Negotiating the Wilderness: The Feminist Potential of Narrative in Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips

Wilderness is a central cultural myth in Canada, pointing not only to the vast tracts of uninhabited land that its geography contains, but also to its history of colonization. Mapping out Canada’s wilderness has been a main concern with Canadian writers. Most ‘wilderness’ books are written by males, explicating ways to tame or conquer the wilderness. The issue of surviving the Canadian wilderness was seen as central to defining what the country stood for. Wilderness is a central theme for Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most celebrated modern writer. As a contemporary writer and as a woman, wilderness acquires different connotations for Atwood. She tries to revise and reinvent the idea of wilderness in a time when Canadians have survived the hostile geography, and now has to explore the wilderness that is everyday life. The way Atwood redefines wilderness to still be relevant as a Canadian cultural myth has been explored by many critics. In this paper, I would like to concentrate on wilderness as central in Atwood’s short story collection Wilderness Tips. I would like to explore wilderness as a feminist metaphor. Atwood in her sensational anthology of Canadian literature, Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature talks about three kinds of victimhood, before suggesting that there is a fourth alternative: “be a creative non victim” (qtd. in Piercy 41). It is this idea of survival that Atwood propounds in Wilderness Tips.

This paper will explore the concept of wilderness not in the literal sense of the term, but with regard to two ideas associated with it in Atwood’s work. In the first, wilderness is a space constructed by men into which women are trapped as the other. In this case, wilderness is imaginary and the whole idea needs to be dismantled. The other sense of wilderness is as real space occupied by both men and women, which women aren’t able to negotiate properly because of boundaries placed by men, which women need to overcome by creating their own narratives.

As women have been told over centuries by men on what is right and wrong, they have become unable to connect with their inner selves, trapping them in a wilderness that they cannot negotiate. Here, survival becomes an important theme as the women in Wilderness Tips try to negotiate the wilderness. The guide books written by men serve as inadequate indicators to understand themselves. Margaret Atwood’s narrative techniques show that women can survive the wilderness by articulating their experiences, or by transforming their experiences into a narrative, so as to regain control of their lives.

In masculine discourse, wilderness implies an unknown that has to be colonized and subdued. It represents a darkness that has to be enlightened by man’s reason and order. The idea of wilderness has been used to justify the control of one group over the other, mostly male over female and colonizer over natives, and to define the dominant group in opposition to “the other”. The usage of wilderness in this way fits into a larger pattern of domination and submission, one in which,

“Language and culture play a crucial part in reproducing the unequal relations between men and women. Patriarchal power pervades verbal and visual systems of meaning. Within such systems, woman is always connected to and inseparable from man. Men’s ability to symbolize the universal, the absolute and the transcendental depends on the continuing association of femaleness with difference, otherness, and inferiority”.

(Felski 38).

In Wilderness Tips, we see both men and women reproducing “verbal and visual systems of meaning” of patriarchy. Confined to well defined roles, they re-enact codes of behaviour and thinking blindly, as Donny in ‘True Trash’, who does not feel aroused by the girls in swimsuit he is spying on, but feels obligated to pretend to be attracted as that is what is expected of him: “Donny would like to know what they’re reading with such absorption, such relish, but it would be dangerous for him to admit it. It’s their bodies that count” (Atwood 4). Jane’s mother in ‘The Age of Lead’ is trapped by the linear script of “babies and marriage, in that order” (Atwood 75) and the fleeting nature of youth, which ends with sex and pregnancy, that she misses out on warning her daughter that there are other ways of getting hurt, however much she avoids babies and marriage. Susanna as a little girl realizes that “she could do whatever she liked, and still be cute as a button” (Atwood 63). When later in life she finds that men aren’t automatically pleased by everything she does or automatically likes her, she questions her entire life and identity. The role of the submissive woman is imposed upon each of the protagonists, and characters like Susanna and Portia in ‘Wilderness Tips’ shape their lives to fit into men’s expectations from them.  When a woman cannot be this, she is “unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female”, and “turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance” (Goldblatt 278). The protagonist of ‘Hairball’ transforms herself from Katherine to Kathy to Kath and finally to Kat, perfecting a look of “aloof inner authority” (Atwood 20) to sell her product, a magazine. The protagonist of ‘Weight’ has repeated affairs, preferring to stay in control of a short term relationship rather than suffer the fate of her friend, Molly. Within a structure where a man is defined by what a woman is not, both sexes are seen to suffer, unable to connect with themselves or have meaningful relationships with each other.  As is usual, it is the oppressed group which suffers more than the oppressors.

Atwood’s protagonists in Wilderness Tips are trapped in a confusing wilderness which is increasingly difficult to navigate. As the women begin to realize that traditional feminine roles are insufficient to deal with the complexities of life, they become increasingly disillusioned. The magazine stories that the girls read in ‘True Trash’ are met with disbelief and laughter: the girls reject the neat chronology of youth, love, marriage and sex because they realize that life is never that neat. Yet, Joanne feels that she is deprived of something because she will never have the happy ever after ending that these stories offer.  Jane in ‘The age of Lead’ and Kat in ‘Hairball’ avoid the conventional roles of wives and mothers, but find themselves questioning life and their identity in a world which does not have a place for an autonomous woman. Others, like Portia in ‘Wilderness Tips’ and Julie in ‘The Bog Man’ try to play their roles as faithful wife and youthful mistress according to the expectations of the men in their lives, but are left feeling lost and unhappy. Similar to how Lois in ‘Death by Landscape’ and Portia’s brother, Roland in ‘Wilderness Tips’ realize that guides about survival cannot prepare you for the wilderness, the women in Wilderness Tips realize that they will never be able to explore the wilderness within them – all of their organic and creative potential – when they are trapped in the wilderness which patriarchy has decreed as the norm.  Here, Margaret Atwood’s narrative techniques offer a way out for her protagonists.

Over the years, there has been a feminist move to rewrite older myths, and rework traditional genres, so as to “dismantle the stranglehold of patriarchal myth and to create woman focussed words, images and tales” (Sellers 188). This is an essential project for feminism as patriarchy sees its practices as natural, cemented through time by the retelling of stories and myths. When feminists rewrite already established myths and rewrite genres, they point to the fact that these myths and genres aren’t natural at all but constructs to retain power in the hands of the oppressor. Through a de-naturalizing of the myths of patriarchy, feminism signifies that patriarchy as a whole is also an artificial construct. In Wilderness Tips, Atwood reconfigures traditional genres and myths to enter into male territory. Deborah Raschke argues how the paintings Lois collects in ‘Death by Landscape’ play a pivotal role in framing the tale. These landscape sketches are by an all male Canadian painters group, called the Group of Seven. Their representations were a means to put Canada on the cultural map, as a distinct and unique place. However, their representations of northern Canada as wild, virile, deserted and dangerous is overtly masculine. (Raschke 68-70). Their representation of wilderness is anti-colonial in its rejection of European influence, while at the same time colonial in the notion of the male pioneer exploring virgin territory, territory which had been for centuries occupied by natives. When Lois and Lucy as adolescents attend Camp Manitou, they are taught to pretend to be Indians, exploring the wilderness. They take part in outdoor games, encouraged to be boisterous, and as their final test go canoeing with stops at deserted islands. The camp itself recognizes that the girls are transgressing: these traditionally male activities are only indulged in during the summer break, and before the girls become adults. In writing such a story where a holiday misadventure defines a woman’s life, Atwood is moving into a strictly male occupied genre of writing. In Lois, we see a woman’s attempt to negotiate with a man’s world. She transforms the paintings by the Group of Seven and similar artists by envisioning Lucy as still alive in each one of them. Thus, the paintings are transformed not represent the idea of a masculine wilderness, but Lucy’s presence.

Atwood reconfigures myths in ‘Hairball’ as well. Yael Shapira argues that the story is written in the technique of a grotesque narrative, which is traditionally a “longstanding narrative formula that joins the “grotesque” female body to a story of women’s misconduct to produce a cautionary tale about the dangers of female transgression” (Shapira 52). In such tales, the woman who flouts societal norms has a gross, porous and metamorphosing body, while the virtuous woman’s body is contained and productive. ‘Hairball’ seems to be following the condemnation underlining the grotesque narrative when Cheryl, Ger’s wife, has recently delivered a baby, while Kat has an ovarian cyst which resembles a hairball removed. However, the grotesque hairball is transformative in Kat’s life. Having so far severely fashioned her body and her self to market her magazine, the hairball is a reminder to acknowledge the wilderness within her. Her hairball finally allows her to acknowledge and accept that there are things she cannot control. Her scandalous gift to Ger at the end is a release of all the rage and disappointment she had repressed so far to survive. She is finally able to feel “light and peaceful and filled with charity, and temporarily without a name” (Atwood 26).

Atwood also dismisses the notion of time as linear in her works, a move to break away from the chronology of birth, youth, marriage, children and death that is seen as the inevitable pattern of a woman’s life. Aritha van Herk remarks that “there is always a continuous present that is also discontinuous” (Herk 928) about another of Atwood’s short story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg.  This is true of Wilderness Tips as well. Most of the stories are told retrospectively: the effortless way in which the past seeps into the present shows how previous experiences always inform the present moment. When Atwood’s protagonists retell their stories or have their past turned into a narrative, they can escape the linear progression of time which leads them invariably to predictability and obscurity. A linear narrative also corresponds to universality and sameness. When Atwood employs circular or cyclical time, she is drawing attention to everything that a linear narrative ignores. Through repetition of symbols and the recurrence of the past in the present, she creates an alternative narrative. The ovarian cyst in ‘Hairball’, the paintings in ‘Death by Landscape’, the uncles watching Susanna’s recital in ‘Uncles’, the bog man uncovered in ‘Age of Lead’ all point towards the pivotal role certain incidents, people or objects play in a person’s life. Atwood centres her story on such a central point, with the life of the protagonist wrapped in successive layers around this.

The linear idea of time is also a universal one, suggesting that all women will invariably have the same descent into monotony and then obscurity. Atwood dismantles this notion of sameness. None of her characters have similar stories, or follow the same linear progression in life. She rejects the concept of a universal Woman as opposed to a universal Man, both of which are essentialist and patriarchal constructs. As she herself puts it, “As for Woman, capital W, we got stuck with that for centuries. Eternal Woman, But really, ‘Woman’ is the sum total of women. It doesn’t exist apart from that, except as an abstracted idea” (Ingersoll 201). In Wilderness Tips, each of the characters is different from each other, negotiating life and seeing things in their own subjective terms. Their intense subjectivity, which Atwood condenses in her short stories, is probably what makes these characters so nuanced and unforgettable.

It is the rejection of a linear narrative that allows Atwood’s protagonists from being passive victims. Portia’s realization at the end of ‘Wilderness Tips’, that “nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before” allows her to survive. The most powerful effect of Atwood’s narrative techniques is within the interiority of protagonists. It is when they begin to narrate their experiences, or form a narrative of their past to shape their present that they are able to break free from the “verbal and visual systems of meaning” that patriarchy imposes on them. They are able to connect with their bodies and revisit past sites of pain and trauma when they employ their own vocabulary to make sense of the wilderness that their life is, that their minds and bodies are. Once they embrace the disorder and wilderness that is everyday reality, a coherent narrative of their lives enables them to understand their selves better. Julie begins her story by declaring how she “broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp” (Atwood 39) in ‘The Bog Man’, the reader is made aware of how many revisions that opening statement has undergone. By telling and retelling stories of their survival, they can define their present and shape their future, claiming an agency which is otherwise denied to them.

However much Atwood is reluctant about her work being termed feminist, the agency she provides her protagonists leaves her work a rich minefield for feminist analysis. Atwood’s rejection of the label feminism is not, it should be noted, a dismissal of the principles that feminism propagates, but a rejection of a single way of reading her work. Atwood’s works urge us to see things from multiple perspectives. When Atwood sees everyday objects and situations in ways we don’t ordinarily do, she invites us to read her text actively, with the willingness to be surprised and startled. The beauty of Wilderness Tips lies in its open ended stories, forcing us not to form any fixed conclusion and prompting multiple interpretations. While all of Atwood’s works are definitely feminist, their aesthetic experience cannot be subordinated to support any one ideological goal. The fact that Wilderness Tips speaks in a polyphonic voice invites a more active feminist reading. When the open ended nature of the stories leave it open to multiple interpretations, what does it say about the feminist awakening the protagonists have undergone? What comment does it make on their survival? Probably the answer lies in the similarity between the best of feminism and the best of fiction: that it always allows for multiple and dissident voices and ways of seeing.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Wilderness Tips. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

Felski, Rita. Extract from Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodernist Culture. Eagleton, Mary. Ed. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2011. Print.

Goldblatt, Patricia F. ‘Reconstructing Margaret Atwood’s Protagonists’. World Literature Today. Vol. 73, No. 2. (Spring 199). Pp 275-182. . Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Herk, Aritha van. ‘Scant Articulations of Time’. University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 68, No. 4 (Fall 1999). Pp. 925-938. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Ingersoll, Earl E. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. London: Virago, 1992. Print.

Piercy, Marge. ‘Margaret Atwood: Beyond Victimhood’. The American Poetry Review. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 19730. Pp. 41-44. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Raschke, Deborah. ‘Framed Identity: Finding Lucy in Atwood’s “Death by Landscape”’. Mosaic: A Journal for the Independent Study of Literature. Vol. 45, No. 3 (September 2012). Pp. 65-80. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016

Sellers, Susan. Extract from Myth and Fairytale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Eagleton, Mary. Ed. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2011. Print.

Shapira, Yael. ‘Hairball Speaks: Margaret Atwood and the Narrative Legacy of the Female Grotesque’. Narrative. Vol. 18, No. 1 (January 2010). Pp. 51-72. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Crisis of Identity in World War One and the Poetry of Wilfred Owen

The need for recognition is intrinsic to the development of both personal and collective identity. An individual forms a sense of his or her identity, and becomes parts of identity groups, with people who’re similar in some way or the other. An identity is formed on factors like gender, nationality, race, religion, age, and so on, but need not be restricted to or completely dependent on these factors, and vary from person to person. The recognition of personal or group identities as unique leads to an authentication of a person or a group. Charles Taylor has argued that “democracy has ushered in a politics of equal recognition, which has taken various forms over the years” (27). Democracy is generally seen as encouraging and fostering the development of an individual’s identity and the due recognition of this identity by others. Alternatively, the recognition of personal or group identities can be seen as a necessity for the sustenance of the broad principles of democracy, such as equality, liberty, sovereignty and so on. But what happens when the very factors that form the basis of identity erode to no longer sustain the basis of identity formation, and the neat delineations of identity groups no longer serve as authenticating forces for an individual’s identity? When identity formulating factors like gender, nationality or religion are no longer solid foundations on which an identity can be built, but become contested spaces, a person can be said to be experiencing a crisis of identity.

The First World War posed a threat to the modern sense of identity like never before. World War One was catastrophic in more than one sense. The overpowering strength of machinery and technology of the world’s first industrialized war coupled with its grand geographic scale ensured destruction like never before. However the war was destabilizing not just for its monumental size, but also for the kinds of havoc it caused: physical injuries and deformities as never seen before, battles which were no longer about face-to-face combat, but about technological superiority and trench warfare, the European world divided into two armed camps and subsequent division of their colonies, deaths in such a large scale that by the end of the war the male to female ratio was significantly skewed, extreme psychological trauma initially diagnosed as “shell shock”, and a failure to express these changes in pre-existing frameworks, with the people who lived through it feeling that nothing exactly like the First World War had ever happened before. This war destabilized normative notions of gender, religion, sexuality, nationality and personal and collective identity like never before.

Democratic nations are usually never ideals of identity fostering and recognition providing. Miorities or dissenting views are ignored, discouraged, quelled or condemned, to cement a monolithic notion of a nation’s identity. At times when the security or identity of a nation is at stake, individual identities are under more threat than ever, as it becomes mandatory to maintain a unified front to combat whatever threat a nation is facing. State sponsored propaganda promulgated the accepted notion of the state and the accepted attitude of citizens toward their nation, and towards other nations. Such strict vigilance is necessary for mass recruitment of civilians to participate in wars, and also for support from citizens for state actions that would be criticized under normal circumstances. In Britain during World War One, media was strictly regulated to present Britain as a world leader, undertaking necessary ethical actions against a demonized enemy, and consequently, British soldiers were portrayed as fearless, sacrificing heroes on a mission to preserve and uphold all that Englishness represented. The real situation though, was very different. Wilfred Owen, a British war poet considered to be the greatest of the First World War poets, grapples with questions of an identity at crisis and misrecognition of this identity in his war poetry. In this paper, I will analyze how Owen attempted to express his crisis of identity, as well as to narrate the trauma that the war had inflicted on the collective identities of the soldiers engaged in it.

Owen’s poetry is so intensely personal on the one hand that almost all major critics refer to his Christian upbringing, his rumoured homosexuality, his admittance at Craiglockhart War Hospital after he was diagnosed with shell shock and his life-changing meeting with Siegfried Sassoon there. After enlisting for war, Owen found himself losing grip of the very factors that had shaped his identity so far. He also came to realize that the actual situation of the soldiers was very different from the one portrayed by the government and accepted by the English people. Instead of being inspired by patriotism and a sense of purpose derived from valour and comradeship, Owen came to be disgusted by what war actually was. His meeting with Siegfried Sassoon after being admitted at Craiglockhart War Hospital was instrumental in aiding him to express his new sensibility. Sassoon’s poetry and connections helped to formulate Owen’s new sensibility, and his ideas prompted Owen to adopt a realist attitude in his poetry, as opposed to the Romantic influence that had characterized them so far. By concentrating on some of his poems, I would like to explore how he worked through his own trauma, as well as attempted to authenticate the identity of fellow soldiers. Sassoon’s influence enabled Owen to translate the trauma he had undergone in the battlefield to expression; and his poetry from then not only documented the horrific experiences he faced, but also negotiated his internal struggles with the ethics of war and the need to mute his sensitivity and disillusionment for survival.

It is tempting to depict Wilfred Owen as a staunch pacifist, as a sensitive soul who was forever plunged in guilt by the acts he was forced to commit as a result of a cruel war. However, such a view only limits the reading of his poetry. His poetry is richer if Owen is seen as a person in conflict; this conflict triggered by the trauma of war, and negotiated in his war poems. After being discharged from Craiglockhart, Owen adopted an attitude of insensitivity, to deal with the ever-increasing number of casualties and pervading violence. In his letter to Sassoon, he explains, “I cannot say I suffered anything, having let my brain grow dull… I shall feel anger again as soon as I dare, but now I must not”. (qtd. in Poertry Foundation). Owen must be recognized as a person struggling to redefine his identity, under the weight of the wartime trauma inflicted on him.

Contemporary trauma theory has superseded Cathy Caruth’s understanding of the site of trauma as marked by silence. Richard McNally’s Remembering Trauma, is an essential study in this new reading of trauma. As Pederson explains, McNally argues that the narration of trauma enables its narrator to accelerate rehabilitation, and that “traumatic memories are not elusive or absent; they are potentially more detailed and more powerful than normal ones” (Pederson 339).  This new understanding of trauma is integral to a reading of Owen’s war poetry as grappling with his personal trauma. In “Dulce et Decorum Est”, the conflagration of visual and auditory detail, along with the surreal, dreamlike quality of time and experience is typical of a revisit to the site of trauma: the memory accentuated and the senses heightened, while at the same time the experience appearing distant and time as standing still. Owen’s poems plunge the reader into the middle of the experience itself, and in this poem, the reader experiences the shock that the combatants do when the exclamation of “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” (“Dulce” 24) suddenly interrupts the poem’s sluggish atmosphere. Owen shocks the readers to convey the horror and brutality of the situation. This technique keeps alive the shock of the experience of trauma, and a revisit to the site of trauma helps Owen to come in terms with it by forming his narrative of his experience.

Beyond an expression of personal identity at a moment of crisis, Owen also portrays the dispossessed identity of the soldiers, and the widespread misrecognition of their plight. Charles Taylor observes that “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (Taylor 25). While Taylor is commenting on the negative result of a demeaning view that others can have on personal or group identity formation, I would like to suggest, in this particular instance, that the harms of misrecognition are the same even if society views a person or a group in heroic or ideal terms. During the First World War, propaganda in Britain was strictly regulated. Poetry, first written by civilians, and then by serving soldiers, depicted war as a noble sacrifice. These poems were extremely popular, and Paul Norgate expounds the essential rhetoric of these poems as

“If I should die, you will know that I have sacrificed my Youth in the fight for Liberty and Right. I recall the beauties of England and I know our struggle is part of God’s plan. Our spirit and our memory will be sweet comfort to our mothers, wives and sisters, and glorious inspiration to our brothers”

(Norgate 518)

That this sentiment wasn’t stated in its entirety or so explicitly is a testament to how popular and pervasive it was. That Owen was aware of these poems is obvious in his initial dedication of “Dulce et Decorum Est” to Jessie Pope, a civilian poet who wrote about war in terms of a game, in which victory meant fame and glory. Wilfred Owen often used stock images and ideas of typical soldier poetry, but employs them with his characteristic ironic tone. In “The Anthem for Doomed Youth”, the celebrated sacrifice of a soldier’s life is undercut by the sheer number of those dying “as cattle”, and the traditional rituals or burial and mourning replaced by “wailing shells and bugles” (“Anthem” 11). “Dulce et Decorum Est” through a series of horrific images inverses the Horatian motto, ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. The choking environment and physical injuries that Owen describes in the poem were deliberately muted by mainstream commentary on the war. There is nothing heroic or redeeming in “an ecstasy of fumbling” (“Dulce” 24), where soldiers are fighting not an equal enemy, but something more unsubstantial and infinitely more dangerous. The reality of war is revealed to be not glorious combat, but an agonized waiting in “Exposure”, and more people are shown to be dying from the dreadful cold than from bullets, which only “streak the silence”. The sense of mission a soldier supposedly has is shattered when the poet explains the only things that the people waiting in the cold believe in: “we only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy” (“Exposure” 26). Linear time doesn’t seem to operate, and the soldiers are locked in such a haze that they aren’t even sure if they’re dying. The lines between life and death blur, as the soldiers find themselves slipping between the two, all the while when the oppressive refrain reinforces the fact that “but nothing happens” (“Exposure” 26). Death is no longer a sudden, shocking change; it isn’t very different from life itself. The blindness of mainstream media to the sheer number of deaths in the war is mocked in Owen’s characteristic ironical tone in “Smile, Smile, Smile”, where the Daily Mail types “casualties” in small and “Vast Booty from our Latest Haul” in large. The soldiers “smile at one another curiously” at the thought that “The greatest glory will be theirs who fought, / who kept this nation in integrity” (“Smile, Smile, Smile” 52). These poems speak out against the mainstream rhetoric surrounding war, trying to erase the misrecognition the life of a soldier is subject to. Owen’s poetry provides his comrades with a sense of authenticity about their situation through the written word, which was missing from the news and literature that they read regularly.

Religious symbolism was used to enhance the positive significance of a soldier’s every action. The identification of the soldier with the figure of Christ was a cliché in soldier poetry. Wilfred Owen uses religious symbolism not only to invert the tone of soldier poetry, but also to negotiate the religious conflicts that he himself faced. Owen’s religious upbringing and his helplessness in the incongruity of such ideas amidst war find expression in poems such as “At a Cavalry near the Ancre”. In this poem, Owen criticizes organized religion for its complicity in projecting an idealistic image of the soldiers at war. Both Christ and the soldier’s sacrifice is either ignored or misread by the Church and the people. Owen implies that in the political arena where “The scribes on all the people shove / And bawl allegiance to the state”, the countless deaths probably don’t matter. Man is shown as unable to recognize the implications of “greater love” in a world torn apart by war (“At a Cavalry” 16). The soldiers, ultimately, are shown to be dying for each other, and this is what makes them Christ like. Owen, in recreating sacrifice and suffering, attempts to authenticate soldiers’ lives in their reciprocal recognition of the validity of their experiences.

Through the war, Owen developed a new sensibility, and a new identity, but this can be described as a fractured identity at best. Trauma and shell shock (shell shock to be later identified as post traumatic stress disorder), as a result of a new age warfare characterized by senseless deaths of great numbers and conventional notions of battle and combat ceasing to operate,  dislodged common identity formulating factors. Owen, through his poetry, tries to re-form and re-negotiate his identity by repetition, by re-telling his experiences. His poems are also a witness to the suffering and countless deaths of soldiers at war, which were refused to be acknowledged by the government and media, and thus, by the general civilians at large. His witnessing was a means to provide the soldiers with a sense that their experiences were authentic, that their trauma was all too real, unlike the state sponsored literature and art on war. The sense of the divided self in Owen’s poetry later came to characterize Modernity in general. The echoes of the human psyche irrevocably altered by war can be seen in the works of later literature.


Works Cited

Norgate, Paul. “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”. The Review of English Studies. Vol. 40, No. 160 (Nov 1989), pp 516-530. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Accessed: 25 October 2015. Web.

Owen, Wilfred. Wilfred Owen: Poems. Classic Poetry Series., 2004. Accessed: 10 October 2015. Web.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Better Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory”. Narrative. Vol. 22, Number 3 (Oct 2014), pp 333-353. Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2014. Accessed: 28 October 2015.  Web.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition”. Gutmann, Amy ed. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

“Wilfred Owen: Biography”. The Poetry Foundation. Accessed: 2 October 2015. Web.

“Without Contraries There is No Progression”: Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

The purpose of this paper is to show how the essence of William Blake’s central philosophy, summed up in the statement, “without contraries there is no progression”, can be found in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I would like to show that innocence and experience are contraries, by a close reading of poems in Innocence and in Experience. Then, I will show how both these contraries blend in “The Tyger”, marking a progression from innocence to experience and then beyond, thus indicating that both innocence and experience are needed for progression.

Romanticism placed a great emphasis on the subjective and the ideal. Truth became personal, and wasn’t revealed to the seeker, but rather, created by the seeker. Rationality and empiricism were replaced by imagination and humanism. The role of the poet changed, and was seen as performing the function of a prophet. There was a changed perception of what a poem is and what it does. For the classicist, the work of art resembled a mirror, “passively mimetic or reproductive of existing reality”. For the Romantic, it was a lamp, “which throws out images originating not in the world but in the poet”. (Butler 16). The Romantic was a visionary, who perceived ordinary things with a clarity that others did not possess. This period was also a time of great political upheaval and socio-economic changes. The effect of the French Revolution was felt throughout Europe. Ideas of liberty, democracy and equality that it brought spread to other parts of the world. In England, the Industrial Revolution was making its effects felt: population growth combined with commercialization and urbanization to destabilize the very foundations of the family and beliefs of the individual. In a time of such changes, the Romantics considered themselves as seers, who lamented the present situation and would usher in a new and ideal world, depicted in their poems by emphasizing Nature and Imagination.

The Romantics used imagination to reject the “mechanistic world picture” and establish an “idealistic epistemology” (Wellek 21). Coleridge described imagination as a creative power by which the mind “gains insight into reality, reads nature as a symbol of something behind or within nature not ordinarily perceived”. The faculty of imagination allowed the Romantics to present a vision of an ideal, beautiful world. Myth, metaphor and symbolism were used to further the imaginative vision. However, the concept of imagination and the treatment of nature were unique to each Romantic poet. For Blake, man and nature are “not only continuous, but emblematic of each other” (Wellek 23). Man is central to his vision. The divine and human are interchangeable for him. This is evident in the plates on which The Songs of Innocence and Experience are inscribed. In a state of innocence, when man is in peace with himself, nature is shown to be protective and regenerative. In the state of experience however, the plates depict sterility and weeds or thorny plants.

Blake’s Myth of Man expressed an apocalyptic vision and put forward the notion that to create an ideal world, man must be in unity with himself, or the four Zoas must be balanced. For Blake, the Fall is caused by self-doubt, because man failed to see truth and doubted his own divinity. To conquer this separateness within the self, man needs to exercise imagination and break free from the constraints of negatives and prohibitions. So, Blake’s myth is an interior journey, where the human soul searches for truth. It is a journey to recover innocence which has been corrupted by the world of experience. The journey ends in the reconciliation of these two contraries, which enables man to reach his ideal state, where he is at unity within himself and in harmony with nature. (Cama 43-9). The Songs of Innocence and Experience is a poetic exposition of this journey, as I will presently attempt to explain.

There can be no doubt about the assertion that the states of innocence and experience are contraries. The ideas, images, symbols, language and impression created of both are in contrast to each other. Innocence is a state of childlike joy, spontaneity with nature and instinctive behaviour. Man and nature are in harmony. In “The Little Lamb”, the child is shown to be in a protective, nurturing environment. He asks universal questions about creation, and in a state of innocence, finds satisfactory answers by the imaginative creation of the trinity of Jesus, the boy and the lamb. The child is confident about the care of God, as is seen in his association of the lamb with God, and of God with himself:

“He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.”

(lines 13-18, “Little Lamb, Blake 64)

In “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy”, the situations described are grim and address serious social problems. But because these poems are within the trajectory of innocence, there is no bitterness in the acceptance of a faith that is cruel and unfair. There is also a sense of communion: the chimney sweepers have each other for company, and the little black boy brings the white boy to God. There is also an implicit trust in the promise of redemption after casting off the body. “Pastoral properties” are employed as “symbols of Innocence (Damon 95). This fosters the naive faith of the children. This naive faith has “both the precariousness and the strength of pastoral vision: it seems too fragile to survive suffering, yet it somehow does survive, more vivid and intense than the world it transcends” (Price 104). The state of innocence is happy and harmonious not because the world is pure and just, but because the mind hasn’t been corrupted by this outside world.

In Songs of Experience, the idyllic pastoral setting is replaced by images of death and sterility. This is the world in which the very happy children of Innocence are one of the most abused by a society which is driven by greed, fear and malice. The boy in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience is very different from his Songs of Innocence counterpart. He is a bitter figure, against whom the city as a whole is shut, as depicted by the plate. There is no sense of community; he is utterly isolated. For Blake, evil is negative and all evil is either “self-restraint or restraint of others” (Frye 55). In the state of Experience, the imagination and freedom of man is restrained by a repressive State and a Church which has suppressed the teachings of Christ to instil fear and demand supplication from the masses. In “The Chimney Sweeper”, the holy trinity of Innocence is replaced by the unholy triad of God, Priest and King. The greed of parents along with the complicity of the Church and the demands of the State exploit the helpless child. In “The Garden of Love”, the role of the Church in restraining everything that is natural and joyful in man is shown through the priests binding in briars every instinct, and graves replacing a place which used to reverberate with happiness. The words “Thou shalt not” on the shut Chapel indicates what Blake found repressive and evil about State religion. The breakdown of relationships and the alienation of the individual is shown in “London”, where the chimney sweeper’s voice is contrasted with the black Church, the castle walls are red with the blood of the soldiers who protect it, and the marriage coach is equated to a funeral hearse.

However different the worlds of Innocence and Experience are, as Martin Price argues, we can see “the potential suffering that surrounds the world of Innocence and the potential triumph that Experience permits” (Price 108). In Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb” sounds a note of tragedy because lamb alludes to the sacrifice of Christ. While the boys in “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy” innocently accept their fate, the reader is aware and discomfited by the injustice meted out to them by an unfeeling society. The strength of Experience comes of its ability to sustain or recover the faith of Innocence. In Blake’s own words,

“Man is a twofold being, one part capable of evil and the other capable of good;

That which is capable of good is not also capable of evil, but that which is capable

of evil is also capable of good”

(Frye 58).

Thus, Innocence is not a permanent state because the corruption of the world soon seeps through an innocence arising out of ignorance. Experience isn’t a permanent state either if, according to Blake, man has vision, “the revelation that this world is fallen and therefore not ultimate” (Frye 58). It is imagination which allows man to transcend the corruption present in the state of Experience, making him realize that both Innocence and Experience are necessary for his progression. This is seen in “The Tyger”.

“The Tyger” is the coming together of both Innocence and Experience. It is a poem of reconciliation, the attainment of a certain maturity which recognizes the complexity of life. It is a realization of the fact that pain and pleasure, grief and joy, hate and love co-exist in this world. The “fearful symmetry” of the tiger may invoke terror, but it is also purposeful, as the order in the word “symmetry” suggests. The God of Love is also the God of Wrath, and the furnace, while destructive, is also necessary to purify the world. Fire is a creative force, or Los, one of the Zoas which is the faculty of imagination. It burns through the darkness created by the forest of materialism, errors and restrictions. The questions raised in this poem do not get answered, but there is an acceptance of this. The important thing is that the imaginative mind is exercising the power of raising these questions. The tiger is a symbol of primal spiritual energy, which destroys and purifies.

According to Blake, the two characteristics of a visionary are “wrath and pity”, which he calls “Rintrah and Palambron” (Frye 70). From Boheme, he derived the idea that God “manifests Himself in two contrary principles: Wrath and Love, Fire and Light, Father and Son” (Paley 119). So, the juxtaposition of the tiger and the lamb in the line, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Line 20, “The Tyger”, Blake 81), is not an opposition of Innocence and Experience, but a resolution of it. Thus, wrath is the judgement of God on a fallen world, and once man realized this, he will transcend Experience into “inspired prophecy” (Paley 120).

Thus, Innocence and Experience are contraries which are needed for man to progress to a state of prophetic vision, where he is able to use his imaginative capability with no restraints as well as perceive the world with absolute clarity. Such a vision is the vision of the true prophet, and such a man exists in harmony within himself, thus creating harmony in the universe. This is Blake’s vision of Albion. The rites-of-passage from Innocence to Experience is necessary for achieving imaginative transcendence. “Without contraries, there is no progression”.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Print.

Cama, Shernaz. “Introduction”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Damon, Foster S. “The Initial Eden”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Frye, Northrop. “Beyond Good and Evil”. Fearful Symmetry. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Paley, Morton D. “Tyger of Wrath”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Price, Martin. “The Vision of Innocence”. Eds. Sengupta, Sebanji and Cama, Shernaz. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2013. Print.

Wellek, Rene. “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History”. Ed. Nichols Jr., S.G. Concepts of Criticism. Yale: Yale University Press, 1963. Print.

Negotiating Culture in Things Fall Apart

Colonialism justifies its excesses by formulating narratives of the colonized, or the native, as “the other”: the primitive, cultureless, violent, and mute or nonsense babbling beast, waiting to be rescued by modern civilization. During the colonial period, literature perpetuated this image of the native: whether it is Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or the “half-caste”, a Judas figure who betrays the protagonist of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the native was rendered as monstrous, intellectually inferior and emotionally childish. The period after colonialism saw writers of colonies writing back against such portrayals of the native, overturning Western stereotypes, and defining the individual self and the community in their own terms. This saw the production of a lot of fresh literature, adaptations of western works and a new branch of study, Postcolonialism, which saw the breaking away from canonical literature and a re-thinking of many Eurocentric works of literature.

The African colonial situation was doubly oppressing because it was combined with racism. Though the situation in each country was different, the Scramble for Africa, which was formalized in the infamous Berlin Conference in 1884-5, saw the systematic suppression of the linguistic and cultural diversity of Africa. The effect of the arbitrary division of the continent and years of colonial suppression eroded Africa to such an extent that by the time each of its constituent countries had gained independence, “the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily” (Rosenberg). Literature portrayed the African as the antithesis of the European. Africa represented the darkness that the Victorian, civilized Englishman suppressed in his mother country. This image of the continent and its people narrated colonialism as a classic adventure story: the white man’s burden to civilize the uncouth masses of a dark continent. So when Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, it was a canon-breaking, epoch-making novel, which inspired many writers to redefine the African and the African experience. It resulted in a proliferation of voices, each having a unique story to say, and each contributing to the breakdown of the dominant European narrative.

Any African writer will face tremendous challenges when composing a work that seeks to represent his culture. The subversion of the dominant European colonial discourse is just one of these. The constant temptation to idealize the native community and glorify African characters must be avoided. At the same time, the European should not be demonized for postcolonial literature to rise higher than the petty motives of colonial literature. The politics of language is a topic that has been hotly debated by many African writers: the choice of the African writer to write in English or in his native language is considered as nothing less than a political statement. The form of the novel also owes its roots to western literature. African literature is mainly oral. The way the African writer is able to manipulate a western form to suit a particular non-western condition is something he or she has to navigate carefully. The work must be accessible to any reader, while at the same time, not depriving it of its indigenous flavour. Then, there is the overarching question of representing the postcolonial experience: the African experience has irrevocably changed after colonization. Its culture has been forever changed, and the individual has undergone substantial changes. When an African writer strives to represent his or her culture, there is the great responsibility of providing justice to his or her representation of this changing African experience, as it contributes to the contemporary discourse on Africa.

During his years in college, Achebe encountered a lot of canonical literature which portrayed the African as a primitive, wild, grunting animal, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, as well as works of non-fiction like Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, which asserted that the notion of universal mankind has to be discarded because the Negro represents man in his natural and untamed self, and any attempt to understand him should disregard questions of morality and emotions. Achebe realized that the African can only be accurately represented by another African: “…the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned” (Achebe 1988, 25), and he decided to “write back”. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is phenomenal not just because it was one of the first of its kind attempts, but because it is able to overcome each of these difficulties that an African writer faces. Through this paper, I would like to show how Achebe negotiates these issues and faithfully represents the Ibo culture through an analysis of the structure of the novel, the way he addresses the cultural tension between the European and the African by his depiction of Christianity and Ibo religion, and by viewing Okonkwo and the other characters of the novel as representatives of Ibo culture.

Achebe has come under criticism from his contemporaries for writing in English, especially from Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who feels that language was the “most powerful vehicle” through which the colonialist “power fascinated and held the soul prisoner” (Thiong’o 265), and thus, English contributed to a break in the harmony with the language of indigenous culture. He goes on to argue how language was used to perpetuate colonial domination: “language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds” (Thiong’o 266). Achebe counters this attack by arguing that the assertion that only an African language can express the African sensibility ignores the reality of the “linguistic plurality of modern African states” (Achebe 1989, 271). While this argument may be problematic to some, Achebe is able to transcend the barrier of a foreign language as a mode of indigenous cultural expression in Things Fall Apart, as well as adapt the form of the novel to suit the culture he is representing.

The title and epigraph of the novel is taken from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”. Achebe invokes Yeats’ view of the historical process, in which the end of one epoch signifies the beginning of another. There is a sense of breakdown in both works, and Achebe also alludes to Yeats’ position as an anti-colonist. However, by placing Yeats’ lines in a completely different context, the very framework of the poem is questioned as he transpositions “the centre” from Europe to Africa, questioning centuries of an established notion of Europe as the centre of the universe. It also inverts the notion of the white man’s burden by showing how the arrival of the European caused a cataclysmic change in the self-sufficient and culturally rich Ibo society. He does something similar by borrowing Tennyson’s phrase from “In Memoriam”, “red in tooth and claw” (Achebe 2012, 12), using it the way he did: to describe nature’s savagery. Achebe’s writing is a combination of both references to English literature and Ibo myths to emphasize the common thread of emotions and experiences that connect both diverse cultures. Achebe is also in a particular position because the hybrid nature of the postcolonial can be expressed only through a creation of an indigenous narrative while also situating it in the paradigm of English literature so as to not render it obscure.

The novel form is also manipulated to emphasize the African setting and content. The fact that conversation is regarded very highly among the Ibo people is established in the first chapter itself, coupled with the practice of “circling round the subject and then hitting it finally” (Achebe 2012, 6). Part One of the novel uses these “circumlocutory rhetorical techniques…that are an integral part of the oral culture that is being represented” (Whittaker & Msiska 30) to replicate oral African tradition. The story doesn’t progress in linear time, but is instead, slowly unveiled, going back and forth in time. The culture and practices of the community is meticulously detailed before the plot picks up pace, and is thus rendered central to the narrative. With the arrival of the white man and his “chirographic culture, the narrative loses much of its circularity” (Whittaker and Msiska 30). The narrative itself is structured in such a way so as to symbolize the sudden anarchy loosed upon the Ibo world: a part of the culture symbolically dies, probably pointing to the later establishment of missionary schools and the primacy of the written word. Ibo orality influences the prose of the novel with the incorporation of Ibo sayings, expressions and descriptive words, like “the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did” and “you can tell a ripe corn by its look” (Achebe 2012, 20). These usages discard English expression to establish Ibo language as sufficient in its ability to provide expression to universal tendencies, while also being able to render the Ibo emotion in a way that English cannot. Achebe also weaves in traditional songs and folk tales into the narrative, like Nwoye’s mother’s story about the quarrel between the earth and the sky, and the song sung by the musician after the bride arrives during Obierika’s daughter’s marriage ceremony. This is a counter-narrative to the European presumption that Africa had no literature of its own. Traditional folk tales had been passed down from generation to generation, teaching the community its most treasured values, and songs changed with season and style. Achebe shows the Ibo community as rich in literature and culture, just that their literature is different from the European’s because it is oral and follows a different structure and style.

Achebe is considered to be twice removed from native culture because of his Eurocentric education and Christian upbringing, and has been accused of not being able authentically represent Africa because he has been Anglicized. However, his position helps him to impartially depict certain situations impartially. His narrative technique is also a combination of an involved insider and a detached outsider: there is a juxtaposition of an acceptance of myth as legend as well as use of phrases like “these people” and “among the Ibo” (Achebe 2012, 9 and 6). His position allows him to represent the cultural tension between the European and the Ibo in terms of conflicting religions. Missionary activities were one of the first measures undertaken by the colonizer to subjugate the native. Christianity was proclaimed as the one true religion, and the white man’s burden to rescue the colonized from their heathen practices led to a disturbance of the endemic order of things. Things Fall Apart also shows the degradation of Ibo society through the arrival of Christian missionaries. A major part of the novel is spent in descriptions of religious rituals and beliefs. According to Raisa Simola, who wrote World Views in Chinua Achebe’s Works (1995), “The Igbos recognize three kinds of reality…the physical, the spiritual and the abstract” (Morrison 45). Their worldview is in direct contrast to the European idea of the dichotomy of body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Translating between “these radically different cultures” is difficult, as Simola observes; words like “God and spirit in English” do not have “precise corresponding Igbo” words (Morrison 44). The native religion is presented as sophisticated and ritualistic. There is no single supreme God, but different gods based on the economic activities of the Ibos and the elements of nature. The egwugwu shows the connection between the spirit and body, the dead and alive and reality and role-play that recurs throughout the narrative about the Ibos. Theirs is a world in which different realities exist together, and even the unseen is taken as a part of their concrete existence. The funeral of Ezeudu is an occasion of performance and celebration, commemorating the idea that the dead never truly depart from the world of the living. Achebe represents the Igbo religion in all its complexities, not leaving out its dark side, like abandoning twins in the Evil Forest and killing Ikemefuna to fulfil the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves.

It is precisely the complex and layered nature of Igbo religion that prevents an accommodation with Christianity. The missionaries who arrive are not able to comprehend the religion at all or concede that it has any virtues to offer. Even Mr. Brown, the moderate missionary, is closed to anything that he can learn from the religion. For a conversation on an equal wavelength to be possible, Akunna has to improvise a notion of a supreme God by calling Chukwu the God of gods, when, in strict terms, no such concept exists among the people. Achebe also takes into consideration the fact that missionary activities and religious domination were only heralding the economic and political dominance that would be established later. Formal education was imparted to Christian converts, and they were also given jobs with the newly rising administration. The intermingling of trade, religion and English education transformed the culture of the Ibos. The error with the Ibos was that they failed to realize the powerful connection that religion always has with economics and politics. With an acceptance of Christianity, the erosion of their culture and the establishment of new systems of trade and administration are inevitable.

The final way which I will analyze Achebe’s depiction of culture is through an analysis of the Ibo characters in the novel as embodiments of their culture. For this, Okonkwo will be positioned in opposition to the other characters of the text, to show that Okonkwo is not an accurate and complete representation of the Ibo culture. Rather, it is characters like Ikemefuna and Obierika who truly embody all that Umofia values.  Okonkwo is both a product of his society and its values. Desperate to live down the legacy of his unsuccessful father, he rules his famiy with a “heavy hand” (Achebe 2012, 12) and farmed yams, which had been culturally reified as a symbol of manliness: “yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 2012, 21). However, Okonkwo only embodies the male values of his society. His success is measured in the male realms of farming yams, wrestling, warfare, having multiple wives and great wealth. The assertion in the beginning of the novel that he was a man who is destined to be great is a “result of his conformity to his society’s ideals of masculinity and patriarchal hegemony” (Whittaker and Msiska 8). The idea that Okonkwo is the heroic embodiment of the community’s ideals becomes problematic as the novel progresses. While Umofia is a society which is dominated by male hegemony and patriarchal institutions, the “female principle in the metaphysical, ontological and cosmological systems” (Whittaker and Msiska 10) that govern culture is elaborately documented by Achebe. Okonkwo is unable to communicate verbally in a society which values conversation. He is posited in opposition to his father and his son, Unoka and Nwoye, because they rebel against the rigid notion of masculinity he embodies. His beating of his wife during the Week of Peace and his constant association which sometimes leaps out of the boundaries accepted by Ibo society is proof that Okonkwo is not an accurate embodiment of the culture, but a hyper-representative of its male principle, as well as its anxieties and insecurities. His tragic flaw is that he is unable to reconcile with the female principle that Ibo culture values and reveres.

It is characters like Ikemefuna, Obierika and Ogbuefi Ezeudu who symbolize the harmonious co-existence of both the male and female principle, which is central to Ibo culture. Ikemefuna is the son that Okonkwo always desired: he works hard and is an inspiration to Nwoye. The hours Okonkwo spent with Ikemefuna and Nwoye after a day of work was a brief, content and idyllic time. His death symbolizes the eternal suppression of the female principle in Okonkwo. Ogbuefi Ezeudu advises Okonkwo to not accompany those going to kill Ikemefuna: “that boy calls you father.Do not bear a hand in his death” (Achebe 2012 51). Obierika repeatedly appears as a foil to Oknonkwo’s excesses at crucial junctures of the novel. Okonkwo’s rage and violence only serves to highlight Obierika’s moderation. When Ikemefuna is killed, Obierika remarks, “if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (Achebe 2012, 61).

Things Fall Apart ends in tragedy, with the death of traditional culture under emerging colonialism. Okonkwo’s suicide shows the death of a culture, as well as the replacement of one male principle with another. The violent pacification undertaken by the British to colonize Nigeria results in the suppression of the female as well as the male principles of Ibo, and the implementation of aggressive male oppression. Achebe ends the novel with a mention of the book the District Commissioner plans to write, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” and his contemplation of whether he should write a “whole chapter” or a “reasonable paragraph” on Okonwko (Achebe 2012, 187). Achebe shows the effective silencing of the “primitive tribes” for the years that colonialism would hold an iron grip over the continent. But it also refers to the vocabulary that would enable Achebe to write Things Fall Apart. The greatest tragedy of Things Fall Apart is that with the silencing of the native, the language of the colonizer is needed to write back to ideas of the colonial world. The culture that Achebe represents is lost forever.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 23rd ed. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2012. Print.

—. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988. Print.

—“The Politics of Language”. From ‘Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature’. Ed. Killam, Doug. FILLM Proceedings. Guleph, Ontario: University of Guleph, 1989. Print.

Morrison, Jago. The Fiction of Chinua Achebe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Rosenberg, Matt. “Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa: The Colonization of the Continent by European Powers”. About Education. <>. Web.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. “The Language of African Literature”. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1981. Print.

Whittaker, David and Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Oxon: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Maugham’s “The Door of Opportunity” as a Colonial Adventure

Adventure stories were extremely popular during the colonization period. Written for boys and largely peopled by male characters, they addressed boys not as readers but as future servants of the Empire. A journey to an exotic and foreign land, facing a challenge in this land and solving the problems there, and then making a triumphant return to the mother country was the basic structure of a classic adventure story. In a time when colonialist discourse was significantly similar to the language of adventure stories, these stories inculcated, from young age, a desire in boys to set out on “adventures” to foreign, strange lands, and bring back glory for themselves and the Empire. Somerset Maugham’s “The Door of Opportunity”, being set in a colony, becomes a part of the repertoire of writings not only about colonization, but of adventure. In this story, Maugham takes up the format of the adventure story and inverts it to underline the reality of colonial practices and present a critique on colonialism.

Alban in “The Door of Opportunity” is a symbolized as a race marker, an ideological construct to stand for Englishness itself. His interest in literature, love for music, eagerness to learn the language of the natives as well as his physical appearance – the “fair hair”, “blue eyes”, “fine head”, “prominent Adam’s apple” (Maugham 44) – are shown to be distinctively English. He is also pitted against the other officers in Sondurah, and their average minds, petty jealousies, dull pastimes and uncultivated tastes serve to emphasize the idea of Alban as superior. Yet, it is Alban; the same Alban whose wife took for granted will be the governor one day and whose abilities were grudgingly appreciated by the very people who called him Powder Puff Percy; who fails as an imperial agent. Unlike the hero of an adventure story, he does not emerge triumphant from his journey to an exotic country; instead, his is a narrative of loss. Through the characterization of Alban as innately superior to others in the same profession as him, Maugham is perhaps suggesting that the best cannot triumph in an imperialist world: only the brash can. The importance of a careful administrator like Alban as against a forceful conqueror like Van Hasseldt is also ignored by the greed of imperialism.

A conventional adventure story begins with the undertaking of a journey. Maugham begins “The Door of Opportunity” at the point where an adventure story ends: at the time of return. But unlike an adventure story, in Alban’s return, the expected triumphant homecoming is missing. While Alban is visibly excited about returning to London, Anne feels embarrassed by the “friendly little smile” of a woman fellow passenger from Singapore, and notices how nobody will share the train carriage with them. Coming back to the mother country is not a comforting return to a comfort zone nor an arrival back home, but a realization that everything you imagined home to be is a myth. Alban and Anne are in a sense, exiled to London because he has been dismissed from service. In fact, Alban and Anne had been at home at Datkar, an isolated district of Sondurah, where he had been appointed as District Officer. They fell in love with the place from the beginning, and engaged with the people there, discovered that their days were effortlessly filled with activities they both enjoyed and made frequent tours of the district. The place also succeeded in bringing them closer together than before. Datkar was their true home: largely isolated from judgemental eyes of fellow countrymen and accommodative of their shared as well as varied interests. However, Datkar is a part of a British colony, and can never permanently be the home of the colonizer, whose primary function in a colony is to discharge his duties to the glory of the Empire and utilize the resources of the colony for this purpose. Alban and Anne can thus be seen as colonial agents enjoying the perks of the Empire. From this perspective, their relationship is superficial as it is sustained only in a place away from home; during the course of the adventure.

While Datkar can never be a permanent home for Alban, neither can London. His is an adventure story in which he is sent into exile and doesn’t return to rest, comfort and glory. Instead, a narrative of personal, social and political loss is the end result. Because his adventure was unsuccessful, he loses his wife, who is now so ashamed of him that she cannot stay with him, whose love has turned to loathing “the very sight” (Maugham 67) of her husband. Already mocked at for his sense of superiority and cultivated tastes, now he is ridiculed for being a coward and a fake. The people who used to concede grudgingly that he was a good administrator now have tangible proof that he is just a fraud. He also fails as an imperial subject because he lets down the interests of the other colonizers. This, when coupled with Alban’s own limited understanding of Englishness and scorn for his community, renders him totally isolated. Home itself becomes a space for exile, and under the trajectory of an adventure story, all he is is a failure.

Maugham inverts the entire structure of the adventure story. The story begins with a return – a defeated return to be precise. The home can no longer be what it used to be and transforms into a place of exile. The hero of the story in the end does not achieve glory, but instead, is pervaded by a deep sense of loss. By using the very trajectory that was popular to propagandize imperialism, Maugham succeeds in collapsing the myth if a glorious adventure and the national self. Instead, the very idea of the mother country becomes questionable.

Works Cited

Maugham, Somerset. “The Door of Opportunity”. Ed. Bhattacharji, Shobana. Anglo-American Writing from 1930. Delhi: Doaba Publications, 2005. Print.

The Power and the Glory as a Narrative of Sin and Redemption

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory was written within the genre of the Catholic novel, and yet, prompted a negative report in 1953 from Cardinal Pizzardo, who was evaluating the novel on behalf of the Vatican censors. The final lines of his report, addressed to the archbishop of Westminster, reveal the disapproval of the Catholic Church to Greene’s book:

“I am therefore writing to beg Your Eminence to inform Mr. Graham Greene

with your accustomed tact of the unfavourable verdict of the Holy See on his

book, and to exhort him to be more constructive from a Catholic point of view

in his writings, as all good people expect him to be. As for the book in question,

Your Eminence will not fail to ensure that the author does not allow further reprints

or translations of it to be published without his introducing into it the necessary

corrections that the foregoing remarks would suggest…”

(Roston 43)

This clearly indicates that The Power and the Glory does not espouse the clearly defined ideas of sin, virtue, God and love that the Church does. In fact, it offers an alternative reading of these values, a reading that isn’t black or white, and the Catholic Church is placed almost as antithetical to the essence of Christ and Christianity. Through the figure of the whiskey priest, Greene proposes a different outlook to the morality proclaimed by the Church, and thus, offers a fresh perspective on sin and redemption. By concentrating on the figure of the whiskey priest, I would like to show how The Power and the Glory, as a narrative of sin and redemption, presents Greene’s idea of the essence of Christ.

The unnamed priest in the novel does not fall under the category of a typical hero at all. Even his fist appearance – standing “stiffly in the shade, a small man dressed in a shabby dark city suit” (Greene 3) – deprives any suggestion of him emerging as the central character of the text. Added to this are his numerous faults which distances himself from the role of a priest and which he lists repeatedly to condemn himself: he drinks whiskey, he is a coward, he has fathered a child illegitimately, and above all, he is unable to repent. Yet, Greene chooses this figure to represent the very values of love and compassion that Christ embodied. The figure of the ideal saint, as propagated by the Catholic Church, is ridiculed in the figure of St. Juan, whose story fails to move Luiz when his mother narrates it to him, and whose martyrdom is suggested as being a result of his arrogance in his righteousness, of his “confidence in the celestial reward awaiting him” (Roston 45).  St. Juan’s story puts forward “conventions of sanctity usually defined as normative” (Grob 4). But in a place which is characterized by acute isolation and a sense of abandonment, where lasting personal relationships cannot be formed and where the normal rites of the Church only serve to emphasize the powerlessness of the Church to soothe the human condition, a hero like St. Juan cannot exist. Greene creates in the whiskey priest a character who in some way remains admirable in an age where heroism seems dead, who embodies values contemporary society seems to have abandoned. The whiskey priest thus emerges as the anti-hero, defined by Roston as a “character, although seeming to lack the qualities associated with the traditional hero, succeeds nonetheless in eventually evoking the respect, even the admiration of the reader” (Roston 23).

Since the stature of the anti-hero is self-effacing and unaware of his own righteousness and innate worth, the priest’s depreciating words about his unworthiness cannot be taken to mean what Greene intends to convey about sin and unworthiness. His assertion of being a “bad priest” because he knows how much “beauty Satan carried with him when he fell” (Greene 128), and his deep-rooted conviction that “if there’s ever been a man in this state damned, then I’ll be damned too” (Greene 198) does not condemn him in the reader’s mind. Instead, it stresses the very essential Christian virtue of humility, the opposite of the cardinal sin of pride. So, his condemnation of himself testifies his worth.

The perpetual guilt the whiskey priest feels at having fathered an illegitimate child is something which the rigid rules of the Catholic Church cannot look past: not only is lust a cardinal sin, but a priest indulging in this particular sin is seen as one of the severest crimes against the Church. The whiskey priest is aware of this, and this only adds to his misery. His inability to repent because he has come to unconditionally love the fruit of his sin, his daughter Brigitta, convinces him that he is beyond redemption. But Greene’s narrative eventually makes it evident that it is this act of sin that has enabled him to follow the essence behind Christ’s teaching: “That ye love one another, as I have loved you…” (John 13:34 KJV). His sin enables himself to empathize with the sinners around him. While he was installed as a priest safe within his parish, he was incapable of love, and led a complacent life. It was his act of sin that taught him what it was to love like Christ did, and that helped him to connect with those around him, because he considered himself to be just like them. He is shown to be more at home with the prisoners when he is locked up than when he is reciting mass to a congregation that is anxious to see him leave. In his book, The Heart of the Matter, Greene used a quotation by Charles Peguy: “the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity…No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one, unless it is the saint” (Wichert 99). The whiskey priest’s discomfort with the woman who was imprisoned for possessing religious texts and with the confessor across the border, who exclaims in astonishment that she is a good woman, reveals that those who believe they are righteous and deserving of eternal life can never experience the extent of God’s mercy. This is something which is accessible only to the sinner, who, knowing that he is by fairness unworthy of God’s love, knows that all he can rely on is the unconditional mercy of a God willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of redeeming sinners. The narrative of The Power and the Glory does not trace a progression from a state of sin to eventual redemption, but redemption through sin.

The narrative structure of the novel charts the whiskey priest’s journey as a parallel to Christ’s suffering. The priest is nameless, so he is Everyman, just as Christ, who suffered as Everyman. The despair that Christ felt at the cross is present throughout the text. The humiliation Christ faced is paralleled with the constant shame the whiskey priest feels. Like Christ who is tempted by the Devil, the priest faces the temptation of staying on the other side of the border. There is also the figure of Judas the betrayer in the priest’s life embodied by the mestizo. Christ, though he suffered, is depicted as having touched the lives of all those around him, even Judas, who commits suicide at his anguish at having betrayed the Saviour, and Herod, who admits that he does not know what Truth is. In the same way, though lasting relationships cannot be established in The Power and the Glory, the priest is shown to have impacted the lives of those he encountered through the presence of God in him – Coral, Tench, even the lieutenant – and having succeeded in evoking a response in them which significantly alters their behaviour. The aligning of the figure of Christ with the whiskey priest is deliberate: the whiskey priest is, for Greene, the embodiment of Christ Himself in a place abandoned by the Church, steeped in loneliness and desertion. The whiskey priest is undoubtedly a martyr in the end because he is able to imbibe the love of Christ. This is what redeems him not in the very end, but from the beginning of the text. His ability to show compassion is evident from the first chapter, when he sacrifices escape to minister to a supposedly dying woman.

Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory gives an alternative narrative to the rigid and narrow definitions of sin and redemption as dictated by organized religion. Through the figure of the whiskey priest, he represents his image of Christ and his understanding of divine love and mercy as being able to transcend the sins of man. The whiskey priest emerges as a figure who attains the admiration and respect of the readers because of the subtext of love and compassion that Greene provides throughout the text. The fresh narrative of sin and redemption elevates the priest to the position of a modern day martyr, and presents Christ as a God of mercy and love, and not of rituals and rules, able to transcend the sins of man.

Works Cited

Greene, Graham. The Power and the Glory. London: Random House, 2004. Print.

Grob, Alan. ““The Power and the Glory”: Graham Greene’s Argument from Design.” Criticism, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Winter 1969), pp. 1-30.Wayne State University Press, 1969. Web.

Roston, Murray.  Graham Greene’s Narrative Strategies: A Study of the Major Novels. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Wichert, Robert A. “The Quality of Graham Greene’s Mercy”. College English, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Nov., 1963), pp. 99-103. National Council of Teachers of English, 1963. Article Stable URL: Web.


The Enlightenment was a philosophical, cultural and intellectual movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which stressed on the use of reason, logical criticism and freedom of thought. Science and empiricism gained centre stage, as it was believed that even man could be explained through science (Wilde 1). The Enlightenment had deep repercussions in Europe and throughout the world, with a gradual shift in the power of the Church and the monarch, and utmost importance being placed on the individual. The Enlightenment era is also regarded to have led to the Modern Age.

Despite the stress the Enlightenment era, often called the “age of reason”, placed on a universal set of meanings and values, the Enlightenment was never a simple, uniform movement. While Enlightenment thinkers agreed on certain broad categories, each had distinct views about particular subjects. There was never a “monolithic Enlightenment project” (Porter 17). Tolerance was central to Enlightenment thought, and great importance was placed on debates. Dissent was seen as a means to search for truth. The Enlightenment was a movement with a mission to modernize; with the aim to enlighten the nation. Therefore, the critical assessments surrounding the Enlightenment are also varied, and sometimes, even conflicting. I would like to briefly discuss some of the seminal assessments which attempt to define the Enlightenment, with special focus on Roy Porter’s “Introduction” from Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World.

Immanuel Kant reflects on the Enlightenment during the phenomenon itself, and offers a succinct definition of the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”. (Kant 1). He feels that the Enlightenment gives man the resolution to think for himself, something which a minority had been doing for the masses for a long time till then. He stresses on the need for freedom for independent thought to develop, but warns that the Enlightenment would be a slow process, because a change in attitude would take years to be complete. Thus his conclusion that his age was not enlightened, but an “age of enlightenment” (Kant 4). Kant divides the use of reason into public and private, and limits the function of reason as an end in itself.

Foucault presents a more complicated analysis of the Enlightenment as he can view the era from the frame of reference of tomorrow, while Kant’s frame of reference was the present. Foucault feels that Kant viewed the Enlightenment merely as an exit from another age, while he feels that it is an era in itself, with impacts so great so as to modify the present itself. The Enlightenment witnessed a mass change in attitudes of people, and Kant saw Enlightenment as the moment when man uses his reason independently. Foucault, however, feels that it is an age, and not particular events, that is a marker of a mass change in attitudes. Thus for Foucault, the Enlightenment is a process; one in which each person participates individually, but the individual participation is to such an extent that it becomes a widespread movement which attracts individual participation (Foucault 4). Foucault also feels that the function of reason was not an end in itself, but to critique, which is another of the main ideas propagated by the Age. He shows how the Enlightenment Age led to the Modern Age. By shifting the focus of importance from the Church or the ruling class to the public sphere, it facilitated the gradual shift of this focus to the individual, as it comes to be in the Modern Age. Thus the Enlightenment is a historical force which shaped our present, and we must view it as such, and not in a moralistic way by questioning whether the Enlightenment was good or bad.

After the Second World War, the Enlightenment was regarded with distrust and seen to provide a foundation for Western imperialism and an ideological foundation for fascism, Nazism and Stalinism (the moralistic stand Foucault opposed). The reason for this was the utmost importance the Enlightenment thinkers placed on rationality and logic. Roy Porter feels that such a harsh view of the Enlightenment is unjustified. He regards Enlightenment in a favourable light, and feels that we, as inheritors of the world the Enlightenment thinkers dreamed of- a world which believes in the unity of mankind, tolerance, knowledge; we should use the same rationality while analyzing the Enlightenment and its ideas (Porter 18). The main argument Porter gives for such a framework with which to view the Enlightenment was because, as he says, there was never a “monolithic Enlightenment project” (Porter 17). The Enlightenment was such a wide-ranging and complex phenomenon that it meant different things even for the Enlightenment thinkers who agreed on its broad aspects.

Roy Porter’s approach helps us to better understand the various and often critical discourses surrounding the Enlightenment. By viewing the Enlightenment as a conglomeration of various ideas, and not a single, unified voice, we can easily accommodate both Kant’s limited understanding of reason and Foucault’s view of Enlightenment as a determining process which has helped shape modernity. Even Isaiah Berlin’s idea of a counter-enlightenment, a movement which arose in the eighteenth century in opposition to major Enlightenment ideas, and its various strains, can be understood to have co-existed with the Enlightenment with Roy Porter’s approach.

The various strains of the Enlightenment, and its wide-ranging impacts, defy a simple, succinct definition of it. It also prevents us from viewing it as an isolated age, or a single event. By accommodating its various shades, we can see that it was a phenomenon whose ideas continue to shape the present.

Works Cited

Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter-Enlightenment”. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?”. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?”. 1784. Print.

Porter, Roy. “Introduction”.  Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. USA: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

Wilde, Robert. “The Enlightenment.” European History. Web.