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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Term Paper 2

The Wife of His Youth: Reconnecting The African-American Family

The Post-Bellum period was a time of adjustment in American history. The Civil War divided the nation, but another effect of the Civil War was that African-American families were divided and displaced as well. Combine the effects of the Civil War with the institution of slavery, the African-American family was fractured in many ways: literal separation of families was a common occurrence; an inherent hierarchy between the house slaves and field slaves existed; the mixing of races created intra-racial bias between lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks; as well as other various influences that fractured the African-American family structure. The family has long been regarded as a source of strength among human beings. It is customary to apply the general term family to describe a collective group of people, which transcends blood ties and refers to the group as a whole. Therefore, for the survival and prosperity of African-Americans in the Post-Bellum period it was imperative that the family be reconstructed and reconnected. Charles W. Chesnutt’s story “The Wife of His Youth” is an attempt to reconnect the African-American family. The struggle and conflict of the story is one that Karl Marx would state as a class struggle. The acknowledgement of the slave marriage between the central characters Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane is a symbolic unity of the African-American family and all disparate facets of African-American culture and conquering of the class struggle. Charles Duncan states, regarding Chesnutt’s fictional works, that “his fictions, especially the works collected in “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, repeatedly concentrate in the individual families struggling to preserve or, more often, to remake themselves in the turbulent end-of-the-century American milieu” (1). Chesnutt accomplishes this familial unity in multiple ways. One such way you can perceive this feat in “The Wife of His Youth” is that in this narrative he constructs an elite social circle of lighter skinned blacks called the Blue Vein society, which can be considered a metaphorical disconnect of Afro-American culture within the family. The art of storytelling is another medium in which Chesnutt unifies the African-American family. In “The Wife of His Youth” storytelling is a pivotal motif because it connects the teller and listener of the story to the story itself. Essentially the story serves as a self-identification process and an acknowledgment of the past. Finally, one can examine Chesnutt’s motives for writing, his attitudes toward race, and the place and time in which he wrote to aid in further analysis.


The Blue Vein society is an elite social group of light skinned blacks -- nearly white -- who considered their purpose “was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement” (147). The term “among a people” is an exclusionary reference to mean the “people” of the group as those with lighter skin, which referencing their skin tone being their “social condition.” Solely those belonging to this group are the ones who have “unlimited room for improvement,” as opposed to the excluded darker skinned brethren’s room for improvement being limited, if any room exists at all. A Marxist critique can interpret this as a class struggle. Regarding the aforementioned quoted sentence, Lorne Fienberg writes “Chesnutt evokes the ongoing process of judging the social elite in a single dazzling sentence which itself enacts the process of crossing over the Blue Vein’ lines of exclusion” (4). In the narrator’s description of the Blue Veins, Chesnutt sets up a need that both lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks need to come together in order to rejoin the disconnected African-American family.


Mr. Ryder is considered “the dean of the Blue Veins” (147). The story begins with his intentions to host a ball in honor of Molly Dixon, at which he planned to propose to her. By all intents and purposes Ms. Dixon is literally the belle of the ball. She has very light skin, even “whiter” than Mr. Ryder. The union of Mr. Ryder and Ms. Dixon is a favorable one, especially from the prospects of Mr. Ryder. At this point in the story Mr. Ryder aspirations are to be close to white as possible as gleaned from his inner thoughts: “I have no race prejudice…but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black” (148-149). He continues to theorize that, “the one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step” (149). Here the reader observes a blatant disconnect in the African-American family. Although one may be of mixed race, according to social prejudices and the laws of the state at that time, a person is considered non-white if he possess even an eighth of “Negro blood.”


Ms. Molly Dixon, who is the proposed future wife of Mr. Ryder, is the polar opposite of Mr. Ryder’s past wife Liza Jane: As fair as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane is dark; as educated as Mrs. Dixon is Liza Jane is ignorant; as young as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane is old; as articulate as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane converses in dialect. Liza Jane is described as “old,” “her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles,” her hair is depicted as “short gray wool,” “ she was very black, -- so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue” (150). In Mr. Ryder’s life, Liza Jane represents the acknowledgment of the past as Ms. Dixon represents aspirations of the future. Therefore, Mr. Ryder’s decision to acknowledge his slave marriage to Liza Jane, especially since he was not required by any decree of law or circumstance, is a reconnection of the Afro-American family to acknowledge the past and moving on toward the future as an interconnected family unit.


Storytelling was an essential part of African-American life. Slavery demanded an institutionalized illiteracy; therefore, story telling among the slaves was an important aspect to their culture in many ways. The narrative was used to teach, entertain, as well as aid those who chose to escape slavery. In “The Wife of His Youth” storytelling plays a key role in the plot development. Lorne Fienberg focuses on the art of storytelling in her literary evaluation of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth.” Fienberg concentrates on the narration of the tale analyzing the narrator’s tone and choice of words. Within the story an ex-slave character Liza Jane, contrasting the sophisticated tone of both the narrator and Mr. Ryder, tells another story. Mr. Ryder then retells the story to the Blue Veins, but in the retelling of the story he mimics the dialect “that came readily to his lips,” (153) as Chesnutt writes. The retelling of the story “had awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts” (153). The people present, who were of this elite social gathering, were all too familiar with this tale; they have an attachment to this tale, which they avoid acknowledging within themselves. This circle’s aspiration is to assimilate toward white culture and leave black culture behind. Fienberg argues that each retelling of the story is a “critical act of self-identification” (219). Her position is that the telling of the story is not an act of entertainment or passing time idly, but more of an acknowledgement of the past. I view the telling and retelling of the story as a shared suffering. Analyzing “The Wife of His Youth” the reader can perceive the narration as a coming together of black culture exemplified at the end by the acknowledgment of the marriage between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane.


Charles Duncan suggest that the stories in Charles Chesnutt’s collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line represent Mr. Chesnutt’s attempts to ponder and revisit the American family’s ability to resist and transcend racial and social pressures. Duncan gives examples using three of the stories in Chesnutt’s collection illustrating that the families in the stories come close to achieving such a transcendence; however, “Chesnutt seems finally to conclude that the very cure for racial ills – an understanding of, or a coming to terms with, the past – constitutes a sort if poison pill” (281). Duncan further elaborates that the Chesnutt characters’ past sustains but at the same time overwhelms them as they attempt to create an identity construction for themselves, a sort of reformation and affirmation of assimilation.
Charles W. Chesnutt is considered a Negro intellectual in Post-Bellum America. He his one of the first Afro-American authors to get his works published, and the first African-American author to be published in a white reading journal. His reading audience was primarily white. Lynchings were prominent in the Southern states; racial prejudice was widespread. Such was the time and space Chesnutt occupied. Cynthia Lehman writes, “the period within which [Chesnutt] wrote was a critical time for African Americans as they had only recently received economic and political opportunities” (1). She continues to state, “Chestnutt believed that literature was the best means available to change people’s attitudes, because he could shape their interpretations and understanding of African Americans without the majority of his readers realizing his true intentions” (2). “The Wife of His Youth,” viewed in the manner of using literature as a means to shape interpretations, could suggest the acknowledgment of the slave marriage as a metaphor of reconnecting all the aspects of Afro-American culture. However, Ryan Jay Friedman thinks that Chesnutt’s views on race don’t necessarily translate to his fiction works. I disagree with Friedman’s assertion. I believe an author’s personal views will find its way into the author’s works.


Based on the views of Mr. Ryder and the Blue Vein society at the beginning of the story and their acknowledgement of the slave marriage by the end the reader can observe a transcendence. This transcendence is the reconnection of the African-American family. The art of storytelling aids in the transcendence, which leads to only one right conclusion. Mr. Ryder must acknowledge his first marriage. By acknowledging his first marriage, Mr. Ryder is acknowledging his past and bringing together disparate aspects of African-American cultures. Being a pioneer in the nascent genre of African-American literature, Charles W. Chesnutt is using literature as an influence of culture. During his life America was reconstructing itself as a nation. The general perceptions of African-Americans among whites were a low one. Intra-racial prejudice existed among blacks as well. Chesnutt believed African-American culture needed to come together during this time in American history. The marriage in “The Wife of His Youth” is symbolic of African-American culture uniting as one.



Works Cited
Chesnutt, Charles W. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume C, Late Ninteenth Century: 1965-1910. Fifth Edition. Weir, Suzanne Phelps. MA & NY: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006. 147-154

Duncan, Charles. “Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth.” Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath Jr. New York, NY: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. 281-296

Fienberg, Lorne. “Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the black storyteller.” ATQ; September 1990, Volume 4 Issue 3, pp. 219-236.

Lehman, Cynthia L. “The Social and Political Views if Charles Chesnutt: Reflections on His Major Writings.” Journal of Black Studies; January 1996, Volume 26. No. 3, pp. 274-286.

Works Referenced
Friedman, Ryan Jay. “Between Absorption and Extinction: Charles Chesnutt and Biopolitical Racism.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory 63.4 (2007): 39-62

Term Paper 1

Satan As Id

In 1923, Sigmund Freud laid out a groundbreaking tripartite pattern of describing the human personality. The three basic parts are the id, ego, and superego. When analyzing John Milton’s Paradise Lost one can break down the characters of Satan, the Son, and God by using the three basic parts as a blueprint for character assessment. Obviously, not knowing, but Freud would say subconsciously, Milton used archetypal qualities that define the id, ego, and superego in his verbal molding of the characters -- breathing life into them on paper. Satan is the id, the Son has characteristics of the ego, and God possesses the qualities of the superego. Following I will showcase Satan’s id behavioral traits.

The id is the hedonistic, animal nature that Satan embodies throughout the epic. The animalistic nature of Satan is especially apparent in book IV as Majorie Nicolson takes note in her book A Readers Guide to John Milton saying, “the analogies [Milton uses for Satan] are largely animal-imagery” (p. 188). She further notes, “When comparisons are with birds, they are with the cormorant or the vulture, which far off seem grand and magnificent, but which are carrion birds of prey” (p. 188). As Satan makes his way toward Eden, Milton describes him “As a prowling wolf, / whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey” (IV.183-184). To spy on Adam and Eve Satan takes on the form of a lion and then morphs into a tiger. Satan’s final shape is that of the infamous wily serpent. That is the form he contorts into in order to tempt Eve, and consequently it is also the form he is to forever remain punished in.

The id is the innate part of the human personality. After the fall of Adam and Eve the hedonistic and animalistic ways of Satan are now and always innate in Man. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge, falling to Satan’s temptation, Adam and Eve are conversant with evil. They are no longer ignorant of pride, lust, sloth, envy, greed, gluttony, and wrath. After the fall of Man the seven deadly sins have become inherent qualities in man which must be kept in check for one to regain paradise, therefore, at this point paradise has been lost.

The id only seeks immediate gratification, it does not know right from wrong, and has no understanding of what behavior is possible in the real world. Satan displays his ineptitude of behavioral comprehension by falsely thinking he can outshine God in a battle of wits by wiling Man with base artifice. Satan says to himself of how he will fool Man,
I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with gods; aspiring to be such,
They taste and die…
(IV. 522-27).


The id is also irrational, lacks inhibitions, and its only concern is pleasure. It operates according to the pleasure principle, and is not concerned with reality or what is realistically possible. Somehow, Satan has convinced himself that he can beat the Omnipotent in war or out smart the Omniscient – not realistically possible.

The id is part of the three levels of consciousness, but it is the unconscious, that embodies all of the natural drives of sexual aggressive tendencies. In society the sexual and aggressive drives are deemed taboo and therefore lead to conflict. The nuptial intimacy that Adam and Eve shared was not taboo according to Milton:

Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain
But our destroyer, foe to God and man
?
(IV. 744-49).

However, the aggressive passion they shared inspired by Satan, after they tasted the fruit was a taboo; it was lust incarnate:

Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn
Till Adam this ‘gan Eve to dalliance move:
(IX. 1012-16).

After acting upon id aggressive and sexual impulses the human personality may feel guilt. Satan’s aggressive impulse is to challenge God, yet at certain times in Milton’s epic, he shows signs of remorse for deviating from God’s heavenly design and regrets his intention to tempt God’s new creation. In retrospect for warring with “Heavens matchless King” Satan says,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owe not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharge; what burden then?

O had his powerful destiny ordained
Me some inferior angel, I had stood
Then happy; no unbounded hope had raised
Ambition
.
(IV. 54-61).

For a brief moment Satan praises Adam and Eve before he represses his thoughts and gets started on his plan:

Whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formed them on their shape hath poured.
(IV. 362-65).

When Adam and Eve have sex in lust, rather in nuptial love, after their disobedience, Milton describes an emerging guilt burgeoning in their lives. He says,

Innocence, that as a veil
Had shadowed them from knowing ill was gone,
Just confidence, and native righteousness,
And honor from about them, naked left
To guilty shame…
(IX. 1055-59).

Immediately following their lascivious act Adam laments to Eve during their argument that,
How shall I behold the face
Henceforth of God or Angel, erst with joy
And rapture so oft beheld?

(IX. 1018-20).

Adam’s guilt for reacting to his id impulses is overwhelming and has grown full ripe, but unlike that sweet tasting fruit, it is a bitter after taste that is left in his soul.
As I previously mentioned, id is the unconscious. Milton brilliantly describes Satan’s voyage as a quest through the dark abyss. The unconscious part of the mind is a dark abyss that only reveals itself when humans have no way of knowing or controlling it. The dark abyss is a metaphor of the unconscious. Hell is bound in “three folds” of “brass, three iron, and three adamantine rock.” Better words could not have been used to describe the unconscious in a metaphoric sense and Milton did it without knowing. With the assistance of Sin, who forever opens up the gates of Hell, Satan breaks free from Hell’s restraints and wanders through Chaos and Night before he finally reaches Eden. He tempts Man and brings the Hell in Adam and Eve, who previously lived blissfully in ignorance before Satan slithered his way in on the scene.
Milton was aware of the human psyche, but not in the terms Freud had described. He shaped Paradise Lost using the three characteristic traits. Patrick Cook said of Satan in his book, Milton, Spencer and the Epic Tradition, “Even though [Satan] is bragging or vaunting aloud, he is inwardly racked with the pain which his evil causes him. His motives are those most elemental but also most childish: pride, envy, and revenge” (p. 46). The id is considered the child aspect of human personality; it is the only part of the personality that is present at birth. Considering the epic begins in medias res, our first impression of Satan is that of a defiant child. Whatever Satan is told to do he aspires to do the opposite action. He brings Sin into Heaven, rebel against God, and introduces Hell to Man. The Satan of Paradise Lost is the epitome of the Freudian id.


Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors/Seventh Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Milton, John. Paradise Lost pp. 722-853

Cook, Patrick J. Milton, Spencer and the Epic Tradition. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1996

Nicolson, Marjorie H. A Reader’s Guide to John Milton. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977