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Junot Díaz and the New Englishes

In “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” readers find a unique form of the English language influenced heavily by Dominican culture and the Spanish language. This unique and individualistic form of English harkens to the idea that English can be at once a universal language and a personal form of expression.  This particular dialect has much “glocal” import in that the audience can sense the cultural influence; the narrator, as well as the characters in the story, have a rich cultural background, and Díaz’s writing serves to illustrate that fact by giving readers cultural references and linguistic clues around which to build their perceptions of said characters. The author uses, in more than one instance, Spanish words in order to underscore Oscar’s or the narrator’s feelings, and makes mention of Dominican cultural norms in order to provide contrast to Oscar’s “unusual”  character. The idea that Dominican men are generally successful with women, for example, contrasts Oscars preference for science fiction and role-playing, in addition to his inability to find a romantic relationship.

Magical Realism in “Light is Like Water”

In García Márquez’s short story about two children who learn to sail in a room full of light, we see many elements of magical realism. The first and most prominent is the nonchalance with which the narrator tells us that, by simply breaking a bulb, the brothers are able to literally flood a room with light. The following events are entirely magical, and yet, they are described without a single mention of their fantastic nature. The second earmark of magical realism is the verisimilitude with which the narrator describes the effects of light-flooding. From the children, immortalized as they urinate into a flower pot, to the brothers, drowned by light, the audience is given no choice but to visualize this harrowingly beautiful final scene. As perturbing as these methods of description can be, the true perturbation occurs when the narrator breaks from the story to tell readers of the action that “sparked” this strange adventure. In what I find to be the most odd twist in the story, the narrator inserts himself into the life of the family he is describing; he goes from playing the role of an observer to being perhaps the most important character in the narrative. With the revelation that his simple answer to a simple question (one that he “wasn’t brave enough” to reconsider) is the entire reason the story takes place, readers find the text’s true source of magic: words. This simple and seemingly innocuous statement made by the narrator implies that words have the power to significantly alter reality, and, given the chance, to create a world of magic.

Borges and the Invention of Hypertext

In my reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths,” I was struck by the similarity in Borges’ style to the genre of hypertext, or texts which allow readers to choose or somehow influence the outcome of the story. Indeed, one could claim that Borges’ writing was a precursor or even the first instance of such a text; his narrative creates a seemingly infinite labyrinth of possibilities, the complexity of which rivals the fictional labyrinth of Ts’ui Pên, a creation of Borges himself. Borges is a master of paradox and recursion, and we find both of these elements in the text. Interestingly, Borges work evokes the attitude of the “many-world interpretation” known to quantum physicists, which states that all possible histories and futures are real and exist simultaneously. Borges’ narrative strategy pushes readers to imagine different outcomes of the story, ones in which perhaps Dr. Tsun does not kill his friend. The implication that the possibilities are endless leads readers to question the outcome with which they are presented, urging them to think more deeply into the story. However, despite the labyrinth of thought that the narrative creates, Borges presents his audience with only one outcome: Dr Tsun’s triumph, which costs him his life, as well as the life of his friend.

Conrad and Eastern Mysticism

In reading Heart of Darkness for the second time, I was struck by the two instances in which Conrad likens Marlow to the image of the Buddha. This prompted me to look for other elements in the text that might be interpreted at having an esoteric quality. The polar binary that Marlow draws between the nature of light and darkness seems to be key. As the narrative begins, Marlow seems to be more or less innocent; his journey to Africa is motivated by the desire to travel and discover new parts of the world for himself. However, by the end of his journey, he ceases to see the world in terms of binaries. This is where the symbol of the Buddha comes into play. Conrad subtly draws a parallel between the Buddha’s enlightenment and Marlow’s experience. Enlightenment in many Buddhist traditions is considered to be a new understanding of the world, one in which perceptions of boundaries and separation are left behind in favor of a unified perspective. In this way, Marlow’s journey could be read as being an allegorical tale of enlightenment. When Marlow begins his journey, he sees the concepts of light and dark as being polar opposites. However, by the end of his journey, he views light and darkness and two intertwined and interdependent concepts. This is evidenced by the change in his attitude towards lying. At the beginning of the narrative, Marlow claims to hate lying, but at the end, Marlow finds himself telling a white lie about a very dark truth. His expectation that the walls should come crashing down around him, and the fact that they do not, could be seen as an awakening to the true nature of the world, or perhaps, an enlightenment.

Ibsen’s Dolls

In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, readers are presented with an odd form of feminism. Ibsen’s representation of women is more or less typical of the time period; he paints Nora as a housewife who is struggling to keep her family together, despite society’s mandate that women have no place in financial dealings. Nora seems to lack tact; she openly brags about her family and new found status in the face of a woman (supposedly her friend) who has just admitted to losing everything. Upon learning that Krogstad plans to blackmail her family, she immediately romanticizes the situation, casting herself in the role of damsel in distress, who her loving husband/knight in shining armor will undoubtedly sacrifice himself rescue. This image of Nora as the typical woman of the time caused me to question the feminist value of Ibsen’s work. Why would an author who seeks to validate the role of an independent woman create a female character who is so unable to navigate the society in which she is placed? The answer, I feel, lies in Ibsen’s use of realism. He is portraying the societal role of women as it is, not as it should be, and uses this role to illustrate the fact that anyone is capable of self-actualization, regardless of their upbringing or position in society. Nora is undoubtedly a product of her upbringing; like a doll, she has played her part in the world into which she was born, until she finally reaches the limits of her acting ability and claims her independence.

Cléophas’ Fiddle

In Chopin’s short story about a young girl who sells her caretaker’s fiddle, readers find a hint of irony in her inability to correctly assess the worth of the old fiddle. To her youthful gaze, the fiddle appears worthless; it is old, kept in a flannel bag, and does nothing to provide sustenance for herself or the other young ones. In an attempt to correct this situation, Fifine sells the fiddle and in return receives a much newer, glossier fiddle and more money than she can count. The irony occurs when readers realize that the new fiddle couldn’t come close to the worth of the old one. When Cléophas mentions the fiddle’s maker, an Italian man who died before the war (most likely one of the world wars) readers have an intimation that perhaps this fiddle is a priceless relic, one of the few remaining masterpieces built by Italian violin makers such as Stradivarius. In light of this, the old fiddle becomes irreplaceable, and, in this context, is not an object to be bought or sold for a few days worth of food. However, Fifine’s youthful understanding of value and worth do not take such a likelihood into account, and because she is more focused on her immediate needs and desires, she sells the fiddle with little forethought or questioning. Furthermore, readers can assume that Cléophas’ assessment of the fiddle’s worth went much deeper than its material value or physical rarity; for him, the instrument clearly has sentimental value, perhaps even a legacy to which he is connected by ownership. Readers can sense this when, upon learning that the old fiddle has been sold, he is so disheartened that he no longer has the desire to play music.

Men of Letters

In the article “Men of Letters,”, Voltaire posits that men of letters are peoplee who dedicate themselves not only to proper grammar and eloquence, but also to a wide range of studies, including philosophy, the sciences, and history. This leaves readers with the idea that men of letters are polymaths, or people who devote themselves not only to studying language, but to any number of topics. However, the purpose of these people is not merely to become literary scholars or polymaths, aimlessly seeking to gain more knowledge. When Voltaire writes “It is sometimes astonishing that what in the past upset the world, no longer troubles it today; for this we are indebted to the true men of letters,” readers find perhaps the most accurate description of this group. Their purpose, as Voltaire’s words indicate, is to advance the paradigm of humanity, to make accessible those ideas and concepts which were at one time deemed inappropriate for mass consumption. In this way, Voltaire is suggesting that it is the job of these men of letters to assist in raising the value of the ‘every-man,’ and to make available to him knowledge which will increase his understanding of the world around him. Voltaire writes that “The course of History is a hundred times more vast than it was for the ancients,” and in his terms, under the guidance of men of letters, the course of history will continue to expand before humanity.

Crusoe and the Cannibals

Upon Crusoe’s discovery of the cannibals with whom he shares the island, he begins a moral debate about whether or not it would be just to attack them. He first plots to kill them, but later decides instead to let God be their judge. This passage sparked my own internal debate about whether or not Crusoe had come to the ‘correct’ (or perhaps most moral) conclusion. Crusoe’s morality is based entirely in his religious beliefs, and after questioning his instinct to attack the complete ‘otherness’ that he encounters in the cannibals, he realizes that he is in no position to judge a culture that divine wisdom has allowed to exist. Crusoe’s deference to a spiritual authority at first struck me as a denial of what might be considered human nature; war, especially motivated by fear and a lack of understanding, seems to be a recurring theme in the history of humanity.  Crusoe solidifies his decision by stating that attacking the cannibals would be much like the Spaniard’s slaughter of the natives in America. This is where my thinking diverged from Crusoe’s (or rather, Defoe’s). Native Americans were not cannibals, and in fact, when confronted with cannibalism (as they were in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative), found the practice to be completely abhorrent. The Spanish treatment of American natives was based entirely on greed and the fear of their ‘otherness,’ while Crusoe’s was based at least partially on survival and self defense. He is presented with the possibility of a kill or be killed situation, which leads him to plan for preemptive action. However, the spirituality and religious devotion he has cultivated in his many years on the island stay his hand.