Author Archives: ashleighbarraca

Close Reading of First Paragraph of After Dark

Instead of a bang, Haruki Murakami starts After Dark off with the sound of a breath. The first paragraph sets the scene so that we do not know where the story is set geographically, but we do come away with a very good sense of what the city is like. As we discussed in class, the city is described using diction usually reserved to describing bodies. The result is that we come to view the city as a character itself – that is, before we are flung into the quiet world of Mari at the generic Denny’s.

The paragraph begins at the “top” of the body and works its way down, as it starts with “eyes mark the shape of the city.” The city is not literally eye-shaped, but it was eyes that built the city and the way the building glow. From the eyes, we move down to the heart as “countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells…” The “arteries” of the city pump out new and old data, consumables, and contradictions just as they do with the blood. The “fresh blood cells” are representative of the new people that are pumped in and out of the city every day; for example, the Chinese prostitute.  “Fresh blood” goes in and our whether the city likes it or not, which is why “all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm”. As time goes on in the paragraph, we finally reach the middle of the body where “a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.” The body of the city is left at the end waiting for the “pregnancy” to come to fruition – just as the readers are waiting for the novel to begin.

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Snow, Glass, Apples, Feminism

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is fairest of them all?” Due in part to the Disney animated movie, Snow White is a very popular and widely loved fairy tale. Especially, the easy to remember details such as the mirror rhyme and the line “red as blood, white as snow, black as ebony” provide wide appeal to children. Like most fairy tales, Snow White has been retold many times over in movies, television, and literature. One of the most chilling and unique variations that I have encountered is Neil Gaiman’s short story “Snow, Glass, Apples,” which flips the roles of villainess and heroine for Snow White and the Queen by implying that Snow White is a child vampire. Gaiman certainly changes many details from the Brother Grimm’s version, but what is most interesting is that he does not change the actions of the Queen. In the Grimms’ version, the Queen is decidedly portrayed in an anti-feminist light; but with only a change in rationale, Gaiman is able to create a feminist figure from her.

In the Grimms’ version, the Queen is “beautiful but haughty, and she could not tolerate anyone else who might rival her beauty.” (213) This jealousy of other beauty is her sole motivation throughout the tale. The Queen envies the beauty of a seven year old child, which is quite unrealistic of a grown woman who is supposed to be “fairest of all”. Such a portrayal implies that all women have no need to be jealous of anything else, or have anything else to drive their motives. The Queen in Gaiman’s story, however, is seen as “wise… or so they said” (Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors 331) by many of her people. Instead of jealousy, she is driven by the urge to protect herself and her people due to Snow White’s nature: “I do not know what manner of thing she is.” (331) Instead of being inspired by vanity, this Queen is a smart, straightforward woman – a woman who was punished “by history” for her feminist actions. Such a rationale makes sense, as such a woman would be regarded as a villain, too.

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Loss of Innocence in Blu’s Hanging

Many times when children are the main focus of a work of literature, the story is about their coming of age. The child character is usually faced with a series of difficult events or decisions that ultimately require maturity. Sometimes, we are supposed to cheer the children into adulthood, but oftentimes I find the loss of childhood innocence and playfulness to be quite sad. The word “innocent” brings up biblical connotations to me; specifically, the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they were playful and without sin, but afterward, they paid for their knowledge by being exiled. Once children gain “knowledge”, they make the journey to adulthood. However, the children in Blu’s Hanging are still somewhat able to hang on to their childhood even after they’ve been forced to deal with adult matters.

In a way, Ivah and Blue have already begun to lose their innocence before the novel begins due to the death of their mother. Ivah is forced to take care of the family, especially after her father tells her “you going be in charge of dinner” (4). Losing their mother definitely forces all of them to grow up a little, but they are all still children, as we see from Blu and Maisie’s games. Blu is forced to deal with the adult concepts when he is being sexually harassed, but he still approaches them from a childlike point of view. The first time Uncle Paolo propositions him, Blu is intrigued by the money and asks Ivah for permission. Mr. Iwasaki also provides compensation in the form of “a $100,000 bar, and a box of Milk Duds. Dollar bills.” (20) Blu is old enough to know that what is going on is wrong, but he is still enough of a child to think that candy and some money are worth it.

By the end of the novel, both Ivah and Blu have been forced to grow up even more. Ivah, in my opinion, has almost reached full adulthood by the end. Blu still has a long way to go due to his rape and the way his father treats him; but, with enough time, Blu can hopefully win his childhood back and mature at an easier rate.

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Alienation of Prospero and Doctor Who

Although it is not very well known in the United States, BBC-produced Doctor Who is one of my absolute favorite television shows. The sci-fi program, which has been running on and off TV since the 1960s, centers on the Doctor and his time-travelling adventures through space. One of the reoccurring themes of the most recent series is alienation and loneliness, as the Doctor is the last surviving member of his species. The Doctor is also continually left alone due to his long life and amazing intelligence. As I finished the most recent series of the show, the Doctor reminded me of this course’s overall theme of alienation. In particular, the Doctor most reminded me of the first character we encountered in class: Prospero from The Tempest. Although these two characters are quite different, they are separated from everyone by their intelligence.

Prospero ‘s duties as duke were largely ignored because “I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated/
To closeness, and the bettering of my mind.” (Act I.ii) Prospero shirks his duties in order to learn, which leads to his exile. However, without his learnings, he would not have been able to earn his dukedom back. Nonetheless, he is still set apart from his subjects and his peers. The Doctor’s abilities also segregate him from everyone around him, as he describes that “I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… That’s who I am.” (1.1, Rose). Although this isn’t book learning, the Doctor’s senses are constantly overloaded. Since he is the last of his species, there is no one he can rely on for comfort, or even conversation about the experience – he is on his own, just like Prospero.

Prospero and the Doctor have very wide fundamental differences – the Doctor is vehemently anti-slavery, for one – but they are still completely alienated. Luckily for Prospero, his intelligence is able to win him back is dukedom. As for the Doctor, we will hopefully have many more years to come to see how he turns out!

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Food for Thought

After Dark‘s revolving set of characters provide plenty of contrasting scenes and emotions in the novel. Each character brings about his or her own mood as soon as they enter, like a character’s theme music in a movie. When Kaoru is “on-screen,” we know to expect big, bold brashness, but with Mari, we expect quiet and stillness. Takahashi, on the other hand, bring an almost non-stop stream of thought and questions from the very start. Despite their differences, all three characters are able to blend with each other and give us great interactions. The one thing that accompanies all of their interactions is food. Mari and Takahashi seem to be constantly eating when they’re together, and Kaoru’s personality is seen in what she drinks.

Mari’s first appearance in Denny’s tells us a great deal about her. She is drinking coffee with displeasure, as she is only doing so because “that is the role of the customer” (Murakami 10). Instead of food, she is instead ingesting the book she is reading by “biting off and chewing one line at a time” (10). Mari is at the restaurant for companionship with her book, not for any particular food reason, unlike Takahashi. In fact, the only reason he is there is that “the only thing worth eating at Denny’s is the chicken salad” (14). Despite his professed hunger, he dwells over his meal by chatting at (not really with) Mari. Takahashi loves food, surely; but he also loves conversation. He even goes so far as to compare himself with food in that he’s “more of a side-dish – cole slaw or French fries” (19). Kaoru herself sticks to beer and peanuts; she does not require food to be a starting point for conversation, but nor is she avoiding it, as Mari is. The only other thing she ingests is cigarette smoke, which Mari admits “looks much more natural” (64).

Takahashi’s motto “walk slowly; drink lots of water” (146) could probably be applied to him, Mari, and Kaoru – as well as us as readers! Mari may be right about growth hormones in chicken, or mercury in tuna – but I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t craving chicken salad and toast after I was done with After Dark.


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Violence and Gender in Fairy Tales

Almost everyone has a favorite bedtime story or fairy tale from childhood. These were the stories that we begged to hear over and over again. In some cases, these stories were also movies that, in my case, were watched at home so often that the VHS tape was completely worn down. Fairy tales aren’t take literally by children; even little ones don’t actually believe that pumpkins can turn into carriages. Nonetheless, the stories are still major parts of our lives in the ways we played make-believe as children and in the ways we understood stories to flow.

Children’s and young adult literature is a particular interest of mine because I think it can be just as powerful or subtle as “adult” literature. Some wording may be simplified, but children’s literature, such as fairy tales, still includes as many subtleties and difficult questions as adult literature. Nevertheless, children’s minds are still being influenced by these stories.  It is from fairy tales that girls get the idea that they are best as pampered princesses waiting to be rescued, not ones that make proactive decisions. Boys likewise learn that it is their job to take care of the girls. And don’t forget that for old women, the ultimate drive toward violence is jealousy and want of beauty. I want to uncover the different ways that violence is used by both men and women in fairy tales to influence these gender roles mentioned above in the specific stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Bluebeard.

 

Some questions I would like to explore in my paper are:

1) Is violence ever portrayed as a good thing when committed by women? Is it ever a bad thing when committed by the “hero” (typically male) of the story?

2) In what ways are acts of violence romanticized? Are some better than others?

3) Some of these fairy tales have evolved over  the years from their original forms, most especially Cinderella. Do the more “modern” versions have the same impact without as much violence? Is emotional abuse as bad as physical abuse?

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

The “Historical Notes” section at the end of The Handmaid’sTale helps set the novel apart from any other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Most other novels (as well as movies) of the same genre have very ambiguous, open-to-interpretation endings; here, however, Margaret Atwood makes the novel even more of a mystery by adding the notes at the end. We know the novel is fiction; the notes state that the narrative could be fiction, too. The notes essentially “break the fourth wall,” a theatre term that refers to a play directly addressing the fact that it is, indeed, only a play. The way Atwood presents the Historical Notes, she breaks the fourth wall with her readers in a way to make them really think about what they’ve just read.

The lecturer in the notes brings to attention many of the common tropes and topics discussed when analyzing a novel. The lecturer speaks at length about the reliability of Offred as a narrator, the conveniently ironically named females in the story, and the puzzling abrupt ending of Offred’s story . It seems as though this is Atwood’s way of winking and tipping her hat at the readers. By directly addressing the issue of narrator reliability within the novel itself, Atwood is forcing her readers to find something else to discuss about the novel; in other words, she is eliminating the easy way out of discussion. The brilliance of it all is, though, that we as readers can look at the novel as a whole under a different light – the light of the Historical Notes.

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Vocabulary Oppression

The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale rules with words. The theocracy takes words and twists them to their own meanings so that it can justify the oppression that takes place. In the passage, the word “freedom” is mutated into a frightening, highly-structured ideal.

Aunt Lydia’s (as well as all the other Aunts’) constant insistences that the Handmaids are free and happy are sign enough that what they are saying is false. By constantly stating that Gilead is good, Gilead saved women from oppression, the Aunts themselves are oppressing the women (but especially the Handmaids) out of the freedom to feel unhappy. Aunt Lydia’s statement of “freedom to and freedom from” then takes on another meaning: Women now have the “freedom from” unhappiness. This is also illustrated at the end of the chapter when Offred and Ofglen encounter the Japanese tourists. When asked if the Handmaids are happy, Offred feels as if she has to answer yes because, “I have to say something. What else can I say?” (29.) For most modern readers, the word “freedom” connotes endless choices; however, Offred implies that the freedom offered by Gilead leaves no room for interpretation. No one in this society has a choice, not even the men. Everyone has their own place and their own function for the sake of Gileaden’s twisted freedom.

This idea that one word can be forcibly evolved to suit an agenda is chilling. The passage is the fast way for Atwood to show the terrifying power that Gilead holds – not over people’s bodies and places in society, but also their minds.

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The Officer – The Most Terrifying Horror Villian

In Kafka’s In the Penal Colony , I found it undeniable that the Officer is the “villain” of the story. However, he is the kind of villain that is the most frightening to me: a deranged zealot who does not accept his own nature.

In the beginning of the short story, as the apparatus was only starting to be described, I was forcibly reminded of The Machine from The Princess Bride, a somewhat cartoonish “pain machine” built and revered by a power-hungry count. I prepared myself for a similar mustache-twirling villain in the Officer, but upon reading I found myself continuously overtaken by the sheer horror of the apparatus as well as the love the Officer has for it. The Officer’s repeated “Do you know about the previous Commandant?” and his relentless chattering about the apparatus reminded me of a member of my family who sadly became such a zealot of his religion that he cut off all ties with anyone who ever loved him. He of course does not have a machine that is capable of such torture, but the similarities to the Officer are chilling. They both blindly cling to something against which the popular opinion has turned. They both obsess about their object of worship and humble themselves before him.

The Officer’s obsession with the apparatus is tied to his worship of the previous Commandant – it is the last tangible evidence of a time in which the Officer enjoyed his life. His obsession acts as blinders for him. All he sees is the “beauty” of the apparatus, that what he is doing is actually just and right, and that everyone else is wrong. I find him pitiable in that this is what he built his life around; however, my pity stops to a point because I think it’s clear that he could have been rehabilitated and had a good life under the new Commandant. Those who do not want help because they see nothing wrong with their dangerous actions – those are the most frightening antagonists to me.

 

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Might vs. Right in An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People is brimming with different and, at times, conflicting ideals. I believe that Ibsen wrote in this way with purpose: every audience member is to leave the theatre with a different experience from everyone else. There is not to be one universal truth to the play; to have an entire group of people agreed on one point would defeat the entire purpose.  Of course, by my stating such an opinion would probably be contradicting someone else’s! The theme that spoke to me most in Enemy, however, is that of “might vs. right.” The play implies that might is not always right, nor indeed does right have might to support it.

In the first two acts, Dr. Stockmann repeatedly states that he has a “compact majority” and the “liberal-minded independent press” (Ibsen 191) behind him, those two being his “might.” The doctor assumes that his might will follow him because he is right.  He does not even consider the townspeople and the government not bowing to his study about the Baths. Peter Stockmann assumes the opposite: he knows he has power and assumes that every decision made by him and his might is necessarily the best decision. Once both men are faced with opposition from each other, they are immediately on the defensive instead of hearing other ideas. Dr. Stockmann in fact speaks fairly violently as he describes that he “shall smite them to the ground – I shall crush them – I shall break down all their defences, before the eyes of the honest public!” (224). As the play continues, we see the evolution of Dr. Stockmann as he goes from a self-assured man with some supporters to a screaming, slightly unstable man who has only one person on his side. He certainly does not do any favors for himself by calling his fellow townspeople “curs” and lame animal (259) when faced with opposition. He may still be right to close the Baths, but he certainly is not right in his classism. The townspeople, despite appearing unified against the doctor, prove that they are not in the final act of the play, as people only act against the family because they “dare risk not.” (269) The people of the town only have might when they are together; when separated, it is apparent that their right and unification are only thin veils for their uncertainty.

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