Tag Archives: literary criticism

Textual or Sexual?

English: Portrait of Virginia Woolf

English: Portrait of Virginia Woolf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my great interests in reading matter is how desire is handled.  After the huge sales of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, I had begun to wonder if readers needed their sex spelled out more nowadays, if so, does that mean that many readers are missing out on playful texts as titillating as Orlando by Virginia Woolf?  In this written piece, I hope to persuade readers to interact with text such as “Orlando” for a deeper and potentially more sexually satisfying read.

I have taken chapter 3 from Orlando (Great Classic Library, 1994) to demonstrate that often it is not what is said that conjures up fantasy but what is not said.  Also, I use the constant ‘she’ but this refers to both sexes, it is simply to keep the text tidy.

Cover of "Orlando"

Orlando by Virginia Woolf with the talented Tilda Swinton on the cover. She played Orlando in the film.

If we can imagine a courtship between reader and text, then it becomes obvious that the text (Orlando) is using details to entice the reader as love object.  Whilst the reader is consumed with the desire to see and know the text, it encourages fevered requests for knowledge by constant teasing.  It attempts to keep the reader interested by manipulative and provocative tantalisation which never allows the desire for textual knowledge to be fulfilled.  Subsequently the reader continues to endeavour to explore and undress the body of the text.  In other words, the text uses a playful strategy which depicts an innocence by using understated sexuality to allure and provoke the reader into the commitment of interpretation.  The signals are there, the reader merely needs to be seduced.

The text displays constant symptoms of needing the reader to become its love object.  Consequently, in order to overcome this, it must attain to interest its love object; therefore it is only by seducing the reader into the position of desiring to know the text that it can attempt to fulfill the desire for unattainable completion.  To initiate interest, the text suggests that it will become love slave to  the reader’s fantasies but only if the reader will respond by opening her psychic space.

 

“There was a hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through …. but it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise and even to use the imagination.” (page 54)

 

The language cleverly entices the reader to visualize that which is being suggested.  The beckoning finger attempts to coax the reader into penetrating the written sign and being seduced into allowing her repressed fantasy to filter through.  It invites the reader into its existence with a manipulative proposition which offers a text lacking in language, subtly suggesting that the reader fills in the gap for herself.  Subsequently, the text is pertaining to reach unity with the reader by a language of denial being impregnated by the reader completing the gaps.  However, the fantasy must remain fragmented as the text’s constant denial of knowledge defies fixed interpretation.

As the suggestive finger tempts the reader, so the text uses thresholds to tease and control the reader’s access.  Windows are used to allow a connived amount of voyeurism.

 

“The windows of the Embassy brilliantly illuminated.  Again details are lacking.” (page 57)

 

Windows are used to set a scene to draw the reader in.  They are used as a controlled promise of an insight into the text.  The text manipulates a sense of deviant excitement as the reader anticipates the fantasy of voyeur as illicit views through the windows suggest that the reader should not be in attendance, that she will be witness to a scene which is too prurient to be written about.  However, the text denies the details the reader is hoping for; in essence, the text leaves spaces for the reader to mould it into whatever is fantasised about.

As opened windows are used to lure the reader into the ranks of hopeful voyeur, so the closing of doors is a carefully operated device which causes the reader’s mind to engage itself in a frenzied thought process which hungers for knowledge of the text.

 

“The Ambassador was seen to go to his room, still wearing the insignia of his rank, and shut the door.  Some say he locked it, which was against his custom.” (page 59)

 

The narrative content of the text draws the reader in by locking her out.  The concept of the text as love slave is being played as the reader is only provided with alleged details.  The text essentially offers the reader the chance to create her own fantasy within the text.  In other words, the text is again using denial of details as a promise of adaption in order to satisfy the reader’s fantasy.

English: Entrance to Freuds consulting room

English: Entrance to Freuds consulting room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a never ending craving to complete the cycle of lack and desire the text successfully employs the device of ellipsis to create more gaps to encourage the reader to allow her repressed fantasies to surface.  The use of ellipsis suggests events which are too shocking to mention.

 

“Wondrous… utterly beyond description… gold plates…candelabras…negroes in plush breeches…” (page 58) ( please note that I do not agree with racist labels and I am not suggesting that Virginia was racist either; I am merely quoting the text)

 

The language which is used paints a decadence to indicate indulgence; to add ellipsis creates a subjacent meaning for the reader which arouses the most dormant of fantasies.  Fundamentally, the text works the reader’s mind.  The lack of language in the text encourages the reader to search the decadent language which is present for signs which indicate what the reader is hoping to locate.  As ellipsis in the text intimates a joining of language and absent language, the marriage must result in a lack desire interchange which can never be fulfilled as both are always acting as chameleons in search of each other.

The text uses Orlando as bait for the reader’s desires.  The sexual titillation concerning Orlando’s body is ambivalent.  The denial of details can be interpreted as writing which is vaguely aware of sexuality but unaware of how to work it; similarly it can be interpreted as the love object who attempts to lure the reader by a provocative indication of sexuality.  The interpretation will be open to the reader’s own exploration of the text but it is ultimately a stimulation used to attempt satiation of the reader’s psychic erotic space.

 

“Going indoors again, withdrew to his bath.  An hour later, properly scented, curled and anointed.” (page 54)

 

The reader is denied access to the bathroom in order to fantasise about Orlando having his body prepared for the events of the day.  The connotations of the above quotations are erotic by denial of detail.  It is probable that nudity and genital washing is involved, but it is purposely ambiguous as to whether he is vainly paying homage to his body himself or whether another is used to cleanse and cream the crevices of the protagonist’s person.  The innuendo is perverse as the use of the two sentences allows the reader to act as voyeur (which can be regarded as a perverse act in itself) to the most personal erotic bathroom fantasies desired.

If the text entices the reader with suggestions of being voyeur to Orlando’s personal moments, then to have Orlando in position of ultimately any fantasy is the pinnacle of invitations for the reader.

 

“And still Orlando slept.  Morning and evening they watched him.” (page 60)

 

The text deigns to give details as to Orlando’s long sleep but using sleep is an indication of death which can be an interpretation of orgasm.  According to Sigmund Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams” sleep also is a signal for repressed fantasies being released in the form of dream.  Therefore the written sign becomes cohesive with the code of sexuality which encourages the reader to embark upon a scenario of being the mistress of Orlando’s body.  In actuality, the text as love slave is seducing the reader into being the love object by stimulating the fantasy of control for Orlando’s sleeping body.

Finally, as Orlando undergoes metamorphosis from man to woman:

 

“THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS died away and Orlando stood stark naked.  No human being, since the world began has ever looked more ravishing.  His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.” (page 62)

 

The reader is denied details of Orlando’s perfect form except the fact that he/she is ravishing.  This implies that the text is again using Orlando to capture the reader as love object.  In other words, Orlando is there to be moulded and created into the reader’s version of that which would be desirable, a Frankenstein’s monster made in the form of beauty to the eye of the reader.  The denial of details are cleverly used to incorporate whatever the reader desires in the way of physical features.  Therefore, as details of Orlando are lacking, the reader will write the body of Orlando herself to portray her own fantasy of loveliness.  Subsequently, by continual denial of detail to the reader, the text ensures in a controlled and intelligent manner that the reader commits an interest to it by being whatever she desires.

In conclusion, with a text as fluid as Orlando, we can write our own sexual fantasies, in essence, this means that the text can be read as a sexual fantasy or simply as a fine story; fundamentally, it adapts to what its love object – you the reader wants – can this be said about text like “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

 

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A Summer’s Night Shakespearean Dream.

Dogberry painted by Marks

Do events ever happen to you and you feel as if you’ve dreamed it?  Well, that happened to me the other night.  Will (the fourteen year old) and I are doing an exploration of Shakespeare and comedy this summer.  Firstly, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to compare and contrast them.  We have watched David Tennant and Catherine Tate at the Wyndham Theatre  ( Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare) and also watched Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s film version. (Shakespeare – Sexy Or Strangely Funny?)  The other night we went to see an outdoor professional production – or so we thought before we went.

Beatrice

Over the years, I have been to many glorious outdoor theatre productions.  I thought I was going to something similar.  At this point I must say that I think there are times when I am a bit dense.  In the past, all the ones I have been to have been in the grounds of stately homes.  This one was in the grounds of a school but me being me; I simply thought that it was a way of getting people to watch more  theatre.

I had bought my tickets over the internet not chancing buying at the gate, in case of large crowds and a sell out.  My suspicion was aroused when I was given the shooting arrow eyeball look for buying tickets over the internet.  Four ladies, positioned like sentries, guarded the table that held the cash box.  There was a certain amount of disdain in the chief’s voice as she said “so you’ve been on the internet for your tickets.”  All their eyes were on us and I began to feel like a pervert to say the least for buying my tickets in that manner.

Benedick played by Garrick

Once we were inside and passed the bouncers, I was beginning to see what we had actually come to.  We were on a school playing field, the stage was a small platform which resembled a sheep pen but could have been set up for a hanging gallows and there were about sixty people sitting around it eating from their Tupperware boxes.  We set up our chairs and Will mentioned that this really was like going to a performance from the past.

Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful to him at their wedding.

I bought a programme from one of the actors and Will and I settled down to look at it.  Instantly, we were approached by a white haired, extremely well spoken lady.  She asked me if she might look at my programme.  So I handed it to her.  She then says “You don’t mind if I go off with it, do you?”  Will and I stared open mouthed as she sauntered off to her seat and started reading our programme.

Ellen Terry’s Beatrice will never be forgotten.

In front of us was an elderly man and his wife tucking into their picnic.  A hairy, round man in an Hawaiian shirt approached the elderly couple.  “George, you need to go up there and thank the town council, the Lions and the Ladies Guild.  Oh and tell them where the toilets are.”  George put his sandwich quickly into his Tupperware box and shouted “What?”  Hawaiian shirt then replied, “You’re the chairman – you have to go up and make a speech.”  George shouted “What do I have to say?”  After a lot of whating and  whoing – it was then suggested that George wrote his speech down.  At this point, I was beginning to wonder if that was part of the entertainment.  George frantically scribbled on his scrap of paper and Hawaiian shirt kept repeating town council, The Lions and toilets.

The actors announced that the play was about to start and Hawaiian shirt bustled back to his seat.  George looked flummoxed, he half stood up, hesitated and then landed heavily back into his seat.  I wondered if his moment of glory had passed.  White haired lady rushed over and handed me back my programme.

This version of the play was set in World War II with Beatrice and Hero as land girls and Dogberry and Verges as the Home Watch.  Incidentally, Beatrice and Hero doubled up as Dogberry and Verges with strong Welsh accents.  The play started and the audience had to sing “We’ll Meet Again.”  Well actually, “Much Ado About Nothing” didn’t start, it was a sub play which was about Land Girls waiting for Harold to come home from the war.  The sub play was performed intermittently in “Much Ado About Nothing” to give the actors time to change as there was a lot of doubling up going on.  It was a bit like having advertisements whilst watching the television.

Dogberry and Verges.

“Much Ado About Nothing” began and my heart sank as I watched Beatrice and Benedick in their movements.  For those who don’t know, to get a play ready for performance, the movements of the actors have to be worked out.  This is called “blocking”.  There was an obvious choreographed blocking sequence which was meant to look comical but it simply wasn’t rehearsed enough and it looked like a clumsy rehearsal.  Other times, actors were standing like spare parts waiting for their turn to speak.  Beatrice is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters but this one thought she was playing a principal boy in a pantomime.  All the way through the play, I expected her to heartily slap her thigh.

The interval arrived and the white haired lady rushed up to my seat and asked “You don’t mind if I take your programme again, do you?” and off she went with it.  This time she was standing behind the audience talking to another elderly lady and wafting my programme about proprietorially.

George rushed for the stage and very politely asked the audience not to use the trees or the grass as there were toilets in the school.  I think that was meant to be a joke.

In the past, I had always sought out very good productions for us to watch.  However, to help Will’s critical skills, I had told him that we will be going to all sorts of productions as I feel that it is as helpful to see bad productions as it is good ones.  I always feel it is helpful for children to go to live theatre if it is at all possible.  They have to study plays at school and it is a whole lot easier to write critical essays about drama if the teenager has been to quite a few performances to make it real for them.

Will’s eyes were wide during the performance.  He is very serious about both Shakespeare and acting.  His first words when we came out were “I thought we were going to a professional performance.”  It wasn’t irony; he thought that I had forgotten to tell him that we were going to an amateur performance.  He was happy to be there because he said that he had learned something very important.  He is appearing in a comedy on Saturday night and had been worrying about his comic timing.  He could see how off the actors were in their timing and that made him realise that he doesn’t need to worry about his comic timing because he obviously understands it.

Beatrice and Benedick from yesteryear.

The play did not get any better in the second half but I am glad I went.  There was a certain charm to sitting in the field watching the actors in the play and the people in the audience.  I never did discover what George was chairman of, but to be honest, none of it seemed real – it was more like a dream.  Maybe I went to see the wrong play.

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Let’s Talk About Frankenstein (2) – Walton’s First Three Letters.

In the introductory post, I offered the hypothesis that “Frankenstein” (1) was a letter written by the teenage Mary Shelley to her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.  I suggested that Shelley had written herself as Frankenstein with her mother Wollstonecraft as the monster.  It occurred to me that Shelley wanted her dead mother to understand how it felt to be an abandoned child.  It could be suggested that this hypothesis is flawed because we start the text with the explorer, Walton and his sister, Margaret Saville.  However, if we reason that Shelley is the mother of sci fi; I think we can safely expect her to have fluidity in her writing.  Even though she was writing in the early 1800s, Shelley was not bound by convention.  As her main character Frankenstein was a scientist, an experimenter, so Shelley embraced investigation in her writing.   I think that Shelley explores her communications with her dead mother throughout the text in a theatrical way.   The characters change their costumes and become someone else.   Hence, in the beginning, we are introduced to Walton the explorer and his sister Margaret Saville who are simply Shelley and Wollstonecraft, respectively.

In this post, I will explore how my hypothesis fits with the beginning of the book when we read Walton the explorer’s first three  letters to his sister, Mrs Saville.   Mrs Saville has been left at home whilst her brother has exciting adventures.  It is a typical 18th century scenario.  The male has inherited the family fortune and is off proving his masculinity whilst his sister sits at home waiting for his correspondence.  As the daughter of the first feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, it is easy to see how the text could be perceived as a bit tongue in cheek.  However, as I am reading the letters  as  letters  from Mary Shelley to Mary Wollstonecraft, they can be viewed another way.

As I suggested earlier, Mary Shelley has depicted herself as Walton whilst her dead mother is the sister Mrs Saville.  Mary was a teenager when she penned Frankenstein, Walton is an explorer.  The teenage years are when young people try many things for the first time.  In other words, teenagers are explorers.

It is obvious that Shelley both loved and mourned her mother – she would read on her grave.  In Frankenstein, she has placed Mrs Saville in the home.  The sense of Mrs Saville being tied to her domestic quarters is obvious, so distinct in fact, that it suggests the home we never leave – the coffin.  The sub text is sly; it is similar to having a rag of ether placed over your face whilst you are unaware of it.  In other words, it creeps up on you insidiously but once you are conscious of it, it is obviously there.  The message is loud and clear to the dead mother – “Look at me, this is living.  Look at what you are missing by abandoning me.”  Fundamentally, the first letter is all about bravado –”I am an explorer of life and you are tied to the domesticity of the grave.”

When we read the second letter there is a huge change of mood.  The teenager who has bragged, strutted and portrayed herself as a complete adult returns to the isolation of a toddler missing her parents.  Shelley as Walton laments her loneliness.  Even though there are many men aboard the ship, Walton suffers from a sense of alienation.

“I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no-one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection.” (2)

Letter three is a short missive.  Walton does not speak of personal matters.  He merely discusses the weather.  However, in the last paragraph he tells Margaret that he will “not rashly encounter danger.  I will be cool, persevering and prudent.” (3)   I would strongly suggest that this is Shelley writing to the dead Wollstonecraft.   She is telling her that although she is embarking on a voyage of motherhood, she can and will look after herself.   The message is ambivalent.  It partly consoles the mother that she doesn’t need to worry about her daughter.  Contrastingly, it also says that she has had to learn to steer her own vessel onto safe waters because the captain jumped ship.

Shelley is a mistress of signposts.  We have to be vigilant when we read her.  She throws small clues into the text which the eye might skim over.  A good example of this is the way Walton has signed the first three letters to his sister.  They are signed – Your affectionate brother, R. Walton; Your affectionate brother Robert Walton and Most affectionately yours, R.W.  (4)  By signing each letter differently, Shelley is depicting changes in Walton’s moods.   Fundamentally, the changes in Walton’s moods are a teenage girl’s conflicting emotions towards the dead mother she is desperate to communicate with.

Notes.

  1. Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein 1818 text.

(Oxford World’s Classics.)

  1. ‘ibid; p.8
  2. ‘ibid’,p.11
  3. ‘ibid’ p.8,p11.

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Let’s Talk About FRANKENSTEIN 1

Loony Literature is about being creative with literature.   It is about creative reading as well as creative writing.  As both a lover and graduate of this subject, I positively enjoy deconstructing texts from different points of view – that is what studying literature is about.  It is not about knowing every quotation from Shakespeare as non literary people often assume.  It is about taking a text and analysing and evaluating it whilst backing it all up with textual evidence.  We can add to our arguments by reading the text from a certain perspective e.g. a feminist or a Marxist point of view.  If we enjoy psychoanalytical theory we can use Lacan or even go down a Freudian route.  The possibilities are endless and as long as we can back our argument up with textual evidence, we are free to do this.  There is no right or wrong answer in literature – it is creativity heaven.

Much has been written about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in fact, far too much to mention in this introduction.  I have been using the text as a springboard to write a play and workshops.  However, as all great pieces of fiction tend to do, it has demanded that I read it yet again from a totally different angle.

I love the fact that Frankenstein was written by a teenager.  The other detail about Mary Shelley which sits heavily in my consciousness is that her mother died through complications following her birth.  I am both daughter and mother.  The two relationships are entwined in my being like thread in tapestry.  I feel so much sympathy for Mary Shelley as a young girl growing up with only other people’s stories of her mother.

These two facts have made me read Frankenstein again.  I am going to read it as a subconscious cathartic writing exercise for Mary Shelley.  In other words, Shelley wrote herself as Frankenstein.  The monster is her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.  As a teenager, Mary would read on her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard.  The mother was beloved but unobtainable.  It is bad enough as a teenager when your parents do not seem to understand your emotional turmoil.  Mary did not simply have intentionally deaf ears to contend with but dead ears.  Mary needed to find a way to communicate her isolation. I believe that Frankenstein can be read as a letter from Mary Shelley to Mary Wollstonecraft.  How else can an abandoned daughter let her dead mother know what she went through whilst growing up without her?  Fundamentally, as the dead mother was a literary forerunner of her day, there was only one way to get such a mother’s attention and that was to create her own literary masterpiece.  Ironically, Mary Shelley conjured up her own dead mother in the position of abandoned child.

If the monster is supposed to portray her dead mother, why did she make him male?  We all know that women used to constantly die of childbirth in those days; by re-inventing her mother as male, she prevents this taking place.  She needs to keep her mother alive as she lives out the story of isolation Mary felt as a motherless child.

I am at the beginning of this reading of Frankenstein and hope that you will join me on the journey.  I will be making regular posts as I travel on my own new reading journey of Frankenstein.  My model for Frankenstein might not work out.  Ultimately, by offering a hypothesis and then writing a notebook on my reading, I hope that readers of the posts will come up with their own valuable insights.  If this works, I will tackle other delicious texts in the same way.  So let’s talk about Frankenstein.

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