Hi! My name is Daria, and you are going to read my personal diary about my scholastic and personal journey through English literature made during this year so far. Literature can seem tough, especially when in another language, but once you've figured it out and found a way to appreciate it in the correct way, it opens you a whole new world and changes you irrevocably. Enjoy!
Let's start with a worldwide known novel, which protagonist is one of the best known characters of all times. Its main charachters are so famous, and the story was converted so many times in movies and other forms of art, that at first sight it may look boring and banal, an old-fashioned plot we've already seen a million times. But under the cover or a shallow monster-story, often minimized by movie-makers when rendered in movies, lie a lot of philosophical undertones and many important, deep themes you can grasp only by reading the novel in a critical, attentive way. Let's look at it here below.
"Frankenstein; or, the modern prometheus" by Mary Shelley
Here is the plot and the characters. As you can see, much more complicated than it is generally thought when we talk about Frankenstein before we happen to actually read it.
We worked a lot on this book in class, and we were also asked to identify with the monster and write what we thought our feelings and thoughts would be, if we were in his shoes. This is what I wrote:
Now I am surer than ever about what I am. I am nothing more than a monster. I tried to change this, to adjust my nature to what is commonly considered to be an upright behaviour, to be kind and loving towards others, to give a helping hand to those who needed it. Buti it was useless. Utterly, painfully useless. All I had as an answer to my mountainous efforts were closed doors, disgusted faces and terrible shouts. They all carried the same, clear message: You are an orrible, despicable creature, and you deserve no love. So now I am asking you, how could I be able to love, if nobody ever showed me what love is? How could I do good deeds or speak kind words since I have never had an example of what the words “good” and “kind” mean? Some may say that I am nothing more than the result of the things that were done to me, others could think that my fate was already written, and my evil nature has always been there, hiding somewhere deep inside me till the day I was born, only waiting to emerge. I do not know who is to blame. My creator? Society? Me? Maybe none of us, maybe it just had to happen, or maybe we are all equally guilty for what I became, and the crimes I committed. Some think my murders are caused by a blind, beastly rage, that, just like an animal, I could not contain my violent instincs. But this is not true. Truth is, I was lucid through the whole process: from newborn creature, getting to know the world and everything in it, to ruthless, vengeful killer. All my murders were skillfully plotted with a strong, specific aim behind them, always clear in my mind. It was not only the simple, pure desire or revenge on my creator, who condemned me to many years of loneliness, pain and hate. It was more about the desire of making him understand how much I suffered, by making him go through what I went through: feeling alone in the world, without a home or a safe place to be in, without anyone to love and who loved you back, hopeless and without a future. I wanted him to lose everything and everyone, until he had exactly the same as I did: nothing. I honestly don’t know whether I feel more hate for others or for myself. I learned to abstain from judging myself, to ignore the deafening sound of my conscience, not to suffer. I am a monster, and now I reached the point of no return. I will always be a monster. But now I want to ask you: if you had been through as much hate as I have been, if you had been treated like a repellent creature for your whole life, if you had experienced a loneliness as deep as the one I felt, are you sure you would have reacted to it much differently than I did?
And we made a deeper reflection on how the plot could be linked to our personal musings upon human existence, too:
The thing that upsets the Monster the most, when he gets to know human nature, is how such a wonderful, perfectly built creature like a human being , capable of virtuous, great deeds, can be at the same time incredibly vicious, mean and base. Learning about the condition of mankind prompts deep reflections in the Monster’s mind about the world, his life and his own condition as an inhabitant of this world. Knowledge makes him stronger than he was, but it also makes him aware of his condition of “Monster” and his dissimilarity to any other living creature. Knowledge, like a lichen on a rock, sticks inevitably to his soul, planting in him the seeds of doubt about, and getting him to realize how lonely he is and will always be, due to his unpleasant appearence and his unique characteristics. I often find myself thinking about how the more you study, read and learn new things, the more critical and aware of all the evil in this world you become, and consequently the sadder you are. Happiness and intelligence are, in my opinion, rather hard to find at the same time in one person. Knowledge makes you a better person, it makes you powerful and free, but it also opens your eyes about the world around you, and makes you able to understand things in a deeper way, and what you get to know is often off-putting. Knowing more also leads to overthinking, brooding over things over and over again, like the Monster does, on everything: your appearence, your relationships with others, society, life, death. But I still think that knowing is worth it. Studying philosophy, literature and history and science is the only way human beings can possibly be able to evolve as a specie, without killing each other for futile reasons and auto-destroying themselves. Knowledge makes you more aware of the bad things around you, but it also makes you act more wisely and teaches you how to face the difficulties in life with sense, using our capability of reasoning instead of our primordial instincts.
But let's look at what Mary Shelley wrote!
First things first, we need to analize the title. Why "The Modern Prometheus"? Here a comparison is made between what Dr. Frankenstein does when he creates the Monster, and the deeds of the mythological figure of Prometheus, who steals the fire to give it to human-beings. In which way are they similar? They both do something great and incredible, but also dangerous because it goes against nature and its laws. Dr. Frankenstein and Prometheus both discover something so powerful it could cause enormous, irrevocable damage if used in the wrong way.
Doctor Frankenstein is a Stakhanovite, his dedication and love for science and discovery gets him to the point of neglecting his family and social life, becoming a recluse, alone and isolated from the rest of the world. His mind is so deeply focused of his goal of creating a human being out of dead human parts that he gets sick, both phisically and psychologically. He embodies the overachiever, the one who always wants to reach high goals, no matter how hard it is, at all costs. But ambition, like in this case, can be bad, and become an obsession. Being so focused on the goal can make you momentarily forget why you are pursuing it, and whether it is something positive and ethical or not.
There is the widespread idea among people who only know this story through movies or by word of mouth that the monster is an emotionless, brutal creature, not endowed with a conscience and a beating, feeling heart. The Monster did some brutal, beastly things through the story, but his deep humanity is often ignored, wrongly. What makes the monster act like an actual monster, in fact, is not the animal instinct inside him, but his most human feelings: pain, hanger, envy, the feeling of not being love. Surprisingly, when reading some excerpts from this book, I found myself empathizing the most with this character, which I before considered to be the most different and far away from me. We all empathize with the monster, even just a bit, because all do and say things we are not proud of pushed by fear, wrath or the feeling of being rejected, disregarded, hated by everyone. In the end all the monster ever aimed at was the most common human desire: being loved.
"Satan's Speech" byJohn Milton
Heaven, Hell, God, Satan, Angels... all these elements at first may seem boring to us, something we all already know about through the Bible and all those religious stories we were told since we were kids. But "Paradise Lost" is much more. For the first time, the whole tale of the Creation of the universe and mankind and the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven to Hell is told through the point of view of the one we are all used to considering "the bad guy": Lucifer, or later Satan. For the first time we are naturally pushed to empathize with this character, to understand what he does and why, and, at least in my case, to agree with him at some point. Because, in the end, everyone likes a rebel.
There he is, all dark and evil.
Satan is unarguably the most interesting character in the poem. The way Milton depicts him is very modern for the time in my opinion, for the fact that through the book Satan has an evolution, or better, a regression. He is a round character, who experiences a process made of different phases, that brings him to be at the end something completely different from what he was in the beginning. We see him as a subdued disciple, a rebel hero, an evil tyrant and a despicable, disgusting creature in the end. As the story goes on and his character changes, so does our opinion about him.
During the "rebel hero" phase we all were fascinated by him, at least a bit. He is, without a doubt, a powerful and charismatic character, who is able to win everybody's heart (included mine) with his eloquence and his wonderful abilities as an orator. He has leadership, courage, ambition and strong ideals. When he gets to his new reign, Hell, he delivers a great Speech to convince his followers to stick with him. This wonderful speech and the language used by Satan somehow reminded me of some famous Dictators and political Leaders I studied or got to know in my life. The use of "we", the subtle psychological pressure he makes with his words on his audience and some powerful, provoking phrases such as "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" or "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" make him a perfect Leader, some kind of an hero. He embodies the figure of the Rebel against authority, the brave man who is brave enough to stand up against a totalitarian regimen and make his voice heard. Sadly, he does not remain as charismatic through the rest of the poem. In fact, he slowly forgets about his initial ideals of freedom over submission and the repressive laws of God, becoming selfish and caring more and more about his personal desires and ambitions more than anything else. He faces a regression, both phisically and morally: he goes from being a beautiful angel to the form of an animal, changing shape and getting more and more unpleasant in his looks, ending up becoming a snake. In the end he is a pitiful, sly creature, both on the inside and the outside.
"Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe
In this novel, revolutionary under many aspects, we can see how writers were beginning to write for a middle class who wanted to read about realistic, familiar situations. That’s why in this novel we have clock-time and the detailed description of the settings in every “scene” of the book. In this novel a new type of hero is depicted: Robinson Crusoe is a self-made, practical man, guided by common sense only, far from the past heroes, who were often driven by passion, wrath and intense feelings.
What most surprised me is how, during the novel, Robinson does not abandon himself to a lazy, tropical lifestyle. He does not just try to survive as best as possible and conform to the situation he finds in the island, as I would personally do if I shipwrecked on a desert island (I mean, who wouldn’t?), but instead he organises there a little empire with a certain hierarchy, which reminds him of his homeland: England.
When he finds another human being, an indigenous who he saves from cannibals, he does not teach him his language in order to have conversations with him and become his friend, instead he only teaches him some basic words, just the ones he needs to understand and obey to his orders. He treats him as his personal slave, always making sure he is in a position of inferiority compared to him, embodying the prototype of the English coloniser. He basically turns the island into an English colony.
The fact that Robinson in the novel turns what he is given into an empire reflects the productive mentality of the time, the ideal of the “self-made man” and the relationship between men and God during Defoe’s time. God was considered to be the origin and cause of everything and the creator of the Universe, but not the one who was behind human choices and the success or failure of an individual. Men was endowed with free will and reason to choose between good and bad, so he was the only one in charge of choosing and following his own path and building his own fortune by himself.
"Moll Flanders" by Daniel Defoe"
Moll, the protagonist of this novel, can be seen as the female version of Robinson Crusoe. In fact, she has a matter-of-fact mentality, she cares a lot about personal fulfilment and material objects and does not care about emotions such as love, or about getting herself an husband or a family, and instead sees them as an impediment to her desire of getting rich. Moll is more interested in self-assertion and reaching the state of wealth she wants to live in. I think this female character is revolutionary because here we don't have a weak, passion-driven woman whose main aim in life is being love and marrying the man of her dreams. She is not similar to many other female characters and does not fit in a stereotype . This woman is not valued in terms of beauty, kindness and courteousness, she is not a naive, angel-like creature. She is smart, shrewd and artful, she does all it takes to get what she wants, and even if many of the things she does are not moral and ethically right ( she even ends up in prison), she is an indipendent woman, and I like that.
"Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift
Swift is considered to be a controversial writer due to his great use of sharp irony and satire as a way to cast light on social issues and the contradictions of society of the time. In his masterpiece "Gulliver's Travels" the protagonist is a ship surgeon who shipwrecks multiple times and ends up in various ways on four different islands, where he gets to know new populations and creatures, completely different from the European ones. In this book, through the description of these surreal societies, Swift mocks men and their arrogance and highlights the absurdity of many human institutions and common beliefs.
Differently from Defoe's Crusoe, Gulliver is a full-rounded character, who utterly changes his ideas and mentality through the novel. When he gets back to England after his travels he cannot stand humans and their presumptuousness anymore, he feels estranged because he is now able to see how the civilisation English people are so proud of is just an illusion, and the superiority of the Europeans to any other race or population is a relative concept, something the Europeans convinced themselves of without any valuable reason. By getting to know other societies, Gulliver gets to understand the one he comes from better. His travels are an eye-opener on many things he did not realize before. That's why when he gets back home in England he hates other humans as never before.
man vs animal
In the island inhabited by the rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, and the beast-like, ignorant animals resembling human beings, the Yahoos, Swift creates an allegory to tell us how men are nothing but animals, the only difference betweem them and the other species is the fact that they are educated and they evoluted differently. But this does not take away their animal instinct, their brutal and irrational nature that is still strongly present in human beings and their choices.
I consider this subtle provocation and critic to human arrogance to be the most interesting part of the novel, among the ones we analized in class, for it still applies to the arrogant attitude and the sense of superiority towards other species and the environment around them that many people still have nowadays.
"Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" by Samuel Richardson
Personally, I did not really like this novel, or at least the excerpts from it I read. I think that is due to the fact that the whole plot is infused with Puritan ideals of virtue and religious values that today seem really old-fashioned and not true anymore. What annoyed me the most about the novel is how the role of the woman, Pamela in this case, is strongly diminished and stereotyped. It seems that the greatest thing a girl can aim at, the best thing that can happen to her is to marry a rich, important man. But I also understand that it was a common and normal belief at the time, since marriage often was the only way girls had out of poverty and miserable life conditions.
What is revolutionary about the novel, though, is the fact that it is narrated through letters, that make us understand the psychological complexity of the characters and their inner thoughts in a new, more detailed way that wasn't common for the other novels of the period. "Pamela" can be considered the first novel to fit in the cathegory of the "epistolary novel", that will be used by many authors after Richardson.
There are two things that I found particularly interesting about Blake: one is the fact that not only was he a famous poet, but also a wonderful artist (you can see one of his etchings here below), and the other is his unusual view of the world and his way of considering contrary states as complementary opposites.
a beautiful etching by Blake
Unlike many poets and authors of his time, he didn’t have a moralistic view of the world and didn’t consider life to be neatly divided into good or bad, purity or sin, black or white. As a matter of fact, he was one of the firsts to consider good and evil as two entities that are simultaneous and both equally necessary and present in any of us. He regarded our attempts to negate one of the two opposite parts in ourselves as useless and painful: the only way we have to progress as human beings is to accept our contradictions without attaching labels and trying to cancel the side of us we consider to be the worst.
This theory by Blake immediately reminded me of the Tao philosophy
I also appreciated Blake’s versatility and his ability to change his language and style according to the themes he is talking about and the type of emotions he wants to provoke in the reader. This versatility can be easily noticed analizing how different the language, vocabulary and sounds in poems in the Songs of Innocence are from the ones in the Songs of Experience. This shows us how skilled Blake was in using the language to convey certain messages and create a vivid image in the mind of the reader.
Here, for example, we have a sweet, childish language with a slow, relaxing pace and soft sounds.
Here, instead, the sounds become stronger and harsher, and we have sharp, dark sounds, with a lot of "r" sounds reminding us od the roar of a tiger
Blake believed in the power of imagination more than in reason, and he considered it to be the greatest mean men have to get to know the world beyond its materiality, and considered himself and all poets to be a sort of prophets, who had the task of showing others how to see the true meaning and reality of things and go beyond the surface of material knowledge. Although he strongly believed in the power of imagination, Blake was also interested and committed in the concrete issues he saw in British society at the time, such as child labour and exploitation, problems caused by an increasingly industrialised society.
London in an etching by Gustave Dorè
He used his talent and his voice to cast light on these issues and show people how terrible life conditions were for poor and marginalised social classes, such as factory workers or children who were exploited and obliged to work since an extremely young age in factories or as chimney sweepers, as we can see in the poem “The Chimney Sweeper”.