Toni Morrison, Jazz

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary of Work
A complex tale that goes over the relationships between Violet, Dorcas, and Joe while they are living in Harlem. The story starts out with Violet, the wife of Joe Trace, going to Dorcas’s funeral. Her husband had fallen in love with the 18-year-old girl and in his passion shot her. When Violet gets to the coffin, she slashes Dorcas’s face and has to be pulled down to the Church floor. That same evening, she lets all the birds in the house free, including the Parrot that says “I love you.” Joe had never been prosecuted for the murder because Dorcas’s aunt knew that it wouldn’t do any good to hire the cops when Joe was already grief stricken and Violet was too. The local women’s committee determine that after the scene Violet made at the funeral and her current attempt to get revenge on her husband by having a boyfriend, they will not give her financial aid.
Violet sees that the tactic isn’t working so she goes about trying to win her husband’s love again. But since Joe remains absolutely silent, Violet decides she needs to do something different. She tries to find out more about Dorcas, asking her teachers and friends about her, and learning how to dance her favorite dances. She even obtains a photo of Dorcas, and both her and her husband often stare at the photo.

It had been eight years since the WWI Armistice, when soldiers came home and the women’s group were always out making sure that people in the community had all they needed. It was a cold winter when Dorcas died, and despite the cold, Joe and Violet take turns staying up in the night to just stare at the photo of Dorcas. Joe does not have a job, and Violet keeps them afloat as a hairdresser. She goes to individual homes to do hair, and keeps her days as busy as possible so she doesn’t have to feel miserable. The community knows that Violet has tendencies to do crazy things, including when she sat in the middle of the street and wouldn’t move, when she kidnapped a baby she had been asked to watch for a minute, and when she would speak nonsense when she was a child. This current change in her has Joe annoyed and depressed.

Joe and Dorcas met in October and had a three month affair, and even after her death he can still remember all the love and sadness that came with that affair. He tries to think of Violet after the death, but he does not love her and cannot do anything but remember dates for the significant, loving events in their relationship. Joe had seen Dorcas before in a candy store, but sees her again as he is going to sell makeup to some women, and he whispered to her then. He met Violet working the fields in Virginia and moving to NYC together in the early 1900s, twenty years before Dorcas’s death. After twenty years of trying to make this marriage work, he decides to give up, and he rents another room for six hours a week so he can sleep with Dorcas and talk to her about his life. Dorcas understands him, particularly his stories about his mother and not knowing her: she had a violent relationship with her mother, constantly fighting. She also talks about her apartment catching on fire and losing her dolls, and about wanting to go to Mexico with Joe to dance and live a good life. Joe always gives Dorcas presents before they part.

Malvonne is the woman who rents the room to Joe for his affair. She is a woman who loves gossip, and she cleans offices of white businessmen every night. She has a grocery bag full of unsent letters from her neighbors that her nephew stashed away, and she reads them, taking action only when the information in the letters is urgent or has important information for the recipient. She had taken care of her nephew, Sweetness (AKA Little Caesar or William Younger), but when he moves out, his room is empty. Joe wants to rent it for a couple bucks a month and free repair work, but she at first refuses, not wanting to take part in an affair in any way, even though she dislikes Violet. Joe convinces her that he will just use the space for conversation, and that Violet won’t know because she’s always too busy with work, and so she allows them to use the space, but will not pass any messages.

Dorcas’s aunt Alice Manfred took care of her after her parents died in the East St. Louis riots. Alice took Dorcas to the Silent March protest over the riots, remembering how Dorcas’s father was trampled to death and her mother, in agony, ran home and her home was set ablaze, killing her. Dorcas, rather than deal with the grief of losing her parents, focused on her lost wooden dolls. Alice believes that jazz music was sinful and a cause of the violent riots, but Dorcas loves the sounds. Alice works as a seamstress, and Dorcas goes to the neighbors, the Millers, to be cared for. They are good friends with Alice and spend a lot of time talking about fashion and music. When she became a teenager, Dorcas started to rebel against her Aunt, and she goes to a dance party with her friend and they dress up to look older. They enjoy watching brothers who can dance well, and when the music goes from fast to slow pieces, Dorcas approaches the men to dance, but is deterred when she sees them whisper and their smiles disappear. However, when Dorcas meets Joe a year later at her home, Alice has a premonition that something bad is going to happen.

After the funeral, the community has renamed Violet “Violent,” but Alice is no longer surprised to see Violet show up at her home. Alice mistrusted cops and so never dealt with the law, and she grew withdrawn, becoming overly focused on newspaper stories about rape and murder and assaults of women. She feels that these women weren’t defenseless, and yet also feels betrayed over Joe’s corruption of her niece. Alice first received a note from Violet under her door a week after the funeral, and Alice was upset, scared, and confused. But Violet is looking for a place to rest, and Alice provides it. She can’t stop staring at the photo of Dorcas at Alice’s home. Alice asks if Joe was violent, and Violet said no, he’d never beaten her, and after that Alice feels the need to get to understand Joe and Violet. But as she learns more, she becomes uncomfortable, which is why she gives Violet the photo of her niece. But Violet keeps coming back every day, so Alice starts mending the woman’s clothing and Violet continues to wonder about Joe. After at first feeling exasperated about the visits, Alice comes to enjoy them, and the two women are able to speak honestly to one another. When Violet asks if Alice would ever fight for a man, she remembers back to when her husband was unfaithful and she was enraged for months, but didn’t do anything before he died, and his mistress came to the funeral dressed in white; she connects with Violet and realized she’d have done the same thing Violet did to her husband’s mistress if she’d have gotten the chance.

Violet thinks back first to her slashing Dorcas’s face and then to releasing the birds, and then to her life in Virginia with Joe. She remembers he family being robbed and losing everything, and how her mother, Rose Dear, stopped talking. True Belle, her grandmother, moved from Baltimore to help out, but Rose still committed suicide. Her husband came into town just days later with money and gifts. When Violet was a late teenager, True Belle sent her and her sisters to go pick cotton for a few weeks, and when she was sleeping under a tree, Joe fell out of it while he was sleeping. They talked all night, and by the end of the three weeks, she sent the money she earned with her sisters and moved to stay close to Joe. They determine to move to NYC together about a decade later. They didn’t want children, and Violet was plagued with miscarriages, but when Violet gets older she feels she wanted children and mourns her last child she miscarried. After all these musings, she asks Alice if she should stay with Joe, but Alice doesn’t give her a clear answer.

Joe was born at the end of the 19th century and grew up with an adoptive family, where he had a friend and brother in Victory Williams. Joe grew up helping hunters and he loved the woods. When he met Violet and married her and worked as a sharecropper to find himself in more and more debt, he changed his attitude and then decided to buy land, but found that he was being asked for too much money, so he moved with her to New York and they found a place in Harlem. He worked at hotels and sold cosmetics, and after the riots, he danced down the street with the soldiers returning from war. But all of a sudden, he loses Violet, who starts sleeping with a doll hugged to her at night, and he becomes lonely. He meets Dorcas, with long hair, bad skin, and all sorts of marks on her face from the blemishes. They remind him of the trails in the woods he used to walk on as he searched for Wild, his mother. He remembers the end of their relationship, with him following her to a dance, and then continuing looking for her in places each day. He finds her one last time, where she says awful things to him and he realizes that he’s not a young man, and that he is chasing a woman when young men don’t have to chase; women come their way. He continues to remember how Dorcas looked, with her worn shoes and the marks on her cheeks and the presents he bought her. He remembers taking Dorcas’s virginity.

True Belle had been a slave in Virginia before she left to Baltimore, although she returns to Virginia a free woman. Her family is in squalor because the state repossessed everything when Rose’s husband disappeared. True Belle was on an estate of a white man whose daughter got pregnant by a black man and was disowned, and True Belle moved with her after being disowned. She was forced to leave her daughters on the plantation. The daughter, Vera Louise, names her bastard child Golden Gray because of his golden curls. True and Vera spoil him, but when Vera reveals to him on his eighteenth birthday that his father is black, he wants to know more but Vera refuses to speak, leaving True to tell the story. When she tells him that his father is Henry LesTroy, Golden goes to meet his father, intending to kill him, and sees a naked black woman on the road in the rain and when she is falls unconscious, Golden is so revolted by her color that he considers leaving her, but because she is pregnant he decides to take her in the carriage. He worries that she will get his clothing dirty. Despite these feelings, he did love True because she took care of him, but he still can’t deal with having a black father because it changes his entire identity. When he comes upon a home he thinks is his father’s, he leaves the pregnant woman in it, waiting for Henry to return. He gets drunk waiting, and when someone comes in, it is a black boy. The boy mistakes Golden for a white man who is there to talk to Henry, and Golden has him first look after his horses and then he looks after the unconscious woman as Golden remembers his rage at realizing his father is black and True telling him that rather than destroy his mother’s clothing he should go see his father.

When Henry comes home and learns Golden is his son, he comes to realize why Vera left, but before they can start talking the pregnant woman on the table goes into labor. The woman bites Henry so he names her “Wild,” and she rejects the child. The black boy, Honor, is told to get his mother to come take the child. Wild never leaves the area, but haunts the fields. This child is Joe Trace. Joe always feels Wild is his mother, though he is never told so. He tries to find Wild three times, and the last time she says something to him to answer his question, but he cannot understand because he cannot see her with the fading daylight. After this, he works all the time to stop thinking about it, and that’s where he met Violet. After the fields are set afire, he never learns about what happened to Henry (AKA Hunter’s Hunter).

Joe thinks back to his hunt for Dorcas, and remembers he never meant to kill her, but didn’t expect to find her with a young slick man, either. He also thinks of his mother at this time and how it felt similar to hunt for her with no success.

Dorcas is dancing with a coveted man in a packed apartment, and she feels incandescently happy. She’s worried Joe will be looking for her, and that he’ll come to the party. She feels bad about her cruel words, but needed to get away from him. She had told him he made her sick even though she’d meant to talk about being uncomfortable with the affair. She didn’t mention about the young man, Acton. She remembers Felice frowning at her when she had mentioned Joe. The differences between Joe and Acton are stark, with Joe accepting her no matter what and Acton asking for her to look and be specific ways, and she loves that and loves dancing with him and how jealous it makes other women. She knows that Joe will see her with Acton and realize she is with him now. Dorcas narrates her death, talking about dancing with Acton and seeing Joe, getting shot, and falling into Acton’s arms and being put on a table. Acton is upset that her blood got on his coat. Everyone is asking who shot her, and Dorcas believes she tells Felice it was Joe. As she dies, she can only make out music and oranges on the dining room table.

Felice comes to Violet and Joe’s home one afternoon with sweetmeats and music. Felice was raised by her grandmother because her parents could only come home once every few weeks from work, and then her father liked to read and her mother liked to go out dancing and to church. When Dorcas started seeing Joe, she figured it out despite Dorcas trying to hide it. Felice doesn’t think Violet is crazy because when she went to visit her while looking for a missing opal ring after she had let Dorcas borrow it to impress Acton. Felice didn’t attend Dorcas’s funeral out of anger, but also wanted to see if she could find the opal ring, and so started going to Violet and Joe’s to see if she could get it and to talk about Dorcas to Joe. She says that Dorcas let herself die rather than get medical help, so it was her fault she died from the bullet wound. She cries as she talks about it, and Joe and Violet invite her to dinner and Violet says the ring was on Dorcas’s hand when she was buried. When Felice visits for dinner again, she gets to talk to Joe alone, and when music starts playing, Violet comes in and she and Joe start dancing while Felice watches, and before she leaves, she promises Violet she will come let her do her hair.

Discussion of Work
This narrative is structured much like a jazz song, with the main plot being the driving beat, but each person’s story being its own riff or solo in the song and the narrative, expanding upon the original story and adding unique information and tune to the narrative. Time is not linear in this narrative, with Dorcas sometimes being dead, sometimes alive, sometimes not even born as the narrative of Violet and Joe’s families are told. The story weaves a tale of tragedy and love through matriarchal lines across generations, showing how female love can heal, and irresponsible men often destroy what the women have built in their families. Infidelity destroys families, but it isn’t a death sentence to the family unit: with proper communication and time to grieve, the family can be rebuilt, showing a resiliency of these black women as they deal with trauma.

Miscegenation also makes a brief appearance, bringing front and center the issues of race and racism within their own family histories. Discovering his blackness completely rips Golden apart, who has been raised with a sense of racial superiority that, when turned upon him, he cannot deal with. The only way to deal with it for Golden is to destroy his own father, to commit patricide to erase evidence of his black heritage and make him white again. Readers never learn if, after the birth of Joe, Golden ever really speaks with his father or comes to terms with his blackness; Golden merely disappears from the narrative into the space of whiteness, away from the struggles that his black family faces.

Regarding my dissertation topic, dance plays a distinct role in this story, with faster jazz dances and slower blues idiom dances like the Slow Drag featuring. The dances, like the musical structure of the story, have a sense of temporality about them. The faster jazz dances are at first indicative of Dorcas’s age and inexperience: she is not invited to dance even the slower dances because it is apparent that the complexity of the fast dances is too much for her, and she doesn’t fully understand what she sees as men dance before her, even though she can appreciate it. With age and regular attendance at house parties, she becomes a better dancer. She is able to fully embrace her youth through dancing, as it arouses both her sensual feelings for young men and her excitement about her own body. For Joe, these dances allow him to relive a part of his life that he thought he had lost; it allows him to forget his loneliness for a time and feel young again, almost turning back time, or if not turning back time, then at least extending the moments he has. His affair with a woman half his age is another way of turning back time, and much as the new music confuses the older generation, his relationship confuses his understanding of his life, turning it to pieces as he tries to participate in a relationship with a woman from a different generation with different wants and trends. It is not until after Dorcas’s death and the introduction of Felice that he is again able to connect with and dance with Violet, representing a healed relationship. Felice fills a hole for both Violet and Joe: Felice can be Violet’s daughter she never had, and Joe can be a father figure rather than a lover to the girl, showing her that there is happiness amid all the sorrow.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dover Publications, Inc, 1994.

Summary of Work
This book starts off where Tom Sawyer ended: Huck has come into quite a bit of money after he and Tom discover a robber’s gold stash, and the money is put in the bank for him; he is adopted by the Widow Douglas, who is kind but overbearing and lives with her sister. Huck dislikes his situation, particularly because he has to stay clean, go to school and church, and have proper manners. Tom talks him into staying with Douglas, but then when Huck’s dad comes, drunk, into town and demands Huck’s money from the bank, things change. Judge Thatcher tries to help the widow get custody of Huck, but there is another, new judge in town who is slowing the process because he believes that Huck’s father has natural rights and shouldn’t lose those. The judge makes an effort to rehabilitate him, but those efforts fail and Huck’s dad goes around harassing him for months until one day, when the Widow Douglas tells him to stay away from her home and his son, he kidnaps Huck and hides him in a cabin across the river.

He locks Huck in, goes and gets drunk, and continually comes back to beat him. Huck plans his escape because he is worried that the beatings are going to just get worse: he fakes his own death by spreading pig blood all over the cabin and hiding on the island in the middle of the Mississippi. The whole town searches for his body in the river, and Huck watches; then he runs into Jim, a runaway slave owned by Widow Douglas’ sister. He ran because he had heard she was going to sell him downriver, and he did not want the horrible treatment he had heard of on those plantations, and he didn’t want to be separated from his family. Huck and Jim decide to team up, but Huck does have some misgivings about helping a runaway slave. There is a flood on the river while they are on the island, and they capture a loose raft, and loot the house that is also floating down the river. They come across a dead body, but Jim refuses to let Huck get a close look at it, especially not the face.

One day on the shore, Huck learns that people have seen smoke coming from their island and are pretty sure it is Jim, and they are coming to get him for the reward, so they decide they must leave the island and float downriver. They want to go down to the Ohio River and then get Jim up to the free States via a steamboat. They travel for several days and encounter a group of robbers on a steamboat that has wrecked, and they are able to steal goods from the robbers. But when a fog kicks up, they miss the mouth of the Ohio and encounter slave catchers, where Huck is again stricken with misgivings about aiding a runaway slave and calling Jim his property. Still, he makes up a lie about his father having smallpox on the raft, and the slave catchers are so worried about catching it that they stay away. But Jim and Huck are unable to get back to the mouth of the Ohio, so they continue downriver, where a steamboat hits their raft and they get separated.

Huck ends up with the Grangerfords, southern aristocrats feuding with another family, the Shepherdsons: a Grangerford daughter elopes with a Shepherdson, and it causes an all gunfight, where many of the family members die. Huck gets caught in this feud, but Jim shows up just in time and he takes him to his hiding place and shows him the repaired raft, and they again start out on the river. They then rescue men being chased by bandits; Jim and Huck quickly learn that these men are in fact con men posing as aristocrats, but they are unable to rid them from their company. The men pull off several cons as they stop at small towns on the river, among them pretending to have converted a man in the Indies to Christianity and taking up a collection to help get the “missionary” back in the field. They also pull off a con where they pretend to put on a large show for money but only put on a small one, which angers the town for being taken for nearly $500.

Then they try to pull off a large con: they pretend to be family to Peter Wilks, who just died and left his inheritance to them; they fool the nieces in town and they are able to get money, but people in the town are skeptical and Huck decides to let people know about the scam. He steals the gold that the con men have gotten and has to hide it in Peter Wilks’ coffin, and when he goes to tell the oldest niece, the real Wilks brothers enter town; the con men barely escape, and Huck and Jim think they are free of them, but just as they are about to leave, the con men come to the raft and force their way back on. They then sell Jim on the statement that there is a large reward offered for him that the farmer can cash in on, and Huck has to free him. As he enters the property, he is called after by the name of Tom, and he discovers that Jim has been sold to Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle. Tom had been on his way to visit them, and so they mistook Huck for Tom, and so Huck goes along with it, and when Tom comes, he pretends to be his younger brother, Sid.

When Huck tells Tom about the situation he and Jim are in, Tom concocts a plan to free Jim, and he, as is his usual, creates wild obstacles and fantasies surrounding the situation even though Jim could be easily freed. Tom planned on paying Jim for playing along with the game he created, but when Polly shows up and clears up Tom and Huck’s identities, all that changes. They learn that Jim’s owner had died and had felt so bad about possibly selling Jim that she stipulated he be set free in her will. Huck worries that his father has probably stolen all his money. Jim then reveals to Huck that the body they found in the floating house had been his father’s, and that Jim is worried about the body being found again. Tom’s Aunt Sally offers to adopt Huck, but Huck wants to move out West to get away from everyone who wants him to be civilized.

Discussion of Work
This story fits into the Bildungsroman category, as readers watch Huck develop from completely childish mindsets to more adult ones, particularly when it comes to race and moral issues. the way Huck views Jim is particularly telling of the attitudes of the day: Huck knows Jim is property, and therefore cannot be seen as a human being with rights who deserves freedom. Much of Huck’s moral misgivings come from this belief; he worries about the consequences of lying and thievery and yet allows Jim to remain free not only because he does not want to go back home, but because the longer he is with Jim, the harder time Huck has imagining him as property. The longer he is on the raft, largely free from society and its rules and structures, he is able to consider alternative modes of belief. However, when he reaches land and decides to help Jim escape, those same rules and societal structures are placed on Jim and Huck once again, and the sense of Jim as human begins to fade. Huck goes along with an elaborate concocted plan that wastes time when he could just easily go in at night and free Jim. Jim’s life becomes a prop or a bargaining chip with which he can impress his friend Tom. Jim’s beliefs are regularly made fun of in both the beginning and end of the book with his belief in witches and magic, and Jim as less intelligent even in comparison to the largely uneducated Huck is very apparent.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. Signet Classics, 2009.

Summary of Work
This book opens at the Custom House, where the author discusses how the book came to be written. The narrator is a surveyor in Salem who came across a manuscript and a tattered, crimson gold cloth in the shape of the letter A in an attic. The surveyor reads the manuscript to find that it details the events from around 200 years previous about an adulterous woman and her life. He writes a fictional account of this story, which becomes the novel.

In the 17th century in puritan Boston, Hester Prynne is led from the prison to the town square, a scarlet A emblazoned on her chest, to be punished for committing adultery. She had been sent to Boston by her much older husband, who was a scholar, but her husband never arrived after her, presumably lost at sea. She had a child much later, having had an affair; when the minister Arthur asks her to reveal her lover so he may also be punished, she refuses, taking the punishment all herself. She is publicly shamed, and must always wear the scarlet A on her breast as her punishment for adultery.

A stranger watches this entire display, and he is later invited into the community as a doctor. Roger Chillingworth is in fact Hester’s husband, and she knows this, but she and he do not reveal that to the town. He is determined to find out who her lover was and to seek revenge. Hester supports herself as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a beautiful young child, often described as a fairy, sprite, or imp in her otherworldliness and wilfullness. They are both shunned by the community, and the townspeople seek to take Pearl from Hester, believing that an adulterous woman should not be raising a child. However, the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, mediates and Hester is able to keep her child. Since Hester’s trial, Dimmesdale has struggled with his health, suffering from a mysterious heart condition. Chillingworth so regularly helps him that he ends up moving in with the minister to help him. He also moves in with the intention to investigate his suspicions that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover. One day when the minister is asleep, he examines Dimmesdale and discovers a branded A on his chest, confirming Chillingworth’s suspicion.

Dimmesdale is unable to forgive himself, and finds new ways to punish himself for his sins. In contrast, as Hester has lived a life of charity and humility since her punishment was bestowed upon her, the community comes to almost admire her and forgive her for her previous sins. Pearl and Hester go to visit a townsperson on their deathbed, and on their way back in the evening, they see Dimmesdale standing on the scaffold where Hester had stood with Pearl in her arms nearly a decade earlier. He is trying to find a way to punish himself for his sins, and Hester and Pearl join him on the scaffold. The three of them join hands, and when Pearl asks Dimmesdale to greet her publicly when they are in town the next day, Dimmesdale says he cannot, and in response a meteor falls and creates a red A in the sky in its wake. Hester decides she cannot watch Dimmesdale get worse, and seeks to intervene with Chillingworth on his behalf. But despite her pleading with her husband, he refuses to stop tormenting Dimmesdale.

Later, Hester arranges for Dimmesdale to meet her and Pearl in the woods, and they go walking, with Pearl playing in the woods as Dimmesdale and Hester talk. She has guessed that Chillingworth is aware of her plan to tell Dimmesdale of his identity, and so she must act quickly. They determine that they will run away to Europe so they can live together as a family, since there is a ship scheduled to depart four days later. They feel relieved, and Hester briefly removes her scarlet letter and bonnet, letting her hair fall down her back, which scares Pearl, who does not recognize her mother without the letter emblazoned on her chest. The day before they are to set sail, Dimmesdale delivers the most eloquent sermon of his career, and after he leaves, he finds Hester and Pearl staring at the scaffold in the town square. He takes them both up onto the scaffold and tears away his shirt, revealing the A on his chest, and he confesses his sins and dies on the scaffold as Pearl kisses him.

Chillingworth is furious over the death that destroyed his plans for revenge, and he dies in that anger a year later. Hester and Pearl leave town, and no one knows where they went until Hester returns alone as an old woman many years later and resumes her charitable work, still wearing the scarlet A on her chest. Pearl has married a European and has a family of her own, and she sends Hester letters every now and then. When Hester dies, they bury her near Dimmesdale and they share a headstone with the letter A engraved upon it.

Discussion of Work
A work about Puritanism, one of the main themes in this work is a discussion of sin and the human condition. Hester and Arthur could be said to reenact the Adam and Eve story of Judeo-Christian beliefs, because they go from innocence to sin and knowledge, are punished for their sins, and must work and labor for forgiveness as they are separated from God and divinity. The A sewn on Hester’s garments allow her more knowledge of the human condition and sufferings of man than many members of the community because she is able to use it to travel into spaces and situations where other people would not be able to, allowing her to learn godly qualities of charity, humility, and long suffering. Both Dimmesdale and Hester are always contemplating sin and repentance, much as would be expected of the highly religious Puritans in Boston. They are always in search of ways to reconcile their lives with their religion, something that is a problem in a religion that focuses on predestination and punishment rather than lived experience. The Puritan city therefore becomes merely a stagnant backdrop to the personal growth and experience of Dimmesdale and Hester, with Chillingworth the only real member of the community outside of the small family that bears weight in the story because of his inability to grow and forgive leading to a regression. He is a representation of what happens when love and pure emotions are perverted and changed by envying and anger, leading to evil.

How identity is formed is also a theme in the novel, with Hester taking her punishment and using it to reconstruct her life rather than let it destroy her, while Dimmesdale, who never publicly acknowledges his sin until his death, even refusing to publicly acknowledge his own daughter, allows what others think about him to consume him. His false image of a pure and pious man warp his thinking and lead him to self-punishment and psychological pain that leads to physical illness, whereas Hester finds ways that she can show herself as a person capable of doing good despite what others may think of her, leading her to become a person full of compassion, knowledge, and kindness, able to engage in society without worry.

Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. University of Minnesota P, 2001.

Summary of Work
We find the unnamed narrator in this work living in NYC and working in the advertising industry even though his talents lie in his musicology background and college degree. He is married to an actress who is part of a wildly popular yet banal play. As he is wandering the city one day, he meets an old friend, a museum curator, who talks to him about going on an expedition to find and bring back primitive musical instruments in South America. At first he refuses, but after meeting with his mistress, Mouche, and some friends and watching a film he composed the music for and finding it worthless, he determines that he will go with Mouche to South America, but go on vacation and buy forgeries to satisfy the requirement of bringing back instruments. When they arrive in a coastal city (again unnamed), he feels suddenly more at home speaking his native tongue, Spanish. As he falls in love with the culture there, Mouche starts detaching from him. Still, he searches for antiques in shops. While he is shopping a revolution breaks out, and he, Mouche, and the other hotel guests have to stay in the hotel, where they worry about food and water supply, getting shot, and getting eaten by the insects that have invaded the place. Even after the revolution ends, he is held up by snipers in the grocers. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Mouche and the narrator leave and go to the home of a Canadian painter and friend in another town. He becomes jealous of the relationship Mouche has with the woman, and after some time spent there, he determines that he will actually take the trip to look for primitive instruments.

Mouche decides to accompany him, and they take a bus across the Andes and also take on an Indian woman who seems to embody the culture there. One evening, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio, and it brings him back to his musical heritage and European connections and his forced removal from the space by WWII. The native woman, Rosario, becomes better acquainted with them, and as they enter an oil town where prostitutes are the local entertainment, he begins to criticize Mouche for not being more like Rosario. They finally reach the City of Ruins, and when they reach Puerto Anunciacion he vehemently argues with Mouche. He also meets Adelantado, who tells him of the life of tribes in the jungle. He also witnesses the funeral of Rosario’s father and meets an herbalist who is seemingly insane but who tells of tales of El Dorado and other ancient myths. Mouche, meanwhile, tries a sexual advance on Rosario, and she beats her for it. Mouche then gets malaria, and she has to be sent back to Puerto Anunciacion for treatment. Rosario and the narrator become sexually involved. The remaining party take canoes upriver.

They head into the heart of the jungle by a hidden tributary which Adelantado finds, and they seem to start traveling back in time. The tropical atmosphere, the plant life, and the animal life in the jungle scare the narrator, and a thunderstorm nearly capsizes their canoes. However, they finally find a native village, and he is able to get some of the musical instruments he had been sent to find. He finds their customs and way of life primitive, almost Medieval, and he feels that he witnesses the birth of music while he is there watching a funereal rite. They travel further on to Santa Monica de las Venados, which is a village Adelantado settled. The narrator determines that he will live out his life there, but he is torn because he wants to write music and lacks paper, and he also has an obligation to deliver the instruments he has collected to the museum curator. He visits many primitive areas in the village, including a valley full of prehistoric plants. The rains come, and it seems they will never cease, and he comes up with a new musical composition based on The Odyssey. However, his lack of paper and ink poses problems. This whole time he stays with Rosario, and he asks her to marry him, but she refuses him. Not long after, an airplane stops in the village in search of a lost explorer, which turns out to be the narrator. Torn about going with them or staying, he finally determines that he must return to get paper and ink and deliver the instruments, and then he can come back to live in the village and with Rosario again.

When he flies back home, he is at first a celebrity, and he learns that his wife is pregnant. He sells his story, which he lies about, to a newspaper, but when Mouche sells her story, it creates a scandal, and Ruth also learns about Rosario and that he wants to leave and go back to her, but Ruth will not divorce him. NYC has lost all beauty to him and he finds it useless to him. He runs out of money while he is getting divorced, and he is forced into tiny and poor room accommodations. When he sees Mouche and spends the night with her, he is disgusted with himself about the decision. He decides to get back to writing music to earn some money, and once he sells a film score for enough money, he goes back to Puerto Anunciacion, but cannot find his way back to the tributary and the village. He meets Yannes, who was at the village, and he learns that Rosario has married Marcos, the son of Adelantado, and she is pregnant. The narrator then realizes that he can never go back and relive his previous experience.

Discussion of Work
This work could be considered a work of magical realism, in particular because of the unsurety of time and the magical regression from modernity to primitive life. The winding back of time is an important part of the novel, as it helps to display the tension between European and Latino cultures: the modernity of NYC and European culture evident there as valuable is called into question as the narrator finds his identity, culture, and home in the more “primitive” space of the village of Santa Monica de las Venados. Unlike the European image of primitive cultures, the culture of these villages is sophisticated and engaging and valuable, particularly because of how they live in harmony with the environment. That harmony is particularly tied together through music, moving from the poorly written but popular musical his wife stars in to the beauty of Beethoven, to finally the origins and harmonies of music in its usefulness for everyday life.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps puts readers in what feels like a dream state, leaving them to wonder if they read passages on previous pages correctly because the story jumps through six weeks so quickly. The main guidance tool readers have to navigate through the book are the musical performances, which cue readers to coming change and new settings for its main character. The surrealism in the novel, then, is in part created by the magical expectations that the music creates for the readers, as it guides the main character from city to jungle in search of not only music, but of himself.

We first become aware of music’s pull on the main character as he struggles to find any object that does not remind him of some musical composition he has neglected, and any music that does not remind him of pieces of his life he would rather stay buried and forgotten, and this is particularly true of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It drives him to disgust and out into the rainy weather, where he runs into an old friend, the organology curator of a museum. Forced to deal with his past and ashamed at his current state, which is much less than he had hoped it would be as a composer, the main character accepts the Curator’s job offer to obtain specific musical artifacts in the jungles of South America.

It is music, then, which sends the main character out into the unnamed, dreamlike land in the jungles of South America, where he stays in Puerto Anunciación until, at the cue of poorly played music, a revolution breaks out, and he moves on into the jungle in search of the musical artifacts he initially did not intend to find for the Curator. And as he is sitting in an inn in the jungle, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio again, this time succumbing to a dream state, remembering his past experience with his parents, and that music’s particular effect upon his father. His whole life is inherently tied to music and this symphony, ever guiding him back to song each time he comes across the composition. We see that music is inherently tied to his life and is leading his destiny, although we, as readers, are unsure of what that destiny is or how much reality is portrayed in such a fast-paced narrative, a narrative that from the second playing of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onward feels as if it moves backward in time.

The music played becomes improvised, not written down, and then even more primitive, used for religious and funereal rites rather than for pure enjoyment or artistic, aesthetic ideals. As he moves back into what he feels could pass for the Middle Ages and primitive lifestyles, the narrator discovers that he believes every Westerner has misunderstood the origins of music: music is not imitation of animal calls, as he had previously believed, but instead a connection to life and death, created for practical purposes rather than aesthetic ones. The realization drives the narrator to abandon the Western lifestyle.

But he cannot stay away from it. Becoming obsessive over composing for the first time in years, he starts a musical rendition of portions of The Odyssey, feverishly composing through the rainy season and causing his woman, Rosario, and other villagers he lives with to worry about his sanity. For them, there was no reason to write down music when it could be played. He realizes that if he wants his music to be heard, he will have to find a way to connect to the Western world to have the work performed, which leads to the beginning of the end of the dream cycle in the South American jungle. If it were not for the hysteria in New York City over his disappearance and discovery in the jungle, readers would question if the experience had been real or if he had simply slept all day in his apartment and dreamt up the experience.[1]

And as the primitive music fades, no quality music reenters the narrator’s life, signaling the downturn from prosperity to poverty for our narrator. His composition from the jungle, Threnody, left with his love Rosario, he has no muse and no piece to work on even when he makes his way back to South America, unable to find Santa Mónica de los Venados and unable to find the motivation to work on previous compositions.

By the end of the novel, the narrator’s life destroyed and hopes of reuniting with his love Rosario dashed, both the readers and the narrator believe that for these characters, there is no free will, but rather destiny that fate will bring to pass regardless of personal desires: for our narrator, this destiny is to compose music, whether or not anyone will hear it and whether or not he will find success as a composer of classical music. Individuals, then, should strive to be more aware of the external forces that drive them and to learn to ride the wave of those forces or risk being swallowed and destroyed by them.

[1] It is even arguable that we wonder if this entire story is a dream, including the stay in New York City, given that both times the narrator is living there, the scenes pass in a dreamlike blur.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory

Rabassa. Harper Perennial, 2006.

Summary of Work
This novel gives an account of the fictional, isolated town of Macondo and the Buendias, who found the town. For a great period of time, the town has no contact with the outside world except for gypsies who visit and bring fascinating trinkets and technologies, like ice and a telescope, which Jose Arcadio Buendia likes to buy or investigate, as he is both curious and impulsive. He becomes obsessed with investigating the mysteries of life, particularly through alchemy, and even though he is a leader, he isolates himself from the people of the town. Jose and his wife Ursula were the great grandchildren of survivors of a massacre. They marry, but because they are related, Ursula refuses to consummate the marriage for fear of having genetically deformed children with tails, and this leads to Jose’s ridicule by the town; one day when he is ridiculed, he murders the man, Prudencio Aguilar, and he is haunted by Aguilar from then on, which causes him to leave and found a new town. His children and grandchildren and other descendants all inherit these traits in some form from him. His eldest, Jose Arcadio, inherits his recklessness and physical strength; his youngest, Aureliano, inherits his impenetrable focus.

Jose Arcadio disappears, and his partner Pilar Ternera gives birth to their son, Arcadio. An orphan girl who suddenly appears also joins the family, and her insomnia and pica and memory loss affects first the family, and then the town, as they suffer from both insomnia and memory loss, and must put up signs to help them remember what is important. When the gypsy Melquiades returns (supposedly from the dead), he brings a cure with him and other technology. He and Aureliano coop themselves up trying to use a daguerrotype to prove the existence of God.

The town starts to come in contact with Macondo as the world grows. The foreign government tries to take over, and when Aureliano falls in love with a magistrate’s daughter and is denied, he sleeps with Pilar, who then helps him to win Remedios. Meanwhile, Amaranta and Rebeca Buendia fall in love with a stranger who comes with a pianola for their home, and he decides he wants to marry Rebeca. Both Aureliano and Rebeca get their wishes to be married, but Amaranta wants to stop Rebeca’s marriage for jealousy’s sake. Melquiades passes away, and Jose Arcadio Buendia goes crazy and he has to be tied to a tree for the rest of his life. Remedios dies soon after her marriage to Aureliano, and Rebeca’s marriage is postponed because of that and the wait while the church is built. Pilar has Aureliano’s child, and he is named Aureliano Jose. Then Jose Arcadio returns, and he starts an affair with Rebeca, and Amaranta becomes close with Crespi, the stranger who Rebeca was to marry.

Meanwhile, violence comes to the town as civil wars break out and the Buendia sons become swept up in the action. Aureliano, worried about the government, achieves fame as the leader of the Liberal rebels, becoming the famous Colonel Buendia. Macondo’s government changes many times, and is eventually taken over by Arcadio, who becomes a cruel dictator and is eventually shot by firing squad. Arcadio does have three children: Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo, and Jose Arcadio Segundo. Amaranta gets her wish for Crespi to ask for her hand in marriage, but she rejects him and he commits suicide, and in her grief she burns her hand black, covering it with a black bandage she wears until her death. Aureliano is also condemned to die since the Liberals lose the war, but is saved at the last minute by his brother. He fights many more times, but realizes that it is fruitless and starts writing poetry. After another mayor is killed in Macondo during another civil uprising, the civil war ends and a peace treaty is signed. Colonel Buendia becomes so upset that he attempts suicide, but survives, and Ursula steps in to pick up the pieces and rebuild the family.

While all of this is going on, the Buendia family has many events in the individual family members’ lives. Some of the Buendia sons take lovers and regularly go to brothels, and others are solitary and take after Jose in that they like to experiment and review scholarly works. The women in the family have just as much breadth in their personality types, with some, like Meme, being socialites who regularly bring large groups home, and others, like Fernanda del Carpio, who are so conservative that they will not even undress for sex, allowing her husband to consummate their marriage only if she can wear a nightgown with a special hole in the crotch during the action. However, for the women, the grandest figure of all is Ursula Iguaran, the wife of Jose Arcadio Buendia and matriarch of the family who holds the entire family together no matter the differences. Her age is uncertain, but she remains alive through the entire book, which spans an indeterminate, but long period of time (perhaps over a century).

The Segundo brothers both look so much alike that Petra, the woman they sleep with, does not realize they are different men. When Jose Arcadio Segundo is scared off by venereal disease, Aureliano Segundo stays with Petra and becomes very wealthy as their farm becomes very fertile. He is very lavish and the whole village benefits from the prosperity. When Fernanda del Carpio enters town, Aureliano Segundo falls in love with and marries her, but he also still sleeps with Petra. Meanwhile, Fernanda tries to turn the Buendia home into the old aristocratic home she grew up in and refuses to deviate from a very formal structure, making the home miserable. During this time, Colonel Buendia’s seventeen illegitimate children, all named Aureliano, come to celebrate their father and the anniversary of the founding of Macondo. They participate in Ash Wednesday and all keep the ash crosses on their heads until their deaths. Some of the children stay and start an ice factory, and others leave, while others build a railroad to Macondo, making Macondo more connected with the outside world.

After the wars, capitalism comes in and takes its toll, with a banana plantation built near Macondo. Americans own the plantation and build a fenced off town, and they force the local workers to toil for pittance wages. The 17 Aurelianos are hunted down and murdered, causing Colonel Buendia to fall into depression. Ursula realizes that time is passing more quickly than it once did; she is going blind, but no one knows because she knows the home so well. Everyone in the house becomes more miserable since the children are gone. When Amaranta dies, Ursula goes to bed and will not get up for years. The banana workers, led by Jose Arcadio Segundo, strike because of the inhumane conditions, and the US Army comes and massacres them for the plantation owners. However, after the army dumps the bodies into the sea, a 5 year rain begins, destroying the plantation and Macondo in a flood. Ursula gets out of bed and tries to put the Buendia family back together. The town and the Buendia family wish for older days, and the village once again becomes solitary, but this time it is in decline rather than thriving. The Buendia family, what remains of it, try to keep their line going through incest, and they become alienated from the world. The last Buendia, Aureliano Segundo, translates a set of prophecies from Jose Arcadio Buendia’s library with the help of Melquiades’ ghost (gifted to him by Melquiades) and finds that they predicted the rise and fall of both Macondo and the Buendia family, showing that the town and its people have simply lived out a prophetic cycle of tragedy.

Discussion of Work
A work of magical realism, time does not seem to flow or function like it would in other novels. The names of the characters overlap enough that the children of the original family members blend with the past and the future genealogical lines. The past, present, and future become combined into one great entity. Language and interpretation play a great part in this, as both the characters and the readers experience the need to interpret the, things, actions, and general goings on in Macondo, leading to a creation of meaning amongst the long narrative that does not indicate a past, present, or future in any formal sense outside of technology and books of prophecy.

Another largely important part of this book is the discussion of progress, and if progress in the Western sense is always the best for every society. Macondo goes from what might be considered a state of innocence–they believe that they are completely isolated from the world by water on all sides until Ursula discovers a pathway into another town–into one of knowledge, first from contact with the gypsies who travel to the town with technology, and then with foreign people and their governments and conflicts. While the town may progress in terms of technology and interconnection with more people and towns, it is actually in decline as first war and then capitalism ravage the town, its people, and its land. This obsession with greatness, progress, and superiority are also present in the Buendia family, who may be said to represent the same questions of progress in human evolution at a more personal level: as the family grows, they become insistent on engaging in the world in ways that make them honored or remembered, either through war or through technology and learning and government. The women of the family do similarly through their beliefs about marriage, family, and running a household. As the Buendia family progresses into later generations, the house becomes more formal and technological, and yet more rigid and unloving, more degenerate in behavior. As the city is conquered and forced to conform to Western ideals, the Buendia family ends up destroying itself in its attempt to maintain some sort of original cultural identity.

 

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! Random House, 1936.

Summary of Work
This work is a frame narrative, with Rosa, the sister-in-law to Thomas Sutpen, telling the story of the Sutpen family to the Compson boy because she hopes he will write the story down, and he believes that it will show why God let the South lose the war, because of the infamy of people like Thomas Sutpen. Quentin Compson, the grandson of Sutpen’s friend General Compson, is getting ready to go to Harvard when he is summoned to talk with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and she tells him about how Sutpen destroyed his own family and hers as well.

In the mid 1800s, Thomas Sutpen buys a hundred square miles of land in the Jefferson, Mississippi area from an indian tribe and clears the land, builds a home, and plants cotton. Many see him as some sort of barbarian or demon, because Sutpen often holds fights between the slaves, and he often participated in them. He marries a local merchant’s daughter, Ellen, and soon he becomes a member of the planter aristocracy and has a son and daughter. The children do not change Sutpen, who still hosts fights and participates, and one evening the children view it, Henry in terror, and Judith in fascination. Judith is angry to have to leave the scene, and Ellen realizes that Judith has her father’s temperament. Upon her death bed, she asks her sister to look after Judith, even though Judith is older than Rosa.

Quentin’s father confirms this story, stating similar details, but including that upon deciding to marry, he went to church, left town, came back with a bunch of finery for his home, and then went to court Ellen. However, the men of the town, believing that Sutpen had gotten his money from criminal activity, found him after he had proposed to Ellen and arrested him, and Compson and another friend had to get him out of jail. Two months later he was married. Ellen was dismayed on her wedding day, and of a hundred people invited, only ten people attended the wedding, and on the way out of the church, the couple were hit with rubbish as they walked. When Quentin asks about why Rosa is telling this story, Compson tells him that she was raised by an aunt after her father killed himself in order to not go to the war, and she hated her father for her mother’s death. Rosa was the one who came back to try and save Judith from the Sutpin fate, and she sought to do that by perhaps marrying Sutpin, she just twenty years old at the time. According to Compson, she was taking care of Judith and Clytie, Sutpen’s daughter by a slave girl, when Sutpen came home from the war.

Compson also explains to his son that before Rosa moved to the Sutpen home, she went sporadically to the Sutpen home with family members, and as Sutpen became the richest planter in the country and therefore became socially accepted, her sister Ellen first started taking her on fancy shopping trips and hosting parties, and then slowly became estranged from Rosa. It was also at this time that Sutpen was taking off to new Orleans in search of Charles Bon, his son by a black woman, although at the time people did not know it. As Compson tells it, the word about Bon being Henry and Judith’s half brother came from Sutpen’s slaves rather than from a family member. Rosa was largely left in the dark, unaware of the blood relation of Judith’s fiancee Bon until much later, and after the war when the Sutpen plantation was largely ruined and they didn’t know who was alive and who was dead, she at first refused to come to the plantation because she was uncertain of the situation.

That evening, Compson continued the story, handing Quentin a letter that Bon had written many years previous to Judith. He then talks about how Henry, Sutpen’s son by Ellen, goes to college at the University of Mississippi and becomes friends with Charles Bon, bringing him home for Christmas one year. Charles falls in love with his sister Judith, and he asks her to marry him, but by this time, Sutpen has realized that Charles is his son, and Judith’s half brother, and so they cannot marry. This is particularly important because his wife from that time was an octoroon, and he had abandoned her and the child afterward. The situation was one that he became entangled with her when he was at an octoroon ball, a space for octoroon women to attract wealthy white men as either husbands or benefactors. Henry is outraged when his father tells him, refusing to believe that Charles could have known this and still decided to ask his sister to marry him. Henry, in that outrage, gives up his birthright and runs to New Orleans with Charles, where they enlist in the army to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy. Bon quickly rises to the rank of lieutenant, and he is regularly talking to Henry about the situation; Henry tells him not to write to Judith because he hasn’t decided if it is okay for him to marry her yet, and he also has sexual feelings for Bon, and is conflicted about the incest. Sutpen also fights in the war as a colonel, and he finds his son to tell him again that Charles is his half brother and that he is also a black man. When Sutpen explains Charles’ race, Henry goes to find Charles and murder him before he marries Judith, and he does murder him at the gate of the Sutpen plantation.

Rosa tells Quentin that when Sutpen returned, he went right about rebuilding the plantation, not even surprised or upset about Bon’s death and Judith’s reaction. He hardly recognized Rosa, and she soon found herself engaged to him. However, when he found the plantation to be unsalvageable, he insulted her so badly that she left the plantation and lived off of stealing food from her neighbor’s gardens, refusing to accept help. She also says that she thinks that someone other than Clytie is living in the manor there at the plantation, although she is not sure whom it is.

When Quentin goes back to Harvard, he tells his roommate Shreve the story, including the later years of Sutpen’s life. Sutpen becomes an alcoholic and has an affair with a teenage girl, Milly. Milly gets pregnant, and after the birth of their daughter, who dies along with Milly, Wash Jones, Milly’s grandfather, murders Sutpen. Judith dies of yellow fever along with other members of the family, and Clytie raises the son of Charles Bon, found in New Orleans after he visited his father’s grave. His son is strange and works what is left of the Sutpen land.

Mr. Compson also told Quentin about how he learned Sutpen’s actual life story from him when they were hunting for a fugitive architect who had run away from Sutpen’s plantation. Sutpen was from a poor family and quickly learned he wanted money and land, and so set out for the Caribbean and made his name in the sugar plantation business, and he married a plantation owner’s daughter. It was only after they had a child together that he learned of her African blood, and so he left with twenty slaves and built the plantation. When Sutpen’s son came back to haunt him, he had a choice: remain quiet and let his dynasty continue on or speak out. He chose to speak to Henry, and when the word brother failed, he determined that the word race would not, and he was correct. After that, he could never rebuild his dying legacy. When he left Milly with her child in a stable, that was when Wash Jones lost his mind, killed his granddaughter and great granddaughter, killed Sutpen, and then went around killing others with a scythe until he was arrested.

Quentin Compson can’t stop thinking about the story, and he and Shreve speculate on the other people’s perspectives of the story, particularly Charles Bon’s. The evening after he and Shreve speculate, he can’t sleep as he remembers going back to the plantation with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and there they unexpectedly meet Henry, who is an old man waiting to die. They go back to get an ambulance to go get Henry, but before they can get in, Clytie, the child of Sutpen and a slave woman who is now an old woman herself, burns the house down and kills them both before they can get him, which brings the Sutpen family legacy to an end. In the end, Quentin, obsessing, tries to tell himself that he doesn’t hate the South.

Discussion of Work
The plot line of this work, quickly summarized, would seem rather simple and make for a short story: man moves to the South, builds a plantation, marries and has children, his past comes back to haunt him, and it destroys the entire family. And yet, the story is not that straightforward, because we are not getting the narrative from the main character, Thomas Sutpen. Instead, we are getting the story through a pieced together history which includes plenty of speculation both from the people telling the story and the people it’s being told to. Narrative is obscured by its nonlinear telling, with certain pieces  of information being given either earlier or later in the story, leaving the reader to piece together the full tale both on their own and with Quentin, who is the most akin to the reader.

Miscegenation is the main issue of the work, of particular importance because of its placement in the US South. Sutpen seems less than human, dangerous, or animalistic throughout the work, more so as he ages. As the story is told of his strange relationship with his slaves, he occupies a liminal space between white and black, even though he is a white man. As the narrators detail it, Sutpen himself goes into decline the moment that he marries an octoroon, because he has been legally intimate with her and has a legitimate son by her; it is this miscegenation that leads to potential incest. Still, the issue of miscegenation is by far of greater importance not only to Sutpen and his son Henry, but to everyone who is telling the story. The obsession with race, even to the tracking of the “one drop” of black blood, makes clear to readers that Faulkner is showing them that the South’s racial prejudice and obsession is what leads to the Southern aristocracy’s downfall more than any other failing in their society. Even the black community members in the story feel this, as Clytie is the one who burns down the house, and Wash Jones is the one who goes on a killing spree after Sutpen leaves his granddaughter. Black people are still objects to Sutpen, as they are to all the white people in the community, and the inability to see them as human beings leads not only to their downfall, but to the destruction of the black people’s humanity: constantly treated as animals or subhuman, they can only tolerate the South for so long before they snap and destroy themselves or are destroyed by the white community surrounding them.

 

Susan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog

Parks, Susan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theater Communications Group, Inc, 2001.

Summary of Work
Lincoln has just come home from work to see his brother, Booth, practicing a poor 3-card monte. Lincoln works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, whiteface and all. He takes a lower pay rate because he is a black man, but is happy for the work. His wife, Cookie, left him, and he is living with his brother now. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is a place to sleep. He is the sole support to pay the rent. His brother steals things to live on.

Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to go by a new name, and Lincoln asks what, but at first Booth won’t tell him. Lincoln says whatever it is to make sure he can pronounce it or he won’t ever be able to get a job. This prompts Booth to tell him that his new name is 3-card, because he’s going to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town. Lincoln tells him that he had better practice more and start small and learn one thing at a time. Booth responds that he would learn faster if Lincoln would teach him.

Lincoln used to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town, bringing in thousands each month, but one day when he ignored a feeling that he was going to get shot and then his friend got shot during a hustle, he determined to never touch the cards again, believing that if he did it would lead to his death. He may have lost everything, but now he has the chance to be a new man. He tries to get Booth to see that there is that same opportunity for him. Booth, however, is intent on getting his woman, Grace, back. He tells Lincoln that he stole a diamond ring and that he’s going to get her to forgive him for his infidelity and marry him. He also tells Lincoln that he needs to move on because the lodging for him was only supposed to be temporary.

The next day, Lincoln comes home upset; the arcade is looking at cutting jobs, and since Lincoln has only worked there for eight months, he knows that he’ll be among the first to be fired. Booth has stolen a set of suits and gives Lincoln one in an attempt to cheer him. He also tells him to practice his act and build it up some so that he can’t be replaced by a wax doll. He needs to practice falling and jolting around a little when he gets shot in the arcade game to liven things up so he’s indispensable. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice, but Booth says that he’ll help him when he gets home if Lincoln waits up, and that he should get into his costume to practice while he’s away. Lincoln does so, and practices once or twice, but then gets drunk and passes out in the chair he sleeps in.

When Booth gets home from his date, he tells Lincoln that he had sex with Grace and she didn’t make him use a condom. He also says he gave her the ring and she begged him to marry her. Lincoln calls him out on it and says that he knows he didn’t have sex with her because Booth went in the other room to look at dirty magazines. Booth gets angry at him and just says that he has an insatiable sex drive and that it’s too expensive to hire whores. He does try to help Lincoln a little, but then Lincoln accuses him of being a saboteur rather than an aid. Booth again tries to convince him to start running the 3-card monte hustle and to help him learn to run it so they can make more money together. Lincoln again asserts that he’s done with that life. Still, the cards call to him.

Later in the week Booth has stolen a whole apartment’s worth of things in order to impress Grace for a dinner, and he tells Lincoln to get out of the house and that he’ll have to move out because Grace will be moving in when they get married. Lincoln says he’ll get out tomorrow, but that he wants to sit in the house. He’s lost his job. He was let go and replaced by the wax dummy of Lincoln. It is 3 AM and Booth is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t been stood up, but Lincoln finally gets him to realize it. They talk about their childhoods as they look through the photographs they have in an album, and they wonder if their parents had it all planned out to leave them. Both of their parents slept around, and Booth saw his mother’s infidelity and Lincoln saw his father’s, even sleeping with one of his mistresses. They talk about how their mother, when she left, gave Booth five hundred dollars, and when their father left, he gave Lincoln five hundred dollars. Each of them were told not to tell the other that they had that money. Both of them are miserable, and after Booth and Lincoln eat, they remove everything off the makeshift table, revealing the cardboard card playing surface. As Booth goes to bed, Lincoln again picks up the cards.

The next morning, Booth sees Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln tries to teach him about the game and the process of the hustle. When they go out again, Lincoln goes and starts hustling again, earning five hundred dollars in a day and feeling like himself again for the first time rather than a man in another man’s clothes. He comes in the home to tell Booth, but he doesn’t see him so he sits and counts his money time and time again. But Booth is there and comes out and tells him first that it had been a mistake and that Grace thought their date was the day after, not last night, so it was a misunderstanding. He gets Lincoln to admit what he did, and he tells Lincoln to try it on him again. Lincoln lets him win the first time, and then Booth says that it’s not real because there’s no money bet. So Lincoln puts his money down, but Booth says it’s still not real because he hasn’t matched the money. He goes and gets the money his mother had given him all those years ago. Lincoln is genuinely surprised Booth still has that money. He asks him if he’s sure he wants to play it, and Booth insists. He lets Booth win the first round, but then he loses the second, and Lincoln gets all the money.

Lincoln laughs but consistently insists he is not laughing at Booth. He tells him how the first rule is the rule that Booth never learned: that a competitor is beat the moment they step up to the table in a hustle. Booth, furious that Lincoln is trying to open his money and take it from the knotted nylon, tells Lincoln that he actually killed Grace. Lincoln, surprised and now worried, offers the money back to Booth, but he won’t take it. He keeps talking to Lincoln, telling him that he’s lost everything, and how dare he laugh at him and try to steal his inheritance from him when he squandered his. He pins Lincoln in the chair and puts a gun to his head. Lincoln tries to tell him to calm down and that he can have his money and it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. But Booth shoots him and kills him. He then realizes what he’s done, and he cries, holding Lincoln in his arms, realizing he has now lost everything.

Discussion of Work
The setup for this play is interesting, particularly because of the way the script itself is written: there is very little stage direction, the setting and time is labeled “here” and “now,” and there is direction on how to speak specific lines and how to add pauses in the space of time (the pauses are marked by the characters’ names in bold with no text underneath them). Much of the language is written in dialect form and hyphenated during the 3-card monte speaking sequences. I am unsure why it is written this way, other than to perhaps first ensure that this play is timeless—that it could happen anywhere and to any set of black men—and to second more firmly place the work within a black literary tradition.

The play explores the limited opportunities for black men in the cities, or anywhere, and what they end up resorting to in order to survive. Even the family unit that they very briefly experience first in childhood and then in adulthood falls apart due to the inability for them to meet societal and personal expectations. From stress from broken families to lack of opportunity for a career to poor living conditions, these men may never have a chance. And the ones who try to change their situation are drowned out by the actions of those around them who feel that they cannot change and that the only option in life is criminality to survive. Consequently, they all hoard what is most important to them, whether that is memories of love or if it is money. All of these issues also inevitably lead to violence, which bursts in Booth when he loses what he finds most precious, not just his money, but his memories of his mother that are tied to that money.

The brothers also act as a symbol of America: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth and what they stood for. Lincoln stands for hope and a push toward progress for all in America, not just white people. The fact that Lincoln “whites up” to play the role of Abraham Lincoln speaks to Abraham Lincoln representing all men, not just white men. Lincoln inhabits a dual identity. Then, Booth is the frustrated man who feels that his world is falling down around him and that the only way to beat the system is to destroy anyone who gets in his way to having money or opportunity. His killing of his brother, then, is a re-enactment of the shooting, but also a re-enactment that indicates the failed hopes of Abraham Lincoln: while he had good intentions, it was just too naive to believe that white people would ever let black people have an equal footing in America.