Beverley Blythe

May 2001


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 Own.

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 37)

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 barely.

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, Yes.

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


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- Candide

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 things done.

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 lost world.

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 is Daisy.

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.