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Eating disorders as a form of suppression in Literature: outdated Victorian form of control or a modern one?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