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

978-1319035327 Part 6

July 26, 2020
plath Daddy 85
more about the ways in which we may continue to play out the dramas of child-
hood. Plath seems to refer to her earlier attempt at suicide in the poem, and she
would kill herself by sticking her head into a gas oven a few months later, an
interestingly symbolic act when considered in light of her Holocaust imagery
here. That she would leave her young children to deal with a loss similar to the
one she laments in the poem seems ironic but may simply reflect a deeply held
belief that the loss of a mother could not possibly be as important as the loss of
arguMents about the PoeM
lynda k. bundtzen, From Plaths Incarnations (p.441)
steven gould axelrod, From Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of
Words (p.443)
tim kendall, From Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (p.448)
Before reading the critical interpretations of Sylvia Plath’s poem, students may
need to brainstorm their own ways of seeing it as more than the autobiographical
ranting of a middle- class woman unable to come to terms with her neuroses.
Because the father’s body seems to lie across the American continent, is this
young woman living in England protesting that her home country is as fascist as
the Third Reich? Does the final scene of villagers dancing remind us of carnival,
with its implications of overturning authority? What images and words are
repeated, and what could this repetition symbolize?
LyndaK.Bundtzen, seeing the speaker as a dramatic persona, uses quota-
tions from Plath to argue that the poem is “a figurative drama about mourning”
that describes feelings the poet has already conquered. She is no longer a comic
victim but a victor. Steven Gould Axelrod goes beyond the other critics to say
that the poem is about woman as writer, its imagery metaphorically describing
the poet’s attempts to find her voice in a world of words dominated by men. Tim
Kendall uses Plath’s words from her journals and other sources to posit that the
poet repetitively acts out her victim role with herself as psychoanalyst as much
as writer. He points out that while she plays the Freudian games of transference
and fort- da ( peek- a- boo), the ambiguity of the poem’s last line leaves unan-
swered the question of whether she succeeds in escaping through her self-
therapy. An important factor in our interpretation of Plath’s poem involves how
closely Plath the victim and Plath the powerful, “aloof” psychotherapist corre-
spond to each other.
Readers will have different ideas about which critic best answers the poem’s
perplexing questions, though teachers steeped in literary theory may feel that
Axelrod opens up issues of feminism, patriarchy, and the literary canon that give
the poem’s angry tone a broader context. Axelrod’s movement beyond the spe-
cifics of the poet’s family life differs strikingly from the more limited interpreta-
tions of Broe and Bundtzen, but the critics agree that “Daddy” is a staged
representation rather than an autobiographical confession of the emotional
turmoil of Sylvia Plath herself. Tim Kendall, however, links Plath’s perfor-
mance more closely to autobiography, and many students, while they balk at
86 Families
accepting Freudian explanations, will find his discussion of the poet’s persona
more closely fulfilling their desire to see the poet and the speaker as the same
Contexts for researCh: huMan obligations,
robotConsCiousness, and the long years (p.453)
The Long Years (p.454)
Ray Bradbury’s “The Long Years” tells a compelling tale about a man, his wife,
and three children left stranded on Mars from the year 2037 to 2057, following
the end of the Great War. We learn quickly that Hathaway, the main character,
has a somewhat idealized, if not one- sided, relationship with his wife and chil-
dren. For example, he speaks “and they would all answer neatly” (p.455). While
Hathaway might see fit to stay out late to watch the Earth or go for a walk, his
family appears perfectly, almost eerily, obedient. When a rocket finally arrives on
a rescue mission, Hathaway is pleased to be met by his old friend, Captain
Wilder. Wilder, having met Hathaway and his family some twenty years before,
first notices something is amiss when he sees Hathaway’s wife and children:
. . . he followed every move of their youthful hands and every expression of
their wrinkleless faces” (p. 459). When he asks their ages, his suspicions are
confirmed they haven’t aged a day. He proceeds as if nothing is wrong, but he
surreptitiously asks his assistant, Williamson, to go check the relevant databases.
It shortly becomes clear that the family is of Hathaway’s creation. They are
androids, designed to forever mimic the ones he’d lost.
The question of the androids’ humanity is one both readers and the story’s
characters must wrestle with. Hathaway, for example, has come to form a fairly
close relationship with his new family, and they have by and large suited his
needs. While it’s not clear how much they understand about their subjectivity,
they are clearly invested in caring for him and recognize that they have been
instrumental in supporting him. When he dies, he ensures that they do not wit-
ness it so that they don’t have to learn sadness or pain. While the full nature of
their consciousness is difficult to identify, they are clearly capable of experiencing
growth and change.
Wilder and Williamson, too, are impressed by the human- like qualities of
Hathaway’s wife, in particular. She seems quite reflective about her role in
Hathaway’s life, and Williamson is taken enough to be reluctant to leave her and
the children behind. But Captain Wilder is ambivalent about leaving them, and
the story concludes with the small family continuing their rituals of building a
fire, talking, and laughing. In some ways, we might read them in that moment
as more human than ever; because like the old man on the other side of Mars
who elected to remain behind rather than be rescued, they have been left to
continue in their own way the only option that let them simply be rather than
repurpose them to another human’s aims or wishes.
bradbury The Long Years 87
Contexts for researCh
eri shwitzgebel, We Have a Greater Moral Obligation to
Robots than to Humans (p.463)
kenneth hang, Can Robots Become Conscious? (p.465)
dan falk, How Long Before Robots Think Like Us? (p.467)
a. m. turing, From "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (p.470)
Published some 65 years after Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, academic
Eric Schwitzgebel’s, “We Have a Greater Moral Obligation to Robots than to
Humans” touches on not dissimilar questions about our obligation to the robots
or androids we create. He argues that because of our causal relationship with
them, we owe them more moral consideration than even our fellow human
beings. Central to these ethical concerns, however, is also the question of how
consciousness works. Schwitzgebel writes that we have “an epistemic obligation
to learn about the material and functional bases of joy, suffering, thoughtfulness
and creativity” (pp.464–465) so that we might understand how and when such
possibilities emerge in nonhuman robots. Robots deserve our moral consider-
ation when they develop mental lives like ours, including the ability to make
mental plans, feel joy and suffering, and experience a sense of self. The differ-
ence between simulated and genuine emotions is particularly important here,
for as the androids in Bradbury’s story demonstrate, the possible depths of care,
sadness, and pleasure can be difficult to measure. The Frankenstein example,
too, illustrates the importance of providing not just equivalent but extra consid-
eration. Otherwise, for Schwitzgebel, we risk “unintentionally committing
atrocities tantamount to slavery and murder” (p.464).
The question of how one determines “consciousness” has long occupied
philosophers and scientists alike. Kenneth Chang joins that conversation in
“Can Robots Become Conscious?” and offers a useful overview of several key
approaches to the im/possibility of robot consciousness. We learn that Moravec,
for example, claims that “there is nothing magical about the brain and biological
flesh.” For Moravec, Chang reports, “If it acts conscious, it is” (p. 466). In
Bradbury’s story, then, this would mean that Hathaway’s family is indeed con-
scious and worthy of our consideration. Schwitzgebel, who wrote about our
moral obligation to conscious robots, would likely argue that leaving the family
behind was thus cruel in some measure. You might recall, however, that
Schwitzgebel sees the need for continued research into how emotion and a
sense of self might be identified and measured. So it seems his sense of what
consciousness looks like differs markedly from Moravec’s. In Chang’s article,
Penrose takes a stance quite different from Moravec’s; Penrose maintains that
consciousness exceeds the abilities of any machine or computer and would thus
be impossible to create in a robot. From this we might deduce that, for Penrose,
Hathaway’s family could never be truly conscious.
In “How Long Before Robots Think Like Us?,” science journalist Dan Falk
frames the issue of robot consciousness in terms of the Turing test. The Turing
test asks interlocutors to determine whether they are conversing with a human
or a robot. Falk participated in such a test, and in his article he outlines several
key limitations of the setup: the short ( five- minute) time span, the sole focus on
88 Families
language, and the requirement for deception. He suggests that the public’s inter-
est in creating a human “mimic” does not represent the more interesting special-
ization work scientists are actually doing. From here, he uses the example of
Apple’s Siri to argue that, in some ways, AI has already passed the Turing test,
including by Turing’s own estimation.
But if one of the article’s chief points is that the Turing test does not
adequately capture robot consciousness, we are left to wonder whether or not
such human- like qualities are possible to artificially create. A chess computer, for
example, is capable of all the calculations a grandmaster might perform, but we
might still make a useful distinction between thinking and calculating. How suc-
cessfully could a computer “read” its opponent? Anticipate moves? Make estima-
tions of how an opponent might react based on his or her body language? Siri,
too, misses some of the life- like qualities exhibited by the androids in Bradbury’s
story, so we might note ways in which Falk is valuing a different set of abilities
here. Falk maintains that human capabilities still far exceed the variety offered
by AI and yet, if our sense of what robot consciousness can or should look like
is too focused on human capabilities, perhaps we are further along down that
Love (p.475)
roMantiC dreaMs: stories (p.477)
Araby (p.477)
The influence of James Joyce on writing in the twentieth century cannot be
overemphasized. He consistently appeared at or near the top of lists of the most
important books of the past century. Speaking of the complex and almost inde-
cipherable Finnegans Wake, Joyce wryly boasted that his aim was to “keep the
critics busy for three hundred years.” In Ulysses, another novel that continues to
keep critics and college students occupied, he allowed his characters internal
dialogues that had never before been attempted to such an extent, fragmenting
reality into multiple points of view and writing styles. He also dealt with sex and
other bodily functions in ways that caught the attention of censors, and the
firsteditions of his books had to be smuggled into the United States. More trou-
bling to many readers, however, especially those in his native Ireland, were his
irreverent criticisms of the Catholic Church and nineteenth- century Western
morality. However, in the semiautobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as
a Young Man, Joyce presented himself as a man seeking a higher morality, end-
ing with one of the most memorable lines in literature: “I go forth to encounter
for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my
soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Even though Joyce may have real-
ized the overreaching irony contained within this statement of his hero, Stephen
Dedalus, he nevertheless tried to live it in his writing.
Although James Joyce lived most of his life as an exile from Ireland, his
fiction evokes Dublin and the countryside and schools of his childhood and ado-
lescence. The short story “Araby” is found in the collection entitled Dubliners, a
series of portraits intended to reveal the city itself. Each of the stories culminates
in its protagonist’s experience of what Joyce termed an “epiphany,” a sudden spiri-
tual manifestation of insight and understanding. The action of the story takes
place within the consciousness of the character and the reader and is meant to
reveal some aspect of reality. In “Araby,” the young protagonist seeks a romantic
ideal, much as knights of earlier literature sought the Holy Grail, and discovers
that his pursuit and its object his religion have been trivial and false.
At the end of the story, the boy’s “eyes [burn] with anguish and anger.” The
reasons for his emotions are revealed earlier in this final sentence. He has been
suddenly struck by the realization that he is a “creature driven and derided by
vanity.” He has seen Mangan’s sister as a pure and beautiful goddess. She is a
figure of fantasy rather than a real girl, much like the Virgin Mary adored in The
90 Love
Devout Communicant or the romantic objects of knightly devotion in The
Abbot both books he has found in the room of the dead priest who formerly
occupied his house. A third book in the priest’s library, The Memoirs of Vidocq,
a collection of sexually suggestive detective stories, may have contributed a more
carnal slant to his thoughts about Mangan’s sister, however. Heretofore, he has
sublimated his lusts to something he has interpreted as holy, carrying the
thought of her through the vulgar streets of Dublin as if it were a chalice, like
the most sacred symbol of the Catholic Mass, the transformed and transforming
blood of Christ. By conflating the two symbols, Joyce suggests that both are
equally false idols, thus critiquing both romantic love and the church. At Araby,
agreed by many to represent the Vanity Fair of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
where Everyman is tempted to buy cheap substitutes for true religion, carnival
inverts the ideal of romantic love for Joyce’s protagonist. The empty banter of the
people at the fair, presumably already initiates into the world of adult sexuality,
makes his elevation of love suddenly seem tawdry. Joyce seems to imply that
to believe in anything is shameful, and this implication may reflect his
A & P (p.482)
If the minutiae of the daily lives of John Updike’s characters seem trivial and
their preoccupations self- absorbed, this may be the fault of the culture rather
than the writer. Updike was a prolific recorder of the details of American middle-
class existence since the publication of his first fiction in 1959, and he continued
updike A & P 91
to tell our stories for half a century more. Readers tend to love Updike or hate
him. Students who read “A & P” sometimes say it’s the best story they have ever
read. These are usually nineteen- year- old young men who work part time at
grocery stores to earn money during their first year at college. Many students,
typically young women who spend a lot of time at the beach, are highly offended
by the suggestion that Sammy is anything but a sexist pig. Critics are similarly
divided on a more sophisticated and ostensibly objective level. Updike, however,
is not a trivial thinker. Interested in philosophy and theology, Updike joins Franz
Kafka, Henrik Ibsen, andW.H.Auden as an avid reader of the equally prolific
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), the father of existentialism. Seen as the first
philosopher of the subjective individual and an opponent of “the system,
Kierkegaard coined the term “leap of faith” to describe the sort of daring move
into a new consciousness that we see Sammy make in Updike’s story.
Like many of Updike’s characters, Sammy seems more to stumble and fall
his way into his future rather than to actually leap. Students often think that
Sammy has ruined his chances by a foolish act, using as evidence the final sen-
tence where Sammy realizes “how hard the world was going to be . . . hereafter.
We might ask them, however, if coming to such a realization is a bad thing. If
Sammy is an incarnation of Updike, as many of his protagonists are, will he
really be better off as a version of the grim supermarket manager Lengel, unable
to perceive beauty or to think independently, or as the writer and thinker he will
become? Remembering Kierkegaard, we can see Sammy’s angst as a natural
reaction to newly found freedom, and freedom can lead in a positive or a nega-
tive direction. That direction is up to Sammy and falls outside the story, though
we should not let that fact stop our speculations about his future.
Although Sammy’s reasons for quitting may be based on romantic illusions,
the result of his quitting leads to his new, more realistic view of life. Underneath,
his quitting may have less to do with the girls than with his reluctance to be one
of the trivial name brands of the A & P, catalogued with great specificity in the
story. The customers are characterized as sheep, the workers look like conform-
ing chumps, and the items for sale are as tawdry as the wares of James Joyce’s
bazaar in “Araby” or in John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress. Sammy
quits because he pursues, in his crude way, the romantic ideal of individuality.
Has he, like the protagonist of “Araby,” sought a pure ideal only to realize that
the pursuit was vain? Students might want to consider times they have done the
right thing for the wrong reasons. Undoubtedly, Sammy is selfish if he quits a job
his parents approve of just to gain the attention of girls who hold him in con-
tempt if they notice him at all. But students should be challenged to examine the
concept of selfishness as problematic.
Ultimately, the story for both Updike’s and Joyce’s young knights is not about
the ladies the queens, the false goddesses that they seek to worship and
please but about their own changing perceptions of themselves. Students of the
1960s, who read “A & P” in its first years after publication in Pigeon Feathers and
Other Stories (1962), may list different priorities than their children do in the
early twenty- first century. Breaking free from a conforming society sounded
seductively good to Updike’s age- mates and the generation directly following
him. Current students in our regional branch of a state university often state
openly that they are in college solely to prepare for a well- paying career. They
92 Love
have trouble understanding Sammy’s dilemma, and most feel that he has his
priorities out of order when he quits his job. Sammy, to the extent that he
admires the girls for reasons of social class, reveals materialistic values of
thesame sort, however. This equating of the moneyed class with value may be
the false consciousness that corresponds in Updike’s American story to the reli-
gious dominance in Joyce’s Irish one. When Sammy leaves that symbol of
homogenized, commercial America the A & P he escapes what many of our
students actively seek: a job with a secure if limited future.
Although we would like to think that the gains obtained by the social move-
ments of the 1960s and 1970s have removed stereotypes about class and gender,
students will be quick to tell us that the time frame of the story has less to do with
adolescent thought than we would hope. Women are more likely to notice and
to challenge sexism in the story, but most students agree that Sammy’s attitudes
still prevail among the young people that they know. However, we might want to
grant him an ironic chivalry that though misplaced is preferable in Updike’s
estimation to the suppression of individuality. The final paragraph takes Sammy
outside of the supermarket, and he is able to see the kind of life he has
escaped easy, safe, sheeplike, and paralyzing. Perhaps some students will
maintain that, in this case, hard is better.
Yellow Woman (p.488)
In the montage of texts that make up Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1981 book
Storyteller, from which this story is taken, the writer presents a mixture of auto-
biographical, fictional, and mythical retellings of the stories of her life as a mem-
ber of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico. Like many indigenous
storytellers, Silko weaves together past with present, dreamlike legend with the
mundane verisimilitude of everyday life. She has said that, for her native culture,
time is not linear but is like an ocean that surrounds us. The past does not
remain past but ebbs and flows into the present. In “Yellow Woman,” a young
wife and mother, living in a Pueblo household that includes her mother and
grandmother, encounters a mysterious stranger. We meet her in medias res (in
the middle of the story) as she awakens on a riverbank in a sensuous scene with
a man who may be a Navajo cattle thief from a neighboring reservation or may
silko Yellow Woman 93
be a ka’tsina, a mountain spirit. She realizes that she too may be a character in
the myth that her dead grandfather used to tell her. She acts out the part of
Yellow Woman, the heroine of a ritualized captivity story. Depending on the
point of view we decide to take as readers, we may see her as the victim of a
seduction, as the embodiment of an ancestral fertility figure, or as a housewife
living out a romantic fantasy. The story is disturbing as a rape fantasy, but a sense
of freedom surrounds her abduction as well, as she throws off conventions and
follows the nature spirit her own nature, perhaps to the top of the moun-
tain. Her will seems suspended in a surreal way that follows the logic of myth: “I
did not decide to go. I just went. Moonflowers blossom in the sand hills before
dawn, just as I followed him.” She moves as we do in dreams, forgetting to leave
when she intends to go home, and finally going home when she means to go
uphill to Silva’s place because going downhill seems safer at the moment.
As in her novels Ceremony and The Almanac of the Dead, Silko retells a
myth in “Yellow Woman” to question the nature of reality and the nature of
personal, family, and tribal identity. Though it throbs with danger, the world of
Silva, with its intense and sometimes bloody images, puts the narrator in touch
with something missing in an inverted world where the younger generation
teaches the older how to make Jell- O.
Throughout the story, the woman gives reasons for her actions, but they
don’t really explain the actions they claim to explain. She stops pulling away
from him, she tells us, “because his hand felt cool and the sun was high.” She
decides that he must be a Navajo because he is tall or because he steals. At one
point, she assures us that he has heard her approaching him; she knows this
because he speaks to her without turning. She knows that she cannot be Yellow
Woman because they have just met the day before. She knows she can escape
but stays to eat because she “knew it would be a long walk home.
In each case, her attempts at logic reveal that the opposite may be true. She
goes because she wishes to go, believes that he really is a ka’tsina with supernatu-
ral knowledge and that she is Yellow Woman, wishes to stay in this place where
senses are heightened and she finds herself “standing in the sky with nothing
around . . . but the wind.” Linear thinking does not work in this world, which
evokes the colors and circular mazes of sand painting. She goes with him
94 Love
Although college students may gain insight into their assumptions by
discussing “Yellow Woman” as romantic fiction, its origins as a myth give it cul-
tural significance for people within the tribe, and its symbols and meanings may
elude others. Silko’s cousin, Paula Gunn Allen, has complained of Silko’s novel
Ceremony that it appropriates Laguna Pueblo lore that should not have been
shared with outsiders, and the issue of whites stealing yet another possession of
native peoples is a legitimate one. Myths are tied to origins, to the shared values
passed down within a community, to ethos in the classical sense of the term.
Perhaps any good story taps into the human need to understand and order the
universe. Stories tell us who we are and how we are to behave within a culture.
But they also provide us with the enjoyment of reading a well- told tale, and
Silko’s use of specific details adds to this experience. Students will find many
examples, from the tamaracks and willows of the opening sentence to the screen
door and Jell- O in the final paragraph. Details contribute to the sense of reality
but also serve to reveal characters and to show the state of mind of the narrator.
Especially vivid are the piglike description of the white man that Silva apparently
kills, the violent and bloody images connected with Silva himself, and the
enhanced sensitivity of Yellow Woman’s perceptions of the natural setting.
is This love?: stories (p.497)
A Rose for Emily (p.497)
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” depends on a sense of place, of the social
world in which the story’s events occur. An intricate history of family relation-
ships and social hierarchies structures William Faulkner’s imaginary Mississippi
town of Jefferson, the Yoknapatawpha county seat, where most of his fiction has
its roots. Any outsider, anyone breaking the strict rules of conformity, is suspect
here. But belonging to the right family or having the right connections grants
one indulgences, no matter how eccentric one’s behavior seems to be. Readers
may want to consider issues raised by such a world in which everyone is given a
particular role. Love and courtship, like all other parts of life, are the commu-
nity’s business, and the community tells Miss Emily Grierson’s story, appropri-
ately using the unusual first- person- plural point of view, we. Faulkner’s story
depends on character and plot, and its impact depends on its ironic ending.
Accustomed from childhood to stories of the macabre, today’s students may
be less impressed with the plot and its chilling conclusion than its first readers
were in the 1930s, but they are quicker to spot the psychological implications of
Miss Emily’s strange and oppressive relationship with her father. They also enjoy
recent critical speculations about Homer Barron’s possible homosexuality, which
are based on the narrators’ statement that Barron likes the company of men, per-
haps simply referring to his preference for barrooms and stereotypically male
activities. However, students who see the recent dramatic presentation of the story
on video are led into believing that Emily and Homer consummate their relation-
ship, a reading that assumes facts Faulkner preferred to leave unresolved.
arver What We Talk About When We Talk About Love 95
Although we often cannot spare the time in class to read the story aloud, a skilled
reader can highlight Faulkner’s technique, demonstrating how flashbacks, sus-
pense, and narrative pace enhance the story. The long, periodic sentence that
closes Faulkner’s narrative illustrates his strategy in microcosm, slowing the action
for dramatic effect and providing us with an example of inductive organization.
Readers questioning Emily’s actions need to consider her earlier denial of
her father’s death and to think about what might cause such dependency. She is
desperate to find a husband in a time and place where women are failures if they
do not attract a man, and Emily has been thwarted by her father’s possessiveness
at the age this might have happened. Emily has inherited or learned a family
tendency to hold on past the time of letting go. Because we see their relationship
through the limited vision of the town, we do not know what Homer’s intentions
are, nor do we know how much of the relationship exists in Emily’s imagination.
Our limited point of view also makes it hard to judge when Emily becomes dis-
turbed. When she loses Homer through rejection perhaps? Or much earlier,
when her father dies? We can imagine cultures that would consider her to be not
sick but evil, an aristocrat who is so determined to have her way that she kills out
of pride and self- will rather than love. Most cultures would censure her poison-
ing of her beloved so that she could sleep with his corpse, but we might ask if she
simply takes to extremes the dictates of her culture that she must have a man to
have self- worth.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (p.505)
Although earlier characterizations of Raymond Carver as a minimalist have been
challenged as a result of his later work in the 1980s, the term still applies to the
stories in the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,
96 Love
including this one, which gives the book its title. Carver said of these stories that
he cut them “to the marrow, not just to the bone.” By using a first- person narrator
within the story and limiting our knowledge of other characters to what that nar-
rator experiences, Carver allows his readers little information from which to
make interpretations, leaving many questions unanswered. Since we have
defined an issue in this anthology as a question about which reasonable people
may disagree, we should therefore expect to encounter many issues in our read-
ing of Carver. When the narrator passes on to us the stories that Mel tells him,
for example, we are limited to just what the narrator hears and observes and must
further take into account the fact that Mel is probably drunk. Perhaps because
he is drunk, he is weaving fact and fiction or remembering things incorrectly. Or
the old saying in vino veritas may instead come into play, and we can trust his
word because he is too drunk to mind his words.
Carver’s biography is relevant to “What We Talk About When We Talk
About Love” because he lived many years as an alcoholic. His stories sometimes
reflect the state of his first marriage as well, one that began too early making
him the father of two children by the time he was twenty and that ended in
divorce in 1982, the year after this story was published. His dialogue captures the
realities of everyday life, but the prosaic details of conversations and common-
place actions mask turning points for his characters. Greatly influenced by the
Russian writer Anton Chekhov, Carver leads his characters into a “Chekhovian
moment,” when the soul of the character is revealed in a subtle way. This
moment seems to approach for the characters of this story as they come to see
the gulf between their attempts at defining love and the glimpse of love Mel
gives in his anecdote about an old couple injured in an accident. Perhaps pathos
is a more precise answer to this issue of the definition of love than all the logic
we can muster.
Ironically, we are told immediately that Mel is a cardiologist a heart
doctor and that this ethos gives him the right to talk about love. He wants to
think of love as the Greek agape, as something spiritual. His wife, Terri, by con-
trast, defines love in the context of an abusive relationship that she had in the
past with a man named Ed. She can understand the sort of passion that leads one
to kill or to die for what she calls love, and her insistence that Ed loved her
implies that something is wanting in the sort of love Mel offers. Though Ed is
not present and is, in fact, dead, his definition of love is the one with which the
characters must contend. The narrator, Nick, and his wife, Laura, still bask in
the warmth of newlywed bliss; their love is comfortably physical; they touch and
kiss from time to time in response to the conversation. And love gets a bit too
easy as the neighbors reassure each other that they are loved, cheapening the
word love in the glow of the gin they are drinking.
The story of the old man who is depressed because he and his wife are both
swaddled in casts and he cannot see her is juxtaposed with Mel’s desire to talk to
his kids and his fantasies about arranging a painful death for his ex- wife. The result
is depressing, and the story ends with the narrator listening to their hearts beating
as the gin runs out and the room gets dark. Whatever love is, we can conclude that
they don’t have it. Although Mel does not drag Terri through the kitchen by her
ankles, an undercurrent of hostility and dissatisfaction runs through their conversa-
tion, and he sometimes becomes verbally abusive. If, as the cliché goes, love and
shakespeare Let me not to the marriage of true minds 97
hate are twins, the intensity of Mel’s desire to let bees loose to kill his ex- wife
indicates that he has strong feelings for her. His feelings for Terri, by contrast, seem
peculiarly bland. Terri longs for the passion of Ed. Students are likely to conclude
that both are fairly sick puppies.
Mel’s interest in knights may provide a clue to what Carver is saying about
romantic love. Some scholars have maintained that romantic love as we define
it comes from the courtly love tradition of medieval Europe. Carver undercuts
the idea of a man performing feats of daring for his fair lady through sarcastic
humor, profanity, and the increasing inebriation of the conversation’s partici-
pants. Although the story of the old couple seems to indicate that true love exists,
we have to remember that the story comes through Mel. Carver does not articu-
late a definition of love for us, nor does he come up with one answer for the
question implied in his title. Before assigning Carver’s story, we can ask students
to come up with their own definitions and to relay their anecdotes of love. This
will allow a more informed discussion of the subtexts of both their stories and
true love: PoeMs (p.516)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (p.516)
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 seems at first to celebrate the enduring quali-
ties of love between husband and wife. It is, in fact, often recited at wedding
ceremonies, an appropriate setting for a poem whose first lines echo the mar-
riage vows in the Book of Common Prayer. It is written in one of the most struc-
tured of forms, in what has come to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet,
though Shakespeare was not the first to use it. Although this poem was
published probably without his permission as part of a sequence of 154 son-
nets in 1609, it may have been written earlier. In 1598, a writer mentioned
Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends”; imitating and trans-
forming the conventions of the Italian sonnets of Petrarch had become a popular
pastime in literary and court circles of the late 1500s. Petrarchan sonnets held
98 Love
strictly to conceits describing unrequited love for an idealized woman, leading
ultimately to religious transcendence. English writers often toyed with these
conventions, however, and Shakespeare inverted conventions and used the
poems for wordplay and argumentation about the nature of love and change — and
about rhetoric and writing as well.
The form of the Shakespearean sonnet keeps the fourteen lines of the Italian
sonnet, but its three quatrains followed by a final coupletallow the poet to form
an argument that reaches its conclusion in the last two lines. Predominantly
iambic pentameter, each line follows the patterns of normal English speech and
therefore has a natural ring to its audience, while the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme
scheme provides a satisfying pattern and sense of closure. However, a closer look
at this poem, which seems to proclaim constancy, reveals a series of oppositions
that challenge an easy interpretation based on surface sound and sense. Within
its closed form, this sonnet rocks back and forth with irregular meter, double
meanings, puns, and indeterminate negations. Does the speaker mean to say in
the opening lines that he should hold his tongue when the priest asks if anyone
knows any impediment that would prevent the marriage, that he is unwilling to
concede that such impediments exist, or that they actually don’t exist? Is this a
traditional marriage ceremony, a platonic marriage of minds, or since this son-
net is in the part of the sequence in which most poems are addressed to a
man an argument about a homoerotic relationship? What sort of logic is
implied in the second line: “Love is not love”? Even though the enjambment
leads to a qualification, a sense of paradox remains. Furthermore, each sentence
contains a negative or an absence: not, not, remove, no, never, unknown, not, not,
never, and no continue to pile up oppositions. Contrasted with this emptiness of
“ not- love, the word impediment seems unusually solid, and the conventional
enemy, time, is personified as an inexorable automaton that mows down every-
thing within his compass, recalling the circling hands of a clock that signal
human aging. Love, in contrast, receives a negative personification is defined
as not a fool and seems peculiarly distant and impersonal. The only positive
metaphors for love in the poem are linked closely to their opposites: the solitary
channel marker, while not shaken, merely “looks on,” and the guiding star can-
not really be known.
Having conceded the poem’s rhetorical ambiguity, most readers would still
undoubtedly be pleased to have such enduring love proclaimed to them. The
last lines seem to indicate, however, that the speaker may be defining true love
rather than declaring it, since he makes it explicit that he is offering a scientific
or rhetorical proof. There’s a logical conundrum implied in the words “I never
writ.” Some I wrote these lines, but perhaps the speaker is a persona or mask that
the poet assumes, and this is the sort of equivocation we often see characters use
in Shakespeare’s dramas. And the closing line may have either a compound
subject or a compound predicate: the poet may mean to say that if his argument
is fallacious, then “no man” has ever fallen in love; that he, the poet, never loved
a man; or that he never loved “no man” (woman).
Line 12 projects arguably the most powerful image of the poem. Juxtaposed
with images of time and of sea voyages, the image of a love that lasts until “the
edge of doom” reminds us that we are reading a text written when oceans and
continents were being explored and time was being measured in ways never
keats Bright Star 99
accomplished before. Enduring to the end of the world and going to the ends of
the earth may both be implied in such a metaphor, but looking over the edge of
either reveals nothingness. Inverting the argument that lovers should seize the
day while beauty and youth allow love to flourish, Shakespeare seems to say that
love is more lasting than this, and many readers of romance novels and fairy tales
will agree without further question. Although we may still agree that this is a
beautiful definition of love, after reading it more critically, we should hold the
poet to his challenge in the last lines to examine his evidence. He may be saying
that such love does not really exist.
Bright Star (p.517)
William Shakespeare, in the preceding sonnet in this cluster, famously calls love
“an ever- fixèd mark” and “the star to every wandering bark.” The metaphor is apt
if one wishes to romanticize love as central to existence and, to use John Keats’s
words, “stedfast [sic]” and “unchangeable.” As seen from the Northern
Hemisphere, the polestar, Polaris, lies nearly in a direct line with the axis of the
earth’s rotation, “above” the North Pole, and stands almost motionless in the sky,
with all the other stars of the northern sky appearing to rotate around it. Because
of its place in the sky, Polaris is thus a “fixèd mark” from which to draw measure-
ments for navigation and astronomy, important in the voyages of discovery taking
place during the lives of both poets. In this poem by Keats, itself a Shakespearean
sonnet, Keats extends the metaphor to control all fourteen lines, much as the
polestar controls the sky. As many critics have pointed out, Keats thus pays hom-
age to Shakespeare, a favorite poet of his, but makes the form his own by break-
ing with the Shakespearean sonnet’s traditional thought structure. Nevertheless,
the poem can easily be identified as a sonnet, with its fourteen lines, set rhyme
scheme, and predominantly iambic pentameter meter.
The Romantic poets, a group in which literary historians place Keats, are
usually disliked by students, who find their diction and syntax foreign and their
ideas too idealistic. Ironically, however, the Romantics were poetic rule breakers,
and many of them certainly Keats, who died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the
young age of twenty- five lived intensely, much like young readers in our col-
lege classes. The Romantics sought out new ways of thinking; and, in a letter to
his brother, Keats coined the influential term “negative capability” to describe
“what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature &
which Shakespeare possessed so enormously . . . that is when man is capable of
being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after
fact & reason.” Presumably, we want to encourage critical reading and writing
that keeps just such an open mind to complexities rather than the safely vague
or reductive arguments students often feel they must submit to get a good grade
on a school paper. To readers more comfortable with prose or free verse, poems
such as this one may be incomprehensible and inaccessible unless they are read
aloud and read well, several times. Fortunately, the 2009 movie Bright Star
(named for this poem; both the poem and the film reflect the love story between
John Keats and Fanny Brawne) contains eloquent readings, one read by the actor
100 Love
Abbie Cornish near the end of the film in the voice of Fanny as she grieves John’s
death. Take the opportunity to present scenes from the film or other accessible
readings posted on the Internet (avoid pompous declamations that miss the emo-
tion of the poem and are likely to turn students off), practice and read it yourself,
or assign the best readers in the class to do so.
Keats wants to be like the bright star in his steadfastness. The word steadfast
bears looking up in the Oxford English Dictionary; it is a solid English word, its
roots going back to Old English, adding no- nonsense strength to its meaning.
Biblically oriented students might recall psalms that repeat the refrain that God’s
“steadfast love endureth forever” a translation of the Hebrew word hesed,
related to the Greek word agape, connotations undoubtedly familiar to Keats.
The star thus symbolizes the sort of unchanging love Keats wants to exemplify. It
is interesting, therefore, when the poem’s speaker shifts from the isolation of a star
stuck up in the sky, like an “Eremite” (a hermit who lives alone and contemplates
God in purity), all the way down to the sensual world of relationships, using the
soft, warm, swelling breast of his beloved as a pillow, bringing steadfast love back
into a very earthly paradise. Rather than standing high in the sky of cool, unmov-
ing Platonic ideals, he is very much a part of the earth, “[a]wake for ever in a sweet
unrest.” A tension exists between the ideal of “sav[ing] time in a bottle” (as Jim
Croce sang in the pop song) and the moment in time experienced by the two
living lovers. Poets, lovers, and readers all know that living is synonymous with
change; therefore, the speaker presents to us a paradox, even an oxymoron, when
he speaks in one line of being “stedfast, still unchangeable” and in the next of his
“fair love’s ripening breast” that moves up and down with each breath. To “ripen”
is to change; breathing is movement, not fixity. To be totally fixed would mean
death, and it is striking that death is the word that ends the poem. The phrase
“sweet unrest” evokes a similar contradiction, much like a phrase in several lan-
guages for sexual climax that means “sweet death.” While Keats scholars are virtu-
ally unanimous in the opinion that the poet never consummated his love for
Fanny Brawne, partly because of health issues and partly because he could not
afford to get married, he felt a great deal of sexual desire for her. The sexual ten-
sion the lovers feel is “sweet” but certainly not restful.
Readers will differ in their opinions about romantic love. Scientists have
analyzed love, writing it off to evolutionary survival value, chemical compounds,
or psychological “love maps” wired into the brain through childhood experi-
ences. Some historians have maintained that our cultural ideas about romantic
love spring from courtly love inventions of European medievalism, themselves
perhaps influenced by Arabic cultures, while others look back to the biblical
Song of Solomon and other love songs of ancient literature. Much popular wis-
dom of our day foregrounds gender differences in how we define love and sexual-
ity, and queer theory questions heterosexual assumptions. It is realistic to
acknowledge that human beings change over time and that lasting love must
change along with the lovers. Perhaps the steadfastness of love includes the com-
mitment to apply “negative capability” to the relationship, not expecting it to
remain the same but letting the “sweet unrest” take lover and beloved into
unknown places together. When Keats’s short life and his awareness that he was
seriously ill are taken into account, the final lines become filled with pathos.
Recalling Shakespeare’s imagery that love does not change but “bears it out even
ummings somewhere i have never travelled 101
to the edge of doom” implying that love lasts right up until the end of life,
perhaps even until the end of the universe the two poets seem to have similar
ideas about love. However, the speaker of Keats’s poem does not speak of love in
abstract terms throughout the poem, as Shakespeare does. Shakespeare’s poem
is rhetorical, providing a philosophical definition of love and personifying the
abstract concept. His character, Love, is perfectly inalterable. Shakespeare does
not show us the lovers, breathing together, their bodies touching, as Keats does.
Shakespeare keeps his distance as a poet; Keats is the protagonist of his poem,
very much involved. This makes Keats’s steadfast love more vulnerable but also
more real.
How Do I Love Thee? (p.518)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” is inarguably her
best known poem. Published in Sonnets from the Portuguese, the poem is a medi-
tation on a form of love that goes beyond even the corporeal. Throughout,
Browning uses spiritual or religious references to demonstrate the pure and
unadulterated nature of the speaker’s love. For example, the speaker not only
loves through her soul but with a reach beyond “being.” The lines, “when feeling
out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal grace” (3–4) suggest that, in search-
ing for the ends of existence or the limits of her soul, she finds that love extends
outward as well. Love here seems to be almost outside the senses, like “sight,
moving beyond the limits of an earthly plane. Along with these spiritual musings,
Browning’s speaker loves also “to the level of every day’s / Most quiet need, by
sun and candle- light” (5–6), which indicates that love is not merely heavenly but
also simple and homebound. Love exists in quiet moments, indoors or out in
nature. With “freely,” “purely,” and “childhood faith” in the next several lines,
Browning returns to a more spiritual sense of love, evoking a child- like inno-
cence and an uncontaminated freedom from restraint. Building on this child-
hood reference, the speaker seems to mourn a previous capacity for love
characterized by her fervent religious devotion to saints. Browning writes, “I love
thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints” (11–12), as if, in growing
older, the speaker came to lose the spiritual love that she felt as a child, but that
capacity for love is now restored. So love comes to be equated not simply with
what one feels for another person but also love for God. Browning’s speaker,
then, resists an ultimate distinction between spiritual or earthly love and
describes instead a love that transcends.
somewhere i have never travelled (p.520)
An unusually structured and grammatical poem for E. E. Cummings, “some-
where i have never travelled” nevertheless uses vocabulary in the poet’s idiosyn-
cratic way. As always, reading Cummings involves breaking a code, which we
can only touch on in a short introduction. The experiments with syntax and
102 Love
typography that characterize Cummings’s poems reflect cubism, futurism, and
other modern visual art movements. He is also keenly aware of sound, and much
of his diction depends on the musical rhythms of American speech, the punning
qualities of the language, and the often highly personal and carefully crafted
connotations that he attaches to words. Words for him carry inherent positive or
negative qualities, and the connotations of pathos and poetry are opposed to the
denotations of logos and common sense. The specific and concrete tends to be
privileged, whereas generalities and agreed- upon conclusions are considered
deadly. He especially likes words like alive, Spring, suddenly, young, new, yes,
touch, small, frail, guess, dare, open, dream, and others that symbolize positive
movement and energy. He knows the meaning of is, contrasting its immediacy
with the negative knows or reasons. Who is individual and thus good, but the
rhetorical which, how, and because move into reductive explanations that he
abhors. Although Cummings was strongly grounded in literary theory and was
influenced by Ezra Pound to choose his words carefully, he deliberately traveled
the path of extreme individuality. Thematically, his poetry sets the courageous,
joyfully spontaneous “anyone,” the protagonist of another popular Cummings
poem, against the oppressive conformity of what he calls “mostpeople.” Only this
sort of human being is capable of an authentic emotion like love.
So when Cummings begins this particular poem with the vague and nega-
tive “somewhere i have never travelled,” he contrasts it with the positive “any
experience,” using two words that indicate specificity and spontaneous aware-
ness. To be alive is a hyperbolic experience for which love is necessary. He
explicitly compares his lover’s touch to that of “Spring,” the only capitalized
word in the poem, contrasting with the lowercase i of the speaker, and his open-
ing up is obviously positive. We should avoid the easy reading that would see the
closing- up images of the third and fourth stanzas as negative, however. The word
death in the lexicons of some poets might denote something negative, but for
Cummings it may indicate another positive living experience. Addressing his
readers, Cummings speculates in his introduction to New Poems, “if most people
were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying . . . you and i wear
the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming.” Other paradoxes in the
poem also are consistent with the poet’s view of reality. The synesthesia of
line19, “the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses,” mixes several senses
together, defeating reason. The whimsical personification of the rain as having
hands in line 20 would be laughable if read literally rather than for a beauty that
appeals somehow to our senses rather than to our intellects. And although “the
power of your intense fragility” in line 14 sounds like an oxymoron, it implies
that true power is not to be equated with force or strength. This fragility’s “texture /
compels me with the colour of its countries,” the speaker says, calling upon
synesthesia again to pull the reader out of logic and into the immediate world of
the senses. The sensory and sensual images of the poem hint that love is
located at the point of touch where senses intersect and that our understanding
of it is essentially physical.
Shakespeare uses intellectual images and personification in Sonnet 116,
while John Keats begins with the “bright star” in the sky but comes down to earth
with the real lovers. In his less conventionally structured poem, E. E. Cummings
borrows the natural symbolism of the flower that stands for physical love, but he
harper Discovery 103
carries it beyond the cliché with his unexpected uses of language. At times, the
speaker is the tightly closed fist of a budding flower opened by the lover, who is
compared to spring, but he later speaks of the woman’s “intense fragility” and
color, as if the lover herself were the rose. Emotionally, Cummings seems closest
in spirit to Keats in the intensity of the two lovers becoming as if they were one
person, breathing together. Inexperienced readers may prefer Browning’s appar-
ent simplicity to the obscurity of Cummings’s wordplay, and many readers will
find Shakespeare and Keats daunting because their meaning is complicated by
historical distance and the differences among Early Modern English, the effu-
sive diction and syntax of the Romantic period, and the down- to- earth American
English we find more familiar. Each poet in this cluster uses the concept of a
love that lasts forever, although they differ in their definitions of what forever
might mean.
Passionate love: PoeMs (p.522)
Discovery (p.522)
We have seen in poems about true love that each new pair of lovers redefines and
rediscovers the experience for themselves. These poems, in fact, exemplify the
important premise of poetry itself that seemingly universal truths are expressed
most clearly in the particular, specific details of an individual human life. While
Shakespeare’s metaphors specify in a way that hides the individual lovers, teasing
us into guessing about their identities and real- life experiences, later poems such
as MichaelS.Harper’s “Discovery” allow us to see lovers in a photographic flash,
a moment in time, and to build our abstract definitions of love from the concrete
details of their experience. Like the other poets in this cluster who challenge
conventions or stereotypes, Harper surprises the reader by having his speaker,
presumably male, experience the heat of a female lover’s desire in the middle of
the night. While the surprise is pleasant for both reader and speaker, it is also a
bit startling for the man in the poem. He admits to being “a little shaken” by her
passion, and while it may be curiosity that compels him to touch the lightbulb,
checking to see how long she has been watching him, its burning heat serves as
a metaphor for her passion. When he tells us in the last line that “It burned my
hand,” we understand him to refer to more than the physical sensation of blis-
tered skin from the hot lightbulb. To be passionately desired by a woman is scary
for him. How does one handle being desired this strongly? It might wind up
being too intense for him to bear.
Harper captures well the uncertainty of the unexpected sensation the
speaker feels as he is awakened and surprised by his lover’s passion. He takes us
through the experience from the speaker’s point of view by having us listen with
him to her breathing as they go to sleep in the dark, then share his confused
awakening. The subtle use of the pronoun we to open the poem pulls the reader
in, even though we soon realize that the poet refers to himself and another
person her rather than to the poet and the reader. The ellipsis of line 5 is an
104 Love
effective way to communicate the experience of waking from a sound sleep
without knowing why. As he is questioning, his vision interrupts him with the
answer that this woman has been watching him, her staring eyes and taut readi-
ness for sex willing him awake. The immediacy of his reaction would have been
lost if he had broken the spell by explaining. When another person feels strong
desire for us, we do tend to be “a little shaken” perhaps rightly so. There is an
aggressive aspect to the experience, a threat of invasion. If the roles had been
reversed if the man’s lust had awakened the woman we might be less sur-
prised and less pleased by the image. The use of the word cared is interesting in
this context, however, neatly revealing the conflicting emotions of the situation.
Such intense caring makes erotic love transcend mere sex, but we may be shaken
by the emotional echo it calls forth within us or demands of us. How does this
differ from stalking or obsession? Not knowing can be frightening. Perhaps this