“In the beginning was the word”. Indicating some problems with this “beginning” in critical terms.

The concept of a beginning is a complex notion; the concept of ‘the’ beginning an even more complex one. By beginning, something comes into being that wasn’t present before; but in the case of a singular beginning, the first instance of anything ever being created, what existed before? How can something begin if there is nothing for it to be created into? It is problems like this that surround the concept of the word and create difficulty whenever the sense of anything beginning is applied critically. Indeed, is there any sense of separation between something beginning gradually or in an instant?

So what then is implied when we consider this specific ‘beginning’? The statement is problematical firstly due to the fact we do not know whether the ‘beginning’ is a time, place or both. What we are told however is that in this specific time/location we can find ‘the word’. This brings with it further troubles, as reading ‘the word’ as a concept rather than a physical element, how can we in fact find it? A concept is an intangible subject, contained only within the minds of intelligent beings, so for this concept to exist in ‘the beginning’, surely physical beings of intelligence such as humans must also be present.

The way the statement counters this problem is by differentiating between ‘the beginning’ and ‘now’; the present state of things which differs from the earlier period the statement explicitly describes. In this regard, those capable of understanding the concept of ‘the word’ can now exist, looking back to ‘the beginning’ when they did not exist. Thus, ‘the word’ could exist independently of them, a thing in its own right, but only now given full meaning when it can be named and understood as something.

Applying this sense of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’ in a literary sense, we can take the statement to imply that in ‘the beginning’, a place and time before anything else was present, ‘the word’ was the first thing to come into being. The logic of this revolves around the fact that for anything else to truly ‘be’, it must be labelled with a name. For us to think of and comprehend something, our minds must have a name for it. Thus, we link it with a ‘word’ – in this regard, the concept of ‘the word’ had to be the original thing to exist.

The trouble is however, that the further this concept is analysed and attempted to be fully understood, the more problems arise; flaws in the logic of how the process works. Firstly, when ‘the word’ came into being, what decided it would be called ‘the word’? This process by which we name all other things must itself have been named. But also, in the statement’s scenario of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’, which existed first? Did they spring from the previous nothingness at the same time or did the beginning establish itself before the word followed shortly after? All these aspects matter because language, at its most base level represents a formula; the shaping of letters into words, sounds into language. It is a process of symbols and at the heart of every process must be rules. So if the concept of ‘the word’ is afflicted with problematic logic that stems from its very beginnings, its use as a system of communication is weakened.

In his essay From Codex to computer; or, presence of mind, David Scott Kastan explores many similar ideas, his argument centred around what format ‘the word’ finds itself put into in the modern age. An early passage presents the view that “How the words got there does not seem to cause a problem; it is where ‘there’ is that does.” So, in much the same way that we previously examined the concept of ‘the beginning’ as being a problematic place for words to exist, Kastan’s essay presents the idea that the existence of ‘the word’ in specific forms of media are problematic. Again, a specific ‘place’ is specified, and that when this place interacts with ‘the word’ things become troublesome – the two exist independently, but when brought together, conflict is created. Surely this goes against logic however as already highlighted, without the presence of ‘the word’ to label everything else, we could comprehend nothing else. In a sense, every other thing is indebted to ‘the word’.

Kastan’s statement is interesting as it explains that there is no such problem inherent in the idea of how the words come into being. Here, the words seem only to problematic once they are fully formed and within the ‘place’. This contrasts with the concept of the ‘beginning’, which by its very nature carries with it notions of timing and creation. On closer inspection however, Kastan’s statement carries another layer of meaning; it is not that there are no problems associated with the creation of the words, just that the process ‘does not seem to cause a problem’. This implies that there may in fact actually be a problem, but that it is hidden because it has either not been identified or it has been chosen to be ignored. This notion brings us to the second complication – who precisely are these problems being caused with?

This is important as Kastan’s statement links in with ideas of perception, and more specifically, a kind of selective viewing. The person or persons he talks of are choosing to find a problem only with the latter element Kastan proposes; the ‘there’ and not the ‘how’. Why is it that something becomes a ‘problem’? This links in again with the concept of ‘the beginning’ being problematic when applied in critical terms. In both cases, our individual mindsets evaluate a situation based on a number of criteria, and if it fulfils certain criteria, the situation then becomes a problem. But most importantly, it has become a problem because the person has chosen to see it that way. This lies at the crux of the argument – there are only two outcomes to the situation; either the thing is a problem, or it is not. There may be degrees of how problematic something is, but ultimately, it will always ‘be’ or ‘not be’ a problem – a specific ‘choice’ of one option from two, something that has been reached after some kind of internal evaluation.

The irony of course is that this evaluation and ultimate choice can only be reached through the use of words. Of course, these words may not be expressed on the page or through the means of language, but within our minds our thought process involves words to make sense of things. This entails an additional argument of what precisely is ‘the word’ as an entity? Can something like ‘the word’ exist both as a physical element and an intangible one? As already explored, this presents the question of how ‘words’ can exist in a empty, void-like ‘beginning’, but more specifically, it is another element explored by Kastan in his essay.

In his instance, the relationship between physical and intangible is one of a digital medium versus a ‘traditional’ paper based one. Kastan talks of ‘an electronic environment, the text existing only on a screen, or, more precisely and to the point, not existing but appearing on it, no longer a fixed but a fluid entity.’ Unpacking this extract from his essay, we see that Kastan primarily establishes a juxtaposition between two locations; the problematic ‘there’ that he previously picked out. On one hand is the immaterial ‘electronic environment’, on the other the ‘fixed’ notion of the printed page. Kastan’s word choice is important though, the former option is not just an ‘electronic’ medium, but an ‘environment’, a specific place. But how can an immaterial format comprised of nothing physical become somewhere that can be occupied by words? In this essence, we return to the situation of “In the beginning was the word”, but now replaced by “In the electronic environment was the word”. Do the words inhabit the electronic environment or is the environment comprised of the words themselves? Which came first? We are presented with the same set of problems and it is this notion of a ‘fluid’ environment that is so troublesome. Perhaps this is the very reason it is so problematic, it’s very fluidity making it so difficult to grasp in comparison to the traditional ‘fixed’ format.

As Kastan goes on to explain, in this environment, ‘the word’ does not actually exist, but only appears to exist. This links back not only to the idea of perception and selective viewing – we see the electronic text as ‘text’ because our minds chose to call it this – but also the concept of labelling. In this instance we have taken the labelling applied to ‘traditional text’ and applied it to this new medium of text. Now both electronic and traditional forms of text are specifically ‘text’. In both cases, the ‘text’ is still comprised of words, whether they be written on a keyboard and displayed on a computer screen, or written in ink on paper.

But what differentiates these two forms, and why is the difference so problematic? In the case of ink on paper, here the words have been physically manifested onto the paper – a physical product upon physical product combining into one finished product. A finished product that ‘exists’; it can be seen and touched and a definitive change has been brought about – the formerly blank piece of paper now contains writing. But in the case of the electronic medium, a computer screen is in constant flux. If the power to it is cut, all the words written on it will disappear, along with the ‘electronic’ page they were written on. If the text has been ‘saved’ then it can be recovered, but as Kastan outlines, any recovered electronic text will not be the original, it will merely be a reconstruction, a kind of clone of the first version. Kastan sums up the concept with a quotation from Michael Joyce: “Print stays itself, electronic text replaces itself.”

This sense of something inconstant weakens the concept of ‘the word’ as a definite entity – if something is continually changing, replacing itself and being remade, can it truly be seen as ‘words’ or ‘text’. Is it instead just something that looks like text, but is in fact not? Ultimately though, whether it is in fact text or not, it is still some kind of entity, and Kastan’s essay explores this – the sense of ‘itself’ picking out a specific object, something tangible, something that has been created. This brings us back to the concept of ‘the beginning, the start of something, when ‘the word’ was apparently created out of nothingness. The issue here is that the electronic text is not strictly being created; it is ‘replacing itself’. So in much the same way it is problematic to imagine a beginning due to the fact there must surely be something before ‘the beginning’ for it to be created into, the electronic text represents a constant renewal, a never-ending chain with no traditional ‘beginning’.

Kastan continues this theme with another quotation, this time from George Landow: “The reader always encounters a virtual image of a stored text, and not the original version itself”. It is this sense of ‘the original’ that again ties into the ‘the beginning’ and presents the core problem of its application in a critical sense. Can there ever truly be an ‘original version’, or will it always be constructed of other versions? As humans, our logic centres around the concept of ‘things’, named items, building blocks of rationality from which we can construct all other things. From the things we can see and touch in front of our eyes, to our thoughts; all of it is made up of words. The problem presents itself again; which comes first – the things we give names to, or the ‘name’ itself? Or perhaps the two are ultimately inseparable, a symbiosis where each part is utterly dependent on each-other.



Lodge, David, Nigel Wood, Modern Criticism and Theory (London: Longman, 2008)

Is A Shoemaker’s Holiday anything more than a utopian vision of the world of the London citizen?

As a play, Thomas Dekker’s A Shoemaker’s Holiday presents a unique snapshot of the city of London. But is it an accurate picture that is painted for the audience? By the play’s resolution we have everything neatly tied up, the characters celebrating in joy at the turn of events that has led to newfound providence for them all. It is a positive play, one that ultimately focuses on the upside of everything. But looking deeper, is there a darker side to be found, something more than a utopian vision of the city? Beneath the shiny, happy exterior of the play’s ending, are there moments that present a more fractured, unpleasant world. And most importantly, on discovering these glimpses of negativity, if they do indeed exist, is the ultimate concept of a ‘Utopian London’ shattered?

Perhaps the most significant threat to the concept of a utopian feel to the play is war. It is war after all the serves as the reason Lacy disguises himself as Hans for the majority of the narrative. In the opening scenes of the play Lacy acclaims the spirit and courage of the soldiers preparing to leave London for the war in France, stating “All gallantly displayed in Finsbury /with frolic spirits long for their parting hour.” The irony here of course is that Lacy becomes a deserter, a man that many would dub a coward of the highest degree for shirking his duty to his King and country. Thus, one of the key protagonists is already set up as a morally dubious character, who not only fails to fight in a war, but sends another man in his place, who ends up injured.

The man in question who falls foul of this unfair fate – Rafe. If any character is dealt a poor hand in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, it is without a doubt him. His reintroduction to the play in Act 3, Scene 2, after his long absence in France is served by the stage direction “Enter Rafe, being lame”. His whole character now centres around his injury, furthered by his own speech as he highlights “Since I want limbs and lands”. He paints a sorry picture, searching for his lost wife, who in his absence has promised to marry another man. He is a figure of loss, and presents an interesting concept – can a society be truly utopian if it contains people who want within it?

The play offers its own solution to this problem by emphasising the sense of community between the shoemakers. In the same scene, Hodge is quick to offer aid to Rafe – “Thou shalt never see a shoemaker want bread,” he says, before providing him with the information he seeks, “Thy wife, man, is in London… We’ll ferret her out.” Here the audience is presented with a heart-warming image of comradeship between two fellow men. Rafe’s want is serviced by Hodge’s solutions; he is there to provide for and fulfil the wants expressed by Rafe. Thus, in many ways, the want is eliminated and there is an answer to every problem, furthering the idea of a utopian London.

This ties into the theme of trade and commerce within the play. In a heavily commercial society driven by goods and money, we again have to consider if this represents a ‘perfect’ city. On one hand it outlines a healthy society of thriving business and constant transactions providing the people of the city with all the material things and wealth they need to live a full life. But on the other hand, again the idea that if there is ‘want’ in a society, is it truly perfect?

If one scene more than any other depicts the ‘utopian’ London, then it is where Simon Eyre is made Lord Mayor. Through hard work he has progressed from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success – he is the everyman done good. His exuberant, happy mood is plain for all to see as he exclaims “See here, my Maggy, a chain, a gold chain for Simon Eyre!” The use of a physical embodiment of his success is important too, the gold chain serving as a visual aid to emphasise to the audience his new-found status. The message is clear, work hard enough and riches and happiness will be your reward. Of course, this does equally present complications; the concept of gold tying into the problems outlined above. The main problem with this scene though is the irony that it is the very same scene where Rafe returns injured from the war. Here we are presented with both ends of the spectrum – the bad and the good. To add insult to injury, as Simon lists the gifts he has for his fellow shoemakers, Rafe is completely left out.

In terms of Simon however, he presents the perfect set of circumstances, as highlighted by the character himself when he says “Prince am I none, yet am I princely born!” The statement puts focus on how despite him not having royal blood, the virtues and values instilled him since his birth has ensured a life of success, and by association, happiness. The copious use of exclamation marks throughout Simon’s speeches in this scene show just how much of a positive effect his new elevated status has had on him. It also highlights a London of equal opportunity, a world where the lowly can rise to greatness – the ultimate utopian society of fairness.

In the presentation of a London that is recognisable to both contemporary audiences at the time, as well as current audiences now, we not only empathise more with the characters, but we can associate with the setting and the ideal of the play. One of the reasons so much potential for audience enjoyment is created in the play is because they are given inspiration that the same thing might happen to them in real life. The play’s characters are largely ordinary people, but achieve a resolution to all their troubles at the end of Act 5.

Another important element to consider is the concept of social justice – what place does rudeness hold in a utopian London? Hodge frequently insults Margery behind her back, saying she looks like “a cat out of a pillory” and needs a fan to hide her “wicked face”. Such derogatory comments at the expense of another person imply imperfection and a society flawed by bad feeling between its citizens. But equally, for Hodge, the insults represent a form of entertainment, furthering his own pleasure and happiness. And as the insults are made as asides, Margery is never made aware of them, so she does not personally suffer from them.

This concept links in with the statement made “To all good fellows” at the start of the play before the beginning of Act 1. Here, the audience is told “Take all in good worth that is well intended, for nothing / is proposed but mirth.” The message is clear, that the play is intended as a light-hearted piece, and by association, any insults of the sort Hodge makes are not to be taken as offensive, but in a far more cheery way. This helps to also allay the inequalities shown in the way Lacy, as a deserter, is ultimately knighted, while Rafe, who fights in the war ends up injured. The plays message asks us to always look on the optimistic side of things and concentrate on mirth and enjoyment. In the utopian society of the play’s London, if you do not allow yourself to feel negative, then negativity will simply not exist.

One of the reasons Dekker’s London seems so happy and perfect is because not only is its citizens content and fulfilled, but so too is the city itself. The place and those living in it go hand in hand, creating a mutually beneficial relationship – London was growing rapidly at the time, and so the self-confidence of the citizens in the play grows too. The play demonstrates this in the way it represents the people of London not just as citizens, but also evolves them beyond this into dramatic personalities. As illustrated above, the use of asides gives us a unique insight into the mind-set of people like Hodge, while we follow a man like Simon Eyre from humble beginnings to immense success. The play makes heroes of the ordinary man, capturing within its five acts a wide range of the social spectrum and the bonds that link the various elements of society together.

In many ways The Shoemaker’s Holiday acts as a kind of Renaissance soap opera, a microcosm of city life capturing the lives of everyday people. The audience are significantly enough removed from the events to be able to gloss over any negative aspects, yet still able to feel empowered by the positive aspects of the characters’ lives. It is here that we find a key element of the way the play presents London as utopian. There is so much negativity in the city that the play simply glosses over, and any flaws that come to light within the play itself are either only minor or solved within the play’s narrative.

This world of social mobility is picked out on stage with clothing; Simon’s own aforementioned gold chain, but also more prominently the clothes he buys for his wife. “I shall make thee a Lady. Here’s a French hood for thee.” The relationship here between status and clothes is explicit; in Simon’s eyes, by outfitting his wife in expensive clothes, they both now inhabit a ‘better’ class and their lives, by association improve. The implications here though are troublesome – now that Simon is in a new social class, does that imply his fellow shoemakers are now his lessers? The concept of a society of various unequal classes is not one that fits easily into the utopian ideal, but this matter is salved by the fact Simon rewards the other shoemakers, giving those closest to him various gifts and creating a holiday for the profession as a whole.

The concept of the ‘holiday’ within the play is so important it becomes part of the title itself – the first thing the audience experiences when they come to the play. By its very nature, the holiday is a highly positive thing, linking into the way the play focuses on the best of times. This climaxes in the celebratory feel of the final act where the King enters proceedings, his character a physical embodiment for the success, happiness and achievement all the characters have reached. “I have not met more pleasure on a day… come, lords, a while let’s revel it at home.”

The scene is suffused with this notion of pleasure and revelry, the culmination of the utopian feeling, a perfect moment in time where everything has been resolved and everyone is happy. If anything though, it is the play’s final line that serves as the most poignant message as to what the overriding sense of utopia within the play is built upon. “Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun”. The clarity of this line is self-evident – it advocates a way of life where any processes such as war that may hold within them any sense of negativity are dressed up in a sheen of righteousness and the negative aspects are passed off and blamed on foreign influences. In this respect, The Shoemaker’s Holiday does present a utopian London full of happy people, but look closer and there is a myriad of cracks in the utopian logic, the solutions to the various problems at best only paper thin.



Chambers, Edmund, An Index to the Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007)

Dekker, Thomas, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker: Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Dekker, Thomas, The Shoemakers’ Holiday (London: Methuen Drama, 2008)

Dekker, Thomas,The Shoemakers’ Holiday (London: Nick Hern Books, 2003)

Hibbert, Christopher, The London Encyclopaedia (London: Macmillan Reference, 2010)

The theme of ‘obedience’ in Arden of Faversham

Obedience is a powerful thing. The act of submitting to the wishes and intentions of another person, whether willingly, through persuasion or duress, creates a strong dynamic in the relationship between the individuals involved. As readers of a text, we identify these relationships and pick out the moments and actions which indicate shifts in power and standing, whether it be a defiance of orders or perhaps even going as far as the person doing the obeying becoming the one that is obeyed. All this is captured within the plot of Arden of Faversham, the domestic setting of the play providing the perfect backdrop for a myriad of intertwined relationships where we can analyse just how the theme of obedience manifests itself.

Of all the characters in the play, it is perhaps Alice who is associated with the concept of obedience the most. It is her, after all, that is married to the central character Arden – marriage being a commitment to ‘love, honour and obey’. In many ways, it is due to Alice’s clear flaunting of this commitment that provides the emotional crux to the play and drives both the action and the reader’s investment in the characters. It is with bitter irony that Alice says to Arden “For never woman loved her husband better / Than I do Thee.” The full extent of her lies go unbeknownst to Arden himself but the audience is completely privy to them, adding to the dramatic effect of the play as we see how on one hand she plays the doting, obedient wife, while real she schemes and plots with her lover Mosby.

This paints a picture of Alice as a very negative character with very low morals, who lies frequently and throws aside an oath to obedience made in the eyes of God. But equally, she can be seen as an empowered female, subverting the patriarchy and normal social order of the time. She is actively trying to break out from a situation that she find detrimental to her happiness, seeking to alter her own future and challenge authority to create a ‘better’ life for herself. Indeed, we actually see Alice herself being obeyed by other characters in the play, including the household servant Michael. The act of his following out her orders is the first of many instances where obedience is gained in exchange for some kind of reward, in this case, Mosby’s sister Susan. “On that condition, Michael, here is my hand: / None shall have Mosby’s sister but thyself” says Alice, swiftly offering Susan to Michael in exchange for him killing Arden. Michael is tempted by lust to abandon any sense of duty and obedience he has for his master and exchange it for a new obedience to Alice.

Alice offers this same exchange system later in the play in Scene 14 where she provides Black Will with further incentive to kill Arden, saying “My hands shall play you golden harmony. / How like you this?” Here the exchange is clearly Alice’s offer of sexual favours in exchange for Black Will’s services, highlighting how swiftly Alice is willing to abandon any sense of morals she has in order to see her intentions carried out. It is moments like these that show not only just how powerful a tool obedience is, but also how quickly and easily it can be obtained. It is Alice’s keen sense of how men function and how she can utilise temptation that makes her such a powerful character in the play.

The concept of greed is another powerful motivator, highlighted best in the fact that Black Will and Shakebag have no real reason to kill Arden other than the money Greene is offering them. “I’ll give you twenty angels for your pains” he says, and in an instant, their loyalty and obedience is bought. For the remainder of the play, they then persist to try and kill Arden, encountering considerable hardship and numerous failed attempts in the process, but still continuing due to the lure of money. In respect to both this situation and the methods in which Alice ‘buys’ obedience, is the writer of Arden of Faversham highlighting how easily human nature can give in to temptation, morals thrown out of the window?

As a tale of morals then, how effectively does the play try to educate the audience on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to being obedient? This is best demonstrated in scene 4 where Michael’s loyalties clash as at the last minute he goes back on his plans to assist in Arden’s death, speculating “My master’s kindness pleads to me for life”. This change of heart can be seen as the play’s didactic sense of moral instruction, speaking to the audience and attempting to teach them. In this instance Michael’s actions save Arden’s life but ultimately, this act of conscience does not seem to be enough to redeem him; Michael is executed at the end of the play along with the others. The irony here is that his obedience, to first his master and then to his lust, has brought about his death.

Michael is not the only character that expresses doubts about the ‘rightness’ of what he is doing. Early on in the play Alice speculates on how Mosby has “made shipwreck of mine honour for thy sake”. Here she clearly blames Mosby for tempting her away from her marriage from Arden, spoiling her honour – just like Michael, she has been more obedient to lust than to her morals. But most interestingly, the audience is presented with a situation that highlights how the temptation may not lie with Mosby, but in fact Alice herself. “Henceforward know me not,” proclaims Mosby in scene 1, eager to end the affair, but Alice then proceeds to play the victim, eventually persuading Mosby that they should continue to be together. Here the obedience is Mosby’s submission to Alice, his conscience being overpowered by her mastery over him. Indeed, it is important to remember that it is Alice that first suggests the plot to kill Arden, which the other characters are then drawn into in an intertwined chain of obedience that links them all together.

If obedience is a central theme within the play and Alice a central character used to illustrate that theme, then she is open to the opinions of the audience. And like any opinion, the audience’s perceptions of Alice can be coloured by bias; after all, all we know of Alice comes from the play text. Our judgement is created from what the author gives us and one of the most significant pieces they give us comes in the form of the play’s title page. Here the author proclaims the play is a story of a ‘disloyal and wanton wife… wicked woman’, a scathing depiction of Alice given before the play has even begun. Thus, the audience will already be making assumptions that will automatically influence their opinion of anything she does.

Equally, Arden is given a very favourable introduction; the play is very much his story, a ‘lamentable tragedy’. Alice is clearly ‘his’ wife, a possession that begins to behave beyond its intended function. We as an audience are clearly meant to sympathise for Arden while feeling dislike for Alice. This in turn introduces another kind of obedience, our obedience as the audience to the author’s intentions. They are our master and to a degree we serve them, partaking in the work they have created. We fulfil a profound role for the author, for without an audience, the play would be little more than words on a page. We obey those words when we read the text or hear the words spoken on stage, our minds processing them and following the various plot devices. Of course, just like in the play where the characters break from their obedience, the audience can do so too; shifting away from whatever concepts the author may have intended and formulating their own opinions and ideas on the characters and story.

So what is the ultimate moral of Arden of Faversham? What is the moral it tries to teach? In many ways the play represents a constant battle between obedience and temptation. In clear cut terms, obedience seems to be a force for good and temptation a classic sin. But looking closer, things are not so simple, and there remains a grey area focused mainly around new social ideals of mobility – old class distinctions broken down in the face of emerging cultural changes. Sexual lust and greed for money remain powerful motivators even to this day, and as such, the play remains just as relevant to the audience – asking them to make their own judgement on just what it means to be obedient.

‘Moral instruction is still very much part of a writer’s duty in the literature of this period.’ – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe & Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko represent two of the most important texts of early fiction and as such, it bears importance when reading them to understand the ideas that went through the author’s minds when they wrote the texts. The concept of moral instruction is one that poses an interesting dilemma; in works of fiction designed to entertain, is there room for a more significant meaning, a layer of the text that can inform and educate the reader. In a period where social norms were in constant flux and concept such as religion and the rights of an individual person came under constant scrutiny, by looking at these two texts we can asses if both Defoe and Behn were successful in integrating elements of moral instruction into their work.

One of the most crucial scenes within Robinson Crusoe occurs roughly halfway through the text where Crusoe finds a beach littered with human bones, the grisly remains left by cannibalistic savages. Crusoe’s initial reaction is one of horror and revulsion, his anger swiftly turning to thoughts of killing the savages. As time passes though, he speculates on the savage’s behaviour and readers are presented with a thought process that is as much a window into Crusoe’s character as it is an opportunity for Defoe, as author of the text, to present an investigation into human morals.

Crusoe, portrayed throughout the text as an everyman, can be seen to represent European culture in this foreign environment and thus his first feelings of hatred at the savages ‘unnatural custom’ and ‘abominable’ behaviour can be linked to a fear of otherness. Indeed, this could be perceived as racism; Crusoe thinks only of the values of his own culture and how these ‘naked savages’ should be exterminated. His language continually marks out how different they are from him; how they wear no clothes and eat human flesh. Perhaps most shocking of all is the way Crusoe sees his vision of destroying the cannibals not as a killing, but as an ‘execution’, as if he is legally and morally justified to end these people’s lives.

This presents an interesting parallel with the execution portrayed in Oroonoko where in the final few paragraphs of the text Behn describes ‘so inhuman were the justices, who stood by to see the execution’. Here, the author’s stance is defiantly against the horrible bloodshed unfolding before her eyes, dressed up in the form of ‘justice’. In this scene, those that are bringing about Oroonoko’s death believe they are morally in the right to do so, but the author’s opinion, throughout the text, clearly presents a different point of view. The author’s bias presents a view of the slave that is in her words, a ‘great man, worthy of a better fate’. Thus, through the reader is inclined to ally themselves to Behn’s opinion, due to the amount of time invested in both her writing and her portrayal of Oroonoko. Through this, she presents a form of moral instruction that presents the actions of Oroonoko’s killers as profoundly wrong and her view as a more enlightened and morally correct one.

Whereas Behn’s techniques are more subtle and less intrusive, Defoe is more direct in his approach; presenting Crusoe’s actual thoughts as his opinion on the savages changes. In the aforementioned scene Crusoe describes how he begins to consider things with ‘cooler and calmer thoughts’, presenting the ideas that follow as a more rational and civilised way of thinking. As a man of European culture, who has survived on this remote island through innovation and wit in the face of adversity, we now see him applying his mind to this dilemma and realising that he does in fact have no justified means to kill the savages. Thus, by showing how Crusoe thinks about a situation and realises the error of his ways, Defoe asks the reader to do the same.

One of the most powerful elements of Crusoe’s internal argument is the concept of God. Since discovering religion, God has guided many of Crusoe’s decision and allayed many of his fears, and here we see the same occurring again. The crux of Crusoe’s thought process comes in the lines ‘How do I know what God himself judges in this particular Case? It is certain these People either do not commit this as a Crime… they do not know it be an Offence.’

Crusoe realises that it is not his right to play God and decide the fates of these people, that there are limits to his power as an individual. His thinking continues that because the cannibals do not knowingly do anything wrong, they are not to blame. It is interesting to note the words Defoe capitalises, primarily ‘Case’, ‘Crime’ and ‘Offence’; giving Crusoe’s statement a legal feel. This carries its own irony as Crusoe’s parents wanted him to become a lawyer instead of travel the world by sea. It is important though as it shows how a very different kind of ‘justice’ from the brutal killing of Oroonoko can be used to rationally present a case for why people of a different culture are entitled to their customs.

Defoe furthers his moral instruction to the reader in Crusoe’s argument by relating the cannibal’s behaviour to our own; in Crusoe’s words ‘They think it no more a crime…. to eat humane flesh, than we do to eat mutton’. He goes on to show how wars, waged in the name of religion have often given cause for soldiers to put to death ‘whole troops of men’ even when they surrendered. This is Defoe asking the reader to now look beyond Crusoe’s isolated existence and question the behaviour of their supposedly civilised culture as a whole and find to what degree it is morally ‘right’. The argument Crusoe presents is so compelling and persuasive because it is so complete and analytical in its approach. It presents pieces of evidence and examples in a slow, considered, methodical approach, in many ways similar to the way Crusoe has triumphed over other adversities in the text.

Analysing Behn’s approach to moral instruction in Oroonoko the reader is made to question whether she is as successful in her mission. Arguably, Behn presents herself in her text as a far more passive character than Crusoe is. She is often found in the background, rarely involving herself directly in the action, as evidenced in the final few scenes where she is merely an onlooker as Oroonoko is captured and killed. Furthermore, while Behn displays clear sympathy for Oroonoko as an individual, she never seems explicitly opposed to slavery. This raises the question of a selective morality amongst the two authors.

Though opinions on slavery differ drastically between the time these two texts were written and now, the reader is made to consider why Behn and Defoe’s respect for the lives of people from other cultures cannot extend to their liberty and freedom. Indeed, Defoe is shipwrecked while on a voyage to bring more slaves to his plantation. This may highlight a more subtle piece of moral instruction, in that because Crusoe is taking part in the slave trade, he is then punished by God and placed on the remote island to pay penance of sorts. This concept is confused however by the matter of Friday, who Crusoe treats well, but assimilates into his own culture and continually calls ‘My Man Friday’ as if he is merely a possession.

Ultimately, the ‘duty’ of a writer is largely a question of the interplay between reader and writer – a question of what the writer wants to write and what the reader wants to read. A text may be designed primarily to entertain, to educate and inform, or even a combination of the both. It is impossible to ignore the position of power a writer and their text has though; their ability to either explicitly or subliminally present ideas to the reader. Both Robinson Crusoe and Oroonoko do this frequently throughout their duration, both playing with their capability to give some form of moral instruction to the reader. Whether it be a more subtle presence as in Behn’s case, or a fully thought out and elaborate argument in the case of Defoe’s approach, the writer’s ability to explore what is morally right or wrong and present this case to the reader is something that lends both texts considerable depth and power.



Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

Damrosch, Leopold, God’s Plot and Man’s Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Greenblatt, Stephen, The Norton Anthology of English Literature – Volume 1 (London: W. W. Norton & Co, 2006)

Novak, Maximillian, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Martin, John, Beyond Belief: The Real Life of Daniel Defoe, (London: Accent Press, 2006)

Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2000)

Todd, Janet, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (London: Pandora Press, 2000)

‘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.



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.



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.



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

Comparing & contrasting examples of film modernism in Metropolis and Man with a Movie Camera and illustrating how their respective approaches exemplify modernist principles

In the early 20th century, the world found itself immersed in an exciting and dynamic new artistic movement. That movement was called modernism, and wrapped up within it lay a host of ideals and thought processes. Modernism presented a self conscious look at what comprises art and tried to find a new type of aesthetic, a new way of seeing. It was in this that Modernism found its focus, the qualities of observation and insight, how looking deeper at the world that surrounds us can throw up all kinds of previously unseen revelations. However, Modernism, by its very nature of being a global movement, is built up from many different and often wildly contrasting examples. From the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the ethics of Soviet Montage evidenced in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) we are presented with two films that explore and exemplify the principles of the movement in a variety of ways. Through close analysis of these techniques we can gain not only a better understanding of the films themselves, but also the intentions of the film-makers and their own individual take on the Modernist movement.

Looking first at German Expressionism, this aspect of the movement is defined by an idealist focus on the inner life of a person, the individual themselves. Metropolis then, with its clearly defined central character of Freder, is perhaps the perfect film to explore this concept. Expressionism investigates this concept of the inner self by presenting visualisations of a person’s internal state, something that is picked out with Metropolis’s highly melodramatic acting style. In numerous scenes we see Freder’s emotions highlighted by his exaggerated facial expressions and gesturing – the physical acting out of the character’s emotions and state of mind. This stands in direct contrast to the ‘truth’ depicted in Man with a Movie Camera which sets out through its documentary-like style to give the viewer a snapshot of life as it is, an essence of fact rather than fiction. In the film, there are no traditional actors, those being filmed are the real populace of the city, any emotions they portray being as they would be in real life, often possessing a subtlety that is a far cry from the style of Metropolis.

Man with a Movie Camera falls into the category of Soviet Montage, another branch of Modernism that defines itself on a film language based on effects. Through a multitude of editing effects, a montage is created, depicting events in a dynamic way that concerns itself fully with the ideas of seeing and imagery. Most crucial is montage’s aesthetic of catching life unawares, something that lends itself highly to the documentary feel of …Movie Camera. Indeed, it is telling that Vertov worked for a period at the Moscow Film Committee’s news reel section as well as serving as editor at the Kinopravda (film truth) company. Both place significant evidence on the documentation of fact and truth through the film medium, something that this film serves as a direct extension of. This truth is highlighted by the fact many of the people in the movie react to being filmed, there is that breaking down of the 4th wall between what is being recorded and the act of recording itself. This stands at odds with the fictional narrative of Metropolis where we are merely an observer, removed from the events taking place on screen.

In Metropolis, truth is constantly masked behind a facade. On a most basic level, there is the city itself, a thing of grandeur, extravagance and modernity above ground – but go beneath, into the workers’ quarters and machine room and you find a place of hard manual labour and squalor. Go even deeper and you find the catacombs, somewhere even the city’s creator Joh Fredersen doesn’t know about. There is this aspect of knowledge, of how things appear to be and how they are in reality. This is presented further in the sequence where Freder finds himself in the M Machine room and sees the machine transform into a horrific Moloch, a pagan god of sacrifice. Now the workers are not merely slaving away, but they are offering up their lives. Yes, Metropolis might be a shining example of technology reaching its peak, providing a utopian life for the aristocrats above, but it is based on this terrible reality below ground.

This transformation, from the mechanistic precision of a machine to the gross distorted view of a monstrous god is achieved by way of a cinematic technique Lang uses throughout the film, that of the crossover dissolve. The technique is used again in the actual creation of the robot Maria, the film dissolving back and forth between the human and robotic faces until they become one. Thus, in one of the film’s central characters we are presented with another facade, a machine dressed up in the appearance of a human. Wrapped up in this juxtaposition lies a key element of Modernism, the idea of knowledge and ways of seeing, of truth being something that is previously hidden but now revealed – hence the significance of them workers’ horror as the true robotic nature of Maria is uncovered towards the end of the film. They have now seen the truth and in this case it disgusts them.

The blurring of the lines between what is man and what is machine is explored in Man with a Movie Camera also, specifically, in the stop motion sequence where the camera moves about and takes on human characteristics. Vertov’s inclusion of this sequence is telling as it alludes to a statement made by him in his manifesto “I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever I free myself from human immobility”. In this statement we have an important relation to the principles of Modernism – Vertov is claiming that the machine is not only capable of everything a human can do, but it is in fact better, that it can perform tasks only a machine can. Indeed, by its very nature Soviet Montage presents sequences of images in a way the human eye cannot produce itself. In this way, it is able to present something previously unseen.

An additional way in which Metropolis links man and machine is in the city itself. The audience is told of the Heart Machine that functions as the source of the city’s power, and high above, Lang presents us with great, sweeping vistas of the city’s skyline, roads and railways threading their way through the buildings like the arteries and veins of a circulatory system, feeding the traffic and people throughout the city. The people of Metropolis are its very lifeblood, a crucial element in the vast complex that is metaphorically presented as a body. Indeed, the film is bookended by a further emphasis of this, the film’s motto being ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ – here, again, we have reference to parts of the body, linked together to comprise one being. This is a classic example of the Modernist view of having an idealist focus on inner life, the concept that all the elements that make up a ‘thing’ work harmoniously together. It presents a certain machine-like aesthetic, a desire to see everything functioning perfectly.

Of course, the reality is far removed from this; despite all the trust Joh Fredersen puts in the perfect functioning order of his city, Metropolis as a film is full of underlying fears of modernity. Whereas Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera embraces machines completely and the technical capabilities of montage; filling his film with images of trams, the epitome of a city running like clockwork, to a perfect orderly timetable, Metropolis presents a darker side. In the sequence with the Moloch Machine we are presented with a horrific mechanical accident that results in the loss of life of workers – here, machines are not perfect, they are threatening and can kill. This is brought to a climax as the robot Maria instigates the destruction of the workers’ city – a creation that Rotwang believed would be the perfect being is instead a corrupt, chaotic and highly dangerous killer. We even have Rotwang’s house and the catacombs underneath the city, gothic vestiges of a long lost age, signs that deep down, people still long for a more simple time, that they still fear handing over complete control to machines. For a Modernist film then, it seems strange there would be so many fears of modernity presented – but equally, a core element of German Expressionism is the notion of a divided self and in Metropolis’s conflicting views on machines, we are presented with this.

A number of key themes run strongly through both films, that of birth, death and work. …Movie Camera presents this in its realistic documentary-esque way, an observer of natural everyday processes; we see a woman giving birth, people moving about the city in the process of doing their jobs. Metropolis chooses to instead present these three themes in highly symbolic ways. Here, the birth is a bizarre, alchemical distortion; the creation of the robot Maria. Death manifests itself physically as a skull-headed character, swinging his scythe, physically scratching the film stock. Work becomes a twisted, agonising dance as the workers shift the dials in the machine room. In this contrast between the two films, we see two differing approaches in Modernism to three themes that define life itself, the cinematic treatment of them prompting us to consider these things in a new way, to understand them with new insight.

This plays into a key principle of Modernism and how the movement is highly concerned with ways of seeing and perspective. Both films explore this through the use of manipulation of space – in Man with a Movie Camera the opening shot presents to us the impossible image of a man placed on top of a camera. Here, our traditional views of how looking, viewing and comprehending what we see are challenged. Metropolis is built upon its impressive shots of the city, the film itself made possible by way of the Schüfftan process which allowed actors to be placed against models by using mirrors to construct shots that would be impossible in reality. Thus, in the presentation of the finished film, we marvel at the modernity and scale of the city, constructed through the manipulation of perspective.

…Movie Camera goes further in its manipulation of space by way of its montage structure, presenting the audience with a city that is in fact an amalgamation of multiple cities. Through the use of a cinematic technique, Vertov has manipulated the film medium to present a certain image to his audience – that of a universal city, an idea that goes beyond traditional concepts of place and setting. Metropolis presents a similar idea in the very idea of the city itself. Its name is ‘Metropolis’, a universal term for a large city. We are never told where this city is within the world; instead, it can be seen to a generic city, becoming almost a concept rather than an actual place.

Again, this plays into the notion of a divided self, where the setting becomes the thing being divided, the finished item being comprised of many elements; much like the Modernist film itself. It also sets up the idea of Modernism as a truly global thing, the concept of the universal, generic city serving as an idea that transgresses borders. Whether it be in Germany, Russia or beyond, Modernism manifests itself in different forms and by examining the principles that make up the variants of the movement we can come to a greater appreciation of the films in question, the intentions behind them and perhaps most important of all, what those intentions prompt us, the audience, to consider.



Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form, Harcourt Publishers Ltd: 1969

Elsaesser, Thomas, Metropolis (BFI Film Classics), BFI Publishing: 2000

Girgus, Sam, America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America, Cambridge University Press: 2002

Hicks, Jeremy, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film, I B Tauris & Co Ltd: 2007

Pinteau, Pascal, Special Effects: An Oral History, Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 2004

Roberts, Graham, The Man with the Movie Camera (KINOfiles Film Companion), I B Tauris & Co Ltd: 2000

Roberts, Ian, German Expressionism, Wallflower Press: 2008

Tsivian, Yuri, Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Indiana University Press: 2004

Vertov, Dziga, ‘We: Variant on a Manifesto’: 1923, [http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/Gustafson/FILM%20161.F06/readings/vertov.pdf] (accessed 7th March 2010)

Close analysis of an extract from Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe, as a novel, contains various stages of development, from Crusoe’s initial journeys to his arrival on the island, from his journal entries to the introduction of Friday – every step is ripe for analysis. However, one extract in particular represents a crucial shift for the novel – the moment where Crusoe now finds his island populated not only by himself and Friday, but also Friday’s father and a Spaniard. In a novel defined by isolation, the introduction of a ‘community’ into affairs signifies a massive change and thus Defoe’s writing should, by association, contain various themes that relate to this change too. It is through the examination of these themes that helps us better understand Robinson Crusoe, both as a text, and as a character in his own right.

Looking at this in the most fundamental sense, Crusoe gives his own views on the situation in the first line of this extract, stating ‘I thought my self very rich in subjects’. Here, Crusoe places massive worth on now having people around him, ‘rich’ hinting at how throughout the novel he finds humour in the fact the money he salvaged from his ship is worthless on the island. Whereas before, his father would judge him on what he managed to achieve in life and his time in Brazil centred around the monetary gain of his plantation, now he is far more concerned with having fellow men around him and the sheer joy he gains from this is palpable.

The irony is, of course, that Crusoe’s status on the island is greater than he could ever have achieved in the outside world. His line ‘the whole country was my own meer property’ and his own admission to feeling ‘like a king’ shows how he recognises the power he has over the other three individuals on the island. There’s a sense that Crusoe is perhaps almost tempted to mis-use his powers, the fact he repeats in numerous ways the extent of his powers, linking them to titles such as ‘lord’ and ‘lawgiver’ and how pleasurable he finds thoughts of such things suggests strongly how easy it is for power to corrupt someone.

In his years of isolation on the island, Crusoe had escaped all notions of this, all the rules and laws of the civilised world. But now, with just three others on the island, these notions are already returning to Crusoe, hinting at a basic element of human nature to seek order and structure. Part of this structure is a sense of hierarchy, something which is prevalent throughout this extract – Crusoe continuously uses the possessive ‘my’, referring both to the island, and more crucially, Friday. This can in many ways be attributed to the fact black slaves were common during this period of history. Despite on the whole Crusoe being seen to treat Friday in a far higher regard than a slave, in showing us this rootedness in the tradition of a sense ownership of another human being – particular of a white man ‘owning’ a black man, Defoe provides a window into the context of the time.

What’s interesting to note however is that although Crusoe does give this sense of ownership over Friday, he also gives him an elevated status over others of his race. The very fact he has a name and is called ‘man’ lifts him above the nameless mass of savages from which he came. Through Crusoe’s intervention he has in many ways become more human. This leads onto the way Crusoe has also taught him language, and looking into the latter part of the extract we also see ‘the Spaniard spoke the language of the savages pretty well’. This sharing of each-others languages and cultures is of massive importance, highlighted further when looking at the text in deictic terms by the use of ‘after we had dined’ – after so much of the novel focussing on Crusoe as ‘I’, the singular person, there is now a sense of ‘we’, a community of people eating and co-existing together. Through the bringing together of these people there is now a feel of civilisation even in this most remote of places, an marked contrast from the beginning of Crusoe’s spell in this place where he described it as a ‘horrible desolate island’.

Crusoe not only shares his language with Friday, but also his religion, teaching him the ways of Protestant Christianity. One interesting element is that in this extract Crusoe’s dialogue with Friday is through the means of reported speech, a simple ‘I ordered…’. In contrast, when we are given direct speech between the two men, it is frequently on the topic of religion. Thus, where menial tasks are concerned, Friday is ordered about, but when he and Crusoe discuss the nature of god, they become equals.

The theme of religion is one that is explored further in this extract in relation to all the individuals now living on the island, as Crusoe points out ‘and they were of three different religions’. There is presented here a danger that the three religions may clash – we need only look to the series of wars over religion – most commonly between Catholics and Protestants – that broke out across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as proof of this. The mention of ‘the place of battle’ in this extract also hints at this and Defoe’s wish to give his writing added weight by associating it with the historical gravitas the mention of battle conjures up. These events would have been well known to Defoe as he wrote Robinson Crusoe and thus when Crusoe states he ‘allowed liberty’ of the others’ religions it strikes us as decidedly forward thinking and modern, Crusoe showing respect for other cultures and beliefs even if they are not the same as his own. Of course, the clash between religions is also one that still afflicts the world today, the wars in the Middle-East standing as testament to this.

This aspect of respect, however, is one that is also present in the writing of one of Defoe’s contemporaries. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko was the first English novel to show black Africans in a sympathetic light and this ties in to Defoe’s treatment of other cultures in Robinson Crusoe, both in regards to Friday but also the boy Xury in the earlier passages of the novel. Furthermore, looking at both of these works – it is important to note that they both stand regarded as candidates for the first ‘true’ English novel. They both present accounts of great men that make lengthy journeys across the world and experience both hardship and joy in exotic locations. Thus, with this subject matter therein lies the foundations for what we would now call the basis of a ‘novel’.

One of said elements is that of description – of both the setting and the proceedings which take place within. This is an element which features prominently throughout Robinson Crusoe as a whole and within this extract, here taking the form of Crusoe’s description of the preparation of a meal. What makes this passage so important though is how it relates to the savages’ ‘feast’ – the remains of which are described in the next paragraph. Crusoe details the killing of a goat in an almost ceremonious way to mark the occasion of the newcomers to the island. This draws similarities to the savages and their ceremonious killing and eating of humans. What marks the goat out as different? Well, aside from the fact it is an animal, Crusoe’s detailed description of the various cuts of meat, ingredients and cooking process, ‘having put some barley and rice also into the broth’ stands as a perfect example of culture, society and method in the face of the uncivilised, cannibalistic savages. This idea is continued as Crusoe stresses the importance of burying their dead bodies due to the fact they would quickly begin to rot in the sunlight. Here we see the use of logic – knowledge of a scientific process – put to practice, again upholding the values and routines of civilisation even in adverse conditions.

Thus, even within this small extract from the entirety of Robinson Crusoe, it is evident how many themes are at work here and it is testament both to Defoe’s skill as a writer and Crusoe himself as a creation. With his values, ideals, ambitions, passions, through him we experience the world of the novel. In a strange, exotic land, he is our touching point, the source of our empathy, our opinions, our emotions. But most importantly, as a character, he stands not only as an individual, but a metaphor for society and civilisation as a whole.



Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko, Penguin Classics: 2003


Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, Oxford University Press: 2008


Drescher, Seymour, Abolition, Cambridge University Press: 2009

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation : Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, Penguin: 2004

Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding: Pimlico: 2000