Category Archives: Essays

Comment on the explicit or implicit ideological and moral basis for one or more Hollywood films of the same genre, and on how its stance is conveyed through narrative, characterisation and/ or mise-en-scene.

Comment on the explicit or implicit ideological and moral basis for one or more Hollywood films of the same genre, and on how its stance is conveyed through narrative, characterisation and/ or mise-en-scene.

Paul Catherall


Film Genre To Be Studied: War (Mainly In The Sub-Genre Of The Vietnam War.)

Films Included In Study:

Apocalypse Now (1979) – Produced / Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Casualties Of War (1989) – Produced / Directed by Brian De Palma.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb
(1964) – produced / Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Produced / Directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War and Francis ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, are all films made in the tradition of the innovative Young Lions group of film-makers. Not only do the films constitute a critique of the Vietnam war (1954-75,) but also bring into question the very ideological fabric of an aggressive, expansive and socially regimented post-war America.
These films are original in their moral and ethical emphases, and in their portrayal of the results of war; they often contain the action demanded by cinema audiences, but also emphasise its corresponding brutality and suffering. The films are certainly far removed from the American-made World War II films of the sixties and seventies (such as A. Hiller’s Tobruk – 1967, and J. E. Levine’s A bridge too far – 1977,) which, in contrast to films such as Palma’s Casualties of war 1989, contain less emphasis on human suffering or injury. This bias in portraying the horrors, rather than heroics of war, is a recent, and perhaps unparalleled phenomena, virtually atypical of traditional action-orientation of films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, or the propagandist, and morally polarised films of the post-war era that sought to justify, glorify and sanctify the World War II effort. Films such as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now are not only nonconformist in their rejection of government propaganda and approved ethical views, but also seek to question the psyche of western civilisation – the inherited belief, from the Christian era to imperialism, that European society not only controls the balance of world power, but is a model for other, inferior non-European peoples.

In these films, the justifiability of American intervention is often ambiguous. The hypocrisy of the war’s ethical basis is constantly exposed – by direct criticism from American soldiers, seen in Joker’s interviews in Full Metal jacket, and in indiscriminate atrocities committed by the Americans on Vietnamese civilians. In Apocalypse Now, the Americans are not in Vietnam to fight but to surf. Following the rape of Casualties of war, the sadistic Clerk tells Eriksson to remain silent, what happens in the field stays in the field. War itself is a hunt, rather than a bloody necessity, the airborne cavalry corps, playing Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries to terrify the shit out of the gooks, makes a detour on the way to an ideal surfing point, annihilating a village under the macho precision of Col. Killgore. war is also a team-game, or sport – as seen in Captain Touchdown’s comment that we’re still getting some really excellent kills here. In contrast to the gung-ho Americans, the Vietnamese are usually portrayed sympathetically. Simple Vietnamese villagers are always innocents, for whom the war is a calamity. Similarly, viet-Cong soldiers are usually portrayed objectively, and occasionally – as in the sniper scene of Full Metal jacket, as defenders of their country against western imperialism.
The Vietnamese are often shown as an oppressed people, seen in the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the air-corps in Full Metal Jacket, and in the brutal rape, then merciless execution-style killing of Oahn in casualties of war. Despite an obvious emphasis on the brutality of the American army in Vietnam, there is, however no clear polarisation between the two forces as good or bad; the process of war itself is seen as a force which induces the emergence of the contained savagery in human kind. In war, men and women are not human, but simply killing machines. Savagery as a consequence of war is seen in Apocalypse Now, where Clean shoots the passengers of an inspected boat, and in Full Metal jacket, where the Vietnamese girl sniper, (with the same kind of grimace seen in the psychotic Pyle,) engages in a gun battle with the advancing marines.
For the Americans, this dehumanising process is two-fold.
In Full Metal Jacket, the recruits of the American army undergo a process of psychological training and indoctrination, which breaks down the soldiers’ civilised psyche, and the reservation to kill. The quality of the marine is measured by physical and psychological criteria – seen in Joker’s suggestion that Pyle is a Section Eight.
Sgt. Heartman’s main job is to transform American citizens into killing machines, although he and the army are often unaware of the thin divide between madness and sanity when the civilised mind is stripped of all moral compulsions, and the inner, primitive capacity to kill is unleashed:
It is your killer instinct that must be harnessed.. it is the hard heart that kills. FMJ

The psychologically conditioned soldier is seen in Meserve of Casualties of war, who bellows at his enemies when he fights. In Apocalypse Now, Willard is the product of moral-effacing indoctrination; he is an assassin – a professional killer, and is quite able to shoot the wounded Vietnamese girl, rather than endanger his mission by seeking medical aid. The mission to terminate Kurtz tests his allegiance to duty and military necessity, but it is also a testament to psychological conditioning that he is finally able to terminate Kurtz’s command. Kurtz asks willard if he is an assassin:

Kurtz – Are you an assassin?
Willard – I’m a soldier.

The second aspect of the dehumanising process for the Americans, is the encounter with Vietnam. The brutality and suffering witnessed by the American soldier seems to push his already psychotically conditioned psyche beyond the limits of sanity. The thin divide between sanity and madness, maintained only through the discipline and rhythm of army training and convention, cannot counter the shattering horror of Vietnam. In casualties of War, the veterans Clerk and Meserve, who have witnessed bloody mutilation and death, abduct, rape and methodically kill a Vietnamese girl. Their action illustrates a cynical depreciation for human life. Meserve, in a parody of David’s psalm, describes the hostile combat environment, where only the fittest survive:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of evil I shall fear no death, ‘cos I’m the meanest mother fucker.’ CW

In Full Metal Jacket, Animal Mother wants to leave the Vietnamese sniper to bleed to death, but ironically, Joker out of a humanity Animal has lost, decides to end her suffering.
You’re real heard core Joker.

For the Americans, the conflict between their own civilised psyche, and the reality of a destructive, alien and hostile environment has the simple effect of breaking down moral, ethical and religious convictions. This is seen in Apocalypse Now, where the renegade Col. Kurtz, like his name sake in Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness, has gone mad, and become chief of a primitive forest tribe; his moral and ethical breakdown is the consequence of his horrific experiences in Vietnam. Kurtz’s psychological breakdown does not, however arise entirely from a survival or killer instinct, unleashed by his experiences, but also from a scepticism those experiences have fostered – in the supposed validity and morality of Western ethics, and the sanctity of human life itself. His display of Vietnamese heads on sticks, and presentation of the head of chef to Willard, demonstrates this moral degeneration:
I am beyond morality, above caring AN.

For Kurtz, this scepticism of Western ethics, dogma and conditioning, is extended to his embrace of a predatory cosmic order, in which the only real virtue is an ability to survive. Kurtz admires Willard because he has survived the Dantesque journey to Kurtz’s domain:
Journalist: The man really likes you.

Kurtz suggests that the government, fighting in Vietnam for its own strategic and ideological purposes lacks real ethical motive, and is nothing more than an assassin itself:
The assassin accuses the assassin.

Kurtz is the antithesis of full Metal jacket’s Sgt. Heartman. Whereas Heartman is the epitome of controlled brutality and indoctrinated discipline, Kurtz is a killer without any method at all, a parody of an ambitious military career.

The horror of Vietnam estranges the soldier from all ethical pretensions or allegiances to the institutions he has been taught to worship. This conflict is seen in Pyle’s confrontation with the brutal Sgt. Heartman in Full Metal jacket, and in Chief’s dying attempt to kill Willard in Apocalypse Now. Kurtz, a high ranking officer whose defection to savagery threatens the army’s ethical authority over its forces, is the supreme example of a section eight who turns on the institution that has bred him.
have you ever considered any real freedoms and the opinions of others? Even yourself? AN

When the soldier has realised the hollowness and artificiality of American ideology, all ethical justification for war becomes meaningless and futile. The disciplinary breakdown of soldiers, as seen in Meserve and Kurtz is almost inevitable. The tragedy of incidents such as the rape of Oahn in Casualties of War is a direct result of this ideological breakdown. Browning sums up the dilemma of the soldiers, suggesting that the only concern in Vietnam is survival:
First 30 days, you don’t know nothing, last 30 days you don’t give a shit. CW

The simple fact that the Vietnam conflict is fought over political ideologies suggests the meaningless of war. The absurdity of ideological warfare, is reflected in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, where the manic general, Col. ripper, sends an aircrew to drop nuclear warheads on the USSR. The ensuing attempt to prevent Armageddon fails – because the Russians have put their bombs in the hands of a machine. Madness and dehumanised warfare is the basis of Kubrick’s critique of the ideological conflict between Communism and Democracy:
Col. ripper: I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. Dr. S

In discussing the ideological basis of the films, it is perhaps necessary to remember the political climate during their production. The Cold War, which had risen to a head in the Cuban crises (between 1961-’62,) and increased military involvement in Vietnam (1965-’75,) had subsided by the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. Carter’s administration (1976-’80) had moved toward a peaceful settlement with the USSR. The election of Regan in 1980, ensured continued dialogue for reconciliation with the USSR and military disarmament; Gorbechov’s Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reconstruction) policies, also contributed enormously to the process of nuclear disarmament. It was in this climate of a maturing relationship between east and west that the films in this study were made. The critical emphasis they eschew – unthinkable during the ideologically polarised era of fifties America, is an expression of disgust with the consequences of the naive, propagandist schism of the civilised world, that resulted from the American establishment’s post-war fear of Communism. Repeated scenes of bloody mutilation and death add to this sense of disgust for ideological war – seen in the death of eightball in Full Metal Jacket, the slow-motion display of Browning’s fatal injuries in Casualties of war, and the reverie of Eriksson amongst mutilated soldiers in the medic tent.
The rise of the new youth culture of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, sometimes called the baby boom era, is also reflected in the films’ ideology of reconciliation and rejection of ideological expansionism. This generation is portrayed most aptly in Full Metal jacket’s Pv. Joker, whose concern for world peace is illustrated in his peace badge. The anti-nuclear and anti-war emphasis is something common to Kubrick’s films – seen in his satire on the absurdity of war in Full Metal Jacket, and Dr. Strangelove.
The youthful innocence of the soldiers in Vietnam, whose age averaged nineteen, is also a damning criticism of the American effort – seen in the death of Cherry in Casualties of War, and of the boy Clean in Apocalypse Now. The protagonists of these films are children, for whom the prospect of war is a game; it is only following training, and exposure to the full horror of war that its reality becomes apparent, and the conflict between army discipline and the ethic-effacing effects of bloody slaughter take place. In Full Metal jacket, one of Cowboy’s platoon describes the army as:
Jolly green giants, walking the earth with guns. FMJ

Similarly, the film taken by Joker of the marines at war prompts comparison between the soldiers and children at play:
I’ll be General Custer… Who’ll be the Indians?

Joker wonders why senior officers never seem to fight, but, instead sacrifice the young for the cause:
Joker: Maybe you should get in the shit sir.

Animal Mother, from Full Metal Jacket also questions the basis of ideological war – Rafter man suggest that their comrades died for a good cause: freedom. Animal is more sceptical:
What cause was that? …If I’m gonna get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poontang. FMJ

At times, American ideology is itself seen as a force of destruction in Vietnam. The rape of casualties of War, and other atrocities committed by American troops on innocent Vietnamese seem to condemn the whole process of military intervention. The impact of American culture is also seen as a corruptive influence on the Vietnamese. The city of Da Nang in Full Metal Jacket is littered with adverts, posters and all the trappings of a democratic and mercantile society. The appearance of prostitutes also adds to this impression of a degenerate Westernised Vietnam. The Vietnamese boy who steals Rafterman’s camera, and accompanying soundtrack from These boots were made for walkin, suggests Vietnam’s transition into a selfish consumer society:
You keep saying you got something for me

The rape of the Vietnamese girl by Meserve and his accomplices in Casualties of War, and imposition of a giant music auditorium in the jungle in Apocalypse Now, suggests a violation of both the social and environmental innocence of Vietnam by the American army.

Although it is possible to draw conclusions concerning the ideological and moral framework of the films in a collective manner, it is also necessary to consider the films’ individual emphases.

In Full Metal jacket, Kubrick is particularly interested in the conflict between social morality and the dehumanising process of military indoctrination, and between the gung-ho American warrior and bloody reality he encounters in the jungles of Vietnam. Kubrick’s main vehicle in illustrating this conflict is the character Joker (Matthew Modine,) who never submits entirely to the dehumanising drill of Paris Island. One of the first impressions we have of Joker is his parody of on Sgt. Heartman, John wayne is this me? We accept joker as an authoritative narrator, because he is ironically praised by the very institution he parodies:
hell, I admire your honesty.. You can come round my house and fuck my sister.

The film contains two main parts, the training of raw recruits on Paris island, and the encounter for several of these marines with Vietnam and war.
In the first part, the recruits are shaved, this physical manifestation of the dehumanising process symbolises the clinical efficiency of army indoctrination. Heartman’s inspection of the troops deprives them of individuality, they will become Ministers of death, praying for war:
You will not laugh, you will not cry, you will learn by the numbers. FMJ

Heartman’s abuse, a methodical interrogation of each marine in turn is not only intended to break down the personality of the recruit, but also to infuse them with the raw passion of the killer:
Let me see your war face. Arrrrrgh! That’s A war face, now let me see your war face.

Heartman’s drill forcibly realligns the ethical framework of the recruit; physical and psychological abuse are elemental to the conditioning process that will produce killers. The basic effect of this process is to undermine the moral compulsions of the individual under the monotony of indoctrinated ideology, and to induce a basic psychology of violence:
The marine corps does not want robots, the marine corp wants killers, men without fear. (Joker,) FMJ

The process of making killers is integral to army training – the marching chants are a form of combined political, ethical and moral indoctrination. The early chants concern ties of duty, loyalty and devotion to the corps and institutions of American society:

I love working for Uncle Sam, …let’s me know just who I am…
One, two, three, four, I love Marine corp…

Later chants suggest the development of the recruits into heardened killers – men for whom the marine corp is not only a marital substitute, but a religion; the prospect of death is almost parodied by Heartman:
If I die in the combat zone, box me up and ship me home.

Heartman’s indoctrination realligns the entire psychology of his recruits; American democracy iand the evils of communism are polar opposites, the troops chant anti-communist slogans:
Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch…

Christian ethics, and the sanctity of life are replaced by a brutal, unprohibitive psychology, kept in check only through army dicipline. The discussion on famous american murderers illustrates the incapacity of Heartman to realise the narrow divide between sanity and madness in the indoctrinated mind. Heartman’s comment that the recruits will all be great marksmen is synchronised with a shot of Pyle’s face; Heartman’s comment, and Pyle’s expression suggest that Pyle has gone over the edge of regimental psychosis:
And you will all be able to do the same thing.’

The recruits’ sexual drives are realigned to desire copulation with war. Heartman instructs the marines that the m.14 gun will be their only pussy from now on. Guns are given a girl’s name, and the gun is constantly discussed with sexual reference. The drill where the recruits march chanting This is my rifle this is my gun, blurs the distinction between the phallus and the instrument of death:
You will give this weapon a girl’s name… you will be married to this weapon of iron and wood.

Religion is also given its own military perspective by Heartman. Christianity is an ideological basis for the justification of war, seen in Chaplain Charlie’s sermon on the evils of communism, and in Heartman’s constant reference to the Catholic faith – a religion particularly concerned with the polarisation of good and evil. The recruits must pray to, then sleep with their rifles each night, every aspect of their psychology must incorporate violence:
This is my rifle, there are many like it but this one is mine, my rifle is my best friend, it is my life.’

Joker is the main focus of the indoctrination process, he is not however an average marine, but is also an intellectual, capable of assuming the role of a killer, whilst retaining his inner ethical framework. This individualist survival is seen in his satirical John Wayne imitations on the army:
Listen up pilgrim, a day without blood is a day without sunshine.

Joker’s humanity is seen in his support of the incumbent marine Pv. Pyle. Pyle’s weaker psyche crumbles under the indoctrination process, his mind crosses the threshold of sanity, because he lacks the inner discipline to passively accept the brutalising process. If heartman is the epitome of military indoctrination, Pyle is the product of that system, and a warning into the dangers of American psychological conditioning – something which has bred many psychopathic killers:
Do any of you know who Lee Harvey Oswald was?

Pyle’s continued abuse from Heartman and his fellow marines force him into the rhythm of army activity – his graduation is not due to the propaganda chants of devotion to Uncle Sam, but to the brutality of his conditioning:
Pyle, you had better unfuck yourself, and start shitting me tiffany cufflinks, or I will definitely fuck you up!

Pyle’s deadly confrontation with Heartman is one between a lunatic and the institutional monster that created it. Even to the last, Heartman cannot understand the internal forces he dabbles with in making spare parts for Uncle Sam’s lean green killing machine:
Pv. Pyle, what is your malfunction?

Pyle’s constant abuse is the only reality he can see. The world outside Paris island is forgotten – Pyle’s reality is that of the machine killer, without the disciplinary trappings of drill:
I am… in a world of shit.

Paris Island is regimental and clinical in its observance to form and regulation. The scene where Pyle is beaten by the marines illustrates the emotionless psychology of Parris Island. The mise-en-scene here is particularly effective, with the camera moving slowly across the dark, azure walls of the barracks to rest overhead on Pyle’s body. The synthesised drip and reverberation of water heightens the sense of tension for the viewer, suggesting the cold, emotionless resolve of the marines to methodically beat Pyle. The scene is also a psychological landscape, suggesting the clinical efficiency of a cold, inhuman consciousness at work in the very fabric of the institution. The use of soap, an image of sterility, held in towels to beat Pyle suggests the impending effacement of Pyle’s individuality and moral framework. The effects of the beating are seen in Pyle’s obsession with the cleanliness of his equipment, also a prelude to madness. Form this point on, Pyle’s eyes never seem to focus, or look directly at others – stressing the alienation he has undergone:
Everything perfect, everything nice, clean, oiled

The hypocrisy of the army ethic of brotherhood is constantly exploited by Kubrick in his satire on the realities of the democratic system. Pyle is abused for leaving his locker unlocked. This is a community of men who are isolated and cannot trust their neighbour. Similarly, in Da Nang, the mercantile, consumer orientated trappings of a decadent society suggest the hypocrisy of capitalism and democracy. The epitome of this condition is seen in the prostitute that approaches rafterman and Joker:
Hey, you got girlfriend Vietnam… I love you long time.
The second part of the film deals with Joker’s activities as a journalist for a war magazine. Again, Joker is portrayed as the intellectual – the critic, rather than the gung ho marine recruit. Joker’s pun that he should fabricate a story on a dead viet cong general satirises the uncertain ststus of America in Vietnam. Kubrick seems particularly concerned with exposing the pro-war propoganda used by the American government. The propoganda officer describes the purpose of his team:
It’s the why we’re here thing.

The Viet Cong Tet offensive, that broke the cease fire between Janurary and February 1968 is the focus of this episode in the film. The propoganda depatment beleive the Vietnamese will be beating gongs and visiting dead ancestors during the festive period; this naive, underestimation of the Viet Cong and Vietnamese culture generally preludes the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam, and the humiliating American withdrawl seen later. The song Chapel of Love parodies the naive beleif of the Americans in the Viet Cong ceasefire:
this is the big shit sanwitch and were all gonna have to take a bite.
At the Da Nang barrcks, Joker, still a recruit, meets the veterans. Payback is unconvinced by Joker’s gung ho remarks:
Don’t you guys listen to Joker, he’s never been in the shit.
In the Da Nang battle, Joker is seen firing an automatic gun through the portal of a firing trench, the men he kills are more images perceived through a screen than real men. This is still camp training – the close quarters horror of real war is yet to be tasted.
Joker’s peace badge is constantly criticised by superiors. The Conel Joker encounters at Hue asks him to forget peace until victory is achieved. This kind of union for the army, between peace and war is evoked in the recruits’ prayer that they will fight until there is peace. Joker refers to Jung, the psychologist whose works illustrate the inner capacity of man to simultaneously embrace civilisation and bloody conflict:
I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.

The choppper gunner accompanying Joker and Rafterman on the Hue trip indiscriminately kills Vietnamese civilians. The pride he takes in this is justified because his victims are Vietnamese:
You should do a story on men sometime – …cos I’m so fuckin great. I got me 151 dead gooks killed.

The lime pit scene is a turning point for Joker, whose religious scepticism forces him to contemplate the sheer madness of war:
The dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive.’

The encounter with Animal Mother poses a conflict for Joker, between his inner convictions and the brutality he is expected to harness as a killer. Animal Mother is an epitome of the soldier whose psychology has almost succumbed to the moral indifference of Kurtz:
You talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?

The video interviews are propaganda, they also indicate the ethical and artificial bases of the war, decided upon ideological grounds 20,000 miles away. Rafterman’s naive beliefs in idealised American supremacy, satirises America’s belief in its dominance as the pre-eminent world power:
Were the best, I mean, when the going gets tough, who do they call in? They call in Mother green and her lean green killing machine.

The psychology of the marine is innately psychotic, they do not seem to realise their own madness as institutional killers:
Joker I wanted to seen an ancient culture… i wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.

The awesome ruins of Hue dwarf the marines as they advance into combat, this sense of an impenatrable environment also suggests the transience of modern civilisation, and emergance of a new order in Vietnam.
The burning building containing the girl sniper is also an effective example of mise-en-scene, the slow-motion shot of the girl firing at Joker is both shocking and disturbing.
The pursuit of war over ideology is seen both as perverse and absurd in this final sequence. This is a film that begins by criticising the destructive forces at work within a society based upon indoctrination and psychological condiitoning, and ends illustrating the devestation that results from the whole miasma of Western predjudice and intolerance of both communism and the individual within a uniform, regimented society.

The ending scene, in which the marching marines chant the mickey mouse club song, suggests the madness of any military conflict:
We have nailed our names in the pages of history

Casualties of war, based upon a true incident, is obviously a sensationalising film. Its concentration on maimed bodies, action and sex all seem to condemn Palma’s film as one which wants us to feel revulsion for the atrocity of war, but shows us the details in slow motion. The film does, however transcend the usual action orientation of similar films, and although the subject, a Vietnamese girl’s abuse and rape is portrayed graphically, we still find the film has a sound moral basis. Like Full metal Jacket, Casualties of war concerns the experiences of a newly arrived recruit in the forests of Vietnam. Erricson, Michael J. Fox, is Palma’s answer to Kubrick’s Joker. Despite occasional brash, indoctrinaire assertaions, (I went nuts…) Erricson maintains a steady grip on both army discipline, and his own internal morality, it is this ehtical survival when confronted with Vietnam, and the moral degeneration of his fellows that allows Palma, like Kubrick, to explore the alienation of the individual within a hostile and regimental society. Erricson’s religion is slightly artificial, but Palma’s point is clear:
We think it dosent matter what we do, but maybe its just the opposite. Maybe it matters more than we know.

Erricson’s friendliness with the Vietnamese ploughman and children evokes Joker’s peace badge, his naive beleif in the humanity of others contrasts sharply with the seasoned recruits, who dont give a shit after the first 30 days in vietnam. Both clerk and Meserve have abandoned both personal ethics and army discipline:
Total destruction is the only way to deal with them man.

The abduction of the Vietnamese girl is a violation of a less then human culture by the sadistic, playboy reading Americans. Like the recruits of Full Metal jacket, the abduction is like a game of play acting:
Hutch – Missserve, he’s just like Gengis khan… .

The ideological basis of war in Vietnam is a sham, seen in Meserve’s assertion that they have caught a VC suspect.
The rape is a process of implication and indoctrination. Meserve institutionalises the act, reffering to it as the program.
Erricon’s armed response to the men’s threats prompts Meserve’s comment that affirms his brutal beleif in the validity of an environment of survival, where life is worthless unless it can prove itself:
Anybody can blow anybody away – which isd the way it ought to be, always.
The association of life as a commodity is seen in Hutch’s comparrison between the girl and a new bike.

The rape and execution of Oahn prompt Erricson to persue justice for the dead girl, erly attempts are unsucessful, because of the army’s wal of silence surrounding the incident. An abortive attempt on Erricson’s life asserts erricson’s claims, and we witness a retribution for clerk, who is hit by erricson with a shovel. The injustice of American establishment is seen at fault, reflected in the racial predjudice against Reilly:
They kept me in jail until my mind was literally turned around.

The resulting jail sentences for the offenders demonstrates a moral order at work through the morality of corageous individuals, when faced with the conspiratorial lies of the American establishment. The implication central to the film, is that all are casualties of the bloody horrors of war, and the psychologically destructive forces of institutional indoctrination. On one level, the innocent Vietnamese civilians suffer, on another, men like erricson are faced with the dimema of social alienation for upholding their views. This film is more than a condemnation of the ideological basis of the Vietnam war, it is also a social critique, begging individuals to maintain their ethical natures in a society often diven by less noble motives. The victory of erricson in recognising the mistakes of the past is also an emphasis on reconciliation with Vietnam, and the communist bloc – seen in Erricson’s retrieval of the girl’s scarf on thre bus.

Apocalypse Now, has a slightly more aesthetic quality than the other films. The film is is based upon Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow, captain of a continental trading vessel working in the African Congo, describes his revulsion with nineteenth century imperialism, and the effects of encounter with wild Africa for the ivory-obsessed, unprohibited Westerner. Coppola’s Marlow is Captain Benjamin J. Willard (Martin Sheen,) whose mission is to assassinate the renegade Col. Walter E. Kurtz. Coppola’s film is an amalgam of the ideological and moral concerns of the previous two films and more. Willard is the veteran soldier, whose special missions have almost driven him beyond the threshold of sanity. His visions of the napalmed forests of Vietnam suggest Conrad’s impenetrable ocean-forests, which symbolise the vastness of an unconquorable wild. The tiny helicpoters seen in this apocalyptic scene suggest the futility of the American presence in Vietnam, an environment wholly alien to the incursive forces. The opening forest scene also suggests the madness of civilised war on the vastness of thenatural world. The helicopters are like files drawn to a flame, thsi apocalyptic impression is evoked in The Door’s music The End:
All the children, are insane.

The suureal, psychological landscapes of Apocalypse Now reflect the conflict between civilised pretensions and the savagery of both natural world and enemy. When Willard and Chef go looking for mangoes, they make a hasty retreat after encountering a lion. Penetration into the predatory forest environment reflects a corresponding mental degeneration into the primitive:
Never get out of the fucking boat, Not unless youre going all the goddamn way. Kurtz left the boad, he split from the whole goddamn program.

Willard, like Kurtz is attracted to the unhibited savagery of the jungle, his native dance, and distate for civilised life reflect this admiration for the psychological purity of the forest:
All I could think of was getting back into the jungle, waiting for a misssion.

At the base camp, willard is introduced to the life of the deified Kurtz, whose unsound methods, are an indictment to the destructive forces of the mlitary psyche. Although the officers define Kurtz as a madman, subject to A conflict in the inner heart between good and evil, willard is not convinced by this polarised differentiation of Kurtz’s condition, Kurtz’s crimes are no worse than any other pentagon sanctioned killer in Vietnam:
It was like handing out speeding tickets on the indy 5000.

willard’s companions on the journey to cambodia are all baby boom types, their vital display of American culture has yet to be effaced by the bloody horror of war:
he had only 2 ways home: death or victory.

The airborne division has a sporting outlook on war, the ethical justification for war is satirised in stetson-wearing Killgore’s effort to take a bay for surfing. The helicopters resemble Wagner’s Valkieries, an avenging Aryan horde inflicting precision slaughter on innocent vietnamese villagers, the toll of the village bell suggests the coming of an apocalypce. The low, ariel view of the smashed village illustrates well the indiscriminate skirmishing tactics of the American forces:
We’ll come out of the rising sun and well play wagner… scares the hell out of the gooks.

Like Joker, Killgore embodies both the destructive and healing capacity of man:
I want my wounded in the hospital in 15 minutes.

Killgore’s resolve that Someday, this war’s gonna end, is a sad reflecttion on the transience of war – like Cowboy’s comrade, the dilemma of war, is who to shoot after it’s over.

The river journey into Cambodia represents a further immersion into the primitive for the soldiers, their face paint and frequent explosions of conflict reflect their proximity to Kurtz, the epitome of moral and ethical degeneration, and distance from army discipline. The last bridge, built back up again each night, just to say the road’s open, suggests the futility of artificial ethical purpose in the vastness of Vietnam. like Kurtz, willard no longer adheres to conventional morality, but kills the injured boat woman rather than turn back. willard’s rejection of the sanctitiy of human life is, hovever due to a clinical military psyche, rather than kurtz’s unsolicited and random killing of those that threaten him. Willard’s disciplinarian methods of survival force his admittance of the hypocrisy of the American effort:
We blew them up, then gave them a band aid

The degeneration of Kurtz illustrates the amorality of the American establishment, an inner beastilaity elemental to the civilised psyche, which is constsntly exploited by the film makers in their portrayal of supposedly civilised atrocities, and in the predatory mercantile cultuure of American capitalism. Kurtz is not only the avatar of an innate western primitive, but also of its results following the subjection of Americans to one of the boodiest wars in american history. kurtz im[resses on willard a cynical view of American culture and the sabctity of human life itself, seen in his presentation of Chef’s head to Willard. Kurtz’s final horror is the vision of a cyclic predatory universe, a godless and entropy-doomed cosmos, even his earlier affirmation of the validity of strength is rejected:
The horror, the horror…

wilard, on the other hand has maintained at least the bare fabric of cosmic order, even if he has succcumbed to the passions of a primordial killer, usurping kurt’zs throne. The killing of Kurtz is still however, sanctioned by Uncle sam, Willard, although he rejects the military, will be reconciled with civilisation:
‘I was’nt even in their fucking army anymore.’

If the establishment-questioning hero of Apocalypse Now is Willard, The anti-hero of Apocalypse now is certainly Kurtz, whose descent into barbarism is the product of western ideolological agression. Like the cattle, Kurtz is sacrificed by the system that bred him for no other cause than an ideological disopute.
The self-effacing nature of the imperfect civilised psyche, is reflected in the ruins of ancient structures in Kurtz’s village. The film ends with The Door’s The End, suggetsing a warning to the apocalyptic prospect of nuclear war for the ideologically divided civilised world.

All the films have one major aspect in common, the madness of a war fought over the trivial conflict between ideals. The ensuing conflict is not so much a mutual defense against the other, but an intolerance of each other;s views. The main critique of the vietnam war, is not so much its ethical basis, but the manner in which it was fought, using massive indescriminate bombardment, resulting in massive civililian casualties. The naive, polar conceptions of war, and of the political systems that fought in Vietnam are also attacked in the films. Perhaps the films’ most contraversial aspect, however, lies in its condemnation of an establishment that breaks down individuality, imposing a regimented, and indoctrinted psychology on its citizens, committing aal kinds of atrocities and folly in the mindless preservation of the ideal.

‘In connection with one Hollywood genre film, discuss the presence (or absence of characteristics of mise-en-scene, characterization and ideology, and how far the film accords with or diverges from the viewer’s expectations in its use of them.’

‘In connection with one Hollywood genre film, discuss the presence (or absence of characteristics of mise-en-scene, characterization and ideology, and how far the film accords with or diverges from the viewer’s expectations in its use of them.’

Film To Be Discussed: ‘Stagecoach’ Directed by John Ford.

Paul Catherall

It can be argued that Stagecoach was the Western that gave rise to the modern Western genre in the form that it is known today, and although on first examining the film, there is the temptation to associate this film with the kind of stereotypical, drama-orientated action Western of the early Twenties and Thirties, such as Ford’s ‘Three Bad Men’ 1926, it can be seen that ‘Stagecoach’ is more than an example of Robert Warshow’s ‘Classical Western'(1.) and is in fact a subtlely allegorical and highly symbolic film; particularly powerful if examined in its contempoary context, and undoubtedly a visual masterpeice of camera and film art – if only for its stunning footage of the Utah plains, and Monument Valley. In all the film’s lanscapes, we are shown the wilderness from the perspective of those pioneers whose lives are determined by the forces of nature and overawing vastness of the unconqurorable desert; shots of low, distant perspective convey the vastness of landscape and sky, balanced equally in the frame to suggest a landscape of mythic proportions.
Lighting in the film is constantly low-key, and this softness adds to the films’ sense of the surreal, the impression that this is not history or even fact, but high art, which is meant to appeal to the imagination, and by doing so recreate or invent an historical ethos which is the Western myth. This sense of history as art, like the great historical paintings of the early Nineteenth century (‘The death of Nelson’ 1806 – Benjamin West, and ‘Liberty leading the people’ 1830 – Delacroix,) conveys history as the ideal, from the perspective of those who hoped to attain, celebrate and propergate certain national and social values current in their respective societies. ‘Stagecoach,’ despite its multiplicity of symbol and textual/technical aspects can be understood in its entirety, as an art form, and a purposeful attempt to influence contemporary culture, and the perception of what America is to itself and the world. It is in this context that I shall examine ‘Stagecoach’, of a film cast in the vein of a popular contemporary genre, but containing many less apparent aspects of art and literature that resonate of a tradiiton going back to the Greek epics of Homer and the mediaeval proto-histories of Arthur, namely: the stalisation and glorification of national history, the reaffirmation of human spirit and nobility on the personal, national and cultural plane, especially in the face of adversity:

‘The western is to America what the Nieblunger saga is to Germany.’
(Fritz lang. 2)

The society of ‘Stagecoach’ seems reflective of contemporary pioneer American society; many disparate character-elements are seen travelling together across the wilderness, in what Wilmington calls an ‘omnibus’ of human microcosmic progress, similar in approach to the bringing together of different stratas of society within a journey as ‘Shanghai Express’ and ‘The lady Vanishes,'(4) this union of social types sets a contrast almost from the film’s begining, between the socially accepted and socially disreputable; Ford wants to illustrate the pioneer brotherhood of disparate classes and caracter types, in the allegorical journey of a people to nationhood, this parallel is supported by Wilmington:

‘A nation of exiles, of warring and contradictory factions.’

The characters that we see in Stagecoach represent not only the substance of the European emigres whose blood would build America, but also form contrasts within society, through which Ford hopes to illustrate a personal morality, or ethical priority in his attitudes to the various character types. He seeks to demonstrate an essential moral order, as opposed to a social order, a personal rather than legalistic law, and a morality reflecting natural human ethics, rather than conventional or religious ones. In this world, where the apparently amoral and antisocial seems to survive intact, preserved in its own world, outside that of conventional society, we are led to consider questions of everyday ethics which to contemporary audiences would seem radical and even tasteless. On the subject of the disreputables, Wilmington writes:

‘They act for society in ways society cannot see, and they understand society better than society understands itself.’

All the characters of ‘Stagecoach’ are going somewhere, ‘Lordsburg,’ as Walshow points out, may represent God’s City/ Jerusalem, a place where the individuals will either discover fullfilment or retribution in an Old Testament sense: the ruthless, violent yet ethical and honourable morality of the Westerner is measured against the cold, calculating and self-indulgent social form of the Easterner; characters become archetypes, identified through speech, actions, dress and their treatment of other characters, thus Dallas, although seemingly a prostitute, and an evictee of Tonto nurses Mrs. Mallory’s baby at the “Apache Wells’ fort, and asks Doc. Boone if she has the right to marry Ringo, Doc, now redeemed from drunkeness by delivering the child, refuses to play the part of authority, he respects her humanity above the socially accepted morality of Tonto. Dallas is a fallen woman by virtue of her poverty:
‘Who am I to tell? …Go ahead, good luck!’

Similarly, Doc. Boone is a disreputable character who has drunk himself out of the misery of war, he provides useful commentory on the events in the film as an impartial observer – it is through this apparently drunken individual that Ford supports and rejects characters, it is Boone who comments at the end of the film that Dallas and Ringo have done well to escape the reigime of civilisation, epitomy of the kind of social-morality and corruption seen in contrast to the true natural and personal morality of the westerner:

‘Well, they’re safe from the blessings of civilization!’

Also important in defining the kind of morality and social ideal Ford values are the characters of Buck and the Sherrif (Curly), Buck is a wagon and mail driver, and seems to represent the kind of cross-racial/ national divisions existing between the pioneers – he drives the Stagecoach from Tonto to Lordsburg, and even were this not a metaphor for union, his manner seems accomodating to please everyone, significantly, we learn that his wife is mexican – again: cross national links in ther new society. The Sherrif is more formal, he represents law and order within the crude framework of western society, but does so arbitarilly, as seen in his freeing of Ringo at the end of the film, Curly only enforces the law as far as his conscience allows, and his opinion of character can influence judgement – unlike the true concept of law and order, he is no institution, but elemental to the moral and ethical framework of the free West.
‘Ringo the Kid’ is perhaps the most powerful character in the film, he dominates through his charisma and sense of personal agenda – undisturbed by Curly’s promise to deliver him to Lordsburg, he prioritizes his revenge against the Plummer brothers against the prospect of prison, revealing his personal sense of law and moral order, it is ringo who carries out judgement on the Plummers at the end, rather than the real law, i.e: the sherrif, and it is Ringo who helps save the party from annihilation when persued by indians. Ringo’s sens of personal morality is also reflected in his egalitarian treatment of others, and in his sense of protection for those around him, at ‘Dryforks’ he insists that Dallas have a vote in deciding the future of the trip, and addresses Dallas as ‘Mam’, this contrasts the two women, dallas and Mallory – whereas Dallas has fallen through circumstance, Mallory is also a product of circumstance, and must learn to recognise true morality in others (which she does,) as opposed to the narrow minded attitudes she carries with her throughout the journey in search of her husband. Mallory also comes to symbolize the maternal aspect of the coach-society, she is protected by an oulaw, nursed by a prostitute and is treated by a drunken doctor, yet becomes part of that society through realisation of their inner-goddness, which is a result of her purgatorial journey of experience and suffering to Lordsburg.

Other characters, which symbolise the conventional, socially accepted world include Peacock, a timid whiskey drummer, who forms a contrast alongside Gatewood the banker between the easterners and westerners, these two men are cowardly, worldly and highly concerned with their own welfare, when they look out on the plains it is with reticence – Peacock is seen looking through windows several times – he reflects the corruption within society, an apparently pious man (sometimes called ‘Reverend’ by Boone, emphasising the hypocrisy) whose fortune lies in the degeneration of others. Similarly, Gatewood is a criminal hiding under respectability and pomposity, he is arrested at Lordsburg for embezzling. Hatfield is fatalistic, a former confederate officer, he seems like the cowboy dispossessed, but carying the seeds of destruction in his constant references to civilized life and aristocratic manner. His fatalism is intellectual, as opposed to Ringo’s uncomplicated ethical code of revenge and survival.
Lastly, the characterization of cavalry and indians: each seems intent on warring on the other; at the opening of the film, we are introduced to shots of the plains, the wide panorama of wilderness and sky, next, the huddled, orderly reigime of a cavalry camp, its tents arranged in neat linear arrangements. The flag at the centre of the shot almost suggests the lunar landing, a conquest, an almost phallocentric terretorial statement. Further, we are then presented with another contrast in the guard room; a stern indian stands behind three seated soldiers, this is our first glimpse of the world of ‘Stagecoach,’ and is one of outright hostility, a veritable battleground between the cavalry and the Apache freedom fighter ‘Gironimo,’ the most striking feature of this scene is the contrast between the two races: the indian, impassive, silent, alone; the soldiers anxiously discussing the recent massacre by Gironamo of a fort – close ups of the indians face, a stern, melancholy expression hightens the sense of tension in the scene, and suggests the soldiers’ sense of intrigue as opposed to the indian’s patience and calm, even in the face of subjegation. The indians are a force within the hostile landscape of the Westerner, he is caught between them and the cavalry and forces of civilisation, the cavalry are typical is this respect – throughout the film, we are presented with an ideal cavlry-type, courteous, obligeing and well dressed, again metaphors for the advance of civiisation which appears wholy righteous on the surface, but behind which lurks the spectre of corrupt government and social-order, as seen in Gatewood and Peacock.
Throughout the film, settings interior and exterior play a vital role in the film’s illustration of the Western myth. The use of ‘Mise-en-scene’ to create a physical, geographical framework contributes to a sense of time within the accurately constructed inner-scenes, and a sense of human insignificance in the exterior ones. When the Stagecoach is arriving at Tonto, we see a busy street scene, cowboys are seen parading around on horseback or just standing at bar doors, their apparently leisurely lives reflect the apparently rexaxed character of the cowboy, even in the face of danger or death. The street scene is seen nearer to ground level than the landscape shots, suggesting the strength and imporatance of the idividuals in the street.
Mise-en-scene is important as a metaphor, the huge, towering landforms seen on the coach journey seem to represent isolated humanity, perhaps a metaphor for the cowboy himself. Tattered coach curtains whipping in the wind seem to suggest the frailty of the fraternity between the group, they cannot remain together indefinately, they are an ‘inversion of a stable community'(), and cannot live by each other’s morals.
Mise-en-scene is important in determining the role and functions of characters; Boone is seen in the bar at Tonto before his expulsion, the character of the drunken Doc. is supported against that of peacock by use of perspective and focus, Boone is in the foreground, Peacock in the background, barely in focus. Similarly, Peacock is seen looking out of the window at Apache Wells, suggesting his timidity.
Characters are often introduced in a manner typical of their type: Ringo is seen close-up with his saddle over his back, Gatewood is introduced sat at his desk, whilst honest money-carriers deliver Tonto’s gold. Dallas is introduced being paraded down the street of town by the women of Tonto, to the puritanical music of “Come and join us at the river,’ and Hatfield is introduced entering a saloon to gamble.
The seating arrangement at the table at Dryforks is also interesting, Dallas and Ringo sit together on the left side of the table, Hatfield and mallory sit at the head, whilst gatewood sits opposite Dallas and peacock sits by himself at the window. A contrast is set between the two couples, Ringo and Dallas must overcome social contempt, Ringo comments:
‘Well, I guess you can’t just enter society in a week!’

Within buildings, low ceilings abound, furniture is sparse and general conditions suggest an authentic setting – the low, cramped rooms, such as the dining room at Dryforks suggests the social tension between members of the group.

Ideology in the film is closely linked to general themes and the Western myth as the focus of the work; to begin with, the ideal historical perspective or view seems the most important ideological consideration, Ford deliberately reinvents the Western story, through building archetypal characters and settings into the myth. This view, intentional or not certainly seems to have affected American and world view of american culture and history, it is based on the assumption that instinctual, headlong action and personal moral conviction built the west (as seen in the cowboy figure), rather than characters such as the corrupt, city-bred banker or hypocritical Peacock.
In supporting this view of the West, Ford may also draw attention to notions of personal freedom, especially regarding government legislation and its effect on personal rights, perhaps seeking to promote the sense of free America to the then highly undemocratic world through the metphor of plains freedom?
Certainly the film has been suggested as a mataphor for the contemporary political situation (), at a time when the axis powers had set a likely agenda for upheval in Europe, where the sherrif represents Roosevelt, and the Plummers, the Axis powers.
The notion of rebellion reaccurs throughout the film: Ringo is an outlaw, who again wants to violate society – the notion that the film concerns the raw, vital spirit of rebellion against tyranny and injustice seems to add weight to the notion that Stagecoach’s central aim is to reinvent and glorify the american past ():
‘Forging the nation in the dying embers of a pioneer race.’

In the film, Ford seems to support the ideology of old testament justice, in Ringo’s revenge, as opposed to a socially binding code of practice or religious law, this ‘primitivism’ () is integral to the Western myth theory concerning the film.
There also seems to be a kind of governing order in the film, although the arrival of the cavalry to save the coach can simply be attributed to dramatic effect, it could be argued that God has some part to play here? Chance is certainly stressed as the prime mover in the universe, as Doc points out when he weighs the odds of dying of ‘a bad bottle’… or …’bullet waiting for Josiah Boone,’ Hatfield goes with the coach after winning a hand of cards, and continues after drawing an ace – whilst plummer draws the ‘dead man’s hand’ and must face his fate with the cowboy’s courage. The gambler, Hatfield epitomises this and dies, suggesting that without the Westerner’s optimism and vital survivalsm, chance would lay waste to the West without a struggle.
Ultimately, Stagecoach does not fully create, or set a preceent for a new social/cultural reality in the history of the West, the indians are still essentially bad, the cowboy is good, but only so because he performs actions bad in the eyes of legality, and is prepared to forsake the law for fullfilment of personal morality. The traditional opposites of moral and amoral are, however questioned, and in this respect the film is very modern. The film, however does not pretent to achieve it’s aim: to deomstrate the qualities needed to build the West out of the raw wilderness, and to reconcile through experience and mutual hardship every social type.
In conclusion, we find society fragmented, athough maybe wiser than before – Dallas and Ringo must still flee society, suggesting the impossibility of recapturing the essence of the western ethos within present American society.
The film does, however demonstrate a fixed and lasting perception of American character, the American cowboy – by both America and the world, this I think was the central and principle aim of Ford, to imprint onthe minds of viewers the strength and primitive vitality that forged the American race, at a time of world political and social upheval.

The Radical Writings of P. B. Shelley (B.A. Literature & Media Studies Dissertation)

The Radical Writings of P. B. Shelley

Paul Catherall


(i) ‘This ghastly masquerade’ * – Enlightenment, Revolution and Reaction.

Central to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley were the momentous philosophical and political writings of the two centuries previous to his birth. The political and constitutional debate of Shelley’s lifetime had its roots in the tradition of those earlier European philosophers and social theorists.

During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European scholars had begun to rediscover the science and philosophy of the ancient world. One philosophy to emerge from this ‘Renaissance’ was humanism, which emphasised the primacy of humanity within the universe, and the importance of a benevolent and harmonious society. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679,) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626,) challenged traditional scholasticism, with its basis in theological debate. Works such as Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), stressed the responsibility for social welfare amongst European monarchs.
During the Eighteenth Century, Renaissance humanism inspired a new generation of social theorists. These new philosophers and scientists extended the Renaissance aspiration for progress and social harmony, to question the epistemological truths of Christianity, and the conventional wisdom of classical philosophy and science.

This period was heralded as ‘the Enlightenment’, since the attainment of truth and knowledge, through logic, rather than dogma, had become the primary aim of the scholar.
British philosophers such as John Locke (1632-1704,) and French philosophes, such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778,) used the ’empirical’ method of Rene Descartes (1596-1650,) to demonstrate the injustices of traditional hierarchical society, and the necessity of a new ‘social contract’ between government and people.

The American Revolution of 1776, and establishment of the first French National Assembly of 1789, both demonstrate the influence of the reconstructive political theories of the Enlightenment.

Inspired by the revolutions in America and France, British reformers, like John Wilkes (1727-1797,) fought hard for a representative parliament and other civil rights present in the new republics. The growth of political unions, or ‘Corresponding societies,’ (1.) amongst the middle classes of London demonstrated popular sympathy for social and parliamentary reform.
*. P.B.Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.342, (The Masque of Anarchy, verse VII.)
1. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.53 1.

However, for many supporters of reform in Britain, the French Revolution failed as a model for social reconstruction. The rise to prominence of extremists such as Maximillian Robespierre (1758-1794,) and increasing influence of mob violence on French politics seemed to discredit the Revolution.
Perhaps most shocking for British liberals, was the execution of the Bourbon royal family during 1792-3, and the militarist ascendency of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821,) who proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804.

In Britain, the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806,) responded harshly to the events in France, with the suspension of Habeas Corpus (*) in 1794, and arrest of many ‘Corresponding Society’ leaders.

In April, 1792, the situation for liberal writers and politicians became worse, when French patriots routed an Austrian invasion at Valmy. Anxious to halt the spread of revolution to other parts of Europe, the British government joined the ‘coalition’ against republican France, thus beginning a military and ideological war that would last until 1815.

Reaction to the events in France was felt throughout Britain and America. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) supported the principle of revolution, and advocated a new British constitution, whilst Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), upheld traditional monarchical order as the most stable model of government. The Rights of Man became a best-seller, with an estimated 200,000 copies sold. 2.
In Red Shelley, Paul Foot describes popular support for Paine’s work:

‘The sceptical journalist William Hazlitt wrote at the time that The Rights of Man was so popular, that the government was obliged to suspend the constitution and go to war to counteract the effect of its popularity.’ 3.

(Figure 1.)

Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, influenced leading American statesmen, such as
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Paine himself fought with the revolutionaries in the American War of Independence.
In the course of his career, Paine served as an American Congressman, and as a deputy in the French republican parliament.

*. The right to public trial following arrest.
2. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.61
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.20


During Shelley’s lifetime (1792-1822,) the British people often seemed at the Brink of revolution. The poor living and working conditions resulting from the Industrial Revolution, lack of political representation and absence of any standard welfare system generated a legacy of bitterness amongst the urban poor.
In response to increasing hardship, particularly due to the 1815 ‘Corn laws’ (*), many popular demonstrations were held across Britain for cheaper bread, and the general improvement of living conditions.

The Tory government of Lord Liverpool (1812-1827) was particularly hostile to popular protest, as seen in the Manchester ‘Peterloo massacre’ of 1819, when mounted soldiers charged peaceful demonstrators, killing eleven people. 4.

In response to repressive government legislation and policy, numerous revolutionary societies were formed, all illegal under the ‘Combination Acts.’ Attempts were made, such as the 1820 ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’, to assassinate members of Liverpool’s cabinet.

(Figure 2.)
The government of Robert Jenkinson (Lord Liverpool),
passed less social and political reforms than any other
Nineteenth century administration.
Liverpool’s government was marked by its reaction, and entrenchment in the political ethics of the previous century.

The government’s fear of revolution amongst the common people was seen in the presence of 138,000 infantrymen in London during 1794-1822, and in the use of 1000 cavalrymen to break the Lancashire insurrection of 1812. 5.
In fear of the spread of revolutionary and republican literature, Lord Liverpool’s administration censored the popular press. Many liberal publishers and journalists, such as Leigh Hunt (1784-1859,) and Richard Carlisle (1790-1843,) were imprisoned without trial for criticising government policies.
Paul Foot describes government abuse of the libel laws in his book Red Shelley:

‘At no other period has the criminal libel law been used with such abandon.’ 6.

It was during this dynamic period of social and political upheaval that Shelley lived most of his adult life, in an age of fierce reaction to the emergence of republicanism in France and America.

*. An embargo on the import of cheap foreign corn.
4. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.36
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.19

For Shelley, the political tolerance of the previous centuries, that had allowed British statesmen like Sir. Francis Bacon and the French philosophes to contemplate reform in the centres of European learning and influence, must have seemed remote from the reality of censorship and judicial abuse in Lord Liverpool’s Britain. Paul Foot comments on this historical regression in his book, Red Shelley:

‘In the twelve years of Shelley’s adult life (1810-22), Britain had its worst government ever. …it was all the more apparent and degenerative when considered against the Enlightenment that preceded it.’ 7.

(ii.) ‘Why should I believe all this?’ * – Shelley’s early life and works.

As the son of the Whig M.P., Sir. Timothy Shelley, Shelley was exposed from an early age to the liberal, and sometimes republican politics of the Whig party. It was Sir. Timothy’s patron, the Duke of Norfolk who in 1793, toasted ‘the Majesty of the people,’ rather than the majesty of the King. 8.

From an early age, Shelley had begun to question the sanctity of the established church, and the ethical validity of the monarchy. Shelley’s early interest in constitutional reconstruction, and the French and American revolutions, is seen in his first poetry collection of 1810. This anthology was published under the name ‘Margaret Nicholson’, a radical who attempted to assassinate king George III in 1786.
The poems all contain criticism against the ‘smooth faced tyrants’, of court and parliament whom Shelley blamed for the economic hardship of the British people. In Feelings of a Republican on the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Shelley laments the dictatorship of Napoleon and suppression of the French Convention:

‘To think that a most unambitious slave,
Like thou, should dance and revel on the grave of liberty.’ 9.

During 1810, his first year at University College, Oxford, Shelley wrote to the liberal publisher and journalist Leigh Hunt, congratulating him on his recent acquittal from charges of seditious libel by the Government. In the letter, Shelley outlines his vision of a republican society, which would orchestrate national protest against repressive government policy:

‘The ultimate intention of my aim is to form a methodical society which should become organised so as to resist the coalition of the enemies of liberty…’ 10.

7. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.19
*. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.335
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.34
9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.288
10. Kenneth Neill Cameron (Ed.), Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected Poetry and Prose, p.19


Shelley’s expulsion form Oxford in 1811, for publishing his critique on religion, The Necessity of Atheism, effectively ended his political career, and hopes of becoming a radical M.P. under the patronage of the Whigs. Dejected by both his friends and family, Shelley fled to London, where he hoped to participate in the liberal literary circle of Leigh Hunt.

Shelley’s declaration of atheism was not so much a philosophical resolution, as a fundamental rejection of conventional religious and social order. It was during this early period of intellectual rebellion, that Shelley became committed to constitutional and social reform. Kenneth N. Cameron comments on Shelley’s early rebellion:

‘Shortly thereafter he was precipitated upon the career of struggle against social injustice which he continued in one form or another throughout his short life…’ 11.

(iii) Argument: Shelley the Radical.

In assessing the extent to which Percy Bysshe Shelley supported the movement for reform in Britain, through his literary works and involvement in physical protest, it may be worth considering how the term ‘Radical’ has been interpreted since the Eighteenth Century.
In defining the term ‘radical’ we might consider the aims and ideological values adopted by writers, politicians and others identified by historians and contemporary sources as radicals.

To begin with, radicalism never constituted a particular ideological creed, nor a structured political organisation. The term ‘radical’, from the Latin radex or ‘root’ (12,) became a common term during the 1780s to describe philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau, who advocated fundamental changes to society. Throughout the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, the term ‘radical’ was primarily applied to any advocate of reform who sought to alter the balance of power between the ruling class and commons.

The revolutionary writer and statesman Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and the Irish patriot, Wolf Tone, (1763-1798,) were both called radicals, but so was the leading philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858,) who improved the lives of industrial workers at his New Lanark model village. 13.

Other radicals, such as William Cobbet (1763-1835,) and Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773-1835,) organised mass demonstrations amongst the industrial poor of Manchester and London for improved living and working conditions.
Others cited as radicals included liberal journalists, such as Richard Carlisle, who flouted Lord Liverpool’s ‘gagging’ laws to criticise government corruption and injustice.

Another group often described as radicals, included social theorists such as William Godwin (1736-1856), and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1852). Godwin’s Political Justice (1793,) attacked government censorship, and advocated rights to personal liberty and behavioural freedom. 14.

11. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected Poetry and Prose, p.Viii
12. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
13. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
14. P. Marshall, ed., The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, p.158-169

(Figure 3.)
William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was one of the first British radical philosophers. A former non-conformist minister, Godwin opposed revolution as a means to reform, and cautioned Shelley against ‘preparing a scene of blood.’
Like Rousseau, Godwin’s philosophy asserts personal liberty and behavioural freedom, above the rule of government.

Despite their differing methods and particular concerns, these ‘Radicals’ all possessed a similar basic aim: the emergence of a just and egalitarian society.

The basis of this study, will therefore be, to determine haw far Shelley’s life and works comply with this broad definition of ‘radicalism.’ In particular, I will assess Shelly’s social and political views, on issues such as electoral suffrage, social welfare, and how far he advocated a meritocratic and egalitarian society. More interestingly, I will attempt to demonstrate Shelley’s thoughts on capitalism and its influence on society during the Industrial Revolution, the period in which Shelley was born and lived.


Chapter 1

‘The Mirror of Futurity’ *
Shelley’s theory of art in A Defence of Poetry.

(i.) – ‘The Aeolian Lyre’ – Empathy and genius in the poetic imagination.

Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, was written in February 1821, shortly after a pamphlet by Thomas Love Peacock on the inadequacy of poetry as an instrument for debate. Shelley’s reply attempts to demonstrate the vital role of poetry in communicating political ideas, and also the wider nature of poetry as a source of human innovation and wisdom.

Central to Shelley’s theory of poetry, is the function of the imagination. For Shelley, the imagination is an artistic and creative force within the human psyche, distinct from the faculties of reason and logic.

Like Sir. Philip Sidney, the Romantics defended the creative faculty of Genius, or Imagination (1,) as opposed to classical and Renaissance concepts of Mimesis (2.)
In mimetical theory, the art-object is merely a repetition or copy of some universal model or concept. Thus a portrait in sculpture or paint, is simply the reproduction of a conceptual entity, i.e. the human form. For the Romantics, however, artistic activity does not merely depend upon mimetic repetition, but on original and innovative thought.

For Shelley, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1732-1834), and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the process of artistic creativity depends upon two mental faculties: reason and imagination. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley defines reason as the ‘instrument’ of creative thought, the faculty that allow us to observe and experience our environment. The imagination, however, is a faculty of association and interpretation, of opinion and judgement. Shelley asserts that imagination is the vital part of consciousness:

‘Reason is to the imagination, as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance…’ 3.

*. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
1. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.230
2. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosiphy, p.569
3. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225


Shelley’s metaphor or analogy for the relationship between reason and the imagination, is his ‘Aeolian lyre,’ a harp that would play as the wind made contact with its delicate strings:
‘Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alterations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre…’ 4.

Shelley suggests that mankind interprets or transforms the chaos of experience through an innate desire for harmony within the human psyche. Shelley’s concept of ‘internal rhythm,’ bears striking similarity to modern understanding on the role of rhythm in human
psychology (5). Harmony is inherent to the human psyche:

‘…there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony…’ 6.

This internal desire, for harmony of mind and environment is the basis of the imagination. Imagination is the creative faculty within man that strives for harmony. Art itself is a creative expression of the imagination, which makes actual, either through aural or visual art, the harmony of imaginative thought.

Human civilisation itself has its origins in imaginative thought. Shelley uses the term ‘poetry’ to define any cultural activity which contributes to the evolution of social harmony within civilisation:

‘…poetry is connate with the origin of man.’ 7.

Shelley argues that human society is itself an expression of our internal desire for harmony and the ideal. Language, dance, and pictorial art in primitive societies, all express our inner desire for social harmony:

‘…language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.’ 8.

Similarly, social ethics and morality also reflect this desire for concord and order within the human psyche. Empathy for fellow men, and a shared social conscience is simply another manifestation of the imagination, and our internal desire for external harmony:

‘The social sympathies… begin to develop themselves from the moment that two human beings co-exist. Equality, unity… become the principles to which the social being is determined to action.’ 9.

4. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
5. D. Morris, The Naked Ape, p.95
6. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
7. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
8. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.226
9. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.226


Poetic thought gives rise to social ethics, morality and empathy, which are the bases of social order. Shelley asserts that:

‘…poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and music… they are the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society…’ 10.

(ii) ‘The Principle of Self’ – Shelley’s critique of poetic virtue in the modern age.

One fundamental aspect of Shelley’s theory on poetic thought, is the relationship between virtue and the imagination. For Shelley, poetic thought, sometimes called imagination, or genius, is the basis of social ethics. This is due to the human inclination for social concord, stemming from our innate desire for inner psychological harmony.

Shelley identifies key social ethics which have influenced the course of human history, these include: truth, morality and the ideal. The imagination expresses these ethics, through culture and the arts. Thus, the literature of Homer is poetic, because he portrays ideal virtue in the characters of Achilles, Hector and Ulysses:

‘…the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to their depths in these immortal creations.’ 11.

Alongside the necessity to convey an ideal vision of society, Shelley suggests that truth to reality is also essential to the expression of poetic thought. By expressing realism in art and culture, the poet imparts significance and a fresh outlook on the everyday world:

‘Poetry lifts the hidden veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’ 12.

Alongside truth and the ideal, morality is fundamental to poetic virtue. Shelley identifies the concept of ‘love’ as the basis of morality. For Shelley, empathy for others is the most important moral virtue:

‘The great secret of morals is love… A man, to be greatly good, must… put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own… ‘ 13.

10. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228
11. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228
12. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.233
13. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.234


Shelley stresses the humanistic concept of ‘agapè’ (*), or love for mankind. In his essay, In defence of Shelley, Manfred Wojcik suggests that the concept of love is central to Shelley’s works:

The humanistic concept of love is the cornerstone of Shelley’ moral and aesthetic views, it is the determinant factor of the essential quality of his poetry…’ 14.

What interests Shelley most about the expression of poetic thought, in the arts or any other aspect of human culture, is not the lyrical, or aesthetic appeal of language, rhythm or form, but the ideas conveyed by art. Shelley condemns the arts of his own age, suggesting that recent poets have failed to appreciate the role of the poet as innovator, and champion of social ethics. Although he acknowledges their importance, Shelley questions the epistemological approach of Enlightenment philosophers. Despite the advent of liberal political philosophy, mankind is still enslaved beneath injustice and inequality. Shelley comments:

‘The exertions of Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau… are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement.. had they never lived…’ 15.

For Shelley, the role of historians, statesmen and poets are the same. Their task is to maintain the moral conscience of society. Dantë Alighieri (1265-1321), and John Milton (1608-1764), are both praised by Shelley, as great reformers and moralists. For Shelley, the most important aspect of their works, was not their epistemological method, but their vision as moral teachers and social innovators.

Dantë’s celebration of love in Vitae Nuova (1294), and Paradiso (1321), becomes a spiritual creed, most obviously concerning Dantë’s love for Beatrice. However, Dantë’s identification of love as the ‘Supreme Cause’ (16) suggests his identification of humanistic love as the true godhead, rather than the sentient entity of tradition:

‘Dantë was the first awakener of entranced Europe…. his works are a perpetual hymn of everlasting love…’ 17.

Similarly, Milton challenged established religion and social order in Europe, through his republican politics during the English Civil War (1642-1651,) and through his revisionist interpretation of the Christian creation story, in Paradise Lost (1666). For Shelley, Milton’s ‘Satan’ is a symbol of human aspiration for liberty and equality. Satan’s rebellion seems to symbolises the rise of oppressed humanity against the tyranny and injustice of monarchical Europe. Shelley comments:

‘Milton’s Devil as a moral being, is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity…’ 18.

*. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosiphy, p.16
14. R.B. Woodings, Shelley, p.272
15. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.238
16. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.244
17. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.244
18. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247 10.

Shelley considers that modern statesmen and scholars have neglected moral and social concerns. Instead, scholars now pursue the ethic of ‘Utility,’ (19.) or economic progress.
Despite praising the social concerns of the Utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham, Shelley suggests that their social ideal: a contented working class, falls far short of his vision for the new age. For Shelley, Utilitarianism allows the growth of exploitative industry, inequality and deprivation in society:

‘…let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not… exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want.’ 20.

Most lacking in the ‘principles of the imagination,’ or poetic virtue, are the ruling classes. Shelley accuses the government of protecting their own vested interests, at the expense of social justice:

‘The rich have become richer, and the poor poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between… anarchy and despotism.’ 21.

For Shelley, poetic virtue in the modern world has declined. This decline has accompanied the rise of despotism, and marginalisation of idealistic debate, as seen in the works of Milton and Dantë. The poetic virtue of idealism and morality has been replaced by the moribund capitalism of the modern world. Shelley describes this new virtue as:

‘…the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.’ 22.

(iii) ‘Legislators of the world’ – Political ethics and the imagination.

For Shelley, any individual who endorses poetic virtue merits the title of poet. Accordingly, many of the ancient historians merit poetic virtue, because of their independence of mind, and willingness to judge history without prejudice or bias:

‘a composition may be poetical, without the composition as a whole being a poem. …thus, all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy were poets…’ 23.

19. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247
20. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247-248
21. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.248.
22. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.249.
23. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.


Shelley believes that great spiritual leaders were essentially poets, because they sought to instil the poetic virtues of empathy and humanistic love in humanity.
Shelley describes the moral nature of the poet:

‘…inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and true… .’ 24.

Historians, religious leaders, poets and statesmen are all essentially recognised
as poets. Examples include Jesus Christ, Plato, Sir. Francis Bacon and Dantë. These individuals not only taught moral virtue, but also exposed the injustice of their times. Shelley believes that the desire to improve society is attributable to poetic virtue:

‘All the authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors… and contain in themselves the …echo of the eternal music.’ 25.

Poets are not only social and ethical reformers, but also visionaries, whose idealism is the driving force behind their lives and work. The poet imagines the possibilities of the present, and asserts that those possibilities can become reality:

‘… For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is… but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time.’ 26.

Shelley’s final message is that poetic thought is both natural and connate with man’s social and intellectual evolution. Poets not only institute social and cultural change, but reflect the changing attitudes and mood of society. Poetic thought is not a philosophical or epistemological method, but a state of mind, a set of moral attitudes towards fellow humanity.
Poets do not need to follow any particular creed or doctrine in attaining moral truth, but simply need to follow their moral instinct as teachers and legislators. Shelley suggests that:

‘…the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ 27.

24. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
25. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
26. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
27. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.255.


Chapter 2

‘This thorny wilderness.’ *
Aspirations for reform in Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy.

(i.) ‘Behold where grandeur frowned!’ – Transience and immutability in cosmic order.

Perhaps the most explicit of Shelley’s longer political poems, are Queen Mab (1812), and The Masque of Anarchy (1819).
These poems do not express any particular political or philosophical system, nor any definite opinion on how reform might be achieved, but instead convey, through their constant attack on contemporary social and political order, the poet’s anger and disgust at social injustice.
Queen Mab was largely written in 1812, the year following Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford, and The Masque of Anarchy was written in 1819, during Shelley’s last visit to southern Italy. Between them, the poems span a considerable period of Shelley’s short adult life, and reflect Shelley’s opinions at the beginning and end of his literary career. The style of the two poems are very different. Queen Mab is obviously intended for an educated, upper-class audience, with its use of complex Platonic imagery, and elaborate narrative style. The Masque of Anarchy, however, is more direct, relying less on metaphor and allegory, and more on explicit reference to contemporary individuals and events.

The Masque of Anarchy, seems to demonstrate Shelley’s stylistic movement from an approach deeply rooted in traditional lyrical verse, to a more experimental, and in many ways more popularly understood poetic form.
Stephen C. Behrendt suggests that many of Shelley’s later poems are aimed at a wider audience than those of his youth, and that Shelley deliberately used simpler language, and the popular ballad form to popularise his political ideas:

‘These poems illustrate Shelley’s penetrating understanding of economic and social issues… they exploit the rhetorical features of working class radicalism…’ 1.

In the earlier poem, Queen Mab, Shelley constantly refers to a major theme throughout his works: the contrasting nature of transient and immutable morality.

*. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
1. Michael O’ Neill, ed., Shelley, p.128


The Fairy Queen, Mab, summons the spirit of a young girl, Isanthe to her ‘celestial temple’. Isanthe seems to symbolise poetic virtue in the human spirit; her innocence and moral purity is an ideal of humanistic virtue, as opposed to the defined morality of a society trapped by the indoctrination of creed and convention. Shelley’s ‘icy chains of custom’ (2.) seem to resemble Blake’s ‘mind forged manacles’ (3) of psychological oppression.
Mab describes Isanthe’s moral innocence:

‘Soul of Isanthe! Thou,
Judged alone worthy of the envied
That waits the good and the sincere…
Those who have…
Vanquished earth’s pride and meanness,
The icy chains of custom…’ 4.

The Fairy Queen, Mab is the spirit of humanity’s conscience. Like Shelley’s definition of the poet, she passes the innovative and creative faculty of genius from one generation to the next:

‘In the unfailing consciences of men…
I find
The future…’ 5.

Mab is not influenced by tradition, or custom. She preserves only the virtue of poetic thought,

‘I gather not the sting
Which retributive memory implants…’ 6.

Mab counsels Isanthe on the value of poetic virtue. Without the life-giving power of virtue, the universe is merely a lifeless shell:

‘But, were it virtues only mead, to
In a celestial palace…
the will
Of changeless nature would be
Unfulfilled. ‘ 7.

2. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
3. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, p.47 (London, Verse 2.)
4. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
5. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
6. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3-4 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
7. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.5-6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)


Isanthe is shown the true nature of the Universe; empathetic thought and the morality of humanistic love is itself the fabric of natural order:

‘…the passions, prejudices, interests,
That sway the meanest being
… becomes
a link
In the great chain of nature.’ 8.

Mab demonstrates how the poetic virtue of social harmony is connate with man’s internal nature. Mab herself symbolises human nature, illustrating how humanity’s desire for liberty and freedom transcends the ages, and is inevitably victorious over injustice and oppression.
Mab shows Isanthe the ruins of fallen civilisations:

‘Behold! where grandeur
What now remains? – the memory
Of senselessness and shame…’ 9.

Shelley is convinced that humanity is presently in an age of despotism and injustice, but that society will embrace poetic virtue, and aspire to reconstruct the oppressive institutions of contemporary Europe.
In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley explicitly condemns the reactionary government of Lord Liverpool. Written shortly after the ‘Peterloo Massacre,’ of 1819, the poem exposes the injustice and brutality of government policy and attitude.

Liverpool is himself ‘Anarchy’, mounted on a bloody horse, suggesting government responsibility for the brutal repression of popular protest after 1812:

‘Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse splashed with blood…’ 10.

Shelley believed that government censure of political freedom, and abuse of authority would instil society with the energy and vision to influence social reform. In Queen Mab, the Fairy Queen tells Isanthe, that despotism, and the subjugation of the human spirit is incompatible with natural law:

‘Nature rejects the monarch, not the
The subject, not the citizen…’ 11.

8. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
9. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
10. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.342 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse VIII.)
11. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.11 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)


Mab informs us that tyranny is transient, since human nature must inevitably overcome oppression. The civilisations of antiquity were powerful, but fell due to a discontented servile class, and the oligarch’s desire for conquest. Shelley identifies modern Britain with the Macedonian, Egyptian and Roman empires, believing that British tyranny will also be overthrown.

Mab anticipates the next awakening of man’s imagination, when the immutable virtues of empathy and social justice will overcome the transient oppression of contemporary Britain:

‘…the gorgeous throne
Shall stand unnoticed in the regal hall
Fast falling to decay…’ 12.

(ii.) ‘Rapine, madness, treachery and wrong’ – Shelley’s reflexive warning to the new age.

Like Blake, Shelley often seems to address a future, as well as a contemporary audience. To realise their ideal, these poets often describe the injustice of the present as if it occurred in the past. When Blake addresses the ‘children of the future age,’ (13,) he is making a comparison between the injustice of his own time, and his ‘indignant’, assertion of a better society for the future. Shelley is also an ‘indignant’ visionary and social idealist.
When Queen Mab describes the injustices of Britain, she does so as ‘a warning for the future,’ (14.):

‘I know
The past, and thence I will essay to glean
a warning for the future… ‘ 15.

Mab lists the injustices and evils of modern Britain, suggesting that the cause of discontent and oppression is hierarchical social order itself. The landed aristocracy, who largely controlled parliament and regional administration, are described as selfish exploiters of the poor:

‘…what are
– the drones of the community;
they feed
On the mechanic’s labour… ‘ 16.

12. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
13. William Blake, The Works of William Blake, p. 84 (A Little Girl Lost, Verse 1.)
14. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.8 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
15. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.8 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
16. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)


The brutal repression of popular protest by Lord Liverpool’s administration is described in The Masque of Anarchy. The military supression of the Irish revolutionaries is suggested in Shelley’s damning condemnation of the ‘murder(er)’ Viscount Castlereagh. Similarly, the oppressive ‘Corn Laws’ are criticised in the representation of Lord Eldon, the chancellor, as ‘Fraud.’

Like Paine, Shelley believes that autocratic government arose out of violence and oppression. For Paine, kings have no legal authority, since they, ‘…arose out of a conquest, and not out of society.’ (17.) In Queen Mab, Mab asks:

‘Whence thinkest thou, kings and
parasites arose?’ 18.

Mab describes the suppression of the people’s desire for change, by the forces of religious and political indoctrination. The people are asked to oppose the forces of liberty in France, beneath the guise of patriotism:

‘The child…
Swells with unnatural pride of crime…
This infant arm becomes the bloodiest
scourge…’ 19.

Shelley identifies war with imperialism and the greed of tyrants. The acquisitional wars of the British Empire, in India and America are viewed by Shelley with scepticism. Patriotism and nationalism are just excuses for robbery and the enslavement of nations.
Mab suggests that war is simply a distraction, or past-time of the ruling classes:

‘War is the statesmen’s game, the
priest’s delight,
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s
trade…’ 20.

Shelley also criticises the government’s war against the British people.
In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley refers to the recent massacre at Manchester:

‘Over English Land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.’ 21.

17. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, p.72
18. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
19. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.11 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
20. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.
21. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.342 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse X.)


Another major aspect of the poems, is Shelley’s critique on established religion.
Shelley suggests that conventional religion is simply a tool of the state. God himself is merely a superstition, an accessory to the legislative and ethical laws of society. Mab condemns the superstition of religion, as an instrument of repression on the social psyche:

‘Religion! But for thee prolific friend,
Who people’st earth with demons,
Hell with men,
And Heaven with slaves!’ 22.

Shelley ‘s religious views may have been influenced by the alternative spiritual movements to emerge from Revolutionary France, such as Theophilanthropy, (23,) and the ‘Cult of Reason,’ (24.) In opposition to conventional religious ethics, the fairy Mab suggests the spiritual significance of human nature and virtue:

‘O human spirit! Spur to thee the
Where virtue fixes universal peace,
…midst the ebb and flow of human things.’ 25.

Shelley’s critique of the present age is twofold. On one hand he condemns traditional institutions of power, and on the other he criticises the economic and mercantile institutions of society. In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley blames the fundamental existence of capitalism for the exploitation and abuse of society.
The industrialist is the aristocrat of the modern world, and the labourer has become as much a slave to the new order as the mediaeval villein:

‘Tis to work, and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrant’s use to dwell…’ 26.

Shelley’s warning to the future is like Blake’s: an appeal to humanity to recognise it’s own apathy and degeneration. By exposing contemporary injustice, Shelley hopes society will awaken to the spirit of the age, and strive to overcome the oppression and indifference of traditional social order.

22. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
23. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, 1787-1797, Volume 5, P.36
24. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, 1787-1797, Volume 5, P.32-33
25. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 8.)
26. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.343 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse XL.)

(iii.) ‘Reason’s voice’ – Shelley’s aspirations for popular reaction against injustice.

Shelley predicts the popular spirit soon to engulf Europe in a second age of revolution.
Shelley never lived to see the revolutions in France, Austria, Italy and Germany during the 1840s, but the fact that they occurred bears testament to his insight into human nature and the intolerance of humanity to tyranny and injustice. In Queen Mab, Shelley predicts revolution and reconstruction in Europe:

…Now swells the intermingling din…
The ceaseless clangour, and the rush
of men
Inebriate with rage… ‘ 27.

Shelley both predicts and asserts the need for dramatic social change. At times, The Masque of Anarchy, sounds almost like a call to arms. Despite Shelley’s ambiguity on methods of reform, he does seem attracted to the kind of popular protest and violence seen in revolutionary France:

‘Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep had fall’n on you!
Ye are many, they are few. ‘ 28

Shelley does therefore seem to accept the necessity of some social act in the process of reform, despite ambiguity over the exact form that it would take. What is clear, however, is Shelley’s recognition of the importance of ordinary people in ensuing the reform of parliament and society.

(iv.) ‘The secret of the future’ – Shelley’s prophetic vision of the new age.

Shelley considers the most important reform of the future, will be the ethics and attitudes of humanity itself. The ethical morality of established religion will be replaced by the primacy of humanistic love. Human and cosmic nature will instead be respected as divine. In Queen Mab, Isanthe hails the new spirit of moral order:

‘All things are recreated, and the flame
of consentaneous love inspires all
No storm deforms the breathing brow
of heaven…’ 29.

27. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
28. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.343 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse XCII.)
29. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.30 (Queen Mab, Verse 7.)

We are not informed what would follow reform in The Masque of Anarchy, and Shelly is ambiguous when describing his future ‘paradise’ in Queen Mab, but he does suggests the ‘liberation’ of society, suggested through the metaphor of the natural world:

‘As flowers beneath May’s footsteps waken,
As stars from night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call…’ 30.

Mab suggests that human virtue alone can overcome tyranny and injustice. This is Mab’s ‘secret of the future,’ (31) humanity must realise it’s own moral nature to create the paradise of the new age:

‘Thine is the hand whose piety would
The thorny pillow of unhappy crime…
Shall keep
Thy footsteps in the path that thou
hast trod…’ 32.

Both poems demonstrate Shelley’s concern for the social ills of his time, and both respond in some way to those problems.
The poems demonstrate Shelley’s commitment to reform and the welfare of ordinary society, from the earliest stage, to the latter period of his career.
The poems, do however represent a changing outlook for Shelley. In Queen Mab, Shelley seems to address an upper class audience, appealing to their moral nature for a benevolent attitude to society. In The Masque of Anarchy, however, Shelley addresses the ordinary people, arousing their desire for change by emphasising the physical brutality of government policy.
Both poems are a warning to the contemporary ruling class, prophesying the calamity of revolution if reform is not achieved. However, the key difference between the poems, is Shelley’s unhesitating appeal to the people, and apparent support for popular protest in in The Masque of Anarchy.

Ultimately, however, the main concern of the poems, is perhaps Shelley’s appeal to society to recognise and respond to contemporary inequality and injustice. Above all, we are struck by the sheer horror of Shelley’s concrete imagery on the subject of destitution and poverty:

‘A sunless life in the unwholesome mine,
Drags out in labour a protracted death…
From all that genders misery and
Of earth this thorny wilderness…’ 33.

30. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
31. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 8.)
32. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.35 (Queen Mab, Verse 9.)
33. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.) 20.

Chapter 3

‘Feelings of a Republican.’ *
Shelley’s polemic philosophy.

Throughout his works, Shelley exposes the injustice and abuse of power that results from an unrepresentative and unaccountable government. Paul Foot demonstrates the influence of Paine on Shelley’s politics:

‘Kings, he argued, had no right to govern. This idea – that representative government is the only justifiable government – came directly from Thomas Paine, whose works Shelley read while still at Eton, and revered all his life.’ 1.

Like Paine, Shelley responded bitterly to Edmund’s Burke’s defense of monarchial government, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790.) Burke’s Reflections, supported and encouraged the reaction of the British government, following the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars of 1792. 2.

Shelley’s familiarity with the works of Paine, Godwin and the widely censored republican press of Hazlitt and Carlisle, are demonstrated in Shelley’s political essays and pamphlets. In Proposal for an Association (1812), Shelley proposes a new British constitution. Like Locke and Rousseau, Shelley asserts the need for a social contract between government and people. Shelley suggests that the primary function of government is to serve its citizens:

‘Government can have no rights, it is a delegation for the purpose of securing them to others…’ 3.

The exploitation of common labour, and inequality within society is perhaps Shelley’s most central theme. In his journal, Shelley suggests that national wealth is based ultimately on human labour, an observation central to the later economic theories of Marx.

*. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.288-289, (Feelings of a Republican on the fall of Bonaparte.)
1. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.53-54
2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p.180
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.54.


The wealth of the nation does not lie in the material possessions of the ruling classes, but in the toil and energy of the ordinary people. Shelley writes:

‘There is no real wealth but the labour of man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn richer… ‘ 4.

Shelley’s views on reform and social reconstruction are most clearly explained in his pamphlet, A philosophical view of reform (1820.) Shelley asserts necessary reforms, including the abolition of the monarchy and aristocracy, the dissolution of the standing army in Britain, the abolition of tithes (a tax levied by the Anglican Church,) and ban on sinecures (service to the King that carried no actual work).
Shelley also demands the disestablishment of the Anglican church, entailing emancipation for dissenters and Catholics from occupational restrictions, and the reintroduction of habeas corpus (guarantee of trial by jury,) into the British legal system.

Also condemned are the sprawling industrial towns of northern Britain, unplanned and poorly maintained.
Cities such as Manchester and Liverpool were home to some of the worst living and working conditions in Europe, with child labour and unchecked work practices resulting in widespread exploitation and deprivation. Shelley writes:

‘This is then the condition of the lowest and largest class, from whose labour the whole materials of life are wrought, of which the others are only the receivers or the consumers.’ 5.

Anticipating Chartism in the 1830s, and the electoral reform of 1832, Shelley demands universal electoral suffrage, and constituencies in every district or town. ‘Rotten boroughs’ and other corrupt electoral practices must be abolished:

‘I do not understand why those reasoners who propose… an immediate appeal to universal suffrage, because it is that which it is an injustice to withhold…’ 6

One of Shelley’s most interesting suggestions, is a communal division of agricultural land amongst the working classes:

‘Every peasant’s cottage, surrounded with its garden, a little paradise of comfort, with every convenience desirable in civilised life…’ 7.

4. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.87.
5. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley,Selected Poetry and Prose p.17
6. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley,Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18
7. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18


Shelley clearly anticipates the ethics of the Christian socialists. In 1885, Elanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, described Shelley as a founder of socialism:

‘We claim him.. His thinking stood firmly in the tradition of the soldiers in Cromwell’s army who were fighting for a world where people lived in equality and peace… ‘ 8.

Shelley has often been described as a ‘leveller,’ (9,) an adherent of John Lilbourne (1614-57) and his republican faction in the Commonwealth parliament of 1647-1649. The levellers supported republicanism, and campaigned for the introduction of a democratic electoral system.

Central to Shelley’s political philosophy is the reform of the state, and the introduction of a new social contract between government and people. Like Locke and Paine, Shelley argues that government should represent the largest section of society, and serve their interests, rather than those of the ruling classes.

Secondly, the economic structure of society itself must change. For Shelley, capitalism itself is a destructive force, and must be kept in check. Economic change would mainly be achieved, as seen in A Philosophical View of Reform, by the redistribution of agricultural land from the great landowners of Britain, to the working classes.

By giving the people the fruits of their own labour, Shelley hoped to end the dependence of the workforce on exploitative industry. Similarly, by allowing the common people to elect their own political representatives, they would ensure that parliament worked only for their interests and welfare.

Shelley’s views, combining aspects of modern socialism and democracy, are demonstrated in a note written in his journal, under the title of Reform:

‘Call it reform or revolution, as you will, a change must take place… one of the consequences which will be the wresting of political power from the depositories of it. A sentiment prevails in the nation.. that they have been guilty of enormous malversations…’ 10.

8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.96
9. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.96
10. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18


Chapter 4

‘A rod to scourge us into slaves.’ *
Shelley’s critique on religion.

In March, 1811, Shelley and his friend Hogg were expelled from Oxford for publishing their pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. As a consequence of the pamphlet, Shelly became estranged from his family and friends.
Shelley’s father, upon whose financial assistance he depended, withheld Shelley’s allowance, and demanded that the young man recant his atheism. However, despite this opposition, Shelley felt compelled to maintain his atheistic views.

For Shelley, atheism was fundamental to everything he believed in. In Red Shelley, Paul Foot identifies Shelley’s early atheism as an epistemological statement, a rejection of the revealed truths and wisdom of the established church:

‘As Shelley explained in letters to his father, his atheism was not a passing fancy or an undergraduate prank, it was essential to everything he believed in. ‘ 1.

Like Spinzoa, D’ Holbach and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Shelley distinguishes between the dogmatic truths of religion, as opposed to the empirical truths of reason and logic. For Shelley, established religion is a tool of the governing class, used to repress and control society. Religion endorses the divine authority of hierarchical order, and imposes mental servitude on society through the morality of social obedience.

In his pamphlet On the revival of literature, Shelley explains how religious indoctrination represses poetic thought and the imagination:

‘Superstition, of whatever kind, whether earthly or divine, has hitherto been the weight which clogged man to earth, and prevented his genius from soaring aloft… ‘ 2.

In A refutation of Deism (1814), Shelley does not simply reject Christian spirituality, but the very concept of divinity itself. Like Plato, Shelley presents his argument in the form of a dialogue between two philosophers. Theosophus, a deist endorses the ‘causality’ of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) (*), asserting the logic of an ultimate cause for creation. Eusebes, a Christian, suggests that using similar empirical reasoning, we must paradoxically explain the creation of the creator.

*. A.S.B. Glover, Shelley, p.252 (Laon and Cythna.)
1. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.62
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.68
*. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.188

Shelley therefore discredits the notion of divine moral order, and concludes with the rational suggestion that the universe has always existed:

‘It is easier to believe that the Universe has existed for all eternity, that to conceive an eternal being, capable of creating it. ‘ 3.

Shelley argued that deism allowed for the fundamental structure of hierarchical social order. The agnostics may have challenged the epistemological supremacy of religious teachings, but they often endorsed hierarchical society as elemental to natural law:

‘To devise the word God, that you may express the universal system… can answer no good purpose…’ 4.

Despite his condemnation of the established church, Shelley laid great emphasis on the secular teachings of Christ. The presentation of Christ as a social innovator is a reoccurring theme throughout Shelley’s poetry and prose works. In a letter to his friend, Lord Ellenborough, Shelley describes how Christ’s life and teachings have been incorporated into religious superstition, as an accessory to social order:

‘Jesus Christ was crucified because he attempted to supersede the ritual of Moses with regulations more moral and humane… the divinity of Jesus became a dogma, which to dispute was death… ‘ 5.

Shelley rejected religious qualifications, and the suppression of non-Anglicans in government and education. In his Address to the Irish People (1812), Shelley demands the emancipation of Catholics and dissenters from legal and educational restrictions.
Shelley understood the link between religion and the establishment. Dissent or non-conformity was seen by the rulers of society as a threat to the authority of established beliefs and social ethics. In his Address, Shelley comments that:

‘….the Protestants trust the reins of earthly government only to the hands of their own sect…’ 6.

Shelley’s alternative to the mortality and superstition of the church is seen in his discussion on the human spirit in Queen Mab (1811). Although he discredits divine order and the validity of the spirit, Shelley does believe in the ‘conscience of the ages’: humanity’s desire for liberty and social harmony. Mab symbolises the innate desire in man for freedom and social justice, since she passes those aspirations from one generation to the next.

3. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, 216
4. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, 217
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.61
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.63


Ultimately, Shelley believes that man should venerate his own nature and moral virtue, rather than the dogma of social and religious morality. When the maid, Isanthe despairs that God might not exist, Mab suggests that human nature itself is god-like:

‘There is no God!…
The exterminable spirit it contains
Is nature’s only God.’ 7.

7. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p. 24, (Queen Mab, Verse 7.)


Chapter 5

‘Can man be free is woman is a slave?’ * Shelley’s feminism.

The Enlightenment had seen several exponents for the emancipation of women, from traditional legal, educational and social restrictions. One of the French Philosophes, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794,) (1.) suggested that women should be granted electoral suffrage and the same legal rights as men in the new French Republic:

‘He who votes against the rights of another, whatever his religion, colour or sex, abjures his own…’ 2.

Another exponent of women’s rights during Shelley’s lifetime, was the philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836), whose Political Justice (1793), attacks the institution of marriage, partly on the grounds that women are denied rights of property or financial independence as dependants on their husbands:

‘…marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties…’ 3.

Another influential writer whom Shelley read whilst at Eton, was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797,) whose Vindication of the rights of Women (1792), influenced Shelley throughout his adult life. Wollstonecraft’s key aspiration for women is economic and legal independence:

‘It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent form man…’ 4.

*. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.76 (Queen Mab, Canto II, Verse XLIII.)
1. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, Part 1, p.5-10
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.3
3. Peter Marshall, ed., The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, p. 83 (From Political Justice, Book VIII, Chapter 6.)
4. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.102


(Figure 4.)
The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of William Godwin and mother of Shelley’s second wife, Mary Godwin, were perhaps the first and most important feminist influence on Shelley.
Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her daughter
Mary in 1797.

The feminist influence of Godwin, and his partner, Mary Wollstonecraft, is seen throughout Shelley’s poems. Perhaps the most explicit critique of contemporary patriarchal society is seen in Shelley’s poem, Rosalind and Helen (1818). Rosalind’s husband abuses and terrifies the family:

‘..if they heard
…his footstep, the suspended word
died on my lips: we all grew pale:
The babe at my bosom hushed with fear
as if it thought it heard its father near;
And my two wild boys would near my knee
cling, cowed and cowering fearfully.’ 5.

In his essay, Even Love is Sold, Shelley discusses the contemporary inequality of women. Like Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin, Shelley attacks the institution of marriage itself. Shelley suggests that women should not be required to take vows of obedience to their husbands:

‘The first principle is that love must be free, and depends upon freedom: love withers under constraint. Its very essence is liberty, it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy nor fear… ‘ 6.

Like Godwin, Shelley supports the rights of individuals to divorce, a virtually unheard of event in Nineteenth Century Britain. Shelley seems to endorse the right of both men and women to leave the matrimonial relationship:

‘A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love one another: any law which should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most intolerable tyranny.’ 7.

5. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.308, (Rosalind and Helen.)
6. Thomas Hutchinson,ed., Shelley: Poetical Works, p.806
7. Thomas Hutchinson,ed., Shelley: Poetical Works, p.806


Shelley constantly identifies the structure of contemporary society with social distress and repression. Women, alongside society as a whole, are suppressed by the social institutions, ethics and customs around them. In Red Shelley, Paul Foot comments:

‘The purpose of women… was to gratify men sexually – just as the purpose of the poor was to provide for the rich. Sex was reduced to a servant-master relationship, because society was organised on a master-servant basis.’ 8.

It is interesting, that throughout Shelley’s narrative works, women are often the main protagonists. In the longer poems, they often occupy the role of liberators, or champions of freedom against an oppressive tyrant. Despite their differing emphases, such as popular agitation in The Revolt of Islam (1817), and the rebellion of Greece against the Turkish emperor in Hellas (1821), all seem to carry some reference to the overthrow of a patriarchal, or male-dominated social order.

In Queen Mab, Isanthe and the fairy Mab survey the tyranny of human history, and predict the rise of a new society. Similarly, in Prometheus Unbound, the maid Asia encourages the slumbering ‘Demogorgon’, to overthrow the tyrant Jupiter.
In The Revolt of Islam, Cythna rouses the people against the tyranny of the king, she asserts her right to participate in the reconstruction of society:

‘She replied earnestly: – “It shall be mine,
This task, mine Laon!…”‘ 9.

The overthrow of the tyrant represents the liberation of both man and woman:

‘My brethren, we are free!
…man and woman,
their common bondage burst!.’ 10.

There is evidence from contemporary accounts, and from the writings of Mary Godwin, Shelley’s second wife, that Shelley did practice the feminist theories discussed in his works. Evidence of Shelley’s belief in female emancipation is seen in his encouragement and support of Mary Godwin’s literary career. Shelley was responsible for the publication of Frankenstein in 1818. Mary Godwin commented of Shelley’s encouragement in her journal that:

‘My husband was from the first very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enrol myself upon the page of fame. ‘ 11.

8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.115
9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.75 (The Revolt of Islam, Canto II, Verse XXXVIII.)
10. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.102 (The Revolt of Islam, CantoV, Verse IV.)
11. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.83


In Red Shelley, Paul Foot identifies the considerable influence that women writers and reformers had on Shelley’s opinions and works:

‘It was not just Shelley’s own abilities, but the intelligence and emotions of Harriet Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Elizabeth Hitchener… which enabled Shelley so elquently to express the ideas of the Marquis de Condorcet and other feminist writers of the French Revolution.’ 12.

In 1912, the Women’s sufferage leader, Millicent Fawcett identified Sheley as an important early femininist:

‘The torch which was lighted by Mary Wollstonecraft was never afterwards extinguished… its light is seen in the poems of her son in law Shelley…’ 13.

12. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.150
13. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.135



Shelley’s achievement.

We have seen that throughout his life, Shelley was committed to the reform of government and social attitudes. At the core of Shelley’s writings, from Queen Mab to The Revolt of Islam, lies a deep concern for the very real social deprivation and inequality of contemporary society. Whilst Shelley often fails to provide an explicit program for reform in his works, or any clear idea how reform might be achieved, we are always struck by Shelley’s fundamental appeal to the moral nature of society’s conscience. Manfred Wojcik describes Shelley’s concern for the poorest section of society:

‘He has in mind the fate of the largest and lowest class, the industrial workers, whose inhuman mode of existence is constantly urged upon him, and arouses his pity, sympathy, and wrath… ‘ 1.

Shelley’s commitment to reform never wavered throughout his life, but this commitment was often frustrated by an inability to communicate his ideas to the public, either because publishers, like Leigh Hunt, were afraid to contravene the seditious libel, and ‘gagging’ laws, or because Shelley’s literature was censored immediately following
publication 2.

The unwillingness of Lord Liverpool’s administration to implement social and electoral reform often moved Shelley to political activism amongst disaffected labourers and social agitators. Shelley’s comitment to reform is clearly seen in his involvement with popular protest, and journalistic support for contemporary social and political issues.

In 1812, Shelley distributed his pamphlet, An address to the Irish people, on the streets of Dublin, and in 1813, he raised money for the Tremadoc dam project in North Wales, to help build a new model community. Shelley’s address to the Tremadoc workers in February 1813 resulted in an assassination attempt by local gentry, who feared Shelley was inciting an insurrection. 3.

Many of Shelley’s later political poems, such as The Masque of Anarchy, and England 1819, seem to address the common people, rather than the educated upper classes. Their emotional tone, use of simple language and structure, made these poems particularly popular
amongst the Chartists of the 1830s.
1. R. B. Woodings, ed., Shelley, p.128
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.239.
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.208.

Shelley came to realise that reform required the support and influence of the common people, and that popular protest and perhaps violence was an inevitable requirement for social change. In The Revolt of Islam, Laon seems to echo Shelley’s desire to ‘waken’ the political conscience of the people:

‘I will arise and waken
the multitude..
…and fill
the world with cleansing fire.’ 4.

In Red Shelley, Paul Foot suggests that Shelley’s commitment to reform transcended his education, upbringing and social class. Foot praises Shelley’s courage in declining from the privilege and wealth that reconciliation with family and class would have brought:

‘His revolutionary enthusiasm rose above his own background, above his self imposed isolation and the stunted aspirations of his own family and friends…’ 5.

Shelley’s commitment to reform, and to the ultimate will of the people was the most profound feature of Shelley’s life as a socialist and poet. Shelley’s commitment to social change, and dynamic, uncompromising attitude to reform, influenced contemporary reformers and radicals across Britain.

During his lifetime, Shelley’s works and ideas influenced a number of leading liberal journalists and printers, such as Leigh Hunt and Thomas Patterson. Many of these writers, such as Richard Carlisle, editor of The Republican, often published Shelley’s works under the threat of prosecution and imprisonment.

Shelley’s works were also well known to the most important radical movement in Nineteenth Century Britain: Chartism. The Chartist leader, Ernest Jones published Shelley’s poems in his magazine The labourer, and recited his works at the great Chartist rallies of the 1830s. 6.

In addition to the radical community, Shelley also influenced contemporary liberal reformers and politicians, including the liberal M.P. Francis Burdett, and the social reformer Robert Owen:

‘Owen was devoted to Shelley… his newspaper New Moral World of the late 1820s, bristles with Shelley quotations. ‘ 7.

In the decade following Shelley’s death, Mary Godwin published all of Shelley’s poems and prose works. Increased readership following the abolition of the ‘gagging acts’ in 1836, brought recognition of Shelley’s political and social ideas from leading Nineteenth Century social theorists, such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Frederick Engels. 8.

4. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.71, (The Revolt of Islam, Canto II, verse XIV)
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.238
7. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241 32.

What has made Shelley so popular as a philosopher and poet, was not perhaps so much his political ethics or philosophy, but his pragmatic, uncompromising critique of social injustice and inequality. Shelley was not simply a social theoretician, but a far sighted visionary, whose idealism transcended convention and the appalling deprivation of his times.

Shelley’s political philosophy anticipates the Christian Socialism of William Morris, and the politicisation of the working class, whose awakening as a literate and informed social group, is so aptly suggested in the ‘Demogorgon’, of Prometheus Unbound.

Shelley’s belief, that the humanity’s desire for freedom and liberty would inevitably overcome injustice, was proven in the years following Shelley’s death.
The popular protest and violence seen throughout Britain in the 1830s and ’40s brought the gradual reform of parliament, and much needed social legislation to improve the living and working conditions of ordinary society.

Ultimately, Shelley was an idealist, who challenged the prescribed attitudes and morality of a social psyche firmly entrenched in traditional hierarchial order.
Shelley was a radical in every respect of the word, a social innovator, teacher and prophet of the new age.

In his prophetic vision of the new age, Shelley sought, like the fairy ‘Mab,’ to instil the poetic virtues of empathy and social harmony in his audience. It is this educational role, above all else that dominates Shelley’s works.
Shelley’s ultimate appeal to the social conscience of all humanity, is suggested in Queen Mab, when the fairy queen counsells Isanthe to maintain her virtue in the face of tyranny and injustice:

‘Yet, human spirit! bravely hold thy
Let virtue teach thee firmly to pursue
The gradual paths of an aspiring
Though frosts may blight the freshness
of its bloom,
Yet spring’s awakening may woo the earth…’ 9.

9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.34-35 (Queen Mab, verse IX.)



Page 1 – Introduction

Page 7 – Chapter 1,
‘The Mirror of Futurity,’ Shelley’s theory of art in A Defence of Poetry.

Page 13 – Chapter 2,
‘This thorny wilderness,’ Aspirations for reform in Queen Mab and
The Masque of Anarchy.

Page 21 – Chapter 3,
‘Feelings of a Republican,’ Shelley’s polemic philosophy.

Page 24 – Chapter 4,
‘A rod to scourge us into slaves,’ Shelley’s critique on religion.

Page 27 – Chapter 5,
‘Can man be free if woman is a slave?’ Shelley’s feminism.

Page 31 – Conclusion,
Shelley’s achievement.

Page 35 – A Shelley Chronology.

Page 39 – Bibliography.

Page 41 – Picture credits.

Picture Credits

Frontispiece. (Picture of Percy Bysshe Shelley.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
URL address:

Figure 1. (Picture of Thomas Paine.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
URL address:

Figure 2. (Picture of Lord Liverpool.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
URL address:

Figure 3. (Picture of William Godwin.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
URL address:

Figure 4. (Picture of Mary Wollstonecraft.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
URL address:


Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripness is all’ (King Lear.) Discuss how two of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes act and react within the interplay of choice and destiny.

Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripness is all’ (King Lear.) Discuss how two of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes act and react within the interplay of choice and destiny.

Tragic Heroes to be Discussed:

Lear, King of Britain, From King Lear, 1606. Arden/ Routledge Edition.
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, From Macbeth, 1623. Oxford Edition.

Paul Catherall

In considering the nature of choice and destiny in Shakespeare’s King Lear’ (1606,) and Macbeth’ (1623,) it is perhaps worth considering the patronage under which the plays were written and produced.
James, King of Scotland had been on the English throne since the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and it it obvious that Macbeth’ is a kind of royal tribute to Shakespeare’s patron. King Lear’ is also an interestingly pan-British play, concerning the British King Leir, son of Bladud, from Welsh proto-history. The emphasis on Lear’s fatal division of Britain may complement the ascention of James; the unity of mainland Britain under a single monarch is one of the moral arguaments of King Lear, and an obvious affirmation of James’ ascendancy.
Beneath the royal propoganda, however, both plays constitute a sound appraisal of political and social order. One of the most evident feature of King Lear,’ is Shakespeares’ preocupation with truth and its discernment by authority. Lear is a man deceived by his own pride, and by the outward appearance of others, he struggles to discover the inner self of his daughters and his own identity. To maintain order, morality must triumph over amoral forces, but this can only be achieved through the admission in the king that human nature breeds destruction. Lear fails to keep society’s innate destructive forces in check, and his division prompts the degeneration of social and moral order. The ensuring conflict between the forces of order and amorality is an essential illustration of the active nature of morality, as opposed to the passive amorality of Lear, who violates social and moral institutions though his actions.
In Macbeth, the forces of amorality conspire to lure the hero over to amorality and ambition. Macbeth is presented with the clear choice on wheather to kill for a throne, his descision is ruthless, but contemplative and not without doubt. Macbeth illustrates the capacity of individuals to succumb to less noble instincts in society; his subsequent plunge into degeneration is the practical result of the initial act in murdering Duncan.
The fact that we feel sympathy for these characters is also an indication that we recognise their capacity to make mistakes and choose inappropriate options. Lear’s later destitution, and Macbeth’s brooding over the inevitability of his later crimes all enable us to empathise with the very human traits and weaknesses of their characters. Perhaps Shakespeare wanst us to remember that the tradgery of Macbeth and Lear arises out of their own faults; the disasterous consequences of these faults surely prompt the notion that the audienence should learn from the plays, and seek to restrain our destructive potential, through realising the consequences of our actions.

When we first see King Lear, it is as an arbitrator, one whose infirmity has brought him to abdicate his kingship. Lear’s descision appears to be a sound policy, ensuring the future peace of the kingdom:
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughter’s several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.’ (1.)

Lear is an infirm, perhaps dying man, he requires the support of his daughters in old age. Perhaps he thinks, by buying their gratitude with land, he will ensure a peaceful retirement, without the discomfort of confict for power when he becomes too weak to govern. Lear’s division may be bourne out of insecurity for his own future:
…and tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and burdens from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthened crawl toward death… ‘ (2.)

Lear’s insecurity is seen in his refusal to abandon all power; he maintains a small standing army:
Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundered knights…
Make with you by due turn. Only, we shall retain
the name and all th’ addition to a king.’ (3.)

Perhaps as a result of his insecurity, Lear has a practical, perhaps materialistic view of relationships and allegiances. In seeking to attain his daughters’ love, he must be satisfied that they profess to love him. For Lear, overt declarations of loyalty reflect truth and inner character:
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend…’ (4.)

Alexander Leggatt has defined Lear’s insecurity as as a child-like desire to attain comfort, whist relinquishing power, yet maintain the status of king:
Beneath the titanic arrogance Lear is vulnerable, anxious, needing to be assured of his future, with the contradictiory wants of a child: ease and power, love that is given and love that is secured by being bought.’ (5.)

Lear expects Cordelia to express an ideal love for her father, demonstrating a naive belief in the validity of courtly protocol, and an obsession with the material reflection of social order. Goneril and Regan’s love is material and illusory, suggested in the reflective light of their metal,’ wheras Cordelia’s ponderous love,’ which she cannot heave into her mouth,’ is both immaterial and sincere.
Regan: I am made of that self metal as my sister..’ (6.)

Lear’s obsession with the facade of courtly heirarchial order, and with the appearance and professions of individuals, rather than their characters, blinds him to Cordelia’s profesions of truth – a comment from Shakespeare perhaps on society’s own obsession with worth as a reflection of outward appearance:
What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak. ‘ (7.)

Cordelia challenges Lear’s materialistic precepts on natural order. For Lear, the natural daughter should embrace the ceremony and rites of courtly life, as did Gonerial and Regan. Lear’s stubborn belief in social, moral and spiritual order, is reflected in his assumptions on the character of his daughters, and in his own identity as king. Cordelia’s refusal to deceive her father demonstrates the true validity of her love, but Lear’s ingrained precepts on the facade and ceremony of social order blind him to this:
How now! Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.’ (8.)

Lear evokes supernatural forces in dennouncing Cordelia, his dismissal of her is a reflection of the artificiality of social order and of his own artificial, materialistic psyche. Lear’s dependance on the psyche of courtly ceremony and heriarchial order is reflected in his constant evokation of the spirit world, he frequently calls upon the gods in moments of rage or anguish, as if he himself is in league with divine forces:
By all the operation of the orbs
from whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care..’. (9.)

Lear’s kingly role is elemental to the divine structure of his psyche; he rages like an avenging Zeus or Jupiter, and governs like a fighting man, whose instincts are to act and react with descisive efficiency, seen in his unrepentant rejection of Cordelia and Kent:
Peace Kent!
Come not betwixt the dragon and his wrath.’ (10.)

Lear is given a choice soon after his division of the kingdom – voiced by Kent, Lear still has the opportunity to recant his descision:
Reserve thy state:
And, in thy best consideration, check
This hideous rashness… ‘ (11.)

Kents’s interuption indicates how Lear’s descison cannot be reversed because of his flawed charcter. Like his rash dismissal of Cordelia, and immediate rewarding of Regan and Goneril, Lear responds to Kent with vigourous consistency. Lear’s kingly pride prohibits the recantion of his oaths. Lear calls upon the Gods as witnesses to this playing out of divine justice:
Thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come betwixt our sentance and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear..’ (12.)

The question here is the central reason for Lear’s catastrophic error. Are Lear’s actions detrmined by a fully sentient, self-conscious capacity to reason? Is Lear subject to an irrational, perhaps insane or senile psychology, or are Lears’ actions determined by fate, or some other divine influence? The answer to this question is surely the pivotal moral perspective in the play, and Shakespeare’s central message on the tragedy of Lear.
Lear does have a choice in making his descisons, he even has a second chance; the fact that he discards this chance suggests that he is not a rational character, but one whose descisions are based upon an irrational psyche.
Lear’s inability to make sound jugements is demonstrated by a lack of serious contemplation common to many of Shakespeare’s protagonists – as seen in Macbeth’s anguished deliberations before killing Duncan. Macbeth’s sins are calculated transgressions; like Lear, Macbeth is a warrior, and acts with the swift acumen of the killer, but is also sensible to the horror he is about to commit. For Macbeth, the murder will be a trade or pact with fortune, his actions arise from his ability to manipulate and restrain moral inhibitions. Lear’s conscience, however is usually clear following erronous descisions, his actions are grounded in the moral order of his own psyche – he acts without doubt, whereas Macbeth must contend with self-doubt in the contemplation of his crime:
Art not thou fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? ‘ (Macbeth,) (13.)
Lear’s inability to reason is reflected in Goneril and Regan’s comments that Lear is mad:
Tis the infirmity of his age;
Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ (14.)

Lear’s preocupation with the occult, and with divine forces sugegsts an overreliance on religion as a justification for his own acts and beliefs. Lear’s early evokation of the gods when edicting jugement suggests this reliance on precepts of divine influence in kingship and social order. Similarly, when Lear falls from power, this reliance on the divine is reflected in his appeals to the Gods to restore his power. Lear’s later prayers are not so much an affirmation of his own kingly and divine status within cosmic order, but a stubborn appeal to the forces of fate and destiny which he still beleives determine his existance. Leggatt has described Lear’s refusal to abandon his old precepts as the attempt to maintain. not only identity but very fabric of his being:
Lear fights passionately at his noblest against the death of self.’ (15.)

The futility of these appeals are reflected in the sublimity of the storm scenes, which reflect not only the distemper of Lear’s conditon, but also the futility of his continued reliance upon the forces of cosmic order, as reflected in the immensity and impenetrability of the natural world:
Let the great Gods,
that keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. ‘ (16.)

Kent, whose authority we accept as the rational perspective in Lear’s court, insists that Lear is responsible for what is about to occur, Lear’s evokation of divine justice is hollow:
Now, by Apollo, King,
Thou swer’st thy Gods in vain. ‘ (17.)

Lear’s actions are the result of his own distemper, not the divine forces which he evokes so often; the very fact that the influence of the divine is rejected by Kent, and its validity dismissed in the futility of Lear’s later desperate appeals, suggests that Lear is responsible for his own fall. Shakespeare makes the point, that human action defines the future, rather than arbitary heavenly influence. This is seen in the consistant fall of characters who justify their actions or beleifs on the basis of natural order. Edmund, who professes a kinship with the predatory forces of nature, falls as a consequence of his ethically justified usurpation of Gloucester; his rejection of human and divine morality is the cause of his fall:
Edmund the base
Shall top th’legitimate – I grow, I prosper;
Now gods, stand up for bastards!’ (18.)

Similarly, Glocester professes the same kind of adherance to cosmic law as Lear’s belief in his daughters’ love. Gloucester, when convinced by Edmund of Edgar’s treachery, professes a belief in the natural’ loyalty of Edmund. This constant discussion of deception, appearance and inner reality, suggests that Shakespeare is attacking contemporary society’s respect for outward appearance. It is no coincidence that on stage, Edmund is often represented as a dashing, fashionably dressed aristocrat, and Edgar as an unkempt and absent minded bucolic:
Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means
To make thee capable. ‘ (19.)

Lear’s abdication is indecisive, and causes divisions in the kingdom, rather than settle them. The ensuring conflict between Goneril and Regan, and between Gloucester and Cornwall illustrates the chaotic effects of disunity. The cause of conflict between Lear and his daughters is Lear’s insistence on retaining the authority of king, after having supposedly granted them autonomy. The refusal of Goneril and Regan to tolerate Lear’s riotous troup is also a structural device, the daughters represent the chaotic forces that Lear has created. Gloucester’s philosiphising on the state of the nation following Lear’s division is reflected in astrological portends of disaster in the social and moral world:
Love cools, friendship falls off,
brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries,
discord; in palaces treason; and the bond cracked twixt
Son and father…’ (20.)

Lear’s descision to divide his kingdom, and relinquish power may lie in his simple inability to govern as an old man, although later feasting and carousing suggests otherwise. Lear is ultimately responsible for the degeneration of the nation, and it is his unsound policies which cause the disasters to come. Lear’s main mistake is in the way he abdicates power, we cannot help wondering if the nation could not have been better goverened, perhaps under Albany. We are inclined to consider the possibility that Lear’s flaw was sheer foolishness, rather than the results of a complex phychological condition. Lear develops a growing awareness of his mistake:
O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in,
And thy dear judgement out! ‘ (21)

The fool is another structural device by which we are convinced of Lear’s personal responsibility, he constantly reminds Lear of his spurrned responsibilities as King – and of the consequences of his mistakes:
Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wize’. (22.)

The results of Lear’s error in dividing the kingdom cummulates in his rejection onto the heath. Lear contests with the elements, trying to reason with the calamity which has robbed him of both power and identity as king. Lear’s madness results because he cannot accept the transition from king to man which he himself precipitated; the storm is both a metaphor for the turmoil of Lear’s mind, and the indifference of the cosmic order he clings to. Lear’s chastisement of the elements suggests a continued inability to understand the true fabric of human nature, and natural order. Rather than fully repent his sins, Lear pleads with the divine forces of destiny:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. ‘ (23.)

Lear’s reunion with Cordelia in Dover sees his return to sanity, and acceptance of his responsibility for the turmoil he has caused; Lear cannot beleive that he has been granted a reprieve, and thinks he is dead. Lear realises his past sins, and has accepted responsibility for his actions. Cordelia tells Lear not to kneel before her:
I now you do not love me; for your sisters
have as I remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.’ (24.)

Lear’s reconcilliation with Cordelia prompts the realisation of his errors, and of the invalidity of his former beliefs.
The failure of the battle with Edmund, and murder of Cordelia is the last damning indication from Shakespeare that Lear is not immune from the forces of evil, and that the erronous actions of all men, including kings, must bear consequences. Had Cordelia lived, this fact would have been obscured by the ensuing apparency of divine social order. In the words of Regan,
O! Sir, to wilful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters.’ (25.)

As has been demonstrated, the causes of Lear’s fall are manifold, but are ultimately traced back to an incapacity to reason, (Lear’s distemper,) and an inclination to deal rashly with situations.
Whilst we may have sympathies with Lear’s infirmities, and the bad luck in having daughters who are not only intolerant, but thoroughly evil, we must also remember Shakespeare’s obvious rejection of both divine influence, and the validity of fate. While the ending of Lear suggests the need to respond to tradgedy in a positive and reconstructive manner, this does not mean tragedy is inevitable. The active process of Albany and Edgar’s ressurection of the state is itself evidence of a beleif in the ability to determine events, rather than accept an apparently inevitable demise:
Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gorged state sustain.’ (Albany.) (26.)

The final message in the last scene, seems to suggest the importance and affirmation of moral order, but in a decidedly human, rather than divine context. Lear’s affirmation that Cordelia will never return affirms Kent’s comment that the situation is #cheerless, dark and deadly.’ Lear has brought about his own destruction, and has not been saved – a dammning indictment on the articificiality of Lear’s earlier divine ethics. The final destruction of Lear and Cordelia seems to epitomise Shakespeare’s portrayal of nature, as an environment in which both virtue and evil are physical realities, each contending for supremacy. Lear’s disasterous breakdown of social and political order induces the emergance of evil and anarchy – elements in human society that must be restrained in order to ensure the survival of civilisation and social order.
The human morality of virtuous men like Edgar and Albany are what sustains society, and will ensure its continuity. Shakespeare seems, therefore, to affirm the iportance of moral order in society, but also draws attention to the responsibility of individuals in maintaining that order. This suggests that whilst Shakespeare wants us to feel sympathy for Lear because of his flawed character, and the forces of evil that were beyond his control, it is ultimately Lear’s choice that determined his fall. Choice and destiny are invariably linked here, with little differentiation between the two. It is left to the audince to discern Shakespeare’s appeal for reason and the importance of choice amid the ambiguity of Lear. Lear himself sums up the neccessity of humanity to wake up to the fact that they are responsible for the determination of their own fate:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all,
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever! ‘ (27.)

In shakespeare’s Macbeth,’ we are presented with a very different protagonist, one whose breach of moral and social order is almost certainly deliberate and calculated.
Macbeth is a hero in the tradiitonal sense, the defender of the realm aginst the usurpation and invasion of Cawdor and the king of Norway. Macbeth is a Thane,’ a traditonal Anglo-Gaelic warrior, whose unquestioned, loyalty for his lord symbolised the pre-Norman structure of British society, in which blood ties and valour were the fabric of social and poitical order:
The services and loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highnesse’s part
Is to receive our duties.’ (28.)

The encounter of Macbeth and Banquo with the wierd sisters is the real begining of the play. It is here that Banquo and Macbeth are informed of the possibilities that lie before them, and of their limitations. The sisters’ function acheives one main thing here – it provides us with a disquieting view of the human psyche, one capable of contemplating acts normally considered inconceivable under the moral inhibitions of civilised moral and religious psychology. The sisters are certainly a supernatural presence in the play, although this sensationalising factor is subordinate to the purpose of revealing inner truths of human society. The world of Macbeth and Duncan is one based upon blood-ties and blood-letting; one in which the degeneration of man into a psychotic killer is accomodated alongside the tradiitonal moral/ religious framework. Perhaps the witches’ main purpose is to reveal just how fragile the moral framework is on the minds of those celebrated belligerants, whose ironic task is to maintain social order through the infliction of suffering and death. In Act One, Scene 1, the witches’ paradoxical images of battle and conflict reflect the contracdictary nature of a civilisation built upon blood:
When the hurly burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.’ (29.)

The witches seem aberrant cosmic forces that, spurning some higher order, dabble in the affairs of Duncan’s court. Perhaps this abberance is symbolic of Macbeth’s own deviance from normalcy, and from conventional ethics and morality. Macbeth blames his contemplation of the kingship on the cosmic forces he has encountered in the sisters, their prediction that he will become Thane of Cawdor becomes reality on approaching Duncan’s court:
This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill,
why hath it given me earnest of sucess
Commencing in a truth?’ (30.)

Macbeth’s acension to the title of Cawdor is itself a spur to ambition; the witches’ prophesy of kingship for Macbeth seems more symbolic than evidence of an actual influence on Macbeth in aspiring to usurp Duncan. The witches symbolise both the capacity of man to contemplate the prohibited, and his capacity to take the evil side in Shakespeare’s nature. On the investiture of Malcom as Prince of Cumberland,’ Macbeth describes his inner yearning to attain yet more power in Duncan’s court, despite his plea for fate to conceal its lure:
The prince of Cumberland – that is a step
On which I must fall down or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires… (31.)

Macbeth’s inner compulsions are corrupted by his own ambition, and fueled by the workings of chance – as seen in the prophesised acquisition of Cawdor’s title. Macbeth is also influenced by his wife, who encourages his ambition, prompting Macbeth’s descent into amorality:
But screw your courage to the sticking palce
And we’ll not fail. ‘ (32.)

The declaration by the sisters’ apparition also adds to Macbeth’s sense of ambition, and his capacity to attain the kingship. The second apparition suggests tthat Macbeth cannot be killed of a woman born,’ and that he should scorn his enemies:
Be bloody, bold and resolute, Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.’ (33.)

Macbeth’s inner convictions are torn between ambition and his own morality. Macbeth is fully conscious of what he contemplates – the bloody reality of murder, a transaction with evil which will yield the kingship:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong against the deed.’ (34.) 1.7. 13-14

Macbeth’s moral dilemma, enhanced by the provocations of Lady macbeth and the witches, suggests the presence of chioce in the psychology of Macbeth before murdering Duncan; his compulsion to carry out the act is full of self doubt and personal anguish. Macbeth’s descision is the particular dilemma of one of Shakespeare’s most rounded and developed characters; his pain in determining events is almost palpable in the text:
…the sightless couriers of the air.
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other.’ (35.)

Kenneth Muir has described Macbeth as a rounded character,’ one with the full attributes of character:
Here is not a petty scoundrel, but an extraordinary man, so capricious in feling and motive as to have a compelling representativeness. ‘ (36.)

Like Edmund in King Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth confess aleigance to forces of destiny and natural order which lie outside normal conventional morality and ethics. Like Edmund, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions are bourne out of a practical rejection of moral and social order, and they fall to the forces of virtue whose allegience is with social order and morality. The Avenging Macduff and Malcom are forces of social order, whose bloody confrontation with Macbeth will restore the social order of the state, and the ascendancy of Malcom. The supernatural element in the play, like the storm scene and constant allusion to divine forces in King Lear,’ suggests the presence of forces beyond our control in human society; perhaps, however, the supernatural simply symbolises evil, polarising the forces of morality and amorality as distinct elements in human society, and in the minds of the individual. The image of the bloody dagger, a phantasmorgic image of the mind, almost as ephemeral as the witches, symbolises Macbeth’s capacity to kill and reject his own moral psyche:
Is this a dagger which I see befoer me
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.’ (37.)

The second crime Macbeth committs is in the implication of Malcom and Donalbain as the murderers – the bloody daggers are placed with them as they sleep. This is a crime bourne out of neccessity, although Macbeth has regrets about his actions:
This is a sorry sight.’ (38.)

Banquo suggests that he is aware of Macbeth’s crime – his knowledge of the sister’s prophecy as Macbeth’s motive for the murder is a threat which demands either Macbeth’s or Banquo’s fall. Again, despite his reservations in harming Banquo, Macbeth is compelled to ensure his personal survival by having Banquo killed. The discussion of the murderers suggests Macbeth’s own murderous psyche, surviving through a bloody manipulation of events, and the rejection of fate:
So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,
That i would set my life on any chance
To mend or to be rid on’t.’ (39.)

Macbeth’s crimes are the consequences of necessity, but all stem from his initial crime in murdering Duncan. Once he has commited this act, he is compelled to degenerate even deeper into amorality and guilt. The inability to accept this warped moral psyche is seen in Macbeth’s frequent disturbing visions; the spectre of Banquo is an admission that his frend;s death was Macbeth’s responsisbility:
Thou cans’t not say i did it, never shake thy gory locks at me.’ (40.)

The meeting of Hecate and the witches suggests that Macbeth would never had attempted the murder of Duncan, had he not been enticed by the witches, this implies that divine influence has played some part in Macbeth’s descision, but is itself illustrative of the invalidity of predestination in cosmic order; the witches are unrestrained forces, symbolising the amoral and uninhibitive capacity of Macbeth to kill for personal gain, their superior, Hecate cannot control them – they symbolise the free agency of evil in Macbeth’s mind, rather than a concrete external influence:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death and bear
His hopes above wizdom, grace and fear.’ (41.)

Macbeth is like the transgressional witches, an offending Adam, whose sin is to attain a forbidden prize in the form of Duncan’s kingship. Macbeth’s fall from grace is a corruption of the mind, symbolising the capacity of man to kill and inflict sufering on his fellows; the witches’ unnatural images suggest Macbeth’s amorality:
Finger of birth-strangled babe
ditch delivered by a drab.’ (42.)

The attempted murder of Macduff is Macbeth’s last calculated attempt to maintain his crown, although this will produce the union of Malcom and Macduff against Macbeth.
The ensuing battle sees Macbeth again disregarding fortune – his attitude in battle is to continue his fight for survival, despite his realisation that he has little chance against his enemy’s 10,000 men:
I’ll fight till form my bones my flesh be hacked
Give me my armour.’ (43.)

Muir describes macbeth as a man of noble charcter, whose initial flaw is the only caus eof his total destruction:
Macbeth early gives every sign of having a conscience, and later he exhibits
qualities of admiration – resourcefulness under severley taxing stresses, readiness for intolerable difficulties, resolution, the philosophic cast of mind, endurnce, bravery’ (44.)
The fall of Macbeth in battle is similar to that of Edmund in King Lear,’ Macbeth’s sin in murdering Duncan precipitates all the other bloody acts in the play, and determins the course of Macbeth’s degeneration into a bloody murderer. Our sympathies for Macbeth lie in his inability to reverse his condiiton, despite regret for what he is compelled to undertake to survive:
I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.’ (45.)

The necessity of action following the initial sin is reflected in Kenneth Muir’s comment:
Perhaps what the play says is that such a crime has inevitable consequences, that worldly profit – goods, honour, power – is so corrupting that, once committed to it, the hero can never realy abdure it, can never really repent, and seeks ways of spiritual abduration.’
P. 31
Macbeth’s later descisions are bourne out of neccesity to side with amorality for survival, but his initial error – the cause of his fall, is his descision alone. Despite the influence of the Weird Sisters and of Lady Macbeth, we feel that Macbeth has made one fatal mistake as a result of his vaulting ambition,’ which has marred the fortunes of an otherwise virtuous and noble man. The symbology of the supernatural in the play seems to perform several function in the play: it polarises the two psychological states in Shakespeare’s conception of nature, as seen in King Lear;’ and it exposes the thin divide between morality and amorality in Elizabethan society, where violence and murder were integral to social convention, albeit under the names of patriotism and war.
Macbeth’s dilemma is that of all humanity, the inner instict to possess, in the course of which, all moral ethics are abandoned in attaining the desired result. Macbeth’s motives for killing reflect those of society – It is for survival that Macbeth continues to murder after his first fatal error, despite the repugance death holds for him:
I’ll go no more.
I am afraid to think what I have done,
Look on’t again I dare not.’ (46.)

In conclusion, Shakespeare seems to suggest the importance of human morality in the maintainence of social order, whilst the notion of destiny and fate is a psychological condition only, and not a true determinant of human affairs. Lear’s constant reference to divine and social order suggests the invalidity of predetermination, or the influences of divine agency, since Lear’s fall is also the fall of a psyche based upon a belief in personal inmmunity, and in the ethical structure of human nature, which her beleives will determine his daughter’s relationship with him. In Macbeth’s case, ambition and the calculated rejection of moral precepts is the cause of destruction. Wheras Lear violates moral and social order, producing an ensuing chaos, Macbeth is integral to that chaos, and symbolises the capacity of man to degenerate into murder and uninhibited savagery.
Shakespeare’s point in both plays, is the danger of social breakdown through the erronous actions of individuals, and of the affirmation of social and moral order throught the actions of virtuous men. In both plays, the validity of moral order is upheld, although the evil Lear and Macbeth have unleashed must bear the fruits of destruction. Divine justice could be said to triumph in the victories of Edgar and Macduff, but Shakespeare wants to make the point that divine order cannot reprieve the hero, or forces of morality. The forces of moral order must themselves act to staunch the wound caused by the forces of evil. It is for this reason that Macbeth is able to murder Banquo and Duncan, and to assume the role of King, despite his bloody and unnatural means of sucession; thef orces of evil are real, palpable and human, as are those of virtue.
Shakespeare wants to remind us of the importance of human morality, as oppoosed to divine justice. In King Lear, it is with the notion of moral responsibility that Lear constantly struggles on his path to self-discovery, and it is only in his eventual experssion of humility and plea for forgiveness that he is reconciled with Cordelia. Like the self-doubting Macbeth, Lear’s fall must continue to illustrate the consequences of irresponsible and amoral descisions. It is only in the active participation of moral order – seen in Malcom and Edmund, that morality triumphs.
The plays do therefore seem to suggest the importance of choice over predetermination or fate in the maintainence of social order within the nature of society. Similarly, both Lear and Macbeth do seem to act and react out of their own choices, rather than any kind of divine influence; their initial sin determins the inescapable retribution to follow, but it is their initial act which causes the subsequent chain of disasterous events.


Primary Texts:

The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997.
The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997.

Secondary Criticism:

Aspects Of Macbeth, Ed. K. Muir: Cambridge 1977.
King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988.
Shakespeare, The Poet and His Plays, S. Wells: Methuen 1997.
The Unnatural Scene, Michael Long: Methuen 1976.


(1.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 42-43
(2.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 37-40
(3.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 132-135
(4.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 50-51
(5.) King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988, P. 74
(6.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1.68
(7.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1.84-85
(8.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 93-94
(9.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 110-112
(10.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 121
(11.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 148-150
(12.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 167-70
(13.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.1. 36-37
(14.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 292-3
(15.) King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988, P.69
(16.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 3.2. 49-51
(17.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 159-60
(18.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.2. 21-22
(19.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 2.1. 84-85.
(20.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.2. 103-106
(21.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.4. 269-271
(22.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.5. 41
(23.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 3.2. 21-24
(24.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 4.7. 73-75
(25.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 2.4. 300-301.
(26.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 5.3. 319.
(27.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 5.3. 268-269
(28.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.4. 22-24
(29.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.1. 3-4
(30.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1-3. 129-131
(31) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.4. 48-51
(32) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 60-61.
(33) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 4.1. 95-97.
(34) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 13-14
(35) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 23-27
(36) Aspects of Macbeth – E. Kenneth Muir, Cambridge Press, 1977, P.28
(37) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.1. 3-9
(38) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.2. 17
(39) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.1. 113-115
(40) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.4. 49
(41) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.5. 32-32
(42) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 4.1.
(43) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 5.3. 32-33.
(44.) Aspects Of Macbeth, Ed. K. Muir: Cambridge 1977, P. 35
(45.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 5.5. 13-15
(46.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.3. 47-49.

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ (Henry IV Part 2.) Discuss the range of political success and failure, authority and weakness displayed by TWO of the monarchs of the Richard II – Henry V series of history plays.

(1) ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ (Henry IV Part 2.) Discuss the range of political success and failure, authority and weakness displayed by TWO of the monarchs of the Richard II – Henry V series of history plays.

Paul Catherall

When we first see Richard II it is in the aspect of a monarch who is ‘every inch the king’ (King Lear,) he hold court amid ceremony and tradition, the first view we have of him is in a setting much like that of the opening scene of king Lear, the king is the judge, administering the justice of his realm, like Lear, he is seen initially in a position epitomising power and kingly status, and like Lear, this power and sense of kingship will be put to the test, the results of that justice will blossom, the decrees of the king will have direct impact upon the king himself. Richard’s first act is to arbitrate between the dukes Mowbray and Hereford, Hereford (Henry Bolingbroke) has accused Mowbray of the murder of his and Richard’s uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, and of other treasonable offences, such as retaining a private army, and plotting against Richard; Richard asks them to each forget the accusations and be friends, but his argument lacks conviction. Richard’s speech is indecisive – indifferent to the murder of Gloucester; the two men openly argue in Richard’s presence – showing Richard to be a weak monarch.
Richard does not consider the merits of their argument, or any facts of Gloucester’s death, but decrees the men to trial by combat, a sign that Richard’s justice is antiquated and unsound, based upon Richard’s personal beliefs in the influence of divine order, much in the same manner as does King Lear in expecting his treacherous daughters to honour him as king after having placed himself under their power.

Richard seems more concerned with reconciling the two men than investigating their claims, or seeking justice:

‘Wrath kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me,
This we prescribe, though no physician-
deep malice makes too deep incision-
Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed.
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.’
1.1. 152-157

Richard is passive to the affairs of state, he cannot control or command with real efficacy, instead, he pleads with the supplicants, then decrees that they must fight under God’s arbitration, his belief that ‘God will provide’ justice as well as a resolution indicates his lack of control over the situation, and his inability to see true justice administered, it is ironic that Richard insists he will determine the outcome of the situation, when in fact he has consigned the outcome of the dispute to a justice of chance:

‘We were not born to sue, but to command,
which since we cannot do, to make you friends
be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry upon St. Lambert’s day.
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate…
we shall see
Justice design the victor’s chivalry.’
1.1. 194-203

In Act 1, scene 2, John of Gaunt comforts The widowed Duchess of Gloucester, she begs him to revenge her dead husband, Gaunt’s brother, but Gaunt reveals that Richard himself had the powerful noble slain out of jealousy; Gaunt calls Richard ‘God’s substitute,’ suggesting that Kings are exempt from the moral and social order of ordinary men, and that only heaven can enforce justice on Richard:

‘God’s is the quarrel – for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His Sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against his minister.’
1.2. 37-41

Like the gardeners later, the analogy is made between a minister: the King and, his congregation – the implication is that Richard has abused the privileges of kingship, and, as Gaunt predicts, he will face a retribution for his unjust behaviour.
In the duel scene, (Act 1 Scene 3) we witness one of the few violent episodes in the play. Despite the belligerent nature of the conflict, however, there is a great sense of ceremony about the proceedings, a sense of tradition and moral justice accompanies the fight – epitomising the facade morality of Richard’s court:

‘Marshall, demand of yonder champion
The cause of his arrival here in arms,
Ask him his name, and orderly proceed
To swear him in the justice of his cause…’
1.3. 7-10

Richard is a man who relies upon his own sense of divine inviolate worth, and despite the hints at corruption and murder suggested by Gaunt, he professes his own purity repeatedly. Richard states that he is the instrument of divine moral justice to both parties in the fight:

‘Such nearness to my sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.’
1.1. 120-122

Richard’s unexpected disillusion of the duel suggests his inconstant and rash character; Richard decides to banish the two men rather than have them fight, although the reason for this is unclear. It may be that Richard has sensed Henry Bolingbroke’s suspicion of Richard’s own involvement in the murder of their uncle, Gloucester – Gaunt’s brother, and Richard may have seen Bolingbroke as a threat to his own position, had Bolingbroke proved Mowbray guilty in combat, and then exposed the true murderer, who had instructed Mowbray to murder Gloucester, namely Richard himself. If this is true, then Richard proves himself a cunning manipulator, who under the guise of mercy appears impartial and unimplicated regarding the Gloucester incident.
Despite this cleverness, however, Richard demonstrates his inadequacy as king by reducing the sentence of exile for Bolingbroke – suggesting that although there may be reasoning behind his actions, they are still determined by momentary wiles; Richard plays with his the privileges and the power of kingship, at the expense of his own consistency and reputation.
In Act 1, scene four, Richard reveals his true, uninhibited amorality – he reveals his dislike for Bolingbroke, and an awareness of his cousin’s ambitious nature. This contemptuous outlook contrasts sharply with the supposed merciful banishment earlier, and accentuates the appearance of Richard as a man who cannot be ruthless when ruthlessness is required, and is passive when threatened (he could have had the suspicious Bolingbroke quietly murdered,) his actions are defined by personal whim and a desire to appear to the court as beneficent and commanding in the arbitrary role of supreme justice. In reality, Richard fully suspects Bolingbroke ambitions:

‘Ourself and Bushy
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts,
With humble and familiar courtesy…’
1.4. 23-26

Despite Richard’s awareness of Bolingbroke’s popularity, he does not seem to consider him any real threat, believing his position as king inviolate.

Richard states that he will finance his Irish expedition with illegal and violent extortion:

‘Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters,
Whereto, when they shall know what men are rich,
They shall subscribe for them large sums of gold…’
1.4. 48-50

Richard’s earlier concern with Gaunt’s plea to reduce the exile of Bolingbroke contrasts sharply with Richard’s contemptuous indifference with his uncle’s deteriorating health:

‘The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars…
Come gentlemen, lets all go visit him,
Pray God we may make haste and come too late!’
1.4. 60-63

In act 2, scene 1, Gaunt tells Richard that his days are numbered as king, predicting his eventual fall:

‘Oh no, thou diest, though I the sicker be.’
2.1. 92

Gaunt tells Richard that he is king only by right of power, and is above the law – rather than, as Richard boasts, anointed by God:

‘Landlord of England art thou now, not king,
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.’
2.1. 113-114

The image of a pelican, supposed a predatory and scavenging bird is echoed from other plays here – notably King Lear, who describes his cruel daughters as ‘pelicans,’ Gaunt describes Richard using animal imagery to describe his amorality and unrestrained desire to dominate and possess, particularly seen in the reference to Richard’s murder of Gloucester, of whose power Richard was envious:

‘That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.
My brother Gloucester, plain, well-meaning soul…
Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!’
2.1. 126-132

Richard’s declaration that he will have Gaunt’s lands following his imminent death indicates his inability to deal tactfully with Bolingbroke, who as Gaunt’s son should inherit Gaunt’s estates. By stubbornly claiming Gaunt’s properties, Richard provides Bolingbroke with a personal and legal excuse to contend with Richard for power – a claim he later uses as justification for his uprising against Richard:

‘Towards our assistance we do seize to us…
The plate, coin, revenues, and movables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.’
2.1. 160-163

At the close of scene 1, Northumberland reveals to Richard’s nobles that Bolingbroke has massed an invasion fleet from Brittany, and will invade as soon as Richard leaves for Ireland. In Act 2.2 we learn that Richard’s nobles have fled to Henry following his landing at Ravenspurgh. Richard has lost the backbone of his support to Bolingbroke, he has been unable to retain the loyalty of his supporters because of his refusal to listen to the advice of men such as York and Gaunt Bushy comments:

‘ For us to levy power
Proportional to the enemy
is all impossible.’
2.2. 127-129

In Act 2 scene 3, Henry persuades his uncle the Duke of York at Berkeley castle to permit the revolt, claiming that Henry wants only to claim the lands and titles stolen by Richard from Gaunt. York suspects Bolingbroke’s ambitions, but says he will neither hinder nor help Bolingbroke. As Richard’s regent whilst in Ireland, this is perhaps the most exemplary indication of Richard’s fall from popularity and authority:

York: ‘ I have had feelings of my cousin’s wrongs,
and laboured all I could to do him right…’
2.3 141-142

In act 2 scene 4, Richard’s tardy return from Ireland to meet the revolt is met as a sign of imminent doom by the Welsh Captain, who describes discord in nature as accompanying the tide of change following the revolt; Richard has behaved unnaturally, and the disturbance he has created in the social and moral world is reflected in the natural:

Welsh Captain ‘These signs forerun the death or fall of kings…
Farewell, our countrymen are gone or fled,
As well assured Richard, their king is dead.’
4.7. 15-17

The execution of Bushy and Green by Bolingbroke at Bristol reveals Bolingbroke’s sense of power and authority in administering justice; the executions are a sharp contrast to the old feudal trial-by-combat justice that Richard entertained with Bolingbroke and Mowbray. The actions of are decisive and ruthless, unlike Richard whose actions are inconclusive and weak by comparison. The implication is that Henry is king in all but name, despite his continuing insistence that the Dukedom of Lancaster is his aim. This act serves to demonstrate a contrast between Richard, who clings to his kingship whilst deprived of power, and Henry who now has that power, Bolingbroke takes on the manner of a king:

‘Bring forth these men…
Bushy and Green, I will not vex your souls,
Since presently your souls must leave your bodies.’
2.4. 25-27

In Act three, scene 2, Richard returns from Ireland, discovering that his Welsh army has disbanded, and his supporters defected to Bolingbroke. As we often see in Richard, he swings between exuberant arrogance for Bollingbroke, confident that his cause will win simply because of his divine right – and the total despair of the fallen hero, whose tragic flaw (or hubris) has been his undoing:
‘Now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled…’
3.2. 75-76

Salisbury tells Richard that the Duke of York and the Welsh army have defected to Bolingbroke, Richard consoles himself by asserting his divine status as king:

‘Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?’

Scrope reports Bolingbroke success in raising an English army, at which point, Richard begins a transformation into despair:

‘Discharge my followers, let them hence away,
From Richard’s night, to fair day.’
3.2. 218-219

Richard’s fall from power seems to bring out a sense of nobility and endurance lacking when he held power, York comments that Richard truly looks like a King now that he is in the face of adversity, like King Lear, he has had to realise the true corruptible nature of the world and vulnerability of kings as men to appreciate what it means to be king:

York: ‘Yet looks he like a king! behold his eye,
As bright as is the eagle’s…
Controlling majesty.’
3.3. 68-70

Richard himself repents his past mistakes and wishes he could have dealt more fairly with his country and nobles:

‘…O, that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!’
3.3. 136-139

Richard attempts to ease matters by granting Bolingbroke Gaunt’s lands, and accompanies him to London; in act Three Scene 4, Richard’s Queen learns of this from gardeners at the duke of York’s garden – at this point, Shakespeare compares Richard to a gardener who has been invested, like Adam to tend the garden of England:
Gardener: ‘Our sea-Walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars.’
3.4. 44-8

This is an example of the measured, lyrical style seen in the play, as a literary expression of the state of the kingdom. Blank verse is used – drawing attention to the gardeners with their uncharacteristic dialogue, suggesting the metaphorical, deeper meanings behind the gardener’s talk.

In Act four, scene 1, Richard sends York to announce his decision to abdicate and pass the crown to Bolingbroke. On Henry’s request, Richard himself arrives to publicly abdicate; during this inevitable affair, Richard demonstrates strength and dignity, reminding Bolingbroke and his supporters of their betrayal of him as king. Richard’s speech convinces The Bishop of Carlisle, Duke Aumerle and their followers to attempt another coup to restore Richard, suggesting that he has earned their admiration since his fall from power.

In Act five, scene 4, Sir Piers of Exton plans to murder Richard at Pomfret, and in act five we see Richard meditating on his failures as king, and trying to reconcile himself with his probable death, Richard’s groom enters, and tells Richard of Bolingbroke’s coronation – Richard predicts that Bolingbroke will fall:
‘Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?’
5.5. 88-89

Richard declares that he has lost patience with Bolingbroke and his keepers, he beats the servant bringing him food, Exton and his men enter, who murder Richard; during the fight, Richard takes an axe from a guard and kills two men before he is cut down. Richard dies with the dignity and valour of a king, and predicts that the unlawful king will fall, and England with him:

‘That hand shall burn in never quenching fire
That staggers thus my person: Exton, thy fierce hand
hath with the king’s blood stained the king’s own land…’
5.6. 108-110

Ultimately, Richard has to be viewed as a bad king, whose inability to rule justly, to satisfy those around him and to control events in a decisive manner lead to a tragic fall from grace. It is the tragedy of Richard’s fall that prompts our sympathy for him; since from this process, Richard emerges with a new awareness of moral order, and realises how his own mistakes have been his undoing. Like Lear, he only truly understands his own vulnerability when it it too late, and his power has been stripped away, leaving him a man without an identity. Richard ‘s success lies largely in his later development, his callous treatment of Gaunt and Bolingbroke,and his indescisive administration all mark his reign upto the abdication as unsucessful. It is only when adversity has overtaken Richard that his character develops, demontrating Rchard’s courage and ability to keep sane – unlike Lear during his gradual fall from power.
Richard’s reign is not successful, his authority and political power have few high points, but he does retain the respect of many nobles, including York, who describes him as a true king at Flint:

‘Yet looks he like a king, behold his eye!’
3.3 68-71

Ultimately, Richard is seen by many of the nobles as the rightful king, and successor to william I, this is reflected in Carlisle’s horror at the deposition, suggesting that Bollingbroke will never entirely fill the place of Richard as king.

In henry V, we see a marked contrast in character to Richard II.

Henry, or Hal, the son of Henry Bolingbroke considers his claim to the French throne under ‘Salic Law’, and must decide how to respond to the insults of the French Dauphin; the result is a descision to go to war with France, and preparations are made at Southampton for a fleet to cross the channel.

In Act 1 scene 1, we see Hal’s resolve and patriotism as King and – he seems to exude the same regal aspect as Richard II, but does so with regard for the opinions of his nobles, and supposedly, the greater good of his country. Hal repeatedly asks the Archbishop of Canterbury if he has the right to force his claim:

‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’
1.1. 96

There is a great sense of legitimacy generally about Hal’s court; we must remember that Hal is the rightful heir to Bolingbroke, and as such is a lawful and natural king, who has inherited by descent, unlike Bolingbroke, who seems never to have the total loyalty and status as king possessed by his son. Hal is seen here working with the consent of his nobles:

Exeter: ‘Your brother kings and monarchs of the earth
Do all expect that you should rouse yourself
As did the former lions of your blood.’
1.2. 121-123

Hal is also seen working with the church, perhaps the ultimate symbol of moral, political and spiritual legitimacy:

Canterbury: ‘O let their bodies follow my dear liege,
With blood and sword and fire to win your right;
In aid whereof, we of the spirituality
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum…’
1.2. 130-133

In this respect, it may almost seem as if Hal is being manipulated by the ambitions and intrigues of court, and popularism of anti-French feeling amongst the nobility. His shrewd questioning and probing into the legitimacy of the situation suggests however that Hal is not to be led easily, and is seen only to make his decision after the insult from France, when the Dauphin sends tennis balls with his ambassadors:

‘We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.’
1.2. 263-264

The strength and conviction Hal shows in deciding he will go to war has been made after much consideration, taking into account the feelings of his court and the financial cost of war; this has not been decided rashly, or in an undecided fashion, but is the result of reasoning and conviction.
Hal is highly regarded by his court, who consider him a noble and legitimate monarch, the comment of the Dauphin that he is still reckless perhaps angers Hal, inflamed by the Dauphin’s contemptuous refusal to Acknowledge Dukedoms to Hal once possessed by his great grandfather King Edward:

Hal: ‘And we understand him well,
How he comes over us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them…
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king and show my sail of greatness.’
1.2 267-275

Hal’s response to the Dauphin’s insult adds to the justifiction for war, and we are unsure whether Hal really takes the formal justifications seriously, or whether or not he simply plays along with the situation to take advantage of events to justify his own ambition to begin a war with France.
The question of justification for the invasion of another country is discussed purely in terms of cold legitimacy, hireditary right and patriotism. France is the hereditary enemy, and French xenophobism when combined with every other justification seems to legitimise the war on France as a question of kingly duty and patriotism.
In this respect, Hal is seen as the figurehead of the nation, he is seen in the semi-divine terms of a national hero; this aspect of Hal is suggested in Act 2 scene 1, when low life characters are seen voicing support for Hal. Even the populous love and respect their king:

Nym: ‘the king is a good king…’
2.2 125

The appearance of thre loyal subjects in this act contrasts with the discussion of three traitors in the previous chorus at the end of act 1, suggesting the loyalty of the common people for their king..
When the traitors are met by Hal, he tells Scroop to realease a man who attacked the royal party, when the traitors suggest punishment, Hal tells them they have condemned themselves. Unlike Richard II, who banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Hal deals ruthlesly with any threat, and has the traitors executed:

‘Get ye therefore hence,
poor miserable wrethches to your death,
the taste God whereof his mercy give
You patience to endure.’
2.2. 178-180

Hal is seen at this point as an avenging angel, a divine agent to set at rights his claim to the kingship of France, he is conceived by Shakespeare as a man whose every action seems righteous, without self-doubt and with the welfare, or at least honour and nobility of England at heart. He never seems to regret past actions, save perhaps in his younger days, and only truly questions the neccessity of war when on the battlefield with his troops. Until then he is the archetypal knight-king, or Crusader, epitomising material strength and power, but in the name of religion and legitimacy; these aspects of Hal are seen repeatedly in his speeches and in the prologue/chorus, where Hal becomes the essence of patriotism and national strength in the coming war. Hal’s is a simple, but apparently flawless character, and must be seen in terms of the play’s context as an ideal, a rousing chilvraic epic of national unity and self-affirmation. The repetition of classical and Biblical ferefences invest Hal with divine purpose and charisma – especially in his portrayal as a ‘Mars,’ with whom ride the four horsemen of the Apocalypse:

‘Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of mard, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
crouch for employment.’
1. prologue 5-8

One of Hal’s most powerful allies is propoganda and popular beleif, his reputation and pouplarity is almost a religion amongst every aspect of court and commons:

Cambridge: ‘Never was monarch better feared and loved
Than is your majesty; there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.’
2.2 25-28

Hal as a true representative of God, or divine morality is seen in highly militant and retributional terms, his surety of character and sense of purpose is strengthened by his resolve to settle things quickly and ruthlessly, seen in his execution of the traitors, his rejection of Falstaff to persue matters of state and embrace the resposibilities of his own maturity, and in his resolve to fight the French, rather than abdure their insults. His morality is in fact much like that of the Old Testament, harsh, retributional and ruthlessly effetive. Hal ensures success through consistent ruthlessness; thus, he hangs Bardolph as an example to his army to retain order. In Act three scene three he threatens to destroy Harfleur and massacre it’s citizens if the town does not surrender:

‘Your fresh virgins and your flowering infants –
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?’
3.3 14-18

Hal constantly seems the pious and patriotic monarch, his justification for war comes from the support of his nobles, the insistence of the clergy in his rights under Sallic law, the insults of the Dauphin and the resulting injured pride of England and his ancestors. Hal blames the French for the war, suggesting that the French king holds his throne unlawfully, and that Harfleur can only expect destruction if it fails to surrenderto it’s true lord, since Hal will be unable to control his men upon taking the town!:

‘Therefore men of Harfleur,
take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command.’
3.3 27-29

Many of Hal’s claims as justification for the war sem unsound: on taking Harfleur, with little chance of taking France, Hal is offered lands and titles in France for peace, rougly equal to what he demanded of the French king before the war, he refuses, and continues the fight. Similarly – his claims of an uncontrollable army are unsound, he hangs Bardolph for stealing from a church, suggesting an ability to at least enforce order in the army.
Hal therefore manipulates situations and language to best effect, taking advantage of every justification available to get everything he wants whilst appearing a noble and righteous king, Hal’s ability to use language to suggest concord with France after conquoring her is seen in Hal’s meeting with Princees Kate:

‘In loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that i will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and Kate, when france Iis mine, and I am yours, then france is yours and you are mine.’
5.2 171-176

Hal wanders amongst the troops on the eve of Agincourt, probing the thoughts of his soldiers, he dresses as a common man, and questions the soldiers about the king and the righteousness of the war; one man suggests that if it is an unrighteous war, Hal will be juged on the day of Reckoning:

Bates: ‘ Now if these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king, that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.’
4.1 145-147

Hal reveals his ability to inspire his men in the Crispin’s day speech, he addresses his soildery as ‘brothers,’ insisting that England is united in this army, under a righteous, Christian king. This speech typifies the kind of rousing speeches used by Hal to sway opinion and encourage affection and loyalty for himself from the people, strengthening his own ego amonst mases and nobles:

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’re so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.’
4.3 60-63

Hal’s success is more than a story of personal strength and loyalty, but one of god-given right and piety in the face of French arrogance – France is seen as a provocative aggressor, rathen than a nation threatened with conquest; to resolve this predicament, we are presented with the final union of the two nations in the marriage of Hal and Kate. This almost fairy-tale ending softens the harsh patriotic ruthlesness of the play, and introduces a more intimate and human aspect to Hal, who may be seen in the full context as a beligerent and belevolent king, a warrior and a husband, through whom England will find a resolution to the war.

Ultimately, the two kings contrast sharply: whilst Richard is weak and indesicive, Hal is conclusive and sefinately the stronger character. Whilst Richard lacks resolve, Hal is unhesitant in choosing the most roothless of available options to ensure success.
Like Bolingbroke, Hal possesses ruthless efficiancy in his undertakings, but unlike Bolingbroke, hal is not disturbed by self doubt, and does not question his own right as king as his father did after usurping Richard. In many respects Richard’s reign is wholly tragic, with little political success or sense of real, lasting authority – Richard’s weakness to make enemies, then allow them to destroy him is seen in reverse in Hal, who continualy gains support from all quarters of scociety, invites the masses and nobles to be his ‘brother’ and share in his glory, and resoundingly crushes any opposition he meets, such as the hanging of bardolph and execution of the traitors, and also his threat to anihilate Harfleurs. Hal is also able to reconcile enemies, he can be a statesman nd diplomat as well as patriot, seen in his marriage to Kate of France. This ability to bring concord out of his own destruction virtually excuses Hal for justification in an agressive war.
Ultimately, the two kings are very different, perhaps reflected in their differing plays – Henry is a hero, his play is a patriotic yarn, and celebration of national strength; Richardd’s play is more objective and perhaps historically accurate – but is presented as a tradgedy on par with Shakespeare’s great tradgedies, most strikingly similar to Lear.

Braine’s primary aim is to encourage his readers to reflect on the political and social systems around them.’ Discuss the ways in which Braine achieves this in Room At The Top.

Braine’s primary aim is to encourage his readers to reflect on the political and social systems around them.’ Discuss the ways in which Braine achieves this in Room At The Top.

Paul Catherall

John Braine’s novel ‘Room At The Top,’ is both the novel of an individual, and an entire generation. Written in 1957, it offers an insight into the cultural milieu of the post-war period, and provides a critical view of the society of the fifties from a working class perspective.
Although the novel is less concerned with politics, and more with the condition of individuals within an existing social framework, it is perhaps worth considering the possible influence of contemporary social, cultural and political events. The immediate post war era was a period of uncertainties for Britain; in particular, the nineteen fifties saw Britain’s world influence diminish, as the balance of power moved unalterably from the old European empires of France, Germany and Britain, to the new superpowers of the United States and the U.S.S.R. This sense of national insecurity came to a head in 1956 with the Suez crisis, when Britain was forced by protest at home, and by the international community to withdraw her military presence at the Suez canal. For many, the withdrawal of the British from Egypt signalled not only the end of the Imperial era, but the decline of a backwards looking, hierarchical establishment.
Social and political hegemony during the nineteen fifties was also destabilised by the arms race, and by the polarisation of ideologies between the capitalist West and Socialist Russia. The threat of nuclear war following the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was intensified by diplomatic suspicion and unease between the superpowers following the invasion of Hungary and isolation of Eastern Berlin by Russia in 1945. Popular culture immediately registered the unease felt over the cold war, seen in the establishment of CND in 1958, and in subsequent popular demonstrations held around Britain.
Following the aftermath of the Second World War, the British industrial framework had been left fragmented; the economy, in depression, was largely still confined to American support, and the return of thousands of British servicemen brought mass unemployment to many of the larger cities. The popular belief that prosperity was at hand following the end of hostilities was largely unfounded, demonstrated by continued shortage of foods and luxury items, and by the government’s use of rationing until 1952.
During the 1946-51 Labour administration, social welfare became the focus of government policy. The National Health and Social Security services provided the working classes with a better standard of living, although educational opportunities for the working classes were still limited.
With the ascendancy of the Conservatives under Churchill in 1951, many working class people felt betrayed and isolated, as the government implemented it’s Industrial Charter, supporting the capitalist economy with favourable free trade policies for business, but paying what many considered too little attention to much needed reforms in education and working class living conditions.
It is in this bitter, often cynical vein that Braine delivers his critique of British society. Joe Lampton is not just the study of a character at odds with a restricted and often oppressive social hierarchy, but representative of the whole post-war generation which found itself heir to a rapidly changing but still undeveloped Meritocracy.
To defend realism in the 1950s was to be aligned not only with empiricism, common sense.. along the lines of fielding and dickens, but also with a broad commitment to liberal humanism. (23)
When we first see Joe Lampton in Chapter 1 of Room At The Top, we are presented with an idealistic, yet dissipated’ young man; the dynamic image of the train suggests social mobility and is a metaphor for Joe’s sense of relentless ambition:
“I was a dissipated traveller… directionless, mobile, violently hurtling to a better life. (1.)

Incidental comment on characters and surroundings often emphasise Braine’s emphasis on society and class, this is reflected in Joe’s constant allusion to his former working class status:
‘The clothes were my Sunday best… the most expensive I’d ever possessed…’ (2.)

The use of the retrospective narrative voice adds an objective tone to the narrator’s opinion of Joe, this is often revealed through the use of subtle metaphors. The narrator emphasises that Joe is defined by his environment, the tie-pin, shaped like a dagger, suggests how objects of everyday domesticity represent the individual’s conformity to convention:
the knot of my tie, held in place by a hideous pin shaped by a dagger.’ (3.)

The cynicism with which the narrator recalls his earlier life suggests the naiveté of the younger man, and the dissolution and negativity of the narrator; the younger man lacks a kind the sophistication which the acquisition of money and experience brings:
‘My face was unused… not an innocent face, but naive of the muck one wades through to get what one wants…” (4)

The beginning of Joe’s new social mobility rests upon the support of the landlady at his bedsit, his use of standard English and adherence to upper class social convention initiates him into the world of the middle classes:
I had the impression of passing some test.” (5)

Joe constantly compares the world of the mill-town with that of the Top, this presence of binary opposites is present throughout the novel, drawing our attention to contemporary social reality, and the gulf between rich and poor:
‘My lodgings might have easily been one of those scruffy little houses by the station… I instead, I was going to the Top…’ (6)

Joe’s humorous description of Dufton is bitterley ironic, his remark that the river runs different colours suggests the decay and social exploitation of the industrial north:
“A lot of mills. And a chemical factory. And a Grammar school and a war memorial and a river that runs different colours each day.” (8)

Similarly, the contented world of the middle classes reflects Joe’s new optimism, absent from the confined world of the dismal mill towns:
“It was as if every sound – the wood fire’s friendly crackling., the tingle of crockery, the splash of running water – were invented for my pleasure.” (11)

The idylicism of the Thompson household is contrasted with the conformity and respectability of the town hall:
“As soon as I passed the front door, I recognised the municipal smell of radiators, disinfectant and floor polish… I’d forgotten how depressing it could be.”(12)

Joe is ultimately a member of the working classes who had been accepted into a new and better world. The experience is at first unreal for him, he feels as if he is experiencing an illusion or dream. A metaphor for Joe’s inability to accept this new reality is seen in his falling in the park, when the sudden sensation of pins and needles causes him to stumble after being numb. Joe’s first impression after recovering from numbness is of the colour of the surrounding park:
“It was as if some barrier had been removed, everything seemed intensely real, as if I were watching myself take part in a documentary film… The black cobbles splashed green and yellow and red with squashed fruit and vegetables…” (14)

Joe is frustrated by his own working class status, this is emphasised when he sees an expensive Aston-Martin car, with a glamorous young couple, working class dissatisfaction and frustration overcomes Joe’s earlier suppression of envy:
“I wanted a three guinea linen shirt, I wanted a girl with a Riviera suntan – these were my rights, I felt, a signed and sealed legacy.” (15)

The older narrator admits that he felt envy as a young man. Joe’s grading system is a safety valve for suppressed anger:
‘It was an incantation, a ritual; the frank admission of envy somehow cleansed us of it…” (16)

Joe is embittered by the lack of rights the working classes have against the ruling elite, he has voted for the previous labour government, but only because of his hatred for the ruling classes. Joe exposes working class apathy, and inability to fight contemporary injustice:

I wasn’t I may add, bothered about all this from a political point of view though if I’d been in a job where I was allowed to take part in politics I might have tried to clear up the mess – eventually, I suppose form a place like Hampstead, which, believe it or not is where Dufton’s Labour MP lives.(I voted for him in 1945…. …partly because the Tory candidate was a relative of the Torves, who owned the biggest firm in Dufton, and I wasn’t going to help them in any way -it would have amounted to licking their already well-liked boots.’) (20)

Far from supporting his town, or the working class itself, Joe instead seeks to join his so called enemies, as far as he is concerned, his humbler origins are best forgotten:
Dufton was dead, dead, dead…’ (21)

The encounter with Jack Wales and Susan reinforces this idea of social displacement. Joe is a child of the working classes, and identifies the upper classes as his enemies, yet he attempts to court one of their number simply for personal gain. Paradoxically, Joe defends his working class origins when confronted by Jack, the distinction between their wartime rank emphasises the survival of traditional class prejudice in society:
‘I knew him straight away. the big RAF moustache was worn with the right degree of nonchalance; he’d been an officer, it was an officer’s adornment. I never grew one myself for precisely that reason…’ (22)

Cultural inferiority is also one of Joe’s frustrations, the Thespians poke fun at Jack for slouching or mis-pronouncing his lines, but to Joe these are insults to his potential to be a success:
D’Ebon Rides Again,’ said Alice, ‘What a thought- erotic vices among the working classes..
I am working class,’ I said sulkily. And you needn’t explain your little quip. I know all about the Chevalier. I read a book once.’ (24.)

The new social mobility of the working classes is reflected in the skills Joe has acquired during his RAF service, for many young, working class men, the services have provided a new sophistication and self awareness. This sense of radical change in outlook and experience in the young men who returned from war, is reflected in Joe’s accountancy training whilst a prisoner of war, and in his ability to drive – then an occupation of the few:
‘Can you drive?’
‘Oddly enough, yes, I said.’ (25)

The drive to the St. Claire’s pub takes Alice and Joe past the Brown residence, Joe has never actually seen such opulent surroundings before, impressing his limited, and working class background and experience:
We were driving down Poplar avenue. From a big house to our left came a blaze of light and music. There was a gate half open in the high wall. I caught a glimpse of water and a white platform. My God!’ I said, ‘A swimming pool.’ (26)

Information and knowledge are essential to social mobility. Jack Wales is a member of the wealthy elite, and as such can afford to study Science at Cambridge, Joe has had to study whenever the opportunity has presented itself, thus his education in accountancy whilst actually a prisoner of war. Information and knowledge are the bastions of power, this is reflected in the close proximity of the library to the centre of power in Warley:
‘The library shared the same building as the town hall.’ (27)

To Joe, the world of university represents the domination of an oppressive establishment, reflecting the reality of the education system of the nineteen fifties, when compulsory secondary education had just come into being, but little provision had been made for higher education outside the precincts of the old Universities. For Joe, the University is a school for the future ruling class:
And over it all, the atmosphere of power, power speaking implacable standard English, power which was power because it was born of the right family, always knew the right people: if you were going to run the country you couldn’t do without a University Education.’ (28)

The futility of Joe’s predicament in desiring power and wealth is impressed through the Juxtaposition of the former scene, where Joe imagines the power and advantages of Jack Wales and with one where Joe phones Susan at a broken phone booth, in the faint hope that she will consent to go out with him:
There was a pane missing in the kiosk and a cold wind blew in. My hands were shaking with excitement…’ (29)

Despite his disadvantages, Joe must adopt the mannerisms of the upper classes to appear an acceptable suitor for Susan. On one hand he condemns the establishment, describing the upper classes as his enemies, and on the other hand, he imitates and attempts to embrace this new affluent society. Joe compares his situation with that of the allegorical fairy tale prince, admitting that he is the pauper:
Susan was a princess and I was the equivalent of a swine herd. I was, as you might say, acting out a fairy story. the trouble was that there were more difficult obstacles than dragons and enchanters to overcome.’ (29)

Joe’s frank admission that he is exploiting the socialites of warley suggests a comment from Braine on the nature of morality and ethics. Just as Joe suggests that the Thompson boy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he admits that he is no gentleman, but merely seizes the opportunities that life offers. Braine exploits traditional working class values, highlighting the moribund and degenerate affairs of the Thespians, who, like Eva Storr, assume the hypocritical appearance of upper class respectability and superiority, whilst being unfaithful to their spouse. Joe ‘s relationship with Alice is also amoral by traditional standards, he consciously disregards convention and sleeps with an older woman. Joe’s admission of guilt suggests not a condemnation of extra marital affairs, but
seeks to expose the hypocritical social reality of the upper classes.
June calls Joe a gentleman, but he admits that he can never be one in the true sense of the word:
‘Don’t depend on it I said.’ (30)

Braine does seem to attack the social superiority of the upper classes, perhaps questioning their divine rights to influence and govern the rest of the society. Almost all the wealthy, successful inhabitants of warley have inherited rather than earned their wealth; what we witness is a general pattern in the narrator’s subtle descriptions of these entrepreneurs, describing them as physically gross, degenerate or warped in some way. their dress is usually ostentatious, as if emphasising their enhanced social status, they have frequently pale and pallid complexions, and appear just as depressing and confined by their circumstances as the poor. George Aisgill is drawn and lean of build, he sips he whiskey like medicine, and eats sparsely:
it was if he’d deliberately chosen masculinity because it was more comfortable and profitable…’ (31)

The dinner with the Aisgills particularly reflects the sterility of their class, they have no children, and their marriage seems based purely on social and financial motives. When Joe is driven to their bare, 1930s functionalist style house, he reflects on their wealth, considering the ostentatiousness of their car:
‘It was like being in a mobile drawing room; except that it was a great deal more comfortable than many drawing rooms.’ (32)

Passing the Wales’ mansion, Joe is impressed by the enormity of the task that lies before him in securing Susan; the working classes inhabit a different reality from that which his rival Wales comes, Joe’s repetition of the word and suggests the awe felt by a child at something beyond their comprehension:
‘It was a mansion in fact, a genuine Victorian mansion with turrets and battlements and a drive at least quarter of a mile long and a lodge at the gate….’ (33)

The working class concern with rationing is mad fun of by the aisgills, reflecting contemporary concerns over fair food supplies between the classes. Joe says the Aisgills have used up their ration – they insist they have ‘lots more.’ the Aisgills obviously eat better than the average family because of their connections and are able to bypass rationing, rather than condemn this injustice, Joe becomes a willing participant in this minor crime:
It was perfectly clear, and I enjoyed the meat all the more. It was like driving Alice’s car; for a moment I was living on the level I wanted to occupy presently. I was the hero of one of those comedies with a title like King for a day… tasting the undeniable reality of home killed beef and feeling the whiskey warm in my belly, put myself into George’s shoes.’ (34)

The relationship with Susan emphasises Joe’s humble origins, he frequently admits to using Susan simply for social advancement, this is seen when he takes her to an expensive cafe:
‘She was my passport, it was her sort of place…’ (35)

Joe cannot seem to find happiness with Susan, and finds her company almost irritating; he secretly envies her privileges. Susan suggests that her father had much responsibility during the war. Joe reflects that the war must have been a boom period for many businessman, reflecting contemporary distrust of those entrepreneurs who had profited from wartime industry:
What fun he would have had too, I thought. The rich always had the most fun during the war. They had the double pleasure of influencing the course of events and making themselves still richer..’ (36)

With Alice, however, Joe has discovered a warm and loving friendship, and is able to express his true feelings. The relationship is however slightly maternal, and reflects Joe’s displacement from society as one made parent less by war. Alice’s own barrenness also suggests a maternal void filled by Joe. the relationship draws attention to the confined and restricted morality of the nineteen fifties, since their relationship will ultimately be broken partly by social pressure:
‘When Alice came to sit beside me the sense of pleasure increased. I felt reassured too, protected like a child…’ (37)

Joe repeatedly transgresses the moral parameters of convention, by taking out Susan, he violates the social code of the good match between individuals with the same financial background, thus incurring the displeasure of the establishments committee. Braine seems to pose the lower class individual against society from almost every angle, this defiance of convention is a challenge to conventional social boundaries:
‘I was the devil of a fellow, I was the lover of a married woman, I was taking out the daughter of one of the richest men in Warley, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do… (38)

At Christmas, Joe stays in Dufton, but is displeased with his town, after the experience of warley ,he views his old home as an industrial backwater:
‘It was too low, too dingy, too working class…’ (39)

When Joe meets George, they discuss beer, the bulwark of the north,’ commenting that this kind of social activity is a content way to control society. This message seems a comment from Braine on the ineffectuality of the working classes:
‘The mainstay of the industrial north… If the Dufton pubs closed for just one day, there wouldn’t a be a virgin or an unbroken window left by 10 o clock.’ (40)

The inadequate social system of the northern towns is demonstrated in Aunt Emily’s discussion of fatalities in the family, she wants to remind Joe of the advances he has made, in contrast to the bitter hardships of the past. She cautions against marrying too far above himself:
‘you’re grandpa wo’r killed at the mill… and not a penny piece compensation did your grandma get….Money marries money lad. be careful she doesn’t break your heart.’ (41)

Joe’s response reveals the apathy of the working classes to content themselves with their lot, Joe defies her aunt – he will have Susan, regardless of his true feelings for her:
‘I love her. I ‘m going to marry her.’ But I felt shamefaced as I spoke.’ (42)

Joe’s response to the second world war is reflected in his description of his old home, now a burnt out ruin, his thoughts are of wasted lives and injustice on the most vulnerable members of society:
A sluggish wind crept down from the Pennines, cold and damp and spiteful, trying to find a gap in my defences… it had no power over me now, it was a killer only of the poor and the weak.’ (43)

The memory of walking through the ruined house suggests braine’s desire to reflect the full horrors of war as it truly affected the ordinary man ,without the subjectivity of propagandist sentiment:
But what made me really sick was treading on a piece of flesh which squirmed from under my foot like a mouse… I couldn’t connect it with father and mother. I refused to accept it.’ (44)

Similarly, Alice discusses the hidden trauma of the servicemen, exposing the little discussed agony of a generation of young men scarred by the experience of war, and perhaps the frustrations of many British people with the propaganda and patriotism that surrounded the myth of England and the cause that so many young men died for:
‘All these men, so well mannered and mild and agreeable – but what’s behind it all? Violence and death. They’ve seen things which you’d think would drive anyone mad, and yet there’s no trace.’ (45)

The town hall officers also discuss the war, interestingly, Reggie describes himself as an anti-hero:
‘I became the B A’s most inefficient clerk… then I became the B A’s most frightened infantryman. ‘ (46)

Reggie describes horrors of war as seen first hand, we get the impression that although he perhaps cannot express his true feelings on the subject, the experience of war has deeply affected him; Braine’s treatment of the war seems to give the ordinary soldier a voice above the nationalism of wartime publicity and propaganda :
‘I once saw a Jerry open the turret of a Sherman and throw in a hand grenade…’ (47)

For Joe, the war had been a practical opportunity to become educated, Alice demands why Joe didn’t escape from the POW camp:

‘It was all right for him to escape. he had a rich daddy to look after him and to buy him an education. he could afford to waste his time, I couldn’t. those three years were the only chance I’d get to be qualified…. I was bloody well pleased when I was captured… I didn’t like being a prisoner, but it was a damned sight better than being dead.’ (48)

The working classes feature prominently in the novel, they often appear lethargic, doomed to follow their predestined path of servitude in the more menial occupations; their clothes, habits and even expressions seem to conform to an acceptable pattern or stereotype; this is seen in the young man accompanying his girlfriend:
‘I felt a mean complacency; with that solid mass of brillianted hair and mass produced face, bony, awkward, mousy, …the face enjoying itself at Blackpool.. – Len or Sid or Ron – he’d never had the chance of enjoying a woman like Susan.. the passion and innocence which a hundred thousand in the bank could alone make possible.’ (49)

When Joe and Susan travel to Burley woods, Susan’s accent attracts attention:
To speak standard English is itself suspect… And to talk about holidays abroad is one of the most infallible marks of the stuck up.’ (50)

When alone together, Susan demands that Joe never slight her again, Joe resents her priggish manner and morality:
I felt angry. She was lucky, she’d always been lucky, she’d never known the reality of a cold bedroom and the stuffy living room with the blaring radio, she’d never had to worry about exams or a job or the price of new clothes, even her way of speaking with its touchingly childish affections was a luxury no one of the working classes could afford.’ (51)

Susan is no more to Joe than a rung up the social ladder, she is in many ways a direct contrast with Joe, and far less suitable a match than Alice:
‘a part of me felt a great tenderness for her.. but the most important part of me was continuing the operation according to plan.’ (52)

Susan conforms to the sterile character type seen amongst most of the middle and upper classes . Susan repeatedly seems utterly Platonic with Joe, cold and decorous, rather than passionate:
‘Her hands were icy. ‘We’d better go, I said,’ ‘You’re cold.’ (53)

Joe is called to see his chief, Hoylake doesn’t want to be the tool of the establishment, but is bound by ties of loyalty and social convention to dissuade Joe from pursuing Brown ‘s daughter. Brown is an important councillor, and head of the Establishments Committee; Joe is an intelligent man and will understand what Hoylake is trying to say:
‘He is as you know the chairman the establishments committee. He’s an engineer; he’s an engineer, he likes everything about him to run with the smoothness of first class machinery. He has his whole life, and the life of his family, arranged in detail for the next twenty years. If anyone got in his way, he’s be utterly ruthless…’ (54)

The social world, for all Hoylake’s meritocratic promise of promotion, defines and dominates the establishment of local government, the very name of the establishments committee’ is suggestive of central government and the presence of the ruling class.

The description of the dark office, in which Hoylake’s desk looks like an operating table, suggests that the process is like an operation, and that Joe is like malignant tissue being expunged from the social body:
I was on the outside again, my grubby little face pressed against the window, I’d lost the wherewithal to buy what I hankered for, and the shopkeeper was chasing me away.’ (55)

Allusions are consistently made to a fascist state, a restrained meritocracy, which has not yet acquired to full freedoms of civil liberties, this idea is reflected in the complaints of Robbins the chemist:
Every damned thing rationed, not one promise kept. You might think they were deliberately trying to ruin the business man. Where’s our freedom?…Were under a Gestapo…’ (56)

Joe compares himself to Jack Wales – bitterly imitating an official report or economics lesson, as if voicing the conventions of the establishment:
…he had all the qualities which his rival so conspicuously lacks, he is at present studying for a science degree at Cambridge… he also possesses the polish of manner, the habit of command, the calm superiority of bearing which are the attributes of -let us not be afraid to use the word – a gentleman.’ (57)

Though the 1950’s are not ‘The middle ages’ (58) the social hierarchy of Warley will prevent the relationship of Joe and Susan as gently as possible, the rebuff by the Storrs also suggests that the influence of Brown reaches deep into warley society:
‘You fool, I said aloud to myself, you bloody fool. Why didn’t you see it before? The whole of Warley’s ganged up against you. I looked at myself in the mirror… the suit was my demob utility. And I was wearing my shirt for the second day. I had the working class mentality…’ (59)

Joe is continually made to feel uncomfortable at the civic ball, his poorly fitting clothes suggest his awkwardness at the occasion. Jack ridicules Joe by referring to upper class friends that served over Joe in the forces:
‘I ‘ve never in all my life felt so completely friendless.. with the viscous little darts laden with the pride-paralysing curae of Do you know – ? and Surely you’ve met -? (60)

Joe feels compromised by circumstances, he breaks off contact with Susan, but begins afresh with Alice. Despite their happiness, the relationship is impractical, Joe bemoans their lack of private income, since Joe’s livelihood is threatened by the establishment of Warley and influence of Gerorge Aisgill, this improbable relationship reflects the constraints and limitations imposed on society be the conventions of the establishment:
‘For, although we’d planned a lifetime together, we instinctively behaved as if we were meeting for the last time,’ (62)

On the return to Warley, Joe is invited to the conservative club by Mr. Brown, he is given an ultimatum to leave Susan, but adamantly refuses. The result is startling, Brown will accept Joe as his son in law, providing he finishes his relationship with Alice, the paradox now awaits Joe – to choose the woman he truly loves, a relationship which may ruin him, or one he does not love which promises the delivery of all his ambitions. Success at the top however, may mean more sacrifices than Joe is willing to give:
‘You’re the sort of young man we want. there’s always room at the top’ (62)

By accepting Brown’s offer, Joe conforms to the social conventions of the upper classes, and himself becomes ‘the successful zombie,’ a living replica of the kind of man he used to despise. In truth, he has contributed to the demise of Alice, but his decision -between an uncertain future with a socially unacceptable match, and one promising untold wealth seems less of a choice and more of an inevitable conclusion for al parties concerned. Joe is the father of Susan’s child, and Brown is forced by this and the strength of the law to allow Joe to marry Susan. For a member of the working classes , the opportunity presented in Susan is too good to refuse, she is like his lottery ticket, and he has essentially won a lottery in securing Susan as his wife. Although Joe is torn by the choice he is bound to decide, and is reduced to the bare gutter by his experiences, he is yet bound to continue his relationship with Susan, to the approval of Warley:
‘She’d have ruined your whole life, Nobody blames you…’
I pulled myself away from her abruptly. Oh my God, I said, that’s the trouble.’ (63)

Ultimately, the novel is concerned with society and the influence of social convention on the lives of individuals. The social and political systems of Warley incorporate both council and business, so that considerable power resides with the wealthy alongside the supposed government representatives.
The establishment controls every aspect of town life, from education to social events; they are an elite circle, to which only the most successful individuals within the town may be admitted. The self-consciousness of Joe is particularly apparent in this respect, he constantly alludes to his former state before working for the council in Dufton; the narrator also alludes to Joe’s condition as a younger man, contrasting the uncertainty of youth with the security of later life and success.

The use of binary opposites is particularly important device in the novel, rich and poor, powerful and weak, confidence and apathy, splendour and squalor, all these contrasts are used throughout to give a balanced picture of contemporary society. Dufton is constantly compared with Warley, as are the homes of the wealthy with lower class dwellings Joe has encountered, in particular, Joe compares apparently unconnected things, such as the superiority of the Aston Martin to many houses he has seen.
The novel does therefore have a particular social and political emphasis, and could certainly have been influenced by the Marxist and early New Historicism theories of literature as expounded by terry Eagleton and Raymond Williams during the nineteen forties/fifties. Braine may also have been influenced by the Structuralists, with their emphasis on the social pattern and structure that underlie the individual.


Twentieth Cebntury English Literatur, Harry Blamires, Macmillan Press 1982

Post War Briitsh fiction, Andrizej Gasiorek, Arnold 1995
Possibilities Essays on the state of the novel, Malcom Bradbury, Oxford Paperbacks 1983.

Braine, J, Room At The Top, 1st Publication 1957 (Arrow Books 1997)


1. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.1
2. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.2
3. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.(2.)
4. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) Pp.7-8
5. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) p.9
6. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.9
7. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.13
8. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.16
9. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.18
10. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.23
11. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.22
12. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.24
13. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.26
14. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.26
15. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.29
16. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.29
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21. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.34
22. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.40
23. Post War Briitsh fiction – Andrizej Gasiorek, (Arnold 1995) P.4
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33. Braine, J, Room At The Top, (Arrow 1997) P.66
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Survey attitudes to the French Revolution by two writers of the period. discuss the possible influence of these writings on the literature of Romanticism.

Survey attitudes to the French Revolution by two writers of the period. discuss the possible influence of these writings on the literature of Romanticism.

Paul Catherall


Writers responding to the Revolution to be discussed (including works used in study):

Edmund Burke, 1729-1797 (Reflections On The Revolution In France, 1790.)
Thomas Paine, 1737-1809 (The Rights of Man, 1791.)

Writers of the Romantic movement to discuss in essay (including prose works used in study):

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834 (Biographia Literaria, 1817.)
Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1792-1822 (Defence of Poetry, 1821.)

The French constitutional crisis of 1789, cumulating in the siege of the Bastille prison (July 14th,) was for the followers of European constitutional and social reform, the zenith of the humanist intellectual struggle. The meeting of the Estates General in Versailles, May 5th, to settle France’s financial crisis, comprised three chambers: the First Estate represented the clergy – whose internal divisions reflected affinities with court and commons; The Second Estate comprised the nobility, whose allegiance was usually to the court, but whose lower orders were often inclined toward the more liberal outlook of radicals like Duport; the Third Estate comprised middle class representatives for the commons. The Estates General gave those concerned with social welfare, a chance to reform the constitution, and abolish the oppressive gabelle,’ and other duties which had reduced the peasants to serfdom. Decisions by the Estates required the support of two of its orders, each voting internally for a single vote. For the Third Estate, considering itself the representative of the social majority, and whose ranks were larger than both clergy and nobility, this affronted the representational rights of the nation. Similarly, the liberal nobility and clergy could not support the Third Estate in securing reform, to do this dissidents needed to unite in a single chamber, voting by proportional representation (par tete, by head.) Despite a veto by King Louis XVI, the union of the Estates was achieved on July 2nd, mainly due to the support of violent Parisian demonstrations, roused perhaps by the radical Duc d’ Orleans. The resulting chamber proclaimed itself The National Assembly.’ The Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’ on August 27th saw the first written Constitution in Europe, with its basis in Paine, Locke and Rousseau; it promised to maintain freedom of speech, religious expression, and a universal system of law.
Law is the expression of the general will… it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.’ (1.)

The evolution of the Assembly into a fully representative parliament, its abolition of feudalism and the supremacy of the king, sent shockwaves of hope for a more egalitarian society amongst the intellectuals and radicals of Europe.
Late Eighteenth century Britain was also a potential powder keg of dissension – mainly against the predominantly aristocratic parliament, and King, George III, whose influence could still determine the rise or fall of governments. The oppressive Corn Laws, maintaining the high price of corn for landowners, and the squalor of the industrial towns, all contributed to the ferment of radical opinion, and growth of the radical Corresponding Societies,’ whose concern was the extension of voting rights for the common people. By far the most popular movement was one that became known as Chartism,’ whose aim was for a charter of common rights, and whose members included many of the prominent radical and humanist thinkers of the day, including the philanthropist Cobett and the militant William Owen. The early Revolution contributed to a the mood of change already felt following American Independence in 1781. The voice of reform, not only for domestic and parliamentary change, but also for the abolition of slavery, seemed to promise a new consensus for change.
One of the most influential advocates for caution in the revolutionary climate, was Edmund Burk, a Whig M.P. and liberal, whose support for the Americans in 1781 had contributed to the Whigs’ exclusion from government by George III in 1783 (despite their majority in the commons.) Burke’s family were anglo-Irish landowners; he had witnessed the appalling poverty of Irish peasants as a result of oppressive British legislation, and although an Anglican himself, supported Catholic Emancipation all his life. Burke recognised the destructive potential of the French Revolution, where the authority of both the Estates and King were influenced decisively by mob violence.
Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution warns the British government against radical development in Britain; the book’s ensuing alarm contributed to the reactionary mood of the eighteenth century establishment:
…people in the upper class, who dominated parliament agreed with his views.’ (2.)

Burke asserts the innate greed and unrestrained nature of man. The Revolution exposes flaws in human nature, and illustrates the requirement, as Rousseau states (in Du Social Contract 1762,) for a subjective authority. Burke discusses the nature of the proletariat:
men… who, immersed in hopeless poverty, could regard all property.. with no other eye than envy.’ (3.)

For Burke, hierarchical structure is the fabric of social order. Burke rejects meritocracy, the basis of Whig ideology. To maintain social harmony, hereditary privilege defines the individual’s rank and occupation:
…to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of public affections.’ (4.)

History has always been influenced for the better by Great Men,’ whose ambitions are for the nation they serve, as opposed to the selfish motives of the common man. The analogy here is William Prince of Orange and the Glorious Revolution of 1688:
…men of great civil and military talents… the ornament of their age.’ (5.)

The notion of a sanctity and divine order in the processes of history, is evoked in the aristocratic reconstruction of civil and religious structures after they have been destroyed in war:
…among their massacres, they had not slain the mind of their country. A conscious dignity, a noble pride, a generous sense of glory’ (6.)

The civilised process of war is a direct contrast to the anarchical Revolution of the undisciplined, mob:
Your present confusion… has attacked the fountain of life itself.’ (7.)

Tory paternalism is seen in the assertion, that social order depends upon the survival of class privilege, since only the privileged have the intelligence and skills to govern. Electoral reform would prelude Revolution in Britain, empowering an ill-fitted, self-seeking proletariat:
Every thing ought to be open, but not to every man.’ (8.)

Burke upholds the validity of British institutions as the guardians of a benevolent state, in which the passions of the people are kept in check by the privileges of the monarch, and authority of the landed classes:
Is our monarchy to be annihilated with all the laws, all the tribunals… Are all taxes to be voted grievances?’ (10.)

The British constitution is defined as the laws that preserve the rights of all society:
The law itself is only beneficence, acting by rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to justice…’ (11.)

Like Hobbes and Rousseau, Burke states that all men must relinquish some personal freedom, and conform to the laws and liberties of government. That he may secure liberty, he makes a surrender in trust to the whole.’ (12.)

Like Hobbes, Burke realises the impracticality of allowing men to live by an ethical consensus. To maintain a harmonious society, liberty is preserved through the physical repression and punishment of dissidents:
Society requires, not only that the passions of men should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals.’ (12.)

Europe is a product of the noble chivalric psyche. The loss of chivalry to a common selfishness is condoned as a result of Revolution:
It was this opinion which raised private men to be fellows with their kings.’ (14.)

Burke is sceptical of the philosophical climate which contributed to both the American and French revolutions. Although he admits the spiritual bases of mediaeval Europe were illusions, he deplores the loss of sanctity for life and beauty, resulting from the breakdown of the Ancien Regime:
All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle, and obedience liberal… are to be dissolved by this conquering new Empire of Light. ‘ (15.)

The Enlightenment, and the Empiricism of Locke and Newton, has altered views of society on its condition, and also its epistemological outlook. The offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings,’ Burke’s Darwinian condemnation of this loss of sanctity for life, also criticises the deist humanists as atheists:
Out of this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal…’ (16.)

Religion and aristocratic order are the bases of society, they have embodied British life for millennia. As the lord depends upon the peasant, so does the peasant depend upon the security and religion of lord and priest:
This European world of ours depended upon two principles… the nobility and the clergy, the one by profession, the other by patronage.’ (17.)

Learning is a product of aristocratic civilisation, and is itself threatened by the swinish multitude’:
Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hooves of a swinish multitude.’ (18.)

Harmonious British hierarchical society is both natural and Christian, the natural entrails’ of England have not yet been embowlled:
We fear God… We look up with awe to kings,’ (19.)

Duty is the responsibility of all men to embrace their natural role: through just prejudice, duty becomes part of his nature.’ (20.)

Burke’s critique of the radical perspective, and support of traditional Tory social philosophy, contrasts with the radical views of The rights of Man and the Citizen’ by Thomas Paine (1737-1809.)
Paine was born into a Norfolk working class family, and received only a rudimentary education. He fought with the American colonists for independence; it was at this time Paine began to write, publishing his American Revolutionary vindication, Common Sense’ in 1787. In 1791, he began The Rights of Man,’ in support for the French Revolution, and in response to Burke’s Reflections’. Outlawed by the British government in 1792 for his radical pamphlets, he fled to France, becoming a deputy for the National Assembly under the Girondins. Paine was widely regarded as a founder of the American Constitution; both Thomas Jefferson and Washington were influenced by Paine’s early writings. Similarly, the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man,’ had been modelled on the works of Paine and the American model.
Despite his outlawment by the British government, Paine’s literature sold in the millions amongst the British public. Paine was also known amongst the country’s radicals, including William Godwin and the poet William Blake.
The Rights Of Man’ criticises the whole concept of divine right, and praises the new forms of philosophical enquiry, as evinced by Locke and the humanists. Paine rejects conventional social doctrine, and argues for social equality. In particular, the divine rights of the heiarchial system are exposed as an opresive restraint upon free will:
Governments… set up an idol which they called Divine Right, and..twisted itself into an idol of another shape, called the church and state… the wondering cheated multitude worshipped the invention.’ (22.)

Like Jean Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778,) Paine beleives that the basis of government is in the consensus of the community:
the fact must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government…’ (23.)

Paine maintains that a national constitution, defining the rights and privillage of citizens is essential to any government. Unlike Burke’s consensus constitution, based upon duty, Paine defines the constitution as a concrete, documental policy:
It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and contains the principles on which governments are established… a constitution is therefore a government.’ (24.)

Heiearchial governments are not driven by virtue, but by motives of greed and the desire for power. For Paine, oligarchic society is the product of conquest, the child of a cyclic selfish tradiiton:
The English government is one which arose out of a conquest, and not out of society.’ (25.)

Ideal government is a constant by which society is maintained, the right to reform government should reside in the hands of the people it serves:
A government… cannot have the right of altering itself.’ (26.)

Universal suffrage is essential for the ordinary man to influence the reform and running of the nation. Paine attacks rotten boroughs, and the disparity between electoral registers in Britain:
The town of old Sarum, which contains not three houses sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any.’ (27.)

Paine pleads for the nations of Europe to rise against their oppressive governments:
When the people of England come to reflect upon these injustices, they will, like France, annihilate those badges of ancient oppression.’ (29.)

Paine is particularly concerned with education – his own inadequate schooling, and struggle to express his political views, reflect a concern for the ignorant, and therefore indifferent condition of the masses. Education must be made available for the common people:
Reason and ignorance, the great opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind. If either of these can be rendered sufficiently extensive in a country, the machinery of Government goes easily on. ‘ (30.)

Constitutional Monarchy is also attacked; Paine exposes the hypocrisies of the British parliamentary system – in which the king decides which party will form government, regardless of any majority, and in which M.P.s are elected out of patronage, rather than universal suffrage. The myth of the rights of parliament, and Constitution of 1688 are all criticised:
A mixed government is an imperfect everything, cementing and soldering the discordant parts together by corruption.’ (32.)

The power of the eighteenth century monarch, which in Europe was generally absolute, and in Britain still very powerful, is also condemned as an affront on both equality and the accountability of government:
A king can do no wrong… it places him in a state of similar security to idiots, and responsibility is out of the question with respect to himself. ‘ (33.)

Paine attacks the sanctity of the hereditary system. The epistemology of Burke is based upon a belief in hierarchical concord, with a basis in a spirituality he himself admits is illusory. For Paine, truth is obtainable only through reason, through an empirical rationale on the causes and remedy of society’s problems:
The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.’ (34.)

Paine criticises European war as the product of aristocratic ambition. He discusses attempts to bring the peoples of Europe together:
War, from its productiveness… becomes a principle part of the system of old governments.’ (35.)

In his Conclusion’ to The Rights Of Man,’ Paine pleads with the nations of Europe to reform themselves, before they are overtaken by bloody revolution. Paine is no anarchist, but an advocate of moderation and reason:
Governments by representation are making their way in Europe, it would be an act of wizdom to anticipate their approach.’ (36.)

The influence of the two writers was mixed. The vast majority of politicians in Britain, mainly of aristocratic origins, would have cited Burke as both a prophet and saviour of the British Establishment. Britain’s literate public, and radically-inclined intellectuals, would however, have embraced Paine’s theories of equality, personal and social freedom. For writers such as Blake and Godwin, Burke represented a reactionary establishment, whose interets lay in the maintainence of the old, hereditary system.

The focal point for intellectual London radicals in the last decade of the Eighteenth century, was an informal society at the premisis of Joseph Johnson, the contraversial printer, who had published many radical writers. Influential amongst this group, was the whig M.P. William Godwin, (1756-1836,) whose Enquiry Concerning political Justice,’ 1793, proved one of the most influential radical critiques of contemporary society. William Blake (1757-1827) was also influential in this group, and certainly knew all the major radical writers in contact with Jophnson. Blake was particularly close to Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstoncraft (1759-1797,) whose early femminist writings influenced his Songs Of Innocence and Experience (1789-92.) Before his conviction for sedition, Thomas Paine was also well known to this informal society.
The Romantic movement was certainly influenced by the Johnson group, and both Coleridge and Wordsworth knew most of the writers and intellectuals through eitherJohnsonor the highly influential Godwin:
Coleridge, and to a lesser extent, Wordsworth, were at the margins of this group.’ (37.)

Coleridge and his associates often felt, that although they sought to speak for an oppressed, disenfranchised people, they were actually isolated from this section of society, due to their social position as members of the comfortable, educated upper classes.
. Coleridge’s early optimism with the radical fervour of the early 1790’s, alongside other influential radicals and intellectuals, is reflected in his attempt to establish a Pantisocracy’ in Pennsylvania, where colonists would co-exist harmoniously in true Lockean tradition. Coleridge’s desire for Britain’s’ transition into an ideal, rural society is reflected in his early Conversation poems, which although not overtly political, suggest the poet’s desire for a contemplative Platonic existence, far removed from the inhibitions and squalor of contemporary British society.
Coleridge’s poem, Frost at Midnight,’ 1798, affirms an harmonious natural order, reflected in the poet’s contemplation of the innocent environment of his youth and son. The poet seems to draw psychological comfort from images in nature that reflect a vitality and living unity in the natural world. The ministry’ of nature is a divine process within which mankind is embraced by a benevolent cosmic order:
The frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.’ (38.)

The fluttering film of soot evokes a companionable spirituality for the poet:
Methinks its motion is the hush of nature. ‘ (39.)

The dreams of the school-boy Coleridge evoke a desire to experience the vitality of life, outside the ethical pretensions of study:
Save if the door, half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up…’ (40.)

Nature itself is an instructive force on the human mind. As discussed by Shelly in his Defence of Poetry,’ The harmony and rhythm of natural form and sound, adds a sanctity and sense of order to the world of perception:
Great Universal teacher! He shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving, make it ask.’ (41.)

Coleridge links his theories on imagination with the radical perspective; for Coleridge and Wordsworth, the processes of the imagination are a vindication on original thought. Like Paine, Coleridge’s early poems stress the importance of sense perception over inherited doctrine or ethics. Coleridge defines the imagination in two parts. The Primary Imagination, or Fancy is a passive capacity to perceive the world through sense impressions, and to make rational deductions based upon sensory understanding. This process, an attribute which defines our sentiency is Descartes’ Ergo est cognitas sum,’ (I think therefore I am,) the basis of scientific logic in the Enlightenment. Empiricism was virtually invented by Rene Des Cartes (1596-1650,) who maintained that all effects have a corresponding cause. Cartesian Causality would influence the humanist Deists, accommodating natural moral order alongside a cursory atheism (Agnosticism.) This objective, sense-based process cannot explain spirituality, but for Coleridge, the ability to reason is itself godly:
A repetition in the infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. (42.)

The Secondary Imagination concerns the concept of original thought, an attack on the primacy of the mimetic nature of art, as evinced by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained through philosophers such as Hartley until the late eighteenth century. True imagination is the process of idealising and unifying.’ Imagination is not a mechanical process, but a spiritual one, infusing the primary imagination with the emotions and spirituality of the soul:
The union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty… the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents and situations. (43.)

Coleridge’s conception of the imagination is therefore a direct influence of the radical psyche as seen in both the political and intellectual movement of the late Eighteenth century. The Romantics’ interest in the the processes of maturity and innocence, and in the unity of natural and moral order, all reflect an interest in the new epistemological outlooks of the Radicals, who condemned the influences of an oppressive regime on the development of the human mind. William Blake’s Tyger,’ is more than an epitome of the dehumanised Enlightenment, it also symbolises the corruptive and brutalising forces of the industrial age on the common man:
What the hammer, what the chain? In what furnace was thy brain?’ (44.)

Like Blake, Coleridge discusses an innate innocence in man, corrupted by the influence of experienc in the sqolur of contemporary Britain. The early Conversation poems,’ often concerning children in an idyllic environment, suggest this ideal view of humanity. Coleridges early poetry is often ambiguous on the subject of practical reform, but reflects the radical concern with freedom, in the presentation of typical Romantic images – of natural landscpes, personal liberty and childhood. This is seen in Frost at Midnight,’ where the idustrial town is the seat of corruption, as opoosed to the child’s benign country childhood:
My babe so beautiful! It thrills my heart…
And think thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim…’ (45.)

Coleridge’s early embrace of the French Revolution is seen in several poems celebrating the constitutionl reforms of 1789. The poem Destruction of the Bastile,’ written soon after the momentous eppisode, reflects the idealisation of the Revolution by the early Romantics:
Go tyrrant! beneath some monstrous sky
Thy terros lost and ruin’d power deplore!’ (46.)

The poet calls for other nations in Europe to follow the example of Revolutionary France:
Shall France alone a despot spurn? (47.)

Coleridge’s attack on William Pitt’s 1783 government is also a damning criticism of the pre-reformed establishment of Britain. Some of the chief concerns of the Romantics at this stage were censorship and Catholic Emancipation. Pit’s opposition to France in the early years of the Revolution is also condemned:
then fix’d her on the cross of deep distress,
And at safe distance, marks the thirsty lance.’ (48.)

Coleridge’s Poem To William Godwin,’ praises the accalimed anarchist, whose views on civil liberty and personal freedom were influential in Coleridge’s Pantasocracy project:
Nor will I not thy holy guidance bless,
And hymn thee, GODWIN! with an ardent lay. ‘ (49.)

The influence of the Revolution, and radicals like Paine, with their stress on civil and personal liberties had a great influence on Coleridge and the early Romantic Movement.
Their enthusiasm would not last long, however. The Revolution’s long term effects on Britain incurred an upsurge of government oppression, involving brutal reaction, and a new nationalism to direct public anger away from domestic problems. This dual process was seen in the administration of Lord Liverpool, (1812-1827,) who used war with France to dissipate public anger, and direct it against the French. The polarisation of opinion against France after the royal executions of 1793, and influence of the success of popular nationalism is evoked in Coleridge’s France an Ode’:
Britain had joined the dire array…
Had swol’n the patriot emotion.’ (54.)

As a result of these events, the radical movement was stunted, with the military suppression of demonstrations, and mass transportation of dissidents. The degeneration of the French Revolution into the brutal despotism of Maximillian Robespierre, and Napoleon’s imperialist crusade – a mixture of militant republicanism and personal ambition, also contributed to the early reversal of popular opinion against Revolutionary France. The atrocities of the 1792-’94 Terror, in which innocents were indiscriminately massacred, signalled an end for the dream of reform in Britain, and a condemnation for early Revolutionary sympathisers in Britain, whose disappointment was accentuated by the ensuing militancy of conservative opinion.
For the Romantics, the wave of euphoria between 1789-91 gave way to a bitter disillusion with the prospect of reform. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were cited as dangerous radicals by leading Tory ministers; they were forced out of London during the Revolutionary wars, and found themselves subject to increased alienation from their former readership:
The negative side of Coleridge’s social experience can be discerned in… isolation, the consequences of unwitting transgression, the desperate need for an audience and a meaningful relation to the community…’ (50.)

The pressures of social alienation, and the rise of feeling against France, led Coleridge and Wordsworth to withdraw into a personal reconciliation with the establishment. Rather than political reform, they sought to embrace an inner, spiritual freedom – seen in the Coleridge’s later Conversation poems,’ such as The Picture’ (1802):
Through weeds and thorns, and matted underwood
I force my way; now climb, and now descend…
The scared snake rustles. Onward still I toil,
I know not, ask now whither! A new joy…
Beckons me on…’ (81.)

Following the September Massacres of 1794, Coleridge wrote a poem called Burke,’ in which he recants his former pro-revolutionary position, embracing the liberties of Burke’s constitution:
Yet never Burke! thou drank’st corruption’s bowl!’ (51.)

In Fire, famine and slaughter, (1798,) Coleridge has rejected the anarchy of popular revolt; his three daughters of war resemble the three sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The poem is set in La Vendee, the scene of brutal counter-Revolution by the Parisian army in 1794. The conviction in the bloody results of revolution reflect Burke’s similar assertion:
Thanks sister! the men have bled,
their wives and their children faint for bread (52.)

The prospect of bloody revolution in Britain is condemned by Coleridge in the threats of the sisters. These demonic forces, perhaps represent the Three Estates, whose folly in demanding reform, influenced the emergence of Burke’s swinish multitude’ on the National Assembly:
I’ll gnaw the multitude, till the cup of rage oer’brim. ‘ (53.)

In France, an Ode,’ (1798,) Coleridge recants his earlier optimism for the Revolution, stressing the need for the preservation of traditional English liberties, as espoused by Burke:
O France, that mockest Heaven, adulterous, blind,
And patriot only in pernicious toils! ‘ (55.)

Like Burke, Coleridge sees the Revolution as a selfish struggle between individuals for personal wealth:
To insult the shrine of liberty with spoils,
From freemen torn; to tempt and to betray?’ (56.)

The disillusion of the early Romantics, following the failure of the Revolution, and resulting social alienation, resulted in fundamental changes in their principles. Coleridge, who lectured on literature at the Universities, commented that:
French freedom, is the beacon which if it guides us to equality, should show us likewise, th adangers along the road.’. (57.)

Similarly, the influenceof Burke can be seen in Coleridge’s defense of Tory paternalism as an important aspect of social welfare:
The paternal and filial duties discipline the heart and prepare it for the love of all mankind.’ (58.)

In the aftermath of 1815, and the brutal reactionary Govrnment of Lord Liverpool, Britain found itself again at peace, and with increased social and domestic problems. The population had doubled since 1760, and unemployment, as a result of a slump in trade, with 2000,000 discharged servicemen back on British soil, seemed to promise renewed dissatisfaction with internal affirs in Britain. Popular discontent rose, under Chartism, (a campaign for a new people’s Magna Carter,’) particularly active in the industrial centres of South Wales. The government’s repressive response to protest was illustrated in the St. Peter’s Fields Rally of 1816, and the 1817 Derbyshire March, both peaceful demonstrations that became bloodbaths at the hands of the military.

The second generation of Roamantic poets, including John Keats (1795-1821,) Lord Byron (1788-1824,) and Percy Bysshe Shelly, saw the rejection of radicalism by Coleridge, and Wordsworth as a betrayal of the poetic ethics seen in their early works:
By the end of the Napoleonic wars, these poets, and especially Wordsworth, represented for a new generation the most craven and disreputable apostasy. Keats, Shelly and Byron could look back to the still quite recent spectacle of the Revolution, and find its principles a continuing source of political idealism and inspiration. They had not, however experienced the vicious backlash of the 1790s and the war; their democratic values had not been called upon to withstand that kind of shock.’ (59.)

Shelly was the heir to a baronetcy, but never lived to inherit either the social prestige or substantial fortune it would have bequeathed. Like Byron and Keats, Selly died young, and so we cannot compare their consistency with the development of first generation of Romantics. Although a member of the aristocratic class, Shelly spent his life fighting against the establishment for common rights. At the age of nineteen, he was expelled from Oxford for writing a vindictive pamphlet on atheism, and between 1811-12 visited Wales in support of protest over the land question, which comprised unfair evictions, high rents, and tithes – the payment of a tenth of wages to the Anglican church.
Shelly’s poetical theories are illustrated in his Defence of Poetry,’ 1821, in which he maintains Coleridge’s radical definition of the imagination, whereby the Primary Imagination is the reasoning power, and the Secondary, the capacity to infuse sense perception with a non-material, expressive process:
Reason is to the imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance. (60.)

Primitive man’s absorption of the rhythm and harmony of the natural world, as seen in Coleridge’s early poems, is reflected in Pain’s discussion on the inner, reasoning capacity of man, and of the natural consensus politics of early societies. Primitive man’s entire social and artistic expression is a result of his observing order in the forms of both the natural world, and his own inner morality:
The social sympathies, or those laws from which as from its elements society results, begins to develop themselves from the moment that two human beings coexist… the will of a social being is determined to action, inasmuch as he is social.’ (61.)

for Shelly, the artistic aspect of this harmony with the environment, and inner organic rhythms of the poet (a feature of the modern sculptress Barbara Hepworth,) is symbolised in the Aeolean lyre’:
Man is an instrument, over which a series of external and internal expressions are drive, like the alternations of an ever changing wind over an Aeolean lyre.’ (62.)

This expression of natural, inner harmony is supported in the discussion on the rhythm of language:
Language itself is poetry. (63.)

Shelly, a self-confessed atheist, reflects Paine’s rejection of Religion as a cornerstone of society; for Shelly, religion is the institutionalised remnant of poetic myth:
Hence, all original religions are allegorical.’ (64.)

For Shelly, the poet is a broad definition for any visionary orator or writer who has influenced history, or philosophy through the exposition of views based upon reason and the inner nature of the poet. Like Paine himself, great philosophers find inspiration in their own inner spiritual convictions:
They are the institutors of laws, and founders of civil society … For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time.’ (65.)

Like Paine, Shelly pleads for social equality. The Romantic empathy with nature, allows a more empathetic outlook on fellow men:
The poet… must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. (66.)

Shelly defines poetry as the voice of truth – the visionary condemnation of a corrupt establishment. Poetry is also an appeal to the inner emotional and spiritual wisdom of man:
Poetry… is ever still the light of life, the source of whatever of beautiful or generous, or true can have place in an evil time. ‘ (67.)

Shelly condemns the Whig administration of North for supporting the development of industry. The Whigs claim to support the liberties of the people, but instead institute a selfish capitalism:
The rich have become richer, and the poor, poorer. ‘ (68.)

Shelly’s radical views are illustrated in several of his most politically overt poems. Shelly’s verse, due to censorship and social pressures, often fell short of the social criticism he would have liked to communicate to his readership. In The Masque of Anarchy’ (1819,) Shelly envisions the mindless political dance of the British government. Castlereagh, the Speaker and Foreign secretary is a murderer – representative of the reactionary policy that had resulted in the Peterloo Massacre at St. Peter’s fields in1819. Seven bloodhounds represent other reactionary European states:
I met a murder on the way, he had a mask like Castlereagh… ‘ (69.)

Domestic injustices are condemned in Shelly’s radical critique of ministers; Eldon had been responsible for the devastating corn laws:
Next came fraud, and he had on, like Lord Eldon, an ermine gown…
And the little children, who round his feet played to and fro…
Had their brains knocked out by them. ‘ (70.)

The skeleton of anarchy is Lord Liverpool, whose responsibility for brutal repression and injustices in Britain and Ireland have resulted in the suffering of millions:
And anarchy, the skeleton, bowed and grinned to everyone. ‘ (71.)

Shelly, like Paine, calls for the people of England to rise against the oppressors:
Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number…
ye are many, they are few.’ (72.)

Other, less overt poems seem to suggest the poet’s criticism of contemporary government, and, of European imperialism itself; this was the age of Greek and Balkan struggle for independence against Ottoman Imperial rule. In Ozymandias,’ Shelly describes the shattered visage of an oppressive government. The sculptor-artist of the poem is compelled to reproduce the art of convention, but like Shelly, used his art to convey at least the truth of the tyrant’s oppression:
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read… ‘ (73.)

Shelly implies, that like the ruin, his monument to tyranny will rest in his literature:
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…’ (74.)

Nature itself pulverises the unjust remnants of a corrupt civilisation, under the processes of erosion and time:
‘The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ (75.)

The transience of earthly glory of oppressive empires is a process innate in nature, man must emerge from oppression through his own instinct to express inner conviction.

In England 1819,’ Shelly attacks the British institutions of King and Parliament. The corruption of the Ancien Regime of Britain is symbolised in the senile George III, whose frequent dismissal of governments in parliament earned the disgust of the people:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king –
Princes, the dregs of their dull race…’ (76.)

The Tory administration is described as a self-seeking organisation, whose policies are for the preservation of their own landed interests, as in the Corn Laws of 1815:
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fading country cling,’ (77.)

The deprivation of common land from the people, as a result of widespread enclosure, and brutal reaction against agricultural protest is evoked, particularly seen in the Irish land problem:
A people stabbed and starved in the untilled field.’ (78.)

The army is an instrument of bloody repression, the church, one of soulless indoctrination and psychological restraint:
An army which liberticide and prey…
Religion – a book sealed. ‘ (79.)

The promise of revolution is a hope for reform of this brutal system:
…a glorious phantom, may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.’ (80.)

The works of the first and second generation of the romantic poets, represented in Coleridge in the former, and Shelly in the latter, were all influenced in some measure by the French Revolution and the writings that ensued following the events of 1789. In Coleridge, the early optimism for social and parliamentary reform subsided with the backlash against the French cause in Britain. Coleridge, like Wordsworth became disillusioned with the pursuit of change, and instead retreated into the meditative exploration of the imagination, and an inner spiritual freedom. For Shelly, who died before his opinions had a chance to substantially develop, we have only his unrecanted critique of the British establishment, where the poet often supports contemporary radicalism. Shelly was a radical in the true sense of the word, a friend of William Lovett the national leader of Chartism, and intellectual intimate of the less radical, but politically outspoken Byron.
what is obvious from examining the careers of the poets, is that their differing social climates contributed enormously to their political and social opinions. For Coleridge, the threat of denouncement by North’s ministry was a real threat, for which he could be transported. Shelly himself had to leave Britain on several occasions due to social pressures resulting from his writings. The influence of Burke on Coleridge is also clear, as seen in his poetic vindications of the Whig politician, although we do have the impression that social pressure was the main determinant in Coleridge’s recantion, rather than the degeneration of the Revolution. Coleridge still felt regret that reform had not been possible. For Shelly, the influence of Paine is almost certain, although he is rarely mentioned in Shelly’s writings. More influential perhaps were the theories of Godwin, whose daughter, Mary eloped with Shelly in 1814, although the influence of Paine and Locke on Godwin himself asserts this view.
The writings anteceding the French Revolution did therefore seem to influence the Romantics writings of both generations.

The treatment of the theme of Urban Life in Twentieth Century Poetry

Write an essay about the treatment of the period of one of the following: patriotism, innocence, violence, rural life, urban life or sentimentality.

Choice of topic: Urban Life.

Paul Catherall

The theme of urban life reoccurs in the works of poets throughout the Twentieth Century, but the concern of urban living has long preoccupied poets, writers and social theoreticians alike for many hundreds of years.
In the pre-industrial age, the town was the administrative base of the provinces, and the larger cities, the administrative and political capitals of nations. For many writers writing before the widespread urban expansion that characterised the Industrial Revolution (began during the 1760s), the city was a cultural phenomenon on the fringes of both experience and the imagination. In accord with the predominately idyllic, epic and eulogist poetry of the nineteenth century, the city represented an ideal, as the progenitor and defender of civilisation in the tradition of ancient Rome, and of the Christian faith in the tradition of the holy city of Jerusalem. The city also represented a bastion of modern culture and technological achievement in the renaissance and humanist tradition. Additionally, through nationalism and imperialism, the city became a national status symbol. Nineteenth century London became a powerful commercial and political entity, but also the ethical, cultural and spiritual nexus of a vast empire spanning half the world.
The idealistic view of cities and urban life is reflected in the patriotic works of Victorian poets, such as Robert Bridges (1844-1930), his view of London in ‘ London snow’ is typical of late Victorian patriotic poetry:
When now already, the sun in bright display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of day… (1.)

The issue of poor living and working conditions amongst the urban poor seldom surfaces in Victorian poetry, but the plight of the urban poor did not go unvoiced. A few voices frequently spoke out, although with greater success in prose rather than poetry, as seen in the works of Silas Marner (1837-1912), whose main concern was for the appalling living conditions in the northern cities, and in the novels and periodicals of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose works struck upper-class Victorian conscience with his tragic tales of innocent lives blighted by the oppressive urban environment of modern Britain.
In the world of poetry, perhaps the earliest and most vociferous critic of industrialisation and the exploitation of common humanity, was William Blake (1857-1827), whose vision of human society largely concerned the return of urban man to a pastoral existence. Blake’s central argument claimed that contemporary hierarchical social order and the industrial system inevitably deprived society of innate human virtues, epitomised by Blake in the ‘divine image’ of ‘mercy. pity, peace and love.’ Blake claimed that modern humanity had succumbed to a state of ‘experience, ‘ becoming a selfish, destructive entity, entirely out of sympathy with the natural world, and his own, inner spiritual being. Blake’s poems, such as ‘The Chimney Sweep’ and ‘The Little Vagabond’ often concern the plight of common humanity, oppressed by the ethical and hierarchical authority of the state and by the exploitation of the industrial towns. Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is an antithesis to an industrial Britain being created within his lifetime – satirising the belief of the establishment in Britain as a great and beneficent power:
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?’ (2.)
Blake’s works, spanning the first two decades of the nineteenth century were radical, in their revolutionary outlook on the state of British society and the increasing problems of urbanisation in the industrial towns. Blake influenced the later generation of Romantics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who often voiced the same kinds of social concerns as Blake.
The Nineteenth Century, however was a period of frustration and disappointment for the advocates of social reform. The rise of nationalism and entrenchment of conservatism resulted in the censorship and alienation of reformist writers. The Romantics, despite their earlier radical outlook retreated from the overt questioning of social and political issues, and withdrew into a personal spiritual aesthetic, with an emphasis on the unity of man ‘s soul with nature. This later conservative outlook of Wordsworth and Coleridge – essentially in the lyrical and narrative tradition, influenced later lyrical poets such as Tennyson and Browning. The withdrawal of the radical voice of nineteenth century verse, and abandonment of the question of urban oppression is summed up in Wordsworth’s ‘London’:
Meanwhile the roar continues, till at length,
Escaped as from an enemy, we turn
Abruptly into some sequested nook,
Still as a sheltered place when winds blow loud!’ (3.)

As a result of the swing to conservatism and nationalism, late nineteenth century Britain still lay in the grip of Industrialisation and urban misery. Social and political reform as championed by the Prime Ministers W. E. Gladstone (1809-1898) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), produced some changes to the lot of Britain’s urban poor, but there was still a lack of adequate compulsory education and social service. In addition, the Labour movement, champion of the working classes was periodically made helpless by the frequent repeal of the Trades-Union act, and by the restriction of the franchise (voting rights) to property-owning men.
For a few, dissatisfied writers of the closing years of the century, Britain represented both European hierarchical inequality, and the injustice of imperialism. The demonstrations throughout Ireland in the 1880s had brought Irish independence, and the ethical validity of Imperialism itself, to the forefront of politics. Perhaps the most staggering and innovative literature of this period were the prose works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), whose lucid criticism of Imperialism ‘The Heart Of Darkness’ (1897-1907) seriously questions the status quo in contemporary Britain. Interestingly, Conrad is concerned with the city of London, not as an ideal representation of civilisation and imperial superiority, but as the child of historical processes, which lie in human selfishness and greed. In this radical treatment of the city as myth, he anticipates the Twentieth Century Structuralists and New-Historicism:
‘And this also, said Marlow, suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ (4.)

The city is a sterile and forbidding environment for Conrad, a place where the capitalist economy, dominated by degenerate, selfish individuals exploit and govern the lives of millions:
‘…there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy.’ (5.)

Conrad’s (partially autobiographical,) focus on the reality of civilisation, not just as an ideal concept, but in all it’s suffering and vicissitudes, is reflected in the poetical works of the first great modernist poet, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Like Conrad, Hardy attempts to expose the injustice, indifference and suffering that exists within a supposedly well-run and hierarchically ordered society. I n ‘The Harbour Bridge,’ written sometime between 1906-’09, the natural and urban environment are both indifferent entities, oblivious to the suffering of individuals, like later surrealist and psychological poets, Hardy describes man’s urban environment in highly subjective, pessimistic terms:
From here, the quay, one looks above to mark
the bridge above the harbour hanging dark. (6.)

Hardy ‘s works represent a transition from the traditional representation of human society, using the static, traditional lyric-based verse of the Victorians, to a new, critical and structurally innovative poetic form, similar in many ways to the psychological realism and critical style of Conrad’s fiction:
‘It is such figures as Hardy, Doughty, Blunt… who most clearly represent the passage of the English tradition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century…’ (7.)

Both Hardy and Conrad, like many contemporary writers and thinkers, were highly influenced by the theoretical debate and scientific discoveries of the latter nineteenth century. In particular, they were influenced by the works of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who disproved the Biblical creation story, and replaced it with the theory of ‘Selective evolution.’ The concept that man could be descended from lower primates sent shockwaves throughout the British establishment for years to come, and is particularly evident in the pre-Freudian novels of Conrad, which discuss the primitive in man, and the falsity of divine social order.
Similarly, developments in literary theory and in philosophy markedly influenced the development of the early twentieth century poets, influencing their assumptions about the role of literature and the nature of society.
Particularly prominent in the analysis of the modern age, and the phenomenon of technological man, were the works of Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who predicted, in a series of chilling allegorical works, such as ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ (1885) that man’s quest for knowledge is an inherently destructive force, and may lead to his extinction. Nietzsche also warned against the passivity of religious faith, urging humanity to achieve success in the physical world, rather than rely on fictitious spiritual goals promised by Christianity. Like Darwin, Nietzsche believed in the evolution of both man and civilisation.
Nietzsche prophetic works greatly influenced writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and represented a fundamental questioning of established truths, in European society and religion.
The other hugely influential philosopher and psychologist of the early twentieth century was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – who postulated that all our actions are explained by internal drives within the unconscious. Sexual motives define behaviour within society, and it is due to the repression of sexual instinct caused through restrictive social conventions that human psychological abnormalities occur.
For writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud’s work questioned the normalcy of social convention, and the injustice of social conditioning within society.
For early twentieth century writers, theoretical and philosophical influences must have been overshadowed by the dramatic social change, the threat of world conflict and ultimately a sense of fragility and fragmentation following the twilight of the Victorian age and all the old certainties that had accompanied it.
The impact of mass industrialisation throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, and the trauma of the bloody, and incompetently fought 1914-19 war were all factors which shook the establishment. The rise of the Trades Union and Labour movements under Keir Hardie in the first decade of the century, all precipitated the fear of social revolution amongst the upper and middle classes, coming to a peak in 1917, when the Russian October Revolution swept away the ancien regime of feudal Russia, establishing a poactive socialist state in its place. Perhaps the single most obvious single influence on early twentieth century poetry was simply the violence and instability of a revolutionary age:
‘An experience of violence, of which two word wars was merely the symptom, has been central to the period… The antithesis in style which we find in twentieth century poetry is not merely a literary – historical one, to be explained in terms of a shift in sensibility, still less a conflict between traditionalism and modernism… It is really the contrast of innocence and experience.’ (8)

In The New Poetic, C. K. Stead suggests that poetry may be represented as a triangle, with three aspects: the poet, his audience, and reality. He argues that the twentieth century, due to the violence of war and social tension, has produced writes more aware of reality and the necessity for realism than those of the previous century. In terms of the triangle-structure, nineteenth century verse focused too much on the relationship between poet and audience, sometimes ignoring the social reality altogether, whereas twentieth century verse in the tradition of Hardy and Conrad, has restored, or re-evaluated the link between realism, poet and audience:
‘Between these points run lines of tension, and depending on the time, the place, the poet, and the audience, these lines will lengthen or shorten. At one point we may find the audience and the poet close together, and reality a great distance from them… (9.)

Thomas Hardy’s poems are essentially of this kind, compositions attempting to relate the world of reality to the reader, whilst engaging in the meaningful presentation of poetic art. Whilst much of Hardy’s poetry concerns a pessimistic outlook on cosmic order, partly influenced by the loss of religious faith resulting form the Victorian scientific revolution, his works do suggest an allegiance to realism for the purpose of social improvement:
Pessimism is, in truth, only such questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step to the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ (10.)

In the Harbour Bridge, Hardy uses a quay setting to reflect the indifference of a capitalist, self-seeking society to the suffering of man. We have the impression of claustrophobia, since this is an essentially artificial environment, dominated by the dense architecture of a town. The harbour is shrouded in darkness by the bridge, suggesting the dominance of the urban landscape on the natural environment and on the lives of individuals:
“From here, the quay, one looks above to mark,
The bridge across the harbour, hanging dark… (11.)

The setting is the close of day, the receding light suggests human morality and the nocturnal sterility of the natural world. The bridge is shadowed against the light, appearing almost skeletal. Boat rigging also seems to disrupt the contours of the landscape:
It draws its skeleton where the sun has set…
On which mild glow, too, lines of rope and spar
Trace themselves black as char.’ (12.)

Boats, the crafts of men are rocked in the harbour by the force of the tide. The insipid movement of the tide seems both remorseless and incidental. The poet can find no harmony or spiritual affinity with the natural world, and describes it in the context of an oppressive and disturbingly indifferent entity:
“down here in shade we hear the painters shift…
As moved by the incoming stealthy tide.” (13.)

The mercantile nature of the quay, is reflected in the burghers, affluent tradespeople, who are seen on the bridge. These people reflect the indifference of human nature to human suffering in their mercantile and predatory occupations.
Hardy uses surrealist imagery to emphasise the oppressive nature of society and human environment, the “sharp edged lips” of the burghers suggest the lies and deception of a consumer-based society. The fact that the burghers appear as shillouettes, suggests their affinity with nineteenth century culture and society, when the policies of self-help or utilitarianism contributed to the exploitation of the urban poor. The shillouettes suggest the inherent deception of traditional nineteenth century representational art, reflecting the dual identity of the industrialist, who profited from the exploitation of the poor, but who sought to be remembered for public works as the benefactor of society.
High up across the bridge, the burghers glide
As cut black paper portraits hastening on…
Their sharp-edged lips move quickly word for word
To speech that is not heard. (14.)

Hardy reveals the reality behind the facade of Victorian society. The Victorian lady is described as a “practical woman,” her existence is tied to the Victorian mercantile world:
There presses the practical woman to the shops..” (15.)

The breakdown of the man and woman’s relationship suggests discord in the natural world, and a degeneration into a chaotic and predatory state in urban society. Ties of loyalty and religion are replaced with motives based on instinctual drives of lust and selfishness:
You should have talked like that in former days,
When I was last home..” They go their separate ways.” (16)

The spread of the urban world seems to accompany a loss of religious faith for Hardy, the west, traditional abode of God in Gnostic teachings, dims with the close of day, and the stark reality of social indifference is impressed by the emotionless glare of lamplight. The appearance of the stars in the vast heavens also suggests the inconsequential nature of human life, and scepticism in cosmic order:
“And the west dims, and yellow lamplight’s shine…”
White stars ghost forth, that care not for men’s wives,
or any other lives.” (17.)

Hardy’s realist influence is seen in the works of Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and the Imagist movement, (begun in 1914 with the anthology of imagist poems ‘Des Imagiste’.) Pound considered, like Hardy, that poetry should convey truth to experience, or realism:
‘The author must use his image because he sees and feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or system of ethics.’ – Ezra Pound. (18.)
The Imagists deliberately chose to consider the problems of their times in through poetic form, this is reflected in their innovative use of ‘vers libre’ to convey the fragmentation and tension of the early twentieth century. The Imagists particularly chose to confront the phenomenon of urbanisation and social change in the tradition of Hardy:
These new circumstances rarely left the politics, and by extension the literature, of the United kingdom untouched. A sense of fragmentation, which was as much geographical as historical as it was cultural and psychological, haunted the experimental texts of the 1920s. (19.)

The Imagists felt, like Hardy and the romantics, that their poetry would be more widely read if they used more colloquial and everyday language, rather than archaic neologisms or classical reference. Their concern with addressing a wide audience, possibly the proletariat, and concern with real contemporary issues, rather than the lyric, is reflected in their links with liberal politics and the Liberal administrations of the 1920s:
“…to allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to writer badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write bad art about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life.’ – Ezra Pound. (20.)

In Pound’s In A Station at the Metro,’ we are presented with the indifference and anonymity of urban life. By using simple, precise language, Pound discards the use of symbolism, and instead focuses upon the impressions felt by the poet for the subject. The poem is short and the structure simple, so that the poet generates a feeling of immediacy and sincerity:
The apparition of these faces in the crows;
petals on a wet, black bough.” (21)

The fragility of urban man is suggested in the use of the petal image. The theories of Freud on the social repression of the subconscious, and the fragility of the social psyche may have influenced Pound’s attitudes on society and urban life.
The apparitions, ‘ are disquieting and lack the vitality of living people. The anonymity of the travellers, disjointed and transitory, is suggested in their presentation as simply “faces.”
Natural imagery heightens the contrast between people and the Metro – emphasising the artificiality of the urban environment. There is a deliberate attempt to break with the literary tradition of the late 19th Century, with the spiritually-based “pathetic fallacy’ of Wordsworth, and with the Beatific idealism of Tennyson.

T. E. Hulme’s (1883-1917) poem, Above the Dock,’ concerns man’s industrial environment, and its domination of the natural world, this is seen in the entanglement of the moon in the ship’s mast:
Above the quiet dock in midnight,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
Hangs the moon…” (22.)

Rather than describe the moon as a mythological symbol – of Artemis, Diana etc. it represents the cold, scientific understanding of a previously unexplained phenomenon.
The poem seems to focus on the changing nature of human civilisation, and the prospect of new understandings of the physical world. The tone is objective, and adds an empirical feel to the poet’s description of the environment. The darkness of night heightens the reality of the urban environment, in which the old certainties are vanishing, and, as predicted by Nietzsche, mankind is presented with the choices that technology and an enhanced understanding of the physical world offer:
What seemed so far away
Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play. (23.)

Similarly, in Humle’s “The embankment” urban setting is used to suggest the loss of traditional certainties about the world which the Victorians had revered, despite the scientific revolutions heralded by Darwin.
In the introductory sentence, we are told the poem concerns a fallen gentleman, suggesting the changing attitudes and realisations of the social hierarchy.
The rhythm of music is merely an illusion:
Once in a finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy..” (24.)

Poesy’, or Elizabethan art-verse, is associated with the warmth’ of the internal rhythm of life. The poet’s understanding of rhythm and the psychology of music may be derived from Freud:
Now, I see, that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.” (25.)

The poet makes references to contemporary astronomy with the plea to God to make small’ the universe. Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the outer galaxies during the first two decades of the twentieth century, suddenly increased the size of the universe dramatically to incredible proportions:
Oh God, make small
the old star-eaten blanket of the sky…’ (26.)

The Georgians were both precursors and rivals of the Imagists, they are often described in terms of the lyrical and romantic tradition – a stubborn rejection of the modern age. They were highly influenced by the rural landscape of Edwardian Britain, and this staunch retreat into the pastoral is itself evidence of a reaction against urbanisation and the rapid decline of the rural community:
“Thus the poetry we find established in 1909 is a poetry of political retrenchment committed to conservative political and social ideals an institutions bound to collapse.’
the new poetic (26.)

The Georgian obsession with country life rarely mentions the social reality of contemporary urban Britain, but Edward Thomas ( 1878-1917), a poet disillusioned by both the insanity of war and the decline of rural life, addresses the destructive effect of industrialisation in his poem The Aspens, (1916):
The outbreak of war forced Thomas to relocate the landscape described in his verse… the events of the natural world can no longer be viewed without reference to the human world. (27.)

Like the imagists, Thomas uses colloquial easily understood language, but uses extensive symbolism. The aspens represent the enduring voice of reason and the rhythm of the living world, these trees must endure the rain as men endure suffering.
Thomas describes the tragedy of human frailty and morality in the disappearance of the hamlet, suggesting that the natural world is more enduring than man because it exists in harmony with itself – suggested in the rhythmic movement of the aspens, and the way they appear to converse communally. The community of the old hamlet was similarly in harmony, reflecting traditional ways of life amongst humanity, but the modern age has dispelled this harmony within society, so that the old ways of life have been replaced by soulless industrialisation and urban living:
a silent smithy, a silent inn…”
all day and night, save winter, every weather,
above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
the aspens at the cross roads talk together…” (28.)

The hamlet reflects traditional ways of life:
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil…
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.” (29.)

The internal harmony of community life, as seen in the aspens is rejected by contemporary society, this is the rhythm of nature and living things which Thomas suggests is the message of his poem – ultimately, a return to the peaceful certainties of the past.:
Over all sorts of weather, men and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.”(30.)

The works of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) perhaps epitomise the struggle of the twentieth century modernists to realistically portray and interpret their times.
Yeats was highly influenced by the Romantic poets of the previous century. Yeat’s early work is dominated by lyrical, but highly original narrative poems, which celebrate the Celtic mythologies of Ireland; later works, however demonstrate a deep social concern, borne out of Yeat’s political views and involvement in the debate over Home rule for the island:
In all these writings, reality is the key word; it is the state which the poet wishes to attain, and, in another sense, the state which he must interpret.” (31.)

In The Lake of Innisfree,’ a poem characteristic of his ‘Celtc twilight’ phase, there are very clear echoes of a concern with the changing nature of society and the rapid urbanisation of the Irish people:
I will arise and go now to Inisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow… (32.)

The use of lyrical verse form and pastoral imagery strangely contrast with the metre and structure of the poem, and is reminiscent of the vers libre of the Imagists. the fragmentation of the metrical structure, and irregularity of the line lengths suggests the disruption and fragmentation present in contemporary society. The poet reveals that he in truth inhabits an urban environment, but in his culture and consciousness, he still feels close to the rhythms of the natural world as expressed in his poetry:
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore:
while I stand in the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core – (33.)

Yeat’s social consciousness is revealed in his desire to bring the new, independent Irish culture he has helped create to the Irish people. The City of Byzantium suggests the old concept of the eternal city, the new-Jerusalem of classical and renaissance tradition. Byzantium is both an image of perfection and the transitory nature of beauty, it was overrun by the Ottomans in 1453. This poem is from Yeat’s final period, when he returned partially to the spiritual and mythological themes of his first Celtic phase. Yeats leaves the uncultured society of Ireland, aspiring to a state of aesthetic perfection:
“The unpurged images of day recede…” (34.)

The perfection of a dome’s proportions contrast with the wild, emotional nature of man. Yeats scorns the ignorance and cultural backwardness of his fellow countrymen, and human society generally:
A starlit or moonlit dome disdains
All that man is…
The fury and the mire of human veins” (35.)

Yeats is disenchanted with political idealism, he mocks the shade’ of nationalism and strife:
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death in life and life in death” (36.)

Yeats pleads with society to accept the cultural solution he offers Ireland, he begs for an awareness of art and for cultural dynamism, seen in his satire of the changeless metal of society:
In glory of changeless metal…
And all complexities of mire and blood… (37.)

Yeats rejects the use of violence for cultural and social change, he blames the martyrdom of those slain in conflict – as the source of yet more violence:
those images that yet
Fresh images beget.. (38.)

The challenge of confronting the social and political reality of contemporary Ireland is clearly met in the poem by Yeats, and is expressed through the metaphor of the city, as a symbol of the cultural state sought after by the poet. In particular, the poem is a deliberate antithesis of the horrors of street warfare seen in the urban centres of Ireland during the 1916 Easter rising.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) also attempted to confront the reality of the twentieth century reality, rather than evade it. His works, influenced by the Imagists, and particularly Ezra Pound, reveal a deep cynicism with contemporary social and spiritual attitudes. The often vague imagery of Eliot can often be traced to the disjointed and fragmented state of society during the nineteen thirties, and particularly to the threat of the new aggressive superpower of Germany. The fragmented, irregular free verse found in The Waste Land (1922) echoes the poet’s sense of social and civil decline in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. The threat of war, and ultimately of personal extinction is seen in the macabre image of the Tarrot fortune teller, Madam Sosostris, and in the frequent use of German phrases:
The Waste Land ends with the truth of the human situation as the religious mind conceives it: the beginning of wisdom is fear.” (39.)

The Waste Land seems to epitomise the unknown – the terror of a child’s sled-ride reflects the fascination and horror of sudden fear. The sudden emergence of plant life is also a vital, but shocking event:
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee… (40.)

Eliot satirises the complacency of modern society, he parodies the prophet’s Isiah’s assertion that the faithful man has nothing to fear form the world. The city from ‘The burial of the dead’ is however no protection for modern man. The rock of Isiah becomes dust:
“Come in under the shadow of this red rock…
I will show you fear in a handful of dust….” (41.)

The fragility of the modern psyche is also seen in the monotony of city life:
Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crown flowed over London bridge, so many…”(42)

In The Fire Sermon, vermin are seen by the poet as a symbol of pestilence and degeneration of urban man, the rat symbolises the oncoming doom, seen in the threat of war:
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank…” (43.)

The Poet adopts the persona of Tiresias from Antigone’s plays – he can see the decline of others and the terror that pursues them, but they are blind to their own impending doom. This image is analogous to the passive fall of society beneath the dislocation and uncertainties of the poet’s times:
I Tiresias, old man…
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest…” (44.)

In What the thunder said, Eliot considers the threat of annihilation – the city is destroyed, and anarchy reigns amongst the ruins:
‘Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth (45.)

The social and political reality of the thirties is ignored by contemporary civilisation, the city remains the focus of the idealists, the perfect bastion of learning and culture – the gleaming emblem of civilisation’s triumph:
Vienna, London
TS Eliot – Collected poems (46.)

The society of the Waste Land still has the appearance of conventional decorum, but beneath the thin facade of social appearance, the individuals exhibit primitive, Freudian natures, perhaps as a result of the tension and uncertainties of the age:
..he explores at once;
exploring hands encounter no defence…’ (47.)

Ultimately, the poem explores the changing nature of both urban life and society as a whole, mainly giving voice to the tensions of a generation in the years immediately preceding the Spanish civil war (1935-38), the rise of fascism and the Second World War:
The Waste Land is a poem of disintegration. The disintegration is of those values – of human culture, love, religion – which, ideally, the city was stabilised to safeguard… sterility and lust take the place of human love, while mysteries and sorceries of divination replace religion.’ (47.)

W. H. Auden (1907-73) continued the tradition of Eliot in the use of modern poetic form and retained an emphasis on realism and the social role of the poet.
Auden’s works during the forties and fifties were influenced by Marxism and the new philosophy of Existentialism (defined by Sartre), concerning the role and involvement of the induvidual in determining the course of his/ her own life. Auden was particularly interested in Jean Paul Sartre’s (1905-80) theories on the herd’ and in the relationship between the individual and self, society and the family.
In Auden’s poem The Capital,’ the urban reality of modern man has erased the seasons, and thereby effaced the presence of time:
You with your charm and your apparatus have abolished
the strictness of winter and the spring’s compulsion” (48.)

The urban environment imposes a facade of modern meritocracy and social mobility, but citizens are mere slaves of a civic system of laws and ethics ingrained into the subconscious psyche of the common man:
The dullness of mere obedience here is apparent.” (49.)

The ideal image of the city conceals the reality of city life and the abject poverty experienced by millions; the people produced in the city are like products themselves:
In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
factories where lives are made for a temporary use…” (50)

The increasing urbanisation and exploitation of the common people is exposed by Auden:
Night after night to the farmer’s children you beckon.’ (51.)

In The Unknown Citizen (1959), Auden gives a chilling, Orwellian account of contemporary social reality. The poem is an elegy for the ideal citizen, a man without an identity or character. The memorial reflects the countless young men sacrificed in war for the sake of nationalistic greed:
(To JS/07/M/378
This marble monument
Is erected by the state) (52.)

Central to the poem is the Freudian and Nietzschian concept of social conditioning; the citizens of this environment are cultural stereotypes, behaving in an ingrained and socially approved manner:
And our social psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.” (53)

The domination of information and education is an issue relevant to the thirties and forties, before the introduction of compulsory secondary education. The poet satirises a supposedly free Britain where education is not provided for citizens:
The press are convinced that he bought a paper every day..”
And his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.” (54)

The controversial science of genetic breeding, known as eugenics is satirised by Auden:
…added five children to the population,
Which our eugenist says was the right number..” (55)

Like George Orwell’s 1984, subjective concepts have been erased, replaced instead by totalitarian certainties; individual freedom as perceived by Sartre has been quashed by the state:
was he free? was he happy? The question is absurd…” (56.)

Auden’s overtly political verse therefore displays overt disenchantment with the social condition of the urban working classes during the nineteen forties:
One reason why Auden could not rest content as a political Marxist lay in his complete rejection of the propagandist or class-interested view of truth…” (57.)

The works of T.S. Eliot and Auden proved highly influential amongst the post-war and latter poets of the twentieth century. The trauma of the new century did not entirely, abate, and old tensions were replaced with new ones. The rise of America and the U.S.S.R as superpowers contending for dominance in the balance of world power, and the subsequent nuclear threat, all had an impact on Post-modern poetry. Perhaps most importantly to the theme of urban poetry, was the dramatic social evolution of traditional class orientated society in Britain. Unprecedented social mobility, which ultimately led to the temporary fall of socialism during the eighties, can clearly be seen in the works of less mainstream writers, such as Adrian Henri and the Liverpool poets.

Sylvia Plath’s (1932-63) poem, Landowners’ written in 1956, epitomises the working class disillusionment with the traditional social structure of Britain. Plath is looking at London society from the perspective of an outsider (an American), and as such adds an objective tone to the poem
from my rented attic with no earth
To call my own except the air motes,
I malign the leaden perspective…” (58)

The glaring colours of the houses suggest the artificiality of urban life:
Orange roof tiles, orange chimney pots, (59)

The uniformity and lack of character of working class homes is reflected in Plath’s presentation of the hoses as mirror-images:
See that the first house, as if between
Mirrors, engendering a spectral
Corridor of inane replicas, (60.)

The landowners of Britain are not obliged to inhabit the claustrophobic towns, their world is a spacious environment, with a wide view of the stars:
But landowners
Own their cabbage roots, a space of stars,
Indigenous peace.. (61.)

Plath’s eyeful’ of the rural environment is so small it relegates her both to the fringes of experience and society:
Such substance makes
My eyeful of reflections a ghost’s
Eyeful, which envious, would define
Death as striking root on one land-trac… (62.)

Bernard Spencer’s (1909-63) poem Night Time: Starting to Write (1965)
presents a psychological landscape, similar in its use of subjective imagery to the poem by Sylvia Plath. Spencer’s poem mirrors experience, and presents truth to perception through use of precise concrete imagery:
Over the mountains a plane bumbles in”(63)

The reality and seemingly ordinary aspects of urban life conceal the nocturnal, inner nature of man.
Down in the city a watchman’s iron-topped stick
bounces and rings off the pavement. Late returners
must be waiting now by me unseen” (64.)

The watchman is the appears to epitomise the vigil of a secure society, but the disquieting presence of unseen returners and the bark of the dog suggests that the city does not sleep at night, but becomes the setting for awakening of the nocturnal energy of man. The burning lamp suggests the fiery energy of the night, as if there is a high amount of oxygen present:
But then I catch
my lamp burn fiercer like a thing bewitched… (65.)

A kind of montage effect is attained through juxtaposition of images. The plane contrasts with the watchman, suggesting the insignificance of the man against the backgound of technologocal civilisation. Similarly, the domestic scene of the house is juxtapose dwith the image of the unknown deamon, this suggests the inner psyche of man as envisioned by Freud, the id:
Table and chairs, expectant like a play:
And – if that Unknown, Demon, what you will
Stalks on the scene…” (66.)

The dreams of sleeping humanity rage in the city – man’s primitive, instinctual self is revealed in the exposure of his full, unrestrained psyche- through the act of love and in his dreams:
Be damned the call to sleep, the needs of the day,
Love a dark city then… (67.)

John Betjeman’s (1906-84) poem Devonshire St W.1 describes a man who has consulted a doctor and has found that he has a terminal illness, this theme reflects Benjamin’s concern with contemporary issues, and particularly with the silent majority:
There are an exceptional gentleness and good nature in his affection for ordinary, marginal people.” (68)

Betjamin exposes the flaws in our society, describing the indifference of urban life to the forthcoming death of an individual:
No hope. And the X-ray photographs under his arm
Confirm the message…” (69.)

The brick house to which the couple return seems desolate, uniform and soulless, psychological realism is conveyed though the subjective imagery:
And the iron knob of this palisade
So cold to the touch, is luckier now than he… (70.)

The couple’s tragedy looses it’s meaning, they submerge themselves beneath the uniformity of the city, loosing both their suffering and their identities:
Its cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly
And then we can catch a nineteen or twenty-two. (71.)

Philip Larkin’s (born 1922) poems often concern the transitory nature of the rural countryside and way of life for older generations. In ‘Church Going’ , the poet bemoans the spread of the urban landscape and its pollution by modern society. Larkin identifies the problem of restrained human energies, suggesting that rural life could allow the free expression of these energies:
“There would always be fields and farms, where the village louts could climb..” (72.)

The insularity of town life is seen in Larkin’s reference to the rise of the car as the predominant form of transport, outranking even walking. He identifies our desire to be clinically separate from the filth of cities:
We can always escape in the car. (73.)

Betjamin blames the domination of business on the running of the country:
Your works to the unspoilt dales… (74.)

Finally, Larkin reflects on the chaotic nature of man and society:
Most things are never meant
this won’t be most likely… (75.)

The phenomenon of urban life is central to the works of Douglas Dunn (born 1942) His anthology of poems, Terry Street published 1968 exposes the urban monotony and industrial subjugation of the working classes. In Men of Terry Street, the poet expresses a sense of isolation from the working classes as a writer, their culture and way of life is alien to his:
They come in at night, leave in the early morning…
Somehow, I am either in bed, or the curtains are drawn.” (76.)

The working classes are oppressed by the social status, but are free form the intellectual dilemmas that face the intellectual poet, they are driven by primitive and simple needs, and by vital, nurturing instincts:
They quicken their step to the smell of cooking,
They hold up their children and sing to them.” (77.)

The poetry of D. M. Black (born 1945) uses highly surreal imagery to tell allegorical stories often concerning social issues. The contemporary social, and indeed urban question of educational correctness is the main emphasis of his poem The Educators, written in 1960.
The educators represent the traditional public-school model education, they epitomise decorum, rigidity and didactic learning. They also represent, through their association with wealth and formality, the hierarchical social order establishment, and the middle-class domination of the professions. The disjointed, fragmented structure of the verse slows the poem’s rhythm, emphasising the slow, methodical process of education::
in their limousines the teachers come by
hundreds. O the
square is
blackened with dark suits…” (78)

Black questions the predominantly male, patriarchal structure of society, perhaps an influence of feminist theory:
These are the
educators, the
father-figures. O you could
warm with love for the firm lips… (79)

Black questions the repression of the child’s self expression, and queries the limited and conformist nature of information, education, and power in society. The dwarf symbolises humanity as an innocent child, whose individuality and creativity is quashed by conventional attitudes and ethics. Although not an overtly urban- poem, it does concern modern society in an urban, and highly structured environment, perhaps owing something to new historicism:

bell rings. They turn. On the
wide steps my
dwarf is standing, both hands raised. he
cackles with laughter. welcome he cries… (80)

The poem’s irregular, fragmented rhythm slows the reading of the poem down, emphasising the methodicism of the educational butchery taking place:
With a single grab they have him up by the shoulders. They
dismantle him. Limbs, O
Limbs and delicate organs, lips and
guts, eyes, the tongue, the lobes of the brain…
pass from hand to hand in their serious hands… (81)

Adrian Henri (born 1932) is primarily a musician, associated with the Liverpool movement known as the Liverpool Scene, his poetry has a direct social dimension, since he advocates and practices performance readings. His poetry also seeks to expose the lies and deceptions that modern society uses to manipulate the individual:
“I am exited by new uses of language in the mass media, lie TV commercials or pop songs…” (82)

In Tonight at Noon (1969) we are presented with a parody of normality in urban life, exposing the hypocrisies and injustices of modern society and living:
Tonight at noon…
Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home…
America will declare peace on Russia
World war I generals will sell poppies in the streets… (83.)

Humour is central to poem – and emphasises the hypocrisy of contemporary society and convention::
“…and Nelson will not only get his arm back, but his eye as well.” (84.)

Human rights are central to the poem, the parody of the American race problem is a poignant reminder of the fundamental injustice and obstacle of racism:
White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights…(85)

In The Entry Of Christ into Liverpool (1970), Henri exposes the covert means by which the public are manipulated by society, religion and conventional morality. The poem is based on surrealist poem James Ensor (1860-1949) “The entry of Christ into Brussels’.
We are initially led to believe that the Liverpool scene is one of normality:
round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturday morning shoppers
headscarves, shopping baskets. dogs…”(86)

Henri uses text like a graphic image, as seen in media advertising, through this he attracts our attention, and paradoxically adds both a sense of artificiality and officialdom to the poem:

down the hill
cheering and shouting in the distance
children running… (87.)

Henri parodies the modern dependency on sub-culture, cults, and political allegiances:
hideous masked Breughel faces of old ladies in the crows
yellow masks of girls in curlers and headscarves
smelling of factories
Masks Masks Masks

crushing surging carrying me along… (88.)

The motifs and insignias of movements and organisations in the poem all catch the attention of the viewer. The poet’s use of layout emphasises the artificiality of the modern world. Henri exposes the ways in which we are manipulated by faceless organisations and by ethical and religious propaganda:
Down the hill past the Phillamonic the Labour exchange
exited feet crushing the geraniums in St. Luke’s gardens
placards banners posters
Keep Britain white
End the war in Vietnam
God bless our pope
Billboard hoardings drawings on the pavements
words painted on the road

Even religion is satirised – the surreal entry of Christ into the town is juxtaposed against the advertisement for Coleman’s mustard:
gleaming salads
J. Ensor, Fabriqueur de Masques
Straining forward to catch a glimpse through the crows…

The existentialist emphasis of Henri is a warning and critique of urban man, to beware the mind-controlling forces that exist within the social and economic order.

Finally, the psychological landscapes of Roy Fisher (Born 1930) provide a intensely pessimistic outlook on urban life, using concentrated language and psychological landscape to convey the trauma of the condition of modern man in the urban environment. The use of powerful psychological imagery is reminiscent of the confessional works of A. Alvarez, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath.
Images and motifs are closely related, creating a complex symbolic structure which unifies the poem, and suggests a central focus and meaning.

In The hospital in winter, (1968), Fisher presents us with a hospital during early morning. The amber light of dawn suggests danger; the bell is symbolises the funerary bell, and the day of judgement:
A dark bell leaders the hour,
the three-o-clock
light falls amber across a tower… (91.)

The urban environment is predatory and indifferent to the sufferings of mankind, seen in the coral brick of the hospital, suggesting the destructive powers of the ocean and sea. The hospital is integral to a constrictive urban society, it belongs to the borough:
Below, green rail within a wall
of coral brick,
stretches the borough hospital (92.)

The hospital is a symbol of urban oppression rather than healing, it merely prolongs suffering. The smells of disinfectant are sterile reminders that this is a place of death. The fragility of medical instruments suggest the corresponding frailty of humanity:
monstrous with smells that cover death,
white gauze tongues,
cold water pipes of pain, glass breath… (93.)

The trucks are pitted with rust; the corrosive effect of water reminds us of human blood, and the indifference and chaotic forces within nature:
far off beyond the engine sheds,
motionless trucks
grow ponderous, their rotting reads
deepening toward night (94.)

In conclusion, all the poetry with a basis in urban life seems to embrace the modernist appraisal of the city as a concept in traditional culture and literature. Poets of the modern tradition have consistently undertaken a critique of the concept of urban life, emphasising the sense of desolation and social fragmentation that accompanied the traumatic and violent events of the twentieth century. For them, the city became a symbol of government, the establishment, reactionary politics and attitudes to society:
‘The poetry of experience, in this century, is dominated by the City. (95.)

The theme of urban life is seems a good issue by which to evaluate the development of individual poets and poetic movements across the twentieth century. Hardy and his successors the Imagists, were concerned with the same kind of empirical interest as the humanist writers, such as Defoe and Swift, and wrote with an emphasis on contemporary issues and concerns.
Other poets, however, were less willing to confront contemporary issues, such as the problems of urban living; their works seek the security of past assumptions, conditions and forms of poetic expression; in particular we find the Georgian poets, of the twenties and thirties, rejecting contemporary concerns, and instead harkening back to the idyllic poetry of the previous century. Similarly, the Movement poets, of the fifties and sixties, such as Philip Larkin also sought poetic entrenchment in the older, less industrial Britain of the Edwardian age.
Recently, the successors to the critical tradition in the appraisal of urban life became The Group, with its strong social concerns, and whose principal member, Peter Porter (born 1929), has strong links with the Labour Party.
Ultimately, the critical tradition of Auden and Eliot have their successors in more recent poets, such as Tom Paulin, James Fenton and Jefforey Wainwright.

A poem should not mean But be (Archibald Macleish) Does this requirement shed more light then darkness?

A poem should not mean But be (Archibald Macleish) Does this requirement shed more light then darkness?

Paul Catherall

The expressive emphasis of modern poetry often reflects the progressive, radical and reconcillatory intellectual perspectives of twentieth century writers, theorists and philosiophers.
As in other literary forms, the poem has been the vehicle of intellectual discourse for debate on subjects ranging from the attitudes of modren huanity to war, to the decline of cultural, institutional and ethical tradition.
Many writers, from those writing during the early part of this century, to the present, seem to have a definite sense of purpose in creating their work, and as mentioned previously, seem to have some message or viewpoint they wish to present in their poetry. For some poets, such as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) this message or opinion is couched in complex, sometimes seemingly ambiguous language and metaphor, but beneath the sophistry and often difficult imagery can be discerned a powerful indiciment of contemporary society. The fragmented, irregular verse of ‘The Waste Land ‘ (1922) echoes the poet’s sense of civil decline in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. Eliot becomes Sophocle’s Tiresias, fortelling the advent of the impending second world war:
I Tiresias, old man…
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest…” (44.)

Prominent ‘realist’ poets, whose intention was to increase society’s awareness of social, political and national problems, included the ‘Imagists,’ (begun in 1914) who attempted to break away from the lyrical traditon, both through their focus on conntemporary issues, and in their use of innovative ‘vers libre’, rather than imitate classical poetic metre or subjects.
Poets of the first world War also contributed heavily to the realist tradiiton of poetry as a critique of contempory issues; the poems of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Edward Thomas ( 1878-1917), both demonstrate disollusion and horror with the process and results of war. Later poets who identified war with a moribund and decaying civilisation included Robert Graves (1895-1985) and W. H. Auden (1907-73.) For Auden, the function of the poet is to render the condition of modern industrial man, often presented as a conditioned automaton within the machine of civilisation:
In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
factories where lives are made for a temporary use…” The City(50)

The condition and changing landscape of post-war Britain is one of the primary concerns of Philip Larkin (born 1922.) Larkin’s poetry often reads like a dirge for the idyllic, less industrial Britain of the ‘thirties, a nostalgic recreation of traditional community life, ethics and work, in opposition to the commericalism of the present, which he condemns:
There would always be fields and farms, where the village louts could climb..” church going (72.)

More recently, poets whose intention seems to be the presentation of a personal subjective or explicit meaning, include Karen Gershon (born 1923), Derek Mahon (born 1941) and James Fenton (born 1949.) All these poets are influenced by the ‘realist’ influence of Auden and the poets of the first war, particllarly Karen Gershon. The influence of the Northern Irish poets is highly apparent in Derek Mahon’s work, particularly that of Louis Macneice (1907-67), whose ‘Prayer before birth’ is strikingly similar to Mahon’s ‘An unborn Child.’
Karen Gershon’s poems almost exclusively deal with the subject of the Jewish holocaust; on an historical and moral level, they remind us of an immense crime that has come to symbolise the suffering imposed on modern humanity throught the madness of war, and on a personal level, serve as an outlet, in a confessional sense for Gershon’s own guilt in having survived the genocide that claimed her entire family:

I was not there they were alone
my mind refuses to conceive
the life the death they must have known
I must atone because I live (I was not there – 225)

Obviously, Gershon is a poet who has a diistinct messasge to relay to the reader, and although comparitively unsophisticated in her use of metaphor or form, as compared say to Eliot, her poetry is particularly powerful because of it’s very direct, coherent and in some ways uncomplicated style. Another feature of the poetry is Gershon’s confessional tone, by which she communicates her sense of loss, sadness and empathy for the murdered Jews, use of simple, unsophisticated language and structural form adds both to the clarity and sincerity of the poet’s voice:

One who is named
on her family’s tomb
died in a camp
when she was twenty years old
I envied her as a child… (In the jewish cemetary) 226

Similarly, Derek Mahon tackles the inhumanity of war in his works, and comments on wider issues concerning the ethical and moral nature of society and civilisation itself. In ‘An unborn child,’ Mahon comments on the the corruptible nature of the world for the innocent about to be born:
The pandemonium of encumbrances
Intricacies if the box and the rat race –
I imagine only… (350)

In ‘rage for order’ Mahon describes the futility of the poet as a social and political innovator in the tradition of the Romantics, for him, the poet’s passionate desire to improve the world is simply a conceited self-indulgence, a romantic mythos that can lead to no real result:
Somewhere out beyond the scorched gable end and the burnt out
there is a poet indulging
his wretched rage for order –
or not as the case my be; for his
is a dying art,
an eddy of semantic scruples
in an unscrutable sea. (351)

The poet presents an inverse message here, pleading not for proaction, but lamenting the utter dissolusion he feels for the ‘realist’ and progressive tradition in poetry. Mahon’s poems are successful in their analysis of the relationship between literature and contempory issues, because they confront the reader with her/his passivity to literature, rather than adopting the argument as the discoursive form of the poem. Mahon’s demand that the reader observe the implausable proaction of the poet empasises the gap between the passivity of the reader and the creative activity or proaction of the artist:
now watch me as I make history. watch as I tear down
to build up with a desprate love,
knowing it cannot be (351)

Another recent poet who works consistently in the ‘realist’ tradition, where explicit meaning or opinion is a major feature of the poem, is James Fenton. One of the most striking aspects of Fenton’s work is his discussion of war, particularly the contemporary threat of nuclear war, a concern which illustrates his admiration for Auden. In ‘Dead Soldiers,’ Fenton uses a combination of witty conceit and emulation of the burlesque to parody the politiics of war. The weight of human loss is presented through the juxtaposition of war with trivia:
When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey
Invited me to lunch on the battlefield
I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day… (378)

Despite the popularity of mainstream ‘realist’ poets, such as Auden, Eliot and Larkin, where a distinct, argumentatiive, and sometimes dogmatic voice is present, other writers have succeeded in producing a new and innovative expressive emphasis distinct from the realist ‘condition of Britain’ intention of either ‘The Movement’ poets, led by Larkin or those of ‘The Group’ led by John Betjeman (1906-84.)
Brian Patten (born 1946,) claims to be a lyrical poet, interested, much like Ted Hughes (1930-1998) in the form and accumulative metaphor, rather than the purpose of the poem. In ‘Little Johhny’s Confession,’ an apparently trivial and humerous poem leaves the reader with the image of infantile violence. The success of the poem lies in it’s entire metaphor as a condemnation of human violence. The validity and sincerity of this simple intention is seen in the unsophisticated diction and spontaneous form of the poem, which poseses no explicit message, but only the implicit suggestion of one through the use of metaphor:
This morning
being rather ypoung and flooish
I borrowed a machinegun my
father had left hidden since the war, went out,
and eliminated a number of small enimies
since then i have not returned home. (335)

Similarly, in ‘Its always the same image,’ Patten uses the poem to focus on a single image in connceiving his partner with a spiritual, almost religious awe:

It is always the same image;
of you wandering naked out from autum rivers,
your body steaming, covered with rain… 336-7

The close spiritual and physical proximity between the poet and his partner is suggested by the dream-like resume of the poet, his partner and he are joined through the subconscius world of dreams:
and just visible through the mist
a thousand rivers following you naked
leaving no traces in the corners of dawn. 337

For Patten, the meaning of the poem is not so much a message, but an expression of emotion, either revulsion for the human capacity for violence – as seen in ‘Little Johnny’s confession,’ or spiritual and personal fulfilment in ‘It’s always teh same image.’ Like Donald Black (born 1945) Patten uses allegory and surreal imagery to suggest meaning, rather than explicitly define it.
Another poet to adopt an innovatiive approach to meaning and poetic form, is Michael Hamburger (boorn 1924.) In ‘Travelling,’ we are struck by the apparent reversal from the modernist realist emphasis, to one deeply rooted in traditional lyrical verse. Hamburger’s voice is that of the Romantic, the spiiritualy aware artist whose aim is to reconcile humanity with the natural environment; it is interesting that one of haburger’s concerns is also global pollution. For Hamburger, there is no explicit message, or meaning in the poem, simply the expression by the poet of the emotional fulfillment he feels in association with the natural landscape:
mountains, lakes. I have been her befoire
And on other mountians, wooded
or rocky, smelling of thyme.

Forests where
After rain,
salamanders lay, looped the dark mess with gold. 203

The reader’s impresion is of a sucession of images, mountains, lakes etc. suggesting movement, and a spiritual mobility similar to the roving eagles decribed in the poem:
And I moved on, to learn
one of the million histories,
One weather, one dialect… 203

Quite distinct from either of the two innovative aproaches discussed is the work of Adrian Henri (born 1932), a poet-artist is particularly committed to innovation in his writing, and to the artistic ideals of the ‘Pop’ movement which sought to investigate and deconstruct the effect of the mass media and advertisment on society. Henri’s poems are often strikingly expressionist and surreal, since they illustrate, through their bizzare imagery and form, the machinery of social conditioning and normalizing through the influence of the media.
Like the previous two poets, Henri’s work does not seem to contain direct empirical or subjective argument, but simply presents a series of familiar images before the reader, confronting the spectator with an objective view of our society.
In The Entry Of Christ into Liverpool (1970), Henri uses text like a graphic image, his poem-advertisments attract our attention because of the boldness and singularity of their composition; paradoxicaly, Henri is exposing the psychological power of the media through the portrayal of artistic deception in his own poem.
Henri exposes the ways in which we are manipulated by faceless organisations and by ethical and religious propaganda. The motifs and insignias of institutions and organisations in the poem all catch the attention of the viewer, they all suggest the artificiality of the modern world:
placards banners posters
Keep Britain white
End the war in Vietnam
God bless our pope
Billboard hoardings drawings on the pavements
words painted on the road… (89.)

The interest of Adrian henri in the form of poetry as a reflection of social consciousness, as distinct from a critique approach to social attitudes is, i think important in considering the poet’s expressive style; rather than adopt a subjective or argumentive tone, Henri presents motifs of our society, and asks the reader to judge or comment on them him/herself.
Similarly, the works of Roy Fisher (born 1930) clearly demonstarte an interest in the function and relationship between poetry and contemporary isues, and between the art of the poet and his/her external environment. Most striking about Fisher’s work, is perhaps the use of powerful psychological imagery , reminiscent of the works of A. Alvarez, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath. Another feature of Fisher’s poems is their originality and tendency to metamorphose as they are read, confounding the reader’s ability to predict the course or tone of the poem. In particular, Fisher’s poetry seems to relate the form of the poem to aspects of life, as an expression of tension, emotion or regret. In ‘Interior I,’ the poet describes a chance encounter with a woman, the complexity, tension and artificiality of the relationship is directly reflected by the disjointed, surreal progress of the poem:

Experimanting, experimenting,
With long damp fingers twisting all the time and in the dusk
White like unlit electric bulbs she said
This green goes with this purpl,’ the hands going,
The question pleased: ‘Agree?’

The activity of experimentation is in constant reference, as if both the poem and the event described were a creative construct or experiment in viewing events the poet has merely set in motion:

Growing annoyed, i think, she clouds over, reminds me she’s
a guest, first time heer, a comparative stranger however
close, ‘Dosent welcome me.’ she’s not young of course;
trying it thoug, going on about hte milk bottle, table lewg,
the little things. Oh, a laugh somewhere. More words,
She knows I don’t live here.

The complex relationship between man, woman and human nature all contribute to the mythos of the poem, the relationship is hindered by the dark external world, dominated by the powerful fertility symbol of the moon. The burlesque treatment of the intervening moon seems to trivilise the disturbing reality of nature’s dominance over our internal drives and animal instinct:

And she shuts her eyes big and muurmurs:
‘And when the moon with horror –
And when the moon with horror –
And when the moon with horror -‘
so i say, ‘Comes blundering blind up the path tonight.’
She: ‘We hear it bump and scrape.’
I: ‘We hear it giggle.’ looks at me
‘And when the moon with horror,’ she says.


Far from attempting to convey a specific mesage or meaning, the poem stands as self-contained entity, a showcase of human nature. The poem operates within the reality of the page, existing without reference to time or spatial dimensions, thus depending almost entirely on the reader’s interpretation of the poem’s subject and expressive focus.

Finally, another successful reworking, or shift in expressive emphasis is seen in the work of David Jones (1895-1974.) Like Hamburger, Jones has not so much created a new art form, as returned to a traditional one. Deeply influenced by the epic poetry of the Gododdin, Jones drew from the pre-conquest literature of Wales to produce a reworking in part of the ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ narrative. For Jones, the poem served, independent of particular meaning, as an expression of the self:
‘i beleive that there is, in the priciple that inforems the poetic art, a something that cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product’

In ‘The Hunt’, the reworking of an episode from Culhwch ac Olwen, Jones uses free verse and modern English to convey the passions and tensions of the ‘arglwyddi’ (4) who accompany Arthur on the hunt of the boar Trwyth across South Wales. Jones uses accurate archaic terms to describe individuals and events, even goint to the point of refering to the traditional Welsh numerical system:

‘…and the hundreds and twenties
of horsed palatini (1) Knights
(to each comitatus
one penteulu) (2) Captain
that closely hedge
with a wattle of weapons
the first among eqauls
from the wattled palasau (3) Palaces
the torqued arglwyddi (4) Lords
of calamitoius jelousy…

The conflict between the boar and Arthur is a purely dramtic incident, the fcat that he is ‘speckled’, refers to his bloodied clothes:

the speckled lord of Prydain (5) Britain
in his twice embroidered coat…
and between the rents of needlework
the whiteness of his body shone
so did his dark wounds glisten..

Little modern interpretation or covert reference to cotemporary issues can be discerned in the poem, instead, Jones defies convention to produce a mainly aesthetic poem, which uses language in a creative and (by the standards of common English usage) original way. The inclusion of Welsh termenology in the poem adds a fresh and innovative flavour to the work, and because of their incidental use does not hinder the reader’s understanding of the narrative. This poem does not have a focused, particular meaning, but instead seeks to emulate the expressive concerns of its sources, i.e: in producing an aesthetic work of art, meant simply to be enjoyed rather than dischiphered:

becasuse this was the Day
of the pasionate men of Britain
when they hunted the Hog
life for life..

In conclusion, it seems that there is no general consensus in the preference of expressive form for recent and contemporary poets. In many ways, however, a theoretical progression can be identified in the break from the expressive emphasis of realist poets such as Auden, and Eliot and their decendents, the Movement and Group poets, towars innovative and experimental approaches to poetic meaning with many post-war, and partcularly recent poets. The concern with realism is still present, as seen in the works of Karen Gershon and many of the Northern irish poets, but these poets aften belong to the older empirical and marxist traditions of Eliot, Pound and Auden, rather than to the expressionist and aesthetic approaches of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez. The poets I have chosen to study illustrate distinctly different approaches to the relationship between poetry, art and reality. In the cases of karen Gershon, derek Mahon and James fenton, the approach to expressive form is usually traditionally explicit, where a specific message or related messages are conveyed within either a literal or figurative language. In the cases of Michael Hamburger, brian patten, Adrian henri and david Jones, the expressive empasis does not lie with the direct explicit meaning but with an implict, highly suggetsive or simply abstract representation.
In terms of judging the relative quality, benefits or superiority of the various styles discussed, it seems that all acheive some kind of success in their widely differeing aims.
For the poets dealing with conflict and the disasterous consequences of war, use of a direct, comprehensive style seems to communicate the reality of violence most effectivley; while for the more experimentally inclined poets, their own highly particular emphases are attained through implicit expressionist language and imagery.

The twin aims of 18th Century writers were habitually stated to be to entertain readers and to improve them. Compare Gulliver’s Travels and One of Moll Flanders and Joseph Andrews, seeking to describe the author’s balance between these two imperatives and how far, if at all, they succeed in unifying them

The twin aims of 18th Century writers were habitually stated to be to entertain readers and to improve them. Compare Gulliver’s Travels and One of Moll Flanders and Joseph Andrews, seeking to describe the author’s balance between these two imperatives and how far, if at all, they succeed in unifying them.

Since the Renaissance, the twin aims of literature were popularly held to be the advancement of the reader’s learning, and to provide entertainment. Art, in painting and literature, was held to reflect both the unity and beauty of the natural world, and a spiritual or moral significance. Sir. Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet wrote:

“Poetry (literature) is an art of imitation… a speaking picture to teach and delight.'(1.)

The importance of achieving these aims in prose fiction in the Eighteenth century are reflected in the opening prefaces of many contemporary works of literature.

In Daniel Defoe’s novel “Moll Flanders,’ we are informed that the author’s intention is to warn society of the perils of an amoral life, and to demonstrate the validity of repentance in attaining redemption – both from society and God. In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,’ we are informed at the end of the novel, that it is the author’s aim to “inform, not to amuse.’

Upon reading these works, however, it can be seen that their chief basis is one of humour, and particularly – of satire, we even find many modern features of the more popular novel at work, including sensationalism, lewdness and often explicit sexual reference.

Certainly, the reading public of the early eighteenth century demanded some kind of incorporation of both elements, especially since social and political commentary was severely restricted – often, as in the case of Defoe, resulting in harsh fines and even imprisonment.

If the task of Eighteenth century writers was to provide some kind of forum for debate, (more usually in the form of propaganda for the respective factional groups the writer supported,) it was also to provide an entertaining, but not over-literary source of pleasure for the reading public. Occasionally, as in the case of Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,’ the intended audience was primarily the governing classes: aristocrats and the landed squirarchy – those who would elect and occupy seats in the parliaments. Both Swift and Defoe, however were read by a wide spectrum of society, especially by the trade-based middle classes of London. London was in fact, the main centre of literary and cultural life in Britain at this time, and it is not surprising therefore that this is the main setting of “Moll Flanders.’

London was a virtual cess-pit for the labouring classes, and with its open sewers, crowded housing and ascendency of the gin problem, could in many respects claim more affinity with the pessimistic engravings of Hogarth than the neo-classical splendour of a recently erected St. Pauls. The plague years, 1666-8 saw a three-quarters reduction in the city’s population. It is not surprising, that Defoe, who frequently flaunted convention to attack urban problems, should appeal for an awareness of social conditions in his novels.

Moll’s frequent poverty induces her to a life of crime, in this Defoe seems to address those who are in a position to change society, whilst illustrating the social problems of London for the reader; the novel provides entertainment through presentation of Moll in a succession of cliff-hanger situations, where she is faced with poverty and destitution:

” But my own distress silenced all these reflections, and the prospect of my own starving, which grew very day more frightful to me, hardened my heart by degrees.’ (2)

Defoe’s other main moral emphasis is on the plight of the individual faced with moral dilemmas to sustain him/herself in a hard environment. Moll’s fall to crime and eventual punishment illustrates the consequences of succumbing to an amoral life. Hell is seen in terms of the abysmal conditions of Newgate prison, and in the prospect of a slow, public death; alongside this moralizing process, we witness the brutality of a merciless penal system, again, although the novelist’s tone pleads for social awareness, he also uses the situation as a climax, a sensational turning point that will decide the fate of the protagonist. Because of Defoe’s sympathetic presentation of Moll, we are able to empathize with Moll’s inner tension and suffering, but also to take a morbid pleasure in her situation:

“I was harnessed between the dreadful Apprehensions of death and terror, of my conscience reproaching me with my past horrible life.'(3)

Redemption is possible through the individual’s repentance, Moll will be saved; not only is this a moral point, affirming the validity of repentance to Christ, but it also serves as a safety valve to relieve the anxiety of the reader that Moll will survive:

“The good minister whose interest, thou’ strange to me, had obtained me the reprieve…'(4.)

Moll’s sensational, sensual lifestyle is seen in her constant escapades with various criminal organizations, in her numerous romantic and sexual liaisons with men, and in her constant reversal from security to the edge of survival, and destitution. This is seen repeatedly in her narrow escapes from the law, and acquisition of gentlemen to support her in times of crisis; Moll’s escape after her house-breaking accomplices are caught illustrates this:

“…thus, I had a second escape, for they were convicted and both hanged… I now began to be very wary, after having so narrowly escaped a scouring.’ (5.)

Moll Flanders is also instructive (perhaps even seditious,) and entertaining through its presentation of social satire. The governing classes are seen in particularly humorous terms, seen in the episode when the “Baronet’ Moll robs and flirts, actually gives her money:

“He told me he could trust me… and putting his hand into his pocket gave me five guineas.’ (6.)

The plot of “Moll Flanders’ is also humorous, Moll’s succession of husbands and children are implausible and absurd. The fact that Moll is so different from her fellow criminals, retaining her early decorum and manners – which she uses to deceive people, also seems implausible and unrealistic. Perhaps the most unrealistic element is in the way her children are taken away by others. Moll always seems to justify her lack of parental concern for her children, which is also slightly disconcerting. Moll contemplates her own incredible and amoral past:

“One that has lain with two brothers, and has had three children by her own brother! …born in Newgate, whose mother is a whore and now a transported thief; one that has lain with thirteen men…’ (7.)

Isolated episodes in the novel also add to the novel’s humour – Moll, after stealing a horse has to leave the animal at an inn with a note for the owner:

“All the remedy we had of this unlucky adventure was to go and set up the horse at an inn…’ (8.)

Swift’s entertaining qualities lie more in satire and literary devices than Defoe, perhaps, because his target audience was largely of the governing class and classically educated in society. With Defoe, entertainment and instruction are linked through the realistic, pseudo-autobiographical narrative of Moll. Her narrative is one of experience, with the outcome of her life rooted in past occurances; her particularised character, with its moral conscience, and use of explicit, concise language constantly emphasises an authenticity and intimacy with the reader. It is this sense of particularised realism that both enables us to laugh with and at Moll, and share her emotions when in distress or excitement as a plausible individual.

This particularised portrayal also enables the reader to empathasise with Moll’s condition in contemporary London, also portrayed in particularised topographical detail. Swift’s approach to entertainment and instruction is somewhat different, his central character, “Gulliver’ is reminiscent of earlier Renaissance literature in his presentation as a generalist, and symbolic character. Gulliver rarely debates his options, and is unlike Moll in narrative tone or style. Gulliver’s aim is to inform the reader in the discoveries he has made, allowing him/her to come to their own conclusions on these experiences. The main vehicle of instruction in the book is satire, and this is also the main source of entertainment. From this perspective, Swift’s satirical discourse seems to unite both aims of writing tightly together, each complementing the other.

The humorous often contains some kind of satirical undertone, and one of the the best examples of this entertaining/instructive satire is that on factionalism; the appointment of courtiers through a test of physical skill and the allocating of ribbons as if for a contest, suggests a parody of contemporary European politics, where patronage would often be symbolised by the awarding of ceremonial garters; although this satire is particular, and applies to the courts of Willliam, Anne and George I, it is also general in its criticism of the nature of any despotic, or patronage-ridden society:

“You will see few great persons around court who are not adorned with these girdles.’ (9.)

Humour combines with satire in this portrayal of European politics. From Gulliver’s perspective, particular and general satire is united in the portrayal of factions who appear all the same to Gulliver from his height. Parties are driven by the greed of interests, rather than ethics. The egg-conflict, perhaps satirising the schism in religion between Protestant and Catholic is ridiculous and irrelevant; Gulliver does not judge this conflict, but leaves this to the reader. This conflict is extended to that between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Concord and rejection of this factionalism, is seen in Gulliver’s destruction of the invasion fleet, but unwillingness to utterly destroy Blefuscu:

“I would never be the instrument of bringing a brave and free people into slavery.’ (10.)

Similarly, in narrative technique, entertainment and instruction combine. This is particularly seen in the form of Gulliver’s travels as a travel journal, with Gulliver narrating his adventures. As a parody of this kind of pro-imperial, expansionist and often exaggerated writing, Gulliver discusses utterly fantastic cultures and races which could not possibly exist. Gulliver is also presented as an unsound narrator, whose authority we cannot rely upon in the travel-writing tradition; our disinclination to support Gulliver’s decisions adds to this loss of narrative strength, and is seen in Gulliver’s acceptance of authority without question:

“I swore and subscribed to these articles with great cheerfulness and content…’ (11.)

Gulliver, Swift’s main focus of criticism, emphasises epistemology and the importance of comparison, rather than the popular 18th Century empiricism of Locke; in this way, Swift exposes the limits of rationalism as an affirmation of Western superiority:

“Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison’ (12.)

Size is an indication of morality, as well as a source of humour. Gulliver’s relative size to the races he encounters is a satirical device by which the culture of Gulliver is compared to others. Brobdignag looks down on Gulliver, perhaps because of moral superiority; Gulliver however, does not like what he see when viewing humanity at such magnified quarters (breasts, coarse skin etc.) Devoid of supposed European beauty and pretensions, these people appear ugly, satirising the self-beleif and perceptions of the Enlightenment:

“I could not forbear, lest the reader might think these creatures actually deformed…’ (13.)

Swift highlights the difference between our material reality and spiritual / ethical pretensions, particularly relevant to the 18th Century psyche; he satirizes the artificial separation of mind and body prevalent in 18th Century philosophy (especially in that of Descartes’ “Cartesian Duality.’) Swift exposes the bestiality of man, his unexalted place in natural order when deprived of his own self-assertive culture.

This is reflected in Gulliver’s constant discussion of the need to “unburthen’ himself, and in the detailed toilet arrangements in Lilliput, to prevent sanitary disaster. The humorous dousing of the palace fire by Gulliver also suggests the necessity of practical, sometimes unproprietous acts to achieve the common good – as opposed to the intrigues and rhetoric of courtly protocol, the cause of so many European conflicts:

“The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by my labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine…’ (14.)

This scene has connotations of political necessity for philosophers, to concentrate of the material problems of 18th Century life, and perhaps even the need for practical reform in 18th Century sanitary health, a major problem of contemporary London. This emphasis on social reform is seen in the dreadful conditions of the Balnibarian and Laputan peoples, who live in squalor as result of a poorly maintained, inefficient country. These absurd images suggest a parody of the poverty found in contemporary Britain, and possibly, in Swift’s Ireland.

“The houses were strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags.’ (23.)

The break-down of eighteenth century rationalism, and an appeal to common sense is also seen in a humorous context in the Laputan Academy, the scholars dismiss Gulliver as an exception to nature, they will not revise their systems of thought to explain him, but call him a ‘lusus naturae,’ or ‘freak of nature’ – satirizing 18th Century science:

“A wonderful solution to all difficulties, to the unspeakable advancement of human knowledge’ (15.)

Gulliver has a new perspective after his stay with the Brobdingnagians, he views the people he sees as small:

“I thought them the most contemptible creatures I ever beheld…’ (16.)

This physical perspective is seen in his attempt to pick his daughter up between finger and thumb, and in his shouting as he did in Brobdingnag. Gulliver does not, however gain a new philosophical perspective. His foolishness in laughing at the stature of his countrymen, compared to the Brobdingnagians, suggests the true absurdity of Gulliver’s own 18th Century psyche. The disorientation of Gulliver in size also seems to satirize the 18th Century literary culture of hyperbole (in Brobdingnag) and meiosis (in Lilliput.)

The most interesting discussion on reason and its limitations is seen in Gulliver’s encounter with the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, each polar opposites of reason and savagery. The Houyhnhnms’ is an Illiterate culture, perhaps lacking imagination. They are portrayed as a passionless contrast to the Yahoos, one of whom embraces Gulliver whilst swiming. The Houyhnhnms love their species as whole, rather than wives or children etc, and like the philosophical deists, they also lack religion. This sterile portrayal indicates the limits and constraints of reason, and empiricism:
“I remember it was with extreme difficulty that I was able to make my master understand the word opinion.’ (17.)

Gulliver learns the Houyhnhnm language, but this lacks words associated with the drives of a mercantile and imperialistic system, their aesthetic purity reflected in language makes it hard for Gulliver to discuss his own country:

“Power, government, war, law, punishment and a thousand other things had no terms.’ (18.)

Rejected by The Houyhnhnms, Gulliver must reconcile himself with the excramental vision, he can never be a Houyhnhnm, but must reconcile with his inner Yahoo self; he must accept the limitations of the ideal, and accept the physical, again a suggestion to philosophers. The Portuguese captain who saves Gulliver is an image of warmth and humanity, but Gulliver is sullen in this encounter, comparing the men he sees to an ideal from which he has been rejected, the comment is typically humorous:

“I was ready to faint at the very smell of him and his men.’ (19.)

The Houyhnhnms are both comic and serious – their role in the novel is to give a final rejection of the absolutist eighteenth century psyche, and promote a balance between reason and sense – or as Gulliver suggests, between reason and opinion. As throughout the novel, we are unsure whether the Houyhnhnms are supposed to reflect human absurdity in the pretence of rationalism, or the dangers of rationalism as a de-humanising and ironically, beastial product of a mind lacking the creative impulse, in fact, one devoid of free will.

Instruction and Entertainment are therefore both central issues to the novels. In Moll Flanders, the main form of entertainment is sensationalism and melodrama, its self-proclaimed improving aim, to instruct society in the virtues of repentance and morality, and the dangers of an amoral life. Although the novel has a satirical undertone which sometimes even questions this naive, polarized morality, and is particularly apparent as a social critique. The main link between instruction and entertainment here, is the particular realism and authenticity of Moll.

In Gulliver’s Travels, the primary form of entertainment and instruction is satire, which unifies both aspects of the novel, each complementing the other. In “Moll Flanders,’ the forms of entertainment and instruction reside in the shocking sensationalism of Moll’s life, in humour, and in social satire. The links between Moll’s struggle to attain security despite social inequality and inadequate social provision is reflected in satire on social values and hypocrisy, in the melodramatic consequences of Moll’s entering a world of crime, and in the sensuous and absurd affairs she enters for financial security.

Moll’s repentance, possibly a comment upon the virtues of morality, is sensationalized in the prospective death sentence, which also highlights the ethical harshness and brutality of the penal system. The status of Moll as a penniless woman, for whom society provided little choice other than to live an amoral life, provides a damning satire on social conditions, whilst sensationalizing the amoral life Moll is driven to lead as a result of her narrow choices. Similarly, the role of money in a mercantile society is both a social satire and added variable to Moll’s melodramatic dilemmas.

Both novels attain a balance in entertainment and instruction through their respective styles, although a few inconsistencies are apparent.

In Moll, we see almost an allegorical, generalized tale, of the redemption of a sinner through repentance. This black and white, purely moral perspective, does not allow for consideration of either Moll’s amorality by choice, or the social conditions, explicitly satirized by Defoe, that drove her to crime.

This aspect of the novel, the disjointed conflict between the generalist, almost ideal surface allegory of Moll Flanders, and a particularized satire which portrays Moll sympathetically, seems to dissemble the twin aims of instruction and entertainment, and instead emphasizes a subversive social critique of Moll’s brutal environment, under the guise and support of the initial two. From the perspective that I have outlined, it could be argued that to the intelligent reader, the aims of instruction and entertainment reflect a parody of the perspective the novel seeks to uphold, namely, the validity of the sinner’s repentance to society and established religion. Perhaps the most crucial argument in support of this social-critique perspective, is Moll’s constant admittance that her prayers and repentance are simply another means of deceit for survival:

“…there was not a word of sincere repentance in it all.’ (20.)

Similarly, Moll refuses to believe that her past life was one of sin, but rather of necessity:

“I never brought myself to any sense of my being a miserable sinner…’ (21.)

The fact that Moll is now landed and comfortable has reversed this opinion – she affirms that she “was indeed,’ “a miserable sinner.’ (22.)

The implication, as throughout Moll’s life, is that money buys morality, and that the poor you are, the less moral you can affort to be.

There is clearly a problem here between the surface morality of Defoe, and Moll’s amorality; Defoe, more than Swift leans toward the more radical social critique as the ultimate aim of the novel, whilst Swift seeks to expose established tenets of thinking through a satirical approach.

In Swift’s case, a fine balance is achieved between the imperatives of improvement/ instruction and entertainment, they tend to become indistinguishable in his satirical approach.

For Defoe, however, the satire is more complicated, with the true moral of Moll’s predicament, being the tragic consequences of a life under a harsh, brutal social order.

In conclusion, I think it has to be said, that Swift’s achievement is a union of the aims of improvement and entertainment, the results of which aptly suit his style, which attacks disparity and disunity, and which supports the unambiguous, paternalist and oligarchic survival of the landed elite and subject peasant – a heiarchial system without social, cultural or economic ambiguities, where everyone ought to know his/ her place. Swift’s novel is utopian and rooted in a rapidly disappearing social tradition – one which saw the modern age as a threat, whether it be in the form of Descartes’ empiricism, or Locke’s early social contract. The unity of the novel’s aims reflects this Renaissance appeal to unity and order in society.

In Defoe, with his presentation of the slums and degeneracy of London, we are presented with a less unified work, and one which contains inner contradictions that do not convince us of the author’s supposed intent. That this is a pleasure novel, is in part unmistakable, but that it does not take its subject at face value is also apparent. The partly obscured, but obvious social critique seems only thinly disguised beneath the concealing veil of satire. This novel does not attain the unity of Swift, because to do so would sacrifice the realism of uncertainty and disproportion, seen in the injustices and inequalities of contemporary society.

But Defoe does complement the realistic particular portrayal of Moll with her own authentic satirical narrative. Defoe’s balance between instruction and entertainment is therefore questionable, but whilst it does not possess the same unity of purpose found in Swift’s work, the two aims work within the sub-currents of Defoe’s writing to produce additional moral truths alongside those suggested in the preface. The novel does balance the two aims of instruction and entertainment, but perhaps with a slight emphasis on moral questions.


Daniel Defoe A Critical Study, James Sutherland, Harvard – 1971.
Defoe – The Critical Heritage, Pat Rogers, Routledge – 1972.
Fancy and the Imagination, (The Critical Idiom,) R.L. Brett, Methuen 1969.
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970.
Jonathan Swift A Critical Introduction, Denis Donoghue, Cambridge – 1969.
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.
The Rise Of The Novel, Ian Watt, Perigrine – 1970.


(1.) R.L. Brett, Fancy and the Imagination, (The Critical Idion,) Methuen 1969. (P.10)
(2.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.188.)
(3.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.273.)
(4.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(289.)
(5.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(205.)
(6.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.233.)
(7.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.178.)
(8.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.250.)
(9.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.75)
(10.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.89.)
(11.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.80.)
(12.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.125)
(13.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.131)
(14.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P. 92)
(15.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.143)
(16.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (Pp.189-90.)
(17.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.315.)
(18.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P 291.)
(19.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.335-6)
(20.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P.278.)
(21.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 279.)
(22.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 279.)
(23.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 219.)

Articulate with reference to texts, what the term tragedy as applied to drama/ film now means

Articulate with reference to texts, what the term tragedy as applied to drama/ film now means.

Texts to be studied:

Full Metal Jacket, (film,) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987
Thelma and Louise, (film,) Directed by Ridley Scott, 1991

Paul Catherall

Note – I have used italics for some terms used in reference to tragic theory.

(i.) Introduction.

My aim in this study will be, to define and contrast, the aims and methods of tragic drama in the Classical, Renaissance and Modern periods.
After establishing the aims, methods and ultimate intention of Classical and Renaissance tragic drama, I will demonstrate the similarities and differences between ancient and modern tragic texts. My final intention, will be to present a definition of tragedy, as applied to recent filmic texts.

(ii.) Aspects of tragedy in Classical and Renaissance drama.

The primary aim of much Classical and Renaissance tragic drama, is to confront the spectator with the inevitability of suffering in human life.
The protagonists of Classical and Renaissance tragedy are often powerful, sometimes awesome figures. When these individuals fall, their decline is emphasised by the scale of their descent from influence, or happiness, to despair, powerlessness and suffering.
For Aristotle, tragic protagonists must possess Empathy (1), a combination of qualities which allow the audience to identify with the character. Despite the exalted rank of tragic characters, such as Oedipus, Lear and Richard II, we often feel a sense of identification with their imperfect, though aspiring natures.

(1.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.133 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)


In his Poetics, Aristotle defines this ‘complex character’ (2), as the best kind of tragic hero, or anti-hero:

‘We are left therefore with the person… who is not outstanding in moral excellence.
The change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to some moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind.’ 3.

Classical protagonists often exhibit the capacity to make unavoidable and inevitable errors, or Hamartia (4). Both Antigone and Oedipus fall due to catastrophic actions over which they have either little conscious or unconscious control. In Renaissance tragic drama, we feel that protagonists exert more conscious choice over their actions, and that their hamartia is based upon considered decisions. Renaissance protagonists often demonstrate Hubris (*), assumptions or beliefs, either in the self, or some external influence, which will ensure their success or survival. Thus, Shakespeare’s Lear gives up his kingdom in the belief that his daughters will love him, and Macbeth takes the throne of Scotland from Duncan, in the belief that he can defy hierarchical moral order.

Aristotle suggests that the spectator should share the emotions of tragic protagonists, experiencing the pain and suffering of individuals, through the physical action of the drama. Through this identification with the protagonist, the spectator undergoes Catharsis (5), the ‘purging’ of the emotions. Although Aristotle does not explicitly define catharsis, I believe, like O.B. Hardison (6), that catharsis is a process of clarification and insight, both in human and moral nature. This educational, or perceptive process is achieved through the movement of the protagonist from ignorance to knowledge (7).
The point at which the protagonist understands the true nature of his condition, is what Aristotle calls recognition and reversal (8), where the destiny of the protagonist is unavoidably altered as a result of the knowledge he/she has acquired.

Alongside the relationship between protagonist and spectator, the role of plot is also important to Classical and Renaissance tragedy. For Aristotle, role of plot and action are crucial to the aims of tragedy. For Aristotle, Spectacle and Catastrophe (9) are fundamental to the success of tragic drama. The spectacle of suffering and pain, is essential in conveying the reality of tragic events common to human life. Catastrophe is the cumulation of Peripeteia (10), or the decline of fortune, and for Aristotle, should constitute a finalè of considerable suffering for the protagonist, conveyed through violent or emotional drama.
Individuals, such as Oedipus and Antony are often presented as virtuous heroes and leaders. The courage, success and statesmanship of Oedipus as king and hero, contrasts sharply with the amorality of his crime, and descent into misery.

(2.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.29 (8.6 Kinds of Tragedy.)
(3.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.21 (7.2 Second Deduction.)
(*.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.135 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(4.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.127 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(5.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(6.) O.B. Hardison, Aristotle’s Poetics, p.117 (Chapter VI.)
(7.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.18 (6.4 Reversal.)
(8.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.18 (6.3 – 6.4 Recognition and Reversal.)
(9.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(10.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
In Classical tragedy, the primary aim of the drama, is therefore, to demonstrate the inevitability of suffering, and necessity for endurance within a fallible human and moral nature.
The use of kings and nobles as protagonists in Classical drama, should not deceive us that the protagonists, like Oedipus and Creon, represent human nature in a universal, rather than restricted sense. This kind of tragedy portrays the human condition, fallible and subject to destruction from interior and external forces, what T.S. Eliot called:

‘The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove…’ 11

In Renaissance tragic drama, however, personal choice plays a more prominent role in the destiny of the protagonist. The decisions of the protagonist are often of a conscious nature, what Aristotle defines as Wilfulness (12), acted out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.
The primary aim of Renaissance tragic drama, seems more of an educational nature, a warning to the spectator, to make rational decisions within an amoral natural order. The destruction that results from conscious errors, is often emphasised in punishment entirely disproportionate to the crime, as seen in King Lear’s speech:

‘I am a man, more sinned against than sinning…’ 13

(iii.) Issues in Modern Filmic Tragedy.

Central to tragedy in recent films, is the relationship between the protagonist and
social order. Modern film tragedy is often less concerned with the choices of individuals, than the nature of the environment in which choices are made.
In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, we are confronted with the brutality and suffering of war. The film raises general issues concerning the suffering and loss of war, but particularly draws on issues of ideology, and the irrationality of political ethics as a justification for conflict.
In Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, we are presented with another aspect of social tragedy, in which ideology plays a central role. The role and attitudes to gender in society is the most striking aspect of the film, emphasising the destructive nature of modern social culture. In both films, we are presented with cultural and institutional environments, in which ideology defines the actions and destiny of characters.
Although the aim of modern tragic films is often more explicit, and perhaps more ideologically conscious than traditional approaches in drama, many features of ancient tragic texts are present. Perhaps the most important methodological features of the films are spectacle and catastrophe, since modern films are able to use sophisticated special effects, greatly adding to dramatic realism, and Aristotle’s fundamental requirement for tragic drama:

‘Tragedy is the imitation of an action…’ *.

(11.) T.S. Eliot, Selected Works, p.221 (The Four Quartets, Little Gidding.)
(12.) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.127 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(13.) Kenneth Muir, ed., King Lear, p.103 (Act 3, Scene 2, Line 59.)
(*.) Malcom Heath, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, p.10 (4.1 Definition of Tragedy.)

Other traditional features that are used to convey the scale of descent, or decline of the protagonist, include recognition and reversal. In the case of Full Metal Jacket, we often have the impression that there is no central protagonist, save perhaps two nations fighting in the Jungles of Vietnam. Most obviously, we are led to empathise with the American faction, whose familiar cultural identity we broadly recognise as our own. Rather than serve as a protagonist, a representative of the suffering and loss of war, the character of Joker serves to guide us through the circumstances and events of war. From the beginning, Joker is a device, or tool, which Kubrik uses to remind us of the irrationality and brutality of ideological war. Joker is an anomaly, a soldier whose helmet is daubed with ‘born to kill,’ yet who paradoxically fights to expose the carnage and madness around him. Joker’s comment on his ‘peace badge’, reminds us of the human capacity for both love and destruction:

‘I think it has something to do with the duality of man, sir… the Jungian thing…’ 14

The American war machine often seems a protagonist itself. The collective moods, anxieties and beliefs of the American servicemen personify the ideological beliefs and feelings of a nation. When the credulous American command falls during the ‘Tet’ cease-fire, a recognition and reversal occurs, not for Joker, but for the entire military machine.
The initial arrogance of the American forces in Vietnam, could be described as their hamartia. The subsequent nemesis (*), or decline of the American forces, is a direct result of this overconfidence, and sense of ideological superiority:

Officer: ‘This is the big shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite…’ 15.

Perhaps one of the ultimate aims of modern tragedy, is therefore to expose the ideological fallibility of society, much in the same way that Classical and Renaissance tragedy reveals the flaws of individuals. Like Renaissance Tragedy, modern tragic film reveals the hamarita or flaws in social authority. In Renaissance texts, like King Lear, the flaws of the individual directly influence the state, since Lear is the state. In Thelma and Louise, and Full Metal Jacket, we witness the decline of individuals, not as a consequence of personal hamartia, but due to the flaws or defects in social or cultural order.
In the following sections, I shall illustrate how the role of social order, ideology and culture, is the determining influence on the fate and actions of central characters, and how the faculty of individual choice is circumscribed by these external influences.

(iv) A tragedy of gender ideology – Thelma and Louise.

Thelma and Louise is primarily an ideological tragedy. I use this phrase, because the ideology of gender and popular culture is a central issue throughout the film. From the opening scenes, we are presented with impressions of the role of women in contemporary society. Louise is introduced working in a low paid waitress job, whilst Thelma is presented as a dutiful house-wife, enduring the jibes and insults of her husband.
In both cases, we are shown the auxiliary and servile nature of women in society. The social condition of women is clearly associated with the culture, and social attitudes of gender.. Throughout the film, Thelma’s husband, Darrel, is unwilling to allow his wife any kind of freedom, he expects her to both serve and obey him:

‘No you won’t, you’ll be back today… Get you’re butt back here now!’ 16.
(14.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(*) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)
(15.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(16.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise. 4.
The excursion of Thelma and Louise to the country, demonstrates their aspiration for self-determination and self-respect. The aspirations of the women are constantly seen in contrast with the social culture and attitudes of men. The two women aspire to possess the same cultural freedoms as men, and to break the stereotypical nature of female identity:

Thelma: ‘I don’t know how to fish.’
Louise: ‘Neither do I, but if Darrel doesn’t, how hard can it be?’ 17.

The aspirations of the women are confounded when they stop at a roadside bar, and a man, Mervyn attempts to rape Themla. When Louise kills the man, abusive and violent, her actions are not so much the result of fear or anger, although these factors are present, but the injustice that Louise feels for all abused and undervalued women. Louise’ actions are a matter of principle, an outcry against the injustice of gender inequality and indifference:

‘In the future when a woman’s crying like that she isn’t having any fun…’ 18.

When the police inspector, Hal Slovak interviews the cafe waitress, we are reminded that Thelma and Louise are ordinary women, no less moral or good than any other member of society. The waitress, who claims she understands ‘human nature’ suggests that Thelma and Louise were, ‘not the murdering types.’ 19.

Louise’s decision to flee from authority, is also influenced by culture and gender ideology. Louise considers, that since Thelma danced with her assailant all evening, no-one will believe that she was unwilling to have intercourse with Mervyn:

‘Just about a hundred people saw you with him…
whose gonna believe that, we don’t live in that kind of world Thelma…’ 20.

In the scene where Darrel is interviewed at home, we are shown another aspect of male attitudes toward women. The policemen encourage Darrel to respond courteously to Thelma when she calls. Instead, Darrel bursts out laughing. The idea of treating his wife as an equal, and with affection is totally against his machoistic nature.

Thelma and Louise is at times a violent and disturbing film. The violence that the two women encounter, and perpetrate themselves, seems symptomatic of the conflict between their aspirations for self-determination and the circumscribed ideological environment in which they exist. From the beginning of the film, we encounter subtle hints of the violence and conflict to come. Thelma’s gun is discussed early in the film, we learn from Darrel that she has never used it before. The issue of the gun seems to symbolise the latent capacity for self-assertion, and indeed, violence in the female psyche.
When Darrell and the policemen learn of Thelma’s armed robbery at the store, none of them can believe what they are seeing:

Darrel: ‘Thelma would never learn to use the gun, she never used it in her life!’ 21.

(17.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(18.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(19.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(20.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.
(21.) Ridley Scott, (Director,) Thelma and Louise.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the relationship between violence, and the ideological framework of society. Almost all the men Thelma and Louise encounter exhibit violence of one kind or another. Darrel’s aggression is seen in his sexism and unwillingness to accept his wife as an equal. Louise’s partner, Jimmy is also uses aggression to coerce Louise into revealing her secret.
When the hunt begins for the women, the sympathetic policeman, Slovak, played by Harvey Keitel, recognises the essential innocence of the two women, and the circumstantial reasons for their crimes. Slovak wants to help the women, but is powerless to prevent pursuit by the intimidating militia.
Throughout the film, Thelma and Louise respond with violence to the brutality and aggression they encounter. The violence of the women, such as the store raid, and trapping of the policeman in his own car boot, is almost always influenced by circumstance, and the women’s incapacity to resolve their problems in any other way.

In Thelma and Louise, we see individuals whose destinies are influenced and defined by the society in which they live. When Louise shoots the rapist, we empathise with the morality and justice of Louise’s action. What Louise did was wrong by the standards of conventional legality, but we recognise Louise’s dilemma, to either fight, or accept the abusive environment in which she exists.
Like Antigone, Thelma and Louise are compelled to act out of an inner, or moral necessity. From an empirical perspective, it is arguable that Louise’s action was an irrational and amoral decision, however, from a thematic perspective, the dramatic event of the killing is necessary to the wider issues of the film.
Thelma and Louise act out of knowledge, their actions are directly related to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and are immediate responses to the problems they encounter. The tragic consequences of their actions, seem less the result of hubris, or personal flaws, and more the result of snap decisions, in which the factor of survival is predominantly present. Thelma and Louise often have the choice of using violence, or submitting to the aggression, or authority of a predominantly patriarchal, and suppressive social order. However, the two women consistently choose to reject passive options, and engage in confrontation with the oppressive ideological and cultural environment in which they find themselves.
In this sense, therefore, Thelma and Louise have no choice, save to be true to their own nature, and aspirations for social freedom as individuals.

Thelma and Louise is therefore tragic, in the sense that the film demonstrates the fallibility, and capacity for self destruction in society. Like Full Metal Jacket, we often feel there is no central protagonist in the film, with whom we can empathise and identify. Rather, this role is shared between the two women, and the other individuals, such as Darrel and Slovak, who come to represent the patriarchal social order responsible for the fall of the two women.
The descent of Darrel into apathy, and unwilling contribution of Slovak to the destruction of the women, both symbolise a recognition and reversal for patriarchal order, and an acknowledgement that popular cultural attitudes are both unjust and destructive.
Thelma and Louise, is therefore an ideological tragedy, since the destiny of the protagonists are defined by the destructive social attitudes and culture of society.

(v) A tragedy of political ideology – Full Metal Jacket.

From the outset of Full Metal Jacket, we are shown scenes of dehumanisation, and indoctrination, by the forces of culture and ideology. The scene where the recruits are shaven, suggests a surrender of personal identity, and loss of individuality as human beings.
Throughout the film, references are constantly made to institutional and religious ethics. The servicemen will become, ‘ministers of death, praying for war’ (22) . Similarly, the soldiers will henceforth be married to their guns:

Sergeant Heartman: ‘Tonight, you will sleep with your rifle, you will give your rifle a girl’s name…’ 23.

Drill Sergeant Heartman, seems to symbolise the brutalising process of ideological conditioning in American society. His recruits are not merely trained to kill, but become ideological instruments against the political threat of Socialism:

‘Chaplain Charlie will give you a sermon… on how the marine corps will defeat the evils of Communism…’ 24.

Like Kubrick’s previous film, Dr. Strangelove (1964), the film explores the brutality and suffering of war, and the ideological causes of conflict. Interestingly, the film is split into two parts: the first, documenting the combat training of a recruit platoon on ‘Paris Island’, and the second portraying the actual experience of war for the recruits.
Throughout the two episodes, Private Joker is both our commentator and guide. Joker’s commentary reminds us of the brutality and madness of war, regardless of the ideological principles for which it is fought. Despite the psychological conditioning of ‘Paris Island,’ Joker retains his ability to consider events from a moral and human perspective. When Joker is sent to De-Nang as a military journalist, he questions the propagandist nature of the war magazine, Stars and Stripes:

Captain: ‘Grunts like to read about dead officers, change it so there’s an officer in it…’
Joker: ‘What about a general?’ 25.

In the training camp, we witness the indoctrination of recruits, in a combination of anti-communist, patriotic and machoistic drill. The obvious comparison with Heartman’s monosyllabic doggerel-songs, are the ideological slogans and protocol of Hitler’s Third Reich:

Sergeant Heartman: ‘What do we do for a living ladies?’
Recruits: ‘Kill, kill, kill!’
Heartman: ‘And what makes the grass grow?’
Recruits: ‘Blood, blood, blood!’ 26.

In the boot camp, we are given hints of the brutality to come in Vietnam, in the violence inflicted on, and by, the simple minded soldier, Pyle.
Pyle’s madness is symptomatic of the brutalising effect of contemporary social and military ideology. Pyle becomes the ideal killer, without remorse or guilt, symbolic perhaps of the entire military and political machine, which goes to war for an ideological, and seemingly illogical cause. Young men are transformed into mindless killers, fighting a war of ideology, rather than the supposed humanitarian reason of assisting South Vietnam:

‘It is your killer instinct that must be harnessed, it is the hard heart that kills…’ 27.

(22.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(23.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(24.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(25.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(26.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(27.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket. 7.
The self-destruction of ideological conflict is demonstrated in Pyle’s shooting of Heartman, and subsequent suicide.

In Vietnam itself, we follow the progress of Joker, who has decided to become a war-journalist for the magazine Stars and Stripes. The ideological impact of Western capitalism is immediately presented as a corrupting and degenerative influence. De Nang is a city of prostitutes and petty thievery, where the local Vietnamese exploit and steal from their supposed allies, the Americans. Throughout the film, Joker draws our attention to the ideological nature of the war, and the very real suffering that results from conflict. Joker is less an active protagonist than an observer, or commentator on the wider events in Vietnam. As a serviceman, Joker has little choice but to obey orders. Joker’s passivity, and inability to influence the destruction about him, is powerfully evoked at the mass grave in ‘Hue’, and in the scene where he asks an air-gunner, why he shoots women and children in the fields below:

Gunner: ‘You should do a story on men sometime. …’cos I’m so fuckin’ great.
I got me one hundred and fifty-one dead gooks killed…’ 28.

Throughout the film, we have the impression that the American war machine, or the cultural ideology behind it, is the main protagonist in the film. The ideology of militant capitalism and democracy is constantly demonstrated, in the jingoist language of the Americans, and in their cultural assumptions of Communism.
When Joker interviews the soldiers, we are given the impression that the American forces are invulnerable, and far superior to the Vietnamese army:

Raptor-man: When the going gets tough, who do they call in? …They call in Mother Green, and her killing machine… 29.

However, as the ‘Viet-Cong’ gains the upper hand, the hamartia or hubris of American culture is exposed. At the magazine briefing, Joker’s officer admits that, ‘the war is now unwinnable.’ 30.

In the final part of the film, where Joker accompanies his old comrade, Cowboy through the ruins of Hue, we witness both the destruction, and bloody indifference of war.
The young men we saw on ‘Paris Island’ have become experienced killers. Soldiers like Animal Mother, seem to symbolise the wasted potential of youth as part of the machinery of ideological war. Although Kubrick is loath to explicitly criticise the ideological background to the Vietnam war, we are given hints of Kubrick’s feelings in the comments of the embittered soldiers:

Raptor-man: ‘At least they dies for a good cause…’
Animal Mother: ‘What cause was that? If I’m gonna get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poontang…’

The final conflict between the platoon, and a young girl, suggests the indifference and brutality of the conflict. Like the young men who have been killed, we are struck by the wasted potential of youth in the girl’s death, and by the violation of an ancient and proud nation in her final prayers.

(28.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(29.) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket.
(30) Stanley Kubrick, (Director/ Producer,) Full Metal Jacket. 8.

Ultimately, therefore, Kubrick’s film is an exploration into the brutality and suffering of war, particularly stressing the irrationality of ideological conflict.

Unlike Thelma and Louise, there is no real protagonist, with whom we can identify and share suffering, save Joker, whose role is to remind us of our passivity and inability to influence the destructive consequences of ideological dogma. Instead, we watch the decline of American optimism and self-confidence, as the American forces are driven out of Vietnam, and the social psyche of the American nation itself becomes the tragic protagonist. In a sense, the Vietnamese people themselves might be seen as protagonists in the film, since it is they who suffer at the hands of American aggression and violence.

The main concern of Full Metal Jacket, is therefore the destructive nature of ideological systems, and the irrationality of war fought over political or social beliefs. When the film was produced, in 1987, the cold war was still a very real threat in Europe, and so we have to identify the conflict of ideologies as a warning for the nuclear threat, and global catastrophe in the modern world.

(vi) Conclusion – A definition of Modern Filmic Tragedy.

Throughout the two films, we are struck by the nature of the protagonists, or characters and the environments in which they exist. Common to both films are ordinary individuals, typical of society, whose lives are influenced or defined by ideology and culture.
Often, these individuals come to symbolise wider issues in society. In Full Metal Jacket, the central issue of the film, is the cause and purpose of war. In Thelma and Louise, the main issue in focus, is the role and cultural attitudes to women in society.
None of the individuals in the films have any real choice over their destinies, all seem passive, or circumscribed by events over which they have little control. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker joins the army, because he wanted to, ‘meet an ancient, and interesting people, and kill them…’ Joker is symptomatic of social attitudes, since the politics of ideological conflict is an integral, and unquestioned aspect of his American culture.
In Thelma and Louise, we are presented with individuals whose decisions are similarly circumscribes by social attitudes. In the film, we have the impression that Louise’s decision to kill the rapist was irrational, but we also identify with Louise’s moral perspective, and applaud her motive. Louise’s action is an outcry for justice in an amoral cultural climate, and symptomatic of a flawed gender culture, rather than that of Louise herself.

Modern tragedy seems to owe much to traditional tragic forms, such as reversal and recognition, the spectacle and catastrophe, etc. However, whereas Classical tragedy is often concerned with the individual, and the theme of suffering in human life, modern tragedy seems more concerned with the suffering of society as a whole.
In this respect, modern tragic texts are more similar to Renaissance tragedy, such as King Lear and Macbeth, where the decline of the individual has direct influence over the fortunes of society as a whole. Modern protagonists, however, are often less able to influence their own destinies. The choices of modern protagonists are often reached out of knowledge, rather than ignorance, but not out of freedom (*), or action without external influence.
The protagonists of Full Metal Jacket and Thelma and Louise, are all circumscribed and defined by the ideological culture in which they exist. The violence and destruction that results from ideological dogma is the central theme, and basis of tragic drama in both films.

(*) Augustal Boal, Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy, p.134 (From: J. Drakakis, ed., Tragedy.)


Perhaps there is no general definition of Modern tragedy, save the common theme of needless destruction as a result of ideological and cultural attitudes. The ideological basis of modern filmic tragedy can be seen in many recent films; examples include the economic and social critique of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1977,) and in the tragedy of racial discrimination, as seen in Edward Zwick’s Glory, (1987.)

Like Renaissance tragedy, modern tragic films are therefore a combination of warning – as seen in the ideological warfare of Full Metal Jacket, and exposure of flaws existing in our own society, as seen in the critique of gender attitudes in Thelma and Louise.

Modern tragic drama, as seen popularly in the form of film, is therefore an artistic medium, which through imitation of an action, and the portrayal of pity and suffering, evokes empathy for the spectator with the protagonist. Although not always clearly defined, the protagonist exhibits attributes of the traditional Aristotelian and Classical tragic forms, such as recognition and reversal, hamartia and catastrophe. These attributes are present in a wider sense, amongst the characters constituting the social, or ideological order of the society portrayed. Thus, in Thelma and Louise, we feel empathy both for the loss of the two women’s lives, and the sense of loss demonstrated by the Harvey Keitel character, Slovak.

Furthermore, central characters, such as Joker, whose lives are influenced by the circumstances of their environment, often possess little, or no influence over events resulting from that environment. Thus, in Full Metal Jacket, Joker merely documents, or commentates on the brutality and suffering he sees around him, and in Thelma and Louise, the actions of the two women are defined by the cultural attitudes that influence their choices.

Finally, modern filmic tragedy possesses a consistent ideological basis, which precipitates the events of the drama, and influences exerted on the characters.
Thus, in Thelma and Louise, ideology of gender attitudes is the cause of conflict and destruction for the women, and in Full Metal Jacket, the socio-economic interests of capitalism, thinly veiled by the militant ideology of democracy, is the cause of war with communist North-Vietnam.



Primary Texts


Kubrick, Stanley, director., Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987)
Scott, Ridley, director., Thelma and Louise (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1991)


Heath, Malcom, ed., trans., Aristotle’s Poetics (Penguin, London, 1996.)
Fagles, Robert, ed., trans., Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays (Penguin, London, 1998.)
Hunter, G.K., ed., Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Penguin, London, 1981.)
Muir, Kenneth, ed., Shakespeare’s King Lear (Routledge, London, 1997.)

Secondary Reading

Haigh, A.E., The Tragic Drama of the Greeks (Dover, Oxford, 1968.)
Hardison, O.B., Aristotle’s Poetics (Prentice Hall Press, London, 1968.)
Ross, David, Aristotle (Methuen, London, 1964.)


With reference to a part of Paradise Lost, describe how Milton presents his conception of evil.

With reference to a part of Paradise Lost, describe how Milton presents his conception of evil.

Part Chosen: Book 10.

Paul Catherall

Throughout Paradise Lost, evil is presented as theodicean (*), rather than as a moral or ethical issue. The presentation of evil, as integral to cosmic order, is fundamentally linked to Milton’s concept of human nature itself.
Central to the argument of Paradise Lost, is the supposition that moral, or divine order is the pre-eminent power in God’s universe. The spiritual fabric of creation is a singularity, the divine order of an omnipotent God. It is this view of cosmic order that Milton defends in Paradise Lost.

Milton’s debt to the Civitas Dei of St. Augustine (1), is demonstrated in his presentation of evil as an inherent aspect of sentient nature, rather than as a cosmic force coeternal with moral good. For Milton, evil is not a manichaeistic force in its own right, a moral dimension in which the sentient being can find refuge, and impart spiritual allegiance. Instead, evil is a perversion or parody of moral order. To reject divine authority, and assert independence from God, is to exclude ourselves from the moral order of the universe, and the benevolence of divine justice.
Like Milton, Augustine suggests that rebellion, and independence from God is contrary to cosmic order, and the nature of sentient beings themselves:

‘What we call bad things are good things perverted. This perversion arises when a conscious creation becomes more interested in itself than in God and wishes to exist on its own… ‘ 2.

Fundamental to Milton’s concept of evil, is the nature of sentient will. Common to both Satan, and the inhabitants of Eden, is their ability to choose between obedience and rejection to God’s will. For Milton, the choice between divine order, and independence from God is an uncomfortable, but necessary aspect of sentient choice.
Milton wants to illustrate the conflict between the corrupt and divine nature in humanity; a conflict between the aspiration for individual power, as seen in Eve and Satan, and the knowledge that divine order is supreme, and cannot be challenged.
(*) – Term for the explanation of evil in Christian cosmology.
Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.870
(1.) – St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 A.D. (Bishop of Annaba, Algeria.)
(2.) – St. Augustine, De Civitas Dei, XIV, II, (from A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C.S. Lewis, p.166)
Perhaps the most powerful example of Milton’s theodicean presentation of evil, is seen in the character of Satan. Satan believes he is a liberator, a rebel against the tyranny of an oppressive God. Instead, Satan’s rebellion is tolerated by God, and is used as an instrument to bring God’s plans for humanity to fruition. In Book X, God passes judgement on Adam, Eve and Satan. It is because Satan has fled God’s retribution that he is ‘condemned’:

‘The third best absent is condemned,
Convict by flight, and rebel to all law…’ 3.

Satan’s rebellion against divine authority is an assertion of self dependence from God. For Milton, independence of mind is power, and a challenge to divine authority. Satan constantly uses terms of authority to describe his retinue. After the corruption of Eden by Sin and Death, Satan greets the fallen angels, hailing them as lords of creation:

‘Thrones, dominions, princedoms, virtues, powers! ‘ 4.

Satan urges the fallen angels to become lords of God’s new creation. We realise that Satan’s desire for authority over creation is integral to his rebellion. Rather than submit to the hierarchical equality of heaven, Satan attempts to usurp the authority of God:

‘Thine now is all this world; thy virtue hath won…
With odds what war hath lost…
Here thou shalt thou monarch reign.’ 5.

Like the inhabitants of Eden, Satan is a sentient being, possessing independent thought, and the ability to choose between obedience, and rebellion.
Satan’s choice, unlike that of Adam or Eve, is to rebel, and remain rebellious. Unlike them, Satan cannot accept the primacy of divine authority; his choice, of evil, rather than moral order, reveals his inability to grasp the nature of cosmic reality. In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis suggests that by relinquishing the equality of heaven, and aspiring to heavenly authority, Satan has lost any real independence of mind:

‘Certainly he has no choice, he has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to be himself, and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted… ‘ 6.

(3.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.320, (Book X, lines 82-83)
(4.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.330, (Book X, line 450)
(5.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.327-328, (Book X, lines 372-376)
(6.) – C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p.102

Milton’s theodicy is particularly evident in his interpretation of the Fall from Eden.
At the close of Book X, Adam bemoans the fate of humanity, suggesting that human nature, as conceived by God, is the cause of man’s corruption. Milton is obviously dealing with the fundamental problem of evil in the Christian or theistic universe, the question why humanity must ‘eat the bitter herb of the field’ (7). Adam has become susceptible to human uncertainty and doubt in the face of a hostile world:

‘Is this the end of this new glorious world,
And me the glory of the glory?’ 8.

The transformation of Adam from an unfallen, to a fallen state, is accompanied by a new material condition. For Milton, the human condition is inherent in our nature, and elemental to God’s divine scheme. Adam himself suggests the reason for evil and corruption on Earth; without the sorrows and trials of earthy misery, life seems almost without meaning.
Adam consoles himself with the realisation that he has been idle in Eden:

‘With labour I must earn
My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse..
My labour shall sustain me… ‘ 9.

Milton comments that although God foresaw Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve, he allowed Satan to act. The advent of the human condition is elemental to God’s design for humanity. Milton mentions the fact that the unfallen Adam and Eve are ‘with free will armed,’ since they posses independence of mind, and the capacity to choose between good and evil:

‘God… who in all things wise and just,
Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind
Of man, with strength entire and free will armed…’ 10.

(7.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.323, (Book X, line 204)
(8.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.336, (Book X, lines 720-721)
(9.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.344, (Book X, lines 1054-1056)
(10.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.319, (Book X, lines 8-9)

Despite their inevitable Fall, humanity still possesses the legacy of Eden. God has shown paradise to humanity, as a promise for the future, to impress his justness, mercy and ultimate resolution of corruption in the universe. In The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Andrew Sanders suggests that this promise is the central meaning of Paradise Lost, and Milton’s most important theodicean defence of evil:

‘Despite the temptation presented by the poem itself to see the rebellion of Satan as a heroic gesture of liberation… Paradise Lost asserts to the reader the justness of a loving god’s eternal providence…’ 11.

The ultimate supremacy of divine order, is seen in God’s promise of a future paradise for humanity. Following the Fall, Adam and Eve submit to the authority of God. This obedience, unlike Satan’s rebellion, is an acknowledgement of divine authority and the reality of moral order. To purge humanity of material corruption, God empowers his Son to choose mortality and save mankind on Earth:

‘…the Son,
Destined redeemer of mankind, by whom
New heaven and earth shall to the ages rise…’ 12.

E.M.W. Tillyard suggests that Milton’s work is a vision of cosmic order, in which the necessity of obedience to God, is constantly stressed. Tillyard considers Milton’s work an appeal to reason, and a refutation of passion in human society. For Milton, the passion of Satan’s rebellion overcomes reason, blinding him to the true nature of divine order. Tillyard suggests that ultimately, Adam and Eve make the rational decision to accept divine order, and control their sentient impulse to assume self-dependency:

‘The theme of Paradise Lost is less that of obedience to God than of obedience… to temperance, to the rational against the irrational part of human nature… ‘ 13.

Perhaps the most important aspect of evil in Paradise Lost, is its relationship, not only to sentiency and free will, but to the nature of material life itself. In granting sentient beings independence of mind, and the capacity to choose between good and evil, God allows freedom of thought and action outside the singularity of divine order. In effect, God
relinquishes part of the universe he has created, to an external intelligence. Perhaps the most important aspect of this concession, is seen in God’s use of external, and sentient beings in the course of creation.

(11.) – Andrew Sanders, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p.231
(12.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.334, (Book X, lines 646-649)
(13.) – E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton, p.219

Satan himself corrupts Eden, without realising that he is serving divine purpose. Similarly, God empowers his son to choose mortality on earth, to redeem humanity from corruption through divine wisdom. When God discovers the Fall of Adam and Eve, he admits that he is responsible for creation. God asserts that he will ensure the ultimate salvation of fallen humanity. The price that God must pay for the Fall is the sacrifice of his Son to mortal pain and suffering:

‘For so I undertook
Before thee, and , not repenting, this obtain
Of right, that I may mitigate their doom
On me derived…’ 14.

The creation of Adam and Eve is similarly a sacrifice of God. By creating material beings, God imparts free will and independence of action within his creations. Like Satan, Adam and Eve are deliberately created as fallible beings, subject to passion, pride and blindness. E. M. W. Tillyard suggests that God’s concession of independent thought, also represents the purification of cosmic order. By imparting sentient beings with the capacity to choose evil, God purges cosmic order of evil, and exalts, or defines moral good:

‘God has intensified his own existence, raising to glory the good parts of himself, casting outside of himself the evil parts of himself… ‘ 15.

The presentation of evil in Paradise Lost, is therefore theodicean, in the sense that Milton is trying to demonstrate how evil contributes to the greater good of humanity and creation.
When God and the angels learn of the arrival of Sin and Death on earth, God reassures the angels that divine will is being played out in the events on earth:

‘…be not dismayed
Nor troubled at these tidings from the earth
Which your sincerest care could not prevent…’ 16.

In Paradise Lost, the dimensions of good and evil are entirely subject to the will of the creator. Evil and good are both essential to the human condition, since without the capacity to choose evil, sentient thought cannot exist.
For Milton, everything in creation is initially good, i.e.: obedient to the will of divine order. When sentient beings choose to reject divine order, and assert their own authority,
they exclude themselves from the moral fabric of the universe, and from the benevolence of God. For Milton, no real rebellion can be achieved against the divine will, and acts such as the revolt of Satan are mere parodies of divine nature.

(14.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.320, (Book X, lines 74-77)
(15.) E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton, p.233
(16.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.319, (Book X, lines 35-37)

Despite their capacity for independent thought, sentient beings are fallible, and require God’s guidance to exist successfully in creation. Milton reveals his rationalism in the assertion that evil is passion, or emotion, and good is reason. This assertion is seen in the portrayal of Satan’s unrepentant rebellion, as opposed to the embrace of divine order by Adam and Eve.

Although Milton clearly supports the rationalism of Adam, and stresses the self destruction of Satan, many writers and critics, such as Shelley and Blake, have identified Milton’s Satan as a Promethean hero. However, it does seem that the role of Satan, in the theology of Paradise Lost, serves as a personification for the irrational nature of evil, in contrast to the rational decision of Adam and Eve.

Milton presents evil as a fundamental aspect of human nature, which he clearly identifies with the irrational, the passionate and emotional. Milton pleads for humanity to embrace reason, thereby recognising the divine nature of cosmic order, and the destruction and tyranny that results from disobedience, both to reason and God.

Although Paradise Lost is primarily a religious work, and not a polemic allegory, we can make some comparisons between Milton’s republicanism and his theological argument in Paradise Lost.
In Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall of Eve, we are conscious of individuals who desire, not only liberty from the authority of God, but authority over creation themselves.
Milton seems to suggest the relationship between self-interest and despotic power. Like the hereditary rulers of 17th century Europe, Satan is a ‘monarch’ or ‘sultan’, an ambitious prince who dreams of conquest and dominion over others. Through the ambition of Satan and Eve, Milton seems to suggests that the choice of sentient beings is not so much between good and evil, or between between obedience and rebellion, but between equality and oppression.

At the end of Book X, with the promise of redemption through Christ, Milton defends his theodicean view of divine order, suggesting that evil, although painful, is necessary to the nature of humanity. The promise of new life, in the form of a new generation suggests the superiority of the fallen, rather than unfallen condition:

‘Remember with what mild
And gracious temper he both heard and judged,
Without wrath or reviling…
And bringing forth, soon recompensed with joy,
Fruit of thy womb… ‘ 17.

(17.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.344 (Book X, lines 1046-1049)


Primary Texts

Milton, John, The Works of John Milton, (Wordsworth Press, Hertfordshire, 1998.)

Secondary Texts

Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.)

Lewis, C.S., A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford University Press, London, 1971.)

Sanders, Andrew, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.)

Tillyard, E.M.W., Milton, (Peregrine, Harmonsworth, 1968.)

Hill, Christopher, Milton and the English Revolution, (Faber, London, 1977.)

Barker, A.E., Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, (Toronto University Press, Toronto, U.S.A., 1976.)

Is it possible to put forward a feminist film language as distinct from the pervading methods, structures and ideology of mainstream cinema?

Is it possible to put forward a feminist film language as distinct from the pervading methods, structures and ideology of mainstream cinema?

The Piano, Directed by Jane Campion, 1993.
Chocolat, Directed by Claire Denis, 1988.

Paul Catherall

In Film Feminism and Psychoanalysis, a critical dictionary, by E. Wright, the central perquisite of ‘feminist cinema’ is defined as ‘a connection between two sets of practices, feminism and film making,’ with the ‘assumption that interventions in the cultural sphere… can produce changes in the social sphere by bringing women’s experiences to the centre of the film narrative.’ (1.)
In this essay, I shall attempt to demonstrate how women directors, through the use of film-making techniques, are able to focus debate on the female gender, and the role of women in society.

In considering the feminist perspective of the films, I have sought to demonstrate how feminist theory, through aspects such as language, semiotics and ideology have influenced women directors. The basis of my interpretation of feminist approaches in the films, has been the argument, developed by Foulcat and other Marxist theorists, that sexual identity is a social or cultural construct, resulting from social and cultural evolution, and not the ‘natural’ or necessarily ideal definition of gender.
Additionally, I have tried to illustrate ideological debate in the films, demonstrating how feminist marginality, as discussed by Irigaray and Cixous is a predominant feature of feminist film language and stylistic approach.

Other aspects of feminist theory I have sought to identify, include the influence of Structuralism, with its emphasis on the nature of social institutions and convention, and Psychoanalysis, with its deconstructive interpretation of sexuality.

The influence of modern interpretative theories can clearly be seen in the critical and deconstructive filmic style of both Chocolat, directed by Claire Denis, and The Piano, directed by Jane Campion. In Femminism and Psychoanalysis, a critical dictionary, E. Wright describes how women film makers employ the language of film, to deconstruct the traditional Hollywood image of the woman:

‘Feminist avant-garde film of the later 1970s and 80s abandoned the project of an
‘a priori’ unconscious, and sought instead to expose and to interfere with the ways in which the film apparatus, like other systems of representation, contributes to the construction of gendered subjects…’ E. Wright, (2.)

In her essay, Visual pleasure and narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey uses psychoanalysist and structuralist arguments to define the nature and importance of the male ‘gaze’ in traditional Hollywood cinema. Mulvey suggests, that by transferring the perspective of the viewer from the iconographic ‘performance’ of the woman, to that of the male as ‘object’, film makers are able to expose the traditional masculine perspective of the cinema, and therefore the predominance of a male-centred culture in society:

‘The alternative cinema allows for a feminist cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense, and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. The conventions of mainstream film focus on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic…’ Laura Mulvey (3.)

E. Wright suggests that the function of the female ‘gaze’ in cinema should primarily be the exposure of the ‘Patriarchal’ perspective in society, however, she also considers the inclusion of viewing pleasure, of sexual and erotic ‘objects’ as essential for the popularisation of films espousing the feminist perspective:

‘A women’s cinema is characterised in terms of address; that is it addresses the spectator as female. Furthermore, a feminist cinema must not forfeit pleasure which is vital for the cinema’s survival and its development as a political weapon.’
E Wright, (4.)

In discussing the ‘language’ of feminist film, the stylistic and narrative methods through which the perspective of the ‘auteur’ is conveyed, I have chosen to identify the main technical and sociological features of mainstream cinema, comparing the Hollywood treatment and use of film device with approaches in the films studied.
Aspects for consideration include: Ideology, i.e. the belief systems and cultural outlooks assumed by society; Representation, i.e. the aesthetic representation of social and cultural reality, often presenting aesthetic constructs as familiar or natural; Voyeurism and Exhibitionism, i.e. actively taking pleasure in the observation of the human body, or engaging in the passive display of the self; The Gaze, i.e. the use of filmic technique to identify the viewer with the visual perspective of a character within the film, mainly for viewing pleasure; The Image, i.e. the representation of filmic character to cultural stereotypes; Sociology and Semiology, i.e. the arbitrary relationship between the ‘signified’ entity or social rolé, and its social and cultural connotations; Iconography, i.e. the use of mis-en-scene, perspective and other visual stylistic features to focus viewer attention on attributes of character or landscape; Discourse, i.e. the interpretative or didactic method with which story or ‘diegeisis’ is conveyed.

To begin with, Chocolat was directed and produced by Claire Denis in 1988, and its story of a young woman’s return to her childhood home, in former French colonial Cameroon, closely mirrors Denis’ own colonial experience.

One of the most striking aspects of the film, is the interplay between gender and race, and that between colonialism and social ideology.
Also interesting is the dual focus of the plot, which portrays in detail the lives of two French women, Aimeé, the local commandant’s wife, and her daughter France. Both women are influenced and defined by their colonial experience – by the alien environment in which they have been placed, and by the social ethics and ideology of French imperialist society.

Denis shows us early on that she is interested in the filmic representation of gender and race. Our first impression of Cameroon is of an almost monochrome coastal beach, we see two figures approaching, but it is unclear whether their gender is male or female, or whether their skin colour is black or white. As the camera moves into focus, we are presented with the exotic foliage of a tropical beach, and the clearly defined forms of a Negro child and man.
Claire Denis obviously wants us to acknowledge the universality of humanity, by blurring distinctions between gender and race; similarly, we are led to identify with the beach as elemental to the landscape of any part of the world.
The particularly semiotic emphasis of France as a young, attractive white woman, and representative of mainstream cultural and sexual cinema stereotypes suggests Denis’ intention to deliberately subvert or employ the language of Hollywood cinema. This image encourages the viewer’s comparison with the nearby Africans, and prompts a critical or problematic interpretation of the scene.

‘By means of such seamless identification with displaced persons, the skill with which she practices the subtle and dangerous art of sharing skins with men and women, blacks and whites, and her sharp eye for landscape as a state of soul, Claire Denis proves herself to be a cinematic cosmopolitan…’ (5.) Kathleen Murphy

Similarly, the Nineteenth Century concept of African ineptitude for self-determinism is deconstructed through Denis’ portrayal of sympathetic European colonials. Marc Dalens, the Mindiff commandant is often seen consulting with native leaders, in an attempt to involve Africans in the running of their own country.
Also important in representing the ‘other’ in Africa is the role of Sargennes, a social recluse who prefers the company of the Africans to their European masters. Through calculated hyperbole and derisive criticism, Sargennes gradually provokes the domicile ‘houseboy’ Proteé into an aggressive confrontation. Sargennes, represents a break from traditional colonial order, he cannot communicate with Aimeé’s European guests, and sits with the African servants during meals. It is Sargennes’ reading of the previous commandant’s journal that defines the film’s revisionist tone on race:

‘I myself on seeing nothing but their dark faces, found white skin against nature unnatural compared to their black tones, can one blame the aboriginals for assuming the white man to be a supernatural or demonic being?’ (6.) Chocolat

Proteé’s victory over Sargennes, and the retreat of the latter into the darkness of the yard suggests the imminent passing of colonial order in Africa, and an affirmation of the competence and independent spirit of native Africans.

The common humanity of Africans, as opposed to traditional imperial views on racial inferiority, is challenged through the near-embrace of Aimeé and Proteé. What restrains Proteé are the consequences of violating the taboo of inter-racial involvement with white colonial women.
Another example of Denis’ deconstructive representation of race is the presentation of Proteé as a culturally aware individual, who embraces the new European culture, whilst retaining his rich African oral heritage. Proteé performs a ceremonial dance for France in his own language. The dance suggests the burden of colonialism under the African people, symbolised in Proteé’s carrying France. Similarly, Proteé sings a choral song in French to the servant Demoret, and demonstrates linguistic talent, in his use of French and English.

Another aspect of Denis’ representation of Africa, is seen in images of traditional African life throughout the film. The drab mortar walls of the colonial residence contrast starkly with the brightly coloured wattle dwellings of the natives.

The Europeans are also represented in a deliberate and deconstructive way. The position of the Europeans in the camera’s frame often seems to suggest marginality, displacement or isolation. Thus, France is seen riding her donkey at the extreme corner of the screen, while the expansive African bush predominates in the background.

Far from a consistently positive representation, the Europeans are often seen as a derisive and dislocated community, unable to exist in harmony amongst each other or alongside their African subjects. The coffee plantationist, Delpich symbolises both colonial exploitation of Africa and the racism that accompanies it. His wife, a Negro who by convention must sit apart from the white company, illustrates both the predominance of Europeans and the masculinity of colonial society.

Denis’ use of image also deconstructs traditional stereotypes, roles and assumptions in colonial European society. Aimeé is initially presented as a happy, contented colonial wife, but as the film unfolds we discern the fragility and isolation of a lonely and displaced individual. Aimeé is constantly frustrated, in her wish for familiar culture and companionship, through her desire for Proteé and in her husband’s misunderstanding.
When Aimeé asks Marc if she may order some books from Paris, he seems not to hear, suggesting the fact that knowledge and culture are primarily the province of men, as seen in Marc’s obsession with his journal:

‘Certainly, the marginal position of women in the colonies symbolises their marginality in society as a whole. Claire Denis has said of colonial wives and daughters that they represented France, but lived an empty, futile existence while their husbands and fathers lived a romanticised adventure. Kathleen Murphy (7.)

Whilst Denis attempts to demonstrate the marginality of women in colonial society, she also demonstrates the functional pre-eminence of men in that social order. Denis exposes the masculine, or paternal nature of society through an overt, often extreme representation of male extroversion. The early portrayal of Proteé and Marc urinating together on the roadside suggests the common humanity of the two men, but also reflects the phallocentricism of a predominantly masculine society. Similarly, Marc’s ambitions expose the active nature of masculinity in society, as opposed to the passivity of the waiting women:

‘Next year I’ll widen the road.’ Chocolat (8.)

Proteé becomes an extension of Marc’s role as the head of the community and father of the Dalens family:

‘I leave them in your hands Proteé look after them…’ Chocolat (9.)

The character of France is significant in Denis’ deconstruction of colonial values and paternalistic society; a yet largely unformed individual, she is subject both to the influence of African and colonial European values and ethics. The relationship with Proteé is at times intimate, but never sexual, suggesting the potential for understanding and friendship between very different individuals from disparate cultures and societies. Incidents such as France’s exchanging food with Proteé, and her accepting ants to eat, suggest the fundamental breakdown of cultural barriers between the European and African cultures.

Proteé and France represent the coming together of European and African cultures. France’s youth suggests that unlike adult colonials, her ideology is yet unformed, and therefore unprejudiced by European Imperialist and cultural

Iconography is also an important feature of the deconstructive framework in Chocolat. Denis deliberately uses the central focus of the camera to rest the viewer’s gaze on images or objects illustrative of her thematic concerns.
The scene where Delpich feeds his native wife is particularly interesting, since we are presented with a wholly inverted or deconstructed view of woman, entirely outside the traditional stereotypes of Hollywood and mainstream cinema. Delpich’s wife is seen huddled in darkness on the floor of her room, an isolated and displaced individual, her unkempt hair and plain, emotionless expression seem to force an acknowledgement of the black woman as ordinary and marginalised upon the viewer.

The iconography of Proteé is also significant, especially since we are made more aware of this black serving-man than Marc or indeed any other European male. The regular representation of Proteé’s naked body, e.g: when showering, and in profile as the central frame image, suggests an attempt by Denis to impress the humanity and physical beauty of a traditionally distorted and marginalised people.

Another use of icons, is seen in the repeated image of Marc’s favourite mountain. The rock suggests the imperial ethic of topographical discovery and penetration of remote places, much in the same theme as Marc’s ironic reference to the ‘horizon,’ as a goal or ‘line that can never be reached.’ The romantic allusions of Marc illustrate the mythos and deception of imperial morality, and the masculine tendency of imperialism to engage in ideological or esoteric struggles for a goal that can never really be understand or possessed. The phallic form of the rock also suggests the darker Freudian attributes of masculine aggression and phallocentric superiority. Marc’s masculine endorsement of the imperial myth, and engagement with the brutality of wild Africa is suggested in his comment:

‘Of course I like forests, the dung acts on you like a drug…’ Chocolat (8.)

Marc also possesses certain feminist attributes, such as his demure manner, and interest in native art and culture. Marc’s obsession with the ‘phallic’ rock may symbolise a Freudian ‘castration’ of the colonial system, and its impending collapse. It is through Marc that Denis largely deconstructs male masculinity and the mainstream filmic image of the male as hero. It is also through the exposure of Marc’s femininity and colonialism that Denis exposes the patriarchal nature of European society.

The negative influence of colonialism is seen in the real Cameroon that France revisits as a woman. The sadness felt by France, because of her dislocation from her childhood home illustrates the Imperialist legacy of trauma and isolation. The American African, William J. Park also symbolises the influence of imperialism. Individuals like France and Park may visit Africa with a sense of nostalgia or ideological affinity, but they lack a fundamental sense of belonging to Africa.
The deconstruction of the colonial or coloniser as ideal exposes the painful reality that France is not African, and that she can never fully understand the indigenous psyche of Africa. Similarly, Park commemnts:

‘There’s no use for guys like me here,
here, I’m just a fantasy.’ (9.) Chocolat

The ideological framework of Chocolat, and its narrative discourse ssems based upon a principle of binary deconstruction. Working within the framework of colonialism, Denis blends her intimate and accurate knowledge of colonial life with a penetrating analysis of social marginality, in race and gender. Denis identifies the binary oppositions that have traditionally influenced European ideology on race, gender and the social / moral order of which they are a part. We are made continually aware of the differences existing between black and white, colonial and coloniser, male and female, governor and subject. It is through such emphasis on the disparity between binary opposites, that Denis encourages our awareness of social injustice and inequality within society. Contrasts include the passivity of Aimeé, as opposed to the proaction of Marc, and the domicility of Proteé as contrasted with the self-importance of the europeans. The technical and stylistic language of film is therefore employed to emphasise the oppositions, tensions and displacemnt within colonial society, deconstructing the myths of imperial ideology. Central to the de-marginalising of Africa is the removal of the male ‘gaze’ from woman as object to the perspective of Proteé. Similarly, phallocentric, male-dominated society is exposed through the inverted or negative portrayal of family life for European colonials, Aimee’s restless desire for Protee is an example of this.

The Piano, directed by Jane Campion, 1993, seems to possess many aspects of early feminist theory, and Campion herself admits the importance of the Brontës in her work. The character of Ada (played by Holly Hunter,) is potrayed within typical middle class victorian circumstances; hers is a dispossessed and status-less gender. Like many Victorian women, Ada is forced to marry a man she does not love, but will be dependant upon for material sustenance. Contracts, bargins and the nature of marital relationships are debated throughout the film. Campion is a trained anthropologist, and it is apparent in The Piano, that we are viewing a structuralist analysis of the interrelationship between individuals within their cultural and moral environment.
Like Chocolat, The Piano is set in an imperial age, and in a colonial environment. The world of imperial myth and ideology is directly related to the role of the coloniser, the patriarch or authority figure, through whom moral order is decided and maintained. Gender roles are thus determined by the balance of power being squarley in favour of men, with women relegated to the functions of domestic work, child bearing and the ornamental status of wife.
Ada the central character, is presented as a mute woman, who cannot, or more likely refuses to express herself in the ordinary language of patriarchal society. Instead, she conveys her passions and longing for self-fulfilment through the deeply emotional music of her piano. The fact that Ada’s muteness is a ‘dark talent’ suggests it is of her own free will that she refuses to speak:

‘The voice you hear, is not my speaking voice. But my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I have taken into my head stop breathing, will be my last…’
The Piano, (9.)

Campion’s representation of Ada challenges the stereotypical role of nineteenth century women as demure, contented bastions of the family. Ada fulfils some domestic functions, in that she is loving toward her daughter Flora, but we are also shown through her characterisation and music, the passions and energy of an individual struggling for emotional self-fulfilment.

(14.) The dull tones of the beach reflect Ada’s emotional tension.

Ada’s passions and fears are mirrored the the powerful imagery of the beach. The arrival of the uncivilised Maoris and Stewart seem to add to the masculinity and restrained violence of the landscape.

This vital representation of woman, as opposed to the constricted formality of Victorian sexual and emotional morality is repeated throughout the film. One of the most powerful scenes conveying Ada’s vitality and emotional feeling is the landing at New Zealand, where Ada dismisses the dockers and awaits her new husband on the beach. The oppressive phallocentric environment to which Ada is subject is suggested in the aggression of the chief docker, and in the visual image of a vast and restless sea before the two women. The ‘Turneresque’ tension and dynamism of the beach scene, heightens our impression both of Ada’s insecurity and frank defiance toward the physical and metaphorical maelstrom about her.
Another interesting representation of women in The Piano, is Campion’s portrayal of Maori society. The leader of the local native community is a female elder, a matriarch, as opposed to the customary European role of the male, as seen in Ada’s new husband, Stewart.

Two worlds quickly become apparent in the film – that of the Maoris, and their adopted Scottish friend Baines, and the conventional Victorian community of the settlers, including Stewart and his servants. Most disparate between the two communities, perhaps, is their widely differing ethical, social and emotional ideologies. It by comparing the two communities in the film that we are able to understand the nature of Victorian patriarchal society, of which Ada is a subject.

The Maoris are presented as dignified, gentle and tolerant of the Europeans, they regard the natural world as sacred, and refuse Stewart’s offer for the sale of land. Baines, a Scottish pioneer, and represents a cross-cultural European understanding of the Maoris; he is accepted by them because he respects and partially adopts their customs, such as learning their language and adopting a Maori tattoo. The relationship between Baines and the Maoris does, however function on a deeper level.
Like the Maoris, Baines is an emotionally and sexually expressive individual, unlike Stewart, whose ethical psyche represses sexual passion and emotion. Similarly, the rigid hierarchical community of the farm is a stark contrast to Baine’s communal dwelling, which houses both his Maori friends and several animals under the same roof.

(16.) Baines (Played by Harvey Keitel,) demonstrates a freedom of sexual and emotional expression lacking in the ‘civilised’ settler community. It is interesting that Campion chose to cast this actor as the deconstructed male, since Keitel has been well stereotyped as an action character actor, famous for his roles in the violent and disturbing films of
De Palma and Kubrik, such as ‘Mean Streets,’ and ‘taxi Driver.’

Stewart has imported British hierarchical order and emotional morality to his New Zealand farm. British capitalism and imperial ethics are fundamental features of the community, thus we see Maori servants chanting the English national anthem, and Stewart hard at work enclosing the local landscape.

Along with the constrictions of culture that separate people from themselves and from each other, the limits of language reflect the limits of emotions and cultural understanding. Stewart cannot speak the Maori language and misunderstands their motives almost as often as he misunderstands Ada.
From the begining, the views and emotional psyche of these two men detaermine their understanding of Ada and her emotional passions. On their first meeting, it is no accident that both Baines and Stewart are present to give their different impressions of Ada. Stewart treats Ada like an imbercile, and is unmoved by the meeting, suggetsing that he is simply interested in the aquisition of a wife as an accessory to his masculinity. Baines, however suggests that Ada is ‘tired,’ and seems to reject Stewart’s notion that Ada is somehow ‘stunted.’ Perhaps Baines suggests an alternative, and more humane view of woman than is seen in Stewart’s criticism of Ada’s looks.

The sublimity of the natural landscape reflects the anger and passions of Ada, but also the threat of destructive natural forces beyond her control.

Stewart’s endorsement of the conventional Victorian view, that Ada is somehow strange (or to use Ann Kaplan’s term ‘The Other,’ 10, ) is an endorsement of the constricted and subjegated role of women within the social order of patriarchal society. The lack of emotion or passion offered to Ada by Stewart, and his almost immediate departure after the mediocre wedding, demonstrates the restrained emotional and sexual ethics of Victorian society, and suggests the hollow transactional nature of Nineteenth Century marriage as a financial arrangent, rather than the recognition of an emotional or sexual bond.

Perhaps the most striking exapmple of the influence of partriarchy, is seen in the betrayal by Flora of Ada’s affair, suggesting the indoctrination of male authority on developing individuals.

The use of mis-en-scene is powerfully employed to convey the isolation and tensioin of Ada in her new, patriarchal environment. The image of the piano, hemmned in by the approaching tide suggests a parallel between Ada’s passion for emotional fulfilment and the dynamic life-force of the natural world. In this sense, Ada’s musical passion is suggestive of the ‘Aolean lyre’ which made music through the vibration of strings by the breeze.

Ada’s need for emotional fulfillment is voiced through her music, thus she is able to express her longing for self-fulfilment in a way that words are incapable of expressing.
The depence of Ada on her piano is emphasised by her etching piano keys on the kitchen table. Stewart’s inability to understand this apparenly lunatic behaviour demonstrates his inability to recognise her deep emotional drives and needs.

It is the insaitiable desire for emotional fulfilment that fuels Ada’s passionate music, and it is due to her inability to conceptualise the material form of the ideal she seeks, i.e: sexual and emotional bonding with another, that leads her to persue the emotion of music, and concede her passivity to Baines in return for the piano. During the piano lessons, Ada initially seems unaware of Baine’s sexuality, or the patience and equanimity with which he encourages her sexual feelings for him to surface:

‘The Piano shows us abandoned, isolated, constricted characters who suffer in silence but who will do almost anything to feel alive and to preserve that aliveness. Jane Campion’s characters are as emotionally constricted as the crated piano on the isolated New Zealand beach, as isolated as Ada who can play the piano but cannot or will not speak.’ Donald Williams (10.)

Baine’s exhibition of his own naked body before Ada inverts the cinema viewer’s gaze, and reveals the deconstructed nature of Baine’s masculinity as the passive object, rather than as voyeuristic possessor of the ‘gaze.’
Interestingly, Stewart explicitly adopts the perspective of the male ‘gaze’ in looking at Ada and Baines through a chink during their passionate copulation. Scopophilia or viewing-pleasure is itself considered here. The voyeurism of Stewart’s observation through the hole suggests a critique of the traditional male-centred ‘gaze’ as a violating or intrusive act.

The emotional transformation of Ada, from seeking emotional fulfilment to acquiring a vital sexual and emotional awareness, is accomplished through immersion in the emotional and sexual morality of Baines. Baines reveals to Ada, perhaps for the first time, the reality, rather than the ideal of emotional and sexual love. The Patriarchal constraints of emotional and sexual morality have constrained Ada’s ability to realise the fulfilment of her emotional consciousness. The movement of Ada from the constrictive morality and emotional misinterpretation of Stewart, to the deeper emotional and sexual understanding of Baines represents the development of Ada as a fully emotional and feeling being:

‘Baines uses masculinity to subvert Ada, but also gives something in return. they both sacrifice something to attain a new understanding of themselves and each other…
Donald Williams, (11.)

The loss of Ada’s restless passion, and acquisition of emotional fulfilment with Baines is symbolised by the throwing of the piano into the sea on the journey home. Ada’s earlier alter-ego, the constrained, passive and emotionally deficient subject of patriarchal society, symbolically drowns with the instrument of her lost passion.
Ada does however remember the passion of her former self, through her unconscious dreams, this is the ‘deep, deep voice,’ or emotional and sexual desire within, which Ada identities as fundamental to human nature. Finally, it is ironically the lost passion for emotional fulfilment that becomes the unreal or ideal in Ada’s psyche:

‘At night I think of my piano and its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down here everything is so still and silent t that it lulls me to sleep.
it is a like a lullaby and so it is, it is mine.’ The Piano (12.)

Ultimately, therefore, both Chocolat and The Piano can be seen to demonstrate use of a particular feminist film language, distinct from mainstream cinema methods and techniques. In the case of Chocolat, structuralist and semiotic influences are clearly present in the repeated definition of binary oppositions, in gender, culture and race. Similarly, the film attempts to reconcile cultural differences, and to deconstruct the barriers of imperial ideology through the complex emotional relationships between individuals. This is most apparent in the friendship between Proteé and France, whose ideological assumptions are as yet largely unformed by cultural attitudes or prejudice.
The thematic correlation between race and gender demonstrates most effectively Denis’ critique of a predominantly male-endorsed society. Aimeé’s illicit attraction for Proteé is also a powerful inversion of representations in Hollywood cinema of complementary race romance.
The Piano demonstrates the effectiveness of feminist film language through its contrast between a restrictive, non-emotional patriarchal society, and the powerful emotions of Ada, who seeks fulfilment without understanding the fundamental nature of her desire. The passion of Ada’s music conveys the desperate longing to break free from the oppression of an imposed sexual and emotional morality. Ada must return to the wilderness of raw, primeval emotion to rediscover how to love, and fulfil her emotional emptiness.
Noticeably, however, it is only through giving up her passion, or radical character that Ada is able to learn the necessity of surrender to love, thus acquiring a balanced emotional relationship with Baines, who sets an example for her through his own passivity. The feminist language of The Piano, is therefore one which seeks, not only to deconstruct traditional male centred ideology, but also that of feminism itself.

Both films attempt to deconstruct the mythos of imperialism, associating patriarchal aggression and fantasy with the ethics of colonialism. In this way, both directors demonstrate the artificial nature of gender and culture as the tool or construct of a male-centred social order.
Throughout the films therefore, we are able to identify key technical or stylistic methods that are identifiable with feminist theory – such as the treatment of representation, image, the gaze and use of mise-en-scene to iconise the image within the frame.

In conclusion, therefore, it does seem that a feminist film language exits, and is still in the process of development amongst some directors. The feminist language of film primarily deconstructs cultural stereotypes which are the concern of feminist theory, and is distinct in many ways from technical and stylistic methods used by traditional and mainstream cinema.

Does Doctor Faustus confront the gap between human aspiration for life and the reality of actual living?

‘These texts confront the gap between human aspiration for life and the reality of actual living.’ Discuss the applicability of this assertion to any one of the texts studied.

Text chosen: Doctor Faustus (1604) by Christopher Marlowe, (1564-93.)

Paul Catherall

At first glance, the issue of contemporary social reality seems remote from the central concerns of Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Faustus transgresses Christian teaching by surrendering his soul to Lucifer for personal power, thereby rejecting God’s commandments and Christ’s promise of eternal life. However, this apparently simple morality play, in which the offender is unalterably damned, does conceal a deeper moral debate, which is at the heart of Marlowe’s concerns.
The Faust legend had been widely publicised over Europe in pamphlet form, and English theatre-goers would be familiar with the Faustus story as a morality tale following the translation into English by P. F. Gent of the anonymous German Faustbuch in 1592. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus does live up to the orthodox criteria of the Faustbuch as a basic morality play, but on deeper analysis, we begin to see a work which is both problematic and unconvincing as a mediaeval morality tale.

Faustus is presented as a scholar and an ascetic, one whose academic concerns have been dominated by theology and the Christian interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy. Both Faustus and his environment are bound by the strict moral and religious code of the Middle Ages, with their emphasis on the Deadly Sins, and the Gospel of St. Paul, all of which insist upon the corrupt nature of the corporeal world. This traditional conception of redemption insisted that original sin can only be redeemed in man through abstention of worldly pleasures, and that the only alternative to the suppression of man’s internal drives is eternal damnation.
Faustus’ restless ambition is responsible for his discontentment with the lot of traditional scholarism, he seeks to reject the demands of orthodox social and moral order in order to fulfil his desires for discovery, self-expression and fulfilment. The restless spirit of the Renaissance is reflected in the acts Faustus performs, such as flying on a dragon to Heaven and Hell, and in flouting the religious orthodoxy of the Pope by entering the intrigues of the Vatican incognito. Faustus’ amazing feats are however, only a distraction from the final doom that awaits him, and their burlesque nature serves mainly to parody his imaginative but defined and limited psyche. Rather than perform altruistic works, Faustus descends into megalomania, his experience may be a warning to those who wield power to use it wisely:

‘Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
or the oceans to overwhelm the world…’
(Doctor Faustus, Scene 3, Lines 35-36.)

For Faustus, there can be only contentment within the pyramidal social order of which he is part, described by E. M. W. Tillyard, in his book ‘The Elizabethan World Picture,’ as ‘the chain of being.’ Expansion of personal limits within orthodox society is impossible without defying the fundamental fabric of this cosmic social order. To fulfil his desires and answer the questions he has debated, Faustus must perform the radical and sacrilegious, he must make a pact with Lucifer and incur divine retribution. E. M. W. Tillyard identifies this orthodox religious outlook in the Elizabethan age as an all-encompassing belief system, in which the only alternative was exclusion, much in the tradition of excommunication within the powerful Catholic papacy:

‘We should never let ourselves forget that the orthodox scheme of salvation was pervasive in the Elizabethan age. you could revolt against it but you could not ignore it. Atheism not agnosticism was the rule.’ (1.)

It is interesting that Marlowe chose to write what is essentially a morality play, particularly when considering Marlowe’s own ambiguous religious outlook.
Marlowe’s period was that of the Renaissance, when in Britain, the new religious and epistemological toleration that had accompanied the Reformation gave rise to some of the greatest humanist and empiricist thinkers in Europe, including the naturalist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Erasmus (1466-1536.) Not only were theoretical outlooks changing, but society was becoming more mobile, and less dependant on the traditional landed supremacy. Elizabethan Britain was characterised by the rise of a powerful middle-class, and the supplanting of the old aristocratic order by a new, more meritocratic ‘Noblesse du’ robe.’ The England of Elizabeth I, could claim, for its times to be both a tolerant and meritocratic nation:

‘…a period in which religious enthusiasm was sufficiently dormant to allow the new humanism to shape our literature… the voyages of discovery, and the brilliant externals of Elizabethan life.’ E. M. W. Tillyard (9.)

The question then presents itself: why did Marlowe stage a mediaeval morality play, concerning human transgression and sin in such an optimistic and adventurous climate as Elizabethan England?
To begin with, Faustus is not presented simply as a sinner, one who has chosen an evil path through his own will, thus incurring divine retribution. Marlowe insists that his is the tale of an ordinary individual who attempts to attain the unobtainable, that which is forbidden to ordinary men. The aspect of Faustus as an ‘Everyman,’ is evident throughout the play. The domesticity of Faustus as an inhabitant of our everyday world is seen in Marlowe’s rejection of artistic metaphor in ‘Heroic’ verse, and of high tragic literature:

‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasimeme,
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In courts of kings where state is overturned…’ (Doctor Faustus, Prologue, lines 1-4.)

Marlowe’s tone is unbiased, he begs his audience to be objective in passing moral judgement on Faustus. Faustus is presented as a fairly lowly academic, whose portrayal encompasses both psychological depth and empathy for the spectator. We are informed how Faustus, born into a poor family has been driven by ambition, and through his desire to succeed, has attained excellence in the understanding of philosophy:

‘Only this gentlemen: we must perform
the form of Faustus’ fortunes, good or bad.
To patient judgements we appeal our plaud.’
(Doctor Faustus, Prologue, lines 7-9)

The tale of Faustus is one of extreme circumstances, set in the less tolerant moral climate of the Middle Ages, and Faustus is himself a product of this moral and spiritual culture. For Faustus, the knowledge that he will trespass into forbidden lore, and transgress the maxims of Christian doctrine is mainly a subjective awareness. Faustus tells himself that the subject of his desires is amoral, he will resolve his inner yearnings for self-fulfilment through necromancy and deception of his fellow men. This resolution to study the black arts has been reached only after much internal conflict. Faustus’ conscience and the doctrines of the Church have held him back, but his innate human desire to explore and strive for greater heights have triumphed, virtually forcing him to act on that which he knows is morally wrong:

‘Settle thy studies Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.
Having commence’d be a divine in show,
Yet level at the end of every art…’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 1-4.)

Faust’s decision to sin seems illogical, considering the penalty of eternal damnation he will incur if he turns his back on Christ, but the process of Faustus’ descent into damnation serves two central purposes for Marlowe; firstly, Faustus stands as an example for prospective sinners. This message, or moral is the surface tale of Doctor Faustus, a man who is self conceited, and refuses to acknowledge the laws of Christ, but who discovers, to his cost that Hell does indeed exist for the unwary sinner. On the other hand, we can see Marlowe working at an altogether different level if we interpret the play as a critique, rather than an endorsement of orthodox religion, culture and social order.
We must remember that Elizabethan England was not entirely free of the Mediaeval aesthetic and religious outlook. Despite enjoying moderate religious toleration under Elizabeth’s Settlement Act (1558,) and a hitherto unseen patronage of the arts and sciences, the country’s religious and moral conscience still owed much to the mediaeval outlook on original sin, and to the theocentric tradition. Marlowe himself had been something of a rebel against the tradition amongst the lower orders, of sending educated sons to become priests or teachers. Marlowe virtually fled to London, intent on a literary career rather than become a cleric. The parallels between the ambitious Marlowe and his creation ‘Faustus’ are obvious:

‘Coming to the world picture itself, one can say dogmatically that it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a much more complicated picture… ‘ E. M. W. Tillyard (3.)

The mixed outlook of the Renaissance period, when the old religious orthodoxies were being challenged, by philosophers and scientists, partly on religious and partly on epistemological grounds, is described by E. M. W. Tillyard in ‘The Elizabethan World Picture.’ Tillyard describes how Renaissance culture possessed a double outlook on man and his environment, in which the world of discovery and that of traditional teachings were constantly in conflict. It is this new world of exploration within the restrictions of traditional orthodoxy that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, and it is the older, less tolerant world of Mediaeval Europe which Marlowe uses as the setting for his play, emphasising the limited environs of the scholar, who is bound to the study of the defined theological systems which yet persisted in Elizabethan England:

‘Those who know most about the Middle Ages now assure us that humanism and a belief in the present life were powerful by the twelfth century, and that exhortations to condemn the world were themselves powerful at that time for that very reason. The two contradictory principles coexisted in a state of high tension.’ E. M. W. Tillyard (4.)

Faustus, although bound by the theocratic institutions about him, is also a humanist and a progressive thinker. Like Marlowe, Faustus is aware of early empirical methods of logic, and there are times when Faustus seems to stand for modern empirical reasoning against revealed Christian teachings and assumption:

‘Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 7-9)

Faustus questions the cosmic binary nature of good and evil by asking the exact nature of the devil:

‘Tell me, what is that Lucifer, thy Lord?’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, line 63)

The dramatic irony, is that Faustus occupies a similar station as Lucifer, and is imbued with the same inner desire for self fulfilment, in opposition to the tenets of orthodox Christian law. Like Lucifer, Faustus has chosen to reject God’s Commandments and their accompanying limitations. Mephostophilis replies:

‘O by aspiring pride and insolence, For which God threw him form the face of Heaven.’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, line 61)

The scholarly tradition is made fun of, both through the antics of Faustus, and through his questioning of orthodox theology. Faustus rejects the traditional hierarchical structure of human society as a microcosm of the divine macrocosm, Similarly, Faustus rejects the combined Biblical and Aristotelian approach to logic and natural order as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74:)

‘This study fits a mercenary drudge
Who aims at nothing but external trash,
Too servile and illiberal for me.
When all is done, divinity is best…’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 34-37)

Faustus’ rejection of mainstream scholasticism, which emphasised the limits of human knowledge within untouchable, divine knowledge suggests a rejection of the limitations of the individual within God’s divine scheme. Faustus suggests that he will be with the old philosophers, espousing rationalism above dogma and theology; no matter what path he chooses, however, the price of sin will be retribution within the social and spiritual order:

‘This word damnation terrifies him not,
For he confounds hell in Elysium.
His ghost will be with the old philosophers.
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 57-59)

The fall of Faustus can therefore be seen to illustrate the residual presence of the scholastic tradition, and to provide a critique of contemporary social order. By the late sixteenth century, the scholastic tradition, with its emphasis on religion and with its main form of expression in the sermon, had given way to the creative literature of dramatists and writers such as Ben Johnson (1574-1637,) Michael Drayton (1563-1631,) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616.) The limitations of the Pre-Renaissance, almost entirely Latin literary culture, is seen in the confined religion-orientated world of Faustus:

‘Humanistic studies declined somewhat in the second half of the sixteenth century. We can explain the decline by the very advance of creative literature for which they had opened the way…’ Harry Levin (5.)

The dispute between the good and evil angels reflects the internal conscience struggle of Faustus, and illustrates the innate restrictions that Christian morality exerts upon the Renaissance consciousness, in opposition to the empirical and rationalist drives to discover and improve existing systems. the angels add to the plays’ moral sense, but on a deeper, metaphorical level, they reflect the dual outlook of the Renaissance, optimistic of the future, but bound by the conventions of the past. The material, or substance of Faustus’ transgression is knowledge; on the level of the morality play this represents the forbidden power and wealth which ordinary men are forbidden to attain, but on the metaphorical and allegorical level, the book represents the knowledge of the new sciences, and debate on existing ethical and epistemological systems. It is knowledge and understanding of truth, in the empirical tradition of Bacon and later, Descartes and Newton, rather than traditional revealed wisdom of the scriptures that Faustus seeks:

‘O Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head.
Read, read the scriptures: that is blasphemy.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 70-74.)

On the level of the mortality play, it could be argued that Faustus’ fall is attributable to the breaking of God’s law, and that Faustus is damned through his own sinful transgression of that law. To the mediaeval mind, this plot would seem simple in structure and purpose enough. But if we view Faustus’ fall from the point of view of an educated, middle-class Elizabethan spectator, we might consider the plot of Doctor Faustus will a touch of scepticism. Tillyard concludes that whilst still a superstitious society, the Elizabethans did not believe in absolute predestination, but believed, in the tradition of Boethius, that human actions were contributory to human fate:

‘But however pessimistic orthodoxy could be about the heaviness of the punishment inflicted through fortune on man for his fall, it always fought the superstition that man was the slave as well as the victim of chance… E. M. W. Tillyard (6.)

We have to admit that Marlowe could not seriously have written his play with moral improvement as his main focus, this is apparent when we consider that he probably attended secret atheist societies, and was several times imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to religion:
‘Though they could hardly have called him a communist they called him other things. they called him an atheist, a Miachiavellian, an Epicurean.’ Harry Levin (7)

Faustus discusses forbidden subjects whose dominion is reserved only to the mystery of religion; these include Faustus’ question to Mephostophilis, ‘Who made the world?’ Faustus is withheld this information – he may transgress the laws of God, but the mysteries of heaven and earth cannot be his, because he cannot escape the bounds of divine moral order or retribution.

Faustus is a true empiricist, who will not believe a phenomenon unless he can feel or see it for himself, he uses empirical and rationalist argument against the mimetical and dogmatic canons of established religion. As a result of this modern outlook, Faustus is unable to take seriously the superstitions of Fire and Brimstone; he flatly denies the existence of the soul, of Heaven or Hell, until he is carried there by devils. Faustus is, in short a common-sense individual who, despite initial scepticism, is gradually conditioned to accept the maxims and laws of orthodox religion and divine moral order. As mentioned previously, Faustus accepts the fact that he is about to commit sin, and believes that the only retribution that can affect him is one which is inevitable, regardless of earthly conduct, i.e.: eternal death:

‘If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there
is no truth in us.
Why then, belike,
We must sin, and so consequently die.
Aye, we must die an everlasting death.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 42-46).

By the standards of the Mediaeval world, Faustus is a fool to misinterpret the scriptures on so basic a point as the applicability of salvation to the sinner, but to the Renaissance mind, this reflection may encompass a deliberate inverted, or double meaning, since read literally, Faustus’ interpretation suggests that we all die without hope of resurrection, and our conduct on earth makes no difference whatsoever to a post-death state. To the modern spectator therefore, this apparently ridiculous assertion may have had more significance than appears on the surface.

Marlowe’s most obvious emphasis, is in my opinion, Faustus’ tendency for self-condemnation. Faustus is a metaphor for Renaissance man, he exhibits the doctrinal dependency of modern man on outmoded belief systems, and exposes the political and social purpose of those systems as a conditioning force on a dynamic and restless society. Faustus is essentially modern man bearing the self destructive mark of original sin as described by Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Faustus always acknowledges his sin, the concept of sin as a material, human condition is never explicitly challenged, but it is questioned implicitly in the ambiguous nature of Faustus’ unalterable and predestined damnation. Faustus is integral to the world of orthodox transgression, as if he is predestined to a lowly birth, reckless ambition and resulting retribution by a repressive establishment. Mephostophilis says that hell is the human reality on earth – perhaps a suggestion by Marlowe of the moribund state of contemporary human affairs, and the need to improve on the physical, rather than spiritual life. Hell is:

‘Within the bowels of these elements.’ (Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 117.)

Mephostophilis says that hell is also based on consciousness and state of mind – Faustus is doomed by is own attitudes, suggesting a critique anticipating Blake, on the self-induced misery of ethical man:

‘Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
in one self place, but where we are is hell,
and where hell is there must we ever be.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 124.)

Despite the promise of salvation, Faustus does not believe he can be saved, reflecting the older Mediaeval views on transgression and sin; this may be a device used by Marlowe to emphasise the inevitable condemnation of self expression by the exploratory man:

‘My god, My god, look not so fierce on me.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 5, Scene 3, Line 187.)

Faustus is a powerful and tragic figure, representing on one level the fall of a gifted individual to a personal hubris or fatal flaw – in this case a combination of ambition and greed; but on another level, if read from the rationalist or empirical perspective, Faustus is the pitiful product of a moribund society, unable to provide adequate means of expression for the genius like Faustus. Instead, like Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus, great men must live in the shadow of a limited, oppressive orthodoxy:

‘His reasons for opening negotiations with Lucifer are far from simple, and his fault of selling his soul may be seen today as that of a bored genius, rather than that of a wicked blasphemer.’ William Tydeman (8.)

Therefore, it seems that Doctor Faustus was indeed written as a metaphorical work, and not intended to be understood literally. The presence of devils such as Mephostophilis and Lucifer are implausible, and demand the spectator’s interpretation of the play as an allegory of sin and redemption only at the most basic level. Marlowe intended the work to question the belief systems and scholarly attitudes of the contemporary academia, but only in a covert and suggestive form.
The text does, therefore confront the gap between the reality of human society in Elizabethan Britain and the aspirations of men like Faustus, who are doomed ultimately to conform in some measure to the fundamental belief systems that characterise the Christian faith.
The play is not, as it first appears, an endorsement of traditional Christian doctrine, but a subversive challenge to the limited belief systems of an age, and a grim reminder of the reality of Renaissance man’s retribution-entrenched psyche. Marlowe’s presentation of the Faustus story is ultimately of a man whose sin is to enact his internal human desires, and whose retribution is the product of an effacing and narrow institutional establishment, which uses Christian morality as a means of self-preservation. The play does address the gap between human aspiration and social reality, in this case Marlowe exposes to some extent the fallacy of the Renaissance dream, through the apparent destruction of a dreamer who aspires too high, and comes too close to challenging heaven itself. There is really no resolution in Doctor Faustus, only Marlowe’s subversive and covert rendering of the paradoxical nature of Renaissance society, aspiring toward progress and exploration, yet intrinsically bound to the narrow morality of the middle ages:
‘What art thou Faustus, but a man condemned to die?
Thy fatal time draws to a final end.
Despair doth drive distrust into thy thoughts;
Confound these passions with a quiet sleep.’
(Doctor Faustus, Act 4, Scene 4 Lines 22-25.)


Primary Text

Christopher Marlowe, Complete Plays and Poems, ed. E. D. Pendry (Great Britain: Everyman, 1997)

Secondary Reading

D. S. Kastan and P. Stallybrass, Staging the Renaissance, (London: Routledge, 1991)
E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972)
Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967)
J. P. Brockbank, Marlowe, (London: Edward Arnold, 1971)
Millar MacLure (Ed.,) Marlowe, The Critical Heritage, (Great Britain: 1971)
William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984)


(1.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.26.
(2.) Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967) p19
(3.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.12.
(4.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.28
(5.) Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher, (London: Faber, 1967) p.22
(6.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.50
(7.) William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984) p.22
(8.) William Tydeman, Doctor Faustus, (London: Macmillan, 1984) p.128
(9.) E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972) p.1

“…a safety-valve for anti-social feelings.” To what extent would you accept Michael Balcon’s assessment of the role and importance of Ealing Comedy in the period from 1949-1955?

“…a safety-valve for anti-social feelings.” To what extent would you accept Michael Balcon’s assessment of the role and importance of Ealing Comedy in the period from 1949-1955?

Paul Catherall

Films studied:

‘The Ladykillers’ – 1955, Ealing Studios, Colour, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Produced by Michael Balcon.
‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ – 1953, Ealing Studios, Colour, Directed by Charles Crichton, Produced by Michael Balcon.
‘Whiskey Galore’ – 1949, Ealing studios, Colour, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Produced by Michael Balcon.

The Ealing comedies were perhaps some of the most memorable and best loved films to be produced in Britain in the post war era. This was perhaps partly explained by their universal appeal to contemporary society: in their fresh, original treatment of the comedy genre, and in their sympathetic portrayal of British society across the traditional class and moral spectrum.
The comedies owe most, perhaps, to their producer – Sir. Michael Balcon (1896-1977,) who, following his founding of the Gainsborough studios, and work at Gaumont Pictures, became the chief Producer at Ealing in 1937, establishing Ealing’s independence from the Arthur Rank empire in 1945. Balcon had already acquired a prestigious reputation in film production, seen in his successes at Gainsborough/ Gaumont in: ‘Woman to Woman’, ‘The 39 steps,’ and ‘A Yank at Oxford.’
Balcon quickly displayed his individuality and distinctive production style – subtly adapting his subject material: e.g.: Compton Mackenzie’s novel, ‘Whiskey Galore!’ to suit his own interests and particular emphasis.
In understanding Ealing films during the period 1949-1955, we must take account of the driving force in Sir. Balcon behind production at Ealing.
Furthermore, me must take into consideration the social, political and economic context of post-war Britain – a nation increasingly subject to internal social and cultural division and tension, and to the reduction of foreign influence and power, following the break up of the British Empire from 1947.
Following the war years, the more radical Labour Party had strengthened its appeal for the British electorate, promising the establishment of a free health service, and nationalization of the industries, the result was the first majority Labour parliament between 1945-51; the ordinary people of Britain seemed to have finally acquired a voice in the running of the country, and to have challenged the traditional ruling classes. A mood of emancipation and equality seemed to be sweeping across Britain and the world.
Opportunities for social advancement were now possible, following the provision of compulsory state secondary education in 1944. The economic prosperity of Britain after 1945, due largely to the survival of British industries during the war, contributed to a sense of affluence, and brought about the virtual embourgeoisement of the working classes.
General living conditions amongst the poor improved, with quality council-housing and a welfare system unprecedented in Western society.
The influence of America was also important at this time, like Britain, American society and industry had survived the wreckage of continental Europe, and as a growing superpower provided essential economic support for an otherwise bankrupt Britain. American media in the form of the Hollywood cinema had enormous appeal for the cinema-goers of Britain, mostly comprised of the younger element in society; American democracy, egalitarianism and liberality, as seen through film contributed to a sense of cultural and social freedom prevalent in Britain at this time.
Also apparent at this time, was a sense of national instability and insecurity regarding Britain’s status in the balance of world power. The rise of Communism and the ‘Cold War’ saw Britain at an ideological watershed. Opting for a moderate socialism, it had taken a centre ground between capitalism and communism. Whilst demanding social and economic reform, the people of Britain would still cling to traditional British values and institutions – as seen graphically in the hugely attended 1954 coronation of Elizabeth II , when tens of thousands of loyal subjects descended upon Westminster Abbey – as this illustrates, the people of Britain still felt patriotic about their Queen and country.
The Ealing Studios seemed to epitomize this sense of reform with moderation; the form of British culture and institutions was something sacred and beyond political ideology, its character and way of life should be preserved, despite the ground-breaking changes that were taking place in Britain:
“If you think about Ealing at those times, we were a bundle…(I’m not saying this in any critical sense), we were middle-class people brought up with middle-class backgrounds and rather conventional middle-class educations. Though we were radical in our points of view, we did not want to tear down institutions… We were people of the immediate post war generation, and we voted for labour for the first time after the war; this was our mild revolution. We had a great affection for British institutions: the comedies were done with affection…. …but not protests at anything more sinister than the regimentation of the times.”
(Balcon 1945)

In many respects, the Ealing comedies seem to focus on small communities that are a metaphor for British society generally: the islanders of Toddy, the people of Titfield, the citizens of Pimlico, and upon groups of companions or extended families – such as the criminals in ‘Two-Way Stretch,’ and the struggling cinema troupe in ‘The Smallest Show On Earth.’ Sometimes this metaphor is extended beyond one particular social or class group, and incorporates specimens form representing almost every quarter of society, particularly seen in ‘The Ladykillers.’ These social groups are almost always faced with some kind of adversity, that can be overcome only through mutual co-operation and personal stoicism. The exact form of these qualities vary between films, but can be grouped into two main varieties: firstly, the kind of film celebrating traditional British culture within the revolutionary spirit of post war Britain, and secondly, that which explores social rebellion in a more critical context, stressing the need for at least some maintenance of order over the anarchy that can result from rebellion.
Of the former type, Whiskey Galore and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ are good examples, although each has an individual emphasis, and must be studied separately. In these films, we see a small community flouting conventional authority for the benefit of all – in ‘Titfield,’ this is the preservation of an old branch-line following Thomas Beeching’s scraping of the private branch-railway lines. The authorities in this film are depicted lacking respect and affection for the provincial branch-lines – they are the custodians of power in Labour-run Britain, and it is due to their standardization and modernity that the line is to be closed. Sacred traditions such as the local branch line mean little to them. In fact, it is against the faceless standardization and modernization of everyday life that the Titfield people protest. Perhaps this is indicative of the concerns of the British people, following the beginnings of urban expansion and perceived loss of community spirit in the post war period.
At the inquiry into the local’s request to run the line, Gordon attacks bus and car transport, it is interesting that the tone of the outburst is one generally attacking the changing face of village life:

‘Don’t you realize, you’re ordering our village to death? What’s it going to be like in five years time? …traffic lights, concrete roads, houses with numbers instead of names.’

In ‘Whiskey Galore,’ the Hebridian islanders of Toddy must contend with the hardship of minimal whiskey supplies during war. The ‘SS Cabinet Minister’ containing 50,000 cases of whiskey is wrecked off Toddy, so, racing time and the English Home Guard officer in charge of law and order, the whisky-starved islanders single-mindedly scheme to salvage what they can from the wreck. Their particular rebellion is of a community flouting the clinical legality of authority. This mild rebellion, is not so much one typified by the angry protest of a repressed people, but -like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ the mass expression of a community to take everyday life into their own hands, and to maintain sacred communal traditions – in the case of ‘Titfield,’ the maintenance of the branch line, and in ‘Whiskey Galore!,’ the domestic and cultural practice of whiskey drinking. Authority in ‘Whiskey Galore!’ is represented, not as the reformative, modernizing monster of ‘Titfield,’ but in a similar context as legality gone mad: Captain Waggert of the home guard assumes responsibility for the Whiskey, setting himself up as an obstacle to the normally permissive practice of illegal salvaging by the locals of wrecked ships. It is interesting that in the Ealing film, Waggart’s superior, a Scot, condemns the captain’s insistence of pursuing the matter as a breach of common sense:
‘Sometimes I really do wonder at the logic of the military mind.’
(Captain Waggart.)

The practice of turning a blind eye is therefore commonplace by the authorities on Toddy, and is disturbed by this unsympathetic authoritarian outsider. like ‘Titfield’ this represents communities fighting to maintain their own status quo in the face of changing times, and the centralizing standardization of authority, Waggart is an archetype of centralized London beauracracy and upper class arrogance, whilst in Titfield, it is against standardization and nationalization that the people of Titfield fight.
In ‘The Ladykillers,’ we see a slightly different emphasis – where the practise of society rebelling against authority appears much more sinister and less commendable than in the other two films. The gang, comprising character types representative of almost every section in society seem to represent a microcosm of the British social world; the companions are together, not as a community or fellowship, but as individuals, whose each interest is for himself, tolerating his companions only because they are useful to him.
The world of ‘The Ladykillers’ is set against a background of dark industrial landscapes and busy urban living. This is a world transformed form the idyllic village existence of ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ into one built upon the complexities and conflicts of an industrial age. This almost malignant sense of industrial development is reflected in the characters of the film; they, like their times, are the corrupted products of modernity: they share little mutual understanding of each other, and in social and moral terms, each seems utterly different from the next. Their lack of cohesion adds to their sense of disunity – unlike that seen in the previous films, such as ‘Whiskey Galore.’ The gang comprises elements from traditional class-types. Each demonstrates how society has changed, despite class boundaries. Professor Marcus is portrayed as a gentleman academic, who, like Major Cortney – portrayed as a former officer – is a supposed cornerstone of the establishment; the three heavies: Louis – a well-dressed, but calculatingly ruthless underworld type, Harry – a cockney teddy-boy type, and One-round – an underworld thug, all represent the proletariat in rebellion against their status and economic position in society. The gang may also represent society as a whole, ruthlessly carving fortunes out of the capitalist system of fifties Britain. They may represent the state of contemporary British society, widely perceived as becoming less community-orientated, and more individualistic and greedy. Their world owes nothing to tradition, or the past, as seen in One-Round’s consternation at Mrs. Wilberforce’s reference to ‘the old queen,’ and Harry’s insistence on the stupidity of their unsuspecting accomplice:
‘I just don’t think we can trust a screwy old dame like that, that’s all…’

The gang’s armed robbery of sixty thousand pounds seems almost out of place in an Ealing comedy, and perhaps reflects the kind of violent crime to have struck London in the post-war period. The gang members seem to represent the violent nature of society in a state of anarchy; surprisingly, it is not the law which opposes them, nor society in the form of an Establishment figure, such as Waggart from ‘Whiskey galore!,’ but a quintessential English spinster lady, whose moral reasoning we are forced to emphasize with, especially since our sympathy for the criminals fades following the disloyalty and outright treachery exhibited between them; despite their apparent determination and ability to use violence, the criminals are unwilling to murder Mrs. Wilberforce, indicating the sanctity of moral order – even for the criminals. Professor Marcus describes the impossibility of escaping Mrs. Wilberforce:
‘We’ll never be able to kill her, Louis, never, never, never…’

On one hand, ‘The Ladykillers,’ is a fantasy of society rising up against the establishment and the ideological social hierarchy still largely prevalent in British institutions, the gang offer universal appeal in their social diversity and character. They also embody the ideal, and exiting fantasy of becoming incredibly rich through some dramatic, yet caculatingly engineered heist. On the other hand, however, Ealing seems to advocate a moderate rebellion, rather than a dramatic, and perhaps violent one – it seems to question the motives and morality of a society interested only in social advancement and the acquisition of material wealth. In short, whereas Whiskey Galore and The Titfield Thunderbolt appeal to stem the clinical standardization and uniformity of village life by government, popularizing the resilience of British people to change, ‘The Ladykillers’ ask for society to critically examine itself.
In some respects, ‘The Ladykillers,’ is perhaps the best example of Ealing providing Balcon’s ‘safety valve’ for the mood of an uncertain and restless populus:
“I n the immediate post-war years, there was as yet no mood of cynicism; the bloodless revolution of 1945 had taken place, but I think our desire was to get rid of as many wartime restrictions as possible, and there was a mild anarchy in the air. In a sense our comedies were a reflection of this mood… a safety valve for our more anti-social impulses.”
(Balcon, 1945.)

The comedies do not, however, advocate revolution, or appeal for mass dissatisfaction with the status quo, rather, they play out the stresses of a newly regimented and more socially complex society; as Blacon pointed out, Ealing’s emphasis was not on inciting revolution, but setting ordinary people in a new context and light, not as character types, but as individuals:
‘Ealing’s comedy style was new in that it dealt with the utopian desires of the lower middle class rather than its resentments. … When it was played through, these consequences were the release of subterranean values. These values and their playing out in a specific area in a limited amount of time, constitute the ‘fantasy,’ the affectionate ‘
whimsicality’ often noted in the Ealing comedies.”
John Ellis, ‘Made in Ealing,’ from ‘Popular Fiction.’

On closer examination, it can indeed be seen that the Ealing comedies provided more an escapism than a revolutionary appeal, whilst embracing the spirit of reform within a sympathetic portrayal of traditional institutions and quintessential British character:
‘Of course we wanted to improve institutions… to look for a more just society in terms that we knew.’
Balcon 1945

In ‘The Titfield thunderbolt’, the setting is of an idyllic country village, inhabited by ordinary, hard-working people. The initial few scenes of Titfield display a quiet village existence, where the men-folk commute in the traditional manner, by train to work in Mallingford. There is a clear sense of social harmony in the town, everyone treats each other with respect, whilst respecting a definite social hierarchy, e.g: the train guards address Mr. Weech either as ‘sir’ or ‘padre,’ and train users are also addressed in most respectful terms. Titfield exists as a society in it’s own right, paying little heed to the affairs of the outside world – this is seen in Gordon’s statement that Titfield runs to Titfield time, not Greenwich:
‘My grandfather built this railway for Titfield, not Greenwich.’

A sense of tradition and cultural continuity is also seen in the film: Gordon’s great grandfather founded the railway, and both he and Weech are proud of the Titfield line and its history, the society of titfield is disrupted and its citizens dismayed at the news of the closure, the tradition of the line adds to the sense of modernity’s thoughtless destruction of traditional British culture. The Rev. Weech comments:
‘The oldest surviving branch line in the world.’

In the film, authority is seen encouraging the growth of a mercantile, and profit-related social ethic, we are shown Crump & Pearce’s bus racing with the train, as an indication of the conflict between the traditional way of life and the new. The bus owners are portrayed in particularly unsympathetic terms – they are greedy and wish to eliminate all competition by any means; at the hearing, we are shown contemporary social order attempting to suffocate the individuality and survival of local culture: the advocates of change are driven by self-interest, the inspector by regulations of heath, safety and efficiency; the union official represents the driving force of radical uniformity and standardization -he is a parody of reform gone mad.
Weech declares that the locals will run the railway without demand for monetary return, in response, the petty unionist resorts to single-minded ideological aggression against the capitalist system:
‘It doesn’t matter what you want, brother, it’s what the bosses want that we’re out to stop.’

The inquiry is like a trial, and the defendant is the traditional Titfield way of life; Gordon attacks the case for standardization with sentiment common amongst much of society at this time:
‘Do you realize you’re condemning our village to death? What’s it going to be like in five years time?’

The fantasy of the Titfield community to take on the establishment, and run the railway is echoed in Gordon and Weech’s conversation at the opening of the film:
‘I’ll drive the engine…’
‘And I’ll be the guard!’

The Titfield people all knuckle to, to run the railway, reflected in the support of every social class: the less than reputable poacher, Dan, and Weech argue over who will drive the train – in the end, they join forces – a typically democratic outcome for Ealing, indicative of the harmonious nature of community society, across class and occupational boundaries, the aristocratic Valentine declares:
‘I declare the contest a draw, they will both drive the engine.’

The huge, Bauhaus-like ministry buildings, built of glass and steel, epitomize the modernity of the new age – the minister arrives to work on a moped, again, an indicator of progress and the breaking down of traditions; the workers of titfield travel by train.
Similarly, the exact, clinical language of the ministers suggest an administration devoid of sentimentality for sacred British traditions and values – this is echoed later, in the unnecessary emergency stop on the inspection:
‘There might be a lot of opposition…
There is, you will ascertain if such opposition is justified.’

Prior to the inspection, the train and station is refurbished by the titfield people, their craftsmanship exudes traditional work-values that contrast with the uniformity and standardization of the trade union official:
Seth, the carpenter remarks to Weech:
‘When I do a job, sir, I like to do it proper.’

The Christian element – as in ‘Whiskey galore’ is also evident here, the Rev. Weech exudes a simple piety, and sense of spiritual affinity with his community and environment; he sings a creation hymn whilst passing through tranquil countryside and grazing lands, contrasting sharply with the money orientated world of the bus-profiteers:
‘All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small…’

The conflict between bribed Hawkin’s steam roller and the train is another dramatic metaphorical struggle between conventional society and traditional values. The triumph of the train in dislodging the roller indicates a moral victory for the Titfield people over modernity.
Similarly, the mass support of the people to retain their traditional way of life is illustrated in their dash to fill the train’s boiler with water , following sabotage of the reservoir by Pearce.
It is interesting how Balcon pokes fun at the bus-owners and Hawkins, when they scheme at the bar. Alongside their sleazy plot, we see a television showing a similar scheme by three cowboys to hijack a railway – the artificiality of the characters parallels the bus men’s appearance as mercenaries, out to plunder the village for self-gain. The pun is also a cultural stab at the influence of Hollywood popular culture and ethics on traditional British outlook.

The junking of the Titfield train indicates the brutality of an establishment and mercantile class, whose interests will be attained by unjust and destructive means if necessary. The subsequent acquisition of the ‘Titfield thunderbolt,’ is another example of the villagers’ overcoming impossible adversity.
It is ironic that the erstwhile sceptical Blakeworth ends up arrested trying to save the train, indicating through him that much of the establishment has sympathy for the titfield cause.
The day of the inspection sees another calamity – the breaking of a makeshift coupling on the Thunderbolt – again, the people of Titfield exert every ounce of energy to push the two sundered wagons together.
In a bizarre sub-plot, Dan and Valentine set off to Wilmingford, where they run a train though the streets until caught. This rebellion adds to the film’s sense of flouting law and authority through comedy.
The last scenes of the film shows the thunderbolt, a superb piece of nineteenth century craftsmanship, flying through the countryside, well on schedule, despite the adversities of the journey, the train seems to symbolize the fighting spirit of the Titfield community, and the vitality of a society which respects and nurtures its traditions, even in the face of legal and social change.
The film ends with a consensus of applause for Titfield – the trains of Wilmington salute the Thunderbolt with whistles. The oppression of regularity and uniformity has been challenged and overcome.

in ‘Whiskey Galore!.’ the cultural and domestic tradition of whiskey drinking is in jeopardy at the onset of war; with the wreck of the SS cabinet minister comes a utopian promise of whiskey in abundance: Whiskey Galore!, ( Galore is a contraction of Gu-Leor: Scots Gaelic for ‘in plenty.’)

The opening introduction to the film sets the context of Hebridean life, the simple existence of crofters and fishermen:
‘A simple people, with few and simple pleasures… A thousand miles from any cinema or music hall…’

To the islanders, whiskey is an indispensable factor in their lives, without it, the community suffers:

‘To any true Islander, life was not worth living.’

The people of Toddy appear slow and dull-witted, but here, Balcon’s portrayal of the Hebridean stereotype ends, and we discover soon after the wreck, the limits an otherwise servile community will tread in order to maintain the tradition and normality of community life. The wily Joseph has the crew of the wrecked ship taken to the mainland so that salvage can be begun.
In opposition to the islanders schemes is the pompous Captain Waggart, who repeatedly discusses the islanders in terms of foreigners subject to British rule – like an overseas colony:
‘We play the game for the sake of the game. I tried to introduce football amongst the children, and do you know what happened? One child kicked it into the sea.’

Like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ the town has its own advocates of independent culture, and persons of social standing to counter authoritarian outsiders, Doctor Mclaren criticizes Waggard’s road block, and describes the captain as ‘a pompous, stuffed up Sassenach…’

The villagers of Toddy live by traditional means, and culture – it is due to the Sabbath, the fourth commandment that they must return to their homes, rather than salvage the whiskey, Bilah comments:
‘It is the Sabbath, we cannot be breaking the Sabbath…’

Similarly, George’s mother will not let her on join Waggart’s guard on the day of rest:
‘He’s locked in his bedroom with some bread and cheese & he’ll not be let out till tomorrow morning…’

Mrs. Cambell seems to epitomize the kind of traditional religious oppression still found in some quarters of contemporary society, George’s rebellion against his mother to go to the salvage, and eventually marry Christina contributes to the film’s theme of liberation and fulfilling of communal desires in the face of authority, it also shows the conflict between past ethics and new.
The rebellion of the town to the injustice of Waggrt is a communal effort to achieve a common aim. Like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ there are scenes of mass support for the salvage operation, as if the whole community comes alive with a single collective consciousness. The night setting of the salvage adds to the feel of society expressing itself covertly, on the surface, normality is present between the villagers and Waggart, this is an unseen rebellion, conducted out of sight of authority, and therefore, importantly within the apparent confines of the law. Like the Titfield Thunderbolt, this is a social fantasy played out, under the cover of darkness – suggesting an almost surreal, dream-like context for the heist. This is similar to ‘The Ladykillers,’ where the gang only reveal their true character during the cover of darkness, a period of murder and internal conflict, when all sense of normality and appearance disappear; the social fantasy is present here, but the film takes a moral position, with the gang’s self-destruction – questioning the role of social rebellion, and asserting the importance of moral order.

Whiskey galore seems to condone the new modernization of society, the old crofter, ill in bed seems to symbolize the destruction of an ancient way of life on Toddy, he comments that his health is like his croft:
‘…disappearing like a fog, long out of the sea, making it nothing at all.’

Throughout the film, the islanders never overreach themselves: precautions are taken, and caution is observed to avoid Waggart’s justification. Joseph plays on the sergeant’s wish to marry Peggie, by coercing him into assisting in the cover up after the Customs inspectors arrive. Joseph declares there must be a ‘Raeschac,’ celebration for the marriage, and ‘without whiskey there can be no raeschac.’
Rebellion is also expressed in the assault on the sergeant at the beach, and in the blockade of the excise inspectors, one of the islanders exclaims:
‘Any man who stands between us and the whiskey is an enemy of ours.’
Scenes of conflict between the excise men and islanders add to the sense of rebellion of the islander’s part; the chase through the dunes particularly illustrates this, and brings to a head the conflict between community and central authority.
This rebellion is not motivated by self-gain, but, through the whiskey a desire to attain a nostalgic past lost to the islanders, the whiskey will be shared between all, even those who didn’t contribute to the salvage:
‘Let every man take what he needs…’

The film also has elements of Scottish patriotism in the face of English authority; Dr. Mclaren accuses Waggart of ‘playing laird,’ and it is ultimately waggart who is foiled, and ironically exiled from Toddy due to his accidental illegal export of whiskey. Also, Peggie asks the sergeant to ask him to marry her in Gaelic, another indicator of national resistance to social change on the island.
Ultimately, the film encapsulates Balcon’s ‘safety valve’ idea in it’s portrayal of the mild rebellion of a people far removed culturally and historically from central authority – and who provide an ideal contrast to the impersonal, uniformity of centralized social and moral order as seen in Waggart and his inspector accomplices.

lastly, ‘The Ladykillers’, is similar and yet radically different from the previous two films in its approach; here we see a diverse social group, outside the both social morality and the law. An immediate contrast is set between the gang and Mrs. Wilberforce, heightening the sense of opposites and moral polarizations in the film.
The viewer is forced to take a moral perspective in the film: Mrs. Wilberforce demands that the gang take back the money they have stolen:
‘No, even if they do make me sew mailbags, I must go to the police.’

Rebellion for the gang is symbolic of a social fantasy to perform the unaccepted, to become wildly rich, and to flaunt the establishment.
The morality of the gang is, however mixed: Louis is an underworld character, whose knife and cards symbolize the chaos and violence of his world, Lenny, on the other hand seems possessed of a moral conscience, he is unwilling to use Mrs. Wilberforce, or allow her to be harmed:
‘I don’t like it, it don’t seem right having a sweet little old lady like that on a stick-up job.’
The gang are in fact representative, not only of the changing face of Britain, or proletariat fantasy, but the anarchy of a society corrupted by reform. Beneath their outward appearance, each character harbours a treacherous self-interest that will eventually destroy them, seen mainly at the film’s end, where, unlike the communities of Toddy and Titfield, selfish greed is the overriding objective. What is conveyed, is a microcosm of society, playing out its tensions under the appearance of normality and gentility for Mrs. Wilberforce, Professor Marcus seems to encourage this insistence on appearing normal when viewing the money outside the police station:
‘I hope no-one is going to suggest that we steal it.’

The music played by Marcus suggests the appearance of normality in Mrs. wilberforce’s home, reflecting the apparent concordity in contemporary society, beneath which there lurks deception and inner tensions.
The gang cannot, however resort to killing Mrs. Wilberforce, and must return to convince her of their innocence, rather than make a getaway, or dispose of her – they are unable to fight moral order effectively:
‘I suppose you’re wondering about the money in Mr. Lawson’s chello case…’
(Professor Marcus.)

The ridiculous stories of the men also add to the impression that they are like naughty children who have transgressed:
‘Each of us could tell a similar story….’
(Professor Marcus.)

Central to the film is Mrs. Wilberforce, she represents moderation and moral restraint – seen in her pleas to return the money, and in her references to the last century and sea-captain husband:
‘Captain Wilberforce went down with his ship…’

The criminals are anarchic, the selfish greed of a capitalist system has warped their sense of morality, further stressed though the dreary industrial landscape of the town, and especially in the presence of the train and it’s haunting whistle – which accompanies the murdered villains as they murder each other, as a kind of metaphor for social change, movement and the juggernaught power of the establishment and its intolerance of transgression.
the train also represents human turbulence, and the condition of Britain, an industrial monster – threatening the kind of village idyllicism of ‘Whiskey galore’ and ‘The Titfield thunderbolt.’

Ultimately, my conclusion to the films, is that they do demonstrate a condoning of rebellion on the part of Ealing, but always in terms of the preservation of British social character and moral order. In the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt,’ this rebellion is one of the quintessential English village, threatened with development; the rebellion is seen in the spirit of an era of change and free expression, but ironically it is against the meddling reforms and cultural breakdown of this era that the film protests. The war-spirit of conservatism and stoic determination to preserve the independent character, values and rights of Britain are most evident. In whiskey Galore, the rebellion is similar, save that it is set in a very un-English environment, where Scottish, or Hebrides independence challenges authority in the form of the quintessential English officer-type, in both films, this rebellion is of a community struggling to survive intact in its cultural and domestic form through social change and centralized authority. In the Ladykillers, set following the first labour administration, this mood of rebellion is still present, but mixed with caution, as the quintessential English lady challenges a changing society and moral order.
So, finally, the films do express mild rebellion, as proletariat fantasies of the people flaunting their lot and the establishment, and as a society coming to terms with a rapidly changing moral and social structure.
But in addition to this, we are presented with visions of anarchy and social collapse, and the frightening aspects of an over-industrialized, over materialistic society, one bound to collapse without the preservation of at least some sense of tradition and national character.
This conclusion, of a balance, a mild reformative spirit is, I believe the moral and social position of the films, providing Blacon’s ‘safety-valve’ as a measure, or warning against the mistakes of the past, and potential ones for the future.

Is Heart of Darkness ultimately a rejection of imperialism’s authorized lies?

Heart of Darkness is ultimately a rejection of imperialism’s authorized lies.

Paul Catherall

Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness’, despite its publication at the dawn of this century, was written between 1898 and ’99, and is in many respects representative of the nineteenth century literary tradition. The novel does, however possess many startlingly modern features, usually associated with the literature of twentieth century experimental writers, (such as Joyce – Ulysses’ 1922, Finnegans Wake,’ 1939.) Its critical, almost pessimistic tone and stream-of-consciousness narrative style, is wholly atypical of the nineteenth century literary tradition. The implication, is that Conrad, like Joyce is a radical and experimental writer, albeit under the prescriptive literary milieu of Victorian Britain.
To suggest that Heart of Darkness’ is a critique of British imperialism may explain its exclusion from the British Empire Cannon’ of 1924. (1.) Conrad’s earliest experiences were defined by European imperialism; as a child, Conrad lost both parents in the Russian invasion of Poland. For Conrad, Pan-Slavism must have bequeathed an additional perspective on the morality of British imperialism. These experiences, and Conrad’s interest in the theories of Darwin are reflected in his constant reference to a predatory natural order in The Heart of Darkness,’ where the supremacy of brute force, not God is the reality of the cosmos. Imperialism conceals the carnage inflicted beneath a psyche of idealism:
It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder… and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness… ‘ (2.)

The imperial psyche comprised two main aspects: power and order. The old oligarchic governments of Europe were in decline by the mid nineteenth century; the Enlightenment, and the French and American Revolutions, had bequeathed a legacy of change in the mood and attitudes of Europeans. Threatened with extinction from an increasingly powerful proletariat, traditional, hereditary regimes responded with brutal reaction and popular nationalism. By 1848, the pattern of European revolutions was over. The flag-waving populus of previously volatile cities, cheered the troops on their way to the acquisition of overseas – and sometimes European – territories. Like Rome, Europeans had conquered in the name of civilization; backward, non-European peoples were obviously inferior to the cultural, ethical and spiritually superior colonists. Duty and patriotism would carry out this process. Marlow’s discussion of Roman colonization implies that imperialism lacks real ethical motive, but instead is a repeating, cyclic process within predatory nature. Like Africa, Britain was once a savage wilderness:

…all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’ (3.)

Conrad had witnessed the processes of African imperialism at first hand. As a continental factor, and as a captain in the British merchant marine, he witnessed a mixture of extortion and outright robbery with natives. Conrad, although unwilling to explicitly condemn this process, perhaps due to social pressures, did not hesitate to denounce, The criminality… and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa.’ (4.)
(Letter from Conrad to W. Blackwood, explaining the aims of Heart of Darkness,’ December 1898.)

Conrad had to convince editors that he was not anti-imperialist. The demands of popular literature required some conformity to existing forms, but it can be seen that Conrad worked within the existing framework of popular fiction to expose at least surface injustices of contemporary imperialism for the average reader.
Perhaps the greatest problem and most interesting phenomenon in defining the extent to which Heart of Darkness is a critique of imperialism, is the ambiguity of the narrative style, or possibly, the attempt at evasiveness. On one hand, Marlow’s condemnation of the traders is a particularized attack on imperial inefficiency, but on the other suggests a general critique of imperialism. Marlow suggests that his African experience is beyond description. Perhaps this is an unwillingness on Conrad’s part to directly criticize imperialism, although the tone and language suggests detest for the imperial system:
That commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt.’ (10.)

Marlow’s inability to analyse his experience, suggests a critique of the very concept of rational understanding. As in life, complete clarity is unobtainable. Marlow’s experience, multifarious and sensual, cannot be measured or recorded:
We live as we dream, alone.’ (11.)

The frightening reality of the incomprehensibility and savagery of cosmic order is what drives Kurtz mad, and forces Marlow to conceal his understanding of nature, to the listeners, to Kurtz’s betrothed, and to the reader. This ambiguity and lack of clear-cut explanations, prompts us to question how far (due to contemporary convention and censorship,) Conrad substitutes Marlow’s emphasis on the incomprehensible in nature, for one of the incomprehensibility of man himself. Kurtz’s horror’ is never explicitly defined, it is left to the reader to judge how far Kurtz has digressed from the moral, social, ethical and religious norms of the Victorian psyche. Marlow’s Roman discussion prepares us for the encounter with Kurtz, another who has had to face the savagery’ of a godless wild:
…he has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable… ‘ (21.)

In part one, we are presented with a representative social order. The four men’ have apocalyptic resonances. The boat symbolizes a naval and mercantile civilization, integral within the natural world of the ocean:
Between us there was… the bond of the sea. It had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns – and even convictions.’ (13.)

Nightfall suggests the transience of this great maritime power, the world is naked of the deceptive light of day, and the civilized psyche:
the sun …stricken to the death by the touch of that gloom.’ (14.)

Central to this transition is Marlow, whose tale addresses the imperialists of Britain. Marlow can see beyond contemporary idealism – his seamanship suggests a corporeal awareness the others lack:
He was the only man of us who still followed the sea.’ (15.)

The older Marlow is a man who has undergone some kind of enlightenment, which sets him apart from his passengers, he resembles an idol’, with outstretched palms. The sleeping lawyer, and restless accountant suggest that justice sleeps, and commerce builds empires out of the bones’ of the conquered:
The accountant had brought out a box of dominoes… and was toying architecturally with the bones.’ (16.)

Conrad reflects on the imperial romance, satirized in the illusory reflection of light:
…like jewels flashing in the night of time… Bearers of a spark from the sacred fire…’ (17.)

The town of London, like a vast warship, appears in the deceptive gloom of the Thames as The place of a monstrous town… a lurid glare under the stars.’ (18.)

Transience of empire, is evoked in the Roman conquest, When the romans came here nineteen hundred years ago – the other day…’ (19.) The ideological stimulus of imperialism is satirized:
Oh yes, he did it… and without thinking much about it either…'(20.)

Conrad repeatedly makes reference to the ideological basis of imperialism in Europe, seen in Marlow’s descriptions of the traders as pilgrims,’ bringers of light and civilization to a savage’ people. We are reminded of imperial hypocrisy, which boasts to enlighten, yet in reality oppresses its subjects. For Conrad, the ideals and ethics which fuel imperialism are the lies of a mercantile conspiratorial establishment:
It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy.’ (5.)

For Marlow, the lies of imperialism represent civilization’s failure to overcome man’s primordial psyche, or to affirm the fabric of natural moral order. The suffering Marlow witnesses is not ethically justifiable, the hollowness of these lies expose a decay beneath:
There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies…’ (6.)

Conrad is aware of the forces at work behind these lies; his is a culture of ideals, reflected in the fiction of Ballantyne, Reid and Kingsley, and in the travel-writings of Livingstone, Hakluyt and Cook – all beacons of the Imperial work and patriotic ethic. Marlow sneers at the popular culture of idealized adventure:
There had been a lot of rot let loose in print and talk about that time.’ (7.)

Traditionally, adventure writers, such as Haggard, had sought to emulate the travel literature of the explorers. These pseudo accounts of real experience are often narrated by the writer, who is also the chief protagonist; maps, charts and letters are used to enhance the validity of the tale. In Heart of Darkness,’ however, we have a reversal of this situation. Conrad is, in effect, turning his rescue of Klein, a dying trader he encountered in the Congo, into fiction. For both Marlow and Conrad, the experience is devastating, with Conrad’s own severe sickness on the return journey. It is even possible that, like Kurtz, Klein had been venerated by the remote natives he encountered.
We cannot but surmise that Marlow, the chief protagonist, whose tale is relayed to us by the narrator, is simply a narrative device intended to conceal the autobiographical nature of Marlow. Without considering the earlier comparison, we know that the narrator possesses a special kinship with Marlow. At times, the narrator seems able to understand Marlow’s experiences better than Marlow himself. When Marlow is unable to define or accept the horror’ of his experience, the listening narrator conceives nature as a vast, seething ocean, against which the artificial boundaries of the civilized psyche are futile protections:
The tranquil waterway, leading to the uttermost ends of the earth… -seemed to flow into the heart of an immense darkness. ‘ (12)

Marlow may represent a young, transitional Conrad. Marlow’s journey is not just an imperial adventure, but a journey from idealistic youth to sceptical maturity, from the innocence of belief and trust in one’s environment to the disillusion of experience:
It was the farthest point of navigation, and cumulating point of my experience.’ (23.)

Conrad’s more fundamental criticisms of imperialism seem integral to a much wider conception of the state of civilized man and his role in the natural world. The Victorian science of Darwin – on natural selection, and of Kelvin – on thermodynamics and atomics, are evoked in Conrad’s portrayal of an indifferent, predatory nature, and of the futility of ethics in a Godless universe bound to burnt-out entropy:
If you believe in improvement, you must weep, for the attained perfections must end in cold, darkness and silence.’ (8.)
(Letter to Cunningham Graham – December 1898.)

In the jungle, Marlow’s ethics are all that conceal the truth of imperial futility:
…the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things. … a mournful and senseless delusion.’ (34.)

Civilization’s trappings are ridiculous in Africa, a boiler wallowing in the grass,’ and the objectless blasting,’ of railway construction, suggests something unnatural, and even perverse. The inability of the traders to kill the old hippo with their guns evokes the sense of an impenetrable wilderness. Similarly, the French ship, firing into the bush seems futile and pointless:
There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding.’ (36.)

Marlow describes the forests of Central Africa as a nebulous and impenetrable sea. Improvement’ is not only futile, but fatal:
The edge of a colossal jungle, fringed with white surf. …we landed some more soldiers. …some I heard, got drowned in the surf.’ (33.)

For Conrad, the consequences of improvement are devastating. The meeting of civilization and the wild is disastrous for all parties. For the negroes, the encounter means calamity, for the whites, madness and death; the desolation following Fresleven’s death illustrates this:
the huts gaped black, rotting.. A calamity had come to it sure enough.'(9.)

Marlow constantly experiences conflict between the appalling destruction he witnesses, and the artificiality of his own civilized psyche:
For a time, I would feel I belonged to a world of straight forward facts, but the feeling would not last long.’ (35.)

Marlow prompts our own criticism of social ideals:
He must meet that truth with his own true stuff… Principles won’t do.’ (22.)

Marlow is in fact the antithesis of the ideal, his dance with the boilermaker illustrates the limits of indoctrinated self-discipline. Marlow affirms a particularly modern aspect of literature: realism is not idealism, but a reflection of the living world in all its faults.

Marlow’s employment, hardly an imperial crusade, is a mercantile affair, there is not even a facade of moral purpose behind the company:
…they were going to run an over-sea empire and make no end of coin by trade.’ (26.)

Marlow contrasts the supposed morality of imperialism with the reality of the ivory trade:
The word ivory rang in the air… you would think they were praying to it.’ (49.)

The continental city, a whited sepulchre,’ suggests Brussels, whose King Leopold had appropriated the Congo as a personal shooting range. The city is mercantile, cramped and oppressively urban in its dead silence,’ An image of civilization, crumbling with a decadent, weary people suggests the corrupt and self-effacing nature of civilized life. The clerk Marlow meets suggests the myth of European imperial benevolence:
A white haired secretarial head, wearing a compassionate expression.'(27.)

For the stay-at-homes, imperialism is all about ideas and national prestige in the forum of Europe; they are secure in their self-assured beliefs. They have not experienced, like Marlow the darkness of nature at first hand. The shining map,’ of the imperial world suggests this artificial ethic:
There was a vast amount of red… good to see at any time.’ (28.)

Two women, knitting like the fates, suggest an uncanny and deliberate mind at work behind the imperial myth:
I thought of these two, guarding the door of darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall.’ (29.)

Marlow discusses popular imperialism. His aunt – whose knowledge of imperialism comes from popular culture, believes Marlow will be an emissary of light, …weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.’ (31.)

Marlow hints that the majority of Europeans are ignorant of their true condition:
They live in a world of their own, there had never been anything like it, and never can be.’ (32.)

The death of Fresleven illustrates the disastrous results of imperialism, preparing us for a pattern of transition and destruction. The quiet Fresleven had been a couple of years… engaged in the noble cause,’ (24.) His violent attack of the native chief suggests madness and a breakdown of the personal moral/social framework as the result of exposure to wild Africa.

On meeting the traders, Conrad witnesses more European atrocities; criminals,’ used as slave labour satirize Europe’s anti-slavery boast. The starved natives wear black rags,’ suggesting the coming of European darkness. The back overseer, with his white rascally grin,’ suggests the corruption Europe has wreaked on a people innocent of the intrigues and greed of civilization, …the product of the new forces at work.’ (37.)

The grove of death,a recluse for negroes suffering malutrition and white diseases also illustrates negro opression:
I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some inferno…’ (39.)

The ambiguous and psyhological narrative becomes explicit and graphic:
Some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.’ (41.)

The white accountant’s self-assured countenance and dazzlingly white attire contrasts sharply with the dying negros; his whiteness is illusary:
I took him for a sort of vision… white cuffs, a snowy jacket.’ (42.)

The meeting of the factor poses a conflict for Marlow between the reality of what he is experiencing and the idealism of the vision-like accountant:
Moreover, I respected the fellow… I respected his collars, … this man had verily accomplished something.’ (43.)

The station is an image of British Imperial efficiency, Marlow is asked to convey this fact to the revered Kurtz, whose good repute comes from the fact that he is the best trader in the company:
Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together…’ (44.)

Kurtz represents the ideal imperialist, he is a remarkable person,’ because he can run empires, his ruthlessness is disregarded, He will be somebody in the Administration before long.’ (45.)

The aristocratic trader describes Kurtz as an emissary of pity and science…’

Like Kurtz, the general manager has risen through strength – the climate and diseases of Africa demand a survival of the fittest:
His position had come to him – why? Perhaps because he was never ill..(46.)

This cut-and-thrust European environment is seen in Marlow’s succumbing to primordial instincts:
Being hungry, you know… I was getting savage…’ (47.)

When Marlow gets his rivets by lying to the assistant, and dances with the boilermaker to celebrate, the wilderness responds: “A … burst of mighty splashes and snorts reached us from afar, as though an ichthyosaurs had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river” (48.)

The European conspiracy to exploit Africa is reflected in Marlow’s comments on the Manager, perhaps, rather than a particular image, this symbolizes king Leopold:
…he resembled a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.’ (54.)

In the assistant’s quarters we see Kurtz’s painting: A woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.’ (51.). Women are associated with Europe’s illusory civilizing mission. The blindfold evokes Marlow’s description of the ideologically driven Roman conquest:
…and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.’ (55.)

Marlow’s repair of the boat prompts him to consider his last refuge, the work ethic, although this affirmation is surprising after the ethical destruction Marlow has witnessed. Marlow, confused by conflicting perceptions of reality, desperately tries to rationalize his experiences:
The chance to find yourself, your own reality.’ (53.)

In part two, The half caste who brings Kurtz’s ivory suggests the inner conflict of the Kurtz, the half-caste may symbolize a conflict between the primitive and civilized in Kurtz’s psyche:
He was that man, the half-caste.’

The journey to Kurtz brings Marlow closer to the primitive: back to the earliest beginnings of the world …’ (56.). Marlow, attracted by the wilderness, monstrous and free’ (57), opposes the primordial with his deliberate belief’. The mysterious stillness’ watching Marlow at his monkey tricks’ (58) implies Conrad’s conviction that creation is indifferent to our human ethical systems. Without the restraints of … a butcher … a policeman … and temperature normal’ (59) we succumb to our primitive selves. Marlow gradually comes to the realization during the attack of the natives, that the mythos of Kurtz has lured him to a man who is either the avatar of imperial order, or that of the imperial lie:
…the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.’ (60.)

Kurtz is the focus of the darkness, the devil-god’ himself. Kurtz is of mixed race: all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz …’ (61).

The young Russian is shaped by Kurtz’s eloquence, the romance of the imperial myth. He evokes Conrad’s own experiences of Russian imperialism:
But when one is young, one must see things, gather experience, ideas; enlarge the mind… Here I met Mr. Kurtz.’ (62.)

Marlow describes the young Russian as a harlequin’, acting out an unreal, or mimetical part. Marlow almost envies his self-assured beliefs: …the possession of this modest and clear flame. seemed to have consumed all thought of self (63.) The Russian’s youth offers Marlow a dazzling’ contradiction to the darkness. The harlequin’s’ patches, the rags of European culture also correspond to the colours of the Imperial map seen earlier.
In part 3, Marlow’s inner conflict deepens, but he struggles to maintain his ethics: …your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business’ (64.)

Disappointingly, Kurtz offers Marlow no sort of moral’ idea. Kurtz approaches the natives with the might as of a deity’ (65,) with two shot guns, …the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.’ Kurtz has become a god, and has reverted to the darkness of the savage ‘ichthyosaurs.’ To save Kurtz, Marlow lies again, convincing Kurtz of his glorious European future, reaffirming a system of beliefs Marlow has himself rejected. Kurtz, however, cannot embrace cosmic order, since he has succumbed to a primordial reality, exposing the inner primitive in himself. He recognizes only the ‘horror’ of a predatory reality. For Marlow, the ultimate rejection of imperialism by Kurtz, represents a bitter disillusion for the imperial ethic:
Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that …was wide enough to embrace whole universe.. He had summed up — he had judged. ‘The horror!’ (66.)

When Marlow visits Kurtz’s betrothed, he lies, claiming Kurtz’s last words concerned her. Marlow fights to maintain the thin fabric of illusion separating civilization from the abysmal savagery within. For Marlow, this lie is affirms the truth:
It would have been too dark, too dark altogether.’ (67.)

The affirmation that Kurtz’s spirit will remain, suggests the survival of imperial ethics, and of inner human barbarity into the future. These qualities are universal truths in our inner nature:
We shall always remember him…’ (68.)

Perhaps Marlow’s final position is a middle ground, incorporating a respect for the immense forces within us alongside an appraisal of imperialism. Marlow’s vision of the disastrous consequences of imperialism are a warning of what man becomes when removed into an environment that arouses his inner primitive self. Marlow is unwilling to contemplate the nature of cosmic order, but does imply that this is an inexplicable phenomena, which like nature itself, should remain untouched by civilized minds. In practice, this means refraining from imposing a futile ethical order on the natural world:
He had made that last stride… …over the edge, while I had been permitted to withdraw my hesitating foot.’ (69.)

Conrad’s tale ends with Marlow’s assertion of the need to seriously question the processes of efficiency, and the very concept of ideals. For Conrad, his knowledge is Marlow’s reality – the sickening certainty of futility, which, in conflict with the imperial myth, threatens the civilized psyche when exposed to a world in which ethics mean nothing.

The arguments for the reading of Conrad’s novel as an historical critique are therefore very strong, and the imperial critique is possibly the most central aspect of Heart of Darkness.’


The Art of failure, Conrad’s Fiction, Suresh Raval: Allen & Unwin 1996

Joseph Conrad and the adventure tradition – Constructing and deconstructing the imperial subject, Andrea White: Cambridge 1995

Conrad the Critical Heritage, Ed. Norman Sherry: Buttler and Tanner 1973

Joseph Conrad – The Major Phase, Jacques Berthoud: Cambridge 1978.

Marlow’s Lie, Richard Yazteck, Lawrence University Hypertext Journal obtained from the internet.


(1.) Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing The Imperial Subject. Andrea White, Cambridge press, 1993/’95. ‘Conrad was excluded from the British Empire Canon of 1924 – ‘The literature and art of Empire.’ P. 3.
(2.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.10
(3.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.9
(4.) Conrad , The Critical Heritage, Edited by Norman Shelly, Butler and Tanner Press 1973. P.129
(5.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.15
(6.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.38
(7.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.18
(8.) Marlow’s Lie, Richard Yazteck, Lawrence University Hypertext Journal, 1998. P.3.
(9.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.13
(10.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P. 38
(11.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P. 39
(12.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.111
(13.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 5
(14.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P 6.
(15.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.7
(16.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. Pp.5-6
(17.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.7
(18.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.8
(19.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.8
(20.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.9
(21.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.9
(22.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.52
(23.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.11
(24.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.13
(25.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 13
(26.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.14
(27.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.14
(28.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.14
(29.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.16
(31.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 18
(32.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 18
(33.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 19
(34.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.19.
(35.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p.20
(36.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.20.
(37.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.22.
(38.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.23
(39.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.24 (40.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.24 (41.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 25
(42.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 25
(43.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 26
(44.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.27
(45.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.28
(46.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.31
(47.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.32
(48.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.42
(49.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.33
(50.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.36.
(51.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.36
(52.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.10
(53.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.41
(54.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.44
(55.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. p 46
(56.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.50
(57.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.51
(57.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.97
(58.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.40
(59.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.42
(60.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.57
(61.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.71
(62.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.77
(63.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.126-7
(64.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.117
(65.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.86
(66.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.87
(67.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.111
(68.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997. P.109.
(69.) The Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin, 1997 P.101

‘Blake’s voice is the voice of freedom.’ Do you agree with this claim?

‘Blake’s voice is the voice of freedom.’ Do you agree with this claim?
Support your answer with reference to the Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Paul Catherall

One of the most evident features seen in Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ is the poet’s constant reference to contemporary injustice and repression. For Blake, the misconceptual attitudes and social/religious ethics of contemporary society lay at the heart of the nation’s common misery.
The society of Eighteenth century London dominates the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and it is largely through Blake’s handling of society that we discover his views on contemporary social order and morality. In understanding Blake and his works, we must understand the social structure of his times. We must remember that Blake’s was an age of rigid class distinction, in which social advancement for the lower classes was simply impossible. Education of any quality was rare for those not privileged enough to afford schooling, and the first real Education Bill for the poor did not appear until 1802, six years following the publication of the Songs of Experience:
‘Blake was writing against slavery: spiritual, political, artistic and social.’ (1.) Michael Davis, from ‘Blake, a new kind of man’.

Dominating every aspect of mainstream British culture and political administration were the ruling classes, comprising two main groups: the city-rich businessmen of London and provincial factory owners – whose influence in parliament was at this time growing as a voice for vested interest in industry, and the landed aristocracy – who still dominated both houses of parliament, and whose interests lay largely with the maintenance of the monarchy, and preservation of their regional landed privileges.

The world of Blake was dominated by the squalor and deprivation of contemporary London, and by the abuse and exploitation of the poor by the factory system. This was an age when children as young as six might work on crude, heavy machinery for unregulated periods of time. The vast majority of the population lived in appalling poverty, and at the close of the century, had an average life expectancy of twenty years.

Politically, Blake’s world was entirely in the hands of landed aristocrats. The houses of Lords and commons were entirely controlled by them, and commons seats were often acquired through bribery or similar corrupt practices. .
The King, George III, chose his own Prime Minister, and was able to influence politics in the commons through him. Power therefore lay in the hands of the aristocracy, and King.

Social Reform had been demanded by an increasingly literate and educated society in Britain throughout the mid eighteenth century – championed by popular radicals, such as John Wilkes – whose newspaper ‘The North Britain’ bitterly criticized contemporary social and electoral injustice during the 1760’s. Later philosophers and thinkers, such as Thomas Paine with his work ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791,) sought to popularize the same kind of social equality championed by advocates of the American and French Revolutions, where an ideal democracy would replace Britain’s traditional oligarchic system.

In France, the French ‘Philosophes’ had struggled to democratize French privilege-riddled society through their writings, influencing many British radicals and philosophers – particularly through Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ (1762.)

Blake’s London was therefore the setting for the playing out of social conflicts and tensions, that embodied a wider mood of change spreading across contemporary Europe. The people of London had demonstrated openly against living conditions and taxation many times during Blake’s lifetime, and magistrates were prone to react harshly to any such disturbance, sometimes opening fire on crowds to disperse them. Furthermore, with the Revolution in France having begun in 1788, London’s elite lived in constant fear of the mob. By 1790, an apparently bloodless revolution in France had become a Jacobin bloodbath, cumulating with the execution of the Royal family in 1792, and ‘September Massacres’ of 1793 – in which many thousands of both upper and lower classes were murdered in the name of liberty.
Blake, like other advocates of reform, viewed the early French revolution with optimism – believing that a democratic France, and perhaps Europe was about to be born, based upon the American model. But with the Terror of 1791-3, he grew disillusioned with the very concept of Revolution, and was appalled by the militant overthrow of the Girondin government by the dictator Robespierre:
‘Blake sympathized with the Revolution. he always claimed to be a faithful son of Liberty.’
(2. Davis.)

Blake’s world was therefore a politically uncertain one and perhaps dangerously close to social collapse.
During the final decades of the Eighteenth century, The traditional status quo of King and Constitution in Britain still survived – albeit under the sparing social reform of William Pitt the Younger. War with Revolutionary France loomed on the horizon, with the French invasion of Belgium in 1792, and the ‘Edict of Fraternity’ of the same year, issued by the French Republic to the world’s poor, appealing for world-wide insurrection against oppressive governments.

It is against this patchwork of cultural change that we must examine Blake’s thoughts on freedom and liberty; Blake was certainly aware of many major philosophical treaties to emerge from American and British radicals during the American War of Independence – he is known to have been friendly with Thomas Paine, and to have attended ‘correspondence’ societies – regular meetings of reform supporters, many of whom had corresponded with the ministers of the new French Parliament. It is well documented that Blake was known to some of the most controversial and famous philosophers and thinkers of the age:
‘…Blake would have discussed with such critical writers, such as Fuseli, Godwin and the free thinker, Joseph Priestly.’
(3. William Blake, by Raymond Lister.)

In Blake’s ‘Songs Of Innocence and Experience’ therefore, we are presented with the works of an artist who has been influenced enormously by the explosive social, economic and political discussions raging across Britain and the world at this time. In the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ Blake attempts to reveal repression in society in both its overt and covert forms.
For Blake, society represses outwardly – in the form of laws and disenfranchisement (e.g: lack of popular right to vote,) and inwardly – in the form of social convention and indoctrination – and through the maintenance of an ignorant proletariat. Far from maintenance of the Status quo through violence, it is in fact, the common people who repress themselves, in their willingness to adopt the attitudes, preconceptions and ethics – both religious and moral of the establishment that represses them.
It is this multi-faceted repression and inequality that Blake addresses in his poems. It can be seen that Blake’s works contain a revelatory message of hope and freedom, from what the poet perceives to be man’s moribund and misconceptual state on Earth. The corruption and tyranny of contemporary London society is inevitably associated with that of mankind generally.
Alongside earthly repression, and the immediate injustices of London, Blake suggests – in a religious context, the spiritual release of the oppressed soul from earthly oppression as the ultimate means of overcoming worldly injustice. Although at times a declared atheist, Blake subscribed to much of the religious metaphysics of the Sweedish philosipher Swedenborg, beleiving in the necessity of opposities in the human condition to mainatin a healthy equibrillium:
‘ God, the source of all good, prompts Blake to add, ‘Good and Evil are here both Good & the two contraries Married.’
(4. Davis.)

For Blake, all men are innately pure, imbued with a personal spiritual morality corrupted only through worldly experience; the soul of man is important – since contained within it is the ‘Divine image’ of ‘mercy, pity. peace and love. ‘
(The Divine Image’ – Songs of Innocence and Experience.)

This elemental affinity with Christ’s message: of brotherly love and forgiveness, is constantly in conflict with a destructive instinct to dominate and prosper at the expense of others.
Blake identifies the innate Christ-like essence in man with ‘Innocence’ – a state of being contained within the human soul, which most resembles the purity of Adam before the fall from grace. Innocence is most present in the child, rather than the adult, since the morality of the child is natural, rather than based upon the indoctrinated, ingrained ethics of a corrupt mercantile society. Within innocence there lies uninhibited empathy for others, and the desire to express the self. Innocence is the life-blood of creativity and imagination.

Blake associates the instinctive desire within man to acquire material power – oppressing others in the process, with ‘Experience,’ an inevitable stage in human development which signifies the coming of adulthood, and indoctrination in the selfish, mercantile world of harsh reality. Like the fallen Adam, man’s innocence is corrupted through his partaking of the fruits of knowledge and experience. Blake pleads with mankind to retain our innocent vision of the world, to embrace the basic Christian values of brotherly love found in the innocence of children, and to be guided by that morality, rather than the ethics of a corrupt establishment or church.
At times, Blake presents the two worlds, or aspects of the human soul as polarized opposites, in the Songs of Innocence, we are usually presented with a utopian conception of the innocent state, where mankind lives alongside nature in an idyllic natural landscape. Children, a symbol of innocence are seen expressing the simple piety and sexuality of ‘Innocence’ in play. Natural morality is at work, rather than written laws, man exists in his natural, rather than imperfect and corruptible ‘Experienced’ state.
Blake views society as elemental to the state of ‘Experience,’ the individual, society and establishment are all subject to the corrupt state of materialistic living and civilized squalor. Blake’s society is blind to the true nature of human morality, and of Christ. In the society of London, human existence is bound to social and religious convention, where the natural Christ-like expression of brotherly love and mutual forgiveness is obscured in the citizens’ everyday misery:
‘All sorts of slavery appalled Blake, and his works can be seen as variations on the theme of liberty and enslavement.’
(5. Davis.)

In the Experience poem ‘London,’ Blake describes the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the people; these manacles represent the servility of a populus indoctrinated into living by the ethics and laws of the establishment. The very streets and river seem confined, regimented and defined by social order:
‘I wander thro’ each chartered street,
near where the chartered Thames does flow…’

This society is not ruled by the mythical legality of British liberty, or even by brotherly Christian love, but by ‘Chartered Tyranny:’

‘…And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’

The ‘marks’ of humanity seem to refer to Adam and Cain. Like them, mankind has transgressed through experience, a mark or curse in itself; like the Biblical characters, they exist outside the protection of God.
The cries of the people suggest the anguish and suffering of London’s poor, the cry of the sweeper is heard by the ruling class, but the Established Church, although ‘appalled’ will not alleviate the suffering of the poor:
‘How the Chimney sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls…’

The palace is indifferent to the soldier’s sacrifice of life for his country, the palace is built upon blood:
‘And the hapless soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.’

The new-born infant, rather than seen as a symbol of life, is one of the corrupt city-existence of the harlot – veneral disease and death indicate the amorality of the establishment, which keeps its populus in poverty to preserve their servility:
‘But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born infant’s tear…’

The people of London are all defined by their environment – they exist beneath unnatural or false individualities – arising from the conventions, prohibitions and laws of society. They are isolated from each other and God, seen in the fact that they are ‘marked’ – Cain was forced into an isolated existence after his ‘mark.’
In the illustration to the poem, we see a limping oldster, supported by a crutch, and assisted by a child. The old man represents a self-crippled society, lame due to its own self-imposed restrictions and misconceptions, the beard suggests Blake’s ‘Urizen,’ symbol of man’s misconceptual religious attitudes and repression of natural morality. The oldster is seen emerging from the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth, led by the child – symbol of innocence.
The ultimate portrayal in London, is of a repressive and corrupt regime, unwilling to alleviate the suffering of its citizens because of its simple unwillingness to change or risk any loss of authority.

Blake condemns the establishment of his day as wholly oppressive against genuine morality. Similarly, Blake condemns the Church as a sham of misconceptual and dogmatic ideology, serving no purpose other than to support the corrupt establishment. In the ‘Innocence’ poem, ‘Holy Thursday,’ Blake discusses the hypocrisy of the established church, where the children of a Charity School give thanks for their schooling and charity. The irony, is that these were often badly run institutions, with appalling conditions. The charity these children receive is given to promote the social status of the benefactors – portrayed typically as ‘aged men:’
‘Beneath them sit the aged man wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity; lest you drive an angel from your door.’

Similarly, the practice of contemporary religion is scorned by Blake. Religion is institutionalized faith, where ethical systems and socially accepted attitudes – rather than natural morality influence society. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Experience, the church instructs the waif’s parents whilst they – in the belief that church attendance will sanctify them – ignore the misery they inflict upon their child – interpreting his natural exuberance as happiness and joy:
‘And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury.’

The church is seen in the context of a society which propagates a system of misconceived beliefs and values, alongside the state in general; the parents are indoctrinated into these values through tradition and deference:
‘And are gone to praise God & his priest & his king
Who make up a heaven in our misery

The church is also seen in sexually and morally repressive terms. In contrast to this, Blake defines natural morality in ‘The Blossom’ of Innocence, where the copulation of blossom and sparrow is a joyful and natural act:
‘Merry merry sparrow
Under leaf so green
A happy blossom
sees you swift as arrow
seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.’

The illustration accompanying the illustration suggests a growing tree of fire, possibly a phallic symbol – suggesting the inevitable and natural morality of sexuality, also suggesting Blake’s ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ at the core of of which is Blake’s argument:
‘Without contraries there is no progression.’
(Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake – Cambridge Press, Page 7.)
However, this natural morality is restrained and corrupted by the ethics of church and state. In ‘The garden of love,’ (experience,) the natural state is repressed by the beliefs of priests, who – like the parents, believe sexuality and free expression of natural morality is wrong; they seek to confine the energies and expressive forces of innocence by imposing ethical dogmas on the populus. The narrator of the poem, a clearly defined speaker, considers how his innocence has altered through the imposition of religious doctrine, the ‘flowers’ and ‘green’ of childhood innocence are replaced with a ‘chapel’ of repression, ‘graves’ and ‘priests in black gowns,’ perhaps symbolizing the dismay of the speaker in realizing what he has lost in loosing his former state. He seems to question his present ethical/ religious position, but the conclusion is defined by the priests – symbols of a dogmatic and repressive moral order; they ‘bind’ the natural morality of the speaker , he recognizes the injustice they do, but is helpless:
‘I went to the Garden of love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green…’

The visit to the garden, a garden of ‘love’ suggests an adolescent’s awakening to social/ sexual convention and restriction, representing the kind of casual young love represented in the frolicking child-figures of ‘The Echoing Green’ illustration.
The ‘Echoing Green’ of ‘Innocence’, can be seen as a contrast to ‘The Garden of Love’, in its portrayal of an environment of tranquil idyllicism and soft pastoral landscapes. Man is seen in blissful harmony with nature. The images of the lamb and child are present in the illustration, both symbols of the true Christ and Man.
Interestingly, this landscape is peopled by both the elderly and young; the point of the poem, is that in the ideal state of innocence, where human morality and Christian love are present, the old have not lost their innocence, but still retain the essence of Christ in their spirit, which fosters tolerance and brotherly love. The children seen playing are symbolic of freedom in sexual expression, they symbolize an ideal community for Blake, where human morality and simple Christian values are paramount. Images of spring and nature suggest the sexual element for the children:
‘The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies,
The merry bells ring,
To welcome the spring….’

Old John represents the opposite of Blake’s tyrannical ‘Urizen’, the oldster of ‘London,’ he encourages natural morality:
‘Old John with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Amongst the old folk.’

John actually remembers his youth, indicating his ability to emphasize with the young:
Such such were the joys,
When we all girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen,
On the echoing Green.’

The children, asleep with their mother beneath the shadow of the tree, a symbol of life, suggest the released spirits of the earthly oppressed, whose souls, seen as children have attained the innocent state following physical death. The message here is of the poet’s appeal for the old to look back on their innocence, and to nurture, rather than repress youth – and of a message of hope and spiritual freedom for the oppressed masses of earth, represented as innocent children:
‘The freedom that Blake considered most important was spiritual freedom’
(6. Davis.)

Alongside the two main stands of freedom Blake addresses: Social and Spiritual, we see a variety of emphases on different types of repression in the poems.
Sexual freedom is one of the most controversial messages of the poems – the state of contemporary sexuality was held in scorn by Blake, who viewed society marriages as based upon insincere love.
The right to express sexuality freely, and without social, religious, financial and parental restraint is portrayed in the ideal state of Innocence, where frolicking youths are depicted in the poems and illustrations, usually alongside symbols of growth and regeneration.
In ‘Laughing Song,’ Blake portrays contemporary society in deeply critical terms, the ideal, communal community of the youths is an unobtainable utopia:
‘When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of ha, ha , he.’

The painted birds suggest the corrupt state of ‘Experienced’ love, where the female must adopt a false character to survive in society. Blake seems to call for a wider and more egalitarian form of love for women – one not subject to tradition and social convention, but one where the values of beauty and appearance – prized by contemporary male dominated society, are second to inner spiritual and moral character:
‘When Mary and Susan and Emily,
With their sweet round mouths sing Ha, ha, He.’

Similarly, Blake discusses freedom from society’s mistrust and deception of itself: an example of this is ‘My pretty Rose Tree,’ where the poet is offered ‘a flower’, but refuses it – this however, does not please his ‘pretty rose tree,’ or spouse, since she cannot believe he is able to resist the temptation to commit adultery, or practice an inner, human morality:
‘But my rose turned away with jealousy:
And her thorns were my only delight.’

Alongside sexual freedom, and the breaking down of conventions determining the behaviour and attitudes of society, Blake discusses social emancipation for elements in society who are subject to oppression by the Establishment. Women, as discussed, are are portrayed as abused individuals, subject to an indifferent, and male-dominated social world;
‘But most thro’ midnight streets I hear,
How the youthful harlot’s curse….’
(London – Experience.)

Similarly, in a radical step, Blake pleads for social equality between the world’s races; in ‘The little Black boy,’ (Innocence,) the spirit of the boy is depicted in the poem as white, a symbol of spiritual freedom:
‘My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white,
White as an angel is the English Child;
But Ii am black, as if bereaved of light.’

The boy is able to see God through his oppression. The colour of skin is simply the appearance of man: In the state of innocence, there is no distinction between the spirit of the black or white boy – each overcomes repression in his own way: the black boy overcomes social injustice, and the white boy the misconceptions and indoctrination that Experience has bestowed upon him. The oppressors and oppressed will attain spiritual release from the state of Experience:
”The cloud will vanish – we shall hear his voice,
Saying: come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my tents like lambs rejoice.’

Similarly, Blake illustrates the suffering of the most helpless casualties of his age: typified in the children of London’s slums. In particular, Blake addresses the plight of the chimney sweeper, whose job often resulted in suffocation and death.
In The chimney sweeper’ of Innocence, spiritual release is promised – but the tone of the poem is ironic, stressing the importance of the physical as well as the spiritual world, Blake seem to imply that freedom is at hand for the sweeps, but that their situation is still unjust:
‘And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work,
Thou’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.’

this stress on the importance of justice and compassion in for the less fortunate in society is echoed in ‘The Little Vagabond’ of Experience:
‘But if at the church, they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale:
We’d sing and we’d pray all the live live day:
Nor ever once from the church to stray.’

Despite his emphasis on the spiritual, Blake does therefore address the material injustice of his world, and the need for its reform. Political emphasis is seen in “London’s’ ‘chartered streets’ and the plight of the slain soldier. In ‘Earth’s answer’, Bake attacks the injustices of Britain, as the ‘manacles’ of a repressive idelogical and religious ethic, typified by Blake’s Urizen, an epitomy of the religious and political reactionary state:
‘I hear the father of the Father of the ancient men,
Selfish father of men
Cruel jealous selfish fear..’

The establishment is like Urizen, struggling to maintain their power, whilst jealous of those attempting to share that power, and fearful of the kind of social rebellion seen in France:
‘Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around!’

Blake’s ultimate message of freedom is perhaps expressed in ‘The Divine Image,’ where he pleads for a reversion to the simple piety and faith expressed in children – he associates his ideal state on earth with the Christian and moral values of ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and love:
‘For Mercy, Pity, peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care.’

Blake concludes, that innate human morality is the essence of God, rather than an external deity, Man is Christ, and vice-versa, it is for man to break the bonds of his own condition, and take on his own corrupt state, regardless of religion or race. This monotheism of mankind: worshipping only the ‘human form divine,’ and human morality seems almost atheistic, and suggests Blake’s sincerity as an advocate of reform:
‘And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.’

Perhaps the best poem illustrating Blake’s vision of contemporary society is ‘The Tyger,’ an image of society brutalized into the predatory and animalistic form of a wild beast. The Tyger expresses Blake’s whole sense of what the ‘Experienced ‘ state means, identifying it as a an indispensable source of vitality and energy for mankind, much in the same way Blake uses the image of fire in ‘The marriage of Heaven and Hell:’
‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night.’

In this context, the Tyger epitomizes the experienced state without its ‘Innocent’ counterpart. Blake accertains that ‘Without contraries is no progression, attraction and repulsion, reason and Energy … are necessary to Human existence.’
(7. Plate 3, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. – Blake.)

In terms of freedom, the Tyger expresses the rage and anger of society against the unimaginative and corrupt establishment of Urizen. Blake questions how such violent energy has been created, declaring that the Tyger’s anger is an uncontrollable and perplexed expression of social injustice – devoid of the simple piety of a free people. Mental complexity and a sense of society’s aberrant loss of the morality of the ‘divine image’, is expressed in images of forests, night and the expanse of the cosmos:
‘When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see….?’

The Tyger therefore, illustrates the rage and sense of injustice expressed by society, and as in many of the ‘Songs.’ is an expression of opposites and extremes. The Tyger lacks the ‘Divine image’, or any semblance of humanity – it expresses the uncontrollable power of the mob, as seen in the French Revolution. In this context, ‘The Tyger’ is more a warning to the establishment, than an expression of ideal rebellion.

In conclusion, I believe that the “Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ do indeed stress the poet’s sense of moral outrage against the injustices of his times. Freedom for Blake incorporated many aspects of human and spiritual life, not only in a political and emancipatiory context, but through issues such as women’s rights, sexual repression and convention, and interestingly – the concept of self-repression by the masses – and mankinditself.
Blake addresses the ‘Innocence’ in us all, begging society to cast off the yolk of oppression, whilst still retaining our basic humanity. The qualities of Innocence and Experience, expressed in the two contrary books, as opposites, must fuse in man to create a just and compassionate society.
No single state can dominate the human soul, without equibrillium, chaos and oppression ensue.
Only by embracing the basic tenets of Blake’s philosophy can we hope to attain the promised Jerusalem, an expression of hope in the decency and common morality of man:
‘To mercy, pity peace and love all pray in their distress,
And to these mercies of delight, Return their thankfulness.’


William Blake by D.G. Gillham, Cambridge University Press, 1973.

William Blake – Songs Of Innocence and Experience,’ Oxford University Press, 1996 (facsimile of 1794 edition.)

William Blake, A New Kind Of Man, by Michael Davis, Elek Press, 1977.
(1.) Page 43.
(2.) Page 42
(4.) Page 40
(5.) Page 42
(6.) page 42

William Blake, by Raymond Lister, Bell Press – 1968.
(3.) Page 40.

The Romantic Imagination, A collection of essays, Edited by John Spencer Hill, Macmillan Press, 1977.

The Romantics, Edited by Stephen Prickett, Methuen Press, 1981.

Romanticism, Edited by John D. Jump, Methuen Press, 1969.

William Blake – The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell, Cambridge Press, 1991.
(7.) Plate 3, page 7.

Achebe has commented that African writing has the advantage of ‘a largely unrecognised, huge oral tradition.’ Discuss the ways in which he puts this into practice in Things Fall Apart.

Achebe has commented that African writing has the advantage of ‘a largely unrecognised, huge oral tradition.’ Discuss the ways in which he puts this into practice in Things Fall Apart.

Paul Catherall

The Nigerian writer and academian Chinua Achebe (born 1930,) wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart in 1958, whilst his homeland was still a Federal protectorate of the British Commonwealth, and not an independent country. A native of Eastern Nigeria, or Igboland, and bilingual in English and Ibo, Achebe’s work demonstrates a dual understanding of the two cultures, European and African that have influenced his thought and writing.
Despite a conventional Christian upbringing at the early mission of Ogidi, and the influence of a traditional European style education, Achebe has always been deeply influenced by the traditional oral wisdom and culture of his people, the Ibo. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s concern for an awareness of African culture amongst African and European readers alike is seen in his constant description of cultural and sociological features within traditional Ibo society.

Similarly, Achebe attempts to demonstrate the validity of pre-colonial civilisation in Africa, through the presentation of traditional African society and morality. One of Achebe’s main impetuses in writing Things Fall Apart, was a sense of misinterpretation of African culture and society by European canonical writers, such as Kipling. Achebe seems to challenge the Imperial definition of African society as amoral, uncivilised and unchristian. Controversially, in his essay, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1), Achebe describes Conrad’s novel as a ‘negative’ assessment of pre-colonial Africa, which fails to recognise the validity and rich cultural heritage of traditional African society, and instead uses Africa as a metaphor for the fragility of the civilised psyche. It is this stereotypical European understanding of Africa as the savage and backward ‘Dark continent,’ that Achebe attempts to deconstruct through his deliberately positive description of pre-colonial African society in Things Fall Apart:

‘Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain
belief in itself and to put away the complexities of the years of denigration (*) and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of
that word.’ Chinua Achebe (2.) (* – to blacken / slander.)

At first glance, Things Fall Apart may seem an uncomplicated novel, consisting of a simply conveyed narrative style, unsophisticated language, and a single linear plot. However, this apparently unsophisticated novel does seem to capture the spirit of traditional Ibo society, not through interpretative analysis of their beliefs etc., but through an

objective description of the rich incidental language, ceremony and ritual that is the heritage of Ibo culture. It is through this accurate and intimate presentation of the African oral tradition, that Achebe conveys most powerfully the linguistic richness and social harmony of traditional African society.

Unlike modern European artists, who have encouraged an awareness and appreciation of traditional African culture, such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973,) from an aesthetic or anthropological interest, Achebe’s novel clearly seems to stress the importance of empathy and appreciation for African cultures in existence today, amongst both Africans and Europeans:

‘Some of the earliest African novelists – Tutuola, Camara Lye, and Chinua Achebe – derived their inspiration from traditional lore, indigenous customs, and the oral tradition, in a bid to demonstrate to their readers, African and non African alike, that Africa has a culture she could be proud of.’ Eustace Palmer (3.)

Ibo band, photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930 (20.)

One of the most interesting ways in which Achebe represents Ibo oral tradition is in the narrative style of Things Fall Apart. The narrative voice of the novel acts as a chronicler, or as Achebe has called, a ‘witness,’ (4.) to the history of Umuofia. We are struck by the sincerity and unintrusive objectivity of the narrator, who informs us, without subjective analysis, of events – past and present within the society of the clan. Rather than adopt a subjective style, as might benefit the critical perspective of Achebe, we are presented with a seemingly unbiased account of Umuofia’s history. In Chapter 1, Achebe declines from describing the geographical location of Umuofia from a western perspective, (the ‘nine villages’ is the only major geographical reference,) instead we are forced to patiently observe, understand and therefore to empathise with Umuofian society itself:

‘Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on personal solid achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat…’ Things Fall Apart (5.)

The narrative style of Achebe seems to imitate the cultural assumptions of an insular or indigenous people, and it is this quality that adds to the oral or bardic quality of the narrative. Similarly, Achebe’s prose possesses a dramatic and rhythmic structure reminiscent of European epic poetry, such as Beowulf, The Odyssey or The Gododdin. Like these originally oral works, Things Fall Apart possesses an omniscient narrative voice, and is concerned largely with a central heroic figure, who has to meet the threat of a powerful external danger:

‘The incidents are related in such a way that we feel their relevance, and they are dramatically evoked in such powerful prose that their reality is enacted, and we do not stop to question either their relevance or their authenticity.’ Eustace Palmer (6.)

Throughout the narrative structure of Things Fall Apart, we are always aware that the narrator is speaking in the past tense, and that we are reading the transcription of a story. The question of whether this story is an original prose work or the transcribed knowledge of an individual is at first ambiguous. One reason for the reader’s sense that Achebe’s work is a transcription from the oral tradition of Africa, is the considerable detail and intimacy with which the narrator describes the history of Umuofia. This is seen in the seamless narrative movement in chapter 1, from the description of Okonkwo, to the drama of the wrestling match. The vitality and social cohesion of Umuofia is reflected in the drama and rhythm of Achebe’s prose, and in his use of simile to associate Ibo culture with the vitality and graceful beauty of the natural world:

‘The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs…’
Things Fall Apart, (8.)

In addition to Achebe’s narrative style, which is clearly in the bardic tradition, and itself an endorsement of African oral art, we are also presented with an array of ceremonial, poetic and liturgical detail within Umuofian society and culture.
Several aspects of Achebe’s presentation of the African oral tradition seem of particular importance. Firstly, the ceremonial and religious elements of the oral tradition seem to illustrate the validity of a highly developed social and moral order within Ibo society.

Ibo Priest at shrine of Agbala,
Photographed by
G. I. Jones, 1930. (21.)

It is through the power of language and ceremony that divine moral order is made
manifest in society, through semi-divine elders like the ‘Egwugwu,’ and Chielo. The ritual of religion maintains the social and moral cohesion of the African psyche:

‘Agbala do-o-o-o! Agbala ekeneo-o-o-o-o!…’ Chielo began once again to chant greetings to her god…’ Things Fall Apart, (9.)

Similarly, the sacred laws of the village are enforced by the power of the Earth Goddess, so that when Okonkwo commits the crime of ‘ochu’ or manslaughter, he is driven out of Umuofia by her ‘messengers’. Despite his sympathy for Okonkwo, Obierika must adopt the dual identity of the spirit-messenger in carrying out the retribution of the Earth-Goddess. Language and ceremony are the outward manifestations of this divine metamorphosis of the psyche, which serve to administer justice in the clan:

‘It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers…’
Things Fall Apart, (10.)

Another aspect of the way moral and social order is reinforced through language is seen in the ceremony of politics, law and rank. The status of an individual in Ibo society is defined by merit, with the most successful contributing to village politics; the elders or ‘ndichie’ comment of Okonkwo that,

‘If a child washes his hands, he is fit to eat with kings.’ Things Fall Apart, (11.)

The Egwugwu, add supernatural awe and divine endorsement to the laws of the clan. It is through the power of poetry and oratory, that the ‘Spirits’ sit in judgement of the clan, rather than as mere mortals:

‘Then came the voices of the Egwungwu, guttural and awesome… Evil forest addressed the two groups of people facing them.
‘Uzowulu’s body, I salute you,’ he said…’ Things Fall Apart, (12.)

This detailed accuracy with which Achebe describes the oral traditions of the Ibo is described by the anthropologist Ruth Finnegan in her book, Oral Traditions in Africa:

‘Long speeches are given by plaintiff and defendant to explicate their cases… The Ibibio audience is particularly appreciative of a speech which abounds in original or unusual proverbs to capture their interest…’ Ruth Finnegan (13.)

Another aspect of Achebe’s representation of the African oral tradition is his constant reference to traditional proverbs, parables, idioms and incidental verse. The richness of the Ibo oral heritage is often displayed through everyday conversation and domestic activities, stressing perhaps the importance of the oral tradition in Africa as a genuine literary form of the people, comparable to the folk tales, proverbs and the unwritten oral culture of any European language:

‘Since the evaluation of some form as literature is as we have seen a matter ofopinion, it seems reasonable to take seriously the local opinion on this. Thus, amongst the Ibo.. this ought to incline us to consider including at least some rhetorical speeches as part of Ibo oral literature…. metaphorical names, elaborate greeting forms, the serious art of conversation, and in some cases proverbs or rhetoric.’ Ruth Finnegan (14.)

Another feature of the novel’s oral framework, is its poetry, both incidental and ceremonial. It is interesting that some poems, such as those of Ikemefuna, are rendered in Achebe’s own Ibo dialect, rather than English, suggesting the unique linguistic characteristics of Ibo verse.
Ikemefuna’s obsession with stories and fables seems to symbolise the innocence of pre-colonial society, and the importance of the oral tradition for traditional African culture. The death of Ikemefuna, an ‘abomination to the Earth Goddess,’ suggests the spiritual decline of Umuofia:

‘Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya…’ Things Fall Apart (15.)

Uchendu’s dirge to women is both a parable and elegy, suggesting the practical and philosophical nature of Ibo poetry:

‘For whom is it well, for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well.’ Things Fall Apart (16.)

Song and verse also symbolise the vitality of village life. The marriage song in chapter 12 is a traditional fertility song, but it is also significant because it was ‘the latest song in the village,’ demonstrating artistic creativity and dynamism within the framework of traditional oral art.

Proverbs and allegorical stories also feature heavily in the everyday language and conversation of the Ibo. The proverbs contain traditional Ibo wisdom on a wide range of topics, adding a rich cultural flavour to the everyday life of ordinary people, this is seen in Achebe’s comment that:

‘Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’ Things Fall Apart (17.)

We later learn how palm oil, like the greedily collected artefacts of African culture was exported out of Africa by Europeans.

Additionally, proverbs and allegorical stories illustrate the traditional African psyche, representing its interrelation with the supernatural world and natural environment. The fable of the Tortoise suggests the consequences of greed, but also serves as an explanation for why the tortoise has a rough shell. Similarly, the mosquito fable explains why the insect is attracted to human ears. Perhaps the most profound proverb is that which explains human fate, where the success of the individual depends both upon the ‘chi’ spirit, which may represent chance or fate, and the individual will.

Ibo Obi house, photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930, (22.)

In addition to poetry, one of the most powerful forms of traditional oral art is the ceremonial performance of the Egwugwu, the spiritual guardians and legislators of the clan. In African Literature Today, Eldred Durosimi compares the Ibo ritual to Eurasian performance art:

‘In spite of the fact that the village audience recognised some of the impersonators through their disguise, it was prepared nonetheless to accept them in their new identity, to enter into the mood of make-believe, sometimes with awe and sometimes with laughter. We are her quite close to the art of drama and the spirit of the secular theatre.’ Eldred Durosimi Jones (18.)

Perhaps the most striking evidence of the African oral tradition in Things Fall Apart is the presentation of a rich linguistic structure of everyday language.
When asked about Okonkwo’s assault, Ezinma says, ‘I cannot find a mouth to speak of it.’ Achebe deliberately preserves the metaphorical and symbolic forms of Ibo speech in their correct syntax.
Another metaphorical use of language is seen in personal names, which often reflect the concerns of individuals or personal character. Thus ‘Okonkwo’ means ‘manliness.’ The concern of Achebe for the preservation of traditional respect and honour for women and for the apparently feminine attributes of creativity and spirituality is seen in the repetition of the name ‘Nneka,’ or Mother is supreme.
Similarly, Achebe uses traditional Ibo names to emphasise the validity and deep spirituality of the Ibo religion, as opposed to Christianity. ‘Chuckwu’ is often described simply as ‘God,’ and the ‘Egwungwu’ spirit as ‘My Father.’

Thus, it can be seen that Chinua Achebe attempts to deconstruct both the Imperial conception of Africa, as a backward and uncivilised society, and what he believes to be the negative African outlook on traditional African culture. Achebe’s educational aim, in encouraging an appreciation of African culture, can therefore be seen in the detailed and accurate depiction of pre-colonial African life, in Things Fall Apart.

Integral to the success of Things Fall Apart is the simply told, but powerfully conveyed narrative structure of the novel. We are struck by the sincerity and objective style of the prose, and by the raw passion and energy conveyed through Achebe’s dramatic use of language and rhythm; Achebe’s novel seems to convey the living essence of a once proud and vital community.

Another reason for the success of Things Fall Apart, is the empathy which the author is able to generate within the reader for the Ibo community and their plight under Imperialism.
Despite its alien appearance to European readers, the culture and social order of the Ibo bears a striking resemblance to our own, and to earlier European traditions with which we can associate. The ethical, moral and religious institutions so familiar to us are all present in relative forms within Ibo society. Similarly, it is largely through our shared oral tradition in speech and verse, through the common poetry of language in everyday routine and ritual, that our empathy for traditional African culture is evoked.

Ultimately, however, the novel seems to represent an original literary form distinct from the conventions of the contemporary novel. Achebe’s tale seems to exist as a cultural entity in its own right, a work representative of the cultural psyche of a vigorous and noble society, much in the European tradition of epic tragedy. Perhaps Achebe achieves most success through the symbolic juxtaposition of Ibo oral and cultural heritage with the loss of their traditional psyche following European indoctrination and exploitation. This tragic sense of loss, of a way of life, and of the pre-colonial spirit, with its ‘ceremony of innocence,’ is evoked in the epigram found at the beginning of the novel:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…’

From ‘The Second Coming’ by W. B. Yeats, 1919. (19.)