Category Archives: My essays

Social Criticism (Katherine Mansfield)

‘[P]olitical awareness or social criticism do not directly express themselves in [Mansfield’s] stories’ (Elizabeth Bowen, quoted in Aestheticism and Modernism, p.97). Discuss Bowen’s assertion with reference to at least two of Mansfield’s stories.

Katherine Mansfield was long considered to be, primarily, an aesthetic writer due to an appreciation of the formal qualities of her work and a recognition of the ‘lack of direct social or political mission’ in her writing.[1] Indeed, Mansfield herself held the view that ‘it is not the business of the artist to grind an axe’ or to ‘try to transform the world’.[2] However, some critics have suggested that her stories deserve to be read increasingly as engaging with political and social issues and, though Mansfield does not overtly embrace such issues, her works can be read as commenting on such topics as gender and class relations.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider two of Mansfield’s short stories, ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’. I aim to show how ‘Bliss’ illustrates the aesthetic qualities of Mansfield’s writing and asserts Bowen’s view that political awareness and social criticism are not directly expressed in her stories. I will show how the traditionally accepted notion of the ideal woman as sexually disinterested, heterosexual and maternal are challenged in ‘Bliss’ by Mansfield’s use of such artistic techniques as language, imagery, symbolism and free indirect speech rather than by explicit comment.

I will then consider ‘The Garden Party’ and intend to show how Mansfield’s use of sociolect, contrast, satire and imagery directly contributes to the exposure of the ‘harshness of class differences’[3] and offers a challenge to traditional class representations and prejudice, thus offering some challenge to Bowen’s assertion that social criticism is not directly expressed in Mansfield’ stories. I aim to show how the issues of social class pervade in ‘The Garden Party’ in a more direct way than the issues of gender pervade in ‘Bliss’.

The opening paragraphs of ‘Bliss’ describe Bertha’s feelings of pleasure. The ‘little shower of sparks’ that she felt in ‘every finger and toe’ is ostensibly, through the beauty of the language and the imagery of the bright afternoon sunshine, describing her elation at experiencing a ‘divine day’ and ‘might seem relatively innocuous’.[4] However, the language could be interpreted as erotic, suggesting the bliss of sexual passion. The choice of words associated with heat (‘bright’, ‘sun’ and ‘burned’) adds to the passion and energy of the scene. The emphasis is on encouraging the reader to engage with the text to allow her/him the pleasure of interpretation. Indeed, Mansfield appears to encourage reader participation by producing an ‘interactive’ work of art.

As Bertha prepares to arrange the fruit for the party, Mansfield’s imagery appeals to the senses of the reader. The fruit may represent sensuality and desire. Indeed, it has not been purchased purely to be eaten but as a display of opulence, beauty and luxury. The colours and textures evoke sensations of indulgence as the apples are described as ‘strawberry pink’ and the yellow pears as ‘smooth as silk’. Strawberries and silk are often associated with desire and extravagance. The ‘silver bloom’ could be interpreted as feminine desire, silver, typically representing femininity and the bloom suggesting the blossoming of Bertha’s sensuality. The phrases ‘seemed to melt’ and ‘float in the air’ invoke imagery of passion, suggesting ‘erotic and sexual feelings’ for a responsive reader[5]. Through the precise observation of detail and colour, Mansfield has revealed one of ‘many moments of encoded sexual pleasure’[6] to introduce, indirectly, Bertha as a sensual and sexual woman. 

The pear tree, in ‘Bliss’ provides a link with the previous sensuous beauty of the fruit, but as a living thing with not a ‘single bud or a faded petal’ it becomes symbolic of Bertha’s feelings of bliss. The similarity of the word ‘pear’ with the name ‘Pearl’ may suggest that it is actually Pearl that is the focus of Bertha’s happiness. Readers are invited to interpret Mansfield’s symbolist techniques as representative of Bertha’s sexual desire for another woman. Indeed, the pear tree is described as ‘silver now, in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon’ which suggests it is gendered feminine. However, the phallic association as it grew ‘taller and taller as they gazed’ implies a masculine gender. This ambiguity may suggest an uncertainty between Bertha’s heterosexuality and homosexuality.

‘Bliss’, written with a third person narrator but focalised through Bertha, allows the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. With regard to Pearl, we learn that Bertha had ‘fallen in love with her’, a direct comment by the narrator that we can associate with Bertha’s choice of phrase. This focalisation gives initial credibility to the statement and suggests a possible potential lesbian relationship but the immediate qualification of ‘as she always did fall in love’ takes some of the directness from the narrator’s assertion. The comment can no longer to be taken at face value, but seems somewhat dismissive as if it is merely a contemporary popular phrase to describe a new friendship. In addition, Bertha’s realisation that Pearl has similar feelings, ‘But, Bertha knew, suddenly’ is not quite as direct as it at first may seem as a degree of irony, in the reader being more aware of Bertha’s error than Bertha is, makes a more indirect comment on her sexuality. It makes Bertha’s directness seem erroneous. Mansfield perhaps did not want to make direct comment on such a taboo issue but rather suggested its possible existence. 

The name ‘Bertha’ may evoke an image of a mad woman in an attic who is the antipathy of the traditional mother figure. A square peg in the round hole of motherhood and femininity. Though it is impossible to state whether the character of Bertha Young has been influenced by Bertha Mason, the suggestion that she has to be ‘drunk and disorderly’ to express her feelings in society does forge some link to Bronte’s ‘mad’ character who some critics have suggested was labelled as ‘mad’ purely because she did not conform to society’s expectations. The opening paragraphs of ‘Bliss’ suggest that Bertha yearns to be free from the feminine constraints of such a society where ‘if you are over thirty’ you cannot ‘run instead of walk’. This yearning is enhanced by Mansfield’s use of free indirect speech and stream of consciousness techniques. Phrases like ‘bowl a hoop’ suggest Bertha’s choice of expression, not the narrator’s and we are encouraged to see Bertha as childlike and self-gratifying, not maternal and responsible. The jumble of thoughts beginning ‘Oh, is there no way’ and ending ‘like a rare, rare fiddle’ indicates Bertha’s rejection of society’s constraints by showing her thoughts as running out of control. We are not encouraged to view Bertha as maternal as ‘Little B’ is not the primary focus of her thoughts, and is actually not considered until after the fruit has been arranged.

I now wish to concentrate on a later short story of Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’. Like ‘Bliss’ the story is concentrated around a particular social event and we ‘join’ the event in mid action. I hope to show that the issue of social class pervades this story in a more direct way than issues of gender pervade in ‘Bliss’. Mansfield exposes class differences’ in ‘The Garden party by use of sociolect, contrasts, satire and imagery and provides a less subtle, more didactic approach than ‘Bliss’. 

The opening sentences of ‘The Garden Party’ present an upper class family preparing for a garden party. The words ‘ideal’ and ‘perfect’ and conversation about the importance of the weather and flowers, suggest language and concerns associated with higher social groups. Mrs Sheridan comments ‘my dear child’ which is typical of genteel family language. Sociolect is therefore used to indicate the social status of the speaker. In contrast, one of the workmen comments that the marquee needs to be located somewhere ‘where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye’. Slang language is used to indicate his working class status to a readership that may associate non-standard English with inferiority. Mansfield makes a clear distinction between the classes in her choice of idiom for her characters.

The reader is introduced to members of the gentry and their concern with the trivialities of life such as which flowers to impress others with. The contrast in the fifth sentence which informs us that the gardener had ‘been up since dawn’ and was engaged in manual work of ‘mowing’ and ‘sweeping’ makes a clear class distinction between the idle life of the gentry and the people who work for them. The ‘concerns’ of the gentry are presented as nothing more serious than party planning whereas the lower class have serious concerns about a man killed. The contrast in subject matter is a clear intention to represent the gentry as far removed from the realities of life and suffering and to present them as selfish and uncaring. When Mrs Sheridan is informed of the death, she responds with ‘Not in the garden?’ Contrasts are further evident throughout the story. The ‘hundreds, yes, literally hundreds’ of roses and the beauty of the ‘broad, gleaming leaves’ of the karakas are contrasted with the garden patches of the working classes where ‘there was nothing but cabbage stalks’. Interestingly, Mrs Sheridan instructs Laura ‘don’t be so extravagant’ in her desire to cancel the party but she fails to see the extravagance of her own desire to ‘have enough canna lilies’. The contrast in Mrs Sheridan’s actual extravagance and her inappropriate use of the word helps to portray her as self centred and heartless and the reader can hardly avoid forming a dislike of the class that she represents.

Mansfield’s use of satire in describing the ‘shreds of smoke’ coming from the workmen’s cottages, compared to the gentry’s ‘silvery plumes’ acknowledges the existence of class prejudice and makes it appear ridiculous, challenging the very notion of class assumptions. This, almost comical, representation of class differences provides a direct expression of social criticism and challenges Bowen’s assertion. However, Mansfield ensures that the reader is left in no doubt as to the ridiculous nature of class prejudice when she offers a direct challenge to the assumption made by Jose that the dead workman was drunk. Laura immediately and ‘furiously’ replies with ‘Drunk! Who said he was drunk?’

Laura is introduced to the reader ‘holding her piece of bread and butter’ as she puts on an act of severity ‘copying her mother’s voice’ in dealing with the ‘men’. The image is of a silly young woman, conscious of her behaviour, trying (and failing) to act according to learned class expectations. Conversely, the image presented of the ‘tallest of the men’ is of a man at ease as he ‘knocked back his straw hat and smiled’. Significantly, Mansfield physically positions the tall man as looking ‘down’ on Laura, indicating that despite his lower class, he is not inferior. Mansfield is making a direct statement on the relationship of the classes to each other and reversing the previously assumed position of superiority afforded to the higher classes.

Mansfield uses the character of Laura to directly challenge class prejudice. It is Laura who feels ‘empathy with those outside her class’[7] as we witness her concern about ‘what the band would sound like to that poor woman’. It is Laura who challenges the behaviour of the previous generation ‘but we can’t possibly have a garden party with a dead man just outside the front gate’. Despite her efforts, the garden party does still take place but her ‘fight’ against prejudice is not altogether lost as we are encouraged to view Mrs Sheridan as disparaging, ‘I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes’ and concerned with appearances ‘ Darling Laura, how well you look’. 

I hope to have shown how the social issues of gender and class have been expressed in two of Mansfield’s stories. Although neither story is didactic in its approach to social and political concerns I hope to have shown how, in both stories, Mansfield’s ‘social vision was inseparable from her aesthetic practices’[8]. The issues of gender and class relations are ‘conspicuous in all her writing’ [9] but are expressed more or less directly in different works. Of the two stories, it is ‘Bliss’ which requires greater interpretation by the reader who is left to ‘intuit the themes of her stories’[10]. In comparison, ‘The Garden Party’ is more ‘obvious’ in its social criticism as through more direct techniques Mansfield ensures that the ‘reader is constantly reminded of class distinctions’.[11]


Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (eds) (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: debates in Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

Gupta, S. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2005) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader, Texts and Debates, London: Routledge in association with the Open University

Mansfield, K. (2002) Selected Stories, ed. and intro. By A Smith, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Open University A300 course material – CD1 Katherine Mansfield

[1] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 97

[2] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 99

[3] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 98

[4] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 39

[5] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 42

[6] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 30

[7] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 94

[8] O’Sullivan speaking on CD1, Band 6

[9] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 113

[10] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 94

[11] Mansfield, 2002, p. xxvii


Aestheticism and Instrumentalism (Eliot and Brecht)


My essay and the diary I was keeping at the time. Out of interest my essay was marked at 87%.

Eliot’s modernism is primarily led by aesthetic considerations while Brecht’s is driven by his political agenda.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement? Discuss with reference to Life of Galileo and at least two poems from Prufrock and Other Observations. 

The idea that literature should reflect or even intervene in modern social and political concerns was challenged by many modernists, who emphasised the aesthetic dimension of their work. But, as Brecht’s views indicate, an interest in relating quite consciously to the social, political and ideological currents of the time was also a powerful source of energy for certain twentieth-century modernists.[1]

Walder’s comments explore the juxtapositions of aesthetic and instrumental considerations in modernist writing and may suggest that some writers place a higher emphasis on one of these positions. But, as Gupta states, texts generally do not fall neatly into either of these categories. No writers with ‘primarily aesthetic principles were indifferent to social and political realities’ and similarly, ‘primarily instrumentalist’ writers were not ‘indifferent to aesthetic criteria’.[2] However, I hope to show that Eliot’s modernism was primarily led by aesthetic considerations whilst Brecht was driven by his political agenda.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ in order to illustrate how Eliot’s modernist poetic structure rejected the traditional conventions of the late nineteenth century and raised questions about reality and the ‘truth’ by its self conscious style and technique. I intend to illustrate how the mundane is made aesthetically pleasing, and how Eliot’s modernism aesthetically imparts a sense of fragmentation and personal individuality and a concern with understanding the self and the meaning of life. I will then consider Life of Galileo and show how Brecht’s modernism is used to encourage social change by use of the effects of alienation and the epic theatre. I will show how Brecht is influenced by Marxist views, his work reflecting the doctrine that individuals are conditioned by their social circumstances and can change if their circumstances change, and how the play encourages audience engagement by providing links to contemporary society. Finally I will consider the techniques used by Brecht to persuade the viewer to reflect on the degree of responsibility that the scientist has to the world.

Realist writings aimed to convince the reader that real life was being represented and indeed, George Eliot in her novel, Middlemarch actually sort to convince us of this reality by subtitling her novel, ‘A Study of Provincial Life’. Eliot however, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ invites us to expect a poem about love but we soon experience a conflict between our expectations and the content of the poem as this is ‘not in any obvious way a love song.’[3] Unlike the novel, this is puzzling and raises questions about the ‘truth’ but is perhaps also suggestive of a general uncertainty about the world. Eliot is perhaps using this confusion to reflect the myriad of possible human responses to the representation of reality. His modernism, by rejecting realist techniques, may encourage the individual thought that realism sought to curb but does not overtly channel those thoughts in a particular direction.

The dreary setting is transformed into something beautiful as the ‘yellow smoke’ (p. 3) is likened to a cat with all its connotations of feline grace. This ‘grace’ is confirmed in the fourth stanza as the smoke ‘slides along the street’ (p. 3). The transformation of an ordinary topic into an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ work juxtaposes the beauty of language with the environment and suggests that the ordinary can be transformed by language.[4] Eliot’s modernism uses poetic language to transform the mundane into pleasing imagery in order to unite the dull and commonplace with the beauty of poetry. Eliot’s emphasis on the beauty of language shows how he is led by aesthetic considerations, though of course, poetry as a genre is more suited to such considerations.

The rhyme scheme of the first stanza of this poem (a a b c c d d e e f g h) is irregular and consists of half rhymes, such as ‘hotels, shells’ (p. 3). The line lengths follow no standard pattern or metre. The number of lines per stanza varies widely from just two, to the longer stanzas which all contain twelve lines. The result contributes to a sense of informality, fragmentation and confusion, and adds to a sense of rambling thoughts. The ‘yellow fog’ of the evening gives way to ‘the taking of a toast and tea’ and to the worry of a ‘bald spot’ and the contemplation of the ‘universe’ (p. 4). This diverse sequence of thoughts is not unlike the stream of consciousness technique associated with Virginia Woolf and highlights an emphasis on inner random thoughts, which she considered more realistic than the presentation of thoughts in a linear progression, whilst also suggesting that all certainty and regularity has disappeared. Eliot’s modernism shows a primary concern with innovative use of technique and not with political persuasion. 

Eliot uses punctuation, as a form of Symbolism, to convey a more precise expression of something that is difficult to express by language alone. In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the use of ellipses, ‘To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . ’ encourages the reader to stop and ponder what this question might be (p. 3). The ellipses in question actually seem to hint at the poet persona’s inability to express his feelings; there are no words to adequately articulate his awe of the universe and he finds it ‘impossible to say just what I mean!’ (p. 6). This searching is emphasised by the frustrated and rhetorical question ‘Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ (p. 3). The indentation of several lines ‘And how should I begin?’ (p. 5) and ‘that is not it, at all’ (p. 6) stresses the yearning questioning of the poet persona and the inability to reach any answers. A feeling of something being unanswerable pervades the poem and, indeed, there are fourteen uses of the question mark. This punctuation throughout adds to a sense of human powerlessness and searching to successfully understand the meaning of life. Overall, the poet’s use of fluid punctuation with frequent use of caesura and enjambement draws attention to the construction of the poem as a work of art and invites consideration of its aesthetic qualities.

In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ symbolism is evident in the depiction of the street lamp. Its personification ensures that it is seen as a more active presence than the passive presence of the poet persona and we are encouraged to consider an inanimate object with the human capacity for thought and speech. Similarly, we can consider humans as automatons acting mechanically. Indeed, the poem suggests this reversal in ‘so the hand of the child, automatic, / Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay,’ (p. 16). The human is portrayed as the automaton and it is the inanimate toy that is personified by ‘running’. The reality of the street setting contrasts with this obvious unreality to suggest that the ‘man-made’ element of society may control an individual who therefore loses some degree of freedom in his life. Eliot’s modernism, by upsetting reality in this way, draws attention to an individual’s position in society but primarily highlights a new aesthetic approach.

A characteristic theme of modernist poetry was time and its passing and artificiality. In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ each stanza begins with an announcement, ‘twelve o’clock’, ‘half-past one’ (p. 15). Eliot’s work shows a ‘somewhat agonized consciousness of the passing of time’.[5] The announcement of time pervades the poem and its repetition highlights its presence. Though we are encouraged to focus on this passing of time we are also drawn to its artificiality as the time is announced by a street lamp, ‘The lamp said, /’four o’clock,’’ (p. 17). As well as inviting us to view happenings in the present time, ‘the cat which flattens itself in the gutter’ (p. 16), the poem also encourages a reflection on past times, ‘Memory!/You have the key’ (p. 17). We are therefore aware of the existence of current clocked time alongside remembered times which promotes a feeling of disorientation. Time, split into minutes and hours, is an unnatural concept, which is only a valid phenomenon in the present, and ceases to exist as one remembers the past. This striking of the clock reminds the reader of human mortality and of the transience of human existence and aesthetically provides an underlying structure to the poem. 

Rorrison, in his commentary to Life of Galileo states that:

For Brecht the traditional, or dramatic theatre was a place where the audience were absorbed into a comforting illusion which played on their emotions and left them drained, but with a sense of satisfaction which predisposed them to accept the world as they found it. What he himself was looking for was a theatre that would help to change the world.[6]

Brecht’s development of the ‘alienation’ effect and of ‘epic’ theatre served Brecht’s political agenda by discouraging an audience from empathising with the characters on stage, leaving viewers emotionally uninvolved and free to reflect on what they have seen rather than be encouraged to accept a predetermined view. Alienation refers to those effects that prevent us from identifying too closely with characters and epic suggests an emphasis on narrative rather than dramatic action and ‘appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason’.[7]

In Life of Galileo we are immediately distanced from the action on stage as the play opens with an explanatory headline and ditty which informs the audience of Galileo’s scientific intentions. This ditty, sung by a chorus in Losey’s film version of the play, draws attention to the artificiality of the scene. The audience is not invited into a ‘realistic’ setting but is made aware of the stage as a constructed art which encourages a detached interpretation. Though the title of the play should suggest, to an informed audience, the nature of the plot, this additional information removes any last suspense that an audience might feel. The result is a focus on narrative and context rather than on dramatic experience.

The creation of Galileo as a character also serves to ensure that the reader does not instinctively endear him/herself to Brecht’s protagonist. We are invited to witness the initial intimate scene showing Galileo ‘washing down to the waist’ (p. 5) and can therefore identify with him in an everyday context, despite his being one of the ‘most important scientists in history’.[8] Galileo is presented as enthusiastic in his teaching, ‘let’s examine it’ (p. 6) and Brecht’s use of technical jargon such as ‘armillary sphere’ and Galileo’s insistence on using the technical term ‘describing a circle’ (p. 5) ensures that we are made aware of Galileo’s scientific brilliance. However, Brecht does not present the scientist as faultless. Instead, he allows Galileo to be deceitful and cruel. Galileo shows no guilt as he presents the telescope as his own invention ‘with deep joy’ (p. 20) and he shows no remorse for breaking off his daughter’s engagement. Brecht’s modernism contributes to his political agenda by encouraging the audience to form their own views on the morality of the scientist.

The theories of Marxism suggest that the nature of mankind is determined by an individual’s social conditions and that people will change if their conditions change. Brecht believed that literature could ‘change society and the way people think.’[9] In scene 8 of Life of Galileo, the Little Monk explains to Galileo how his parents’ religious view of life is essential to their understanding of the world and that any change to this would upset their ‘feeling of stability’       (p. 65). Galileo’s rejection of the Monk’s plea to keep the ‘peasants’ ignorant and his insistence that the enlightened could go on to ‘develop the virtues of happiness and prosperity’ (p. 66) despite the upheaval to their social understanding, endorses Brecht’s view that people react to differing conditions. Though the Monk is saddened by the potential plight of his parents, Brecht refrains from engaging the audience’s emotion by ensuring that we are left with an image of the Monk absorbed in a new manuscript eager for further scientific knowledge. The Monk clearly does not relish, for himself, the ignorance he desires for his parents. This contradiction encourages the audience to consider the pros and cons of upsetting the political status quo.

Brecht’s play ‘remains the most searching examination of the ethics of science that has been written for the stage’.[10] Galileo’s finding that ‘there is no difference between heaven and earth’ (p. 24) had enormous implications for society in the early seventeenth century but to a twentieth century audience, Galileo’s findings are accepted facts. In scene 15, an audience in the 1930s would be aware of the infancy of aircraft and the very real possibility of the benefits of commercial air travel. Andrea’s comments that ‘people can’t fly through the air on a stick’ (p. 113) would have amused viewers who were aware of such scientific advance. However, this known benefit of science is contradicted by the scene’s opening ditty that urges caution in using scientific knowledge ‘lest it be a flame to fall/Downward to consume us all’ (p. 110). Brecht’s reference to the possible consequences of the atom bomb serves as a contemporary reminder to the audience of the responsibility that scientists have to the world and lead us to question whether indeed, Galileo was right to continue with his research or whether accepting the Church’s desire for status quo would have been the more responsible option.

The scope of this essay has considered works from two very different genres. By its nature, poetry is a medium more suited to the expression of aesthetic considerations and drama to political comment and the primary considerations of the writers in question may be influenced by or reflected in the genre of choice. However, I hope to have shown how Eliot’s modernism which shows ‘aesthetic and poetic daring’[11] by rejecting traditional poetic structures and themes, explores the differing notions of reality and truth and encourages an inner reflection on human awareness. Eliot’s modernism and its ‘fresh and invigorating’ form which is not constrained by rhyme and punctuation, and which challenges our understanding of the ‘truth’, creates a sense of fluidity away from the constraints of previous traditions of writing. A new way of writing and a new way of seeing the world, perhaps. The result is the creation of poetry which draws attention to its construction in order to encourage reflection on inner thoughts and impart a consideration of man’s changing position within society without seeking to change it. Brecht’s writing on the other hand, with his choice of historical subject matter, encourages a new contemplation of the political implications of scientific advancement and seeks to initiate change. Although the play does not answer any questions on the ethics of science, at least it raises them for the audience to consider. Brecht’s use of alienation and epic theatre was primarily to influence his audience in order to ‘upset people into changing the way they saw things’ and his furtherance of Marxist doctrines served his political agenda.[12] In order to initiate political change Brecht sought to ‘make the spectator into an actor who would complete the unfinished play’.[13]


Brecht, B. (1994) Life of Galileo, trans. by J. Willett, with Commentary and Notes by H. Rorrison, Methuen Student Editions, London: Methuen.

Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (eds) (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: debates in Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

Eliot, T.S. ([1917] 2001) Prufrock and Other Observations, London: Faber & Faber.

Gupta, S. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2005) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader, Texts and Debates, London: Routledge in association with the Open University

Open University A300 course material – CD2 (readings by T S Eliot)

Open University A300 course material – DVD2 (Galileo, directed by J Losey)

[1] Walder in Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 326

[2] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 225

[3] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[4] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[5] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 253

[6] Brecht, (1994), p. xxxv

[7] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 129

[8] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 324

[9] Quote taken from A300 tutorial handout by Dr. M Denby

[10] Brecht, (1994), p. xli

[11] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 272

[12] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327

[13] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327

Exploration of identity (Woolf and Okigbo)

Woolf’s novels and Okigbo’s poetry are explorations of identity – in terms of gender, nationality and culture.’ To what extent do you agree? Discuss with reference to both Orlando and at least one poem from the selection of poems by Okigbo.

Analogous to the genre approach to literature, which suggests that works can be categorised on the basis of common features, and subsequently gives rise to categories such as ‘Realism’, ‘Gothic’ and ‘Romance’, identity has also been categorised. People are defined within a cultural context and classified and stereotyped accordingly. We are therefore, for example, ‘black’ or ‘white’, ‘female’ or ‘male’, ‘English’ or ‘African’. Likewise nations are defined in terms of stereotyped images but just as a novel such as Jane Eyre refuses to be neatly labelled, identities are complex and multi faceted. Woolf and Okigbo were both writing during the first half of the twentieth century, an era of great change in respect of women’s identity in a patriarchal society and in respect of the political relationships between nations and sought to explore identities and the extent to which they are innate or socially constructed.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider Orlando to show how Woolf challenges the boundaries of gender identity by exploring the position of an androgynous state, neither masculine nor feminine, but simply human. I will show how the novel endorses Woolf’s view that human beings each have a mix of traditional gender characteristics which are merely exaggerated, according to biological sex, and developed by social learning. In addition I will consider the notions of nationality and cultural identity and show how the novel explores and challenges prevailing images of Englishness which link England with nature and with supremacy and how the novel challenges cultural ‘norms’ which favour a male dominated literary tradition. I will then consider a selection of Okigbo’s poems to show how he explores the identity of the ‘Nigerian nation and the fate of Igbo culture’.1 I will show how Okigbo challenges the idea of English supremacy and illustrates African national identity. I will then discuss how the poems illustrate the merging of European and African cultures but not without having adverse affects, namely the erosion of traditional Igbo values. Finally, though Okigbo’s poetry focuses predominantly on issues of nationality and culture, I also intend to show how it explores gender identity by the representation of female deities and how, unlike Woolf, Okigbo represents femininity as an inert essence that is determined by nature and not by society.

Androgyny, a Greek word ‘from andro (male) and gyn (female)’ means a ‘mixture of traditional masculine and feminine virtues’ and was defined by Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own as ‘a spectrum on which human beings could choose their places regardless of history or tradition.2 Woolf considered androgyny to be the ideal state, and her description of the newly transformed female Orlando as a ‘lovely sight’ as his (sic) ‘form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace’3 signifies how Woolf considers the ideal human state to encompass a combination of traditional gender characteristics. In fact, the narrator is bold in saying that ‘no human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing’.4 This bold statement explores the fluidity of gender and the concept of a blurring of the traditional binaries of male and female, masculine and feminine.

The opening sentence of the novel, ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex’ is a direct assertion that has the effect of creating uncertainty about Orlando’s sex.5 Because a person’s gender is not usually qualified, such an ‘unnecessary’ declaration encourages the reader to pause and reflect on the possibility of indistinctness between the genders. In the film version of the novel, Sally Potter’s casting of Tilda Swinton as Orlando is significant. Swinton has an androgynous physical appearance and furthers Woolf’s aims in presenting the protagonist as a ‘person’ and not as a man or woman. This image is repeated in the casting of Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. A male actor successfully creates a female character and blurs the traditional distinctions between the genders, whilst suggesting that any ‘person’ can learn to be a woman. Similarly, in the novel, when Orlando meets the Russian Princess he is unsure whether she is male or female as her ‘legs, hands, carriage, were a boy’s, but no boy ever has a mouth like that’.6 Orlando is attracted to the person, whether male or female, but society’s constraints, that would not easily accept a same sex union, ensured ‘Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex.7

The consideration of ‘opposites’ has a significant presence throughout the novel. In chapter one, we see the contrast of the ice that was ‘permanent as stone’ with the ‘turbulent yellow waters’8 and learn that ‘at one moment the woods and distant hills showed green as on a summer’s day; the next all was winter and blackness again’.9 The use of opposites mirrors Woolf’s theories that human beings possess ‘opposing’ gender characteristics. Just as winter and summer have equal contributions to the whole cycle of nature there are mixes of masculine and feminine within individual people that make up a unified and complete whole. The narrator states that love has ‘two faces; one white, the other black’ and goes on to say that the opposites are so strictly ‘joined together that you cannot separate them’.10 The images of opposites contribute to the overall sense that opposites and differences merge to create the whole.

Virginia Woolf argued that gender identity is learned through social conditioning and learning. She rejected the view that masculinity and femininity are innate and inevitable consequences of biology, arguing instead that human beings each have a mix of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics which, according to biological sex, are merely exaggerated and developed by social learning. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex stated that ’One is not born but rather becomes, a woman,’11 and although Beauvoir was writing after Orlando was published, her famous phrase encapsulates the essence of Woolf’s novel and its comments on gender as a social construct.

Woolf’s narrator comments that Orlando was beginning to change as a woman and states that she was becoming more ‘modest’ and more ‘vain’.12 It is explicitly stated that ‘the change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it’.13 I intend to show how the female Orlando learns to be feminine through clothes that ‘change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ and through a set of codes that are learned and performed.14 The narrator informs us that when ‘Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately’,15 illustrating how individuals react to an outward appearance of gender. As expected by society, Orlando duly ‘complied’ and ‘curtseyed’ in a way that she would not have done if the Captain’s ‘breeches (had) been a woman’s skirts’.16 Orlando learns to adapt to skirts that are ‘plaguey things to have about one’s heels’ and realises that due to her restrictive clothing she would have to act differently if she needed to jump overboard. 17 As a woman, restricted by her clothing, she would have to ‘trust to the protection of a blue-jacket’.18 In the film based on the novel, Sally Potter interprets this restriction beautifully in the scene where Orlando is walking indoors, hampered by a large white crinoline dress. Orlando has to learn to negotiate the furniture and even walk sideways in order to pass through the room. However, though Orlando is hampered by her feminine clothing, she also appreciates the ‘flowered paduasoy’ as ‘the loveliest in the world’ and even suggests that it may be pleasurable to throw herself overboard if it means that she can call on the ‘protection of a blue-jacket’.19 Woolf is not suggesting that one sex is better than the other and her narrator’s deliberation ‘which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s?’ contributes to her assertion that the ‘ideal’ human state constitutes a mixture of both genders.20

England, as a nation, invites an image of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and an association and appreciation of nature by her people. The English reference to ‘Mother Nature’ supports the English view of the ‘inherent’ goodness of the natural world. The novel’s recurring imagery of the Oak tree acts as a leitmotif to suggest this English emphasis on nature and indeed, Queen Elizabeth views Orlando as ‘the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation’.21 It seems unlikely within the norms of Western culture that nature could be viewed as evil but Woolf explores the construct of the English love of nature by contrasting Orlando and his Englishness with the nationality of the gypsies.

The gypsies consider nature to be ‘the vilest and cruellest among all the Gods’, which is likely to be an unfamiliar concept to English people.22 Rustum el Sadi held the ‘deepest suspicion that her God was nature’ and he proved to Orlando that nature was cruel by displaying his fingers that had been ‘withered by the frost’ and his foot, which was ‘crushed where a rock had fallen’.23 The two differing ideologies of two different nations is illustrated by these contrasts but it is the narrator’s comment that Orlando now ‘began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel’ that explores the social construct of belief by differing nations and suggests that English ideology is learned and not necessarily paramount.24 This sharp contrast of beliefs offers a challenge to dominant cultural definitions of nations and illustrates how national identity is a learned concept.

Similarly, Woolf draws attention to the concept of English nationalism and its supposed supremacy in the scene where Orlando skates with Sasha. He suspects that Sasha is ‘ashamed of the savage ways of her people’ as he had heard that ‘the women in Muscovy wear beards and the men are covered with fur from the waist down’.25 Woolf is clearly writing with an ironic tone and the narrator is mocking the values expressed. The statements are ‘too extravagant to represent sensible opinion’ and we therefore see Orlando as rather foolish, ill informed and narrow minded.26 His conclusion that Sasha ‘was entirely free from hair on the chin’ goes someway to challenging his stereotypical view of Muscovy people but the reader is not entirely convinced that Orlando has learned from his experience.27 However, we are left in no doubt that Woolf herself seeks to challenge the view of English national identity as being dominant. This is endorsed by Sasha’s Russian dominance over the English Orlando. He is passive in waiting for her in the rain and she is active in deserting him.

As Woolf’s novel progresses through four hundred years it provides a ‘romp through history’ that encompasses varied notions of cultural identity.28 Culture refers to the lifestyle and customs of a particular society and I intend to concentrate on the exploration of cultural identity as it relates to literature. Orlando is a mock biography of the life of a writer. Throughout the novel, Orlando works on his/her poem ‘The Oak Tree’. Woolf was very aware of the limitations placed on women in respect of opportunities to write and the cultural acceptance of female writing.

Some women were successful novelists but novel writing was considered to be an inferior form of writing and often a shameful occupation. Even Jane Austen ‘hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting paper’.29 In Orlando, as a man, Orlando is not completely free to write as writing was ‘for a noble man an inexpiable disgrace’.30 However, Orlando’s portfolio contradicts this assertion as he does manage to write some ‘forty-seven plays, histories, romances, poems’31 and does so with the ‘air of one doing what they do every day’.32 Writing is portrayed as a normal activity for the male Orlando who was ‘fluent’ and soon ‘covered ten pages and more’.33 Conversely, the female Orlando, very soon after her transformation, finds that she ‘had no ink; and but little paper’ and her despair at being in this position is evident in her plea; ’Oh! If only I could write!’.34 Woolf is exploring the male dominated culture that is accepting of male but not female writing.

Back at her home, Orlando is now ready to start afresh on her poem and now has ‘ink and paper in plenty’ though, despite having the instruments of writing she still finds herself confined by cultural disapproval as she ‘hastily hid her manuscript’ when ‘a shadow darkened the page’.35 Ultimately however, the female Orlando does complete her poem and is given the status of ‘poet’ which has traditionally been viewed as the domain of males. But, Orlando’s final abandonment of the poem may suggest a rejection of artificially imposed cultural values per se whether favouring the male or the female or indicate that the task of challenging cultural assumptions and female integration into a male dominated cultural tradition remains incomplete. Interestingly, Woolf argued in A Room of One’s Own, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’36 and in Orlando, Woolf ensures that her protagonist is very wealthy and has three hundred and sixty five rooms of her own. Woolf is equipping her protagonist with the essentials required to challenge the identity of traditional literary culture.

I will now consider the exploration of identity in a selection of Okigbo’s poetry. Okigbo was ‘an Igbo by birth’ and was educated in Nigeria when it was a British colony and, as a ‘product of the British colonial education system’, he was influenced by both European and African culture and aimed to unite the two in his work.37

As a consequence of the power inequalities of colonialism, many readers ‘seem to demand that … ‘minority’ writers account for their existence’.38 Like Achebe, Okigbo offers a challenge to the notion that one nation is superior to another. Achebe, in the opening paragraph of Things Fall Apart refers, conversationally, to Okonkwo’s ‘throwing Amalinze the Cat’, creating a ‘norm’ that differs from Western values but is not ‘other’.39 Similarly, Okigbo, in his use of terms such as ‘oilbean’, ‘sunbird’ and ‘speargrass’ successfully subverts Western expectations and forces the reader to accept a differing, but equal, viewpoint and vocabulary. Okigbo does not ‘account’ for Igbo existence but presents it to a Western reader without avoiding or offering explanations of unfamiliar terms. The poem is, of course, written in English and this may be seen as suggesting that Okigbo is ‘betraying an ancient culture’,40 however, I prefer to see it as a way of bringing African culture to the attention of the English speaking world.

Heavensgate’ begins with the poet persona’s prayer to the African water goddess, Mother Idoto and it is likely that a Christian reader would find this an unfamiliar image. In contrast the phrase ‘out of the depths my cry’ is reminiscent of the Christian Psalm 130 which begins ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ and we see a juxtaposition of African imagery with wording from the Christian Bible. This combination of the Igbo imagery with the recognisable wording and style of a Christian reading may result in a conflict between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ to provide an uncomfortable interpretation of the poem. The use of the word ‘watery’ to describe the presence of the goddess is also disconcerting to a Christian reader who may expect to see ‘divine’ or ‘holy’ instead, to suggest the worship of an spiritual being. ‘Watery’ seems too physical, too earthly. The term ‘oilbean’ is also unfamiliar to a western reader and the setting of the term in the phrase ‘leaning on an oilbean’ is difficult, phonetically, and adds to the disorientation that may be experienced through the poem. Okigbo explores some aspects of Igbo cultural identity and encourages a reflection on African ways of life by ensuring that the reader is surprised out of the familiar.

Okigbo alerts the non-Igbo reader to this African culture but some of Okigbo’s critics suggest that ‘the whole framework of the poem is Christian and Catholic, with snippets of traditional African ritual thrown in’.41 In ‘Dark Waters’ and ‘Silent Faces’ the references to the ‘boa bent to kill’ and the ‘sunbird’ all illustrate traditional Igbo culture which is reiterated by the representation of African people. ‘Faces of black’ are emphasised by Okigbo’s use of the word ‘black’ four times within eight lines. The effect is to present an image of Igbo people. However, this image is contrasted with the image of the playing of ‘loft pipe organs’ which is suggestive of Christian organ music, the result is a fusion of the two cultures that enrich each other, illustrated by the harmony as the native wind listens to the ‘loveliest fragment’ of organ music. Okigbo, in these two poems is suggesting that two different cultures can exist together as one identity and despite colonialism resulting in ‘crossroads’ which may suggest fragmentation, it can also result in a fusion ‘where all roads meet’. Similar to Woolf’s vision of a blending of male and female characteristics, Okigbo is suggesting the possibility of a successful fusion of African and English culture, even if he does not consider such amalgamation so ‘ideal’ as Woolf does in relation to gender.

As readers of Okigbo’s poetry we are introduced to some aspects of African national identity and unfamiliar rituals and ways of life. The poems already discussed suggest that two cultures can merge and exist as one new postcolonial culture with a new national and cultural identity but Okigbo also considers the disruption caused by colonial intervention and the loss of indigenous cultures as a result and the subsequent erosion of Igbo identity. Indeed, the merging of cultures as described above, could be read more as a displacement of African culture with Igbo identity being infiltrated with Western beliefs.

The poems of ‘II Initiations’ take on a different tone with the use of more violent imagery. The phrases ‘scar of the crucifix’ and ‘red-hot blade’ and the use of the Christian word ‘crucifix’ to suggest torture and death perhaps indicates the death of Igbo culture by Christian influence. The inference of slave branding by ‘owners’ to signify possession is also apparent in ‘inflicted/by red-hot blade,/on right breast witnesseth’ and when juxtaposed with Okigbo’s reference to ‘genesis’ provides a less harmonious tone than previously suggested. Western culture is clearly an unwelcome intrusion and instead of cultures that join together quite affably, we see sharp geometric angles and lines (angle, square, rhombus, quadrangle) suggesting disharmony alongside the description of ‘morons’ and ‘fanatics’ who have destroyed a culture with the actions of their ‘selfish selfseekers’. Okigbo explores the ‘broken’ identity of Igbo culture and his techniques of juxtaposing Christian imagery, associated with peace, with violent imagery serves to draw attention to the conflict and discord within Nigeria during European colonization.

Okigbo’s poetry is ‘difficult’, not only because of its unfamiliar references but because of its structure.42 A reading of the poems gives a sense of complexity and fragmentation and an impression of being disjointed, not free flowing. ‘I The Passage’ takes on the tone of a Christian prayer, while ‘II Initiations’ employs violent and geometric imagery and ‘IV Lustra’ adopts a pastoral feel. A reader is not lulled into a sense of expectation with these poems but rather is invited to expect the unexpected. The whole feel of the poems is complex and has a structured and deliberate incoherency which alludes to the extent of the difficulty of self-expression and perplexity during a period of enormous cultural change.

Most of Okigbo’s poetry is concerned with ‘traditional religion and its encounter with missionary Christianity’43 and I have already discussed how Okigbo explored this fundamental change to Igbo society to show how it eroded a national and cultural identity. This emphasis confirms an understanding that the poetry focuses mainly on changes in culture. However, I now intend to briefly discuss how Okigbo explores gender identity in his work.

It is difficult to divorce a reading of the poem from its cultural context. However, a strictly feminist interpretation rather than a religious one encourages a focus on the exploration of gender identity. The first word of the poem is ‘before’ and its repetition at the beginning of the third line could suggest a male dominance before a female subject. I assume a male poet persona, not because the poet is male, but because the reference to the devotee as ‘a prodigal’ is reminiscent of the Prodigal Son of the Bible. The first stanza of ‘I The Passage’ refers to Idoto as a ‘mother’. Motherhood is a traditional way of defining women in relation to others in Western society, suggesting that female identity depends on the existence of others. The description of Idoto’s presence as ‘watery’ suggests an alliance with biology, another typical way of representing women as akin to nature, and a way of suggesting that femininity is a biological essence and not a social construct, the antithesis of Woolf’s assertion in Orlando.

Traditional Igbo religion is underpinned by a ‘widespread belief in female spirits’ and in the power of female deities.44 There are similarities here in the Catholic’s reverence of the Virgin Mary, though she is not specifically referred to in the poetry, and a sense that women have an important place in religion as passive idols if not as active officials. Catholicism, today, is exclusively represented by men and Okigbo had considered ’assuming the familial role as priest’ which his grandfather had previously fulfilled, which also suggests a male dominated religious structure.45 This representation of women as idols endorses the ‘female passivity’ and ‘male activity’ dichotomy and establishes females as revered while effectively ‘removing’ them from the male dominated ‘public sphere’.

I have considered two very different genres and have shown how identity, in terms of gender, nationality and culture is explored by both Woolf and Okigbo. Though both texts consider all the identities, the focus and structure of this essay has suggested that although Woolf’s novel was ‘often first read by its contemporary audience as a gossipy portrait of Vita Sackville-West’ interpretations have changed and today we may ‘read Orlando now most often as a feminist work that explores the boundaries of gender’.46 Similarly, the focus of Okigbo’s poetry is predominantly on national and cultural identity, though an exploration of gender identity is also present in his work.

Woolf rejects the notion of gender, nationality and cultural identity as being innate, suggesting instead that it is socially constructed and therefore changeable. Her suggestion of an ideal state of androgyny and a questioning of the traditionally accepted ideology of English supremacy and the status quo of a male dominated literary culture shows how she crosses the boundaries to defy conventions and promote new attitudes, hinting that individuals and society can ‘relearn’ their identities and because they are not innate, can change significantly. Conversely, Okigbo shows how gender differences are linked to nature and biology and are therefore unchangeable. He also shows how nationality and culture, when combined into a ‘new’ identity ultimately results in an element of discord. This perhaps suggests that any culture, other than the one an individual is born into, can never be learned, or socially constructed, as it is too ‘innate’ to be changed successfully.

Essays I have written

During my six years as an undergraduate I probably wrote about forty essays. Only a few of them will be relevant to my blog and the first one I want to share with you is an exploration of Woolf’s Orlando and Okigbo’s poetry in terms of identity.

The main thing to take from it is, I think, Virginia’s opinion on gender identity and the questions that arise about why we have to be categorised (male/female, or black/white, straight/gay or anything). Can’t we just be humans? And aren’t opposites equal with both male and female as important as each other (like Summer and Winter) to make up the whole? Woolf rejects the concept that gender characteristics are innate but rather socially constructed.

During my degree days I wrote many essays including the one above about Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’. I also kept a hand written diary for the whole six years. One sentence, ‘I can’t keep my eyes open’ sums up my habit of working into the early hours. Happy days.