Oleanna Role-Playing

Oleanna Role-Playing.
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (70 KB).

This is a hypothetical letter, written for John from Oleanna by Richard X. Thripp, a professor in an adjacent office who eavesdropped on the play. This may serve well for character analysis, or to inspire you to write some mandatory essay. I don’t know what edition I got the line numbers from, unfortunately.

To my esteemed colleagues in the tenurial committee,

In the eleven years I have known Professor John, he has been a truly compassionate teacher. Though cynical with his claims of college being no more than a “virtual warehousing of the young” (1375), I and many others have respected his views as healthy skepticism to the educational system. Being that our offices are adjacent, I overheard him counsel his student, Carol, on educational theory: “I’m talking to you as I’d talk to my son . . . I don’t know how to do it, other than to be personal” (1377). This seems reasonable, but the way he goes on to “teach” her the class is not right; he tells her “your grade for the whole term is an A,” but only “if you will come back and meet with me,” and to “forget about the paper” that all his other students must write (1380). He says “we’ll break [the rules]” and that “we won’t tell anybody” because “I like you” (1380). Even if he does have her best interests at heart, he should not play favorites or support such deviance, and he is doing a disservice to the students that legitimately pass the course, while setting a bad example for Carol.

I became concerned on Carol’s second visit, when she shouted “LET ME GO. LET ME GO. WOULD SOMEBODY HELP ME?” (1390). I tried to chase John down to question him, but he was too busy on his phone, talking of some important meeting. While this may seem illogical, my fears of his misconduct were diminished when on Carol’s third visit to John’s office, she announced to him: “you tried to rape me . . . you ‘pressed’ your body into me” (1397). What I can only see in both cases are vengeful taunts on her part. If he indeed attempted rape, she would have been too fearful to return to his office. Provoking him with such an accusation while in his office, alone with him, is ridiculous. Her very actions disqualify her claims. What was mere detainment in the hope of completing a discussion, she claims to be “battery . . . and attempted rape” (1397). John was not right to restrain Carol. But to claim it an assault is worse. It is not merely slander against John, but an injustice to all the women who must go through the emotional trauma of a real sexual assault. Carol is bringing them down with her hyped accusations.

We have high standards for our students; we have even higher standards for our faculty. John is at fault for over-stepping his bounds as a professor and acting in ways that can be construed as sexual advances. “The rich copulate less often than the poor” (1382) is no comment to make to a young student in a clustered office. Carol is guilty for accusing John of rape, which is nowhere as far as he went; the case will be thrown out by any fair-minded jury, merely for the reason that she has shown no fear of the man whom she claims assaulted her.

My recommendation is to deny John’s tenure and ask him to write a letter of apology for his behavior—namely, for ignoring his “responsibility to the young” (1394) by flirting with and making distasteful remarks to his student, and offering to give a high grade on a basis other than academic merit. We cannot promise a lifetime position to someone who is contrary to the ideals of higher education. Should he recognize his mistake, I am in favor of tenurial re-evaluation after a probationary period of one year.

There is another important subject I must address: Carol complains of the unbalanced power in the college, saying, “the thing which you find so cruel is the selfsame process of selection I, and my group, go through every day of our lives. In admittance to school. In our tests, in our class rankings” (1394). Though it may be unfortunate, that is life. As an institution of learning, we can only measure what we can test you on. Now, where this goes too far is when instructors help or hurt students on their own biases, such as her example of “one capricious or inventive answer on our parts, which, perhaps, you don’t find amusing” (1394) being the reason to be given a bad grade. That, none of us condone, and it is the very reason we have academic mediation and conflict resolution departments, anonymous reporting of instructors’ misconduct, and even procedures as basic as our mid-term instructor evaluations, where the students give direct and risk-free feedback, even if for something as small as unenthusiastic teaching or unfocused course material. While John writes that education is “prolonged and systematic hazing” (1383), we must remember that as a young man, he went through the same hazing himself, as did our other faculty, many slaving years to obtain a doctorate or Master’s degree. Would we tell a mother that it is unfair that she orders her children to time-outs, but does not subject herself to them? It is just as unreasonable to say that our professors should be subject to a the same grading process as our students—they have already proven themselves through decades of learning and experience. All our students attend here by choice, and if they can only see our system as unfair and dispossessing, they are free to go without a college education or attend elsewhere, though they will find that we are as fair as any other institution.

Richard X. Thripp
Associate Professor of Information Studies

A Feminist Perspective for “Ind Aff” and Oleanna

A Feminist Perspective for “Ind Aff” and Oleanna.
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (70 KB).

Though I have page and line numbers, I don’t know the editions I got them from. Sorry for that. I’ve developed an interesting angle on “Ind Aff” and Oleanna nonetheless.

The protagonists in “Ind Aff” and Oleanna struggle against men with power who wish to control them, in both pieces the archetype being the mid-forties college professor who offers academic favoritism. After the narratator of “Ind Aff” leaves her teacher, he “[does] his best to have [her] thesis refused” out of spite (Weldon 158), and in the same way, John of Oleanna offers an A grade “if you come back and meet with me,” saying “I like you” and that “we won’t tell anybody” (Manet 1380). Both abuse their power to manipulate women, and seeing that these are contemporary writings (1988 and 1992), they address the remaining, insidious counter to women’s rights, which is bias and coercion by people in positions of authority.

Both Carol and the unnamed narrator of “Ind Aff” connect themselves to a larger social movement; for Carol, it is for the rights of women and students, and for Peter’s companion, it is the ills of patriotism as applied to their romantic relationship, “inordinate affection” being the very title. The latter compares herself to Gavrilo Princip, assassin of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that may be linked to the start of World War I. She concludes that her relationship with her professor was “as silly and sad as Princip . . . with his feverish mind . . . and his inordinate affection for his country . . . firing — one, two three shots,” as though he would have “come to his senses,” like she did about her love for her professor, if he would have reflected longer (Weldon 158). This is a mental coming-of-age on her part, just as Carol sees that John “[loves] the power” (Manet 1388) and “[believes] in nothing at all” (1393), undermining her fellow students, whom she states “overcame prejudices . . . and endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love will never encounter. (Pause) To gain admittance here” (1394). For this all to be so that John can “play the Patriarch in [his] class. To grant this. To deny that” (1388) is unbearable to her.

The two pieces are uplifting, in that the women have an awakening in which they reject the power of their professors, but at the same time are depressing for the loss that goes with growth. The lady in Sarajevo decides that “in a world . . . full of young men, unslaughtered,” she should not be with “this man with thinning hair,” particularly after noticing that she “had become used to his complaining” and continued to say “I love you” as a reflex rather than her feelings (Weldon 155, 157). In ending the relationship, she loses his good graces in “supervising [her] thesis” for classical history (153). More importantly, just earlier she “adored him” and “loved to be seen with him” (155), so what she loses more is the ideal of a “professor-student romance” (154) to guide and direct her.

Carol visits John’s office with the ideal of being taught something important which she does not know, but is shocked to find that her professor takes no stake in the subject, saying that “it’s just a course, it’s just a book” (Manet 1375), as if he views higher education as mere busywork. He goes on to say that “the tests, you see, which you encounter, in school, in college, in life, were designed, in the most part, for idiots. By idiots,” that they are “nonsense” (1379). When she challenges him later, he brushes it off by saying “I understand. You’re hurt. You’re angry. Yes. I think your anger is betraying you” (1388). Here, he is assuming her complaints have no rational bias, but just stem from blinding emotions and a taste for vengeance. This condescending attitude represents a systemic treatment of women as inferior to men, as though they lack logic and are driven only by instinct. John confirms his chauvinistic leanings: when Carol directly addresses it by asking, “You think I am a frightened, repressed, confused, I don’t know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality, who wants, power and revenge. (Pause) Don’t you?,” he answers, “Yes, I do” (1394). This same mindset has justified centuries of subjugation by men, in voting, marriage, government, property rights, and the workforce, and the women’s movement is what Carol acts on when she announces, “I speak, yes, not for myself. But for the group; for those who suffer what I suffer” (1393). She comes in thinking that John’s lessons have merit and the problem is “I’m stupid. And I’ll never learn” (1375), but learns that he “[says] that higher education is a joke” and “[treats] it as such” (1388), which unfortunately disillusions her belief in the academic system (1375).

Both Peter and John are patronizing toward women; Peter says that his student has “a good mind but not a first-class mind” (Weldon 153), and John responds to Carol’s questions as though he is consoling a crying child: “Sshhhhh . . . let it go. (Pause) Just let it go. (Pause) Just let it go. It’s all right” (Mamet 1383). In the same vein of disrespect, John uses gender biased language, calling the tenure committee “Good Men and True” despite it being men and women (1388), and philosophizing, “but if he does not learn . . . then why is he in college?” (1383) when referring to the generic student.

Despite John and Peter being older and having more life experience, in the end they both degenerate into emotional responses and immaturity, while their students become more wise and strong. Peter’s student realizes the superficiality in her infatuation, but conversely recalls that her teacher “was spiteful, as it happened, and did his best to have my thesis refused,” yet she appeals and wins (Weldon 158). This appears to be his desperate attempt to regain the father-like authority he had as the object of her affection and supervisor of her thesis. And while Carol realizes that John is “vile” and “exploitative” (Manet 1388), going on to champion the women and students that he oppresses (1393), he resorts to holding her down to keep her from leaving (1390). When she corrects his language and challenges him on the behavior, the best he can do is to beat her, call her a “vicious little bitch,” and prepare to smash a chair over her head (1398). Score one for the women.

Role-Playing as Creon

Role-Playing as Creon.
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (70 KB).

Creon is the king from Antigone who orders the death of his niece, Antigone, for burying a traitor to the state. This is an imaginary question/answer from him, which he answers with an objective mind, after his death and having seen the present time.

Creon is asked, “does the individual really make a difference?”

This question should be rephrased as “is it realistically possible for the individual to make a meaningful difference”? Next, we need to define “meaningful difference.” It is all too easy to impact society negatively—through thievery, waste, or such as in my decision over Antigone’s fate, but the real challenge is to improve the world and those around you, and this is what we think of as “making a difference.” Doubtlessly, this is easier with those you are in close contact with—friends, family, and the citizens of your local community, as those are the ones who you have the most influence on. Making an impact across a continental nation such as the United States, in issues such as the recycling of paper and plastic products, or in helping the millions that are poor or homeless, is a harder task. Still, one finds solace in the fact that he or she is one of many who are helping to solve such issues, one link in the chain, so to speak. Even the largest task is started with a single action, a lowly ant is part of a thriving colony, a single soldier is essential to the great Theban army, one juror is the core of an entire democratic legal system.

In a position of power, such as myself as the king of Thebes, starting societal changes is far more possible. It takes a wise person to do good, however, and I look back with regret for denouncing Teiresias, and the domino effect that my mistaken decision to execute Antigone caused; I ended up following in the footsteps of Oedipus before me, a king blinded by stubbornness. Just as it is easier to lose a patient than to save him or her, it is simpler to do bad rather than good. It is cowardly to never back down; far braver is it to be the objective analyst who can acknowledge missteps. Those with the strength to do the latter are the ones who make a difference and improve the world, be it in their private affairs, or by helping to turn the tide in polluting corporations, unjust governments, or corrupted churches. Common sense and experience must prevail over authority and principle, for no book of laws can replace human reasoning. I recall lecturing Haemon, “Whoever the city shall appoint to rule, that man must be obeyed, in little things and great things, in just things and unjust” (541-543). What a pity it would be if Americans had subscribed to this, as then they would still be paying a premium for tea and sugar as a part of the British Empire! Yes, an individual really can make a difference, but be it by quitting smoking or by helping to reverse global warming, it takes a willingness to recognize faults, a commitment to improving, and the persistence to convince others to do the same.

Work Cited

Sophocles. Antigone. [c. 440 B.C.E.]. As published in The Humanistic Tradition, Vol. 1, Fifth Edition on pages 85-94 by Gloria K. Fiero. London: Laurence King Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Creon vs. Gilgamesh: Comparing and Contrasting Authority in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Antigone

Creon vs. Gilgamesh: Comparing and Contrasting Authority in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Antigone.
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (80 KB).

Two Kings Are Humbled

In our two stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh and Antigone, the people are ruled by imposing monarchs: Gilgamesh and Creon, respectively, who each use their power in differing ways. While Gilgamesh has “arrogance [having] no bounds by day or night,” (62), Creon, king of Thebes and protagonist in Antigone, admits that his worthiness in leadership will only be proven in action (140-42). Creon wants to be an ideal ruler, stating that as “supreme guardian of the State” he will always put the common welfare above friendship, and consider those who do not help the country prosper to be enemies. Gilgamesh, who “sounds the tocsin [alarm bell] for his amusement” and takes virgins from their lovers (62, 68), is uncaring and reckless in comparison.

Where Creon strives to be just, Gilgamesh is a man of action; he has built great walls to protect Uruk (61), and goes on a grand adventure, risking his life to gain prestige in the battle against Humbaba (70-84), who guards the cedar trees his people need. Creon seems attentive to detail: “Whoever the city shall appoint to rule, that man must be obeyed, in little things and great things, in just things and unjust” (541-43), but does not think that his whole argument may be wrong.

Antigone, Creon’s niece, puts the divine law requiring burial of her traitorous brother, Polynices, above the edict that none shall bury him. Despite Haemon, son of Creon, and the trusted advisor, Teiresias, imploring him not to, Creon goes ahead with the order to execute Antigone for her crime, with the steadfast rationalization that “disobedience is the worst of evils” (548) and “we must not let a woman defy us” (553).

We see much stubbornness in Gilgamesh too. Enkidu, trusted comrade to Gilgamesh, laments, “it is not an equal struggle when one fights with Humbaba,” and “What man would willingly walk into that country and explore its depths?,” (71) yet our hero persists and eventually succeeds in defeating Humbaba with Enkidu by his side. In his quest for immortality, he is chided by Sidura, “you will never find that life for which you are looking,” (102), and Utnapishtim advises, “there is no permanence” (106), yet he remains relentless in his fear, inspired by Enkidu’s death. Failure greets him, but he learns too: “You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny,” Enlil decrees (118), showing us that immortality would give Gilgamesh more power, but not happiness.

Clearly, both kings are unwavering, and that can be a great trait or a folly. In the case of Gilgamesh, he is triumphant in his arguably foolhardy struggle against Humbaba, and while failing to gain eternal life, learns a valuable lesson: do not be haughty and unjust, but rather a shepherd to your people, smart, wise, and fair in your dealings with your servants and subjects (62, 118). Creon stays true to his decision too, but it instead results in disaster and tragedy. When protested by his friends and family, he resorts to personal attacks, accusing Teiresias of providing “shameful counsels in fair words to earn a bribe” (707-08), and Haemon of being the “slave of a woman” for supporting Antigone (628), despite his argument being on her cause’s merits alone, and not even mentioning their engagement to be wed. It is only when Teiresias proclaims that the gods will strike him down for his actions (730-52) that Creon turns around, but it is too late as Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice, Creon’s wife, have all committed suicide over the dreadful matter. Creon is distraught. Depressingly, there is no mercy sang by the chorus: “Too late, too late your eyes are opened!” (872) and “. . . proud men who speak great works come in the end to despair” (927-29) is all we hear. This means he got what he deserved, as immersed in his pride he was blind to the truth. The stories, combined, show us that wisdom is knowing the difference between rightful persistence and foolish obstinacy.

Gilgamesh’s story covers many years; the events in Antigone occur within a single day. On one hand there is a sweeping epic, while on the other, a small, localized, and even trivial series of happenings. But where Gilgamesh awes, Antigone teaches. Surely we learn from Creon’s judgment, as in holding strong to save face in one venue he angers the gods, loses the respect of his people, and must cope with the death of his family resulting from his actions.

Authority shows itself as an overpowering force—a king can make or break a nation. The subjects of the monarch have learned to tolerate injustice, for in Gilgamesh they appeal to the gods, “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people?” (62). In Antigone, Haemon reveals the true feelings of the people: “None was ever doomed to a shameful death for deeds so noble as hers” (567-68), but no one dares announce this in public for fear of being punished as a traitor.

Whereas the tale of Creon and Antigone ends tragically, Gilgamesh is not so gloomy. Yes, we do see the death of our heroes, Enkidu and Gilgamesh, but we are taught that death is not something to be afraid of but rather a natural function that teaches us to value the time we have and to live with respect for others. “When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things, . . . dance and be merry, feast and rejoice,” Sidura advises (102).

Creon poses a particularly deep dilemma in the latter part of Antigone: “Tell me—am I to rule by my own judgment or the views of others?” (602-03). This sums up the rationalization of a lot of faulty kingship in both stories, as it is the ruler who is the moderator; to balance the views of the people, individual citizens, and his or her own ideas is principle to leadership, not to make decisions without counsel nor purely by democracy. Gilgamesh is guilty of this; a selfish ruler, he takes what he wants (62) and begins work for both men and women at the roll of a drum (68).

A once masterful king, “wise, [seeing] mysteries, and [knowing] secret things” (61), Gilgamesh, following the death of Enkidu, becomes haunted by his own mortality. “Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest,” he pleads his case to Urshanabi (103). Similarly Creon is a confident and resolute king, but in the face of such hardship yields to being a follower; we read him asking of his subjects: “What shall I do then? Speak, and I will obey” (761). In both of our tales the great become humbled—there is a ruler who is taught a lesson. This was an appealing theme over 2000 years ago, and still is now, as we think of authority, such as police officers, presidents, and even the old-fashioned kings, to be unfaltering. It is nice to see that they have flaws and pay heavy consequences for them, as when much is given, much is expected.

Works Cited

Gilgamesh. Epic of Gilgamesh, The. [c. 2500 B.C.E.]. Penguin Classics edition with introduction by N. K. Sandars. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972.
Sophocles. Antigone. [c. 440 B.C.E.]. As published in The Humanistic Tradition, Vol. 1, Fifth Edition on pages 85-94 by Gloria K. Fiero. London: Laurence King Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

The Sacrificial Pepper

The Sacrificial Pepper: An Analysis of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Green Chile.”
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-03-25 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (70 KB).

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Green Chile” is a poem of love and sacrifice, symbolized through two types of chile peppers. The author blandly states that his preference is for “red chile over my eggs / and potatoes for breakfast” (1-2), but his grandmother “loves green chile” (11), chopping one up with “mysterious passion on her face” (31). Baca says that “red chile ristras decorate my door, / dry on my roof, and hang from my eaves” (3-4), showing that the red-colored versions are used frequently as decorations, giving an “air of festive welcome” (7), yet they often go uneaten. His grandmother offers him the green variety “with beans and rice,” (34), which he calls “her sacrifice / to her little prince” (34-35). This makes green chile sound different, more sacred and mysterious, while red chile is not as special. The author shows us “a well-dressed gentleman at the door” (19), and then writes of his grandmother “rubbing its firmly glossed sides” (21), which is more like the description of a chile pepper than a man. Referring to “her little prince” (35) may be an allusion to the author, her grandson. The peppers take on a life of their own, in the grandmother and the author’s minds. They are “her sacrifice,” (34), perhaps meaning that she has given up her youth and ambitions to raise and protect her grandson and the rest of her family.

The green chiles are not Baca’s favorite, as when eating them, he says “my mouth burns / and I hiss and drink a tall glass of cold water” (37-38). However, he does not refuse them, evidently out of respect for his grandmother and the heritage that the peppers represent. He waxes philosophical of “sunburned men and women,” driving “rickety trucks stuffed with gunny sacks / of green chile,” selling them “for a dollar a bag,” it being a “beautiful ritual” (39-45). Despite his liking for the less spicy red peppers, he accepts green chiles because they are a traditional staple which his grandmother loves. This shows reciprocal sacrifice on his part; he eats the food of his forefathers to please his grandmother, despite the uncomfortable burning in his mouth.

To the author, red chiles represent strength and history, while his grandmother prefers green chiles for their youth and passion. Baca talks of the red pepper’s “historical grandeur” (6), being like “haggard, yellowing, crisp, rasping tongues of old men, licking the breeze” (9-10). Here, he is likening the red chiles to wise elders, who recount riveting tales of their livid past. Conversely, the green chile is “voluptuous, masculine” (15), having “authority and youth” (16). We know that the color red is often associated with love and passion (as with red roses), so it is counter-intuitive that the colors are flipped with the chiles. However, green chiles are unripe like green bananas; they ripen and change colors, turning red, after which they are normally dried and preserved. They must be cooked or frozen quickly, so they are a regional specialty. This goes along with the grandmother’s fascination with them; their “air of authority and youth” (16) comes from them literally being younger than red chiles.

The elderly grandmother prefers produce representing sensuality and passion, while the youthful grandson prefers the pepper of tradition and formality; however, it is more usual to associate tradition with the aged. We see that the green chile is like a fiery young lover to the grandmother, as she compares it to “a well-dressed gentleman at the door,” whom she “takes sensuously in her hand,” “caressing the oily rubber serpent, / with mouth-watering fulfillment, / fondling its curves with gentle fingers” (19-24). Descriptors like “caressing” and “fondling” are apt for romantic love, not a common vegetable. However, here the green chile is a metaphor for the grandmother’s passionate love, though it may be unfulfilled. If the pepper is a person then he is soon killed, as “she thrusts her blade into [the green chile] / and cuts it open, with lust / on her hot mouth” (27-29). This shows that her lover must be sacrificed for the benefit of her grandson, and it becomes the part of a glorious meal, as Baca illustrates: “she serves me green chile con carne / between soft warm leaves of corn tortillas / with beans and rice—her sacrifice” (32-34), going along with her forfeiting her passions for familial obligations.

The chiles are an “old, beautiful ritual,” to be relived “again and again.” What does this mean? We can clearly see that the vegetables are an important part of New Mexican tradition, and so this is why they are deserving of a poem. It also represents the untiring effort that the New Mexican workers and farmers put into their chiles, as “you see them roasting green chile / in screen-sided homemade barrels” (43-44). The barrels are made carefully by hand, yet the chiles fetch a paltry “dollar a bag” (44). However, this keeps them accessible to even the poor, and shows sacrifice on the part of the workers. It is curious that Baca shows little emotion in the last stanza, despite his vivid depiction of his grandmother’s preparation of the green chile, but I take it as a sweeping demonstration of recognition and respect for the ritual of the chile peppers. In forty-five eloquent lines, we are shown that food is love and love is sacrifice. Baca makes these connections beautifully; while the subject is common, the message is unique.

Work Cited

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “Green Chile.” Jimmy Santiago Baca: Poetry, Writing, Chicano Literature. 25 Mar. 2008 <http://www.jimmysantiagobaca.com/greenchile.html>.

Victor Frankenstein: Trodden Hero or Veiled Villain?

Victor Frankenstein: Trodden Hero or Veiled Villain?
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece analyzed. Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-02-20 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays
PDF version (80 KB).

Victor Frankenstein suffers decision paralysis in any time of crisis. While valiant in his struggles to create life, he immediately becomes the coward, assuming his creation to be a menace and running from it in terror: “one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs” (Shelley 51). It’s hard to trust Victor to be a reliable narrator, when he claims helplessness with such vigor, for example, in the second encounter with his monster, he recounts, “I thought of pursuing the devil, but it would have been in vain” (70). When the creature kills little William and frames Justine, Victor does nothing to save her from her unjust execution: “a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me” (76). He is merely pacifying his conscious with a shallow justification.

This aversion to action is a persistent theme throughout the novel. These examples just scratch the surface:
• “I could not answer” (83).
• “The being finished speaking and fixed his looks upon me in the expectation of a reply. But I was bewildered, perplexed, and unable to arrange my ideas sufficiently” (146).
• “I would have seized him, but he eluded me” (172).
• “I was unable to pursue the train of thought . . . and I wept bitterly” (189). Frankenstein finds solace in crying over his dilemma.

This is his flawed argument for destroying the female monster: “she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness” (169). Has Victor not already heard the monster’s lengthy tale of how he became soured on humanity? It is established that the monster’s malice is due to others mistreating him, so Victor’s argument seems merely an excuse to abandon his work.

Dr. Frankenstein continually underestimates the being’s malice and power. Even after two murders, he taunts, “you may torture me, but I will never consent” (146). Is he so blind to not see that he is condemning his friends and family to death, rather than himself? Further, he interprets “I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (172) to mean that Elizabeth is not in danger. He looks ahead: “in that hour I should die and at once satisfy and extinguish his malice,” the only negative being the “tears and endless sorrow, when [Elizabeth] should find her lover so barbarously snatched from her” (173). Victor justifies going forward with the wedding, purporting that the monster will do what he pleases anyway: “he did not consider that threat as binding him . . . he had murdered Clerval immediately” (194). Yet somehow, he is shocked and dismayed when it Elizabeth that is murdered (202). Did he not hear his creature’s pleas for a companion, or is he blind to both apportioned revenge, and the axiom, “misery loves company”? Is not the death of Victor’s wife the most logical revenge for the death of the monster’s would-be wife? The monster promises such revenge outright: “Shall each man . . . find a wife for his bosom . . . and I be alone? . . . Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” He goes on to say, “you shall repent of the injuries you inflict” (172), foreshadowing drawn out misery for the doctor, rather than a hasty death. Apparently, Mr. Frankenstein never learns.

Why did Shelley write Victor this way? First, we can identify a literary element: if Victor stops the monster before he commits murders, the book would not be interesting. But it is more—perhaps it is because we are so quick to trust and empathize with Victor, as he is the narrator throughout the tale, that we must come to see, through his indifference, he is actually more evil than his creation. When I first read the book, I pegged Frankenstein as good. Even though he admits to being the murderer several times, such as this lamentation: “I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer” (88), to me, he is only crying for help, like Justine’s coerced confession (81-82). However, through the above analysis, we find that Frankenstein is apt to be an unreliable narrator, biased to support his inaction. His warning of the monster: “he is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not” (216), may better describe himself. As in legal tort, he has a “duty to rescue” his family from his now malevolent creation, yet he continually ignores it; his best idea is repeatedly shouting “wretched devil!” and “abhorred monster!” (95), followed by promising to create a woman, only to “[tear it] to pieces” (170). For the monster, this is sadistic torment, but the doctor excuses himself again, claiming it to be preferable to “[inflicting] this curse upon everlasting generations” (170). In the words of Edmund Burke, “no passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear,” and I see that Frankenstein is crippled by fear, wavering on any decision. Shelley has written a subtle allegory between the lines: do not believe narration immediately, as even if it appears trustworthy, it is always written in the interests of the narrator. Frankenstein tells us many times that his fate is sealed: “destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction” (33), but he really is a man who loves misery—a murderer through negligence, who wishes for pity in his twisted account. He is the real devil.

Going further, there is a connection that suggests Frankenstein subconsciously desires William and Justine to be struck dead. As a youth, he thinks of Elizabeth as “[his] more than sister, since till death she was to be [his] only” (26). In her ominous letter, she writes to the newly homesick Victor, “Justine has returned to us, and I assure you I love her tenderly,” and “little darling William” has “sweet laughing blue eyes, dark eyelashes, and curling hair” (60). His reluctance to pursue the monster (70) or exonerate Justine (76) could be out of selfishness—he will now have Elizabeth’s love all to himself, despite her crushed spirit.

But wait—are you ready to take this to the next level? Maybe, just maybe, Frankenstein and his monster are one in the same. Frankenstein is Dr. Jekyll and the monster is Mr. Hyde, not through a scientific transformation, but dualistic personalities. Whenever the two appear together, be it in their discussions in the mountains, or encounters in the forest or arctic, there is no one around to see them. This quote is merely Frankenstein’s dark side overtaking him: “you are my creator, but I am your master; — obey!” (171). After Elizabeth’s murder, Frankenstein recollects, “I rushed towards the window, and drawing a pistol from my bosom, fired; but he eluded me” (202), followed by the monster vanishing, not to be found even after a search of several hours in and about the lake. Frankenstein himself admits, “we returned hopeless, most of my companions believing it to have been a form conjured up by my fancy” (202). Perhaps this is the truth? Afterwards, Victor mourns, “a fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was” (203). Remaining “silent when [he] would have given the world to have confided the fatal secret” (191), I see that the secret is not that he created a monster; the secret is that he is the monster. This intensifies his guilt and seclusion, adds weight to his terrible illness and remorse, and gives truth to the statement he makes in his nightmarish haze: “Justine, poor unhappy Justine, was as innocent as I, and she suffered the same charge; she died for it; and I am the cause of this — I murdered her. William, Justine, Henry — they all died by my hands” (190). This is not the remorse of a moral but self-blaming man, but rather the admission of a bipolar assassin who is tortured by having no one with whom to share his monstrous deeds. When he says about the dæmon: “once his words even had power over my heart” (216), he is talking about the dark side of his conscious. The whole act of creating a woman is to satisfy Frankenstein himself; he realizes that Elizabeth would never be his wife if she knew he was a blood-thirsty murderer, and so he wants a monster so that “we shall be more attached to one another,” “cut off from all the world” (147). I propose that all the references to monstrousness are metaphors for Victor’s black heart, and that Shelley has created a work of art that is truly Romantic; the entire novel miserable and revolutionary, a battle of light versus dark, good versus evil, all wrapped up in one self-contradictory character. Shelley, by writing in such a complex undertone, has given her novel depth; it is infinitely more interesting than the standard good versus bad, white hat versus black hat, or even the edgier hubris (flaw of arrogance). The dualism is in the narrator’s very statements: “Justine . . . was as innocent as I,” yet “they all died by my hands” (190); the inactive reader skips right over it. Frankenstein is the veiled villain.

Work Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Random House, 1992.

Critical Analysis: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The first entry in my new essays section. The story of Omelas is a fascinating classic, and I recommend it for anyone who likes to think.

A Critical Analysis of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a short, fictional story by Ursula Le Guin. Question-and-answer format. Text included. Essay and annotation by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-01-18 — http://richardxthripp.thripp.com/essays/
PDF version, with an annotated copy of the text (1.3MB).

Question One: What is a utopia? Does Omelas meet the definition?
Omelas is a utopia, though not of the lifeless type that the word inspires. Le Guin notes that the inhabitants are not “bland utopians,” not “simple folk,” nor “dulcet shepherds” (2). The residents need not live simply—there can be all sorts of luxuries, wondrous technologies, drugs, beer, and orgies in the streets, because their happiness is not based on possessions, but rather, “a just discrimination of what is necessary,” “what is destructive,” and what is neither (2). This insight is the definition of a utopia; when everyone knows it, wars, slavery, and competition is not needed (2-3). The children are happy, and the adults, “mature, intelligent, [and] passionate” (2), with no need for a hierarchal church or government (2-3). The city is beautiful, the weather and harvests are kind and abundant, and most everyone healthy (5), yet this is just the icing on the cake. It is indeed a utopia, for all except the suffering child (4-5).

Question Two: What is the narrator’s opinion of Omelas?
Our narrator sympathizes with the citizens of Omelas, even going so far as to name the child’s plight as the source of all compassion in the town. “There is no vapid, irresponsible happiness”; all the residents know that “they, like the child, are not free” from the “terrible justice of reality” (6)—that one human, just as important as any other, must be dehumanized for the democratic benefit of the majority. Knowing of the child “makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science” (6); it drives and inspires, gives compassion and robs the people of their innocence. “To throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed,” Le Guin reasons (6). The few that leave, leave without incident, in the dead of night never to return, as their quite protest, going “through the beautiful gates” and farmlands, “to a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (7). The narrator seems to find the dilemma at Omelas to be acceptable, as he calls those who leave “incredible” (6), saying that he “cannot describe it at all,” but “they seem to know where they are going” (7). His opinion, like the adults in Omelas, is that idealism must yield to pragmatism; it is too much to ask for everyone to give up the niceties to save one person from a life of torture and suffering.

Question Three: What is the symbolic connotation of the locked, windowless cellar in which the lone child suffers?
The forsaken child is the rotten foundation which their beautiful society rests on. In the iconic words of Honoré de Balzac, “behind every great fortune there is a crime,” and the crime here is that the utopia of Omelas is supported on strict terms: “there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child” (6), lest he be pulled, even for a second, out of his “abominable misery” (5). Children learn the terrible fact between eight and twelve, and no matter how well their parents explain and justify it in advance, the new discovery is sickening and angering (5). It may take months or years, but they will come to accept the torture of one for the benefit of the many—pragmatism will rule over whatever ideals they once held, as they know that the very hour they would save the child, “all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed” (6). Quite a price indeed. We have ethical dilemmas in the real world that are similar yet more murky, such as euthanasia for the hopelessly ill and elderly, triaging in disasters and on the battleground (not every limb, person, or finger can be saved), and wars that are supposably1 fought for the good of the world, but result in millions of deaths and injuries. The story of Omelas symbolizes them all, and as in all such systems, there are some who “walk straight out of the city” (7), never to return, unwilling to bear the guilt. Others gain peace of mind by deciding that the lost child could not possibly be human. He or she is sub-human, and is instead referred to as “it” (4-6), “too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy” (6), and thus the crime is just.

Question Four: In the story, do you find any implied criticism of our own society?
Le Guin criticizes “a bad habit” that trickles down from the “pedants and sophisticates” (2), the classy intellectuals that teach us to celebrate pain over pleasure, violence over peace, and despair over delight. We are taught that “happiness [is] something rather stupid,” while the “banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” (2) is replaced by fascination with death, deviance, and necromancy. A utopia is a backwards kingdom filled with happy, simple-minded subjects. In the real utopia, there are no careless princesses to be rescued by valiant princes, no arch-bishops to create the newest refinements to an oppressive religion, and no misguided soldiers to fight bloody wars in the name of freedom. You can be happy and peaceful without being a naïve, passionless simpleton. When we come to believe that “only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting,” we have come to “lose hold of everything else” (2). No technological wonders can provide happiness when our thinking is collectively flawed. “Joy built upon successful slaughter” will not do; we must be joyous like the citizens of Omelas, where “the victory they celebrate is that of life” (3), and not of death and suffering.