Rebecca Nichloson is a prolific playwright, poet, fiction writer, singer/songwriter, and performer. She is the author of numerous plays, including Mara, Queen of the World (an acapella musical), The Wild, Bold Enlightenment of Velvet the Mistress, Cooking With Keisha (or Anatomy of Pie), and Jill, Jack & the Martian Lady; a play she created for a children’s educational workshop at the Minnesota Opera. Her fiction and performance pieces include Children of the First Hummingbird, Intelligence, and Zar-Baby, among others. She holds a M.F.A. in Playwriting (Multiplatform Writing) from Columbia University, an M.A. in English Literature, and a B.A. in Liberal Arts/Business Administration. She also studied publishing at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Author: Rebecca Nichloson
Rebecca Nichloson is an innovative interdisciplinary artist (creative writer, theatre maker, singer/songwriter, and visual artist), as well as a communications specialist with expertise in public sector communications and public relations. She has written numerous essays and articles on literature, media and theatre, in addition to completing two television pilots: Human Behavior and American Wildwoods. She is the author of over a dozen full act, one act, and ten-minute dramatic works, such as Hello I’m Eve (winner of the 2013 Jane Chambers Student Playwriting Award), Remnants, Cooking with Keisha, Rose Out the Pavement, Collision with Cake, The Applicant, Big Black Pot, Chocolate Barbie, The Dramatist, Big Man/Little Man, Jemima, Charlie Horse, and Bird Man. Her works have been developed and work shopped at the following venues: The Playwright’s Center of Minneapolis (where she was a Many Voices Fellow for two residences), Harlem Classical Theatre (playwrights playground), The Fire This Time Festival, Signature Theatre Company (as part of Columbia University “New Plays Now”), Shakespeare’s Sister Theatre Company, Penumbra Theatre Company (Gym Workshop), Pillsbury House Theatre, Bedlam Theatre and Gremlin Theatre.
Rebecca holds a M.F.A. in Playwriting from Columbia University School of the Arts and a M.A. in English Literature from Mercy College School of Liberal Arts. She is also the recipient of the Liberace Award, the Howard Stein Fellowship, the Matthew’s Fellowship, and an America-in-Play Fellowship.
To learn more visit www.rebeccanichloson.com
Author E.R Dinsmore’s lengthy novel takes place in Beaufort, South Carolina, a small town with a vivid and vicarious social atmosphere, hidden under the veneer of the mundane. The story begins with its central character, Jonah Ezekiel, fleeing from his abusive foster parents and briefly finding refuge in the woods. Jonah, a vivacious young Gullah boy, has suffered many years of abuse and neglect. However, not long after his momentary escape, the boy is kindly taken in by three quirky, tough and consistently interesting characters: Coral Peters, Jack Claybourne and Jadah Blue Jimysee. Coral is a social worker with a teenage daughter named Hannah. Hannah, just as vivacious as Jonah, finds a kind of solace in him as she struggles to come to terms with her father’s untimely death. The fact that Jadah is a child psychologist is a little ironic; considering she scarcely has the resources to handle her own emotional issues. From the very start these characters, each with good intentions, seem ill-equipped to provide a stable home for the young Jonah, though they may provide better care than he received at his previous residence.
As the novel progresses, an additional element, other than the domestic backdrop, begins to emerge. A mystery involving an entangled web of secrets, and possibly murder, changes the course of each characters journey. To further complicate matters, Jonah’s new family believes that his life might be in danger, a notion that forces them to take an action, the consequences of which will alter their lives forever. Eventually, Jonah’s family find themselves up against the “powers that be” of Beaufort, at the center of which is Eugenia Sams. Notorious for their heartlessness, Eugenia and her son are overtly cut from the same cloth and exert authority over the town. A war between the two families commences, leaving no character unscathed.
Day Clean is a story that is always redefining the concept of love, and the notion of what the building blocks of “family” really are. The novel is also a mystery of sorts, and touches on cultural issues, but never ceases to emphasize the universal aspects of the human experience. With that being said, the book is a bit long: sixty-one chapters. Also, her writing style, which is often very colloquial and rhythmic, sometimes feels as though it should be spoken rather than read. Her characters also speak with heavy dialects, which can be a little disorienting for readers who are used to more traditional styles of writing.
Author Margaret Sisu’s lean yet bold novel, begins with Gwen Mason, an avid art buyer, attempting to purchase a painting by an up and coming Miami artist. The painting, titled “The Champion”, is the recent work of Adam Straker, owner of Gaya Art Collective, a gallery where he showcases his work. From their very first meeting, it is “intrigue at first sight”. Gwen is immediately infatuated with Adam’s boy next door looks, even though he is several years older.
At first glance, it appears that they are “a match made in heaven.” Adam is an unattached painter who has traveled all round the world perfecting his craft. Gwen is an avid collector of art and exhibits the works of various artists at her own studio with the help of Sherrie, her feisty assistant. Gwen’s life is seemingly uneventful. She shares a condo with her mother, who has recently entered the dating scene. Gwen’s father, once a famous painter, left when she was very young.
Adam and Gwen, inevitably begin a relationship. All is well until Gwen begins to take an interest in a nude painting hidden in Adam’s apartment. Adam refuses to sell or discuss the painting and becomes uneasy whenever she brings it up. Also, she continues to have unsettling memories about her father’s departure, which was rather abrupt. Against Adam’s wishes, the painting is revealed to the public who view it as a modern masterpiece.
The national attention causes both of their careers to accelerate unexpectedly until suddenly they find themselves at the center of the high-end art world. Gwen starts to realize that there is a bizarre connection between the painting, her relationship with Adam and her father’s departure. As the story progresses, a plethora of secrets, lies and cover-ups are revealed in a way no reader could ever see coming.
The Nude is a brief demonstration of the intense catharsis that follows the unleashing of secrets, no matter how horrible they may be. It is a story of how strong the bonds of love and family can be, in the face of lies and attempts to hide the truth. Although some chapters in Sisu’s novel are ambiguous, she has a unique sense of pacing and creates dialogue that is compelling and rhythmic. Her book is moderately esoteric, the hallmark of all good writing. She keeps her readers guessing until the very end.
In Ulysses, Joyce’s notoriously esoteric text, there is little attempt to endow the ambiguous with purpose or meaning. The reader is welcomed into the inner world of the characters, into their consciousness; each possessing it’s own unique linguistic rhythm. Though elements of the tragic and melodramatic are prevalent in the text, its central mode of expression is, arguably, folly. Death and life, as literary motifs, unfold within the framework of folly throughout the text.
In addition to extensive examination of linguistic dimensions through execution of an unconventional novelistic structure, he translates the aesthetics of other art forms into words, blurring the lines between the satirical, the dramatic and the morose. There is a pronounced tension between humor and drama; an ambiguous quality attributed to the extensive utilization of comedic elements such as satire, farce and irony, particularly in reference to the depiction of human life and death (Copland, Turner 759-763).
In addition to making categorization of the text as drama, comedy or both, fairly complex, the aforementioned
“tension” exerts an impact on reader engagement with the individual and collective narratives present in the work. The manner in which Joyce has written Ulysses encourages the reader to engage with the text in an unconventional way. The reader is no longer the recipient of the author’s message, nor is it the reader’s objective to merely interpret its meaning. Instead, the reader is a kind of co-creator of meaning. In other words, Joyce’s text is interactive. Its utilization of the ambiguous encourages speculation on the reader’s part. Thus, it becomes necessary for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the text.
Meaning, in this sense, takes on a broader form. It can refer to the mood and tone of a specific moment or character action. It may also refer to the manner in which the reader is oriented to the script. The designation of the text as comedy or tragedy lies with the reader and the autonomy bestowed upon him or her by Joyce. Therefore, co-creation involves both the interpretation of the text as well as its place within the canon of English literature. This means that Ulysses is in a constant state of metamorphosis. Its meaning and genre are ever changing because of its dependence on the sensibilities of the individuals that consume it.
The co-creation of meaning places the responsibility of determining whether the text should be classified as a comedy or drama on the reader. Generally, readers of Ulysses are uncertain of how to regard it. Is it a single, cohesive work or, inherently, fragmented? Is it a portrait of three-dimensional, realistic characters or, simply, a parody of cultural, societal and philosophical elements? In this paper I will examine scholarly texts that explore Joyce’s use of parody, satire, irony, dissonance and consider his approach to themes of death and life in his text, particularly the episodes Oxen of the Sun, Lestrygonians and Hades. I will also consider the writer/reader relationship as it relates to Ulysses (Hayman 260).
The designation of the text as comedy or drama and the scholarly debate around which is an accurate description, serves as further evidence of the interactive quality of Ulysses. Joyce, in his composition of the text, paints with both a melancholy and satirical brush. Still he manages to consolidate these elements in a way that reserves the intrinsic qualities of both. Folly, used here as a euphemism for aspects if parody, satire and irony in the text, is utilized as a means of intensifying the tragic or, in a sense, transcending it. The line between tragedy and comedy become blurred, which forces the reader to redefine his or her own definitions of what constitutes the comic and the tragic. The mere act of having to interrogate notions of these two, supposedly, very different concepts, illuminates the absurdity of life itself, which may be the principle objective of the text. Absurdity is certainly a quality readily evident throughout the work which, itself, places the reader in an environment marked by the obscure, one in which meaning, direction, and conclusion is established at his or her own discretion.
The comic qualities manifested in Ulysses are, perhaps, qualities of dissonance or disharmony. This disharmony is apparent not only in an aesthetic sense, such as the manner in which characters interact with one another or the texts juxtapositions, but in the structure of the novel as a whole. Structurally, the work is inconsistent and, perhaps, purposefully so. Episodes that might be described as tragic are placed alongside those that are comic and lighthearted. Even within individual episodes the disharmony between subject and mood is present.
Dissonance also manifests itself in the literary styles employed by Joyce, such as poetry, dramatic literature, literary criticism and even journalism. Here, the dissonant qualities, particularly those that exist between literary genres, are merged together in a manner that not only encourages the reader to become the composer of the text’s meaning but, also, to re-imagine the means by which the novel, as a form of literary expression is defined. Thus, the reader is constantly being asked to examine whether or not he or she is reading a novel at all. The text’s aesthetic changes with every chapter and, in that respect, so must the reader (Melnick 46-63).
In “Dissonant Ulysses-A Study of How to Read Joyce”, author Daniel C. Melnick emphasizes Joyce’s departure from form, within a conventional context, and his embrace of the cryptic, particularly “comic ambiguity, and parody” (46). In Ulysses Joyce utilizes the obscure, complex and ambiguous in an effort to portray a kind of heightened realism and, often, overwhelms the reader with such. Melnick attributes this to dissonant elements present in the text. The reader is summoned to navigate his or her way through an array of “subversive ambiguities” (46), which foster the co-creation of meaning. This, inevitably, encourages the reader to engage “in the processes of perception and judgment by which human life may endure in a disordered world” (46). Thus, the reader is not merely a witness to the novel’s characters as they perceive and judge aspects of their world, but also acts as the principle perceiver and judge of the novel itself, it’s characters, their narratives and the author’s intent (46-63).
The ambiguous landscape of Ulysses, as well as its ever-evolving literary aesthetic, account for the interactive quality present between reader and author. It also enables the reader to retain a greater sense of autonomy as it relates to the interpretation of the work. Melnick’s notion of the dissonant manifests itself throughout the text, which seems at war with the entire idea of what a novel should be. As previously stated, Ulysses is episodic. Its episodes are intensely individual, in the sense that they could easily be read as stand alone pieces and, in many instances, become more coherent when examined in that manner (46, Hayman 260-283).
When Ulysses is examined, fully, the extent to which the reader becomes responsible for his or her experience of the text becomes apparent. Joyce endows the reader with a tremendous amount of independence, as well as a fairly difficult task. In other words, he places the reader in a foreign environment without a map and tells him or her to find the way, to come to some conclusion that doesn’t feel arbitrary.
The multi-faceted conclusions readers and scholars of Ulysses have come to over decades of consideration, is indicative of the act of finding or investigating the strange landscape where Joyce places all the readers of his text. The vast framework Joyce has created and the nuanced world he invites readers and scholars into, as stated above, encourages speculation, exploration and, ultimately, personal discovery. It’s these aspects, perhaps, that make Ulysses such a rich piece of literature to engage with.
In regard to manifestations of dissonance, the texts representation of death and life are also indicative of disharmony. This is, primarily, due to the fact that death and life are considered through the lens of humor and parody. Melnick believes this to “embody the tension between disillusioning reality and spiritual transcendence in the narrative of Stephen’s growth” (52). This disillusionment and “spiritual transcendence”(52) he references emerges, perhaps, from the relationship between form, text, theme, collective and individual narratives in the novel and the disharmony or dissonance between them. Each character in Ulysses exists with a certain multiplicity: they are themselves, ideas and versions of other characters. Essentially, it can be argued, they are caricatures (52-63).
However, this fact does not negate the realism of the text. Even though the novel and its characters might be described as absurd, they never cease from being real and, perhaps, some of the most truthful representations of human life in literary history. The realism in Ulysses is, therefore, heightened, but still realism. The characters have instances in which they are not simply caricatures and instances in which they are. The, internal identity of the characters changes, perhaps, from episode to episode. There are moments in which it can be argued that the characters aren’t really there. Instead, an idea or commentary or indulgence in some literary sensibility, on Joyce’s part, takes their place. Nevertheless, they always return and, once again, the reader is faced with the, seemingly impossible, task of consolidating the varied elements employed by Joyce into one, cohesive, framework (Hayman 260-283, Copland, Turner 759-763, Melnick 46-52).
The argument for classifying the novel as comedy, satire or parody and its characters as caricatures lies in the prevalence of these aspects throughout the work, particularly in Joyce’s handling of the tragic. Joyce’s objective in the employment of the dissonant is, perhaps, to encourage the co-creation of meaning previously referenced. The reader, then, is an active participant in the “process of imaginative perception, of constructing the fiction’s meaning” (52). He or she is summoned to re-imagine, in addition to how a novel should be structured, what constitutes tragedy and whether or not death or life are, inherently, tragic themes. These tasks are, considerably, confounding for the reader but nevertheless foster the speculative environment, which makes Ulysses so interactive. In that regard, Joyce’s objective may be, in fact, to confound (Melnick 52).
Melnick considers the examination of dissonance in Ulysses to be valuable, as it shed’s light on the challenges readers face when approaching it. Further elements of complexity include the novel’s seemingly, lack of meaning, inherent emptiness, Joyce’s “experimental” aesthetic and his decision to divorce the text from himself, the reader and, at times, its “human context” (53). The departure of the text from a “human context” (53) is significant, as it primarily occurs in instances in which the characters no longer function as depictions of human beings, but as ideas or concepts. The unconventionality of the work is used as a means of alienating the reader, of creating the environment of obscurity necessary for the co-creation of meaning. The endowment of the reader with both power and autonomy as it relates to the composing of meaning, is not the norm in English literature (46-63.)
Typically, the author of a fictional work has a clear message or idea that he or she is attempting to communicate, and the artistic merit of the work is thought, perhaps, to lie in the author’s ability to communicate it. This process or reader orientation towards the reading of fiction has, generally, made the reader a dormant recipient of meaning, pre-created by the author. This position doesn’t necessarily equivocate a dissatisfying experience of the text, but prevents the reader from fully engaging with the author. Joyce however, creates a new kind of intimacy between reader and author that can only occur within the landscape of obscurity.
In regard to the presence of dissonance in Ulysses or the text’s “simultaneous voicing of sarcasm and sympathy, of irony and affirmation”(53) Melnick states:
“The comedy of Joyce’s dissonance is not the stoic comedy of an ideal, mythic spirit imprisoned in a world of human debris; his work “transcends” such a negation because the novel envisions the survival of the human spirit not as opposed to but within the distorted, parodied, imperfect forms of modern consciousness . . . (55).
The reader of Ulysses becomes the principle perceiver and judge of the novel’s depiction of human life that is, inherently, “distorted, parodied . . .”(55) and “imperfect” (55). In this regard, the novel is not merely engaged in the portrayal of human life but is commenting on it as well, conveying the notion that consciousness in the modern age mirrors these aspects. The text, places the reader as the judge and interrogator of consciousness while, also, awakening the consciousness of the reader. Joyce has composed a world that is, intrinsically, fragmented. However, in doing so, he affirms the purpose of creative literary expression, which is to, arguably, illuminate the truth of life as well as its absurdity. Moreover, in his depiction of imperfection as it relates to human life, he creates an original framework for new generations of fiction writers to explore, one in which the unknown is favored over that which is thought to be known, and the obscure and arbitrary is perceived as more valuable than the clear and inevitable (53 -55).
Joyce’s employment of the obscure and arbitrary; his mastery of dissonance manifests itself in his extensive utilization of parody, satire and irony, which rely heavily on codes and codices. As previously mentioned, Joyce’s literary aesthetic, his approach to death and life, as well as the manner in which he has structured Ulysses is, perhaps, used as a means of creating and environment of complexity and ambiguity which summons the co-creation of meaning, or an interactive relationship with the reader. The fostering of such a relationship requires that the author of the work, intended to be interactive, be aware of the mechanisms at play in the writer/reader relationship.
In “Narrative Structures and Literary History” written by Cesare Segre and translated by Rebecca West, Segre describes the phenomenon of reading and writing, when viewed collectively, as a process involving the transmission of information or a message. The writer/reader relationship is characterized by communication between the reader of a literary work, also known as the receiver, and the writer of the work, also known as the transmitter. In reference to speculative interpretation, as it relates to readers, writer/reader dynamics are particularly significant. The above process isn’t purely linguistic but involves “states of mind, ideas, and judgments about the world” (273). Writer/reader competencies involve (in the case of the reader) the ability to accurately interpret the message being transmitted in regard to language, customs and societal conceptions (271- 273).
However, the relationship that Joyce establishes with his readers transcends the traditional mechanisms that underlay interactions between the writer and reader. For one, there is, arguably, no explicit message that Joyce is attempting to communicate in Ulysses. He has, perhaps, no objective other than to present a complex text to the reader and encourage him or her to examine it on terms that aren’t predetermined. In this sense, the reader is not, merely, a recipient of information but, rather, a co-creator of it; which, ironically, doesn’t always inform.
The, seemingly, purposeful lack of functionality at work in Ulysses is what, among other things, distinguishes it from other pieces of fiction. There are numerous occasions in which Joyce’s utilization of words seems completely oblivious to the notion that language is meant to be used as a means of communicating. Instead, the presence of language, cultural and literary references, ect. appear to be intensely ambiguous, arbitrary and the writer/reader relationship becomes uniquely altered.
Joyce’s expression of death and life through parody builds upon the reader’s knowledge of codes and codices as they relate to society, cultural elements, historical events and the perception of language itself. However, the author as transmitter of a specific message is changed. The “states of mind, ideas, and judgments . . .” (273) transmitted aren’t necessarily Joyce’s, nor is the reader a dormant receiver. Instead, Joyce places life in the framework of parody, satire and irony, and communicates or shares this depiction with the reader. The codes and codices at play in this exchange are incredibly malleable. The task of creating meaning stays with the reader. Accuracy, in terms of interpreting a specific message, becomes relative (Segre 273-279).
Still, the impact of codes and codices remain substantial. Instead of being placed in the text to orient the reader towards a particular conceptual configuration, they are used to further the environment of obscurity. The ambiguous, satirical nature of Ulysses places death and life, within a framework in which reader speculation is required. Although both themes are prevalent through the text and are, arguably, an essential aspect of its foundation, I will examine, primarily, the episodes Oxen of the Sun, Lestrygonians and Hades (Segre 271-279).
In Oxen of the Sun Bloom enters a hospital where the character Mina is giving birth. Here, birth and fertility are representative of life. From a metaphorical standpoint, the incorporation of birth in the text may, perhaps, be symbolic of language and its evolution. The episode is characterized by extensive use of wordplay that becomes increasingly esoteric and, almost, incoherent. Below are passages from the episode embodying or incorporating birth.
“The man that was come into the house then spoke to the nursingwoman and he asked her how it fared with the woman that lay there in childbed. The nursingwoman answered him and said that that woman was in throes now full three days and that it would be a hard birth unneth to bear but that now a little it would be. She said thereto that she had seen many births of women but never was none so hard as was that woman’s birth . . .” (316).
The narrative in this episode, as differentiated from the overall narrative of the novel is, itself a deviation from the linear. The dimensions of the text are endowed with a kind of duplicity, in that, in certain instances they are indicative of Joyce’s efforts towards the telling of one, cohesive story (Joyce 316, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The above passage, when extracted from the text as a whole, is coherent and linear. However, when its contribution to the collective narrative of the novel is examined, it does not manage to retain those qualities. In reference, however, to duplicity, the above passage has both literal and metaphorical meaning. The literal meaning is readily apparent, however, the metaphorical meaning is one of incredible depth. The utilization of the birth theme continues with the following passage:
“Before born babe bliss had. Within womb he won worship. Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was. A couch by midwives attended with wholesome food reposeful, cleanest swaddles as through forthbringing were now done and by wise foresight set: but to this no less of what drugs there is need and surgical implements which are pertaining to her case not omitting aspect of all very distracting spectacles in various lattitudes by our terrestrial orb offered together with images, divine and human . . .”(315).
Here, as is the case in most episodes in Ulysses, there is a distinct deviation from the linear and cohesive. This deviation is not merely in reference to the absence of a clear message in regard to meaning but, also, from the conventional aesthetics of fiction (Joyce 315, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The above passage utilizes modes of expression that are not routinely associated with fiction, such as a marked use of dense language, often seen in poetry. The incorporation of language here is oblivious to the functionality of language, leaving the reader to make sense of what, perhaps, was not endowed with meaning by the author. The examination of the structures in Oxen of the Sun are of value because it demonstrates Joyce’s unique manner of depicting human life, as well as the nuanced mechanisms at work in his text. Joyce’s incorporation of birth and themes related to fertility serve as representations of human life. However, his mode of expression in this episode serves the same purpose, as indicated below:
“He said also how at the end of the second month a human soul was infused and how in all out holy mother foldeth ever souls for God’s greater glory whereas that earthly mother which was but a dam to bear beastly should die by canon for so saith he that holdeth the fisherman’s seal . . .” (319.)
This passage might easily be mistaken for a biblical verse or extraction from a sacred text. The theme of birth, fertility and motherhood is combined with that of spiritual and, perhaps, religious principles (Joyce 319, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The difference between the aesthetic of the above excerpt and the one previously referenced is quite stark. It is this discord, or dissonance between theme and literary style that account for elements of obscurity in Ulysses and its transcendence of conventional writer/reader relationship configurations. In “A Commentary on the Closing of “Oxen of the Sun” Turner comments on how individual passages in Ulysses often yield different meanings and asserts that “things that make one kind of sense on their own take on a fuller and sometimes utterly different type of sense from their context . . .” (96). Turner describes certain passages comprising the closing of the episodes as being coherent when “conversations are allowed to drift in and then out like radio frequencies” (96). In this episode, woman, is presented as a kind of deity. The female form is the principle means by which the cycle of life persists (Turner 96-111).
The interrelatedness between life and death or the physical conditions associated with such is suggested: we are born as infants and die, perhaps, in a kind of infancy. The episode itself does not, particularly; exhibit the satirical style employed in others. However, when it is examined in a manner that considers the framework of Ulysses as a whole, one can assert that the mechanisms of folly, satire, parody and irony remain at play and, therefore, must inform reader interpretation.
Life, as a theme, is also present in the episode Lestrygonians through the extensive use of food. Here, it is indicative of the sustainment of life, in both a literal and metaphorical sense and is symbolic of the inherent ephemerality of human existence. Food is also used to symbolize religious ideology and, thus, has the capacity to provide spiritual nourishment as indicated by: “Blood of the Lamb” (149). There is also interplay between the process of consuming food sources and the environment in which this consumption takes place. In this episode Bloom frequently references food in anticipation for lunchtime at a restaurant inside Burton Hotel, in which he comments on the etiquette of the men eating there.
“That fellow ramming a knifeful of cabbage down as if his life depended in it. Good stroke. Give me the fidgets to look. Safer to eat from his three hands. Tear it limb from limb. Second nature to him . . .” (139)
“His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins: sardines, gaudy lobsters claws. All the odd things people pick up for food . . .” 143)
Additionally, Joyce explores the relationship between human beings and their environment, referencing the impact of environment on life, and the complex manner in which it is experienced. Here, the presence of a satirical style or aesthetic is readily apparent, as the episode possesses a jovial quality (Joyce 129, 143, 149).
Joyce’s exploration of human life continues in his depiction of death, which is present throughout Ulysses as a whole. At times his stance on death is, inherently, religious. In the episode Hades, Bloom, Stephan and Stephan’s father are on their way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. This episode engages discourse on death and forms of burial. Generally, the witnessing of death and its aftermath kindles a series of transformations within the physical and social environment of the deceased person, these transformations, obviously, have a tremendous impact on those that knew the deceased and the grieving process begins (Joyce 129-149).
There is a certain methodology to the manner in which human beings interact with death, in regard to customs related to it and the psychological responses they foster. Bloom, having been exposed to this process after the death of his son Rudy and his father by suicide, is engaging in a kind of examination of it:
“Mourners came out through the gates: woman and a girl. Leanjawed, harpy, hard woman at a bargain, her bonnet awry. Girl’s face stained with dirt and tears, holding the woman’s arm, looking up at her for a sign to cry” (83).
Here, the mode of expression serves as a depiction of death, the human experience of death and it’s witnessing, as well as the absurdity of both elements. In reference to the mode of expression, Joyce, again, incorporates language that is incredibly dense, such as that which is utilized in poetic forms. However, it is not this density that accounts for his ability to employ an expressive style that, itself, serves as a portrayal of death (Joyce 83).
The structure of the above passage, its snapshot linguistic style of a character engaged in the experience of death, is a testament to Joyce’s aptitude for creating realistic depictions within the framework of folly. Furthermore, He merges religious and spiritual principles with death and the human experience that surrounds it, as indicated in:
“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing.” (79)
“Lay me down in my native earth. Bit of clay from the holy land. Only a mother and a deadborn child ever buried in the one coffin. I see what it means, I see. To protect him as long as possible even in the earth” (90).
Here, the character speaks about his wish for his own death while providing insight into death (Joyce 79, 83, 90).
In reference to dissonance in Ulysses, Melnick believes it is most evident in the episode Circe and chapters nearing the end of the novel. In regard to Circe, Hayman emphasizes the extensive incorporation of “congenial mock identities” (273) utilized by Stephen and Bloom as a means of protecting their “integrity” (273). Melnick attributes dissonance, incongruity and comedic elements present in this episode to the simultaneous incorporation of “sympathy and irony, of emotional expressivity and intellectual ingenuity or ridicule . . .” (58). He describes this as comic, stating:
“What Stephen calls the tonic and dominant of Joyce’s selves are surrounded by the unfolding dissonance of stylistic history in the Hospital scene, then of Circean metamorphoses of the unconscious life, and later-in “Ithaca”-by the dissonance of its reductive scientific catechism . . .” (58.)
Aspects of the sympathetic and ironic appear, side by side, repeatedly throughout the novel. The expression of these elements might be deemed expressions of the tragic and the comic, a kind of seamless merging of two distinct genres into one original form that is much more than tragic-comedy. It’s this merging and Joyce’s mastery of it, which disorients the reader, preventing the dormant condition that most literary works inadvertently espouse (Melnick 58-63).
Instead, Joyce creates an environment in which the reader is forced to play the role of author by taking on the same level of authorial authority that the author possesses Dissonance in the text unfolds in a variety of ways, from Joyce’s concurrently somber and lighthearted approach to death in Hades to the representation of life with birth, fertility and the consumption of food sources in Oxen of the Sun and Lestrygonians. In his writing, Hayman emphasizes that as the novel progresses, Joyce’s literary aesthetic grows to include “ . . . new reaches of the subjective mind while paradoxically becoming increasingly stylized” (260). Joyce’s expression of the novel’s characters and their actions, become intensely comical as he utilizes characteristics associated with “clowns and farce” (261). In doing so, he becomes
“ . . . a social commentator writing comedy with mythic intensity out of the commonplace of provincial existence, the parodist drawing more or less unwittingly upon Irish tradition . . . “ (261)
Despite the multitude of styles employed in Ulysses, the text manages to retain its ability to depict human life and death in a realistic manner that is, arguably, heightened. Perhaps, this is the paradox of which Hayman speaks. If so, it is one of many present in the overall novel and may be the principle force from which all its dissonant qualities emerge. The inherent discord in the text between style, theme, caricature and character presented as being the same, create a portrayal of humanity and the human experience that is riddled with juxtapositions, absurdity, obscurity and, ultimately, truth (Hayman 260 -283, Melnick 58).
Dissonance is also present in the plethora of objectives Joyce seems to have had in composing the text, such as a desire to engage with readers emotionally whilst, at the same time, satirizing his own work. The parody aspect can readily be seen in his extensive use of archetypes and stereotypes. In “Vestiges of Truth: A Study of James Joyce’s Eumaeus”, author Barbara Stevens Heusel asserts that Joyce’s objective is to, perhaps, engage the reader on an emotional level in “the union of Bloom and Stephen” (403) while also parodying “his own artistic creation . . . ” (403). Joyce surrounds the reader with an array of “stereotypes, fractional truths, and outright lies” (405), as a means of conveying that the narrator of the text is unreliable and, thus, encouraging the reader to participate in the composition of the text’s truth (Heusel 403-409).
The reader is summoned again and again to engage in the process of co-creation. Heusel believes that Joyce sustains meaning or, perhaps, reader engagement in the co-creation of meaning by “ . . . orchestrating archetypes, which convey his [Joyce’s] moral and linguistic values, and stereotypes, which convey the paralysis he encounters in the modern world . . .” (405). Within the framework of satire, parody, farce, irony and the employment of characters that are caricatures and archetypes, Joyce communicates his linguistic sensibilities or as Heusel states “his moral and linguistic values” (405). It his, perhaps, Joyce’s literary sensibility that should take precedence in the process of interpreting his text (Heusel 403-409).
The framework of folly in which the individual and collective narratives in Ulysses unfold, endows the reader with autonomy and power by furthering the obscure, complex and arbitrary. Thus, the reader is given the, albeit challenging, task of determining not only the principle conveyance of the text but, also, its designation as a novel. The plethora of literary styles and aesthetics employed by Joyce, consistently interrogate the position of Ulysses in the canon of English literature, as well as the means by which works of fiction are categorized. The reader is encouraged to re-imagine various facets of conventional literature, particularly fiction, as well as the doctrines and concepts literature has created about itself.
Further interrogated, are the distinctions established between genres, such as poetry, fiction and expository writing, which Joyce manages to merge, seamlessly, throughout his text. This merging results in a literary form that is, among other things, vastly original. The reader, through engagement with Ulysses, is asked to examine the distinctions between themes, such as those of life and death, and to question the notion that these themes are, inherently, tragic, comic or both.
The authority that Joyce endows his readers with, his empowerment of the reader is largely due to his composing of a text that encourages speculation. The intrinsic dissonance in Ulysses, the intense discord between style, theme and character and the incorporation of the ambiguous and arbitrary within the framework of folly, create an atmosphere that is utterly obscure, one in which meaning is not readily apparent, and fosters a new kind of writer/reader relationship. Joyce’s relationship to his readers involves interaction in which meaning is co-created and, consistently, relative.
The reader is no longer a dormant recipient of the meaning constructed by the author and the principle task of the reader is not, simply, to interpret, nor is the primary objective of the author to convey. Instead, Joyce presents his readers with a series of communications; some are endowed with purpose, while others are simply ways of indulging his own literary sensibilities. The reader consumes these communications and transforms them into meaning or bestows upon them meaningful qualities.
In “Forms of Folly in Joyce: A Study of Clowning in Ulysses” author David Hayman states of Joyce,
“His creative life is in some senses a record of his gradual mastery of the comic range, his conquest of joy in the name of serious literature . . .” (260).
The landscape of comic obscurity in which Joyce places the reader is indicative of the human experience and the inherent absurdity, complex, and arbitrary characteristics of human life and death. The episodes examined in this paper, as well as all of the episodes present in Ulysses, provide nuanced depictions of the human experience and human consciousness. This is achieved through Joyce’s effective utilization of conceptual and literary tools that are not readily associated with the depiction of such. These tools, if you will, include elements of folly, such as caricature. However, it may be argued, that the principle function of these elements are, perhaps, to further the environment of obscurity necessary for meaning co-creation. It can, similarly, be argued that Joyce’s incorporation of aspects that confound, his dissonance, may be to express the absurdity of human existence, the intrinsic conflict or discord in the processes and experiences that take place in relation to human life and death (Hayman 260).
Although there may never be any final consensus as to whether or not Ulysses should be defined as comedy or tragedy, Joyce has executed a literary style that encourages intimacy between reader and author. This intimacy exerts a profound impact on the novel and English literature as a whole, by creating an explorative atmosphere in which two minds come together, engage with one another and construct meaning, not only out of the work itself but, also, out of the conceptual and experiential materials that are the core of the human experience.
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In Marriage and the New Woman in Portrait of a Lady author Annette Niemtzow states that James’s text “is a record of the thwarted search a woman makes for a vocation; and of her surrender to marriage . . .” (386). James’s portrayal of womanhood in ThePortrait of a Lady is, intrinsically, complex and contradictory, if not utterly flawed. At the center of the narrative is Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, whose independent nature, audaciousness and free-spiritedness has led to her being designated, by some, a pre-feminist heroine and by others, such as critic William Bysshe Stein, a “fleshless robot, a contemptuous prig who flaunts her impotent femininity in the guise of innocence”(383). Niemtzow deems the novel “a study of how a woman is to behave if she is to be a lady (386).
She describes Isabel as a character in search of alternatives to the marital union, who suppresses her sexuality as a means of subscribing to “society’s notion of what is decent” (386) and who, inevitably, marries and is faced with the challenge of maintaining her identity and reputation in a social environment in which it is threatened. The designation of Isabel as a pre-feminist heroine is negated when, at the novels end, she returns to Osmond. In doing so, she condemns herself to a lifetime of unhappiness, and the reader is left to ponder a choice that contradicts everything prior to it. The notion of portraiture, as it relates to women, womanhood and marriage, is worthy of consideration. By labeling the text a portrait, James is either depicting what he deems to be his own personal embodiment, or society’s embodiment of womanhood. It, then, becomes necessary to examine not only Isabel’s decision but also the portraiture, or mechanisms of portraiture at work in the text (Niemtzow 377-395, Solomon 395-409).
In Freedom,Self-Obligation and Self-hoodin Henry James, author Patrick Fessenbecker asserts that Isabel’s decision to return to Osmond at the end of the novel may be attributed to her being ill prepared for life and vacancies in her logic concerning marriage. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. Niemtzow states, “Isabel is thinking of disobedience or divorce—we cannot be sure which, though either would be morally culpable . . .” (381). It is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage.
It is also substantial to consider that James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, views women through a patriarchal lens. I will interrogate James’s notion that Isabel’s choice is, inherently, moral and examine his portrayal of womanhood as synonymous with the denial of one’s self, desires and personal happiness. In the text, womanhood or true womanhood, being a lady, is tantamount with sacrifice; an equivocation I hope to challenge (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-386).
In The Structure of a Portrait of a Lady author Joseph Friend asserts that Isabel’s construction of her life is one of increased juxtapositions. She is, essentially, at war with her own consciousness. James has composed a complex portrayal, as Isabel’s motivations remain a source of scholarly debate. Fessenbecker maintains that, in general, there are three principle stances taken on how Isabel’s decision is interpreted. Here, I will discuss the first. Fessenbecker refers to the essay Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady by Nina Baym and stresses her argument that
“Isabel’s actions are neither explainable from the third-person perspective as the necessary outcome of some convergence of forces, nor are they justifiable from the first-person perspective as the most reasonable and best thing to do” (70).
It can be asserted, based on arguments espousing that the text is commentary on the immorality of divorce, that Isabel returns to Osmond as a means of avoiding or transcending social stigma. However, Baym’s stance endows the decision with an arbitrary quality. Here, Isabel does not choose Osmond because she believes it is moral, nor is her choice the result of societal forces, as they relate to marriage and the role of women. Baym’s argument asserts that, perhaps, Isabel’s choice is not symbolic but is, simply, an occurrence. Nevertheless, given the position women had in society during the time in which the novel was composed–the widely accepted notion that their principle objective should be to marry, as well as religious associations with such, must have exerted some impact on James’s writing and, subsequently, Isabel’s choice (Fessenbecker 69-95, Friend 85-95, Hendricks 35-43, Niemtzow 381-382, Solomon 395-409).
During the aforementioned historical period, women viewed themselves, primarily, in relation to men and marriage. The task of choosing a husband was considered, perhaps, one if the most important decisions of a woman’s life. The role of the marriage institution in James’s time and the function of women within it, might suggest a diminishment of personal autonomy and independence after a woman enters the above configuration. The confines of marriage were many—the married woman is, for the most part, dependent on the male, who is given authority over all financial resources. Moreover, a woman’s decision to exit the marriage institution, for any reason, is condemned by the social environment. In this regard, it is significant to note the prominent position of religion and religious principles of morality and immorality within the above social context (Bazanella 55-63, Niemtzow 381-382).
Niemtzow suggests that James’s portrayal of marriage in the novel and Isabel’s decision, are due to his personal views and those espoused by his father. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. The text seems to, in a less than overt manner, examine qualities associated with spirituality, morality and immorality within a religious framework. Although utilization of James’s personal background as a means of considering his representation of marriage and women in his text may be inefficient, it should be taken into account.
James didn’t, particularly champion the marriage configuration and his novel might be and indictment of the marriage institution. With that being said, what, specifically, James is commenting on about marriage is uncertain. For instance, is he criticizing the limitations placed upon women who marry, espousing that marriage equivocates morality, or that divorce equals immorality? Regardless, James’s portrait of women, given the social context in which the novel was composed, must be examined as a product of societal ideals concerning women, marriage and divorce (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382, Venture 36-50).
The denial of self and societal representation of the denial of self as inherently moral is demonstrated in James’s depiction of Isabel. It can be asserted that Isabel returns to Osmond because of her own belief that womanhood means morality, and morality means marriage. This belief system may be a factor that enables her to choose Osmond despite her feelings of discontentment. In reference to such, Niemtzow believes that the decision is indicative of “her final acceptance of her oppressive condition . . . [as] predicated on her sense that a woman accepts public responsibilities to the marriage institution” (382).
Thus, it can be asserted, that by acting in opposition to her own thoughts, feelings and sensibilities, Isabel enters the realm of true womanhood or, as suggested by the novel’s title, becomes a lady (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382).
Marriage, as a concept, denotes transformation, particularly of the individuals who enter it. The process of transformation, or the assumed process of transformation concerns, both men and women. For one, to enter the marriage institution is to take on new titles and the behavioral responsibilities associated with those titles. When an individual becomes a wife, as opposed to lover or when a male becomes a husband as opposed to suitor, there is a whole range of characteristics that the social environment expects to be evident. In the case of the woman, she is assumed a subordinate of her husband and her life is viewed within the parameters established within the marital framework. Isabel’s choosing of Osmond suggests a willingness to be transformed, to play the designated role and to simultaneously deny and discard her own essence (Niemtzow 381-382).
Criticism of Isabel’s final act is not just in regard to its representation of women and marriage but also, in relation to whether or not the decision contributes to the literary merits of the text. The general consensus has been that there is a dissatisfying lack of resolve at the end of the novel, a sentiment expressed by James himself and referenced by Dominic J. Bazzanella in The Conclusion to The Portrait of a Lady Re-examined. James stated, in anticipated critique of the novel:
“The obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished-that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation-that I have left her en l’air” (55).
Discourse on the ending ranges from doubt as to its authenticity, to praise for its brilliance. Still conclusions about why Isabel returns to Osmond are ambiguous at best and perhaps, inevitably so (Bazzanella 55, Niemtzow 382).
Niemtzow goes on to cite Isabel’s relationship with Henrietta and Ralph, particularly her comment: “If I were afraid of my husband that would be simply my duty. That’s what women are expected to be” (382). She believes this statement to be demonstrative of the tone of discontent with which Isabel is portrayed but nevertheless emphasized that this is at odds with James’s constant act of placing “her into an eternal pit in the name of salvation and blesses her with the title lady, in reward for her moral sacrifice” (382). James’s portraiture complies with society’s perception of women and marriage and the notion that it is immoral for a woman to exit the marital institution even when it is a cause of great displeasure. In regard to Isabel’s return to Osmond, Niemtzow states
“because she finds no options other than marriage. With him, she is not made to feel so passionately those emotions which cripple her, which force her to remember her anatomy more than her mind. Unlike Henrietta, soon to be queen of American journalism, Isabel was drifting aimlessly, with- out a vocation. Osmond and his daughter Pansy give her one” (386).
Perhaps, Isabel’s decision, though not excluded from the aforementioned social forces and their exertion on the lives of women, is an attempt at transcending the limitations placed on her life by gender. The choosing of Osmond may, simply, be the choosing of the lesser of two evils. Moreover, Isabel’s choice, as Niemtzow suggests, may be a coping mechanism, a way of managing her utter discontentment (McMaster 50-66, Niemtzow 381-386, Solomon 395-409, Venture 36-50).
Although no concrete conclusion can be made in reference to what motivates Isabel’s final act, examining it remains of value, as it encourages reconsideration of Isabel’s choices prior. Throughout James’s portraiture, womanhood is presented as synonymous with sacrifice. The act of sacrifice as it relates to self-hood, is depicted as being of great virtue. Isabel’s behavior, or ability to meet behavioral expectations within this framework, are used as the principle means of evaluating her womanhood and determining whether she is worthy of being deemed a lady.
James, overtly or not, is equating morality, concerning womanhood, as the utter denial of self. Whether he is espousing such a notion, providing a portrayal of an instance in which this occurs or offering social commentary on such, is uncertain. However, it is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage. James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, viewed women through a patriarchal lens and, subsequently, Isabel Archer.
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