Literary Analysis: The Taming of the Shrew: The Importance of Christopher Sly’s Induction

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October 17, 2006


Numerous of William Shakespeare’s dramas employ the concept of “plays within plays,” where characters in the play execute the performance of a different play. This dramatic device by Shakespeare is incorporated in plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labours Lost, Hamlet, and so forth. Some well-known examples consist of the “Murder of Gonzago” scene and the “Mousetrap” scene in Hamlet, and the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene at the conclusion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This motif by Shakespeare also presents itself in The Taming of the Shrew – not in the same manner as the plays mentioned above but as an introduction to the main play.

Shakespeare begins The Taming of the Shrew with a mysterious Induction of the character Christopher Sly, but the story never concludes nor does it carry on to the actual play. Therefore, a couple of questions must be asked: What does Sly’s story contribute to the main play? More important, does his role in the Induction play a significant part to the main play? Absolutely. In fact, the Induction incorporates many of the major motifs of the main play, such as disguise/deception, clothing, the role of marriage, etc. The identity of Sly changes when his clothes are changed, similar to Lucentio’s and Tranio’s attire. Sly finds himself in a strange position and must act accordingly to the role he has been assigned, similar to Kate. Lastly, Sly’s interest is to have a wife whom he can control, just as do Petruchio and other male characters in the main play.

The role of disguise plays a major part of The Taming of the Shrew. In the first act, Shakespeare wastes no time in addressing this theme which parallels the Induction. In the Induction, Sly assumes a disguise in a strange way, in which he has no control over. The story materializes like this: Sly’s drunkenness and disruptive behavior gets him tossed out of a facility and finds himself asleep in front of a lord’s house. The lord arrives home and sees Sly; he then devises a plan to convince Sly that he is a lord, with the help of his household. When Sly is bestowed this honor, he is skeptical at first: “I am Christopher Sly. Call not me ‘honor’ nor ‘lordship’ (Ind. 2. 5). Such response by Sly shows that his identity remains intact, but it would be short-lived. With more convincing that he is a lord (precipitated by the tale of his beautiful wife and trickery), he assumes the role and calls his so-called wife to bed: “Tis much. Servants leave me and her alone. / Madam, undress you and come now to bed” (108-109). This statement by Sly does not only show the disguise that he assumes, but also shows the role of marriage, which will be touched upon shortly.

Interestingly, Sly’s transformation from a beggar to a lord does not only take place with fabricated stories but also with the change of his attire – which introduces the theme of clothing. When Sly’s clothing changes, so does his identity. Because Sly has fine clothing, it enables him to appropriately fit his position as a lord, likewise Lucentio and Tranio. Lucentio (a young student from Pisa who arrives to study in Padua) takes on a disguise to try to acquire Bianca’s love and attention, after he has seen her and falls madly in love. To get closer to Bianca, Lucentio disguises himself as an instructor named Cambio, a clever idea to get into Bianca’s life and the Minola household. To put his plan into action, he convinces Gremio (one of Bianca’s suitors) to recommend him to Baptista – Bianca’s father – as a tutor for Bianca. Thereafter, Tranio (Lucentio’s servant) indirectly warns Lucentio that he has an appointment in Padua and if he fails to arrive, trouble will occur. To remedy any impending problem, Lucentio devises yet another plan: He orders his servant Tranio to impersonate him as he tries to win over Bianca’s love, disguised as a tutor. Not only do Lucentio and Tranio take on a different identity, but they also switch their clothes. When Biondello (Lucentio’s second servant) sees Tranio’s wearing Lucentio’s clothes, he asks his master several questions: “Where have I been? Nay, how now, where are you? / Master, has my fellow Tranio stol’n your clothes? / Or you stol’n his? Or both? Pray, what’s the news?” (1.1. 214-216). The changing of clothes by the characters represents importance and goes hand in hand with the theme of disguise.

Without changing their clothing it would be impossible to pull off a disguise and pose as another person. Clothing was an indication of one’s status in the Elizabethan era. The upper class dressed in valuable and highly structured garments, flaunting their wealth with rich fabrics and extreme decorations; the lower class dressed in plain clothes, which could clearly determine their social status. Similarly, in The Taming of the Shrew, the characters who change their clothing take on a different appearance. Clothing facilitates this outcome because external appearance overshadows the true self and controls the perceptions of others. It allows one to change his or her social positions by donning a disguise. When Sly changes his clothing into that of a lord, he gets treated differently. Once Lucentio transforms himself from a young gentleman into a professor, people treat him as the role he plays. Moreover, when Tranio alters his appearance to Lucentio’s, his image as a servant diminishes and his noble image takes priority. The Induction presents two people assuming a disguise – via clothes: Sly and Bartholomew. Similarly, in Act 1 Scene 1, we see Lucentio and Tranio undertake a disguise. It makes it obvious: The way one dresses facilitates one’s perception.

In continuation with the issue of attire, the theme of clothing stands alone and does not only serve as a disguise mechanism, for it also works as a way of humiliation (publicly and privately), social identity (as noted above), and one of the processes in which Petruchio uses to tame Katherine. One of the most notable scenes occurs the day that the wedding of Kate and Petruchio takes place. Everyone is in attendance, excluding Petruchio. While the spectators become apprehensive, Kate becomes frustrated and leaves. Petruchio, obviously, will not miss his wedding because that would also rule out his riches, so he will be there. As expected, Petruchio arrives at his wedding late, wearing horrendous clothing – shabby mismatched attire, riding on an old horse. Petruchio’s wedding costume represents an act of public humiliation meant for Kate. His inappropriate appearance surprises Baptista and the audience. Baptista orders him to change to no avail. Petruchio responds: “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes. / Could I repair what she will wear in me / As I can change these poor accoutrements, / ‘Twere well for Kate and better for myself” (3.2. 107-110).

This statement by Petruchio typifies an important psychological viewpoint, because it entails that Katherine is not marrying his clothes; instead, she is marrying him, signifying the man beneath the apparel is not equal to the apparel he wears. In other words, Petruchio states that no matter what one wears, his inner self will stand out – which poses the question: Does the clothing make the man? Absolutely not. Lucentio, for example, may be disguised as Cambio the tutor, but reverts to himself once the courtship with Bianca begins to unfold. Likewise, the other disguised characters (Tranio, Hortensio, and the Pedant), can not escape the reality that they have to return to their true identities, including Sly. Although we never get a full disclosure of Sly’s story in the Induction, we know that he will not remain as a lord by what happens to the characters in the main story; they all return to their prior and natural state of being.

Another scene concerning clothes that is of importance occurs in Act 4 with the tailor and haberdasher. Petruchio assures Kate that he will return to her father’s house in the finest clothes and accessories: “Will we return unto thy father’s house / And reveal it as bravely as the best, / With silken coats and caps and golden rings, / With ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things / With scarves, and fans, and double change of bravery, / With amber bracelets … and all this knavery” (4.3. 53-58). Such declaration parallels his prior speech before the wedding when he assured Baptista and Kate that “[they] will have rings, and things, and fine array” (2.1. 316), only to appear at the wedding with an inappropriate attire, making a mockery of the Paduan culture.

Nonetheless, the tailor and haberdasher appear in the scene with a gown and a hat (for Kate) to Petruchio’s dismay. Petruchio looks at the hat and finds several errors. He criticizes the haberdasher’s work and the hat: “A velvet dish. Fie, fie ‘tis lewd and filthy. / Why ‘tis a cockle or a walnut shell, / A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap” (4.3. 65-67). Kate comes to the Haberdasher’s defense, arguing that the hat looks good and she likes it: “Love me or love me not, I like the cap, / And it I will have, or I will have none” (4.3. 84-85). Petruchio ignores her and turns his focus to the tailor’s work, where he again finds countless faults with the gown. Similar to the hat, Kate loves the gown and tells Petruchio that “[she’s] never saw a better fashioned gown” (4.3. 101), but he remains unimpressed and firm with his judgment. After his criticism, he sends the tailor away with the gown, privately humiliating his wife. In truth, nothing major is wrong with the gown to make it unwearable; it is Petruchio who purposely finds it unpleasant, allowing him to showcase his disruptive manner as a technique to tame Kate and mock her Paduan society.

With Kate distressed, the humiliation of her continues when Petruchio tells her that they will travel to her father’s house with the old clothes they have: “We will unto your father’s / Even in these honest, mean habiliments. / Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor, / For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich” (4.3. 161-164). Petruchio speaks these words because it is not the clothes that make the person but rather the mind. This represents a classic manipulation by Petruchio to discipline her mind and body via the clothes she wears and the clothes he sees fit for her to wear. In more concrete language, he basically tries to reshape her body before working on remodeling her mind (a technique that actually goes hand in hand).

Marriage represents another theme that Shakespeare alludes to in the Induction. In the Induction, Sly’s mannerisms (after he has been tricked) show a small glimpse of the marriage role. After he has been convinced that he is a lord, his instinct of controlling and commanding his wife takes priority: “Madam, undress you and come now to bed” (Ind.2. 105). Sly in this scene plays the role of a husband and demands his wife, similar to how Petruchio treats his wife Kate. In this era, a husband had absolute right to treat his wife however he wanted to, even with violence. However, Petruchio never uses violence against Kate although he was allowed to do so.

In fact, when Petruchio first meets Kate behind closed doors, his rhetoric causes Kate to strike him, showing her wild behavior which he plans to tame. He does not reciprocate the hit but warns to do so, if necessary. He remains undisturbed by her rejections and vows to marry her without consent: “Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented / That you shall be my wife; your dowry greed on; / And will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1. 262-264). Despite Kate’s objections, Petruchio later announces to Baptista and his men that Kate has agreed to marry him (an obvious lie) and a wedding date has been set. Because Katherine fails to protest his bogus claim(s) that she has agreed to marry him, she indirectly approves what he says. Although they are not married yet, Petruchio’s authoritative role as a soon-to-be husband has already been solidified.

He continues his authoritative behavior when he shows up late to his own wedding. Petruchio’s lateness shows a sign of his control and power over Kate. To make it worse, he publicly acts out in a bizarre manner at the wedding ceremony to embarrass her, one of his plans to tame her and demonstrate to her the unruly behavior she embodies. After the nuptials, Petruchio takes his actions to the extreme and exercises his right as a husband at the wedding reception with a firm command, declaring that he and his wife are leaving. Kate wants to stay and makes it clear to her husband, but he thinks otherwise and disregards her request: “For my bonny Kate, she must with me. / Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret; / I will be master of what is mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house” (3.2. 216-219). These disrespectful lines Petruchio speaks show that his command shall be obeyed – and not be challenged – because Kate belongs to him. Moreover, he diminishes her presence as a human by labeling her as his objects. Following his firm demand to leave, they leave. His antics throughout the wedding ceremony solidify the beginning of his control as a master/husband.

The action with the newlyweds heats up at Petruchio’s house. He orders his servants to cook him and his wife a feast but, strangely, rejects the entire dinner when the servants present it to them. Petruchio then goes on a rage and throws all the food on the floor: “Tis burnt, and so is all the meat. What dogs are these? Where is the rascal cook?” (4.1. 131-132). Kate argues that the meat is well cooked. We all know that the dinner is faultless and Petruchio’s antics serve as a calculated plan to tame her, confirmed by his words: “Thus have I politicly begun my reign, / And tis my hope to end successfully” (4.1. 157-158). Some would think that his tactics make him a bad husband; however, in that era, a husband’s behavior was warranted by law. Although his actions may seem a bit extreme, they are nowhere near as horrible as some of the sermons imply. According to A Homily of the State of Matrimony, a wife who was beaten should be thankful and accept the fact that she was not beaten any worse.

In Act 4, Kate starts to slightly change and her desire to eat precipitates her to ask for food. The hungry Kate convinces Grumio (Petruchio’s servant) to bring her some food, only to be taunted by him. Her request for food is later rendered by her husband, but she fails to thank him properly and he threatens to take it away: “The poorest service is repaid with thanks, / And so shall mine before you touch the meat” (4.3. 45-46). The hungry Kate has no choice but to thank him properly and offers a subtle thank you. The taming process of Kate is nearly complete. This scene closes with another lesson of obeying what he says. Petruchio claims that it is seven o’clock and they will arrive at her father’s house at noon. Kate knows that he is wrong and argues that it is almost two. Although Kate’s statement is true, Petruchio argues: “It shall be seven ere I go to horse. / Look what I speak, or do, or think to do, / You are still crossing it … / I will not go today, and ere I do, / It shall be what o’clock I say it is” (4.3. 183-187). This declaration by Petruchio states that even though his judgment renders a falsehood, she should never question him and must obey what he says.

When they are heading to Baptista’s house, the mental taming (through games) by Petruchio continues – moon versus sun. Petruchio claims that the moon shines brightly. Kate disagrees and says the sun shines brightly. Petruchio utters: “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list / Or ere I journey to your father’s house” (4.5. 7-8). Petruchio’s threats to return back home precipitate Kate to agree: “Since, we have come so far, / And be it the moon, or sun, or what you please; / An if you please to call it a rush candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (4.5. 12-14). She begins to realize the game and will agree to whatever Petruchio says. In other words, if she wants to get what she wants, she must fully comply with what her husband says, whether it be wrong, misleading, or completely outrageous. In Act 5, Petruchio again threatens to go home after his request for a kiss is denied; she then kisses him.

Kate has fully transformed and Petruchio’s job as a successful tamer shows clearly in the final act. Once all of the characters assemble to rejoice Bianca’s and Lucentio’s wedding, the men decide to bet on who has the most submissive wife. Lucentio and Hortensio order their wives to come, but they both refuse. However, when Petruchio calls for his wife Kate, she comes to everyone’s surprise. Baptista praises Petruchio and talks as if his daughter had never embodied a shrew: “For she is changed, as she had never been” (5.2. 119). Moreover, he unnecessarily orders Kate to destroy the cap she wears and she complies. Thereafter, Kate delivers a long speech to the women on how wives should treat their husbands: “I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace, / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, / When they are bound to serve, love, and obey” (5.2. 165-168). These four lines from the epic speech by Kate, without a doubt, show that she has fully been tamed – and psychologically changed – by her husband Petruchio and no longer exhibits her unruly behavior.

Shakespeare provides an unfinished Induction with the character Sly, which continues to the main play. Shakespeare mildly presents several themes – disguise, marriage, clothes, etc. – that clearly materialize in the play. The Induction works as a catalyst for the forthcoming actions. As a result, the Induction renders a significant device, for every theme that presents itself in the Induction shows up in the main play. First, Sly’s identity alters in the Induction once he changes his clothes, similar to the identity of Lucentio and Tranio, two themes of disguise and clothes. Furthermore, Sly’s gullibility enables the Lord and his men to trick him, similar to Baptista and others, a theme of deception. Second, Sly finds himself in a strange position which he has no control over and must act accordingly, which parallels Kate’s role as a wife. Finally, Sly’s interest to control his wife is evident as he orders his so-called wife Bartholomew to bed, which compares to Petruchio and other males in the play, a theme of marriage. Therefore, it is safe to render a judgment that the Induction and the main play of The Taming of the Shrew are inseparable and greatly parallel one another via motifs.

 

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Bio: Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917-December 3, 2000)

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January 9, 2009 | Revised: January 16, 2018


Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims in Topeka, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, when she was an infant, the family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up and resided all her life. Her father was a janitor, for his ambition to attend medical school to become a doctor was unfulfilled due to monetary issues; her mother was a teacher and a classical trained pianist.

Brooks had a passion for reading and writing and found great support from her parents. In fact, in 1930, she published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood at the age of thirteen. Although her parents were supportive and loving, they were also strict and did not allow her to play with the neighborhood kids; instead, they encouraged her to remain in her literature and provided her with the educational tools to do so. Her home was stable, but the same cannot be said for her schools, where she encountered racial prejudice. She first attended an all-white school, Hyde Park High School (now called Hype Park Career Academy); she later transfer to an all-black high school, Wendell Phillips, before settling at an integrated school, Englewood High School. While attending Englewood, her mother, in 1933, introduced her to Harlem Renaissance prominent poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Meeting these Black writers was not only advantageous but inspirational. After taking Johnson’s advice to read and study modern poets, Brooks began reading the work of Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, and others alike. After meeting Hughes at the Metropolitan Community Church, he told her to seriously think of writing professionally after reading a few poems she had with her.

In 1934, she graduated from Englewood High School and found employment with the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, where she had an adjunct position. During this time, she attended Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College), for two years, graduating in 1936; she never attended a four-year university because she thought it was unnecessary for her writing career. As a staff of the Chicago Defender, she published more than seventy-five poems in its poetry section called “Lights and Shadows”; however, she was not given a full-time position. She later worked briefly as a maid and secretary in a slum apartment building known as The Mecca, managed by a spiritual charlatan/slumlord. She was not too fond of any of these humiliating job experiences as described in her poetry.

In 1938, she joined the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a Youth Council meeting she met Henry Lowington Blakely II and married him on September 17, 1939; their son, Henry Blakely, Jr., was born a year later.

To improve her poetic techniques, Brooks enrolled in poetry workshops taught by a rich Chicagoan named Inez Cunningham Stark at the South Side Community Art Center, from 1941 to 1942. Under the guidance of Stark, Brooks admitted she became a better poet. Indeed, the workshops were advantageous, for in 1943 she won the poetry award from Midwestern Writers’ Conference in Chicago.

In 1945, she gained fame and praise with the release of her first book of poetry, A Street in Brownsville, published by Harper. She was selected by now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year,” and received other respected honors. In 1946, she was awarded the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the Guggenheim Fellowship; she won the latter award for a second time in 1947.

The years of 1949 and 1950 were special and momentous for Brooks. She published her second book of poetry called Annie Allen (1949) and won the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine. Most important, in 1950, it earned her the most prestigious award that one could receive, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Not only did she win such noted and noble prize, but she made history by becoming the first African American to be crowned this award. Annie Allen brought her countrywide fame and firmly established her as a key voice in modern American literature. Brooks, in 1951, received her most precious prize by giving birth to her second child, a daughter named Nora Blakely.

At this point in her life, she was at the highest pinnacle of her career and continued publishing her work of literature through Harper and Row. In 1953, she published her only work of fiction called Maud Marta; in 1956, she published Bronzeville Boys and Girls, a book of verses intended for a young audience. At the height of the Civil Rights movement and her growing awareness of social and racial disparities, Brooks published her third collection of poetry titled The Bean Eaters in 1960, which occupies a much-anthologized and famous poem, “We Real Cool.” This poem represents the perils of young Black boys and their refusal to attend school, but find joy at a poolroom facility, which may serve as a death sentence if such behaviors continue.

In 1962, Brooks read at the Library of Congress poetry festival via an invitation from then-President John F. Kennedy. She began her first teaching job at Chicago’s Columbia College in 1963 (and received an honorary degree from the college in 1964). In fact, she taught creative writing at other institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Impressively, she was awarded more than seventy-five honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.

A defining moment in Brooks’ career occurred in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers’ Conference in Nashville, Tennessee (where she rediscovered her blackness). Subsequent to her attendance, she became more involved in the Black Arts movement and her poetic voice was tailored accordingly to fit the change. The change is evident in her 1968 book of poetry, In the Mecca, and her following work. Her poetic voice was not heavily altered, but some critics claimed her work presented an angrier tone. According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. E), “her subjects tend to be more explicitly political and to deal with questions of revolutionary violence and issues of African American identity.” In truth, many Black writers at the time wrote stimulating and angry poetry, precipitated by the Civil Rights/Black Power movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. in 1968. Being in touch with the Black Arts movement and wanting to support Black businesses, Brooks left her New York publisher, Harper & Row, and decided to publish her work with African American publishers. In 1968, Brooks received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca and became the Poet Laureate of Illinois.

During her life, Brooks published more than twenty-five books that garnered her many accolades, imprinting her place in history as one of the best contemporary writers. On top of winning her most recognized award (the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry), Brooks served as a poetry consultant to The Library of Congress in 1985 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988. Another honor worth mentioning came in 1994 when she was selected as the Jefferson Lecturer by National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest federal government award given for distinguished scholarly achievement in the humanities.

On Sunday, December 3, 2000, Brooks died of cancer in her Chicago home at the age of 83; she was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. Brooks inspired many during her lifetime and continues to inspire many today. She left behind a rich legacy that will be long-lasting for generations to come. Her poetry will be a constant study in college classrooms and elsewhere. Her name will be mentioned when great poets are named and when anthologies are rendered. Alice Walker once said in an interview, “If there was ever a born poet, I think it is Brooks.” Not only was she a born poet, but she was truly an amazing poet who employed her poetic language with profound richness and influence.

Her legacy remains robust: In 2001, the Chicago Public Schools system renamed a high school in her honor to Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, a four-year magnet high school. In 2002, Brooks made the list of the 100 Greatest African Americans via an encyclopedia by professor Molefi Kete Asante; in 2010, she was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame; in 2012, the United States Postal Service honored Brooks with a specialized postage stamp. The honors after her death are countless; these are only a few.

Appropriately, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks will always be remembered as one of the best and respected African American poets, not to mention one of the most distinguished American literary figures.


Sources
The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. E) Sixth Edition (2003)
https: //www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks (Retrieval date Jan. 10, 2009)
http: //www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks/brooks.htm (Retrieval date Jan. 10, 2009)

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Originally published Jan. 10, 2009 via now-defunct writing Web site Helium.com

Book Review: Annie John (1985), by Jamaica Kincaid

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May 2, 2008


Annie John, written by Jamaica Kincaid, represents a Bildungsroman/Caribbean novel – first published in 1985. The setting of the story takes place in the 1950s on the island of Antigua. What carries this novel is the protagonist who shares the same name as the title, Annie John. The novel recounts her interesting life from the age of ten to the age of seventeen.

Chapter one begins with a very detailed opening and depicts Annie John in a rather strange manner for her age. The opening introduces many occurrences, but one thing that overshadows them all is Annie John’s fixation with the dead at the age of ten. For a young girl, this behavior is very atypical. More unusual and unexplainable, she proclaims to be terrified of the dead: “I was afraid of the dead, as was everyone I knew” (4). However, it doesn’t stop her obsession. She stops by funerals to view the mourners and to get a sense of what memorial services feel like. One day, she becomes so curious that she attends a young girl’s funeral (hunchback girl), having no connection to the girl at all. Not only does she attend the funeral, but she causes a scene for the last viewing: “I stared at her a long time – long enough so that I caused the line of people waiting to stop by the coffin to grow long and on the verge of impatience” (11). Assuming that she was a friend of the dead girl, the mourners in the line say nothing.

For a child, Annie sure does have a strange – but age-appropriate – way of expressing her sadness facetiously, claiming that she never had a chance to touch the hunch on the girl’s back to check if it was hollow. Because of her exhilarating trip to the funeral, she gets home empty-handed, completely forgetting to bring the fish home for dinner that her mother had ordered her to get from the fisherman. When she realizes this, she fabricates a story, but her mom does not fall for it and knows the truth. Unbeknownst to Annie, the fisherman dropped off the fish after waiting so long. Lying and failing to obey her mother’s orders, Annie is sent outside to eat her dinner as a punishment.

Annie’s mom loves her, despite having to set rules for her to obey. In fact, they spend most of their time together when Annie is on break from school. When Annie takes a bath, sometimes her mom joins her in a bathtub that is filled with herbs that come from a local healer, the obeah woman. Her mother schools her on how to shop and find the best prices for products and clothing by taking her to the town. Annie is elated to shop with her mother; like every young girl, she admires and thinks her mother is beautiful and intelligent. However, while they are in public, Annie hears something that a child should never be exposed to, profanity. The profanity, aimed directly at Annie’s mom by a mad woman, stems from Annie’s father and his prior sexual relationships with various women. Mrs. John tries to protect her daughter by hiding Annie under her skirt, but it is useless because she hears the vulgar language regardless. Annie is smart enough to know that this woman (along with other women) detests her mother because her father had children with many of them. As a result, some of these women display their hatred by occasionally cursing at Annie’s mother, simply because she is married to the man that had fathered their children.

The love Annie has for her mother starts to diminish when one day she walks in on her parents having sex. Strangely, she gets angry and starts to look at her mother differently, feeling neglected by them both. As a reader, it is difficult to grasp this behavior from such a young girl. Along with Annie’s obsession with the dead in the opening, this has to be another strange occurrence, because it is very hard to believe that a young girl would be angry at her mother for not being involved in a sex act that takes place between adults. At any rate, Annie views her mother unkindly; it shows during dinner when she feels sickened when looking at her mother’s hands – hands that caressed her father’s back during sex. Annie also makes a rude remark that turns her mother off.

Annie becomes happy she will not be around her mother often, because she will be attending school soon. On her way to school, she is tense but thrilled. She gets to school and her homerun class and settles in. The teacher, Miss Nelson, announces the first assignment will be an original autobiography essay that will be read later in the day. The teacher deems Annie’s essay the best of them all and asks her for a copy to be posted in the classroom, where all can read it. She becomes happy and befriends one of the girls in her class named Gwen – and they become best friends.

Annie and Gwen do everything together and literally shadow each other’s moves. Like every best friend in school, they share girl secrets with each other; they walk to school and walk back home together; and of course, they act foolish together. Annie’s relationship with Gwen serves as a substitution for feeling neglected by her mother. Because Annie continues to excel in her school assignments and is the smartest student in her class, she gets rewarded: she is given authority over the other students when the teacher leaves the class. Moreover, she becomes popular with the girls in her class, for she stands up for them all.

Annie later befriends a girl known as the Red Girl, tomboyish and dirty. While Annie tries to get down a fruit on a tree by throwing rocks at it, the Red Girl climbs the tree and gets it down for her. This act of kindness precipitates their friendship. The Red Girl is quite the total opposite from Annie. She showers once a week; she combs her hair weekly; she wears tattered and stained clothing. The Red Girl, literally, embodies a filthy mess. Annie becomes envy of the Red Girl not for her filthiness, but for her freedom to do as she pleases and having no fixed rules.

Having a new friend to play and converse with, Annie finds her best friend Gwen to be tedious, so she spends more time with the Red Girl. She does not even tell Gwen about her. Annie actually turns more defiant to her mother’s orders by lying constantly to meet up with the Red Girl after school. Annie starts playing a marble game due to the Red Girl and gets good at the game, which wins her a lot of marbles; she then hides them from her mother under the house. Her mother knows about the few marbles and questions Annie about the rest of the stash, but Annie refuses to tell her anything. She is so connected to the unkempt girl that she starts stealing to give her presents. Eventually, their friendship ends when the Red Girl moves away.

Not only does Annie’s behavior get her in trouble with her mom, but it also follows her at school. In her history class one day, she develops boredom because she knows the material and reads ahead to see a picture of Christopher Columbus in chains. Under the picture, she writes: “The Great Man Can No Longer Move.” The teacher, Miss Edward, catches her defacement and offensive behavior and sends her to the principal office. The principal scolds her and then punishes her by stripping away her prefect status; moreover, she is ordered to copy Book I and Book II of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

After having a rough day at school, she returns home hoping to be comforted by her mother, but both her mother and father are too engrossed in each other – and fail to notice her sadness. At dinner time, Annie’s mom gives her a platter of breadfruit, a food that she really dislikes, so Annie rejects it. Her mother argues that it is not breadfruit but a new kind of rice. Finally, Annie gives in and eats it, consuming the obvious substance of breadfruit. She questions her mother thereafter and learns that she was tricked, and what she ate was indeed breadfruit. Because of this betrayal, Annie’s hatred for her mother grows tremendously.

At this juncture, Annie is fifteen years old. She feels distant from her mother in every way. She even has a strange recurring dream with words that twirl in her head: “My mother would kill me if she got the chance. I would kill my mother if I had the courage” (89). She finds comfort in going to school to get away from her mother. She continues to excel in school and is promoted to an upper level class with older girls. She feels out of place in the class which appears to be filled with superficial girls, but she remains focus on her studies and it pays off: she becomes one of the top two students in the class.

Her relationship with her best friend Gwen is still apparent: they walk home from school together and talk as usual. However, their relationship is not as robust as before and Annie knows that. Annie takes it a bit further by distancing her friendship with Gwen, due to the fact that Gwen advises that she marries her brother for them to be forever connected. This suggestion startles her to a point of avoiding Gwen whenever she sees her. One day, Annie’s avoidance after school takes her into town where she finds herself staring at her reflection through the glass of a clothing store. Filled with sadness, she criticizes and belittles herself by claiming to be ugly – so ugly she compares herself to a young Lucifer.

A few boys, four, see her standing alone and begin to tease her with laughter, a fitting behavior for young boys that are older than her. These boys are from the same boys’ branch of her school; she knows one of them from her younger years. Their continuous laughter causes her to walk away in sadness.

These boys would be the catalyst of an argument with her mother when she arrives home (that is, arriving late). Her mother approaches her and questions her angrily, asking why was she behaving herself badly in front of those boys. Coincidentally, while Annie took the shortcut from school, her mother makes it clear that she was present in the clothing store and saw everything.  She claims that Annie flirted with them and presented unladylike behaviors. She argues otherwise, but her mother wants to hear nothing. Her mother escalates the argument and scolds her harshly by calling her a slut many times in French-patois.

In response, Annie fires back: “Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter.”

Silence quickly takes precedence between them both. Her mom finally utters that she always loved her until that comment and walks away in shock. Annie, on the other hand, walks to her bedroom feeling miserable.

Annie becomes very ill via a mental breakdown. Rather than going to school, she stays home and her parents care for her, because she can no longer take care of herself. Annie, literally, transforms into a baby. Strangely, as soon as Annie becomes bedridden, a rainstorm occurs. This is not any rainstorm; this represents a phenomenon that prolongs for three months and a half. Interestingly, this rainstorm drenches an island that has been suffering from a yearlong drought, but appears simultaneously with Annie’s illness.

Feeling feeble and delusional, Annie stays in her bed and listens to the raindrops. She gains so much connection to this rain that she only hears its sound and not the voice of her parents. In due course, her parents take her to the doctor. The doctor recommends an increased protein after finding nothing wrong with her. Her mother prepares a soup-like egg filled with rum. Still, her condition remains the same, so her mother ponders on obeah (i.e., a practice that involves magic, originally practiced in Africa and survives currently in parts of the Caribbean) to heal Annie. Against her father’s wishes, her mother decides to call a Dominican obeah woman named Ma Jolie who lives in Antigua. Her healing powers render no result, leaving Annie in her same condition. She even wets her bed like a child.

One day, out of nowhere, Annie’s grandmother Ma Chess strangely appears, when the ferryboat was not running, to cure her illness. Being that she is old, her grandmother knows more about obeah than Ma Jolie. However, she doesn’t use magic to revert her granddaughter to her normal self. Instead, she uses her affection. She stays in Annie’s room all day; she cuddles her like a baby, and sleeps at the base of her bed. She feeds, bathes and dresses Annie. Her grandmother never leaves her alone. From this care of attention and affection, Annie is healed after three months of rainfall. In a strange twist, as Annie recuperates, the rainfall ends. Annie herself questions the rainfall unexpected occurrence during her sickness: “I knew quite well I didn’t have the power to make the atmosphere feel as sick as I felt, but still I couldn’t help putting the two together.” Her grandmother, who mysteriously appears to cure her, leaves mysteriously on a day the ferryboat does not run.

After her sickness, her parents realize that she has grown taller than them. Thus, they buy her new clothes and shoes for school. Annie finally comes to accept and embrace that she and her mother are different, and no longer feels angry at their distant relationship. When she returns to school, she ignores all questions about her sickness and claims that the girls wish they were in her position. Basically, her attitude turns cold toward them, including her so called best friend Gwen. A friend that was so close was “now reduced to an annoying acquaintance,” according to Annie. What did Gwen do to cause this treatment from Annie? Absolutely nothing. However, for some reason, Annie feels obligated to view her differently and categorize her as an annoyance.

When Annie turns seventeen, she gains her freedom by moving out of her parents’ house. She makes the choice to leave Antigua to study nurse in England. She is happy that she will finally have her space and no longer will she be in the presence of her mother. But before Annie leaves, she agrees with her feelings to tell Gwen good-bye although she does not care for her genuinely. Thereafter, her parents walk with her through town where a ship awaits her. As she gets on the boat, she begins to have flashbacks of her early years living with her parents, but feels comfortable that she will begin a new life away from them. While on the boat, Annie waves to her parents; her parents wave back to her until they see her no more, a classic but fitting ending for a teenager that seeks independence away from her parents.

This novel typifies a fascinating story, but it is not a cohesive novel. Some occurrences appear to happen without any reason, and the timing at times seems off and out of order. The character Annie John (the narrator) keeps the novel flowing, however. She is lovable, uncanny, hilarious, intelligent, devious, and embody some characteristics of a lesbian. It almost appears as if she has an old soul.

It’s a great novel for teenagers who struggle with their parents and try to find their own identity and autonomy, especially young female teenagers. The mother-daughter relationship makes the novel intriguing and serves as the main theme. They fight, argue and disagree, motifs that most women can relate to when they were the age of Annie.

Age-appropriate for all readers, ANNIE JOHN by Jamaica Kincaid represents a good coming-of-age novel and is filled with metaphorical overtones, especially with water (e.g., the bathing, the rainstorm, the sea, the boat) which serves as growth for Annie. Moreover, Kincaid’s writing should be described as simply marvelous, rendered with detailed imagery. There may be some confusion and inconsistencies; nonetheless, it’s a thought-provoking piece that makes one think and question why some things occur the way they do. With 148 pages (depending on which version one has) and eight interesting chapters, this novel can be tackled in two days with time management.

Character Overview: The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger

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August 16, 2008


Written by J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye represents a coming-of-age novel that  features seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield aThe Catcher in the Rye Novels the main character/narrator. Salinger wrote this novel in the late 1940s and early 1950s in New York; in fact, sections of the novel were printed as short stories in Collier’s (December 1945), and in The New Yorker (December 1946). The novel was finally published by Little, Brown and Company in July 1951. The opening chapters are set in Pennsylvania, at Pencey Prep, but the bulk of the story takes place in New York City in the 1950s where narrator recounts his adventures.

The novel has a lot of characters; some are significant and others are not. At any rate, one thing is clear: Holden Caulfield, as the protagonist, makes this novel very enjoyable and interesting.

HOLDEN CAULFIELD
As the protagonist and narrator of the story, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield brightens up the novel throughout; he embodies an off-the-wall and likable character. He tells his story in a facetious, uncanny, angry, and disgusted manner – articulated in everyday language. His favorite word is “phony”; he labels nearly everyone he comes in contact with phony, even his older brother because he left for Hollywood to pursue a writing career. Disgusted by his brother’s choice, Holden calls him “a prostitute.” Holden represents a character that is irritated at everyone and everything, including himself. He does not connect with the world around him whatsoever.

His annoyance stems from many things, and his lackluster performance at school is one of them. For his academic failures, Holden is expelled from his fourth school, Pencey Prep, in Agerstown, Pennsylvania – not because he is dumb and has a learning disability, but because he does not want to apply himself. Literally, Holden is mentally unstable and is on the edge of an emotional breakdown as his story progresses. He is so disturbed that he meets with a psychoanalyst in the latter chapter.

PHOEBE CAULFIELD
Phoebe, Holden’s younger sister, is ten years old. Holden loves her to death and talks to her frequently. According to Holden, she is very smart; in fact, ever since she started school, she maintained an A-grade average. She is very skinny, “nice-skinny” as Holden states, and has pretty red hair: short in the summertime and long in the wintertime. Phoebe’s hobby is writing books, but she never finishes them. All of the books are about a girl detective named Hazle Weatherfield.

Holden does a great deal of complimenting her smartness and continues to tell the reader, “You’d like her.” She is also neat and a dancer, but one problem she has is her emotional state; she’s too emotional. Throughout the novel, Phoebe serves as Holden’s only source of constant happiness. Unlike other characters, she understands Holden and harshly urges him to grow up and stop acting immaturely, realizing that his problems are not caused by others but himself.

D. B. CAULFIELD
D.B, Holden’s older brother, is a Hollywood writer, a career choice that bothers Holden; however, it is a career choice that is bringing in the money, enabling him to ride in style with a Jaguar. Holden feels that D.B. is whoring his talents because he writes for Hollywood movies – movies that Holden really hates. He goes so far as to say that D.B. is a sellout. Before D.B. was a Hollywood writer, he was a regular writer and wrote a great book of short stories called The Secret Goldfish, which Holden admires. Actually, his favorite author is D.B.

ALLIE CAULFIELD
Sadly, Allie is Holden’s younger brother who passed away of Leukemia on July 18, 1946 when they lived in Maine; Holden mentions him, although he does not appear in the novel. He was two years younger than Holden, and the most intelligent member of the family. Allie, the red hair kid, was nice and never got mad at anyone. When Allie died, Holden broke all the windows in the garage with his fist and slept there the night. He still feels the effect of the windows that he had broken, because his hand hurts from time to time.

Allie’s death troubles Holden and he thinks of him many times in the novel. He keeps Allie’s baseball mitt with him (as a reminder of his demise), a mitt occupied with poems written in green ink all over it.

MR. ANTOLINI
Mr. Antolini, not old but quite young, is Holden’s former English teacher at the Elkton Hills School. (He is employed as a professor at New York University, after quitting Elkton Hills.) Holden really likes him because he cares about his students – and used to stop by for dinner at the Caulfields’. He is one of those teachers that students could kid around with. In Holden’s words, “he was about the best teacher [he] ever had.” Mr. Antolini is intellectual, sophisticated and caring, but he is also a heavy drinker.

When he learns about Holden’s expulsion from Pencey Prep, he becomes concerned and counsels him on how to follow the rules and directions that the teachers give him.

MRS. ANTOLINI, LILLIAN
Lillian is the wife of Mr. Antolini. Compared to Mr. Antolini, Holden claims that Lillian is unattractive and very old, “about sixty years older” he claims.

WARD STRADLATER
Stradlater, a senior, is Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep; they live in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms for juniors and seniors. He is popular, sexually active, attractive, and self-righteous. (“He thought he was the handsomest guy in the Western Hemisphere.”) He represents a pretty boy, always well dressed and looked decent from the outside, but he has a secret: according to Holden, he is a “secret slob.” His razor that he uses is rusty and full of crap in it, but Holden admits he is a “sexy bastard.”

One day at the dorm, as he prepares himself to go on a date with a girl that Holden knows, Stradlater spends about one hour combing his hair.

ROBERT ACKLEY
Ackley, a senior, is Holden’s next door neighbor in the dorm at Pencey Prep. He stands about six-feet four inches tall, his face is congested with pimples, and he is extremely nasty. He is an annoyance to Holden because of his personal hygiene (especially his dental hygiene). He has very bad teeth and hardly brushes them. His ears are also dirty. He has a habit of barging into Holden’s room without notice, and ignores Holden’s indirect hints for him to leave. By the way, Ackley hates Stradlater and thinks he is conceited.

JANE GALLAGHER
Jane, an attractive ballet dancer, never appears in the novel, but she is mentioned a few times. Actually, she is the girl that Stradlater goes on a date with. When Stradlater reveals his date to Holden, he becomes animated and constantly repeats the same phrase: “I oughta go down and say hello to her.” Holden knows her because one summer he spent a lot of time with her; most important, he dated her once. He still likes her and thinks she is very attractive. He is not comfortable with Stradlater dating her, which precipitates a fight when Stradlater returns.

Moreover, Jane and Holden used to live next door to each other in Maine and became acquainted when her Doberman pincher constantly came over to urinate and/or defecate on his lawn. Holden remembers her clearly and shares the time when they played checkers together, and how she would never move her kings. She is so stuck in his mind that he later thinks of her as he tells his story, going into great details about her.

SALLY HAYES
Sally, a pretty girl, dated Holden for a long time. She is well-informed in theater, literature, and plays. Even though she is intelligent, Holden claims she is “stupid,” a claim that cannot be taken seriously due to Holden’s facetious narration. Nonetheless, he still finds her sexually attractive; and strangely, after asserting her lack of intelligence, he gives her a call – drunk and wasted – and asks for a date, which she agrees to. They go on a date (first, at a theater to see a play; and second, at a skating rink at Radio City), but it does not end well – due to Holden’s tirade about “phonies” and insulting Sally, causing her to tear up.

MR. SPENCER
Mr. Spencer, very old and sick with the flu, is Holden’s former history teacher at Pencey Prep. When Holden visits him to say good-bye, he starts to lecture him about his horrible performance in school, trying to get him to change. Moreover, he reminds him that he had no choice but to flunk him in history because of his terrible exam essay about ancient Egyptians, which Mr. Spencer reads out loud to Holden’s dismay. He continues to lecture Holden about his educational failures/laziness and tells him to think about his future, and how he must follow the rules in life (rather than doing whatever he wants): “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”

CARL LUCE
Carl Luce, three years older than Holden, is a student at Columbia University. Allegedly, he was Holden’s student advisor at the Whooton School, but all he talked about was sex. He is sexually active and knows a lot about sex (he lost his virginity at fourteen). At Whooton, he served as a source for sex for the younger boys because he was so experienced. He represents an intellectual and had the highest IQ at Whooton. Knowing his background, Holden telephones him and they meet, even though Holden claims to not like him too much. They begin to converse, and Carl becomes annoyed by Holden’s immature comments and leaves early.

MAURICE
At the Edmont Hotel, Maurice is the elevator operator. He is also Sunny’s pimp. He is a huge guy with a fat hairy stomach who Holden calls a “dirty moron” and “stupid chiseling moron.”

SUNNY
Most likely an alias, Sunny, a teenager, is a skinny prostitute who Maurice employs through Holden’s request. She takes off her clothing, but Holden realizes he is not really into her. As he evaluates the situation, he realizes Sunny had lived a hard life and her speech and mannerisms display her hardships, causing him to view her as a human and not a prostitute. Essentially, nothing happens because he fabricates a story about having a recent spinal operation.

MAL BROSSARD
Brossard is a friend of Holden who attends Pencey Prep. He is an athlete that is on the wrestling team. He does not like Ackley (Holden’s next door neighbor) that much, but they both have something in common: they laugh like hyenas at things that are not funny at the movies.

MR. VINSON
Mr. Vinson is Holden’s former Oral Expression (speech) teacher at Pencey Prep; when someone makes a speech, he employs his students to yell “Digression!” to get the speaker back on task. Holden is not too fond of him at all, because he enjoys giving students bad grades; Holden views him as a cruel man.

DR. THURMER
Dr. Thurmer is the headmaster at Pencey Prep. Holden states he is a phony slob, like majority of everyone he meets and mentions.

SELMA THURMER
Selma is the daughter of headmaster Dr. Thurmer. She has a big nose and her nails are nasty, “bitten down” and “bleedy-looking.” She is a nice girl and never acts like she is all that because her father’s status.

MR. HASS
Mr. Hass is the headmaster at Elkton Hills. On Sundays, he had a tendency to go around and shake all the parents’ hands when they drove their kids to school, something that Holden hated. Holden calls him the “phoniest bastard” he has ever met, worse than Dr. Thurmer.

OSSENBURGER
Ossenburger is an alumnus from Pencey Prep and has a dorm named after him called Ossenburger Memorial Wing, the dorm that Holden lives in. He is a very wealthy businessman who makes his money in the funeral business; he has many parlors across the country where burials are cheap.

EDGAR MARSALLA
Edgar is a student at Pencey Prep who lets out a great fart that is heard by all the attendees while Ossenburger was giving a speech in the chapel.

ROBERT TICHENER and PAUL CAMPBELL
Only mentioned in the opening chapter, these boys, who Holden calls very nice, are students at Pencey Prep who Holden remembers throwing around a football with until the dark hours, until a biology teacher orders them back to their dorm.

THOMSEN HILL
He is a student at Pencey Prep who Holden stands on top of to see the last football game of the year, where Pencey Prep plays their rival Saxon Hall.

ED BANKY
Ed Banky is the basketball coach at Pencey Prep who occasionally let his players drive his car.

RUDOLF SCHMIDT
Rudolf is the janitor at Pencey Prep who Holden finds pleasure in using his identity to trick the mother of one of his former classmates. (Mrs. Schmidt is his wife; she’s around sixty-five years old.)

MRS. MORROW
Mrs. Morrow is the mother of a boy who attends Pencey Prep. She has a great smile, very nice voice, and attractive; she has sex appeal. She strikes up a conversation with Holden on the train that is destined for New York. Holden takes pleasure in their conversation by giving her a false name (Rudolf Schmidt) and fabricating great stories of how popular her son is on campus; he amuses himself even more by telling her that her son would have been elected for class president if the other boys nominated him.

ERNEST MORROW
Ernest, the son of Mrs. Morrow, is the boy that Holden lies about, knowing how much he dislikes him. After he takes a shower, he has a habit of taking his wet towel and snapping it at people’s asses. According to Holden, Ernest is the biggest bastard in the whole history of Pencey Prep.

LILLIAN SIMMONS
Lillian is the ex-girlfriend of Holden’s older brother D.B. She has very large breasts, but is not a likable person. Nobody likes her, according to Holden.

ERNIE
Ernie is a pianist who has his own eatery in Greenwich Village called Ernie’s Jazz club (the place he meets Lillian). Holden calls him a terrible piano player who stinks up the place and a phony. But strangely, he asks a waiter to ask Ernie if he would like to join him for a drink. Holden claims his place is usually filled with a lot of “jerks” and “phonies.”

JAMES CASTLE
James, a classmate of Holden at Elkton Hills, committed suicide by jumping out of a window while being tormented by other boys.

EDDIE BIRDSELL
Eddie is a Princeton guy who Holden meets once at a party and really doesn’t know him. He provides Holden with the phone number of a girl named Faith Cavendish who doesn’t have a problem with having sex once in a while.

FAITH CAVENDISH
Faith Cavendish is not a whore, but she enjoys having sex. At one time, she was a burlesque stripper. Feeling horny and not knowing her at all, Holden telephones her one night and unsuccessfully asks for a date. (She is one of many girls that Holden tries to connect with unsuccessfully.)

VALENCIA
Valencia is an attractive lounge singer at the Wicker Bar who Holden tries to get a date with to no avail.

BERNICE, MARTY and LAVERNE
Out-of-towners from Seattle, Bernice (blonde and pretty), Marty and Laverne (the two ugly ones) are three women that Holden meets, flirts with, and dances with while in the Lavender Room (a night club) at his hotel. They later sit down at a table, enjoying their drinks, and provide little conversation. They appear to be out-of-towners interested in mainly seeing stars. After a while, they depart and leave Holden with their entire tab.

HORWITZ
Horwitz, touchy and impatient, is a cab driver that drives Holden around in New York.

DICK SLAGLE
Dick, mentioned shortly in chapter 15, is a boy that roomed with Holden at Elkton Hills. He had a habit of putting his very expensive suitcases under his bed rather than on the rack.

HARRIS MACKLIN
Briefly mentioned in chapter 17, Harris was Holden’s roommate for about two months at Elkton Hills. Holden remembers him as an intelligent person, but he was very annoying. He was outrageously loquacious and had a raspy voice.

This piece covers a great deal of characters; quite a few of them are not important to the novel at all. In fact, some are mentioned but never appear in the novel, while others make a brief appearance. The main character/supporting characters appear in the forefront herein (the first fourteen). Nonetheless, Holden – the chief character – is the most intriguing and his narration is lively.

Literary Analysis: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: The Search for Identity and Individuality

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MARCH 27, 2007


A novel represents a work of fiction – a story that is creatively written from an author’s mind and point of views. That does not exclude fiction from the realm of reality, however.  Fiction and real life interrelate in every sense; in fact, fiction always has elements of reality.  Real-world experiences, people, history, and life in general are influential to a novelist and serve as a catalyst, assisting him or her to formulate ideas and craft a novel.  Therefore, real life and works of fiction aren’t too far apart; they are connected – directly, indirectly, or metaphorically.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) proves that to be true, for the historical insinuations are evident.

Scholars have taken notice of Invisible Man ever since its release in 1952, and continue to scrutinize the novel for good reasons: it is fascinating; it brings forth many interpretations and debates (negative and positive); it questions one’s role in society; it addresses racism, etc.  Overall, the text is profoundly powerful in all aspects.  As Per Winther writes in “Imagery of Imprisonment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an immensely rich novel, which explains why, since its publication in 1952, so many readers have been, and still are, moved by Ellison’s complex narrative of twenty turbulent years in the life of his young, nameless, black protagonist” (115).  The release of Invisible Man has rendered a plethora of scholarly analyses from the likes of Marc Singer, William Walling, Per Winther, James B. Lane, Eric Sundquist, and many more – touching on various issues.  However, few scholars (probably none) have found the time to address the invisibility of Ellison’s invisible protagonist and the silent generation in the 50s collectively.  Thus, I will attempt to tackle many issues of the narrator’s invisibility and struggles in conjunction with the Beats’ invisibility/“the Silent Generation” in the 1950s, and the artists of that time.  This is where fiction and real-life (historical allusions) share similarities.  The nameless protagonist in Invisible Man and artists in the 50s are in search for two things: true identity and individuality.

From beginning to end, the racism motif presents itself throughout Invisible Man, and the prologue swiftly demonstrates that:

“I AM AN invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3).

These opening words by the narrator do not provide his race, but the latter part of his statement provides a clear indication of who he is – a black man – from the way he states his invisibility and the historical context of his account.  At the time this novel was released, segregation was prominent and blacks protested for their equality, stating similar words like the narrator’s.  Because society selectively chooses to ignore his presence because of his phenotypical makeup as a black man, he is literally (and physically) rendered invisible.

The racism motif reaches its peak, physically, when the narrator gives an account of an incident in which he unintentionally bumps into a large blond man in the dark, causing the blond man to share his disgust with a racial epithet.  Feeling disrespected, the narrator goes on the attack and batters him onto the ground, pulling out a knife and preparing to take the man’s life.  But he thinks otherwise and comes to his senses: the blond man insulted him because he could not really see him due to his invisibility.  The narrator’s confrontation with this blond man is important, because he learns the following day that a newspaper labels the incident as a mugging.  This labeling by the newspaper (white society) demonstrates the narrator’s metaphorical slavery, invisibility, and subjugation – for he is being dominated by the views of others.  First, the narrator is dehumanized by the man’s racial epithet, which prompts him to attack and make the verbal abuser recognize his individuality; and second, the narrator is dehumanized by the newspaper that labels him a mugger.  The roles are reversed: the white man is not the assailant but the victim, while the narrator is viewed by the public as a criminal. Moreover, the actual incident with the blond man is ignored altogether, along with the narrator’s motives, which become invisible to the public.  Therefore, other people in society classify Ellison’s invisible man’s identity according to their own prejudices.

Conversely, Ellison’s nameless protagonist mirrors the feeling many critics had about the 50s (and those who lived it) in New York, labeling the decade “the Silent Generation,” which can be termed metaphorically as the “unnoticed generation” – similar to being invisible.  Critics have had a field day criticizing the fifties for what it produced, like the major Beat writers – Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg – known as the Beat Generation.  Some critics have named the bohemians of that decade as the strangest souls who wasted and abused their bodies with heavy doses of drugs and alcohol; some critics even said that they had dangerous intentions to change America.  In fact, Stephen Prothero’s article, “On The Holy Road: The Beat Movement As Spiritual Protest,” quotes Norman Podhoretz’s brutally harsh critiques in 1958 Partisan Review: “The Bohemianism of the 1950s is hostile to civilization; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, ‘blood’; Podhoretz (the most outspoken critic of the Beats) continued: “This is a revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of souls.” Podhoretz went so far as to characterize them as Nazis and Hell’s Angels.  The Beats ignored his rhetoric because in their minds, it was nonsense.  The Beats’ intentions – and those who lived in New York in the fifties – were to separate themselves and to be different from America’s norm, argued the Beats and others.  Therefore, when outsiders do not understand what people do or how people choose to live their lives, they are looked upon negatively, and that’s how many critics felt about those in the fifties, especially the Beats.

Were Podhoretz’s critiques and reviews from other columnists necessary?  Didn’t Podhoretz understand that people who lived in New York or journeyed there wanted to find something different and be free, especially the bohemians?  Did he not take notice that bohemians were people who lived an unconventional lifestyle – somebody, often a writer or an artist, who did not live according to the conventions of society?  They wanted to be different, rather than being conformists. Therefore, a couple of questions must be asked: Were the criticisms of these artists really warranted because they lived differently from how others lived?  More important, were the fifties really that dull and silent?

Although Podhoretz has bashed “the Silent Generation” as a whole, those who lived in New York at the time strongly believe that their decade has been given a bad name – and novelist Dan Wakefield is one of those who shares similar views. Because the fifties has been mislabeled and tagged as being dull, Wakefield felt obligated to address the stigma. Fittingly, Wakefield’s book New York In The 50s (1992) gives a vivid light of the New York that he knew and experienced, tackling the so-called silent:

“If my generation was ‘silent,’ it was not in failure to speak out with our work, but in the sense of adopting a style that was not given to splash and spotlights” (6).

This statement by Wakefield renders truth, because the body of written works produced in the 50s (including future works that were released by the artists of that era) were abundant, from The Catcher in the Rye to On The Road, from Howl to Notes of a Native Son, and many more. So “silent” was not an accurate term at all; people just made the choice to ignore the generation altogether, because the wild and free lifestyle they desired to live were bizarre to them. As a result, their works were invisible to the public and not taken seriously. Moreover, the strangeness of the Beats caused the banning of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which was later reinstated; and also brought a court hearing to ban Ginsberg’s Howl. Naked Lunch was described by a reviewer as “a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader’s nose down in the mud for 250 pages” (quoted by Prothero, 206). Similarly, Howl was called a disgrace and protested hatred for society.

In regard to Podhoretz’s ruthless critiques, it appeared that his attitude took not a constructive criticism approach but a personal hatred stance against the Beats and their disparity with society. His 1958 article “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” verified that as he tried to debunk the Beats by scrutinizing the real-world consequences of their point of views about life, and so forth. One of the Beats could have reversed his article’s title into “He knows Nothing Bohemian,” for he does not live it. Hence, Podhoretz’s rhetoric about the Beats stems from his ignorance in not knowing what the Beats were, and his unwillingness to accept a different style of living he was not accustomed to. Therefore, he dehumanizes their character by talking down to them and labeling them whatever he sees fit: pessimists, naysayers, nihilists, troublemakers, and dangerous. Like Ellison’s nameless character, Podhoretz removes the people-friendly features of the Beats’ character, taking away their good qualities (or features) which make it difficult for others to see them as normal and acceptable humans. In all, he dehumanizes their stature and importance, making them invisible by choice.

This dehumanization theme appears in the opening development of Invisible Man, which lingers throughout. Ellison shows that with his nameless protagonist and other blacks in a high school graduation ceremony, where he is to deliver the class speech. But before he gives the speech, the narrator (and other black boys) is ordered to partake in a boxing match, orchestrated by the white men. With firm orders by the white men, the narrator and his classmates put on boxing gloves and enter the ring – where a stark naked blonde parade the ring. It becomes stranger to the boys as they are blindfolded by the white men with threatening orders to batter and kill each other: “ ‘See that boy over there?’ ” one of the men said. “ ‘I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don’t get him, I’m going to get you. I don’t like his looks’ ” (17). The bell sounds and melee ensues – blacks wildly punching blindly, hitting anyone in proximity – to the enjoyment of the white men.

Thereafter, the white men continue their ridicule of the narrator and the boys by trickery, with shudders via electricity.  Exhausted from the battle, the boys’ blindfolds are removed, while the white men place them on a wall, awaiting their bogus monetary prize on a rug.  Blind with ignorance, the boys (on their knees as commanded) rush to get the money and to their shock, they are literally shocked from an electric current that runs under the rug, as the narrator shares his pain: “A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat” (22).  While the boys’ laughter stems from being shocked, the white men’s laughter stems from the amusement of watching electrified blacks make a fool of themselves: “… he (one of the boys) ran from the floor amid booming laughter” (22).

Finally, after the embarrassment of the boys, the nameless character prepares to give his speech. The master of ceremony gives him a patronizing introduction, which prompts applause and laughter: “ ‘I’m told that he is the smartest boy we’ve got out there in Greenwood. I’m told that he knows more big words than a pocket-sized dictionary’ ” (23). The narrator takes the podium; he begins delivering his speech and realizes that the audience is ignoring him, while the laughing persists. He becomes nervous, mouth filled with blood, and it shows as he makes a mistake, saying “social equality” rather than “social responsibility.” After rendering his speech (and after fulfilling their comedic bone), one of the white men awards him with a briefcase and tells him to cherish it, claiming it will determine his peoples’ fate.

These episodes in Chapter One (i.e., battle royal, electric rug, and speech) do not only represent the evening’s entertainment for the white men, but it also demonstrates humiliation, animalization, passivity, and dehumanization.  The grandfather’s narrator did warn his son (narrator’s father) before he died that life is a war, and to keep up the fight.  War against whom?  A white society that aggressively fosters hatred and bigotry via systematic tactics and exclusion to keep Black society subjugated.  The grandfather orders and gives his family concrete wisdom: “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction …” (13).  In other words, the grandfather advises his family to uphold a dual identity: externally, they should embody the stereotypical good slaves’ motifs, which will satisfy the master; however, internally, they should carry the bitter hatred and resentment of such false identity against the master.  Following this model allows the grandfather’s descendants to play a false role, only to make it appear as if they are satisfying the whites’ ego.

However, the young narrator does not know how to play the dual identity, for he does not know his true identity and individuality, causing the white men to take advantage of his passivity during the entire day’s events.  Metaphorically, the boys’ blindfolding in the ring supports their real-life blindness; they are unable to see through the true intentions of the white men as they force the boys to conform to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent and savage creature.  As the men watch the boys in the boxing battle royal, they look at them not as equals or humans, but as inferior beings – as wild animals.  Although the grandfather provides knowledge to his family, it is fruitless to the narrator, because it doesn’t fully register in his head. Believing that full compliance will gain him admiration and accolade, he obliges the white men’s commands.  To some extent, his beliefs prove true, for he is awarded the briefcase for his submission, but he is also tricked at the same time.  The nameless character has not yet learned to see behind the masks, behind the tricks, and underneath the various covers constructed by white society. He only learns after the fact that he has been made a fool of when he realizes the phony coins, subsequent to suffering the electric shock from the mysterious rug – at the expense of his humiliation and dehumanization. This lack of awareness – blindness – stems from lack of not knowing his identity and individuality.

Ellison’s invisible man experiences being tricked again, but this time it takes on a different meaning.  He is not deceived by the white men; rather, he is fooled by a black man, Dr. Bledsoe – the college president.  While transporting a white trustee, Norton, around campus and showing him the old slave quarters and taking him to Golden Day, Bledsoe becomes furious when he learns of the narrator’s journeys: “The quarters! Boy, are you a fool? Didn’t you know better than to take a trustee out there?” (79).  The narrator claims that he was told to go there by Norton, but Bledsoe does not care: “Damn what he wants. We take these white folks where we want them to go, we show them what we want them to see” (79).  Feeling the college is at risk, along with his power, Bledsoe takes swift action and expels the narrator from the school, to his surprise. Ironically, to seem as a nice and reasonable man, Bledsoe gives him various letters and tells him they will help him find a job in New York, but it’s only a ploy, which the narrator fails to recognize.

Similar to the sentiment that the narrator’s grandfather tries to pass down to his descendants, Bledsoe too utilizes dual identities, but his represents narcissism and immorality.  He cares for no one – including blacks – except for self. Bledsoe, being the president, uses the school to abuse his clout and gain more power, rather than achieving wide-ranging social advancement for his people and he makes that clear: “I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still king down here” (109).  Bledsoe continues: “… I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (110).  Bledsoe pokes fun at his own race by talking in slang, using “I’s” rather than “I am” to seem uneducated like other blacks.  Bledsoe then states that when he tells the white men what they want to hear, he is able to control them.  Thereafter, his rant becomes disturbing as he claims that he would have all blacks lynched to keep his power.  Yes, such declaration by any human being is absolutely outrageous and sinister, but coming from a black man makes it even worse.  However, after the narrator has heard such unbecoming language, his trust in Bledsoe remains palpable, clearly indicating his lack of awareness because he still has not learned to look behind the masks through discernment.

Moreover, while on a bus ride to New York, the narrator meets the veteran who ridiculed Mr. Norton at Golden Day, precipitating Bledsoe to expel him like he did the narrator.  Strangely, the narrator doesn’t believe Bledsoe would do such a thing.  The veteran tells him to open his eyes and don’t take the face value of everything: “… look beneath the surface… Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed” (118).  The veteran speaks these words because he knows that the narrator is ignorant (and still shows signs of blindness) for not believing that Bledsoe is the cause for his relocation.  For some reason, the narrator still has faith in Bledsoe although he has been punished by him. It is only when he learns Bledsoe’s true motives, then he realizes that he was tricked, for the letters that were to help him served as a way to hinder his progress, with punishing statements: “… this letter is a former student of ours … who has been expelled for a most serious defection from our strictest rules of deportment. The letter continues: “… it is to the best interests of the great work which we are dedicated to perform, that he continue undisturbed in these vain hopes … from our midst” (145).  Bledsoe’s betrayal of the narrator shows that it is not only whites who betray and suppress blacks, but blacks can do the same to their own race.

Additionally, the narrator’s pain and bad luck persist.  Like the electric shock in chapter one, the narrator suffers similar results; this time, however, it’s from shock treatment when he’s unconscious at the hospital following the fight with Brockway.  The white doctors mirror the same attitude the white men shared in the opening chapter via dehumanization.  Because the narrator is unable to respond to the doctors’ question, they began to practice shock treatment on him (while another doctor wanted to castrate him) as a way for entertainment.  The shock treatment causes the narrator to shake, and one doctor asserts that he is dancing: “Look, he’s dancing… They really do have rhythm…” (180-1).  While the narrator hears the screams of a woman in his head, the doctors play with his head and ask him questions like: Who was buckeye the rabbit? Who was brer rabbit?  The narrator attacks their amusement with his own: “He was your mother’s back door man… ‘Buckeye’ when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; ‘Brer,’ when you were older” (184).  Following his humiliation at the hands of the doctors, they tell him he is cured and can leave.

This episode in chapter eleven represents significance, because he has somewhat changed metaphorically.  When he signs his release paper, he questions himself, “is he (the doctor) in on it too” (187)?  In on what?  The white suppression that haunts him.  The narrator begins to think and comes to the conclusion that he is no longer afraid of men like Norton or Bledsoe, for they are nothing to him so he expects nothing from them. Moreover, the transition is quite clear, something like a symbolic rebirth – he awakes without any memory; he does not understand language; and he does not know his identity.  The music and the machines’ noise collectively make him hear the sound of a screaming woman in pain, akin to a woman in labor. More important, the narrator’s metaphorical rebirth occurs with no parents; he takes on the doctors on his lonesome.  The veteran’s advice that he becomes his own father is crucial, for he starts doing that by opening his eyes and looking at things differently, questioning himself and others’ true intentions.

The narrator is slightly removing the blindfold as he questions why he shouldn’t do hard labor as the doctor warns him he is not suited yet.  “Take another job… Something easier, quieter. Something for which you’re better prepared,” the doctor said.  These words are condescending and a racial stereotype that blacks are lazy, unfit, and do not work hard.  This advice comes from the same doctor who took part in the amusement of the narrator’s humiliation, claiming he dances well as he is being shocked (which falls under a racial stereotype of blacks, something like a dancing Sambo doll), and trying to take his manhood by castration.  The castration reference by one of the racist doctors serves as a way to deny the narrator of his humanity.  Clearly, a castration of one implies the stripping of his power, his ability to function, his ability to foster children, his ability to progress, and his ability to be whole – the purest form of emasculation.  Nonetheless, from this episode, the narrator’s eyes begin to open to some extent; his invisibility and blindness are still intact, but he is freer and starts to find his identity in New York.

The narrator’s union with the Brotherhood shows that he still lacks individualism and has not removed that blindfold away from his eyes.  After seeing an injustice being done (white men evicting a black woman), the narrator speaks out prompting the crowd to react and take the furniture back into the house.  Cops arrive and he runs off, but hears a voice that calls him brother, a white man named Brother Jack.  Jack argues that he should become the spokesman for the Brotherhood; however, the narrator doesn’t agree and wants to think about the proposition.  Thereafter, the narrator thinks about Mary (a woman who gives him a place to freely live and generously feeds him) and makes the decision to join the Brotherhood.  Jack provides him with a house owned by the Brotherhood and strange enough, a new identity – claiming he should leave the past behind and focus on his new identity.

Joining the Brotherhood shows that the narrator is looking for a new identity (but not in the right place), and shows his lack of self-identity as he is labeled as what Jack wants him to be.  It becomes apparent from the start that the Brotherhood has sinister intentions and needs him to further its cause when Emma tells Jack he isn’t black enough.  Such comment proves that the narrator is unimportant to them as a human, but only as a figure and tool the group wants to exploit. In a sense, the narrator submits to white society for agreeing to serve as the black spokesman of the Brotherhood.  In more concrete language, he threatens and compromises his own identity by submitting to white men with clout.

The blindness of the narrator continues in a rally where he is to deliver a speech (in a former boxing ring), similar to chapter one.  He blindly gives his speech but is criticized for how he does it by the Brotherhood:  “In my opinion the speech was wild, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous.  And worse than that it was incorrect” (264). This lambasting ridicule shows that his stay with the Brotherhood would not be a long stint. Moreover, the physical battle the Brotherhood had with Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer (somewhat resembles the real-life Malcolm X) and his followers show that clearly, because he is unable to recognize his group from Ras’s.  This confrontation shows signs of unfruitfulness on both sides, because both groups are fighting for the same thing, black equality – or at least one group.

The inevitable happens when Jack tells the narrator that he must attend a meeting the following day, but it never happens.  Jack toys with him and sends him away because he is done using him, so the narrator is of no use anymore.  Once again, the narrator shows his inability to see through the masks of others when he realizes that the Brotherhood’s intentions were to exclude him from the meeting initially.  The Brotherhood wants no part with the narrator, along with some blacks – feeling that his union with the Brotherhood is a betrayal to the black community.  The narrator is also betrayed again as he witnesses a former member of the Brotherhood, Clifton (who is later shot dead by a cop), selling Sambo dolls – a bad caricature of the Black culture.  The dolls are crucial and carry symbolic meanings, because although the dolls move by themselves, they need the help of strings to facilitate their movement.  This implies that Blacks continue to live under the umbrella and control of whites; blacks are puppets and whites are the puppeteers.  Metaphorically, blacks are in the driver’s seat, but whites are steering the wheel.

That is evidence how the Brotherhood has used the narrator for the main purpose to destroy Harlem all along by galvanizing a riot with the help of Ras.  He learns this at the end, but it comes too late.  To a certain extent, he becomes a traitor twice: first, for working with a racist group; and second, for playing an active part in the destruction of the black community.  However, as the narrator tries to subdue the riot and explain the cause for it, Ras orders his followers to kill him by way of lynching, but he runs away and falls into a gutter.  As he lies underground, it is completely dark with no light.  He has nothing with him but the briefcase – holding almost everything in his journey for identity: diploma, Clifton’s doll, letters, etc. – that was given to him in chapter one by one of the racist men.  In order to make light, he burns each in every one of the items in the briefcase.  By burning the items in the briefcase, the narrator has now found his identity (or close to finding his identity) and breaks away from his past.

The narrator being in New York prompts his sudden awareness of what is real as he remains underground, rejecting the idea that a single philosophy can constitute a complete way of being, for each soul embodies a multitude of various components. Interestingly, this philosophy is what Norman Podhoretz lacks because he refuses to see others – the Beat writers in the 50s – for their multiplicities, rendering him blind to others’ diversities.  Similar to how the nameless protagonist searches for his identity in New York, people in the 50s did the same, and New York was the place for it as Wakefield argues: “Our fifties were far more exciting than the typical American experience because we were in New York, where people came to flee the average and find a group of like-minded souls” (7).

Ellison’s Invisible Man represents a buffet that feeds one’s knowledge in every aspect, every turn, every page and chapter – for it is filled with profound metaphors and real-life (historical) issues.  More important, its prolific literature is influential and continues to bring forth discussion in college classrooms and from scholars as they continue to write about it.  Ellison also influenced (indirectly or directly) books from his counterparts like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and others.  Whether one is black or white does not matter, because Invisible Man serves substance to everyone and influenced many in the 50s and beyond, including future works and American culture as a whole.  It will always be a topic of conversation for generations and generations to come.  Likewise, the Beat Generation may never be scrutinized entirely (or taken seriously by scholars) but it is catching on, because courses are being taught on various college campuses today.

Overall, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man can be described for its fame in two words: extraordinarily superb. It signifies a richly crafted – in-your-face – novel that stands firm as a classical gem and continues to engage readers since its 1952 release.

Poetry Analysis: “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound

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Ezra Pound was a rebel and wanted to do things his way in regard to poetry – and so he did.  In the introduction of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Volume D), it states:  “Pound first campaigned for ‘imagistic,’ his name for a new kind of poetry.  Rather than describing something – an object or situation – and then generalizing about it, imagist poets attempted to present the object directly, avoiding the ornate diction and complex but predictable verse forms of traditional poetry.”

Pound’s 1913 poem “In a Station of the Metro” demonstrates his imagistic motif in a couple of lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This short piece illustrates his imagistic talent because the entire poem deals with images alone.  It is not complex; rather, the two-line poem is straightforward and to the point.  The brevity of the poem intrigues with a deep message regarding the beauty and diversity of human beings.

One word that overshadows all the rest in line one is apparition.  The word apparition alone means a ghostly figure, something strange or unusual that suddenly comes into view.  Pound may have seen different faces in a Paris subway and defined the “faces in the crowd” with the illustration of pure beauty or images of flawless human beings.  The reason for formulating such assertion is because of this:  with the meaning and usage of the word apparition, it enables Pound to convey the expression of shock and awe once he steps into the metro station.  It’s almost as if he discovers the faces in the crowd surprisingly.  More important, he may have not seen the faces clearly and saw only a blur that he interpreted as a vision of attractiveness.

The second line of the poem renders one word that overshadows all the rest:  petals.  Petals are vibrant flowers that have different colors and represent beauty when blossomed, which he identifies as the “faces in the crowd.”  Additionally, petals are flowers that come in various shades, sizes, shapes, and so forth – akin to human beings.  Therefore, Pound perhaps envisioned the people in the crowd as beautiful, for the diversity they embodied.

In all, the poem is incredibly short – but meaningful – and takes the meaning of short poetry to its purest form.  However, the images are captivating and make the poem move beyond the literal, for the two images that stand out are apparition and petals.  When one thinks of apparition, the first thing that comes to mind is a ghostly figure.  When one thinks of petals, something soft and delightful comes to mind as a floral.

Thus, Pound takes the two words and morphs them together as one to get a greater effect, meaning that when he witnessed mysterious faces in the crowd with various colors and shapes, it rendered a good-looking sight in his eyes.  The poem shows that whatever color, size, or shape a person embodies, he or she still has some characteristics of beauty – regardless of his/her outer appearance.
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[Originally Written January 18, 2008]