I could still taste the runny yolks in the back of my throat as I walked along the red-brick sidewalk, my vision blurred slightly by the few persistent tears I couldn’t quite manage to suppress. The only thing Jeanine does worse than babysit is cook eggs. She definitely can’t cook eggs like Mom, who cooks the bacon first and uses the bacon grease to fry the eggs. And she can’t cook the eggs like Susan, the woman who used to be our morning babysitter. Susan was better because she didn’t even usually cook eggs, and made us toast with gravy instead. She called it S.O.S., or stuff on shingles. She said some people think the first S stands for something else, but we should just call it S.O.S. instead. She was way nicer than Jeanine, but she got a regular job so she couldn’t be the babysitter to come wake us up for school in the mornings anymore. Now it was Jeanine and Gerry, they took turns on different days. Gerry is really pretty, with blonde hair and a friendly smile. Jeanine is always in a bad mood. Gerry doesn’t make eggs, she usually gives us a choice between cereal or oatmeal. She says “do you want cold cereal or hot cereal,” because she says the oatmeal is hot cereal. I like both better than eggs.

Jeanine made fried eggs this morning, like usual. I told her before that I only like scrambled eggs, but she doesn’t care. She set our plates on the table in front of each of us, and I could see right away on mine that it was going to be tough to eat these eggs. The white part was slight gooey in some places and burnt in others, and the yellow was the same way. She told us to hurry, so I started eating my toast, trying to think of ways to get out of eating the eggs. When Tim was little, he used to hide food he didn’t want to eat under a little ledge that was part of the way our kitchen table was shaped, so he could come throw it away later. This table wasn’t like that, so I would have to come up with something else.

Eat your eggs, she told me, as I tried to work out a plan. She stood and looked at me after she said it, so there was no way out. I cut off a little part of the white, and accidentally got some of the runny yellow leaking onto it. I brought the fork slowly to my mouth, wishing it was cinnamon-flavored hot cereal instead. I tried chewing for a second, but knew I needed to get it over with fast. I swallowed, and felt the sliminess of the egg in my throat. Before it got halfway down, I felt my stomach heave. I hate throwing up, so I fought it back. It came out as tears, instead, so before she could see me cry I stood up and yelled at Jeanine.

“Your cooking is gross! I wish you weren’t our babysitter!”

I left the house right away, and on the walk to school I settled down some.


I don’t know how I always let him get under my skin like that. It was a perfectly good morning, with the only exception being that it was my morning to go wake up Colleen’s kids. She’s good friends with my mother, though, so going to wake up her kids, feed them breakfast, and send them walking to school before I go to school myself two or three times a week isn’t so bad. But this morning it was a little harder than usual, because I was running a little late. For a family that doesn’t have much money, the kids are sometimes very spoiled. I had a hard time waking them up, as they usually just roll over and go back to sleep after the first one or two times I rub their shoulders. So today I had to resort to yelling, a good old “rise and shine” like my dad used to do.

They finally started getting ready, so I went downstairs and started their eggs. Five kids, five eggs, five pieces of toast. It’s not so bad; I can usually whip it up in about ten minutes, if I cook two or three eggs at a time. Of course, their stovetop is uneven and the frying pan slightly misshapen, so sometimes the eggs don’t cook very evenly. I finished buttering the toast while the last three eggs were cooking, put the food on separate plates for each of the kids, and took them out to the table.

The middle kid glared at me. He has never liked me, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. I think he might have a crush on Gerri, the senior cheerleader who wakes them up when I’m not around. I don’t think she even makes them breakfast. I looked at the clock and realized I needed to get going if I was going to be on time to school. I told the kids to finish their breakfast, and while I tried to remember whether I’d brought my geometry assignment, the middle kid pushed his plate away and started screaming at me. His brothers and sisters started laughing when he stormed out the front door, so I told them to finish their breakfast. I already at some oatmeal at home, but if the kid wasn’t going to eat his egg I didn’t want to let it go to waste.

On the Move

I saw kids on the corner last Saturday night, wearing bags on their heads.
I saw kids on the corner last Saturday night, wearing bags on their heads.

Tomorrow morning I’m hopping on a plane for Nagoya, just shy of three years after getting engaged in Tokyo, and just over a week after breaking off that engagement near LAX. While I’m in Japan, I’ll enter my thirtieth year here on Earth, my final year of trustworthiness. I guess my hopes of making my first $10 million before 30 are shot. :-/

I had the pleasure of reading some of my work for the Graduate Reading Series at CSUN last weekend, and I think it went pretty well. I could barely resist pointing out to the audience that the piece I read is a work-in-progress, and that there’s probably going to be a lot more to it at some point. I refrained, however, from trying to apologize for myself. I’m still waiting to hear about the TA program, at which point I’ll know whether I’m finishing CSUN this spring or the next.

Finally, I’ll be flying back to Illinois on Christmas Eve to visit with friends and family, and to collect all the countless books I left in Urbana three years ago. I’m even planning to get my own place so I have somewhere to store them. But then, maybe if some gets me some Nook-e for Xmas, I won’t need as much room? Come on, Santa. I’ve been good.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this book for my Literatures in Translation class, and I have to say, it’s better than any world history book that claims to be such, without even claiming to be such. It contains an astounding amount of facts and information about world history, all presented in such a way that it effectively undermines the typical western historical narrative familiar to so many of us. I recommend it to all.

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Humbert Humbert: The Great Liar

Lolita is a narrative delivered in such a way that it not only allows for, but essentially demands speculation about its reliability. Nabokov, in keeping with his style, constructs a narrator whose accounts of events are given an obvious slant. For the reader, it becomes clear that we can generally rely on the factual details of the story, but we should not give much credence to the assessments or interpretations provided by the narrator. Nabokov’s ability to so effectively create a convincingly deluded character is among the stronger points of this novel. Throughout the novel, Humbert pays lip-service to traditional analyses of his situation, unconvincingly pretending to agree with socially acceptable moral assessments of his behavior. In the same breath, he lays out explanations for himself. Humbert makes a concerted effort to thoroughly describe the intricate details of the situations that provide him with irresistible opportunities to indulge in his unusual fantasies. This level of detail and his rather transparent efforts to seem repentant or remorseful, or at least as though he can even comprehend the idea that his behavior is inexcusable, would perhaps indicate that the opposite is true: that he does not regret his behavior at all, that the must unsettling thing about the entire affair, for him, was that it was not able to last forever. But while it might seem that way, that Humbert was a sociopath with no remorse and no conscience, I suspect that he is being deceptive. In this case, he is not deceiving the readers, but himself.

Nabokov’s narrative style is very misleading in its straightforwardness. His narrator, Humbert, seems at first glance to simply tell us the story with nothing to hide. He seems nearly credible in the way that he discloses apprehension about telling certain things, relating certain details of his story. Yet he continues, pushes forward anyway so that the reader will have the full benefit of the whole truth of the story. In certain places in the text, he makes a special point of calling the readers attention to the level of detail, explaining that recalling that level of detail is difficult work, but if the readers hope to properly understand his dilemma and the drama the story, then we must engage in those very details which are capable of making some people quite uncomfortable. On this surface level, Humbert seems vaguely repentant. He expresses his agreement with notions of common decency and social acceptability when he refers to his own cunning as insanity and to his own acts as being depraved and disturbing.

It should not take long for any reader to realize that Nabokov’s narrative should not be taken at face value. Humbert’s tone varies in significant places in the text, his frighteningly attentive detail clearly quite serious in places, while in other places he includes obligatory stock-phrasing to indicate that the remorse he expresses is not entirely sincere. We soon come to realize through this transparency that Humbert knows that his relationship with Lolita is unacceptable. He is sure to point out his awareness that his conduct, by any reasonable social conventions, would be considered disturbing, if not outright disgusting. While he refers to his desires and impulses as insanity, he also describes in detail the ways that he premeditates situations so that he might fully take advantage of them.

This is where the final layer of deception lies. Humbert is a man who has, from a very young age, had a particular hang-up. He doubtlessly recognized very early in life that his desires and fantasies were different than those of most people, and that he derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from dealing with women much younger than would be socially permissible for him. While his mock shame at being so afflicted is easily seen through as a sham, on closer inspection he would seem to harbor a certain level of genuine shame about the matter. His construction of the narrative is deliberately deceptive, an effort to convince the reader that he feels guilty for behaving in such a way, but beneath the cold calculation that permits him to take advantage of the forbidden fruits, there lies a genuine remorse at what he has become. The existence of the nymphet becomes his only saving grace, the very thing that gives him an opportunity to escape his loneliness and disconnection from the world. Lolita is quite different from anyone else in that she is among the only people who can relate to Humbert. He may be able to get avoid sincere belief that his desires are wrong in any way, but he can never escape the fact that his desires set him apart from mainstream society. In that respect, he will remain painfully aware of the fact that he is different and separate from the people around him, and the people who could potentially accept him for those flaws would certainly be quite limited. To make matters worse, those very few people who might be willing to accept Humbert, knowing about his illicit desires, could never condone the fact that he expresses no intention to refrain from acting on those impulses. The nymphet, however, is unique in her ability not only to accept Humbert for his desires, but also to accept him even when, or especially because, he is willing to seek satisfaction, or not refuse it should it be delivered.

Quilty, or others who share Humbert’s affliction, could arguably be people who are capable of relating to Humbert. Contrarily, men who share such an affliction would likely be quite helpless to each other, particularly because of the fact that they would in competition with one another for a decidedly limited resource, just as Quilty and Humbert are for Lolita’s affections. Humbert might have been able to hold on to a modicum of denial about the impropriety of his desires because he was able to pin their origin on something in his childhood, something that had been done to him through no fault of his own that he had no power to undo. It would be impossible to commiserate with Quilty because it would tear the very thin fabric of Humbert’s denial, a denial so weak that it is barely convincing to the reader. And yet he is forced into the same category as Quilty; they are trapped by the same desperate need: Lolita. Humbert’s fatal mistake with respect to that competition was simply that he had Lolita first. Of all the things that Humbert’s nymphets might be, devoted would never be one of them.

Losing Lolita to Quilty also demonstrated another important distinction between the two men. Humbert’s pedophile-nymphet relationship with Lolita marked her initiation into that world, or an end to her childhood. Her relationship with Quilty, even if he had been the only man that she had ever been crazy about, could still only be a follow-up to the time that she spent with Humbert. But when Humbert visits her, in her new life after Quilty, he realizes that no sentimental ties to the time that she spent with him remain. She had been crazy about Quilty, shameless as he was, and Humbert had only been a substitute. While Lolita herself had only worked her way into Humbert’s heart as a stand-in for his Annabel Leigh, she had quickly become more than that to him. Where losing her did not put an end to his illicit attractions, it did put an end to his pitiful hope that a relationship with someone to whom he was so attracted would have any favorable outcome.

Finally, seeing Lolita in her new domestic life, a mother-to-be, Humbert is subject to a resurgence of his irrational dreams of possessing her and spending his life with her. Such a relationship could have never worked out. Beyond the fact that she was simply not interested in Humbert, through the course of their affair she had come to view him as pitiful. He took interest in her originally because she fit the model that he had for perfection—his Annabel Lee—so well that she recreated it. His fixation on her evolved from superficial sexual attraction to a deep emotional dependence. Initially hooked on the fleeting crush that brought her close to him, he eventually developed an addiction to the cruel indifference with which she treated him. Her indifference, though, was more special to him than affection could have been from others, such as the woman Rita whom he connects with temporarily. Lolita remains indifferent to Humbert in spite of knowing what he is. Humbert, unrepentant and insincere as he might seem, would be a fool to not desperately fear the reactions that people would have to him knowing what he truly is. To find acceptance from Lolita, even if it is by way of her indifference, is a deeper connection than he could hope to have with anyone. So when he has no remaining hope of having her in his life, Humbert has little left to hope for at all.

The murder of Quilty is necessary because Humbert cannot possibly suffer such a loss without some sort of retaliation. Quilty makes a perfect scapegoat for Humbert’s suffering. For starters, he possesses the same affliction that has made Humbert so miserable. Killing Quilty can serve, for Humbert, as a symbolic gesture representing killing that part of himself that he most hates. Even worse than being a symbol for Humbert’s affliction, Quilty is the one Humbert blames for the loss of Lolita. No matter that she wanted to go, wanted to leave him, Quilty was the one who took her, and for that he would have to pay. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Humbert had to kill Quilty because he was the only one that Lolita had been crazy about. Quilty would be able to have the only thing that Humbert suspected could make him happy, and he was not interested. He had let her go.

Humbert’s deception throughout this book runs deep; he misleads the readers and misinterprets himself. Nabokov carefully constructed the narrative to capture this deception, touching on themes of Americanism versus Europeanism, sexuality and psychology, and love and fixation. Somehow, in all of the lies, Humbert’s tragic love story rings very true.

Indefensible Luzhin

The Defense tells the story of a man bestowed with deeper vision than most who seems only to be able to look at one thing—the chess board. Nabokov writes Luzhin’s life much like a chess game, whose developments are informed by the limitations of the pieces in play and guided by movements in the direction of an unseen goal. Luzhin does not seem to know much of his capabilities, chess-related or otherwise. He simply obeys his drive to play chess, unquestioningly, to the best of his ability, which is phenomenally strong. Navigating his way through the chess games move by move in response to the forces that he sees at work on the board, Luzhin’s games are constricted to certain possible outcomes. In the same way, his life seems to unfold as an interplay of his chess abilities—an initial trajectory—and the people and events that he encounters—obstacles or aids in reaching the final goal. Luzhin’s aunt, for example, plays an important role by introducing him to the game when she did. His parents also play significant roles, affecting Luzhin in the way they relate to each other and in the way they handle him during his formative years. Valentinov plays one of the single most influential roles in the shaping of Luzhin’s chess-game life. At the beginning of Luzhin’s career with the game of chess, Valentinov appears and serves as an introduction and guide to the society where he will spend the greater part of his life. The lifestyle that is established for Luzhin is the one that will carry him all the way through to the breakdown that separates him from chess, and Valentinov’s emergence serves to interrupt the dull existence that ensues. Valentinov’s role in Luzhin’s life, then, is too big to be described by a single piece. Valentinov represents an entire strategy—that of the opposing player—to overcome Luzhin.

Valentinov is not introduced in the story until page seventy-five, thirty percent of the way into the book. “There appeared a certain Valentinov, a cross between tutor and manager.” He simply happens to appear, arising from the context of Luzhin’s story the way a sequence of moves would in the context of a game of chess. Valentinov is described primarily as being mysterious and gifted, a “jack-of-all-trades” (81). Through the eyes of Luzhin Senior, who reluctantly includes Valentinov in the novel based on his son’s situation, we learn that Valentinov went abroad during the war, “what he did…remained unknown” (id). Luzhin Senior refuses to accuse him of being a deserter, and in conjunction with the reference to Valentinov’s “important secret business affairs and money tucked away in all the banks of allied Europe,” it nearly seems that Valentinov could have been a spy during the war, earning the money and freedom to do as he pleases later in life (80). Whatever the case, Valentinov is a man who is free to follow his amusement, which wanders to film when he loses interest in Luzhin and chess. In spite of the fact that “Valentinov was only interested in him as a chess player,” and “he was interested in Luzhin only inasmuch as he remained a freak,” or rather in order to more fully exploit that fact, Valentinov plays the role of father while Luzhin Senior is left in Russia, wondering about his son (93, 92). In writing the fictional account of his son’s story, Luzhin Senior writes about a boy “who was taken from city to city by his father (foster father in the novella)” (75). Nabokov makes it clear that the confusion about the roles of Luzhin Senior and Valentinov is universal. Luzhin Senior becomes especially disturbed by the situation when he returns home alone, because Valentinov claims that “Russia now had no time for chess, while his son was kept alive solely by chess” (79). Luzhin Senior begins to “loathe Valentinov,” who “proposed…to assume all the costs of the boy’s maintenance himself” (id). Young Luzhin’s entire development out of childhood took place under the auspices of Valentinov, and his father is only able to manage brief glimpses. When Luzhin Senior must “extract—carefully and piece by piece—and admit whole to his book—Valentinov,” it is entirely clear that Luzhin Senior’s own role as father has been eliminated, and he has been replaced by Valentinov (81). The insult added to injury is that, “thanks to [Valentinov’s] presence any story acquired extraordinary liveliness, a smack of adventure” (82). It is no great loss when Luzhin Senior finally dies, as he had done nothing for a long time but take pride in a son who had been taken from him.

When Valentinov took Luzhin under his wing, he not only assumed responsibility for his safety and well-being, but he also took responsibility for his development as a person. Unfortunately, he did not see it that way. “During the whole time that he lived with Luzhin he unremittingly encouraged and developed his gift, not bothering for a second about Luzhin as a person,” Nabokov points out, adding that Luzhin had been overlooked by “not only Valentinov but life itself” (92). Where Luzhin the child might have had some range or multitude of qualities and attributes that could have been cultivated and nurtured, the Luzhin who emerges is left with nothing but his abilities as a player of chess. If his life had been a game of chess, he would have been stripped by mid-game of many of his powerful pieces, and he would be left to play the endgame with just one piece. Valentinov sees a logic in this approach:

“he had a peculiar theory that the development of Luzhin’s gift for chess was connected with the development of the sexual urge…fearing lest Luzhin should squander his precious power in releasing by natural means the beneficial inner tension, he kept him at a distance from women and rejoiced over his chaste moroseness.” (94)

Valentinov does not simply fail in caring for Luzhin’s personal development; he actively chooses to neglect and stifle that development. He promotes Luzhin’s lopsided development in order to strengthen his abilities with chess, but Luzhin’s failure to function effectively in any other area ultimately contributes to his downfall. Valentinov’s example served to be all Luzhin had from which to understand the concept of parent, friend, and lover. Preparing to abandon his protégé, Valentinov “made a gift to Luzhin of some money, the way one does to a mistress one has tired of,” then “dropped out of Luzhin’s world, which for Luzhin was a relief, that odd kind of relief you get in resolving an unhappy love affair” (93). The young man “later regarded him the way a son might a frivolous, coldish, elusive father to whom one could never say how much one loved him” (id). With these models for understanding how he was to relate to the people in his life, Luzhin is left alone to float off into a life of unremarkable chess play.

Nabokov manages to fill a very large role in Valentinov with surprisingly few pages and words. Luzhin meets Valentinov on page seventy-five and is on his own before we reach one hundred, and it mirrors the fact that Valentinov’s role in his development is both brief and profound. His return, however, proves to wield much more influence. In the last twenty pages of the novel, Valentinov reemerges mysteriously. Luzhin’s wife is able to find no other explanation for who Valentinov is than that he was Luzhin’s “chess father.” She is unsettled by the appearance of this man because she believes that having chess brought back to the forefront of Luzhin’s consciousness will be detrimental to his health. Something about Valentinov himself seems to trouble Luzhin’s wife, as well, though she seems not quite able to identify what it is. The mysteriousness of Valentinov’s return is accentuated by the fact that Luzhin had already been backsliding by his own sort of complacence, “simply for lack of something to do” (242). Luzhin makes numerous references to an opponent who he expects will soon resume an onslaught against him, “by an implacable repetition of moves it was leading once more to that same passion which would destroy the dr
eam of life” (246). The return to playing chess would be unbearable for Luzhin, who would have no choice but to continue engaging in the grueling calculations and tiring strategies. The fear of that return has driven Luzhin into another sort of madness—an irrational suspicion that some grand plot in its final stages is attempting to swallow him up, and the defense that he hopes to concoct is one that will prevent him from being taken. He is therefore quite suspicious of Valentinov, who claims to be putting together a movie in which a heroic young lad who mistakenly ends up condemned becomes a professional chess player. “Turati has already agreed,” Valentinov tells Luzhin, and: “so has Moser. Now we need Grandmaster Luzhin…” (248). Luzhin is not convinced by Valentinov’s story and believes it part of the plot to condemn him to servitude on the chess board, and ultimately takes his own life in an effort to escape.

Valentinov’s actual role then, is not entirely clear at the end of the novel. In Luzhin’s state of madness, not everything is what it really seems to be, and it is difficult to trust his suspicions. On the other hand, if fate or Nabokov himself could fill the role of the opponent Luzhin speaks of, the opponent who hopes to inflict upon him an endless succession of chess problems and unrest, then perhaps Valentinov fits into the puzzle not as an informed agent of Luzhin’s destruction, but rather as an unwitting accomplice in his undoing. Where many of the events that take place in Luzhin’s life could be represented on the chess board by pieces or even arrangements of pieces, Valentinov’s role is more complicated. His strong influence on the shape that Luzhin’s role in the chess community would take and his appearance at precisely the right, or wrong, moment to help push Luzhin over the edge, so to speak, could only be represented by principles that play themselves out on the chess board, the underlying forces from which individual pieces gain their strength. Valentinov is not to blame for Luzhin’s demise, because he himself was a pawn forced by the hand of fate, the pen of Nabokov.

Nwoye and Milkman: Growing Up Black in Racially Turbulent Times

The twentieth century provided a great deal of change for Black people worldwide. The first years of the century were characterized by the influx and sudden increase of white people in Africa, while the middle of the century brought the era of civil rights struggles for black Americans. Literature does as it tends to do and captured elements of these changing times, and examination of novels by and about Black people in these times can help to cultivate an awareness of the similarities and differences for Black people in these two times and places. Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart about the course of events in one fictionalized Black African’s life up to and during the arrival and proliferation of white people in the land. The story line follows Okonkwo, a strong self-made man who wields a great deal of power and influence in the tribe, who ultimately ends up killing himself when it seems to him as though the way of life that he treasured was no longer possible. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, wrote Song of Solomon about one Black American man’s life and the black community around him. The life of this man, Milkman Dead, is similar in many ways to the life of Nwoye, the son of Achebe’s protagonist in Things Fall Apart, and their respective reactions to the community around them and the changing times are vastly different but uniquely paralleled.

Nwoye emerges in Things Fall Apart as a foil to the main character, Okonkwo, who rose to a position of status within his village as a result of hard work and intensity. Nwoye is characterized as he is introduced in the novel as someone who suffers from “incipient laziness,” unlike his father who must nag and beat him in order to teach him to work (Achebe 13). Okonkwo’s attitude toward his son Nwoye is very similar to his attitude toward his father, who he believed was a complete failure and an embarrassment, because he owned no property and had no titles of distinction among the tribe. One of the most significant situations in Nwoye’s early life is the introduction of Ikemefuna, an orphan of sorts who must be cared for by Okonkwo’s family. Ikemefuna is close in age to Nwoye and becomes like a brother to him in the years that he spends with the family, and he comes also to regard Okonkwo as a father figure (Achebe 28). In their affection towards Ikemefuna, Nwoye and Okonkwo are very similar, but their difference is displayed in their reactions to their feelings. Ikemefuna cannot be allowed to live indefinitely, as he is a prisoner of war, and Okonkwo overcompensates for his tender feelings about the boy by wrongfully taking place in the execution that was inevitable (Achebe 61). Nwoye is deeply hurt at the loss of Ikemefuna and the situation adds to a sense of indignation building in him toward tribal customs that began when he bore witness to “twinfanticide” (Achebe 62). And while Okonkwo seems to make a half-hearted effort to mourn with his son, Nwoye has no interest or sympathy for his father’s plight or point of view, and escapes from his father’s hut when his father passes out from drinking palm wine (Achebe 63).

Milkman Dead is the son of Macon Dead, a man known in the black community for being a shrewd and unforgiving businessman. Macon is characterized as being not only a cold, calculating businessman, but also as an unaffectionate and difficult husband. His wife, Ruth, as a result was a woman who was starving for affection, so much so that she continued to breastfeed her son well beyond the appropriate age, yielding him the nickname Milkman (Morrison 15). Milkman is very different from his father in the sense that he is generous and personable, and yet he is very similar to his father in that he is good with the property and rents business and he assumes that he will continue doing the work his father does indefinitely (Morrison 107). Milkman is intrigued by his father’s sister, Pilate, and her family, Reba and Hagar, and more importantly, he falls in love with Hagar, his cousin. Macon Dead insists that his son should have no contact with these women because of his ill feelings toward Pilate, and yet they become a regular part of his life, like his best friend Guitar. Guitar and Milkman begin to go separate ways as they grow older, and yet, once they acknowledge and accept each other’s differences, they seem to be able to support each other as best they can in spite of them (Morrison 114). Milkman’s choice to end his relationship with Hagar, with whom he has grown bored, prompts her to periodically threaten his life, and Guitar responds by helping Milkman to subvert Hagar’s efforts. Among the most important aspects of Milkman as a character, though, is his sense of separation or distance from members of his own race and class. He grows up the only son of one of the most affluent Black families in the neighborhood, and his feeling of difference from the rest of his peers is symbolically represented by legs that are not equal in size (Morrison 62).

Nwoye and Milkman Dead are characters whose lives are shaped by similar circumstances. To begin with, they share a great deal of common ground in their roles as sons of aggressive, influential men in their respective communities. Both Okonkwo and Macon Dead II are exceptionally strong, determined, and self-assured men, so much so that it would be foolish to expect even an unusually masculine son to live up to the precedent. Nevertheless, both young men struggle with the pressure to emulate their fathers and to make them proud. Then there is the issue of cultural influence. With Nwoye, we see early on that he has difficulty accepting the practices of his society, particularly where the abandonment of twins and the murder of Ikemefuna are concerned. The problems that Nwoye experiences with the customs of his people could illustrate a general tendency toward decay among the society, a part of an already-unweaving social fabric, or they could represent the types of struggles that many generations experienced in abiding by particular traditions, traditions that had been preserved, perhaps not always without closer inspection, up to the time that Nwoye lived. With Milkman, on the other hand, we see the difficulties that he experiences as the result of many social stigma attached to his particular character by way of race, class, and gender in already turbulent social settings. Milkman does not take issue with specific and relatively stable cultural practices, but rather is under a great deal of pressure to respond to a number of changing social and cultural values, including his role as a businessman, his role as a member of a family and as the potential head of his own family, and his role as a citizen and a human being in a time of chaotic race relations. So, while these young men come from similar situations, those situations are anything but the same.

In Nwoye’s lifetime, an alternative way of life impresses itself upon the people of his tribe by way of Christian missionaries and the beginnings of colonial government. During a period of time that was particularly difficult for Nwoye’s father, Okonkwo, missionaries began to attempt to bring the message of Christianity to Africans who were unfamiliar with white people in general. Okonkwo and Nwoye, along with the rest of their family, were spending time in the land of Okonkwo’s mother’s family, exiled from their home as a result of an accidental killing. While the message of Christianity is dismissed immediately by some as nonsense, it appeals to the sensibilities and needs of others. Those in the tribe who see no sense in the new religion disregard it as harmless, but it is because of the new religions subtle appeal to others that it gains strength. Nwoye, in particular, finds a great deal of relief in the new religion, relief in the form of an affirmation of his feelings about the twins that had been killed (Achebe 147). Nwoye chooses to convert to the new faith and is disowned by his father, who ultimately realizes that Christianity has forever changed the face of his homeland and he will neverbe able to have the sort
of life that he yearned for. Nwoye illustrates an important point through his role in this story, which is that it was through the introduction of an invasive worldview that native cultures were subverted. It is because Nwoye has an alternative religion to which he can convert that he does convert, whereas he would have likely had to suffer quietly as a part of a silent majority if Christianity had never been introduced to the region. It is possible, and even likely, that many people in generations before Nwoye’s lifetime felt similarly with respect to some of the more callous tribal customs, and yet the dissenting voices were silenced by the needs of the group. Nwoye represents just one segment of the Igbo population that was dissatisfied with tradition and leapt on the opportunity to try something new.

Milkman lives in a time when race relations between Black and White Americans are in major upheaval. And while his best friend Guitar is secretly a member of a pro-Black movement that believes in killing whites for revenge, Milkman is more concerned with finding his role as an individual in society and in his interpersonal relationships than he is with the issues of race. Each young man has his own motivations when they rob Pilate, stealing a bag of bones thinking that they are getting away with gold. And when they are stopped by a police officer as a result of racial profiling, they are taken to jail until the police find a satisfying, if untrue, story about the bones. In the wake of their catch and release, Milkman begins to undergo significant change. In his preoccupation with money as a means to his own independence and in his being subject to racial prejudice, Milkman has begun to experience feelings that make him feel more like a member of the Black community. He notices that his legs seem to be, for the first time in a long time, the same size as each other. This marks his newfound ability to feel like a normal person, and to feel a sense of compassion not just for members of his own race, but for people of any race. This solidifies his disagreements with Guitar, and when Milkman embarks on his journey to learn more about his family history, Guitar begins to suspect him of further self-centeredness. Ultimately, Milkman’s journey to become a part of his own family, his race, and of humanity in general leads him to the point where he is unafraid to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, in his final stand against the hate that Guitar condones.

Both of these men are living in times of serious cultural upheaval, and their corresponding reactions to the changing times are at once very similar and very different. Nwoye is a member of a culture that, for all intensive purposes, has remained relatively unchanged for a significant period of time. The drawbacks to the way of life to which he was accustomed troubled him deeply, as they likely troubled others who went before him, but the way of life also provided many favorable conditions and approaches to the environment and human relations. The drawbacks to their way of life, however, weighed heavily on Nwoye’s mind when he was presented with an opportunity to choose another way to live, and he chose, as many did, to give up the religion and lifestyle of his ancestors. It was the result of this type of choice being made by many among the native tribes of Africa that Christianity and colonial occupation was made possible. The harsh reality of the situation is that Okonkwo was right in believing that any hopes for a life of tradition had been dashed with the onset of Christian settlement. In Song of Solomon, though, Milkman dead is inspired through his course of life events to respond in a constructive, tradition-affirming way to the serious social changes that are occurring. Where Okonkwo disowned his son for turning his back on African tradition, Macon Dead insisted that his son embrace the spirit of capitalism, and “own things…own yourself and other people too” (Morrison 55). Both sons ultimately turn their backs on their fathers, but while Milkman does it in a way that connects him more deeply to the world of his story, Nwoye does so in a way that take him out of the world of his story and links him to another, remote world.

Both of these novels help to illustrate the plight of Black men, and Black people in general, in the twentieth century. Where Achebe was able to write a story that focused on the collapse of a way of life and the imposition of western culture on African tribes, Morrison detailed the struggle of Black Americans struggling to overcome the affects of uprooted family trees and second-class citizenship. And while these stories seem to have a different trajectory, and capture the sadness of changing times and some of the joy of life-affirming interpersonal relationships, both seem illustrate the general principle through these young man’s lives that things change, but life goes on.

The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and King Lear

Kathleen Mcluskie’s essay about King Lear insists that there is no proper reading of the play that does not recognize the play’s inherent misogyny. This essay approaches the text from a feminist theory perspective, paying special attention to the role of patriarchy and how Shakespeare reinforces that system with this play. Ultimately, Mcluskie’s assessment of the play from that perspective holds that King Lear supports the notion of patriarchy and that Shakespeare must be subverted in order for alternatives to misogyny and patriarchy to be possible. Mcluskie’s argument that the play reinforces patriarchal values is well-supported by the text of the play itself, particularly through the play’s treatment of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, but she falsely asserts that Shakespeare endorses patriarchy as a preferred social order because he addresses “permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature” in a patriarchal setting.

In this essay, Mcluskie uses ample evidence from the text of the play to support her claim that the play reinforces values of a patriarchal system. She correctly points to the treatment of Goneril and Regan throughout the play as women who attempt to disturb the order of that system, only to suffer and be punished. Their disruption of traditional gender roles results in chaos, but Cordelia’s willingness to accept her role in that patriarchal structure serves to reinforce order and peace. While Mcluskie correctly demonstrates how these relationships support patriarchy and a sort of misogyny in the play, she steps too far when she suggest that the play can only avoid that sexism by not reconstructing it “with its emotional power and its moral imperatives intact.”

Mcluskie rightly points out that the play’s sexism can be undermined through production choices, but her essay essentially argues that, in order to retain its grasp on Shakespeare’s interpretations of universal truths about human nature, it must continue to reinforce that sexism and patriarchy. When the play is staged in such a way that the patriarchy is undermined, it loses some of its emotional power and moral imperatives. But this seems to suggest that patriarchy is one of the moral imperatives that must remain intact. The play sprang from a world of patriarchy and misogyny, but simply because that is the setting of the play’s action does not necessarily mean that it is among the universal truths that the play aims to illustrate or support. The sympathetic characters in this play might happen to be the characters whose roles reinforce patriarchal order, but that does not necessarily mean that they are sympathetic because they do so. Certainly Mcluskie would recognize that the role Goneril and Regan play in undermining the patriarchal order is not necessarily productive, so why must the roles that Lear and Cordelia play in reinforcing order be construed as counterproductive simply because that order is patriarchal. I think that the force of Shakespeare’s argument is not that patriarchal should be preserved, but rather that any form of order should be preserved when the moving force behind undermining that order is greed and self-interest, as in the case of Goneril and Regan. After all, these women were not undermining the order of the time in the interest of equal rights, they simply wanted to take what they could get.

Making a Home for Suffering in Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said

Samuel Beckett’s works emerge as a collection of incredibly unique fiction in the twentieth century, breaking the mold of traditional form and setting new precedents in the creation of narrative. Beckett downplayed the role of character and plot in much of his fiction and gave much more attention to image and setting. One work in particular, Ill Seen Ill Said, does very little to tell a story, but instead constructs a vivid and haunting landscape as seen through the eyes of a paranoid, tortured narrator. Throughout the piece, the narrator urges himself to be careful but to move on in the description, which is heightened poetic language with frequent repetition and rhyme. The narrator constructs a world that is barren and desolate, a cabin surrounded by landscape in which an old, dying woman is monitored closely by twelve watchmen around the perimeter. Beckett has a strong tendency toward solipsism, especially apparent in Company, and that solipsism would suggest that the world he creates in Ill Seen Ill Said is not a place for the punishment of an other, but a place for the containment of something within Beckett himself. Beckett’s unresolved issues with his mother and some unspeakable cruelty or injustice to which she subjected him seem to have been among the prime sources of his inspiration for writing, and this piece creates a world that serves as a home for the pain with which he so strongly identifies himself.

Ill Seen Ill Said opens in a manner that sets the tone for the rest of the piece, introducing a disembodied voice that speaks of an old woman in repetitious, poetic language. “From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun” (Beckett 49). Immediately Beckett engages the narrative tone of a speaker who must consistently implore himself to continue in his creation of this world. This insistence that he must carefully go on indicates that the subject matter is deeply discouraging and wrought with elements that pose some threat. As in that first paragraph, Beckett’s narrator likely reminds himself to move on in places where the subject matter of what he’s just said or is about to say is particularly threatening or emotionally turbulent, whether as a reminder not to dwell too long on the things he’s just said or as encouragement to move along into what follows. On page 58, for example, when speaking of confusion, Beckett ends a paragraph with such a reminder: “If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently. Gently. On. Careful.” In this instance, Beckett’s narrator seems to be admonishing himself to be careful not where he goes, but with what he’s just said. He forces himself to move forward instead of dwelling on an idea—the idea that it could all be imaginary. Dwelling on that idea could be dangerous for one of at least two reasons; either he refuses to dwell on the idea because it is all imaginary, and he cannot take pressure of having to recognize himself as the creator, or he refuses to consider this idea much because the world is real and he is powerless to change it. But on pages 50 and 51, there are two paragraphs in which “Careful” is the second or third sentence. The first of these begins, “The Cabin. Its situation.” This cabin being the source of the evil, Beckett’s narrator is understandably hesitant to tell its story. On 51, then, when describing the layout of the grounds, Beckett’s narrator says, “As though outlined by a trembling hand.” He then urges himself onward, again, leaving presumably two possible readings: the outlining to which he referred may have been done by the narrator himself, and by mentioning it, he might be giving himself away as having conjured the entire idea, or he is warning himself to be careful about what he is preparing to say, which is further description of this world. Whatever the reason, Beckett intermittently draws attention, by way of urging himself onward in this prose to the difficult business, emotionally, of creating this piece.

Beckett focuses through the piece on the old woman, presumably his mother. Much of his work includes his mother, whose presence in his psyche, much like in his work, proved to play an incredibly strong role. And while it might be tempting to say that this piece is about his mother, because the entire story revolves around a woman trapped in this strange world, it seems more realistic that writing about her was a means to another end for Beckett. Adelman writes in Naming the Unnamable, “. . . the fictional status of Beckett himself . . . suspects that there is no way to liberate the prince whom he would believe is inside him. Needing to know may be the deepest motive of a creative drive” (Adelman 37). If Beckett is creating this world in order to learn something about himself—whether or not he can liberate the “prince” within—then his extensive discussion of his mother must only be a way to learn something more about himself.

Ill Seen Ill Said makes frequent references to an evil that haunts the world that Beckett creates, an evil whose center seems to be in the room that Beckett refuses to explore. “Another pillar of Beckett’s solipsism seems to arise from his artistic minimalism that directly lends to the last, minimal, and actually non-reducible residue of all subjectivity: the ego” (Gontarski 216). The world that Beckett creates here, then, is a projection of his psychological status, a projection of his subconscious. Simplifying and reducing the elements of himself, Beckett managed in this work to strive for an understanding of himself. “The quest for the real ‘I’ parodically strips away all that which informs the minds of ordinary people” (Adelman 37). Beckett is far from ordinary, and in his quest for the real ‘I’, he finds, in a cabin inhabited by his mother, a room that he does not enter. This room is an embodiment, it seems, of the very evil to which he refers continually—”what the wrong word”—and he refuses to enter. It would seem that he is afraid of confronting or remembering this horrible evil, or that he is not prepared to deal with it. I strongly suspect, however, that he cannot enter that room because he does not know what lies in there; he has no way of knowing. The great evil, for Beckett, is a suspicion, something that he cannot remember because it happened before he was capable of creating memories. And yet by building this world, he has captured it; he has contained it in a single room in a cabin surrounded by watchmen.

It is important to note, at this point, that Beckett’s tendency is toward solipsism in his writing. Essentially, solipsism is the idea that nothing really exists outside of one’s mind. “But if philosophical solipsism is no more than a provisional, ephemeral, almost fictional stage in the development of an argument, it appears in Beckett’s work as one of the leitmotifs that stamp his artistic construct with the indelible emblem of an impossible wager” (Gontarski 215). But what is Beckett wagering here? With the cabin, the woods, his mother, the watchmen, the room; what wager is made? If it can be said to be a win or lose situation, then perhaps success for Beckett is simply the successful creation of this world. Or perhaps, by imprisoning some part of himself, he hopes to destroy a part of himself. Marcoulesco goes on to say that “[Beckett’s] version of cosmic pessimism is coupled with an abhorrence of self and the sheer mystical bent to destroy it whenever feasible” (Gontarski 220-21). Perhaps this world is meant to destroy that part of himself that he is capturing. The room, the cabin, his mother—all captured in this world to wither and die, and the watchmen to ensure that it all happens as it should.

This brings up another issue. Ill Seen Ill Said creates a world of paranoia—embodied in the very least by the watchmen—and painful preoccupation with the past. According to Beckett’s narrator, the old woman seems to glance out at the watchmen frequently, and yet they remain at adistance. “She never once saw one come toward her. Or she forgets. She forgets” (Beckett 52). These menacing watchmen, and this woman’s resigned loneliness at their hands, flavors the atmosphere in this story with a sense of fearfulness. That fearfulness is also characterized by the references to a mysterious past. At one point, on page 62, we are told, “Lashes jet black remains of the brunette she was. Perhaps once was. When yet a lass. Yet brunette.” This is an almost sympathetic treatment of the old woman, whose past and the idea of a better life seem to flash before us momentarily. Instead, now the woman is described differently: “The long white hair stares in a fan. Above and about the impassive face. Stares as if shocked still by some ancient horror.” This description of the woman makes her seem ghostly, and it leaves open the idea that perhaps she herself is haunted. What could terrify her so that she would not try to find some relief or escape? “On its yellowed face in barely legible ink two letters followed by a number. Tu 17. Or Th. Tu or Th 17” (Beckett 71). This woman seems to exist in a timeless sort of world, and so it begs the question, What has brought her here? What happened in this cabin? And when? One might think that the men watching her would provide answers or sort of explanation. Who are these guys, anyway?

It has been suggested that the watchmen in Ill Seen Ill Said are copies of Beckett, who must monitor this world, keeping his mother in captivity, and preserve the world so that Beckett can return to it as a source of comfort or as a reminder. But are these watchmen really guarding Beckett’s mother? “What then if not her do they ring around?” (Beckett 61). It is possible that these men form a ring, not around the woman but around the room. This room serves as Beckett’s muse, his inspiration. The painful secret locked inside that room is not only captured by this piece and held stable by the watchmen, it is kept as a source of Beckett’s entire identity. In his solipsism, that room becomes a central element in existence, but also, this entire world created in Ill Seen Ill Said is but a function of Beckett’s mind, and all of its characters only aspects of Beckett’s own psyche. The watchmen, then, are another part of Beckett, perhaps a vantage point from which he is able to return to this world and soak it in through the eyes of observers at all sides. This world is Beckett’s and these watchmen reinforce that, serving as sentries, so that none can enter this world but through the words that Beckett provides us.

Ill Seen Ill Said is not a prison for Beckett’s mother, but instead is the culmination of his work, a place to contain his torment to which he can return for inspiration, comfort, and release. “impotent as he is against Omnipotence, he goes on embellishing, searching, weaving the colossal fabric that is the story of his persecutions. The punishers cannot make him live in the world of their creation” (Adelman 84). Beckett might be helpless to do anything about the omnipotent forces in his life, but he has creative control over the worlds he creates as a thinker and a writer. And while solipsism might suggest that the universe simply exists in Beckett’s mind, and he should therefore be able to exert complete control over that. An answer for that would be that even in writing, we cannot always do exactly what we set out to do. With much time and practice, Beckett has had an opportunity to increase his relative control of the field of words and the feel of the language. He lived in a world in which he felt there was no meaning and nothing worthwhile, and so he created instead in a world of his own, and this world put forth by Ill Seen Ill Said is a place to which he can comfortably return and delight in the idea that his mother is trapped, the room in which she so greatly wronged him is cut off from the world, and the watchmen keep guard to ensure that things stay as they are. Beckett’s pain and torment are captured in this piece and redirected at his mother, who wanders aimlessly, pondering why she has not yet died. And though Beckett seems to take some pleasure in her suffering, that suffering does not seem to be the purpose for her presence. She is there as a reminder to Beckett, a consolation to Beckett, for the wrongs to which she subjected him, wrongs that might simply have been the fact that she gave birth to him, bringing him into a world in which language struggles to force meaning onto what Beckett believes is pointless and futile, a “void.” Or perhaps she attempted to abort him and failed, and the scars of being unwanted even by his mother are too deep to escape. Or perhaps he simply never felt that she loved him as he needed to be loved. Whatever it was, his mother is inextricably tied to the torture he experiences in life, and Ill Seen Ill Said serves to capture that pain and give it a home.

Beckett’s solipsism and a preoccupation with some evil that has been done to him by his mother, something that he is incapable of remembering that haunts him nevertheless, ultimately produced this work, Ill Seen Ill Said. Where Beckett tends to approach his art and perhaps his perspective on life with general solipsism—as though the entire Universe is simply a function of his mind, this piece emerges as a corner of that mind that holds significant psychological factors that affected his state of mind and sense of well being. As he approaches the end of the piece, his attitude takes on an upbeat tone as he seems to have finally created a place for that pain to remain, and his rejoice is not at having to never revisit his thoughts and feelings about his mother, but he rejoices that he will know exactly where to go in order to dwell on those issues. Beckett may have finally captured his mother in a world from which she cannot escape with his highly poetic language and bleak, vivid description. Somewhere in reading the piece, a sense emerges that Beckett is no longer practicing the skill of writing with Ill Seen Ill Said, he’s fine-tuned his style to such a point that he is able, finally, not only to capture his mother, but to create a place where he himself can live, truly alone as his solipsism calls for. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.

Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s Attitude toward Homosexuality

Twelfth Night is a play that touches on issues that are incredibly sensitive, even by current standards. Homosexuality is the source of a great deal of debate and controversy in today’s world, but Shakespeare wrote this play in the late sixteenth century, approaching the subject of homoerotic desire through humor and comedy. While we have no direct evidence of Shakespeare’s personal views, his treatment of homoeroticism in this play, especially through the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Act II Scene I and Act III Scene III, can provide us with insight to his attitude toward such relationships. Antonio seems to be deeply infatuated with and devoted to Sebastian, who has no qualms taking advantage of Antonio in spite of the fact that he is essentially indifferent to him. If this relationship is any indication of Shakespeare’s attitude toward relationships that have homoerotic elements, then his sympathetic treatment of Antonio and his portrayal of Sebastian as opportunistic would suggest that Shakespeare understood the strain that societal attitudes placed on homosexuals.

In approaching this issue, it is important to first look at how Shakespeare ended Twelfth Night by providing safe, heterosexual outlets for the homoerotic overtones that characterize the play. One of the central conflicts of the play—which is apparent in Olivia’s lines Act IV, Scene I—is solved by the mistaken identity of Sebastian. When the play begins, Duke Orsino seeks to woo Olivia, who will have no suitor as she mourns her brother. She allows Cesario to come forth and present Orsino’s suit, but instead of accepting Orsino’s propositions, she falls in love with Cesario. Because Olivia believes that Sebastian is Cesario, a marriage is arranged in Act IV, Scene I between the two. Because Viola has developed a warm relationship with Orsino as Cesario, Orsino does not need to be terribly disappointed at losing Olivia to Sebastian. The appearance of Sebastian in this scene as a character who will accept Olivia’s advances frees Viola not only from Olivia’s pursuit, but also to reveal her true identity and her love for Orsino. This scene is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the play. Sebastian’s appearance at this point in time serves both to redirect the homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships and to allow for a comic rather than tragic ending.

Shakespeare was constrained in his writing by the sensibilities of his audience and society at large. The redirection of homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships does not necessarily provide an accurate impression of how Shakespeare felt about homoerotic relations. His treatment of Sebastian and Antonio provides more insight into his views, especially because Antonio is portrayed as a character who actively embraces homoerotic desire for Sebastian. Orsino’s admiration for Cesario is apparent, but in the action of the play, it is made clear that these characters will not act on their desire, at least before the true identity of Cesario is revealed. Similarly, Olivia’s attraction to Cesario, however obvious, comes across clearly as desire that will not be fulfilled, at least not by Cesario. As we see in these instances, while it might have been on the edge of social acceptability to feature homoerotic desire, Shakespeare avoids treating the desire as acceptable by making it clear that in neither case will the desire be fulfilled. This was not necessarily the case with Antonio and Sebastian.

Beginning in Act II Scene I, Shakespeare introduces the tension between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio has rescued Sebastian, who has called himself Roderigo, and brought him safely to land. Sebastian, in urging Antonio to go his own way, says “I may bear my evils alone: it were a bad recompense for your love, to lay any of them on you.” The love that Antonio has shown Sebastian may simply be the rescue and safe voyage to land, but it seems likely to me that in that safe passage, Antonio and Sebastian might have indulged in their homoerotic desires. It would serve as an explanation for Sebastian’s desire to keep his name secret, as well as Antonio’s remark, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” This remark certainly seems to give Antonio away as having overt homoerotic desire for Sebastian, but even then, for Sebastian to kill him seems rather extreme. He would, however, have much more reason for wanting to do away with Antonio if they had, in fact, been involved with each other in physical intimacy. Sebastian has no real reason for concern being the object of Antonio’s desire, as that says nothing about his character. If he had, however, been involved with Antonio romantically, he would have much more reason for wanting to be rid of him for good, whether that meant by killing him or simply walking out of his life.

Cristina Malcomson, in her article “What You Will,” says that “the ideology of the play resides in its formulation of love, which includes both dominant, traditional notions of interdependence, and newly emerging attitudes toward individual choice and personal desire, or, as the play puts it, ‘will'” (Wayne 31, 32). In the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, Antonio alone feels the love, and his attempts at establishing interdependence are apparent in his admonishment to Sebastian: “let me be your servant.”

Malcomson also states in her article that “Twelfth Night considers advancement in terms of a marriage market which in the play is much more open to personal choice and status exogamy than it is in traditional society, and which also firmly closes down at particular moments” (Wayne 31). Antonio’s love for Sebastian might be considered one of those moments to which she refers. And because Antonio could never hope to marry Sebastian, neither in traditional society nor in the “more open” marriage market of Twelfth Night, the best he can hope for is the attachment to Sebastian through servitude.

Antonio’s role as a minor character in this play, however, was likely a choice made based on Shakespeare’s preference to focus on other issues. “Not only are female triumphs compared to male inadequacies; the proper attitude towards marriage becomes the mirroring reflection of the proper attitude towards social advancement. . . the play dramatizes the superiority of women to men in order to call into question the rigid structures of the traditional order, and, in the process, to validate certain forms of social mobility” (Wayne 31). Shakespeare’s decisions are not unlike the decisions made by certain civil rights leaders in the twentieth century, who believed that there would be much less resistance to extend rights a little bit at a time, to one group at a time, than to grant equal rights across the board to all minority groups. Not that I think that Shakespeare even vaguely considered the notion of same-sex marriage, nor even hoped to use this play (or any of his others of which I’m aware), to challenge social attitudes toward homoerotic behavior. But while one of this play’s main goals might be to “challenge the rigid structures of the traditional order,” Shakespeare still introduces Antonio on the periphery and through him, gives evidence of a peripheral attitude—namely the attitude toward homoerotic relations that he deftly avoids addressing through his treatment of major characters in the conclusion of the play.

However, Antonio is still involved in the new social mobility to which Malcomson refers. She says of Antonio: “[he] is the model for the new servant imagined by the play, since his service is based on desire rather than duty or reverence.” She suggests that all social mobility, according to this play, should be based on that same desire, as it is with the women. Most social roles at the time, especially those of servitude and other lower-class roles, were the function of a person’s birthright, not their talents, aptitudes, or aspirations. While the women of this play are given freer reign than would have been socially acceptable at the time, there are still relative constraints to that freedom. Sebastian and Viola seem to be of decent stock from whichever country is theirs—the Captain in Act I Scene II addresses Viola as “lady”—so it does not seem outrageous that they would be able to marry Olivia and Orsino, respectively. Even Maria is not too far removed from Toby Belch in social status, and her marriage to him is bestowed as a “reward” for her cleverness. She seems to enjoy, or desire, her service to Toby as Antonio does his service to Sebastian. Malvolio, on the other hand, is too wrapped up in himself to bee very concerned with his service to Olivia, and though he is ecstatic at the false prospect of marriage to her, it has more to do with his desire for social advancement than his desire for her as a lover. Between that and Olivia’s preoccupation with Cesario, Malvolio never stood a chance, much like Antonio, whose desire seems to operate on a completely different level. Malvolio’s desire for service is motivated by a drive to advance himself in terms of social status, and as Malcomson pointed out, “female triumphs [are] compared to male inadequacies” (Wayne 31).

Valerie Traub points out that “the meanings of homoerotic desire during the early modern period seem to have been remarkably unfixed, with contradictory meanings existing across a complex and fractured field of signification. . . homoerotic activity—for men or women—was not a primary means of identification of the self. Homoeroticism had little to do with any of the social roles, statuses, and hierarchies in which an early modern subject might be located and thereby define him/herself.” Antonio might have been well aware of his homoerotic desires, for Sebastian and possibly others, but according to Traub’s suggestions, he likely did not identify himself too strongly with those desires. Other concerns, “social roles, statuses, and hierarchies,” were of much greater importance than a person’s sexual orientation. Marriage between man and woman, whether founded on desire and love or social pressures and constraints, would probably have had very little effect on homoerotic relations, which posed no threat of producing illegitimate children. For Antonio to become Sebastian’s servant leaves open the possibility of ongoing involvement, regardless of Sebastian’s marital status, and this type of relationship would mark the height of what could be hoped for by two men bound by mutual homoerotic desire.

Cristina Malcomson’s suggestion that this play “dramatizes the superiority of women to men” provides an explanation for Antonio’s failure to advance himself socially through his desire to serve Sebastian, but it does not seem to address Sebastian’s own successful social advancement through his marriage to Olivia. In Act IV Scene III, just before he is to be married to Olivia, Sebastian yearns for Antonio’s counsel, in the face of “this accident and flood of fortune.” He imagines that he must be losing his mind, or that Olivia has lost hers, but wonders, “if ’twere so, She could not sway her house, command her followers, take and give back affairs and their dispatch with such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing.” While the marriage between the two should be considered a triumph more for Olivia than for Sebastian, it seems to be significant that he is preoccupied not only with Olivia’s status, but also with Antonio’s whereabouts. When Sebastian encounters Antonio again in the final scene of the play, he greets him: “Antonio, O my dear Antonio! How have the hours rack’d and tortured me, Since I have lost thee!”

While Valerie Traub suggests that “the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity,” she goes on to explain that “the fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se. . . [it is] fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality” (Traub 123). The problem that the love between Antonio and Sebastian poses is circumvented by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, which frees the two to continue in their relationship, as long as it remains subordinate to Sebastian’s marriage.

Antonio displays a very favorable sort of love in Twelfth Night in that he is as devoted to serving his love as Viola to Orsino and as determined in his desire as Olivia to Cesario/Sebastian. Not only is his plight treated by Shakespeare with extreme sympathy, Antonio is consistently portrayed as a character who maintains his honor and dignity throughout the play. By the end of the play, Antonio is not “sacrificed,” as Traub suggests, but has achieved a rather smashing success in his role as servant to Sebastian, and their relationship is not lost to, but rather legitimized by, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia. In finishing this play, Shakespeare reinforces social conventions of heterosexual marriage in order to ensure reproductive sexuality, but his treatment of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian leaves open the possibility for viable non-reproductive sexuality between respectable, even favorable, characters, suggesting that he sympathized with those who are prone to homoerotic desire.

Works Consulted:

  • Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London, Routledge, 1992.
  • Wayne, Valerie, ed. The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1991.