On Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’

This is a plain, free-write response to reading Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’. It was written in my journal on the 4th of January of 2006, and I do not claim it to be superior writing, but rather personal. Please follow the link if you would like to read O’Connor’s piece for yourself – it’s way worth it!

I absolutely loved this piece. It really spoke to me personally, and she voiced (so well) so many of the things I have either always found myself thinking or have learned through writing during my life. I have always written, and it is interesting to see the maturation process of my writing reflected by others as underdeveloped notions of what writing is. I loved her description of the many ‘mongrel’ things we come up with when our notion of story is lacking or lame somehow. I don’t think that is my perpetual state any longer, however it is easy to slip into – it takes a great deal of energy to pull myself out of it. Hehe… technique as a rigid formula… that ALWAYS amused me, as if there were a little magic answer that would right all your wrongs, a function that would simply press everything into shape! (67)

Her point that the world of the writer is full of matter is one which has been impressing itself upon me for some time. “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling with emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” (70)

I loved Madame Bovary – the part of it that I have read, it’s not finished yet 🙂 (part of a survey) but I had a problem with my initial picture of Flaubert… I think he said that he thought the pinnacle of art was to depict the tragic and the horrific, but I don’t think so at all – he says that beautiful things are the easiest to write, but I so DISAGREE!!! The beautiful is just as complex, intricate, deep, tricky, and difficult to convey as the tragic, just slightly more rarely experienced fully (and if one does not fully, consciously experience it, one cannot gift another with and awareness of it!).

I particularly noticed O’Connor’s description of those “reformers” who “want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion”, who are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.” (68) The sad spectacle she writes about – the keenly sensitive author who is simply a bore because he is unwilling to get dusty, use humble tools, is great.

I remember when I distained to use dust. When imagery, getting my work to be tangible and real in any but an emotional and moral way to my readers – I wanted my readers to be seduced by a kind of pure beauty (as if I could really portray that), or by the intense misery to be moved to compassion or sympathy. I was so far from my goal (being an effective writer), and I really didn’t know. OK, wait, I did know, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t totally get that I was holding on to what sank me… list slippers. hehehe… 🙂 genius.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough


Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties…

rilkepix          I will try at some juncture to say my own bit here, but for now let me say that this is one of the most inspiring quotes about relationship that I have ever come across and I highly recommend this work. There are chapters and chapters of these brilliant and soulful observations in the book, which is ridiculously worth reading (as are most Rilke writings…)

         “…They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and *forever* (as they say). That is only the last error in a chain of errings linked fast to one another. What is dead cannot even be clung to (for it crumbles and changes its character); how much less can what is living and alive be treated definitively, once and for all. 49456Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another. People between whom nothing is accustomed, nothing that has already been present before ever takes place, but many new, unexpected, unprecedented things. There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can only occur between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can united only two wide, deep, individual worlds. –Young people–it is obvious– cannot achieve such a relationship, but they can, if they understand their life properly, grow up to such happiness and prepare themselves for it. They must not forget, when they love, that they are beginners, bunglers of life, apprentices in love, –must *learn* love, and that (like *all* learning) wants peace, patience, and composure! 
RilkebookTo take love seriously and to bear and learn it like a task, this it is that young people need. — Like so much else, people have so misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work. So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something! For believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.’ “

Find more on Rilke and links here and here.

Memo # 8 ~ Deep River (Shusako Endo)

“…And death itself began working backwards…”

A tree grows up into the light, oxygen-laden air from out of the dark, decaying remains of its parent. Forest fires are part of the cycle of a healthy forest. Ever noticed that serving someone makes your heart more glad than being served. In my own experience, dying to myself brings new vigour and life to my soul. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’ve also heard that people who have a near-death experience are filled with inexplicable thirst for life and growth and change ever-afterward.The death of a relationship can signal, for both people, the beginning of more genuine life than either has ever experienced before. The death of innocence can be the resuscitation of a truly child-like heart. Oddly, embracing the death in yourself and making mud to smear on its eyes can signal the birth of vision and the beginning of authenticity. It would seem that the dark, wormy soil in which we think to bury our dead is the self-same ground which produces sunflowers bigger than my head and pumpkins larger than I can hold, trees we can’t see the tops of and countless colorful foods full of nutrients to nourish growing bodies.

There’s no denying the tightly interwoven nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in reality. Not even just interwoven, but overlapping and constantly transformed. Teleologically, the yin and yang are not linear, but Whole, like the holy will of God. In the end, Life comes from out of Death, connection from out of solitude, and love from our recognition of sin, because Death, solitude, and sin cause us to recognize our lack of control and reach out for our Source in the unknown: to grasp Beginner’s Mind.

“They laid the stretcher near the riverbank… First a swarm of flies, smelling death, gathered round, followed soon by a flock of crows which began pacing nearby. But the mourners remained crouched by the river, and made no move to drive the scavangers away.” (144)

I am bird-boned; body twisted with suffering, hanging from a perch from which I cannot descend. I suffer.

And yet I live.

Somehow I cannot help but allow death to do its work in me.

And so I live.

I have wondered, often, about the river of life. Are its waters the unfettered flow of blood and tears within its banks?

c. all text Mary Kathryn Gough, 2005

Thoughts on Paul Farmer and A Vine of Neighbors…

Love your neighbor as yourself, the Scriptures say. John talked about it in lecture the other day. The good Samaritan, like Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains, was a man of action. He was busy, but he failed to erase the bond he felt with the man so he could move on. He was twisted with pain inside for the man, and instead of erasing the man from his world, he moved actively to improve this singular, personal instance of pain he had been made witness to. The good Samaritan made himself a neighbor to the injured man. Jesus’ command in this instance is not to be looking out for people who might merit your attentions in some way, but to be continually becoming a neighbor to those in one’s path.


There’s no telling how much of the good that occurrs in the world happens in just this way — Farmer’s care for the poor happened as he made himself the neighbor of those in his path. He didn’t start out with a master plan to save the world, or even to save all the TB patients in the world. His thought was never even bent for long on the theoretical task of healing all

of Haiti. He focused on individuals. The people who came to the clinic. Particular tasks he found to do which led the way to others. He refused to be sloppy with anything he did. And he refused to lose individuals in a big picture. That’s O for the P for you. They just added up to be almost more than he could handle. Once, I remember, he is irritated at how dificult things are for him and for PIH, and he says that’s it’s just because other people aren’t doing their jobs– which is entirely true. If you spend a little bit of time on that statement, it will stick with you. Other people aren’t doing their jobs.

Ologies fascinate me. They always have. They also drive me to work at defining myself apart from them. When I was young, I often found my parents’ ologies to be mind-bogglingly confining, narrow, and dark. I wanted to open them up to the sky, needed a breath of fresh air, couldn’t understand why the honey of the holy scripture was not sweet and freeing to them as it was to me. I closed my eyes with glory on my tongue at night for years, remembering Ezekiel eating the scroll God gave him of mourning, lament, and woe, and how the words tasted sweet as honey in his mouth. God was gifting Himself to us in His words, I felt, and if we could submit to Him, and Him only, the Holy Spirit would lead us through the necessary hermeneutics and keep us on the narrow path and we would be free to live with as much force of being on that path as we desired, spurred on by His Love. There was something I didn’t see in my parents’ ologies and in my church’s ology, something that would have allowed for a more whole-hearted grasping of God’s word. Something that would have allowed for a more whole-hearted acceptance of the people God claimed– and loved– while they were yet sinners. I saw blockages in love, everywhere. Blockages in the giving– or perhaps simply the transmission?– of Life.

Tracy Kidder notes that Paul Farmer “distrusted all ideologies, including his own, at least a little: “It’s an ology, after all,” he had written to me once about liberation theology. “And all ologies fail us at some point”” (195). What is it that makes our ologies so inescapably inhuman(e)? Like cold, confining skyscrapers gathering dirt and dust instead of like green, growing things full of abundant new life? Jesus said “I am the Vine.”

I identify with his distrust strongly. I’ve always been driven to redefine what I believe and to differentiate it from the mass opinion of the day somehow in the end. I find I enjoy where I agree with people very much and tend to focus on those areas with them, unless they invite a conversation deeper into my search for better articulation of my own relationship with God. Which is not a common occurrence. Even then I am slightly wary, however, and I sometimes find myself wishing I could ask them to take off their shoes.

We’re all cowards in one way and another, trying to justify ourselves in the face of a life filled with remarkable accomplishments. We, like the lawyer in the parable, stand up to test a living soul, seeking to find a way out for our restive consciences, a salve that will soothe our guilt. An opium answer, that we may sink back into comfort and complacency– and pay in misery. In so doing, we step into the shoes of the Death-dealer.

And, as Kidder says, “Among a coward’s weapons, cynicism is the nastiest of all” (209).

.But we are all part of the living vine, and we all have unique tasks. But what we all have in common with Farmer and PIH is that our jobs are, in essence, removing every blockage we can to the transmission of Life. How to love? Perhaps that is the question. Is it as simple as Farmer’s recipe of caring for and healing the poor and sick and disadvantaged? Is it allowing ourselves to be moved? Like Jesus was moved by each one he came across?

I keep coming back again and again to the fact that Faith acts.

And faith that does not is dead.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough (huffman, maiden), 9/30/05

Oedipus the King

Mary Kathryn Huffman (married: Gough) / Classical Mythology (231) / Fall ’02 / Professor Winkle

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King is a masterful work in which Sophocles depicts a man, well-known in Greek myth, who plows through lies and half-truths to find out the truth about a murder – and worst possible truth about himself and his life. The infamous Oedipus (as in the complex) has become King, and, with the best of intentions, has unwittingly committed two of the most heinous crimes known to the Greek world at the time: murder and incest. The victims? His own father and mother. This fate was prophesied him at birth by the Lord Apollo. Oedipus was always fiery, stubborn, and unwise, foolishly assuming that he could save his parents and avoid fate through sheer willpower. All his life he allowed his temper to rage unchecked, almost as if he thought he could lash out at the prophesy he was born to and see it crumble to the ground like ash. As King, Oedipus has as fierce a temper as he had before he was crowned. Though Oedipus loves truly, he is also blinded by self-centeredness and a rather high opinion of himself (probably acquired on his long and difficult flight from destiny). It is worth wondering, looking at this man, whether his irascibility will work to protect or undo him in the end.

The setting of the play is this:

During hard times in his reign, a prophesy from the god Apollo sets Oedipus the task of searching out a murderer living in the land in order to cleanse it and make it fruitful again. The man murdered was Laius, the people’s former king and Oedipus’ wife’s former husband. Oedipus is adamant that the murderer be found and brought to justice. “I am the land’s avenger by all rights,” he says with a fierce determination, “and Apollo’s champion too. But not to assist some distant kinsman, no, for my own sake I’ll rid us of this corruption… by avenging Laius I defend myself” (p167). He sets about finding the people who can give him the answers he means to have. Firstly, the old prophet Tiresias is brought to him. When Tiresias refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows of the murderer, Oedipus rages at him:

“Nothing! You,

you scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone!

You won’t talk? Nothing moves you?

Out with it, once and for all!


You criticize my temper. . . unaware

of the one you live with, you revile me.


Who could restrain his anger hearing you?

What outrage – you spurn the city!


What will come will come.

Even if I shroud it all in silence.

. . . Do as you like, build your anger

to whatever pitch you please, rage your worst –


Oh I’ll let loose, I have such fury in me –

now I see it all. You helped hatch the plot,

you did the work, yes, short of killing him

with your own hands –“ (p.178)

And yet when Oedipus finally finds out that the man he cursed so hastily before all of Thebes is none other than himself, he still cannot give up his self-centeredness and burning anger.

The well-known catastrophic events play out around him: his wife and mother’s death, the people’s response, his children’s sobs, and his own bitter agony as he gouges out his eyes with broach pins (a blindness fitting, he seems to think, of his previous metaphorical blindness). After performing this act he grieves as the chorus looks on, saying

“The blackest things a man can do, I have done them all!

No more –

it’s wrong to name what’s wrong to do. Quickly,

for the love of god, hide me somewhere,

kill me, hurl me into the sea

where you can never look on me again.


it’s all right. Touch the man of grief.

Do. Don’t be afraid. My troubles are mine

and I am the only man alive who can sustain them” (p 244).

He seems to find it impossible to think of anyone but himself, even in his apparent brokenness. “What grief can crown this grief?” he asks, speaking of his ‘wretched life’, “It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!” (p 242). But he makes it clear that he has not truly broken down or given up; he is still in perfect control of himself, proclaiming that he was the one who blinded himself this time – that it was his own will which willed it, not that of a god.

Now that the awful deeds are done and unveiled, Oedipus’ fiery ragings have burned down to a hugely self-important grief and an intense, yet passive hatred for the gods who destined him for such unbelievable pain. Defiant as ever in the aftermath, he puts on airs and commands as if he had not yet quite given up the power he had lost or the crucial role he had always thought he had. But when Creon brings Oedipus his daughters he begins to mourn over their futures, saying they will almost certainly never find husbands to take care of them – all because of him. His tears are so buried in his own bitterness that he can do no more than wish protection for them in place of the life he should have been able to give them. However, it is my opinion that it is Oedipus’ daughters who begin the humble grieving he really needs to do. Kneeling beside them on the cold stone floor, he is lost in a dark, foggy emptiness filled with their sobs, only able to feel their little heads pressed against his chest, child’s hands clutching his beard – it is in this moment he is suddenly aware of how small and powerless he really is. And also, perhaps, that life isn’t lived by fighting. “Pity them,” he pleads, “Look at them, so young, so vulnerable,

shorn of everything – you’re their only hope.

Promise me, noble Creon, touch my hand! (reaching toward Creon, who draws back.)

You, little ones, if you were old enough

to understand, there is much I’d tell you.

Now, as it is, I’d have you say a prayer.

Pray for life, my children,

live where you are free to grow and season.

Pray god you find a better life than mine,

the father who begot you” (p 249).

But Creon interrupts him before he really has a chance to create his own closure to leaving. Laid bare in the realization of his smallness and his foolishness, Oedipus is suddenly wrenched from the only warm and living bodies left to him as family, from the home he has known so long, and deprived of even the shred of the dignity he ought to be allowed as a human being, it is not surprising that he finally resorts to childish stubbornness, ‘clutching his daughters’ and crying “No – don’t take them away from me, not now! No, no, no!” (p 250).

He is rewarded with the following insult:

Still the king, the master of all things?

No more: here your power ends.

None of your power follows you through life” (p 250).

Often seen in light of the philosophical questions of destiny and the limits of human will, motive, and power, the human elements of this story can be easily overlooked or misread. It seems to me that it is not Oedipus’ temper that undoes him: it’s his inward-looking eyes. All he can see is himself and the huge importance of this terrible prophesy for his life. Perhaps he does really know Love (his daughters, for example), but it is through a veil which blinds him – especially in his fury – as surely as he is blind upon exiting the stage for the final time. Fundamentally it is his particular idea of his own importance which allows him to ignore everything else important which could have given him the sight to avoid disaster. But in any case, it is true that the anger is the tool, if not the source, of his undoing. However I believe that at the very end of the play, in the last page of script, Oedipus is finally humbled such that he can look outside himself – put himself in others’ shoes – and live a good life. Blind as he has made himself, this time when he truly begins to grieve is the first time in his life when his vision has been unclouded by the rage the prophesy intensified and permanently installed in his way of living. The tears shed quench the bonfire of his heart and all that is left are ashes. But before the Phoenix can rise. . . Personal shaming from a relative. And exile. He is given no chance, now. He has learned, but he is thoroughly defeated by his own brother-in-law. Of heroism and durability one sees little here. But of Grace? Nothing.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough

Literature’s Unifying Force

Mary Kathryn Gough
11/11/05 Project #2

The Unifying Force of Kafka’s Literature:

Drawing a Dual-Hearted World Together in Unity of Spirit

“Could not then art and literature in a very real way

offer succor to the modern world?”


Of all malicious lies, the most sprawling and successful is the one which whispers softly, compellingly, under everything that happens to us: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” This lie is detrimental to our created beings. It blows fate full of hot air, making it huge and menacing, and weaving other people and circumstances into a gigantic web meant to isolate us, undermine and invalidate us, and finally bring us down, hobbled by our own belief. It blinds us to the Truth: that our tools are organically part of us, and that our effect, or force in the world — each of us — is immense.

One witness to this truth, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is world literature, which has the effect of unifying us in sympathy of spirit across borders of nationality, distance, and disinterest. Franz Kafka’s work makes a good study in the significance of literature in Solzhenitsyn’s sense. At the same time, his life allows a look at the question of whether the value of a writer’s work is affected by the way they live out their personal lives. In Prague, Kafka’s writing has been seen as defining the city, the country, and the times – despite the fact that he wasn’t an overtly political writer, writing exclusively of familial ties and psychological trauma. The identity crises he depicts serve as an arena in which anyone can identify with the experience of Kafka’s country as it was abused by the father-figure of an oppressive regime. And yet in failing to write his way out from under the immense burden of his life, Franz Kafka appears to have delivered himself into the hands of a craftily looming lie – but how, if at all, might that fact affect the force of his contribution to world literature?

A world with two hearts…

The Largest Lie’s best tactic in convincing us of our impotence is to confuse knowledge with causal power. If we do not know what the overarching logical structure looks like, its ominous whisperings say, and if we are really so small as we (truly) are, then we cannot logically engage in the structure and therefore possess no leverage. Thus, our effect in the world is all for naught; our existential force is negated. This lie takes hold of every situation, driving home to us the simple fact that we are not in control. And if we cannot create our own greater logical structure within which to posit our own significance, then our every action must be lost to us and to everyone else. Meaningless. The complex and tragic truth, however, is that neither the deceived nor the more clear-sighted can escape making their immutable mark on the world. We do make difference. And yet the greatest potence of our being lies in sympathetic unity.

Upon his 1970 receipt of the Nobel prize, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of the many visions of the world being so painfully diverse that, in order “to prevent discomfort, we dismiss all alien [ones] out of hand… confidently judg[ing] the whole world according to our own homegrown scale” (ASCEaDM, 563). He explains that it is because of this tendency to build our life’s vision solely from the basis of our own experience that our world, though “physically compressed,” is “restrained from merging spiritually [as] molecules of knowledge and sympathy are prevented from leaping from one half to the other” (ASCEaDM, 570,emph. add).

Solzhenitsyn saw a “torpid inability to understand someone else’s grief” afflicting the entire world, and stated that when “given six, four or even two scales of values there cannot be a unified world, a united humanity. We shall be torn apart by this difference in rhythm, the divergence in frequency of oscillation. We could not manage to survive on one Earth, just as a man with two hearts is not long for this world” (ASCEaDM, 565).

A man with two hearts. Is this our problem? Not a multiplicity of logics and systems but a multiplicity of hearts, of deceived and isolated world-ego realms? The question and the solution then become ones Solzhenitsyn himself expresses clearly for us, asking who it is with the capability of

…impress[ing] upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature (ASCEaDM, 565, emph add).

If this is true, then when we look at the writer of literature (in this case Franz Kafka) we ought to be able to trace the unifying force of his work.

Kafka’s Inner Impetus

Beyond literature’s societal impact, what can we make of the personal reasons that drive an artist to express and re-member the meaning in past events? Vaclav Havel defines art as “a distinctive way of seeking truth — … that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience,” and based on that definition there is “only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth” (LIT, 131). It would seem that authors anywhere in the world who allow those qualities to permeate their works, are either nourished and transformed by their task, or are crushed by the burden it becomes. Take Franz Kafka, native of Havel’s Prague.

Kafka’s life (1883-1924) was largely defined by the Largest Lie– that he was helpless and without impact in the world. He spent his entire life writing about vanquished sonship in a vain and unrecognized fight with his father. All his works “depict the impossibility of becoming an adult,” which was by far the most overarching feature of his life, never changing to the very end (TS, xiii). According to Mark Anderson, Kafka’s literary identity rested on his identity as a son, an identity he never surpassed. When he finally tore himself away from home to live with the woman he wanted to marry, he was forbidden to do so, and within one year had died of tuberculosis (TS, xx). Even in death Kafka is buried as a son: beneath the family tombstone, his name carved directly above his father’s (TS, xx). A single glance at his life raises innumerable questions: is it fair to see Kafka as a vanquished son? Was he too self-absorbed in his writing? Did his trapped, fatalistic lack of vision keep his writing from achieving for Czechoslovakia what, say Dostoevsky’s writing achieved for oppressed Russia? Does the fact that he never broke out of his caged child’s life make a difference to the value of his contribution to world literature?

Kafka’s writing was, perhaps, his one source of self-esteem — in his letters to his first fiance, Felice, he describe his stories as his children, his progeny (TS, xv). He also admits to her that he never would have asked for her hand in marriage if he had not had The Sons published, as if he “needed the social legitimation that only a published work could confer” (TS, xv). It is easy to see that his position as ‘father’ of these ‘lads’ (his stories) gives him a basis for a powerful identity he doesn’t have elsewhere in life. In the opinion of Mark Anderson, it is “in writing down their stories of suicide, grotesque metamorphosis, and banishment to America, [that] Kafka rises above their fate, can control it with the sovereign hand of the author, can dispose of their lives like an almighty father” (TS, xiv). Solzhenitsyn describes this type of authorship as that of an artist who “imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world,” taking “total responsibility for it. But [who] collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as…, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system” (ASCEaDM, 558). Kafka’s method of (bitterly small) triumph led to his being remade in the image of the Patriarch he so despised, and thus his writing couldn’t serve its intended function of giving him free identity.

After “The Judgement,” writing became for Kafka “increasingly… a means of doing battle with his father, and patriarchal authority in general” (TS, xvi). One commentator notes something Kafka wrote “in reference to ‘The Judgement,’ [which] reads: ‘Thoughts about Freud, naturally'” (TS, viii). In fact, he combatively dedicated one work to Hermann Kafka — though his father never cracked the book open to see why, only ordering that it be placed on his bedside table. The luminous clash in the bedroom scene of “The Judgement” is not something one simply imagines, no matter how great a writer one is. It is a symbolic set up, staged precisely in order to express Kafka’s inner experience of his father’s involvement in — and destruction of — his life. The similarly codependent nature of Franz’s tie to his family and Georg’s to his are striking. Franz’s father wanted him to become a man, but would also turn on his every success and opportunity and cut him down to size. In just the same way, Georg’s aging father leaned on him and could barely make it to the bed, so tired and unable to care for himself did he seem. And then, suddenly, turning on his son in a luminous and clear-headed outburst, the father rises from the bed, belittling Georg, castigating him for remaining a child, and betraying his son by revealing that he’s been surreptitiously ruining the boy’s reputation. Rather than bestowing the traditional paternal blessing to go out into the world and wield the influence given him as wisely as he knows how, Georg’s father cuts his son’s legs out from under him, leaving him cowering in a corner of the bedroom in shell-shocked awe: a child again. Finally, Georg’s father ends his tirade by saying, “So now you know there is more in the world than just you. Till now you’ve known only about yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more you have been a devilish human being! — And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!” (TS, 15). Georg immediately flees from his father, his ears ringing, and jumps off a bridge, proclaiming his undying love for his family.

Just when the almost-man could have crossed over into adulthood, recognizing the world beyond himself — his father plays at cruel, Judgemental God-hood instead of granting a blessing to his autonomy. Oddly, this seems to be Kafka’s own tactic with his ‘sons’– to play celestial ‘house’ in his works with an Almighty overbearing Judgement that leaves the boys mute, optionless, and submissive unto death… Is Kafka cornered into this tactic only because he knows nothing else? And were his eyes never opened to the presence of another option? The potential, perhaps, for empowering his readers with the blessing of forward-facing vision?

Kafka: Joining Two Hearts

Franz Kafka may have defined his times by giving expression to the life-long repression and imprisonment imposed upon him by both his illness and his family, but even more than the writing itself, his own relationship with his writing seems to ring with the tyrannical tones of those times, reflecting society and unable to look beyond it. Was he able to seek truth in the way Havel describes, despite the unfortunate circumstances which limit his search to an inner experience of lonely self-exile? Is there courage in Kafka’s writing? Power? Is he transformed and nourished? Did he overcome, or succumb to the whisperings of the Largest of all Lies?

Maybe we cannot know whether he was nourished or transformed by the act of writing. But I think it’s safe to say that there is courage shown in the truths and insights painted by Kafka’s candid explorations of his own psychological experience of life. And there is no denying the urgency – or the profound, universal relevance – of his art, political or no. Kafka’s ability to portray psychic crises in a way that exactly parallels political ones without being an overtly political writer is notable (TAoL, 163). His writing was felt by many as a cry against the oppressive systems that ruled both public and private life so strictly in his country. The ‘sons’ he portrays — stripped of their options and their freedom to live as they choose, blocked and manipulated at every turn, suffering in submission and suffering also in their small liberties — are inexplicably symbolic of an oppressed people unable to mature and step into adulthood, freedom, and self knowledge. Kafka’s work is seen by later writers as being definitive of the capital city itself, and it has been said that “if ever a writer almost unintentionally imprinted a fiction onto a geography and a history, it was Kafka in Prague” (TAoL, 164). In 1924 however, when he was dying, Kafka asked a friend to destroy his writing, perhaps because in the interim between the world wars, his country seemed to have achieved an independent democratic identity, and he was impressed with the truth that all is not as hopeless as it seems and battles can be won (TAoL, 164).

The Lie. It whispers to us softly, compellingly, weaving its tall-tale through every one of life’s occurrences: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” Even if Kafka did submit to this untruth, can we honestly say that this devalues the force, or effect, of his work? Solzhenitsyn, I think, has an answer for this as well. He says that we “confidently deem ourselves [art’s] masters” and often “adapt it toward transient political or limited social needs”— and yet, he says, art always “remains undefiled by our endeavors…: each time and in every usage it bestows upon us a portion of its mysterious inner light” (ASCEaDM, 558). Our inability to fully see the overarching structure doesn’t in any way indicate our entrance into it going unnoticed.

The fact that Kafka himself tried to destroy his work is very interesting. Perhaps when his own country proved an exception to his intense fatalism he realized his mistake. Perhaps then he saw his lack of vision uncovered: rather than breathing spirit into people, like a Czech Dostoevsky might have done, Kafka’s stories wrapped anguished life in a shroud of death. Like obituaries, his stories document the internal landscape of abused people with no hope. But then, perhaps the act of documentation itself was his brave testament to the truth he saw: it is deeply honest to his inner experience, and it is also undeniably one of only a few doors we have by which to enter the hearts of Kafka’s people.

Kafka may have succumbed and been vanquished by the lie; a brief study of his life is rather discouraging in this respect. However the consequent value of his contribution to world literature does not change in the slightest; art remains undefiled, and its mysterious inner light works upon us, no less potent for Kafka’s personal failings. His portraits of the anguished oppressed can still make us cry, binding us to a people we otherwise would not know how to feel for, opening up blocked information pathways and setting them racing with sympathy, unifying our hearts as the human race: together.


Havel, Vaclav.“Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LtDGH)

Havel, Vaclav.“Six Asides About Culture.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LIT)

Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Summer Meditations. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. (SM)

Bradbury, Malcom, ed. The Atlas of Literature. New York. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 1998. (TAoL)

Kafka, Franz. The Sons. New York. Schocken Books Inc. 1989. (TS)

Dunlop, John B., et. al. ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975. (ASCEaDM)

Jane Eyre

this might need a wee bit of editing, but here is the main for the moment.

A Historical Reading of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s crisp and hauntingly heartful Jane Eyre, when read with an eye towards its historical perspective, is remarkably informative of the age in which its heroine lived. Jane is admittedly in a unique and, presumably, extremely uncommon situation in the novel. However it is very likely that the world she lives in, takes joy in, observes with such an animated mind, such sound judgement and such a keen eye, is a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteeth century. One of the things that stands out the most historically to the eye of this student situated in London is simply the detailed surroundings of the story. Like watercolors painted with a dreamy, deep vision, they tug at the heart while at the same time remaining utterly true to the English landscape. Another notable feature of the book, following on this, is how clearly Gothic and Romantic notions are brought out in it as a whole. It is quite often that one finds oneself in the midst of a scene in which the influence and symbolism of nature dwarfs materialistic reality. This is the mechanism Bronte uses in order to make her point that equality is an inward thing, though it has outward manifestations and trappings. Thus, the third most vivid feature of the novel would be its pervasive theme of station, class, gender, and age, each of which their relation to the customs, freedoms, and notions of beauty, of the age. It is in this setting that Bronte unfolds her ingeniously lovely and disarmingly simple heroine, displaying the many subtle ways in which young Jane Eyre breaks her given mold — especially centered in relating to Mr. Rochester.

Two passages stand out as beautifully faithful to the kind of greenery in the English countryside and the scattered wildlife being composed of various birds — such an integral part of their surroundings somehow. These passages as well seem to reflect Jane’s inner state of being in a mysteriously whole way, spreading her soul out upon the earth for all to see in the fruit of British soil. When she had been at Thornfield (What a name, that! Even it is revealing.) for some time and had given in to her need for a good walk one winter evening — the same evening she met Rochester for the first time on the road — she described her surroundings by saying with quiet satisfaction that

the ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely. . . the church bell tolled as I passed under the belfry: the charm of the hour lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun. I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws; but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorne and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed in the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop (105-6).

I have seen this here — these are the plants and birds I have seen in bus rides and class trips to Oxford for example. The wildlife being so predominantly composed of various birds seems true to me, and the fields on each side, far and wide, and the lack of cattle in the winter, and the hardy plants and bits of color that make their simple presence known among the leafless skeletons of lush summer. The feel, I think, is entirely in keeping with England’s countryside — and so descriptive! Bronte’s command of language is such that it plays over one’s mind like carefully orchestrated moving water, gently brushing, pulling, pushing, sweeping with a liquidity one might almost fail to notice if one weren’t so affected by it.

At the beginning of chapter twenty-three Jane is again describing herself in a sense: glowingly contented. This is evidenced by the happy and hopeful state of her relationship with Mr. Rochester at the conclusion of the previous chapter. She begins the next by observing that

a splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour, even singly, our wave-girt land. It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion. The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between (233).

Because this outer world reflects her inner one, we see Jane’s life is ripe for something — is on the brink of something rich and fulfilling. And yet at the same time we see England again, and we know that this clear-eyed beauty of sky is not typical of the weather here, that the sunny views are unusual. This treat to Jane’s heart tells us something of Britain’s atmosphere and seasons.

One character in particular shows off the novel’s Gothic theme, and that is Thornfield’s mysterious Grace Poole and her eerie, horrible laughter. She lives alone in the highest floor of the large house, often takes her meals alone, and is the seeming perpetrator of violent acts which are hushed to secrecy. The Gothic-Romantic image is also portrayed through Jane’s watercolors. The symbolism in the midnight storm that whips up when Rochester decides to marry Jane, and in the horse-chestnut tree itself being struck by lightning, are such images as well — foreboding, charred: ignored warnings of catastrophe (240-241). Even Mr. Rochester’s reference to Jane as an elf or a sprite or some magical being sprung up out of the grass with mystical powers fits this theme well.

The idea of Jane’s internal life being reflected in her exterior life leads to an extremely Romantic world in which nature becomes a guiding force — a mirror, yes, but also a guide. She speaks of the garden outside Thornfield the night Mr. Rochester wrung out her confession of love, saying that there was

No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers… a winding walk, bordered with laurels and terminating in a giant horse-chestnut . . . Here one could wander unseen. While such honeydew fell, such silence reigned, such gloaming gathered, I felt as if I could haunt such shade for ever. . .”(234).

The Eden reference is phenomenally idealistic, as is the winding walk, and the honeydew and silence hold the unmistakable scent of Romantic poetry, having direct access to her inner being. Nature, as a separate entity in which Jane is cleansed and guided, is lifted up and revered in such a way that Her acts become prophetic of wholeness, vision, and wisdom. The moon is representative of this force, which puts one in mind of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, who wrote a poem called “To the Moon; Composed by the Sea…” in which he addresses the moon thus:

WANDERER! that stoop’st so low, and com’st so near

To human life’s unsettled atmosphere; . . .

Yes, lovely Moon! if thou so mildly bright 40

Dost rouse, yet surely in thy own despite,

To fiercer mood the phrenzy-stricken brain,

Let me a compensating faith maintain;

That there’s a sensitive, a tender, part

Which thou canst touch in every human heart,

For healing and composure.–But, as least

And mightiest billows ever have confessed

Thy domination; as the whole vast Sea

Feels through her lowest depths thy sovereignty;

So shines that countenance with especial grace 50

On them who urge the keel her ‘plains’ to trace

Furrowing its way right onward. The most rude,

Cut off from home and country, may have stood–

Even till long gazing hath bedimmed his eye,

Or the mute rapture ended in a sigh–

Touched by accordance of thy placid cheer,

With some internal lights to memory dear,

Or fancies stealing forth to soothe the breast

Tired with its daily share of earth’s unrest,–

Gentle awakenings, visitations meek; 60

A kindly influence whereof few will speak,

Though it can wet with tears the hardiest cheek. (http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww864.html)

The moon is a recurring presence throughout Bronte’s novel — Jane even speaks to it! At other times she gazes at it, it seems to watch over her, she is woken by it, or she feels the loss of it keenly. She appears to follow it’s direction in her life in a unique way. This is an especially Romantic feature of the book, and thus a historical style marker revealing of society’s sensitivities and assumptions.

Station, class, gender, and age are also pervasive themes in Jane Eyre. Jane’s “Quakerish” notions of propriety, proper dress, modesty, making sure she fits her station in both appearance and action are indicative of the strict social hierarchy upon which it was rare to see an individual rise in status. Upon arrival at Thornfield as the new governess, Jane meets Mrs. Fairfax and is attended to by her so kindly and thoughtfully that she is startled, as she had assumed Mrs. Fairfax to be far above her in status. When she discovers that the woman who tended to her was not in any way above her but was rather her equal as the housekeeper, Jane is quite pleased and relieved. Jane attempts to keep her place at Thornfield for a very long long time, even after preferential treatment by Mr. Rochester and the waiving of conventional rules of conversation in order that he might enjoy some pleasure in conversing with someone who suits him in mind and spirit. They become friends and more, without mention of the change in attitude made, and Jane tries hard not to betray her feelings because of her station. The scene where she draws Miss Ingram’s face and then her own in stark contrast to one another is very revealing. Her own face is as plain and true-to-life in the mirror as she can, done in materials less attractive themselves, and Miss Ingram’s face is the picture of beauty in the day, done in the finest materials Jane can lay hands on. She tells herself severely that Miss Ingram is far more fitting for Mr. Rochester despite their lack of love because of the societal conventions and forms which make the match advantageous and because of Miss Ingram’s beauty.

Women and men are markedly different in the novel, holding different powers completely to one another. The men have a traditional place of power in that they have property and money and they travel and they woo the women and give them gifts. The women — even the non-traditional Jane cannot fully escape this — are objects of desire and possessions to be taken care of. They are powerful in the internal world and add to the men on that level, as well as showcasing his abilities by displaying themselves as his capture in an odd sort of way. The reader can observe this phenomenon play itself out over and over again in different ways at the party at Thornfield in chapters twenty-seven and twenty-eight. Jane, though recognized by Mr. Rochester initially as an equal in the internal sphere, has trouble with the outer one because both riches and age are denied her — although she really does not even wish to conform to the dictates of this outer world. She is quite content with her modest, youthful self. And she is eventually (after much trial and error) accepted by Mr. Rochester for who she is because of the way she stands true to herself in this matter.

Three things stood out to me as I read Jane Eyre with an eye out for insights into the historical details of life during these times. One was the English countryside, described in such beautiful and striking detail that it seems almost as if the sequence of words on the page create a landscape of the texture of Britain. Another was the romantic and gothic notions woven throughout the telling of the story, the symbolism inherent in an almost conscious Nature which guides the impressionable Jane down the path of her life with sure foot and tongue. And lastly, the hierarchical set up of the society of the day apparently depended much on station, class, gender, and age such that we see our Jane at a real disadvantage in all possible respects — and yet she continues to have respect for herself and to walk as straight as she can according to what her conscience tells her. Young Jane Eyre breaks the mold given her by society — most boldly in her relations with Mr. Rochester. Admittedly, she is in a unique position — probably quite an unusual one. But that her observations and surroundings are more than likely a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteenth century. Her joys, struggles, animated mind, sound judgement, and keen soul are a wonderful portal through which to glimpse the times.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough, March 24, ’06, During a Semester in Britain