Literature Spotlight: Peripheral Presence

In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant presence. Choose a novel or play of literary merit and write an essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work. You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters. Avoid plot summary.
~AP Literature Open Essay Prompt, 1994

Peripheral Presence

Having your name in the title of a book doesn’t mean you get to be in the spotlight. Take the classic 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker. The eponymous vampire appears in person surprisingly little, and only once after his initial conversations with Jonathan Harker. Despite this, he still very much deserves the honor of the novel’s title. His actions set the events of the novel in motion, and the main characters talk of nothing else but him. While not directly seen, his actions leave tangible consequences on Lucy, Mina, and Renfield, and his offstage plotting leaves the heroes struggling to keep up, to determine his motives and his next movements before he can execute on them. While he rarely physically shares the same space as our heroes, their knowledge of Dracula’s constant scheming and plotting spurs them to act decisively, take risks, and in a variety of ways give their life’s blood in service of his destruction. In a sense, Dracula is the one who turns them into heroes.

At the start of the novel, solicitor Jonathan Harker is brought to Dracula’s estate in the Carpathians to help close the sale of some British land to the Count. Harker is welcomed into Dracula’s castle, sight unseen, put up in one of the castle’s gorgeous rooms and treated as an honored guest. At home in his castle in the mountains, Dracula clearly feels comfortable enough in his power to invite a random human into his home. He must not see Harker as much of a threat – and, truth be told, he is correct. Harker is not a threat – at first. Through repeated contact with Dracula and his genteel but immutable scheming, Harker becomes more and more aware that he is being held prisoner in the castle, and more and more determined to escape his gilded cage. Finally, he summons up the courage to scale the outside wall of the castle in an attempt to catch Dracula unawares. “The chances are desperate, but my need is more desperate still. I shall risk it. At the worst it can only be death; and a man’s death is not a calf’s, and the dreaded Hereafter may still be open to me.” (P. 93) Dracula’s presence and true nature have given Harker a new perspective on risky behavior, namely, that death is not the worst thing that could happen to him, and that he would actually rather die doing a courageous thing than be slaughtered to the vampires like livestock.

After leaving the Carpathians and traveling to Whitby by sea, Dracula begins turning Lucy. We do not see this happen in person; rather we see our main characters responding to Lucy’s curiously declining health. Over the course of two weeks, all four of the male main characters donate blood to her in a series of transfusions. Each one seems to work until the next morning, when she is found to be even paler and sicklier than before, prompting Quincey to exclaim, “Ten days!…that poor pretty creature that we all love has had put into her veins within that time the blood of four strong men. Man alive, her whole body wouldn’t hold it…What took it out?” (P.232) In this way, Dracula has invoked one of the main themes of the novel: the equating of blood and life. By draining her blood, Dracula is quite literally stealing her life – and by extension, that of the four men who love her. Blood transfusions in this time period were a very risky operation, especially when performed without a proper operating theater. These four strong men who love her are giving their life’s blood to save her – a theme that will continue throughout the novel.

Once poor Lucy has been released from her undeath, the thoughts of the men turn irrevocably to Dracula. Only Harker has seen Dracula in person, and yet all five men feel an intense hatred of the vampire and an intense desire to ensure that what happened to Lucy does not happen to anyone else. Their conversations and constant stewing over Dracula’s whereabouts and motives are a large part of what shapes them into heroes, helped along by their connection with Mina. Harker’s wife is read in to their plans and, though they encourage her to shelter herself from the actual dirty work, she assists them through philosophical conversations about the vampire, his motives, and his nature.

“I know that you must fight – that you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter; but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.” (P. 420)

Through her sage guidance, the men are able to find a way to pity the creature even as they seek to destroy him – a very heroic attitude to take.

Though their attitude may be heroic, their attempts to act the hero don’t always succeed, thanks to Dracula’s extreme guile and cunning. The men initially urge Mina to stay home while they go about the dangerous tasks involved in the pursuit of Dracula, believing it to be inappropriate work for a woman. This plan backfires when it allows Dracula to successfully put Mina under his thrall. The men catch Dracula in the act – in pretty much the only other physical appearance of Dracula in the novel. After chasing him away and regrouping Mina appears to have survived relatively unscathed, though she is shaken, bitten and bloody. However, when Van Helsing attempts to bless Mina with a piece of sacred wafer it instead burns her flesh, leaving a scar on her forehead. Mina exclaims in the aftermath of this incident, “Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgement Day.” (P. 406-407) Even though Dracula himself is not physically present – and indeed, is not seen again until the very last pages – Mina’s ‘polluted flesh’ serves as a painful and tangible reminder of the creature’s presence.

Dracula’s presence also has a tangible effect on Dr. Seward’s ‘zoophagous’ patient, Renfield. Dracula’s estate, Carfax, is next door to the asylum, and the reader gradually begins to realize that they can tell whether Dracula is home or away based on Renfield’s behavior. Renfield gives up his zoophagous obsession at one point, and based on his ramblings the reader understands that this is because he believes Dracula is coming to rescue him. Dracula comes home to Carfax, and the reader knows this not because Stoker shows him coming home, but because Renfield escapes the asylum. Seward finds Renfield pressed against the door of Carfax’s chapel, muttering “I am here to do Your bidding, Master. I am Your slave, and You will reward me, for I shall be faithful. I have worshipped You long and afar off.” (P.170) In my annotated edition by editor Leslie Klinger, an annotation on this sequence points out that there has been no communication that we know of between Dracula and Renfield, so “this again seems to be confirmation that Dracula in some way transmits his presence to those sensitive enough to detect it.” Just as Mina is linked to Dracula through his thrall and can be hypnotized into seeing through his eyes, Renfield is linked to Dracula in some supernatural way, and this in turn affects his behavior.

While Dracula may not show his face very often, his presence is keenly felt by all six of Stoker’s central characters. Urged on by Dracula’s seemingly-unstoppable offstage scheming, our protagonists perform (and undergo) emergency surgical procedures, cut the head off of a beloved young lady’s corpse, break into houses, and chase gypsies across foothills – all activities that would be practically unthinkable when we first meet them. From the very first castle wall scaled by a mild-mannered lawyer to the final knife wound suffered by a heroic American cowboy, Dracula’s lurking peripheral presence pushes our protagonists to take ever greater risks, and inadvertently shapes them into the heroes who will ultimately destroy him.

Literature Spotlight: The Blanks Left Empty

AP Literature Open-Ended Prompt, 1975, #2:

Unlike the novelist, the writer of a play does not use his own voice and only rarely uses a narrator’s voice to guide the audience’s responses to character and action. Select a play you have read and write an essay in which you explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his audience’s responses to the central characters and the action. You might consider the effect on the audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the characters’ responses to each other. Support your argument with specific references to the play. Do not give a plot summary.

The Blanks Left Empty

Narration is often the crux of the novelist’s art. Through skillful use of narration and point of view, a novelist can make his readers acutely aware of not just the events of the novel, but the characters’ opinions of those events. This makes it easy for a skilled novelist to deftly control how his readers respond to the work. The playwright, on the other hand, has no such tool at his disposal. Plays very rarely have a narrator or any sort of explanatory text that is not part of the dialogue or stage direction. How, then, does a playwright guide his audience’s responses to the action and characters? How does he communicate his theme or commentary without the use of narration?

The playwright has numerous other tools to convey his point, all of which stem primarily from the fact that theater as a medium is more open to abstraction. Much of theater, no matter how grand the production, depends on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. A single ornate desk might represent a general’s field office; a simple black ladder might represent a second-floor balcony. The playwright relies on the unspoken agreement that the audience will fill in the rest of the details with their imagination. Even if the general’s office is completely built out in shining gold paint, there is one wall missing, the one through which the audience sees the action. And the building outside the office does not exist. Because of this unspoken agreement, audiences are prepared to see events play out that would not, strictly speaking, be possible, and the suspension of disbelief is even stronger when the play is observed live. Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, is an example of a play which uses this implied agreement to devastating effect.

Assassins, which is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., is an abstract musical centered around the men and women who, over the years, have killed or tried to kill the President of the United States. The central theme of the play is a dark reflection of the ‘American dream’; the idea that if any kid can grow up to be the President, then it follows that any kid can grow up to kill the President. The play explores potential motives for the various assassins and seeks to humanize them, to make them more than just “footnotes in a history book” (to use Sarah Jane Moore’s words from the final scene). The primary way Assassins achieves this is through its use of setting.

Assassins makes heavy use of the theater concept of ‘limbo,’ a neutral stage space with little or no sets and props, that places the characters in a realm devoid of context. With a few exceptions, the people depicted in Assassins lived in completely different times and locations from one another, but the play places them all in a shared space – limbo – that can become whatever is necessary to communicate the theme at hand. The bulk of the play is presented in vignettes, isolated sequences that center around each of the assassins. Their story is portrayed in one or two songs, loosely threaded together by the occasional ‘limbo’ scene with more than one assassin conversing, or the pseudo-narration of the audience surrogate character, the Balladeer. We’ll get to him in a moment.

This extensive use of limbo has a few distinct effects on the audience’s response. First, the abstract nature of the setting makes it possible to portray multiple sides of an event simultaneously in the same space, such as when Guiseppe Zangara’s story depicts his execution over top of a chorus of excited witnesses gushing about the minor fame they received from being nearby. The following dialogue, taken from the final chorus of the song “How I Saved Roosevelt,” happens with the witnesses clustered around a microphone located immediately behind Zangara’s electric chair, so that they all share the same spotlight center stage.

And why there no photographers? For Zangara no photographers! Only capitalists get photographers! No right!
Lucky I was there!

No fair, nowhere – so what?
I’m on the front page, is that bizarre?!
No sorry!
And all of those pictures, like a star!
And soon, no Zangara!
Just lucky I was there!
We might have been left

Who care?
Bereft of F!
Pull switch!
No luck, no more, no…!

Zangara never gets to finish that sentence – the chair is activated, and the witnesses hit their final high note over his convulsing form. This use of juxtaposition in limbo space helps to drive home the way that we tend to downplay the plight of the assassin. We get wrapped up in our own little victories and forget that for someone to be driven to kill, they must have stakes high enough to kill for.

Limbo is also used to compare and contrast the various assassins, showing how their stories mirror and support each other. Portions of different but parallel stories occur in the same space and time, allowing characters to display complimentary facets of their personalities to the audience without showing them to each other. This is true of the song “Unworthy Of Your Love,” wherein John Hinckley and Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme sing a love duet, not to each other, but to their respective infatuations with others who barely notice them. The theme of “find[ing] a way to earn your love” drives both of them to the same desperate act despite their different circumstances.

Of course, limbo is a magical place, and sometimes these characters do interact. Whenever they do it gives the play a sort of otherworldly feeling, a surreal tone that somehow allows John Wilkes Booth and Sam Byck to exist in the same time and place. Two full-company scenes of this type roughly bookend the musical, one at the beginning in a nebulous barroom, and another near the end when the assassins reunite in the Texas Book Depository to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks. During these large group scenes, the assassins bounce ideas and themes off of each other, which allows the audience to see the playwrights’ ideas more directly and begin to form a response. At the start of the play, these ideas are directed at the general unfairness of the world at large, and the themes that emerge are those of desperate attempts to fix it:

“ZANGARA: What should I do?
BOOTH: Have you thought about killing President Roosevelt?
ZANGARA: Do you think it will help?
BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.”

By the time Oswald is revealed, though, the audience has already watched these men and women go through their own stories, with varying degrees of success and fulfillment. Their ideas and themes thus become driven by the need to convince this meek, frustrated, suicidal man to perform one powerful act that will “revive and give meaning” to all of their stories.

“MOORE: You think you can’t connect? Connect to us!
CZOLGOSZ: You think you’re powerless? Empower us!
BOOTH: It’s in your grasp, Lee. All you have to do is move your little finger. You can close the New York Stock Exchange.”

These types of conversations help the playwrights get across a few potential reasons why these men and women would have done something this extreme, both from the characters’ perspectives and the unsaid ones brought about by their interactions.

Limbo is a powerful enough tool on its own, but in Assassins it is joined by another, equally powerful one: the audience surrogate character. An audience surrogate is a character who presents the perspective that is most likely shared by the audience, who can ask the burning questions the audience might have and force the characters to display their themes more obviously. In Assassins, this character is the Balladeer, a ‘normal’ American who tells the stories of the Assassins through bits of sung narration. Besides introducing the stories, though, the Balladeer has a definite opinion about the assassins; they’re poor, misguided nobodies who have been stepped on and largely forgotten by the country, subjects suitable for pity and derision. He says what most of us would have probably thought about the assassins – if we ever thought about them at all. He dismisses their plights as selfish or small, not worthy of the extreme reactions they had to them:

“BALLADEER: They say your ship was sinking, John,
You’d started missing cues.
They say it wasn’t Lincoln, John,
You’d merely had
A slew of bad

Of course, this being limbo, the assassins won’t let him get away with that kind of abuse without a fight. Even the above stanza, sung as John Wilkes Booth attempts to dictate his indictment of Lincoln, is punctuated by Booth telling him repeatedly to “Shut up!”. Over the course of the play, the audience grows to empathize with the assassins, and starts to hate the Balladeer’s antagonism and dismissiveness of them. By the time the song “Another National Anthem” comes around near the end of the play, the audience is downright relieved to see the assassins finally turn on the Balladeer, overpowering his voice with their combined chorus and driving him off the stage so that they can finish their last chorus uninterrupted. The Balladeer is the embodiment of our tendency to ignore the darker parts of history, the people who ended up on the so-called ‘losing’ side.

On a related note, with this moment we can see as well the importance of the impact of direction on a play. Plays are meant to be staged and performed, and the production team can make choices that can enhance, detract, or add additional commentary layers onto an already complex production. In the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins, director Joe Mantello chose to have actor Neil Patrick Harris play not just the Balladeer, but Lee Harvey Oswald as well. During “Another National Anthem,” where the script says the assassins force the Balladeer offstage, this production has them instead surround him, forcing him to the ground and concealing him from the audience as they sing the final refrain, then taking his flannel shirt and leather jacket to reveal the white T-shirt and blue jeans of Lee Harvey Oswald as the song concludes. This directing choice throws a dart into the idea that with enough antagonism, anyone can be turned into an assassin. Even the one person who has been spouting the traditional ‘American dream’ narrative the whole time, pitying the assassins, can be transformed into one by an uncaring world full of hate and vitriol. (Incidentally, Joe Mantello won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for his work on that production.)

Just because a play does not have a traditional narrator doesn’t mean the playwright has to suffer the uncertainty of whether or not his work will have the desired effect on the audience. He has a plethora of tools at his disposal and can take the full potential of the medium into account when creating a work. I chose to focus primarily on the idea of ‘limbo’ as a setting for this essay, but there are countless other ways to drive home a point with finesse and subtlety through the medium of theater. When you take into account directing, production and acting choices, the playwright never has to fear that his audience won’t get the point. They’ll come into the theater expecting to fill in the blanks, and all he has to do is leave those blanks in the appropriate places.

Literature Spotlight: Peering Into an Alien Mirror

Prompt: Explain the popularity of Science Fiction. Use at least one work from this genre to explain its appeal.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. I love it (and I suspect many of its readers love it) because despite its trappings of the future, good science fiction is very much a reflection of the time period in which it is written. One of Sci-Fi’s major draws for me is that it can highlight and discuss social issues that might be touchy to talk about in the present day. Through the skillful use of spaceships, aliens, utopian planet colonies, and other ‘flight-of-fancy’ scenarios, a science fiction author can hold a mirror up to the way our current society deals with an issue by showing how their fictional society does. By reading sci-fi from previous eras, then, we can catch a glimpse of what people of that era were thinking about – and what was considered an acceptable ‘flight of fancy.’

The Skylark of Space, written by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith in the 1920’s, included an equal ratio of women to men on the spaceship – surprising for such an early entry into the genre. However, what is not so surprising is that the women involved are cast in incredibly traditionally ‘female’ roles – they are the wives of the scientists who invent the spaceship, and play a very motherly role on the ship. In particular, one comedic scene shows the women in the kitchen, trying in vain to make sandwiches in zero gravity. It plays out like a Jules Verne-esque slapstick routine, with the ham and cheese floating all over the room. Tellingly for the time it was written, the only thing the women seem to feel like they can take the initiative to do is fix lunch for the menfolk.

Contrast that with the Original Series of Star Trek, first aired in the 1960’s. Star Trek depicts a world where gender no longer matters – a black woman has an important bridge position as the Communications Officer, and even if her lines are mostly comprised of “Hailing frequencies open, sir,” still, nobody bats an eye at a woman doing more than just fixing lunch. Further contrast that with the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, which began with the novel Leviathan Wakes in 2011. The second book in the series, Caliban’s War, contains not one but two female main characters, a Martian space marine and an Earth diplomat. Both are in positions where they are well-respected (though they receive pushback throughout the book, but it’s plot-related, not related to simply being female). Both radiate power in different ways and both are treated equally in terms of gender.

Original series Star Trek also dealt with racial tensions. Lieutenant Uhura may have been a well-respected and equally-treated bridge crew member within the context of the show, but the show’s writers still received pushback from the network about her place in the story. In the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” there is a scene where Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) share a kiss, widely cited as the first example of a scripted inter-racial kiss on US television. The network wanted them to film the scene both with and without the kiss, so that they could decide later whether to air it. The actors chose to intentionally flubb every take without the kiss so that the network would be forced to air it. The story of that episode serves as a reminder that Original series Star Trek, like most good science fiction, prodded at the boundaries of what was considered an acceptable social construct at the time.

While Star Trek‘s society treats all races and genders equally where Earth humans are concerned, it does still get a chance to display ideas of racial tensions and play with the theme of racial equality – through the clever use of aliens. Mister Spock is a great example of this – here is an alien as First Officer of an Earth Federation starship, who frequently gets mocked and insulted by the other crewmembers for his pointy ears, his green blood, and his unusual customs. Uhura may have been indicative of what race relations could be, but Spock depicted race relations as they were. Certain episodes also dealt more pointedly with the idea of race prejudice, most notably the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” which dealt with the last two survivors of a war-torn planet still hell-bent on destroying each other. This is the famous episode with the ‘black-and-white’ aliens – their feud was based on which half of their body was black and which one white. While a bit heavy-handed, it does still speak volumes about the sometimes silly things that drive us to war and the dangers of prejudice.

Caliban’s War displays racial tensions as well, but in a different way – by highlighting the fact that they are all humans. When I mentioned the two female leads up there, you probably thought of them as different species – perhaps the Martian space marine was an ‘alien’ and the Earth diplomat was a ‘human.’ Well, in actuality, they are both human. In fact, the three-way war between the Outer Planets Alliance, Earth, and Mars is essentially an entirely human war – there are no aliens to speak of in the whole book (with one exception – no spoilers!). But the stark differences in lifestyle, outlook, and even physical appearance between someone born on Mars and someone born ‘down the well’ on Earth leads to them treating each other as aliens. You can easily see, through the diplomat’s eyes, how different humans can become in different circumstances, and how these differences could lead them to fail to understand each other on a primal level.

Race and gender are not the only social issues that can be depicted in science fiction. Plenty of other issues are presented, all depending on the time period in which the work is written and the aspect of society that the author wants to explore. Caliban’s War includes a scene that will stick with me for months, where the female space marine visits Earth for the first time and chats with a young barista. The barista talks about the Earth policy of having young people work for a few years after high school to make sure they like working before the government spends money sending them to college. The planet has become so over-populated that not everyone needs to work, so those who don’t like working can simply go on basic support and devote themselves to leisure. For the space marine, who grew up in a colony where everyone has a place and a job to do, this concept is foreign, almost incomprehensible. By contrasting these two personalities, Corey allows us to consider the ideas of single-payer systems like free university education and healthcare from multiple perspectives, and draw our own conclusions.

This is precisely why one of my favorite recent sci-fi works is Larry Niven’s The Draco Tavern. This collection of super-short stories centers around Rick Schumann, the bartender at an alien bar called the Draco Tavern. The stories are between 5 and 10 pages long on average, generally taking the form of a conversation Rick has with one or several of his alien patrons. The stories present little vignettes that bring up a question and then end, leaving the reader to think about their answer. The Draco Tavern‘s questions range from ‘What if you could choose when you died?’ to ‘If a human kills an alien, should he be subjected to the alien form of punishment?’ to ‘Should I feel weird knowing that this alien race took samples of my DNA and are using it to lab-grow meat for their own consumption?’ The beauty of The Draco Tavern is that it doesn’t attempt to answer any of these questions, just present them and leave the reader to chew on them for a bit.

Science fiction may seem fanciful, with all those aliens running around on starships firing photon torpedoes at each other. But in reality, a skilled science fiction author can often tell you more about your own beliefs and opinions by comparing them to those of his aliens than you might ever get from sharing them with a therapist. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but this deeply personal self-searching that arises from peering into an alien mirror is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to science fiction, time and time again.

Literature Spotlight: Humanity, Free Will, and Morality in A Clockwork Orange

“It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil.”
~(Author’s Introduction to A Clockwork Orange, P. xiii)

The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is a depraved young teen named Alex who has a love for ‘ultra-violence.’ For the first third of the book, Alex gleefully commits felony after felony, robbing, raping, and beating up random innocents just for the fun of it. At first glance, anyone witnessing his nighttime escapades would probably call him inhuman, a monster. And he is certainly degenerate and warped – but is he really inhuman? After all, humanity has sunk to some pretty low depths in history, and the human race is capable of acts of incredible violence and devastation. What do we really mean when we call someone inhuman? Are there some qualities absent in Alex that we feel should be present in all humans? A sense of morality, perhaps? A Clockwork Orange explores the link between morality, free will, and humanity, and shows that despite his outward appearance Alex is more human than we might like to admit.

This link between humanity, morality, and free will is hinted at right from the start, in Burgess’s choice of the title and its connotations. The term “clockwork orange” comes from Cockney slang, implying something that is strange to the point of being unrecognizable. Burgess uses the term as a representation of “the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism.” (P. xv) This idea of “mechanistic morality” is an important one that warrants additional discussion. By describing morality as “mechanistic” in this context, Burgess hints at the idea that morality may be a far more subjective construct than we think. Morality is usually defined as conformity to the rules concerning the distinction between right and wrong. But consider – who is writing those rules?

Orange depicts a governing State with very clear ideas about right and wrong, but also depicts a terrified and ineffective police force, a thriving underworld, and a general lack of efficient enforcement of those rules. Without enforcement of the official morality Alex and his peers have essentially written their own code of ethics, their own distinction between right and wrong. When Alex and his gang run into a rival gang on the street in Chapter 2, Alex explains in depth to the reader the appropriate size for a gang and the attention that should be given to the proper way to get into a fight with them. Their interactions with Billy’s gang are formal, cordial. Under a subjective view of morality, the argument can be made that Alex and his peers are still moral individuals, they just have different morals than the rest of society. They know the right and wrong ways to interact with others, and they follow those morals to a fault. Skewed though those morals are, by following them consistently Alex in part 1 is shown to still be unquestionably human. He has opinions and priorities, and acts based on his sense of what is appropriate for the circumstance. His morality is unpleasant to us, for sure, but he certainly does have one. He makes choices knowing that he has to live with the consequences of those choices – there is nothing more human than that.

In Alex’s case, the consequences of those choices turn out to be the forcible removal of his free will. Through the conditioning of Dr. Brodsky, he is made to associate acts of violence with nausea and intense revulsion. Importantly, though, this conditioning does not remove the desire, just the ability to act upon it. Burgess makes this perfectly clear near the end of Part 2, when Alex is shown off as a success at the end of his ‘rehabilitation’. As proof, Brodsky presents a young woman in a neglige, and Alex’s reaction is immediate and visceral:

“the first thing that flashed into my gulliver was that I would like to have her right down there on the floor with the old in-out real savage, but skorry as a shot came the sickness…and now the von of lovely perfume that came off her made me want to think of starting to like heave in my keeshkas, so I knew I had to think of some new like way of thinking about her before all the pain and thirstiness and horrible sickness come over me real horrorshow and proper.” (P. 142)

Clearly, Alex still desperately wants to commit the act, but is made so physically nauseous by the thought of it that he cannot. He’s been ‘reformed’ to fit into Society, ‘cured’ of his deranged behavior, but in the process they’ve removed what makes him human. Not only can he not commit violence if he wants to, but he is incapable of even defending himself from attacks of any type. Brodsky demonstrates this when he allows a man to beat Alex up viciously and Alex is powerless to even raise a hand to protect himself.

This helplessness is displayed piteously in the early chapters of Part 3, when Alex finds himself being repeatedly used and abused by everyone from his previous life, unable to stand up for himself in any way. He has been converted into a tool, a mechanical puppet who can be easily used by anyone who understands how the clockwork fits together. The State uses him; he is front-page news as a grand ‘success’ story of rehabilitation and the mercy of the State. A group of rebels desiring the overthrow of the State get hold of him, and upon hearing his story they figure out how to use him to their own ends. Taking advantage of his conditioning they create a situation that encourages him to attempt suicide, intending to hold him up as a martyr and sway public opinion with propaganda. The suicide attempt failed, the State gets hold of him again in the hospital and ‘re-cures’ him. They remove his conditioning and restore his free will (and thus his humanity), causing Alex to praise them as his saviors.

The final chapter of Orange displays one last twist of thought on this topic. It begins in much the same way as the very first; Alex has found a new group of gang-mates to replace his old group and goes back to his earlier revelry. As an older teen, though, Alex grows to realize he finds no pleasure in the old ‘ultra-violence’ he used to revel in. Thirsting for something more, he runs into an old gang-mate who is now married. Through a conversation with this friend, he realizes what he’s been missing. His humanity returned, his morality now begins to shift – he wants what his friend has. In the final pages, Alex walks off alone into the night, ready to begin the next phase of his life. This chapter shows that while we might have initially thought Alex to be an inhuman monster, really he was as human then as he is now. The shift is one of morality rather than humanity – the only shift in humanity throughout the novel is the one forced upon him by the State’s conditioning.

A Clockwork Orange challenges our conception of what it means to be “human” by pointing out that while we might find Alex’s ‘ultra-violence’ in part 1 to be monstrous, we realize through his suffering in part 3 that part 1 Alex was still human. It is far more inhuman to be an automated robot, usable by anyone who understands your programming. Alex’s journey in the novel is from flawed but human, to perfect but mechanical, and then back to flawed but human again. By taking a depraved and monstrous character and forcibly removing his free will, Orange shows us that the really inhuman thing is to be unable to make your own choices.

Literature Spotlight: Infinity in the Real World

I recently read a new-ish novel by one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Terry Pratchett, that provided me with some much-needed food for thought. The Long Earth, a collaboration between Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, centers around the invention and distribution of a simple contraption enabling its user to ‘step’ between an infinite number of parallel dimensions. Each of these dimensions is slightly different from every other, possibly depicting a series of ‘what if?’ alternate Earths, and the entirety together is referred to as ‘The Long Earth.’ One of the most curious things about the Long Earth, however, is that none of these alternate Earths have any humans on them – no cities, no civilizations, simply wild and beautiful vistas with plenty of local wildlife and a few enigmatic ‘humanoid’ races that are rarely seen. Forget space travel – mankind can simply step across the Long Earth and find millions of pristine new worlds to conquer!

The novel brings up quite a few intriguing issues stemming from the idea of the Long Earth being essentially infinite and available. It struck me as touching on the difficulty of pinning down the concept of infinity (see my Math Journey about Xeno’s Paradox). Difficulties like: in all those alternate Earths, is the footprint of the United States still US territory? Do the people who strike out to ‘colonize’ those Earths have to pay taxes to a government that’s not even in their reality? And if not, should the US government be sending taxpayer dollars to help fund these colonial expeditions? How do you police your citizens or exploit your cheap labor when disgruntled people can simply step out of reality and find another empty world? Add to that the fact that a small portion of the population are ‘natural steppers,’ who can travel the Long Earth without the nausea that usually accompanies stepping, and another small portion are so-called ‘phobics,’ who can’t step at all, no matter what, and you’ve got the makings of a class war, complete with religious cults and propaganda surrounding the ‘unnatural’ act of stepping.

I’ve always felt that a book doesn’t need to be “classical literature” in order to be ripe for essay-writing and English-class-style discussion. With summer break on the horizon, now’s a great time to make a list of lighter, easier-to-read books that still have enough substance to challenge you over the summer. I like to read fun books with my students over the summer and encourage them to think critically about everything they read, and this book has just been added to my list of popular fiction worthy of a summer unit. What does it mean to have all of infinity at your fingertips, to be able to step away from all responsibility and carve out a new life for yourself at any time?

Literature Spotlight: Intentional Ambiguity

Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a beautiful, poetic, and haunting work about love, motherhood and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. The runaway slave woman Sethe kills one of her children (and attempts to kill the others) in order to save its life, and in doing so destroys the beautiful world she’s tried so hard to create for the rest of her family. The baby’s ghost haunts Sethe’s world through the enigmatic character of Beloved, a character with at least three distinct possible interpretations. Is Beloved the ghost of the “already-crawling? baby,” or a simple runaway slave who just happens to call herself “Beloved,” or perhaps not even there at all? The novel is intentionally written to keep our interpretations vague, and each interpretation comes with its own commentary on the relationships in the novel.

On the one hand, Beloved could be a real, physical girl, not related to the family, who ran away from an abusive slave owner and found her way to Sethe’s house. Perhaps she saw the headstone in the little grave out back and took its one word for her new name. There is certainly evidence to corroborate this theory, particularly in the way she interacts with Paul D and the other non-family members. She certainly seems to be physically present and interacting with the objects in the house, and she reacts to situations in the way you might expect from a trauma survivor. Sethe and Denver immediately accept that Beloved is the ghost of the baby, so if she is actually just another runaway slave, then this interpretation speaks to how readily we as humans are to place our own context on unfamiliar situations. It would also highlight Sethe’s desperate need to feel understood, to explain herself to a victim too young to understand what was happening at the time. She convinces herself of their relationship so that she can beg forgiveness.

Then again, Sethe could be right – Beloved could actually be the ghost of the baby girl, made corporeal and aged to match the passing years. This would explain the supernatural experiences from the early part of the novel by acknowledging the existence of ghosts and spirits. Paul D’s desire to leave the house, the handprints in the cake, all these things would be conveniently explained away by Beloved’s presence as the ghost of the baby. It would also give credit to Sethe’s desperation, since Beloved does in fact become very angry with her in the second part of the novel. Sethe desperately wants her to understand, and well she should, since Beloved is becoming vengeful and over-bearing in her rage at what she sees as a betrayal of her love.

One final interpretation I’d like to cover, though there are undoubtedly many more, is this: what if Beloved never existed at all? It’s quite possible to read Beloved’s character as existing entirely in Sethe’s head; her guilt over the act made manifest in her eyes. In this case, Sethe begins to feel reminiscent of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, as her desperate brain searches for a narrative to rationalize her horrific act. She didn’t get a chance to explain to Beloved why she did it, and we see that even Denver worries sometimes that she might snap and kill again, so Sethe is tormented by a need to explain herself to someone, anyone. That need manifests itself as Sethe believing Beloved is present, devoting more and more of her time to the poor girl’s needs, and wasting away herself in the process.

Whatever your personal inclination, I’d argue that it’s important to keep the many possible interpretations in mind. Rather than taking sides and sticking with one interpretation, the more interesting experience comes from recognizing that there are many different things that could be happening here. The ambiguity is part of Beloved‘s beauty, and is particularly powerful near the end of chapter 2. The narrative lapses into poetry, told first from each of the three girls’ perspectives in turn, and then finally mixing and mingling them into one:

“You are my face; I am you. Why did you leave me who am you?
I will never leave you again
Don’t ever leave me again
You will never leave me again
You went in the water
I drank your blood
I brought your milk
You forgot to smile
I loved you
You hurt me
You came back to me
You left me

I waited for you
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine” (P. 326)

By the end of the poetry, it’s impossible to tell which woman is speaking. Metaphor, plot, and symbolism are intertwining, holding up these women as one and the same character, turning them like a prism to catch the light in a kaleidoscope of ways.

Literature Spotlight: Appearances Deceive

War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, is classic science fiction. Written in 1924, it depicts the catastrophic and totally unexpected near-extinction of humanity by aliens from Mars. One of the main themes running through War of the Worlds is the idea that mankind’s assumptions about their world, the universe and the nature of life are constantly being challenged. The main reason the martians’ landing is so catastrophic to humankind is because the humans, by and large, have been lulled into a false sense of security. They believe they are capable of overcoming anything, that they are the most powerful beings in the universe, and as such are completely unprepared for the martians’ attack.

Humans at the beginning of H.G. Wells’s novel are portrayed as very self-satisfied. Even when confronted with the landing of the first martian cylinder, humanity is quick to dismiss the event as a mere curiosity. The story on the eve of the first day was “dead men from Mars,” (P. 14) and villagers from the area headed to the commons to see the cylinder as if it were a sideshow attraction. Almost immediately they are in over their heads and their assumptions are being proven wrong. The martians look nothing like humans, as everyone was subconsciously expecting them to. After this initial shock wears off, though, humanity quickly regains its mis-guided sense of security. The gravitational pull of earth is much stronger than the aliens’ native Mars, and they are sluggish in the atmosphere. Seeing this humanity continues to maintain a smug attitude about it all, claiming with certainty that there is no way the martians can get out of their pit. It never occurs to anyone that, just as humans have built technology to compensate for their weaknesses, the aliens might have done so as well. The reveal of the “fighting-machines” and the Heat-Ray throw this assumption into chaos, as the martians begin to slaughter the humans with no more thought than we might have to stepping on an anthill.

Stepping on an anthill brings up another facet of this theme: War of the Worlds is full of imagery depicting the humans as insects under the martians’ feet. The artilleryman states that “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.” (P. 238) This imagery emphasizes the power the martians seem to hold over humanity, and humanity’s inability to deal with them at all. After all, how would an ant colony retaliate against a bulldozer? This imagery also points out the idea that humans barely register the existence of insects, just as the martians must barely be registering the humans’ attempts at retaliation. The introduction of the black gas furthers this theme by bringing up fumigation imagery; the idea that the martians spread a noxious cloud of gas across the land, then use jets of steam to disperse the gas itself, is reminiscent of humans smoking out a wasp nest or any other unwanted infestation. This imagery reduces all the splendor of humanity to a mere nuisance, something that must be dealt with to make the planet livable for the martians.

Fueling this theme is the fact that the humans actually do begin to display animalistic behavior in the wake of the martians’ destruction. Houses are broken into and looted, morals are abandoned, and it becomes every man for himself. Even our narrator succumbs to these animalistic tendencies, in a powerfully-moving scene where he murders an insane companion to keep from being discovered by the martians. This scene shows just how precarious our position really is, and how little it takes to unseat even the most sturdy of morals. Seeing humanity’s reaction makes it practically unthinkable that they could have resisted even if they knew what they were up against.

This theme comes full circle when the final destruction of the martians comes not at the hands of humans, but of the lowest of life forms – bacteria. In essence, what humanity could not do, the common cold did. This further emphasizes the powerlessness of the humans – the martians would have perished regardless of what humanity did to stop them. They were taken out by an entirely different force, and so humanity doesn’t really have a role in this drama at all. You could remove all of the humans and the story would have played out in much the same way.

Despite this, though, War of the Worlds has a truly hopeful theme arise in its resolution. Throughout the novel there are descriptions of the sheer size of the martians’ fighting-machines that highlight the futility of fighting something so much larger. But the destruction of all-powerful aliens by microscopic organisms reminds us that size does not equal power, and that the smallest of beings can still have a crucial impact. It also reminds us not to judge based on appearances or assumptions, and to keep our hubris in check. For in the vastness of the universe there are bound to be thousands of species more powerful than us, but that does not mean we are powerless to fight them.

Literature Spotlight: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, is a story about the American dream. Set in New York during the “period of Ragtime” between the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of World War I, Ragtime tells the story of three different families struggling to find their place in this new America.

Doctorow makes use of an unusual writing style in Ragtime. He eschews the use of quotation marks and line breaks during dialogue, making the visual appearance of the novel one of long, blocky paragraphs. In addition, Doctorow writes the novel in third person from the perspective of not one but all of the main characters, allowing us to see the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone in the story in turn. The characters have various degrees of name specificity, ranging from simply “Mother” and “Father” to “Sarah” (nobody knows her last name) to “Coalhouse Walker Jr.” All of these stylistic decisions come together to make a surprisingly fluid novel where actions speak much louder than words.

One of the themes running through Ragtime is the begrudging nature of the tolerance given to ethnic minorities during the period. Prejudice is rampant, and often times what someone says is quite different from what they actually think. In such a society, actions are often a much better indicator of a person’s true feeling than their voiced opinions. By removing quotation marks Doctorow downplays the dialogue in the novel, to the point that the reader stops really listening to what the characters are saying and instead looks to their actions to find their motivation. When the firemen antagonize Coalhouse, they do it with pleasant smirks and genteel words that are obviously concealing the disgust and hatred beneath. The minute Coalhouse leaves his car unattended, the firemen set to work vandalizing it and making it unusable. Their actions show their true feelings about him, even when they deny touching the car upon his return. With no quotation marks their statements run together and the reader almost doesn’t notice they said anything at all; their words have no more visual significance than the rest of the narration.

Doctorow emphasizes this effect often by juxtaposing a character’s statements or thoughts with a frank description of their actions. While he does not overtly state the discrepancy for the reader, placing a specific action next to a contrasting comment or thought allows the reader to make that jump for themselves. Father stating that it made the most sense for the Captain to take only his (African-American) manservant with him on the final leg of the journey to the North Pole so that the discovery could be “his and his alone” speaks to the ingrained inequality of the time – having an African-American with you didn’t really count as having another person there. In the same way, the team of Eskimos who helped them get to the pole (and without whom the trip probably wouldn’t even have happened) are seen as not counting either. The group takes a picture at the pole, and it’s described as a group of figures so bundled up that you can barely see their eyes. Doubtless any explorers the Captain would show that picture to would probably completely ignore the other figures and only see the Captain himself.

Ragtime is a beautifully-woven story of different families coming together and learning from one another in an era of change. Doctorow’s writing style makes it surprisingly readable and engaging, and he leaves just enough implied to allow the reader to make the final leap themselves.

Literature Spotlight: Dystopian Novel vs. Dystopian Setting

ALERT: This week’s Literature Spotlight contains spoilers for The Hunger Games trilogy. Read at your own risk!

This week my Bring Your Own Book club met for tea, and our topic for the month was Dystopias. I had offered to host this month, because dystopia is one of my absolute favorite genres. As I sat listening to the others recount various dystopian tales, I was struck by a thought that had been niggling at me for weeks – there’s a significant difference between a dystopian setting and a true dystopian novel. With the increasing popularity of brilliant YA novels such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, it’s becoming more and more common to see stories set in corrupt dystopian societies – but are these stories true dystopias, in the classic sense of the word? There’s more to a dystopian novel than a corrupt society setting – classic dystopias also share certain plot and character elements. When viewed in this way works such as The Hunger Games seem to fit more as other genres of stories, such as adventure, mystery or thriller, that are set in dystopian-inspired worlds.

In a classic dystopia, the protagonist is an anomaly within the Society. He either starts out as the lone dissatisfied person in a world of good little worker bees – like Winston Smith in 1984 – or he is one of the good little worker bees himself. He may even be a somewhat celebrated member of the society; Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 has a respected job as a fireman, while D-503 in We is the builder of the spaceship Integral. Highlighting the protagonist in this way makes it easier for the reader to see why we will be following this person as opposed to anyone else; the majority of citizens are unaware of the flaws in the system, either because of relentless propaganda or status quo bias. Compare Winston’s colleagues in 1984 or the ciphers in We to the citizens of Panem in The Hunger Games; while the Party and the ciphers are sheep who follow the teachings of their government unfailingly, it seems that everyone in the outer districts of Panem is aware of the awful reality of the Games and refuses to swallow the Capitol’s propaganda. In a classic dystopia the protagonist’s journey is one of awareness, as he becomes more and more aware of the flaws and shortcomings of the Society, and simultaneously becomes less and less able to fit into the compartment the Society has given him. But in the Hunger Games, Katniss is already aware of the flaws in the Capitol’s rhetoric, and so is everyone she knows.

Most classic dystopias also contain a character of the archetype known as “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” In a dystopia, this character exists to show the protagonist the faults in the Society. She generally has her opinions already formulated, so that she can effortlessly denounce the Party or foretell the coming rebellion. In contrast to the protagonist, whose mental state tends to break down as he becomes more aware of the corruption, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has everything figured out already. She may end up as a love interest for the protagonist, and if so he will probably betray her at the climax. He is weak and indecisive compared to her strength and rhetoric. From Julia in 1984 to Clarice in Fahrenheit 451 to I-330 in We, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl enters the protagonist’s life to give him freedom within the structure of the Society. In The Hunger Games, however, this character doesn’t seem to be present, probably because there is no real need for her when the citizens are already aware and fighting back.

In a classic dystopia, the Society never loses. The protagonist may think he’s figured out a way to escape or to bring down the Party, but the Party is always three steps ahead. If the protagonist refuses to bend, the Society will break him, conforming him by force. Whether it’s the last scene in the Chestnut Tree Cafe in 1984 or the final Record in We, the Society always wins and the protagonist is once again a happy little worker bee. A classic dystopia ends on a note of hopelessness – the Society is too strong. The Hunger Games shows a brilliant subversion of this arc with the ending of Mockingjay. President Coin suggesting one final Hunger Games with Capitol children is a punch in the gut to the victors who have been through the arena – the reader can almost see the cycle of the Games beginning again. First one final Games, then another – and then it’s back to square one, but with roles reversed. Coin has become Snow, and the power will wield her just as it did him. Katniss sees this, and manages to break the cycle by assassinating Coin instead of Snow, realizing that the real enemy is the power of the office, not the broken, dying man presented to her. By breaking the cycle, Katniss allows a hopeful – and very un-dystopian – ending for her society.

Literature Spotlight: A First-Person Ensemble

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel told in epistolary form – meaning the story is told entirely through documents, in this case journal entries and newspaper clippings. Epistolary is a very effective technique for writing certain types of stories, and one that I feel is generally under-appreciated. In Dracula the epistolary form is used brilliantly to enhance the sense of mystery and suspense in the novel, and to add to the overall chilling effect of the story.

One of the ways in which epistolary form enhances the suspense is through the use of first person narration – from multiple sources. In a traditional first-person narration the reader follows a single protagonist, knowing only what they know and seeing only what they see. This can be a welcome insight into a character’s psyche, but can also be restrictive to the author since they cannot add outside information to the story. In epistolary form many characters can contribute first-person narratives to the novel at once, allowing the reader to get inside the heads of many people simultaneously and lending the novel a sense of a truly ensemble story.

In Dracula we are told the story primarily through journal entries from three of the main characters, each of whom have their own opinions and relationship to the central mystery of the novel. When all three characters are in the same place or participating in the same plan, the author’s choice of which journal to show us reveals subtle layers within the story itself. Near the midpoint of the novel, Mina Harker begins to fall victim to the same strange wasting effects that she had noticed in Lucy earlier on. While the Lucy chapters are narrated almost exclusively by Mina, now that the affliction has struck Mina the reader suddenly stops hearing from her and the narration switches to Dr. Seward. In this way Stoker manages to never quite tell us what’s really happening from the perspective of someone who is directly experiencing it. Like the characters themselves, we as readers can only see the effects of the mysterious ailment and theorize about its source.

When the characters are in separate locations or participating in separate activities, the choice of when and how to switch narrators is carefully designed to throw the reader off-guard. The novel begins with a sizable chunk told from the perspective of Jonathan Harker, as he travels to Castle Dracula and meets its namesake Count. Just when the reader has been lulled into thinking that the whole story will be told from this perspective, Jonathan decides to attempt a daring escape from the castle. He ends his journal entry with the phrase “Goodbye all. Mina!” (P.86) – and then the narrative abruptly switches to a happy-go-lucky letter sent by Mina to her best friend about her plans to come visit. We do not hear from Johnathan again for quite some time. The reader to begins to worry – how did his escape attempt go? Did he get captured – or worse? We are shown that Mina suspects nothing, and that the letters which Dracula forced Jonathan to write ahead of time and future-date are arriving on schedule, which just makes us worry more. Telling the story through multiple first-person accounts allows the reader to begin to piece the puzzle together ahead of the characters, increasing the sense of anticipation, or even dread, at what will happen when the characters finally figure it out.

Telling the story through diary entries also creates a unique and intriguing sense of time. Rather than a typical past-tense narrative, each diary entry begins in past tense as the character recounts the events of the previous day or so, and ends by bringing the narrative up to the present, often discussing their feelings or worries in present tense before ending the entry. The next entry jumps forward another day and again recounts the previous day up to the current moment, then stops. This jerky back-and-forward style of narration, oddly enough, places the reader firmly in the present by reminding them that the character who is narrating does not know any more about what will happen tomorrow than the reader does. In a standard narrative form, the reader can generally assume that the narrator already knows how the story ends, and is simply retelling it. By telling the story through diary entries, Stoker heightens the sense of dread and anticipation by reminding the reader constantly that the characters know no more than the reader – and sometimes much less. This technique is particularly effective for horror stories or mysteries – of which Dracula is both – because it maintains the suspense and uncertainty right through to the end.