A close critical analysis of extracts from Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In prose, characters will often stand at the crux of the piece, and everything the reader knows about them will be gained from the descriptions the author provides. Their actions, mannerisms, speeches; all are pieces that make up the finished product – a complete character that can be manipulated by the author to shape the narrative. These creations may seem simple, fundamental elements of literature, but through close analysis of them – with particular attention paid to formal and thematic issues – we can often understand many completely new levels of thinking in relation to the text.

Of all the aspects that make up a person, status is perhaps one of the most confusing and indefinable. It is something intangible, elusive; often existing only in the minds of other characters. ‘Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see’ begins the passage of Huckleberry Finn, illustrating the subjective difficulties when dealing with status. Huck’s command to us of ‘You see’ sees him telling us to see Grangerford in the same way as he does, to treat him with the same level of respect. This is backed up by the rather unnatural appendage of ‘Col.’ to his name. Grangerford is elevated above other characters who are referred to singularly by their name – he is afforded this additional instant tag of status. By the very nature of Huck’s colloquial narration, the image we are given of Grangerford is a biased one, coloured by Huck’s thoughts. So when he is introduced to us as ‘Col. Grangerford’, this is directly how Huck imagines him – the status and rank is just as integral part to the man as his name itself.

This concept of someone’s status becoming an integral part of them as a character is continued in the next sentence when Huck describes Grangerford as being ‘a gentleman all over; and so was his family’. There is the sense that describing him as a just ‘a gentleman’ isn’t enough, that it doesn’t do justice to his status. Instead, the sense of him being a gentleman manifests itself in every aspect of his life, even his family. Here, it becomes an all encompassing trait; and this is before the rest of him has even been described. Thus, the reader is presented with the rather unusual situation in which we have been told repeatedly that Grangerford is a gentleman, but not why, or how. Huck’s selected release of information forces us to think similarly to him, and so we are made to approach the characters with a mindset like his own.

In his description of Captain Ahab, Melville uses a number of different techniques to set him up as a man of status. Whereas Twain uses a formal rank to introduce Grangerford and set him apart from other men, Melville sets Ahab apart by his very unnaturalness. There was ‘no sign of common bodily illness about him’, establishing Ahab as uncommon, unusual, somehow beyond the normal mortal man. He too is labelled, but in a very different way to Grangerford. Ishamel’s description of the man focuses primarily on a ‘rod-like mark’ Ahab bears on his skin. The mark is made even more unusual by the techniques of metaphor and analogy Melville uses to describe its appearance. He compares Ahab to the ‘lofty trunk of a great tree’, again highlighting his status with the word ‘lofty’; he is above others, a man of ‘greatness’.

The image presented is of lightning striking, ‘leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded’. The links between this image and Ahab himself are obvious -the language employed emphasises Ahab’s vigour and energy, as well as the natural feel of his lifestyle here amidst the ocean and sea-life. And if Ahab is the tree, then the lightning can be seen as Moby Dick himself; a powerful force of nature in his own right. Moby Dick irreversibly damaged Ahab, like the lightning did to the tree – they remain living but branded by the incident; Ahab’s artificial leg is evident for all to see. It gives an almost mythic quality to the man; the reference to lightning, an immaterial force created in the heavens, could be seen almost as the touch of God – a touch that Ahab has received. The passage continues to describe the ‘elemental strife’ of Ahab’s life at sea, again elevating his life beyond that of normal mortal men. His life is defined by danger and action, a constant battle with nature and forces beyond the comprehension of others.

The idea of a character being made up from their actions and behaviour is something explored in the Huckleberry Finn extract too; in particular, repeated behaviour. The description of Grangerford continuously highlights how he ‘was clean-shaved every morning’, put on a clean shirt ‘every day of his life’ and how ‘he warn’t ever loud’. All these elements create the impression of a very rigid, structured man; his behaviour can be counted on to be exactly the same every single day. All these various elements combine to help make up Grangerford’s character. Indeed, it is the very monotony of his life that has left its impression on Huck. When he describes Grangerford to us, it is a subjective view of him – Huck only relates certain aspects to us. There may be certain elements to Grangerford’s character he leaves out, but as readers, we can only base our opinion of Grangerford on what the text provides us.

As first person narratives, this is an important aspect to consider in both Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Huck’s language in particular draws attention to this – his description of Grangerford is centred around the concept of personal opinions. When talking about Widow Douglas, he says how ‘nobody ever denied’ her claims to aristocracy. As Huck continues to talk about Grangerford’s appearance, he employs the phrase ‘as you may say’. In both instances, the reader’s attention is drawn to personal subjectivity. These characters are seen in certain ways, but these ways of ‘seeing’ them are down to the beholder – ‘as you may say’ suggest to the reader a certain way of seeing Grangerford but it is important to remember it is not fact, only Huck’s personal view of him. The passage also draws attention to the dangers of personal subjectivity – the fact that ‘nobody ever denied’ Widow Douglas’s position highlights how when personal opinion becomes common opinion, it is treated more like fact. This links into some of the social and cultural ideas dealt with at large in the rest of Huckleberry Finn, and while this passage only explores the more benign aspects of social norms, it highlights how a certain view can become the accepted standard, and how it then becomes very hard to change back out from that way of life. Indeed, Grangerford’s monotonous and predictable lifestyle is a physical reminder of this aspect of human nature.

In Moby Dick the theme of group opinions manifests itself in a far more mysterious way. Here, the opinions of the other sailors about Ahab come through in superstition and analogy. Ishmael’s narration talks of ‘old sea-traditions’ and we are given the sense of an intensely concentrated society amidst the confines of the boat where individuals are ‘popularly invested’ with the opinions of their peers. Thus, they are not so much a creation of their own actions, but of their beliefs of others. In this way, the analogy of Ahab’s death is not so much a hypothetical scenario, but an almost mythical event that comes to define Ahab even though the events described have not happened.

In addition, when Melville writes that Ahab’s death ‘might hardly come to pass’, we as readers have become invested with the superstitious society of the sailors and the statement becomes almost prophetic, foreshadowing Ahab’s actual death at the end of the book. In this way, the world of fiction created through Melville’s writing becomes something constantly fluid and mutable; characters, opinions and beliefs all flowing together into one overall sensation or feeling that helps to place us, as readers, within the text. This is a world of rumours and gossip, as highlighted when Ishmael says ‘no one could certainly say’ where Ahab got the strange mark from. Information regarding characters is created through mere hear-say, again adding to the mythic quality of Ahab.

The status of characters is explored further in the Huckleberry Finn extract when Grangerford is described as ‘well born’. In this respect, he is potentially very similar to Ahab in Moby Dick – Ahab’s brand is said to be potentially a birth-mark, ‘born with him’. In both cases the theme is an idea of something being imprinted on someone from birth, but having a lasting effect on their status throughout their life – and by association, how other people treat them. This birthright of status is said to be ‘worth as much in a man as it is in a horse’, establishing a contrast between humans and animals that is continued later in the extract when Huck compares ‘pap’ to a ‘mud-cat’. This image of a ‘muddy’ creature has obvious lowly connotations and furthers the theme that a person belonging to a higher class sets them apart as somehow being a person of better ‘quality’; naturally above other people.

In terms of the most detailed levels of description applied to Grangerford and Ahab, there are the precise physical details of their appearances. In both instances, the men are described in largely negative terms. With Grangerford, he is said to be ‘thin’ four times, the repetition reinforcing a specific image of him that Twain is keen to convey to us. Indeed, it is important to note that the majority of this description is focused on the man’s face – his eyes are picked out as ‘deep’, ‘black’ and like ‘caverns’. Individually, these words might seem innocent enough, but placed together in rapid succession – like the repetition of ‘thin’ – the impression created is a negative one. This passage of Huckleberry Finn highlights how a great deal of how we see a person and their personality can be created by their physical appearance and connotations we draw from that.

This sense of categorizing people by their appearance is displayed in Moby Dick too where Ishmael also focuses on a character’s face to describe them. We hear of Ahab’s ‘tawny scorched face’, importantly introduced before we are even introduced to the full nature of the brand on Ahab’s body. As the focal point of a person, the face is the aspect of them we notice first. Interestingly, there is one aspect that both Grangerford and Ahab bear in common, that of whiteness. In Grangerford’s case it is his linen suit, ‘so white it hurt your eyes’ – in Ahab’s case it the ‘lividly white’ brand itself. In both instances, like the rest of their physical features, it is given negative overtones; going against traditional ideas of whiteness as something reflecting purity, innocence and goodness.

In this way, both Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn and Ahab in Moby Dick show how the characterisation of a person can become such a key part of literature. While Twain’s Grangerford has status, it is of a far more immaterial quality, whereas Ahab is a man defined by the physical. Equally though, the two men bear many aspects in common, particularly in the techniques used to illustrate their physical appearances. This draws attention to the importance of signs – every aspect of a character’s description is a sign; something the reader can pick up on. This is how we gain an impression of someone; of what they are like, how they behave. In both Twain and Melville’s works, all that we know of their characters is gleaned from what we are told, and what we can comprehend from the various symbols and signs that are associated with their persona. For us, their lives become almost real before our eyes, a deep well of meaning and association that serve to prompt our thoughts into even further analysis of these characters.

 

Bibliography

Bryant, John, Moby-Dick as Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

 

Delbanco, Andrew, Melville, His World and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Doyno, Victor, Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain’s creative process (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Hutchinson, Stuart, Mark Twain: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 1993)

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2007)

Olson, Charles, Call Me Ishamel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)

Twain, Mark, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (London: Penguin Classics, 2007)

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‘At the heart of Eliot’s earlier poetry is a conflict between overt sexual desire and tacit religious belief.’ T.S. Eliot’s poetry up to and including The Waste Land

The strongest of emotions and feelings often arise from a conflict; a battle between two states of mind, two outlooks on the world. When this conflict manifests itself in poetry, it can provide a tantalising glimpse into not only the mind of the writer, but also present a new, vivid perspective on common aspects of everyday life. It is one such conflict that lies at the centre of much of T.S. Eliot’s early poetry; on one hand the lust and passion of sexual desire, on the other the more tranquil, serene notions of religious belief. With poems like The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock straddling the awkward middle ground between these two elements of life, Eliot delves into the revelations this struggle unearths.

As Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land stands as a conflicted creation by the very nature of its setting. London represents the ultimate modern battleground, a melting pot of countless beliefs, cultures and ways of life. As Eliot describes in the line ‘the river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs…’, the Thames usually stands as a testament to the discarded remnants of everyday life. Each citizen leaves his trace on the landscape, a human imprint on a natural world. The next line is more telling however, the reader is told ‘the nymphs are departed’. Here the sexual desire is made clear, a yearning for these young maidens that have now disappeared, along with all the other trappings of an exciting cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the new barren ‘wasteland’ world that the narrator describes, there is only frustration that these pleasures are no longer available. The direct opposition between sexual desire and religious beliefs is also emphasised here – by specifically choosing nymphs as the manifestation of their lust, the narrator creates images of pagan Greek mythology that stands at odds with traditional Christian teachings.

This conflict between desire and religion continues throughout ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land – indeed, the title itself alludes to this juxtaposition of the two. The fire of passion standing against orderly religious sermons. With the two combined into one, as they are in the title, there is an uneasy allegiance between them that is emphasised in the sexual personification of the River Thames in this section of the poem. ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,’ is clearly directed at the river itself, the narrator calling out as if to some lover. With words like ‘sweet’, ‘softly’ and ‘song’, there is a kind of poetry within the poem itself; the narrator’s sexual desire spilling out in linguistic form, as flowing and elegant as the river itself. ‘Sweet’ in particular gives impressions of tasting, in much the same way Adam and Eve gave into temptation and tasted the forbidden apple.

Here, lust and sin stand opposed to religion, and while – with its physical nature – sexual desire might seem to be far more prominent in this section of The Waste Land, the immaterial power of religious beliefs appears as a chilling reminder at the end of the first stanza of ‘The Fire Sermon’. ‘But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones’ tells not only of a kind of stale, sickly sexual frustration, but also conjures up images of mortality. Here, religious beliefs come to the fore, skeleton-like manifestations of death and visions of a distinctly Christian hell play into the imagery; adding to the awkward tension between the desire and spiritual beliefs.

This sense of decay is also present in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where Eliot talks of ‘restless nights’. The refrain of ‘In the room the women come and go’ also adds to this feeling; in both cases the sensation is one of a breaking down of normal moral constraints. There is a tense impermanence to everything, a constant state of change and no hard rules. ‘Restless nights’ comes with multiple connotations; on one hand it might represent a night of passion, but equally it may represent a scenario similar to the encounter with death in The Waste Land – speculation and an awareness about one’s own mortality making sleep impossible. It is this conflict that lies at the heart of Eliot’s poetry; no matter how strong the sexual urges and desires of the physical body become, there is always that constant reminder that we all die eventually. And then, the only reassurance comes in spiritual beliefs. Thus, religion is impossible to ignore.

The stream-of-consciousness nature of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock particularly lends itself to exploring these themes. Placing itself in the mind of the narrator, the reader is given direct access to their thoughts. Sentences span entire stanzas, the traditional rules of grammar and presentation breaking down – another kind of decay. In many ways, presenting this kind of thought process is essential – a ‘tacit belief’ is one that is difficult to convey to another person because it is not something explicit or definite. It is a notion that can encompass both sexual desires and religion – in both instances they are immaterial concepts, and while desire involves physical aspects of the body, attraction and lust stem from the mind too.

Eliot explores this idea of something that cannot be truly explained in the line ‘To lead you to an overwhelming question… / Oh do not ask ‘What is it?’’. Here the reader is presented with the idea of a question that is overpowering and impossible to grasp. It is something that cannot be fully understood, emphasised by the ellipses ending the first line; they represent that taciturn quality. There is an air of silence in the face of a failure to comprehend. The narrator can only ‘lead’ to the subject, never explain or conclude. The poem is given an aimless, unsatisfied feel that ties in with the theme of sexual frustration. Indeed, later in the poem the narrator utters the hopeless ‘And how should I begin?’ – in this instance, the knowledge has departed completely, in much the same way as the nymphs in The Waste Land.

One of the more disorientating and conflicted aspects of steam of consciousness writing is that often the links between the disparate elements are not at all logical, but instead represent an innate and far more subconscious link. In one stanza, Eliot juxtaposes the ‘among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me’ with ‘To have squeezed the universe into a ball’ only three lines later. Here we have a dramatic difference in scale – from the trivial accoutrements of everyday life, to the vast interstellar expanse of space. At first, the contrast is disorientating and seemingly unrelated; but this forces the reader to search for meaning. Throughout the poem it is hard to determine what is literal and symbolic due to the flowing, ever-changing nature of the stream of consciousness technique. But looking at lines such as these from a psychological angle instead of a logical one, we again find links to the spiritual. With the ordinary life of the ‘porcelain’, ‘marmalade’ and ‘tea’ starved of any sexual content, the narrator is forced to speculate on far greater matters like the universe to fill their life with any kind of excitement and purpose. Again, the uneasy conflict between desire and religion hangs in the balance – two means of personal fulfilment that stand at odds with each-other. On a literal level, the lines may mean very little, but on a symbolic level, they are open to a great deal of interpretation.

The sense of frustrated isolation displayed in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ultimately leads to its most grotesque conclusion in part three of The Waste Land when Eliot uses the character of Tiresias. Unable to achieve satisfaction in a singular existence, the narrator now establishes themselves as a dual-sex being – ‘I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled breasts…’ Now the narrator is simultaneously one being, but also two – somehow melded together into a single creation that possesses both male and female characteristics. The image painted by ‘throbbing between two lives’ is deeply unsettling in its connotations of the Tiresias character somehow engaging in a sexual encounter with itself. The solution to the isolation has come at a cost too; this being is again prey to the overarching sense of decay that pervades Eliot’s poetry – it is ‘blind’, ‘old’ and ‘wrinkled’, a decrepit individual near the end of its natural life span. Just as London can be seen as the geographical manifestation of the tension between differing beliefs, Tiresias is the personal symbol for this conflict. As a character from Greek mythology they are at odds with Christian religious beliefs; a being centred around sexual satisfaction and wrapped up in the tension at the heart of Eliot’s poetry.

Eliot’s Preludes presents a different outlook on an all-encompassing individual. Whereas Tiresias is a thing of multiple sexes, the narrator of the Preludes expands themselves to an even greater size. We are told of the narrator and how ‘His soul stretched tight across the skies’ – the scale of the individual in question now spans the entire world. The most bizarre element of this image is that the inner element of their being – their soul – is now the outer part, a kind of skin that covers the Earth. Not only does this tie into the confused physical and sexual nature of the Tiresias character, but it also presents a visual symbolism for the conflict between the physicality of desire and the spiritual aspect of religion. In this globe-spanning state, the ‘infinitely suffering’ individual is attempting to escape isolation by covering the entire world, encompassing each and every of its countless peoples. To achieve this physical connection however, it must enter an impossible spiritual state – Eliot’s narrative states specifically that it is the ‘soul’ stretched over the world. Only this intangible, tacit, unexplainable part of a person is capable of achieving this feat – but in doing so it is ‘stretched tight’, close to breaking point; beliefs are challenged. Should man even be capable of achieving this feat of mental capacity? Or are they trying to play God in their search for pleasure? The links here with the tense conflict between desire and religious belief are clear.

Despite these grand, sweeping conceptual ideas of the conflict – tension on a universal level – Eliot is also capable of exploring the themes in a far more domestic capacity; as displayed in part two of The Waste Land. A scene of colloquial, everyday dialogue, it centres around a seedy truth; ‘He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time, / And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will’. Here, the innate human need for sexual encounters is exposed, the colloquial style almost lending it even more credibility; it is the word of the common people, the salt of the Earth. Any regards for specific partners and long-held bonds are disregarded – this is a chilling ‘any will do’ scenario. The general vagueness of ‘others will’ and the way it leaves itself open to a limitless number of potential sexual partners stands at odds with traditional Christian ideals of monogamy. Here, desire is the prevailing force, impossible to resist.

What makes Eliot’s poetry so strong is the way it deals with this fundamental conflict in a variety of ways. As would befit themes that stand as such a central part to human life such as desire and religious belief, he places these concepts at the heart of his poems. Influenced by his own sexual frustration and marital problems, there is an innate truth to what he writes. Whether exploring them through expansive, thought-like streams of sensation or placing the themes in realistic everyday situations, there is a power to the imagery – we understand the conflict and are made to experience every tension that is played out within the poems.

 

Bibliography

Bush, Ronald, T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)

Bush, Ronald, T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Crawford, Robert, The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot (London: Clarendon Press, 1990)

Eliot, T. S., Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 2002)

Gordon, Lyndall, T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001)

Laity, Cassandra & Nancy Gish, Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Moody, David, The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)