The Grapes of Wrath

I am still reading the books from my ridiculously ambitious list as mentioned in this post. 

When I started reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics version), I have to admit that I was doing it more out of a sense of obligation than an interest in the plot or characters.

I have heard so much about the novel throughout the years, from sources that vary from friends who have read it to literary tests that discuss its overarching themes and character struggles. I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in middle school or early high school. While I thought it was well-written, I also felt like it wasn’t an experience I’d like to repeat.

I also don’t think that I’d like to see the movie version.

The movie version that I don't care to see- fun poster though!

I feel the same about The Grapes of Wrath to a large extent. The last 80 pages or so were pretty depressing. I mean, I did know that it was a novel about the struggles of one family through the depression, but at a certain point I did feel a bit like I was torturing myself by continuing.

The characters suffer so much, and the “epic” narrative style paints an American capitalist process that I’m not necessarily fond of. Large corporate interests overtake hard working “common” men and women during the great depression, and those men are literally driven off of “their” land (which they stole/ was stolen for them from Native peoples), then pretty much slowly starved because a few greedy landowners want to make more of a profit.

The novel switches between a close and distant narration, alternating chapters between the telling of one specific family, the Joads, and the larger narrative of American “progress.” I found this description chilling and timely when we consider the wealth disparity now in place in our country. It is not only the small farmers and tradesmen/women who are struggling now, but it is also the home-owning middle class.

In the novel, the Joads, along with hoards of other tenant farmers from Oklahoma and surrounding areas, are pushed off the land they tend by the banks, quite dramatically with large plows. In this telling scene, many of the family members are looking for someone to talk to about the matter, for someone to fight with about it. However, they soon find that what they are fighting is so large that they are not even able to find it, let alone fight it.

The Bank is driving them, but they are unable to respond. I feel like this ties directly into the current argument being touted by the Occupy Movement, that corporations are Not people. The fact that Steinbeck was already addressing this phenomenon in 1939 so eloquently, and also the fact that the machine that is the Bank destroys human life, destroys crops, and destroys community, is pretty astounding to me.

One of the quotes I think best illustrates this feeling comes early in the novel. In one of the chapters where the narrator is distant, he points out the conversation one feels is echoed by thousands.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there.

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the                       ~bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is ~something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but ~they can’t control it. (emphasis mine -sorry, the formatting got all wonky when I pasted the text).

I feel like this discussion is very relevant for today, and because of this, I think that I devoured this novel with more zest than I was expecting. It made me appreciate how far we have not come in our understanding of the capital machines that still control and drive our country.

It also made me appreciate the taste of food more. I definitely understand why it’s an American classic. It tells our story pretty poignantly, and asks some questions about the capitalist value system that are not only necessary, but that are also still being asked.

Points taken away: There are definitely a few offensive-to-contemporary-readers storytelling moments in which the characters glorify the old colonial period and the killing of Native Americans, but I also don’t feel like Steinbeck necessarily agreed with those sentiments as much as he was trying to portray the Joads and other Oklahoma residents in the truest way possible.

I would give this book 4.5 of 5 stars for its beautiful writing, its interesting character details, and its importance in our current historical moment.  I would also highly recommend it.

Read with Milk, and some sort of rustic camping food such as fried potatoes, baked beans and coffee.

Regards,

Miss E

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Judith and Jack and Chandan

Hi all!

The other night, I went to an informal presentation by wonderful team Jack and Judith Halberstam and Chandan Reddy at Elliot Bay Bookstore promoting their new books.

It was a wonderful reminder of why it’s awesome to live in Seattle 🙂 In my graduate work, I often studied Halberstam, and greatly admire her scholarship. I could not believe that two amazing and pretty famous queer theory scholars would be offering a talk in a bookstore basement easily accessible to me. This was during the MLA Convention, so many scholars were in town. Still, I was very impressed with their choice of location, especially since I did not pay 60 dollars for registration to attend closed panels at the convention.

So, I excitedly hailed a cab to Capital Hill and arrived just in time for the presentation to begin.  I was planning on meeting Judith, but when I arrived, I was introduced to Jack. Apparently, Halberstam is only Judith in writing. Jack’s presentation was really fun, and I found his style incredibly engaging. Chandan was very verbose, but also very pedantic and somewhat jargony.  I think that non-academics had a hard time understanding some of his points, but I also think that he worked hard during and after his presentation to make his information more accessible to the public.

Together, this team of scholars was pretty formidable, and I felt lucky that I got to see them in action.

Here are the pictures from that night:

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I promised a friend that I would copy notes for him, and I decided to copy some for you all as well.

I found myself scribbling excessively for both presentations, but more so for Chandan’s half. He went second, and he made many complicated points about modernity, but interlaced with discussion of a complex racial history. Writing down key points during the presentation was really helpful for me, and I think I got the gist of what he was arguing.

Like Halberstam said at the beginning of their presentation, Reddy’s arguments are complex, but they also reflect the intense complexity of the issues he is working with, some of which would be done a disservice by being condensed. They obviously have a lot of love for one another’s work, and their long-standing friendship began when Halberstam was Reddy’s professor during his first year of teaching. How awesome is that?!

Halberstam’s key points/ highlights:

1. “Failure is something all people do, but perhaps is something only queer people can really turn into a lifestyle.” Jack related this to a capitalist model, arguing that in our society, and in the capitalist model, there must be “winners” and “losers.” There is no way to opt out of capitalism without becoming a “loser” when to succeed in our system, one must have money and conform to both a capitalist and heteronormative timeline for success.

2. Jack also said that “if that’s success, then I choose failure.” I found that to be a very powerful statement.

3. Halberstam also argued that Pixar movies have been “feeding children communist fables” of anti-corporate sentiments in movies such as Monsters Inc., Robots, and Over the Hedge, which she believes has helped the young generation feel so strongly about the Occupy movement and anti-capitalist reform.

4. She also gave 3 lessons in how to “fail,” or to embrace failure, which included: 1.) Learn to lose, 2.) Be a Lesbian (she gave a lot of examples of how Lesbians are still not represented as “winners” in western media, especially “The Butch,” since straight men do not desire her and straight women don’t want to emulate her). Thus, Lesbians are the greatest losers, because they are still unable to be defined by the heteronormative capitalist model. 3.) Embrace a certain type of negativity, and find other options besides winning and losing.

Reddy’s Key Points/ Highlights: 

1. Introduction of his book Queer of Color Critique of Capitalism, and the goal of exploring what a queer reading and queer person of color perspective can bring/do to capitalism.

2. Capitalism = racial capitalism in the US, which = racialized state because of colonial history, which has always been racialized.

3. Discussion of Neo-liberalism. He says that we often think of freedom as the antithesis of violence, so when the state is pointed out as the source of violence, we need to reconcile that lie, or in his words “at the moment in which “freedom” becomes the vehicle of violence.

4. Pointed out the “3 regimes of modern freedom,” which includes his notion of “negative liberties,” or when freedom from violence was untenable; it rather was a freedom through revolutionary violence. He argues against the national rhetoric of the state that purports the idea of attaining freedoms from violence and all peoples becoming equal once that illusive freedom is attained. He pointed out that this approach and this myth hasn’t worked, and has never been attained, using that as a touchstone for the necessity of rethinking our subject positions and the idea of freedom within a violent state.

5. He used a great image example of a “missing billboard” installation art to illustrate the people who are left out of the picture the state paints in the capitalist model. He says that by intentially leaving out or disqualifying other possibilities of being, the modern capitalist state attempts to sustain [and advertise?] very specific system of experience. According to Reddy, we need to look at the latticework, or the frame, the people on the outskirts of what is being represented to us, for models of being.

6. He also argued that we are all being asked by the state, through citizenship agreements, to lose a little bit of our personal identities, and also to re-imagine our complicity with “freedom” and all that it costs. In essence, our complicity is really asking us to reconsider that subject position in the state with it’s history of violence (most likely through ignoring or attempting to “forget” that history of violence). Because we are taught that to identify ourselves and attain “embodiment” through the state, or to be “recognized” by the sate in order to have rights, we sacrifice for those rights.

7. Thus, he argued that “we need not ask for representation, but should try living on the fringe, in disorganization.” Too often, according to Reddy, Gays and Lesbians, etc. “make the cut” with this knowledge once they find safety or representation via citizenship, and THAT NEEDS TO STOP, since only in the fringe can true revolution and self-actualization without participation in state violence really occur.

8. I have 3 more pages of notes from this talk, more than I feel is appropriate to share through blog post, but if you want to know more, just let me know 🙂

I found both presentations compelling, and am very glad that I live in Seattle and was able to experience this discussion. I found Chandan’s argument especially intricate, but very very interesting. Both Reddy and Halberstam really argued strongly for resisting capitalist heteronormativity, for different but valid reasons. In other words, it rocked my socks off!

Excitedly yours,

Miss E

Why Does Austen’s World Appeal So Much to Modern Ladies?


Because not that much has changed in terms of gender expectations and role fulfillment. Gender dynamics are largely the same it seems, even though women are now able to own property and have the right to vote.

We tend to think of Jane Austen’s time period, around the late 18th and early nineteenth century, as charmingly antiquated. Despite the changes that have occurred since the 18th century, it seems culturally significant that Austin’s male protagonist has regained popularity in recent years.

A friend recently told me that her little nephew asked her if she was in college. When she told him that she had already graduated years before, he said “Oh my gosh! We need to get you a husband! You should join an internet dating site!”

I other words, a person as young as 9 years old was concerned that a woman of my friend’s age was unmarried.

This issue is also discussed in all Austen novels. The social need for marriage is pressed upon the female characters, and they are forced to weigh their own desire against the desires of the world. The reason many of Austen’s novels are considered “happy endings” is because we are excited that the protagonists’ desire won despite the pressures bearing against them.

In the 1850’s, a man by the name of William Rathbone Greg wrote an essay titled “why are women redundant?” It was thought that there were too many single women of a certain age in England at the time, and this evoked anxiety in a heteronormative, marriage-driven society. Greg’s attempt to solve the problem was to come up with a plan to ship all of the “quite abnormal” number of unmarried females overseas to the Americas so that they could fulfill their proper gender role and marry. Women were seen to be a problem to be dealt with- if they did not marry, the entire social structure might have crumbled, according to Greg and probably Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

These fears of staying single were grounded in harsh reality for the women in Austen’s time. In Persuasion, this fear of the unmarried woman, or “superfluous woman” is discussed in detail. Anne Eliot, the protagonist of the novel, is 27 when the book opens. She is seen as a problem, a liability, as one who has passed her peak time for being auctioned off to the highest bidder in the marriage arena. She is plain and “old,” two things that damage her chance of fulfilling her gender role.

In today’s world, there are plenty of unmarried women. But oftentimes, they are still seen as a “problem.” I mean, how much has really changed since 1851? Do we not still live in a heteronormative, marriage and babies driven society? Most women I know, even the independent and educated ones, still feel pressure from family and friends to “settle down,” and many wish to marry for various reasons. I currently work with a 21 year old who is being pressured by her family to marry as soon as she can. She often talks about how worried she is that it won’t work with her current boyfriend both because she likes him and also because she’s “running out of time.”  Time for what, exactly?

I often here snippets of conversations that sound like the Eliots from Persuasion. People judging women on their age, and how much time they have left to fulfill what they were apparently purposed to do, how shabby they look, how they will never “find a man,” etc. Unfortunately, I am 26, and all these people talking about running out of time are, quite frankly, freaking me out.

This is becoming more true now because I am feeling more and more inclined to become a redundant woman and do whatever I want without obligation to a partner or children. If that’s how I end up living my life, I can think of at least 30 or 40 acquaintances off the top of my head who would feel uncomfortable having me around.  As a single woman of a “certain age,” I am still a liability. Perhaps not as much as in the time Jane Austen was writing, or even William Greg, but still, a liability nonetheless.

In Jane Austen’s world, at least to contemporary viewers, there seem to be certain rules that guarantee a chance at a proposal. If you were of a certain age, and a man called on you, or danced more than a few dances with you, it is significant in terms of the likelihood of proposal.

For the multitudes of heterosexual women who are trying not to be superfluous or redundant, who are dating men and looking for “Mr. Right” or “Mr. Future Husband” in every man they meet and constantly failing to find him, the predictability of 18th and early 19th century courtship can be very appealing.

I am not implying that all women feel this pressure to avoid living what Greg terms an “incomplete existence” and therefore are attracted to the courtship in Austen’s world. Do I think it could be a factor in some of the more recent popularity? Yes. Do I think it is important to study both Jane Austen and the potential cultural undercurrents that make her work extraordinarily popular right now? Yep.

Yours redundantly,

Miss E

The Darcy Dilemma

OR I am in love with a fictional man, who may or may not be perpetuating Patriarchal masculinity. Oh my.

I have recently realized that much of my adult life has been spent in pursuit of a well-known character from one of my favorite novels. He somehow subconsciously became my perfect man all those years ago, and the masculine ideal for countless others.

Readers all over the world know him as a prototype of the tall, dark and handsome mystery man; he is somber and stoic on the outside, yet soft, sensitive, smart, and thoughtful when the layers of his personality are revealed. He has social clout, knows what he wants, is straightforward, and can defend a family’s honor when need be. Sound good? This is the fictional man I have searched for in the real world, alongside countless other admirers. His name, as we all know, is Mr. Darcy.

Darcy has been popularized in contemporary literary media through adaptations of Pride and Prejudice by the BBC and Focus Features, parodies like the movie Bride and Prejudice, or the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book-turned-film Bridgett Jones’ Diary, and countless other interpretations. The novel itself is likely one of the most popular classics in today’s society, and the story and its characters are far more well-known.

Collin Firth has become the visual representation of Darcy for many, and we pine for Darcy to stare at us. I mean, have you seen the lake scene in the BBC Adaptation?

I will keep watching, admiring, and thoroughly enjoying Collin Firth in his many Darcy-based roles. However, I have been left disappointed by the expectations that Darcy as a character has raised for my experiences with the men in my life. I feel that all of my experiences searching for my Mr. Darcy have ended with either a man who cannot express himself, or is really just kind of an ass. It has been my experience that Darcy-esque qualities don’t really translate from the Austen novel to the everyday twenty-first century very easily.

In fact, it can be dangerous to love someone who does not show his emotion, not very fun to love a man who is a snob. Real men who have Darcy-esque qualities in fact may be suffering from what bell hooks terms “patriarchal masculinity,” where they are emotionally cut down by society because nobody cares about their feelings.

A real man with a Darcy exterior may not have that rich internal life that Darcy has, and surely is unlikely to write verbose and life-altering letters to us. Darcy’s personality cannot be the end all-be all of male sexy. In fact, he could be perpetuating our current society’s obsession with an ideal patriarchal masculinity, with production of the “strong, silent” type.

I have real problems with that possibility.

As modern readers, we hope that our tough-on-the-outside men will be so in love with us they crumble into a pool of desperate emotion as Darcy seems to when he proposes to Elizabeth the first time. However, without the presence of Austen’s clever narrative voice simultaneously chastising and sympathizing with Darcy, I’m not sure we’d fall in love with him alongside Elizabeth.

Perhaps the reason Darcy is so appealing to me and others is that despite his seeming emotional constipation and adherence to the patriarchal society in which he exists, he was imagined and given breath by a woman. I feel like Jane Austen herself does not get enough credit for Darcy’s creation. Could his appeal be so universal without the author’s genius? Without her gender? What do you think?

Best,

Miss E

The Help- the movie vs. the book

I enjoyed the book The Help. While I did have initial issues with the concept of black maids in the 60’s risking everything to work on a white writer’s novel, I liked the vivid personalities of characters in the novel, (the bad ones and the good ones), and I enjoyed the writing on a sentence level.

All movies are different than the book- different media, different art, different relationship. I didn’t hate it- for me to say that about a movie that takes a little bit more of what Minny would call the heart palpitations. Despite the wonderful actors and the realistic costume design, I had some major problems with it.

I can narrow it down to 3 elements from the movie that really drove me nuts.

1). Lack of suspense and intensity. The book is infused with a sense of danger throughout. The film downplayed that danger and the tangible tension present in every chapter of the book. One of the book’s primary strengths for me is that it portrayed so many emotions so believably—the deep sadness of Skeeter in slowly losing everyone important to her and seeing her mother dying from cancer, the absolute terror of living in Jackson Mississippi during this time, the bloody horror when Minny finds a miscarriage and a collapsed employer in the bathroom, the threat of sexual violence against female characters and rampant misogyny, and the Help’s ever-present fear of Miss Hilly, white people, and of racial and sexual violence on a daily basis, etc. It always felt emotionally intense.

2).  In the book, no interaction was comfortable- the awkwardness between the society women, between blacks and whites, between Skeeter and her mother. The movie showed some of the awkwardness, but I was craving more, as weird as that sounds. Everything in the movie seemed  a little too easy.

3). So, speaking of awkwardness, the third thing about the movie that bothered me most was a specific scene—Minny’s interaction with her employers at the end.

In the novel, the last scene we have with Minny and her employers comes after Skeeter and Aibileen’s book is circulating through Jackson. Minny goes to work, anticipating that she will be fired, but her employers tell her she can have a job for the rest of her life. Minny and the Footes relationship could only be described as awkward and bizarre. Later, the conflict that has been building in the novel between Minny and her abusive husband Leroy escalates. Leroy locks her in the bathroom of their house and threatens to burn it down with her inside. She escapes, runs to the gas station barefoot, and calls Aibileen to tell her she’s going to live with her sister and she’s leaving Leroy for good.

In the movie, Minny walks in (after thinking she’s being attacked by her employer Mr. Foote) to a magnificent feast prepared solely by Miss Celia Foote. Then the narrator says something to the effect of “that meal gave Minny the courage she needed. She left Leroy that night.” That’s when I almost screamed in the theater. What!?

I’m sure you can see the problem with this discrepancy. The white family shows kindness to Minny, one of the most skeptical characters in the whole novel, and all of a sudden she decides to “turn her life around.” Although part of the comic relief in the movie comes from Celia’s confusing lack of racial and class boundaries, and well, boundaries in general, that feast just seems unbelievable. The narrative addition is just insulting to Minny’s character. It both takes from Minny and gives way too much to the Footes.

In the novel, Minny was very brave. She did what she had to do, but she stood up for herself more than most. She was not afraid to speak her mind, except in her abusive relationship.

Minny left Leroy to save herself, because the abuse had finally reached the point of threatening her life. That push to escape came from the realization that he could, and would kill her eventually, NOT a dinner from her white employers!

Yours with the heart palpitations,

Miss E

Looking for Pemberley?

Me too.  In fact, I have been looking for a while.

There are a few reasons that I chose to include Pemberley in the title of my blog.

I feel that Pemberley is significant to me and thousands, if not millions of others. It represents home, and it represents epiphanies. It was where Elizabeth had her AHA moment about Mr. Darcy, wasn’t it?

Reading Pride and Prejudice my freshman year of high school opened me up to the rewards of trudging through some maybe-not-so accessible language for a 20th century audience and long character descriptions, and was a pivotal moment in my life as a reader.

My first read took me about a month (partially because I re-read the first four chapters over and over and over trying to figure out which sister was which and why the new neighbor was so important), but after I was finished, I was exhilarated. I told all of my friends at school that the novel was amazing, and rented every P&P adaptation I could lay my hands on.

In high school, when other friends were out partying on the weekends, my best friend and I would geek out, rent an Austen adaptation and wallow in visions of the Edwardian period.  To us, the time Jane Austen lived in was brilliant and wonderful.

Many men seem baffled by this obsession with Austen. An ex-boyfriend once asked me, “why do you enjoy this so much? I mean, I can’t even understand what they are saying?” The answer was and always will be, (for me at least), courtship.

Courtship, you say? Yes. Courtship. The thought of having a man who attends social functions as part of his social manly duty, politely pursues you, and after your family is sure of his “intentions” really has to provide for you with an offer of marriage (albeit not always a happy one, but are they now?) or be called a cad for the rest of eternity seems pretty romantic when you are 16 and don’t fully understand the political contract of 18th century unions.

In high school, (and probably even in college), I would have given up anything to be wearing a bonnet and riding in a carriage with one of Austen’s characters. I don’t think this is unusual- check out the film Lost in Austen http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1117666/  for an entertaining parody of this desire (give it about a half hour to grow on you- it has a slow start).

I have fallen in, and out, and back in love with Austen’s world, but the love her most prolific novel inspired in me for reading, for human relationships, and for courtship, is a passion I will never stop looking for.

This blog is about my journey through life and literature, looking beyond Austen’s novels into text, media, and society for home and human connection.

Looking Forward to Blogging with you!

Cheers,

Miss E