Category: Conveners’ posts

Already gone

Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way they went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? It certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucratic modernity. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

The Whitehead/Defoe/zombie connection also pops up in this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?

Drugs, Body Fluids, and an Unearthly STD

“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future…and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness.”

Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.

We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.

With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”

“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.

The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?

An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?

Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations.  There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.

The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.

“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”

What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:

“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”

Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and  views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators? 

“[We’d] [talk about this] forever if [we] could…”

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

Responsibility in Epidemic, Again

Hello, hello, hello. We have less than a month guys, keep it up! Oh you want the convener’s post? Okay, let’s dive on in! (Geddit? Dive…like swimming…like Bucky…never mind).

In Philip Roth’s Nemesis, we have the opportunity to see how the devastating disease polio disrupt the city of Newark and it inhabitants. Through a first person narration (which interestingly most of the novel seems to be third person) by Bucky Cantor’s former playground student Arnold Mesnikoff, we see how polio can affect not only physically to the Newark population but also mentally and emotionally as well. Bucky’s rise and fall in the novel raises many important questions about responsibility, guilt, religion and justification.

The novel illuminates the theme of responsibility, as we can see from the ideals passed down from Bucky’s grandfather and the inner turmoil that Bucky has between staying in Newark and going to Indian Hill. As early as his childhood, Bucky has been learning the meaning of responsibility and duty. His grandfather, from the start, wanted to “teach the boy that a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility” (22). This he took to heart, applying it to every part of his life, from killing and cleaning the rat in the store and (for a good while) to his playground director job. Yet the rise of the polio contagion breaks this idealistic lifestyle. Moreover, the contagion serves to underline the idea of responsibility and how pressing it can be in such a dire situation. Does responsibility still matter in times of disease outbreak? Is it wrong to save yourself rather than save others?

In choosing between taking a job at Indian Hill and staying as the playground director in Newark, Bucky faces the difficult dilemma of fulfilling his obligation and fulfilling his duty as a fiance and family member. WIth the idea of responsibility embedded in him, he gives himself the burden, at first, of taking care of the children playing in the playground. He sees this as his duty, his moral and legal obligation. Therefore, he protects and shelters the children, he sees their families if they passed away and he makes sure the playground is clean and suitable for play. Nevertheless, as the polio epidemic increases, Bucky places more and more weight on his shoulders, setting up his breaking point when he breaks his duty and leaves for Indian Hill. But how can Bucky justify his self-imposed additions of responsibilities? His job was a playground director – a person who makes sure the playground has good upkeep and supervises children who play on it, not a therapist, social doctor or self-imposed superhero. Yet what makes him place more duties on himself when it wasn’t even in his realm of responsibility in the first place?

Blame is one of the central themes of the novel Nemesis. Bucky blames God for what has happened in the Newark. While talking with Doctor Steinberg he thinks “Does not God have a conscience? Where’s His responsibility? Or does He know no limits?” He thinks that if God created everything, then he should also have created Polio. His grandfather raised him to be a responsible person. When a disaster such as Polio struck his hometown he wanted to find the person responsible for the catastrophe.  As there was no one you could held responsible for such a big disaster he started blaming the God. Was he right in blaming God? Is God to be blamed for everything that happens in the world?

Later in the novel, we find that he shifts the blame to himself. He thinks that he is the one that brought calamity to the children of his hometown and to the children of the Indian Hill. He wanted someone to be held responsible for the adversity and he found that person-himself. He left Steinberg family not only because he wanted Marcia to have a better life but also to punish himself for what he thought was his crime.  Was punishing himself the right thing to do? Was he also punishing the Steinberg family by punishing himself?

Throughout the epidemic, Bucky constantly struggles with ideas of guilt and responsibility. As addressed above, he quietly asks the question,  who is to blame for the spread of polio? In the beginning Bucky believes that it is no one’s fault, but then as more people start looking for the responsible party, he scapegoats himself, and even blames God. However, towards the end, the narrator reasons the argument on guilt and responsibility, with chance.

“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.” (page 242-243)

Both the most and the least athletic kid got polio, both of them purely by chance. Bucky and Alan’s family struggle to comprehend why regardless of being the image of a perfect child and student, he still died of polio. Then, Bucky tries to understand how young strong men are killed in the war, side by side with little kids dying out of the merciless disease. The answer is always the same, “chance — the tyranny of contingency”. It is merely a chance whether you will die in a car accident the next moment, or die of heart attack in thirty years. Was Bucky really aiming at chance, when blaming God? Chance cancels out the possibility of holding a responsibility for spreading a disease. The act of infection is done by chance, and is independent of the act of carrying the disease. Bucky blames God for the creation of the distress, but if the contagion is purely by chance, then He is not to be blamed, or is He?

Summing all up, the conditions of an epidemic, as we have seen throughout all our  readings so far, question moral and ethical actions of both the community and the individual. Nemesis provides an insight into most of the dilemmas held during epidemic, from responsibility, guilt,  the struggle between the individual and the communal well-being, possible prevention, and God who created everything, including disease right? At the end, the narrator leaves everything to luck and chance, or not really.

“Maybe Bucky wasn’t mistaken. […] Maybe he was the invisible arrow.” (page 274-275)

What do you think readers? After all we have read throughout this course, is an epidemic anyone’s fault?


Have a happy reading and continue diving! 😉

Love, प्रेम, co љубов

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija

Animal? Human? What? Who?

Sinha’s Animal’s People is a novel that is composed of a collection or a series of tapes recorded by a 19 year old boy, the protagonist of the novel identifies himself as an “Animal.” He does not really remember the days before the horrible incident caused by the poisonous smoke and chemical leakage in the Kampani’s factory, resulting in many diseases and death of people living in Khaufpur. One of the victims of “that night” (4) incident is the protagonist, Animal. He got the disease at the age of six. He “could not even stand up straight. Further, further, forward [he] was bent. When the smelting in [his] spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of [him] was [his] arse” (15). Ever since then, Animal was teased and called, “‘Animal, jungle Animal!’” (16) by other kids and recognized that he was different from the normal people in appearance, differentiating himself from others and calling oneself, “Animal,” and therefore, going through an identity struggle.

Identity is one of the major themes in Sinha’s novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Animal addresses the issue of his identity: “I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being” (1). In this first statement, he says “used to be,” signifying that he no longer sees himself as a human after his appearance got distorted. The fact that Animal convinces himself to be viewed as an animal is evidently portrayed in the novel, especially in the earlier part of it. He says, “I no longer want to be human” (1). The following conversation between Zafar and Animal illustrate that Animal does not really know his origin and identifies himself as “Animal:”

“What’s your real name?”

“It’s Animal.”

“Animal’s a nickname, na? I mean your born name.”

“I don’t know.”

“My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” (23) 

The conversation above suggests that Animal has convinced himself not to be viewed as a human. While he is a human being, he denies his human nature and calls himself “Animal.” Do you think Animal is trying to run away from reality by seeing himself as Animal? Doesn’t this remind you of Walsingham who created the feast during the plague?

Animal’s identity struggle is further explored later in the novel, during the conversation between him and Zafar and Farouq, Animal says,

Zafar and Farouq have this in common, I should cease thinking of myself as an animal and become human again. Well, maybe if I’m cured, otherwise I’ll never do it and here’s why, if I agree to be a human being, I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape, just a different kind of animal from say Jara, or a cow, or a camel.

“I’m the only on there is of this type.”

“You pretend to be an animals so you can escape the responsibility of being human,” Farouq carries on.

“And I’m an animal, why?” I retorted. “By my choice or because others name me Animal and treated me like one?”

“You’re well enough looked after now,” says Farouq. “We are your friends. … To be accepted as a human being, you must behave like one. The more human you act, the more human you’ll be.” (206-208)

Do you agree with Zafar and Farouq that Animal should see himself as a human being? What does it really mean to be a human? What is the difference between a human and an animal? What does the title of the novel, “Animal’s People,” suggest about identity and difference between men and animals? Moreover, what makes and creates one’s identity? Is identity inborn, shaped by one’s experiences, or determined by other people’s point of view? (We asked this question in FYD, remember? ;))

Other than calling himself, Animal, due to his appearance, it is significant to note that he does not know his origin. While he was given a name when he was in the orphanage, he claims that he does not remember his born name. In order to understand one’s identity, it is crucial for one to know where one originates from. This seems to be a recurring theme in many novels. Even before the conversation between Zafar and Animal, Animal talks about his origin:

On that night I was found lying in a doorway, child of a few days, wrapped in a shawl. Whose was I? Nobody knew. Mother, father, neighbours, all must have died for no living soul came to claim me, who was coughing, frothing etc. plus nearly blind, where my eyes had screwed themselves against the burning fog were white slits bleached on the eyeballs. (14)

Not knowing his parents influences Animal to undergo inner struggle. While he shows hatred toward being called a human, the inner side of him illustrates that he yearns to be a human being, creating further inner struggle. This is explicitly seen when he desires and regains hope to stand on two legs when Elli, the American doctor comes and builds a health laboratory or clinic.

Another important aspect of this novel is the languages that it is composed of. The characters of this novel all speak different languages: English, Hindi, French and in some cases we could consider the sounds of nature as a language of its own. All these languages were combined in one novel for the Eyes to read. What is the purpose of this combination? To start with, the editor explains (at the beginning of the novel) that some idioms could not be translated into English, and that is why French is used throughout the text. And, since the story is based in India then it would make sense why Hindi is used. But, what if the combination of languages has an implicit meaning? It might be that, what has happened in Khaufpur was the responsibility of global governments?  Language is also strongly linked to identity, the French nun (Ma Franci) forgot all the languages she has learned other than her mother tongue. On another note, Animal is taught different languages. He he could understand the language of nature, and is taught other languages to blend in the community. Why does the author incorporate different languages? How does language affect one’s identity?

Along with all the language spoken throughout the novel, Animal seems to hear voices. These voices that are trapped in his head do not only speak to him, but also influence his actions and tell him the future. Surprisingly, Animal doesn’t see his situation as a problem; he embraces it. This is depicted when the French nun takes him to the doctor, and he asks the doctors about the possibility of walking on two legs rather than mentioning the voices. At that momment, he meets and speaks to Kha-in-the-jar. Are the voices Animal is hearing real or is he suffering from a mental illness? To what extent do these voices influence Animal’s actions?

Another significant theme of the novel is justice. The novel is not only the first book where the victims are not victims of a biological disease but a chemical one, but we are, also, informed of the group that is responsible for the cause of this plague. We know who is to blame for the cause of this story that Animal narrates; it is the Kampani factory and its workers. All the people of Khaufpur want justice. Zafar is the leader of their hope for justice. He is battling an on-going case of eighteen years in the courts against the Kampani group. Zafar is the symbol of hope for the people of Khaufpur. They trust that under his guidance, they will be compensated for the effects that they have lived with from that night. However, Zafar knows that the Kampani group has more power, connections and resources on their side but he still keeps his thoughts positive. He says,

“Friends, the Kampani sitting in Amrika has everything on its side, money powerful friends and the government and military, expensive lawyers, political masseurs, public relations men. We people have nothing, many of us haven’t an untorn shirt to wear, many of us go hungry, we have no money for lawyer and PR, we have no influential friends… The Kampani and its friends seek to wear us down with a long fight, but they don’t understand us, they’ve never come up against people like us before… having nothing means we have nothing to lose. So you see, armed with the power of nothing we are invincible, we are bound to win.” (54)

The people of Khaufpur had tremendous faith in Zafar and they knew that he could bring them justice. He reassured them with his actions and his devotion towards them. Should the people of Khaufpur have so much faith in one person or should they take justice into their own hands? What does justice mean to the people of Khaufpur? Do they really want justice or is a dream that Zafar has convinced everyone to believe in?

Ma Franci on the other hand does not believe that the cause of the night was the Kampani factory. She believes that it was the hand of god. She says, “this is his work, he’s up and running again, this time there’ll be no stopping him.” Animal thinks that Ma Franci is crazy to think that god would have this happen to his people. But Animal also does not like this god figure that Ma Franci refers to because he is always silent. Ma Franci thinks that the end of the world had begun that night but Animal tells us, “Sanjo was wrong. F****** world didn’t end. It’s still suffering” (64). Is it fair for the people of Khaufpur to suffer like this? What can be done to reduce the effects of the aftermath of the poisoning that occurred on that night?

The ideas about  identity, languages and voices, and justice are discussed throughout the novel. They all influence the actions of individuals and their beliefs regarding the cause of the chemical incident. We hope that we have provided interesting questions to discuss. Hope you guys enjoy the reading and the post!

p.s. We found an interesting video about the novel!

(Can you embed this again pls professor? Thank you. :))

– Jenny, Shereena, Rhoshenda 🙂


‘Nightmare’ of Ding Village

Set in an imaginary village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke is a story about rural Chinese citizens who lived through China’s Plasma Economy. It reveals the sufferings that arose from this profit-seeking campaign. The novel invites us to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, the time when farmers, or the villagers of Ding, awoke from dreams of wealth and prosperity to a fatal disease, their “dream” for a better life turned into a nightmare.

Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old boy and the narrator of the novel, is the son of Ding Hui, who was the village’s most scandalous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s doings, which was setting up Ding’s largest and unhygienic blood bank that eventually caused the spread of AIDS, while using the profit to improve his family’s house. In other words, he got what he ‘paid’ for and his son died for him. Once again, a son is punished for his father’s sins, does this sound familiar? After Ding Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as an observer watching over his father and grandfather. His omniscient narration gives us an insight on the daily life of the infected Ding Village and serves to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for the sick villagers while carrying the shame of his son’s actions. Even though the grandfather dreamt that this would lead to a disaster, he still persuaded people to do it, obeying the request of the “higher-ups.” Who do you think is to blame for the blood selling? Does the dream aspect of the novel remind you of a story we have read?

The father’s greed has caused tragedies upon Ding’s villagers; it had ‘cost’ people their lives. The blood business has become very competitive to the extent that he put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it around the village to collect blood. The blood selling business was booming and it seemed as though it became something sacred to them. The villagers “didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more; they believed in selling blood” and they sold it religiously (24). People seemed to be convinced that this trade will bring them more prosperity than religion. Selling blood became an ‘addiction’ and people’s veins started to feel like they will burst if they did not extract any blood. Once someone began to sell their blood, there was no coming back. They could not escape it just like they could not escape the fate that was coming their way (i.e. AIDS). The villagers have become so absurd that they were easily persuaded to sell their blood, even by the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and the other officials, particularly the former Mayor Li Sanren who absolutely condemned the campaign at first. Moreover, those who were against the idea at first had no other choice but to sell their blood as well due to social pressure. They were forced to give away part of themselves to be able to afford living in the village and feed themselves to survive. Little did they know, however, they were killing part of themselves by doing so. Why was instant gratification worth risking one’s life in this case? Whose fault is it that people had to resort to selling ‘part of themselves’ to make money? Is it an ethical way of dealing with loss of money (on the part of the government and on the part of the villagers)?

Bloodheads were getting out of control; they were demanding blood to the extent that they were bribing the villagers with words. They were like mad vampires, except they were able to walk in daylight. Ding Hui was the most manipulative bloodhead of all; he knew how to persuade the villagers to stretch out their arms to him and he made them think that when they get the money and live in comfortable conditions, that will, in turn, ‘stretch’ out their lives. A particular scene that shows how his bribery worked is when he convinced the resistant Li Sanren, the former mayor, to do just that:

While pushing his mobile blood bank round the village, Ding Hui saw Li Sanren working his field and asked him if he wanted to sell blood. Li Sanren angrily replied: “You Dings, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve milked this village dry.” Ding Hui, not wanting to lose a customer turns to Li Sanren, calling him “Mr. Mayor” which he knew was a strong way of getting him to listen, starts talking about the county cadres’ search for a new mayor. He then tells him that they had offered him the job but then exclaims: “Of course I’d never take the job, I told them there’s only one person in this village qualified to be mayor, and that’s you (87).

How effective is propaganda / manipulation in this situation? Those who benefitted financially from this scandal, such as Ding Hui, viewed this AIDS crisis as a good opportunity for making money. However, before the epidemic, when blood selling earned you money to live comfortably, everyone was happy about it. Only when the consequences of their decisions came, people started complaining. Do you think the people “asked for it?” Do they have the right to complain? Who is to blame for the start of the epidemic after all? Although it was the government who encouraged the trade at first, when people saw how beneficial this transaction was to their lives, they were willing to continue and sell more frequently each time.

Because doctors used unsanitary equipment for the procedures to lower costs and maximize profit, it was as though they were treating humans like production machines by disregarding their health and safety. The poor villagers were like slaves; the “higher-ups” were ‘buying’ their lives and benefitting from them, and then they left them to die. Would you consider this objectification? The villagers seemed to be even less than objects as they were treated with indifference and money was seen as more valuable than people. It is as though the father and the other bloodheads exemplified lack of empathy which is one of the characteristics of an ‘authoritarian personality.’

In addition to manipulation, indifference, instant gratification and ethics, other prominent underlying themes in this novel are power and pride. Ding Hui was a powerful man in Ding Village and he used his house as a reflection of this power. For instance, he refused to have a house on the same level as the other villagers: “When everyone else started building bricks-and-tile houses, my father [Ding Hui] tore down ours and built a new two-storey house. When everyone started building two-storey houses, my father added a third storey” (19-20). The people of Ding village were materialistic and used wealth to reflect their position in society. This is why Ding Hui bought all the unused machinery in the house, just to “show we could afford them.” (20). When the father was asked to apologize to the people for what he had done, his pride got in the way and, as a result, he said: “You’re not my father and I am not your son” (22). What do you make out of this situation? Do you believe that this reply was a consequence of the father’s powerful position? What do you think would have been his reply had he not been wealthy? Do you think that apologizing hinders one’s position or lifts it? What does Ding Hui think?

The theme of power also reoccurs when the county director visits the grandfather in school. The grandfather is asked to use his powerful and respectful position in the village to mobilize the selling of blood. The grandfather is in complete disapproval of the phenomena at first. However, due to the powerful position of the county director and the fact that he used his position to allow the grandfather to be nominated as a model teacher, he agreed to promote selling blood in the village. In the end, however, the grandfather becomes the caretaker of the sick villagers instead of the model teacher. This could be seen as the cost of choosing to obey the authority’s instructions in order for him to be raised to a better position (“You reap what you sow” [32]). Nevertheless, his efforts to help the sick at the school was done voluntarily out of compassion, restoring the humanity that was lost from the way the bloodheads treated the villagers. Do you believe what the grandfather did was morally justified (i.e. obeying authority to raise his position in society)? Is obeying authoritative figures more beneficial to the community than staying true to one’s self and moral standards?

The grandfather’s character reminds us of the doctor’s wife in the movie Blindness (2008) who did not catch the disease and remained in the asylum to take care of the sick. Both were willing to risk their lives and stay with the diseased to support them in their last days even with the idea that there was no cure (which the people did not know at the beginning of their stay in the school). Does risking one’s health, by any chance, remind you of Arthur Mervyn (1799)? Moreover, does the idea of secrecy and telling people there is a cure for AIDS (in the beginning) remind you of Dr. Rieux from The Plague (1947)? Another striking similarity to the movie Blindness is when the infected population created their own organized society in which the healthy held the role of the leader. Although the people did not get along at first and everyone was frustrated with their fate, they were forced to accept this destiny and work together for a better end to their lives. As we have seen in our previous readings as well, disease brings people together just like a celebration (shared feelings; the aim of ‘making most of today’). People collectively want to forget and that, as a result, intensifies their bonds. This is similar to Emily Davis’s quote from Priscilla Wald’s book: “The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” Can you draw a connection to Camus’s The Plague (1947) or Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague (1830)?

Lastly, in order to understand the bigger picture of the way Ding Village’s society works as a whole, we found it necessary to examine the major setting of the plot: the village school. Prior to the epidemic and the rise of the phenomena of selling blood, this place used to be “part of a village temple dedicated to Guan Yu, the god of wealth” (24). From this explanation alone, we can come to a conclusion about life during this period in Ding Village. It is safe to say that people were humbled and religious, and were also filled with hope that one day, they would have their share of wealth. Following this period, the action of blood selling was introduced in the village and that is when “they [the villagers] started getting rich from selling blood, [that] they tore down the temple” (24). The change brought by selling blood to this society was massive. The religious beliefs of this society collapsed as they found praying for wealth useless when compared to selling blood. During this period, the people of Ding Village found that the best use for this physical space is education which is when the school was built. Years after the school was built, the AIDS epidemic started, which is when this place took on a different role in benefiting the society; it served as a safe haven for those who suffered from AIDS.

This selfless act proposed by the grandfather has helped re-establish some of the values this place had prior to being a school; the values of giving without expecting anything in return. It once again became a symbol of hope, but a completely different type of hope. People no longer hoped for wealth and were no longer materialistic. Instead, they hoped for the recovery of their loved ones; they hoped to go back to the time before they sold their own blood for the sake of money; they hoped to restore the humanity in this society that seemed to have died the moment they extended their arms for a few yuans.

Happy reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali

Welcome to Our Conveners Post

The title of Phaswane Mpe’s novel may be Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but the xenophobia, racism and violence featured in the novel have the effect of making the reader want to turn and run the other way. Although this is post apartheid South Africa, the end of apartheid did not mean that all these social issues just magically disappeared, and the novel is, in a way, a criticism of the public’s failure to confront serious issues that hurt individual members of the wider society.

The novel is written in second person, with an unnamed narrator addressing a changing “you”. Indeed, the use of pronouns is extremely important to analyze, for it is through the language used in the novel that the themes of xenophobia and exclusion are delineated. The constantly repeated “our” and “your” serve to establish a distinct yet not very clearly defined group. The most fundamental element in defining a group is not only explicitly stating who is included, but also who is not; if everyone belonged then there is no point in there being a “group” at all. Welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow…but whose Hillbrow is it? Many people live in Hillbrow, from those who come from other parts of South Africa, such as Refentse the child of Tiragalong, to those who come from other African countries, the often discriminated against Makwerekwere. The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our.” Is the narrator speaking to Refentse as a “you” who is included with “us” or a “you” that is excluded?

There is a gradual shift in the usage of “our,” for slowly it starts to be applied to more foreign places and more abstract concepts than just the physical place of the Hillbrow: “our Alexandra”, “our Heathrow”, “our Humanity”, etc. This shift is also seen in the shift from the second person “you” that addresses Refentse, to the third person narration of Refilwe’s story, and eventually to the second person “you” addressing Refilwe and the warm “Welcome to Our Heaven.” Do we take this shift to imply a hopeful process of inclusion of the ostracized victims of AIDS? Or is it only a welcome to Heaven, the only haven from South African societies that reject them?

As the story unfolds, we are hit by wave after wave of highly dramatic events, a product of the turbulent times that the people of Hillbrow often xenophobically blame outsiders for:

It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came. (118)

Xenophobia is a social disease. By repelling people with different identities from other groups, people attempt to protect the purity of their exclusive communities. From this perspective, xenophobia is a fear of fusion, diversity, and change. The exclusiveness or solidarity in this context is quite different from the confusion of identities in Angels in America, in which people from different backgrounds suffer together after being abandoned by God. Racism still exists, but the mixture of identities seem to be so natural that people barely notice it, and don’t need to make an active effort to interact with Others. In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, however, xenophobia is so widespread that people share prejudice towards not only foreigners, but also people from other cultural backgrounds, races, districts, neighborhoods, or even families. The fear of witchcraft is an extreme example. When Refentse’s mother was “necklaced” to die simply because her accidentally slipping into the grave was interpreted as a sign of guilt, it becomes apparent that the paranoia of Tiragalong has reached a horrifying and unreasonable level. They are afraid, extremely afraid of anything remotely different or suspicious even if it is as unbelievable as witchcraft. Both the people of Tiragalong and Hillbrow are guilty of suspecting the other communities of “contaminating” them with social decay, but they forget that

no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS. That Tiragalong should know well enough that its children are no better than others; the necklacing of witches…cousins stabbing and shooting each other in Alexandra and Hillbrow…Terror raping innocent and defenceless women and girls in our Hillbrow – all these things are enough evidence of that. (123)

The issue with naming presents itself yet again, and the novel is deliberately tainted with euphemisms to show how AIDS was treated in the Hillbrow. Even the author’s expression of his frustration at the way AIDS was discussed was presented through a euphemism:

How does it happen that Hillbrow is so popular, but writers ignore it? you asked.

Oh! I think it’s too notorious for them to handle, an acquaintance had answered one day.

They never saw enough of Hillbrow to be able to try to write about it, another suggested.

You were forced to shrug your shoulders. Nobody appeared to have a convincing answer. [30]

The Hillbrow possibly acts as a euphemism for AIDS here, showing how discussions about AIDS and sexual intercourse are kept secret. This idea of secrecy allows Mpe to simultaneously provides a critique of post apartheid South Africa’s inability to move past the ineffective and vague language of euphemisms in order to tackle the still prevalent issues of racism, xenophobia and AIDS. When writing a story, Refentse decides to pick English rather than Sepedi, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi” (59). These limitations refer to the native society’s unwillingness to confront issues of sex and xenophobia. Refilwe realizes that “calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers.” [56] Euphemisms give characters a chance to make a value judgement on other characters. The difficulty with which issues such as these are accepted in society lead to the dehumanization of AIDS victims, and these euphemisms or inaccurate labels prevent society from accepting universal human values.

References to the syndrome were often hushed even though it was rampant. This has come up in previous texts we have studied, most notably Ibsen’s Ghosts and Kushner’s Angels in America. In Ghosts, the characters are unwilling to confront the social and moral decay that bred Oswald’s disease. Angels in America is highly critical of president Reagan for his refusal to address the AIDS epidemic for several years. Why are people afraid of directly addressing sex and disease? Does speaking about it increase its acceptance, and frequency of occurrence, in society if there are such things as societal standards that need to be adhered to? Conversely, does keeping it hidden prevent society from progressing, by undermining the prevalence of these very real issues in society?

We hope you have enjoyed “our” conveners’ post for this week!

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

To Progress or Not to Progress

The second part of Angels in America is entitled Perestroika for a reason. The first part mainly introduced the AIDS epidemic in America in the 80s, and thus generated a lot of debate about identity, sickness and imagination. This section focuses on progress, what is progress and different definitions of it. Following the characters in the play, we identified multiple perspectives when talking about progress.


Harper believes that new things we create are made from combinations of different informations we had and known before, a.k.a Fantasia. It’s the same with the progress too. We do not just progress into a new future, we progress into a future that is a combination of the past and our dream future. In page 285, when she is traveling in a plane, she says “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of a painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”. She sees the future that is painful because the future is neither the one we want or the one we had previously in the past. It’s the combination of both. Does progress have to be a radically, completely new change, or can it be more like fantasia?


In the play Prior and Harper are the ones that talk about progress and future. However, it is Louis and Joe who make progress. Joe leaves Harper to fulfill his sexual attraction and Louis leaves Prior. We don’t hear anything about progress from Joe and Louis but they are the making progress. Is progress only action, or can it be a change in thought instead? Also just because Louis and Joe do something “different”, does that constitute as “progress”?


Harper in page 263 says that “Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate, build things.” According to her, progress and change comes only after devastation. So, progress is not actually a good thing because before progress there is devastation. She talks about ozone layer depletion and ice caps melting. These are the symptoms of devastation. Progress and change will be followed by it. Similarly, progress also has a negative connotation in Prior’s dream. It makes the God flee. God does not like progress and change. Why do you think the God fled when people moved and progressed?  What is the relationship between progress and their version of God?


Prior, on the other hand, argues progress with the Assembly of the Continental Principalities. The Assembly is concerned about the upcoming Chernobyl disaster, the largest nuclear disaster in human history up to date, forecasting the Millenium, “[n]ot the year two thousand, but the capital-M Millenium” (page 289). The approaching of the Millenium is a belief held by some Christian denominations (including Mormons) that there will be Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which “Christ will reign” for 1000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state. However, it is believed the Millenium will be forecasted by man-made catastrophes, thus the concern for the upcoming Chernobyl disaster. The Angels are afraid of the deaths to follow, and are shocked by Prior’s demand for more life. His “addiction to being alive” is unknowable to the seven Angels who cannot understand how does one desire more life when only death is to follow?  Why are the Angles scared of death? Why do they demand cessation instead of progress? Should we lay our future in God’s hands or make the progress ourselves? Prior, the Prophet, presents them with the idea behind modernity and progress:

“We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. (On “for” he makes a motion with his hand: starting one place, moving forward) Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what. God–“ (page 275)


Prior’s conversation with the Angel on page 172 and 278-279 reveals the conflicting attitudes between man and entity. The Angel wants humans to stop “moving forward” and “progressing” because it believes that this is why God left the heavens and earth. Prior initially resists very timidly, saying he does not want the prophet job. Later when Prior is in heaven, he humbly rejects the angels’ offers of cure and instead states he “wants more life.” He lauds the “addiction to being alive” and the idea of “hope” in staying alive. Through these passages, it seems like Kushner is criticizing Republican ideals. 20th century Republicanism generally is conservative, which means it wants to retain old ideals/methods and is usually against change. 20th century Democrats generally are supporters of liberalism, usually advocating what they call “progress” and “change.” Throughout the last century in US history, the Democrats mostly were the first ones to support the gay community and gay rights (which might explain why Kushner in his introduction was relieved that Obama won the 2012 election). If we are to attribute this Angel as the Angel of America, then one can see how America is still chained to stagnation. The Angel’s goal is to stem growth and progress but it is up to people like Prior to break free from these restraints and actually create change. Yet what constitutes change? What does it mean to be civilized? If we have freedom of thought and ideas, then why is Kushner bashing on Republicans? Even if it is not a popular chain of thought wouldn’t attacking the Republicans be a contradiction to the free thought that Kushner is preaching here?


What is progress for you readers?


Love, प्रेम, co љубов,

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija

Millennium Approaches and Change Approaches

In Angels in America, the author of the play, Tony Kushner, explores many issues such as homosexuality, identity, religion, politics and ghosts. Part One of the play, “Millennium Approaches,” deals specifically with how people, especially those in America, react to homosexuality. Generally, the response is quite negative. While we all know that Joe is a homosexual, in the initial part of the play, he denies that he is gay. This first scene of denial is seen when Joe and Louis talk about Republicanism. When Joe says, “I voted for Reagan,” Louis calls Joe, “A Gay Republican” (Act I, Scene 6). In response, Joe quickly says, “I’m not—,” thereby showing that he’s denying his true self. He continues to deny whenever the topic of him being gay comes out. When Joe declines to have sexual intercourse with Harper, Harper asks, “Are you a homo?” (Act I, Scene 8). At first Joe hesitates but then replies that he isn’t. These two scenes show that there’s a possibility of Joe being gay. While he denies the fact that he is gay because such an idenity is degraded and discouraged both by his religion, Mormonism, and American society at large, in both scenes he shows hesitation before denying: “I’m not—” and takes some time before replying to his wife, Harper. The reactions in these scenes bring up specific questions. How do people generally act or react toward homosexuals? Is it right to criticize them? What is the right or moral way to react or respond to homosexuals? How is the idea of homosexuality explored in the play? Did the play change your mind about homosexuality?

The inner or identity struggle that Joe faces is clearly depicted in Act 2 Scene 2, in which he describes Jacob wrestling with an angel:

I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I’d look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don’t really remember the story, or why the wrestling—just the picture. Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is … a beautiful man, with golden hair and wins, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights. I’m … It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s. But you can’t not lose. (Act 2, Scene 2)

Through the metaphor of the angel, Joe implies that he is struggling with homosexuality. Because he is a devout Mormon, his religious beliefs repress his homosexuality. In this metaphor, the angel symbolizes Joe’s difficulty in understanding God’s will or purpose. The battle seems to represent his struggle to overcome or deny his character or the nature of his homosexuality. Losing in this battle also seems to foreshadow that he will eventually accept his sexuality. What do you guys think of this wrestling scene? What’s the significance of this scene? What do you think the losing of the battle symbolizes or suggest?

Eventually, in Act 2, Scene 8, when Joe talks to Hannah, his mother, Joe faces and admits that he is gay: “Mom. Momma. I’m a homosexual, Momma” (Act 2, Scene 8). Unfortunately, his mother’s response is negative and quite hurtful. At first she does not say anything. Afterwards she says, “You’re old enough to understand that your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it… You’re ridiculous. You’re being ridiculous” (Act 2, Scene 8). The repetition of the word “ridiculous” emphasizes that the mother does not accept Joe being gay and that it is something very wrong and against the rules or laws in both Mormonism and the larger society. The stage directions also show that Hannah was quite upset and she warns him saying, “Drinking is a sin! A sin! I raised you better than that.” While she was referring to drinking, she was also referring to his confession. Once again, through his mother’s response, we can see that homosexuals are degraded and looked down upon in American society. If you were the mother, how would you have reacted?

Through homosexuality, Kushner also introduces one of the greatest health issues from the 1980s to the present, AIDS. The disease is first introduced in the play as Kaposi’s sarcomas in Act I, Scene 4. During the conversation between Prior and Louis, Prior says, “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Look it. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (Act I, Scene 4). The angel of death signifies that K.S. is detrimental. But, what does wine-dark kiss suggest? Why was the disease compared to a wine-dark kiss? Does the color of red wine suggest blood, signifying death? We find this comparison quite interesting. What do you guys think? Moreover, how does the disease, AIDS, affect the lives of the characters in the play?

Another theme which the play outlines is movement. Movement, whether it is physically from one location to another or psychologically from one state to another usually symbolizes new beginnings. It provides a second chance, a new beginning with nothing from the past to hold you down. In Angels of America, we see that Harper is struggling with her life and when Joe asks her to move with him to Washington she refuses. A new place, new job and a new neighborhood would give her a chance to start again. Yet,with change and new beginnings also comes fear. That is the reason Harper decides to stay. At the very beginning of the play we witness the funeral of an old lady called Sarah, who has moved from Eastern Europe to America for a better life. Despite her fears, she was capable of building new future for her sons. Is movement always a positive change? Does movement always symbolize new beginnings? At this stage in the play America is portrayed to be the land of freedom, equality and new beginnings. It is the land where dreams come true. Is this how America will be portrayed throughout the play? Or is the ‘American Dream’ merely propaganda?

Similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Millennium Approaches also addresses the idea of ghosts. In the play, Prior is confronted by two ghosts also called Prior Walter. In conversation, Prior 1 and Prior 2 explain that they both die of the same plague that the resent Prior is about to die from. They explain the process of their death but tell Prior that they had their wives and children with them because they were married. Prior explains however that he will die alone because he has no wife and children since he is gay. The idea that Prior is dying of the same disease as his predecessors coincides with Mrs. Alving’s claim that ghosts haunt us. These ghosts that are the behaviours of our those that came before us. Prior could not run from his fate, he was going to die of the plague. None of the previous Prior Walter(s) could have escaped their fate just as Oedipus could not escape his. Do you think that if Prior had met his ghosts earlier he could have saved himself from his fate? What is the significance of the ghosts in the play? 

The themes discussed in this play are still topics discussed today. The idea of giving human rights to gay people is a topic debated by politicians, church congregations, and the average man across the world. The topic of AIDS and finding a cure is mentioned in every medical conference. Issues of democracy, racism and religion are debated everywhere. They all promised us that change was coming. How much have we really changed?

While thinking about these questions, perhaps you may enjoy this trailer for Angels in America as presented by Signature Theatre Company.

Happy reading!

Rhoshenda, Jenny, Shereena.

Did you say “Plague”?!

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus is narrated by an anonymous character who declares that the purpose of his narration is to provide an objective account of a historical event, the arrival of the plague in Oran. One prominent theme present in this novel is indifference and denial of the plague by not just the general public, but also the doctors and the state. In addition to indifference and denial, we will also look at the ways in which people respond to the epidemic. The main question we will ask is: is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?

Before we begin, it is necessary to provide a little context which will help explain why people acted the way they did in the story. Oran is an “ugly” town with people who are mainly concerned about maximizing profit and business. Every day, they follow the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and trivial love affairs. The narrator describes Oran as a busy town where people are always occupied with activities that require good health and thus, illness is not the “norm” and the very few who become ill are unnoticeable. One important aspect of the town is that the citizens are “humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” (30). He calls Oran “a dry place” both physically (due to the horrible climate) and, most importantly, spiritually, meaning the “dryness” of its people, i.e. their lack of emotional concern about others.

The story starts with the unusual discoveries of dead rats covered in blood around the town both indoors and outdoors. The townspeople “had never thought that [their] little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas” [emphasis added] (20). For instance, a “boy was very excited by the business of the rats” but his father said, “we don’t talk about rats at table…From now on, I forbid you to mention the word” (24). Moreover, Castel, Dr. Rieux’s colleague mentioned that he has encountered something fairly similar to a situation of an epidemic in Paris but “no one dared put a name on it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic” (29). Do you think that because these people are stuck in their own paradigm, i.e. being optimistic or fatalistic (24), makes them deny the seriousness of this disease (note when Dr. Rieux started to contemplate: “He could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town” [37])? Do tradition and social pressure play a role in the spread of a disease?

The Plague is an account that provides a description of the various ways people react and respond to an epidemic. It is evident how the idea of denial, or at least indifference, is present throughout the book. In the beginning, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a succumbed rat on the ground in his building but does not give much thought to it, only after the number of dead rats increased day by day. The public begins to feel anxious due to the rapid growth of the dead rats but little action is being taken to solve the problem. No one seems to want to deviate their attention from themselves and their reclusive routines to deal with the situation. Moreover, when Rieux meets his mother and tells her about the rats, she was “not surprised” and said that “things like that happen” (13). In addition, when the priest mentions that “it must be an epidemic,” there was a complete shift in scene and no attention or concern was given to what was said (16).

Furthermore, some people have acknowledged that this disease is “fatal” but they cannot bring themselves to explain that it is potentially a “plague” (25) and “the press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent” (29). In fact, doctors who are only aware of two or three cases did not think it was necessary to do anything (29). Dr. Rieux also predicts that the government will keep silent as well. We can also see how Dr. Richard chooses to “not give away to panic”; how him and some of his colleagues mentioned that it was dangerous to jump to conclusions in science; and how the Prefect chooses to keep quiet about the disease (38). Only later did the Prefect take some preventive measures.

On the other hand, Dr. Rieux says that “perhaps we should make up our minds to call this disease by its proper name” (34). He mentions that when a microbe is capable of increasing, “that is precisely when we should rush to do something…If the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months” (39) and “if we don’t acknowledge it…it still threatens to kill half the population of the town” (40). Do you think that because the state kept quiet about the disease (the papers do mention the rats with no reference to a disease), that this could have contributed to the spread of the plague? From the examples above, it is plausible to think that the more one keeps quiet about a disease, the more likely the disease will spread because people will not take safety precautions since they have no knowledge a plague exists. Do you think the state and the doctors kept quiet so that they would not occupy people’s minds with the possibility of the disease as the distress and acknowledgment could make them susceptible to the plague? As in, not scaring them with “unnecessary” information that could contribute to their overall well-being?

Thus, we can see that during an epidemic, the narrator believes that not only is the disease contagious but also the way people react to it or rather how they react to the authority’s procedures: “once the gates were closed….a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, a feeling of a whole people” (53). What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?

The plague has changed the way people react in their day to day life. There is a very interesting relationship change between individuals during an epidemic. It is even more fascinating in our case given the previous description of the town of Oran. When the city gates were open for people who already left before the time of the epidemic and wished to be reunited with their loved ones, the city saw “only one case where human feelings proved stronger than horrible death” (55). One might expect that since the people of Oran were so disconnected from one another, the silver lining of the plague may be the rebirth of a sense of unity and belonging to the people of Oran. Still, it seems that people did prioritize their own health over their unification with their loved ones. Are they to be blamed? Did this disconnect happen to avoid empathy, or is it because they cared only for their well-being?  

As an endnote, we would like to link this to one of our previous readings: The Plague relates to Pushkin’s piece A Feast During the Plague (1830). In this play, the revelers choose to isolate themselves from the raging epidemic and continue living their lives normally, as if there was nothing going on that concerns them. They could have also been in a state of denial, just like the people of Oran, where they did not want to drown themselves in the sufferings of others. As we learn from the narrator’s descriptions, most of the people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind” and this caused their indifference to traumas such as the plague. Is Walsingham perhaps similarly indifferent or in denial like the people of Oran by calling for a celebration? What about the rest of the revelers? In fact, can their feast that was organized as a society possibly represent a place like Oran and its reaction to this epidemic?

Happy Reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali

Pale Eternity

In this class, we have read quite a few depressing books, but never one that began so ominously. The Pale Horse and its Pale Rider could not have been mistaken for anything other than a reference to death. Indeed, in the Bible, he is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who ride when the world ends – or in 1918 during the bleak hopelessness of the First World War. Death is an underlying theme that lurks throughout the story. It is in the newspapers and the words that people say; it is across the ocean where young men are the “sacrificial lambs” sent to their own demise; it is on the streets in the shape of endless funeral processions and the ever-spreading influenza; and it pervades Miranda’s dreams and intrudes upon her reality when it takes her loved ones away in succession.

The novel depicts a warping of Miranda’s dreams, her reality and her imagination. She constantly drifts in and out of sleep. The text begins with a dream about the “lank, greenish” stranger (presumably the Pale Rider) riding on a horse beside her. This play between fantasy and reality is crucial to the understanding of the text. She is clearly upset and reconciles with herself that the cause of this “uneasiness is not all imagination.”

She is lonely, stating that “the worst thing in the war for the stay-at-homes is that there isn’t anyone to talk to any more”. She explains her loneliness through her description of human eyes and her inability to empathize with other eyes. “The worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in the eyes you meet.” It is morbid that she cannot empathize with anyone, even those she agrees with, like the girl in the car who also believed visiting the soldiers was pointless. Imagine a scenario where you cannot connect with anyone, when you are so distanced from the rest of humanity that it is like they are suffering from a contagion and you are the only survivor, the only one with “sanity”. Or is it you who is wrong, who cannot join the giggly girls who visit the soldiers?


She tries to escape this feeling of being isolated, first by trying to run away from her physical surroundings with Adam and later in the digressions in her thoughts, when she vividly describes Adam and their shared interests and experiences. This helps to illustrate a duality between the physical and the mental effects of the plague. She says “what it does to [the mind and the heart] is worse than what it does to the body.” While she does have “pains in [her] chest and [her] head,” her dreams and nightmares always feature the more painful thoughts of violence and death. However, she seamlessly transitions into descriptions of beautiful sunlight and calming ocean waves. This reflects her inability to reconcile the phenomenon of death in her mind. On the one hand she accepts death to be an “eternity” and describes it as a phenomenon where the senses are diminished, or reduced, where there is “silence” and everything is “white” and is devoid of colour. On the other hand, she is “no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence.” The acceptance of death versus the “stubborn will to live” is an aspect that is central to all victims and patients, whether dying of depression influenza or World War 1. Thus, death is really the eternity that unifies the contagion, the war, and terminates everything.

Even in life, Adam and Miranda feel a sense of eternity they know is not actually possible. “Seems to me I’ve been in the army all my life,” commented Adam once. We as humans do have a tendency to adapt, becoming accustomed even to having death constantly hanging over our heads. Porter’s dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness technique of writing warps and almost extends the time over which the story takes place. Indeed, what we have seen is only the slightest sliver of the war and of Miranda’s life. It is easy to forget that “[s]he had seen him first ten days ago,” when it felt like an eternity packed with dancing, dull theatres, mountain climbing and geological museums. We are faced with this abrupt finality to an eternity only at the end:


 “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”


But what does it mean that there is time for everything? Is Miranda dead when she narrates her account of the hospital towards the end of the book? Is she dead when she sees Adam and says that he was “a ghost but more alive than she was”? There is no more war and no more plague and there is time for everything. But since death is the eternity, has she transcended the war and the plague and moved on into this eternity?

For Miranda, there is also no more Adam. Is it a hopeful note that Miranda and America will recover, or is it more of a bitter, ironic statement? It is more likely the latter, when in the silence all that is left are the snapshots of Adam “looking very free and windblown,” but fixed forever. It is interesting to note that this is a quality even the living Adam had: he “raised his hand” instead of waving goodbye, “his brows fixed in a straight frown”; or “set in blind melancholy” seen through a dingy window. He always stood “fixed,” as though it was always his destiny to become a snapshot memory.


Adam is a very significant character in this novel, not only as Miranda’s lover, but also as one of the sacrificial lambs of America. Although Miranda is highly obsessed with Adam and carefully observes and describes Adam’s characteristics and behaviors, the figure of Adam is still vague for us. Perhaps it is because he is already distant as a doomed man, but perhaps be

cause it isn’t clear how he feels about the war. On one hand, his joke about the “average life expectation of a sapping party” being just nine minutes can speak of underlying resentment. On the other hand, when he defends the Liberty Bonds salesman, “[h]is pride in his youth, his forbearance and tolerance and contempt for that unlucky breathed out of his very pores. As Miranda sees it, “[t]here is no resentment or revolt in him. Pure, she thought, all the way through, flawless, complete, as the sacrificial lamb must be”.

Why did Miranda fall in love with Adam so quickly? Does she fall in love with Adam or her image of him? Can we assume that Miranda embraces him because of his purity and his adoption of the “American values” that she lacks? From this perspective, Adam is the lighthouse among all of her depressed imaginations and she heaps all her remaining hopes on him. Miranda’s love towards Adam, therefore, can be interpreted as her quest for social virtues or goodness. But again, we also want to ask that if Adam is really as innocently accepting of his fate as Miranda perceives? Since she is the narrator of this novel, does she in fact manipulate or beautify Adam’s figure? As we said before, already he is hazy and far away. Now that the war is over, will Miranda’s depression be alleviated or will the loss of Adam be too catastrophic to allow that?

We hope we have raised some thoughtful questions for this week’s discussion!

Happy(?) Reading!

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.