I stumbled upon a review of Nemesis that makes a brief connection to Captain America, as we had done in class last week.
Bucky’s nickname, intentionally or not, alludes to the costumed sidekick of Captain America who appeared in the super-patriot’s 1941 debut as a teenage boy wonder fighting Nazis. Like his adventurer namesake, whose parents were also absent, Bucky Cantor lives in the shadow of greater men but has an important role to play in keeping the children of Weequahic calm and hopeful. He may seem doomed to a life of playing second-fiddle, but he can live with that, relying on what the narrator of the novel—not Bucky—describes as “an exacerbated sense of duty” though he is “endowed with little force of mind” (Loss, 1).
In the scene where Bucky and Marcia make their way back the cabin “hugging and kissing like lovesick teenagers” (200), I couldn’t help but think about how much the song Marcia sings, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, foreshadows Bucky’s terrible fate at the end of the novel.
The song itself was published in 1938 by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, and gained a lot of popularity during World War II. To many people during 1944, the song evoked feelings of nostalgia. Families and lovers longed for the soldiers’ return from the war, and everyone yearned for the world to revert back to simpler times. The song was hence often sung in memoriam of those serving in the war.
It was later covered by numerous artists, including Bing Cosby, who released his version in 1944.
Check out his cover:
The fact that the very song Marcia sings to Bucky was the “anthem” for the American soldiers during World War II is ironic in itself, but it is the lyrics of the song that, in my opinion, really justifies its presence in the novel.
“‘I’ll be seeing you,'” Marcia sang to him softly, “in all the old familiar places -‘” (198)
These “old familiar places” – I suppose it’s plain to see that Marcia’s singing does inherently encapsulate her longing for a simple, polio-free life with Bucky, but perhaps there’s an element of foreshadowing here.
What are Bucky’s old familiar places from boyhood? For Bucky, his past, or his “old familiar places”, is ridden with the burden of his parents’ unfortunate endings and weakness and helplessness that came with his stature and poor eyesight. Isn’t this hopeless state similar to what he reverts to in the end of the novel? The polio left him broken, and he had lost the people that had meant the most to him; this is pretty much analogous to the state he was in at the start of his struggle towards manhood. His failure to reinvent himself set him up for his downfall – the fall of the soldier that never was.
As we wrap up our discussion on Nemesis, it may be worth thinking about the connection between Bucky’s past and his eventual state.
Even with all of Prior’s encounters with the Angel, an active character in the play, his favorite stands as a statue in Central Park: the angel Bethesda.
Two scenes take place at Bethesda Fountain, and in each we are given some background on the fountain itself and the angel Bethesda. During the scene where Louis and Belize meet at the fountain, we learn that the statue was built to commemorate the Naval dead of the Civil War. Its connection to the past is a painful one – one of death and destruction.
Later, in the play’s epilogue, more is said about the angel herself. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah all describe Bethesda story: Bethesda landed in the Temple square of Jerusalem, and where her foot touched the ground, a fountain sprung. The flow eventually stopped when the Romans destroyed the Temple, but before its end, it was said that anyone who bathed in its water would be “washed clean of pain” (279). Legend has it, the fountain will flow again when the Millennium comes. Hannah promises Prior that once it flows again, they’ll all go and bathe themselves clean. This remark seems to transform the dark and painful past of the statue to a symbol of hope, promising a new beginning for the unfortunate quad.
The contradictory symbolism of a painful past and a hopeful future is reconciled by Prior description of the Angel:
PRIOR (Turning the sound off again): This angel. She’s my favorite angel.
I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight.
In a sense, Prior identifies with the statuary form of the angel, or at least aspires to become what it symbolizes. Prior, as every other human being, walks with an expiration date, but even with his predicament, he is brimming with life. And even with the weight of his disease and other burdens of life, he believes in hope and change. It could even be said that it symbolizes humanity.
Queue pop culture reference: Analyzing Bethesda’s symbolism actually made me reevaluate one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. In the episode, titled The Angels Take Manhattan, the main character, a time traveler called the Doctor, loses his companion in the past. As it turns out, however, the loss of the companion was actually the event that allowed the Doctor to meet her in the first place. Her ending was her beginning. Lost in the past, the time she had spend with the Doctor had technically not yet begun.
Many of the episode’s scenes were actually filmed at the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. I feel like the symbolism of Bethesda applies here as well: an unfortunate and painful event in the past is eventually transformed into a hopeful future.
Meh, time travel can be hard to explain, but then again, so can literature!
What happens periodically and causes panic, pain, suffering, and alienation?
Of course, the answer is — Midterms!
Much as midterms or exams in general have us, students, panicking about the upcoming testing, feeling the pain and suffering from the social pressure and holing up in our rooms in hopes to survive the dreadful epidemic, the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague plays a similar role.
The novel takes places in Oran, Algeria, where the bubonic plague has stricken the populace. At first, the people ignore the imminent danger of the plague, but not long after they realize its destructive force which ultimately results in putting the city under quarantine.
In Ibsen’s Ghosts, Mrs. Alving’s unfortunate predicament was the result of her fear of society’s judgement and public opinion. In her struggle to fit herself and her family into the existing societal norms, she sacrificed her mental and physical well-being and with that ended up completely alienated.
Similarly, alienation manifested itself in The Plague with the influence of societal norms. The norms in Oran seemed to be the “habits [that were encouraged] by our town” (Camus 3), a standard of behavior for everyone. (While reading the book we came to a mutual agreement that the notions of standardizing behavior was reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.) When the plague first hit, its impact was suppressed and denied in the minds of Oran’s citizens. Those in power consciously tried to downplay the effects of the bubonic plague in order to keep population under control, and they complied without hesitation:
“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” (Camus 46)
This town, even before the plague struck, was described as a place where it was “difficult to die”. According to the narrator, a dying person would be faced with a lack of support and acknowledgement of their suffering and imminent death:
“Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.” (Camus 3)
Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Oran, however, the alienation doesn’t stop there. The situation in town worsens when the actual quarantine is put into effect by Dr. Rieux. The alienation brought about by the societal norms and habits of that community was of a moral, less tangible nature. In fact, the people of Oran were virtually unaware of the alienation they experienced in this respect. With the quarantine, however, the more physical and concrete boundary served to amplify their dormant feelings of loneliness and estrangement. The town is sealed off from the outside world, with many unable to reach their loved ones, as in the cases of both Dr. Rieux and Raymond Rambert.
The dynamics of these types of alienation are cardinal in defining not only the main characters of the novel, but also the many citizens of Oran, and consequently the town as a whole. The novel ends on a hopeful note: In struggling to overcome the plague and their crushing alienation, they gave themselves purpose. The citizens of Oran, illuminated by the recent plight, come to see themselves as a community, rather than as self-interested individuals.
How else might these notions of loneliness and alienation help us understand the complex characters of Camus’ novel? And how, if at all, do they help us understand the connection between survival and memory?
On a slightly different but interesting note, we would like to raise a question about narration: In The Plague, the narrator claims to be objectively describing the situation that took place in Oran while keeping his own identity hidden from the readers. He promises to reveal who he is at some point in the novel. This raises some questions about the credibility of the narrator himself. With our experıence of readıng Arthur Mervyn, that is, being faced by a questıonable narrator, we can draw the conclusion that we cannot fully trust the narrator to give the reader a fully objective account of what has happened. Does this lack of confidence in the credibility of the narrator change or influence our reading of The Plague by Camus, the way it did in Arthur Mervyn?
We hope you don’t put yourself under a “study quarantine” in the wake of the upcoming midterms.
If you guys haven’t come across it already, London’s Almeida Theatre adapted and produced Ibsen’s Ghosts last year. Here’s the trailer for it, featuring the quote by Mrs. Alving. The quote, however, is a bit different in the trailer. Do the differences between this one and the original change or add anything to the way we think about the “ghosts” in the play? Or is it just a really good paraphrase? Either way, I think it’s beautifully made.
Here’s the original for comparison:
“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.” (pg. 126)
With all the talk on ghosts and the supernatural, I thought it would be interesting to look into some of the more mundane aspects of the play. More specifically, what role does syphilis itself play in Ibsen’s Ghosts?
In the various works we have read for the class so far, it is clear that disease often represents or signifies a certain level of moral corruption. In Oedipus, it represented the corruption in Oedipus’ life and kingdom. In Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, it brought out the worst in people, making the community fall prey to an immoral way of life.
I believe that Ghosts may take the relationship between disease and corruption a little further.
Oswald’s doctor did say that he had inherited the disease from his father in the quote, “He said: The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (Ibsen 138).
However, we do know that this couldn’t have been more than an indirect relationship, as Oswald couldn’t have gotten syphilis if his mother hadn’t been infected as well (whether Oswald was infected from fooling around in Paris is debatable, since his symptoms are consistent with those of congenital syphilis). That means that Mrs. Alving must have been an asymptomatic carrier. Following the path of the disease, we can conclude that Johanna and Regine have a decent chance of being carriers as well; even Jacob Engstand could be infected from Johanna if she had been infected with the disease from Captain Alving. Finally, if Pastor Manders had consented to being in a relationship with Mrs. Alving, he too would have come in contact with syphilis. It would seem that the disease is just as prevalent in the live of the characters as the corruption and misfortune.
We have definitely established that the ghost metaphor has several dimensions, but perhaps there is yet another layer to Ibsen’s “ghost”. Perhaps the syphilis itself is the ghost. Think about it: They have all come in contact with, if not afflicted with, the disease. For some, it was the result of corruption. For others, it was an unlucky inheritance. Either way, it plays a role in the lives of each of the characters, in the same way Mrs. Alving describes its presence in each of them. Talking about the supernatural could have in some ways been as publicly unacceptable as the mention of syphilis was. The parallel is also there when we consider that ghosts are the remnants of a troubled past; in many ways, syphilis is too. The syphilis, or the “sin of the father”, haunts the family from beyond the grave.
Actually, syphilis is sort of the ghost of the play as well. Though the word “syphilis” isn’t mentioned in Ghosts at all, it still plagues the play with the affliction it hauls along – a sort of “ghost sickness”, if you will (on a slightly unrelated note, “ghost sickness” was actually a thing among Native American tribes). It is neither seen nor mentioned, but always lingers behind the shadows of their actions.