Take-home test questions now up

The questions for the take-home test have been posted here.

N.B. I’ve decided to extend the deadline for the take-home to Tuesday June 23 at 4:00 p.m.

But sure to read the instructions carefully. Remember especially that you need a works cited section, and that late submissions will not be accepted.

SUBMITTING THE TAKE-HOMES: I will be in my office from 9:30 to 4:00 on Tuesday (except between 12:30 and 1:30), so please drop off your take-home essays with me and, at the same time, pick up your graded final essays.


Last lecture, Bloomsday Montreal, takehomes

[Added Friday afternoon: given our attention to Nella Larsen’s Passing and the very positive response to that novel by many students in the class, I was very interested to read this story in today’s news.]

Tuesday June 16 is our last lecture, as well as the deadline for the final essay (boo!) and Bloomsday (boo-ya!). We will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and then Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl.” After class, I will be heading to a public establishment for some refreshments; all are welcome to join and celebrate the end of a class which I found particularly engaging.

As part of the Bloomsday Montreal, Concordia is hosting a free panel on Joyce and Irish literature, moderated by Professor Susan Cahill from the School of Canadian Irish Studies. It includes several short presentations by professors and graduate students from Concordia (including me). Click here for more information.
Location: Room 1001, Hall Building
Time:  10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

At the final lecture I will explain the expectations and design of the final takehome “test.” The topics you can choose from for this assignment will be posted that same day. For now, my advice is to focus your energy on the essay, not only because it’s worth much more than the takehome, but also because the takehome will be comparatively easy.

Is Humbert’s final epiphany sincere?

Alfred Appel thinks so (lxiv), as does, for what it’s worth, John Ray, Jr. (5). But many other readers find it hard to believe it. Why? What is at stake in finding Humbert’s final realization sincere? I mean the passage on 307-08 when Humbert pulls over on a mountain road and looks down on a small village (from “One day, soon after her disappearance….” [307] to “the absence of her voice from that concord” [308]). The question of how to read Humbert’s final moment of moral insight is a tricky one, because it’s hard to imagine what will count as evidence for or against his sincerity. Still, let’s try: is this a reliable moral apotheosis (i.e., one that the text allows endorses), as many readers and critics believe? Or is it more deception and special pleading on Humbert’s part (as many other readers and critics believe)? No matter which way our opinion on this question goes, the more difficult question is how to back up that opinion.

Reading criticism

One of my refrains is that to become a very good essay writer you have to get into the practice of reading criticism. And I mean reading it carefully, critically, sceptically, actively. It’s a long-term project, but even by starting you can make significant improvements to your English essays. To encourage you to get into this, I’m posting the bibliographic information for a tiny selection of essays related to our course readings–not so that you can cite them in your essays (though if they’re relevant you may), but rather so you can see how scholars write about these works, and how they structure, present, and defend their arguments. This list is obviously not exhaustive and somewhat arbitrary; to find more articles, you can search CLUES on the library website, JSTOR, Literature Online, Project Muse, or Google Scholar.

Belletto, Steven. “Of Pickaninnies and Nymphets: Race in Lolita.” Nabokov Studies 9 (2005): 1–17.

Blackmore, David L. “’That Unreasonable Restless Feeling’: The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen’s Passing.” African American Review 26.3 (1992): 475-84.

Boes, Tobias. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the ‘Individuating Rhythm’ of Modernity.” ELH 75.4 (2008): 767-85.

Bonds, Patrick Blair. “Hemingway, Gender Identity, and the ‘Paris 1922’ Apprenticeship.” The Hemingway Review 29.1 (2009): 123–33.

Czarnecki, Kristin. “‘Yes, It Can Be Sad, the Sun in the Afternoon’: Kristevan Depression in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.” Journal of Modern Literature 32.3 (2009): 63-82.

Davidson, Arnold. “‘The Darkness Is Light Enough”: Affirmation from Despair in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.” Contemporary Literature 24.3 (1983): 349–64.

De la Durantaye, Leland. “Eichmann, Empathy, and Lolita.” Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006): 311-28.

Eide, Marian. “The Woman of the Ballyhoura Hills: James Joyce and the Politics of Creativity.” Twentieth Century Literature 44.4 (1998): 377-93.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Good Morning, Midnight: Good Night, Modernism.” Boundary 2 11.1/2 (1983): 233–51.

Gibson, Andrew. “‘Time Drops in Decay’: A Portrait of the Artist in History (ii), Chapter 2.” James Joyce Quarterly 44.4 (2007): 697–717.

Goldman, Eric. “’Knowing’ Lolita: Sexual Deviance and Normality in Nabokov’s Lolita.Nabokov Studies 8 (2004): 87-104.

Herbold, Sarah. “’(I have camouflaged everything, my love)’: Lolita and the Woman Reader.” Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999): 71-98.

Levenson, Michael. “Stephen’s Diary in Joyce’s Portrait–The Shape of Life.” ELH 52.4 (1985): 1017–1035.

McIntire, Gabrielle. “Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Callaloo 35.3 (2012): 778-94.

McMullen, Kim. “Culture as Colloquy: Flann O’Brien’s Postmodern Dialogue with Irish Tradition.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 27.1 (1993): 62-84.

Mish’alani, James K. “Kafka: Text’s Body, Body’s Text.” Philosophy and Literature 10.1 (1986): 56-64.

Mizruchi, Susan. “Lolita in History.” American Literature 75.3 (2003): 629-52.

Mulrooney, Jonathan. “Stephen Dedalus and the Politics of Confession.” Studies in the Novel 33.2 (2001): 161–79.

Rabinowitz, Peter. “‘Absence of Her Voice from that Concord’: The Value of the Implied Author.” Style 45.1 (2011): 99-108.

Rowe, Michael. “Metamorphosis: Defending the Human.” Literature and Medicine 21.2 (2002) 264-80.

Ryan, Dennis. “Dating Hemingway’s Early Style/Parsing Gertrude Stein’s Modernism.” Journal of American Studies 29 (1995): 229-40.

Ryan, Simon Collis. “Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung : Transformation, Metaphor, and the Perils of Assimilation.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 43.1 (2007): 1-18.

Tamir-Ghez, Nomi. “The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov’s Lolita.” Poetics Today 1.1/2 (1979): 65-83.

Tropp, Sandra. ‘“The Esthetic Instinct in Action: Charles Darwin and Mental Science in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” JJQ 45.2 (2008): 221–44.

Valente, Joseph. “Thrilled by His Touch: Homosexual Panic and the Will to Artistry in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” James Joyce Quarterly 31.3 (1994): 167-88.

Ziff, Larzer. “The social basis of Hemingway’s style.” Poetics 7.4 (1978): 417–23.

Work cited

Alfred Appel, Jr (ed.). Introduction. The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Toronto: Vintage, 1991.xvii-lxvii.







On *Lolita* and unreliable narration

Just to let you know that I’ve posted a few exemplary creative adaptations of Queneau’s anecdote. Thanks to the students for allowing me to share these. I hope to have all the Exercises that were submitted on time back to you by Tuesday. If you haven’t yet submitted your assignment, remember that Tuesday is your last chance (barring exceptional circumstances–in which case you need to contact me asap).

Below is a fairly long clarification (I hope) of unreliability. But first, for Tuesday, in addition to all the Lolita reading you have to do, please read and try to understand these lines from “Pale Fire” from the poet John Shade, one of the characters in Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire. In many ways, this is a reader’s guide to Nabokov’s art–his use of metafiction and involution, his interest in the play between ideal and real, his belief in the beauty and recognition of the dangers of art, and of course his wordplay:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky…. (1-4)

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view…. (13-18)

If you want to see what I’ve omitted, the whole poem is given here. Remember that this is just part of a larger novel. In the context of Lolita, I think the two passages in bold are the most significant. The first gets back to the recurring issues of trying to see beyond the bars of one’s cage (later in the poem, John Shade actually admits that “we are most artistically caged” [114]). The second is crucial too, getting at the issue of those grey areas in moral issues. Though morality pertains to deal in the dualness of “right” and “wrong,” in practical life it inevitably involves shades and nuances (thus John Shade is a gentle and harmless doppelgänger of Humbert –the first being obviously related to the “gradual” but Humbert too means “shady”–think the colour umber or the French ombre). We will discuss these issues next class.

We will also address the issue of unreliable narration, but now we will be collating some of the evidence against Humbert. Unreliability, as we saw in class today, is a slippery concept.  (See also the comments to this and other posts.) Below is a not-too-short discussion of what is means, and I hope it’ll help you as you struggle to navigate the complexities of Humbert Humbert’s seductive rhetoric. Perhaps my glossary on this site will prove helpful too, especially for terms like “implied author.” Many people assume that a narrator who tells lies or who is unlikeable is unreliable, but this is not how the term is used in literary criticism, where it means something quite specific. The term was proposed in 1961 by Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction:

I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work …, unreliable when he does not. It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony, and they are thus “unreliable” in the sense of being potentially deceptive. But difficult irony is not sufficient to make a narrator unreliable. Nor is unreliability ordinarily a matter of lying…. It is most often a matter of what [Henry] James calls insouciance [carelessness]; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the [implied] author denies him. Or, as in Huckleberry Finn, the narrator claims to be naturally wicked while the [implied] author silently praises his virtues behind his back. (154-55.)

Now, this is a difficult concept (and I should mention that I’m not coming even close to covering the nuances and problematics involved in the concept: if you’re curious, click here). First, note that I’ve inserted editorial square brackets, especially when Booth refers to the “author.” I’ve added “implied” because it’s best to leave the flesh-and-blood author out of it. The “implied author” is a terribly complicated and not universally accepted notion, so for simplicity where it says “implied author” you could simply read “the text.”

A useful but maybe misleading way to think about it is to imagine that Othello were a novel narrated by Iago, or that King Lear were a novel narrated by Edmund. When we watch or read one of these plays, we know that no matter how eloquent Iago is in his amazing soliloquies, his moral norms and values are at odds with the norms and values of the play as a whole. Now picture Othello: The Novel, featuring Iago as the narrator. The main difference here is that in the play Iago is only one of several speaking parts, whereas in the novel he controls most of the text. So how can the text “tell on” the narrator? Isn’t the narrator the text? Not quite: the text can, so to speak, encode ironies into the narrator’s words without the narrator noticing what he’s “really” saying, and the careful reader can pick up on these clues and decode them. This is what Nabokov makes us do throughout Lolita.

Another good example is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). It’s worth quoting because Huck Finn is unreliable and good (unreliability doesn’t mean you’re a villain or bad person). The context is this: Huck Finn is drifting down the Mississippi with Jim, a runaway slave. They’ve become friends and look out for each other. Once, Huck lied to some bounty hunters who were looking for Jim in order to protect his friend from being taken back into slavery.

Now he’s the kicker: Huck feels terrible about having protected Jim because he’s been raised in a society where Christianity has been used to justify slavery, and he therefore not surprisingly believes that those who help slaves escape “go[] to everlasting fire.”  He feels that it’s been moral weakness on his part to protect Jim when he “knows” that the “right thing” would have been to betray Jim. Then Huck gets a second chance to do just that. He writes a letter telling Jim’s owner where he can be found and captured. Then he waffles about whether to send it:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.  (284-85)

Huck Finn thinks he is making a kind of devil’s bargain. His vow to “take up wickedness” and do it “whole hog” are versions of Satan’s vow in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my Good” (Book IV.109-110). But the context is quite different: by accepting evil as his good, Satan is rejecting God, and the norms of Paradise Lost are pretty clear on this point: rejecting God makes you wrong. If Paradise Lost assumes that God’s side is the right side, and that to choose another path is therefore wrong, Huckleberry Finn is clearly an anti-slavery text, which means that when Huck refers to the thought of not betraying Jim as “awful thoughts” and “wickedness” he is speaking against the norms of the text. You need only look at the long paragraph above to see plenty of evidence that Jim is a good guy who’s been kind and protective towards Huck. Yet Huck can’t help but think, because of his upbringing, that not betraying Jim is wrong. So because his heart tells him to stick with Jim instead, Huck can only see it as a willing act of self-damnation: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

Twain put it nicely, I think, when he says that in this moment “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat” (qtd. in Kaufman 463). Huck’s heart is sound because it instinctively pushes him to protect his friend Jim despite the protests of his “deformed” moral conscience, which tells him that protecting an escaped slave is wrong. But poor Huck is unable to see that he’s done a good thing, so his insistence that he’s done a bad thing makes him unreliable: we need to read through his words in order to see what the text really means.

One of the difficulties making this case convincingly is because we all (I’m assuming) agree that slavery is bad, so it can be hard to tell the difference between “the narrator is wrong because he says slavery is right, and I hate slavery” (this would be our reaction even to a sincere pro-slavery text, where the narrator would be pro-slavery but not unreliable–because he speaks for the norms of that pro-slavery text) and “Huck is wrong because he says slavery is right, and the text gives us evidence that he’s wrong in saying so” (this is our discovery that the narrator is unreliable). The same is true of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, of course.

The take-away lesson from all this is that you need strong evidence to show that the narrator is unreliable. With a naive narrator like Huck Finn, it is not hard to see the evidence. With a sophisticated and erudite narrator like Humbert, however, readers are never safe from being swept up in his gorgeous prose and convinced by his fallacious arguments, and thus overlooking the ample evidence Nabokov placed throughout the text to undermine Humbert’s assessments, values, and arguments. As you read on, then, keep a keen eye out for evidence that would stand up in court: it has to prove or strongly suggest that the text means something opposite to what Humbert says. Happy detective work!

Words cited
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Kaufman, Will. “Mark Twain’s Deformed Conscience.” American Imago 63.4 (2006): 463-74.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room. Ed. Thomas H. Luxon.  04 June 2015.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Putnam, 1962.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper, 1912.

Notes on the Final Essay, on Metafiction, and on the Perils of *Lolita*

On the essay:

The final essay is due June 16, but there are bonus points to be had (added to your Exercise in Style) if you submit a working thesis to me, in the body of an email (no attachments), by 11:59 on June 9. Be sure what you send it a thesis, with a “what,” “how” and “why.” If it makes it easier, you can actually break down your thesis into those three parts.

Please carefully read the essay topic you choose (assuming you’re not developing your own). Make sure you understand what the question asks and all the terms in it. If in doubt, check with me.

Also carefully follow my instructions on formatting, and read my essay pointers and bugbears. Doing so can only help improve your essay.

On metafiction:

Luigi Pirandello’s “A Character’s Tragedy” (1913) and Flann O’Brien’s “Scenes in a Novel” (1934) anticipate by several decades one of the primary techniques of what we call postmodernist fiction, whose practitioners include Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker. These techniques were not entirely new even when Pirandello used them: we find them in, among others, Don Quixote (1605-1615), Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1761), E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinion of the Tomcat Murr (1819-1822) and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartus Resartus (1836).

In Pirandello’s “A Character’s Tragedy,” what is Dr. Fileno’s tragedy?

How are Pirandello’s and O’Brien’s metafictional stories more than just amusing games, though they are also that?

On beginning Lolita:

Every one knows that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator. Well, “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (9), what evidence can you find to prove he is unreliable?

Work cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. Toronto: Vintage, 1991.

“What they call an impasse.”

Here are some question to consider as you continue and finish reading Good Morning, Midnight.

1. What does Sasha fear most? Why?

2. Sasha uses the phrase “the end” in multiple ways. How is this significant?

3. Rhys devotes two full pages to an anecdote about a woman from Martinique (79-81). Given the concision and economy of Rhys’s style, so much attention to this woman, whom Sasha never actually meets, must be significant. What do you think?

4. Consider the significance of this passage:

The film goes on and on. After many vicissitudes, the good young man is triumphant. He has permission to propose to his employer’s daughter. He is waiting on the bank of a large pond, with a ring that he is going to offer her ready in his waistcoat pocket. He takes it out to make sure that he has it. Mad with happiness, he strides up and down the shores of the pond, gesticulating. He makes too wild a gesture. The ring flies from his hand into the middle of the pond. He takes off his trousers; he wades out. He has to get the ring back; he must get it back.

Exactly the sort of thing that happens to me. I laugh till the tears come into my eyes. However, the film shows no signs of stopping, so I get up and go out. (Rhys 90)

5. Or this one:

Tomorrow I must walk into that cafe and go to that same table on the terrace and have a drink. But when I think “tomorrow” there is a gap in my head, a blank–as if I were falling through emptiness. Tomorrow never comes. (Rhys 133)

Work cited

Rhys, Jean. Good Morning, Midnight. Toronto: Penguin, 2000.

On Jean Rhys’s *Good Morning, Midnight*

But first, because you’re working on author imitations and/or parodies, check out Shane Ryan’s “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII,” The James Joyce (Ulysses, not Portrait) parody is especially good, though the Kerouac comes close. And, while you’re at it, try out Mark Paglia’s “Famous Authors Narrate the Funny Pages,” which is even better and closer to the reading list from our course (though familiarity with the newspaper comics would help a lot). My top picks from this one: Hemingway, Faulkner, Borges.

I should also mention for those who were away that I’ve extended the deadline for the first assignment from tomorrow to Tuesday June 2. I will be accepting them tomorrow or Friday or Monday, however, and will be marking and returning those papers first. I mention this because the new deadline considerably reduces the time between you getting my comments on the first assignment (which are designed to help you do better on the final essay) and the June 9 deadline for submitting a working thesis for bonus points. So I’d advise an informed decision about whether to take up this extension or not.

Anyway, as you begin Jean Rhys’s novel, consider the following questions:

  • How do you relate Sasha’s story to the epigraph, the Emily Dickinson poem that gives the novel its name?
  • What are the symptoms of Sasha’s problem, whatever that problem may be?
  • Is it “the art of power” or “the power of art” that seems most appropriate to Sasha’s needs and predicament? Why?
  • What’s with the talking rooms and streets?
  • What do you make of the (I think hilarious but also depressing) flashback to Sasha’s job, when the English boss asks her to bring an envelope to the “caisse”?

Good luck with your assignments. Remember that no narrative style and no narrator is innocent–by which I don’t mean that they are guilty, but rather that they are all biased or, more accurately, that any story could be narrated differently–but a different narrator or several narrators. Because of this, every word choice, every stylistic move, every formal device means something (because it could be told otherwise). Imagine Good Morning, Midnight if it were told by the narrator of Passing instead of by Sasha herself….

Additional question for Tuesday–on Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily”

In addition to the questions posed in the previous post (see below), I’ll ask you to pay particular attention to the following sentence in the last section of “A Rose for Emily”–and especially to the passage in bold.

Try to parse this out and see if you can figure out exactly what the narrator is saying about time and about the old men’s misunderstanding of time. Ask yourself, too, whether this may have something to do with the story’s very non-chronological narrative.

They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men –some in their brushed Confederate uniforms–on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years. (William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”)

Opaque Characters, Modernist Fiction, and Larsen’s *Passing*

Before getting to the question of narrative ethics and Iris Murdoch’s call for literature as a complement to philosophies of freedom, here are a few questions to consider as you read Passing:

  • Who is right: Irene or Clare?
  • Larsen like Joyce uses motifs, though perhaps less obsessively. I would invite you to track in particular the “red” motif first introduced with Clare’s “pathetic little red frock” (2), quickly echoed in the “brilliant red patches [that] flamed in Irene Redfield’s warm olive cheeks” (3) and then throughout the novel. How does the recurrence of this colour complement or complicate the novel’s themes? what are those themes?
  • Like Borges’ “The South,” Passing favours symmetries that complicate the plot’s apparent realism with a strange sense of formalism. Can you find examples of this symmetry?
  • Once you’ve finished the novel, consider Jack Bellew’s answer to his wife Clare’s question, “What difference would it make if, after all these years, you were to find out that I was one or two per cent coloured?” (29). What is the larger significance of his answer–I mean to the treatment of race in the novel, as well as to Jack’s final outburst (91)?
  • The obvious meaning of the novel’s title is passing for white, but Passing‘s concerns are much more expansive than race alone. How else might this novel be about passing?
  • How much insight into the novel can be gained through the deceptively simple device of the love triangle?
  • Reading Passing, what can we make of the analogy between “reading a story” and “reading a person” that we first discussed in relation to Woolf’s story?

Another digression before we start. Reading the penultimate sentence of Portrait, we stopped to consider several words that make that sentence so rich and perplexing: “millionth,” “uncreated,” “forge,” “race”…. I suggested that looking up the word “encounter” could be more interesting than one would assume. Although all of you surely ran home and looked up the word in the OED, here are my own findings.

The etymology and history of usage of a word doesn’t not determine its meaning, but they do inflect that meaning. You could think of these as working like the motifs, but along a historical axis. Any way, the OED tells us that “encounter, v.” derives from the “Old French encontrer, a Common Romanic word, = Provençal encontrar, Spanish encontrar, Portuguese encontrar, Italian incontrare < late Latin incontrāre, < in in + contra against.” This is suggestive, given that Stephen’s attitude towards reality has always been somewhat reluctant or adversarial; his choice of the verb “encounter” may therefore hint at a continued wariness of reality rather than a new acceptance of it. Sense 2a of the verb, says the OED, is “To go counter to, oppose, thwart; to contest, dispute,” though this meaning is no longer used in English. Sense 3a, also now obsolete, is even more suggestive: “To be placed opposite, or in opposite directions, to (each other).” But remember: the etymology doesn’t dictate the meaning, and “encounter” has connotations that are less negative. Sense 4a, which is still in usage, defines to “encounter” as “To meet, fall in with (a person or thing), esp. casually,” though this meaning need not be literal–it can also describe a figurative meeting (with reality, for example). These are just a few of the word’s nuances, but you can see that it gives Stephen’s vow just that much more complexity.

Finally: Thursday in lecture I mentioned Melba Cuddy-Keane’s claim that modernist fiction is especially well suited for dealing with the problem of ethics in a pluralist world, because it is more accommodating of difference and indeterminacy and less compelled to taking principled stands, than philosophical ethics. I also mentioned how Iris Murdoch’s notion of “the opacity of persons” (20) is helpful in understanding what Woolf is up to in “An Unwritten Novel,” just as it should help us look back on Portrait and anticipate our discussion of Lolita. In her essay “Against Dryness” (1961), Murdoch makes a claim for fiction similar to Cuddy-Keane’s. I quote a part of that essay here because it helpfully illuminates the issue of difficulty, the slipperiness of interpretation, and the uncertainty that attends every aspect of the fictions we are reading. It is also a wonderful example of philosophy meeting literary theory with the satisfying clarity of good prose:

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian, and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it…. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons…. [The Christian mystic and philosopher] Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention. / It is here that literature is so important…. Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. (Murdoch 19-20)

The bolded passages above shine a particularly helpful light, I think, on the difficulties of reading and interpreting modern fiction. Modern fiction is difficult because we are difficult, especially in our interactions with each other and with the world more generally. Not to pay attention to detail and to difference, not to be curious about detail and difference, is to fail to encounter specificity and otherness on their own terms. It is easier, but dangerously misguided, to think that things and people are simple–that the world reflects ourselves. This is the solipsism we’ve already talked about in this course and that will become acute in the case of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. The view that the world is simple is what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” and it is incompatible with a critical and analytical frame of mind.

Modern fiction is difficult because a well-balanced and considered interpretation of fiction, as of real life, can’t be easy without ignoring the very real complexities of even the most trivial encounters with others–such as imagining the life of a stranger on the train. We will need the healthy curiosity mentioned by Murdoch, a curiosity that includes not only paying attention to the nuances of language (that is, close-reading) but also acknowledging and accepting that judging characters and their actions in the works we read is never straightforward or easy. Nella Larsen’s Passing is an excellent place to start with this. I think the question, “Who is right: Clare or Irene?” is a meaningless question because it assumes a right that doesn’t exist, I think, in the world of Passing. Incidentally, Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954) is a must-read, and not only because it’s much funnier than the quotation above might lead you to expect.

Works cited

“encounter, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.

Murdoch, Iris. “Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch.” Encounter 88 (1961): 16-20.

P.S. Did anyone notice the weird coincidence? Look at the word from Portrait I explored; now look at the name of the journal in which Murdoch published her essay; now look at the title of Part I of Passing. Eerie.

On Woolf’s “Unwritten Novel” (and preliminary thoughts on Larsen’s *Passing*)

Virginia Woolf’s story “An Unwritten Novel” (1921) is challenging because, like Portrait, it doesn’t explicitly differentiate between the “facts” and the interpretations (in Portrait this translates to uncertainty about whether we’re seeing Stephen’s optimism or an “actual” triumph by the character). “An Unwritten Novel” can be read as Woolf’s rehearsal for her 1922 novel, Jacob’s Room, in which she departs radically from her (relatively) traditional earlier novels The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) and develops a fragmentary form that is difficult even by Woolfian standards (it’s a tougher read than Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse; it also contains some of her most gorgeous writing). The anecdote recounted in the short story is, in fact, adapted and included in Jacob’s Room.

What is Woolf up to in this story? Why is it called “An Unwritten Novel”?

It’s a disorienting read–why would Woolf make it so hard to navigate between what’s happening before the narrator and what’s happening in her imagination?

How would a reading of this story benefit from a reminder of Nietzsche’s insistence on the precedence of interpretation over fact, or of Derrida’s claim that there is no outside-the-text (hors-texte)?

Reading the story, consider the following quotations from Woolf’s famous essay “Character in Fiction” (1924), which like Jacob’s Room retells the “plot” of “An Unwritten Novel”:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. (425)

For the following quotation from the same essay, it’ll be useful to remember Woolf’s quibbles with “the materialists” Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H.G. Wells in the essay “Modern Fiction.” “Mrs Brown” is Woolf’s name for that which fiction attempts but fails to capture: “character” in general or “human nature”:

Mr [Arnold] Bennett has never once looked at Mrs Brown in her corner. There she sits in her corner of the carriage—that carriage which is travelling, not from Richmond to Waterloo, but from one age of English literature to the next, for Mrs Brown is eternal, Mrs Brown is human nature, Mrs Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out—there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers has so much as looked at her. They have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at her, never at life, never at human nature. And so they have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death. (430)

Do not expect at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of [Mrs Brown]. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs Brown. (436)

What Woolf says above and in “An Unwritten Novel” should also prepare us for the deceptive simplicity of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), whose protagonist (and focalizer) Irene Redfield bears some resemblance to Woolf’s narrator. This novel is “about” race in America, but it is also about character and also about encounters with the Other in general; you might even say that the very idea of character in fiction is inevitably “about” how to see Otherness.

Work cited

Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. III: 1919–1924. Ed. Andrew McNeillie London: Hogarth Press, 1988. 420-36.