“‘Someone does not become a beggar; we are made beggars.'” (31)
This quote comes from the so-called “King of the Beggars” who Elvis encounters one evening in a slum of Lagos. Elvis decides to share what little money he has in order to buy some food for the King and himself. The quote immediately brought to my mind the concept of Liberation Theology. Father Gustavo Gutierrez is a priest from Lima, on the opposite side of the world where Elvis’s story takes place. Gutierrez is seen as the father of Liberation Theology which basically attempts to answer the question, how do you say and show people living in the context of violence, social injustice or seeming insignificance that God loves them? While the religious aspect of Gutierrez’s message may not necessarily apply to Elvis, the underlying point does. How do you make people living in poverty know that they matter?
One of the ways that Liberation Theology begins to answer this question is by making people understand where poverty comes from. Rather than understanding it as being born unlucky or just accepting it as a reality, it is essential to realize that poverty is created as the King points out. It is not simply the fate of some to be poor and others to be rich but it is structures put in place that create inequality both in wealth and quality of life. This concept especially rings true in much of post-colonial Africa. Understanding the colonial legacy of a place like Nigeria and the context of when Elvis tells his story is essential. Rapid urbanization during the late colonial period (ie post-WWII to independence in 1960) caused serious problems for both the British and Nigerians. Because the British were not interested in creating a place for Nigerians to live and be successful in urban Lagos, slums like the one Elvis lives in developed. The priority of the British was to keep themselves separate from and above Nigerians. Then, as Elvis alludes to when he tells us about his cousin who “had been a boy soldier in the civil war that ended two years before” (20), there was a period of unrest in Nigeria which further exacerbated the problems that come with poverty. The struggle we see even today is to change structures that have been in place for decades in order to uplift the poor.
“We will ride through the same changing countryside north-ward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris.” (3-4)
This quote come within the very first pages of Giovanni’s Room. The narrator, in first person, describes how everything on his return to Paris from a house in the south of France will be the same; the people, the train, his whole life will be unchanging. In this quote, though, there are the beginnings of contradiction, which is prevalent throughout the rest of Part One. Our narrator says the “same changing countryside”, which begs the question how can something be the same and changing? If it is the same countryside, then it has not changed. Conversely, if it changes, then the countryside is never the same. This discrepancy is our introduction into the life of our main character and narrator David. In the remainder of this section, we see how many contradictions arise in himself and his life. He at once loves and is cruel to Joey. He can be extremely drunk but appear composed and sober. He dates Hella yet seems to immediately fall for Giovanni. It is in these inconsistencies that Baldwin reveals the truths about growing up. The transformation that David is going through is characteristic of growing up. All young people encounter contradictions in who they are, how they feel, and what they want to be. David believes he has made decisions about who he wants to be, such as when he decided he would never sleep with a boy after Joey; and yet, by page 6 we learn that that is untrue because he sleeps with Giovanni. Young people are full of contradictions as demonstrated not only by these opening pages but also by many of the protagonists we have encountered thus far. It is not to say that David, or any other human (or character) in the midst of growing up, lies or imagines things but rather that this is a part of what it means to become an adult.
“Helmer: You can’t deny it, Nora dear. [Puts his arm round her waist.] My pretty little pet is very sweet, but it runs away with an awful lot of money. It’s incredible how expensive it is for a man to keep such a pet.” (4)
In this quote the audiences gets a real sense of who Helmer is as a man and a husband. Thus far, it has become extremely clear that he values material goods over most anything else. He is concerned with money, whether he has it or not. Furthermore, he fears that Nora is spending it on frivolous things that the family doesn’t need. This does not only demonstrate his obsessive nature about money but also his opinions on his wife.
Throughout the first section, Helmer calls his wife a variety of derogatory nicknames: “little sky-lark” (1), “little squirrel” (2), “little spendthrift” (3), etc. At first glance it might seem sweet that he calls her by all these names when in reality they are very demeaning. They all begin with “little” and who wants to be called a squirrel? Also, in the quote above he actually calls her “it.” The use of these names shows that Helmer thinks very little of Nora and that he does not believe that she has very much value. At this point, he does not even treat her as human. He describes her as his pet, as something that he owns and for which he is responsible.
The characteristics that Helmer has shown up to this point allude to his view of women in the world. He only sees Nora as a silly woman who wants to spend his hard-earned money. Later, of course, we learn that she is a lot stronger and more clever than Helmer believes. This notion of women’s place in the world does reflect the times as the play was published in 1879 when women were not expected to work or have any serious responsibilities.
“Consequently it became easy for him to make an arrangement which would allow him to escape his father’s reproaches, to calm his mother down, and the enjoy Mariane’s love in an untroubled manner. During the day he got on with his business punctually, usually did without going to the theatre, made conversation at table in the evening, and when everyone was in bed he slipped quietly out to the garden wrapped in his cloak, and hurried impetuously to his beloved, his heart full of romantic thoughts.” (22)
This quote describes the secret affair between Wilhelm and Mariane. A common scene in many stories about young lovers, it demonstrates many of the themes discussed in class. Obviously, deceiving one’s parents is an act of rebellion. Mariane is also rebelling against the constraints of her relationship with Norberg by indulging in a romance with Wilhelm. What is perhaps less apparent is that these types of interactions — not only in this story but in many others — also show youthful innovation. As I am sure many of us know, there are a variety of ways to deceive our parents, and surely today’s youth are innovating new methods all the time.