Establishing Form: Jane Austen’s Juvenilia

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There is one thing I love about Jane Austen most and that is her sense of humor. It is more astute and refined in her novels, but in her letters to Cassandra and her juvenilia it isn’t as subdued. Austen had some very strong opinions and observations about the world and the people around her. In her early works, Jane has a hilarious take on the novel form and the way women especially are portrayed in novels. The novel was in its infancy when Jane Austen was reading them and dabbling with her own writing.Most novels Jane read were in epistolary form, so in her earliest writings there is a certain amount of letters between the characters.

I think the epistolary form is a challenging form. Today with our emails, text messages, Snapchats, Facetime, Skype, and instant messenger it is difficult to imagine why epistolary form is challenging.  We are fortunate enough to not have talk to the person in the next room without having to walk all ten steps or yell at the top of our lungs. Letters are a different matter. They had to be written out by hand with pens you had to constantly refill with ink. I can hardly imagine how long and frustrating writing would’ve been back then. I am also left-handed so I probably would have had to constantly wait for the ink to dry word-by-word so I wouldn’t smear my words into one another and waste both ink and paper (which were expensive).

I am glad that for the most part Jane decided to only use the epistolary form in only small sections of her novels, mostly when the characters are at a distance from one another. The first problem with the form is that the characters must all be at some distance from one another in order to write letters to each other. It is absolutely ridiculous if the two characters are in close proximity to each other for them to be writing letters to each other (equally is ridiculous as people texting each other from across a room). It would be seen as a complete waste of paper and time. The problem of time is illustrated in a novel like Richardson’s Pamela. It is hard to imagine that any of the action of the novel actually took place unless she was writing the letters while the action of the story is taking place. Thinking of it this way, it makes the novel more interesting, because you imagine Pamela dictating events while they happen. Otherwise, it seems impossible that the poor women ever slept and wasn’t completely destitute due to her exuberant, emphatic, and drawn-out letters.

For this blog I am focusing on three of Austen’s earlier works: Three Sisters: A Novel and “Love and Freindship” [sic].

Three Sisters was particularly interesting and curious. It isn’t long enough to be a novel or even a novella, but she’s young and I give her credit for making the attempt. The story is about three sisters, like the title suggests. Mary, Georgiana, and Sophy Stanhope are not sisters like Jane and Cassandra. Mary has been asked by a man of decent fortune and an unfortunate personality to be his wife. He also advised Mary’s mother that if Mary were to turn him down that he’d ask her sisters. Being the eldest, she is mortified that if she doesn’t take Mr. Watts’ hand in marriage, that one of her younger sisters would be married before her. If you remember from Pride and Prejudice that this isn’t always a favorable thing, especially for older sisters.

Here is an excerpt from the sister Georgiana Stanhope. I am under the assumption that Georgiana is the youngest of the three sisters. In the passage it establishes that Georgiana is intelligent and cunning:

Our neighbor Mr Watts has made proposals to Mary: Proposals which she knew not how to receive, for tho’ she has a particular Dislike to him (in which she is not singular) yet she would willingly marry him sooner than risk his offering to Sophy or me which in case of a refusal from herself, he told her he should do, for you must know the poor Girl considers our marrying before her as one of the greatest misfortunes that can possibly befall her, & to prevent it would willingly ensure herself everlasting Misery by a Marriage with Mr Watts (62)

Georgiana, with Sophy’s help, concocts a plan to make sure that her sister Mary accepts Mr. Watts’ hand in marriage so the other two sisters don’t have the misfortune of having to accept a man who Georgiana describes:

“I never would marry Mr Watts were Beggary the only alternative. So deficient in ever respect! Hideous in his person and without on good Quality to make amends for it. His fortune to be sure is good. Yet not so very large! Three thousand a year? It is but six times as much as my Mother’s income. It will not tempt me (62).”

Austen is breaking away from the epistolary form, but using it at the same time. Some of the letters are entirely composed of dialogue.  It would be sufficient if the letters all passed between Mary Stanhope and her friend Fanny. It seems the Miss Georgiana Stanhope takes on more of the narrative voice present in Austen’s work.

Austen is doing something of significance in these letters. Mary’s letters are a recap of events or entirely composed of dialogue. Alternatively, Georgiana’s letters are a mix of dialogue, commentary, and her own cunning plans to make sure Sophy and herself are not stuck with the terrible Mr. Watts. Mary’s letter introducing the situation with Mr. Watts sets up the story, but it is Georgiana’s letters that establish the plot and lead to the climax and the denouement. By manipulating the style of the letters and establishing the voices for the sisters she establishes the complexity or lack thereof in the sisters’ characters. Mary is silly and has very few thoughts of her own, which is why she just summarizes events and recites dialogue in her letters. Sophy isn’t one of the authors of the letters and as Georgiana describes her: “Sophy did not like the idea of telling a lie& deceiving her Sister; she prevented the first & saved half her conscience by equivocation.” This establishes that Sophy is a quiet type of girl, who is neither silly nor is she as intelligent as her other sisters.

“Love and Freindship” [sic] is a different type of story. It is still in epistolary form containing fifteen letters. Isabel is begging her friend Laura, now fifty-five, to recite the “regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your Life.” Thirteen letters contain the narrative of Laura’s misfortunes, which include: fainting spells, fits of madness, widowhood, robbery, betrayal, and resignation. Austen’s gift for satire is evident in this story.

My Father started- “What noise is that,” (said he.) “It sounds like a loud rapping at the door” – (replied my Mother). “it does indeed.” (cried I.) “I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon thinking it must be somebody who knocks of admittance.”

“That is another point” (replied he;) “We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock – tho’ that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”

Here, a 2(n)d tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me…

A third more violent Rap than ever again assaulted our ears. “I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door.” (said my mother). “I think there must,” (replied my Father) “I fancy the servants are returned;” (said I) “I think I hear Mary going to the Door.” “I am glad of it” (cried my father) “for I long to know who it is.”

I am sorry if the humor of this scene is lost on you, but you have three people making a fuss over three knocks on the door. If they do have servants, like the passage suggests, it isn’t proper that they answer the door themselves. However, the language Austen employs here present impending violence and the fact that Laura and her family are completely ridiculous. Austen is obviously making a parody of the stories of her time. The moral of this story is delivered by Laura’s friend Sophia:

My beloved Laura” (said she to me a few Hours before she died) “take warning from my unhappy End and avoid the imprudent conduct which had occasioned it… Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable [sic] yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… My fate will teach you this… I die a Martyr to my greif for the loss of Augustus… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequence – Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint -” (93)

 

In her letters, Jane observes and comments on how ridiculous people within her social circles can be, but in her writing she highlights those aspects of character within the people she knows and of the characters she reads. She would have been reading these stories to her family or they would’ve preformed by her family. Jane’s dialogue style in Three Sisters: A Novel” is easier on the eyes and brain, compared to the dialogue style employed in “Love and Freindship”, but it shows that Jane is playing with form, style, narrative, and dialogue to create a new and more modern style which we see in her novels.

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Mr. Lefroy, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Wickham… Oh My! My Speculations on Jane Austen’s History and Heart

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My general understanding of Jane Austen’s life came from observations she made about society, fashion, and travel in her novels. In the past I read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is helpful when it comes to understanding what things like whist are, how fast (or slowly) a horse travels, and the complicated and infuriatingly complex social structure and it’s norms. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading about Miss Austen’s life and reading over the few letters her sister, Cassandra, didn’t burn. Most of it I had learned piece-by-piece at one time or another. Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza frolicked in Versailles with Marie Antoinette, before both Marie Antoinette and Eliza’s husband the Comte de Feuillide were sentenced to death after the French Revolution. Eliza was born in India after her mother, Philadelphia Austen, moved there to secure a husband.

Jane’s immediate family was large and poor, but from all accounts Jane had a delightful childhood. She had the type of childhood one would imagine a writer to have. Her parents were liberal about what books she filled her head with. It surprises me that Jane’s books are relatively concise compared to the books she read Fielding, Richardson. After attending school, where Jane didn’t learn much beyond music, needlework, manners, and the like. Nothing of significance that would lend to Jane’s genius. However, after returning home Jane’s education took a different route. Jane’s father and her brothers were studious men and Jane raided their books, which became the first part of her self-education. The second part of Jane’s education was her satirical epistolary stories, her plays, poetry, and other parts of juvenilia. Fortunately, unlike Jane’s letters, her early stories are intact. Some would speculate that the third part of Jane’s education is her unfortunate, but brief, infatuation with Tom Lefroy.

People speculate that it was Mr. Lefroy and the unfortunate fact that he was whisked away from Jane in order to save them both from a match made in the heart and not in the head. The acquaintance was not a long one, but from Jane’s letters to Cassandra the affair was an intense one by eighteenth century standards. Miss Jane Austen’s character was described by a neighbor as “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers” (Jane Austen’s Life and Letters 65). According to her nephews, Jane was too young to be husband hunting when this comment was made about her. It seems that Mr. Lefroy was not Jane’s only opportunity at marriage and perhaps was not her only disappointment. However, he is the most mysterious of all of Jane’s mentions of men.

Another reason that fans of Jane are most intrigued by Mr. Lefroy is that her first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were composed not long after this disappointment. Is Mr. Lefroy the real-life Mr. Darcy? I doubt it. I hate to be the hyper-rational and unromantic Charlotte Lucas-type here. My age and my unromantic sensibilities are a perfect fit and luckily in today’s age I won’t have to marry myself off to someone as grotesque and awkward as Mr. Collins. I think if Mr. Lefroy became anyone in Jane’s novel, it was Mr. Wickham. I know that I am betraying many of my sisters in Jane Austen by saying this, but my evidence is from Jane’s own words:

… I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together… He is a very gentleman-like, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you…” (Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters 68-69)

Jane Austen knew Mr. Lefroy for a very short amount of time and it was unlikely that they were very intimate. Jane was aware that his visit was short and in her few letters about Mr. Lefroy mentions of her knowing that and when he was leaving. We know Jane was sarcastic and satirical is her lament:

Friday- At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea (Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters 68)

If it is to be read as sarcasm, her comment is similar to Elizabeth Bennet’s reflection on Mr. Wickham’s engagement to Miss King. One of understanding and amusement, not true disappointment. Mr. Wickham, like Jane’s description of Mr. Lefroy is one of a charming gentlemen, who is a great dancer, and a pleasing conversationalist. Hardly the seemingly stoic, prideful, but painfully socially awkward gentlemen like Mr. Darcy. Mr. Lefroy marries a woman for money, like Mr. Wickham almost marries Miss King. Marriages for money and social position were still common among the upper and middle classes during this time. The middle classes were growing in wealth and the upper classes need it to preserve their status.

Jane may have felt the sting of a young broken heart, but I think she knew she had two choices. The first choice was to marry and have children. Her other choice was to marry herself to her work and produce her children that many of us still love today. Had Jane married for love she probably would’ve been poor. Had Jane married for money she’d have social obligations in addition to likely having maternal obligations. Either way, both would have left her life limited to her husband, her children, and her social sphere. Would she have been satisfied with her life? Would she have been happy? If she had married it would be likely that First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne, which became Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, would’ve been found in a trunk generations later, burned out of regret, frustration, or accident; perhaps they would’ve been water damaged, or eaten by mice.  If the disease that killed Jane was genetic baring children probably would’ve kept her life shorter than her already short 42-year life span.

I know that it is pointless to speculate on what Jane’s life would have been had she choose to marry instead of to write. I speculate only to further understand the author, her motivations, and her conviction. It must have been a difficult decision, but I think that the bond between Jane and Cassandra allowed them to tolerate poverty and spinsterhood better than most women.

Why Jane Austen?

I’ve written many times about how I fell in love with Jane Austen. The concise version of the story is when I was nine we moved across the country, I had no friends, so my mother handed me Pride and Prejudice. I spent ten years of my life convinced that Jane Austen wrote the most beautiful and romantic love stories of all-time. Eleven years after I had first read Pride and Prejudice, I read Mansfield Park for the second time, and realized that these weren’t love stories. If Jane Austen was writing about love and romance, then why would she end Mansfield Park like she did?

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well… and whether it might not be a possible, a hopeful undertaking to persuade [Fanny] that her warm sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

The passage continues where Edmund compares Fanny’s eyes to Mary Crawford’s and wonders if he can grow as fond of Fanny’s. He also wants to “persuade” Fanny to marry him, because he assures himself that pursuing Fanny won’t end in disappointment. So, I ended up re-reading all of Austen’s work after this discovery and realized that I had been reading Jane Austen wrong.

Here are a few of discoveries as written in an old journal:

  • All of Jane Austen’s novels end when her leading ladies get married
  • Nearly all of the married couples in Austen’s novels are unhappily married
  • Catherine Morland of Northhanger Abbey is moral, but silly
  • Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) is frigid and Marianne Dashwood is a basketcase
  • Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice falls in love with Mr. Darcy after seeing Pemberley.
  • Pride and Prejudice ends with Elizabeth making fun of Darcy in front of Georgiana
  • Emma is basically molded into Mr. Knightly’s version of a perfect wife
  • Everyone gets married at the end. If you’ve read Shakespeare, then you know that is how all the comedies end.
  • Anne Elliot is only twenty-eight, which back then was around the time most people were eligible for a mid-life crisis. There weren’t antibiotics, many women died in childbirth, sanitation was questionable by today’s standards, so people didn’t live as long as they do today.
  • If Jane Austen wrote love stories, then where are there so many novels that expand and dwell on the romantic aspects of the story? Is it because they feel like there wasn’t enough in the novels?
  • The movies are condensed versions that primarily focus on the love, but where is all the commentary?

I am sure that there are Jane Austen readers that will hate me for my stance on Jane Austen, but I present you with one more shred of evidence. In a letter to James Stanier Clarke in 1816:

I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

This week, I’ve been painfully through Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters: A Family Record. The collection of her letters and factoids about her relations was compiled by her nephews William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. It isn’t terrible and there are numerous things I learned about Jane Austen that I didn’t know before. However, the creativity and storytelling gene must have skipped a generation. I gather, however, from what I’ve read that they are very proud of their fathers and their family connection to an author who was posthumously rising in fame.
I am also reading Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deidre Le Faye and Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins, which I highly recommend if you really love Jane Austen. Both Le Faye and Roy and Lesley Adkins provide a historical context, which is difficult to grasp more than two hundred years later.

Next week, my focus will be Miss Austen’s juvenilia and her development of voice as a narrator.

 

 

Trying to Find Balance During NanoWriMo

To my lovely peers who are required to read my blog for Literature 450, I made sure that all my Plath/Hughes blogs are categorized, so you only have to click that category in my side bar to take you to my class blogs.

So, I was really excited about NanoWriMo this November, because I’ve been contemplating writing for it over the last two years. However, I always make excuses and I always let my life get in the way. This year, I have made the commitment. I had the most amazing weekend, both on my own and with my friend writing and drinking way too much coffee. I was so excited that I had already reached 5000 words by Sunday night. I was so over the moon. I went to bed Sunday night happy.

Then Monday happened, I checked my email inbox and filled out my day planner for the week and I was paralyzed by how much I had to do. How am I supposed to balance writing, school, a job, and a relationship? Sometimes I believe that I am Wonder Woman, but as I get older, it is becoming strikingly obvious that I am not Wonder Woman. I’m slowing down, because I actually try to sleep now. I cannot survive on coffee and red bull otherwise I am going to die before I am 35 from my heart exploding. So, I am trying to take a different perspective on the entire journey. Maybe I will reach the 50,000 word goal and become a Nano Winner and maybe I won’t. That’s okay. The thing is that I am writing again. I have written this blog and I’ve writing academic papers, but about a year ago I stopped writing. I had a huge ego blow and I just stopped, when I tried to write creatively I’d start panicking and once I ended up having a panic attack. For a time, I thought that nothing I wrote was worth reading. I was convinced I was a terrible writer and some where deep inside of my head there is that conversation where that person told me I was a terrible writer playing on repeat.

F*** them.

I love writing. I love writing creatively. So even if I don’t make the 5000 word limit, I tried. I started writing again. In spite of all the chaos and craziness of my life and my schedule, I am happier. My time management skills have significantly improved over the last two weeks, I find myself actually getting my homework completed in a timely manner, sometimes a few days early, just so I can write. It is a pretty amazing feeling. So, to me, the fact that I am writing again and this story has been developing itself inside my head for three years and its finally getting written. Which is nice, because it feel kind of crowded when a bunch of characters, situations, and scenes are bouncing around my head.

So here’s an excerpt from my novel, that may or may not become novel sized in thirty days and this a rough draft, I haven’t edited yet, but in spite of that I love it, because I feel like I get to be me again and its been a long time:

The laugh echoed above the deafening noise. The vibrations shot into his ear canal and gnawed and clawed their way through to the cerebral cortex. Her unintentional shot through the chaos had cuddled itself deeper into his head, awaking primitive feelings he had, over time, learned to suppress. Twice in one day he had been exposed, to no body in particular, and he realized his nakedness, the stark nakedness of his soul wouldn’t be his only sin. Nobody seemed to notice his bare flesh, save himself. He hadn’t felt the way he did in awhile, like the rush of all women past wriggled through his insides. He couldn’t remember their names, but he remembered their faces, he remembered the way they felt, he remembered that all of it was once real… once upon a time. Somewhere deep inside his head began to hurt as the chemicals spewed and spilled down towards the rest of his body through hardened arteries. No, he thought, not now, not here. He felt his little life, that he neither loved nor hated, split from the seems and get exposed for what it really was- a facade. The wincing pain of this reality was replaced with feelings he loved and feared. The feeling, the surge, the hopeless anticipation of he had no clue what. The chemicals reached his finger tips, then ran down his leg into his toes. The past and the present mixed inside of him all at once and for the first time in years he could feel his heart beating in his chest. For the first time in years, he was certain that he was alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Crow’s First Lesson”

I was struck by Ted Hughes’ poem “Crow’s First Lesson.” I spent my entire Sunday working on my novel for Nanowrimo and feeling a bit burnt out. I read through the first few of Crow poems that are featured in Ted Hughes’ Selected Poems 1957-1994. I confess that when I started out my reading, I was not reading closely or with gusto. I felt kind of brain-dead, but then I came to the poem “Crow’s First Lesson.” I am not entirely sure if it was the violence of the image of Crow purging and retching trying to say “Love” or if it was the man and woman image that snapped me awake and made me read the poem a few times over just to make sure that I wasn’t loosing my mind and hallucinating explicit things happening in the poem. I wasn’t. So, I was jolted awake by the explicit content, but I was also struck by Crow’s (debatable) guilt. I like the neo-Genesis concept Hughes has going on in the Crow poems. It sort of reminds me of Rock and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales, but significantly darker and actually sexual.

Crow has this unfiltered quality about him/it. He hasn’t developed that superego that prevents him from thinking, feeling, or reacting the way someone or something ought to in particular situation. Crow, to me, is less trickster and more child-like. It reminds me of something I read about the primitive brain that exists in birds in lizards, which the human brain also has, but of course we’ve evolved processing centers that keep our more primitive impulses in check, sometimes… There was something really refreshing about The Crow Poems, especially after the emotional heaviness of Plath’s Ariel poems. Hughes is more of a storyteller, there is more a reliance of narrative and not on emotion in his poems. I think that is really interesting considering that Plath wrote stories, novels, and poems whereas Hughes primarily stuck to poetry.

Reading “Lady Lazarus”

I first wanted to do a vlog on Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”. I recorded myself reading the poem multiple times and when I went back to edit the videos, I noticed that each time I read the poem I sounded different, my tone was different, the way I read was different. Listening back, I realized that each time the poem changed a bit. I discussed how The Bell Jar changed for me between my reading five years ago and my reading now. I ended up having to install the new operating system for my computer and ended up losing my videos (the woes of modern technology), but here is basically what happened in my readings.

Reading One:

My first reading was very matter-of-fact. There was no passion in it, I was just reading the text as it was written. I often fudged words and read each line slowly, so they didn’t exactly flow with the other lines.

Reading Two:

My second reading I tried to focus on how the poem is written. Where the sentences start and end. I let the punctuation guide me and not the lines. I noticed that there was a more distinct rhythm, the musical quality of the poem really came out in this reading.

Reading Three:

I noticed that there was passion in my voice. I was starting to add tone, or what I subconsciously thought was the tone of the poem. I sound sassy, angry, and rebellious. It wasn’t something that I had intended, but it happened. I still fumbled over a few lines, but I was very shocked my watching myself read the poem. The words and the tone coming out of my mouth were not my own. I recognized my face, but everything else about myself seemed foreign. This video actually survived and I cringe watching myself read it. It honestly freaks me out, because I know that that is me speaking, but I do not know where the passion expressed when reading it came from. This is just one way to read the poem, because in the unfortunately lost footage of my first two readings, I didn’t sound like I do in this reading. Before my tone was cool, calm, and collected. I guess I let go of everything by the time I did this reading. Here is the video from reading three (which is unedited):

I guess this is fitting for a Halloween post, because I think I’m scary in this video.

 

The Bell Jar: Liking Esther too much or not at all

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Almost a week ago I sat down to write a blog about The Bell Jar and I stared blankly at my computer, then wrote several starts that were far too personal for me to post on this or any blog. In class on Monday, we discussed looking at the novel (or sections of the novel) from three different perspectives: the mirror, the microscope, or the telescope. We were required to look at different parts of the novel, of our choosing, from these different perspectives. I isolated different passages and wrote a few blurbs on each, but they all came out too personal again. Unfortunately, I was sick on Wednesday and missed class discussion. Thankfully, Professor Daumer informed me that our class discussion veered towards Esther Greenwood as a character and something finally clicked. As a result, here is my blog on The Bell Jar.

Depression is not a pretty disease. It is not a pretty disease for those who experience it and it is just as horrific for those who have to watch their loved ones battle the disease. I’ve had it and looking back at the person I was then, I see one of the most selfish human beings ever to have existed. I am not saying that everyone with depression is selfish, this is just me reflecting on who I use to be. When I first read The Bell Jar five years ago, I thought it was brilliant and I loved Esther, because at the time she was someone I felt I could relate to at the time. It was a lonely time, but I isolated people and burned bridges, just like Esther does in the novel. Two years later, I would live with someone in the midst of the disease, and would see it from an outsider perspective. If I didn’t believe in karma before, I do now.

Reading the novel this time was a very strange experience. I read the novel in the early mornings while working at a coffee shop. Finely ground espresso escaped from the tight spaces between the pages. Pages sixty-eight through seventy-nine still stick together and are discolored from where I knocked over my Americano while running a portafilter to the knockbox in an exaggerated (and probably melodramatic) motion. This time, however, I wasn’t sure what to think about Esther. I remember liking her so much the first time I read the novel, but this time I felt sorry for everyone she came into contact with.

In the beginning of the novel, there were passages I can relate to now that I couldn’t relate to before, because I was never a stellar student. I never got amazing grades in school, I barely graduated high school with a 3.0 GPA. I found it difficult to take my first bought of college seriously and my grades there make me look like I was an overachiever in high school. However, now I finally related to things in the first half of the novel, instead of the second half. I highlighted passages I could relate to like this:

I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it. The only thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end (77).

I am graduating next semester and I am mildly terrified. It isn’t that I don’t have skills or qualifications to do a few different things, it’s just that this has been my life for five years and its going to end. So, what next?

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (77).

I think that one of the difficult aspects of Esther’s character is her relationship with the other characters in the novel. Esther is hyper-critical of the people around. She makes cruel observations about nearly everyone such as: Jay Cee, Betsey, Doreen, Buddy, her mother, and Joan.

Jay Cee obviously cared about Esther. She saw something in Esther that she wanted to foster and encourage, but Esther’s responses to Jay Cee are cold and sometimes cruel. She calls her “plug-ugly” and one the same page says: “Jay Cee wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn’t think they had anything to teach me. I fitted the lid on the typewriter and clicked it shut” (6). I think this is a place where Esther begins her decent, she closes the typewriter and closes her mentors out, and eventually she cannot write or read at all.

I think Esther is critical of Betsey and Doreen, because they are polar opposites of each other. Betsey is the good girl from the farm, while Doreen is a city-savvy party girl. Esther thinks she fits somewhere in the middle, but thinks that perhaps she should be one or the other and her personality’s position somewhere between the two makes her an outcast. As if she feels she has to fit one extreme or the other, otherwise there isn’t a place for her at all.

Esther’s relationship with her mother is disturbing. Like all parents, Esther’s mother wants what she thinks is best for her. I think that Esther doesn’t want what other girls want, but doesn’t know how to articulate any of her thoughts, feelings, or ideas to her mother. Esther wants to be something more than a house wife, she wants and desires more, but she doesn’t live in a world where that is normal or logical. How do you explain to people that you want to be different, that you want different things for yourself in a world so hell-bent on conformity? It seems that Esther blames a lot of her being different and her inability to cope with those differences on her mother. I just don’t see how her mother could possibly understand when Esther has established no lines of communication between her and her mother.

Poor Buddy Willard. I understand that Esther didn’t want to be his wife or anyone’s wife:

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters … That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place the arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.

I think here again, Esther just doesn’t have the guts to open her mouth and tell people what she wants and what she doesn’t want. She finds outs, cracks in the situation and slips out. She doesn’t express that she’s upset that Buddy doesn’t love her enough to prevent him being seduced by the waitress for the summer, but that he treated her like she was sexy and a temptress. Perhaps she did love him and this situation made her see all the flaws in relations between men and women. Due to Esther’s mental condition, we can hardly believe for a minute that she’s a reliable narrator. She does the same to June, reels her in and then casts her out when she does something that doesn’t fit into Esther’s conception of who they are.

The further Esther falls into madness, the harder it is to relate to her. She becomes illogical, temperamental, and judgmental. It becomes more difficult to understand things from her perspective, even if she is seemingly very plain-spoken about her perspective. The further into the novel I got, the more skewed I noticed Esther’s perspective becomes, until you feel like she’s placing the bell jar over your head. I felt like I had a sort of vertigo while reading it, it actually made my head hurt. She’s so cold towards everyone, that it’s chilling. At the end of the book, the line “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” (243) is iconic. When taken out of context it seems like this brilliant and amazing line about being true to oneself, knowing one is alive, and it is almost a mantra for the free-spirited. However, in the context of the novel it seems really self-centered, instead of self aware.

Personally, I am so confused about what I feel about Esther Greenwood and The Bell Jar, because I loved it so much the first time I read it. Even thought it was only five years ago, I feel like I was significantly younger at the time. I was also in a mental state that was so similar to Esther, a state that I now find horrifying and pathetic. I think I would be a hypocrite if I said that I don’t like Esther because she categorize and judges people, because I do. I work in retail and need something to do to pass the time between punching in and punching out. I can’t say that I quite do it to the depth that Esther absorbs herself in judgement. I am on the fence about Esther and I don’t know what I think or feel about The Bell Jar. Perhaps, I delve into it deeper before the semester ends. For now, I am stuck between liking Esther too much or not at all.

Hughes and Plath: Hunting the Creative Monster

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The creative genius is a strange and elusive creature. Historically, the creative genius was a thing separate from the person that it embodied. This thing would choose a person to possess and inspire that individual’s writing, artwork, music, or philosophical theories. In their poems, “Famous Poet” and “Female Author,” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, respectively, look at the internal and external life of their creative subjects. The focus on what separates these writers from the rest of the world. Plath focuses on the contrast between femininity and the dark and masculine world of writing. Hughes tries to pinpoint the mental inner machinery that distinguishes the poet from the layperson. What Plath and Hughes both discover is that the creative genius can be a monster.

Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Female Author,” appears to be an English sonnet. The poem contains three stanzas and a rhyming couplet. “Female Author” follows the a/b/a/b rhyme scheme; however, it lacks the song-like quality of a sonnet, because Plath only employes iambic pentameter in the third line of each stanza, the rest of the lines are in free verse. Plath, however, does not lose the song-like quality typical of a sonnet. Plath creates rhythm with her uses of consonance, for example: “cushions curled” (3) and creaking curses” (7). In the final line of the poem, Plath uses both consonance and the doublet “sweet and sick” (11). The hard consonant sounds emphasizes the iambic rhythm used in the third line of each stanza, which times the lines of the poem together, and gives the illusion of a steady rhythm in the absence of iambic pentameter.
Plath has talent for depicting vivid scenery. Within the fourteen lines of the poem, Plath conveys to the reader the exterior scene, the interior of the apartment, as well as insight into the external appearance and internal life of the poem’s subject. The contrast between the interior and exterior of the apartment is in opposition to the contrast between the interior and exterior of the poem’s subject. The interior of the apartment is seemingly lavish, warm, and feminine with its chocolates, “rose-papered rooms” (6), “polished highboys” (7), “hothouse roses” (8),  and cushions for the female author to lie on. The exterior contrasts the exterior, because outside the apartment it is raining and “gray child faces [are] crying in the streets (14). Plath plays with dichotomies by using contrasting images such as the plush cushions and the rainy street, the pink wallpaper against the gray faces, and the blooming roses versus the rain.
Plath uses these dichotomies to show the contrast between the external feminine appearance of the subject in contrast to her dark internal life as an author. Plath’s subject, the female author, is physically depicted as being “prim, pink-breasted, feminine” (5). However, internally, Plath’s subject is a woman with a dark interior life. In the first line of the poem, we are introduced to a woman who “plays at chess with the bones of the world” (1). In other words, the female author is contemplating the framework within the world of her stories to strategically establish a plot, depict scene, and develop characters. In the last stanza, Plath depicts the female author writing:

The garnets on her fingers twinkle quick
And blood reflects across the manuscript
She muses on the odor, sweet and sick,
Of festering gardenias in a crypt, (9-12).

The speaker gives the impression that the female author writes Gothic novels, based on her use of words bones, sin, blood, and crypt. The Gothic genre in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would be synonymous with popular fiction today. It wasn’t considered literary fiction or high literature. Poetry was the prominent and well-respected genre of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early 20th centuries. If the female author were writing Gothic novels, then it would mean that she was probably not taken seriously as a female author and not respected within literary circles.
The subject has the appearance of femininity, she looks feminine and surrounds herself with icons of femininity like chocolates, roses, and colors such as pink and red. However, the female author denies her feminine nature, the motherly quality associated with femininity when she “nurses chocolates” (5) and turns away “from grey child faces crying in the streets” (14). The speaker may be insinuating that women have to make a choice between writing and motherhood. Or the speaker maybe insinuating that the female author, is a dark and unfeminine creature – a monster – whose thoughts are consumed by murder, mystery, death, and decay.

Ted Hughes’ poem, “Famous Poet,” parallels Plath’s “Female Author.” Both Hughes and Plath are attempting to encapsulate the internal workings of the creative mind. Hughes’ “Famous Poet,” depicts a male poet, who during the course of his career goes from obscurity to fame. The poem contains eight stanzas, which contain five lines a piece. The first and fifth lines of each stanza are indented and rhyme with one another, while the three non-indented lines of each stanza share their own rhyming pattern. In other words, the poem’s rhyme scheme is a/b/b/b/a. Some of the lines in the poem are in iambic pentameter, but the majority of the lines within the poem do not have a distinct rhythmic scheme.

Ted Hughes’ subject is an ordinary looking person, but Hughes makes it clear that the external appearance of his subject is deceiving:

Stare at the monster: remark
How difficult it is to define just what
Amounts to monstrosity in that
Very ordinary appearance. Neither thin nor fat,
Hair between light and dark, (1-5)

The subject is plain on the exterior, but inside of the subject something different exists, the thing that separates the poet from the ordinary man. Hughes refers to the subject as a monster because of the thing inside of him. The thing that Hughes does not define, only names, is a “monstrosity”. In other words, it is something larger than the physical poet, something wrong and offensive – a malformation in the poet’s character.
This monster-like thing is the theme of “Famous Poet.” Hughes repetitively uses the monster imagery. What, according to Hughes is a monster? The poet and the speaker attempt to search for the answer to this question. The speaker engages the reader by asking them to assist him in searching for the answer: “First scrutinize those eyes/ For the spark, the effulgence: nothing. Nothing there…” (11-12). The continually searches for the answer “Is it his dreg-boozed inner demon” (16), “the vital fire, the spirit electrical (18), “is it women” (20)? Both the speaker and the poet are grappling, grasping to find the source that separates the subject of the poem from the masses. The cannot find the source of creativity and inspiration.
In the final stanza of the poem, the internal thing that the speaker and the subject have battled with is no longer inside the poet. The subject becomes the monster, a stegosaurus, an extinct creature, the poet is at the end of his career.

And monstrous, so,
As a Stegosaurus, a lumbering obsolete
Arsenal of gigantic horn and plate
From a time when half of the world still burned, set
To blink behind bars at the zoo (36-40).

At the end, the poet is an awkward and archaic creature. Hughes is alluding that his subject’s inspiration and creativity extinguished over the course of his career. The obscure artist or writer draws for themselves from their own experience and observation. Consequently, a famous artist is influenced by their fame, fans, and editors. When Hughes compares the famous poet to an extinct creature, captured behind bars, the poet changes into a thing – the monster within the poet becomes an external quality.
Sylvia Plath looked at the contrast between the light of femininity and the dark nature of the creative person in “Female Author.”  Plath also plays into the stereotype that a woman cannot be simultaneously feminine and have a career, that a woman must choose one over the other. Hughes and his poet are attempting to find and name the thing that makes the poet different from other people in “Famous Poet.” Hughes’ speaker thinks he knows that the poetic instinct is something internal, but cannot name it. The poet, however, becomes the monstrous thing inside of him. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes both attempt to capture the elusive creative genius in their respective poems. The theme of both poems is the monster – the creative drive – that separates them from their peers and disrupts gender boundaries.

Poetic Echos

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In my last post, I admitted that I’ve been trying to look at Plath and Hughes as two separate poets. I also lamented about the futile nature of trying to separate the two. In Diane Middlebrook’s essay, “The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: call and response,” I realize why this extra and careful effort has been futile. In the essay, Middlebrook describes the blossom of Plath’s relationship with Hughes as violent, agressive, and poetic. It is my understanding, from the essay, that Hughes had criticized Plath’s work and she intended to approach him at a party. Perhaps, her confrontation didn’t go as planned:

I bit him long and hard on the cheek… blood was running down his face. His poem ‘I did it, I”. Such violence and I can see how women lie down for artists”, Sylvia Plath

I think it is interesting that Middlebrook divides the authors’ works into three categories: Courtship poems, marriage poems, and separation poems. I think that this is interesting seeing as how both Plath and Hughes were writers and poets before they met, seeing as it is how they met. It ties in with the fact that all of Plath’s poetry before her courtship with Ted Hughes was listed as “Juvenilia” in Plath’s collected poems, which was compiled and edited by Hughes after Plath’s death. The courtship poems seem to be poems, as I expressed before, of a tumultuous, aggressive passion. I think that Plath desperately wanted to be recognized as a poet by Hughes and his peers. Not to say that Plath wasn’t attracted to Hughes, because based on her poems and journal enteries, the attract was evident.

The call and response of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s work wasn’t always immediate. For example, Ted Hughes’ collection Birthday Letters serves as a response to their life together, as well as some of Plath’s poems. Middlebrook sites poems such as Plath’s “Morning Song” and Hughes’ “Full Moon and Little Freida.” Most of the examples of Plath’s call and responses to eachother’s poetry, I’ve found in poems that Hughes responded to after Plath’s death, such as Hughes’ “You Hated Spain,” which is published in his collection Birthday Letters. It seems that “You Hated Spain” is a response to Plath’s “The Goring.”

Excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s “The Goring” (1956):

Rode out against the fifth bull to brace his pike and slowly bear
Deep down into the bent bull-neck. Cumbrous routine, not artwork,
Instinct for art began with the bull’s horn lofting in the mob’s
Hush a lumped man-shape. The whole act formal, fluent as a dance.
Blood faultlessly broached redeemed the sullied air, the earth’s grossness.

Excerpt from Ted Hughes’ “You Hated Spain” (1998)

So we sat as tourists at the bullfight Watching bewildered bull awkwardly butchered, Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier Just below us, straightening his bent sword And vomiting with fear. And the horn That hid itself inside the blowfly belly Of the toppled picador punctured What was waiting for you…

It goes without saying, that two people living in close quarters are bound to have similar life experiences, but it is also true that both parties will interpret this events and experiences quit differently from the other. Their short courtship, the birth of their children, Plath’s miscarriage, Ted’s affair, and their eventual separation were simultaneous occurrences that they were bound to experience differently.

Middlebrook mentions that Plath and Hughes sometimes drafted their poems on the reverse side of the others’ finished poem. Imagine, that you pick up a piece of paper, you are bound to scan, perhaps you actually read what is written. My significant other is a musician and a writer, and more often than not, I grab a piece of paper to write down a reminder or an important thought and I end up becoming influenced by what I had just read. I’ve published a poem that was inspired by my significant others’ lyrics. I’ve discussed what I read in the essay with my significant other, I asked him how he would feel if we had this type of collaboration: a call and response. He thought that it would be a stifling arrangement. We’re both constructive critics of each others’ work, but we try to separate our work for the sake of our relationship.

I try to imagine what a life would be like, in such close quarters, being influenced by the same experiences and also being influenced by each others’ work. Middlebrook also noted that Plath took many breaks in her writing, quiet periods, where I imagine that the demands of motherhood and household overshadowed her ability to focus on her craft, which Hughes never experienced, at least not in the same way that Plath experienced it. I think that it would be difficult to have a relationship based on a passion, then criticism, and continuous echos from one poet to the other that manifested in their work.

The Price of Fame

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I’ve been trying to think of Plath and Hughes as two separate people. I try not to think too much about their life together and I try to remind myself that their poems are not related to each other. However, the further I get into the semester and the deeper I get into the readings, the more difficult it is to look at these poets as two separate people. My biographical information about the two authors is limited. I know a bit more about Plath than I do Hughes, but not all that much. From what I understand so far, they had a courtship built on poetry, a married life built on Ted’s success, and an ending that crumbled due to infidelity. I know that is all too simply put and that all real life situations are much more complex than what I’ve just stated.

Within the last week, we’ve cracked open Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, a collection a poems where Plath is the subject. Reading Birthday Letters is a bit voyeuristic; however, I have to remind myself that this interpretation is just one side of the story. The poem “Ouija” has been bugging me, nagging me for that past few days. Sylvia Plath wrote a poem called “Ouija” in 1957 and is located in The Collected Poems. Maybe there is some truth in Ted Hughes’ “Ouija,” maybe it was a retrospective look at things that were on the horizon for the couple and for Plath herself. It is the end of the poem that bothers me- that I find haunting.

…Once, as we bent there, I asked:
‘Shall we be famous?’ and you snatched your hands upwards
As if something had grabbed it from under.
Your tears flashed, your face was contorted,
Your voice cracked, it was thunder and flash together:
And give yourself to the glare? Is that what you want?
Why should you want to be famous?
Don’t you see- fame will ruin everything.’
I was stunned. I thought I had joined
You association of ambition
To please you and your mother,
To fulfil your mother’s ambition
That we be ambitious. Otherwise
I’d be fishing off a rock
In Western Australia. So it seemed suddenly. You wept.
You wouldn’t go one with Ouija. Nothing
I could think of could explain
Your shock and crying. Only
Maybe you’d picked up a whisper that I could not,
Before our glass could stir, some still small voice:
‘Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
You will have paid for it with your happiness,
Your husband and your life’ (Birthday Letters, 55-56).

I found the poem to be more like a story than a poem. It is simultaneously sad and ominous. Is it retrospective, or did this really happen? The imagery of Plath knelt down, terrified, hysterical, unable to explain her feelings and her mortification. Or perhaps, the poem is a comment on her posthumous fame. It must have a been cruel for Plath to lose everything, to feel like everything was so lost that she couldn’t endure another day of it. Is there a point to fame if the famous person never experiences it. Is it worth working towards if you have to cash in everything precious in your life to achieve it? It seems until recently that this is was the fate of the female writer. Or is Hughes lamenting her loss and how he alone had to witness her fame without her. We’ll never know. There is three sides to ever story: her side, his side, and the truth. However, the truth isn’t really want I am looking for.