In "The Crimson Petal and the White", something that stands out to me from the narrative as a whole is that many of the characters are grappling with the societal cycles that they have been forced to encounter. Sugar, for example, is forced into prostitution by her mother, the latter being the showrunner of a house of dirty secrets and all-night affairs. And while we don’t know exactly what brought Mrs. Castaway into that role, there are definitely assumptions that can be made. I don’t say that to exempt her from what she forced her daughter into, instead I only mention it to point out that cycles have to start somewhere. For Sugar, her cycle started with her mother forcing her to rely on her sex for everything that she had/has.
As the story progresses we see Sugar ascend in class status, and when she finally becomes a fixture in the Rackham house, as Sophie’s governess, we see her begin to grapple with her own childhood. Given that she is introduced as a nineteen year old at the beginning of the novel, it’s crazy to consider how young she is to be looking after a child so closely. Sugar never had a true childhood, and with her focus shifted to the childhood of Sophie, she is at the crux of a space where she can either break a cycle that she’s been put in, or she can create a cycle for someone else. Faber’s novel grapples with trauma here, and how one may hope to overcome it, or at least not be defined by its grasp. We see this when Sugar struggles to comfort Sophie early on in their governess-child relationship. We see how Sugar’s own preconceived notions of Sophie change overtime to a more connected view of her, sharing in Sophie’s restless nights, bed-wetting bouts, and her education. Sophie and Sugar eventually develop a mother-daughter dynamic that ultimately leads to Sugar’s abduction of Sophie at the end of the book. In breaking her cycle of pain, violence, and lies, sprung on by her mother, Sugar also frees Sophie from a childhood of neglect and future trauma herself. Agnes had not seen her since she was born, and her father barely spoke to her during their brief time together, so that could come up later on in her life, maybe in Apple, but Sophie now has a chance to overcome that at an earlier age than Sugar did.
Writing about Sugar, Caroline is an example of someone who does not break the cycle that they are in by the end of the novel. Preston’s point in class about Caroline being a home for the reader is very interesting to consider here. If not for Caroline we would not have met Sugar, and without meeting Sugar, Sophie would still be alone in her room, or with her old nurse. Caroline is still stuck on Church Lane, using her sex for semblance of control. Henry Jr. offers her a chance to work in a factory, which she declines, and with her choice she seems content with her way in life. This is a sad reminder that some people aren’t able to break the cycles that they are in and that they have very few options other than what they are forced to do. Some people have their spirits broken and no longer care to change anything (thinking about Caroline’s age (29-31) versus Sugar’s age (19-21)) Caroline is a reminder that every cycle has to start somewhere, even if the cycle is a systemic one.
“Poor Things” by Alasdair Gray is a masterwork of literary fiction. This book is dense, in a good way, and there are many layers to pull back after reading it. Whether it be discussions of gender roles/norms, empire, or narrative fictions, this novel by Gray has a ton to discuss. In class, I asked why fiction was a viable way to disseminate historical facts. Why not talk about the history of Scotland through a non-fictional lens, where the information isn’t as coded? Maybe not as coded for us literary detectives, but rather for people who read “for fun”. Is “Poor Things” a book that you can read for fun? Sure, I think that Gray’s 1992 novel is, at times, hilarious and witty. For the horror story buff, there are plenty of nods to the grotesque to chill your bones. Ultimately though, will a casual reader pick up on these ideas of gender and false narratives as urgently as a grad student who could end up writing a seminar paper based on the book?
By the way, as the grad student who could end up writing a seminar paper based on this book, I don’t consider myself to be a great literary detective. I have read scholarship that describes Bella Baxter/Victoria McCandless as an allegory of Scotland, and I’ve heard that idea from Dr. Jennings as well; however, I have struggled to conclude towards that idea in my own reading of Bella. This allegory that Gray creates seems central to the narrative considering how prevalent Bella’s character is. Add on the fact that this story is told with four varying perspectives/narratives, both false yet told convincingly, I found myself working hard to understand everything that Gray was trying to say (cheap rhyme). That’s something to expect when it comes to metafiction, and based on the one metafictional short story that I wrote in undergrad it’s just as hard to write as it is to read. The whole point of the technique is to disorient the reader by breaking the fiction and reminding them that they are reading something that was constructed by someone else… This has never happened before in any of my previous blog posts; I just had an aha moment midway through writing. Gray constructed a narrative that he wanted readers to take as factual despite its absurdity. There are so many connections that can be made to that point (I realize too that that point was likely very obvious to everyone else who read “Poor Things”). Then again was it that absurd considering that I believed it at first? We are told many narratives in our time. Some are true, some are lies, some are a subtle mix of both, and rarely, some are neither truthful nor false but rather complete and utter garbage that amounts simply to said words and said utterances, wastes of space and time. See what I did there?
In all seriousness, I still wonder about the messages in Gray’s novel being lost in translation. The muddy waters of fiction get even murkier when the fiction begins to multiply within the same cover. After class discussion though I do see that in Gray’s position, one of his main priorities was to express the ideas, and bring them to the table. As a reader and literary-detective-in-training, I wonder if that is enough anymore (to be fair to Gray “Poor Things” was written in 1992). Still, I wonder if it’s enough to solely bring ideas to the discussion board, especially if that board is only being accessed by certain (types) of people. We may see what Gray is doing with allegories and pastiches and parody and metafiction, but does the person who is reading “Poor Things” just because it’s a book to read see those same complexities that literary scholars do?
Maybe I expect too much from fiction. I used to write fiction solely from the lens of entertaining an audience. Writing African-American lead characters would be my not-so-subtle twist on the norm. After four years of undergrad and a semester and a half of grad school, I now view most fiction as political, and borderline propogandical (yup, I made it up). As a writer, I have struggled with this. There’s almost a pressure to write something that feels fresh and relevant to the issues at hand today, and then I think about what comes next. Yes, I could write a “Get Out” style thriller (not as good as Jordan Peele did but in the same galaxy of success) and then feel empty about it afterward because I would question its significance against the issues at hand. Relevant themes in a novel or film still pale in comparison to real-life realities. “Duh, Trey, no one is saying that they don’t. I think you just expect too much from fiction.”
This post has strayed away from “Poor Things” specifically at this point, which means that it’s time to wrap-up, and wrap-up abruptly because I have run out of words to type and I am ready to sleep. “Poor Things” did make me think about fiction in this way though, which may be saying something or nothing at all.
With Julian Barnes’ historical-fiction, “Arthur and George”, I find myself wondering how fictional historical-fiction can be. Throughout the novel George Edalji is often shown being passive and quieter than his titular counterpart Arthur Conan Doyle, who’s depicted as a loud man of honor, and a proud proprietor of “Chivalrous Acts Inc”. In the novel readers are often made aware of George’s loyalty and passion towards his Englishness, said loyalty coming from a man who is half Parsi thanks to his father. George’s father was instructional in George’s idea of Englishness, having him chant of the centrality of the British empire on occasion. Ol’ Shapurji Edalji didn’t mention much about his Parsi heritage though, only later in George’s adolescence does he even begin to make it plain that George is indeed “different”. The concept of different in this context is only relative to the imperial power of the time. In “Arthur and George” that imperial power is British and firmly English, but what does it mean to be English? Also, what does it mean to be black?
While meeting to inquire on the backstory of George Edalji, Sergeant Parsons mentions that there were “people saying they didn’t want a black man (Shapurji) in the pulpit telling them what sinners they were” (George, 98, Kindle), and to quote Kendrick Lamar, “that word is only a color, it ain’t facts no more” (“Yah.”, 2017). An Indian man being referred to as black is interesting to me because it suggests that the term black is simply a label that is viewed as inferior to its fellow label, white. It also shows that the meaning of the term black, like many words over time, has changed. To this day we still refer to African-Americans as black and European-Americans as white. I still say that I’m black and that other people are white, the verbiage has become ingrained within our culture, which is surely not a revelation. I just think that it is worth mentioning because the two terms create a binary that then makes it easier for people to categorize others. In our efforts to understand the world and the people in it we often craft the easiest route to that understanding.
So, back to my question, what does it mean to be English, an Englishman rather? As Barnes weaves within the narrative Arthur is not the entirely English fellow that he wishes for his sister to find herself, and yet he is hardly questioned about this. In his verbal duel with Anson, Arthur is the one who mentions his Scottish ancestry, not Anson. Meanwhile, George couldn’t walk home from school without someone questioning where he’s really from. I have no intention of answering what it means to be an Englishman because I don’t know, after all the rules don’t make sense. George was born in Britain, which should meet the criteria enough, not to mention that he’s proud of the laws of England too, the same laws that don’t abide by him. George, and his father for that matter, had even revoked his own Parsi-ness for the sake of living a quiet life as a solicitor. I don’t blame George for that last part, or for anything that happened to him. I blame Shapurji a little though. I can read Shapurji in a more sympathetic light and say that he was holding back on his ancestral knowledge for his son’s betterment. Maybe he thought that this would keep George focused on living the best life he could live. However, it would have been helpful, especially with Shapurji being born and raised(?) in India, if George would have been able to learn more about his background.
This goes back to my wondering about how fictional historical-fiction could be. I don’t know if the real Shapurji Edalji ever talked to his son about his heritage, I don’t know if George Edalji ever declared that he wasn’t Parsi. Honestly, I will never know for sure. I feel like this post has been a long, swaying ramble, but in an attempt to tie this up sort of neatly, I will concede that some questions cannot be answered by yours truly. I am okay with that.. I guess?
Lamar, K. Damn. Top Dawg Entertainment, 2017.
Barnes, J. Arthur and George. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
The discussion about whether or not Mary Whitney is real in Alias Grace reminded me of a character, from Yu Yu Hakusho by Yoshihiro Togashi, named Sensui Shinobu, a traumatized former detective. To keep this post from diverging too far all I will say about Sensui is that he was a detective who had a very black and white way of viewing the world and his job within that world. This view of his was shattered after he witnessed something that went against what he previously believed to be true. The trauma was so much to bear that it caused him to have a mental breakdown after which he turned towards rectifying his past actions (also turning him into a shonen anime villain). In that turn to villainy, he also developed seven alternative personalities to cope with the knowledge of his discovery.
It would be an understatement to simply say that Grace Marks experienced a lot of trauma throughout her life. Before she reached the age of seventeen she had lost her mother while aboard a congested ship, was ostracized from her family, and neglected and abused physically and emotionally by her drunken father. If these traumas weren’t enough she also lost her best friend Mary Whitney, at least that’s what we are expected to believe based on what she tells Dr. Jordan. Grace also notes that madness is something that one views from the inside of themselves as they are possessed by someone else. I have been contemplating whether or not Mary Whitney is real in Alias Grace, and her relevance to Grace’s story of innocence. Why is it beneficial for Grace to mention Mary Whitney to Dr. Jordan? While my go to answer is plot, I think that there is significance in that Mary Whitney was someone who had a positive (?) influence on Grace and her involvement in the mystery acted as a way of making Grace seem more empathetic to Dr. Jordan. I can imagine that losing someone of that status would be beyond traumatic, especially under the circumstances of Whitney’s passing.
I’ve read about Alias Grace as a prison narrative (see in the resource guide) and Atwood does a great job of showing how confined Grace is at all times throughout the novel. Whether it be as a servant to richer families, as a woman in a patriarchal society, as a literal prisoner, and even as a criminal she is locked within the confines of infamy, with a 2017 Netflix adaptation as proof of her relevance still. What if Grace was also confined within herself? The title Alias Grace is definitely a clever one by Atwood. She doesn’t want us to feel like we know too much, because in reality we don’t, but hypothesizing that Mary Whitney and Grace Marks became one in the same is still interesting to me.
I can’t help but feel like both of these characters, one fictional while the other real, are reflections of what the stress of societal expectations and gender norms can make one feel. Grace expresses that she often feels trapped while being the good and quiet girl, while Sensui was often shown to be very quiet until after he learned he’d been deceived. When Grace considers her darker thoughts she often remembers Mary Whitney, as if Whitney’s persona became Grace’s shield of sorts. Grace could never commit murder because she was too young, and too feminine, too formal and meek. This is why Dr. Jordan (does he even deserve that credential) believed. Mary Whitney on the other hand was no longer alive to testify for her own existence, not that Grace wouldn’t try to keep her memory alive by telling him how coarse she could be. I lean toward the theory that Grace painted a picture of her alternative self, her true self, and the self she couldn’t disclose for too long. Does this change how I view Grace as a character in Alias Grace? Maybe a little, but at the end of the day she’s trying to earn her freedom, by whatever means necessary.
With A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) I have been thinking about how the novel addresses issues of exclusion and erasure. The inclusion of the postscript at the end of the novel provides a plot twist for readers, but it’s also an excluded text, hidden from the main characters of the story. This exclusion leaves Roland, Maud, and company without an intriguing piece of context that relates to the intertwined lives of Ash and LaMotte. Is it fair to question if the postscript was erased too? If it does exist as a salvageable text in the “present-day” of Roland and Maud, and they did happen to find it, would it not change the way they interpreted LaMotte’s final letter to Ash. If the postscript is not available to the characters in Possession then that means that Ash never met his daughter according to everyone, except Byatt, the reader, Ash, and Maia. This narrative choice by Byatt strengthens two arguments: 1. that the narrator of Possession is untrustworthy and 2. that history can never be known in full. In class, we have discussed the idea of history existing in a liminal space (thanks to Dr. Jennings for the new word), and history as an unstable narrative throughout time, constantly shaped and reshaped as we learn more context. If Byatt is suggesting that history is in a constant state of shifting interpretations, then can the postmodern techniques she uses throughout the novel be ventriloquized by authors of color who are attempting to write through an African-American lens?
Possession is a Neo-Victorian novel that holds many references to the Victorian era of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Byatt plays on readers’ knowledge of that past while then expanding on what was possible in said past. An example of this is how Byatt positions LaMotte amongst the gendered expectations of the 19th century (not to say that they no longer exist but they’re changing). LaMotte was living a rather independent life with another woman, while also writing poems that were more epic than society thought they should have been at the time, even in their obscurity. In the time of Dr. Maud Bailey though, LaMotte’s works have received their just due in the eyes of literary critics and scholars. This speaks to Maud’s discovery of a great woman poet from the 19th century. One could surmise then that there were other women writers in the same ilk as LaMotte even if they were buried under the ground of societal expectations and excluded from the “historical rendering of the Victorian era” (from Jenaya’s question in the Zoom chat, Week one).
I believe wholeheartedly that there were African-Americans who were “well to do'' or successful that also went unnoticed throughout the sphere of U.S. history. I also believe that that history has been erased, undiscovered, and buried. African-Americans have endured the infamy of slavery, which can still be seen and felt in America to this day, but there is also a lack of depth to the story. When the past is said to be everything but freedom and promised civic liberties one could wonder what comes next if it is not the same thing. For me, the exclusion of African-American history is nearly as bad as knowing that my ancestors were taken as property against their will. This sentiment stems from a twenty-three-year-old graduate student who is blessed to live in relative comfort and outside of the poverty-stricken and neglected areas of so many others who look like me. The dichotomy presents a nauseating social dynamic in my everyday experience. Okay, it’s not really nauseating, that was the fiction writer rising out of me, and I don’t want to sound overdramatic, which is how I sounded just now.
To bring this post back to Possession, I guess I’ll conclude by wondering whether or not, if I wrote a novel in a similar vein as Byatt, it would do more harm than good for the African-American community and its history at large. If the postmodernist ideal of history is correct (that it’s a (narrative) text), then what space is left for other marginalized groups? Would cynics of U.S. history read said work of fiction and believe that slavery was a hoax, or overblown, or that it never really happened? Would those same readers believe that racial inequality wasn’t a real thing because history showed that there were some “privileged” people of color? Is history liminal for everyone?
*Image of Possession by A.S. Byatt was taken from Goodreads through Google images. I don't own the rights to the photo