VIRGINIA WOOLF- A WRITER
Because, of course, the writer brings her own experiences to her work, it is necessary to know
something of Virginia Woolf's childhood home. Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in one era
and grew to maturity in another; these being Victorianism and Modernism. She was the third
child of Julia Duckworth Stephen and Sir Leslie Stephen. Her parents had each been married
previously and widowed- those earlier marriages had produced four children. Virginia grew up
with her seven siblings in a large house at Hyde Park Gate, London. Her mother was known as a
great beauty; her father a leading literary intellectual of the day. She was born into the center of
Victorian culture- her parents were part of an intellectual and artistic circle that included Henry
James and George Meredith.
She was reared in the Victorian manner, with separate roles and expectations for girls and boys.
"Society was divided into two worlds, the public world of commerce, in which competition,
selfishness, and materialistic values ruled, and the private world of home, which provided
comfort, companionship, and spiritual renewal." (Rosenman 4) And, while she grew up in an
atmosphere of intellectualism where she was encouraged to think for herself, she was still
required to sit politely through the stultifying visits that were part of this world. "Her
'tea-training' brought her up to hide her strength and intellectual independence beneath a façade
of deferential feminine charm". (Rosenman 4)
All was not lovely in her London childhood home however. In later years it was revealed that
she had been sexually molested by her half-brothers beginning when she was about six years old.
Her strong and beautiful mother died in 1895 when Virginia was only thirteen. Her half-sister
Stella acquired the maternal role, only to die herself two years later. Virginia experienced her
first mental breakdown after the death of her mother. In 1904, her father died of cancer, and it is
possible that this combined with the sexual molestation of her half-brother George, brought about
the second breakdown, which included a suicide attempt. After this, Virginia moved with her
three full siblings- Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian- to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, another
section of London.
This began a new and influential period in her life, in which her thinking and independence could
flourish. She was twenty-two years old, recovering from her breakdown, and this move of only a
few miles across London re-made her as an independent, unconventional person. Her brother
Thoby's friends from Cambridge began their visits- the group included Lytton Strachey, Saxon
Sydney-Turner, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keyes, E.M. Forster, and Leonard Woolf, whom she
later married. Virginia was released from a world of Victorian social codes to a freewheeling
intellectual and artistic circle. No one cared how she poured tea or did her hair; they wanted to
hear her opinion on serious matters. " Carefully argued and original positions on art and ethics
dominated their evenings." (Rosenman 6) Sexual freedom was explored also; the Bloomsbury
members paired off in various combinations. "Woolf took a dramatic step out of the nineteenth
century when she entered this new home." (Rosenman 6) Woolf says in her memoirs that
"Gordon Square may not in fact have been the most beautiful of the Bloomsbury squares, but in
October 1904 it seemed the ' most beautiful, the most exciting, the most romantic place in the
world'. " (Rose 31) Physically, the house had light and air and white walls, instead of the dark
wallpapers and "rich red gloom" (Rose 31) of her Kensington childhood home.
Of course Kensington society and female relatives disapproved of this move. It was not socially
acceptable for young women to live with only their brothers as chaperones. Yet it was this very
idea of unconventionality that was so appealing to the young sisters. Living in an unfashionable
neighborhood had a bohemian appeal, and the fresh intellectual air they were yearning to breathe.
They were suddenly exposed to the world of University men, and filled their days with
conversation and lectures. A day of shopping meant immersion in bookstores, not satins and
silks. Virginia had been schooled at home by her father, and of course excluded from the
males-only world of the English University. At Bloomsbury, the University came to her and she
flourished in this atmosphere. Her vision of Cambridge however, was inseparable from the
experience of exclusion, and this was a major influence upon her writing of A Room Of One's
The male university is the setting she chooses in the book for her thoughts on women and their
difficulties in writing fiction. Here the magnificent lawn is only for Fellows; although the library
attracts like a magnet, ladies must have letters of introduction. To Virginia, this said-"you are a
person of no importance- bring me a letter from a man and we will let you in to visit." (Rose 35)
Although her early education was unusual for the day because of the freedom she was allowed in
her father's library, she was frustrated in her need for the open-ended discussion that her brothers
experienced at the university. The conviction that she was poorly educated stayed with her
throughout her life, since the "splendid communion of intellects" had been closed to her. To
quote again from Rose- "Cambridge was transformed into a symbol of privilege and intellectual
authority, more important because it withheld its embrace than for what it could concretely give,
and since Cambridge was a family tradition, and Thoby Stephen by no means the first male of his
line to go there- Leslie had been for years a don at Trinity Hall- making some small allowance for
metaphor we may say that the embrace withheld by the university was a father's embrace". (Rose
This then, was the cultural background for A Room Of One's Own. Part of this background in
early feminism was also the suffrage movement, which of course impacted Woolf as well. She
became interested in women's history at this time, and for the first time- probably with a great
deal of discomfort- became involved in direct political action. Her emerging interest in the
woman's role in society coincided with the intensification of suffrage activity, and to the
reactions of men to these changes. She wrote "the history of men's opposition to women's
emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself". (Roseman 8)
Much of A Room Of One's Own recounts that history to what for Woolf was the present day.
With tongue in cheek, Woolf said the following about her book- "But my 'book' isn't a book- it
only talks to girls". (Rosenman 10) As Rosenman explains, the importance of the work itself
cannot be overestimated. It was the first book to tackle a literary history of women writers, and
certainly the first to have gender as the central category. The main feminist issues are raised-
those of oppression and victimization, as well as exclusion and marginalization.
A Room Of One's Own was published in 1929- her earlier work had been widely praised as
original and exciting, and regarded as the culmination of her artful style. She had also been
condemned, on the other hand, for being preoccupied with the states of the mind at the expense
of the outside world and social problems. A Room Of One's Own confounded the critics, and
was misunderstood by many. Therefore, in the reviews, Woolf was herself the victim of the kind
of condescension toward women writers that she discusses in her book. Woolf believed strongly
that a "masterpiece" could only flourish in an environment of nurturance and support, where at
the very least a woman was not impeded in her artistic efforts. Hence her famous prescription: a
woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year.
Speaking of Woolf would not make sense without speaking of her writing itself. Often
mentioned are the poetry, musicality, and sensuousness of her writing. As E.M. Forster has said:
"It is always helpful, when reading her, to look out for the passages which describe eating. They
are invariably good. They are a sharp reminder that here is a woman who is alert sensuously."
(Forster 24) This is certainly the case in A Room Of One's Own.
In Woolf''s treatment of the passages describing her meals at Cambridge we gain insight to the
difference in conditions for the men and women of the time. The sensory images she creates in
the contrast provide the full picture of an intellectual atmosphere that either nurtures or starves.
Her writing brings the meals to life; we smell, taste, and feel the contented glow- or not. The
luncheon in the men's dining room gives us the vivid picture of the conditions for men; no
expense has been spared. We smell the soles, the fragrant partridges, and the cream. The sharp
sauce bites our tongue, we feel the textures crisp or soft, and with wonder we gaze upon the
sugary, frothy, confection that is the sumptuous finale. We feel the warm glow of the wine color
our cheeks as conversation flows easily, laughter is warm and low, and everyone is brilliant.
"And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard
little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more
profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse."
(Woolf 11) We are where we belong, life is good, and all is as it should be.
The contrast in what a creative woman may expect in the world is made clear through the
description of the dinner that same evening, at the women's college. The grayness of the thin
transparent soup in the plain plate, the "homely trinity" of beef and greens and potatoes- all
combine to form a vivid picture of meanness. A meager, stingy meal; starving not only the body
but impoverishing the soul. As Woolf says: "A good dinner is of great importance to talk. One
cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the soul does not
light on beef and prunes." (Woolf 18) How could a woman bring anything to her work? Her
body might be fortified -enough- by the fare, but how is she to think of herself?
Satisfied-enough- by the scraps tossed to her, but always conscious of the lack; the less-than, that
all is not well with the world, all is not as it should be. The powerful symbolism of the two
meals reveal Woolf's perceptions, made real to the reader through the senses. Thus Woolf uses
her descriptive writing style to drive home her point, and reaches the minds of her readers
through their sight, smell, touch, taste- and the pain in their belly.
The pain- physical, emotional, and spiritual, that Woolf sensed in the creative women she
encountered engendered an anger that spilled out in her writing. One cannot read A Room Of
One's Own without experiencing this anger also. While women have gained enormous ground in
the seventy odd years that have passed since the writing, much has stayed the same. We as a
collective are grateful that she applied her craft so skillfully to advance the possibility of creative
fulfillment for all women. This early twentieth century work was a powerful influence on the
feminist thought that followed; raising the awareness of the starving female soul.
Thoughts from A Room Of One's Own
Cold, cold, cold. Feeling the chill of the past. Sensations which were forgotten (she thought).
One word to summarize these sensations. Fear. Fear, because that woman was always so close
to disaster. So life had to be lived in a miserly way; skimpily. Poverty on the outside, and
poverty on the inside- holding on to the penny.
How did that come about? How did the quiet, well-behaved girl (whose aunts said looked like
Margaret-Rose) and who liked to read biographies arrive at such a precarious place? From
adolescent choices? Rushing out into the world but so poorly equipped- a good sensible girl (the
aunts always said so)- regarding everything but herself. Oh yes, and do take the practical
two-year college course (she said to herself)- the faster to get out and get a job and while at it
find a guy (almost any); one must have a sparkling ring by Christmas.
Why this rush to leave the studious girl (who liked biographies) behind? How could she know it
would take so long to find her again? Because now there were children- one- two- and surprise-
three. Beautiful, wonderful- complete bliss as she met them, smelled them, held them close. But
no time for the girl now. Feeding, changing, cleaning, chasing, scolding, laughing, driving,
moving, painting, worrying, liking, disliking, wallpapering, missing, suffering, moving, smiling,
adjusting, this business and that- running things, holding it all together (her specialty)- making
things right- he's a bit of a jerk you know- she'll straighten it all out. Til one day, no more, and
Wow, sure- her, the kids, and two or three hundred from him. This job and that- so they survive
Mustn't bother anyone with this- her problem now. Just hold on- make a good show- classy lady-
nice family- Good job girl! Decent enough jobs- tiny raises- paltry really- but can't we ever talk
about anything but sales, percentages, increases, motivations, productivity, proclivity,
progressive discipline, plans, controllable expense, uncontrollable expense, payroll cost,
terminations, exit interviews, documentations- well of course! Let's read- Steven Covey,
Anthony Robbins, Go Team Go, One-Minute Manager, How to Make Decisions Faster, Quicker,
Better. Communication styles, we take testsoh please let me be a Doer, oh no, found out
now.such disgracenot a Doer.a THINKER!
Rushing along this road, the only road (she thought) holding it all together for Margaret-Rose and
her brood. But now they have rushed off themselves- oh no, be careful, don't do that- especially
you darling daughter- be wiser, smarter- be careful, don't rush!
She didn't know that road was the hard, skimpy road (yes Napolean Hill she settled for that
penny). That was the road that produced the "poison of fear and bitterness"- "doing work she no
longer wished to do and feeling like a slave, flattering and fawning"- frankly Mr. Big Disgusting
Fat-Bellied Pea-Brained Boss, I could care less about your sales projections, terminations,
condemnations, ruminations, or denigrations. And Mrs. Too Much Time and Money With Too
Little To Do- buy this damn sweater or I will strangle you with it.
Crash, bang, for too long ignoring all those warnings posted on the road- Do Critical Up-Dates
Now- the system will crash- this road ends here, now, a brick wall, a yawning precipice-over the
edge- no more sweaters- no more making petty peace with petty salesgirls-"She did this- She did
that- It was my sale- No mine"- Come now girls- let's straighten all this out- hold it all together
for the Big Fat-Bellied Coffee and Cigarettes Boss and Mrs. Too Much Money and Too Little to
Do Ever Ever Ever.
Bitter Bitter Bitter.
What is this? An open door? She didn't know she had stayed too long in her tiny room- there
were other rooms- other roads waiting to be discovered. Could she have this? For ME? Could
she do thisME? Read, write, remember- ye gods not that- Explore her rooms.yes, Mr. Rilke,
A Response to Lyistrata
Does Nothing Change?
Finally succumbing to overwhelming exhaustion, the woman in the dark blue suit curls up in her
window seat and allows the hush to quiet her mind. She drifts in and out of a light sleep; barely
conscious of the low murmurs of the passengers in the seats around her, but allowing the hush to
soothe her. Later she will sort out the amazing events of the last days; already they are feeling
less real as the plane pushes against the wind towards home.
She has been going on pure adrenaline for weeks now, as months of planning came to fruition.
No wonder she is exhausted; she can finally rest. Such a simple plan, born of pure frustration,
actually progressed, bore fruit, took on a life of its own. As she slips in and out of wakefulness,
the events of the last months play over and over again; unbidden.
Was it only in November that she started on this plan? As usual, on that day she had been
drinking her morning coffee at her desk in New York and reading the news. As she clicked
impatiently from article to article, the usual agitation took hold of her. There it was again; the
familiar rhetoric about Saddam; the weapons of mass destruction, the necessity of maintaining
economic sanctions- blah, blah, blah. Yes, oh great patriarchs in Washington, we must always
have our villains, and now we have the Arabs- thank God. How else to justify our actions and
cover up the real motivations for our interest in the Middle East. The propaganda machine was
spewing out the familiar line. The usual frustration took hold of her as she thought of another
woman- Iraqi this time- reading her own paper with its opposite tale of American evil. She
thought of how the other woman must be mystified at why the Americans hated her so much, and
had the power to deny her of the food or medicine she needed for her family.
The tiniest idea began to germinate in the New Yorker's mind. She wished she could sit for a
while with the woman halfway across the world. Have tea- talk- be open- sort things out- could
there be a common ground? Such a silly idea perhaps, that tired old phrase, "if the women were
just in charge" Well, what if they were? So on that morning, she allowed her anger to provoke
her into action. The momentum led her to connect with women- one led to another- powerful,
strong women who were as fed up as she was; who also refused to be manipulated into another
pointless confrontation. Quietly, privately, secretly, they set it all in motion. Thank god for
email; messages slipped uncontrolled through electronic air space.
She knew how much more difficult and dangerous it was for the Iraqi women than for them; how
brave they were to secretly gather and agree to meet with them. It was really going to happen-
they would all gather together in a nondescript town in Qatar; a place accessible to both sides,
and under the protection of a discreet and powerful friend.
At first the meetings had been cold, stilted. They were finally together, but neither could
understand the opinions of the other. How could they allow this madman to stay in power? How
could they believe his ridiculous lies and support his greed, his manipulations of religion for his
own use? And they asked the Americans- why do you hate us so? Why do you always think the
Israelis are right, even when they slaughter us like they did in Lebanon? We think you can't
accept that any Arab country could withstand your demands. You make no effort to understand
our history; the reasons behind our anger now.
But yes, they drank tea together, and after hours and hours of anger and bitterness pouring out,
they began to discover the similarities, the commonalties between them. And now they had a
common anger- the anger that had been stifled for generations- hundreds of years really- at the
men that had brought them to this decayed state of affairs; using ancient methods to deal with
modern problems. Was human nature so entrenched that nothing could change in a zillion years?
Would women's bodies still only provide sons for the next battle; such cheap ammunition for the
fight? Would women always have to suffer such pain and loss as they watched their sons (and
now daughters too) join the fight; with only emotion to drive them and nothing really to protect
them? And how well the leaders understood this emotion and used it to their own ends.
Yes, the women had found their common enemy, and now they must take this anger, this fury
and apply it for good. They acknowledged their own power; they were bright, educated,
clear-thinking women who simply never understood how to exercise their power. And now they
would build on their foundation, expand the network, woman to woman- across the artificial
boundaries made by old men, long dead. No longer would they accept the rule of the gun, the
tank, the arsenal. They would use their wits, their tongues, every bit of their keen intelligence to
gather, rally, and stand together to prevent sending their sons to fight any more man-made wars.
And so she slept, dreaming of the day (soon?) when the insight and determination of women
changed the path of history forever.
A Response to King Lear
"Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself." Regan
"It's strange you know, sometimes I just can't think of the word I'm looking for." A passing
comment, lightly noted during the visit. Since they lived several states away, the accumulation
of incidents was kept hidden, denied. Finally somehow, they emerged from the denial. Tests
were done. By a process of elimination, the diagnosis. Alzheimer's probably. The news
communicated to the daughter and the son. The daughter's approach to coping was pragmatic.
Get lots of information. Questions were asked, appointments made. Doctors, the library, the
head of the support group. Too awful for comprehension. Literally. A lawyer friend consulted.
Advice given and tentatively passed on to the parents. Fury, the reaction. A durable power of
attorney? The parent refuses to become the child, relinquish control. The motive is
misunderstood. Of course by this time he has lost the ability to reason, though they keep trying
to reason. So the chaos begins. The ways of coping are interpreted differently by the brother, the
sister, the mother. Fear and guilt bind them together. The father has begun his descent into
madness, he rages. What are his thoughts? Terror, most definitely. He desperately tries to hold
on to order. He shows his daughter the days on the calendar. "You came here on this day", he
points. "And now it is this day, and you leave on this day?" "Yes Dad, it is this day", she points.
And then again. He holds on to the calendar. A life line.
The grieving process begins while he still lives. Friends visit, turn away to wipe their tears. "He
was so smart, so funny", they say. "He loved to talk about history, faraway places; why, you
would think he had traveled the world." It is obscene. A tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes.
No one can stop it; he is swallowed by nature. He is naked again, stripped of his possessions.
(One hundred knights, then twenty-five, then none.) He has become a babe again. Did he ever
know himself? Was he old before his time- old before he was wise? Did he come to fear his
children- as Regan and Goneril perhaps- only wanting to strip away his identity? What confusion
raged in his thoughts? Why did he have to experience the ultimate loss- to lose his interiority-
the only home he had.
Inspiration- School For Scandal- Richard Brinsley Sheridan
PALM BEACH COUPLET
Too little to do, too much to say
And so the turn of the world this way
Let's go to the party
It will be oh so arty
All glitter and glitz
We'll put on the ritz
With hallos and air kisses
But watch out for those disses
Put a shine on your manners
For that is what matters
Your thoughts must be quick
Or they'll give you the stick
Your tongue sharp and clever
To be asked back again ever
It the talk appears brittle
Hold back your spittle
All is for show
As you ought to know
No time for dimension
Lay on the pretension
And my dear who is she?
Well of course a wanna-be
A scandal you say?
Well hooray hooray
All fussing and fawning
Soon cause for yawning
No substance here
But be of good cheer
The season soon ends
And we'll make amends
With a jolly ho ho
Off to the Hamptons we go!
Voltaire's high concept tale gives us the gentle character, Candide, to teach us about life and how
to live wisely. Candide is "clear-eyed, glowing white, clear, pure, patently sincere." (Webster's
New Collegiate Dictionary, 120) Each of the characters represents the questions about the nature
of man that philosophers have been asking since the time of the ancients. What is the purpose of
life? How is man to live?
Each character has carved out his own philosophy that enables him to cope with life and it's
realities. Dr. Pangloss is the idealist; certain that causes have effects that are in the end all for the
best. Martin, on the other hand, has no illusions about mankind, and trusts only in his cynical
skepticism. The old woman is the pragmatist- she has accepted her misfortunes and guides the
others in light of her limited expectations, but has practical solutions and an emphasis on getting
But what of the noble Venetian- the richly symbolic figure who shows us the emptiness of all
ambition and vanity? Through him we are shown the dead-end of materialism, consumerism,
even intellectualism. The most brilliant of life's treasures has become meaningless; nothing
pleases him, his only pleasure is having no pleasure. We see that this is not the wiser path, nor
the way to truth or genuine happiness.
Only Candide, it seems, has found the path leading to ultimate happiness. It is hope. And it is his love for Miss Cunegonde that instills in him the eternal hope that enables him to cope with all of life's miseries, yet keep moving onward. But what do we know of Miss Cunegonde? Of all the characters, she is not intimately revealed to us. Why is this so? Voltaire skillfully weaves her into the tale by giving us glimpses of her. He creates her only for the needs of Candide. She provides for Candide what all the others have lost- hope, and the possibility of happiness in this world. She is an ideal form, a goal. Candide always has her in his vision; she moves the tale forward. He is willing to kill for her- and thus lose more of his naivete, more of himself- but all will be well when they are reunited.
But in the end, we learn more about where to place our hopes. Miss Cunegonde is no longer
beautiful, but as ugly and petty as everyone else. Miss Cunegonde is thus the crux of the
cautionary tale- be careful where you place all of your hope; find good reasons, unchanging
foundations upon which to build your life.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Harry is Pan, the piper who leads Dorian on his path to destruction, decadence, and moral decay.
As with Pan, the merry and much-loved god, the victim of the god's attention does not fare well.
As Pan had Syrinx and Echo, Harry has Dorian. Pan caused madness and panic with his
passions; Harry seems to have had the same result with Dorian.
Wilde reveals much of Harry's character in the writing. His is the predominant voice; he delivers
most of the dialogue. Is Harry the autobiographical character? He is shown as the clever, witty,
blasé sophisticate; jaded, bored, and poised for an interesting project. Enter Dorian, whose
innocence and beauty present an irresistible challenge. Before Harry, Dorian was unaware of his
beauty. "The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it
before." (p. 18) It is Harry who makes him see and fall in love with his own beauty, and realize
the brevity of youth. "Then had come Lord Henry Wotton with his strange panegyric on youth,
his terrible warning of its brevity." (p. 18)
In the space of an afternoon Harry has cast his spell; Dorian is convinced that youth is the only
thing worth having. The gods had an unfortunate lapse in their wisdom. While Sibyl and her
fellow goddesses asked for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth, Pan has it right- the
object of his affection will never become ugly and grotesque.
Harry toys with Dorian, takes pleasure in his game. "Talking to him was like playing upon an
exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bowThere was something terribly
enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it." (p. 26) This becomes a
satisfying entertainment for Harry. He creates and dominates. "He would make that wonderful
spirit his own." (p. 27) He projects his soul into the pure and graceful form that is Dorian.
The tension between Harry and Dorian heightens; he fascinates and is reflected more brilliant by
Dorian's gaze. "He felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixed on him, and the consciousness
that amongst his audience there was one whose temperament he wished to fascinate, seemed to
give his wit keenness, and to lend colour to his imagination." (p. 31) Harry fills Dorian with the
desire to know everything about life; that the search for beauty is the real secret of life. Sadly for
Dorian, beauty is elusive, empty, shallow. As his life spirals downward, beauty becomes a
mockery. He is trapped in his eternal beauty; forever young and forever unwise, petulant, and
self-centered. Dorian does not have the capacity to sift Harry's theories through the sieve of
wisdom. Lacking depth and dimension, he can only focus on his own desires.
Harry teaches Dorian until the end. It is their final conversation that makes Dorian realize that
his reformation is just another vanity, horribly revealed in the painting. Harry is content with his
creation; he is Marsyas listening to Apollo. If Harry knows the reality of Dorian's torments, he
does not care to acknowledge it. He wishes to keep his creation unsullied and unspoiled in his
imagination, as pretty as a picture.
It's All About Harry
The comforts of home can be deadly. Just look at Harry. Comfort killed him off long before his
infection did the job. Comfort was the gangrene of his soul, surely and systematically invading
and contaminating his interiority just as the infection dominated his body.
Comfort dulled his mind, stifled his creativity, robbed him of his vitality. Willingly or not, Harry
found a home, and became afraid to venture out again. Harry's home developed a high wall, a
gate, a moat. Unpenetrable. Behind the walls of his castle he may have been bored, but he was
safe. Who was Harry's enemy? What did he fear? Why did he embrace the comforts of the
woman- the money, the booze, the easiness? Harry was confrontational with danger; he had
done it all. Guns, girls, treachery, torture- he had the guts and the glory. Harry's gangrene, of
course, was fear. The worst fear for a writer- not being able to write. "Now he would never
write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he
would not have to fail at trying to write them either." (p. 5)
Harry had been dying for a long time. Every story he didn't write removed another page from his
life. He denied his talent, stifled his flame. His body finally found a way to give him want he
wanted. The fear kept him home, safe from confronting his torment. Could he write it?
More adventures? Continued curiosity? Without the courage to confront his essential fear they
were empty activities. As empty as the pages he never wrote.
Things Fall Apart
A sense of foreboding envelops us from the first. We sense all will not end well for Umuofia.
The chill of fear grips us as the world of Okonkwo and his clan truly falls apart. Okonkwo will
need all of his power to fight the forces against his world, but tragically he is crippled by the
most destructive malady of all, fear of himself. Achebe employs the form of classical Greek
tragedy to tell his African tale of the rise and fall of Okonkwo.
This most fearsome warrior has proven himself from the youngest age as worthy of honor and
respect. He is driven by his father's legacy of shame and has no use for unsuccessful men. But
as he projects his image of strength, we find that "His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear
of failure and weakness." (p. 13) The roots of the fear go deep. "It was not external but lay deep
within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father." (p. 13)
For Okonkwo, all things are measured against the traits of his father. To be successful means to
be manly. And manliness implies action, physicality, structure, and seeing things in black and
white. He is respected for his accomplishment and hard work, but others notice "Okonkwo's
brusqueness in dealing with less successful men." (p. 26) To him, they are not men at all. They
are weak; as weak as women. And anything to do with idleness and pleasure equate with
weakness. "And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion- to hate everything that his father Unoka
had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness." (p. 13) Purposefully,
Okonkwo has formed the formidable fortress with which he deals with the world.
Okonkwo's tragic flaw is his anger and impetuousness, grounded in fear. He is the classic hero,
the strong man of the village. He is victorious in wrestling, providing wealth for his family, and
achieving honorary titles. We recognize his ambition, his drive to be the best- his implied
excellence. In these introductory chapters, we understand the problem for the hero and his
society- change is coming, but the hatred of his father and the resulting anger and fear have
afflicted Okonkwo. His flaw will be his downfall in coping with the changes to come.
Okonkwo fears for his disturbingly weak son, Nyowe, and teaches him with his stories-
"masculine stories of violence and bloodshed." (p. 53) But Nyowe prefers the stories of his
mother- stories which teach wisdom rather than action. Nyowe knows that it pleases his father to
listen to his stories, but it is apparent that Nyowe is a thinking person. As Nyowe absorbs the
shock of Ikemefuna's death, we feel the first break in the solidarity of the clan. ."Nyowe knew
that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping
of a tightened bow." (p. 61) Nyowe is forming his own impressions of the rituals of his society.
We sense that the death of Ikemefuna has been a turning point in the story. The sense of
foreboding grows. We know the inevitability of disaster now; the crisis is developing. Okonkwo
has ignored the advice of Ezeudu, the wise man inserted in the tale in traditional Greek form.
Although he was warned, Okonkwo kills the boy to show his strength, his bravery, his
fearlessness against his own feelings for the boy. He can not even appear to be afraid of the
wrath of the earth goddess. Of course he cannot understand his own suffering after the killing-
"How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to
their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed." (p. 65) Emotions are a frightening
confusion for such a man.
The vagaries of wisdom are not apparent to Okonkwo. As he talks with his friend Obierika after
Ikemefuna's death, Obierika futilely shares his thoughts. Okonkwo did not understand Obierika's
refusal to be part of the killing of the boy. While Obierika would not have disputed the oracle, he
would not have committed the act of killing either. And, as he tells of the deaths of the old
couple, it is clear that Okonkwo simply cannot grasp the complexity of a man being strong, but
also in complete harmony with his wife. These are subtleties that simply elude Okonkwo.
A man of action, Okonkwo can only show his love through what he does. He demonstrates his
feelings for Ezinma by caring for her when she is ill, and following her mother to the cave of the
priestess. Ezinma and her mother are able to intuit the thoughts and feelings that he is unable to
express in words. "He cannot reveal any emotion but anger- to show affection was a sign of
weakness." (p. 28) Deeds must always do the talking.
Since Okonkwo defines himself by the rules of the clan, he of course obeys the directive that he
must be exiled after his crime. The very course of his life has been altered by bad luck. "His life
had been ruled by a great passion- to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his
life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken." (p. 131) This is
the second major plot point that builds the crisis. With the crime and exile, we see that there is
reversal for Okonkwo. His fortune has reversed, his honor lost. This catastrophe moves us to
pity; the accident was not the fault of Okonkwo. We also feel the fear that is the classic
accompaniment. This catastrophe could happen to us, to anyone. Okonkwo is not evil; the
misfortune is more than he deserves.
During the seven years of his exile the world as he knew it has disappeared, and he is ill
equipped to deal with the changes. The inevitable unfolding of events is happening, as we knew
it would. In the process Okonkwo has lost his own first-born son; another fear realized. He
predictably reacts with anger to his son's defection, wondering "How then could he have begotten
a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate." (p. 153)
Nwoye has indeed chosen another path. To walk away from his father is to walk away from his
world. To take this kind of action requires a different kind of courage than Okonkwo can
fathom. Nwoye faces change and moves towards it, Okonkwo is impotent to stop the process.
By not caring- by disowning the memory of his son, he can shield himself from the fear. With
Nwoye's action, we know the walls of Okonkwo's own family are crumbling. "But he is able to
discern the fearful prophecy- Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible
prospect, like the prospect of annihilation." (p. 153) Okonkwo instinctively senses the
devastation ahead with the loss of Nwoye, but by denying his worth pushes the threat away.
Okonkwo realizes he has lost his place in the village; his chance to lead against the new religion-
he is out of step with the changes. The only methods available to him are those he has always
employed- anger generating action. He must do things as he always has, and cannot understand
the weakness of his people. "What is it that has happened to our people? Why have they lost the
power to fight? " (p. 175) Once again, it is left to Obierika to try to explain to Okonkwo; to help
him understand the complexities- that all is not simple. "The white man is very clever. He came
quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to
stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife
on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." (p. 176) Okonkwo mourns for his
The clan does not have the traditions in place to deal with the changes that have been forced
upon their society. The careful legacy of ritual and systems of the past never prepared them to
deal with the white man and his ways. "Our fathers never killed their brothers. But a white man
never came to them." (p. 203) Okonkwo only feels a measure of happiness when he believes that
he can fight his way through the changes- and once again prove his worth to himself and the
others. The climax explodes in violence; he kills the head messenger with his machete.
Okonkwo's impetuous rage is his classic "hamartia".
The end for Okonkwo is the tragic consequence of his excess pride. The one thing he wanted
was honor and respect in the eyes of the world, but that world has disappeared. He ends his life
in shame. It is a shameful act to kill oneself, but also shows the shame he feels for his clan.
They have lost their own respect for themselves- they are full of fear, like women. Okonkwo
spent his entire life trying to overcome the shame of his father, only to die in shame himself.
While his life was grounded in tradition, he in the end must kill himself and defy that tradition.
A sense of identity- a sense that life has meaning, that there is order in the universe is essential to
all in varying degrees. For Okonkwo, his self-identity was bound up in fear. Fear paralyzes, it
does not enable. Change was the great enemy to Okonkwo's world, and his self-identity was
powerless against his force. In denouement, there is bitter irony, the District Commissioner will
write his book, Okonkwo's life will deserve only a paragraph.
With Okonkwo, Achebe has created the classic hero, a man exalted far above others, seemingly
destined for greatness. His use of Okonkwo and the tragic form heightens the impact of the tale,
as we are moved through the essential elements of dramatic form. The rise and fall of Okonkwo
engenders the pity and fear we are meant to feel, and catharsis as his unbearable torment ends.
The Great Gatsby
"Upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded." Sir Philip Sidney
Jay Gatsby has built a golden life for himself, but his foundation cannot hold. Gatsby's tragic and
fatal flaw is his commitment to living in the past. He built his life upon an illusion, and her name
Everything about Daisy is illusory- she is as unsubstantial and diaphanous as the flowing white
dresses she wears. Daisy survives on the surface of things, with a precarious hold on her
existence. Setting down deeper roots would threaten the uncertain grip she has on coping with
her life; survival lies in shallowness- a trait apparent to all but Gatsby.
Daisy is Gatsby's ideal, and the hope of attaining a future with her has been the purpose for his
existence. A familiar tale. Through maturing, most would grow to see the illusion for what it is
and move on. But not this tragic character. He has built his life as a man distinct from others; he
is different. He has poured all of himself into this dream, to returning to things as they were.
"Can't repeat the past?" 'he cried incredulously.' "Why of course you can." (p. 99)
Nick reveals Gatsby's qualities to us- we realize that he is not steeped in the materialism of the
crowd, but an idealistic figure. His qualities of excellence outweigh his questionable
background. "They're a rotten crowd," Nick shouted. "You're worth the whole damn bunch put
together." (p. 136)
While his integrity keeps him impervious to the lures of 1920's affluence, Gatsby's flaw is more fatal. We know there is no place for him in Daisy's life, and without Daisy any meaning to his own. We see the inevitability of his demise. The superlatives are all there- he is the most handsome man, owns the grandest mansion, and hosts the highest society. The higher the man, the greater the fall. All the classic elements are in place as we pity Gatsby, fear for his end, and have a good cry.