‘Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses in magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.’ Aristotle, Poetics (4th Century BC). – Examining Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

What defines a piece of literature as a tragedy? How subjective is the categorization of a text – is it open to individual interpretation or must it conform to a set of pre-existing rules? In the 4th century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle set out that very thing, a set of rules that, as he saw it, defined what a tragedy was. But looking to a 20th century play such as Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, do these rules still apply? Through analysis of the various elements of Beckett’s play and the various dramatic and linguistic techniques he employs, we can begin to understand to what degree the play can be said to conform to Aristotle’s description, or equally, to what degree it departs from said definition, and what effect this achieves.

Endgame is a play steeped in negativity from the outset. Dissecting Beckett’s opening stage directions we are given the impression of a stage that is shaped like a skull, with the two windows as eyes and Hamm as lead protagonist acting as the mouthpiece. The skull, as a universal symbol of death, thus foreshadows all events that take place upon the stage. As do the opening lines, Clov stating ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ The grim finality of these words is undeniable, they hint towards an ending, just as the very title of the play does too. Thus, from the play’s outset, so many aspects already point towards tragedy, helping to create, as Aristotle outlines, a sense of magnitude. It is significant also, that this sense is created through means other than narrative – the tragedy is something beyond the simple story of the play, instead becoming a far more overarching and powerful theme.

At the core of the play lies the relationship between Hamm and Clov. Clov’s position is highly submissive; he is the servant to Hamm’s whim, fulfilling his every wish. Yet despite this, there is an odd symbiosis to them, they are dependent on each-other and seemingly can’t function independently. This is highlighted in the final parts of the play where Clov tries to leave, but ultimately can’t, Hamm stating ‘It’s we are obliged to each other’. It is a relationship steeped in tragedy; looking to Aristotle’s definition we can find both pity and fear in copious measures.

We pity both characters, Clov most obviously for his thankless servitude to Hamm. Hamm is also a subject for pity though. On a base level, he is the most powerful character, but as the play progresses, we realise he is also highly vulnerable and with his inability to stand, is limited in his movement. This depiction of him draws allusions to the play’s title and its reference to chess terminology, Hamm becoming the king. He is a character of constant contradictions, nothing about him is whole or ordered, and thus we pity him and his fractured nature – the tragedy being that he in so many ways is incomplete, so much so that he almost becomes inhuman.

One of the most significant elements of tragedy is its way to affect us – the audience – to make us feel the same feelings of despair and loss that are affecting the characters. One of the key elements of this sense of despair is the sheer pity we feel for the individuals of the play, most specifically, the trash can-bound Nagg and Nell. With no legs, they are at the mercy of Hamm and Clov, depending on them completely. And when Nell dies, she is dismissed with a simple ‘Go and see is she dead… Looks like it.’ The almost casual way at which her death is brushed aside is horrendously brutal and opposes Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. There is nothing admirable here, nothing pleasurable, no catharsis, only misery and death.

Many critics of Endgame have stated that its setting is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic scenario – survivors living out their existence in a bunker in the middle of a desolate wasteland. This is a picture of the ultimate tragedy; death and loss of the highest scale imaginable. In a means unimaginable to Aristotle, tragedy is now elevated to something far beyond individual people, becoming something immense, much like the overriding sense of misery that Beckett has constructed in the play.

The concept of a post-apocalyptic scenario is also important in terms of relation to Hamm’s name. In the Bible, ‘Ham’ was the son of Noah. Noah led the world to new beginnings after the apocalyptic power of the flood God unleashed on the world. The tragedy here is that after the whole-scale destruction, the ‘Hamm’ of Endgame fails completely to leave the shelter of his ‘ark’ and make new beginnings, instead choosing to continue his squalid existence in limbo.

In his definition of tragedy Aristotle stresses the importance of a tragedy employing pleasurable language. On first glance, it would appear there is little opportunity for language of this sort, Hamm and Clov’s abrupt, snappy interchanges sometimes amounting to no more than one word per sentence. But looking at a selection of key quotes from the play, we can see evidence of eloquence and the potential for pleasure in the use of language. There is the repetition of ‘finished’ found in Clov’s opening line; a simple technique but one that drums into us the degree to which ‘finishing’ encapsulates this play. Thus, in a way, the tragedy of things coming to an end is made pleasurable and cathartic through the skill of wordplay.

The play is bound up in many examples of this repetition, the play’s title hinting at an end that constantly seems close, but which never comes. Hamm and Clov’s lives become almost meaningless, as they theorise ‘Gone from me you’d be dead… And vice versa’. They cannot live independently and thus a vicious cycle of co-dependence is created. Trivial tasks such as the administering of painkillers and looking out of the window become the highlights of their existence.

The overall sense within the play’s setting is one of chaos and disorder, of imperfect lives. Clov longs for ‘A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place’, thus, he longs for order. But the irony is that the world where all is silent and still lies right outside the windows in the desolate wasteland. Perhaps this then is why the thought of leaving appeals so much to Clov. Of course though, in the end, he doesn’t, and the repetition of the norm is continued. In this, the overriding misery of the play is continued and we are made to question that despite whatever skill and ingenuity Beckett puts into his writing, because of the subject matter, can it truly be considered pleasurable? In so much of Endgame, the characters’ dialogue is unsettling and disconcerting, thus going against Aristotle’s traditional definition of tragedy.

What catharsis can be found amongst the tragedy though? In our own lives we suffer from our own fears and moments of sadness, but when compared to the scale on offer in Endgame; the utter bizarreness of proceedings and the sense of overriding misery, our own troubles seems insignificant. The environment of the play is a constructed one, the characters are tools in Beckett’s hands and he manipulates them to create emotions that are heightened far above normal reality. Thus, while the characters suffer, the audience can sit back and be thankful their lives are not as bad as what they are witnessing. In a way this sense of aloofness mirrors the relationship between Hamm & Clov who spectate on the bins of the unimportant Nagg and Nell.

As a whole, it is undeniable that Endgame contains elements of tragedy. The play is saturated in the fear, pity and misery that Aristotle speaks of in his definition. But does containing elements of tragedy make it a tragedy in itself? While the play conforms to many elements of Aristotle’s description, it also departs from aspects of it too. The language is not always pleasurable and while the sense of tragedy is great, the means by which it is constructed are not. No great hero is slain, no immense war lost; instead there is only the festering existence of two damaged individuals locked into a pitiful life of repetition.

Aristotle wrote his definition of tragedy in the 4th century BC, a world far removed from contemporary times. Has the meaning of tragedy changed with the times? Has it had to change because of the times? Endgame presents us with an intensely personal window into the lives of four individuals, who in extreme confinement, allow us to see the extremities of human emotions and personality laid bare. Beckett, in his construction of the play, turns tragedy to his own ends, picking the elements he sees important, adapting from Aristotle’s original description to fit his own purposes. So while we may not see tragedy in its purest traditional form evidenced in Endgame, its presence to some degree is without doubt.

 

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor, ‘Trying to understand Endgame’, The New German Critique, no. 26: 1982

Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, Faber and Faber: 2009

Cohn, Norman, Noah’s Flood: Genesis Story in Western Thought, Yale University Press: 1996

Cohn, Ruby, Back to Beckett, Princeton University Press: 1974

How, and with what effect, do Joan Didion’s The White Album and Philip Roth’s Writing American Fiction appeal to the reader’s emotions?

A piece of writing, by its very nature, represents a link between writer and reader. This bond is of immense importance, for it represents how the author’s work is interpreted by their audience, what they take from their words. And at the heart of this lies one fundamental element, how does the writing appeal to the reader’s emotions, and what effect does this have on their reading of the text. Joan Didion’s The White Album and Philip Roth’s Writing American Fiction represent two distinct examples of the essay form and by investigating this concept of targeting the reader’s emotions in these two pieces we can begin to uncover the reasons why this technique can achieve such a powerful effect, as well as understanding why the authors of these pieces write in the way they do.

At their most base level, emotions are tied into human nature, and in these two essays one key aspect of human nature that comes into play is a desire for information, to want to know more, to hear stories. It’s this desire which has led us to read the piece in question and a desire to share information that has led the author to write it in the first place. And through this sharing of information, there also comes a sharing of emotions. This ties into Joan Didion’s job as a journalist – her work places her in a role wherein her duty is to present us with information in such a way that we can draw our own conclusions on it.

Didion’s essay is something of a hybrid. Is it even an essay to begin with? Or is it a piece of journalism? Or even an autobiography? The truth is that it contains elements of all these forms, and it is through the intermingling of these forms that the reader gets to know Didion as a person, how the initial bond of writer/reader transforms into something more personal, something that is intensely emotional. A great deal of this is derived from the way Didion constructs her essay from a series of unrelated events. Though initially it would appear this format of flash-cuts from her life might be confusing and disorientating, it is through a theory she herself outlines that the true effect of this method is unveiled.

In the opening paragraph of her essay she states “We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images”. As the essay progresses the reader realises that what they are doing within their mind is the same process that Didion has outlined in the opening. The realisation of this brings with it an admiration for her knowledge of the workings of the human mind as well as a sense of community. Her use of ‘we’ is important, including the reader and prompting a feeling of friendship between her and her audience. Didion’s essay is interesting in that it presents an intensely personal autobiographical style against a more factual journalistic side. Meanwhile, Roth’s essay is far more traditional in its format, and while this may present a more straightforward means of presenting its points to the readership, it can be questioned whether it works on the reader’s emotions to the degree that The White Album does. Instead of simply spoon-feeding us the various elements of her piece; Didion instead makes us work at them, ultimately making her essay far more effective in the conveyance of its message.

One key technique both writers use to appeal to the reader’s emotions is the sense of location. Didion recognises it as she states “Living in America shaped me”, and Roth expands on the idea, explaining “But the America that we find him in seems to me to be the America of his childhood, and (if only in a metaphoric way) of everyone’s childhood”. Both writers believe that a fundamental of a person’s being is based on where they grew up, that experiences play a vital part in creating a person. This backs up Didion’s ‘flash-cut’ concept, where a collection of experiences comes together to present ‘her’.

Both writers’ essays are infused with numerous cultural references; from other writers, to musicians and songs, films, journals and politics – a myriad of aspects of modern life that we as the reader can associate and empathise with. Our emotions are tied into the society and culture of the everyday world that surrounds us, so by touching on these aspects, Roth and Didion appeal to the reader, drawing them further into the essay, its accessibility increased through the introduction of the components of the everyday.

Placing the two essays in a boarder context, both can be said to contain aspects of Gonzo journalism. What is crucial here is the emphasis this form places on impact over truth. Instead of a focus on cold, hard fact, there is a desire to touch the reader’s emotions. Roth’s essay begins with a perfect example of the subjective, first-person narrative format of the Gonzo movement, “Several winters back, while I was living in Chicago”. His use of “So far as I know,” also stands in direct contrast to traditional journalistic values of fidelity – this unsurity is a technique used frequently in Didion’s essay too and appeals to the reader’s emotions, its effect being to lower the writer down to the reader’s level – just like the reader, they do not know everything.

Roth does not just establish a sense of unity however, he also provokes outrage. In Writing American Fiction he outlines a murder case, but his description of it is full of black humour as he describes a popular song and competition that spring up out of the case. The stark contrast between the grim reality of the subject matter and the joyous, light-hearted mediums Roth presents is shocking to the reader, provoking a significant emotional response. He goes on to describe the mother of the two murdered girls as “poor woman”; the irony being that she is neither poor nor deserving of our sympathy. This is again a classic example of Gonzo techniques, the writer’s subjectivity placing impact over facts. Thus, the reader is involved further in the essay as they formulate their own opinions on the subject matter and counter them against the writer’s own choice of words and tone.

Didion employs a similar technique in The White Album where she presents a medical analysis, describing the subject as “highly unconventional and frequently bizarre” – it is only afterwards that the reader discovers that the individual being described is Didion herself. Again, the emphasis is all on impact. By making public something private, Didion creates an air of openness and we are forced to evaluate her character. Does our opinion of her change due to our knowledge of her psychological irregularities? Do we trust her more for her honesty? All these elements show how Didion’s essay appeals to the readers emotions.

An interesting point is that following on from the medical analysis, Didion employs further scientific language as she describes her essay as an “alchemy of issues”. The use of terminology is a crucial one and highlights how she is purposefully choosing and mixing a variety of subject matters so as to best target the reader’s emotions.

While Didion presents a very intense personal outlook on emotion, Roth instead focuses on the bigger picture. He states, “When Edmund Wilson says that after reading Life magazine he feels he does not belong to the country depicted there, that he does not live in this country, I understand what he means.” In this statement, we are presented with the concept that the journalism of America presents not the reality of the country, but a kind of idealised fiction. The media presents an image of life that people aspire to, finding energy to strive towards a goal and joy in achieving it – it is a concept that to a degree defines society and every person’s life, including that of the reader’s. They are part of this, and Roth’s essay uses this concept to reach out and touch their emotions too.

Both Didion’s and Roth’s essays employ a variety of techniques to achieve this effect throughout their duration, their power stemming from the way they intermingle with so many aspects of modern life. Like the media and newspapers themselves, which Roth at one point described as having “took over”, it is a significant power, and highlights just how effective words can be at penetrating right to the heart of a person’s emotions. Whether it be trust, shock, joy or understanding, the two writers delve deep into how these emotions are created and thus, by very association, how those same emotions go on to effect us too.

 

Bibliography

Didion, Joan, The White Album, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2009

Hirst, Martin, ‘What Is Gonzo? The Etymology of an Urban Legend’, University of Queensland Press: 2004 [http://eprint.uq.edu.au/archive/00000776/01/mhirst_gonzo.pdf] (accessed 2nd April 2010)

Keeble, Richard, Print Journalism: A Critical Introduction, Routledge: 2005

Olster, Stacey, Reminiscence and Re-creation in Contemporary American Fiction, Cambridge University Press: 2009

Roth, Philip, Reading Myself And Others, Vintage Books USA: 2001

Whitt, Jan, Women in American Journalism: A New History, University of Illinois Press: 2008

A close analysis of ‘Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’

In Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth is keen to establish a general sense of connectivity between the poems contained within the compilation. Indeed, by its very nature, the various pieces collected together conjure up greater levels of meaning when taken as a whole, compared and contrasted with each-other. Similarities can be picked out, as well as differences, common themes throwing up links between two distinct works. By performing a close analysis of the poems, picking up on linguistic techniques and the effect these achieve we can gain a better understanding of Wordsworth’s intentions.

Looking at Wordsworth’s poem Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening at its most fundamental level, it is defined by a highly precise structure. Each line is comprised of 8 syllables and the rhyme scheme follows a strict A, B, A, B pattern. This conveys a sense of order and regularity that fits in with Wordsworth’s descriptions of the river as something rich and beautiful. This presents an interesting contrast with Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbery – here there is no rhyme scheme and the poem is far longer than …near Richmond, giving the sense of something far more rough and untamed. Indeed, Wordworth’s descriptions are full of evocative language that backs this up; a ‘wild secluded scene’ and ‘unripe fruit’. Here, there is that touch of the unpredictable and the chaotic.

This plays into a broader theme that under the initial, tranquil appearance of nature, there is a darker side. …near Richmond is full of this undercurrent, Wordsworth filling the poem with description of the ‘silent’, ‘dark’ and ‘gloom’. There is a sense of foreboding that also finds itself permeating into …Tintern Abbey too, with talk of ‘seclusion’. The image of nature given here is of something that you could at any moment find yourself lost within, completely consumed. The depiction of ‘wreathes of smoke’ progresses the dark imagery even further, touching on the theme of death. Here, we think of wreathes of flowers laid at a funeral, nature taking on its most dark overtones. The idea of smoke is significant too, it is something that masks and blinds, just as the dark side is hidden behind a more benevolent facade. Thus, the river, described in both poems as being ‘fair’, is also a thing that holds the potential for darkness, that it possesses a sinister side too. It is this juxtaposition that lies at the heart of both pieces.

The idea of nature being multi-faceted ties into numerous descriptive devices in both poems that personify nature. In …near Richmond, the narrator exclaims ‘O Thames! …come to me.’ By talking directly to the river, the narrator sets up a bond that goes beyond a person simply admiring a thing of beauty, it becomes something alive, capable of heeding the narrator’s call. In …Tintern Abbey the narrator personifies the river, describing it as ‘the nurse, the guide’, even going so far as to call it ‘My dear, dear Friend’. The fact ‘Friend’ is capitalised shows the extent to which Wordsworth places importance on it as something beyond being merely a river. Instead it becomes something living, something that shares an intense bond with him. The fact this theme transcends over both poems outlines how Wordsworth’s beliefs in nature find themselves invested in so much of his work. The scale of the theme, like Wordworth’s emotional connection with the river, is considerable.

This theme of a bond can be explored further by looking at the way the river and nature exist alongside humanity. In …near Richmond, the narrator claims ‘in thy waters may be seen / The image of a poet’s heart’. Here, the river is presented as a mirror for the poet himself – this plays into the idea of nature having both a bright and dark side too – human nature has the tendency to display both a good and bad side as well. The symbiosis displayed here outline how in Wordsworth’s eyes, nature and man co-exist as one. This theme is expanded in …Tintern Abbey where so much of the description depicts a world where the two live together in harmony. Farms are ‘green to the very door’, smoke is sent up ‘in silence’ and vagrants live in ‘houseless woods’. All portray a place where the presence of man is utterly unobtrusive to nature.

Wordsworth explores this harmony through the use of the senses. It is, after all, through the senses that nature, in all its wonder, is experienced. He speaks of ‘eye and ear’ and ‘the beatings of my heart’, thus encompassing the means by which he partakes of nature, through vision and hearing, and how these senses prompt such excitement in him, invigorating his very heart and lifeblood. In particular, the sense of hearing is picked out in lines such as ‘the only sound the dripping of the oar’. This can be explored further in …near Richmond where the narrator’s feelings for nature are so profound, he uses an exclamation mark thirteen times over the course of the poem, showing the extent to which his emotions are aroused by what he experiences.

The way the human senses and body are explored this way links in to the common idea of ‘Mother Nature’, again, an image of nature personified – just as in the description of nature in the two poems. The narrator’s description of the river as ‘fair’ again presents the image of a woman, her beauty prompting these feelings in him. Through all this, the bond between writer and subject is strengthened and thus made all the more tangible for the reader. The narrator even describes himself as ‘A worshipper of Nature’. It is this level of appraisal for something that if taken in the most base sense is just soil, foliage and water, that highlights the intentions of Wordsworth’s poetry. The fact ‘Nature’ is capitalised again presents it as an individual being, something named, rather than just a faceless entity.

In the river itself, we also find another piece of symbolism. In …near Richmond, words like ‘glide’ and ‘flow’ conjure up a constant sense of movement, change and progression. As the river flows ever onwards, so does time. This theme is continued in …Tintern Abbey where Wordsworth states ‘That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no more’ – we see a remembrance of days long past, of distant emotions that while now gone, still hold a place within the poet’s mind. This shows not only another aspect of the bond between man and river, but also how it can conjure up memories of the past; acting as a gateway to another time.

The importance of this theme is stressed by the fact it forms the focus of the first two lines of …Tintern Abbey. ‘Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!’  states the narrator and with the repetition of ‘five’, we feel just how long those years have been for the narrator. Its effect is profound and expands the scale of the poem far beyond its initial means. This is more than just a description of a single situation; it carries with it all the associations that are dredged up from the narrator’s memories. But the concept of time is not just associated with the past, in …near Richmond Wordworth also talks of the future, and what it holds. The line ‘their colours shall endure / ‘Till peace go with him to the tomb’ alludes to the eternal power of nature – while human life comes and goes, nature carries forever on. The line looks forward to how in time, death comes to us, harking back to the ‘wreathes of smoke’ line in …Tintern Abbey. By covering death in his poems, Wordsworth encompasses all angles of life, from the most, joyous, to the bleakest.

On the face of things, …near Richmond is a very simple poem, a clean cut description of a river and the emotions it prompts in the writer. But looking deeper into it, as the writer looks deeper into the nature of the river itself, we see it is in truth, so much more. Through this close analysis and through comparison with the way a different river is described in …Tintern Abbey we can then gain a greater understanding of the writer’s intentions. The two poems share so much in common, from the themes of time, life, death, and all the senses that affirm us as who we are. Through this all the aspects of the river and nature as a whole are explored, the two poems juxtaposing their capacity for both dark and light and how this juxtaposition can also manifest itself in the human psyche itself. …near Richmond encapsulates a specific time and way of thinking, and in its reading, and by association, other poems from Lyrical Ballads, that way of thinking is shared with us, the reader, too.

 

Bibliography

Davies, Hunter, William Wordsworth, Frances Lincoln: 2009

Keegan, Bridget, James McKusick, Literature and Nature: Four Centuries of Nature Writing, Longman: 2001

Wordsworth, William, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, Routledge: 2005

Wu, Duncan, A Companion to Romanticism, WileyBlackwell: 1999