Category: Conveners’ posts

Ignorance is Bliss….Or is it?

What a journey! We have traveled to so many places such as Ancient Greece and Pre-Industrial London where we have seen how plague affects human society.

In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, we see a recurring theme of truth that has emerged in other books we have read, especially in Oedipus. Similar to the Greek tragedy, the major characters in Ghosts do not know each other’s true identities until the latter half of the play. Originally, Regine is thought to be a simple housemaid who is the daughter of Engstrand, but both the reader and the characters later discover that she is actually the product of Mrs. Alving’s dead husband’s illicit affair. Therefore, Oswald and Regine are half-siblings, making their love(?) for each other almost incestual, in comparison to Oedipus and his mother-wife. This relates to one of the central questions of this play: What exactly is truth and how are we supposed to wield it?

We see the word “truth” pop up in the play many times. One of the first times we see it is when Manders is condemning Mrs. Alving for not taking better care of her son, Oswald, since Oswald now holds very liberal views on topics like marriage. He  states, “Mrs. Alving, you are in truth a very guilty mother … I see it as my duty to tell you this” (Ibsen 115).  Manders appoints himself to be the moral police as the religious leader of the region, yet as we see later on, he has some flaws as well. After this, Mrs. Alving replies with her anecdote on her husband and we see the word “truth” appear again: “But now, Pastor Manders, now I’m going to tell you the truth. I swore to myself that one day you should know” (Ibsen 116). What follows reveals a tragic secret of a vileness hidden by a perfect facade. Truth has the ability to reveal, but is it a force for good?

    We can also discern a struggle that comes from this idea of truth in the play. In Act Two, an argument occurs between Manders and Mrs. Alving over whether Mrs. Alving should tell Oswald about the truth concerning his father. Manders is afraid that it will shatter Oswald’s “ideals”, to which Mrs. Alving responds: “but what about the truth?”(Ibsen 124). This conflict between truth and ideals reveals something not only crucial to this play, but also to our common humanity. Was it the right thing for Oedipus to be told his true actions? Does the priest in Pushkin represent a sort of “truth” or rather just a set of ideals? Can an ideal be truth?

    Well how does this relate to the class? Do not fear fellow classmates, we did not forget the “contagion” aspect of the play. Again, we think it relates to the morality of truth. In the play, Oswald has two major alone moments with his mother in which we see him struggle whether to tell his mother about his fatal illness or not. The first time they are alone for a significant time together, Oswald beats around the bush about his brain problem, making it more abstract, saying “Mother, it’s my mind that’s given way… destroyed … I’ll never be able to work again!”(Ibsen 137). On the flip side, Mrs. Alving is also hiding truth from her son. The stage directions/movements during this scene indicate anxiety, shock, and fear (“jumps up, pale and trembling”). She knows that his father had the same problem.

The disease that Oswald is suffering from is a hereditary one. At first he did not believe that such a disease could have come from his father. He had a very high regard for his father so he took the blame on himself.  He claims the illness he has is mainly because of the way he lived his life, and he only realizes the truth at the very end of the play. However, we know that it is hereditary, and not only had he inherited the disease, but he also inherited his drinking habits and debauchery. For instance, Oswald asks his mother, “You must have some of that cold punch in the house, haven’t you” (Ibsen 139). He also flirts with Regine. Evidently, he is into drinking and is reprobate, other contagions that he inherited from his father.

Mrs Alving was working hard to establish the Orphanage to maintain her husband’s good name, just like she used to preach good things about her husband when he was alive. With the Orphanage, she is trying to hide the truth about her husband. However, the Orphanage gets destroyed by the fire. This is a sign that Mr Alving will no longer hide the truth and eventually, she tells the truth to her son. Later, we also discover that Manders accepts to support Engstrand’s saloon called “Captain Alving’s Home”,  which is essentially a  brothel and will be a place of debauchery just like the real Captain’s character.

Moreover, the sun is the symbol of truth in the play. Oswald comes back home looking for truth and support. Just like the sun, he does not get to know and see the truth since Mrs Alving hides it from him. She believes that hiding it will do her and Oswald good. As the play progresses she wants to release her secrets, as she feels that she has kept it to herself for too long. But was she correct in telling the truth? Was Manders correct in asking her not to reveal it? However, even though she eventually reveals the truth to her son, it does not help him. Truth, which was thought to be a source of enlightenment, turns out to be the source of madness. Regine leaves Oswald, Mrs Alving does not acquire inner peace and Oswald goes crazy. The play ends with the sun coming up and Oswald says, “The sun…The sun”.(Ibsen 164).

Of course, we only touched on some of the topics that are raised in the play; we’re sure you guys found many more. We hope that what we provided you will raise some significant insights into the play and into the relevance of truth with regards to contagion.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable”

  • James Garfield

Love, प्रेम, co љубов

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija

Feast-Microcosm, Escape of Reality?

As we continue to read and contemplate on the topic of contagion, in A Feast During the Plague,  we see different responses of people to the plagues or diseases. But, it is interesting to note that there is a common recurrent reaction to the plague among the books we have read or discussed. In Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, while a dreadful loathsome plague continues to spread and kill the people in the village, interestingly, Walsingham (the Chairman) and others feast, similar to that of Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In the latter novel, the seven young women and three men leave the plagued city; on their journey, they choose a leader or a Queen who suggests each one of them to tell a story to entertain themselves. As already observed in the title of the play, some questions linger.

What is the significance of the feast during the plague? Why do people feast while their beloved ones are dying out there? Is it justifiable to be happy or feast while there are people suffering and dying? Just like in Decameron, are they trying to avoid the dreadful situation? Is it possible that Walsingham and others are trying to create a microcosm, through which they can escape the sad unwanted reality?

In the middle of the play, Walsingham sings and directly states the purpose of the feast during the plague. While questioning himself through singing what they can do, he says,

Old Man Winter we’ve beat back;

That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!

We’ll light the fire and fill the cup

And pass it round– a merry scene! (150-153) 

These lines of Walsingham demonstrate that they, especially Walsingham himself, are trying to forget  the current horrible wretched situation caused by the plague by mirthfully feasting or by creating a microcosm, the feast to escape reality. However, is it really possible to escape the reality? Pushkin questions the readers if it’s worth a try to avoid the horrible sickly situation. Through the appearance of the Priest near the end, Pushkin suggests that it is useless to avoid reality; one should confront the reality. This is illustrated when the Priest chastises and questions Walsingham for feasting while his beloved ones and others are dead. Eventually, because of the Priest, Walsingham again goes through the pain of agony. He is lost in contemplation, neither repenting nor reveling. The Chairman’s contemplation also leaves us, the readers, to also contemplate about question of facing or escaping of reality.

But, it is also interesting to note that while Walsingham tried to avoid the reality, throughout the play, it seems that he was not able to. Even from the very beginning of the play, the people in the feast are reminded of one of their friends, Jackson, who’s dead due to the plague. This irony of facing the plague while they try to escape through the feast is also seen when Walsingham asks Mary to sing “something sad and haunting, / To make us turn again to our merrymaking” (28-29). Mary’s song is a juxtaposition of the past and the present situation, which is full of dreadful mournful details. Even though they are feasting, whether they realize it or not, the people in the feast have been actually still confronting the reality.

The plague is also seen as a “guest” (8) like in the Journal of the Plague. Remember when the word of “visited” was used in the novel? It is interesting to see that many writers compare the plague as a guest. Probably the guest is like an unwelcomed or unwanted guest. But in this play, it also seems that the plague is very powerful. It is compared to a queen: “Now Pestilence, that queen of dread, / In triumph rides among the dead” (144-145). Why does Pushkin compare the plague to a queen? Why to a female, not a king? Is there a gender issue confronted in this play? We think that this is also an interesting question to think about.

Religion plays a significant role in this play too. The novels we have read included a religious figure. In the play, Oedipus The King  the priest stands by the people and the leader. He is portrayed, by Sophocles, as a respected figure in the community as he supported the ruling family. Although, the priest in A Feast During The Play held a prominent position he is not respected by the people. There is no doubt that both priests were wise and religious, but one was respected by the public more than the other. Why are these religious figures recurrent in the novels? What do they represent and what is their significance? We will attempt to explore these questions by examining the priest in A Feast During The Plague. He is considered to be the enemy since he showed up at the feast without being invited land rudely approached the young group in an attempt to stop their gathering. He did so by questioning their morality; how could they have a feast when their loved ones have passed away. He questions their grief by reminding some of them of how they responded when someone dear to them died. Perhaps, the priest is an extended metaphor of the young people’s conscience. The feast, to them, is an escape from the pain they are facing and plague of the city. The young men and women have tried to isolate themselves from the grief and to enjoy their time. However, their conscience (the priest) attempts to remind them of reality. The entrance of the priest whether literal or metaphorical signifies how different people from various generation grieve. The interaction between the two generation shows the change of ideas on the plague.

While it is significant to read Pushkin’s play, it is still important to make a comparison between Pushkin and Wilson in order to have a better understanding of the point of view of each author. When comparing these two pieces there were many similarities and differences. What the plays had in common was the use of prose and poetry to evoke emotion from the reader and the reference to the plague as a visitor. Before reading the play, it is quite obvious that the structure of the play is in prose however, when Mary sings and the chairman recites his poem, the authors keeps the use of poetry and the rhyming pattern. This shows that while the translation of the play may vary, the emotion that the author wants the audience to feel is the same. They both want their audience to feel the effects of the plague. Secondly, both authors keep the reference to the plague as a visitor in the translation. By doing this, they personify the plague and brings the plague to life as if it were another character in the play. This also adds to the emotional aspect of the play and makes the plague more tangible.

On the other hand, there were some differences; however, two differences that stood out the most were the title of the play and the language used. Wilson named the play The City of the Plague. This shows that Wilson wrote the play from the perspective of everyone in the city while Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague title shows that he was only concerned with this feast that took place during the plague and what this feast meant. The language used was very different as well. Wilson, having published this play in 1816, wrote in an old English that, for modern readers, was quite hard to understand. Pushkin on the other hand adapted the play in Russian which was then translated to a modern English by Anderson as a contemporary writer. Both storylines were the same, but no extra meaning of the play was sacrificed based on the differences between these two piece of literature.

Hope we have made interesting points to talk about. Happy reading! :))

p.s. Even though it is in Russian, we thought that it is interesting to still post this video because this writing is a play, something we can watch. 🙂



Jenny, Shereena, Rhoshenda

Recurring Themes: Sacrifice, Loyalty and Determination

The story of Arthur Mervyn (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown was based on the yellow fever epidemic that had struck Philadelphia, then the capital of America, in 1793. The novel’s prominent themes include sacrifice, loyalty and determination. As is evident below, these themes are interlinked and are essential forces that drive the characters and the novel.

Sacrifice is a theme which we have encountered before in Defoe’s reading and will be re-exploring them in Arthur Mervyn. In Defoe’s novel, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), we saw sacrifice of family and values for the ‘sake of survival.’ Sacrifice does reemerge in Arthur Mervyn but in totally different forms which will be explained later. Sacrifice is an evident and recurring theme in both Volume I and II of Arthur Mervyn. This not only includes sacrificing one’s health and wellbeing, but also one’s reputation. Relating sacrifice back to our previous readings, it is apparent how H.F., in Defoe’s novel, sacrifices his health by staying in London. In Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens sacrifices his health and the health of his family by bringing Mervyn into their home. Moreover, Mervyn also sacrifices his well-being for the sake of finding Wallace, Susan Hadwin’s love interest, by going to the city.

Sacrifice in Volume II, on the other hand, is about risking one’s safety and reputation. That is, the risk of getting hurt and shot (e.g. by Philip Hadwin when he was mad that Mervyn was “involved” in the burning of his brother’s will; by the woman whom Clemenza Lodi was staying with who shot Mervyn; by Welbeck when he found out that Mervyn had told Dr. Stevens all about his life) and the risk of suspicion and going to prison. For instance, one encounter we would like to highlight is when Mervyn was determined to visit Welbeck at his apartment, Dr. Stevens expressed his concerns for Mervyn and his reputation by saying:

“There are other embarrassments and dangers of which you are not aware. Welbeck is pursued by many persons whom he has defrauded of large sums. By three persons you aredeemed an accomplice in his guilt, and a warrant is already in the hands of officers for arresting you wherever you are found…You lived with him. You fled with him. You aided and connived at his escape…they subject you to suspicion” (Brown, 259-260).

However, Mervyn assures him and says “I have nothing to fear” after he and Dr. Stevens deduced that these are not really “crimes” and it will not “expose [him] to punishment” (Brown, 260). Furthermore, Mervyn also says that imprisonment and obloquy “cannot be avoided but my exile and skulking out of sight…I shall, therefore, not avoid them. The sooner my conduct is subjected to scrutiny, the better” (Brown, 260). Why does Mervyn risk his safety and reputation for the sake of doing what’s deemed just? Was it to avoid guilt? Was it because he has seen what it can do to people (i.e. Welbeck)? Another question worth considering would be: Why do you think he was able to get away with some of his actions that seemed suspicious? Was it because of his charismatic personality?

In Volume I, we have seen how Mervyn keeps his promises of not uttering a word about his encounters with the people he meets as per their request to remain silent. For instance, when Wortley questions Mervyn about Welbeck, Mervyn says that he promised not to say anything:

“I questioned him as to the fate of that man. To own the truth, I expected some well-digested lie; but he merely said that he had promised secrecy on that subject, and must therefore be excused from giving me any information. I asked him if he knew that his master, or accomplice, or whatever was his relation to him, absconded in my debt? He answered that he knew it well; but still pleaded a promise of inviolable secrecy as to his hiding-place.” (Brown, 12)

Despite the conflicts and betrayals Mervyn was put through by those people, he maintained his loyalty to them as much as he can. One would think why does Mervyn remain quiet given his unjust treatment by them? This question relates to past years’ discussions on the theme of altruism in Arthur Mervyn and the question of what drives people to help others voluntarily. There must be countless explanations for such actions but thinking about Mervyn himself, can we say that his confidentiality towards others is a form of altruism? Could he be protecting his confidants by keeping quiet? Did Mervyn fear the failure of fulfilling his responsibilities towards those who trusted him for their safety and secrecy? Overall, we see Mervyn’s persistence in withholding vital information even in the face of all the deceptions he runs into.

In Volume II, we learn about Mervyn’s strong determination and willingness to help Eliza Hadwin and Clemenza Lodi after his recovery. The way in which the story unfolds in this part is driven by Mervyn’s perseverance to fulfill the responsibilities he felt were put upon him. Finding Clemenza Lodi and ensuring her well-being was not necessarily Mervyn’s responsibility but he insisted on helping her because he felt that it was his duty to do so. If we are to explore this situation closely we would be able to see the intertwining of loyalty and perseverance. This tells us another thing about Mervyn; his sympathetic character also motivates his decisions and we find that he shows compassion for everyone, even strangers. Towards the end of the novel Mervyn expresses:

“Anyone who could listen found me willing to talk. Every talker found me willing to listen. Every one had my sympathy and kindness, without claiming it; but I claimed the kindness and sympathy of every one” (Brown, 292).

From this we learn that Mervyn realizes that not everyone deserves his loyalty and kindness but he gives it to them anyway. What’s different about this part of the story is that we see Mervyn open his eyes to reality and admit that he had to deal with people who tricked him but he stayed true to himself.

One thing to note, which will not be explored deeply in the post due to length constraints, is the narrative structure of the story because Brown starts his narrative not from the beginning of the text, as in Defoe, but further into the story. Getting the readers more involved in the story by going through the thought process of various characters at different times will have a different effect than simply directing the readers chronologically through the story. One effect is that starting from the middle of the story and having it slowly unfold will create more suspense and the readers will be able to match up the events and actions of people (as it will then start to make more sense to them), similar to a mystery story.

Overall, it is evident how sacrifice, determination and loyalty are recurring themes in Volume I and II of Arthur Mervyn and are what drive the characters and the novel. These themes are important to focus on particularly because Mervyn does possess these qualities especially in times of desperation. It is essential that Brown drives our attention to the noble side of people because even in the worst circumstances, some of them can act nobly which restores faith in humanity.

Happy reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali


Every day is like Sunday

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-up with links to some of the best additional posts on Defoe assembled over the last couple years.

Kicking off #contagion15

While you’re all working on your first assignment — which includes a summary of Sophocles’ King Oidipous — you may get a kick out of this peculiar retelling of the story. It’s also a summary of sorts.

Meanwhile, I wanted to direct you to a few posts on Sophocles and Boccaccio from past years. Here’s a sample convener’s post on Oidipous, with a link to an even earlier one. It follows up on something we only brushed against today: the question of why genre matters when we’re comparing the plague descriptions in Sophocles’ drama and Thucydides’ historical account. Here’s another, which may help you start to compare the Sophocles and excerpt from Boccaccio. And here’s an even earlier post on The Decameron which dwells on the relationship between storytelling and plague in Boccaccio’s work. Each of these posts contains ideas I hope we’re able to take up in the next few meetings. Which topics here strike you as most interesting or relevant to our conversations thus far?

Black Hole

In Black Hole, the central characters are on the cusp of adulthood, prone to emotional turmoil and indecision. They make mistakes, and the consequences of those mistakes often seem gravely inescapable, like ‘the end of the world’. Chris makes the mistake of having unprotected sex with Rob, and once Chris realizes she has “the bug”, she feels profoundly isolated and ashamed. Then, when she gets caught cutting class and her parents become stricter and impose a curfew, Chris is completely overwhelmed. This small series of mistakes makes Chris feel like a complete failure with no hope of redemption. She runs away from home with Rob to escape the situation, and the note she leaves for her parents mentions plans to go to California even though Chris only moves into the nearby woods with the other “burnout, sick kids”. Does this tendency to spiral out of control instead of moving past mistakes make these adolescents more susceptible to disease? Do they themselves contribute to the devastating effects of the disease?

This book does not confront the disease’s origin the way many of our previously discussed literature does. The disease itself is otherworldly, and it has a similarly nebulous origin. No blame is placed on a specific group of people for spreading or bringing the disease. The disease seems to come from a void, perhaps extraterrestrial. The title references a phenomenon that exists in only outer space, and the people affected by the disease congregate around a place they call “Planet Xeno”. This place is buried in the woods, and the fact that so many characters take comfort in/seek natural spaces might be further evidence that the disease affects humans but originated from something distinctly inhuman. 


Apart from its grotesque outward symptoms, the disease is very bizarre in that not a single person shares the same symptom with others. Rob has an additional mouth on his chest that utters strange sound and words against his will; Chris, although having contracted the disease from Rob, has a different symptom, her back and foot cut open. Eliza has a tail, and Keith discovers tadpole-like bumps around his ribs. The guys who hang out in the “pit,” secluded from the town due to their deformed appearance, all look hideous but in their own unique way.  At the end of the novel is a page from yearbook, where each student features unique symptom.

These symptoms have only one thing in common: mutation from what is considered “normal.” The disease that ostensibly distinguishes the ill from the sound degrades a popular, straight-A student into a social outcast.Why is it significant that the characters suffer from their own unique symptoms that make them socially isolated? Are these differences random, or does each mutation affect each character for specific reasons? What is Burns trying to convey by portraying a yearbook page in which everyone suffers from the disease, looking apparently different from one another? How can we relate it to the nature of adolescence? 

Last but not least, It would be impossible to discuss Black Hole without bringing up its use of imagery. Images are often repeated and juxtaposed, acting as a method of foreshadowing or emphasizing the main theme of the novel: a black hole.

The novel begins with a puzzling account of a Biology class in which Keith looks into a dissected frog’s back:

“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”

With this are parallel images of a frog’s dissected back, the cut in Chris’s foot, Chris’s back, and a hand covering genitals. With the story of the frog’s back acting as a starting point of the novel, the other three “black holes” are further elaborated upon and explained as the novel progresses. Interestingly, these are all images that Keith directly witnesses during his own narrative. These images seem to foreshadow all the major relationships developed during the novel: Keith helped Chris when she cut her foot in the woods; Chris’s mutation was caused by her sexual relations to Rob; the hand over genitals is an image from Eliza and Keith’s affair.

If all these are black holes, what message is the novel conveying? What is the significance of having a hand covering the genitals, as opposed to leaving it uncovered? What about the usage of a frog in particular?

Another recurring image is the black hole itself. In the very first black hole depicted in the Biology class scene, all the major images central to the novel’s plot are included: the snake, gun, tadpoles, the frog, bones, alcohol, drugs, water, etc. But why is Burns providing us with so many hints? It is remarkable to think that the whole novel was thoroughly thought out from the beginning.


Looking forward to the discussion tomorrow,

Annie, Joohee, Mina




Human Being, or Being Human?

Following the recent trend of unusual narration in our studied texts, Sinha’s Animal’s People depicts the story of the fictional, poor city of Khaufpur, India following a poisonous chemical leakage, all of which is narrated through the taped voice of the protagonist, Animal. Interestingly, the protagonist himself is an unconventional character, as he repeatedly claims, “Je suis un animal” (40).

The protagonist endures his name and status as a devastating effect of the “Kampani’s” chemical leakage. As one of the survivors from the catastrophe, Animal experiences the toxic effects of the poisonous chemicals six years after the explosion, when his spine becomes deformed and forces him to walk on all fours, like a dog. The change in his physical form also causes him to change in his attitude towards others and himself. The relationship he has with his name provides insight to his character. Although he adamantly demands to be called “Animal,” he does not allow people to treat him as inferior. Rather, he stands his ground, which is displayed in the way he protects himself as a response to the attempts to tease him. Animal seems to be torn between the two worlds: human and primitive. This is reflected in the following passage:

““My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” This was my mantra, what I told everyone. Never did I mention my yearning to walk upright. It was the start of that long argument between Zafar and me about what was an animal and what it meant to be human” (23).

It almost seems as though Animal has to convince himself that he does not want to be viewed as a human. This behavior goes hand in hand with the jealousy he felt for everything that was able to walk, paralleled with his desire to be able to walk upright. Animal also succumbs to primitive, instinctive desires, and often justifies his decisions by reassuring himself that he is not human (87). Thus, before he meets Nisha and Zafar, he lives on the street performing elaborate scams until he agrees to work as a spy for Zafar. Even so, Animal’s success as an information scouter is mostly due to his ability to extract meaning from people’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, as well as through unfamiliar words. His subhuman (or arguably, superhuman) ability to read others and communicate with both people and animals (like his dog, Jara) suggests he is neither fully human nor beast, but is living in limbo between the two categories.

What does it mean to be human? What is the distinction between humans and animals? How does Animal’s instinctive perception of the world reflect his more-than-human nature? What does the title, Animal’s People, suggest about the division between man and beast?

The oral nature of the narration enhances Animal’s animalistic characteristics, as some of the words are transcribed with incorrect spelling, such as when he agrees to spy for Zafar and says, “Namispond! Jamispond!” (26) (translation: the name’s Bond, James Bond). Also, the text is embedded with sounds and words from various languages, including “Inglis” (English), Hindi, and French. The rapid switching between languages, which can often be confusing, contributes to the authenticity of the book. The mixture of dialects and sounds reflects the rough language of animals, an idea that is highlighted by Ma Franci’s inability to understand other languages after the poisonous chemical leak:

“On that night all sorts of people lost all kinds of things, lives for sure, families, friends, health, jobs, in some cases their wits. This poor woman, Ma Franci, lost all knowledge of Hindi. She’d gone to sleep knowing it as well as any Khaufpuri, was woken in the middle of the night by a wind full of poison and prophesying angels. … But there was a further twist to Ma Franci’s madness, when she heard people talking in Hindi or Inglis, or come to that in Urdu, Tamil, Oriya, or any other tongue used in Khaufpur, she could no longer recognize that what they were speaking was a language, she thought they were just making stupid grunts and sounds” (37).  

How is language/speech related to being human? How does language work as a distinction between people, and between humans and animals? What aspects of a language reflect the people who speak it, and how do we perceive people who speak a foreign language (compare with Arthur Mervyn)? What is the significance of language in terms of delivering a story, particularly Animal’s?

Aside from language, the question of sexuality and lust arise as other aspects of being alive and being human. Although Animal constantly dehumanizes himself, he develops feelings for Nisha even though he knows he has no chance with her. Despite his inner voices of reason, his love and desire for her grow to such an extent that he is willing to do anything to impress her and take care of her (47).  Also, when he spies on the “Amrikan” (American) woman, Elli, who moves to Khaufpur and prepares to open up a free medical clinic, he accidentally sees her bathing – the first time he sees a woman naked. He involuntarily lusts for her, which causes him to dream about his desires and his beloved Nisha:

“Often I’d dream of making love with I won’t say her name. I never told anyone because if people got to know, what would they do, laugh at me, pity me? “Animal, don’t have those kind of hopes.” … Animal mating with human female, it’s unnatural, but I’ve no choice but to be unnatural. Many times I would dream that she and I were in love, sometimes we were married and naked together like in the movies having sex. In such dreams was my back straight? Did I stand upright? No and no. I was exactly as I am now and it did not matter. Such dreams! I woke from them shaking with hope. This frightened me, I despise hope” (78).

Time and time again, Animal reacts to Nisha and Elli with uncontrollable lust. In tape nine, Animal sits in between Nisha and Zafar at the town meeting to discuss the opening of Elli’s clinic, and the physical presence of Nisha causes “the monster down there [to stir]” (124). He struggles to hide and subdue “the unruly beast” which “immediately starts to rear and buck, damn that f***ing thing, it has no respect.” Thus, Animal’s lust is itself given animal-like characteristics, which further complicates the definition of the human essence. The fact that he is able to differentiate love from lust reminds us of his more ‘human’ side.

Is love a human characteristic, or is it a natural instinct? If lust, love, and jealousy, and hope are all aspects of being human, what does this indicate about human nature? How does this answer the bigger question on what it means to be human?

Since in this novel, the disease is entirely caused by man-made means, it offers a new insight into the issue of responsibility in the face of an epidemic. Moreover, it allows for an analysis of the inherent problems behind the disease, much like how Dream of Ding Village introduced the question of the role of government vs. individuals in the propagation of and response to the spread of AIDS. As explained by Animal’s narration, the employees and managers of the “Kampani” are accused guilty in the aftermath of the factory leak, but for eighteen years, they never make an appearance in court (52). In fact, they also fail to pay the costs for the recovery efforts and for the victims of the leakage, placing the Kampani’s selfish needs before the poor citizens of Khaufpur (112). Khaufpur’s own government fails to respond appropriately to the catastrophe, as minimal action is taken by the (ironically named) Minister of Poison to alleviate the victims’ suffering (131).

What is the role of the government in Animal’s People, and how does its (in)action compare with the Chinese government in Yan’s Dream of Ding Village? In what ways is the government criticized and satirized by the Khaufpuris? What is the significance of politics and business within the context of this novel? How does the issue of politics relate to the issue of foreigners vs. insiders, in terms of the “Amrikan” presence in and influence on the town?

Hopefully this post and the questions posed above help us to begin delving into the complex fabric of this fascinating text. Happy reading!

– Azmyra, Laura, Maisie, and Sharon

Thoughts on Hillbrow

A distinctive feature that separates this novel from our previous readings is its narrative voice, as briefly mentioned in the past convener’s post. It is second person, omniscient narrative, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentse, as “you”. In the first part of the novel, the narrator walks the readers through Refentse’s experience in Hillbrow:

Then you arrived in Hillbrow, Refentse, to witness it all for yourself; and come up with your own story, if you could. You came to be a witness, because your cousin, with whom you were going to stay until you found student accommodation at the University, stayed in Hillbrow, although not exactly in the center of the action. (Mpe 6)

One possible effect of this second person narrative is subtly drawing the readers into the plot, making us feel as if the narrator is addressing us and put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

In other places in the novel, the narrator not only gives information on the behavior and thoughts of the characters but also reveals personal opinion from a detached point of view—when the narrator discusses the reason for the difference between Refentse and his cousin, for example (20).

What are the effects of second person, omniscient narrative shown in this novel? What could be Mpe’s purposes in this particular type of narration? Are they achieved throughout the novel?

The novel starts off by presenting Refentse as the protagonist. It doesn’t take long, however, until the readers realize that our protagonist is soon to be (or already) dead, facing “the blank wall of suicide” (25). Then the later part of this novel deals with how people around Refentse behave after his death, rather than continuing to recount the life of Refentse when he was alive. As the chapter “Refilwe” begins, the focus of this story shifts to this past “Bone of Heart” of Refentse—her life after his death is thoroughly narrated in the consecutive chapters. At the end of the novel, the narrator no longer addresses Refilwe with third person pronoun.

Refilwe, you were very grieved by this show. You felt sorry for those who loved you so much and expressed it so openly. You knew it was not  intentional that they should depress you (119).

It seems that Refilwe is now the protagonist of this second person narrative—in fact, she is the only round character in this novel who went through significant transformation. Once a xenophobic Hillbrowan, Refilwe became a cosmopolitan citizen who “no longer hide behind bias against Makwerekwere” and “do not blame them for troubles in life” (122).

Who do you think is the real protagonist of this novel? How can we elucidate this dichotomous narration?

One natural consequence of the narrator not being directly present as a character in the plot is that everything is told as it has been heard and seen, in the form of storytelling and rumors.

It is interesting to note that the people of Tiragalong are referred to as a whole as “Tiragalong”, uniting them as one organism that thinks and responds together:

“Tiragalong’s story was constructed when your mother slipped and fell into your grave on that hot Saturday morning of your burial. As Tiragalong believed, only witches could fall into a corpse’s grave on burial.” (43)

Because the people believe and act as one entity, rumors play a large role in determining their reactions.  Xenophobia and superstitions are the fundamental driving forces of the rumors, causing them to “[drink] in the scandal eagerly” (44). Rumors propagated by fear lead to various interpretations of Refentse’s death and also cause some subsequent deaths, such as the death of Refentse’s mother and Tschepo’s neighbor.

“So in your story, as in real life, Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia — its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers — was vindicated.” (55)

What does it mean to refer to an entire group of people as a proper noun? Are the traditional beliefs of Tiragalong responsible for the rumors and the consequences that follow? Or are they caused more by fear of the unknown?

The rampant prejudice, euphemism, and social classifications in Welcome to Our Hillbrow reflect the entrenched effects of apartheid and oppressive state control over South Africans. As a result of a governmental system that bestowed benefits and value based on skin color, within the post-apartheid black community of Hillbrow derogatory divisions remain. Black Africans originally from countries outside South Africa are derided as “Makwerekwere”, interracial romance is labeled as mental illness, AIDS is often referred to euphemistically and scornfully — “Is it not known what the fruit of sin is?” (112). Language is even systematically policed, erasing cultural characteristics and therefore denying the value of those cultures.

“She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.” (56)

Therein lies evidence of a flawed system that “criminalize[s]… linguistic honesty” and legitimizes certain cultural practices and languages instead of others. The novel’s characters acutely experience this systemic oppression, as the literary aspirations of Refentse and Refilwe are marginalized and devalued.

How does this demonization and isolation of an “other”, especially to create a scapegoat for a complicated epidemic, present itself in other texts we’ve discussed? What role does euphemism play in disseminating both contagious bodily disease and an epidemic of distrust and rumor?

-Mina, JooHee, Annie


Sex and Drugs and… Religion as an Affective Influence?

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, self-labeled as a ‘gay fantasia’ aims to provoke from the title onwards, describing itself as being a play based ‘on national themes,’ thus truly horrifying every Republican and ‘Nationalist’ that encounters the text. Kushner feels that the issues presented in the plays are representative of the themes in America at the time of writing, the late 1980s to the early 1990s. These themes will be described in this conveners post as change, religion and politics. None are unique, but few could argue that Kushner’s work is not. 

The theme of change within the play is continuous during Millennium Approaches, the part of the play duo we are considering in this post. The development of morals is something we can accept, but the ‘depressing… limitations of… imagination’ is what prevents change from occurring fully, it allows the characters to remould the world: but the world is made from the same dough, just pressed into a brand new shape. Same beast, different form.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act One, Scene Seven

The escapism in the play seems possible only with death or social acceleration, like the presentation of Roy’s career threatening freefall at any moment due to its crumbling foundations of hypocrisy. Perhaps a moralistic plot twist, but a satisfying collapse all the same.

The ways in which Kushner’s work assesses the topic of change is especially important for the reader’s of today who must live in a fast-paced, globalized world, the first signs of which were recognized by the characters of the play in the 1990s. This acknowledgment of the ‘sickness’ of modern man, is presented in this contradictory passage, where the cure to constant movement is supposed to be to continue this movement. After all ‘the only cure for motion sickness…’ is ‘to keep moving.’

 Does the play suggest feasible methods to the modern man for how to deal with this rootlessness? Does it provide a judgment on globalization or cosmopolitanism? Does the play suggest that the way America should respond to the ‘call’ of modern times is to embrace change and recognize diversity?

The theme of religion is evident, from the discussion of the neurotic Mormon, Harper, to the hardened Roy Cohn of Judaism. The distinction between the religious divides of characters is clear, two religions with clear intersections. Both religions follow commandments that clearly define their moral code: every character with a defined religion in Millennium Approaches defies a commandment, whether it be through homosexual intercourse, lies, drug addiction or hatred.

The commonality between the characters is not coincidental, Kushner masterfully creates an atmosphere in which everything lies at a point of conflict, situations which seem impossible even to the most gifted of Game Theorists. The emerging political philosophy championed by Kushner, and thus by Louis, is that of democratic optimism. Something that is not affiliated with the ‘evils’ of Republicans demonstrated throughout, and certainly could not be projected at the beginning of Millennium Approaches before one has information symmetry. The characters are unpredictable, which makes the game they play so much more dangerous: their political philosophy of democracy makes them even more so, because the decisions they make are liable to have impact on not only their lives, but the lives of the people they love. A prime example of this being the separation and the impact it has on Harper.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act Three, Scene Two 

John Sexton would be proud of Kushner’s ability to derive political statement from religious background: Mormons and Jews generally vote on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Jews favouring the more Conservative parties, and Mormon’s either abstaining from political contest or voting for social democracy. The idea of religion as an affective influence on voting behaviour is strong in the play, not only due to the issues surrounding sexuality and religion: something acceptable within Judaism, not so within Mormonism. It is near enough a battle of wills, between religion and sexuality – the result feeding the ‘X’ on the ballot in the game of chance they are embroiled in. The lies and the conflict between their love for God, and their love for each other seem ordinary, and as disease twists the world they live in, the escape becomes a trap once more. A trap that no ‘democratic idealism’ will free them of.

‘Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council… who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.’– Act One, Scene Nine

The idea of sexuality as something that hinders the progression of the characters is embodied primarily through Roy, and his desperation to hide his sexual preferences even when it will be AIDS that kills him: not bigotry. His refusal to become one of the unknown, lost souls is seen as a bad thing by the other characters as he is painted as a cold, almost evil character by Kushner. Yet his success within his field is admirable, and one cannot help but like Roy. His imperfections are vivid and clear, but they make him all the more human and workable.

The conflict he faces is excruciating: his career or his life. To seek full treatment would require his honesty, not something he is willing or able to provide.   

If we consider the conflict faced by the characters in Camus, how do we define what the more difficult choices are? Who acts more rationally in the face of danger and disease?

Sex is ever-present in the play, if not in lengthy scenes, in the shadows with AIDS, HIV, separation, love… there is not a moment when the looming figure of sex is not present. It is a blight on the characters, influencing their actions: from the victimisation and infestation of Prior, the social prejudice Roy projects on his ‘peers’, the liver ‘cancer’, and Harper’s descent into addiction. 

Yet the characters do not cease their participation, much like in Pushkin’s ‘A Feast during Plague’, where despite the risk of congregation, or in the case of Angels in America, the risk of sex – the characters continue their dangerous exploits. The idea of risk is all-consuming: the cards are dealt, the poker faces are on. They play the high stakes: unprotected sex, politics, law, love. All are set to lose, but the draw of the game is too strong to avoid. The plotting referred to in the quote above is not a coincidence with the theme of risk, the reference to the inescapable battle of politics is a form of addiction, something every character experiences, whether it be an unhealthy lust or the pill popping that both preserves and destroys.

In light of Prior’s and Louis’ separation it is important to ask, whether in the play AIDS is a force that pulls people apart (as opposed to the influence of the plague in Camus’ novel) or that brings people together into a strange, almost absurd community (think of Harper’s and Prior’s shared feverish vision)? Does AIDS have a different effect on human behaviour as the previously studied disease, due to its capability of ‘permeating’ the most intimate part of human relationships? What other manifestations of disease can we find in this play, apart from the sickness of modern man, corruption and guilty conscience?

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

“We Are a Plague on Earth”

Camus’s The Plague is different from what we have previously read in the sense that it relays the story of an isolated town. Unlike Defoe’s London, Oran is completely shut off from the outside world during the epidemic and its citizens quite literally become “the prisoners of the plague” (Camus 129); thus, the quarantine causes great turmoil in the city. An outstanding example is the burning of the houses by the townsfolk: 

“…there was an increased number of fires, especially in the leisure districts around the west gates of the town. Investigation showed that these were due to people who had come back from quarantine and, driven mad by grief and misfortune, set light to their houses under the illusion that this would kill the plague.” (Camus 130)

City of Oran


Moreover Camus tells us, in what could arguably be called one of the most important passages of the novel, that the greatest vice of humanity is ignorance: 

“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill.” (Camus 100-101) 

What can we say about the self-destructiveness of humans under the threat of death in Camus’s novel? Can we relate such irrational, violent, and most importantly ignorant behavior with the attitudes of “merrymakers” in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague and other characters in Camus’s novel? How does this expand on our previous discussions of the appropriate reactions to imminent death?

Speaking of irrationality, Rieux’s contemplation of war and plague deserves our attention. Citizens of Oran are “humanists” and therefore cannot accept that the visitation will last: it is “too stupid,” too “unreal” (Camus 30). However, what they fail to realize is that disease, just like death, is irrational and it does not follow human expectations. In addition, the fact that disease is beyond our control addresses the subject of it being a form of punishment (also seen in Defoe).

Thus, the expectation of meaning in the face of a disease becomes irrational, as demonstrated by the initial denial of the disease by Oran’s citizens. The manager of Tarrou’s hotel is perhaps the embodiment of the citizens’ refusal to acknowledge their shared fate, when there are rats found in the elevator he is unable to accept that his hotel is leveled with everyone else: 

‘“But everybody has the same thing.”

“Exactly,” he [the manager] replied. “Now we are like everybody.”’ (Camus 24)

The citizens’ inaction and the medical community’s neglect, although seemingly irrational in retrospect, is attributed to the general belief (mentioned above) that a plague was something unreal, a ghost from the past. Rieux and Tarrou are perhaps the most prominent characters that realize the necessity of alleviating the suffering of the sick, defying the bystander effect, despite the futility of their struggle. This situation resembles the futility of our everyday struggle against death, and the apparent meaninglessness of life in the face of death.

Is Rieux’s struggle truly futile? What is the novel’s stance on the meaning of everyday life in the face of death? What is the appropriate reaction to irrational catastrophes like wars and epidemics? Is there any meaning to a fight without any chance of winning? 

Furthermore, newspapers also seem to occupy an important place in the story. Interestingly, we have already discussed their role previously during our analyses of Defoe, Brockden Brown and Ibsen, in which they promote societal approved values and spread rumors. By contrast, in Camus they first act as tools and leverage to make the authorities face the problem of rats; yet, when the human death toll starts rising, they are strangely silent and later become the space for advertisement for potions and “cures”.

What is the role of media in the novel? Can we tie the hypocrisy of Oran’s media outlets to our previous discussion of rumors and news?

On a side note, the rats depicted in the novel can be seen to symbolize the citizens because they die in droves, much like the people do when the plague strikes. At the beginning of the play thousands of dead rats begin turning up in public places. Their sudden deaths foreshadow the effect of the plague on the human population later on.  Furthermore the disposal of human corpses is very similar to that of the rats. They are collected and deposited in mass graves, undermining society’s traditions, underscoring the meaninglessness of life and highlighting the senselessness of death.


What other role are the rats playing in the novel ? What other similarities are there between the humans and the rats? Why do the newspapers report the rat problem but ignore the epidemic at first?

We hope that these questions will help us kick off our discussion of this outstanding piece of literature.


Vlad, Rafa and Liam

Ps.: Title is a quote from David Attenborough.