It is National Poetry Day and I feel compelled to participate. Unfortunately, I tend to be much better at prose and the occasional limerick. Don’t believe me? The crowning achievement of my poetic career is this, written in eighth grade and shared by my dear friends throughout the entire school during a poetry appreciation event. Thanks again for that, guys.
There once was a girl named Ryanne.
In P.E. she started cryin’.
“I can’t run anymore;
I tripped on the floor!”
But everyone thought she was lyin’.
Pretty inspired, right?
Speaking of Robert Frost, he is one of my favorite poets and of his poems, I have always been especially drawn to one entitled “Tree at My Window” and, having been reading Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, noticed that trees seem to be a common focus of poetry. But why? I am inclined to believe because they are wonderful representations of the central themes of these poems: rootedness in a storm-tossed life.
For instance, in Frost’s poem, he describes the tree as a source of constancy amidst the turmoils of his life, that it has “seen [him] when [he] was taken and swept” and yet remains standing outside his window through storms that it is grounded enough to weather. Similarly, in Ovid, characters are often transformed into trees when they attempt to resist change. On one hand, this can be viewed as a punishment for it removes their human form, but on the other hand it is a blessing for it gives them the stability and constancy that they desired. In a world where change is constant, trees often act as a symbol of the rootedness and reliability that malleable men crave.
I have seen this in my own life. Being in the woods is calming to me in times of change because I am surrounded by these symbols of stability; apart from the stressors of everyday human life, it is easy to imagine that I am as secure and serene as they. This is what inspired the following, which shall serve as my own little contribution to National Poetry Day.
I would to be a tree
And let my roots grow deep
Into the rocky earth,
My place for ages to keep.
A creek would chill my toes
And laugh along its way,
But as a wizened oak,
In my seedling spot I’d stay.
The zephyr’d stroke my hair
And wind it ‘cross my face,
But though a dancing fir,
I would deign to leave my place.
Birds would nest in my arms
And sing sweet lullabies.
Come morn they’d leave my branches
Stretched toward familiar skies.
The storms would rage at me
And break my spreading crown.
Yet limbs and roots remain
And with ease I stand my ground.
Willows weep, pines may sigh
But set their roots down deep.
Unmoved by fickle season,
Their homes- lucky trees- keep.
Like the characters in The Metamorphoses (well, maybe not quite as I am still human and have not suffered any unfortunate interactions with Roman deities…) I am experiencing a time of change and my mind found comfort in the constancy of the woods and trees. Although this poem was nothing but the scribbled fancies of a moment alone with my thoughts and is certainly not Frost, it eased something in my soul to write it. And, after all, isn’t that what poetry is all about? Or should I say, “poe-tree“? Okay, that was quite possibly the worst pun I have ever made. Apologies. Anyway, happy National Poetry Day!
In reading Dante’s Inferno, I was struck by his ability to identify, categorize, and assign fitting punishments to various sins. This is not perhaps the most cheerful observation, but it was certainly intriguing and made me think (apologies for the morbidity): what crimes I would punish were I to write a modern Inferno and how would I punish them? Also, who would be guilty of these crimes? I realized after much thought that some of the most pressing “sins” of our times are (*thunder crash and lightning flash*) Word Crimes.
And so, it is with my grammarly pleasure (Yes, “grammarly” is a word. Besides, I made this Inferno, so what are you going to do about it?) that I present to you: The Word Crimes Inferno.
“Aboriginal AL hops your who entertain hear.”
It appears that the inscription on the Gates of Hell suffered from faulty auto-correct…I believe they were once meant to read: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.”
Circle I- Limbo: Here we encounter not the “virtuous pagans” or the “unbaptized infants” whom Dante met, but rather those who passed before they had the opportunity to learn the basic rules of language. Poor souls, they had no knowledge of proper syntax or good diction and must live in a world of blank, wide-ruled paper and stubby pencils forever with no hope of achieving the necessary writing skills to escape.
Circle II- The Carnal: In this ring we encounter several familiar faces, including the authors of mindless romances who shall not be named.These souls are those who used language not according to the inspiration of the Muses but rather the urging of their own dirty minds. As punishment, they are forced to listen to their own works being read aloud in a monotone so that they can no longer take any enjoyment from them and recognize them for them for what they are: lifeless and lacking in artistic merit.
Circle III- The Gluttons: Buried in heaping piles of adjectives and unnecessary commas and forced to shout run-on sentences without pausing for breath we find those writers who were never satisfied. These gluttonous lovers of word counts and lists were never satisfied with a single, solid adjective and let commas rain like glitter throughout their work. Shameful, disgusting, unnecessary, pointless, fluffy, over-the-top…that is what these were in life and continue to be even now.
Circle IV- The Avaricious: Here in eternal torment are the ambitious but impatient writers, those who so desperately desired to be famous that they refused to wait for originality. Without consideration for literary worth, these souls jumped on the paranormal romance bandwagon driven by none other than Stephanie Meyer. The most mild of the punishments in this circle consists of reading the fan fictions written by overly-emotional teenage girls while off-key recordings of the Twilight soundtrack blasts from every side.
Circle V- The Wrathful and Sullen: These souls cannot be considered true writers, but still must face judgement. In life, they never wrote anything but complaints and passive-aggressive blurbs, frequently on sites such as Twitter or- in the distant past- MySpace. In this circle, these sufferers continue as they did in life, posting depressing and rude things. However, to make them feel the shame of their crime, they never are able to use the emoji that they intend to use. For instance, a girl lamenting the woes of being single at age fifteen will be forced to accompany her complaint with a laughing emoji and, for good measure, “#blessed.”
Circle VI- The Heretics: The shades in this circle are guilty of boldly declaring skewed opinions and/or misinformations, especially when not wanted. They also tend to use big words that they do not understand and now are forced to research everything before speaking or writing, as well as take regular spelling tests. However, to make this punishment even more painful, they must do this research while broadcasts of political addresses are played on repeat and pamphlets for various organizations rain from above.
Circle VII- The Violent: These are my least favorite sinners: the abusers of the rules of grammar. This word here is the 666th word in this post, so I think the Muses agree that this sin is among the most despicable. I am deeply grieved to say that many people of my personal acquaintaince might be doomed to this circle, where their grammar mistakes become reality. For example, if one were to write “your pretty”, intending to write a compliment, he now will be forced to explain how the other person owns “pretty.” When he cannot, he will be jabbed with scalding red pens by the editing demons. They also must scroll through Facebook and correct every instance of incorrect grammar that they encounter, all the while weeping over their crimes. (Or, as they might say “they’re” crimes. Forgive me.)
Circle VIII- The Fraudulent: The criminals here are guilty of twisting their language to suit their purposes. In this ring, we find the forgers of “fluff”, the frivolous fillers that English teachers command their students not to include in essays. We also find those who used quotes out of context to support faulty claims. Now they are condemned to carve bare facts onto stones using rusty nails so that they can no longer pervert the writing. To make this even more difficult, they must do so while struggling to stay afloat in a pool of foam which parallels the fluff that could not support a sound argument.
Circle IX- The Traitors: These wretched souls knowingly committed numerous word crimes and thus are considered total traitors to the English language. They are eternally sentenced (heeheehee) to be chewed headfirst between the covers of a hardcover Oxford Dictionary with teeth made of freshly-sharpened number two pencils. Let us not dwell any longer on the horror of this center circle.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed your journey through The Word Crimes Inferno. Please note that I will not actually throw anyone into this wretched place…mostly because it does not exist…
Yes, my title is a hashtag. Sometimes I like to break the trend of ordinary prose. Sorry not sorry. Ironically, however, this post is based on writing standards set waaaaaaaay back in the days of Homer. In reading through The Odyssey for my university’s honors institute, I realized two things: First, listening to Chopin’s nocturnes whilst reading makes even the most boring of passages intensely moving. For real, I felt tears coming when Odysseus’ men were turned into pigs. Thanks, Chopin. Secondly, although Homer (whether of not you believe in him or think he was a group of poets or whatever new conspiracy is floating around in the literary community) does tend to be a bit- well- wordy in his accounts of first the Trojan War and then the homecoming journey of Odysseus, he is a master at his craft and the fact that philosophers and students alike have been studying his epics for thousands of years ought to be proof of that. Further evidence for this mastery is in his recognition of the key components of good writing/story-telling: truth, reason, and beauty.
He says in Book XI lines 363-369:
“‘Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine
that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth
breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up
lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have
a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,
and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story
of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives.'”
In this instance, a king is praising the eloquence and clarity of Odysseus’ account of his journey, but more significantly, Homer is, through this character, identifying the essential components of writing worthy of enduring esteem. Such writing, first of all, must feature truth. When Odysseus concludes his tale, the first remark that the king makes is regarding the verity of Odysseus’ words; they are not fantasy, at least in the context of this epic, and thus deserving of serious consideration. But does all writing need to be true then in order to be great? The Harry Potter geek within me screams “NO!” in answer to this and, actually, the fangirl part of me is correct. C.S. Lewis believed strongly in fiction because of its seemingly paradoxical ability to convey truth. Take his most famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. In any given library, these would be shelved with other works of fiction and probably even among children’s fiction. However, it is impossible to read these wonderful books without coming away having learned from them lessons of sacrifice, morality, family, forgiveness, and, consequently, truth. Good fiction always centers on truth. Whether this truth is found in the form of a universal theme such as what it means to be a man or even a real event such as the an ancient war, if you dig deep enough as a reader or write well enough as an author, some aspect of truth will always be found at the core of a truly great piece of literature.
Continuing on, the king praises the sensible nature of Odysseus’ words; he does not use more than necessary. Bored readers might argue that Homer is not exactly concise, but when one considers the vast amount of mythology, culture, character descriptions, interactions, geographical courses, and rituals that are woven together to create the intricate tapestry of this epic, it becomes a wonder that such a magnificent story could be consolidated into a mere twenty-four book poem. This often unappreciated conciseness is vital to truly great writing. Of course, as the saying goes, “even Homer nods”, and some passages, such as the listings of over 600 Achaian ships in The Iliad are arguably a bit much, but considering the wealth of information and the overall complexity, this is certainly excusable.
Finally, Odysseus’ (and Homer’s) words are revered as beautiful. Being originally poetry sung by roaming bards, it is probably a no-brainer that The Iliad and The Odyssey are considered among the most beautiful pieces of literature. In this passage, great writing is described as having “a grace” and being crafted “expertly, as a singer would do.” Both poetry and prose must have a flow, a grace like the one here described. In music performed by a singer, every note, every inflection of the voice, every tiny breathe and consonant must be purposefully employed in order to convey the message of the song. In the same manner, a great writer must choose his or her words with purpose; not a “jot or tittle” is thrown in carelessly in attempt to meet a word count or appear more intelligent to the ignorant reader, but rather, each phrase is composed like a line of music, thus appealing to the reader’s deepest sense of beauty. Of course, one might debate that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but regardless of personal opinions of individual readers, by combining intentionality with artistry, a level of universal beauty, such as that achieved by the enduring works of literature, can be achieved.
To summarize: Many truths. Very clear. Much beauty. (Sorry, breaking the flow of my prose again. At least it was not a hashtag this time.) This passage in The Odyssey was one of those passages that make me gasp “Ah-ha!” aloud in the middle of the library. It made me race to the nearest computer to jot down my thoughts and publish them to my blog in the unlikely case that one of my readers may find inspiration in them as I did. This passage made me take a step back and reevaluate myself as a writer, but it also gave me a renewed passion as it guided me toward the path of truly great writing, that which is truth-centered, focused, and beautiful.
Once more, I find myself in the uncomfortable situation of actually enjoying my homework. A lot. I know that many people in my class find this irritating, but I can’t help it; I like to write, so naturally I will like an assignment that requires me to write a short story using the literary elements that we studied this year. As my story turned out better than I expected, I thought that perhaps I would share it here on my blog, but I will add this disclaimer: I am rather shy about my stories (unlike blog posts and essays which are open to anyone and everyone and their cousins’ pets) and thus I am nervous about sharing this little scribbling with the world. Well, maybe not the world… I’m nervous about sharing my scribbling with my whopping double-digit number of followers. That said, read it if you will, but don’t judge me too harshly; I’m not a Montgomery or Bradbury by any means, although those authors may or may not make appearances in this tale…
Without further adieu, I give you “The Window Washer.”
The Window Washer
The first time he saw her, in the library on a school day like every other, he tried to ignore her, pretending not to feel the intensity of her gaze upon his face. If it were not for this penetrating stare, she would have been remarkably easy to look through; she was almost translucent, in a way. That is, if a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human could be translucent. She was like mist, for just as one can squint through mist yet still feel its cool caress against the skin, it was easy to look beyond her, with her powder-white skin and hair the color of a noon sun’s rays, but it was impossible to ignore the burn of her clear, clear eyes. If eyes are truly the windows of the soul, hers had no curtains to dull her spirit’s face as it peered out, smiling at the world around it.
The boy edged past her, not daring to let his soul wave at hers from behind its shades. Instead, he drew them further shut, trying to block the light that seemed to be streaming from her as lamplight from an open door. Crouching down at the end of the aisle, he began to search the lowest shelf.
“B…b-r-a-d…” he muttered to himself, still uncomfortably conscious of the girl behind him, watching as he searched for an author whose name he had already forgotten. Hopping a few inches to the right, he knelt, holding the shelf for balance, and scanned the middle row of books. Still not finding or remembering the author he had been sent after by his teacher, he grunted in frustration and hoisted himself to his feet.
Without warning, a warmth pressed gently into his shoulder. He looked up with a start and just as quickly ducked his gaze back to the floor, blinking rapidly like a child who has mistakenly stared into the sun. The pressure of the girl’s hand, so tiny and fragile, increased as if to insist that he look at her.
“What do you want?” he asked defensively. Thankfully no librarian was nearby for he had not bothered to lower his voice.
The girl gave no audible reply, but with her other hand, equally tiny and fragile, reached in front of him and pointed to a book so slim and short and dark that he had failed to see it hidden amidst the others.
The boy squinted at the faded name printed on its spine and after a moment, recognized it as the author whose name he had forgotten: Bradbury. Bending forward, the girl eased it from its resting place and held it out to the boy. He stared blankly at its worn cover, where an illustrated fire burned as brightly as it had since first printed and the shadow of a book flapped its covers helplessly amid the printed smoke. She gave it a gentle shake as if to say “Take it,” and dumbly, he grasped it, rose, and hurried away, never once meeting her gaze.
The boy awoke with a jerk. He had been having a nightmare. As his heart resumed its regular tempo, he cautiously turned his head to his right as if afraid that the monsters that haunted his dreams were still nearby. Instead, all he saw was a book, illuminated around its edges by the glow of his alarm clock.
“3:00 am,” read the neon blue letters of the clock.
“Everything always seems worse at 3:00am,” a silent voice quoted. He had read that line just the evening before in the book that lay beside him, another book that the silent girl had given him, one filled with the beauty of a distant Canadian town and the dreams of a fiery-haired girl with a temper to match her braids.
He had balked when the girl had followed him to the fiction section, turned her flashlight eyes on him, and pointed to this book; its cover image, so unlike the exiting flames of the first novel, was so pastoral, so…girly. That was the only way that he could describe it and was so doubtful of this selection (not in the least because he was decidedly against reading outside of that required to pass his remedial English class) that he had opened his mouth to protest.
“No, thanks,” he was about to say, holding up his hands and backing away from the girl and the paperback she held as one might from a coiled snake. But she was only- in appearance at least- a slender girl in a flowery blouse with a slight smile that might have won his immediate affection had he only had the courage to look at her face.
She was not to be deterred and softly but gently took his raised hand and pressed the tiny volume into it, closing his fingers around it and peering at him intently. His eyes peeked for a fraction of a moment into hers, but again he could not withstand the gleaming of her open soul. When he looked up again, she was gone, leaving only the book nestled in his arms.
Now it was sleeping on his nightstand between its thin covers, but he was learning that if he just cracked them open and gave the words his attention, a beautiful world of people and sights and emotions he had never before experienced would awaken all at once to comfort him in the face of nightmares, easing his rapid heartbeat, providing a means of escape.
Squinting at the letters of the book by the dim glow of the clock, still blinking “3:00am,” he watched a sunrise on Prince Edward Island from the garden of a little home with a green roof and a laughing girl named Anne.
The passport to Prince Edward Island fell with a soft thud into the book drop beneath the library counter. As he was turning to exit, the boy paused, swiveled slowly, and walked past the cluster of tables where fellow students worked or procrastinated and into the fiction section. Perhaps without even knowing it, he smiled softly as he passed the pastel sisters of the book he had once condemned as too feminine.
As he stooped to examine this shelf, a sparkle caught his eye. The girl with the crystalline eyes blinked at him through an empty spot on the shelf. She was surprised at first, but the boy did not notice the brief flicker behind her lashes as he averted his gaze in embarrassment and, although it was their third meeting, an inexplicable fear of her piercing gaze. A moment passed and he could still feel the prickle of her stare on his forehead. Finally, he cleared his throat, a harsh sound against the whispering and rustling of the library, and mumbled a greeting.
“Hello,” was the reply, and, as she spoke, he realized that he had never heard her voice before, but, somehow, she had spoken volumes. Her voice, in that single word, was as intense and clear as her eyes, though not nearly so alarming. There was a softness to it that reminded him of the breezes he’d imagined while reading the second book and it stirred something within him. For a split second, a spark leapt into his eyes too. It faded quickly, but the girl saw its ember and spoke again.
“Come here.” It was not a command, but an invitation.
“Why?” No amount of gruffness could veil the curiosity in the boy’s voice.
“Come and see.” The flame in her eyes danced to the lilt in her voice, hinting of a secret joy that she ached to share.
He rose and hurried around the shelf to where she squatted, several books piled on the floor around her while she held one like a child in her arms. It was open and she was flipping through its pages, pausing every couple of turns to skim a line and breathe deeply, as though drinking in the words with the scent of the grey pages.
“What’ve you got there?” the boy asked.
She just smiled and held it up for him to see its cover, where the silhouette of a man with a long nose, magnifying glass, and tobacco pipe was embossed in a dull bronze. The rest of the book was black, aside from the bold title.
The boy nodded appreciatively. Somewhere he had heard of this story… television, maybe? He could not remember.
“Is it good?” The rapt expression on the girl’s face as she read another page answered this question.
“What’s it about?” he tried again. This time, she closed it with a snap and held it out to him.
“That’s a mystery for you to solve,” she said, her voice lowered and filled with intrigue. Her eyes twinkled playfully as he took the book from her outstretched hands.
Several weeks passed before the boy returned to the library; it was a hefty book that she had chosen for him, after all, and there had been many cases for him and Sherlock to solve. When he finally returned with the finished book, there was a marked change about his eyes that at first glance was not obviously for the better. Large bags circled them in purply puffs and to outsiders, these bags might indicate insomnia or depression or the incurable procrastination that ails most adolescents, but if they had bothered to look beyond the sagging eyelids and the reddened whites, as the girl did, they would discover that these were not just the bags of a sleepless teenager, living off of caffeine and late-night cram sessions, but book bags, albeit of a different sort. These “book bags” were caused by late-night reading and early-morning rereading and reading at every spare second in-between. And, packed within them, there was a glow, like that of embers, waiting only for one final breath of oxygen before bursting into glorious flames.
The girl saw all of this, for her eyes too had once undergone that metamorphosis of readership, and she approached the boy at once when he reentered her domain.
“Hello!” he said, his voice less gruff than usual. His bloodshot eyes peeked into her stainless-window eyes from behind their fading curtains. Hers shone back, but somehow, despite- or perhaps because of- many nights of squinting in a darkened room at the many letters of many words on many pages, the intensity did not burn as much as it had at first.
“Enjoyed adventuring with Mr. Holmes?” she nodded to the book he held.
He broke their gaze and looked down at the book, fumbling absently with its pages, every one of which had been read in full, despite frequent requisite visits to online dictionaries.
“Yes, thanks,” he replied and then, on impulse, added, “Is there anything else you’d suggest?”
She gasped in excitement, clasping her cream-colored hands together and opening her mouth to speak. But, as suddenly as she’d opened it, she closed it and bit her lip in thought, as if struggling to contain the flood of authors and titles that threatened to burst forth. A few seconds ticked by. The boy again sent the finished book down the book drop and turned back to face the girl, who continued to look at him, the light of her extraordinary eyes dimmed to a warm fervency.
“I do,” she said at last, “but I think you should try choosing something for yourself.”
Long after the girl had left, he had stood lost in the maze of shelves, trying in vain to choose a book- just one book- but finding himself as helpless as he had been on his first visit. This time, however, he was not wholly blind to the arrangement of the authors and he stumbled back to the “B”s, back to the first author, back to the beginning.
But then, something flashed across the corner of his vision; it struck against the window of his soul and refused to be ignored. He stopped, staring at the book with the red-lettered title that seemed to shout at him from its perch. It called down to him from the top shelf, where it seemed exalted above the others. Perhaps it was its smooth spine, its creamy covers, or its bold title that grabbed at his attention and would not let go, but whatever it was that had distinguished it from the other books was unimportant; it appealed to some yearning in the boy’s soul and, while two months ago he would have shrugged off this entreat, he did not hesitate to answer it now.
The boy strode directly to the shelf and, standing on his tiptoes, pulled the book from its spot, heedless of its neighbors as they slide sideways in its absence. He marched to the desk and checked it out without bothering to read the synopsis on its back cover. Throughout the rest of the day, the bus ride home, and the tedious work of the evening, the book sat patiently next to the boy, secure in the knowledge that it would be read soon.
That night, chores done, homework finished, the moment that boy and book had been awaiting arrived. Picking it up tenderly, he sat on the edge of his bed, slowly drew it open, and turned to the very first line of the first chapter.
And then, as he read that first line, the veil was torn and his mind set free. The dusty panes of loneliness and worry that had dimmed his eyes were shattered and his soul shone from its windows as brilliantly as that of the girl who had washed away the grime of the world with words.
A week later, another young man entered the library, downtrodden, suspicious, and alone. He sat concealed behind a corner shelf, staring blankly at the bruised palms of his hands, when a voice broke in on his murky thoughts.
“Hello there,” it said. “I have something you need.”
Turning his shaggy head, which spoke sorrowfully of neglect and despair, he saw, crouched down beside him, another boy, with two shining eyes, two hands, and a book.
Emma Woodhouse, introduced in the opening line of Jane Austen’s 1816 novel Emma, is “handsome, clever, and rich”, yet despite this deceptively basic description, she is considered one of the most complex heroines in literature (3). In fact, Jane Austen herself seemed to be the only one to truly understand her, claiming that she was “going to take a heroine to whom no one but [herself] will much like” (qtd. in Steven Marcus 23). But what makes the baffling Miss Woodhouse such a multifaceted character? One popular trend in psychology, the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, may provide an answer. The Myers-Briggs test seeks to classify individuals as introverted or extraverted (I or E), intuitive or sensory (N or S), thinking or feeling (F or P), and judging or perceiving (J or P), combining to form a four-letter code summarizing and providing insight into the general personality tendencies of that particular person (MyersBriggs.org). The most unusual combination of these traits in women is INTJ: introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging. Because of the rareness of this combination among women, with INTJ females only making up an estimated 0.8% of the population, it is not surprising that a literary character of this personality archetype, such as Emma Woodhouse, would be considered complex (16personalities.com).
The first pair of personality traits addressed by the Myers-Briggs indicator relate to how an individual approaches the world. In other words, is this person introverted, maintaining an internal focus, or extraverted, tending to focus on his or her surroundings? Many readers immediately assume that because Emma is socially active, she must be an extravert. However, evidence from the novel implies that her focus
is actually more internal. In one scene, while visiting the village with friends, Emma stands apart from the group to daydream. The text reads, “a mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer” (210). This demonstrates that, although with others and in the midst of a social hotspot, Emma prefers the company of her own mind and often retreats deep into her private thoughts. According to the official Myers-Briggs site, those who lean toward introversion are often seen as “reflective” and are “comfortable doing things on their own” (MyersBriggs.com). Emma here certainly is comfortable in her own mind and content to spend her time in reflection rather than interaction and, thus, this scene indicates her true nature as an introvert, as does her reaction to Mr. Knightley’s proposal of marriage later in the novel. Austen writes that “[Emma] wanted to be alone. Her mind was in a state of flutter and wonder…and till she had… talked to herself and … reflected, she could be fit for nothing” (429). Whenever something as exciting as a marriage proposal occurs in her life, Emma’s first response is to withdraw to ponder it alone, a distinctly introverted tendency. Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book, Quiet, describes introverts as “people who are in their heads too much” and here Emma definitely fits this standard, making the first letter in her Myers-Briggs combination an “I” (ThePowerofIntroverts.com). Within the social world of balls, tea parties, and group outings found within Jane Austen’s novels, it is surprising that one of her most famous heroines would be an introvert. Therefore, this first trait already implies that Emma’s personality is the cause of her complexity as a character.
The second set Myers-Briggs personality types accounts for how an individual processes and understands information; is this person a sensor, preferring facts and experience, or an intuitive, tending to favor big-picture concepts and idealistic dreams. As the novel Emma progresses, the character Emma is painted as heavily intuitive, imagining perfect futures and grand schemes that fall short of her expectations,
especially in the area of romance. Emma plans throughout much of the novel to make a wonderful match for a friend of hers, Harriet. However, the future she creates for Harriet never becomes a reality as Emma often overlooks fundamental details that a sensory-prone person would have kept in mind. She is described in chapter sixteen as admitting to herself that once “she had taken up the idea, she supposed, [she had] made everything bend to it” (120). Her habit of focusing on idealistic plans and ignoring necessary details and flaws in these plans is evidenced in this quote. In her essay “The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values”, Karin Jackson writes that Emma “is a victim of her own illusions and creates a world of her own fancy, but it is not the real world.” Miss Woodhouse lives in an idealistic world built by her intuition and fostered by her complete lack of sense. She fits the standard of the Myers-Briggs indicator as an intuitive due to her preference of the imaginative and abstract over the tried and true. Being intuitive alone is not rare, but combined with introversion, as well as the next two traits that she possesses, it lends to Emma’s overall complexity.
As Emma acts as a matchmaker and daydreamer throughout her story, it would seem logical to assume that she relies more on emotion than reason. However, on the third Myers-Briggs type, feeling versus thinking, Emma appears to be more inclined toward thinking. When Emma and Mr. Knightly profess their love for one another, Emma finds herself in “an exquisite flutter of happiness” but also recognizes that
it was “such happiness, moreover, as she believed must still be greater when the flutter should have passed away” (393). Although Emma loves the joy she feels in this moment, she recognizes that she will be much happier once the “flutter” of emotion has calmed into rational thought, evidencing her preference of thinking over feeling. According to 16Personalities.com, INTJ personalities such as Emma “do feel, and deeply”, but these individuals maintain a steady mental state of processing using logic rather than simply acting according to feeling, just as Emma does when she anticipates fuller satisfaction in the settling of her dancing heart into calm levelheadedness. This is not the expected personality of a matchmaker, especially not one of a Jane Austen novel, making Emma an even more unconventional character.
The final of the four pairs of personality types, as classified by the Myers-Briggs Indicator, addresses how an individual approaches decision making: either a person is judging, desiring to act strategically and logically, or perceiving, preferring to live spontaneously and in the present. Emma is obviously a judging character, as shown by her elaborate planning and reaction to events that do not go according to her expectations. After Mr. Knightley proposes to her, Emma feels that she is living in “the happiest dream”, yet she sets aside her current bliss to plan for the future (393). Rather than immediately marrying her love, she takes time to consider the effect this union would have on her father and home, making sure that every variable is accounted for before she gives Knightley a final answer. The novel states that Emma suffers a “sleepless night… [with] very serious points to consider”, further revealing her inherent need to plan rather than act in the moment (394). In this instance, Emma does exactly what those familiar with the Myers-Briggs Indicator would expect her to do as an INTJ; she approaches romance “the way they [INTJs] do with most situations: they compose a series of calculated actions with a predicted end goal- a healthy long-term relationship” (16personalities.com). Emma’s judging trait is also demonstrated in her social interactions, of which she always seeks to be in control. For example, when she is invited to a party at a lower-class family’s home, she resolves to snub them as she “had made up her mind how to meet this presumption so many weeks before it appeared” (188). Emma, as shown in her determination to reject the invitation, exhibits her tendency to judge rather than perceive, treating her life and especially social interactions as “a giant chess board” of which she desires to “maintain control” (16personalities.com). As she plans her next move in life, Emma reveals herself to possess a judging personality rather than the more relaxed perceiving personality. Therefore, this, combined with her other traits to complete her code as an INTJ, contributes to her overall uniqueness and intricacy as a character.
INTJs, those who are classified as introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging by the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, form the rarest combination of the basic traits identified by modern personality psychology. These individuals are described as difficult to understand or predict because they “live by glaring contradictions” and can simultaneously be “the most starry-eyed idealists and the bitterest of cynics” (16personalities.com). Emma Woodhouse, the title character of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, matches this description perfectly. Her pleasure in solitary reflection, focus on ideal dreams, preference for conscience pondering, and need for settled plans are all basic characteristics of an INTJ personality. Therefore, since Emma can be classified as the rarest and most enigmatic Myers-Briggs combination, it is no wonder that she is hailed as one of the most complex heroines in English literature.
Austen, Jane. Emma. N.p.: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Print.
Cain, Susan. “Manifesto.” The Power of Introverts RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
Sometimes reading postmodern literature is like reading those texts where people just type the first words their iPhone suggests… For instance, compare the authorship of:
1) My iPhone and that of a friend:
2) A revered postmodern author:
Oddly similar…yet only one is deemed worthy of annotations!
Disclaimer: I honestly do have appreciation for postmodern artistry and understand the point this particular is communicating; I simply find the lack of structure discomforting at times. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned if you wish. 😉
Modernist author Joseph Conrad once said that “of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our thoughts… they resemble us in their precious hold on life.” According to Conrad, books not only act as the vessels that preserve the themes of human life, but as mirrors that reflect the variations of those themes found within each individual reader. This reflective relationship between the reader and the piece of literature is essential to the reader’s formation of a response to that particular work and is what keeps literature resonant over the course of the centuries, continuing to intrigue generations of readers. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad purposefully relies on the ability of the reader to fill in gaps in order to establish the overarching theme of the ambiguity of the truth and ultimately ensure the novella’s enduring resonance.
From its first pages, Heart of Darkness leaves room for the reader to make assumptions and interpret events for him or herself. The novella is structured as a frame story, featuring two narrators with distinct voices and views, as demonstrated by the opening scene. The first narrator, who remains unnamed, describes the sun setting on a river port and speculates that this river has “known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled” (Conrad 47). Here he reveals his European perspective, seeing conquests as causes worthy of titles and remembrance. However, the main narrator, Marlow, reflects sarcastically on his time spent in London, saying, “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 51). Although he speaks humorously, Marlow is mocking the Eurocentric belief that white men have the right to invade the lands of those considered uncivilized. By immediately presenting these opposing views, Joseph Conrad creates the opportunity for the reader to decide which narrator, if either, to believe and sets the precedent for the development of a core theme: the ambiguous nature of reality. In Literary Themes for Students: Volume I, Anne Marie Hacht explains that the frame tale structure, with its capacity to present differing accounts and opinions, allows for the reader to generate his or her own interpretation as well because there is no set standard. The inherent unreliability of these narrators serves a similar purpose. For instance, Marlow declares vehemently to his listeners, “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” yet at the end of his tale, he lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s last words were about his love for her when they had actually been vague cries of terror (Conrad 77, 145). This proves him changeable and deluded in his view of self and is exactly what Diane Telger discusses in her essay in Novels for Students. She explains that “by presenting a… narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction.” Thus, by layering the novella as a frame story told by narrators with dubious views on truth, Conrad has rendered it essential for readers to fill in the narration gaps with their own ideas and alludes to the theme of the uncertainty of reality.
The gaps left for the reader to supplement with his or her own ideas are also used throughout the novella to communicate the central theme of the ambiguity of truth. Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the death scene of Kurtz, the powerful agent at the root of Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Before he dies, Kurtz utters the famous line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 139). This line is remembered by all who read Heart of Darkness, yet Conrad offers no obvious explanation as to what it means. Do these dying words indicate a revelation? Are they a cry for forgiveness? Or are they simply the meaningless babble of a lunatic? No definite answer is presented and thus each individual reader is made responsible for deciding their significance. This not only gives readers further opportunity to complement the text with their personal responses, but advances the overarching theme of the ambiguous nature of truth; just as there is not a clear understanding of this line, truth is, according to the evidence in Heart of Darkness, undefined. Therefore, as readers formulate their own interpretations of this exclamation, they create their own truths and the theme of ambiguous reality is made apparent beyond the pages of the novella. In her critique of Heart of Darkness, Jennifer Lipka quotes Joseph Conrad, saying that the only “fundamental truth of fiction” is its enigmatic quality; it serves no purpose and cannot effectively convey its themes if it does not allow for the reader to wonder and develop his or her own opinions. In the same way, the light and dark motif is used as a building block in establishing the larger theme of the indefiniteness of reality. For instance, as the first narrator and Marlow wait for the tide to turn at the beginning of the novella, the setting is described using both light and dark imagery. The rapid fluctuation between descriptions such as “glowing white” and “immensity of unstained light” are immediately contrasted by phrases such as “brooding gloom” (Conrad 46). The reader is presented with two conflicting descriptions of the initial setting and must decide whether to envision it in the light or the darkness and then decide what each of those views might represent. Anne Marie Hacht explains in Literary Themes for Students that the use of light and dark imagery is employed “to convey ever-shifting meanings.” This furthers the central theme of the uncertainty of truth and compels the reader to take a definite stance as the focus of the novella itself flickers abruptly between light and dark, good and evil, clarity and confusion. Both the death scene of Kurtz and the light versus dark motif exhibit the speculative quality of the novella; by requiring the reader to make assumptions based upon his or her own experiences, the reader’s response is rendered vital to expressing the concept of truth as an ambiguous ideal, differing from reader to reader.
Similarly, the response of the individual reader to Heart of Darkness allows for its elements to be examined through different lenses, not only demonstrating the theme of the ambiguity of truth, but offering different ideas as to what this illusive truth could be. For example, the novella never makes it clear whether it is in favor of or satirizing the racist ideals of imperialism. While Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, uses derogatory terms such as “savages” to describe the natives of the Congo, certain passages such as that describing a young agent as “gentlemanly… with a little forked beard and a hooked nose” personify the Europeans as devils, indicating that perhaps he does not view them as superior after all (Conrad 73). The stance on racism, like truth, is kept in obscurity and readers must attempt to provide their own answers. Author Chinua Achebe once criticized Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that does not deserve to be included in the literary canon due to what he considered to be its racist message. However, this is only his view; other critics such as Mark Kinkead-Weekes consider the novella to be “an imaginative counter to European arrogance and blindness about Africa.” Which is the correct answer? That, being an absolute truth, is never revealed by Conrad and the reader must decide based on his or her own knowledge and intuition. The necessity of the reader to supply possible answers to the questions posed by Heart of Darkness is further evidenced by the scene in which Marlow comes across a curious portrait. The painting depicts “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch” on a “somber-almost black” background (Conrad 75). Blindness in literature generally indicates a failure to see truth and this, combined with the recurrence of the light versus dark motif in the torch and the black background, possibly indicates a failure to know truth, but a determination to pursue it despite the surrounding night of ignorance and confusion. Granted, this is merely a speculation, as the novella offers no further explanation of the portrait. However, by providing multifaceted details that pose complex questions rather than presenting the reader with simple concepts and unequivocal answers, Conrad has painted his novella to allow for the representation of numerous viewpoints. This also serves to open the door for healthy controversy between readers with differing ideas and is exactly what Joseph Conrad aimed to do as an author. He once said that his goal was not simply to tell tales, but “to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” Through details such as the portrait of the blind woman and the consistent lack of clear meanings, Conrad encourages his readers to form their own answers to the questions suggested by Heart of Darkness, thus opening their eyes to new ideas that extend beyond what is written in black and white. The truth remains undisclosed and reality undefined, but the reading experience, according to Anne Marie Hacht, is rewarding, for it fosters a new realm of independent thought.
The frame-tale structure, dominant theme of the ambiguity of the truth, and lack of answers to significant questions all indicate that the reader is left responsible for filling in the gaps of Heart of Darkness. Without allowing for the varied responses of the readers, the theme of the ambiguity of truth that is essential to the novella as a whole would fail to be developed. In the same way, Heart of Darkness would be lost in time as a work with a limited era of relevance; without allowing for interpretations to evolve and vary between readers of different times and places, it would have failed to remain resonant into the current generation. When Heart of Darkness was first published, it shocked its Victorian audience, but now it is acclaimed as one of the best English novellas ever written because the views of its readers have changed over time and the impressionistic quality of the novella has allowed for these altered views to be incorporated into new interpretations. As Joseph Conrad said, books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them. Heart of Darkness, with its enduring theme of the ambiguity of truth and reality, is a prime example of this, for without the readers filling in its gaps, it would become like the pitiable Kurtz, hollow at the core with only empty words remaining.
With college application essays and people constantly asking me what I plan to do with my life once I graduate, I have found myself using the word “passion” more and more frequently. I have a passion for music, literature is my passion, I want to get my degree in something I am passionate about. Heavens, just last week I announced to my family that I have a passion for whipped cream as I ate it by the spoonful. This word has slipped into my everyday vocabulary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it isn’t a forbidden four-letterer. However, when I used “passion” to describe my whipped cream addiction, I realized that I had committed a word crime almost as appalling as saying “legit” or “totes,” for I had taken a word with intense meaning and used it to describe a dessert topping.
So what is the actual meaning of this word? We hear it thrown around in so many ways that it is hard to say for sure without investigating its etymology, which is another fun word meaning the history of words. (Not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects and not quite as fun.) The word “passion” was first used in the early Christian church, taken from the Latin “passionem”, meaning “suffering” or “enduring.” The term was used in relation to the suffering of Christ at the cross. Taken by this definition, the “St. Matthew Passion” of Bach, one of my favorite musical works (seriously, I dare you to listen to that male alto and not sob at the beauty), makes much more sense and can be understood as tracing the sufferings and endurance- the Gospel of Christ- according to St. Matthew.
Continuing forward (if anyone is still actually interested…), by the early 13th century, the term had evolved to “patheo” in Latin and soon after “pathos” in Greek. (Starting to look a little more familiar!) The word now extended to refer to the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, following in the footsteps of their Savior. Its meaning too had expanded to included not only suffering, but intense emotion and strong desire. This should not necessarily be understood as romantic desire, as it is commonly viewed today, but the pure desire of the martyrs to live rightly and walk with God. “Passion” or its variations did not come to refer to sensual desire or romantic love until the late 1500s. In fact, the word did not even refer to a “strong enthusiasm or liking” until the early 1600s, making its common definition a recent development.
Okay, if you have stuck through my little etymology sermon, thank you. Now, let’s wrap this up nicely, shall we? I only scratched the surface of the etymology of this particular word, but I think that it is obvious that “passion” was never meant to define my sweet tooth. However, I believe that I have not been wrong in saying that I have a passion for music and a passion for literature. (Excuse my italics; I know many authors are turning in their graves as I type, but I need them!) Why? Because my relationship with music and literature match the definition of this word, regardless of its evolution.
First of all, I suffer for music and literature, not martyrdom by any means, but to some extent, there is a struggle. Paper cuts, sore muscles from playing Chopin, tired nights of rehearsals, the despair of writer’s block. Goodness, I bled one time when practicing a pizzicato section for orchestra! But despite the obstacles – from the pen callus on my middle finger to the violin hickey on my neck- I keep practicing and writing and writing and practicing. Do I suffer for whipped cream? No…
I also have a love for these pursuits and the desire to achieve excellence as both a musician and a writer. This desire guides me as that of the martyrs did. I want to play music to the best of my ability and the Glory of God, so I practice harder; I want to author something thought-provoking and impactful, so I journal and blog for experience. The goals are there, leading me to walk the paths to reach them, further exhibiting my passion as not just emotional, but practical.
Finally, even if passion is taken at its most basic meaning, enthusiasm or liking, I certainly have it. Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I do not shut up once the conversation turns to books or music. Granted, this is mostly because I don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t talk about these subjects. Still, the fact that I ask to smell other people’s copies of Wuthering Heights during AP Literature and obsess over tenor voices in choir indicates my borderline-crazy enthusiasm. Although whipped cream is delicious, I don’t think there is a fandom for it.
So there you are, a brief overview of a topic you didn’t know you needed to know: the etymology of “passion” and an example of when it is appropriate and when it is not. For the sake of the English language (and apparently also Latin and Greek), please know the true meaning of the words you use and save us all from a lot of discountenance. (See what I did there? 😉 )
I was perusing Pinterest this afternoon and came across this nifty picture. Seeing that it included classic books, I stopped my mindless scrolling, looked through it, and nearly shouted aloud.
No!!! No. No. NO. N.O. No.
What was so frustrating about this pin? Well, first of all is the fact that it lists Nicholas Sparks alongside Shakespeare, which is like creating a playlist of music that includes Miley Cyrus and Beethoven; it is not okay. (Nobody wants to be interrupted by “Wrecking Ball” between movements of “Sonata Pathetique”!)
Secondly, many of these books are not love stories! Aside from Nicholas Sparks and several others which I have not read, these books, although they center on romantic relationships, were not written to be advertised as “The Greatest Love Stories of All Time”! Rather, their authors used romantic relationships, usually FAILED romantic relationships at that, to communicate other concepts. I have serious doubts as to whether the creator of this pin read anything beyond the synopsis paragraphs, and if he/she did, I am begging him/her to reread them with a little more mental effort. Please, for the sake of literature nerds everywhere and for the authors who are turning over in their graves as I write. Sure, these novels may appear to be love stories, but…
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Failed loved triangle, lust wins over love, the only true love comes from a dying woman whose husband is nearly unfaithful to her. Also romantic gold.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Anna commits adultery, abandons her husband and child, and ultimately throws herself under a train in a realization of her guilt. Practically flowers and chocolate.
Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare: Two angsty teenagers kill themselves after a forbidden
marriage. I don’t even have a snarky comment. This is tragedy, pure and simple.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby’s love for Daisy is a representation of his desire for acceptance by the “Old Money” of society, so if wealth and envy are synonymous with love, then certainly this is a love story. Who cares if the lovers actually end up together, right?
Okay, so now that I have relieved myself through sarcasm, I will admit that this list is not completely wrong. Some of these books are quite adorable and “loverly.” Jane Eyre had a warm, fuzzy resolution, The Princess Bride is a romantic romp, and I can’t deny that Pride and Prejudice is delightful. (Who doesn’t love Mr. Darcy?) However, I wish that readers would exercise more discernment; a pair (or triangle) of lovers does not imply a romance, just as a death does not mean a tragedy. Books are much more than an “adventure” or “mystery” or, in this case, a “love story” and we have a duty as readers to study the masterpieces of these authors with a mind that can see beyond the surface and ponder the deeper implications of the seemingly straight-forward plots.
Granted, even if it isn’t a love story, I’d venture to say that it’s still a better love story than Twilight.
Apologies if you liked Twilight. I haven’t read it, but it was such a fitting end to this post! 😉