Tag Archives: allegory

Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.

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Thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

It had been many years since I read this tale, so reading it again felt fresh and exciting. I had never realized how much of a surreal vibe this story has. The strangeness of the scenes, the bizarre coloring of the various rooms, all instill a dreamlike quality to this story that really places it ahead of its time. Additionally, Poe employs brilliant symbolism and metaphors to create a rich work of art in very few pages.

The first thing that struck me while reading this again was the parallels between the Red Death and Ebola. It is almost like Poe had a prophetic vision of the Ebola outbreak.

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

One of the key symbols in this story is the clock. Amid the partying and the revelry, whenever the clock chimes, the revelers pause and become somber, then resume their festivities when the chiming is done.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly;

The clock serves as a symbol for mortality. We have a limited amount of time in this life, and we will all eventually die. The clock is a reminder to the revelers that death is imminent. They can hide behind Prince Prospero’s walls and attempt to ignore the reality of death that is rampant outside, but the clock reminds them, regularly, that they too will eventually die, and each chime brings them closer to death.

As the night and the masquerade move on, the clock eventually strikes midnight, symbolizing the threshold between life and death. At this moment, a stranger appears wearing a mask that mimics the effects of the Red Death.

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood –and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

This brings us to the other key symbol, the mask (or masque). While masque implies the masquerade party, it also refers to the masks that the participants wear. So what Poe is trying to convey here is that the revelers are entertaining themselves to hide, or mask, the fact that they are going to die. They dance and party and float through a bizarre dreamlike fantasy imagining that they are somehow safe from death, trying to mask their fear of death through distraction. Occasionally, the clock chimes and they are reminded, but then the masque resumes and they again mask their mortality, pretending all is well as death takes another step closer.

In the past few years, I have known many people who have died, and this is making me very aware of my own mortality. While I feel healthy and I hope to live a good many more years, I know that with each chime my time is lessened. But there is no need to obsess. Instead, I will put on my masque and proceed with the dance which is life.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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“The Devil in the Belfry” by Edgar Allan Poe – Time, Chaos, and the Disruption of Order

devilbelfry

I was not sure what to expect from this tale, having neither read it before nor heard of it until I happened across it in my anthology. It is a very short parable about deviation and disruption of order, and the chaos that ensues as a result.

The story is set in a town called Vondervotteimittiss. Very early in the tale, the narrator explains that he does not know the history of the town’s name, which implies there is some significance to the name.

Touching the derivation of the name Vondervotteimittiss, I confess myself, with sorrow, equally at fault. Among a multitude of opinions upon this delicate point—some acute, some learned, some sufficiently the reverse—I am able to select nothing which ought to be considered satisfactory.

The name of the town is a sort of Germanic transliteration and play on words, so the town should be pronounced “wonder what time it is.” The key then to understanding this story is the importance of time as a constant.

The town of Vondervotteimittiss is built in a circle, symbolizing a clock and the eternal cycle of time, which is a constant. The town is comprised of “sixty little houses” which represent the sixty minutes and sixty seconds which are the foundations of time. In addition, the steeple in the center of town, which houses the great clock, has seven sides with seven clock faces, symbolizing the seven days of the week, another important symbol of time and structure.

The great clock has seven faces—one on each of the seven sides of the steeple—so that it can be readily seen from all quarters.

The final number to keep in mind is twelve, which are the numbers on the clock face and the number of months in a year.

So one day, a stranger comes into town, and the way he is described conjures the image of the devil, or possibly the trickster archetype. He commandeers the clock tower, and as the clock strikes twelve noon, he causes the clock to chime once more, making it 13 o’clock.

“Twelve!” said the bell.

“Dvelf!” they replied, perfectly satisfied and dropping their voices.

“Und dvelf it iss!” said all the little old gentlemen, putting up their watches. But the big bell had not done with them yet.

Thirteen!” said he.

Thirteen is considered an unlucky number and portends evil and disruption. What Poe is expressing here is that deviation from the norm, disruption of the perfect order of things which is symbolized by the steadiness of time, results in chaos, which is exactly what happens in the town of Vondervotteimittiss.

Meantime the cabbages all turned very red in the face, and it seemed as if old Nick himself had taken possession of every thing in the shape of a timepiece. The clocks carved upon the furniture took to dancing as if bewitched, while those upon the mantel-pieces could scarcely contain themselves for fury, and kept such a continual striking of thirteen, and such a frisking and wriggling of their pendulums as was really horrible to see.

We now accept time as something relative, but for millennia, time was the constant, so the thought of what we view as stable crumbling is a sign of chaos and collapse. I look around us and we have created an illusion of stability, but I cannot help but see the potential for chaos at the slightest deviation.

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“October” by Robert Frost

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

This is a gorgeous poem that draws on images of autumn as a metaphor for growing old. If one considers the seasons as symbolic of the cycle of human life (spring/birth, summer/youth, fall/maturity, winter/old age and death), then it is clear that the speaker in this poem is in the later stages of maturity and sensing the closeness of death, represented by the leaves beginning to fall from the trees. Once the leave are all gone, that symbolizes the time of death before the cycle begins again.

He entreats the leaves to fall slowly, “for the grapes’ sake.” I see the grapes as a metaphor for his children. Fruit is a frequent symbol for offspring, such as in God’s instruction to be fruitful. Anyway, the poem’s speaker is not ready to leave his children. He still feels connected to them, they are still part of his vine. It’s possible he feels they have not ripened or reached maturity.

The image of amethyst caught my attention, and I related to it, since I am already seeing the leaves around my home getting tinged with purple. Anyway, something told me to do a quick search on some of the meanings and properties of amethyst and I found something very interesting. The word amethyst comes from Greek mythology and is connected to Bacchus and grapes.

The name Amethyst derives from the Greek word ametusthos, meaning “not intoxicated,” and comes from an ancient legend. The wine god Bacchus, angry over an insult and determined to avenge himself decreed the first person he should meet would be devoured by his tigers. The unfortunate mortal happened to be a beautiful maiden named Amethyst on her way to worship at the shrine of Diana. As the ferocious beasts sprang, she sought the protection of the goddess and was saved by being turned into a clear, white crystal. Bacchus, regretting his cruelty, poured the juice of his grapes over the stone as an offering, giving the gem its lovely purple hue.

(Source: Crystal Vaults)

I really liked how this myth ties into the poem. It adds a whole other level of interpretation which I find moving.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope that your autumn days are full of beauty and inspiration.

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“The Oblong Box” by Edgar Allan Poe

OblongBox

I generally avoid spoilers in my posts, but this is such a compact story, it is impossible to write about it without discussing the end. Having said that, now is your chance to stop reading if you need to. If you are interested in reading the text online, you can do so here: Edgar Allan Poe Society.

For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea. Mr. Wyatt and his deceased wife, whose body is hidden within the oblong box, represent our dual nature: masculine/feminine, body/spirit, anima/animus, and conscious/subconscious. One cannot exist without the other, which is why at night, when Mr. Wyatt is in his cabin alone, he opens the box so that he can attempt to reconnect with his other half.

In this manner, I fancied that I could distinguish the precise moment when he fairly disengaged the lid — also that I could determine when he removed it altogether, and when he deposited it upon the lower berth in his room; — this latter point I knew, for example, by certain slight taps which the lid made in striking against the wooden edges of the berth, as he endeavoured to lay it down very gently — there being no room for it on the floor. After this there was a dead stillness, and I heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak; unless, perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing or murmuring sound, so very much suppressed as to be nearly inaudible — if, indeed, the whole of this latter noise were not rather produced by my own imagination. I say it seemed to resemble sobbing or sighing — but, of course, it could not have been either. I rather think it was a ringing in my own ears. Mr. Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was merely giving the rein to one of his hobbies — indulging in one of his fits of artistic enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast his eyes upon the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in this, however, to make him sob. I repeat, therefore, that it must have been, simply, a freak of my own fancy, distempered by good Captain Hardy’s green tea. Just before dawn, on each of the two nights of which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places, by means of the muffled mallet.

As the ship is sinking, the result of the hurricane, Wyatt realizes he left the box onboard. He panics, instinctively knowing that part of him is being returned to the divine source and he cannot tolerate that split within his psyche.

“The box!” vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing — “the box, I say! Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will be but a trifle — it is nothing — mere nothing. By the mother who bore you — for the love of Heaven — by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!”

Wyatt jumps from the lifeboat to retrieve the box and the body of his wife, and they are both pulled down into the depths of the ocean, symbolizing their reunion with each other before ultimately returning to the divine source, or the Godhead.

As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for as such only could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the companion-way, up which, by dint of a strength that appeared superhuman, he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we gazed in extremity of astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of a three-inch rope, first around the box and then around his body. In another instant both body and box were in the sea — disappearing suddenly, at once and forever.

I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted. In addition, the story works without the symbolism. You could look at it as the story of a passionate artist who loved his wife so much, the thought of spending the rest of his life without her was just too much to bear. Either way you want to look at this, a great story and one I am sure I will read again.

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“Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This poem is too long to include in this post. For those who need, here is a link to the full text hosted on the California State University website:

Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea

In order to understand this poem, you need to know the three key characters: Cuchulain, a warrior from Irish mythology who served under the rule of Conchubar; Emer, who is Cuchulain’s wife; and the swineherd, Cuchulain’s son who is unnamed in the poem. The basic story which the poem conveys is a reverse Oedipus tale, where Cuchulain mistakes his son and slays him and is then overwhelmed by guilt.

In the beginning of the poem, the swineherd returns home to his mother who had instructed him to watch the shore for Cuchulain’s return. Anguished by her husband’s failure to return, Emer seems to perform an act of sorcery.

Then Emer cast the web upon the floor,
And raising arms all raddled with the dye,
Parted her lips with a loud sudden cry.

Emer then instructs her son to go and camp near Conchubar’s camp where Cuchulain is and to challenge him. Cuchulain, eager for glory, fights with his son and ultimately kills him.

After short fighting in the leafy shade,
He spake to the young man, ‘Is there no maid
Who loves you, no white arms to wrap you round,
Or do you long for the dim sleepy ground,
That you have come and dared me to my face?’

‘The dooms of men are in God’s hidden place,’

‘Your head a while seemed like a woman’s head
That I loved once.’

Again the fighting sped,
But now the war-rage in Cuchulain woke,
And through that new blade’s guard the old blade broke,
And pierced him.

‘Speak before your breath is done.’

‘Cuchulain I, mighty Cuchulain’s son.’

After slaying his son, Cuchulain is wracked with guilt and broods alone, inconsolable. Conchubar fears that Cuchulain will become overwhelmed with grief and will ultimately slaughter all the members of the party. This sets the scene for the final part of the poem, which to me is the most interesting.

Then Conchubar, the subtlest of all men,
Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,
Spake thus: ‘Cuchulain will dwell there and brood
For three days more in dreadful quietude,
And then arise, and raving slay us all.
Chaunt in his ear delusions magical,
That he may fight the horses of the sea.’
The Druids took them to their mystery,
And chaunted for three days.

Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

There is a lot of symbolism woven into these lines. First, we have number mysticism, the numbers ten and three both repeated, emphasizing their importance. The number ten is a reference to the number of sefirot that comprise the kabbalistic Tree of Life, which figures prominently in Golden Dawn philosophy with which Yeats was well versed. Then the number three represents the trinity, as well as the three stages in the cycle of life: birth, life, and death. There are many other mystical connections with the numbers 3 and 10, but this should suffice for the purpose of this post.

The Druids then perform a chant with the intent of evoking “delusions magical.” Basically, the Druids are chanting mystical poetry which after a period of time causes Cuchulain to slip into an altered state of consciousness. The sea is a symbol for Cuchulain’s subconscious. He is thrust into his own psyche and there does battle with himself and his memories. He has no choice but to vanquish his inner demons and self-hatred; if he fails, he will drown in the sea of sorrow and lose touch with the realm of waking consciousness.

This poem works really well as a psychological allegory, but also contains some great mystical and mythological symbolism. I am pretty sure that there is more to this poem than what I included here and that someone who is more versed in Irish mythology would be able to draw deeper interpretations. If you uncover any other symbols or allusions in this poem, please share them in a comment.

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