Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lack of Agency





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One of the most interesting threads that I recognized throughout semester was the use of “agency” by the authors, and more specifically, their use of lack of agency. This lack of agency, the absence of the ability have determinism over one’s own actions, was used in many, if not all works that we read this semester. Whenever it was employed, I felt as a reader that it served to give extra weight to the forces around that work’s focus. For instance, the forces of nature, the supernatural, society, or even romantic forces seemed to take on an extra sense of power due to the power that the subjects in the works didn’t have. The most interesting aspect of this trend, however, is how it was employed in numerous ways; there are similarities from different time periods and differences within the same. It is these methods of employment that I intend to analyze as I show the continuation of “Lack of Agency” as a driving literary device throughout the literature we have studied.

While in nearly every situation the technique i\s wrapped up in some metaphor or allegory, there are definitely some works where the lack of agency is a focus, and thereby much more obvious than in other cases. One of the earliest works we read, Anne Kingsmill Finch’s "The Bird and the Arras,” is one such example. In fact, here we see the bird’s inability to escape its confines before we see what the bird may be representing. Finch describes this lack of freewill in the lines themselves, saying “Till the dash'd Cealing strikes her to the ground /

No intercepting shrub to break the fall is found” in the first stanza, and then in the second saying “But we degresse and leaue th' imprison'd wretch / Now sinking low now on a loftyer stretch.” So before we, as readers, even take into account what this poem is actually about, we have a sense of a force blocking someone or something that would otherwise and should otherwise be free. Closer inspection of the poem indicates a criticism of woman’s lack of rights in society at the time of writing – in a sense, it is mirroring woman’s lack of agency in society by using the bird trapped in the arras. Echoing an earlier statement, as this lack of agency is the focus of the poem, it is not hard to decipher that a force is being employed on someone’s freedom against their will. Also, the use of the bird imagery is a very strong indicator of this force; as Kathryn notes in her post “Body of Bird and Woman,” the bird is “delicate” and “easily trapped in a confined space,” but at the same time has the potential to be “unstoppably free.”

Finch’s employment of obvious “lack of agency” in regards to women is similar to Tennyson’s, who wrote much later, although his were related more to romance than Finch’s. Tennyson tended to write more sentimental poems, partially because of his presence in the Victorian period, and possibly because he was a “sensitive man” troubled by issues of death and mental illness within his family (Glenn Everett, Victorian Web, “A Brief Biography”). In any case, this sentimentality is shown in his poem, “The Lady of Shallot.” Tennyson doesn’t create a metaphor for the woman herself, although he does for her situation; he describes it as “No time hath she to sport and play: / A charm├Ęd web she weaves alway. / A curse is on her, if she stay / Her weaving, either night or day.” Once again, the notion that the subject is confined or restricted is given on a surface level. Another similarity to Finch’s poem is how Tennyson reinforces the idea of entrapment with the failure of the subject when attempting to escape. While in “The Bird in the Arras” this is simply an attempt to fly out and escape confinement, in “The Lady of Shallot” she is actually attempting to chase after a romantic desire. Even with this specific goal in sight, however, the “curse” is still present and ultimately the Lady succumbs to it. This poem, like Finch’s, comments on the confinement of woman within society, but does so in a more specific fashion.

There is one more work that I think really fits in with the more obvious side of “lack of agency,” although it does so in a different manner than the previous two. This is Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” in which he says, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere /The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” What Yeats is describing here is what he believes to be the inevitability of the apocalypse, which, from another perspective, is man’s inability to prevent it. These two viewpoints can be associated especially well with Yeats, because of his “double gyre” philosophy, which basically posits that the external fate of the world coincides inversely with each man’s individual fate. Thus, as we inevitably approach our end, the world is preparing to begin its own journey (Niel Mann, http://www.yeatsvision.com/Geometry.html). Granted, this philosophy is not nearly quite as obvious as lack of agency in the previous two poems, but Yeats’ seeing man as stuck and powerless is pretty clear.

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A model of Yeats’ theory

This second, hidden level of Yeats’ use of lack of agency is a prime example of the dichotomy of the entire concept. While the aforementioned works had theirs placed right on the surface, some of the other things we read this semester used inverted or unique styles in order to convey a lack of agency.

Christina Rossetti is one such example. In her work “Goblin Market,” Rossetti juxtaposes two sisters, one of whom willingly forfeits her agency without realizing the consequences, while the other does the same in order to reconnect with her sister. As described in the powerpoint Liz and I put together, Laura’s near-immediate submission to the calls of the goblin results in physical and mental deterioration. Because she gave in and ate the goblins’ fruit, she unwittingly gave up her soul as well, because she let human desire get the best of her.


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Laura succumbing to temptation and surrendering her hair/soul

It is important to note that Laura bartered for the fruit with a lock of her hair, which symbolized giving up a part of herself. Lizzie, on the other hand, tries to pay for the fruit legitimately, although she still is caught and tortured by the goblins. Interestingly enough, when Lizzie tries to accompany Laura in her state of dishevelment, she is not brought down completely to Laura’s level. Rossetti’s connection with the Church of England must be taken into account here. She and her own sisters were all deeply involved, and she herself was willing to pass up on love if the man was not of a strong enough or correct enough conviction (Victorian Web, “The Life of Christina Rossetti”). With that in mind, it can be inferred that Rossetti is saying that when agency is given up for a pure reason, it is not actually being lost; the act of giving implies a presence of agency, and as long as the intentions are good, the soul cannot be harmed. That being said, in order to pass along this message, Rossetti first had to give us Laura who gave up her agency without a second thought, and did in fact lose it along with her purity of soul.

Keats also gave an inverted view of agency, although his was less related to religion / the soul. As a general rule, Keats wrote more about natural imagery in and around the human body. That being said, it doesn’t mean he stayed away from fantastical notions; he was, after all, a romantic era poet. In fact, Keats often used the senses and trance like states juxtaposed with the natural world in order to convey his messages (Literature Online, Biography of Keats) In “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Keats depicts a woman, or a fairy, drawing in men and knights and thus leading them to their doom. On the surface, this is a very capable woman, but as Liz pointed out in her post “La Belle Dame Sans Merci - Psychology of the Faery,” there was quite possibly some traumatic background pushing her to these actions. With this in mind, does the fairy woman actually have any agency? I tend to think she doesn’t, because if she’s acting on impulse and unable to control her urges, then what control over herself and her end does she truly have?

The last instance of lack of agency that I will leave you with is in Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Browning was heavily influenced by Keats and more or less a contemporary of the other Elizabethan authors, which is from where he derives his mix of romantic notions with the critiques on class and religion (Literature Online, Biography of Browning). In “My Last Duchess,” more of the romantic side is present, as it depicts a man portraying a visage of his deceased wife. Going past the obvious that the man’s wife has no more agency in death, this poem is more a critique on how the husband really had no agency. This is the hidden level; the husband was driven by his lack of power over his wife to kill her and then display his contrived control over her dead self, so in reality, he had no agency at all. He was acting on impulse and in fact was threatened by the agency of someone else. As twisted as it is, he couldn’t stand his control being inferior to that of his wife, and his lack of control led to her end and his mental breakdown.

So “Lack of Agency” is a powerful tool in literature, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated here. Its obviousness can press us to look for deeper commentaries, and its hidden, subtle usage can propel a message into daylight that might otherwise be hidden.

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