“The Dead”: Short Story Review

There’s a funny thing about short stories; we all seem to read them and many of us write them, but they don’t seem to merit the same level of renown compared to novels, plays or poems. I have therefore decided to start reading more of the most famous short stories, reviewing them alongside my usual book reviews, because I honestly believe that the short story can be just as powerful, and just as effective, as a novel.odyssey

The name James Joyce is a famous one, yet this is mainly due to his most well-known novel, Ulysses, which is a modern parallel of Homer’s The Odyssey, a review of which you can read here. What less people seem to be aware of, however, is the collection of short stories, The Dubliners, that granted Joyce his fame. Published in 1914, these fifteen tales depict the lives of everyday people who live in and around Dublin, Joyce’s place of birth.

This was a time when Irish Nationalism was at its peak, its residents seeking to reaffirm their nationality to stop their culture from dissipating through globalisation. This issue is, in particular, considered in the collections final, and longest story, “The Dead”. Before I go any further, however, I would like to draw your attention to this website, where you can read “The Dead” online for free. If you simply don’t have the time, though, here’s a brief overview:

The majority of the story is set during a dinner party, where the main character, Gabriel Conroy, moves about the guests, chatting, dancing and providing insights to the messages that Joyce intertwines with his narrative. After the party, Gabriel and his wife head over to a hotel where they plan to stay the night. At this point, Gabriel is beginning to feel a “keen pang of lust” for his wife, yet Gretta refuses his advances, announcing that a song she heard at the party reminded her of a past lover of hers, Michael Furey. As Gabriel struggles with his shock and disappointment, Gretta goes on to reveal that Furey died when he was very young, and that she feels responsible for his death. “The Dead” ends with Gabriel reflecting on the divides between life and death, considering his position in the world.

Although the main theme of this story is undoubtedly death, there are many other ideas explored in “The Dead”, such as, in particular, the topos of Irish Nationalism:

“And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”

“And haven’t you got your own to keep in touch with – Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.

“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Daniel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”

Gabriel is called a “West Briton”, which is taken as a serious insult, for merely writing for a particular newspaper, which reveals the fragile attitudes of nationalism at the time. However, the accusations put to Gabriel go even further than this; when he is first introduced, he is wiping snow from his galoshes, and Gretta later reiterates their importance by suggesting that Gabriel “makes” her wear them. Aside from this comment about patriarchal power, these galoshes, as Brenden O’Hehir remarks in this essay extract, are symbolic of everything that is different about Gabriel; he is the exotic, educated gentleman who, through the course of the narrative, begins to realise that he no longer belongs with the “ignorant old” nationalists around him.

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.

The story considers other issues, too, such as religion; it is common knowledge that Joyce, although he was Christened a Catholic, not only drifted from the religion, but came to hate it. He suggested that the Catholic order was part of the problem in the loss of Irish identity, and this is revealed in “The Dead” through two, separate comments. The first regards the place of women in the choir, Aunt Kate complaining about how her passion for singing was being threatened as the Church sought to “turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put in little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads”. This is not only a comment about women, but also a loss of tradition as the old is replaced by the new. The second comment more directly mocks the customs of the Catholic church, as the monks are described sleeping in their “coffins” each night. This appears to be a comment about religion not only preventing nationalism, but keeping it from moving forwards, as these monks are presented as the living dead, preventing Irish culture from adapting in a new, modern way.

I will leave you with a quote that represents one of the main messages of the story: whilst it is important to remember the dead, we cannot let these losses drag us down in life, preventing us from moving on. Everything needs to adapt, even Irish culture, and there is nothing to be gained from hanging onto something that can’t be changed.

Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.

the dead

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”: Poem Review

A few weeks back, I wrote a poem review for “Pearl”, which is a short, Christian poem originally written in Middle English. As I mentioned then, the anonymous poet who wrote “Pearl”, has had three other texts attributed to them: “Patience”, “Cleanness” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The latter of these is much longer, and also happens to be the most famous, which is why I thought I should see what all the fuss was about.

“It has often been said that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1380) is one of the two great long poems in Middle English, the other being Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). Yet the experience of the two poems in the history of English Literature could hardly be more different.”                                 – Bernard O’Donoghue.

The name ‘Chaucer’ is level to that of ‘Shakespeare’; his work in Middle English is said to be revolutionary, forever influencing English Literature. However, whilst Chaucer’s works have purposefully been preserved throughout the centuries, experts going to great lengths to preserve manuscripts, along with copying out the words to keep a record of them, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has survived by complete chance. Because there was no name attributed to the poem, it was not deemed important at the time, which is why so many anonymous works from this period were lost. It just so happened, however, that a single manuscript of the poem resurfaced in the nineteenth century, after which point it was printed for the first time, and began to grow the huge readership which it has today.

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The O’Donoghue translation (the one I read).

Small disclaimer: whilst I read “Pearl” in the original Middle English, I didn’t dare attempt this with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”; the issue is not only the age of the terms and the lack of a standardised spelling of the time, but is due to the fact that the North-Western dialect adopted by this poet did not become the dominant English dialect. There are therefore some terms that are completely unrelated to modern English, making them impossible to translate without considerable amounts of expertise, or many hours dedicated to Middle English dictionaries.

The poem itself is fascinating; it is set in the court of King Arthur, and depicts the journey of one particular knight, Sir Gawain, who faces many challenges as he attempts to prove himself to his kingdom. Without giving too much away about the plot, I will say that one of the challenges that Gawain faces, is that of seduction; he attempts to resist the advances of one beautiful woman, who consistently attempts to seduce him, demanding kisses from him behind her husband’s back. It is this event that has labelled the poem a Medieval, or Arthurian, romance, and provides an interesting twist to the plot as the values of the knight, including chivalry and compassion, are put to the test.

Indeed, the interactions between Gawain and the Lady make up a good part of the poem, yet they are juxtaposed to the harsh scenes of hunts, which the Lady’s husband has embarked on. This makes an interesting contrast, as Gawain and the Lady enjoy fine food by the fire, and then the Lord races through the undergrowth in pursuit of some wild beast. The poet has here been commended on their ability to question the roles between the interior and the exterior, as, upon reflection, it becomes clear that whilst there is a hunt outside the castle, there is also a hunt inside, as the woman pursues Gawain. In fact, the Lord is arguably safer away from the castle, than Gawain is within it, as the latter doesn’t stand even as nearly as good of a chance of escaping. What this could be suggesting, is that we overestimate the dangers of the wild, and that, in fact, we pose much greater dangers to ourselves, than the outside world ever could. This makes an interesting contrast to the much earlier Beowulf, which is said to have been composed between 700AD and 1000AD. This poem depicts the dangers of the outside, the monster Grendel causing chaos in a castle, much like the Green Knight causes chaos in Arthur’s castle. However, Grendel is purely monstrous, unrefined and bestial. His equivalent in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the Green Knight, who interrupts Arthur’s festivities to challenge Gawain, is sophisticated, seemingly more honourable than many of the knights present. The poem thus subverts these older values, and asks us to question where the danger truly is: is with the wild animals outside, or is with ourselves?

Another interesting thing about the poem, is how it presents human nature. As Gawain rides out to face his trials, he brandishes a pentangle symbol on his shield, which the author explains in full, and which I have attempted to replicate on the diagram below:

Pentangle.png

These are the values expected to be held by the knights of Arthur’s court, although, interestingly, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” holds the only reference to this symbol, which is surprising considering the detail that it entails. What this symbol does suggest, however, is that the knights held stable, stationary identities, always adhering to these values, because, due to the structure of the pentangle, if they lost one value, the others would no longer align, and they would be left with nothing, at all. Their only option was then to either be perfect, or to entirely imperfect; arguably, this would provide a fair amount of pressure.

I enjoyed my time reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and would certainly recommend it more than I would “Pearl”, although I must add that, if you do decide to give this fantastic, although somewhat underrated, poem a go, it would be better to read the O’Donoghue translation, or else some other translation, rather than attempting to decipher inauspicious language of the original Middle English.

Sir Gawain

“Pearl”: Poem Review

PearlGenerally speaking, poems are quite difficult things to review. They can be extremely emotive and personal, their meanings subjective to the reader’s perspective and background. To review such a personal thing can therefore seem harsh and unfeeling. Despite this, however, there are some poems, such as epic poems and poems which act as stories and myths in themselves, that are today read through, not the lens of a modern day poem, but as a separate form of writing. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, is a twelve book epic poem, and can be reviewed and critiqued, regardless of the typical sensitivity associated with a modern day poem. This said, of course, Paradise Lost is still very personal to Milton, as he used the words and sounds that they made, to create a kind of tonal music within the poem, which reflects his reliance on these different sounds, after his loss of sight.

There are other poems which may be considered in similar, analytic forms, such as the less renowned poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of this fourteenth century poem is unknown; all we do know, is that they wrote in Middle English, were, due to significant references, probably of the Christian faith, and that they likely did not only write Sir Gawain, but also three other, smaller poems: PearlCleanness and Patience. Although it has not been stated, by any surviving manuscripts, that these poems did belong to the same author, renowned critics have, over the years, all agreed that they probably did; the writing style, themes and patterns of writing are too similar to have been written by different poets. In this review, however, I will focus on the less famous poem, Pearl, which interested me for several reasons; for one, it demonstrates a metaphorical embodiment of the objectification of women, demonstrating the age of the patriarchy; for another, it explores the possibilities of a dream-like heaven world, considering not only the glorification of heaven, but also the economics of this Paradise.

Pearl begins by depicting a father who has been put “in thys del and gret daunger” (Part V), here meaning, ‘in grief and distress’, due to the loss of his pearl. He searches his garden for this jewel, whilst alluding to its beauty and perfection, for it was a “pryvy perle wythouten spot” (Part I), or ‘pretty pearl without a spot’. As the tale continues however, it becomes apparent that the man’s “pearl” is in fact his daughter, who died when she was an infant. Although the poet uses darker language at this point, interweaving the theme of death alongside the father’s primary narrative, the father supposes that “uch gresse mot grow of graynes dede” (Part I), or that new plants must grow from the dead, and that good may still come from bad. This prefigures the next few parts to the poem, as the father falls into a dream-like trance on top of his daughter’s grave, and wakes up in a what he calls “Paradise”. As the poem proceeds, he meets a queen of the Paradise, who he later realises to be the daughter he lost. She introduces herself as a queen, and welcomes him, but bids him to stop weeping for her, as God had saved her. She continued to explain that God had made her his queen, and that she thus had become a royal of Paradise.

The father, however, has issues understanding what his daughter is telling him, as he is focused on the human and the literal, forgetting that the supernatural defies the boundaries of human knowledge. She insists, for example, that she lives as Jesus’ wife in Paradise, which is the city of Jerusalem. The literal father has many issues with his, first complaining that she could surely not be worthy of such a position, when she had died as such a sPearl2.jpgmall girl, and had therefore had not had time in her life to be loyal to God. The daughter tries to explain that God excuses the innocent, and sees them as equal to the righteous through multiple parables, but then her father suggests that there must be worthier women than her, who could be Jesus’ wife. The daughter then explains that Jesus has a total of 140,000 wives, but that they do not fight or have competitions between them, for they are all worthy in the eyes of God. She even goes as far as to say, “bot uchon enle we wolde were fyf” (Part XV), here claiming that she wishes that every new wife were five new ones, as she alludes to the common phrase, ‘the more the merrier’. The father, whilst apparently not understanding how this many wives could cooperate equally, then complains that his daughter cannot live in Jerusalem in heaven, because Jerusalem was in Judea on Earth, to which his daughter simply says that there may be more than one of a thing at one time, and that God recreated the city for them to enjoy in Paradise. What the father unveils through this system of questioning, is the functioning economics of heaven, although he does not recognise them as such, for he only sees them as impossible and illogical.

This links to another theme which the poem seeks to highlight: dualism. This is the belief, first explored by Plato, that the body and soul are two divisible entities, which not only ensures that the soul will survive after the death of the physical form, but also suggests that the soul preexists the body. Plato even went as far as to suggest that the body was an obstacle to the supernatural duties of the soul, as it was weighed down and distracted by bodily desires, such as the need for food and sleep. This idea is explored in multiple passages in Pearl, but is most vividly demonstrated by the passage that reads, “fro spot my spryt ther sprang in space; / My body on balke ther bod in sweven. / My goste is gon in Godes grace / In aventure ther mervayles meven” (Part II). What this is essentially saying, is that the spirit (or soul) is separated from the body so that it can pursue its “aventure”, or ‘quest’ in heaven. This can only happen, however, once it is severed from the body and thus, according to Platonian thought, is released to pursue its true purpose.

The other thing that I wanted to highlight regarding the issues raised in Pearl, was the language of precious stones, and, in particular, pearls. The father objectifies his daughter to the role of a pearl as he searches for her, and yet this turns out to not be an insult to women, but a compliment, as Christ is later compared to a pearl, and pearls are described to adorn Paradise, present almost everywhere the father travels on his adventure into heaven. This is emphasised by the final two lines of the poem, which read: “he gef uus to be his homly hyne / Ande precious perles unto his pay.” (Part XX), which means ‘May He grant us to be his lowly servants and precious pearls to be his liking’; whilst the term ‘pearl’ may have originally seen as a way of objectifying women, it here becomes clear that to be Christ’s ‘pearl’, should be the ultimate goal of humankind; they want to be pearls without spots, just as God wants us to be humans without sins.

Although my own religious beliefs lean towards atheism, Pearl was still an interesting poem; this was my first encounter of the Middle English language, and it took me a long time to work through this poem, if only because I constantly found myself rereading sections and looking the majority of the words up in a dictionary. Nevertheless, the ideas considered here are unusual, and therefore intriguing. Not many poems attempt to describe heaven in such precise terms, considering its symmetry and beauty. The poem also indicates that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with the other smaller poems attributed to this same poet, was a Christian. Like Paradise Lost, therefore, it may be fair to say, that whilst such epic poems cannot be assessed in the same ways that we judge modern poetry, there is nevertheless a personality to them that is interjected by the writer. Whilst some poets use their work to explore their emotions, fears and desires, this writer used their work to explore the possibilities of their faith, and to promote its importance amongst their readers.

“The Odyssey”: Poem Review

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The Odyssey is one of the greatest tales of all time, renowned for its influences over other works, its critical commentary of the human condition, and, more importantly, its story.

Unlike Homer’s earlier work, The IliadThe Odyssey is a complex poem with numerous embedded narrators and a non-linear storyline, its protagonist and hero, Odysseus, reflecting on many of his adventures, such as with the famous Cyclops, Polyphemus, and mysterious witch, Circe, after they have already happened. The Odyssey is clearly then a more adventurous work compared to The Iliad, which, in twenty-four books, depicts a passing of only forty days. The later text describes the passing of ten years, Odysseus travelling all over the known world and bringing culture and mystery to the work. More significantly, perhaps, The Iliad features mainly prominent heroes, such as the likes of Hector and Achilles. Whilst The Odyssey does this, too, it also depicts multiple women with developed characters, and even gives a perspective of the world from the eyes of a beggar. In considering the nature of humanity, then, The Odyssey is a clear view of the world of Ancient Greece, considering its beliefs, customs, and every level of its society.

Many readers of The Odyssey struggle with it, perhaps because of its unusual features, such as constant repetition and the use of epithets; these, however, were devices used by the poet when the story was told in its oral form, as it predates the existence of the Greek alphabet. The presence of the “human” gods in the poem may also be cause for confusion, as they constantly interfere with the actions of the mortals around them. However, though these factors may, initially, seem off putting, cultural differences will always be apparent in unfamiliar texts, whether they originated in modern France or historical Ghana. Really, it is worth accepting these differences and embracing the unfamiliar culture, in order to properly process the incredible tale of The Odyssey, for it truly is one worth reading.

What I found most interesting when reading the poem, was the nature of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. Ancient Greece was a place of the typical patriarchy, where the man ruled the woman and she existed only to serve him. What seems curious, then, is that the “cunning Odysseus” is matched only by the “cunning” of Penelope. To prevent herself from having to remarry in her husband’s ten year absence, she tricks her many suitors, telling them that she will only choose her new husband once she has finished weaving a shroud upon her loom. However, “cunning” Penelope returns to the weaving each night, unpicking her stitches to delay having to choose one of the suitors to marry. This is a clear sign of the intelligence of Penelope, but what is still more interesting, is the question of when she truly recognises her husband.

When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca from his many “wanderings”, the goddess, Athene, disguises him, changing his appearance into one of a beggar. This is in order to aid him in the destruction of Penelope’s suitors and the reclaiming of his household. However, the beggar Odysseus speaks to Penelope from book XIX of The Odyssey, and what struck me, is that, whilst the true “reunion” between Odysseus and Penelope officially takes place in book XXIII, the “cunning” Penelope may have been far more informed than this would suggest. After speaking with the beggar, she goes from swearing to never marry again, to hosting a competition to decide who the lucky suitor would be. If she truly did not know of her husband’s return, why would she have such a change of heart? And why would the contest play on Odysseus’ greatest strength, that being the bow and arrow? It makes more sense if she knew that he was home, but could not reveal this fact, so as not to ruin his plan to destroy the suitors.

Whatever the case, this argument proves the greatest strength of The Odyssey: its interpretations. With such an ancient story, there have been hundreds of different theories and ideas questioning its every aspect, and there is so much to wonder about. Really, the magic of The Odyssey is then in its reception, just as much as it is in its existence.

Regardless of how deeply you read into the poem’s narrative, this is a story that I feel everyone should be made aware of. It has influenced every book we know today, whether this was done consciously, or not. It is an epic, and a story to take throughout your life.