Monday, May 3, 2010

Forbidden Fruit

A good place to start would be the beginning of creation, in the book Genesis. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve learn about temptation, and the choice between right and wrong. What allows us to make this choice? Freewill granted to humans by God, whose basis is reason. As an end to the semester, I’d like to bring in some modern British literature by quoting Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which reemphasizes the fact that the fundamental make up of humanity has stayed constant throughout history because “humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” (Even wizards are not immune to the desires of the soul). Consequently, beginning with Milton, we see that the wrong choices combined with curiosity make for a deadly combination. However, humans are foolish creatures who tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. The ties found between the texts we have studied show that the consequences of following “forbidden fruit” of all kinds result in psychological and physical guilt, and that sometimes, being knowledgeable is not all that desirable; the result is a loss of innocence, or our purest form of humanity.

Therefore, I will delve into the negative effects of the power of curiosity that leave Gulliver, Strephon and Defoe wishing they had not discovered so much because the result is that their world view changes, and not for the better. In Jonathan Swift’s satirical poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Strephon trespasses into a woman’s sacred space of “getting ready.”

Men were not supposed to understand the long and extreme procedures women underwent to achieve beauty, yet his curiosity leads him to snoop around in Celia’s room, after which his image of women as a pristine creature of society is shattered. He is disgusted by the “Sweat, Dandriff, Powder, Lead and Hair” (24) and other pieces that put together the puzzle that is woman, and ultimately he receives punishment for prying where he does not belong, and with his new view of women, “His foul Imagination links/Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks” (121-122). While this particular satire is humorous, Gulliver’s Travels does not end on such a happy note.

After Gulliver’s journey to the Land of the Houyhnhms, he realizes that perfect reason does not exist, and more often than not it is perverted, which results in a lack of humanity. Before his journey he believed the British were the most rational people in the world, and after his voyages he understands human corruption, which in itself would not be so bad, but he is wracked with so much guilt and abhorrence for the human race that he cannot treat his family with respect. Death does not affect the Houyhnhms, and love is not a part of their society, which is to say that these creatures lack human emotions that are also non-existent in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722. While this work demonstrates Defoe’s “genius for producing effects of verisimilitude” his descriptions are also “hard to distinguish from historical imagination.”

I think his haughty attitude of placing himself as a “martyr” for staying in London vanishes when he begins to see the corpses. At first, he does not seem to grieve death as the Houhynhyms do, as is seen in his highly impersonal and dehumanized account that his “Curiosity led, or rather drove [him] to go see this Pit again,” (53) where he learns his wonderful government was not quite so wonderful as before because of their deception. It is curiosity that separates Defoe from the rest of the Londoners, and his account of dehumanization on the part of the government, led readers who believed the reality of the scenes he described to rebel against an authority (the government) that thinks they know what is happening with the squalor and panic in London. However, Defoe’s account serves to show that there is no rational thought process happening in England, that the government’s fraud of giving information to the people is much worse than if they were to steal from them because power is much more deadly when

in the hands of the person who manipulates ideas so that even when the conscience knows wrong, words can make anything seem appealing.

Speaking of manipulation, the next concept talks about the power of female persuasion, or what happens when the temptress succeeds. The first example of a “temptress” is Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost Book 9. Eve manipulates Reason so that Adam eventually cannot see what was wrong about eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the first place. William Blake’s illustration of Book IX demonstrates that Eve has already fallen and Adam’s fruitless attempts to escape. Eve tells Adam “But harm precedes not sin,” (327), telling Adam to trust her, and despite the fact that he knows “She dictate false, and misinforme the Will/To do what God expresly hath forbid,” (355-356), he follows through with her plan anyways, which resulted in original sin for all mankind. However, before Eve there was Satan, the original tempter who distorts the truth, leading Eve to fall into his trap, as illustrated in William Blake’s print of Book IV, entitled “Satan with Adam and Eve.” Blake specifically illustrates the line “Ah! Gentle pair, ye little think how high / Your change approaches,” and I find Blake’s depiction of Satan as an angel fascinating.

However, the viewer knows that he is a fallen angel because of the snake wrapped around his body. Even Satan, the master of temptations, received his ultimate downfall because of his desire for power gone wrong. The line of people succumbing temptation emphasizes Milton’s point that humanity is easily inclined to fall into such temptations.

The next two examples of falling into temptation are in John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child.” The knight in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” becomes ensnared by the “faery’s child” who takes the form of a beautiful and mysterious woman. Instead of aiming to protect this woman, it is the knight’s aim to “conquer” her, so to speak, a violation of the chivalric code. However, as evidenced by the image by John William Waterhouse, it is really the faery woman who holds the power.

Her hair wraps around his neck, and he seems unconscious of that fact, he only wants the ‘forbidden fruit’ of this mysterious maiden. However, evidently this was not her first catch, and presumably her treatment of men stems from a broken heart, and this is her form of revenge. When the knight “awakes” from his dream into death, he sees “Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;/They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci/Hath thee in thrall!’” (38-40). He joins the ranks of men who fell victim to the temptation of taking advantage of a maiden.

W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” also includes faery tempters. I believe that these fairies fall into the same category of the creatures from Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” in that they are not of this world and represent the dangers of temptation by Satan. Here, the faeries are calling to the children “Come away, O human child!/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/ For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” (9-12). This refrain seeks to steal children from their homes with the promise that they will be in a world without sadness, which also means they will also be in a world that is not human, and while the faeries seem harmless and magical, they are the voice of the devil speaking, for who else would want to kidnap a child away from its parents? This world without weeping does not exist, there is no utopia because Eve got rid of it when she took of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However, it is wrong to manipulate a child because they are just learning how to use their conscience, and so these faeries represent the fall from innocence that children will eventually succumb to.

Moving on to those who lust for forbidden desires, especially outside of appropriate societal norms, appears in Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Goblin Market.” Although Rossetti belongs to the group of Pre-Raphaelite writers, there is little evidence of the real world, but instead, her “religious poetry draws on a long line of medieval and later tradition—from Dante through Milton and beyond—in its use of biblical language and symbolism.” The fruit Laura takes from the goblins alludes back to the same forbidden fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost. The contrast between the two sisters may actually symbolize the socially acceptable maiden (Lizzie), and the lustful and insatiable side of women’s desires (Laura). In fact, both girls may be “regarded as Christina Rossetti’s version of sacred and profane love,” or an abnormal love that is expressly forbidden by society (Packer, Symbol and Reality in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, 375). Laura’s curiosity leads her to experience the fruit of knowledge of sexuality before marriage, frowned upon the society in which Rossetti set this poem. Symbolically, Laura falls from grace when she gives a physical part of herself to the goblins whose temptation to “Buy from us with a golden curl,” wins out, and it is known that she is no longer innocent; she has given her sexuality to them, as is shown in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s figuratively symbolic loss of Laura’s virginity in his wood engraving.

As noted in Alec and Liz’s presentation, Laura “lives destitute both in mind and physicality as she no longer hears the cries” of the goblins, and she has a continual thirst for the forbidden fruit (slide 4). Lizzie must approach the goblins so as to get fruit to cure her sister’s insatiable thirst, but she does not succumb to gluttony, but makes the choice to refuse temptation. The “self-denial of food” represents a “spiritual act that purifies one’s soul, as well as the souls of others who have fallen,” (i.e. Laura).

There are two types of perverse love in this poem, both dealing with sexuality. The first love is a desire for the inhuman goblins and the goods they supply. The second may be stranger, for Laura’s response to the fruit Lizzie brings back is that “She clung about her sister, / Kissed and kissed and kissed her… / She kissed and kissed with a hungry mouth” (485-486, 492). While not the normal response from one sister to another, it is not uncommon to find perversion of love, as is also seen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “The Case of Identity.” When Holmes and Watson solve the case, they reveal that while Mr. Windibank only pretends to take an interest in his step-daughter’s financial assets, perhaps he had also been harboring sexual desires towards Ms. Sutherland, for he courted her under the guise of Mr. Hosmer Angel. What these two examples serve to show regarding human’s desires for “forbidden fruit,” is that often times we desire what we cannot have outside the bounds of societal rules. Similarly, the character of Imogene in Matthew Lewis’ “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene,” is another female figure who cannot resist temptation. In this instance, the lure is material wealth that makes her forget her vow of fidelity to her said “lover” Alonzo the Brave. Much like Laura is seduced by goods of the material world, Imogene cannot resist the new suitor’s “treasure, his presents, his spacious domain / … He caught her affections so light and so vain…” (27-30). The punishment for her excessive greed is that she is damned to an eternity of dancing with Alonzo, and it is nobody’s fault but her own.

The final concept that goes hand in hand with pursuing forbidden fruit, is a sense of escapism due to the guilt the characters feel for sinning by desiring what is forbidden. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” the killing of the albatross represents Biblical betrayal that results in the fall of humanity, which the mariner is forced to wear around his neck as penance, and a constant reminder that he doomed his crew to die with one shot (Peter, “Christian Allegory in the Marinere.) The guilt drives him into a state of psychological isolation accompanied by hallucinations. These hallucinations are the mariners attempts to escape reality, and Mary Robinson, who continued the plight of Coleridge’s mariner in her poem “The Haunted Beach,” describes the guilt the mariner feels as he “wastes, in Solitude and Pain--/A loathsome life away” (80-81). The notion of hallucinations serves as a way to escape from guilt, which eventually just leads to more pain.

In Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” he uses opium to escape from his body, the drug is his “forbidden fruit,” and when he finally gives it up, he “struggles violently to re-enter his body” (Peter, “Trapped”). De Quincey describes his entrance into consciousness as if he “had the torments of a man passing from one mode of existence into another” as if undergoing a “physical regeneration” (115). This description brings to mind the transformation of Henry Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Dr. Jekyll is determined to bend the laws of humanity by transforming himself into another being, and it seems as though he succeeds, for he is able to easily switch between the respectable Dr. Jekyll, and the hideous and mysterious Mr. Hyde, but he becomes addicted to the elixir, and thus begins to lose sight of his humanity. Once he realizes the monster he has become, his guilt leaves him in a similar stage of psychological isolation as the mariner. Even though he lives in bustling Victorian London, he has no one to trust, especially since Lanyon, the one person who knows about the transformations, abandons Jekyll because he is “afraid of the temptation to which [Jekyll had] finally succumbed,” which was “a new province of knowledge and new avenues to fame and power.” (Sapsonik, The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 721). Jekyll found himself head over heels in love with the idea of fame and power, of transcending God’s laws, (much like Satan wanted to overthrow God’s power), until finally the choice to continue drinking the elixir led to a semi-permanent state of Hyde—the lesser, more inhuman half of Jekyll.

Luckily, humans have the ability to recognize that their characters flawed. While it seems that in our nature we are doomed to want what is forbidden to us, we are also given a soul that recognizes sin and repents for our actions. These characters, while fictional, reflect the innermost human desires and the frequent stupidity humans will go to obtain these desires. While more often than not we succumb to temptation, it is comforting to know that we are not entirely powerless against forms of evil, but that we have the ability to make a choice. It may not always be the right choice, but the fact that we have free will defines what it means to be human.

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