Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading Inside The Lines


"First they done a lecture on temperance; but they didn't make enough for them to both get drunk on." (Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, p.356)


Here, Huck is talking about a pair of con men, Duke and King, that are forcibly traveling with him and Jim. The con men are making their way along the river, scamming the people in the villages they pass by and are at it again because they have traveled far enough away from the last place they were caught to start up again. Huck is relaying one of their failed attempts.

This sentence comes only five lines into chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn and it is one of those lines that wakes you up from the fairy tail of the boy's summer adventure. It's quintessential Twain in that his point isn't superficially apparent, but it's there for the taking. At least something is. There are a few levels of meaning and that quality is another that makes it very Twain as well.

Here Twain is calling attention to the hypocrisy that plagues humanity in his classic humorist style, using Duke and King. Another thing going on here is the temperance movement of the 1800's was picking up steam in the time the Huck Finn was written and within the time frame it was set as well; this line in particular could speak to Twain's ideas about it, but not what side of the movement he was actually for. Finally, as with many of the writers we've looked at thus far, such as Bierce and Harte, this is another signpost that tells the reader that they should examine who the "bad guys" are in the story, and in a larger sense to pay close attention to what's happening.

King and Duke giving a temperance lecture in order to get money to get drunk is not only hypocritical, it's ridiculous. I think that right after that line is where you're supposed to pause for dramatic effect and follow it up with an naive look. If you were telling a humorous story, that is. The problem with humor, especially with a message behind the message is deciphering what that message is. Is it a prod to take all into moderation, including something thought to be good such as temperance? Could it be a reinforcement of why moral issues are legitimate concerns or how ethics fail us? Or could it be really just be a joke? I think, all of the above.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Significance of 241's Agony



I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

- Emily Dickinson

In the first stanza, Dickinson writes about the value of agony, or suffering in general. I don't think it is about actually enjoying seeing suffering on the faces of people but rather that it is valuble because it is an authentic human expression - one that can not be convincingly simulated. This idea is extended in the second stanza. The true look of death cannot be fabricated, especially when the death is hard and filled with pain.

This is the poem I always return to whenever I look at Dickinson. I am facinated by it, because it at first seems only a macabre little poem. Then you think about it, because in the 30 seconds it has taken you to read it, it has found a way seep into your mind. That is pretty powerful for a poem with only eight lines!

Knowing more about Emily Dickinson's life, it has become even more powerful and curious. She lead a solitary life - that is what they say, but then, where do these deep observations about life come from? Returning to the idea in the poem - that people are filled with fabrications and masks, disguising their feelings and thoughts from the world, and that there are few exceptions to this; agony and death. How striking is it, that a solitary woman, sitting in her room and peering out at the same landscape day after day, probably at birds and squirrel and trees, articulates this solemn and dark observation of life, and more than that, of human nature. It just knocks me flat, it is phenomenal.

Conversely, another conclusion that the analysis of 241's themes and comparison to the known experiences of Dickinson's life could lead to is that her life just could not have been as solitary as it is presented or thought to have been. Otherwise, would we even need to interact with each other if we could all possibly come up with the same observations without that experience or interaction? It sure takes the wind out of "write what you know."