Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Vathek

R.B. Gill takes an interesting approach in analyzing the critically acclaim novel, Vathek. He focuses on the author, William Bedford, as a person and how "a man unwillingly hastened by his
family and his wealth from one performance to the next, seems never to have found that inner being with which he could be at peace" (Gill, 241-242). In understanding and analyzing Bedford's life, a greater understanding of his writing style and choice of plot can be formed. Gill argues that the persona that is portrayed in Vathek and the life of Bedford are ones that were created, despite their biographical appeal.

Understanding the type of person William Bedford was will help me, as a reader, understand his writing style and purpose for writing works such as this one. Many have said that this book was an exaggeration of an actual event that occurred in Bedford's life. Apparently Bedford held a party at his house, Great Gatsby style, a chose to reiterate it in a fictional tale that is much more elaborate than the actual party that he had. Vathek is ambiguous in that it's style is clean and clear, but it is uncertain whether the tale is true or not. It can be interpreted both ways and many critics have done so. Gill's article helps me to know if questioning who the author really is and the authorial intent is necessary. I find that it may quite possibly be necessary because Bedford seems to be coming from a place of fiction in this novel. There are a lot of elaborate things in the novel (the five different palaces that cater to each sense, for example) and I am not sure if this and other instances of grandiosity are based on real life experiences, or made up fiction. Bedford grew up affluent and so these things could have quite possibly been true, but there is doubt present. I am also not sure if this novel should be passed off as fiction if some of or most of the events are based on nonfictional occurrences.

I ask you guys, is it necessary to question who the author is, really and his or her intent on the work? If we are just reading for entertainment, pleasure, academic purposes, etc; why is it necessary to know the true blue life of he writer? If it is not necessary, by not knowing the author, will that take away some of the value of the work?

Gill, R.B. "The Author In The Novel: Creating Beckford In Vathek." Eighteenth Century Fiction 15.2 (2003): 241. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

For Credit: Tables Turned

You've spent this semester learning how to make sense of C18 Fiction: how to understand its conventions, how to make sense of the social roles and behaviors it depicts, how to understand the cultural streams that feed into it, how to makes sense of its arcane vocabulary and bewildering sentence structure.

Now, how about you take a shot at explaining a work of C21 cultural production to a C18 audience?  

Imagine yourself transported to the drawing room where Frances Burney, Laurence Sterne, William Beckford, Horace Walpole, and the anonymous author of The Female American are gathered on a dull winter's afternoon to hear what a time traveller from the future has to tell them about the literary and cultural forms that are going to evolve.  You open up your laptop computer, only to find that only one of the C21 texts that you had stored there survived your journey through the time/space/reality continuum:

How do you explain this video? What background information do Burney, Sterne, Beckford, et al. need in order to make sense of it? How might you help them connect to its aesthetic values?

Deadline: Saturday (12/10), midnight.

For Credit: 5 Years from Now

The following clip, "The Five Minute University," featuring Father Guido Sarducci (comedian Don Novello), is a few decades old, but still current:

What will you remember from English 429 in five years' time?

Deadline: Saturday (12/10), midnight.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Authorial Identity in Vathek

In the article, “The Author in the Novel: Creating Beckford in Vathek,” R.B. Gill remarks on the self-conscious writing style of Beckford. Gill argues that Vathek consisted of many “Beckfords” meaning one could draw many different identities from Vathek and from some of this other works. The author states, “Not finding that centre or authorial identity, critics (and Beckford himself) have created a number of identities to satisfy their own perceptions of the needs of the novel” (242). For Beckford, he utilized a self-conscious writing style, like Sterne, to create an “authorial” identity within their works.
For Vathek, Beckford creates a world of contradictions. “Like Sterne , Beckford watches himself write and is intrigued by the possibilities of expressing himself in guises -now moral, now perverse, now coy, now sublime. He cannot resist indulging himself momentarily in some ludicrous or incongruous aspect of his material” (243). These contradictions, for Gill, allow a certain distance, but “Beckford wants us to observe him laughing at his subject , manipulating it: a gentleman engaged with compromising material but, never the less, in thorough control of it and able to smile knowingly at his own folly. In this mixture of opposites, Vathek, like many other neoclassical works, has a civilized sophistication that acknowledges its own role –playing” (243-244). From this acknowledgment as a piece of fiction, Beckford was highly aware and intent on creating himself within his work according to Gill.
But, through his self-conscious writing style, Beckford both creates himself and distances himself from this identity within the novel. He uses his “self-abnegating humour” and contradictions to allow a literary distance from the Caliph he fashions for himself. This distancing would allow a gentleman like Beckford to create an “authorial identity” within his scandalous novel, yet still maintain an identity as a gentleman. Gill writes, “The novel's puzzling mixture of opposites invites the reader to seek an inner author, the ‘real’ Beckford accessible through psychological examination” (245). It’s easy for the reader to draw comparisons to Beckford’s life and see Vathek as an extension of Beckford.
Gill goes on to explore the seeming opposites of Beckford’s life. Stating Beckford was involved with a man, yet married and had two children. For Gill, the contradictions of Beckford’s life may explain the contradictions we see in Vathek. Because we can draw many different meanings from this novel, we can create multiple different Beckfords. Gill suggests that, like the character Vathek, we can create our own understanding and image of Beckford whether or not this is true.
I find this article interesting in that it suggests that we don’t really need to know the “true” Beckford to understand this story. Whether or not Beckford was Vathek is not the issue for as readers we can construct our own image of Beckford. Do you think that this novel made you understand Beckford psychologically? Can you see any instances of Beckford’s self-conscious writing style? What “Beckford” do you get out of this novel?
Works Cited:
Gill, R. B. "The Author in the Novel: Creating Beckford in Vathek." Eighteenth Century Fiction. 2nd ed. Vol. 15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. e6ccb7-00d6-4df2-a294-bf39c691d3fe%40sessionmgr104&vid=5&hid=112>.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

FYI: Class on Tuesday

Just to reiterate what I said in class on Thursday: our class on Tuesday (last class of the semester!) will be an in-class exercise for extra credit (up to 10 points). You can prepare by reviewing the names of the supporting characters in all the novels we read (who they are, how to spell their names, which novel they appear in, what they do that's interesting). Part of our exercise will be open-book/open note, so you can bring your books to class with you if you like.

For Credit: Propose an Exam Question

If this course had three-hour, timed, handwritten exam instead of a final paper, what would a good essay question for that exam be?

Deadline: Tuesday, 12/6, start of class.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

For Credit: What's New with Vathek?

Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana (1752)
If you think back to the beginning of this class and the first few novels we read, one of the challenges was figuring out how to read a C18 novel. We talked about how these were novels that said what they meant--we weren't supposed to read around an unreliable narrator, discern deep hidden truths buried in apparently innocuous stories, brace ourselves for surprise endings, or expect entertainment designed for our tastes.

By 1786, the rules were starting to change (and would eventually morph into the familiar patterns that you had to shed in order to grapple productively with C18 fiction). The interpretive skills, specific to C18 literature, that you have acquired and honed in this course are not as useful for understanding Vathek as they were for the other things that we've read.

In a world that expected fiction to "delight and instruct," Vathek does neither. If it "delights," it also confronts you with the spectacle of violence, gore, and ruthlessness. If it "instructs," it does so in a very roundabout manner: its surface lessons are too trite (avoid eternal damnation!) or bizarre (heaven is an eternity of sexless immaturity!) to be useful.

How do the tools that you bring to bear on more modern literary texts help you in making sense of Vathek?

What would have have liked to say in class today but didn't have the opportunity to?

What would you like to add to today's discussion?

Final thoughts on Vathek?

Deadline: Saturday midnight.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

FYI: The Final Project and Upcoming Fun

To summarize what was said in class today:

Thursday (12/1) we will finish with Vathek.

Friday (12/2), part II of your paper is due, via Google Docs (preferred) or e-mail.  Some clarification:
  • you may write about Shamela for Part II, but you still have to write about three of the other books.
  • if you choose NOT to rewrite Part I, you can treat Part II as a continuation of that paper.  If you DO choose to rewrite Part I, you should submit both parts together as one continuous paper.
  • I will be taking points off on Part II for incorrect MLA citation.  If you want to make sure you're doing it right, I recommend the OWL at Purdue, which has an excellent guide to MLA style.  
  • Also, give yourselves time to do one editing/proofreading pass before you hand the next two parts of the paper in.  I (obviously) didn't do any stylistic or grammar corrections on Part I (in the interests of turning them around in a timely manner and giving you feedback on the content of the paper), but by the time we get to the final version I will be marking papers down for careless writing and mechanical errors.
  • Questions?  Respond to this post with them or e-mail them to me.  Or come to office hours Thursday (2 - 3, 321 English Bldg.)
Tuesday of next week (12/6) is the last day of class.  In the interests of giving everyone another opportunity for extra credit, we will have an in-class graded final exercise that will cover all the reading for the course.  You should prepare by reviewing everything we have read, and paying particular attention to the names and distinguishing features of the minor (non-titular) characters.

Required Blog Post: Robin Johnson

As I began reading Vathek, I found that I'd immediately disliked Vathek (the character). He seems extremely greedy and conceited. Do you think that becoming the ruler at a young age is a reason for the way Vathek is? Is there any justification?

Also, Orientalism seem to play a big role in Vathek. From what we've read so far, how is the East represented in Vathek? What are some of the differences between this novel and the others we have read (especially The Castle of Otranto, since Vathek is also a Gothic novel)?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not for Credit: The Contenders

These last days of the semester, in between Thanksgiving break and finals, always make it hard to bring a fall syllabus to closure.  There are days to fill, yet the continuity of the semester has been broken.  My solution when teaching C18 lit is to use these final class session for exploring a text that looks towards what comes after, something that clearly builds on the Enlightenment-era roots of the period we've been studying but that also gestures towards the Romantic-era literature that will change the literary game in some important ways.  Here are some of the books I considered for this slot but ultimately rejected:

 Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams by William Godwin would be my hands-down pick if we had an additional week.  It's just too long for the time available to us, but well worth reading.  Regarded by some critics as the first-ever mystery novel, this story is recounted by a working-class narrator persecuted by his erstwhile aristocratic employer and mentor.  The author, William Godwin, might be familiar to some of you as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft.  His well-intentioned memoirs of his famous wife completely destroyed her reputation for the next century plus.  He's also regarded as the first proponent of anarchy.  Interesting guy.

And then, of course, Jane Austen.  She properly belongs to the C19, not the C18, but Northanger Abbey was, arguably, her first novel, composed (at least in part) before 1800 (though it was the last of her novels to get published, in 1819).  It also constitutes a funny extended meta-fictional commentary on the genre as it stood at the end of the C18 and as Austen inherited it, complete with crazed Gothic patriarchs, young maidens both innocent and venal, swashbuckling hunks of manhood, well meaning pedagogues, and readers who are smarter and less dewy-eyed than the heroines they are meant to identify with. 

In The Natural Daughter by Mary Robinson, the Gothic novel meets a beleaguered feminist heroine and a marriage-plot-run-amok amidst the French revolution.  Our heroine has nothing to learn from the patriarchy but how it can let her down.  Passions and drama run high in this tale, which shows its C18 roots but often gets classified with Romantic-era literature (in no small part because of the poems that sprinkled throughout the narrative).  Robinson was a well-known poet as much as a novelist, and even more famous for being first a stage actress then the mistress of the Prince of Wales. 

There are many more novels I could have chosen from!  But these are some of the likely contenders if we weren't reading Vathek, which has its own riches to offer.

Vathek Secondary Lit Review - Sam Bakall

            The article “Life After Pseudodeath” discusses the shift in Vathek’s attitude after he realizes that his love Nouronihar is actually alive. The author begins the essay with a short discussion on other Gothic novels that play to the interest of the Orient, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Frances Sheridan’s Nourjahad, and how they “thinly disguise[] Western and even Christian concepts and attitudes in Middle Eastern Islamic attire” (pg. 171).

            But, unlike the other novels that the author discusses, Vathek doesn’t try to justify the actions or veil Christian beliefs in Islam, it actually “embraces and confirms hedonism as the valid lifestyle selection of its main character,” which is something that pretty much all of the novels we have read this semester have not done (pg. 171).

            The scene in Vathek where he realizes his love isn’t dead is a bit of a Hollywood moment. The emir of the dwarves Fakreddin realizes Vathek’s interest in his daughter, Nouronihar, even though she is slated to be married to Gulchenrouz. Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz are both drugged by the emir and are sent to a secluded area, so that when they awake, they will believe that they have died and are in Paradise. But, they soon begin to realize that they are not in fact dead and ‘escape,’ for lack of a better term, and run into Vathek.

            Vathek, who’s life is based on decadence and sin, mourns her death and seems to be making more moralistic choices in what could be shown as a more pious life. But, when he sees Nouronihar, he is overtaken by lust and goes right back to how he was before, not following Islam and accepting a hedonistic lifestyle. Because he enjoyed the “splendors of life” before he met Nouronihar, it “contributes less to his damnation than does his search for supernatural power through the agency of the Giaour, a pursuit that explicitly ends in Vathek’s perdition,” (pg. 171-172).

            This acceptance of a hedonistic lifestyle and lack of moral repositioning is what sets Vathek apart from its contemporaries. In the other novels that were discussed, the main characters in them confessed their sins or rejected the things they once partook in. Vathek on the other hand, fully embraces them and never has that moral moment that we have seen in previous novels (Robinson Crusoe definitely). He never regrets what he has done to get where he has gotten himself, just that he doesn’t like the punishment he has to live with.

            The only moral realization in Vathek is when “The narrator states that Vathek deserves the loss of all hope in ‘a receptacle of eternal fire’ for the ‘unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds’ he has committed (119, 120),” (pg. 172). Otherwise, the novel mentions very little about remorse or salvation.

            I found this to be very interesting and true. While reading Vathek I think I was looking for that moral realization sometime in the novel, but never found it. Vathek just kept indulging and kept continuing on the path of damnation without a regret. The decadent lifestyle that he lived was so over the top that I also couldn’t help wondering if the reason there is no moral compass in this novel is because the entire book is a moral compass. Almost all of the other books that we’ve read this semester mention praising God in some form, whether it’s converting others, being virtuous or just mention of it in regular conversation, but none have employed potential reverse psychology.

            I would definitely agree with the author completely. Vathek was nothing like what I thought it would be in the slightest both story-wise and moralistically. I think it was interesting that the author chose other novels that had similar storylines and settings and compared them, which makes Vathek stand out even more.

            Do you think that Vathek stands out of the genre as a novel that fails to embrace the ‘moral’ literature of the time, or can the entire story be seen as a commentary on what happens when you fail to be moral and follow God? Is this book a push for religion or atheism? Do the events that unfold throughout the novel support a religious lifestyle or not?

Works Cited

Brewer, Lawton A. “Life After Pseudodeath: William Beckford’s Vathek.” Explicator 67.3 (2009): 170 – 173. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For Credit: Making Sense of Vathek

We end our exploration of eighteenth-century fiction with Vathek, a strange little novel that is mired in contradictions:  a British novel that was written in French, a novel of the eighteenth-century that is best known in an edition that got published well after the Romantic era was underway, and a profoundly secular work that centered on a mythical being from the underworld.

Your study of the eighteenth-century novel has given you several different ways to approach this text.  Respond to this post by suggesting an interpretive question to be asked about this novel, identifying an issue in it that ought to be explored more deeply, or observing some feature of the novel that provokes your interest or curiosity.

Deadline: Tuesday (11/29), start of class.

Tristram Shandy Vs.......Anything

My question is a pretty simple one, so I'll get to it right away and then try and explain the reasoning behind my asking it - Is it fair, or better yet, even possible, to compare Tristram Shandy (the novel, not the character) to any of the other works we've gone through this semester?

Now obviously, you could answer at surface level that yes, of course you can compare any two novels...if you try hard enough. But I'm asking in a more in depth sense, with all the, for lack of a better term, wackiness, that ensues in Tristram Shandy, is it really comparable to any of the far more subdued novels we've read so far?

For me, I can assert with certainty that nothing else we've read falls under quite the same sphere as does TS. No other novels have had characters that are so difficult to keep up with (that is to say, to understand exactly what's going on with them at all times). Nor do any of the other novels offer such complicated and indirect language in the way they're presented, making it even more difficult, for me atleast, to draw comparisons.

I guess a good secondary question to this would be, do you find the fact that we're only reading selections from the book rather than the entire book itself, to provide difficulty in grasping the whole thing? I've considered several times the possibility that may be a larger aspect to my trouble with the novel than I originally thought.

I'll conclude by saying if there were any other works we've covered so far that I'd even attempt to try and draw comparisons to, it'd be Castle of Otranto. But I'll leave that for anyone else that wants to answer.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pamela vs. Evelina: The Britney/Christina of the 18C

There has been a lot of discussion about Pamela and Evelina as moralizing novels. There has also been a lot of back and forth about whether Evelina or Pamela is more likable/believable as a character. What I am interested in, however, is which author is more successful in their goal of moralizing young girls? Both Richardson and Burney use similar epistolary styles, and both protagonists are around the same age and in confusing class roles, presumably to appeal to young girls of any class. If their goals were to influence and strengthen the virtuosity of young girls, which author do you think is more successful and why?

Who's the stronger character?

We started the semester out by reading a scandalous story about a young woman choosing to leave her elevated place in society behind in search of adventure and, of course, sex. Since then, however, we have almost forgotten about the poor Fantomina, banished to a French convent (possibly to live out a sequel to her promiscuous story).

Earlier this semester we compared the agency and progressiveness of Pamela to that of Evelina, and despite our general dislike for Pamela, we deemed her the stronger female character (more realistic portrayal of the female teenager, being forced to and successfully saying no to Squire B, etc). But, what if we were to compare Pamela to Fantomina? Both women enticed their men, both behaved promiscuously at different points in time (obviously to different extremes), and both did in fact refuse the advances of their beau (Fantomina didn't succeed, but she did say no at first). Who of these women, Pamela or Fantomina, is more inclined to gain the readers sympathy (both 18th and 21st century)? Who exercises more agency, and who presents a more progressive female role? Keep in mind that, although Fantomina does get sent away, Pamela is eventually forced to conform to a typical 18th century female role.

Real vs. Fictional Social Structure

In general, literature is seen as a reflection of the culture it is from. However, we've seen that the 18th century characters we've read about are known to push the envelope of social roles. What do you think this means in terms of literature as a mirror to society? Do you think the characters we see exemplify authors' ideals of a perfect man/woman and perfect relationships according to 18th century norms? I know most of us can only speculate what 18th century life was like, but what have you gathered from the characters we have seen this semester? Do you think everyone had a character they wanted to be like (Lord Orville, Squire B, Pamela or Evelina for example), or were these fictional characters intended to only put fictional names to values and ideals?

Where are all the children? - Sam Bakall

We've read a fair amount of books this semester, and yet there really has been no mention of children in any of the novels. Besides the brief moments of Tristram's youth that we see in TS and the even more brief mention of RC's children at the very end of the novel, children really don't exist. 

Why do you think children don't play a huge role in any of the novels we have read? Are readers in this time quick to categorize young teenagers as adults, like in Pamela or Otranto, or is that just a 21C viewpoint?

Sort of going off the thread of sexuality that has been asked about, do you think authors at the time avoided writing about children in an effort to avoid people having sex, or to not promote the consequences of having sex? 

Or are children just not that interesting?

Ch Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes - Jesse Colin

It occurs to me after nearly a semester immersed in the literature of this time period—and just now as I browse my classmates reaction to it—that the various types of birth control available to modern people in the post-industrial world may be among the most impactful inventions in the  history of mankind. 

The anxiety these people suffer over sex is overwhelming.  Of course, sex is a serious thing but I don’t think we often appreciate that we are better prepared, in many ways, to deal with it than most people have been throughout history. 

Birth control has changed the psychological playing field so much that I wonder if you could track its impact in our genetic code somewhere? 

I wonder, when I read Tristram’s thoughts about Jenny, what is the source of his intense anxiety?  Besides the emotional and material consequences (potential pregnancy), we have to assume that Tristram has some spiritual concerns as well.  Then I started to think about religion as actually a man-made product—and perhaps one of its functions is to help deal with the sex problem—the fact that mankind, the only rational being, is afflicted with serious animal urges. 

I know I’m getting all big-picture here but a few hundred years can really change things.  What are your thoughts?  Have you had any similar thoughts in your reading of some of the other texts? 

Role of M. Dubois in Evelina

We've spent a lot of time this semester talking about the roles and functions of the main characters in the novels we've read, especially females, but what about those characters who hold slightly less prominent positions? In Evelina, Burney weaves a very intricate web of familial connections between her characters, juxtaposing nature and nurture by comparing Evelina, the Mirvans, and Lord Orville to Madame Duval, The Branghtons, and Sir Clement. Further complicating that web, however, are minor characters like Mr. Lovel and Monsieur Dubois. These men, although they are often involved in the major action of the novel, seem to hold relatively unimportant positions.

I would like to focus specifically on Dubois because not only is he the more reserved, seemingly more polite companion of the abrasive Mdme Duval, but he also takes a keen interest in Evelina. In your opinion, what is the role of Dubois in Evelina; why did Burney find it necessary to include him in her already heafty character list? What does he add to the plot line, and what kind of commentary does he provide about the society to which Evelina is introduced?

The role of religion in Tristram Shandy

There are several interesting passages that allude to religion throughout Tristram Shandy. On page 490, Tristram makes several references to his role in portraying or "delivering" religion to the reader.

"I am confident my own way of doing it is the best--I'm sure it is the most religious--for I begin with writing the first sentence--and trusting to Almighty God for the second."

"I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man."

"Pope and his Portrait are fools to me---no martyr is ever so full of faith or fire--I wish I could say of good works too---but I have no."

From my own interpretation of these texts, Tristram seems pompous in his view of religion. In the first quote I presented, Tristram places himself on a pedestal, claiming that his "way of doing it" is the best way. He even puts himself before God, literally, by saying that the first sentence is his, and the second one Gods.  The quotes that follow also carry a tone of arrogance towards religion and religious figures. What do you make of these quotes? How do they relate to Sterne's overall presentation of religion? How do the religious ideas that Sterne presents differ or correlate to other eighteenth century novels we have read?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Male vs. Female Sexuality

I know we've discussed sexuality a number of different ways and times throughout the semester, so I want to ask what everyone thinks about how the topic has developed. Specifically, how does sexuality compare in books with male (Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy) protagonists versus those with female (Fantomina, Pamela, etc.) protagonists? Think about how the (potential) presence of these issues affects this topic:
  • The order of the syllabus (reading Crusoe for our first primary novel, for instance)
  • Presence of homo-eroticism primarily in male-oriented stories
  • Use of female-oriented stories as "moralizing stories"
  • Sexual innuendo
This is a very wide open topic - but I'm thinking that Tristram Shandy and Fantomina/Pamela would be good places to start in terms of sources.