How do Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead discuss the cost of war?

The Crimean war represented a mid-point of sorts, a crux of change between the battle of Waterloo and World War I. Old tactics collided with improved weaponry in a bloody conflict that ultimately saw over 20,000 British soldiers losing their lives. As the first ‘media war’, news travelled quickly, hastened by the advent of telegraph technology, presenting the prospect for first-hand accounts of the front line to swiftly find themselves in newspaper headlines and discussed over the homely dinner table. It is amidst these changing times that the actual cost of war presented itself up for scrutiny – cost of life, literal monetary cost; all aspects caught up within the chaotic, encompassing nature of mass warfare. As a matter lying not just at the heart of the immediacy of battle itself, but the lingering after-effects and the memories of dead soldiers in the minds of those back home, the cost of warfare proved to a potent premise for poets of the era.

It was, indeed, a Times article by reporter Howard Russell that first prompted Tennyson to write The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem that in many ways has almost eclipsed the Crimean war itself. And it is in the way the poem specifically engages with numerical values that it deals most obviously with the costs of war. The insistent opening repetition of ‘half a league, half a league’ highlights a desperately fought push for a parcel of land, human life traded to win the very soil beneath their feet as the brigade charge forward. This is added to the further use of numerical quantity in the repetition of the ‘rode the six hundred’ refrain itself – by closing each stanza with this line, Tennyson places the reader’s focus specifically on the number of soldiers fighting. The effect of this is that the concept of individual men is dissolved, replaced by block movements of massed forces – war becomes something seen at a distance, Tennyson’s poem in effect mirroring the broad newspaper overtones the combat would have been dealt with in the Times article.

This kind of war at a remove terminology is also employed by Thackeray in his poem The Due of the Dead where he contrasts the language of combat with the comparative triviality of life back home: ‘I sip my tea, and criticise / The war, from flying rumours caught; / Trace on the map, to curious eyes, / How here they marched, and there they fought’. Just as Tennyson emphasises the link between the men and the physical measurement of land they are fighting across, Thackeray’s narrator points from on high to troop locations, albeit this time through the filter of a map. Here, any essence of the war as visceral and bloody are removed, reported loss of life reduced to ‘flying rumours’. Thackeray’s view of war is shocking in the distance it creates between the events and their digestion by the general public, but it is also fully aware of the poet’s own position, as one of those encompassed by the ‘I’. In a self-deprecating sense, Thackeray draws all the more attention to the way – through the process of observation and criticism – the actual cost of human life is diluted into a line of text or dialogue.

The skill of Thackeray’s poem is that it then goes on to contrast this distanced view of war with an intensely visual picture of it in all its brutal actuality: ‘Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody plain / The scathe of battle has rolled by- / The wounded writhe and groan – the slain / Lie naked staring to the sky.’ Beginning with the use of ‘Meanwhile o’er’, Thackeray places this scene as specifically different in tone from the previous depiction of war, while simultaneously delineating it as happening in the ‘now’. War is presented to the reader up-close, as something in the immediate, making the following depictions of ruined life all the more haunting. By punctuating the lines with dashes, Thackeray elongates the passage of time and by association, prolongs the suffering and opens up the scene of war as something happening on a large scale where a great sweeping ‘scathe’ of battle cuts down soldiers like corn in a field. The alliteration in ‘wounded writhe’ also serves to highlight the severity of the injuries, sheer pain forcing the men into inhuman movements – in this instance the reader is made to feel the cost of suffering a wound by the unnatural nature of the alliteration. Those soldiers that have lost their life are depicted as ‘naked’, stripped of everything that characterised them when alive – the cost has been absolute, not only have they lost their lives but their individuality and dignity too.

Perhaps the most explicit way in which Thackeray engages with the cost of war though is when he specifically employs monetary language to create a kind of bond between the soldiers and those back home who they are giving their lives for: ‘Owe we a debt to these brave men, / Unpaid by aught that’s said or sung.’ As before, Thackeray decries the efforts of poems like his own to offer any kind of real recompense to the soldiers, placing the debt at the feet of the reader. The poem draws on specific ideals of honour and obligation, in both a patriotic and fiscal sense – the hefty cost that the soldiers fighting in Crimea have shouldered is expected to be repaid in kind by England as a whole: ‘And of her fullness give them part’. By giving of this fullness, England seeks to plug the gap left by ‘Parents made childless, babes bereft / Desolate widows, sisters dear.’ The Due of the Dead depicts a depleted England where the cost of war has been exacted where it will cut most – in the homes of families across the country. Here, the cost is not only crude numerical loss of life, but also the cost on the emotions of the living; by focusing on the ‘bereft’ and ‘desolate’ Thackeray turns death into a far more lingering agony that strikes not only in Crimea, but within England itself.

There is an air of transaction to the poem – the irony of course being that it is the bereft families that must receive this payment as it cannot be given to those soldiers who are dead. Thackeray stresses the provision of aid to the families as essential, criticising those that would say ‘it is enough’ merely to carve a name and plant a laurel at a tomb. Again, ‘enough’ brings in to play the language of quantity, and raises the question of exactly how much would be ‘enough’ to balance out the cost of a man’s life, a theme further explored in Tennyson’s poem as he too seeks to offer some kind of balance of repayment to the soldiers; ordering the reader to ‘Honour the charge they made!’ Here, Tennyson speaks directly to the reader, commanding them through the emphasis afforded by the exclamation mark – in this respect he seeks to link the focus of the rest of the poem – which has been on the soldiers and the battle – with a focus on what those back home can now do.

One of the most moving elements of The Charge of the Light Brigade is the way it presents war’s power to deplete life in sheer numerical terms – with the continued repetition of ‘rode the six hundred’, it comes as a genuine shock when the refrain shifts to ‘Then they rode back, but not / Not the six hundred’. The full might of the six hundred in all their glory has now been cut down and reduced – a truth so shocking that even Tennyson falters in his relaying of this detail to the reader. The ‘but not / Not…’, separated by the line break depicts the poet’s words as faltering, an almost choking back of tears as the true cost of the charge sinks in. Here, although the sense of individual soldiers is amalgamated into the bulk of ‘the six hundred’, the reader is made to feel the weight of the numerical loss, the bleakness of the ‘not’ and later the ‘All that was left of them’ stating explicitly that the war has ended life en-masse with crushing finality, that the remainder of the brigade is now profoundly ‘not’ the fighting force it began the charge with.

One of the more haunting elements of the cost of war is the way death is presented as almost inevitable, a near ‘accepted’ part of the soldiers’ duties. As Tennyson comments: ‘their’s not to reason why / their’s but to do and die’ – Here, Tennyson removes logic and rationality from the role of the soldier, reducing them into thoughtless fighting automatons. With 21,097 killed on the British side during the course of the Crimean War, the question presents itself: was the war actually ‘worth it’? With over 16,000 of those losses from disease and cholera, the predominant cost of the war did not even stem from direct military action. Within this context, Tennyson’s words are afforded additional gravity – there is a sense that if the soldiers do not die by bullet or blade, they will fall prey to disease. In the line ‘O the wild charge they made!’ there is the sense that the battle was fought with reason replaced by sheer abandon, that the men were throwing their lives away without care.

Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead continues the idea of death as an all pervading concept, something not limited by the confines of one man ending another’s life. Using imagery within the poem to encompass even the landscape surrounding the men – Thackeray explicitly engages with the threat of disease in the lines: ‘He tracks his prey through steppe and dell; / Hangs fruit to tempt the throats that parch, / And poisons every stream and well’. Death becomes personified, a kind of debt-collector more able to precisely exact the cost of war. Soldiers are dehumanised into vulnerable ‘prey’, again highlighting the futility of their attempts to cling on to life. The theatre of battle becomes a stalking ground for death and even essential bodily requirements such as drinking become dangerous. Life is slowly stifled out from all angles and ‘steppe and dell’ transform into Tennyson’s vision of ‘the valley of Death’ – here the cost is not only to the men, but to the very earth they are fighting on too.

Furthermore, the biblical overtones in language like ‘hangs fruit to tempt’ and ‘valley of Death’ seem to place these costs of war within a grander scale. While it could be argued that Tennyson’s ‘mouth of hell’ to a degree euphemises the actual instance of death, it dresses the warfare in distinctly classical ideals and places it within a larger scheme of mankind’s history as a whole, with death as something man has been fighting against since creation. There is a sense that the cost of the Crimean War is only one cost within a series of costs man has had to pay since the instance of original sin brought on by Adam and Eve after being tempted in the Garden of Eden. As God says to Adam in The Bible, punishing him after he has eaten the fruit: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you… / It will produce thorns and thistles for you… / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken;  / for dust you are / and to dust you will return.’ Linked with Tennyson’s imagery of war as a journey into the ‘valley of Death’, there are overtones that war is the enacting of God’s punishment of Adam, that the soil of the battlefield itself is cursed, and that the bodies of the soldiers will fall into it and decompose to dust. In this respect then, war is portrayed as the ultimate cost to be paid by man, again and again across history, as sufferance for Adam’s temptation.

Also of note is the way both poets engage with notions of courage and twin it with the terminology of coinage. Thackeray describes the provision of war veterans with honours: ‘The living, England’s hand may crown / With recognition frank and free’. Here, the image is on the most literal level, of soldiers receiving honours for their deeds; a levelling of the ‘due’ that the poem’s title focuses on. But through the use of ‘crown’, Thackeray alludes to the British ‘crown’ coin, minted between 1707 and 1965. In a similar example, Tennyson ends The Charge of the Light Brigade with ‘Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!’ – this time the coin in question is the British ‘noble’, the first English gold coin produced in quantity. While on a base level, the poets’ use of ‘crown’ and ‘noble’ is in a response to the soldiers’ courage and honour, the fact both terms can also apply to coinage helps to place the scenes within a financial context where the soldiers are ‘paid’ for the cost and hardship they have suffered in Crimea.

Ultimately, despite their grave subject matter, it is also important to examine the poems as forms of popular entertainment, and by association, warfare as something to be monetised. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1854 in intellectual journal The Examiner, later went on to be adapted into a music hall song – and within this context the poem can be seen not just as a memorial of the brave soldiers who gave their lives in Crimea, but as an item utilised within paid-for entertainment.  Here, the meaning of the cost of warfare becomes more than just the cost of loss of life, but a monetary cost to revel in an intensely dramatic account of the events. Indeed, many parts of The Charge of the Light Brigade play directly into this action narrative as Tennyson relates ‘Flashed all their sabres bare, / Flashed as they turned in air’, almost glamorising the violence of the charge through spectacular sequences that portray a largely clean kind of violence divorced from the more brutal scenes depicted in Thackeray’s poem. Tennyson, it seems, even has an audience in mind for the poem: ‘Charge an army, while / All the world wondered:’ – here, there is a sense of warfare as something intensely theatrical, a massed audience of ‘all the world’ held in suspense as the poem unfolds. In this respect then, perhaps both Tennyson and Thackeray add another cost to all those described within their poems – that the soldiers they aim to honour must now suffer a kind of double-death, once in real life, and then again within the poems themselves.



Brighton, Terry, Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade (London: Penguin, 2005)

Coughlan, Sean, ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’, BBC News Online Magazine [] (accessed 11/03/12)

Pointing, Clive, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004), p.344

Royle, Trevor, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–1856 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Skingley, Philip, Coins of England and the United Kingdom (London: Spink & Son Ltd, 2010)


Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 115


Genesis 3:17-19, The Bible (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008)


‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, BBC Learning Zone [] (accessed 11/03/12)

‘Original Sin’, BBC – Religions [] (accessed 11/03/12)


Assessing the ways in which Janice Galloway experiments with typography and the physical layout of text in The Trick is to Keep Breathing

For all that Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing might present itself as a standard novel on a surface level, within its first few pages it has already laid out a plethora of typographical experimentations that begin to subvert the traditional ‘novel’ form. In a book that on so many levels deals with the nature of facades and playing up to roles within society, Galloway’s typographical meandering between established conventions and more outré divergences presents a narrative that is often unsettling in both form and content. Not content merely to describe protagonist Joy Stone’s state of mind to us, Galloway places the reader directly within that mindset, and through a variety of techniques, attempts to enable us to see the world through her eyes.

In a book where drowning plays such a prominent role, there is the notion of drowning within the physical text of the novel on more than one occasion. Going against established formulae for numeric chapter headings, Galloway instead inserts an enigmatic ‘ooo’ as a placeholder throughout the novel. Without a steadily increasing chapter number to guide the reader through the novel, the reader is effectively lost within the chronology of events, with no pointers to guide their way – instead they are submerged straight into Joy’s life, without any introduction as to who she is or her situation. It is only through sustained exposure to Joy’s way of seeing things that we begin to unravel her state of affairs; as she begins the novel: ‘I watch myself from the corner of the room’ – the reader also finds themselves watching Joy, from the depths of her own perspective.

This essence of drowning within the words (or more specifically in this instance, the lack of them) reaches its pinnacle on page 188 which is bare apart from a single bereft ‘oops’. In the novel format, where the reader thrives on the continued digestion of text, the shocking absence present on this page comes as a jolt, a physical shock akin to the processes of breaking down and falling apart present in Joy’s own existence. In addition, the ‘oops’ acts as a kind of continuation, or rather full realisation of the ‘ooo’ of the chapter titles, a kind of startled admission of Joy’s inability to function properly in the ‘normal’ world. By subverting regular textual norms in this manner, Galloway achieves a similar effect, alienating the book from literary standards in much the same way Joy feels alienated from societal standards.

The theme of the capacity of the ‘o’ to convey meaning is also employed by Galloway to effectively book-end the novel. Early on, Joy – in one of the many italicised ‘flashback’ scenarios – describes the discovery of Michael’s dead body: ‘A group of men stand in a rough O, staring with their eyes down. Water drips from their arms.’ Here, Joy’s extraction of meaning and shock from the scene stems from the visual input of the ‘O’, which here equates to the shape of the men gathered around Michael’s lifeless body. Joy’s mind is repeatedly shown to operate in a highly image-based manner, from both the transformation of a group of people into a singular textual mark on the page to the image of water, which reoccurs throughout the novel. A counterpoint scene is presented in the closing passages of the novel: ‘His mouth is a wide 0, eyes open to the sky… I am entirely alone on this ship, churning on through foreign water’. Here the ‘O’ of the encircling group of men has morphed into the ‘0’ of Michael’s mouth, a grim death-mask of a facial expression that seems not only to emphasise his own loss of life, but Joy’s loss of the man she has loved; the numeric value of ‘zero’ is harsh in its brutal finality. The resurfacing of the water symbolism serves to back this up, Michael’s death ‘churning’ Joy’s life up into turmoil and leaving her alone in ‘foreign waters’.

The incidence of Michael’s death is employed by Galloway as a kind of separation between the past and present of Joy’s life, neatly separated in textual terms by relegating the ‘flashback’ scenes – Joy’s memories of the death – into italics as opposed to the regular text the rest of the novel is composed in. This has the effect of holding up the past memories as different, as important, scenes of almost lyrical, chorus-like reoccurrence within the novel. It is telling that Joy returns to these memories so often, and it is established that in many ways they represent the crux of her ‘problems’, as her doctor asks her: ‘Tell me from the beginning what you think is making you feel bad… tell it in your own words.’ Galloway’s novel is the result of these words, and when she aligns ‘My mother walked into the sea’ and ‘He drowned’ in the centre of the page,she signifies – through the application of layout – the central role both Michael’s death and the death of Joy’s mother plays in Joy’s own life. Indeed, as Joy points out after relating these two incidents: ‘Something was happening to my stomach.’ – everything is centralised, right down to the heart of her own body. If the text is taken as the aspect of Joy’s life presented to the reader, it corresponds that the placing and presentation of that text within the novel bears relevance to how these relative concepts hold meaning to her as a person.

Another instance where Joy’s world, both before and after Michael’s death, is thrown into contrast is early on in the novel where she describes the numbers on the door of their house:

13 13

The first of the numbers is presented as larger and in italics, a potential allusion to the italicised memories of Michael’s death; that these memories present the enlarged aspect of Joy’s as lived alongside Michael. The second number is much smaller and presented in straight font, representative not only of Joy herself and the bulk of her narrative, but reinforcing the fact that she is ‘smaller’ without Michael, her life less fulfilled. Returning to the house after Michael’s death, Joy removes both sets of numbers so that all that remains are ‘four little holes’. The emphasis here is on removal and loss, not just in the trivial sense of the door numbers themselves, but in what they represent; Joy and Michael’s life and home together. Just as there are now only holes in the door, there are also holes in Joy’s life where Michael’s death is felt most keenly, as well as literal ‘holes’ in the text such as the almost blank page discussed above. For Joy, whose ongoing life has become defined by Michael’s death, the door number ‘13’ is an unlucky reminder of everything she now no longer has. Once it signified the place she and her lover called home – now, just like her relationship with Michael, the numbers have diminished to nothing.

The door numbers are not the only unusually presented typographic intrusion of a sign into the text; one of the most obvious examples is the ‘VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE OFFICE’ presented within a border and at a jaunty angle on page 11. Printed in uniform capitals, the sign interrupts the regular flow of the text and issues a firm command to both Joy and the reader; leaping from the page it reaffirms the inescapable accoutrements of the ‘official’ and strict order of modern daily life. Used to similar effect is the ‘SOME OF US HAVE WORK TOMORROW’ employed on page 90, a harsh outburst from angry neighbours directed at Joy. Again, it reeks of the regimented processes of nine-to-five working life, a world bound by normality, the language of the work environment. In both instances, these all-capitals inserts are an intrusion – both literally and visually – into Joy’s life, and in the latter case highlights how even within the walls of her own home, she is not entirely secure.

Equally though, there is a kind of comfort in these signifiers of ordinary life – they provide Joy with a means to grasp onto a world she so often seems to be fading from. For example, when she goes shopping she specifically states that she is going to ‘TESCOs’, again employing capital letters to mark out the shop’s neon sign in the way it appears to her. This notion of brands entering into the substance of life and helping to provide it with consistency is furthered in the kind of catharsis she experiences idling through the assorted elements of the supermarket: ‘I can spend hours among the buckle-wheeled trolleys, fruit and fresh vegetables, tins of blueberry pie filling, papaya and mango’. There is a sense of comfort in the familiar, highlighted also in the scene where Joy is presented a betting slip with ‘St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow’ written on it in gothic script:

St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow


Galloway seems keen to emphasise the rituals that are individually important to people, that we all have aspects of Joy’s ‘quirks’ to ourselves. There is a pleasure in the process of setting out one’s own font on a betting slip, a sense of imbued luck that juxtaposes with the unluckiness of Joy’s door number ‘13’. As Joy points out: ‘most of the men like to write their own [betting slips]… They are regulars.’The essence of the regularity and the small enjoyment that can be garnered from instances like this appears to hint at exerting a kind of control over life, in much the same way we might choose which supermarket or brand to purchase. In the disparate elements of the ‘routine’, in whatever form it might manifest itself – betting, shopping, working – Galloway’s characters are shown to find comfort in regularity; and by association, we – the readers – find discomfort in the irregularity of the various typographical techniques employed.

The concept of the routine also forms the focus of one of the early interplays between Joy and a health visitor. Galloway initially sets out the components of the ‘tea routine’ in a specifically determined page layout with every item: ‘Tray / Jug / Sweeteners / Plates…’ on its own line. To this degree, Joy protects herself behind the various individual parts of the tea routine and gives herself ‘time to think’. Confronted with an ‘intrusion’ into her house from a person in an official capacity, the routine acts as a kind of armour or facade of normality to protect the real Joy, who is clearly ill at ease. Just as Joy previously seeks solace in the items found in a supermarket, she now associates herself with the objects of – and in the role of – a housewife. The theme of the facade is continued as the health visitor offers the opening remark of ‘Well!’, delineated within a comic-book style speech bubble:




Here, the processes of trivial speech are set within boundaries, in essence a character playing at being a character. Laid out here within the speech bubble, the health visitor’s words are cheap and disposable, dialogue cut off and isolated both from the rest of the text and Joy herself. The theme of acting up to prescribed roles and the presentation of speech reaches a head in the subsequent page where the dialogue between Joy and the health visitor now takes on the layout of a play script. Here, Joy is safe behind her facade, reduced to a nameless, ambiguous ‘PATIENT’. The conversation may seem impersonal and forced, but by playing up to a role – significant when her job as a drama teacher is considered – Joy is able to assert her own control and values over her life. With her dialogue clearly allocated and set apart from the health visitor in the play script format, Joy may be acting up to a part society has given her, but this affords her the capacity to shelter the far more vulnerable ‘real’ version of herself.

One of the most unusual layout techniques used in the novel in fact emerges when Joy is at her most vulnerable, underscoring the fragility of the person behind the carefully maintained public facade. As readers, only we and Joy are privy to the snippets of incomplete text that appears in the margins of many of the book’s pages – it is here that we see Joy’s mind at its most frustratingly chaotic and fractured. These intrusions, like the numerous in-capitals signs that intersperse the text, serve to disrupt the flow of narrative-proper; is the reader supposed to read these snippets as relevant to the main body of text they appear next to, or are they a kind of largely irrelevant supplementary side-text?

If these intrusions are to be seen as directly relevant, the most obvious example comes on pages 174 and 175 where Joy is ‘raped’ by Tony. Here, the margin intrusions reach newly prolific levels; six across the space of the two pages, almost as if Tony’s physical intrusion into Joy is being manifested textually on the paper of the novel itself. In the case of the even-numbered pages, the reader is enticed to peer right into the central crack of the book, to seek out the words that are seeping – drowning even – in the centre. We want to apply order and logic to these intrusions, to fit them into the wider narrative, even as they serve to further the image of Joy’s mind as increasingly chaotic. Piecing together the fragments, the following message can be made out: ‘…ignore the warnings… when the worst happens we can only blame ourselves’; indicative of something Joy has likely read in one of her women’s magazines pertaining to rape. Also of note is the fact the margin intrusions are presented in a smaller font size, the same that is employed for articles Joy reads in magazines: for example the agony aunt piece on page 45 or the diet tips on page 39. And so, even in the worst, most horrible of scenarios, Joy’s life becomes defined by the limits of what she has read in magazines.

Whether it be the name of a supermarket, an office sign, angry neighbours or magazine articles, The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a novel littered with the by-products of everyday life. By rendering all these disparate objects in a variety of typographical and layout-based means, Galloway increases both the novel’s sense of reality and viscerality. In a world that is more often than not highly fragmented and unreal, these elements of the ordinary let us empathise with Joy and break through the barrier she so clearly seeks to erect between her past and present. As a textual and uniquely textured creation, Galloway’s novel becomes more than just a novel about an individual’s fractured mentality, it assumes that mentality itself.



Galloway, Janice, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (London: Minerva, 1991),

Jackson, Linda, Exchanges: Reading Janice Galloway’s fictions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review, 2004)

Jones, Carole, Disappearing Men: Gender Disorientation in Scottish Fiction 1979-1999 (London: Rodopi, 2009)

Schoene, Berthold, The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

Thomas, Ruth, ‘Janice Galloway Interview’, Textualities [] (accessed 11/03/12)

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)

The List (2005) [] (accessed 11/03/12)

Discussing the representation of death in Siegfried Sassoon – I Stood with the Dead, Thomas Hardy – Drummer Hodge, Isaac Rosenberg – Dead Man’s Dump


In war, death represents a uniform presence, something which soldiers face first hand with frightening reoccurrence. Eager early conscripts envisioned battle as something glorious and patriotic, but within the themes that emerge between the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and Isaac Rosenberg, death becomes anything but glorious. When Sassoon describes the ‘crumpled disgrace’ of slain bodies in I Stood With The Dead, any hint of dignity is removed from the process of dying. As a ‘dis-grace’, the state is shown as un-Godly and low – the men crumpled into a kind of half-existence far removed from neat formations of soldiers standing fast for their country. By opposing the ‘crumpled’ imagery of the dead men with the poem’s narrator, who is standing, the gulf between death and life is emphasised to its fullest extent – men cut from the prime of their lives to tumble down into death.

In this respect, the ‘Fall in!’ command of the narrator bears dual meaning – in the most literal sense it can be taken as an order, but in more figuratively, it draws on imagery of men falling down into the mud; collapsing, broken, into shell holes. The image of bodies crudely arrayed in this way is also present in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump, the title itself affording the men scant respect, their bodies now mere waste to be disposed of. Here, wagon wheels crunch over the ‘sprawled dead’, reminiscent of Sassoon’s usage of ‘crumpled’ – these men are also ‘crunched’ and compacted, reduced from a high stature to a mess of nothingness pressed into the mud.

Rosenberg then elaborates on the fate that awaits the men after death. Personifying the ground itself, he informs us ‘Earth has waited for them… Now she has them at last!’ – there is an eagerness to the words, a barely contained excitement of a predator claiming its prey. The concept of nature taking hold of dead bodies is continued in I Stood With The Dead where the soldier’s face is ‘sick like the plain’, bodily features merging into the surrounding landscape. Hardy is even more explicit about this process in Drummer Hodge where the soldier’s dead body is recycled into foreign vegetation: ‘His homely Northern breast and brain / Grow to some Southern tree’. Here, the body undergoes a process of transformation, losing its Englishness and melding into an alien landscape. Specifically, it is his breast and brain that are mentioned – the heart and mind – the aspects that bring life to a man; these have now been broken down into the soil. ‘Northern’ is directly opposed against ‘Southern’, all essence of the soldier’s homeland re-grown into something profoundly different. The foreign nature of the process is furthered by the abundance of South African words in the poem; ‘veldt’, ‘karoo’, the soldier’s Wessex home supplanted and outnumbered by the unknown qualities of the land in which he died.

Perhaps most haunting in the representation of death in the poems is the sense of loneliness and isolation that accompanies it. In death, Hardy describes Drummer Hodge’s only companions as the ‘strange stars amid the gloam’, foreign constellations completely unrecognisable to a British soldier. In Hodge’s impromptu grave, there is no human touch or emotion, only the hazy in-between state of the ‘gloam’; the hours between sunset and full dark. Thus, Hodge is consigned to a limbo-like twilight existence under the ground that mirrors Sassoon’s description of a dead man stuck in the mud: ‘the drowning soul was sunk too deep for human tenderness’. In both instances the lifeless bodies are buried, loose souls consigned to a hopeless in-between state without proper burial.

The grim nature of this loneliness is furthered by the sense of elapsing time conveyed by the stanza numbers which serve to break up the flow of the poem and emphasise the gaps in between each stanza. With the perspective of the poem focussed on the body of Hodge in the ground, these numbers become more than the respective stanzas they indicate; they are also respective of the days, weeks, months and years his body lies there. The form of the stanza numbers as Roman numerals gives them the air of something carved into a tombstone, an epitaph for a long dead man. Indeed, beyond the ‘kopje-crest’, this poem is all that marks his passing. As Hardy illustrates, that small part of the soil ‘Will Hodge for ever be’, the body consigned to the ground for eternity. There is an air of stasis, mirrored in Dead Man’s Dump when Hardy describes the dead bodies as ‘suspended – stopped and held.’ Here, even the dash separating the words seems to draw out the sense of time passing.

Death also provides a chance for reflection on the past – Sassoon poses dialogue to an imagined representation of his past self: ‘O lad that I loved’. There is a sense of immense longing, profuse love even, for the young, naive ‘lad’ that the soldier once was. Now sapped of life there is only the melancholia of the tear-like rain on his face. Combining the language of love poetry with death, Sassoon mourns not just the loss of life, but the loss of innocence. The idea of the ‘lad’ corrupted by war is continued by Hardy’s ‘young Hodge’, his age employed as a defining aspect of his character – death is shown to be all the more cruel, cutting short the life of someone so young. In the generic, one-syllable nature of the name ‘Hodge’ too, there is the notion of an everyman soldier, one that is in essence still a boy, and that death is not selective about who it claims.

There is a sense of inevitability about death, particularly in I Stood With The Dead as Sassoon described the soldiers as ‘forsaken’ – the poem can be taken to refer not only to those men who are actually dead but those that are doomed to die in the near future. In the command-like nature of the final line, these soldiers become dead men walking, marching to assured deaths. The march becomes an almost mocking reminder of the danger that accosts the soldiers on a daily basis, seeping into the very life-force of the body: ‘My heart and my head beat a march of dismay’ (this also echoes Hardy’s use of ‘breast and brain’). The word ‘pay’ takes on a curious quality, almost as if the soldiers must pay their due to death; that it is part of the job they cannot avoid. Equally, it crudely monetises the war; trivialising war into just another form of work – albeit one with deadly stakes.

Lack of respect for dead bodies is another enduring theme, Hardy’s poem opens with: ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined’, an image mirrored in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump when bodies are described as ‘flung on the shrieking pyre’. What is presented is a war where respect for the dead is almost non-existent; bodies are chucked around and either burnt or placed in the ground bare – in both cases there is a sense of the dead being consumed, of suffering a second death that condemns their remains to a kind of damnation. Most gruesome is the closing line of Rosenberg’s poem: ‘we heard his very last sound, and our wheels grazed his dead face’, the image of a face – and by association identity – being eliminated, crushed beneath the machinations of war. Indeed, within the poems, violence seems to suffuse every part of war, bodies suffering further blows even when they are already dead. Here, death and war present no dignity for the defenceless bodies of the soldiers, only ongoing desecration.

Repetition plays an important part in both the Sassoon and Rosenberg poems – the image of ‘they left this dead with the older dead’ presented in Dead Man’s Dump replicates the piling of bodies upon each-other with a repetition that seems to almost trip up on itself. The crudeness of ‘this dead’ acts to increase the horror of the scene, eliminating any idea of individuality and replacing it with a faceless, nameless placeholder of a body. Likewise, Sassoon’s ‘I stood with the Dead… They were dead; they were dead’ works to similar effect, with the capitalisation of ‘Dead’ becoming a kind of new ‘name’ for the dead men. With the life torn out of them, ‘they were dead’ becomes the only salient attribute to them – any other traits that made them the men they were when alive is now superfluous, they have become ‘blurred’, ‘plain’, anonymous. Through these assorted stylistic techniques, the poets highlight the dominating power of death and its ability to erase and consume – not just life – but to directly alter the way those still alive view their bodies. Death stands presented as grey, dull, utterly still – the complete antithesis of life. Whether portrayed as an unending form of stasis or a brutal desecration of the body, all three poets strive to highlight how death is not just a grimly final end to life, but a profound, uncaring waste of it too.



Roberts, David, Minds At War (Sussex: Saxon Books, 1996)

Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Mr Alfred is a victim but he is far from being an innocent one. Discussing Mr Alfred MA in light of this judgement.

When first introduced to Mr Alfred within George Friel’s novel, we are told that ‘he wanted to love his fellowmen’, someone with emotions and sympathies towards others. But as a central character, Mr Alfred is arguably a far from sympathetic individual himself  – victim, he undoubtedly is, but throughout Friel’s narrative of a bruised, broken Glasgow, he emerges more and more as a man of frequent shortcomings. Is Mr Alfred merely a good man placed in bad circumstances, powerless to resist greater forces at work in the city he has come to hate, or is there a far darker side to him?

Right from the start, Mr Alfred is set apart from his surroundings: ‘frequenting a common pub with common customers and a common barmaid when he had nothing in common with them’. He is positioned as the outsider, someone unable to successfully integrate into the social aspects of the word. He may indeed want to love his fellowmen, but he does not possess either the means or impetus to turn these vague ambitions into a palpable reality. Just like his failed poetry, Alfred’s love remains a half-formed, closeted thing that stays resolutely trapped within him. The implications of this are two-fold; Alfred becomes a victim not only of his own shyness ‘he had been a wallflower since puberty’, but of his inability to escape it. The former seems deserving of sympathy, but as the extent of Alfred’s drinking binges is unveiled, we realise that he does little to try and escape from the self-destructive rut he has placed himself within.

Mr Alfred’s predisposition to pursue dangerous courses of action is further explored when he smacks Gerald in class. Disobeying school rules on the proper methods of corporal punishment, we are exposed to his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the incident: ‘He smacked Gerry across the nape. He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it’. The troubling nature of the situation is that though Alfred is shown to express remorse, he swiftly ends up hitting Gerald again as well as branding him ‘you cheeky little rat’. The image portrayed is once again of Alfred stuck on a repetitive course of action, falling prey to the same mistakes again and again – while we might feel sympathetic for him on one occasion, his repeat offences do little to excuse him. This is echoes later in the novel where Alfred tells himself that he will not kiss Rose, but ultimately ends up doing so.

Of course, it can be argued that these continued transgressions are due to temptations. Gerald is by no means a model student and Rose never reports Alfred’s behaviour to another member of staff, admitting her reluctance to do anything to her friend Senga: ‘but what can I do? I’d hate to hurt him’ The irony is that in Rose’s sympathy for Alfred and unwillingness to ‘hurt’ him, she causes more harm than good, allowing his behaviour to escalate by continuing to play into his weekly meetings with her.

These themes of outside influences tempting Alfred into committing questionable deeds are extrapolated outward to Glasgow as a flawed society which turns its inhabitants ‘bad’. Violence is built into the fabric of the city, just as Alfred’s beating of Gerald occurs near the start of the novel, Gerald exacts a kind of revenge towards the end when he and his friends mug Alfred. With violence portrayed as an almost every-day aspect of modern urban living, can Alfred be excused for punishing Gerald? Alfred’s ‘smack’ pales in comparison to the brutal chisel stabbing committed as part of the endemic gang warfare. Friel describes the aftermath of the fight in the language of cheap, light entertainment: ‘They knew when it was the end of a programme. No point waiting for the commercials’. Here, violence becomes almost trivial, a mere after-school distraction; and it is this context that Alfred’s smacking of Gerald becomes a lesser of many evils. With so many other aspects of Alfred’s generation eroded away before his eyes, hitting Gerald in class is the last vestige of the old values he can envisage to attempt to instil respect for elders. In this sense, there is a desperation to Alfred’s actions that while not wholly painting him in an innocent light, allows the reader to place themselves within his mindset.

One of the most damning portrayal’s of Alfred is towards the end of the novel when his doctor reels off a list of supposed conditions he is suffering from: ‘The man’s got pedophobia, homichlophobia, dromophobia, xenophobia…’ Here, Alfed is reduced to part of an overly medicated society, dissected into a series of labels. A victim of every condition listed here, his character is drowned beneath an unbearable weight of modern diagnosis from an outside observer. As the doctor sums up: ‘He’s in a very bad way’ – and in this, there is an almost all encompassing judgement from the novel on how we should view Alfred.

Analysing the specifics of Mr Alfred’s relationship with Rose, it is important to consider if there is an inherently sexual aspect to his dealings with her. Could it be that his love for Rose is far more a longing for human interaction (beyond the scant contact he garners from Stella and Granny Lyons), a way of saving him from his intense loneliness? However, Friel tells us ‘A boy could never have interested him. His love was a heterosexual love. Therefore a normal love.’ – here the implications seem to be explicitly damning. Alfred’s desire stems from the fact Rose is female – any sense of a similar relationship with a boy are incomprehensible. Whereas a more patriarchal relationship with Rose might have been forgivable, the fact the evidence Friel presents us of Alfred’s logic is so suffused with sexual tension, we find it hard to express sympathy for him in these circumstances.

From the beginning of the novel to the end there is an inexorable sense that Alfred’s life is building towards a catastrophe. The initial positioning as Gerald and his mother as meddling antagonists remains constant throughout Alfred’s growing relationship with Rose, with Senga as the bridging connection between the two plot threads. In hindsight, Alfred seems almost damned from the start, Friel’s writing carefully manoeuvring him into a position where his downfall can begin. The novel even deals with organised catalysts of change within itself: the ‘Parents Association for the Improvement of Scottish Education’ (POISE). It is through systems such as this that power is shifted from traditional figures like Alfred into the hands of Gerald’s mother – as Alfred’s colleague points out ‘It’s old models like you POISE is out to improve on’, placing Alfred as something outdated, actively being sought out for termination. Now, it is not just unruly youths Alfred is battling against, but wider machinations that encompass society as a whole – and it is against these processes that he has no hope to achieve any kind of victory against.

This theme reaches its climax in the book’s closing chapters as Tod explains to Alfred ‘But you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside’ In this statement, Alfred becomes utterly powerless; with –Tod – the Devil – meddling with human affairs, it can be argued that any sin present in Alfred’s behaviour is merely a manifestation of the devil’s will, not Alfred’s own thoughts or actions, and thus he is absolved of responsibility. Equally though, Tod could also merely be a personified representative of the ‘evil’ already present in Alfred’s personality, and as such, is more a kind of temptation, a leading out of what has always existed within him; casting him as a far more unsavoury character.

In Tod’s explicit command to ‘go thou and do likewise’, Alfred is ordered to sink into the same levels of depravity which he previously scorned, marring the walls of the city with graffiti. And while Alfred’s mental state here is clearly out of the ordinary, his situation can be taken as a metaphor for the fractured, disintegrated Glasgow surrounding him. Here, it is not just Alfred who is the victim, but Glasgow itself. And like Alfred, it is far from being an innocent victim. As both culprit and casualty, Alfred and Glasgow enter into a cycle of depravity which, like his pub binges, can only lead to further pain. And if, indeed, there is any sympathy for these central characters – man and city – it is more for the horror of their condition than any positive traits they might exhibit.



Friel, George, Mr Alfred M.A. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 1987

Kelly, Stuart, The List (2005) []

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)

“All narrators are unreliable, but some are more unreliable than others.”

It stands testament to the shifting, slippery complexities of reliability in contemporary American fiction that when Tim O’Brien instructs us in The Things They Carried that ‘This is true’, we do not wholly believe him. Both this novel and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres are books which very much centre on the notion of truth, reliability and just how much we can trust the often subjective view of the narrator. By looking at the very machinations of storytelling itself, these novels are to a degree far less stories about war, or farming, respectively – but instead, a considered analysis of just what it means to tell a story.

The unreliability of O’Brien’s work is called into question before the novel-proper has even begun – located in the prefatory material is the statement: ‘This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary.’ A message of this kind could be said to be relatively standard for a novel dealing with historical subject matter, but it is the disparity between this statement and the preceding one that causes most concern: ‘This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company’ accompanied by the names of men featured within the novel itself. Between these two statements, which are we to believe? That the men – and by association their stories – are real and as described in the novel, or that O’Brien is playing the reader, offering them unreliable un-truths?

In balance then, it is important that O’Brien offers the seemingly more firm ‘facts’ of the list-like opening chapter. In the mundanely innocuous accounts of ‘Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, spools of wire’, the reader is given a largely unchanging kind of evidence that can be believed in. These accoutrements of the war feel reliable, trustworthy – it is only when we encounter more unquantifiable, subjective terms like ‘they shared the weight of memory’ that we are more prone to doubt O’Brien’s prose. With the physical items, the weight remains constant, hard, resolutely material. But in O’Brien’s metaphorical use of phrases like ‘weight of memory’, it is hard for us to place an exact weight on a concept stretched between the different soldiers – thus it becomes an ‘unreliable’ weight.

The intangible concept of the mental burden extends itself to the varied nature of the stories that make up The Things They Carried itself – just as each story often deals with different lead characters, the stories vary in length; some tens of pages long (‘On The Rainy River’), some a mere two or three (‘Enemies’). This draws attention to O’Brien’s power as narrator – while in many senses he is just another part of Alpha Company (and not even the commanding officer) – it is only he that can choose how much time and how many words he affords to each part of his story. The novel opens with a name and title: ‘First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ – forming the focus of the first two chapters, we are led to believe Cross will be the central character, but he swiftly becomes peripheral, O’Brien himself taking over as lead character. Expectations and literary norms are subverted and the reader must call into question his reliability; are the events and characters O’Brien afford only a few pages to any less important?

This notion of differing character perspectives is also present in Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Late in the book, we are presented with an exchange between Ty: ‘I guess we see things differently’ and Ginny: ‘More differently than you imagine.’ Not only are these statements a defiant standpoint between the sexes, but they draw to attention the opposed views of the characters. What Ginny may see as the ‘correct’ version of events – the ‘real’ story of their family – may in Ty’s view be unreliable. Ginny draws attention to this in the opening lines of the novel: ‘At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute’. Even in this initially nondescript piece of description, Ginny raises the question of subjectivity with the word ‘could’ – she presents one perspective of passing by the farm, but others also exist.

The varying nature of memory is continuously emphasised throughout the novel; the way the same event can be seen by different people in different ways. At the close of Chapter 43, Ginny recounts an anecdote of how in her youth she waved to Ty at a football game, only to realise he was trying to catch the attention of someone behind her. Not only does this passage present a literal example of differing viewpoints from different positions – but it employs it as a metaphor, Ginny recounts: ‘five years later, he swore he could not remember this incident, and I’m sure he didn’t, but it was burned into my memory.’

In this situation, who is more unreliable? Ty for completely forgetting the incident, or Ginny for presenting a piece of information that she has a particular bias towards? While the memory is ‘burned’ into her consciousness, in the grand scheme of things, it may be pretty inconsequential. We are not privy to Ty’s internal thought process, only Ginny’s; and as such are placed more firmly in her body, to see through her eyes, her perspective. Ginny’s memory has been branded by the incident, and by including it as part of the narrative, it is ‘burned’ into the course of the novel itself.

Within the novel, strict linearity and objective views are often painted as inherently masculine. In an argument between Larry and Ginny’s mother, Larry states: ‘There’s only one side here, and you better be on it’ before Ginny’s mother reluctantly agrees with him. In this dominant depiction of domestic life, Larry allows no space for anything other than his own view – for him, absolute reliability lies in his rules and opinions. The irony is that although this forced way of life is here presented as largely masculine, Ginny arguably only ever presents ‘one side’ in her account of events; the side she has chosen to present. Outside of what she presents in the pages, there is technically nothing else, beyond supposition.

Ginny draws attention to this at the start of chapter 42 where she describes the cafe she works in ‘The noise was the same, continuous, reassuring: human intentions perennially renewing themselves whether I happened to sleep or wake.’ Here, she presents the idea of a populated world outside the immediate realm of the novel – it is described as autonomous, ‘perennially renewing’, yet beyond this, we know nothing else. This world may contain people who talk, who eat; but without further description from Ginny, this is how they remain – faceless. A Thousand Acres tells only tells one small segment of life in Iowa, the inherent ‘flaw’ of reliability in all narrators.

The Things They Carried also presents the theme of reliability as something selective. O’Brien’s narration is not just a method of remembering the war, but also a kind of filtration process – selecting and choosing the key incidents and specific memories that hold most relevance to him, just as Ginny selects the moments on the farm that are most important to her. While O’Brien’s narration invariable focuses on the other soldiers in his company, the way in which he describes them can often also tell us about O’Brien’s own psyche. When Henry Dobbins speculates on the cutting of a thumb from a dead Vietnamese boy, he says: ‘I don’t see no moral’. Is this a view genuinely held by Dobbins – the character – or is it instead O’Brien’s voice as author speaking through him?

If there is any chapter that addresses the questions of reliability in the novel most directly, it is ‘Good Form’ – the chapter’s very title implies the right, correct way of doing things. But the chapter achieves the polar opposite, creating even more confusion for the reader. Phrases like ‘almost everything else is invented’ call into question the reliability of the whole novel; while they corroborate with the previous statement of ‘This is a work of fiction’, they work against the simplistic ‘This is true’. With so many alternatives presented to us, which do we believe? O’Brien uses personal language in an effort to persuade us, lure us down particular avenues: ‘But listen. Even that story is made up.’ In his command to ‘listen’, the reader wants to believe, to place their trust in O’Brien as narrator.

In a speculative scenario with his daughter about whether he actually killed anyone in the war, O’Brien states ‘I can say, honestly “Of course not.” Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’.’ Do we place the same trust in O’Brien’s ‘honesty’ that his daughter does? Do we take O’Brien’s statement as a literal admission of his actions in the war, or is it instead a hypothetical extension of his own actions into the actions of the ‘average’ soldier. The Things We Carried is presented as only one story of the war, of which many other stories could be told, just as A Thousand Acres could be told entirely differently from Caroline, Rose or Larry’s perspective.

In ‘Spin’, O’Brien attempts to bring finality to his discourse on reliability, to give unshakeable reasoning for why his storytelling – in whatever format – is so important. For him, the act of telling a story gives immortality to those who have died. By contrasting the world of his youth and the world of his adult life in the war, O’Brien aims to show the universality in which remembering can salvage the memories of people who have been lost. O’Brien states:

‘Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That’s what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.’

On one level, O’Brien could be seen to be muddying the water of reliability further. ‘yet the remembering makes it now’ implies the creation of an uneasy limbo between the past and present, neither one of the other, where hard facts disintegrate. O’Brien’s ‘remembering’ is at best a second-hand replication of the past, a dredging up of age-affected recollections. He is keen to delineate between the notion of ‘memory’ and ‘stories’ – stories are implicitly unreliable, the thing which is leftover when the memories are gone. As the memories fade away with time, all that is left are the stories, of which The Things They Carried is a collection.

O’Brien’s theories of memory and stories function on a central symbiosis – one leads to the creation of the other, a self-fulfilling perpetuation of an idea of something. Central to this is the way life and death plays into the idea of a story, O’Brien continues in Lives of the Dead: ‘I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep’ and ‘Once you’re alive, you can’t ever be dead’. Just as memories lead to stories, stories lead to a kind of feigned life for an individual – by imaging someone alive in his mind, O’Brien gives them a kind of continuing life after death. In the practical, exterior world, these theories and imaginations are inherently unreliable – but in the interior world of the mind, they hold as much reliability as any other thing: if you believe they are real, they become real.

In Ashley Karyannis’ essay on the book, she states: ‘This blending of memory and imagination to make something “more true” than a strictly factual retelling of past is alluring to O’Brien.’ Here is the crux of what O’Brien is attempting with the novel: the ‘allure’ of creation from memories implies an inherently unreliable narrative; that the process of creation is something that can bring pleasure, catharsis, or some other benefit. It is an artificial process, a forced creation of a war narrative that feels ‘more true’ to the reader.

Just as it must be asked whether The Things They Carried is truthful to the historicity of the Vietnam war, it can also be considered whether A Thousand Acres is a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Does the ‘reliability’ of her re-envisioning of the core concepts of the original narrative actually matter? In A Thousand Acres, the ‘Goneril’ character – Ginny – lives, while in the original she kills herself. This is Smiley’s intervention, her power as author to alter the narrative, to inject it with bias, with themes to twist the Ginny character to fulfil her aims. Just as we must be wary about the words O’Brien gives to his company of soldiers, we must realise that Ginny, as a narrator, is always operating on Smiley’s puppet strings.

Larry Cook’s dementia also raises serious questions about unreliability – the very nature of the illness and the degeneracy it brings to the person’s mental faculties draws attention to the way memories can rapidly alter. In the courtroom scenes, Larry’s mind is so muddled that he believes Caroline is dead, despite her standing right next to him. In this formal situation, accuracy and reliability are key; yet Larry is unable to provide either, so badly degraded are his memories. Larry’s state of mind also presents a kind of symmetry with Ginny, who for so long had ‘forgotten’ the sexual abuse she had been subjected to. The novel draws attention to the way past events can be conveniently re-written, cancelling out swathes of what actually happened, replacing it – as in Larry’s case – with an entirely fictitious substitute.

Writing on the novel, Susan Elizabeth Farrell states: ‘Ginny’s surface frankness and reliability as a narrator also begin to erode as the novel advances and she confesses her love for secrets’. Once again, the implications of the first person narrative are made clear; while Ginny is in the privileged possession of narrator, she also suffers the drawback of her actions within the novel impacting on how we take what she tells us. Talking of her ‘private project’ to become pregnant, she informs the reader: ‘it showed me a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves’. Just as O’Brien’s falls to the allure of the ability of his stories to give life to long dead acquaintances, Ginny is suckered in by the ability to create a second life away from prying eyes, to fabricate a new existence. It is this tendency that urges us to call into question the reliability of her narration. Just as O’Brien confronts his daughter with two potentially ‘honest’ answers as to whether he killed a man, Ginny confronts us with two lives – the one she chooses to present, and the other ‘private’ self, that she chooses to keep hidden.


Barz, Jonathan, ‘The Function of Memory in 20th Century Fiction’ []

Farrell, Susan, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2001)

Hall, Kelley, ‘Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” in Sociology of Families’, Teaching Sociology , Vol. 28, No. 4 (2000)

McDermott, Sinead, ‘The Gender of Nostalgia: Memory, Nostalgia, and Gender in A Thousand Acres’, Signs , Vol. 28, No. 1 (2002)

O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried (Flamingo: London, 1991)

Pasternak, Donna, ‘Keeping the Dead Alive: Revising the Past in Tim O’Brien’s War Stories’, Irish Journal of American Studies , Vol. 7, (1998)

Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres (London: Harper Perennial, 2004)

Wiener, Gary, War in Tim O’Brien’s the Things They Carried (Sacramento: Greenhaven Press, 2011)

“The US fiction of the 19th century is defined by its twin obsessions with the small scale and the national scale.”

It is telling that William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham begins with an interview. As the titular character sits down to be questioned by journalist Bartley Hubbard, we are privy to one of the central themes of the novel – the small scale transcending to a larger, national scale. Silas Lapham is but one man, but through the process of the interview, Howells shows he is acutely aware of his audience and the need to succinctly inform them of the details of Lapham’s life. Just as Hubbard’s interview is to broadcast the means of Lapham’s life to a wider readership, we too engage with the details of the man as his personality and traits radiate outwards. The individual man becomes larger-than-life character.

In a book centred on material wealth, the priorities are set out within the first page as Lapham informs Hubbard ‘I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money’. Even here, Lapham is identifying the fascination with money that transcends across the country – America is the great democratic nation, the land of opportunity – here, with the right determination and business acumen, anyone can move upwards from an individual to national level. This is the world Lapham operates in – to quote the famous speech by Calvin Coolidge, ‘The Press Under a Free Government’: ‘the chief business of the American people is business’.

In titling the book The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells specifically draws attention to the individual man, Silas Lapham himself. But equally, by positioning him in such an elevated, central position, his rise – and fall – becomes an example of social experience; a model by which he acts as a substitute for the American people as a whole. As Lapham explains to Hubbard: ‘The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country.’ Here Lapham clearly identifies the new means of the world, how the operation of ‘small things’ is a thing of the past, that the methods of modern America will now operate on a far larger scale, and by engaging in this interview, Lapham seeks to place himself within this new scale.

The contrast of small and large scales is not merely confined to the language of business and money though – both The Rise of Silas Lapham and Henry James’ The Bostonians feature love triangles, tackling the themes of romance on a conflicted level. Where traditionally love might be thought of as a private affair, in both novels romance is now a thing that cannot be contained between just two people, extending out to three. In the instance of The Bostonians the triangle consisting of Verena, Olive and Basil is further complicated by the domineering natures of the two individuals fighting for Verena’s affections. In one of her speeches, Verena presents the point ‘do you think that women are meant to be slaves?’ – the irony being that to a degree, this is exactly what she becomes. In the confused struggle for allegiance that the love triangle presents, the small scale matters of the heart are extrapolated out to a grander scale where this struggle must be fought amongst the midst of a national feminist movement.

And even within this ‘love’ triangle, there remains financial focus – such is Olive’s desire for Verena that she pays Mr. Tarrant – Verena’s father – a large sum of money to allow Verena to live with her. Here, intimate personal relationships become entangled with the wider scale notions of finance – while seeking to break out from the pre-established role of women in society, Olive inadvertently enters into the machinations of business. This also shows the lengths to which one person will go to gain the upper hand in winning the affections of a person – for Olive, Verena becomes her entire world – but in the grand scheme of the feminist movement across America, the triviality of the interplay between the three sides of the love triangle pales into insignificance.

In terms of feminism as a theme within The Bostonians – Olive’s use of Verena is primarily to extend the scale of her own personal movement, Verena acting as a mouthpiece to carry Olive’s views. But just as Olive’s ‘purchasing’ of Verena places her within the bounds of a national system of finance, her use of Verena as an oratory instrument to a degree works against her feminist principles. Much of the fascination and allure of Verena is not to do with the feminist speeches she is presenting, but instead with her sheer beauty and eloquence. She is in essence playing on her femininity for effect, and when Olive considers speaking herself at the end of the novel, the distaste from others is clear: ‘‘Oh, are you going to speak?’ the lady from New York inquired, with her cursory laugh.’ While Olive and Verena’s double act has had success on a small, local scale, now presented to the mass audience of the Boston Music Hall, attended by individuals from further afield, its limitations are made clear. In doing so though, James also aids in the creation of the sense of a national scale, full of a broad cross section of American society.

Howells is also keen to create an America of varied people – he specifically writes Lapham’s speech as accented, drawing attention to his regionalism and distinct background: ‘’pass you over the road,’ he called it rud, – ‘and it sha’n’t cost you a cent.’’ By giving his characters regional traits and contrasting them to the more refined speech of characters like Corey, Howells portrays a more realistic national landscape. Lapham’s accented speech sets him apart from the cultured individuals he wishes to engage with socially: ‘He accented it as if it were purr-ox-EYED; and Bartley had to get him to spell it’. In this scene, Lapham is clearly at one level of remove from Bartley, Lapham becoming an object of ridicule with the confusions of his accent literally spelt out on the page.

As much as Lapham’s desire for status can be seen as a striving towards a grander, more recognised scale, it is during his financial troubles that we see him engaged in the opposite. It is here that he becomes isolated, operating on an individual basis; his business, schemes and morals reduced to a single human being. ‘Lapham was gone a fortnight. He was in a sullen humour when he came back, and kept himself shut close within his own den at the office the first day’. The image here is of a man afraid of being seen as a fool, scarred by his failure and the implications this has on his business acumen. Lapham uses the nationally accepted means of hard currency to get what he wants, rather than the nature of his own individual character – Thus, when his financial credentials are implicated, he truly falters.

It is important to note Howells influence as author in the creation of the world that Lapham inhabits, as ultimately, the fate of the characters lies in his hands. Largely accepted as the first American author to bring a realist aesthetic to the United States, the fall of Lapham’s financial powers in conjunction with his ‘rise’ in morals marks out the priorities in Howells writing. In his depiction of the cut and thrust world of shares and stock prices, Howells is keen to present an un-romanticised version of the world where the ‘hero’ doesn’t always succeed. Instead, his ‘realistic’ world contains individuals who over-reach themselves, that succumb to greed; and in the process, a morally charged story is presented to the readership.

Also of note are the many occasions in The Bostonians where James specifically draws attention to himself as author, stepping back and clearly identifying himself as the ‘I’:

‘If we were at this moment to take, in a single glance, an inside view of Mrs Burrage (a liberty we have not yet ventured on), I suspect we should find that she was considerably exasperated by her visitor’s superior tone, at seeing herself regarded by this dry, shy, obstinate, provincial young woman as superficial.’

Here we see James offering his opinions on Mrs Burrage in the first person; these are James’ personal views, ‘I suspect’, he informs us, but follows this up with ‘we should find’. Here, James is using the novel itself as the means of connecting the small and national scale. Just as the opening interview of The Rise of Silas Lapham shows Howell’s awareness of an audience, so too does this passage show James engaging with the readership at large with the inclusive use of ‘we’.

In terms of form, it is important to consider both novels themselves as an example of the obsession with both the small and national scale. On their own, the novels are arguably small, a world to be enjoyed by a reader in their private company – on another level, they deal with big, over-arching themes like economics, morality, manners and strife, presenting these to a potential audience located across the country. This theme is even backed up within The Rise of Silas Lapham when Bromfield states: ‘All civilization comes through literature’ – here, the link between reading and overall betterment of oneself is dealt with, Bromfield expressing his frustration at individuals who do not read literature, like Lapham.

This plays in to the hierarchy of men displayed in the novel. While Lapham has money, what he really yearns for is social acceptance and class, which he seeks to gain by marrying one of his daughters into the well-to-do Corey family. Here, Bromfield is positioned as the paragon of class that Lapham yearns for, with Tom Corey as the means by which the union of their families may be bridged. To this degree, Lapham engages again in the means by which he knows best, commerce – effectively trading his daughter for increased social status. Here, the small scale bonds of romance and family ties are increased in size to a broader scale of hierarchy and levels of ‘acceptance’ laid down by society as a whole. Lapham’s use of his daughters to ‘buy into status’ highlights the way his mind operates on its own level of ‘twin obsession’: he deals with business and his daughters in the same way, interacting with and positioning them as if they held mutual ‘value’ which can be exchanged and implemented for status.

In both novels, Boston is presented as place of opportunity, casting the city as firmly possessed of a local identity; the ‘happening’ place of the day. In contrast, in the depictions of Basil Ransom’s flat in New York, we are given a window into a place of rough squalor, a ‘somewhat decayed mansion… the house had a red, rusty face, and faded green shutters, of which the slats were limp and at variance with each other’. In these descriptions James focuses on the miniature aspects of the location, but as Ransom’s living place, they can be taken to apply to him too. ‘Faded’ and ‘limp’, in the New York scenes we see Ransom frustrated at his lack of literary success and stumped in his attempts to woo Verena. By presenting New York as a place ‘other’ than Boston, James paints more colour into an American national portrait of many cities and locations, each with their own individual character. For Ransom, Boston is where he must turn to progress further in his life.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, Bromfield Corey identifies the new motivators in the age, pairing the language of romance and money: ‘There’s no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It’s the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination’. Lapham is representative of the new breed of moneyed people moving to the city, clashing with the older, established values Corey represents. By contrasting the old and new ways, Howells combines the small scale notions of the individual castes, combining them into a fuller, more conflicted whole; an America of social reformation.

Social reform appears also in reference to the lives of women in the novel. Lapham’s wife Persis is portrayed as a domestic housewife, content with her station and place in society whereas Lapham is not. Persis, while portrayed as relatively happy, is trapped within her situation, unwilling to do anything that might unbalance the status quo, as illustrated by the scenes where she finds a piece of paper suggesting Lapham may have been having an affair; she hides the paper and swiftly forgets about. Howell’s focus on these trivial aspects of daily household life are part of his many efforts at depicting social realism and in doing so, Persis becomes less a character, more an archetype for housewives across America. Despite Lapham’s stress on her importance, ‘If it hadn’t been for her, the paint wouldn’t have come to anything’, his praise of her rings hollow – just like his daughters, Persis is a woman Lapham feels he holds as a possession, part of his portfolio as much as his business is.

Wrapped up in the central discourse of The Rise of Silas Lapham is the way the language of business even finds its way into the love triangle – in this instance, Reverend Sewell urges that the lovers should operate on an ‘economy of pain’, limiting the upset to as few people as possible. While this theory may initially seem focused on feelings, it is again operating on mathematical, business-like principles. This theory shows, like Lapham’s treatment of his daughters and business with the same brisk manner, that the people of America seek to rationalise every form of their lives with hard and fast rules that apply to every situation, unwilling to leave anything to the chance. The irony and faults in this methodology are swiftly evident as the economy begins to slump and ‘pain’ becomes commonplace within the novel.

Both novels showcase characters attempting to over-reach their station, and in both instances being held back by the intervention and complications of romance. Seeking to rise out of anonymity and become players on a national scale, the likes of Silas Lapham and Olive Chancellor enlist the services of those they care most about, only to find their affections divided, their true cause confused. With their ‘I want’ attitudes, Silas and Olive become victims of their own ambition, entering into a treacherous economy of desire that will not gel with their search for respectively, social status and feminist principles – the route to the national scale impeded by the obstacles of the small scale.


Bertonneau, Thomas, ‘Desire, Resentment, and Sacrifice in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1998)

Bittinger, Cyndy, ‘The Business of America is Business?’, Calvin Coolidge []

Davis, Sara, ‘Feminist Sources in The Bostonians’, American Literature , Vol. 50, No. 4 (1979)

Fried, Michael, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Howells, William Dean, The Rise Of Silas Lapham (London: Prentice Hall, 2002)


James, Henry, The Bostonians (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2009)

McMurray, William, ‘Pragmatic Realism in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 4 (1962)

Pease, Donald, New Essays on the Rise of Silas Lapham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

‘At the heart of contemporary American fiction there is a failure of communication’

For Dorothy Allison’s River of Names – communication is a terrifying, fractured thing. The piece’s very title implies a torrent of words, a veritable outpouring of data that has merged into an incommunicable mass. This river – in its sheer speed and number of component names – has erased all sense of individuality.

This deficiency of identity is addressed from the opening paragraph as the narrator describes finding Tommy’s dead body. It is not the body the narrator finds first, but instead the body’s shadow, an ethereal remnant of a once-living person. His face too – the focal point of identity, the font of communication – is obliterated, ‘black’; a non-colour. We see the narrator deprived of the usual omnipresent powers of their privileged position, instead they can only resort to calling other characters ‘someone’ – like Tommy, they remain faceless, their names unknown. As Allison ends the paragraph, her mother is said to have ‘turned my eyes away’, depriving her of sight, removing a fundamental sensation, a means of receiving information.

This deprival of sight occurs again shortly later as the narrator lies in bed with Jesse – here though it takes on a more intimate nature. The irony though is that even in the most close, affectionate of settings, there is still a breakdown of basic communication. It is here, in the most direct manner of the entire passage that Allison addresses the issue: ‘I cannot say a word’. This juxtaposition of intimacy and failed communication is emphasised in the couple’s pillow-talk, Jesse pressing ‘her face against my ear, to whisper’ – even with this level of closeness, all that can be managed is a simple whisper, a pale, weak form of regular speech.

These juxtapositions are summed up best in the line ‘I do not want to remember and cannot forget’ – there is an awful sense of being stuck in limbo, between saying one thing and meaning another. The narrator is confined to the limitations of language, unable to fully express how they really feel. This ties in to how so many of the family members in the photos have been forgotten, they undoubtedly exist, but their names elude the tongue – as the narrator puts it: ‘The mystery is how many no one remembers’. Just as intimacy has become tainted by a failure of communication, so too has family – one by one the narration is transforming the most close of bonds into memories pierced by mystery and gaping blanks.

The awful reality of this is concluded in the finality of the sentence ‘They died and were not missed’. Here, death is the ultimate end; not just of life but of the memory of the person too – further elaborated on as she describes the deaths of various cousins, they ‘disappeared and were never found’. Any further communication regarding them fails; they become ‘multiplication tables’ – something cold, impersonal, mechanical. And just as the stories of these people are brought to a premature end, it is made clear that the narrator’s story will one day end too as she states she ‘will not have children’. There will be no one to continue her legacy, her story, communicate her life on to the next generation.

The theme of tainted intimacy again emerges in the narrator’s description of rape. The horrible intensity of the acts is summed up in one word ‘strangers’ – this most intimate of acts is perpetrated but unknowable men and the narrator is unable to offer more information; a greater number of words are even afforded to the location of the rape: ‘a parking lot’. The acts become even more terrible when dressed up in the formal reporting language of the newspapers: ‘persons unknown’. It is the overbearing weight of this unknown nature that places itself on Pammie, condemning her to ‘never [speak] again’ of the deeds. Even more terrible, this affliction of silence is contagious, spreading out to the narrator who confesses that these words in the newspapers are ‘too terrible to understand’. It is not just the act of communication that has been lost, but also comprehension.

This inability to express herself is highly ironic then when Jesse tells the narrator that ‘You’ve got a gift for words.’ In a piece that deals with problems of communicating properly, words do not feel like a gift, instead they appear as something intensely problematic, something that must be struggled with. This is addressed in the next line as the narrator seeks to actively avoid communication: ‘Don’t talk’, she says – the urgency stressed in the way this is not merely a request, but that the narrator ‘begs’. Again, communication is wrapped up in a tangled web of juxtaposition – Jesse believes the narrator is a skilled speaker, but the narrator is keen to avoid this, ending the conversation immediately. For her, true intimacy is ‘blessedly silent’. Of course, a further level of juxtaposition also exists; the fact that to express silence and end the communication, the narrator must communicate it within the text. It is perhaps only the finality of the full stop and the end of the paragraph that offers a real end to the communication.

Such is the extent to which communication fails in the piece that eventually even the narrator’s own identity is lost. Looking back over old photographs, the narrator wonders ‘Which one was I?’ – she can no longer recognise her own face. Here, even a seemingly infallible reproduction of life – a photo – has failed to communicate an image of the past. The questions continue: ‘Am I supposed to say something, do something, be something?’ – in a rapid-fire list of actions, speech is the first to fail, swiftly followed by action, and then the notion of ‘being’ entirely. Communication is not merely a process in its own right, but a component part of one’s whole, and with its removal, the narrator’s whole existence is damaged too.

This notion of communication – and more specifically language – being something highly elusive and changeable is made throughout the piece through the use of repetition. One instance of utterance is clearly not enough; phrases must be repeated twice for them to have effect: ‘Please, Daddy. Please, Daddy’, ‘Don’t talk… don’t talk’, ‘Hold Me. Hold Me’, ‘I love you. I love you.’, ’screams and screams’, We an’t no different. We an’t no different’. The repeated phrases come again and again, a river-like onslaught of words having to work doubly hard to leave an impression.

As dramatic as this constant repetition may appear on the page, it does not represent the climax of the failed communication in the piece. This comes in the usage of ‘screaming’. As the piece reaches its latter stages, the word appears more frequently; a wordless shout, no speech, just chaotic noise. We are not told what words constitute the screams, or how long they last – it is an uncontrollable sound, a raised volume of noise that washes over any other dialogue. As with the repetition, its effect is to overpower the reader, functioning like the river of the piece’s title to sweep them away.

Equally abrasive is the sheer lack of answers provided – while questions are plentiful in the piece, answers are less forthcoming. On page 20, seven questions in all are asked, but none are given a proper answer. Whether these are greeted with silence or we as readers are not privy to the answers provided is left open – not only is there are breakdown of communication between the questioner and the one being questioned, but there is a further breakdown in this information being conveyed to the reader. Even when an answer to a question is provided, it is hazy, indeterminate – Melvina talking of how many children she has: ‘Four… or eleven’.

This indeterminacy presents the scope for failed communication lapsing away into a kind of fiction. Where no accurate facts are provided, guesswork must take precedence. This is illustrated in Melvina’s answer, presenting two options – as with the unanswered questions and the ‘unknown’ rapists, we are given only half the story.

It is this elusive notion of truth that forms the crux of the piece’s final paragraph where the narrator reveals: ‘But I lie.’ Has everything written in the last few pages been completely false? Is some of it true, with some elements of fiction? It is impossible for us to know. In a cyclical manner, the first page of the piece also addresses lies, the narrator informing us there: ‘I lie to her the way I always do’ – here, communication has failed completely, every part of it is pure fabrication. But it could also be argued that if the lies are believed then this communication has actually succeeded, of sorts. Is the desire to carefully construct a fiction, a representation of truth, or is the narrator merely ‘making up words’? Does it, in fact, matter which?

Discussing the way in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with “Life among the Lowly”

Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in many ways a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act made it illegal to assist a runaway slave, adding further layers of oppression to an already oppressive system; as such, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is not just a creation of narrative and characters, but a politically and morally motivated piece of rhetoric. It has a clear agenda writ into every page and stands not just as a piece of literature, but an important document of social change. By sub-titling the piece ‘life among the lowly’, Stowe taps into this theme, positioning the novel as actively engaged with a genuine issue of the age.

In the 19th century, the ‘lowly’ represented a genuinely significant proportion of the American populace – the number of blacks involved in slavery was huge, with the number doubling every thirty years from 1808 onwards. Slaves lived through horrific conditions on the plantations and officials in the South such as James De Bow were determined that they were not even considered a true part of the American populace. Instead, slaves were treated more like property, something which could change hands in exchange for money.

The economics of slavery are addressed early in Uncle Tom’s cabin as Shelby deals with a slave trader. The slaves are generalised into a faceless entity by the trader: ‘They fetch a good price’, further dehumanised when he claims ‘these critters ain’t like white folks’. The language is grossly dehumanising, reducing the slaves into something less than human. Family bonds are irrelevant to the trader – Stowe is clear to highlight how slavery forces families apart and causes, in some cases, almost irreparable damage to the normal upbringing of a child.

This is best shown in the character of Topsy, who, bought by St. Clare, is described as ‘one child, who is a specimen of thousands among us’. Topsy is not just an isolated case but an example of a social trend present across America. Topsy steals, lies and is generally badly behaved in the St. Clare household – Jim O’Loughlin comments:

‘What was unique was Stowe’s conflation of the wild child with the slave child. This act of articulation made a particular political use of the wild child trope by literally making slavery responsible for an ongoing concern of white, middle-class America, the motherless child in an economically uncertain world’.

Topsy ultimately only changes her ways through the influence of Eva – Stowe’s politically-focused portrait of slave life is of something damaged, incomplete – it is only through intervention that it can be fixed.

This plays into another central theme of the lives of the characters in the novel – Christianity. The religion forms a crucial part of Stowe’s argument; Eva’s ardent Christianity, as well as that of Tom, positions them as personas that can be better empathised with by the predominantly Christian readership of the time – whether white or black, the religion acts as a unifying concept. The lives of slaves such as Tom and Topsy may be lowly, but their Christianity, their faith, offers them a glimpse of something better – sustaining them through hardship.

This point is illustrated best in George’s impassioned speech to Mr. Wilson:

‘Look at me, now. Don’t I sit before you, every way, just as much a man as you are? Why am I not a man, as much as anybody?’

This is not just George’s speech, but Stowe’s own voice operating through him – she argues for the universality of slaves and non-slaves, that every man and woman is actually the same, regardless of skin colour. If characters like George and Tom are ‘lowly’, then by association, white slave-owners must also be lowly for allowing this oppressive situation to continue.

When considering the oppositions of race within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is also important to establish the oppositions of gender and Stowe’s status as both author and woman. Through characters like Mrs. Shelby, Stowe is able to position the female sex as a kind of counterpoint to the black slaves – both are, to varying degrees, oppressed by white males. Thus, Stowe enables Mrs. Shelby, casting her in a role of privileged knowledge, able to better perceive the nature of the ‘lowly’ world of the slaves.

Early in the novel, Mrs. Shelby enquires: ‘Why, Eliza, child, what ails you?’ She is the voice of concern, highly perceptive to Eliza’s worries. Contrasted with the male figures in the book, the female character is positioned alongside blacks, able to assist and show compassion to them.

Where the women hold the most power is morally – Stowe emphasises a particular sanctity to them. This is highlighted in Eva, the model Christian – speaking to St. Clare of heaven, she says: ‘our Saviour’s home; it’s so sweet and peaceful there – it is all loving there’. Here, an ‘all loving’ world is posited as the ideal, a stark contrast to the ingrained racism of the real America. In Eva’s speeches, she is given a kind of instant-access relationship with heaven, presenting Stowe’s views of what Christianity should represent to the reader.

In Eva – a child – is a representation of the future; she is the next generation. Despite her young age, she is shown to have fundamentally grasped the ideals Stowe endorses. However, it is through her death that the strongest message is sent – these ideals are fragile, and without protection and cultivation, they will falter – America will remain locked in its oppression of the lowly.

Critic Otto Holsen depicts the status quo of the time in his piece ‘The extent of slave ownership in the southern United States’:

‘White racism was, of course, essential to the existence and preservation of this economic opportunity for whites, and it is important to recognize just how many southern whites had an economic interest in the development, propagation, and acceptance of racism within the South’

Slavery was not just in existence, but actively being preserved by means of racist white logic that it was an essential part of the economy. Stowe argues that it is not with logic that slavery must be considered, but with the heart – it is on seeing Tom’s death that George Shelby is so greatly affected as to set the other slaves free.

Contrasts like these provide a core part of Stowe’s rhetoric, her persuasion. Throughout the book we are presented both private and public spheres of life. As author, Stowe is selective in what scenes she presents to us in detail, and which she can summarise at a distance. When Tom is beaten by Legree, the build-up to the violence is presented as dialogue, but the actual deed itself is not explicitly shown – here, Stowe switches to a far more oratorical style: ‘scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear’.

By using the words ‘our’ and ‘man’, Stowe addresses not just the immediate reader, but a readership at large. The novel’s sub-title is not ‘life of the lowly’, but ‘life among the lowly’, and this all-inclusive language places the reader in direct contact with the narrative. The switch between Legree’s thickly accented insults to Stowe’s own sermon-like narration is deliberately jarring – it places ‘realistic’ scenes next to high religious debates where Stowe is free to argue her point, adding a philosophical tone to the book. Stowe is the mouthpiece, providing a voice for the lowly and oppressed.

As a character, Uncle Tom’s iconic nature has even given rise to the use of the phrase ‘an uncle tom’ to describe someone as overly obedient and servile. It can certainly be argued that, at times, Tom is meek, subordinate – yet he is also undeniably strong-willed, refusing to reveal the location of the escaped slaves to Legree. This presents a dichotomy: can a slave be both meek and strong, at once? Just as with Frederick Douglass’s, Narrative of the life – an American Slave, Stowe poses the question: can one truly be an American slave? To be an American is to be free, yet to be a slave is to be possessed – each cancels out the other. Stowe’s sub-title contains within it another similar concept – is the life of the lowly any kind of ‘life’ at all? In Tom’s martyrdom, we see the answer: to him, freedom for his fellow slaves is more important than his own life.

Ultimately, it is the novel’s popularity that stands as the greatest testament to Stowe’s dealing with slavery. Was the portrayal of life she depicted realistic? In a way, this does not matter – people bought into her world in their masses, and with Stowe’s injection of her anti-slavery message in every chapter, that message was undeniably conveyed. Uncle Tom is merely a literary character, but in their reading of Stowe’s novel, every reader gives life to his situation – he is the fictional form depicting real issues.


  1. Jones, Maldwyn, The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: Penguin Classics, 1981)

De Bow, James, The interest in slavery of the southern non-slaveholder (Charleston: Evans & Cogswell Press, 1860)

McPherson, James Munro, Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

O’Loughlin, Jim, ‘Articulating Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, New Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (2000)

Olsen, Otto, ‘The extent of slave ownership in the Southern United States’, Southern History []

Winship, Michael, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States’, American Culture Project []

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.



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)

‘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.



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)