Category Archives: Gender in the City

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.

Midnight’s Children: Breaking Silence

“Three years of words poured out of her (but he body, stretched by the exigencies of storing them, did not diminish). My grandfather stood very still by the Telefunken as the storm broke over him. Whose idea had it been? Whose crazy fool scheme, whatsitsname, to let this coward who wasn’t even a man into the house?… Who had put his daughter into that scoundrel’s whatsitsname, yes, the white-haired weakling who had permitted this iniquitous marriage” (p. 64)?

It is at this point in the book where the reader sees Saleem reveals what is behind the facade of Aziz and Naseem’s marriage.  After three years of silence, Naseem breaks it after finding out that after two years of marriage, her daughter remains a virgin. In this passage, Naseem shows intense emotion to her husband by calling him a, “fool.” Naseem is expressing her disproval in Aziz’s actions by allowing Nadir Khan to live secretly in their home and allow his own daughter to marry such a man.  Saleem describes this moment as a, “storm.” The connotation of a storm could be something this is impending and when the right moment comes, chaos ensues. Perhaps starting off slowly and gradually, but then building faster and more intense waves of emotion.

A connection is made between the storm that Naseem pours on her husband and the atomic bomb that America drops on Japan on this very day.  Parallels can be drawn from this event happening to the storm that is said to break over them when Naseem speaks for the first time. The atomic bomb being dropped in Japan was America’s response to the Japanese bombing pearl harbor; perhaps Naseem’s explosion was from her husband’s acts of secrecy and her thoughts that her husband was a bad father? The “iniquitous marriage” that Mumtaz and Nadir had is sinful and unjust as seen by Naseem; many people view American’s in a negative light for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan as well.

The connections that we are able to make between themes in the book and the world events are significant and help us to better understand the intention of Saleem’s story telling and add context to the information he shares with us.

Have I Ever Loved?

“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years the image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.”

“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards a woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

I choose this last paragraph because to me it really showed Gabriel understanding the meaning of love and realizing that he was not in love. Gabriel is gazing out of his hotel window, watching the falling snow and reflecting on his wife Gretta’s recent confession about her childhood love, Michael Furey. Earlier in the story, Gabriel had been intoxicated by Gretta’s preoccupied mood, which reminded him of their courtship, but her outburst of sobbing had seemed to undermine his self-assurance. This quiet moment of contemplation portrayed Gabriel’s hushed acceptance that he was not Gretta’s first love, and that in fact he has never felt love at all. The blanket of snow suggests this sense of numbness in Gabriel’s character he is literally frigid to emotion. The snow does not fall only outside of Gabriel’s window, but, as he envisions it, across the country, from the Harbor of Dublin in the east, to the south in Shannon, and to the west. In other words, everyone, everywhere, is as numb as he is.

I believe that for someone to come to terms with the fact that they have not experienced love can be detrimental. When you have been living your life especially being married and you find out that your wife has loved another man more than you it makes you want to question your self-esteem. When you find out that a man has killed himself and that your wife is so distraught and you turn it around and know that you have not felt that feeling so you must not be numb would cause anyone to become numb. This passage here is very instrumental in showing the emotional rollercoaster one goes through when discovering the truth about “love.”

Gabriel just wants to please

“I will not attempt to play tonight the part that Paris played on another occasion. I will not attempt to choose between them. The task would be an individuous one and one beyond my poor powers. For when I view them in turn, whether it be our chief hostess herself, whose good heart, whose too good heart, has become a byword with all who know her; or her sister, who seems to be gifted with perennial youth and whose singing must have been a surprise and a revelation to us all tonight; or, last but not least, when I consider our youngest hostess, talented, cheerful, hardworking and the best of nieces, I confess, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I do not know to which of them I should award the prize” (40).

 

The passage demonstrates the way in which Gabriel tends to take a selfless or martyr-like attitude. Gabriel is shown to be attempting to stay as non-controversial as possible in the eyes of others. By refusing to choose a favorite of the women, it is proving that he wants to stay on everyone’s best sides.

 

Gabriel also tends to want to display that he puts the interests of others before his own. “Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly, so that he compromised by taking a long draught of stout, for he had found the carving hard work.” (31). However, when he wanted to make love to his wife, he was had very greedy selfish thoughts, but he resisted because it was working against his selfless image.

Overall, Gabriel is a self-conscious man. He wants to make others happy, and beats himself up when he says the wrong thing. For example, he was angry at himself for giving unsolicited hints about Lilly getting married.  Gabriel’s toast to the three women describes Gabriel’s goal to make everyone happy.

Role of Women vs. Men

Helmer. Well, well, out with it!

Nora. You could always give me money, Torvald. Only what you think you could spare. And then I could buy myself something with it later on.

Helmer. But Nora…

Nora. Oh, please, Torvald dear! Please! I beg you. Then I’d wrap the money up in some pretty gilt paper and hang it on the Christmas tree. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Helmer. What do we call my pretty little pet when it runs away with all the money?

Nora. I know, I know, we call it a spendthrift. But please let’s do what I said, Torvald. Then I’ll have a bit of time to think about what I need most. Isn’t that awfully sensible, now, eh?

Helmer. Yes, it is indeed–that is, if only you really could hold on to the money I gave you, and really did buy something for yourself with it. But it just gets mixed up with the housekeeping and frittered away on all sorts of useless things, and then I have to dig into my pocket all over again.

 

Throughout the first two acts of this play, one cannot help but notice the very different roles that each character, especially depending on gender, plays in the household. The most notable comparison comes with the relationship between Helmer and Nora. Husband and wife, this couple would certainly maintain an equal partnership in maintaining the house, family, etc. in today’s society. However, it is clear here that such a relationship is not present, surely reflective on how such partnerships were constructed during this time period.

In this passage, it is more than obvious who calls the shots in this relationship. Nora must beg her husband to even consider allotting her any extra money, implying that he assumes full control of the family’s finances. Even though we later find out that her intentions for wanting the extra allowance were in fact very good-natured, Helmer is adamant in believing that she will do nothing but waste it, the reason for which we can assume is because she is a woman and therefore has no regard for monetary value. While Nora seems to lead a more “Lady Macbeth” type role in this play as she cryptically runs the household behind her husband’s back, Helmer refuses to believe that she has enough sense to even handle a small bit of extra money.

I chose this passage because it represents something very prevalent that I noticed throughout the first two acts. Helmer (as well as the other male characters) neglect to see that Nora is in fact a strong character that is worthy of respect and possibly more sensible & able than one might think upon first interaction. It will be interesting to see how this cryptically strong woman can overcome the obstacles of such an ignorant society in order to thrive under the pressure of very obvious and troubling acts of sexism and disrespect.

Condescending Masculinity

Helmer. Is it my little squirrel bustling about?

Nora. Yes!

Helmer. When did my squirrel come home?

Nora. Just now. [Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth.] Come in here, Torvald, and see what I have bought.

Helmer. Don’t disturb me. [A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?

Nora. Yes but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise.

Helmer. Still, you know, we can’t spend money recklessly.

Nora. Yes, Torvald, we may be a wee bit more reckless now, mayn’t we? Just a tiny wee bit! You are going to have a big salary and earn lots and lots of money.

Helmer. Yes, after the New Year; but then it will be a whole quarter before the salary is due.

Nora. Pooh! we can borrow until then.

Helmer. Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little featherhead! Suppose, now, that I borrowed fifty pounds today, and you spent it all in the Christmas week, and then on New Year’s Eve a slate fell on my head and killed me, and–

Nora [putting her hands over his mouth]. Oh! don’t say such horrid things.

Helmer. Still, suppose that happened,–what then?

Nora. If that were to happen, I don’t suppose I should care whether I owed money or not.

Helmer. Yes, but what about the people who had lent it?

Nora. They? Who would bother about them? I should not know who they were.

Helmer. That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle.

Nora [moving towards the stove]. As you please, Torvald.

I chose the above passage from A Doll’s House as it was part of the opening of the story, but also because it sets the time period, and the way both Torvald and Nora will be interacting throughout. By calling her a name like squirrel I believe that Torvald is already putting Nora is a position of being below him. A name like “squirrel” is putting her as someone who is basically helpless and needs a lot of support. My assumption is further proven when Nora asks for Torvald to come check out what she had bought, and he blows her off by saying “Don’t disturb me.”

A Doll’s House was first published and performed in December 1879 in Denmark. The perceived role of women back in that period was much different than now, and is something that needs to be recognized by the reader. Torvald is consistently condescending throughout the story, but this is something that was considered OK. Men took the dominant role in marriage, and this makes life very difficult for Nora. Torvald gives Nora a hard time for spending money on gifts, even though Torvald has a higher rank at the bank starting in the new year. When Nora attempts to justify, Torvald makes up a possible reason why he could end up losing the job, and what would she do to pay back the debit of buying things on credit. When she says it wouldn’t matter at that point, he generalizes that what she said is typical of a woman.

The Need to Nurture

HEL. My dear, I have often seen it in the course of my life as a lawyer. Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.

NORA. Why do you only say- mother?

HAL. It seems most commonly to be the mother’s influence, though naturally a bad father’s would have the same result. Every lawyer is familiar with the face. This Krogstad, now, had been persistently poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation; that is why I say he has lost all moral character… I literally feel physically ill when I am in the company of such people.

[…]

NURSE. The little ones are begging so hard to be allowed to come in to Mamma.

NORA. No, no, no! Don’t let them come in to me! You stay with them, Anne.

NURSE. Very well, ma’am. [Shuts the door]

NORA. [pale with terror]. Deprave my little children? Poison my home? [A short pause. The she tosses her head.] It’s not true. It can’t possibly be true.

At this point we have learned about Nora’s forgery crime but she has not yet exhibited much guilt. During this conversation with her husband, she first seems bothered when she realizes how disgusted her husband is with Krogstad for committing the same crime as she did. However, what seems to bother her most is the thought that her actions could negatively affect her children.

Through most of the play the maid is caring for the children but when Nora is with them she appears to be a very beloved and affectionate mother to her children. Nora also takes pride in the fact that her actions kept her husband alive when he fell ill years earlier. Though her husband constantly condescends to her and believes she is completely dependent on him, she keeps many things from him and even plays into his expectations of her in order to feed his masculinity or to get her way. Nora seems to understand her role and the advantages of being a beautiful woman. Her husband calls her “little squirrel” and scolds her for eating sweets as though she was his daughter and not his wife but she does not seem bothered by this. Even Nora likens her relationship with her husband to the one she had with her father. Only when her role as caretaker and mother is threatened does she become agitated. Dr. Rank is the personification of bad parenting as his own poor upbringing has manifested physically and threatens to take him away from her.  ­

Nora has accepted and learned to utilize her expected role but her need to nurture becomes a burden when she first takes out a loan to care for her husband and then has to prevent herself from being taken away from her children.