Monday, May 3, 2010


The experience of physical and psychological entrapment frequently surfaced as a literary device in the collection of texts we analyzed this semester. Although rarely a central theme of the work, the sensation of imprisonment or constraint was used to illuminate myriad subjects from abolition to addiction to romantic desire. Conversely, the diverse encounters with this theme developed the universal struggle to reconcile the human desire for freedom against both internal and external subjugation. Specifically, the experience of being trapped is contrasted through the works of De Quincy, Marvell, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, and Stevenson. The prominent conflict between the protagonists and their condition of bondage sheds light on the strangeness of human nature.

At the beginning of the Restoration Period, Marvell employs metaphysical bondage to comment on the political unrest in England. As Robert summarizes in his post, the poet explicitly introduces the tension between the physical and metaphysical components of human nature in a series of alternating soliloquies from the body and the soul. While the soul mourns its enslavement to bones and flesh, the body complains of the tyranny and emotional distress of the spirit. Written immediately after the bubonic plague swept London, Marvell primarily employs medical rhetoric like fever, diseases, maladies, palsie, pestilence, and ulcer to describe this dissonance. In addition, Marvell begins with a metaphor of the body as a dungeon, with manacled hands and fetter'd feet. In this manner, the poem clearly communicates the enslavement of both the body to the mind to each other. Part of the purpose behind this poem may have been a commentary the political strife in London at the time. Marvell was a Member of Parliament during the English civil war, where the lack of compromise and unity resulted in violent conflict between the absolute monarchy and the republican commonwealth. (LION). By contrasting the spiritual despotism of the soul against the compulsions of the body, Marvell comments on this political rivalry. The tension expressed in the struggle for physical and spiritual liberty shows that peace cannot be achieved by unilateral domination.

In "The Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere," Coleridge applies the trope of bondage through the sin of the mariner and its supernatural consequences to criticize the slave trade. Immediately after the death of the albatross, Coleridge illustrates a scene of utter stillness as the ship becomes stranded in the sea.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, ne breath ne motion,
As idle as a painted Ship
Upon a painted Ocean. (111-114)

The illustration of this scene by Gustave Dore captures the eerie silence and isolation of the stanza. Later, after the Mariner blesses the water-snakes, the ship again begins to move. Coleridge describes this period of stagnation as a penance for the crime of killing the albatross (413-414). As Clara pointed out in her blog, the guilt of the Mariner imprisons him, as portrayed by the albatross hanging round his neck. As shown in the illustration, this became the symbol of his bondage to sin. While the allegorical implications of this scene offer compelling arguments on the spiritually paralyzing effects of sin, Kathryn and my presentation exposed a second interpretation of the poem based on Coleridge's strong abolitionist sentiments. By identifying the Mariner as a slave-trader and the water-snakes as African slaves, the poem acquires a unique insight on the experience of physical and psychological enslavement. According to Debbie Lee, Coleridge viewed slavery as a disease of tyranny and subjection (Lee, Debbie. "Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade." 678.). Although explicit references to captivity and enslavement are scarce, Keane's analysis of the poem articulates the numerous allusions to the slave trade, which we discussed in class. More importantly, the poem itself conveys the experience of supernatural bondage. As Tim Fulford explains, Coleridge makes the reader "share the terror, desperation and desire of a man enslaved in mind and body" (Fulford, Tim. "Slavery and superstition in the supernatural poems." 50.). Not only is the Mariner as powerless as a slave, Coleridge captivates the reader with the supernatural imagination, even as the wedding guest is captivated within the poem (53). In this manner, Coleridge employs the sensation of supernatural enslavement to illuminates the abolitionist movement.

A contemporary of Coleridge and second generation Romantic writer, De Quincey presents an entirely distinct account of confinement through the experience of an addict in Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The enslaving effects of the addiction are highly visible in the author's physical immobilization, including the inability to digest food, move his hands, or walk. In "The Pains of Opium," De Quincey describes this condition as a dream in which he "had the power, if [he] could raise [himself], to will it; and yet again had not the power, for the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon [him]" (113). He elaborates on his physical state by describing the impossibility of attempting the things he wishes to do, "just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing diseases […] he curses the spells which chain him down from motion" (102). However, the physical immobility is the not cause of his acutest sufferings. De Quincey's greatest terror was the mental imprisonment within his hallucinations, the descent into the sunless abyss and vast expansion of time. His uncontrollable hallucinations, especially his Oriental visions, overwhelm him with fear and anxiety (103). Sarah's comment on the post "Trapped" suggests that his mind is incarcerated in the fragments of drugged dreams. However, De Quincey's addiction begins long before his hallucinations. It begins with his obsession for philosophy that characterizes even his childhood. His manner of viewing the world as an intellectually superior outsider is most noticeable in the absence of sympathy for other characters. As he begins his drug use, he sadistically enjoys watching poor people try to buy things because he finds their acceptance of the irremediable evils of depravation "philosophic" (81). In fact, De Quincey's greatest fascination for the drug is the "great light of majestic intellect" that it imparts (75). Addicted to philosophy, the author uses his own reality as the fodder for his treatise. When combined with opium, this attempt to live outside of reality eventually leads to his mental deterioration, exiling him to an abstract mode of existence. De Quincey's philosophical confinement sheds light on the physical and psychological effects of opium addiction.

Several of the poems from the "Romance Perverted" unit exposed a fourth aspect to the experience of entrapment in the emotional dependence of the women. Tennyson exemplifies this theme in the confinement of the Lady of Shallot. Not only does she exist in an isolated tower, the Lady is compelled to view the world through a reflection as she weaves it into a tapestry. From this position, she is entirely unable to participate in reality. Likewise, Marianna dwells in a state of complete desolation. Pining for her lover, she is paralyzed by despair as the world around her falls into decay. In both of these poems, Tennyson illustrates a powerfully immobilizing quality of the female characters. Nathaniel discusses this concept in his blog "Women Trapped." In Nathaniel's opinion, these women depend on men for fulfillment and romance and become trapped by despair when love goes awry. Keats presents the opposite sentiment in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" in an unsettling scene of seduction. As Dr. Porter indicates in her comment on "The psychology of the Faery," the OED definition of "thrall" connotes bondage and captivity (OED). Waterhouse's painting of the poem captures the cold deliberateness of the seduction, with the fairy's spell represented by her hair around the knight's neck. As we observed in class, this bondage had been foreshadowed by the knight's attempt to constrain the Belle Dame by snatching her on his horse, shackling her with bracelets, and tying a fragrant zone on her waist. In this manner, the knight tries to claim possession of the wild lady of the mead. Whether pining for an abandoned lover, waiting for a heroic prince, or kidnapped by an ignoble knights, the motif of confinement resonates in the portrayal of the women in these poems, adding a new dimension to this common thread.

A final example of bondage comes from Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the relationship between the two competing personalities. In "Henry Jekyll's full statement of the case," Stevenson uses the image of a jail to describe the effects of the drug, which "shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth" (59). Both Alec and Clara point out the violent fury of the restrained Hyde, who tortured Jekyll in his struggle for freedom (63). Stevenson writes that the "insurgent horror […] lay caged in his flesh" struggling to be born (61). Ultimately, Jekyll becomes permanently trapped in the personality he despises. In "Diagnosing Jekyll," Robert Mighall investigates the psychological theories surrounding the text that attracted contemporary attention. For example, one scientific analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde elaborates on the enslaving effects of sexual perversion. According to Mighall, previous editions of the text contained more explicit references to this theme, including the confession that from an early age Jekyll was "the slave of disgraceful pleasures" (155). Mighall's article goes on to describe theories of sexual pathologies of the period and how they appear in the text (Mighall, Robert. "Diagnosing Jekyll." 145-161.). This interpretation of Mr. Hyde emphasizes the mental confinement of sexual disorders and the anxieties of perversion. According to Mighall's interpretation, the text explores several types of mental disorders. The Victorian fascination with mind and matter, especially with moral and mental disease, was enthralled by this subject (Victorian Web). By using imagery of bondage and enslavement, Stevenson enhances the reader's understanding of the truly debilitating condition of psychopathology.

Throughout the course of the semester, the image of confinement has been used to illuminate a wide variety of themes. While each text applies this trope to a unique socio-historical situation, the concept of psychological bondage resonates through time as a universal experience. The identification of the diverse applications of this appeal establishes a deeper appreciation for the human longing for freedom of mind and body.

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