When Martians get More Screen Time than Women: War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

War of the Worlds is such a fun novel, and H.G. Wells is always able to entertain. The book deals with a host of themes and allusions that are carefully constructed in the text to make the thematic significance of the book more apparent. However, Wells’ female characters, or female shadows, are interesting when we consider the implications of women in a post-apocalyptic world. Many of the female characters are silent, or can’t stop screaming, with one semi-redeeming exception. This begs the question: is there a place for only a certain kind of female character in science fiction (before the twentieth century), and does Wells’ description of them reflect an anxiety about women in general?

There are three ‘main’ women in the text: the narrator’s wife, and the two women the narrator’s brother meets. The narrator’s wife exists in a space of qualifying dialogue, saying things like “don’t, dear!” with a “deadly white” face and “they may come here” over and over (46-7). She falls into a kind of one-dimensional, uncomprehending panic as soon as we meet her, with her husband (the narrator) left to comfort her. “The necessity of reassuring [his] wife” (48) falls to him, and we get no thought, genuine reaction, or interesting dialogue from his wife, and don’t know her at all beyond her “sweet anxious face” (48) before she is passed off to the narrator’s cousins and falls out of the book (and our minds) until the end of the novel. Although we don’t get much of her character, Wells seems to be saying that we don’t need much beyond what she contributes to her husband. She is a damsel in distress in its purest incarnation: saved and sequestered.

The other two relevant women in the text are the “two ladies who became [the narrator’s brother’s] fellow travellers” (147), who he comes upon “just in time to save them” (147). “One of the ladies, a short woman dressed in white, was simply screaming; the other, a dark, slender figure, slashed at the man who gripped her arm with a whip she held in her disengaged hand” (147). It becomes clear to the reader that the woman in white is a similar to the narrator’s wife, and archetypal damsel, but the rescue that happens isn’t so much a result of the narrator’s brother as it is from the slender woman, which changes the way we might view her. She’s a powerful woman, and commands far more of herself and the situation than her sister-in-law, but she is still secondary, and is pushed back into the role of a “silly woman” (211) when “Miss Elphinstone was white and pale, and her sister-in-law sat weeping” (162).

All three of these women are, at the very least, secondary. Despite Miss Elphinstone’s sister-in-law’s moxie, she must depend on the narrator’s brother. So, why doesn’t Wells allow them a voice? Part of the answer is because he doesn’t think to do it, but I also think that with the end of the world and the destruction of British values and consequently the patriarchy, the question of what to do with women becomes too big to answer. In theory, all the social systems that govern and confine women in nineteenth century London are destroyed, but we have only one women in the text who is even close to taking advantage of this, and she still relies on a man. Of course, the world is ending and everything’s on fire, but if the effort is being made here to maintain patriarchal values and stereotypes surrounding women, then there can certainly be an effort to subvert them.

This is almost too large a topic for a blog post, but it is interesting to consider.

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The Teaching Texts of Frankenstein

“Fortunately the books were written in the language, the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and
the Sorrows of Werter” (151).

It’s a really exciting moment when texts you’ve read and love crop up in other novels you adore, and Shelley drops a lot of names in her novel, firmly rooting Frankenstein in a Romantic context.

With a text like Frankenstein, we have to assume that nothing is an accident. The texts that the creature finds are named and expounded upon in chapter 15, and are what provide the creature’s brief and only literary education. They are not accidental or random, and speak to the themes of the novel as well as Shelley’s own cultural purview.

Out of all the books/poems in the world, Shelley picks the influential and controversial books that speak to the sensibilities of the Romantic age in a lot of ways. The first book the creature reads is Sorrows:

In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment. The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors and with the wants which were forever alive in my own bosom. But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld” (152). 

Sorrows is regarded as one of the earliest and most important text for German (and consequently English) Romanticism. Shelley would have known (and clearly prized) it, but I think she places it here for a few reasons. From the above passage, we can see that the emotion and sentiment in Werter are what the creature takes away from the text, and that they have “something out of self,” or out of reason that appeals to him. This text teaches the creature to prize emotion over reason, which could be seen as a factor in the severe anger and vengeance that pulls him along in the novel, as he says he “applied much personally to [his] own feelings and condition” (152).

The second text is Plutarch’s Lives which “contained the histories of the first founders of the ancient republics” (153) and “taught [him] high thoughts; he elevated [him] above the wretched sphere of [his] own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages” and “developed new and mightier scenes of action” (153).

The creature’s engagement with this text is, again, purposeful on Shelley’s part. She pulls what is basically a history of ancient civilization through the lives of great men and sets it in the lap of a ‘man’ who is a blank slate. Again, the Romantics were attached to Greek and Roman culture and pointed to both ancient civilizations as being periods of high art. This text teaches the creature wider and highly lauded elements of society, and it’s important to note that this kind of history would have been a part of higher education in the nineteenth century.

Finally, Milton’s Paradise Lost is the last text to fall into the hands of the creature:

“But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence” (153-4). 

This is possibly the most fascinating section, because I often wonder why Shelley didn’t have the creature read the bible? Although Milton’s text is rooted there, it’s certainly pulling at and elaborating upon the threads of biblical myth in a way that can be seen as controversial (i.e. Satan’s side of things). It’s true that again, Milton was a source of fascination for the Romantics, but using this as a religious text for the creature is so interesting. Of course, the themes of creator/creation as well as rebellion/fall are obvious in both texts and Milton arguably fleshes out both sides more fully.

Sadly, there are too many themes, implications, and messages coming through all four of the texts and their characters to be able to flesh them all out here, but it’s such a short section that is so brilliant for the way it paints the interests of Frankenstein in such a vivid colours.

‘I’ vs. ‘We’: The Individual in Gulliver’s Travels

Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels ends as all the other’s do: Gulliver is pulled back home to his family. However, this time he comes back wholly changed from his ordeal. Rather than simply relieved to be back among the people who he perceives to be like him in every way, he is horrified at what awaits him. This time, Gulliver returns as an alienated and repulsed human with no interest in anyone. Upon his return home, his “wife and family received me with great surprise and joy, because they concluded me certainly dead; but I must freely confess the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt; and the more, by reflecting on the near alliance I had to them” (Swift 146).

Human connection sickens Gulliver, and this is the moment when Gulliver’s anger comes through. Because of his time with the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoo’s, Gulliver has been completely alienated from his home, society, and species in his efforts to prove himself to be unlike the Yahoo’s in the land of the Houyhnhnms through ‘civilized’ or ‘rational’ behavior. His family and friends are “odious animals” who he “could not endure [in his] presence” because “the very smell of them was intolerable” (Swift 346). Five years after his return his family still does not “presume to touch [his] bread, or drink out of the same cup, neither was [he] ever able to let one of them take [him] by the hand” (Swift 346-47). His own species exists only as abhorrent and alien, and to him seems like living with farm animals rather than his own kind. When, in fact, he spends hours out of every day conversing with his horses in the stables.

This is a comical image, but it’s also terrifying. To become a tyrannical hermit unable to distinguish your own family in the midst of a trained and deeply rooted revulsion is horrific. Gulliver separates himself as much as his can from the people around him, limiting his interactions as much as possible.

However, for Gulliver, this isn’t as dramatic as it’s made out to be. In reality, Gulliver has spent the entire novel running away from his family and other people like himself. An isolated individual, Gulliver is almost always seen on his own in foreign lands, stopping to see his family for brief periods before setting out again. Always restless and dissatisfied, the text has always been concerned with setting Gulliver out as the individual who moves out of society to find his own way. When he comes back, it’s in some ways natural that he either would not be able to stay for long, or would have little interest in the people around him.

However, it’s obviously a tragic turn of events that Gulliver’s mind collapses to the degree that it has by the end of the novel. Throughout the text, Gulliver calls back to England, citing the social and governmental order that he is undeniably a part of. It’s only with the Houyhnhnms that Gulliver really begins to doubt the narrative he’s always been perpetuating.

Gulliver’s individualism is a complex and pervasive theme in the novel, but it certainly does not arrive only at the end with his drastic break from society, but rather becomes more vivid and complete.

Works Cited:

Swift, Johnathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Broadview Press, 2012.

“The Lady’s Dressing Room” and Gulliver’s Travels: Anxieties About the Female Body

In Gulliver’s Travels, Johnathan Swift does not shy away from the human association with the body, to the point where we have a clearer picture of Gulliver’s bowel movements than we might like. These moments are delivered with a kind of scientific precision: “…due care was taken every morning before company came, that the offensive matter should be carried off in wheel-barrows, by two servants appointed for that purpose” (Swift 74). Although Swift acknowledges this as an “uncleanly” (Swift 74) action, he repeatedly decries it as necessary to relate, and describes the various processes in nearly each country he arrives in. The novel sets up a particular comfort with the male body and its functions, and Swift seems unbothered, or even amused, while describing them.

However, Swift’s ease does not translate to the women in the text. Women rarely enter Gulliver’s Travels as more than secondary characters, but in Book 2, Swift takes a satirical interest in the women in Gulliver’s life. Curiously, in Brobdingnag, Gulliver spends most of his time with women, whether they are royalty or servants, and his perception of them reveals an anxiety about the female body that Swift satirizes in his fiction.

The women on Brobdingnag are repulsive to Gulliver, particularly in their smell and nakedness. The naked bodies of the women distress and disgust him, a consequence he cites as being due to their size. He describes his experience with their smell in one passage:

“…I was much disgusted because, to say the truth, a very offensive smell came from their skins; […] I conceive that my sense was more acute in proportion to my littleness, […] I found their natural smell was much more supportable, than when they used perfumes, under which I immediately swooned away” (Swift 167). 

Gulliver finds the women’s smell, and consequently their bodies, to be repulsive. However, he is also disgusted with the artifice they use to conceal their natural smell: i.e. perfume. This is a motif in Swift’s work, with his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” following a similar vein. In the poem, Celia’s dressing room is filled with the remnants (and carnage) of her adorning her body. Strephon takes the place of Gulliver, and travels around a foreign room instead of a foreign land. “..it turned poor Strephon’s bowels, / When he beheld and smelled the towels, / Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed / With dirt, and sweat, and earwax grimed” (Swift 43-46). Both Gulliver and Strephon are comically unable to cope with the reality of women’s bodies. Gulliver is also unnerved at the women’s nudity:

“…they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toilet, directly before their naked bodies, which I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of horror and disgust: their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads, to say
nothing farther concerning the rest of their persons” (Swift 168). 

A silly and grotesque image, just as Strephon get’s an up close and personal look at the bodily functions of women (which are the same as men’s), Gulliver is faced with a look at the ‘real’ female body, and can’t stomach it. Gulliver repeatedly references that, although the women are giants, women who are his size must look and smell the same, but are better able to hide it. Swift, who speaks through both Gulliver and Strephon, mocks the horror incited by the female body in both his poem and his novel through descriptions that are both funny and disturbing, and men who are less then equipped to confront their anxieties about the female body.

Works Cited:

Swift, Johnathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Edited by Allan Ingram, Broadview Press, 2012.

Swift, Johnathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Poetry Foundation,  2017.

 

 

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

A pleasantly surprising set of readings this week, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World was a captivating and easy read, far exceeding The Man in the Moone in terms of plot and readability.

My immediate reaction upon starting the text was that it reminded me of how many fairy tales start: “A Merchant travelling into a foreign Country fell extremely in Love with a young Lady; but being a stranger in that Nation, and beneath her, both in Birth and Wealth…” (Cavendish 1). All that the opening is lacking is a “once upon a time” before the reader delves into a very quick opening section that sets up the plot (often a trope used in fairy tales like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty). However, predating these, I think Cavendish is utilizing the trope of the oral story in an effort to make her fiction more believable. The Blazing World reads like it’s being related from one person to another, but in the twenty-first century, this crosses genres with famous fairy tales.

Reading this sparked thoughts about the intersections between science fiction and fairy tales, and I wondered if there could even be one. As we know, Speculative fiction holds an umbrella over many famous works and popular genres, and this does include fairy tales. They are certainly fantastic, and occupy a magical and surreal realm where things that are not possible here are possible there. Dealing with the principle few that come to mind, witches, talking animals (or, as in Cavendish’s case, creatures), and magic potions push fairy tales into the Speculative realm, and although we don’t always think of them as being there, they do have a leg to stand on in the genre.

I don’t think The Blazing World is a fairy tale, and I think that to classify it as such may be delineating the work that Margaret Cavendish was trying to do. It is speculative and fantastic, but it shares some of the same tropes of fairy tales in the narrative style.

This sparked a (rather unrelated) thought: is there a place where science fiction and fairy tales intersect more readily? In recent years, there has been a lot of conversation around retelling classic fairy tales and how the fantastic elements of the stories can instead pull in science fictional tropes to add a new twist.

The most famous in the last decade, arguably, is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder series that retells several fairy tales (Cinderella is a cyborg, Red Riding Hood is a mechanic, Rapunzel is trapped in a spaceship, and Snow White is a Lunar Princess). It’s a fascinating series, mostly because the science fiction elements give new life to the narrative, and it’s become an extremely popular way of telling stories, especially in the last couple of years. I think as a science based society, being able to explain or revise these kinds of stories makes them newer, more real, and in the context of people’s interests, more fun.

Although The Blazing World is not a fairy tale, it is told like one, and that’s part of what drew me in immediately, and it’s still a trope that works today and reaches audiences.

The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin

Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone is one of the earliest texts I’ve ever read under a Science Fiction lens. Although a novel like this is best left in the 1600’s, where it belongs, it does have the advantage of showing us how far we’ve come in terms of the genre.

Looking at this text, it seems quite primitive compared to the science fiction we’re used to. That does lend it a kind of quaintness and whimsical quality that is endearing, but it also makes reading the novel rather tiring, on top of having to decipher what, exactly, Godwin is saying.

I’m not necessarily sure this is entirely Godwin’s fault, though. As twenty-first century readers of science fiction, we’re steeped in far more advanced and collective sci-fi/fantastic plots that are so informed by science itself, and the capacity for human innovation that it’s actually possible for science fiction to enter in to the realm of silly. However, Godwin’s novel is also informed by the science and geography of the time, to a certain extent, and his novel does many of the same things that later texts do: explores the boundaries of facts and human invention.

Though it seems outrageous to us that birds might migrate to the moon, or that someone could travel there with them, our footnotes tell us that this was a published theory (Godwin 87) at the time. Science fiction is informed by science, just as must as it is fictional, and the text is rooted in the prevailing assumptions of the period. This is interesting because as much as the fantastic depends on the limitless human imagination, science becomes a springboard for a lot of what we see in this novel, as theories are questions are expanded upon and developed, and it will be fascinating to see the way in which this develops as we move forward.

Heather O’Neill’s Lorenzo Reading

This week UNBSJ hosted its last Lorenzo reading of the Fall semester with Heather O’Neill reading from her short story collection Daydreams of Angels. A novelist by trade, Heather O’Neill’s short stories are beautiful examples of the wonders of literary fiction, and filled with delightful elements of magical realism.

Unlike with the other readings, I was able to read Heather’s book in advance and I loved it so much. Short stories are my bread and butter, and I adored every single one in the collection. As the recipient of the Susan and Douglas Leyden Prize for Creative Writing, I was asked to introduce the author that evening with a short speech about her writing and a little but about Heather herself. It was an honor to be able to introduce her, and I loved her book so much.

Heather read one story from Daydreams of Angels called “Where Babies Come From”, which happens to be my favorite in the collection. I was thrilled she chose that one, since I think its both wonderful and a great showcase of her own talent and what the collection is ultimately about. She then took questions from the audience, some of which were very general, and others were specifically informed about her work as a novelist and an essayist. Each one was answered thoroughly. It was wonderful to get some insight into her writing process. After the questions, Heather read a small portion from her new novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel which is coming out next February. It seems like a very intriguing book along the same magical realist vein as her stories.

I had the opportunity to have dinner with Heather and members of the Lorenzo team afterwards, and to hear all about Heather’s background in writing and in Montreal. It was a lovely evening, followed the next day by Heather coming to UNBSJ to speak to a small group of students in a writing workshop organized by Vox. It was, again, a privilege to hear her speak and answer questions about her books and her writing–we students benefited a lot.

daydreams