I am going to make a bold statement: The excerpt from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was my favorite reading of the semester. I actually downloaded the book onto my Kindle last night so that I could read the whole book over Christmas break. The thing that this text did so well was use language to portray a very understandable family dynamic. I sympathized with Oscar and his sister. When it is stated that Oscar’s sister used to call him Mister, my heart broke a little, “That’s what she called him whenever she was feeling tender or wronged. Mister. Later she’d want to put that on his gravestone but no one would let her, not even me. Stupid” (Diaz 154). The amount of verisimilitude that can be made when this text is read by someone who grew up in a similar time is amazing. I understand the feeling of a close family relationship and losing that and not having anyone there to understand. This book put that into a single sentence.
In class we discussed the connection between Weinstein’s ideas on space/time and how they tie in with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The more I thought about it after class, the more I realized that it may be able to be related to Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, particularly in the first chapter. We know that Unoka is dead, but the story told when his neighbor Okoye comes to visit him sounds like it is taking place in the present. Just for a moment, the reader is whisked away to the past, in hopes of understanding the depths of Okonkwo’s shame of his father. Perhaps this is used to show the still strong connection, albeit a negative one, that Okonkwo feels to his father. When the reader sees the disregard of debt that Unoka has in this excerpt, we can get an even closer look at the motivation behind Okonkwo’s lack of sympathy, because the reader was fully present.
In one of our assigned readings this week, The Courter, by Salman Rushdie, it was described in class as being about his struggles as an immigrant in England, but the idea that I find most interesting about the short story is the pop culture references. Granted, I am a pop culture junky, so I enjoy reading literature that has it sprinkled through out the story, but it seems to be a more integral part for Rushdie. “The infant Scheherazade’s lullabies were our cover versions of recent hits by Chubby Checker, Neil Sedaka, Elvis and Pat Boone” (Rushdie 180). It’s easy to tell that music influences Rushdie in a profound way for it to play such and integral part in his work. It is most likely due to the fact that music can help us become a part of a culture better than anything. The music he references puts us in a state of nostalgia that can be universally understood. In a time when Rushdie was unsure of his status and his culture, he could cling to the popular musical artists of the time and feel grounded.
In Chapter eight of Weinstein, he claims: “It is no accident that modernist fiction invented stream of consciousness: a representational technique as foreign to earlier realism as it is to later postmodernism. What is stream of consciousness if not a mode for representing characters’ consciousness (their specific gravity) flowing-apparently unedited- through a time that feels like genuine present” (Weinstein 204)? His point is that modernist work, still allowed us to identify with the protagonist in the story, because we had a glimpse into the personality of the character. In postmodernism, he attempts to argue that we do not know our protagonist and that this is one of the fundamental differences between the two genres. He argues that stream of consciousness and the idea that identifying with a character was too heavily relied upon in modernist fiction, but I disagree. In order to portray a sense of compassion within the reader, we need to be able to know things about them that are personal, and these things are conveyed very well with stream of consciousness. Modernism relies less on outside additions, like extra characters, which Weinstein discusses, and more on inner-monologue within the main character. I am not arguing that modernist work is better than postmodernist, but if you are attempting to convey verisimilitude, then modernism allows the reader to come closer than postmodernist writing.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, truly takes the symbolism of Modernism to heart at the beginning of the novel. The reader feels unease at the first paragraph, when they read: “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (Conrad 61). You have a true sense of foreboding, Through the symbolism given to inanimate objects, like the air, we understand immediately that all is not well in our story. The sentences I chose were virtually at random, because this story has no lack of gloom, but the words help set the tone for the story about to unfold. The reader is given a kind of warning, in a way, that this story will not be easy for the protagonist to get through and, therefore, it will not be easy for them to get through.
In chapter five of Unknowing, which was my required reading from the book, Weinstein describes certain modernist characters as: “-each pregnant with a future. The drama in which these subjects pregnancies are either aborted or fulfilled occupies the canvas of realist fiction”(Weinstein 98). Which I thought was a very apt definition of Realism. Before this phase of literature, the lives of characters were predictably mapped out and we didn’t sense danger unless it was in a very formulaic way, but with the unpredictable nature of realism we’re left to keeping our fingers crossed that everything turns out okay in the end. Our sense of assurance is tested with every unpredictable movement and thought of the main character. The entire fifth chapter was filled with a sense of anxiety when he describes the characters relationship to his/her reader. Not knowing what to expect increases the readers experience of verisimilitude by mirroring the unpredictability of real life, but at the same time breaks our sense of bond with the main character by not always being privy to the space around them.
In Weinstein’s fourth chapter of The Unknowing, he talks about the influence of Freud on modernist fiction. I thought it was interesting when he stated: “Though [the authors] creatively share his vision of “unknowing” they do not insist-as he does- on sexuality as the funding energy of neurosis” (Weinstein 80). I tend to agree with this statement, but I thought it was a bit obvious. Authors in that time period clearly didn’t begin their work by thinking: “How can I most emulate the teachings of Freud.” It made me think of Weinstein’s example of his “Freudian slip” that he had at a speaking engagement. It seems to me, that when something “Freudian” happens in life, we acknowledge it, but don’t really think of the indications of his studies and their impact on society. Calling something “Freudian” has in fact become a bit Freudian. So, when he says that the authors aren’t insistent on their characters sexuality causing their neurosis, he is correct, but I don’t believe any author would admit to having Freud influence their work, no matter how much he has, because Freud’s work is ingrained in our culture.
In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Ibsen alludes to themes and outcomes in his play with dialogue. We discussed in class, his dialogue alluding to Nora living as a doll, for example, but I noticed a quote near the beginning of the play that I thought was kind of poignant when I first read it, but as the story progressed, I noticed how closely it correlated with the heart of the story. When telling his wife that he will not be taking a loan, Helmer says: “Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt” (Ibsen 842).
Helmer, of course, said this without knowing of Nora’s loan, but it’s still telling of the relationship and eventual outcome of their home life, because of Nora’s loan. Helmer loses the beauty of his model home life and Nora learns that she has denied herself to be free in her life and marriage. Nora’s borrowing caused the eventual revelation of the couple’s already shattered marriage. Although the debt that Nora incurred did not found their home life, it quietly drew a wedge between the two, without either of the characters realizing it until the final scene.
Out of the four Chopin short stories that we read for class, I enjoyed Desiree’s Baby the most. I also found it to be the most intriguing discussion of the class period. When we discussed the typical structure of a realist fiction, the main character always has a sort of ephiphany where they come to a realization about themselves, it really made me think of what that time was in this story and which character was the subject of the epiphany. Was Chopin writing this story unlike any other in the realist fiction world? Dr. Sasser brought up the idea that Desiree comes to a false realization when her husband tells her that she is black. I tend to agree with this statement, but it’s interesting to note the subtle realizations throughout the story. The entire scene where Desiree “figures it out” has a couple different levels of realization. It’s a realization of the child’s “true nature” as well. Perhaps that is why this story is named Desiree’s Baby and not Desiree. Could it be that the* baby was meant to be the main character the whole time? Desiree’s false realization stems from the baby’s true realization. Armand’s suppressed realization could be construed as a result of the other two characters falsely and truthfully “finding themselves”.
*Please note that I have tried to take the beginning of this sentence out of italics several times, but each time that I do, once I re-save, it goes back to being in italics.
In Chapter three of our book Unknowing: The Works of Modernist Fiction, Philip Weinstein connects verisimilitude to the realism movement by stating: “Verisimilitude invokes the reader’s growing sense of familiarity with the nonverbal scene being put into words, but not by pretending belief in some “imitation of the real.” Lilian Furst’s All Is True argues (as many studies do) that realism’s strength is its true-seeming imitation, while its embarrassment is its status as artful, counterfeit” (Weinstein 53). I have certainly never considered realist fiction to have an embarrassing side, but is it less of a body of literature than an autobiography, for instance? I would argue that it is not. Furst uses the word counterfeit to invoke the idea of art and we can certainly agree that literature is a form of art. Being able to invoke a sense of verisimilitude from a reader, especially in the time of the realist movement, is far from counterfeit. The sense of connection with a novel is one of the most genuine feelings a person can have, whether the novel is fiction or non-fiction. It could be argued that any novel, whether one hundred percent true or not, requires the reader to draw from their own experiences to connect with the author. To claim that a work of fiction is any less real to the mind of a reader is doing a great disservice to literature.