Category: Conveners’ posts

“I died because my dad was the biggest blood merchant”

Dream of Ding Village is a fiction based on the AIDS crisis in Henan Province in China. Before writing the book, Yan Lianke, the author had visited the AIDS village seven times and lived with the locals for a while. After the first edition was sold out, the book was banned by the Chinese government with the allegation that it “exaggerated the harm and horror of AIDS with the gloomy way of description”.

In this book, we get a unique perspective from a dead narrator at the beginning of the story, who narrates the acts of his father and grandfather and the consequences faced by the villagers. The commodification of blood is an interesting aspect of the story. Blood is the vital fluid that courses through our veins. The irony is, that the blood that is intended to give life, in the context of Ding Village, takes it away.

Although most of the people who moved into the elementary school are nearing the end of their lives, the corruption of human nature never stops. Though on the verge of dying, people still attempt to steal grains and money. Rather than helping each other and making the rest of their short lives more pleasant, they fight for position and power. When Li Sanren died, he can’t close his eyes without having the official seal, the representation of power, in hand. What does power and position mean to people? Aren’t we also like the characters in the fiction? We all know that we are dying within a hundred of years, yet aren’t we still having the “the more, the better” mindset, striving to pursue something we can’t bring away after we pass away?

Three-Character Classic is the material every Chinese children learn. It teaches them the basis of Confucian morality, especially filial piety and respect for elders. Grandpa Ding has been teaching Three-Character Classic as a teacher throughout his life. However, it’s ironic that both of his sons aren’t behaving well, not even having the basic respect to their father. People start to look down on him because of what his sons have done. When parents have done their best to teach the children, are they to blame for the children’s misconducts?

Dream of Ding Village illustrates the important aspects of human nature. Ding Hui becomes committed in his pursuit of money, not considering ethics whilst doing so. In order to maximize profit, he sold blood wherever it was needed, meaning that he is to be blamed for the spread of AIDS in his country. At the same time, he profited from the government’s weak efforts to aid those diagnosed with AIDS. His approach to this economic opportunity can be compared to those by tobacco companies who profit from selling their tobacco products as well as profiting from the medication to help stop tobacco addiction. Faced with their own mortality, the inhabitants of the village stop caring for one another and the future of those not infected. Instead, they care solely on coffins and “face”. The book is a significantly effective reminder of the negative consequences of placing our financial benefit before the long-term burdens that haunt us down the line. Ding Qiang, Ding Hui’s son, was murdered, using poison, by the villagers in retaliation of his father’s actions. Like the case of Ibsen’s Ghosts, sons are punished for the sins of their fathers.

The majority of the readings that we did dealt with looking for the cause of a plague to find something or someone to blame. Whether it was supposedly caused by the LGBT community or as punishment from God to those that have constantly sinned people always looked for someone to blame. In the case of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, The grandfather of the narrator is pinning the blame on his son, Ding Hui, for becoming a blood merchant. Ding Hui’s pursuit of a better life turned him into a heartless man, he did not shed any tears when his Son died but lashed out at the other villagers for the murderer to show himself. Ironically, Ding Hui himself is looking for someone to blame for the murder of his son as well. It is possible that Ding Hui is to blame for the spread of AIDS in their village because of his cheap ways of extracting blood, however nonetheless the villagers still consented to his business. Furthermore, we believe that the Grandfather himself is also looking for someone else to blame for the spread of disease, as he himself was the person that said blood would always flow. In the case of Dream of Ding Village, what would pinning the blame on someone for spreading AIDS bring? Apologies would not bring back the dead nor cure the people currently carrying the disease.


— Lateefa, Abdullah, Kai-Wen, Neha

“Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.”

Hillbrow is an inner-city residential neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, that used to be a whites-only zone during Apartheid in the 1970s. Post-Apartheid, it became a melting pot for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and became home to one of the first prominent LBGT communities in South Africa. The neighborhood, however, slowly decayed into an urban slum due to a massive influx of poor migrants and the exodus of middle class communities. Mpe dedicates the first chapter of his novel to explore Hillbrow in the second person perspective through the life of Refentse, a writer who committed suicide.  He explores the social issues of xenophobia, AIDS, racism, crime and poverty through what would have been Refentse’s typical routine through the city. He describes the people, street corners, and city rhythms of the “menacing monster” that is Hillbrow as if you were walking through its streets like a local. This brings up the question: What language does Mpe use to construct Hillbrow and why does he use it? The neighborhood takes on a life of its own for Mpe: “You discovered on arriving in Hillbrow, that to be drawn away from Tiragalong also went hand-in-hand with a loss of interest in Hillbrow. Because Tiragalong was in Hillbrow. You always took Tiragalong with you in your consciousness whenever you came to Hillbrow or any other place. In the same way, you carried Hillbrow with you always” (49).  This makes one ask: What is a place? How does one’s environment shape their identity? What is the relationship between place and identity? What does it mean to have ownership of place?  At first, there seems to be a clear distinction between the Hillbrowan and foreigner aka Mackwerekwere identity, but this gets confused as we learn that most of the so called locals were actually migrants. Refentse points out “There are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages, who have come here, as we have in search of education and work. Many of the Makwerewere you accuse of this and that are no different to us sojourners, here in search of green pastures.” How does place fit into our identities? How does it fit into the identity by descent or the identity by consent categories we discussed in Angels in America? Mpe repeats the title of the novel “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”. Notice the use of “Our”. Our Hillbrow suggests a sense of ownership of the place. Hillbrow isn’t just a geographical location, it is the sum of experiences, relationships and connections that its citizens create together.

He repeats this phrase multiple times:

“All these things that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow….” (27)

And again at the end of the second chapter:

“If you were still alive, now Refentse child of Hillbrow and Tiragalong, if you were still alive, all of this that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would still find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow…” (62)

What does this repetition signify? The phrase seems to take on a new tone, becoming more ironic as Mpe repeats it.

The repetition of the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow” tells the readers that the narrator is from Hillbrow due to his/her reference to it as “ours” — something that belongs to him/her, too. In its irony, we can also tell that the narrator is unhappy with the way things are in Hillbrow — with the explicitly aforementioned issues of xenophobia, AIDS, and racism.

This novel addresses contagion, not only in regards to AIDS but also the spread of ideas, rumors, and generalizations. The dissemination of information, and the problem of separating truth from rumor, has been discussed in nearly every book we have read thus far. From the start of the novel, in discussing the presence of the “strange illness” that “could only translate into AIDS” the narrator suggests that the disease “according to popular understanding [and] certain newspaper articles, was caused by foreign germs” (3-4). The people of South Africa were constructing their preliminary understanding of the source of AIDS from “such media reports”. The narrator continues on to explain different “scandalous stories” about the bizarre sexual behavior of men who slept with other men. These stories “did the rounds on the informal migrant grapevine” (4). It is through word of mouth that ideas about AIDS, intertwined with xenophobia, generalizations, and preconceived notions, are spread and in a sense, infect the minds of those who listen.

Not only do rumors of disease plague the people of South Africa, rumors about the characters’ own tragedies circulate as well. The devastating consequences of gossip are most strongly witnessed in the stories that “moved with ease to and from Tiragalong and Hillbrow” by car, landline, and cellphone service providers about Refentse’s suicide. The story of his death was embellished and changed by many, but most significantly by Refilwe, Refentse’s past lover. Refilwe blemished his name and sent him “hurtling towards [his] second death” by the stories and rumors she told. Refentse’s mother was set on fire and killed by the people of Tiragalong based on rumors that she had bewitched her son, causing him to commit suicide. Refilwe rewrote the story of Refentse’s suicide and convinced others that is was instead “a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato” who bewitched him, not his mother (43-44). The spread of misinformation continued on and on, reputations were destroyed, and very little regard was paid to hard facts. The constructed story of his suicide only helped to perpetuate the generalization that the women of Hillbrow were dangerous. These rumors also created a ripple effect, starting with Refentse’s suicide, leading to other characters loss of sanity or violent deaths. Was it Refentse’s suicide that set off the chain of tragedies that affected the other characters of the novel, or were the rumors and constructed stories to blame?

The novel is from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who seems unrelated to any of the  characters, yet is still included in their life stories. The first part of the novel is told from the second person point of view, addressing the life of Refentse, the protagonist, and the lives of those connected to him. The narrator is aware of every last detail within the events occurring throughout the characters’ lives, despite the fact that the narration is not at all chronological.

Judging by the way the story is told, the narrator seems to know and expect all these terrible events to happen — and is merely watching them unfold without interfering. It’s almost as if the narrator is familiar with the characters on a personal level — based on the amount of details known about them — but never once makes remarks that insinuate any sort of personal feelings towards them, instead simply telling the events as they occur.

The language that the narrator uses also changes throughout the novel. For example, at some point in the first part, it seems as if we are inside of Refentse’s head; when he is shocked, the narrator’s language changes to accommodate that sense of shock. In other instances, however, the narrator takes the role of a storyteller and is simply there to inform the reader of the events taking place in these characters’ lives.

So, what is the narrator’s relationship to Refentse? Since he/she dedicates such a large portion of the story with Refentse being the protagonist, the reader can assume that the two must be connected in some way. Also, what is the significance of the second person point of view? Does the author succeed in using this technique, or would it have worked better if the narration took on a more distant perspective?

One additional resource: Al Jazeera Documentary about Hillbrow
Sara, Mira, Shaikha

“The world only spins forward”

The second part of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, deals with the aftereffects of the occurrences in Millennium Approaches and the conclusion of the play as a whole. In this part we gain insight into the Angels, Heaven, and God. Kushner describes them in a human way, very unlike the way they are normally discussed both in normal life and inside the play, where Mormon ideals run strong through some of the characters. God decides to leave, the Angels create through sex, and Heaven is a rundown town. These are all characterizations that would be expected to be found in Greek deities, not the Christian faith.

Perestroika shows new sides of each character. Roy, now in his deathbed, has moments in which he changes his normally brutish behavior for something completely different. There are flashes of compassion in his treatment of Belize during his feverish hallucinations, his normally kind treatment of Joe changes suddenly once Joe declares his homosexuality. Joe himself shows new things, under Louis’ harsh questioning he keeps trying to find excuses and attempts to escape culpability to the point of beating Louis when the wouldn’t stop his questioning. This is a huge break from the normally passive Joe. Finally, Perestroika also deals with the conclusion of the obstacles the characters had during Millennium Approaches: Louis and Prior get back together, Prior renounces his prophetic assignment, Harper moves out, Roy dies, and Hannah finds a new home in New York.

There was one more theme present in Perestroika that had big implications for the meaning of the play. The relation between dream and reality is very strong, many of the character’s hallucinations have very real effects on the world, from Ethel prompting Louis to sing to Prior and Harper almost recognizing each other from their shared experience in Millennium Approaches. Kushner plays fast and loose with what is real and what is not. There are moments in which the Angel arrives to Earth and all hell breaks loose, Prior fights the Angel, Hannah is flabbergasted over the entire situation, but in the end the event is remembered as dream rather than an actual event.

How should God be represented, and by extensions, what it means to be holy? Is following the Angels will faith or servitude? Is not following it heresy or independence?
Seeing the Angels’ behavior compared to people like Belize, who are the real Angels in the play?
Forgiveness is a heavy theme in the play, used by the characters to move forward; is being forgiven, and forgiving, a right or a privilege?
Is Joe deserving of hate? Is his behavior is fault or is that he can’t extricate himself from his conflicting convictions?
In the end Hannah is found to be in the group, what does that mean for her? Is she accepting, or has she become a member of the LGBT community?
Here is the video of the Epilogue, Bethesda, as portrayed in the movie Angels in America:

The Moral Dilemma of the Plague

Camus contracted tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease, in 1930 at the age of 17. He was forced to abandon his ambitions in football (he was a goalkeeper at the prominent Algerian  University team then). He was long confined to bed, and thus only able to study part-time. One feature worth noticing is that even though Camus was once a patient, he chose to narrate the story from a doctor’s perspective rather than the ill one. Shouldn’t he had more experience as a patient? Why did he choose to do so? Is there anything Camus hopes to convey that would be abortive if presented from a patient’s point of view? By far we have read about the plague from various perspectives, and these lead us to the broader question: How does the perspective of narration influence the reader’s conception towards an idea or an event?

Having the experience of being the infected one, Camus is concerned about the sufferings of the patient and how people should treat and react to them. Yet, he started the setting with citizens concerned solely about themselves, about doing business and earning money. Inundated with individualism, the town is a place where “discomfort attends death” [5]. People were so concerned about commercials and profits that they behave extremely indifferently toward each other. They were so obsessed with business that they were completely unprepared when the plague struck by surprise. Is the plague a punishment from some divine power for the sin of greed?

The reaction of the government and the measures taken have significant influences on the spread of the plague. What is the moral dilemma that falls upon the government when a plague hits their people/city? Do they tell them and risk panic that will cause them to attempt to leave and further spread the disease? Or do they risk their community and population completely dying?

Reading Camus, made us think of Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’. The story revolves around the threat a new world plague created by a deranged lunatic. The protagonist Robert Langdon and other government institutions are on the race to find the threat and eliminate it before it destroys the world. The fear arises from the fact that no one really knows what the ‘plague’ actually is. This is the same in Camus’s ‘The Plague’. The fear arises from the unknown factors at play in a plague. The unknown cause, the fear of waiting for one’s own possible demise. In the ‘Inferno’, the creator of the plague claims that the plague is nature’s way of purging the earth. Is it a natural response for over population of the earth?

Who is responsible during a plague? Is it the authorities? The patient himself? Or medical practitioners? Whose responsibility is it make sure that the plague is curbed?  Who does the responsibility fall onto if the “Global Health Organization” can not find a cure for an epidemic, does it fall back to the individuals that carry these diseases?

Furthermore we found an interesting Reddit post about a guy who, through his words, had the responsibility of letting the world know of an upcoming plague or pandemic. Despite the government forbidding him from leaking the information. He took the burden of releasing the information although he has no way of finding a cure.

In the situation of a plague, is one solely responsible for oneself or do we have some duty towards protecting others as well?


–Lateefa, Kai-Wen, Neha

A Pandemic’s Effect on the Mind and Heart

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.

 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are. (“Interview” 85)”The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war? Even after the pandemic and the war (suggested by Miranda to be the root cause of her illness) are over, Miranda remains traumatized and is haunted by the ghost of Adam. Pandemic and war have irrevocably disrupted her sense of place, identity, time and the world. What kind of trauma, beyond physical, does a pandemic and war generate? Miranda, at one point suggests that the emotional and psychological trauma is much worse than the physical. “It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two – what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Since the body cannot be separated from the mind, and vice versa, where do we draw the line between physical and psychological impacts of war?  How do survivors and a community remember this trauma and live with it? Perhaps this reflects Porter’s decision to tell the story from alternating third person and first person perspectives in a nonlinear and chaotic narrative. War and disease are so chaotic and disorienting they have disrupted the narration. It isn’t until the end of the novella that we realize Miranda has been dreaming the whole time.

Was Miranda ever really awake until the end of the story, when she is no longer sick and the war has ended?  What does it mean for Miranda to be awake or feel alive? When she ‘wakes’ up, she feels numb and like a zombie of herself, a ghost haunted by her past. In the final moments of her fevered dream, she achieved a sense of tranquility and enlightenment. She felt more alive close to death than she does when she wakes up. This irony reminded us of a scene in the animated film Corpse Bride, when the main character enters the underworld and finds that it is far more enchanting and lively than the living world.

Miranda has changed. She is haunted by the ghost of Adam who was “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart..” (208). She still feels tied to the memory of the dead. Is she obligated to honor and remember Adam? Her post-traumatic identity is now cynical of more than just the “silly” and “filthy” war; she is now incredulous about being alive in general. At the end of the novella, it is only her memory of the past and the dead that remains after the war and the plague have ended. Is there any way for Miranda to preserve her former self through her memories as a survivor? What are the responsibilities of a survivor towards the dead?

-Sara, Shaikha, and Mira

Let’s Talk About the S Word

While the first act of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts strikes as though it were leading towards a strong social commentary on feminism and gender issues, Ibsen abruptly shows us that his play is far more complicated. Far beyond a commentary on gendered realities, Ghosts is a chaotic, perhaps even irreverent, tale of incest, excess and debauchery, adultery, lies, and ultimately, disease.

Throughout his play, it’s as though Ibsen were consciously manipulating readers’ sympathies towards his characters. Whereas in the first act, it seems that Ibsen’s gearing our sympathies towards the women of the play and towards Oswald — who escaped the conventionalism of his town in order to study the frowned upon pathway of art — as soon as the second act begins, we’re meant to lose our trust in him, since he appears to be following his father’s steps in sexually harassing Regina, the maid. At one point, Ibsen has us vouching for Mrs. Alving, but towards the end she becomes a character we can very well resent.

How does Ibsen play around with our sympathies and for what purpose? Ultimately, who does he want us to sympathize with the most? Are we meant to sympathize more with one character than another? Or is the message actually that we can’t judge people based on the sympathies we hold in one moment?

There is so much chaos in the play, that it’s easy to get lost. What is ultimately the most essential message in the play? Is it that lying always leads to chaos? Is it that living a life primarily concerned with external opinions is a one-way-ticket to misery? Is it a critique to extremely conventional religiosity/Catholicism?

For Pastor Manders, the only reason not to insure the orphanage was that if people found out, they would certainly turn against him. His obsessive concern with others views leads the orphanage to become an irreparable loss after it’s burnt. Mr. Alving’s debauchery led his marriage to be a disaster, but convinced by Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving decided to stay with him for as long as he lived, so as to prevent gossip in town. She was willing to let go of her 7-year old Oswald just to prevent gossip! Besides Johanna and Mr. Alving, no other names are mentioned in the play. Why are Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders so concerned with how others see them if these others are so irrelevant that they don’t even have names?

And lastly, the narrative of venereal disease. It’s only in the final pages that we discover that Oswald suffers of a venereal disease. Contrary to the other pieces we’ve read, where our narrators and main characters are merely witnesses of disease, in Ghosts, we’re exposed to disease first-hand. We’re inside one of the infected homes and we see what it means for Oswald to be sick. One by one, characters start leaving the house: first Pastor Manders and Engstrand, finally Regina. But the only characters that remain are the diseased and his mother. Such is his suffering that Oswald urges his mother to assist him in suicide/kill him.

Never in the play does Ibsen specify Syphilis, making it clear to the audience and readers that the topic is a taboo. Ibsen is bringing up STDs without specifically saying it. Regardless, when the play was first published and performed it received very negative critiques. Why do people consciously choose to shut off discussion upon pressing topics that deal with contagion and sex? Why is contagion a taboo, instead of something people can freely talk about? Isn’t this only leading towards a more diseased society, instead of one that can possibly be cured?

Listen to this song because it’s hilarious (and all the more irreverent) (and it does exactly the opposite from keeping sex and disease taboo):


“Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.” -George Santayana

A Feast During the Plague is one of three of Alexander Pushkin’s plays [published?] during his lifetime. This play is particularly iconic as its origins and inspirations are very different from his other plays. As explained in The Little Tragedies, Pushkin derived some inspiration for this play from his visit to the Caucasus where he witnessed the outbreak of the plague in Erzum, Armenia. Pushkin’s tragedy, which takes place in the 19th century, is about a man who is having a feast when the entire city is dying of Cholera. Pushkin, however, writes this about the plague not merely as a means of reflecting on his personal experiences, but the idea of “plague” in this play offers a deeper metaphorical symbolism. Throughout the play, Pushkin forces his audience to grapple with the questions:


“What is the response of an individual to a catastrophe that has enveloped the community as a whole but he or she has so far escaped? Is it possible to save oneself by turning one’s back on the doomed community, or does one’s own humanity demand solidarity with other human beings even in their agony? And what bond — if any — remains between the saved and the lost? The living and the dead?

(Pushkin, 182)


The feast and the members in attendance, according to Pushkin, represent a microcosm of the larger society. Pushkin, therefore uses this small society to draw the audience’s attention to the relationship between the living and the dead. He therefore uses this setting to pose the following questions: To what extent do the revelers at the feast act as a true microcosm of the larger society? We believe that the revelers expose only a small faction of society. However, their thoughts and experiences reflected in the play demonstrate that like the victims of the plague in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, the experience of a plague or catastrophe forces the individual to switch his/her already established convictions from the idealized belief in the glorified society, to the glorification of the individual self.


SIDE NOTE: *How is Mr. Walsingham represented at the feast? Does he truly embody the character of a chairman seated at the helm of affairs, or does he stand in a representative for the audience watching the play?


The idea of hosting a “feast” during a plague was to celebrate that most of Mr. Walsingham’s group is still alive; that’s why they shouldn’t grieve over their dead friend and they should drink to the fact that they are still alive, and for the memory of their dead friend, Jackson. The Feast symbolizes the consumption of lives, the toast itself symbolizes life though they are actually toasting for a loss of life. Their act of enjoying what is left of life overrides their emotions of grief to the loss of a friend. They were feasting in the street, while a cart that is weighted down with the bodies passes by. Were they ignoring the fact that the disease is contagious or were they just accepting that death is inevitable? The Chairman started the feast by Mary singing a sad song. Mary’s song compares the church before and during the plague by saying it was “full of folk,” and “the steeple bell would sound.” However, during plague the church became “mute and empty,” “like a burned, abandoned homestead”  (Pushkin, 96-97). This leaves us with a question: Why did people stop going to the church during the plague? Was it to avoid gathering because the disease is contagion?


In The Mask of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe, Prince Prospero, the main character, decided to isolate thousands of people from higher classes in an abbey to protect them from a contagious disease called the Red Death. In A Feast During the Plague, the group was also celebrating during a plague but they weren’t trying to protect themselves from the plague. The group seems to accept the inevitability of death because they are feasting, while a cart that is weighted down with bodies passes by.


The question of “the bond” between the living and the dead does not lie with the physical or emotional bond per se, but with the choice of either acknowledging or denying those ties. The introduction of Mary’s ballad proves that there is indeed a convergence between the worlds of the living and the dead. In Mary’s ballad, there is no glorification of the isolated individual as “…there is no such thing as “we”: our church, our children, our fields. And in the disaster […], everything is we” (Pushkin 185). In fact, her ballad introduces an actual, physical example of the graveyard where the worlds of the living and the dead converge. The belief in the bond between the living and the dead is further strengthened as there is a reinstatement that that dead were once a part of the community of the living. So, even though the dead are not physically present, there still exists an emotional connection between both worlds that help to strengthen the bond. Even Mr. Walsingham acknowledges the link between the living and the dead. Mr. Walsingham beliefs that “…the nearness of death is an experience that sharpens the edge of of life, which intensifies one’s joy in living” (Pushkin 191). From this statement, we can infer that the living and the dead share similar experiences as they’ve both had to live on the edge of life. The only differences arise as the dead have crossed over that edge and the living, who haven’t, then use their experience to intensify their joy of living.


Mary’s song:

In A Feast During the Plague, one of the most touching moments is Mary’s song. The operatic account depicts the horrors and struggles of the wretched plague, whilst also following the doomed relationship between two lovers of this time. The final two lines of her hymn–

“All is still — the graves alone

Thrive and toll the bell”

–illustrate the binary contrast between the context. There was both happiness and horror. Pushkin’s purpose of the libretto was to emphasize the benefit of living in the middle rather on two binary extremes. This binary motif is illustrated from the title itself “A Feast” being held during the “Plague” a time of repulse. Although Mary’s hymn is important in its illustration, it is essential to emphasize the contrast by Walsingham, which contains a different note. Nevertheless, the binary does portray rather in appealing features after a while, allowing the reader to become comfortable with living a middle-class life. This was important during Pushkin’s time at the turn of the 20th century, as many changes were taking place in Russia, and the importance of the middle class was not as apparent with the traditional folklore or stories of royalty. To conclude, Mary’s song holds an important role in the libretto by emphasizing a binary contrast of the context, and the extremes that many should avoid.


Unlike Mary and Mr. Walsingham, Louisa refuses to acknowledge that a bond exists between the living and the dead. As expressed by the thoughts and words of Louisa, it can be inferred that for a bond to be existing between the living and the dead, there has to be a clear mode of communication. Louisa perceives the dead “were muttering in some hideous, unknown language” (Mary, stanza 1, lines 4-5). What role does communication play in establishing a link between the worlds of the living and the dead? Is verbal communication necessarily the only means of establishing a link between the two realms? The foreignness of the language, as expressed by Louisa acts as a means of alienating the world of the living from the world of the dead. So, the dead living and communicating in their own world can interact with each other and the living can do the same. But, there exists no bridged mode of communication to the link the world of the living to the dead.


How does the theme of love blur the contrasts between the glorification of the individual or the society,as established by Pushkin? (Pgs. 185-6) The theme of love as presented through the relationship between Edmund and Mary provides the audience with more food for thought outside the ones already highlighted by Pushkin on page 182. Pushkin, from the start of the play, has demonstrated a stark contrast between the living and the dead, and the glorification of the sole individual as opposed to the glorification of the society. However, the love that exists between Mary (who’s alive but is frightful of the plague) and Edmund (her lover) proves that the living individual chooses to exit, not for their own self-glorification or revelry — like the attendants of the feast, but for the glorification of another individual.


Interestingly, the translator of the play, Nancy K. Anderson, calls the young man’s proposal to toast for Jackson, a dead member of the feast, a form of “ugly egotism”, that he, as a member of a community, only displays caring for the ones closest to him and not necessarily the entire society. And Nancy points that his egotism roots from the deepest fear that the young man has of his possibly imminent death. Yet, isn’t it justified for him to put his life first ahead of others’ in such situation? This poses a question on the effect of a plague on a society: if it seems that the human egotism to preserve their own selves is natural, is the crumbling of society, as commonly found in literary works that present plague, inevitable in the face of disasters?


In The King Oidipous and Journal of a Plague Year, there are agencies — Oidipous in the former and the government of London in the latter — that seem to be responsible for efforts in putting an end to the plague and preventing the communities from falling apart. It appears that the cure for the plague comes from these agencies: Oidipous being assassinated and the government exercising the policy of shutting up houses of the infected. Yet in Pushkin’s play, these agencies are ostensibly absent, and this absence is perhaps why the people channel their frustration for a seemingly endless plague by having the feast. We may say that Mr. Walsingham holds the authority in the microcosm he creates at the feast table, yet even his proposed solution is that of ignoring the reality rather than confronting it. When he is criticized by the priest for initiating the feast, he shows his unstable stance on the approach towards the plague. The absence of scapegoat to yell at (like Oidipous) or government to turn to is what fuels the chaos rather prominent in the play. Everyone is caught up in their inner conflicts, and the audience, who may or may not have experienced a plague creeping into their cities, can feel this. Like Mr. Walsingham, who is left with his own thoughts after the priest leaves, this play, leaves us, too, in contemplation.

— Odera, Dayin, Noora and Nada.

Everyday is like Sunday

[Originally posted in Feb. 2015]

I stumbled across this “pocket history” of the plague in London, 1348-1665, produced by the Museum of London, and the line “One eyewitness said that London became so quiet that every day was like a Sunday” made me think of Morrissey’s apocalyptic anthem from the start of my Cold War college years. Enjoy.

For Defoe-related material from previous years’ courses, see this convener’s post as well as one about the novel’s medical content — especially concerning competing beliefs about the plague’s origins. Also see this one about how to situate Defoe’s work in the history of the novel as a genre. If you browse back and forth around these posts you’ll find other useful content. Here’s a round-upwith links to some of the best additional posts on Defoe assembled over the last couple years.

Talk therapy

In addition to wrapping up our discussion of Sophocles today we’ll turn the corner to a consideration of the frame narrative for Boccaccio’s Decameron: a quick leap over a thousand-plus years in time.

What remains consistent between or at least similar in the plague frameworks for these works? That’s one question we’ll ask. But I’m struck by generic differences as well, especially the shift from theater to novellaThe Decameron is about storytelling, and the effects of storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about reading stories about storytelling. Note that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset. This invocation — and the predominance of female characters — will give us a good inroad to discuss the role of gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

A couple quick resources that may be useful to you: The best Boccaccio site I know of is the Decameron Web, a long-standing project of Brown University’s Italian Studies Department and Virtual Humanities Lab. In particular, pages devoted to the plague and to various literary contexts, medieval to postmodern, should be relevant to our discussions. Note the page devoted specifically to the narrative frame, which will take up much of our brief consideration of this work. You’ll find more resources at Columbia University’s Core Curriculum resource page for Boccaccio’s text.

That material can be glossed at your leisure. If you’d like a more specific and intensive engagement with recent criticism on The Decameron, you might want to look at recent special “Italian Issues” of the literary journal MLN. (You can view these search results from a secure NYU connection; almost all of the Italian issues have something re: Boccaccio.) Of special interest to us: Irene Albers, of the Freie Universität Berlin, writes about the specifically medical relationship between storytelling and the body in Boccaccio’s text. A few key excerpts should suggest why this would be an important topic for our consideration. She starts by focusing on two familiar approaches to the frame narrative: parallels between plague and other disorders (here, specifically, lovesickness), and the narrator’s claim that by beginning with the descriptions of plague, the pleasures brought by the hundred stories to follow will be heightened by contrast:

The analogy between Plague and lovesickness is also based on the fact that the emotions in Boccaccio’s work, according to premodern theories of emotion, are external instances and entities which “overcome” and “seize” the subject. They are not the result of “elezione,” but of the “appetito,” which does not obey the will.31 This is reflected by the use of common metaphors from the realm of nature, like the fire metaphors that often appear in passive constructions: “essendo acceso stato d’altissimo e nobile amore” (3); “in fiero furore accesa” (189); “dello amor di lui mi s’accese un fuoco nell’anima” (893); “di subita ira acceso.”32 In other cases, the passivity of the subjects is shown by verbs like “venire” and “cadere”: “ed andando gli venne un pensier molto pauroso nell’animo”; “cadde in un crudel pensiero” (165). The analogy between lovesickness and plague corresponds to the doubling of the frame: if the narrator in the “Proemio” offers his book to the women as a medicine for lovesickness and “malinconia,”33 the [End Page 34] “therapeutic fiction”34 of the frame means that the storytelling can offer protection from the Plague. Accordingly, one cannot understand the novellas as mere diversion from the catastrophe of the disease.

The final sentences there deserve our consideration in class this week: If we’re asking what purposes the plague frameworks serve, we have to ask whether storytelling here is merely a form of diversion from the plague’s devastation or if something bigger is at work. Albers argues that the characters themselves understand storytelling to have physiological, and potentially curative, effects on their bodies:

It is not in the novellas alone that characters react bodily and emotionally to what they see and hear. Such situations are also formed in the frame narrative, in the commentary following the individual novellas, in which the reactions of the brigata are conspicuously portrayed as bodily. This first occurs among the narrators: in the introduction to the tenth novella of the first day, Pampinea says that when a person wants to use storytelling to cause others to blush, he often ends up blushing himself.83 The same applies when one tells of others’ tears, “raccontar l’altrui lagrime” (354), the words with which Fiammetta announces the Ghismonda novella. The narrator of a novella also becomes moved himself—in rhetoric, this is a well-known requisite for the successful transfer of emotion to the audience.84 The occurrence of such a transfer is demonstrated by the many references to the audience’s blushing (63, 247, 560), sighing (392, 185), crying (159, 366, 763), “compassione” (159, 392, 418, 738), and above all, their at times uncontrollable and boisterous laughter (48, 71, 100, 142, 185, 479, 556, 575, 593, 644, 674, 681, 702, 710, 763, 802, 817, 842, 843). Often, multiple reactions occur simultaneously. After the Masetto novella (III.1) some of the women blush while the others laugh: “Essendo la [End Page 50] fine venuta della novella di Filostrato, della quale erano alcuna volta un poco le donne arrossate e alcuna altra se n’avean riso, piacque alla reina che Pampinea novellando seguisse” (247). Or the women blush first, only to break into laughter: “La novella da Dioneo raccontata prima con un poco di vergogna punse i cuori delle donne ascoltanti e con onesto rossore nel loro viso apparito ne diede segno; e poi quella, l’una l’altra guardando, appena del rider potendosi abstenere, soghignando ascoltarono” (63, cf. 560). The narrator of the Decameron apparently finds it important that speaking about passion and hearing novellas have direct bodily effects, causing, according to the medical assumptions of the epoch, either the expansion (in laughter) or the contraction (in weeping or sighing) of the heart. The humors are set into a motion that “cleans” the subject, or frees him from harmful emotions and humors.85

Is The Decameron holding up an early model for a talking cure? Let’s spend some time this week talking about the bodies in and the implied audiences for the texts we’re reading.

Image: The Decameron, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1837.

A Plague at Thebes

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

As I noted in that post, part of the reason we read this play at the beginning of this course is to recognize just how long the idea of plague as metaphor or literary device has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens, we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? And how might each work help us consider further the question we raised during our initial discussion: whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort.