Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. 1877. Trans. Richard Pevear. Deckle Edge, 2004.

Summary of Work
The Oblonsky family is in tatters over adultery: Dolly caught her husband, Stiva, having an affair with their children’s former governess, and she is seriously considering leaving him. Stiva can’t comprehend quite why his wife is so upset, but he is sad that his actions have upset her this badly. He has his sister Anna come to mediate the situation, and she successfully convinces Dolly to stay with him. At the same time, Dolly’s youngest sister is being courted by two men: Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner in the country who is incredibly awkward in his manners, and Alexei Vronsky, a military man with great career potential. Kitty’s mother tells her that she must turn down Levin in order to accept Vronsky, but after she does so and they go to a ball, Vronsky falls in love with Anna. This leaves Kitty ill over the loss of both suitors, and Anna runs away to St. Petersburg.

Vronsky follows Anna there, and she ends up falling in love with him and starting an affair, and her husband, government official Karenin, does not seem to realize the situation he is in, which causes the entirety of their social society to gossip. Anna nearly abandons her old social circles and starts spending time with Betsy Tverskaya and her friends so she can be close to Vronsky more often. One evening when she has a particularly private and long conversation with Vronsky at Betsy’s home, Karenin takes notice. Vronsky, in that conversation, revealed his love for her. When Karenin confronts her about the conversation, she curtly responds and dismisses his concerns as silly.

The affair gets more heated, and on the day of the military officers’ horse race, Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant with his child. They are both uncertain as of what to do, and Anna loves her son too much to get a divorce and leave him. When Vronsky participates in the race, he makes a riding mistake that breaks his horse’s back, and the horse has to be shot. Anna is so visibly upset over the accident that Karenin notices, and when he takes her home, she tells him of her affair and her hatred for him and love for Vronsky.

Kitty, meanwhile, has taken a trip abroad to Germany to recover from her loss, and she meets a Russian woman and her ward and caretaker, Varenka. Kitty becomes enamored with her, and she tries to do good just like them, and this much revives her. She also meets Levin’s infamous and sick brother, Nikolai, who is trying to recover from illness at the same spa.

Levin, having gone home to the country to mourn his failure and recover and move on, is visited by his brother Sergei Koznyshev, who criticizes him for quitting his post in the local government and having no faith in the council there. Levin cannot find a way to explain to his brother how useless he finds the work, so instead he decides to work with the peasants on his estate to try and better the crops and the situation, but is continually frustrated by the lack of interest or even resistance to new agricultural technology that would increase yields. At this time, he also spends some time with Stiva, who has gone to the country to sell some of his wife’s land inheritance for money, since they are severely in debt. Dolly also takes a summer in the country with the children, and Levin goes to visit her at Stiva’s request. He offers his services, but when she suggests that he take another chance to have a relationship with Kitty, he never visits again. He also sees his brother Nikolai several times, and he struggles to know how to keep a relationship with him and help him through his sickness into death.

When Levin goes back to town to visit and to conduct some business, he is invited to the Oblonsky’s home for dinner, and he meets Kitty again and falls in love. They quickly become engaged, to everyone’s happiness. While all of this is occurring, Karenin does not know how to best handle the situation, knowing that it will be bad for him socially and politically to get a divorce. He determines to not allow a divorce, but to instead let Anna continue the affair as long as she does not bring Vronsky into his home. They must keep up appearances. She spends some time in the country, and sees Vronsky often. Vronsky is struggling to choose between his military career and Anna, and yet his opportunities are passed by for the military in his effort to be near her. When Karenin finds Vronsky at his home one day, he decides that they must get a divorce because he cannot take the insult.

However, when Anna goes into labor and nearly dies, he changes his mind. He runs home from town and cancels his beginning the divorce proceedings, and he stays by her side; Vronsky is there as well. Anna begs for Karenin’s forgiveness, and he gives it to her and tells her that she can decide if she wants the divorce or not. His generosity bothers Anna, and so she does not get a divorce, but instead leaves him and goes with her child and Vronsky to Italy, where they do essentially nothing, and Vronsky takes up painting. A famous Russian painter paints a gorgeously stunning portrait of her that Vronsky keeps with them and hangs wherever they stay. When they return to Russia, however, they are outcasts from society because of their position. Vronsky keeps begging Anna to get a divorce, but she will not. She visits Karenin’s home on her son’s birthday, and she is forced to see her husband. She does not return, and forgets to give her son his gifts. At this point, she has become jealous of Vronsky’s freedom because he can go out in society while she must stay in the house because of her social position.

Levin is surprised at the difficulties of married life and the lack of freedom he suddenly has, and this is even more apparent when he gets a message that Nikolai is dying and Kitty refuses to let him go alone. He is at first angry, but then lets her come along. He regrets it when they get to the hotel that Nikolai is staying in because of the poor accommodations, but then immediately changes his position when he sees how good Kitty is at helping the dying man and making him comfortable as possible during his final days of life. Soon after that, Kitty learns she is pregnant, and she is joined by Dolly and her children for the summer at Levin’s estate. While there, Dolly decides to go visit Anna in the country, and finds her happy but somewhat bipolar as she switches from happiness to worry over her situation and her isolation and position in society. She is particularly worried that Anna is using strong sedatives to sleep, and she is wholly dependent on them. Furthermore, she realizes that Anna does not love her baby daughter, and it is apparent by her not knowing anything about her, but rather leaving her to the nurses to take care of. Vronsky’s place in the country is extravagant, and despite the comforts, Dolly is glad for the excuse of her children to go back to Levin’s. Stiva comes to visit them and brings a young male friend who is a cousin to Kitty with him. The young man flirts with Kitty, making Levin jealous to the point that he is unkind to his wife, and together they determine that in order to solve the problem, Levin needs to ask the man to leave. This insults Stiva, but nothing can be done about it.

When Kitty is close to her due date, Dolly and her mother insist that Kitty give birth in the city, and so they move to Moscow temporarily. Levin can’t believe how expensive it is to live in the city, and even Kitty laments that she misses home and wishes she could have had the child in the country. Levin has to take a trip to the provinces to take care of some business, and he takes part in the local elections there, where the liberals are victorious. He meets Vronsky there, and he agrees to go with Stiva to see Anna, who enchants Levin with her charm and the portrait of her. And Levin’s adoration only serves to make Anna more unhappy with Vronsky. When he returns and tells Kitty about his trip, she becomes jealous, worried that Anna has again stolen away her lover. Levin realizes that he has hurt her, and he tries to comfort her. When Kitty goes into labor, he is worried she might die, and he has feelings of resentment toward the child and then doesn’t know quite how to feel about his son.

Stiva leaves and goes to meet Karenin, who has a woman who has helped him raise his child and essentially be a wife to him. Stiva tries to get Karenin to agree to a divorce, but the woman has such a hold on him that he doesn’t make a decision without her and their psychic. When Stiva sees his nephew, he talks to him and he learns that his father and the woman have told him that his mother is dead. When they finally are able to meet with the psychic, Stiva cannot believe what is going on and he leaves the room. The psychic tells Karenin not to get a divorce. Meanwhile, Anna has become more and more frantic, accusing Vronsky of not loving her and of cheating, and no matter how accommodating he is to Anna, she will have fits of rage and insensibility. When she says she wants to go to the country again, Vronsky agrees, but not at the date she wants to go, and suggests they wait a few more days when his business is finished in town. When Vronsky goes out to run an errand, Anna is tormented about her behavior and writes a letter apologizing and asking him to come back, but he replies that he cannot come home until the evening when his business is concluded. She runs to say goodbye to Dolly and then catches a carriage to the train station, where she throws herself under a train and dies (just like a man had when she came into Moscow and first met Vronsky).

Two months later, Levin’s brother Sergei’s book has been published, but it has gone unnoticed. Sergei tries to stifle disappointment by getting in on the patriotism for Russian involvement in the Turkish-Slavic war. When he and Levin talk of it, Levin is uncertain about the motives behind the Slavic cause and Russian support, again to Sergei’s exasperation. Sergei boards a train to Serbia to assist, and Vronsky is also going, having enlisted and paid for an entire regiment himself in order to go to die after the loss of Anna.

Kitty and Levin go back to the country, and Levin becomes depressed even to the point of thinking about suicide, because he is unable to discern the meaning of life and what he should be doing. He then receives advice from a peasant that serving God and being good are the points of life, and Levin has a revelatory experience about those points, determining he will change his life as he has found faith. Later, he, Kitty, Dolly, and the children go out in the woods for a walk and to see some of the buildings and the work going on, and they are caught in a thunderstorm on the way back. When they are hiding under a tree waiting for it to pass, Levin realizes Kitty is not with them, and he runs to find her in the woods, coming upon an oak tree struck by lightening. He worries for them, thinking they may be dead, but finds them safe, his wife having stopped to take care of the child and then getting caught in the storm. He realizes how much he loves them, especially his son, and this change of attitude pleases Kitty. He determines that his life is very good, and the meaning of his life will be the good he can do while he is alive.

Discussion of Work
This work reminded me very much of a novel of manners like Jane Austen’s work. It explores expectations based on social class and gender in Russia before the communist revolution there. Women’s situation as dependent upon marriage and family for respectability is very clear, especially in the contrast between Anna and Kitty. Anna is highly educated and seemingly has it all. She has a child and a husband, but is unhappy and unable to change her state even with her intelligence. Vronsky is regularly surprised by her knowledge and expertise in many fields, but she is unable to use those skills and that knowledge to better her position once she has chosen to leave her husband and become a social outcast. Kitty, on the other hand, is very focused on purely domestic issues–marriage, children, housekeeping, and religion. She stays in the domestic sphere, and this causes her to be solely dependent upon the men in her life: first her father, and then Levin. Her situation in comparison with Dolly’s and Nikolai’s lover show that women were lucky if they had a situation like Kitty’s with a caring and faithful and loving husband who did well by her materially as well as emotionally. Even Anna is bound by this situation, and it is largely what brings her misery. Even these situations, however, are in flux, as Tolstoy writes in his work of a large discussion about how marriages should be arranged and if marriage and God were even socially necessary.

However, unlike Jane Austen’s work, Tolstoy’s work deals heavily in the economic and social situations that men dealt with during the time period, especially with the contrast between Levin and Sergei: Levin is the traditional nobleman who owns land and expects to be able to help the peasants he hires by finding ways for them to invest (through a form of sharecropping) and ways for them to increase yields. He is unable to see the use of democracy for anyone, especially the peasants, and he also sees no need to formally educate them when it will do them no good in their work life. Sergei, on the other hand, is the philosopher who believes in the democratic process, even if it doesn’t at first seem to get things done. He has a set of ideals and deals with those ideals in the written word, believing that the way forward is to allow everyone the chance to participate in government and to have and education to gain more economic opportunities. The many arguments that they get into, and that others in their company also engage in, show the struggle between the old Russian nobility and the newly emerging system. Many of these men live constantly in debt, like Stiva, putting further pressure on an already struggling economic system.

Life philosophies are largely put in stark contrast of one another, with Sergei, Anna, Vronsky, and Nikolai representing “newer” philosophies and Dolly, Stiva, Levin, and Kitty representing older ones. Both have their problems: terminal illness, struggles with satisfaction, struggles with relationships (both romantic and general social relationships), and economic struggles. However, Kitty and Levin represent the ideal in this work, as they stick with the old system and try to make slight modifications to it as befits their situation, and ultimately the old system prevails when Levin turns from secularism to God to live his life in goodness and faith. Religion in this book seems to be the key in what is otherwise a rather godless society.

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.

 

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,

2003.

 

Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. Penguin, 2002.

Summary of Work
George and Lennie are sitting in the brush by a small pool in the evening light. A bus driver dropped them off too many miles away from the ranch they were headed to, and so George decides they will stop and spend the night by the pool. Lennie is mentally retarded, a big burly man with the mind of a small child. He has a mouse in his pocket which he has killed and is petting, and George makes him throw it away. They have been run out of town because Lennie wouldn’t let go of a woman’s dress, and she said he raped her. They had to hide in order to save Lennie’s life. George tells Lennie that he isn’t to do any talking when they get to the new ranch and he isn’t to do anything bad again so they can get their money for a month’s work and go head out to get their dream land, where Lennie can help raise rabbits and they can put up their own crop. He tells him that if anything bad happens, Lennie is to go back to this spot and to hide until George came for him.

When they get to the ranch, the ranch hand gets them set up and the ranch owner tells them they’ll start putting up grain in the evening since they missed going out in the morning. Then Curley, the rancher’s son, comes in and is looking for his wife. He sees Lennie and gets upset that he won’t answer him when he speaks, and George defends him, but Curley is upset and then gone. Candy, an old man with an old sheep dog, tells them that Curley was one of the best welter weight fighters in the area and he’s always looking for a fight. And George tells Lennie to steer clear of him. Then, when the men come in, they meet Seth, who is the head thresher and one of the main ranch hands. They get talking, and they learn that Seth’s dog has had puppies. He had to drown four of the nine because the mother couldn’t take care of all of them. Lennie gets excited about puppies, and Seth lets him have one. He is always in petting the puppies and picking them up, and he has to be told to put his back with its mother so it doesn’t die.

Seth talks to George about Lennie and learns about his condition and what he’s done in the past. George knew Lennie from childhood through Lennie’s Aunt Clara, and had always taken care of him after her passing, even though at first he was always playing jokes and being mean to Lennie because Lennie couldn’t tell what was going on. Seth respects George. That evening, when Candy and his dog come in, Carlson, another ranch hand, tells Candy that he needs to shoot his old dog and he can get a puppy from Seth. Seth says that he can, and not seeing any way that the dog won’t be shot, he lets Carlson take the old dog outside and shoot him. He is devastated, but doesn’t let anyone see.

Throughout the day, Curley’s wife has come in “looking for Curley,” but is in fact looking for men to talk to and flirt with. All the ranch hands know she’s trouble. Curley comes in after Seth has left to tar a broken shoe on a mule, and asks where his wife is. He thinks Seth is with her, so he goes out to get him, and the other men, minus Lennie, George, and Candy, follow. George and Lennie aren’t aware Candy hasn’t left, and they start talking about their dream land. Candy asks if it is real, and offers to front over half the money to get the land. They let Candy in on the scheme, and they plan to finish the month out and then write to the owners of the land for purchase. Curley comes back with Seth, upset that Seth got the better of him, and he sees Lennie smiling and attacks him. George tells him to get him, and Lennie, after being beaten in the face and then the stomach, grabs Curley’s left hand and crushes all the bones in it. Seth tells Curley that he will take him to the doctor, but he is not to get Lennie fired.

One evening George goes to town with the men to the whore house, and he leaves Lennie at the ranch. Lennie first went to go pet the dogs but was told that he couldn’t keep doing that or they’d die. So he goes into the one black man on the ranch’s home, a man by the name of Crooks. Crooks at first is upset he is in there, but then gets talking about his situation. Lennie can’t let up about talking about the ranch and rabbits, and Crooks asks Lennie to suppose that George never came back, that George died or left. This upsets Lennie to the point where he goes to attack Crooks, but Crooks is able to calm him down. Then Candy comes in and they start talking more about the ranch and the rabbits. When Crooks realizes they are serious, he says he’d love to just be able to come work there if he could just live on the land. Then Curley’s wife walks in, and after horning in for so long, Crooks tells her she’s not wanted. But she gets upset and tells him that she has power over him, that she can get him lynched on a single word. It cows him into submission, and when Candy speaks up to say that they’d stop her, she tells him that no one would believe him either. She sees that Lennie has never stopped looking at her, and she talks a little bit to him about how she knows he is the one that hurt Curley and then leaves. George comes home and tells them to get out of Crooks’ cabin.

Then one afternoon, Lennie goes in to play with his puppy and kills it because it bit him and he threw it to the ground. He is upset because he believes that now he will not get to tend to any rabbits. He contemplates hiding the dog or telling George he was already dead when he went to see him, but knows George will know the truth. Then Curley’s wife comes in and starts talking to him, and she talks to him about the dead puppy and why he killed it. He says it was an accident and that he just likes to pet soft things. He tells her about the ranch and the rabbits as well. Then he talks about how his Aunt Clara got him a piece of red velvet and he wishes he still had it, it was so soft. She lets him touch her hair, and he keeps petting it, more and more violently, until she gets scared and tells him to stop. This scares him, and he grabs ahold of her hair and won’t let go. When she starts to scream, he covers her mouth and then starts to shake her, breaking her neck. He panics, covers her partially with hay, takes the dead dog, and runs and hides in the spot that George told him to.

Candy comes in soon after—all the men had been playing horseshoes—and finds the dead woman. He calls in George, and George says that they’ll have to either kill him or put him in jail this time, and there’s no way around it. George has Candy go get the other men and George acts like he is seeing the body for the first time as well, and Curley goes to get his shotgun to kill Lennie. Carlson also goes to get his pistol, but cannot find it. They figure Lennie has taken it. They all go out to find him, and George goes to the pond and finds Lennie there. They talk, with Lennie thinking George is mad at him, and George comforts Lennie by telling him the story of the ranch. He has him look out at the horizon so he can picture the ranch out there, and while Lennie is looking out, George takes out Carlson’s pistol and shoots him in the head, severing the spine at the neck. Then he throws the gun away. The other men come in on the scene and see him dead, and Seth walks away with George, saddened. Curley and Carlson don’t understand why George and Seth are sad.

Brief Note on Themes
Friendship and brotherhood, male bonds, are the main theme throughout this work. The main bond is Lennie and George, where George is both caretaker and friend, if not essentially a brother, to the mentally retarded Lennie. Seth and George and Candy and George also have bonds of fellowship, with Seth being the boss that is a leader and friend, and Candy being another ward of George’s. The various types of masculinity are embodied in these men: George is a strong family man; Seth is the cool and calm, but strong, leader; Curley is the fighter who embodies traditional ideas of masculinity, as is Carlson; Candy is the kind-hearted man, as is Lennie.

The American Dream, particularly the dream of land ownership in the American West, runs throughout the book. Lower-class economic life in the West is another topic that runs through this work, with the men always dreaming of saving enough money to buy land but never able to work out of their situation as it stands. The American West, always seen as wild, untamed, a place for a man to make his mark, is seen as much more domesticated, but still untamed enough for space to grow and cultivate a new life.

Race relations also feature as a theme in this book, with Crooks being the only black man on the ranch or anywhere around for miles and miles. He knows his place among white men is considered lesser, and it makes him bitter and isolated. He has been worked so hard he is arthritic and has a bad back. Those race relations are even more prominent when Curley’s wife comes in and threatens lynching when he tells her to get away from all the men.

Morality and justifiable murder are also themes, with Carlson first killing Candy’s dog because the dog is old and decrepit, and then George killing Lennie the exact same way because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Questions arise about accountability and life: Should animals be killed simply because they are old? Should mentally retarded men who commit a crime they cannot mentally understand or be responsible for be murdered in kind for those crimes? What other ways of discipline are there, and can different modes be applied to different people according to their mental capacity?