The Death of Nostalgia: Mortality and Expendability in Stranger Things [SPOILERS: Seasons 1,2,3 and Breaking Bad]

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The Duffer Brothers have streamed their way into becoming somewhat of a household name over the last three years. With the creation of Stranger Things, they have added to the recent 1980s revival that has swept across the US and the nostalgia that has come along with it. It has leavened the nerdy subculture of the past thirty years, to which I whole-heartedly ascribe. Though I am a 90s kid, I grew up with older siblings who are 80s kids, and by association I assimilated 80s pop culture. Due to my upbringing, I find this show, in many respects, entertaining, thrilling, witty in its references, and overall a very binge-worthy show that caters to older and younger generations alike. The Duffer Brothers have most definitely created a cultural and historical phenomenon that will likely entertain viewers long after streaming services become obsolete and everything from movies and television shows to music, books, and the news is projected directly into our brains. Though this show does deserve high praise in many regards, I find certain aspects of it hard to reconcile with. The biggest issue I have with the series as a whole has to do with one word: expendability. Through looking at the series and how it deals with death and mortality, we can understand whether expendability is a good thing for the series or a sign of weak writing.

Death is, whether we like it or not, a huge part of horror, thriller, and even sci-fi films (genres where Stranger Things falls into). So, in order to properly evaluate this aspect of the series, there are two methods of addressing violence and death that need to be discussed.

The Rambo Effect

Rambo

I grew up watching classic parody films from Airplane (1980) to Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). One movie that I remember watching scores of times on a taped VHS (with commercials included), was the 1993 Hot Shots: Part Deux. In it, Charlie Sheen plays Topper Harley, a hyperbolized and parodied version of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. Only instead of fighting police officers in a small town, soviets, and Afghan rebel forces, Topper is up against Saddam Hussein and his cronies. During a scene in which Topper is helping POWs escape a POW camp, he goes all out and starts killing every single enemy soldier in droves. With his first kill a kill count is started and multiplies at a ridiculous rate with arcade noises playing in the background. He hits milestones like “Equal to: Robo Cop,” “Equal to: Total Recall,” and finally the screen flashes with “Bloodiest Movie Ever.” The scene is full of hilarious kills like a man having a bulls-eye painted on his chest and his backside as well as a part where Topper runs out of bullets in his machine gun and just decides to throw a handful of bullets at approaching enemy soldiers successfully taking them out. Each of the enemy soldiers that are killed are tallied and counted and nothing else is said about them. They are faceless, numberless, and in the end absolutely expendable. This scene depicts death, and excessive and gratuitous violence in a flippant way to bring viewer’s attention to the ridiculous nature of the violence in movies like Rambo. When death tolls reach astronomical levels, the value of individual life decreases because it takes too much time and effort to recognize and place lasting value on people. They become expendable.

Kaiju Killings

Along with the shoot-em-up type films like those in the Rambo franchise, it is important to consider how mortality is displayed when huge monsters are involved. Stranger Things is no stranger to monsters that are gigantic in size and have a knack for mass destruction. However, before dissecting the Demogorgon and flaying the Mind Flayer, let’s look first at everybody’s favorite radioactive lizard, Godzilla and what are known as the kaiju.

Godzilla.gif

Godzilla and the kaiju (including Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Gamera) are monsters that gained notoriety during the post-WWII years in Japan. They were born from Japanese folklore and brought to the spotlight in film originally as a metaphor for the devastation of nuclear war. In Japanese monster films, and especially in the many American adaptations of the Godzilla films, the populous in the wake of these monsters and their battles are disregarded and are not the focus of the film. Most monster films rely heavily on the fights between Godzilla and Mothra or any of the other kaiju. Because of the minuscule nature of humans compared to the massiveness of the kaiju, a whole city and its inhabitants can be utterly wasted, and no one will really bat an eye because the battle between the monsters is a lot more intriguing than the individual plights of the humans on the ground.

To further this method and its glazing over of individual deaths, let’s look at the American 2014 adaptation of Godzilla. After an incredible five-season run with Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston went from dorky, loser Hal in Malcom in the Middle, to Heisenberg: Methamphetamine King-Pin. When my brothers and I saw that Bryan Cranston would be in the new Godzilla movie, we were more than a little excited. Cranston was shown in the trailer as playing a big part in the film. We were ready to see what Walter White would do against the King of the Monsters. Our expectations were immediately crushed when Cranston’s character bites the dust in the first fifteen minutes of the film. A younger, lesser-known actor ended up being the lead for the movie. Though he was the protagonist, the focus was not as much on him as it was on the final fight scene where Godzilla thrashes the MUTO and vomits a torrent of flames down its throat. I still loved the battles, but I left the theater wondering whether it was even necessary to have humans in the film at all.

So, what do Godzilla and Rambo have to do with Stranger Things?

Simply, it’s monsters, violence, destruction, expendable mortality, and the macabre.

Not so simply, it’s what Edgar Allan Poe defines as “the single effect.”

In his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, titled “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale,” Poe expresses that “in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance.” When Poe speaks of this “singular effect” he means that rather than worrying about a plot in a story it is more important first to make sure that the story is unified in the impression and feeling it leaves on its reader/viewer. For Rambo movies, the singular effect is a feeling of grittiness that leaves you with dirt and mud smeared on your face with the taste of blood in your mouth. With Godzilla movies, the feeling is that of awe and captivation at how huge the monsters are and how awesome the fights are. Sometimes, especially in the case of Godzilla films, this singularity of effect is done at the expense of character development and viewer-character connection. This isn’t always the case, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In relation to Stranger Things, Poe suggests that the most powerful stories, the ones that leave “an intense or enduring impression,” are those that can be enjoyed in one sitting. In his own words, he states that “this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed in one sitting.” Many Stranger Things fans will agree to this point, and some people might be unwilling to admit it: you probably binged Stranger Things (seasons 1-3) in one sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It proves Poe’s point: a good story is one that is enjoyed in one sitting and one that presents and maintains that singular effect. The Duffer Brothers establish this effect through implementing the Rambo and Kaiju methods of mortal expendability. There’s blood, violence, destruction, monsters, and death; and the people who are mortally affected by these elements are sidelined so that the real singular effect can be presented: nostalgia for the 80s and the horror film genre.

Justice for Barb/Bob/Alexei/Billy/Hopper/Random Citizens of Hawkins, Indiana

Considering this idea, Stranger Things has been criticized for its lack of closure and “justice” for certain deceased or supposedly deceased characters. Though the deaths in Stranger Things aren’t on a massive scale, this principle can still apply considering the gravity of the events taking place in the Hawkins. Season 1 rocked viewers with the death of Nancy’s best friend, Barb, who was just trying to keep Nancy safe. Chapter 2 of season 1 ends with Barb disappearing. Chapter 3 begins with showing her being dragged into the swimming pool by what we believe to be the Demogorgon. It isn’t until the end of the season that we find Barb dead in the Upside Down. Despite the search for Will being the focus of the season, many viewers, myself included, found everyone’s disregard to Barb’s death disturbing and unjust. Shannon Purser, the actress that plays Barb remarked in a tweet that “Barb wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.” Regardless of whether Barb was a big deal or not, many people believed that because Barb didn’t deserve to die, that she needed to be redeemed somehow. Barb blew up on the internet, and a hashtag of #JusticeforBarb and #ImwithBarb became trending to the point that the Duffer Brothers paid this injustice a quick visit in the beginning of the second season. Even with this second-long candlelight vigil, Barb’s death is disregarded, and she remains a plot device, an expendable character. Her character isn’t developed as much, signaling that she is non-essential. Using characters as plot devices, or just a means to further the plot, isn’t anything uncommon in fiction or film, but when these plot devices are brutally murdered without any repercussions viewers get upset and feel that “justice” has not been served. In the case of Barb, it was her character, not the actress, that was dealt with unjustly. Shannon Purser is not an A-list, bigshot actress. When this is the case, even though the death is viewed as not resolved, the stakes are lower because both her character and the actress are just another face in the crowd.

barb.gif

Barb isn’t alone in being dished an undue demise. What happens when you bring someone on the other end of the acting spectrum? What if you enlist an 80s icon? In Season 2, we are introduced to Bob Newby, played by none other than Sean Astin: Samwise Gamgee, Rudy, Mikey Walsh. He’s the happy high school friend of Joyce turned love interest and ultimately turned tragic casualty in the fight against the Mind Flayer. Compared to Barb, Bob’s character is more developed, has more screen time, and serves a higher purpose than Barb did. Where Barb’s character was solely a plot device to show viewers what would happen if someone was not saved from the Upside Down, Bob is the happy, easy-peasy pseudo-father figure for Will Byers who ends up sacrificing his life to save Joyce and the others from the demodogs. Viewers are given more time to connect with Bob. He is basically the Rudy of Stranger Things.

rudy

The Duffer Brothers didn’t completely forget the deaths of characters like Bob and Barb. They do pay service to them in small ways (missing photos of Barb in season 2 and the “Super Bob” drawing on Joyce’s fridge and the minor flashbacks she has in season 3), but they are short-lived. It seems as though the surviving characters either don’t care or are so overwhelmed with the new monster from the Upside Down that they don’t have time to mourn.

With season 3, we see the deaths of minor and major characters alike. Two members of The Hawkins Post are taken over by the Mind Flayer, are both brutally destroyed by Jonathan and Nancy, and subsequently melt into a living blob of human organs and flesh and join to the massive flesh creature terrorizing Hawkins. We meat Alexei, a Russian scientist who is captured by Hop, Joyce, and Murray, who helps them crack the code to stop a laser from opening the portal to the Upside Down. We get to know him as the smiley, cherry-Slurpee-loving, soft-hearted scientist. He serves his purpose and is shot dead during episode 7 by the Russian T-1000 thug who eventually meets his maker at the hands of Hop. We see several random members of the Hawkins community be taken over by the Mind Flayer and melt into human soup and congeal together with the poisoned rat population to make the bigger flesh beast the kids encounter during the last couple of episodes of the season. Billy, the bad boy and mom seducer, who becomes the host for the Mind Flayer, is killed in a last second act of self-sacrifice to save the whole group after being convinced by Eleven that he isn’t a bad person after all. And, finally, Hopper who, after defeating the Russian Terminator is supposedly vaporized during the explosion following the shutting down of the Russian laser pointed at the gate to the Upside Down.

So, what are we to do with a show that kills off minor and major characters at the drop of a hat? What does that say about the Duffer Brothers’ concept of expendable mortality?

The Death of Nostalgia

Before we get into this, Stranger Things isn’t the only show that has unexpected and tragically unjust deaths for major and minor characters. As an example, Breaking Bad, one of my personal favorites, kills off minor characters like Jesse’s friend Combo, Jesse’s two girlfriends, drug dealers, Gale Boetticher, and a couple of junkies (to name a few), and major characters like Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, Hank Schrader, and supposedly Walter White himself. Each of these characters, minor or major, was killed unexpectedly. Even the deaths of people like the junkie that Jesse kills with an ATM seem to serve a greater purpose than just furthering the plot. In this case, Jesse gains notoriety and people are more willing to pay him for the meth. The deaths serve a two-fold purpose: 1) further the plot, 2) aid in character development. The difference between these deaths and the deaths in Stranger Things is that the deaths in Stranger Things fail to address the issue of character development.

There aren’t any apparent lasting repercussions for Barb’s death, Bob’s death is only grieved for a second in season three, and who’s to say what will happen in season 4 as a result of Hops death and Billy’s death, not to mention the deaths of the dozen or so random “flayed” townspeople. Now, I could say that Stranger Things fails at presenting what might really happen if a town were to be invaded by Demogorgons, and therefore it is a failed show. Maybe the Duffer Brothers don’t care. Maybe they are heartless people who want to pull the mortal rug out from under your favorite characters. I could say that the Duffer Brothers are mediocre at best in developing characters or at least overdeveloping characters that are only going to end up being killed right after we are introduced to them. But, there’s no such place as Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down most likely doesn’t exist, and since it’s a work of fiction the Duffer Brothers can do whatever they want. It’s their show. If they don’t want the people of Hawkins to hold a massive candlelight vigil for Barb, Bob, Hop, and the poor flayed citizens, then that’s their choice. I could be angry about this, but after a lot of thought (maybe more thought than I probably needed to invest in this show), I’m fairly certain that there’s a reason why human mortality in Hawkins is treated in a Ramobian and Godzillian way.

Like Edgar Allan Poe states, Stranger Things seemingly has the aim of instilling in viewers a “singular effect” of nostalgia for a bygone childhood (either experienced or not experienced by its viewers) and a longing to go back to that time. With the deaths of both major and minor characters, the Duffer Brothers seem to be toying with the idea of connecting not only with the past (and in this case a mostly imagined past), but with characters in this imagined past. By eliminating characters with no remorse and diminishing the value of individual characters, the Duffer Brothers suggest that whether we like it or not, we can’t feel completely comfortable in a time and place that we feel nostalgic over. They combine the feeling of nostalgia with feelings of dread and terror by mixing 80s pop culture references and an undying fear of the Russians with grotesque and terrifying creatures from a twisted, mirrored reality that reflects back cracked and distorted. These two “singular effects” oppose each other and project the viewer’s perception of 80s pop culture into a Dutch angle. Everything is just a bit off kilter. The feeling presented through Stranger Things might be like mixing water and oil, but the fusion of these two effects allows for the Duffer Brothers to question the extent to which nostalgia serves as a positive influence in our lives, especially when we live in an age when no matter what decade you are born in, you have access to centuries of information and the annals of history can be read, researched, and assimilated into your life in seconds.

 In regard to nostalgia, what Stranger Things does right is exactly this: it blends good memories with bad memories. The 80s weren’t all Dungeons and Dragons, arcades, and New Coke. They were also the Berlin Wall, Nancy Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carl Sagan and his nuclear winter theory, and the Challenger Explosion. Maybe what the Duffer Brothers are trying to say is that our memories of the past shouldn’t be painted by just the good. They might even be a bit flayed at times. Maybe our memories, individually and collectively, are a conglomeration of the good things, the bad things, and the stranger things.

[Close Reading Rainbow pt. 4] Coming to Grips with Reality in Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face Up.”

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Sometimes reality is scarier than any nightmare we might be having. This was definitely the case for many writers in South and Central America during the 1960s and 1970s. Citizens of countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina suffered under military dictatorships that negatively impacted these nations economically, developmentally, and even academically; many of these affects are still being felt by Latin Americans today.

From 1966-1973, Argentina was rocked and shaken by the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía. Through a military coup, known as Revolución Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón, the then president of Argentina, was ousted and exiled to Spain. In the wake of this sudden shift in power, Onganía made his mark on the economic, industrial, and academic history of Argentina. Due to the Argentine University Reform of 1918, students and professors had autonomy over the university and could establish a governing body over the university that was separate from the federal government. This all changed on the night of July 29, 1966.  Hundreds of students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires were violently forced out of the university by police officers led by Onganía. Following the removal of autonomy from the university staff and students, many of Argentina’s best and brightest academics were either forced to emigrate or emigrated on their own free will to other Latin American countries, Europe, and the United States. This night would later be named “La Noche de los Bastones Largos” or “The Night of the Long Batons.” As a result of Onganía’s regime, Argentina was flipped on its head and continues to suffer the consequences of this dictatorship.

The following spring, on April 22, 1967, a story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar was published in The New Yorker titled “The Night Face Up.” The story chronicles the events of a night where a man crashes his motorcycle, is rushed to a hospital, receives treatment, and drifts in and out of consciousness between 1960s Argentina and “the war of blossom,” a time of ritualistic human sacrifices which occurred during the time of the Aztecs. At the time of the story’s publication, Cortázar was living in France, where he wrote and published many of his short stories and novels. Cortázar was a proponent and patron of the arts and education. His work primarily focuses on understanding the nature of reality and dreams/nightmares. According to Lois Parkinson Zamora, in his work “Cortázar is attracted to the visionary energy of the myth of apocalypse, to its revitalizing power: Its transformative vision becomes for Cortazar the central metaphor for the artistic imagination operating under extreme conditions of personal and/or political crisis” (92). Cortázar, just like many of his contemporaries, recognized the traditional and ritual-like nature of establishing military leaders, called juntas, in Latin America. Life under these regimes was nightmarish, apocalyptic, and extremely frightening, and Cortázar sought to understand the complexities of living a normal life under abnormal circumstances; living two realities at the same time. Many critics of Cortázar’s work have linked him to Bohemian writer Franz Kafka due to Cortázar’s ability to tell stories that, according to fellow Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Very subtly… [attract] us to his terrible world in which happiness is impossible” (21). Borges goes on to say that the world in which Cortázar writes is “a porous” one where “human beings are interwoven with each other…. Cortázar delights in playing with the stuff we are made on, time. In some tales, two temporal series flow along and intermingle” (21). These ideas of time and two temporal and very different realities flowing together permeate his fiction and simultaneously serve as a window into the nightmare that many Latin Americans struggled through during the regimes like that of the Revolución Argentina.

In examining the combination of these two realities, Cortázar pits heavy and light imagery against one another like water mixing with oil to underscore the difficulty in straddling two alternate realities. In “The Night Face Up,” the man who “does not have a name” (66) experiences a rupture of consciousness and reality due to a traumatic near-fatal motorcycle collision when a woman steps into an intersection during a green light. On impact, the man’s “vision went. It was like falling asleep all at once” (67). He is shot into what the narrator explains later as a “a void… an emptiness he could not manage to fill” (73). The nurses and doctors in the hospital, those whose job it is to operate on his broken arm and provide him with an X-Ray, are juxtaposed with the priests and warriors bent on capture him and sacrifice him in his dream. In the hospital, his nostrils are filled with “that hospital smell” (68); smells that usually connote cleanliness, safety, and healing. Whereas, his supposed dream is marked by “a confusion, as of one drawing all his sensations, for that moment blunted or muddled, into himself” (71) and “the smell of war” (69). The smells are antithetical. The man’s senses present a duality in his perception. On the one hand, he is slightly marred by a motorcycle accident, yet is covered in bandages and awaiting treatment. On the other, he is a Motecan warrior escaping the hands of murderous priests who want to sacrifice him to one of their many gods. The heaviness in the dream state stands in stark contrast to the relative lightness of the hospital room.

This dual and entirely inverse relationship between the two realities is furthered in the way that the man interacts with people in the dream and in his perceived reality. After his accident at the beginning of the story, the men that help him “encouraged him cheerfully with jokes and assurances” (67). The atmosphere surrounding the event is not serious in the slightest. They laugh and talk about how the bike is more banged up than he is; despite having broken his arm. Though these jokes and encouragements seem to serve as a welcome reminder that this man has just escaped death, the narrator makes it clear the “Voices” from which the jokes and the encouragements were coming from “did not seem to belong to the faces hanging above him” (67). This can be seen as just a lag in perception as a result of trauma. However, people living under oppressive regimes and oppressive individuals experience similar dislodged realities. They hope that the life they were living before the coup can go on as it did without any repercussions. These dictators like Onganía, as aggressive and oppressive as they were, worked to improve the infrastructure of the country. Despite the upgraded infrastructure that comes with some oppressive military-run governments, the cons almost always outweigh the pros. The citizens under the regime also recognize, just like the students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires, that regardless of improvements in national infrastructure, the reality of these regimes is the suppression of ideas and the forceful removal of democratically granted autonomy.

Like these students and the professors, the man in “The Night Face Up” is confronted with a split reality: he is both a civilian with a broken arm in a hospital and a Motecan warrior avoiding the sacrificial altar. The pros of the hospital are that he is being taken care of through modern medicine; the con is that his arm is broken, and he has a fever. The solitary pro of being a Motecan warrior is that his right arm isn’t broken; the cons are that he is in the dark, he needs to follow a difficult path to escape, he can’t stay awake in the hospital, and the obvious prospect of being sacrificed. In the story, he doesn’t have a choice as to which reality he actually inhabits. In the end, the man finds himself drifting further into his dream, described him as being pinned at “his wrists and ankles…. staked to the ground on a floor of dank, icy stone slabs” (73). The whole night, both in the hospital and in the dream world, he is in the same position: face up. He is passive in both realities, and ultimately realizes at the end that he is not a man from 1960s Argentina as the narrator leads readers to believe at the beginning of the story. Rather, his reality is the one where he is being sacrificed, face up.

Because of the regimes that existed in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin Americans felt like they were face up on the sacrificial alter while at the same time trying with all their might to fight back against this reality. The terror and frustration felt by the people of Argentina during Revolución Argentina provides an important framework for Cortázar’s case study on dual realities in many of his stories. Just as Lois Parkinson Zamora states, “these episodes subtly transmute themselves into a descent to the cellars of behavior, to Its remote irrational sources, to an immutable essence – magic, barbarous, ceremonial – of the human experience that underlies rational civilization and, under certain circumstances, rises up to disturb it” (92). They allow readers to see what life could be like and ask themselves which reality is worth accepting and which is worth denying. Unfortunately, many people remained in Argentina during the seven years of Onganía’s dictatorship and suffered like the man in “The Night Face Up”; left to their fate at the hands of a nightmarish dictator who pushed citizens down as they tried to wake up and remain face up. Thankfully, people like the students and the professors from the University of Buenos Aires and people who fought for freedom against oppressive juntas were able to wake up, escape the nightmare, accept the correct reality, disrupt the tradition of military regimes, and help usher in a less terrifying era for Argentina and other Latin American nations.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Preface to Julio Cortázar’s Cuentos.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 21-22.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “Art and Revolution in the Fiction of Julio Cortázar.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar.“ Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co. 1999, pp. 92-114,

Cortázar, Julio. “The Night Face Up.” Blow Up, and Other Stories, Random House, 1967, 57-66. (Print) (Online, I used the online version for citations)

 

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 3] Heartless Reactions to a Boy and a Buzz Saw: “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was an American modernist poet and playwright who wrote and published his work from the early 1910s to his death in the early 1960s. He is praised for his command of the English language through his use of colloquialisms (common speech) in his writing. Many of his poems are set in rural settings and describe life outside of the city. Frost’s most well-known poem is one that is used during essentially every single graduation/convocation speech: “The Road Not Taken.” Though this poem is uplifting and thought provoking in its tone and intention, some of Frost’s poetry is as thought provoking as they are violent and disturbing. One of these poems is his 1916 poem “Out, Out—”. To understand the gravity of this poem, here it is in its entirety:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

After frightfully watching and listening to the boy’s penultimate pulse leading to the final beat, the adults that surround him seemingly get up and go about their affairs without any real thought regarding the ill fate of the child. Upon first reading, the poem “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost seems to end leaving the reader standing in a dismal deluge of disinterest and disconnection. However, through understanding the purpose behind the tonal shift between the first twenty-two lines and the last three lines, the reader can see that the apparent apathy isn’t heartless, but rather a natural, more mature response to a very tragic death.

As a beginning move, the speaker describes a cozy, idyllic, rural scene in the opening six lines, which provides the reader with a sense of innocence and security. The saw in the yard, “drop[s] stove-length sticks of wood,” that are described as “Sweet scented stuff when the breeze [blows] across it” (ll. 2-3). The sticks produced by the saw will inevitably be used to warm the home and provide comfort to all those who reside therein. There is a calmness about the yard and the home despite the “snarl[ing]” and “ratt[ling]” of the saw (ll. 1). The voice of the saw is just noise in the background of what should be a perfectly fine day. We get the image of a rural Vermont surrounded by “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset” (ll. 5-6). The setting established in these introductory lines allows the reader to feel at home. There is protection. The mountains act as a natural barrier, giving the yard a safe-and-sound sort of vibe. The only image that is disconcerting is that of the saw as it “snarl[s] and rattle[s], snarl[s] and rattle[s]” (ll. 7).

The saw’s rattling and snarling hums in opposition to the calmness and homeliness of the wooded compound and creates an uneasiness that culminates in the rather forceful amputation of the boy’s hand. In accordance with the comfort of the wooded enclosure, the boy possesses a naivety that protects him from understanding the danger and gravity of the saw. This innocence can be seen in the way that the interaction between the boy and the saw is portrayed. Rather than being a grotesque and awful scene of confusion and gore, when the boy’s hand meets the saw, the whole ordeal is shown as something comparable to an animal jumping at the boy. The saw is given animal characteristics, in addition to the snarling and rattling, in that it is described as “Leap[ing] out at the boy’s hand” (ll. 16). It’s almost as if the saw is some sort of snake, lashing out at some unsuspecting passerby. Though the saw is seen as a sort of snake, the speaker interjects saying, “or seemed to leap,” leaving the reader a bit disjointed (ll. 16). This disconnect allows the reader the chance to question the perspective of the child. It also acts as a catalyst for the reader to come to terms with the reaction of the adults at the end of the poem.

The boy’s perspective, in addition to the image of the saw as a snake, gives the remainder of the poem, up until the last three lines, a tone of innocence taken away. The boy is described as “giv[ing] the hand” to the saw, almost as if it were some sort of offering (ll. 17). When the hand is accepted by the saw, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” (ll. 19). The juxtaposition of these two words gives the reader a conflicted image. Rueful and laugh are almost absolutely opposite of one another. The “outcry” of the boy is something of a sorrowful laugh. This image, in relation to the uncertain tone that the speaker employs earlier on, shows that although the boy might have thought that he knew what he was doing when he offered his hand to saw, he really had no clue what he as getting himself into. The bucolic background bursts before the readers’ eyes. The boy holds his hand “as if to keep the life from spilling” out of the wound that now occupies where his hand once was.

The boy loses his innocence and his knowledge regarding danger and pain allows him to be like the rest of the people that end up surrounding his deathbed. He possesses, or at least seems to possess, all knowledge beforehand, yet when he is disarmed “[he sees] all—” (ll. 22).  He wanted to be a “big boy” although he wasn’t old enough to be using the saw to begin with (23). His innocence is “spoiled” and he is thrown into confusion as he cries for his sister to tell the doctor to not “cut [his] hand off—” (ll. 25). Despite his desire to keep the hand unspoiled, “the hand was gone already” (ll. 27). He is left with no hand, and the people around him show little to no emotion toward his sudden, tragic end. Although this is very tragic, the adults understand that the saw wasn’t a snake. It wasn’t something that a boy of his age should have been playing with. They aren’t sad that he is gone, but they are sad that he had to learn the hard way that when children get too close to snakes, they will get attacked.

This shift in tone from calmness and homeliness to the confusion of the boy and the subsequent apathetic attitudes of the adults allows the reader to see that the attitude seen by these people isn’t one that should be deplored. The adults understand that there is nothing that they can do to bring the child back. It is true that “No one believed” that he could pass so quickly, yet everyone knew that the saw was dangerous. As a group of rural residents, their lives are most likely based on surviving. The boy exhibited ineptitude in the realm of survival. He was dead as a result of his actions and the as a result of the adults’ awareness of such a consequence, they knew that there was “No more to build on there” (ll. 33). They understand that in nature, although one might be encircled and protected by mountains and foliage, if someone dies as a result of their own actions, it is not their affair and shouldn’t be something to trouble them further.

What are your thoughts? Are the adults heartless? Is nature unforgiving and uncaring as some writers like Frost describe it to be? What can be said about the response of the adults as opposed to the children? What does that say about innocence between adults and children? Leave your responses in the comments below! Thank you, and see you next week where I will be looking at Julio Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up.

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 2]: Dead Letters, Dead Walls, and Dead Men: Artistic Uncertainty in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. He wrote short stories, novels, and poetry between the 1840s and 1880s. His most famous work is that of Moby-Dick. Despite his recognition and acclaim now as the author of Moby-Dick, in its time the novel nearly ruined Melville’s career as a writer, as the length and complexity of the novel served to alienate his readers and pushed him out of the literary limelight that he experienced through writing adventure/travel novels.

Melville had written travel/adventure stories like Typee: A Peep at Polynesia (1846) and Mardi, and a Voyager Thither (1849), both based on Melville’s own travels in the South Pacific, which were highly regarded during the time and well-received. His two Moby Dick (1851), which he regarded as his masterpiece, and Pierre (1852) were financial and critical bombs. Regarding this dilemma, Melville once wrote to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne However, despite his earlier success with these stories, after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville waited in vain for letters assuring him of at least an ounce of critical attention and the possibility of making some sort of profit off of his hard work. Melville admired Hawthorne and wrote an incredibly helpful review of Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He considered Hawthorne as a friend and gave praise to his tales and success as a story teller and his masterful prose style. In one letter Melville laments the underwhelming public response to Moby-Dick: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most to write, that is banned” Melville continues, “—it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way I cannot” (Frederick Busch vii-viii).

After the reception of Moby Dick, and Pierre, Melville wrote several short stories that explored the feelings of utter despair and rejection he had felt at the hands of publishes and critics. One of those stories was “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” This tale of frustration and annoyance can be seen as Melville’s own response to what he perceived as his literary downfall. In the story, the narrator relates his experience with a scrivener (law copyist) named Bartleby, who was “the strangest [he] ever saw, or heard of” (Melville 3). The narrator, a lawyer, is considered by many to be a “safe man” because he does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds” (4). He is “a man who, from his youth upwards, [had] been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). Though he sees himself as a successful and well-to-do lawman, he meets his match when Bartleby begins to work at this office. Bartleby is described as being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!” (11). Hard-working as he seems to be at the beginning of the tale, Bartleby develops a disdain for doing anything that he prefers not to do. Throughout the story, the compromising and adaptable narrator is faced with unchanging and stubborn Bartleby as he prefers not to do anything at all. Bartleby prefers not to do anything to the point that the narrator moves his office because Bartleby won’t leave, and Bartleby is subsequently taken into custody and sent to prison where he dies because he “prefer[s] not to dine…[for i]t would disagree with him; [he being] unused to dinner” (44). Rather than preferring to do anything a sane person would do, Bartleby stares only at the “dead wall” outside his office window, and when he enters prison, he stares at a wall rather than doing anything he is told. Upon further examination after Bartleby’s death, the narrator discovers that he had been employed at the “Dead Letter Office in Washington” where letters that have incorrect return and forwarding addresses are sent, sorted through, and finally burned. Despite the narrator’s efforts to get Bartleby to move and do something, he is unsuccessful. Much like Melville’s own career, he felt that things were not moving, and that publishers and critics were preferring not to consider his work seriously. Through looking at the relationship between the narrator, Bartleby, the wall, and the Dead Letter Office, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” becomes an angry cry from a rejected artist and an accurate depiction of the total anxiety and dejection that struggling artists everywhere no too well. As Melville writes in his letter to Hawthorne, Bartleby exemplifies the emotions surrounding critical and financial failure that Melville felt as he bore the shame associated with what he felt was the “malicious devil… forever grinning in upon [him].”

The narrator feels as though he were secure in his identity as a semi-successful lawyer who is in the know about those under his control, but his interaction with Bartleby proves to expose his true character. He knows the routines, eccentricities, schedules, and personalities of every scrivener in his office. He gives definite and methodical descriptions of his employees three employees: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my own age – that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, P.M., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity” (5).

Nippers is described as being “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man, of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly personal affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (7-8).

Ginger Nut, “was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student of law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of shells of various nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth, the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (10).

The narrator is able to easily profile each of his employees and is even able to work within each of their strange personal schedules. They, unknowingly, all work together to make the office work as efficiently, without too much effort needed, as the narrator wants. In each description given, the detail is methodical; it is a brief, but detailed character sketch of each scrivener. From eating habits to grinding teeth, the narrator has each of his employees figured out. They are round characters who have quirks that are relatable and understandable. Turkey can’t work efficiently in the afternoon in evening, so the narrator frontloads his work day and doesn’t give hardly any work to him in the afternoon and evening. Nippers is the opposite; he doesn’t work as hard in the morning, but come the afternoon and evening, his work is admirable. According to what the narrative deems fit, each employee is given specific workloads and tasks to enable the office to function like clockwork.

With Bartleby’s arrival, the narrator knows nothing about him. He has no next of kin or close family relationships that are on record. Bartleby is an enigma. After one of the first instances in which Bartleby “prefers not to” accomplish a task that the narrator expects of him, the narrator “look[s] at [Bartleby] steadfastly. His face [is] leanly composed; his eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (13). Although the narrator feels strongly about Bartleby’s insistence that he “prefer not to” do anything, the narrator feels pity rather than anger. At one point the narrator even claims that he became “considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.” The narrator even applauds Bartleby’s integrity stating that he “had a singular confidence in his honesty. [He] felt [his] most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (20). Though these admissions seem to be heartfelt, the narrator is only trying to reconcile with the fact that Bartleby is no doing what he, the narrator, would prefer that he would do.

These feelings quickly turn to agitation and frustration and finally to apathy, but for a moment the narrator feels as though he has figured Bartleby out. While the narrator believes that he can understand Bartleby’s character, he speculates many of the details that are more readily apparent of his more long-time employees. With the passage of time, Bartleby’s obstinance proves too much for the narrator. After giving up copying completely, Bartleby, according to the narrator, becomes “a millstone to [him], not only useless as a neckless, but afflictive to bear” (29). Bartleby prefers to do nothing but stare at the wall outside of the office, in what he narrator defines as “dead-wall reveries” (24). Though the narrator shows compassion on Bartleby during this, and other occasions, his patience quickly runs dry leaving him with no other choice than to ditch Bartleby and part ways with him. This task becomes difficult for the narrator because, unlike his other employees, he has not yet been able to conquer the wall that is Bartleby.

The wall outside the office serves as an important symbol in both the obstructions faced by the narrator and those faced by Melville. Outside the narrator’s office stands a “lofty brick wall” that is white on one side and “black by age and everlasting shade” (5) on the other side. This wall creates a deficiency “in what painters call ‘life’” (5). Like the wall that stands outside of the office, Bartleby becomes a wall to the narrator; a barrier that prevents him from figuring this employee out and fitting him within the system of the office. Likewise, to Melville, he published his work according to what his readers wanted to read. He knew the publishers like the narrator knows his employees. Much like Melville’s experience with Moby-Dick, he had been publishing in journals, magazines, and periodicals for years before publishing Moby-Dick. He was an experienced and talented writer, but unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was long, complicated, and difficult for readers to grasp. In a sense, Moby-Dick was dense, deep, and in many cases enigmatic. Readers approached it the same way one would approach a towering white and black wall. How can I climb this? Should I even bother? What can I use to destroy this so that I can just get to the other side? For Melville, the same questions were posited when trying to overcome the obstacle of the negative reviews and poor reception of Moby-Dick.

Questions like these are exactly the questions that the narrator asked regarding Bartleby. Before the narrator can truly understand Bartleby’s character, Bartleby is imprisoned and shortly thereafter starves to death. Following his death, the narrator recalls a rumor that was floating around concerning Bartleby’s history:

“Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?… a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

In Melville’s attempts to write, publish, and see the success of Moby-Dick, he like the narrator and even in some ways like Bartleby, was met with insurmountably dead-walls, dead letters and submissions, and dead hopes and dreams. Melville’s hopes were not fully actualized until decades after his death. Between his death and the recognition he would later receive at the hands of modernists poets like D.H. Lawrence, his most famous work, his life’s work, sat on the shelf while readers and critics preferred not to recognize him for his masterful prose style and devotion to his craft. Oftentimes writers like Melville who go against conventional writing forms and styles are not widely accepted and recognized in their own time. Melville’s interjection of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” at the end of the story serves as a sometimes unwelcome reminder to readers and society generally of the importance of supporting and being involved the arts. In a time when civil discourse is on the decline in the media (social or otherwise), we would do well to step back and learn from authors and writers like Melville who hoped to illuminate moral and social issues and help us discover truths that need to be discussed so that we can learn what it really means to be human.

What do you think? What are your thoughts about Herman Melville? What can we learn from “Bartleby” in 2019? What piece of literature would you like to see next on the blog?

Also, a special thanks to Terence Wride for suggesting “Bartleby” for this series! Check him out on WordPress at Wride Rants.

 

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 1] “Me – Who?”: National Identity in “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

To start off my return to the blogging world, I will be doing a series of short close readings of poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ll start off this series with one of the greatest American poets of the early twentieth century: Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He was one of the leading writers and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry is extremely lyrical and incredibly poignant in relation to understanding the racial tensions of the first half of the twentieth century; sadly many of these same tensions exist today. Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was published in 1951 in his collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Before I go into my analysis here is the poem in its entirety for a reference and so that you can experience the message that Hughes spent his career trying to convey to American readers: both black and white, bond and free.

“Theme for English B”

The instructor said,
      Go home and write
      a page tonight.
      And let that page come out of you—
      Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

The speaker of Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” wrestles with a crisis of racial identity as he strives to follow the directions given by his instructor: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true” (ll. 2-5). While attempting to answer the quandary of the apparent simplicity letting the truth issue forth out of him and onto the page, the speaker effectively raises awareness to the fact that detecting truth about one’s identity is more complicated than simply going home and writing a page tonight. The speaker shows the complexity of racial identity through addressing both Harlem and New York as separate entities in the piece, through using double negatives, and through blending musical tastes of both whites and blacks. The simple fact about racial identity, according to the speaker is that race is complicated, but regardless of race, all who call themselves Americans should understand that the truest truth is that “we are” (ll. 36).

Hughes’ speaker feels, at least in some degree, at odds with his own identity at the beginning of the page that he writes by mentioning both Harlem and New York as influences in his life. “I’m what / I feel and see and hear,” the speaker explains (ll. 17-18). The reader might be asking, “What does he feel, see, and hear?” The speaker feels, sees, and hears “Harlem” (ll. 18). This can be seen earlier in the poem, with the speaker stating that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (ll. 10). Hughes sets his speaker apart from the rest of his classmates by making it clear that he is one black student in a sea of white. Just as the speaker is physically different from his classmates, Hughes, through the speaker, consciously separates Harlem from New York in the way that he sets off New York parenthetically. “Hear you, hear me,” the speaker thinks, “we two – you me, talk on this page” (ll. 19). It seems as though he is only addressing Harlem as the main influence in his life. Yet, in the following line, the speaker expresses that “(I hear New York, too.)” (ll. 20). By parenthetically dividing the dark Harlem from the light New York, Hughes hints at the truth that identification is complicated, even when someone like the speaker is being integrated into a predominantly white class.

The difficulty of truly self-identifying is furthered as the speaker describes his interests and hobbies, many of which coincide with and conflict with interests of the whites. Hearkening to Zora Neal Hurston’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” the speaker becomes candid with his interests: “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (ll. 21-22). Just as Hurston suggested when she says that “As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions [in blacks], is ruled out,” the speaker wants the reader to know that even though he is black, he still has the same emotions as every other human being on the planet and should be treated as such. The complication comes in when the speaker mentions that he wants records for Christmas, namely: “Bessie, bop, or Bach” (ll. 24). Bessie refers to “the Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith, and bop is a type of popular jazz music at the time. Both of these types of music were typical for the average black person of the time, yet with the inclusion of Bach at the end of this list, there is a tension created. Not only is Bach not a jazz or blues musician, he is a white, European Baroque composer. By including Bach with Bessie Smith and bop, the speaker exhibits the struggle of pinning down an identity, especially when it is culturally imposed upon him. He enjoys jazz and the blues, which tended to be more typically black music during the time, yet he loves listening to Bach which is music that was usually reserved for more privileged white individuals. This cultural conflict in the speaker’s own self-identification causes an interesting tension that is alleviated in the poem.

This tension begins to be calmed as the speaker uses a double negative to justify his own identity to the reader. “I guess being colored,” the speaker admits, “doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-26). The speaker exhibits uncertainty about his own identity in the use of the double negative “doesn’t not” which causes the reader to double-take to figure out what it means when someone “doesn’t not” like something. If the double negative is omitted, the reader could read this as “I guess being colored makes,” or even gives him the liberty to “like the same thing other folks like who are other races.”

The speaker is able to lift the tension by answering the question he poses at the beginning of the poem regarding the truth about racial identity: who is the me when he asks the question, “Me – Who?” (ll. 20). The speaker reaches the grey area of being black and liking both black and white things through referring to himself and the instructor as both “Americans.” He says to his instructor, “You are white – / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (ll. 31-33). He continues stating that “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you” (ll. 34-35). The truth that Hughes, through the speaker, discovers is that racial identification is a difficult endeavor when cultural norms and expectations are heaped upon individuals’ backs. He exclaims that although blacks and whites have their similarities and differences, “we are,” and “that’s true!” (ll. 36). Although the question of “Me – Who?” is a difficult one to grapple with, Hughes urges his readers to retract the accusatory and discriminatory pointer digits with shouts of “You, you, you!” and instead recognize the “We-ness” and oneness that should prevail in the nation. “That’s” what Hughes suggests as being truly “American.”

Just like Hughes is suggesting here, an American voice is hard to pin down. Since America is home to so many people, no one group of people can claim the title of American. Hopefully we can all recognize the voices of Americans of all races, religious affiliation, national origin and so forth.

Also, if you want me to do a close reading of any poem, novel, short story, or play comment below! Thanks, and see you on Saturday.

“It is the Same” – The Sameness of Change in Shelley’s “Mutability”

BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
                                         I.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:—
                                         II.
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
    Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
    One mood or modulation like the last.
                                        III.
We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mutability”, the speaker explores the tension that is experienced as a result of change; this change is seen in nature in the first four lines, music in the next four lines, emotion in the following four lines, and finally the speaker resolves the conflict in the concluding quatrain by expressing that “It is the same” (ll. 13). Although this seems to be a strange conclusion to come to considering the contrasting and oftentimes combating conundrums within the quatrains, it is in fact the only fitting final thought that can ultimately untie the knot and alleviate the pressure that is contained within each line. Through creating tension with contrasting imagery within the same lines, Shelley adeptly accentuates the truth that change, whether it be drastic or subtle, is a part of our existence as humans that must be reconciled with.

As an introduction into the tension surrounding change, the speaker utilizes the image of a cloud covering the moon as a way to show the mutability inherent in nature. The opening line expresses the idea that we are “as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (ll. 1). This picture has within it subtle tension with the use of the verb veil. The clouds are in motion, but the speed of this motion is slow, and uncertain. It isn’t until the following line that the speed of the motion is revealed to the reader. The tension increases with the addition of descriptors like how the clouds speed “restlessly” (ll. 2). The clouds aren’t just slowly veiling the moon; they are rapidly shrouding it. This creates a feeling of encroaching darkness and gives the reader a sensation of claustrophobia. The light created by the moon is being cloaked by the incoming cloud cover.

Although there is definite dissonance in the movement of the clouds across the moon, the speaker deepens this dissonance through contrasting light and dark. Normally, when clouds cover the moon the light is squelched behind a veil. This is not so in this case. The light of the moon “gleam[s], and quiver[s]” (ll. 2). The light is still present, but it quivers with the coming of the clouds. Tension rises in the following line as the clouds “[streak] the darkness radiantly!” (ll. 3). The juxtaposition of the streaking of darkness radiantly propels the pressure created by the contradicting wording until the tension is finally released in the last line of the quatrain: “yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (ll. 3-4). The contrast of light and dark and the way in which the light, oftentimes white, clouds act as an agent of streaking the darkness creates and exhibits the tension that comes with changes in nature visually.

The changes that occur in the physical world, as addressed in the first quatrain, are heightened as the speaker continues their exploration of mutability in the realm of music and sound. In the first quatrain, the reader receives a visual representation of dissonance; the second quatrain examines auditory mutability. The speaker tells of “forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast” (ll. 5-6). The tension in the first two lines of the quatrain is heard through the words “forgotten,” “dissonant,” “various,” and “varying.” These sounds were once audible yet forgotten. The audio-memory of the lyre and the music that was once played thereon is fading further into memory. This image elicits a tone of sad longing for a half-remembered tonal memory that, just like the clouds covering the moon, will soon be “lost forever” (ll. 4). Rather than using contradicting phrasing like that of the first quatrain, the speaker builds upon the tension through compounding the melancholic mood by describing the “various response[s]” of the lyre as possessing a “frail frame” that is constantly changing with no “mood or modulation [being] like the last” (ll. 6-8). The tension isn’t totally resolved with the final line of the quatrain, for it is made more manifest through the motion of the mood and modulation, which perpetuates the pressure presented in the first two quatrains of the poem.

The perpetuation of pressure is proclaimed in the opening two lines of the third quatrain, as it is in the first quatrain, through creating cacophony in each individual action in the line. The speaker suggests that “We rest,” connoting that rest is a natural human experience. The complication surfaces immediately following the dash: “– A dream has power to poison sleep” (ll. 9). Although sleep is something that we all do, there is a potentially dangerous element of slumber that has the power to poison. Likewise, in the following line, the image of sleep is juxtaposed with the initial “We rise.” This rising, which usually holds within it a denotation of rebirth and redemption, is contrasted later in the line following the dash with, “– One wandering thought pollutes the day” (ll. 10). As compared to the previous two quatrains, the speaker condenses the tension like the spikes seen in that of a shrill noise captured in a microphone. This tension, although very much present in this quatrain, is short and more representative of the “varying blast[s]” described in the second quatrain (ll. 6).

The rest of the quatrain, which continues exploring dissonance in emotions, shortens the tension to an almost syllabic sensation, thus making for an even quicker and sharper conflict-resolution than the previous two lines. Instead of dividing the dissonance between one half of the line and the other, the tension is evident between neighboring words. “We feel,” the speaker states, “conceive or reason” (ll. 11). Each of these words are ways in which humans receive and perceive sensations. Although these words are used to describe sensations, each word is vastly different than the other. “Feel” connotes a response to physical sensations, “conceive” holds reference to a response to visual or audio sensations, and “reason” sides closer to the metaphysical response to sensations. Within the three verbs provided by the speaker, there is a lexical and connotational chasm that is concocted in the remainder of this line as well as the line following.

This dissonant divide in diction drives the tension further as the discord is directed and focused more fully in the final three words of the line: “laugh or weep” (ll. 11). These two basic human emotive actions are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, yet they are pressed together tightly like the positive sides of two magnets. These magnetic forces of expression, when pushed together literally or metaphorically, cover the chasm constructed in the beginning of the line with a taut rope that eventually allows the reader to cross the deep without the fear of falling to one side of the other. Though not entirely concluded, the speaker admonishes the reader to “embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” suggesting that the reader has the ability to choose whether they will embrace the mutability of physical nature and human nature, or to cast it away (ll. 12).

Regardless of what the reader will do after being shown the sheer shakiness surrounding the unstable and mutable nature of all things, the speaker provides the reader with comfort knowing that “It is the same!” (ll. 13). The speaker exclaims that “be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free,” suggesting that though pressure is presented in the poem, as well as in the lives of the individual readers, the capability to resolve the tension is ultimately left in the hands of the reader. They are free to view the tension however they would like to. They can see it as sorrow or joy, and they can react to it by laughing or weeping. Either way, it is the same! The way in which the conflict is resolved depends solely on how each individual reader chooses to alleviate it.

To further complicate the constant stream of cacophony, the speaker concludes by claiming that the only constant in life, whether that’s physical life (as is evident in the example of the moon and the lyre in the first and second quatrains) or metaphysical life (evidenced by the emotional and existential elements evoked in the third and fourth quatrains), is mutability itself. The speaker simply concedes that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow,” hearkening back to the notion of “no second motion bring[ing] / One mood or modulation like the last” in the second quatrain (ll. 15, 8). No day in the past, present, or future can ever be exactly the same ever. Clouds will always cover moons, the music of long-forgotten lyres will always fade into the fog of memory, and human emotions will fluctuate as frequently as syllables succumb to succeeding syllables in a poem.

The speaker releases the pressure that has thus far been congregating in the previous fifteen lines of the poem by reiterating that the only constant character in the conundrum of choices surrounding tension is mutability itself. As the speaker states, and as Shelley strives to suggest through his utilization of contrasting imagery within selfsame stanzas and lines throughout the poem, “Naught may endure but Mutability” (ll. 16). The capitalization of the word “Mutability” gives the idea and the action pertaining to the word an almost deity-like demeanor. By ending the poem with this God-like image, the necessity for accepting the changeable nature of things generally becomes more of a charge from on high than a challenge negatively charged with the impossibility of completion. Nothing can or will ever remain the same. Nature is in constant flux. The strings of a lyre will oftentimes be discordant and out of tune. Human emotions will forever, frequently find themselves frazzled in the fray of feelings. Yet, it is through understanding the need for tension in existence that the reader is able to truly come to terms with the constant creation and resolution of tension in the poem and in their own lives.

“Crossing the Bar” as Tennyson’s Poetic Signature

Near the end of his life, poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson instructed all editors of his works to put his elegy ‘“Crossing the Bar’ at the end of all editions of [his] poems” (Hill 496). Since this request, all editors have kept this promise. Tennyson’s career as a poet, playwright, and writer spanned sixty years. In those six decades, he wrote and published scores of poetry ranging from his narrative poems in “Idylls of the King” about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and his 1854 narrative poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about a heroic charge made by horsemen during the Crimean War, to his poems that explored ancient Greek mythology such as “To Ulysses” and his dedicatory poem to his good friend and fellow poet Alfred Henry Hallam, “In Memoriam.” Considering the vast array of lyrics laid down by Tennyson during his tenure as a poet, I feel like it’s important to understand what makes “Crossing the Bar” the one poem that Tennyson chose to put at the end of every published edition of his poetry. What is it with an elegy that describes a dying man’s journey from sunset to twilight, from shore to open sea, that warrants its becoming Tennyson’s poetical signature?

Lord_Tennyson
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Crossing the Bar” goes as follows:

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell, 

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.

Old English Elegies

Before diving into Tennyson’s work, it’s important to consider one of the oldest recorded English elegies and how it compares to “Crossing the Bar.” In the poem “The Seafarer“, which is found in a collection of poetry reportedly written in the late 10th century AD by Christian monks that was compiled in a book called The Exeter Book, expresses similar sentiments to that of Tennyson’s.

In “The Seafarer”, we see a man sailing upon the sea. He’s cold, alone, and very far from home. The speaker of the poem laments the bitterness of the sea and the coldness of being alone in a ship. His view on his current predicament is mournful. The imagery that he uses to describe the scene that lays before him is like looking at a monstrous wave before it crashes against a canoe. The religious tone of the poem is not in any degree hopeful. He explains that those who have lost faith in God and have turned to gold rather than God are fools and “Death leaps at the fools who forget their God” (106). Rather than providing reassurances, the speaker only speaks of the pitfalls of pride. After describing the destruction of the wrath of God on those who place material goods  above their Creator, the speaker gives suggestions. It’s not advice that helps one come closer to God. It’s more advice on how to avoid the wrath of God.He then praises God and asks permission to “rise to that eternal joy” in God’s presence.

Most of the elegies found in the Exeter Book are similar in their approach to discussing death, destruction, and mortal finality. They lament the evil that is inherent in the world and how evil, evil works, and sin are the reasons why the earth is such a cold and dark place. They describe a scene of total loneliness and isolation. The word bleak doesn’t seem to suit when describing the desolation of death in Old English elegies. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to on the horizon. Everything is just dead and there’s nothing that can really be done about it except kind of hope that a wrathful God won’t totally waste you. Kind of depressing. Although this poem is saturated in sadness, somehow floating in the frozen, frigid yet raging waters of a life where God lays waste to the wicked and seeks to do the same to the remnants of mankind, there is one blip of optimism that is the impetus of the hopefulness that is found in “Crossing the Bar.” In “The Seafarer,” before the speaker goes into listing all of the “Thou Shalts” of avoiding destruction, he presents an interesting thought: “Our thoughts should turn to where our home is.” The speaker could be talking about our physical home, like, where Mom and Dad live or where his family is waiting for him. He could be referring to a heavenly home. It could be both. As we consider the idea of home in Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” as well as his poem “To Ulysses,” we can understand why he would place an elegy, a typically somber and reflective poem about death, in the back of every printed copy of his collected poetry.

Ulysses and Life After Death

Crossing the Bar” was written in 1889, three years before the poet’s death in 1892. He reportedly wrote it after recovering from an illness. By this time, Tennyson was in his eighties and, for anyone around that age, an illness was almost always synonymous with death. Death was on his mind, but not in the fireballs from heaven, struck dead just for trying to balance the Ark of the Covenant [put link] sense of the word. Death wasn’t the end of life for Tennyson. This propensity toward life beyond death can be seen in Tennyson’s 1843 poem, “To Ulysses.” In “To Ulysses,” he writes as if he were the famed Odysseus, one seafarer who sailed the Aegean Sea in order to return back to his home on the island of Ithaca. At the end of his life, he reflects on what will become of his life after he passes through the harbor of mortality and into the seas of the beyond. He speaks that even after passing on to “newer world[s]… Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” He wishes “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars.” He wants to continue until there’s nothing left to continue to. For Tennyson, and the speaker, there is something beyond death. There is something to look forward to. Something beyond that begs him to return.

The speaker examines the boring nature of halting. “How dull it is,” he remarks, “to pause, to make an end.” Death as a halt or a hiccup in the journey is borderline blasphemous. It should be, according to the speaker, part of the journey beyond the sunset.

Crossing the Bar

In “Crossing the Bar,” Tennyson sees the passing from life to death as something that all humans will experience whether they are wicked or righteous, and rather than giving a litany of things to do to be prepared, he simply offers hope. Rather than focusing on the cold and the crags like the author of “the Seafarer,” Tennyson’s speaker emphasizes stars and sounds. In the poem we meet a man in a harbor looking out beyond a sandbar into the sea. The sun is setting and he contemplates what will happen once he proceeds past the precipice of the bar and into the ocean. In the opening stanza of the poem, the speaker describes the scene: “Sunset, and evening star” (1). The sun is setting indicating the inevitable arrival of night. Although the sun will soon set, the speaker presents the image of a star. A light that will still be there even when the light of mortality is extinguished. A constant light in the sky. As the sun descends behind the horizon, the speaker hears “one clear call for [him]” (2). A call that is accentuated by the dimming of the day and the movement of the tide. This call is timely. It comes first as the sun sets and later at the tolling of the evening bell, reminding the speaker that his time has come to cross the bar and there isn’t a whole lot he can do about it. He doesn’t want people to mourn for him or be sad for him as he sails across the bar. He just wants to sort of glide into the sea amid the sonorous sounds of the surf and make the transition between life and death as easily as possible. He doesn’t want fanfare. He would much rather drift off noiselessly without making a ruckus.

The tide is described as being drawn “from out the boundless deep.” The ocean is unknown, maybe even foreboding or intimidating. It is nothing like the supposed safety of the harbor, yet, the speaker realizes that the call came from the ocean and not from the harbor. He must take the step into the unknown as a he crosses the bar. As the tide recedes, it “turns again home”. The use of the word home as opposed to the “boundless deep” earlier in the stanza brings with it feelings of connection with the ocean. Although it is something unknown to the speaker, there is something familiar about it. Something welcoming. The call, this charge, to cross the bar is more than a realization that the speaker’s mortal clock has ticked its last tock. It is filial. It’s not the wrath of a calloused God causing chaos and desiring to destroy man. It is a call from a Creator to His creation. It’s a call from home. It’s hopeful. Rather than agonizing over the lost and fallen state of man in the presence of a vengeful deity, the speaker desires to cross into the familiar unknown of the sea beyond the bar.

His experience of crossing is marked by the coming of twilight and the evening bell, “and after that the dark.” Though the sun has now set and he doesn’t know entirely what lies beyond the bar, the appearance of the evening star provides him with the assurance that this treacherous traversing from harbor to sea will all be okay in the end. The speaker concludes hopefully, though the scene is shrouded in darkness and uncertainty, that “For tho’ from out our borne of Time and Place, / The flood may bear me far, / I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar.” The hope that is present in the end of the poem penetrates the firmament and gives the speaker and the reader hope that there is something more beyond the threshold of time and place and that they might have the chance to look their Pilot, their Creator, face to face upon crossing the bar.

A contemporary of Tennyson’s, Lionel Johnson, in writing about death uses the exact same images as Tennyson. In Johnson’s 1887 poem “In Falmouth Harbour” the speaker is sailing just as the speaker in “Crossing the Bar” is. The only difference is that rather than crossing the bar to the ocean, the speaker is leaving the ocean of life into the harbor of the grave where no waves are made and where travelers can rest from the restlessness of the sea. Daniel Rutenberg of West Virginia University observed that in “Crossing the Bar,” Tennyson views and “[treats]… death as a welcome challenge” and Johnson on the other hand turns death into a sort of “redemption” (179).  Johnson sees death as more of a victory rather than another phase in the battle. Although both poems view death in a very valid and mostly positive way, Johnson’s perception of death as a harbor presents a lack the faith in Falmouth Harbour’s speaker that Tennyson’s speaker is able to exercise in his act of crossing the bar. Rutenberg compares two quatrains from each poem to show the similarities in form along with the differing ideologies surrounding death:

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,  

(“Crossing the Bar”, 1-4)

And

“I have passed over the rough sea

And over the white harbour bar;

And this is Death’s dreamland,

Led hither by a star.

(“In Falmouth Harbour”, 29-32)

Though the imagery is the same in both of these quatrains, the thoughts regarding death stand in stark contrast. Rutenberg states that the ages of each of these poets when they wrote these poems might explain the differing tones. Tennyson was in his eighties when he wrote “Crossing the Bar” and Johnson was barely in his twenties when he wrote “In Falmouth Harbour.” Tennyson had the experience of a full life. He knew sorrow, he knew happiness, and above all he knew that, as his American contemporary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned,

“Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not the goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.”

Tennyson, when asked about the Pilot’s presence beyond the sight of the speaker, simply stated that “the Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not yet seen him.” The Pilot is, “that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us” (Hill 578). By stamping “Crossing the Bar” at the end of every edition of his poetry, Tennyson wanted anyone that would read his poetry to understand this one fundamental truth. Though our bodily frames will eventually waste away, deep down each human being is divine. When we are about to be “called home” we can hope for something better after this life and not fear death. Although we, as Paul the Apostle stated, “see through a glass, darkly,” there will come a time when we will see things clearly. We will eventually see the Pilot face to face. With the knowledge of the Pilot who made it possible for us to, like the tide, “turn again home,” we can rest assured knowing or at least hoping that our crossing of the bar will be peaceful and placid.

Works Cited:

Hill Jr., Robert W., Tennyson’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. W.W. Norton Company, 1999.

Rutenberg, Daniel. CRISSCROSSING THE BAR: TENNYSON AND LIONEL JOHNSON ON DEATH. Victorian Poetry; Summer 1972; 10, 2; pg. 179-180