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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.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?
But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?
Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.
For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!
Now to the plot:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead:
Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.
The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.
Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.
Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).
The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.
The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.
To read the novel, click here.
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.
No other age excelled in first person narratives than the Victorian Era and who better than Charles Dickens could be ts finest exponent? With ‘David Copperfield’, safely under his belt, he diligently set out to write one of his finest, ‘Great Expectations‘ which is very similar to the former yet also vastly different. Both have the trademark autobiographical touch in the story and follow the conventional chronological order which the later modernists despised so vehemently. Yet ‘Great Expectations‘ while following the life of Pip, also comments on the English life of that time particularly its artificiality.
The novel is about Pip, an orphan who lives with his domineering sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery and her amiable blacksmith husband, Joe. As a child, Pip coincidentally happened to meet an escaped convict in the marshes. The latter threatened and scared Pip into bringing him victuals which Pip obediently albeit deceitfully(by stealing) brought for the convict the next day. Later on in his youth, he is regularly called on to visit a certain Miss Havisham, who is a rich, old lady stuck in the past. These visits are nothing short of eccentric and humiliating for the young Pip. Humiliating particularly due to Estella’s cruelty of reminding him often of his low class and unworthy status. Consequently, Pip too begins to perceive his situations and his relatives in a poor light, as being unrefined and plain dumb. He desperately wants to get out of such a situation and pretty soon a golden opportunity presents itself before him. Pip comes into a large chunk of wealth and is sent to London to be educated. In short all his great expectations are to come true because in short he becomes a gentleman. The twist is that his benefactor wants to remain anonymous and will only reveal him/herself as and when appropriate. Thus Pip climbs the social ladder under the illusion that his benefactor is indeed a benefactress-Miss Havishman. The revelation of the identity of his benefactor/ess leaves him stupefied in the end and changes his worldviews at that.
I believe that I am a novice to give a prolonged commentary on such a critically acclaimed classic. All I can state is that ‘Great Expectations‘ met all my expectations of reading an engaging Dickens’ novel. The plot is punctuated with the quintessential Dickensian characters-the hypocrite Pumblechook, the warm hearted Joe who is Pip’s best friend, the patient Biddy, bipolar Wemmick, ever the optimist Herbert who is Pip’s closest friend- and scores of others that make the entire story come alive. Coupled with Dickens’ famous biting humour and satire, ‘Great Expectations‘ is a lighthearted novel that makes you laugh in the most serious scenes and other such unlikely places.
The one fault was the sensationalism of ‘Great Expectations.’ Of course, this was in keeping with the norm of serialization of novels during that time which compelled the writers to keep each episode exciting and melodramatic. Moreover, Dickens himself was strongly influenced by the sensationalist movement that emerged in the 1860s’. These two reasons account for the dramatic tone of the novel. Though legitimate reasons in themselves, it is quite incongruous to read a style that only startles and shocks. In the India of today where sensationalism is a the norm, subtlety is much appreciated. But barring the sensationalist factor of the novel, ‘Great Expectations‘, is wholesome and is sure to entertain, tickle your funny bone and even compel you to examine your own position(as the novel makes Pip examine at every turn of the story) in a class and status obsessed society of today.
Getting stranded on an island and surviving there until rescue from the civilized world is a theme commonly used in both literature(Robinson Crusoe,Swiss Family Robinson,Coral Island etc.) and cinema(Cast Away).Most often these are meant to be adventurous novels/films. However, one gripping novel that explored this theme veers away from this norm and manifests a completely new idea. It depicts a bleak picture of humanity.
And this path breaking novel, often considered a classic, was published in 1954 written by William Golding who titled it, ‘The Lord of the Flies.’
The plot focuses on a bunch of boys ,who seem to have survived a plane crash, are stranded on an island with no grown ups around. None of the boys are older than 13 and they quickly figure out that they are on their own and there aren’t any elders around. So it is they who have to take care of themselves. Among the many boys, Ralph, who possesses a distinct leadership quality and a conch shell he found on the island, is voted as the boys’ leader. He successfully is able to take this mini election away from Jack, another older boy who is the leader of a choir group and is vying for the post of chief. Piggy, a fat, sluggish boy gradually becomes Ralph’s side kick cum assistant and later on, Ralph’s only true,rational support. These three along with another one named Simon explore the island and realise it is not inhabited. Ralph sincerely hopes for rescue for which he orders all boys to light a fire up on the mountain. While Jack is mostly motivated to hunt and provide everyone with pig meat. Gradually, Jack begins resenting Ralph’s powerful status and his obsession with the fire and rescue. Jack forms his own tribe who only hunt and enjoy and forget all about being rescued. Savages are what Jack’s party turn into and Ralph becomes very much alone in his quest for rescue with little support from Piggy who constantly keeps reminding him of the need to be rational and civilized. So what began as a peaceful, fun loving society among these innocent boys gets degenerated into savagery and violence. Will they ever be rescued? Read on to find out all about it.
‘Lord of the Flies‘ is an allegorical novel that has numerous quite obvious symbols. Golding does not present the readers with an adventurous tale of survival and rescue. Instead what he does is to show the many pitfalls of humans and how power corrupts. The novel shows the depraved, devious ways the human mind can function in. Golding examines human nature and the inherent evil that lies within everyone. ‘The Lord of the Flies‘ shattered the myth that children are innocent, that they are incapable of doing anything evil. In the book, we see numerous instances when these mere schoolboys are turned into violent monsters who will do anything for power, who love to control each other, love to inflict pain etc. We can also see these boys as symbols for the warring countries. Certain subtle hints in the novel do suggest that a war is happening in the civilized world. Perhaps then, ‘Lord of the Flies‘ is a biting commentary on the WWII and how nations ripped each other apart senselessly. Another view could be the book’s intention to make the reader realise of the evil present within each one of us.
There are a multitude of ways of reading this wonderful,thought provoking as well as questioning novel.
Providing a glimpse into human’s defects and the society’s, ‘Lord of the Flies‘ is highly recommended for readers of all ages. And those looking for just pleasure reading will be stupefied by the profound message that the novel puts across with its storyline.
‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ by Zora Neale Hurston is undoubtedly her best known novel. Published in 1937, it is a singular story of a black woman protagonist, Janie Crawford and the significant changes in her life. To write a women centric novel in that era is an achievement worth being entitled to.
The novel starts with Janie returning to her second husband’s town, Eatonville, after having runaway with Tea Cake, a man who was younger to her. The townspeople start gossiping and advise Pheoby Watson, Janie’s close friend, to find out what has happened to Janie. Then Janie begins telling her story to Pheoby: Janie was married at the age of 16 to Logan Killicks by her grandmother, Nanny, so that Janie could have the security of a home . However, Janie never fell in love with him and ran away with another fellow named Joe Starks. Joe was an ambitious man who made Janie move to a new town called Eatonville where he did all he could to make the town prominent. He brought land, opened a store there and became the mayor. He ordered Janie to take care of the store but Janie was quite unhappy with that job. After Joe’s death, Janie fell head over heels in love with Tea Cake who was younger to her. They both loved each another immensely and moved to the Everglades in Florida. After Tea Cake’s death, Janie returned to Eatonville.
The story goes in good flow. The most positive aspect of the book is Janie’s strong willed characterization. She is not portrayed as a damsel in distress but rather as an intelligent, well minded personality. It is a feminist book that highlights a woman’s thoughts, ideas and feelings as well as emotions and problems. Another plus point of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ is the usage of a dialect. Zora Hurston has not used the language which you and I use but the dialect in which the southern blacks spoke. This lends to authenticity to the story(However some readers who are not able to read the dialect may find the story irritating and incomprehensible).
Nonetheless, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is an excellent book, and provides insightful perspective.