Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Big Books 2006 Web Papers Forum

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

Go to last comment

Name: Mike Johns
Date: 2006-03-15 08:56:34
Link to this Comment: 18532


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Mike Johnson wrote:

> Here is an update as to where we are so far. I am also setting up sendmail so that mail will work on this host.
> Ann Dixon wrote:
>> Atttempt at prioritizing Serendip's problems that need fixing:
>> 0) Let me know if I can install software that only I will use: elm, pico and phpmyadmin (without getting in your way).
> No Problem
>> 00) Install sudo.
> Installed version 1.6.8, this is a newer version than what was running previously.
>> 1) Restore Paul's files in /home from tape. In order to do this, need to partition the disk as it was (or at least, so it will accommodate the /home files).
> Restored Pauls' home directory to /export/home. Changed /etc/passwd to reflect the change. I wanted to put it here while I clear space on the disk to create another /home directory. I just wanted it back for now to get Paul able to log in and work.
>> 2) Change Paul's shell in /etc/passwd back to tcsh. He has a .cshrc that sets his PATH and other stuff so he can't really work yet.
> Change made to /etc/passwd.
>> 3) Paul uses an X program called textedit which is probably a supplemental Solaris app which wasn't loaded with the OS. Please restore - will get Paul up and running again.
> Going to investigate a little further.
>> 4) Install the DBI Perl to Mysql interface (from unless Mike got to it today. Some of our database applications are broken until this is done.
> Installed this today.
>> 5) Is sftp running? or just ftp? how about the monitoring software for our du.
> Sftp is running. Monitoring software not turned on yet.
>> 6) Install awstats. Let me know when it's installed so I can manually run jobs. We can't zip and rotate out web logs files until awstats is running again -- and we don't want to overrun the disk partition for /usr.
> Matt will take care of awstats

the latest (6.5 cf 6.0) awstats is installed.
( I think I have got all the configs from the previous install correct, even the one made on the 6th)
The crontab entry is not in place yet (see mike's note about the crontabs (#7))
Also, the web server needs to be HUPped. I did not seem to be able to do this (all I did
was turn on a second web server, not restart the orig one, so I will not experiment with this now,
at 5.30, but rather wait 'till tomorrow.)

>> 7) Restore our crontabs from tape.
> Restored to an alternate location. I will move them into place once I go through all of the paths and correct any that have changed.
>> 8) Restore the rest of our user directories in /home, and allow all logins.
> Will get this tomorrow morning, when I can get all the space set aside.
>> 9) Install gnu software as needed.
> Ongoing
>> 10) Install python and mailman (tar files in ~adixon/software)
> Matt will take care of this.

python 2.4.2 is installed.
(there may be some missing files, but the installer did not complain. I don't know if the solaris installer
picks up on things like this. I will check with mike.)
I will do mailman tomorrow morning.

>> 11) Install other software lost: realaudio, java.
> Matt will take care of these.

I will look into realaudio. I know sean installed it, and probably left some notes somewhere.

>> Can you guys give me and Paul time estimates for when these things can happen? I've been communicating with our users and need to know what to say. Thanks again for all of your work,
> Hopefully, we will be all finished by tomorrow afternoon.
>> Ann
> Thanks,
> Mike

Name: Ann Dixon
Date: 2006-03-15 10:05:43
Link to this Comment: 18534


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip


Mary Sue and Little Eva
Name: Alison Rei
Date: 2006-03-17 16:45:13
Link to this Comment: 18583


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Among the many merits of the Internet is the proliferation of fanfiction among writer communities as well as fan communities. Fanfiction is fiction where a writer takes the diegesis of a popular book, movie, or television show and writes from new perspectives, either creating new characters or expanding on existing ones. While fanfiction is an extremely interesting type of literature, one potentially unpleasant side effect is Mary Sue. "Mary Sues" are idealized characters, recognizable "by their unusual and dramatic traits and experiences, their similarity to their author, and, especially, their exaggerated superiority to other characters" (Wikipedia). As the embodiment of the author's desires and fantasies, the Mary Sue often has a unique and sometimes improbable combination of infallibility, innocence, and beauty. All morally good characters are not considered Mary Sues, but those characters created for the express purpose of perfection are greeted with raised eyebrows.

As a biblical allegory, Uncle Tom's Cabin could be seen as a type of fanfiction written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, reinterpreting old events with new perspectives. Stowe's morally good characters all share the patience and inner purity that is typical for Christians in literature but little Eva has risen above other characters in ways that are past merely Christ-like. Both Tom and Eva are Christ figures, but Stowe has a special affection for Eva, to the point of self-insertion.

There are many tests available on the Internet for fanfiction writers to see if their characters are Mary Sue's. Several questions apply directly to the author's intentions or are specific to popular stories like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but despite the time difference, many are applicable to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

+ Does the character's name describe her/his personality? (e.g. Tristan means sad, Darcy means dark, Charity means charity, etc.) [1 points]
Among several translations, the name "Evangeline" means "like an angel" or "the bearer of good news." Between characters, there is no dispute that Eva is angelic and to Tom, she is certainly the bearer of good news and blessings.
+ Is the character highly attractive? [3 points]
Stowe introduces Eva as "the perfection of childish beauty, without its usual chubbiness and squareness of outline" (153).
+ Are one or more other characters attracted to her/him? [1 point]
Eva makes "the ideal start when they looked at her, and by which the dullest and most literal were impressed, without exactly knowing why" (153).
+ Is an otherwise chaste or stoic character immediately attracted to her/him? [3 point]
Although not in the sexual way most characters in fanfiction relate to modern Mary Sues, Miss Ophelia, though described having a "stony grimness" (167) and "a severe and somewhat gloomy cast" about her, "she loved the little girl" (168).
+ Does the character have an unusual eye color, or otherwise exceptional eyes? [3 points]
+ And are these eyes a color that does not occur in nature? [1 point]
Eva has "violet blue eyes" (153), quite uncommon and questionably natural.
+ Does the character have eyes that somehow reflect hidden depths or experience or sorrow? [4 points]
Eva's eyes contain a "deep spiritual gravity" (153) and when she peers at Tom, "he half believed that he saw one of the angels stepped out of his New Testament" (154).
+ Does the character get a disproportionate amount of physical description compared to the rest of the characters? [2 points]
While it is debatable how much time is spent describing Eva, her first introduction on page 153 is nine complex sentences long, and other people's reactions to her beauty are nearly two pages.
+ Does the character have unusual or exceptional hair, or does her/his hair get a disproportionate amount of description compared to that of the other characters? [3 points]
Eva has "long golden-brown hair that floated like a cloud" (153).
+ Is the character rich or well-to-do, although she/he doesn't work? [1 points]
Although Eva is a child and therefore, not expected to work, her father is "the son of a wealthy planter" (160) and lives in "an ancient mansion" (171).
+ Is the character heir to a large fortune? [1 points]
+ The sole heir? [1 points]
Eva is St. Clare's only child and although not explicitly stated, one can assume she is his sole heir.
+ Does the character have angst in the present? [1 point]
Among many examples of painful empathy for slaves, upon hearing about Old Prue, "She grew pale, and a deep, earnest shadow passed over her eyes." She "sighed heavily" because "these things stick into my heart" (230).
+ Does the character collect things you consider intellectual or cultured? [1 point]
Harriet Beecher Stowe describes all of Eva's surroundings lovingly as having a beauty and sophistication not normally associated with children. In Eva's bedroom, there is "curtains of rose-colored and white muslin," matting from Paris (298), "graceful bamboo lounges," a "Parian vase," and "two or three exquisite paintings" (299).
+ Does the character have any particular area of study/information/etc. in which she/he is the most knowledgeable or among the most knowledgeable? [2 points]
+ And is she/he widely known for having this knowledge? [2 points]
Eva's devotion and knowledge of the Bible is well known and even Tom, the second Christ figure, defers to Eva. Eva says she has seen "the glories" and the "spirits bright" and Tom "had no doubt at all" (274). In fact, "If Eva had told him she had been to heaven, he would have thought it entirely probable" (275). She is "such a reader of the Bible as Tom had never before heard" (273)
+ Does the character have the same religious or spiritual beliefs as you? [2 points]
Eva appears to subscribe to the same Christian beliefs as Stowe, though specific denominations are not mentioned.
+ Has everyone significant heard of the character? [2 points]
While it is debatable as to which characters are significant, St. Clare, Marie, Miss Ophelia, Tom, Topsy, and Mammy are all acquainted with Eva.
+ Do all of the important characters end up liking/respecting/fearing her/him? [3 points]
+ Did they all like/respect/fear her/him from the beginning? [1 point]
Every character acquainted with Eva instantly cherishes her. No character dislikes Eva.
+ Does the character reform a villainous character? [3 points]
+ And does the villain become evil again after the character dies or leaves, but retain some last vestige of goodness from his/her interaction with the character? [2 points]
Eva's relationship with Topsy is her greatest reformation in the novel. Stowe describes how "the sweet tone and manner strangely on the wild, rude heart" (259). Upon Eva's death, Topsy pleads that she is trying to be good (305) and later, Miss Ophelia claims she "has improved greatly" (324).
Questions taken from "The Original Fiction Mary-Sue Litmus Test"

The character of Eva ends with a score of forty-three points, qualifying her as a Mary Sue according to the test. Other debatable questions are if Eva dies or suffers punishment for a crime she did not commit and if her "empathy" or "prophecy" qualify as "special powers," or if her glimpses into heaven qualify as "Transdimensional travel or communication."

It probably would have surprised Stowe to see her characters traits reappear in modern fanfiction. Eva is undoubtedly a Mary Sue character in the Harriet Beecher Stowe's fanfiction version of the Bible but it does not devalue her. There is a pervading opinion that Mary Sues are not legitimate characters in literature because they are not realistic. However, most fanfiction writers agree that Mary Sues can be improved by adding human flaws and have the potential to be legitimate moral leaders if they are freed from perfection.

Additional Note: Sorry if the text is a little hard to read, organization-wise. I know a lot of people at Bryn Mawr enjoy fanfiction and may have their own ideas about Mary Sues so I'd love to hear any expert testimony or your thoughts on my paper.

"But It Doesn't Mean Anything To Me": Narrowing th
Name: Amy Stern
Date: 2006-04-29 12:56:54
Link to this Comment: 19185

<mytitle> Big Books Home
2006 Final Web Report
On Serendip

I was fourteen, the first time I read The Scarlet Letter. I was fourteen and in tenth grade and I thought I knew everything, because I was reading Gregory Maguire and Dorothy Allison and good literature was any book that had been written in the past ten years that had a voice not entirely unlike the way I spoke. When I was fourteen I read The Scarlet Letter, but what I really mean is that I read two pages of it, the first chapter that isn't "The Custom House", because everyone in my tenth grade honors class had to do a presentation on one chapter and someone had traded with me because she didn't want to go first. I read two pages, which I thought were nothing but boring exposition, and then I tossed the book into my locker until I wrote my final paper. I talked about how Hester was harshly punished for her mistake. I'm pretty sure I got an A on it.

That was seven years ago, and when I sat down and actually read The Scarlet Letter this year, I was practically convinced it was a different book. After all, it had a different cover, and it started with this long essay that hadn't even been in the edition passed out in my tenth grade English class, and although the few details I remembered from the first two pages were still there, it seemed more coincidental than anything else. (Megan McCafferty's publishers might disagree, but really.) After all, the book I'd read in tenth grade was indecipherable. The language was impossible, and even just listening to summaries, I couldn't retain which guy was Chillingworth and which was Dimmesdale. I knew that Hester had had sex, with someone who wasn't her husband, and that was bad, and then she had a child, and that was bad, and something happened in the woods, and at the end one guy had a big scar on his chest in the shape of an A. (If you think this is bad, you should hear me try to recall the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front.)

Which is weird, because the copy of The Scarlet Letter that I got this year was actually really interesting. I found it one of the easiest texts we'd read in the semester to understand; the language was pretty easy to decipher for me. Society was punishing Hester, sure, and she was far from the only person in the town who was condemned, by the town or by themselves or implicitly by Hawthorne. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale were interconnected, but far from identical; they were complementary figures, and each one's strengths and weaknesses played off the other's. The characters were a lot more interesting to twenty-one-year-old Amy than fourteen-year-old Amy had even thought possible.

The biggest difference for me, though, is how Hester is portrayed. She's not just a harlot who got caught and got punished. In tenth grade, I'd thought myself socially aware and accepting, sat around arguing over whether premarital sex was acceptable (I voted yes) and whether sex ed classes should share information about protection (ditto). But I hadn't seen Hester as a person. She was a character, who'd made a choice that was societally unacceptable and thus had to be punished.

In a lot of ways, I can't blame myself for feeling that way. After all, in high school, it doesn't matter how enlightened you think you are; you're saturated in a culture which simultaneously aggrandizes and condemns sexuality in all its forms. Everyone's lives are intertwined and the subject of the gaze of the school as collective. Sex, in a sense, is everyone's business, and no one's doing what everyone thinks is the right thing. Too much sex, and the girl is a whore or she's easy. Too little and she's a prude, a dyke, a tease. No matter how much I wanted to believe that reading Bust and Bitch and Tipping the Velvet made me better than that, I was still neck-deep in a culture where it was considered acceptable for some of the boys to make an anonymous website accusing the girls in my grade of everything from sexually transmitted diseases to incompetence at various sexual acts. (Personally, I'd been called out as a "tyke" and was seriously upset that my being younger mattered so much to people- the perils, perhaps, either of my age-sensitivity or of teenage boys' inability to spell.)

The Scarlet Letter, to me, was a part of the past. An important part, I'd been assured, especially if I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But it was something that was old, and done with, a history book with fictional characters. If I was reading about condemning women, I'd thought, I preferred The Crucible, which we'd read first, and which at least had witches and contemporary dialogue. What I wonder now, the more I read- both of nineteenth century literature and about adolescent development- is how I didn't connect The Scarlet Letter to my life sooner.

I think I might have read the whole book, if I had. I think I might have even liked it.

I'm imagining, now, my ideal class in The Scarlet Letter. Maybe it would be taught in tenth grade; maybe it would be a year later. The first day, I'd walk into class, and the word would be written on the board. All capital letters, and big, so that they cover most of the board.


Everyone in the class free-write about the word, for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we'd all sit in a circle and discuss it. What is a slut? What other words do you associate with slut? How is that applicable in celebrity culture, and how is that applicable in real life?

The discussion would slide, within a few minutes, to the fact that slut is, usually, a gendered word; a girl who frequently has sex (or is thought to frequently have sex, or might have once had sex, or wears tight clothing or short clothing or makeup) is a slut, whereas a boy with similar behavior is a stud. What does that mean? How does that make you feel? What are the implications of that divide?

I don't think that, at fourteen or fifteen, any of us in that classroom would have all the answers. I don't feel like I have all of the answers now, and I've engaged in my share of femgen classes and readings about gender. But I feel like just having the questions is the most important part of this discussion. Because once we'd had a day discussing the implications that having sex was having at that very moment in our own lives, I think that discussing Hester's story, of being punished by those around her for her sins even as others did similar things and faced no punishment, would hit a lot closer to home.

When I think about what, before this class, taught me about The Scarlet Letter, I would go with an episode of the TV show Popular. Written by Ryan Murphy, it was an episode about six girls who ended up locked in a room to solve all their problems, and each girl revealed a secret in the process, identifying her problem with "her scarlet letter". All six girls, the episode had shown, were in a Feminist Literature class in their high school, and their teacher explained that secrets constrain you, but letting go of those secrets can also set you free. He revealed his own homosexuality, and over the course of the episode, each girl was filmed in her "Hester Prynne" outfit, with a large red letter emblazoned on her chest: R for rebound, B for Betrayer, C for confused. It offered me the possibility that Hester's condemnation was also her freedom; by people learning her secret, she was allowed to be who she was, instead of forced into the mindset her society tried to insist upon.

I suppose I feel like these thoughts, about how (for example) The Scarlet Letter plays into sex, which plays into real life, and back again, are thoughts that aren't just helpful for understanding the text; they're imperative. Getting through The Scarlet Letter by keeping it in the nineteenth century, where it's distant and absent and safe, is an awful way to approach the text, which hinges on dismissing the most worthwhile tools of analysis. It's not just trying to build a house without a hammer; it's trying to build a house without hands.

After this, I imagine we'd dive right into the text. We wouldn't read "The Custom House"; I can't think of anything that would turn me off from the text more. We'd just read the meat of the book, the story part, a few chapters a day. We'd spend most of the time in class engaging in various alternate readings of the text. Personally, I'm enamored with a feminist reading, or maybe a humanist one, largely because of how I first internalized the messages; I want to hear discussions of why it's not just Hester who is suffering from secrets, but also Chillingworth and Dimmesdale and even Pearl. Nothing in this book hurts only one person; every individual is made both victim and firing squad. It's a precursor to No Exit, where Hell is in Massachusetts and no one fully realizes just how much power they really have. But there are dozens upon dozens of ways to read the novel, and if our class discussion is any indication, it seems like the only one most high school students are exposed to is one which presupposes that sex is bad and Hester's punishment, while overly harsh, is not necessarily unfair or undeserved.

I realize that some of my understanding of the text comes simply from my experience of reading more: more feminist criticism, more nineteenth century literature, more books in general. Maybe there are texts that need to be read at least twice, once to give the background for other novels and once to actually get it now that you have the background from others you read for the same purpose. I know I have books that I hated on the first read and loved on the second; it wasn't until then that anything in the book had sunk in. But some of my problem was simply not being given even a suggestion of the frame which, reading it after four years at Bryn Mawr College, I take for granted. Let something like The Scarlet Letter be a book that connects to contemporary issues. Let it lose some of its "real" purpose, if necessary, and stop being a novel about Hawthorne's guilt about Salem, and instead turn it into a book about feminism and misogyny that speaks to the students reading it. By insisting on a specific, narrow, classic reading of the text, it keeps it from being living literature; it's killed by the very thing that originally kept it alive.

And, really, this problem isn't just with The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's text is susceptible to it, because it's so easy to blindly look at the surface and miss out on a lot of the depth, but that's hardly news. After all, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a frequent victim of censorship and criticism for decades, as readers continue a long-standing tradition of complaining about the content they choose not to understand instead of actually looking at the text.

I can't deny that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn touches on issues that are harder for me to deal with than The Scarlet Letter. Typing the word slut meant nothing to me. I mean, at this point, I think of it as something that has been reclaimed; friends and I use it to tease each other all the time. When slut is used in a genuinely derogatory fashion, I've been known to get into an argument over it, or at the very least a heated discussion over why it is or isn't appropriate. But when talking about the key word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I'm having a much harder time, typing the N and the I and two G's and ER. In fact, I just realized that I'm going to have to type it, and bold it- after all, this paper needs to have some symmetry- and that thought is making me uncomfortable.

But this is where I need to remind myself that this is not the high-school me reacting. This is me with four years at a liberal arts college, so used to discussing things in the correct or acceptable way that I can't think of a single situation where it would be acceptable for me to use the word. This is me brainwashed into what I consider the correct way of thinking; that it's not mine to use. But maybe a student- a kid in the ninth grade, or eleventh grade, or seventh- doesn't have that feeling. Maybe the student next to him does. And maybe that's why, just like slut, it deserves its place, in gigantic block letters, on the blackboard.


Even just typing that makes me feel uncomfortable. There's that element of feeling like you're doing something wrong, just by thinking it; it's naughty, the way it was when I was in elementary school and said damn instead of darn for the first time. There's power in the word, and it's power that I don't really feel I deserve to have, because it's power at someone else's expense. And then, of course, I detour into the ideas about the power of language, and the power of this word in particular, and the history, and using it academically versus insultingly, and what exactly reclaiming means.

And are these the ideas that should be discussed in a classroom? They're certainly one of the main reasons that people want The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn banned from the classroom. Half the time, I can't tell if the critics are offended by the language or the message; is it the use of the word, or the message of the story, that is so appalling to people?

For me, the choice is simple. Censorship is wrong, period. I want to be a librarian, and part of that territory involves condemning the idea of book-banning on principle. Words are just words, I argue; they exist whether or not they're used, and their power lies in how we are able to use them as a benefit rather than a detriment. Besides, I'll say confidently, I'd rather be confronted with a book whose message I completely disagree with than have that book banned from accessibility altogether. Freedom of speech is for everyone, not just who you (generic) like or agree with.

But I also realize that the question with a book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a lot less simple. Some words mean more to certain people than to others; there would be large differences among discussing Huck Finn in an all-white school, in an all-black school, in a school with an equal mix of races, and in a school which is mostly white with only a few minority students. And it probably matters about the teacher, what class and race they are, and their relationship to the students besides.

And maybe it's the same with The Scarlet Letter, then. Maybe if I hadn't read the book in a class of honors students who probably would have been thrilled to be labeled "slut" instead of "geek", the idea of discussing the theoretical construct of slut, in this abstract academic space, would be offensive rather than necessary. Maybe my opinion would change depending on whether the teacher was male or female, just out of college or nearing retirement, friendly with the class or distant. And certainly, whether or not it would work for me as a student is almost completely divorced from whether it would work for another student.

For a while, now, I've had a hard time dealing with the image of the academic in the ivory tower, not in touch with the common man or what have you. After all, I choose to study the media which seems to reside on the fringe of academia. I look at television shows and young adult literature: the lowest common denominator, to some minds. I think about how race is portrayed in Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher and how metaphors for sex are used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and through examining these more popular mediums, I can believe I'm enlightened enough to turn classical literature into something just as easily applied to real life. I look hard to find the academic value in teen shows like Veronica Mars or children's series like The Baby-Sitters Club, and in doing so I tend to really think that I've dealt with the inherent problem of academia distancing itself from the masses. It lets me think I've come out successful.

But my entire experience since I started reading "real" literature (whether as defined by my teachers or as defined by me) has been within the company of what I perceived as like-minded others. Even when I look at trashy television shows, I'm doing so through the lens of cultural studies and a select breed of critic; I'm not a student of the world so much as I'm a student of a smaller group of critics. Especially now, learning with students from Bryn Mawr and Haverford who might not come from similar cultural, class, or racial backgrounds but tend to have similar learning styles, I can pick up on certain biases in the way that I've learned to read. Moreover, because of the differences in the ways in which we were all raised, I have learned to analyze the ways in which how I read a text is different and how that is better or worse than the alternative.

And I wonder if maybe this ivory tower, which I think I've avoided, lies in exactly this discussion. I can discuss "nigger" and "slut" like they're just words. Words with contexts and histories that need to be studied, sure; words that carry far too much power and hurt people more than any words should. But they're just words to me. To the fifteen-year-old who's been called either of them by someone who's dead serious about trying to be hurtful, this doesn't work.

I don't think that means the literature shouldn't be taught like this. In fact, I think the opposite; applying to real life remains, for me, the best way to connect to a text, and books which I feel have hurt me intently because they ring too true are the ones which I remember the most. And I can't help but think of the phrase I've heard dozens of times during my tenure at Bryn Mawr, and agreed and disagreed with all at once: if you're not uncomfortable, you're not learning.

I guess it just means that I think there is no right answer. One of the reasons that these texts have endured so long is that they have these layers that make people uncomfortable, that make people think, that make people learn. Some people are taught poorly, and like me toss the nineteenth century into their lockers, not to be examined ever again unless, say, they need one more 200-level English class to graduate and it seems like something they should do. And some people are taught well, and latch onto the texts immediately, and get everything out of it that they should and more. Of course, the weird part, to me, is that those people could have been in the same high school class. In fact, we probably were. And if they read this paper, they'd probably laugh, and say "I told you so".

I can't even argue that. They'd be right. At the end of the day, that's why I'm an English major. That's why I'm taking this class; as I grow as a reader, each book keeps changing and developing. Which is maybe why these books have lasted in the culture for so long, and why they should be taught- no matter how well- in the classroom, at every age. There's something in them for everyone, if we look hard enough. It might be something that, at fifteen, we aren't ready to hear, but maybe at twenty, or twenty-five, or fifty, we are. It'll been there the whole time, waiting for us. And if we're exposed enough, then maybe it'll hit when we're finally ready to process it.

Self-Forgiveness is Found, Lessons are Learned, an
Name: Catherine
Date: 2006-05-04 13:21:18
Link to this Comment: 19226


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Recently one morning, I was awoken by the sound of my cell phoneˇŻs ˇ°dream sequenceˇ± alarmˇ­ 9:30am again. I commenced my usual morning regiment, which includes pressing the power button on my laptop. When I returned from the bathroom, the ˇ°Netscape Newsˇ± was the opening page on the computer screen and wait a minuteˇ­ this headline cannot be rightˇ­ ˇ°Study Claims Ice, Not Water, Kept Jesus Afloat.ˇ± Ok, be kindˇ­ rewind! No, absolutely not! Scientists, what are you doing? Your evidence imposes on my beliefs and your research does not belongˇ­ IˇŻm getting d¨¦j¨¤ vu. There I was, two weeks ago, writing The Scarlet Letter, a classic American novel, in algebraic terms and here I am now, almost having a heart attack when the realm of science infringes on my Catholic sphere of belief. Hawthorne must have been turning in his grave with every punch of the keyboard I made on the computer! Now, I know how it feels. The first word that came to mind was ˇ°wrong.ˇ± ItˇŻs so wrong to try to justify scientifically something so sacred as Jesus walking on water. But by saying this statement to myself, I am a hypocrite. Mark Twain must have felt the exact same way as he watched in agony, not able to communicate with me from above, as I compared his ending in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a math problem I had difficulty solving. IˇŻm as abominable as those scientists.

But waitˇ­ at least I tried it. Is it so wrong to at least attempt to cross such antithetic outlooks? Now, IˇŻm asking Hawthorne and Twain to cut me some slack. I did not give the scientists a break. Here I am changing my mind againˇ­ and itˇŻs all due to literature. Literature is extremely powerful, it can change the most concrete of things, even my stubborn, Irish mind. I went from believing anything in the compass of literature could be analyzed and answered by utilizing mathematical principles, to realizing the limits of that approach in the context of a fictional world in a novel. Now, I apprehend that seeing everything, and everything as in life (yes, even the clock that reads 3:21), as a matrix has its own set of limits. What have I missed watching those numerical vertical columns modulate instead of pressing the pause button and adjusting my peripheral? Thus, I am compelled to explore.

For the last thirteen years of my life, IˇŻve seen my fair share of math problems. I can remember the first math test I ever failed (it cost my mom a speeding ticket when she found out) and I even remember the first problem I ever calculated that did not have an answer. I was sitting in Ms. PandyaˇŻs fifth grade classroom at P.S. 131. It was sixth period and Ms. Pandya had just introduced the notion of complex exponential problems. I had no trouble understanding the concept; that tiny number to the top right of the number tells me how many times I have to multiply the big number by itself. 21=2, 22=4ˇ­ last problemˇ­ 20. Umm, there has to be no answer. The 0 indicates that I shouldnˇŻt multiply 2 by anything so there must be no answer. Wanting to be that genius kid in the class that has the answer to the trick question, I immediately projected my hand upwards. ˇ°No, Catherine. There is an answer. ItˇŻs 1,ˇ± exclaimed Ms. Pandya as she turned her back to the class to write out the answer. ˇ°Why?,ˇ± I asked promptly. The teacher froze, reversed to see me in my seat, cocked her eyebrow and answered, ˇ°It just is.ˇ± If I was who I was a month ago, I probably wouldˇŻve inquired further and persistently dug into proving logically that a number raised to the zero power is equal to one. I know what youˇŻre thinking, isnˇŻt that what you did Catherine when Ms. Pandya said those three words? No, I didnˇŻt have that response and thatˇŻs what makes that problem so unforgettable. Directly after hearing those words, I remember feeling a sensation, a wave of tension pulsate over my body. That answer, the number one, is untouchable.

That exponential concept in math is known as a ˇ°given.ˇ± There is absolutely no logical way to prove that that concept is true. Until recently I took those givens as givens and never questioned their validity. Now that this wave of nostalgia has washed over me, I researched as to why the givens are so. Dr. Ian, the moderator at the math forum, ˇ°Ask Dr. Math,ˇ± at Drexel University, says that overall, we need ˇ°to understand that the interpretation of n^0 isn't something that can be (or needs to be) proven. We're free to choose what we want it to be, so long as that choice is consistent with the choices we've already madeˇ± (2000, para. 1). This explanation seems to describe Huck. All the way back in Chapter I, Huck realizes that ˇ°[Miss Watson] was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldnˇŻt see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldnˇŻt try for itˇ­ I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be togetherˇ± (16). I was so preoccupied in my first reading of Huck Finn that I missed the indication that there will be no answer. These words of Huck tell me that he will be consistent in his decisions to go the other way, and HuckˇŻs method of reaching that place is following Tom Sawyer, the boy who sees black people as a different species to be toyed with. I drew this parallel but more importantly, I realized Dr. Ian said that math is limited within itself.

IˇŻve been seeing math as an absolute lens, no holes in the sequence caps. If I canˇŻt even prove math problems with math, how am I to compute an answer to literary problems in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? By doing math, I accept absolute truth and the fact that there are some domains in which math is not in the range; ˇ°There are ˇ®always true statements that cannot be provenˇŻ... Hence it follows that some real numbers are ˇ®not computableˇŻˇ± (Grobstein, 2004). Going back to my ˇ°parallelingˇ± of the idea that Huck and n0 have much in common, I realize that I am not justified in comparing those two. By realizing the limits and flaws in my own ways, seeing everything through the columns of a matrix vector, I see Huck through a different lens; Huck telling me that he wants to do what Tom Sawyer does to go ˇ°downstairsˇ±, is not that negative sign in front of ¦¤G that indicates the chemical reaction is spontaneous or a mathematical clue, but rather it is the literary device known as foreshadow. Now, I must utilize literary terminology when analyzing such literary texts. Math jargon just wonˇŻt fit.

I have been known to chastise Huck for not doing the reasonable thing in very dangerous situations. Yes, Huck should not listen to Tom every time a new idea pops out of his mouth and Huck should never have gotten involved with the Duke and the Dauphin in the first place. However, after closer examination, I realize that Huck does rationalize and makes decisions that have a profit for everyone. Huck figures that he should not let on that he knows the Duke and the Dauphin are fakes but rather, he ˇ°kept it to [him]self; itˇŻs the best way; then you donˇŻt have no quarrels, and donˇŻt get into no troubleˇ­ [he] hadnˇŻt no objection, long as it would keep peace in the familyˇ± (142). Yes, Huck! IˇŻm so proud. You seem to have examined every possible stratagem and chose the most propitious. YouˇŻre thinking like a mathematician. However, all this rationalizing is a short term success. HuckˇŻs reasoning leads to the whole entire group being put into a dangerous situation. At the third nightˇŻs performance of the Duke and DauphinˇŻs fusion of ShakespeareˇŻs various works, Huck senses and sees that the audience intends to catapult various edible objects at the performers and possibly storm the stage and lead a riot. Huck chronicles the scene, ˇ°I see that every man that went in had his pockets bulging, or something muffled up under his coat- I see it warnˇŻt no perfumer, neitherˇ­ I smelt sickly eggs by the barrel, and rotten cabbages, and such thingsˇ­ but it was too various for me, I couldnˇŻt stand itˇ± (166). Huck chooses to act as a minion of the two fake royals and thus, does not take the dominant leader role and listens to the duke when he commands Huck to ˇ°walk fast, now, till [he] get[s] away from the houses, and then shin for the raft like the dickens was after [him]!ˇ± (167). At this point in the novel, I am extremely familiar with HuckˇŻs magic wit. IˇŻm sure if Twain were to divulge what Huck was thinking rather than recounting the actions of the characters, he would write Huck as saying, ˇ°I couldˇŻve taken their place on that there stage and given emˇŻ a show thatˇŻd a have them laughinˇŻ just as sureˇŻs youˇŻre born!ˇ± Huck could probably have gotten the entire family out of the situation however, his previously thought-to-be- great idea of keeping silent overruled his sharp wit. Rationality did not abet Huck when he used it. I criticize this fictional character for not rationalizing and then, when he does, he finds himself in a dangerous predicament. In my mind, Twain is telling me I am taking this story too seriously. ˇ°Rationality didnˇŻt help Huck, and heˇŻs not even real! You think it will do anything more for you?!ˇ± Lesson learned: I canˇŻt apply reasoning to every situation I am in. Sometimes, things must run their course.

I am hearing TwainˇŻs voice in my head and I am nostalgic again. Ever since I encountered ˇ°Wishbone,ˇ± the television program that comprised of a tiny canine acting as the protagonist of various classics (Wishbone played Huck in the episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), I knew Mark Twain and the Mississippi River were synonymous. ThereˇŻs probably enough of his blood in the waters for the river to almost be a relation. ItˇŻs sounds so charming, living such a life as a steamboat pilot. Of course there are rough patches of current, itˇŻs not all basking in the sun. Before my adventures beyond the x and y axis planes, I would not have found such a career a probable one for me. Yes, itˇŻs fun but is a concrete profession? Will I be guaranteed benefits and consistent employment? I would think, no. However, after reading Mark TwainˇŻs autobiography, I have amassed respect for every worker on that majestic river. Who knew such observations such as noticing the water line up to the roots of the banks indicates that there is seven feet in the chute of 103 (Twain, ch.10, 2)? Even Twain was a mathematician. Seeˇ­ itˇŻs a formidable task, making myself see past the math in everything. Then, I am drawn to a single passage Twain writes regarding the history of the Mississippi; ˇ°To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;-- as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you donˇŻt see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of itˇ± (Twain, ch.1, 2). Wow, youˇŻre right Mr. Twain. IˇŻve worked extensively with the Cosine Curve for the past 7 years of my life but IˇŻve never marveled at its beauty and complexity, the way it moves back and forth, always consistent and never wavering. In analyzing The Scarlet Letter, I was so concentrated on how Chillingworth fit exactly into the role of the complicated, insidious element in every logarithmic problem that I forgot to realize he is layered. He wasnˇŻt always that evil man full of malice, he used to be a man in love with Hester Prynne. That transformation is piercing. Twain made the same mistake himself. He judged his education was complete; the way he saw and utilized the river was all that was necessary. Until, Mr. Bixby changed his river outlook enough for Twain to say, ˇ°Then IˇŻve got to go to work and learn just as much more river as I already knowˇ± (Twain, ch. 10, 3). I also need to labor down my river of humanities and explore underneath my matrix net to see the schools of words in the water.

It seems IˇŻm having an episode of self-reflection with each letter I type. Looking back on my neoteric reading history, I see I need to renovate my readings of Uncle TomˇŻs Cabin and Moby Dick, they too must not be ignored. I remember feeling disappointed in both Stowe and Melville. Stowe told me too much, her message too obvious and overemphasized in every sentence that I felt intellectually inferior. Melville was too dull, I knew the ending to the novel before reaching the half-way point. In those two evaluations, I treated these two notions as separate, two entirely different denunciations in each novel. Now IˇŻve had an epiphany. Why canˇŻt I overlap those two entities and find a happy medium like the place I have now reached, where math and English meet? Just this once, maybe I can apply HessˇŻs Law to Moby Dick and Uncle TomˇŻs Cabin. I can take each of those two criticisms and combine them to create a positive type of novel that I can enjoy analyzing. As Anna Dalke once wrote, ˇ°The best, the most precious, the most useful stories are those which BOTH 1. reveal the unexpected, are counterintuitive, have a ˇ®surplus resonanceˇŻ 2. AND ALSO are predictive, have what (literary theorist) Mark Turner calls ˇ®parable-like correspondencesˇŻˇ± (Dalke, 2). I can now make a blueprint of my ideal novel; the pages must be soaked to the brim with new literary or ˇ°englishˇ± aspects to which, when appropriate, I can apply my ˇ°mathematicalˇ± history to reveal and uncover that which is familiar territory. I canˇŻt sacrifice the math portion for just the English portion. The two cannot be separated for me. I also cannot sacrifice the English for the math, such as with The Scarlet Letter. I saw math as having infinite limits, relevant to all entities and answered ˇ°yesˇ± to the question of, ˇ°Is it conceivable that one could trade some decreased amount of consistency for some increased amount of ˇ®completenessˇŻ?ˇ± (Grobstein, 3). I was so desperate for answers to HawthorneˇŻs multi-solution questions that I did not stay consistent with his theme of the unknown. Sometimes there are no answers or even more, the answers are not relevant, the journey is what is paramount.

I now return to my favorite character of all the novels previously mentioned, Huckleberry Finn. I found that Huck had an avocation in which he rationalized and that method was not beneficial in the extremity. I might have been harsh in my resenting of reasoning out a problem. Yes, I shouldnˇŻt rationalize in every instance, sometimes I should follow the ˇ°blinkˇ± and not think. I was so disappointed that the situations in which Huck does not rationalize but acts in the heat of the moment outnumber the instances in which he thinks his decisions through. I then read over TwainˇŻs own words about his best friend, the Mississippi. Even Twain admits that something so concrete as a titanic river can change drastically. To this steamboat pilot, it was well known that for ˇ°a man living in the State of Mississippi to-day, a cut-off [can] occur tonight, and to-morrow the man [will] find himself and his land over on the other side of the river, within the boundaries and subject to the laws of the State of Louisiana!ˇ± (Twain, ch. 1, 2). My disappointment in HuckˇŻs lack of mathematical dexterity suddenly fades. This passage gives me hope, hope that eventually, Huck will be able to cipher out the occurrences where he is in real danger and cannot rely on just childish jocularity but use dimensional reasoning. Mark Twain put the heart of the Mississippi into his novel, making Huck ambiguous on certain topics and wavering in his decisions, yet still discernible as that Huckleberry Finn. Huck is so young and like the river, I am confident Twain had in mind that in HuckˇŻs future, after page 296, he would evolve, an evolution such as I have had, finding that in some cases, two different spheres are needed to answer some questions. Of course, Huck wouldnˇŻt evolve too much, he would never let go of his overall charm. IˇŻm sure 62 year old Huck and I would be very close.

Wow! I was so rough on myself earlier. I alone was putting such weight on my shoulders for being a math intruder in an english majorˇŻs house. I thought no one would forgive me. But my constant companion, Mr. Twain is right there by my side. We have more in common than you may think: I learned so much from Mark about piloting on the Mississippi. He told me a particularly striking fact once about how on the river he ˇ°often hit WHITE logs, in the dark, for [he] could not see them till [he was] right on them; but a black log is a pretty distinct object at night. A white snag is an ugly customer when the daylight is gone (Twain, ch. 10, 4). Twain just outlined my mistake: it was easy for me to manipulate literary aspects to fit into the mathematical terrene, the black log I too could notice in the context of the black, math world. I couldnˇŻt see the white in the darkness, the interpretation within the drafting in novels. Twain understands me, and I am forgiven. I just hope he converses with Stowe, Melville, and Hawthorneˇ­ just to put in a good word for me.

IˇŻve surprised myself with how much my horizon has shifted since my exploration of The Scarlet Letter. I thought I was alone in my realization of the limits of a one-way vision. Twain then gave me a cup of hot chocolate, put a blanket around my shoulders and seated me in front of the fire. He gently taught me that it is not a crime to make a mistake, but rather, the real crime is missing out on everything I couldˇŻve seen. I alsoˇ­ and this was the hardest task to undertakeˇ­ took mathematics off the pedestal and noticed the cracks in the cement foundation holding it up, thanks to Mr. Grobstein. Math is impaired itself, thus I dug into my mind and realized what was already thereˇ­ I knew math had flawsˇ­ I had accepted them since fifth grade. Perhaps the greatest achievement of them all is finding the happy midway point between math and English in regards to literature, but more importantly, to life. I know the transformation will not take place overnight. IˇŻll need more practice before I can sort out which literary situations place math as an over analysis and english as just an over-simplifier of the themes. I suppose IˇŻll start with my favorite literary masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. Imagine how blind I must have been!

A Different View of Pearl
Name: Emily Feen
Date: 2006-05-04 13:23:40
Link to this Comment: 19227


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Pearl is one of the greatest mysteries in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. She is mischievous and far too omniscient, always seeming to see the underlining of circumstances that the rest of Boston doesn't take notice of. How does she seem to understand the Black Man? How does she appear to know Mr. Dimmesdale is her father? The answer to these questions may lay in the questions themselves. Perhaps she doesn't understand the Black Man at all, and perhaps she doesn't realize Mr. Dimmesdale is her father. Pearl could very well be misrepresented in The Scarlet Letter. So much of her character is relayed through the narrator that the reader's understanding of Pearl becomes the narrator's understanding of her. By examining her actions and dialogue, and ignoring all the thoughts of the narrator, she becomes an entirely different character. What follows is the rewriting of several scenes through the eyes of Pearl, and an analysis of how such a change, while staying true to the dialogue and actions of the original scene, completely change who Pearl is.

The first scene comes from chapters seven and eight. Pearl accompanies her mother to the Governor's house to drop off a pair of gloves he had ordered.

Walking with my mother is always fun. I love looking at the flowers and the animals in the woods, and sometimes Mother even lets me run off on my own for a little while. Well, one day, I was walking with her to deliver some piece of sewing she had finished to one of the important men from town. She had dressed me in a pretty red tunic, with all sorts of nice gold thread sewn in. All of a sudden, some children took notice of us and started flinging mud! Well, I had been so thoroughly enjoying all the flowers along the path that their interruption mad me really mad. Mother wasn't doing anything to stop them, so I took matters into my own hands. Who were they to fling mud at us, anyway? I hate the towns' children. They're always being mean to me and looking for quarrels. So I ran at them, yelling anything that came into my mind. Sure enough, that scared them off.

Before much longer, we reached the house where the man lived. It was a big wooden house, and best of all, it sparkled. It was like the sunlight was friends with it, because it just kept dancing with that wall. I decided to dance with it too. I asked Mother if I could have all the sunshine, but she said I must gather my own and that she had none to give me. This made me sad, but I had little time to think about it since Mother knocked on the big front door. A man in a blue coat answered. He said the Governor Belly-ham was there, but that he was busy. I guess that's who Mother wanted to give the sewing to. Mother said we would enter and wait, and the man in blue let us in.

There were all sorts of things in that house that we didn't have at home. My favorite was a knight's armor, all shiny and big. It was so shiny that I could see myself in it! Then when Mother moved, I could see her and the big red A on her chest. In the metal, the A looked really big and round. I had never seen anything quite like it before. I showed Mother, but she didn't seem to like it. Instead, she called me over to look at the garden. There were cabbages and pumpkins and apple trees, and best of all, rose-bushes. The roses were so pretty. I really wanted one. When Mother said no, I got upset. I didn't understand why I couldn't have one; there were plenty of roses and no one was enjoying them. They were even more beautiful than the flowers in the woods. Mother got mad when I cried, saying the Governor was coming.

Pretty soon, a whole group of men appeared. Two of them had beards, one white and one gray, one was rather thin, and the other looked a bit frightening. The one with the gray beard, who was the Governor, came towards me. Him and the man with the white beard, who I learned was Mr. Wilson, spoke of me for a while. I tried to ignore them and look at the roses, but them Mr. Wilson tried to bring me towards him. This was quite strange. As far as I could remember, Mother was the only person who had ever touched me. And now a perfect stranger! I ran out the window as quick as I could. But he didn't stop there! He asked me who made me. Goodness, I know who made me well enough, for Mother had often spoken of the Heavenly Father. But I wasn't going to give this man the satisfaction of getting the answer he was looking for. Thinking of the pretty roses, and trying to come up with a way of letting him know how much I liked them in hopes of him offering me one, I replied that I was plucked by Mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door. This didn't make any of the men happy at all, and none of them even thought to offer me a rose. Mother grabbed me in her arms and held me a little too tightly. She was very angry. She argued with the Governor and Mr. Wilson for some time about scarlet and sins and God. Then Mother asked the thin man, Mr. Dimmesdale, to help her argue. He did; he seemed to convince the men of what Mother wanted, after some time. I was quite happy that he had made things better, and I wanted to thank him. I was afraid to speak, being as the last thing I had said had caused such a problem, so I took his hand in mine. He put his hand on my head and kissed my forehead. Normally I wouldn't let anyone touch me, like Mr. Wilson, but since he had helped Mother, I decided it was all right. It felt silly after a moment, though, and I couldn't help but laugh at how strange it felt to have a stranger's hand on my head, so I ran off to find more treasures like the suit of armor. Eventually Mother finished speaking with the men, and we left for home. But as we left the house and started back down the path, an ugly woman called from the window. She asked Mother to go to the forest with her that night. Mother said no, which was a little disappointing. I had never been to the forest at night, and it sounded like so much fun. Instead, I walked home with Mother, where we quietly ate supper and went to bed.

This is an example of a different understanding of Pearl. The actions and dialogue are the same as the original scene, although Pearl doesn't follow all of the dialogue or find it all important, and therefore quite a bit is cut. Through the eyes of Pearl, her actions do not appear demon-like or witch-like as the other characters in the book claims she is. Rather, her actions make sense. The reader can understand the motivation behind her actions. Where she seemed like a witch while screaming for a rose, she becomes a normal three-year-old who really, really wants a rose. Her mother's attempts to quiet her only escalate her fit. She doesn't want to be told "no," and she doesn't want to think anyone can control her mood. Of course, as soon as the men enter the room, she forgets the rose. Where she originally seems like an imp as she scatters away from Mr. Wilson, she becomes a child fearful of strangers and familiar only with her mother's touch. I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering sitting in the grocery cart and bursting into tears as soon as a kind old woman tries to move the cart to reach the apples. There is nothing different in Pearl's circumstance. Strangers scare her, no matter what the authoritative figure tells her. And where she seems much too insightful as she takes her father's hand, she becomes a child who cares deeply for her mother. She wants to thank him for helping her mother without risking the commencement of another argument, so she resorts to a non-verbal means of thanks. She doesn't have any unexplainable understanding that he is her father, as the book implies. She transforms from a "witch," "imp of evil," or "elf" into a normal child, in this case a child or three years. Few three-year-olds want to be touched by a stranger. But three-year-olds also have some understanding of what does and does not please their mothers. And, in most cases, they would rather have a happy mother than an angry one.

The next scene is from chapters sixteen, eighteen, and nineteen. Pearl accompanies her mother to meet Mr. Dimmesdale in the woods.

On a gray spring day, Mother and I walked into the woods. I wasn't at all sure why as we departed, but I was too excited to play in the woods to give it much thought. Occasionally the sun shone through the trees as we followed the small path deeper into the woods. I ran ahead, catching the sun whenever I could. But as soon as Mother caught me, the sun disappeared. "Mother," I said, "the sunshine does not love you. It runs and hides itself, because of something on your bosom. There it is playing a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child, it will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!"

Mother became rather solemn at this, and said, "Nor ever will, my child, I hope."

"And why not, Mother?" I had always thought it was part of growing up. I had noticed that the other women in town did not have such letters, but I supposed they had their own marks that would pass to their children. With this in mind I asked, "Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?" Mother didn't want to answer, and told me instead to catch the sunshine, so I did. It seemed that the letter on her bosom was what made her unhappy, and sunshine only likes happiness. I ran to the sunshine again, and sure enough, as soon as Mother caught up, the sunshine disappeared again.

Soon after, Mother wanted to sit. As we found a place to rest, I asked her about the Black Man that I had heard so much about the other night at the house where she had watched. I told her how the old dame had said the scarlet letter was the Black Man's mark on her, and asked if it was true, if she had indeed ever met the Black Man. I was very excited to hear, for the Black Man sounded so mysterious and wonderful, always going in the woods at night, as I had always longed to do. To my excitement, Mother said that she had indeed met with the Black Man once, and that the letter was indeed his mark. How I wished I could meet this Black Man! I wished he would meet me in the woods, and show me the forest in its cover of darkness. Maybe he would even introduce me to other townspeople, and maybe they would be different and kind.

While I continued to think, Mother found a nice pile of moss by a brook and we sat. Its sad babble soon interrupted my thoughts. Mother told me it told her of her sorrows, and if I had any, it would tell me of mine as well. Suddenly footsteps could be heard approaching, and Mother told me to run off. I was sure it must be the Black Man, but as he came closer, I saw it was only the minister. He had is hand over his heart, as it seemed he always did when I saw him. When I asked Mother if this was the mark the Black Man had left on him, she refused to answer, so I finally left to play.

I picked all sorts of lovely flowers, and made them into a crown for my head and a sash for my waist. I also found some delicious red berries, all juicy and ripe. I watched the squirrels as they ate their nuts, and one dropped a nut onto my head. I saw a timid little fox and a family of quail. I was still watching the animals when Mother called me back. But as I approached, I saw she was still with Mr. Dimmesdale. They looked happy together. I didn't like that Mother was with someone else. I had never seen her look so happy with anyone before. I became angry that she never seemed so happy with me. This man, who hardly truly knew us and our life together, was stealing Mother away from me! I slowed my walk, which made Mother unhappy. She continued to beckon me towards them. As I came closer, I noticed she was not wearing her letter. This was too much. Not only was she happier with the minister than she was with me, but she wasn't even wearing her letter! Her letter, which she was never without. It was as if her hair had suddenly changed to flaxen or she had grown ten feet. I had to control something. I stopped and pointed at her bosom, and as she lightly dismissed the lack of the letter, I felt anger rising within me. I stamped my foot and waived my arms and gave a yell. She had to listen! Finally, she stooped down and placed the letter on her bosom once more.

Now I had to show the minister who really knew Mother, who really loved her and cared about her. I quickly kissed her brow and her cheeks to make sure he realized who was most important to her. But then Mr. Dimmesdale kissed my brow! He was not a part of our family! He should not be able to show equal affection for me as I had shown for Mother, for he hardly knew me, and could not possibly love me. I certainly did not love him. Full of rage and jealousy, I ran to the brook and washed away the kiss. I dared not go near them again, but rather waited till he left before I approached Mother again.

Once again, the actions and dialogue (although cut down) are essentially the same as the book. What has changed is the perspective. By going inside the mind of Pearl, it becomes much clearer as to what she was thinking. In the book, the reader is left to believe Pearl has some unbelievable understanding of the scarlet letter and Dimmesdale's covered heart. Here, her curiosity about the scarlet letter is a child's misunderstanding. She believes it is something that she will gain as she grows older, and believes other women pass other marks on to their daughters, although not necessarily as visible. She heard a story about the Black Man, and as children do, wants to know more about it. She is not obsessed with evil as she seems in the book; just curious. Having heard the scarlet letter was left on her mother by the Black Man, she wants to know more. And the fact that he can be met in the woods at night only heightens her curiosity, for she loves the woods, and has wanted to see them at night for some time. She believes the Black Man might be able to show them to her.

Her reaction to seeing her mother and Dimmesdale together is also explained without the demon context. She sees that her mother is happy with someone other than herself, and becomes jealous. In her jealousy, she refuses to listen to her mother's demands, and does what she can to control the situation and bring the attention back to herself and her relationship with her mother. She demands that her mother put the letter back on because she can control it. She kisses her mother to remind her mother and show Dimmesdale who she really loves and cares about. Thus, when Dimmesdale kisses Pearl, Pearl takes it as defying her authority and his attempt to creep between her and her mother. She quickly washes it off to show him that he cannot come between them.

Even through the transformation of just two scenes, Pearl changes from the "demon child" and "witch" that the narrator presents her as, to a relatively average child. She cares deeply for her mother. She is intelligent and perceptive, but not to the unrealistic extent that she is presented as by the narrator. In these scenes, she becomes a real child, with rational motivations for her actions. She is entertained by the dilapidated reflection a suit of armor presents; she is afraid of a stranger and runs from Mr. Wilson; she is curious about the story of an old woman and questions its reality; and she is jealous of her mother's attention and counters it by controlling what she can. Pearl is not necessarily strange, but she is represented as strange by the narrator. Through these scenes, she becomes a rational three- and seven-year-old.

Works Cited
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Parenting Techniques: How to Bring our Children Up
Name: Erin Bagus
Date: 2006-05-05 01:12:57
Link to this Comment: 19231


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

In my examination of Uncle Tom's Cabin I concluded that our hope for social change in the future lay in teaching our children to live differently, to have a different morality and social order. After reading Adventures of Huck Finn, however, it occurs to me that perhaps a better future rests not in our teaching our children anything, but in allowing them to teach us – or better still, in a reciprocal interaction. To consider this thought further, it occurs to me that it may be helpful to think about the different ways of looking at childhood and child rearing. In an article entitled "The invention of childhood," Neil Postman is quoted as saying that "childhood was invented in the seventeenth century" (1). Postman argues that though there were obviously children before then, childhood did not exist as a concept. His idea is summarized, "Childhood is a social construction, a collective agreement to set aside some time between infancy and adulthood largely free of responsibilities that is enforced by behaviors, social norms, and laws" (1). He clarifies the two major philosophies, which were combined to come to this conception of childhood.

Locke, in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, said that humans start as blank slates, onto which culture must be written. The teaching of culture, which necessitates self-discipline, physical fitness, and the development of reason, helps children to become better citizens. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed the child to be valuable in and of itself, not just as a citizen. He said that children are closer to a "State of Nature" than adults and that civilization and its ugliness pollute the innate goodness of children. Postman writes that Western civilization blended these two philosophies to form its model of childhood, which is characterized as "a time when self control, deferred gratification, and logical thought are taught, but not at the expense of individuality, which must be nurtured" (2). From these three philosophies we could pull out three modes of raising children: that which believes the parent must teach the child everything about the world and how to exist in it, through strict rules, discipline, and restricting freedom; that which worships the child, giving him ultimate freedom to do as he pleases without rules or punishments; and that which tries to nurture the child's creativity and individuality within a certain framework that protects and helps him to process the world around him. In some classics of 19th Century American Literature, we find parents and children who fall into each of these categories. Perhaps, examining some of their interactions, we may see which method is most effective at producing a well-rounded child who can function in his society. This examination may also provide some idea of the possibilities and limits of letting our children devise a new social order.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck – abandoned and adopted repeatedly – has never had anyone to really teach him the morality and social order of his community; what he has learned, he has discovered mostly on his own. He might be considered in the second of our categories: ultimate freedom, without rules or punishments. Lacking anyone to explain to him the reasoning behind what he experiences or hears, he makes up his own story or, when he can't do that, dismisses it or pretends he never encountered it. When one of his temporary guardians, Miss Watson, tries to explain an aspect of society, namely religion, she speaks to him in a metaphorical language he cannot understand. Thus, Huck still ends up making his own story in the end, which is more literal and makes sense to him. For example, Huck narrates, "Miss Watson...told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn't no good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work" (23). When he finally asks her why it isn't working for him, she tells him he's a "fool" because he didn't understood that she meant he might receive "spiritual gifts" not material things. The thought, however, still remains unclear for Huck. He says, "I couldn't make it out no way" (23).

Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, has a family who has socialized him and answered all the why-questions that Huck is left to answer by himself. In Huck Finn, we don't really meet Tom's nuclear family, but we do spend the final section of the book with his extended family, who function in the same way as parents might, while allowing the boys' trick to work since – as far away relatives – they don't know what they should look like. Tom's family has taught him how he is supposed to interact with certain people and how he is supposed to feel about certain issues, therefore, he always seems to know more than Huck, that is, to be better informed. They allow him a fair amount of freedom, though, which seems to put him into the third of our categories.
The task of setting Jim free in the final section of the book brings the contrast between Huck and Tom into clarity. Tom views the project as a game, which serves only to entertain him. At one point he declares that "it was the best fun he ever had in his life, and the most intellectural; ...if he only could see his way to it we would keep it up all the rest of our lives and leave Jim to our children to get out" (256). He has lost sight of Jim's humanity in the process of amusing himself, to the point that Jim has become – even worse than the property he was as a slave – nothing more than a plaything, a great toy that Tom hopes to leave to his own children. Were we to put Tom in charge of designing a new social order, perhaps we would have no more slavery in the old sense, but would the new form of it be even more terrible? I think, however, that it is important to consider the fact that Tom had in fact been greatly socialized when he came up with this free-Jim game. He is not really coming up with something new because he still sees Jim as a slave, not really human in the same way that he himself is. Tom is simply being a little boy and playing make-believe with his slave to set him free, but one could easily imagine an adult who shows as much lack of regard for another human as Tom demonstrates, owning and roughly treating slaves. In this way, I don't see him as really illustrating the creative novelty with which a child's mind might formulate a new social order. He's too far gone, too educated. Perhaps he should be moved to the first category of parenting because he seems to have internalized his parents' vision of the world instead of really discovering it for himself. Huck, on the other hand, offers some real possibilities.

We, the readers, often find Huck considering the societal morality or opinion, which he has been half-taught, and in the end deciding that, for lack of a clearer solution, he is going to rely on himself and what feels right to him or comes easiest. When considering whether or not to give Jim up, he thinks to himself:

s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better that what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad – I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use of learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? ...So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time. (113)

Huck cannot reason through why he should give up Jim because he doesn't understand society's rationality of slavery. In his own solitary experiences with Jim, outside society, Tom doesn't even seem to notice his race, and even appears to see Jim as a father figure or caretaker.

Later, during another internal struggle Huck is feeling between what he knows he's supposed to do with Jim, that is turn him in, and what he feels is right. He says, "I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind...he would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me" (223). Huck's interaction with Jim and his ability to see him as a real person as well as his desire to save Jim not just for amusement's sake, but for the fact that he is human and deserves freedom, make me believe that a child like Huck could teach us adults a new way of seeing the world. He is courageous enough to let go of the morality - "moral or no moral; and as for me, I don't care shucks for the morality of it" (254) – and just do what he thinks right, no matter the consequences. He even accepts the possibility that he might be wrong, declaring, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (223).

One issue, however, that we must deal with is the fact that Huck goes along with Tom throughout the whole ordeal of "creating difficulties" to make Jim's escape more like those Tom's read about in books. If Huck is the aspect of childhood, which might provide us with something new, he is also that part of us that doesn't dare act out, that goes along with the group even when we think it wrong or unjust. He tells Tom, "All right – I don't care where he comes out, so he comes out; and Jim don't either, I reckon" (251). Huck gives in to the ridiculous antics that Tom wants Jim to perform instead of standing up for and protecting him. I have been trying to figure out why he does that because he seems like such a creative, resourceful child; I would be more likely to guess that he might stand up for himself and what he thinks.

It occurs to me though, that Tom and Huck are each trying to place themselves in the other's situation. That is, that Tom is trying to be wild and free – without the restraints of society or family, like Huck – while Huck wants to be more logical and restrained – to fit into the society and family world of which he is not naturally a part. At the end of the book, Huck says, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (296). I would argue that it is not that Huck doesn't want to be "civilized" and become part of a family group, but rather that he doesn't know how and, unable to figure it out, he chooses to remain in the world he knows – the wilds, nature. Huck seems to envy his friend because he has been taught how to play his part in the group, because he knows the rules and how he is supposed to act. Though they have shared many experiences, each boy has had an opposite sort of childhood because of the way his parents treat him. Neither child rearing technique seems to have been totally successful in this story because Tom, who was highly socialized, orchestrated a game with a man's life, and Huck, who lacked socialization, could see a new order but couldn't stand up for it when it counted because he didn't feel confident enough in his ability to process; he'd never had a strong parent-figure to teach him how to sort through his ideas and understand the world he encounters.

Let us look at another 19th Century work to see another parent-child situation. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, there are repeated examples of children and how they are taught the social scheme by their parents. Young angelic Eva has taken to heart her father's principles, even if he doesn't have the moral strength, or is too lazy, to carry them through. She, I believe, falls into the third kind of child rearing, but hers is a strange case because she often seems to be more the teacher than her parents are. She is described as: "the perfection of childish beauty, ... an undulating and aerial grace, ... mythic and allegorical being ...deep spiritual gravity ...[like] something almost of the angels stepped out of the New Testament" (126-7). The young girl is not a typical child and seems to have a deeper spiritual sense of the world than even most adults. She tries to teach those around her a new way of living, based on love of everyone, no matter their race or situation. Her father supports her, even to the point of worshiping her. This, however, might fit with her religiousness. Their relationship does not actually seem to fit into any of our categories though precisely because Eva appears to be more like an angel than a child, endowed with a certain sense of the world typically beyond a child. I think it is important to consider the fact that Eva is supposed to represent a Christ-figure in the novel. Because of this, she might not function well as an example of a real child, to discover which child rearing technique is most effective. Let us move on then to another, more real child figure in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Young Master George has two parents who participate actively in teaching him about the world, while at the same time, allowing him to interact with and discover it on his own. Not only does he have his parents to do this, but he has also known Tom since birth, and loves him as a sort of father figure and friend. The young master has taken to heart his parents', specifically his mother's, convictions about slavery, and though they were not able to make decisive action in their own time, he will realize the changes that they imagined. If we do indeed consider Tom a parent-figure for George, it seems particularly important that it is "kneeling on the grave of his poor friend" that the young master declares before God that "from this hour, [he] will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from [his] land" (365).

Standing on the shoulders of his forefathers and understanding the fundamental causes of the unjust system they handed down to him, George declares that he will "never own another slave, while it was possible to free him; that nobody, through [him], should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation" (380). Not only does the young master set his slaves free, but more importantly, he does it for the right reasons. He sees their humanity, and that they are no different from he. George's interactions with his two sets of "parents" – his own natural mother and father and Tom and his wife - have taught him about the world as it is, while at the same time, nurturing in him creative thought, individuality, and the belief that he can change the system. For this reason, I think Master George represents the third kind of child rearing, which nurtures the child's creativity and individuality within a certain framework that protects and helps him to process the world around him. The fact that he is the only figure in Uncle Tom's Cabin to make any real change seems to show the great possibility of the third method of bringing up children.

How do these literary examples inform our discussion of the three child rearing techniques? Where does they leave us in terms of whether or not our children can teach us how to live differently? It seems to me that all of the children – Huck, Tom, Eva, and George – show us children's amazing ability to think creatively. Based solely on their own experiences of it, they see the world very differently than adults do. Sometimes, however, without instruction they can be too self-absorbed and disregard the well being of others – like Tom does when designing his game to "free Jim." Everyone for himself certainly will not work as a societal order because it would result in total chaos. Also, with Huck, we see that children seem to crave some direction about how they are supposed to fit into the world.

If we allow more of a reciprocal relationship between the children's creative imagination and the adult's mature, experienced guidance, we arrive at a middle path. In the examples of Eva and Master George, we find children who've been nurtured in this fashion, which falls somewhere in between too much and too little freedom. They are able to first understand why the world is the way it is, and then to challenge that society in very real ways. George, in particular, when he comes of age, makes actual decisions that change the structure of slavery – giving his slaves the freedom, which should naturally be theirs as human beings. At the end of the discussion, I think it is fair to say that our best prospect for the future lies in the third child rearing technique, which explains to children how the world is, but supports them in their individuality. This method provides children with the creative space to change the world.


Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Elizabeth Ammons, Ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1994.

"The Invention of Childhood." 24 February 2005. Online 4 May 2006.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. New York: Norton, 1999.

Linguistics, Controversy, and the Scarlet Letter
Name: Adina Halp
Date: 2006-05-05 11:57:51
Link to this Comment: 19242


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Literary criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter often centers on the notion that there is relatively little action that occurs in the text. An event happens, that is, Hester and Dimmesdale have sexual intercourse and Hester becomes pregnant with Pearl, but this action is never described or even blatantly mentioned and has already occurred when the text begins. After this, the characters seem to be resigned to their destiny: Hester to her shame, Dimmesdale to his inner turmoil and eventual death, Chillingworth with his obsession with revenge, Pearl with her wild nature, and the townspeople of Salem with their contempt for Hester and exemption from punishment as long as she is punished. Nevertheless, the novel spans 166 Pages and has been deemed a classic novel of nineteenth century America. One aspect of the text that makes it so outstanding is Hawthorne's use of language to describe such relatively simple actions. To me, Hawthorne's words flow into each other like music. Despite the inaction of the novel, I was captured by it fully and was held in suspense during most of it. Why are Hawthorne's words so intriguing? What is it about his choice of sounds, the meanings of these sounds, and their combination in a particular order that causes the language that Hawthorne uses to be outstanding amongst the novels of nineteenth century literature?

One way to answer these questions is to look to the field that specializes in the technicalities of language: linguistics. In this paper, I look at the Scarlet Letter through the lenses of two different theorists whose epistemologies are at odds with each other: Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ferdinand de Saussure. These theorists do not necessarily oppose each other completely; their theories relate to different aspects of the way language is structured and the ways people speak. Whorf writes about language and cognition, while Saussure writes about the supposed arbitrariness of language, particularly the sounds of words. However, these theories cannot neatly be placed together as one all-encompassing theory because cognition is not an arbitrary process but requires rules and involves a certain language history. Is it possible for the two theories to account for the Scarlet Letter on different levels? Or does a reading and analysis of the Scarlet Letter act as an answer to an on-going debate in linguistics?

Whorf argues that language has a direct influence on thought process; a person only formulates thoughts according to what that person's language allows them to say. He makes his point by contrasting Standard American English (SAE) with the Hopi language:

"But the difficulty of appraising such a far-reaching influence is great because of its background character, because of the difficulty of standing aside from our own language, which is a habit and a cultural non est disputandum, and scrutinizing it objectively. And if we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have already done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language. Or we find the task of unraveling the purely morphological intricacies so gigantic that it seems to absorb all else...Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own" (137-8.)

One example that he gives is the SAE use of tense. In SAE, past, present and future are three discrete tenses; and tense is essential in most utterances. By contrast, in Hopi, the exact same scene would usually be described in a very different way. The Hopi do not emphasize tense; but rather, the validity of the speaker and the speaker's association with the event – the source of the speaker's knowledge of the meaning behind the utterance.

However, this does not mean that a speaker of Hopi would not be able to express the idea that an event happened in the past, in the present, or in the future. Conversely, a speaker of SAE is capable of acknowledging her or his place in relation to the event. Whorf translates the SAE statement "He is running" to "Running. Statement of fact," the literal SAE translation of a Hopi equivalent. This sentence would be of little relevance to a Standard American English speaker, but a speaker of SAE could still say something like "He is running, and I know this for a fact." This particular sentence situates the speaker in the realm of knowledge that the running occurred (although it does not avoid a use of tense). It would only be used in specific instances when the speaker's source of knowledge is important because an outside factor causes the speaker to point out validity, for example, if someone does not believe the speaker is telling the truth. This contrasts with Hopi, in which the validity of the statement is always in the foreground.

Whorf's theory can be applied to the Scarlet Letter. Close examination of Hawthorne's descriptions reveals that almost every word in almost every sentence of the novel conjures its own image. When Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl leave the forest after Hester and Dimmesdale have their (second) passionate love affair and Pearl behaves in a very peculiar manner, "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser" (136).

Reading the same words, two different images can be formed in my imagination. I can mentally translate the sentence to something like, "nature knew what happened there but people did not," or I could be left with a resonating image of a small and wooded valley or hollow newly vacated and left all alone. With solitude, I could feel lonely and sad, yet pensive. The trees are dark and old. This leaves a color image in the mind as well as a sinister and sad sensation, and a feeling of eternity. The "multitudinous tongues" could be the leaves or branches of the trees, and their whisper could be the noise that the wind that ruffles them causes them to make. Or else the whispering tongues could be something even more metaphorical in that it does not represent a physical entity but a feeling of nature's knowledge and the secret that nature does not keep. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. The whisper is long, and again there is an image of eternity, or near eternity. The forest has always been there and will always be there. Mortals – people – believe that they know all and that they are wise, but in reality they are not wise at all. They do not know the secret of Hester and Dimmesdale – only the forest knows that. The forest, with the same dark qualities exhibited in Hester, Dimmesdale, and especially Pearl, and in Hester and Dimmesdale's passionate yet forbidden act, will keep the secrets of these people and this act that are so similar to its character.

So where does Whorf's theory fit in here? He could have just written "nature knew what happened there but people did not." But the words he chooses form a paragraph worth of images in my mind. He chooses words that could have meant many different yet similar things and leaves it up to the reader to choose their meaning. Moreover, he does not write the paragraph that I wrote above but instead manipulates the Standard American English words available to him to succinctly say what he means. It would seem that the linguistic ability of a speaker of Standard American English would make it extremely difficult to even think of a sentence with such meaning. Yet Hawthorne is able to use the tools at his disposal (words) to create sentences that make me think of images and situations that are not usually constructed in other SAE texts or even conversations.

Although Whorf wrote in 1939, long after the completion Hawthorne's 1850 literary work, fragments of the novel hint that perhaps Hawthorne had similar ideas to Whorf's with regards to language and that he consciously employed descriptive words that allowed multiple images. After a (fairly long) introduction that gives the story its specific time and place in history, Hawthorne writes:

"This rose-bush, by chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it,--or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door,--we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." [Emphasis mine.] (37).

This paragraph furthers Whorf's argument on multiple levels. First, it can be read in a number of alternative ways. It is unclear whether the passage is literally about plucking a rose from a rose-bush or whether the rose-bush and rose are symbolic – the rose-bush, of seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts or the multitude of stories that surround that setting; the rose, of this novel, one episode from this place and time-period. If it is symbolic, there are at least two different things that the rose-bush could represent. Second, the statement that the rose can symbolize either "some sweet moral blossom" or "the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorry" explicitly reveals the dualistic nature of the text and draws attention to the multiple readings of it. From the very beginning of the story, the reader is invited to interpret the novel in more than one way – depending on the meanings that the reader gets from the words, the reader could be left with a variety of different interpretations of what actually happened in the text and therefore pick up different morals, lessons, or meanings from the story itself.

The deliberately ambiguous nature of the novel can also be found at its end, when Hawthorne is least descriptive and the words focus most on storyline. For example, we are explicitly told that anything could have happened to Pearl in the aftermath of the story: "None knew—nor ever learned, with the fullness of perfect certainty—whether the elf-child had gone thus ultimately to a maiden grave; or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued, and made capable of a woman's gentle happiness" (165).

This technique is especially clear with regards to the Reverend Dimmesdale. During the entire novel, Dimmesdale is continually covering his chest with his hand. The reader finds an increasing connection between Hester and Dimmesdale and has a continually stronger inkling that Dimmesdale is the man with whom Hester had the sexual affair that resulted in Pearl's birth. When I read the novel for the first time, I believed that Dimmesdale was covering up something that resembled Hester's scarlet letter on his chest. Whether this was actually the case is left uncertain, and the reader is left with a number of choices of how the letter would have actually gotten there. Moreover, there is still the possibility that these two people never had an affair at all:

"Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origins, there were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural...

It is singular, never the less, that certain persons...denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant's. Neither, by their report, had his dying words acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter" (163).

The use of the word "words" draws attention to the ambiguous nature of those literary units in which Hawthorne wrote the novel. Never once in the novel is it said explicitly that Hester's sexual affair was indeed with Dimmesdale. This passage leads the reader to this point, emphasizing the infinite number of possible interpretations of the novel from the language in which it was written.

Whorf's ideas were published in The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language in 1939, about three decades after Ferdinand de Saussure formulated his ideas between 1907 and 1911 (Culler, 16). Saussure's theories are more to do with the nature of particular words than with language and cognition; they do not act to completely oppose or reject those of Whorf. Because the ideas differ with regards to their places in the uses and functions of language, it may be argued that evidence of both of these are present in the Scarlet Letter. One could argue that the nature of words is what causes our cognitive abilities to interact with language in certain ways. However, the question at hand is not whether or not the language in the book can be seen to exhibit features of these theories; it is, rather, to examine the language of the novel and determine if either of these theories can account for my particular reaction to the Scarlet Letter.

Ferdinand de Saussure theorizes about signs. Jonathan Culler (1976: 28) explains, "The sign is union of a form which signifies, which Saussure calls the signifiant (signifier), and an idea signified, the signifié (signified)." In other words, a sign is the combination of a concept and a sound image. This relationship is arbitrary in that there is no inherent correlation between the signifier and the signified. There is no reason why a certain item or concept should be represented by any particular word or sound. A four-legged item with a board across the top is a "table" simply because we recognize it to be called that.

Hawthorne uses the signs suggested by Saussure in such a way that they conjure many images in a very succinct way. That is why I finished the text feeling like I had gone through an entire journey when really very little had happened. The sentence previously quoted is an example of this. The signs that Hawthorne employs cause so many mental images to appear in such a short period of time; many different scenes are mentally constructed very quickly.

Furthermore, standard literary tools are used throughout the novel. Specifically, Hawthorne often uses alliteration. The latter part of the sentence that I have deconstructed uses the sound (w) many times. The dell has trees "which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser." This gives this part of the sentence an eerie feel to it. The first part of that sentence uses an unusually great amount of (d) and (t) sounds, many of which do not start the words but are laced throughout them: "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues." It is peculiar that so many (d)s and (t)s are used in the same sentence, because these are hard and soft consonants that are closely related.

It is not unusual for authors to use literary tools such as alliteration. However, that Hawthorne is able to use them in such a way as to conjure so many images is amazing. Since signifiers are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds, Hawthorne has a limited number of signs from which he can choose to create the appropriate sounds; yet he still manages to create stunning imagery that causes inaction to appear in fast motion. Hawthorne manipulates signs and words to perform many functions at once.

It seems, then, that both theories are of use here: Hawthorne manipulates language in order to create infinite possibilities through the limits of Standard American English. Simultaneously, he fashions Standard American English words – sounds which are arbitrarily assigned to specific meanings – in such a way that words with certain sounds are surrounded with other sounds that compliment them and make them interesting on a superficial (i.e. in sound and not meaning) level.

However, upon closer examination of these techniques, one comes to the realization that even though language may indeed be a combination of arbitrary sounds, it is not the arbitrariness of these sounds that Hawthorne's text so powerful for me. These sounds are part of my cognitive ability, limited to the confines of Standard American English. It is the fact that these sounds evoke so many different images in my mind that makes Hawthorne's words so powerful for me. My experience of reading the text leads me to conclude that there is a fundamental relationship between language and thought; it does not lead to a grand conclusion that words are arbitrary signs.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter reads as evidence for the theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf and not those of Ferdinand de Saussure. This does not, however, mean that Saussure's theories can be disregarded from the field of linguistics; it simply means that one cannot come to the theory that language is made up of arbitrary signs simply be reading and analyzing the Scarlet Letter. It seems impossible to conclude from reading any novel that language is a system of arbitrary signs. However, even if Saussure's theories do not lend themselves to novels at all, this does not necessarily make them less valid, it simply suggests that the arbitrariness of signs in language does not cause texts to be powerful.

The theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf can be used to explain just what it is about the words that Nathaniel Hawthorne uses in the Scarlet Letter in order to make them so enchanting. Conversely, the Scarlet Letter can be used as validation of Whorf's theories. However, one cannot use the Scarlet Letter or any novel to disprove any linguistic theory; the closest one can come is to say that evidence of the theory is not present in a particular text. Even if the arbitrariness of language is not what makes Hawthorne's words what I consider beautiful, this does not mean that language is necessarily not arbitrary and that words and their meanings are logically connected. Moreover, connections between the language one speaks and one's cognitive abilities are certainly not the only reasons why I found Hawthorne's words to sound beautiful. Other linguistic theories could certainly be used, as well as theories in other fields, the most obvious being literary theories. Nevertheless, this is a start. Reading the Scarlet Letter does help to show application of Whorf's theories. Additionally, one can apply Whorf's theories to the Scarlet Letter to show that there really are certain qualities in the writing that causes it to appear magical.

Works Cited:
Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1976.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Sculley Bradley et. al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In Carroll, John B. (ed.) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1956 [1939].

Finding Freedom in a Room of their Own: Margaret F
Name: Steph Hero
Date: 2006-05-05 16:09:32
Link to this Comment: 19255


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Location: Margaret Fuller's living room, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Women present: Margaret Fuller, host
Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter
Cassy of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Aunt Sally of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Margaret Fuller: Welcome, ladies. Please have a seat and help yourself to tea and cookies before we begin.

The three women gather around a set of cushioned chairs. Hester Prynne looks anxious, Aunt Sally a bit confused, and Cassy looks comfortable, but not completely at ease. Fuller sets herself next to Prynne and Cassy, takes out her notes, looks each woman in the eye, and begins.

Fuller: I hope you three do not mind, but I have done an extensive amount of research into your pasts and I am intrigued by your beliefs and actions, particularly your attitudes towards freedom, and –

Cassy: What do you women have to say about freedom? I was physically bound to a white man. How can you say you were under any kind of spiritual or emotional confinement when I did not even own my own body?

Prynne and Aunt Sally look at each other with wide eyes. Prynne seems distressed, Aunt Sally, annoyed.

Fuller: I am interested in exploring what this freedom means. Cassy, your concerns are valid – in fact, I believe that as women we experience a kind of innate slavery to societal ideals of femininity, and you doubly so because of your race. I am not saying that it is fair or justifiable. I want you to talk about it. Investigate it with us.

Cassy (unsure what to make of Fuller, skeptical): Alright. Go on.

Fuller: I am working on a draft of an essay called "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," let me pull it out – (Fuller pulls out a stack of ruffled papers from underneath her notes) here it is – "It is for that which is the birthright of every being capable to receive it, the freedom, the religious, the intelligent freedom of the universe, to use its means to learn its secret as far as nature has enable them, with G-d alone for their guide and their judge."

Hester Prynne (slightly shocked): What do you mean by freedom of the universe? The universe certainly did not give me freedom. In fact, when I acted of my own free will, the universe punished me by casting me as an outsider.

Fuller: Was it the universe castigating you, or the individuals in your community? (Prynne raises her eyebrows at Fuller) If you were a man, Ms. Prynne, do you think your actions would have been punished?

Prynne: I certainly would not have been condemned to live outside my town if I was a man, raising a child alone on the outskirts of the community.

Aunt Sally: Freedom of the universe is only granted to men. Even my Huck acts so – sayin' women can't 'preciate or understand adventure.

Fuller: If women were free, free to fully develop the strength and beauty within themselves, they would never want to be manly, or even manlike.

Cassy: Am I manlike because I used my wit and intellect to escape from Legree?

Aunt Sally (very sure of herself): This isn't about masculinity or femininity. What you did was morally wrong! You should've waited until Legree gave you your freedom. What can freedom mean if it's stolen? You got to earn freedom. It's not just yours for the taking.

Cassy (infuriated): Haven't I earned freedom just by being alive? Why should I wait for someone else to give me something that I should already have? How dare you assume that your race gives your freedom a higher priority than mine.
Fuller: Point taken, Cassy. I think what you're forgetting, Sally, is that as a woman living in a patriarchal society, you are participating in a kind of "acknowledged" slavery. Let me explain – women can never stand on their own as human beings, but must be attached to a man in some kind of romantic fashion. Woman as the poem, man the poet. Woman the heart, man the head. See what I mean?

Prynne: Yes. But I think it's a woman's place to navigate the desires of the heart, to understand the emotions in a poem. Men need women as an emotional compliment to their masculine intellect. If Dimmesdale had not allowed me to enter his life, perhaps he never would have explored that visceral, expressive side of himself, even if it ended up with him leaving his profession.

Cassy: What about those of us who can't afford only foster a "feminine" side? If I were to act traditionally ladylike, I'd still be on Legree's plantation, just dreaming about freedom. (pause) And I have another issue with what you said, Margaret. I don't think G-d had anything to do with my freedom. If true freedom means G-d alone is my "guide and judge," how come so many slaves hold that belief about G-d yet remain so unbearably not free?

Fuller: I did not mean that G-d somehow enables freedom. I mean that if anyone, G-d is the only power women are accountable to; we are not to be placed in some power hierarchy where a man's authority over woman supersedes G-d's authority over human beings.
Aunt Sally (exasperated): But men don't think that way! How can women have that freedom when men won't give it to us?

Fuller: Let's step back a second. What if you didn't have to worry about men allowing you freedom? I want to ask each of you a question: what does freedom of the universe look like?

Prynne: Freedom of the universe is soft but with rough edges. It is not wearing an embroidered mark of sin, but letting your whole garment flow with the electric life of being, sin and innocence, tame and wild. It is maneuvering the conventional to a place that feels comfortable, a place that fits.

Cassy: Freedom of the universe is a brilliant light. Not a heavenly light, but a radiant earth glow, a tremendous weight of feeling, of feeling the you-ness in the universe. Freedom of the universe is fighting back, and letting go, and going.

Aunt Sally: Freedom of the universe is complicated. I can't get my head around it – it is bigger than me, bigger than the Mississippi, but maybe as wide – holding as many fish and mystery creatures, and the possibility of adventure without a script.

Fuller: I want to bring about another thought, something I'm working on for the end of my essay. "Woman, self-centered, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man. It is a vulgar error that love, a love to woman is her whole existence; she is also born for Truth and Love in their universal energy." I want freedom to be more than escaping your relationships with men. For it to be true freedom, freedom of the universe, you have to define your being for yourself.

This discussion is by no means over. The women continue arguing about freedom, passion, and relationships late into the night, leaving Margaret Fuller's house with a sense of strange, radiant accomplishment.


In The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Judith Fetterly declares that "the major works of American fiction constitute a series of designs on the female reader," suggesting that to read American classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to read as a male, with no place for female readers to insert their own existence into the literary experience. Freedom becomes a gendered experience, as the male narrators or protagonists in these fictions so blatantly define the acquisition of freedom, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, as an experience limited to men. When the hierarchy of power between the genders is so narrowly defined, where can a woman place herself in these narratives?

Fetterly describes the necessity of a kind of reexamination of these narratives through a feminist lens, quoting Adrienne Rich, who states, "Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society." Like Rich, Fetterly demands that we no longer subscribe to the conventional, male readings of these texts, proclaiming a new reality in these novels, changing literary criticism from a "closed conversation" to an "active dialogue."

In constructing a discussion between Fuller and the nineteenth century novel characters, I hoped to begin this redefinition of American literature, exploring the voices of these women and allowing Margaret Fuller's voice to bring out different strands of each character. While Fuller mediated the dialogue, she could not contain the opinions of these women as they explored the space for conversation that they lacked in their respective novels. In discussing freedom, issues of race and personal relationships emerged in the conversation, and for the first time these women were actually able to fully express their beliefs. Fuller empowered them to verbalize what their personal "freedom of the universe" would look like. While these descriptions were more poetic than tangible elements of these women's' lives, Fuller gave these characters the power to define their own reality, or at least their ideal reality.

Aunt Sally, Hester Prynne, and Cassy all come to the discussion with wholly different morals and statuses in society, yet Fuller's living room offers them a space of equality where they can engage in heated discussion and yet are not afraid of being dismissed as inadequate because of their gender. Racial tensions arise between Cassy and Aunt Sally, yet both women are given the opportunity to voice their opinions, with Fuller exploring different intellectual interpretations of their words. They no longer have to answer to the male protagonists in their texts; they provide their own answers to Fuller's provocative questions. The women are prompted by Fuller to recognize the kind of "acknowledged" slavery (literal slavery for Cassy) evident in their experiences within the confines of the patriarchal societies constructed in each novel, and thus, as Adrienne Rich so desires, they begin to comprehend "the assumptions in which we [women] are drenched."

I wrote this text as a woman writing about women for women to read. I am putting my own designs on the reader, feminist designs, and challenging Hawthorne, Twain, and Stowe in their limitations of the female characters in their novels. It will take more than a dialogue for these women to obtain Margaret Fuller's conception of "freedom of the universe." In giving them an intellectual voice and intellectual thought processes, I desired to remove them from the stereotypical female roles they were cast as in their novels and give them brains of their own in addition to simply a room of their own to hold this discussion. In writing this dialogue, I felt a new kind of personal freedom, not only in empowering the characters to speak and think for themselves, but in allowing these women to be in conversation with other women. All of them are in one way or another isolated in their respective novels, and in constructing their conversation, I felt as if I was freeing myself from the feminist anger and frustration I experienced while reading the novels by giving them a sense of female solidarity. I created for them a context of women in which to place themselves, and a context of Fuller's feminist theory with which to reexamine their lives.

These women could not experience "freedom of the universe" within the constraints of their novels, as they were never given the opportunity for a discussion of what that kind of freedom really means. By setting different constraints on them, Margaret Fuller's ideas and theories, they were able to reach a point where they could establish their own definitions of freedom without being pulled down by the constraints of their societal status. Thus freedom is more than just the ability to manipulate within constraints to create your own reality, but freedom becomes the ability to define yourself, boldly and honestly, despite the inevitable presence of constraints.

Works Cited

Fetterly, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to Fiction. Indiana University PressBloomington and London: 1978.

Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women." Originally published in The Dial: IV, 1843. Text from Emotions coursebook

Teaching Huck Finn to Low-Income Students
Name: Laine Edwa
Date: 2006-05-06 06:01:52
Link to this Comment: 19264


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

As someone who will be teaching high school English next year in a classroom of low-income, minority students, I am interested in how literature can be used to broach difficult and often taboo topics such as race and discrimination. Mark Twain's novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, deals very specifically, although subtlety, with both of these issues. Twain's use of the word "nigger" and his portrayal of the black characters in the novel make Huck Finn, in my opinion, a prime text for exploring issues of race in the classroom. Through this paper I hope to establish the way reading can positively affect the achievement of low income students. Additionally, the creation of a community structure between students, parents, and teachers will help students to feel more comfortable with their learning, thereby increasing their achievement in the classroom.
In this lesson plan I will first explain the type of classroom community that I believe necessary to have productive and fruitful discussion about race. It is my hope that this community will extend outside the classroom to include the students' families. I will then continue by outlining three activities that will engage the students in discussion with each other as well as provoking them to think introspectively about the ways in which race has impacted their lives. Finally, I will finish the lesson plan with an essay prompt that ties together the discussion of race in Huck Finn with the greater implications I would like the book to have for the students in their communities. My intention with the creation of this lesson plan is to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a way that sparks a dialogue between students and encourages them to continue discussing and thinking about race beyond the classroom in a positive way.
Although my personal belief is that literature is a wonderful tool for beginning a dialogue about difficult topics as well as for bridging gaps between people, I realize that my almost blind faith in the ability of Huck Finn to do this is somewhat naďve. The probability that the vast majority of my students will be black creates a clear racial divide between my students and me. My own background as a white, upper-class woman will challenge both me and my students in the ways that we will be able to relate to each other. The most important way that I see to combat my own naďveté is to remember that I also have much to learn from my students and that I must be humble about learning from their experiences as well as my own.
The Classroom Community:
Before even broaching such a controversial topic as race I believe that it is first essential to take stock of the type of community fostered within the classroom. In order for any discussion of race to be productive, an atmosphere of mutual respect must first be established. I will respect my students, my students will respect me, but most importantly, my students need to respect each other. Students must feel comfortable enough in the classroom to express their opinions without fear of ridicule. Additionally, students must be able to express dissenting opinions while at the same time showing consideration for the opinions of others.
My initial belief about creating such a community in my classroom is that it is necessary to include students in the process. After reading an article by Jerome E. Morris entitled, "Bonding Black Students, Families, and Community Socioculturally," about the importance of communal bonding between students, families, and teachers, however, I feel that student discussion of community is only one step in the process of creating a respectful community. In his article, Morris examines a predominately African-American school in St. Louis, Missouri. He asserts that the reason for the school's continued success at producing high-achieving students is the way "school personnel have communally bonded with African-American families and the surrounding community to foster an academically supportive environment for the predominately African-American and low-income students" (31). Morris also cites the shared African-American cultural heritage of students, families, and teachers as yet another reason that the community bond is so strong. Morris' article presents a valid argument about the importance of involving the families of students in the classroom community that I create and after reading his article I believe that I must take an alternate approach to creating a respectful community in my classroom.
In his article, Morris makes the point that for most students attending school in low-income urban areas, "life is filled with the day-today challenges of sustaining employment, curtailing crime and violence in their neighborhood, and mitigating the impact of structural forces such as racism and classism" (36). Before beginning a discussion about issues of race in Huck Finn I will have a discussion with my students about how they define respect. What I would traditionally consider disrespectful (i.e. interrupting another student, raising ones' voice) may not be considered disrespectful by my students. I do believe, however that it is important to talk with students how they feel a respectful discussion should be conducted according to their own definitions of respect. From there I will ask students to come up together with a few guidelines to help facilitate a courteous dialogue. By fostering a classroom community that focuses on mutual respect and consideration for others, I hope that my students will learn how to discuss difficult issues in a way that promotes continued dialogue within the community.
I struggle with devising a way to invite parents to participate in both the classroom community and the discussion of Huck Finn with my students. As Morris points out, the students, families, and teachers all shared a common cultural bond that brought them together. I am not privy to this cultural heritage and I am unsure of the best approach for finding myself a place in this community. As of right now, I believe the best strategy is to be humble and to value the culture and experiences of my students as much as I value my own. Although I am in the classroom to teach my students, I feel that in order to better teach them I must let them teach me about their culture and community.
The Activities:
1. To begin a discussion of race in Huck Finn I will first write the word "nigger" on the blackboard. Instead of immediately asking students to speak, I will ask them to sit quietly in their seats and think about the word written on the board. After approximately a minute I will invite students to come up to the board, without talking, and write their thoughts or feelings. To start things off I will write the word "contextual" on the board in the hope that students will recognize that the word has various meanings depending on the context in which it is used. After all the students have written on the board I will ask for volunteers to start the discussion. My hope is that the students will be inspired to discuss their experiences with the word, whether it be how they have heard the word used, how they themselves use the word or how the word has impacted their own lives.
My hope for this exercise is that it will jumpstart a dialogue about race in the student's own lives, although I realize my own naďveté in this hope. I recognize that my skin color combined with my position of "power" at the front of the classroom could create an uncomfortable environment in which students are not willing to share their opinions or thoughts. I hope that I will be able to establish a degree of trust between myself and my students so that our discussion together will create a base for further conversations about the way race functions in Huck Finn. In order to delve into the text and look specifically at how the word "nigger" operates within the story, I feel it is necessary to ground the word in a real-life context, such as the lives of my students. Making these connections between literature and real life will hopefully allow my students to see the ways in which reading can help them achieve.
In an article entitled "Influences on Reading in Low-Income Students," Jeanne S. Chall and Catherine E. Snow outline the ways in which effective teachers increase their students' achievement through reading. Although their particular study focused on elementary school children I believe that many of the theories that they provide for improving reading ability extend past elementary school. Chall and Snow assert that successful teachers use "both direct and indirect methods for teaching word meanings, recognition of hard words, and reading comprehension. [...] They also provided students many opportunities to use these skills in a variety of new situations, including materials that challenged them" (55). I consider Huck Finn to be a challenging text, not so much in terms of vocabulary, but in the levels of depth to the text. Reading Huck Finn will challenge my students' abilities to read for comprehension.
2. To continue our discussion of race in Huck Finn I will ask my students to look specifically at how the word "nigger" functions with the text. I believe the word functions in several different ways, each of which highlights a different aspect of the way race functions within the novel. When describing blacks, such as the people who come to hear Jim's stories, or even Jim himself, white characters freely use the word "nigger" to connote their superiority over blacks. To emphasize this use of the word I will point students to the end of chapter fifteen when Huck says, "It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go humble myself to a nigger" (82). Huck clearly believes himself to be above apologizing to Jim for the simple reason that he is white and Jim is black. I will then ask students to give examples of how they feel the word "nigger" is used in the text and if its use is similar to the way the word is present in their own lives.
In drawing these comparisons or contrasts as the case may be, I hope students will see just how works of literature can relate to their text of their own lives. My initial thought that relating their lives to literature would always be a positive experience for students; however, in rethinking this I understand that literature is not always helpful. Just as it has the ability to bridge the gaps between people, it has the equal capacity to problematize relationships. Although the use of the word "nigger" in Huck Finn is only one example of the word in a historical context, it provides students with a base with which to explore other works of literature that might further their understanding of issues of race.
3. Once my students have examined Huck Finn through the use of specific words such as "nigger," as well as looked at the historical context of the character Jim, I will ask them to bring the text back to the present and think about the impact slavery still has on our society today. I would argue that it still has an extremely large impact on people of all races; however, I will be interested to hear the perspective of my students as they come from different racial and class backgrounds and this is an ideal situation in which I can learn from my students. For this activity I will ask my students to gather newspaper articles, song lyrics, pictures, personal testimonies, poems, and other works of literature giving evidence as to either why they do or do not believe that slavery still has an impact on American society today. In asking students to bring in outside materials relating to the greater themes of race and slavery that we have been discussing in class, I hope to, as Chall and Snow recommend, increase my students' reading comprehension ability by giving them the opportunity to use their skills in a variety of situations.
Additionally, like Morris, Chall and Snow discuss the importance of parent-teacher contact for the benefit of students. This third activity is ideal for encouraging students to engage with their community through interviews or research about how their own community has specifically been affected by racism. By encouraging students to go into their communities to gather materials for this third activity of the lesson plan, I hope that they will talk to their parents and engage their families. I believe that this is one possible way to invite families into our classroom to participate in a discussion with us. At the same time, however, I realize that race is a loaded topic and that I could be setting myself up for an uncomfortable situation.
I am particularly interested in this third activity of my lesson plan because this is a theme that we have been struggling with for the whole semester in my African American Literature class. We did not come to any concrete solutions in this class; however, we all did agree that slavery does still impact how we live today. Where we had difficulties making distinctions was in the degree to which we felt the institution of slavery affected different racial groups. Obviously slavery affects blacks differently than whites, but can we place any sort of value on who feels the negative effects to a greater degree? In my class I would attempt to steer away from pitting black against white in any discussion of slavery that we had. Again I understand that I might possibly be setting myself up for an uncomfortable situation if I am the only white person in a classroom of blacks, or even if there are only one or two other white students in the classroom. Part of my responsibility as an educator will be to ensure to the best of my ability that all of my students feel comfortable in my classroom. To a degree, I worry that engaging in a discussion of race and slavery will only highlight the class differences between myself and my students, causing the gap between us to grow even larger and make it even more difficult for me to reach out to them.
Depending on the quality of the discussion had in the classroom, I think it would be worthwhile to have a discussion with the class about solutions to some of the problems that they identified. Rather than make such solutions applicable to the problems of racism throughout this country, I believe it would be more appropriate to focus on how their solutions could be applied to the smaller groups of the school community or our classroom community. Again, this is an opportunity in which it might be valuable to integrate students' families into the discussion, depending on the quality of the students' discussion up to this point.
Final Essay:
For the students' final assignment I will ask them to write a letter to the school board either in favor of, or against, teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in school. I am not so much interested in which answer the students give, but rather I am interested in how students support the answer they give. I will ask students to support their argument with quotes from the texts, examples from class discussions, and their own perspectives on how reading Huck Finn and discussing it in a classroom setting either positively or negatively affected their feelings about race in our society. In their letters I will ask students to address how our discussions of race within their communities have affected them, whether it be a positive or negative experience. Although it is my hope that students will be inspired by our discussion of Huck Finn and write an impassioned letter to the school board describing how the novel has allowed them to discuss a loaded topic in a way that is thoughtful and productive, I recognize that there is a strong possibility that my expectations might not be met.
I am a firm believer in the power of literature to bring different people together and help them discuss difficult topics. Within the classroom, literature is an especially effective tool for getting students to have a dialogue about issues that directly affect them in their lives. If Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was to be part of the curriculum I was teaching next year, I am not sure that I could resist the opportunity to use the text to bring issues of racism to light through literature. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals very specifically with issues of race and also provides a historical context through which students can learn about slavery and the effect it still has on their own lives today. In asking students to write a letter to the school board either in favor of or against the teaching of Huck Finn in schools, I hope that students will think about the ways in a reading of the book has contributed to their education. Ultimately, I hope reading and discussing Huck Finn will teach students about the importance of respectful discussion about difficult topics.
In writing this paper I have realized that my approach to teaching in a classroom of low-income, African-American students is extremely naďve. Although I only have the best of intentions in using Huck Finn as a means to discuss issues of race and slavery, I know that it could quite possibly backfire on me. I am excited about teaching next year and would love to have the opportunity to teach Huck Finn because I enjoyed the book so much and took a lot away from it. I know, however, that my experiences with the novel have been shaped by the experiences I have had in my life, experiences that are very different from the experiences of my students. Ultimately, I know that I am naďve in expecting any lesson that I plan to go perfectly or that my goals for my students will be achieved with ease, yet I cannot help but believe that my naďveté is in some ways a strength for the way that it allows me to be hopeful about the effect I might have on the achievement of my students.

Chall, Jeanne. S and Catherine E. Snow. "Influence on Reading in Low-Income Students" The Education Digest 54:1 (1988): 53.

Morris, Jerome E. "Bonding Black Students, Families, and Community Socioculturally." The Education Digest. 68:5 (2003): 30.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1996.

A "Battery of Flowers": Nature between the Lines
Name: Jackie O'M
Date: 2006-05-06 14:08:54
Link to this Comment: 19267


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

What is it that gives meaning to the world? Every academic discipline is in search of meaning be it of the past in history, of the universe in astronomy, or of Shakespeare in theater. When disciplines combine, the possibilities to pull meaning out of an event, a text, an equation, multiply, and the learner has the potential to be thrust into a new sphere of meaning. Moby Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have several elements in common, one of which is that they are all tied to the natural world. This is not a coincidence. These are four very complex and intricate texts, and a relationship to nature, which is also very complex, is an inherent part of these texts. By combining literary works with an ecologist's viewpoint, these nineteenth century novels, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular, take on even deeper meaning. Significance can be found in the natural world just as in the texts themselves. Nature is depicted as a wild, free place, and the characters of these novels – such as Huck, Pearl, Hester, and Jim – find their freedom in nature. The signs in nature, just as the signs in the texts, could and should be observed. They are a means to further understanding what happens in our world – these signs are not there on accident. We are inextricably tied to and dependent on nature and it is important to see this relationship played out in the lives of the characters in these classic texts.

Aside from some very apparent themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter – religion, guilt, and social order, to name a few – the presence of nature and the biological world lends an additional way of reading some of the scenes. The opening chapter of the novel, The Prison-Door, describes the town prison and a "wild rose-bush" near its entrance (Hawthorne, 45). Hawthorne presents some options as to why the rose bush has survived in that location as long as it has, and gives it a special importance by saying, "we could hardly do otherwise than to pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader" (46). That very rose bush comes back to the reader later on in the story when Pearl declares "that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door" (99). Pearl equates herself to one of the roses from the bush that has survived since it was part of the New England wilderness. In doing so, Pearl presents a comparison between herself and a very tough and hearty group of organisms in the plant kingdom. Pearl has also been given "to the reader" (46) as one of the roses on that wild bush. Roses grow quite fast and are often found to grow where other plants cannot. The thorns on roses – known technically as prickles (Swanson, 3-15-06) – are thought to be both a defense mechanism and a way to grab on to other plants as the roses grow up over them ( These are interesting characteristics to keep in mind when considering the behavior of Pearl. In The Prison-Door, Hawthorne is presenting the reader with something strong and potentially painful but beautiful at the same time. Pearl herself is also simultaneously these things. She is angelic in her appearance but often harsh in her actions, and she is strong enough to survive in a difficult environment.

Hawthorne describes the naming of Pearl as a result of the "great price" that Hester, her mother, paid for her (Hawthorne, 80). Pearl possesses "nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison" (80). Upon closer reflection, however, Pearl has dark features, and is very beautiful even at a young age (81). This picture of her leads to another comparison: not to a pearl that is white and pure, but rather to a black pearl. Black pearls are highly valued for their rarity. While all pearls are formed from an irritant inside the shell of a mollusk – such as a particle of sand inside an oyster shell – black pearls are rejected from the mollusk sooner than pearls of other colors ( Pearl is born rejected from society, and was conceived in sin. There is no other child like her, and she is extremely valuable to her mother and to the course of the novel. Pearl's name is, in a way, quite accurate when her dark and mysterious behavior is considered.

The parallels between Pearl's character and the nature that surrounds her are striking and illustrate just how much an individual can be tied to nature. We all come from the natural world, according to the theory of evolution. Our biological roots exist in the oceans as simple organisms. The strict Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is, quite possibly, one of the furthest things from the natural origins of life on earth. By placing Pearl in a wild, natural setting, Hawthorne shows how the natural world that we came from can be a more accepting place than the societies we find ourselves in now. Pearl's rejection from society beginning on the day she was born allows her acceptance into the opposite of society – nature. She reverts back to base, wild ways, which are made all the more clear by Hawthorne's vivid use of natural imagery.

The pivotal scene between Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale in the forest further demonstrates the way in which the freedom of nature can free the individual who comes in contact with it. While Hester and Dimmesdale are talking, Pearl amuses herself by fluttering around the forest:
The mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child. (Hawthorne, 178)
Pearl is "gentler" in the forest than in town or at their cottage (178). In the wild she is no longer outcast, as she other places. This scene illustrates another side of the issue of social acceptance, which is one of the themes of the novel. Nature does not know when someone has sinned. It does not know what myriad possibilities a scarlet letter "A" could stand for; nor is it aware of the oddities of an equally scarlet-clad child in a Puritan settlement. Nature does not judge or discriminate in the way that the townspeople of The Scarlet Letter are wont to do every time they encounter Hester and Pearl. The sun shines on the three characters, and Pearl plays with the birds and flowers of the forest (177). In this scene the reader sees nature's acceptance of social outcasts.

The biological meanings of the natural imagery in The Scarlet Letter may not be readily evident to all who read it. This is proof of the reader's opportunity to draw multiple interpretations from the events in The Scarlet Letter, and from Hawthorne's telling of Hester's story. Hawthorne's use of nature in various scenes is a subtle way of enhancing the complexity of his novel. One of the most crucial scenes in the novel occurs in a forest. The duality of the forest scene – complex personal interactions mixed with the intricacies of the natural world – suggests that nature can mirror human life, and also that the signs we see in nature have just as much significance as the signs we see in our day to day lives.

Nature's mirroring capability is literally shown in the interaction between Pearl and a pool of water in the forest scene. Pearl finds herself standing apart from Hester, on the other side of a small brook in the forest. The brook has been "murmuring" along (Hawthorne, 163) until the place where Pearl happened to stand:
Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. (181)
The pool of water – a biological barrier to many organisms – that just "chanced to form" where she stood acts as a barrier between Pearl and her mother, or Pearl and the society that she has never been a part of, but that her mother would be a part of had she not had Pearl. One of the most important events in the evolutionary history of our world has been the colonization of land by plants and animals. The loss of a dependency on water was a very difficult obstacle to surmount, and the evolution of this can be seen in many areas of nature. Certain land species – frogs and salamanders, for example – need a water source to lay their eggs. The idea of water as a necessity for life and also a barrier to development – of a house or a road, for example – is almost intuitive. In that same way, the brook is a barrier between Pearl and her mother, as Mr. Dimmesdale says, "I have a strange fancy . . . that this brook is the boundary between two worlds . . . is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream" (182)? The ability of the water to reflect and enhance the image of a flower-covered Pearl can be interpreted as a link between the qualities of nature and those of her humanity.

There is another example in nineteenth century literature that deals with a body of water as a barrier and also as a life-line: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a force of it's own, moving along at it's own pace and not giving Huck and Jim much of a choice as to what will happen next or where they will end up. If the river curves, Huck and Jim will curve with it. The river "seems to not know where to go", but it goes there anyway and on "a course that offers little / hope of telling why it went that way" (Stewart). This floating, aimless quality of the river and Huck's journey is one of the defining characteristics of the novel. The Great River is still a significant, powerful body of water in America. It is the second largest river in the country, touching ten states, and it has the third largest river basin in the world – after the Congo and the Amazon – draining America's land from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians ( The Mississippi River is a life force for many species of plants, birds, fish, and other animals, as well as a source of life for humans in the form of trade and commerce. Huck and Jim are dependent on the river to get them around and to keep Jim hidden. They also have a dependency on the riverbanks for coverage during daylight hours. Huck's relationship to the river is one of the give-and-take of two kindred spirits. One can see the similarities that can exist between a meandering boy and nature in the form of the river that carries him along.

The life of Huck on the river could be compared to the life of the river itself. As in Life on the Mississippi, Twain outlines the course he will take in his writing:
We can glance briefly at its slumbrous first epoch in a couple of short chapters; at its second and wider-awake epoch in a couple more; at its flushest and widest-awake epoch in a good many succeeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tranquil present epoch in what shall be left of the book. (Twain, Chapter 1)
Huck begins his journey playing games with Tom Sawyer and going to school, fishing and moseying around with Pap. He then proceeds to fake his own death and go with Jim down the Mississippi on a raft where they have several adventures, but always get a way out and end up back on the raft eventually. These parts of his story might equate to the "slumbrous first epoch" of the river's life. Huck then begins to have a few more serious adventures on his journey: dealing with death at the Grangerfords and fraud with the King and the Duke. He is slightly "wider awake" at this point in his journey, becoming aware of human cruelty in a very adult-like way: "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" (Twain, 208). The third "epoch" in Huck Finn's trip down the Mississippi is when he finds himself on land and in the company of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally. Huck is "widest-awake" here as he deals with the childish plans of Tom to free Jim from captivity. Everything on earth changes. Riverbanks erode, and people grow up. Huck Finn cycles through the events in his life in an increasingly grownup way much like the river itself has moved through the country. He is still Huck Finn, at the end of the day, and the Mississippi River is still just that, but as time passes, the flow of life keeps change inevitable.

These texts present us with a way to read the natural world. A scientist could accomplish this without a literary framework, but by using classic novels such as The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it becomes clear that signs from nature can have meaning for everyday life. In science, it is best not to go looking for a result. Some of the world's most influential discoveries have been made by accident. Take, for a moment, a comment by Albert Einstein on the origins of ideas: "A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions" (Stachel). Scientific experiments operate best when the experimenter has enough science in his repertoire to put together a smart design, but not so much that he over-analyzes and muddies up the work with expectations. The observation of nature is a science in many ways, and follows these rules just as physics or any other basic laboratory-style science does. It is possible for nineteenth century American texts can be analyzed in a "natural" way – the signs that show up in the text are similar to signs that show up in nature, and natural signs occurring in the texts themselves are an example of that similarity, as is seen in plethora of natural images in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In his essay, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses a harmony between the nature of man and the nature of nature:
The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. (Emerson, Chapter 1)
Part of what allows the reader to see many of these natural signs is that in both The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we deal with children, Pearl and Huck, and their relationship to nature. If the reader has a bit of science under her belt, and if the text is armed with characters that can still play with nature in a way, then signs and similarities between the text and nature are quite clear. Consider the forest scene in The Scarlet Letter:
In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. (Emerson, Chapter 1)
This relates to the actions of Dimmesdale and Hester in the forest when Hester "casts off" the scarlet letter and the cloth covering her hair and, all of a sudden, "as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine" (Hawthorne, 177). The "perpetual youth" of the woods is also mirrored in the child, Pearl, herself, who embodies the very qualities of the wilderness. Similarities between text and nature are there to be observed, as are many scientific "discoveries", we just need to know where to look. According to Emerson, "where to look" in nature is all around. The Scarlet Letter and Emerson's Nature unite under the common theme of finding freedom in nature, demonstrating that this message can be seen in the vibrant natural imagery of Hawthorne or in the literal words of Emerson.

Nature is a great equalizer. "All mean egotism vanishes. . . The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, – master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance" (Emerson, Chapter 1). As Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi, Huck struggles with the fact that Jim is a runaway slave and that he, Huck, is facilitating his escape (Twain, 113). With the passing of time on the river, however, it becomes more and more evident that Jim is Huck's protector – a friend and a parent to him in many ways – and that they survive on the river without titles. Again, the reader sees the same message, conveyed by the help of natural symbolism in one text and by literal explanation in the other.

The signs are everywhere. Through the actions of Pearl, as well as Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter one sees how similar nature can be to a person. Pearl's behaviors, characteristics, and even her name all take on a deeper meaning when the natural world is considered. The momentous scene in the forest also benefits from natural imagery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another nineteenth century American text that takes advantage of the meaning that natural imagery can have for a reader, particularly a reader with nature and science in mind. As opposed to countless uses of nature, as in The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has one main natural presence: the Mississippi River. The river is as important a character in the novel as Huck or Jim. Huck and the Great River coexist; their lives are linked. Twain's use of natural signs is slightly broader and slightly more hidden than Hawthorne's but present nonetheless.

As one observes these natural signs in classic texts, just as with science, the texts can take on an unexpected meaning and certain interpretations will fall into place. Emerson accomplishes this in so many words:
In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in the streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. (Emerson, Chapter1)
Nature is freeing, and nature is who we are at our core. These natural signs are not only present in the texts but in the wild world itself, just waiting to be seen and understood. The texts offer an additional way of looking at how nature is tied to human life and behaviors. Many organisms interpret and respond to signs around them: birds migrate when the seasons change, plants grow towards sunlight. As members of this planet, we also need to interpret and respond to signs that our environment gives us. We cannot operate as though we are merely living on earth and not with earth. The relationship between nature and the characters in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates the importance of natural signs. They are all around to help us better understand where we have come from and where we are going.

The Great Escape Continued:
Huck Finn's Escape

Name: Catherine
Date: 2006-05-06 15:42:18
Link to this Comment: 19268


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Over the course of the semester we have extensively studies the roles emotions play in nineteenth century literature. Passion, love, guilt, anguish, hate and despairs are just some of the emotions we have examined through the characters in the pieces of literature we have read. Despite differences in the backgrounds and styles of writing of the various authors, and differences in the plot and moral of the book, there still remain certain thematic similarities. The importance of freedom, for example, is a notion discusses in each novel. What does it mean for Ishmael to be free versus Uncle Tom? Hester and Pearl are ostracized from the community but does that actual liberate them? What different emotional responses do the character have towards the idea of freedom? Mark Twain's novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is yet another perspective and interpretation on freedom.

At its most basic level Twain's novel describes the story of a young boy, Huck Finn, and an escaped slave, Jim, traveling down the Mississippi River together on a raft. Throughout the book Huck and Jim face many trails together and encounter individuals from all walks of life like, town pariahs, social elites, the average citizen, a gang of robbers, feuding families and con artists. As the novel progresses the characters of Huck and Jim are gradually transformed, they develop and build a strong rapport. Perhaps the character that undergoes the greatest amount of change is Huck. Away from the traditional norms Huck is able to become friends with Jim, which, in turn, forces him to reevaluate how he perceives slavery. Huck is given several opportunities to act in a socially correct manner and turn Jim in and yet he never does. The Odyssey Huck and Jim embark on together is used by Twain to create a social critique by juxtaposing the idea of freedom against slavery, civilization and other social norms.

What is interesting is Mark Twain's use of freedom. Who exactly is seeking it and why? And how is this depicted? The author uses his depiction of Huckleberry Finn to emphasize that it is not only slaves who are searching for freedom. By all rights as a white male with money during the nineteenth century Finn should feel free and yet he does not. Instead, he feels confined and restrained by the society that should be assuring people like him freedom. Conforming to society's rules and restrictions proves difficult for Huck to handle. In the end he cannot take the structure and demands and, like Jim, tries to escape on a raft. The entire novel reveals Huck's resistance to conformity in a culture filled with hypocrisies. There are several characters and events in the novel that help document the being civilized, the escape of domesticity and the acquisition of freedom. Although they have a very short role overall in the novel, the female characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are central to the three concepts listed above.

This paper will examine how the women represent society and civilization and therefore for Huck Finn. Under consideration is why Huck views women as oppressors or enforcers of the social norm. Do the women in the novel reflect current social norms? It can possibly be argued that the women have the duty of carrying on traditional values of society and civilization because it has been their taught role in both the internal and private sphere. From birth women have had masculine restraints placed on them prohibiting certain behavior. Society acts as a type of loop, women do not deviate from what they learn and what they instill in others because it is not what they've been trained to do, they rarely have examples of any other type of behavior. Unlike women, Huck has the right to escape civilization and domesticity because as a male he is given the agency and authority to accept or reject the laws of society. The female characters Huck and Jim encounter, especially the Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, Aunt Polly, and Aunt Sally are the embodiment of the very restrictions Huck is trying to escape. For Huck the women represent the shackles of the society he is attempting to flee and place his freedom in jeopardy.

Although they only appear in the first few chapters of the novel, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are extremely central to the story. Perhaps more so than any other character in the book, they represent civilization and attempt to conform Huck into a socially acceptable individual. Throughout the rest of the book, Huck considers the Widow and Miss Watson in his important decisions in order to determine what his moral course of action should be. Huck moved in with the two women after he and his best friend, Tom Sawyer found treasure hidden by robbers. The transition was difficult for Huck; his father was a drunk who preferred for Huck to act uncivilized. Suddenly Huck was forced to follow rules that made no sense to him. Even the differences between right and wrong seem startling to him. Miss Wilson tells Huck he must behave if he wants to get into heaven, but from her descriptions it sounds like a place he probably doesn't want to end up anyway. What the two women see as deviant behavior he sees as ordinary and harmless.

It is clear that Huck does not think highly of the civilization and views it only as a pointless exercise and a form of entrapment. He can't stand being confined in a house and wearing starchy clothes. His life at the Widow's is constantly full of little rebellions; he leaves in the middle of the night, plays hooky and smokes his pipe. Huck's concept of civilization highlights the fact that the rules we follow to conform to society are flawed and, at times, absurd. What is the sense in being forbidden from smoking a pipe while the Widow has a snuffbox? How can civilization frown upon Huck's cussing and allow for his father to beat him with little intervention from the law? Later, after his father kidnaps him, Huck begins to realize how much he hates being civilized: " I didn't see how I'd ever got to like it so well at the widow's, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book and have old Miss Watson peeking at you all the time" (Twain, 37).

After several months with his father Huck decides he must escape. He manages to find a way out of the locked cabin and even has a raft canoe that he can use to get away. The logical assumption would be for Huck to return to the Widow's house where he would be protected and cared for. After considering the issue, however Huck determines that this is not what he wants for himself, choosing instead to fake his own death so that no one will come after him. Huck's actions symbolize not only the escape from a dangerous situation but a rejection of the collective values and norms women like Miss Watson and the Widow represent.

Yet how is it that women come to represent society and civilization in literature? Throughout the entire novel Twain uses Huck's adventures to critique society. His experiences with the Duke and the King highlight that not everyone is necessarily trustworthy. At one point Huck encounters a group of men along the river looking for escaped slaves. Huck knows that if he lies and asks them to come help his family aboard the raft because they have small poxes they will actually stay away. Again, the failing of society is shown. Perhaps then Twain is trying to reflect what he sees occurring around him with his depictions of women. In our class discussions on March 28 we examined the philosophical understanding of emotions. What is interesting is philosopher Rousseau's take on women. According to Rousseau women cannot be active and functioning citizens because they are too immersed in caring for the children. All of their attention and energy is focused on making sure the children become part of society and that the male children especially become citizens. This is precisely the situation we see happening with Huck Finn. Huck grew up with a drunken father, never went to school, and, most importantly he did not have a mother. He therefore could never operate in society as a citizen because he was lacking the rules and structure Rousseau sees women and society shaping in children. Perhaps then Mark Twain uses Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas to reflect what he finds in everyday life. The two women go to great lengths to tame Huck and make him an acceptable component of society. They become his mother trying to fulfill Rousseau's prophecy.

Huck's actions then, faking his death, fleeing on a raft, helping a slave escape represent a rejection of the collective values and norms women like Miss Watson and the Widow symbolize. The company he keeps on the raft alone, an escaped slave and two con artists would isolate him from society. These people go against what should be the conscience of a small Southern boy in the nineteenth century. Huck's greatest moments of guilt occur when he is thinking about the Widow and Miss Watson, because aiding Jim goes against all the civilized laws they tried to instill in him. When Jim and Huck thought they were within sight of Cairo the full ramifications of his actions hit Huck. Jim is his friend, but is he really willing to help set him free? Huck tries to use the thought of Miss Watson to figure out what he should do: should he hurt her by helping Jim get free or betray proper social norms? (Twain, 107). He first tries to follow the norms the women placed on him and decided to tell Miss Watson where her slave was and he feels he has done the right thing, "Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone" (Twain, 241). Even more shockingly Huck states, "I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my whole life, and I knowed I could pray now" (Twain, 241). His decision to do the right thing by society's standards makes him feel as if he really can join the civilized world of Miss Watson and the Widow.

It is clear at this point that Huck is not yet fully liberated from civilization. He sees his dilemma as hiding his role in the escape from Miss Watson, so he won't be in disgrace. He doesn't want to injure Miss Watson, but he cannot fully conform to the beliefs she represents. As long as he continues to figure the reaction of women like Miss Watson and the Widow in his actions he is still imprisoned by their civilization. After much inner turmoil, Huck decides to do what feels right to him, to do what will give him the most peace.

The issue comes to a head when he must decide if he will steal Jim from slavery again. He is well aware society will perceive him as a reckless renegade and spurn him. When discussing the problem with his best friend Tom Sawyer, he states, " I know what you'll say. You'll say it is a dirty low down business; but what if it is? –I'm low down" (Twain, 255). The importance of Huck's decision is reflected in Huck's bemusement at Tom's quick acquiescence to steal Jim out of slavery-again, "Here was a boy that was respectable, and was well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home who had characters...and yet here he was, without more pride, or rightness, or feeling than to stoop to this business" (Twain, 263-264). From what Huck has understood from Miss Watson, he recognizes this decision will mean the difference between going to heaven or hell. It will forever solidify his place in society. In the end he chooses to reject civilization, this time for good: "never thought no more of reforming. I shoved the whole idea from my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was my line, and the other warn't" (Twain, 242). This speech highlights Huck's ultimate freedom. His struggle with his conscience was the last tie he had with his previous life, the morals the women tried to instill in him. Since Tom knew beforehand that Jim was already free, Tom is not really attempting to break from society, he is just playing at it. For Huck this is a real and important decision, it required a great deal of soul searching and it clearly has ramifications for him. Tom is just playing another one of his games. It is the motivations behind Huck's actions that mean he is no longer confined by the rules that govern everyone else.

At the end of the novel Huck is once again given the opportunity to reenter society. Again women, Aunt Polly and Aunt Sally, represent the choice between a civilized life and freedom. Aunt Polly has curtailed his freedom by informing Sally that he is really Huck Finn and not Tom Sawyer. Sally plans to eliminate his freedom all together with her threats to adopt Huck. Again, Huck decides he wants his freedom, "Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (Twain, p328). Instead, he decides to go on another adventure with Tom, this time to Indian Territory. Does Huck have it right? Does escaping domesticity equal the attainment of freedom? If it does how come Huck has the right to do this? To answer these questions it might prove fruitful to examine what another author, Margaret Fuller, was saying at this time. What did she perceive to be the roles of women, what did she think of the domestic sphere?

First the question of whether or not Huck is right to view domestic life as a form of entrapment? Fuller would argue that in the nineteenth century, and for women especially, society and domestic society was indeed constraining. According to Fuller men and women are trapped in a loop. Society places us in certain circumstances, women in the home and men in keeping them there and controlling them. We fashion ourselves to please others and to fit into society. One might think since it is the woman who is tied to the domestic sphere it is only she who needs to find some degree of freedom. Fuller, however, argues that men are slaves too, slaves to their own habit. Not granting women equality and treating them equally will only have a detrimental affect on them as, "an improvement in the daughters will best aid the reformation of the sons of this age" (Fuller, 158-159). Society places restrictions on women and men, but it is only the men who are able to break free of them.

As a result of their very positions in society, men are better able and more equipped to break free of the restrictions society places on them. According to Fuller:
"It may be said that man does not have his fair play either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles. Aye, but he himself has put them there; misfortune in women's lot, it is in obstacles being interposed by men, which do not mark her state, and if they express her past ignorance, do not present her present needs. As every man is of every woman born, she has slow means of redress, yet the sooner a general justness of thought makes smooth the path, the better." (Fuller, 168)

Huckleberry Finn has the option of getting the freedom that he desires, the ability to break away from society if he so chooses. As Fuller states, men put restrictions upon themselves in society so if he decides to break away from them it is his right. Women do not have that option. They are trapped in the loop and the cycle for Fuller. Huck's leaving home and traveling down the river almost alone is odd, because he is so young. If Twain had described a story of a girl traveling down the river it would have been shocking because she was young and a girl. It breaks too many norms and taboos. As a result women are in the novel to present a backdrop for Huck. They are moral pillars that Huck responds to throughout the story.

A paradox is created, however, with Huck flight and journey down the river. He escapes so that he may escape the social confines, have freedom from moral and be free of civilization. This is not what happens. Instead Huck comes to find he is not happy without civilization. Immediately after his escape Huck is alone on an island for a few days. At first he is happy but begins to feel terribly lonely. He needs the company of Jim in order to be happy. Over the course of the story there are several instances where Huck states that he is glad that he had Jim's company, he is glad Jim is with him. Jim's companionship at once breaks from and reinforces nineteenth century values. The fact Huck is traveling with an escaped slave in the first place breaks the social norms that Huck, as a white male, should have, especially since he hates abolitionists. The norm is reinforced, however, because Huck does at times treat Jim as a slave. Huck's time with the Grangerfords, the Duke and the King are perfect examples. Huck leaves Jim alone for days or weeks on end without giving him much thought.

If Huck had fully escaped from the ideas and ideals society, Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas, had instilled in him then he would have had no qualms with the actions of the Duke and the King. When the King and Duke decide to steal the money from the Wilks girls Huck can't stand it. The idea that three orphan girls are going to have everything they have left in the world is enough to make Huck sick, so he decides he will risk personal injury to himself and steal the money back for them. By attempting to leave society Huck has his conscience, morals and sense of decency tested. The irony is that by going against what he perceives are the ideals of society, Huck is achieving a moral decency that in today's society we would find commendable. Huck proves himself to be, overall, a decent, sympathetic and sensitive human being.

For Huckleberry Finn women are the embodiment and enforces of a society and civilization he would like to do without. As Rousseau and Fuller might argue women help to carry on and instill social norms onto their children whether they want to or not. On a superficial level he escapes the norms they place on him, he can curse when he wants to, he can smoke, no one will tell him to dress nice, and he does not have to take a bath and stay clean all the time. On a deeper level however, Huck is unable to escape his own feelings of conscience. He may not think in exactly the same terms as the rest of society but he usually does the right thing in the end. Twain's novel demonstrates that unlike women, Huck has the ability to escape the constraints if he so decides. As a male he is give the agency he needs to break away from the laws of society. Huck has a sense of propriety; he chooses not to follow it. What does all this mean for a Bryn Mawr student reading the text today? Can we identify with it at all? I think that the intelligent reader gets out of the text what he or she needs. I don't agree with Fetterley that by identifying with Huck Finn I am in some way emasculated. As a reader of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I take from it that society is constraining, but by following conscience and individual guidelines it is possible to still do what is morally right. And for where I am right now in my life at this very second, that is enough.

A Return to Group Psychology.... and an Analysis o
Name: Laci Hutto
Date: 2006-05-08 11:45:39
Link to this Comment: 19282


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Finals week has arrived and it's been over two months since I wrote my first paper for this class. I'd skipped over the first possible topic, because I'd been considering writing a Freudian analysis of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and after having taken a Psychoanalytic Theory course last semester, in which the readings were 70% Freud, I wanted to stay as far away from everyone's favorite cocaine-addled misogynist as possible. We read through Moby-Dick for this class, and I started worrying about what I could possibly write about for that book. I've never been good at coming up with my own topics for papers, so I usually go with the prefabricated ones most professors give out with each assignment.

We didn't get a topic sheet for this paper. No suggestions about what to write. I had no ideas at all until one day in class when we were discussing why no one on board the Pequod had thought to stand up to Ahab and say "Look here, you crazy fool, we're not going with you on this suicide mission." Ideas were flying around the classroom, and the idea of mob mentality came up. My idea clicked then as I started remembering something I'd read about the effects belonging to a group had on an individual's psyche. By the time I realized that the reading I was remembering was Freud, it was too late. My idea was set, and I knew I could write a good paper explaining exactly why no one on the Pequod was able to save himself from dying alongside Ahab. I returned to my Freud texts from last semester, brushed up on Freud's view of group psychology, and worked out how I thought Ahab's crew fit the patterns Freud described as typical for members of a group.

Especially after reading so many of his works during the fall semester, I sometimes have a very low opinion of Freud, his theories, and the methods at which he arrives at the justification of those theories. One exception to this is his Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, in which he considers the effect that being part of a group has on a person's subjectivity. I could understand and even agree with much of what he had to say on the subject, and in many ways, reading Moby-Dick through the lens of Freud's Group Psychology seemed to be like reading a case study proving the theory.

A lot of Freud's theorizing on group psychology is what we now take to be common sense, something that everyone knows at least a little about. The idea for this paper clicked so readily in my mind because when we were throwing around terms like "mob mentality" and "group mind" in class, I didn't automatically recognize them as Freudian concepts because they've been so generalized and made so accessible for reference by anyone, regardless of whether he or she has read Freud's text. Freud accounts for this process of becoming part of a group mind, describing the ways in which mob mentality may take over a group and cause them to act in unusual ways. This mind, he says, is produced "under a certain condition," in which an individual "thought, felt, and acted in quite a different way from what would have been expected." (Freud 6) We could easily see the crew's time at sea as being the sort of condition Freud is describing.

One of the major things that makes Moby-Dick work as a would-be case study is that Freud describes the role the leader of the group has in manipulating the group members into acting in ways uncharacteristic of their own individual selves. This is a necessary part of the explanation if we are to use Moby-Dick as a case study, since the question is not only about the crew of the Pequod but also about their captain.

The captain, however, does not even enter the novel physically until several chapters into their time at sea. From his very introduction, at a meal with the crew, he seems to be a completely separate entity from the rest of the crew. Ishmael and the readers of Moby-Dick hear rumors of the captain up until Chapter 34, when he finally becomes a physical presence in the story, and this delayed introduction shows us that although he is on board the Pequod, he is separate from the other members of the ship's crew. In reading the novel through a Freudian lens, then, we see that Ahab is not part of this "group mind." The question that arises from this observation is why, if Ahab has been at sea with the rest of the crew, is he somehow exempt from this binding of minds? Freud answers this question by discussing the role of the leader as an entity separate from the group mentality.

Freud describes a group as "an obedient herd, which could never live together without a master." (Freud 17) His theory of group psychology does not end with the idea that men will band together mentally when left in certain conditions; his account requires that there be a leader to govern the group. Ahab is the obvious choice for a leader in the context of the novel simply because of his role as ship's captain. More than this, however, he "posses[es] a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him." (Freud 17) This description of a group leader, set forth by Freud and matched by the character of Ahab, helps to fit the novel with Freud's theory, since it is exactly such a leader who must, according to Freud, take over to rule the minds of the men who have become bonded under a group mentality.

Ishmael notes, after the crew has agreed to chase the white whale, that Ahab is very conscious of the fact that he must use the men of his ship as tools by which to accomplish his mission. Ishmael also points out that Ahab recognizes that using money to keep the men in line would be very effective, since without the promise of it, the men will mutiny and "cashier" Ahab. (Melville 178) The chapter-long discussion of the means by which Ahab will manage to keep the men of the crew under his governance shows Ahab's effectiveness as a Freudian group leader. He knows how to act in such a way to give the men just enough of what they want that they will not turn against him.

Ahab is the perfect leader in this sense, as we see throughout the book. He proves time and again that he can very effectively play to the desires of the crew just enough to keep them in his command. Through these twisting jabs into the crewmember's joined psyche, Ahab maintains his position as the leader of the group. When he first convinces his crew to chase after the whale with him, he does so by becoming so excited himself that "the mariners began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marveling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions." (Melville 138) From this first manipulation of their minds, Ahab only continues to gain control over the crew, even performing a binding ritual later in the chapter in order to seal the group mentality and his rule over it. This binding works as it is intended. For the rest of the story, the crew members are hooked into their roles as part of the group led by Ahab. They would not dare to question his commands, even if under normal circumstances they might object to what is obviously little more than a suicidal vendetta rather than the kind of whaling mission they are supposedly trying to embark on. Ahab plays into the "sentiment of invincible power" that the group has acquired that stops them from recognizing the inherent dangers of being led on this madman's quest for vengeance.

The members of the crew, after being bound together by their time at sea and the pull of Ahab's influence, lose their subjectivity. Although Melville names them individually and seems to give them personal characteristics, for all intents and purposes, the members of the crew are no longer individual beings. They are concerned not for their own safety and well being, as they would have been if they had not succumbed to the group mind. This is consistent with Freud's account of the effects of being part of a group, as he claims that the member of a group "readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest," and that, furthermore, once in a group mindset, "no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation can make itself felt." (Freud 10, 13)

This theory describing the behavior of members of a group shows clearly why the members of the Pequod's crew would see no further than the directives handed down by Ahab. They have no personal interest; everything they seek to do is for the good of the group, according to Freud. I would go a step beyond him and say that they are not just seeking to do what is good for the group, but what is good for the leader of the group. The group believes that the leader is guiding them with their interests in mind, and, in the case of the Pequod, does not realize that the leader is actually using them as mere tools for his self-centered mission of revenge. His hold in this way over the members of the crew is so strong that they follow him blindly, convincing themselves that he is not actually leading them into any real danger. Stubb, for example, decides that the best way to deal with the decision to chase the whale is to sing and laugh, later insisting that the crew is in no more danger than any other whaling ship on the sea, despite talk of Ahab's insanity. (Melville 145, 385) Ishmael himself points out that "this pertinacious pursuit of one particular whale, continued through day into night, and through night into day, is a thing by no means unprecedented in the South sea fishery." (Melville 413) Stubbs' and Ishmael's claims, rather than proving that the Pequod's mission is not that unusual, serve to show that they are under the effect of the group mentality, being convinced by Ahab that it is right to hunt the whale.

One person on the ship who was not part of this collective mentality succumbing to Ahab's governance is that of Starbuck. Starbuck is under Ahab's influence, but this relationship is different from that of Ahab and the rest of the crew. They are in a two-person group mentality, known in Freudian terms as hypnosis, led by Ahab. The effect of Ahab over Starbuck is the same as his effect over the rest of the crew, but Starbuck is alone in his mental processes, and is not governed by a group mind telling him to forget all thoughts of self-preservation. He protests from the very beginning, claiming that Ahab's plan is insane, and that it is not right to change the intended mission of the whaling ship. His protestations continue up to the very end, when Starbuck begs Ahab to quit, saying "Oh! Ahab... not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist." (Melville 423) There is a personal bond between these two men, but the overwhelming dynamic still ends with Ahab's control over Starbuck.

Ahab knows how to treat the men of the ship in order to keep them under his control, but his control over Starbuck is not acted out in the same way. He points a musket at Starbuck and threatens him, a kind of action he would not use so readily on any other member of the crew. Starbuck in return considers killing Ahab with the same musket in his sleep, but cannot. These events separate him distinctly from the other crew members, proving that while he is under Ahab's thrall, he is not part of the group mentality as it applies to the other members of the crew. Ahab's pull over him is personal, magnetic. The pull is so complete that "Starbuck's body and Starbuck's coerced will were Ahab's, so long as Ahab kept his magnet pointed at Starbuck's brain." (Melville 177) This aligns with Freud's account of the leader's effect over others, so we see that even though Starbuck is not mentally part of the crew in this way, he is in another kind of Freudian group psychology in his relationship to Ahab, and as such is also unable to pull away enough to stop the ship from searching for Moby Dick.

The sad turn of fate in the lives of these crewmen comes at the end when they are all proven wrong in their trust for their captain. Throughout the voyage they convince themselves that Ahab would not lead them into any excessive danger, because he is their captain, and as such must be acting in their best interests. They believe that he will look out for them, since he is their leader. His hold over them does not break until the very end, when Moby Dick turns his rage on Ahab to the ship, killing every trusting man aboard the Pequod just before Ahab himself is taken underwater.

This tale is obviously not one that we would use if we wanted to show the positive effects of group mentality. For the men of the Pequod, being part of a group brings nothing but suffering and death. I believe that Freud's theory of group psychology fits this tale of misfortune perfectly, but it has to be stated that Freud does not seem entirely opposed to the idea of a group mind in general. His description of the effects all seem fairly negative, as he describes the loss of interest in self-preservation and the way in which becoming part of a group mentality lowers an individual's intelligence level to that of a barbarian. He uses as his prime examples the army and the church, but in his accounts of these he does not seem to dwell so heavily on the negative effects that he had described when outlining his group psychology. It seems that Freud was aware of the dangers of losing one's subjectivity to the group mind, and he warns his readers about those ill effects, but his accounts of actual groups do not seem so forcefully against group psychology. It is because of this that I say that while Moby-Dick and its tale of the consequences of falling into the group mind play very easily into Freud's theory, we do not necessarily have to believe that every instance of group psychology will end as badly as that of Ahab and the Pequod.

The novel Moby-Dick was published in 1850, six years before Sigmund Freud was even alive. What, then, do these two works have to do with one another? Melville had certainly not read Freud's work before writing his story of a monomaniacal ship captain, and while Freud might have stumbled across Moby-Dick before beginning his work on group psychology, that is not very likely because Moby-Dick did not even come into popular consciousness until the 1920s. The interesting thing about these times is that Melville's novel and Freud's newly formulated theories of group psychology both became popular at roughly the same time. I do not believe that either of the authors were directly influenced by one another in their writing, but the fact that these works came into the public consciousness around the same time seems to show at least a subconscious interest in the idea of mob mentality among the people of the time. I'm not claiming any other direct correlation between the works of a 20th century psychoanalyst and those of a 19th century writer, but it does seem interesting that the idea of group psychology would be put forth to the masses at the same time that a novel about the ill effects of being in a group mind became popular. Perhaps the people of the time read Freud's thoughts and, as I was, were interested to notice how his idea played out in the work of Herman Melville.

I said earlier that Moby-Dick could read as almost a case study for Freud's theory. As my last paragraph should have made clear, I don't mean that I believe Freud read Melville and used the crew of the Pequod to build his theory upon. In fact, I think it is the fact that Melville wrote the story without reading Freud and Freud wrote his theory without reading Melville that makes the strongest argument for Freud's theory. Melville was not thinking about psychoanalysis when he wrote Ahab. He was not intending for an early 21st-century college student to use his work in conjuncture with the theories of an early 20th-century Austrian psychoanalyst. He simply wrote a story using human behavior as he understood it, and the fact that it so closely fits in with Freud's theory seems to me to be evidence that at least supports the theory.

I found in my Psychoanalytic Theory class last semester that I did not think too highly of Freud or his methods. I could recognize his theories as interesting building blocks upon which to build new theories in psychoanalysis, but most of them seemed too absurd to even consider. What bothered me more than his theories, however, was the way at which he arrived at them. All too often it seemed to me that Freud would develop a theory based on one person's experience. He would then claim universality for that theory, and refuse to make adjustments when his theories seemed to fall short. He would make up case studies to support his own theories, and when presented with a real-life study that did not match up with the point he was trying to make, he would simply search around for details, no matter how minute, in a person's life that he could twist to fit his theory.

Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego was one of the only texts we read in the class that I could support. His analysis of group behavior seemed believable, and he didn't seem to distort evidence just to support the theory. Reading Moby-Dick actually helped to strengthen my belief in the theory. Once I settled on the idea that Freud's theory might help to explain why the crew of the Pequod sank, I took inventory of the ways in which Moby-Dick actually agreed with what Freud had said. When I only found similarities in the two accounts, and considered the fact that the authors were surely not in conversation with one another, I could read Melville's novel as an unintentional account of group psychology that supported Freud's theory. I was pleased to find that Freud had a theory which I could not only utilize but also believe in, and that Melville, by simply writing his novel of Ahab's hunt for the white whale, had been the one to convince me of that theory.

Huck Finn; The Racist Protagonist
Name: Laura Otte
Date: 2006-05-09 00:19:33
Link to this Comment: 19287


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Mark Twain, Mr. Samuel Clemens, published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 and it has become his most famous work. Today, we view the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in a variety of ways. It is seen as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it is a piece of history, it is a story for children, it is a story only for adults, it is about boys, it is about slavery, it is about adventure, it is about the Mississippi River, it is about the South, it is about coming of age. However, although these topics function as fine descriptions, they do not strike at the issue that lies at the core of this novel. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book about racism. Throughout the entire story, we read about the plights of Jim and Huck, as they drift down the Mississippi River, and witness the interactions between these two characters. Although they seem to be friends, for most of their time together, Huck treats Jim badly. However, despite his wrongs, Huck glides through the novel without consequence. How do his actions look to others? Margaret Fuller was an enlightened female writer and theorist who valued both self-sufficiency and equality. When holding these two values in high esteem how would she justify or criticize Huck's treatment of Jim?

Throughout the novel, Huck's treatment of Jim is negative because it is racist, demeaning and insensitive. When they first are hiding in secret on the island, Huck decides to play a mean trick on Jim. Huck kills a rattlesnake and coils the body up by Jim's sleeping area, hoping that it will scare Jim. Later, Jim is bitten when the mate comes looking for the body. (Twain, pg. 63) The unpredicted outcome of Huck's trick causes him to feel some remorse, but this guilt does not keep him from continuing to treat Jim poorly in the future. At one point, Huck is telling Jim the story of King Solomon and Jim has difficulty understanding Huck's skewed version. As Huck becomes frustrated by Jim's incomprehension, he laments, "I never seen such a nigger." (Twain, pg. 89). This racist comment is tainted with Huck's irritation at Jim's 'stupidity'. Huck sees himself as the smarter expert despite his youth in comparison to Jim. For Huck, it is not a matter of age and experience, race is the primary determining factor of one's intelligence.

One of the most striking interactions between Huck and Jim occurs when Jim, who usually protects Huck and takes his cruelty passively, makes the choice to express anger and humiliation at Huck's bad treatment of him. At one point on the river, Jim and Huck separate because of a storm and Huck becomes lost, causing Jim to stress and worry. When the fog lifts, Huck is able to find the raft again and boards while Jim is asleep. When exhausted Jim realizes Huck is safe and onboard, Huck produces a wicked lie and tells Jim that he was on the raft the whole time and that Jim's memory of the storm and Huck being lost must have all been part of a dream. Jim is initially taken in, but then learns that Huck is pulling his leg when he spots some trash from the storm scattered on the deck of the raft. Jim is hurt and tells Huck off saying, "'All you wuz thinkin 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en make 'em ashamed.'" (Twain, pg. 95) Although Huck knows that he tried to play a very mean trick on Jim, he still struggles to admit fault. Huck confesses, "It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd knowed it would make him feel that way." (Twain, pg. 95) In the whole novel, this scene is rare because Huck actually apologizes to Jim. It is a somewhat redeeming moment for Huck because he does not regret his apology, but with that statement, he implies that he shouldn't have had to apologize to Jim, a black man, to begin with. Huck obviously lacks an understanding that Jim, as a human, has the same capacity for feelings that he does. In addition, even if Huck were to realize that Jim was capable of having similar types of feelings, Huck believes that Jim's feelings would never be as valid as his own. Jim's identity as a 'nigger' makes him too different.

Lastly, although their trip down the river provided many opportunities for Huck to change his treatment of Jim, any progress made during their adventure is lost when Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer and they two abuse Jim mercilessly through their prisoner play. Compared to Tom Sawyer, Huck's racism and self-appointed authority towards Jim is minuscule. When paired with Tom, Huck shrinks into the background, becoming just as submissive to Tom's whims as Jim is. In the end of the novel, Tom decides that Jim, who is prisoner as a runaway slave on the Phelp's farm, must lead the life of a true prisoner. Tom creates ridiculous tasks and wastes time scheming a way to free Jim while Huck does nothing except aid in his mischief. Although Huck knows that Jim's life and freedom are at stake, he does nothing to help him. Instead, he watches and participates while Tom creates pointless, uncomfortable burdens for Jim. Huck's choice to follow Tom's instructions instead of help a friend in need is selfish and cowardly.

However, at other points in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's treatment of Jim is more positive because it alters due to Huck's better intent. Yet most of these rare moments are still tinged with racism. One example of Huck's true and sincere sympathy for Jim happens on the river, when Huck and Jim are trying to travel in secret. Two men see their raft and Jim leaps overboard to avoid being spotted. As the men draw near Huck lies to them and says that his family has died and the only one remaining is his sick father. The men become wary of the sickness and Huck leads them to believe it is smallpox. The men then refuse to approach the raft and Huck has protected Jim by saving him from being caught. (Twain, pg. 113) This scene is interesting because it serves as an example of Huck's confusing behavior and thought pattern throughout the novel. Huck struggles constantly with his guilt over helping a runaway slave to freedom, yet at every opportunity to rid himself of this guilt by turning Jim in, he does not betray him.

The crucial moment when we witness Huck make the conscious decision to save Jim comes later in the novel. Huck is on the raft thinking about his situation and debating whether he should turn Jim in. He decides to write a note to the Widow Douglas and tell her where she can find her runaway slave. However, when writing that note, which is essentially his way of turning Jim in, does not make him feel less guilty he rips up the note saying, "All right, then, I'll go to hell". (Twain, pg. 223) At this moment, Huck decides to continue to help Jim escape from slavery even if it means that his action, which society considers a sin, will land him in hell. It is a powerful decision for Huck to make because amidst his conflict he picks the option that is not self-serving. At this rare moment, Huck chooses to treat Jim well, although he maintains a racist attitude by believing that he is doing a 'bad' thing by helping a 'nigger'.

Towards the end of the novel, Huck has somewhat changed his opinion of Jim's character, although his new perspective does not cease to be racist. When Tom, Huck and Jim finally manage to put their escape plan into action, they flee the Phelp's farm. During their getaway, Tom is shot. Once they safely reach an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, it becomes apparent that Tom's condition is bad and that he will need professional medical help. Jim makes the executive decision to send Huck for a doctor, even though bringing a doctor to Tom's location on the island will compromise Jim's chance at freedom. At this, Huck comments, "I knowed he was white inside," (Twain, pg. 279) stating that Jim's ability to make a good decision put him at the level of a white person. This is a racist opinion because it implies that only white people are capable of making good, ethical decisions.

In general, Huck's independence leads him to be thoughtless of others, including Jim, because his main concern is self-preservation. In the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Huck does not like to be controlled or influenced by other people. He states, "The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied." (Twain, pg. 13) By the end of the novel, Huck's attitude has not changed because he proclaims a similar statement, "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." (Twain, pg. 296) Huck values his freedom and finds that attachments to others only hinder him. This is a sentiment that both Margaret Fuller and her teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, could have easily understood. However, it is questionable whether Huck Finn truly embodies their concept of a 'free' individual or if his treatment of Jim is too great a fault to justify.

Margaret Fuller would have justified Huck's actions towards Jim in the novel by focusing on the independence of his unattached choices. In her essay, 'The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.' Fuller writes about her friend Miranda discussing her own independence, "It is true that I have had less outward aid...but that is of little consequence. Religion was early awakened in my soul, a sense that what the soul is capable to ask it must attain, and that, though I might be aided by others, I must depend on myself as the only constant friend. This self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within." (Fuller, pg. 166) Although Fuller directs her account at women, her message of self-dependence is for everyone. She believes that it is most important to be able to rely on oneself and Huck Finn shares the same belief. His self-dependence stems from necessity rather than desire because he had to function on his own without the help of his neglectful father. Yet, now that he has this strength, he is reluctant to give up his independence. Fuller writes of this freedom saying, "They have time to think, and no traditions chain them, and few conventionalities". (Fuller, pg. 177) Her praise of freedom is similar to Huck's love of no boundaries. He states at many points in the novel how he dislikes the rules of society and his lack of agency.

Fuller continues with negative references to relationships and society, "If any individual live too much in relations, so that he becomes a stranger to the resources of his own nature, he falls after a while into a distraction, or imbecility, from which he can only be cured by a time of isolation,". (Fuller, pg. 180) Based on this statement, Fuller would be supportive of Huck's need for independence from society. She would argue that Huck's time on his own, in isolation, is valuable and important as it gives him a chance to learn from himself. Fuller adds that, "To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether of man or woman, must be able to do without them in the spirit." (Fuller, pg. 181) This statement means that in order to function properly in relationships, in society, one must be able to function in isolation. This idea is a reference back to the self-dependence Fuller described earlier. Within the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has learned self-dependence, as he has grown up essentially isolated from society. Fuller would say that Huck is more advanced than most because he first learned to function on his own without society.

Therefore, Huck's actions within the book, his poor treatment of Jim, do not reflect cruelty but self-sufficiency. Huck does not take Jim's feelings or needs into account because Huck functions solely as an individual and expects others to function at the same level of self-dependence. However, the rest of the world does not possess this self-sufficiency and therefore, does not understand Huck's actions.

Opposite of her potential praise, Margaret Fuller would have criticized Huck's actions towards Jim in the novel by focusing on Huck's racism due to lack of perspective and disregard for equality. In her essay, Fuller focuses on race, comparing the position of women in society and the position of slaves. Again, Fuller directs this account at women, but her reflections on slavery are insightful. Her discussion of the unequal treatment of slaves sheds negative light on Huck's actions toward Jim. Early in the essay she writes, "As men become aware that all men have not had their fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance." (Fuller, pg. 159) Here she immediately notes that not all men in society have been given the same rights. This concept is foreign to Huck who believes that, as a 'nigger', Jim lives the life of a slave because it is what he deserves.

Fuller goes on to say that men have easily brushed off their faults in treating people unfairly. "But I need not speak of what has been done towards the red man, the black man. These deeds are the scoff of the world; and they have been accompanied by such pious words, that the gentlest would not dare to intercede with, 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" (Fuller, pg. 159) Fuller obviously has little sympathy for people who mistreat others and then attempt to walk guiltlessly away from their poor actions. Therefore, her critique of Huck would be strong as Huck repeatedly mistreats, uses and abuses Jim without offering apology or feeling guilty about it. Fuller frowns upon this type of mistreatment stating, "Though freedom and equality have been proclaimed only to leave room for a monstrous display of slave dealing, and slave keeping; though the free American so often feels himself free...only to pamper his appetites and his indolence through the misery of his fellow beings." (Fuller, pg. 159) Huck is a perfect example of an individual who fights fiercely to maintain his own freedom and independence but fails to understand Jim's need and desire to obtain and keep that same freedom.

Fuller believes that everyone should possess the same independence because she writes, "It is inevitable that an external freedom, such as has been achieved for the nation, should be so also for every member of it. That...must be acted out..." (Fuller, pg. 160) Huck's actions throughout the book would have disappointed Fuller. Although it wasn't until the end of the novel that Huck physically kept Jim a prisoner away from his freedom, for the rest of the novel Huck's racist attitude reflects his belief that Jim doesn't deserve freedom because his 'nigger' status gives less value to his membership in society. Fuller recognizes that slaves are not equals (Fuller, pg. 161) and she strongly believes that no certain members of society should have the power to stand above others. "If the negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one master only are they accountable. There is but one law for all souls, and, if there is to be an interpreter of it, he comes not as man, or son of man, but as Son of God." (Fuller, pg. 164) Although Fuller believes that only one god should rule the universe, she is aware of the nature of humans, "In every-day life the feelings of the many are stained with vanity. Each wishes to be lord in a little world, to be superior at least over one." (Fuller, pg. 167) Huck sets this example by accompanying Jim throughout the novel while referring to him as 'my nigger'. Even in circumstances when this title would not lend Jim protection from capture, Huck still has the innate need to claim control over another individual. Huck has a mindset that Fuller illustrates clearly by writing, "In slavery...each is a work-tool, an article of property, - no more!" (Fuller, pg. 169) Huck refers to Jim as a possession because this is how he views him.

Based on her statements in the essay, "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.", Margaret Fuller would be more likely to criticize Huck's racist and unequal treatment of Jim in the novel rather than promote his selfish spin on her belief in self-dependence. Although Fuller believes in individualism, self-reliance and self-dependence, her aim is not to promote selfishness. An individual who has mastered self-dependence would see its value and work to promote self-dependence in others. The institution of slavery and racism is contra to this idea because it requires dependent relations and is demeaning to certain individuals by claiming that they need guidance and could therefore never attain true self-dependence. Fuller would admire Huck's resilience and self-sufficiency, but she would not respect his condescending attitude towards and treatment of Jim. Throughout the novel, although Huck works to free Jim, his underlying racism drives his belief that Jim's race is of a lower potential. 'Free' Huck joins society in believing that 'niggers' neither deserve nor could ever attain true freedom because it is not in their nature. This is where the book strikes its racist core, as the readers realize that their main protagonist is working to accomplish a goal that he does not fully support. Huck Finn is a racist and this makes him more attune to the values and rules of society than he realized. Therefore, Margaret Fuller would not deem Huck Finn a 'free' and self-dependent individual.

The selfish members of a selfish society: A look a
Name: Jorge Rodr
Date: 2006-05-10 23:18:40
Link to this Comment: 19305


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

"There is no pure Transcendentalist...we know of none but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay The Transcendentalist (p. 4). Through his many essays and writings, however, he defends this philosophy as an individual's most reliable resource to fulfill his purpose in life. Furthermore, he has been identified as one of the precursors of American Transcendentalism in the nineteenth century and is known for trying to live according to the ideas he promoted. Nevertheless, he recognizes his own failure and that of all his contemporaries who dedicated themselves to Transcendentalism when he emphasizes that "we have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example" (p. 4). Therefore, if not even Emerson could to live up to the standard of what a true Transcendentalist should be, is the 'spiritual life' promoted by this philosophy an attainable goal or is it impossible to become a true Transcendentalist?

In his novel 'Moby-Dick', Herman Melville introduces three characters that possess many of the fundamental characteristics that identify a Transcendentalist, but who fail to become one. Captain Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg do not make a conscious decision to live according to the teachings of this philosophy, but many of their actions and decisions function as manifestations of how a true Transcendentalist would think and behave. Nonetheless, these insights fail to completely enlighten these characters as they are unable to fulfill what they understand to be their purpose in life. According to Emerson's perspective, they are pioneers who prophesize what man should aspire to be, but who are unsuccessful in that same enterprise. The accomplishments and failures of these characters serve as an indication of which ideas from Transcendentalism individuals are likely to embrace and which other ones, by not assimilating them, will defeat their pursuit of a spiritual life. Melville's account of the development and the trajectory followed by Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg is therefore useful when debating if it is possible to become the perfect Transcendentalist that Emerson describes.

Emerson defines Transcendentalism by first establishing that it is not a new philosophy which appears for the first time in New England, but that it is an old idea reviewed and reconsidered from the particular circumstances of the time he lived in: "What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842" (p. 1). He establishes that the main concept of Idealism is the valuing of consciousness over experience: "The idealist has another measure, which is metaphysical, namely, the rank things themselves take in his consciousness; not at all the size or appearance. Mind is the only reality" (p. 2). Since both Idealists and Transcendentalists rely heavily on the power of consciousness, it follows that they will experience the world around them according to how their minds behold it. Instead of perceiving from a materialistic point of view where what matters are the senses and collectable data which can be interpreted in the same fashion by a general populous, these philosophies will deposit their faith in the "depth of thought" (p. 3) and each individual will "behold the processions of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself" (p. 3).

As a result of this confidence in consciousness and the mind, Transcendentalism distinguishes its philosophy by attributing particular attention to intuitions. Emerson explains that "the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendentalism, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke [...] by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired" (p. 5). What Kant labels as 'Transcendental forms' are nothing but the intuitions of the mind. Respect and trust in these intuitions are then the fundamental criteria that define any Transcendentalist, even if there is not a 'pure' one to be found as Emerson insists upon.

Transcendentalism will then affirm that if an individual learns to rely on his intuitions and deposits his faith in them, then he is capable of developing his own set of rules to have command over his life. Therefore, the Transcendentalist "resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own" (p. 3). The leap that Transcendentalists make in their ideology from their belief in intuitions to affirming that every individual should be his own lawmaker is what many of their critics refer to instead as lawlessness: "In action, he easily incurs the charge of antinomianism by his avowal that he, who has the Lawgiver, may with safety not only neglect, but even contravene every written commandment" (p. 4). This charge does hold true as far as it implies that a Transcendentalist will disregard any legal form if he understands that it opposes the rules he has set forth for himself. By acting as a 'lawgiver', however, he is not engaging in an act of anarchism or mindless rebellion against all law, but is instead opting for his own set of laws. Following this line of thought, Emerson concludes in his essay Self-Reliance that "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature" (p. 3).

The final outcome of this process will be self-reliance, as Emerson describes it in that same essay. "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," is the one lesson that Emerson would want us to part with if we do not take anything else away from our study of Transcendentalism (p. 3). If we learn to follow our intuitions and to obey our own laws, we will ultimately trust ourselves and will become completely self-reliant. This may not be enough to award us with the title of 'Transcendentalist', but it moves us away from the crowd mentality produced in society and helps us focus on our consciousness as individuals.
"We must go alone," Emerson writes as he suggests that we should abandon society and seek solitude, as it is a better tool for us to learn to trust ourselves. (p. 12). He makes the accusation that "society never advances" as he implies that it disables individuals in their pursuit of self-reliance (p. 17). He even warns us that "the populace think(s) that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism" (p. 13). Nevertheless, if one truly comprehends what Transcendentalism is trying to achieve, one will also understand that this retreat to solitude is not an ungrounded choice of a hermit lifestyle over community living, but a conscious decision of valuing our true selves over what society may expect of us.

Margaret Fuller elaborates on Emerson's definition of Transcendentalism when she specifies that each person should trust in himself because that same trust cannot be deposited in anybody else: "I must depend on myself as the only constant friend...the position I early was enabled to take, was one of self-reliance" (Fuller, p. 166). She clarifies that self-reliance is not only valuable because the individual learns to develop his own mind and consciousness, but also because it is a vital resource as the individual cannot trust anyone else. The competitive nature of society, as Fuller describes it in her essay The Great Lawsuit, makes it unworthy of our trust: "each wishes to be lord in a little world, to be superior at least over one" (p. 167). Furthermore, this very same statement supports Emerson's invitation to live in solitude as it demonstrates how we often make the mistake and commit the crime of imposing ourselves and our rules on others. If we want to become truly self-reliant, we need to start by respecting the laws that other individuals have set forth for themselves according to their own nature and we can only do so by retreating from society.

Now, with a better understanding of the philosophy's major concepts, we can understand the impulse to affirm that Captain Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg are perfect examples of what a Transcendentalist should be. The fundamental ideas and elements of this ideology that have been discussed so far are clearly present in these three characters from Melville's novel. Although none of them seeks the solitary lifestyle of a hermit, they all alienate themselves from society and the communities to which they belong. They become more self-reliant as a consequence of this estrangement from their neighbors, although this new found autonomy is not what originally motivates them to seek this separation. They all manage to become so self-sufficient that throughout the entire novel they act with complete confidence in their own capabilities and, most importantly, they prove that they respect their intuitions.

Despite their success in assimilating the essential aspects of Transcendentalism into their lives, these characters still fail to integrate the full scope of what this ideology represents. Without even being aware of it, each one applies his own interpretation to this philosophy and they consequently fail to become the men Emerson hopes will be the product of the ideology he developed. Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg then become ideal case studies to examine why man consistently fails to become a pure Transcendentalist and whether there is any hope for anyone to ever assimilate this spiritual life and become more than a harbinger of the same ideas.

Emerson writes: "To be great is to be misunderstood" (p. 6). If this was the only requirement to become a pure Transcendentalist, then Ahab would be the greatest Transcendentalist of them all. In his ambition to kill the White Whale, his crew is convinced that their captain is blinded by hatred and they are unable to understand that his whole strife is not only fueled by a desire for revenge. Ahab, in the true spirit of Idealism, realizes that "the senses are not final, [that] the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell" (The Transcendentalist, p. 1). He applies this concept to his hatred of Moby-Dick and realizes that although his senses merely see a whale, his mind perceives more than that and thus he strikes at the true motivation of his hatred: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event— in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" (Melville, p. 140). Ahab demonstrates how he values his mind's perception of the world around him over the mere experiences he collects through the senses.

Despite this insightful metaphor about pasteboard masks and his obvious confidence in himself with which he chases after Moby-Dick, Ahab's obsession with the whale proves to be the reason why he fails to be a true Transcendentalist. The problem lies in that when Emerson speaks of the greatness of being misunderstood, he is praising the importance of contradiction and condemning the mediocrity of consistency: "The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tracks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency" (Self-Reliance, p. 7). The Pequod's trajectory, however, appears to be following a straight line behind the White Whale as Ahab consistently pursues after it. Emerson denounces such a steady course and unyielding mentality when he famously writes: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines" (p. 6). Ahab, who could have been a great spirit condemns himself to be a 'little mind' when he decides to engage in a constant and repetitive search for the whale which will prove most unrewarding.

Emerson also speaks about how a true Transcendentalist, although he may be a recluse, is not completely insensible to any emotion whatsoever or prone to be depressed: "for these people are not by nature melancholy sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved" (Transcendentalist, p. 6). Ahab's somber demeanor throughout the entire novel does not fit with the description of a blissful Transcendentalist that Emerson offers. His pessimistic outlook on life does not allow him to see the benefits of his alienation from society, but only promotes his animosity against it.

Although Ahab does alienate himself from his crew and the owners of the Pequod, spends long days in solitude before boarding the ship, and retires to his cabin frequently during the course of his voyage, he does not benefit from his solitude as a true Transcendentalist should. Instead of separating himself from the ship's crew to become more self-reliant, he does it in order to exercise his power over them. He then commits the crime that Margaret Fuller identifies in that he imposes his rules as a superior authority over less powerful individuals.

Much like Ahab, Ishmael possesses many of the fundamental qualities that characterize a Transcendentalist, but unlike the ship's captain, he is able to take advantage of his solitude to seek self-reliance and confidence in his individuality. He confesses that "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can" (Melville, p. 18). Although it will be argued that Ishmael seeks the company of the sea and not solitude, he does retreat from civilization into the lonesomeness of the sea in order to make peace with himself. Therefore, although he remains accompanied by the crew and the ocean, Ishmael explores his identity and develops his independence thanks to this separation from society.

Furthermore, in order to alleviate the 'damp, drizzly November' which is affecting him, Ishmael sails on this voyage of self-reflection in hope that he will be enlightened and to "exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate" (Transcendentalist, p. 10). Emerson says that for Transcendentalists "it seems very easy to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves" (Transcendentalist, p. 10). Much like Emerson describes, Ishmael cherishes the times when all his questions have clear answers, but must then suffer the times when he does not have an explanation for the doubts that he raises for himself. If his 'drizzly November' is the result of one of these times of uncertainty, then Ishmael's travel on the sea is not only an attempt to affirm his self-reliance, but also a search for a serene state of mind in which his purpose in life is clearly stated for him. As any Transcendentalist should do, Ishmael strives to cement his faith in this philosophy so his intuitions and autonomy are not jeopardized when doubts and questions arise.

The identity of this narrator, however, remains a mystery throughout the entire novel, starting from its opening line: "Call me Ishmael" (Melville, p. 18). Unwilling to share much information about himself, Ishmael's true personality is shrouded with secrets that make it impossible for anyone to see him for who he really is. Since Emerson teaches to "insist on yourself; never imitate", this is then the mistake that prevents Ishmael from becoming a pure Transcendentalist (Self-Reliance, p. 16). He does not say "I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier", but instead he opts to hide his true identity and no one can therefore learn to love him for who he is (p. 12). Whether he is ashamed of his identity or whether he simply prefers to keep his privacy, his unwillingness to present himself truthfully to others disqualifies him from being a true Transcendentalist. Even though he is trying to get to know himself better, as Emerson invites everyone to do, Ishmael does not follow this idea to the end because he is unable to share himself with other individuals.

It turns out that Queequeg, a savage and a cannibal, is the character that most resembles what a Transcendentalist should be. Just like the others, he successfully becomes self-reliant as he learns to trust his instincts, but unlike the previous two, Queequeg does not fall victim to the same mistakes. He completely abandons his community and savage society not to impose his authority over others, but in order to learn more about the rest of the world and thus develop his own identity. He is not afraid or ashamed of showing who he really is to others as he proudly carries tattoos on his face that serve as a clear testament to his identity. Queequeg is perhaps the most fully enlightened individual in Melville's novel and makes the best use of Emerson's philosophy although, having been raised in a primitive community, he probably never heard of Transcendentalism.

Despite being accused of cannibalism, Queequeg demonstrates that he is more in touch with nature than any of his critics on board of the Pequod. Raised as a savage, he was never spoiled by the so-called progress made by the neighboring civilizations, which guaranteed him a closer relationship with nature as Transcendentalism would require. Referring to Transcendentalists, Emerson writes that "they are lovers of nature also, and find an indemnity in the inviolable order of the world and the violated order and grace of man" (Transcendentalist, p. 11). Queegueg's devotion to nature helps him become what a Transcendentalist should be as he is able to understand the order of the world he lives in and the role of each individual in it. Perhaps, he is gifted with this understanding because he is not affected by the complications of a supposedly civilized society. Despite this, Queequeg shines as a Transcendentalist thanks to his respect for the beauty found in nature.

The only critique of Queequeg's inherent Transcendentalism is due to his devotion to prayer. On one hand, by engaging in prayer, Queequeg seems to be exercising his consciousness and exploring the power of his mind as it helps him meditate and self-reflect. Prayer, however, is a controversial topic in Emerson's ideology: "Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and losses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous" (Self-Reliance, p. 14). Emerson establishes that if the purpose of prayer is to petition for something out of personal interest, then it is selfish and pointless. But if prayer instead praises and expresses its admiration for life and elements which are of a superior order, then it is worthy and justified. Since Queequeg prays in a foreign language which no one can understand, his faith in his little wooden idol raises many questions about the credibility of his Transcendentalism. The difficulty in classifying Queequeg's prayers in one of these two categories makes the debate over his loyalty to Emerson's philosophy all the more difficult to decide. If Queequeg's prayers, however, are mere requests for personal comforts, it is undeniable that he would join Captain Ahab and Ishmael among the forerunners of Transcendentalism who failed to fully commit to the spiritual life.

In his essay The Transcendentalist, Emerson writes about how even an individual who has been enlightened with the ideas of this philosophy, at one point or another in his life will fail to abide by them and once again become "the selfish member of a selfish society" (p. 10). Through the events that he narrates in his novel and the fate that he decides for his characters, Melville seems to agree with Emerson on this. The difference between the two authors is that Emerson insists that an individual regains his selfishness by once again assimilating the group mentality imposed by society. Instead, Melville uses Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg as examples of how self-reliance, if misused or taken advantage of, can lead an individual back to selfishness. A Transcendentalist, Melville argues, takes the risk of being so self-absorbed that he may forget that the ultimate goal of his philosophy is to find his place in the world and among those around him. Even if completely alone and living like a hermit, if a Transcendentalist is only concerned with his own affairs, then he has simply become a solitary selfish individual in an already selfish society. Melville asks then whether this is any different from the communal selfishness which Emerson criticizes.

By identifying this loophole in Emerson's ideology, Melville consequently points out that the task of becoming a pure Transcendentalist is most often an impossible one. But although he provides us with at least three examples of individuals who fail at this same task, Melville does not condemn the ideas that make up this philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Melville's characters embrace the main concepts of Emerson's teachings and even aspire to become true Transcendentalists. By applying their own interpretation to the ideology and acting according to the rules of their own nature, these characters end up exercising their own genius and demonstrating their self-reliance, even while challenging Emerson's ideas. Therefore, Melville suggests that even if it is an impossible task to become a true Transcendentalist, this still should be the ultimate goal of every individual.

The relevance of studying a hundred-and-fifty-year-old philosophy in our modern times becomes clearer when Emerson asks: "Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statue...will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable?" (Transcendentalist, p. 12). If we do not mind Emerson's warning, the importance of consciousness and individual thought will be overtaken by the overbearing expectations demanded from us by a consistently less and less self-reliant society. Were we to take Emerson's and Melville's advice, we would renew our hope that, even if we never meet any pure Transcendentalists, one day man will rediscover the integrity he owes to his own mind and not to the mob mentality of our society.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance." 1841; rpt. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Transcendentalist." 1849; rpt. Nature; Addresses and Lectures.

Margaret Fuller, "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women." 1843; rpt. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. Ed. Alice Rossi. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. 158-182.

Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. 1851; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hershel Parker, Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

The Psychologist Who Mistook a Book for a Patient:
Name: Laura Sock
Date: 2006-05-11 13:17:46
Link to this Comment: 19319


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Diagnostic Assessment:* Captain Ahab

This case was referred to me by several whalers who came in contact with Captain Ahab during his latest voyage on the Pequod. Fearing that the captain's apparent mental instability presented a danger to his vessel and crew, these various individuals came to me to see if I could determine the probable cause of Ahab's behavior and participate in an intervention. Although recent contact with the ship known as the Rachel has confirmed the fears of those who first came to me for assistance, I present the enclosed material in the hopes that it may help prevent such tragedies in the future.

The information contained in this analysis has been collected from various interviews. Much of the information was obtained from an encounter with a man who preferred to be called Ishmael. This individual was the sole survivor of the late Captain Ahab's last voyage on the Pequod. Other interviewees include Captains Bildad and Peleg of Nantucket, Captain Mayhew of the Jeroboam, Captain De Deer of the Virgin, the captain and chief-mate of the Rose Bud, Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, the captain of the Bachelor, the captain of the Delight, and Captain Gardiner of the Rachel.

I present the following evidence of Captain Ahab's underlying psychological instability, prefaced by an account of Ahab's medical condition. I conclude with suggestions for possible measures that could be taken to reduce the likelihood that such events will occur in the future.

Respectfully submitted,

Laura Sockol

Known medical conditions:

During the course of his last whaling mission, Captain Ahab's leg was amputated by what other whalers have referred to as "the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat," a whale hereafter referred to as Moby Dick (Melville 72). The injury necessitated the early return of Ahab's ship to Nantucket. Ahab's physical recovery from this injury was problematic (Melville 156). It is probable that Ahab suffered from a severe infection, accompanied by fever-induced delirium and hallucinations, during this time (Melville 78, 157). Although Ahab visibly recovered from the physical trauma of the wound and resulting infection, it is likely that the experience contributes to his current psychological difficulties.

At the time he shipped for his last voyage, Ahab seemed to be in sound physical health. A member of his crew noted that "there seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any" (Melville 108). Although he appeared abnormally thin, aside from the prosthetic leg and scar resulting from his encounter with the whale, Ahab's physical health was satisfactory. Ahab suffered from moderate insomnia during the voyage on the Pequod. He was frequently not in bed during the late hours of the night. It was estimated that he was not in bed "more than three hours out of the twenty-four" (Melville 112). The physical results of this sleep deprivation may have been a mediating factor in the development and intensification of his psychological difficulties.

Psychological symptoms:

Irrational obsessions and dysfunctional cognitions. Ahab's most salient symptom was his obsession with Moby Dick. Ahab expressed a desire to chase and kill the whale at all costs. He expended a great deal of energy, both physical and psychological, in this pursuit. He spent a considerable amount of time predicting the possible locations in which Moby Dick might be located and adjusting the ship's trajectory accordingly (Melville 167). Ahab expressed a willingness to "chase [the whale] round Good Hope ... the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before [he gave] him up" (Melville 139).

Ahab's obsession with the whale was rooted in the irrational belief that Moby Dick was the physical embodiment of an unidentified, malevolent force. Ahab attributed all of his hardships to this particular whale. A crew member noted that Ahab harbored a "wild vindictiveness against the whale" and blamed him for "not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual aspirations" (Melville 156). He believed it was his mission to hunt down and eliminate the whale.

Ahab's cognitive function and ability to make rational decisions seems to have been impaired by his obsession with Moby Dick. He was not open to "reasoning . . . remonstrance [or] entreaty," but only "flat obedience" from his crew (Melville 387). This inability to consider others' perspectives and challenge his own distorted cognitions prohibited Ahab from rationally assessing his own behavior and making sound judgements.

Ahab also expressed marked paranoia toward the latter end of the voyage. He did not trust those standing watch to report sightings of the whale and suspected the crew of disloyalty (Melville 402). These beliefs were not grounded in reality, as the crew participated fully in Ahab's quest for vengeance.

It is interesting to contrast Ahab's beliefs about the whale with those of Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, who had a similar encounter with Moby Dick. Captain Boomer also suffered an amputation and difficult physical recovery. However, Captain Boomer accepted that the loss of his arm was an accident and not the result of malicious intent on the part of the whale (Melville 340). In addition, he expressed no desire to seek revenge or to encounter the whale again (Melville 340). This clearly illustrates that Ahab's response to the loss of his leg was not an inevitable result of his encounter with Moby Dick, but rather the result of pathological cognitive interpretations of the event.

Delusions of grandeur. Ahab expressed an heightened sense of his own importance and purpose. This was frequently evident in his interactions with others. Ahab was heard to say, "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me," which indicates not only a very low threshold for conflict, but an irrational estimation of his own abilities (Melville 140).

Ahab believed that his quest to kill Moby Dick was divine in origin (Melville 143). He believed the whale to be an incarnation of the devil and believed his role was to vanquish the evil force (Melville 156). He expressed the belief that he was "the Fates' lieutenant" and that he acted "under orders" from a divine force (Melville 418). Upon sighting Moby Dick, Ahab expressed the belief that fate ordained that he should be the first to spot him, despite the ostensible simultaneity of Tashtego's sighting (Melville 408).

In addition, Ahab's interpretations of ambiguous stimuli indicate a tendency toward grandiosity. Ahab's description of the image upon an Ecuadorean doubloon, which was to be the reward for the crew member who first sighted Moby Dick, illustrates this propensity. Ahab appeared to express the belief that the images upon the coin portended his ultimate battle with the whale, and that the "mountain-tops and towers" engraved upon its surface represented "Ahab, the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious" (Melville 332). In the absence of professionally-administered diagnostic projection tests, this encounter provides evidence that Ahab's cognitions were greatly shaped by an expanded sense of self and irrational preoccupation with Moby Dick.

Ahab's delusions of grandeur extended to a belief that he was "immortal" and could not be killed by Moby Dick (Melville 377). Ahab seems to have interpreted an ambiguous "prophecy" by a member of his crew to mean that he could not be killed during a confrontation with the whale. This expanded sense of self and irrational belief in his own invincibility probably contributed to Ahab's recklessness in his pursuit of Moby Dick.

Maladaptive emotional responses. Ahab was subject to intense emotional reactions and periods of moodiness. He was noted to swing violently from one mood to another (Melville 78, 158). In addition, his experiences of and expressions of various emotions, particularly violent emotions, seemed to be intensified. Ahab was unable to regulate his emotional responses to anxiety-producing stimuli, particularly those that remind him of the occasion upon which he lost his leg. He was also prone to periods of dysphoria (low-grade depressive symptoms). Particularly toward the end of the voyage, when he became frustrated with the fact that he had yet to encounter Moby Dick, it was noted that Ahab "manifested the gloomiest reserve" (Melville 194).

Anhedonia (loss of pleasure) was also evident in Captain Ahab's behavior. Previously an avid smoker, Ahab noted that smoking was no longer a soothing habit and threw away his smoking paraphernalia (Melville 113). In addition, Ahab refrained from engaging in social contact with other whaling ships. Ahab was not observed engaging in any recreational activities during the voyage.

Impaired social functioning. At the outset of the voyage, Ahab secluded himself from the crew, not emerging until the ship had made significant progress southward (Melville 109). Although this tendency to recluse himself became less apparent over the course of the journey, Ahab remained uncomfortable in his interactions with the other men on his ship. At dinner with the officers, he insisted upon a rigid hierarchy and adherence to a set code of conduct (Melville 128). This avoidance of personal interactions and reliance upon codified standards of behavior suggests an underlying anxiety regarding interpersonal interactions.

Ahab's irrational obsession with Moby Dick reduced his ability to empathize with others. The captain of the Rachel, Captain Gardiner, recounted that, upon entreating Ahab to aid him in the search for his son and other lost members of his crew, Ahab refused because Moby Dick was in the vicinity (Melville 398). Ahab placed his own desire for vengeance above the value he placed on human life. Ahab's quest for Moby Dick also led him to treat members of his crew as tools, rather than individuals. He saw the crew of his boat as "not other men, but [as his] arms and legs" (Melville 423). This disregard for the needs of others would have greatly impeded Ahab's ability to function in social situations.

In addition, Ahab's persistence in his quest for Moby Dick led him to act recklessly and with disregard for the safety of himself and his crew. The captain of the Jeroboam recalls that Ahab, despite being warned of an epidemic aboard the other ship, was willing to risk the health of his men in order to discuss the Jeroboam's encounter with the white whale and gain information about his possible whereabouts.

Impaired ability to function:

Ahab's symptoms interfered with his ability to perform his duties as captain of the Pequod. The primary goal of the voyage was to hunt sperm whales in order to obtain oil for sale. The proceeds from this enterprise were to provide the compensation for the crew, as well as the owners of the ship. Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick hindered his ability to manage the economic needs of his vessel. Although Ahab was aware that he needed to provide food for the crew's "more common, daily appetites" for "cash," it is probable that his actions prohibited the Pequod from realizing its full economic potential (Melville 178). Ahab's determining the Pequod's route based on the probability of finding Moby Dick, rather than where the best whaling was to be had at the time, may have reduced the Pequod's chances of encountering sperm whales. Furthermore, his single-mindedness when interacting with captains of other vessels is likely to have prevented him from obtaining valuable information regarding the latest trends in whaling, which doubtless impeded the Pequod's ability to compete in the global whaling market (Melville 196). In addition, the recklessness engendered by Ahab's madness led him to be extremely vigorous in the pursuit of whales, which often resulted in the destruction of property aboard the ship and the threat of harm to members of his crew (Melville 418).


Based on the above assessment of Captain Ahab's psychological difficulties, I propose that the loss of the Pequod and her crew could have been prevented. The indirect cause of the ship's sinking was her captain's madness. The fact that Ahab's instability was not recognized before he was allowed to leave harbor with the Pequod enabled him to use the vessel in pursuit of his own pathologically-oriented goals. In addition, those on-board the vessel were ill-prepared to deal with the severe psychological disturbance of their captain.

There are several points at which an appropriate intervention could have occurred, which may have prevented the loss of life and property. The best measure that can be implemented to reduce the likelihood that such an event is repeated in the future is to adequately assess the psychological state of all whalers before they depart on long voyages. Given the strenuous nature of whaling voyages, and the psychological stressors associated with long periods of isolation, more rigorous screening of officers and crew is warranted. Screening for captains should be particularly rigorous, as they are responsible for the health and welfare of an entire ship. The best support for this recommendation can be found in the fact that Captains Bildad and Peleg expressed doubts about Captain Ahab's psychological state before the voyage was underway. Had Ahab received professional intervention at this point, it is likely that the tragedy could have been prevented.

In addition, all crew members planning to join whaling expeditions should be educated as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate to disobey one's captain. The rigid power hierarchy that exists on whaling ships likely contributed to the crew's inability to intervene in Ahab's ill-fated quest. The establishment and publication of guidelines for crew members as to the appropriate course of action to follow when one's captain has been incapacitated, whether the captain acknowledges the incapacitation or not, may help facilitate the intercession in such circumstances by those on board who may be more capable of making sound decisions.

Although my own efforts have come too late to save the crew of the Pequod, I hope the information contained herein may be of use to others. It is likely, given the frequency with which whalers are subjected to stressors similar to those faced by Captain Ahab, that such an event may occur not too far in the future. Hopefully the lessons learned from the tragic demise of Captain Ahab and his crew will serve to educate whalers about the potential psychological pitfalls associated with the profession and alert them to situations in which an individual's mental health difficulties may pose a threat to the safety of others.


Some have questioned the value of the above assessment and recommendations. I will admit that, given the decline in the popularity of the whaling professions, my advice may seem irrelevant, or even facetious. However, I disagree with those who suggest that the entire project of assessment is without use value. It is true that, as Captain Ahab is already deceased and, in addition, is a literary figure, the usual goals of assessment do not apply. In clinical psychology, a diagnosis usually serves two functions: prediction and treatment. Diagnoses provide clinicians information about the likely course of a disorder and the interventions that been effective for others with similar problems. Ahab's position as a static character in a work of fiction means that neither prediction nor intervention is relevant. However, although this diagnosis cannot serve its usual functions, I believe that it may still prove valuable to the literary critic.

One of the benefits of using the language of psychology is the specifity it lends to certain terms. In the humanities, the debate regarding whether or not Captain Ahab is insane is truly a debate over the definition of sanity. While I do not claim that psychology has elucidated the "true" meaning of sanity, the psychological community provides an agreed-upon definition of psychopathology which is useful when one wishes to distinguish between the normal and the abnormal. By using the language of psychology, readers can debate a common question: does Captain Ahab meet any accepted criteria for psychopathology? This is useful if one's goal is to move beyond the question of "is Ahab insane?" and develop a reading instead based on a concept of Ahab's sanity, or lack thereof.

I have attempted to use accepted psychological criteria for determining the presence of psychopathology in Captain Ahab. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered the standard for psychological assessment in the United States, individuals do not qualify for a diagnosis unless their symptoms meet one of two necessary criteria: either the symptoms must prevent the individual from functioning, or the symptoms cause considerable distress to the individual. Developmental psychopathologists, who study abnormal psychology in the context of normative development, have provided a slightly more sophisticated conception of pathology. Jerome Wakefield defines disorder as "harmful dysfunction:" symptoms cause harm (usually by impairing function) and result from the failure of an innate mechanism to perform its natural function (1). I have attempted to use these two frameworks to assess Captain Ahab's behaviors. If insanity is defined by these criteria (inability to function, distress and the failure of a natural mechanism), I believe that Captain Ahab is clearly insane.

However, this project also elucidates the limitations of the psychological approach to psychopathology. The definitions provided by psychology are only useful if one accepts them without question. The validity of the diagnoses are separated from the act of diagnosis. In order to have a workable definition of pathology, one needs to suspend disbelief and challenges and work with the definitions already in use. However, this may stifle debate regarding the usefulness and validity of the constructs psychologists have come to rely on. There is a heated debate, particularly in the subfield of developmental psychopathology, over whether the ways in which psychologists characterize disorder are useful. In particular, some challenge the idea that disorders are categorical as opposed to continuous spectra of characteristics. This debate is frequently silenced by the pragmatic need for psychologists to work with a common tongue when working with real patients. When clinicians are faced with a patient whose life is clearly adversely affected by their psychological impairments, the question of the validity of the theoretical framework upon which the definition is based is rendered secondary to the real benefits of working with a clear definition with implications for prediction and intervention.

It is perhaps here that the tables can be turned, and the value of literature to psychologists be elucidated. For in the context of a literary character, the clinician is freed from the demand to make an improvement in a person's life. There are no real consequences of misdiagnosis. However, there may be knowledge to be gained. The fantasy world of literature allows the psychologist a space in which to play with the meanings of sanity and insanity. However, the psychologist may do so in a different manner than that usually utilized by students of the humanities. The psychologist, like the English student, recognizes the power of words.

Given that psychology provides a useful framework with which to determine whether or not Ahab is sane, the question remains whether there is any use value in doing so. If the Pequod is sunk, what is the value of assessing its captain? My answer to that is this: the words on the page may not change, but we may read them any way we choose. The work of the literary critic is to create a reading of a text. An assessment and diagnosis of Ahab's pathology provides a valuable grounding for such a reading.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington, DC: Author, 2000.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Wakefield, Jerome. "When is Development Disordered? Developmental Psychopathology and the Harmful Dysfunction Analysis of Mental Disorder." Development and Psychopathology 9 (1997): 269-290.

*DISCLAIMER: I have no clinical training and have never conducted a diagnostic interview. What follows is my own interpretation of how a diagnostic assessment of Captain Ahab might be conducted and presented given our current understanding of psychopathology.

How do we read Moby Dick
Name: Chris Haag
Date: 2006-05-11 14:53:43
Link to this Comment: 19322


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Introduction: Understanding Texts as Inspiration to Experience

Moby Dick is a tough text, one that overwhelms many people. The text is so dense with material, that the reader can be lost in the tangents, depth of language or complicated characters. However, all of these ideas can take hold of a person, causing them to falling undeniably in love with the work. In my experiences with the novel, I have found myself in struggles to bare it followed by moments of completely adoration. Much of my experience to with the text was finding a way to not only get through it, but come to love it.
Much of how I was taught it was from professors who loved the text, and tried to use their love of it as a teaching device. While I admire these professor and believed in their opinion, I found that there is no way to teach how to understand or love a text, that both of those are extremely personal experiences that must be found by the reader on his or her own. Instead, the guidance for the reader should only be inspiration, to be shown a door to how they can have an experience unto themselves, instead of trying to relive others interpretations and experiences with the novel. This method must be not be forceful, but a subtle flicker that catches the eye gazing out into the distance. The paper that follows this introduction may not be the flicker that catches everyone's' eye, but hopefully, in a passing gaze, it can be an inspiration to a future Ishmael sitting alone on his isolated hill.
A lot of my last year has been framed by my reading of Moby Dick. Each reading of the book was in a very different manner. The first experience came when I was the youngest student in a religion seminar, an experience where I often felt overwhelmed by the depth of the discussions. I was forced into not reading the text out of any particular enjoyment, but with the pressure to generate profound ideas. The next experience I had was in the Big Books of American History class, which was a faster, less in depth reading of the text. In the less intimidating environment, I found myself with more time to sit and read slowly, not to find any breakthrough ideas, but to try and read the text for enjoyment. I had no intention of writing on the text, as in my mind, I had already spent enough time with the text the first semester, and therefore would cheating my education by writing about something I already knew.
In my first two readings of the text, which is probably more than must people have given the text, I did not gain a lot. I was not able to appreciate the humor and richness of language. I am not a reader that is easily able to appreciate these characteristics of most novels. At times I can be taken in by a love of these paint strokes, but usual what interests me is how I feel changed by the novel. I believe in the influential power of a novel, and that how much of my reading is staring into a mirror of hypothetical potential. I love books, because I see books as a call for me to become something more than what I am.
In a third reading of the novel, I found that experience I look for in texts. I read it not because I planned to turn it into an academic idea, but in the moment, I felt I had to. I felt that starring off into the ocean, there was a calling, an understanding in that calling that would allow the third voyage not to be rushed and forced like the previous two, but to allow the book to come to me in a way that made sense, that worked. I do not purport to have an explanation of the meaning of it all, but in my paper that accompanies this introduction, I have a work that tries to inspire the reader to experience the text in a similar way. The paper explains very little about either the text or the experience, other than the point that such a text or experience is very hard to explain. This paper is about a moment that existed not to be a story, but to live and thrive in the moment it existed.
After coming back from the beach and writing this paper, I felt as if I came to some great epiphany on how one could be a teacher. Works did not have to be confined to a classroom, but they should be taught on the ocean of the Atlantic or along the Mississippi. The point of a work is not to be a critic inside learning how to dissemble beauty, but to use this as inspiration to become the people we want to be. I had ideas about how after reading Uncle Tom's Cabin we could go into Philadelphia and work on projects against racism. I was convinced that this way teaching text involved us as characters in an ongoing narrative, creating an understanding far surpassing any normal textual study.
In working on this idea, I came into contact with an English professor's writing, Jane Tompkins, teaching in my home town of Durham, North Carolina who tried to use this approach to teaching her students the novel . Her plan was to take fifteen students to the Oracoke Island and they would read the novel in a setting that would be more conducive to an understanding of it. The goal was that after the two weeks, the students would come back with a great appreciation and fuller understanding of the novel than if they would have stayed in a classroom (162). It was to be an experience that would not be governed by the expectation of a grade, but hopefully to create within each of the students and intimate relationship with the experience as a whole.
When the students were asked to write papers on the experiences, the students appeared to have been unaffected by their experience. While Tompkins would later acknowledge an important group dynamic that was clearly present as a result of the trip, her initial reaction was very powerful (167). This reaction was then reiterated in the student evaluations. Tompkins expected her students to come out in a fully enthusiastic manner in how much they loved the class. Instead the evaluations were filled with complaints of a lack of structure, too much time wasted on planning instead of learning (176). While many of the evaluation spoke about the strengths of the class, Tompkins clearly felt a sense of loneliness and defeat at the end of teaching the class she had always wanted to teach.
One can argue, like Tompkins does at the end of the chapter, that in fact the trip was a success. She says she has comes to terms with looking at the experience without judgment, and taking it for what it was. In the end there was a dynamic that had been created in the group that was very special, and in many ways made the experience all worth while. In a letter she received from one of her students at the end of the class, the student stated how he was pleased to have been in a class that challenged him like this one had. He stated how the more time he had spent outside of that class, the more he realized how important it was for him to have taken it. Tompkins empathized with this point, realizing too how the longer she had been away from the class, the more she could appreciate their unique experience.
When I look at the story, I do believe that there were many parts of this experience that were extremely powerful, but in many ways I do think the class failed. The reason that it failed had not to do with the students' commitment, but with Tompkins reason for having her students read Moby Dick. Whether she attempted to do this or not, much of what Tompkins was doing was not trying to teach a work, but to teach an appreciation. This book was what her dissertation was written on. This book is what she thought about lying next to her dying father. This was something dear to her heart, and part of who she was.
Taking them on this trip, she was forcing her identity onto the students. She was doing what she worried about when she taught the language of Melville to the students, which was mistaking her interest for the students. In the end, I feel that she tried to relive her experience for the students in a wholly artificially way, and when they did not appreciate it in the same she did. Maybe in time there experience will approach hers, but much of that is the result of being allowed to be free in their interpretation.
I believe that Tompkins' experiment is a fantastic attempt and goes along with much of what I believe about teaching. In the same line, I think it gives me an understanding of how to be careful in trying to teach in such a way. Through my reading of her experience, I gained a slight change of understanding, that being that it was not about having the students follow you in your happiest experiences, but give the material and inspiration for students to find there own. Students should go to the beach not because they are packed into a bus and taken there, but because like Ishmael, they are drawn to the sea.
In my paper, I am not trying to explain Moby Dick nor even explain the experience I had on the empty beach. The only explanation that can be found in this work is the utter inability to try and explain an experience. In this point, it is an attempt to prove the triviality of the need for others stories. Rather, it is an introduction the moment I encourage the reader to have. The paper attempts to give so glimpse of the emotion I felt standing in the surf and the cleansing feeling of enlightenment I felt in that moment. Yet, I do not want to use my experience as a substitute for others, as when taken out of context, it becomes meaningless. Its power lay in my ability to contain the moment in the moment, and not attempt to live it in a way that it could become a story.
This paper may not lead you to desire an experience like I felt. I found in the first two readings of Moby Dick I was inspired only to be done with the novel. Only when I was freed from an obligation to understand did I feel free to go back and want to interpret. The ocean called me back to the book. That is not to say the ocean has the power to call everyone back. It is only a suggestion, or maybe an extended hand that encourages a read not to understand the novel, but to come into an experience with it. The reader is not the main character of this book, but instead the Ishmael who leaves the Island of Manhatoes to live his life. Tompkins realized in her reading that she needed to get her students to not stare at the novel from afar, but to live instead it. However, she forgot that she was having them live inside her experience instead of there own.
Reader, use this essay as you may. I wrote it because of an over follow of emotion that I could not find any other place to put them. They may seem scatter and unintelligible to you, but my hope is that someone will see this experience and it will inspire them. Moments cannot survive as stories alone. They are not meant to remain lifeless, but to live and breath in the environment they were conceived. But I do not to live my experience, that was my own. I hope that the readers will live their own experience, that maybe they can inspire others with.

Gazing at the Whale

The ocean goes on farther than comprehension. In a world of limits, it is the contradiction. While it is appears constant and so much the same, the eyes cannot help but gaze at it, feeling a pull towards it. I feel so natural submitting to the pull, I feel a calm staring at the leviathan in front of me. Every morning it comes in, swallows up the beach, and drifts away in the afternoon. The waves will always break fifteen feet from the shore, and the tide will come circling around my toes. The ground will become wet, my feet will sink in, wet sand engulfing them. Each time and every time. The sky today is the blue that fades into the ocean's horizon, blurry any distinction. I love the ocean. I love the moment, looking at the ocean, feeling the cold water splash against my naked skin. The moment is complete in as much as any moment can be completed. This place is where I want to be, this sight is what I want to see.
I used to view the ocean with fear. I would look upon it as that which could tear me away, bringing me out into a new world that was unsafe and would probably kill me. I stood away from the ocean, safely on the beach with my concerns focused on my sand castles. I wanted to construct something powerful, something that would last to the next day. My enemy, other than an older brother who might stomp it out, was ocean whose high-tide would most certainly be too much. Walls got higher, moats got deeper, but each and every time, the surf would humble the bulwarks and fill the deeps. Each morning the castles was nothing more than a dent in sand, barely a fingerprint. After many attempts to withstand an ocean, I choose instead to move farther back, building castles closer to the dunes, farther from the ocean. It was safer to put it farther away, it was able to last.
Going to the beach is not staying in the dunes. The majesty, the force pulling us is the ocean. The books we read there, the day-trips we go on are not what draw us. There is a pull that makes no sense when we trying to explain it, we are unable to push our passion through the crude translation of language.
The ocean is not a swimming hole, not a fishing pond. Our attempts to make sense of all of its capabilities still do not explain its allure. There are swimming pools all around. There are place to fish that are a minutes drive, not several hours. My relationship is much more removed much more distant. I come to sit and watch. What is the purpose? It is not a calm I am looking for, as calm can be found in many songs, many soft afternoons. I am not calmed by the leviathan in front of me. I am perplexed, but only perplexed in the naturalness of the moment. Even in coming for just a week, I feel as though the years before were just a boarder around the sacred truth of the current moment.
I want to understand this moment, because sitting here is awe is no ground to build from. I do not want to be the gazer upon those who gaze, but the one who experiences the truth. How can we be so close to what is so right, and allow it to wash away? I want the water to come over and anoint me, be the bright epiphany that destroys the old and creates the definite and certain new. I do not care for words of rebirth or virginity in this moment. I care for only what the ocean whispers in its splashes against the surf and banter with the sky.
I can not decide if the years before I have waited were a waste, or all building towards this moment. Could a younger man had seen and heard the call of these waves, or am I too expired to live a life speaking in this language? Am I too ripe, or too expired?
Words lose their meaning when they are stripped down through repeating them over and over, and reveal certain honesty. An H is just a breath of air, but in the breath we attribute so much meaning. The more we repeat, the more peculiar, the more disenchanted we are with the reliance on the illusion. What are we that care so much for silent breaths?
When you stare at the ocean for long enough, the waves do disappear. The broken shingled surface becomes a flat stage, a solid platform that the mind can walk on and dance over. The new form it takes is more real, more natural than one could ever expect. It is not an illusion that has gained authority arbitrarily, but it is the apriori to which we should build ourselves entirely upon. This is not a limited existence, or fading delusions, but real full growth and recreation in every waking moment. But what does all of this mean? I can walk into it, but am I any closer? I know that it is something; I know it exists, but I can find no way to penetrate it more than a doting gaze. I cannot be happy with my reliance on a gaze. I don't even understand my gaze! The distance is immense.
I know the force exists, I know there is a pull, but which way am I being pulled? The tide would take me out, pull me down to the bottom, but the desire to live takes me back to shore. The only place I can stand comfortably is in the surf, equally distant from land and sea.
The sun breaks through the clouds and I am overcome. The sky now has a beauty incomparable to any other. The sky's pupil looks down on me. I know not how to respond, I know not what it is saying. My stance is faith, faith being the only rock I can stand on. The brightness of the beauty is inspiring, but overwhelming as I know not what to do with the presence. What do you inspire me to do? Nothing these eyes have seen, hands have touched hold a resemblance to the kingdom I am among . All the battles of light and darkness are being fought above me, and all that is good is revealing in its victory. Am I a part of the victory, or am I that which is being defeated?
All this joy tries to rush through shrunken pupils and an over perceiving mind only to find it is too full. The messiah has come to find there is no room for him here, and I must order him to lie in the manger . I am not ready for what he has to say, I am not ready for what he can show me. His visions fall on eyes that see them as God's foot upon the treadle of the loom . In my state of drowning, I allow myself to sink, to stop treading water and am taken by the waves, floating on the surface.
I know I see a truth, and in the language of the mind it all makes sense. But like all ideas of truth, the path from thought to speech strips away all the poetry draining too much blood from the idea. It cannot exist outside the body. I know what I have discovered is truth; I know that in the space between the Sun and the Sea I exist in a plane the recreates time and space. But in this sacred space, I know that I will have to leave. The shore calls me back. When I leave, nothing will exist as it had, as the attempt to speak or remember to myself will kill the experience in the form it had existed. In the moment everything danced together, so happily, so purely, frolicking in a way only that which understands its own impending expiration. The fading light becomes brighter by the darkness it creates.
Dreams are formed not by dreaming alone, but how we decided to remember them. Our memory of the dream makes sense in the context of the dream, but when we wake and try to communicate them, our language is unable to explain them in the form thy originally existed. They are either full of holes or too illogical. Instead we fabricate a combination of the dream and the awake one's interpretation. Authenticity is destroyed by a need for control.
I left the moment not because I did not like what I saw, but because I had no way of existing in the moment. I live in a world of sharing, and unfortunately the world I found was destroyed by an attempt to bring it to the world I know. The moment is now just a finger print, much like the washed away sand castles. The washing away does not cause me not to want to try again and be content to go back to the dunes, but to go back and try to hear the words spoken in tongues. Whatever existed in the place was exciting and real. I want it not like I desire for a lover, not like I desire for a greater image of myself. I desire it for what it was and what it will become. I desire the entity unto itself. Its power reintroduced me to the performance of my thought and cornucopia of possibility. The wonderful thing about this world is the very fact of how many things can be wonderful about it. In the meantime, I will continue to sit and watch the ocean, as it comes in, and drifts away.

Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have t
Name: sky stegal
Date: 2006-05-11 15:45:47
Link to this Comment: 19323


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Children's Lies and Deceptions

In Big Books of Mid-Nineteenth Century

American Literature

I am what is known as a born liar. I have a decided knack for not telling the truth; it is a talent I think I have always had (although not always practiced). I discovered frighteningly early in life that being a liar gets me out of or around a lot of unpleasant situations, and I am somewhat ashamed to admit I have abused this ability in the past. I have used my skills to avoid punishment and chastisement. I have gotten out of work, and class, and activities of all sorts. I have even bluffed my way into money, not to mention goods and services.

I have never had to lie to save my life, or to protect someone else's, although I have lied on others' behalf plenty of times. I used to believe this was because I was so young – until recently I felt, perhaps subconsciously, that I was living in the kingdom where nobody dies, Millay's ideal of childhood. There was never any real threat to anyone's life, especially not my own. What I have discovered this semester, however, is that death and the threat thereof, along with loss of freedom (which I have always considered a kind of death), are no strangers to a young life, and that my age does not protect me. I realized this when we discussed Huck Finn as a liar-for-survival and when I thought about the stakes of his lies.

Once that got me thinking, I noticed several things – that all our big books from this semester have children in them, that all these children's lives or freedom (or both) come under threat at some point, and that all these children have to face adult situations. What I also noticed, upon reflection and comparison between myself and these children, was that several of them deal with these big issues with deception, in some form or another. In particular I thought of Miles from Turn of the Screw, Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Huck from The Adventures of Huck Finn.
What struck me from that point was how vastly different these children's styles of lying or tricking or deceiving were, and how my own style contrasted with theirs. Not wanting to simply compare the three, I began thinking about why their lies would be so different, and hit upon a thesis – the children lie to adults to save themselves and their loved ones from some unpleasant or terrible situation, and this method of self-defense works (or fails) based on their ingenuity and credibility; also, these situations can teach me about my own life as a liar.

Let us begin by setting up a method for exploring these liars, an experimental sequence if you will. I would like to look at a single deception for each child; look at the situation, the characters involved, the lie itself, and its outcome. These are the things I personally take into consideration when lying, what my ex-Army officer father would think of as the mission, enemy, terrain, time, and troops available: what is my goal, my enemy (counterpart, victim, dupe, whatever you want to call him or her), my situation and previous history, and what advantages do I have? Armed with this knowledge, I and these children create a lie, and our success is partly dependent on our ability to acquire and use these bits of information.

So we will begin by looking at Miles, in Henry James' Turn of the Screw. In any discussion of this particular story, we must bear in mind the distinct possibility that the governess has gone mad, and remember that this tale is purely her perception. Therefore, let us be specific and say that we will examine what the governess perceives as Miles' deception when he plays piano for her, causing her to forget about Flora for a while (page 374). Let me first point out that this perceived lie is a lie of omission on Miles' part; the governess believes he has deliberately tricked her into misplacing Flora.

Ok, so what is the situation here? The liar is Miles, or at least the governess seems to think so, which means she is the "enemy" or victim of his lie. The goal of the lie is to distract the governess long enough for Flora to go meet with Miss Jessel outside, again according to the governess. She says (or rather, James writes, in the voice of the governess), "he came round to me and asked if I shouldn't like him, for half an hour, to play to me... it was quite literally a charming exhibition of tact, of magnanimity" (374) as introduction, then explains what it is that this act tells her without Miles having to say anything explicitly.

So where is the lie? The governess perceives, while he is playing, that Miles is trying to tell her implicitly that she can still trust him now that she has given him more freedom and that he does still love her. She realizes some time into the concert, however, that she has forgotten about Flora and quickly perceives that he has tricked her, saying to Mrs. Grose, "he found the most divine little way to keep me quiet while she went off." (376) The governess, despite frequently commenting on Miles' purity and angelic qualities before, readily believes that he has deceived her under the influence of Peter Quint.

The problem with this is that we cannot know for sure if Miles intended that deception, so for the sake of argument, for now, we shall assume he did. He has played his trick well, it seems, since it has worked, and the governess has been made to completely forget her charge for a time. She does not even get mad at Miles; on the contrary, she leaves him alone, presumably to rejoin Peter Quint, while she looks for Flora. And this deception is the beginning of the end for the governess; within six pages she feels she has "lost" Flora, and the story ends shortly thereafter.

What can I learn from Miles' deception? Obviously, that a history of near-perfect goodness and the adoration of your victim makes such a deception much easier, and that one's more honest talents can be used to propagate a lie. I also feel that his activity could have been an innocent or honest attempt to spend pleasant time with the governess; this reminds me that even one's best intentions can be perceived as lies or trickery. This makes me more careful about my own actions, to remember that what I think is an innocent idea can become a perceived deception. Similarly, I will remember that those I think are lying to me may mean no such thing, and those who appear to be attempting some sweetness may be lying.

To shift gears almost completely, in Uncle Tom's Cabin – a book full of honesty, Christian goodness and sentiment, and all the best virtues a Jesus-figure can offer – we meet the slave-child Topsy (in Chapter XX, first), who steals and lies and delights in her own wickedness. Topsy's lies are obvious lies; we see her steal and we hear her deny her thefts. In our first real interaction with Topsy (page 211) she steals Miss Ophelia's ribbon and gloves, and is caught at it. Miss Ophelia knows immediately what has happened; she says "Topsy, you naughty girl, don't you tell me a lie," (212) and gets the child to confess her crimes... and some which she has not actually committed. Miss Ophelia says moments later, "I didn't want you to confess things you didn't do... that's telling a lie, just as much as the other" (213) and Topsy professes her "innocent" astonishment.

Her situation is straightforward; Topsy lies to avoid punishment, she lies to Miss Ophelia, she persists in lying even when she really does not have to, she changes her lies as she deems necessary for the moment, and she uses her extraordinary control over her own motion and expression – not to mention tears - to appear innocent when she lies. Her lies are effective only later on, when she insists on her innocence in various tricks which she undoubtedly played (216), and not when she lies directly to Miss Ophelia's face about these first thefts. She fails in this case because the objects in question are quickly found hidden about her person; she is caught in the act, so to speak, and cannot completely lie her way out of it.
Topsy is lying to protect herself in the wake of her thefts. But what has she to protect herself from? We the readers know that Miss Ophelia can hardly bear the thought of whipping the child, much less inflicting some more severe punishment. Topsy, however, does not know this yet and has a history of much more intense retribution; she tells Miss Ophelia, "I's used to whippin'; I spects it's good for me," and tells the other young slaves that "...old Mas'r made the flesh fly; old Mas'r know'd how!" (217) She later finds delight in laughing about Miss Ophelia behind her back, since she is so much less fierce than Topsy's old masters; any relief she may feel at not being whipped so hard or so much is covered up by her joking manner.

I, unlike Topsy, have never been faced with the threat of whipping or worse for a minor crime; however, I sympathize with her because my fears of retribution are almost always more intense than any punishment I might actually receive. This fear has caused me, like Topsy, to learn fairly effective methods of lying while looking as innocent as possible, to the point that I must be caught red-handed to be found out. In the context of this book, however, these lies seem more wicked to me now than they ever did when I was telling them. I know this is the result of Stowe's overt religious emphasis (Lies are Wicked! Wickedness goes to Hell!), but that knowledge does not lessen my reaction.

What determines Topsy's effectiveness? Her talent for lying resides not in her creativity, since her lies are of the basic I-didn't-do-it variety, or in adaptability, since she tends to stick to a lie even when she has been caught, or even in her tenacity, since that angers Miss Ophelia even more. Like Miles, Topsy's gift is in her appearance of innocence, although in her case it requires a lot more work, given the racial prejudice and knowledge of her background that everyone else already has. Stowe describes her having "an air of the most surprised and unconscious innocence," (212) but also as "black, keen, subtle, cringing yet acute" (213) to emphasize that while the child looks like everything the other characters expect in a liar and thief, she has the cunning to appear innocent and honest, even when caught.

Huck Finn, on the other hand, has more creative and plentiful lies than any other character we have studied this year. It is difficult to choose a lie of Huck's, since one could open the book to nearly any page and find at least one falsehood. However, the lie of his that stuck with me the most was his artful deception of the men in Chapter XVI, leading them to believe he was with his family, who had smallpox, rather than with an escaped slave. Here we see Huck, after struggling long and hard with his conscience, finally decide to protect Jim rather than turn him in. He keeps the men, who are trying to be helpful, away from the raft by letting them infer that his family all has smallpox, without actually having to say it.

Let's break this down. Huck is lying to protect Jim and himself, he deceives two men in a boat, he is floating alongside them in the canoe and trying to keep them away from the nearby raft, and his advantages include a natural talent for small lies and the men's pre-instilled fear of airborne disease, particularly the pox. Huck maneuvers this scene gently, buying himself time by asking the men to come with him, then slipping in just enough information to scare them: "everybody goes away when I want them to help me," and "it's the – a – the – well, it ain't anything, much" (112). He avoids naming a disease, which is wise, because this way the men can believe anything they like and his lie is not as conscience-biting as a more specific one might be. Huck then works on the men's sympathy by crying and talking about how no-one will help them, and gets money from both of them this way.

What is interesting about Huck is that immediately after his lies, he starts "feeling bad and low" (113) because he has chosen that path he has been told is wrong. He makes a big decision – to stop worrying about right and wrong and just do "whichever come handiest at the time," – a decision which probably keeps him and Jim alive later on. This emotional reaction to his own lies is interesting to me because, of the three children I have studied, Huck is the only one who feels any real remorse about his decision to deceive. He is also not caught in his lie and therefore does not have to feign innocence beyond that required in the act of lying itself.

Huck is more successful than either Miles or Topsy, obviously since he achieves his goal and makes money besides, but why? First of all, Huck does not get caught, but that is an extension of his own cleverness – the men never realize he has lied because they never see Jim, and they never see Jim because of the lie. Huck protects himself in his lie by choosing something that will not only frighten the men, but cause them to pity him and want to help. He also has a level of subtlety that the others lack, such that he can let the men see what they want to see rather than showing them something specific and therefore more easily refutable.

So, with all these advantages, what is it that makes or breaks Huck Finn's lies? His talent is not in innocence, particularly, as we see in other lies, but in the crafting of a lie. When faced with a relatively familiar situation, he makes up completely plausible stories, and when he does not have to remember details for very long he upholds the lie well. Huck has a gift for appearing more child-like than he really his – he fooled most of my class into thinking him much younger than his fourteen years – and this works to his advantage when dealing with adults a lot of the time. His downfall comes when he tries a lie which is out of his realm of experience (like when he tries to pass as a girl), or which goes on too long (like with the feuding families), or when someone else pulls him into a bad lie (like with the duke and the dauphin).

To recap; Miles' perceived deception is his apparently innocent distraction of the governess for nefarious purposes, Topsy outright lies when she is caught stealing and does not successfully avoid punishment, and Huck lies with open-faced subtlety to protect his friend's life and liberty. Each of them succeeds whenever they can maintain a façade of innocence. Each of them fails whenever they are literally caught in the act. I find I react most strongly to each of these children on an emotional level, in the sense that when I read, I put myself in the characters' places, and in these cases I find myself wondering how I feel in each of these lies.

I hate the way Miles goes about his deception; it feels disingenuous to me, and while I can almost justify his motivation (he is doing it for his sister, after all), his action seems weak to me. With Topsy all I feel is pity and a mild distaste; this child is acting out of fear, obviously, but blowing her fears way out of proportion to her situation, and it is her overreacting that gets her in more trouble in the end. Huck I can really empathize with, although as I mentioned earlier I feel I have never had to lie for someone's life. He lies with more grace, it seems, and on the spot. I find myself disappointed with him when he gets caught in a lie, but delighted when he succeeds in misleading someone (especially someone grown-up and sure of him or herself). Perhaps this is my own immaturity, but I do not see his talent for deception as a bad thing; then again, in my beloved world of theater, it is not at all bad to be able to take someone in and make them believe something contrary to fact.

Huck, however, requires a little further discussion, since his motives for lying are more complex. He is not just trying to fool someone else for his own gain; Huck is often lying to himself as well, creating a world in which he is not the boy he has to be in reality. Huck's lies often take the form of the one I have outlined here; that is, he makes up a family situation very different from his own relationship with his own uneducated, violent, drunk Pap. He sometimes styles himself an orphan, and I wonder if he would rather be (as he does turn out to be, at the end). His lies help him emotionally escape the world he has been forced into, in the same way that the raft helps him escape physically. I think this is part of the reason Huck protects Jim, even, though his conscience tells him not to. Huck knows Jim is part of the story that involves a relaxed raft-life, adventures Tom Sawyer would be envious of, and nothing uncomfortable (like nice clothes) or terrible (like Pap).

Huck is the superior liar, when placed next to Topsy and Miles, but he is also the saddest, I think, since his lies represent not only his determination to survive and help his friend, but also his need to escape aspects of reality more personal to him than the slave-trade. As a liar I find myself admiring Huck for his skills and his relatively high success rate, but as a person I mourn for him and must admit I would never trade my situation for his (no matter how tempting the river sounds). I have heard that the easiest thing in the world is lying to yourself. I have always found lying to other people a little too easy; Huck reminds me to watch out for those lies I start to believe, and to be careful not to get too tangled in my own web.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (and Other Short Novels), Signet Classic, New American Library, 1995

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Norton Critical Edition, 1994

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Norton Critical, 3rd Edition, 1999

Religion: The Opiate of the Masses, or Superstitio
Name: Jillian Da
Date: 2006-05-12 06:18:59
Link to this Comment: 19347


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

On my last paper, which was about the use of religion and superstition in Huck Finn, the following comment was scrawled in the right hand margin on the first page: Religion is merely superstition with an army. This got me thinking a couple of things, the first of which was, "Wow. All the books we have read for this class have really strong Christian religious themes and undertones". My second thought was, "In all of these books, there always seems to be at least one very religious character whose faith is, in some way, tested". After that came: "The way in which these characters are tested always seems to involve some sort of supernatural, occult related, or superstitious event which their religion condemns, but is unable to provide an alternative explanation for". My final thought was, "Could religious condemnation of superstition really be a cover up? Were the power players, in the days when these faiths were new, have been so worried about keeping followers, that they came up with a system of rules banning close examination of certain ideas which, if thought about critically, might actually look an awful lot like the religion in question? Are religion and superstition actually the same thing?" Fortunately, since our 19th century American novels are chock full of examples of superstition and religion, they're a good place to start looking for answers.

In our analysis of Turn of the Screw, one of the theories we posed for why the governess believed her charges to be possessed was that, in fact, she was mad. A Freudian interpretation of events suggested two things: first, that the governess's secret lust for her employer made her prone to believe any half baked idea she could come up with to bring him closer to her, including the notion that his niece and nephew were possessed. Armed with that crisis, she naturally assumed he would come out to the countryside to help her. However, according to her Christian faith, both the lust she was feeling and the methods she was employing in an attempt to sate it were sinful, and (the second point) she quickly went mad from guilt and desire. In this case, religion and superstition do not appear to be equivalent; the former inspires guilt based on some dictate, where the latter generally inspires fear and caution in expectation of preventing some catastrophic event.

This is just one theory. Another approach we took to this particular tale was to assume that the governess was one hundred percent sane, and that everything she was seeing was true. In this case, religion and superstition do seem to be the same thing. Both, in some fashion, deal with ghosts. In the case of superstition, stories of the restless dead haunting countryside manors, particularly the spirits of those who met violent ends (like Peter Quint), are very common. Religion, too, deals with the souls of the departed, though there tends to be more of a preoccupation with whether that soul goes to Heaven or Hell, not what might entice it to remain on the earthly plain. Religion and superstition also deal with demonic possession, though the former usually cites sin and depravity as reasons for it, while superstition maintains that such a thing could happen to anyone.

The second text we read, Moby Dick, had a clear connection running between religion and superstition in its pages, though not necessarily a parallel. The ghostly imagery of the white whale, and Ahab's utter conviction that the beast was out for blood and hell bent on killing him (and, consequently, his preemptive strike on the animal), are definite examples of the paranoid thinking and visual cues associated with superstition. Religion, meanwhile, played a more thematic role, coming up in reference to Queequeg (a heathen and a cannibal), Ahab's Quaker background, and the Biblical image of Jonah being swallowed by the whale, an idea that was often referenced in the footnotes of the Norton Critical Edition of the story. Specifically, the two are connected through Ahab; both religion and intense superstition play key roles in the portion of his life (and the decisions he makes, all of which are related to his pursuit of Moby Dick) described by Ishmael, and are most certainly important prior to and after the events of the novel (although, granted, he isn't technically alive at the end of the book).

Conversely, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, we see almost no instances of superstitious belief or behavior, with the one exception of Cassie's home brewed ghost story at the end of the novel. The majority of the time, the story is concerned with religion, and is so on two levels. The first is the level of the characters themselves. From the beginning, when we meet Tom, our primary information about his character is that he is a God loving and God fearing man, devoted to his Scripture, who preaches the goodness of doing as his religion dictates not out of fear or some disaster, but out of reverence. Eva echoes this sentiment later on; even more pious than Tom, she extols the virtues of being an honest, humane kind of person with compassion for others, not because of any superstitious belief about what evils it might prevent or good fortune it might attract, but because it is the Christian thing to do.

The second level of religion comes from the writer herself, and is laced in with the rest of the story's plot to make Uncle Tom's Cabin an extremely effective piece of propaganda. In the first few chapters, we see Mrs. Shelby arguing with her husband about whether or not Tom and Eliza really should be sold. Her immediate response to the situation is that it's highly unchristian of her not to be able to keep her word to them (that they'd never be sold), and that her husband is making a mockery of her by forcing her to break it. Later on, the reader encounter the Quaker abolitionists who help George and Eliza escape to Canada. Stowe uses them and their religious conviction as a major focal point of her argument, insisting that anyone who reads and interprets the Bible correctly will agree that slavery is wrong. Again, there is nothing superstitious in any of this, no need for preventative measure of any kind, no fear that, if one doesn't think a certain way, they're going to be visited by misfortune. All of Stowe's convictions, and by extension, the convictions of her more minor characters, are wrapped up in religion as a guideline for living one's life and living it well, which she maintains is a conscious choice that each individual must come to on their own.

The Scarlet Letter, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, is not a story that leaves a lot of room for superstition, either as a cause of misfortune or as a result of bad behavior. Hester's punishment is clearly dictated by people (specifically, the religious/political leadership of the settlement), and is a response to her failure to adhere to Puritan law. Any and all guilt that Dimmesdale finds himself privately suffering under occurs on account of his violation of his sacred oaths, and the sanctity of his covenant with God. The only small instance in which the idea of "religion equals superstition" appears is, as in Turn of the Screw, in the references to possession. Often times, little Pearl Prynne is described as being very "impish" or "demonic"; her mother frequently wonders if she is possessed by some unnatural evil. The general understanding among the rest of the community members is that Pearl's wicked and unchristian behavior is the logical result of having been conceived in sin by two parents destined to be forever out of God's favor as punishment for their actions.

Finally, religion and superstition as used in Huck Finn are not at all similar; as claimed in my previous paper, the two are set up as antitheses of one another, representing the opposing ideals of bondage and freedom. On a less grandiose level, there is simply not enough commonality in the way religion and superstition are brought into play in the text, especially where influence over character's decisions is concerned, for me to be able to think of them as anything but polar opposites. For example, the widow Douglas and Miss Watson spend the first chapter of the book trying to force religion down Huck's throat, teaching him all about the significance of his own life (i.e. the comparison the widow makes between Huck and Moses), and Heaven and Hell, and how he should model his behavior after the teachings in the Bible. The only case in which a threat of some ill befalling Huck should he chose to ignore their advice is mentioned, is in his discussion about the afterlife with Miss Watson, when she informs him that his wickedness will lead him into Hell. She does not imply that he will be struck down, or that any long term pain or untimely death will come to him; she merely informs him that after his death, his soul will be damned.

Superstition, as used in Huck Finn, is much more about immediate consequences, usually strange and cruel twists of fate leading to some kind of injury, illness, discomfort, bad luck, or an early grave. For example, when Huck kills a spider in his room in the first chapter, he goes ballistic, trying every way he can think of to make up for the deed, certain that the cosmos is going to punish him for his transgression. He's not worrying about the future state of his immortal soul fifty years from then; he's worried about what bad luck will come into his life the following day. Unlike religion and religious texts, which spend a lot more time talking about the benefits of living a "right" life, superstitious beliefs are things that can't be pinned down, and which are almost always bad. On the one occasion Huck mentions this to Jim, asking if there's any such thing as a good omen, Jim asks him what the use is in seeing the good things coming, and lets on that, while there are a few good signs and superstitions, they're really not that numerous, and the ones that do exist never tend to do people any good.

The one point on which religion and superstition are the same in Huck Finn is in the fact that both emphasize the idea that life is what you make of it, and you honestly shouldn't expect much. Living well (or, in the case of superstition, getting by at all) is its own reward, and if you happen to encounter some good grace or stroke of luck, and good things come into your life, they should be a pleasant surprise; they are not to be taken for granted. Apart from that, life seems to be guaranteed to be full of pain and suffering and loss, though at least with religion, the grieving are given somewhere to turn in their time of need. Superstition shrugs that off; there is nothing to suggest that things will work out in the end, and that whoever it is that's miring their way through a down period will come out the other side in one piece. There's not the same sense of hope one finds in religion, and that, for all its symbolism as a source of bondage, the idea of religion in Huck Finn perpetuates.

Given all these varying degrees of fact and analysis, what can one glean about the nature of religion and superstition from 19th century American literature? As far as I'm concerned, you can't really tell anything about whether or not the two are the same, at least not by comparing their use across novels. While it seems fairly obvious that religion and superstition are related (either loosely connected or polar opposites), there's no consistency in their application between (or even, sometimes, within) the stories we've read this semester. The differences in their use have certainly helped me to refine my definitions of religion and superstition (the former being a publicly supported ideology which sets strict guidelines for how to live one's life in order to achieve happiness on earth and in the afterlife, and the latter being a set of fear inducing cause-and-effect parallels which provide a complicated list of do not's in order to avert bad luck), but little else.

Another way to approach this question in future might be, instead of trying to figure out and prove that religion is "superstition with an army" or, as Karl Marx put it, "the opiate of the masses", to look at how the uses of religion and superstition run parallel to each other. Do they run parallel at all? Where do they intersect, and why? What was the author's purpose in creating those intersections (if it is assumed to be intentional)? If it's not, then what meaning can the reader draw from them on their own? Can the definitions of the two terms change depending on the extent to which they are parallel versus the extent to which they overlap? Are the definitions I've given above universal, even among 19th century American novels, or is meaning entirely subjective? These are just some things to explore in future writings, and perhaps in future class discussions, which might contribute better to an understand of the material at hand, and help establish (or, potentially, break down) connections between the novels in question.

A Disorganized Attachment Reading of Huck Finn
Name: Margaret M
Date: 2006-05-12 08:26:30
Link to this Comment: 19354

<mytitle> Big Books Home
2006 Final Web Report
On Serendip

Part One

Ekman and Davidson (1994) suggest that the emotions that are experienced most frequently and intensely are those that are in the context of interpersonal relationships. The way that people conceptualize their relationships affects the type of emotions that are felt. This conceptualization of relationships is explored in attachment theory, which is a theory regarding the different ways that people form attachments with each other. The theory deals most specifically with the ways that children form attachments with their parents because they will influence future attachments with others. There are four main types of attachment. The first is secure attachment. Children who have a secure attachment to their mothers will happily explore when their mother is present, be upset when their mother leaves, and happy when she returns. The second style is anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment. A child with this style of attachment is anxious exploring when the mother is present, and is extremely upset, resistant, and resentful when the mother returns. Another style is anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, in which a child will not explore much and will show little emotion when the mother leaves or returns.

The last attachment style is the disorganized attachment style. This is not so much a style as it is a lack of a cohesive style. These are children who say that relationships are not important to them and who avoid close relationships (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). They want to be self-reliant and independent (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Previously, it was thought that relationships really aren't important to disorganized attached people. However, Carvallo and Gabriel (2006) found that this was not the case and that relationships are potentially even more important to disorganized attached people. In their study they had 131 undergraduate participants participate in a getting acquainted activity. The participants were led to a cubicle and asked to fill out a questionnaire about themselves. They then saw two other questionnaires that they were told the other two participants filled out and were asked to rank which of the participants they would like to interact with most. The participants were then told that they were ranked the highest by both of their co-participants. Carvallo and Gabriel (2006) found that the self esteem of disorganized attached people was raised higher than the other types of attachment. They suggest that this means that they are very sensitive to the reactions of others and care about social connections (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This would mean that relationships are in fact very important to people with disorganized attachments even though they do not report them as being so.

It is possible that people with this type of attachment style use it as a defense mechanism when they are faced with potential or actual rejection (Fraley et al., 1998). In other words, when they believe that they are going to be rejected by someone they feel close to, they deny that they feel any closeness. When a person has experienced a lot of rejection in their lives, they may begin to see potential rejection everywhere. This would lead to the continual avoidance of close relationships that people with disorganized attachment style have. The avoidance and denial of the importance of close relationships, as well as an intense desire to be independent and self-reliant is characteristic of a person with disorganized attachment style.

Part Two

In the closing scene of Chapter 13, Huck has just witnessed a brutal battle between the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords in which he saw his friend get killed. He has run to find Jim and to get back on the river. When they are reunited, Jim "grabbed [Huck] and hugged [Huck], he was so glad to see [Huck]" as Huck tells him to "just shove off for the big water as fast as ever you can" (Twain, 134). The scene ends with them having rafted two miles away and with Jim getting Huck some food. This is a characteristic scene of the relationship between Jim and Huck as Jim is continually looking out for and expressing his feelings toward Huck, while Huck denies any feelings of closeness he might have for Jim.

Disorganized attachment style helps the reader understand the confusing relationship between Huck and Jim in this scene and throughout the book. In this scene it is confusing why Huck would be so devastated that Jim wasn't there when he first looks for him, but doesn't tell or show Jim how he feels about him. It may also be confusing why Huck doesn't feel safe until they are on the raft and "in the middle of the Mississippi," because if he had a secure attachment with Jim he should feel safe the moment he is with him (Twain, 134).

Huck doesn't tell or show Jim how he feels about him in this scene because his defense mechanism of his disorganized attachment style had been activated. When Huck first looks for Jim he fears that Jim has already taken the raft and left. Huck says, "the raft was gone! My souls, but I was scared!" (Twain, 134) His defense mechanism is activated by the belief that he has been rejected and abandoned by Jim, a person he is close to, and he begins to deny any feelings of closeness he has for him. It is also possible that his defensive mechanism was already activated when his friend died. Huck may have felt abandoned by his friend and, when he couldn't find Jim right away, feel even more abandoned. When Jim shouts out and Huck realizes that he hasn't been rejected, he still doesn't acknowledge the feelings he has for Jim. He says that Jim feels close to him as Jim was "so glad to see [him]," but the closest he gets to saying he is glad to see Jim is when he says of Jim's voice that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). Jim continues to show his feelings of closeness with Huck and says, "Laws bless you, chile...Lawsy, I's mighty glad to git you back agin, honey" (Twain, 134). Huck appears to cut him off and tells him "all right—that's mighty good" (Twain, 134). Consistent with his disorganized attachment style, Huck denies any feelings of closeness he may have toward Jim after he believes that he has been abandoned.

Huck doesn't feel safe until he is out "in the middle of the Mississippi" (Twain, 134). This may be due the fact that, characteristic of the disorganized attachment style, he wants to be independent and self-reliant (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Huck reflects that "other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (Twain, 134). This suggests that when he is on the raft, Huck feels "free" and independent. His feeling of safety is also characteristic of the disorganized attachment style because, once he has made it to the "middle of the Mississippi," he was "away from the feuds" and the new close relationships he had formed with the Grangerfords (Twain, 134). Huck doesn't want to form close relationships and does what he can to avoid doing so. In the preceding chapters, he had begun to form close relationships with members of the Grangerford family and that, along with their deadly feud, scares him. He feels safer when he is on the raft because he isn't trapped by the new close relationships. On the raft he only has to deal with the one close relationship he has with Jim. By not being surrounded by the Grangerfords, Huck doesn't have to deal with forming close relationships and can avoid doing so.

Another confusing element of this scene is when Huck admits that when he first hears Jim's voice that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). This may be confusing when you think that if Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then hearing the voice of someone he is close to shouldn't have as large an impact on him. However, it is not as confusing when you consider the fact that Carvallo and Gabriel found that people with disorganized attachment are more sensitive to others in terms of their self-esteem (2006). This sensitivity may translate into other areas as well. For example, disorganized attachment may make people more sensitive to emotional cues so they become more emotional. This would explain why Huck feels that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). He is so sensitive to the fact that his close friend Jim has reappeared that he is so overcome with happiness that he would make such a claim.

Although the content of the scene doesn't change, when one reexamines it through the lens of disorganized attachment, the content does. The content of the way that Jim and Huck talk to each other and why Huck feels safe on the raft is less confusing when considering the fact that Huck has a disorganized style of attachment. The characteristics of this attachment style of independence and fear of close relationships, as well as the sensitive nature of people with this attachment style put this scene in a less confusing light.

Part Three

Disorganized attachment style helps the reader understand the confusing relationship between Huck and Jim. Although they appear to have a close relationship, Huck does not express his feelings towards Jim as often as Jim does. This may lead the reader to believe that the relationship is more important to Jim or that Jim feels closer to Huck than Huck does to Jim. If Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then it would explain his behavior toward Jim. It would be hard to determine how close Huck really feels toward Jim because the entire novel is written in his voice. In other words, because people with disorganized attachment report that they don't need close relationships, Huck never reports that he and Jim were close (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006).

Huck's disorganized attachment style with Jim is derived from his relationship with pap. Attachment theorists believe that the attachment style that one has with their parent influences the rest of the relationships in one's life (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This is because it is in the parent-child relationship that the child develops their understanding of how relationships work and what they should expect from them. Huck's pap was often drunk and abused him (Twain, 31). His drinking led him to often be absent from Huck's life (Twain, 37). The combination of these things led Huck to develop a disorganized attachment style because he couldn't count on his pap to be there and had to become independent and self-reliant to survive. This disorganized attachment style means that there was no real consistent pattern to their relationship. When pap has taken Huck up to the cabin in the woods, Huck says that "it warn't long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part" (Twain, 36). This suggests that sometimes Huck liked his relationship with his father, but other times, when he was being beaten, didn't. The unpredictability of pap's presence in Huck's life, led Huck to develop the disorganized attachment style because he never knew if pap would be there, for how long, or what mood he would be in. Huck began having to deny that his relationship with pap was important so that he wouldn't feel at such a loss every time pap left or abused him. This lead to the formation of the disorganized attachment style which characterizes all of Huck's close relationships.

Huck's close relationship with Jim can best be examined when one recognizes that Huck has a disorganized attachment style. While Jim continually voices his liking for Huck and calls him the affectionate term of "honey," Huck doesn't ever tell Jim how much he means to him and, when talking about him, calls him the derogative term "nigger" (Twain, 134, 110). The use of this term is controversial and is often the reason why high school classes don't read this novel. Without denying the fact that it is derogatory and offensive, if Huck has a disorganized attachment style it may explain why he uses the word. When he uses the word he is able to distance himself from Jim and avoid the emerging close relationship that makes him feel uncomfortable.

Jim is an ideal person for Huck to have a close relationship with because he seems to understand that he needs to feel independent and self-reliant. He helps him feel this way by treating Huck as a partner and not as a child. For example, when Huck suggests that he go ashore to determine if they were close to Cairo, Jim tells him that it was a "good idea"(Twain, 96). In this example, Jim listens to Huck's ideas and tells him that they were good ones. Jim recognizes that this is important for Huck because, due to his disorganized attachment style, he is very sensitive to other's comments (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Jim also recognizes that abandonment is difficult for Huck. He protects Huck from the knowledge that pap has died until the end of the novel (Twain, 295). This suggests that he knows how hard abandonment is for Huck and that even though Huck never acknowledges his closeness with his pap, he still felt close.

A potential element of the novel that changes when reexamined through the idea that Huck has a disorganized attachment style, is the idea that Huck has ADHD. People have interpreted his actions of rejecting society and civilization as being due to the fact that he has ADHD and finds it difficult to stay in one place for a very long time. If Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then he wants to avoid close relationships and to be self-reliant and independent (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This would explain why he wants to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (Twain, 296). If Huck wants to avoid close relationships, it would be necessary for him to be somewhere where there weren't a lot of close relationships that could be formed. The Territory would seem to him as ideal a spot as a raft in the "middle of the Mississippi," because there aren't many people he could form close relationships with (Twain, 134). Huck also wouldn't want to be adopted by Aunt Sally because he fears that he would form a close relationship with her. Disorganized attachment provides an explanation for Huck's behaviors that have until now been attributed to his possibly having ADHD.

Huck's fears of forming close relationships may also explain why he is continually lying to the people he meets. For example, when he meets the Grangerfords he says that his name is George Jackson (Twain, 117). By giving another name to people with whom he could potentially form close relationships, he attempts to protect himself from these close relationships. He may think that he couldn't form a close relationship with someone who doesn't even know his real name. These lies often involve tragic stories regarding the loss of his family. For example, when Huck is trying to convince a ferry-boat owner to go and save the gang trapped on the wreck, he tells him that his "pap, and mam, and sis, and Miss Hooker" were trapped on the wreck and sure to die if the ferry-boat owner didn't try to save them (Twain, 84). This shows that Huck is able to quickly invent stories about the loss of his family. The loss of his family, or the abandonment of Huck by his family, may be easy for Huck to lie about because it is constantly on his mind. His disorganized attachment response that relationships don't matter to him occurs whenever he believes he will be abandoned. As he is continually on the lookout for abandonment, thoughts of how he could be abandoned may come more easily to him than thoughts of a happy, close relationship. Huck's disorganized attachment helps the reader understand why Huck tells and is able to tell the lies that he does.

Disorganized attachment also helps the reader understand why Huck goes along with Tom's plan to free Jim at the end of the novel. Always the romantic, Tom devised an extremely elaborate plan to free Jim when he knew that Jim was already declared to be free. Huck went along with his plan and helped Tom with the "power of work—weeks and weeks of it—hours and hours, every night, whilst [everyone else] was all asleep" (Twain, 290). This may be confusing if the reader thinks that due to his close relationship with Jim, Huck would want to free him as soon as possible. However, that interpretation would be overlooking the crucial aspect of the close relationship that Huck has with Tom. This relationship is also characterized by Huck's disorganized attachment style and, as he has this style of attachment, Huck is very vulnerable and sensitive to Tom's suggestions. In Carvallo and Gabriel's study they found that disorganized attached people are very sensitive to their acceptance by others. If others accept them they have much higher self-esteem and if they don't, they have much lower self-esteem even though they say that relationships aren't important to them. This would explain why Huck went along with Tom's plan because he didn't want to be rejected by Tom. Although he may not admit it, the close relationship he has with Tom is very important to him and, because he doesn't want Tom to abandon him, Huck will go along with what Tom suggests even if it negatively affects another person with whom he has a close relationship.

It is difficult to say whether the meaning of the novel changes when examining it through the lens of disorganized attachment because it is hard to identify what the meaning is. What the lens does change is how one interprets scenes and relationships. It provides another way of looking at the character of Huck. He is not merely a boy who is out for adventure, but a boy who strives for independence because he is scared of forming close relationships in which he could be abandoned and hurt.

Carvallo, M., & Gabriel, S. (2006). No man is an island: the need to belong and dismissing avoidant attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 697-709.

Ekman, P., & Davidson, R.L. (1994). The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions. London: Oxford University Press.

Fraley, R., Davis, K. E., & Shaver, P.R. (1998). Dismissing-avoidance and the defensive organization of emotion, cognition, and behavior. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 249-279). New York: Guilford.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: W.M. Norton and Company, 1999.

An Amendement to the First Amendment
Name: Lauren Swe
Date: 2006-05-12 11:05:01
Link to this Comment: 19369


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Lauren Sweeney
May 12, 2006
Big Books of American Literature/Professor Dalke
Final Paper

“… thoughts are to that, as words to the body, troublesome; much speaking as thinking, spends, and in many thoughts as well as words, there is sin. True silence… covers folly, keeps secrets, avoids disputes, and prevents sin.”
--William Penn, Advice to His Children

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
--Mark Twain

The First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights addresses the concept of “freedom of speech.” Though speaking freely is time-honored patriotic tradition, what does it really mean? In the late twentieth century the idea of being “politically correct” began to outweigh the freedom of public speech. There has always been an unwritten understanding that there are certain things you just can’t say in polite society, but sometimes we allow the desire to be politically correct hinder our personal freedom.

As in the teachings of the Stoics which Amelie Rorty shared with our class, no one who lives in a community can ever be truly free. Most people behave in a way that is socially acceptable. We speak knowing that others will hear us. The sense of awareness of an audience impedes our freedoms through its imposition of a code of mores. However, there can be no communication without an audience. The definition of the word communication is “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior” ( An “exchange” requires a give and take; a stimulus and a response. If I were truly free, I would have to be living completely alone with no one to talk to, and therefore no communication. There would be no freedom of speech because there would be no need for speech at all. These ideals imply that freedom and communication are mutually exclusive. However, as with all reality-based situations, nothing is ideal and there is constant negotiation and compromise. Because it is improbable and impractical to imagine a society in which there is true freedom of speech, we must rearrange our idea of what “freedom of speech” means. Because we cannot say whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want, I advocate a proclamation of ownership of the words we speak. Rather than “freedom of speech” we should focus on “speech without fear.”

It is far more efficient to say the words that best express our thoughts rather than to leave clues and assume the audience will guess at their meaning. (Though this process may be the basis on which most poetry is written, I am thinking specifically of an academic environment rather than an artistic one.) It is nearly impossible for anyone to be perfectly politically correct all of the time, but if scholars are more worried about hurting other people’s feelings than expressing true emotion or thought, they are wasting time. The use of euphemisms and silence is detrimental to the process of owning language. It does not teach people that there are thoughts which they must not express in a social setting, but rather that there are certain words which have powers of there own and become activated when uttered, like a spell.

As a result of this, there are a certain number of words in the English language that are identified only by their first letter. These words are most often spoken in shocked and furtive whispers by children, repeating an overheard instance of profanity to their peers or elders. This is a strategy for communicating the offending word without actually saying it and might be used for any word that the child believes she might be punished for speaking. The infamous f-word is probably the most famous of these “unspeakable” terms, but there is one word which adults and children, if they can bring themselves to say it at all, inevitably call “the n-word.”

Though there are multitudes of words in the English language that begin with the letter “n,” it is almost universally understood that the n-word means “nigger.” The word “nigger” is a term considered to be so offensive that people in polite society often refrain from saying it at all for fear of offending someone or appearing racist. This is such a loaded word that people are afraid to say it and feel safer by simply saying “the n-word,” though the implied meaning is understood and essentially the same. Not much changes whether a child says “fuck” or “the f-word;” the word is understood in both cases, but the way it is used keeps the child from guilt. The same is true of “nigger.” Whether the word is spoken or merely implied, its meaning remains the same.

“Nigger” is a word whose meaning is almost universally understood, but it is hard to say and surprising to hear, particularly in an academic setting. So many stigmas and negative connotations have become attached to it that it is difficult for many people to speak it out loud without prefacing it or justifying it in some way with a form of disclaimer. After hearing the testimonies of students who were taught Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in high school I was confounded by the lengths to which people would go to avoid saying “nigger” during those lessons. One student said that her teacher had the class pause for a moment whenever the word appeared while reading the text out loud. Considering “nigger” appears approximately 215 times in the novel, this must have happened quite often. Other students agreed that the same rule was practiced at their schools. Still other students mentioned saying “n-word,” as a substitute, and yet few said that they studied the book in terms of race. I wonder whether any of these students discussed the gravity of the word in the classroom or were taught why they were not allowed to say nigger. (I remember that at my school we barely even mentioned that the word existed. We treated it like any other word and barely acknowledged its presence.) I have since come to the conclusion that choosing not to say this unspeakably offensive word is an ignorant, immature and counterproductive form of self-censorship. By choosing not to say this word, its meaning gains even more momentum.

What is the point of pausing rather than reading “nigger” out loud? If all of the students are reading along in their own books, they see it printed on the page before them whether it is spoken or not. Even if one student left her copy of Huck Finn in her locker and is just listening, she understands what the pause represents. Whether the class says black person, Negro, n-word or nothing, everyone knows that Twain wrote “nigger.” Huck calls Jim a nigger. Presumably everyone understands that this is a potent racial slur and that in everyday interactions it must be spoken with caution, but in a classroom, refusing to say a particular word out loud only teaches the students that they must not say the word. It teaches that should the word escape their lips, they will have done something wrong. Choosing not to say nigger is a willfully ignorant act.

In speech, silence is a sign of reverence reserved for the most important of words that they might retain their sanctity. The secondary interpretation of this practice is that important words have power. To remember the dead or suffering we often arrange “moments of silence” as a sign of respect and honor. Certain orthodox Jews consider God’s name to be so powerful that they are not worthy to speak or even write it. By choosing not to say “nigger” we treat the word with the same kind of respect. Our silence gives it potency. This is a sign of respect that an offensive, reprehensible term does not deserve and a practice that we have the ability to end.

In this glorious age of technology, (if nothing else,) we are fully equipped to communicate. Through Instant Messages and text messages, email, telephones, pagers and some still even by post, we are almost constantly communicating with one another. Even television, films, radio, literature and magazines are sources of mass communication and bring messages from all over the world into our homes. In an age where communication is such a huge part of our lives, it becomes even more important that we understand how to do it. Words are used to inform and request, to help and harm, to make art and to make money but on a exponentially growing scale. We have the ability to do an enormous number of things if we choose our words carefully. In the instance of nigger, we have let the language take over; we have become subject to our own invention. We have let the meaning of “nigger” escape our grasp to the point where we cannot even say it in a conversation about language without first offering an explanation and the recognition of the term’s volatility. We are afraid someone will misinterpret the “sign” we offer them and become offended. We have let the meaning of the word “nigger” get away from us. Under these circumstances, the word’s meaning controls us and affects our behavior rather than us controlling the meaning of the word.

It seems that in our current society, prominent members of popular black culture are taking matters into their own hands. People like film director Spike Lee do it self-consciously, and in a way that reflects modern culture. One of the characters in his film Bamboozled intentionally takes the word into his mouth. In one scene, the son of the aging black comedian asks his father:

Delacroix: Why do you always use that word “nigger” so much?
Junebug: I say “nigger” a hundred times every morning. Keeps my teeth white.

Though this is certainly a myth that the father tells his grown son, and one that he does not expect Delacroix to believe, there is still a sense that through an active, intentional repetition of the word, it will somehow improve his wellbeing. Like brushing his teeth, he does it every morning and it “keeps them white.” Junebug says “nigger” a hundred times every morning to desensitize himself to its power. Like any other exercise, it conditions and makes him stronger. By repeating “nigger” to himself, he is reclaiming the word and its meaning.

Similarly, 50 Cent’s album entitled The Massacre was one of the top albums of last year. Out of about 12,000 lyrics on the album, he says “nigger” 174 times. (Compare that to the apparently shocking statistic of 215 times in the entirety of Huck Finn.) Rap is the one place in our culture where “nigger” is not only acceptable, but commonplace.
If words change through use, and gain power through silence, it is conceivable to think that they can lose meaning by over-use. In her book on the depreciation of manners in contemporary Britain, Lynne Truss discusses the use of the infamous “Eff word.”

“Even though there were hundreds of complaints from BBC viewers about the swearing at the Live8 concert, the word Eff every day loses some of its shock power. I would still be horrified to hear my mum say it, and I always apologize to her if I let it slip out when I’m talking to her, but it’s clearly the case that through sheer constant over-use, “Effing” is becoming a meaningless intensifier and will soon hardly be worth saying.” (Truss, 140-141)

This is a hyperbolic example of the case of one particular word, but it is certainly comparable to this discussion of the “n-word.” The same effect is already visible to some degree. It is interesting to note that at any bi-co party, you might find a roomful of drunk students, of all races, singing right along with 50 Cent, that “All a nigga really need is a lil’ bit,” whereas the same students hesitate to say the word in class the next day. The power of exposure and repetition on our sense of appropriateness is remarkable, but it is hypocritical to say nigger fearlessly in one situation and stutter over it in another.

There are only two options for a word like “nigger.” One is that it falls into disuse and loses all meaning for the common English-speaker, as was the case with “thaumatrope” (Barrow.) Few people know that a thaumatrope was a simple toy from the Victorian era because we have no need for this word anymore. Contemporary children don't play with thaumatropes. If people just stopped saying “nigger” altogether, the term would lose its meaning and exist in a word’s most harmless form, buried only in the most comprehensive of dictionaries. However, because books like Huckleberry Finn are still taught and because this word is still being used in our culture, it will not fall out of the vernacular anytime soon. Because it is still used, “nigger” will stay in the second category; it will stay alive, but its meaning can be altered.

There are plenty of words whose meanings have changed over time. The Biblical sense of the word “cock” is not the same as it is to modern American youth. The meaning of “gay” today is not the same as it was even fifty years ago. However, the only way to change the meaning of words is by using them. “Gay” took on its current meaning because some people used it to describe homosexual men, and then this usage became widespread. The situation with “nigger” is not irreversible because words are dynamic. Their meanings are constantly in flux, but in order to change our interpretation of “nigger” we must first change our attitude towards it.

With one of his notices to the reader in the preface to the novel Huck Finn, Twain made sure to clarify that all of the language in the book carefully written:

"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

Twain wrote "nigger" 215 times because that is how his characters would have talked if they were real people. He was trying to be as accurate as possible in his creation of dialect and speech and even Huck tells us in the opening sentences of his narration about Twain that "he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." Twain did not use "nigger" with exaggerated frequency because he himself was racist, or for shock value to prove a point. He wasn't trying to "own" the word. He was trying to create characters that were true to life.

Although I am not advocating that everyone go around calling each other “nigger” until the word becomes meaningless, I do believe that this is a situation where silence is harmful. Silence does “cover folly, keep secrets, avoid disputes, and prevent sin,” but this is a sin that needs to be committed. If children are old enough to comprehend the life-lessons in Huckleberry Finn, then they should be old enough to understand the power of the words within the book and learn to speak them in the proper context. Nigger is an offensive term and it does symbolize the days of a harmful hierarchy of racial supremacy, and this is not a legacy informed intellectuals should uphold. This is a legacy the Civil Rights movement struggled to end, but one which we unconsciously maintain in an attempt to be politically correct. The literal choice to be silent by not saying “nigger” is a choice to suppress issues that must be uncovered in order for our society to have a chance to address and adjust them. The choice to remain silent is the choice to perpetuate a society of repression. We are responsible for the words we speak because we have the ability to determine their meanings.

The example of "nigger" is only one example of the misuse of words but it helps to illustrate the paradox of freedom of speech in a politically correct atmosphere. Schools where Huckleberry Finn is banned because of the presence of the word "nigger" shelter their students in a potentially harmful way. Those who consider the book racist clearly misinterpreted Twain's ironic tone (if they even read it at all.) The book is an American classic because it is an excellent piece of literature, but it also teaches a valuable lesson about the history of race relations in this country. In understanding what nigger means and why it is offensive, students have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs that perpetuate racism and why they are so ludicrous. Students should have the chance to examine why Huck says it took "fifteen minutes before I could work myself to go and humble myself to a nigger" (Twain, 116.) What does that mean? Why would he say that? What difference does it make? Is Huck right? Is Jim right? Was Twain trying to tell us something through Huck's voice and experiences? It's important to our development as human beings.

Schools that ban Huck Finn altogether because of the presence of "nigger" are in denial. Are the members of the administration in those schools trying to cover something up? Do they think that their children have never heard "nigger" before? Do they think that by omitting Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum will stop their children from becoming racist themselves? What about the Civil War? Do they tell them it was a war about states' rights and economics or a war about slavery? Why would they try to hide an essential lesson about the equality of humanity from their children? That kind of censorship is downright un-American.

In class we discussed that during the 19th century, literature was seen as a tool for power. I do believe that writing can be used in such a way, and I do believe that there is power in words, but the power must be put into them. We understand the meaning of words in terms of other words; dictionaries provide definitions through words, not images or symbols. Words gain meaning through their context; when and how they are used determines their power. These are my words, this is my arrangement, this is my contribution, expressed freely.


Bamboozled. Prod. Kisha Imani Cameron. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, and Jada Pinkett Smith. DVD. New Line Productions. 2000.

Barrow, Mandy. “Victorian Toys.” Victorians. Woodlands Junior School. Accessed April 16, 2006.

Dalke. Anne French. Teaching to Learn Learning to Teach: Meditations on the Classroom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. 2002.

Massacre, The. Prod. Prod. Dr. Dre and Eminem. Perf. 50 Cent. CD. Aftermath. 2005.

Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. New York: Miraculous Panda Ltd. 2005.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Electronic Text Center: University of Virginia Library. 1995.

Family Life in "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Adven
Name: Marina Gal
Date: 2006-05-12 11:15:21
Link to this Comment: 19371


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

Family life is complicated. Throughout the course we have read many books that have included families with complex problems. Some families relied on one another while they solved their problems, whereas others used Emerson's approach and were more independent or self-dependent when it came to resolving their difficulties. In the book, "The Scarlet Letter", the characters were self-reliant when it came to conflict resolution. In contrast, when reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", the characters were rather dependent on family when problems arose.

Let us start with "The Scarlet Letter". Maybe, just like Emerson, characters in the book thought it was, "simpler to be self-dependent", rather than cling onto anyone else for help, even if it was a family member. There are many characters in "The Scarlet Letter", yet most of the people in the book are strong types who could easily go off alone, such as Hester.

Hester was just one of the many characters in the novel who was exceedingly independent. Even before Hester was condemned for her crime, she displayed an air of autonomy by coming over to America by herself. During Hester's incarceration, years of punishment, and solitude, she did not seek out help from Pearl's father, Dimmesdale. So, going back to what Emerson thought about being self-reliant, Hester was a perfect example of an independent character. She was not looking for help even if it meant struggling on her own. Emerson also said, "Mind is the only reality", which reminds me of the saying, "mind over matter". It makes me feel like he would have believed Hester could have been fine as long as she had a strong mind. If she did not have enough faith in herself, then she probably would have failed at living alone in her little house, distant from the town. Fortunately, Hester had a strong enough mind to overcome being scorned by the townspeople who had a mob mentality and being shamed by the wearing of the scarlet letter. She did not seem to need the traditional family structure of the time to keep her going because she had an individual mentality and she was not a dependent person.

Although Dimmesdale was a morally weak person, he was able to stay strong and resolute when it came to abandoning Hester and Pearl in their times of need. The act of denying Hester and Pearl as family tortured Dimmesdale, but he remained steadfast in his mindset and therefore represented, just as Hester did, a self-reliant personality and an individual mentality. He could have taken some of the blame for their shared sin, and subsequently relied on his family to help ease his guilty conscience and his suffering, but he did not. Dimmesdale, instead, decided to allow Hester to take all the blame and let himself live a life of mental and physical torment. Dimmesdale tried to be a strong person by intentionally telling the truth through his sermons, but none of the congregation believed him, which only served to further aggravate Dimmesdale. When Emerson said, "It is simpler to be self-dependent", maybe that observation was not meant to apply to every situation in life. Yes, Dimmesdale was an independent man, but perhaps being independent to the point of causing physical and mental pain was not what Emerson was suggesting. Only when Dimmesdale was dying could he acknowledge that he was a sinner and he, like Hester, was marked on the chest. Whether or not his confession was the result of a guilty conscience and concern for meeting his maker with a serious sin on his soul, or if Dimmesdale exhibited courage bolstered by the knowledge that he would not have to deal with the repercussions of his actions is debatable. It does seem doubtful, though, that he would have confessed, had he been in better health. Neither he, nor Hester were people who depended on others even if it would have benefited them and that is essentially what made them such self dependent characters.

Roger Chillingworth was also not reliant on family, but in his case
it was unintentional as opposed to the choices made by Hester and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth was actually a very complicated character. He depended on other character's vitality as a way to strengthen his own plans, but he did not rely on family members. Chillingworth deliberately remained in Boston after he found out about Hester's illegitimate child, in order to seek revenge. Once the means of getting his revenge was gone, Chillingworth passed away. Basically, Chillingworth was alone in the world; he had no one who cared about him, and he was not a mentally strong person like Hester, so he could not go on by himself without leeching off someone else. Had he originally gone with Hester, he might have had one person with whom to rely upon, if he chose, but he did not, thus he was alone in the end, even if he had wanted to be with others. He brought this aloneness, this independence on himself, and it ended up destroying him. Chillingworth had an individual mentality, rather than a mob mentality, because there was no one else like him; he became an evil man and he had lost his family by letting Hester go ahead of him to Boston.

Mistress Hibbins is also a character who is independent in a certain way. Though she lives with her brother, Governor Bellingham, she is an outcast from society and he in no way stops the general public from thinking badly of his sister. She is known to the town as a witch and frequently goes into the forest where she is thought to visit "the black man" or the devil. The only way her family helps her is by providing shelter for her, which is basically not helping her at all, because she has such a powerful brother and he could stop all of the nonsense going around about her, but he doesn't, therefore she must be alone her daily life. The reader ends up finding out from the narrator that Mistress Hibbins will be executed as a witch, which makes one think even more so that she was alone in the world and independent, but not by choice. I don't think anyone would choose to be shunned by their town or condemned as a witch, so the fact that Mistress Hibbins was made it clear that her independence was not by choice, but rather by force.

In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", in contrast to "The Scarlet Letter", there were multiple and varied examples of family structures that had examples of dependent family relationships in them. Also, in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", there was more mob or group mentality, which went along with dependent thinking. In "The Scarlet Letter" there was both group and individual mentality, but more so individual mentality when it came to family life.

When David Ross came and visited the class he talked about economics and how an economist views things. Observably, as we learned in class, and as it says on Serendip, "Economics operates on the group level". For that reason, I took these thoughts from class and applied them to my thoughts about Huck Finn and the individual/independent versus group/dependent mentality in the book.

When it comes to individual mentality there is not much room for it in familial relations because when one thinks on an individual level they are thinking for themselves and doing what they alone want to do. When a person belongs to a group they essentially give up their immediate right for individual thinking and work more toward group thoughts and what would be the best for the group. An example of this is when Huck is on the raft with Jim and Huck is struggling with himself about the idea of turning Jim in. The reason this idea is so hard for Huck to make is because he is moving from an individual mindset to a group mindset as he forms a family unit with Jim. Once the family unit is complete, I find it hard to believe that Huck would ever turn Jim in. Even when Huck has the chance to turn Jim in he passes it up by lying and saying there is sickness on their raft so that they are left alone and Jim is safe. Unlike any of the characters in "The Scarlet Letter", Huck and Jim depend upon one another for safety.

On the other hand, there is the group or mob mentality in correlation to family structures. The idea was clearly summarized on Serendip when it says that mob mentality is the, "concern with systematic harm, collective responsibility". In essence one would worry more about the group they are in as a whole, and blame for something would be shared rather than any individual being singled out for any wrong-doing. This idea reminds me of economics in the sense that in the book families work as groups as well as family units. Even though families work as units or with group mentalities, they cannot change big concepts such as slavery, because each family is still and individual unit. In a way families are both groups and individuals in the way they work. They work like groups amongst themselves, but they cannot affect greater society much because that would require the binding together of many families to create a larger group. Basically, families can be either dependent or independent just like the families in "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". It depends on the type of family that is being portrayed and in "The Scarlet Letter", there were many more people who would not be dependent on their families and instead took on more of an individual mentality. In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" most of the characters in the book formed families of had families and took on a group mentality, thus they were dependent people in their life activities. I could not help but notice that people in class felt the book lacked character development, but that made sense to me, because the book took on the role of showing how mob/group mentality plays out in families and in society. Families are still just little groups working amongst themselves.

"Huckleberry Finn" seemed to focus on the group dynamics or interaction, with a subtle undertone of mob mentality. Clearly, families were still involved because many people had to have these feelings to cause things to happen, but the mob mentality of society is dissimilar from mob mentality of a single family. Society's feelings seemed to revolve mainly around the large social issues of slavery, education, and oddly enough, society itself. The role the family plays in this is that families come together as a group with a collective thought on an issue, and then decide where they stand when the issue comes into play.

Within the family unit there can be disagreement, but pressure on the family members to conform is strong. Withholding approval, attention or even affection can be powerful motivating tools used in some situations to obtain desirable behavior. The recognition of the dependence of family members on each other is deliberately reinforced in order to keep family bonds strong, and behavior within approved parameters.

Huck's aunts felt being civilized was important and therefore tried to pass that feeling on to Huck. Many other people obviously thought being civilized was important as well; otherwise the society they were living in would be non-existent. People in society obviously had to rely on one another to pressure others to conform to their own beliefs or else no one would end up in that similar group those people formed.
Even though Mark Twain wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, the setting of the book was decades earlier when society's feelings at the time were clearly pro slavery, and even though a few people were beginning to become open to the idea of freeing the slaves, that was not an all pervasive thought. Twain's book also demonstrated that society felt a certain way about education and that was a combination of both good morals and intellectual education. There are very clear divisions between society and outcasts in the sense that the outcast, an example being Huck, himself, who talks of going to hell when he disagrees with or questions society's teachings. Huck doesn't trust society at large because he feels it failed to protect him from abuse. Now he is uneducated and lacks society's morals, yet Huck is finding his own way based on his own experiences. He is moving away from society and carving out a new path for himself. He has found Jim to join him as a family unit in the way that they can both escape society together and they can both run away from their troubles collectively even though they are escaping dissimilar troubles.

A group of people with society's idea of education would most likely be the Phelps', who ironically is the only intact family in the book. Both of the Phelps generally fit the mold, have good morals, and are educated people. They are dependent in the sense that they are an actual family unit and they display good qualities for the world to see, while at the same time they are educated people and their education is visible as well, so they stay together and they display their good qualities for the rest of the world, which sets a good example for anyone who may be looking for one or needing a one.

Undoubtedly, mob mentality took precedence over individual mentality in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" not only with the way that it works inside of families, but also in entire societies. Individual mentality was seen more in "The Scarlet Letter" in the notion of a single person and his or her own thoughts. To take this idea of different mentalities and family structures and apply it to the world I have found that families can be found anywhere, and in any form while at the same time they can have numerous different types of mentalities involved amongst them. I feel that individual mentality will most likely mirror the books in the sense that it is seen much less obviously than mob/group is, but it is still present, it just does not have as much of an impact on the group as it does on our own well being. In Psychology class I learned that cultures differ in what they place as important and whether it be the group or the self. In America the self is much more important than the group, but in Asia the group is more important. Twain wrote the his book in America and the book still was pervaded with a group mentality, does that mean that even though we are a self-centered culture, we still are very good group thinkers. What would have happened if Mark Twain had written the book in Asia? Would he have had a completely different story, because the people have such a different mindset? It is too bad Twain did not write one of those books we used to have in elementary school where you could see multiple endings, and then we could have seen how much the ending might have varied depending on the culture in which the book was written. On the other hand, Hawthorne wrote "The Scarlet Letter" in America as well and there is not the overarching theme of group mentality in the book. Maybe the authors wrote the books and were influenced by how they themselves thought. Perhaps Hawthorne was more of an independent individual, while Twain was a group thinker and more into the mob mentality of his time. Though these themes reflect our society, this could be something that all authors do because it reflects how they themselves feel about certain issues and gives them and outlet to voice opinions.

In addition to there being different mentalities, independence and dependence also played a large part in the books. The families and individual characters displayed either one of those qualities depending on who they were and what situation they were in, in their life. This is what happens in everyday life as well as in books. People can be just as independent as Hester or dependent as Jim was on Huck. Because this reflects everyday life so much, people can identify with the books much more readily than they would a book that was unrealistic and did not have human-like qualities in it. I was taught that classic books have to last through the ages and these two books do just that. One of the reasons they do is because people can identify with the characters through their actions and thoughts that are similar to real life. For example, everyday there are people living their lives depending on others for help and when they read classics like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" they feel reassured that they are doing the right thing and they are not alone in their actions in life. In contrast, people also live very independent lives and want to read books that put their minds that ease that they are normal in being so free and self-sufficient so they, in tern, may read books like "The Scarlet Letter" because the characters were much more independent people. Everyone likes to be told they are doing the correct thing in life and if a book can send out that message to the readers through the way the characters live their lives in the text, then the manuscript will most likely be relatively successful for a time.

Works Cited

Dalke, Anne, and Ralph W. Emerson. ""Nothing's Sacred"." Serendip. 18 Apr. 2006. 8
May 2006 .

Exploring the Exceptional: A Case for American Exc
Name: Jessica Ro
Date: 2006-05-12 11:28:44
Link to this Comment: 19372

<mytitle> Big Books Home
2006 Final Web Report
On Serendip

Definitions of American exceptionalism abound. To begin an explanation somewhere, professor of history Joyce Appleby described exceptionalism as an approach to America that "projects onto a nation... qualities that are envied because they represent deliverance from a common lot." (Byers, 85) Those qualities began as the moral innocence and religious freedom of early settlers, and stretched in the 19th century to include personal insight and Transcendentalist self-reliance. And though challenges to the concept are now more frequent than defenses, it is impossible to deny the concept's presence in the current political climate, most notably in our faith in American military invincibility and holding onto what Dale Carter described as "a belief in the quasi-mystical recuperative powers of the American landscape." (Carter, 79) American exceptionalism maintains that our beginnings as a nation, foundational credos, historical evolution, as well as religious and political organizations and cultural institutions, make us an incomparable nation.

Coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, the term "American exceptionalism" is used to describe the mode of telling the American story and histories as a grand narrative, unique and ahistorical. Beginning with a look at how the Americas were "discovered," and the ideas of (supposed) religious freedom in the pre-colonial project; though exceptionalism was not coined as such at the time, there are surely the rumblings of the exceptionalist mindset in the tabula rosa view of America taken on by early settlers. The roots of American exceptionalism easily stretch as far back as John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon of 1630. Through the success of the Revolutionary War, American exceptionalism holds that the United States was founded on standards that make it special and different from other nations.

The frontier work of the 19th century, backed by the spread of the phrase and belief in manifest destiny, brought American exceptionalism to the forefront of political policy. Used to help justify the westward development of the nation, the land-grabs and the territory takeovers, American exceptionalism was at this time less of a critical debate, and more of a political tool and popularly held belief. It was not until the 20th century that American exceptionalism became a mode of study and question.

Today, the debate rages on over the relevancy of American exceptionalism and its place in debates of history, political science, cultural studies, literature, even the existence of American Studies as a field. In his collection of essays, Is America Different?, Byron Shafer summed up the contemporary debate, and confusion, on American exceptionalism, claiming "it never was; it once was, but is no more; new versions have substituted for old; it continues on, unchanged in its essence." (Shafer, 222)

First loosing popularity during the Civil Rights movement, scholars attempted to tear down American exceptionalism to make way for social histories and multiple perspective work. American exceptionalism was said to have constrained the concept of American identity. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote in American Quarterly in 1990, lambasted American exceptionalism for that major limitation, saying that the idea only held water when it "excluded who did not fit." (Carter, 79) By opening up history to women, African American, Native American, and immigrant stories, American exceptionalism was going to have to be replaced by a multicultural view of the United States, in what Appleby called "recovering and expanding the public memory," (Carter, 78). Appleby, in her 1992 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, claimed that "exceptionalism...was less a manifestation of nature's laws than a racial-, ethnic-, and gender-specific cultural construct." (Appleby) And once we include all of these perspectives, how can we claim to have a unified American culture? Fox-Genovese asks. And without that, there is no validity behind American exceptionalism.

New Left historiography of the 1960's furthered this criticism. Though the ideals of individuality over state and class control were coherent with the movement's political perspectives, critics were extremely concerned with the narrative of exceptionalism. William Appleman Williams wanted to confront the notion of American mythology, and replace that telling with a past, a fact based history, and desired that this would pull down American exceptionalism. Starting with the 19th century foundation of the term, Williams wrote that the U.S. must abandon the idea that "utopia is in the old American frontier." (Carter, 80) Williams urged a confrontation of America's Imperialist past and present.

Contemporary critics are interested in incorporating the reality of globalization into understandings of American exceptionalism, an act they believe will break it apart even further. Eric Guthey writes that both economic globalization and technological innovation "threaten to dissolve the usefulness of the nation state and further confuse and fragment the already problematic notion of an American national identity itself." (Carter, 84) This further attack on the very idea of an American identity again challenges any attempt to claim exceptionalism.

Despite these attacks, American exceptionalism persists. Carter claims, in fact, that it is not despite of, so much as because of critical attacks, that exceptionalism remains ubiquitous:

In an era during which concerns for borders, fragmentations and differences have grown in prominence, it should not be completely surprising that exceptionalism's own logic of differentiation endures. (Carter, 83)

Meanwhile, the public's belief in the fact of American Exceptionalism has once again become paramount to the academic debate over its validity. Stephen Fender maintains that "Americans are different because they think they are, or wish to be, and the wish has always been mother and father to the fact." (Carter, 83).

To me, firmly agreeing with Fender in his analysis, it is academic frivolity to debate whether American exceptionalism exists, even if it is accurate, worthwhile, or based in any facts whatsoever. More interesting to me is examining the presence of exceptionalism viewpoints within American culture. This ideology has so often been used as an ego-centric excuse for terrifying political policies and forgetful historical misinterpretations. But examining it is necessary academic work and can be the foundation of illuminating critical readings.

There are texts in the American literary canon that cannot be understood without the conception of exceptionalism, considerations of how the ideology was present in both the internal narrative and the act of writing it. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter has such a dual dialogue going on with the volume turned all the way up. It helps that the historical beginnings of American exceptionalism sit squarely in the center of Hawthorne's 17th century Boston. American exceptionalism holds that from this beginning, we on this land had an uniqueness. It is not ever left at that. From that place of special comes a special relationship with god and humanity. Though this is not an aspect of American exceptionalism stressed today, it holds forth widely in Scarlett Letter. Today's reader is all too aware of the place exceptionalism, specifically in America's relationship to god, faith, and moral superiority, held in the Hester's community.

From the historical reality of exceptionalism comes this subtext to the Scarlet Letter that pervades the conflict of the story. In the laws of Boston, the enforcement of which cause conflict for Hester, there is suggested a special relationship with human behavior, as if the traits of desire and sexuality could be erased simply by man saying it was so. The town's treatment of Hester exhibits the moral high ground taken by early colonizers. This idea of the individual as superhuman is seen furthermore in the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's verbal and physical self-flagellation. Dimmesdale tells his congregation repeatedly that he is "utterly a pollution and a lie!" (Hawthorne, 99), and truly believes, in his heart of hearts, that his one sin makes him disgusting and evil through and through. He goes without sleep and food for days, punishing himself with "a bloody scourge...laughing bitterly at himself all the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh." (Hawthorne, 99) Though Hawthorne tells us he is a "lost and desperate man," (Hawthorne, 150), Dimmesdale is nonetheless held up in Boston as the ideal of religiosity and humanity. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale to represent a severe manifestation of the disconnect between the ideal of the individual in the American exceptionalist view, and the reality of such an exceptionalist ideology being enforced on the individual. Hawthorne, in his portrayal of characters so clearly struggling and, more often than not, failing in their struggle with the American expceptionalism of their time, delivers a harsh critique of that philosophy.

Even in his narration, Hawthorne makes rarely subtle, scathing critiques of the early excpetionalism of the colonies, beginning the story proper by telling the reader that

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it amoung their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin the site of a prison. (Hawthorne, 33)

But it is not merely the story he tells of exceptionalism that shows Hawthorne's own resistance to the belief of the term; it is not the narration, nor the act of writing a story showing the darker side of excpetionalism. The device of "The Customs- House" as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter plays out how Hawthorne is grappling with the exceptionalism present in his own time.

We see his narrator character at odds with his Puritan roots, and the stringent throw-back world of the customs-house he is forced to occupy. By starting at the customs-house and not simply with "The Prison-Door," Hawthorne reminds contemporary readers that the themes of The Scarlet Letter, though rooted in the 17th century, are by no means exclusive to it. Written less than a decade after the term American exceptionalism came into use, The Scarlet Letter shows Hawthorne guiltily and self-consciously overturning the Puritanical ideals of morality, much in the same way critics today try to deal with the idea of American exceptionalism. In his telling of a woman's story of early Boston, Hawthorne is "expanding the public memory" as feminist critics of over a century later tried to do when tearing down the legacy of exceptionalism purported to be upheld by literature such a The Scarlet Letter.

Perhaps all one needs to do, is glance at his dedication of Moby Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne to begin to gauge Herman Melville's take on the American exceptionalist question. But Moby Dick takes its own probing look at the ideology, extending many of the questions of The Scarlet Letter further and deeper. Beginning with Ishmael's troubled emotional state, Melville's narrator has an exceptionalist view of himself in the world. "In the habit of going to sea whenever [he begins] to grow hazy about the eyes," (Melville, 20) Ishmael's world view is cemented for the reader during his first encounters with Queequeg. Ishmael is uncomfortable with this foreign threat, at first, especially in his obvious physical and masculine superiority. Eventually, as Ishmael gets to know Queequeg's habits and motivations, his exceptionalism breaks down, and he goes so far as to pronounce that "Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (Melville, 55). Accepting Queequeg as, for their time period, an equal, Ishmael does not truly become our simple hero of the story until he rejects American excpetionalism.

Any doubts to Melville's opinions on American exceptionalism are answered with a close investigation of Captain Ahab and his ship. The Pequod's first, second, and third mates are natives of Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard, respectively, but the rest of the ship is made up of all manner of men, from all corners of the globe, brought together for the adventure and economic voyage that was whaling. The ship is a modern critic's dream vessel for the exploration of American exceptionalism; a multi-national and cross-cultural ship, with an inherent purpose of global economic superiority.

But Ahab takes this boat and, quite literally, puts it at the bottom of the sea. He unquestioningly and unflinchingly believes that his unique history has lead him to a place of moral superiority where his needs are paramount to the health and welfare of the others on the ship, and its original commercial purpose. Ahab follows his mission at all costs. Though Moby Dick is certainly a love song to the individual, for those of us who eventually make it to the end, Melville's intention is clear. Ahab displays the height of American exceptionalism, in all of its invincible glory, and Melville portrays him as doomed for the mouth of the whale and the bottom of the ocean.

Most striking and disturbing in Melville's response to the ideology of exceptionalism is the fate of the rest of the boat. Every other nation ends up going down with Ahab's ship, save one measly American's escape to tell the story. Ahab even manages to convince the men on the Pequod that the voyage of destruction for his own selfish purposes will be noble, and thusly worthy of their commitment. Readers today continue to respond to this tale of American individualistic jingoism destroying a ship of united nations, displaying how sadly relevant Melville's response to American exceptionalism stays.

In both Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick's socio-political commentary underlining the stories and their, there is a decidedly negative, unswervingly anti- American-exceptionalism view taken. This calls into question the original issues 20th century critics have with the role of American exceptionalist views of history, especially in curriculum building. Currently, even the seemingly inherently exceptionalist field of American Studies is taking on a borderland, multi-national approach to its topic. Every time the definition of "American" and the identity labeled as such is widened, it is believed that exceptionalism is knocked down a peg. Why, then, should we teach American Literature, the books and the distinctive category, at all? And why especially should we teach 19th century literature, written in a time of seemingly unflinching American Exceptionalism?

First and foremost, there is nothing exceptionalist about one knowing their own nation's literature; even, if not especially, the literature produced before one's own people were included in the definition of the nation. There is history to be seen and learned, but also felt and understood, in the reading of 19th century American literature. For scholars of America, even with modern boundary breaking definitions of the nation, this literature is the foundation of the entity that we are all so eager to tear down, and understanding it is crucial to our ability to criticize it.

Why read teach a class with an overtly exceptionalist agenda? There are righteous themes that emerge from laying literature of the same time and place next to each other. As Byers suggests, American "exceptionalism bears a relation to...literature that is at once constraining and generative." (Byers, 1997) The further burden of American literature to be not only distinctive in its grouping by time and place, but also unique for being American is a weighty yoke to bear, but achievable for the very issues modern critics call to question. American literature of the 19th century was the foundation for the multi-cultural, multi-voice narratives of the 20th century, and for the borderland stories of the 21st. It is this imperfect, troubled history that brought us here, and this ideology that imperfectly built a country with as many varied voices as are now present to critique it.

And as shown through this investigation of exceptionalism in some of the big books of the 19th century, there are critiques of contemporary exceptionalism rampant within the literature. There is no reason to read American exceptionalist curriculum in an unquestioning way. It would be, in fact, a short-selling of 19th century authors to assume they are complacent in the American excpetionalism of their time. They were asking the same difficult questions about the idea of America that we continue to break our heads upon today. This, above all, is why these big authors deserve to remain on our shelves and in our course catalogues.


Appleby, Joyce. "Recovering America's Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism." The Journal of American History. Bloomington: Sep 1992.Vol.79, Iss. 2, 419-431.

Byers, Thomas B. "A City Upon a Hill: American Literature and the Ideology of Eceptionalism." American Studies in Scandinavia. Vol. 29, 1997.

Carter, Dale. "American Exceptionalism: An Idea That Will Not Die." American Studies in Scandinavia. Vol. 29. 1997.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Dover Publications: New York, 1994.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; or, the White Whale. Norton & Company: New York, 2002.

ed Shafer, Byron. Is America Different. Claredon Press: Oxford, 1991.

thinking about childhood
Name: Allie Eise
Date: 2006-05-12 11:47:51
Link to this Comment: 19373


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

As we concluded the semester with in-class group presentations, I was particularly struck by the "emotion" scripts, led by Steph Herold, Catherine Durante, Alison Reingold and Marina Gallo. Even though there was no written indication to do so, the class used children to act as characters with "happy" and "scared" emotions. This presentation led me to think about the important role that children have played in the Big Books throughout the semester.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's depicts of childhood as a time of innocence, with her poem entitled "Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies." However, her assertion seems very inaccurate considering that the childhood experience depicted in 19th century American Literature is actually filled with tremendous pain and suffering. If pain and suffering are the norm, why were we so inclined to use children as images of happiness in our emotion vignettes? Do we presume that children are happy living among such adversity? To answer these questions, we need to consider that the dangers and the memories of dangers are not only a threat to children but to the adults that they grow to become.
As a scientist of the human development, Freud says that "the early phases of development are absorbed into the later phases for which they have supplied the material...the embryo cannot be discovered in an adult...the fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside the final form possible"(Freud, 20). Because memories have the ability to elicit emotional responses, the way that we feel, or remember feeling in childhood, obviously affects our adult functioning. Because innocence is the defining element of childhood, this human development or "phase out" of our childish tendencies, is often symbolized in literature by the death of the child himself.
In Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw, Miles and Flora are young orphans who have been left under the care of the Governess; whose pathology undoubtedly impairs her judgments as a caretaker as well as taints the reliability of her narration. This in mind, Miles and his sister have obviously suffered the childhood loss of their biological parents and more suffering is implied by hints that deviant sexual behavior is the cause of the Miles' expulsion from boarding school.
According to the Governess's description in the beginning of the novella, should we choose to believe it, she is struck by Miles' "positive fragrance of purity." However, as her paranoia progresses, the Governess accuses Miles of plotting evil deeds with the ghostly inhabitants of Bly. As time passes, the governess depicts the progression from childhood innocence to a tainted maturity as she shifts from benevolent to demonic attributions of Miles.
Miles desire to leave Bly and to "see more of life" (361) is an indication that that he has outgrown a childish dependency on the protection of home. He has made up his own mind and no longer feels like a helpless little boy. Employed as a segregate parent to the children, the Governess is disturbed by the visible development of Mile's adult characteristics and demand for independence because it undermines role as the authority figure. "It was extraordinary how my absolute conviction of his secret precocity (or whatever I might call the poison of an influence that I dared but half to phrase) made him, in spite of the faint breath of his inward trouble, appear as accessible as an older person—imposed him almost as an intellectual equal"(371). The older that Miles gets, the less ignorant he is to the realities of life's suffering and the "precocity" that the Governess describes is an increasing knowledge of his "unnatural childish tragedy." (372)
The reader does not have the luxury of childhood faith and so we grow up with Miles and learn to distrust the Governess as well. Considering her pathology, Miles' reported association with demons and ghosts, could be merely a symbolic construction of the Governess' fear of a power struggle. If we interpret the Governess' "great betrayal," (402) as testimony of rape, then she has figuratively killed all that remained of the purity and innocence of Miles' youth. Miles' death at the end of the novella is the symbolic death of his childhood as "his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped."(403) Given another turn of the screw, if Peter Quint did have sexual relations with Miles; when the Governess demands the truth about Miles affiliation with the ghosts, she is actually expelling him from the childish bliss of repressed trauma.
Perhaps due to the sinful circumstances from which she was born, Pearl was not naive as the other children. "Pearl's early partial awareness of her parents' suffering, makes her a somewhat more mature child: "the infant's eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter; and putting up her little hand she grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her face the look of a much older child." Pearl is not content to be only partial informed. She insists on the whole truth and asks her mother to answer her questions about the meaning of the scarlet letter.
As Pearl discovers the truth about her mother's ignominy and her father's identity as well as physical and mental suffering, she grows from an elfish child to a noble woman. Although it pains Hester to observe and feel responsible for this absence of innocence in her young daughter, over the course of The Scarlet Letter, she views her "remarkable acuteness and precocity" as the beginning of the development of esteemed characteristics and "the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage, and uncontrollable will, and a sturdy pride..." Because her birth is the product of her parents sins, Pearl has never been wholly innocent. The moment that s the spell of Pearl's childhood is finally broken is when Dimmesdale publicly accepts his paternity on the scaffold: "The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it."
Hawthorne praises the shift from childhood to adulthood as symbolic of the shift from religious submission to independent thinking. Interestingly enough, Dimmesdale is a "father" in more ways than one. Perhaps the duality of his character, as a sinner and a saint, suggests that if we honor the Lord as our father, we can never grow out of our childish tendencies or reach adulthood at peace with our world. Peace, however, does not imply that adults are free from the pains of earthly tragedy. Nor does it seem that any amount of freedom to could possibly separate adults from suffering either.
Mark Twain's Huck Finn, is particularly noteworthy as a case study of the loss of innocence and the subsequent death of childhood. because Huck tries to escape his awful circumstances in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and pretends to die. When Huck is resurrected, he finds his world as dangerous of a place as when he last left it. Thus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an account of an adult mind occupying a child's body. Huck is not an ignorant character by any means. His awareness of the pain and suffering around him, makes him wish that he were dead, again:
"WHEN I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody's dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it's spirits whispering -- spirits that's been dead ever so many years -- and you always think they're talking about YOU. As a general thing it makes a body wish HE was dead, too, and done with it all."
Huck's astute adult observations make him fully aware of the gravity of his situation, but do not feel that any amount of conformity to religious or societal standards will solve his problems and so Huck decides to run away from his problems. The instances when Huck seems most childish in the novel are those in which he is dependent on Jim as a father figure, or is voluntary submission to Tom's unthinking cruelty freeing Jim. Perhaps Tom functions as religious preacher by insisting on strict adherence to the written word, even if he does not understand the meaning of what he reads. Although he admires Tom for living the ideal childhood, Huck does not agree with his blind religious faith. Huck's ability to distinguish right from wrong without a reliance on religion or society, show that his free will makes him capable of more mature thinking than many of the adults around him.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe', Little Eva suffers from a fatal illness, and yet somehow she is not affected by life's pain in the same way as the other children, nor is she the same sort of image of adulthood maturity. Stowe depicts Eva at the end of her life as content, the image of the innocence and purity of a perfect Christian child: On the face of the child, however, there was no ghastly imprint, - only a high and almost sublime expression, - the overshadowing presence of spiritual natures, the dawning of immortal life in that childish soul." How is Eva's experience so different from Miles, Pearl, and Huck?
In his 1930 repot of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that "Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures." By palliative measures, Freud is referring to the dependency on a Divine salvation. Freud criticizes such by saying that "The derivation of religious needs from the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrivable, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from the childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection."
According to our definition of childhood, as a time of protection from full realization of inherent suffering of the human life, Freud suggests that faith in the power of Providence is synonymous with childhood helplessness. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne criticizes the Puritanic Code for stunting the development of adult self-efficacy by its promotion of helplessness. The punitive restriction of behavior and thought was a powerful mechanism of control in the New World and Hester's sin is viewed as a direct threat to the power of the religious rule: "The discipline of the family in those days was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues." Maybe an acceptance of the Lord as a father figure prolongs the childhood of religious subscribers, who are spiritually dependent and childishly faithful throughout their lives. To the extent that faith gives hope of an afterlife; perhaps they are content not to question the religious authority or to insist on the truth of their mortality.
Perhaps the death of the fervently religious Eva, is much different from the other children's deaths because she believes herself to be a child of the Lord. this way her devotion and "infantile helplessness" extends her childhood and blinds her to the real pain and suffering of her life. Following this logic, the comfort of the death of a child that Stowe describes is not due to a jarring loss of innocence; rather it is due to the acceptance of a religious doctrine and a hope that dying is relief from the evils of the earth and a gateway to eternal happiness.
When comparing Eva, to the afore mentioned children of 19th century American Literature, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Stowe's goals as a writer were very specific. Consistent throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin are blatant biblical references and illusions which Stowe uses to convince her Christian readers that by promoting the institution of slavery, they are defying the will Christ. As an image of Christ herself, Eva is cannot function as an immature child. Stowe reports Eva's definite level of maturity and says that "If it must be told, the thing that struck a deeper pang to his heart than anything else was the daily increasing maturity of the child's mind and feelings. While still retaining all a child's fanciful graces, yet she often dropped, unconsciously, words of such a reach of thought, and strange unworldly wisdom, that they seemed to be an inspiration."
Not only is Eva accepting of her own suffering, but she is cognoscente of the suffering of others as well. Stowe strategically couples Evas faith in Providence with her antislavery sentiments. Stowe says tells her reader that "When you see that deep, spiritual light in the eye,--when the little soul reveals itself in words sweeter and wiser than the ordinary words of children,--hope not to retain that child; for the seal of heaven is on it, and the light of immortality looks out from its eyes." As the Lord's disciple, the message that Eva's wise character sends to the reader is that a fight for abolition will guarantee immortality.
Mark Twain probably would have agreed with Freud's disgust at Stowe's appeal to the moral sentiments of the Lord's children. In fact, Twain makes fun of Eva's type of character all together with the paralleling Emmeline Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Eva, Emmeline is a young, bedridden white girl. Before dying at the age of fourteen, Emmeline wrote many tribute poems to the dead. The utter foolishness of Emmeline is that she was a quantity over quality gal who "could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think...she would slap down a line, and if she couldn't find anything to rhyme with it would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead." Thus, Twain agrees that no matter how old you are, it is foolish not to think about what you are doing (be it writing poetry or reading the Bible) and that such is so pathetic of an existence, that you may as well die.
What do we, as young adult readers, learn from these "coming of age" experiences?
During our first discussion of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we were asked as a class to describe our initial impression of Jim. We called out answers of "foolish," "childish," and "ignorant;" but soon wanted to describe ourselves with the same adjectives as we were made aware of the multidimensionality of the text. The in-class performance of Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn was a great way to visualize the differences between the skeptic and the naive reader. Although the script utilized the same words, with only a few stage directions, they took on a completely new meaning.
Although we have spent this semester learning new approaches to reading through an application of the lenses of biology, philosophy, economics, and psychology, we found ourselves to be no better than Tom Sawyer, and all too willing to join his adventures. Whichever lens is applied, its function is makes us think critically. In other words, being a reader seems to insist that the reader abandon their innocence and childhood.
Not that all readers are adults by any means, but literacy does prompt development to the extent that it is what and how we read that changes us. In as much as we adopt the stories that we read as our own, or connect our situations to the stories of the characters we read about in literature, we come to experience the story itself. By searching for meaning, truth, and knowledge, the reader can not ignore the reality of their emotion experience, nor can they remain ignorant of the emotional experience of the others around them. Because Huck never had the luxury of parental protection, by running away from society, he is actually trying to run away from suffering. Huck's Peter Pan desires to relive his childhood, suggest that perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

Mythology of the Mississippi
Name: Alice Brys
Date: 2006-05-12 12:04:34
Link to this Comment: 19374


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

All semester, I've been interested in applying mythology to the books we've been reading--I wrote my Scarlet Letter paper on the different mythological (and moral) ways to read the story of Dimmesdale and Hester, and ultimately came to the decision that stories don't start with a mythology. There's a skeleton underneath, the "what actually happened", to which you apply moral standards, allegory, archetypes, or mythological themes. Sometimes the author applies the mythology for the readers (as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where the Christian mythological interpretation is almost stronger than the actual events at times). And sometimes there isn't a clear mythology that the reader is brought into; for instance, The Turn Of The Screw. It's got ghosts as a 'mythological' underpinning--but more than mythological, the ghosts are a shared idea across myths and stories; they appear in myth, but aren't from a certain specific myth. The Turn Of The Screw may have some roots in various myths--like Cassandra, prophetess doomed never to be believed, might be a figure for the Governess (provided she sees ghosts and isn't insane). It's possible to reference a different mythology, to re-present the skeleton of the story in a different muscular shell. (Or to take a story without full covering by myth and throw a new myth over it.) That's much of what I did in my Scarlet Letter paper, refigure the story in terms of the myth of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. And yes, it did stretch and change the story somewhat; by giving it a new moral backdrop (and a new central action; instead of focusing on the adultery and its repercussions, the Isis-as-Hester version focused on Chillingworth/Set's revenge. In fact, in my version, Isis-Hester and Osiris-Dimmesdale were rightfully married, and the only problem in their union was that Osiris was dead). But by stretching and changing, it took me a lot closer towards understanding the skeleton of Scarlet Letter; without the moral dressing that it had already been given (and being able to strip away with more efficiency the moral dressing that I had given it), I was able to get a closer look at the story. But I'm not as interested in finding the skeleton of the story (which has been hunted after in most big books since they became "big") as I am in finding different ways to dress that skeleton in mythology. But to dress the story in a new myth, I do need first to discover the old one.

The mythological underpinnings of Huckleberry Finn are a little harder to get at; it's a more complex work than Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Scarlet Letter, for instance. (Having more than one central moral point or conflict, more than one 'message', as well as characters who are to my mind infinitely more complex and lifelike.) The son chased away by a hostile (often homicidal, as in Huck's case) father appears in many myths, especially Greek myths; Oedipus, for instance, was expelled by his father. Huck wasn't kicked out by his dangerous father; instead, he left to save his own life. (It's also a prevalent theme in fairy tales, which are just another form of myths; the son must leave the father and go on a quest.) The traveler arriving in disguise--Huck and Tom coming to Aunt Sally's with the wrong identities--and then waiting for the right moment to reveal himself is also a common theme. Huck, while young, can be held up against the tricksters of mythology, like Loki, Anansi, Eris, or Puck. But the major action of the book is an archetypical journey; Huck and Jim travel down the river, and the journey takes them through different situations but never leaves them in one place. Mythology and fairy tale thrives on the journey; the Odyssey, the Argonauts, or more modern interpretations like Lord of the Rings.

If I had to pick a mythological journey that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is most like, it wouldn't be a contest; it's The Odyssey. Huck, the trickster and liar, observer of the places he visits, is a childlike Odysseus. He uses his wits to get out of trouble (faking his own death to escape his dangerous father (Twain Huck 45-47), for instance); in different situations, he plays different roles and shifts into them almost instantly, like Odysseus the "ingenious hero" (Homer Book I). And it's true that Huck seems to have a genre of role that he consistently plays (the unfortunate, bereaved child; someone is always dying, dead, or injured in his stories. It is where he comes from and what he's used to, but it also usually seems to work to his advantage. So Huck's sticking to one kind of story may be equal parts lack of imagination and practicality. Unfortunate child works well for him.) Sometimes navigating under their own power, and sometimes carried unwillingly by greater forces, the crew of Huck's raft (Jim, himself, and the Dauphin and the Duke at later points) deal with the natives of strange lands--the area gripped by the rivalry between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, the town where Sherburn kills Boggs, the town where the Duke and the Dauphin carry out their Royal Nonesuch--but move on towards their ultimate goal (getting Jim to freedom, instead of bringing Odysseus home). When Huck returns to civilization he comes in disguise (as Tom Sawyer, but coming not like Odysseus a beggar into abuse but a nephew into kind treatment). Instead of revealing himself at the right time and punishing those who are behaving childishly or badly, Huck gets sucked into Tom's play and is ultimately revealed by someone else (Twain Huck 292) instead of appearing as a triumphant hero. (After all, Huck is a childlike Odysseus--he hasn't reached a level of maturity sufficient to behave as he should in that situation.)

Odysseus's journey was controlled, ultimately, by the Gods; either that he'd angered them, and they hurt him, or he'd pleased them, so they helped him. No matter his own personal agency, Odysseus was at the mercy of greater forces. Huck and Jim are too, but their greater force is, instead of Olympian Gods, the Mississippi River. As T. S. Eliot writes, "it is the River that controls the voyage of Huck and Jim" (Eliot 352). The River is the reason Jim doesn't escape to freedom at Cairo (352); the River propels the journey forward. Without the River, Eliot argues, "the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending" (351).

Eliot also argues the River as a god, as Twain's personal and native god (353). And this really isn't much of a surprise, or a stretch. Rivers have always been revered as gods and sacred entities (count the appearances of river spirits in Greek Mythology, they're always arriving to protect their daughters from marauding gods like Apollo and Pan; sacred rivers like the Nile and the Ganges are intertwined in their national religious traditions; goddesses like Anuket ("Anuket" 1) and Sequana ("Sequana" 1), of the Nile and the Seine respectively, or rivers with names like the Brazos, Los Brazos de Dios, the Arms of God). It's a natural compulsion, perhaps, to regard rivers as more than normal, more than mundane; they control the cycles of agriculture and thus of life around them (and sometimes control more; fatal flooding has historically been part of life around most major rivers). Rivers are revered for their power, but also for their constant changeability; "they represent the ever-present stream of who and what we essentially are: not a static being, but a dynamic ever-becoming flow of godlike radiance" (Thackara 3). In Huck Finn the river is attributed with a great sacredness--it's a place where race and racial issues between Huck and Jim can be transcended, it's an otherworldly space in that way. It's separate from society, a place where society's rules don't apply. The sacredness of the river may go back to its composition; water is considered one of the four basic elements, the element of emotion and feeling; in many modern religions it's granted powers of purification ("Water" 44). The river acts as purifier for Huck and Jim, certainly; not only does it start to wash away the ill effects of society and other people on Huck, but it brings forgiveness for his transgressions while on the raft. (Because, even in a sacred place, one can do wrong, and Huck does--the trash incident is one of his transgressions on the raft that Jim forgives him for.)

Various sacred rivers come to mind in the context of the "Big River" of Huckleberry Finn; first of all, there's the River Styx, the river of the dead in Greek mythology. The Styx separates Hades from Earth ("Styx" 1); it (or in some tellings Acheron) is the river across which the dead must be carried. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck uses the Mississippi as his own River of the Dead, to bear him away when he fakes his death (Twain Huck 47); it continues to carry him away from the concerns of life, and keep him hidden from people who are searching for him. (In this, it might also function like the Lethe, river of forgetfulness; it allows Huck to be, if not forgotten, then ignored or not noticed as he makes his way down river.) It's not until he leaves the river that he is rediscovered for who he is; he's left the protection of being "dead" and "forgotten" to return to life. Rivers in Huck Finn can also represent a primordial, pre-lapsarian state, a state moving back towards pre-society, without race ways of existing; it brings to mind the four rivers (Gihon, Pishon, Euphrates and Tigris) that flow out of the Garden of Eden ("Gihon" 4).

But these are all outside allegories, outside mythologies being pasted onto the content of the story and the actual river of the story (the Mississippi, not the Styx or Lethe). Does the Mississippi have its own mythology? Not an ancient mythology, nor necessarily a Native American mythology, although that is useful to consider. (For instance, its name comes from the Ojibwe word for "big river" ("Mississippi River" 1)). But I'm curious about the mythological presence of the Mississippi in modern day American culture. First of all, is there one? I'd like to postulate that there is, and that Mark Twain was instrumental in creating it.

The idea of the Mississippi is certainly present in our culture (if for nothing else than its spelling, which I know I recited ad nauseum as a kid, probably to the point of making my parents want to throw themselves in said river); it's something of the 'American River'. It's not only the largest river in the United States, according to Twain, but the longest in North America when counted together with the Missouri, one of its sources (Twain Life ch. 1). It's no surprise and no wonder that the Mississippi should have some sacredness and mythology attached to it. Huck and Twain are tied to the idea of the Mississippi in our cultural mythology, as well.

Twain builds up his admiration for the river in Life On The Mississippi, writing of "the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun" (Twain Life ch. 4). (His admiration for the river led him not only to write about life on the Mississippi but to send his protagonist, Huck, down the river time and time again.) When Huck and Jim first escape down the river, he paints it as almost a religious experience, writing "[it] was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed, only a llittle kind of low chuckle" (Twain Huck 75); the River, Twain's River God as Eliot describes it (Eliot 353), is not only a mythological, archetypical figure of sacredness in Huck Finn. It doesn't only fulfill the role of the Styx or of Lethe (or, for instance, of the underground river that flows with secrets--the secrecy of Jim and Huck's traveling on the Mississippi lead it to become something of a river of secrets as well) but its own role. It has sacredness in its own right, that Twain points out, both through Life on the Mississippi and through Huck Finn.

Works Cited
"Anuket." Wikipedia.
"Gihon." Wikipedia.
"Mississippi River." Wikipedia.
"Sequana." Wikipedia.
"Styx (mythology)." Wikipedia.
"Water." Wikipedia.
Eliot, T.S. "Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas Cooley. Norton & Company, New York: 1961. Pages 348-354.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. Litrix Reading Room, 1999.
Thackara, W. T. S. "Sacred Rivers."

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas Cooley. Norton & Company, New York: 1961.
Twain, Mark. Life On the Mississippi. Project Gutenberg.

To Read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Jew
Name: Alison Rei
Date: 2006-05-12 12:05:15
Link to this Comment: 19375


Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

I have only recently become interested in my religion, because for many years, I had two. My mother is a nonpracticing Catholic and my father is a secular Jew. I was able to grow up with two conflicting faiths because I did not truly believe in either of them. As a kid, I went to my weekly Sunday school at the Jewish Community Center and loathed it like every other student I knew. From my teachers, I learned elementary Hebrew, Israeli history, the stories from the Bible with holidays to match and most seriously, the Holocaust. Although my teachers never emphasized the differences between Jewish history and faith and Christian history and faith in my other subjects, I sensed the strongest divide when we talked about the Holocaust. In bible stories, we separated ourselves from the idol worshippers but in modern history, we were murdered by cruel Christians. We formally studied the Holocaust in our fourth grade of Sunday school, meaning the supervisors believed we were mature enough as ten and eleven year olds to hear the horrible truth. The teachers rarely spared details, so much that I cannot imagine how easily my young mind took in this information without more trauma. My class learned about how Hitler twisted stereotypes to vilify innocent Jews, the ghettos, the horrors of the concentration camps and the gas chambers. While we focused on Hitler as the source of the evil perpetrated against the Jews, there were constant dark questions that surrounded him. We understood he was an evil and terrible person, but why did so many people follow him? Why did Germans and Poles and Austrians eagerly turn on their innocent Jewish neighbors? Why did so many people delight in horrible misery or simply look away, deciding that helping a Jew was too much trouble? Hitler killed few people personally, his followers created the gut sickening methods to follow out his plans. I think our lessons on the Holocaust filled the air with a sense that all non-Jews look down on us, letting us have our religion and our lives, waiting for someone powerful to release their hatred against us and they can finally torture us for every inconvenience in our lives, like they have always wanted to do. I do not know if this was the message the teachers wanted to give us, either consciously on unconsciously, but its one I can recognize within myself. I found this same lesson when learning about Israeli history; the Arab world hates us with a passion and will work tirelessly to murder Israelis on buses. As I moved outside of the world of Sunday school, I learned about Neo-Nazis, who proudly hate us and will kill you if they have the chance, and the people who delight in painting swastikas over any flier advertising Jewish events, the Holocaust deniers, the messianic Jews, so called "Jews for Jesus," that is really a group of Christians working to convert secular Jews to Christianity. I could not decide if the most disturbing aspect of the world is the people who openly hate us or the people who may hate us. My lessons from Sunday school taught me to look at any person with an eye for their hidden Anti-Semitism, because I believed that it was always there. With this attitude, I was able to distrust the whole of Christianity, patiently listening Jesus's parables and teachings, waiting for the part that preaches hate against Jews, the part that describes how we drink Christian blood and have curly hair so to cover our horns. I have not read the New Testament (because doing so seems like giving in to the enemy) but my friends who have read it acknowledge, yes, the Anti-Semitism is there and it abounds. They say that if you accept the bible as true and the heros in it as models for your life, you must take in the anti-Semitism that goes with it. Therefore, I looked at every Christian and especially enthusiastic Christian with a mistrustful eye, listening to their joy from Jesus, feeling their hidden designs against me.

To live such a paranoid existence is not pleasant but it is hard wired into my survival instincts to mistrust those outside of the circle of Judaism. Until now, I did not know much about the specifics of my faith, only that I must keep it lest I be a coward like those who converted during World War II to save themselves. I did not know exactly what I was defending but defend it I must. I feel stronger in my defense now because I am more secure in my faith and because I am old enough to fight anti-Semitism on my own, so I don't live in fear of being overwhelmed by the masses. Now, at Bryn Mawr, I have learned more about Judaism and it is settling something inside of me, just beginning to give my experiences a new cast.

Because I am new to rigorous Jewish life, I cannot begin to presume to speak for all Jews or even many Jews. That lesson is one that abounds in Jewish history. Studying the five books of the Torah is a noble and necessary commandment but the beauty of Judaism lies in discussing those stories. After one reads, one must pick at the text with questions like, What did G-d intend for us to learn from this passage? What has been left out? What has been included and why? Why did the writer choose this specific diction and these specific words? Is there a parallel example in our own lives? How does this story match the other stories in the Bible? Are there inconsistencies? How do we reconcile them? The discussion is endless. The joke "Two Jews, three opinions" is a matter of pride that we will not settle for less than an exhaustive search for the truth.

Although my spiritual life is a fascinating subject on its own, I mention my religious past because reading Uncle Tom's Cabin brought back a lot of the old conflicts I had with religion as well as new questions including suspicions against Christianity. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a hugely Christian book but I felt a lack of urgency that surprised me. I believed the novel would be propaganda using the power of Jesus's suffering and sacrifice to move the audience to action. However, time after time, characters find themselves in moral quandaries and defer to old habits instead of making strides to a resolution. St. Clare constantly discusses the morality of owning slaves, railing passionately against the hypocrisy that maintains his lifestyle. However, he always seems to exhaust himself and accept an inevitability of his surrender to habit that is not necessary. When pressed by Miss Ophelia for a decision regarding freeing his slaves after Little Eva's death, he cannot be persuaded of the urgency of action against a system he knows is incorrect. Even Little Eva, the figure of Christ, is not forceful in her beliefs, preferring to suffer pangs of conscience and emotion, sighing and rattling the prisoners' chains instead of moving to free them. She dies requesting no changes or action. Uncle Tom, upon hearing he is to be sold, weeps but will not free himself like Eva. He defers to tradition and allows a painful process to occur.

The characters' actions bothered me greatly because I thought that as a Christian book, paralleling the sacrifices Christ made for humanity, Harriet Beecher Stowe would include liberation of the oppressed as part of the actions necessary to move towards Providence. Drawing on the tradition of Torah text study, the case for the powerful to liberate the enslaved is made in Exodus, chapter 22, verse 20 telling us "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" and Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 33 and 34 saying "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself." The Bible warns against dealing in slavery, "You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on the innocent and the righteous, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer" (Exodus, Chapter 23, verses 6-7). Deuteronomy warns us against ignoring the plight of others, "Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples – as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe" (Chapter 10 verses 14-17) because the Lord "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Chaptet 10, verses 18-19). Finally, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a non-citizen in your communities. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt." (Deuteronomy, Chapter 24, verses 14-15). Reviewing these commandments, they all endow the powerful to recognize the universal brotherhood of people beneath G-d, so that none may oppress another. The Bible constantly reminds us of the pain believers suffered in Egypt and warns us not to forget the horrors of slavery in a foreign land.

Seeing so many verses against the enslavement of others, I can understand how the powerful characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin find themselves in moral quandaries, trying to reconcile their faith with their reality. The consistent failure to be moved to action baffles me. If I approach this book on a human level, I can understand the fear of revolution and of change enough to empathize with characters who act against their morals. However, Uncle Tom's Cabin was created to break the bonds of tradition and move audiences to action. We are not supposed to approach the characters from a stand point of human reality. They are created as archetypes that serve as a battle between good and evil, right and wrong and should become stymied by realistic problems. If the characters are supposed to move us toward a Divine Good, they should be expected to make decisions according to the Bible.

Every year, Jews celebrate Passover as the time to remember the painful oppression of slavery and the glory of freedom. At dinner, people read verses that begin, "When I was a slave in Egypt..." to bring us to the past. Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin as a version of the Exodus reminds us of the shared slavery between Jews and Africans. Seeing the stagnation of action from white characters in the novel brings about the same distrust and suspicion I felt in Sunday school. To read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Jew is to be reminded of the pain of ordinary people unable to make decisions for the good when the society permits evil to run rampant.

| Serendip Forums | About Serendip | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 11:57:32 CDT