All posts by jmagri

The Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Literature

Should Flannery O’Connor’s work be called grotesque? Many people, including Flannery O’Connor herself, have explored this question. Grotesque fiction brings something extraordinary and often disturbing to life by distorting the ordinary. O’Connor rejects such a label, in part because she rejects labels of any kind, arguing that labeling a writer or their work, with such titles as Southern or grotesque, limits what readers and critics expect upon reading their works (Mystery 37). Furthermore, she rejects the label grotesque, arguing instead that her works are better categorized as realism (Mystery 40). O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is filled with violence, deceitful characters, horror, and death in the context of everyday life in the South. Even if the author is resistant to calling her work grotesque, many people claim otherwise. Many aspects of O’Connor’s fiction support this argument, some of which can be explored in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.

One of the more common comments made on O’Connor’s work is that it can be analyzed as a “psychoanalytic narrative” because her stories often suggest Freudian psychological theories (Fowler 128). Freud argued that a fear of castration is necessary for acceptance into society. Many critics, such as Kats and Mellard, see figurative castrations of characters in the violence of O’Connor’s stories. They see this violence as “purposeful” and serving to “stabilize social hierarchy and positions of dominance” (Fowler 128). Although O’Connor herself rejects Freud and his ideas because she believed he stood in opposition to religion, some of her works can be interpreted as reflecting his ideas (Wehner 300). One of the most commonly used examples supporting this claim is in “Good Country People” when Manley Pointer stealing Hulga’s prosthetic leg. Many critics interpret this scene as a symbolic castration, congruent with Freud’s theories. His theories focus greatly on the Oedipus complex, which most would agree, is an extremely disturbing concept. It’s only logical to conclude that a work of literature that reflects such disturbing ideas would fall into the category of the grotesque.

The characters O’Connor creates in her stories are undeniably a combination of grotesque and utterly ordinary. Katie Oliver points out that all of O’Connor’s works depict characters that are flawed in some way or another and that those “bodily handicaps symbolize the greater handicaps of the intellect, the heart, or the soul” (233). Her characters’ dearth of morals and intelligence is manifested in some kind of outward abnormality. One example is Hulga’s leg in “Good Country People,” which can be interpreted as her lack of faith. Each one of O’Connor’s stories features at least one character that is riddled with problems, which come back to haunt them. Such unique and disturbing characters make for an interesting, often frustrating, and most certainly grotesque read.

Another aspect of O’Connor’s fiction that enhances its absurdity is her characters’ names. A big part of one’s identity is contained within a name, and O’Connor uses names, nicknames, and their connotations to reflect her characters’ natures. Her characters often change their names, like Harry/Bevel in “The River” and Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People.” These name changes also tend to increase the absurdity and grotesqueness of the story. When Joy changes her name to Hulga it is because she feels it more accurately reflects her personality and her unattractive prosthetic leg, but for the reader, simply reading the name Hulga instead of Joy changes the tone of O’Connor’s work. A name can accurately accentuate the role and importance of certain characters, especially in the context of literature, where the reader can only envision what the author chooses to include in their descriptions. The character of “the Misfit” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has quite an understatement of name in the context of his murderous escapades. The discrepancy between his name and actions makes his character even more grotesque, as if the feeling of not fitting in is a good enough reason for murdering people. O’Connor also cleverly utilizes character names to create an abstract struggle between God and the devil within the physical struggle of Harry/Bevel’s drowning in “The River.” Mr. Paradise, whose name conjures images of heaven, tries to save Harry/Bevel from drowning after he has returned to the river to seek salvation but finds only death, as Mr. Paradise cannot reach him. O’Connor contradicts characters’ names and connotations with their actions and personalities to create an off kilter balance and disturbing realities.

Just as grotesque literature takes the ordinary and distorts it, O’Connor’s descriptions are often a puzzling and powerful combination of seemingly conflicting ideas or objects. As a reader you expect certain ways of describing sunsets and people, but O’Connor defies expectations by presenting these things in a different, more grotesque light. In “A Stroke of Good Fortune” O’Connor describes Ruby as “a short woman, shaped like a funeral urn” (A Good Man 67). Of all the ways to describe a person’s shape, O’Connor chooses to compare her to a funeral urn. It is just an object, but carries the weight of death and grief and the question of life beyond, transforming a typical physical description into a thought-provoking image. Mr. Shortley, in “The Displaced Person,” is described as “[folding] his hands on his bony chest and [pretending] he was a corpse” (A Good Man 224). Another author could have described this same posture as sleep but O’Connor takes the image to a gruesome level by describing him as dead. In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” the last image of the sun setting is described as “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood” (A Good Man 102). Sunsets are generally depicted as beautiful sights, filled with magnificent colors. O’Connor’s choice of words to describe the sun as “drenched in blood” and earlier on in the story as “bruised violet” maintain the typical colors one would expect in a description of the sunset but distort them by reflecting violence instead of beauty (A Good Man 91). Descriptive images such as these are scattered throughout the various short stories in this book and serve to create an ominous tone and often foreshadow the horror that is to come.

O’Connor uses humor to engage readers in her gruesome stories and compel their participation. Talking about Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell said, “I find it hard to think of a funnier or more frightening writer” (A Good Man back cover). Readers can identify the capacity for such grotesque beliefs and acts in the characters of O’Connor’s stories and also within themselves by participating in the characters’ misery through humor. The humorous instances in her stories often create self-reflective moments for the reader, in which they can look into themselves, question why they found that to be funny, and discover where such violence, horror, and ugliness could come from.   In “A Circle in the Fire” after Sally Virginia eavesdrops on the three black vagrant boys’ discussion of what they would do with her mother’s precious woods and watches them set the woods on fire she runs to her mother and exclaims, “Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!” (A Good Man 158). It’s humorous because her mother’s paranoia of the woods catching fire has been emphasized throughout the story, but at the same time it’s terrible to laugh because her paranoia has become reality. By adding humor to her work O’Connor subtly downplays the grotesque on the page but enhances it in the readers’ experience.

O’Connor’s works often emphasize Christianity and religion. She herself is an enthusiastic Catholic woman, who, through her literature, hopes to depict “the action of grace in territories largely held by the devil” (Fowler 127). Wehner calls her the “defender of the faith in twentieth century American literature” (301). The level of success she achieves in accomplishing this goal is questionable. In many of her stories, her characters are completely let down by religion and by their faith. Religion is an important theme in all of O’Connor’s works but is quite obvious in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The grandmother’s insistence that the Misfit comes from “good people” and he just needs to pray to Jesus is obliterated as the Misfit and his minions murder each of her family members and finally her. Religion is a system of morals and virtues as well as sin and damnation. Its dual nature is both merciful and vengeful, and often advertises the appearance of good but undeniably also has a darker and more grotesque side as well. The hope that many of O’Connor’s characters find in religion and rely on makes their disappointment and disillusionment even harder to witness when it fails them.

The most significant way in which O’Connor’s stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find should be considered grotesque is by readers’ reactions. Most people would agree that her stories are bizarre and leave one captivated, revolted, and everything in between. She does this by presenting absurd plots in the context of ordinary places, often leaving the climax of her stories unresolved. A good example is the ending of “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which follows the graduation hopes of an older woman and the dementia and death of her grandfather. The story ends with the sentence: “That crafty scout had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down the flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine” (A Good Man 175). O’Connor’s combination of the boy’s fascination with the Coca-Cola machine and the grandfather’s corpse creates a disturbing image in which death is just an afterthought, a side note quickly mentioned and dwarfed by the excitement of a soda machine. O’Connor’s style of writing enhances the grotesqueness of her stories. She tells her stories in a very straightforward manner with short sentences, generally using simple grammatical structures and dominated by statements of action and dialogue. She gradually leads the reader on, hinting and foreshadowing what is to come, and then the big climax occurs. It’s often some horrible event or devastating epiphany which is told in an understated manner, as in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” leaving the reader in a state of shock.

In contrast to the argument made here, many still claim O’Connor’s work should not be considered grotesque, even that such a category of literature does not exist. Flannery O’Connor describes what she considers to be true grotesque writing as realistic, and what people label as grotesque is just how Northerners see Southern writing (Mystery 40). The South is a place of appearances; where people emit the illusion of sophistication with their manners, pride, faith, and hospitality, but underneath it is a place ravaged by violence and a haunting history of prejudice and oppression. All of the stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find are set in the South, which is an appropriate setting for grotesque fiction as the previous sentence shows, but they are grotesque in more than just the eyes of Northerners; they are grotesque to people from everywhere. O’Connor argues her work is realism, that “[v]iolence is strangely capable of returning [her] characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (Fowler 127). But it’s hard to reconcile the level of brutality and violence in her stories with her goal of illustrating grace. Her characters more often end up death or miserable than finding grace.

 

Works Cited

Fowler, Doreen. “Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal ofAmerican Literature, Culture, and Theory 67.2 (2011): 127-54. Project Muse. Web. 3 May 2014.

Kate Oliver (2004) O’Connor’s Good Country People, The Explicator, 62:4, 233-236, DOI: 10.1080/00144940409597232

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery, Sally Fitzgerald, and Robert Fitzgerald. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Google Books. Web.

Wehner, David Z. “Pulverizing The Idols: Flannery O’Connor’s Battle With Sigmund Freud And Carl Jung.” Mississippi Quarterly 65.2 (2012): 299-319. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

The Television in “Drown” by Junot Diaz

In Junot Diaz’s  “Drown” the television seems to play a continuous role throughout the story.  In the first sentence, the story begins with the narrator watching TV: “My mother tells me Beto’s home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV” (1666).  The TV seems at times to mirror the life of the narrator, the event he’s describing or his state of mind.  He is trying to forget Beto and their history, immersing himself in the television programs when his mom mentions him.  The “families” of the neighborhood went out on their porches at night while “the glow from their TVs [washed] blue against the brick.”  This reflects the activities of the younger people during the nights as they swim in the pool.  The narrator and his mother watch television together, “Spanish-language news: drama for her, violence for me” (1668).  The horror of what is being shown on the television echoes the horror in the narrator’s past, a horror his mother wishes he will share with her but he refuses, continuing to ignore her and watches TV instead.  At another point in the story when the narrator is talking about being a “truant” he says he watches a lot of TV.  It seems like the television is also an escape from school, and later in the same passage, it was something that he did when he wasn’t hanging out with Beto, or when Beto was busy with his other friends.

Then the incident happened with Beto, while they were watching a porno on television.  While he was being molested, the narrator continues to watch the television, trying to pretend it isn’t happening.  Again, he is trying to escape his reality as something along the same lines as what is on the television is occurring in his life.  And the second time it happens, again, the narrator mentions the television, saying “[we] sat in front of the television…” (1672). Afterward, he has his “eyes closed and the television [is] on…” (1673).  He is trying to escape from where he is and what has happened.  The story ends with the narrator and his mother watching a “classic” Spanish dubbed movie on television. This movie reflects their lives; they are from the Dominican Republic living in New Jersey, a mix of English and Spanish like the movie.  But while watching the movie he and his mother become “friendly” (1673).  They share similar lives in the United States and have similar experiences which allows them to be close if only briefly.  The television acts as a way for the narrator to escape from his reality, yet what he sees on it only reinforces the problems he faces in his life and his experiences.

Deformation of Rita Dove’s “Parsley”

The original text is the whole poem.

Deformed text:

There is a parrot imitating spring / in the palace, its feathers parsley green.

Like a parrot imitating spring, we lie down screaming as rain punches through/ and we come up green.”

There is a parrot imitating spring.

The general/ pulls on his boots, he stomps to / her room in the palace, the one without/ curtains, the one with a parrot / in a brass ring.

The parrot, who has traveled/ all the way from Australia in an ivory/ cage, is, coy as a widow, practising spring.

He orders pastries/ brought up for the bird; they arrive/ dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.

Even / a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room/ the bright green feathers arch in a parody/ of greenery, as the last pale crumbs/ disappear under the blackened tongue.

For my deformation I took out all the sentences that were about the parrot and looked at their development.  This parrot is present throughout the poem and I found it strange in comparison to the rest of the poem that is more narrative. It is obviously an important image because Dove brings it up over and over again.  I think the parrot lines are sort of a story within the larger plot of the poem and you have to isolate the lines about it and see how it parallels and relates to the main plot. What does it mean that the parrot is imitating spring? I interpret the words “imitating,” “parody,” and “practicing” as the parrot trying to be a thing of beauty and life, like spring, but its just a bird in a cage in a curtained room.  Trujillo’s actions of slaughtering many black Haitians may have been seen as a sort of rebirth of the society of the Dominican Republic, something maybe he sees as beautiful but in reality it is just awful and sad.  The parrot could be a symbol for the black Haitians, who came to the Dominican Republic from Haiti, like the parrot came from Australia; both are foreigners.  The parrot is also in a cage, like being enslaved and under the control of its owner, the Haitians are enslaved in a sense by their work in cane fields.  The bird is “parsley green” with a “blackened tongue.”  To me, this contrast shows the outward appearance of beauty, like greenery in the spring, but on the inside it is blackened and lifeless.  The General values this bird more than he values the lives of people he deems as lesser than himself because they can’t pronounce the r in perejil. But just because the bird can pronounce the word, doesn’t mean it has any meaning, its just superficial imitation, an arbitrary way to decide if someone should live or die.  In the context of the poem as a whole the bird as the General’s pet makes him more human, while at the same time, the parrot seems to parallel the tragic situation of the black Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.

 

Revised Essay on Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” explores the struggle between humans and nature.  Nature, left alone, grows continuously, existing harmoniously in interconnected ecosystems.  Every creature, plant, and organism in nature plays a role in supporting the rest of the environment.  Humans, on the other hand, tend to take over when they enter a new place, destroying everything in their paths and, as a result, disrupting the delicate balance that existed before their intrusion.  Humans introduce artificiality into the world, converting nature from its original state of vitality and freedom to one of repression and control.  In the poem, the jar, a manmade object used for containment, is the ultimate representation of this repression.  Stevens uses style, symbolism, juxtaposition, personification, and the relationship between the narrator and the jar to effectively illustrate the containment imposed on nature by humans.

A jar is an object, made by man, of unnatural materials, with an artificial shape.  It is described vaguely as “round” like a typical jar (2).  It has a definite, immovable shape that forces whatever object or material placed inside of it to conform to its shape.  Stevens gives it a sense of superiority with the description “tall and of a port in air” and by placing it physically above the rest of the environment, “upon a hill,” suggesting it has an advantage over the wilderness (8, 2).  A jar also serves as a barrier between what is inside and what is outside.  The final feature of a jar that supports the argument that it represents containment is its lid.  When in place at the opening of the jar, the lid completely shuts out the rest of the world, enclosing only what is desired in the limited space of the jar.  The jar itself is the most obvious illustration of containment.

The jar is also personified.  It is described as having “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround the hill” (3-4).  It is more than just an object; it takes on human characteristics, such as the ability to interact with and affect the world around it.  It represents something much larger than itself; it represents humanity and civilization.  The jar’s interaction with the wilderness of Tennessee reflects humans’ interaction with the natural world.  The most important action the jar performs is “[taking] dominion everywhere” (9).  This line reveals the true power the jar has over the wilderness.  The wilderness was suppressed, “sprawled around, no longer wild,” when it “rose up to [the jar]” (6, 5).  While the jar is merely sitting on a hill, it is capable of exerting such a force over nature that it tames the unruly wilderness, forcing it to surrender to its control.

In addition to the jar’s personification, the relationship between the narrator and the jar reinforces the argument that the jar is representative of humanity as a whole.  The fact that the narrator, “I” in the first line, places the jar into the scene, introducing it into the wilderness, demonstrates that it is an extension of him.  The jar did not appear on the hill on its own, it originated from the nameless, faceless narrator.  The power behind the jar’s influence over and interaction with the environment is the narrator, a human being.  Humans do not always directly impact the natural world, but their influence can be felt through the byproducts of their presence.   The jar, a symbol for all of humanity, contains the wilderness, reflecting humanity’s repression of nature.

Stevens contrasts the jar with the environment in which is it placed, emphasizing their differences.  He states it plainly in the last line when he says the jar is “like nothing else in Tennessee” (12).  Firstly, the jar is an inanimate object, manmade, not a part of the nature surrounding it.  The wilderness is made up of living creatures, plants, and organisms that “give of bird or bush” (11).  Trees and animals do not exist isolated from everything around them.   Instead, they provide for and sustain each other.  Secondly, the jar is immobile, described as either “upon a hill” or “upon the ground” (2, 7).  The wilderness, in contrast, is portrayed as “slovenly” (2).  It is unruly, overgrown, and constantly changing.  The wilderness “rose up” and “sprawled around,” proving it is capable of movement (5, 6).  Lastly, the jar is described as “gray and bare” (10).  It is dull, plain, and ordinary.  The “slovenly” wilderness is filled with color and texture: leaves and trees, flowers and plants, as well as the diverse creatures that live in an environment such as this.  By employing these contrasts, Stevens sets up two opposing forces that make up both sides of the struggle between the jar, representing humanity, and the wilderness, which represents the natural world.

Containment is an important theme that appears continuously throughout the poem. The most obvious place it can be observed is with the jar, but there is another important instance in which it is present as well: the setting.  The fact that Stevens places the jar in “Tennessee” not only provides a real world setting in which the poem takes place but also emphasizes the theme of containment (1).  Tennessee is an arbitrary boundary created by humans, with the purpose of taming the huge continent and bringing it under the control of man.  State lines did not exist in the natural world before humans came in and took over.  Their creation is a way for man to establish his dominion over the unruliness of nature, just as the jar takes dominion over the wilderness.

Furthermore, the poem itself reflects the theme of containment.  The style of writing is succinct, with no unnecessary words.  The three stanzas are uniform, each consisting of four lines.  In the same way, each line is generally the same length, never exceeding eight words.  The poem is not written in free verse where there are no rules and the poet is free from restrictions.  Instead, Stevens abides by certain limitations.  The short length and compact appearance of the poem can be observed when it is viewed in its entirety.  The poet’s conciseness of language and manner of writing echo the restrictiveness of the jar on the natural world around it.

Stevens’ choice of a jar as the subject of the poem successfully expresses the battle between humanity and the natural world.  Jars contain and restrict.  They serve as an excellent representation of the result of human interaction with nature.  In this poem, the jar represents humanity and its pattern of suppressing nature, taming it in order to fit into man’s ideal civilization.  Nature may still exist, but it will be in a different, more limited form, such as an occasional potted plant, garden, or park.  Rarely is it left to flourish as it did before humans or their influence interfered.

Introduction to Robert Coover

coover

Robert Coover was born on February 4th , 1932 in Charles City, Iowa.  It seems he inherited a knack for writing from his father who worked as the managing editor of the Herrin Daily Journal when his family moved to Herrin, Illinois.  Some of his hobbies as a child included writing poems and stories, playing parlor baseball games, and watching the Cincinnati Reds train.  He had dreams of traveling when he was young, which became reality when he joined the navy as a result of being drafted after graduating college.  He spent three years in Europe where he met his future wife, who was studying at the University of Barcelona.

Over the years, before he decided to move permanently to America, he would spend his time in both the United States and Spain.  While in the United States he worked mostly in teaching positions when he needed to make money.  The rest of his time was spent in Spain with his wife and their family.  He did most of his work on his first novel, The Origin of Brunists, while in Spain though it wasn’t published until he returned to the United States.

He is a postmodern writer known for his experimentation.  He is recognized for his originality and versatility in prose fiction.  He aims to defy expectations and criticize systems ingrained in our culture such as religion, politics, science, mathematics, and myths.  He began his career by publishing some short stories in the Evergreen Review in the 1960s.  His first novel, The Origin of the Brunists,  brought his name into the spotlight.  However, the book that truly made him famous  was The Public Burning published in 1977.  It followed the Rosenberg trial from the perspective of Richard Nixon.  Coover’s work continuously pushes the boundary of what is considered a narrative.  This often leads to criticism but more importantly leads to innovation.

Close Reading of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” explores the struggle between humans and nature.  Nature, left alone, grows continuously, existing harmoniously in interconnected ecosystems.  Every creature, plant, and organism in nature plays its a role in supporting the rest of the environment.  Humans, on the other hand, tend to take over when they enter a new place, destroying everything in their paths and, as a result, disrupting the delicate balance that existed before their intrusion.  Also, humans introduce artificiality to the world, converting nature from its original state of vitality and freedom to one of repression and control.  Stevens uses a jar in the wilderness as the subject of the poem because as a manmade object used for containment it effectively illustrates the struggle between humans and nature.

A jar is an object, made by man, of unnatural materials, with an artificial shape.  It is described vaguely as “round” like a typical jar (2).  It has a definite, immovable shape that forces whatever object or material placed inside of it to conform to its shape.  Stevens gives it a sense of superiority with the description “tall and of a port in air” and by placing it physically above the rest of the environment, “upon a hill,” suggesting it has an advantage over the wilderness (8, 2).  A jar also serves as a barrier between what is inside and what is outside.  The final feature of a jar that supports the argument that it represents containment is its lid.  When in place at the opening of the jar, the lid completely shuts out the rest of the world, enclosing only what is desired in the limited space of the jar.  The jar itself is the most obvious illustration of containment.

The jar is also personified.  It is described as having “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround the hill” (3-4).  It is more than just an object; it takes on human characteristics, such as the ability to interact with and affect the world around it.  It represents something much larger than itself; it represents humanity and civilization.  The jar’s interaction with the wilderness of Tennessee reflects humans’ interaction with the natural world.  The most important action the jar performs is “[taking] dominion everywhere” (9).  This line reveals the true power the jar has over the wilderness.  The wilderness was suppressed, “sprawled around, no longer wild,” when it “rose up to [the jar]” (6, 5).  While the jar is merely sitting on a hill, it is capable of exerting such a force over nature that it tames the unruly wilderness.

In addition to the jar’s personification, the relationship between the narrator and the jar reinforces the argument that the jar is representative of humanity as a whole.  The fact that the narrator, “I” in the first line, places the jar into the scene, introducing it into the wilderness, demonstrates that it is an extension of him.  The jar did not appear on the hill on its own, it originated from the nameless, faceless narrator.  The power behind the jar’s influence over and interaction with the environment is the narrator, a human being.  Humans do not always directly impact the natural world, but their influence is felt from the byproducts of their presence.

Stevens contrasts the jar with the environment in which is it placed, emphasizing their differences.  He states it plainly in the last line when he says the jar is “like nothing else in Tennessee” (12).  Firstly, the jar is an inanimate object, manmade, not a part of the nature surrounding it.  The wilderness is made up of living creatures, plants, and organisms that “give of bird or bush” (11).  Trees and animals do not exist isolated from everything around them.   Instead, they provide for and sustain each other.  Secondly, the jar is immobile, described as either “upon a hill” or “upon the ground” (2, 7).  The wilderness, in contrast, is portrayed as “slovenly” (2).  It is unruly, overgrown, and constantly changing.  The wilderness “rose up” and “sprawled around,” proving it is capable of movement (5, 6).  Lastly, the jar is described as “gray and bare” (10).  It is dull, plain, and ordinary.  The “slovenly” wilderness is filled with color and texture: leaves and trees, flowers and plants, as well as the diverse creatures that live in an environment such as this.  By employing these contrasts, Stevens sets up two opposing forces that make up both sides of the struggle between the jar, representing humanity, and the wilderness, which represents the natural world.

Containment is a theme that appears continuously throughout the poem. The most obvious place it can be observed is with the jar, but there is another important instance in which it is present as well: the setting.  The fact that Stevens places the jar in “Tennessee” not only provides a real world setting in which the poem takes place but also emphasizes the theme of containment (1).  Tennessee is an arbitrary boundary created by humans, with the purpose of taming the huge continent and bringing it under the control of man.  State lines did not exist in the natural world before humans came in and took over.  Their creation is a way for man to establish his dominion over the unruliness of nature, just as the jar takes dominion over the wilderness.

Furthermore, the poem itself reflects the theme of containment.  The style of writing is succinct, with no unnecessary words.  The three stanzas are uniform, each consisting of four lines.  In the same way, each line is generally the same length, never exceeding eight words.  The poem is not free verse, where there are no rules and the poet is free from restrictions.  Rather, Stevens abides by certain limitations.  The short length and compact appearance of the poem can be observed when it is viewed in its entirety.  The poet’s conciseness of language and manner of writing echo the restrictiveness of the jar on the natural world around it.

Stevens’ choice of a jar as the subject of the poem successfully expresses the battle between humanity and the natural world.  Jars contain and restrict.  They serve as an excellent representation of the result of human interaction with nature.  In this poem, the jar represents humanity and its pattern of suppressing nature, taming it in order to fit into man’s ideal civilization.  Nature may still exist, but it will be in a different, more limited form, such as an occasional potted plant, garden, or park.  Rarely is it left to flourish as it did before humans or their influence interfered.

Comparison of Donald Barthelme and Wallace Stevens

“The apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was “there” at all).  Had we painted, in great letters, “LABORATORY TESTS PROVE” or “18% MORE EFFECTIVE” on the sides of the balloon, this difficulty would have been circumvented.  But I could not bear to do so.” (Barthelme 606)

“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan

Of tan with henna hackles, halt!”  (Stevens)

According to the introductory paragraphs about Donald Barthelme, he expressed the idea that “language, rather than what language represents, could be the subject of fiction” (604).  I believe “The Balloon” reflects this idea in a way.  The narrator never reveals satisfactorily why the balloon is there.  There are no explanatory signs on it such as those the narrator suggests in the passage above.  He seems to simply be interested in the peoples’ reactions to it: wonder, anger, admiration, and pleasure among others.  While I was reading this story, I had the single-minded need to discover the purpose for which the balloon was there, over New York City for twenty-two days.  I became just another observer of the balloon, searching for its origin and its significance just like all the other characters.  By the end I decided that that’s what the narrator wants, simply to make people think differently and admire without giving in to the desire of finding meaning in everything.  The balloon has a specific meaning, possibly related to the narrator’s unhappiness, but he isn’t willing to reveal it to the rest of the world.  His goal is to make the people and furthermore, the reader, appreciate the balloon for being a balloon without giving it an underlying significance.

This story made me think of Wallace Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” which presents a similar idea.  There is no discernable meaning or plot to Stevens’ poem.  The opening stanza quoted above, is gibberish, meaningless, but it sounds nice when read aloud.  The poem is simply words put together in a manner that sound pleasing to read.  There may be some deeper meaning, but the person who wrote the poem is the only one who can possibly identify it.  Stevens, like the narrator in “The Balloon,” is hiding the profound significance from the readers.  Try as we might, we can’t decipher every word and stanza to say with confidence that we understand Stevens’ meaning.  It appears that his only obvious goal was to create something that can be appreciated for the way it sounds and the language itself.

Stevens keeps the reader in the dark by using alliteration of strange words and incoherent sentences.  Barthelme keeps the reader in the dark by focusing on the reactions of the people living under this strange balloon.  He takes the reader on a journey of various attempts by different characters to understand the balloon, but never reveals the true reason for its existence.  For me, reading both of these works was a similar experience.  It was like going through a maze and ending up back where you started.  I continued searching for the other side but only ended up appreciating the journey.

“It was a good race.” (Faulkner 4)

I found this sentence to be important because this idea of a race is brought up several times in the text and it seems to reflect not only the plot but also the style and form of Faulkner’s writing in “Was.”  The story itself is about a number of different “races” or competitions: Uncle Buck and McCaslin Edmonds are racing to get to Tomey Turl, Tomey Turl is racing to get to his love, Tennie, Miss Sophonsiba is racing to get Uncle Buck for her husband, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy gamble with Mr. Hubert, and the dogs and foxes are racing around the house.  The story is separated into four different parts that, to me, seemed almost like separate heats or rounds in a race, each focused on different aspects of the competition to capture Tomey Turl and each developing a new level of competition to add to the story.  The structure of the sentences in the story also struck me as possibly reflecting this same race idea.  They tended to be really long (especially in the beginning and end) dragging on until the main point was made, until the finish line was finally met and the real “winning” idea or purpose was discovered.  Some of the few sentences that were especially succinct and direct were comments on different “races” on pages 4, 8, 13, 14, 22, and 28.  These sentences dispersed through out the story seem to separate different stages of the grand race to get Tomey Turl back but also describe the various minor competitions within the plot.  Even though the race to get Tomey Turl back was “a fine race while it lasted” (28), some of the other races continue still.  The fact that the “race” that started the story, the fox and dogs, is the same never-ending race that concludes the story, shows the continuous struggle of racing through life, facing both new and old battles.

“dominion” – “Anecdote of the Jar,” line 9

I chose this word in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” because in my opinion it expresses the main struggle of the poem between man and nature.  The poem starts out with a jar, a seemingly harmless object made by man, which is placed in the wilderness of Tennessee.  It is described as a “round” jar, which portrays an image of containment and control in contrast to the “slovenly wilderness” (2,3).  In the first stanza and continuing through the second the wilderness seems to have the power in this Tennessee countryside as it “surround[s] the hill” where the jar has been placed and then “[rises] up” to the jar (4,5).  But the jar eventually wins in this struggle.  It tames the wilderness to “no longer [be] wild” (6).  The description of the jar continues, being described as “tall and of a port in air,” an image that seems to give the jar more power and relevance amidst the unruly forest (8). Then the poem culminates in the line “It took dominion everywhere” (9).  Here we see that man has won over nature completely wiping out the freedom of growth of the wilderness by restraining and controlling it.  There is no life sustaining and life giving power in the place taken over by civilization as shown in line 11, “It did not give of bird or bush.”  Humans have taken over and sucked the life out of this Tennessee wilderness.

I found the jar to represent man, specifically civilization and the tendency for man to take over landscapes of nature that were once colorful, life giving, and beautiful and turn them into dull, “gray[,] and bare” concrete landscapes made by man (10).  I also think it’s important to note that the title is “Anecdote of the Jar.”  This isn’t something that actually happened; a jar didn’t tame an entire forest.  The jar represents humanity and its tendency to take over and destroy the natural world.  This path of destruction can start with something as simple as a jar.