Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The “Lessons” of the Moths in Gene Stratton-Porter’s The Girl of the Limberlost


My husband was in charge of planning family time a few Saturday afternoons ago, and he decided to take our ten-year-old son and me to the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, Indiana, about an hour from where we live. This was a carefully considered choice: he thought that I would like touring the home of Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th-century author most famous for her best-selling fiction set in the nearby Limberlost Swamp and that he would enjoy observing and photographing the wildlife in the recently revitalized wetlands area. In all, the site was a hit. Even Wes liked it—since he was the only kid on the Stratton-Porter home tour and, therefore, got a lot of special attention from our guide. We started in the visitor’s center, where we were quickly drawn to a butterfly habitat cage, in which we observed several huge moths. One of the staff told us that these were Polyphemus moths, a species that Stratton-Porter particularly enjoyed collecting and studying. They had hatched in the last couple of days and would only live for about 7-10 days more, with the sole purpose of mating and laying eggs in that time. (They don’t even have mouths; they can’t eat!) Next, during the home tour, the guide led us through period rooms, as well as many engaging anecdotes, to paint a compelling picture of Stratton-Porter as a talented naturalist, writer, photographer, artist, musician, and film producer who often refused to fulfill conventional gender roles and focused her critically and commercially successful career on educating the public about the flora and fauna of the swamp as well as sharing the culture of the people residing in and near the Midwestern wetlands. The most well-known of her books, we were told, is The Girl of the Limberlost, the story of Elnora Comstock, a girl who sells moths and other specimens and artifacts from the swamp to pay for her high school education, earning intense admiration from everyone in the community, including her initially neglectful mother and a wealthy man visiting from Chicago, whom she eventually agrees to marry.

When I took up the novel in the following week, I was pleasantly surprised by its complexity. Despite Stratton-Porter’s personal history of bucking gender norms and the clear focus on nature in her writing, The Girl of the Limberlost is not straightforwardly feminist or environmentalist. Contemporary scholarship on Stratton-Porter’s body of work reflects her conflicted representation of women and nature. In keeping with the popular conception of Stratton-Porter’s oeuvre, Cheryl Birkelo calls her an “early ecofeminist” (8). Robert Mellin notes, however, that her writing engages with the difficulties of maintaining environmental ideals in a cultural landscape of technological “progress”: her characters often unquestioningly accept the “easy money” that they find is “available by compromising the ecological integrity of the Limberlost region” (31). And Lawrence Jay Dessner says that Stratton-Porter’s writing “dramatizes assumptions about class, gender, and sexual identity that are at best ambiguous, at worst retrograde” (140).

In a more thorough discussion of Stratton-Porter’s depiction of women in The Girl of the Limberlost in particular, Elizabeth Ford details the disappointing trajectory of both Elnora and her mother toward “convention.” Ford notes that Katherine Comstock, Elnora’s mother, gives up her self-reliance—as well as her dedication to protecting her land from loggers and oil rigs, incidentally—in order to become the ideal mother to Elnora. And, although Elnora is originally intent on pursuing college and is consistently depicted as intelligent, strong, and resourceful at the beginning of the novel, she ultimately retreats, like the caterpillar that spins itself into a cocoon, to conventional wife and motherhood: “Before Elnora has had a chance to spread her wings, she prepares to enter the cocoon of convention, an enclosure not known for nurturing the individual pursuits of its inmates, no matter how feisty the heroine” (152). I would like to extend this discussion of women as like the moths that Elnora collects by countering aspects of Ford’s assertion. Elnora does spread her wings; it’s just that—on the surface at least—the book suggests that the way that women become beautiful moths is by taking on the responsibilities of the ideal wife and mother. Like the Polyphemus moth, and others with similar life cycles, women in this novel live for the purpose of reproduction. However, I would also suggest that the framework of “the female swerve”—Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s notion that female authors have sometimes written female characters who adhere to conventional gender norms to conceal feminist agendas—might be helpful in understanding Elnora’s significantly narrowed life path at the end of the novel.

I’d like to start with a supporting character in The Girl of the Limberlost—Edith Carr. Edith is Phillip Ammon’s betrothed. Phillip is the man who visits the Limberlost area from Chicago and, while there, develops an intense appreciation for moths—and for Elnora, the girl who collects them. Edith is frivolous, petty, and self-interested while Elnora is industrious, honest, and nurturing. (There is certainly something here about rural, Midwestern identity vs. “big city” identity, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) Despite Edith’s obvious shortcomings, Phillip tries to honor his engagement after he returns to Chicago. When he throws a ball in Edith’s honor—and clearly still thinking back to what he left in the Limberlost—he has a dressmaker create a gown for Edith in imitation of the Imperial moth, complete with wings. Emphasizing Edith’s unwillingness to subordinate herself to Phillip, the narrative conveys her understanding of the gown: “She was the Empress—yes, Phillip was but a mere man, to devise entertainments, to provide luxuries, to humour whims, to kiss hands!” (310). It is later in the novel when Edith comes to understand what readers can infer is the true significance of Imperial moth costume—that she, like Katherine and Elnora, is most beautiful and in greatest alignment with the designs of nature when she accepts her subservience to men and her intended role of wife and mother. In a conversation with Hart Henderson, her new love interest after Phillip has broken their engagement and returned to Elnora, Edith promises to become more like Elnora: “You find out what you want to do, and be, that is a man's work in the world, and I will plan our home, with no thought save your comfort. I'll be the other kind of a girl, as fast as I can learn. I can't correct all my faults in one day, but I'll change as rapidly as I can” (409). Edith’s acceptance of her new role (and “nature” in general) is solidified when she captures an Imperial moth—despite her past feelings of repulsion for all insects—and presents it to Elnora as a peace offering. Symbolically, here Edith offers herself, in the figure of the moth that she previously outfitted herself as, to the ideal of womanhood. She has finally taken on the natural responsibilities of women represented in the moth.

Just as Edith turns her attention to the Imperial moth in the moment of her acceptance of convention, soon after Katherine’s transformation to loving mother, she becomes fascinated with a just-hatched Royal moth. Katherine exults the moth’s life cycle as “a miracle” : “. . . it takes the wisdom of the Almighty God to devise the wing of a moth. . . . this creature is going to keep on spreading those wings, until they grow to size and harden to strength sufficient to bear its body. Then it flies away, mates with its kind, lays its eggs . . . . [The moths] don't eat, they don't see distinctly, they live but a few days . . . ; then they drop off easy, but the process goes on” (259-60). (Eating here could certainly represent bodily appetites in general, which would suggest that the moth is, symbolically, as asexual as the ideal mother that Katherine becomes. Eating is represented in complex ways in the novel and could certainly bear more discussion in another context.) Inspired by the moth’s purposeful design for the work of reproduction, Katherine goes on to beseech God, “Help me to learn, even this late, the lessons of Your wonderful creations. Help me to unshackle and expand my soul to the fullest realization of Your wonders” (260). Of course, Katherine is in need of the “lessons” of nature at this point because she was not always “the other kind of girl” that Elnora is and that Edith later aspires to be. Until after Elnora’s graduation from high school, Katherine treats Elnora with neglect bordering on cruelty and blames her daughter for the death of Elnora’s father, Katherine’s husband, Robert Comstock. Katherine returns again and again to the site of Robert’s death, “the oozy green hole” (207) in the swamp, where she was unable to save her husband years ago because of being in childbirth labor with Elnora. Ford calls Stratton-Porter’s representation of the sinkhole Freudian, rightly indicating its likeness to the conception of a vagina as a man trap (152). I would add that Katherine’s early attachment to this site and to the fateful moment of giving birth suggest her association with the wrong kind of womanhood—the sexually desirous and the corporeal. But, in the chapters following her study of the Royal moth, Katherine takes on a new identity as a self-sacrificing and spiritual woman by showering attention and adoration on Elnora. (Katherine’s transformation also necessitates the purchase of all sort of beauty products and stylish clothing at the shops in nearby Onabasha and the rental of a beautifully furnished home in town. Consumerism is at the heart of The Girl of the Limberlost, but this is also outside the scope of this blog post.)

While both Edith and Katherine transform into conventional women based on the instruction of moths, Elnora is associated with moths throughout the narrative, as she collects them to pay for schooling, and seems to have already learned the “lessons” of ideal womanhood even at the beginning of the book. But it is only at the end of the novel when Elnora fully accepts the conventional role of wife to Phillip and mother to his children. Perhaps the moment that seems to change Elnora’s life trajectory most significantly is when Phillip convinces her to give up her dream of attending college, a goal that she has consciously worked toward from the first day of high school, according to the narrative. The moment is precipitated by Elnora’s admission that the trees in the swamp talk to her: they tell her "[t]o be patient, to be unselfish, to do unto others as I would have them do to me" and “to be true, live a clean life, send your soul up here and the winds of the world will teach it what honour achieves” (274). Of course, the values that Elnora articulates here are many of those associated with the domesticity, chastity, and self-sacrifice of the ideal woman. And, apparently convinced that Elnora’s possession of these values makes her education complete, Phillip tells Elnora, “What you have to give is taught in no college, and I am not sure but you would spoil yourself if you tried to run your mind through a set groove with hundreds of others. I never thought I should say such a thing to any one, but . . . I honestly believe it; give up the college idea. . . . Stick close to your work in the woods. You are becoming so infinitely greater on it, than the best college girl I ever knew, that there is no comparison” (276). In keeping with the novel’s suggestion that ideal women nurture men and children, it is clear that Phillip is most interested here in what Elnora “[has] to give.” Possibly even more gratingly to the contemporary reader aware of the history of women’s financial reliance on men in patriarchal cultures, Phillip goes on to wield his own financial security against Elnora, who he positions as financially dependent, at least in the hypothetical: “If I now held the money in my hands to send you, and could give it to you in some way you would accept I would not” (277). Even when Katherine later discovers that she has enough money in the bank to send to Elnora to college, Elnora refuses, choosing instead to share the “lessons” of the Limberlost with the younger generation through the traditionally women’s role of teacher in Onabasha.

Later, when Elnora is trying to make a final decision about whether or not to marry Phillip despite what she perceives as Edith’s still justified claim to him, Elnora visits Freckles, the titular character of a previously published Stratton-Porter novel, and his wife, only identified as “the Angel,” at their lake house in Michigan. It is hard to believe that Stratton-Porter would not have been aware of the literary allusion in the name “the Angel” to Virginia Woolf’s wholly self-sacrificing mother, wife, and household manager, “the Angel in the House,” who Woolf proposes that all women need to kill in order to pursue fulfilling lives. (As I was reviewing Woolf’s discussion of “the Angel in the House,” I realized that she also wrote an essay entitled “The Death of the Moth.” There is definitely more to say about this; I hope I can get back to it soon!) It is certainly possible, given the allusion to “the Angel in the House,” that readers are to take the Angel’s ideal womanhood ironically—representative of exactly that which Elnora should kill in order to pursue college and a career but that ends up ensnaring her instead. On the surface, however, the Angel is sincere in her unwavering adoration of her four children, only a “start” to the large family she and Freckles want (372), and her desire to provide Freckles with a home that serves as a cozy retreat from his work in the city of Grand Rapids. This portion of the novel also clarifies Elnora’s ambitions to follow in the Angel’s footsteps. Upon arrival at the lake house late at night, Elnora is so excited to see the sleeping children that she asks the Angel for “a peep at the babies” before going to bed, a move that earns her the exclamation “Now you are perfect!” from the Angel (372). From there, Elnora becomes heavily involved in the care of the children and household. When she finally realizes that Edith has fully surrendered her hold on Phillip, Elnora “see[s] angels” (395) in a moment that perhaps signifies her full incorporation into the ranks of women like Freckle’s wife. Also significantly, it is in the next few paragraphs that Elnora accepts Edith’s offering of the Imperial moth, still the central symbol of ideal womanhood in the novel.

On the surface, the trajectories of the women in The Girl of the Limberlost suggest that conventional womanhood is the ideal that is taught in the “lessons” of the moths. Just as the moths are most beautiful in the phase of their lives dedicated to reproduction, these female characters are at their best as self-sacrificial wives, dedicated mothers, and efficient housekeepers. But readers cannot ignore that the ultimate fate of the moths in the Limberlost is death after only a few short days dedicated to mating and laying eggs. If women are like moths, then they are almost certainly headed toward demise—symbolic death, and, given the maternal mortality rate of this era, perhaps literal death. It is also significant that almost all the moths that appear in this narrative suffer insult beyond that of having short lives. Through descriptions of the spreading of moths’ wings as they die and the pinning of dead moths to boards, both of which contain phallic symbolism, Stratton-Porter might be leading us to consider the humiliation and violence represented in the permanent affixing of intelligent and spirited women, like Edith, Katherine, and Elnora, into roles of self-sacrifice and domesticity. The pin used to hold a specimen to a board for observation may also be interpreted in an ecofeminist view as similar to the oil rig—another phallic symbol—that penetrates the land for extraction of natural resources for human use. It is perhaps not coincidental that, as Katherine accepts her role as ideal mother, she also entertains the idea of allowing oil mining on her land, something that she had previously resisted. The placement of the oil rig is like the pin in that both represent the violence of men against nature—and women, who are here closely associated with both the wetlands itself and the moths that live there. Indeed, then, while Stratton-Porter seems to use moth symbolism to indicate the natural path for women as leading toward wife and motherhood, another possibility exists—that the moth symbolism in this novel works as a “female swerve,” through which Stratton-Porter points to the death that awaits women in domesticity. That this duality in the moth imagery in The Girl of the Limberlost exists—in conjunction with Stratton-Porter’s unconventional personal history and the ethos of conservatism in her nature writing—earns this author her contemporary reputation as an ecofeminist and deserves further study among literary scholars.

Works Cited

Birkelo, Cheryl. “Gene Stratton-Porter: Scholar of the Natural World in A Girl of the Limberlost.” Midwestern Miscellany, vol. 40, 2012, pp. 7–29. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2015384103&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles.” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 36, no. 2, 2000, pp. 139–57. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2000058323&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Ford, Elizabeth. “How to Cocoon a Butterfly: Mother and Daughter in A Girl of the Limberlost.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1993, pp. 148–53. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1994060348&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. Yale UP, 2000. Print.

Mellin, Robert. “The ‘Talking Trees’ of the Limberlost: Negotiating a Class-Informed Ecofeminism.” Midwestern Miscellany, vol. 40, 2012, pp. 30–36. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2015384104&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Stratton-Porter, Gene. A Girl of the Limberlost. Dell Publishing Company, 1986. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1942. 235-43. Print.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dust to Dust: From the Promise of Young Womanhood to Resignation to Patriarchal Marriage in Reading the Ceiling


Earlier this month, I received an email from a colleague personally asking if my family and I would be willing to host a high school student from Africa for two weeks. She had been recruiting hosts for several weeks and still needed a few willing families in order to place all of the students who would be staying in Muncie for a portion of their time with the Pan African Youth Leadership Program (PAYLP). PAYLP is funded by the US Department of State, and participants in the program do some orientation in Atlanta and culminating activities in DC but spend the majority of their time in the US in training and lectures at various universities across the country. Three cohorts come to Ball State University every year. We had considered hosting PAYLP students in the past and felt that the time might be right this summer. I was particularly interested in the cultural exchange that my 15-year-old daughter might gain from hosting an African student. She is infinitely interested in travel outside of the US. This would give her the opportunity to learn a little bit about the world without leaving home. 

We were assigned a student a couple of days before her arrival in Muncie. She would be coming from The Republic of Gambia. I quickly read the historical information about The Gambia that my colleague provided, and, then, I thought maybe I should read a novel or two written by a Gambian author in order to learn more about the culture of this small country on the west side of Africa. I didn’t find many options, but Dayo Forster’s 2007 Reading the Ceiling was available as an ebook for $1. I used one of the many credits I have with Amazon, earned by checking the box next to “No Rush” on orders that I don’t need immediately, and got the book for free!

Reading the Ceiling starts on Ayodele’s 18th birthday, the day she has planned for what she sees as the beginning of the rest of her life, which she thinks will be triggered by having sex for the first time. She makes a list of a few possible partners for this important rite of passage. The rest of the book is divided into three parts, each following the chain of events that occur after sex with one of the choices on her list. The first choice is Rueben, a traditional Gambian boy who Ayodele finds annoying but who would definitely agree to the task. This choice ultimately leads her to study at a university in England, return to Gambia for a job in the government, and marry a womanizing widower in her middle age. Ayodele is much more attracted to her second choice, Yuan, who is the son of Chinese immigrants and plans to study in England after high school graduation. This option leads her into a fulfilling, long-term relationship with Yuan in Europe until Yuan dies suddenly in a motorcycle accident. Heartbroken, she ultimately gains a career in international trade and travels around the world but later returns to Gambia to care for her elderly mother, and finally, agrees to marry a widower with teenaged children who resent her. Last, the novel explores the possibility of Ayodele choosing Frederick, the father of her best friend who has a reputation of carrying on affairs outside of his marriage. Although she spends a semester abroad after her sexual encounter with Frederick, this option ultimately leads her to pregnancy and the difficulties of single motherhood, working her way up in the ranks of a Gambian car dealership, and a marriage as a second wife to the owner of the company, who is willing to help support her and her son.

The novel is well-written. You can see Forster’s careful implementation of craft in almost every line. And it evokes vivid imagery of West Africa through compelling—but wonderfully succinct—descriptions of food preparation, clothing, and scenery. Most of all, Reading the Ceiling conveys the difficulty that one young Gambian woman faces in her attempt to claim agency over her own body and life in her home country. It portrays the culture of The Gambia as doggedly patriarchal—even misogynistic—despite progress toward the liberal ideal of equality, as evidenced in the efforts of most families of Ayodele’s class to educate their daughters abroad. Though she is able to find some measure of happiness in each scenario, West Africa is inhospitable to Ayodele’s dreams of freedom and joie de vivre, a concept she discusses in one of her college classes. In fact, in each of the three situations presented in the novel, Ayodele ultimately capitulates to the patriarchal politics and demands of marriage and childrearing in The Gambia, settling for relationships with men she does not love, cooking and cleaning for husbands and children, and silencing her own opinions and desires in exchange for the familiar traditions of patriarchal marriage. Each scenario ends with resignation to death, as, after her mother’s funeral in each case, Ayodele admits to herself that she will be next.

Forster uses dust and mud imagery throughout the novel to indicate the dinginess of Ayodele’s life as a young woman, and then wife and mother, in West Africa as well as the inescapability of this life. Even in the opening passage, so reflective of Ayodele’s sense of her own sexuality and her eagerness to use it to open the mysteries of her life outside of The Gambia, imagery of dust foreshadows the inevitable power of her country to reign in the power of her young, rebellious body: “In the slit between my bedroom curtains, I see a long triangle of sky more grey than blue. The light changes with each sweep of my eyelids. At this time of year, when the harmattan blows straight off the Sahara, not even the wide expanse of the River Gambia can add enough wet to stop it in its tracks. It has coated with dust the mosquito netting on my window” (location 35). The slit between the curtains, representative of Ayodele’s sexuality, of course, allows her to see some of the play of light outside her window, or the possibilities of her future, but the dust, such an integral part of life in The Gambia during the dry season, prevents her from full enjoyment of the colors. Again, indicating her difficulty in leaving her culture behind, in the Rueben section of the novel, Ayodele falls into the muddy, “thickly brown” (location 446), and possibly crocodile-filled water of the river and struggles to pull herself from the its depths back into the boat carrying her high school friends. In a passage depicting Ayodele’s decision, after Yuan’s death, to settle in Mali, another West African country with apparently similar customs to The Gambia, she notes not only the muddiness of the river, but the dustiness of the garden outside her new home, and “the brown-tinged circles in the rice” left by the muddy tap water used to cook her food (location 1810). Although Ayodele’s meal is interrupted by the delivery of a letter from home, she ultimately returns to eating “the brown-speckled rice” (location 1844), having made the decision to stay in West Africa. In the last scenario, in which Ayodele becomes an unwed mother at the age of 18, she perceives her pregnancy as a “ridge of mud” (location 2479) and lives in a small house with a “mud wall . . . meant to keep the rainwater out” as she struggles to support her young son (location 2590). I could cite numerous other examples of mud imagery as representative of Ayodele’s inability to escape her home culture, many of which also portray water as opposite to mud, a possibly cleansing or freeing force—but one that never quite wins against the ubiquitous dust of the harmattan.

Reading the Ceiling ends with Ayodele’s memory of a story that she and her sisters and friends were often told in childhood—one that clearly echoes Ayodele’s perception of water as life-giving and dust as stifling. A mermaid, skilled in magical incantations and free to settle anywhere in the beautiful underwater regions of the sea, is nevertheless curious about life on land and enjoys observing the activities of fishermen on the surface. Like Ayodele’s story, the mermaid’s story is told in the form of a traditional dilemma tale, presenting several possible outcomes that listeners can judge as most or least desirable. In one ending, the mermaid is almost caught by the fishermen but struggles and escapes back to her beautiful home in the ocean. In another, she allows herself to be caught and lives the rest of her unhappy life as a human, abused and disfigured by the fishermen and their peers. The novel clearly outlines the moral of the story: “[I]f you want something, don’t halfwant it. Either want it properly and go and get it, or forget about it so you will not be drawn into someone else’s magic and get the decision taken out of your hands” (location 3433). The reader is obviously meant to judge Ayodele as failing to “properly” want life outside of the rigid restraints of The Gambia, despite the kaleidoscope of opportunities available to her as a young woman travelling abroad for her education. Instead, in the scenarios presented in the book, Ayodele allows herself to take jobs in West Africa because they are easy to secure after acquiring degrees in international development in Europe and the US, to return to The Gambia to please her sisters or mother, to acquiesce to marriage with men who will make her life materially comfortable and acceptable to those in her country who gossip about her European or American habits and aspirations.

A review of the fate of other characters in the novel reveals that Ayodele is not the only woman who becomes trapped by the expectations for women in The Gambia. The novel provides the reader with a panoply of young women who each chooses her own fate—either abroad or at home. One of Ayodele’s sisters, Taiwo, ends up marrying Rueben and living a traditional life in The Gambia. Ayodele notices that the Biblical reading during their marriage ceremony “was not from a raunchy part of the Song of Solomon . . . but instead from the rib creation passage” (location 1926), meaning, of course, that Taiwo has chosen domestic life as a helpmate to Rueben over the possibility of sexual passion, a choice that Ayodele also makes in each of the scenarios presented in the novel. Remi, Ayodele’s best friend, also chooses a traditional marriage in The Gambia, and, like Ayodele in two of the novel’s scenarios, she ultimately accepts that her husband will have intimate relationships other women. Moira marries right out of high school, and her husband leaves her and their three children a few years later. She struggles as a single mother, used and abandoned by a man, just as Ayodele does after giving birth to her son, but continues to enforce gender norms through unwanted advice and self-righteousness. The women who leave The Gambia, however, fare much better than those who marry Gambian men. Ayodele’s other sister, Kainde, lives independently in Canada, and Amina marries a European and founds a happy existance in Italy. Although both women tell Ayodele that their lives are not perfect, Amina admits that her life is mostly in her own control, which contrasts sharply with the experiences of Taiwo, who defers in every situation to Rueben; Remi, who decides that peace at home is more important than her husband’s fidelity; Moira, who accepts and promulgates the expectations for married women in The Gambia, and Ayodele herself, of course, in each of the three situations portrayed in the novel.

It’s important to note Reading the Ceiling is focused on the experiences of The Gambia’s middle class, urban dwellers with money for education and who are mostly Christian. People like this are in the minority in The Gambia, which is a very poor, largely rural, and majority Muslim country. Regardless of its limited scope, the novel clearly (and problematically for liberal Western readers—like me!—who are uncomfortable with this stereotypical characterization of West Africa) depicts The Gambia as a place where women are simply unable to successfully contend against traditional patriarchal norms. You might wonder, does it provide any hope, any glimmer of positive change for women? Maybe. The novel ends with Ayodele helping a man walking his dog on the beach to move a fish run ashore back into the sea. Afterwards: “My eyes catch what looks like the flick of a tail, sprinkling splashes of water high above the surface, slicing cleanly back into the ocean. Then it’s gone.” (location 3523). This transitory image suggests either that some women, embodied in the fish, will escape West Africa to the refreshing waters of other lands or that The Gambia, represented by the man, may learn from its female offspring, like Ayodele, to allow women to live in the waters of freedom and fulfillment.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Reinforcement of Rape Culture in My Family’s Visit to a Bird Sanctuary this Summer

Wes and Taegan
(Wes is positioning to match the bird.)

During a short family trip earlier in the summer, my family of four visited a bird sanctuary, where trained professionals care for and, when possible, rehabilitate injured birds of all types and offer educational programming on the ecological importance of birds and other rescued animals to the public. The visit included a brief “show,” during which three employees brought out a number of animals and discussed the particular environmental challenges and ecological significances ​of their breeds. Despite the position of the amphitheatre seating in the full sun of the early afternoon, my two children and I took front-row seats, while my pale-skinned husband stayed in the back, under the shade of a nearby tree. The main speaker was a knowledgeable 30-something male, engaging enough and even funny at times. He easily commanded the small space of the stage, alerting unaware passersby at several points during the talk to the fact that he was doing a show right now and that they were welcome to join the audience but that they needed to use quiet voices if they chose not to join so that they wouldn’t disrupt the presentation. The other two participants were female and in their early 20s. In praising her handling of a tarantula, the man identified one of the women as the sanctuary's ”new intern.”

Toward the end of the show, the new intern wheeled out a large cage. Both she and the man geared up, putting on long falconry gloves, and then he opened the cage and introduced a very large black bird with a featherless pink head and sharp, curved black beak. It was a turkey vulture, he said, and went on to discuss the function and importance of scavenger birds. As he was talking, the vulture flew up to the new intern’s forearm. It took a couple of quick steps in the direction of her body and, probably instinctively, she turned her head. The vulture then landed three strikes with his beak on her scalp in quick succession. The man, cheekily stating that, although everyone else at the sanctuary thought the intern was doing a good job, the turkey vulture just didn't seem to like her, moved to the woman's side and signaled for the bird to transfer from her arm to his.

The man went on to express frustration that the vulture didn't seem interested in demonstrating tricks this afternoon, saying, “C’mon, don't you want to fly?” The vulture eventually obliged, flying back to the intern’s arm and again moving quickly toward her head. Although clearly panicked, she was more prepared this time and, reaching into a pouch on her belt, grabbed a chunk of meat and threw it to the ground. The vulture hopped down and quickly ate the meat. It headed right back toward the intern, and, again, she deterred it with a bite of meat. This continued for a tense few minutes, the man persisting in his attempts to coax the bird to perform flying exercises for the crowd, until the intern, speaking for the first time, interrupted with, “I've only got a couple more pieces of meat!”

Picking up with his monologue again, the man started throwing his meat to the ground, too, but not as quickly as the intern had. Unfed for a couple of seconds, the huge bird headed back to the intern’s head, this time striking her in the cheek and the back of the neck before the intern managed to distract him by tossing the last of her meat on the ground. The man continued to talk and toss his pieces down to the vulture. Seeing what lay ahead as he neared the end of his stash, the woman interrupted again, saying several times in quick succession, “I don't want to do this.”

By this time, I was flinching every time the bird moved, and I had made worried eye contact with my 14-year-old daughter several times. I was saying under my breath, “I can't believe he's allowing this to continue,” when the vulture sauntered over to the intern and fiercely pecked her on her bare shin. The man, still talking to the audience, threw a chunk of meat to lure the bird toward him. The woman backed away from the bird, said, “I'm going inside,” and exited the stage into the adjacent nature center. Clearly perturbed, the man sighed and rolled his eyes. Finally, he gave up his efforts to make the animal perform and, using his last piece of meat, lured it back into its cage.

Numb, I watched as the man brought out the final act, a crow that was able to take dollar bills from kids’ hands. Trying to recover, I handed my eight-year-old a five and watched as the crow adeptly folded it and stuffed it into a donation box. Afterwards, we looked around the nature center, where I chanced upon overhearing a conversation between the intern and the man leading the show. She had an open wound on her check the size of a dime, and she told him that all of the bites had drawn blood. He expressed amazement, saying the bird had never acted this way with anyone else, and advised her to “clean them really well.”

I started crying as I left the amphitheatre and nature center area. My husband and kids were stunned; I rarely cry, I’m not a “highly sensitive person.” Sure, I explicate in great detail our encounters with others and overanalyze nearly every exhibit that we attend, often with a wry wit and a sharp tongue and, yes, even in front of my children. But I don’t cry. I thought about the bird show frequently in the next several days, until I figured out what had really bothered me about the display we had witnessed.

The show was disturbing in three major ways. First of all, it was completely phallocentric. Neither woman spoke during the show; instead, they acted as a models, akin to the women I remember turning letters on Wheel of Fortune and demonstrating the functions of new vacuum cleaners and the like on The Price is Right when I watched these shows as a child. Like Pat Sajak and Bob Barker, the man leading the bird show was significantly older than his models and exercised complete control over their onstage behavior--at least until the new intern ran from the stage. Ecofeminists might point out that, in a similar fashion to how he treated the women, the man leading the show also attempted to control the animals. The vulture’s unexpected unwillingness to perform angered him. In fact, his inability to control the bird caused him to ignore all reason, allowing the bird to continue to assault the intern as he tried, over and over, to bend the animal to his will. The man’s angry body language and sigh as he put the bird back in its cage, as well as his comments to the intern after the show, suggested his unwillingness to accept his lack of control over the animal and his blaming of the bird and/or the intern for the bird’s failure to engage in the pre-planned flying routine. The man exercised more complete control of the space of the amphitheatre, as evidenced by his comments to the sanctuary visitors who unwittingly happened upon the show. He was in charge of the pacing of the show as well, signalling to the two women assisting him when he wanted them to bring certain animals on stage or remove them to the adjacent nature center. Most of all, he dominated the narrative. From a place of total self-assurance, he shared facts about the animals in the show and offered tips as to how audience members could aid in conservation efforts. He easily asserted subjectivity by also discussing his personal experiences of working with the animals.

Indeed, the show symbolically enacted the very worse potentiality of a male-dominated culture--rape. Whether you read the bird or the man as the rapist is fairly irrelevant. It was the vulture that penetrated the woman’s body with his beak, a phallic part of its body used to attack prey and rip apart flesh, much as a penis is used against a victim during a rape. But it was the man who took advantage of his intern’s position of subservience, belittled her initial attack, overrode her attempts to resist her attacker, ignored her “no,” allowed her no other recourse than the humiliation of disrupting the show in order to escape, placed the onus for the attack on her after the event, and dismissed her injuries as just in need of a good washing. Certainly, then, the bird only enacted that which the man did on a psychic level--the stripping from a woman of her dignity and sense of worth.

Finally, my third point. Probably the most troubling part of this experience was my complicity in it. Around 10 other adults and I were silent as the intern was attacked--repeatedly--by a vulture, as she panicked in anticipation of the vulture’s next moves, as her efforts to resist continued attack were thwarted, as the man on stage allowed her injury and humiliation. Any one of us could have raised our hand or stood or just called out to ask the man to please put the bird away, but no one did. Also importantly, we visually consumed the assaulted woman and even contributed to the panoptic system of discipline that kept her from asserting herself more forcefully against the man leading the show. Almost certainly, viewers objectified both women in the show, perceiving them as little more than fixtures meant for the display of the animals, much as we perceived the models in 1980s game shows as accessories for contestant prizes. Worse yet, viewers may have even gained the kind of catharsis as they would from watching a sexual assault on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I even ended up paying for the show, as I have surely paid to watch rape scenes before on TV and in movies! Regardless of how the incident affected audience members, the fact of the audience definitely affected the victim of the bird’s attack. The shape of the amphitheatre and the eyes of spectators reinforced the new intern’s subservience to the man in charge of the show and prohibited her from easily escaping him and his bird.

Months later, I really don’t think that it’s taking it too far to say that this incident at the bird sanctuary served as an affirmation of rape culture. I fear that it reinforced messages that my children likely receive from many other sources--that people in privileged positions are ultimately in charge, that the assault of the vulnerable is sometimes okay and/or deserved and/or even entertaining, and that there’s not much that we can do to change the system that we have. Instead, I’d like for my children to know that they have the right to exit any dangerous or uncomfortable situation at any time no matter how many people are watching as well as the responsibility to honor and assist others who express the desire to stop what they are doing or what is happening to them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Black Boys and Gorillas: The Cincinnati Zoo Incident and Alice Walker’s “Entertaining God”

Earlier this summer, a three-year-old boy entered a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and was violently and repeatedly dragged through a moat by a 450-pound gorilla before zoo officials killed the gorilla and rescued the boy, who sustained no serious injuries. News of the encounter between boy and gorilla, only ten minutes in total, and the subsequent killing of a western lowland silverback gorilla, one of a critically endangered species, spurred a lot of response on the web. Outraged by the gorilla’s death, news stories and independent commenters questioned the zoo officials’ haste in killing the gorilla without trying other methods of rescuing the boy first, the boy’s mother’s childrearing abilities, and even the jail record of the boy’s father (not present at the time of the incident). These kinds of responses might seem ridiculous at first glance. Yes, it is tragic that a gorilla was killed, but the incident is not incomprehensible. Haven’t most of us momentarily looked away from a child under our care only to turn back and find him or her doing something dangerous? And, in any case when a child is the grasp of a wild animal, wouldn’t most of us agree that he or she should be saved in the timeliest way possible? As others have since pointed out, race is the underlying issue in many of the comments that people have made regarding this little boy and his parents, all of whom are black. The disparaging—and cruel—remarks that people have made regarding these three are ultimately unsurprising, given the predominant understanding in the US of black fathers as absent, black mothers as negligent, and black boys as delinquent.

In interesting ways, the Cincinnati Zoo incident echoes the plot of Alice Walker’s short story “Entertaining God” (1973). “Entertaining God” contains three sections that seem to connect only loosely. In the first section, a black teenager, named John, leads a gorilla away from the Bronx Zoo, performs ritual sacrifice to the gorilla, and is killed by the animal; in the second one, John’s father dies in a tornado; and, in the third, John’s mother attempts, only somewhat successfully, to connect to her dead son by performing poetry readings for college students. Stereotypes of black men, women, and boys are in play in this story as well, as John’s father has left his son to pursue a relationship with another woman, John’s mother is distant and clearly unaware of her son’s plans for the gorilla, and John himself succeeds in stealing an animal from the zoo.

In preparation for teaching “Entertaining God” next semester, I poked around in the MLA Bibliography database to get a sense of the critical conversation surrounding Walker’s work. It turns out that there isn’t much written about her short stories at all, and some of what I found isn’t flattering. In “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,” for instance, Alice Hall Petry discusses Walker’s “capacity to produce stories that are sometimes extraordinarily good, sometimes startlingly weak” (12). Petry seems to place “Entertaining God,” included in Walker’s first collection, In Love & Trouble, in the second category, claiming that “the story comes across as a disjointed, fragmentary, aborted novella” (21). According to Petry, the story “would make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood” (21), a novel that also includes a series of episodes with a teenaged boy—in this case white—and a gorilla. Although I agree with Petry that Walker’s stories are hit or miss, I see “Entertaining God” as a better one. I think that the story coheres thematically, despite the fact that each section takes on a new main character and setting, and that it provides the details needed to comprehend its meaning. And, although familiarity with Wise Blood might enhance a reader’s appreciation for the inclusion of a gorilla, the Cincinnati Zoo incident provides a new context for the story, placing it in conversation with those who have questioned the parenting abilities of the mother and father in Cincinnati and the value of their son’s life in comparison to that of a zoo animal as well as in historical relationship to the shooting of a gorilla to save a black boy’s life. I would argue that the three vignettes presented in the story portray the struggle for and difficulty (impossibility?) of survival for black men, women, and children in a white supremacist culture, both of which are still at issue in the rhetoric surrounding the recent Cincinnati Zoo incident.

As the title indicates, “Entertaining God” is particularly interested in religion in a way that the commenters on the Cincinnati Zoo shooting have not been. The subheading for the first part of the story, “John, the son. Loving the God given him” (99), suggests that what follows will depict an act of worship. And, indeed, John’s two days with the gorilla, at first “drowsy from the medicine the zoo keepers had given him” (99) and later “powerful and large and twitching with impatience” (105), are depicted as a journey toward the spiritual ecstasy that inhabits John’s final act of sacrifice to the idolized gorilla. To begin, John and the gorilla hike to the top of a hill near the zoo, a vantage point from which John is able to observe the activities of everyday human life below, perceiving the “cars whiz[ing] to and fro” as insect-like nuisances, “wasps or big flies,” to be “swatted” away in order to focus on his higher purpose with the gorilla (100). When the gorilla passes out as an effect of the drugs he received before John led him away from the zoo, John prepares a loaf of bread and bottle of red wine, traditionally used to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in the Christian sacrament of communion, for giving the gorilla “the homage he deserved from him” the next day (101). When he wakes up the next morning, John is “exhilarated” (102) and begins to build a fire “with slow ritualistic movements” (103). He positions the still-groggy gorilla above him, on “a shallow rise overlooking the fire,” and proceeds to burn several pieces of bread and repeatedly “[bow] all the way down to the ground in front of the gorilla” (104). Finally, John pours the contents of the wine bottle into the fire and lays “the burnt offering at the feet of his savage idol” (105). By this time, the gorilla has reclaimed full consciousness and is frustrated by John’s destruction of each item of food before him. Predictably, even to John, who anticipates with some relish that, after the ritual, “everything [will] be over” (101), the gorilla quickly dispatches with the boy and eats the burnt bread.

In its depiction of John’s experiences with the gorilla, the story reveals that the boy is simply “embrac[ing] the God that others—his mother—had chosen for him” (100). Here, John’s mother is singled out as having significantly contributed to the designation of the gorilla as John’s God. After learning more about the mother’s character in the course of the story, however, it becomes clear that she would never literally encourage the worship of a gorilla. She is, however, at least before John’s death, fervently devoted to assimilation to the dominant white culture, taking great pains to approximate whiteness in both her appearance and behavior. In the last minutes of his life, John’s father reflects on the changes that she underwent in the first years of their relationship. He was initially attracted to her because she was “loose and fun and because she had long red hair” (106). After they were married, though, she stopped dying her hair and started wearing gray suits. Because he was a hairdresser, she had him “conquer the kinks” to create an “unimaginative” hairstyle, and he found that “the duller he could make [her] look the more respectable [she] felt” (106-107). She acted as if she would have liked to change her husband’s appearance as well, having their wedding pictures “touched up so that he did not resemble himself,” replacing his “black and stubbly and rough” skin in the photographs with “olive brown and smooth” skin (106). When John was born, his parents discovered that the child possessed “all of the physical characteristics that in the Western world are scorned,” that “[h]is nose was flat, his mouth too wide” (108). John’s father recalls that “John’s mother was always fussing over John but hated him because he looked like his father instead of her. She blamed her husband for what he had ‘done to’ John” (108). In this passage, it is unclear whether John’s mother “hated” her husband or her son because of either of their characteristically African American features, but, either way, her son ultimately internalizes her antipathy toward blackness, learning to view his father “with an expression faintly contemptuous” (108) and destroying his own black person through self-sacrifice to the gorilla. Fittingly, as she is the one who chose John’s God, “[o]nly his mother had been able to piece together the details of his death” (110). In response to her son’s death, John’s mother seeks to “vindicate herself from former ways of error” (109) and, thus, begins writing poetry lamenting her previous attempts at “incipient whiteness” (110). Although John’s mother didn’t tell her son to worship the gorilla that he takes from the zoo, she clearly feels responsible for his misguided act of self-sacrifice and atones for her mistakes by reversing her position on assimilation. Through John’s mother’s attitudes toward race before her son’s death and her drastic reversal of these attitudes after his death, the story makes the symbology of the gorilla very clear. It represents that which is most predominantly worshipped in the story’s setting of the US in the 1960s and 70s—whiteness.

John’s father had rejected this worship of whiteness after he left John and his mother, marrying “a sister in the Nation” and then endeavoring with her “to preach the Word to those of their people who had formerly floundered without it” (107). Instead of assimilating, as John’s mother did, John’s father had followed the custom of many in the Nation of Islam of taking the last name of X (107), a practice intended as a reminder that the ancestors of many black individuals in the US were stripped of their surnames and renamed by slaveholders. Unlike John’s mother, John’s father’s new wife “wore his color and the construction of his features like a badge” (108). Still, in the moments before his death, John’s father recalls that he had chosen “a new religion more dangerous than the old” (108). The danger of his new beliefs is perhaps most fully manifested in the tornado that takes his life. In the world of this story, it seems that neither acceptance nor rejection of white supremacy can ensure a black person’s survival.

Besides John’s mother, there are two others who do likely survive in “Entertaining God,” however. When they realize that they are destined for the belly of a tornado, John’s father and “the plain black girl who was his second wife . . . . r[u]n toward the refrigerator, frantically pulling out the meager dishes of food, flinging a half-empty carton of milk across the room, and making a place where the vegetables and fruits should have been for the[ir] two children to crouch” (105). John’s father imagines that the children will be rescued after the storm and will mostly forget “in twenty years the plain black girl and the man who was their father” (106). The implication is that the children will live—knowing nothing of the gorilla that killed their brother and remembering little of the tornado that took their parents. At the end of the action relayed by the story, readers are then left with three characters: a “black radical [poet]” (109) who inspires “new proud blackness and identification with their beauty” among the students—about the same age as her son would have been had he lived—who attend her readings (111) and two children who will grow to adulthood among the rhetoric of “the Black revolution” (109) espoused by the activists and poets of John’s mother’s elk. Instead of fulfilling the stereotypes of black men and women that they seem to fit upon first glance, the three adults in “Entertaining God” actively work to protect their children and to create a changed world for future generations. The story leaves open the possibility that the students who John’s mother inspires with her poetry and the two children who John’s father and stepmother shelter from the tornado will live fulfilling lives in a world changed by the difficult social projects undertaken by those of the older generation introduced in the story.

This hope for the future, which is partially concealed within the sad story of John’s death at the hand of a gorilla, is perhaps realized in its contemporary corollary, the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. Like “Entertaining God,” the incident in Cincinnati began with a black boy’s violent encounter with a gorilla. Unlike in the story, though, the Cincinnati Zoo incident ended with the rescue of the boy. That the boy’s rescue has been challenged and his mother and father’s willingness and ability to parent questioned does not change the fact that the zoo officials very quickly chose the survival of a black boy over the life of a gorilla. Read in tandem with “Entertaining God,” the Cincinnati Zoo incident perhaps indicates some amount of social progress. In the case of the Cincinnati Zoo, black life was protected, at least initially. It did not succumb to the white supremacy that destroys it in Walker’s story. The public backlash against the boy in Cincinnati and his parents are of a piece with other movements in the contemporary US through which radical social conservatives are voicing their desperation in opposing the unstoppable train of social progress that has transported us from the revolutionary poetry and Black Nationalists of the 1960s and 70s to the Black Lives Matter movement in the present and that must—and will—continue to move us, despite the protests of white supremacists, toward a future of racial equality.

Works Cited

Petry, Alice Hall. “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” Modern Language Studies 19.1 (1989): 12-27.


Walker, Alice. “Entertaining God.” In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women. Orlando: Harcourt, 1995. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Christianity as Progress in Season 3 of Vikings?

Big fans of television series available for binge-watching after the kids go to sleep, my husband and I recently worked through the first three seasons of the History Channel’s hit Vikings. So far, the series has followed the rise of Scandinavian Ragnar Lothbrok from farmer to earl to king and his growing interest in Western Europe and mostly successful exploits in England and France. Although roundly criticized for its historical inaccuracies, Vikings is loosely based on Scandinavian figures and events passed down through the oral tradition to writers who finally recorded them during the late Middle Ages. It includes the infamous Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, for instance, as well as the figure of Rollo, known in history as having founded the Scandinavian settlement of Normandy and as the great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror. The character of Ragnar himself is based on a legendary king and hero, said to have battled Charlemagne and borne important warrior sons (the same sons whom he is shown to have fathered in the show as well). The accuracy of the legends of Ragnar are debated by historians, some saying that they are based in truth and others perceiving them as mostly fictional. Vikings admittedly plays fast and loose with history, combining legends from diverse regions of Scandinavia (by, for instance, depicting Rollo as Ragnar’s brother) and often flouting the chronology of historical occurrences (by placing Ragnar in the time of Charles II’s rule instead of Charlemagne’s, to name one example). Moreover, while many of the events depicted in the show might plausibly have happened within the Scandinavian cultures of the early Middle Ages, others seem unlikely. The intense (and often homoerotic) friendship that develops between Ragnar and Athelstan, a monk who Ragnar captures in the Lindisfarne raid, is one such fabrication, perhaps unrealistic but effectively used in the show to heighten one of the central tensions of the series—between the paganism of the Scandinavians and the Christianity of the Western Europeans.

Athelstan originally perceives the Vikings as heralds of Satan, sent from God as punishment for the sins of man, but he comes to respect and love Ragnar, teaching him the language of the English and sharing information about the cities and cultures of Western Europe. When he is first taken captive, Athelstan brings a religious text with him to Scandinavia, and he is shown as reading it faithfully during his first few months as a slave to Ragnar and his family. He also maintains his practice of tonsure, very painfully and bloodily using a dull blade to shave the top of his head. But, as he becomes more and more integrated into Ragnar’s family and community, Athelstan begins to doubt the existence and power of Christ. He calls out to God, saying that, for the first time in his life, he cannot feel His presence. Eventually, Athelstan’s holy book disintegrates, and he begins wearing his hair in the style of the Scandinavians. He accepts an arm ring from Ragnar when the latter becomes earl, thus pledging his allegiance to Ragnar and the ways of the Scandinavians. In Season 2, Athelstan returns to England to raid with Ragnar and, through a series of extraordinary events, becomes the prisoner—and confidant—of the intelligent but morally dubious King Ecbert of Wessex. At this point, Athelstan eagerly returns to the kind of writing that he once did at the monastery, this time transcribing Ecbert’s secret Roman scrolls. He is unable to resume priesthood, however, professing that he has strayed too far from his Christian beliefs. A dark beast—symbolic perhaps of his sin against God or maybe of the duty that he now owes to Odin—haunts him in waking dreams, and he seems to feel, at once, disloyal to Christ and to the belief system of the Scandinavians. Athelstan even admits to Ecbert that Scandinavian customs are, in some ways, superior to English customs. When given the opportunity, Athelstan leaves England, to reside again in Scandinavia with Ragnar, who offers him affection and protection—as well as a somewhat more consistent moral code than Ecbert’s.

In his interactions with both Ragnar and Ecbert, Athelstan acts—sometimes unwittingly—as an agent of what either king, and certainly the show’s viewers, might perceive as “progress.” As a former monk, he is a learned man, and he affirms Ecbert’s appreciation for Roman architecture, art, and literature. He agrees with Ecbert that the Christians have much to learn from pagans—presumably both Roman and Scandinavian—and encourages Ecbert’s curiosity in Scandinavian customs and his decision to allow the Scandinavians to settle in Wessex. Athelstan shares information with Ragnar about England and France that ultimately facilitates profitable Scandinavian raids, settlement in the fertile regions of Western Europe, and adoption of important technological advances in farming equipment (a plough in Season 2) and weaponry (a cross-bow in Season 3). On many occasions, Athelstan acts as translator between the Scandinavians and the Western Europeans, enabling that which we know to be the massive changes in the cultures and languages of Western Europe that the Viking settlements ultimately produced. Perhaps most importantly, Athelstan promotes the blending of traditions, teaching Ragnar to recite the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before taking up arms himself to fight in his now beloved friend’s battle for the kingship of Scandinavia. Indeed, Athelstan seems to embody cultural exchange, which both Ragnar and Ecbert value, at least in part, and certainly that many 21st-century viewers imagine as progressive in our age of globalization.

(As another example of how Vikings plays with history, we might note that Ecbert, Athelstan, and Athelstan’s son Alfred, borne of Athelstan’s affair with Ecbert’s daughter-in-law and so far fiercely protected by Ecbert despite the infant’s well-known status as a bastard, are all also based on historical figures. The historical Ecbert was a Christian king of Wessex who battled regularly with the pagan Vikings. Alfred the Great was Ecbert’s grandson, and he made peace with the Scandinavians after their king Gunthrum was baptized. Finally, the historical Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred, and he ousted the sitting Scandinavian ruler from the Viking settlement of York. As with their counterparts in the show, the lives and times of these three figures were very much influenced by the conflicts—and blending—of English culture and Viking culture as well as Christianity and paganism.)

Late in Season 3, however, Athelstan’s symbology in the show shifts. No longer does he seem to promote the blending of traditions but, instead, advocates for a return to seeing Christianity as distinct from—and superior to—paganism. He experiences a sign from God and returns with fervor to his Christian faith. After a scene in which he seems to re-baptize himself in the waters off the coast of Scandinavia, he tosses his arm ring out to sea. Athelstan then announces to Ragnar that he has been born again and that he can no longer stay in Ragnar’s kingdom. Ragnar refuses to allow him to go, saying that Athelstan is the only person who he can truly trust, and the scene ends with Athelstan reaffirming his dedication to Ragnar’s planned attack on Paris. In some ways, this seems another example of Athelstan’s ability to blend belief systems: he is renewed in his Christianity but willing to facilitate a Viking raid of an important Christian city, indeed, the center of Western Christendom during much of the Middle Ages. But, when Athelstan is killed by a member of Ragnar’s inner circle who fears Athelstan’s growing Christian influence over the king, Ragnar remembers him as a Christian, first and foremost. Ragnar carries Athelstan’s dead body to the top of a tall hill and buries him there, intending to lay him to rest as close to Athelstan’s god as he can get him. He then places Athelstan’s cross necklace around his own neck and shaves his head in a bloody scene reminiscent of Athelstan’s shaving episode at the beginning of the series. As Vikings creator Michael Hirst has pointed out in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, here, Ragnar adopts a version of the Christian practice of tonsure to signal the significant change that he has experienced as a result of his friend’s death.

Like Athelstan during his time in Wessex, Ragnar seems caught between Christianity and paganism at this point in the show. When he is injured in the raid on Paris and fears that he is dying, he imagines two competing visions of that which awaits him after death. One of these is the figure of Odin, pictured throughout the series as a black silhouette with a raven on his shoulder; the other is Athelstan, who seems to function, for Ragnar, as a stand-in for the Christian God. Ragnar reaches toward Athelstan, but the latter turns to walk away, and Ragnar is left with Odin. Fearing eternal separation from his friend, Ragnar bargains with the Parisians, agreeing to send his warriors back to Scandinavia in exchange for a large quantity of gold and, more importantly, his own baptism and Christian burial. When he is baptized in front of his shocked and angry kinsmen, Ragnar seems to have finally chosen, like Athelstan, Christianity over paganism. After he is carried inside the Parisian cathedral for his final rites, however, Ragnar jumps up from his casket and brutally slays the Christian priest who had previously expressed revulsion at the prospect of having to baptize him. Ragnar escapes the battle that ensues and, then, in the final scene of the season, is shown aboard a Viking longship bound for home in Scandinavia.

Given Althelstan’s and Ragnar’s conflicted thoughts and contradictory behaviors in Season 3, it is difficult to interpret the show’s message regarding Christian conversion. Throughout Season 1 and Season 2, Athelstan suffers with his conflicting feeling of duty toward Christ and his attraction to the Vikings gods, but he lives with both and seems to work toward an ethic of cultural exchange that perhaps most viewers in the 21st-century can get behind. For his part, Ragnar is presented as a visionary, a leader who imagines a better future for his people through raiding and settlement in Western Europe. His attachment to Athelstan is used to highlight the conflicts between Christianity and paganism in the Viking Age, but viewers are also able to see it as indicative of Ragnar’s willingness to embrace the kind of progress embodied in the priest-turned-Viking-warrior, the progress of economic and financial advancement for the Scandinavians as well as of the cultural blending that occurred between Scandinavians and Western Europeans during this historical period. Given their characterization throughout the series, what are we to make of Athelstan’s and Ragnar’s actions in Season 3? Is Athelstan still representative of progress? Is Ragnar still dedicated to progress? Maybe most importantly, is cultural blending still inherent to progress?

Since Athelstan is gone from the show by the end of the season, we are left to reckon most violently with Ragnar’s lingering dedication to his dead friend and his resulting baptism, as well as his decision in the last episode to kill the Christian priest and return to Scandinavia with his people. I would argue that there are ways to read Ragnar’s actions in the last few episodes as in keeping with his role as visionary. It is plausible, for example, that Ragnar is baptized only to ensure that he rejoin Athelstan in the afterlife but that he intends to remain loyal to Scandinavian traditions during his remaining time on Earth and, thus, that the baptism signals only the further blending of cultural systems that we have witnessed heretofore through Athelstan. Ragnar’s baptism might also serve as simply one more move toward the progress that he sees as essential for his people. Historically, of course, the adoption—or partial, or even feigned, adoption—of Christianity eased the way for Scandinavian groups’ acceptance in Western European trading and settlement. Renowned Viking historian Anders Winroth offers further clarification of the reasons for conversion, stating that the Scandinavians came to perceive Christianity as prestigious by associating it with the material wealth that they found in raiding monasteries and, ironically, that Scandinavian leaders sometimes used the practice of converting potential followers to Christianity as a way of convincing them to dedicate themselves to these leaders’ future raids in Western Europe. Whether to align their beliefs with those of new friends, to appease the Christian rulers of Western Europe, or to gain Scandinavian followers, masses of Scandinavians did eventually convert to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages. Ragnar’s baptism, therefore, seems at least somewhat historically plausible and, in that it foreshadows the future of conversion in store for his people, in keeping with his characterization as adept at navigating the tides of change in order advance the interests of his kinsmen.

Nonetheless, it is difficult (and disappointing) to imagine this show as depicting progress as simply a matter of conversion to Christianity instead of a process of cultural blending. My hope is that Ragnar and Ecbert, as well as other important figures in the show, will continue to contend, in complex and convincing ways, with the clashes between their two cultures and belief systems in Season 4, scheduled for release in early 2016—despite the show’s loss of Athelstan as a figurehead of cultural exchange.

Ready for a new show . . .
Until then, my husband I will have to find a new series. Any suggestions?



Friday, May 23, 2014

Hope in Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light

Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (2013) is a collection of interconnected narratives set in the fictional Ville Rose, an impoverished seaside village in Haiti.  The title character’s story—conveyed most directly in the first and last chapter of the text—frames and connects the other narratives included in the volume.  We meet Limyé Lanmé Faustin, translated to Claire of the Sea Light, on her seventh birthday, a day that is both celebratory and sorrowful for Claire and her father, Nozias, as it marks the seventh anniversary of both Claire’s birth and her mother’s death.  In the evening, Claire’s father, a fisherman, arranges to give his beloved daughter to Gaëlle Cadet Lavaud, a middle-class widow who lost her own young daughter in an automobile accident exactly three years ago, on Claire’s fourth birthday.  Guilt-stricken from arranging for the murder of her husband’s supposed killers and in mourning for her daughter, Gaëlle has long resisted Nozias’s proposal that she take the girl and provide her with a better life than he can, but, tonight, she has finally decided that she wants to care for Claire.  When Claire hears that Nozias and Gaëlle have officially agreed that she will leave the seaside shack where she and her father now reside, she runs away toward Món Initil, where the villagers believe that the ghosts of their slave ancestors reside.  Later, from her position on a hill above the town, she sees Nozias and Gaëlle performing basic life support on a nearly drowned man on the beach.  After she notices that Nozias is calling for more light, Claire rushes back to the seaside. At the end of the book, we can assume that Claire will act as a “sea light,” or lighthouse, aiding Nozias, Gaëlle, and other community members in their rescue efforts.  Indeed, in this scene, and throughout the text, Claire represents a beacon of light in the darkness of postcolonial Haiti: the possibility of perseverance in the face of oppression and grief, the necessity of healing after trauma, the emergence of new life from death.

Significantly, Claire is a “revenan, a child who had entered the world just as her mother was leaving it” (16).  According to Ville Rose folklore, revenans are inclined to “follow their mothers into the other world,” to “[chase] a shadow they can never reach” (16).  In some ways, Claire does experience her dead mother as a shadow, sometimes feeling “another presence around her” (235-36).  Claire also seems to be drawn to death.  She “wonders what people would have said if she and her mother had died on the same day” (215).  Claire’s favorite song for the wonn, or the circle game that she plays with the other little girls in Ville Rose, is the Lasirén song, including the lyrics, “Lasirén, The Whale / My hat fell into the sea” (219).  Reflecting on this song, Claire notes its relevancy to the lives of Ville Rose citizens: “She was surprised that the granmoun, the adults, were not singing this song all day long.  So much had fallen into the sea.  Hats fell into the sea.  Hearts fell into the sea.  So much had fallen into the sea” (220).  Here, Claire alludes not only to her own loss of her mother, whom she associates with the sea in other passages, but also to the despair of an entire community, descended from slaves and now dependent on an unreliable and dangerous fish trade to feed and shelter themselves.  Even as a seven-year-old, Claire is astutely aware of the oppression and grief that the community has undergone.  Fittingly, when Claire runs away from Nozias and Gaëlle, she heads for Món Initil, where, according to legend, masses of fugitive slaves died in pursuit of their freedom.  Just as the townspeople predicted by naming her a revenan at birth, Claire seems to pursue the shadows of her own past as well as a communal past.

Rather than join her mother in death or the ghosts of escaped slaves on Món Initil, however, Claire ultimately returns—running and gleeful—to the land of the living, ready to help the people gathered around the man on the beach and then to “becom[e] Madame Gaëlle’s daughter” (238).  On her way home, she imagines that “this too could make a good song for the wonn”: “She had to go home / To see the man / Who’d crawled half dead / Out of the sea” (238).  In this version of a wonn song, Claire focuses on a man’s triumph over the sea instead of the sea’s power to take and to kill.  For the moment at least, she shifts her attention from death to life and despair to hope.  This shift is reflected in the Nozias and Gaëlle’s efforts to save the man on the beach; despite the fact that their own “sorrows could have nearly drowned them,” the two “take turns breathing into this man, breathing him back to life” (238).  At this moment, they choose to contribute to life instead of wallow in death.

Danticat has been quoted as saying that she structured Claire of the Sea Light after the pattern of movement in a game of wonn:  

Wonn is a children’s game that is a lot like “Ring a Round the Rosie.” Kids, often little girls, get together, hold hands, make a circle, and run clockwise, or counter clockwise while singing. One child is in the middle while the others are singing and they switch places during different moments in the song. This game mirrors the structure of the book in that the book moves back and forth through time and circles back to different characters.  (Dowling)

Just as the stories in the text shift and connect with each other as the participants in a game of wonn, the narrative that the text conveys overall resembles the narrative of a wonn song, relaying the history and spirit of a community through fragmented narrative and stories that repeat, with a difference, details previously conveyed.  Indeed, it is possible to read the text as an expansion of the wonn song that Claire invents as she runs back to her beachside home.

Tellingly, the narrative conveyed in the text contrasts sharply with the stories that Claire recalls being read to her at school: “In Madame Louise’s stories, everything was organized in a certain way; everything was neat.  Things would start out well, but would end up being bad, then would be well again” (214).  Louise George works at a local radio station and volunteers at Claire’s school.  She also suffers from a rare and untreatable condition that causes blood to stream from her mouth when she is menstruating.  Louise structures episodes on her radio program, Di Mwen, translated to Tell Us, much like the stories that she shares with the Claire and her classmates.  On Di Mwen, Louise interviews members of the community who have undergone some kind of hardship or trauma.  Instead of calling for social action to address the oppression in people’s lives, she finds opportunities to lighten the mood with “little remarks in the middle of a painful story” meant to “[make] people in the listening audience laugh” (173-74).  Louise also shapes each episode to produce “the part where the horrible story began to take a positive turn” (178), shaping her guests’ stories into narratives that follow a traditional story arch, to conclude happiness, stasis, justice.  Not surprisingly, “Claire didn’t believe stories like [Madame Louise’s], even when she felt like they were aimed at her, even when they were meant to defend her or teach her a lesson” (214).  In fact, Claire distrusts language in general, saying that she wishes people were like trees because “talking wasn’t everything” (213).  Some narratives are false, damaging, even violent, as symbolized by the blood that flows from Louise’s mouth.  The story that Claire composes in her wonn song—and the narrative of Claire of the Sea Light—defies the traditional story arch structure and, thus, challenges the narrative oppression of stories meant to contain and sanitize the struggles of Haitians. 

In fact, Claire of the Sea Light is more in the vein of the stories that Bernard Dorien wants to air on the radio, where he works with Louise before he is falsely accused of killing Gaëlle’s husband and then murdered by the men that Gaëlle hired to enact justice for her loss.  From Cité Pendue, the part of town where gangs run rampant, “Bernard imagined himself becoming the kind of radio journalist who’d talk about what he preferred to call the ‘geto,’ from the inside” (67).  Specifically, Bernard is interested in the young men of Cité Pendue who participate in gang activity, men the townspeople of Ville Rose call “ghosts” (68).  He believes that “[w]e can’t move forward as a neighborhood, as a town, or as a country . . . unless we know what makes these men cry” (68).  In Claire of the Sea Light, stories of the oppression and despair felt by Ville Rose citizens of all social strata are aired, although not in the way that Bernard might have imagined.  In the end, Claire turns from the ghosts of the past and the present to begin a new life.   Danticat’s wonn song conveys continued struggle, as the characters not only fight to save a man’s life on the beach but also contend with personal trauma and communal oppression.  But the story ends with hope, with Claire of the Sea Light returning to the community to help with the rescue effort.

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge.  Claire of the Sea Light.  Knopf Doubleday, 2013.

Dowling, Brendan.  "Maneuvering Myself Around a Scene: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat." Public Libraries Online.  21 Oct. 2013.  Web.  23 May 2014.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Immersive-Learning Project on Sustainable Agriculture

Below, I describe and reflect upon the recent immersive-learning project that I led.  I wrote this for publication on the English Department Blog.  Enjoy!

In the fall semester of 2013, I led a seminar on sustainable agriculture at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC).  The main product to emerge from the class was a 25-minute film entitled Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World.  The students in the seminar also developed a website containing recipes for foods that are locally available and more than 60 articles meant to serve as supplementary to the film.  In addition, they built a four-week curriculum on sustainable agriculture and implemented it in an after-school program for elementary students at the Roy C. Buley Center in Muncie.  I see the seminar as a great success!  The students and I were able to develop informed opinions about the future of farming and food production.  The course also allowed us the opportunity to enter into the current social and political movement toward sustainable agriculture by sharing important information about local foods with community members—and the world—through the film, website and educational program. 

Since I hail from the Department of English, many people have asked me about my interest in sustainable agriculture and why I chose this topic for a VBC seminar.  Certainly, I’m not an expert in agriculture or environmentalism.  But I care about finding solutions to the problems in our current food system, in order to build a healthier world population and to mitigate the damage that humans have caused to the Earth over time.  Agriculture has always been a part of my life, as I grew up in rural Indiana surrounded by soybean and corn fields, many of which my family owned and leased to local farmers.  I began to develop a real interest in farming only a few years ago, however, after I changed my eating habits because of health issues.  In the process of researching the impacts of food choices on human health, I also learned about the economic, social and environmental issues that have arisen out of our current methods of agriculture.  I saw the VBC seminar as an opportunity to produce a film that would advocate for responsible production and consumption of food items and, on a personal level, as a chance to learn more about farming, an endeavor that I may someday undertake through ownership of my own family’s farm.

Some of the students in the seminar knew more about farming than I did at the start of the semester.  Those from scientific fields brought valuable background knowledge of agricultural and environmental issues, such as soil science and climate change, to the seminar group.  One student had grown up on a working farm, and another was currently interning at a farm in the local area.  Others in the class were more like me, from disciplines and backgrounds removed from agriculture.  But each of us felt passionately about some aspect of sustainable agriculture or another, and, throughout the semester, we developed shared knowledge of the field.  The students also learned to depend on each other’s individual academic strengths and personal skills to complete the projects of the seminar.  Students from Telecommunications and Journalism contributed particular skill sets that were crucial for the success of the film, for instance, while those who were talented in research and writing focused on producing articles for the website. 

We began the semester with a visit to Becker Farms, where we witnessed the successful use of sustainable methods such as rotational grazing and natural pest control.  In addition to leading a tour of his own farm, Kyle Becker took us to see additional farms—ranging in size from small to very large—that he serves as a large animal veterinarian.  During this time, we also read seminal texts in the area of sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, to name a few.  We interviewed regular people about their eating and purchasing habits as well as leaders in the movement for sustainability in farming.  Finally, we visited Washington, DC, to talk with important political figures, such as Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, and representatives from groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition about food policy.  By the sixth week in the semester, we were overwhelmed by the complexity and depth of the problems in our current food system and wondered how we would ever make a difference in the area of sustainable agriculture through a student film and other related projects. 

After some floundering, the group decided to focus the film on the first farm that we visited together, Becker Farms.  The students believed that they could use Kyle’s story to convince consumers to exercise the considerable power that they possess to drive a national movement for a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable local foods system.  Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World follows Kyle through a week of life on the farm, at the farmers market, and on veterinary calls.  At the same time, it presents commentary from leading figures in the local foods movement, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, to explore the importance of growing and selling food locally.  The film shows that farming methods like those that Kyle employs are environmentally and socially advantageous, unlike many that are used in conventional agriculture.  Ultimately, Down to Earth asks consumers to buy their food locally in order to advance the movement toward sustainable agriculture.   Besides the importance of its message, the film is worth watching because it is beautiful!  Its cinematography and color are truly stunning.


As is the case for all students who participate in VBC seminars, the students in my class received up to 15 credits in courses that they needed for graduation.  They also gained a deep understanding of many issues related to sustainable agriculture, something that matters to each of us since we all eat and we all live on this planet.  The students were also given the opportunity to develop professional skills, through the completion of project-related tasks suited to their individual career goals.  Finally, all of us learned about teamwork, as we worked together to create a film and related products that far exceed our early expectations for this project.