Themes in: 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.

 

– Judith

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

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.

***

Thank you for reading this blog post!

– Judith

Themes in: Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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”.

This view of middle-class criminality leads me to talk about Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock’s rival.

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.

 

– Judith