“A Study in Scarlet”: Book Review

If you have been following this blog for any substantial amount of time, you may know by now that I have a great respect for audiobooks. Although I love reading physical books, we do not always have time to sit down and read, which is where audiobooks come in. I have recently been listening to Stephen Fry’s rendition of A Study in Scarlett, which is a part of Audible’s definitive collection. I have thus been educated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous detective whilst walking around town and commuting to university.

2.pngA Bit of Context

TitleA Study in Scarlet.
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle.
Publication: 1887, Ward Lock & Co.
My Edition: 2017, Audible Studios.
Length: 5 hours.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of fifty-six short stories about the adventures of the famous Sherlock Holmes, as well as four full-length novels. A Study in Scarlet, which depicts John Watson’s first adventure with the detective, is the first of these novels.

The most remarkable thing about these stories has to be how innovative they were. Although the beginnings of detective fiction can be traced back to the Old Testament, it only emerged as an official genre in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Then, in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House, which featured Inspector Bucket, a detective who was charged with determining the events that preceded the brutal murder of Tulkinghorn. So, although the genre had been established earlier in the Victorian period, Conan Doyle nevertheless made it his own by the huge amount of focus he placed on Holmes and his admirable powers of deduction.

Plot Overview

I don’t want to give too much away here as, after all, one of the main attractions of a detective novel is its mystery. Nevertheless, I want to give you a brief overview of the book’s main action, focussing on its beginning, so as not to ruin the ending!

The story is told from the perspective of Doctor John Watson, who records the narrative’s main events in his diary. Having moved to London after sustaining a military injury, he finds a roommate in a mysterious detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes. He is then invited to accompany Holmes on a particularly intriguing case.

There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

A man, having sustained no bodily injuries, is lying spread out across the floor, clearly dead, and the police force are unable to determine how he got there. For the famous Sherlock Holmes, however, the answer is simple. He begins to unravel the mystery as the novel goes on, determining the murderer’s height by the length of his stride and his motive by a woman’s wedding ring that lies hidden underneath the corpse.

Just as Holmes is about to solve the mystery, however, Conan Doyle ends the first part of this book. We are left with a scene of immense tension as he proceeds with part two. At the start of this part, however, we are in Northern America, learning of two stranded travellers, John and Lucy Ferrier, who are slowly starving to death on the open plains. We are then told a tragic story of love, defiance and persecution, all centred around these new characters.

It is only towards the end of this second part that we learn the importance of this episode, and of how it relates to the murder investigation that Holmes has apparently solved. Then, after Conan Doyle has dragged out the drama for as long as he can, we finally learn both the reason for the murder, and how it was done. All I can say is that the revelation is satisfying, deeply shocking, and magnificently crafted.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

This is a book filled with questions, and although most of them may surround the murder investigation itself, there are some background themes that I want to focus on, these being industrialisation and religion.

Industrialisation

The Victorian Period was a time fraught with change. English society was still reeling from the American and French revolutions when they were met with one of their own: the Industrial Revolution. During this time, more than half of rural populations migrated to the city, where they hoped to find work. The city thus became more popular and, as a result, is considered far more frequently in literature.

I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

Initially, Conan Doyle presents the city as something distinctly negative. It is a “cesspool”, which perhaps relates to how crowded it has become. This idea is then reiterated as Watson has to search for his lodgings, suggesting that they are not only difficult to come across in the busy streets of London, but also that they are expensive, as he simultaneously searches for a roommate.

Yet, later on in the novel, the natural world (the only alternative to the city) is also presented as negative as John and Lucy Ferrier realise that an absence of life also means that there is an absence of sustenance. Nature is presented as merciless, vulture-like birds circling above the duo as they reflect on their difficult journey.

In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year serveed as a barrier against the advance of civilisation  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

Whilst this negativity may be aimed more at America than the natural world as a whole, it reflects a societal mood; when people first began to move to the cities, they may have compared them to a “cesspool” because they were crowded and unfamiliar, but, once they became dependent on urban materialities, the countryside would have begun to seem rather isolated and barren. Changing presentations of the urban and rural spheres in the novel thus reflect changing views in contemporary England.

Religion

There’s a lot to be said about religion in this book. Yet this is particularly true during part two, when we are introduced to Mormonism. This is a branch of Christianity that developed in the 1830s after it was ‘restored’ by Joseph Smith. Smith is mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, whilst Brigham Young, the movement’s second president, is actually featured in the novel. The Mormons are, at first, presented as accommodating, helping John and Lucy Ferrier by providing them with shelter and riches.

The Mormon church, however, diverges from core Christian principles on quite a few accounts, and Victorian England was a Christian country. Mormonism is thus demonised through this book as Conan Doyle favours traditional religious values. This is particularly prevalent through John Ferrier’s refusal to share in the Mormon principle of polygamy (the idea that a man can have as many wives as he wishes). It is clear through the eventual outcome of the main narrative; the Mormons are, to both John Ferrier and Conan Doyle, of a false faith and, because of this, they must be killed.

My Conclusion

After all that I have heard and seen of this fantastic novel, I was certainly surprised by the reality. When I first began listening to the story, I found it remarkably difficult to follow. The characters seemed impersonal and distant and I kept forgetting the details of the original murder. Of course, this may have partially been due to the fact that I didn’t have a physical book in front of me, but things certainly became clearer as the story progressed. This may have been a purposeful decision; like the case, the book is, initially, hard to understand, but as it begins to be solved, the narrative becomes simpler.

4.jpgI believe that the turning point for me was the short interlude where we were introduced to John and Lucy Ferrier. The descriptions before this point were exceptional, but I didn’t care about the story up until this point. After it, however, I felt a strong emotional connection to the murder investigation and even felt myself sympathising with the murderer. It added a layer of depth to the story that I had not expected, as I then realised that the story isn’t really about Sherlock Holmes or John Watson; they are merely passive vehicles, effects reserved only for entertainment value. The story is actually about the murderer themselves, along with John and Lucy Ferrier, yet we only discover this towards the novel’s end. This makes it’s beginning difficult, but its ending overwhelmingly satisfying.

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“Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”: Book Review

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the first classic that I was ever introduced to. I was (roughly) twelve years old and absolutely hated it. Now, having reread this classic, I am honestly surprised that my school asked us to read it. They probably chose it because it was short; not – certainly not – because it was an easy read.

Cover.jpgA Bit of Context

Title: (The Strange Case of) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Publication: 1886, Longmans, Green & Co.
My Edition: 2012, Penguin.
Length:
74 pages.

There is some speculation as to what inspired Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One argument is that the writer was inspired by his friend Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher who, after appearing to lead a perfectly ordinary life, was executed after the murder of his wife in 1878. Yet it is also true that Stevenson borrowed the name “Jekyll” from another friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll, whilst others suggest that the plot of this novel came to Stevenson through a dream.

Regardless of its inspiration, however, Stevenson finished writing this renowned, gothic novella in 1886. He then presented it to his wife, who promptly rejected it. There is some debate as to what really happened during this time, but it seems as though she may have burned the first draft of the novel, or else inspired Stevenson to do so after she had reviewed it for him. Her argument seems to have been that she thought that it should have been written as an allegorical novel, rather than simply a story.

Although Stevenson was, at this time, severely ill with turburculoisis, he rewrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in three to six days. It is debatable whether or not he chose to add an allegory to the novella; some scholars claim that the story of Jekyll’s temptation, combined with the mention of a forbidden poison, reflects Adam and Eve’s Fall. At the same time, however, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may reflect contemporary fears regarding technological advances as Jekyll begins to interfere with the human condition, attempting to change what it meant to be human.

Plot Overview

The story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is surprisingly well known for a classic novella, yet most of its modern adaptations tend to make some serious changes to the story’s plot. Indeed, in some adaptations, the only link to Stevenson’s original work appears to be that there is a character called Jekyll, and a character called Hyde. I am therefore going to provide a brief overview of this story’s plot, but if you’re thinking of reading this story at some point, then I suggest that you skip to the “My Conclusion” part of this review.

IMG-3291.jpgTo an extent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is rather like a detective novel. It follows the journey of a Mr Utterson, who has been a close friend to Dr Jekyll for many years. As the story progresses, he notes how his friend has been acting rather strangely, and has been allowing another man, by the name of Hyde, to stay in his house. There are strange stories circulating about this Hyde, too, as his cousin, Enfield, reveals how he witnessed Hyde stamping on a small girl as he walked past her. Things then begin to grow more serious as Hyde is blamed for the murder of a notorious MP, by the name of Carew.

Hyde is now known as a murderer, but he appears to have disappeared from sight. Dr Jekyll, meanwhile, has become more active in society, going to church and hosting meals for his friends to attend. Utterson seems to believe that they have seen the last of Mr Hyde when, quite suddenly, another of his friends, Lanyon, dies. He leaves behind him a letter addressed to Utterson which, as we discover at the novel’s end, reveals the whole story. Dr Jekyll had begun to experiment with various chemicals until, one day, he had produced a drug that would separate the two sides of himself. In doing so, he hoped to rid himself of his evil tendancies, so that he would be left only with the good.

Inevitably, however, Jekyll failed. He instead produced an entire, separate, human being. He could take his potion and become the infamous Mr Hyde at his own will, where he could live a younger life filled with bodily pleasures and excitement. He could keep his reputation intact whilst living a life that he’d always (secretly) longed for. What Jekyll doesn’t realise, however, is that Hyde grows stronger, the more that he becomes him. Soon, Jekyll begins to revert to Hyde without taking any of his potion. He continually wakes up as Hyde until, one day, there is no Dr Jekyll. It is as though he has never existed, and Mr Hyde is all that is left of him.

Published as a ‘shilling shocker’ in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the popular idea of the split personality. Set in a hellish, fog-bound London, the story of outwardly respectable Dr Jekyll, who unleashes his deepest cruelties and most murderous instincts when he is transformed into sinister Edward Hyde, is a Gothic masterpiece and a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil.  –  book blurb.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

As this is a horror story, you cannot exactly expect a happy ending. Nevertheless, the story itself is shocking, if a little difficult to understand when first reading it. It is one of the few classics that I would recommend simply for its story, yet there there are several other things happening in its main narrative that I want to focus on. Namely, there are the links to urbanisation, and, perhaps more obviously, an emphasis on identity.

Urbanisation

Written in 1886, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is undeniably a Victorian work of fiction. If you’ve read my reviews of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, then you will know that urbanisation was a huge theme in Victorian literature. This is because of a burgeoning of industry that peaked during the Industrial Revolution. New factories were being built all over English cities, whilst the invention of steam power meant that resources could be transported by ships, as well as by the railway. As a result of this, thousands of new jobs were made available in the cities, and so people began to abandon their rural lifestyles for the sake of working in what quickly became a very overcrowded urban environment.

IMG-3292.jpgBecause of this overcrowding, the city is often presented quite negatively in Victorian works, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is no different. Stevenson notes, within the first few pages, “[t]he street was small and what is called quiet”. The “quiet” is, to Utterson, something unfamiliar, due to the general noise of the busy city. This complaint is reiterated later on in the novel as “London hummed solemnly all around”, the noise of the city presented as something ominous as the tension within the main narrative begins to increase. Yet Stevenson’s biggest complaint relates to technology.

As I mentioned earlier, some scholars argue that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be an allegory, reflecting contemporary fears regarding new technology. Medical circles were just as effected by the Industrial Revolution as companies who produced commercial luxuries were. They had gained new technology to discover more about the human body, helped along by an increase in disease which was triggered by the overcrowded nature of the cities. New medical proceedures were experimented with, yet, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson appears to be suggesting that Dr Jekyll has gone too far. He has tried to change – or cure – too much, perhaps usurping the role of God, and is punished for it.

Identity

This is a story about a man who splits himself into two separate people. Considering this, it would be quite difficult for me not to discuss the theme of identity in this review. Yet Hyde is not entirely separate from Jekyll. He has a separate body, with a noticably different appearance, but Jekyll suggests that he is perfectly aware of his actions when he plays the role of Hyde. The question then is: is Hyde a separate person, or merely a disguise through which Jekyll can hide his inner brutality?

[A]ll human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.
–  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

From the name “Hyde”, it would seem that Jekyll does use Hyde as his disguise. He is literally able to hide behind Hyde’s murderous reputation, allowing him to take the blame for his sins whilst he sits comfortably by the fire. Yet it is also true that, the more that Jekyll becomes Hyde, the more powerful Hyde becomes. Jekyll seems to lose a little control of him(self), such as when he murders Carew.

Regardless of whether Hyde is distinctly separate from Jekyll or merely a separate body, however, Stevenson suggests that a part of Hyde exists within all of us. He shows himself in our ugly, selfish desires, such as when we seek only bodily pleasures. For all of us, according to Stevenson, life is a balancing act, as we try keep Hyde concealed, putting forward only the good, moral versions of ourselves and suppressing our selfishness.

My Conclusion

Having not read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde since my first encounter with it, I am glad that I have given it a second chance. Its story is certainly interesting, particularly the idea that there is a part of Hyde within all of us. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I do not believe that this novella should be read lightly. Reading it at the age of twelve, it could have quite easily put me off the classics for the rest of my life.

Cover 2.jpgLuckily, I was able to come back to this text and actually found myself enjoying it. The first few chapters may be a bit of a struggle, but this is simply due to the detective styling of the work. It begins slowly, picking up pace and tension, until finally the mystery is solved, and it is within those last two chapters, that I really began to enjoy myself.

I would almost suggest skipping through the first few chapters of the book, but I do think that the tension at the beginning is important, if only because it allows you to appreciate how truly spectacular its ending is. Stevenson’s writing really comes to life in those final chapters, his descriptions mesmirising and his ideas truly chilling. So, if you can manage to get through those first chapters (and you’re not a twelve-year-old child), then, chances are, that you should really enjoy this Victorian, gothic novella.


Thank you so much for reading this review. This book was a part of my June 2018 reading challenge which means, for those of you keeping up with my progress, that I only have three more books to go!

You can click here to view an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!

“King Lear” (BBC Drama): Play Review

A new performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear recently caught my attention as I was looking through the programmes on BBC iPlayer. This performance is still available online for another sixteen days, so I suggest that you check it out!

lear2.jpgAn Overview

Title: King Lear.
Playwright: William Shakespeare.
First Performed: 1606.
Director: Richard Eyre.
Length:
115 minutes.

King Lear is composed of two, interwoven narratives. The main narrative concerns itself with the king, who, in his old age, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. This was a common tale in Elizabethan England as issues of legacy, promoted by the queen’s lack of children, were popularised during this period.

In the play, Lear decides that he is going to give the most land to the daughter who claims to love him the most. His first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, conform to this way of thinking and tell the king that they love him more than words can describe. Yet his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play this game. She tells Lear that she loves him, but that she will also love a husband, should she ever marry.

This enrages Lear so much that he banishes Cordelia from his sight, marrying her off to the King of France without a dowry. This act has serious repercussions, though, as Lear begins to fall into a state of madness. Meanwhile, his remaining two daughters plot to overthrow him, tired of his constant presence, as well as the noise of his hunting parties.

As you can expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, this all ends in bloodshed. Yet this is not only the blood of Lear and his daughters, for there is a secondary narrative that runs through this play. Gloucester, Lear’s ally, has two sons: Edgar and Edmund. The latter son was born a bastard, and he holds a grudge that causes him to disrupt the other characters, punishing both his father and brother for, in his opinion, failing to value him as a true member of their family.

The Drama

The BBC’s adaptation of King Lear is an interesting one, as, although it keeps to the original Shakespearean script, it is set in modern times, beginning in the heart of London. For the majority of the drama, this fusion of the old and new has a very powerful effect, as it allows the producers to add their own spin on Shakespeare’s play, without having to tamper with the original script. For example, as Gloucester helps Lear to escape from his vengeful daughters, he drives him away in an ambulance, which emphasises the sense of urgency in the play, as well as alluding to Lear’s madness.

lear-e1528143099752.jpgYet this fusion of styles does sometimes come across as confusing, and I wish, at times, that some changes had been made to the script. After all, in this drama, the fool, who mysteriously dies in King Lear at the end of the first act (some scholars claim that Shakespeare forgot about him), is shown to die of something that resembles hyperthermia. He goes into the ambulance with Gloucester and Lear, yet never comes out. This is an interesting addition to the play, as it reveals how the fool has essentially sacrificed himself to keep Lear company. The only issue is, at the end of the script, Shakespeare refers back to the fool’s death and has Lear tell everyone that he was “hanged”. The BBC drama keeps this line in, which makes the whole event seem rather confusing. After all, the fool is not hanged; he dies in the back of an ambulance.

Another interesting addition that the drama brings to King Lear is the use of the horseshoe. Lear appears to replace this horseshoe for his crown as he wears it upon his head at the height of his madness. He holds onto it throughout the drama, which emphasises how he is clinging both to his need to rule (this was what originally angered Goneril and Regan, as Lear failed to realise that, once that he had given them his land, he had no power), and also to his insanity.

I also appreciated the addition made to Gloucester’s secondary narrative. After the earl’s gruesome blinding, he is guided by Edgar (who is in disguise), hence the famous quote:

Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind  –  Shakespeare, King Lear.

In the play, Gloucester appears to die, unaware that it is Edgar who sits at his side, protecting him, yet in the BBC drama, Gloucester reaches out his hand to feel Edgar’s face. As he strokes it, he appears to recognise him, which provides a much more satisfactory ending to the Earl of Gloucester.

My Conclusion

There is a lot like about this adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It has an incredible cast that includes Anthony Hopkins (Lear), Emma Thompson (Goneril), Emily Watson (Reagan), Jim Broadbent (Gloucester), Jim Carter (Kent), Andrew Scott (Edgar), Karl Johnson (the fool) and Christopher Eccleston (Oswald). With this cast, it is inevitable that there is also some fantastic acting in this drama.

There are a few interesting features, such as the horseshoe and the modern setting, that appear to add something new to the original play. Yet while I do recommend this drama, I did think that the mix of the old and new, although interesting, did make the story a little confusing. It is therefore perhaps a good idea to watch this drama, only if you already have a vague idea of what King Lear is really about.


Thank you so much for reading! You can view a list of all my reviews here.

“The Castle of Otranto”: Book Review

I had the pleasure of reading Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto over a month ago, but what with all my deadlines and exams, I never got around to posting a review of it. Now that I have more time on my hands, however, it’s time for me to share my thoughts on what is, in my opinion, one of the most important novels ever written.

CoverA Bit of Context

TitleThe Castle of Otranto.
Author: Horace Walpole.
Publication: 1764.
My Edition: 2017, Amazon.
Length: 78 pages.

Composed during the eighteenth century, The Castle of Otranto is generally regarded as the first ever gothic novel. Its second edition even includes the word “Gothic” in its subtitle, the full name being, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story.

Writers of this period sought to revive a medievalism that was associated with both excitement and terror. This was because one of the main focusses for Romantic writers was that of emotion. Just as poets such as William Wordsworth and Lord Byron sought to evoke emotions such as sorrow and heartache from their poetry, Walpole intended The Castle of Otranto to incite real fear in his readers.

IMG_2066.jpgWalpole himself was an interesting character, too. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, has been recorded as the first British Prime Minister. Yet Walpole seemed less interested in political affairs. Whilst his father promoted a new world order, Walpole valued history.

He sent his friends around various medieval ruins, where they recorded certain architectural and decorative features. Walpole then built what is today known as Strawberry Hill, an artificial gothic building that he filled with his Medieval collections. Unlike his father, he was fascinated by this medievalism, and this fascination is what prompted the writing of The Castle of Otranto.

Plot Overview

I always try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I do like to give an overview of at least the beginning of the story. If you’re worried, I suggest that you skip these next two sections of my review and simply read the conclusion at the end at the end of the post.

The Castle of Otranto follows the story of a small family: Manfred, the Prince of Otranto; Hippolita, his wife; and Conrad and Matilda, their children. The drama begins at the very start of the novel, during Conrad’s wedding to the beautiful Princess Isabella. There is no build up; before the couple can make their vows, Manfred’s only son is crushed to death by a giant helmet that appears to have fallen from the sky.

Necklace.jpgYet this is only the beginning of the supernatural events unfurling in the castle. As the story progresses, servants begin to shout of vanishing giants and pictures seen moving within their frames. These peculiarities reflect the story’s main narrative as Manfred, desperate for a new heir, attempts to assault Isabella and rejects his daughter entirely.

Walpole considers issues of inheritance, power and morality as Manfred’s struggle to hold onto Otranto grows steadily weaker. He sacrifices everything for the sake of a male heir, only to realise that his daughter is not quite as useless as she first appeared. This is a story of love, murder and a remarkable amount of action as the castle slowly comes alive around the characters. It is filled with dark passages, trap doors and moving portraits, as well as that giant helmet that triggered these events in the first place.

At the same time, though, there are constant mysteries underpinning the characters’ actions. After all, why is Manfred so sure that Otranto will fall out of his control? Who is the mysterious youth who is capturing everyone’s attention and, perhaps more importantly, what is the thing lurking in the castle?

Going Deeper into the Novel…

It’s fair to say that there is a lot going on in this novel. It probably contains the most action in a book of its size that I have ever come across. I don’t want to analyse all of it, though; that would waste everyone’s time. So let me focus on three of its most interesting elements: gothic conventions, masculinity and the Church.

Gothic Conventions

As the first gothic novel, many gothic conventions derive from The Castle of Otranto. From Mary Shelley to Stephen King, there are clear links to this book throughout the genre, so it makes sense to identify some of them.

Firstly, there is the gothic heroine. After the villain, she is the most prominent character, focussed on far more than any male hero is. She is also usually beautiful, virtuous and lusted after by the villain. In the case of The Castle of Otranto, Isabella is the clear gothic heroine. She is constantly talked about, both in terms of the narrative and amongst other characters. She is also clearly persecuted by Manfred.

He, of course, is the gothic villain. Yet a gothic villain isn’t like any ordinary villain. Manfred is not purely evil; we can see some good in him, particularly towards the end of the novel, and we can also understand his motivations. He is deeply troubled and also extremely self-destructive. He arguably causes more pain for himself than he does for any of the novel’s other characters.

IMG_2120.jpgAnother convention is that of the gothic hero. In the case of The Castle of Otranto, we have Theodore. He opposes the villain, yet is not presented as particularly powerful. Whilst the hero may be handsome and brave, the villain is often the stronger force. This is why the destruction of the villain is rarely so simple as an attack from the hero.

Then there is the castle, itself, the convention that derives most clearly from The Castle of Otranto. It is the seat of the villain’s power, yet often does not belong to them. They are the usurper, having stolen the castle from the hero and heroine. By the end of the story, the castle is generally returned to its rightful owners.

Masculinity

There are two main presentations of masculinity in The Castle of Otranto: Manfred’s and Theodore’s. The latter is quite a generic presentation; Theodore is handsome, brave and the clear hero of the story. Both desirable and courageous, he is what young men would aspire to be, or at least what young women would hope for.

Manfred is a much more interesting character, for whilst Theodore represents masculine ideals, Manfred represents masculine realities.

Matilda assured her he was well, and supported his misfortune with manly fortitude  –  Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto.

During this time, men were encouraged to display a “manly fortitude”, appearing unaffected by emotional or domestic affairs. This means that whilst Hippolita screams and cries over the death of Conrad, Manfred turns his attention to more practical things, such as the production of a new heir. This emotional detachment may appear to be one of the factors that make Manfred into a villain, but this isn’t necessarily his fault. Emotional detachment was seen as a desirable attribute in men; from this point of view, Manfred is merely a product of the gendered society that he has grown up in.

The Church

Religion plays a constant role in The Castle of Otranto. It is presented as a sanctuary for Isabella, the source of justice for Jerome and as a final punishment for Manfred. These differing presentations suggest that the Church is, within this novel, exceptionally powerful. It is the ultimate force of moral justice that overshadows every sordid deed Manfred commits. Just as the supernatural beings within the castle watch over the characters so, in a sense, do the eyes of God.

[S]he knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place  –  Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto.

Church 3.jpgThis is particularly important when considering the presence of Fortune within the narrative. Without giving too much away, one interpretation to be had is that the castle is coming alive in order to punish Manfred for his moral crimes. This punishment is associated with the Medieval concept of Fortune and the Wheel of Fortune, which is the idea that any man who is wealthy or successful can have all of his power taken away from him with a mere spin from Fortune’s wheel.

Yet arguably, it is not the secular Fortune causing the supernatural tragedies in The Castle of Otranto at all; rather, it is God. From this point of view, Manfred is being punished for his sins against the Christian order. After all, sins such as incest and murder were particularly frowned upon by the Church. His journey ends with his returning to the Church, “taking the cowl” and, in a sense, being re-educated in the Christian principles of morality. The Castle of Otranto can thus be read as a circular journey of repentance and, in the case of God, forgiveness.

My Conclusion

I honestly really enjoyed reading The Castle of Otranto, but not in the same way that I enjoyed reading other gothic novels. Many people note how shockingly ‘badly’ this novel is written, but I have to disagree. Walpole may have used a simplistic style of writing, but this isn’t necessarily ‘bad’. If nothing else, it demonstrates how he was attempting to make his work more accessible by opening it up to the less educated classes.

Open Book.jpgIt’s important to remember that this was the first gothic novel, so whilst the events of the story may, to us, seem predictable, and whilst the dark dungeons and trap doors may, now, seem repetitive and unoriginal, readers during the Romantic period would have never imagined such scenes. It’s very different to anything that I have ever read before, perhaps due to the mere strangeness of the giant-figure, as this, unlike many other aspects of the novel, has not become a common gothic convention.

The most interesting thing about reading The Castle of Otranto probably lies in the comparisons that can be made to other gothic books. After all, isn’t the idea of a castle coming to life pretty much the main plot of Stephen King’s The Shining? And how often have we seen terrified damosels in white dresses running down dark corridors? I’m thinking particularly of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the trope of the persecuted heroine appears throughout gothic literature.

Let me put it this way: I can understand why people don’t necessarily appreciate The Castle of Otranto, but I don’t agree with them. It may not be the most elaborate of gothic novels, but it was the first one! Walpole began a new genre of fiction, so, when considering that, is it really possible not to love The Castle of Otranto?

“The Duchess of Malfi” (RSC Performance): Play Review

I recently had the pleasure of attending the RSC’s production of The Duchess of Malfi in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s taken me a few days to get around to writing this review only because I wanted to reread the original text first, but now that’s all done and I am eager to share my thoughts on this rather controversial play.

Book.jpgA Bit of Context

Title: The Duchess of Malfi.
Playwright: John Webster.
First Performed: 1613/1614.
Published: 1623.
My Edition: 2007, Oxford UP.
Length: 2.5 hours / 131 pages.

John Webster wasn’t hugely famous during his lifetime, but that’s not particularly surprising, given that one of his competitors was none other than William Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Webster’s plays are nowadays treated with a fair amount of respect, both The Duchess of Malfi and his earlier play, The White Devil, considered to be excellent examples of what a tragedy should be.

The White Devil was generally rejected by critics; at the time of performance, Webster referred to his audience members as “asses” who would always prefer a “new book” to a “good book”. He may have actually had a point, though, as the play was originally performed at the Red Bull Theatre, which wasn’t exactly known for well-educated audiences. It may have simply been that The White Devil was too complex at the time, for The Duchess of Malfi, which was performed at a theatre associated with a much higher class of attendees, was reviewed extremely positively.

Set.jpgInterestingly, though, The Duchess of Malfi would never have reached this audience if it hadn’t been for Webster’s number one competitor. Whilst he was writing the play, Shakespeare and the Kings Men were performing Henry VIII. During one of these performances, an onstage cannon was misfired, which caused the famous Globe Theatre to burn to the ground. Whilst, from a historical point of view, this was devastating, it actually earned Webster his fame. The Kings Men, who had been hired to perform The Duchess of Malfi straight after Henry VIII, were moved to the Blackfriars Theatre, which is where the play met with its sympathetic audience.

Plot Overview

The plot of The Duchess of Malfi revolves around a rich family living in Italy. The Duchess, whom the play centres around, has recently lost her husband and is warned by her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal (he is given no other name in the play), that she cannot marry again. They worry that, if she does, she will damage their reputations along with her own. This is the reason they give, anyway; in reality, they are probably worried that, by marrying again, she will be giving away more of their fortune.

Words.jpgSo, the Duchess decides to get married anyway. Her argument is that she is still young and that she has a right to raise children, but she may also want to simply defy her brothers. She chooses Antonio, her steward, and they are married in secret. Her brothers don’t suspect anything until the Duchess’ belly begins to grow.

They hire a man named Bosola to spy on the Duchess. Eager for potential rewards, Bosola offers the Duchess a fruit known to instigate labour. After eating the fruit, the Duchess runs offstage complaining of stomach pains. Bosola is suspicious, and, eventually, discovers that the Duchess has given birth to a baby boy.

He sends word to the Duchess’ brothers who condemn their sister and instruct Bosola to discover who the baby’s father is. A large portion of the play is taken up with this question, during which the couple have two more children together.

The Duchess fears that Bosola is growing suspicious of Antonio’s relationship with her, and so accuses Antonio of theft. She believes that this will trick Bosola, as he would not believe her capable of incriminating her own husband. For a while, the trick works; Antonio is banished, but he is still alive. Bosola then admits that he greatly admired Antonio and that he was very sad to see him leave. The Duchess believes his sorrow and, moronically, tells him that Antonio is the father.

She and the children meet with Antonio in exile, but Bosola has already written to her brothers. The Duchess and her two younger children are imprisoned in her palace whilst Antonio keeps their eldest son safe. Ferdinand then tricks the Duchess into believing that he has butchered Antonio and her children, creating wax bodies to insight a form of insanity in her. Not long after, he instructs Bosola to strangle the Duchess, and she, along with her two youngest children, are murdered.

Antonio, meanwhile, has been summoned to meet with the brothers at the Cardinal’s palace. There, Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal incite what can only be described as a bloodbath. All of these lords are reduced to murder, Ferdinand, wracked with guilt after the death of the Duchess, even murdering his own brother. It is dark, gruesome and undeniably a tragedy. The only relief is the return of the Duchess’ eldest son. He walks on stage and the surviving characters, including a close friend of Antonio’s, swear to protect the child in honour and in memory of his parents.

The Performance

The RSC did a fantastic job of modernising this play. It was horrifying, exciting and slightly disturbing which, in my opinion, is what The Duchess of Malfi is all about. There was a lot to it, and they made a fair few changes to the story, but what I most want to talk about is their focus on gender, visual effects, and the ending of the play.

Programme Pitch.jpgGender Issues

From the very beginning of the performance, it was evident that we, as an audience, were spying on a memory of the past. The set took the form of a sports pitch, which painted a picture of both the play and of Jacobean England. There was also a disfigured, upside down bull in the corner of the stage. This shadowed over the entire performance and, like the sports pitch, became a constant reminder that the Duchess was a lone woman in a distinctly masculine world. The first suggestion of this isolation was a visual one; ethnic differences separated the Duchess from the rest of the cast, both her gender and appearance isolating her from her fellow characters.

These feelings are only intensified as the play begins. In the original version, the first scene depicts Antonio discussing his travels, yet in this version, the Duchess is the first character on stage. She walks in completely alone and sets about attacking the bull. She wrestles with it, attempting to remove it from the stage. Ultimately, however, she fails. This reflects her struggle with the masculine world around her. She fights with her brothers and their many spies, but, when it really comes down to it, she is just one person, and she’s too weak to push the bull from the stage.

Skins.jpgHer weakness is emphasised by the musical numbers that interject the narrative. The dancers, who represent the soldiers in the play, create a distinctly masculine image. They swing from bars that relate to a gym environment and overcrowd the Duchess. Later on in the play, Julia, who becomes romantically involved with the Cardinal, sings a solo, which allows the audience to focus on the Duchess and the power of women. Even at this moment, however, the song is disturbed by the entrance of the soldiers. They creep from various angles and emphasise the idea that this is a masculine world; even when the Duchess believes she has outwitted her brothers, they, along with the masculine establishment, can overwhelm her.

Visual Effects

There are many secrets in The Duchess of Malfi, the biggest of these being the identity of the Duchess’ husband. It’s all about treachery and betrayal, as Bosola serves only himself and Ferdinand, in his madness, murders his own brother. A visual element used by the RSC helped accentuate these themes, and this was the Duchess’ wig.

Throughout the first act, the Duchess was not seen without this wig; it made her seem taller and thus more powerful, but as we entered the second act, the wig was removed. She physically became smaller as she became less powerful. Yet the wig represented more than a loss of power; the Duchess also lost her secrets. In the first act, she and Antonio were kept safe by the secret of his identity, but once she reveals this secret, she must also reveal her true appearance; in other words, she has nothing else to hide.

Stage.jpgIf you’ve heard anything about this performance before reading my review, then you will be expecting me to mention something else here, so let me indulge you. There was a certain visual effect used in this performance that is not easy to forget. The bull that I mentioned earlier served not only to represent masculinity in the play, but also to be the cause of a huge amount of fake blood.

At the start of the second act, the brothers stab the bull, which triggers a small amount of blood to seep out from underneath it. This spreads across the stage during the act and a small amount of blood soon becomes a rather large amount of blood. During the final scene, every actor is dripping with fake blood, having slid and splashed around in it for much of the performance. It’s messy and actually a little distracting; the front row of the audience even had blankets handed out to them to help protect their clothing.

It was a powerful effect but, as I said, perhaps a little too distracting. The best bit about it had to be how the blood crept forwards throughout the performance. By the end, however, it was just out of control, which may reflect the chaos on stage, but is a little unnecessary. Do not misunderstand me; I really liked the addition to the play, because it made The Duchess of Malfi just as shocking to us, as a modern audience, as it would have been to Webster’s original audience. Nevertheless, I think there was just a little too much of it; that’s all. It was powerful at the beginning, but people were actually laughing towards the end – they weren’t watching the deaths; they were just watching the blood coat the actors’ clothes and spray out into the audience.

The Ending

Up until this point, I’ve been mainly positive about the RSC’s interpretation of The Duchess of Malfi. I liked the addition of the dances and the music, and I thought that the body of the bull brought a lot to my reception of the play. Yet there was one thing that I wasn’t quite happy with, not because it wasn’t creative, and not because I didn’t understand the statement that it made, but because it didn’t make sense.

Programme Cover.jpgAs I mentioned earlier, Webster’s original play ended with the return of the Duchess’ eldest son. He appeared on stage and the remaining characters swore to protect him. This provided an element of hope in what was otherwise an extremely bleak ending. Similar appearances can be seen in some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as, in King Lear, where Edgar promises to provide new hope for his kingdom. The RSC, however, decided to get rid of this moment. They removed the son’s entrance and instead ended the play with the numerous bodies that remained on the stage.

This in itself could be quite a powerful message. By removing hope, the directors of the play plunged its audience into feelings of despair and uncertainty. This is a powerful effect and actually summarises The Duchess of Malfi quite nicely. BUT and this is a big BUT: the story didn’t make sense! Antonio leads his son offstage, and then he is never seen, or mentioned, ever again. No one asks where he is; no one even mentions him. It is as if the directors are encouraging us to forget that he ever existed, but he did… and then he didn’t. It was, unfortunately, a frustrating ending to a fantastic performance.

My Conclusion

I may simply be being ignorant here, but I can’t seem to find any sort of age rating for the RSC’s performance of The Duchess of Malfi. This, in my opinion, is pretty bad. I seem to remember a rather small-looking child sitting opposite me as I watched the play. This seemed a little strange because if this was a film being shown at cinemas, it should have been certificated as an 18. It wasn’t only the fake blood that did it; there were sexual assaults, dead children, and more violence than I can even list.

Sign.jpgIt was a very adult performance and the RSC didn’t hold much back. Personally, that made me enjoy it all the more, because it made the play shocking. As I mentioned before, Webster’s original audience would have found the play shocking, due to the simple fact that, in it, people die on stage. Nowadays, we, as a population, are more accustomed to brutality, so to reach the shock that would have been experienced at the time, performances need to be even more brutal.

I really enjoyed this play; I appreciated how it wasn’t just a retelling, but actually brought something more to the story. Other than the rather frustrating ending, there was nothing that seemed out of place compared to the original story, even though it was modernised through song and dance. The actors outdid themselves and the overall experience was fantastic. I saw it in the Swan Theatre, which is rather small, and this made the actions on stage all the more gruesome because I felt less like an audience member, and more like a part of the play. It really was a great piece of drama and probably the best live performance that I have ever witnessed.

Blood

“The Shining”: Book Review

My long-term followers will now be very much aware that I am a self-professed lover of the gothic genre. From Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I have enjoyed pretty much every gothic-style novel that I have picked up, yet, until recently, I had never read a single book by Stephen King.

Now, all I can say is that there is a reason why he is named one of the greatest writers of our time, and I can assure you that these claims are not at all misjudged.

CoverA Bit of Context

TitleThe Shining.
Author: Stephen King.
Publication: 1977, New English Library.
My Edition: 2011, Hodder.
Length: 497 pages.

Stephen King’s The Shining is arguably his most renowned book, both due to the novel itself, and the 1980 filmic adaptation. Personally, I have not seen this film, and don’t really intend to; from what I’ve heard, it depicts an entirely different story to the one written in 1977, and it is this story that I want to talk about, not the film.

The novel reflects many of the themes originally established by the Gothic, but it goes further. Aside from the Overlook Hotel itself, there is no clear villain in this story: it’s about real people living their real lives. Sometimes, they are good, but sometimes they’re not so good, and this balance between good and evil that exists within all of us is what The Shining is really about.

I believe these stories exist because we sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives: the parent who punches instead of kissing, the auto accident that takes a loved one, the cancer we one day discover living in our own bodies.  –  King, xii.

King doesn’t only base this novel on “unreal monsters and bogies”, however. In 1974, he made a visit to The Stanley Hotel, which is generally said to be the main basis of the Overlook Hotel, and later became the set of the 1980 film. Jack Torrance, meanwhile, one of the book’s main protagonists, takes a journey already made by King, as both character and author dealt with the pressures of recovering from alcoholism.

Plot Overview

As always, I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum here, but I will be going over the basic structure of at least the beginning of the novel, so if you’re thinking of reading The Shining, you might want to skip on to the “My Conclusion” section of this review.

Chapter One.jpgAs I’ve already mentioned, the main events of The Shining take place in the Overlook Hotel. This is a historical structure that is completely – and I mean completely – isolated. Jack Torrance is tasked with the role of caretaker during the winter months of the hotel’s calendar. This means that he, his wife, Wendy, and their five-year-old son, Danny, must all move into the deserted hotel and prepare to be cut off from society by the heavy snowfall that will block their only road. It’s the perfect set up for a horror story, and although all three members of the Torrance family seem unnerved by the hotel, their pride and need for the money keeps them rooted in place.

We quickly learn all about Jack’s alcohol addiction, along with his anger issues and troubled past, but as there’s no alcohol in the hotel, and no way to get any, the family don’t seem to think that this will be much of a problem.

We also learn about Danny, and how he “shines”. This small child, who is intelligent far beyond his years, possesses the ability to ‘see’ things that he shouldn’t be able to see. Danny experiences strange visions regarding the Overlook Hotel and often catches glimpses of other people’s thoughts. Yet Danny is still a child, and can’t always make sense of everything that his “shine” is showing him.

Me, I’ve always called it shining. That’s what my grandmother called it, too. She had it. We used to sit in the kitchen when I was a boy no older than you and have long talks without even openin our mouths”  –  King, 87.

The rest of the book describes a steady decline of sanity as all three of the Torrances suffer from isolation and a somewhat indescribable fear of the hotel. What they don’t realise, is that the hotel itself seems to be alive, and that the longer Danny stays there, it is able to feed off his “shine”, becoming more powerful and, ultimately, able to use that power against them. There’s violence, terror, suspicion, and always that constant question: is it all in their heads?

Going Deeper into the Novel…

I honestly could write hundreds of thousands of words talking about this book, but I won’t, because I have essays that I should be writing, and you really don’t have the patience for that amount of words, so I’ll talk about some of the most interesting aspects of this novel: character development and streams of consciousness.

Character Development

Arguably the strongest aspect of King’s storytelling is his ability to create and develop characters. What with Danny’s innocence, Wendy’s passive curiosity and Jack’s sense of pride, the members of the Torrance family are all very different, yet equally likeable.

Danny: Initially, Danny concerns himself with the typical problems of a child. He misses his friends from back home and doesn’t want his parents to fight. He also struggles a lot with his language, misreading words and asking a lot of questions as he learns more about the world around him. As the novel goes on, however, he abandons these questions. Words now seem to make sense to him, and he becomes wiser. He learns more about his parents and, in a way, seems to become their equal.

Wendy: For most of the book, Wendy was my least favourite character. To me, she felt a little underdeveloped, overly passive and just not as interesting as Danny and Jack. Just as her son and husband develop, however, Wendy does, too. She becomes less passive and learns to fight, her maternal instincts evoking a new kind of energy in her.

She was soft. When trouble came, she slept. Her past was unremarkable. She had never been tried in fire. Now the trial was upon her, not fire but ice, and she would not be allowed to sleep through this.  –  King, 405.

Jack: Jack’s journey is perhaps the most obvious one, because it forms a general downhill spiral. He begins as a man a looking for a new start; he’s made mistakes in the past, but he has put them all behind him. He is determined to do right by his family and give them everything that they deserve. Obviously, this doesn’t stay his main concern, as the hotel seems to place a barrier between his affections for his wife and son. Driven by the primal urge for alcohol, he seems to turn into something that isn’t quite human.

Open Book.jpgYet Jack’s journey isn’t entirely linear, either; throughout the novel, he is fighting. He fights the need for a drink, he fights his own instincts, and he fights the hotel. If there’s one thing that’s initially made clear, it’s that he doesn’t want to be anything like his father. This relationship is unpicked as the novel goes on, and King considers the complexity Jack’s past, as he realises that he still, in a way, loved his father.

Streams of Consciousness

When I say “streams of consciousness”, I’m talking about King’s writing style. He often disrupts the narrative, as well as sentences, to insert thoughts directly experienced by the speaker. These help to reveal underlying concerns the characters experience, but also their growing panic as these streams of consciousness become more unpredictable, and also more frequent.

Danny, you okay doc? . . . Oh God oh God your poor sweet arm . . . and that face transformed into . . .
(momma’s daced face rising up from below the table, punched and bleeding, and momma was saying)
(‘from your father. I repeat, an enormously important announcement from your father. Please stay tuned or tune immediately to the Happy Jack frequency. Repeat, tune immediately to the Happy Hour frequency. I repeat-‘
A slow dissolve.  –  King, 249.

This may seem a little confusing, but I quickly found that not every bracketed deviation needed to be fully understood, as the narrative still seems to make sense without them. If nothing else, they give insights into the pure mania of the human mind. Let’s be honest, I bet you don’t understand every thought that you have – our thoughts are wild and unorganised, and so are the characters’ in The Shining.

My Conclusion

As you may have guessed, I quite enjoyed reading this book. There is a lot to it, and it may be one that, in the future, I am able to reread and view from an entirely different angle. I’ll admit that, initially, my reading progress was rather slow, but this is the first book that I’ve read for pleasure during the university term for quite a long time, and I didn’t want it to distract me from the books I was actually supposed to be reading. That said, I read the last one hundred pages very quickly, across a few hours.

I remember once considering the difference between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. I think my conclusion was that ‘terror’ concerns a build up of events. That creaking floorboard, eerie silence, and the thought of being watched – they all make up what I’d define as ‘terror’, whilst the physical act of suspense being broken would be called ‘horror’; when a drunken man attacks his wife and a dead woman rises up from a bathtub, wrapping her clammy hands around a small boy’s neck, that’s ‘horror’. The Shining offers us both, and does so pretty superbly. For most of the novel, we have the ‘terror’ drawing us in and creating what feels like a very real fear of the Overlook Hotel. Then it’s within these last one hundred pages that you really start to see the ‘horror’ coming out.

It’s honestly one of the best novels I have ever read. That’s all I can say and, really, all that I need to say. If you haven’t read it, and it even slightly appeals to you, I urge you to go and get yourself a copy; I promise you, you will not be disappointed.

“The Good, Great Man”: Analysis

The Poem

The Good, Great Man

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“How seldom, friend! a good great man inherits
Honour or wealth with all his worth and pains!
It sounds like stones from the land of spirits
If any man obtain that which he merits
Or any merit that which he obtains.

REPLY TO THE ABOVE

For shame, dear friend, renounce this canting strain!
What woulds’t thou have a good great man obtain?
Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?
Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!
Hath he not always treasures, always friends,
The good great manthree treasures, LOVE, and LIGHT,
And CALM THOUGHTS, regular as an infant’s breath:
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night,
HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH!

The Message

“The Good, Great Man” is all about learning to appreciate what you have. In the first stanza, the narrator complains that he does not receive “honour” and “worth” when he deserves it, arguing that those who should have these things don’t have them, whereas those who shouldn’tdo have them.

In the second stanza, he is reminded that material things such as “honour” and “worth” don’t really matter, and that when a man is good, he will be able to appreciate what he has, appreciating friends, love, and his own goodness.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This poem is written in a (rough) iambic pentameter that is disrupted in several places, but becomes more regular in the second stanza. This perhaps represents how the second speaker is the voice of God/Nature/reason. The same pattern can be seen in the rhyme of the poem; it is a roughly alternating rhyme scheme that becomes more consistent in the second stanza.

Line by Line

  • “Friend” – It’s worth considering who the second speaker in this poem is. The poem itself follows a similar form style to Coleridge’s “The Suicide’s Argument“, in which Nature narrates the second stanza. This could suggest that the second speaker in this poem is also Nature, yet the first speaker calls them their “friend”, which suggests that they are both humans, and both equal to one another.
  • “!” – There are a lot of exclamation marks in this poem, which suggests that it is very personal and that Coleridge is feeling a lot of passion as he writes.
  • “A good great man” / “The good great man” – This phrase is repeated throughout the poem, yet also contains repetition in itself, as it emphasises the goodness of “man”. There is a certain element of self-pride here as the first speaker seems to be suggesting that they are the “good great man”.
  • “Inherits” – The term “inherits” suggests that the first speaker believes “honour” and “wealth” to be a part of his birthright, as though he is being wronged by having these values denied to him.
  • “Honour and wealth” – The first speaker distinctly outlines what they value; rather than friendship or God/Nature as the second speaker glorifies, they value “honour” and “wealth”, both of which concern personal glory.
  • “Sounds like stories from the land of spirits” – Sibilance here emphasises the dream-like quality of the vision as the first speaker considers the rarity of “good great men” receiving “honour” and “wealth”.
  • “If any man obtain that which he merits / Or any merit that which he obtains” – This doubling reflects the two stanzas of the poem and its constant repetition. In the first line, the speaker suggests that good men don’t receive (“obtain”) what they deserve (“merits”), and in the second, they suggest that men who don’t deserve (“merit”) “honour” and “wealth” often “obtain” them: the whole system is, in the speaker’s mind, completely unfair.
  • “For shame” / “Renounce” – Putting the first speaker to “shame”, the second speaker immediately asserts their authority and appears to take the high ground as they ask the first speaker to “renounce” their claims.
  • “Canting strain” – The second speaker continues to assert their authority over the first speaker with eloquent and old-fashioned language. Here, “canting” means a hypocritical and sanctimonious form of speech. In other words, this second speaker is telling the first speaker that they are wrong.
  • “Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?” – Coleridge repeats ideas introduced in the first stanza (the acquirement of “honour” and “wealth”), yet this time he belittles them, using simple language, constant question marks and short phrases to indicate the meaninglessness of these things.
  • “Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?” – A part of “honour” concerns victory on the battlefield, yet by going into specific examples of the “corses” (which means corpses), Coleridge reveals the grotesque nature of this victory. “Throne” and “corses” may both be metonymically referring to a kingdom built on the dead, perhaps indicating those the powerful sacrifice to attain their positions.
  • “Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends! – The second speaker is suggesting that the very act of being “a good great man” is a reward in itself. A person does not become great so they can achieve “honour” and “wealth”; they do good acts so that they can become great. The first speaker’s failure to realise this may indicate that he is in fact not “a good great man”.
  • “Always treasures, always friends” – The repetition in the structure of this phrase emphasises how physical “treasures” are inferior to moral and spiritual “treasures” such as friends; they argue that the material is unimportant. The true reward for goodness is the result of goodness: a genuine popularity.
  • “LOVE, and LIGHT, / And CALM THOUGHTS” – Here Coleridge glorifies love (and friendship), light (which may refer to a religious goodness/piety), and calm thoughts. This is a little ironic, as this poem comes across as a little chaotic (with disrupted metric and rhyme patterns) and passionate (with an abundance of exclamation marks). Nevertheless, Coleridge glorifies meditation and the ability to reflect on life in a calm, measured manner.
  • “Infant’s breath” – Calm thoughts are like “infant’s breath” because they are simple and pure, as well as being measured and unchaotic.
  • “More sure than day and night” – The good man’s “friends” are “more sure” than material concepts such as “day and night” because they are immaterial and eternal. Coleridge is clearly glorifying spiritual and moral pleasures over physical ones in this poem, condemning those who seek only “honour” and “wealth”.
  • “HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH” – This last line is a little tricky; Coleridge claims that a good man will have three friends. The first two are pretty obvious: the man will have himself (representing his own goodness) and his maker (which may represent either – or both – God and Nature). In other words, the man will have goodness and the favour of his creator (which also suggests that he will have a good afterlife). The third friend is a little harder to understand, though. Personally, I believe that it is a reference to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. During this poem, the mariners witness Death and Life-in-Death (who represents earthly suffering). It may be that Angel Death is the third element to this pattern (happiness in life). It may also, however, relate to ideas of purity.

Overview

“The Good, Great Man” is really considering what makes a good man, not what a good man deserves. The first speaker, who has not learnt to value simple pleasures such as companionship and happiness, is not “a good great man” because he is not content with his own goodness: he constantly strives for more.

The Good, Great Man - Coleridge (2).jpgThere is also a comment about experience made here; Coleridge suggests that by repeatedly experiencing and exercising goodness, it will become a habit that is ingrained in the mind of the individual. In other words, they become “the good great man”.

It’s a clever poem, particularly when compared with “The Suicide’s Argument“. Coleridge was clearly a very passionate man and, in both poems, he seems determined to educate his audience. In this poem, he wants to teach us to appreciate what we have, and what goodness really is, whilst, in “The Suicide’s Argument”, he teaches us to remember the gift of life we were once given, and how we may have squandered this gift with their own selfishness. In both poems, however, it is evident that Coleridge does not value anything done for the sake of personal glory; he values more immaterial things, such as love and goodness.