Friday, April 4, 2008

Reflective Essay

The last English essay I'll ever write in my high school career... Well actually, it's the second to last.

“So, I have Mr. G this year for English 12 Honors. I don’t suppose it’ll be any different from my previous English Honors classes… right?” Wrong. Plunged straight into senior year, I was disoriented, academically rusty after a nice long summer break. Thus, I didn’t quite look forward to another year of English. It was only natural for me to think lowly of my English classes; I had always disliked the subject for one reason or another, despite doing well in it each year. I found my English classes to be mostly boring, consisting of tedious discussions, pointless essays, and trivial vocabulary tests. However, upon entering Mr. G’s class, I realized that English is of course much more than just reading novels and writing about them. There’s always a deeper meaning to all those words in a novel, and the work I’ve done this past year has taught me invaluable lessons about life, art, love, fun, and everything in between.

For starters, I don’t recall ever writing an explication before senior year. Whether it was a 9th grade book essay, a 10th grade MCAS open response, or an 11th grade SAT style essay prompt, I had always written in the basic several paragraph structure with the traditional topic and concluding sentences and the basic supporting evidence sprinkled liberally on the paper. It never occurred to me that such evidence can be further expanded by critically analyzing it, and seeing how the author or subject “creates meaning”. Explications were definitely a tough precipice to scale from the beginning. Expecting a higher grade on my first explication on the poem, “Red Shift”, I was disappointed by the actual score. This motivated me to try harder next time, and indeed, my explications gradually became better and better, culminating in my A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man paper, which is probably my best explication all year. I was surprised and elated to hear Mr. G tell me, “Hey, you did really well on your explication. You could have gotten a higher grade if you wrote more”. Still, not analyzing enough, and thus, perhaps writing too little, is still a problem for me, but I’m working on it. Sometimes, the topic I’m explicating gives me trouble. For instance, to come up with theories as to why Albert Camus created his emotionless character, Meursault, in The Stranger is difficult when the story itself is out of the ordinary and hard to understand. Nevertheless, by frequently writing analytically, I have started applying analysis towards everything to appreciate the world more and for the cool satisfaction of understanding a profound topic.

Then, there were those blogs. Technology and the internet have really progressed greatly in the last several years, and it would be a shame if students did not take advantage of it. I personally found it very helpful to have Mr. G post assignments and resources on the class blog. While reading “Hamlet”, the videos he posted of numerous scenes helped me comprehend the story better. And the posted blog assignments were certainly a nice break from the normal work that’s turned in. But surely the most enjoyable aspects of the blogs were the interactions between the students and Mr. G. I thoroughly enjoyed the mini discussions in the comments, especially the independent reading club discussions. My group’s books, Snow Country and The Sound of Waves really enlightened my knowledge of Japanese culture. My heightened interest in reading the novels aided my ability to talk about them. I found myself spending hours on the blog explaining passages and theories, and presenting outside information that helped us in understanding the depth of the stories. Analyzing the text gradually became second nature to me, and my writing became more interesting and more fluent. It turned out that explicating topics that I was passionate about elicited my true proficiency as a writer.

Although I still don’t write the best essays around, I have noticed great improvements in my writing. Taking English Honors was definitely not a bad idea, because the knowledge and skills that I’ve gained will be an exceptional arsenal for the careers, ordeals, and the general chaos of life that I’ll inevitably encounter. Having Mr. G as my last high school English teacher was the best thing to happen to my academic schedule, and maybe, it’ll have even greater impact on me as I enter college and the real world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hamlet Dialectical Journal Entry

A written entry in my Hamlet notebook. See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

Act 3, Scene 2
pages 90-94

The play begins with a dumb summary, an overview of the upcoming play without sound. The audience clearly witnesses the [Player Pois’ner] kill the [Player King]. However, Claudius displays no outstanding reaction, according to the text, making it questionable if he really felt guilty and left when the murder is acted out in detail. The dumb show may be at fault (it was at Hamlet’s direction), because Ophelia seems puzzled by it: “What means this, my lord?”(128).

'A poisons him i' th' garden for's estate. His name's Gonzago. The story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife. (246-249)

At this point, Hamlet appears to comment on the play as if he had already seen it. Right after, the King arises and leaves. If Hamlet had not made his little remark regarding the murderer getting the love of Gonzago’s wife, would the King have understood what Hamlet was trying to show? Then again, without further textual evidence, it is possible that Claudius reacted to something else; perhaps he just needed to go to the bathroom. However, to Hamlet and Horatio, it is evidence that Claudius had murdered King Hamlet and is feeling the guilt evoked by the play.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1 Video Critique

See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

Prince Hamlet gives one of the most famous soliloquies in literature in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He enters and speaks to himself and the audience, supposedly unaware that Claudius and Polonius are spying on him. The soliloquy performed by Laurence Olivier in the 1948 adaptation is perhaps the best portrayal of Hamlet’s speech. Olivier’s subtle depictions of Hamlet’s character and the imagery surrounding him combine to give life to Shakespeare’s words.

Produced before the widespread use of color, the film is in black and white, giving the scene a more serious and grave tone. The audience first witnesses a vast grey ocean, full of white sloshing foam. As the camera pans down this “sea of troubles”(58), dramatic orchestral music is played, creating a tense feeling, a premonition or a “before the storm” aura. The sea’s waves crash onto a precipice, on which Olivier stands at the top, glancing at the bottom. Hamlet’s soliloquy implies suicide and death, fitting the scene of the movie, as Olivier delivers his lines perched on the precipice. As if being controlled by his character’s maddening subconscious, Olivier expresses the well-known “To be, or not to be, that is the question”(55) while blurred vision of the bottom of the precipice is shown. The line basically states whether one should live or not, alluding to this Hamlet’s consideration of jumping off the cliff. Olivier speaks clearly and slowly, as if speaking to the gods as they twist the restless sea and sky. He pulls out a dagger accordingly as he suggests that life and its troubles should be ended once and for all: “to take arms against a sea of troubles / and, by opposing, end them”(58-59).

While haphazardly wielding the dagger, Olivier closes his eyes, letting his mouth close and his mind speak of, coincidentally, sleep and death. The music heightens as the camera zooms into him. The audience hears him proclaim “to die, to sleep / to sleep…”(63-64), and suspense builds as the audience might expect him to suddenly stab himself. However, he stirs and speaks again, lamenting that “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”(65). Through Olivier’s interpretation, Hamlet contemplates the consequences of death, and consequently, Olivier lowers the dagger. When Hamlet lists the “whips and scorns of time”(69), Olivier seemingly looks away on purpose as he mentions “the pangs of despis’d love”(71). Hamlet may be referring to unreciprocated love, specifically of his relationship with Ophelia. He looks away and pauses, probably in frustration over Ophelia’s shunning him. Hamlet returns back to the subject of ending one’s life, as he utters “when he himself might his quietus make / with a bare bodkin”(74-75). Olivier aptly raises the dagger and tightens his grip on it. He then continues, commenting the “undiscover’d country”(78) of the afterlife, where “no traveler returns, puzzles the will”(79). At this point, Olivier props himself up, and stares inquisitively at the distant sky and sea.

After dropping the dagger into the sea, Olivier appears more confident, fitting in with Hamlet’s “thus conscience does make cowards of us all / and thus the native hue of resolution / is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”(82-84). Hamlet seems to imply that his excessive thoughts of death have interfered with his boldness. Ready to face whatever comes next, Olivier stands up, walks to the edge of the precipice to deliver “and enterprises of great pitch and moment”, hinting at the momentous actions to be carried out at the climax of Hamlet’s situation. Incidentally, a pitch means loftiness, “a term from falconry, signifying the highest point of a hawk’s flight”(pg. 82). Hamlet ends his peak of passion on the high precipice with “with this regard their currents turn awry”(86). Not wanting to let his plans fall through, Hamlet intends on finally executing his plot for revenge, and as Olivier turns around and exits, perhaps Hamlet will make a comeback and turnaround to cure his madness with his scheme. Olivier’s slow gait is ironic though, as Hamlet does not want to “lose the name of action”(86), foreshadowing a mishap in Hamlet’s plans.

With such emotion in his words and smooth gestures and actions, Laurence Olivier out performs the other Hamlets in delivering this prominent soliloquy. Despite being over half a century old, this representation of Shakespeare’s play accurately portrays the raw feelings of Hamlet and his situation, at least in this scene, making it the best out of the three films.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tom Phillips’ A Humument
Page 173a - Image Explication

See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

On page 173a of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, Phillips demonstrates the futility of beauty, and the vain efforts wasted to save it. He uses a few simple colors with patterns thrown in, but overall, a pleasant yet disturbingly tranquil aura exudes the collage. The fluid words follow a relatively linear path; they juxtapose with the parts of the image. Both the picture and text start off clean and crisp, only to degenerate far beyond recognition as the viewer pans down the page. Likewise, beauty can begin with a graceful start, only to fall unto itself.

When the viewer first takes in the image, he may notice the strikingly dark border surrounding an almost completely white background. Preventing any chance of escape, the purity of the contents is left to suffer and deteriorate. The stark white background within the black boundary is only at first disturbed by a calm blue flowing down in a straight slit about three-quarters from the left side of the image. As the viewer moves down the image, the pure white, representing cleanliness, light, truth, virginity, and peace, continues to cover the picture like a fresh coat of snow. The stream of blue begins exhibiting darker shades of azure blotches scattered about itself as it descends downwards. Taken figuratively, the white represents the ideal embodiment of beauty: a pure, beautiful, serene, virginal female uncorrupted by the outside world because of her containment inside the recently created walls of isolation. She remains this virginal figure so long as the blue stream continues to flow uncontaminated.

Phillips’ use of the page’s words begins before the vertical midsection. He begins by describing a male character “softly unlock[ing] a field of dim moving blank white curtains”, the words contained within easily recognizable rectangles and an oval. After reading these words, the viewer may realize that the white areas on both sides of the stream resemble opening curtains, with a sky blue backdrop begging to be revealed. But these curtains are not alone. Within the perimeter of black isolation is a whole “field” of these white curtains, one in front of the other, hiding the next one from sight. The “dim moving blank” curtains tower above the male character, giving no ray of hope as they obscure the female prisoner at the end with unyielding expressions and lumbering appearances. Despite the intimidating circumstances, the character “unlock[s]” each of these curtains as he strives to reach the end. The curtains are “locked”, suggesting the value of the beauty they try to conceal. However, the character “softly” undoes each curtain, hinting at an uncharacteristic effeminate approach, revealing a possible compassionate motive but likely to hinder his progress.

As the viewer continues to scan down the image, Phillips’ male character carries on with his metaphoric search. The image seemingly reaches a climax towards the bottom third of the picture. The blue slit of a waterfall peacefully cascading down the pure white surroundings immediately coagulates, turning a navy, and then a blood red. Coincidentally, at the same instant, quick black lines extend from the “ground” of the picture, puncturing the once impressive cascade. The text simultaneously displays “to see her dead” in a congealed shape as the slit of blood continues down. It apparently seems that the character has indeed reached the beautiful female figure at the end of the ceaseless field of curtains. Unfortunately, upon unlocking the last curtain he “see[s] her dead”. The text, shapes, and colors in this area clearly denote the female’s death. Although representing the perfect personification of beauty, the female degenerates under her isolated and confined conditions. The character’s efforts in finding the female and possibly freeing her are futile.

The image ends with the stream flowing into a curdled pool of red, concealed by the numerous lines raised at a 45° angle that had pierced the cascade earlier. The text concludes with “her little patch of garden, the red tulips, the tumbler of water”. The character may have found next to the corpse of the virginal figure the last items she came in contact with. The female may have unsuccessfully tried to grow a “little patch of garden”, lined with “red tulips” and watered with a “tumbler of water” in a vain attempt to preserve the beauty. While a watering can is normally used in gardening, the tumbler may symbolize the female’s abrupt fall from grace, as tumblers are frequently used for drinking alcohol. Her seclusion has reached the limits, and the final sin of sowing fruitless seeds is committed before her supposed death.

In conclusion, Phillips crafts a collage brimming with simplicity but bursting with imagery, symbols, and meaning in this page from his work, A Humument. On page 173a, Phillips conveys to the viewer that beauty is a double edged sword; aesthetic appearances may be pleasant to look upon, but when left isolated and neglected, the beauty is useless and potentially harmful. Furthermore, any endeavors to save beauty that is far too degenerated are pointless as well, expressing the melancholic state of fallen beauty and hopeless efforts.

Friday, February 15, 2008

WIT Scholarship Essay

This is an essay I wrote for WIT's President's Scholarship. I am pleased to say that I won it. See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” —Albert Einstein
Please respond to the quote above and explain its meaning to you.

Knowledge and Imagination, the Earth and Universe of the Mind

The mind is an amazing phenomenon that humans are fortunate to have. Within the bowels of the cranium, the nooks and crannies of the brain, the mind miraculously holds both imagination and knowledge. It would be very difficult, if at all possible, to make due with just one of them. However, the human imagination far transcends the knowledge we may possess. Knowledge is essentially quite limited, but imagination stretches what we know in capacities none of us would expect.

Most commonly, imagination is simply the process of creating mental images or concepts in the head. It is invaluable for drawing ideas and models before undertaking their physical counterparts. As much as knowledge may seem useful, it is only meaningful to a small degree without imagination. For instance, as I read a beautifully crafted novel about the plight of a young knight, my mind absorbs the text and interprets it into what I know about the hero, his situation, location, allies, enemies, thoughts, and emotions. Still, unless there are accompanying pictures of every scene, it is difficult for me to actually visualize the hero, as he slays a dragon. But with imagination, the words become the embodiment of the brave paladin riding his armored mare through the quiet, aromatic forest of paragraphs, searching for the sanctimonious phrase, “Holy Grail”. Surprisingly, the imagination is very flexible; the savory taste of the wine in the Holy Grail may seem outright strong in my head but more subtle to the mind of another person. This mere act of conjuring up images, senses, concepts, and ideas is indeed very powerful and stimulating, a staple of what every human should experience at least once in life.

Imagination also has another important meaning, both in the literal sense and to me. In times of great difficulty, knowledge can only be so supportive. Take for an example the frustrating tasks of an information technology employee leading his small team in a large technology dependent company with little accommodations for the poor workers. Comprehension of the complicated network system of servers and understanding of the software used to implement the numerous databases is astonishingly not enough to sustain the company. The IT leader must use his mind to the fullest extent to overcome all the obstacles he will face. In this case, imagination is the solution; being able to confront the challenges and resolve them in extraordinary ways is beyond what knowledge is capable of. In the wake of budget constraints, the IT leader has his team virtualize the servers, reusing hardware and saving energy. With the acquisition of new software, the IT leader and his team simultaneously install it over the network instead of painstakingly doing it one machine at a time. During times of low demand and slow business, the IT leader keeps his team busy and motivated by starting a mini scavenger hunt, leading his team members to improve bits of the network while learning new techniques. The possibilities are limitless. The mind and imagination can take knowledge down many resourceful routes in the ever confusing labyrinth of life’s obstacles.

While knowledge is the earth and literally all we know about it, its habitants, environments, governments, economies, problems, and solutions, the imagination is an infinite magnitude larger, covering the entire universe, and perhaps, is boundless. We owe it all to their faithful cooperation that we have advanced societies and technologies that allow us to live more easily and intelligently. Nonetheless, I will always revere imagination much more highly, as its very essence allows us to be uniquely human.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Circular Concepts in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

James Joyce crafts a novel full of symbols and references in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in order to explore the life and tribulations of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Joyce’s frequent allusions to circles, orbs, and cyclical concepts emphasize the loss of masculinity among the myriad of characters that Stephen meets during his titular bildungsroman. The fear of castration and masculine degeneration is a common phobia among most males. According to psychoanalytical thinking, the Oedipus complex, named after the Greek tragic king, “involves fear of the father (and of threatening males in general) as fully as it involves desire for the mother (and for inferior, inadequate mother substitutes)”(Murfin 271). The characters demonstrate a lack or decline in masculinity as external and internal conflicts surface, prompting an unconscious “Am I man enough?” In Stephen’s case, the magnitude of his difficulties deviate him to find comfort in a “mother substitute”. As he witnesses the experiences of these minor characters and those of his own in the novel, Stephen grows up, afraid of, yet influenced by, metaphorical castration and the paternal threats that pressure him to become a devoted Irish citizen and pious member of civilized society.

Stephen spends his early years in the halls of Clongowes, a private boarding school for boys. He is a relatively naïve, innocent, young teenager, unexposed to the harsh realities of life away from home. One day, he and his school mates congregate to discuss a recent crime committed by some students on school grounds. Although they at first believed it to be a theft of wine from the school’s sacristy, a friendly acquaintance of Stephen named Athy gives a different account of the incident:

– They were caught with Simon Moonan and Tusker Boyle in the square one night.
The fellows looked at him and asked:
– Caught?
– What doing?
Athy said:
– Smugging.
All the fellows were silent: and Athy said:
– And that’s why. (50-51)

The boys are shocked in disbelief. “Smugging”, in this context, is defined as a mild sort of homosexual play. Even the mere thought of homosexuality was beyond sinful in such a highly religious school and especially during the late 1800s.
Previously unexposed to such racy subject matter, Stephen begins wondering about the smugging, thinking it must be a joke: “He wanted to ask somebody about it. What did that mean about the smugging in the square?”(51). He recalls Simon Moonan having “nice clothes”(51) and on “one night he had shown him a ball of creamy sweets that the fellows of the football fifteen had rolled down to him along the carpet in the middle of the refectory when he was at the door”(51). Even though Stephen finds Simon as a decent peer, the sudden revelation of his wrongdoing exhibits the defacing of his character and masculinity. The ball of creamy sweets he had shown Stephen symbolizes an orb of forbidden temptations, hinting at the offence he would carry out. The scene of the crime, the square, meaning the school’s latrine or urinal, further accentuates Simon’s castration. In attempting to satisfy his maternal desire, he and Tusker Boyle meet in the part of the building meant specifically for execratory means. By returning to the primitive requirement needed by all humans, Moonan is essentially returning to the mother’s womb, in which “we are [all] born between feces and urine”(Henke 324), suggesting an ongoing cycle. Ironically, Simon is last seen “walking by himself kicking a stone before him”(50), unlike the time before in which he advises that he and the boys return inside instead of kicking the football anymore. Having lost face and masculinity, Simon is now a social outcast, alone and vulnerable to criticism, kicking a round object that once represented the sport he enjoyed as a complete man. Feeling less of a man, Simon receives a flogging for punishment, but both his physical body and character suffer from the heinous crime.

As Stephen ages and matures, he undergoes gradual changes in mindset and lifestyle. He spends the summer at his family’s new house in Blackrock. During this time, he frequently goes out with his great uncle Charles on errands. One day, a meeting with Mike Flynn, a friend of Stephen’s father, is scheduled. According to Stephen’s father, Mike “had put some of the best runners of modern times through his hands”(66). At first, Mike sounds like the ideal macho figure, a confident track coach who favors a masculine running stance involving “[the] head high lifted, [the] knees well lifted and [the] hands held straight down by [the] sides”(66). Since Mike is a friend of Stephen’s father, an associate of uncle Charles, and an athletic trainer, the supposedly great coaching and social persona about him makes Mike an ideal paternal character.

He begins “Stephen’s run round the park”(66). The trainer then makes a few comments about Stephen’s cyclic scamper and even demonstrates by shuffling along. However, his vain efforts attract “a small ring of wonderstruck children and nursemaids…[who] gather to watch him and linger even when he and uncle Charles had sat down again and were talking athletics and politics”(66). Mike may have had an illustrious career in the past, but his proficiency has obviously declined in the years that followed. Stephen’s “run round the track in the style [he] favour[s]”(66) is fruitlessly executed, to the extent that he may as well be running in circles rather than training for real. It seems Mike’s training regimen is no longer up to par. In addition, his own laughable scuttle draws a circle of surprised onlookers who even stick around to hear his conversations with uncle Charles. The spectators form a ring around Mike, signifying his lost aptitude. His once proud manhood is diminished, despite his optimism for continuing to train potential runners. He is susceptible to and unprotected from the spectators’ possible disparagement. Regardless, a talkative husk of Mike’s former self remains as he sits down to chat with uncle Charles about athletics and politics, refuting any paternal qualities he may have had because of his passive, nonaggressive demeanor. Furthermore, Stephen doubts his trainer’s authenticity,

often glanc[ing] with mistrust at his trainer’s flabby stubblecovered face, as it bent over the long stained fingers through which he rolled his cigarette, and with pity at the mild lustreless blue eyes which would look up suddenly from the task and gaze vaguely into the bluer distance while the long swollen fingers ceased their rolling and grains and fibres of tobacco fell back into the pouch. (66)

Age has apparently withered Mike’s body and masculinity, hence his comical shuffle and appearance. Stephen disapproves of his “flabby stubblecovered face” and “stained fingers”, implying his uncleanness and failure to keep a shaven face, like all men were expected to have. Still, Stephen sympathizes with Mike’s “mild lustre blue eyes”, orbs that “gaze vaguely into the bluer distance”, hinting at the trainer’s uncertainty of his career’s present and future. Although Mike continues to train people and runs himself, he has fallen a great deal in terms of his athletic and teaching abilities, denoting his unwitting castration.

Stephen is an older teenager now and leads a very strict religious life. Attending a Jesuit school, he devotes all his time to prayer and the church. The director of the school summons him to a meeting one day, where they initially exchange idle chatter about the capuchin dresses. The director mentions how they could be replaced with the more common les jupes. Smiling at his remark, Stephen contemplates the director’s reference to les jupes, which means skirts in French. Thus, the very slight mention of “the names of articles of dress worn by women or of certain soft and delicate stuffs used in their making brought always to [Stephen’s] mind a delicate and sinful perfume”(142). The French skirts startle and puzzle Stephen, as he struggles to ponder why such effeminate clothing would be worn by priests, “men who washed their bodies briskly with cold water and wore clean cold linen”(142). Stephen is clearly afraid of this possible departure from the normal, pure, masculine clothing he has always donned.

The director and the priests, the ultimate paternal figures, have summoned Stephen to speak “on a very important subject”(143). The director feels that Stephen is eligible to become a priest:

To receive that call, Stephen, is the greatest honour that the Almighty God can bestow upon a man. No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them; the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen! (144)

Stephen is at first excited by the prospect of priesthood, “see[ing] himself, a young and silent-mannered priest, entering a confessional swiftly, ascending the altar-steps, incensing, genuflecting, accomplishing the vague acts of the priesthood”(144). However, as he walks home, he recalls the influence the church has had on him. The devotion he once had was no longer burning as strongly, especially since “the priestly role offered to Stephen here is feminine”(Brivic 288). Moreover, it is the binding quality of priesthood that steers Stephen gradually away from religion, as “once a priest always a priest”(146). Again, such devout commitment scares Stephen, as this robs him of the masculinity that is left within him. After temporarily discarding lust, greed, and other worldly thoughts, he realizes that he must learn the “wisdom of others … among the snares of the world”(148). Stephen decidedly resolves to abandon his faith, in pursuit of another form of refuge, his embodiment of the “substitute mother”. In the process, he successfully safeguards his invaluable masculinity from the effeminate influence.

The loss of masculinity is a terrible situation for any male. It can lead to acute criticism, exile, and disillusionment. As Stephen struggles through life, discovering the mistakes of others and his own, he prevents the castration of his own masculinity, learning the errors of those he meets and ultimately, finds the maternal womb he has so longed for. Joyce employs the imagery and conceptual ideas of round shapes to help underscore the male castration, showing the decline of one’s character and masculinity.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Winter Break Reading Assignment Essays

The following are the two prompts I picked and my responses, along with all the grammar mistakes and missing words. See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

What is the climax of the novel and why?

The climax of the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns would have to be when Mariam kills Rasheed. This climax is the point in which two of the characters stand up and take action. From the beginning of the novel, after Mariam is married to Rasheed, the reader is exposed to Rasheed’s short ill-temper. Although he is decent to her initially, his attitude changes after she fails to give birth to his child multiple times. Rasheed begins criticizing Mariam for her every little fault and mistake, verbally and physically abusing her, despite being a very devoted wife. Mariam endures, like her mother, Nana, before her, who once told her that “a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman”(7). This is definitely true for Rasheed. At the end of Part One, he forces Mariam to chew stones for serving him bad rice, claiming that their marriage gave him “bad food, and nothing else”(94). Mariam yet again endures the pain, knowing she can do nothing to Rasheed. However, years later, Rasheed decides to take in Laila as his second wife after he and Mariam rescue her from the rocket that destroyed her home and killed her family. He actually deceives her to do so, and Mariam is at first jealous of and angry at her. But the two women soon become confidantes, both weathering Rasheed’s storms of anger. Rasheed is a horrible man, comparing Laila to “a brand-new, first-class, shining Benz”(199), while Mariam is an old Volga. But towards the end of Part Three, Rasheed takes it too far when he almost suffocates Laila with his unmerciful grip during a fight. Alarmed, Mariam finds a shovel and strikes Rasheed in order to save “everything [she’d] ever wished for as a little girl”(319). Mariam saves Laila and preserves the future of Laila’s children, but in doing so, she sacrifices her own life when the Taliban execute her.

Trace the changes that the character Mariam experiences throughout the book.

Mariam is indeed an interesting character of A Thousand Splendid Suns. From the start, she is a naïve girl, frequently ignoring her mother’s stories and admonishes about motherhood and men. She practically worships her father, who has three other wives, and only visits Mariam once a week. When she journeys to Herat for the first time to see her father Jalil, she is disgraced that he doesn’t take her in, leaving her out on the streets. Mariam, after her mother’s suicide, realizes that her mother was right, that Jalil’s voice was full of “insincerity that had always lurked beneath, the hollow, false assurances”(36). Mariam is then married off to Rasheed, some 30 years older than her, and moves to Kabul. She is lonely and afraid, living in an unknown city with a man she doesn’t know. However, she begins to accept this new life, as Rasheed is initially a decent husband. But when she fails to give birth to his children multiple times, he begins verbally and physically abusing her. Mariam realizes again the suffering a wife must go through and the emotional pain of losing her children even before birth. Years later, Mariam feels hostile towards Laila after Rasheed takes her in as his second wife. But the two women learn to live together, working harmoniously with each other under the tyranny of their brutal husband. Rasheed takes it too far when he almost suffocates Laila to death. Mariam kills him with a shovel, but faces the dire consequences. She urges Laila and her children to leave without, that she would be fine; she and her children given her “everything [she’d] ever wished for as a little girl”(319). Saddened by depriving Rasheed’s son of his father, Mariam believes it to be fair that she take the punishment. Even as she is about to be executed, “one last time, Mariam did as she was told”(329) and kneels to the Taliban executioner.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Independent Reading Group Blog Posts

See pithy remarks for my personal comments. See here for the complete comment stream and discussion.

Well, seeing how few posts there are, I suppose we’ll extend the deadline for the first blog session to tomorrow, December 3rd. I hope that’s ok with you, Mr. G.

I also had trouble reading the novel. However, Kristin’s idea of rereading parts slowly does help a bit.

Initially, I was caught off guard when the story started off with a train, since I had believed the book took place in the early 1800s, with its references to geisha and a more rural setting. But the setting probably takes place in the 1930s (when the book was written) and of course, geisha even exist today. As with most of you guys, I also noticed the sexual connotations, such as Shimamura’s bending finger and his insistence that he wants to be friends with Komako. At first, this led me to believe that the story was trying to convey the stereotypical portrayal of geishas as prostitutes. If I am interpreting this right, it seems that Komako actually slept with Shimamura (36-37). However, geishas are really just talented female entertainers and companions. Despite Komako’s feelings for Shimamura, she works hard, learning the samisen (a sort of Japanese banjo) and entertaining guests at parties (although getting drunk herself).

In response to Shaun, Kawabata’s suicide may have been accidental, according to Wikipedia. Still, Kawabata may have had a “depressing outlook on life”, as Shaun mentions, since he lost all close relatives at a young age.

Kristin, the occidental dances that Shimamura finds irresistible are basically dances from the Western hemisphere, like ballets and performances found in America or Europe. I believe he finds them funny, since he “abruptly switched to the occidental dance”(24) and “stopped seeing the Japanese dance”(24). It’s probably ironic to him that he is no longer interested in the Japanese theater performances he grew up with and instead, finds “a ballet he had never seen [as] an art in another world”(25). In essence, it seems Shimamura finds great comfort in experiencing something unknown to him, and thus, he has a small obsession with the occidental dance. Since the woman, Komako, is a geisha from the rural snow country, who are supposedly differently from those in the main cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, he finds her appealing, and yet laughs “deep in [his] heart”(38) for liking a previously unknown “type” of geisha. Well, that’s just my two cents on the matter.

Anyway, I want to point out to you guys something interesting that I noticed. The translator mentions in the introduction how Kawabata uses his own writing style similar to haiku (vii-viii), which are “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms”(vii). Two examples of this haiku style can be found on pages 32 and 73, which both coincidentally begin with “The high, thin nose was…” Although we can’t say how the paragraphs were originally structured (since we’re reading translations), Kawabata definitely uses contrasting images to express his descriptions. For instance, he describes the woman’s nose (I would bet it belongs to Komako) as “a little lonely, a little sad, but the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches”(32). The “bud of her lips” opening and closing reminds me of a flower opening and closing. But comparing it to a “beautiful circle of leeches”? That’s a rather odd, yet unique simile. What do you guys think?

As I reread the sections that I marked down with sticky notes, I’m beginning to understand the story and underlying themes somewhat better.

The translator suggests that darkness and wasted beauty are common grounds in Kawabata’s work (vii). If the stereotypical image of the geisha is taken into consideration, the geisha can be a prime example of wasted beauty: a beautiful female entertainer, most likely multi-talented, decides to sell herself to clients in order to earn more money or even to support herself (supporting a family can be ruled out since geisha are supposed to be single). Such a lifestyle, despite any amount of money made, is not worth living. Throughout Part One at least, I noted several times that the author would sneak in the words “wasted effort”, which probably coincides with the idea of wasted beauty. For example, Shimamura hears from a masseuse (a female massager) that Komako is rumored to have become a geisha in order to support her fiancé, a sickly man that Shimamura had in fact been riding on the train with. The dilettante begins pondering over the matter (61), since Komako’s fiancé is likely going to die. The following quote sums up his thoughts.

“…the expression ‘wasted effort’ again came into Shimamura’s mind. For Komako thus to guard her promise to the end, for her even to sell herself to pay doctors’ bills—what was it if not wasted effort?”(61).

Although Shimamura may just be criticizing Komako for being impractical and unrealistic, it’s possible that he feels jealous of her fiancé. Then again, Shimamura mentions how Yoko, the woman who came to meet the sickly man, may be the man’s new lover. So is Shimamura jealous that Komako has a lover or just critical of her actions, especially since she is her companion during his stay in the inn?

Wendy, I’m not sure where I got this, but I remember reading something about geishas varying from region to region, especially when comparing geisha from urban areas to rural areas. It makes sense that urban geisha may lead different lifestyles, since they’re probably used to all the clients they receive, while rural geisha, especially those in the snow country, only receive visitors during a certain season. And whenever a (frequent) heavy snow storm hits the hot spring village in which many of the rural geisha reside in, the guests would have to stay longer and potential ones would have to wait to arrive. Shimamura is probably used to the urban geisha back in Tokyo, and since he has a fondness for new, unknown things, he wanted to visit a rural hot spring and their geisha, prompting his visit to the snow country (this last part is a bit of a stretch though; maybe we’ll find out his true motives for visiting the snow country by the end of the book?). You also mentioned that I was comparing Komako’s mouth to leeches… I think you misread my post, since I was referring to WHY Kawabata was making this comparison. The fact that some geisha blacken their teeth is probably why Kawabata makes this comparision, since, well, leeches can be black in color.

Anyway, here is something I found that I believe may be a part of a theme of Snow Country. On the last page of Part One, page 87, Shimamura begins his train ride back to Tokyo. He encounters a man and a woman talking heartily together. He assumes they are a couple on a long train ride. But when the man abruptly leaves at his stop, Shimamura “suddenly wanted to weep. He had been caught quite off guard”(87). He realizes that he “had not considered the possibility that the two had simply met on the train”(87). Ironically, Shimamura doesn’t seem to notice that he too may be like the man. As he returns to Tokyo, he leaves Komako behind in the hot spring village, leaving her alone like so many other guests have done before. Komako says it herself that “it’s that way with everyone who comes here. This is a hot spring and people are here for a day or two and gone”(22). These clients probably have no idea how lonely the hot spring geishas become, since they always receive new clients with weather permitting. This concept of perpetual loneliness in a dark snowy rural area emphasizes the story’s “wasted beauty”.

Kristin, the mountain may symbolize a high goal or achievement to be attained. So a mountain geisha is one who is young and has yet to reach a high level. Shimamura may be gazing at the mountains as if they are some dream he’s chasing. And the girl’s head floating above the mountains may suggest that he’s looking for a woman companion.

Wendy, yes, I was comparing the relationship that the man and woman on the train had with the one Shimamura and Komako seem to have in Part One. As of the end of Part One, the relationships are relatively close and intimate, but are short-lived. As for Yoko, she went to the train station to retrieve Komako towards the end of Part One. Shimamura told her to go on ahead to where Yukio is, since Komako would follow soon after.

As a bonus, I want to add some research I’ve done so maybe we can all get a better idea of the story we’re reading.

Snow Country takes place in Japan, specifically in the prefectures north of Tokyo (Gunma and Niigata Prefectures according to Wikipedia and yes, prefectures are basically like big states in Japan). The novel is aptly named since these regions get A LOT of snow (click here for pictures). Some houses even have entrances on the second story! So it’s not surprising that the snow causes transportation delays, isolated towns and villages, and building damage.

Hope you guys found that useful! Yep, I like Japanese related stuff and culture apparently. I’ll post more relevant information if I find any.

Alright, here’s my quick mini lesson on how to hyperlink in comment boxes. Say you want to make a link like this. All you have to do is type the following into the comment box without the quotes:


Replace the URL and the “this” and it’s as simple as that. Remember that the Preview button is your friend. Hope that helps. And hopefully, I’ll have my posts up on the blog by the end of today.

Ok, my bad. I lied, so here are my posts…

This is a passage I found particularly interesting when I first came across it. Komako has left for another party, while Shimamura and Yoko stay behind in the inn and have a rather intimate conversation.

“Her laugh, like her voice, was so high and clear that it was almost lonely. There was not a suggestion in it of the dull or the simple-minded; but it struck emptily at the shell of Shimamura’s heart, and fell away in silence.
‘What’s funny?’
‘But there has only been one man I could possibly nurse.’
Again Shimamura was startled.
‘I could never again.’
‘I see.’ His answer was quiet. He had been caught off guard. ‘They say you spend all your time at the cemetery.’
‘I do.’
‘And for the rest of your life you can never nurse anyone else, or visit anyone else’s grave?’
‘Never again.’
‘How can you leave the grave and go off to Tokyo, then?’
‘I’m sorry. Do take me with you.’
‘Komako says you’re frightfully jealous. Wasn’t the man her fiancé?’
‘Yukio? It’s a lie. It’s a lie.’
‘Why do you dislike Komako, then?’
‘Komako.’ She spoke as if calling to someone in the same room, and she gazed hotly at Shimamura. ‘Be good to Komako.’
‘But I can do nothing for her.’
There were tears in the corners of Yoko’s eyes. She sniffled as she slapped at a small moth on the matting. ‘Komako says I’ll go crazy.’ With that she slipped from the room.
Shimamura felt a chill come over him.”(137-138)

After Yukio’s death, Yoko seems much more lonely than usual. The fact that Kawabata describes her voice “[striking] emptily at the shell of Shimamura’s heart, and [falling] away in silence” might hint that Yoko did or still does have feelings for Shimamura. Despite never nursing another man and spending “all [her] time at the cemetery”, Yoko wants Shimamura to “take [her] with [him]” to Tokyo, implying her longing for him. Shimamura does not address this, and instead, asks whether Yukio was Komako’s fiancé. Yoko replies, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie”. It’s notable that Yoko repeats her short sentence; perhaps she’s not telling the whole truth. I think Yoko may have had a close relationship with Yukio, in which Komako inadvertently intruded upon. The relationship between the two young women probably changed because of it, and even after Yukio’s death, they seem to be both pursuing Shimamura, who in turn is interested in both of them. The most disturbing part of the passage, and something I thought was foreshadowing a future event, is how Yoko begins to cry and kills a moth on the matting (it’s summer time in the snow country and insects are literally everywhere). She then says, “Komako says I’ll go crazy”, and leaves the room, leaving Shimamura with a chill. Furthermore, after leaving Shimamura, Yoko goes to the women’s bath to bathe the innkeeper’s little daughter. As she does so, she sings a rather innocent sounding song, but it ends with the line “Hakamairi itchō, itchō, itchō ya”(139). This romanization of the Japanese characters translates to, according to the footnote, “In imitation of the birds. Literally: ‘To the cemetery, a hundred yards, a hundred yards, a hundred yards again’”. Since Yoko mentions how Komako say she’ll go crazy, it wouldn’t be so surprising to see her sending herself “to the cemetery” out of melancholy and loneliness; Yoko’s suicide would indeed have major repercussions on Komako and Shimamura.

Even after reading through the whole book, I don’t recall Kawabata giving a reason for why Shimamura visits the snow country (someone correct me if I’m wrong). He’s a rich fellow interested in western dance, and one day, he takes the train to the snow country, and conveniently meets a geisha or two that he’s interested in. I don’t believe he’s met Komako or Yoko before (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). The most scandalous about his visits is that Shimamura has left behind a wife and children back in Tokyo (who are mentioned on pages 89, 132, and 154). I’m shocked by his unfaithfulness to his own family and puzzled by his faithfulness to Komako. It must be his interest in experiencing unknown things.

In another intimate, but this time, more intense, moment, Shimamura and Komako decide to turn in, but Komako suggests they have a drink of saké (rice wine). Shimamura gets drunk on only a little bit of the alcohol. The two embrace and are at ease, until Shimamura says, “You’re a good girl”(146) to Komako. She seems alarmed, questions him, tells him not to tease her, and replies, “I’m not good at all. It’s not easy having you here. You’d best go home. Each time I come to see you I want to put on a new kimono, and now I have none left”(146-147). Shimamura barely responds as Komako admits that she originally hated him. He then breaks the silence that followed with “You’re a good woman”(147). After a few moments, Komako “raise[s] herself angrily to an elbow”(147), inquiring what he meant by it. Shimamura stares at her, and Komako, glaring at him, says “Admit it. That’s why you came to see me. You were laughing at me. You were laughing at me after all”(148). She then ironically states, “I hate you. How I hate you”(148).

It seems the saké has accidently brought out Shimamura’s true intentions. By calling her a “good girl” and then a “good woman”, it sounds like he has been using Komako. However, he feels “a stabbing in his chest as he [sees] what the mistake had been”(148). Komako sounds like she is very dedicated to Shimamura, trying to look her best whenever they meet. Perhaps Shimamura is earnest in his feelings, but he can’t quite express them correctly. Although Komako reconsiders and they basically make up, their relationship feels strained for the rest of the novel.

Here’s another interesting passage.

“He still sent his kimonos back for ‘snow-bleaching.’ It was a great deal of trouble to return old kimonos—that had touched the skin of he could not know whom—for rebleaching each year to the country that had produced them; but when he considered the labors of those mountain maidens, he wanted the bleaching to be done properly in the country where the maidens had lived. The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean. It must be added, however, that a Tokyo shop took care of the details for him, and he had no way of knowing that the bleaching had really been done in the old manner.”

Although it surely has a literal sense for Shimamura, I also took this passage as a metaphor for purging sin. Even though it’s a “great deal of trouble” for him to return his kimonos for this special “snow-bleaching”, Shimamura does so each year. He mentions how the feeling of the kimono and its glow in the sun is “enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean”. It seems Shimamura wouldn’t be satisfied with a simple wash of his kimonos, suggesting he may want to wash off all his sins, of which include his pursuit of Komako and Yoko and temporary abandonment of his family. Despite believing that his kimonos are bleached “properly in the country where the maidens had lived”, he has “no way of knowing that the bleaching had really been done in the old manner” because he brings them to a shop in Tokyo to “take care of the details”. Therefore, Shimamura’s attempt to purge his kimono and himself of impurities may be faulty. And certainly, he will pay for his sin of staying so long with Komako in the end.

To conclude my posts for Snow Country, I have aptly chosen the last several pages.

In a climatic ending, a fire breaks out in a warehouse close to Shimamura and Komako as they meet up. People scramble to put out the fire and rescue those inside, who have been watching a movie. Shimamura and Komako gaze at the fire together, but he “feels[s] that a separation was forcing itself upon them”(172). As if by coincidence, at that moment, “the crowd gasped as one person. A woman’s body had fallen through the flames”(172). Shimamura and Komako realize that it is Yoko that had just fallen from the low balcony of the warehouse. In the end, Komako takes Yoko in her arms with tears in her eyes, saying, “This girl is insane. She’s insane”(175).

To me, it definitely looks like Yoko attempted to kill herself. It’s unclear as to whether she started the fire (it’s stated that the film caught fire on page 164). Still, her attempted suicide is somewhat expected, since, as I mentioned in my previous posts, she lost Yukio, isolating her even more from the world, especially when Komako steals all the attention of Shimamura away from Yoko. The tension between Komako and Yoko only increased with the death of Yukio and the inclusion of Shimamura into their lives. Although Kawabata never explicitly states whether Yoko dies or not, Shimamura “did not see death in the still form [of Yoko’s body]. He felt rather that Yoko had undergone some shift, some metamorphosis”(174). Even though this could mean she is physically disfigured from her fall, it may also hint that Yoko’s character will change, and perhaps she’ll move on from Yukio and Shimamura. Regardless of what happens to her, it seems the relationship between Shimamura and Komako will never be the same from that point onward. As he tries to catch up to Komako with Yoko in her arms, Shimamura is pushed back, both literally and metaphorically:

“He tried to move toward that half-mad voice, but he was pushed aside by the men who had come up to take Yoko form her. As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar”(175).

Indeed, I think Yoko’s possible death serves as Shimamura’s punishment. He may be awaiting more retribution when he returns back to his family in Tokyo. Shimamura can probably be classified as a tragic hero (or rather, a tragic character). His tragic flaw of wanting to find passion in unknown experiences leads him to the snow country and Komako. But by having such a strong and intimate relationship with her (despite being married), he causes his own downfall and his relationship crashes with Yoko’s fall.

Well, it was fun talking with myself. For those of you still checking the blog, be sure to have a copy of The Sound of Waves. We should finish roughly half of it by this weekend and make our posts. Since there’s sixteen total chapters, let’s say half is the first eight chapters.

Sorry, guys, but I’m going to have to start the third session of blog comments. My following posts will focus on the first eight chapters (roughly half) of The Sound of Waves. After reading the first half, I can say with confidence that I like it a lot more than Snow Country. The straightforwardness and vibrant imagery makes the text very easy to read and understand. In addition, the simple and somewhat clichéd plot of young love keeps me interested.

This passage in chapter two caught my eye. Shinji, the male protagonist, had recently seen a girl he had never seen before; the village in which he lives in is small enough so that pretty much everyone would know each other. He learns from his boat master that the girl, Hatsue, is the daughter of a wealthy ship owner, and she has returned to the island of Uta-jima because her father wishes her to find a husband whom he could adopt into the family.

“Talk of this girl and the image of the girl he had seen on the beach yesterday immediately took fast hold of each other in Shinji’s mind. At the same instant he recalled, with a sinking heart, his own poor condition in life. The recollection made the girl whom he had stared at so closely only the day before seem very, very far away from him now. Because now he knew that her father was Terukichi Miyata, the wealthy owner of two coasting freighters chartered to Yamagawa Transport—the hundred-and-eighty-five-ton Utajima-maru and the ninety-five-ton Harukaze-maru—and a noted crosspatch, whose white hair would wave like lion whiskers in anger”(18).

As I read the passage, I immediately thought how Shinji can be related to Pip in Great Expectations (YES, I really liked that book). A boy’s admiration of a girl so physically close, yet with social barriers creating an artificial distance, is a theme I’ve always observed with high regard. In this case, Shinji is an eighteen-year-old working as a fisherman to support his mother and younger brother. Although he begins to fall for Hatsue, he can’t quite justify being with her yet, because her father is wealthy enough to own two massive ships. Miyata is also described as a “noted crosspatch, whose white hair would wave like lion whiskers in anger”. A crosspatch is defined as a bad-tempered person, so he definitely wouldn’t give up Hatsue to a lowly fisherman so easily. This sets up an interesting storyline, and it will be exciting to see how Shinji and Hatsue will end up together (or not).
I find it fascinating that the author of The Sound of Waves, Yukio Mishima, had visited Yasunari Kawabata, the author of Snow Country, and had asked him for advice (according to Wikipedia). Mishima ended his life with seppuku (ritual suicide) and a theory even says that Mishima’s suicide prompted Kawabata’s suicide.

I also like how the translator chose to keep the honorifics in the story. In Western society, honorifics are basically the “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, and “Ms.”, but in Japanese society, they are a bit different and are generally used out of respect, politeness, or affection. So far, I’ve witnessed the use of the Japanese honorific suffix, “-san”, which is a common honorific attached to names and used for respect (i.e. Shinji-san, Hatsue-san).

Hey guys, great to see you all posting again!

Kristin, thanks for bringing my attention to the moths and the color green. I didn’t see those passages as that significant when I first read them. And your post about the relationship between Shimamura and Komako is well articulated in my opinion; it’s interesting how people push others away in an attempt to bring them closer.

Shaun, great job noticing all those tiny details! I think I’m focusing too much on the relationship between Shinji and Hatsue; there’s definitely more to the novel than that! And I’ll check out that Great Expectations film adaptation… although I’ve always preferred the original mid-nineteenth century English setting.

Wendy, the light imagery in that paragraph probably serves as symbols for the new day and the introduction of the main plot. Although it seems the whole day passes by in that one paragraph, Mishima does explain how Shinji and his crew harvest fish later in chapter two. But first, he probably wanted the reader to see how the story would unfold with the first unexpected encounter between Shinji and Hatsue.

Finally, on to my posts! I’ll be putting up passages that appealed to me, so that you guys don’t necessarily have to look back in your books. =)

“Shinji was not at all given to brooding about things, but this one name, like a tantalizing puzzle, kept harassing his thoughts. At the mere sound of the name his cheeks flushed and his heart pounded. It was a strange feeling to sit there motionless and feel within himself these physical changes that, until now, he had experienced only during heavy labor.
He put the palm of his hand against his cheek to feel it. The hot flesh felt like that of some complete stranger. It was a blow to his pride to realize the existence of things within himself that he had never so much as suspected, and rising anger made his cheeks even more flaming hot”(21-22).

At a meeting regularly scheduled for young, unmarried men on the island, Shinji hears talk about Hatsue, at which instant, he is taken aback. We again see his initial sensitivity to the subject, whose name “[keeps] harassing his thoughts”. Shinji is described as “not at all given to brooding about things”, but in this case, “his cheeks flushed and his heart pounded” at the mere mention of Hatsue’s name. Normally, he’d experience these symptoms “only during heavy labor”, and thus, he feels ashamed for feeling something he has never dealt with before. So why is it “a blow to his pride” for having a crush? Well, the society described in The Sound of Waves is an isolated fishing village on an island where everyone knows each other. Falling in love at eighteen must be indeed awkward for Shinji, so much that he feels angry at himself, “[making] his cheeks even more flaming hot”. Such foreign feelings, vastly different from what he has ever experienced before makes his “flesh [feel] like that of some complete stranger”. However, the change that Shinji will inevitably undergo will be for the better, at least for himself, that is… It’ll be interesting to see how the village reacts.

Alright, time for some context so we can all understand the text better. Here’s a site with a map of the area where the novel takes place. If you click the numbers at the top, you can see pictures and short descriptions of important events in the story (don’t click the later ones or you’ll ruin the book for yourself!). Also, click the “Click for Uta-Jima close-up” on the map for important locations of Uta-jima, the island where Shinji and Hatsue live on.

Next up are two passages from the beginning of chapter five. In the previous chapter, Shinji and Hatsue had their first formal meeting.

“Until now the boy had been leading a peaceful, contented existence, poor though he was, but from this time on he became tormented with unrest and lost in thought, falling prey to the feeling that there was nothing about him that could possibly appeal to Hatsue. He was so healthy that he had never had any sickness other than the measles. He could swim the circumference of Uta-jima as many as five times without stopping. And he was sure he would have to yield to no one in any test of physical strength. But he could not believe that any of these qualities could possibly touch Hatsue’s heart.

City youths learn the ways of love early from novels, movies, and the like, but on Uta-jima there were practically no models to follow. Thus, no matter how he wondered about it, Shinji had not the slightest idea what he should have done during those precious minutes between the observation tower and the lighthouse when he had been alone with her. He was left with nothing but a keen sense of regret, a feeling that there was something he had utterly failed to do”(33-34).

I found it comically ironic that Shinji believes he would not be appealing to Hatsue, despite his awesome health, unparalleled strength, and extensive experience. The second paragraph reinforces my earlier thoughts about Uta-jima’s isolation. Mishima describes how the island villagers have “practically no models to follow” regarding love, unlike their city youth counterparts. Thus, Shinji has no clue about what he should have done during his meeting with Hatsue on the observation tower. However, calming her done and leading her back to the lighthouse are probably as much as he could have done, in my opinion. This, of course, all relates to the way Pip felt. Pip believed his “coarse, common boy” demeanor interfered with his relationship with the cold Estella, prompting his aspiration to become a gentleman (let me know if this part is wrong… I haven’t read GE since freshmen year).

In chapter eight, Shinji and Hatsue accidently meet in the observation tower (both naked by the way) after a storm forces each of them inside. Their feelings escalate with this tender encounter. The following passage somewhat sums up the scene.

“From time to time the dying fire crackled a little. They heard this sound and the whistling of the storm as it swept past the high windows, all mixed with the beating of their hearts. To Shinji it seemed as though this unceasing feeling of intoxication, and the confused booming of the sea outside, and the noise of the storm among the treetops were all beating with nature’s violent rhythm. And as part of his emotion there was the feeling, forever and ever, of pure and holy happiness”(77).

This paragraph sounds like clichéd and ironic foreshadow. In their moment together in serenity and gentleness, Shinji and Hatsue hear the “whistling of the storm” and the “booming of the sea”, “all beating with nature’s violent rhythm”. Although quiet and warm inside the observation tower, a storm rushes over the island, suggesting that trouble could be brewing on the horizon; Shinji and Hatsue’s relationship may not end in happiness. Despite believing his emotion of the “pure and holy happiness” to be “forever and ever”, Shinji condones the storm as just that, a natural event. Even if it really is just a storm and not necessarily an omen, his “unceasing feeling of intoxication” with Hatsue could also spell doom. Remember Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? A quote regarding the famous play I have heard involves “taking all things in moderation”, including such a romantic relationship.

This concludes my third session of literature circle book posts for the first half of The Sound of Waves.

Ok… Moving on to the second half of The Sound of Waves (chapters nine to sixteen). I finished the book the Sunday before Christmas, and frankly, the plot is nice (although a bit simple and perhaps formulaic), but I had trouble finding anything good to talk about. It’s been a hectic week, and hopefully, the following will suffice. I’ll make all my posts for this last session in one fell swoop. =)

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of what can be loosely interpreted as irony in the novel. Yasuo, an arrogant and selfish young man, is interested in Hatsue, and he is on par with her in terms of social status. In this chapter, he clearly becomes Shinji’s rival and is also the other antagonist besides Terukichi, Hatsue’s father. In the following passages, Yasuo discovers irony the hard and painful way.

“Yasuo was the proud and always bragging owner of a watch with a luminous dial. Tonight he had left this on his wrist and had slipped into bed still wearing his jacket and trousers. From time to time he put the watch to his ear, looking often at its luminously glowing face. In Yasuo’s opinion the mere ownership of such a wonderful watch made him by rights a favorite with the women.

All the time the luminous watch of which Yasuo was so proud, strapped above the hand with which he was holding onto the branch of the beech tree, was giving off its phosphorescent glow, faintly but distinctly ticking away the seconds. This aroused a swarm of hornets in the nest fastened to this same branch and greatly excited their curiousity”(87-90).

I think we can all say that Yasuo’s cockiness is his greatest fault. As if being from a leading, influential family in the village isn’t enough, he believes he can take Hatsue for a wife since even the poor fisherman Shinji can attract her. Yasuo apparently owns an expensive watch, which, in his opinion, “[makes] him by rights a favorite with the women”. In contrast, he isn’t too popular among the women, for being “quite fat”(22) and selfish. Nonetheless, he decides to stalk Hatsue at night as she gathers water from the island’s only fresh water spring. His efforts are thwarted when, ironically, the watch he keeps bragging about attracts the attention of hornets. The swarm of insects gives away his location and prevents him from cornering the vulnerable Hatsue. Honestly, one can interpret this a few different ways. It could be karma of some sort (Yasuo’s intent on harming Hatsue backfiring), divine intervention (Mother Nature and her attacking hornets?), or simply just fate. What do you guys think of it?

In chapter twelve, Terukichi forbids Hatsue from ever meeting with Shinji again after hearing gossip about the pair. Disheartened, Shinji “relieve[s] his pent-up emotions by wandering to those parts of the island where people seldom [come]”(120), one of them being the ancient burial mound of Prince Deki.

“The legend of Prince Deki was vague. Nothing was known even about the origins of his strange name.

Be that as it may, the story goes that long, long ago, in a golden ship, the prince drifted from a far land to this island, took a girl of the island to wife, and when he died was buried in an imperial tumulus. No accounts have been handed down concerning the prince’s life, nor are there recounted any of those tragic tales that are apt to grow up and adhere to such a legendary figure. Assuming the legend to be based on fact, this silence suggests that Prince Deki’s life on Uta-jima must have been so happy and uneventful that it left no room for the birth of tragic yarns.
Perhaps Prince Deki was a heavenly being who descended to a nameless land. Perhaps he lived out his earthly years without being recognized and, do what he would, will as he could, was never separated from happiness, nor from the blessings of Heaven. Perhaps this is the reason why his remains were interred in a mound overlooking the beautiful Five League Beach and Hachijo Isle, leaving behind not a single story….”(121-122).

Try as I might, I could find absolutely no further information on this Prince Deki (despite gathering all the resourceful resources of the internet!). So he literally has left no accounts of his life. Of course, the name could have been badly romanized and no one has or knows how to correct it… Perhaps there are records of him on some Japanese website. Regardless, the legend of a great man who left no legacies can be said to happen all the time in the real world. For example, an amazing teacher (no names!) could leave impressions upon his students whom will never forget him, and yet, the teacher would be widely unknown in the area unless he’s won some sort of an award or has done other deeds worthy of merit. It’s notable that Hatsue writes to Shinji, telling him that she had a dream where “a god told her that Shinji was a reincarnation of Prince Deki”(122) and “they had been happily married and had had a jewel-like child”(122). Shinji realizes that Hatsue could not have known about his excursion to Prince Deki’s tomb the night before. This is probably the cheesiest (I hope I’m using that right…) example of foreshadow, and indeed, it seems fate is playing a role in Shinji and Hatsue’s relationship after all.

“The mistress of the lighthouse wiped the sweat from her face several times. At long last she began to speak:
‘Well, what I want to talk to you about is your Hatsue-san and the Kubo family’s Shinji-san, and…’

Now for the first time Terukichi turned his face toward her, and then he spoke, without so much as a sign of a smile:
‘If that’s all you have to talk about, it’s all already settled. Shinji’s the one I’m adopting for Hatsue’s husband’”(174).

After reading this, I think my jaw dropped in astonishment. First, some context: the mistress of the lighthouse (the lighthouse-keeper’s wife) receives a letter from her daughter, Chiyoko, who had originally spread the rumor about Shinji and Hatsue. She apparently feels guilty about spreading the rumor and refuses to return home unless her mother convinces Terukichi to marry Hatsue to Shinji. The lighthouse mistress has had her work cut out for her, since Terukichi, unhappy in seeing her daughter’s miserable state, decided to give a test to both Shinji and Yasuo by having them both join the fishing crew of one of his freighters. The captain of the freighter is delighted with Shinji’s performance and is disgusted by Yasuo’s laziness and cowardice. So, in what I call an anticlimactic scene, Terukichi agrees to have Hatsue wed to Shinji. Even in a perfect world, one might expect some sacrifices and what not for such an arrangement to take place. But it seems fate has allowed the two lovers to be together in the end without any violence, bloodshed, or even a plot twist. Still, I bet most would agree with me that Shinji was a bit hard on himself for believing he wasn’t good enough for Hatsue towards the beginning of the book. Shinji has certainly proved himself though, because, in the following passage, Terukichi justifies his decision.

“The only thing that really counts in a man is his get-up-and-go. If he’s got get-up-and-go he’s a real man, and those are the kind of men we need here on Uta-jima. Family and money are all secondary. Don’t you think so, Mistress Lighthouse-Keeper? And that’s what he’s got—Shinji—get-up-and-go”(175).

I sincerely wish I had more passages to explicate, or at least, talk about… but everything just seems way too straightforward towards the end of the novel. Therefore, I think I’ll share some interesting things I found out and my concluding thoughts. I would like to hear more of what you guys think about both books, but I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath to find out. =)

So at the end, Shinji and Hatsue are happily engaged. Who knows, maybe the gods answered Shinji’s prayer from the beginning of the story (page 25)… Fate has brought the two together and it seems the gods are happy with their decision when “nature too again smiled on them”(177) as the couple scale the steps to the shrine.

Anyway, remember that website I referenced earlier? According to the home page, the content on the pages was all done by an Advanced Placement English class (I’m assuming it was a project for them to enjoy after the AP tests). They did a lot of good research.

For instance, in languages that use characters (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.), each character has its own meaning, but when joined together, they can form new meanings similar to how letters make words. In my experience with various Japanese media, romanized Japanese names almost always have some sort of meaning, and thanks to those AP students, we now know what some of the names in The Sound of Waves stand for. Shinji means “to have faith and confidence”, a fitting definition for the protagonist as he literally weathers the turbulent storms out on the ocean and when he tries to win Hatsue’s hand in marriage. Hatsue means “original thought or idea”, which describes Hatsue’s individualistic and different outlook on society, since she would rather marry Shinji for his qualities than his social status and wealth. Now, if only we could find out what “Shimamura” and “Komako” mean…!

Alright, my closing thoughts… I guess I was expecting too much from The Sound of Waves when I first began it and thus, the second half kind of disappointed me. This novel is definitely not the next Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations. There are no overt action scenes, dramatic plot twists, or anything of that sort. I guess the praise the novel has garnered is for its simplicity and adherence to the culture of isolated Japanese villagers on an island, where emotions are commonly suppressed more or less, and gossip is frequently rampant. I believe the setting is post World War II, and this makes sense, because the time period represented a departure from proper traditions (like Shinji, a poor fisherman, marrying Hatsue, the daughter of a wealthy villager). Personally, I liked The Sound of Waves more than Snow Country and would highly recommend it as a novel to be simply enjoyed. All in all, The Sound of Waves is a better read if one likes a simple love story with a cliché “happily ever after” ending, while Snow Country might be preferred for its more stylistic writing style and plot, with a sad ending open to the reader’s interpretation.

Well, I guess that concludes my mandatory blog posts… I’ll gladly keep posting if you guys want to talk more about these two novels… In any case, I hope everyone had a nice vacation. ^_^ <--(That's a happy face by the way...)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Olsonian-style Mythos Research Project

See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

I admit, this project seemed rather daunting at first. There were many topics being thrown around in Henry Ferrini’s Polis Is This. However, the commuter rail station with the scrolling marquee reading something along the lines of “You're your own train. You're your own track. You can go anywhere”, caught my eye at once. I was fond of the use of the small, almost hidden quotes of Olson sprinkled in the different scenes of Gloucester. Since I am also a casual MBTA enthusiast, I decided to pursue this topic. And when I heard about the opportunity to express ourselves creatively – by making a video – I banded together with Simon and Quan from period 6 in order to create our Olsonian-style personal mythos.

The process of researching and gathering information is much easier nowadays with the power of the Internet. We visited the official MBTA website to learn the backgrounds of the subway and commuter rails. For a more unbiased perspective, we looked through Wikipedia articles and the sties that the articles linked to. Search engines, although common tools for Internet research, were not used too frequently, as we initially wanted to find more reputable sources of information. To complete our research, we paid a visit to the Malden Center station, serving both the orange line subway and commuter rail. There, we were able to get brochures with schedules and maps of the trains and buses that go through the station. If this was a more elaborate project and if we had more time, we would have done more research at the library, possibly looking for old newspaper articles on the T and the commuter rail. Sometimes, even with the vast, seemingly limitless end to information on the Internet, actual site visits and library archives may provide valuable knowledge not found on the web.

We learned a lot from our research. For instance, I did not previously know that the commuter rail extended into Rhode Island. The commuter rail system was contracted by the MBTA from the New Haven Railroad network, and began operating under the Commuter Rail Directorate in 1974. There are over 11 lines servicing 125 stations, with extensions being planned. All lines terminate at either North Station or South Station in Boston. The commuter rail prices differ greatly from the generally fixed prices of the subway lines; depending on what zone the person is riding to, prices range from $1.70 to $7.75. The actual service is provided by diesel locomotives with a purple coloring, hence the commonly referred nickname, the “purple line”. The passenger coaches are usually single level for the routes terminating at North Station, while double decker passenger cars are typical for trains beginning at South Station. The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR) now serves over 140,000 passengers each work day on 465 trains that travel throughout central to eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Creating our creative piece was certainly a tiring, yet fun experience. We chose to do a video/movie, since I had been making some sort of video for all of my English classes since Freshmen year. It is also a great way to tell a story, combining audio and visual experiences with subtle symbols or motifs. We developed a story about a person trying to find his way in life and tied in references to the commuter rail. The short movie begins with thematic music and a sunrise, representing a new day and new discoveries to be found. I voice Olson’s train quote as the title, “Endless Stops”, signifying the ceaseless amount of stops in life and a person’s decision to proceed to the next one or remain still, appears. Quan is then depicted as an astray young man spending his time on wasteful tasks. Since we particularly liked how little quotes were cleverly displayed throughout Polis Is This, Quan’s computer monitor has a commuter rail train on it when he turns it on. Also, Quan’s older brother admonishes him for being “stationary” and mocks him with the comment “…next stop: Loserville”. Later, when Quan goes to the commuter rail station, he mentions how it will “cost [him] seven dollars” for the ride. We weren’t quite sure about additional surcharges, so we kept the high price of seven, approximately representative of a ride to a terminating station. In accordance with our “find your path” theme, Simon appeared as a contrasting figure to Quan, and recited some facts about the commuter rail in an accent reminiscent of Forrest Gump. His voice and remark made about the 1994 movie don’t really have any meaning to the story; we just thought it was funny. After suggesting that Quan find his “track”, Simon disappears in a rather cliché way, hinting at his omnipresence akin to a god. Filming at the station took place from about 6 to 7 PM on a cold Sunday, so we missed the three hour interval that the train stops at Malden Center. Nonetheless, we included views of the track and a glimpse of the orange line subway on the newspaper that Quan pulls out of his face. In the end, Quan finds his “track” after meeting Simon, and he’ll hopefully live a more meaningful life. To match the opening somewhat, the background of the credits is the nighttime skyline of Boston and a glance of the moon as zoomed in from the station.

Overall, we felt we were successful with the research and project. Even though there’s more people, working in a group can prove challenging. However, Quan, Simon, and I pulled through and evenly distributed our work and collaborated effectively, culminating in our Olsonian-style personal mythos, Endless Stops.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Plum Plum Pickers - Passage Explication

See pithy remarks for my personal comments.

In this passage from The Plum Plum Pickers, author Raymond Barrio suggests the ongoing struggle that takes place between the rich and the poor. Specifically, those of higher social ranking exploit and abuse the “common man”, despite living more comfortable lives. Barrio’s use of terse sentences and striking imagery express the inhuman and animal qualities of these “common men”, the Spanish laborers who pick fruit during a hot day. In contrast, the higher up authoritative figures relax and enjoy the day, “smiling in their cool filtered offices, puffing their elegant thin cigars”(40). The differences in these social groups eventually cause conflict, resulting in a confrontation that reveals the underlying similarities of all humans, regardless of class.

Barrio portrays the protagonist, Manuel, as the lower ranking man who must savagely toil away to earn insufficient pay. In fact, it is notable that Barrio chooses to name the character “Manuel”, as he seems to hint at the character’s representation of the common man. The passage begins with him picking fruit among the rows of trees. He is “trapped in an endless maze of apricot trees … like the blackest bars on the jails of hell”(40). Barrio compares Manuel’s meager job to an animal’s imprisonment, punishment for those considered below human standards. The use of one word sentences, “locked”(40), “animal”(40), “brute”(40), “beast”(40), and “savage”(40), are dispensed between descriptions of Manuel’s search for a respite, water, conveying his primal instincts. The short phrases are like flashes of bestiality; they compel Manuel to quench his dire thirst after working in the hot dry air. Later on, the crew chief passes by Manuel and ridicules his performance, calling him a “pendejo”(40). This pejorative term further classifies Manuel as a lowly human being. Such low prey is easy picking for higher up predatory crew chiefs.

Roberto Morales, the crew chief and foreman of the Spanish laborers, is the primary predator and antagonist. Although a fellow Spaniard himself, Morales is described as a “vicious, thieving brute … to his own people”(40). He found these fruit picking jobs for his fellow men, but in doing so, rose to a position above them. In essence, he has betrayed his people by actually taking money from each of his laborer’s already scanty salary. Morales’ name is actually a pun for moralless, having no virtues or conscience, suggesting his lack of decency even among his own people.

However, as Morales comes around to collect two cents from everyone’s pay, a change in tone occurs. Unlike the earlier animal imagery of Manuel and the derogatory portrayal of Morales, the two characters come face to face in a quick scene of conflict. Even though having more authority and “[having] the whole advantage”(41), Morales is perturbed by Manuel’s deliberate action; the fruit picker tips over his bucket of fruits, wasting them to the ground. His comrades poise to do the same, prompting Morales to back off, stating that he “shall take nothing this time”(41). The lower social group, in effect, defeats the higher one with strength in numbers and cause. Manuel and the other pickers “[have] wrenched Morales’ greedy fingers away”(41), allowing them to feed their families just a bit more. In doing so, Manuel achieves a “sense of honor and pride”(41) in which all “men are built to experience”(41).

Different social classes continue to clash due to disparities in living style and wealth. The lower classes, typically taken advantage of by the higher classes, are deemed subhuman. Despite the differences and conflicts that arise, all humans still have the right to feel dignity in protecting one’s family or serving one’s people, as Barrio clearly demonstrates in his depiction of Manuel.