Archive for February, 2015

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

Alexander Pushkin… A man died in a duel? (An episode of the play is also attached)

Hi Class,
While we closely examine and analyze Pushkin’s play, it will be interesting to also briefly look at his life and background! As one of the most significant poets in Russian history, Alexander Pushkin greatly affected future literature. At the same time, this big figure also has a dramatic life! Though the characters in his A Feast During the Plague Year are terribly afraid of death confronting the hopeless plague, Pushkin himself did not own much fear towards death and commit to an abrupt duel with his wife’s admirer. Check out his biography

Also, don’t forget to enjoy this dramatic play acting by authentic Russian actors… (Though we may understand no word… but their body language has explained everything)





Who’s feasting today?

On the 23rd of July 2014, Barack Obama spoke at a $32,400 per plate fundraiser. Meanwhile, Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman whose assets are being frozen and his visas blocked, updated his Facebook page with pictures of his family sailing in the Caribbean.

These factoids are especially crucial to us, analysts of Pushkin’s ‘A Feast During the Plague’ because they bring up ideas that resonate with much of what’s going on in the text. The satirical street-art on the left tells the story. Thankfully there isn’t a plague epidemic going around at the moment but the references to Pushkin in both articles are appropriate. For starters, many Americans believe that Obama giving yet another talk at a Silicon Valley fundraiser means that he is ignoring more pressing domestic and international concerns and instead feasting (literally). Yakunin’s Facebook posts show that he’s clearly escaping his personal issues (again, literally). 

The characters in the play make a choice in how they react to the literal or figurative plagues that they respectively survive. We are given to understand that Yakunin and Obama are making a conscious decision too. But if we’ve escaped a plague, or something similarly nasty, do we have to behave in a certain way or do we have no such obligation? Would Yakunin be behaving in a more “sensitive” way if he locked himself inside his home in St. Petersburg and never saw anyone again? What’s wrong with taking your family on a cruise of the Caribbean when you can?

In the play and in the two articles, there is a kind of social removal. But the major difference between the articles and the play is what side of society the audience gets to see. In the play, we see the people who have escaped society and the plague, whereas the articles and the street-art reflect the thoughts of the larger society that the characters escape. His role as the President dictates that Obama has an obligation towards the people who face the problems he doesn’t immediately deal with, but do the characters in the plague have a similar responsibility towards society? Pushkin introduces the priest who raises this question. He tries to make the chairman feel guilty in the same way as the street-art tries to do. We don’t know what Obama or Yakunin feel, but we are given a glimpse of this survivor’s guilt towards the end of the play. 

The moral debate continues.

Keep reading!


Hyper Empathy Syndrome

In this week’s class discussion on Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, we often touched upon the topic of empathy, which was great because if there’s anything at all that arouses my interest more than books it’s psychology. So for this week’s post I’ve combined my love of both to bring you an exciting new…BOOK RECOMMENDATION! I’ve been assigned Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower to read by this coming Sunday, which may mean more reading but at least it gave me something to post here other than videos of cute babies teaching empathy.

In this book, the main character Lauren has a (non-contagious, sorry) disease called Hyper Empathy Syndrome, which causes her to acutely feel others’ pain. I don’t just mean “feel”  as a sort of faux sympathy, I mean feel as an agonizing physical wound. This is a terrible condition to have in chaotic, lawless 2025 America, where crime and murder are so rampant that people have to barricade themselves in walled neighborhoods, and step over severed limbs and heads when they dared to venture outside for necessities. I looked up Hyper Empathy, and it turns out it is a somewhat legitimate disease although it is so new to psychiatry that either there isn’t much information about it or the data is very questionable.

Either way, it’s interesting (if slightly depressing) to think of worlds and situations in which empathy is considered a weakness rather than the thing that makes us human. But I don’t want to end this with such a bleak view of humanity, and it would be terrible to have mentioned cute baby videos without including them. I’m attaching this and this as a reminder that empathy is such a good thing that even very young children have a sense of altruism.

Happy Reading!




Contagion: The movie!

Below I have attached the trailer of the movie, that goes by the name Contagion. This movie is an attempt to depict what might happen if a deadly pandemic takes place in 21st Century.The movie documents the spread of the virus transmitted by formites. The virus causes global pandemic and nobody knows its cure until the very end of the movie(unlike in the real world, most of the movies have happy endings 🙂 ). Similarly to the texts we studied, in the movie the government tries to contain the virus by imposing quarantine but is not completely successful as people find ways to escape it. Although this movie is set in 21st Century, the government and public still act in the same way as they did in the Arthur Mervyn and Journal of the plague year.

Be careful on what you touch and share in public places as you might be carrier of a deadly virus that is about to cause a global pandemic.  🙂

Enjoy the trailer.

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

Spreading the Contagion

Who is responsible for spreading a contagion? Is there a responsibility that comes when someone is infected? Should the infected or the healthy take care? The act of shutting up houses in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is prevention against irresponsible behaviour of infecting others. Brockden’s Arthur Mervyn presents the view when the contagion is in the air. Who can be called responsible then? When the contagion is above our powers, who is to carry the burden? Is it a shared responsibility? Is there a responsibility at all?

To keep you busy while thinking, an interesting online game called Sneeze I found years ago. In the game you are the carrier of a virus and your mission is to infect as many people as possible. Well, have fun and spread the contagion!

Screenshot from Sneeze

Frenchmen, Haitian Slaves and War! Oh My!

With our talk about racism in our Mervyn discussion today I thought it would be important to establish some context in that time period.

Here you can find a history of the Haitian Revolution. I find it very interesting that America did become somewhat involved in the revolution. American leaders rushed to help the white leaders when the slave revolt broke out in St. Domingue. Also ironically, Thomas Jefferson (the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the champion of natural rights, who supported the French Revolution, the leader of the Democratic-Republican Party) was put in a political dilemma as he supported the ideals of the revolution but he also had many slaves as well. Therefore he only gave a minimum amount of aid and tried to advocate a compromise.

Also in relation to the passage we had to explicate(page 274), many refugees from the revolt went to North America, particularly Norfolk (Virgina), Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. Many of the refugees were in fact white French families who brought their slaves with them. The influx of refugees influenced the passage of Alien and Sedition Acts(xenophobic laws). This may explain Mervyn’s attitude towards the Frenchman and the  Congolese women.

Hope you guys find this useful.




P.S. Also found this article discussing the impact of Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1793 on Africans who lived in the USA during that time period. Pretty fascinating.

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.