Romanesque and Gothic Styles in Ecclesiastical Architecture: A Visual Comparison

Romanesque and Gothic Styles in Ecclesiastical Architecture: A Visual Comparison.
A presentation by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 —
PDF version (700 KB).


^ The flying buttress, attached to the wall with a half-arch, supports the ceiling of a Gothic church, for the first time allowing large stained-glass windows to decorate the structures, in contrast with the thick walls required in their Romanesque counterparts. Instead of being dark and gloomy, Gothic churches could be warmly lit by bright sunshine.


^ With the sun behind them, stained-glass windows are quite impressive. They illustrated biblical passages to the illiterate populace and provided light, such as in the Canterbury Cathedral’s windows, pictured above. The great height, helped by the pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, is intended to make the church seem closer to God.

churches-03 churches-04

^ The rounded arches of Winchester Cathedral (first) are a staple of the Romanesque era. It is not until the Gothic era that the advantaged pointed arches (second) become widespread. Being more true to the forces of compression, they are stronger and can be build higher, as an increase in height does not require so much distance between the endpoints.


^ A Romanesque cathedral started in 1067, Saint-Etienne exhibits the rounded arches, grandiose presence, and dedication to geometric symmetry that is common among the churches of its time.


^ The Seville Cathedral, the largest of the Gothic era, with its lone tower, features less symmetry. The rounded arches on the tower and dome vault show that elements of the Romanesque period persist.

churches-07 churches-08

^ On top, we see the classic barrel vaulting of a Romanesque ceiling,
with the more modern ribbed vaulting of the Gothic period below.
The difference is similar to that of rounded arches and pointed arches:
barrel vaults must be large and have thick walls on their sides so as not to
collapse, whereas ribbed vaulting distributes the weight on the pillars more evenly.


^ A diagram of ribbed valuting.


^ With its construction beginning in 1136, the Saint-Denis Basilica, pictured above, is the first of the Gothic cathedrals. Pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, once again, set it apart from its Romanesque contemporaries.


^ Many churches, such as Binsted’s Church of the Holy Cross above, combine elements from both eras, such as with the mixture of pointed and rounded arches. It is not always clear whether a church should be considered “Gothic” or “Romanesque.”

Oleanna Role-Playing

Oleanna Role-Playing.
Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-07-17 —
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 —
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.

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 —
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 —
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.