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Have you heard of absurd literature? No? Yes? Or are you waiting for Godot to tell you about it?
But Beckett isn’t the only author writer of absurd literature. The best representative of course, but there is always room for more, room to explore right? You don’t wanna be homogeneous right?
And so in comes the play, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” written by the American author Edward Albee. The plot is nothing complicated: it is simply a story about two couples: Martha and George, the older couple,who invite Nick and Honey (the younger couple) for a late night drink after a party. The play is divided into 3 acts each with their telling titles.
But in the fairly uncomplicated plot, lies a whole new insight into the trying, absurd, fragile and strained relation of Martha and George. During the course of the party, emotional games are played, secrets are revealed through the complex layering of the plot. It is clear right in the first part that their marriage is a complete breakdown and in order to sustain it, they have to play psychological games and try to beat the other down through humiliation and fear tactics. In order to sustain the normative marriage they have to take on absurd tactics and at the heart of this is the constant mention of their son who never appears in the play but is talked about throughout.
The play then is trying to critique the pressures put on every individual to fit into roles the society prescribes without giving alternatives and how utterly disastrous these pressures can be if and when such normative modes of living don’t work out. What do you do if your marriage does not work, when your dreams of professional greatness do not go according to plan? Compounding this problem is also the gender roles enmeshed within these prescriptive notions: the binary of production and reproduction that binds a woman and man not allowing them to explore other possibilities and compelling to view their inability to fit into the gender roles as a failure for themselves. So for example, if a man is not able to get a good job and sustain his family, he is viewed as a failure because of the pressure on him to be the breadwinner of the family. He is not allowed to think that there can be a possibility for allowing the women in his life to share the responsibility of earning. Marriage and career and having a family are projected as the ideal modes of living in a human society and so there are no other possibilities provided for other modes or alternatives. Anything less than the ideal is unacceptable and worse, a failure. This can lead to utter breakdown of your identity and selves as every individual is conditioned for long about these ideas and how they are the measures of success and when don’t work, your very idea of what a life should be is dismantled and therefore living becomes absurd and meaningless.
The play is also a lot about the typical modernist ideas of how language is inadequate to express the breakdown of lives in the 2oth century.
In the hazy daze of alcohol that the couple immerse themselves into, the reader will be pressed to figure out reality from illusion but that is the charm and bitterness of the play. You have to keep constructing the truth, taking cues from their wild language, and wilder games of psychological torture, construct the world that they have constructed for themselves and shatter that illusion and then get to know the truth of their lives. But it isn’t like a mere detective novel where you solve the puzzle with the one sole truth you can divine from the plot. It constantly keeps you in a flux and you can probably get the truth but perhaps not be able to anything with it because though the play tries to sort out its loose ends end finish with a proper closing, the reader is left to ponder on what will happen to the marriages of both the couples as the breakdown of the the older couple seems complete although they are now trying to get back on a stable & non illusory path. However, Nick and Honey see in the older couple their own expectations of a marriage and a family and if these expectations are not fulfilled, then will they also fall apart at the seams like Martha and George?
No one can really tell but what we can do is perhaps not put the weight of all our expectations on one person and one institution? What do you think? Leave a comment.
What do you do when your life’s story cannot be told within the confines of the autobiographical genre? Its simple, you create a complete new genre to depict your life. Genres are anyway just constructed categories to arbitrarily fit works of literature into water tight compartments leaving no room for them to be seen as fluid, independent works.
Audre Lorde did the exact same thing when she wrote, ‘Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name.’ It is an autobiographical text. But she coined the term, ‘biomythography’ to describe the book. In an interview, Lorde herself defined the term as having, ‘the elements of biography and history of myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.’ Further, Ted Warburton defined it as, ‘the weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.’ These two definitions are the best ways to define the ‘genre’ of ‘Zami: A…’
In the book, Lorde examines her life with all its ups and downs by intertwining incidents of her life with elements of the world around her. It is not just a retelling of a life, but a close examination of the life while also intermingling the historical aspects that might have affected her life. ‘Zami: A..” tells the story of a young Lorde who is a child of hard working black immigrants from Granada, living in New York in the 1940s/50s.. The earlier part of the book focuses on her childhood and teenage years. The book is not the usual run of the mill bildungsroman type but rather a book that fuses the elements of poetry, fiction, autobiography, history and myth to tell an intricate story of her life in New York, in Harlem and later on when she moves to other places like Mexico. Throughout the narrative, Lorde has juxtaposed the events in her life with significant events of American history such as the Great Depression, the World War II, the independence struggle of the British colonies, McCarthyism, the black freedom struggle etc. It gives you a sense of the larger world and a minute history lesson as well. It enables the reader to put the time frame in perspective. Through the lens of the broader events, Lorde reflects on her life, rethinks her political awakening, her understanding and acceptance of her sexuality, her femininity and her position as a minority in America. Her marginalisation creates in her a political impulse, a need to confront the mainstream hegemony on her own terms. Lorde chronicles her relationship with her family, their growing differences ideologically and otherwise, her numerous relationships with various women, her life in poverty, her life of constant struggle and pain, her close knit group of friends, the close sisterhood she developed as a student which enabled her to become independent and many other things.
Lorde admits in the book that is tough to be a coloured immigrant in Harlem, tougher to be a woman and even tougher to be a Black woman immigrant lesbian. She is a minority in all senses but throughout the book she never allows this to marginalise her further. She finds ways to deal with them and the best way is to accept her individuality. Instead of moping around about her minority status, Audre finds hope in many ways and one of the ways is through her community of female friends, companions, girlfriends, other politically like minded people etc. She never allows any of her pain to close herself to the world but rather reaches out to the world to find people like her and find solace and comfort which helps her to assuage her pain.
‘Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name’ is a tender yet tough look at the trials and tribulations Lorde faces as she grows up and comes into her own.
To read an e-version of the book, click here.
Imagine living a particular way of life for quite some time and then gradually realising how you are actually quite dissatisfied with it. What’s worse is that no one else feels that you should be dissatisfied with that life at all. This discontent seems absurd to everyone else except you. No one quite understands your plight. This dilemma was faced by Edna Pontillier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s novel, ‘The Awakening.’ In the novel, she realises that she is nothing other than a role in the patriarchal society of the 1890s’ American South. This perturbs her as she desires to be viewed as something more than just a wife and a mother, but as an individual as well.
‘The Awakening’ was written in 1899 and is therefore a pre-feminist text which means that it was written in an era when the feminist impulse was not as strong as in the feminist era of the 1960s.’ It was therefore quite revolutionary to portray Edna as a woman discontented with her position in a privileged society. Edna is the wife of Mr. Leonce Pontillier who owns plantations and is a wealthy man who leads a life of privilege and luxury which also extends to Edna. She leads a comfortable life with her children and husband in a friendly neighbourhood of New Orleans. On the surface, there shouldn’t be any problems in the privileged world of the Pontellier. Leonce is the bread winner as he should be and Edna is the care giver as is expected of her. All is going fine according to the dominant patriarchal discourse that clearly demarcates the roles for men and women. However, scratch the surface and Chopin gradually peels away the normalcy of the situation to expose the seeds of doubt and discontent that grows in Edna as a result of a number of incidents in the novel. She comes to realise her individuality and how she is more than a role and a possession. She sees all social ties as confining her to the prescribed roles. To perhaps escape this discontent she tries falling in love with Robert Lebrun, a friend of Mr. Pontellier. However, he is too conventional for Edna’s revolutionary thoughts and rebelliousness. He cannot help her get out of the despondency she faces over her dilemma to break free from her typical roles. Moreover, none of the women characters like Adele Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz etc. share her sense of discontent. They believe that is absurd to feel that way when one has all the comforts one needs in life. Edna can think of no solution to get past her curiously unique dilemma except one. To find out what it is, go pick up the book and enjoy.
‘The Awakening’ is remarkable in portraying a questioning, rebellious female protagonist who defies the strict norms and rules to chalk her own path out. It is truly commendable given the time period in which it was written to write about a woman’s ‘awakening.’ However, precisely because of that, the novel received a lot of flak from critics which forced Chopin to apologise and this huge mass of negative criticism also crushed her morale to a large extent.
Recently, the novel has been castigated for depicting the ‘awakening’ of only a white privileged woman and ignoring the plight of the countless, nameless coloured working women who made it possible for Edna to lead a privileged life. Edna does not view them as being fellow oppressed women but only as mere servants. They are not even visible to her as individuals. The critics have thus pointed out that the novel is from a white woman’s perspective only and cannot be viewed as representing the plight of all women.
Despite its flaws and its racial bias, ‘The Awakening’ is a worthwhile read which will give the reader a glimpse into the constricted lives of white women in the South at the time. It is a short read which will hopefully make you appreciate the bold step Edna took in defying the societal norms. It is definitely worth one shot.