All posts by Elise

Final Essay

David Foster Wallace: Linking “Little Expressionless Animals” to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” through Convexity and Distortion

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the way in which distortion, a key element to the convex image the painting presents, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The convexity of the mirror distorts the artist’s view of himself, and this distortion is further enhanced when the artist attempts to copy the image that he sees in the mirror. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that reliance on mechanisms such as mirrors to grasp one’s identity, as evidenced by the portrait artist’s attempt to capture himself from his image in a mirror, is a futile practice; humans lack the ability to completely asses their identities based upon subjective, distorted qualities such as those presented in a mirror.

David Foster Wallace introduces his short story “Little Expressionless Animals” with the explanation, “Part of ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ makes use of the third stanza of John Ashbury’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,” (Wallace 5). In attributing “Little Expressionless Animals” to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Wallace draws a direct link between the distortion created by the convex mirror in the painter’s self portrait and the distortion created by a misguided reliance on television and the media that permeates Wallace’s story. Wallace’s criticism of television’s impact on today’s American society stems from the sentiments he later expresses in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. In his essay Wallace attempts to provide the “comprehensive diagnosis” that television “fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people” (“An Interview with David Foster Wallace). Throughout “Little Expressionless Animals”, various characters wrestle to find peace with their identities. Many of these characters seek the comfort of television and mirrors, but their searches are in vain. Just as the self-portrait painter futilely struggles to accurately depict himself and his surroundings with the assistance of a convex mirror, so Wallace’s characters futilely struggle to achieve peace with the assistance of television and mirrors. The parallel between Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals” allows Wallace to cite Ashbury’s poem as inspiration for his own story.

The very nature of the television screen replicates the distortion that the convex mirror connotes. A screen in its original state is designed to conceal, protect, or shelter something from something else. In this manner, television screens conceal, protect, and shelter television viewers from reality. Television screens create a barrier that projects illusions realistic enough to prevent people from feeling entirely isolated, but the comfort television viewers receive stops short of guiding them to an enlightened, peace-laden sense of self. The shortcoming of television screens replicates the shortcoming of mirrors that is explained by the narrator in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (Ashbury). In these lines Ashbury’s narrator explains that though the convex mirror treats the soul “humanely”, it does not assist the soul in further advancing its vision of self. Thus, convex mirrors, like television, screen the viewer and prevent him or her from reaching complete understanding of self.

The reader is first confronted with television screens in “Little Expressionless Animals” when Wallace describes the eerie way that Julie’s mother attempts to find comfort at a movie theater, only to be struck with fear. The scene describes how the woman and her child sit watching the cartoon, and how the “child’s eyes enter the cartoon” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). While the child, Julie Smith, is blinded by the illusions created by cartoon television, a man sitting in the darkness behind them violates her mother by running his fingers through her hair. Wallace describes, “The cartoon’s reflected light makes faces in the audience flicker: the woman’s eyes are bright with fear,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). The television screen of the cinema thus acts as a screen separating Julie from her mother; because Julie is caught up in the distortion that is contemporary cartoons, she is unable to see the wrongs being committed right beside her. Her vision and perception is distorted by television. Television distracts Julie enough to completely miss the fact that her mother is in a state of intense fear. Conversely, Julie’s mother enters the movie theater in an attempt to forget her tumultuous life and throw her mind into the illusions of the cartoon word. However, the cartoon world is not powerful enough to assist Julie’s mother is forgetting her unfortunate realities. No cartoon can mask the fact that a man is physically running his fingers through one’s hair. In the initial television screen descriptions of his story, Wallace conveys to the reader that television lacks the ability to bring true inner peace to its viewers; Julie’s perception of her mother’s existence is distorted by the images on the screen, while Julie’s mother’s attempts to find peace are thwarted by her futile reliance on television for salvation.

Wallace presents television as a false companion, too often mistakenly relied upon by those seeking to forget their problems, in his portrayal not just of Julie’s mother, but also in his portrayal of Faye’s mother, Dee Goddard. Dee is a woman heartbroken over her divorce and her ex-husband’s subsequent remarriage to a mutual coworker of theirs. Essentially, Dee is a lonely, depressed woman overcome by her misfortunes. Wallace’s portrayal of television during the passages of his story in which he describes Dee demonstrates how many people falsely view television as a friend upon which to lean: “’Let’s all be there’, says the television. ‘Where else would I be?’ asks Dee Goddard… ‘We bring good things to life,’ says the television. ‘So did I,’ says Dee. ‘I did that. Just once’,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 11). The dialogue between Dee and the television personifies the television as a being capable of human interaction. The fact the Dee responds to that which the television says indicates that Dee has categorized the television as something to which she can relate. Thus, Dee feels that the television is a viable companion and legitimate replacement for her ex-husband. Dee’s relationship with her television exemplifies Wallace’s idea presented in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” that he happens “to know lonely people who regard television as a veritable deux ex machine for voyeurs,” (152). The fact that lonely Dee regards television as a replacement for her ex-husband is problematic because it does not truly solve the problem of her loneliness and soul searching. Dee drinks heavily, and her daughter Faye remarks that this drinking is “for the pain”. Dee’s feelings of pain indicate that though television can distort Dee’s thinking enough to allow her to superficially believe herself to be mentally sound, television cannot solve the deep-seated psychological issues that Dee faces due to her divorce. Thus, television, like the convex mirror, distorts human perception and prevents humans from achieving a true understanding of personal identity.

Scholar Aytemis Depici writes that Wallace’s work serves to present the criticism that “television serves to distract individuals from the real world and create blankness in their inner world which conveys a loss of self” (327). The “blankness” that Depici describes relates to Julie’s personality and inner turmoil. In “Little Expressionless Animals”, Wallace describes the transformation that Julie undergoes when the cameras are pointed towards her: “Faye and Dee watch Julie as the red lights and Trebek’s face falls into the worn creases of a professional smile. Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is gone. Every concavity in that person now looks to have come convex,” (20). The lack of expression in Julie’s off-camera stare parallels the “blankness” that Depici describes in his analysis. Furthermore, Wallace’s focus on the convex versus concave nature of Julie’s face again relates his story to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. The concavity of Julie’s off-camera person visually signifies her mental “blankness”. Conversely, the convexity of Julie’s on-camera person is a distortion created by the television screen. The television, like a convex mirror with the self-portrait artist, artificially fills out Julie’s concavities.

Wallace’s portrayal of the characters Julie’s mother, Dee Goddard, and Julie Smith herself reflect his view that television prevents people from achieving an enlightened sense of peace and true sense of identity. Julie hides herself in television’s distortion, allowing television to mask her tragically concave identity with its concavity. Dee Goddard attempts to find comfort in television, but her relationship with television does not remove her pain. Instead, television merely distorts Dee’s pain and masks it from both she and others. Because television cannot solve Dee’s psychological problems, Dee abuses alcohol in order to dull her pain. Julie’s mother also seeks to use television to forget her problems, and television’s inability to solve these problems is even more apparent that Dee’s situation: Julie’s mother never gains even temporary solace. Rather, Julie’s mother is perpetually afraid, fleeing from her problems with men. The distortion that television first creates and then encourages in “Little Expressionless Animals” parallels the distortion of the convex mirror in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in that both the television and the mirror prevent the viewer both from ascertaining his or her true identity and from achieving a peaceful sense of self. Wallace’s choice to draw inspiration from John Ashbury’s poem is successful in its ultimate portrayal that humans lack the ability to completely asses and come to terms with their identities due to their reliance upon subjective, distortion-creating, man-made mechanisms such as convex mirrors and television.

Works Referenced

Ashbury, John, ed. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. N.p.: n.p., 1975. Poem Hunter. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

Depici, Aytemis. “Self Reflection in Convex Lens in ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ by David Foster Wallace.” Journal of History School. Journal of History School, Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

Finocchiaro, Peter. “What David Foster Wallace got wrong about irony: Our culture doesn’t have nearly enough of it.” Salon 27 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton: Princeton U, 2010. Print.
– – -. Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace. N.p.: Hofstra U, 2007. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” ProQuest Information and Learning Company. Center for Book Culture, n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

– – -. Girl with Curious Hair. N.p.: Norton Paperback Fiction, 1989. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

– – -. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Interview by Larry McCaffery. Center for Book Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

Distance in “Girl with Curious Hair”

“The sportcoat had appeared to be the real McCoy from above his back in the Irving Concert Hall, however now in the lobby it appeared to have unattractive narrow lapels and also nonEuropean tailoring, which are fashion features I dislike,” (Wallace 73).

Mankind frequently surprises itself. The notion that things are not as they first appear often obsesses artists and pervades literature. David Foster Wallace’s short story “Girl with Curious Hair” heightens these surprises with colorful character descriptions. Sick Puppy’s descriptions of the people who surround him and of himself highlight the paradoxes that exist between what one expects and what truly exists. The relationships that Wallace creates between the Sick Puppy and the other characters, as well as the reader, demonstrates that humans cannot achieve complete understanding due to the immovable barrier of distance.

The barrier is a tangible distance in the case of the Sick Puppy and the “older and distinguished gray-haired and authentic man in the sportcoat” (Wallace 73). Sick Puppy initially believes the said sportcoat to be of superior quality, but he is later disillusioned when he comes to see the cost more closely. Sick Puppy could not determine the quality of the coat when he was sitting at such a distance. Even when closer, distance still exists, as evidenced by Sick Puppy’s use of the word “appeared”. Never does Sick Puppy say that the coat “is” a certain quality. Rather, Sick Puppy uses the word “appeared” even when he is describing the coat after viewing it from a closer range. The concept of appearance versus reality in relation to distance permeates the entire story. Sick Puppy’s attempt to determine the real quality of the sportcoat exemplifies this dynamic.

Just as Sick Puppy wishes to understand the reality of the sportcoat, so Cheese wishes to understand Sick Puppy and his “happiness”. In a state of desperation, Cheese offers that he will allow Sick puppy to burn him and his fiancée a little at all times. Though tempted, Sick Puppy does not divulge the sought-after information because of distance. The distance between Sick Puppy and Cheese is less tangible than the distance between Sick Puppy and the man wearing the sportcoat; Sick Puppy explains that he cannot tell Cheese what makes him unhappy because it is “a sign of ill breeding to discuss private family matters in public” (Wallace 72). Sick Puppy’s upbringing and socialized sense of propriety creates a distance between himself and Cheese. This distance is perhaps further enlarged by Sick Puppy’s self-conscious feelings regarding his past. The possibility suggest itself when Sick Puppy grows angry over Cheese’s intense stares and finds himself wanting to hurt Cheese. Sick Puppy’s shocking reaction suggests that Cheese’s stares make him self-conscious because he is forced to think about his past. Thus the distance is created by Sick Puppy, rather than by physical space.

Wallace also creates distance between Sick Puppy and the reader. Through the novel the reader searches for clues of who Sick Puppy is and why he is in his current situation. This questioning creates a distance between Sick Puppy and the reader. When Sick Puppy explains his back story and troubled past, the reader begins to feel this distance lessen. However, the distance expands drastically at the end of the novel, when Wallace leaves the reader with Sick Puppy’s ambiguous statement: “And here’s what I did” (Wallace 74). The ambiguous nature of this sentence leaves the reader feeling disoriented and spreads wide the distance between himself or herself and Sick Puppy. Wallace’s restriction of information about Sick Puppy, like Sick Puppy’s restriction of information about himself from Cheese, leaves a wide gap between the reader and Sick Puppy. The reader is left confused over the true nature and mental stability of Sick Puppy. Thus the distances portrayed throughout Wallace’s story demonstrate how complete understanding is impossible for humans acquire due to the distance, both tangible intangible, that exists between humans and their surroundings.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original text:

“The words are speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word from time…”

Deformed text:


Le temps

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the ways in which distortion, an element he sees in the painting, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that distortion is a subjective quality that human’s have no way of verifying due to their own constant, though often unintentional, use of distortion.

The deformation I chose to create focused on an early section of the poem. Early on, Ashbury attempts to describe the painting he is viewing. The reader sees Ashbury’s ideas develop throughout the poem. I chose to deconstruct two places where Ashbury’s language choices evolve. The first occurrence is when Ashbury is attempting to describe the nonexistent “words”. Beginning with “speculation”, Ashbury’s train of thought moves to the Latin word “speculum”, and, from there, “mirror”. Thus Ashbury’s original thought, “words”, changes to “mirror”. By exhibiting his process, Ashbury is demonstrating the art of distortion. Just as the convex mirror distorts the image of the Parmigianino, so Ashbury’s words distort his poetry’s meaning. The second place in which Ashbury’s words evolve is when he describes the weather. While initially describing the mirror as a gauge of weather, he quickly digresses to the French “le temps”. “Le temps” then changes to “time”. In this way, Ashbury transitions the mirror from a gauge of weather to a gauge of time, imitating his transition previous from “words” to “mirror”.

Ashbury’s own transitions exhibit how distortion progresses. Distortion by definition perverts something, but Ashbury asserts that distortion comes about when humans attempt to retell something, as when Parmigianino draws his self-portrait and Ashbury reflects on that self-portrait. Ashbury writes, “Or would it be, if the way of telling/Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result/Into a caricature of itself” (533). Ashbury asserts that man’s way of “telling” distorts that which he is attempting to tell. Given this assertion, man’s idea of distortion as an action must itself be distorted. By Ashbury’s complex reasoning, humans have no way of determining the distorted from the undistorted because humans distort everything. Through complex comparisons and long, winding descriptions, Ashbury demonstrates how distortion evolves, while simultaneously questioning humans’ ability to subjectively judge due to humans’ own consistent, though often inadvertent, use of distortion.

(Ironically, by deforming and analyzing the text, I am committing the same distortions that Ashbury commits when he writes of the self-portrait in the convex mirror, and that Parmigianino commits when he paints his own portrait.)

A Close Reading on “Time” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Time is a constant, ever present notion immersed within human society. An awareness of the passage of time seemingly guides and regulates many individuals’ actions. Just as the hands of a clock continually spin, as the earth continually revolves around the sun, so time remains an endless cycle. The narrator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” obsesses over the concept of time, describing many time-related scenarios; his fascination with time and time imagery, combined with his own progression throughout the poem, ultimately serves to demonstrate the futility in over-analyzing one’s actions when time naturally circulates back and forth. By creating a narrator whose focus on time prevents him from acting upon his desires, T.S. Eliot expresses the idea that procrastination and anxious hesitation are debilitating practices. As there is no “perfect time” in a world where time continually cycles round and round, and back and forth, refraining from taking action is a foolish practice.

Repetitious imagery of time as a force moving back and forth flows throughout the poem. The narrator describes: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot 822/823). This imagery immediately presents time as a perpetually moving force. The women do not stop, but rather remain in constant motion. In asserting that “there will be time”, the narrator realizes that time perpetually continues, and he allows this understanding to justify his inaction. He never acts upon his unvoiced desires, instead merely questioning, “Do I dare?” (Eliot 823). The narrator’s assertion that “there will be time” also overestimates his own impact on time; the narrator is intimidated by the looming concept of time’s ceaseless passage, yet he believes his actions significant enough to have an impact on this endless cycle. “There will be time” suggests immortal possibility, thus implicating that the narrator mistakenly believes in his own longevity. Though the narrator believes that time is a great force, he sees own lifetime as long and his own actions as impactful. The narrator’s own beliefs thus cause his paralysis because he anxiously, narcissistically worries about his actions’ impact. In his obsession over time, the narrator overlooks the fact that the action of the women talking of Michelangelo never changes; the women constantly come and go. The static nature of the women’s actions exemplifies how there is never a time more advantageous than another for the narrator to act. The narrator’s actions will have little effect on the repetitious nature of the women’s habits. His belief that his actions will impact time’s immortal cycle prevents him from taking action. By allowing himself to become overly confident in the impact his own actions hold over infinite time, the narrator obstructs himself from acting upon his desires.

Throughout the poem the narrator expands upon his worry of “Do I dare?”, a question which is futile because time in the poem takes no heed of human concerns. The narrator again ignorantly suggests that his actions are consequential when he questions if he dares “disturb the universe”. This egotistically leaning worry is quickly quashed when the narrator immediately afterwards reflects: “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (Eliot 823). In this statement, the narrator acknowledges that his musings and anxieties are ineffectual. Though he may agonize over a decision, his torment holds no power over constantly moving time. The narrator’s concession that his inaction is similar to a “pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” drives home the point that his preoccupation with time prevents him from moving forward in life (Eliot 824). Just as a crab moves back and forth, never advancing, so the narrator remains stagnant due to his inability to act and seize upon his desires. By mistakenly believing that his actions hold significant sway over the universe, the narrator’s own egotistical worry and preoccupation with time only serve to paralyze his actions and prevent him from attaining his desires.

Throughout the poem the narrator transitions from a man overly confident in his own longevity to a man overly concerned over his own fatality. In both circumstances, the narrator allows his concerns to overpower his ability to act. At the beginning of the poem, T.S. Eliot includes a passage from Dante’s “Inferno” describing a man who confesses to Dante: “If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement” (Eliot 822). Because the speaker is so focused on the idea of life on earth, he confesses his shame without hesitation. The speaker’s assertion that on earth his confession would stay without further movement directly parallels the narrator’s lack of movement with regard to his inaction. Both the speaker and the narrator neglect to understand that time is cyclical in nature. Just because the speaker waits to confess to Dante does not mean that his confession is not heard, thus his procrastination is rendered useless. Likewise, the narrator’s preoccupation with life and death serves only to prevent him from acting upon his desires immediately. The narrator concedes, “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid” (Eliot 824). The paralysis that the narrator suffers from due to his concern over the “eternal Footman”, or death, prevents him from daring to act. As the narrator projects upon his future, older self, he becomes anxious over the fatality of human life. By continually questioning whether his actions “would have been worth while” and measuring out his life “with coffee spoons”, the narrator distracts himself with his worries and thus impedes his actions that would lead to the attainment of his own desires.

Structurally, T.S. Eliot’s choice to keep the time frame within the poem ambiguous harkens back to the cyclical nature of time itself. Within the poem, the narrator at once describes many places and times throughout his life. In transitioning from a soft October night on the streets, to a room filled with women, to an afternoon and to an evening, and even to his life as he “grows old”, the reader is thrust back and forth through time. Just as the imagery within the poem symbolizes the cyclical nature of time, so the structural time frame of the poem itself reflects the continual movement of time. By remaining somewhat ambiguous, the various scenes of the poem repeat the assertion that time stops for no human reflection, whether that reflection is of the narrator or of the reader.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” centers upon the concept of time. By repeating time imagery, both within the language and structure of the poem, T.S. Eliot forces the reader to confront the force that is time. The ultimate predicament of the narrator, growing old as he continues to contemplate his actions as they relate to his eventual death, serves to act as a warning. In his mania over time, the narrator forgets to live in the moment. He simultaneously allows both his intimidation by time’s immortality and his concerns over the impact that his own actions will have on time to overpower him, and he later is overcome by the certainty of his impending death; he at once narcissistically believes his actions to be of consequence, and, alternatively, of no consequence at all. Thus the narrator’s obsession with time paralyzes him, preventing him from acting upon his desires. With the narrator’s anxiety-ridden life as an example of the danger and futility in succumbing to intimidation and procrastination, T.S. Eliot asserts the necessity of seizing the day and taking purposeful action to obtain one’s desires.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Faulkner’s “Was”

“”Wins Sibbey, damn it!” Mr. Hubert said. “Wins Sibbey! What the hell else are we setting up till midnight arguing about? The lowest hand wins Sibbey and buys the niggers,”” (Faulkner 23).

“They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys,” (Ellison 1214).

Scenes of intense subjugation often permeate literature, particularly literature focused on the plight of the twentieth century African American. Often, these scenes of African Americans mirror those of women; both Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and Faulkner’s “Was” examine the mistreatment of African Americans, but they also acknowledge the suppression of women. Just as Sophonsiba Beauchamp’s future is ultimately determined by a poker game conducted by white men, so white men also control the blond woman in “Battle Royal”. Initially, both women are portrayed as possessing command over their actions. Sophonsiba is likened to a bear, seducing men into her den (Faulkner 21). The blond woman dances sensuously, hypnotizing the men who encircle her. Despite these initial impressions, both authors eventual lead the reader to understand that the women are not as free as they first appear. In both cases, the women are reduced to animals, just as there their African American counterparts often are. Sophonsiba is traded back and forth for money, bringing to mind prostitution. Similarly, the blond woman’s features are described as “the hair” and “the face” and “the eyes”, rather than “her hair” and “her face” and “her eyes” (Ellison 1213). The deliberate switch from “her” to “the” dehumanizes the blond women. Her features are not her own, but, rather, her features belong to those who view her. The sensual display she enacts is not by her own free will, but for the pleasure of the white men who surround her. Though money is not directly involved with the blond woman, the nudity does bring to mind prostitution-like scenarios, just as Faulkner’s “Was”.

One interesting difference between the portrayal of Sophonsiba and the blond woman is that Ellison allows the reader to glimpse the blond woman’s potential emotions. Though the reader is limited to the view of the narrator, the narrator perceptively notices that the blond woman’s eyes possess “terror and disgust” (Ellison 1214). The narrator’s acknowledgement of the blond woman’s potential feelings conflicts with his initial observations, which used the word “the” rather than “her”. In addition to serving as a device to compare the blond woman’s subjectivity to his own, perhaps the narrator’s initial observations contrast to his later observations to highlight the difference between early perceptions and later improved understanding and possible formation of empathy. This possible evolution in the narrator’s attitude might thus be present to suggest a method for white men to similarly learn to the view African American men with more awareness and understanding.

Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston

Born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston and her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black communities in the United States, when Hurston was just three years old. Her early childhood experiences in Eatonville were the inspiration for Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”. Hurston’s life in Eatonville was relatively pleasant; though her Baptist preacher father was mentally removed from the family’s affairs, Hurston’s mother Lucy Ann Hurston valiantly strove to support her eight children. Hurston developed a full appreciation for life in Eatonville when her mother passed away in 1904 and her father and his new wife sent her away to school in Jacksonville, Florida. In Jacksonville, Hurston experienced overt racism for the first time. Throughout her life, Hurston would glorify Eatonville as a place that African Americans could live in peace, independent of white society. Hurston even went as far as to call Eatonville her birth town, perhaps due to the fact that her introduction to literature occurred during this time in her life.

Hurston was eventually expelled from high school due to her parents’ neglect of unpaid dues. She worked menial jobs until gaining admittance at Morgan College, a preparatory high school, where she successfully enrolled by lying about her date of birth in order to qualify for free education. Beginning in 1901, Hurston studied at Howard University, the premier all-black university of the time. During this period, Hurston met and studied under Alain Locke, a man often called the “philosophical architect” of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke’s philosophical idea of “The New Negro” influenced and encouraged Hurston.

In 1925, Hurston began study on scholarship at Barnard College, part of Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston lived near other influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. At Barnard, Hurston was the sole black student. Her famous line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”, from her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, relates to her feelings of isolation while at school. She studied anthropology with famed anthropologist Franz Boaz, a man deeply interested in folklore as a discipline. Hurston’s experiences in the Caribbean, American South, Jamaica, Haiti and Honduras. provided inspiration for many of her works, particularly her famous novel “Their Eyes were Watching God”. Through her anthropological studies, Hurston developed her famous, though controversial, style that focused on the use of the vernacular, as seen in “The Gilded Six-Bits”, and the incorporation of folklore.

“Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then he sang some more—“

“The Weary Blues”
Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes successfully captures the essence of the blues music genre through his attention to form. “Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor”; Hughes’ use of onomatopoeia channels the rhythmic quality of music. At the same time, the repetition of the word “thump” suggests monotony. This monotony relates back to the title specification of “weary” blues, as “thump” conjures images of a heavy, tired foot. The placement of a period at the end of the line conveys a sense of finality, as if this motion is unstoppable, mechanic. The period suggests that this movement cannot be contested, that even, perhaps, the singer has no control over his foot, his music, or his blue emotions. The next line continues this theme: “He played a few chords then he sang some more—“ is a phrase comprised of two simple sentences. The declarative nature of the phrases adds to the repetitious, and laborious, aspect of the poem. The use of the em dash indicates that more information is to follow, further indicating the never-ending nature of blues music in the singer’s life. Furthermore, the beat of the two lines stresses the humdrum, everyday nature of the blues. The rhyming couplet serves to incorporate the musical quality of the blues into the poem itself. Through clever use of form, Hughes’ poem is not just a celebration, but also an embodiment of the “weary blues”.



The Red Wheelbarrow- William Carlos Williams

The verb “depends”, written in the first line, serves as a foundation to the poem. “Depends” naturally causes the one to think, “Depends upon what?” The word “depends” thus requests that the reader carefully consider the poem because of its implication that there are circumstances to ponder. The reader then thoughtfully follows the poem to its conclusion, or the discovery of the dependable red wheelbarrow. The word “depends”, relating to the word “dependable”, suggests a system of support; something must depend upon something else. Williams pushes the reader to imagine what, exactly, is depending upon the red wheelbarrow. Williams’ use of the word “depends” gives the reader’s mind the freedom to daydream. The verb “depends” challenges the reader to pause and contemplate Williams’ deliberately constructed phrases. Perhaps significant is the fact that the wheelbarrow is a man-made object. Though an innovation existing for many years, the wheelbarrow is often overlooked. Similarly, Williams’ small poem is a simple, man-made construct that the reader could easily overlook. The word “depends” is essential in creating a contemplative mood. By taking time to reflect upon Williams’ poem, one is consciously stepping back from fast-paced contemporary society to appreciate the seemingly mundane.

“’And, by George, sir, when the thing begins to slow off we’ll start somebody writing against it, and that will run us straight up into another hundred thousand.” (Macmillan p. 26)

As Ned Harviss proudly proclaims his stratagem to Professor Linyard, so author Edith Wharton slyly commentates on the duplicity of the media and those in positions of influence. By displaying the ease with which Harviss and Linyard plan to manipulate their readers, Wharton exposes the convoluted nature of the media empire that controls the information the public receives. The cavalier nature of Harviss’s proclamation insinuates that business plans aimed at public manipulation are alarmingly frequent occurrences. Wharton implies that the media, and those in power, are untrustworthy. The phrase “another hundred thousand” pointedly marks the greedy, money-obsessed nature of the media, highlighting that the publishing company’s chief design is to exceed financially, not to educate the public.

The applicability of Wharton’s message to present times is particularly striking. In her mocking tone, Wharton reminds both the reader of the twentieth century and the reader of the twenty-first century that the media does not have his or her best interests at heart. Ironically, Wharton chooses to articulate her warning through the very media she condemns; she indirectly suggests that though the media has its faults, it is a necessary conduit which allows information to travel from the informed to the public.