Category: Conveners’ posts

Ghosts in America

Ghosts, from what we learned in the play of the same name by Ibsen, are figures for public opinion. We also know that by adhering to public opinion characters often feel trapped by society and unable to find a way out. However, interestingly, this idea of ghosts also exist in the play Angels in America. More specifically characters are often restricted in many ways due to established public opinions or traditions, such as love, religion, and HIV.

In the first part of Tony Kushner’s play, Millennium Approaches, Prior’s boyfriend, Louis, abandons him when he discovers that Prior has AIDS. Prior has held off telling Louis about his illness for fear that Louis would leave him – and his fears turn out to be justified. So can we regard Louis as a heartless villain? His actions make us wonder, “What would I do in his situation”? Ghosts would rebuke Prior’s decision; they would insist that it is not right to leave the loved one in a hardship. But here, in the play, the audience does not strongly judge Louis for his choice. His character still manages to be sympathetic: the traits are drawn with such care and detail that we at least understand why he does what he does. Louis feels terribly guilty and wrestles with the decision a lot before leaving Prior: he consults a rabbi, cries in a bathroom, and, after he has left Prior, we see him constantly condemning himself. He fully realizes what a horrible thing he is doing. But still… he leaves.

One of the most trapped characters in the play is perhaps Joseph Porter Pitt. Being a Mormon and a homosexual, an almost oxymoronic relationship, Joe was torn between the choice of being a good Mormon or being liberated sexually. His struggle is deep, even more so than the characters in Ibsen’s play, as he cannot be liberated even by telling the truth. Take for example the phone call he had with Hannah, his mother, a Mormon. In the phone call he confessed plainly that he was a homosexual to his mother. However, what he met with was not acceptance, not even an acknowledgement, but rather a flat denial: “you’re being ridiculous”.  This is not the only time Joe’s sexual orientation was trying to be covered up or denied by Mormons. The morning after the phone call Joe also indirectly told Harper, his wife, that he is homosexual by expressing his lack of sexual interest in her. Again, instead of acceptance, Joe received nothing but a wife living in denial.

Just as in Ibsen’s Ghosts, there is obviously an infection that haunts the people of Angels in America: HIV. The stigma that comes with HIV was strong during the 1980s and is still prevalent today. Roy explicitly shows us what some of those stigmas are when during his doctor’s visit he says, “It afflicts mostly homosexuals and drug addicts” (49). Suddenly, being infected with a disease such as HIV becomes a societal blame game, a public pointing of fingers. Roy begins to taunt Dr. Henry, trying to get him to call him a homosexual. Roy’s obsession over the word, as well as his final self-diagnosis being liver cancer, emphasizes the strong ghost of HIV.

With some of these challenges of self-identity being faced by the characters of the play, the question of choices comes into play. How much “say” do they have upon their lives? These characters are given truths about themselves or those around them, truths that seems almost unspeakable in a societal context; and maybe in effect become unspeakable on the individual level. These attitudes will inevitably affect the actions and reactions of these characters, leaving us to wonder how much power the individual has over such situations.

Plagued with Midterms

What happens periodically and causes panic, pain, suffering, and alienation?

Of course, the answer is — Midterms!

Much as midterms or exams in general have us, students, panicking about the upcoming testing, feeling the pain and suffering from the social pressure and holing up in our rooms in hopes to survive the dreadful epidemic, the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague plays a similar role.

The novel takes places in Oran, Algeria, where the bubonic plague has stricken the populace. At first, the people ignore the imminent danger of the plague, but not long after they realize its destructive force which ultimately results in putting the city under quarantine.

Oran, Algeria in the 1940s

In Ibsen’s Ghosts,  Mrs. Alving’s unfortunate predicament was the result of her fear of society’s judgement and public opinion. In her struggle to fit herself and her family into the existing societal norms, she sacrificed her mental and physical well-being and with that ended up completely alienated.

Similarly, alienation manifested itself in The Plague with the influence of societal norms. The norms in Oran seemed to be the “habits [that were encouraged] by our town” (Camus 3), a standard of behavior for everyone. (While reading the book we came to a mutual agreement that the notions of standardizing behavior was reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.) When the plague first hit, its impact was suppressed and denied in the minds of Oran’s citizens. Those in power consciously tried to downplay the effects of the bubonic plague in order to keep population under control, and they complied without hesitation:

“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” (Camus 46)

This town, even before the plague struck, was described as a place where it was “difficult to die”. According to the narrator, a dying person would be faced with a lack of support and acknowledgement of their suffering and imminent death:

“Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.” (Camus 3)

Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Oran, however, the alienation doesn’t stop there. The situation in town worsens when the actual quarantine is put into effect by Dr. Rieux. The alienation brought about by the societal norms and habits of that community was of a moral, less tangible nature. In fact, the people of Oran were virtually unaware of the alienation they experienced in this respect. With the quarantine, however, the more physical and concrete boundary served to amplify their dormant feelings of loneliness and estrangement. The town is sealed off from the outside world, with many unable to reach their loved ones, as in the cases of both Dr. Rieux and Raymond Rambert.

Quarantine in Sydney, 1900

The dynamics of these types of alienation are cardinal in defining not only the main characters of the novel, but also the many citizens of Oran, and consequently the town as a whole. The novel ends on a hopeful note: In struggling to overcome the plague and their crushing alienation, they gave themselves purpose. The citizens of Oran, illuminated by the recent plight, come to see themselves as a community, rather than as self-interested individuals.

How else might these notions of loneliness and alienation help us understand the complex characters of Camus’ novel? And how, if at all, do they help us understand the connection between survival and memory?

On a slightly different but interesting note, we would like to raise a question about narration: In The Plague, the narrator claims to be objectively describing the situation that took place in Oran while keeping his own identity hidden from the readers. He promises to reveal who he is at some point in the novel. This raises some questions about the credibility of the narrator himself. With our experıence of readıng Arthur Mervyn, that is, being faced by a questıonable narrator, we can draw the conclusion that we cannot fully trust the narrator to give the reader a fully objective account of what has happened. Does this lack of confidence in the credibility of the narrator change or influence our reading of The Plague by Camus, the way it did in Arthur Mervyn?
We hope you don’t put yourself under a “study quarantine” in the wake of the upcoming midterms.

Stay healthy,

Batu, Sarah, Victoria

The Truth Will Set Us Free… Or Will It?

[image source]

Ghosts tells the story of the Alving household.  Oswald, a young artist living in Paris, comes back to his mother’s house just in time for the inauguration of an orphanage in memory of his father, Captain Alving.  Shortly before the opening, widow Helene Alving confesses to Pastor Manders that she has been hiding her husband’s vices in order to save her family’s reputation, and that the orphanage is a way of ending the rumors about his debauchery.  A chain of lies is then revealed and we are confronted with the inheritance of guilt, the appeal of immorality, and with the tension that arises when society compromises the truth in order to maintain the social order.

Oswald states that “all [he remembers] about [his father] is that he once made [him] sick” (pg. 158). through imposing him the smoking of a cigarette. The smoking and cheating that went on in the house caused Mrs. Alving to fear that her son “would somehow be poisoned simply by breathing the foul air of [the] polluted house” (pg. 118). Captain Alvin’s debauchery ends up not only polluting the household but also the inside the of his son’s mind, Oswald, in the form of Neurosyphilis. The play’s failure to identify Oswald’s disease, Syphilis, acts as a social commentary criticizing society’s taboo against immorality.

“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.” (pg. 126)

A universal truth is explained: we are afraid to face the truth and come to terms with our hypocrisies. After the truth is set free, the sun finally appears in the play. The legacy of Captain Alvin contributes to the echo of immoral practices that plagues the Alving household, but the ghosts do not stop there. The ghosts that haunt us are our own selves and our tendency to act immorally. They plague Mrs. Alving when she lies to cover up the ugly truth with ideals. They plague Oswald when he pursues a level of incest with Regine — regardless of the knowledge (cue Oedipus). They plague Engstrand when he blackmails Pastor Manders to fulfill his dreams of creating a Seamen’s Home.

In the climax, Mrs. Alving untangles the web of lies she has set up around her. Regine finds out she is Captain Alving’s illicit child, and Oswald gets to know that his syphilis is inherited. Mrs. Alving can finally be at peace. She broke the shackles of social norms that expected her to be an obedient wife and protective mother and that oppressed her for so long. However, the revelation that Mrs. Alving makes is bittersweet. Once sweet Regine turns out to be a calculating woman, who hoped “to make the most of things” and enjoy “this joy of life” (pg. 156) by getting involved with Oswald. Oswald admits plainly that although he doesn’t love his mother “at least [he] knows [her]” and she could be “extremely useful” to him. And as the sun rises and “the glaciers…and mountains gleam in the morning light” (pg. 163), Oswald suffers a major relapse, which leaves him mumbling “the sun” (pg. 164) repeatedly. The lies were unraveled, but did this bring any good? Mrs. Alving loses her orphanage, the services of Regine, and the support of Pastor, and is faced with the decision to euthanize her own child. She is a ruined woman.

Ibsen criticizes the lies that pervade society, but he leaves us with a question: Was the outcome of revealing the truth favorable over concealing the truth with ideals? There may be something attractive about Ms. Alving’s world of lies relative to her new state: lies are contagious because they are so sweet.

I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy…

Team Pushkin was given the beautiful gift of a person who speaks Russian, so our post used this expertise in our approach to this piece. Here is what we learned. Enjoy.

Translations and imitations are among the large number of works of Alexander Pushkin. These works make up about a fifth of all the works of Pushkin, and can rightly be called magnificent samples of his genius, although they are borrowed from other authors. This is what Pushkin writes on this matter: “Imitation is not shameful kidnapping or a sign of mental poverty, but a noble hope of own strength, a hope to discover new worlds, seeking the footsteps of the genius — or even more sublime feeling: the desire to explore your masterpiece and give it a secondary life”.

A Feast During the Plague (1829) is one of the most famous Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies.” Pushkin’s masterpiece was even adapted to a movie. This the scene where Mary sings.

The originality of Pushkin’s play is still debated among lot of Russian scholars; they argue whether Pushkin’s play is simply a translation of John Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816) or an independent Pushkin masterpiece. We, Team Pushkin, as “linguistic researchers”, examined three versions of the Plague narrations (Wilson’s, Pushkin’s, and the translation of Pushkin’s work by Anderson) and came up with the conclusion that the last two works slightly differ in terms of word choice and punctuation from the original text, but overall they accurately convey the basic content of the source plays. Here is the example:

Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816)


O impious table! Spread by impious hands!
Mocking with feast and song and revelry

The silent air of death that hangs above it,
A canopy more dismal than the Pall!
Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
Beside a dire interment, circled round
By the white ghastly faces of despair,
That hideous merriment disturb’d the grave
And with a sacrilegious violence
Shook down the crumbling earth upon the bodies
Of the unsheeted dead. But that the prayers
Of holy age and female piety
Did sanctify that wide and common grave,
I could have thought that hell’s exulting fiends
With shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away
Some harden’d atheist’s soul into perdition.

Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague

Безбожный пир, безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию распространенной!
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц молюсь я на кладбище –
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов – и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков и жен моленья
Не освятили общей, смертной ямы –
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тму кромешную тащат со смехом.

Anderson’s A Feast During the plague


A godless feast, befitting godless madmen!
Your Feasting and your shameless songs
Mock at  and profane the gloomy peace
Spread everywhere by death and desolation!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,
And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry
Disturb the silence of the tomb – because of you,
The earth itself trembles over the dead bodies!
If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.

In all three texts we can see the following pattern of the language use:

Archaic English → Simplified Russian version of the play –> Translation of the simplified Russian version 

Moreover, we can regard A Feast During the Plague as independent work simply because it is not the word-by-word translation of the whole of Wilson’s play, but only a part of it. And why did Pushkin choose exactly this scene from all the play?

According to the Russian scholar, Leo Polivanoff, Pushkin generally chooses to translate to his native language only the brightest part of the original foreign work. This is what happened with A Feast During the Plague: Pushkin chose from all the play the part that interested him most, and thus shifted the focus from describing the horrors of the plague to the conflict.

As for the sources of the tragical story, some evidence indicates that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) actually inspired John Wilson to write a play. Another famous Russian scholar Yakovlev wrote: “The book of Defoe influenced someone who in turn was a source of inspiration for Pushkin — an English writer John Wilson”. In addition, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year  was also found in the library of Pushkin, and perhaps he read it as well.

We can definitely notice the resemblance between the play A Feast During the Plague and the tavern scene, where people partied and behave atheistically, in A Journal of the Plague Year. Both scenes essentially have the same settings and major actors. Both scenes are happening at a tavern and the major actors all involves a dead-cart, group of jesting people, and a godly or moral man that tries to correct the group’s way. In fact, even the plot progresses in a similar manner, with the moral person failing to change the behaviour of the group. However both pieces differ in the perspective that the story is told. Pushkin told the story in the form of a play and therefore gave us the perspective of both the priest and the group while Defoe told the story from the perspective of H.F., the moral person.

Given the amazing thread of a creative work such as this one, we could not help but make the connection of a traveling text and a traveling plague. Specifically, the way in which the nature of the plague transforms through communication. The Russian version was slightly more explicit than either of the English versions, be it the original work or the translation. The author’s taste is key. With talk about any sort of contagion, the details one chooses to express or omit will affect hordes of people’s actions and perceptions when it come to the given contagion.The telling and retelling of the horrors of the contagion gives people a sense of agency and authority in a situation that renders them helpless and subject to whatever may come. But to get back to the situation of the authors at hand, their adaptations of this story in effect becomes their own once they allow it to pass through their analytical lens. Thus, the foundational idea may not be original, but the products still stand as a one worth recognizing, one of a unique analytical lens.

So we say go ahead Pushkin, recreate with your bad self.

Love me, I’m not Contagious

Back in 2012, the previous Contagion group was chilling on the beach and reading Arthur Mervyn by Charles B. Brown… Today in February 2014, as the weather wasn’t too beachy, our group ended up eating strawberry cake, drinking pink smoothies indoors in an environment of red balloons, lovey-dovy roses and valentine cards, trying to find a quiet place to talk about sickness, death and contagion. However, we weren’t able to escape the contamination from the celebration. Infected by, most probably, the love in the air, we ended up talking about, well, love, and the role of compassion in environments hit by disease, just as in the novel Arthur Mervyn.

Having previously read A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe and The Plague of Athens by Thucydides, plague seemed to be a phenomenon that impacted human relationships greatly, for people avoided risking their lives to help another person who is already infected.

For example, In The Plague of Athens, some parents abandoned their sick children, believing that is was best to save their own lives than perish with their infected loved ones. In A Journal of The Plague Year, it was evident that people reset themselves to a new level of communication, resulting in the creation of an intangible barrier to escape the contagion.
In Defoe’s novel, a dialogue between H.F. and a poor man is a great illustration of the barrier that existed between people.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or “sea wall”, as they call it, by himself. At last, I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man…”Why,” says I, “what do you here all alone?” – – “Why,” says he, “I am a poor desolate man: it hath pleased  God I am not yet visited, though my family is and one of my children dead. “– “How do you mean, then,” said I “that you are not visited?”– “Why,” says he, “that is my house,” pointing to a very little low boarded house, “and there my poor wife and two children live,” said he, “if they may be said to live; for my wife and one of the children are visited; but I do not come at them.” And with that word I saw the tears run plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

As seen from the dialogue, the author didn’t dare come close to the man he greatly pitied, and the poor man didn’t interact with his infected children in fear of catching the infection himself. Were those the right actions?

Having this material in mind, the aspect that surprised us was people’s relationships in Arthur Mervyn. We found the contrasting relationship dynamics between Arthur Mervyn and the other pieces we have studied to be particularly interesting.

(Credit to:

In Chapter I, a doctor saw a very sick man on the streets and ended up taking him into his own house, where he and his healthy family lived.
The most perplexing part was the logic of such an action.

Let us take the poor unfortunate wretch into our protection and care and leave the consequences to Heaven” (Brown 6), said the doctor’s wife, revealing the fact that she was aware of the frightening consequences she might face, letting in a sick stranger into the house.

Why is this relationship so different from the one shown in Defoe’s novel? What drives people to help others, to show compassion and love, risking their own lives, just like Saint Valentine once did for his family? Philosophy? Faith? Just like the previous Contagion group, we find the reasoning of doctor’s actions very interesting:

I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim. (Brown 8)

However, is it only the belief in altruism that drove the doctor, or is religion a factor?

“The stranger was characterized by an aspect full of composure and benignity, a face in which the serious lines of age were blended with the ruddiness and the smoothness of youth, and a garb that bespoke that religious profession, with whose benevolent doctrines the example Hadwin had me rendered familiar.” (Brown 114)

From this quote, we see that Arthur perceived Dr. Stevens as a religious person. Our interpretation is that the doctor’s actions were influenced by religion, and by extension, Quakerism. Quaker folk held compassion and acceptance in high regard. Thus, many of their values and social movements, such as advocating for women’s rights and abolishing slavery, conflicted with the social norms at that time. Though Quakerism – or religion in general – was not as central in Arthur Mervyn as it was in A Journal of a Plague Year, it would seem that the compassion and altruism shown by Dr. Stevens could be consistent with religious values, such as opening up his home to nurse Arthur back to health, despite the risk of him and his family being infected with Yellow Fever. This notion is amplified by the fact that Charles Brockden Brown, author of Arthur Mervyn, was of Quaker background; perhaps this has influenced the creation of his characters.

How might we contrast ideas of altruism and relationships presented in Arthur Mervyn with A Journal of a Plague Year, or even The Plague of Athens?

All in all, as interesting as these ideas may be, we hope your Valentine’s Day wasn’t spoiled by the dark ideas of contagion.


Batu, Sarah, Victoria.

Defoe round-up

Hi, all. As we prepare to begin discussing Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, here are a few links to help get us thinking:

An earlier convener’s post, taking up the question of public discourse on the plague. In what ways is communication like the disease? What mileage does Defoe get out of the link between the two?

An image of the Bills of Mortality this novel refers to.

A link to a piece considering Defoe’s book as a precursor to zombie novels and films.

Finally, here’s an award-winning short film based on Defoe’s book that raises its own questions about how to behave during an epidemic.


From Athens to Florence

During our last meeting we began to address the generic differences between the works by Sophocles, Thucydides, and Boccaccio, especially the differences between theater and novella (though we should think about the difference between history and either of the other genres too). All three genres involve storytelling of sorts, but it will benefit us to think about how those stories were designed to circulate and why. What characterizes each genre when it comes to telling its particular story or set of stories?

If you read the introductory material to Oedipus or poked around a little on the web, you’ve probably started to get a sense of how Athenian theater worked. For one thing, it anticipated its audience members were citizens who would be involved in direct deliberation of public policy. (What role does deliberation play in this tragedy?) Greek theater developed at the same moment as political democracy, philosophical thought, classical architecture. There’s an emphasis in the play — and in the very dramatic form — on civic life: theater is central to political culture. A Greek theater could seat 14-15K spectators. (The ruins of the Theater of Dionysus are shown at the left.) Playwrights wrote for contests that coincided with religious festivals. The chorus was a theatrical innovation that incorporated older forms of song and dance into the theater. One of Sophocles’ chief innovations as a playwright was the move beyond two actors, making the relationship among characters the thing that drives the play, and making the chorus recede into role of commentators who to some degree perform as surrogates of the audience. With this in mind, note how the chorus seems to go back and forth in this play as more and more evidence is presented. Where do they ultimately fall?

How does the literary landscape shift by the time we get to Boccaccio? The Decameron is about storytelling, and the effects of storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about reading stories about storytelling. Its immediate concerns are the effects of storytelling (the brigata retreats to the countryside in order to provide therapeutic conversation for one another) but those oral performances are represented in print, in short episodes or novellas, a collection of stories that almost resemble what would become the novel. Note that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset and imagines women reading as they spend time in relative confinement. This invocation — and the predominance of female characters — will give us a good inroad to discuss the role of gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read and will continue to read this semester.

What all these works share, however, is a knowledge that their immediate audiences would have an intimate familiarity with plague. Sophocles’ plague at Thebes reminds audiences of the plague in Athens. Boccaccio’s readers, like his characters — and like Thucydides — would also have been plague survivors. What impact do you imagine that immediate experience would have had on the first audiences to encounter these works?

On the topic of therapeutic reading, see the earlier Convener’s Post on The Decameron.

Image above via Wikipedia Commons.


A Plague at Thebes

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

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

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

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

Image above taken from The Most Favoured by the Gods, a comics adaptation of Oedipus the King by Christopher Brawn.

Your child will be the end of you

It is a good thing that Ben Marcus is visiting the university in a few days, as his novel The Flame Alphabet demands far more questions, often hidden away in metaphorical events, than it does answers. The beginning especially is shrouded in questions – why would parents leave a daughter they loved? Why are Jews especially infected? And then, who is Murphy and what does he do?

We begin the novel to find Sam and his wife Claire readying to leave their daughter, Esther. Esther is a sharp-tongued teenager who constantly retorts to her parents’ questioning. In many ways her character and relationship with her parents appears normal for a teenager; she wants freedom, she talks back to her parents. Yet, Esther is a much darker, more cynical teenager than most. She is extremely mature, or maybe seems to be because she is so cynical. Sam, Claire and Esther play word games together where Sam tries to lure his daughter into conversation through baiting her: “we fell into the old cajole. We prodded, she resisted, we sulked and put our irreverent feelings in the air, and Esther suddenly, after we had cursed the whole transaction and felt disgusted by the topic, got talkative” (37). The parents’ love is apparent and imprisons them in the unhealthy situation: “sh** on me, oh my children, and I will never fail to love you?” (12).

Simultaneously, words and speech are coming under attack from a disease that is spreading through the population. The nature and effects of the disease are slowly unpacked as Sam, the narrator, details the lead-up to their departure. He loves his daughter but it seems that it is for that reason he also must leave her. From an isolated radio outpost where Jewish sermons are projected through a transistor radio, Sam and Claire are told that experts have identified “children as the culprit” (30). The disease has left both Sam and Claire ill, though when Esther leaves for a horse-riding camp, they seem to recover, or at least feel as if they have recovered ever so slightly. They refer to the days she is gone as “days without exposure” (23). Unfortunately, these days are not beneficial in the long-run.


The Flame Alphabet plays on ideas of communication and silence. There is lack of communication between medical services and the population, between parent and child, and between neighbours in society (for example at the picnic site). Although Sam and the reader are given snippets of the medical discussions of the contagion, it is through Sam’s narration and his own analysis that the cause of the contagion is uncovered. Does the reader gain a greater connection to the narrator, or a better understanding of the feelings of sufferers by this unveiling through the narration? Even the emergency sirens have been replaced by white noise, a distorted silence, “a plague of deafness” (9). As mentioned, there is a lack of communication between teenage daughter and parents, which one could consider natural but for Esther’s scathing remarks to her parents. Though, silence is also a part of Sam and Claire’s life – at home: “We cooked in silence. This was us at our best, stew building, salad making…” (33); and in religion: “feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community” (41). As the reader, do you feel a greater sense of tension through this contrast of silence and deadly sound?

I think it is important to address the idea that it is children and children’s voices that are the source of contagion. It makes it more scary – anyone remember those Doctor Who episodes with creepy children!? Finally, communication and company has broken down between neighbour: “we tried not to trouble our few neighbours in the field by staring” (29). The simple act of saying “Hello” or sharing a glance has become burdened with intrusion. The illness affects people visibly, noticeable although quite subtle, and now neighbours begin to avoid one another. I believe this isolates the families more and makes the issue of one’s only child being the contagion of greater significance. If your child was making you ill, do you think you could ready your bags as Sam and Claire do?

FUN FACT: The squiggles on the spine of the book are the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet, “laid flat” if you like.


Charles Burns combines high school lifestyle and the idea of epidemic in his graphic novel Black Hole by narrating the experiences of several teenagers. Within the context of adolescence, Burns illustrates the spreading of “The Bug”, which is transmitted through sex. Black Hole inevitably draws a parallel between sex and intoxication — whether alcohol, LSD or other soft drugs — as the usage of drugs almost consistently precedes sexual encounters. In a way we could therefore argue that the spreading of the Bug is facilitated by intoxication.

This layout on one of the very first pages seems to perfectly illustrate the statement made above. The four pillars prophesying the disease, which the hand covering genitals identifies to be of sexual nature, are juxtaposed with an alcoholic bottle, cigarettes, joint and a gun. The spiral that is created through the intercourse of all these factors is what Keith sees as ‘Nothingness’, which is also a description of the Black Hole.

The consequences that evolve out of the conceiving of “the Bug” are mutations. Chris starts shedding her skin, develops a forked tongue and repeatedly is portrayed close to water, which suggests characteristics of a snake. Eliza develops a tail, which regrows when it breaks and desires to be in the desert, which are characteristics of a lizard. Unlike those two mutations that draw similarities to animals, Rob develops a second mouth, which voices his deepest thoughts.

Burns’ decision to chose mutation mirrors adolescent changes in bodies, and with that makes the contagion specific to the High School environment. In addition, his choice to develop this story within a graphic novel is significant in that the effects of the contagion are of physical nature. The mutations do not necessarily change characters or behaviours, but rather the physical appearance of people. By embedding this narration within a graphic novel, Burns was able to illustrate the disease. This is very different from the other books we have read, where the disease was described with words, while here the reader is confronted with pictures, and almost no written description of the effects of the disease.

The environment around them ostracizes characters who show physical changes due to contracting the contagion. This phenomenon is a parallel to both mobbing in high school and the ostracizing of homosexuals during the AIDS epidemic. As in those instances, characters of the graphic novel try to fit in, but due to societal pressure feel more comfortable among themselves, which is why the woods become an important location for the infected students. As the Society splits into those living in the woods and those in the city, the question of whether those in the woods are still human arises. Similar to Animal’s People, it seems that those infected by the bug do no longer fully identify as human, which is underlined by the fact that many mutations have animalistic traits.

Containing this novel within the framework of a graphic novel has many effects, one being that the illustrations help the reader visualize many patterns that are not explicitly worded. This layout of Chris and Rob conversing before having sex foreshadows the exchange of the “Bug” and Chris’ infection. The merging of their faces into one is representative of this exchange and would be impossible to describe in such a creative way within a written novel. No wonder, then, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Christy, Connor, Caroline