Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

This post was written in advance.

This is the final post in this series (for now) and my final book of choice is Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips. Crossing The River is an odd book to describe. It is a piece of historical fiction, with a trans-historical mode. This means that, whilst focusing on issues of colonialism and slavery, it collectively tells the stories of multiple characters, both black and white.  However, despite being a collection of different stories, they are all thematically linked.

Slavery

Phillips wanted to write about slavery involvement in the UK, so naturally, this theme is clear throughout Crossing the River.  At the start of the book, The Ancestor sells his children into slavery. The pairing of money and slaves is continued significantly in the characters of Captain Hamilton and Edward Williams. Captain Hamilton is the owner of a slave-ship who, ironically, believes slave-trading is wrong. However, the financial gains he makes from the slave industry is the motivation behind his continued involvement. Edward Williams is the owner of a slave plantation, who also believes slavery is wrong, and yet participates in the industry regardless. The monetary value placed on a human life, and the commodification of slavery is absolutely vile; apparently it is not enough to benefit from having someone fulfil each and every of your desires, a profit must be made too. Crucially though, the author is unbiased in their depiction of these characters. Their involvement in the slave trade industry is neither praised nor condemned, leaving it to the reader to respond.

Melancholy

Each story seems to have an undercurrent of sadness. The Ancestor sells his children, which breaks his heart. Edward and Nash are separated*, Nash’s letters to Edward are never responded to and Nash is given no reason as to why this is the case.

*It’s hinted Edward’s wife forced communication between the pair to end after she discovered the homoerotic nature of their relationship.

Martha travels across America searching for her daughter, and Joyce sadly gives up her baby. This melancholia is often paired with feelings of loss, abandonment, displacement and/or severed relationships – perhaps to reflect the feelings of slaves across history.  They have been taken from their homes, removed from their families, and forced to suffer at the hands of a slave master.

Journeys

Many of the characters undertake journeys in Crossing the River. There are two types of journeys however: physical and metaphorical.

Physically, Martha travels across America to find her daughter, Edward travels to Africa to find Nash, Travis travels from America to Britain because of World War II, and Captain Hamilton goes on sea voyages as a slave-ship owner.

Metaphorically, some of the characters make the “journey” from life into death. Furthermore, journeys may also represent the trans-historical mode of the novel. Taking a “journey across time” is a popular phrase to describe tracking certain events of themes through history.  By presenting multiple characters’ physical journeys and metaphorical journeys of self-discovery and freedom, Phillips provides the reader with a historical journey, presenting how the issues of slavery and race relations are still as relevant today as they were during the time of the British slave trade involvement.

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Thank you for reading this blog post! This marks the end of this little series, but I may well pick it up again at a later date.

I hope you enjoyed it – please click ‘Like’ if you did, or leave some feedback in a comment below.

– Judith

Themes in: D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories

Themes in: D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories

Image via blogs.nottingham.ac.uk.

This post was written in advance, and is also the penultimate blog post on themes (for the time being).

I’m going to talk about the themes of war, class and gender and how these overlap across  England, My England, The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter, and Monkey Nuts – three short stories by the Nottinghamshire writer D.H. Lawrence.

Class

In Monkey Nuts, Joe, a young soldier, and Albert, Joe’s corporal have come back from the war and work together unloading hay. There are close, and unified in their working-class status; despite Albert being Joe’s corporal, Joe ‘never thought of [him]… as a master’. This closeness, whilst interpreted as some as brotherly affection, has led to others interpreting the relationship between Albert and Joe as homoerotic.* Nonetheless, this intense relationship which has flourished, regardless of social status, suggests how war was helped to somewhat break down the class system in Britain.

*There are further nods to this as the two live together and even share a bed.

In contrast, The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter presents the relationship between people of differing classes completely differently. Firstly, the classes are geographically separate – Jack, a doctor, lives atop a hill in the village, whereas the working-class homes are below him in the valley, providing a clear metaphor that the working-class are also “below” him in all ways. Secondly, Jack finds visiting the working-class homes to treat the sick ‘stimulation’ for his mind. Free indirect discourse provides access to Jack’s thoughts; he thinks working-class are ‘emotional’, providing an interesting break from his own rational mind. The view that the middle-class are logical and intelligent, whereas the working-class are merely bumbling, emotional and a little odd is clearly discriminatory.**

**The fact that a working-class woman later throws herself in a pond probably doesn’t help matters.

War

England, My England is a story mostly focused on the theme of war. Evelyn is a middle-class man who joins the army, seemingly for something to curb his idleness and boredom – another suggestion that working-class lifestyle and labour is merely a “holiday” for someone belonging to a higher class. However, despite his wife’s enthusiasm and the general atmosphere of patriotism and excitement, Evelyn doesn’t share others’ favouritism of England, and is continuously upfront about what he’s going to do. A key sentence is ‘The distinction between German and English was not for him the distinction between good and bad’. This sentence is significant when context is considered. Lawrence was English, but his wife was German. As a result, Lawrence experienced lots of anti-German animosity because of his wife and was heavily critical of British propaganda. Lawrence saw war for what it was, and is: killing, and however, unsavoury that sounds, that’s the truth.

War is also a theme in Monkey Nuts. As previously mentioned, Joe and Albert are ex-soldiers, and work together unloading hay. Miss Stokes, a land-girl, passes them each day. This mix of both men and women in a working environment highlights how the war not only helped to partially erode class boundaries, but gender boundaries too.***

***If this was a history-themed blog, I could talk at length about women’s work in war and the women’s movement thanks to my History A Level, but it isn’t, so I won’t.

Gender

Following on from this, Miss Stokes is attracted to Joe and manages to hold power over him in such a way that she begins trying to start a relationship with him. However, she ignores his lack of interest and desire to be with her, and he is subsequently pressured into seeing her. This is a subversion of gender stereotypes, as it would be more common for a man to initiate the process of courtship a woman.

Similarly, in The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter, Mabel (the working-class woman mentioned earlier) is rescued from the pond by Jack. He resuscitates her, takes her to his home and lies her by the fire and fetches dry clothes for her. Upon waking, Mabel interprets his life-saving actions as a declaration of his love for her. She begins to urgently repeat, chant and insists to him that ‘You love me’. Again, through free indirect discourse, we learn that Jack is categorically not in love with her, he merely saved her life as his duty as doctor. He is shocked at Mabel’s increasingly affectionate actions, such as kissing and embracing him. This increasingly predatory behaviour causes Jack to admit that he does indeed love her, so as not to upset the emotionally fragile Mabel.

In these two different stories, Lawrence has created female characters who initiate romantic behaviour, regardless of whether the men want it or not. I find this incredibly interesting, although I am not certain as to the reason behind this choice. It strikes me as a subversion – perhaps to emphasis to a male readership how truly horrible sexual assault and/or unwanted advances are, perhaps for another reason entirely.

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Thank you for reading this blog post! Those are my summarised thoughts on the three stories.

I hope you enjoyed it – please click ‘Like’ if you did, or leave some feedback in a comment below.

– Judith

Themes in: Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Themes in: Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sass Warning: Low/Mild

The Sherlock Holmes stories are such a famous franchise now, originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle as short stories and novels.  The stories belong to detective genre, and most of the plots rest on on restoring order to society after the disorder a certain crime has caused.

The only theme I want to talk about in the Sherlock Holmes stories is class, in relation to The Man With The Twisted Lip and The Speckled Band. There are striking differences between how the working-class and middle-class are portrayed in the two texts.

For example, Grimesby Roylott in The Speckled Band is a vastly wealthy and powerful figure. He is also the antagonist and a criminal, guilty of murder and attempted murder.  However, he is compared to a fearsome ‘bird of prey’ which, whilst a mildly threatening image, also connotes majesty, cleverness and skill. It is much more appealing to be compared to an eagle than a pigeon, for instance.   Roylott is also described with elaborate imagery such as the metaphor ‘A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles’. The lengths Watson goes to describe Roylott in these ways suggests an awe, or bias towards a villain, because of his middle-class status.

In contrast, Hugh Boone – a beggar and ruffian in The Man With The Twisted Lip – is described with negative language such as ‘piteous spectacle’ and ‘pale face disfigured by a horrible scar’. This description implies that those of the lower class not only look different to the middle-class, but they look worse*, as we are spared of Watson’s poetic language – language which, it would seem, is reserved for those belonging to the middle-class, like Roylott. This discriminatory language, and the perceived correlation between appearance and class has not left society; how many jokes have been made about the appearance of guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, a programme largely designed to “represent” those who are not middle or upper class?

* The language used to describe Boone’s appearance is even more troubling once we learn that Boone is merely a disguise performed by the middle-class man, Neville St. Clair, who created his appearance to purposefully “look lower class”.

Furthermore, a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories turn the reader’s attention to Holmes’ rival: Professor James Moriarty (although he isn’t present in either of the two previously mentioned stories). Despite Moriarty’s involvements in countless crimes and schemes, I don’t think the reader is ever expected to see him in the same way as other criminals. He is cunning, ruthless, and his crimes provide Holmes with intellectual “stimulation”. The fact that Moriarty is a well-educated professor with a substantial income, who also happens to belong to the same class as Holmes and Watson is, I’m sure, merely coincidental with the narrative’s positive bias towards him.

In short, the Sherlock Holmes stories portray middle class criminals as attractive and exciting, whereas any criminal perceived to be from a lower class is portrayed as the scum they rightly are.


Thank you for reading this blog post.

Please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below.

– Judith

[BONUS] Read and Review: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

[BONUS] Read and Review: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Author: D.H. Lawrence
  • Published: 1928

Image via BBC.

As an English student at Nottingham, trust me, they make a big deal about D.H. Lawrence. He was born in Eastwood, near Nottingham, in 1885.

Furthermore, ‘The Manuscripts and Special Collections section at The University of Nottingham includes one of the world’s major international collections on DH Lawrence among its extensive historic archives and literary papers.’ (http://www.dh-lawrence.org.uk/collection.html)

Consequently, D.H. Lawrence is, unsurprisingly, on the syllabus. I’ve read a range of his short stories so far but I wanted to read his novels too, having enjoyed his style of writing. I decided to start with one of the most infamous and most controversial novels: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Connie and Clifford Chatterley, a middle-class couple, own the Chatterley estate – a large house, plenty of land, and a coal mine. When Clifford is paralysed from the waist down after World War I, this causes significant problems for the couple – mainly, no sex and thus no heir to the estate. Connie gradually becomes disenchanted with the idea of being ‘Lady Chatterley’, but feels guilty about leaving Clifford because of his disability. She seeks comfort from Mellors, the gamekeeper, which results in a sexual relationship and a scandalous affair.

I don’t think I enjoyed the story of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, mainly because I didn’t like the main characters.

Clifford behaves contemptuously to almost everyone who surrounds him and neglects his wife often. He favours discussions with his intellectual chums instead which of course, Connie could never participate in, because she is “only” a woman.

Connie and Mellors engage in an affair while they are both already married to others (albeit in an unhappy marriage), but “justified” promiscuity makes me uncomfortable still. Plus, despite the language used to describe the pair’s affections, I only ever saw the relationship as one-sided. It’s clear Mellors truly loves Connie, but as to whether Connie fully reciprocates these feelings for Mellors, I’m unsure about.

However, I did find Lady Chatterley’s Lover incredibly interesting because of the issues it raises, mainly the question:

Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover about sex?

Yes

Yes; the language is far too explicit for Lady Chatterley’s Lover to not be about sex (despite its infamy, I still didn’t expect language from the 1920s to be that clear-cut, which does nothing but reveal my own ignorance to the romance/erotica genre)!

The book is about the role sex has within marital and extra-marital contexts. Clifford sees marital sex merely as useful for the production of a child who will one day inherit his estate and continue the Chatterley legacy. Connie uses extramarital sex to experience, love, lust, desire, and freedom – all the things she feels she is lacking from her oppressive husband.

No

However, once the focus on sexual encounters is put to one side, Lady Chatterley’s Lover also raises issues of class and region – both which are common threads in Lawrence’s works.

Connie “transgresses” from her middle-class position to pursue a relationship with their gamekeeper, an indistinct member of the working class, with presumable “bad breeding”. In addition, Lawrence devotes a lot of time to exploring the dynamics of Connie and Clifford’s middle-class lifestyle, and why this is unfulfilling for both, as well as exploring the lives of other local working-class people in the area.

Mellors is fluid in his use of dialect. He uses Standard English when publicly interacting with the Chatterleys, yet uses a natural Nottinghamshire dialect when alone with Connie. Arguably, this reveals a deeper aspect of Mellors’ personality, but ironically, it alienates Connie. She is drawn to his use of language – his straight-talking manner with which he confesses his feelings – and yet she does not speak the dialect, she is restricted to Standard English, and so struggles to consistently understand him.


So is Lady Chatterley’s Lover about sex? Yes, but it’s also about so much more.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was adapted for the BBC in 2015, and you can read a review of that here.

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Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed this post please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below.

– Judith

Themes in: Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Themes in: Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Goblin Market is a Victorian poem about two women, Lizzie and Laura, one of whom is tempted by the goblins that frequent their village to sell exotic fruits all year around. Laura becomes grievously ill after eating some of this fruit, and is saved by her sister’s bravery and heroism against the goblins.

To me, the most striking element in Goblin Market is its use of symbolism – of religion, of the patriarchy and, as an offshoot of this, the sexual oppression of women.

Religion

Firstly, Goblin Market’s religious imagery is overwhelmingly clear. The premise of the poem is that deceptive, supernatural creatures tempt a pure woman into eating a mysterious and forbidden fruit, which then has negative consequences. This is a direct parallel to the events in Genesis 3; the goblins symbolise Satan and Laura symbolises Eve.

However, there is a second layer to this religious imagery. Lizzie saves her sister by standing resolute in the face of the goblins’ horrid behaviour towards her, enduring suffering for the sake of Laura. She is described as ‘fruit-crown’d’ – an irony – because a crown is meant for royalty, highlighting Laura’s virtuous and honourable nature, yet it is made from fruit, the goblins’ “weapon” of attack. This may be a parallel to the ‘crown of thorns’ (Matthew 27:29) worn by Christ during the crucifixion, to mock him. Furthermore, during Lizzie’s attack from the goblins, she ‘utter’d not a word’, again imitating Christ’s behaviour when he was trialled by Herod:

  • ‘He [Jesus] was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7)
  • ‘He [Herod] plied him [Jesus] with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.’ (Luke 23:9)

Patriarchy

Secondly, although the goblins are in some ways supernatural, they are also described as ‘goblin merchant men’. The significance of calling them ‘men’ suggests the poem can also be read as a poem about the male oppression of women within a patriarchal Victorian society. It is important that while the goblins are running their market and earning money, both Lizzie and Laura are confined to the home, undertaking stereotypically female tasks, such as sewing, baking cakes and talking like ‘modest maidens’. This highlights the separate spheres ideology which was rife in Victorian society, that encouraged men to leave the house and work to provide for the family (in the “public” sphere)  whilst women were to stay at home as housekeepers and mothers (in the “private” sphere).

Yet there is more. Rossetti also highlights that within a patriarchal society, not only were women confined to their domesticated “sphere” of life, but they were also victims of sexual abuse. This is evidenced by the goblins’ attack on Lizzie. The goblins, whilst ‘grunting and snarling’, ‘tore her gown’, ‘held her hands’, ‘kick’d’ and ‘maul’d’ her in order to force her to eat their fruits. The goblins’ fruit is a metaphor for sex, and thus this distressing scene symbolises one of rape and domestic abuse, a scenario sadly commonplace within Victorian relationships.*

*A harrowing statistic: marital rape wasn’t criminalised in the UK until 1991.

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Of course, there’s so much more that could be said about the poem. I enjoyed reading Goblin Market; it’s beautifully written narrative poem with vivid imagery and multiple interpretations. There are many other offered readings of the poem, but I think Goblin Market’s parallels with the Christian faith, and the message of female oppression are its most significant undertones.

Thank you for reading this blog post.

Please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below.

– Judith

Themes in: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Themes in: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

‘Reader, I married him.’

Jane Eyre is a Victorian Gothic novel, telling the story, from a first-person perspective, of the protagonist Jane Eyre. She is left in the “care” of her aunt and cousins after the death of her parents, but is treated horribly and is eventually sent away to boarding school. She grows up to train and work as a governess for the aloof and proud Mr Rochester. Jane begins to develop romantic feelings for Rochester, but she doesn’t know he is hiding a terrible secret.

To me, the most noticeable theme in Jane Eyre is Bronte’s use of the Gothic. I studied Gothic literature at A Level – not Jane Eyre sadly – but that made it easy for me to spot Gothic conventions whilst reading it.

The Gothic

Jane is described metaphorically as an ‘elf’, ‘changeling’ and ‘fairy’, supernatural creatures which could have either good or bad connotations, depending on which myths or fairy-tales you read. Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s home, is an isolated mansion with many abandoned rooms and secret passages, the perfect place for scary and supernatural occurrences. There is also lots of powerful colour symbolism, using key Gothic colours: black, white and red. Most notably, the Red Room, in which Jane is imprisoned as a girl, has ‘crimson’ bedcovers, ‘red’ carpets and dark, mahogany furniture to haunt and remind Jane of her uncle, whose dead body was laid out in the Red Room. The room is symbolic of Jane’s suffering, entrapment and a strong reminder of the ever-presence of death.

Love

Another theme in Jane Eyre is love. I’ve heard many refer to Jane Eyre as one of the greatest love stories of all time. Whilst I disagree with this – I see Jane Eyre as primarily Gothic, not romantic – the theme of love is prevalent nonetheless. Jane desires to be genuinely loved and valued. This is perfectly justifiable, after being denied a true family, and the abuse she endured from her aunt and cousins. These desires are why she rejects St. John’s marriage proposal, because a marriage built around purpose or function would lack the love and value she longs for. Furthermore, this is why she rejects Rochester’s proposal to be his mistress: Jane is an independent and strong woman who will not let herself be devalued by being subject to a man’s whims and losing her integrity.

Slavery

The final theme I want to talk about in Jane Eyre, which I hadn’t considered before until a lecture, is slavery, in relation to the character of Bertha. Bertha is taken by Rochester from the Caribbean and kept physically imprisoned at Thornfield Hall, out of sight. This reflects how, slaves were presented during the time of the slave trade, in paintings, for example, “lurking” behind the aristocracy, ready to obey. In addition, Bertha is always described in supernatural and animalistic ways, such as ‘clothed hyena’, ‘maniac’, and ‘shaggy locks’. These descriptions are significant because she is a white creole, and so has mixed racial heritage. This imagery suggests Bertha is “other” and exotic – like a creature – simply because of her race. This parallels the racist approach white Britons had towards non-white individuals at the time.

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Thank you for reading this blog post!

I find Jane Eyre such an enjoyable book – even if I don’t see it as a romance – and it was written by a Yorkshire woman, and it’s my Mum’s favourite book, so it has a special place in my heart, and it was a pleasure to be able to explore some of the significant aspects of the novel.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below!

– Judith

Themes in: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Themes in: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This is the start of another new blogging series!

I plan to go slightly more in-depth than a regular book review and, as an English student, talk about some of the significant themes and messages of a particular book.*

*My choice in books may or may not be influenced by what I’m studying in my English degree.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novella by Jane Austen, published posthumously in 1891, but she wrote it as a teenager, before her most popular works. It is about Lady Susan, a beautiful, manipulative, and flirtatious widow who seeks not only to marry off her daughter, but a second advantageous marriage for herself to ensure financial security.

Class and Society

I think a key theme in Lady Susan is class and society; Austen paints a world in which marriage is for riches, not love, and women have no chance of succeeding unless they are attached to a man. However, Austen takes this idea, which is common in her other novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and completely subverts it. She criticises the patriarchal society in which she lives and writes about, by creating a strong female character who takes on remarkably “male” characteristics. Lady Susan toys with various men’s affections, controlling their emotions and thoughts towards her – just as Captain Wickham did in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr Willoughby did in Sense and Sensibility.

Patriarchy

Following on from this, Austen highlights the power Lady Susan has, despite the fact she is a woman in a patriarchal society. She is a ‘Lady’, not by marriage, but by birth, and so already belongs to a certain status, without the need of a husband. She is also a widow, a scarily powerful social position, because she is much older than the men she flirts with, as well as sexually experienced. Personally, I think this was Austen’s way of exploring subversive ideas as a teenager in a covert manner – it would be too unacceptable for her to behave in this way herself, so she fantasised and wrote about it instead. This may have also been the motivation behind the narrative arc of Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia, a giggly young girl easily swept along by notions of love, marriage and sex.

Gender

Another significant theme in Lady Susan is gender; although Lady Susan needs a man to provide her income, she challenges patriarchy and feminine stereotypes in other ways. Her interaction with her daughter Frederica is so unlike a conventional mother. She is cold and cruel, which might reflect a stereotypical 18th/19th century father instead – a distant figure who makes financial arrangements for the family, but lacks an emotional connection to them.  Speaking of lacking emotional connections, Lady Susan only develops relationships when it is convenient and beneficial to her. Whilst this is incredibly selfish, her selfishness highlights her rationality and logic – traits which were seen as more “masculine” than “feminine”.

In this way, then, Lady Susan does not fit the mould of a conventional feminine protagonist, but that’s what’s so good about Lady Susan.

Although I didn’t enjoy the character of Lady Susan, the epistolary style, or the rushed ending, I enjoyed how Austen fearlessly subverted all the conventions I’d come to expect from a typical Austen novel, and raised some key themes to think about in the process.

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Thank you for reading this blog post! It was nice for me to “vent” a little in a more literary way, rather than just always focus on my likes/dislikes.

If you’d like to read more of these style of blog posts, please click ‘Like’ or leave some feedback in a comment below!

– Judith