Book Title
Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader 2nd Edition

978-1319035327 Part 11

July 26, 2020
hughes Open Letter to the South 185
informal American colloquialisms. The switch in genders also changes the
dynamic. At first reading, many readers will admit to sympathizing with Spera’s
wronged woman while being horrified by Browning’s reptilian nobleman. Very
few readers sympathize with the duke. Discussing our warrants for this first reac-
tion should prove fruitful. Why do we immediately identify the young duchess
as an innocent victim of a jealous man while we are certain that the ex- husband
has cheated? What does this say about our cultural assumptions about gender
and monogamy? By having us getall of our information from a narrator who
might be unreliable and who certainly sees the world from a different angle than
most of us do, the poets leave gaps into which we must inject what we imagine
to be the facts. Acting as surrogates for the reader, the audiences implied within
the dramatic scenes of these poems can be imagined to listen with as much hor-
ror or discomfort as we would experience in such circumstances. The listeners
may seem passive because they are trapped by the need to be courteous and
polite. Faced with such frightening or embarrassing self- disclosures by people
capable of strong even dangerous feeling, “normal” people tend to freeze.
a dreaM of justiCe: PoeMs by langston hughes (p.916)
Open Letter to the South (p.916)
Because Langston Hughes draws heavily from debates within and beyond the
African American community spurred by the Atlanta Exposition Address given
by BookerT.Washington in 1895, an essential first step toward understanding
“Open Letter to the South” is to access some of this historical background.
Washington’s speech and the direct response to it written byW.E.B.Du Bois,
“Of Mr. Booker T. Washington,” are reprinted in Arguing about Literature
(pp.1160, 1163). Encourage students to read this material.
When Hughes speaks of “lies of color” or “lines of color,” he uses words his
audience in the 1930s would clearly understand. Du Bois, an early leader of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and edi-
tor of the organization’s publication The Crisis from 1910 to 1932, predicted at
the turn of the twentieth century that the greatest problem of that century would
be the color line. Class issues were foremost in the minds of activists at that
time a period of economic depression, strikes, picket lines, and violence
against miners, mill hands, and others attempting to organize as workers and
“Negroes” faced not only those issues but even greater ones as they sought not so
much equality as the means merely to survive. Literacy tests and “grandfather
clauses” were devised to deprive the descendants of slaves of the opportunity to
have a voice in government and to gain education and employment. “Jim Crow”
laws produced a segregated society that bring to mind South Africa under apart-
heid. People of color could not avail themselves equally of education, public
transportation, or other means of improving their standard of living by gaining
better employment opportunities and working conditions. When Hughes refers
to “lies of color,” he may be expressing his frustration that class issues were
186 Crime and Justice
debated without sufficient attention to the fact that workers were categorized in
America by race, placing African American workers at a disadvantage. At this
point, Hughes’s philosophy seems to be that people need to “just getalong” and
strive together to their mutual benefit as members of the working class. He legiti-
mately sees categorization by race as resulting in an illogical distinction deliber-
ately promoted by the rich to impede united action that pits members of the
working class against each other.
Washington, too, preached the “just get along” philosophy. Washington,
however, believed that Negroes would have to work within the existing system,
not making waves. In his speech to Southern white business and industrial lead-
ers in 1895 (p.1160), he stroked the egos of people in power, arguing that social
segregation should continue but economic opportunities should be given to
Negroes who were willing to work for white factory owners, landholders, and
businessmen. Rather than looking to white immigrants for a labor force, the rich
should hire the descendants of slaves. According to Washington’s famous meta-
phor, blacks and whites with common economic interests should be like a hand,
working as one, but socially the races should be as separate as the individual
In practical terms, Washington’s compromise resulted in students at colleges
such as his own Tuskegee Institute learning such skills as brick making but never
gaining the rights that would give them any real power, economic or otherwise.
Hughes takes Washington’s metaphor and argues that the cooperative hand
should become a fist that “can united rise / [t]o smash the old dead dogmas of
the past.” Hughes wants his readers to “forget what Booker T. said,” because
workers need to unite rather than to remain separate if they are to achieve their
goals. As Du Bois cogently argues in “Of Mr.BookerT.Washington” (p.1163),
any plan that fails to achieve political power, civil rights, and the higher educa-
tion of Negroes plays along with the forces that seek to stay in power and have
no intention of sharing.
Washington and Du Bois speak to people in power, with a subtext speaking
to African Americans to accommodate (in Washington’s case) or to agitate for
equal rights (in Du Bois’s case). Hughes seeks to persuade a different audience.
Rather than seeing the white worker as competitor, Hughes speaks to white work-
ers as “brother” and “sister” and urges them to take his hand. Like Washington
and Du Bois, Hughes may also be addressing an African American audience,
because it is among African Americans that the debate about how to proceed
takes place. Although his rhetoric is stirring, it is not persuasive. We were igno-
rant before, he says, but now we know that we are brothers. Few poor whites,
however, agree. Jobs are scarce, and most workers, black and white, are looking
for ways to survive the Great Depression. Certainly, some white workers became
as excited with revolutionary fervor to organize unions as Hughes seems to be in
this poem. But most preferred to identify with the powerful white owners rather
than with the powerless black people who competed with them for employment,
and union membership was dangerous even when race was not an issue. Unions
were segregated; some shops and whole occupations became identified primarily
with one race. Pullman porters and stevedores in the 1930s and later were black.
Workers, lint heads, in the Southern textile mills in Hughes’s era were white.
Hughes hopes in 1932 that class solidarity can overcome the barriers of race. But
hughes Theme for English B 187
only after the midcentury civil rights movement, Supreme Court decisions, and
federal legislation began to produce results would it become the norm to see
black and white workers banding together, and many people still testify to the
continued presence of racial prejudice in the workplace. The reforms that Du
Bois called for proved more successful than Washington’s slow, shuffling accom-
modation or Hughes’s hoped- for solidarity that never quite gelled.
Theme for English B (p.919)
“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes raises issues about the writer of a
poem (the poet) as opposed to the persona of a poem (the speaker) who may or
may not represent the poet at the time of the writing. Students tend to see all
poetry as confessional, the outpouring of a soul in the throes of emotion. In fact,
those who write poetry often do so to express themselves. But Langston Hughes,
especially at the time this poem with its twenty- two- year- old narrator was pub-
lished in 1949, was deeply involved in experimentation with different voices in
both his poetry and his prose. Hughes was then in his late forties and was a well-
known and much- celebrated writer who had chosen to live in Harlem. His satiri-
cally comic figure JessB.Semple was articulating the issues within the Negro
community of the 1940s and 1950s in a balanced voice that ranged from pain to
hilarity but was never beaten or shrill. Hughes had long been trying out blues
voices and was experimenting with female narrators. Of African, Indian, and
French ancestry, Hughes grew up with various members of an extended and
mostly dysfunctional family in the American Midwest. Unlike his narrator in
“Theme for English B,” he was born in Joplin, Missouri, and went to high school
in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was a gifted student and the only “colored” person
188 Crime and Justice
in his class. He had traveled to Mexico, where his father lived, and to NewYork,
Africa, and France before he and writer Zora Neale Hurston joyfully toured the
American South in the summer of 1927. By the time he wrote this poem, he had
also been to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and to Russia during the social-
ist fervor of the early 1930s.
Having pointed out the differences between Hughes and his narrator, how-
ever, we may find many similarities between the narrator of “Theme for English
B” and the Langston Hughes who arrived by steamer in NewYork in 1921 to
study mining at Columbia University. Columbia is “on the hill above Harlem,
as is the college of the poem. The talented, light- skinned Hughes was not the
only Negro on campus, but he lived in an otherwise all- white dormitory after
initially staying at the HarlemYMCA.He soon was spending all his time with
the writers and artists of Harlem, however, meetingW.E.B.Du Bois and other
stars of the Harlem Renaissance and becoming an important participant in this
heady intellectual and artistic community. To the fury of his father, who saw
education only as a way to make money and who had no respect for poets or for
his own African American roots, Hughes left school and became a writer who
celebrated his race.
From the distance of adulthood, Hughes has his narrator encounter a typical
assignment for a college freshman, the autobiographical narrative. When a simi-
lar assignment was given a few years ago in a graduate seminar, at least two stu-
dents rebelled and wrote essays that resisted the reductive nature of the
assignment. Yet their resistance created what may have been the most revealing
responses. One woman wrote a poetic piece that touched on the shifting nature
of identity, and another wrote an angry explanation of why she could not write
an autobiographical essay, in the process writing an essay defining who she was
not. The assignment as stated in Hughes’s poem recalls the “non sequitur” of
William Shakespeare’s character Polonius in Hamlet that if one is true to
oneself, then it is not possible to be false to any man. But it doesn’t follow as the
night the day that writing something true is that simple. The narrator of the
poem critiques the assignment, sounding for a while like Walt Whitman’s Leaves
of Grass as he moves into the street for his self- definition and then pulls even the
instructor into the mix.
Even today, to be white in America is probably to be “more free,” especially
when the white person is the person in authority, as in a college classroom. In
mainstream American culture, white people are the default human beings:
everyone else is defined in contrast to this definition of “normal” humanity;
people of color are different, are other. Of mixed race, Hughes saw himself in the
“tragic mulatto” category, not quite accepted as black or white. When the young
Langston Hughes traveled to Africa, the black people who lived there would not
accept him as being like themselves. They looked at his golden skin and softly
curling hair and laughed, “You . . . white man.” America still struggles with the
artificial divisions that the history of slavery creates between human beings.
Students who are interested in exploring this topic further might begin with
Toni Morrison’s brief nonfiction study Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the
Literary Imagination (1992). According to Morrison, much of literature until
very recently was directed toward a white audience, even when written by
African American authors. This is often true of Langston Hughes, as we hear
hughes Theme for English B 189
him constantly speaking to the white person looming just outside the picture,
defining and explaining his race to the stranger. But this poem consciously defies
the white audience, admitting the impossibility of defining oneself as separate.
The rhyme scheme is interesting in this context. The poem imposes the struc-
ture of rhyming couplets at the beginning and the end, when the paper is
assigned and when it is presented to the professor. This frames the lively rhetoric
in the middle that sometimes addresses Harlem, sometimes moves into a jazzy
alliteration as in the “Bessie, bop, or Bach” of line 24 and even occasionally
rhymes as if by accident. Hughes often reworked material that was written in
earlier years, and he may indeed have turned in a response to an assignment
much like this one. We hope that the teacher likes the narrator’s impertinence;
good writers can get away with challenging the rules. But in 1921 or 1949, and
perhaps even today, for college students who are not Langston Hughes, drawing
outside the lines entails risk.
When Hughes uses the word American in line 33, readers who have read the
other poems in this cluster will realize that the term is loaded. Langston Hughes
insists throughout his poetry that America is for people of all races, and he seizes
this identity at every opportunity. It is American to be part white and part black,
as indeed Hughes is genetically, but speaking culturally, the poet demands that
we realize the contribution of both races to our national identity. After more than
sixty years, we may recognize this truth more keenly, as men and women of
several races fight wars or engage in political activities side by side, go out to eat
in the same restaurants, produce and nurture multiracial children, share one
another’s music and other aspects of culture, and interact in all sorts of ways
without thinking twice about it. This comfortable closeness was not the case in
Hughes’s day. We do not want to sugarcoat problems that still exist, but our world
is drastically different from that of the 1940s of the poem’s composition or the
1920s of the poet’s college days.
The emphasis on “freedom” in this poem is less directly the subject than in
the previous two poems in this cluster. Nevertheless, the speaker of the poem feels
compelled to remind the white teacher that he or she is “somewhat more
free” in 1949, undoubtedly an understatement. Gaps still exist in the early
twenty- first century, as statistics show, but few people would argue that the degree
of freedom has not improved in the past sixty years. The reasons for the disparities,
however, are perhaps less clear than they were in the years of institutionalized
racism and therefore may be more difficult to analyze and to overcome.
190 Crime and Justice
Harlem (p.921)
When Lorraine Hansberry wrote a play about an African American family in 1950s
Chicago seeking the American Dream, she took the inspiration for her title from
the first line of Langston Hughes’s short poem “Harlem” often called by a phrase
from its first line, “a dream deferred.” In the first of a series of questions in the
poem, Hughes’s speaker asks about a dream constantly blocked by forces outside
one’s control, “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” By asking questions rather
than preaching or complaining, Hughes invites his audience to askthe questions
along with him and to speculate about answers. His strategy is effective, because
the reader must become an active participant in the issues raised. By tantalizingly
offering then deferring the American Dream for a whole group of people, society
may be setting itself up for an explosion. The reader is challenged to ask what
might be done to prevent such a consequence. The rhetorical strategy is more
effective than the attempts at persuasion in “Open Letter to the South” and “Let
America Be America Again” or the slightly cheeky challenge to the teacher in
“Theme for EnglishB.” In “Harlem,” the speaker invites his audience to share in
the dialogue of problem solving.
We might ask students to define the American Dream. For most people, it
involves at least enough economic security to take care of the basic needs of
oneself and one’s family. For some, it means having an expensive car or living in
a gated community. We have been taught a philosophy of rugged individualism,
with each person expecting to achieve some degree of success and at least to “live
up to his or her potential.” The cliché is that any child in America can grow up
to be president. And we all expect to live in towns where, to echo Garrison
Keillor, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the
children are above average.” The irony of this statement, and its humor, derives
from the fact that, of course, for an average to exist, someone has to fall below
the mean. The same capitalistic philosophy that turns everything into a com-
modity, judging each person by the quantity and value of the products he or she
consumes, implies that any person who simply works hard enough can have all
that he or she desires. Competition in such a society can become brutal. When
barriers are set up but society denies their existence, the self- esteem of groups
kept outside of the dream plunges and their frustration grows. These people are
then condemned as whiners, as troublemakers, and eventually as criminals. The
“dream deferred” describes such a dilemma. We might recall Booker T.
Washington’s advice that African Americans patiently work and try to gain
respect rather than fight for equal rights. Washington urged his people to defer
their dreams, to wait. Hughes warns of the consequences.
Hughes’s metaphors imply different reactions to such frustrations. Some
people lose their spirit, becoming dried- up shells rather than vibrant human
beings. Others become part of the sickness in society, their misery infecting the
sopholes Antigone 191
whole body of the nation. Others might frantically try to “run” escaping into
drugs or other ways of numbing the pain. Perhaps those who find alternative
ways of succeeding the ones who actually become criminals, beggars, or oth-
ers offensive to respectable people “stink like rotten meat” in the nostrils of
America. People who protect themselves by submitting to their inferior status,
playing “Stepin Fetchit” to those in power or following Washington’s advice to
accommodate and assimilate, may be compared to “a syrupy sweet.” Others give
up under the burdens. But the question at the end perhaps struck the most fear
in white readers. Those who are kept down are a constant threat because some
inevitably must rise up. Hughes is writing before the explosive urban riots of the
1960s, though racial conflict had certainly occurred before this. Historically
minded readers may recall the slave uprisings that panicked plantation owners
throughout earlier centuries. Hughes’s final line reminds readers that one con-
sequence of oppression is revolution.
hoW Can injustiCe be resisted?: Plays (p.923)
Antigone (p.923)
In other places in our anthology, students have been exposed to the concept of
persona in poetry, used to describe the speaker of a poem who is obviously not
the poet. The term originally referred to the masks worn by the exclusively male
actors in Greek drama to indicate to the audience who they were supposed to be.
When a man acted the part of Antigone, Ismene, or Eurydice, therefore, gesture
and voice were all that were available to him as he sought to suspend the disbe-
lief of his audience. The audience was called on to imagine it, to be an active
participant in reading the human emotion portrayed. The more we allow
192 Crime and Justice
ourselves to become involved emotionally in the drama, the more likely we are
to experience catharsis, the “cleansing” that comes as we work out feelings of pity
and fear as we share in the conflicts of the characters in the play. Catharsis may
also involve the intellectual satisfaction we derive from thinking critically about
the issues raised as the plot comes to its climax and resolution. Issues of cause
and effect arise as the characters are thrown into conflicts by the decisions they
make in the face of destiny. In Antigone, the moral family obligation to bury the
dead and to cry out in mourning is one of the few public roles allowed to
women, one the Athenian establishment in Sophocles’ home city historically
sought to control and limit. The tension of the play exists between the human
laws of government, an arena of exclusive male dominance, and the emotional
imperative of honoring the death of a loved family member, thus preserving
traditions of family and religion activities important to women. This reality of
Greek life underlies the conflict between Antigone and her uncle, Creon, who
has become king of Thebes on the death of her brothers.
Instructors will want to provide more background about Antigone’s father,
Oedipus, and the reasons behind the situation that Oedipus’s children experi-
ence. Some students will have heard Oedipus referred to in psychology classes as
the archetype for the desire that every little boy presumably feels to get rid of his
father and be united with his mother. Instructors who are unfamiliar with the
story of Oedipus can find it in any number of reference books about classical
Greek mythology. The actuality of Oedipus inadvertently committing this primal
sin brings a curse upon his family; in addition, during his old age and blindness,
Oedipus has cursed his sons explicitly for their perceived failure to help and
honor him properly. One tragedy leads to another in this family. Reading Oedipus
the King along with Antigone enriches both stories. We might also suggest that
students find a copy of Oedipus at Colonus on the Internet and read this as well.
These plays, though each can stand alone as a complete action, provide a
rich context for understanding the characters of Antigone. When Antigone is
described hanging in the tomb in which Creon has buried her alive, with her
beloved, Creon’s son Haemon, clinging to her after stabbing himself, readers
cannot help but recall descriptions of the dead Jocasta, who hanged herself after
sopholes Antigone 193
learning of her incest with her son Oedipus, and of Oedipus blinding himself by
stabbing his eyes with Jocasta’s brooches. Readers of the earlier plays will recall
throughout Antigone the primal sin that Oedipus has inadvertently committed,
bringing additional curses to his progeny, who are both his children and his
siblings. We will remember that Oedipus has cursed his sons explicitly for their
perceived failure to help and honor him. While at Colonus, he has emphasized
that his daughters have thus been forced to care for him as sons should have
done, going out into the world while the young men have stayed at home. This
sets the stage for Antigone’s actions in the play named for her.
Although the plays can be read in the order of their events, we should men-
tion that they were not written in this order. Antigone’s story came first, Oedipus
the King was written later when Sophocles was in his fifties, and the tale of the
elderly Oedipus came last, first presented soon after Sophocles’ death in his seven-
ties. Audiences would have known about the tragic happenings in the family of
Oedipus, however, and would have enjoyed the dramatic irony as characters
learned of them for the first time.
To Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and of Oedipus’s mother, Jocasta,
another monstrous event seems about to take place. Her brothers have killed each
other contending for control over their dead father’s city, Thebes. Their uncle
Creon, in his role as the new king, will not allow proper burial of Polynices, the
brother who had allied with a competing city in his attack. Both Antigone and
Creon have seemingly valid reasons for their actions. The king feels that it is
proper to deny glory to Polynices by leaving his body unburied because this
nephew has committed treason against the city, even though such handling of a
body is not the tradition in their city. Antigone, however, operates under an ethic
that sees lack of burial as a horror, going against religion and tradition.
There may be personal grounds for Antigone’s obsession as well. It is a
woman’s duty to care for family members in death as in infancy. Creon’s action
further denies to her the only public voice and participation in ritual a woman
is allowed in ancient Greece. Women are not citizens, but Creon devalues
women even beyond this, telling his son Haemon that “there are other fields for
him to plow.” Women are interchangeable, he implies, and Antigone, Haemon’s
betrothed, is less than nothing, even though she is a king’s daughter. Creon
accuses her of hubris, the overreaching pride that brings the anger of the gods,
because she challenges male authority. He sees her as irrational and insane. But
he, too, is arrogant and habitually acts in rash anger rather than taking the time
to reason out his actions.
Scholars debate how Antigone fits the traditional elements of tragedy. How
can Antigone be a tragic hero, since she is a woman? Would the audience have
been moved to pity by her desire to bury her brother, or would they have seen
her as a hateful feminist dangerously out of control? Interested students can look
up descriptions of Greek tragedy and debate the issue of tragic flaws and other
qualities of the hero to determine if Creon fits the role. Some argue for Haemon,
who plays a small but important role, dying for the love of a woman and the
shame of his father’s actions. Students will be reminded of Romeo and Juliet on
a grander, more intense scale.
Haemon’s conflict with his father is warranted by his belief in reason as
opposed to rigidity and unbridled emotion, his respect for the gods, and the
194 Crime and Justice
importance of considering the will of the people. He therefore stands between
the obsessions of Antigone and Creon. Like Antigone, he disobeys the ruling
authority. Like Oedipus, he comes close to committing patricide. If Haemon is
the hero of the drama, perhaps this willingness to overturn the order of society
and family is his fatal flaw in the eyes of Sophocles and his immediate audience.
He commits suicide after failing to stab his father, Creon, and his death leads to
catharsis as his mother (Eurydice) commits suicide and his father cries out in
mourning and guilt. The chorus drives home the point that suffering can lead to
Modern readers tend to see Antigone as tragically heroic and as an early
feminist who stands up for what she believes is right. Students may see her as
determined, idealistic, passionate, and loyal. Others may feel that she is obsessed,
shrill, and hysterical (a word with pejorative connotations toward women). We
sympathize with her and see her as morally superior to Creon, though cultural
differences may stand in the way of our understanding of her intensity about the
subject of her brother’s body. Some readers may feel that at some point she loses
moral authority as the issue becomes more a matter of defying Creon than of
burying her brother. We have more difficulty sympathizing with Creon. He
seems especially irritating when he is accusing people of being money hungry.
He constantly shifts blame. He flies off the handle easily and allows matters to
escalate as he rigidly holds his ground. Perhaps, at the end, when he has lost his
whole family, we feel pity for him and hope he will gain the wisdom the chorus
speaks about.
Antigone’s sister, Ismene, comes across to modern audiences as lacking in
courage, though she tries to stand with Antigone by sharing the blame for some-
thing she didn’t do. She comes in for some harsh judgment from her sister, but
she is following the rules and traditions set out for women to follow. She is also
aware of the tragedies the family has already endured, and she shies away from
yet another public shame. Ismene is a good girl. The first audience for this play
might have seen her as more normal than the manic Antigone.
The chorus is the unified voice of the elder statesmen of the city, and its
wisdom varies. When Creon announces that he will not allow Polynices to be
buried, the chorus agrees, going against its better judgment in the face of his
power and determination. This shows the chorus’s imperfection, as does its han-
dling of Eurydice at the play’s end. The chorus hopes that she will retire to her
quarters to work out her feelings in private, and it watches her go, even though
it partially suspects that she will harm herself. Often, however, it interprets events
for the audience, mixing its reading of the current situation with philosophy. It
tells us about the nature of mankind, the gods, and fate. It recalls historical
events and genealogy. Students who have read William Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” (p. 497) may see in the first- person- plural perspective echoes of the
Greek chorus, interpreting events surrounding Miss Emily as normal citizens
would have explained those surrounding the royal personages of Greek tragedy.
We might also remember that Faulkner’s story involved an unburied body, with
the heroine taking a stand quite different from Antigone’s.
Most viewers of Sophocles’ tragedy prefer the Greek tradition of keeping the
actual violence offstage. Creon entering with his son in his arms is a moving
scene, evoking our pity more strongly because we only hear the telling of the
sopholes Antigone 195
events that lead up to it. We do not need to see the struggle between father and
son to feel the agony of a man whose father has killed the woman he loves, nor
do we need to see Eurydice slashing herself in grief to recognize the suffering of
a mother who has lost a son. Students may disagree, having observed realistic
violence in films, on television, and in video games. The Greek audience had
probably seen more death than most modern Westerners do. But we have
become emotionally hardened through experiencing violence and death vicari-
ously, and catharsis becomes more elusive. Although students will think of many
examples of violence in slasher movies and films in similar genres, a vivid evoca-
tion of realistic violence may be seen in movies such as Saving Private Ryan and
The Hurt Locker. Students could argue for the importance of showing such vio-
lence in historical reenactments so that we understand the enormity of war.
Others say that the opposite will happen, and we will yawn at seeing yet another
televised image of an actual war, perhaps even complaining that the angle is not
quite right, undercutting the realism.
The responses of modern audiences to Antigone will also differ, depending
on their personal contexts. A mayor of a city, such as Creon, would have to weigh
the consequences of backing down once a stand has been taken. Creon does not
want to appear to be a weak leader, so he stays firm. While the reaction of the
populace to his treatment of Antigone indicates that he may have been
applauded if he had given his nephew Polynices a proper burial, their reaction
had they not been struck by her pathos might have been critical. The crowd is
often fickle. For Creon to admit that he has been wrong to leave the body of his
nephew on the battlefield would be to expose himself as fallible and would allow
people to question his authority. When he is finally convinced by Tiresias to do
the right thing, it is too late, an experience many analytical people know well. A
mayor might relate to Creon’s dilemma, realizing that it is important to show
leadership and stand by decisions. But a martyr would also realize that he should
listen to the people. Haemon makes an excellent point when he reminds his
father that people will say things in private that they might keep from authority
figures, and elected officials might be reminded to choose advisers who hear the
true feelings of the voters.
Creon also says at one point that he would die before he’d be governed by a
woman, a statement that sets off alarms for feminists. A feminist reading would
closely analyze the interactions among the men and women of the play to deter-
mine warrants for the characters’ actions. Because she has been thrust into the
world through the tragedies of her family, Antigone has learned to make her own
decisions, standing up for higher laws and challenging the decisions of a tyrant.
Although this leads to her death and precludes any chance she has of marrying
Haemon and having children, she does effect change, since the people of the
city see her actions to be right and Creon’s treatment of her to be unjust.
By allowing her this victory, Sophocles shows Antigone to be a rebel fighting
against injustice. No middle ground seems available to her because of Creon’s
rigidity. Yet her sister Ismene contends that Antigone is a firebrand even before
she goes head to head with Creon, and she seems to seek a confrontation with
her uncle even as Ismene counsels moderation.
Although Ismene is willing to die with her sister when her crime is revealed,
Antigone will not allow her to share responsibility for her actions in giving their
196 Crime and Justice
brother a proper burial. Ismene wishes to share blame, but Antigone interprets
the situation as one of triumph and will not share it. Feminists often disagree on
how militant their actions should be and on how much moderation can be used
before falling into submission and settling for second- class citizenship. Rebels
might applaud Antigone’s actions, while conformists might join Ismene and
plead that the dictates of the city be followed or that matters be taken care of
quietly, avoiding open defiance. Had Antigone been willing to concede on this
point, she could have become the wife and mother of kings, since she is engaged
to marry Creon’s son Haemon.
The Table (p.963)
Because Ida Fink’s play The Table is fairly short, you might assign its roles to
particular students and have them read the script aloud in class. Subsequently,
you can ask everyone in class to freewrite about what this oral performance made
them especially aware of. Another way to launch discussion of the play is to list
on the board the various images and words that students associate with the
Holocaust. Often, students who have learned something about the subject in
other classes or from viewing certain films tend to think primarily of death camps
such as Auschwitz. But the play brings up another element of the genocide: the
terrifying selection process and mass shootings that took place in Nazi- occupied
cities. Similarly, most of your students may not know that decades went by before
several of the Holocaust’s perpetrators (most notably Adolf Eichmann) were tried
in court and that many others escaped prosecution. Students also may not know
something else that Fink alludes to: that the Nazis were aided by local collabora-
tors, including a Jewish police force known as the Ordnungsdienst. Furthermore,
given that the witnesses are recalling an event that apparently took place in
Poland (as is Wladyslaw Szpilman in the memoir by him also included in this
poe The Tell- Tale Heart 197
cluster), you might call students’ attention to the fact that the Holocaust was in
particular a decimation of Polish Jewry. Approximately three million of the six
million Jews killed were from Poland roughly 90 percent of its Jewish
The tension in this play derives from the witnesses’ efforts to satisfy the pros-
ecutor, who is badgering them to remember in detail a scene that occurred
twenty- five years before. Fink herself points out that this play “is a protest against
the law which tries genocide according to the code intended for trivial crimes.
The amount of detail required seems at odds with the level of horror these wit-
nesses have experienced. Specific moments like the second woman’s reference
to the dog or the second man’s loss of his wife make that difference especially
apparent. Nevertheless, make sure that students realize that this prosecutor is
actually on the witnesses’ side. Presumably, he is preparing them to face the
defense team representing one or more of the Nazi officers they mention. You
might even have your students write their own brief scripts dramatizing a court-
room exchange between one of the witnesses and a defense lawyer. In any event,
a logical issue for the class to discuss is whether the prosecutor is so intent on
checking the witnesses’ testimonies that he winds up persecuting them. Is he
being reasonable in his efforts to nail down the truth, or does he become a
victimizer himself? How responsible is he being when he repeatedly asks about
the table? You may also want your class to construct a chronology of the events
that the witnesses recall, even as you call attention to the vulnerability of their
memories and to the nonlinear way these recollections emerge. Does it matter
the order in which the witnesses are interviewed? Ending with the second
woman’s interview, for example, offers a compelling conclusion that mentions
“a small, broken table.
Try to ensure that the class grasps differences among the witnesses’ experi-
ences on that fateful day in their city. Each person had his or her own vantage
point as the horrible selections went on. Just in case students do not realize the
fact on their own, probably you should explain that this English- language version
of the play is translated from the Polish. So, too, is the Szpilman memoir. The
majority of literary works about the Holocaust and certainly almost all eyewit-
ness testimonies by survivors were not first written in English. Indeed, English
was not by any means a prime language of the Holocaust when it occurred. The
Shoah, you might point out, was very much a catastrophe imposed by and suf-
fered by continental Europeans.
literature and Current issues: should neurosCienCe
redefine CriMinal laW? (p.979)
The Tell- Tale Heart (p.980)
“The Tell- Tale Heart,” one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most well- known short stories,
describes the narrator’s decision to kill the old man for whom he is caretaker.
The narrator describes himself as potentially mad but then proceeds to show how
198 Crime and Justice
the decisions he makes are far too careful to be made by a madman. His disease,
he explains, has actually made him sharper, more careful, more alert. He seems
invested in communicating to the reader his own well- developed sense of reason.
What the narrator finds most disturbing is the old man’s blind eye, which he is
sure watches him like a “vulture.” Indeed, readers will likely ascribe this desire
to kill a man for whom he otherwise has affection to a symptom of whichever
disease the narrator suffers from. Poe spends a great deal of time on the narrator’s
observations about the old man, as well as the painstaking detail with which he
spies upon the man each night at midnight. This marked attention to the narra-
tor’s plans offers insight into the depth of the narrator’s pathological obsession
and makes readers feel somewhat complicit in his deadly machinations.
While the narrator feels the most threat emanating from the old man’s eye,
Poe’s tale also emphasizes other senses, such as hearing. For example, the narra-
tor is careful not to be seen or heard by his victim when he checks on him at
night, and it is the sound of the lantern shutter opening that gives away his pres-
ence on that fateful last night. In addition, both before and after the old man’s
death, his beating heart torments the narrator. He achieves some measure of
relief only when the man’s heart is silenced, but, of course, his agitation grows
immeasurably when he hears it beating again from beneath the floorboards.
Some have called “The Tell- Tale Heart” a supernatural story, so readers might
more fully consider the ways in which the old man both alive and dead — could
be said to haunt the narrator.
arguMents on the issue
david eagleman, From Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (p.984)
raymond tallis, Why Blame Me? It Was All My Brains Fault (p.989)
In this excerpt from Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011), David
Eagleman argues that advances in neuroscience that seem to demonstrate the
relationship between brain abnormalities and criminal behavior necessitate a
reworking of our legal system. Unlike Raymond Tallis, who claims neuroscience
is not yet (and may never be) appropriate for use in court, Eagleman asserts that
our legal system may not be appropriate for advances in brain science. Our legal
system is predicated on the idea of “practical reasoning,” or free will. Evidence
that people’s brains can cause them to lose control over their behavior could
mean that a legal system attentive to such scientific advances would offer greater
opportunities for rehabilitation.
Eagleman complicates fundamental assumptions about free will. He main-
tains that if free will even exists, it is only a small part of a much larger network
of genes and environment (nature and nurture) that influence our behavior.
While he relies mostly on evidence from the nature side of things (e.g., brain
tumors, diseases, genetic dispositions, and so on), it is not difficult to identify
environmental factors that might influence individuals’ behavior. Economic and
social factors such as poverty, unemployment, abuse or neglect, even bullying
and social ostracism come to mind as potential harbingers of poor decision-
making. Eagleman explains that advances in brain science research show that we
do not necessarily have the freedom of choice; and if we are not operating on a
poe The Tell- Tale Heart 199
level playing field, whether genetically or environmentally, we cannot assume
that all who commit crimes are “blameworthy” (nor are we in a position to make
the distinction).
Rather than stating his main claim up front, Eagleman generates readers’
interest early on through the detailed example of Charles Whitman, an other-
wise productive member of society who one day went on a shooting spree. While
seemingly a unique case, the Whitman example serves as Eagleman’s point of
entry into the controversial topic of blame and free will. Readers may at first be
shocked by Whitman’s callous brutality, but biological factors soon muddy the
waters of whether he could be deemed responsible. By starting with an extended
example, Eagleman is able to effectively demonstrate the implications of not
attending to the role of these biological factors. Whitman, after all, believed
something was different in his brain and had actively sought help. While we may
be tempted to read this as an isolated and extreme case, the author links this and
future examples with the claim that this phenomenon is more widespread than
we might think. His examples of Alex and the 68- year- old gambler suggest that
linking technology with rehabilitation will open up possibilities beyond our tra-
ditional sentencing practices. People who seem unfit for society may actually be
redeemable. In paragraph 6, Eagleman explicitly asks readers to consider how
these examples affect our thinking about sentencing and blame. He then uses
these questions, which are just the sort a jury might have to consider, to set up
his main argument: a critique of our current legal system and the assumption of
free will. He ultimately argues that the question of blame, so prized by our cur-
rent system, is the wrong one.
Critical of recent interest in wedding neuroscience to law, Raymond Tallis
argues in his 2007 essay “Why Blame Me? . . .” that there is a difference between
actions caused by a “ stand- alone brain” (e.g., an epileptic fit) and those that are
not, a difference that makes neuroscience potentially inappropriate for proving
innocence in court. He maintains that by too closely associating neuroscience
and law, the increasingly popular discipline of “neurolaw” ignores the wealth of
other aspects of human nature that brain science cannot explain. He further
identifies a contradiction in the claim “my brain made me do it,” questioning
whether we can assume that our brains are not “us.” Readers of David Eagleman’s
later article, however, might recognize that neurolaw need not rely on such
a distinction. We are our brains, and if our brains affect or determine our behav-
ior, a richer understanding of how that happens is not necessarily a bad thing.
The problem would be in assuming that free choice is the sole force at work.
Critical readers might further observe that by asking, “Why should this imper-
sonal bit of matter single me out?” Tallis is ignoring the complex relationship of
nature to nurture as well as problematically attributing a separate consciousness
to the brain.
Tallis is relatively dismissive of those with opposing views, attributing much
of society’s burgeoning interest in neurolaw to opportunistic defense attorneys
and overeager universities. “ Brain- blamers,” as he calls them in paragraph 8,
walk a messy line between blaming the brain and assigning responsibility. Tallis
argues that this lack of a clear distinction means we should be suspicious of blam-
ing the brain for anything beyond extreme instances with “unambiguous evi-
dence.” He ultimately claims that our “conceptual confusion” makes appealing
200 Crime and Justice
to neuroscience in the courtroom “premature and usually inappropriate.” David
Eagleman might respond that, if it is “premature,” that itself justifies investing in
further research. Eagleman might also suggest that the problem lies not with
neuroscience but with our court system. Neglecting to take into account new
evidence because it complicates (or contradicts) revered notions of blame,
responsibility, and free will is to do a disservice to the people the courts serve.
literature and Current issues: hoW just is
CaPitalPunishMent? (p.993)
Capital Punishment (p.993)
Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, likes to challenge stereotypes
and genres: he is first a poet, but his poetry edges into narrative and prose poetry,
whereas his short stories some of the “sudden fiction,short- short- story
genre have the feel of poetry. He has been called “a storyteller with a poetic
streak.” Alexie says that his poems are essentially stories, and he acknowledges a
“strong, narrative drive” in all of his work. In the introduction to his screenplay
for the movie Smoke Signals, published in paperback by Hyperion in 1998,
Alexie talks about genre:
When people ask me, and they do ask me, how I feel about making the
difficult transition from writing novels to writing screenplays, I am not
always sure what to say.
I mean, screenplays are more like poetry than like fiction. Screenplays
rely on imagery to carry the narrative, rather than the other way around.
And screenplays have form. Like sonnets, actually. Just as there are expecta-
tions of form, meter, and rhyme in a sonnet, there are the same kinds of
expectations for screenplays.
Of course, free verse poetry subverts all expectations of formalist poetry.
So, I wonder aloud, who is writing free verse screenplays? (x)
Though his movie is not free verse, it begins and ends with poetry and
includes songs, some of them written by Alexie and cowriter Jim Boyd. For Alexie,
songs are people’s poetry. One of the songs in Smoke Signals bears the memorable
title “John Wayne’s Teeth.Smoke Signals, loosely based on Alexie’s 1993 book of
interconnected short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,
breaks new ground as a movie written, directed, coproduced, and performed by
Native Americans.
Like his poetry, Alexie’s movie challenges stereotypes of American Indians
as necessarily shamans or warriors, and his texts exist in the present rather than
a romantic Dances with Wolves past. His characters are not magical holy men
and women who turn into deer or possess supernatural spirituality. Alcohol and
poverty play a part in their lives because these are realities of reservation life, but
his characters are not pathetic victims who say, as Dustin Hoffman’s character
does in Little Big Man, “Today is a good day to die.” Alexie says that there is no
alexie Capital Punishment 201
such thing as a good day to die, and he parodies the line: “Today is a good day to
play basketball” or “Today is a good day to have breakfast,” his characters quip.
Humor and irony energize all of Alexie’s work.
His work also takes an argumentative rhetorical stance. This is an angry
poet, and he has a right to be. The first peoples of the Americas have endured a
Holocaust, and Alexie and other Native American writers represented in this
anthology do not intend to let anyone forget this fact. Consider the texts, bio-
202 Crime and Justice
being used in social and written contexts rather than on prescriptions for proper
speech. In line 82, the poet repeats the word kill, refusing to gloss over the reality
of what is taking place. We may try to sugarcoat it, but killing is killing.
Alexie refers to the divisiveness of the issues surrounding victimization and
punishment with the observation that “we throw the killers in one grave / and
victims in another. We form sides / and have two separate feasts.” In most tradi-
tions, funerals are accompanied by eating. Readers may recall Hamlet’s ironic
observation that it was thrifty of his uncle to make the funeral feast do double
duty as a wedding reception. Alexie is equally ironic in making his speaker a cook
who prepares the last meal for the execution victim. He imagines a vestige of his
own being reaching the body of the man as he is dying, a sort of communion.
Just as he demands an honest definition of the word kill, the speaker ques-
tions the meaning of the word witness. We recall that Carolyn Forché calls hers
a “poetry of witness.” Alexie has a political agenda as surely as she does; he may
in fact have more legitimacy because he is a person of color who realizes the part
prejudice plays in deciding who goes to the electric chair. The speaker’s first
claim that he is not a witness simply seems to differentiate the role of official
witness to an execution from the role of cook. But he moves soon after this first
denial into an assertion about the racial inequality of execution and tells us that
this can be proven by the facts hard rhetorical evidence that we can verify. We
remember that a witness may be someone called on to testify, to offer proof. In
line 22, the denial that he is a witness becomes a refrain, a line that will echo
throughout the poem. This time, the context indicates that he will not stand as
a witness against a man who loves another man, that he does not pass judgment.
The next negation of his witness status comes after he has told “a story” about a
failure of the electric chair and the subsequent double execution of a man. This
is hearsay evidence and is anecdotal, so we would not be expected to give it as
much rhetorical weight. He does not have the authority of a true witness. The
irony, of course, is that such evidence tends to be extremely persuasive, though
we like to think we are more swayed by logic and facts. The next repetition
comes when the speaker is desperately trying to block out the reality of what is
happening by sitting in the dark and chanting to himself “not to look at the
clock.” At this point, the claim that he is not a witness has the panicky tone of a
prayer or a mantra: Please God dont make me be a witness, he seems to say under-
neath the words. After powerful imagery describing the body’s reaction to the jolt
of electricity, he again claims not to be a witness, though he sounds like someone
who knows what he is talking about, and we now trust the ethos he projects.
Finally, in line 102, he admits to being a witness to the culture’s denials, curiosi-
ties, and divisions, if not to the execution itself. He witnesses with his anger and
imagination from the pit of the stomach of the executed man.
Race is undeniably a factor in the dealing out of punishments in the United
States. Some readers will find that Alexie’s ethnicity lends authority to his argu-
ment, whereas others may feel that he has an ax (a tomahawk?) to grind and that
alexie Capital Punishment 203
speaker imagines himself as present through the sharing of food. This is a story
not about the victim or the crime but about the execution and the nature of wit-
nessing. The victim in Alexie’s poem is mentioned matter- of- factly, in spite of the
violence of the image describing his death, and the speaker follows quickly with
a joke about the stereotype of Indians gambling. The humor works on multiple
levels, since casinos are one of the few sources of economic power that tribal
governments have, but gambling can be a seductive addiction, like alcohol.
Games and sports took the place of war in the history of several tribes, and
the “Indian killer” in the poem stands ironically in a tradition, even as we laugh
at Alexie’s subversion of the stereotype. This particular use of humor is typical of
Alexie’s style, deflecting pathos, bitterness, and prejudice with irony. In the notes
to his screenplay for Smoke Signals, Alexie praises actor Irene Bedard for ad-
libbing a “very Indian moment” as Suzy Song. As she hands over the can of ashes
containing the cremated remains of Victor Joseph’s father, she jokes, deadpan,
“This is Arnold. He ain’t looking so good.” Alexie’s conclusion is that filmmakers
should learn from this: “Cast Indians as Indians, because they’ll give better perfor-
mances.” At the end of the poem “Capital Punishment,” Alexie offers another
image that readers could interpret as ironic. Electricity is electricity, whether in a
chair or in lightning, just as killing is killing whether it is done by an Indian or by
a government. We the speaker, the poet, and the reader are not qualitatively
different in our humanity from the man who is brought by just one of his sins
through a system as arbitrary as lightning to “headlines and ash.” Although readers
may vary in their guesses about their possible epitaphs after standing on a hill in
a thunderstorm, an appropriate one might be, “We knew she didn’t have enough
common sense to come in out of the rain.
Both Alexie in “Capital Punishment” and Forché in “The Colonel” assume
readers who critically question what they are told. We want convincing evidence,
so they offer it. But they also trust their readers to think for themselves as they
consider the images the poets project, to come to as reasonable conclusions from
the implicit messages as we would from more overt polemics. Like the word wit-
ness, the word tribal has divergent connotations. For the first peoples of the
American continent, identification with a tribe is both legally and culturally
important. Different tribes require different degrees of genetic inheritance for
full tribal membership and the benefits that now accrue from belonging to a
204 Crime and Justice
arguMents on the issue
george will, Capital Punishment’s Slow Death (p.998)
bill otis, George Wills Limp Case against the Death Penalty (p.1000)
harles j. ogletree jr., Condemned to Die Because Hes Black (p.1003)
In “Capital Punishment’s Slow Death,” political commentator George Will
offers a conservative case against capital punishment. While he refrains from
offering a personal perspective on the issue, except to note that few will believe
an injustice has been done if the Boston Marathon bomber is put to death some-
day, Will does demonstrate that the idea of “moral proportionality” comes with
“disproportionate social costs.” By “moral proportionality,” he refers to the belief
that taking the life of someone who has murdered another balances the scale.
And yet, as Will notes, parents of an eight- year- old victim of the Boston Marathon
bombing have echoed other victims’ families in claiming that these extended
legal processes only “prolong their suffering.
Will further explains that one of the difficulties in providing effective execu-
tions is the availability of the appropriate drugs. The Supreme Court has been
concerned about the role of social movements that seek to abolish the death
penalty, especially as some groups have successfully lobbied pharmaceutical
companies to stop providing the most effective and painless drugs. But Will is
unconvinced that judicial reasoning should take those agitators into account.
Instead, he offers three clear points in the conservative case against capital pun-
ishment: First, we are not infallible. Second, because there is no way to undo
capital punishment, it must be administered with “extraordinary competence.
But Will doesn’t see the government as capable of such competence. Third,
capital punishment cannot be used as a deterrent because it is applied too spo-
radically and occurs out of the public eye.
Will doesn’t feel that pure revulsion is a strong enough argument against
thedeath penalty, but he does reference Camus on society’s changing standards
of decency as a potential reason. While some might argue that evolving stan-
dardsof decency should really mean fewer crimes or that some people’s revulsion
should not stop us from punishing the guilty, others might point out that revulsion
is one of those uncontrollable feelings that makes us human and so perhaps it is
an instinct we should honor and allow to influence our decision making.