Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cathy Ames: East of Eden

                                                       *SPOILER ALERT*

    "East of Eden" is remarkable, truly one of the most life-changing, visionary books I've ever read. It is a beautiful retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in the Salinas Valley in California. Cathy Ames, the main antagonist of the book, is like a reincarnation of Eve; the difference is that Eve created sin, while Cathy embodies it.
     Cathy is completely, unequivocally evil. Even from a young age, she is murderous and sexually depraved, confounding her dutiful parents and her friendly, church-going community. She has an unceasingly pessimistic view of humanity; she believes that everyone out there is just as evil as she is, but they don't have the guts to show it or act upon it. Depraved, cruel, and as callous as a snake, Cathy goes through life manipulating people, mostly men, into giving her what she wants. When she cares to, she can appear kindhearted, but it's a ruse she detests. Men tend to trust and admire her, but only because of her striking beauty. She hates them, but uses them to achieve her own goals.
      After elaborately murdering her own parents, Cathy finds herself married to Adam, a man so good and so kindhearted that she can't stand the sight of him. Adam is a bit like Forrest Gump; so sincere and humble that he cannot fathom that his pretty wife whom he adores could possibly be the conniving trollop that his brother warns him she is. Like Eve, Cathy singlehandedly brings down the small, loving world of the Salinas valley with her deceit and cruelty, ultimately isolating her family from the rest of the world. After giving birth to twin sons, whom she attempted to abort, Cathy shoots Adam through the shoulder and abandons the family. When asked if she had wanted to kill him and simply failed, Cathy snarls "If I'd wanted to kill him, he'd be dead. Just ask my parents."
       After abandoning her heartbroken husband and infant children, Cathy becomes a prostitute in town. Hers is a house full of the darkest form of sexual depravity. While whorehouses are strewn all over the valley, but offer only the service you'd expect, Cathy's brothel is for those whose sexual desires are repugnant, dark, and disgusting, too much so far even a regular prostitute to cater to. With her beauty and ability to sense another's guilty pleasure, she soon becomes the madam of a very profitable house, and becomes something of an urban legend whispered throughout the town.
       Cathy's ultimate trait is her parasitic nature. Other than being pretty and crafty, she doesn't have much and tends to leech onto others and literally drain them of their energy and life source. Most of her victims are men, whom she slowly but surely breaks down with her sexual perversions and cruelty. She then takes everything they own and leaves those who loved them to pick up the pieces. When men frequent her whorehouse, they leave knowing that she keeps proof of their obscene behaviors, and so is able to elicit anything she wants from them. She is a keeper of guilty secrets, and therefore a powerful force to be reckoned with.
       Her twin sons know nothing of their mother's whereabouts. They believe that she is dead, and as they grow, they are taught to believe that she is in heaven. This causes one of her sons to be very religious, believing that if he lives a good life and studies his Bible daily, he'll be reunited with her again. His twin brother is more like his mother, mean-spirited and callous, and as the ultimate act of revenge against a slight in their late teens, ultimately reveals to his brother that their mother is alive, even showing him where she is. Cathy's cruelty truly knows no bounds. When she learns that her saintly son has been so devastated by the truth of her location that he causes his own death, she laughs.
        Some critics have dismissed Cathy as a ridiculous character because her innate evil doesn't lead to anything. She doesn't seem to have a goal or an aim, so her cruelty comes across, to some, as difficult to believe. However, I believe that is the point: She is a monster, completely and totally, and therefore provides a sinister villainess for the ages. Steinbeck notes in the book a fascinating conclusion and observation:

"I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?"

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

    Lewis Carroll's Alice may be one of the most recognizable and culturally relevant characters ever invented. The novel is a runaway classic, and it has been made into countless films, poems, parodies, and plays, and has become a staple of the counterculture. Tim Burton's dark take on the story become one of the biggest grossing films of the year, proving that the story of a little girl encountering strange and unusual creatures is still relevant and popular today.
    Alice is a delightful person who undergoes various changes as the novel progresses. At the beginning, she is curious and perhaps a little too smart for her own good. She isn't content to sit and listen to her sister read. When the opportunity for adventure comes along, she dives right in, not yet savvy enough to consider the consequences. However, Alice's love of nonsense is challenged left and right. It is clear that Alice has been raised a privileged child in the Victorian era; she is educated, (thought no so much so as she would like to think,) self-entitled, relatively used to things going her way, and spoiled. Despite all this, she has been reared vigorously in the stringent notions of good manners, and therefore tries to be kind to everyone she meets, if only at a surface level.
     Wonderland, unfortunately, is a place brimming with characters who are dismissive and blatantly rude. People are callous to her left and right, and those who do speak to her write her off immediately. She's insulted and berated by everyone she meets, challenging Alice's strict rules about courtesy and manners. When faced with this unkindness, Alice clings desperately to her raising, and is confused when the world doesn't give it back to her. It is Alice's desperate normalcy that brings about her apparent madness towards the end; trying to stay with the normal reality she knows in an obviously abnormal place is enough to give on an identity crisis, and so it is with Alice.
      Her famous conversation with the Caterpillar reveals Alice's personal confusion. When he asks her who she is, she replies, "I... I hardly know, Sir, just at present-- at least know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." All the peculiar insanity of Wonderland has taken its toll on her sense of self, and it is only during this revelation that Alice begins to mature. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is a book about a young girl learning that school knowledge can only get you so far, that not every problem has a solution, and that not everything makes sense. This inevitable loss of childhood innocence is a tragedy in itself, and Alice rises to the occasion. By the end of the novel, Alice has been transformed from a bored, spoiled little girl into a child more aware of the world around her, and this curious transformation has given the world one of the greatest novels (and heroines) in the history of literature.

Kathy and Ruth: Never Let Me Go

Ruth and Kathy
Never Let Me Go

    Kazuo Ishiguru's "Never Let Me Go" is not a classic at this moment, but I have no doubt that it will be one day. Therefore, I have no hesitance about discussing it in this blog. This book is a modern masterpiece in the classic style, and manages to be an incredible romance and a captivating look at the value of human life, and the film made from the book is exceptional as well.
     The story is about Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, three children being raised in an idyllic British boarding school. They are given the best education possible, and are taught art as well as other subjects with the finest curriculum available. They are made rigorous and healthy, as their personal health, they are told, is of paramount importance. As children, they learn not to question their origins or their purpose in life, but as they grow older, they learn that they have been designed with a specific purpose. They will not live to become shopkeepers or actors or bankers. They will not live very long at all. They are being raised for the sole purpose of growing older and donating their organs to others. After a maximum of four donations, they will "complete," and their brief lives will be over.
      The story plays like a science fiction, and it certainly has science fiction elements, but the story is told in such a classic style that the sci-fi elements do not get in the way. At its core, this is a story about humanity, and how we as a society are prone to deciding whose lives are best wasted and whose are valued above all others.
    The narrator is Kathy (played by Carey Mulligan in the film), who is smart, capable, and naive, and yet innately sensible. She often sees through the ruses of others, but is too much of a submissive person to say much on her own behalf. Her best friend is Ruth (Keira Knightley), who, for reasons of her own, doesn't want to accept her lot in life. While Kathy never allows herself the hope of dreaming of a better future, since it simply won't happen, Ruth spends her childhood, and even her adolescence,  fantasizing about things she might do when she grows up. She particularly fancies being an actress. Their friend Tommy is Ruth's boyfriend; he is a passionate, insecure person who is known to be goodhearted, but violently unstable. Even as a child, he is prone to wild rages that leave him the laughingstock of their school.
     The great juxtaposition of Kathy and Ruth is how they handle the life set out before them. Ruth is the caretaker, the leader of their little band. When they are released from their school and sent out into the real world with nothing more than a foggy purpose and a few books, Ruth works hard to make sure the world doesn't treat her as a specimen. She tries to blend in with others, copying their behaviors, pretending she has forgotten her past (and her future), and dragging Tommy and Kathy along in her fantasies, despite their objections. She and Tommy are dating, but she is clearly the one in charge; she is even known to bully Tommy just to provoke him.
       Kathy sees through Ruth's pretentious nature and is annoyed by it, and yet is too concerned about her own affairs to call much attention to it. She loves Tommy and understands him far better than Ruth does, and it seems that Tommy actually cares for Kathy as well. It is merely Ruth's commanding nature and his own easy nature that keeps him with her. Kathy narrates the story dryly and with warmth and sincerity, speaking the way one does when one has accepted one's life completely. In the end, Kathy is proven to be the stronger one; Ruth's crippling insecurities and fears lead her to complete earlier than expceted, and in the end, Tommy and Kathy are left to venture on a brief journey toward meaning, or rather, the question about whether their lives have meaning at all.
      This is a brilliant work full of moving characters, and it is worth a read and further examination. Kathy and Ruth are dynamic characters who gently portray how frightening and cruel it is to not be in charge of your own life, and further, who lonely it is when you discover that your life doesn't matter to anyone but you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Melanie Wilkes (Gone with the Wind)

   Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett's sister-in-law, serves to act as a bit of a doppleganger to Scarlett, as well as her polar opposite. While Scarlett reacts to hardship by becoming harsh and cold, Melanie's good nature never wavers; however, she is far from a victim. She is merely living the life she was taught to lead, regardless of the circumstances, and one could say that despite her imminent hardship, her life is lived far more happily than Scarlett's.
      Melanie is raised to be proper, pretty, ornamental, and artistic, and as a teenager, she is well-versed in literature, art, and music, hobbies that Scarlett finds detestable. She is the product of many generations of inbreeding, and, as one of Scarlett's more crass neighbors observes, "She's had the fire bred clean out of her." Highly modest and sincerely sweet, Melanie makes up for her lack of physical beauty by winning the hearts of the entire county. She is generous, unfailingly courteous, and reveres her husband as the intelligent, well-bred man that he is.
      Unlike Scarlett, Melanie welcomes domesticity. In fact, Scarlett's own child, Wade, is more or less raised by his aunt rather than his mother. Aunt Melly always had a game to play or a kind word to say, and his mother had neither. Melanie even risks her own life twice in order to have children of her own, and her son, Beau, is her pride and joy.
     An interesting note about Melanie is how much she seems to enjoy physical intimacy with Ashley. Of course, this isn't mentioned, for a polite Southern woman would never mention sex, much less admit to enjoying it, but the author, Margaret Mitchell, notes the timid flush of excitement on Melanie's face at bedtime. Scarlett, on the other hand, goes out of her way to avoid physical intimacy. Given the personalities of the two, one would think these roles would be reversed.
     During the war, Melanie is the living embodiment of patriotism. She nurses at the hospitals until she is nearly exhausted, she gives her last scraps of food to passing travelers, and she takes special care to write to the mothers of those who die in the hospital. While any level of patriotism Scarlett feels is tinged with selfish apathy, Melanie's true-blue heart believes in the Cause fervently, and she worries daily about the beloved husband who left her behind.
      Nonetheless, after the war is over, Melanie doesn't sink into depression or nostalgia. She adapts to her new lot in life rather quickly, and with good grace. While Scarlett's sisters protest having to work likes slaves, Melanie does the work of two men without complaint. This unyielding determination, so unexpected from her sweet-spirited sister-in-law, wins Melanie a begrudging respect from Scarlett.
     Despite Melanie's unfailing devotion, Scarlett continually attempts to steal her husband. Ashley's honorable notions do not allow him to physically be unfaithful to his wife, but Mitchell suggests that he and Scarlett are having an emotional affair, longing for each other while lying in bed with their spouses. It is never made clear whether Melanie genuinely doesn't believe the allegations of infidelity, or if she just knows Ashley too well to believe them, or if she believes and simply doesn't care. She is unfailingly loyal to her sister-in-law and her husband, regardless of what the neighborhood says about them.
    The great difference between Scarlett and Melanie is how hard times affect them. When the chips are down, Scarlett morphs into a wild animal, clawing her way to the top regardless of how many fools she must suffer along the way. Melanie accepts change with a steady, unyielding good grace. Her situation may change, but she will not; no matter what happens, she believes in kindness, courtesy, loyalty, and honesty, and virtues such as those do not go away when times are hard. If Scarlett is a wild horse, Melanie is a steel magnolia in the grand Southern tradition: delicate and pretty, and yet tougher and stronger than anyone knows.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scarlett O'Hara: The Tragedy in Three Acts

   Scarlett O'Hara, the vain and volatile protagonist of Margaret Mitchell's romantic Civil War epic "Gone with the Wind" has become something of a legend. Brought to life vividly through Mitchell's acutely observant novel and given a face in an immortal performance by Vivien Leigh, Scarlett has become a heroine in the great traditions of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elizabeth Bennet, and Lady Macbeth, and her story has become a legend of stage, screen, and literature. To some, she's a vile character who could be classified as the modern bitch. To others, she's a feminist folk hero, a woman who eschewed the gender roles thrust upon her since birth and clawed her way to the top of an unclimbable ladder. Some even see her as a great tragic romantic heroine, like Shakespeare's Juliet. I would dare say she's a mix of both, and like most truly polarizing people, she is running her own agenda and leaves it up to us to make sense of it if we want to.
      Scarlett begins her life as the spoiled, haughty daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in rural Georgia. She's the oldest of three sisters and the prettiest of the three, with a fiery intelligence that isn't fitting her station. While her mother and her stern mammy have tried to train her to be meek, flirtatious, and innocent, Scarlett sees this as a pretense to catch me. She has no real desire to actually be feminine, but merely to give the appearance of being feminine, and her main goal in life is men. She desires praise, popularity, and above all things, to be in control, even as a sixteen-year-old girl, and she's extraordinarily single-minded. Despite how popular she is with men, she only has her heart set on one: Ashley Wilkes, a childhood friend who is imaginative, moody, vacant, and intelligent in a way she cannot fathom. Ashley enjoys books, music, and poetry, and Scarlett's highly uncreative, analytical mind cannot wrap around the idea that words can have two meanings. She doesn't understand him, and because he is a mystery to her, she adores him entirely.
      Ashley is engaged to marry Melanie, his cousin, who is just as quiet and vacant and interested in books as he is. Scarlett loathes Melanie for her prim, modest ways, and her jealousy over their marriage never completely goes away. After Ashley refuses her love, Scarlett marries Melanie's silly brother, Charles, who promptly dies in the war. As the Civil War rages through the South, Scarlett finds herself the unspoken head of Melanie's household, although she never asked for the position. In her early years, Scarlett does her best to shirk her ever-increasing burden of dependents and financial problems, issues that she never would have had to bother with before the war. Her mother groomed her to be ornamental and ladylike, and Scarlett finds herself entirely unprepared for a war-torn society that suffers from starvation, homelessness, and disillusionment.
      By the end of war, Ashley has refused her time and again, and now she is the mother to Charles' child. She is also the caretaker of Melanie, Melanie's baby, and a handful of slaves. There is no food, no water, and no prospect of money, and Scarlett, used to being spoiled, petted and made much of, bitterly resents the course, bitter hand that she has been dealt. However, she is imminently practical, and resents the wispy nostalgia of those around her who refuse to meet life where it is. In the face of invaders, starvation, and potential homelessness, as well as the loss all the love she held dear, Scarlett becomes what no woman in her society should be: hard, fearless, and independent.
      The second half of the novel is entirely devoted to Scarlett's ventures into being a "modern woman." She runs a business and is successful at it, much to the chagrin of her entire society. She rubs elbows with the Yankees, the Carpetbaggers, and whoever else she believes will help her succeed. She doesn't like them; she loathes them, but her brutal fear of starvation and her proud determination to stand her ground is far more intense than her dislike. Scarlett is a ruthless and coldhearted businesswoman who bullies her husband, servants, and children with reckless rage. She has three children by her various husbands, all of whom she ignores and thrusts onto other people. Between being uninterested in her children and succeeding where most men have not, Scarlett finds herself to be a virtual pariah in her society, and she realizes that there is a price to be paid for being yourself and saying what you think.
     A running theme of the novel is about how one's reputation can make or break your standing, regardless of whether or not that reputation is rooted in truth. Scarlett's reputation is grows from scandalous to deplorable, and while a sweet smile and a thinly-coated veil of gentility can fool some, it will never fool others. If one deviates too much from the norms, one runs the risk of isolating oneself from everything one knows. By the end of the novel, Scarlett has money, power, and, at long last, and security, but she has lost everything she didn't know she loved. She has bid herself against the rigid standards of societal expectations, and there is a price to pay; when she is lonely, no one comes to call except Melanie, whose loyalty to Scarlett has never wavered, despite Scarlett's blatant attempts to steal her husband. 
      What should Scarlett have done? Should she have married men she didn't love for their money, held fast to the pretty ideals of old Southern society and suffered and starved with her good reputation and gentility intact, as so many others did? Did she do the right thing by fighting, clawing, and gambling her way to the top, just as men do? One cannot say; "Gone with the Wind" is an epic story about a very incredible woman who made choices that no one could make, pulled the load of seven men, and still lost in the end. There is punishment enough for a woman who steps out of line, no matter how noble the cause.
      And yet despite the slight tragic streak in Scarlett's story, many cannot look past her generally conniving and selfish attitude. That is their prerogative, but I believe that if one is truly to read "Gone with the Wind," one must see past the veneer of hard, vain self-indulgence that is Scarlett O'Hara. She is a person who was born for one life and had another one thrust upon her, and in the face of that abrupt change she grabbed life by the horns and refused to let it drag her where it will. Even in our society today, many consider a woman who eschews motherhood and domestic life and plows coldly ahead in a world set against her to be "bitchy." 
     Perhaps Scarlett's story isn't truly a novel, but more of a a lengthy parable in three acts. The beginning is a hopeful, romantic girl, the middle is a bewildered female suddenly carrying a man's load, and the third is a grown woman who has done the work of three men and is isolated for it. However, despite all this, Scarlett is also an unfailing optimist. With her famous last line, she defines the true spirit of who she is. "I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
     It is indeed.