Friday, 28 February 2014

A Reading on Capitalism in The Great Gatsby and The Picture of Dorian Gray

When examined in a Marxist light both of these novels highlight the negative aspects of living a luxurious capitalist lifestyle which is inevitably consumed by waste and corruption. Written a mere forty years apart each novel provides an image of the destruction which is to come for those living in late nineteenth-century England and 1920s America.
            Firstly, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, examines the lives of dandies who lives frivolous lives and wore outlandish clothing in order to express themselves. The key character that represents this mode of life is Dorian himself. His character development throughout the novel reflects the superficiality of those engaged in capitalist activities. Indeed, his whole character is utterly altered by a relatively simple speech by Lord Henry in which he reveals to Dorian the fragility of youth. Dorian then embarks on a path of destruction, much as leaders of capitalist corporations do. Capitalist businesses exploit human labour, animals and the environment for their personal gain of wealth and fame whilst ignoring the negative impact they are having on the earth. In a similar way, Dorian ruins everything he touches: Basil and Sybil Vane are killed as a result of his direct or indirect actions; he destroys the reputation and therefore the social lives of anyone associated with him; and he lays waste to a vast number of material goods through his hedonistic pursuits. Lord Henry could be seen as a symbol for advertising as he instigates young men to take up a capitalist ideal in their lives and pursue this reckless, wasteful way of life. Lord Henry has no job, but merely lives an idle life of aristocracy; it is in his interest to persuade the younger generation to pursue this mode of life as it ensures that he gets invited to events and can host events which are well attended and make him feel as though he is doing something productive in his life. In this way he can be likened to a capitalist business as he is ensuring that his product will continue to be used in the future and thus ensures a continuation of the profit he receives from his wasteful lifestyle.
            Moreover, the key protagonist of The Great Gatsby has a life which is centred around hedonistic activities. His dream of achieving the love of Daisy, who represents “old money” in 1920s America corrupts him into creating a lifestyle which is utterly wasteful. He throws extravagant parties every weekend to entice her into his home: the superficiality of these parties is stressed repeatedly by Fitzgerald when he mentions that, not only does the house need to be restored to its normal state on the Monday by a whole team of labourers, but the people who attend the parties do not care about this, nor do they care that they have not been invited to the party but merely turn up because it is a glamorous party. As well as living an extravagant, wasteful capitalist lifestyle in this way, Gatsby is also a product of capitalism. He is a prime example of the “new money” in America at this time which was attempting to achieve the prosperity and reputation which the old money were able to inherit. He changes his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby to do this as well as insisting that his family is dead in an attempt to rid himself of his past. This is a key example of the destruction that capitalism creates; James Gatz is killed because he is of the working class. This is not the only point at which the working class and death are connected in the novel. The Valley of Ashes is a symbol for the waste produced by a capitalist society. It is an eyesore which reveals the fact that capitalism both destroys the land of the earth and the people as Myrtle, also a member of the working class, is killed there. Thus the novel highlights the way in which capitalism destroys everything it touches in an attempt to profit from it as the Valley of Ashes exists between two places which have prospered from capitalism which have profited by destroying it. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The relationship between women and male power in Shakespeare’s Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare’s plays, written during or shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s reign arguable present women in a relatively positive light. Although they do fall into the three stereotypical types of woman (the mother, the virgin and the whore), they use these roles to their advantage in order to subvert the whims and wills of men. At a time in which women were commonly understood to be subservient to men – although there was a female monarch at this time many people were upset at her lack of a husband to guide her – Shakespeare offers up outspoken, strong-headed, powerful women in the three aforementioned plays.
Firstly, in Othello a contrast is set up between the seemingly shy, subservient Desdemona and her loud, boisterous counterpart Emilia. Desdemona is a rather passive creature throughout the play; often she is only spoken about without being given the chance to air her opinions on things herself. Moreover, she is physically and verbally abused without being able to give a reasonable response to this because of her lack of understanding regarding the irrational (and foolish) actions of her husband. However, even this passive character is introduced to the audience as one who has denied the wishes of her father in staying at home and instead pursued her love affair with a “Moor”. This defiance would have been viewed as being very serious, as, indeed, it is by Brabantio who takes the issue to the Duke. In this way Shakespeare allows his most traditionally “feminine” character to subvert masculine demands for power. Furthermore, Emilia is used to highlight far more explicitly the power women have over men as she not only is responsible for Iago’s plan working so swiftly and smoothly by handing him Othello’s handkerchief, but also reveals his treachery to Othello at the end and thus causes his downfall. It has been argued by critics that Iago’s sole downfall in this play is the fact that he underestimates Emilia’s love for Desdemona: this is what ruins him. Thus she is the real puppet-master at the end of the play which reveals man’s subservience to the power of women.
Secondly, in Antony and Cleopatra the rivalry between Antony and Caesar would be the main plot strand of the play if Cleopatra was not quite so powerful. Antony’s extreme attraction to her, which even leads him to turn his ships around during a naval battle to follow her, makes the whole war almost laughable because it exposes just how controlled men are by their lovers: he is putty in Cleopatra’s hands. Her use of messengers to endlessly find out exactly what Antony is doing at any given time again shows just how much she is controlling him; he cannot do anything without being watched by her. Moreover, she manipulates the progress of the plot in the play: she ensured that Antony was not with his wife to look after his part of the Empire, she made the ships turn around, she directly caused Antony’s suicide, she even dictates Caesar’s actions once Antony is dead and finally she decides when and how she will die. Her aversion of Caesar’s plots highlight the fact that even arguably the most powerful man in the world cannot control a woman: she can always do this herself, even if it means going to extremes.

Finally, in The Taming of the Shrew the main body of the play is a play within the play. It is easy to forget that the play itself is about Christopher Sly and those who are playing a trick on him, it is not about making Katherine more “womanly”. The play in which Katherine and Petruchio play a part is constructed from male fantasy. Shakespeare is merely showing his audience what men believe should happen to outspoken women, not suggesting that all women should be subdued in this manner. The only woman in the play is the hostess of the inn who disappears after line ten having subjected Sly to her power by throwing him out of the public house as though he were an animal. Indeed, Kate arguably never becomes “tamed” as she is given the longest speech in the play at the very end of the play within the play; excessive talking is one of the prerequisites for being classed as a “shrew”. Shakespeare highlights the fact that men believe they have power over women by controlling their marriages as Baptista suggests the marriage between Kate and Petruchio and pursues it until it is done. Petruchio also insists on the marriage occurring without giving any thought to Katherine’s negating his marriage proposal. However, the main reason for the marriage going ahead is that there are other people manipulating the progression of the plot in order that Bianca can be married off; Kate is the only person who can give them that power by being married off herself. in this way Kate directs the whole course of the play and therefore can be seen as the most powerful individual in it. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The relation of flesh to money and value in various literary modes

In this blog piece, the term “flesh” will be used to describe both human and animal bodies. The question of whether flesh and money are inextricably linked appears to require the answer “yes” as throughout history they have been. Not only is there the obvious value in human sexuality through prostitution, which has been prevalent for hundreds and hundreds of years, but also the value of a dead body is important. I am going to discuss three pieces of literature here which discuss the issue of the value of flesh in the 1600s in England, the 1800s in America and the Second World War in Germany. The temporal and spatial spread of these texts allows for some recognition of the universality of the flesh trade.
Firstly, Thomas Middleton’s play A Chaste Maid in Cheapside examines the importance of the value of flesh in a time at which the consumption of meat had been banned. During Lent at this time people were not allowed to buy or sell meat unless it was for someone who was pregnant or very ill and therefore needed it. Thus not only was animal meat incredibly valuable, but also incredibly hard to find. Another level of value was attributed to the meat as a result of the corruption of the officers who were controlling the consumption of meat: bribery was not unheard of. There is an irony in this play in the comparison between animal meat and children. A child is unfortunately misrecognised as being a piece of meat and thus is seized by the officers. The mother, willing to get rid of the child, gladly hands it over to them. Thus, the corruption of the officers resulted in flesh losing them money rather than making them some. Children are valued as being a negative type of meat for some and a positive type for others. For example, for Allwit “his” children are a source of revenue as they allow for his luxurious lifestyle. On the other hand, Touchwood is too fertile and has too many children which are draining his income and so he values them much less. Kix is unable to produce children, and has a lot of money and land which he needs an heir for to pass them down onto and thus children for him are worth more than any kind of physical wealth.
On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does not value flesh in terms of food or children, but in terms of death. The Glanton gang, which includes all of the main characters in the book, are hunting Native Americans and scalping them to earn their income. There was no difference in value between the scalp of a man, woman or child and so they did not allow for any sympathy for the defenceless women and children of the tribes. In fact, they were an “easy kill” and thus had a greater value to them because they took less time to kill. Indeed, as the book progresses there is a great deal of confusion between the Natives, the Mexicans and even towards the end, the blacks because not only does a dried scalp look the same regardless of race, but the gang kill both Natives and Mexicans without prejudice. Moreover, towards the end there is a great deal of emphasis placed upon the value of flesh in a sexual manner. The mention of “whores” becomes highly prevalent and surrounds the last few chapters of the book. Also, the kid/the man uses a whore for the first time, thus connecting women with value, as well as being raped himself. Once the judge has committed this atrocity to him he finally kills him as his flesh has no value anymore.
A third and different approach to flesh and value comes in the form of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. This records his father’s memories of the atrocities committed against human flesh in the Second World War in Poland and in particular in Auschwitz. Vladek, Art’s dad and the main character of the text, was a Jew living in Poland. He emphasises throughout his telling of the events which happened to him the fact that bribery was incredibly important in his survival of the war. He bribes members of the enemy to ensure his survival in Auschwitz, he bribes people to hide him before he is finally captured and he even bribes members of his family to help him. The last point is questioned by his son who can’t understand why one would not save the flesh of a member of his family without requiring payment, but Vladek states that his cousin needed the money to survive. Flesh and money were inextricably linked. Moreover, there is the obvious link between the members of the Nazi party who earned their wages by reducing living human flesh to nothing. This links to the devaluation of flesh in the Second World War as human beings who did not cohere with Hitler’s idea of an Aryan race were made to be worthless. They were treated as though they had no value and came to realise that this was how people thought of them.

When cross-examined, these three texts highlight how human beings are only valued as being worth something in a subjective way. There is no objective value for human flesh. People are worth however much money you lose or gain from their birth or death.