Monday, July 26, 2021

Analysis: Henry David Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck”

 


Has there ever been a person, when they first came to any ocean, who did not take a moment to just stand and see? Whether on a calm day as the wide expanse curves on the horizon with waves rolling in long hypnotic sweeps, or whether it’s a day of storms and mighty crests crashing against rocks, one can’t but stop and gape at the power of something beyond ourselves. When Henry David Thoreau set out to go to Cape Cod to look at the sea and ponder and write about its majesty, he found that the day before he arrived, a ship full of emigrants from Ireland had been beaten violently on the harsh rocky shores and more than a hundred people had lost their lives. Irish mourners flocked to the scene, traveling the same path with Thoreau, yet it was the local villagers and how they went about the business of recovering the corpses that seemed to fascinate Thoreau. In “The Shipwreck”, Thoreau explains how people who live near the waters of Cape Cod have become pragmatic in the aftermath of the sea’s brutality, and how Thoreau’s view of the sea has this same detachment of the harshness in common with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



As Thoreau walked down to the beach, he saw the local farmers and tradesmen bringing wagons down, loaded with rough-hewn boxes to be used as coffins. There had only been twenty-eight bodies founds of the one hundred and forty-five perished. The locals were busily engaged in finding the rest beneath the largest part of the wreckage which lay onshore. Yet Thoreau “witnessed no signs of grief, but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting” (1) as the men went about nailing down lids or trying to identify certain bodies sought by the Irish who had come to find them. Others were collecting sea-weed for fertilizer, taking it higher up on shore so it would not be lost in the tide “though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it, and they might at any moment have found a human body under it (Thoreau 1). Even though there was a tragic event just beyond their homes, the people living by the sea understood the importance of gathering what one could from the ocean. The locals had acquired a great deal of resilience to cope with the horrors that living by the ocean and near one of the deadliest shores demanded of them. They became people who were able to detach themselves from what the harsh sea spat out in order to do what had to be done for those who couldn’t do it for themselves. Yet, Thoreau conjectures, for all their pragmatism and seemingly being unaffected, once the funeral procession had passed on and the mass graves covered, it was the local villagers who “would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up its dead, and their imaginations and sympathies would supply the place of mourners far away, who as yet knew not of the wreck” (1). Thoreau muses that the inhabitants should have a crest on their family shields of a wave and the datura plant, “which is said to produce mental alienation of long duration” (1) which is the only way they could deal with what the sea brings them. With the dreadfulness of the multitude of corpses around him on the beaches, Thoreau seems to cope by wondering about man’s relationship to the sea, as well as how that may fit into the afterlife, much like the wonderings of the Mariner about the sea in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Thoreau, too, appears to take on the detachment shown by the locals at seeing so many dead at one time. He notes that when “corpses might be multiplied, as on the field of battle, till they no longer affected us in any degree, as exceptions to the common lot of humanity” (Thoreau 1). He goes on to think about how while these poor bodies are ravaged in the ocean, that perhaps they really have sailed into a safe port in Heaven (Thoreau 1) and it doesn’t matter that their corpses are “dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean” (Thoreau 1). Thoreau ends “The Shipwreck” by writing of another trip to the same beach much later on a calm day. The breezes from the water brought an enjoyable coolness and the water was crystal clear. He looked down and “could see the sea-perch swimming about” (Thoreau 1). The harshness of the sea had been replaced by a calm and beautiful ocean. This same scenario occurred in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The sea turned on the sailors just as it had turned on the emigrants coming from Ireland. Instead of tossing them and cracking the ship against the rocks, Coleridge’s mariners were caught in a lull in the middle of the ocean, just as dangerous when food and water run out and there is no breeze to sail by. Just as Thoreau did, Coleridge, through his mariner, ponders the afterlife and whether the dead sailors’ souls flew “to bliss or woe!” (Coleridge 1), and whether the pilot who comes to greet him will give him a blessing to wash away his sin of shooting the albatross. Another similarity in the two works is found with how as terrible as the sea can be, both Thoreau and Coleridge saw the beauty the sea can also give in the same way as the mariner looks down into the calm water and glimpses the water-snakes “move in tracks of shining white” (Coleridge 1). The sea can be both terrible and beneficial and those sailing upon it or making a living close to the coast have learned to live in harmony with the nature of the ocean in good or horrible times.

Thoreau was able to witness just one moment of tragedy in one particular day in the lives of the people of Cohasset. He glimpsed their resiliency and how they have learned to live and work near the sea, as well as the pragmatism that has evolved in their character. Thoreau writes about this unyielding practicality of the local inhabitants and how they went to work after a terrible shipwreck, and how all of mankind has the ability to cope with the brutality of the sea, by also seeing the ocean’s beauty as found in Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. When next one stands on a seashore, take a deep breath and see.


 

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Bartleby.com www.bartleby.com/41/415.html 

Thoreau, Henry D. “The Shipwreck.” Cape Cod, 2010. The Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org/files/34392/34392-h/34392-h.htm

Image: 

"Ardgour Shipwreck - Scotland" by Dave Holder is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Comparing The Road with The Hunger Games: Different Aspects of Humanity

Both The Hunger Games and The Road were written closely after the events of 911, an act of terrorism that was caught on camera. Before this, it was rare footage that caught a bombing or other act as it actually happened. But on September 11, 2001 the world watched as the second plane hit and people plummeted from the twin towers before the buildings were engulfed in smoke and part of our humanity was lost on a collective scale as we saw live what mankind could unleash against man. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins shows the theme of humanity within a world of harsh rules, yet within Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic world of The Road, humanity is present where there are no longer any rules.  



The world of The Hunger Games is set in an inhumane setting where the totalitarian type victors keep the remaining twelve districts of the continent in a state of subordination enforced by laws and rules, spoken and unspoken. Katniss “learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts” (Collins 6). It’s this type of control, or subjecting others to live in an inhumane world that is at the core of the story. It is Katniss’s humanity that prevails.  She goes against the rules and hunts to provide for her family. She takes her sister’s place as tribute. She is a skilled hunter, yet it is not the fear of being killed that shows her humanity; it is the prospect of killing others.  According to Jeremy Adam Smith, The Hunger Games “is mainly preoccupied with how human goodness can flourish even in the most dehumanizing circumstances” (1). When Gale tells her “You know how to kill” (Collins 40), Katniss replies, “Not people” (40). Whether she could kill another person is something she reflects on throughout the book. 





Katniss’s humanity is taken a step further as she teams up first with Rue, and then Peeta. Smith describes a study that “has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with, the needs and interests of others” (4). Katniss does, indeed, become a more powerful opponent when she has others to protect. Her show of humanity has another effect. As she sings over Rue’s body and covers her with flowers, she is exhibiting her humanity in the middle of an arena where humanity should not exist in a fight for survival. Katniss’s humanity is what makes her a compelling heroine and the symbol of the Mockingjay. Like Katniss, the man and the boy also show humanity in a hostile world, but in their case, there is no one to witness it or move to compassion. 


The world of The Road is set after a catastrophe has destroyed most life. Hunger has driven humans to cannibalism. As Adeline Johns-Putra put it, “the man and the boy are not humans in a dead world as such; they are humans in an inhuman world” (529). Yet the man teaches his son the last vestiges of humanity. The man has instilled in his son that they are the good guys and that they will not eat anyone no matter how hungry they get. Like Katniss, the man’s power comes from caring for another. And also like Katniss he will kill to protect. Johns-Putra calls it “survivalist insularity . . . saving one’s offspring at the expense of others” (532) where the boy has a code of humanity that goes even further as he wants to extend care to others. The boy wants to go back for the child he saw; he wants to save the people in the pantry; he believes that there are more “good guys” in the world where the man no longer believes there are any. The boy believes this even when the only life he has known is full of horror and inhumanity. After they run from the cannibals, the boy asked, “And we couldnt help them because then they’d eat us too” (McCarthy 127), trying to find a reason for the man’s actions to not help.  

Johns-Putra explains that “the boy constantly proffers the hope of the existence of other good guys” (533). He sees tracks and says, “They could be good guys. Couldn’t they? (McCarthy 108). He wonders if the people in the bunker could be the good guys. Johns-Putra emphasizes that  because of “the unflinching focus on the relationship between father and son, the novel ensures that the contrast between past humanity and present inhumanity pivots on the question of care” (521) To the boy the man’s care is “the standard-bearer for humanity itself, [yet] the boy emerges by the end as an ironic facilitator” (Johns-Putra 521). The man’s belief that there is no humanity left in the world causes him to pass the boy’s salvation. “The attitude of the bearded veteran who saves the boy after the man dies is in keeping with the boy’s ethos of open compassion and in contrast with the father’s code of fiercely guarded filial protection” (Johns-Putra 533). By coming after them, the veteran proves there is humanity left in the world by showing an “interest in the welfare of others beyond kinship” (Johns-Putra 533). His humanity is more in line with the boy’s.   


The theme of humanity adds to the popularity of both books as examples of caring for others in a world of terrorism.  After September 11, our culture was disrupted. We suddenly knew, seeing it live, that inhumanity existed on a large scale. Like Katniss and the man, distrust of others, fear, and horror became prevalent, yet there were stories shown on the news and social media of heroism. Families of victims and how they were coping were spotlighted. Kind acts were shown. The nation came together. Humanity prevailed during an era of attacks and inhumanity against innocent lives. The Hunger Games and The Road follow in this spirit of caring for others even when survival would dictate that you only care for your own.  


Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc. New York. 2008 Print. 

Johns-Putra, Adeline. “’My Job Is to Take Care of You’: Climate Change, Humanity, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 62, no. 2, 2016. pp. 519-540. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2016396341&site=eds-live&scope=site. 

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print. 

Smith, Jeremy Adam.  “Five Lessons in Human Goodness from ‘The Hunger Games’” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley Education. April 18, 2012 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_lessons_in_human_goodness_from_the_hunger_games

images from Amazon


 

 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

To Kill A Mockingbird: Loss of Innocence

Harper Lee has taken Scout Finch on a journey of loss of innocence in her novel To Kill A Mockingbird. It is not so much a journey of going someplace, but a journey of encounters right in her own small county. These are all people she has known her entire life, some better than others, some she has only heard stories of, yet as she spends time with each person, her understanding of them, of their good and bad traits, is expanded. Scout loses her blissful childhood innocence of believing that most of the people in her county are just regular people as she discovers that there are deep-seated prejudices and hatred inside them. The three adults I believe Scout learned a great deal from, even though her encounters with them were short, are Mayella Ewell, Dolphus Raymond, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose.




Scout does not know Mayella Ewell or have any personal interaction with her, yet as she watches Mayella’s testimony at the trial, Scout learns something about how deep prejudice affects everything. Scout first notices while Mayella gives her recitation that “there was something stealthy about hers, like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail” (Lee 242).  Even though Mayella does not seem like she thinks she is better than people of color, she did something that she knew would be a shameful mark on her within her own community and tried to “destroy the evidence of her offence” (Lee 272). As Atticus put it to the jury, Mayella “did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man . . . no code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards” (Lee 272). Scout has learned from Mayella, that when someone is desperate they will lie, even condemn another person, in order to not face their own sins. This is a negative lesson about not being able to trust what people say. While watching Mayella’s testimony, Dill starts sobbing and Jem tells Scout to take him out. This is where they meet Dolphus Raymond who teaches the children about true character. 

Dill and Scout have a talk with Dolphus Raymond outside of the courthouse during the trial. Dolphus is known as the town drunk because he always carries a paper bag with alcohol in it.  He is wealthy and owns a good portion of land on the riverbank. His family has deep roots in the area, however he lives with a negro woman and has had several children with her. Outside of the courthouse, Scout and Dill learn that he has been putting up a front for his prejudiced community when he offers Dill a drink from the alcohol in his paper bag, but it in reality is Coca-Cola. He explains he’d rather let the town belief he is a drinker: “When I come to town, which is seldom, if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whiskey—that’s why he won’t change his ways. He can’t help himself, that’s why he lives the way he does . . . it ain’t honest but it’s mighty helpful to folks. Secretly, Miss finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live” (Lee 268). Through Dolphus Raymond, Scout has learned both positive and negative lessons. She has learned that many of the people in her community that she thought of as good people, have a core racial hatred in their hearts. She has also learned that someone she only knew of as drunkard had a kind and non-prejudiced outlook on people. The lesson learned was to not judge people by what she hears or even what she sees, or maybe it was to not judge anyone at all. This same lesson about not judging people is also learned by Scout through her unwanted interaction with Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose.
Scout hates Mrs. Duboise. The old woman shouted at them every time they passed her house. When she insults Atticus for defending a black man, Jem cuts off the tops of her camellia bushes. As punishment he is required to go in and read to her each Saturday afternoon. Scout goes along with him, hating every moment. Mrs. Duboise was rude. She was a racist. She was disgusting. “Cords of saliva would collect on her lips” (Lee 142). She would have tremors. What Scout and Jem did not know was that she was battling addiction and Jem’s reading to her was helping her get through it. “She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody . . . she said she meant to break herself of it before she died and that’s what she did” (Lee 148). After Mrs. Duboise died, Atticus explains that she was a lady, that “she had her own views about things, a lot different from mine . . . I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is . . . it’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” (Lee 149). Even though Mrs. Dubiose was a negative person, through her, Scout learned what courage and dignity are even when they are presented in someone who has far different viewpoints—even wrong viewpoints—from your own. 

Through Scout’s encounters with the differing people of Maycomb County, the lesson that she has ultimately learned is that there is always more to people than what is on the surface. At the end of the book, Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and looks out at her neighborhood, imaging what all the people looked like from there, standing on the peripheral of it all and restates in her mind what Atticus had told her about “never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (Lee 374). Her biggest takeaway was positive as she realizes that beneath the fear and anger and deep-seated prejudices of the south in the heated times of civil rights movements, most people are nice.   

Works Cited
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Grand Central Publishing, 1960. Print. 
image: "To Kill a Mockingbird 1" by Sew Technicolor is licensed under CC BY 2.0