Author: Aysha

Is Bucky Guilty?

Throughout the novel we have seen how the people of Newark, including Bucky and the children, keep questioning the cause of the polio disease and how it spreads. Out of fear and distress, parents started to suspect everything and some would lock themselves in their houses along with their children to minimize contact and thus prevent any chance of infection. The government and the Board of Health continuously urged the people to disinfect their surroundings and to clean themselves every time they get into contact with something doubtful. People blamed the heat of the summer, the stuffy atmosphere of the city, alley cats, lost dogs and pigeons, mosquitoes and flies (the “Swat the Fly” campaign), the transference of money and later when Alan Michaels dies even hotdogs were believed to be the source of the contagion.

What the people did not really suspect, however, was the possibility that the virus spread through water or at least it was not explicitly stated in the novel that people avoided contact with any water areas and/or public water supply. Poliovirus is known to be very contagious. It spreads through contact with the excrements of an infected person and less commonly from droplets from a sneeze or cough. If you get any of such bodily wastes from an infected person on your hands and you touch your mouth, you can get infected. The virus may live in an infected person’s body and then their feces for many weeks even when that person does not show any symptoms of the disease. Therefore, if that person is not extra careful with cleaning themselves after exhausting they can contaminate food and water or basically anything they touch. This means that water is a substantial carrier of the virus because everyone uses water to clean themselves of stool and dirt and some might use public space water to do that, which ultimately makes water a prominent source of the contagion.

A short while through the book, Bucky starts to blame himself and then God for the spread of the disease thinking that his decision to maintain the playground in business has played an important part in circulating polio among the boys of the neighborhood. What Bucky did not know was that the main source of the virus comes from excrements and therefore has nothing to do with the boys playing in the playground. However, in an important scene at the playground we first see the connection between polio and its medically correct carrier. It is the scene when Kenny loses his rage at Horace, the “moron” of the neighborhood, blaming him for spreading the disease: “He’s got shit all over his underwear! He’s got shit all over his hands! He doesn’t wash and he isn’t clean, and then he wants us to take his hand, and shake his and that’s how he’s spreading polio!” (119) At this point in the novel, this seemed to be the most realistic and convincing source of the virus (at least for me) and what Kenny was afraid of was really the true cause of polio that others did not see. Interestingly enough, later in the scene the narrator describes Horace as “the human blight” which means the human disease, one that ruins and damages something and in this case the health of those who surround that person.

At the very beginning of the novel, the narrator tells us that those who stayed in the city lived their life normally and the “overexerted” boys ran “all day in the extreme heat” and drank “thirstily from the forbidden water fountain.” The water fountain was forbidden which could imply that the Board of Health was cautious with water along with the other precautions but apparently the people did not take it seriously. In addition, ironically, Bucky becomes the new waterfront director at Indian Hill when he leaves the playground, which means that he started to play water sports with the boys in the camp.

In our discussion today we asked the question of whether Bucky is somewhat guilty in spreading the disease or not. However, given his compassion with the boys in the playground and his carefulness with cleaning how could he be the one to blame? Is it because he came into close contact with the Italians at the playground the other day, which forced the boys as well to be around their infected saliva? Or is it because he shook Horace’s dirty hands when Kenny was accusing him of spreading polio? Could it also be because he moved to Indian Hill to be a waterfront director and so he moved the “polio germ” into the waters of the camp?

Also, below is an interesting photo of a real Bucky (in a playground) who was actually a football coach in Newark and a discussion of the possibility that Roth’s Bucky was not a fictitious character can be found in a previous post, here.


Why did Kushner write this play?

After our multiple discussions of this play, we can see how this literary work impressively addresses serious social and political issues, the politics of a homosexual identity in the era of the AIDS epidemic in particular, in an artistic, entertaining and humorous way. While I was reading around different responses on the book I found myself reading Kushner’s biography, which helped me make sense of the real purpose of this well-recognized play. We did not talk about the possibility that Kushner’s personal life has influenced the production of this play as well as its specifics so I will try to make a simple connection.

Kushner was born in New York City on July 16, 1956, and grew up in Louisiana. He is originally of Jewish descent, which explains the constant references to Judaism and his choice of Mormon characters. Kushner was also a homosexual; he became aware of his homosexuality at an early age but he did not come out easily. He tried to change his sexual preferences during his college years with psychotherapy but he eventually accepted who he was. This is interesting because what Kushner went through resembles what some of his characters experienced. There is no doubt that at the time when Kushner realized his sexuality, homosexuality was not the norm. People did not accept this difference, in fact some feared homosexuals, and those who declared their preferences were attacked and criticized. It was also shameful to be a homosexual, as you were considered abnormal and sometimes mentally disrupted. Therefore, just like his own characters, like Joe and Roy, he was also pressured because of what he was.

Roughly, maybe at the time of this struggle and realization, the Reagan era had begun. Reagan was a Republican and as the previous conveners mentioned, “20th century Republicanism generally is conservative, which means it wants to retain old ideals/methods and is usually against change.” This made the lives of homosexuals even harder as they are now even more unaccepted than before. Reagan was known to be a strong conservative and extremely anti-gay. The play includes various critiques of Republican ideals and also various scathing references to Reagan (the jokes). Kushner’s exploration of the relationship between the political circumstances and the personal lives of his characters might also resemble his own personal struggle as a homosexual at the time. In addition, the failure to act upon the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era was a bold manipulation of the AIDS crisis into a way to halt the acceptance of homosexuality in America. Therefore, it is clear how Kushner’s play was influenced by what was going on at the time and that might have been his motivation for writing it. His personal experience and how it has been mapped in the play could have added to the play’s success and strength.



Ibsen’s Play in Contemporary Culture

WARNING!!-This post contains spoilers!!

In Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, the characters are surrounded by built-up lies and secrets that originate from attempts to hide one’s shameless choices from public judgment. Mrs. Alving decides not to leave her husband despite his intolerable behavior to prevent suspicion and criticism, forcing her to live her life in deception. This play demonstrates how individuals in a society fear public opinion and are very protective when it comes to their image or reputation, especially for people like the Alving family, those that are widely respected in their community. The nature of the plot in this 19th century play is definitely one that has become popular in recent culture. The simple idea of keeping secrets, which possibly starts off for good intentions but then others build up uncontrollably that they begin to “haunt you” in everything you encounter in the future, has formed the basis of various contemporary narratives.

One that I was at once reminded of when I read this play was a TV series called Revenge, which started in 2011. What I noticed to be strikingly similar between Ibsen’s play and Revenge is that both stories’ protagonists come from prosperous positions and so have a kind of “social anxiety” that rules over them. Victoria Grayson, one of Revenge’s protagonists, is a mother of two children and a wife of a silent criminal, who was involved in a terrorist attack but blamed an innocent man for it. Although Victoria was in love with the innocent man who was framed, she did not defend him or tell the truth about her husband to protect her family’s reputation (like Mrs. Alving). Years have gone by and a guiltless man was punished for their lies and others that gathered as a result of her husband’s cruel plan. All these secrets, or “ghosts”, have eventually ruined Victoria’s life, especially her children as they did not know the truth until it was too late. Another similarity to Ibsen’s play is that Victoria’s son actually starts to act in a similar attitude as his father (like Oswald) and her daughter, which turns out to be the framed man’s daughter, ends up being the real victim of all the secrets (like Regine).

I apologize for the spoilers, I tried to say as less as I could! 😛



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