Masculinity in The Eye of the World

Masculinity is expected to be presented and challenged in traditional epic tales. Texts that include epic journeys of their protagonists, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Bible, capture challenges that call into question man’s courage, strength, intelligence, love, dedication, and more.  I mean, just look at Odysseus here, rendered helpless, with the sirens encroaching:

Odysseus and the Sirens

So when I picked up the first book in Robert Jordan’s 14-book series The Wheel of TimeThe Eye of the World (American, 1990), I was not surprised that this epic tale centers on a quest to purify the masculine half of the One Power, which is integral in turning the Wheel of Time.

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The Greatest Darkness in Sanshiro

Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country.  Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women.  In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.”  The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.”  In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.”  This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education.  For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.”  His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.”  He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.

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Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

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The Draught of Time is a Woman’s Plague

Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought (British, 1964), in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him.  Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are.  For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye.  For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is.  If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering.  He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.

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I Can’t Forgive Alice Vavasor

Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness.  The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst.  Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin.  Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period.  An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve.  In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors.  Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground.  Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess!  Forgiveness does not apply to the case!”  Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined.  What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.

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Murder Fantasies in 20th-Century Male Fiction

I didn’t intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I’ve been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction.  This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny:  Nabokov’s Lolita, Thompson’s The Nothing Man, Ellis’s American Psycho, and Hamsun’s Hunger(ok, this novel isn’t quite 20th century –1890 — but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction).  In each of the these texts the hero’s actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him.  The thought of brutally murdering these women — anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers — seems, at times, to be the only force  pushing him onward through his unique journey.

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Ruth Hall and Homeopathy

Ruth Hall (British, 1854) is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a “continuous story” rather than a novel.  It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity.  At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship.  Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself.  Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women’s writing and economics.  The “domestic tale” is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a livable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.

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