Author Archives: philipes

Rites of Passage

During our assigned reading for tomorrow’s class, it immediately became clear to me that Graceland, not unlike Midnight’s Children, is a novel about growing up. To learn a bit more about what it means to grow up in the context of this story, I took a closer look at the manhood ritual that is performed early on, in which Elvis is painted with traditional patterns, and is handed a bow and arrow, on the end of which a pathetic baby chicken is nearly dead…

The actual process of the ritual is extremely traditional. The men paint traditional markings onto the child, dress him in traditional clothes, and arm him with traditional weaponry. They claim that the goal of the ritual is for the child to kill an eagle. Yet, in reality, the ritual is much less awesome. The grown men prepare the ritual while passing around a bottle of whiskey, and joking about wanting more of it. The eagle in the ritual is replaced by a helpless baby chicken. To make the ritual even less impressive, Elvis himself did not even kill the bird. Within a couple of paragraphs, the ritual is over, and Elvis is one step closer to becoming a man in the eyes of his compatriots.

But where does his actual growing up occur? Clearly, it is not during this ritual. Throughout the ritual, Elvis is confused because he does not know what is going on. He is told to accept the shortcomings of the ritual (the chick rather than an eagle; the audience of young men), and then, quite suddenly, it ends. It is after the ritual — when Elvis joins his older cousins, Innocent and Godfrey, at the bar — that Elvis begins to understand what it is to be a man.

“Sitting on the counter in his grass skirt, drinking his Fanta and watching Godfrey and Innocent tease the girl behind the counter, Elvis felt like a man.”

At this point, Elvis clearly (he even says it) feels like a man. It is ironic, because Elvis does not have this feeling immediately after the ritual. It only comes to him while his relatives are flirting with a bartender in his presence.

This passage effectively introduces what I think will be an important theme in the novel: Elvis lives in a society that values tradition, yet, his surroundings seem to completely deviate from those values. Traditionally, Elvis is expected to hunt like a man; to face adversity with poise and composure. Yet somehow, his father is a drunk, and his adolescent relatives spend their evenings flirting at a bar. Elvis’ family suffers from delusion, which has them locked in a cycle of poverty. They think they maintain their traditional ways, and that that is enough for their children (particularly Elvis) to be healthy and happy.

Saleem’s Death-Like Experience

 

Near-death experiences are a common occurrence in literature. Less common, however are death-like experiences. This is because, in reality, it is impossible to imagine what death, or being dead, is like. Midnight’s Children, however, is full of events and actions that blur the line between reality and fiction (as we have observed). One of these events is Saleem’s death-like experience.

“Memories of invisibility: in the basket, I learned what it was like, will be like, to be dead. I had acquired the characteristics of ghosts! Present, but insubstantial; actual, but without being or weight . . . I discovered, in the basket, how ghosts see the world. Dimly hazily faintly . . . it was around me, but only just; I hung in a sphere of absence at whose fringes, like faint reflections, could be seen the specters of wickerwork. The dead die, and are gradually forgotten; time does its healing, and they fade — but in Parvati’s basket I learned that the reverse is also true; that ghosts, too, begin to forget; that the dead lose their memories of the living, and at last, when they are detached from their lives, fade away — that dying, in short, continues for a long time after death.” (Rushdie 439).

In this excerpt, Saleem describes the death-like feelings that he experienced when he was magically made to disappear by the illusionist witch, Parvati. I am particularly fascinated by this excerpt, not because of the specific details that Saleem includes, but rather, because of the nature of death-like experiences. Since it is impossible (I think) for humans to have truly death-like experiences, and therefore, to have fact-based beliefs about death, the conclusions that Saleem draws from this experience are absolutely unique and magical. All people yearn to know what it is like to experience death; is there an afterlife? Is it just nothingness? Saleem is lucky enough that he is now able to answer those questions.

Consider The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan, the protagonist, finally experiences death, and as it happens, he describes the sense of enlightenment he experiences. He sees an overwhelming, yet comforting white light, which gradually blurs the mortal world until it is out of sight. This description is very similar to Saleem’s death-like experience. Saleem even acknowledges the carefree joy that he experiences: “I felt my hold on the world slip away — and how easy, how peaceful not to never to return.” (439).

Saleem carries his knowledge of death throughout the rest of his life, which is knowledge that nobody in the real world can definitely have. This contributes further to the magical nature of his character, placing him on a spiritual level that is unmatchable by any person in the real world.

 

James Joyce’s “The Dead”: Brief Interactions

[Mrs. Ivors]: “I have a crow to pluck with you.”

“With me?” said Gabriel.

She nodded her head gravely.

“What is it?” asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner.

“Who is G. C.?” answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him.

Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly:

“O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

“Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile.

“Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.”

Throughout the night, as the usual guests arrive at the party, each interacting with one another in a seemingly typical way, they make judgments of one another. However, these judgments are not based on personality, or social qualities. Rather, they are based on physical appearance, occupations, and relationships. Although Gabriel considers himself quite successful in terms of those three qualities, he is still the subject of negative judgments from the other guests.

These interactions contribute to Gabriel’s frustration, as they occur repeatedly throughout the evening. The interaction that impressed me particularly was the one between Gabriel and Mrs. Ivors, while the two danced together. This scene is made especially repetitious by the very nature of the activity, which calls for the switching of partners with each dance. He even ends up dancing with Mrs. Ivors twice during the same dance, adding to the sense of inevitable repetition.

The conversation between Gabriel and Mrs. Ivors is, from it’s very beginning, concerned only with Gabriel’s occupation. She labels him as a “West Briton,” because he has a literary review column in a paper that she must consider to be upper-class. She asks, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”, and when he denies, she says, “Well, I’m ashamed of you.” This frustrates Gabriel because he is being judged based on his occupation and accomplishments, rather than his personal qualities. What makes Mrs. Ivors’ comments even more bizarre, is that she goes on to say that she was “only joking.” Yet, this does not change Gabriel’s feelings about her judgments.

Throughout the evening, Gabriel feels that he cannot control the way that people view him, because they expect him, as with every other guest, to be the same each year. The guests mingle around the party, developing brief snapshots of their peers’ personalities that aren’t truly accurate. Gabriel grows sick and tired of this monotony as the night goes on, despite the fact that most of the other guests think of him quite highly. Eventually, it leads to him reconsidering his way of living. This reconsideration culminates in Gabriel’s looking out the window, and realizing that it is time to travel west.