Twentieth century literature - Sample Essay

Twentieth century literature often portrays the relationship between men and women as deeply problematic’. By comparing and contrasting three texts, discuss to what extent you agree with this view. This essay will address the way various relationships between the opposite sexes are represented in selected texts from Katherine Mansfield, Harold Pinter and Carol Ann Duffy, whose works pertain to different periods of the 20th century. My aim is to compare and contrast their texts in an in-depth exegetical study in order to exhibit different treatments of these largely problematic relationships.

To begin with, I shall consider Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss”. Upon its publication, “Bliss” was subject to much divisive criticism; Virginia Woolf, who hitherto admitted to being “jealous”[1] of Mansfield’s writing, deemed it “poor”[2] and “cheap”[3], whilst T. S. Eliot praised the “skill with which the author has handled perfectly the minimum material. ”[4] The story in “Bliss”, as in The Homecoming, takes place over the course of a single day; this narrative strategy provides the story with tension and is in keeping with the Aristotelian unity of time.

The protagonist, Bertha Young, is a romantic and idealistic character, whose childish personality is reflected in the style of the writing: non-sequitur conversations, stream of consciousness, elaborate use of ellipsis, reiteration and exclamations marks which suggest Bertha’s strength of emotion, and paragraphs written in free indirect style, a technique often employed by modernist writers. “Bliss” opens with a conjunction, “although”, thereby disorienting the reader. By not providing a back story, Mansfield subverts the conventions and encourages the reader to pursue her own interpretation.

Harold Pinter likewise employs this approach in The Homecoming. As Martin Esslin communicated in The Theater of the Absurd, “Pinter, in search for more realism in theater, rejects the well-made play for providing too much information about the background and motivations of each character. In real life, we do not have all this information. ”[5] As a result, the play’s earliest critics found it overly cryptic and failed in attributing a meaning or merit to it, but modern literary critics have defended ambiguity as “a source of poetic richness rather than a fault of imprecision.

“[6] The Homecoming indeed shocks its audiences due to the seemingly inexplicable motivations of the characters. In “Bliss”, the word “pals” which Bertha uses to refer to the relationship between her and her husband, Harry, establishes that its nature is non-sexual. Cardinal themes of the story are female sexuality, female homoeroticism and infidelity. The first allusion to the lack of sexuality in Bertha’s life is given by the animal imagery of the two cats, whose sight “so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.

” Bertha is seen trying to reawaken Harry’s sexual interest in her by dressing up in a combination of the colours white and green, colours reminiscent of “the white flesh of the lobster” and “the green of pistachio ices” which roused in Harry a “shameless passion”. However, what appears to elicit a passionate response in Bertha is not her husband but Miss Fulton, Bertha’s “find”, whose mere touch causes a “fire of bliss” within her.

The most telling symbol of Bertha’s attraction for Miss Fulton is manifested in their gazing at the pear tree (“to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon. ”) The phallic symbolism of the pear tree suggests Bertha’s sexual revival. Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem where the phallus represents the very body of the poem. “Frau Freud” is one of Duffy’s most controversial poems from The World’s Wife anthology as it notoriously features thirty synonyms for the word penis, synonyms which are mostly, if not all, invented and used by men.

Here, the purpose of showing a woman’s usage of male-originated slang does not aim to defeminize the woman but, through the resulted incongruous effect, to make a case of the male nature of verbal aggression. Through conveniently reversing Freud’s concept of “penis envy”, Duffy generates both a declaration of defiance and a comment on the dichotomy between men and women. The dipodic meter, often used in nursery rhymes, highlights the immaturity of men. Moreover, “Frau Freud” is a sonnet, and as we typically associate sonnets with love, beauty and nature, the sonnet structure serves to strengthen the ironic dimension of the poem.

The female characters in my chosen texts are often presented as being either vulnerable to the predatory nature of men, or as being at a loss to men in a way that is usually dictated by society, or as being “consumables”. The latter is especially developed in “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” when the bride is wearing a dress which gives her “the appearance of an iced cake all ready to be cut and served in neat little pieces to the bridegroom”. Akin to this grotesque display of patriarchal societies is Duffy’s “Pygmalion’s Bride” (“What he’d do and how”, “clammy hands”).

This poem displays Pygmalion as a man frightened by independent or free-willed women who sculpts and gives life to what he envisions to be the ideally pure and virginal woman: perfect, but cold, unhappy and soulless. She is the victim of a sculptor’s selfish passion, a sculptor who wants to mold not as much her body as her identity. Furthermore, Pygmalion’s bride is subjected to male aggression (“I heard him shout”; “Nails were claws”), an aggression similarly witnessed at the ending of “Frau Brechenmacher”, where the protagonist covers her eyes “like a child who expected to be hurt” as Herr Brechenmacher “lurched into the room”.

The physical movement suggested by the verb “lurch”, its long vowel sound and its animalistic and predatory qualities altogether point to the helplessness of the female protagonist. In The Homecoming, the way women and men relate is reduced to bestial levels, as viewed in the gendered animal imagery about the fillies (“they’re more unreliable, did you know that? ”) or through the repeated use of “bitch” as an insult, usually coming from the supercilious Max. As the play progresses, Pinter delves more deeply into the theme of emasculation.

The inversion of repressive gender roles (or, in non-feminist accounts, of repressive social roles) is captured particularly well in Max’s words: “I gave birth to three grown men”. Max’s statement could easily be dismissed as an effect of erratic speech, but in fact it reveals a “feminine” side of his nature which wishes to bear life, to nurture and to be possessed. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, Freud observed that in human beings, pure masculinity or pure femininity are not to be found either in a psychological or biological sense.

On the contrary, every individual displays a mixture of the character-traits belonging to both sexes[7]. In Pinter’s play, Max shows no typical female traits, but quite possibly hides them behind his display of violence – both physical and psychological –, heightened manly attitude and behind objectifying the opposite sex. For instance, Lenny’s comment on how Max “used to like tucking up his sons” implies this maternal side of his father and a history less callous than the life as it currently is on their domestic battlefield.

“Go and find yourself a mother” further supports the theory that Max resents having a woman’s role, that role being, in 1960’s society, of a housewife bound to the kitchen. I now wish to shift the focus to Duffy’s intended purpose in writing The World’s Wife. Although “Anne Hathaway” in particular is not a feminist poem, unlike the majority of the others in the anthology, Duffy could be seen as ventriloquizing Anne Hathaway and, by doing so, implying that she did not previously have a voice.

Hence, the perspective of the feminist remains ubiquitous as the function of “I”, or the lyrical voice, is to embody the universal feminine. As Virginia Woolf argued, if Shakespeare would have had a sister she would not have been allowed to be heard. [8] It could be that, prior to the feminist waves, the internal fantasy world was richer in women because they were not permitted to act accordingly in the external world. This concept is reflected in “Daughters of the Late Colonel”, namely in Constantia’s reverie towards the end of the story.

Her reverie is an insight into the fleeting revelations of a better life; tragically, despite the Colonel’s death which a more optimistic writer might have paralleled to women’s suffrage, Constantia and Josephine remain cursed to live the same life marked by hopeless, incessant longing (“And after that, it seemed to me, they died as surely as Father was dead”[9]). “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” could be viewed in light of Mansfield’s background. The theme of lost opportunities tragically pervades the play, and a reader’s knowledge of Mansfield’s death by consumption further enriches their perspective upon the reading.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that Mansfield was sneering at the “old tabbies” in “Daughters of The Late Colonel”, but Mansfield herself denied it: “It’s almost terrifying to be so misunderstood. There was a moment when I first had the idea when I saw the two sisters as amusing; but in the moment I looked deeper, I bowed down to the beauty that was hidden in their lives”[10]. The controlling behaviour of their father has as consequence the women’s excessive conformity, inability to think independently and repression of pleasures or desires.

The title itself implies the daughters’ sublimation and lack of autonomy, since they are referred to in relation to the colonel, and not as unique individuals. A tribute to both Shakespeare’s use of language and his love-making, “Anne Hathaway” is a celebration of language as much as it is a celebration of the sexual act. Shakespeare himself was not oppressive towards women, quite the contrary, in his works the woman is generally depicted in an elevated, loving manner; this saves him from being a target of Duffy’s incisive lines.

The poem uses a sensual treatment of language which emphasizes the similarity of the sensual delight found in the construction of a poem and the sexual act alike. It doesn’t slavishly follow the traditional sonnet form or even the sonnet argument form comprised of the counterparts of the octet and sextet. It uses a mixture of half-rhymes, full rhymes and blank verse, whilst the masculine, monosyllabic last line creates a sense of finality.

From this poem we get the sense that Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare have worked in parallel, just as the language does here; they don’t seem to dominate one another, and so power does not constitute an issue as it does, for instance, in Teddy’s relationship with Ruth in The Homecoming. This is most in evidence in the first act, when their characters are introduced; Teddy and Ruth’s mirroring conversation exposes the ease with which Ruth causes Teddy to vacillate by utilizing her words as weapons. As Esslin observed, “the main action of the piece shows her taking possession of territory while Teddy is being dispossessed.

”[11] The theme of marriage is handled in Duffy’s “Mrs. Aesop” in a contrasting manner, in that the open, vulnerable quality of “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” or of “Bliss” is replaced herein by bitter sarcasm. Duffy confirmed that this poem is an exploration of the “quiet desperation”[12] in which married couples find themselves, a theme which comes to light in the simile “slow as marriage. ” Through Mrs. Aesop’s strong character, Duffy depicts the implications of living with an old-fashioned moralist and communicates a darkly humorous impression of relationships.

References to Aesop’s fables are scattered throughout the poem, but inversed and ironically adapted in order to suit the poem’s ridiculing tone. It depicts Mrs. Aesop’s ennui and contempt caused by her husband’s pedantic (“he stopped and made a note”) and moralistic nature, and possibly by his impotence (as suggested in the sexual euphemism “cock that wouldn’t crow”). The poem uses internal rhyme (“prepossess, impress”), a modern technique which retains the structure of the poem without having to employ the overt, stilted end rhyme of traditional poetry.

The enjambment in “the sex/ was diabolical” has the effect of emphasizing the two words, whilst the slang, colloquial language and extra clauses altogether contribute to the comic effect. Moreover, the caesurae and the one word sentences act as throw-away lines, unexpected and shocking in their force. The end of the poem symbolizes the revenge of the woman, as expressed in a triumphal tone through the use of alliteration: “Cock that wouldn’t crow”; “I laughed last, longest”.