Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Harry Potter series as a social commentary?

J.K.Rowling’s series of novels designed for teenagers seem to me to have a deep socio-historical context that is not clear upon an initial examination. This is often portrayed in a humorous manner which allows it to become a rather satirical representation of modern life.
            For starters, the character of Voldemort appears to be an amalgamation of several historical figures as well as a figment of Rowling’s imagination. Whether these influences were intentional or not is unclear, but as one of them especially is a clear character in the world’s cultural consciousness it is easy to recognise him. This particular individual is Adolf Hitler. The key parallel between the two of them is his insistence on eradicating those not of “pure-blood” (in Hitler’s case those not of the Aryan race, and in Voldemort’s those not of wizarding blood). This drive to eradicate people whom these powerful men saw as inferior to them led to cruelly hunt people down and murder them often in their homes. As Voldemort becomes more powerful, it becomes unsafe for students of Hogwarts who are of mixed blood or who derived from muggles to travel unprotected. This mimics a similar situation in Germany when Hitler was at the peak of his power. The almost hypnotic power of these two men in securing followers is also similar as people dis whatever was asked of them out of both fear and respect for these despotic leaders. Moreover, the existence of the Order of the Phoenix seems to be a representation of the Allies in World War II: they exist to stop the increasing malevolent power of Voldemort.
            Another character which appears to be embodied in Voldemort is that of Satan himself. In previous times the name Satan, Devil or even Beelzebub was something spoken with a great deal of fear, and thus was something to avoid. In a similar way Voldemort is largely called “You-know-who” or “He-who-must-not-be-named” in order to avoid incurring pain from him or one of his followers. Voldemort is an embodiment of all evils in the text and is the source of them also; there is an awareness in the books that if Voldemort did not exist the use of dark magic on muggles or other wizarding folk would not have occurred. Indeed, he tempts people to join his side with thoughts of safety and adoration, just as the devil tempts people to join him.
            There are several other aspects of the series which have satirical social contexts and, when contemplated, are rather funny. The primary example of this in my opinion is the fact that goblins run a bank. These shrunken, ugly creatures whose only concern is for gold caricature the popular perspective of bankers. Moreover, the corruption within the bank which emerges quietly throughout the books mimics the loss of trust our modern day English public have felt in the banking system. Not only are several people’s vaults broken into (something that can only be done with the help of a goblin) but in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we are given a first-hand view of how a goblin will breach the bank he works for in order to seek personal wealth.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of the series which is most relevant to modern day life is the fact that how you perceive someone’s character is from the way they act is not their true character. In our modern society we are endlessly encouraged to understand the importance of beauty. Also, in the majority of modern texts we have lost the depth of characters that formerly existed in classical tomes. Yet J. K. Rowling has managed to bring this back, particularly in the characters of Snape and Professor Dumbledore. The immense plot twist towards the end of the series of books in which we realise that Dumbledore isn’t as much of a paragon of excellence as Harry understood him to be and that Snape does have a heart, at the centre of which is Harry himself, forces modern readers to accept that you can never truly know a person until you have been inside their head. This is an important lesson to learn as it highlights that we ought to suspend our judgements on everybody as you cannot know their nature or true motivations. This appears to be the most potent lesson for modern day readers to take in by reading these books and thus ought to remain with us for a long time after the reading of them has been completed.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Comment Upon Love Triangles in Victorian Literature

Most of us are accustomed to love triangles as being a standard part of the majority of modern romantic comedy films, however this has been around for considerably longer than originally thought. Although it has been used by writers (or poets as they were known in Ancient times) since Ancient Greek literature the development of feminist perspectives in the Victorian era allows it to take on a new meaning.
            There are clearly two ways Victorian writers create love triangles: two men vying for a woman’s affections, or two women vying for a man’s. Which one they choose depends on the particular representation of the two genders that they are trying to evince in their writing. Emily Bronte explores gender through this type of love rivalry in Wuthering Heights in a particularly interesting way as she utilises both of the above forms and does so in a way that makes the reader sympathetic towards women as well as making them strong characters. Cathy Earnshaw is sought after by two men (Heathcliff and Edgar Linton) and is free to make her own decision regarding her future husband. This commences well until Cathy is forced by Heathcliff to realise that in marrying Linton she has defied her true nature which is bound to him. The mental turmoil she then succumbs to eventually leads to her death as she cannot lie with this inner tension. Thus, although Bronte creates Cathy as a seemingly independent, strong woman her death is induced by the power this love triangle has over her. Indeed, this book has another triangle in which the wrong choice is made, however this time not unwittingly. This is between Heathcliff, Cathy and Isabella Linton. Heathcliff’s intentional abuse of Isabella’s feelings in marrying her to secure property and because he cannot marry Cathy (thus making her the second choice) serves as an example of the cruelty of men in the art of love in the Victorian era.
            Another writer who particularly likes the use of love triangles is Thomas Hardy. Both Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd explore the nature of men through their differing attitudes towards love. Hardy uses this arrangement to comment socially upon the transition between traditional ways and the coming of the “Golden Age”. In Tess the contrast between the new age and the old is highlighted with the characters of Angel and Alec D’Uberville. Although there is this foundational contrast between the two they are both morally corrupt, which highlights the fact that neither traditional ideals nor modern ones are morally and socially appropriate; perhaps an amalgamation of the two is more ideal. Thus Hardy utilises the love triangle between these two men and Tess to not only explore the social context of womanhood in the late 1800s but also that of masculinity in a sexual context.
            Furthermore, Austen uses this form of relationship struggle to highlight the way in which a woman ought to behave in her novel Mansfield Park. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford vie for Edmund Bertram’s attention, but in the end Fanny secures the position of being his wife because of her inner purity and piety. Austen here socially condemns the modern way of life with drinking, gambling and doing perverse things in large towns, especially London. Mary’s character ensconces immorality at a simplistic life with her utter refutation of religion as well as leading a nice, rural life. Thus, this love triangle exposes the idea that cohering to modern ideals will not secure you a lover; you must stay true to being good.

To conclude, at the centre of these and many other Victorian love triangles I have not mentioned is not love. Instead these authors are exposing that to secure what one strives for in life (that is, a life partner in those days) one must have a keen moral sensibility and use it to do what is socially, as well as religiously, correct.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Is Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin a simplistic, grotesque reading of Freud’s works or a more ethical social reading of modern day America?

The crude, graphic language of this modern text, at once compelling and repugnant, in fact seems to show that this book is not about either of the topics highlighted above, but about both of them. This language is initially applied to Eva’s (the protagonist’s mother) sexual life with her husband, but as the novel takes a sickening plunge it becomes enmeshed with the murderous violence of the book’s eponymous “hero”, Kevin. Arguably Kevin’s actions are a symbol of the violence taking place in America when Shriver wrote the novel (early 2000s), and Eva’s are those of a sexualised, neurotic mother and thus these two characters encapsulate what I see as being the two key influences on the text.
Firstly, the Freudian scenes lord over the text. Not only are they frequent, but they are memorable because of their graphic and disturbing nature. Shriver confronts us with the sexualisation of a mother-son relationship that is physically and emotionally repellent to us. In my opinion the disgusting nature of their relationship peaks when Kevin masturbates in front of her mother, and yet she does not immediately recoil from this, but watches before telling him to stop. Freud theorised that parents repress their child’s sexuality; all children are born sexual, but are misguided by information given to them by their parents about sex. Thus Shriver exposes what happens if one’s parents do not repress their sexuality. This is scene not only through the Kevin’s phallic stage of development (as highlighted above), but also through his anal one, as he wears nappies for a prolonged period of time, thus pleasing himself through his fecal matter.
However, Shriver takes the opposite view to Freud: she shows that by not repressing the sexual, Oedipal urges of a child towards both his mother and himself the child can still grow up neurotic. Kevin makes no attempt to stop his animosity towards his father, and yet he can conceal it. This act of concealing which is usually performed by the unconscious but here has to be performed by Kevin’s conscious ego creates a great deal of psychical energy within him. This thus erupts and results in him not only killing his father, but shooting him through the penis as an additional wound. The murder appears to arise out of a deep seated hatred of his father as a person, but this specific wound combined with the murder of his younger sister appear to show that this more likely arose out of jealousy regarding his mother’s affection.
Although the novel does have this Freudian foundation, it is a rather complex narrative as Shriver focuses on the mother’s perspective within an ethico-social context. The narrative is written from a retrospective point of view; she is contemplating whether or not the actions Kevin took were a result of him being inherently evil or her poor nurturing. This simple nature-nurture dilemma is never answered in the text, and many people and critics have entirely opposing views on it. Shriver appears to be highlighting that Kevin’s character is not developed because of one of these aspects of his infantile life, but because of a combination of the two.

The disgusting reaction of the community to Eva is also an ethical dilemma: how does one treat someone who has raised a child who has massacred children living in your community? Or perhaps even your own child? Their violent, antisocial reaction links in with the nature/nurture dilemma: are they inherently antisocial and this traumatic event merely worked as a trigger for this or was the event the reason why they behave in this way? All these questions remain an unanswered undercurrent of the book which I believe works as an appropriate antithesis for the simplicity of her Freudian content.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Eating disorders as a form of suppression in Literature: outdated Victorian form of control or a modern one?

For this week’s blog I was inspired by a recent article called “5 reasons to date a girl with an eating disorder”, placed up on an internet forum which I’m sure has incited many to anger. This article outlines what the “author” believes to be perfectly acceptable reasons for choosing a girl suffering in this way over others: she is good at sex, she costs men less money, she is often rich, she is vulnerable and she will be more likely stay thin and “pretty” than other girls. Not only does this have the potential to encourage or “trigger” many girls to furthering their own disorders, or subliminally placing the idea into their unconscious, but it also adheres to antiquarian views on women.
When one considers the Victorian novel, in particular upper-class Victorian women, one cannot help but construct the image of a fainting, pathetic figure falling into the arms of a sturdy man. Literature has progressed from this ideal, however society doesn’t seem to have done so.
Wuthering Heights is a key example of the wasting-away of a woman until her death in Victorian fiction. This form of death is alluded to in many novels from this period, without much thought being given to it by the modern reader. However, in this case, as well as more discreetly, Cathy, the key female character in the novel, reaches a point of hysteria (“coincidentally” driven to this by men) at which point she breaks down and refuses to eat. This mission of starvation incapacitates her to such an extent that she never recovers. Her fragile and vulnerable state does indeed endear her rival lovers to her, but not because she is somehow more attractive, but because they know it will kill her. This novel is over 100 years old and yet manages to understand the concept of an eating disorder better than the modern understanding in that article.
Indeed, modern literature has moved away from the idealisation of a skinny white woman and has begun to accept people of all sizes as attractive. A key example of this is in Delillo’s White Noise (published 1986). The key protagonist’s descriptions of his wife are nearly always concerned with her socially “unacceptable” size as she is overweight. However, this does not paint her in a negative light; she is beautiful. All of his descriptions of her size come paired with his lust for her body and her mind intertwined to create who she is as a person.
This is where modern texts and thoughts should be situated, in a place in which size does not matter in terms of the integrity of a person. Jack, the protagonist mentioned above, has also married several other people whose weight has not been discussed. This is because the author understands the modern world: someone’s weight is not a necessary factor in who they are. The important point about women and their shape in this text is that it is transient: women can be who they want to be and for as long as they want to be. It is not down to men to categorize whether a woman’s weight is “good” or not, it is up to women to have that control.

This is an example of how modern fiction has moved away from the physical constrictions on women of the Victorian era. Not only are women free to utilise their bodies sexually in the way in which they desire, but they also should be free to develop their bodies in the way in which they desire. Neither should they, nor would they, have to be constrained in an ideal modern world, however social constraints, particularly those enforced by males, as well as the marketing industry are attempting to trap women of our generation once again and thus are unfortunately subverting the literary move towards a modern representation of women. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Modern Literature and the World Wars; A thought upon Remembrance Day

November 11th 1918; a date known worldwide. The immense importance of the Great War as well as the Second World War, both of which we think upon during Remembrance services on this date each year, has been endlessly portrayed in fiction throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.
As these wars are a huge part of our cultural consciousness as both a nation and a world, many have become desensitised to it. There are masses of both literary works and films depicting the horrifying reality of war. Thus, the question arises: how does one go about creating a sense of empathy for those who lived and served during the two World Wars in a largely desensitised young generation of people?
The answer appears to lie in subverting the idea of a traditional narrator. When one picks up a book concerning these two wars the story is generally told by an omniscient narrator, a man on the front line, or a woman (nearly always a wife or mother) left behind.
In my opinion, there have been three key modern books which have done this in a way which allows for an empathetic understanding of these two wars for both children and adults.
The first of these is War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo. His novel is written from the perspective of a horse (although not an entirely original idea if we remember Anna Sewell) during this horrendous time. Morpurgo removes the reader from the domestic front in that the tale is not told from the perspective of a family member, but retains the intensity of emotion within the family unit during the time of fear that was the First World War.
Indeed, the narrative perspective here allows the author to use a single narrator throughout the novel to travel various places and permit the reader to understand the war from different perspectives. It would have been impossible, without writing a clich├ęd spy novel, to have the reader see the war from both a German and English perspective had a person rather than a horse been used as narrator. It allows the reader to distance itself from mankind in a way that makes one realise that different nations are not different at heart. The horse has no natural racial bias, and neither should we.
Secondly, we have The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak. This book has an arguably even more inventive style than War Horse as it is narrated by death; a circumstance rarely seen in literature, if ever. The portrayal of death as an anthropomorphic figure again allows us as readers to take a step back from being part of humanity and examine the horrors which humanity has released into the world. The haunting book cover, which depicts death in the visage of the Grim Reaper holding the hand of a small girl and dancing, exposes the way in which Death interacts with both the narrative and the characters. He is not a menacing figure, but displays a playful, often humourous persona, as well as being a rather pathetic figure in that he is burdened by the sadness of the loss of everybody in the world. He has not had to bury a brother, mother, sister, or any kind of relative, but has had to carry each one out of life. Thus the reader’s empathy is heightened as not only are we saddened by the loss of each character in the novel because of the effect of the death on the living, but also because of the effect of the death on Death itself.
Finally, we have The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by John Boyne which is narrated from the point of view of a young boy. The extreme naivety of this German child contrasts the disgusting actions of his father and the commanders associated with him, allowing us readers to feel arguably more horrified at the actions of those men, purely because they are not innocent. The use of childlike words, for-example “Out-with” as a misunderstanding of Auschwitz, heightens the empathy we feel for this boy who is utterly clueless as he enters a gas chamber at the end of the novel. However, this novel is particularly interesting as one feels a sick sense of justice when this boy is gassed as his father, who presides over the camp, is forced to realise the effect of these camps. It seems as though nothing else could have forced this upon him.

The immense success of these texts, all of which have won awards for their staggering exposition of the two World Wars serve an important function in modern society: keeping the horrors of the war in the forefront of our memory, ensuring it never again occurs.