Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Ocean or The Mills?

Journal No. 17
English 48A
Dr. Scott Lankford
Authors I chose: Herman Melville and Rebecca Harding Davis

In Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Ishmael is a lonely figure. The only passion which he discloses to his readers is his obsession for the sea. Though he has great passion for the sea, we don't learn much more about his feelings. Ishmael requires the sea to live but despises the fact that he needs it. He seems to justify this necessity by turning around and explaining how all man-kind needs it just as much.

Contrastly, in Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills," Wolfe's feelings are exposed at great length towards the end of the story. In his life, he had not desired much until the obvious moment where his world changed. He suddenly realized that his life was crap and that he needed to do something to get away from it. Of course, the opportunity that he was given was a curse in the end, but he did not have the ability to see the potential bad outcome. We learn a lot about the shift from accepting without understanding to desiring without achieving. Wolfe's tragic character is doomed to a sad existence, no matter which way you look at it.

So what do these two stories have in common? I believe that they have a strong connection. To me, they both seem driven either by their passion for something or by their hatred for something. Either way, they both are married to their professions. Of course, Ishmael chose his profession because of his love of the sea and Wolfe did not have a choice in his profession. However, it is clear that these two men - who are often solitary figures - ended their lives because of their jobs.

Wolfe saw that being a mill-worker was a requirement to just barely survive. He paid his measely little bills and drank at the bar. Other than that, his work was all that he had to belong to. Yes, there was Old Wolfe, Janey, and Deborah who were part of his family and his circle. But these were trepidatious relationships at the least. He simply felt sorry for Deborah (since that was his personality), his old man was a drunk and he never interacted with him, and Janey was just a poor kid who had become friends with the wrong person. She deserved more in life! So Wolfe needed something to belong to. To truly belong to. He put all of his time into his job and wanted nothing more than to exist in it without any troubles. He loved to sculpt but didn't see that as something that he could do all of the time. Perhaps he would have found that to be his passion at some point in his life if he had continued to work there without the interruption of the "businessmen." Who knows?

In Moby Dick, Ishmael's character was a man who loved his profession. He simply wanted to find ways to pass the time until the next chance that he got to go on a whaling expedition. He felt that the sea was an extension of his own body, in a way. He loved what he did and he loved to share it with the good people around him. Other than that, we don't know very much about his feelings. We never really learn much about his feelings for Captain Ahab. Yes, he observes that he has mood-swings and that the rest of the crew respects him, but we never learn what it is about him that Ishmael admires (or is repulsed by). He simply tells their stories.

In both of these instances, their jobs are the things that they live for - either out of necessity or want. In both, however, they are connected to their profession because it is their identity. Having your identity taken away from you can be one of the most devastating and lonely events in your life. You think that you know who you are and what you stand for until you realize one day that it no longer defines you. This can be a hard event for anyone, no matter what their chosen (or not) profession. I think that Ishmael and Wolfe both had struggles with this fear frequently in each story. This seems to be a strong connection between the two.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Secrecy and Shame?

Journal No. 16
English 48A

Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of our essay questions wanted us to explain why secrecy had such an important role in Hawthorne and Poe's writings. Below, I have expanded on some of my thoughts about the role that it has played in "The Minister's Black Veil."

I. "He has changed into something awful, only by hiding his face."

II. A parishioner sees Mr. Hooper approaching the church newly adorned in a black veil, covering only his face.

III. Nathaniel Hawthorne has used many different elements in the story "The Minister's Black Veil." He writes about a minister who appears one day wearing a black veil, which he does not take off for anything. The parishioners are all appalled by the idea of a clergyman wearing something so... daring? It appears as though he may be in mourning since this would be a traditional way to dress for a woman in mourning. However, since the minister is a man and he does not seem to be in mourning for anyone in particular, the sight of him is quite frightening to many.

When I initially read this story, it seemed to me that Hawthorne intended for Mr. Hooper to be wearing the veil as a protest or a statement. I felt that Mr. Hooper wanted to point out to his parishioners that they judged people too much by what their appearances were and did not accept people for who they were beyond appearances. In re-reading the story, it seemed that he was making a statement for the parishioners to model themselves after. He encouraged people to repent their sins - even on their deathbeds: "Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath til he appeared" (Hawthorne 1318). Is this his intent with the black veil?

Hawthorne leaves the meaning and purpose of the black veil a mystery to the reader, just as it was to the parishioners. Is the black veil representative of something different for everyone who reads about it or sees it? Does it symbolize our worst fears or most hidden secrets? Do we shudder at the sight of it because it reminds us of the evil within us? His writing purposely plays on these "insecurities" and deep sins within to create images much more potent than any that he would be able to describe in words alone.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Pure and Beautiful

Journal No. 15
English 48A
Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Rebecca Harding Davis

I. "As he might be! What wonder, if it blinded him to delirium, --the madness that underlies all revolution, all progress, and all fall?"

II. Wolfe is realizing what potential he has to be a "strong, helpful, kindly" man.

III. Wolfe has spent time wandering around, deciding what he must do with the check. He doesn't want to return it right away so instead contemplates what life would be if he could "buy" his freedom. He sees that he is a talented person and that he could take that talent (and the stolen check) to make his life liveable. He would create a world in which he could thrive, not just survive. He would have clean air and clear waters surrounding him. He would earn the respect of fellow artists and businessmen. He would fall in love with someone else who had dreams and aspirations just as big as his. He would create a world that he could only now dream of - all because of this stolen check. This truly was the "crisis of his life."

Of course, Wolfe failed to acknowledge the possibilities of failure that lay ahead of him. He ignored the possible consequences of running away not only from his job and home, but also away from the person whose money he had in his possesion. He was setting himself up to live in another prison, similar to that which he was threatening to leave.

Which prison would end up being the end of Wolfe? If you lived in a world which has beaten you down until you are just above surviving, would you really want to know what lay beyond your world? Would it benefit your senses to understand what beauty lies beyond the hills that are hidden in soot and smoke?

The Making of Men

Journal No. 14

English 48A
Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Rebecca Harding Davis

I. "If I had the making of men, these men who do the lowest part of the world's work should be machines, --nothing more, --hands. It would be kindness. God help them!"

II. Kirby is referring to iron-mill workers and wishing that they could be machines.

III. Rebecca Harding Davis writes of the "compassion" that Kirby has for the iron-mill workers. He is alarmed and ashamed for the people upon whose lives he is looking. He observes the lack of muscular form that Wolfe has and the bed of ashes which Deborah lies upon. He sees these things as the ultimate signs that their lives are torturous and meaningless.
In evaluating the opinions of Kirby's, the reader is challenged to scope out their own feelings and figure where they stand themselves. Do we feel sorry for Wolfe and Deborah? Is Kirby being insensitive to the true design of their lives? I believe that the reader is shown that Kirby was being sensitive to the fact that only "machines" should do such work. To reveal another life to the workers and people who live in the iron-works town is cruel. Seeing another possibility for a different, better life, Wolfe is only left feeling rejected and discarded. Had he continued in the fashion he had prior to meeting Kirby and the other businessmen, he would have existed merely to exist. But he would have known no additional cruelty and torture. Kirby simply wanted the men and women of the iron-works town to be able to do their duties without feeling the pain of the rest of the world beyond them. They would not be aware that there existed things to want and desire. They would not be teased with imagined scenes of clear skies and clean water. They would have no hope.

Slow Stream of Human Life

Journal No. 13

English 48A
Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Rebecca Harding Davis

I. "I look on the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and morning, to the great mills. Masses of men with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning."

II. Rebecca Harding Davis tells the story as the narrator and describes the sad stream of people constantly flowing past her window.

III. Davis is able to tell how sad the lives of these people are not only by the stained clothing soot-covered faces, but by the features of the people themselves. She sees in the angles of the features a pain and desperation that has lived there all of their lives. From birth to death, she sees that the iron-mill workers have nothing to live for beyond work and pain. In the faces of the people of the town, there are stories to be read. Sad stories, but ones that are hard to ignore when looking into the eyes of people who have lived here for so long.

Davis further describes what she perceives to be a desperate situation beyond what the "average" reader might be experiencing in their more comfortable lives: "Breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. What do you make of a case like that, amateur psychologist? You call it an altogether serious thing to be alive: to these men it is a drunken jest, a joke." Reading this, I felt that I was challenged to look deeper into how I really felt for the characters Davis was describing. I was forced to connect with the true level of empathy which I was feeling. Was I feeling pity or disgust? Did I judge these men and women for the lives that they "chose" to live and the climate in which they did so? I found that I was obligated to be honest with myself about how I felt. I was drawn into the story even more because of this. I connected myself to the characters in the story at a level that I might not have had I gone on and asked "Why?"

Blossom of a Look

Journal No. 12

English 48A
Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Herman Melville

I. "More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile."

II. Herman Melville describes Captain Ahab in Ishmael's voice.

III. Ishmael observes that Captain Ahab is almost always in a foul mood. He often hides out in his cabin for days on end. However, once the weather becomes a little less gloomy, Captain Ahab's personality slowly starts to shift as well. He is connected - like a vein - to the conditions of the sea and of his ship. As Melville describes Ishmael's observations, he compares Captain Ahab to the changes of the seasons. "As when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air" (2337). As the weather changes, not even the moping captain can escape the effects of the sunshine and the calm seas.

Captain Ahab is described to the reader as a flawed, brooding person whose emotions shift with the directions of the winds. The reader would most likely expect the captain of a whaling ship to be outgoing and commanding. However, as we see in Captain Ahab, his human qualities fall far below what his men expect of him. Perhaps it is his obsession with Moby Dick, perhaps it is another ghost which haunts him even more. Either way, Captain Ahab's shifting moods remind us just how vulnerable we all are.

Cataract of Sand

Journal No. 11
English 48A

Dr. Scott Lankford
Author I chose: Herman Melville

I. "Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?"

II. Herman Melville speaks of the desire of all human kind to seek out and to be near the water.

III. Melville writes in amazing detail about the agonizing relationship that he has with the sea and about the search for the connection with the sea that human kind is eternally conducting. The falls of Niagara are so vast and grand, yet they are "only water." What is it that draws us to their vistas? Would we truly be attracted to the same geographical location if there were but mere rivers and cataracts of sand? Melville asks the reader to search for their true feelings about the ocean. He is confident that everyone else has the sea in their souls, as well.

Melville's eloquent descriptions of the longing - no, obsession - to be near the sea lure the reader into a trance. As I read these pages, I felt as though Melville were speaking directly to me. I grew up in an ocean-side town and have never been able to shake away the need to smell the salt air and to hear the screeching of the gulls. The sounds of buoys and fog horns are just as familiar and comforting to me as the intake and exhalation of my own breath. The smell of the creosote covering the wooden pier pilings is as delightful to me as the feeling of the sand around my toes. The sea has imprisoned my soul and I can only escape it for brief moments in time. I am most unhappy when my warden sets me "free." Where else can I find the same happiness? I am best suited staying imprisoned, waiting for those brief reprieves in which I can keep as souveniers the sand stuck to my shoes and the salt crusted on to my bathing suit.

Doesn't everyone feel this way about the sea?