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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

 

Spoilers permitted

The subject of spoilers has come up in relation to these first-sentence analyses I'm writing. So, I'm making a ruling:

Spoilers are permitted. Read at your own risk.

This is not the usual internet convention, but there is a reason I'm making this ruling.

Reading is not a homogenous activity. There are many different ways to read a text - in a sense, there are as many different ways as there are readers, but also a single reader can have many different ways in which they read something. I've been thinking about this more since I read mmy's very interesting (and rather flattering) blog post on reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from a different perspective based on the kind of close textual analyses I've been running here.

Spoiler warnings are a convention popular on the Internet, which are appropriate to two kinds of conversation common on the Internet, reviews and fan conversations. These analyses, on the other hand, are written from a semi-academic viewpoint, something there seems to be less of on the Net (though if anyone can point me towards some, I'd be keen to see it). The academic convention is different: you analyse on the assumption that your audience is familiar with the work you're talking about. If you worry about spoilers, you limit the amount of evidence you can cite to support whatever point you're trying to make, which is simply unworkable; you also tend to assume that your audience will, if they haven't read the work in question and are curious based on your essay, will be reading from a perspective that doesn't derive its primary pleasure from plot suspense.

So, nothing against reviews or fan conversations, but they're not what I like to read most. I like close textual analysis and I like the academic convention, so that's what I'll be doing here. Spoil away, and consider yourself permanently warned.

Monday, March 05, 2012

 

First sentences: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Content warning: racism, including quoting the N-word

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.

Stripped of a name, our hero begins. What follows will be built up from nothing from a blank start, with only human nature to guide.

Sort of.

It's worth pointing out that Lord of the Flies is, for all its artistic merits, a fundamentally racist book. The English boys revert to a state of savagery without the saving elements of civilisation, and this is explicitly racialised: Piggy, the voice of 'sense', yells 'Which is better - to be a pack of painted niggers like you are or to be sensible like Ralph is?', and his cry creates a moment of thematic climax. Civilisation and 'savagery' are diametrically opposed here: the idea that jungle hunters might have a civilisation of their own that merely differs from English culture is simply not part of the book's thinking. There is civilisation, and there is Other, and children revert to Other when exposed to tropical conditions and removed from adults. It may be the 'darkness of man's heart', as the final page has it ... but the very phrase evokes Heart of Darkness, published fifty years before, and Chinua Achebe had plenty to say about that. Jungles are not good for man, whispers the book. For its message to be accepted, we must accept the notion that some people are more 'savage' than others - not just more aggressive, more malicious or more unreflective, but more primitive. Portraying children as savages is the cultural brother of portraying 'savages' as children.

In the light of all this, it is significant that the first thing we hear about Ralph, the first words of the book, are a reference to the colour of his hair. White boys can have many colours of hair, not all of them immediately indicative of whiteness, but Ralph is blond, the fairest of the fair. Without having to state it directly - this is, after all, an elegantly written book - the narrative tells us that we are dealing with Caucasian children.

Caucasian children, but in a tropical setting. As we slide down the rock with Ralph we could be in a forest or on a moor; it's only when we reach the last word that we realise we cannot possibly be in England. 'Lagoon' is positioned for impact, a mild shock. Ralph's hair clashes with his surroundings - and it's notable, too, that he is not entirely at ease in them. He doesn't slide or jump down the rock, but 'lowered himself'; he doesn't walk towards the lagoon but 'pick his way'. He's sure-footed enough to navigate this environment - his physical superiority to Piggy will be quickly demonstrated - but it's the grace of a healthy English schoolboy, cultivated on the playing field and climbing the odd apple tree, carefully used to move through an unfamiliar environment. Ralph is not in his element here, and he never will be. He is strong and neat enough to get through it, but it's the attitude of a civilised boy: mens sana in corpore sano. Keep your feet and keep your head; don't get too comfortable here.

Of course, it's also a storytelling device: Ralph is moving away from a plane crash, already on the go when we see him. The crash itself is the last instant of civilisation, the death of all the adults responsible for the boys, and it is over before the story begins. We will be witnessing the Fall of Man, or at least the fall of boys, and we enter the story at the moment it begins. The boys are, according to the story's notion of children as unsentimental, unconcerned by the crash: it lifts off their memories leaving little trace just as the jungle grows back in the earth it damages, and since it will not be important to them, we do not need to see it. The story will operate in a space that becomes more and more as if there has been nothing before the island with only Ralph and Piggy to insist that there is another life to return to, and the narrative will not help them. Civilisation is only a memory here, and we will see it present only in hints and aftermath. Like the boys, we can only grasp what has preceded the island through half-remembered details and increasingly ambiguous traces.

It's also a character presentation. Ralph, to the annoyance of his rival Jack, is a foresightful boy who rejects immediate delights in the name of the long-term goal of rescue: Ralph is focused on solutions and practical about necessities, and he has staying power. When we first see Ralph, he's already trying to cope with his situation, navigating his way through a hostile environment with deft caution, heading towards the least hostile place he can find. Ralph is relentless in his commitment to order, and in the opening sentence he is working towards it.

This active start makes an interesting narrative mirror to the ending: we begin with Ralph, and we end with Ralph (almost; the last paragraph shows the embarrassed reaction of the rescuer, unable to understand the trauma the boys have undergone), and the sensible boy on the move ends as an overwhelmed boy weeping for 'the end of innocence'. Ralph will struggle for survival right up until the end, will give in to despair only when the arrival of adults makes it safe, but despair will finally get him. He starts by moving towards his goal of 'law and rescue', but by the time it's attained, it will bring nothing but the chance to mourn.

Ralph, in other words, begins the book already carrying the standard of civilisation. He will cling to it with heroic persistence right until the last minute, but will no longer have the conviction that drives him through the first sentence, that 'law' is the natural way to behave. Ralph's fair hair and careful steps are doomed.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

 

First sentences: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

A decadent sentence in full bloom, overwhelmingly sensory and lush.

It's unusual for a writer to focus so heavily on smells, especially on attractive ones; Swift may have made a name by writing of stenches and slime, but Wilde - as John Sutherland points out in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? - overloads us with scents, summer roses blooming together with spring lilacs and May thorns in crowded, dreamlike profusion. This is Wilde's world of artifice: the realities of natural seasons are excluded from the outset. Nothing will be 'natural' - Dorian's extended lifetime, for one thing, but also, of course, the vexed question of sexuality, hinted at in hushes, never to speak its name.

The flowers occupy a space of deep ambiguity. For all the glitter and cynicism of Dorian Gray's world, kindness remains a real virtue: vice may be attractive (and, indeed, written about in elliptical hints), but the genuine cruelties such as Dorian's treatment of Sybil Vane remain memorable and strongly felt. Flowers are innocent, soft-petalled and naive, and there is a sense of tenderness for this fragile element.

But these are innocents that can cut: the roses and thorns are not to be handled carelessly. And there's also the fact that flowers are frequently symbolic - Victorian Wilde, in fact, lived in the era where the 'language of flowers' was a popular theme, and one which the gay underworld of London was quick to play on with their green carnations, to the point where four years after Dorian Gray's publication, a scandalous novel containing a thinly-veiled portrait of Wilde was published with The Green Carnation as its title. (Disastrously so, as it turned out: it was used against Wilde at his trial.) The roses - for love, passion and desire - mingle with the lilacs' image of youth and innocence, or, if they're purple, the first emotion of love. (According to Wikipedia, anyway.) The roses, the first scent we inhale, are the most 'speaking' of all blossoms, the most redolent with meaning; crowded together, we are almost choked with the implications of youth and sexuality. These elements contradict each other in a sensory Wildean paradox.

It's interesting, too, that the adjectives are equally contradictory. The roses smell 'rich'; the wind is 'light' (stirring 'amidst' the trees, almost like a living thing); the lilacs, symbolic of youth, smell 'heavy'; the thorn, with its Christian martyrdom overtones, smells 'delicate'. The pairings of adjective and noun are not where we expect them to be. We are out of kilter with the book before we can even get to the end of the first sentence.

In terms of structure, this is a curiously repetitive sentence for so accomplished a stylist as Wilde: four subclauses separated by commas, each alluding to something 'of' something else. (I hear Wilde wincing in his grave at the inelegant phrasing! Grammar is so hard to describe beautifully.) Each punctuation mark is preceded by a genitive: 'of roses', 'of the garden', 'of the lilac', 'of the pink-flowering thorn'. The effect is marked, and it's hard to believe it's accidental: 'of the garden' isn't necessary except to make it clear that this is a scene of nature as a possession rather than a natural phenomenon (which is to say that it's thematically necessary, but not grammatically), and there's a rhythm to how they build. Each phrase is longer and longer, until 'the pink-flowering thorn', a beautifully rhythmical cadenza. We're seeing not just a jumble, but an accumulation: clutter arranged with unseasonal care.

In terms of ostensible content, it's a sentence that tells us little at first glance except that we are in comparatively luxurious surroundings - a garden planted with trees and roses is hardly the possession of a poor man, and while Basil, the artist whose garden this is, may not be as rich as some characters he is definitely no pauper. But the luxury is expressed as excess: many flowers, many scents, light and heavy, too much at once. Dorian's life of debauchery begins here where his portrait stands: the flowers may do him no harm, and Basil has the good taste to limit his excesses to such such mild intoxicants, but Dorian has no such instinct for where to stop.

But his fall is almost inevitable right from the beginning. Surrounded by such sensory temptations and disordered delights, what is an impressionable young boy to do?

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