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.