Charles Chesnutt’s The Passing of Grandison

Read on its own it is a delightful, intriguing story with a twist at the end that leaves one pleasantly surprised. However, if one knew the background behind the story, the suspense would be much stronger. If one knew that Chesnutt was a member of the NAACP, that he had tried to write in order to bring about positive change in the society and fight against racism, when you see the words flowing from the mouths of both slaves and masters in the story, one will more easily detect the sarcasm dripping from every letter like thick strands of green slime. When Grandison returns with his outlandish tale of escape from the brutal hands of the abolitionist, one’s suspicions will be aroused, and when the final act plays out, one will read it with appreciation for what the author was trying to do, and not sit there wondering “where did that come from”.

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Text analysis from Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba (“The Humps”)

Later, when Koumba came into contact with grownups… the other, spiteful, cantankerous, and peevish as a bear with a sore head.

This text is extracted from the story “The Humps” in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba. The story tells of Khary and Koumba, two women afflicted with hunchbacks, and how they navigate the the world as girls and as married women. Their contrasting personalities leave their husband “half-happy” until a supernatural intervention renders judgment, saving one and destroying the other. This text is situated directly after a brief exposition detailing the background (i.e. childhood, and general outline of their married life) of the main characters, and informs us about the state of the house as Koumba enters it. It sets the stage for the rest of the story, explaining why Khary will be punished and Koumba rewarded. An appropriate title for this text could be: The Two Wives and Their Husband.

This text is divided into four parts. The first part ends with “she was just the same.” The subtitle for it could be “Immutable Nature.” As Koumba reaches adulthood, she finds that childish teasing has been replaced by spiteful adults, however she remains true to herself. This part sets up the idea that the way people are as children makes up their adult character where issues become more serious and consequences more severe. It is this underlying idea that sets the stage for the story’s conflict. 

The second part of the text ends at “and helped him with his work.” As a married woman, Koumba attempts to serve the first wife and the husband, the former because she considers her to be like her big sister and the latter out of love. The epitome of a loving wife and respectful sister, she does all of the heavy work in the house, washes the clothes, takes Momor’s food to him in the fields, and helps him work. As a representative of filial piety,  she is the hero of the story who embodies the customary values of the society: respect for the (broadly speaking) elders. This section can be entitled “Good Intentions” or “Filial Piety.”

The third part of the text ends at “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish.” In it we are told that Khary’s good works are reciprocated with spite by the first wife, Koumba. In spite of the respect and help rendered to her, and the fact that Khary has a larger hump in comparison to her own, and thus should be the one with an attitude, Koumba’s bad qualities worsen. In this section the human vice (i.e. Envy) which will be punished is introduced to us. This section may be titled: “Bad Seeds.”

The fourth part of the text ends with the words “peevish as a bear with a sore head,” and informs us of the social disorder caused by the previous section. That is, the house (or family), upon which African society is built, is in a state of disharmony, and the husband is only “half-happy,” sandwiched as he is between an affable wife and one who is spiteful and peevish. We may call this part: “A House Divided.”

This story deals with the human vice of Envy (also called Jealousy) which is punished at the end of the tale. It is also an etiological explanation for the two geographical features (i.e. humps) “at the extremity of the Cape Verde Peninsula”. The tone of the text is serious, and is told from an omniscient third person perspective that delves into the thoughts and motives of the characters involved. In this text Envy is personified when Amadou Koumba says, “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish,” a statement that is also a proverb, teaching us that Envy will rear its ugly head even against people who should not be envied, like Khary envying  Koumba despite the latter having a larger hump and being therefore undeserving of any envy. 

In addition, the text also employs a metaphor to vividly illustrate the trouble Khary is causing, when it lists her negative qualities and compares them to “a bear with  a sore head” using the word ‘as’. This events in this text set the stage for the rest of the story, give us motives for the characters’ future actions, and point out the conflict that is to be resolved at the end through the dance. The moral of the story is that no matter how bad our condition may be we should never envy others, because our condition could always be worse, and that the act of envying leads to a bad end: Khary ended up with an extra hump because of her Envy.

Contemplating The Great Gatsby

A man came to Ibrāhīm Ibn Adham, a Muslim scholar, with a gift. Ibrāhīm put a condition on the man that in order for him to take the gift the man must be wealthy. The man responded that he was wealthy. Ibrāhīm asked him how much he had. The man said that he had so-and-so amount of money. Ibrāhīm asked the man if he would like a larger amount, and the man replied in the affirmative.  Ibrāhīm Ibn Adham told the man that he would not accept the gift because the man was not wealthy (i.e. he was not content with what he had)[1]. The characters in Gatsby do not appear to have any contentment of heart.

In spite of the wealth that they possess, which one normally assumes is the means to happiness, they appear bored and… normal, for lack of a better word. By normal I mean that they are not trying to do anything grand or even significant. Much like the man in the Lovesong, they are aiming so painfully low, and I find it hard to excuse them, not to speak of that guy in Lovesong, for being so nonchalant about life. These characters are wasting away the precious minutes of their existence, as much as fictional characters have an existence, eavesdropping on people on the telephone, gossiping about the butler’s nose, trying to wreck other people’s marriages in the pursuit of “true love”, or, as in the case of Nick, standing by the side of the road watching life go by.

One would hope that they would be doing something more important, or at least be of benefit to their fellow man. One would hope that they would find something better to do with the money they have been blessed with other than wasting it on parties. I wonder if that is not the point of the book, that it is a fiery cannonball blasted into the midst of the upper class with a smiley face on it, just to add insult to injury. Is the author sticking his tongue out at the rich people whose affluence he’s been denied, while pointing out that those riches are not the source of happiness? Is he trying to say that “true riches lies in contentment”? Or is he just pining, like Nick and Gatsby, for something he can’t have? I’m inclined to say that it is a mixture of the two, since we, as human beings, are complicated and very rarely can one stand on the outside and paint another using only one brush without getting to know that individual.

[1] Ibn Asad Al-Muhasabiy Al Basriy, Harith. Risalatul Mustarshideen. Beirut: Darul Bashairil Islamiyyah, 2005. Print.

War’s Horror

I believe attention should also be payed to the effect that the Civil War, and war in general, has on society. Literature, as a professor put it, was a form of entertainment for the people of the past, akin to movies and TV shows for us. The Civil War was so traumatic that there was a shift in literature, from Romanticism, looking at the word through rosy glasses, to Realism, a depiction of life as it is. This professor, who happens to be in the English department, while going over Realism, said that the loss of human life in the Civil War was so high that there was no one who had not lost someone in it.

We can fast forward to the so called “Great War”, and again we find the same horrifying reaction. Society is so aghast at what has happened it calls the war, the “Great War” because it hasn’t seen anything like this death and killing, but then it becomes inured and we see civilian casualties shooting through the roof in the Second World War. In the documentary, Fog of War, it is mentioned that civilian casualties became acceptable. They even coined a new term for this, a nice little euphemism to cover up cold blooded murder, “collateral damage.”

My mother has often mentioned that “they” tried to get rid of her generation, and very few of them survived with their minds intact. The ones who didn’t lose it because of drugs, lost it because of Vietnam. My theory is that there is something about modern warfare that is inherently wrong and the soldiers know this deep down in themselves. This, I believe, is one of the reasons we see them so disturbed, and it is a shame that we don’t take care of them properly when we bring them back.

I am not saying war is evil or bad in and of itself. War has its place in society and benefits, like warding off harm or protection. However it must be done within certain boundaries. I think it interesting that societies claiming to be at the height of “progress”, instead of enforcing laws to prevent the murder of civilians, have deemed this an acceptable loss. How can you kill innocent people?

Literary Criticism

This paper will attempt to give a brief overview of three forms of literary criticism. Literary criticism is “[t]he art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works.”(Oxforddictionaries.com) However, as we will see, it does more than this. Some forms of criticism look beyond the text to the world in which it resides, while others, like the one we will deal with in the following paragraph, approach literary works form a different angle.

The Formalistic approach to literary criticism is one rooted in the text, its style, structure, diction, plot, syntax, etc. Utilizing this theory allows one to show that they have understood the text as it is. Instead of engaging in metatextual criticism, looking beyond the text to the author, society, or the zeitgeist in which the work is born, it deals solely with the text, and is a good base from which to build one’s critique before moving on to other theories.

Psychoanalytic criticism, specifically the freudian strand, is useful in delving into literary works that have some underlying theme of a concupiscent nature, it being overly concerned with the sexual appetites, deviant and natural, in the human being and attributing all actions to this one impulse. Furthermore it is adept at unraveling meanings silently presented in a work through “images, symbols, emblems, and metaphors’, though the ambiguous nature of these same symbols, etc., means that “there is an inevitable ‘judgement’ element involved, and in consequence psychoanalytic interpretations of literature are often controversial.”(Barry)

This last theory may lend itself well to examining literature dealing with economic inequality and class warfare. Marxism is based on a “materialist philosophy: that is it tries to explain things without assuming the existence of a world, or of forces, beyond the natural world around us, and the societies we live in.”(Barry) Marxism is agnostic, if not downright atheistic in its outlook, and it is through this lens that Marxist literary criticism peers at a text. Peter Barry opines that Marxism views religion, art, law, etc., as things that are shaped by the economic base, a belief known as “economic determinism”.(Barry)

While some methods of literary criticism employed by this theory mirror psychoanalysis, in that it “makes a division between the ‘overt’ (manifest or surface) and ‘covert’ (latent or hidden) content,” it relates these hidden messages not to the unconscious, but rather “to basic Marxist themes, such as class struggle, or the progression of society…”(Barry) To sum up, different theories hold their own strengths and weaknesses. While a certain method may give one a language with which to express certain ideas, it may not adequately address other motives in a given literary work. Thus one may need to mix between certain theories, borrowing as the text dictates

I occasionally putter about in the kitchen… That being said, here is the link to a mashed potato recipe that will rock your world!

Garlic and Chive Mashed Potatoes

Moral Conundrums?!

People do things they don’t like all the time. Students take classes they don’t enjoy. Workers drag themselves out of bed every day to go to jobs when they would rather not. Why? Because they hope to get some type of reward at the end of the day. In the hope of getting a degree that will get them a better job, students take those classes. In the hope of getting money so they can provide for themselves and/or their dependents workers deal with all sorts of abuses and mingle with people who, if they were given a choice, they would never mix with. In the hope of gaining some material benefit/reward that may or may not get them what they want they tolerate this. A friend mentioned recently that in the military they didn’t see the people passing the orders down, but they followed them whether or not they understood or agreed with them because they understood that at the end of the day, if they did their job, they would get paid, and that was all that mattered.

One of my teachers once mentioned that there is no such thing as freedom. One is either a slave to their desires, or they are a slave to the Creator. This is similar to the statement of the Sahabah when asked by the Persians as to why they had come, “To take the the slaves out of the enslavement of other slaves to the servitude of the Nourisher and Sustainer of the slaves.” The very idea that your values and morals are not in accordance to the values and morals that the Creator has commanded you to have would seem to be the root of the problem. Instead of being an obedient slave to that Being who created you, gave you life, allowed you to see, etc. you’ve taken up your desires as your Lord and Master, and decided to follow them wherever they take you. So you would kill a person because they raped your mother (after all she brought you into the world and took care of you), but the Creator who is the cause of your mother and father existing, who brought you out of nonexistence into existence, and put that love your mother has for you in her heart, orders you to do something, and like a spoiled, ungrateful child you balk and decide it would be better if you did something else.