Monthly Archives: November 2005

Fiction Assignment

Once Upon a Time at the Drive-In Diner

A loving brother and sister go for a nice stroll in the woods.  Another sweet little girl braves the deep, dark forest to take food to her tired, bed-ridden grandmother.  Both the girl and the siblings will find refuge in their trips through the wilds.  To the girl bound for Grandmother’s house, that refuge is her destination.  To the brother and sister it is a magical house made of gingerbread and other sweets.  But both of these promised lands turn out to be guises for the sinister.

The stories “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are instantly recognizable to anyone with English as their first language.  These two stories, along with many other similar fairy tales, have made their way from German origins into the foundations of the American cultural consciousness. They have traveled by way of cartoons and “easy readers,” not to mention a sizable German-American population.  The original versions of these stories are far more gruesome than the watered-down pop culture takes most people are familiar with.  They are in fact quite disturbing.  There are also universal themes in these tales.  They are cautionary; they advise the pure and innocent against the dangers of unknown places and strangers.  This is the heart of the story.  The rest is window dressing to be rearranged as the author sees fit, be it the lost brother and sister and the gingerbread house, the young girl taking treats to grandma, or a pretty teen tanning on a Sunday afternoon, as is the case in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Oates’ story may seem on a casual reading a disturbing literal narrative of a single sinister happening but in many ways the story is a close relative to a tale of the Brothers Grimm, albeit one with some modern twists.

The protagonist of this story is Connie, a girl of fifteen.  Connie is pretty and vain.  It is stated plainly in the first paragraph, “she knew she was pretty and that was everything.”  For all her vanity, Connie is the representation of innocence in this fairy tale.  Her day-dreaming about boys and love was always “sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”  Connie is on the edge of the adult world, but her perception of it derives from fantasies and secondhand sources.  What are movies and songs but shared day-dreams?  Her idea of love remains pure and in this she is innocent.  Even in the name she has chosen, Oates infuses the story with fairy tale symbolism.  “Connie” is a nickname for “Constance,” an English name meaning “constant” or “universal.”  Connie is every pretty adolescent girl; she is the very idea of beauty and naiveté.  Since she is a universal representation of adolescence, then Oates is suggesting that not only is innocence a defining characteristic of youth, but vanity as well.

Hints to Connie’s fairy tale status can also be found in her familial relationships.  She is at odds with her mother, who was “pretty once too . . . but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.”  The jealous and wicked mother-figure is a common occurrence in the old stories.  Connie is a modern day Snow White being persecuted by her wicked mother.  Connie also has a sister who is “plain and chunky” but is the favorite of her mother.  June is a mirror-image of Cinderella’s sisters in that she is the one who does all the work and not Connie.  Still, the favored sister dynamic endures.  All of these facets come together to create the modern spin of the fairy tale princess, the little girl lost.  It is not just in Connie that the fairy tale essence of the story can be found, however.  Were that the case, any of these parallels could be mere coincidence.  As the story unfolds young Connie will become lost in the woods, where she meets a big, bad wolf.

The wood in which this young girl becomes lost is the world of adulthood and sexuality.  Oates represents this concept in a few different ways.  One is a literal location, the strip with the movie theater and the drive-in diner.  It is in this place that the big, bad wolf catches the first glimpse of his chosen prey.  Also in this place is music, “like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.”  In a sense, the music is also the woods, as it is sited as the primary source of Connie’s fantasies about love and sex and desire, the seductive fantasies that promise how sweet it will be.  Another guise of these woods is Connie herself, whose vanity makes her wish to be seen as adult.  “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home,” the narrator tells us.  Connie has a developed idea of what is desirable, but does not fully understand what the effects of such desire can be.  By way of her vanity, she has become lost in her self.  In fact, Connie fixes her hair and worries about her appearance just before the crucial wrong turn.  Present, as always, is the music.

There is a small but crucial passage just before Oates introduces Connie to her antagonist.  Her family has left for the cookout, though in a real sense it is Connie who has departed from them.  She has made an active decision to not attend and has even had to argue with her mother for it.  It is at this point that the little girl departs from the world she knows and wanders off into the woods.  “. . . and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was . . . the asbestos ‘ranch house’ . . . startled her – it looked to small.  She shook her head as if to get awake.”  This is the crucial passage.  On one level Connie has simply been out in the hot sun and is dazed when she comes to.  On another level, she is waking up from the dream of childhood into the reality of adulthood.  Adults frequently find when visiting places they remember from their youth that things are not as big as they recall, elementary school rooms being a prime example.  But on a different level still, the level on which Oates is constructing her fairy tale, the house has literally changed; it is no longer the safe place of home that Connie came from, but an apparent refuge hiding the sinister into which she is going.  It has become Grandmother’s house or the house of gingerbread.  When Connie enters this house she soon finds the evil that has been hiding, her very own big, bad wolf.  He drives a gold jalopy and calls himself Arnold Friend.

All fairy tale villains are, in essence, Satan.  There is a charm to them, something enchanting or desirable.  This is not to be confused with complexities that give depth and humanity to other literary villains, however.  Despite this charm they are evil though-and-through.  Arnold Friend is no exception.  Similar to Connie’s name, Arnold wears his role right there on the surface – he is an old friend.  In fact, he is the oldest.  There are even a few hints within the story that Friend may be more than figuratively inhuman.  Arnold draws an “X” in the air and it appears almost real, to hang there after he is finished.  He lurches and wobbles in his boots which don’t quite fit right.  “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it.  It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle.”  The image suggests that no foot could be in that boot, but maybe a hoof or even a paw could be.  There is a clever image used in the description of Friend that specifically suggests the wolf when his nose is said to be “sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up.”

Every child knows that the big, bad wolf was tricky and dressed up in Grandmother’s clothes to try and claim his prey.  Arnold Friend is no different.  He is described as being dressed like “all of them dressed,” meaning the cool kids, Connie’s peers.  His deceptive boots have been mentioned already.  Friend may be wearing a wig to appear to have to loose, wild hair of a teenage boy.  Certainly his clean-shaven and creepy friend Ellie is only playing at youth, having the face of “a forty-year-old baby.”  Friend’s guise runs even deeper than the mere physical, though.  He drops popular song lyrics into his conversation.  He uses the slang that went out of date last year.  He is close enough to contemporary to appear, at first glance, like one of the young, but look a little closer and the seams of the costume begin to appear.

Oates’ fairy tale has a decidedly eerie ending.  There is no woodsman to bring the wolf to a vicious end; no twist of fate to send the witch to cook alive.  Friend does get Connie.  Her literal fate is not exactly clear, though enough is suggested to know that it holds nothing good.  Yet there is a level to the story on which Friend is not just a big, bad wolf, but is in fact the dark side of the adult world that Connie has been so enamored of.  He is the brutal reality of desire and sex.  Herein lays the moral of Oates’ modern fairy tale, and its cautionary warning as well.  It is inevitable that the innocence of youth will be lost; the adult world is too full of hardship and danger for this fate to be avoided.  Consequently, it is imperative that the young enjoy their youth and not be in too much of rush to be adults.  Because it is the vanity of youth to believe that one can enjoy the fruits of adulthood without encountering its pitfalls, which is simply not the case.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is an excellent story that functions on many levels.  The language of the narrative is rhythmic and effective.  The tension in the central scene with Arnold Friend is palpable.  The underlying morality is compelling and contemporary.  Still, one of the most fascinating aspects is how it echoes the tales of dark forests and innocent maidens that have been a staple of European folklore for hundreds of years.  Oates’ writes a complex story with all the trappings of those “simple” yarns, taking off the character’s 18th century Bavarian costumes and putting them in 1960s Anytown, U.S.A.  The resulting read is both deep and enjoyable.  It has resonance because it has on foot in the modern and one in the timeless.  One can almost see Oates, large leather-bound tome in hand and surrounded by a circle of rapt children, saying, “Once upon a time at the drive-in diner . . .”


Poetry Assignment

Death and Life Thereafter

Few subjects are as common in poetry as death. The only real competition would be love and her cousin lust. Even these great muses would be hard-pressed to gather as many meditations on their nature as death can claim. Death is the most universal of human experiences. It is natural that poets seeking to illuminate the human condition would write most universally about death. Onto this blank (and black) slate they project their individual beliefs and desires. Among these are thoughts regarding the possibility and nature of life after death. This idea can range from the literal concept of a spiritual afterlife to the more abstract notion of enduring memory.

Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, Farewell Earth’s Bliss” is a contemplation of the grim certainty of death. None shall escape its grasp, the first stanza informs. From there, Nashe lists several worldly attributes to illustrate the futility of each in the face of mortality. The last stanza carries the weight of the poem. Here is Nashe’s statement on what this all means and what men should do as a result.

The first line is a goodbye to life; the majority of the poem is dedicated to the things mortals must say goodbye to. The second line is a statement of life’s uncertainty. There is irony here, as the poem is about death’s certainty, but there is also the clear statement that when death will come is uncertain. Lines three through five talk of how fleeting and foolish the joys of mortal life are placed against the power of death. Next are the crucial lines, six and seven. These will be repeated at the end of every stanza.

6) I am sick, I must die.
7) Lord, have mercy on us!
In line six, the poetic voice could not die from his sickness, nor will he die from it. Rather, he “must” die from it. There is no possibility of another outcome, nor is there any sense of choice implied by “will.” It is inevitable, leaving the poetic voice no option but to cry out to God for mercy. He does not cry out for mercy for himself, but for us. The “us” includes the both the poetic voice and all of humanity. God’s mercy is all that anyone can hope for in the face of death, Nashe says.

The next four stanzas follow a pattern. Each names a worldly virtue and proceeds to denote its transience before returning to the refrain of lines six and seven. The second stanza talks of riches. No matter how wealthy a man may be he reaches a point where he can no longer afford to buy himself cures. This point comes quicker in Nashe’s time than the modern day but it still holds true. As line eleven points out, nothing is made that will not eventually end. When the time does come that sickness over takes the rich man, line twelve says, it will come swiftly.

The next of life’s joys on the chopping block is beauty. Lines fifteen and sixteen draw a parallel with a flower that will be consumed by the ravages of time. The “brightness” that line seventeen refers to is likely a shooting star as it is compared to Queens who have died while still young and beautiful. There is the mention of “Helen” in line eighteen, the legendary beauty of The Iliad. This particular image carries over into the next stanza, which focuses on strength. Nashe equates the two as similar traits with respective female and male senses as represented by Homeric figures. In line 23 is the reference to Hector, mighty warrior of Troy who dies during the war.

The final attribute to be addressed is wit. Nashe refers to the “wantonness,” or arrogance, of this trait. A possible reason for wit’s position at the end of the list is that it is the trait that most readily convinces one that there may be some option other than appeal to God’s charity. Wit is the worldly virtue of philosophers and theoreticians, men who fill their lives with argument. All the logical arguments in the world amount to nothing when posed to “Hell’s executioner,” who “Hath no ears.” Their art is by nature vanity, the sin of Lucifer and therefore worst of all sins.

The last stanza contains the poem’s ultimate message. Lines 36 and 37 urge the reader to be quick to accept their destiny. Death is the entrance to that which man is truly destined for, Heaven, as line 38 says. The mortal world is a transitory thing, like a play, and not worthy of concern. Once more the poem returns to the refrain of the certainty of death and crying out for the mercy of the Lord.

John Donne offers a different perspective on that which comes after death. In the poem “The Relic,” Donne’s poetic voice speaks of his corpse in the grave. Someday this corpse will be reunited with that of the woman he loves. Donne draws this out into a musing on the potential immortality of love. It could be that the love endures in the departed souls of lovers, or it could be that it simply lives on in the minds of those who read Donne’s words. It is even possible that there is a link between the two concepts.

The first stanza sets up the situation. The poetic voice’s body has been rotting away in the grave, which is dug up again to place another body in it. Donne suggests the romantic link that once existed between the “second guest” and him by equating the sharing of the grave with that of a bed. The metaphor even equates the grave with the womanhood, or loss of virginity, of the bed. This may be a misinterpretation as it is hard to ascertain whether the grave is actually being dug up for the lover to be interred, or if the poetic voice and the lover are already in the ground together. Then the gravedigger would be seeking to reuse the grave and would be overwhelmed by the sight of two dead lovers in an embrace, one of whom still has a ring of bright hair. Whatever the case, lines nine through eleven ask if this gravedigger will think that perhaps these two lovers planned this so that as their souls rise on the last day, they will linger together at this site.

In the second stanza, Donne wonders about the spiritual state of the time when his body is exhumed. If it is a time when “mis-devotion,” or misplaced faith, is common in the land, then the voice thinks these lovers shall be regarded as saints. That is the literal meaning of the title, relics being artifacts or body parts that belonged to saints. Line nineteen speaks of the admiration and worship the couple would receive for their love. They would be patrons of the concept. Lines seventeen and eighteen are something of a puzzle. The equating of the lover to Mary Magdalen is another reference to sainthood. But Magdalen was closest to Jesus. So then in line eighteen, is the “something else thereby” that the poet would be a messiah? This would a sacrilegious thing for a minister to include in a poem. The actual intended meaning of the line is difficult to discern. It seems incongruous with the purpose of the poem. The voice goes on to assert that people in an age of misplaced faith would seek miracles. In lines 21 and 22, the poet sets out to inform the reader just how miraculous the love that these two shared was.

The third and last stanza is the real heart of this poem, similar to the last stanza of Nashe’s poem. Here Donne explains that the love was pure. In their “coming and going” the lovers may have kissed, “but never between those meals.” An image is evoked of quick kisses like small snacks. The “meals” that never happened between those kisses would be the act of sexual love. The lovers never consummated their relationship in the Biblical sense. Lines 29 and 30 communicate this. These are the “seals” that nature “sets free.” In fact, the voice says in the preceding lines that they did not even understand the differences of their gender; they never so much as touched each other in a sexual way. Far beyond the miracle of the purity of the love was, to the poetic voice, the very miracle of his love herself. So amazing was this woman in his eyes that no words exist in the language of man that will describe her, we are told in the next to last line. She truly deserves a place in the memory of women and men the world over.

Herein lays the life after death Donne is concerned with. The enduring memory of a person in the hearts and minds of those who come after is in a way a continuation of life. For Donne and his lover to be remembered as saints of love would be a fitting afterlife. It does not guarantee that there will be any sort of special place for them in heaven, nor does it say there won’t be. It is possible that this memory will create a way for the love itself to go on even after death. But that is not the primary concern. Those who continue to live and what they say about those who have departed is what is truly important.

Interesting that Donne, a religious man, would write this poem. Its outlook is squarely at odds with Nashe’s. The first poem invests all faith in the power of God to save mortal man from certain doom. The second invests faith in those very mortal men. Nashe refers to both Helen and Hector, great persons whose names are still known to educated people the world over. His references to them are in a context of their destruction despite their great worldly traits. Their great beauty and strength made them renowned throughout the world. It is because of theses things that they are still talked of to this day. By the logic of Donne’s poem it would be these very traits that assure them an afterlife. The great love that was shared between the voice and his lover would mean nothing in the context of the Nashe poem. Such feats are of the world and not concerned with the one route to salvation, the Lord God.

Different poets bring different perspectives to their work. Despite similar background beliefs, the mirror of death reflects very different faces. There is no doubt that every man, woman, and child on Earth grapples with the reality of death. Death gives no answers; it only poses more questions, not unlike love. It is only natural then that these two phenomena be favorites of poets throughout the ages. Sometimes the two even collide, as in Donne’s The Relic. But more frequently there is simply death with its morbid inevitability. It is that very certainty that leads everyone, poets especially, to ponder, “Is there anything after and if so, what?”

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