Category: Conveners’ posts

Wonderful Poisons

When one of the visiting ‘jarnalises’ who come to do their annual ‘Khaufpur story’ leaves Animal with a voice recorder and asks him to record his story, the first thing Animal does is to sell the recorder. Nonetheless, Animal has to find another ‘recorder’ when later on he finds out that he does indeed have something to say about his life, the people he knows, and the aftermath of the Bhopal catastrophe.

It would be fair to say that the population of Khaufpur have so little and have had so much taken away, that they are instinctively skeptical of anything offered for free. Even a clinic, opened up by someone who “left a big job in Amrika out of pity for the people of Khafpour” – so when Elli Barber comes to Khaufpur and opens a free clinic in the poorest part of the town, suspicions are raised whether she is actually working in some sort of a secret enterprise with the bosses of the ‘Kampani‘ who are on trial.

While the author’s severely anti-industrialistic, anti-American and to some extent, anti-neoimperialist tone is heard as a continuous echo throughout the whole book, his using of fiercely humorously coarse and risqué stylistical language, putting it rather mildly, is perchance very much aimed at the reader, making him/her understand not the politically flamboyant long-term manifestations of Sinha, but rather immediate sufferings as well as down-to-earth basic needs of affected Bhopalis to this very day. As a matter of fact, Sinha is painstakingly straightforward with his sublimated-into-a-book cause; one, for instance, may easily spot the political message within the difference between the initial American (on the left) and European (correspondingly on the right) book cover versions:

What led the narrator to Zafar and the political issues around “Kampani,” however, was not his cause for justice, but his lust and sexual desires. While the center of the plot is fixed around what happened “that day,” a big part of the text is filled with the narrator’s fantasizing about sex and Nisha, showing us not only his natural desire for sex, but also his desire to be human. Sinha touches the issue through the eyes of a 19-year-old boy named Animal who walks on arms and legs, which could at once be sad because he is the victim of the incident, and revealing, for the issue is seen at a totally different perspective. It is an interesting parallel between the progress of Kampani case in the court, and the narrator’s realization of his own identity as human. While he still endorses his name Animal, there are things he strongly desire as human.

Communication is also an interesting theme Sinha touches on. Because of his posture and his inability to read or write, the narrator initially has a serious problem communicating with people, nor did he want to interact with others. The narrator’s only companion was his dog, until Nisha approaches him and for the first time in his life, actually treats him as an equal and teaches him the ways of communicating. A lot of the characters throughout the novel, in addition to Animal, have their own problems in communication. The narrator’s careperson, Ma Franci, does not have anyone to talk to, since she lost her language skills “that day,” and the only language she speaks is French. The exchange between the American doctor, Ma Franci, and the narrator makes the readers wonder if language is the only issue in communication in this novel. The lack of language skills as well as disinterest in others lead to serious misunderstanding in communication.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Khaufpur doesn’t even exist in reality. So intricately explained and mapped out with such familiarity, this realisation elucidates the reason that no name is given to the Kampani. This extrication thus means that this is NOT a story about Bhopalis, but about Khaufpuris, and in particular, one Khaufpuri who goes by the name Animal. In this way, it is similar to Dream of Ding Village and different from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but more than that, he uses the disaster that happened ‘that night’ to contextualise his story of human ambition, love, animosity, trust and lack thereof in a society of abysmal poverty – one that could exist anywhere yet nowhere else. While knowledge and understanding about the Bhopali Disaster can help provide some context that could provide some of the visual imagery Animal is saddened he can’t provide, Sinha’s creation of an alternate yet extremely realistic reality allows it such that this is a story that can be fully appreciated for its full worth even without such knowledge. As such, the focus is placed upon the life of Animal and his fascinating adventures, lusts, struggles, and fascinatingly creative and brutally honest narrative voice. Hence the author’s intent isn’t to tackle the ‘big picture’ questions of imperialism and industrialisation, but rather to let a story be heard; a story of calamity and sadness and a society wrenched at the core, one of powerplay, bureaucracy, and corruption, but also one of unity, love, respect, justice, and altruism. And horny lust in copious quantities.

It is also a story about good intentions coming at cross purposes with each other, and how chronic physical contamination can plague ones mind, perception, and belief in others. The widespread chemical catastrophe ‘erased thousands’ of lives and continues to make living impossible for so many, but its effect is more than polluting the water, but also their trust, their belief in humanity, and eradicates all semblance of hope.

 – Suel, Kefa, Kee

Live The Life Together

On the spine and back cover of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, there are Chinese characters meaning “Live the life together.” Interestingly, these characters are not translated into English. This hidden message of sorts, for readers who cannot read Chinese characters, is not lost, as its message becomes evident through the text.

As AIDS sweeps through Ding Village, leaving the once-prosperous streets barren as a winter field, a makeshift quarantine is imposed on the village. Ironically, while quarantine is used as an isolation method for the infected, two characters find solace in the village’s tragedy. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, both ostracized by their spouses, find comfort in each other’s dying arms, creating warmth in a place that had none. This response to the AIDS contagion is strikingly similar to Welcome to Our Hillbrow, where Refilwe and her Nigerian lover die together with AIDS, meeting in heaven after their mortal days had expired. In the midst of tragedy, it seems there is often a uniting force that sadness has upon a people. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, choose to live their last moments together instead of succumbing to the loneliness of death.

Another parallel one can draw between Dream of Ding Village and Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is the use of atypical narration. In both texts, the story unfolds like a eulogy, filled with languor and melancholy. Refentse is already dead in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, and the dead, unnamed 12-year-old can only watch from beneath the schoolyard as his family and his village wither away.

Dreams are an element evident in both Angels in America and this text. Grandfather’s dream in Volume 3 contains as much allegorical and sociopolitical significance as those in Angels in America. While AIDS is crippling Ding Village and the winter wind howls against the schoolyard quarantine, Grandfather dreams that springtime has come, and with it, blossoming fields of rainbow flowers seductively perfume the air. Underneath the soil, gold is discovered in the form of coins and bullion. However, Grandfather awakes, realizing that the only thing beneath Ding Village’s barren soil is a pool of blood. Like Angels in America, this dream suggests a dream gone astray and replaced only with pain and despair. For all the labor the Mayor and the Communist Party have put into modernizing Ding Village, the only real returns are disease and destruction.

The biblical epigraph highlights the theme in Dream of Ding Village of the dichotomy between desolation and prosperity. In the Old Testament, Joseph predicts that Egypt will experience several years of unprecedented fertility and harvest, followed by a terrible famine. Similarly, the villagers experienced years of prosperity from selling their blood, even adding a new street with large houses. However, after the “fever,” as they call it, falls upon the village, the prosperous period comes to an immediate end and those infected with AIDS can only wait to die “like falling leaves” as others before them. The selling of blood was at first taboo until the villagers saw another prosperous village that made its fortune off of blood. The drive to sell one’s blood to elevate one’s material status is a motive for many of the villagers. This materialistic view drives the village’s ascent to prosperity, and yet the blood boom fostered neglect for health practices such as using sterilized needles or fresh cotton swabs.

As our third text about AIDS, Dream of Ding Village has opened up a new view of the disease from the perspective that it is not strictly sexually transmitted. The attitudes and connotations of AIDS are different in this book versus the previous two. In our class discussion this may be a good thought to keep in the back of our minds.

– Allen, Diana & Adam

Welcome to our Humanity

“Welcome to our Hillbrow”

This sentence is uttered over and over again as the narrator realises the novel that his protagonist, Refentse couldn’t write in his own lifetime. The novel is in effect, a dedication to both his friend but also to a new South Africa struggling with questions of identity in the post-apartheid era. Like the novel that Refentse set out to write, Mpe’s novel addresses “Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.” (55) The narrative is particular in that it is written in the 2nd person, addressed as a letter or a dedication to Refentse, intricately describing the struggles of the community. It encompasses all of these through its thoughtful narrative, which addresses the very characters it describes.

The harrowing image of violence in the aftermath of Bafana Bafana’s (the South African football team) victories as bottles are hurled from balconies and a young girl was once fatally hit by a car in the madness, paints a bleak picture – even in jubilation, there is tragedy and suffering in Hillbrow. The town is full of crime and discrimination leads to the creation of scapegoats. Many of the locals blame the foreign black Africans for the moral corruption in their town. The Makwerekwere (a derogatory term used by black South Africans for other Africans) are despised and take the blame for the grievances of the town, “we can attribute the source of our dirges to Nigeria and Zaire” (21) and “It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came” (118).

This xenophobia is similarly evident when Refilwe leaves to study in the UK. Refilwe discovers that she is then part of the marginalised “Africans” (102) population who are socially and culturally isolated, not altogether different from the way that the Makwerekwere were treated. Prejudice breeds in whispers and gossip that is sourced from speculation and ignorance however it also has very real impacts in the community. The conscience and the mind are seemed to be similarly powerful, “If such words (speculations about Refilwe’s condition and morality) did not actually come from people’s mouths, then they simply rang inside your own head” (120). Ultimately, it is a deep sense of guilt and despair that loom too great in their minds that sends Refentse to his death, and in turn, Lerato and that sends Sammy into a spiral of depression.

Just as HIV/AIDS lurks in the background of the lives of some of the central characters, particularly Refilwe as we discover she has been infected for 10 years, it similarly lays unseen in the background for most of the novel. AIDS is perceived as a problem inflicted on the community by foreigners and given that it is most commonly transmitted through drug use and unprotected sex, it is also linked to a morally corrupt, promiscuous society.

Identity and place are thus central to the narrative as they indicate the status of the person in society and imply either a sense of belonging or distance. After it is discovered that Refilwe has AIDS, she becomes “by association, one of the hated Makwerekwere” (118); her original identity had been lost through her association with a Nigerian boy, as well as her suffering from AIDS, and people no longer treat her in the same way.

As the novel progresses, the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow” expands to include other people and places, as if the sentiment of moral corruption behind the original line is spreading around the world. The penultimate chapter ends with, “Welcome to Our Humanity” (113). Perhaps one should views others as if Through the Eyes of a Child… or maybe, like Hillbrow, the whole world is infected.

Questions raised from this text include: How does identity and prejudice influence the relationship between a specific culture (or set of people) and illness? Whether the idea of contagion is always linked with a place and therefore, looking at the selection of texts we have read, do writers try to increase tension by having characters that travel? Do you like the narrative of this text with it addressing the very characters it describes, does this add anything to the novel?

— Tom and Sam

“We are failing, failing. The Earth and the Angels.”

Who are these angels?

And what the hell are they doing in America?


Prior Walter first encounters an angel when he hears a commanding voice in his dream (which overlaps with Harper Pitt’s Valium trip), and again hears the same voice while being treated at the hospital for infections. He at first attributes it to his prescribed medication, telling Belize, “[T]his drug she is serious poisonous chemistry, ma pauvre bichette. And not just disorienting. I hear things. Voices” (66). The hallucinations culminate with the messenger angel smashing through his roof, convincing Prior that he’s caught the “virus of prophecy”, and that the angel actually exists. Belize remains unconvinced, though, and he tries to persuade Prior, “This is not dementia. And this is not real. This is just you, Prior, afraid of what’s coming…Even if you’re hurting, it can’t go back. There’s no angel. You hear me?” (181).

So is it real? Another clue about the angel’s genesis can be found by inspecting the author’s notes on the casting of the characters. At the hospital Prior meets “Emily, a nurse, played by the actor playing The Angel”. The woman who Prior envisions as the angel is the very same woman who has been taking care of him at the hospital. Further entwining the images of the angel and the nurse, Harper tells prior in their mutual dream scene, “[I]n my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with…It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions” (38). The angel is so shrouded in drugs and dreams that it’s unclear whether it is real or a product of Prior’s imagination. According to Harper’s understanding of the brain, she, like Belize, might argue that the idea of the angel came from somewhere in Prior’s experience. Being infected with HIV caused so much stress and fear in his life that his subconscious gave him a vision that his sickness was part of a greater problem in the world, that everyone must bear some of the burden for the ill.


The idea of infection plays a very important role in the storyline. Not only are people infected with HIV, but additionally the angel refers to humans with “the Virus of TIME”, Prior suggests his disease is “the virus of prophecy”, and Belize accuses Louis of having the “GOP germ”. The pioneering American expansion westward (epitomized by the Mormons in the diorama scene) can also be read as virus-like, and Belize calls America “Terminal, crazy, and mean”, as if it were experiencing the last days of a drawn out infection. However, the act of pioneering can also be seen as something productive, as homosexual males in the time of the play are pioneers in social justice. They are only just beginning to be accepted by American society.


Belize’s ideas of America could help make a crucial connection between the angels and America. He calls Louis Ironson “like an angel” because he can only see big ideas like America, and is blind to details. He iterates, “Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you” (228). In this sense America and angels are similar because they only care about grand ideals while failing to acknowledge the reality full of problems which makes ideals impossible. Their failure, if not addressed, will lead to the terrible consequences that Prior prophesied.


-Connor, Christy, Caroline

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Imagine people losing their eyesight in massive numbers for no apparent reason, without any additional symptoms, while their eyes remain perfectly healthy. Imagine someone just turned off a feature of the brain responsible for vision and left you in an abysmal void. Why not a perfect subject-matter for fiction novel?

The epidemic of mass blindness has been previously used as the basis of the plot – for example – in a post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids.” Yet in this particular case we have a parable, rather than a traditional novel; on top of that, a parable with some rather apparent biblical roots – i.e. the story of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, who got blind for three days by God’s will, and then saw the light at first metaphorically and then literally, thus becoming Paul the Apostle. It would be fair to say that a parable is far from being a perfect genre: the main objective for the author of the parable is not the plot, but rather a peculiar ‘message of the wisdom’ he/she is trying to convey to the reader. Yet, if at the same time, the reader knows in advance (or thinks that he/she knows) what exactly the author is trying to convey to him/her, the parable loses all its elegance from the very beginning and becomes rather mundane. Finally, the whole brilliance of the parable as a genre lays in its brevity, whereas Saramago’s narration style is extremely verbose. Should we perhaps shift from the stylistic features to the content?

The first two-thirds of the novel is the traditional story of how people caught in extreme circumstances, are quickly losing civilized appearance. Matching the storyline with the well-known classics, we might recall “Lord of the Flies.” Much like on Golding’s island, evil prevails in the mental hospital Saramago creates, and a typical, exceptionally cruel dictatorship takes control, which, however, does not last long; since the dictatorship doesn’t manage to address the eternal question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in timely manner, the ‘blindness’ gets out of the quarantine facilities and spreads further on.

The idea of sight without vision and vision without sight is one of the undercurrents of this text – by conceptually separating the two, we are able to distinguish between what we can ‘sense’ and what we can ‘feel’, a distinction that is hard to interpret. Sight is apparently important for foresight, and social stability is contingent on how well we are able to perceive the state of society. Hence there is a primal drive to establish chaotic order in the face of scarcity and fear, leading to repression, violence, and selfishness – all factors that diminish the possibility of stemming the contagion through a collaborative effort. Saramago tackles the centrality to which uncertainty factors into our decision to live within a society – and an epidemic of blindness, whose cause is unknown, makes it a fascinating yet grim tale.

While the loss of sight had brought chaos to the society and changed the way people interact in daily basis, the physical blindness lets the characters realize that they were as blind before the physical blindness as they are now–the sight without vision. They realize the importance of little things they take for granted everyday as well as the reality of human nature unveiled as the society breaks down. The “white sickness” might have blurred everyone’s sight, but it has cleared the nature of human interaction that was hidden and veiled by technology, society, and organizations. This leads us to several questions: what is the meaning of blindness in the novel? Were people always blind? Are some people less blind than others? Is the real human nature only revealed in the midst of plague, disease, or in this novel, blindness?

The reason of blindness is unknown, and like the plague, the contagion of blindness does not have a preference when choosing its next victim. The blindness in this sense is equal to everyone, and as time goes, people realize that they will all become physically blind at some point. What differentiates this “white sickness” from disease or plague, however, is that it inflicts people without killing them, thus making them a different kind of “invalids.” In order to live, they have to be dependent on each other and collaborate. It is interesting to observe how the characters distinguish, judge, and build trust with each other with voice and personality without their looks. Is this state of interactions more or less natural than normal full of pretenses and facades? What we consider natural or take for granted as the truth might not be as real as we had thought.

– Suel, Kefa, Kee

Beauty and the Beast

Gary Glitter aka the new-age Aschenbach

Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Aschenbach, is a complex character with an obsessive, artistic nature. Aschenbach has a clearly defined view of beauty and his concept is fully represented by the beauty of the boy, Tadzio:

“It was the face of Eros, with the yellow gaze of Parian marble, with delicate and serious brows, the temples and ears richly and rectangularly framed by soft, dusky curls.” (25)

There is an infatuation with Tadzio, with his appearance comparable to flawless marble and the Greek god of love. Initially, the descriptions of Tadzio looks seem to be as an art critic assessing a masterpiece; however it quickly develops into an obsession for Aschenbach. This obsession is highlighted when he claims he was glad to return to Venice, after nearly moving on, because he could watch the boy more. As well as in the quote, when talking about Tadzio, the narrator/thoughts of Aschenbach’s mind cite Greek gods to shed light on emotions “the smile of Narcissus” (43), a beautiful youth condemned by the Greek gods for falling in love with his own reflection.

Aschenbach’s lengthy ruminations on beauty and its relation to how it relates to art, age, spirituality and sexuality frames, particularly, the second half of Death in Venice. He is aroused from his critical and disinterested characterisations of fellow tourists by a sighting of Tadzio, a “beautiful” young Polish boy on whom he soon becomes transfixed. Tadzio is young, feminine looking (“beautiful”) and saliently, free in action and in dress, especially when compared with his well-groomed and constantly monitored sisters. Aschenbach sees a path to divine writing in the boy’s beautiful aesthetic,

“He wanted to work here in the presence of Tadzio, to use the boy’s physical frame as the model for his writing, to let his style follow the lines of that body that seemed to him divine, to carry his beauty into the realm of intellect as once the eagle carried the Trojan shepherd into the ethereal heavens.” (39)

Aschenbach’s transformation comes from his feeling of “a need to restore and revive his body” (58). The language regarding his old appearance is very negative: “he confronted the tortured gaze of his image in the mirror” (58). Seeing such beauty in youth, Aschenbach now feels he must emulate youthfulness and has his hair and complexion altered; as mentioned, this is similar to the man he criticised before who he considered a “bizarre distortion” (15, aka a Beast). Interestingly, the barber says, “Will you allow me to give you back what is rightfully yours?” (58) This directly relates to Aschenbach’s previous questioning of the impersonators right to dress and socialise in a ‘youthful’ manner.

Aschenbach’s attraction to the boy turns out to be fatal however. The trajectory of his sickness begins as he arrives in Venice and thus sees the boy, then immediately following his profession of love for the boy, the notion of a plague-like disease is first mentioned and then finally as the boy seems to officially invite Aschenbach’s affection, the “lonely traveller” dies.

Sam and Tom

Haunted: Syphilis and Corruption

The corruption from Oedipus Rex and Arthur Mervyn follows us to Ibsen’s Ghosts

The Alving household is built on corruption and lies. These constituents do not simply subside and die with Captain Alving. Instead, they lead to the appearance of ghosts who inhabit the house and prevent the past from being forgotten. Therefore the ghosts are a symbol of punishment for the overflow of corruption, which is portrayed in Captain Alving’s iniquitous behavior of philandering and drinking and in Helene’s buildup of lies as she tries to protect her son from his dad’s wickedness and to maintain her family’s decent reputation. Helene’s corruption is also shown through her investment in building an Orphanage with all of her husband’s money, which is deceiving since one might think it is an act of altruism when in fact her sole motive was to protect her son from his father’s money.

According to Helene, the whole country of Norway is filled with ghosts since ghosts reside within the sinners and the sinners constitute the whole country.

“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 haunt 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.” (Ibsen, II pp.126)

One of the ghosts’ ways of punishment is by taking the form of an inherited disease. Apparently, Oswald suffered from constant headaches as a child. When combining all the symptoms of Oswald’s disease, such as neck stiffness, disorientation, and temporary paralysis, it was found that his most probable disease is congenital neurosyphilis, especially since in the 19th century, during the time the play was written, syphilis had become widespread. Oswald, according to “one of the leading doctors” in Paris, is “vermoulu” since birth.

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” (Ibsen, pp.138)

Oswald inherits syphilis from his father as he bears the consequences of the latter’s wicked behavior in the past. This situation is parallel to Oedipus’s inevitable fate of killing his father and coupling with his mother as he also has to suffer from his parents’ corruption.

In addition, the ghosts of the story contribute to the gloomy setting of the play. Oswald despises Norway since it is always dark and there is incessant rain. He also mentions that he does not remember ever seeing the sun there, whereas in Paris, away from his family’s corruption, it is always sunny. After the last memory of Captain Alving, the Orphanage, is burnt to the ground and Helene discloses her husband’s true identity to Oswald, the sun finally begins to rise and the weather clears. By then, however, “Oswald shrinks in his chair [and] all his muscles go flaccid”. His last request is to be given the sun. He repeats, over and over:

“The sun… the sun…” (Ibsen pp.163,164)

By the time the Alving household becomes free of corruption and lies, it is too late…

Christy Connor Caroline

decipi frons prima multos

Never judge a book by its cover. This popularly overused proverb never ceases to lose its relevance; it is, indeed, hard to argue against. Appearances often can be deceiving. Can anyone claim that when meeting new people he/she does not pay attention to their appearances and the notorious ‘social status’? Everyone has a snapshot evaluation instinct. Nonetheless, many try to argue that they do not take this into account.

Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality or moral characteristic by appearance, is a recurring topic throughout the novel. Physiognomy grew popular throughout the 18th and the 19th century and was even discussed seriously in the academics. From the beginning of the novel, an application of physiognomy made Doctor Stevens decide to rescue Mervyn.

Stevens’ physical description of Mervyn, and in particular his “youth, unspoiled…uninured”, allow us to justify the “claim to affection”, on a physiognomic level. Based on his clothing alone, Stevens is able to infer a ‘manlike beauty…so powerful’, he can make definitive statements about Mervyn’s fortunes and ‘misfortunes’. The sense of innocence of character that Stevens acknowledges even before conversing with Mervyn illustrates this physiognomic attitude of the era.

Mervyn is not an exception to applying these norms. However, he goes further, metamorphosing outward-in; his personality, thoughts and beliefs evolve with each new facade. After going through his own Welbeck-endorsed transformation, Mervyn is in fact committing his ‘original sin’ in the book. The initial exterior transformation soon enough develops into the interior transformation, or perhaps self-reconstruction. To put in more metaphorical terms, Mervyn initially wears a Mask, and he becomes the Mask itself.

I was now conscious of a revolution in my mind. […] Subsequent incidents, perhaps, joined with the influence of meditation, had generated new views. On my first visit to the city, I had met with nothing but scenes of folly, depravity, and cunning […] but my second visit produced somewhat different impressions…[I met] beings  who inspired veneration […] If cities are the chosen cities of misery and vice, they are […] the soil of  all the laudable and strenuous productions of the mind. (Brown, 221)

Mervyn, however, is not the only person to transform, or seem to transform. He too commits the error of misjudging someone based on their physical appearance and endowments, on several occasions. Priding himself on his superior analytical and deductive abilities, and taking into consideration his antiestablishmentarian stance (with regards to gender roles especially), it is thus notable that he falls into the trap of stereotype. This is particularly acute with the curious case of Eliza Hadwin. Mervyn comments:

Her total inexperience gave her sometimes the appearance of folly […] Ah! thought I, sweet, artless, and simple girl![ …] the extreme youth, rustic simplicity and mental imperfections of Eliza Hadwin (Brown,  215, 221)

 Upon Eliza demonstrating a mental proficiency at par with Mervyn’s, he remarks,

I was suprized[…]I had certainly considered her sex unfitting[…]I could not deny, that human ignorance was curable by the same means in one sex as in the other (Brown 224)

Be it by sex, by clothing, by class, by appearance, eloquence or education, and through the character of Welbeck, Brown goes to lengths to show that people aren’t always who they seem to be, and that intuitively, there is something we can gain, and a lot we lose, when we use physiognomy.

By: Suel, Kee, and Kefa

Moral Plagues on a Beachy Day

As we were reading Arthur Mervyn on the pristine sands of the Corniche, we could not help but be distracted by the azure Gulf waters and the towering skyline of Abu Dhabi. In a moment of reflection, we realized how our new life at this Arab Crossroad shared several key themes with that of Brown’s protagonist. Abu Dhabi is a city of both substantial wealth and gross socioeconomic inequalities, two ideas which shape the volatile character interactions within Arthur Mervyn.

The titular character, with his humble agricultural background, is intelligent and adaptable, but inexperienced in the norms of upper-class life. When he is exiled from his rural home, Mervyn is at the mercy of Philadelphia’s streets. Here, we find an essential theme which unites Abu Dhabi, Mervyn’s Pennsylvania, and Daniel Defoe’s London in Journal of the Plague Year. With sickness and socioeconomic inequalities against the backdrop of an urban landscape, class interactions take on contrasting forms under the influence of moralism, religion, and self-preservation.

At the first signs of plague in London, the affluent would flee the city out of panic, abandoning the poor to pestilence. Furthermore, as the epidemic seized the city, all interpersonal relationships crumbled — leaving each individual to fight for his life both isolated and despairing.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is in some ways an antithesis to Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. The latter novel is introduced with a deed of altruistic charity. The narrator finds Arthur Mervyn penniless and stricken with yellow fever. Without scruple, the narrator invites Mervyn back to his house, where he is nursed back to full health. One might ask what the benefits are in risking one’s life for that of a helpless other. Inspired by a humanistic and moral obligation, nearly absent from the London populous during the 1665 visitation, the narrator quotes:

“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.”

This moral debt, which the narrator takes action upon, often arises when both philosophy and religion are confronted with plague. The practices of Islamic martyrdom (in the face of disease) and almsgiving are two principles highly present in modern Arabia and Justin Stearns’s examination of plague and Abrahamic faith.

But what is altruism? Defined as “selfless concern for the well-being of others,” we see in Arthur Mervyn, that like Yin and Yang, generosity is always complemented by greed. Quoting Brown’s titular character:

“…interest and duty were blended in every act of generosity.” (Brown, 27)

As yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, no good act remains unrequited. When Mervyn is most desperate, the wealthy Welbeck shows him charity, but not without its price. Bound to his benefactor, Mervyn is sucked into a world of corruption, betrayal, murder, and intrigue. The plot only thickens when Mervyn himself, and Welbeck, are confronted with yellow fever.

Under the societal pressures of a city devastated by plague, what would you do? Flee to the country in hopes of escape? Flock to the city in the hopes of some fortune? Ambivalence is inevitable, but choices necessary. What will go first, your life, your soul, or your resolution? Think about that next time you’re enjoying the beautiful waves and powdered sands of the Corniche.

“My poverty, but not my will consents.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, V.i.75)


Allen, Adam, and Diana

Heard in ordinary Discourse

With Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year we shift from plague frameworks (as in Oedipus and The Decameron) to a full-blown plague narrative, an historical novel that was presented to the public, and in all likelihood understood by its original readers, as an authentic narrative of a plague outbreak. Defoe’s novel was published in 1722, in the aftermath of a plague epidemic in Marseilles, which had generated a lot of newspaper press in London. But the book purports to be an account of the city’s last great outbreak of the plague in 1664-65, some 57 years earlier. To put that gap in perspective, it’s roughly like a book or movie today being set during the 1950s. Maybe the better comparison would be to a narrative or film that claimed to have originated in the earlier moment, and to offer an historical eye-witness.

We’re going to be hard-pressed to take on the question of factual accuracy in Defoe’s narrative, though there is scholarship out there on the subject if you’re interested. Rather, I want to pay attention not just to representations of the plague, thinking about how they may relate to Defoe’s moment as much as to London in the 1660s, but also to other patterns that run through the text. One key issue, I think, becomes apparent from the very title page. Note the full title, and think about how it prepares us for the novel’s concerns. We have the question of genre and generic distinctions up front (something we’ve already been talking about), but also this matter of “publick” and “private.” Why call attention to these categories on the title page? The word “publick” comes up again in the title page’s gloss on the anonymous author: “Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before[.]”

Publicity seems to be a key feature of the novel’s opening paragraphs as well: The story starts not with the outbreak of plague, but with the narrator’s first exposure to “ordinary Discourse” about the plague’s return to Holland. The story precedes the actual visitation of the plague; what might the adjective “ordinary” mean here? Look at how many times “they say,” “some said,” “others said” appear in the sentences to follow. The opening paragraph seems to focus as much on chatter as a genre or sociological phenomenon as it does on the content of the gossip, though clearly the content is such that it’s instilling extraordinary fear in the narrator and his neighbors. Now look at the second paragraph’s opening sentence: “We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see prictis’d since.” I’d like us to start our discussion of the text tomorrow with a reading of these opening paragraphs. What’s the connection between invocations of “the publick” on the title page and the attention to publicity and the circulation of rumor/information, whether in speech or print, in the novel’s opening lines? And where might an historical novel pretending to be a recently discovered factual account fit into such a discussion?