Race plays an enormous but sometimes subtle role in Zadie Smith’s “The Waiter’s Wife.” It divides characters and it brings them together. Race is what distinguishes Whitechapel from Willesden, the two neighborhoods in which the Iqbals live once arriving in London. According to footnotes on pages 1238-1239, Whitechapel is a “poor district where people of Bangladeshi descent are the largest demographic group” and Whitechapel has “a more heterogeneous population.” While living in Whitechapel, Samad and Alsana were vulnerable to racist attacks from the National Front, a white supremacist group. Yet, once they move to a less racially-defined neighborhood, the attacks stop. Racial differences also play a role in Samad’s interactions with customers, who mispronounce the dish names and don’t care about what he has to say. Alsana also demonstrates racism against Clara in certain instances, such as her first impression of her on page 1238 and the way she talks about her while fighting with Samad on page 1242 (Smith). This reinforces the fact that people within a minority group can hold prejudices against other minority groups.
Class is also a driving force in the story. Smith outlines the Iqbals’ year-long struggle to move into a better neighborhood on page 1239, describing how Alsana had to sew clothing she didn’t recognize and Samad’s experiences as a waiter. Page 1239 mentions that Samad was unable to find a job as a food inspector, which forced him to become a waiter. While making fun of him, Shiva also reveals that Samad attended Delhi University, so it’s likely that Samad was qualified for the job but was turned down for other reasons—perhaps for being an immigrant (1240). This suggests that race and class are intertwined, each affecting the other.
Though not quite as prominent as the others, war is an underlying theme within the story. Samad and Archie met while fighting in World War II and, despite their differences, became extremely close friends. Alsana also notes the husbands’ war experiences by describing them as having “One leg in the present, one in the past…Their roots will always be tangled” (Smith, 1248). Toward the end of the story, when the three women are talking to Sol Jozefowicz, there’s a subtle nod to the character’s personal experience during World War II. As the footnote on page 1247 explains, Sol Jozefowicz is Jewish and Eastern European. According to Namespedia, Jozefowicz appears to be a surname mainly found in Poland. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, states, “On the eve of the German occupation…3.3 million Jews lived [in Poland]. At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews remained alive, the rest having been murdered…” (2019). When Alsana asks Sol on page 1247, “The murder of innocents—is this funny?”, it’s clear that the question reminds him of the atrocities he and his family faced during the war.
Gender has one of the most profound impacts on the story. It dictates the expected roles and duties for the characters and creates conflict when they are not carried out as they “should” be. Samad criticizes Alsana for not cooking homemade meals like his mother did, while Alsana tells Neena and Clara that each new thing she learns about Samad makes her like him less. Alsana refers to Neena as “Niece-Of-Shame,” and though it’s never stated what Neena did to bring shame, my guess would be that she did something to break traditional gender roles. Neena also discusses her aversion to the idea of having boys because of the destruction they have caused throughout history, especially with the World Wars. The division between men and women has a strong presence within the story.
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Despite being published nearly thirty years ago, I found several details that were jarringly relevant to modern American society. On page 932, Gordimer describes guns as “domestic objects” as she writes about “children playing a fatal game with a father’s revolver.” It’s certainly disappointing to see that we’ve made such little progress in gun control during the past three decades. Another line that stuck out to me came from page 934: “Although a man of such standing in the district, Van der Vyver had to go through the ritual of swearing that it was the truth” (Gordimer). To me, this implied that Van der Vyver should have automatically been believed due to his political power. It felt especially relevant given the MeToo movement and how to this day powerful politicians are more likely to be believed no matter how many women come forward with their stories. I also noticed the words “their truth about the country” on page 932 (Gordimer). The phrase sounds similar to the words “fake news” that we hear so often. Both versions promote the same idea: anything that goes against what a certain political party believes should not be seen as the truth, which is a wrong and dangerous mindset to encourage.
There isn’t much at all about kudu symbolism, but I did find out that Jewish people used their horns as a traditional horn for Rosh Hashanah.
The final line can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically. It’s possible that Lucas really was Van der Vyver’s biological son—Gordimer writes on page 935 that Lucas’s grandparents had worked for Van der Vyver’s father, so Van der Vyver probably knew Lucas’s mother and might have grown up with her, or at least around her. She and Van der Vyver seem to be the only ones staring at the grave without looking at anyone else, which gives them an odd similarity or connection. However, given his support for the Immorality Act, it doesn’t seem very likely that he would have a child with her. Rather, stating that Lucas was his son could be seen as Van der Vyver feeling a human connection with Lucas just before the gunshot—that “moment of high excitement” described on page 935 (Gordimer).
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The two women at the beginning of Marlow’s journey remind me of the Fates from Greek mythology. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “the Fates were personified as three very old women who spin the threads of human destiny.” Though there are only two women in Conrad’s story, they are shown “knitting black wool” on pages 79 and 80. Marlow describes one of them as seeming “to know all about them and about me too…she seemed uncanny and fateful.” The women’s eerie presence seems out of place in the narrative, but they add to the story’s overall theme of life and death.
One of the images that jumped out at me while reading is how Marlow describes the river as a snake on multiple occasions. It has ties to the tempting and ultimately dooming symbolism snakes hold in the Bible. In Genesis 3, a snake convinces Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had specifically instructed her and Adam not to do. When she and Adam eat the fruit, they rebel against God for the first time and thus introduce sin into the world. Due to the snake’s role in this story, snakes often symbolize evil in Western art and literature. In the case of Heart of Darkness, the temptation of Africa’s resources causes Britain to commit atrocities.
There are some distinct parallels between Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow repeatedly states that Kurtz only existed as a voice in his mind until he met him. He couldn’t come up with a mental picture of him. On page 92, the unnamed narrator says, “It had become so pitch dark…For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice” (Conrad). Both Marlow and Kurtz exist only as voices at certain points. Later, the Russian trader says, “[Kurtz] made me see things” (Conrad, 114). This seems connected to Marlow’s words to his audience on page 92: “Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” (Conrad). Despite his eventual disgust with Kurtz, Marlow still mirrors him in many ways.
One of the most striking aspects of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway is the stream of consciousness writing style. She jumps from head to head, exploring each character’s thoughts in unique voices, personifying everyone with a different accent or style of speech. Everyone has their own individual lives, problems, and reactions. Despite their differences, however, it’s clear that everyone is connected, even if they only meet once, like when Maisie Johnson runs into Lucrezia and Septimus Smith on page 297 (Woolf). Everyone leaves an impression on each other, whether for an instant or a lifetime. It’s up to each of us to decide whether we want the impressions we leave to be positive or negative.
As I read, it really felt like I was hearing the direct thoughts of Clarissa. On page 304, Woolf writes, “her—what was it?—her thimble, of course.” It’s similar to Ariel’s line in The Little Mermaid: “What’s a fire, and why does it—what’s the word?—burn!” It’s a tiny detail, but it makes Clarissa so relatable, because we’ve all forgotten words for simple things before.
Septimus Smith seems like such a random character in the story, but his plotline offers insight into a mind suffering from PTSD. Lucrezia reveals on page 296 that Septimus had been a soldier in World War I, and his hallucination on page 297 suggests that he’s seeing the dead, including a possible comrade named Evans. According to the introduction on pages 282-284, Woolf experienced a lot of psychological hardships, some of which likely stemmed from her half-brother abusing her as a child. She also suffered from bipolar disorder. Both Woolf and Septimus were undiagnosed and their problems often ignored. In the book, Lucrezia says that “Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him,” which leads her to be more concerned about her husband making a scene than his actual well-being (296). Footnote 2 on page 297 explains that Septimus’s psychotic episode might have been based on a breakdown that Woolf herself experienced in 1904. Despite war and abuse being two different kinds of trauma, we can see that they have similar effects on those who experience them. Woolf incorporated her experiences with mental illness into Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps to give others a firsthand look into what it’s like to live each day in such a state.
What makes the story so beautiful is how Woolf accentuates the sights, sounds, and sensations of everyday life. She paints ordinary things in such a pleasant and serene light. I think most of us have the tendency to rush through life with only an end goal in mind, and it blinds us to the beauty of the journey itself. While Mrs. Dalloway tells a story, I think it also serves as a reminder to slow down and appreciate all that goes on around us everyday.
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“The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats uses a lot of religious symbolism, as one might expect. In line 2, he writes, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” According to Symbolism Wiki, “In Christian symbolism, the wild falcon represents the unconverted, materialistic soul and its sinful thoughts and deeds. The tamed bird symbolizes the Christian convert pursuing his lofty thoughts, hopes, and aspirations with courage.”
The falcon is likely humanity, and the falconer might represent Jesus. According to the Bible, as the world grows nearer to the end times, many people will stop believing in Jesus and turn instead to false prophets. Matthew 24:10-11 in the Bible says, “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (biblegateway.com). Without a falconer, a falcon becomes wild, which represents how people will stop listening to Jesus and turn to sinful ways of life.
Even a century after this poem was written, I think a lot of people my age can relate to the anticipation of an oncoming end that this poem expresses. With issues like our planet being destroyed and gun violence becoming routine, it’s hard to find hope that things will be better someday. Yet it’s comforting, in a way, knowing that we’re not the first to feel so cynical. It’s like the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel: the world has always been a mess, and this is nothing new.
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” Yeats writes in line 6. This reminds me of a quote from the film Platoon: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” I’ve never seen Platoon, which is about the Vietnam War, but I think the words can apply to every war. World War I introduced a new era of warfare, one that was more brutal and horrifying than previous fighting styles. Throughout the Western world, an entire generation of young men like Yeats must have felt like they lost their innocence in such a traumatizing war.
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Stevenson’s subtle placement of details is what really strikes me about his writing. One of my favorite examples is the difference between Dr. Jekyll’s and Mr. Hyde’s footsteps, with Mr. Hyde’s being light and Dr. Jekyll’s being described as a “heavy creaking tread” (p. 791). Mr. Hyde’s gait is likely due to his lack of remorse. He doesn’t carry a heavy burden of guilt, as Dr. Jekyll does. We also see signs of depersonalization in Dr. Jekyll’s letter as he describes his experiences in both first and third person. He seems to have become confused and detached from his own identity, given that he has essentially split it in half.
The critical role that salt plays in Dr. Jekyll’s formula suggests that it may hold more symbolism than it appears to. The Wikipedia article “Salt in the Bible” states that “In various contexts, [salt] is used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.” Stevenson reveals in Jekyll’s final letter that the “first salt supply was impure, and that it was that unknown impurity which lent efficacy to the draught” (p. 809). Given its mostly positive symbolism in the Bible (which was a rather popular book in the Victorian age), if salt were to become contaminated in some way, then it could be considered “evil,” and its usage in Dr. Jekyll’s drink might symbolically result in Mr. Hyde’s character.
When connected with the theme of friendship, the split between Dr. Jekyll’s/Mr. Hyde’s identity reminds me of how one person can leave a hundred different impressions on a hundred different people. For example, the way my mom sees me is probably very different from how my best friend sees me. The way I view myself even varies from day to day. Every single person I know has a different impression of me, and none of them are fully accurate because they can’t know every single thing I do, say, or think. In the case of this story, Mr. Hyde can represent a secret part of Dr. Jekyll’s identity that no one, aside from himself, knows about. Mr. Hyde represents Dr. Jekyll’s darkest, most secret desires. I wonder, then—if someone who loves me were to encounter the manifestations of my deepest desires, would they still love me? Or would they be disgusted, as Dr. Jekyll’s friends are disgusted by Mr. Hyde?
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The sonnets of George Meredith’s Modern Love offer haunting descriptions that allude to a married couple’s fading love. Sonnets 16 and 17 are particularly visual and subtly woven with a sense of entrapment. These two people are clearly locked in a loveless marriage in a society that does not offer a respectable way out.
Sonnet 16 gives readers a glimpse into a quiet, intimate moment between the couple as they watch a fire in their library fireplace. Almost immediately, there seems to be a similarity drawn between the burning fire and the couple—as if they are staring into a mirror. In line 3, Meredith writes, “Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow” and finishes the phrase in the next line, “Among the clicking coals…” This separation is likely deliberate, since the red chasm symbolically refers to the rift growing between the couple, but in the literal sense it describes the fire. It’s interesting how Meredith uses fire to represent love dying out as opposed to its typical “passionate” sense.
Sonnet 17 describes the couple hosting a dinner for their friends. The very first line establishes their roles: “At dinner, she is hostess, I am host” (Meredith). This reinforces the strict gender roles of the Victorian era. Meredith includes macabre language and imagery in order to illustrate the “death” of their marriage, as well as how the couple probably feels dead inside. In line 4, he notes of their friends, “They see no ghost,” which implies that there actually is a (metaphorical) ghost that the couple has covered up. Meredith also mentions a game he calls “Hiding the Skeleton” in line 7, which he describes as “contagious” (line 6). Despite the couple’s lack of love, they still share a sense of camaraderie, since they’re both stuck in a secret situation that only the other understands. They play their roles so well that they make their guests jealous of their “love” (line 14). This suggests that these guests may be trapped in similar situations—if their marriages were truly perfect as Meredith’s couple’s appears to be, then would they have a reason to be jealous? In line 16, Meredith closes the poem: “Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.” With some research, I found that “corpse-light” is another word for “will-o’-the-wisp.” Merriam-Webster states, “Eventually, the name will-o’-the-wisp was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal” (2019). The usage of “corpse-light” in Meredith’s sonnet can function as both a creepy image and an analogy suggesting that a perfect, loving marriage cannot exist.
Image Source: https://medium.com/@antiquitea/that-victorian-couple-their-steam-powered-blog-and-fetishizing-of-the-victorian-era-f9c5ff9e04c2
Florence Nightingale opens Cassandra with a dagger of a question: “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity—these three—and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” (p. 672). This first line establishes a sense of urgency, which appears to stem from her desperate desire to choose her own path in life.
One of the prominent differences between men and women that she explores is how each sex is expected to spend their time. Men had (and continue to have) more time to pursue their own interests, whereas women were (and still are) expected to engage in busywork, socialize, and take care of children. As Nightingale points out on page 674, society views man’s time as “more valuable than woman’s” and “that woman has confessedly nothing to do.”
Some people today stand by the saying, “Everyone has the same 24 hours; we can make time for our priorities.” However, I think Florence Nightingale might have disagreed. Since women were and are expected to “willingly…be interrupted at all hours” to cater to others’ needs, they have little time to pursue their own interests, leisures, and projects (p. 674). Therefore, men were and are given more time for their priorities.
Clearly, society places more value on the product of man’s work than on woman’s, which in turn assigns higher value to men than women. Yet, why should people’s value come from their products as opposed to their own selves? Florence Nightingale wrote this piece around the time of England’s Industrial Revolution, an era notorious for valuing production over human lives and wellbeing. This obsession with product over people shows itself in both gender and economic inequality.
An interesting detail I noticed was that Nightingale refers to a child as “it,” as in “its knees” and “itself” (p. 673). This also popped up in a few of the other readings, which raises some questions about how children were viewed in the Victorian Age. How closely were they expected to adhere to the strict gender roles of the period? How much did their socioeconomic status affect these expectations, given that lower-class children typically had jobs to help support their families? Since these children were forced to grow up so quickly, it’s possible that gender roles were imposed upon them from a very early age. However, since women often worked alongside men, how separate were the “separate spheres” for the working class?
Finally, I’d like to discuss the title. As noted in the piece’s introduction, Cassandra is a reference to a Trojan princess from Greek mythology who could foresee disasters but was cursed so that no one would believe her. Much like Cassandra, the idea that women could and should be equal to men was often dismissed and ridiculed in Nightingale’s time. However, Nightingale makes a prediction of her own: “…there shall arise a woman, who will resume, in her own soul, all the sufferings of her race, and that woman will be the Saviour of her race” (p. 676). While I don’t think any one woman has singlehandedly established gender equality, Nightingale was right in that women would rise up and challenge the limitations imposed by gender. While much of Cassandra still rings true today, it’s exciting to see so many movements dedicated to making the world a more equal place.
Note: I think I might have a slightly different version of the book, as the page numbers are different from those listed in the course schedule.
Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra