A Pale View of Hills
Plot Structure Comparison: A Pale View of Hills and Waiting for the Barbarians
Plot structure in any novel is an important literary technique that can differ greatly from one novel to another. While the actual story tells the reader the events that happen to the characters, the plot is the technique used to form a time line for the story, whether the events are placed in chronological order or not. The novels Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee and A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro have plot structures that do not conform to the basic idea of a story in chronological order as time passes by, however their structures are vastly different nonetheless.
In the novel A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro uses a very unique strategy to tell the story of Etsuko and her life. Instead of laying out the story in the present, he reaches back into Etsuko’s memory to find the story. He structures the plot around her thoughts and memories to bring back the story of her life in a way that makes the reader pay close attention to detail in order to understand where the characters are in time throughout the book. Ishiguro uses Etsuko to lay out the novel, but Etsuko cannot necessarily be relied upon. The author uses memory to skew the timelines of the events that take place in the novel, making the plot of the novel one that jumps around through time and blurs the lines between fiction and fact. The very beginning of the novel is set in the past when Etsuko’s daughter Niki comes to visit her. “She came to see me earlier this year, in April, when the days were still cold and drizzly” (Ishiguro 9). The only time that Etsuko’s memory seems to always be correct is in the times that she is with Niki.
In the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, the structure of the plot differs greatly from that of Ishiguro’s work. Instead of flashing back to the past and having the main character, the Magistrate, narrate the events from the past, Coetzee structures the novel in a very straightforward way. The events come to the Magistrate, as well as the reader, as they are happening. This sets a tone of mystery and intrigue for the reader that does not appear as much in A Pale View of Hills.
Both authors of these novels use unique strategies to shape the plot. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro uses Etsuko’s memory, or lack thereof, to offset the plot and make the reader question what is going on in the character’s life. “It is possible that my memory of these events will have grown hazy with time, that things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today” (Ishiguro 41). Ishiguro also starts the novel with telling the reader the most important event in the main character’s life, the suicide of Etsuko’s daughter, Keiko. This not only sets the tone for the whole novel, but makes it so that the reader can tie events of Etsuko’s memory in with this life changing event that has scarred her. “Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here” (Ishiguro 156). Ishiguro also uses the plot structure to repeat significant events in the life of Etsuko. “It was towards the beginning of summer – I was in my third or fourth month of pregnancy by then – when I first watched that large American car, white and battered, bumping its way over the wasteground towards the river. It was well into the evening, and the sun setting behind the cottage gleamed a moment against the metal” (Ishiguro 12). Later in the novel, Etsuko sees the same car and it has a similar impact on her. “It was the latter part of the afternoon, a day or two after our outing to Inasa, and I happened to glace out the window. The wasteground outside must have hardened significantly since the first occasion I had watched that large American car, for now I saw it coming across the uneven surface without undue difficulty…The glare on the windscreen prevented me from seeing clearly, but I received a distinct impression that the driver was not alone” (Ishiguro 157). In both instances where this American car comes into the novel, they are gone again in an instant and are never explained or commented on further. Ishiguro uses this as a way of bringing the plot around in a circular way, making the story more difficult on which to place a sense of time.
The author of the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee, uses a very different technique in which to further and shape the plot. While Coetzee uses a very straightforward approach to tell the story of the Magistrate through his eyes, he also uses techniques like dreams to foreshadow and insinuate things in the Magistrate’s life. The first dream that occurs is the dream that the Magistrate keeps having again and again. “In the dream I pass through the barracks gate, pass the bare flagpole. The square extends before me, blending at it’s edges into the luminous sky. Walls, trees, houses have dwindled, lost their solidity, retired over the rim of the world” (Coetzee 10). This dream reappears multiple times throughout the novel and it furthers the plot by changing a little each time it happens. This dream is also the first time where an image of the barbarian girl comes into play. “I am aware of my bulk, my shadowiness, therefore I am not surprised that the children melt away on either side as I approach. All but one. Older than the others, perhaps not even a child, she sites in the snow with her hooded back to me working at the door of the castle, her legs splayed, borrowing, patting, moulding. I stand behind her to watch. She does not turn. I try to imagine the face between the petals of her peaked hood but cannot” (Coetzee 11). The Magistrate is not aware that this image is a representation of the barbarian girl, nor is the reader, the first time she appears in the dream, but as the plot progresses, it becomes evident that the young girl in this dream is the barbarian girl who has made such an impact of the Magistrate’s life. The first time he encounters the barbarian girl he finds her kneeling in the snow. “She kneels in the shade of the barracks wall a few yards from the gate, muffled in a coat too large for her, a fur cap open before her on the ground” (Coetzee 29). This makes the reader wonder if the dreams he is having is a foreshadowing into the future of the Magistrate’s life and the future of the town. Coetzee uses this technique of dreams to make the reader see the full impact that this girl has had on the Magistrate even though he cannot see it himself.
Both Kazuo Ishiguro and J. M. Coetzee have written literary works of art using their unique story telling methods. Their use of plot structure furthers their stories and makes the reader tie events together in a way that is unique and imaginative. While Ishiguro uses things such as memories and the uncertainty of the past to tell his story in A Pale View of Hills, Coetzee uses a straight forward approach where the events come to the reader as the characters experience them in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Both uses of plot structure are alluring and lead to a captured attention from the reader and an interesting spin on the normal structure of time and space that many readers are used to.
•Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982. Print.
•Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
The Past That Follows: Ishiguro’s Fiction and Modern History
Trauma plays an extremely significant role in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel A Pale View of Hills. Not only is the novel set in the time after the bombing of Nagasaki, but each character has also lived through different traumas that have distinct and differing effects, and play out in the characters’ actions and personalities. Ishiguro adeptly addresses history and past events to spark a fire in his characters that is tangible to his readers.
The bombing of Nagasaki was a detrimental part of history and this story. It shapes the backgrounds of the character’s lives and puts characters where they need to be for the novel to become what it needs to be. The Nagasaki bombing killed many innocent people and leveled the city. Such a setting for this novel paints a picture of the destruction that was left behind as a result of this. The novel portrays Etsuko’s and Sachiko’s living conditions through descriptions of the river bank near their homes. Indeed, the terrible conditions they live in as a result of the bombings lead to a character development in Sachiko, which the reader needs in order to understand the standoffish way in which she regards Etsuko and her present situation.
Sachiko is a unique character in the way that the reader never finds out much about her life as a whole. Through the novel one can piece together parts of her background, but as a whole the reader never finds out her entire background. The trauma that Sachiko has experienced is never mentioned outright in the novel as well. While Etsuko’s background and traumas are written out clearly for the most part, Ishiguro leaves the traumas of Sachiko to be interpreted by the reader. While reading, one assumes that Sachiko is a person who cares not for her child or the feelings of her friend. However, if the reader delves deeper into the text one can see that Sachiko has a reason for her behavior. One can assume from the reading that she came from a place of prominence and wealth in the past, maybe before the bombings, and is not used the rudimentary lifestyle that has been thrown upon her. She then takes this out on Etsuko in the way she seems to talk down to her and condescend her at every chance she has throughout the story according to Etsuko’s memory. Sachiko also neglects her daughter, Mariko, to a point of worry for the reader as well as Etsuko which also seems to come as a result of her background and that she never had to take close care of Mariko in the past.
Mariko is another staple character in the novel that experienced trauma that she cannot move past. While Mariko is said to be around the age of ten or so, she speaks as though she is much younger. Ishiguro captures the essence of youth in Mariko in the way that she seems to get stuck in certain situations and obsesses over things. After the bombing of Nagasaki life was difficult for Sachiko and Mariko and at a young age Mariko saw many horrible things that no child at her age should ever see. However, while she sees many terrible things, one specific incident stays with her and leaves a lasting imprint on Mariko. While at the river one day, Sachiko and Mariko come across a woman who is kneeling at the river. As they approach the woman, she lifts an infant from the water where she seems to be drowning the child. After seeing the woman at the river who seemed to be drowning her infant, Mariko, as any child would be, is trapped in a sort of way in that moment and cannot seem to move on. Seeing a mother who is supposed to be the one solid protector of her children do something so terrible, leaves a scar on Mariko and this leads to many of her trust problems with her own mother as well as Etsuko. She obsesses over her kittens and protects and defends them as best she can. Although it is never clearly stated, Ishiguro seems to want to paint a picture of overcompensation here where Mariko feels that she has to be the best ‘mother’ to the kittens in order to erase the actions of the woman at the river as well as make up for the way her own mother parents her. Mariko is severely damaged by her past and the things she sees and this develops the plot and leads to the concern that Etsuko holds for the child and her relationship with her mother.
The main character Etsuko’s life is shaped by the traumas that have clouded her past and handles each of them in a unique way that forces the reader to read deeper into the text to try and demystify her jaded past. To start, Etsuko has also experienced the terrible outcomes of the bombings of Nagasaki and now lives in squalor as a result of it. While Etsuko’s memory seems to be unreliable, as she herself even states, it is the only thing the reader has to rely on for the events of not only her own past, but of all the other characters in the story. She recalls many traumas in her past through the novel starting at the very beginning. The novel opens with Etsuko talking to her daughter Niki about the death of her eldest daughter Keiko. This event in Etsuko’s life shapes the whole novel. Her feelings that she has failed as a mother plays out not only in the way that she treats Mariko but in the way the whole story is laid out. Etsuko seems to blur her memories of her daughter and the memories of Mariko and refers to them as one person many times throughout the novel. In some instances, Etsuko never even mentions who she is talking about and leaves it to the reader to determine which memory of which child she is thinking of. For example, in chapter ten when Etsuko is remembering a time that seems to be of Mariko, she never mentions Mariko’s name. In this passage, the child Etsuko is speaking to says; “I don’t want to go away. And I don’t like him. He’s like a pig” (172). While it seems that it is Mariko she is speaking to in this moment, she could also be remembering a conversation with her daughter Keiko in reference to Etsuko’s second husband who Keiko never took a liking to and was the reason they moved to England. Etsuko then says, “Yes I promise… If you don’t like it over there we’ll come straight back” (173). This leads the reader to believe that Etsuko is remembering a conversation with Keiko because Etsuko was never accompanying Sachiko and Mariko on their journey to America, but she could be speaking to Keiko about moving to England with her new husband. Etsuko’s past husband’s were also a part of her life that could be classified as a trauma. Her first husband, Jiro, treated her very poorly and never took care of her or seemed to care for Keiko. When Etsuko left Jiro, it was a pleasant change in her life, but divorce has extremely negative effects on all persons involved. Etsuko also had a second husband. There is never much detail about this second husband but he seems to be a suitable husband and father to Etsuko and their daughter Niki and step daughter Keiko. This second marriage however leads to another trauma in Etsuko’s life and ends in the death of her husband.
Each character’s past traumas lead to their further characterization and build the plot in a way that shows the depth of the characters’ lives. Etsuko’s past, especially the suicide of her daughter Keiko, shapes the story as a whole and paints the story as well as making the reader question everything about Etsuko’s memories of Sachiko, Mariko, and the events that each one were a part of. Trauma effects humans in a very specific and intense way that not many other things do in the world and Ishiguro depicts the scars that trauma can leave on his characters beautifully.
Constructing and Deconstructing Otherness in Migrant Literature
One similarity that exists across Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, Meera Syal’s Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is the ambivalence that their characters feel outside of their motherland. More obviously in Syal’s and Kureishi’s novel, the characters try to reconstruct their identity so as to escape “other-ing.” For Ishiguro, it is his identity as a migrated Japanese writing about his homeland that calls into question definitions of “home.” To quote Brian Shaffer, “the focus of Ishiguro’s first novel is […] on the way in which people use other people’s stories to conceal yet, paradoxically, to reveal their own” (36-37). The idea of appropriating another person’s story to explore one’s own is a theme that links the three stories together. Etsuko explores her own guilt toward her dead daughter Keiko through Sachiko and Mariko; Tania explores her ambivalent identity as an Indian that is not from India through the film that she makes of Chila and Sunita; and Karim explores his cultural roots through typically colonialist plays like Kipling’s The Jungle Book (147). The ambivalence of identity calls into question its construction and subsequently, its deconstruction of cultural stereotypes, whilst foregrounding reconstruction of identity and consequently, deconstruction of one’s previous identity. A comparison of these three novels thus reveals the problems associated with migrant writing, and what it means for their identity in a country that supposedly not their own. One problem that the migrants have is their inability to escape preconceived notions of their identity. In one interview, Ishiguro was asked about why he set his novel The Unconsoled in central Europe. He replied:People have scrutinized the settings of my books, assuming they’re key to the work. In some senses that’s true, but it emerged as a major problem. When I set my books in Japan, their relevance seemed to be diminished in the eyes of some readers. People seemed to say, ‘That’s a very interesting thing we’ve learned about Japanese society’, rather than, ‘Oh, isn’t that indeed how people think and behave – how we behave.’ There seemed to be a block about applying my books universally because the setting was so overwhelmingly alien. (160) I quote this at length because it exemplifies the problems that the main characters of Syal and Kureishi face as well. The quote highlights the alienation that a migrant culture faces when read by a dominant (usually White) culture. When an explicitly non-White writer writes about his supposed culture, it is often deemed authentic and natural, whether or not s/he has actually lived there before. In A Pale View of Hills, the narrator remarks when Keiko hung herself, that “the English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room” (10). Karim faces a similar dilemma when he is chosen by Shadwell to play Mowgli. Shadwell insists that Karim should speak with an “authentic” (147) Indian accent, as befit his race and the character’s race. Shadwell assumes that since Karim was Indian, he must know his “own language” (140), and was shocked that he could not understand “Punjabi or Urdu”(140). Evidently, they are trapped by their explicit ethnic difference, yet clueless as to how they should behave. As Paul White puts it, the migrants “find themselves in situations where they are confronted by an alternative ethnic awareness that labels them and confines them to a stereotyped ‘otherness’ from which there appears little chance of escape” (3). For the migrants, their ambivalence stem from trying to shed their previous cultural links and assimilating into their new land. It is ironic that they are suddenly in a country that seems to know how they should behave and instruct them on what should be natural to them. Shadwell advises Karim to “take a rucksack and see India, if that’s the last thing you do in your life” (141), while Tania is treated like voyeuristic “tourist” (265) in her own country. The result, if they are unable to assimilate, would be Keiko-like death. For Etsuko, Manchester is a place of displacement as it represents an alien country that Keiko failed to blend in with. These non-White characters are in a Catch 22 situation: an assumed identity is forced upon them as they have to struggle with assimilation or be faced with death, whether symbolic or real. In order to escape from their entrapment, they try to negotiate and find a balance between how they are supposed to behave and how they want to behave. On one level, Tania’s film is a betrayal of her friends, but it is also a projection of what she eschews of her ethnic culture. According to Yasmin Hussain, “Women are often projected in Indian women’s fiction as trapped in the categories of wife, mother and daughter” (55) and the “conventional woman suffers within the constraints of traditional culture […] (while) unconventional images of female roles in Indian women’s literature are represented by the mages of suffering of women who violate and question the accepted norms of society”(56). Despite this, it is important to note that “these experiences of suffering teach them to subdue their individuality in favour of traditional ways” (56). Chila and Sunita represents Hussain’s depictions. Chila is the married woman who is always under patriarchal rule, whilst Sunita, despite being in the “Uni Women’s Group” (84) has been subsumed under the role of dutiful mother who is remorseful when she has her own life outside the family. By portraying these sides of her friends in the film, she is making her stand against stereotyped notions of Indian females and simultaneously proclaiming her individuality. Likewise, Karim tries to negotiate his ethnicity by explaining that he is an “Englishman born and bred” (3) but he is overpowered by the White majority who insist on “authenticity” and he ends up being “lathered […] in the colour of dirt” (146) for his role as Mowgli. Masking Karim’s “cream skin” introduces the notion of hybridity. Whilst being exoticized is the lesser of two evils when compared with being marginalized and forgotten like many postcolonial subalterns, it is similarly threatening to the migrant’s identity. They are confined by being labeled “exotic,” and then euphemized as a “hybrid” product of east meets west. Haroon is perceived by his white followers as an Indian wise man that has answers to the problems of the materialistic West. Yet, his white working-class in-laws are embarrassed by his heritage. Haroon’s brother-in-law, for example, denies his Indian origins by calling him “Harry” because “it was bad enough his being Indian in the first place, without having an awkward name too” (33). Hybridity traps them in perpetual other-ness as it emancipates them. As Andrew Smith postulates, “With hybridity, anything is possible for the simple reason that hybridity is about making meaning without the repression of a pre-existing normativity or teleology” (252). In other words, the elastic nature of hybridity emancipates them because it gives them a fixed and stable identity, yet the notion of “other” underlies it. As a result, it seems that the migrant Other cannot escape. Ishiguro is trapped in his Japanese roots, never mind that he migrated at the age of six to England and has lived there since; Tania and Karim are in a purgatory where they are adored for their differences. They are exiled and trapped in an imagined homeland. However, the novels do offer a resolution that is slightly problematic. As Martin says of Tania at the beginning, “the more the rest of the world found Tania’s background fascinating, the more she rejected it” (107). That the novels conclude with Tania returning to her parents and Karim embracing his ethnic roots is important as it is represents a reconciliation of their ethnic and national identities. The conservative conclusions suggest that by retaining connections with the past and recognizing their ethnic identity, they are able to find strength to resist the identities imposed on them by the dominant White culture. Yet, this conclusion is in line with the dominant White’s perspective that if you are of a certain ethnic culture, you are supposed to identify with it. While it is questionable whether Tania and Karim’s negotiation of their ethnic identity is successful, Jamila and Niki provides another model. Jamila is assertive and educates herself with feminist writers like Angela Davis and Kate Millett. Though she was forced into a traditional arranged marriage, she negotiates her identity and shapes her resistance. As Suresht Renjen Bald expounds, “her radical politics seem to lose out in the face of her father Anwar’s hunger strike to coerce her to marry Changez [however] in her compliance is also her resistance [as] her marriage is not consummated” (87). Niki is another strong character. She functions chiefly as Etsuko’s rationalizing voice, trying to assuage her mother’s guilt by comparing her with women who are passively stuck in unhappy marriages. She tells Etsuko that, “‘So many women get stuck with kids and lousy husbands and they’re just miserable. But they can’t pluck up the courage to do anything about it. They’ll just go on like that for the rest of their lives’” (89-90). The resistance that these two women exhibit, seems to suggest that the traditional notion of a woman supporting her husband blindly would be her downfall. Extrapolating this example, the best solution in negotiating the migrant’s identity would be to appropriate dominant views, and then acting within it as opposed to Tania’s outward rejection of all things Indian. Despite this, the problem of hybridity would still exist in migrants. The conflict of their ethnicity and nationality will remain as long as the notion of a dominant group exists because this would inevitably divide then into black/white, self/other, superior/inferior – binary oppositions that depend and feed off each other. It is only with destructions of these binaries that any form of identity construction or reconstruction can be successful. Ishiguro’s novel launches us into a discussion of preconceived notions of identity that defines how the migrant minority should behave. He problematizes the link between ethnicity and nationality, and tries to explain that ethnicity does not necessarily equate nationality, nor is it responsible for explaining ethnicity. As South Asian writers writing in their colonizer’s country, Syal and Kureishi further complicates this link as they try to challenge the stereotypes imposed on their protagonists. They expose the problems related to blind assimilation to the dominant culture and highlight that that does not work for the minority because they will merely be seen as exotic and a cross between the east and west. This hybridity poses a new dilemma for the migrant Other that is trying to negotiate its ambivalence in a country that is anxious to maintain its dominant culture. Being a hybrid becomes a euphemism for the Other as it continues to render them separate and distinct. Attempts at trying to construct or reconstruct their identity seem futile because they end up pandering to the ideas of the dominant White and continue to remain trapped as a hybrid. In my opinion, it is only when binaries of majority/minority are destroyed before any real solution exists. Works CitedBald, Suresht Renjen. Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration. “Negotiating Identity in the Metropolis”. Eds. Russell King, John Connell and Paul White. Pp. 70-88.Hussain, Yasmin. Writing Diaspora: South Asian women, culture, and ethnicity. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988.Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2005.Jaggi, Maya. Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk. Ed. Susheila Nasta. New York: Routledge, 2004.Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1999. Shaffer, Brian. Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1960.Smith, Andrew. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. “Migrancy, hybridity, and postcolonial literary studies”. Ed. Neil Lazarus. Cambridge: University Press, 2004. Pp. 241-261.Syal, Meera. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee. New York: Picador,1999.White, Paul. Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration. “Geography, Literature and Migration”. Eds. Russell King, John Connell and Paul White. London: Routledge, 1995. Pp. 1-17.
Identifying an Artist
The coming-of-age story holds a significant place in the literary canon. In these works, characters explore the world around them, seeking answers to questions about life and trying to find their places in society. In German, this type of story is classified as a Bildungsroman. Oxford English Living Dictionary defines this word, “A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education” (“Bildungsroman”). A direct translation of the German word is helpful in understanding this genre. This word is a combination of the German words for “education” and “novel.” From this, it can be concluded that works in the Bildungsroman genre are novels of education. This understanding of the Bildungsroman genre is useful in recognizing how the characters in these works seek and gain education from their experiences and how they use this gained information to achieve some form of growth; further, it explains how these characters educate themselves in the ways of the world in order to form their own identities. A conventional theme of the Bildungsroman genre is self-definition. Often, these stories detail the ways in which people define themselves based on their experiences with the world around them. The characters must determine their social and moral convictions based on their evolving understandings of the society, religion, and familial relationships.
An interestingly specific subgenre of the typical coming-of-age story is the Künstlerroman. This subgenre, like the Bildungsroman, focuses on the personal growth of a character, but it specifically discusses the formation of an artist’s identity. In A Studio of One’s Own: Fictional Women Painters and the Art of Fictions, Roberta White defines the Künstlerroman: “The story of an artist’s intellectual and emotional growth; usually it describes an inward journey leading to a discovery of the artist’s vocation” (13). The word “Künstlerroman” is a combination of the German words for “artist” and “novel.” It is noteworthy that this type of coming-of-age story is given its own specific subgenre. To warrant this unique classification, the development of an artist must be significantly different from that of the average person. This poses several questions about the development of artists and why there is a need to focus on them exclusively. What makes an artist? How does an artist differ from the average citizen? What is the responsibility of an artist? By examining James Joyce’s semiautobiographical Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, some of these questions may be answered. Based on the understanding that an artist is somehow different from a non-artist, readers may examine Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in order to better understand the position of an artist in the world. Through this examination, it becomes apparent that an artist has a unique position in society that results from his critical perception of the authoritative institutions which surround him and his ability to relay his critical perception with an audience for the betterment of humanity.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce showcases the personal growth of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, as he attempts to find his place in a world that, at times, seems confusing and frightening. Throughout the work, readers witness Dedalus’s transition from a child who identifies with children’s stories to a young artist who wants to create his own story and etch out his own place in the world. In between these two stages, Dedalus is faced with the task of determining who he wants to be and essentially where his social and moral allegiances lie. Is he to be an Irish nationalist? Does he feel a slight sense of allegiance to his country? Should he enter the priesthood? Are his religious convictions his own or someone else’s that have been forced upon him? What is the significance of art and his relationship with it? Dedalus must answer these questions for himself as he journeys through life. As with any coming-of-age story, the protagonist gains a new sense of self or demonstrates personal growth throughout the work. A Künstlerroman, however, showcases how an artist utilizes the information gained through his or her personal growth to gain a deeper understanding of the world that may be used to inspire art which teaches or shares something meaningful with the world.
The role of an artist in society is difficult to pinpoint. It is as difficult as asking what the function of art is. To answer this question, it is best to turn to artists and see how they interpret the role of art in society. In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley explains that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (20). He argues that poets, or artists, view the world from a critical perspective that allows them to reflect on the greater questions in life. Shelley contends that poets possess a unique ability to conceptualize the world and its intricacies in a way that can help others understand the world around them. Describing the role of poetry, Shelley writes,
It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. […] A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. (6)
It may be understood that art’s purpose is to instill some greater meaning to existence or to find meaning in the void. Through art, society may learn of the pain and joy of others, and they may find solace in another person’s imagination.
Shelley’s perception of the role of an artist is one which is shared by other writers and artists. In the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, which may be classified as a Künstlerroman based on the protagonist’s passion for writing, J. D. Salinger, in a type of metadiscourse, relays a similar message about the role of the artist and how artists serve to help the societies in which they live. Salinger writes,
You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them–if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry. (189)
Art serves as a history lesson of sorts. It allows other people to see the universality of their experiences and questions. Art allows space for the exploration of large concepts like human behavior, morality, and spirituality. It allows space for people to explore themselves through the perspective of another person. Art allows for the objectification of life.
It is often thought that it is the responsibility of an artist to raise and answer questions about society, larger concepts of religion and politics, and human nature. An artist is thought to possess a critical eye, so the development of an artist very much relies on his or her ability to evaluate personal experiences in a meaningful way. It may be proposed that Dedalus’s identity as an artist is shaped by his critical perception of his life experiences. It is through the challenging of authority and tradition and the subsequent formation of personal moral and ethical beliefs that Dedalus positions himself as an artist. Dedalus’s attitudes toward religion, politics, and sexuality and his evolving relationships with these concepts and institutions help shed light on the formation of an artist and his or her role in a society. Carl D. Malmgren, author of the article “‘From Work to Text’: The Modernist and Postmodernist Künstlerroman,” which was published in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, notes the importance of an artist’s awareness. He singles out “awareness or consciousness as a distinguishing feature of artistic sensibility,” and he furthers this notion by stating that “the artist is always aware that something is going on. Indeed, he is also aware of his awareness; the artist is self-conscious” (8). This awareness that Malmgren describes may be witnessed in Dedalus’s character. As he grows and begins to ground his identity, readers see Dedalus finding his position on politics, questioning his religious beliefs, and exploring his sexuality. It is ultimately Dedalus’s awareness of the world around him that allows him to form his identity as an artist. There are apparently fundamental differences in the way that artists and non-artists conceptualize the world that are based on levels of consciousness or self-awareness.
Dedalus’s exploration of religion is a critical step in the development of his identity. Throughout the work, readers witness Dedalus’s faith grow and waver. He has inherited a sense of piety that has been forced upon him by familial and social norms, but he often doubts the legitimacy of his beliefs. Inarguably, religion plays an important part in how Dedalus identifies himself and the world around him. Further, his relationship with religion and his ability to critically examine that relationship illustrate his keen awareness and ultimately his position as an artist. As a young child, he does not seem to question the legitimacy of religious authority, but following an incident in which the horrors of religious institutions are revealed to him, he begins to question his faith. When he is unfairly punished by Father Dolan, Dedalus begins to realize that he should not be blindly placing his faith in an institution that is corrupt and unscrupulous. He feels as though the punishment is “unfair and cruel,” and he is shocked by the sense of betrayal that he feels when a respected authority figure abuses him in such a severe way (Joyce 2343). Describing Dedalus’s reaction to this punishment, Joyce writes,
Stephen knelt down quickly pressing his beaten hands to his sides. To think of them beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt so sorry for. As he knelt, calming the last sobs in his throat and feeling the burning tingling pain pressed in to his sides, he thought of the hands which he had held out in the air with the palms up and if the firm touch of the prefect of studies when he had steadied the shaking fingers and of the beaten swollen reddened mass of palm and fingers that shook helplessly in the air. (2343)
Based on his reaction to this incident, Dedalus seems to demonstrate the beginning of the artist’s critical awareness. He is not merely focused on his shock, betrayal of trust, or pain; rather, he removes himself from the situation and looks at it objectively, as if someone else is in his place. It is through his perception of this incident that Dedalus’s questioning of religious authority stems.
As he grows, Dedalus’s faith continues to waver. Though he is from a religious family and has been taught the importance of piety, he does not demonstrate a meaningful relationship with Christ. Listening to his uncle pray, Dedalus feels a distance between himself and his faith. He feels a sense of alienation that stems from his inability to connect with his spirituality in the way that he has been taught. Joyce tells, “Stephen knelt at his side respecting, though he did not share, his piety” (2349). Dedalus is aware of how he is supposed to feel about religion; he recognizes and respects his uncle’s piety. Still, his own personal relationship with religion cannot be based on how he is supposed to feel or an inherited piety. Because he posses such a strong self-awareness, Dedalus is faced with his own interpretation of religion. He cannot take someone else’s beliefs, even if his own are full of doubt, confusion, or guilt, because that would be inauthentic. Dedalus’s need to seek his own personal spirituality demonstrates his unique position as an artist. He is not someone that can blindly accept faith. He must find purpose and understand his spirituality through his own means. It is Dedalus’s questioning of religious institutions that reveals his critical awareness of the world around him.
It is ultimately Dedalus’s guilt and fear which bring him to a temporary, though extreme, religious devotion. After having sex with prostitutes, Dedalus begins to feel the burden of his sin weighing heavy on his soul. He feels as though he has alienated himself from God and from his peers. He feels his sexuality clashing with the teachings of the church. Geert Lernout, author of Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion, notes, “Joyce’s first novel seems to have a great attraction to young Catholics who struggle or have struggled with the same questions of sex and guilt that form the core of that novel” (3). Lernout continues, stating that this theme of sexuality versus religion, though apparently a common struggle for Catholics, is a universal issue as well. He writes, “For close to a century, both Joyce’s works and his person have fascinated and inspired readers of different cultures and from different backgrounds. His work is remarkably provincial and firmly rooted in the Catholic middle-class Dublin culture of the turn of the previous century, but paradoxically it appealed first and foremost to readers outside of his native city” (3). It is interesting that Dedalus’s experience is so simultaneously personal and universal. It may be argued that the universality of this theme further cements Dedalus’s position as an artist. His experience is not confined to Catholicism or his own personal experiences; rather, he takes his personal experience and explores it in a way that is relevant to people across many cultures and religions.
When Dedalus listens to a sermon by Father Arnall about the price of sin and the horrors of hell, he is terrified into a state of piety. Though Dedalus develops a strong sense of spirituality during this time and considers entering the priesthood, it is noteworthy that he only does this following two incidents which mark the loss of his innocence and his confusion about his place in the world. Describing Dedalus’s loss of innocence, Joyce writes, “His eyes were dimmed with tears and, looking humbly up to heaven, wept for the innocence he had lost” (2398). It may be concluded that Dedalus’s religious devotion was simply a result of his confused state of being. He did not know who he was or who he wanted to be, so he attempted to ground his identity in religion. It is his decision to leave the church that signifies his identity as an artist. After his doubts and his temporary faith, he is left with a deeper understanding of spirituality that allows him to remove himself from any preconceived notions of religion and reflect on his own experiences in a meaningful way. Dedalus’s spiritual journey is significant in the formation of his artistic identity as it demonstrates his critical awareness of the society around him and showcases his ability to form his own identity based on his experiences.
Like his exploration of religion, Dedalus explores his understanding of nationalism and his relationship with it. Like he questions the legitimacy of religious authority in order to find his own understanding, Dedalus generates his own understanding of nationalism and his connection with his heritage. While he listens to his family discuss politics over the dinner table, Dedalus cannot decide what his true beliefs are. Like his need to find his own understanding of religion, Dedalus must make his own evaluations of politics and nationalism. Describing Dedalus’s need to discover his own beliefs, Joyce writes,
While his mind had been pursuing its intangible phantoms and turning in irresolution from such pursuit he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things. These voices had now come to be hollow-sounding in his ears. When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her language and tradition. […] And it was the din of all these hollow-sounding voices that made him halt irresolutely in the pursuit of phantoms. He gave them ear only for a time but he was happy only when he was far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades. (2363-2364)
Dedalus, possessing the critical eye of an artist, cannot accept the beliefs that are being forced upon him or the legitimacy of institutions of authority. His necessity to separate himself from these beliefs and institutions is vital in his artistic identity. He is displaying a sense of critical awareness that is needed to create art.
Dedalus’s refusal to accept the world around him at face value serves as an explanation of the unique identity of an artist in society. Regarding personal development, the difference between non-artists and artists lies in their need to draw their own conclusions about the world through their experiences rather than learning from someone else. Thomas F. Halloran, author of James Joyce: Developing Irish Identity: A Study of the Development of Postcolonial Irish Identity in the Novels of James Joyce, describes the unique position that Dedalus is in because of his critical awareness:
To understand the importance of liberation from nationalism and foreign oppression it may be useful to examine how Stephen can be a metaphor for the Irish nation, specifically with regards to power structures and language. If Stephen may be accepted as a metaphor, it is then interesting to look at how he tries to shed his own past and his nation’s history to break the mold of the existing Irish consciousness and create another definition. (69)
Dedalus’s need to create a new definition, or a new understanding of life that separates itself from the perpetuated concepts of authority and normalcy, demonstrates his position as an artist. From his experiences, he is able to withdraw valuable information about inherited identity versus personal identity.
In conclusion, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man explores the position of an artist in society. Based on general understandings of what the function of art is, it is necessary for artists to possess a critical eye which may be used to explore and explain the world in a way that helps other people in some way. Dedalus’s character possesses this critical eye, and this is apparent through the ways in which he questions authority and his desires to form his own separate identity that is not influenced by outside forces. Dedalus’s exploration of religion, sexuality, inherited identity, and nationalism and his desire to form his own understanding of society demonstrate his critical eye. Not only is Dedalus aware of the world around him, but he is conscious of his awareness, which makes his position as an artist even more secure. Based on the understanding that a Künstlerroman is deserving of its own genre, it may be concluded that an artist’s critical awareness separates him from a non-artist in an important way.
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