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American 19th Century
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"The Raven"
Author: EA Poe Genre: poem

First published in the (New York) Evening Mirror in January, 1845, "The Raven" was an overnight sensation and remains the most popular and best known poem that Poe ever wrote. In fact, during the final years of his life, Poe was referred to as "the raven" and his readers often wove short passages of the piece or a simple "nevermore" into their daily talk. The poem is essentially a dramatic monologue; it tells a story that has no real climax but that nonetheless progresses through stages marked by changes in the narrator's mood as he successively interprets the raven's presence and the meaning of its "nevermore" replies.

Consisting of eighteen six-line stanzas, "The Raven" is told retrospectively by a first-person narrator. The setting throughout is the narrator's chambers at midnight on a bleak December, as the speaker or student lapses between reading an old book and falling asleep. He is aroused by a tapping sound that he presumes to be made by a visitor outside of his room. He does not immediately answer, but tells us that he is in a sorrowful mood because of the death of his lover, the "lost Lenore." He snaps out of these sad thoughts, assures himself that the sound is that of a visitor, he addresses his unknown guest, but finds no one there when he opens the door. Peering into the silent darkness, the student whispers Lenore's name to himself. When he returns to his room, however, the rapping sound resumes and is even louder than before. He now posits that it is merely the wind beating on the shutters of his window.

When he opens the shutter, a "stately" Raven appears. It flies to the top of the chamber door and perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom). The narrator is initially amused by the raven's "grave and stern" looks. He addresses the bird in lofty terms, and asks what its "lordly" name is. The raven responds with the single word "Nevermore." The student marvels at the winged intruder's powers of speech: he hopes to hear more, but the raven's vocabulary is limited to that one word. He reassures himself that the raven will depart in the morning, but the raven seems to oppose this prospect by uttering "nevermore" again. The narrator speculates that the bird was trained to say "nevermore" by some melancholy master. He smiles to himself, but then begins to think about what the raven means by "nevermore." The creature begins to take on demonic qualities in the student's mind as he notes the bird's "fiery eyes."

The narrator then connects the bird's appearance and message with the lost Lenore and calls the raven a "wretch" sent by "thy God" to remind him of sorrows that he wants to forget. He now believes that the bird is a "prophet" and asks him whether there is life after death. The reply, of course, is "quoth the Raven, 'nevermore.'" He repeats the question, this time with specific reference to that "rare and radiant" maiden Lenore, but the response remains the same. The student becomes angry, commands the bird to leave him alone and return to his roost in hell. The raven's "nevermore" is now a strident refusal that the narrator is helpless to counter. In the poem's concluding stanza, the narrator says that the demon-eyed bird is still sitting on the bust above his door, throwing a shadow over his soul. That shadow will never depart, as the narrator himself says that it will be lifted "nevermore."


With its uniformly measured stanzas, its unvaried ABCBBB rhyme pattern amplified by internal rhymes within the first line of each stanza and its use of alliteration, "The Raven" is a highly musical composition that relies upon words that have a lyrical "or" syllable at their core. This combination of devices make its easy to remember, and indeed, difficult to forget. The narrator's language shifts back and forth from simple conversational English to elevated and erudite terms as his mental frame of moves from his familiar surroundings to the imagined realms of heaven and hell.

Poe himself said that "The Raven" is about "the human thirst for self-torture," and as we look back on its lines, we find that the narrator's ultimate anguish is self-inflicted. Although the raven supplies the one-word answers, it is the student who chooses the questions, and it is the associations in his mind that link the poem's "nevermores" to his sorrow over the death of Lenore and his sad resignation that he will not be with her again. Several explicators have concluded that the narrator's dependence upon his own faculties of reason that make it impossible for him to reunite with his lost love.

Alienation and Loneliness
Near the end of this poem, when the fear of the poem’s speaker has reached a level of near hysteria, he shouts “Leave my loneliness unbroken!” In one sense, this could just be an emotional outburst, like the lines that lead up to it, but the interesting thing about this particular line is that the speaker, in his terror, is for once reflecting upon himself. This, and the line’s location at the climax of the poem, indicates to us that “my loneliness” is not just another expression that he shrieks: it is the key, the secret that he has been trying to guard all along. Throughout the poem, we see the speaker being drawn out of his isolation by the raven and the one word that it speaks. Once the bird enters his chambers, nothing really changes in the scene except the speaker’s attitude, which grows increasingly nervous. And what is it that he fears? He says he fears that the bird is a messenger from hell and that it knows secrets of the afterlife that it will not give up, but the reader can see that these increasingly wild ideas are the result, not the cause, of his panic. It is just after he says that he wants to retain his loneliness that the pressure that had been mounting is finally relieved. The following stanza is mournful and eerie, but it lacks the fevered pitch that had been growing throughout the poem.

Usually, loneliness is considered such an unpleasant feeling that we could not expect someone to panic over the thought of losing it. In this case, we can assume that the speaker had such great love for Lenore that he prefers loneliness to the pain of being reminded of her. We can see this in the way her memory increases throughout the poem at the same time that the speaker is losing his composure, as if it takes concentration and control to suppress the thought of her. The strongest indication that he would rather be lonely than think of her comes in the second stanza, before the raven has arrived, when the speaker still has control of his thoughts (as best as he ever does): he introduces Lenore as “Nameless here for evermore.”

This poem is not a meditation on death or a philosophical examination of how death affects the lives of those left behind in this world, but death is a crucial part of its existence. In order to establish the proper extreme of grief in the poem’s speaker, he needs to be absolutely drained of any hope of seeing her again. Only death could provide such an absolute. As a plot device, this works fine, because the reader is assured that there is no way they could ever be reunited. The poem’s weakness, though, is that the bald fact of death is not used to generate any new understanding. Grief is an honest, basic response to death, but Poe does not take it anywhere. The speaker does not think about his own death or life, nor about what his time with Lenore was like or whether her life was full and significant in the short time she did have: he just grieves and grieves and grieves. The reader would be right to question whether this is a realistic response to death, and whether in real life people do respond to death with such perpetual and chronic sorrow. It is a characteristic of Romanticism, the literary movement that Poe is associated with, to stretch a human emotion beyond the shape that we are familiar with in real life: beauties are stunning and unforgettable beauties, suffering is agony, and grief is uncontrollable. Death is one of the few things that cannot be fixed or reversed, and the enormity of it is therefore entirely appropriate for the exaggerated emotions in Poe’s work.

Literally, the supernatural world is not just the collection of strange things that we usually associate with it. It is a part of the world we live in that goes unrecognized by the five senses and is beyond the natural world that we experience (the prefix “super-“ means “beyond”). This sense of the word is particular significant while analyzing this poem because it is based on the mixture of mind, nature, and supernatural. The raven is a dark, scary bird, but it is, after all, a natural object, and its behavior is completely natural: it beats against the shutters, and then, when it enters the room, flies up to perch on the highest object in the room, as birds usually do. The one place where the raven crosses the line between natural and supernatural is in being able to speak a word that a human is able to understand. “Nevermore” is so close to the raven’s natural cry, though, and so close to what was in the mind of the poem’s speaker just before he heard it, that it seems likely that his mind twisted the bird’s natural sound into a word. From this beginning, we can examine all of the supernatural elements in this poem and question whether they are the cause of the speaker’s terror or are caused by it, and in each case we find that devils, phantom fragrances, and soul-sucking shadows are only supernatural because he calls them supernatural. The question of the supernatural does not end here, however; this just broadens the scope. Poe clearly intends us to believe that the supernatural is fueled by the mind of the speaker, but that does not necessarily make it unreal. If the speaker’s terror is real, does it matter whether the Tempter that caused it takes up physical space or exists only in his mind? To us who live in the real world, it might be a comfort to know that the demons live only in his mind, but in this poem, with its subjective point of view and no evidence except what one man sees, there is no difference between the natural and the supernatural.
"Annabel Lee"
Author: EA Poe Genre: poem

summary: "Annabel Lee" was the last poem that Poe composed, and was first published in November, 1849, in The Southern Literary Messenger, a month or so after his death. It is comprised of six stanzas, three of which have six lines and three of which have eight lines, with the rhyme pattern differing slightly in each one.

The poem is related by a first-person voice who was actively involved in the events which he now recounts. Akin to a fairy story, the narrator transports us to a kingdom by the sea that existed in the remote past, when both he and his beloved Annabel Lee were just children. Despite their youth, their love for each other was unsurpassed, so strong that even angels in heaven "coveted" it.

Because of their jealousy, a cold wind chills Annabel Lee in the third stanza. She dies and her body is carried away to the grave by "high-born kinsmen." Even though they have been separated by death, the angels continue to envy the love that remains between the narrator and his child bride.

Indeed, as the narrator proclaims in the penultimate fifth stanza, nothing can ever sever the bonds that join him to his love. He is always reminded of her beauty by the sight of the moon and the stars, dreaming of her every night as she lays "in her tomb by the side of the sea."

Memory and Reminiscing
Readers are urged by the tone and setting of this poem to question how well the speaker actually remembers his relationship with his dead lover. From the very first line, the speaker admits that he is talking about things that happened "many and many years ago." Repeating the word "many" emphasizes the amount of time that has passed since Annabel Lee's death. This encourages readers' suspicions, since memories, especially extremely pleasant memories, are often idealized versions of reality. In the third stanza, the poem makes a point of mentioning once more that there is a considerable distance of time between the events being described and the speaker as he is recalling them. It becomes even more difficult to believe that his brief, youthful love affair could have been as pure and beautiful as he describes it. If his claim was that a recent love had died because of angels' jealousy, or that he thought every day about a lover who died the year before, then his obsession could be attributed to strong but normal grief. With the distance of time indicated here, though, there has to be a strong possibility that he is not actually responding to the love affair that he lived, but instead to a false, inflated memory of Annabel Lee.

The sea is used here as a poetic device to represent memory. It is linked to the life the speaker had with Annabel Lee because they lived together in a kingdom next to it. It is linked to her death, as he makes a point of mentioning twice in the last two lines that her body is put to rest beside the sea. As a vast, mysterious force, a traditional place of enigma and danger, the sea is a fitting symbol to represent the past, which is as attractive to the speaker as the sea is to those who sail it. In line 31 he speculates that the demons who might come to disrupt his memory of Annabel Lee—who might "dissever" his soul from hers—lurk under the sea.

Like many of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories and poems, "Annabel Lee" concerns itself with the human problem of having to carry on and make sense of the world after the permanent disruption that death causes. In this particular case, the speaker of the poem is so distraught over his loss that he bends reality to find a cause for her death that his mind can accept. Readers are not given a physical, medical explanation for her death, other than that a "chill" came down upon her, because in his mind mere physics would be too simple to destroy a grand love like the one he remembers. The explanation that is offered instead is that the angels envied the young couple's happiness and, most uncharacteristically for angels, killed her out of jealousy. For the narrator, this explanation makes sense of the randomness of disease and death by providing a culprit; he needs this in order to accept the idea that his love might not have been great enough to stop death. In fact, he cannot accept death as a separation from the girl he loved, but believes that they are still linked, which may be true for him in a psychological sense, although there is no way of knowing if the deceased, wherever she may be, might also feel this way. The situation related in this poem is real more in a psychological sense than in any other sense, and this makes death (which is an absolute, unchangeable limit in the real world) serve as an appropriate tool for Poe's type of writing.

Class Conflict
The speaker of this poem presents himself as an underdog, struggling throughout his entire love affair against those who attempt to use their superior social positions against him. At first, the speaker implies that the world looked down on his relationship with Annabel Lee because they were both children, making a point of emphasizing she and I to show their common bond against the opposition, presumably from adults. If, as most critics agree, this poem is based upon Poe's relationship with his cousin Virginia Clemm, then he has altered the facts here to fit this theory of opposition: even if Virginia was only thirteen when they married, Poe himself was twenty-seven. By presenting himself as a child, he puts himself and Annabel Lee on one side and the adult world on the other. Later in the poem, there is opposition from the angels, who are jealous because the young couple has more happiness than they themselves have in heaven. The angels, obviously from a higher and more privileged class than a couple of children on Earth, have killed Annabel Lee, the narrator says. After Annabel Lee's death, her body was taken away by "her high-born kinsmen." Although it is not directly stated, the implication here is that the speaker is prohibited from visiting his deceased love or from participating in her funeral because of class distinctions. The love affair in this poem is opposed by forces more powerful—adults, angels, and the upper social class. The endurance of the youngsters' love against all of these is a testament to its strength.
"Sonnet: To Science"
Author: EA Poe Genre: poem

In Edgar Allan Poe’s later collections, “Sonnet—To Science” appears with a footnote describing it as one of “the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood.” The same footnote excuses its republication with reference to “private reasons—some of which have reference to the sin of plagiarism, and others to the date of Tennyson’s first poems.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had been born in the same year as Poe and had published his first volume of poetry, Poems by Two Brothers (in association with his brother Charles), in 1827, the same year in which Poe’s earliest publications appeared.

The sonnet’s rhyme scheme follows the English, or Shakespearean, form rather than the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet form. Its substance, by contrast, has more in common with the Italian tradition, which characteristically involves the posing of a question, than with the English tradition, which tends to be more meditative. Where the Petrarchan sonnet would usually supplement an interrogatory octave with a responsive sestet, however, “Sonnet—To Science” maintains its inquiring tone throughout the three quatrains and the concluding couplet.

“Sonnet—To Science” addresses its object from a point of view solidly anchored within the Romantic movement, likening science’s keen-eyed inquiry to a vulture whose wings cast a shadow of “dull reality” upon the landscape of the imagination. It asks how the poet, having discovered such a predator “upon [his] heart,” can possibly love the scientific revelation or concede its wisdom. It is only natural, the sonnet suggests, that poets should flee the shadow of dull reality in search of better and brighter pastures, lit by “jewelled skies.”

The last six lines of the sonnet add detail to the charges presented in more general terms in the first eight. Like a prosecutor engaged in cross-examination, the sonnet demands an accounting of specific sins. Has science not dragged Diana (a Roman goddess associated with nature and birth) from her “car”? (Diana was associated in Rome itself with moonlight, so the car in question is the moon.) Has not the Hamadryad (a type of nymph associated with oak trees) been “driven…from the wood” and the Naiad (a species of water nymph) from her “blood”—the blood in question being the stream or spring embodying her spirit? Has science not banished the Elfin—the Anglo-Saxon fairy race—from their pastoral haunts? And has it not, in consequence, robbed the poet of the “summer dream” which might otherwise have visited him in the shade of the tamarind tree?

The accusative tone of these questions implies that they are rhetorical—that they do not actually require an answer because it is obvious that each charge is correct. The fact remains, however, that no answer is given and that the questions are questions rather than statements. The poem preserves a margin of uncertainty, which the poet’s voice invites the reader to share. “Sonnet—to Science” is a poem that seeks to address a problem and thus to define the problem’s nature. As might be expected of a poem composed at the outset of an adventurous career, it is essentially open-ended. It is setting out an agenda rather than delivering a verdict.

Forms and Devices
Although Poe was well aware in his later years that he had been born in the same year as Tennyson, he probably was not conscious of the fact that he had also been born in the same year as Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was not published until ten years after Poe’s death. It was Darwin’s science which finally picked the bones of mythology clean, extrapolating in the process Tennyson’s key image of “nature red in tooth and claw” (“In Memoriam,” 1850).

Whether or not he was aware of Charles Darwin, however, Poe would certainly have been aware of Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who was renowned in his own day as a poet as well as a naturalist. Erasmus Darwin frequently reported his scientific discoveries in poetic form, and his earlier publications—including The Loves of the Plants (1789)—are not ashamed to formulate his discoveries as news conveyed by nymphs and elemental spirits. The imagery of “Sonnet—to Science” implies a stark contrast between myth and science—a frank enmity expressed in the violence with which it treats Diana and the dispossessed nymphs—but the implication is more tentative than it may seem.

By choosing the metaphor of a shadow-casting wing to represent science Poe admits—and then re-emphasizes in the vital eighth line—that science has its own soaring imagination and its own admirable courage. The first line, too, concedes that science is a “true daughter of Old Time,” the time in question being that which brings self-knowledge and reveals previously hidden truths—and perhaps also the time that heals wounds.

The concessions of the first and eighth lines would be more generous were it not for the fact that the shadow-casting wing of science is attached to a vulture: a bird of ill-omen more disreputable even than a raven. The third line makes it explicit, however, that Poe conceives science as a predator, not as a scavenger, and this is re-emphasized in the second part of the poem. Science drags, drives, and tears; it does not sit around waiting for myth to die of natural causes. It is, in fact, more like an eagle than a vulture. There is a hesitation here, if not an outright ambiguity.

Themes and Meanings
Even in this early work, Poe seems to have been considering—albeit a bit reluctantly—the possibility that he might align himself with those Romantics who celebrated the awesome revelations of the scientific imagination (among whom Percy Bysshe Shelley was the most outstanding) rather than those who viewed the intellectual and industrial revolutions with mournful regret. He never did resolve that dilemma, and that was greatly to the advantage of his work. No other nineteenth century American writer fled as far as he “to seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,” and the flight in question began in the poem which follows “Sonnet—to Science” in his collected works: the brilliantly bizarre “Al Aaraaf.”

The first footnote to “Al Aaraaf” links it to Tycho Brahe’s “new star,” which revealed once and for all that the heavens are not fixed and finished, but the imagery of the long poem is as rich and exotic as anything Poe was later to produce. Other footnotes set Classical references and scientific references side by side, but not as Erasmus Darwin might have done. Poe never lost the sense of a vital and violent struggle between the hallowed glories of mythology and the new revelations of science; he never could combine the two without a keen awareness that he was doing something paradoxical. But Poe was a very paradoxical man, and he took pride in that fact. He conceived of his own self as something deeply divided, echoed that division in many of the characters with whom he populated his phantasmagoric tales, and saw it reflected in the war between science and romance for possession of the modern imagination.

“Sonnet—To Science” is a very modest poem by comparison with the works for which Poe is best remembered. It lacks all trace of the greatness of his best work, yet it is an interesting poem, both in the context of its time and in the context of the career that grew from it. Even as an adolescent Poe was aware of the overarching importance of the march of science and was concerned with calculating its costs and rewards. “Sonnet—To Science” emphasizes the costs, but it does not do so blindly or blandly; it has intelligence enough to acknowledge that the imaginative predations of science are not without a certain grandeur as well as an ominous inevitability.

Toward the end of his life, Poe was to expand greatly on his perception of the problem posed in “Sonnet—To Science” in the long poetic essay Eureka (1848). Eureka protests against the reductionist method of science while celebrating the magnificence of its revelations. Like “Sonnet—To Science,” Eureka’s first concern is the astronomers who dethroned Diana and the other deities embodied in the heavens. In a sense, “Sonnet—To Science” is the more prophetic work in that it proceeds to pay more attention to the disenchanting effects of biological science.

In answer to his own not-quite-rhetorical questions, Poe decided that if science was neither lovable nor entirely wise, then the duty of the poet was to take arms against it and fight for the conservation of the Elfin and their classical analogues. The heroic quality of that mission was never properly appreciated in his native land, where nonbelievers in science and technology preferred to sequester themselves within the walls of religious fundamentalism. In the lands where the fugitive Elfin and the Dianic mysteries were still remembered, however, and their force still felt, Poe’s progress from sonnet, “Sonnet—to Science,” to epic, Eureka, via the most scenic route imaginable, has been celebrated with all appropriate reverence.
Song of Myself
Author: Walt Whitman; Genre: Poem; epic
Written: 1855, expanded 1881.

This most famous of Whitman’s works was one of the original twelve pieces in the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass. Like most of the other poems, it too was revised extensively, reaching its final permutation in 1881. “Song of Myself” is a sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic meditation. Whitman uses symbols and sly commentary to get at important issues. “Song of Myself” is composed more of vignettes than lists: Whitman uses small, precisely drawn scenes to do his work here. As Walt Whitman, the specific individual, melts away into the abstract “Myself,” the poem explores the possibilities for communion between individuals. Starting from the premise that “what I assume you shall assume” Whitman tries to prove that he both encompasses and is indistinguishable from the universe. Whitman’s grand poem is, in its way, an American epic. Beginning in medias res—in the middle of the poet’s life—it loosely follows a quest pattern. “Missing me one place search another,” he tells his reader, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” In its catalogues of American life and its constant search for the boundaries of the self “Song of Myself” has much in common with classical epic. This epic sense of purpose, though, is coupled with an almost Keatsian valorization of repose and passive perception. Since for Whitman the birthplace of poetry is in the self, the best way to learn about poetry is to relax and watch the workings of one’s own mind.

While “Song of Myself” is crammed with significant detail, there are three key episodes that must be examined. The first of these is found in the sixth section of the poem. A child asks the narrator “What is the grass?” and the narrator is forced to explore his own use of symbolism and his inability to break things down to essential principles. The bunches of grass in the child’s hands become a symbol of the regeneration in nature. But they also signify a common material that links disparate people all over the United States together: grass, the ultimate symbol of democracy, grows everywhere. In the wake of the Civil War the grass reminds Whitman of graves: grass feeds on the bodies of the dead. Everyone must die eventually, and so the natural roots of democracy are therefore in mortality, whether due to natural causes or to the bloodshed of internecine warfare. While Whitman normally revels in this kind of symbolic indeterminacy, here it troubles him a bit. “I wish I could translate the hints,” he says, suggesting that the boundary between encompassing everything and saying nothing is easily crossed.

The second episode is more optimistic. The famous “twenty-ninth bather” can be found in the eleventh section of the poem. In this section a woman watches twenty-eight young men bathing in the ocean. She fantasizes about joining them unseen, and describes their semi-nude bodies in some detail. The invisible twenty-ninth bather offers a model of being much like that of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”: to truly experience the world one must be fully in it and of it, yet distinct enough from it to have some perspective, and invisible so as not to interfere with it unduly. This paradoxical set of conditions describes perfectly the poetic stance Whitman tries to assume. The lavish eroticism of this section reinforces this idea: sexual contact allows two people to become one yet not one—it offers a moment of transcendence. As the female spectator introduced in the beginning of the section fades away, and Whitman’s voice takes over, the eroticism becomes homoeroticism. Again this is not so much the expression of a sexual preference as it is the longing for communion with every living being and a connection that makes use of both the body and the soul (although Whitman is certainly using the homoerotic sincerely, and in other ways too, particularly for shock value).

Having worked through some of the conditions of perception and creation, Whitman arrives, in the third key episode, at a moment where speech becomes necessary. In the twenty-fifth section he notes that “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, / It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” Having already established that he can have a sympathetic experience when he encounters others (“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”), he must find a way to re-transmit that experience without falsifying or diminishing it. Resisting easy answers, he later vows he “will never translate [him]self at all.” Instead he takes a philosophically more rigorous stance: “What is known I strip away.” Again Whitman’s position is similar to that of Emerson, who says of himself, “I am the unsettler.” Whitman, however, is a poet, and he must reassemble after unsettling: he must “let it out then.” Having catalogued a continent and encompassed its multitudes, he finally decides: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “Song of Myself” thus ends with a sound—a yawp—that could be described as either pre- or post-linguistic. Lacking any of the normal communicative properties of language, Whitman’s yawp is the release of the “kosmos” within him, a sound at the borderline between saying everything and saying nothing. More than anything, the yawp is an invitation to the next Walt Whitman, to read into the yawp, to have a sympathetic experience, to absorb it as part of a new multitude.

Critics have noted a strong Transcendentalist influence on the poem, a theory somewhat validated by Ralph Waldo Emerson's enthusiastic letter praising the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In addition to this romanticism, the poem seems to anticipate a kind of realism that would only become important in United States literature after the Civil War.
In the following 1855 passage, for example, we can see Whitman's inclusion of the gritty details of everyday life:
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did it in the cot in his mother's bedroom;
The dour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand . . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove ... (section 15)

The "self" of the poem's speaker - the "I" of the poem - should not be limited to or confused with the person of the historical Walt Whitman. The persona described has transcended the conventional boundaries of self. "I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe .... and am not contained between my hat and boots" (section 7).
There are several other quotes from the poem that make it apparent that Whitman does not consider the narrator to represent a single individual. Rather, he seems to be narrating for all:
“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Section 1)
“in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (Section 20)
“it is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you” (Section 47)
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Section 51)
Two articles, Alice L. Cook's "A Note on Whitman's Symbolism in 'Song of Myself'" and John B. Mason's "Walt Whitman Catalogues: Rhetorical Means for Two Journeys in 'Song of Myself'", give interpretations as to the meaning of the 'self' as well as its importance to the poem. Cook writes of the “concept of 'self' in its individual and universal aspects” while Mason discusses “the reader’s involvement in the poet’s movement from the singular to the cosmic.” The "self" serves as an ideal, yet, in contrast to traditional epic poetry, this identity is one of the common people rather than a hero.

Section 1:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

From Section 2:

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

From Section 21

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

From Section 24:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

Section 5

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless (me: divinity) are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”
Author: Walt Whitman; Genre: Poem; American Romanticism

This poem was written in 1859 and incorporated into the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. It describes a young boy’s awakening as a poet, mentored by nature and his own maturing consciousness. The poem is loose in its form, except for the sections that purport to be a transcript of the bird’s call, which are musical in their repetition of words and phrases. The opening of the poem is marked by an abundance of repeated prepositions describing movement—out, over, down, up, from—which appear regularly later in the poem and which convey the sense of a struggle, in this case the poet’s struggle to come to consciousness.

Unlike most of Whitman’s poems, “Out of the Cradle” has a fairly distinct plot line. A young boy watches a pair of birds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at their relationship to one another. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy, and he seems to be able to translate what the bird is saying. Brought to tears by the bird’s pathos, he asks nature to give him the one word “superior to all.” In the rustle of the ocean at his feet, he discerns the word “death,” which continues, along with the bird’s song, to have a presence in his poetry.


This is another poem that links Whitman to the Romantics. The “birth of the poet” genre was of particular importance to Wordsworth, whose massive Prelude details his artistic coming-of-age in detail. Like Wordsworth, Whitman claims to take his inspiration from nature. Where Wordsworth is inspired by a wordless feeling of awe, though, Whitman finds an opportunity to anthropomorphize, and nature gives him very specific answers to his questions about overarching concepts. Nature is a tabula rasa onto which the poet can project himself. He conquers it, inscribes it. While it may become a part of him that is always present, the fact that it does so seems to be by his permission.

The epiphany surrounding the word “death” seems appropriate, for in other poems of Whitman’s we have seen death described as the ultimate tool for democracy and sympathy. Here death is shown to be the one lesson a child must learn, whether from nature or from an elder. Only the realization of death can lead to emotional and artistic maturity. Death, for one as interested as Whitman in the place of the individual in the universe, is a means for achieving perspective: while your thoughts may seem profound and unique in the moment, you are a mere speck in existence. Thus the contemplation of death allows for one to move beyond oneself, to consider the whole. Perhaps this is why the old crone disrupts the end of the poem: she symbolizes an alternative possibility, the means by which someone else may have come to the same realization as Whitman. In the end the bird, although functionally important in Whitman’s development, is insignificant in the face of the abstract sea: death, which is the concept he introduces, remains as the important factor.

Thus although “Out of the Cradle” can be described as a poem about the birth of the poet, it can also be read as a poem about the death of the self. In the end, on the larger scale, these two phenomena are one and the same.
Leaves of Grass
Whitman claimed that after years of competing for "the usual rewards", he determined to become a poet. As early as 1850, he began writing what would become Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry which he would continue editing and revising until his death. Whitman intended to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible. The book received its strongest praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a flattering five page letter to Whitman and spoke highly of the book to friends.

This book is notable for its delight in and praise of the senses during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises nature and the individual human's role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
"Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand"
"Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand"
Author: Walt Whitman; Genre: Poetry; free-verse

In the poem, Whitman personifies himself as a book. The first stanza notes:

WHOEVER you are, holding me now in hand,
Without one thing, all will be useless,
I give you fair warning, before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.

Who is he that would become my follower? 5
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?

The way is suspicious—the result uncertain, perhaps destructive;
You would have to give up all else—I alone would expect to be your God, sole and exclusive,
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
The whole past theory of your life, and all conformity to the lives around you, would have to be abandon’d; 10
Therefore release me now, before troubling yourself any further—Let go your hand from my shoulders,
Put me down, and depart on your way.

The poem seems to acknowledge the radical grandioseness of Whitman's personal philosophies. But for the neophyte, there is some hint of a payoff, which the poet phrases in terms of the sensuous and sensual:

"In natural environs, asserts Whitman in "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," the organic homoerotic love that was "latent" in all men might manifest itself:

Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip.

By refusing to specify the sex of the partner who holds his hand, who kisses him, upon whose hip he rests, Whitman approaches what Robert Martin calls "the 'socialism' of nondirected sex." Such a strategy implies that an artificially delineated heterosexuality would be undemocratic because it would restrict the natural expression of love and pleasure solely to male-female relationships and would prevent its fair exchange between same-sex partners. Democracy could not make distinctions of any kind, particularly when it came to sexual matters. As the natural expression of love, (homo)sexual contact, particularly Whitman's construction of it, had the potential to blur class distinctions and to merge the bodies of political equals--namely white men--together in a mutual exchange of pleasure that would bring about an unprecedented democratic union of the body politic."

Still, the poem ends as a warning:

But these leaves conning, you con at peril,
For these leaves, and me, you will not understand,
They will elude you at first, and still more afterward—I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold! 30
Already you see I have escaped from you.

For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
Nor do those know me best who admire me, and vauntingly praise me,
Nor will the candidates for my love, (unless at most a very few,) prove victorious, 35
Nor will my poems do good only—they will do just as much evil, perhaps more;
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit—that which I hinted at;
Therefore release me, and depart on your way.
"The Wound-Dresser"
Author: Walt Whitman; Genre: Poetry; free verse; Romantic; war poem

One of Whitman’s "Drum Taps" poems, describing the Civil War years. This is an eloquent and passionate celebration of caring, certainly one of the canon of poems about nursing. For those who argue that nurses and physicians ought to develop detachment and "clinical distance," this poem is a kick in the pants.

An old man bending I come upon new faces . . . . The old poet is asked by the young to tell of his experience during the war. In silence and in dreams, he returns to the battlefield: "Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, / Straight and swift to my wounded I go, / Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, / Where their priceless blood reddens the grass . . . . "

He describes the rows of the hospital tent, where one man has a bullet through his neck, another an amputated arm. The poet cleans and dresses each wound. Even though he never knew these soldiers before, "Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you."

One of the most pervasive myths of twentieth century war poetry is the disillusionment hypothesis: that in 1914 European poets marched gaily to war singing romantic encomia to patriotism, heroism and glory but by 1918 the horrors of trench warfare had estranged them from their earlier songs and given birth to a profoundly disillusioned modern poetic consciousness. After the first World War, Sassoon and Owen were decrying the war in poetry, but years before, Whitman had already done the same thing. To find the clearest statement of poetic voice shifting from idealistic nationalism to realistic horror one must look not to the poets of the Great War, but to the poet who first fashioned himself explicitly as a war poet, Walt Whitman. Whitman's war, the American Civil War, marks the advent of modern war (Kinney 2) as it introduced many modern firsts traditionally identified with twentieth century warfare. Like the war to which he bears witness, Whitman marks the advent of the modern War Poet. n December 1862 Whitman began volunteer work in military hospitals in and around the D.C. area. His encounters with the wounded and dying of both sides profoundly affected his conceptions of war, democracy and poetry. What he saw and experienced in those hospitals had a deep effect on Whitman. In the poem, Whitman styles himself as a Wound-Dresser to the soldiers, and perhaps the American Consciousness.

He describes the hospital scene:

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away), 40
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly).

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, 45
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep, 50
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail. 55

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).

But the poem ends almost hopefully--a testament to the powering of human caring. Whitman says

"Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, 60
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips)."

Notice the tense change at the final line. Those kisses still dwell long after the soldier has died.
"We Wear the Mask"
Author: Paul Laurence Dunbar; Genre: Poetry; African-American poet

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

"We Wear the Mask" is a lyric poem about oppressed black Americans forced to hide their pain and frustration behind a façade of happiness and contentment. Dunbar published the poem in 1896.

Dunbar was believed to be the first black American to earn national recognition for his writing. He gained attention after selling a published collection of his poems to riders on the elevator he operated in a building in Dayton, Ohio. Dunbar was the son of slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. His father escaped slavery and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The extent to which the experiences of Dunbar's parents as slaves influenced his poetry is uncertain, but it was probably considerable. One can imagine Dunbar as a child listening at the fireside to stories his parents told about their lives as slaves.

Theme: Concealed Pain and Suffering

.......To get by in America of the late 19th Century, blacks frequently concealed their pain, frustration, and anger from whites, as well as from one another. For blacks to reveal publicly their true feelings about whites' maltreatment of them would have been to risk dangerous retaliation. After all, prejudice was official policy in Dunbar's lifetime–governmentally and otherwise–and whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation were difficult to articulate–and could impose deep anxiety upon loved ones. So it was that many blacks wore a mask that suggested happiness and contentment but concealed acute distress and pain. Historical and Social Background

.......In 1896–the year of the poem's publication–antipathy toward blacks was widespread in America. True, the Civil War had liberated blacks from slavery, and federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property, and so on. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution–approved in the post-Civil War era–granted black Americans basic rights as citizens, as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, court and legislative decisions later emasculated the legal protection of blacks. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) that it was legal to provide "separate but equal" accommodations for passengers of Louisiana's railroads. This ruling set a precedent that led to segregated schools, restaurants, parks, libraries, and so on.
.......Meanwhile, hate groups inflicted inhuman treatment on innocent blacks, including brutal beatings. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon. Many so-called "enlightened" or "liberal-minded" Americans looked the other way, including law-enforcement officers, clergymen, politicians, and ordinary Americans. Some churches even limited membership to whites. Because blacks had been relegated to the lowest stratum of society, they had to attend poorly equipped schools and settle for menial jobs as porters, ditch-diggers, servants, shoeshine boys, and so on. Dunbar, a brilliant student in high school, worked as an elevator operator before his writing earned him elevated status. Hatred of blacks continued in the 20th Century. The Ku Klux Klan, which disbanded in the early 1870's, reformed in 1915 and attracted more than 4 million members nationwide by the mid-1920s.
.......Prejudice against blacks in America remains strong today in spite of major advances in favor of blacks. Consequently, Dunbar's poem remains relevant. Schools throughout America continue to include it in curriculums.


.......If the poem expresses Dunbar's deep feelings as an oppressed black, it also expresses a paradox. On the one hand, it hides its central issue: Not even once does it mention blacks or racial prejudice. In other words, the poem itself wears a mask. On the other hand, it openly parades Dunbar's feelings as a frustrated black across the page. In other words, it doffs all pretense and imposture. Gone is the mask. What we have, then, is a poem that conceals everything and reveals everything at one and the same time. However, if the reader views the narrator/speaker as a kind of universal voice (raceless, ageless, etc.) rather than a specific man (Dunbar), then the paradox does not obtain. In the latter case, the general language could apply to anyone of any race who hides his or her feelings to get by in the world.
Author: PL Dunbar; Genre: Poetry; African-American poetry

I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

"Sympathy" is a lyric poem about a caged bird that symbolizes oppressed black Americans specifically and any oppressed people generally. Dodd, Mead, and Company published the poem in 1899 in Lyrics of the Hearthside. The speaker of the poem and the bird both experience the pain of captivity. The bird yearns to fly from its cage when it sees the sunlit landscape and smells the fragrance of the flowers. It flaps its wings until they bleed; it beats against the bars of the cage. The speaker also yearns to break free when nature beckons. He perhaps tugs at his bonds (literal or figurative) and beats his head against a wall. But neither the bird nor the speaker can escape. Both are prisoners. All they can do is sing a song that cries out to heaven for deliverance.
.Since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem can stand as a lament on behalf of all people oppressed by intolerance, prejudice, and unfair laws.
The Pioneers
James Fenimore Cooper; Genre: Historical Novel, the first published of the Leatherstocking Tales; 1823

The story takes place on the rapidly advancing frontier of New York State and features a middle-aged Leatherstocking (Natty Bumppo), Judge Marmaduke Temple of Templeton, whose life parallels that of the author's father Judge William Cooper, and Elizabeth Temple (the author's sister Susan Cooper), of Cooperstown. The story begins with an argument between the Judge and Leatherstocking over who killed a buck, and as Cooper reviews many of the changes to New York's Lake Otsego, questions of environmental stewardship, conservation, and use prevail. The plot develops as the Leatherstocking and Chingachgook begin to compete with the Temples for the loyalties of a mysterious young visitor, "Oliver Edwards," the "young hunter," who eventually marries Elizabeth. Chingachgook dies, exemplifying the vexed figure of the "dying Indian," and Natty vanishes into the sunset. For all its strange twists and turns, 'The Pioneers' may be considered one of the first ecological novels in the United States.

The Pioneers was the first of James Fenimore Coopers Leatherstocking series featuring the character Natty Bumppo, a resourceful American living in the woods. Cooper uses fantastic imagery in The Pioneers to give the reader an idea of what he wants them to see when describing the forests, weather, and town. The main theme seems to be one of early colonization where the story focuses on the evolution of the wilderness into a civilized town. Cooper also uses his characters to illustrate the life of early colonists. The story takes place in the town of Templeton which has been said to be modeled after Cooperstown, New York. Albeit colonization is the main theme, the story also has an underlying ecological theme. Some say this was the first of its kind when it comes to environmental protection. One of Cooper’s characters Judge Temple highlights this theme when he talks about how the people will use up the very resources they depend on by destroying the forests, pigeons, and fish. In addition to the themes of the novel symbolism also plays an important role especially when it comes to the Indians. The character Chingachgook dying seems to be a symbol of the Indian population slowly dying out due to the ever growing American Colonization. Cooper would seem to be a credible source to the ideas he personifies in his novel but according to the British novelist and critic D.H. Lawrence his novel was nothing but “the myth of America.” This could be because of the negative light in which Cooper sometimes portrayed the colonists with their lack of ecological awareness and conflicts with the Indians. Whichever the case the novel tells a fantastic story of life on the frontier and the many challenges faced by both the colonists and the Indians.
The Last of the Mohicans
Author: James Fenimore Cooper; Genre: Novel; Sentimental novel, adventure novel, frontier romance

Hawkeye - The novel’s frontier hero, he is a woodsman, hunter, and scout. Hawkeye is the hero’s adopted name; his real name is Natty Bumppo. A famous marksman, Hawkeye carries a rifle named Killdeer and has earned the frontier nickname La Longue Carabine, or The Long Rifle. Hawkeye moves more comfortably in the forest than in civilization. His closest bonds are with Indians, particularly Chingachgook and Uncas, but he frequently asserts that he has no Indian blood. As a cultural hybrid—a character who mixes elements of different cultures—Hawkeye provides a link between Indians and whites.

Magua - The novel’s villain, he is a cunning Huron nicknamed Le Renard Subtil, or the Subtle Fox. Once a chief among his people, Magua was driven from his tribe for drunkenness. Because the English Colonel Munro enforced this humiliating punishment, Magua possesses a burning desire for retaliation against him.

Major Duncan Heyward - A young American colonist from the South who has risen to the rank of major in the English army. Courageous, well-meaning, and noble, Heyward often finds himself out of place in the forest, thwarted by his lack of knowledge about the frontier and Indian relations. Heyward’s unfamiliarity with the land sometimes creates problems for Hawkeye, the dexterous woodsman and leader.

Uncas - Chingachgook’s son, he is the youngest and last member of the Indian tribe known as the Mohicans. A noble, proud, self-possessed young man, Uncas falls in love with Cora Munro and suffers tragic consequences for desiring a forbidden interracial coupling. Noble Uncas thwarts the evil Magua’s desire to marry Cora. Uncas also functions as Hawkeye’s adopted brother and learns about leadership from Hawkeye.

Chingachgook - Uncas’s father, he is one of the two surviving members of the Mohican tribe. An old friend of Hawkeye, Chingachgook is also known as Le Gros Serpent—The Great Snake—because of his crafty intelligence.

David Gamut - A young Calvinist attempting to carry Christianity to the frontier through the power of his song. Ridiculously out of place in the wilderness, Gamut is the subject of Hawkeye’s frequent mockery. Gamut matures into Hawkeye’s helpful ally, frequently supplying him with important information.

Cora Munro - Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, a solemn girl with a noble bearing. Cora’s dark complexion derives from her mother’s “Negro” background. Cora attracts the love of the Mohican warrior Uncas and seems to return his feelings cautiously. She suffers the tragic fate of the sentimental heroine.

Alice Munro - Colonel Munro’s younger daughter by his Scottish second wife, and Cora’s half-sister. Girlish and young, she tends to faint at stressful moments. Alice and Heyward love each other. Alice’s blonde hair, fair skin, and weakness make her a conventional counterpart to the racially mixed and fiery Cora.

Summary: Chapter I

The novel takes place during the third year of the French and Indian War. The narrator explains that the land itself, populated by hostile Indian tribes, is as dangerous as the war. The armies do not want to battle, and the unpredictability of the terrain unnerves them. The French general Montcalm has allied himself with several of the Indian tribes native to America and is moving a large army south in an attempt to take Fort William Henry from the British. Magua, an Indian scout, intercepts the information about the impending attack on the fort and relays it to the British General Webb, to whom he is loyal. Webb decides to send reinforcements to Fort William Henry to help Colonel Munro, who commands the fort. Shortly after the reinforcements leave for Fort William Henry, Webb dispatches the young Major Heyward to accompany Alice and Cora Munro, the colonel’s daughters, who insist upon visiting their father. As they leave, an Indian runner dashes by them. Alice watches him with mixed admiration and repulsion.

he opening two chapters of The Last of the Mohicans establish war, both historical and imagined, as the novel’s foundation. Cooper uses historical facts, rooting his narrative in actual, lived events in the colonial history of the United States. However, he also roots his narrative in his own imagined war. Cooper wants to emphasize the tensions between mankind and the land, between natives and colonists, and between nature and culture. He does this by using history as a frame and filling that frame with fictional events.

Cooper’s characters illustrate the various ways that national cultures interact. The chronology of the first two chapters foreshadows the eventual colonial domination over the Indian frontier. In Chapter I, friendly and hostile Indian tribes rule the terrain that so daunts the whites. In Chapter II, Gamut gives a sophisticated biblical performance, ignoring the Indians as he sings. Although Cooper gestures at the eventual dominance of the whites, he also makes the white Gamut a figure of fun. Gamut behaves prissily in the menacing forest and then puts the lives of his companions at risk. Even Gamut’s biblical knowledge does not dignify him; he is identified as a New England religious psalmodist only because Magua, the Indian informant, is familiar with psalmody. Heyward, although less foolish than Gamut, also acquits himself badly. He has a greatly inflated sense of his own skill and wrongly determines that no danger exists after taking a cursory glance around the woods.

Cooper’s characters embody some of the broad stereotypes held during the colonization of America. Racial tensions underlie The Last of the Mohicans. At this point in the novel, Magua represents the nineteenth-century stock figure called the noble savage, an Indian for whom the white population feels both sympathy and horror. Whites may celebrate Magua for his willingness to help them, but they also fear his cultural differences and his familiarity with a terrain they find fearsome. Cora embodies the typical white reaction to Indians—terror and fascination. Cooper also suggests that Cora feels a sexual attraction to Magua. Attractions like Cora’s, or even the imagined possibility of such attractions, terrified white males, who feared intermarriage and interracial sexual contact between Indian men and white women. This fear of interracial contact partially motivated the widespread removal of Native Americans during the nineteenth century. Cooper complicates the stereotype of the white woman attracted to the Indian man by making Cora dark, her hair black like a raven. Cora transgresses society’s rules when she looks at Magua with desire, but in some ways, Cooper suggests, her desire for him seems natural.

These two chapters both begin with epigraphs from Shakespeare’s plays—one from Richard II and the other from The Merchant of Venice. By invoking the lofty language of Shakespeare, Cooper announces his intention to write serious literary fiction. In the early nineteenth century, when Cooper was writing, the American novel was a fairly new form and its respectability uncertain. Cooper aims to give the American novel credence by quoting Shakespeare. Richard II chronicles the fall of a king, an appropriate subject for The Last of the Mohicans, which depicts a society that will one day shake off kingly rule and become democratic. The Merchant of Venice is famous for its treatment of anti-Semitism in the Jewish figure of Shylock; quoting from that play suggests that the novel will explore racism.

Summary: Chapter III

"There is reason in an Indian, though nature has made him with a red skin!" --Hawkeye

The narrator shifts the focus of attention from Magua and his party to another group of people in another part of the forest, a few miles west by the river. We meet the remaining primary characters: Hawkeye, a white hunter, and Chingachgook, his Mohican ally. Though both men are hunters, they dress differently. Hawkeye wears a hunting shirt, a skin cap, and buckskin leggings; he carries a knife, a pouch, and a horn. Chingachgook is almost naked and covered in war-paint. Both men carry weapons. Hawkeye carries a long rifle, and Chingachgook carries a short rifle and a tomahawk. They discuss the historical developments that have caused them to both inhabit the same forest. Hawkeye proclaims his inheritance of a genuine and enduring whiteness, and Chingachgook laments the demise of his tribe of Mohicans. Of the Mohican tribe, only Chingachgook and his son remain. At this mention of the diminishing tribe, Chingachgook’s son Uncas appears and reports that he has been trailing the Maquas, the Iroquois enemies of the Mohicans. When the antlers of a deer appear in the distance, Hawkeye wants to shoot the animal, but then realizes that the noise of the rifle will draw the attention of the enemy. In the place of the long rifle, Uncas uses an arrow to kill the deer. Shortly thereafter, Chingachgook detects the sound of horses approaching.

Whereas Cooper uses epigraphs from Shakespearean plays to frame his first two chapters, he uses an American epigraph to begin Chapter III, quoting from William Cullen Bryant’s poem “An Indian at the Burial-Place of His Fathers.” Cooper uses Shakespearean quotations to justify The Last of the Mohicans as a literary project of high culture, and he uses the Bryant poem to ground his novel in the contemporary concerns of the young American republic. Cooper’s nineteenth-century readers would have interpreted Bryant’s poem as a reflection on the tensions between an expanding national culture and a diminishing Native American population. Writing in the 1820s, Cooper captures the nation’s divided sentiments about President Andrew Jackson’s “removal policies,” which sought to move Indian groups westward and resulted in widespread genocide. The Last of the Mohicans speaks of the growing strength of the American spirit. However, the novel does not just cheer America; its title sparks associations with Jackson’s genocidal policies. Cooper also uses the French and Indian War as a metaphor for the contemporary warfare that some feel the United States wages against Native American cultures.

Chapter III introduces the interracial friendship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook and shows how their racial histories differ. Hawkeye insists on the thorough whiteness he has inherited, and Chingachgook and his son represent the end of the Mohican line. Despite their difference in race, however, Hawkeye and Chingachgook are friends. In fact, theirs is the novel’s first and strongest friendship, and with it Cooper suggests that whites and Indians are not necessarily natural enemies. According to literary critic Leslie Fiedler, the interracial friendship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook establishes a pattern of interracial male bonding that recurs throughout nineteenth-century American literature. Other interracial friendships include that of Huck Finn and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and that of Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick. Hawkeye and Chingachgook challenge the separation of white and Indian cultures that was politically and socially enforced at the time Cooper’s novel was published.

The conflict between Magua, the Huron, and his Mohican enemies in Chapter IV shows that The Last of the Mohicans does not characterize all Indians as identical in personality, as did many contemporary stereotypes. The Indians’ personas vary greatly, and the history of tension between Hurons and Mohicans suggests the complexity and variety of Native American cultures. At the same time, though, Cooper’s portrayal of Magua accords with popular, phobic beliefs of his time. The Last of the Mohicans thus both satisfies popular beliefs and seeks to challenge them. If Cooper falls back on broad stereotypes in depicting some Indian characters, it is perhaps not racism that is at stake here, but style, for Cooper creates similarly stereotypical white characters as well.
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
Author: Edgar Allan Poe; Genre: Short Story; Horror; Gothic; Romance

Characters: Roderick Usher; Madeline Usher (his twin sister); and the clueless narrator, who is supposedly a good friend of Usher.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” possesses the quintessential -features of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. We cannot say for sure where in the world or exactly when the story takes place. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantastic.

Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind that controls the fate of its inhabitants. Poe, creates confusion between the living things and inanimate objects by doubling the physical house of Usher with the genetic family line of the Usher family, which he refers to as the house of Usher. Poe employs the word “house” metaphorically, but he also describes a real house. Not only does the narrator get trapped inside the mansion, but we learn also that this confinement describes the biological fate of the Usher family. The family has no enduring branches, so all genetic transmission has occurred incestuously within the domain of the house. The peasantry confuses the mansion with the family because the physical structure has effectively dictated the genetic patterns of the family.

The claustrophobia of the mansion affects the relations among characters. For example, the narrator realizes late in the game that Roderick and Madeline are twins, and this realization occurs as the two men prepare to entomb Madeline. The cramped and confined setting of the burial tomb metaphorically spreads to the features of the characters. Because the twins are so similar, they cannot develop as free individuals. Madeline is buried before she has actually died because her similarity to Roderick is like a coffin that holds her identity. Madeline also suffers from problems typical for women in -nineteenth--century literature. She invests all of her identity in her body, whereas Roderick possesses the powers of intellect. In spite of this disadvantage, Madeline possesses the power in the story, almost superhuman at times, as when she breaks out of her tomb. She thus counteracts Roderick’s weak, nervous, and immobile disposition. Some scholars have argued that Madeline does not even exist, reducing her to a shared figment Roderick’s and the narrator’s imaginations. But Madeline proves central to the symmetrical and claustrophobic logic of the tale. Madeline stifles Roderick by preventing him from seeing himself as essentially different from her. She completes this attack when she kills him at the end of the story.

Doubling spreads throughout the story. The tale highlights the Gothic feature of the doppelganger, or character double, and portrays doubling in inanimate structures and literary forms. The narrator, for example, first witnesses the mansion as a reflection in the tarn, or shallow pool, that abuts the front of the house. The mirror image in the tarn doubles the house, but upside down—an inversely symmetrical relationship that also characterizes the relationship between Roderick and Madeline.

The story features numerous allusions to other works of literature, including the poems “The Haunted Palace” and “Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning. Poe composed them himself and then fictitiously attributed them to other sources. Both poems parallel and thus predict the plot line of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” “Mad Trist,” which is about the forceful entrance of Ethelred into the dwelling of a hermit, mirrors the simultaneous escape of Madeline from her tomb. “Mad Trist” spookily crosses literary borders, as though Roderick’s obsession with these poems ushers their narratives into his own domain and brings them to life.

The crossing of borders pertains vitally to the Gothic horror of the tale. We know from Poe’s experience in the magazine industry that he was obsessed with codes and word games, and this story amplifies his obsessive interest in naming. “Usher” refers not only to the mansion and the family, but also to the act of crossing a -threshold that brings the narrator into the perverse world of Roderick and Madeline. Roderick’s letter ushers the narrator into a world he does not know, and the presence of this outsider might be the factor that destroys the house. The narrator is the lone exception to the Ushers’ fear of outsiders, a fear that accentuates the claustrophobic nature of the tale. By undermining this fear of the outside, the narrator unwittingly brings down the whole structure. A similar, though strangely playful crossing of a boundary transpires both in “Mad Trist” and during the climactic burial escape, when Madeline breaks out from death to meet her mad brother in a “tryst,” or meeting, of death. Poe thus buries, in the fictitious gravity of a medieval romance, the puns that garnered him popularity in America’s magazines.

Themes: Vampirism; Doubling; Incest; Family Secrets; Manipulation
"The Purloined Letter"
Author: Edgar Allan Poe; Genre: Intellectual Detective Story; 1844

In a small room in Paris, an unnamed narrator, who also narrates “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” sits quietly with his friend, C. Auguste Dupin. He ponders the murders in the Rue Morgue, which Dupin solved in that story. Monsieur G——, the prefect of the Paris police, arrives, having decided to consult Dupin again. The prefect presents a case that is almost too simple: a letter has been taken from the royal apartments. The police know who has taken it: the Minister D——, an important government official. According to the prefect, a young lady possessed the letter, which contains information that could harm a powerful individual. When the young lady was first reading the letter, the man whom it concerned came into the royal apartments. Not wanting to arouse his suspicion, she put it down on a table next to her. The sinister Minister D—— then walked in and noted the letter’s contents. Quickly grasping the seriousness of the situation, he produced a letter of his own that resembled the important letter. He left his own letter next to the original one as he began to talk of Parisian affairs. Finally, as he prepared to leave the apartment, he purposely retrieved the lady’s letter in place of his own. Now, the prefect explains, the Minister D—— possesses a great deal of power over the lady.

Dupin asks whether the police have searched the Minister’s residence, arguing that since the power of the letter derives from its being readily available, it must be in his apartment. The prefect responds that they have searched the Minister’s residence but have not located the letter. He recounts the search procedure, during which the police systematically searched every inch of the hotel. In addition, the letter could not be hidden on the Minister’s body because the police have searched him as well. The prefect mentions that he is willing to search long and hard because the reward offered in the case is so generous. Upon Dupin’s request, the prefect reads him a physical description of the letter. Dupin suggests that the police search again.

One month later, Dupin and the narrator are again sitting together when the prefect visits. The prefect admits that he cannot find the letter, even though the reward has increased. The prefect says that he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who obtains the letter for him. Dupin tells him to write a check for that amount on the spot. Upon receipt of the check, Dupin hands over the letter. The prefect rushes off to return it to its rightful owner, and Dupin explains how he obtained the letter.

Dupin admits that the police are skilled investigators according to their own principles. He explains this remark by describing a young boy playing “even and odd.” In this game, each player must guess whether the number of things (usually toys) held by another player is even or odd. If the guesser is right, he gets one of the toys. If he is wrong, he loses a toy of his own. The boy whom Dupin describes plays the game well because he bases his guesses on the knowledge of his opponent. When he faces difficulty, he imitates the facial expression of his opponent, as though to understand what he thinks and feels. With this knowledge, he often guesses correctly. Dupin argues that the Paris police do not use this strategy and therefore could not find the letter: the police think only to look for a letter in places where they themselves might hide it.

Dupin argues that the Minister D—— is intelligent enough not to hide the letter in the nooks and crannies of his apartment—exactly where the police first investigate. He describes to the narrator a game of puzzles in which one player finds a name on a map and tells the other player to find it as well. Amateurs, says Dupin, pick the names with the smallest letters. According to Dupin’s logic, the hardest names to find are actually those that stretch broadly across the map because they are so obvious.

With this game in mind, Dupin recounts the visit he made to the Minister’s apartment. After surveying the Minister’s residence, Dupin notices a group of visiting cards hanging from the mantelpiece. A letter accompanies them. It has a different exterior than that previously described by the prefect, but Dupin also observes that the letter appears to have been folded back on itself. He becomes sure that it is the stolen document. In order to create a reason for returning to the apartment, he purposely leaves behind his snuffbox. When he goes back the next morning to retrieve it, he also arranges for someone to make a commotion outside the window while he is in the apartment. When the Minister rushes to the window to investigate the noise, Dupin replaces the stolen letter with a fake. He justifies his decision to leave behind another letter by predicting that the Minister will embarrass himself when he acts in reliance upon the letter he falsely believes he still possesses. Dupin remarks that the Minister once wronged him in Vienna and that he has pledged not to forget the insult. Inside the fake letter, then, Dupin inscribes, a French poem that translates into English, “So baneful a scheme, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.”


Along with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter” establishes a new genre of short fiction in American literature: the detective story. Poe considered “The Purloined Letter” his best detective story, and critics have long identified the ways in which it redefines the mystery genre—it turns away from action toward intellectual analysis, for example. As opposed to the graphic violence of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which features bodily mutilation and near decapitation by a wild animal, “The Purloined Letter” focuses more dryly on the relationship between the Paris police and Dupin, between the ineffectual established order and the savvy private eye. When the narrator opens the story by reflecting upon the gruesome murders in the Rue Morgue that Dupin has helped to solve, Poe makes it clear that the prior story is on his mind. Poe sets up the cool reason of “The Purloined Letter” in opposition to the violence of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The battered and lacerated bodies of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are replaced by the bloodless, inanimate stolen letter. However, just as the Paris police are unable to solve the gory crime of passion in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” they are similarly unable to solve this apparently simple mystery, in which the solution is hidden in plain sight.

Poe moves away from violence and action by associating Dupin’s intelligence with his reflectiveness and his radical theories about the mind. This tale does not have the constant action of stories like “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Black Cat.” Instead, this tale features the narrator and Dupin sitting in Dupin’s library and discussing ideas. The tale’s action, relayed by flashbacks, takes place outside the narrative frame. The narrative itself is told through dispassionate analysis. The intrusions of the prefect and his investigations of the Minister’s apartment come off as unrefined and unintellectual. Poe portrays the prefect as simultaneously the most active and the most unreflective character in the story. Dupin’s most pointed criticisms of the prefect have less to do with a personal attack than with a critique of the mode of investigation employed by the police as a whole. Dupin suggests that the police cannot think outside their own standard procedures. They are unable to place themselves in the minds of those who actually commit crimes. Dupin’s strategy of solving crimes, on the other hand, involves a process of thinking like someone else. Just as the boy playing “even and odd” enters his opponent’s mind, Dupin inhabits the consciousness of the criminal. He does not employ fancy psychological theories, but rather imitates the train of thought of his opponent. He succeeds in operating one step ahead of the police because he thinks as the Minister does.

This crime-solving technique of thinking like the criminal suggests that Dupin and the Minister are more doubles than opposites. The revenge aspect of the story, which Dupin promises after the Minister offends him in Vienna, arguably derives from their threatening similarity. Dupin’s note inside the phony letter, translated “So baneful a scheme, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes,” suggests the rivalry that accompanies brotherly minds. In the French dramatist Crébillon’s early-eighteenth-century tragedy Atrée et Thyeste (or Atreus and Thyestes), Thyestes seduces the wife of his brother, Atreus. In retaliation, Atreus murders the sons of Thyestes and serves them to their father at a feast. Dupin implies here that Thyestes deserves more punishment than Atreus because he commits the original wrong. In contrast, Atreus’s revenge is legitimate because it repays the original offense. Dupin considers his own deed to be revenge and thereby morally justified.

Characters: Unnamed narrator, Dupin (the investigative genius), The Prefect (police investigator), and the Minister (who has purloined the letter).
Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville; Genre: Fucking Long; Novel; Sea Narrative; Epic, adventure story, quest tale, allegory, tragedy

Date of first publication · 1851

Characters: Ishmael, Ahab, Moby-Dick, Starbuck, Queequeg, Stubb, Tashtego (Indian harpooner), Flask, Dagoo (African harpooner), Pip (Young black boy who goes insane), Fedallah

Important Quotes:
"How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair." --Ishmael

"Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!" -Ahab

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it." -- Narrator; the existential heart of the novel.

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!" -- Ahab's last words

"[It] chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling the etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-grasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it." -- Tashtego nailing the bird to the mast

Themes: The Limits of Knowledge; The Deceptiveness of Fate; The Exploitative Nature of Whaling; Whiteness; Surfaces and Depths; The Pequod as a symbol of doom; Moby Dick (possesses various symbolic meanings for various individuals); Queequeg’s Coffin (Queequeg’s coffin alternately symbolizes life and death).
"Billy Bud"
Author: Herman Melville; Genre: Novel; Sea Story; Allegory
(Published 1924)

T he setting is the last decade of the eighteenth century. The British naval warship H.M.S. Bellipotent impresses, or involuntarily recruits, the young sailor Billy Budd, extracting him from duty aboard the Rights-of-Man, a merchant ship. Billy’s commanding officer, Captain Graveling, though reluctant to let one of his best men go, has little choice in the face of the superior ship’s demands. Billy packs up his gear without so much as a protest and follows the boarding officer of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, across the gangway to his new assignment. After a cheery good-bye to his old mates, Billy settles in quickly among the company of the Bellipotent. He proves most industrious and eager in his role as foretopman and soon earns the affection of his more experienced fellow sailors.

Billy is deeply affected by the sight of a violent lashing given to one of the ship’s crew. Hoping to avoid a similar punishment, Billy attempts to fulfill his duties in model fashion, but finds himself under constant scrutiny due to various minor infractions. Puzzled by this persecution, Billy seeks out the advice of the Dansker, an aged, experienced sailor. After explaining the situation to him, the Dansker concludes that Claggart, the master-at-arms, holds a grudge against Billy. Refusing to accept this theory, Billy dismisses the Dansker’s opinion but continues to wonder pensively about his situation.

Shortly thereafter, at a lunchtime meal, Billy accidentally spills his soup pan in the ship’s dining room after a sudden lurch. The contents of the pan trickle to the feet of the passing Claggart, who makes an offhand, seemingly lighthearted remark in recognition of the spill. His comment elicits a stream of obligatory laughter from the ship’s company, and Billy interprets the event as proof of Claggart’s approval. But Claggart is offended by the accident, and finds it indicative of Billy’s contempt for him. He fixates on the accident as proof of Billy’s hostility, and his assistant Squeak resolves to increase his surreptitious persecutions of Billy in recompense.

One night, an anonymous figure rouses Billy from his sleep on the upper deck and asks him to meet in a remote quarter of the ship. Confused, Billy mechanically obeys. At the mysterious rendezvous, Billy is puzzled when, after some vague discourse, the unidentified man flashes two guineas in exchange for a promise of cooperation. Without comprehending the exact details of this solicitation, Billy recognizes that something is amiss, and he raises his stuttering voice and threatens the man with uncharacteristic violence. The conspirator quickly slinks into the darkness, and Billy finds himself confronted with the curious inquiries of two fellow sailors. Unsure of how to explain the situation, Billy explains that he simply happened upon a fellow sailor who was in the wrong part of the ship, and chased the man back to his proper station with a gruff rebuke.

Somewhat later, after a brief skirmish with an enemy frigate, Claggart approaches Captain Vere with news of a rumored mutiny and names Billy Budd as the ringleader of the rebellion. Vere summons Billy to his cabin and instructs Claggart to repeat his accusation. Upon hearing of this unexpected blot on his character, Billy is rendered speechless. Vere commands Billy to defend himself, but then, noticing Billy’s tendency to stutter, softens his approach. Left with no other means of defense, and twisted into a rage at Claggart’s outrageous words against him, Billy strikes out in a fury, giving Claggart a swift punch to the forehead.

The blow proves forceful enough to knock Claggart unconscious, and he lies bleeding from the nose and ears as Billy and Vere attempt to revive him. Abandoning this effort, Vere dismisses Billy to a neighboring stateroom until further notice. The ship’s surgeon pronounces Claggart dead after a brief examination, and Captain Vere summons a group of his senior officers to the cabin.

In a decisive move, Vere calls a drumhead court consisting of the captain of the marines, the first lieutenant, and the sailing master. Vere, functioning as the main witness, gives a testimony of the relevant events to the jury. Billy remains rather silent during his period of questioning, admitting to the blow but maintaining his innocence of intention and declaring his lack of affiliation with any potential mutiny. The court dismisses Billy again to the stateroom.

During a tense period of deliberation, Vere hovers over the jury. When they seem to be deadlocked, unable to make a decision, Vere steps forward to declare his conviction that the rule of law must supersede the reservations of conscience. He concludes his speech to the jury by insisting that they decide to acquit or condemn in strict accordance with the letter of military law. After a period of further deliberation, the jury finds Billy Budd guilty as charged and sentences him to death by hanging on the following morning.

Captain Vere communicates to Billy the news of his fate and, after a discussion with him that we do not learn about directly, he withdraws to leave the prisoner by himself. Later that evening, Vere calls a general meeting of the ship’s crew and explains the events of the day. Claggart receives an official burial at sea, and all hands prepare to bear witness to Billy’s hanging at dawn.

Billy spends his final hours in chains on board an upper gun deck, guarded by a sentry. The ship’s chaplain attempts to spiritually prepare Billy for his death, but Billy already seems to be in a state of perfect peace and resignation. As the chaplain withdraws from Billy’s company, he kisses him gently on the cheek as a token of good will.

That morning, shortly after four A.M., Billy is hanged in the mainyard of the ship. As the crew watches him being strung up, preparing to die, they hear him utter his last words: “God bless Captain Vere!” The assembled company automatically echoes this unexpected sentiment, and Billy expires with surprising calm as dawn breaks over the horizon.

After Billy’s death, the crew begins to murmur, but the officers quickly disperse them to various tasks. Whistles blow and the ship returns to regular business. In the ensuing days, sailors engage in various discussions concerning Billy’s fate and the mysterious circumstances of his expiration. On its return voyage, the Bellipotent falls in with a French warship, the Athée, or Atheist. Captain Vere, wounded in the skirmish, eventually dies in a Gibraltar hospital, uttering as his last words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

Finally, the legend of Billy Budd becomes recorded and institutionalized in naval circles. A newspaper reports the incident from afar, implicating Billy Budd as the villainous assailant of an innocent Claggart. The sailors themselves, however, begin to revere Billy’s growing legend, treating the spar from his gallows as a holy object, and composing laudatory verse in his memory.

Character List: Billy Budd, Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, John Claggart, The Dansker, Ship’s Surgeon, Ship’s Purser, Ship’s Chaplain, Squeak, Albert, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Captain Graveling, The Red Whiskers, Red Pepper.
The Portrait of a Lady
Author: Henry James; Genre: Psychological Realism
Isabel Archer; Gilbert Osmond; Madame Merle; Ralph Touchett; Lord Warburton; Caspar Goodwood; Mrs. Touchett; Pansy Osmond; Edward Rosier; Mr. Touchett; Mr. Bantling; Countess Gemini; Henrietta Stackpole;

The Portrait of a Lady explores the conflict between the individual and society by examining the life of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who must choose between her independent spirit and the demands of social convention. After professing and longing to be an independent woman, autonomous and answerable only to herself, Isabel falls in love with and marries the sinister Gilbert Osmond, who wants her only for her money and who treats her as an object, almost as part of his art collection. Isabel must then decide whether to honor her marriage vows and preserve social propriety or to leave her miserable marriage and escape to a happier, more independent life, possibly with her American suitor Caspar Goodwood. In the end, after the death of her cousin Ralph, the staunchest advocate of her independence, Isabel chooses to return to Osmond and maintain her marriage. She is motivated partly by a sense of social duty, partly by a sense of pride, and partly by the love of her stepdaughter, Pansy, the daughter of Osmond and his manipulative lover Madame Merle.

As the title of the novel indicates, Isabel is the principal character of the book, and the main focus of the novel is on presenting, explaining, and developing her character. James is one of America's great psychological realists, and he uses all his creative powers to ensure that Isabel's conflict is the natural product of a believable mind, and not merely an abstract philosophical consideration. In brief, Isabel's independence of spirit is largely a result of her childhood, when she was generally neglected by her father and allowed to read any book in her grandmother's library; in this way, she supervised her own haphazard education and allowed her mind to develop without discipline or order. Her natural intelligence has always ensured that she is at least as quick as anyone around her, and in Albany, New York, she has the reputation of being a formidable intellect.

After she travels to England with her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, however, it becomes clear that Isabel has a woefully unstructured imagination, as well as a romantic streak that suits her position as an optimistic, innocent American. (For James, throughout Portrait of a Lady, America is a place of individualism and naïveté, while Europe is a place of sophistication, convention, and decadence.) Isabel often considers her life as though it were a novel. She also has a tendency to think about herself obsessively and has a vast faith in her own moral strength—in fact, recognizing that she has never faced hardship, Isabel actually wishes that she might be made to suffer, so that she could prove her ability to overcome suffering without betraying her principles.

When Isabel moves to England, her cousin Ralph is so taken with her spirit of independence that he convinces his dying father to leave half his fortune to Isabel. This is intended to prevent her from ever having to marry for money, but ironically it attracts the treachery of the novel's villains, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. They conspire to convince Isabel to marry Osmond in order to gain access to her wealth. Her marriage to Osmond effectively stifles Isabel's independent spirit, as her husband treats her as an object and tries to force her to share his opinions and abandon her own.

This is the thematic background of Portrait of a Lady, and James skillfully intertwines the novel's psychological and thematic elements. Isabel's downfall with Osmond, for instance, enables the book's most trenchant exploration of the conflict between her desire to conform to social convention and her fiercely independent mind. It is also perfectly explained by the elements of Isabel's character: her haphazard upbringing has led her to long for stability and safety, even if they mean a loss of independence, and her active imagination enables her to create an illusory picture of Osmond, which she believes in more than the real thing, at least until she is married to him. Once she marries Osmond, Isabel's pride in her moral strength makes it impossible for her to consider leaving him: she once longed for hardship, and now that she has found it, it would be hypocritical for her to surrender to it by violating social custom and abandoning her husband.

In the same way that James unites his psychological and thematic subjects, he also intertwines the novel's settings with its themes. Set almost entirely among a group of American expatriates living in Europe in the 1860s and 70s, the book relies on a kind of moral geography, in which America represents innocence, individualism, and capability; Europe represents decadence, sophistication, and social convention; and England represents the best mix of the two. Isabel moves from America to England to continental Europe, and at each stage she comes to mirror her surroundings, gradually losing a bit of independence with each move. Eventually she lives in Rome, the historic heart of continental Europe, and it is here that she endures her greatest hardship with Gilbert Osmond.

Narratively, James uses many of his most characteristic techniques in Portrait of a Lady. In addition to his polished, elegant prose and his sedate, slow pacing, he utilizes a favorite technique of skipping over some of the novel's main events in telling the story. Instead of narrating moments such as Isabel's wedding with Osmond, James skips over them, relating that they have happened only after the fact, in peripheral conversations. This literary technique is known as ellipses. In the novel, James most often uses his elliptical technique in scenes when Isabel chooses to value social custom over her independence—her acceptance of Gilbert's proposal, their wedding, her decision to return to Rome after briefly leaving for Ralph's funeral at the end of the novel. James uses this method to create the sense that, in these moments, Isabel is no longer accessible to the reader; in a sense, by choosing to be with Gilbert Osmond, Isabel is lost. But Isabel's choice to return to the marriage could also count as the only real choice she makes in the novel -- the only time she knows all the information and is able to choose for herself. In sticking to the marriage, is escapes vulgarity and takes responsibility for her choices. She chooses to suffer. The novel exhibits a huge panorama of trans-Atlantic life, a far larger canvas than any James had previously painted. This moneyed world appears charming and leisurely but proves to be plagued with treachery, deceit, and suffering.

Themes: The individual vs. Society; the value of lower class suffering vs. upper class comfort; possession and marriage; American activity/industry vs. European luxury; the national character; interiority vs. exteriority; choice and consequences; vulgarity vs. taste.
The Country of the Pointed Firs
Author: Sarah Jewett; Genre: Regionalism; Realism; Collection of Short Stories

an 1896 short story sequence by Sarah Orne Jewett which is considered by some literary critics to be her finest work. Henry James described it as her "beautiful little quantum of achievement." Because it is loosely structured, many critics view the book not as a novel, but a series of sketches; however, its structure is unified through both setting and theme. The novel can be read as a study of the effects of isolation and hardship experienced by the inhabitants of the decaying fishing villages along the Maine coast.
Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote the book when she was 47, was largely responsible for popularizing the regionalism genre with her sketches of the fictional Maine fishing village of Dunnet Landing. Like Jewett, the narrator is a woman, a writer, unattached, genteel in demeanor, intermittently feisty and zealously protective of her time to write. The narrator removes herself from her landlady's company and writes in an empty schoolhouse, but she also continues to spend a great deal of time with Mrs. Todd, befriending her hostess and her hostess's family and friends.

Themes of The Country of Pointed Firs
Life on the land vs. Life on the sea
-Captain Littlepage's demeanor change
-Mrs. Todd's being instructed by a voice offshore, during their travels to see her mother
-nobility of the sea

Nature and the environment
-lush descriptive passages detail the surroundings
-focal point for the opening to each plot sketch

Literature and language as representative of societal status
-Mari Harris and Captain Littlepage
-low language and a lack of literary knowledge points to relative inelegance

Storytelling as an avenue for human connection

The quiet life of women


The narrator returns after a brief visit a few summers prior, to the small coastal town of Dunnet, Maine, in order to finish writing her book. Upon arriving she settles in with Mrs. Todd, a local elderly apothecary, or homeopathic "herbalist." The narrator begins to work for Mrs. Todd when Mrs. Todd goes out, but this distracts the narrator from her writing.
She rents an empty schoolhouse, so she can concentrate on her writing. After a funeral, Captain Littlepage, an 80-year-old retired sailor, comes to the schoolhouse to visit the narrator because he knows Mrs. Todd. He tells a story about his time on the sea and she is noticeably bored so he begins to leave. She sees that she has offended him with her display of boredom, so she covers her tracks by asking him to tell her more of his story. The Captain's story cannot compare to the stories that Mrs. Todd, Mrs. Todd's brother and mother, and residents of Dunnet tell of their lives in Dunnet. The narrator's friendship with Mrs. Todd strengthens over the course of the summer, and the narrator's appreciation of the Maine coastal town increases each day.


Mrs. Almira (Almiry) Todd
Initial appearance: Chapter 2; "Mrs. Todd" p. 6 - first talks to the narrator "Well, dear, I took great advantage o' your bein' here. I ain't had such a season for years, but I have never had nobody I could so trust."
Final appearance: Chapter 24; "The Backward View" p. 128-129 - when the narrator is leaving "I lost sight of her as she slowly crossed an open space on one of the higher points of land, and disappeared again behind a dark clump of juniper and the pointed firs.
Captain Littlepage
Initial appearance: Chapter 4; "At the Schoolhouse Window" p. 12 - in the midst of a funeral procession "...I recognized the one strange and unrelated person in all the company, an old man who had always been mysterious to me."
Final appearance: Chapter 10 "The Great Expedition" p. 89 - sitting behind his closed window "There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship."
Mrs. Blackett
Initial appearance: Chapter 8 "Green Island" p. 35 - on land "I looked and could see a tiny flutter in the doorway, but a quicker signal had made its way from the heart on shore to the heart on sea."
The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton; Genre: Realism; (1905); Novel of Manners

Characters: Lily Bart; Lawrence Seldon; Bertha Dorset (the arch villain); Gerty Farish; Simon Rosedale (the neaveau-riche); Gus Trenor; Judy Trenor; Carry Fisher; George Dorset; Ned (Bertha's boytoy); Mrs. Peniston (the aunt); Jack and Gwen Stepney; and Grace Stepney (the cousin).

The title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The House of Mirth's opening chapters provide a great example of how the novel pays attention to behavioral details. In a train station, Selden carefully analyzes Lily with the intent of determining why she is there. He then plays a mind game on her, walking past her to see if she greets him or tries to hide from him. This analysis of actions is typical in the novel, as seen later on when Lily and George Dorset are assumed to be having an affair after they are seen alone together at night in a train station. And, of course, Selden becomes enraged at Lily when he sees her leaving the house of Gus Trenor late one night by herself.

The novel is built on a series of visits or social events. Indeed, most of the action in the novel happens not by coincidence but by planning. Everyone plans trips to the Bellomont knowing that they will spend their time gambling, and Lily plans all of her trips with the intent of getting something out of someone. The various visits, then, are the grounds on which all the social analyses and gossip take place. The visits are a type of societal battle-ground on which alliances are formed, people make connections, and some are judged.

The basis of much of the societal interaction is money, which serves as a prerequisite for admission to the upper-class world of the Trenors and Dorsets. The meaning of money to Lily seldom changes; if anything, her lust for money grows in intensity as she becomes poorer. What makes money interesting in this novel is the way it is tied in to ideas about freedom and slavery. Whenever Lily comes across money, she feels free. Whenever she falls into debt, she feels enslaved. But one of the great ironies of this situation is that Lily is always enslaved to money because no matter what, it is the basis for her emotions. Her attitude rests entirely on how much she can afford to spend on dresses and how much she is in debt. A great tragedy in the novel is that Lily is never really free, even when she thinks she is.

Given that money is the controlling factor in Lily's life, to what can it lead? There are essentially two possibilities in The House of Mirth (and any novel of manners): acceptance/marriage or exile/death. Perhaps the most enjoyable way to read the novel is to begin reading with the belief that the book could go either way: Lily could get married and succeed, or fail and die. In this case, it is the latter option that happens. How does Wharton work toward that end? With each chapter, particularly in Book Two, the factors of bad luck and social instability combine to slowly remove Lily from society: bad luck because Lily was with the wrong man at the wrong time in France, and social instability because Lily was not entrenched enough in society for her word to be respected over that of Bertha.

As with all novels, a logical question to ask is, "What is this author trying to say?" In the case of The House of Mirth, one answer is that Wharton wants to depict the malice and bitter realities of life in upper-class society in all its grim reality. One theme is that money can cause more problems than it solves, and one should be careful when pursuing money. Moreover, the fact remains that if Lily had followed her heart and married Selden, she would have been fine. This leads to the conclusion that one ought to be true to one's feelings, rather than play a societal game of money and power.

Lily descends the social strata, working as a personal secretary until Bertha sabotages her position by turning her employers against her. Lily then takes a job as social secretary for a disreputable woman, but resigns after Selden comes to rescue her from complete infamy. She then works in a millinery, but produces poorly and is let go at the end of the season. Simon Rosedale, the Jewish suitor who had proposed marriage to her when she was higher on the social scale tries to rescue her, but she is unwilling to meet his terms: use love letters between Bertha Dorset and Selden that have come into her possession. Eventually, she receives her $10,000 inheritance which she uses to pay her debt to Trenors. Lily dies from an overdose of the sleeping draught to which she had become addicted. Is she a victim of society or does her death constitute as the last great resistance to cheapening her ideals? Certainly, she admits to herself that she would give into her more base motivations with time ("I wasn’t meant to be good"); she kills herself instead. Is there any triumph in this moment?

Compare to The Awakening; Mrs. Dalloway

"That was all he knew—all he could hope to unravel of the story. The mute lips on the pillow refused him more than this—unless indeed they had told him the rest in the kiss they had left upon his forehead. Yes, he could now read into that farewell all that his heart craved to find there; he could even draw from it courage not to accuse himself for having failed to reach the height of his opportunity." -- After Seldon finds Lily's body.
Novel of Manners
his places the book in a long-standing literary tradition known as the novel of manners, a form developed most notably by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are pioneer works of this literary genre. The tradition developed in England throughout the 19th century, as authors such as George Eliot and Henry James explored the place of women in society and the social effect of marriage, showing in particular the problems that come with marriage and conforming to society. In America, the novel of manners genre has included works such as Hannah Foster's The Coquette, the novels of James, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and even Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

The form developed some specific conventions in the 19th century. First, the protagonist is usually a single woman looking to get married. Second, socio-economic class must be a factor in determining whom the woman will marry. Third, the novel must include many scenes that portray the proper and improper way to act within high society, and also outline differences and relations between classes. And finally, the novel of manners usually ends with either the marriage or death of the female protagonist. Austen's Sense and Sensibility is a good example of this form. The protagonist, Elinor, is looking to get married, preferably to someone of a higher social class, and after many scenes of London society seen in dinner parties and elegant balls, Elinor marries Edward Ferrars.

During the late 19th century, the novel of manners was one of the most popular novel genres, but it was also a predominantly British form. Many people questioned whether such a genre could exist in America, where there are no official social classes. Wharton has something to say about that.

The English novel of manners was developed during the Romanticism movement, which placed a literary emphasis on emotion rather than reason, and the ideal rather than reality. Realism adds more depth and darkness to the genre.
The Red Badge of Courage
Author: Stephen Crane; Genre: Naturalism; War Novella

D uring the Civil War, a Union regiment rests along a riverbank, where it has been camped for weeks. A tall soldier named Jim Conklin spreads a rumor that the army will soon march. Henry Fleming, a recent recruit with this 304th Regiment, worries about his courage. He fears that if he were to see battle, he might run. The narrator reveals that Henry joined the army because he was drawn to the glory of military conflict. Since the time he joined, however, the army has merely been waiting for engagement. At last the regiment is given orders to march, and the soldiers spend several weary days traveling on foot. Eventually they approach a battlefield and begin to hear the distant roar of conflict. After securing its position, the enemy charges. Henry, boxed in by his fellow soldiers, realizes that he could not run even if he wanted to. He fires mechanically, feeling like a cog in a machine.

The blue (Union) regiment defeats the gray (Confederate) soldiers, and the victors congratulate one another. Henry wakes from a brief nap to find that the enemy is again charging his regiment. Terror overtakes him this time and he leaps up and flees the line. As he scampers across the landscape, he tells himself that made the right decision, that his regiment could not have won, and that the men who remained to fight were fools. He passes a general on horseback and overhears the commander saying that the regiment has held back the enemy charge. Ashamed of his cowardice, Henry tries to convince himself that he was right to preserve his own life to do so. He wanders through a forest glade in which he encounters the decaying corpse of a soldier. Shaken, he hurries away.

After a time, Henry joins a column of wounded soldiers winding down the road. He is deeply envious of these men, thinking that a wound is like “a red badge of courage”—visible proof of valorous behavior. He meets a tattered man who has been shot twice and who speaks proudly of the fact that his regiment did not flee. He repeatedly asks Henry where he is wounded, which makes Henry deeply uncomfortable and compels him to hurry away to a different part of the column. He meets a spectral soldier with a distant, numb look on his face. Henry eventually recognizes the man as a badly wounded Jim Conklin. Henry promises to take care of Jim, but Jim runs from the line into a small grove of bushes where Henry and the tattered man watch him die.

Henry and the tattered soldier wander through the woods. Henry hears the rumble of combat in the distance. The tattered soldier continues to ask Henry about his wound, even as his own health visibly worsens. At last, Henry is unable to bear the tattered man’s questioning and abandons him to die in the forest.

Henry continues to wander until he finds himself close enough to the battlefield to be able to watch some of the fighting. He sees a blue regiment in retreat and attempts to stop the soldiers to find out what has happened. One of the fleeing men hits him on the head with a rifle, opening a bloody gash on Henry’s head. Eventually, another soldier leads Henry to his regiment’s camp, where Henry is reunited with his companions. His friend Wilson, believing that Henry has been shot, cares for him tenderly.

The next day, the regiment proceeds back to the battlefield. Henry fights like a lion. Thinking of Jim Conklin, he vents his rage against the enemy soldiers. His lieutenant says that with ten thousand Henrys, he could win the war in a week. Nevertheless, Henry and Wilson overhear an officer say that the soldiers of the 304th fight like “mule drivers.” Insulted, they long to prove the man wrong. In an ensuing charge, the regiment’s color bearer falls. Henry takes the flag and carries it proudly before the regiment. After the charge fails, the derisive officer tells the regiment’s colonel that his men fight like “mud diggers,” further infuriating Henry. Another soldier tells Henry and Wilson, to their gratification, that the colonel and lieutenant consider them the best fighters in the regiment.

The group is sent into more fighting, and Henry continues to carry the flag. The regiment charges a group of enemy soldiers fortified behind a fence, and, after a pitched battle, wins the fence. Wilson seizes the enemy flag and the regiment takes four prisoners. As he and the others march back to their position, Henry reflects on his experiences in the war. Though he revels in his recent success in battle, he feels deeply ashamed of his behavior the previous day, especially his abandonment of the tattered man. But after a moment, he puts his guilt behind him and realizes that he has come through “the red sickness” of battle. He is now able to look forward to peace, feeling a quiet, steady manhood within himself.

enry Fleming - The novel’s protagonist; a young soldier fighting for the Union army during the American Civil War. Initially, Henry stands untested in battle and questions his own courage. As the novel progresses, he encounters hard truths about the experience of war, confronting the universe’s indifference to his existence and the insignificance of his own life. Often vain and holding extremely romantic notions about himself, Henry grapples with these lessons as he first runs from battle, then comes to thrive as a soldier in combat.

Jim Conklin - Henry’s friend; a tall soldier hurt during the regiment’s first battle. Jim soon dies from his wounds, and represents, in the early part of the novel, an important moral contrast to Henry.

Wilson - A loud private; Henry’s friend in the regiment. Wilson and Henry grow close as they share the harsh experiences of war and gain a reputation as the regiment’s best fighters. Wilson proves to be a more sympathetic version of Henry, though he does not seem to be troubled by Henry’s tendency to endlessly scrutinize his own actions.

he tattered soldier - A twice-shot soldier whom Henry encounters in the column of wounded men. With his endless speculation about Henry’s supposed wound, the tattered soldier functions as a nagging, painful conscience to Henry.

The lieutenant - Henry’s commander in battle, a youthful officer who swears profusely during the fighting. As Henry gains recognition for doing brave deeds, he and the lieutenant develop sympathy for each other, often feeling that they must work together to motivate the rest of the men.

Henry’s mother - Encountered only in a brief flashback, Henry’s mother opposed his enlisting in the army. Though her advice is only briefly summarized in Henry’s flashback, it contains several difficult themes with which Henry must grapple, including the insignificance of his life in the grand scheme of the world.


Given the novel’s title, it is no surprise that courage—defining it, desiring it, and, ultimately, achieving it—is the most salient element of the narrative. As the novel opens, Henry’s understanding of courage is traditional and romantic. He assumes that, like a war hero of ancient Greece, he will return from battle either with his shield or on it. Henry’s understanding of courage has more to do with the praise of his peers than any internal measure of his bravery. Within the novel’s first chapter, Henry recalls his mother’s advice, which runs counter to his own notions. She cares little whether Henry earns himself a praiseworthy name; instead, she instructs him to meet his responsibilities honestly and squarely, even if it means sacrificing his own life.

The gap that exists between Henry’s definition of courage and the alternative that his mother suggests fluctuates throughout The Red Badge of Courage, sometimes narrowing (when Henry fights well in his first battle) and sometimes growing wider (when he abandons the tattered soldier). At the end of the novel, as the mature Henry marches victoriously from battle, a more subtle and complex understanding of courage emerges: it is not simply a function of other people’s opinions, but it does incorporate egocentric concerns such as a soldier’s regard for his reputation.


Throughout the novel, Henry struggles to preserve his manhood, his understanding of which parallels his understanding of courage. At first, he relies on very traditional, even clichéd, notions. He laments that education and religion have tamed men of their natural savagery and made them so pale and domestic that there remain few ways for a man to distinguish himself other than on the battlefield. Having this opportunity makes Henry feel grateful to be participating in the war. As he makes his way from one skirmish to the next, he becomes more and more convinced that his accumulated experiences will earn him the praise of women and the envy of men; he will be a hero, a real man, in their eyes. These early conceptions of manhood are simplistic, romantic, adolescent fantasies.

Jim Conklin and Wilson stand as symbols of a more human kind of manhood. They are self-assured without being braggarts and are ultimately able to own up to their faults and shortcomings. Wilson, who begins the novel as an obnoxiously loud soldier, later exposes his own fear and vulnerability when he asks Henry to deliver a yellow envelope to his family should he die in battle. In realizing the relative insignificance of his own life, Wilson frees himself from the chains that bind Henry, becoming a man of “quiet belief in his purposes and abilities.” By the novel’s end, Henry makes a bold step in the same direction, learning that the measure of one’s manhood lies more in the complex ways in which one negotiates one’s mistakes and responsibilities than in one’s conduct on the battlefield.


An anxious desire for self-preservation influences Henry throughout the novel. When a pinecone that he throws after fleeing the battle makes a squirrel scurry, he believes that he has stumbled upon a universal truth: each being will do whatever it takes, including running from danger, in order to preserve itself. Henry gets much mileage out of this revelation, as he uses it to justify his impulse to retreat from the battlefield. His conceits—namely that the good of the army and, by extension, the world, requires his survival—drive him to behave abominably. He not only runs from battle, but also abandons the tattered soldier, though he knows that the soldier is almost certain to die if he does not receive assistance. Soon after his encounter with the squirrel, Henry discovers the corpse of a soldier. This sets in motion Henry’s realization that the world is largely indifferent to his life and the questions that preoccupy him. Courage and honor endow a man with a belief in the worth of preserving the lives of others, but the pervasiveness of death on the battlefield compels Henry to question the importance of these qualities. This weighing of values begs consideration of the connection between the survival instinct and vanity.

The Universe’s Disregard for Human Life

Henry’s realization that the natural world spins on regardless of the manner in which men live and die is perhaps the most difficult lesson that Henry learns as a soldier. It disabuses him of his naïve, inexperienced beliefs regarding courage and manhood. Shortly after his encounter with the squirrel in the woods, Henry stumbles upon a dead soldier, whose rotting body serves as a powerful reminder of the universe’s indifference to human life. As the drama of the war rages on around him, Henry continues to occupy his mind with questions concerning the nature of courage and honor and the possibilities of gaining glory. Death, he assumes, would stop this drama cold. Yet, when he encounters the corpse, he finds that death is nothing more than an integral and unremarkable part of nature. As he reflects at the end of the novel: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.”

Together, Henry’s encounters with the squirrel and the corpse form one of the most important passages in the novel, for it is here that Crane establishes the formidable opposing forces in Henry’s mind: the vain belief that human life deserves such distinctions as courage and honor, and the stark realization that, regardless of such distinctions, all human life meets the same end.

"He saw his vivid error, and he was afraid that it would stand before him all his life. He took no share in the chatter of his comrades, nor did he look at them or know them, save when he felt sudden suspicion that they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of the scene with the tattered soldier. Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance. And at last his eyes seemed to open to some new ways. He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. With the conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man."
“The Philosophy of Composition”
Author: EA Poe; Genre: Non-fiction; 1846

1846 essay written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe that elucidates a theory about how good writers write when they write well. He concludes that length, "unity of effect" and a logical method are important considerations for good writing. He also makes the assertion that "the death... of a beautiful woman" is "unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world". Poe uses the composition of his own poem "The Raven" as an example. The essay first appeared in the April 1846 issue of Graham's Magazine. It is uncertain if it is an authentic portrayal of Poe's own method, or if he was merely trying to capitalize on the success of "The Raven."

Poe's philosophy of composition

Generally, the essay introduces three of Poe's theories regarding literature. The author recounts this idealized process by which he says he wrote his most famous poem, "The Raven" to illustrate the theory, which is in deliberate contrast to the "spontaneous creation" explanation put forth, for example, by Coleridge as an explanation for his poem Kubla Khan. Poe's explanation of the process of writing is so rigidly logical, however, that some have suggested the essay was meant as a satire or hoax.

The three central elements of Poe's philosophy of composition are:
Length - Poe believed that all literary works should be short. "There is," he writes, "a distinct limit... to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting." He especially emphasized this "rule" with regards to poetry, but also noted that the short story is superior to the novel for this reason.

Method - Poe dismissed the notion of artistic intuition and argued that writing is methodical and analytical, not spontaneous. He writes that no other author has yet admitted this because most writers would "positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes... at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair... at the cautious selections and rejections."

"Unity of effect" - The essay states Poe's conviction that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided how it is to end and which emotional response, or "effect," he wishes to create, commonly known as the "unity of effect." Once this effect has been determined, the writer should decide all other matters pertaining to the composition of the work, including tone, theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot. In this case, Poe logically decides on "the death... of a beautiful woman" as it "is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover." Some commentators have taken this to imply that pure poetry can only be attained by the eradication of female beauty.[2] Biographers and critics have often suggested that Poe's obsession with this theme stems from the repeated loss of women throughout his life, including his mother Eliza Poe, his foster mother Frances Allan and, later, his wife Virginia.

"The Raven"

In the essay, Poe traces the logical progression of his creation of "The Raven" as an attempt to compose "a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste." He claims that he considered every aspect of the poem. For example, he purposely set the poem on a tempestuous evening, causing the raven to seek shelter. He purposefully chose a pallid bust to contrast with the dark plume of the bird. The bust was of Pallas in order to evoke the notion of scholar, to match with the presumed student narrator poring over his "volume[s] of forgotten lore." No aspect of the poem was an accident, he claims, but is based on total control by the author. Even the term "Nevermore," he says, is based on logic following the "unity of effect." The sounds in the vowels in particular, he writes, have more meaning than the definition of the word itself. He had previously used words like "Lenore" for the same effect.
The raven itself, Poe says, is meant to symbolize Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance.This may imply an autobiographical significance to the poem, alluding to the many people in Poe's life who had died.
Narrative of the Life
Author: F. Douglass; Genre: Non-fiction; autobiography; social criticism; slave narrative; bildungsroman (1845)

F rederick douglass was born into slavery sometime in 1817 or 1818. Like many slaves, he is unsure of his exact date of birth. Douglass is separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, soon after he is born. His father is most likely their white master, Captain Anthony. Captain Anthony is the clerk of a rich man named Colonel Lloyd. Lloyd owns hundreds of slaves, who call his large, central plantation the “Great House Farm.” Life on any of Lloyd’s plantations, like that on many Southern plantations, is brutal. Slaves are overworked and exhausted, receive little food, few articles of clothing, and no beds. Those who break rules—and even those who do not—are beaten or whipped, and sometimes even shot by the plantation overseers, the cruelest of which are Mr. Severe and Mr. Austin Gore.

Douglass’s life on this plantation is not as hard as that of most of the other slaves. Being a child, he serves in the household instead of in the fields. At the age of seven, he is given to Captain Anthony’s son‑in‑law’s brother, Hugh Auld, who lives in Baltimore. In Baltimore, Douglass enjoys a relatively freer life. In general, city slave-owners are more conscious of appearing cruel or neglectful toward their slaves in front of their non‑slaveowning neighbors.

Sophia Auld, Hugh’s wife, has never had slaves before, and therefore she is surprisingly kind to Douglass at first. She even begins to teach Douglass to read, until her husband orders her to stop, saying that education makes slaves unmanageable. Eventually, Sophia succumbs to the mentality of slaveowning and loses her natural kindliness. Though Sophia and Hugh Auld become crueler toward him, Douglass still likes Baltimore and is able to teach himself to read with the help of local boys. As he learns to read and write, Douglass becomes conscious of the evils of slavery and of the existence of the abolitionist, or antisla-very, movement. He resolves to escape to the North eventually.

After the deaths of Captain Anthony and his remaining heirs, Douglass is taken back to serve Thomas Auld, Captain Anthony’s son‑in‑law. Auld is a mean man made harsher by his false religious piety. Auld considers Douglass unmanageable, so Auld rents him for one year to Edward Covey, a man known for “breaking” slaves. Covey manages, in the first six months, to work and whip all the spirit out of Douglass. Douglass becomes a brutish man, no longer interested in reading or freedom, capable only of resting from his injuries and exhaustion. The turning point comes when Douglass resolves to fight back against Covey. The two men have a two‑hour fight, after which Covey never touches Douglass again.

His year with Covey over, Douglass is next rented to William Freeland for two years. Though Freeland is a milder, fairer man, Douglass’s will to escape is nonetheless renewed. At Freeland’s, Douglass begins edu-cating his fellow slaves in a Sabbath school at the homes of free blacks. Despite the threat of punishment and violence they face, many slaves from neighboring farms come to Douglass and work diligently to learn. At Freeland’s, Douglass also forms a plan of escape with three fellow slaves with whom he is close. Someone betrays their plan to Freeland, however, and Douglass and the others are taken to jail. Thomas Auld then sends Douglass back to Baltimore with Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of ship caulking.

In Baltimore’s trade industry, Douglass runs up against strained race relations. White workers have been working alongside free black workers, but the whites have begun to fear that the increasing numbers of free blacks will take their jobs. Though only an apprentice and still a slave, Douglass encounters violent tactics of intimidation from his white coworkers and is forced to switch shipyards. In his new apprenticeship, Douglass quickly learns the trade of caulking and soon earns the highest wages possible, always turning them over to Hugh Auld.

Eventually, Douglass receives permission from Hugh Auld to hire out his extra time. He saves money bit by bit and eventually makes his escape to New York. Douglass refrains from describing the details of his escape in order to protect the safety of future slaves who may attempt the journey. In New York, Douglass fears recapture and changes his name from Bailey to Douglass. Soon after, he marries Anna Murray, a free woman he met while in Baltimore. They move north to Massachusetts, where Douglass becomes deeply engaged with the abolitionist movement as both a writer and an orator.

Ignorance as a Tool of Slavery

Douglass’s Narrative shows how white slaveholders perpetuate slavery by keeping their slaves ignorant. At the time Douglass was writing, many people believed that slavery was a natural state of being. They believed that blacks were inherently incapable of participating in civil society and thus should be kept as workers for whites. The Narrative explains the strategies and procedures by which whites gain and keep power over blacks from their birth onward. Slave owners keep slaves ignorant of basic facts about themselves, such as their birth date or their paternity. This enforced ignorance robs children of their natural sense of individual identity. As slave children grow older, slave owners prevent them from learning how to read and write, as literacy would give them a sense of self‑sufficiency and capability. Slaveholders understand that literacy would lead slaves to question the right of whites to keep slaves. Finally, by keeping slaves illiterate, Southern slaveholders maintain control over what the rest of America knows about slavery. If slaves cannot write, their side of the slavery story cannot be told. Wendell Phillips makes this point in his prefatory letter to the Narrative.

Knowledge as the Path to Freedom

Just as slave owners keep men and women as slaves by depriving them of knowledge and education, slaves must seek knowledge and education in order to pursue freedom. It is from Hugh Auld that Douglass learns this notion that knowledge must be the way to freedom, as Auld forbids his wife to teach Douglass how to read and write because education ruins slaves. Douglass sees that Auld has unwittingly revealed the strategy by which whites manage to keep blacks as slaves and by which blacks might free themselves. Doug-lass presents his own self-education as the primary means by which he is able to free himself, and as his greatest tool to work for the freedom of all slaves.

Though Douglass himself gains his freedom in part by virtue of his self-education, he does not oversimplify this connection. Douglass has no illusions that knowledge automatically renders slaves free. Knowledge helps slaves to articulate the injustice of slavery to themselves and others, and helps them to recognize themselves as men rather than slaves. Rather than provide immediate freedom, this awakened consciousness brings suffering, as Hugh Auld predicts. Once slaves are able to articulate the injustice of slavery, they come to loathe their masters, but still cannot physically escape without meeting great danger.

Slavery’s Damaging Effect on Slaveholders

In the Narrative, Douglass shows slaveholding to be damaging not only to the slaves themselves, but to slave owners as well. The corrupt and irresponsible power that slave owners enjoy over their slaves has a detrimental effect on the slave owners’ own moral health. With this theme, Douglass completes his overarching depiction of slavery as unnatural for all involved.

Douglass describes typical behavior patterns of slaveholders to depict the damaging effects of slavery. He recounts how many slave-owning men have been tempted to adultery and rape, fathering children with their female slaves. Such adultery threatens the unity of the slave owner’s family, as the father is forced to either sell or perpetually punish his own child, while the slave owner’s wife becomes resentful and cruel. In other instances, slave owners such as Thomas Auld develop a perverted religious sense to remain blind to the sins they commit in their own home. Douglass’s main illustration of the corruption of slave owners is Sophia Auld. The irresponsible power of slaveholding transforms Sophia from an idealistic woman to a demon. By showing the detrimental effects of slaveholding on Thomas Auld, Sophia Auld, and others, Douglass implies that slavery should be outlawed for the greater good of all society.

Slaveholding as a Perversion of Christianity

Over the course of the Narrative, Douglass develops a distinction between true Christianity and false Christianity. Douglass clarifies the point in his appendix, calling the former “the Christianity of Christ” and the latter “the Christianity of this land.” Douglass shows that slaveholders’ Christianity is not evidence of their innate goodness, but merely a hypocritical show that serves to bolster their self-righteous brutality. To strike this distinction, Douglass points to the basic contradiction between the charitable, peaceful tenets of Christianity and the violent, immoral actions of slaveholders.

The character of Thomas Auld stands as an illustration of this theme. Like Sophia Auld, Thomas undergoes a transformation in the Narrative from cruel slave owner to even crueler slave owner. Douglass demonstrates that Auld’s brutality increases after he becomes a “pious” man, as Auld’s show of piety increases his confi-dence in his “God-given” right to hold and mistreat slaves. Through the instance of Auld, Douglass also demonstrates that the Southern church itself is corrupt. Auld’s church benefits from Auld’s money, earned by means of slaves. Thus Auld’s church, like many Southern churches, is complicit in the inhuman cruelty of slavery.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Victimization of Female Slaves

Women often appear in Douglass’s Narrative not as full characters, but as vivid images—specifically, images of abused bodies. Douglass’s Aunt Hester, Henrietta and Mary, and Henny, for example, appear only in scenes that demonstrate their masters’ abuse of them. Douglass’s depcitions of the women’s mangled and emaciated bodies are meant to incite pain and outrage in the reader and point to the unnaturalness of the institution of slavery.

The Treatment of Slaves as Property

Throughout the Narrative, Douglass is concerned with showing the discrepancy between the fact that slaves are human beings and the fact that slave owners treat them as property. Douglass shows how slaves frequently are passed between owners, regardless of where the slaves’ families are. Slave owners value slaves only to the extent that they can perform productive labor; they often treat slaves like livestock, mere animals, without reason. Douglass pre-sents this treatment of humans as objects or animals as cruel and absurd.

Freedom in the City

Douglass’s Narrative switches settings several times between the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland and the city of Baltimore. Baltimore is a site of relative freedom for Douglass and other slaves. This freedom results from the standards of decency set by the non‑slaveholding segment of the urban population—standards that generally prevent slaveholders from demonstrating extreme cruelty toward their slaves. The city also stands as a place of increased possibility and a more open society. It is in Baltimore that Douglass meets for the first time whites who oppose slavery and who regard Douglass as a human being. By contrast, the countryside is a place of heightened surveillance of slaves by slaveholders. In the countryside, slaves enjoy the least amount of freedom and mobility.
"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"
Author: Harriet Jacobs; Genre: Non-fiction; autobiography; slave narrative.

ncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl opens with an introduction in which the author, Harriet Jacobs, states her reasons for writing an autobiography. Her story is painful, and she would rather have kept it private, but she feels that making it public may help the antislavery movement. A preface by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child makes a similar case for the book and states that the events it records are true.

Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent to narrate her first-person account. Born into slavery, Linda spends her early years in a happy home with her mother and father, who are relatively well-off slaves. When her mother dies, six-year-old Linda is sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel and neglectful, and Dr. Flint, the father, soon begins pressuring Linda to have a sexual relationship with him. Linda struggles against Flint’s overtures for several years. He pressures and threatens her, and she defies and outwits him. Knowing that Flint will eventually get his way, Linda consents to a love affair with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, saying that she is ashamed of this illicit relationship but finds it preferable to being raped by the loathsome Dr. Flint. With Mr. Sands, she has two children, Benny and Ellen. Linda argues that a powerless slave girl cannot be held to the same standards of morality as a free woman. She also has practical reasons for agreeing to the affair: she hopes that when Flint finds out about it, he will sell her to Sands in disgust. Instead, the vengeful Flint sends Linda to his plantation to be broken in as a field hand.

When she discovers that Benny and Ellen are to receive similar treatment, Linda hatches a desperate plan. Escaping to the North with two small children would be impossible. Unwilling to submit to Dr. Flint’s abuse, but equally unwilling to abandon her family, she hides in the attic crawl space in the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha. She hopes that Dr. Flint, under the false impression that she has gone North, will sell her children rather than risk having them disappear as well. Linda is overjoyed when Dr. Flint sells Benny and Ellen to a slave trader who is secretly representing Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands promises to free the children one day and sends them to live with Aunt Martha. But Linda’s triumph comes at a high price. The longer she stays in her tiny garret, where she can neither sit nor stand, the more physically debilitated she becomes. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through a tiny peephole, as she cannot risk letting them know where she is. Mr. Sands marries and becomes a congressman. He brings Ellen to Washington, D.C., to look after his newborn daughter, and Linda realizes that Mr. Sands may never free her children. Worried that he will eventually sell them to slave traders, she determines that she must somehow flee with them to the North. However, Dr. Flint continues to hunt for her, and escape remains too risky.

After seven years in the attic, Linda finally escapes to the North by boat. Benny remains with Aunt Martha, and Linda is reunited with Ellen, who is now nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York. Linda is dismayed to find that her daughter is still held in virtual slavery by Mr. Sands’s cousin, Mrs. Hobbs. She fears that Mrs. Hobbs will take Ellen back to the South, putting her beyond Linda’s reach forever. She finds work as a nursemaid for a New York City family, the Bruces, who treat her very kindly. Dr. Flint continues to pursue Linda, and she flees to Boston. There, she is reunited with Benny. Dr. Flint now claims that the sale of Benny and Ellen was illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave all of them. After a few years, Mrs. Bruce dies, and Linda spends some time living with her children in Boston. She spends a year in England caring for Mr. Bruce’s daughter, and for the first time in her life she enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. When Linda returns to Boston, Ellen goes to boarding school and Benny moves to California with Linda’s brother William. Mr. Bruce remarries, and Linda takes a position caring for their new baby. Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter, Emily, writes to Linda to claim ownership of her. The Fugitive Slave Act is passed by Congress, making Linda extremely vulnerable to kidnapping and re-enslavement.

Emily Flint and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York to capture Linda. Linda goes into hiding, and the new Mrs. Bruce offers to purchase her freedom. Linda refuses, unwilling to be bought and sold yet again, and makes plans to follow Benny to California. Mrs. Bruce buys Linda anyway. Linda is devastated at being sold and furious with Emily Flint and the whole slave system. However, she says she remains grateful to Mrs. Bruce, who is still her employer when she writes the book. She notes that she still has not yet realized her dream of making a home for herself and her children to share. The book closes with two testimonials to its accuracy, one from Amy Post, a white abolitionist, and the other from George W. Lowther, a black antislavery writer.
Emily Dickinson's poems: Themes and Form
One of Emily Dickinson’s poems (#1129) begins, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” and the oblique and often enigmatic rendering of Truth is the dominant theme of Dickinson’s poetry. Its motifs often recur: love, death, poetry, beauty, nature, immortality, the self. Such abstractions do not, however, indicate the broad and rich changes that Dickinson obliquely rings on the truths she tells. Dickinson’s truth is, in the broadest sense, a religious truth.

Formally, her poetry plays endless variations on the Protestant hymn meters that she knew from her youthful experiences in church. Her reading in contemporary poetry was limited, and the form she knew best was the iambic of hymns: common meter (with its alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines), long meter (four lines of tetrameter), and short meter (four of trimeter) became the framework of her poetry. That static form, however, could not contain the energy of her work, and the rhythms and rhymes are varied, upset, and broken to accommodate the feeling of her lines. The predictable patterns of hymns were not for Dickinson, who delighted in off-rhyme, consonance, and, less frequently, eye-rhyme.

“I like to see it lap the Miles”
Dickinson was a religious poet more than formally, but her thematic sense of religion lies not in her assurance, but in her continual questioning of God, in her attempt to define his nature and that of his world. Although she was always a poet of definition, straightforward definition was too direct for her: “The Riddle we can guess/ We speedily despise,” she wrote. Her works often begin, “It was not” or “It was like,” with the poem being an oblique attempt to define the “it.” “I like to see it lap the Miles” (#585) is a typical Dickinson riddle poem. Like many, it begins with “it,” a pronoun without an antecedent, so that the reader must join in the process of discovery and definition. The riddle is based on an extended metaphor; the answer to the riddle, a train, is compared to a horse; but in the poem both tenor (train) and vehicle (horse) are unstated. Meanwhile, what begins with an almost cloying tone, the train as an animal lapping and licking, moves through subtle gradations of attitude until the train stops at the end “docile and omnipotent.” This juxtaposition of incongruous adjectives, like the coupling of unlikely adjective and noun, is another of Dickinson’s favorite devices; just as the movement of the poem has been from the animal’s (and train’s) tame friendliness to its assertive power, so these adjectives crystallize the paradox.

“It sifts from Leaden Sieves”
“It sifts from Leaden Sieves” (#311), another riddle poem, also begins with an undefined “it,” and again the movement of the poem and its description of the powerfully effacing strength of the snow, which is the subject of the poem and the answer to the riddle, is from apparently innocent beauty through detailed strength to a quietly understated dread. The emotional movement in the famous riddle poem “A Route of Evanescence” (#1463) is less striking, since the poet maintains the same awed appreciation of the hummingbird from beginning to end; but the source of that awe likewise moves from the bird’s ephemeral beauty to its power.

“It was not Death, for I stood up”
Riddling becomes less straightforward, but no less central, in such a representative Dickinson poem as “It was not Death, for I stood up” (#510), in which many of her themes and techniques appear. The first third of the poem, two stanzas of the six, suggest what the “it” is not: death, night, frost, or fire. Each is presented in a couplet, but even in those pairs of lines, Dickinson manages to disconcert her reader. It is not death, for the persona is standing upright, the difference between life and death reduced to one of posture. Nor is it night, for the bells are chiming noon—but Dickinson’s image for that fact is also unnatural. The bells are mouths, their clappers tongues, which are “Put out”; personification here does not have the effect of making the bells more human, but of making them grotesque, breaking down as it does the barriers between such normally discrete worlds as the mechanical and the human, a distinction that Dickinson often dissolves. Moreover, the notion of the bells sticking out their tongues suggests their contemptuous attitude toward man. In stanza two, it is not frost because hot winds are crawling on the persona’s flesh. The hackneyed phrase is reversed, so it is not coolness, but heat that makes flesh crawl, and not the flesh itself that crawls, but the winds upon it; nor is it fire, for the persona’s marble feet “Could keep a Chancel, cool.” Again, the persona is dehumanized, now grotesquely marble. While accomplishing this, Dickinson has also begun her inclusion of sense data, pervasive in the first part of the poem, so that the confrontation is not only intellectual and emotional but physical as well.

The second third of the poem changes the proportions. Although the experience is not actually any of the four things she has mentioned above, it is like them all; but now death, the first, is given seven lines, night three, frost only two, and fire is squeezed out altogether. It is like death because she has, after all, seen figures arranged like her own; now her life is “shaven,/ And fitted to a frame.” It is like night when everything that “ticked”—again mechanical imagery for a natural phenomenon—has stopped, and like frosts, which in early autumn morns “Repeal the Beating Ground.” Her vocabulary startles once more: The ground beats with life, but the frost can void it; “repeal” suggests the law, but nature’s laws are here completely nullified.

Finally, in the last stanza, the metaphor shifts completely, and the experience is compared to something new: drowning at sea. It is “stopless” but “cool”; the agony that so often marks Dickinson’s poetry may be appropriate to the persona, but nothing around her, neither people nor nature, seems to note it. Most important, there is neither chance nor means of rescue; there is no report of land. Any of these conditions would justify despair, but for the poet, this climatic experience is so chaotic that even despair is not justified, for there is no word of land to despair of reaching.

Thus, one sees many of Dickinson’s typical devices at work: the tightly patterned form, based on an undefined subject, the riddle-like puzzle of defining that subject, the shifting of mood from apparent observation to horror, the grotesque images couched in emotionally distant language. All this delineates that experience, that confrontation—with God, with nature, with the self, with one’s own mind—which is the center of Dickinson’s best poetry. Whether her work looks inward or outward, the subject matter is a confrontation leading to awareness, and part of the terror is that for Dickinson there is never any mediating middle ground; she confronts herself in relation to an abyss beyond. There is no society, no community to make that experience palatable in any but the most grotesque sense of the word, the awful tasting of uncontrollable fear.

“I know that He exists”
Dickinson often questions the nature of the universe; she senses that God is present only in one’s awareness of his absence. She shares Robert Frost’s notion that God has tricked man, but while for Frost, God’s trick is in the nature of creation, for Dickinson it is equally in God’s refusal to answer our riddles about that creation. She writes of the “eclipse” of God, and for Dickinson, it is God himself who has caused the obscurity. The customary movement in her explicitly religious poetry is from apparent affirmation to resounding doubt. Poem #338 begins with the line “I know that He exists.” While Dickinson rarely uses periods even at the end of her poems, here the first line ends with one: a short and complete affirmation of God’s existence, but an affirmation that remains unqualified for only that one line. God is not omnipresent, but exists “Somewhere—in Silence”; Dickinson then offers a justification for God’s absence: His life is so fine that he has hidden it from humans who are unworthy. The second stanza offers two more justifications: He is playing with people, and one will be that much happier at the blissful surprise one has earned. Yet the play, in typical Dickinson fashion, is a “fond Ambush,” and both the juxtaposition of incongruous words and the reader’s understanding that only villains engage in ambush indicate how quickly and how brutally the tone of the poem is changing.

The last half begins with “But,” and indeed 256 of Dickinson’s poems, nearly fifteen percent, have a coordinate conjunction as the first word of the middle line: a hinge that links the deceptive movement of the first half with the oblique realization that takes place in the second. The lines of poem 338 then become heavily alliterative, slowing the reader with closely linked, plosive p’s before she begins the final question: “Should the glee—glaze—/ In Death’s—stiff—stare.” The quasi subjunctive, another consistent poetic stance in Dickinson, cannot mask the fact that there is no open possibility here, for death must come, the glee will glaze. Then the fun—it is God’s fun of which she writes—will look to expensive, the jest will “Have crawled too far!” Although the last sentence is in the form of a question, the poem closes with an end mark stronger than the opening period, an exclamation point which leaves no doubt as to the tone the poem takes.

The Individual’s Struggle with God

Dickinson devoted a great amount of her work to exploring the relationship between an individual and a Judeo-Christian God. Many poems describe a protracted rebellion against the God whom she deemed scornful and indifferent to human suffering, a divine being perpetually committed to subjugating human identity. In a sense, she was a religious poet. Unlike other religious poets, who inevitably saw themselves as subordinate to God, Dickinson rejected this premise in her poetry. She was dissatisfied with the notion that the poet can engage with God only insofar as God ordains the poet as his instrument, and she challenged God’s dominion throughout her life, refusing to submit to his divine will at the cost of her self. Perhaps her most fiery challenge comes in “Mine by the Right of the White Election!” (528), in which the speaker roars in revolt against God, claiming the earth and heavens for herself or himself.

Elsewhere, Dickinson’s poetry criticizes God not by speaking out directly against him, but by detailing the suffering he causes and his various affronts to an individual’s sense of self. Though the speaker of “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1129) never mentions God, the poem refers obliquely to his suppression of the apostle Paul in the last two lines. Here, the speaker describes how unmitigated truth (in the form of light) causes blindness. In the Bible (Acts 9:4), God decides to enlighten Paul by making him blind and then healing him on the condition that thenceforth Paul becomes “a chosen vessel” of God, performing his will. The speaker recoils from this instance of God’s juggernaut-like domination of Paul in this poem but follows the poem’s advice and tells the truth “slant,” or indirectly, rather than censuring God directly. In another instance of implicit criticism, Dickinson portrays God as a murderous hunter of man in “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” (754), in which Death goes about gleefully executing people for his divine master. These poems are among the hundreds of verses in which Dickinson portrays God as aloof, cruel, invasive, insensitive, or vindictive.
The Assertion of the Self

In her work, Dickinson asserts the importance of the self, a theme closely related to Dickinson’s censure of God. As Dickinson understood it, the mere act of speaking or writing is an affirmation of the will, and the call of the poet, in particular, is the call to explore and express the self to others. For Dickinson, the “self” entails an understanding of identity according to the way it systematizes its perceptions of the world, forms its goals and values, and comes to judgments regarding what it perceives.

Nearly all Dickinson’s speakers behave according to the primacy of the self, despite the efforts of others to intrude on them. Indeed, the self is never more apparent in Dickinson’s poetry than when the speaker brandishes it against some potentially violating force. In “They shut me up in Prose—” (613), the speaker taunts her captives, who have imprisoned her body but not her mind, which remains free and roaming. Because God most often plays the role of culprit as an omnipotent being, he can and does impose compromising conditions upon individuals according to his whim in Dickinson’s work. Against this power, the self is essentially defined. The individual is subject to any amount of suffering, but so long as he or she remains a sovereign self, he or she still has that which separates him or her from other animate and inanimate beings.
The Power of Words and Poetry

Though Dickinson sequestered herself in Amherst for most of her life, she was quite attuned to the modern trends of thought that circulated throughout Europe and North America. Perhaps the most important of these was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859. Besides the tidal wave it unleashed in the scientific community, evolution throttled the notion of a world created by God’s grand design. For Dickinson, who renounced obedience to God through the steps of her own mental evolution, this development only reinforced the opposition to the belief in a transcendent and divine design in an increasingly secularized world.

Dickinson began to see language and the word, which were formerly part of God’s domain, as the province of the poet. The duty of the poet was to re-create, through words, a sense of the world as a place in which objects have an essential and almost mythic relationship to each other. Dickinson’s poems often link abstract entities to physical things in an attempt to embrace or create an integral design in the world. This act is most apparent in her poems of definition, such as “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—” (254) or “Hope is a subtle Glutton” (1547). In these poems, Dickinson employs metaphors that assign physical qualities to the abstract feeling of “hope” in order to flesh out the nature of the word and what it means to human consciousness.
Nature as a “Haunted House”

In a letter to a friend, Dickinson once wrote: ‘Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” The first part of the sentence implies that the natural world is replete with mystery and false signs, which deceive humankind as to the purpose of things in nature as well as to God’s purpose in the creation of nature. The sentence’s second part reveals the poet’s role. The poet does not exist merely to render aspects of nature, but rather to ascertain the character of God’s power in the world.

For Dickinson, however, the characterizing of God’s power proved to be complicated since she often abstained from using the established religious symbols for things in nature. This abstention is most evident in Dickinson’s poem about a snake, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (986), in which Dickinson refrains from the easy reference to Satan in Eden. Indeed, in many of her nature poems, such as “A Bird came down the Walk” (328), Dickinson ultimately insists on depicting nature as unapologetically incomprehensible, and thus haunted.
The Speaker’s Unique Poetic Voice

Dickinson’s speakers are numerous and varied, but each exhibits a similar voice, or distinctive tone and style. Poets create speakers to literally speak their poems; while these speakers might share traits with their creators or might be based on real historical figures, ultimately they are fictional entities distinct from their writers. Frequently, Dickinson employs the first person, which lends her poems the immediacy of a dialogue between two people, the speaker and the reader. She sometimes aligns multiple speakers in one poem with the use of the plural personal pronoun we. The first-person singular and plural allow Dickinson to write about specific experiences in the world: her speakers convey distinct, subjective emotions and individual thoughts rather than objective, concrete truths. Readers are thus invited to compare their experiences, emotions, and thoughts with those expressed in Dickinson’s lyrics. By emphasizing the subjectivity, or individuality, of experience, Dickinson rails against those educational and religious institutions that attempt to limit individual knowledge and experience.
The Connection Between Sight and Self

For Dickinson, seeing is a form of individual power. Sight requires that the seer have the authority to associate with the world around her or him in meaningful ways and the sovereignty to act based on what she or he believes exists as opposed to what another entity dictates. In this sense, sight becomes an important expression of the self, and consequently the speakers in Dickinson’s poems value it highly. The horror that the speaker of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” (465) experiences is attributable to her loss of eyesight in the moments leading up to her death. The final utterance, “I could not see to see” (16), points to the fact that the last gasp of life, and thus of selfhood, is concentrated on the desire to “see” more than anything else. In this poem, sight and self are so synonymous that the end of one (blindness) translates into the end of the other (death).

In other poems, sight and self seem literally fused, a connection that Dickinson toys with by playing on the sonic similarity of the words I and eye. This wordplay abounds in Dickinson’s body of work. It is used especially effectively in the third stanza of “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), in which the speaker declares that she knows the soul, or the self. She commands the soul to choose one person from a great number of people and then “close the lids” of attention. In this poem, the “I” that is the soul has eyelike properties: closing the lids, an act that would prevent seeing, is tantamount to cutting off the “I” from the rest of society.

Feet enter Dickinson’s poems self-referentially, since the words foot and feet denote poetic terms as well as body parts. In poetry, “feet” are the groups of syllables in a line that form a metrical unit. Dickinson’s mention of feet in her poems generally serves the dual task of describing functioning body parts and commenting on poetry itself. Thus, when the speaker of “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (986) remembers himself a “Barefoot” boy (11), he indirectly alludes to a time when his sense of poetry was not fully formed. Likewise, when the speaker of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (341) notes that feet are going around in his head while he is going mad, he points to the fact that his ability to make poetry is compromised.

In Dickinson’s poems, stones represent immutability and finality: unlike flowers or the light of day, stones remain essentially unchanged. The speaker in “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (216) imagines the dead lying unaffected by the breezes of nature—and of life. After the speaker chooses her soul in “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), she shuts her eyes “Like Stone—” (12), firmly closing herself off from sensory perception or society. A stone becomes an object of envy in “How happy is the little Stone” (1510), a poem in which the speaker longs for the rootless independence of a stone bumping along, free from human cares.

Dickinson uses the symbol of birds rather flexibly. In “A Bird came down the Walk” (328), the bird becomes an emblem of the unyielding mystery of nature, while in “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” (254), the bird becomes a personification of hope. Elsewhere, Dickinson links birds to poets, whose job is to sing whether or not people hear. In “Split—the Lark—and you’ll find the Music” (861), Dickinson compares the sounds of birds to the lyrical sounds of poetry; the poem concludes by asking rhetorically whether its listeners now understand the truths produced by both birds and poetry. Like nature, symbolized by the bird, art produces soothing, truthful sounds.
Emily Dickinson's Religious poems
Religious Poems
This same movement appears in Dickinson’s other overtly religious poems. Poem #501 (“This World is not Conclusion”) likewise begins with a clear statement followed by a period and then moves rapidly toward doubt. Here God is a “Species” who “stands beyond.” Men are shown as baffled by the riddle of the universe, grasping at any “twig of Evidence.” Man asks “a Vane, the way,” indicating the inconstancy of that on which man relies and punning on “in vain.” Whatever answer man receives is only a narcotic, which “cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.” Again, in “It’s easy to invent a Life” (#724), God seems to be playing with man, and although the poem begins with man’s birth as God’s invention, it ends with death as God’s simply “leaving out a Man.” In poem #1601, “Of God we ask one favor,” the favor requested is that he forgive man, but it is clear that humans do not know for what they ask forgiveness and, as in Frost’s “Forgive, O Lord,” it is clear that the greater crime is not man’s but God’s. In “I never lost as much but twice” (#49), an early but accomplished work, God is “Burglar! Banker—Father!” robbing the poet, making her poor.

One large group of Dickinson’s poems, of which these are only a sample, suggests her sense of religious deprivation. Her transformation of the meter and rhythm of hymns into her own songs combines with the overt questioning of the ultimate meaning of her existence to make her work religious. As much, however, as Dickinson pretends to justify the ways of her “eclipsed” God to man, that justification never lasts. If God is Father, he is also Burglar. If God in his omnipotence finds it easy to invent a life, in his caprice he finds it just as easy to leave one out.

“I taste a liquor never brewed” (#214)
Dickinson just as persistently questions nature, which was for her an equivocal manifestation of God’s power and whims. Although there are occasional poems in which her experience of nature is exuberant (“I taste a liquor never brewed,” for example, #214), in most of her work the experience is one of terror. A synecdochist rather than a Symbolist, she describes and confronts a part of nature, that scene representing the whole. For her nineteenth century opposite, Whitman, the world was one of possibilities, of romantic venturing forth to project oneself onto the world and form an organic relationship with it. For Dickinson, the human and the natural give way to the inorganic; nature is, if like a clock, not so in its perfect design and workings, but in its likeliness to wind down and stop.

“I started Early—Took my Dog”
“I started Early—Took my Dog” (#520) is characteristic in its treatment of nature, although uncharacteristic in the romantic venturing forth of the persona. For the first third of the poem, she seems to be in control: She starts early, takes her pet, and visits the sea. The sea is treated with conventional and rather pretty metaphor; it is a house with a basement full of mermaids. Even here, however, is a suggestion that something is amiss: The frigates extend “Hempen Hands”; the ropes that moor the ships are characteristically personified, but the substitution of “hempen” for the similar sounding and expected “helpin’” (the missing g itself a delusive familiarity) suggests that the hands will entwine, not aid, the poet. As so often in Dickinson, the natural world seems to be staring at her, as if she is the chief actor in an unfolding drama, and suddenly, with the coordinate conjunction “but,” the action begins. The sea is personified as a man who would attack her. She flees. He pursues, reaching higher and higher on her clothes, until finally she achieves the solid ground, and the sea, like a docile and omnipotent train, unconcerned but “Mighty,” bows and withdraws, his power there for another day.

“I dreaded that first Robin, so”
Whenever Dickinson looks at nature, the moment becomes a confrontation. Although she is superficially within the Puritan tradition of observing nature and reading its message, Dickinson differs not only in the chilling message that she reads, but also because nature refuses to remain passive; it is not simply an open book to be read—for books remain themselves—but active and aggressive; personification suggests its assertive malevolence. In #348 (“I dreaded that first Robin, so”), the initial part of the poem describes the poet’s fear: Spring is horrible; it shouts, mangles, and pierces. What Dickinson finally manages is merely a peace with spring; she makes herself “Queen of Calvary,” and in deference to that, nature salutes her and leaves her alone.

“A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
The same accommodation with nature occurs in #986, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” where the subject, a snake that she encounters, is first made to seem familiar and harmless. Then the poet suggests that she has made her peace with “Several of Nature’s People,” and she feels for them “a transport/ Of cordiality,” although one expects a more ecstatic noun than cordiality after a sense of transport. Dickinson concludes with a potent description of her true feelings about the snake, “Zero at the Bone,” a phrase which well reflects her emotion during most confrontations, internal or external.

“Apparently with no surprise”
One of Dickinson’s finest poems, #1624 (“Apparently with no surprise”), a poem from late in her career, unites her attitudes toward nature and God. Even as Frost does in “Design,” Dickinson examines one destructive scene in nature and uses it to represent a larger pattern; with Frost, too, she sees two possibilities for both microcosm and macrocosm: accident or dark design. The first two lines of her short poem describe the “happy Flower.” The personified flower is unsurprised by its sudden death: “The Frost beheads it at its play—/ In accidental power—/ The blonde Assassin passes on—.” In common with many American writers, she reverses the conventional association of white with purity; here the killer, the frost, is blonde. While she suggests that the power may be accidental, in itself not a consoling thought, the two lines framing that assertion severely modify it, for beheading is rarely accidental; nor do assassins attain their power by chance.

Whichever the case, accident or design, there is finally little significant difference, for nothing in the world pays attention to what has happened. “The Sun proceeds unmoved,” an unusual pun, since unmoved has the triple meaning of unconcerned, stationary, and without a prime mover; it measures off the time for a God who does approve.
Emily Dickinson, Other themes: death, madness, the self
Self and Soul
Thus, when Dickinson turns her vision outward, she looks at essential reality translated, often appallingly, into human terms. The alternative vision for Dickinson is inward, at her own self, and despite the claims of her imperial language, what she sees there is just as chaotic and chilling as what she sees without. “The Soul selects her own Society,” she writes (#303), and she makes that society a “divine Majority.” “I’m Nobody,” another Dickinson poem begins (#288); but in her poetry the explicit movement is from no one to someone, from the self as beggar to the self as monarch: empress or queen. Out of the deprivation of her small society, out of the renunciation of present pleasures, she makes a majority that fills her world with aristocratic presence. Yet, for all that affirmation, the poems that look directly inward suggest something more; her assurance is ambiguously modified, her boasting bravado is dissipated.

Madness and Reason
Occasionally, Dickinson’s poetry justifies her internal confusion in conventional terms. Poem #435, “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” makes the familiar assertion that, although the common majority have enough power to label nonconformists as insane and dangerous, often what appears as madness is sense, “divinest Sense—/ To a discerning Eye.” Usually, however, her poetry of the mind is more unsettling, her understanding more personal. “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (#280) and “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (#414), employing the drowning imagery of “It was not Death,” are the most piercing of Dickinson’s poems about the death of reason, the chaotic confrontation with the instability within. They also indicate the central ambiguity that these poems present, for the metaphor that Dickinson favors for the death of reason is literal, physical death: the tenor, insanity; the vehicle, death. Yet one is never quite sure whether it might not be the other way around: the central subject death; the metaphoric vehicle, the death of reason. Through this uncertainty, these poems achieve a double-edged vitality, a shifting of idea and vehicle, foreground and background.

The awareness of one’s tenuous grasp on his own reason seems clearest in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” for there the funeral is explicitly “in,” although not necessarily “of,” the speaker’s brain. The metaphor is developed through a series of comparisons with the funeral rites, each introduced by “and,” each arriving with increasing haste. At first the monotony of the mourners’ tread almost causes sense to break through, but instead the mind reacts by going numb. Eventually the funeral metaphor gives way to that of a shipwreck—on the surface, an illogical shift, but given the movement of the poem, a continuation of the sense of confusion and abandonment. The last stanza returns to the dominant metaphor, presenting a rapid series of events, the first of which is “a Plank in Reason” breaking, plunging the persona—and the reader—back into the funeral imagery of a coffin dropping into a grave. The poem concludes with “And Finished knowing—then,” an ambiguous finish suggesting both the end of her life and of her reasoning, thus fusing the two halves of the metaphor. These two readings of the last line do not exhaust its possibilities, for there is another way to read it: The speaker finished with “knowing” not as a gerund object, but as the participial modifier, so that even at the moment of her death, she dies knowing. Since for Dickinson awareness is the most chilling of experiences, it is an appropriately horrible alternative: not the end of knowing, but the end while knowing.

Death is not merely metaphorical for Dickinson; it is the greatest subject of her work. Perhaps her finest lyrics are on this topic, which she surveyed with a style at once laconic and acute, a tone of quiet terror conveyed through understatement and indirection. Her power arises from the tension between her formal and tonal control and the emotional intensity of what she writes. She approaches death from two perspectives, adopts two stances: the persona as the grieving onlooker, attempting to continue with life; her own faith tested by the experience of watching another die; and the persona as the dying person.

In such poems as “How many times these low feet staggered” (#187), where the dead person has “soldered mouth,” and “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House” (#389), where the windows of the house open like “a Pod,” the description of death is mechanical, as if a machine has simply stopped. The reaction of the onlookers is first bewilderment, then the undertaking of necessary duties, and finally an awful silence in which they are alone with their realization of what has occurred.

“The last Night that She lived”
Poem #1100, “The last Night that She lived,” best illustrates all of these attitudes. It oscillates between the quietly dying person—whose death is gentle, on a common night, who “mentioned—and forgot,” who “struggled scarce—/ Consented”—and those, equally quiet but less capable of giving consent, who watch the death occur. First there is the conventional idea that they who watch see life differently: Death becomes a great light that italicizes events. Yet as the poem continues with the onlookers’ random comings and goings and their feelings of guilt over continuing to live, there is little sense that their awareness is complete.

After the death, Dickinson provides one stanza, neatly summarizing the final understanding: “And We—We placed the Hair,” the repeated pronoun, the little gasp for breath and hint of self-dramatization, fills part of the time with what must be done. Then there is nothing left to do or to be said: “And then an awful leisure was/ Belief to regulate.” The strange linking of “awful” with “leisure,” the disruption of syntax at the line break, and the notion that the best belief can do is regulate leisure, all suggest in two lines the confusion and disruption for those who remain alive.

“Because I could not stop for Death”
By consensus the greatest of all Dickinson’s poems, “Because I could not stop for Death” (#712) explores death from the second perspective, as do such poems as “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died” (#465) and “I died for Beauty (#449), in which one who has died for beauty and one who has died for truth agree, with John Keats, that truth and beauty are the same—the poet adding the ironic commentary that their equality lies in the fact that the names of both are being covered up by moss.

“Because I could not stop for Death” unites love and death, for death comes to the persona in the form of a gentleman caller. Her reaction is neither haste to meet him, nor displeasure at his arrival. She has time to put away her “labor and . . . leisure”; he is civil. The only hint in the first two stanzas of what is really occurring is the presence of Immortality, and yet that presence, although not unnoticed, is as yet unfelt by the persona. The third stanza brings the customary metaphor of life as a journey and the convention of one’s life passing before his eyes as he dies: from youth, through maturity, to sunset. Here, however, two of the images work against the surface calm: The children out for recess do not play, but strive; the grain is said to be gazing. “Grazing” might be the expected word, although even that would be somewhat out of place, but “gazing” both creates unfulfilled aural expectations and gives the sense of the persona as only one actor in a drama that many are watching.

Again, as is common in Dickinson, the poem is hinged by a coordinate conjunction in the exact middle. This time the conjunction is “Or,” as the speaker realizes not that she is passing the sun, but that “He passed us.” The metaphoric journey through life continues; it is now night, but the emotions have changed from the calm of control to fright. The speaker’s “Zero at the Bone” is literal, for her clothing, frilly and light, while appropriate for a wedding, is not so for the funeral that is occurring. The final stop—for, like the first two stanzas, the last two are motionless—is before the grave, “a House that seemed/ A Swelling of the Ground.” The swelling ground also suggests pregnancy, but this earth bears death, not life. The last stanza comments that even though the persona has been dead for centuries, all that time seems shorter than the one moment of realization of where her journey must ultimately end. Death, Dickinson’s essential metaphor and subject, is seen in terms of a moment of confrontation. Absence thus becomes the major presence, confusion the major ordering principle.
"Wild Nights--Wild Nights!"
Author: E. Dickinson

First Published: 1891
Type of Poem: Lyric
Genres: Poetry, Lyric poetry
Subjects: Love or romance, Storms, Sea or seafaring life, Separation, Wind
The Poem
“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” contains no narrative plot to report; there is no story to tell. The poem is sustained exclamation, an extended expression of agitated yearning for reunion with a lover. In the first stanza, a storm seems to be raging, the seas in ferment from the winds. Were the speaker with her lover, there would be stormy nights of their own making, born of passionate indulgence and privilege (“Our luxury”).

In the second stanza, the persona remarks that the winds cannot avail against “a Heart in port”—that is, a lover can transcend life’s buffetings, given the stability provided by love. As a parallel to this thought, no longer does a lover require compass or chart on troubled seas, since in finding love, the voyage is done, the “port” reached.

In the third stanza, where Emily Dickinson typically employs ellipsis (word omission), she compresses her articulation sharply. Consequently, readers must fill in the missing thought, which seems to be that love’s formulative power makes everything like “rowing in Eden,” or into a paradise where life’s swells are leveled. The allusion to Eden turns menacing, however, reminding the persona of the tossing sea of the present night and propelling anew an anguished longing for the anchorage of her lover’s presence on this night of storm.

“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” may come as a surprise to readers who have thought of Emily Dickinson as the Amherst recluse, purposely rejecting life, including thoughts of romance, for the “higher calling” of art. Moreover, the poem proves decidedly up-to-date in its erotic celebration of love by way of imagery easily understood by a generation exposed to Freud. Even at the time it was published, Dickinson’s friend and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, expressed anxiety lest unscrupulous minds should read into the poetry more than the sexually innocent Dickinson had intended. Yet the fact is that “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is but one of many poems Dickinson composed on the subject of love, several of them equally explicit.

Forms and Devices
“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”(poem 249) begins with the unusual rhyme scheme of abbb, only to abandon rhyme altogether in the second stanza, then assume it again in the final stanza, though in a pattern differing from the initial stanza. Throughout there is a heavy employment of trochees and a sustained pattern of dimeter line length, an unusual feature in a poet greatly indebted to the quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines of the church hymnals of her day. Clearly, Dickinson appropriates rhythms conducive to the persona’s anguished mood in the poem.

This poem shows a fierce independence of conventional norms typical of all of her poetry, whether in form or subject matter. There is a fondness for the dash to isolate words and to imitate oral language. Here the dashes halt the pace of language and suggest the mind’s tendency to redefine continually. Concurrently, the resulting interruptions coerce readers into a more diligent reading and pursuit of interconnection.

Capitalization of nouns occurs similarly as a typical Dickinson feature. This makes one note the “thingness” of life around one (by definition, a noun is whatever exists), or the individuality of what one often takes for granted or sweeps away with abstraction. Throughout, the style is a plain one, nearly all of its diction stemming from the Germanic roots of the language.

Except for her biblical reference to Eden, there is an absence of reference to the world of conventional society. In style as well as outlook, Dickinson was determined to assert her own identity.

The poem shows affinity with a type of poetry practiced in seventeenth century England and later dubbed “metaphysical” by the renowned Samuel Johnson. In this kind of poetry, startling analogies, often highly extended (and therefore called “conceits”), were the hallmark of an intensely intellectual argument set in a dramatic context. Metaphysical poetry became the staple of Puritan poetry in the New World. Among its chief practitioners were Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet.

Dickinson exhibits ties with her Puritan antecedents, whatever her troubled relationship to their faith. She employs the same tight construction, love of ellipsis, preference for the meditative, and striking employment of analogy, as in the subtle association of the stormy sea with tumultuous passion and the juxtaposition of the stormy sea voyage and the port of love where compass and chart are no longer needed. This analogy continues into the last lines, in which the persona exclaims, “Might I but moor—Tonight—/ In Thee!”

Themes and Meanings
One of the many enigmas surrounding the life of Emily Dickinson concerns her relationships with the opposite sex. It is commonly held, despite scant evidence for it, that Emily Dickinson fell in love with a married clergyman, Charles Wadsworth, pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. At the time, he was forty and she was twenty-three. In 1862, Wadsworth announced that he was assuming a church in California. According to the tradition, this news came as a lifelong blow to Dickinson and in her loss, she turned to poetry as her consolation.

This is speculation only, however, for there were a number of men in Dickinson’s life. One can reasonably assume that in the years 1859-1860 she had indeed fallen in love. It is known that toward the end of her life she had passionately fallen in love with Judge Otis Lord. What is important is that Dickinson celebrates love and its consummation as one of the few glories in a world replete with God’s indifference and the specter of mortality. In Dickinson’s life there seems always to have hovered the fear of abandonment, most likely a legacy of her childhood experiences with a passive mother and overbearing father. Consequently, she clung to her friends and sometimes employed exaggerated language, adopting the pose of Romantic dreamer. Still, there is no reason that one should doubt the genuineness of the love spoken of here. The poem speaks universally for lovers, whose security is their love for one another.

There is more than meets the eye in “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” In its impassioned tones, the poem fantasizes sexual abandon when lovers are present again and are joined. Few poems have captured the power of anticipatory love as well as this one. As if to make no mistake about her meaning, Dickinson repeats the phrasing and assigns an exclamation mark. “In Port” in stanza 2 is similarly replete with the hint of physical intimacy, as is the reference to mooring.

In another ironic undertone providing tension within the poem, there is a hint that love may be a beautiful illusion. The reference to Eden in the last stanza represents the transfigured state of love’s fancied weaving, its ability to transcend the banal opposition. Yet Eden is only the projection of fantasy—hence the Fall from Paradise in the following line, with its return to the sea of this world, where drowning threatens. Yet love has not lost its wager. Whatever love cannot do to render a genuine return to Paradise, it does offer sanctuary to its exiles.
"I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain"
Author: E. Dickinson

First Published: 1896
Type of Poem: Lyric
Genres: Poetry, Lyric poetry
Subjects: Death or dying, Funeral rites or ceremonies, Bereavement or grief, Rites or ceremonies, Life and death, Reason or reasoning, Soul, Brain, Coffins
The Poem
Like all Emily Dickinson’s poems, this one bears no title. The usual way of referring to a Dickinson poem is therefore through either its first line or its assigned number in Thomas Johnson’s definitive edition. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is vintage Dickinson in both form and theme, given to homely illustration from life—here a funeral—simplicity of construction, irregular rhyme, and a preoccupation with death in a context of somber meditation. Outwardly a simple poem, it is one of several that Dickinson wrote not only to note the pervasiveness of death as ending, but also to explore the very nature of death itself.

The initial stanza commences with what is fundamentally a conceit through which the persona, or speaker in the poem, attempts to articulate what death is like through an unusual analogy—that of a “Funeral in [the] Brain.” Intriguingly, and not an uncommon stance in Dickinson, the viewpoint is that of one who has already died. In recall, the funeral is sufficiently vivid nearly to transport the persona back to the realm of sense—or, as the speaker says, “it seemed/ That Sense was breaking through.”

Stanza 2 continues the poem’s emphasis on the ritual of death with a movement from sense to numbing, as if underscoring death’s inexorable onslaught on life. The analogy is to the funeral service. As in the opening stanza, the third line reinforces death’s macabre finality in its repetitive insistence, here by using the participle “berating.”

Stanza 3 moves toward burial with the lifting of the coffin “across [the] soul,” a way of suggesting not merely the disembodiment of the soul, or psyche, the coffin passing through its immaterial substance, but also an obliteration of human and immortal significance. This fact lies behind the stanza’s mournful clarion, “Then space began to toll,” depicting both the resonance of the church bells and the thunderous fact of the grave as the ultimate separator from the senses.

Unusual here is Dickinson’s use of a run-on stanza, leading into the penultimate fourth stanza, in which the persona is metonymized as an “Ear” forced to take in this overwhelming proclamation of the bells—“As [though] all the Heavens were a bell.” Death empties one of personhood, and one is joined to an eternal silence, countermanding that of the world of sense above. Thus, the persona suggests the analogy of shipwreck in “Wrecked solitary” to depict the disintegration and isolation of the dead.

In the final stanza, the persona recalls her interment in the ground, and here the true crisis of the poem is waged with the breaking of “a plank in reason.” Death represents a fall from rationality into nothingness—hence, into nonbeing. Cryptically, the persona speaks of the consequence of this fall as one of “hit[ting] a world at every plunge,” perhaps suggesting the hellish worlds of mythological and biblical import and their traditional association with the earth’s interior. Death is thus the legacy of man’s first fall and its own hell, in which humankind has “finished knowing.”

Forms and Devices
Noteworthy in the poem is the employment of near rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of the initial stanza to suggest disintegration. In the ceremonial observances of the next three stanzas, regularity asserts itself in the rhyming of the second and fourth lines, as if the poet were suggesting that it is in human rite that humans attempt to assign meaning to death. The final stanza, however, is ominous in its breaking of the “plank of reason,” as if implying the folly of such attempts to bridge, or transcend, death’s chasm through the imposition of a rationale upon the cosmic scheme of things. Accordingly, there is not even near rhyme, for death is the ultimate cessation of any kind of knowing, the consummate disintegration of sense.

Repetition is pervasive in the first three stanzas to underscore both the solemnity of the occasion and the ominous truth that death represents. There are “mourners to and fro” who keep “treading, treading”; there is a service that is like a drum that is “Kept beating, beating,” while in stanza 3, the persona hears “those same boots of lead again.” Behind this repetition lies the implication of death as an inexorable process undoing everyone. Thus, while the time aspect of the poem is ostensibly one of past tense, the persona reminiscing, one finds the irony of a repetition affirming time’s slow but inevitable movement toward human dissolution in which time itself will die. It is a theme similar to that of Dickinson’s more familiar poem “Because I could not stop for Death.”

As always in a Dickinson poem, the imagery of the poem is arresting, both for its sources in the commonality of everyday life and for its assigned function in the poem as the weave of a conceit, or extended analogy. Here the real event is inner, not outer. The poem deals not with what death means to mourners, but with what death means for its victim: the loss of that which makes life possible, the senses. That loss is referred to in the poem as a “funeral in [the] brain” or a “mind…going numb,” or “a plank in reason” that breaks.

This last image is the most striking of all. In the context, the plank suggests a means of passage over a chasm. It breaks, hurling the persona into the depths below. Dickinson may be suggesting the insufficiency of rationality to prepare one for the “fall” into death. Quite certainly, death marks the ending of all rationality and, hence, of all knowing. Strikingly, it is with the breaking of the plank of reason that the reader returns full circle to the poem’s startling opening, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”

Themes and Meanings
Dickinson often objectifies death through a narrator who recalls her own death. This occurs, for example, in poems 449, 465, and 712. Along with God, nature, and love, death is a favorite theme. At times Dickinson’s position toward death seems contradictory. On one hand, she seems nearly to celebrate it as an anodyne to life, as in “Because I could not stop for Death,” where death appears in the guise of a suitor and the grave is a “House” in the ground. On the other hand, death is that stain upon the cosmos, an act of a “burglar” deity. In one of her letters, she exclaimed, “I can’t stay any longer in a world of death.”

The poem is notable for its lack of a consolatory element, a departure from the custom of the time. Indeed, it offers no message of any kind, either about how to live or how to prepare for Eternity. The emphasis is upon death, its stark reality as a divorcer from the senses and as life’s ultimate ritual. A person has no source of promptings for its content. Clearly the poem is not Christian in its depiction of death as ultimate extinction rather than as passage into glory.

It is possible that the poem deals with a psychical death—that is, with the desperate attempt of the mind to ward off pain through repression, or the forgoing of consciousness. In this vein, the analogy of burial is an appropriate one. Elsewhere (poem 777), Dickinson writes of “The Horror not to be surveyed—/ But skirted in the Dark—/ With Consciousness suspended—/ And Being under Lock.” In poem 341, Dickinson writes that “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—/ The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.” In the same poem, she writes, “This is the hour of Lead,” which may be compared with the “boots of lead” in the present poem.

It is also conceivable that the poem depicts the mind’s downward journey into madness or psychological dislocation. In this connection, poem 435 speaks of “Madness” as the “divinest Sense” and of “Much Sense—the starkest Madness.” Indeed, some critics have argued for a psychotic disturbance in Emily Dickinson or for some kind of severe loss in her life that created a devastating emotional aftermath.
"There's a certain Slant of light"
Author: E. Dickinson

This poem begins by noting the oppressive sound of church bells heard in the bleak atmosphere of a winter afternoon. They give “Heavenly Hurt,” though they leave no external scar. Within six lines, Dickinson synthesizes a description of depression in terms of three senses: hearing, sight, and feeling.

This depression is, however, more than ordinary sadness. It comes from Heaven, and it bears the biblical“Seal Despair.” It hurts the entire landscape, its nonhuman as well as its human constituents, which listens, holds its breath for some revelation, yet perceives only the look of death. Significantly, the poet nowhere implies that no meaning exists; indeed, in other poems she is certain that a divine being exists and that there is a plan. Even so, the implications of what she writes are almost as devastating, for the apocalyptic seal of revelation holds fast, yielding no enlightenment to those below but the weak afternoon sun of a New England winter.

Read straightforwardly, the only means to combat this despair is, logically, faith, but in Dickinson's landscape one senses only its external sign: the weighty tunes of a cathedral carillon. The “internal difference,” the scars of discouragement and despair remain within all, though visible to none.

The Poem
Emily Dickinson’s poetic strategy is governed by her belief that truth must be approached indirectly in order to be understood most fully. In “The thought beneath so slight a film” (poem 210), for example, she insists that the “film,” or embodiment in a work of art, allows the idea to be “more distinctly seen,” and she uses two similes (lace revealing breasts and mists revealing the Alps) as examples. In “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (poem 1129), she explains more fully why “success in circuit lies”: “the Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” Again she uses a simile, this time the way adults explain the phenomenon of lightning to children (in a metaphorical and “kind” manner), to express a truth figuratively which cannot be expressed literally.

“There’s a certain Slant of light” is the fullest and most complicated rendering of this idea; in it, she uses dramatic metaphors and similes not only to suggest her own literary methodology but also to express the dynamic interrelation she sees between people and nature. One of the interesting aspects of her first line (as in all her poems, used by editors as the title) is that it is the word “Slant” which is capitalized, and no other, not even “light,” though there are fourteen internal capitalizations in the poem. The focus is not on the light itself, but on the angle it takes at a particular time of day (late afternoon) during a particular season (winter) in a particular place (rural Massachusetts). Stanza 1 shows that this angle of light “oppresses” rather than uplifts the poetic voice, and perhaps the reader as well, just as does organ music in a great cathedral.

Though this oppression is the chief characteristic of the angle of light, it suppresses and depresses as well. It gives “Heavenly Hurt,” which leaves no external scar, but makes a person internally different, for it changes what the world means to the person. These changes, wrought by nature, are to Emily Dickinson often more profound than those changes caused by other people, or by oneself.

In stanza 3, Dickinson indicates that this hurt, and the changes that come with it, cannot be taught, or learned from any human teacher, because it comes from the “Air” as an “affliction,” which brings with it the “Seal Despair.” In stanza 4, she extends the metaphor to indicate its effect on nature. When the slant of light comes, even the landscape listens, and shadows hold their breath; when it leaves, it leaves behind, for both human observer and nature, an experience of distance which is like “the look of Death,” or a sense of vacancy, absence, and isolation.

Forms and Devices
Dickinson is well known for her idiosyncratic use of capitalized words and dashes at the end of most lines, and both are used in abundance in this poem. The primary use of capitalized words within a line is for emphasis; it is Dickinson’s own way of indicating to the reader that one should pay especially close attention to a particular noun (nouns are capitalized much more often than any other part of speech). The dashes not only accentuate the rhythm of the poem, they also give the reader a sense of openness, extension, and ambiguity that is often less comfortable than the more traditional period. While not evident here, in other poems Dickinson commonly used exclamation points at the end of some lines for emphasis.

A more important and certainly much more influential device is that of slant rhyme (also called off rhyme, partial rhyme, or near rhyme). Slant rhyme (in which the final consonant sounds are the same but the vowel sounds are different) is frequently used when a poet wishes to negate, deny, or counter something, often a traditional value or idea. Here, for example, Dickinson uses slant rhyme in the first and third lines of each stanza (light/heft, us/difference, and listens/distance), and conventional exact rhyme to end the second and fourth lines (afternoons/tunes, scar/are, despair/air, and breath/death). Thus, what might have been a rather traditional poem of sixteen lines, divided into four quatrains rhyming abab, becomes a signature statement in free verse.

Dickinson uses a number of other poetic devices, including alliteration, assonance, and sibilant sounds, and her use of metaphor and simile is especially striking. In stanza 1, the visual perception of the light on a winter afternoon is compared with the sound of organ music in a cathedral; each has an oppressive weight and power in this particular situation that it would not have in any other. In stanza 2, she creates the metaphor “Heavenly Hurt,” an oxymoron perhaps, and certainly a paradox: It might mean that the hurt is sent from heaven, that it is a kind of delicious pain, or both. In the context of her other poems, one can guess that she means the reader to see both suggestions. There is a similar paradoxical ambiguity in stanza 3: Does the fact that despair is sent “of the Air” (not “from” the air) mean that it is sent from God or from nature? Perhaps for Dickinson, God and nature are finally so inextricably interwoven as to be inseparable. Personification is another common device in Dickinson’s poetry; here the landscape listens and the shadows hold their breath. All nature, it seems, not only the human part, is attentive to this awesome quality of light.

Themes and Meanings
Dickinson as poet is committed to an aesthetic point of view shared in large part by other American Romantics such as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. She speaks for the indirect vision in art and literature, one that resists the reduction of truth to any logical definition or comprehensive statement. As with Hawthorne’s idea of the “neutral territory” where the actual and the imaginary meet, Thoreau’s search for “the hound, the bay horse, and the turtle dove,” and Melville’s (and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Walt Whitman’s, for that matter) sense of objects as “pasteboard masks,” Dickinson’s assertion is that only the use of metaphorical rather than direct language will allow the writer, and thus the reader, to “pierce the veil” of the material world and gain some sense of the spiritual reality which is behind it.

Another major theme in her poetry as a whole is reflected in this poem: the idea that people are deeply wedded to the physical world. For Dickinson, the landscape has the power to affect a person deeply and permanently; for example, external weather may cause changes in one’s “internal weather.” What is more (and here she differs sharply from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman), these changes may not always be pleasant or positive ones. In this poem, for example, the speaker has been hurt and oppressed enough by this slant of light so as to feel despair. She experiences the fading of the light much as she experiences that sense of isolation, estrangement, and separation that comes with seeing death.

These two ideas come together as a paradox: How can one resolve the tension between appreciating and transcending the physical world? Dickinson seems to be suggesting in many of her poems that first one must come to a full appreciation of the physical world; then one may be able to push through and beyond it to where the meaning lies.

In this, one of the very finest of her poems, Emily Dickinson has created a metaphor in which feeling and abstraction are fused. It is a metaphor that vividly expresses what for her was the spiritual fact that seasonal changes in the external world often parallel spiritual changes in the internal world. These changes may be negative as well as positive; they may bring despair as well as hope.
"The Soul selects her own Society"
Author: E. Dickinson

Critics note that poem 303 was written in 1862, the year Dickinson made her decision to withdraw from the larger world. The poem, read in this simple way, simply states the need to live by one's own choice. This reading, perfectly acceptable in itself, overlooks several important phrases which have larger implications.

The first of these curious choices of language is “divine Majority,” in line 3. “The Soul” of line 1, not merely “a soul” or a person, shuts her door not only to people at large but also to the majority, even those who bear the stamp of divine sanction. Read this way, the poem also indicates the poet's decision not to join the society of the Elect, this even though “an emperor be kneeling” on her doormat. The conduit of grace, an analogy favored in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, becomes “the Valves” of the soul's discrimination.

Though she remains “unmoved,” the soul is neither nihilistic nor solipsistic. Even as the capitalized letter implies zero, the soul chooses “One” then becomes deaf to all entreaties “Like Stone.” To insist that this necessarily indicates preference for a Unitarian rather than a Trinitarian view carries the interpretation to a theological level that the poem's language will not sustain. Nevertheless, selectivity in all matters, including religion, is something the poet clearly favors.

On a complementary level, one notices the carefully crafted description of the woman not at home to any callers, except one or at most a few. Read this way, which merely supplements the other possible alternatives, the poem states the preference to live in a way unlike that of most nineteenth century women, spurning the conventions of social obligation and what society expects, even though an emperor might attempt to persuade her to join the larger group.


The speaker says that “the Soul selects her own Society—” and then “shuts the Door,” refusing to admit anyone else—even if “an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her mat—.” Indeed, the soul often chooses no more than a single person from “an ample nation” and then closes “the Valves of her attention” to the rest of the world.

The meter of “The Soul selects her own Society” is much more irregular and halting than the typical Dickinson poem, although it still roughly fits her usual structure: iambic trimeter with the occasional line in tetrameter. It is also uncharacteristic in that its rhyme scheme—if we count half-rhymes such as “Gate” and “Mat”—is ABAB, rather than ABCB; the first and third lines rhyme, as well as the second and fourth. However, by using long dashes rhythmically to interrupt the flow of the meter and effect brief pauses, the poem’s form remains recognizably Dickinsonian, despite its atypical aspects.

Whereas “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” takes a playful tone to the idea of reclusiveness and privacy, the tone of “The Soul selects her own Society—” is quieter, grander, and more ominous. The idea that “The Soul selects her own Society” (that people choose a few companions who matter to them and exclude everyone else from their inner consciousness) conjures up images of a solemn ceremony with the ritual closing of the door, the chariots, the emperor, and the ponderous Valves of the Soul’s attention. Essentially, the middle stanza functions to emphasize the Soul’s stonily uncompromising attitude toward anyone trying to enter into her Society once the metaphorical door is shut—even chariots, even an emperor, cannot persuade her. The third stanza then illustrates the severity of the Soul’s exclusiveness—even from “an ample nation” of people, she easily settles on one single person to include, summarily and unhesitatingly locking out everyone else. The concluding stanza, with its emphasis on the “One” who is chosen, gives “The Soul selects her own Society—” the feel of a tragic love poem, although we need not reduce our understanding of the poem to see its theme as merely romantic. The poem is an excellent example of Dickinson’s tightly focused skills with metaphor and imagery; cycling through her regal list of door, divine Majority, chariots, emperor, mat, ample nation, and stony valves of attention, Dickinson continually surprises the reader with her vivid and unexpected series of images, each of which furthers the somber mood of the poem.

The poem:

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot's pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I've known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.
"Success is counted Sweetest"
Author: E. Dickinson


The speaker says that “those who ne’er succeed” place the highest value on success. (They “count” it “sweetest”.) To understand the value of a nectar, the speaker says, one must feel “sorest need.” She says that the members of the victorious army (“the purple Host / Who took the flag today”) are not able to define victory as well as the defeated, dying man who hears from a distance the music of the victors.

The three stanzas of this poem take the form of iambic trimeter—with the exception of the first two lines of the second stanza, which add a fourth stress at the end of the line. (Virtually all of Dickinson’s poems are written in an iambic meter that fluctuates fluidly between three and four stresses.) As in most of Dickinson’s poems, the stanzas here rhyme according to an ABCB scheme, so that the second and fourth lines in each stanza constitute the stanza’s only rhyme.

Many of Emily Dickinson’s most famous lyrics take the form of homilies, or short moral sayings, which appear quite simple but that actually describe complicated moral and psychological truths. “Success is counted sweetest” is such a poem; its first two lines express its homiletic point, that “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed” (or, more generally, that people tend to desire things more acutely when they do not have them). The subsequent lines then develop that axiomatic truth by offering a pair of images that exemplify it: the nectar—a symbol of triumph, luxury, “success”—can best be comprehended by someone who “needs” it; the defeated, dying man understands victory more clearly than the victorious army does. The poem exhibits Dickinson’s keen awareness of the complicated truths of human desire (in a later poem on a similar theme, she wrote that “Hunger—was a way / Of Persons outside Windows— / The Entering—takes away—”), and it shows the beginnings of her terse, compacted style, whereby complicated meanings are compressed into extremely short phrases (e.g., “On whose forbidden ear”).
"I am Nobody! Who are you?"
Author: E. Dickinson


The speaker exclaims that she is “Nobody,” and asks, “Who are you? / Are you— Nobody—too?” If so, she says, then they are a pair of nobodies, and she admonishes her addressee not to tell, for “they’d banish us—you know!” She says that it would be “dreary” to be “Somebody”—it would be “public” and require that, “like a Frog,” one tell one’s name “the livelong June— / To an admiring Bog!”

The two stanzas of “I’m Nobody!” are highly typical for Dickinson, constituted of loose iambic trimeter occasionally including a fourth stress (“To tell your name—the livelong June—”). They follow an ABCB rhyme scheme (though in the first stanza, “you” and “too” rhyme, and “know” is only a half-rhyme, so the scheme could appear to be AABC), and she frequently uses rhythmic dashes to interrupt the flow.

Ironically, one of the most famous details of Dickinson lore today is that she was utterly un-famous during her lifetime—she lived a relatively reclusive life in Amherst, Massachusetts, and though she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, she published fewer than ten of them. This poem is her most famous and most playful defense of the kind of spiritual privacy she favored, implying that to be a Nobody is a luxury incomprehensible to the dreary Somebodies—for they are too busy keeping their names in circulation, croaking like frogs in a swamp in the summertime. This poem is an outstanding early example of Dickinson’s often jaunty approach to meter (she uses her trademark dashes quite forcefully to interrupt lines and interfere with the flow of her poem, as in “How dreary— to be—Somebody!”). Further, the poem vividly illustrates her surprising way with language. The juxtaposition in the line “How public—like a Frog—” shocks the first-time reader, combining elements not typically considered together, and, thus, more powerfully conveying its meaning (frogs are “public” like public figures—or Somebodies—because they are constantly “telling their name”— croaking—to the swamp, reminding all the other frogs of their identities).
"After great Pain, a formal feeling comes"
Author: E. Dickinson


The speaker notes that following great pain, “a formal feeling” often sets in, during which the “Nerves” are solemn and “ceremonious, like Tombs.” The heart questions whether it ever really endured such pain and whether it was really so recent (“The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?”). The feet continue to plod mechanically, with a wooden way, and the heart feels a stone-like contentment. This, the speaker says, is “the Hour of Lead,” and if the person experiencing it survives this Hour, he or she will remember it in the same way that “Freezing persons” remember the snow: “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—.”

“After great pain” is structurally looser than most Dickinson poems: The iambic meter fades in places; line-length ranges from dimeter to pentameter; the rhyme scheme is haphazard and mostly utilizes couplets (stanza-by-stanza, it is AABB CDEFF GHII); and the middle stanza is five lines long, rather than Dickinson’s typical four. Like most other Dickinson poems, however, it uses the long rhythmic dash to indicate short pauses.

Perhaps Emily Dickinson’s greatest achievement as a poet is the record she left of her own inwardness; because of her extraordinary powers of self-observation and her extraordinary willingness to map her own feelings as accurately and honestly as she could, Dickinson has bequeathed us a multitude of hard, intense, and subtle poems, detailing complicated feelings rarely described by other poets. And yet, encountering these feelings in the compression chamber of a Dickinson poem, one recognizes them instantly. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” describes the fragile emotional equilibrium that settles heavily over a survivor of recent trauma or profound grief.

Dickinson’s descriptive words lend a funereal feel to the poem: The emotion following pain is “formal,” one’s nerves feel like “Tombs,” one’s heart is stiff and disbelieving. The feet’s “Wooden way” evokes a wooden casket, and the final “like a stone” recalls a headstone. The speaker emphasizes the fragile state of a person experiencing the “formal feeling” by never referring to such people as whole human beings, detailing their bodies in objectified fragments (“The stiff Heart,” “The Feet, mechanical,” etc.).
"I died for beauty--but was scarce"
Author: E. Dickinson


The speaker says that she died for Beauty, but she was hardly adjusted to her tomb before a man who died for Truth was laid in a tomb next to her. When the two softly told each other why they died, the man declared that Truth and Beauty are the same, so that he and the speaker were “Brethren.” The speaker says that they met at night, “as Kinsmen,” and talked between their tombs until the moss reached their lips and covered up the names on their tombstones.

This poem follows many of Dickinson’s typical formal patterns—the ABCB rhyme scheme, the rhythmic use of the dash to interrupt the flow—but has a more regular meter, so that the first and third lines in each stanza are iambic tetrameter, while the second and fourth lines are iambic trimeter, creating a four-three-four-three stress pattern in each stanza.

This bizarre, allegorical death fantasy recalls Keats (“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” from Ode on a Grecian Urn), but its manner of presentation belongs uniquely to Dickinson. In this short lyric, Dickinson manages to include a sense of the macabre physicality of death (“Until the Moss had reached our lips—”), the high idealism of martyrdom (“I died for Beauty. . . One who died for Truth”), a certain kind of romantic yearning combined with longing for Platonic companionship (“And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—”), and an optimism about the afterlife (it would be nice to have a like-minded friend) with barely sublimated terror about the fact of death (it would be horrible to lie in the cemetery having a conversation through the walls of a tomb). As the poem progresses, the high idealism and yearning for companionship gradually give way to mute, cold death, as the moss creeps up the speaker’s corpse and her headstone, obliterating both her capacity to speak (covering her lips) and her identity (covering her name).

The ultimate effect of this poem is to show that every aspect of human life—ideals, human feelings, identity itself—is erased by death. But by making the erasure gradual—something to be “adjusted” to in the tomb—and by portraying a speaker who is untroubled by her own grim state, Dickinson creates a scene that is, by turns, grotesque and compelling, frightening and comforting. It is one of her most singular statements about death, and like so many of Dickinson’s poems, it has no parallels in the work of any other writer.
"I heard a Fly buzz--when I died"
Author: E. Dickinson


The speaker says that she heard a fly buzz as she lay on her deathbed. The room was as still as the air between “the Heaves” of a storm. The eyes around her had cried themselves out, and the breaths were firming themselves for “that last Onset,” the moment when, metaphorically, “the King / Be witnessed—in the Room—.” The speaker made a will and “Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable—” and at that moment, she heard the fly. It interposed itself “With blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—” between the speaker and the light; “the Windows failed”; and then she died (“I could not see to see—”).

“I heard a Fly buzz” employs all of Dickinson’s formal patterns: trimeter and tetrameter iambic lines (four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza, three in the second and fourth, a pattern Dickinson follows at her most formal); rhythmic insertion of the long dash to interrupt the meter; and an ABCB rhyme scheme. Interestingly, all the rhymes before the final stanza are half-rhymes (Room/Storm, firm/Room, be/Fly), while only the rhyme in the final stanza is a full rhyme (me/see). Dickinson uses this technique to build tension; a sense of true completion comes only with the speaker’s death.

One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, “I heard a Fly buzz” strikingly describes the mental distraction posed by irrelevant details at even the most crucial moments—even at the moment of death. The poem then becomes even weirder and more macabre by transforming the tiny, normally disregarded fly into the figure of death itself, as the fly’s wing cuts the speaker off from the light until she cannot “see to see.” But the fly does not grow in power or stature; its final severing act is performed “With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—.” This poem is also remarkable for its detailed evocation of a deathbed scene—the dying person’s loved ones steeling themselves for the end, the dying woman signing away in her will “What portion of me be / Assignable” (a turn of phrase that seems more Shakespearean than it does Dickinsonian).
Rip Van Winkle
Author: W. Irving

Characters: The commander, Judith Gardenier, Diedrich Kinckerbocker, The stranger, Derrick Van Bummel, Peter Vanderdonk, Dame Van Winkle, Rip Van Winkle, Nicholas Vedder

Summary: ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is framed with commentary from an unnamed writer. Before the story itself begins, three paragraphs in brackets explain the story's origin: The tale ‘‘was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker,’’ a man who dedicated much of his life to studying and recording the history of the Dutch inhabitants of upstate New York. Knickerbocker's published history, the narrator claims, is known for its ‘‘scrupulous accuracy,'' and the tale of ''Rip Van Winkle,’’ therefore, should be accepted as truth.

The tale itself opens with a description of the Kaatskill (now called Catskill) Mountains, beautiful and mysterious, at the foot of which is the village where the central character lives. The time is the late 1760s or the early 1770s, while the area is still a colony of Great Britain under the rule of King George III. Rip Van Winkle is a ‘‘simple, goodnatured fellow'' with a faithful dog, a son, a daughter, and a domineering wife. Rip is a favorite of the women and children of the village, and a popular member of the crowd of men who gather outside the local tavern to argue about politics, but he is not as welcome in his own family. As willing as he is to play with the neighborhood children or to help his neighbors with chores, he is lazy and unproductive at home. His farm, which is the family's source of food and income, is falling to ruin. Rip has gradually sold off most of it piece by piece, and what little land remains is rocky and infertile. Truth be told, he does not spend much time working on the farm, preferring to be out in the village visiting or in the mountains hunting and fishing. In short, he is "ready to attend to anybody's business but his own.’’ His wife never lets him forget his responsibilities to the family, or the many ways he fails to fulfill them.

One autumn day, Rip feels so oppressed by the haranguing of his wife that he takes his gun and sets out with his dog, Wolf, to find some peace and quiet. Late afternoon finds him sitting in a high spot in the mountains, admiring the view of the Hudson River far below. Realizing that night is approaching, that he will not be able to get home before dark, and that he will face a scolding for coming home so late, he gets up with a heavy heart to set out for home. Just as he begins to climb down, he hears a voice calling his name.

The voice belongs to a stranger, a ‘‘short, square-built old fellow’’ dressed in old-fashioned Dutch clothing and carrying a keg of liquor up the rocks of a dry stream bed. Without speaking, he indicates that Rip should help him carry his burden up the mountain and into a hollow. There Rip sees a group of bearded men playing ninepins, a form of bowling, in the same oldfashioned Dutch clothing. Although they are playing the game, they do not speak or smile; the only sound is the thunderous rolling of the balls. Rip understands by their gestures that he is to serve the men the liquor from the keg. He does so, and when the men are not looking he also steals a few sips for himself. Gradually, the drink overtakes him and he falls asleep.

When Rip awakens, he is back in the spot where he was sitting when he first saw the stranger. It is a sunny morning and he worries that his wife will be angry with him for spending the entire night away from home. Reaching for his gun, which he has always taken good care of, he finds instead a rusty old gun. Surely, he thinks, the strangers have drugged him, and stolen his gun. His dog, Wolf, is also missing. Determined to confront the men, he gets up and tries to locate the hollow but he can find no trace of it. In fact, the dry stream bed is now filled with rushing water. With nothing else to do, he heads for home.

Arriving in the village, Rip sees other strange things. He does not recognize any of the villagers he passes and they do not seem to recognize him. There are buildings he has never seen before and everyone is dressed in a new style of clothing. Stroking his chin, Rip discovers that his beard has grown a foot long while he slept. When he finally reaches his own house, he sees that it has fallen to ruin. And at the village inn, where he has spent so many hours, the picture of King George III of England has been replaced by an image of General Washington.

As Rip wanders through the town looking confused, a crowd gathers around him. As he asks for his old friends, he learns that they have died, or gone away. Finally, he meets a kindly young woman who has the same name as his daughter. She tells him that her father, Rip Van Winkle, went into the mountains and disappeared twenty years before. Rip tells his story of the strange men and the keg, and an old villager remembers the historical"fact'' that the explorer Hendrick Hudson haunts the mountains and appears every twenty years. Rip's daughter takes him home to live with her. His wife has died and he is now free to spend as much time as he likes sitting at the inn, telling and retelling his story, without fear of scolding.

The tale ends with a narrator returning to center stage, vouching again for the accuracy of the story. One might think, he says, that the story seems oddly similar to old German folk tales, but a note from Diedrich Knickerbocker, which he quotes, proves the story's authenticity. In a postscript, the narrator shares some scraps from Knickerbocker's notebook, describing Indian legends about the Catskill Mountains. These traditional stories reinforce the idea that the mountains ''have always been a region full of fable.’’

American Revolution
Rip Van Winkle journeys into the mountains and falls asleep during the time when ‘‘the country was yet a province of Great Britain.’’ The local inn where Rip spends much of his time has a sign outside with a portrait of ‘‘His Majesty George the Third,’’ who ruled Great Britain from 1760 to his death in 1820. Other than the portrait, there is no indication in the early part of the story that Rip and his friends are aware of politics, or concerned about it in any way. Various critics have used clues in the story and their knowledge of history to place the beginning anywhere from 1769 to 1774. Although in other parts of the colonies taxpayers are already angry by this time about taxation without representation and other affronts, the men of this village talk endlessly about nothing.

When Rip returns, sometime between 1789 and 1794, significant changes have occurred. The American Revolution has come and gone, the former colonies are an independent nation, and George Washington is the first president of the United States. What changes have independence made in a small village? It is larger, of course, with more people, and the new people do not know Rip. Beyond these superficial changes, Rip notices something else: ‘‘The very character of the people seemed changed.’’ There is still a crowd gathered around the local inn, but now their conversation carries ‘‘a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity.’’ One man stands among from the crowd ‘‘haranguing vehemently’’ about politics. In this new independent world, it appears, men must take notice of politics, if not by serving in the new government then by being informed and carrying on debate. Some of Rip’s old cronies from the inn have answered the call: one was lost in battle during the war, and another became a general and then a congressman.

On the other hand, much is unchanged. Rip is initially startled to see that his beloved inn has a different, shabbier appearance and a new owner. But outside, over the bench, is the same sign that used to bear the portrait of King George. Rip notices that the face on the portrait is the same, although ‘‘the red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat,’’ and the sign now reads ‘‘General Washington.’’ With the exception of one tense moment when he declares his loyalty to the King, Rip soon returns to his old life, no different than he lived it the day he went up the mountain. He resumes his spot in front of the tavern and establishes himself as one of the new crowd. Gradually he learns to understand their political talk, but he prefers to tell stories of the old times ‘‘before the war.’’ Indeed, although he is no longer a subject but a free man, ‘‘the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him.’’

Critics have argued over Irving’s point since the story first appeared, and in his own lifetime Irving faced charges that he was unpatriotic because he lived abroad for so long. Is he implying in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ that the difference between King George and General Washington is simply a matter of the same face in different clothing? Is he using Rip’s lack of interest in independence to further develop his laziness and indifference? Is he calling for more involvement in politics, or less? Like all good literature, this story raises more questions than it answers, but several of the questions clearly have to do with the significance of the American Revolution.

Marital Conflict
If Rip’s life has not been much changed by the American Revolution and the coming of independence, it is greatly changed by waking up to find that his wife has died. From his point of view (and from the view of the narrator), his life before he falls asleep is one of constant torment at the hands of an unreasonable wife. He is a ‘‘simple good-natured man,’’ an ‘‘obedient hen-pecked husband’’ who has learned ‘‘the virtues of patience and long-suffering’’ through the constant scolding of his wife. She, on the other hand, is one of those ‘‘shrews at home’’ who creates a ‘‘fiery furnace of domestic tribulation.’’

This is the version of the Van Winkle marriage that the story presents, but it is not difficult to peer behind the curtain of irony in the narrator’s voice and see things in another light. The fact is, although she has become an incurable nag, Dame Van Winkle has reason to be angry. If Rip is always willing to ‘‘assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil,’’ including ‘‘building stone-fences,’’ why are his own fences ‘‘continually falling to pieces?’’ If he has found time to be the man who played with the neighborhood children, ‘‘made their playthings, taught them to fly kites and shoot marbles, and told them long stories,’’ why are his own children ‘‘as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody?’’ It is true that ‘‘everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence’’ from Dame Van Winkle, but it is hard to see what Rip might be doing to earn praise from her.

Rip has a moment, upon first returning to his decaying house after his long sleep, when he is appreciative of his wife’s contributions. He acknowledges to himself that she had always kept the house ‘‘in neat order,’’ and that without her presence the house seems ‘‘empty, forlorn.’’ But the moment passes quickly and when he finally learns that she has died (bursting a blood vessel while yelling at a peddler) he experiences the news as ‘‘a drop of comfort.’’ Settling in with his daughter’s family, he is relieved to be out from ‘‘the yoke of matrimony.’’ The reader is left to wonder how relieved Dame Van Winkle was on the day she realized that something had happened to her husband up in the mountains and he was not coming back.
The Scarlet Letter
Author: N. Hawthorne

Characters: Governor Bellingham, Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl, Hester Prynne,

American Revolution
Rip Van Winkle journeys into the mountains and falls asleep during the time when ‘‘the country was yet a province of Great Britain.’’ The local inn where Rip spends much of his time has a sign outside with a portrait of ‘‘His Majesty George the Third,’’ who ruled Great Britain from 1760 to his death in 1820. Other than the portrait, there is no indication in the early part of the story that Rip and his friends are aware of politics, or concerned about it in any way. Various critics have used clues in the story and their knowledge of history to place the beginning anywhere from 1769 to 1774. Although in other parts of the colonies taxpayers are already angry by this time about taxation without representation and other affronts, the men of this village talk endlessly about nothing.

When Rip returns, sometime between 1789 and 1794, significant changes have occurred. The American Revolution has come and gone, the former colonies are an independent nation, and George Washington is the first president of the United States. What changes have independence made in a small village? It is larger, of course, with more people, and the new people do not know Rip. Beyond these superficial changes, Rip notices something else: ‘‘The very character of the people seemed changed.’’ There is still a crowd gathered around the local inn, but now their conversation carries ‘‘a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity.’’ One man stands among from the crowd ‘‘haranguing vehemently’’ about politics. In this new independent world, it appears, men must take notice of politics, if not by serving in the new government then by being informed and carrying on debate. Some of Rip’s old cronies from the inn have answered the call: one was lost in battle during the war, and another became a general and then a congressman.

On the other hand, much is unchanged. Rip is initially startled to see that his beloved inn has a different, shabbier appearance and a new owner. But outside, over the bench, is the same sign that used to bear the portrait of King George. Rip notices that the face on the portrait is the same, although ‘‘the red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat,’’ and the sign now reads ‘‘General Washington.’’ With the exception of one tense moment when he declares his loyalty to the King, Rip soon returns to his old life, no different than he lived it the day he went up the mountain. He resumes his spot in front of the tavern and establishes himself as one of the new crowd. Gradually he learns to understand their political talk, but he prefers to tell stories of the old times ‘‘before the war.’’ Indeed, although he is no longer a subject but a free man, ‘‘the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him.’’

Critics have argued over Irving’s point since the story first appeared, and in his own lifetime Irving faced charges that he was unpatriotic because he lived abroad for so long. Is he implying in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ that the difference between King George and General Washington is simply a matter of the same face in different clothing? Is he using Rip’s lack of interest in independence to further develop his laziness and indifference? Is he calling for more involvement in politics, or less? Like all good literature, this story raises more questions than it answers, but several of the questions clearly have to do with the significance of the American Revolution.

Marital Conflict
If Rip’s life has not been much changed by the American Revolution and the coming of independence, it is greatly changed by waking up to find that his wife has died. From his point of view (and from the view of the narrator), his life before he falls asleep is one of constant torment at the hands of an unreasonable wife. He is a ‘‘simple good-natured man,’’ an ‘‘obedient hen-pecked husband’’ who has learned ‘‘the virtues of patience and long-suffering’’ through the constant scolding of his wife. She, on the other hand, is one of those ‘‘shrews at home’’ who creates a ‘‘fiery furnace of domestic tribulation.’’

This is the version of the Van Winkle marriage that the story presents, but it is not difficult to peer behind the curtain of irony in the narrator’s voice and see things in another light. The fact is, although she has become an incurable nag, Dame Van Winkle has reason to be angry. If Rip is always willing to ‘‘assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil,’’ including ‘‘building stone-fences,’’ why are his own fences ‘‘continually falling to pieces?’’ If he has found time to be the man who played with the neighborhood children, ‘‘made their playthings, taught them to fly kites and shoot marbles, and told them long stories,’’ why are his own children ‘‘as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody?’’ It is true that ‘‘everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence’’ from Dame Van Winkle, but it is hard to see what Rip might be doing to earn praise from her.

Rip has a moment, upon first returning to his decaying house after his long sleep, when he is appreciative of his wife’s contributions. He acknowledges to himself that she had always kept the house ‘‘in neat order,’’ and that without her presence the house seems ‘‘empty, forlorn.’’ But the moment passes quickly and when he finally learns that she has died (bursting a blood vessel while yelling at a peddler) he experiences the news as ‘‘a drop of comfort.’’ Settling in with his daughter’s family, he is relieved to be out from ‘‘the yoke of matrimony.’’ The reader is left to wonder how relieved Dame Van Winkle was on the day she realized that something had happened to her husband up in the mountains and he was not coming back.

Individual vs. Society
The Scarlet Letter is a novel that describes the psychological anguish of two principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. They are both suffering under, while attempting to come to terms with, their mutual sin of adultery in a strict Puritan society. As critics immediately recognized upon publication of the novel in 1850, one of its principal themes involved conflict between the individual and society.

Hawthorne represents the stern and threatening force of Puritan society in the first sentence of the first chapter, where he describes a "throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray," who stand before the prison door "which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes," and behind which was Hester. Hawthorne symbolizes the force of the Puritan's civil and religious authority in this "prison-door," which is indeed the very name of the chapter. Yet outside the door, symbolizing Hester, the scarlet letter, and finally the individual who dissents from society, is a "wild rose-bush." This rosebush that stands just outside the prison door, Hawthorne famously suggests, "may serve . . . to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow."

The action of the novel (what there is of action in this notoriously unmoving narrative) maintains the conflict of the individual with society, even to the end, where Hawthorne offers a perplexing conclusion. Beginning with the above symbolic scene, Hawthorne repeatedly attaches our sympathies with the individual against social authority, setting us up for a narrative resolution where the individual breaks free from imposed constraints. Yet Hester, after she leaves America for a time, returns to the place of her punishment and willingly resumes the imposed symbol of her guilt and shame. Thus we are left with this principal thematic conflict to resolve on our own.

Change and Transformation
Closely related to the conflict of the individual and society is the theme of stability, change, and transformation. One of the important places where this theme is introduced is actually outside the proper narrative, in Hawthorne's introduction, "The Custom-House."

In "The Custom-House" Hawthorne informs us about his actual job as the commissioner of the custom house in Salem, Massachusetts. Given the job as a political appointment, Hawthorne was responsible for the inspection and regulation of merchant ships that landed in Salem. In his endless partiality to symbols, Hawthorne describes "an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings" that "hovers" before the Custom-House entrance and appears "by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude to . . . warn all citizens" of disrupting the Custom-House affairs. Here is a symbol of stable authority necessarily connected to Hawthorne himself, insofar as he is chief official of the Custom-House. Yet this firm symbol of civil authority is immediately compromised by the context of decay in which it is placed. Hawthorne notes that the wharves of Salem have been left "to crumble to ruin" and that the port "exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life." Even the pavement around the Custom-House "has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business."

But these signs of creeping transformation are replaced by Hawthorne's obviously uncomfortable representation of sudden, even violent change, which in fact struck him personally. Due to the political nature of Hawthorne's appointment, when Zachary Taylor won the Presidential election of 1848, Hawthorne was promptly removed from office. Viewing himself as politically harmless, Hawthorne had felt his "prospect of retaining office to be better than [that of his] Democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell!" With his guillotine metaphor, Hawthorne evokes the great violent revolutions then sweeping Europe. Critics now agree that he greatly feared the possibility of such dramatic change in America.

Critical consensus has come to regard the issue of ambiguity and knowledge rather than ones of deception and truth, as a central, if not the central, theme in the novel. Truth and deception imply a firm moral order, the very possibility of which the novel repeatedly draws into question. Ambiguity, which implies the incapacity to know anything for certain, is much closer to what the novel describes. One of the most profound expressions of ambiguity surrounds Arthur Dimmesdale, for it is the truth of sin that he keeps hidden which makes him the very pillar of moral purity in the community. In fact, exactly because he confesses his impurity he becomes a more powerful figure of virtue: "He had told his bearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the warts of sinners, a thing of unimaginable iniquity. . . . They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more." The "truth" about the minister, sinner or sinless, is forever suspended. Thus, even after the narrator records Dimmesdale's public confession of his affair with Hester, the very notion that he was Hester's lover remains inconclusive. Some people maintain that they saw a stigmata of the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's chest, others present say they saw nothing at all. Some even claim that he did not confess "the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter." As the narrator says, "The reader may choose among these theories."

Another moment where the lure of truth is presented yet left undisclosed occurs in chapter nineteen, where the narrator tells us that Pearl "had been offered to the world. . . . As the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret [Hester and Dimmesdale] so darkly sought to hide,—all written in this symbol,—all plainly manifest,—had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame." Truth is plain, but its language is hard to interpret.

Guilt and Innocence
The Scarlet Letter is without question a novel about sin and guilt, though, as we should expect of Hawthorne, it is not a simple matter to determine who, or what, is the subject of these themes. Are Hester and Dimmesdale the principle sinners, or does their suffering, if not their love, absolve them? If we assume that the novel is an allegory, involving significant episodes and issues from American history, particularly the Salem witch trials, then is it America itself that is guilty of great sin? If this is the case (and many critics feel that it is), then we should reverse the most obvious terms of guilt and sin that the novel presents and read the representatives of authority as the principal figures of guilt. Following this line of interpretation, we can see Hawthorne attempting to individualize national sin in the actual historical characters of Governor Bellingham and John Wilson. We can even take this reading one step further and see Hawthorne attempting to absolve himself and his own family lineage when we recall that one of his own forefathers, John Hathorne, was a particularly cruel prosecutor during the witch hysteria. Whether absolution is rendered is a matter for the reader to decide.

Perhaps the most obvious theme in The Scarlet Letter is exemplified by the red letter A Hester is forced to wear on her chest. Whatever identity she had before the story began (and Hawthorne is careful to give us very little information in the beginning) is meaningless because she wears the scarlet letter. Society places her, identifying her as an adulteress and nothing more. She has no function in society except as an example for others’ behavior, regardless of her skills and caring nature, which become evident later in the novel.

Dimmesdale struggles with his identity as well, as he lives with a constant lie. Hester wears the A because he wouldn’t admit to his involvement with her, placing his position in the community above everything. Gradually his standing means less and less to him, and the community mistakes his misery for piety. He is literally living a lie by the end of the novel, unable to live up to his own standards nor those set by the community. He allows society to construct an identity around him, and it can only hold him up for so long.

Hester, on the other hand, begins to find the letter liberating in a way; through her actions, her community involvement, and the inevitable changes that her society undergoes, Hester’s A is a badge of honor. When she’s offered the chance to remove it, she refuses, seeing the letter as an integral part of what she has become thanks to her own effort. Hester’s identity grows independently of the scarlet letter, and it becomes an extension of her rather than the other way around.

Living in an extremely organized society, the Puritans believe they are civilized. But are they? Hawthorne seems uncertain, if not skeptical. They have laws based on their religion and punishments based on long-held ways of doing things. Perhaps the concept of civilization has passed them by, or perhaps their insistence on the “civilized” nature of their society is not civilized at all.

Puritan civilization is questioned from a number of angles in The Scarlet Letter. Hester doesn’t go away when she is made to wear the scarlet letter; she lives with it, and eventually flourishes. Dimmesdale is a pillar of the community, but his spiritual strength and moral foundation are built on lies. As he begins to deteriorate, all of Boston’s dearly-held conventions do as well—if he had been able to tell the truth and go on, would he have been an even better minister to those who are as weak as he was?

Pearl questions Puritan civilization through the simple act of asking questions. Things about her world make no sense to her, so she asks about them to learn, and eventually to criticize when the answers also make no sense. She is seen as “evil” because she is unwilling to blindly follow; she is acting far more out of confusion of her own mother’s ostracized position in the community. If Hester had not had to wear the A, would her world have made more sense to Pearl?

Hawthorne’s own questioning of the nature of Puritan civilization is intended to make us question not only the Puritans, but ourselves. Is a practice “civilized” simply because it has always been done that way? Is individuality a sin to be punished? Hawthorne believed it was not, and his novel shows it in increasingly graphic detail for the time.
Blithedale Romance
Author: N. Hawthorne

Characters: Coverdale, Zenobia, Hollingsworth, Pricilla, Old Moodie, Silas.

The evening prior to his departure for Blithedale, Miles Coverdale attends a presentation by a spiritualist featuring the “talents” of The Veiled Lady, a woman who is able to communicate with the dead. Afterward, Coverdale is accosted by an acquaintance named Old Moodie, who asks him a great favor. Coverdale is hesitant; Moodie senses this and decides he will ask someone else. He asks Coverdale if he knows of a woman who calls herself Zenobia. Coverdale replies that he will make her acquaintance the next day when he arrives at Blithedale.

The next morning, Coverdale and three companions travel to Blithedale in an unexpected spring snowstorm. Hollingsworth, another potential inmate of Blithedale, is delayed and will come later. By the time the quartet arrives at Blithedale, they are nearly frozen. Mrs. Foster, the housekeeper, lets them in and shows them to the parlor, where they warm up. Zenobia enters and bids them welcome. She praises Coverdale’s poetry; she feels hesitant to take him from the world that is so indebted to his talent. As Zenobia helps the other women prepare dinner, Silas Foster enters. He is the handyman who will teach the men husbandry. As the party eats dinner, Hollingsworth arrives through the storm, bringing another resident. Her name is Priscilla; she has come to Blithedale solely to be around Zenobia. No other information is forthcoming about the young girl, but Coverdale wonders if she is a product of Hollingsworth’s efforts at prison reform. Silas warns everyone that morning will come early and the work will begin in earnest. Coverdale fears that he has caught a cold from riding through the snowstorm.

The next morning, Coverdale is indeed ill and is carefully nursed by Hollingsworth. Zenobia also sees to his needs, though her cooking is less than satisfactory. She always adorns her hair each day with a different tropical flower. Priscilla gains in health and becomes part of the Blithedale community. Although she is clumsy in the kitchen, she is skilled with the needle and spends her idle moments knitting unique silk purses. She makes a nightcap for Coverdale and brings it to him along with a letter from Margaret Fuller; Coverdale notices a similarity between Margaret and Priscilla. Hollingsworth preaches his obsession with prison reform to Coverdale, who begins to suspect that Hollingsworth’s care during his illness is merely an attempt to convert him to his cause.

Coverdale recovers and gradually takes part in the labor of the Blithedale community. He observes Hollingsworth and Zenobia becoming closer in affections, and it is rumored in the community that they will soon build a home on the property and move in together. Priscilla spends most of her time with either Hollingsworth or Zenobia, which makes an interesting triangle in Coverdale’s eyes.

Old Moodie comes to visit and inquires after Priscilla, especially her relationship with Zenobia. Hollingsworth takes him to see her while Coverdale remains behind wondering about Moodie’s relationship to Priscilla. When he walks toward the house, he sees Moodie behind a tree and looking up at a window in which Priscilla is clearing showing him how close she and Zenobia are. Zenobia, however, pushes her away as a woman would push away an over-enthusiastic servant. Moodie walks away; at the corner of the road, he turns and shakes his cane at the window.

Coverdale takes a break from the closeness of the community and goes for a woodland stroll. A man by the name of Professor Westervelt interrupts him and makes inquiries about Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and Priscilla. Coverdale directs Westervelt to a spot often frequented by Zenobia at that time of day and then continues his walk, halfheartedly wishing that he had not cut off the conversation with Westervelt. He proceeds to his “hermitage” in a tree. From there he sees Hollingsworth working in a field and Priscilla working in her window. He also sees that Westervelt has overtaken Zenobia, and the two are arguing. As they pass Coverdale’s hermitage, he overhears their conversation. Westervelt is trying to convince Zenobia to shake off Priscilla, but Zenobia is not willing to do this, as much as she wishes it.

That evening, at the end of the night’s entertainment, Zenobia tells the story of the silvery veil: A group of young men begin to talk of the Veiled Lady and wonder about her true identity. One of the gentlemen, whom Zenobia names Theodore, vows to find out who she is. That evening, during the Veiled Lady’s performance, Theodore hides in her dressing room. When the Veiled Lady enters after her performance, she immediately calls Theodore out and asks what he wants. Theodore tells her that he is bound to find out her identity. The Veiled Lady tells him that first he must kiss her, thus binding their souls together. From that moment, Theodore will not know a moment’s happiness but he will know who the Veiled Lady is. Theodore objects, stating that he will lift the veil first before kissing her. When he does so, he sees a pale but lovely face, but the Lady disappears, leaving the veil behind. A woman who had attended the Veiled Lady performance is walking through the woods when she is accosted by a dark Magician. He tells her that she must take the veil he gives her. When a young girl joins her community, she must throw the veil over her and command the Magician to appear. She does so, and the Magician appears and takes the Veiled Lady as his bond-slave forever. As Zenobia tells this story, she throws a veil over Priscilla, who almost faints.

On Sunday afternoons, Coverdale, Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla often walk to a rock they have named “Eliot’s Pulpit.” They debate the issue of women’s rights, about which Priscilla and Hollingsworth are skeptical. Coverdale becomes more committed to the Blithedale community, but Hollingsworth is eager to get on with his plans for prison reform. He presses Coverdale to join him, admitting at Coverdale’s request that Zenobia will finance part of it. Coverdale refuses even though it is clear that Hollingsworth will end their friendship if Coverdale will not join him. Feeling that Blithedale has changed for him now that his friendship with Hollingsworth is at an end, Coverdale decides to leave the community for a week or two, to Silas Foster’s contempt. He bids Zenobia good-bye, and she confesses that she thought about making him her confidante. Priscilla is seemingly indifferent at his departure, and Hollingsworth ignores him completely.

On his return to the city, Coverdale takes a room in a fashionable hotel. He observes a stylish boarding house across the way and watches the homely lives of the inhabitants. The next day he realizes that the young woman in the boudoir is Priscilla and the people in the drawing room are Zenobia and Westervelt, who seem to be in a heated discussion. Eventually, Westervelt notices Coverdale watching them and points him out to Zenobia. Zenobia lowers the curtain, which offends Coverdale. After a couple of days, he goes to the boarding house and visits with Zenobia. He wonders that she has left Blithedale. Zenobia explains that she cannot commit herself to only one mode of life. Coverdale compares this to Hollingsworth’s obsession with prison reform; Zenobia rebukes him both for criticizing Hollingsworth and for constantly bringing up his name. Priscilla enters the room. She informs Coverdale that Hollingsworth bade her come to the city. Zenobia informs him that they are going out, but she refuses to tell him where they are going. Westervelt enters and escorts the ladies from the boarding house.

Hurt by Zenobia’s rejection, Coverdale decides to look up Old Moodie and see if he can get any information about Priscilla. He goes to a saloon Moodie frequented in the past and does meet Moodie. As they have lunch, Coverdale tries to get Moodie to talk about his youth, but Moodie is hesitant to reveal much. Coverdale does not press him, and eventually Moodie tells the account of the past.

A man whom Moodie calls Fauntleroy was wealthy and respected, married with one daughter. He commits an unnamed crime (worse than murder) and is thrust from society, leaving his wife dying and his daughter orphaned. He makes his way to Boston, where he lives in poverty. He marries a seamstress who dies after giving Fauntleroy another daughter named Priscilla, who is pale and strange. It is rumored that she has the gift of prophecy and second sight. Fauntleroy is now called Old Moodie and is the object of scorn about his daughter’s gifts. One day a handsome stranger arrives and is taken to be a wizard. This “wizard” establishes a connection with Priscilla. In the meantime, Fauntleroy’s elder daughter is reared by her uncle in affluence but is left to develop her own character. This daughter is Zenobia. After her uncle’s death, Zenobia is rumored to be attached to an unprincipled man, but these rumors soon die away, and Zenobia grows up to be an outspoken woman and popular writer and speaker. When she goes to Blithedale, Priscilla follows her because she wants to be near the sister she has only heard about. When Old Moodie summons Zenobia, she thinks her father wants charity from her. He wants nothing from her but her assurance that she will be kind to her sister, Priscilla.

Coverdale is shocked by the revelations of this story and does not return to Blithedale. After having re-established himself in the city for several weeks, he attends a Lyceum presentation featuring the Veiled Lady. He sees Hollingsworth there, who ignores his request for information about Priscilla. The Magician who leads the performance is none other than Westervelt. The Veiled Lady appears but throws off her veil—she is Priscilla, and she rushes to Hollingsworth’s arms.

Coverdale decides to return to Blithedale. He walks the distance but is hesitant to enter the house, so he goes first to his hermitage in the white pine tree. He observes the house but finds no one there. He goes deeper into the woods to find everyone dressed in masquerade. He escapes on being detected and goes to the rock called Eliot’s Pulpit, where he finds Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla. Zenobia and Hollingsworth are arguing. Hollingsworth admits to Zenobia his love for Priscilla, and he forces Priscilla to choose between him and her sister. Priscilla walks toward Zenobia, but Zenobia tells her to go with Hollingsworth. As the couple leaves, Zenobia breaks down and sobs. Finally she notices that Coverdale is present. She gives him the jeweled flower from her hair to be passed on to Priscilla. She tells Coverdale that she intends to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. She then departs and Coverdale falls asleep, but he awakens and finds Zenobia’s handkerchief beside the stream.

Fearing the worst, he goes to the house to awaken Hollingsworth (and unintentionally Silas Foster). He tells them his fears that Zenobia has drowned herself. The three of them eventually find Zenobia’s body underwater, her arms and legs bent in an attitude of prayer. They carry her back to the house, where the women prepare her body for burial. They bury her in the spot where she and Hollingsworth had planned to build their cottage. Coverdale sees that Westervelt attends the funeral, though he is contemptuous of Zenobia for her suicide. Coverdale blames Hollingsworth for Zenobia’s death and cynically asks him if he has reformed any prisoners yet. Hollingsworth replies that he has not because his time has been devoted to one murderer, meaning Zenobia. Coverdale breaks down and feels sorry for Hollingsworth at last.

Coverdale leaves Blithedale forever within a week of Zenobia’s death. In hindsight, he proclaims Blithedale a failure because it forsook its founding principles. Many years have passed, and Coverdale has traveled extensively. In conclusion, Coverdale confesses that it was not Zenobia but Priscilla with whom he was in love.
"Young Goodman Brown"
Author: N. Hawthorne

Summary: "Young Goodman Brown" opens with Young Goodman Brown about to embark on an evening's journey. His young wife, Faith, fearful for some unknown reason, beseeches him to delay his journey. Goodman Brown, however, stresses that he has a task that must be accomplished before sunrise, and so the newlyweds reluctantly part. As he walks down the street, Goodman Brown chides himself for leaving Faith while he goes on his journey and resolves that, after this night, he will stay by the side of his good and pious wife. Pleased with himself, Goodman Brown then hurries through the forest to accomplish some unknown task.

Deeper in the forest Goodman Brown spies an old man, who is actually the Devil in disguise, waiting for him. Goodman Brown blames Faith for making him late. The older man, who has a curious resemblance to Goodman Brown, carries a staff which resembles a black snake. When the older man urges Goodman Brown to take the staff to ease his walk, Goodman Brown expresses second thoughts and his intention to go home. The older man convinces Goodman Brown to walk with him, however, and listen to the reasons why he should continue. Goodman Brown agrees and murmurs that his forefathers, good honest Christians, would never go on such a walk.

To his surprise, Brown finds this is not true. His companion tells him that he is well acquainted with the Brown family and that he helped Brown's father and grandfather commit acts such as the punishment of religious dissenters and the massacre of Indians. While Goodman Brown expresses surprise, his companion continues to speak of the good Christians of New England with whom he is acquainted: deacons, town leaders, even the governor. Goodman Brown is amazed but tells his companion that were he to continue on this journey, he still would not be able to meet the eye of his minister. Hearing this, the older man breaks into a fit of laughter.

The two men then see Goody Cloyse, the old woman who serves as Goodman Brown's moral adviser. Not wanting to explain who he is with and where he is going, Goodman Brown hides in the woods. Again, Goodman Brown is surprised; the woman knows his companion, who has now taken on the appearance of Goodman Brown's grandfather. The two older people talk of a witch's recipe and the meeting that will take place this evening. Goodman Brown realizes that Goody Cloyse is a witch.

The two men continue walking through the forest. At a hollow in the road, Goodman Brown refuses to go any further, declaring he would rather be on the side of Faith than Goody Cloyse. His companion leaves him to think over the matter. Goodman Brown realizes that his decision to stop will enable him to meet his minister and deacon with a clear conscience. As he continues these comforting meditations, a carriage passes by on the road. Two men, who reveal themselves to be the minister and the deacon, speak of the evening's meeting and the young woman who will be joining. After the carriage has passed, Goodman Brown feels faint as he realizes that these men, too, are in communion with the Devil. Now he questions whether or not heaven really exists. Yet his love for Faith gives him the willpower to resist going to the meeting.

While he is lifting his hands to pray, however, he hears Faith's voice. He calls out for her, and she answers with a scream. He realizes that Faith is going to the meeting, and he decides to attend the meeting too because all good is now gone. Soon he reaches a clearing with a crude altar surrounded by the "saints" and "sinners" of Salem. While the Devil's congregation sings an evil hymn rejoicing in sin, Brown waits, hoping that he can find Faith. At a call for the new members he steps forward, and Faith is led forward by two women. A dark figure speaks of sin. He commands the newlyweds to look at each other and then declares that they now know virtue is but a dream and evil is the nature of mankind. Goodman Brown cries out to Faith to resist this evil.

He never finds out, however, if Faith does resist. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Goodman Brown finds himself alone in the forest. The next morning he returns to Salem. Everywhere he goes he sees people who attended the meeting, but he turns away from them. He even turns from Faith.

Though Goodman Brown never finds out whether or not he dreamed the meeting in the forest, the experience still has a profound effect on him. After that night, he becomes a stern, sad, and distrustful man. He rejects the faith he once had in his religion and even rejects his own wife. At his death, no hopeful words are carved upon his tombstone. He has lived a life of gloom, seeing sinners and blasphemers everywhere he looked.

Themes: Guilt vs. Innocence
Hawthorne presents Young Goodman Brown's evening of diabolical revelry as the first and last fling with evil the inexperienced young man ever has. Early in the story, Brown says: "after this one night I'll cling to [Faith's] skirts and follow her to heaven." He believes Faith is an "angel" and one of the Puritan elect who is destined for heaven.

Unfortunately, Brown's experience in the forest makes him reject his previous conviction of the prevailing power of good. He instead embraces the Devil's claim—"Evil is the nature of mankind"— by crying out ''Come, devil: for to thee is this world given." This acknowledgment, fueled by the discovery of hypocrisy in the catechist, clergy, the magistrates of Salem, and his own wife, destroys Brown's faith in the Puritan elect. It also sets the tone for the rest of his life. Critics often view this outcome as an attack by Hawthorne on the unredemptive nature of the Puritan belief system, which holds that people are evil by nature because of original sin.

Alienation vs. Community
Though Brown successfully rejects the Devil in his physical form, he allows sin to reside within him when he rejects his belief in humanity. "Often, awakening suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed at his wife, and turned away." By turning away, Brown becomes the symbolic representation of Hawthorne's belief in the isolation of the human spirit. In Hawthorne's own words, every human being is alone "in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart."

Good vs. Evil
In "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne presents sin as an inescapable part of human nature. The fact that Goodman Brown only has to make his journey into the evil forest once suggests that the spiritual quest is a ritual all humans must undergo at some point in their lives. Brown, however, proves himself incapable of accepting this part of the human condition and cannot move forward with his life as a result.

Faith, on the other hand, makes a leap of love and faith to welcome her husband back with open arms from his inexplicable night away from home. Brown, however, "looks sadly and sternly into her face and passes without greeting." Whereas Faith is able to accept the inevitable fallen nature of humanity and live prosperously with this realization, Brown the absolutist cannot accept this truth, and remains stuck in a state of suspicion and ill feelings. By portraying these two reactions, Hawthorne makes a statement not only about the black-and-white, Puritan view of good and evil, but how evil can take other forms as well.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Author: HB Stowe Genre: Novel: sentimentalism

Characters: Uncle Tom, Aunt Chloe, Emily Shelby, George Shelby, George Harris, Eliza Harris, Augustine st. Clare, Eva, Miss Ophelia, Marie, The Quakers (Rachel), Senator and Mrs. Bird, Tom Loker, MR. Haley, Topsy, Simon Legree, Cassy, Emmeline.

Summary: H aving run up large debts, a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby faces the prospect of losing everything he owns. Though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, have a kindhearted and affectionate relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise money by selling two of his slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave trader. The slaves in question are Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children on the farm, and Harry, the young son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid Eliza. When Shelby tells his wife about his agreement with Haley, she is appalled because she has promised Eliza that Shelby would not sell her son.

However, Eliza overhears the conversation between Shelby and his wife and, after warning Uncle Tom and his wife, Aunt Chloe, she takes Harry and flees to the North, hoping to find freedom with her husband George in Canada. Haley pursues her, but two other Shelby slaves alert Eliza to the danger. She miraculously evades capture by crossing the half-frozen Ohio River, the boundary separating Kentucky from the North. Haley hires a slave hunter named Loker and his gang to bring Eliza and Harry back to Kentucky. Eliza and Harry make their way to a Quaker settlement, where the Quakers agree to help transport them to safety. They are joined at the settlement by George, who reunites joyously with his family for the trip to Canada.

Meanwhile, Uncle Tom sadly leaves his family and Mas’r George, Shelby’s young son and Tom’s friend, as Haley takes him to a boat on the Mississippi to be transported to a slave market. On the boat, Tom meets an angelic little white girl named Eva, who quickly befriends him. When Eva falls into the river, Tom dives in to save her, and her father, Augustine St. Clare, gratefully agrees to buy Tom from Haley. Tom travels with the St. Clares to their home in New Orleans, where he grows increasingly invaluable to the St. Clare household and increasingly close to Eva, with whom he shares a devout Christianity.

Up North, George and Eliza remain in flight from Loker and his men. When Loker attempts to capture them, George shoots him in the side, and the other slave hunters retreat. Eliza convinces George and the Quakers to bring Loker to the next settlement, where he can be healed. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, St. Clare discusses slavery with his cousin Ophelia, who opposes slavery as an institution but harbors deep prejudices against blacks. St. Clare, by contrast, feels no hostility against blacks but tolerates slavery because he feels powerless to change it. To help Ophelia overcome her bigotry, he buys Topsy, a young black girl who was abused by her past master and arranges for Ophelia to begin educating her.

After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. She slowly weakens, then dies, with a vision of heaven before her. Her death has a profound effect on everyone who knew her: Ophelia resolves to love the slaves, Topsy learns to trust and feel attached to others, and St. Clare decides to set Tom free. However, before he can act on his decision, St. Clare is stabbed to death while trying to settle a brawl. As he dies, he at last finds God and goes to be reunited with his mother in heaven.

St. Clare’s cruel wife, Marie, sells Tom to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Tom is taken to rural Louisiana with a group of new slaves, including Emmeline, whom the demonic Legree has purchased to use as a sex slave, replacing his previous sex slave Cassy. Legree takes a strong dislike to Tom when Tom refuses to whip a fellow slave as ordered. Tom receives a severe beating, and Legree resolves to crush his faith in God. Tom meets Cassy, and hears her story. Separated from her daughter by slavery, she became pregnant again but killed the child because she could not stand to have another child taken from her.
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Around this time, with the help of Tom Loker—now a changed man after being healed by the Quakers—George, Eliza, and Harry at last cross over into Canada from Lake Erie and obtain their freedom. In Louisiana, Tom’s faith is sorely tested by his hardships, and he nearly ceases to believe. He has two visions, however—one of Christ and one of Eva—which renew his spiritual strength and give him the courage to withstand Legree’s torments. He encourages Cassy to escape. She does so, taking Emmeline with her, after she devises a ruse in which she and Emmeline pretend to be ghosts. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy and Emmeline have gone, Legree orders his overseers to beat him. When Tom is near death, he forgives Legree and the overseers. George Shelby arrives with money in hand to buy Tom’s freedom, but he is too late. He can only watch as Tom dies a martyr’s death.

Taking a boat toward freedom, Cassy and Emmeline meet George Harris’s sister and travel with her to Canada, where Cassy realizes that Eliza is her long-lost daughter. The newly reunited family travels to France and decides to move to Liberia, the African nation created for former American slaves. George Shelby returns to the Kentucky farm, where, after his father’s death, he sets all the slaves free in honor of Tom’s memory. He urges them to think on Tom’s sacrifice every time they look at his cabin and to lead a pious Christian life, just as Tom did.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Author: Twain Genre: Novel, Realism

Characters: Huck Fin, Tom Sawyer, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, Jim, Pap, The duke and dauphin, judge thatcher, The Grangerfords, Wilks family, Silas and Sally Phelps, Aunt Polly.

Summary: T he Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens by familiarizing us with the events of the novel that preceded it, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Both novels are set in the town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, which lies on the banks of the Mississippi River. At the end of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, a poor boy with a drunken bum for a father, and his friend Tom Sawyer, a middle-class boy with an imagination too active for his own good, found a robber’s stash of gold. As a result of his adventure, Huck gained quite a bit of money, which the bank held for him in trust. Huck was adopted by the Widow Douglas, a kind but stifling woman who lives with her sister, the self-righteous Miss Watson.

As Huckleberry Finn opens, Huck is none too thrilled with his new life of cleanliness, manners, church, and school. However, he sticks it out at the bequest of Tom Sawyer, who tells him that in order to take part in Tom’s new “robbers’ gang,” Huck must stay “respectable.” All is well and good until Huck’s brutish, drunken father, Pap, reappears in town and demands Huck’s money. The local judge, Judge Thatcher, and the Widow try to get legal custody of Huck, but another well-intentioned new judge in town believes in the rights of Huck’s natural father and even takes the old drunk into his own home in an attempt to reform him. This effort fails miserably, and Pap soon returns to his old ways. He hangs around town for several months, harassing his son, who in the meantime has learned to read and to tolerate the Widow’s attempts to improve him. Finally, outraged when the Widow Douglas warns him to stay away from her house, Pap kidnaps Huck and holds him in a cabin across the river from St. Petersburg.

Whenever Pap goes out, he locks Huck in the cabin, and when he returns home drunk, he beats the boy. Tired of his confinement and fearing the beatings will worsen, Huck escapes from Pap by faking his own death, killing a pig and spreading its blood all over the cabin. Hiding on Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River, Huck watches the townspeople search the river for his body. After a few days on the island, he encounters Jim, one of Miss Watson’s slaves. Jim has run away from Miss Watson after hearing her talk about selling him to a plantation down the river, where he would be treated horribly and separated from his wife and children. Huck and Jim team up, despite Huck’s uncertainty about the legality or morality of helping a runaway slave. While they camp out on the island, a great storm causes the Mississippi to flood. Huck and Jim spy a log raft and a house floating past the island. They capture the raft and loot the house, finding in it the body of a man who has been shot. Jim refuses to let Huck see the dead man’s face.

Although the island is blissful, Huck and Jim are forced to leave after Huck learns from a woman onshore that her husband has seen smoke coming from the island and believes that Jim is hiding out there. Huck also learns that a reward has been offered for Jim’s capture. Huck and Jim start downriver on the raft, intending to leave it at the mouth of the Ohio River and proceed up that river by steamboat to the free states, where slavery is prohibited. Several days’ travel takes them past St. Louis, and they have a close encounter with a gang of robbers on a wrecked steamboat. They manage to escape with the robbers’ loot.

During a night of thick fog, Huck and Jim miss the mouth of the Ohio and encounter a group of men looking for escaped slaves. Huck has a brief moral crisis about concealing stolen “property”—Jim, after all, belongs to Miss Watson—but then lies to the men and tells them that his father is on the raft suffering from smallpox. Terrified of the disease, the men give Huck money and hurry away. Unable to backtrack to the mouth of the Ohio, Huck and Jim continue downriver. The next night, a steamboat slams into their raft, and Huck and Jim are separated.

Huck ends up in the home of the kindly Grangerfords, a family of Southern aristocrats locked in a bitter and silly feud with a neighboring clan, the Shepherdsons. The elopement of a Grangerford daughter with a Shepherdson son leads to a gun battle in which many in the families are killed. While Huck is caught up in the feud, Jim shows up with the repaired raft. Huck hurries to Jim’s hiding place, and they take off down the river.

A few days later, Huck and Jim rescue a pair of men who are being pursued by armed bandits. The men, clearly con artists, claim to be a displaced English duke (the duke) and the long-lost heir to the French throne (the dauphin). Powerless to tell two white adults to leave, Huck and Jim continue down the river with the pair of “aristocrats.” The duke and the dauphin pull several scams in the small towns along the river. Coming into one town, they hear the story of a man, Peter Wilks, who has recently died and left much of his inheritance to his two brothers, who should be arriving from England any day. The duke and the dauphin enter the town pretending to be Wilks’s brothers. Wilks’s three nieces welcome the con men and quickly set about liquidating the estate. A few townspeople become skeptical, and Huck, who grows to admire the Wilks sisters, decides to thwart the scam. He steals the dead Peter Wilks’s gold from the duke and the dauphin but is forced to stash it in Wilks’s coffin. Huck then reveals all to the eldest Wilks sister, Mary Jane. Huck’s plan for exposing the duke and the dauphin is about to unfold when Wilks’s real brothers arrive from England. The angry townspeople hold both sets of Wilks claimants, and the duke and the dauphin just barely escape in the ensuing confusion. Fortunately for the sisters, the gold is found. Unfortunately for Huck and Jim, the duke and the dauphin make it back to the raft just as Huck and Jim are pushing off.

After a few more small scams, the duke and dauphin commit their worst crime yet: they sell Jim to a local farmer, telling him Jim is a runaway for whom a large reward is being offered. Huck finds out where Jim is being held and resolves to free him. At the house where Jim is a prisoner, a woman greets Huck excitedly and calls him “Tom.” As Huck quickly discovers, the people holding Jim are none other than Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, Silas and Sally Phelps. The Phelpses mistake Huck for Tom, who is due to arrive for a visit, and Huck goes along with their mistake. He intercepts Tom between the Phelps house and the steamboat dock, and Tom pretends to be his own younger brother, Sid.

Tom hatches a wild plan to free Jim, adding all sorts of unnecessary obstacles even though Jim is only lightly secured. Huck is sure Tom’s plan will get them all killed, but he complies nonetheless. After a seeming eternity of pointless preparation, during which the boys ransack the Phelps’s house and make Aunt Sally miserable, they put the plan into action. Jim is freed, but a pursuer shoots Tom in the leg. Huck is forced to get a doctor, and Jim sacrifices his freedom to nurse Tom. All are returned to the Phelps’s house, where Jim ends up back in chains.

When Tom wakes the next morning, he reveals that Jim has actually been a free man all along, as Miss Watson, who made a provision in her will to free Jim, died two months earlier. Tom had planned the entire escape idea all as a game and had intended to pay Jim for his troubles. Tom’s Aunt Polly then shows up, identifying “Tom” and “Sid” as Huck and Tom. Jim tells Huck, who fears for his future—particularly that his father might reappear—that the body they found on the floating house off Jackson’s Island had been Pap’s. Aunt Sally then steps in and offers to adopt Huck, but Huck, who has had enough “sivilizing,” announces his plan to set out for the West.
"The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story"
Author: JC Harris

First Published: 1880
Type of Plot: Animal tale
Time of Work: An age when animals talk
Setting: The South
Characters: Uncle Remus, Miss Sally's son, Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit
Genres: Fable, Short fiction
Subjects: Mythology or myths, Psychology or psychologists, Sociology, Animals
Locales: South (U.S.)
The Story
“The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” is only one of the many tales that Uncle Remus tells Miss Sally's son, but it is perhaps the most loved and most remembered. The story begins with the boy asking whether Brer Rabbit ever gets caught. Uncle Remus proceeds to recount one of the wiley rabbit's closest calls.

His nemesis, Brer Fox, still smarting over being fooled again by Brer Rabbit, mixes tar and turpentine to make a tar-baby. He sets his creation, which indeed looks like a little black figure wearing a hat, beside the road and hides himself in the bushes not far away. Soon Brer Rabbit comes walking down the road and stops in his tracks when he sees the tar-baby. He speaks to it, asks it questions, accuses it of being hard-of-hearing and impolite, and finally yells at it. The tar-baby, of course, says nothing, and Brer Fox stays hidden in the bushes, chuckling quietly to himself. Losing his temper, Brer Rabbit hits the tar-baby, first with one fist, then the other. With both hands stuck in the tar, he kicks it with both feet, getting them stuck as well. In desperation, he butts it with his head, which also sticks firmly in the soft tar. Now Brer Fox emerges from the bushes, laughing so hard at Brer Rabbit's plight that he rolls on the ground.

At this point, Uncle Remus stops his tale to remove a large yam from the ashes. When the boy asks if the fox ate the rabbit, he tells him that the story does not say exactly, although some say that Brer B’ar came along and released the rabbit. Anxious readers will be relieved to know that this dilemma is resolved in a later story, “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox,” and that Brer Rabbit does indeed escape.

This second installment with its resolution to the first is often considered an integral part of “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and, thus, should be summarized here as well. Uncle Remus begins by indicting Brer Rabbit as a scoundrel, mixed up in all kinds of shady business. He rejoins the tar-baby story as Brer Fox gleefully celebrates his capture of the wiley rabbit with the help of the still silent tar-baby. He then tries to decide how to kill him. He considers the merits of barbecuing, hanging, drowning, and skinning. Brer Rabbit professes to be in favor of any of these solutions so long as the fox does not throw him into the nearby brier patch. This reverse psychology finally sinks in, and the fox, wanting to do whatever Brer Rabbit would hate the most, flings him by his hind legs into the middle of the brier patch. A few minutes later, the unscathed rabbit jeers from the hill, “Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch.” He cheerfully leaves the scene. Reading these two stories together gives a sense of completion and closure both for Miss Sally's son and the reader. “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and “How the Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox” allow Brer Rabbit to fool Brer Fox once again, an important theme in almost all the Uncle Remus tales.

Themes and Meanings
The meanings in “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” range from a simple bit of moral advice about not losing one's temper and not having too much pride to complex interpretations from mythology, folklore, psychology, and sociology. On one level, the clever rabbit is an obvious persona for the black slave; inventive, sly, wise, and successful, the physically inferior rabbit inevitably triumphs over the strong, slower, more stupid animals, especially Brer Fox, a worthy opponent, as seen in this story. In Brer Rabbit's world, the weak at least have a chance. The story of the tar-baby, however, offers an interesting variation on the idea of the slave's identification with Brer Rabbit, for the rabbit demands respect from the black tar-baby as the whites expected it from the blacks. This role reversal lets the reader turn against Brer Rabbit and root for the silent tar-baby. In the conclusion, however, the reader once again applauds Brer Rabbit and his clever escape.

“The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” is not only an entertaining fable for children but also an insightful glimpse into the history, psychology, and folklore of plantation slaves. The lines between black and white, good and evil, comedy and tragedy are blurred and changing. Brer Rabbit, hero and rogue, and Brer Fox, villain and benefactor, meet before the silent audience of the tar-baby (whose role is also ambiguous), shift roles, and rearrange themselves again into the traditional, unresolved conflict between the strong and the clever, the powerful and the powerless.

Style and Technique
Joel Chandler Harris combines journalistic integrity and an ear for African-American dialect to reproduce authentic oral tradition in print. The tales themselves are remnants or at least reproductions of the tale-telling traditions prevalent in West Africa, yet this story reflects the social experience and historical perspective of African Americans defining themselves through the trickster hero, Brer Rabbit. It is neither the content nor the interpretation of the meaning but the dialect that may cause initial difficulty in reading this story. Harris attempted to reproduce the story the way he remembered hearing it. It was a “language” he knew well, but one that is difficult to read. Read aloud by someone who knows the dialect, however, it is clear and easy to follow.

The dialectal spelling and sentence structure are only two of the stylistic techniques noticeable in this story. The framework of the story-teller, Uncle Remus, and the small boy, there to ask questions, removes the story from direct contact with the reader; thus, the racial message is rendered less threatening. At the same time, this setting provides a context that makes the story more accessible. Miss Sally, the yams cooking in the ashes, the old black man, and the little white boy sharing secrets provide a background for a story about talking animals. The participant-observer quality of the author provides an authentic writing style that is unique to Joel Chandler Harris. “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” is a blend of humor, pathos, and realism, far more than simply a children's story.
"How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox"
Author: JC Harris

IV. TRANSLATION - How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox
This is the second part of the Tar-Baby story - the famous briar patch escape. The characters are, as the title says, only Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox.



"Uncle Remus," said the little boy one evening, when he had found the old man with little or nothing to do, "did the fox kill and eat the rabbit when he caught him with the Tar-Baby?"

"Law, honey, ain't I tell you 'bout that??" replied the old darkey*, chuckling slyly. "I declare to gracious I ought to have told you that, but old man Nod was ridin' on my eyelids until a little mre and I'd have disremembered my own name, and then on to that here comes your mammy hollerin' after you.

"What I tell you when I first begin? I told you Brer Rabbit was a monstrous soon(?) creature: leastways that's what I laid out for to tell you. Well, then, honey, don't you go and make no other calculations, 'cause in them days Brer Rabbit and his family was at the head of the gang when any racket was on hand, and there they stayed. Before you begin for to wipe your eyes about Brer Rabbit you want and see whereabouts Brer Rabbit going to fetch up at. But that's neither here nor there.

"When Brer Fox find Brer Rabbit mixed up with the Tar-Baby, he feel mighty good, and he roll on the ground and laugh. By and by he up and say, says he:

"'Well, I expect I got you this time, Brer Rabbit, says he; 'maybe I ain't, but I expect I is. You been runnin' around here sassin' after me a mighty long time, but I expect you done come to the end of the row. You been cuttin' up yo' capers and bouncin' around in this neighborhood until you come to believe yourself the boss of the whole gang. End then you are always somewhere where you got no business,' sez brer Fox, says he. 'Who asked you for to come and strike up acquaintance with this here Tar-Baby? And who stuck you up there where you is? Nobody in the round world. You just took and jam yourslf on that Tar-Baby without waitin' for any invite,' says Brer Fox, says hee, 'and there you is, and there you'll stay til I fixes up a brush-pile and fires her up, 'cause I'm going to barbecue you this day, sure,' says Brer Fox, says he.

"Then Brer Rabbit talk mighty humble:

"'I don't care what you do with me, Brer Fox,' says he, 'so you don't fling me in that briar-patch,' says he.

"'It's so much trouble for to kinde a fire,' says Brer Fox, says he, 'that I expect I'll have to hang you,' says he.

"'Hang me just as high as you please, Brer Fox,' says Brer Rabbit, says he, 'but do for the Lord's sake, don't fling me in that briar-patch,' says he.

"' I ain't got no string,' says Brer Fox, says he, 'and now I expect I'll have to drown you,' says he.

"'Drown me just as deep as you please, Brer Fox,' says Brer Rabbit, says he, 'but don't fling me in that briar-patch,' says he.

"' There ain't no water nigh,' says Brer Fox, says he, ' and now I expect I'll have to skin you,' says he.

"'Skin me, Brer Fox,' says Brer Rabbit, says he, 'snatch out my eyeballs, tear out my ears by the roots, and cut off my legs,' says he, 'but do please, Brer Fox, don't fling e in that briar-patch,' says he.

"' 'Course Brer Fox want to hurt Brer Rabbit bad as he can, so he caught him by the behind legs and slung him in the middle of the briar-patch. There was a considerable flutter where Brer Rabbit struck the bushes, and Brer Fox sort of hang around for to see what was going to happen. By and by he hear somebody call him, and way up the hill he see Brer Rabbit settin'cross-legged on a chinkapin (?) log, combing the pitch out of his hair with a chip. Then Brer Fox know that he been swapped off mighty bad. Brer Rabbit was bleedzed (pleased?) for to fling back some of his sass, and he holler out:

"'Bred and born in a briar-patch, Brer Fox - bred and born in a briar-patch!' and with that, he skip out just as lively as a cricket in the embers."
The Awakening
Author: K. Chopin Genre: novel, regionalism

Characters: Edna Pontellier—The protagonist of the novel, she is a 28-year-old married woman with children who yearns for more out of life.

Leonce Pontellier—Edna’s husband; He is, by all accounts, a good man, but he treats Edna like a possession rather than an equal.

Madame Lebrun—The owner of the resort at Grand Isle where the Pontellier family spends their summers.

Robert Lebrun—The 26-year-old son of Madame Lebrun; He and Edna fall in love.

Adele Ratignolle—A friend of Edna’s; She is a beautiful woman who is devoted to her husband and children. She is pregnant and gives birth during the book.

Mademoiselle Reisz—A loner at Grand Isle, she is a gifted pianist who becomes very close to Edna.

The Farival Twins—Two young guests at Grand Isle who play the piano for the entertainment of the other guests.

Monsieur Farival—Grandfather of the twins.

Raoul and Etienne—The Pontellier’s two young children.

Victor Lebrun—The younger brother of Robert.

Mariequita—A “mischievous,” carefree Spanish girl who works at Grand Isle.

The Lovers—A young, unmarried couple who are oblivious to all but themselves.

Celestine—The Pontellier’s servant.

Baudelet—An old sailor who takes people by boat to Mass at Cheniere Caminada.

Madame Antoine—A fat village woman at Cheniere Caminada whose house Edna stays in when she feels ill.

Tonie—The son of Madame Antoine.

Dr. Mandelet—A good doctor who tries to help Edna.

Alcee Arobin—A young man-about-town with whom Edna has an affair.

The Highcamps and the Merrimans—Society people who are friends of Edna’s.

The Colonel—Edna’s father.

Summary: Grand Isle
The Awakening opens at the summer resort of Grand Isle, a small hotel located fifty miles off of the coast of New Orleans. Grand Isle is populated by well-to-do families escaping the blistering New Orleans heat. The action begins as Léonce Pontellier, the husband of the novel's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, sits on the porch of his cottage reading his day-old newspaper. Léonce is a self-important man who accepts as his due the deference of others to his perceived superiority. As Léonce sits on the porch, his wife returns from the beach with Robert Lebrun, the son of the resort owner. After some bantering between Robert and Edna about their trip to the beach, which Léonce does not find amusing, Léonce leaves for his club to play billiards. He invites Robert to join him, but the younger man declines the invitation, choosing instead to remain with Edna. Robert prefers the company of women, choosing to spend the long summer afternoons reading to the married ladies and playing with their children, rather than pursuing the more manly endeavors of working in the city or socializing at the local men's club. Each summer, Robert "constitutes himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel," but always chooses women who are safe—either girls who are too young to marry or matrons.

Edna does not fit in with the Grand Isle crowd. She is the only person at the hotel who is not a Creole, and she is embarrassed by the Creole society's openness on subjects such as sex and childbirth. Edna's discomfort with the Creole community is aggravated by a growing dissatisfaction with her socially-prescribed role as a "mother-woman," a role which assumes that she will be completely fulfilled by caring for her husband and children. Instead of experiencing this fulfillment, Edna is restless and subject to spells of depression that she does not understand. Edna's performance of her motherly duties does not satisfy her husband, either. On more than one occasion, he berates her for neglecting their children, and for being unconcerned about keeping up social appearances. For example, when Léonce returns from his club late one evening, he awakens Edna, telling her that one of their young sons has a fever. Edna believes that the child is perfectly well, since she had only put him to bed a few hours before. When Edna does not immediately spring from her bed to minister to her son, Léonce accuses her of neglect. Edna's response is to cry long after her husband has smoked a cigar and gone to bed. Léonce's scoldings, however, begin to lose their effectiveness as the story progresses. The more Léonce chastizes Edna for her shortcomings, the more resentful she becomes until she finally dismisses his complaints altogether.

Edna's feelings of boredom grow, and the more restless she becomes, the more she finds herself drawn to Robert. The two become nearly inseparable, sitting together and talking in the afternoons, going to the beach to swim, and taking boat trips to neighboring islands. As Edna's infatuation with Robert becomes obvious, one of Edna's friends, Adèle Ratignolle, warns Robert to stop flirting with Edna, because she is not like the Creole women with whom Robert has flirted in the past. Adèle tells Robert that Edna is different because she might make the mistake of taking him seriously. Robert becomes angry at the suggestion that he is not a man who a woman should take seriously, but retreats from his position when Adèle reminds him that should he allow himself to become involved with a married woman, he would not be worthy of the trust that the families at Grand Isle place in him. Adèle's warning may ultimately precipitate Robert's premature departure from Grand Isle.

Edna's restlessness leads to a series of emotional awakenings from which she begins to gain a sense of the parts of her life that she must cast off. These awakenings cause her to try to break away from the traditional role of wife and mother that turn-of-the-century society prescribed for women. Her first awakening occurs in chapter nine, when she listens to the artist Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. Edna is "fond of music" because it allows her to enjoy pleasant mental images. She sits on the edge of the gallery during a gathering of all the vacationers. In this scene, she is poised on the edge of two worlds, the family-centered world of Creole society, and the enticing gulf, with its "mystic moon" which "speaks to the soul." The "voice of the sea" exerts a strong influence in Edna throughout the novel, offering a salve to her restless spirit and "inviting" her "to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude" in an attempt to fulfill her inner self. As Edna sits looking out over the gulf and listening to the strains of Mademoiselle Reisz's haunting music, Edna experiences the "first passion of her life." Her awakening becomes apparent later in the evening as she effortlessly swims for the first time. Edna has tried to learn to swim all summer but has no success until after her awakening.

Following her initial awakening, Edna begins to depart from the prescribed "mother-woman" role. She returns to her family's cottage after her swim, drained and tired after experiencing both the "unlimited" in which her "excited fancy" wished to "lose itself," and a momentary flash of terror that she would be unable to regain the shore. Robert accompanies her to her cottage, where Edna reclines in a hammock, and Robert remains with her until the other bathers return from the beach. As he leaves, Edna experiences the "first-felt throbbings of desire" for him. She remains in the hammock after Léonce returns from the beach, despite his insistent demands that she enter the house and go to bed. She tells him to leave her alone, tired of his rude commands, and finally tells him that he should "not speak to [her] that way again" as she "shall not answer." Only after her husband seats himself outside with her, smoking the cigars which are symbols of his overbearing masculinity, does Edna enter the house.

The next morning, Edna summons Robert, inviting him to accompany her to a nearby island, the Chênière Caminada. While attending mass at the Chênière, Edna becomes ill. Robert takes her to the home of Madame Antoine, who offers Edna a place to rest. Later in the evening, Mme. Antoine tells stories of lovers and pirates that are so real to Edna that she can hear the "whispering voices of dead men and the clink of muffled gold." As they return to Grand Isle late that night, Edna and Robert lay plans for other excursions together, and their conversation implies that they are each considering embarking on an affair. Shortly after their trip to the Chênière, however, Robert suddenly decides to leave Grand Isle and go to Vera Cruz to seek his fortune with a family friend. Shocked by his abrupt departure, Edna begins to realize the depth of her feelings for Robert. He bids her a cold and distant farewell, which, coupled with his "unkind" departure, sends Edna into a depression from which she never fully recovers.

New Orleans
At the end of the summer, the Pontelliers return to their fashionable homes in New Orleans. Edna's malaise deepens, leading her to ignore her household responsibilities in favor of "lending herself to any passing caprice." Edna neglects the supervision of the servants, leading to unpalatable meals. She paints and refuses to keep her "at home" days, demonstrating a general disregard for society's conventions. When Léonce chastises Edna for "letting the housekeeping go to the dickens," she does not become upset like she used to. Instead she tells Léonce to leave her alone because he "bothers" her. She begins roaming through the streets of New Orleans, on some days feeling happy and content, and on others feeling "unhappy, she did not know why—when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead." The change in Edna becomes obvious to everyone around her, including her father when he comes to New Orleans for an extended visit. Edna in "some way doesn't seem like the same woman."

In the midst of Edna's turmoil, Léonce departs on an extended business trip. During his absence, Edna sends her children to stay with their maternal grandmother and continues to live for herself. She begins attending the races and other social outings with Mrs. Highcamp, whom her husband has discouraged her from socializing with, and Alcée Arobin, with whom she ultimately has an affair. She decides to move from her husband's home into a house around the corner, which is dubbed the "pigeon house" because it is so tiny. Before she leaves Léonce's home, Edna hosts an elaborate dinner party for a selected few of her friends. She is the consummate hostess, making even the irascible Mlle. Reisz content, until Robert's brother, Victor, begins singing a song that poignantly reminds her of Robert. The lethargy that she has suffered from since the previous summer once again falls over her, and when the young man refuses to stop singing the song, she becomes agitated and cries out for him to quit. The party breaks up quickly after her outburst. Léonce is horrified at her flaunting of societal conventions, but rather than casting her out, he covers her social faux pas by making a grand spectacle of remodeling the family home.

Edna misses Robert sorely after his departure from Grand Isle, yet it is only in the presence of Mlle. Reisz—"that personality which was offensive to her," but whose "divine art" reached Edna's spirit and "set it free"—that she admits that she is in love with the younger man. Edna experiences a second epiphany as a result of Mlle. Reisz. As she continues to slide into despair during the New Orleans winter, Edna decides to find Mlle. Reisz. She begins spending time with the artist, listening to her play the piano. Upon learning that Robert has been writing to Mlle. Reisz, she begs for news of the young man. After Robert returns to New Orleans, Edna inadvertently meets him at Mlle. Reisz's apartment; again, Mlle. Reisz unwittingly acts as a catalyst for Edna's emerging sense of what she must do to ease her restlessness. Edna discovers that the young man has been avoiding her, and although they go to a cafe to have some coffee, they part on strained terms. They later meet, again by coincidence as Robert has continued to avoid Edna, in a garden coffeehouse, and this time he accompanies her to the pigeon house. Edna confesses her love and passion for Robert very openly, telling him that they will "love each other." Just as they are on the verge of becoming intimate, however, Edna is called away to attend Adèle who is giving birth to her fourth child. Robert begs Edna not to leave, but Edna feels compelled to sit with her friend. She leaves, promising to return shortly.

Edna finds Adèle's ordeal exhausting and emotionally draining, and as she leaves Adèle's bedside, the attending physician recognizes her turmoil. He speaks of the tricks that nature plays in order to get "mothers for the race," and invites Edna to come and speak with him about what is troubling her. Still distressed by Adèle's pain, Edna returns to the pigeon house, expecting to find Robert. Instead, she finds a note which says "Good bye— because I love you. Good bye."

Return to Grand Isle
Edna spends the remainder of the night lying on her sofa, thinking. In the morning, she goes to Grand Isle. She encounters Victor, and tells him that she is going to the beach for a swim. She requests that he find some lunch for her. She then goes down to the beach, strips her clothes from her body, and "stands as a newborn creature under the sky." She walks into the gulf, which again "speaks to the soul, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." She swims out quite far, not realizing until it is too late that she has no strength to return to the shore. She drowns in the gulf, remembering key events from her life, and through her death becomes one with the sea which has so affected her.

Solitude as the Consequence of Independence

For Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, independence and solitude are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. During her gradual awakening, Edna discovers her own identity and acknowledges her emotional and sexual desires.

Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time, she discovers her own strength, and through her pursuit of her painting she is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially acceptable existence.

Ultimately, the passion that Robert feels for Edna is not strong enough to join the lovers in a true union of minds, since although Robert’s passion is strong enough to make him feel torn between his love and his sense of moral rectitude, it is not strong enough to make him decide in favor of his love. The note Robert leaves for Edna makes clear to Edna the fact that she is ultimately alone in her awakening. Once Robert refuses to trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.

The Implications of Self-Expression

Edna’s discovery of ways to express herself leads to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions. During her awakening, Edna learns at least three new “languages.” First, she learns the mode of expression of the Creole women on Grand Isle. Despite their chastity, these women speak freely and share their emotions openly. Their frankness initially shocks Edna, but she soon finds it liberating. Edna learns that she can face her emotions and sexuality directly, without fear. Once her Creole friends show her that it is okay to speak and think about one’s own feelings, Edna begins to acknowledge, name, define, and articulate her emotions.

Edna also learns to express herself through art. This lesson occurs in Chapter IX, when Edna hears Mademoiselle Reisz perform on the piano. Whereas previously music had called up images to her mind, the mademoiselle’s piano playing stirs her in a deeper way: “she saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body.” As the music ceases to conjure up images in Edna’s mind, it becomes for Edna a sort of call to something within herself. Additionally, Mademoiselle Reisz has felt that she and Edna have been communicating through the music: noting Edna’s “agitation,” she says that Edna is “the only one” at the party who is “worth playing for.” Once Edna is aware of music’s power to express emotion, she begins to paint as she has never painted before. Painting ceases to be a diversion and becomes instead a form of true expression.

From Robert and Alcée, Edna learns how to express the love and passion she has kept secret for so long. As with her other processes of language-learning, Edna finds that once she learns the “vocabulary” with which to express her needs and desires, she is better able to define them for herself. A pattern emerges—Edna can learn a language from a person but then surpass her teacher’s use of her newfound form of expression. For example, while Adèle teaches her that they can be open with one another, Edna soon wants to apply this frankness to all areas of her life. And although Robert helps to teach her the language of sexuality, she wants to speak this language loudly, as it were, while Robert still feels social pressure to whisper.

As Edna’s ability to express herself grows, the number of people who can understand her newfound languages shrinks. Ultimately, Edna’s suicide is linked to a dearth of people who can truly understand and empathize with her. Especially after Robert’s rejection of her in Chapter XXXVIII, Edna is convinced definitively of her essential solitude because the language of convention Robert speaks has become incomprehensible to Edna. Although Robert has taught her the language of sexuality, Edna has become too fluent. In this dilemma, Edna mirrors the parrot in Chapter I, which speaks French and “a little Spanish” but “also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird. . . .” The mockingbird, which merely whistles inarticulate “fluty notes” with “maddening persistence,” resembles Edna’s friends who seem to understand Edna but do not speak back.



Throughout The Awakening, the manner in which each of the characters uses and understands music gives us a sense of Edna’s ideological alignment in relation to the novel’s other characters. Additionally, Edna’s exploration of music and her meditations upon its significance enable her own (visual) art to flourish. Edna first learns about the emotive power of music from Mademoiselle Reisz. Whereas Adèle Ratignolle’s piano playing had merely conjured sentimental pictures for Edna, the older woman’s playing stirs new feelings and probes unexplored emotional territories in her. Mademoiselle Reisz uses music as a form of artistic expression, not merely as a way of entertaining others. In contrast to Mademoiselle Reisz, the Farival twins play the piano purely for the sake of the gathered company. The twins’ association with the Virgin Mary, and, hence, with a destiny of chaste motherliness, links them thematically with notions of how Victorian women should behave. Their piano playing—entertaining but not provocative, pleasant but not challenging—similarly serves as the model for how women should use art. It becomes clear that, for a Victorian woman, the use of art as a form of self-exploration and self-articulation constitutes a rebellion. Correspondingly, Mademoiselle Reisz’s use of music situates her as a nonconformist and a sympathetic confidante for Edna’s awakening.

The difference Edna detects between the piano-playing of Mademoiselle Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle seems also to testify to Edna’s emotional growth. She reaches a point in her awakening in which she is able to hear what a piece of music says to her, rather than idly inventing random pictures to accompany the sounds. Thus, music, or Edna’s changing reactions to it, also serves to help the reader locate Edna in her development.


Images of children, and verbal allusions to them, occur throughout the novel. Edna herself is often metaphorically related to a child. In her awakening, she is undergoing a form of rebirth as she discovers the world from a fresh, childlike, perspective. Yet Edna’s childishness has a less admirable side. Edna becomes self-absorbed, she disregards others, and she fails to think realistically about the future or to meditate on her the consequences of her actions.

Ultimately, Edna’s thoughts of her children inspire her to commit suicide, because she realizes that no matter how little she depends on others, her children’s lives will always be affected by society’s opinion of her. Moreover, her children represent an obligation that, unlike Edna’s obligation to her husband, is irrevocable. Because children are so closely linked to Edna’s suicide, her increasing allusions to “the little lives” of her children prefigure her tragic end.


Edna stays in many houses in The Awakening: the cottages on Grand Isle, Madame Antoine’s home on the Chênière Caminada, the big house in New Orleans, and her “pigeon house.” Each of these houses serves as a marker of her progress as she undergoes her awakening. Edna is expected to be a “mother-woman” on Grand Isle, and to be the perfect social hostess in New Orleans. While she is living in the cottage on Grand Isle and in the big house in New Orleans, Edna maintains stays within the “walls” of these traditional roles and does not look beyond them.

However, when she and Robert slip away to the Chênière Caminada, their temporary rest in Madame Antoine’s house symbolizes the shift that Edna has undergone. Staying in the house, Edna finds herself in a new, romantic, and foreign world. It is as though the old social structures must have disappeared, and on this new island Edna can forget the other guests on Grand Isle and create a world of her own. Significantly, Madame Antoine’s house serves only as a temporary shelter—it is not a “home.” Edna’s newfound world of liberty is not a place where she can remain.

The “pigeon house” does allow Edna to be both at “home” and independent. Once she moves to the pigeon house, Edna no longer has to look at the material objects that Léonce has purchased and with which Edna equates herself. She can behave as she likes, without regard to how others will view her actions. In the end, however, the little house will prove not to be the solution Edna expected. While it does provide her with independence and isolation, allowing her to progress in her sexual awakening and to escape the gilded cage that Léonce’s house constituted, Edna finds herself cooped anew, if less extravagantly. The fact that her final house resembles those used to keep domesticated pigeons does not bode well for Edna’s fate. In the end, feeling alternately an exile and a prisoner, she is “at home” nowhere. Only in death can she hope to find the things a home offers—respite, privacy, shelter, and comfort.



In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna’s entrapment and also of the entrapment of Victorian women in general. Madame Lebrun’s parrot and mockingbird represent Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women’s movements are limited (by society), and they are unable to communicate with the world around them. The novel’s “winged” women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly.

Edna’s attempts to escape her husband, children, and society manifest this arrested flight, as her efforts only land her in another cage: the pigeon house. While Edna views her new home as a sign of her independence, the pigeon house represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her just “two steps away.” Mademoiselle Reisz instructs Edna that she must have strong wings in order to survive the difficulties she will face if she plans to act on her love for Robert. She warns: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

Critics who argue that Edna’s suicide marks defeat, both individually and for women, point out the similar wording of the novel’s final example of bird imagery: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” If, however, the bird is not a symbol of Edna herself, but rather of Victorian womanhood in general, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna’s suicide.

The Sea

The sea in The Awakening symbolizes freedom and escape. It is a vast expanse that Edna can brave only when she is solitary and only after she has discovered her own strength. When in the water, Edna is reminded of the depth of the universe and of her own position as a human being within that depth. The sensuous sound of the surf constantly beckons and seduces Edna throughout the novel.

Water’s associations with cleansing and baptism make it a symbol of rebirth. The sea, thus, also serves as a reminder of the fact that Edna’s awakening is a rebirth of sorts. Appropriately, Edna ends her life in the sea: a space of infinite potential becomes a blank and enveloping void that carries both a promise and a threat. In its sublime vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.
Sister Carrie
Author: T. Dreiser

Characters: Carrie Meeber, Charlie Drouet, George Hurstwood, George Hurstwood Jr., Jessica Hurstwood, Julia Hurstwood, Fitzgerald and Moy, Hanson, Minnie, Mr. and Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Vance, Mr. Ames, Lola, The captain,

Summary: Sister Carrie opens in 1889 with eighteenyear- old Caroline Meeber on her way from her small hometown to the big city of Chicago. She is frightened to leave home, but determined to make her way in the city. An attractive, yet naive young woman, Carrie finds herself in the company of Charles Drouet, a “drummer,” or traveling salesman. Drouet, well dressed and flashy, engages Carrie in a long conversation. When they part at the train station, they agree to meet the following week in Chicago.

After Drouet leaves, Carrie, feeling alone and bereft in this big city, waits for her sister Minnie to meet her at the station. Carrie will stay with Minnie and her husband Sven Hanson, who live in a small, meagerly furnished apartment. They expect Carrie’s wages to help them make their rent payments. Carrie sits in their rocking chair sorting out her thoughts—a position of repose she will often repeat throughout the novel. Realizing how small the apartment is, Carrie then writes to Drouet telling him she cannot see him because there is no room for visitors.

Carrie finally finds a job but the wages are low and when she wants to go to the theatre or enjoy life in the city, her sister disapproves. Carrie’s job on the assembly line is dreadful and nearly all her wages go to her sister at the end of each week. Without enough money to buy warm clothes, when the cold weather comes she turns ill and loses her job. When Carrie recovers from her illness she searches for a new job, but without much success. By accident, she bumps into Drouet, who gives her twenty dollars for new clothes; when she decides to leave her sister’s home, Drouet establishes her in a furnished room of her own in another part of the city. After several days of sightseeing and shopping, Carrie and Drouet begin living together.

Drouet invites his friend George Hurstwood, the manager of a prosperous saloon, to visit their home. The visit goes well for Carrie and Hurstwood, who is unhappy with his home life. They seem attracted to each other and Drouet suffers by comparison with the older man. Carrie continues to interest Hurstwood and he decides to pursue her when he sees Drouet out with another woman. When he turns his full attention to courting Carrie he ignores his own wife and family.

Meanwhile, Drouet promises his lodge brothers that he will find an actress for their upcoming stage show. He convinces Carrie to take the part. Although the other actors are not good, Carrie herself rises to the occasion and turns in an excellent performance. This renews both Drouet’s and Hurstwood’s interest in her; Carrie agrees to leave Drouet if Hurstwood will marry her and he agrees. Hurstwood’s wife, aware of the affair with Carrie, hounds him for money and begins divorce proceedings. At the time the novel is set, a man exposed as an adulterer would not only lose his marriage, he would also lose his job and social standing in the community. As Hurstwood ponders what his next step should be, he discovers a large sum of money in the saloon’s safe and steals it. He then goes to Carrie telling her that Drouet has been injured and persuades her to board a train that will supposedly take her to Drouet. However, once on board, Hurstwood reveals his true purpose.
Carrie and Hurstwood marry illegally under the assumed name of Wheeler and move to New York City. Carrie soon comes to realize that she does not love Hurstwood, and has used him to escape her life in Chicago. Nonetheless, she stays and keeps house for Hurstwood, who buys an interest in a New York saloon. As the years pass, their routine becomes predictable and monotonous, and Carrie grows increasingly discontented with her shabby clothes and frugal lifestyle.

Mrs. Vance, an elegant and wealthy woman who befriends Carrie, begins to take her to the theatre and helps her pick out new clothes. Carrie then meets Mrs. Vance’s cousin, Bob Ames, who convinces her that wealth is not necessarily the means to all happiness. Carrie comes to see Ames as the ideal man.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood grows older and more depressed. He loses the lease on his business and spends his days in hotel lobbies, watching the rich and famous pass by him. This, and reading the morning and afternoon papers, comprise his entire routine. When money grows increasingly scarce the couple move into a cheaper apartment and Hurstwood gambles away the last of their cash.

Carrie then decides to find a job in the theatre. Under the name Carrie Madenda, she takes a job in a chorus line at the Casino theatre and is soon promoted and earning good money. Preferring to spend her time with theatre friends, Carrie increasingly stays away from the apartment and Hurstwood.

Hurstwood eventually finds work as a scab, working on a Brooklyn trolley line where workers are striking. Although he is not seriously wounded, he is shot and beaten but the experience causes him to sink ever deeper into depression. On the other hand, Carrie wins a speaking part in her show and earns more money. She is tired of supporting Hurstwood, and leaves him.

Carrie’s career continues to grow. She moves into a new hotel with her friend Lola Osborne and lives the life she has always dreamed yet still finds herself unhappy. Meanwhile, Hurstwood continues to sink. He works in a hotel as an errand boy where he catches pneumonia and takes many months in the hospital to recover.

Around this time, Drouet appears, hoping to win Carrie back, but sees that she has changed and they are no longer on the same level. Following Drouet’s appearance, Hurstwood approaches Carrie after a performance asking for money. She gives him all that she has with her. Finally, when Ames comes to New York, telling her she ought to consider other roles, she becomes troubled. Carrie takes to her rocker, where she rocks and trys to sort through her life.

In the final chapter, Dreiser briefly revisits his characters. Hurstwood is now a homeless, itinerant man whose mind has gone. Carrie can be seen reading a serious novel—one that Ames recommends. And Drouet is in the lobby of a grand hotel. Dreiser also describes the Hurstwood family on their way to a vacation in Italy and then returns to Hurstwood himself and the final scene where he commits sui- cide in a Bowery flophouse by turning on the gas jet and going to sleep.

American Dream
Each of Dreiser’s characters in Sister Carrie search for their own “American Dreams”—the ones offered by a growing and prosperous democratic country. Carrie, a poor country girl, arrives in Chicago, filled with the expectations of acquiring the finer things in life. She imagines the elegant clothes she will wear, the exciting places to which she will go, and the fashionable people with whom she will associate, thinking that everyone who lives beyond the boundaries of her Midwestern state has achieved that higher status. Drouet seeks his own version of the American Dream. He has achieved a certain station in life and wears the clothes to prove it. He frequents the important establishments in town and has befriended many of the right people. Yet, he pursues the other appointments that represent his dream, such as a beautiful woman to adorn his arm and his own home. Hurstwood has the woman, the established home and family, and a good position. He, though, wants more. He knows that his employers leave him out of important decision making, and he knows his friends like him for his position. He seeks love, appreciation, and more prestige.

Change and Transformation
Carrie and Hurstwood undergo dramatic changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. Though gradual, their transformations create immediate repercussions along the way. Carrie’s metamorphosis takes her from country bumpkin to glamorous actress. In her wake, she leaves her disillusioned sister, an angry suitor, and a brokendown man. Hurstwood’s transition moves him from prominent and trusted businessman, husband, and father to homeless street beggar. Behind him survive robbed employers, a dysfunctional family, and a self-satisfied woman.

Choices and Consequences
Hurstwood makes one choice that dramatically affects the rest of his life. While all choices result in consequences, those consequences can be positive or negative. Hurstwood’s decision to take the money from his employer’s safe starts his downward spiral to his eventual suicide.

Wealth and Poverty
Industrial growth brought the United States a period of prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With factories flourishing, job opportunities were abundant. People made good money in factory management positions and other white-collar jobs. Factory workers, however, not only earned low incomes, but they also worked long hours. Consequently, a wide division existed between the wealthy and the poor.

Carrie comes from a lower-middle-class background and determines that she will rise above it. Her sister’s family, however, maintain the same struggling existence Carrie has always known. They have no time to enjoy leisure activities and no money to spend on them. Carrie wants more for herself.

Throughout Sister Carrie, the distinction between social classes is obvious. The clothes people wear, the homes in which they live, and the activities in which they are involved distinguish the rich from the poor. The wealthy wear stylish clothes and attend elaborate performances of the arts. The poor buy factory-made clothes and jeans and are lucky to go to the penny arcade or the local dance pavilion. In the final chapter, the description of Hurstwood’s last days offers a vivid picture of the ultimate plight of the poorest.

Experiences contribute greatly to shaping people’s identities. Carrie’s transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end occurs as a result of her responses to her experiences. The Carrie who boards the train in Columbia City sits primly, trying to ignore the glances of the man seated near her. Having certain morals, Carrie hesitates to acknowledge Drouet’s presence. Yet, she responds quickly to his initial comments to her and makes direct eye contact with him when she senses his interest in her. From this point on, Carrie allows herself to act in whatever manner benefits her. Leaving her sister’s home and moving in with Drouet, for example, goes against all propriety her parents have taught her. She sees, though, that this action will get her closer to having what she wants. As she understands her value to others, she changes her identity accordingly. As a result, she never really has an identity but adjusts her “act” to fit the situation. In the end, this ability gains her recognition as an acclaimed actress but does not result in her achieving happiness.

In the early 1900s, the morals and virtues of the Victorian era still guided people’s actions. People with proper upbringing did not speak of sex. The public was shocked that Dreiser’s characters so openly participated in explicit relationships and that Dreiser seemed to condone it.

Carrie uses sex to gain status for herself. She sees nothing wrong in living with Drouet to get the clothes she wants and to have opportunities to move in Chicago’s affluent circles. Later, Carrie sees that Hurstwood can offer her an even higher standard of living. She ignores the fact that he is already married and the two of them will be committing adultery. With no regard for Drouet’s emotions, she breaks off their relationship and pursues one with Hurstwood. After living with Hurstwood for some time, she realizes she can no longer benefit from the arrangement and leaves him, too.
Author: RW Emerson Genre: Non-fiction

Emerson begins "Self-Reliance" by defining genius: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.’’ Every educated man, he writes, eventually realizes that ‘‘envy is ignorance" and that he must be truly himself. God has made each person unique and, by extension, given each person a unique work to do, Emerson holds. To trust one's own thoughts and put them into action is, in a very real sense, to hear and act on the voice of God.

Emerson adds that people must seek solitude to hear their own thoughts, because society, by its nature, coerces men to conform. He goes so far as to call society "a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.''

Societal Disapproval and Foolish Consistency
Emerson discusses two factors that discourage people from trusting themselves: societal disapproval and foolish consistency. "For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,’’ he writes. He quickly dismisses public censure as a "trifle."

To the second factor, foolish consistency, Emerson gives more attention. Perhaps the most familiar and oft-quoted declaration in this essay or in all of Emerson's writing appears here: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’’ He reassures readers that what appears to be inconsistency and is judged harshly by others is simply the varied but unified activity of a unique individual. Emerson supports this view with an apt analogy: ‘‘The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.’’ Be true not to what was done yesterday, Emerson urges, but to what is clearly the right course today, and the right destination will be reached.

Up to this point, Emerson has made a case that individuals have not only a right but also a responsibility to think for themselves and that neither societal disapproval nor concerns about consistency should discourage these. He now writes that individuals who obey the admonition to "trust thyself'' should value themselves highly and consider themselves equal to the great men of history. Returning to a point made earlier, Emerson states that when men trust themselves they are actually trusting the divine, which exists in all men and which he calls ‘‘the aboriginal Self," "Spontaneity," and "Instinct."

Relation of the Individual to God
Emerson further explores the nature of the relationship between the individual and "the divine spirit.’’ He holds that this relationship is pure and therefore no intermediaries—priest, doctrine, church, scripture, etc.—are needed or helpful. Emerson decries those who "dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speaks the phraseology of ... David, or Jeremiah, or Paul.''

The Highest Truth
Emerson tells readers that he has now come to ‘‘the highest truth of the subject": "When good is near you . . . you shall not discern the footprints of any other... the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.’’

Emerson characterizes an individual's experience of the highest truth as a moment of calm during which the soul stands above all passion, above time and space, above even life and death, and experiences pure existence and reality.

Resist Temptation
Here Emerson encourages readers to give up social pretenses such as "lying hospitality and lying affection.'' Be true to your feelings and opinions in relation to other people, he writes, even the people closest to you; tell them what you really think of them. They may well be hurt at first, he acknowledges, but they will, sooner or later, ‘‘have their moment of reason'' and learn to be honest themselves. This social honesty is needed, Emerson argues, because pretense has made people weak and afraid of truth, fate, death, and one another.

Effects of Self-Reliance
Emerson writes that increased self-reliance would revolutionize religion, education, and other facets of society. The remainder of the essay is an exploration of four numbered, specific effects of self-reliance, as follows.

First, Emerson writes that self-reliance would radically alter people's religious attitudes and practices. He calls conventional prayer a form of begging, ‘‘a disease of the will,’’ and even "vicious." In a society of self-reliant individuals, Emerson says, "prayer that craves a particular commodity'' would be replaced by prayer consisting of ‘‘the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.’’ Another valid form of prayer, according to Emerson, is right action.

Emerson builds on this idea by adding, ‘‘As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.’’ Again, Emerson urges readers to abandon systems of thought built by others and to fall back on their own unique thoughts and ideas, about the divine as about all else.

Second, Emerson writes that self-reliance would replace the ‘‘superstition of traveling." "The soul is no traveler,’’ he says. ‘‘The wise man stays at home.’’ Emerson explains that he is not against travel for the sake of pursuing art or study but that too many people travel hoping to find a better culture or society than that in America. The wise course, according to Emerson, is to stay home and devote oneself to making America a place to be admired as much as American tourists admire Italy, England, Greece, and Egypt.

Emerson's third point expands on the second. He charges that Americans' minds are as much "vagabonds'' as their bodies and that they look to other countries for inspiration in everything from architecture to opinions, valuing "the Past and the Distant'' above the present and the near. Emerson's remedy is that Americans should develop their own culture and arts.

The fourth and final effect of self-reliance that Emerson deals with is the progress of society overall. He holds that people misunderstand the true nature of progress, mistaking advances in science, technology, and material welfare for progress. Every such advance has a cost as great as its benefit, Emerson claims, and does not really benefit individuals or society in meaningful ways. What passes for progress does not make people either better or happier. True progress occurs on an individual, not a societal basis, he writes, and results from looking to self, rather than material things, for fulfillment. Emerson concludes, "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.''

"Self-Reliance" is widely considered Emerson' s definitive statement of his philosophy of individualism. This philosophy esteems individuals above all—societies, nations, religions, and other institutions and systems of thought.

Emerson repeatedly calls on individuals to value their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences above those presented to them by other individuals, society, and religion. This radical individualism springs from Emerson's belief that each individual is not just unique but divinely unique; i.e., each individual is a unique expression of God's creativity and will. Further, since Emerson's God is purposeful, He molded each individual to serve a particular purpose, to do a certain work that only he or she is equipped to carry out.

This direct link between divinity and the individual provides assurance that the individual will, when rightly exercised, can never produce evil. Individual will, in Emerson's philosophy, is not selfish but divine.

In this context, an individual who fails to be self-reliant—who does not attend to and act upon his or her own thoughts and ideas—is out of step with God's purpose. Such a person, in Emerson's view, cannot be productive, fulfilled, or happy.

On the other hand, a person who is self-reliant can be assured that he or she is carrying out the divine purpose of life. This is true even of those who flout the rules and conventions of society and religion and suffer disapproval as a result. In fact, Emerson points out, those men who are now considered the greatest of all fall into this category. He gives as examples Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton.

Clearly, Emerson's philosophy of individualism leads directly to nonconformity. Most individuals will find that their private opinions and ideas are in agreement with those of others on some points. For example, most people agree that murder and theft are wrong. On those points, nearly everyone can be a conformist. A commitment to live according to one's own ideas about every matter, however, will certainly make every individual a nonconformist on some issues. In Emerson's words, ‘‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.''

Originality versus Imitation
The positive side of nonconformity is originality. Self-reliance is not a matter merely of not believing what others believe and doing what others do but, just as importantly, a matter of believing and doing what one is uniquely suited to believe and do. Emerson expects the self-reliant to substitute originality for imitation in every sphere of life.

Speaking specifically of architecture, Emerson explains that originality will yield a product that is superior (i.e., more suited to the needs of the maker) to one made by imitation:

If the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people ... he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.

‘‘Insist on yourself,’’ Emerson concludes. ‘‘Never imitate.’’

Past, Present, and Future
Emerson counsels the self-reliant to keep their focus on the present. "Man postpones or remembers,’’ he complains. ‘‘He does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.'' One who lingers in the past wastes one's life in regret; one who looks to the future misses today's duties and pleasures. It is Emerson's preference for the present over the past that leads him to call consistency foolish.

That a certain belief or course of action was correct, useful, or best in the past does not guarantee that it remains so in the present. Conversely, to leave behind a belief or a way of doing things does not mean that it was not useful at the time or that one was wrong to have pursued it.

To demonstrate the unity and effectiveness of an apparently inconsistent course through life, Emerson uses a sailing journey as a metaphor: ‘‘The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.’’ The knowledge that one is following the true path to the right destination, despite apparent inconsistencies, gives the self-reliant individual confidence to ignore the taunts of others who deride him or her for changing course.

Cause and Effect versus Fortune
Cause and effect, which Emerson calls ‘‘the chancellors of God,’’ are, he argues, the very opposites of fortune, or chance. By self-reliance, man is able to overcome the unpredictable turning of the wheel of fortune. Understanding the principle of cause and effect, the self-reliant individual applies his will wisely to bring about desired effects. To put it another way, through the wisdom of self-reliance, people become masters of their own fates. Just as God is said to have created order out of chaos, so too can men.
Author: RW Emerson Genre: non-fiction

First Published: 1836
Type of Work: Essay
Genres: Essays
Subjects: Freedom, Language or languages, Nature, Spiritual life or spirituality, Beauty
Composed of an introduction and eight chapters, Nature, Emerson's first book, contains all the fundamental ideas that were to be developed at length later in his life. The dominant theme of this work—the harmony between humans and nature—also became the theoretical basis of many literary works composed after it in the nineteenth century United States.

The treatise begins with a criticism of reliance on the past and a suggestion to depend on oneself to explore this world. In explaining the justification for self-trust, Emerson espouses a dualistic view of the universe, which, according to him, is divided into two parts: one, the self which represents the soul, the other, the exterior world, which he terms nature, the latter being subordinated to the former. Perfect correspondence, in his view, exists between these two parts, a link which makes one's communication with the outside world possible. To him, nature is all benevolence; community, by contrast, often signifies waywardness.

In communicating with nature, he believes, one is able to purge oneself of all cares and eventually achieve a mystical union with the universe. Apart from spiritual nourishment, nature provides an individual's material needs. At higher levels, it further fulfills one's aesthetic sentiment, serves as the vehicle of thought, and disciplines one's mind. Under the heading “Beauty,” which constitutes the third chapter, a theory of aesthetics is advanced. Emerson distinguishes three kinds of beauty in nature: the beauty of exterior forms, which is the lowest kind; spiritual beauty, with virtue as its essence; and the intellectual beauty characterized by a search for the absolute order of things.

Characteristic of Emerson, unity can be found among these three kinds of beauty, which, at the ultimate level, are but different expressions of the same essence: “God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.” The equation of beauty, truth, and virtue is typical of Romantic aesthetics.

In discussing the use of nature as the vehicle of thought, Emerson further illustrates the correspondence between nature and soul, and matter and mind, using this link as the basis for his theory of language. According to him, language originally came from and should remain in close contact with natural images or facts. A language characterized by, or a discourse drawing heavily upon, vivid images is thus most desirable.

Because of the identification of beauty, truth, and virtue as different expressions of the Creator, the corruption of a person's character is necessarily followed by that person's corrupted use of language. Viewed in this light, people with strong minds who lead simple lives in the countryside cannot but have an advantage in the use of powerful language over people residing in the city, who are prone to be distracted by the material world.

After language, discipline—another use of nature at a still higher level—occurs. Following Coleridge and some of the nineteenth century German idealists, Emerson distinguishes two kinds of cognitive faculties: one, reason, which perceives the analogy that unites matter and mind, the other, understanding, which discerns the characteristics of things. Apart from the reiteration of the tremendous healing power of nature, which is esteemed as a religious preacher, the idea of unity is presented.

It is Emerson's belief that what unites nature and soul, matter and mind, is a moral sentiment, sometimes called the Creator, the Universal Spirit, or the Supreme Being, which both pervades and transcends the two different parts of the universe. The ultimate discipline that one receives from nature, he maintains, should be the recognition and acceptance of this Universal Spirit underlying both the world and the self.

The tremendous importance that nature commands in his thought prompts Emerson to discuss its metaphysical status in the sixth chapter, titled “Idealism.” Before exploring this issue, he makes it clear that whether nature substantially exists or is simply a reflection of one's mind is not exactly settled and makes little difference to him in terms of his love for nature. He then proceeds, however, to maintain that senses or understanding based on senses tends to make one believe in the absolute existence of nature, whereas reason, the better cognitive faculty, modifies this belief. The further distinction between a sensual person, who is confined by the material world, and a poet, who frees himself or herself with imagination from the domination of the material world, shows that Emerson favors the view that nature does not have absolute existence.

The discussion of the issue eventually ends with the reiteration of the superiority of the soul and trust in God, whose creation of nature is to be regarded for humankind's emancipation. Having emphatically asserted the superiority of the soul, Emerson gives the following chapter the title “Spirit” to indicate that the essential function of nature is to lead one back to the Universal Spirit. In order to do so, one needs to employ a creative imagination rather than a mechanical analysis to achieve communion with nature: “a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and . . . a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The problem with this world, according to him, can only be a problem with self. In concluding Nature, Emerson therefore exhorts one to achieve unity with nature, to trust in oneself, and eventually to create one's own world.
"Preface" to the 1855 "Song of Myself"
Author: W. Whitman
Author: HD Thoreau

summary: W alden opens with a simple announcement that Thoreau spent two years in Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, living a simple life supported by no one. He says that he now resides among the civilized again; the episode was clearly both experimental and temporary. The first chapter, “Economy,” is a manifesto of social thought and meditations on domestic management, and in it Thoreau sketches out his ideals as he describes his pond project. He devotes attention to the skepticism and wonderment with which townspeople had greeted news of his project, and he defends himself from their views that society is the only place to live. He recounts the circumstances of his move to Walden Pond, along with a detailed account of the steps he took to construct his rustic habitation and the methods by which he supported himself in the course of his wilderness experiment. It is a chapter full of facts, figures, and practical advice, but also offers big ideas about the claims of individualism versus social existence, all interspersed with evidence of scholarship and a propensity for humor.

Thoreau tells us that he completed his cabin in the spring of 1845 and moved in on July 4 of that year. Most of the materials and tools he used to build his home he borrowed or scrounged from previous sites. The land he squats on belongs to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson; he details a cost-analysis of the entire construction project. In order to make a little money, Thoreau cultivates a modest bean-field, a job that tends to occupy his mornings. He reserves his afternoons and evenings for contemplation, reading, and walking about the countryside. Endorsing the values of austerity, simplicity, and solitude, Thoreau consistently emphasizes the minimalism of his lifestyle and the contentment to be derived from it. He repeatedly contrasts his own freedom with the imprisonment of others who devote their lives to material prosperity.

Despite his isolation, Thoreau feels the presence of society surrounding him. The Fitchburg Railroad rushes past Walden Pond, interrupting his reveries and forcing him to contemplate the power of technology. Thoreau also finds occasion to converse with a wide range of other people, such as the occasional peasant farmer, railroad worker, or the odd visitor to Walden. He describes in some detail his association with a Canadian-born woodcutter, Alex Therien, who is grand and sincere in his character, though modest in intellectual attainments. Thoreau makes frequent trips into Concord to seek the society of his longtime friends and to conduct what scattered business the season demands. On one such trip, Thoreau spends a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax because, he says, the government supports slavery. Released the next day, Thoreau returns to Walden.

Thoreau devotes great attention to nature, the passing of the seasons, and the creatures with which he shares the woods. He recounts the habits of a panoply of animals, from woodchucks to partridges. Some he endows with a larger meaning, often spiritual or psychological. The hooting loon that plays hide and seek with Thoreau, for instance, becomes a symbol of the playfulness of nature and its divine laughter at human endeavors. Another example of animal symbolism is the full-fledged ant war that Thoreau stumbles upon, prompting him to meditate on human warfare. Thoreau’s interest in animals is not exactly like the naturalist’s or zoologist’s. He does not observe and describe them neutrally and scientifically, but gives them a moral and philosophical significance, as if each has a distinctive lesson to teach him.

As autumn turns to winter, Thoreau begins preparations for the arrival of the cold. He listens to the squirrel, the rabbit, and the fox as they scuttle about gathering food. He watches the migrating birds, and welcomes the pests that infest his cabin as they escape the coming frosts. He prepares his walls with plaster to shut out the wind. By day he makes a study of the snow and ice, giving special attention to the mystic blue ice of Walden Pond, and by night he sits and listens to the wind as it whips and whistles outside his door. Thoreau occasionally sees ice-fishermen come to cut out huge blocks that are shipped off to cities, and contemplates how most of the ice will melt and flow back to Walden Pond. Occasionally Thoreau receives a visit from a friend like William Ellery Channing or Amos Bronson Alcott, but for the most part he is alone. In one chapter, he conjures up visions of earlier residents of Walden Pond long dead and largely forgotten, including poor tradesmen and former slaves. Thoreau prefers to see himself in their company, rather than amid the cultivated and wealthy classes.

As he becomes acquainted with Walden Pond and neighboring ponds, Thoreau wants to map their layout and measure their depths. Thoreau finds that Walden Pond is no more than a hundred feet deep, thereby refuting common folk wisdom that it is bottomless. He meditates on the pond as a symbol of infinity that people need in their lives. Eventually winter gives way to spring, and with a huge crash and roar the ice of Walden Pond begins to melt and hit the shore. In lyric imagery echoing the onset of Judgment Day, Thoreau describes the coming of spring as a vast transformation of the face of the world, a time when all sins are forgiven.

Thoreau announces that his project at the pond is over, and that he returned to civilized life on September 6, 1847. The revitalization of the landscape suggests the restoration of the full powers of the human soul, and Thoreau’s narrative observations give way, in the last chapter of Walden, to a more direct sermonizing about the untapped potential within humanity. In visionary language, Thoreau exhorts us to “meet” our lives and live fully.

The Importance of Self-Reliance

Four years before Thoreau embarked on his Walden project, his great teacher and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an enormously influential essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” It can be seen as a statement of the philosophical ideals that Thoreau’s experiment is meant to put into practice. Certainly self-reliance is economic and social in Walden Pond: it is the principle that in matters of financial and interpersonal relations, independence is more valuable than neediness. Thus Thoreau dwells on the contentment of his solitude, on his finding entertainment in the laugh of the loon and the march of the ants rather than in balls, marketplaces, or salons. He does not disdain human companionship; in fact he values it highly when it comes on his own terms, as when his philosopher or poet friends come to call. He simply refuses to need human society. Similarly, in economic affairs he is almost obsessed with the idea that he can support himself through his own labor, producing more than he consumes, and working to produce a profit. Thoreau does not simply report on the results of his accounting, but gives us a detailed list of expenditures and income. How much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847 may seem trivial, but for him it is not. Rather it is proof that, when everything is added up, he is a giver rather than a taker in the economic game of life.

As Emerson’s essay details, self-reliance can be spiritual as well as economic, and Thoreau follows Emerson in exploring the higher dimensions of individualism. In Transcendentalist thought the self is the absolute center of reality; everything external is an emanation of the self that takes its reality from our inner selves. Self-reliance thus refers not just to paying one’s own bills, but also more philosophically to the way the natural world and humankind rely on the self to exist. This duality explains the connection between Thoreau the accountant and Thoreau the poet, and shows why the man who is so interested in pinching pennies is the same man who exults lyrically over a partridge or a winter sky. They are both products of self-reliance, since the economizing that allows Thoreau to live on Walden Pond also allows him to feel one with nature, to feel as though it is part of his own soul.

The Value of Simplicity

Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau; it is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary. For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment and disadvantage. He builds his own shack instead of getting a bank loan to buy one, and enjoys the leisure time that he can afford by renouncing larger expenditures. Ironically, he points out, those who pursue more impressive possessions actually have fewer possessions than he does, since he owns his house outright, while theirs are technically held by mortgage companies. He argues that the simplification of one’s lifestyle does not hinder such pleasures as owning one’s residence, but on the contrary, facilitates them.

Another irony of Thoreau’s simplification campaign is that his literary style, while concise, is far from simple. It contains witticisms, double meanings, and puns that are not at all the kind of New England deadpan literalism that might pass for literary simplicity. Despite its minimalist message, Walden is an elevated text that would have been much more accessible to educated city-dwellers than to the predominantly uneducated country-dwellers.

The Illusion of Progress

Living in a culture fascinated by the idea of progress represented by technological, economic, and territorial advances, Thoreau is stubbornly skeptical of the idea that any outward improvement of life can bring the inner peace and contentment he craves. In an era of enormous capitalist expansion, Thoreau is doggedly anti-consumption, and in a time of pioneer migrations he lauds the pleasures of staying put. In a century notorious for its smugness toward all that preceded it, Thoreau points out the stifling conventionality and constraining labor conditions that made nineteenth-century progress possible.

One clear illustration of Thoreau’s resistance to progress is his criticism of the train, which throughout Europe and America was a symbol of the wonders and advantages of technological progress. Although he enjoys imagining the local Fitchburg train as a mythical roaring beast in the chapter entitled “Sounds,” he generally seems peeved by the encroachment of the railway upon the rustic calm of Walden Pond. Like Tolstoy in Russia, Thoreau in the United States dissents from his society’s enthusiasm for this innovation in transportation, seeing it rather as a false idol of social progress. It moves people from one point to another faster, but Thoreau has little use for travel anyway, asking the reason for going off “to count the cats in Zanzibar.” It is far better for him to go vegetate in a little corner of the woods for two years than to commute from place to place unreflectively.

Thoreau is skeptical, as well, of the change in popular mindset brought by train travel. “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?” he asks with scarcely concealed irony, as if punctuality were the greatest virtue progress can offer. People “talk and think faster in the depot” than they did earlier in stagecoach offices, but here again, speedy talk and quick thinking are hardly preferable to thoughtful speech and deep thinking. Trains, like all technological “improvements” give people an illusion of heightened freedom, but in fact represent a new servitude, since one must always be subservient to fixed train schedules and routes. For Thoreau, the train has given us a new illusion of a controlling destiny: “We have constructed a fate, a new Atropos, that never turns aside.” As the Greek goddess Atropos worked—she determined the length of human lives and could never be swayed (her name means “unswerving”)—so too does the train chug along on its fixed path and make us believe that our lives must too.


The Seasonal Cycle

The narrative of Walden, which at first seems haphazard and unplanned, is actually quite consciously put together to mirror the cycle of the seasons. The compression of Thoreau’s two actual years (1845 to 1847) into one narrative year shows how relatively unimportant the documentary or logbook aspect of his writing is. He cares less for the real calendar time taken up by his project than for the symbolic time he projects onto it. One full year, from springtime to springtime, echoes the Christian idea of rebirth, moving from one beginning to a new one. (We can imagine how very different Walden might be if it went from December to December, for example.) Thus each season inevitably carries with it not just its usual calendar attributes, but a spiritual resonance as well. The story begins in the spring of 1845, as Thoreau begins construction on his cabin. He moves in, fittingly and probably quite intentionally, on Independence Day, July 4—making his symbolic declaration of independence from society, and drawing closer to the true sources of his being. The summer is a time of physical activity, as he narrates in great detail his various construction projects and domestic management solutions. He also begins his cultivation of the bean-fields, following the natural cycle of the seasons like any farmer, but also echoing the biblical phrase from Ecclesiastes, “a time to reap, a time to sow.” It may be more than the actual beans he harvests, and his produce may be for the soul as well as for the marketplace. Winter is a time of reflection and inwardness, as he mostly communes with himself indoors and has only a few choice visitors. It is in winter that he undertakes the measuring of the pond, which becomes a symbol of plumbing his own spiritual depths in solitude. Then in spring come echoes of Judgment Day, with the crash of melting ice and the trumpeting of the geese; Thoreau feels all sins forgiven. The cycle of seasons is thus a cycle of moral and spiritual regeneration made possible by a communion with nature and with oneself.


The moral directness and hardheaded practical bookkeeping matters with which Thoreau inaugurates Walden do not prepare us for the lyrical outbursts that occur quite frequently and regularly in the work. Factual and detail-minded, Thoreau is capable of some extraordinary imaginary visions, which he intersperses within economic matters in a highly unexpected way. In his chapter “The Bean-Field,” for example, Thoreau tells us that he spent fifty-four cents on a hoe, and then soon after quotes a verse about wings spreading and closing in preparation for flight. The down-to-earth hoe and the winged flight of fancy are closely juxtaposed in a way typical of the whole work.

Occasionally the lyricism is a quotation of other people’s poems, as when Thoreau quotes a Homeric epic in introducing the noble figure of Alex Therien. At other times, as in the beautiful “Ponds” chapter, Thoreau allows his prose to become lyrical, as when he describes the mystical blue ice of Walden Pond. The intermittent lyricism of Walden is more than just a pleasant decorative addition or stylistic curiosity. It delivers the powerful philosophical message that there is higher meaning and transcendent value in even the most humble stay in a simple hut by a pond. Hoeing beans, which some might consider the antithesis of poetry, is actually a deeply lyrical and meaningful experience when seen in the right way.

Imaginary People

Thoreau mentions several actual people in Walden, but curiously, he also devotes considerable attention to describing nonexistent or imaginary people. At the beginning of the chapter “Former Inhabitants,” Thoreau frankly acknowledges that in his winter isolation he was forced to invent imaginary company for himself. This conjuring is the work of his imagination, but it is also historically accurate, since the people he conjures are based on memories of old-timers who remember earlier neighbors now long gone. Thoreau’s imaginary companions are thus somewhere between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. When Thoreau describes these former inhabitants in vivid detail, we can easily forget that they are now dead: they seem too real.

Thoreau also manages to make actual people seem imaginary. He never uses proper names when referring to friends and associates in Walden, rendering them mythical. After Thoreau describes Alex Therien as a Homeric hero, we cannot help seeing him in a somewhat poetic and unreal way, despite all the realism of Thoreau’s introduction. He doesn’t name even his great spiritual teacher, Emerson, but obliquely calls him the “Old Immortal.” The culmination of this continual transformation of people into myths or ideas is Thoreau’s expectation of “the Visitor who never comes,” which he borrows from the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. This remark lets us see how spiritual all of Thoreau’s imaginary people are. The real person, for him, is not the villager with a name, but rather the transcendent soul behind that external social persona.


Walden Pond

The meanings of Walden Pond are various, and by the end of the work this small body of water comes to symbolize almost everything Thoreau holds dear spiritually, philosophically, and personally. Certainly it symbolizes the alternative to, and withdrawal from, social conventions and obligations. But it also symbolizes the vitality and tranquility of nature. A clue to the symbolic meaning of the pond lies in two of its aspects that fascinate Thoreau: its depth, rumored to be infinite, and its pure and reflective quality. Thoreau is so intrigued by the question of how deep Walden Pond is that he devises a new method of plumbing depths to measure it himself, finding it no more than a hundred feet deep. Wondering why people rumor that the pond is bottomless, Thoreau offers a spiritual explanation: humans need to believe in infinity. He suggests that the pond is not just a natural phenomenon, but also a metaphor for spiritual belief. When he later describes the pond reflecting heaven and making the swimmer’s body pure white, we feel that Thoreau too is turning the water (as in the Christian sacrament of baptism by holy water) into a symbol of heavenly purity available to humankind on earth. When Thoreau concludes his chapter on “The Ponds” with the memorable line, “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth,” we see him unwilling to subordinate earth to heaven. Thoreau finds heaven within himself, and it is symbolized by the pond, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” By the end of the “Ponds” chapter, the water hardly seems like a physical part of the external landscape at all anymore; it has become one with the heavenly soul of humankind.


As Thoreau’s chief companions after he moves to Walden Pond, animals inevitably symbolize his retreat from human society and closer intimacy with the natural world. Thoreau devotes much attention in his narrative to the behavior patterns of woodchucks, partridges, loons, and mice, among others. Yet his animal writing does not sound like the notes of a naturalist; there is nothing truly scientific or zoological in Walden, for Thoreau personalizes nature too much. He does not record animals neutrally, but instead emphasizes their human characteristics, turning them into short vignettes of human behavior somewhat in the fashion of Aesop’s fables. For example, Thoreau’s observation of the partridge and its young walking along his windowsill elicits a meditation on motherhood and the maternal urge to protect one’s offspring. Similarly, when Thoreau watches two armies of ants wage war with all the “ferocity and carnage of a human battle,” Thoreau’s attention is not that of an entomologist describing their behavior objectively, but rather that of a philosopher thinking about the universal urge to destroy.

The resemblance between animals and humans also works in the other direction, as when Thoreau describes the townsmen he sees on a trip to Concord as resembling prairie dogs. Ironically, the humans Thoreau describes often seem more “brutish” (like the authorities who imprison him in Concord) than the actual brutes in the woods do. Furthermore, Thoreau’s intimacy with animals in Walden shows that solitude for him is not really, and not meant to be, total isolation. His very personal relationship with animals demonstrates that in his solitary stay at the pond, he is making more connections, not fewer, with other beings around him.


Since ice is the only product of Walden Pond that is useful, it becomes a symbol of the social use and social importance of nature, and of the exploitation of natural resources. Thoreau’s fascination with the ice industry is acute. He describes in great detail the Irish icemen who arrive from Cambridge in the winter of 1846 to cut, block, and haul away 10,000 tons of ice for use in city homes and fancy hotels. The ice-cutters are the only group of people ever said to arrive at Walden Pond en masse, and so they inevitably represent society in miniature, with all the calculating exploitations and injustices that Thoreau sees in the world at large. Consequently, the labor of the icemen on Walden becomes a symbolic microcosm of the confrontation of society and nature. At first glance it would appear that society gets the upper hand, as the frozen pond is chopped up, disfigured, and robbed of ten thousand tons of its contents. But nature triumphs in the end, since less than twenty-five percent of the ice ever reaches its destination, the rest melting and evaporating en route—and making its way back to Walden Pond. With this analysis, Thoreau suggests that humankind’s efforts to exploit nature are in vain, since nature regenerates itself on a far grander scale than humans could ever hope to affect, much less threaten. The icemen’s exploitation of Walden contrasts sharply with Thoreau’s less economic, more poetical use of it. In describing the rare mystical blue of Walden’s water when frozen, he makes ice into a lyrical subject rather than a commodity, and makes us reflect on the question of the value, both market and spiritual, of nature in general.
"Civil Disobedience"
Author: HD Thoreau

summary: Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by saying that he agrees with the motto, "That government is best which governs least." Indeed, he says, men will someday be able to have a government that does not govern at all. As it is, government rarely proves useful or efficient. It is often "abused and perverted" so that it no longer represents the will of the people. The Mexican-American War illustrates this phenomenon.

The American government is necessary because "the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have." However, the only times when government has been useful has been when it has stood aside. Thoreau says that government does not, in fact, achieve that with which we credit it: it does not keep the country free, settle the West, or educate. Rather, these achievements come from the character of the American people, and they would have been even more successful in these endeavors had government been even less involved. Thoreau also complains about restrictions on trade and commerce. However, Thoreau then says that speaking "practically and as a citizen," he is not asking for the immediate elimination of government. Rather, for the moment, he is asking for a better government.

Thoreau argues that by answering to the majority, democracies answer the desires of the strongest group, not the most virtuous or thoughtful. A government founded on this principle cannot be based on justice. Why can't there be a government where right and wrong are not decided by the majority but by conscience? Thoreau writes, "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward." He asserts that it is more important to develop a respect for the right, rather than a respect for law, for people's obligations are to do what is right.

Too much respect for law leads people to do many unjust things, as war illustrates: Soldiers become only a shadow of their humanity; the government shapes them into machines. Soldiers have no opportunity to exercise moral sense, reduced to the existence comparable to that of a horse or dog. Yet these men are often called good citizens. Similarly, most legislators and politicians do not put moral sense first, and those few who do are persecuted as enemies.

The question then becomes how to behave toward the American government. Thoreau's answer is to avoid associating with it altogether. He declares, "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also." Thoreau says that while everyone recognizes the right to revolution when faced with an intolerably tyrannical or inefficient government, most people say that such a revolution would not be warranted under current conditions. However, Thoreau argues that we have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to rebel. The enslavement of one sixth of the population and the invasion of Mexico represent tremendous injustices that we must not allow to continue.

Thoreau criticizes the attitude that civil obligation should be maintained for the sake of expediency and that government should be obeyed simply to preserve the services we enjoy. Expediency does not take precedence over justice; people must do what justice requires regardless of cost--indeed, even if the cost is one's own life. Thus, Thoreau writes, "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself." The people of the United States must stop slavery and the war with Mexico, even if it costs them their existence as a people.

In practice, the opponents to reform in Massachusetts are not the Southern politicians everyone blames for extreme conservativism. Rather, they are the people who passively tolerate the status quo: merchants and farmers in Massachusetts who are not will ing to fight for justice at any cost. Many argue that the majority of U.S. citizens would be unprepared for the societal changes that slavery would bring about. Thoreau responds to this by saying that we need only a few wise people to educate the majori ty and, thus, prepare them for these changes. There are thousands of people who oppose slavery and war with Mexico and yet do nothing, waiting for others to take action. It is this passive waiting that Thoreau condemns. After having presented his view of man's individualistic duties as a citizen, Thoreau turns to how citizens should respond to their government's injustices. He says that he does not believe that voting is the proper solution. Voting for justice is not really acting for it. Rather, it is "feebly" expressing your desire that the right prevail. A wise man will not leave justice to the chance of a majority vote. The majority will end up voting their interest, voting for what will benefit them. A principled person must follow his conscience. Furthermore, nowadays, there are no people who vote independently of what their political parties tell them to do. There are almost no men in America, according to Thoreau. He complains of people's lack of intellect and self-reliance, as well as their complacency.

Thoreau writes that a person does not have a duty actually to eliminate wrongs-- even the most serious wrongs. A person may legitimately have other goals and pursuits. However, at the very least, a person must "wash his hands" of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong. He asserts, "If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man's shoulders." Thus, it is hypocritical for a person to commend a soldier for refusing to fight in an unjust war while that same person continues to sustain the unjust government that is pursuing the war.

Everyone agrees that unjust laws exist. The question is whether we should be content to obey them, whether we should try to change them but obey until they're changed, or whether we should disobey them at once. Most people in a democracy believe that the second course is best. They believe that if they resist, the revolution would be worse than the injustice. However, it is the government's fault that this is the case: The government doesn't encourage reform and dissent. Thoreau asks, "Why does [the majority-led government] always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"

Thoreau then returns to the metaphor of the government-as-machine. He says that if an injustice is part of the "necessary friction" of the "machine of government," then it should be left alone. Perhaps the machine will wear smooth; in any case, it will eventually wear out. If the injustice has its own spring, rope or pulley, then one must consider whether the remedy is worse than the injustice. However, if the government requires one to be an agent of injustice toward another, then Thoreau says one must break the law. He urges the reader to be a "counter-friction" to the machine and not to participate in the wrong.

Thoreau then argues that working for change through government takes too much time and requires a person to waste his life. He is in the world simply to live in it and can't devote all of his time to making it a good place to live. A person doesn't have time to do everything good yet, this doesn't mean he must do anything wrong. In the case of the United States, the government doesn't provide room for remedy anyway; the very Constitution is evil.

All Abolitionists should immediately stop lending either their persons or their property to support the government of Massachusetts. Thoreau says that he only interacts directly with the American government once a year when the tax collector comes. And then he makes a point to quarrel with this person to make sure he understands what it means to be an officer of the government. These small protests are very important: "For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done for ever." However, the majority of people, rather than protesting, simply talk emptily. If people were to risk action, to risk imprisonment, then change would actually occur.

Thoreau maintains that "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." This is true today in Massachusetts, he says: in prison, a person can live with honor among the victims of injustice. Perhaps a person might think she could not be useful in jail, would be incapacitated to bring about change. In response to such a person, Thoreau replies that she does know how much stronger truth is than error--how much more powerfully a person can combat injustice once that person has experienced it for herself. He urges the reader to "cast your whole vote" against injustice, meaning not just a ballot but one's whole influence. A minority is irresistible when it uses its whole weight. For, if given the choice of renouncing slavery and war on the one hand and keeping all just men in prison on the other, the state will choose to eliminate its unjust policies.

Thoreau explains that he has hitherto focused on imprisonment instead of confiscation of goods, primarily because those who are most committed to justice have typically avoided accumulating property. To these people, even a slight tax probably appears exorbitant because the state offers so few services for them. Furthermore, the rich man is always sold to the institution that made him rich; as money increases, virtue decreases. The only questions wealth nurtures is the question of how to spend that money--it never fosters self-questioning and moral consideration. Thus, focusing on material wealth, a person loses his moral ground. With greater life "means," his real opportunity to live is diminished. Thus, the best thing a person can do for his culture when he is rich is to attempt to live his life as he did while he was poor.

Thoreau then addresses those readers who might raise the concern that people need the government's protection and who are worried about the consequences of civil disobedience to their property and family. He says that he himself would never want to think himself dependent on the State's protection. However, he acknowledges that if he refuses to pay taxes it will mean he will lose his property and that the state will harass his family. This is "hard," he admits: It is hard to live honestly and yet outwardly comfortably at the same time. Thus, he concludes that it is not worthwhile to accumulate property. One should be self-sufficient and farm only a small crop. "You must live within yourself," he tells the reader. He quotes Confucius as saying that if a state is not governed by reason, then riches are a source of shame. He reasons that it costs him less "in every sense" to pay the penalty of disobeying the State than it would to obey it. That is, less is lost in forgoing the government's protection and in suffering harassment to one's family, than in sacrificing one's integrity in passive compliance with the government's unjust policies. For if he were to sacrifice his integrity, Thoreau explains, "I should feel as if I were worth less" as a person.Thoreau now turns to his personal experiences with civil disobedience. He says that he hasn't paid a poll tax for six years and that he spent a night in jail once because of this. His experience in jail did not hurt his spirit: "I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to break through, before they could get to be as free as I was." Since the State couldn't reach his essential self, they decided to punish his body. This illustrated the State's ultimate weakness, and Thoreau says that he came to pity the State. The masses can't force him to do anything; he is subject only to those who obey a higher law. He says that he has to obey his own laws and try to flourish in this way.

The night in prison, he recounts, was "novel and interesting enough." His roommate had been accused of burning down a barn, though Thoreau speculated that the man had fallen asleep drunk in the barn while smoking a pipe. Thoreau was let in on the gossip and history of the jail and was shown several verses that were composed in the jail. The workings of the jail fascinated him, and staying in jail that night was like traveling in another country. He felt as if he was seeing his town through the light of the middle ages--as if he had never heard the sounds of his town before. After the first night, however, somebody interfered and paid his tax, and so he was released from prison the next day. Upon Thoreau's release, it seemed some kind of change had come over the town, the State and the country. He realized that the people he lived with were only friends in the good times. They were not interested in justice or in taking any risks. He soon left the town and was out of view of the State again.

Thoreau says that he always pays the highway tax because he wants to be a good neighbor, but, generally, he avoids all taxes. However, his refusal to pay taxes is not based on a desire to boycott one or two government practices in particular or the practices that a certain tax funds. Rather, he is refusing allegiance to the State as a whole. "In fact," he states, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases." Considering the anonymous person who paid his tax for him and let him out of jail, he says that if that person paid his tax out of sympathy with the State, then he or she was simply aiding injustice. If the person did it to help him, then he or she was letting his or her private feelings interfere with the public good. Thoreau says that he sometimes wants to respect his neighbors' desires, knowing that they mean well. However, he reminds himself that there are other people (e.g., the slaves) who would be much more hurt if he went along with his neighbors. He does not believe that he must accept men as they are and give up thinking of how they ought to be. In going against his fellow men, he believes that he can have some impact.

Thoreau says that he doesn't want conflicts with any other person or country. Rather, he wants to follow the law, and he looks for reasons to follow it. He quotes a verse: "We must affect [i.e., "treat"] our country as our parents, / And if at any time we alienate / Our love or industry from doing it honor, / We must respect effects and teach the soul / Matter of conscience and religion, / And not desire of rule or benefit." He says that seen from a "lower" point of view, the Constitution and other laws warrant respect, despite their faults. From higher points of view, however, they appear less and less virtuous. But then, he says, the government doesn't concern him very much, and he avoids thinking about it.

Thoreau then writes that he doesn't have patience for lawyers and legislators. Standing within political institutions, they never critically look at these institutions and, therefore, cannot reform them; "They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency." He speaks of Daniel Webster, saying that this politician fails to make fundamental reforms of government. However, compared with other politicians and reformers, Webster is the only sensible one. He is not a leader but a follower, and his actions are defensive, not aggressive. He supports slavery because it was in the original compact of the U.S. Thus, he doesn't have wisdom but only prudence.

Thoreau concludes by saying that no one with legislative genius has yet appeared in America--such people are rare in the world's history. He writes that government's authority is "impure." To be just, authority must be based on the consent of the governed; its only rights are the rights that the individual gives it. The movement toward democracy constitutes progress toward true respect for the individual. However, democracy is not the last step that can be made. He says that he dreams of a State that respects the individual, a State that would not mind if a few individuals even chose to live independent of it altogether. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more "perfect and glorious State."
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