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Paper of Literary Criticism

Nadine Gordimer’s "The Defeated"

 

        The heart-gripping and sincere short story "The Defeated" by Nadine Gordimer is based on the childhood memories of the author. Writing the story as a young adult, she remembers these dear years of her life in Springs, the small gold-mining town in South Africa as a little girl and her friendship with Miriam. The character of the little girl possibly links to the author herself. The story relies on the flashback of Gordimer who narrates the story in first person, from the point of view of the little girl. She relates the details as she might have experienced them, by this, providing authenticity to this lovely story.

        Nadine Gordimer came from a good family with education and strict morals: her father was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant and her mother an Englishwoman. In the story, her background is well reflected in the character of the little girl who is not allowed to go near the Concession stores because they are dirty and they smell. The Concession stores, authorized by the local government, are located in the dusty center of the town, like a market, always crowded with poor people. These town people mostly work in the mines, doing hard physical work. They smell sweaty, look dirty and dark skinned. However, their dark skin not only refers to the dirt that covers their body, but also to the fact that miners were mainly black people: " …the gray-dusty bodies of the natives – their silky-brown skin dies in the damp fug under-ground: after a few months down the mine, it reflects only weariness--…"(440). They are poorly clothed, and lack education and morals. This environment means danger to a little, fine, young girl; she can pick up diseases such as tuberculosis or bad habits easily. The tuberculosis germs are primarily present in very poor districts of urban areas, where garbage and rotten food are scattered on the streets providing good conditions for the bacteria to spread: "…the crowded pavement…littered with sucked-out oranges and tatters of dirty paper…" (437). Even the cats sniffing around the streets are hollow-cheeked and underfed, nobody takes care of them. They are dirty and also carry diseases.

        On the contrary, the girl of the story is strictly raised, in a clean home; her mother wants to protect her from the dirty mob. There is a wide social gap between the girl’s family and the average mining people of the town. She comes from the wealthy, well-educated upper-class layer of society with morals, far beyond the rabble of the mineworker class and the natives. She is the princess among them who cannot descend to this low and dirty level of society and mingle with them. In order to keep her away from this common people, her mother tells her the market is no place for little girls. How else could one explain this to a young girl so that she would understand the meaning of being socially different? Her mother obviously cannot tell her, "We belong to the superstructure of the society who are economically determined by wealth and education." Of course, a little girl would not understand. So her mother simply just says to her it is no place for little girls. But the more parents prohibit their children from doing something, children, by nature, usually get even more curious and want to disobey the rule. Children need life, noise and happenings without rules around them; they need to be always in the center where there is something permanently going on. The Concession stores were just the place. "I felt that life was going on down there at the Concession stores: noise, and movement…" (437), she remembers. It opens a certain mystery to her, something secret that attracts her. She does not consider going there sinful or dangerous; despite the smell and dirty people, she goes to the stores ignoring the prohibition of her parents. It is an enchanted world to her, a playground that tempts her childish mind. The author’s simile of "narrow white shops lying away ahead like a jumble of shoe boxes" (437) depicts very well the messiness of that area without any particular rules, order or value. Shoeboxes are nothing valuable, just cheap cardboard usually ending up in the garbage, which refers to the poor quality of goods sold in the Concession stores. With this simile, the author creates the sweaty and dusty atmosphere of the market place with its shops painted white as to be protected from the burning sunshine of the hot South African climate. The heat not only implies the temperature but also the intensity of life and excitement of the store area as the sole entertainment of the boring mining town.

        The poverty of this Concession store area is indeed emphasized by the author’s language of description, employing many native South-African words as well as expressions that refer to the barrenness. "Veld" (437) means sparsely wooded grassland, its vegetation as well as its people being quite poor. "Shabby" (438) is another word for poor, dirty or faded. The choice of food they sell in the shops mainly consists of thin-skinned oranges (not the most delicious type) and mealies (the African term for Indian corn), both cheap, low-quality meals for poor people. Some other goods the vendors offer are bracelets made out of the cheaper copper, (not gold despite the fact that it is a gold-mining town, but the gold is definitely exported) and knitted caps. These are products grown or made by the natives themselves, all simple, worthless goods.

        The girl is actually conscious of these people’s poverty and lack of morals. She smells the "carrion-breath" of these people and sees the "no-color chunks of horror" that give her the feeling of "dreadful enticement" (438) and revulsion. She sees them spit orange skins in the street, behave like animals, and inevitably realizes the difference between their background and education and hers: "Quite often I had to flick the white pith from where it had landed, on my shoe or even my dress, spat negligently by some absorbed orange-eater…"(438). With her delicate body and fine, clean clothes she leisurely walks among the miners who reek of sweat from hard mine work. They are rude people shouting, gurgling their throats and laughing loudly. " I was careful not to let them brush too closely past me, lest some unnamable something crawl from their dusty blankets or torn cotton trousers onto my clean self, …that terrible gurgle in their throat…blew their noses loudly between their finger and thumb, and flung the excrement horribly to the air" (438). As a reaction, she feels a strong disgust to these "wild, dirty men" whose highest need is to lie down outside in the sun and fill their mouth with oranges after coming out from "the darkness of the mine " (438). Darkness here means not only the obscurity and lack of light down in the mines, but also the darkness of the mind of these mineworkers, that is, their lack of education. The contrast of the sun and the darkness well represents the confrontation between the two different social classes: the wealthy, educated class where the girl comes from as opposed to the working class of the miners without schooling.

        However, despite her disgust and fear, the little girl still finds this place alluring enough to fascinate her by its liveliness. The oxymoron "dreadful enticement" (438) is an expressive combination of two words with contradictory meanings related to the girl’s contrasting but simultaneous feelings of disgust and enchantment about the market area. As to utter her disgust, she derogatively compares the storekeepers’ wives to lizards sitting in the sun. Lizards, such as most reptiles, arouse a general feeling of abhorrence in people with their slimy skin and cold body, mostly living in the dirt. They are animals at a low stage of evolutionary development, therefore, with low intelligence. The picture of the ideal woman in this girl’s mind is that of her mother; a clean, orderly, well-educated woman as opposed to the storekeepers’ wives who are not like her mother at all: uneducated, ugly, dirty and poor. The motif of disgust symbolically conveyed by metaphors of other reptiles and ugly animals, become an extensive simile in the story later on.

        One of these smelly and disgusting women is Mrs. Sayetovitz, one of the storekeepers’ wives. Her name sounds Slavic; most probably her family emigrated or has Slavic ancestors. As it turns out from Gordimer’s biography, her father was a Lithuanian Jew, who migrated with his family to South Africa. We can regard this biographical fact as a parallel to the Sayetovitz family. The name "Sayetovitz" obviously reveals the family’s Slavic roots; they might have come from Lithuania as the author’s father has. In the 1950’s, at the time when this story was written, in Lithuania and in the entire former Soviet Union, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe, the communist governments ruled. In the territory of the former Soviet countries Stalin was the leader of the Communist system. Many people left their countries with disappointment because they could not meet their expected living standards. They immigrated to America or South Africa hoping to be able to establish a new existence there. The time of immigration for most of them meant the period of revolution, when these nations’ people revolted against the communist oppression. The Sayetovitzes most probably had identical motivations to go to South Africa; they settled down and started running a small blanket store in order to secure the family’s living.

        Mrs. Sayetovitz appears familiar to the girl who has seen this woman many times before when she came to the stores. This makes the girl feel more comfortable among the market mob, especially when she realizes that the storekeeper’s wife is the mother of one of her classmates at school, Miriam Sayetovitz. The word ‘class’ bears a certain ambiguity here; the two girls are classmates at school, but they are definitely from two different social classes. Miriam’s parents belong to the poor layer of venders whereas the other girl comes from an elite family. Her parents play golf, the game of the well to do, on Saturday afternoons; they live in a house in a rich neighborhood, and have a cat and doves in their garden. The economic and social gap is clearly perceptible; the Sayetovitzes own a store that compares to a "deep, blanket-hung cave" (439) and live there in a small flat right behind the store. A cave normally is the living place of a wild beast or animal; therefore, it may be very dangerous to enter. As we learn from the story, the girl does not enter the "cave" for a long time, only when Miriam once calls her in. The clothing of Miriam’s mother, her creased alpaca apron and down-at-heel shoes also reveal the Sayetovitzes' poverty. The first impression that the girl gets of Miriam’s mother is quite negative and disdainful: an ugly and angry woman with small, pale eyes, heavy face and half blind. Knowing no morals, she sits there widelegged so that the girl can see her trashy and cheap lingerie. She emphasizes the woman’s ugliness very strongly, even hyperbolically: "Ugly, with the blunt ugliness of a toad…as if the earth were the wrong place, too heavy and magnetic for a creature so blunt; and the water would be no better: too subtle and contour-swayed for a creature so graceless " (439-440). Toad, an amphibian, a large type of frog is part of the motif already mentioned in connection with the lizard. It is not only a shiny, disgusting animal, but it also has the connotation with what it frequently represents in fairy tales; the ugly frog that turns into a prince after the princess kissed it. The word "blunt" meaning "unpolished, stupid" accentuates Mrs. Sayetovitz’s ugliness. The girl, in order to show her disgust, keeps comparing these people to inferior reptiles and amphibians, by this, increasing the readers’ disgust and antipathy as well. Therefore, similes work very efficiently in the story. The use of the attribute "ugly" is much repetitive in order to stress the unpleasant sight of Miriam’s mother even more. The description becomes indeed offensive and contemptuous, it gets a racist twinge: "She had the short, stunted yet heavy bones of generations of oppression in the Ghettos of Europe…her features were not essentially Semitic…" (440). "The dusty African with his odd, troglodyte unsureness, and his hair plastered into savage whorls with red clay" (440) is another racist comment that she makes on a man passing by. Since she is a child, it is pardonable to see only the physical qualities and ignore the inner value that may be positive. Actually, she herself admits later that Miriam’s mother is generous.

        Mr. Sayetovitz sells blankets, thus trying to make a living. He has a monotonous, boring life with the same activities every day: serving customers with patience, waiting until they make up their minds to buy. The girl despises not only the parents but also Miriam, by saying she remembers her because of her name, Miriam Sayetovitz, is so ugly. However, quite interestingly, and obviously intentionally, the girl’s name is never mentioned throughout the entire story. She even feels pity for Miriam: "I was always sorry for girls with ugly names " (439). Again, the author applies a simile here, comparing Miriam’s name to the "scrolled pattern of an iron gate with only the sky behind it" (440), like this: MIRIAM. The coldness of the iron and the M’s and the implacability of the A’s suggest a certain distance and rigidity she feels for the socially subordinate Miriam. The girl’s imagination of matching such a descriptive picture with a framework of the gates, with a house and flowers in it, indicates her fine, artistic sense and sophisticated, careful education. Also, she criticizes Miriam for her tousled black hair. Though, as time goes by, despite their social background, they seem to be interested in each other and a lovely friendship develops between them.

        The girl finds out just now about Miriam that her parents have a store in town. This is a new picture of Miriam in her eyes, different from that at school. Thus, she reevaluates her views about Miriam and becomes more interested and open for her friendship. From now on, their attachment represents a bridge over this social-economic gap that exists between the two classes and has separated them until now. The girl smiles at Miriam very friendly, while Miriam asks her mother whether they can have some red lemonade, both giving the sign of mutual recognition.

        The Concession stores and her friendship with Miriam become the most important values in the girl’s life. Whenever her parents are not at home, she runs down to the stores in secret to see her friend, Miriam. She is practically captivated by the vividness and gaudiness of the stores whose charm entices her from time to time. She not only loves looking around in the uncle's bicycle shop, where old sewing machines, bells and mascots are collecting dust but she also adores drinking lemonades with Miriam that she is not allowed to drink unlimitedly at home because her mother says they might spoil her dinner. While at home she has to behave according to strict rules, at the stores with Miriam she can enjoy her absolute freedom doing what she wants. However, while Miriam feels comfortable among these poor people, the girl cannot fight back her disgust. Again, she thinks of some repulsive animals, such as ants, swarming over Miriam's body who does not care since she is used to this dirty environment. The girl does not understand why Miriam does not bother about the dried and scary bats and cobwebby snakeskin while to her they look unpleasant and hideous. The author describes the girl as an adolescent with powerful curiosity and compares even her soul to a headless worm, another slimy, detestable crawler. She becomes part of this dirt, tainted by its sickening atmosphere, of which she feels guilty and ashamed of. Yet, Miriam just pulls her away, saying, "Oh, come on"; this lifestyle is normal to Miriam, this is her home.

        Finally, Miriam invites the girl in her father's store; thus the inner world of the dark cave that has been so mysterious to her until now bursts upon her sight at once. Inside, she is spelled by the magic power of the cellarlike shop where everything looks enigmatic and obscure. The dark blankets hanging from the ceiling remind the girl of stalactites as if inside a real cave. Mr.Sayetovitz himself she compares to a beast in its lair as he is walking among his blankets in the store. By these similes, the author achieves mystic and eccentric effects as they occur in a child's mind. The girl jeers at Mr. Sayetovitz with irony, just as she did at all the other poor people from the store area. She finds him ugly, too, and mocks his wide upper lips and puffy lower lips. We learn that the father's real name is Yanka but the immigration authorities changed it to John for the sake of easier spelling. In connection with the family name, Sayetovitz, Yanka too sounds Slavic, referring to the family’s Slavic origins. As Mr. Sayetovitz lost his name, Yanka, so did he lose his real identity in this foreign country. He and his family became members and, at the same time, victims of the nameless working class. Mr. Sayetovitz is a "gentle man" but not a gentleman: he looks unkempt and slovenly. This game with the words creates a certain irony related to the character of Miriam's father. He is sullen and dejected, unwilling to socialize, always gloomy and ill natured. He is tired of life and much work, selling his blankets every day is his only monotonous and endless activity. His buyers are mostly mineworkers, poor people, who want the best for their little money and do not want to be cheated. Because they are standing there too long to choose the blanket they most like, Mr. Sayetovitz cannot stand them; however, he would never deceive them. At most, when he gets impatient and loses his temper, he shouts at the native buyers in the store. Behind his fury, though, there lies the glimmer of racism. He bullies the little native boy, thus intimidating the weaker. He makes the natives feel their servitude: "He forced them to feel their ignorance, their inadequacy, and their submission to the white man’ s world of money. He spiritually maltreated them, and bitterly drove his nail into the coffin of their confidence " (442). The last phrase is a metaphor for Mr. Sayetovitz’s burying the natives’ self–confidence, that is, oppressing and despising them.

        However, Mr.Sayetovitz treats the girl exceptionally well. He knows that she comes from a white, higher-class family; therefore, he always smiles at her, feeling the power of the embarrassment of the social gap between them. In return, the girl behaves politely with him, as she was taught at home, repeating "Yes, Mr.Sayetovitz" and "Thank you" in her discomfort.

        The Sayetovitzes get to know their daughter’s friend right at the beginning of their friendship but not so the parents of the girl. For long, they do not meet Miriam until the girl takes her home to her birthday party. Their friendship resembles a double-edge sword; they are indeed close outside of school while in school they continue having distance and not making friends. Since they are children, they do not know how to handle their social diversity before their classmates. The girl probably feels ashamed to make friends with the working class Miriam and the two decide to hide their relation in school. At the party, the girl critically contrasts Miriam’s blue taffeta dress to her pretty, clean and well-furnished home, not being able to disregard their social difference. Miriam puts on that dress that seems pretty to her in order to compensate her subordination in the girl’s rich milieu. Also, the gloomy home of Miriam is described to show the contrast: "tarnished samovar," "mournful, green plush curtains," "damp, puddly yard" (443). As always, in the girl’s house Miriam shows no interest just indifference, with a kind of self-control that is amazing from a child, but within herself she surely admires and envies the rich and beautiful house of her friend. This indeed becomes obvious as later Miriam gushes over the girl’s expensive presents to her mother with childish enthusiasm. Miriam opens up for and tells only her mother her wishes with sincerity and confidence. Of course, the truth is that Miriam wants to have the same expensive presents; she is envious, as every child would be.

        With the time, however, the Sayetovitzes have seemingly gathered a small fortune and moved to a little house in the township. As compensation to the girl’s birthday invitation, now Miriam also invites her friends to her birthday and provides them with a cinema ticket and ice cream. She does not let her and the family’s pride be trampled. She possesses a powerful driving force to break free of the stereotype with which people stigmatize her. Her parents are proud of her; they give her music education, send her to school and do everything they can with all their efforts to elevate Miriam out of the mob, while they still remain uneducated and poor. As the girl looks back later, she sees that Miriam and she were intelligent little girls but not exceptionally brilliant, as Miriam’s parents saw their daughter. Miriam was their pride and hope, the meaning of their life and of what they have been working hard for.

        The girls’ friendship at the time they matriculate seems that it would become a life-long attachment. Although it is very difficult for the Sayetovitzes to send Miriam to university because of their limited financial situation, making hard efforts, they do so. They regard Miriam’s education as primary, the most important thing in their life. They could not throw off the yoke, but they want to help Miriam, who represents the next generation, do it. "Her parents were peasants; but she was the powerful young Jewess " (444). By this time, Miriam turns into a tall, beautiful, elegant, young lady. We may realize at this point that she is a dynamic character; the poor little girl from the dusty mining village now adjusts easily to her new social status, to the civilized and polished city and university life in Johannesburg.

        On the other hand, Miriam also separates from her friend and shows interest for the young and wealthy Jews at the Medical School instead. These educated people celebrate her, their Jewish "princess." Her new social position takes Miriam to luxurious villas with swimming pools, tennis parties and dances. The tables have turned. Now, it is the girl who is rather envying Miriam for her power and ambitions that she broke out of nothing, the dirty, stinky market town so successfully. She feels, now Miriam is higher valued than she is, just as it was the other way when they were little: "Beside her, I felt pale in my Scotch ginger-fairness " (444).

        "Miriam Sayetovitz and I had dropped like two leaves, side by side into the same current, and been carried downstream together " (445). This beautiful metaphor stands for fate itself. It is time for the girls to take their own separate ways of their lives. They are not little girls anymore but young ladies just standing on the threshold of LIFE. Despite Miriam’s poor start, her life luckily takes a turn. She becomes a teacher and the wife of a doctor in Johannesburg. On the other hand, the girl, born in a rich family, who has never had to face difficulties, lack anything or envy anybody, is now unsatisfied with her life. She, who started at a higher level than Miriam’s, ended at a lower one. She did not experience any great striking change in life, which leaves her with disappointment, dissatisfaction, and defeat.

        Her envy, curiosity and despair take her back to her hometown, the little nest of her childhood memories. She misses the good old days with Miriam and remembers them with nostalgia. Feeling just as a little girl again, she wants to see the Concession stores and visit her friend but Miriam is not there anymore. As close they were, they got so far from each other. However, at the market nothing has improved. It is the same or even more dirty, sweaty and disgusting place as it used to be during her childhood; even the beauty of her memories cannot embellish the bitter reality. Her feeling of disgust remains the same at the sight of the sick cats and sucked orange peels. The only thing she does not know yet, whether the Sayetovitzes and their store have changed. She expects based on what she has heard about Miriam that she took her parents with her into her wealthy home and lifted them out of their poverty as to show her gratitude for all they did for her. However, to her great astonishment, the old Sayetovitzes are sitting inside their store, even gloomier than before, worn by life, hopelessly. She sees them uglier, older and more miserable.

        As she sees Miriam’s parents, she knows it immediately: Miriam has ungratefully abandoned her good parents. The Sayetovitzes try to veil their grief and shame and still talk proudly about their daughter. The picture about Miriam’s home clearly reflects her wealth, high social status: she lives in an expensive suburb, in a large, white, modern house with flower border and fishpond. Sadly, her parents have been there once only, when Miriam’s son was born. They have never seen her husband and she has never taken them to her home; she comes to visit them once or twice a year for an hour. The girl understands now that Miriam feels ashamed of her parents and fears her doctor husband would never accept them. Selfishly, she does not want to risk the luxurious life she has in case her husband would leave her because of her poor origin. Thus, Miriam rather chooses to reject and neglect her parents, leaving them behind in the dusty mining town in poverty-- defeated.

        The little dirty girl, Miriam, now turned into a queen and refused her poor derivation. "She had forgotten a lot of things " (447): where she came from, the poverty, the need and her dear parents who helped her climb up to where she is now. Her smooth hands with expensive diamond rings contrast the rude, working hands of her father; the hands that have worked for her so hard to make somebody out of her. The Sayetovitz parents are now where they have always been, on the deep bottom of society, trampled upon, poor and defeated. As the title also suggests, they are the defeated, the weak and the disgraced. They do not deserve this sad fate and disrespect of their daughter. Instead of celebrating and sharing Miriam’s happiness, they sink even deeper into the dejected and sorrowful morass of their misery.

 

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Imagery of Evil and Deception in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

       

        Based on Scottish history and filled with crime, Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, is rich in imagery of evil and deception. Similarly to Richard III, Macbeth is led by his greed for power; he murders the king and Banquo in order to gain free access to the Scottish throne.

        Macbeth’s immediate start with storm, thunder, and witchcraft foreshadows the significance of evil and deception in the play’s later course. In their magic songs, the three weird sisters, witches really, include many animals, either dangerous or disgusting ones. The predatory tiger, wolf, and bat, and the reptiles snake, frog, lizard and newt frequently emerge in their witchcraft. However, not only the witches mention animals as to represent evil but also Lennox does over Duncan’s dead body : "obscure bird" (2.3.60. Stratford ed.) and the Old Man describes the king’s corrupt murder as "A falcon,…/Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at, and kill’d" (2.4.12-13). Macbeth, seeing Banquo’s ghost, exclaims: "Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,/ The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger" (3.4.100-1), and expresses his fear of curse: "…magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks, brought forth/ The secret’st man of blood"(3.4.126). Snake, the Christian symbol of the original sin of the human race and of corruption, appears several times throughout the play. Macbeth, suffering from conscience after Duncan’s murder, says: "We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it"(3.2.13), "O! full of scorpions is my mind"(3.2.36) or "There the grown serpent lies: the worm, that’s fled" (3.4.29) asserting the king’s death.

        Besides ominous animals, the motif of blood is constantly present as to emphasize murder, evil, and corruption. Macbeth expresses his fear of revenge by saying, "It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood" (3.4.122). Lady Macbeth has the vision of a bloody spot on her hand marking her sinful involvement in the murder that does not disappear: "Here’s the smell of the blood still"(5.1.53). As to emphasize the dark and bloody atmosphere even more, most of the action takes place at night, "in disguise", sometimes accompanied by torches or candles. Banquo’s assassination occurs at night when

"The moon is down…

                There’s husbandry in heaven;

                Their candles are all out" (2.1.1-5)

Or as Lennox reacts to Duncan’s murder:

                                "The night has been unruly: where we lay,

                …strange screams of death,

                 And prophesying with accents terrible

                 Of dire combustion" (2.3.54-58)

Also, Macbeth hopes that his sin will be covered by the dark of the night:

                                                "Come, seeling night,

                                                 Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

                                                 And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,   

                                                 Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond

                                                 Which keeps me pale!" (3.2.47-50)

        Along with the night’s importance goes the theme of sleep and dreams. Duncan is murdered in his sleep (the word ‘sleep’ occurs thirteen times in 2.2), and Lady Macbeth is driven by her guilt-haunted sleepwalking to suicide. The deceptive nature of sleep and dreams is expressed in "The sleeping, and the dead,/ Are but as pictures; ‘t is the eye of childhood/ That fears a painted devil" (2.2.53-5) and "..awake!/ Shake off the downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,/And look on death itself!"(2.3.77-9).

        In addition, Shakespeare applies the images of devil and hell to highlight the evil: "…not in the legions, Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d / In evils, to top Macbeth" (4.3.56-8), (also 3.4.59; 2.1.64; and 2.3.2.ff). Too, diseases, as symbols of evil occur: "This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues" (4.3.12) as Malcolm calls Macbeth; the disease Macbeth can cure "’T is call’d the evil" (4.3.146), and he heals people who are "All swoln and ulcerous" (4.3.151) with a magical power. Finally, Macbeth regrets that he ever believed the witches; he feels deceived: "And be these juggling flends no more believ’d,/ That palter with us in a double sense" (5.7.48-9).

        In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses innumerous images as well as motifs in order to support the main message of his play: how the great force of evil and deception can lead to final tragedy.

 

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 Relating the Plots in W. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

        The most unique characteristic of Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is its complex plot that often deceives us by its confusing relation of reality and imagination. The play has a structure of a double plot that serves as a framework to the fairy tale placed in the middle of the comedy.

        A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself has been written for a wedding celebration of the Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain and a Countess. This motif also appears in the play when the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play within the play – mise-en-abyme-- is acted out at Theseus’s and Hippolyte’s wedding ceremony. The frame of Shakespeare’s play consists of the love relationship of Theseus and Hippolyte, the elderly couple, and the struggle of the young lovers, Lysander and Hermia, for their love. Both Act I Scene 1 and Act V take place in Athens, in the palace of Theseus. The intermediate fairy tale embedded in between the frames is laid in the woods near Athens, where Lysander and Hermia meet in secret in order to escape the strict father of Hermia, Egeus, and the Athenian law. The characters of the inserted fairy tale are the King and the Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania, and Puck, their servant. Puck confuses the emotions of the young lovers of the frame story, thus transferring their characters into the fairy plot. At this point, we lose track of the distinction between the initial ‘real’ story and the fantasy.

        In addition, we may observe the twin elements of the fairy tale and the acting of the ‘rude’mechanics as contradictory; the light, witty fantasy is opposed to the simple-minded, dull gaucherie of the mechanics. Puck, the most ingenious creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with his wit represents folklore and the simple country people. In the fairy tale he crosses the love relations of the frame characters by having both Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, and Titania with Bottom. However, by the end of the interplay he brings the lovers together in the right way, amending his previous mischief. The craftsmen well represent Stratford, Shakespeare’s native town with its busy market and streets full of workers. The mechanics in the play pun upon their occupations, as their appropriate names suggest their crafts, e.g. Bottom, the weaver—‘bottom’ is the skein on which the weaver winds his yarn, or Snug, the joiner—‘snug’ is a device used by joiners, etc. Shakespeare, with their performance, intends to caricature the non-professional, provincial plays of his time.

        Ultimately, the play ends in the suitable, Shakespearean ‘all is well that ends well’ manner. After the confusion of the intermediate fairy tale everything is cleared up and Puck explains the fantasy part as a dream as we get back to the happy-ending frame plot:

      Think but this, and all is mended,

       That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream.

                                            (V. 2. 55 – 59, Stratford ed.)

 

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Magic in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

 

        Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, is interwoven with the element of magic. Prospero, the dethroned but rightful Duke of Milan, controls the action by his magic power and with the help of Ariel, his sprite. Prospero is a rather mysterious character, a magus, whose power depends on his books.

        As a start of his plan, Prospero creates a storm on the sea to capture Alanso’s ship and reprimand Antonio, his brother, who corruptly seized Milan’s throne. Prospero wears an enchanted cloak, uses a magic wand, and sucks his knowledge from his books. He reveals the true story of his dethronement and shipwreck to his daughter, Miranda. It turns out, Prospero neglected the throne twelve years ago for the favor of mysterious sciences: "The government I cast upon my brother, / …and rapt in secret studies" (1.2.75-7). Prospero’s fondness of books is further emphasized when he tells Miranda:

A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo…

                    Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me,

              From my own library, with volumes that

                      I prize above my dukedom.          (1.2.161-6)

        Before a magic act, Prospero says, "I’ll to my book; /For…must I perform/ much business appertaining" (3.1.96). When Caliban worships Stephano and hopes to get freed of Prospero with Stephano’s help, he suggests him: "Remember, / First to possess his books; for without them/ He’s but a sot" (3.2.92-4). Also, Prospero considers "bountiful Fortune/ Now my dear lady" (1.2.178-9), suggesting that his magic power equals to that of gods.

        When Prospero’s savage and deformed slave, Caliban, is grumbling about the way Prospero treats him, Prospero threatens him with cramps, pinches, and stings he can induce on Caliban. Thus, Caliban fears him: "I am subject to a tyrant; / a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island" (3.2.43-5). Besides, Ariel’s songs about nymphs as well as the frequent mentioning of spirits and devils imply the presence of magic. Ferdinand recognizes the supernatural: "This is no mortal business" (1.2. 408).

        As a good father, Prospero primarily wishes to achieve his daughter’s happiness by enchanting both Ferdinand and Miranda and making them fall in love at first sight. Ferdinand is charmed from moving when he draws his sword at Prospero. Later, Prospero orders a miraculous feast to honor the king and his company but the dinner suddenly disappears by magic. Also, hunters, and hounds chase Stephano and Trinculo at Prospero’s command. Prospero entertains the young couple with "the vanity of mine art" (4.1.41). Finally, in Act IV, he summarizes his magic: We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep" (4.1.156-8).

        The motif of enchanted sleep and dream as a means to magic is significant in the play: Prospero puts Miranda and the mariners to sleep; later he does the same with Gonzalo, Adrian, and Francisco to tempt Sebastian for corrupt murder.

        In a stylish manner, Prospero ends his enchantment with a magic circle inside which he forgives his enemies. At the end, Prospero, giving up his magic power, breaks his magic wand, and says, "Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own" (Epil.1-2).

 

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The Odes of John Keats

 

        John Keats (1795-1821) has written all his odes in the creative year of 1819. The odes are closely connected, they are "a number of separate shoots all springing from the same root and nourished by the same soil" (Mayhead, 57). Some among Keats’s greatest odes are Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, and Ode on a Grecian Urn.

        The ode is "a single, unified strain of exalted lyrical verse, directed to a single purpose, and dealing with one theme" (Harmon, 358). It is an elaborate and dignified poetic form, more complicated than other lyric types. Originally, it was a Greek form used in dramatic poetry, sung by a chorus and accompanied by music. Keats’s odes reveal the poet’s most significant poetic agenda: his longing to find reconciliation between the imaginary and the real world as well as to seek the principle of beauty in everything.

        Keats defines imagination as "the supreme active principle in poetic composition" (Thorpe, 104) that he uses in his odes as an instrument of intuitive insight. He considers imagination the primary guide to ultimate truth, a capacity that roots in his feelings and reveals the deep existence of the self. By means of imagination Keats is able to project himself into the objects of his contemplation and merge with them into a unity.

        Keats’s poetic being is a spirit-like entity that is pure, free, and independent of the earthly circumstances. It is also sovereign from the body and penetrates the unlimited realm of the soul and the universe. Thorpe argues, "The mind of [Keats] may be a sort of filter through which the great truths of the eternal universe are clarified, organized, and given to the world" (109). The poet identifies himself so closely with the object that his words become the expression of the object itself. Although the poet himself is not present in the poem, his self is represented through the object he identifies himself with.

        To Keats, the absolute way to great poetry is through the imagination. In his letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats declares that as his imagination strengthens he does "not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds" (121). Certainly, in his poetry, Keats seeks to find an agreement between the world of imagination and the actual world of reality. In spite of the sharp difference between these two domains, we recognize that the poet’s state of detachment in the dream world parallels to his existence in the world of human reality, pain, and sorrow. According to Thorpe, the duality of Keats’s separation from actuality as it coexists with his human self of reality is a permanent antithetical element in his odes: "Even though a poet’s head may float in the clouds, his feet must be firmly planted on the ground" (34). In his poetry, Keats intends to accomplish the quest of solving this conflict.

        Keats realizes that the ability of the poet to be in a close and intimate touch with life lies in his power to build an ideal dream world for himself. In his poetic development he goes through two phases, an early and a later detachment. The first one is rather an immature aesthetic escape attempt from the human world of sorrow. The young Keats, inspired by nature, wants to flee from reality into an ideal world of love and romance through ecstatic trance. Thus, the poet completely leaves behind the world of reality and lingers in his realm of dreams only. On the other hand, in his later poetic detachment he strives to reconcile both sides, the dream world of imagination and the world of reality. Keats rises above the actual world in his moments of inspiration.

        In these moments of poetic flight, Keats enjoys an absolute emotional absorption into a realm of imaginative delight, a sphere of the abstractions of his own creation. The poet’s realm of abstractions is "an imaginative real of the concrete" (Thorpe, 35) as he speculates himself into the being of various objects. Keats’s artistic experience is possible only by such a flight and elevation of the spirit into a world of fancy. Here his mind breaks free of the limitations of earthly life. For instance, in his Ode to a Nightingale, the bird removes the poet from the world of reality into a state of abstraction. The poet is longing to escape from the human world of pain to the haven of the aesthetic world. This poem is an example of Keats’s soberer, more mature and conscious detachment because both the idea of mortality and human reality and that of the world beyond mortality appear.

        Also, we have to get familiar with Keats’s concept of beauty before examining his odes. Shortly before his death, the poet asserted: " I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I lov’d the principle of beauty in all things" (127). Beauty to Keats is a sense of spiritual reality in truth, outside the realm of the sensuous; it is the enduring, universal truth. "’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." With this utterance in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats expresses his faith in the force of imagination to capture and create beauty. In his letter concerning the abstract idea of beauty to Bailey, Keats claims, "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth for I have the same idea of all our passions as of Love, they are all in their sublime creative of essential beauty" (Thorpe, 121).

        Beauty is seized by an intellectualized imagination, an imagination supported by experience, thought and knowledge. Thus, imagination should be in close contact with the human world. To Keats, beauty is the very essence of truth and it is immortal. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the external aspects of the urn constitute its beauty. It is the vision of the universal in the poet’s mind that the creator of the urn has conceived and what Keats sees in the urn. The poet’s recognition of this beauty leads to the revelation of an existential principle: the permanence of beauty as the eternal truth.

        Interestingly, the theme of Keats’s Ode on Melancholy, ‘Beauty that must die’, is quite the opposite: the impermanence of beauty. The idea of impermanence conveys the poet’s realization that human joy is fragile and transient. Although the expression of this idea appears only in the last stanza, the entire ode justifies its validity.

        This ode announces a triumph of intelligence and resistance to temptations that go along with melancholy. It suggests that one should not try to escape from his sorrow by narcotics, oblivion or suicide. ‘Psyche’ refers to the goddess; her figure suggests that we should not abandon ourselves to death as Cupid did with his rapture, giving himself to Psyche. Keats argues that one has to be able to control his sorrows. Seeking easy escapes from sorrow is a mistake because it prevents one from experiencing "the wakeful anguish of the soul" (Mayhead, 60). In other words, melancholy is not to be resisted but to be "vividly felt." ‘Wakeful’ hints at an alert state of the mind, a desirable condition for the proper impact of sorrow.

        The initial lines of the ode are a powerful warning: "No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist / Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine." The reiterated negatives come from the poet’s positive belief in the value of life. Then, in the second stanza, Keats tells us what to do if melancholy descends. The ‘weeping cloud’ comes suddenly but implies a refreshing April rain that renews life in the ‘droop-headed flowers. ‘Shroud’ connects to the idea of death and funeral as opposed to the ‘green hill’ that suggests freshness, youth and spring, the regeneration of life. Thus, by the imagery of renewal the poet reaches a balance to the appearing idea of death. Keats implies the duality of pleasure and pain, melancholy and vitality, just as they are combined in human nature. In the ‘morning rose’, the ‘rainbow’, and the ‘globed peonies’ Keats sees visible colors and beauty, while ‘glut’, ‘wealth’, and ‘rich’ associate with luxury. As a remedy to sorrow, the poet recommends indulgence in this luxury.

        Keats proposes two ways to overcome sorrow. The one is seeking indulgence in sorrow instead of running away from it: "Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes." However, while the feminine identity in these lines is clearly the mistress’s, in "She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die" it is rather ambiguous. ‘She’ may refer to the mistress whose anger causes the sorrow. Beside the humanlike interpretation there is the abstract one; it is possible that ‘she’ indicates the personified, ‘Veil’d Melancholy’. The other way to defeat sorrow according to Keats is letting ourselves be led by the abundant emotion of melancholy to the heightened awareness of the beauty of natural sights. The rainbow, the rose and the peonies are the real things melancholy expends itself upon; they are outside of the person who suffers from melancholy. Melancholy is transformed into these objects and thus it is conquered.

    Ode to a Nightingale, another of Keats’s famous odes, rejects the wish to die by making the Bird appear immortal. Certainly, the poet does not mean the literal immortality of the nightingale but suggests that the songs of the innumerable nightingales over the centuries endure. While Keats applies the concept of impermanence in his Ode on Melancholy accepting it as inevitable, his Ode to a Nightingale rebels against it and celebrates the idea of permanence. He argues that passing youth and fading beauty cannot be accepted without struggle.

        The poet contradicts the human realm "Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes" with the nightingale’s world. He does not accept sorrow, only hopes that something may endure. The poet’s ‘aches’, ‘drowsy numbness’, ‘pains’ and the ‘dull opiate’ all reflect the cumulative effect of his weariness. He is not envious of the bird’s happiness but rejoices over the imagined happiness of the nightingale: " 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, / But being too happy in thine happiness." He considers the bird happy because it is not human. Keats mentally follows the nightingale into the realm of the leaves but he knows that his fancy cannot last long because he is human.

        However, the poet’s mood has changed; ‘light-winged’, ‘beechen green’, ‘summer’ and ‘full-throated ease’ bring freshness, vivid colors, warmth and refreshment to him after the narcotic dullness. Also, the second stanza suggests warm atmosphere and high spirit: "Dance, and Provenšal song, and sunburnt mirth! / O for a beaker full of the warm South." Though, the poet’s excessive happiness is still linked to his depression: "Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth." He longs for wine, that is, he has the desire for oblivion: "That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim." Thus, the poet’s vitality and his craving to ‘fade away’ appear simultaneously.

        Yet, in the fourth stanza the poet already dismisses the gloomy thoughts about human lot and wine, instead, he seeks refuge "on the viewless wings of Poesy." The moon and the stars imply his elevated mood but, again, his poetic fancy does not last long. The poet gets back to reality where there are no ‘starry Fays’ and the moonlight is only seen through the branches. By the fifth stanza, he is delighted about the sensuous beauty of the physical world; however, his joy is not based on what he sees but on what he smells. By the force of his poetic imagination, he pictures the flowers by their scents:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral  eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

        By the sixth stanza he describes the ease of human death without pain. The nightingale’s song prevails and the poet gets back to the idea of permanence.
Similarly to his Ode to the Nightingale, in Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats concentrates on the idea of permanence. He describes the urn as a work of art that endures. Here the urn is that "thing of beauty" whose joy lasts forever, as Keats foreshadows his concept of beauty in his earlier poem, Endymion. Scrutinizing the shape and the decorations of the urn, the poet suggests that the urn itself will not literally last forever, neither did the nightingale. The urn is subject to destruction just as any other manmade object. However, it is still a symbol of permanence because it has already endured for so long and its antique beauty entitles it to a care for its preservation.

        The metaphoric marriage between the urn and the quietness that Keats refers to in the first stanza as ‘still unravish’d bride’ is an implication of human matrimony that has never been completed. The ‘bride’ retains her virginal purity and is no partner in a physical union. In addition, she is a ‘foster-child’, a child of a non-sensual relationship. Through this metaphoric imagery we recognize the calm, non-human purity and the detachment of the urn. This prepares us for the following statements of the poet about the urn’s remoteness from human impurity.

        Since the urn is purer than humanity, it is also a truer storyteller than the human poet: "Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme." The ‘flowery tale’ is something that Keats cannot say as well as the urn can. In the second stanza the poet reinforces that the urn is a superior storyteller compared to him: " Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard /Are sweeter". The ‘pipes and timbrels’ of the preceding stanza connect to the idea of music, ‘melodies’, in this stanza. Yet, the poet does not mean physical hearing, the music appeals to the ‘spirit’ rather than to the ‘sensual ear’.

        As Keats "looks" at the urn in his imagination, he describes the scenes he sees and depicts people in different situations. He asks questions about the scenes but cannot answer them:

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

        The fact that Keats cannot tell the precise meaning of the scenes makes them appear more spiritual. Although the scenes hint at specific situations, they are without human circumstances; they only suggest the situations. The poet describes two particular scenes, the young musician’s and the lover’s who pursues his maiden. These scenes, being non-human, are not subjects to change. Since they are motionless, the lover never catches his maiden and the musician keeps on playing: "thou canst not leave / Thy song". The break in this line contradicts to its meaning that the boy will not stop singing. The poet by this break suggests the immobility and fixedness of the scene. The lover not only cannot reach his maiden but also his love for her and her beauty will not change either:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

        The repetition of ‘never’ retards the flow of the poem and thus implies the unchanging posture of the lover; he cannot kiss the girl.

        The third stanza dwells upon the stationary scenes, indicating that beauty does not die in them. The multiple repetition of ‘happy’ and ‘for ever’ refers to the lover’s love that is more genuine than human love because the former will never attain completion while the latter has an aftermath of sorrow and satiety. The recurrence relates to the uninterrupted continuity of happiness.

        In the fourth stanza the poet slowly "turns" the urn around, revealing further scenes. The priest and the rite he performs, being mysterious, allude to the poet’s puzzled feelings as he asks questions that cannot be answered. ‘Silent’ and ‘desolate’ emphasize the urn’s stillness. While in the previous stanzas Keats envied the changeless state of beauty and love, here he takes an unexpectedly mournful tone. The desolated town insinuates sadness and lack of human life.

        The fifth stanza again emphasizes the non-human quality of the urn. ‘Shape’, ‘attitude’, ‘silent form’, ‘Cold Pastoral’, and ‘marble’ underline the non-human coldness of this work of art. However, the poet calls the urn ‘a friend to man’, by this, humanizing it. Keats wants to balance the non-human coldness of the urn and its human warmth as man’s friend, viewing these two features as complementary. The poet implies that this work of art can be beautiful but life, in spite of its woes, has warmth that creeps into Keats’s contemplation about the marble figures as he breathes life into them.

        Undoubtedly, the most quoted lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn are the final ones: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Most probably, Keats intends to show these lines as he imagines them as being uttered by the urn. Thus, the urn becomes the symbol of permanence by having the power to alter our rationalized thoughts to the spiritual idea of eternity. It has the capacity to provoke its observer by suggesting the ideal state in which the permanence of the artwork and the impermanence of human life are combined. ‘Truth’ involves the rationality about the actual facts of life. The poet presents the ideal of permanent happiness as a beautiful impossibility which the urn, as a ‘friend to man’, helps us to see as a possibility. Keats remains impartial to both art and life by trying to resolve the tension between the two.

        All in all, Keats’s odes really are a unified sequence about the poet’s complex and detailed poetic revelation of his creativity. In these poems we may follow the poet’s mental path to his raptures of poetic inspiration and his discoveries of beauty in the world through the power of his active imagination. Keats’s odes reflect his ripened conception of perceptive spiritual insight that is based on knowledge and experience.

 

 

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