Here’s a distastefully corporeal subject: plantar warts. I had one on my foot. I didn’t do anything about it, hoping it would go away. It hurt. Gross.
A few weeks ago, I was on the roof of our house, I grabbed something, and my index finger felt swollen and painful – I looked at it and found what looked like a tiny splinter. I asked my wife, Quinessa, if she could try to pull it out for me. I didn’t have the courage to pull it out myself.
Like Sugar, the main character of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, does with William, Q refrained from telling me to get myself together so I could pull out the splinter and, instead, indulged my weakness to make me feel stronger.
Q cut away at my skin, yanked at the tiny intrusion with tweezers, and repeated the process while I clenched my buttocks and sweated, trying not to divulge the pain I was feeling to her and Maxwell, our three-year-old son, who watched the process and asked what was happening.
“I don’t know how you people give birth,” I told her. “I can’t stand this anymore. And it’s only a f**king splinter.” (I didn’t use the asterisks aloud, but I did refrain from using that whole word. Max has a knack for following in our verbal footsteps).
I hope my sympathy for the trials of childbirth endured by women makes me different from William Rackham, mostly because I was disturbed by the similarities I saw in his thought processes and in mine. I thought these similarities were amusing, at first. He was introduced as a young man who would like to be a writer – I wanted to be a writer when I was young, and though I would still like to be a writer, I’m no longer young – and I laughed at his literary pretensions and his dandyism (to which I can be sartorially prone when in the mood). As The Crimson Petal and the White progressed, I was more disturbed than amused.
(None of this includes prostitution, infidelity, or ignoring my children, by the way. I’m not that similar to William Rackham.)
I’m currently proud of myself for writing this blog post AFTER it is due to be submitted. Like William, I’m always going on about how much I have to do. As a high school English teacher who is proud of being a really good high school English teacher, I have many responsibilities. There is teaching every day, of course, which require much planning. But there is also grading, and meetings about Individual Education Plans for students, and department meetings, and building meetings, and make-up work for absent students, and now there is planning for Zoom students in addition to regular school, blah, blah, blah. I’m in graduate school, obviously (or I wouldn’t be writing this blog). I have a lot of stuff to do, and it gets in the way of spending time with the people I love the most. William constantly complains about how many responsibilities he has as a perfumery magnate – but if he were a writer, he wouldn’t have them, would he? So why complain? This was his choice, after all.
It was my choice to get another Master’s degree, which is why I’m still awake and writing at this late hour. Meanwhile, Q is in our bedroom, still awake and feeding young Beckett, nearly two weeks old, and she has no choice. Biologically, only she can do it at this point in Beckett’s life. And she doesn’t complain.
The Crimson Petal and the White is highly sympathetic to what women have to do in a world ruled by the sociocultural machinations of men. At least, I think it is – I'm a man, so I’m basing all of this on observation. In fact, I’m a man who complains about all the bureaucracy and paperwork of the system I’ve chosen to spend my life serving, and that system was certainly devised by mostly men. I’m a public school teacher, though, so my profession is dominated, on a day-to-day, ground-level, in-the-trenches basis, by women. Collegial relationships with my fellow teachers along with a wonderful wife, a great mother, a doting sister, and good female friends, have all shown me what I think I can recognize as a novel by a man who seems to understand what happens to women in the Western world.
As I read the novel, I wondered, “How did Michel Faber accomplish this?” I genuinely believed the women’s perspectives. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Faber explains, “My first wife was gay before I met her so my whole circle of friends were lesbians...There was a lot of anti-male feeling in my environment. I was like an honorary female.” I suppose that explains some of it. But in the same interview, Faber discusses how his wife encouraged him to make his writing more accessible to everyone, even when he resisted; the entirety of the interview is about Faber’s first book tour after the death of his wife, due to cancer. Throughout most of his life, she was there to challenge him, support him, and encourage him – just as my wife is for me.
In my reading of this nearly 900-page novel that encompasses all the human emotions I can think of, I was most affected by the loneliness of the women.
Agnes’s “madness” could have been understood, and it wouldn’t have been out the question for her tumor to be discovered in the 1870s and treated (though, according to the American Cancer Society’s “Cancer Atlas” page, at the time, surgeries were messy and anaesthesia was not too effective). If only the men in her life, such as her husband and Dr. Curlew, had been more concerned with examining her as a patient instead of a demented child, she and William might have lived the life he dreamed of before they were married and once again after she had disappeared or died.
Then there’s Sugar. She suffered innumerable humiliations, emotional, psychological, and physical, while surviving her life of prostitution, forced upon her by her mother. I was most saddened - probably because my mind is currently on childbirth – in the scene where Sugar is accompanying William, Sophie, and Lady Bridgelow. Sugar is watching William woo another woman, even as she hopes he might make her his wife and save her from her former life for good; she is injured, limping, from a fall she took down the stairs at the Rackham house in an attempted aborition. In this scene, when she takes Sophie to the water closet, Sugar miscarries, the successful culmination of the abortion. William was not privy to the pregnancy; Sugar’s only help comes from a six-year-old girl. Sugar is essentially alone in the knowledge and pain of the death of her child, conceived in an humiliating business arrangement she enters to save herself from the abuse of survival.
I was with my wife when both Beckett and Maxwell were born. I learned from the first time to turn my head when the anaesthesiologist inserted a colossal needle into Q’s spine. This process was far more disturbing to me than watching both Maxwell’s and Beckett’s entrance into our world, perhaps because it is so much more unnatural. Not that watching the woman I love give birth isn’t a bit terrifying for me: anything could go wrong at any time for Q or the boys. It was natural, though: natural to watch her turn into a superhero.
No wonder powerful women throughout human history have been persecuted as witches. Women are magic. They can do things much greater than any man could do, and I know this is obvious, but it still amazes me. I’ve watched a lady who agreed to marry me go through a ten month process of CREATING A HUMAN BEING OUT OF NOTHING! The least I could do was be there to count to ten for her while she pushed.
Hopefully, I can do a lot more for her as our family grows.
Yes, in addition to performing feats of magic, Quinessa now has to deal with a house full of boys and our egos. All this while coaching high school girls’ basketball, designing web sites, working at a family violence prevention center, challenging and encouraging me, and generally just being a fun person to spend time with. There are plenty of great things about men, boys, and manboys like us, but after plenty of reading and observation, I don’t think there’s any way we could be as great as a woman like Q.
P.S. - It was not a splinter in my finger. It was the start of a plantar wart, like the one on my foot. It had nothing to do with my impressive manly feats on the roof. I asked Quinessa to dig around in my hand with metal implements for nothing, and I couldn’t handle it for more than five minutes.
In the course of reading Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, I was also ruminating on how much state standardized test preparation to do with my single section of sophomore English students. Neither the novel nor lesson planning has a traditional “answer.”
Poor Things, like its literary mother, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is told in layers of stories and letters with various narrators, some of whom contradict each other on major details. In Frankenstein, the details involve which characters are virtuous and to what degree; in Poor Things, the narrators disagree on what actually happened and even if the main character is “born of a woman,” as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. In the major narration, written by the medical student and eventual doctor Archibald McCandless, the main character, Bella/Victoria, is a re-animated dead person, ala Victor Frankenstein’s monster. But Victoria, in her post-script, claims McCandless’s book is fantastical before telling us the truth of her life. Gray complicates the veracity of both texts in his end notes. And by the end of those notes, I didn’t care what was true. I enjoyed the novel, and it made me think. What else can I ask from any experience?
Since August, I’d been asking at work: will these sophomores have to take the standardized tests in April? They didn’t last year because of the pandemic. This year, we recently found out, they certainly do. These tests are considered in the state of Ohio’s “school report cards,” but this year, they won’t be. In some school districts, they are part of the evaluations of individual teachers, but this year, they won’t be. Most importantly, these tests determine if students graduate from high school or not. As of now, two and a half weeks before the English tests, no one has informed us if these tests will determine graduation or not. All year, students learn what they need to know, but the kids benefit from taking practice tests so they can learn the format and the style of questions. So: to prepare them, perchance it matters for more than data collection? Ay, there’s the rub (I wonder if Hamlet would score well on a standardized essay rubric. His reasoning is both repetitive and vaguely hypothetical).
I mean, I don’t want to spend time in class on practice tests. However, my students will be judged by society on their test scores. I don’t want them to get the sense that they’re inadequate human beings because they’re not accustomed to this particular test format. Still, we could be reading poems, novels, and essays that are much more enlightening and having conversations that are much more fun.
The last time I taught sophomores, at a different school, they were “honors” students. This was when Ohio changed the graduation tests. Because the new tests - the tests we use now - were to have older reading passages (students now answer multiple choice questions over Thoreau rather than over newspaper articles), with older prose style, I thought we should read some older texts. I decided Frankenstein might be fun to try. I was never a huge fan of the plot and pacing of the story, but I knew it would be full of teachable ideas. During five years using the novel in class, I learned more than anyone.
Oh, what wonderful conversations that novel started among the 15-year-olds and me! Of course we got into the regular “responsibility of science” stuff, but then we could move into the responsibility of parents to their children, and the problems of children expecting their parents to be infallible. That led us into Victor Frankenstein’s egotism and the possible egotism of his creation, the guy the students always wanted to name, but who is never named. Conversations about the importance of names would ensue (and they had read Romeo and Juliet during their freshman year, so they were ready to consider how sweet that creature would be by another name). The lessons learned from scientific education and humanities education came up; we would delve into the economic opportunities of Frankenstein's upbringing and the poverty of the monster’s; and really, we just learned about everything that happens in life from that novel.
None of it was on the test.
Their graduation test consists of questions such as: “How does this symbol develop the author’s argument?” and “What does the author mean by ‘ardor’ in line 12?” These are perfectly good questions, and the reading skills they test are also good skills have. I wonder, though: what would Henry David Thoreau say about excerpts from Walden being used to test every child’s intelligence by computer?
A most Thoreauvian problem: the students have been enduring tests like this since they were in elementary school, and they’re tired of everyone counting their beans. It is a task to be completed so they can fulfill someone’s else’s requirements. Frankenstein’s monster did not fulfill the aesthetic requirements of what it means to be human, so his creator abandoned him. I worry that we, the American schools, are creating a generation of testing machines who view learning as a task to be fulfilled. Perhaps all these tests should be chased to the remote Arctic circle until they die a lonely death. Instead, we use them to find out if teenagers fulfill the requirement of being able to sit quietly at a desk for hours on end while answering questions that interest them far less than constructing a philosophy of living in the world. If they can’t do it, we withhold diplomas from them like Victor Frankenstein withholds affection from his loved ones and monsters.
Alasdair Gray’s Bella Baxter and her creator, Godwin Baxter, are the monster’s and Frankenstein's foils; they are the answer to: “What if the world’s greatest scientist loved his creation as much as he loved himself? What if the creation loved humanity instead of loathing?” As Frankenstein rejected his creature, “God” embraced everything about Bella. The creature, through his travels and reading, learned disdain for humanity, vowed revenge on his creator, and was infamous for murder. Bella/Victoria travelled and learned philosophy and science. She found love for humanity, named Godwin Baxter the only man she ever loved, and was known (in McCandless’ account, anyway) for physical “wedding,” as she put it. As Frankenstein gave his uncanny child nothing, Baxter encouraged Bella’s opportunities of curiosity and freedom. True, Bella’s physical beauty gave her social advantages that Frankenstein’s monster didn’t have. If I were answering a question about that for a graduation exam, I would look for the choice that involved the monster’s appearance symbolizing his creator’s lack of emotional investment (I would argue that Victor’s ardor in creating him was about Victor’s intellectual hubris, but I haven’t seen the answer choices yet, so who knows?). In some ways, Bella/Victoria ends the novel as bitter about the state of the world as Frankenstein’s monster, yet she’s still optimistic. She contradictory and confusing, and that’s perfect. She’s human. To paraphrase As You Like It, in our life, we play many parts.
In the year of masks and social distance in the classroom while a few students Zoom in to join the rest of us, I would like my part as a high school English teacher to be, mostly, one that encourages my students to read, think, write, and – most importantly this year – talk to others about what they’re thinking. My sophomores have experienced the strangest first two years of high school that I could dream of in my philosophy. They do a passable job at answering multiple choice questions and writing timed essays when we practice. But when I start a conversation about Lord of the Flies and let them take over, I’m always impressed.
Of course I want them to understand the usage of literary and rhetorical techniques, and I always want them to learn new words and think about how they are used. But I don't need standardized data to see if they're learning these things. I need their facial expressions.
I’ll only see them three more times before the standardized test, but I think we’re finished with test prep. It’s time to read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They’ll laugh when, in the first scene, some nobles call a cobbler a “naughty knave” and a “saucy fellow.” The laughter will inspire them to enjoy the language, we’ll discuss social hierarchies and individual ambition for the next few scenes, and we’ll take a time out for state testing.
I’m excited to find out what they learn.
Anyone in my Neo-Victorian Novel class can see, if surveying my location while we’re all on Zoom, that I’m in my basement. One could also notice, on basic inspection, that our basement isn’t finished; it’s also not entirely unfinished, I suppose. It’s framed with two-by-fours, prepared for drywall to be put up, primed for whatever type of flooring we want to install - but not quite. I would like to do some more electrical work first, and I would like to better plan out the plumbing for the bathroom we’ve imagined down there. The basement has existed in its current state for two years.
I have imagined more than just that bathroom. I see an office space for me: there’s my desk, some bookshelves built into the wall, an old record player equipped with new speakers, one of those globes that is brownish-tan for some reason. The imagined basement also has a playroom for the kids, a room with exercise equipment that is solely dedicated to working out, a family room with bar, a mud room for re-entry after working in the yard, and of course, an art studio for my wife. Oh yeah, and more storage space. I would love that basement to exist.
Somehow, I envision this working without building a second basement where I can fit it all.
For now, it’s the perfect place to discuss Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, a fictional work about the true story of George Edalji, a man who is Parsee and British but mostly imagines himself as a middle-class solicitor. He is convicted of a crime but released before his sentence has elapsed. He is exonerated after a review by the Home Office, but not found deserving of compensation for his improper imprisonment. Some imagine circumstances in which he was guilty all along; some imagine the reasons he may have been persecuted; some imagine who is the true perpetrator of the crime for which George went to trial.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagines the last two circumstances in that list, and his efforts are what lead to the Home Office review. At the time George’s case piques his interest, he is a grieving widower who is also planning to marry a woman he has loved in a state of chaste infidelity for nearly a decade. He does not imagine himself as an adulterer. As he investigates Edalji’s case retroactively, some imagine him in the place of his indelible Sherlock Holmes, and he certainly thinks of himself as a masterful investigator, even when he makes basic legal mistakes. He is pleased that George regains his ability to practice law but incensed that George receives no remuneration and that no one is arrested in the case of the livestock maiming for which George once served three years in prison.
Arthur and George are each what they claim to be. Doyle is in fact a British gentleman, and Edalji is in fact a solicitor.
Each is also what he claims not to be. George is suspected in his small, rural town because he was different from the typical inhabitant – no matter how adamantly he insists that his arrest is not due to race prejudice, none of his misfortunate would have been catalyzed without prejudicial attitudes. And Arthur might not think of himself as bumbling amateur sleuth who discovers no new hard evidence but whose celebrity brings the attention of the nation to the problems with George’s case. That’s who he is, in this case.
George and Arthur simultaneously are and are not what they and what others think of them, just as Jacques Derrida once claimed that his concept of “differance” both is and is not.
I’m not going to get into much depth of discussion of “differance” in a blog post. It’s just too much for a blog. But if we think of it in terms of word definitions – a common example used to explain the concept – it is the undefined “space,” or “thought,” for lack of a more accurate terms (because the term is “differance,” I suppose), that makes one word not another word. Like, what is the difference between jogging and running – what is the thing that separates the two of them? When does one become the other? There is something there that separates them. It’s the same thing that brings them together; they wouldn’t be closely related to each other without that distinction, and they wouldn’t be separate from each other, either. That negative space, that indefinable thought, might be the most important thing about jogging and running. It’s what makes one not the other. And the fact that jogging is not running is what makes it jogging.
I’m going to imagine, now, that you (patient reader) and I both understand that. Key to understanding the concept of “differance” is imagining it, as we cannot define it, and we cannot perceive it with our senses. Imagination may be the most important faculty a human being possesses because of the importance of the indefinable. Imagination is what allows us to understand the mysterious “something” that links people’s experience of life. Imagination is what helps us define, too, how we are individuals separate from others.
We take it upon ourselves to imagine what is reality. Arthur imagines he’s faithful to two wives at once, that he solves mysteries as decisively as his fictional detective (who solves crimes that Arthur imagined in the first place), and that he has found the metaphysical solution to the irrationalities of religion in “Spiritism.” George simply imagines himself as a nondescript British solicitor.
Some people believe one thing about each man while the men themselves believe another. Their own imaginations, though, are the tools they use to shape the way they live their lives. What they imagine into being might not be exactly what they want, but the shapes of their lives would be nothing if not for what they imagine. George, regarded as “half-caste,” imagines a simple British life. Though he never marries and is at the center of a legal debacle, a simple life is essentially what he gets. And Arthur imagines the nobility embodied by chivalric knights in old romances. He never slays any dragons, but he is knighted, he does fight in a far-off land, he excels at his chosen focus (writing), and he does participate in a pure and chaste love. It’s a “different” version of what he imagined as a child.
Yes, these are the characters I’ve discussed for the last two weeks with my classmates while I sit in my unfinished basement on an office chair, watching and listening to everyone on my laptop, which is on top of a space heater designed to look like a fireplace. There’s no heat in our unfinished basement. I’ve imagined taking out a section of the wall down there to create a chimney and a fireplace, probably where I’m imagining that family room. Or maybe in my office. Either option seems delightful, but for now, it's all a fantasy. Retrofitting a chimney and fireplace on a house is a major project, and I have a lot on my agenda this year.
It certainly is comforting to imagine that fire, though.
There are several movies made before 1990 that Mrs. Avery has never seen. Often, according to her, she’s “seen the ending” on tv, and not only does that not count, but it ruins good stories. I always give her great film recommendations, and she promptly doesn’t watch them.
Around the same time our class began reading Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, I was teasing Mrs. Avery about never seeing the movie Back to the Future. She informed me that I was incorrect, and she told me the plot of Back to the Future in impressive detail for someone who was watching it only to humor her husband. She told me when and where we watched it, and I conceded that she was correct, even recalling a memory of watching it with her: a memory as indefinably ghostly as Marty McFly’s hand when he hasn’t yet convinced his mother and father to kiss in 1955:
This led to a great idea. She said, “What if a person traveled back in time, saw a ghost, and then traveled farther back in time and saw the same ghost?” I thought that would make a brilliant story. In fact, I have some notes about how and why it would happen. You’ll read them in my forthcoming novel or see them in the production of my forthcoming screenplay as soon as I decide to actually write either one of those and someone wants to publish or produce them.
Until that day comes, you’ll have to be satisfied with a blog post about hauntings, the past, and how we create our identities. All were on my mind when I read Alias Grace.
I first read Alias Grace in a freshman English class at Miami University two decades ago. I remembered it was about a “celebrated murderess” in the 1800s who was either misleading everyone, was mentally ill, was some combination of the two, or maybe none of those. And I thought it was excellent. That was all I remembered. Alias Grace was both familiar to me, part of my past I had comfortably integrated into my life, and a story foreign to my experience because when I read it at age 19, I was reading it for the intrigue only and had less experience in analyzing narrative. I wouldn’t say reading it the second time was uncanny, or unheimlisch, as Freud describes the concept, but a second reading was helpful to my thinking, particularly about the way people use narrative.
In his essay on “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud examines the two definitions of the German word heimlisch (these are my definitions of the paraphrasing): 1. essentially, something appropriate to the home or made familiar enough to be at the home; 2. something secretive. These aren’t so different, not in my opinion. That which belongs at home does not belong in the public unless we invite the public into our homes. Freud complicates the reader’s thinking by explaining that unheimlisch (or uncanny, in English translation), the opposite of heimlisch (canny?), can mean the same as uncanny: that which is unfamiliar. If it’s uncanny, it’s unfamiliar to me. Here’s the thing: the fact that my wife, Q, could tell me about the time we watched Back to the Future was uncanny to me. But, supposedly, I was there when it happened.
Grace Marks, in Alias Grace, claims to forget what happened during the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Mr. Kinnear. Uncanny! The fact that she can describe to Dr. Simon Jordan what happened, mostly, is also uncanny. I cannot believe that someone could forget, remember, and misremember all at once. But I should. I remember watching a movie with Q, but I misremember it – which is to say, really, I forget it. I’m telling myself the story of what I remember about it, and I’m sure later, when I let her read this, she’ll tell me how I’ve misremembered the Back to the Future story. For the purposes of this blog, though, I’ve told the story in a way that makes me seem like a guy who loves and finds importance in good storytelling like one would find in Alias Grace or Back to the Future, a guy who takes storytelling very seriously, but a guy who doesn’t take his own perspective too seriously. Which am I: the serious guy, or the not-serious guy? I’m giving you both stories at once so you can focus on whichever convinces you of my point. On my end of this writing: I’m familiar with both of me, so no dopplegangers will appear in this blog. The stakes aren’t high enough for a doppleganger.
I’m not a murderess, so my storytelling doesn’t determine whether I’m incarcerated or not. Grace’s storytelling does serve this purpose, of course. Several times, she expresses the desire to give Dr. Jordan what he wants, which is a story that satisfies his desire to evoke her lost, murderous memories and to diagnose any possible “madness” by which she may be afflicted. She is an expert storyteller by the time readers meet her, in 1859, after 16 years of imprisonment, and she has been practicing the art of what to include and what to omit since she arrived in Canada. By the time she is employed, she knows what not to tell her father so she does not feel obligated to give him her entire pay. The first two sections of the novel are comprised of second-hand accounts of her trial and her comportment; even Grace, in the portions she narrates before “Puss in the Corner,” considers how to define herself by the way others define her. At the end of the novel, when she is married to Jamie Walsh, she presents herself to her husband as she must have learned to present herself to Jordan: a suffering damsel to whom a man must atone. We know Jordan’s predilection for women who owe him something, and because Jordan never ending up owing her anything, the atoning character in her story has to be Walsh.
She never would have created enough doubt in her conviction to be granted amnesty without the assistance of Jeremiah the peddler, who called her “one of us,” and who appeared in three other guises during the part of Grace’s life that she narrates for us. Jeremiah knows how to convince a customer to buy goods from his pack; he knows how to convince an audience and a subject, perhaps, of a hypnotic trance; and Grace may pick up on some subtle suggestive skills from him.
In the climactic scene of the book, Grace convinces those at the scene of her hypnotism that she has been possessed by or has unwittingly adopted as a second consciousness her old friend Mary Whitney. Mary, a servant both more plainspoken and more wise to the ways of Toronto society than Grace, serves as a coarse, diabolical doppelganger. She’s the “naughty” Grace, the Grace who could have been rebellious, infiltrating the upper classes through a clandestine affair, aborting a child, and murdering Nancy Montgomery through daemonic possession. Nancy Montgomery, interestingly enough, could be seen as Grace’s “trippelganger.”
Nancy infiltrated the world of the upper class through a nearly public relationship with Mr. Kinnear: no one in his social class approves, but they behave as man and wife at home, and she is pregnant at the time of her murder. Perhaps Nancy is the “good” version of what Grace could have aspired to (pre-murder, certainly) in the social realities of 1840s Canada – it was the most fortuitous station to which a servant woman could have aspired. If so, Freud’s tripartite concept of the id, the ego, and the superego could be analogous to Mary, Grace, and Nancy, with Grace as the ego: the one does what helps her get along in society. Perhaps that is why, as the novel ends, Grace is knitting a Tree of Paradise quilt just for herself, and she hopes that its pattern will symbolically reunite the three servant class women upon whose loom this novel is woven. The Tree of Life quilt is representative of a true amalgamation of the parts of her personality that she sees in her fellow women.
During the novel, Grace is a woman of her Victorian time. When it is appropriate, she tells the story of becoming a “fallen woman” in need to atonement. When it serves her, she is the domestic angel. That’s the one we get, the domestic angel: we see her as a servant at the Governor’s, the storyteller enchanting Jordan, and the wife both pleasing and shaping Jamie Walsh. The great mystery of the novel remains: is she more than the angel? Has the devilish part of her personality been left out of the novel? The fact that, by her own admission, she leaves out parts of her story, declares no devilish intent inherently. It’s human nature to leave out parts of stories. We don’t even do it on purpose much of the time.
It’s possible that our stories don’t belong solely to us, so we don’t know which parts to tell. Mary and Nancy’s stories closely mirror each other, and the only parts that matter to readers are the parts relevant to Grace. After hearing them, Jordan’s life begins to parallel theirs despite the fact that he belongs to a more privileged class and is a man. He begins an affair with his landlady, and he is presented with a plot to murder her husband if he is to return to their home. He escapes to the United States, as Grace planned to do after Nancy and Kinnear’s murders, and he suffers from amnesia, forgetting all that happened in Kingston (according to his mother, who could be lying to his former lover). These are all motifs from Grace’s life. Her past is analogous to his present and was somewhat predictive of his future.
Along with the uncanny and the doppelganger, Freud discusses the recognition of repetition in “The Uncanny.” He attributes this to neuroticism – we see what we pay attention to, but we don’t want to pay attention to it because it is repressed. We find it uncanny, as in unfamiliar to the point of being unreal, because we don’t want to recognize that what we’re seeing is something that we should, for our own mental health, want to address. It’s too frightening for us. Each time we analyze our reading, we might be seeing what we need to see in it at the times in our lives when we do the reading. Maybe when I was 19, I was trying to find some new intrigue in life as I entered adulthood. Maybe now that I’m 40, I’m trying to figure out how I define myself to others by the way I tell my story.
And so we return back to the future, wherein I’ve read Alias Grace a second time and am trying to decide whether or not I should present myself as a guy who would reference that movie again in pun form.
Last week, it snowed. It’s late January, and this is the part of winter when I start to grow weary of the gray. The clouds are dark and low. They seal me in. It’s cold enough that I’ve had to confine myself inside more than I prefer. The ceiling presses down upon me. Unless it snows. When it snows, the world is bright and magical again, and it’s quiet like no other type of quiet one experiences, mystically quiet, not at any time during life. I treasure those snowy moments until spring arrives.
This brief description of what seems to be Seasonal Affective Disorder is just to say: this happens to me every year. The world does essentially the same thing, and I feel typically the same feelings during this cycle. However, someone new has found his way into the cycle, and things are slightly changed. Now when it snows, my three-year old son Maxwell exclaims that it’s snowing and asks, “Can we have fun in the snow?” We can.
I’m reminded of times when my father and I would sled down large hills in our woods (and his sledding rule: “No one goes inside until someone gets hurt.”), but as Maxwell and I have a woods of approximately 0.1 acres, we do other snow activities, mainly snowball-throwing. This particular day, we hit snowballs with his plastic baseball bat and yelled, “Kersplosion!” (Not sure why. He likes to make up words.) When he tired of kersplosions, he told me to “watch this,” and smacked the bat on a maple tree trunk. “Don’t hurt the tree,” I told him. “We live here with it, so we need to love it,” and with that instruction, Maxwell wanted me to watch him smack the small branch on the ground, a branch that had fallen out of the tree sometime in the recent past.
My thoughts were rooted in unexpected connections, as all this was happening a day after I finished A.S. Byatt’s neo-Victorian novel Possession. It’s a romance and a Romance, as in a quest with Holy Grails, knights errant, etc., and I was excited for that aspect of the novel, as I’ve always enjoyed folk tales, fairy tales, legends, and myths. I wondered how a postmodern novel about a search for Victorian poets’ missing letters would incorporate these older forms of storytelling; but, of course, as novels, poems, letters, and legends all involve storytelling, the connections came immediately. The name of the main character, Roland, is the traditional name of a Holy Grail quester – as in Robert Browning’s Victorian-era poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The connections abounded. The novel’s character is a postmodern scholar, the poem is Victorian, and the name is archetypal and infinitely evocative for those who know the legends and the supposed symbolic meanings of their objects and characters.
Roland’s plot in Possession begins and ends with his thoughts on some symbolic imagery involving Proserpina, whose abduction in Roman mythology prompts the beginnings of the world’s seasons; when she resides in the underworld with Pluto (yes, the god of the underworld of the dead is also the god of wealth, underground, where we find the minerals we use to create coins...oh, the connections), she the world is barren. When she returns to our world, flowers bloom and bear fruit, and grains grow and ripen. The painting Roland (and Randolph Henry Ash) ruminates upon includes the classic symbolism of the tree of life, stretching to the heavens while rooted underground, a serpent/dragon coiled around its base, bearing fruit to be plucked by the hungry, bold, and curious. The curious, of course, find connections among most everything.
From the beginning, I could see that Byatt’s “modern” protagonists, Roland and Maud, would be forming connections between each other while searching for connections between the poets Christabel LaMotte and Ash. The parallel plots tempt the reader to find uncanny similarities in the progressions of their romantic relationships and their lives. The two time periods in which the plot takes place tempt the reader to find Byatt’s Victorian allusions.
Maud’s name alludes to a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; both Browning and Tennyson seem the stereotypical poet on which Ash is based, and the poem “Maud" has some descriptions of water and birds that parallel descriptions of Maud in Possession, all to romantic effect (This link directs you to Part II of the poem; Part I has parallels, too, but these, I thought, were more obvious. Both are available on the “Resources” page of this site). Near the end of the novel, Maud’s connection to the poets and their romance allows her to gain this story’s Grail, the letters of Maud’s passionate progenitors, Ash and Christabel. Christabel: who shares a name with (a Victorian poetic forebearer mentioned frequently in Possession) Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s titular “Christabel.” Coleridge’s poem involves two women who form an unusual bond at the base of an oak tree, possible betrayal, a missing mother, a dream of a snake coiled around the base of a tree, a man named Roland, and an ending praising elfin daughters who bring joy to their fathers – all motifs of Byatt’s novel.
Ash, the father of an elfin daughter he meets only once, to his apparent happiness, writes a poem featuring the classically wandering Odin, the all-father, with his staff. The poem is juxtaposed with Ash and a walking stick exploring Lincolnshire, the place where his and Christabel’s daughter, ancestor of Maud, lover of Roland, was conceived. And Odin’s staff, of the same wood as the world tree in Norse mythology, leads me to the original image Roland imagined while reading Ash’s “The Garden of Proserpina”: the woman, the tree, the roots, the serpent.
I was possessed by Byatt’s patterns. They show us that we possess the past, and the past possesses us. Somewhere in our grasp, through literature, legend, science, or séance, we possess the seeds of all human wisdom.
Maxwell rhythmically beat the fallen maple branch. “Wow!” He was delighted. I’m sure I would have been once, also. I know I was. Now, though, I couldn’t help thinking about the life in the tree I wouldn’t let him bash. I thought of the partial life/partial death state of the fallen but not yet rotted wood my son joyously banged his rhythms upon. The snow we stood in would be water that nourished the tree, and the vibrating branch was once nourished by the decayed matter beneath the maple’s roots. Maxwell’s pounding shook infinity. And then he handed me the bat.
We walked into the woods, as my father and I once walked. I swung a baseball bat while Max pitched pinecones. We laughed, and I looked forward to spring.