Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Transformations in British Literature

Throughout the works that we’ve studied this past semester, a common theme seems to be that of transformation: whether willingly or not, many characters in British literature experience a metamorphosis that ultimately changes their identity as a whole, both physically and psychologically. The morphing of identity that accompanies the distortion of the body emphasizes the British fascination with the connection between the body and the soul as well as the curious state of limbo that exists between the two divisions. As a result, many British authors, from Jonathan Swift to Rudyard Kipling, have used transformations in their works as a device to propose their individual social commentaries. And that’s one of the most interesting parts of all—that even as the authors continue to use the same devices, the way in which they use them evolves, and morphs, all on its own.

To begin, let’s talk about Mr. Jonathan Swift. A supreme satirist of the Augustan Age (or the Age of Reason), Swift’s critiques of society often surrounded materialism and the various problems which arise from its power over society. Throughout both his poetry and his prose, Jonathan Swift used transformations to highlight the materialism that consumed the British population. In his two poems “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and “A Lady’s Dressing Room” Swift uses the metamorphosis of the two women from beautiful, almost classical figures into odious creatures worthy only of disgust. Along with these physical transformations comes a changing of identity. Celia, once a “Goddess” in the eyes of her lover, Strephon, becomes nothing but a girl “who shits!” At the same time, in “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” the same “witching hour” Celina brings up in her blog post occurs once more, now to Corinna, a common whore. Corinna, one of the prettiest prostitutes on the lane, is revealed to be something almost less than human: a compilation of parts—eyebrows made of mouse fur, a glass eye, a wooden leg, dugs to support her breasts. These two poems seems to highlight some of the same problems with British society. Through the transformations, we can primarily see the difference between perception and reality. Identification of others, as far as the world is concerned, is largely based upon looks. But in his poetry, Swift is swift to deny our assumptions: beauty is only perfume, powder, fake eyeball, lipstick, slop, and ointment deep. Beneath all those layers is something far different: but what? Here it gets a little tricky. It’s easy to see that Swift despises the artificiality of these intricate beauty processes, but at the same time, without all of the artificiality, what are these women? Hideous? Perhaps Swift was commenting on the fact that British society had become so materialistic that it had lost its ability to be natural at all. No, artificiality and materialism are not positive points, but at the same time, Swift acknowledges that there is almost no return for a society so lost in the acquiring of more, more, more. The lists he utilizes in both poems—intricate details on every commodity each women uses—points to the emergence of an emphasis on consumption, of markets. Even in the last line of “A Lady’s Dressing Room,” when the narrator marvels that “Such gaudy Tulips [are] rais’d from Dung” we see that the exchange of commodities (Dutch tulips) plays a prevalent part in British thinking. But, more importantly, throughout these poems we see that commodities do something very curious to the women they transform: eventually, they are no longer women at all, but merely a compilation of thingsthey are, in a way, literally objectified. As you can see from Professor Porter’s image from the first day of class (even though this, too, is comedic), it translates a point: that women no longer resembled women at all, that they had been, literally, transformed.

One response to the objectification of women came with a woman writer of the Romantic Period, Felicia Hemans, who wrote “Properzia Rossi” a poem about self-sacrifice. In the poem, a famous sculptor, Properzia Rossi, falls so madly in love with a man that she dies of heartache. Her last work is a sculpture she makes of a beautiful woman, hoping that she might transfer some of herself into it so that she will finally experience his love. She transfers her soul out of her physical body into that of a statue—and my question is, what does that mean to Hemans? According to her biography,, Hemans idealized women and believed in a familial ideal. When she wrote the poem, her intention was to show that sacrifice was a good thing, and that love was far more important than lasting fame. But now, I feel like it can be interpreted in the exact opposite way: at least from my modern perspective, it seems to be an argument against self-sacrifice, in its varying forms. The self-sacrifice can be defined in two ways, that of a woman transforming herself into a sculpture so she might finally be loved by the man (and only for beauty), or the second interpretation, brought up by Sarah George, who wrote in the blog about how Properzia Rossi has the problem of the artist’s obsession: and how she literally gives herself up to create art. Here now we come to something different. Swift criticized transformation because it was mostly based on vanity. Now, the opposite occurs. The transformation in Heman’s work becomes a critique because it is the absolute denial of a woman’s independence: she is giving herself up to be loved, denying all physical being to be transformed into an object, one that a male might desire. The second interpretation does fit in nicely with Swift’s work, however, because it shows that aesthetics, once controlled by humanity, eventually becomes so powerful that it can swallow a person up and deny them of their humanity, literally causing the death of Properzia by the end of the poem. What I find a bit depressing is the fact that Hemans didn’t mean for it to be a critique at all, that she actually thought it was a good thing that this self sacrifice should occur. Maybe we can pretend like it was a subconscious thing, after all, and she really did write these poems as critiques, but they were only interpreted by her audience as supporting claims of self-sacrifice. I’d like to hope for that, anyway.

Metamorphasis, in another way, is many times not associated with self-sacrifice at all, but it still is related to the transformation of identity. For Alice of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the girl merely transforms because she tries a piece of cake or drinks a potion, all of which force her to change. As Nate and Mary Beth talk about in their powerpoint, there were more than merely transformations of size. There was also the transformation of the pig into the baby. Again, we see a connection between consumption (materialism) and transformations of humans into animals and back again—all of these changes illicit a change in identity, too, and Alice often finds that when she changes size she no longer recognizes her mental self. All of this was very interesting, especially in connection with the British Empire and Imperialism. Back in Victorian times, there was an interest nature and the sublime, often associated with the largeness of something: And all of these transformations, the loss of identity, really brought me back to Jonathan Swift once again, and back to Gulliver’s Travels. I feel like both Carroll and Swift, in their use of transformation of size, were perhaps critiquing British Imperialism. Yes, “bigness” did seem to be something associated with the divine, but at the same time, Britain kept acquiring countries, and what was the result? It seems to me that many British believed that the Empire’s change in size was something that would alter it’s identity as a whole, and that in the end, it would no longer recognize itself. Like Alice, it would be lost in a world that it had walked into (that she dreamed, in a way—which is a kind of creation) and it would no longer be able to leave. The animal/human transformations tie into this, too, because often Br

itish soldiers treated the people they conquered like animals, though they were humans, and thus became animals themselves, as a result of their brutality. Soon, however, the problems of the British Empire would no longer be relevant: the age of WWI was coming on, an age that would doom Imperialism and would represent the largest transformation at all.

Rudyard Kipling’s collection of poems, Epitaphs, characterized the literary period of Modernism. By the time Kipling wrote these poems, self-sacrifice was not an option: it was a requirement. With the advent of WWI, all of Europe bustled towards the great fight. Art and literature had idealized it throughout the Victorian period, as you can see here: Kipling himself requested that his son be sent forth to the trenches, even getting a special excuse when he was denied by the army. He thought, like many Europeans at the time, that war was character building, that war was noble, that all men who went to war were heroes, and that it was about ideals. This was the naiveté that characterized many Europeans, and particularly many British, at the advent of WWI. Soon, however, all of these ideals would be smashed. Within an hour of his first day of being in the trenches, Kipling’s son was killed. Europe soon became used to a new type of war, modern warfare—with its gas, its machine guns, its mud-filled trenches, its mindless brutality. According to Thomas Schoenberg and Larence J. Trudeau, from their book Literature and the Great War, "World War I and its immediate aftermath gave birth to artistic modernism, which sought inventive ways to express the resulting chaos and destruction and the complete disruption of traditional notions of class, gender, science, and statehood." This complete transformation of culture was most readily visible by the type of transformation that the physical landscape of Europe underwent:

and perhaps because these physical transformations also were closely tied to the psychological damage that occurred, it is easy to see why Kipling used it in his Epitaphs. In “Unknown Female Corpse,” destruction is directly associated with the transformation from someone human (a mother, no less) into something that is nothing but a torso. Here’s the poem:

Headless, lacking foot and hand,

Horrible I come to land.

I beseech all women's sons

Know I was a mother once.

Although this seems like a purely physical transformation, what’s really interesting is the fact that the woman lacks head, hand, and foot: a dead woman, she is also symbolically devoid of all feeling (she lacks all her five senses: taste, sight, touch, smell), and without any means of escape from her fate (literally without feet, she, like the rest of Europe, cannot walk away from the horrors she’s experienced). That which makes this poem most powerful, however, is not that it’s the identification of a body. It is exactly Kipling’s use of the transformation—from a mother to a dismembered corpse, that makes this poem so relevant in British modernism. Once bright and full of idealism, the years leading up to 1914 were summarily destroyed: after, Europe was nothing but a body without its senses, unable to think, unable to move forward, filled with disillusionment and only the memory of the thing which it once was, and no longer continued to be.

And so, in the end, the transformations that occurred throughout British literature were all a means of critique: it was a way to point out the difference between what was and what is. It was a way to show that the body and the soul are connected, pulled apart, and that although we like to think things are in one state or another, they often lie in that state of in-between, that place that Swift called “the witching hour,” the time when the caterpillar changes inside the cocoon, waiting to be born.

MLA Citation:

Schoenberg, Thomas J.and Larence J. Trudeau, "Literature of the Great War," Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Cengage Learning, Detroit, 2010, p.209, Literature Criticism Online, date of access: 05/03/2010.

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