Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mark Twain: Satirical Softcover of Siamese Serfdom

I wanted to discuss the topic I brought to class the other week outlined in my Précis assignment. Mark Twain’s humor and use of sarcasm appeal to my own sense of humor. He uses the sometimes ridiculous happenstances to parody the societal norms of the time. The indirect criticism is a clever and poetic way to attack the institutions that create a paradox. Racism is a self-contradicting social construction that is still alive today.

My Précis assignment focused on the idea that Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins were meant to be a single novel, not separated as they were published. This little bit of information is valuable; however the larger issue of race and racism in this country is expounded upon by the author of the academic journal I researched. Being a Spanish major I have been enrolled in many cultural studies and language courses. Some of these courses have made me more culturally sensitive and have revealed the more profound nature of racism. Even though institutional racism is not as apparent or regulated today, it still exists in a significant way. There are many large and small legislative maneuvers that attempt to control minorities within the United States. In the 19th century and even late into the 20th century people of color have been subject to discrimination and segregation. What I appreciate about Mark Twain’s work is that he appropriately creates a satirical work that highlights, in sometimes a not so subtle way, the flaws of the standards have created for themselves and others. He utilizes the two pair of “twins” to develop an argument against the very core of racism. The switching of the twins points out the blatant contradiction of the blood argument. The blood of a person of color is only different because society makes it different. The small community creates the distinction between black and white, when there is no physical, visible difference. Mark Twain continues to satirize the irony in Those Extraordinary Twins with the idea of “killing half”. Society, represented by the court system, elects to execute one twin, but because they are conjoined twins they doom the other to die as well. Those who judge a decision are truly caught between a rock and hard place. Mark Twain uses this fiction as a way to illustrate the impossibility of a solution and relates it back to the inability of society to make a proper decision.

The two novels make a fun read and demonstrate the ridiculous contradiction racism presents.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Irony of Love

Irony seems to almost shape the lives people lead. Life is ironic and it is amazing that we don’t learn from our mistakes no matter how frequently irony plays out in our day to day experience. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton paints a lovely example of the irony of love and materialism. Or maybe it is infatuation and greed. Love is more poetic.
There is one passage in particular that stuck with me throughout the novel. Lily Bart is having dinner with several guests including Selden and Mister and Misses Trenor when she attempts to see things the way Lawrence Selden does. She reflects upon all the dinner guests through the eyes of Selden and realized that “they had symbolized what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement” (Wharton 52). Mrs. Bart was determined to achieve materialistic comfort in a loud way with lavish possessions. What she realized in this passage, as brought to light by Selden, is that she would be foregoing so much happiness to gain the illusion of achievement.
            Being obsessed with material gain is one thing, but love is another intensely ironic happenstance of life. Lily Bart is constantly running around between men like a chicken with her head cut off. She manages to bumble through several awkward and flirtatious relationships with men. She is torn between marrying a man for his wealth and marrying Selden due to her true feelings of infatuation. Her indecisiveness and vain desire for wealth are her own undoing. The courting process causes her to not only lose face and friends; it causes her to lose Selden’s trust and eventually the opportunity for love with Selden. Her death seals her fate for never attaining that love. It was often alluded to in the book that fate would take her away from her ambitions. It even took her away from ambitions she never realized she had. She had no idea she could ever marry for love, and by the time she comprehends this possibility it is too late. Her neglect of the opportunity and eventual recognition of its happiness is a fitting example of irony in the context of love.           We can only pity those who have had circumstance prohibit love while futilely crossing our fingers every day that that irony doesn’t take hold in our lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Golden Gilded Greed

Frank Norris illustrates the overwhelming greed of humans in his novel McTeague. Our physical bodies are haunted by possessions and the desire to possess the relics of this world. There are few more appropriate symbols of humanity’s great avarice than gold. Material property, such as gold, becomes central to the development of Norris’ message about the vanity of greed and humanity’s nature to replace what was lost at all costs.
Gold, throughout human history, has represented money and more importantly power. Gold is something everyone wants, but very few possess, so its demand is extremely high. Characters like Trina and Zerkow demonstrate this obsession with gold. Numerous examples show how the two characters cling to their fixation on gold. This fascination only proves to be their undoing near the end of the novel as each character attempts to retrieve or replace what was lost. Zerkow marries Maria to fill that empty place where the gold should be, and Trina becomes a miser, preferring squalid conditions to losing more than she has of her wealth.
Even Trina represents a possession that belongs to McTeague. McTeague takes her as his wife, and she considers herself as belonging to him. The infatuation between the two in the beginning fades and they settle into their roles as husband and wife, more like statues or objects than two people deeply in love. As the couple slowly lose hold of their flat and their accustomed possessions, so do their affections dwindle for each other.
They take four major steps down as a result of Trina being a terrible miser. They move from their wedding flat, to the smaller place, to a room in Zerkow’s house, and then to nearly homeless and separated. Greed ironically takes away many of the material possessions that the McTeague couple enjoyed so much. At the height of her fetish Trina strips down and lays naked with the five thousand dollars worth of gold pieces. During this state of mania, she is murdered by her husband McTeague which is the driving point and climax to Norris’ statement about the vanity of selfishness.
In spite of vast material wealth, happiness inevitably seems to escape. Happiness and wealth are ironically taken away by circumstance; appropriate for the naturalistic style of novel. Zerkow murders Maria and fruitlessly drowns over his imagined gold. Trina suffers severely before she is murdered by her husband in spite of all her twenty dollar gold pieces. The golden greed was the root cause of these misfortunes, but the reason they died was their obsession and addiction to the gold. The same material possession that is supposed to purchase the necessities and luxuries of life ironically took their life away.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nurturing Nature Naturally

The class discussed the topic of nature vs. nurture but there is so much that could be said about the topic. Mark Twain highlights both sides in what seems like a bipolar indecision. At some points he seems to satisfy the notion that a “drop of black blood” could make all the difference in someone’s inherent character. At other times he supports the idea that even the lowliest of street born children could become a princess. Twain supports both nature and nurture in that someone’s character is dependent upon inherited blood as well as their upbringing.
Arguments for nurture rest upon the many instances when Roxana is raising the two children, Chambers and Tom. Roxana reflects that “by the fiction created by herself, he was become her master” (Twain 41). It was Roxana’s own doing that ironically placed her son in the master role over her. The usurper Tom’s upbringing proctored by Roxana created his disposition for selfishness and cruelty. Like Wilson said, “training is everything” (Twain 46) 
 This role switch and backfire of her son is just another example of Twain’s fine irony. His writings, especially Puddn’head Wilson, are littered with beautiful examples of this type of humor. This may highlight his darkening prospect of the world around him, as can be evinced by the allusions to his family dying. He mentions the empty cradles and the dead wife on page 24 which may reflect his own family.
Another example that promotes the idea of nurture is the case with the misplaced Queen’s daughter, as retold by Roxana. The Queen’s daughter was replaced by a poor mostly-white woman’s daughter while they were looking for her. The royalty never found out and the roles were completely switched. So obviously even a poor partly black person could be taught etiquette and behave just like a “white person” should. Through this line of logic one could assume that even a black person could have the quality of character of royalty.
However, Mark Twain also makes strong comments throughout the novel regarding the importance of a person’s blood and how it may have adverse effects upon character. During the time that the novel is based there was a lot of emphasis placed on honor and lineage of families. The F.F.V was an especially distinguished family name, for example. David Wilson concedes that Roxana’s superstitious character must be because she has “the drop of black blood in her” (Twain 46). Roxana later becomes a voice for the nature argument, by continually demeaning the usurper Tom and reminding him of his black blood heritage through her. Roxana harshly states to the usurper Tom that “thirty-one parts o’ you is white, en on’y one part nigger, en dat po’ little one part is yo’ soul” (Twain 109). Roxana’s character is explicitly stating her opinion of what comprises a person. She firmly believes that that single small drop of black blood is what determines his soul. Twain creates Roxana with this stance for a reason, possibly to contrast the argument and play the devil’s advocate. Ironically her stance is most likely due to the institutional conditioning of society at that time.
There are so many other examples for each side. Twain’s unrelenting concession to each side brings into question what point he is actually trying to make and how he uses both arguments to make that point.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Revisiting the Knowledge of Old

The MASC contains the secrets of so much knowledge. It holds knowledge in many forms; stories, journals, biographies, and even enormous bird books with pictures!  It holds more books and words that I would probably read in a lifetime. It probably has more money in there than I would make in a lifetime too! Joking aside, the experience at the MASC opened my eyes to the type of resources available to our university. It also made me aware of the type of books available. In particular the one I was able to sample titled, Theodosia Ernest.
            Theodosia Ernest was a book that chronicled several baptism stories. It contained a series of short narratives that detailed how people were baptized and the context of each baptism. It also frequently posed questions about Christianity with appropriate answers that reaffirmed the character’s faith. These question and answers were often in the form of a story which helped the reader follow along, remain interested, and retrieve the moral of the story. If memory serves, this book was made with the intent to distribute in order to spread religious ideology. It was one of many copies created to instill fervent faithfulness to the teachings of Christianity.
            Another interesting note was the small lock of blond hair I found tucked away between the pages. This was a surprise to me as well as the MASC proctor for the day. Hopefully he will have it analyzed and find that the person to whom it formerly belonged was historically famous. They possibly used it as a bookmark, but I feel like there would be a plethora of other useful substitutes. Regardless, the finding of the blonde hair was fairly creepy, but entertaining to say the least.
            I enjoyed the readings and summaries from all the other students, especially from the more curious texts. The book about the beef was particularly humorous. Some of the older books seemed bizarre, and overall it was hard to relate many of them with our generation. Possibly on the next trip to the MASC, the books sampled to us could be more relevant to college students of our age. Maybe the proctor could include old “day-in-the-life” books that recount how the university was, how sports were played, or maybe old journal descriptions of Washington cities like Seattle or Spokane. Those would be pertinent and extremely fascinating.
            Overall I enjoyed my experience at the MASC and would love to have an excuse to peruse their collections. However, I feel like it would be an overwhelming feat to attempt the navigation of their facilities.