English 111: 1
11 April 2019
Death Won’t Stop for Anyone
Many ponder or debate over how to spend their life. However, there is a truth that applies to all: make the most of each day, as they are numbered. Two revered poets, Emily Dickinson and E. E. Cummings, were strong believers in living in the present and discussed death openly. Emily Dickinson writes on the topic of death frequently and explains its characteristics and behavior through personification. Conversely, E. E. Cummings is more subtle in how he talks of the “Setting Sun” of life (Dickinson ln 12). Emily Dickinson’s “712” and E. E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” urge the reader to follow the mantra of carpe diem: live life to the fullest. While “712” uses a first person speaker who urges readers to embrace death, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” uses a third person narrator to warn against living a forgettable life. Both authors use different literary tools and unique syntax in order to emphasize the importance of seizing the day.
“712,” more commonly known by its first line: “Because I could not stop for Death,” has a unique first person narrator (ln 1). The speaker surprises the reader when she admits she has been dead for “Centuries ” (ln 21). In other words, the speaker is a ghost whose tone is resolute because of how much time has lapsed since her death. After mulling over her death for a while, she has concluded that one must make the most of the life they have, for Death is inevitable and will come unexpectedly. At the time of her death, the speaker states she “could not stop for Death,” meaning that she was not prepared for her life to end (ln 1). The unexpectedness of her encounter with Death has led her to understand that Death has plans that may conflict with her own. As a result of this knowledge, she learns to cherish each day of living. After recovering from the suddenness of her own death, the speaker comes to realize that Death is a kind, chivalrous man who “knew no haste” (ln 5). Death’s relaxed pace further emphasizes, after much time has lapsed, how at peace the speaker is with her dying. She respects Death and observes how he is not in a rush, nor will he wait. This is a message to society as an audience: be present and live fully lest Death step in our way unexpectedly. Seize the day!
“anyone lived in a pretty how town” presents a different rhetorical situation with a living speaker but maintains a similar carpe diem motif. In Cummings’ poem, an omniscient third person speaker observes the happenings in a plain, mundane town. The town in this poem is intended as a warning to society to avoid the trap of living a dull and forgettable life. The speaker presents the townspeople as unfriendly, selfish “Women and men (both little and small) / cared for anyone not at all” (lns 5-6). Cummings stresses their small-mindedness and lack of perspective with his choice of adjectives: little and small. It is as if the town is a snow globe filled with tiny figurines who are completely unaware of the world they are missing outside of the thick glass dome. These flawed women and men show up later in the poem as the “busy folk” who bury a married couple (ln 27). Cummings uses “busy” as a criticism, demonstrating how the townspeople are distracted by insignificant tasks such as “sow[ing] their isn’t they reaped their same” (ln 7). The folks in the pretty how town continue to maintain their old ideas (their “isn’t”) and reap their same conventions by raising their children to think like adults. This line transitions to a bitter critique of adulthood: “children guessed (but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew)” (ln 9-10). Cummings claims that the loss of innocence through becoming an adult is a problem, for children are the ones who live more honestly and passionately. The speaker indicates that he dislikes the town’s monotonous way of life: “reaped their sowing and went their came” (ln 35). Cummings’ observer believes the town’s limited interests are inadequate. This reproachful and disapproving tone contrasts with Dickinson’s gracious attitude about mortality. “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is a warning, while “712” is a thoughtful reflection on life and death.
In “712,” Dickinson supports the theme of carpe diem using different figurative elements from those employed in Cummings’ melancholy poem. Still, both Dickinson and Cummings mention the passage of time in their poems. In Dickinson’s “712,” the speaker reflects on the various stages of her life while she is driven in Death’s carriage toward “Eternity” (ln 25). She sees her life flash by her: “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess—in the Ring— / We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—” (lns 9-11). The speaker describes how she and Death pass by her childhood, represented by recess and the allusion to “Ring around the Rosie,” then by her work or education (“the Fields”) (lns 10-11). Lastly, Death pulls the carriage past “the Setting Sun.” This is an optimistic metaphor for death, signifying an end that will lead to a new beginning. Death and the speaker observe these stages without regret or impatience. Instead, it seems the two are taking their time because they know they will inevitably reach her final resting place: “The Cornice— in the Ground—” (ln 20). Dickinson writes this poem as a gentle suggestion in contrast with Cummings’ ominous warning to remind readers to make the most of the time we are given.
While Dickinson expresses the stages of life by commenting on each one that she and Death “slowly drove” by, Cummings presents a more cynical perspective. He shows the passage of time through the use of repetition of specific motifs: the seasons and the sun, moon, stars, and rain (Dickinson ln 5). “anyone lived in a pretty how town” starts off on a happier note with the phrase “spring summer autumn winter” and then shortly after, “sun moons stars rain”(lns 3, 8). The order of the seasons is significant. Cummings intentionally begins both phrases with the seasons associated with hope and happiness: spring and summer. Next, he ends the lines with autumn and winter, which brings to mind the cold and colorless days. Almost every other stanza contains a similar line to these, which may seem disconnected until the last stanza: “sun moon stars rain” (ln 36). In this way, the cycle has come full circle. This phrase is identical to the one in the first stanza. The movement of the seasons and the rotation of the sun, moon, stars, and rain reflect the birth, growth, and decline of the people in the pretty how town. However, the townspeople miss the critical “growth” stage because they fail to break out of their patterns. Moreover, they continue to be blind to the passing seasons and their possibilities. Cummings writes, “only the snow can begin to explain / how children are apt to forget to remember” as another parallel between the weather and the townspeople’s way of living (lns 22-23). He describes how the children’s minds in this town are touched by “the snow” of monotonous, distracted living, turning them from creative, excited kids into stagnant adults. Cummings urges the reader to avoid slipping into the “busy” way of life this town depicts.
Dickinson and Cummings maintain distinct styles of writing that separate them from several distinguished poets. Dickinson is known for her sprinkling of capitalized words in each line to create emphasis. In addition, she inserts several dashes that may be interpreted as breaths between each line. The capitalized words direct the attention of the reader toward important symbols or allusions in “712.” For example, Dickinson hints at the identity of the speaker when she comments on her wearing “Gossamer, my Gown— / My Tippet—only Tulle—” (lns 15-16) . The halting way these lines read allow the reader to consider why is she wearing such a thin, spider web-like fabric? It is later, when she is revealed to be a ghost, that these lines make more sense. However, they would not have been noteworthy if not for the capital Gs and Ts that encourage the reader to pause for deeper contemplation. The “Horses’ Heads” mentioned in the penultimate line are emphatically capitalized in line 23. By looking back earlier in the poem, we conclude that Dickinson is referring to the horses drawing the hearse. Therefore, they symbolize the inescapable pull toward mortality.
While Dickinson drew attention to her writing through sporadic capitalization, Cummings sparked controversy through his complete lack of capitalization. However, this may not be the most important syntactic element in “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” Rather than giving them names or simply using the pronouns “him” and “her” to describe the two lovers, Cummings labels them “anyone” and “someone”: “someones married their everyones / laughed their cryings and did their dance [...] / said their nevers they slept their dream” (lns 17-18, 20). Cummings calls the readers to empathize with his subjects by naming them “someones.” He implies that this fate—their “doing their dance” of life and then not pursuing their ambitions—could happen to anyone. He provides an all too familiar example of lives wasted through artificial busyness and through stalling the pursuit of dreams. Cummings’ message rings clear once the reader replaces the two characters “anyone” and “someone” with society. The reader is urged to wake up, live in the moment, and get out of their pretty how town.
Cummings shows an example of a town squandering away its days to promote doing the opposite. He asks readers to treasure the present. In contrast, Dickinson uses a ghost’s perspective to look back on her death in order to show how life is fleeting. Both authors discuss the passage of time, seasons, and the stages of life at a quick pace and utilize unique syntax in order to warn readers against spending life’s moments poorly. Dickinson and Cummings call readers to initiate changes in their lives and to avoid reaping their same for all of Eternity.
Depression hides in the dark. It lies in the shadows of our brain, a midnight that drowns those whom are afflicted with feelings of inescapability and hopelessness. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” depression’s true nature is made apparent to the reader. The poem centers around our speaker, a lonely wanderer recounting times he has walked through the city in the dead of night. Our wanderer is solemn, detached, and lost; depression has found its grip on him. While “Acquainted with the Night” paints the picture of a man in the midst of depression, Emily Dickinson’s poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” provides a contrasting perspective. It is centered around a speaker who has struggled with depression in the past, and is now reflecting upon her experience. The speaker finds herself in the darkness, but as her eyes adjust, the light hidden around her becomes more apparent. These two poems illustrate a clear picture of the cyclical nature of depression; however, while Frost leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness, Dickinson reveals there is light even in the darkest of circumstances, showing that at the end of the night, we may step almost straight.
“Acquainted with the Night” drops the reader in the midst of the city, following the Lonely Wanderer as he walks alone through the darkness. Immediately Frost sets the tone of the piece, asserting that the Wanderer is “acquainted with the night” (ln. 1). Our Wanderer’s familiarity with the night is relatable from a metaphorical standpoint. He is someone who has struggled with depression for a great deal of time, someone who knows the struggles and detriments that come with mental illness. The lonely Wanderer is consumed with depression; the night he has found himself in has become his reality. Mentally, the Wanderer is plunged in darkness. He recounts times he has “passed by the watchman on his beat / and dropped [his] eyes, unwilling to explain” (lns. 5-6). Personal connection of any sort is out of the question for him. As he walks through the night the Wanderer confines himself to solitude, avoiding social interaction as much as he can. He doesn’t want to explain why he walks at night; he is ashamed of his reasoning and cannot even bring himself to look a stranger in the eye, much less talk to anyone about his situation. Furthermore, the watchman is supposed to observe the city and the people residing within it, but the Wanderer feels as though he doesn’t deserve to be watched. We’re left wondering if this is a consequence of the Wanderers depression, one of the reasons why he trudges through the dark. The shame he feels brings him deeper into his depressive state, forcing him to move through the city in the blackness, allowing him to be alone. Immediately after this interaction, the Wanderer tells us about “an interrupted cry / […] But not to call me back or say good-bye” (lns 8, 10). This cry makes us sympathetic for the Wanderer. As he stops to listen, we yearn for the Wanderer. We hope this cry is for him, someone who misses him and acknowledges his disappearance into the night. However, our hopes are dashed alongside the Wanderer’s when this is not the case. There is a crippling sadness that comes with this realization, a nagging feeling that maybe the Wanderer really is alone in the populated city. Then, the poem closes with the line from which it began, “I have been one acquainted with the night” (ln 14). We are left without a happy ending. In fact, we end where we started. From the Wanderers point of view, depression is circular and inescapable. This is not the first time he has walked the city streets at night, and it won’t be the last. As far as the Wanderer can tell, there is no escaping the night that he has found himself in.
Peeling back the syntactical layers to “Acquainted with the Night” reveals deeper meanings through the poem’s setting and word choice. Frost is careful to point out that the lonely Wanderer has “outwalked the furthest city light,” and “looked down the saddest city lane” (lns 3-4). This urban setting is an oddly fitting place for the events in the poem to unfold. Frost sidesteps a more conventionally solitude setting, such as the vast wilderness or an empty desert, places in nature where people commonly seek restoration, and instead selects a heavily populated city. This artfully displays the negative effects depression can elicit once it finds a victim. Although the Wanderer is physically surrounded by people, mentally, he is alone. Depression has found such a tight grip on the Wanderer that he has convinced himself there is no one to turn to, even in the midst of a bustling city. This rather ironic setting allows the reader to better understand that being in proximity to others does not necessarily mean we are emotionally close to them. Frost’s message that depression can feel unrelenting and inescapable shines through in his use of the past tense throughout the poem as well. The Wanderer repeats the words “I have” various times throughout the piece. Echoing this phrase shows the reader that the events aren’t taking place in a single night. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has averted his eyes from the watchman. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has listened for an interrupting cry. He is trapped in his depressive routine. This acquaintance with the night isn’t new, and it isn’t a relationship that will be ending.
Where “Acquainted with the Night” leaves us hopeless, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” on the other hand, reminds us that there is light in the blackness. The poem opens with the image of a woman adapting to change. She steps out of the light and takes on the darkness: “We uncertain step / For newness of the night” (lns 5-6). Our brave Explorer steps into an environment of uncertainty. She has left the comfort of the light and is now engulfed in darkness. The reason behind this transition into darkness is uncertain, but Dickinson's message is clear: the Explorer has entered a difficult period of her life, and she is not yet sure how to deal with the new circumstances. She has little knowledge of her surroundings and the night she finds herself in makes her uneasy. When she gains her bearings however, she fits her “Vision to the Dark – / And meet[s] the Road – erect –” (lns 7-8). Her eyes begin to adjust to the dark. While the darkness around her is still apparent, our brave Explorer has a better grasp of her environment and is ready to take on the road ahead. Life is still difficult, but she has not given up hope. She is ready to continue moving and taking on life’s challenges. The Explorer continues through the dark, but not without trouble. She admits, “The Bravest – grope a little – / And sometimes hit a Tree” (lns 13-14). The darkness she is stuck in is difficult to maneuver through. Dickinson acknowledges that depression takes practice to understand, and mistakes are inevitable while searching for the light. However, our brave Explorer is not despondent, as was the lonely Wanderer. She understands that when darkness is cast upon our lives may be overwhelming, but she closes the piece off by explaining that staying strong and preserving hope is most important in these difficult times. Our Explorer grows accustomed to the dark, affirming, “Life steps almost straight” (ln 20). She finds her way through the darkness; her light is back, and she has grown from her experience. While she is no longer in the dark, the knowledge she gains is still with her because she has matured from her experience. Life will never revert completely back to what it was. Dickinson makes it clear with her final line that life isn’t supposed to return to what it was before her depression. To make it through the darkness, our Explorer grows as a person.
Dickinson fills “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with grammatical nuances which serve to drive the poem’s message home and further establish the tone of the piece. Throughout the poem, there are many words capitalized in seemingly randomized places. However, as we take a deeper look at those capitalized words we see a theme begin to emerge. Dickinson frequently capitalizes words such as “Dark,” “Midnight,” and “Evening,” as well as vocabulary including “Light,” and “Lamp” (lns 1, 2, 3, 10, 18). Placing emphasis on these words highlights the conflict within the story. The poem pits light against dark, and through her capitalization of these words we can almost hear our inner voices shouting out as we read them. Dickinson wants us to see that these words are capitalized for a reason; their antithetical nature works to further her message of finding Light in the Dark. Dickinson also halts the reader by repeatedly placing dashes amidst the poem. One example of this is shown in the line “And so of larger – Darknesses –” (ln 9). The dashes ensure that we take our time maneuvering around the word “darkness.” We are forced to struggle with our Explorer. The darkness of the mind is not one that is overcome quickly, and Dickinson inserts these pauses to remind us of this. She forcibly slows the pacing of the poem, and we are given a window into the struggles presented by depression. Whether we like it or not, it takes time for light to drown out the night.
These poems cast light on the different phases of the night, giving us a clear view of the struggles of depression. In its midst, we are like the lonely Wanderer, trapped inside our own head, positive there is no escape to the endless cycles of the night. Then, as our eyes adjust to the darkness, we graduate from the Wanderer to the Explorer. It becomes clear that reality isn’t as grim as it had once seemed, and life steps almost straight once again. While “Acquainted with the Night” and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” both provide wildly contrasting views of depression, the poems are not contradictory in the lessons they teach. The Wanderer and the Explorer aren’t contradictory characters; they are the embodiments of someone struggling with depression in its various stages. Through these pieces we can learn the different perspectives of the same problem, and shed light on the darkness of depression as a whole.
To be a woman extends past the anatomical description. Social expectations hinder a woman’s self expression from the moment she, as a newborn, is strangled by a pale pink blanket. In her short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates writes of teenage girl, Connie, who ventures out of the home to understand her true identity. However, exerting a more mature but falsified version of herself in public results in the arrival of Arnold Friend, a symbolic character who reflects Connie’s true subconscious desires. Similarly, in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” a nameless protagonist finds herself in the mountains accompanied by a seemingly inhuman male figure as she struggles to distinguish between myth and reality in understanding her identity. Both stories follow young women journeying to ease tension between their subconscious desires and social expectations who, by way of male influence, ultimately recognize a woman’s compulsion is to sacrifice self on behalf of family.
In Oates’ short story, Connie, a fifteen year old girl, struggles to align with the model of a perfect daughter her older sister has set. Twenty-four year old June is described as Connie’s antithesis: “Connie had to hear her [June] praised all the time[...]June did this, June did that, she saved money and helped clean the house and cooked and Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams” (339). This contrast portrays Connie as a more immature and naive version of a woman, with desires unsupported by her family. Unlike her sister, regarded as a respectable young woman, Connie is vain with her priorities centered around social interaction and her outward appearance. In an effort to ease tension between her own desires and her family’s expectations, Connie develops two identities. Oates describes, “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home[…]her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home[…]but high pitched and nervous everywhere else…”(340). Connie’s internal struggle of exploring her maturity in public versus aligning with her family’s ideals at home leads to cognitive dissonance. Her inner conflict between desires of sexual expression and becoming a proper woman is exposed upon the arrival of Arnold Friend.
Similarly, Silko’s “Yellow Woman” follows a nameless protagonist on her quest to self discovery. Silko blurs the lines between myth and reality to highlight the challenges a young woman experiences in expressing her inner desires. The woman begins her mysterious journey by the river, away from her home in the city. There, she is accompanied by a unknown man who suggests she is the Yellow Woman and he is ka’tsina from the myths her grandfather told. Unsure of her identity she pleads, “...and I will be sure I am not the Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw” (452). This excerpt displays discrepancy between her understanding of myth and reality, as well as a disconnect between the past and the present. This inner disorientation prompts her journey to self discovery. The myth’s connection to both her new identity and her family history forces her to consider the role her family plays in forming her personhood. She fights the notion of being the Yellow Woman in an effort to discover her true self, separate from the family. This idea is also highlighted as she rationalizes leaving home stating, “There are enough of them to handle things. My mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else…”(455). As the woman ventures farther away from the city, she becomes more unsure of reality and disinterested in venturing home. Her detachment from the family and specifically her child—always referring to him as “the baby”—reveals her discontent with her current life and explains why she is so drawn to the mystery of the man in the mountains.
On the other hand, the female protagonist in Oates’ story is anything but drawn to the mysterious male figure who, like ka’tsina, attempts to guide her in her journey. Arnold Friend arrives when Connie is home alone. His ability to visualize exactly what her family is doing and the inhuman nature of his description, including pale hole-like eyes , hoof-like feet and a “slippery smile”, points to his personification of the devil (345, 347). When Connie asks of the purpose of his visit, he explains he is her lover and that although she is yet to understand what that means, she soon will (349). This encounter symbolizes Connie facing her subconscious desires for sexual expression. In exerting a maturity publically, she is now forced to recognize the falseness of her portrayal and accept her sexual inexperience. Oates writes, “She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible, something not meant for her”, further proving Connie’s immaturity by describing her childlike reaction to Friend’s proposal (350). Furthermore, Connie’s familiarity with Arnold Friend as shown through the music he plays, the sing-song way he talks, and his symbolic mirrored sunglasses prove he is not simply a representation of the devil, but he is Connie’s own devilish desire in flesh. Friend’s vehicle features the numbers 39, 19, and 17 painted on the side, which point to a biblical verse including the phrase, “Where are you going, and where have you come from?” similar to the title of Oates’ work “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This allusion fuels the devil connection and is echoed when Connie considers who Arnold Friend is and where he has come from. Oates writes, “...she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music was so familiar to her that it was only half real” (349). Connie recognizes her similarity to Friend; he hasn’t come from anywhere because he is within her. Representing her desires and belonging nowhere, Connie’s description of Friend points to the absence of complete self expression for women in society as they are too often defined by the male gaze.
Comparatively, the mysterious mountain man aligns himself with the mythical figure ka’tsina who lures woman from the city to the mountains. Silko uses indirect characterization to yield a dreamlike portrayal of the man stating, “I stared past him at the shallow moving water and tried to remember the night, but I could only see the moon in the water and remember his warmth around me” (451). The warmth the protagonist feels reveals her sexual connection and attraction to the strength and control of this inexplicable being. However, lack of his physical description and repetition of his disappearances and reappearances contributes to a spirit-like characterization as opposed to an actual human being. Struggling to discover her own identity, the woman ponders her relationship with the man. Her repressed subconscious desires are exposed in her decision to stay with the man, engaging in an inappropriate affair. She describes her inner discord by stating, “I walked beside him, breathing hard because he walked fast, his hand around my wrist. I had stopped trying to pull away from him, because his hand felt cool…”(452). In exerting control over the woman, the spirit leads her along her journey, and she chooses to follow. She is entranced by his presence, ironically experiencing more freedom than her family obligations allowed at home. His hold on her points to a woman’s role in society. She must be guided by a man to come to discovery; discovery that is not her own.
In both stories, symbolism contributes to the character’s understanding. Music accompanies Connie throughout her journey evolving as she faces her subconscious desires in the form of Arnold Friend. Music contributes to the overall mood throughout the text. Prior to the arrival of Arnold Friend the music is dependable (340) but when he arrives playing the same station she was listening to, the mood shifts as the music intensifies. This intensity allows Connie to realize that the sexual expression she sought was not what she truly wanted to receive. In the end of Oates’ short story, Connie must decide whether to leave with Arnold Friend, saving her family member’s lives, or wait for their return.
Similarly, in “Yellow Woman” the river symbolizes the woman’s journey to self discovery. Rivers are archetypal for cleansing and bringing new life. Thus, beginning and ending her journey using the river as a guiding force symbolizes the woman’s spiritual renewal upon leaving the city and enlightenment on her way home. Arriving home, she finds her family performing their typical tasks: making dinner and tending to the child. There is a sense of confinement in the cyclical nature of these practices that the narrator is unsatisfied with, but she enters anyway.
Both women venture out from entrapment in the home to an outer world of experience and freedom in an effort to understand their identity and unobstructed desires. By interacting with inhuman male forces, they come to a realization about what it means to become a woman. Connie and the “yellow woman” encounter their sinful desires, leading them to abandon their true identities in an effort to become socially acceptable women. Although they are unsatisfied with the social expectations that bind them to the female condition, like staying in the home or being a proper young woman, they recognize womanhood is rooted in sacrifice. To become a woman is to sacrifice self.
Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 338-355.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Yellow Woman.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 450-459.
Up the stairs, tucked in the corner, and buried beneath past memories printed on paper and old phone bills is my family’s treasure chest. Contrasted against the hallways eggshell walls, the chest proudly stands adorning it’s chipped, cartoon puke paint which may be an eye sore to anyone else but my family who only sees a priceless family heirloom. Because what is beneath those ugly walls are hundreds of photos, drawings, baby clothes, and souvenoirs that all weave together to tell a tale of who my family is, even if I wasn’t there to see it. And when I open this treasure chest, and am greeted by an assault of cigarettes only my great grandmother could have smoked I am reminded of who I am today because of where I come from. In the stories, Everyday Use and What You Pawn I Will Redeem, the authors Alice Walker and Sherman Alexie both effectively warn readers of the dangers of ignorance and the significance of heritage by using stark characterization, vivid symbols, and powerful epiphanies to illustrate harmful social constructs rooted within each character and more importantly ourselves.
In Everyday Use, the nameless narrator invites us to step into her shoes as a mother and see how different her two daughters have grown from the humble beginnings they have originated. While Dee is beautiful, well-educated, confident, bold, and condescending, Maggie is the exact opposite. Juxtaposed against her sister’s brazen personality and clothes, Maggie is young, timid, ugly, scarred, barely literate, and discouraged by life. By comprising Maggie of undesirable qualities, the author intentionally makes our protagonist someone who invokes empathy as we are able to easily root for Maggie. And when she is described as a “lame… dog… run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car,”(482) we are forced to contemplate how a young woman like Maggie, whose literacy proves her potential, could already be beaten down by life. The author intentionally does not reveal where Maggie’s scars come from as they symbolize past trauma suffered by African Americans. While Dee urges Maggie to forget about the past and make something of herself she is blind to the lasting effects of these scars which persist through generations. When our bodies are hurt beyond repair we grow scars. Scars are violent, heartbreaking, ugly and most importantly beg to be seen and acknowledged. But just like her name, Dee denies Maggie of the recognition her trauma deserves and thus Maggie nor anyone can truly move on as scars may be covered but can never heal.
Just as Maggie bears her scars, Jackson Jackson in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem’ bears his own which traces farther than his own origins in Spokane, Washington. In the beginning of the story, Jackson belittles himself as simply an alchoholic and a homeless man. Although the author later reveals the many positive qualities the protagonist has, such as education and wit, we are forced to see that all of these traits are futile to a society that just like Jackson will only see a homeless alchoholic. In parallel to Walker, Alexie abstains from giving a cause for these imperfections, as the reader is again prompted to examine if these problems run deeper than just Jackson’s individual story. The author even goes as far to conspicuosly state that Jackson is the “After Columbus Arrived Indian... living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins,”(10). Just as Maggie is stagnant due to existing societal constructs, Jackson is stuck living his life as a symbol of the consequences of America’s pillaging and more importantly the dangers of unawareness. His alchoholism and homelessness represent his own scars which condemn him to a “terrible fate of a noble savage (9). A fate destined through racism and greed that has caused horrendous events such as the Trail of Tears and continues to harm and oppress generations to come by a society that blinds itself to the lasting scars that have endured through their own ignorance.
In “Everyday Use” the main conflict is driven by which sister deserves the quilt that has been forged from their past ancestors and their clothes. By placing each sister at opposite ends of the fighting ring, we are presented with two possible paths and more importantly two opposite views of heritage. Dee asserts that the quilt should be placed in a musuem where it can be displayed and looked at but never used or really acknowledged. But while Dee sees the quilt as a work of art that’s purpose is to be displayed for the elitist of society, Maggie is able to recognize that her family’s quilt represents far more than a pretty object. She sees her grandmother and grandmother’s grandmother and not only their clothes but the lives they fought to live in those garments and the life she has because of it. And although Maggie understands these quilts and her heritage are made to be used and appreciated each and every day she also posseses the knowledge that she doesn’t need those quilts at all to understand the meaning of heritage. To know that we cannot shield ourselves from the triumphs and massacres of our history but rather must embrace our past despite it’s ugliness.The author presents the reader with two paths: a life guided by blindness leaving you in the dark or one where everyday you are brought back into the light.
When Jackson stumbles upon his grandmother’s lost regalia in the pawn shop, this call to action sets in motion a quest that will unknowingly change the narrator forever. As Jackson meets new people and shares his stories while listening to others, the author shows us the importance of storytelling but also listening. By hearing these joyous, heartbreaking, triumphant, and hilarious stories from people of all different backgrounds we are not only reminded of the shared humanity that lives in all of us but the beautifully unique details about ourselves that make our stories vital to tell. The yellow bead on the regalia represents an ugly truth that mars each story we tell. But yet just like each tragedy that marks our history, this yellow bead cannot be ignored or shunned as it’s place on the regalia is what redeems Jackson in the end. Through each story that is recited and consumed, Jackson is able to claim a part of his heritage he never knew he lost. In the end, what has more importantly been gained from this noble quest was not his grandmother’s regalia but the community that was built from just one man who gave a little bit of himself to everyone whom he met, even if there was nothing left to give, while trying to reclaim a small part of himself that maybe each Native American had also lost. Once Jackson has learned the value of the community that has always existed in Seattle and America, Jackson is able to finally redeem what had been stolen from him. But just as Maggie does not need her family’s quilt to feel her ancestor’s will coarsing through her blood, Jackson finally doesn’t need the regalia to feel the presence of his heritage that lives within himself and the people and stories he has gained along the way.
However what is more importantly learned through the readers shared jubilation of our protagonist’s victories and realizations is what we take away from our own lives from these timeless and sacred texts. Although it is easy to distance ourselves from these obvious evils pointed out in these tales, each author asks of us to contemplate our role in history and more significantly, what action we can take to correct the athe wrongs our society has ignored. In Everyday Use”, the author gives our protagonist and narrator a happy ending as both are give a peace from the epiphanies that have been learned. But as Dee slides her sunglasses on and embarks back into the darkness to find an identity she may never know, we are asked to question our own blindness. Are we recognizing our heritage, scars or all, or attempting to cover a history that cannot be shunned? In contrast, the ending of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” begs us to invest in just a little kindness and maybe hope in a humanity that our protagonists have both lost hope in. To lend an ear to a few strangers you see on the docks or to break bread and feast even when you have nothing left to give. In the end, both stories gives us their own twisted versions of hope, of a world that may still have tragedy, scars, rags, and misplaced orange beads but ultimately leaves you with a breathtaking piece of history that above all else shows truth and honor.
In the age of “Time’s Up” and the “Me, Too” movement, where women are no longer speaking idly from the sides but shouting from the front lines of the long ongoing battle against inequality, we often find ourselves caught up in the importance of “the now.” Focusing on the current climate of our surroundings is dire, especially in a society where devastating political moves and heart-breaking tragedies can develop within the span of minutes, if not less. That being said, too often do we neglect reflecting on the past and the perspectives it offers to us present day, and how these opinions might aide us in making further strides forward. In looking towards pieces of literature that precede us, we can often find messages that ring true even in today’s society, all the while offering us the ability to grasp the value said piece had in changing the narrative during the time in which it was published. In the contexts of their time, two such short stories do just that; “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner. Despite their very different approaches, these two stories, through their dual uses of point of view and characterization, expose the dangers of patriarchal oppression that women face as a result of the male gaze (what is more modernly known as “mansplaining”).
First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, shares a tale that is deeply rooted in the real-life experiences of the author herself. In this short story, we follow the often-questionable perspective of the Narrator as she spends three months in what she initially believes is a summer home, but eventually comes to realize, that it is in fact, an asylum. The way in which the Narrator is characterized, and often views herself, is based solely on the perspectives those closest to her outwardly project. Her husband, the one responsible for her “diagnosis” and further hospitalization, is the prime example of such outward characterization. He regards her in a fatherly, if not condescending, manner, often depicted laughing at her, managing all of the decisions surrounding her “condition,” and referring to her with names such as “little girl” and “blessed little goose” (171, 180,175). Initially, the Narrator views her husband’s micromanaging and dismissiveness as the manifestation of his love and concern as both husband and doctor. She believes that his opinions about her health are based in sound reasoning, and that leads her to adopt the view of weakness and instability projected by him. However, as the story progresses and her surroundings bring on a further loss of conscious awareness, this seeming deterioration comes to serve as a catalyst for her epiphany. As she recedes further into her mind, she begins to voice discontent with the way in which John treats her, as well as the conditions in which she is held. At the peak of her insanity, which just so happens to be her last day in “treatment,” she fights back against her husband and the patriarchal tones he has come to represent. After throwing out the key in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her husband away, she boasts to him about being able to “[get] out at last” (187). In spite of her instability, the last interaction we as readers view between the Narrator and John, speaks a large deal to the change in self-image that she came to adopt in response to her loss of reality. Where once she was characterized as a weak woman in needed of a man’s coddling and “expert” opinions, the Narrator comes to experience a full metamorphosis into a woman aware of the patriarchal expectations that not only plague her marriage, but society as a whole.
Unlike most other stories where we tend to put our wholehearted faith into the narrator’s ability to accurately tell their story, the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents a challenge to the typical method in which we read. Due to the instability that the Narrator faces as a result of her lackluster conditions and neglectful treatment, we as the audience are met with the choice of whether or not to trust the credibility of her writings, and furthermore, the point of view presented. Despite this, we find ourselves rooting for the character to overcome. As we follow the character through her stay at this “mansion,” we begin to realize that although her point of view is shrouded in faulty foundations, not giving her the benefit of the doubt only furthers the same patriarchal tendencies seen in John and those assisting him in her caretaking. The point of view in and of itself has come to represent an unfortunate trend many women today are all too familiar with; a tendency to be dismissed and deemed un-credible by their peers both male and female. By putting our faith in the Narrator and following along as she comes to realize the misogyny and mansplaining that has come to define her, as well as how her realization has come to represent her release, we are able to come to an epiphany ourselves, one that allows us to grow and be more aware of the judgements and deductions we are often quick to make, especially in regards to believing the stories of the abused.
In William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” we see a very different take on the way in which characterization is utilized. Unlike that of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the characterization of our main character Emily Grierson is not interpreted by her own internal monologue, but rather that of those who also occupy her town. To the people around her, Emily represents something of an outsider. Her age and reclusive behavior make her an enigmatic entity, and this causes those around her to be wary. Despite their wariness, the townspeople view Emily with an air of pity that has come from the unorthodox relationship between her and her father, depicted in the form of a tableau; in said “piece”, her father is depicted as an overpowering black silhouette figure in the forefront of the image, horsewhip in hand, his back towards his daughter of white who occupies the background (158). His need to have control over her and keep her bound to him and him alone, alludes to the patriarchy that has come to deteriorate and create an unstable foundation to Emily, a fact becomes more prominent as time continues to roll forward, and she represents as much the house she has become prisoner to, as its outward appearance has come to characterize her. As the conditions of the house continue to worsen, from the rot and “dust and disuse” (155) that has come just as much from earth bound means as the patriarchal society that bound Emily to its floorboards, the townspeople begin to express an irritation towards Emily’s inability to “do what a woman should do.” Although this isn’t an outwardly voiced thought, their assumptions are apparent in the continued meddling in her personal life, and the irritation that is voiced in response to her house’s condition (157). This fear of “other” that the people around her experience directly stems from the patriarchal practice of filling in the blanks of someone else’s story and dismissing them to the outside; a practice that directly diminishes Emily to the near apparition she has become (158).
Although the points of view of these two stories are completely different, with “A Rose for Emily” using the uncommon form of first-person plural, both stories’ methods of narration carry a lack of trust in the narrator(s) itself. Whereas the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” faces an assumption of unreliability as a result of the patriarchy that has put her into such a state of instability, the narrator in “A Rose for Emily” poses itself as an untrustworthy narrator not because of an oppression it experiences, but because it represents the monologue and thoughts that come as a result of a society crippled by the patriarchy. The townspeople that make up this point of view project their opinions and thoughts onto Emily so thoroughly, that she comes to represent a medium from which their stigmas can be cast upon and thrive. The ability of our narrator to reduce Emily down to just the pity and suspicion that surrounds her perceived “otherness,” is ironically the system in which the author is able to critique the institution of patriarchy. By creating a narrator that views Emily through the eyes of the male gaze and speaks through the art of mansplaining, Faulkner is able to evoke a feeling of empathy towards Emily that causes the audience to turn against the narrator. We root for her to overcome the patriarchal limits that bind, yet we find that like the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the means at which she takes back this power is not truly sound, and in this case, quite morbid, playing towards the substantial damage that prolonged patriarchal practices can create.
In a world where teenagers are able to have conversations within the confines of their cellphones, and movements can make real change overnight, the importance of referring to the perspectives and literature from the past is critical. The critiques of misogyny brought on by the authors of both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “A Rose for Emily” carry messages that still hold significance today and can be used to push for further progress in the fight for equality.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 154-163.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 171-187.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a tortured nobleman fails to recognize his own guilt in the aftermath of the gruesome murder he has committed. Similarly, a haughty Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor possesses an inflated sense of pride that prevents her from seeing the bitter truth about herself. However, only one of these achingly human characters are prepared for redemption at the denouement of the tales. Both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” examine flawed characters who journey toward redemption. Poe’s miserable Montresor struggles to rationalize away his sins and ends up suffering wretchedly. In contrast, O’Connor’s vain Grandmother recognizes her own shortcomings, and, consequently, navigates to grace.
O’Connor defines grace in the context of Catholicism: we are all sinners and in need of the grace of God in order to receive forgiveness. In other words, grace is to give someone something they may not deserve on the basis of forgiveness. But first, the person must admit to making human mistakes. Montresor, the first person narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” most definitely fulfills the first part of O’Connor’s definition of grace: he has sinned terribly. At the beginning of his tale, Montresor reveals his tendency to exaggerate by claiming that he has been inflicted by “The thousand of injuries of Fortunato” (402). Montresor rationalizes he has been harmed an innumerable amount of times by a man “to be respected and even feared” that he ironically calls his “friend” (402). The reader can identify how his jealousy toward Fortunato is a subset of his own pride. Montresor’s confession is suspicious even as it spills out. Moreover, he is lying to himself about the severity of his actions. Montresor’s nervous chatter reveals his attempts to rationalize or even escape the situation: “Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—” (405). These revealing words evoke a feeling of unease. Montresor is battling his conscience as he carefully manipulates Fortunato into a state of vulnerable drunkenness. Will he continue to carry out his plan or turn back? Waving away his uncertainty, Montresor praises Fortunato: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved [...]” and continues to shower Fortunato with empty flattery as he leads him to his inevitable death (404). At this point, Montresor is not a worthy candidate for grace as defined by O’Connor. He spins lies to lure Fortunato toward his death, and is in fierce denial of how what he is doing and what he has done are wrong.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the reader is placed in Grandmother’s shoes as she leads her family astray on a road trip gone bad. Like Montresor, she is in dire need of grace but maintains fatal flaws centered around hubris. She is obsessed with being a “lady” and wears “a navy blue straw sailor hat” to prove it (375). In addition, the not-so-innocent Grandmother spins lies and manipulates her family into getting her way: “‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were” (380). This seemingly harmless attempt at getting them off track snowballs into the eventual death of the Grandmother and the five passengers. In other words, Grandmother initiates the chaos that ensues. Throughout the tale, Grandmother uses both flattery and exaggeration to distort the truth. Her deceptive techniques are similar to Montresor’s; Grandmother lies to herself. Moreover, she promotes herself as a lady, though a lady does not deceive small children to get her way. For instance, she promises the family “‘It would be very educational for them [the children]’” when trying to convince the family to go off route (381). In reality, she simply wants to revisit an old house. In addition, Grandmother lies to the Misfit after the shocking accident which left their truck in a ditch, claiming, “‘We turned over twice!’” when they had turned only once (383). The Grandmother embellishes her account of the accident before the Misfit while hiding her role in causing the crash. She flatters the Misfit relentlessly, attempting to convince herself and him that “‘You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?’” (384). The Grandmother creates a disaster—her family has been murdered and she begs that the Misfit not shoot her simply on account that she is a lady. Her flawed thinking and obsession with class has not prepared her for grace quite yet.
This kind of misguided thinking leads to Montresor's ultimate downfall as well. As Montresor lures Fortunato deeper into the ominous catacombs, Poe provides a possible motive for Montresor’s revenge. When Fortunato makes a “gesticulation I [Montresor] did not understand,” Fortunato replies “‘Then you are not of the brotherhood’” (405). Fortunato is of the secret society of Freemasons, while Montresor pridefully claims he is a stonemason (a person who builds using stones). He uses this title ironically, as a retort for Fortunato’s skepticism of him being a mason at all. Perhaps the “Thousand injuries” Fortunato is guilty of inflicting relate to him not inviting Montresor into the Freemason society. This would certainly hurt Montresor’s pride, and may even make him jealous enough to seek revenge! In addition, Poe inserts symbolic action in his story as ironic foreshadowing after Fortunato exclaims “‘You? Impossible! A [free] mason?’” (405). Montresor responds indignantly by “producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire ” (406). Montresor’s trowel will soon gain great significance as the weapon used to kill Fortunato. Ironically, he is using the trowel to identify himself as a mason when it will also mark him as a killer. Though Montresor carried out his petty revenge, building his victim into a wall and leaving him to die, Montresor did not ultimately triumph. In fact, he had a brief moment of clarity during which his “heart grew sick—” (408). With this small admission, Montresor reveals his own self-hatred and guilt over Fortunato’s murder. He is finally acknowledging that his actions were extreme, and he is overcome with regret. However, he denies his own remorse, indicated by a “—”, by blaming his sick-feeling heart “on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (408). If Montresor had admitted his guilt, he may have achieved a different reality, one in which his suffering is replaced with forgiveness. Montresor fails to accept his sins—his deep jealousy, lying, and killing—and therefore is not looked upon kindly by the heavens. Though Montresor claims to “punish with impunity,” he receives personal punishment for his actions (402). Montresor has agonized over the murder for 50 years, the ironic opposite of a killer who claims to have impunity.
While Montresor was punished by his repressed conscience, the Grandmother in O’Connor’s story still has a chance at redemption. O’Connor urges the reader to look further than the bloody result of Grandmother’s mistake by revealing her humanity. Furthermore, O’Connor describes grace as being given to “the imperfect, purely human and even hypocritical” (374). Is Grandmother not a perfect example of a flawed human being? She exaggerates, she’s deceitful, and she is stuck in her own arrogance. After they encounter the Misfit, “The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim [...] but it came off in her hand” (385). This symbolic action indicates that her idea of her being a lady is shattered. Her ego, represented by her hat, begins to fall apart as she pleads for mercy before the Misfit. Moreover, moments before she is shot by the Misfit, the Grandmother has an epiphany: her “head cleared for an instant [...] “‘Why, you’re [the Misfit) one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’” (389). The reader has felt antagonistic toward Grandmother this whole time, mainly because she thinks she is a saint. However, when she names the Misfit as one of her own children, she recognizes that she may be on the same level as he is, a known murderer. Finally, she sees herself truthfully, and in her death, “her face is smiling up at the cloudless sky” (390). The cloudless sky is symbolic of a clear path for her to heaven, indicating that she is redeemable through acknowledging that she is not a impeccable lady. While Montresor pushes away this realization and exists in his own personal hell, the Grandmother is worthy of grace in the end.
In these two short stories, the main characters have deep flaws that prevent them from reaching personal redemption. Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado” rationalizes away his sins and faces 50 years of punishment. In contrast, the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” recognizes that she is not the lady she claims to be, and is therefore redeemable and a candidate for grace. Both tales explain how the difference between accepting and denying one’s flaws can determine whether a person is destined for heaven or for hell. As a contemporary reader, we notice how each story emphasizes the importance of being honest rather than jealous or prideful. Both authors leave us with a sense of urgency: in life, aim for self-redemption rather than revenge. The fates of these two characters present cautionary guidance on being truthful in our daily lives as grace only comes to those who admit their faults.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 374-390.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 401-408.
William Blake shows his opinion of the lives of child chimney sweepers in The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, which provide parallel poems, both titled,”The Chimney Sweeper.” These two poems differ from each other in the way they contrast innocence and experience, but both express the same message through William Blake. The two poems describe the lives young boys that are forced into the harsh and deadly job of being a chimney sweeper. Chimney sweeping is brutal manual labor that was often done by young boys as they were small enough to fit in the chimneys to clean them out. The first poem in The Songs of Innocence is narrated by a boy whose mother died and is sold by his father to become a chimney sweeper. Death is around every corner for this boy; however, he stays positive and helps out his friend Tom Darce through his troubles. The second poem in The Songs of Experience involves a poor boy who is given up by his parents so he can become a chimney sweeper, while they go to church to pray. Looking at William Blake’s use of imagery and rhyme scheme, we see how he challenges child labor and demands social justice, but also how he uses the contrast between the innocence in The Songs of Innocence and the experience in The Songs of Experience to further highlight his message.
The innocence that is portrayed through the imagery used by Blake shows how the boys do not even understand the world that they inhabit, which serves as a focus point for Blake’s message. In the Songs of Innocence, the narrator begins by describing how his mother died and he was sold by his father to become a chimney sweeper, which is a disadvantageous position. Blake then highlights the innocence of this boy through the line, “Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘Weep!” (3). When first reading this line, the reader thinks Blake writes “ ‘weep” as in the boy is crying; however, it is actually the boy saying “sweep”, but his lisp makes it come out as “ ‘weep”. The boy is yelling out in despair for what we learn has happened to him. This is Blake’s way of emphasizing how young the boy really is. In the next paragraph, the narrator begins to tell us about Tom Darce who “cried when his head … was shaved” (5-6). But the narrator tries to comfort Tom and tells him that “the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (5-6). Here we see Blake contrasting the dark black soot with Tom’s white hair. The color white of Tom’s hair shows his innocence opposed to the dark, soot covered life of being a chimney sweeper. Then the narrator begins to describe Tom’s dream he has that night, but as we hear more of it, it appears to be more of a vision. In Tom’s dream, he sees thousands of chimney sweepers in black coffins: “Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack/ Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (11-12). Here Blake assigns the boys in the coffins rather common names almost as a way to show that chimney sweepers are just like any other boy, which is a way of bringing emphasis to the enormity of the problem here. When William Blake describes the coffins as, “coffins of black” we see the recurring color that depicts the setting of the chimneys these boys work in. The black soot covered chimneys are each of the boys coffin of black, showing that this is where the boys die. This dream of Tom’s oddly is not a nightmare as we see it take a turn when he describes an angel with a “bright key” that sets all the boys free letting them go to a happy place where they swim and play happily. The vision of the boys getting released by the Angel is what makes Tom want to work harder for when he wakes up. He wants to work harder as a chimney sweep so that he can get released by an angel, which is ironic because one would think a vision of an angel would lead to one realizing their situation and fighting for justive rather than further giving in to the system. Tom then describes the boys as “naked and white” (17). The boys are no longer covered in soot and are white, like Tom’s hair. They are innocent and pure. Tom is then told by the angel that if he is a good boy he will be happy and not have to worry about being harmed. So when Tom wakes up to get to work that cold, dark morning, he felt “happy and warm” (23). After Tom’s dream he thinks that if he continues to work he will be rewarded by not ever being harmed and will ultimately be happy. So when it would seem difficult for one to get to work as a chimney sweeper on a cold dark morning, Tom’s childish innocence makes him happy to work. This may seem like a good thing that Tom now feels motivated to now work and has a positive mindset. However, Blake ironically is highlighting how tragic it is that these boys also face psychological hardships along with their physical hardships, as their innocence blinds them to the reality of their situation. It is ironic that this “angel” is the boys’ motivator to work harder as a chimney sweep. Blake might even intend this “angel” to be Satan as it is the dark force that is making the boys work. They are forced into brutal labor, to work until the death due to the conditions.
Blake has an identical message in The Songs of Experience that he points out with his use of imagery: however, it is shown through a contrary experienced point of view. In the very beginning of the poem we see Blake’s powerful use of imagery when he writes, “A little black thing among the snow” (1). First off, his use of imagery shows how the narrator does not even recognize the chimney sweeper as a human being, but rather “a little black thing”. Blake is contrasting the the soot covered chimney sweeper to the white snow. Here we immediately see the lack of innocence as the boy is covered in the corrupting soot and is being compared to the pure white snow. This little boy could even potentially be the same boy as the previous poem just multiple years later. He no longer is the same innocent little boy and has a fuller understanding of the situation he is in, he is experienced. The lack of innocence, or the appearance of experience, is further seen in the way the narrator says the “black thing” was, “Crying ‘ ‘weep! ‘ ‘weep!’ in notes of woe!”(2). This is different from the chimney sweeper in The Songs of Innocence as this chimney sweeper is fully aware that this life was imposed on him and that it is a horrible life to have, showing his experience. The narrator learns that the child’s parents left him to go pray at church, which is Blake’s way of showing how corrupt the chimney sweeping system was as families would give up their boys and turn to their religion as their escape while their boys are hard at work. Later, the boy tells the narrator more about what his parents did to him and states, “They clothed me in the clothes of death” (7). Here the boy’s “clothes of death” that are given to him by his parents are simply the clothes that he wears while he is sweeping chimneys. He wears these clothes in tight black chimneys, which might as well be his coffin. So, by his parents having him become a chimney sweeper, they basically sent him to a death sentence. With this line Blake powerfully points out the injustice of how parents would send their boys to live a hard life working, where they will ultimately die and he even slightly takes a hit on our social institutions particularly religious ones as religion provides a false sense of happiness, which we see in the first poem, when there are still problems occurring.
Along with imagery, Blake also supports his message by using a strategic rhyme scheme, while displaying the child’s innocence. This whole poem has a rhyme scheme, that involves rhyming couplets. For example in the first stanza you have “young” and “tongue” then “ ‘weep” and “sleep”(Lines 1, 2, 3, 4). This is a very simple rhyme scheme that would be used and enjoyed by children. That’s where this is an ironically “strategic” rhyme scheme as it points out once again the innocence of this child chimney sweeper, but it serves a deeper purpose to show that this is what children should be taking part in. The simplicity of the rhyme is showing the simple lives children should be living. Children should be learning nursery rhymes, singing songs, writing simple poems, etc. But these chimney sweeper boys have been stripped of that right to be a kid and do kid things, which Blake so strongly believes they deserve. Towards the end of the poem the rhyme scheme becomes an off rhyme, which is Blake’s way of showing there is something off about the angel’s message. Blake is showing how the “angel” might not actually be angel after all and is pulling the boys into a horrible place actually.
William Blake uses similar rhyme schemes in The Songs of Experience as in The Songs of Experience to support his message. His first stanza has rhyming couplets just like that of the other poem, but then the rest of the poem is different. The rest of the poem Blake uses interlocking rhymes. For example, in the second stanza you have “heath”, “snow”, “death”, and “woe”(Lines 5, 6, 7, 8). This shows the interlocking rhyme as each word rhymes with every other word. This shows slightly more complexity than the first poem, which shows the experience that this child has. However, it is still a rather basic rhyme scheme. One that might be observed and used by once again, children. I think this is Blake’s way to once again emphasize that these are young children that should be living out their childhood, not being thrown into child labor.
These two parallel poems written by William Blake are filled with imagery and strategic rhyme schemes that show the two chimney sweepers’ innocence or experience and more importantly, strongly support Blake’s message. The two poems work together almost as if one, to express William Blake’s strong opinion on chimney sweepers as he is fighting for the freedom of these boys and ultimately social justice.
Blake, William, and Paul Peter Piech. “The Chimney Sweeper” The Songs of Innocence., published
By Taurus Press, 1969.
Blake, William, and Paul Peter Piech. “The Chimney Sweeper” The Songs of Experience., published
By Taurus Press, 1969.
In Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” a Native American finds himself going on a quest to attain his grandmother’s Regalia. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” a college educated girl visits her sister and mother only to find her education has created a divide between herself and her family. Both stories demonstrate the importance of heritage and overcoming blindness through the use of symbolism, characterization, and irony that leads to epiphany.
In the story “Everyday Use” the importance of heritage is displayed through the two sisters Dee (Wangero) and Maggie. Dee and Maggie have a great disparity in the degree by which they value their heritage. Dee is confident, educated, beautiful and has a lot going for her, except she has a disconnect to her family. The disconnect she has is all that is important about her because that is all she is meant to represent. Maggie has a lack of confidence, is more adept at manual labor, and is marked by scars on her body that symbolize her connection to her enslaved ancestors. Maggie is characterized as the sister who values her family heritage. Maggie is the character we are meant to sympathize with because Walker is expressing the importance of family heritage. At the end of “Everyday Use” an aspect of Dee is revealed when Mama says, “What don’t I understand?” and Dee replies saying “Your heritage.”, referring to their African heritage (8). Dee (Wangero) differs from Maggie because she feels enlightened by her education and thinks her heritage comes from Africa; however she is really in the dark because heritage is where we live. Maggie, however, has a greater connection to the culture her ancestors formed during oppression in America and not her African culture. Maggie emerges victorious in the end because she gets to keep her Mother’s quilts. This choice is made because Maggie is characterized as respecting and valuing her mother’s heritage and will continue to add to the quilts. Walker uses Maggie and Dee to represent opposing outlooks on family heritage and show that one outlook is victorious over the other.
There are no opposing outlooks on family in “What You Pawn I will Redeem,” but rather a lost heritage is embodied through the character Jackson Jackson. Jackson lost touch with his family’s past. This is a part of what he represents. In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Jackson introduces himself by explaining, “I am a Spokane Indian Boy, an Interior Salish” (1). Jackson shows his knowledge of his Native American culture, but is disconnected from his family and their individual culture. His name is significant because he lacks a proper last name; it is the same as his first name, which signifies how he has lost a connection to family. Following his Native American culture has only led him to homelessness, alcoholism, a lack of trustworthy friends, and more importantly family. When he becomes reconnected with his family, through the Regalia, however he feels complete. The completeness he feels when he is reconnected with the Regalia signifies the importance of family in one’s life. Jackson appeared victorious in the end because he reclaims a piece of family history. By “winning” this challenge there is a positive connotation associated with being in touch with family heritage. Jackson is important because he is meant to be someone who is lost but regains family heritage.
Walker uses Mama’s quilts to symbolize the family heritage. The quilts are described as having “Scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece […] from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he had worn in the Civil War.” (6). The quilts therefore have the clothing of ancestors sewn into the fabric. The importance of the quilts to Mama reflects the importance of her own heritage, a heritage that does not date back to Africa, but to slavery and the Civil War, from events and culture that make her who she is in America. The blankets have been passed down generation to generation, with each generation contributing a portion. Arguing over the quilts is the same as arguing over the fate of history. The quilts are the only thing they have to connect with their past. Whatever happens to the quilts will determine if their is a link to their past, a part of time that contributes so much to who they are, and a link to the past for future generations to come. The quilts will continue to exist for their intended purpose because Maggie, not Dee, will keep them, thus symbolizing family heritage and its importance.
The symbol for the importance of family heritage in “What You Pawn I will Redeem” is Grandma’s Regalia. The Regalia is something of extreme importance to Jackson Jackson’s Grandma because it is a sign of status. According to the text in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” this Native American Regalia has “all the same color feathers and beads that my family sewed into our Powwow Regalia.” (2). Native American Regalias are very complex and are woven to reflect certain values or qualities of the family. The aspects of the Regalia specific to his family show it symbolizes Jackson’s direct lineage. Jackson knew it was an important piece of his family history. The Regalia included a yellow bead under the armpit that was unique to his family and was put on all of their Regalias. The yellow bead itself represents imperfections, but also it represents something that is unique to his family. Jackson equates to the yellow bead because like the bead he has many imperfections like his state of homelessness and his problems with alcohol. The Regalia serves as a symbol of the family heritage Jackson must rediscover.
Blindness inhibits Dee from seeing the truth in “Everyday Use.” After Dee loses the battle for the quilts, she leaves her mother and sister, and “She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin. Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses.” (8) The sunglasses illustrate the blindness Dee never overcomes. There is irony when Dee takes the quilts and makes it known that “ They already belonged to her.” (6). Dee’s assumed ownership shows how she felt deserving of the quilts. Dee however does not win the quilts, but rather an unexpected Maggie does, creating an ironic situation because Dee had laid claim to them. Regardless of the situation, Dee continues to wear her sunglasses and be blind to what is important. Maggie, however, has full vision. The irony of the situation causes Maggie to come to a realization, saying, “Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses,” thus showing that Maggie laughs at Dee’s ignorance as Maggie sees the light.
Besides family values, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” illustrates the importance of overcoming blindness through irony. Jackson Jackson thinks what he desires and must obtain is money. The quest for money only rewards him with more alcohol and loneliness. Jackson is blind to his true desire. In the end the pawnbroker says, “‘ I don’t want your money.’” (15). This takes Jackson by surprise because he expected to have to win the Regalia to feel complete. Instead it is given to him for free. Ironically, then, he never had to go on his quest to pay for the Regalia. However, the irony of the situation leads him to realize that it was his community and heritage that make him complete, not material possessions. In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Jackson explains “They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.” (15) By engaging in dance, Jackson is happy, because he has been cured of his blindness and comes to see what is truly important to him, to be a part of a community stretching back generations.
Both stories glorify a connection with family. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” and “Everyday Use” use characterization to convey this point, as well as the use of symbols that signify family heritage, and irony. Today, it is just as important to understand one’s background. In the United States people are becoming more distant from their ancestral home with each generation. People do not have to feel connected with their ancestral home as long as they are connected with their families recent history because it is important to know how we got to the place where we are now. Personally I have felt disconnected with my parents because I am going through my “teenager phase.” Recently, however, I have made a conscious effort to maintain our relationship because I have come to realize the importance of family, and I am grateful to learn this lesson from powerful stories that remind us of what is important.