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The power of the written word

So this is an apt topic for my last blog ~ the power of the written word. In several of Narayan’s short stories the character put in writing the things they can’t say. The nature of the things they put into letters, powerful things they can’t say, suicide, quitting a job, false accusations against a teacher. There is a letter with good news of a pay raise that Sigh cannot open in “Gateman’s Gift” and it drives him mad. What is thee significance of all these letters never delivered, unopened, taken back.

In “Gateman’s Gift” Singh’s wife tells him of the registered letter “Why not open it and see, ask someone to read it?” Singh cannot read ~ is that why the written word frightens him so? It represents the unknown and for Singh can only bring bad news.

Consider the note that Venkat Rao writes in “Forty`-Five a Month”. He cannot speak to his boss but writes a strong and angry letter equating his job to slavery. For a raise of only 5 rupees a month he snatches the letter back. There is social commentary here in who has a voice and whose voice is repressed.

Even thinking of the written word in “Out of Business” Rama Rao becomees obsessed with words and their meaning, writing them into a weekly contest in a newspaper with the hopes of winning a large sum of money but only losing small sumss of money he cannot afford. it is an escape and yet a trouble for him ~ these weekly word puzzles.

Malgudi Days

He walked off to his car, sat in the back seat and reflected.  He looked at his watch.  Midnight.  If the will was to be signed, it must be done within the next two hours, or never.  He could not be responsible for a mess there; he knew the family affairs too well and about those wolves, Subbiah and his gang,  But what could he do?  If he asked him to sign the will it would virtually mean a death sentence and destroy the thousandth part of a chance that the patient had of survival.”

Narayan, R.K. Malgudi Days. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Notes: Strange how the doctor thinks signing a will can bring about the death of a patient.  The doctor is facing a sort of conundrum here.  He knows that not signing the will can ruin the chances of the family inheriting the property, yet he is concerned with his life.  There is an importance on making sure the property remains with the family while at the same time trying to remain optimistic about the chances of survival.  It is a question of who is being pragmatic in this situation, the doctor or the patient?

Never Clever Enough

“Swami went to his seat with a bleeding heart. He had never met a man so good as Samuel. The teacher was inspecting the home lessons, which usually produced (at least, according to Swami’s impression) scenes of great violence. Notebooks would be flung at faces, boys would be abused, caned, and made to stand up on benches. But today Samuel appeared to have developed more tolerance and gentleness. He pushed away the bad books, just touched people with the cane, never made anyone stand up for more than a few minutes. Swami’s turn came. He almost thanked God for the chance.”

Narayan, R.K. Malgudi Days. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Notes: Complete 360: polar opposite versions of the character [Samuel] leads the audience to fall for the trap like Swami does. “The chance” he should have taken was to behave well and not test Samuel’s limits. Swami’s naivety is apparent as he tries to be clever, which ultimately lands him in more trouble than at the start. It also makes me question whether he actually had a headache in the first place. He asked his mother rather than his father because he knew she would allow him to stay home. Swami is a character that attempts to have things his way, but is most times unsuccessful because he does not think rationally.


“One day the good journal announced a special offer of eight thousand rupees. It excited Rama Rao’s vision of a future tenfold. He studied the puzzle. There were only four doubtful corners in it, and he might have to send in at least four entries. A larger outlay was indicated. ‘You must give me five rupees this time,’ he said to his wife, at which that good lady became speechless. He had become rather insensitive to such things these days, but even he could help feeling the atrocious nature of his demand. Five rupees were nearly a week;s food for the family. He felt disturbed for a moment; but he had only to turn his attention to speculate whether HOPE or DOPE or ROPE made most sense (for “Some People Prefer This to Despair”), and his mind was at once at rest.”

-R.K. Narayan, “Out of Business”

Notes: I feel a very strong sense of irony in this passage. Rama Rao’s desperate hope that he will win a large prize from these puzzles seems especially absurd when juxtaposed against the alternatives of dope or rope (connoting substance abuse or suicide, respectively).

The Significance of Aesthetic Description in the Perspective of the Narrator

“It was translated to him word for word, and the enclosure, a cheque for one hundred rupees, was handed to him. A big crowd gathered to watch this scene. Singh pressed the letter to his eyes. He beat his brow, and wailed: ‘Tell me, sir, am I mad or not?'” (Narayan 34)

“There they stood facing each other on the floor of the compartment Rajam Iyer was seized by a sense of inferiority. The newcomer stood nine clean inches over him. He began to feel ridiculous, short and fat, wearing a loose dhot and a green coat, while the newcomer towered above him in his grease-spotted khaki suit” (Narayan 57)

Notes: Variations in the third person narrator – Hemingway-esque exteriority vs. omniscient, psychological perspective. Minimalist description vs. expansive, aesthetic detail. The connection between aesthetic detail and interiority  – would a perspective lacking the psychological component be as effective in maintaining its exteriority with the incorporation of more vivid aesthetic detail? If the first excerpt included an image about Singh’s “grease-spotted” clothing, how would it change the perspective of the narrator? Are aesthetic descriptions based on visual objectivity or do they contain subjective visions?

Social Landscape

In four of the novels Mrs. Dalloway, Their Eyes were Watching God, As I Lay Dying, and Untouchables. The class of the characters heavily influences their social mobility or lack of social mobility.  The characters in Their Eyes were Watching God and As I lay Dying are living in regions that are separate from those in big cities.  Then there are those who are a part of the same city, but who are cut off from the upper class mentality of thinking–Lucy in Mrs. Dalloway.  The importance of characters who live in the margins compared to those who are affluent show a changing landscape post World War I.  There is a gradual fixation on the proletariat compared to the bourgeois.   This shows a growing concern with representing people who have been unrepresented in the past.

Historical Line: Woolf/Faulkner/Anand/Huston

Historical line: Social climate and futurism (i.e. anticipation of the future).


Mrs. Dalloway (1925): Published in the aftermath of the First World War. Deals with the domestic state of Great Britain following a massive loss of life during the war and the weakened state of British colonialism (see the reflections of Peter Walsh throughout the novel). Anticipates, through indirect criticism, lasting effects of the First World War on British international politics and domestic perception (i.e. the waning power of the English monarchy, the disintegration of British colonialism). Virginia Woolf herself had portentous ideas of what would eventually befall Britain as a result of the social, political, and economic consequences of WWI on the Isles and on the Continent (Woolf infamously committed suicide shortly before the Britain entered WWII and the Blitz ravaged London).

As I Lay Dying (1930): Published at the outset of the Great Depression. Addresses an extremely poor lower class of the Southern United States which is in continual economic hardship. Challenges ideas of class being connected to intelligence and/or capacity; possibly a thematic “response” to the Roaring ’20s credit economy, wherein the Nouveau Riche were able to make their mark in the Northern United States, while the Southern United States remained in relative poverty.  Arguably a precursor to the notable works of John Steinbeck, i.e. The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

Untouchable (1935): Published 12 years prior to India’s independence from Great Britain, and 2 years after Mahatma Gandhi began his political campaign for the Harijan movement. Anticipates an independent India which has removed the ideas of class and caste from daily life/a rejection of the social structure which enables the oppression of lower classes. Ideas of passive resistance and quiet protest are examined in Untouchable; the novel anticipates the growing impact of 1) Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings on Indian independence and class relations, and 2) the political mobilization of the lower classes in India towards a democratic society.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937):  Published during the latter years of the Great Depression. Deals with a similar economic climate which Faulkner addressed in his own writing, only here addressing issues of race and gender as well; challenges traditional ideas of marriage and perception of female sexuality and economic/social independence. Anticipates a long future for hostile race relations/racial hardship in America.

Notes: Anticipation of the future; how Woolf/Faulkner/Anand/Hurston “got it right”; economic downturns; political movements; gender issues; racial issues; social “progress”; modern cynicism; voices of the lower class; the persistence of poverty through history.

Intense moments mimic paintings

“The firelight flickered on the wall and beyond the window a spectral dusk was gathering upon the river.” (56) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce 1916

“The body which lay in the bath was that of a tall, stout man of about fifty. The hair, which was thick and black and naturally curly, had been cut and parted by a master hand, and exuded a faint violet perfume, perfectly recognizable in the close air of the bathroom. The features were thick, fleshy and strongly marked, with prominent dark eyes, and a long nose curving down to a heavy chin. The clean-shaven lips were full and sensual, and the dropped jaw showed teeth stained with tobacco. On the dead face the handsome pair of gold pince-nez mocked death with grotesque elegance; the fine gold chain curved over the naked breast. The legs lay stiffly stretched out side by side; the arms reposed close to the body; the fingers were flexed naturally.” Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers (1923)

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” (3) Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf 1925

“They shot the six cabinet members at half-past six in the morning against the wall of the hospital.  There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard.  It rained hard.” (51) In Our Time Hemingway 1925.

“Before us the thick dark current runs. It talk up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled and monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again” (141) As I Lay Dying Faulkner 1930.

Joyce’s Portrait stared everyone off attempting to create a “portrait”-quality work of art with literature.  Joyce mixed his attempt at this into his work, but as other novelists began to focus on the task, new styles emerged.  This culminated in the intense moments in which time slows so objects can be explained in a manner that mimics a painting.

Hopes and Expectations

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando: Harcourt Inc, 1925. Print.

“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of all miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason; they love life.” (Woolf 4)

Notes: high hopes for England post-war, everyone appears to be in a state of optimism

Anand, Mulk Raj. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1935. Print.

“And he had soon become possessed with an overwhelming desire to live their life. He had been told they were sahibs, superior people. He had felt that to put on their clothes made one a sahib too. So he tried to copy them in everything, to cope them as well as he could in the exigencies of his peculiarly Indian circumstances.” (Anand 11)

Notes: Bakha wants to be something he’s not. Thinks that if he dresses and behaves like them, he can be a part of their impressive lifestyle.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library, 1990

“…she made a sort of comfort for herself. Yes, she would love Logan after they were married. She could see no way for it to come about, but Nanny and the old folks had said it, so it must be so. Husbands and wives always loved each other, and that was what marriage meant. It was just so. Janie felt glad of the thought, for then it wouldn’t seem so destructive and mouldy. She wouldn’t be lonely anymore.” (Hurston 21)

Notes: Janie’s naivety fools her into thinking that everything will work itself out. She expects that as soon as they are married she will love Logan.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, The Modern Library Editions, 2000

“It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.” (Faulkner 15)

Notes: Jewel wants it to just be him and Addie. He desires a maternal presence where he is alone with his mother because he feels he is the only one that really cares about her.

Literary-History Trajectory: In the four novels, I found instances of character’s expectations that do not necessarily coincide with reality. A little over 30 years spanned between Mrs. Dalloway and As I Lay Dying, but nothing has changed in terms of people’s expectations. Time and time again people will always hope for something better than they have now. Each author expresses these expectations in different ways.

Desire in Their Eyes, Mrs. Dalloway, Melanctha, Heart of Darkness

Sometimes it’s harder to know what you want, than it is to know what you don’t want.

Example: “I don’t know if I want ice cream, but I definitely know I don’t want olives.”

Desire stems from discontentment (knowing what you don’t want). Perhaps the desire is ambiguous and confusing, but the discontentment is clear and definitive. I’ve noticed this complicated theme in stories like Their Eyes, Mrs. Dalloway, Melanctha, and even in Heart of Darkness.

Despite the difference in story and narration, each protagonist portrayed within the novels mentioned carry a need and desire for something more… from their lives. This discontentment leads to a searching, in hopes to find what is fulfilling, adventurous, and satisfying. In the 1909 short story, Melanctha, for instance, she wanders. “  From the time that Melanctha was twelve until she was sixteen she wandered, always seeking but never more than very dimly seeing wisdom” (Stein 80)

It is unclear how wandering is defined; it is left up to the reader to decipher that. Perhaps it is wandering for a freedom from her dysfunctional family, perhaps it is wandering for a knowledge outside of her limited education, or perhaps it is wandering to fall in love. Nonetheless, Melanctha wanders to seek something more than what her life is offering.

Published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway shares a similar desire, but for raw connection with people as opposed to her empty and dull relationship with Mr. Dalloway. It isn’t until the end of the novel when Septimus commits suicide, does Mrs. Dalloway interestingly feels enlightened and even at peace, recognizing how she could relate to Septimus’s depression.
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.”

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando: Harcourt Inc, 1925. Print.

In Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, (1899): ” I wouldn’t have believed it of myself; but then-you see- I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook” (Conrad 109), Marlowe expresses his desire for adventure and exploration, to discover the unknown.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.

In Hurston’s Their Eyes, Janie Starks contemplates her resentment towards Nanny, feeling as if she has limited her from her desire to live outside of the traditionally “successful” norm for a black woman. “She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people…But nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. (89)”

Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Web.

The historical trajectory of these novels can be applied to the fact that this was during a time when people were embracing identity and defining what makes up culture. Naturally, one would want to discover and learn to see what life can offer outside of the traditional norm.