Mangan’s sister, for such an enterprise is ill-fated. Enshrouded in the darkness, he “saw [himself] as a creature driven and derided by vanity: and [his] eyes burned with anguish and anger” (26). Joyce’s language ironically suggests that when the boy has a clear vision of reality, his eyes are burned. This emotional conflagration is triggered when he makes his way to “the centre of the bazaar” (25). There is “a central apple tree” in the “wild garden” behind the narrator’s house, and just as the tree symbolizes knowledge (if we compare it to the Tree in the Garden of Eden), the sights at the nexus of the bazaar disillusion the narrator, awakening him from his dream. The bazaar the boy attends is clearly incongruous with the vision of Araby he had conjured up in his mind. He feels unwelcome and dissatisfied; the “fall of the coins [on a salver]” (25) is nothing like the harmonious music plucked on a harp or even the quaint “music from the buckled harness” (21).

The palaver between the young lady at the bazaar and the two British gentlemen is an apposite characterization of our protagonist’s situation: he has been living a “fib.” His senses were anesthetized, not by opium or spirits, but by his vivid imagination and the illusion-inducing light. The narrator imbibes Mangan’s sister’s expectations for “a splendid bazaar” (22) and when he discovers how wrong her vision is and how misguided he was in blindly adopting her belief, he perceives that his emotional attachment to her can lead to no bright futurity. It does not lead anywhere at all.

Bibliography

Gogol, Nikolai. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil. Trans. David Magarshak. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1965.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. Ed. Margot Norris. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 2006.

“The Arab’s Farewell to His Horse.” PoeticPortal.net. 8 Feb. 2010 <http://www.poeticportal.net/content/view/1308/29.&gt;

[1] In addition to the two pennies, there are other notable instances of twosomes in “Araby,” namely the “two men counting money,” the “two young gentlemen” flirting with the salesgirl, and, of course, the double vision of the narrator, which is ascribed to both the boy and the mature man reflecting on his past (Joyce 25). In his essay, ‘“Araby’ in Context: The ‘Splendid Bazaar,’ Irish Orientalism, and James Clarence Mangan,” Heyward Ehrlich dilates on the significance of the time at which the narrator arrives at the bazaar. He writes that the importance of “ten minutes to ten” (9:50 P.M.) lies in its evocation of “magical numbers in the tradition of Arabic ciphers.” In accordance with this system, the number “ten” serves as a substitute for the tenth letter of the alphabet, “J.” Two “tens” signify “JJ,” the initials of James Joyce. Ehrlich further notes that the hour and minute hands at “ten minutes to ten” are superimposed. He summarily foregrounds the hypostasis of twain elements by writing, “At this moment, the two tens as words, the two tens as numbers, the two clock hands as visual indicators, and the two “J” ’s as letters are all ciphers for the doubled, mirrored signature of Joyce” (Dubliners 282).


Da Chen’s “Sounds of the River”

Da Chen’s Sounds of the River limns the author’s student days in the prestigious Beijing Language Institute, providing a personal vista of a China resuscitated from the spell of the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong is still revered by some authority figures, while others, like Da’s friend Abdullah, are daring and irreverent enough to take a shirtless picture with his likeness. Indeed, Da’s generation ushers in a new era when wizened grownups lament that respect for elders is no longer inculcated in disaffected youths. Ultimately, the mellifluous memoir is as much a journey to a foreign world of profligate city slickers as it is an introspective odyssey.

Many leitmotifs salt the narrative, but perhaps the most prominent one is the metamorphosis of one’s identity. Many things factor into the formation of a composite character, such as: the influence of family, friends, and foreigners, the ephemeral and the permanent, the true and the false. Da Chen learns early on that one must make allowances for the vicissitudes of life. In anticipation of his departure from home, he had practiced wiping histrionic tears from his eyes in farewell to his parents. But this is not what happens on the actual day. He doesn’t have a vision of his parents becoming diminutive dolls, with each blast of steam, on the horizon. When Da first sees the behemoth Beijing-Fujian Express, it seems like an anachronism, this breathing locomotive that comes rushing into his little provincial town. Or, equally plausible, perhaps it is the farming boy, who is out of place – an oddity in a crowd of people assimilated with the modern world. The train comes to signify the theme of social change, of the pastoral diaspora to urban cities.

No matter Da’s bucolic-outsider status, from the outset, he proves himself to be an extraordinarily hard-working student. Another immutable quality is his pride, not in himself, but in his ancestors and heritage. Da Chen comes from a line of scholars, but that fact alone, he gleans, does not guarantee his academic prowess. He knows that there is no magical formula for success, and he never takes a chance, not even when numerous fortunes portend an enviable future, by slacking off. Furthermore, he refuses to let other people deride him on the basis of his background, and is rightly outraged by the undeserved attention paid to the progeny of blueblood parents – attention that could send a wealthy child to America or land him a cushy job. And the worst part is that Da, for all his abhorrence of corruption and gross fealty, is helpless to do anything about it.

Da Chen’s mandarin prose poetically encapsulates his feelings towards his teachers, peers, family and friends. His masterly evocation of the past is a testament to both his talent as a writer and his diligence to master the English language. At times, however, the dialogue between his friends and him smacks of contrivance – almost too lyrical to pass for the colloquial conversation that occurs between friends or strained by an overdose of comity. Also, the fleeting descriptions of Da’s encounters with other students seem to intimate that the few times he mingles with his peers are the outcomes of totally fortuitous events, such as the playing of his Chinese flute enticing (or rather, summoning) a foreigner. While many of the university’s professors are myopic about the concept of interacting with strangers from strange lands, Da becomes an outlier of this group-think mentality, forsaking his belief in the dominating social construct as if it was a burdensome overcoat. Where his teachers see a parlous influence, Da lionizes a fascinating specimen of refined culture, taste, and values. Secretly, he scorns the risible shibboleth that all foreigners are to be avoided. Perhaps this is one of his subtle ways of rebelling against those proponents of the social hierarchy, but his admiration of foreigners most likely stems from a desire to live the American Dream, indelibly incarnated by his friend Bob.

Another minor drawback of Sounds of the River is Da’s heavy reliance on alliterations and adjectives. A laconic list of the ingredients in a dish of messy noodles, for instance, is certainly more apposite than Da’s list that describes each ingredient separately (in this case, he sacrifices authenticity for artistry, for the palate doesn’t distinguish amongst different components, but appreciates a sapid dish for its overall taste). Also, Da’s commentary, at certain points, serves only to stifle the flow of the narrative rather than evince his tenets, rendering the book less copacetic than it otherwise might have been. For instance, early on, Da alludes to his future career path: “The interpreter pulled out a business card and gave me a snappy handshake before he disappeared into the throng. In four years I would have my own cards and be able to drop names like he did” (Chen 12). Though the last sentence does highlight the theme of the present as an illimitable process of repetition, would it not have been better to leave it out, letting the reader ponder the nuanced significance of the cards of fate?

The story Da has to tell is redolent of the bildungsroman; we witness him grow piecemeal from a naïf into a cerebral and supremely ambitious young man. In retrospect, he provides a spate of vivid recollections both within the classroom and without. Where hedonists slack off, peruse dirty magazines or go on louche excursions, Da always has his head in a book, rolling words off his tongue like a waterfall spouting liquid into a foamy phenomenon. For him, books are apertures into other worlds; disinterred conduits to Jack London’s Yukon Territory or Shakespeare’s Venice. Comrade Chen is uniquely fueled by his love of the English language, which eclipses the pressure to perform at his absolute best. Furthermore, his descriptions of his familial gatherings are not overly maudlin or saccharine. It is clear to see how proud everyone is of Chen’s successes – first of being accepted to Beijing Language Institute, then graduating on top of his class, and eventually venturing to America all on his own. One truly feels, at the end of the book, that any “lucky breaks” Da got were well-deserved and if anything, that he should have been rewarded more serendipitous opportunities. As the saying goes, however, a man creates his own luck, of which, amidst a land of food rations and limited shower times, Da Chen, at last, had a surfeit.


Science fiction

“I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.”

- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness


Buoyed by Ivan Panin’s THOUGHTS

“To recognize the vanity of this life is the first step towards the true life. To perceive our ignorance is the first step toward true knowledge; to acknowledge our folly is the first step to true wisdom; to behold our misery is the first step toward true happiness.”

- Ivan Panin, Thoughts

Ivan Panin was born in Russia on December 12, 1855. In his youth, he was a Nihilist and plotted against the Czar and his regime. At an early age he was banished from Russia. After passing much time in Germany furthering his schooling, he came to the United States, where he enrolled in Harvard University. After his college days, Panin became a distinguished literary docent. He lectured on Carlyle, Emerson, Tolstoy, and on Russian literature. During this time Panin garnered attention as a fervid agnostic – so well known that when he abjured his agnosticism and accepted the Christian faith, newspapers carried headlines reporting of his conversion. What follows is an account of how Panin labored assiduously to disinter sevens in the Bible:

“Mr. Panin was casually reading the first verse of the Gospel of John in the Greek – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with (the) God, and the Word was God.’ The question came to his mind, Why does the Greek word for the precede the word God in one case, but not in the other? Therefore in one column he made a list of all the New Testament passages in which the word God occurs with the article the, and in another column he made a list of all the passages in which the word God occurs without the article. On comparing the two sums he was struck with the numeric relation between them. He then followed the same procedure on the word Christ and on other words, and found amazing numeric facts. This was the beginning of the profound numerical discoveries which are now called the Science of Bible Numerics.

“Since discovering that first feature in 1890 Mr. Panin earnestly devoted his entire life to one definite and specific purpose. He devoted himself so persistently to counting letters and words, figuring numeric values, making concordances, and working out mathematical problems, that on several occasions his health completely failed. Regardless of the tremendous mental and physical strain he has labored faithfully and diligently for the past fifty years. The original manuscripts of his work consist of approximately 40,000 pages. The sevens are strangely out of sight of ordinary Hebrew and Greek readers. [They] are so deeply concealed that special searching and investigation and special counting are necessary in order to find them. Some of the sevens are strangely concealed in the unusual system of numbers – in the ‘numeric values’ of the Hebrew and Greek letters, words, sentences, paragraphs and passages of the text, while other sevens are hidden in other remarkable and peculiar ways. The numerical facts enable us to see before our very eyes an actual scientific demonstration of the divine verbal inspiration of the Bible.

“The sevens were discovered by gematria, using the usual Greek and Hebrew alphabetical system with no variations, and by counting. The sum of the values of ‘God,’ ‘heavens,’ and ‘earth’ is 86 + 395 + 296 = 777, a value which is an exact multiple of seven” (Dudley 104-106).

The pith of sevens, however, is not exclusively confined to mathematics. A signal of King Lear’s madness, for instance, is his failure to appreciate sevens: (King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5):

Fool.     The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.

Lear.     Because they are not eight?

Fool.     Yes, indeed.

Upon discoursing with Edgar, disguised as bedlam beggar Tom, Lear forsakes his identification with the almighty: “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” Instead of identifying himself with the gods, Lear now identifies with the “unaccommodated man”; the omnipotent king donned in resplendent garb of scene one has become a naked, unprotected man. This metamorphosis brings about the dissolution of his old identity. As Lear attempts to forge a new composite identity, he becomes aware of the decay of society, whose symbol he was as king. Lear’s maturing consciousness of his identity as both king and the “bare, forked animal” endows him with a new perspective on royal power and the human condition. He believes that life is characterized by adversity, inconsistency, and brevity. Man is only entitled to have the sympathy of other men. With the wisdom gained in madness, Lear is fully transformed. His lunatic ravings often make more sense than the behests he made in his saner moments. When Lear exalts, at his apotheosis, “Ay, every inch a king,” he wears the crown figuratively.

Reference

1. Dudley, Underwood. Numerology, or, What Pythagoras Wrought. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America, 1997.


Review of HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad

Just as the methods of civilization are as unequivocally manifest as the power of nature, so in humans there can be a capacity for restraint that is just as immanent as the impulses toward avarice and aggression. Societies reinforce the restraints they sanction in numerous ways, but when such external supports are eliminated, civilized men easily regress towards an atavistic primitivism. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s journey up the Congo introduces him to the foreign world of unbridled nature and into the nature of humans. It is a trip backward in time, to a primordial phase in social development, as well as a journey within, to what lies obscured under the veneer in civilized men. Marlow learns that although humankind has ostensibly moved far beyond its primeval origins, human beings revert to the primitive when they are removed from their cultural milieu and are no longer subjected to various sanctions.

When Marlow journeys to Africa, he departs a familiar setting and arrives in a world which becomes progressively more foreign and tenebrous. However, Marlow is not disconcerted by Africa but by the actions of his fellow Europeans, which he thought would make sense (“For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts” (Conrad 79)), and when they do not, he feels that he is losing touch with the real world. He is prepared for the natives, but not prepared for the spectacle of a French man-of-war “firing into a continent” where “there wasn’t even a shed” (79). Also, he had not expected the barbarous profiteering and exploitation of the natives he finds in the Congo. In an African setting European mores have mutated into something inane; and Marlow identifies with the natives, who are likewise languishing from the unfamiliarity and unintelligibility of the fractious world into which they have been conveyed. The dissolution of civilized morals is best evinced by the station’s manager and his uncle, the chieftain of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. The manager has attained his station of authority even though he has no wisdom, no intellect, no gumption, and no managerial instincts. What he has is “triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions” (89). While those around him sicken and expire, he is never unwell. His clout originates from his animal health and his depravity, from the fact that he is one of the vacuous men. The manager’s uncle is equally unscrupulous. The members of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition are “sordid buccaneers” whose desire “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land” has “no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe” (101).

The journey to the Central Station heightens Marlow’s sense of the disarray into which the Europeans have fallen and the disorder they have instigated. Marlow meets a white man flanked by an armed escort, who claims that he is “looking after the upkeep of the road” (87). The discovery of a negro with a bullet hole in his forehead three miles yonder makes a mockery of this statement. Marlow ponders if the cadaver is to be considered “a permanent improvement” (87). The frailty of civilization and its liability to disintegrate are on full display at the Central Station. The steamer Marlow has come to command has been carelessly fractured, and it is impossible to procure the rivets needed for its repair. A copious supply of rivets was scattered about in the first station where they idly lay without being used; but all that can be acquired from that station is a spate of flimsy wares to be bargained for ivory. When a hut full of the wares conflagrates, a man tells Marlow that everyone is acting excellently, as he ladles river water into a pail with a porous bottom. Marlow had received a similar assurance about everyone’s behavior when the steamer was sunk. There is a brickmaker who, lacking a crucial ingredient, has not been able to make bricks. Finally, there are the plotting agents (“the pilgrims”) who make a “philanthropic pretense” and a “show of work” (93) while being guided exclusively by rapacity and never lifting a finger effectually.


Review of ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy

When characters are forced to confront the vagaries and consummate powers of nature, they are galvanized by an elegiac yen to repeat the entrenched patterns and plots of the past. The present is essentially an illimitable process of repetition. In All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, as John Grady Cole gradually starts to realize the frailty and hypocrisy of his life, he attempts to return to the imagined innocence of the consecrated cowboy of the mythic past, only to find out that such a return is unfeasible.

John Grady’s life on his family’s Texas ranch is a romantic fiction, a façade barely concealing the falseness at its core. From the outset, John Grady is an idealist who believes in an imagined code of justice and honor in a universe founded upon iniquity and immorality. Like the peasants in Alfonsa’s parable who try to sell things no one wants, John Grady embraces the values of a myth that obscures the true nature of the world. He does not realize that the falsity of the sacrosanct cowboy is tantamount to the broken pieces of machinery the peasants collect from the roads. The peasants’ belief in a myth (that all things of the industrialized world have value) yoked with an abysmal ignorance of the true nature of that world both fortifies them and dooms them. Duena Alfonsa advises our protagonist to view the world sans ignorance and sentiments, however alluring they may be. What John Grady and Rawlins encounter in Mexico is similar to what they left behind in Texas – cowboys, horses and grullos, ranches and haciendas. Mexico illumines the phoniness of the American myth. Like the young Alfonsa, Alejandra and John Grady both view the world through a rosy filter, from the privileged stations of their social status, insulated in their ranches where the descendants of the people their ancestors conquered and whose land they purloined are now servants and pariahs. Alejandra and John Grady are like the peasants of the countryside who cling to bolts and “wornout part[s] of a machine that no one could even know the use of” (McCarthy 231). In their fragile paradises, neither of them realizes that what may appear innocuous or true may be unsound and defective; an illusion. Alejandra ultimately recognizes the futility of refusing to choose “between the dream and the reality.”

After his odyssey in Mexico and his conversations with Duena Alfonsa, John Grady concludes that the individual is alone in a callous world. He must forsake his blind belief in a mythic construct that conceals the true nature of the universe as well as the knowledge of his rightful place in it. By the end of All the Pretty Horses, John Grady starts to see the inanity of the myths into which he has poured his faith, as he becomes imprisoned after the knife fight and feels a child’s anguish surfacing within him “but it brought with it such pain that he stopped it cold and began at once his new life and the living of it breath to breath” (203). Duena Alfonsa tells John Grady that to discern what is true from what is convenient to believe is to abandon all the myths of one’s culture, and to lead a solitary life, countering hopeless bitterness with courage.


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