Dec 23, 2009

Starting points for Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

 Some preliminary notes for study, analysis, and discussion of this great American short story.

Narrator: wife, suffering from hysteria (a nervous disorder)
John: her husband, a physician, practical minded, dismissive of irrationality and emotion
Her brother: (mentioned in passing), also a physician
Mary – a nanny or maidservant
Baby – unnamed, not cared for by the mother
Cousin Henry and Julia – relations to narrator, who wishes to visit with them (request denied by John).
Jennie: John's sister?
Mother, Nellie and the children – relations who visit briefly during the summer stay.
The woman / women behind the wallpaper! more on that later....

A rented summer house on an old estate three miles from a village sitting on a bay shore with its own private wharf. They are renting the house for three months. Why? So the wife can recuperate

Most of the story's setting takes place in one room inside the house, once a nursery, now converted to their bedroom, bars on the windows and yellow paper on the walls.

The room and wallpaper are discussed in quite a lot of detail, which gives us a clue as to the importance of setting in this story.

From the way it is described, do you think the house is haunted?

The story was published in 1892. There is no date given inside the story. we can assume it is contemporaneous with the late 19th century. It's America (4th of July is mentioned). We do know that it is summer and the story spans a three month time frame.

The family arrives at the summer house.
The narrator (wife) describes the house, the room, the wallpaper.
Suffering form nervous depression, she spends much of her time in the room, thinking and writing (or trying to write).
John refuses her request to repaper the room or move to a different room.
She continues thinking about the wallpaper and begins to feel a presence skulking behind it.
The 4th of July passes and a visit with relations is over. She feels tired out from it.
Jennie assumes total care of her.
She cries and is alone much of the time.
She attempts to follow the patterns in the wallpaper, to make sense out of them or follow them to a conclusion.
She wants to visit Cousin Henry and Julia, but John refuses.
She tries to talk with John and asks to leave, but again he refuses.
She becomes convinced that there is a woman behind the wallpaper.
John forces her to lie down after every meal.
She is getting consumed by her fixation on the wallpaper and begins to smell an odor in the house – "a yellow smell."
She sees the woman creeping outside the windows.
She loses trust in John and Jennie – increasing paranoia?
On the last day of the vacation, she pulls the paper off the walls, locks the door, throws the key out the window and creeps along the floor of the room.
John comes home, pounds on the door, pleads her to open up. He finds the key and comes in. Shocked by what he sees, he faints.

Narrative technique
Who narrates? The woman, speaking as "I". This is called first person narration. We see everytyhing from her perspective, through her eyes. Is first person always reliable? not always.

The story is told via entries in a journal or diary. Gaps signify gaps in time. Through this method of telling, we get to hear her talking to herself, externalizing her inner thoughts.

Trapped in this room by well meaning but imperious husband, she is struggling to cure herself, fighting through emotional, irrational, hysteria. The story is a portrait of mental illness.

What about the imagery? What does Gilman's narrator spend most of her time describing or thinking about? The wallpaper. To grasp the story in its fullness, we need to analyze carefully how the wallpaper is described and considered. By doing that, you can construct a map of the woman's psychic responses and emotional state.  Does the paper signify something(s) outside itself? is it symbolic?

A symbol is something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition; a representative or typical figure, sign, or token; †occas. a type (of some quality).

Discussion questions

Who is the woman behind the wallpaper? who are these women creeping outside? Are they symbolic?

What do you make of the ending? why all this creeping?

Quick takes on Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"

In beginning to understand this story, I'd like to follow a two-pronged reading approach. The first prong of attack is to read the story for a basic understanding of its characters, plot, setting, and time frame. After you have the basic gist of what is happening, you move to the second prong: exploring how the story is told, why the story is written the way it is written, and how the story's elements relate to themes, ideas, emotions, history, and other disciplines.

Who? Characters central and peripheral to the story
Mrs. Louise Mallard : a wife, young, "with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength" she also has "heart trouble". We will come back to Mrs. Mallard, for she is the central character in the story.

Mr. Brently Mallard: husband of Louise. What do we know about him? not much….

Josephine: Louise's sister. what is her role in the story? she breaks the news of Brently's death to Mrs. Mallard.

Richards: Brently's friend. He is the first to learn the news of Brently's death, and rushes to the Mallard home to tell them.

Doctors: arrive at the end of the story.

Where does the story take place? 
We do not know. it is near a railroad, it is in some sort of town with an open square. setting is relatively unimportant to this story.

The exact year is not known. We can use the publication date as evidence (1891). We also see mention of a telegram and railroads, which fits with the late 19th century. So it's safe to assume that the story takes place contemporaneous to when it was written.

Although we do not know the year with absolute certainty, we do know what season it is – spring. See paragraph 5. Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour.

What happens? 
News comes of a railroad disaster.
Brently Mallard has been listed as one of those killed.
Richards rushes to the Mallard home to deliver the news.
Josephine, the sister, actually tells Louise (with great care to avoid heart trouble).
We watch Louise's reactions to the news – both her outward expression of shock and grief and her inner thoughts and feelings.
First she weeps, then she removes herself to her room, where she sits in an armchair facing an open window. Her sobs give way to intelligent reflection.
She begins to feel unexpectedly "free", an almost joyous feeling. She welcomes the future and feels liberated by the tragedy.
Louise's sister begs her to open the door. Louise finally does open the door.
She descends the stairs.
Suddenly (our surprise twist), Brently (who has not died in fact) comes through the front door.
Louise, on seeing him, she dies.
The doctors come and declare her dead of heart disease "of joy that kills."

How is the story told? Who tells it?
It's a third person narrator, whose perspective is limited (or is limited in the way the action is unfolded for the reader). The perspective is kept primarily oriented towards Louise – her conscious thoughts.

How told? Actions are revealed in their order of occurrence as they are witnessed by the characters. (As reader, you only see what the characters see). We have no foreknowledge that Brently survived the railroad disaster.

What's the effect of this method of story telling? Well for one, we instantly sympathize with Louise. We have no reason to believe the news of her husband's death is false.

First we pity her, then we feel with her, then we watch her complicated reaction to the news, and as we watch that, we gather more details about her marriage and how Louise saw herself existing in that marriage. She perceives herself as being subjugated.

The narrator of the story also provides a double-edged surprise twist at the end. Husband is not dead, and his arrival home causes the death of the wife.

All her freedom, the life she thinks she has, is snatched away. twists of fate and shocks such as this are not always what they appear to be.

In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. For instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. What is it that is approaching her? Freedom?  Brently? Something else?

Discussion Questions:

Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Do you disapprove of Louise's response to the news? Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Are her feelings justifiable? Should feelings be justifiable?

What kind of marriage do you imagine these two have? 

What is approaching her in the bedroom as she stares out the window and why is she so afraid of it? In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. for instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. what is it that is approaching her? freedom or Brently or something else?

Does Louise experience an epiphany?

In a marriage, which is more important, love or independence? (Is indpendence is a prerequisite to true love?)

How old is Mrs. Mallard? How does Chopin make  her seem older than she really is?

Consider the setting (springtime) how might this relate to what Louise is going through at the time? Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. How so? 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour. Also important. Why? Because this rupture in her life has opened a window of opportunity that didn't exist before. What opens up for the brief space of one hour? The whole rest of her life!

Did the ending surprise you? shock you? outrage you? Do you think Kate Chopin is punishing her character via the surprise ending? Why would an author do that?

On re-reading, what evidence can you find that prepares you for the ending? Did Chopin merely "trick us", or are there clues that can be reinterpreted as hints to the eventual outcome?  cf. paras. 2, 9, 10.

In one sense, the story is about expectations, assumptions, and reactions. Do you always react to news as expected, or in the conventional way? Louise does not. This makes her an interesting, complex character worthy of study. It gives her character dimension, depth. We assume that wives should grieve their husbands when they die suddenly like this. As outsiders looking in, we do not expect that news of someone's death can in any way bring about feelings of liberation and joy. If we were to put ourselves in her shoes, we may not expect to react in the same way. In fact, does Louise expect to react that way herself? Is she not surprised by the onset of her liberated feelings? And yet she does feel that, and people do react in unpredictable ways, not only in fictional stories.

The story is also about the situation of married women in late 19th century America. Remember, this was the Victorian period. Women did not have the freedom they have today in this country. They were repressed – sexually, socially, at the mercy of their husbands' power. This led to feelings of suffocation, subjugation, being prone to the imposition of private will (cf. paragraph 12).

Brantly's death has awakened in Louise an awareness of "the possession of self assertion, which she recognized as the strongest impulse of her being." For a few minutes, a few moments, Louise is able to feel this sense of free will, then it is snatched away by the very news that should bring her joy from the depths of sorrow — a fine example of literary irony. 

(1)A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

(2)A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. 

Don't stop thinking about the woods

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost's deceptively straightforward poem is a vignette about a man who takes a quiet, dramatic pause in the snow-filled woods of New England on a dark winter's night and turns it into a meditation on the tempting allure of "giving up" to nature and to death. It's about the  longing for beauty, peace, solitude, isolation, the escape into oblivion versus the responsibilities and trappings of society. An excellent close reading of this poem can be found in Terry Eagleton's How to Read a Poem [link]

Dec 21, 2009

Quick take on "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost is a deceptively simple poet. In this poem, the speaker, out for a walk, comes to a fork in the road. Which way should he take? It's a poem about decision, life choice. Choosing one's "way" in life. On the surface it's a minor event in a life, but taken metaphorically (which the speaker urges us to do), the event assumes symbolic proportions. Why has his choice of the road less travelled "made all the difference"? Has it made all the difference?

We can deconstruct a latent cultural assumption, one I'll call the Sinatra function ("I did it my way"), loaded with the ideology of American rugged individualism, of the self-made man, of the man who dares to be different, to strike out for gold. The poem's speaker projects forward to some distant day, when looking back on his uncharted, bumpy path of progress, he can say with a sigh of satisfaction, 'ah yes, it was all worth it in the end.' Taking the less travelled road made all the difference in my life. One can almost cue the Apple logo and the grammatically faulty tag line: "Think Different."

But Robert Frost was no sunshine superman. His is not a poetry of boundless optimism. His life and his work is peppered with depression and doubts. To ignore this tenor in his work when reading the poem is ill-advised. The poem is fraught with ambiguity. What kind of "sigh" is that in the last stanza? One of relief, of regret, or a little of both? Or is Robert Frost undercutting the whole idea of making such projections? How is one to know where the road of life leads? How long and how hard? In fact, we can push back against the poem's closing rhetorical flourish: will it have made a difference? Will it really? Is life that contingent? Are life choices always a zero sum game? What if none of it matters? What if this is a poem about the way in which people fabricate meaning and assign significance to even the most mundane of choices? Perhaps these are necessary illusions, the costumes we dress our lives in to make them relevant and meaningful. Remember, each road is more or less the same. Maybe it is how we think of them in retrospect that makes all the difference.

I see at least three interpretive options here: (1) the Sinatra function, also known as the Sigh of Satisfaction, (2) the Sigh of Regret (why on earth did I choose the wrong road), and (3) the vertigo function: an existential onslaught of decision and indecision, which must be repressed in order to assume either position (1) or (2). Maybe this decision is critical to my fate; maybe it's commonplace and meaningless, but I will invest it with meaning anyway.

Quote from William H. Pritchard “On the Road Not Taken”

“Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that "I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun of the thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:

    Nothing ever so sincere
    That unless it's out of sheer
    Mischief and a little queer
    It wont prove a bore to hear.

The mischievous aspect of "The Road Not Taken" is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a "sincere" poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.”


Dec 9, 2009

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Book review at The Guardian
Tolstoy's stalwart wife's story in her own words, translated by Cathy Porter.

Memories of Pynchon in Manhattan Beach

Bill Pearlman @ LRB recalls his acquaintance with Thomas Pynchon in the early 70's.
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Dec 6, 2009

Critical Thinking and Reading Literature

Responding to literature with a critical temperament means always being willing to respond, question, analyze, interpret, synthesize, and evaluate. It's different from reading passively, for entertainment.

  • ANALYZING, you might ask: What are the component parts? How do they work together to make the whole thing have meaning? What does the passage mean, literally?
  • INTERPRETING, you might ask: What does it mean figuratively? Are there symbolic overtones? Can it mean more than one thing? How do you prefer to read it, and what passages in the text lead you to believe this is a valid interpretation?
  • QUESTIONING, you might ask: What problems are suggested by the reading? What’s confusing? If you had the author here, what would you ask? What philosophical question(s) does the reading inspire?
  • SYNTHESIZING, you might ask: How does this reading compare or contrast with what you’ve read previously? How does it fit into a thematic scheme you might notice?
  • EVALUATING, you might ask: Is this an excellent piece of writing or poor one? What criteria can you name to establish this judgment for others? How does a particular work you're considering meet or fail to meet your criteria for excellence? What are the exact places in the writing that illustrate your positive or negative conclusions about the work?
Here are two perspectives on war taken from ancient literature. The first is from The Elder Edda, “Words of the High One” (P.B. Taylor & W.H. Auden, trans.), a Old Norse text believed to have been written over 1,000 years ago:

The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle.
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great deed.

Thinking critically about this passage, I might brainstorm the following preliminary thoughts:

ANALYZE LITERAL MEANING: This brief excerpt tells us that only cowards would think to save their own skins rather than fight the battle to the end. Even if he survives, the coward will not have piece of mind; he’ll be tormented right into old age. It’s better to die, since every man is mortal anyhow. The great deed is the only thing that survives us, that has immortality. It’s better to die in battle, and possibly achieve great deeds, than to save your skin.

INTERPRET SYMBOLIC MEANING: The battle may be symbolic of life itself. Sometimes just living your life is a battle. It’s a battle to get up, go to work, get fired (laid off), fall in love, get burned, or burned out....but, this poet tells us, only cowards choose to turn their back on the battle. If we let up now, if we let life pass us by, if we refuse to seize the moment (carpe diem!) then we’ll reach old age with nothing but a tormented a pile of regrets. Better to risk it, take chances, LIVE life to its hilt, gather the “great deeds” while we can. Not only will we reach old age in peace, but we’ll glory in our accomplishments, and others will too. We can be an inspiration.

QUESTIONS: The writer mentions “great deeds.” So I assume we’re not talking about just any old ordinary deed. If I wake up tomorrow morning and manage to brush my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast, and make it out of the house in time to get to class, I may be performing responsible deeds, but not GREAT deeds. Several questions occur to me. Assuming this writer has a point—our great deeds are immortal—then my first question is, what ranks as a “great deed”? Would the writer define a great deed the same way I would? How would I define a great deed? What’s an example of a great deed in my own mind? (I’m reflecting on my own lifetime and whatever I can conjure up from my knowledge of history, at this point.) Then I might turn philosopher and ask: how do we define the GREAT DEED for our times, in our culture? It's an old verse, but it can be pretty contemporary to think about it in this way.

If THE great deed is valor, or willingness to die, in battle, should we recognize the greatness of our enemies, who are just as willing to die in battle as we are?

Has there been anyone who has made him or herself immortal by performing a great deed recently?

SYNTHESIZE: This ancient passage can be compared (contrasted, actually) to an even more ancient poem about war. This passage is by Homer from the Illiad (Book IX), the famous ancient Greek epic of the Trojan War:

Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
home again…

This passage seems to contradict the first. How can I reconcile them? Does my knowledge of their contradiction help deepen my understanding of each? If I read the first passage with an awareness of the second, I probably have to form a mental argument in order to go along with the writer’s proposition. I either agree or disagree and attempt to formulate why. All people are mortal; when they die they are utterly forgotten over time. The only way to live on beyond one’s lifespan is to accomplish something valuable, something that will inspire others who come after. Great deeds are inspiring; they are the only path to immortality. Therefore, accomplishing great deeds is valuable at all costs, even the supreme cost, one’s life. Or, I may say—this life is all we have; it’s precious. To lose one’s life for the sake of everlasting glory is a waste. We cannot be there to partake of the sweetness of that glory once we’re dead. It’s better to enjoy the simple things in life while we have life; we should not throw our lives away for vainglorious purposes. (But Achilles does choose glory, so it becomes pretty difficult to say for sure which side the author is really on.)

On the other hand, I may not choose to engage the readings on that kind of philosophical or personal level. Maybe I merely create separate mental files to accommodate their differences. Perhaps I mentally file one passage as “pro-war” and the other as “anti-war” poetry. These are categories that may be useful later as I read other poems, or other literature.

Until you read a LOT of literature, you probably won’t have a clear sense about what makes “great” literature and what doesn't. Even experienced readers may not be all that great at being evaluative critics. As a student, you may even feel that finding something hard to understand makes it bad. But that would be a mistake. Like anything, learning to read literature takes time and practice. And developing an appreciation for great literature comes with exposure to the good and the bad. You may be tempted to say that you don’t like Shakespeare, for instance, because his language isn’t exactly the same as yours and you have to do a bit of work to piece out the meaning…but if you dismiss him, you are dismissing what most of the world agrees is one of the greatest—if not THE greatest—writers the world has ever known. To some extent you need to be willing to work as you read, and extend the benefit of the doubt until you are really sure you are evaluating a piece of writing on objective grounds, and not just on the basis of whether you personally struggled to comprehend it. In this course, you’re being “introduced” to literature…that means you’re being introduced to a new set of critical tools for thinking about literature and becoming a more thoughtful, more effective reader of literature. And hopefully, as you get more practice and become a more sophisticated reader, you’ll be able to judge whether a work of literature is excellent or poor. You’ll be able to sense whether it’s on the level of Shakespeare—truly original, multidimensional, moving, evocative, thought-provoking, dramatic, beautiful—or whether it’s on the level of formula: flat, predictable, familiar, void.

Dec 4, 2009

A Lot of Travail

Michael Wood reviews volume II of T.S. Eliot's letters.

Some would argue that Eliot never entirely threw off The Waste Land, and others that he did and to his cost, but either way it’s clear he wanted to work at getting beyond it. He had published the poem in October 1922 in the first issue of the Criterion, the quarterly journal he had just begun to edit – the first UK book publication was by the Hogarth Press in 1923 – and this is where we left him at the end of the first volume of the letters, now handsomely revised and reissued.* He had studied at Harvard and Oxford, completed his doctoral dissertation on F.H. Bradley, moved to London, abruptly married and turned his back on the academic career that calmly awaited him in America. As Lyndall Gordon nicely says, in her biography of Eliot, both he and Ezra Pound were ‘lapsed professors’. He was working full-time at Lloyds Bank, where he stayed until 1925, and editing the Criterion in the spare moments he didn’t have. This tale of time swallowed up, what Eliot calls ‘the prison-like limitation of my time’, is one of the two chief themes of the second volume of the Letters. The other is the competitive invalidism the Eliots have instead of a marriage.
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On "No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

This concise short story is charged with characterization. Tallent's authorial voice is assured; not a word is wasted. She strikes a balance with regard to imagery and dialogue. And her details are motivated by action. The 18 year old girl narrator remembers this day vividly for one obvious reason: it is her birthday. Her older married boyfriend Jack has given her a diary (another reason to be writing and observing). And in the first paragraph we are treated to a host of telling details about the inside of Jack's pickup: it is dirty, the ashtray filled with butts, country music playing on the stereo, a bottle of tequila between his legs, his nearly new denim jeans bleached white, his crotch zipper golden. None of the details appears extraneous; it is all motivated by the opening tension marked out by Tallent's plot device: Jack's wife's Cadillac approaches in the distance. He pushes the girl's head down. This is what she sees.
Not only the description of Jack gives his character away. The dialogue is revelatory. We hear of the things that bug him about his wife: leaving the headlamps on during the day, driving the speed limit, her relentless predictability.
After noticing Jack's old boots with the stitched-in elk heads, scuffed toes, and wedged-in clod of manure, the narrator remarks on the pop tops littered on the floor, which she says a kid could cut a foot on. This triggers the central action of the story: a debate of sorts, in part gently romantic and flirtatious, in part sarcastic and cyncial — a conflict between Jack's vision of their future together and the narrator's. As the narrator prepares to hear Jack's version first, we have a nice block of description: the butterfly of dust on her jeans (butterflies being an apt image to associate with an 18 year old). She looks out and we have some exposition of the setting, a warm Wyoming day, the fawn and yellow wheat fields and their hidden irrigation ditches. Note the appropriateness of the adjective "fawn" to describe not only the color of the wheat (light yellowish brown) but its associated noun, referring to a young deer, or the verb form "to bring forth young". From her youthful, innocent perspective, the world is a fertile, dazzling, romantic place about to come into flower.
Jack's vision though is a dramatic contrast. While both their visions start the same way ("I can't imagine anybody loving anybody more than I love Jack."), Jack — the older, more cyncial, world weary, unchangeable, and fatalistic male — spins off into a prediction of a relationship that will have gone bust in a year. In two he will have been forgotten. Her vision is a foil is his. She sees devotion, domestic bliss, a quick wedding (to which Jack sneers, it must have been a quick divorce), followed by babies and happy days of child rearing. For a moment, Jack's cynicism is arrested, ever so briefly, as he admits to her "That's nice." He likes her vision, but he is quick to add, he believes in the certainty of his. The narrator wants to believe that deep within, in his "heart of hearts", Jack is redeemable, that a romantic lies dormant, waiting to be roused. With his parting shot in the story (Jack gets the last word), he tells her that the smell of the baby's breath wouldn't be vanilla, but a bittersweet one.
And so the story finishes. Open-ended, inviting us readers to decide on their fate. The story's central themes are left for us to ponder. How predictable are we? Can people change their ways? Are young people fated to be perpetually naive? Are older people doomed to fatalism and cynicism? Whose version of the future is truer? What are the implications of your answer to that question? This brings us around to the story's title. Is it true that No One's a Mystery? And we also need to reconcile the title with the John Hiatt song "It Hasn't Happened Yet", covered by Rosanne Cash. In the lyric, she sings "Nobody's into Me / No one's a mystery". Which character is going to take ownership of this lyric? At first take we might say Jack, but in time, the narrator might appropriate it for her own therapeutic purposes.
Reading further into the story, we see some intriguing complexities. Jack, who expects to be forgotten, has given her a diary, which is used for writing and for remembering. Does Jack, cynic that he is, secretly want to be remembered by her, to be memorialized? One would assume he would like not to be forgotten, but he fears with a crass certainty that he will. Note also the foreshadowing in the first line of the sotry, that the lock on the diary "didn't seem to want to work," an ill omen for their relationship. We might also speculate on the narrative occasion for writing the story. At one point is the narrator sitting down to tell us this story? Is it the first thing she writes in the diary? Is it later? Is she still with Jack at this point, or is already part of her past?
Jack's character needs certainty, predictability. He doesn't change. His character is static. The narrator, we assume, is going to be dynamic. She probably wouldn't, and shouldn't stand by her man. At some point she will see it Jack's way, but this is going to be a pyrrhic victory for Jack, who will have either been found out by his wife or dumped by the narrator. We imagine the narrator might look back on her times with Jack with regret and shame. Her overcoming of this first affair with an older man, if it goes as Jack predicts, will very possibly be the acid that corrodes her romantic, idealized visions, but it also means the loss of something likeable, endearing, and special. Hence the bittersweetness. Tallent has taken a snapshot at the critical moment in this relationship, right before it turns from sweet to sour.

Dec 3, 2009

A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST (Scenes 1 and 2)

"Miranda - The Tempest" by John William Waterhouse


Maybe because it’s so hard to locate specifically and realistically, the “uninhabited island” setting of The Tempest has a symbolic resonance that adds to its thematic richness. Because the island seems at times more like a mythical island than a real one, with elements of the Old World and the New World suggested by its location and all its exotic attributes, the setting takes on the feel of a “utopian” no-place that puts us in mind of imaginary worlds, of dreams. As we see, these dreams and fantasies can be both self-serving or more socially minded, depending on the individual in charge of the fantasy. This play takes a long look at how individual power and the social order can become malleable, something to be molded by our own aspirations. So what kind of a world do we want to create? What vision of society do we, like the powerful “Gods” we aspire to be, want to create? This island seems to present its characters (and us viewers, vicariously) a blank slate on which to imagine our best and our worst (II,i.143-60; III,iii.30-39). Here’s a place where civilization hasn’t arrived in any great force as yet, a place where nature is still raw and unspoiled—a place where corruption carried ashore from the Old World is likely to stand out in sharp relief.

Colonialist interpretations based on a purely political reading of this play are quick to point out that as empty of “civilization” as it may be, the island is NOT uninhabited when Prospero arrives; if civilization hasn’t peopled it yet, it is nevertheless occupied by at least one person and by spirits—the “witch” Sycorax was exiled here (rather than burned because she was pregnant) and gave birth to Caliban, who is somewhat ambiguously human. (The ambiguous status of Caliban reflects, perhaps, the ambiguity some Europeans seemed to feel about the native peoples they encountered in the New World.) Ariel is a spirit inhabiting the island as well, a daemon of air and fire, imprisoned in a tree for refusing to serve Sycorax’s dark magic. When Prospero arrives he frees Ariel by breaking the Sycorax’s spell. On a symbolic level, Prospero’s ability to free Ariel is an affirmation of his powers as a magician but also of the goodness and rightness of his magic. Ariel is also willing to serve Prospero because his magic is not evil but artful; the island has become Prospero’s theater, where emotions are evoked by “staged” events and well acted scenes. Prospero’s magic is, on one level, the magic of art; his power is the power of the artist to induce illusions and dreams. When Prospero vows to “abjure” his “rough magic” and promises to “drown his book” (ACT V.i) many readers have seen Shakespeare himself withdrawing from his London career and retiring to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The setting of this play is evocative, therefore, on so many levels—as richly symbolic as ever a setting can be. At once Prospero’s island is an imagined pastoral utopia (based on the writings of Thomas More, Michel de Montaigne, and Sir Walter Raleigh), a New World of expanded possibility inspired by the great Age of Discovery, and also a grand theater, a Globe (ACT IV.i), in the great age of Elizabethan theater. And even more than this—in its depiction of Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel, it provides a powerful, poetic affirmation of a harmonious medieval model of the universe—a model that imagined human beings as centrally important at the absolute cosmic epicenter, located in a sphere between beasts (Caliban) and angels (Ariel), but vulnerable to being pulled up or down, toward heavenly aspirations or earthly appetites. This cosmic model, in its earthly incarnation, was known as the Great Chain of Being.

Character and The Great Chain

Each key character in this play is a proverbial link in the Great Chain of Being, the image that characterized the medieval understanding of the nature of universe and man’s place in it, an understanding that survived well into the Renaissance but was decidedly on the wane in the wake of Copernicus and Francis Bacon. Shakespeare is not eager to let go of this image, and it reverberates through each of the characters in this play.

In this so-called great chain, which placed in its hierarchy every earthly substance from stones to humans, to spirits, to God, humanity finds itself sandwiched between beasts and angels. It was widely believed that we shared characteristics with both, which makes us a kind of mongrel beast-angel. Caliban seems to be a dynamic representation of our bestial nature while Ariel is his heavenly counterpart, and the other human characters in the play all fall somewhere in that range between the two.

Situated firmly on the ground with our heads in the clouds (so to speak), the human condition is to constantly struggle to overcome a partially animal nature and fulfill its heavenly one. In this world view, it would be the animal in us that would take responsibility for all of our messy, troublesome drives, appetites, and emotional extravagances, while the angelic side would provide us with intellect, reason, and rationality. Our bestial natures are driven by desire, but our heavenly natures keep order, assign everything its proper place. Freedom is at the heart of the human condition, but reason is what drives us to act morally, to make ethical, compassionate choices. In dramatic terms, our ability to reason is the source or the power we have to save ourselves from ourselves. It may be the difference between Faustus, who loses himself to his own arrogance and appetites, and Prospero, who saves himself from being swallowed by vengefulness by his “nobler reason” (ACT V.i). Shakespeare allows us to hold the characters in The Tempest responsible for their choices, whether driven by “noble reason” or by “appetite.”

The characters in the play can all be located on the Great Chain of Being, some of them tending upward toward heavenly influences, some of them tending downward toward bestial ones, and some sandwiched between—reflecting the medieval understanding of the human condition…

SPRIIT: Ariel. As a spirit of the air, Ariel is associated with freedom, intellect, aesthetic beauty (song), moral consciousness, and personal responsibility—surely one of Shakespeare’s most magical characters.

The Masque characters (Iris, Ceres, Juno, Nymphs, Reapers). These spirits are allegorical personifications of the subtler forces of nature related to seasonal fertility and marriage. The pageant that Prospero contrives for them to perform is highly ceremonial, an overwhelming spectacle of the senses, a feast of song, dance, poetry, elaborate costume and choreography—the whole range of Elizabethan theatrical pyrotechnics. Until this scene, Shakespeare never wrote these kinds of plays. They were not drama, merely spectacle—an entertainment for the very rich and very royal; notice how quickly Prospero dissolves it—nothing is left behind. Yet, in that quick dissolution, Prospero seems to sense something even more profound melting away, dissolving into air:


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. l.148-163)

If “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” then—merrily, merrily, merrily—life is but a dream… Prospero is troubled by this thought, his “brain is vexed” and he must “walk a turn or two to still his beating mind.” What seems to disturb Prospero is the sense that even his “most potent art”

HUMAN: Prospero. As the main character, Prospero seems to represent the human condition, a being whose nature is complex and ambiguous—a battleground pitting powerful emotions against “nobler reason.” Prospero is knowledgeable and wise but his heart and mind are filled with revenge fantasies. His “goodness” is easy to call into question—he has enslaved Caliban (to protect his daughter?), Ariel (extracting payment for a “debt”), Ferdinand (by ensnaring him as a suitable husband for his daughter), and even Miranda to some extent (although no one questions this but us, today!). Finally, he has captured his enemies and placed them under a powerful spell, leaving them helpless and suffering (what I would call “torture”), which would seem an abuse of his so-called “good” magic. Prospero’s character is therefore up in the air as the events of this play unfold.

Ferdinand and Miranda. These are the virtuous children of Civilization, children of the old social order who have learned to channel their passion properly; they are willing and able to delay gratification of their desire for one another. These two young aristocrats are social equals and their union represents the endurance of the order they represent—they are joining forces, strengthening that order exponentially and putting to right what had been horribly wronged. Ferdinand was raised at court as the King of Naples’ heir; Miranda was home schooled on a desert island—yet they’re very equally matched. They represent, it seems, idealized Old World virtues like chastity, innocence, purity, devotion, and, especially, excellent manners. Their dreamy love has all the hallmarks of romance and courtly love, but in the midst of this lover’s dream, Prospero makes it pretty clear that to him their union is really more political motivated. His “business” language (especially his repetition of the word, “business”) indicates this in more than one scene, but especially in ACT IV.i where he lightens up on Ferdinand and “gives away” his daughter “as my gift, and thine own acquisition/ Worthily purchased” (lines 13-14). Prospero asks Ferdinand to “ratify this my right gift.” Like Faustus he’s eager to ink the deal, get the contract signed, sealed delivered—ratified.

Gonzalo. He is a faithful servant of power, whoever happens to hold it. He’s kind, moral, intelligent, and fair-minded. His dream is the “utopian” dream of leisure, equality, ease, and abundance.

Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio. These political sharks are cunning, cruel, selfish, treacherous men of status and privilege, but debased morals and intellect. They crave power, but like Faustus are unable to do anything productive with it once they have it, except pursue more power. They pose a serious threat to the social order, because they are corrupt and self-serving. Their dreams are dreams of personal gain at the expense of anyone in their way.

Stephano and Trinculo. These characters would like to be treacherous political operatives like Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso but they are low status, underachieving drunks. If there wasn’t a subtle undertone of humor throughout the play, we might call them our comic relief. They can dream of power, but it’s a drunken fantasy they’ll never be sober enough to fulfill. They pose a mild danger to the social order but not really a serious one. They’re too drunk to take seriously, as Caliban, who mistakes them for powerful gods—as Miranda mistakes Ferdinand for a god, and just as Ferdinand and later Alonso mistake Miranda for a goddess. Unlike the others, Caliban is never corrected in his mistaken impression, and he becomes their exploited partner in crime.

SO-CALLED ANIMAL: Caliban. Caliban’s sub-human status is suggested but never really confirmed throughout the play. The point is that the European characters question his humanity to the end, as he is referred to by turns as “villain,” “abhorred slave,” “fish,” “monster,” “thing of darkness,” “as strange a thing as e’re I looked on,” “a plain fish…and marketable,” and finally, “a devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick: on whom my pains, humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!” Caliban’s first words on stage are a raucous curse (aimed at Prospero) and a loud accusation: “This island’s mine…which thou tak’st from me.” Prospero, by his power and willingness to inflict pain, has enslaved Caliban rather than kill him for his attempted rape of Miranda because, as Prospero explains, “We cannot miss him: he does make our fire,/ Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/ That profit us.” If Caliban represents raw, unchecked instinct (to “people the isle with Calibans”), he also represents one of the most eloquent voices in the play, a character whose musical, melodious speech but offensive, primitive appearance is the perfectly balanced complement to the filthy minded violence and treachery of the beautiful people—Antonio and Sebastian, and the rest. Yes, Caliban is driven to satisfy his instinctual desires, yet he has as much a love and desire for freedom as anyone, his moral outrage at being enslaved is impossible to dismiss, and his finer aesthetic sensibilities are as eloquent, or more so, as any character in the play:


Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again. (III.ii. 134-142)

“I cried to dream again.” Caliban, despite everyone’s attempt to dehumanize him, seems as much or more complex and as deeply human as any character in the play. His revenge fantasy of murdering Prospero and taking back his island is as powerful and arguably as “justified” as Prospero’s revenge fantasy against Antonio, even if it isn’t as effective, given his choice of helpmates. Caliban has a plan for getting what he wants—his freedom:


Why, as I told thee, 'tis a custom with him,

In the afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,

Having first seized his books, or with a log

Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,

Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember

First to possess his books; for without them

He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not

One spirit to command: they all do hate him

As rootedly as I. (III.ii. 84-92)

Caliban emphasizes here that he can find no substantive difference between himself and Prospero. The moral problem posed by his enforced servitude never quite resolves; it remains as a question hovering over his audience, and over us, even as Prospero frees Caliban upon leaving.



Ariel, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one of Shakespeare’s unforgettable, magical characters. His part is highly musical, which we definitely miss out on by just reading the play as text. His song is associated with the music of the spheres (the harmonious sounds made by the eternally revolving celestial spheres); he’s an airy spirit, and a higher spiritual force in the play, a force Prospero not only harnesses but learns to abide by. At first Ariel is depicted as Prospero’s servant (ACT I.i), but that changes. By Act V, Ariel has become the stronger moral force, and the one advising Prospero, who is wise enough, strong enough, and virtuous enough to take his advice.

First Meeting: When Prospero summons Ariel (ACT I.ii:187 ff)

Pelican ed. (p. 39)

This is Ariel’s first appearance in the play. From their first exchange, the master/servant relationship is established—Prospero has mastered Ariel, who is ready to do Prospero’s bidding. He’s a powerful spirit of the air and of fire which Prospero, through his magic, now commands.


Come away, servant, come! I am ready now.

Approach, my Ariel: come! (Enter ARIEL)


All hail, great master! grave sir, hail! I come

To answer thy best pleasure; be't to fly,

To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride

On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task

Ariel and all his quality.


Hast thou, spirit,

Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?


To every article.

I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,

I flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide,

And burn in many places; on the topmast,

The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,

Then meet and join. Jove's lightnings, the precursors

O' the dreadful thunder- claps, more momentary

And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks

Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune

Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,

Yea, his dread trident shake.


My brave spirit!

Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil

Would not infect his reason?


Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and played

Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners

Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,

Then all afire with me: the king's son, Ferdinand,

With hair up- staring, –then like reeds, not hair,–

Was the first man that leapt; cried, 'Hell is empty

And all the devils are here.'


Why that's my spirit!

Ariel explains how, at Prospero’s command, he wreaked terror upon every inch of the ship—he is both fire and thunder, striking dread and panic everywhere, until it must have seemed like mighty Neptune himself had shaken his “dread trident.” Prospero is mightily pleased with Ariel’s report, but is eager to make sure that all aboard were completely scared out of their minds, and isn’t satisfied until Ariel confirms that all were driven mad with fear and desperation. Everyone aboard, except the professional mariners, dove overboard on fire and in a panic, but special attention is given to Ferdinand, who is mentioned by name—Ariel reports that this man’s hair stood on end as jumped, exclaiming how hell had emptied its devils upon them. Prospero is delighted with this news. And just as we are about to be appalled at his cruelty, he makes it clear his intentions haven’t, in fact, been as murderous as they may seem. Though the shipwreck was terrifying, it wasn’t fatal; the passengers are dispersed in three separate “troops” across the island, and the ship’s the crew is safely asleep in the harbor. The rest of the fleet is sailing safely back to Naples. Ariel performs all of this at Prospero’s command. As the play develops, we discover Ariel and Prospero have a mutual respect, a bond that goes beyond servitude. Their relationship is meaningful and satisfying both ways.

Ariel’s Complaint: he wants his freedom (ACT I.ii: 242 ff)

Pelican ed. (p. 41)

Ariel makes his case for freedom. He is a servant, a temporary servant, and not a slave; he’s an essentially free spirit who is paying off a debt, working towards his liberty. Prospero made him a promise and Ariel will hold him to keeping to it. This is quite the opposite of Prospero’s relationship with Caliban, who was adopted as a free and equal member of the family until he became a serious threat to Miranda’s chastity. That threat constitutes the end of Caliban’s freedom—he is immediately reduced to slavery. But Ariel’s servitude is circumscribed, impermanent. His character is always longing for freedom, and only consents to do Prospero’s bidding because Prospero is does not abuse his power.

Ariel’s Goodness and Loyalty: he freely chooses to save Prospero’s life (Act III.ii: 112)

Pelican ed. (p. 79)

Ariel overhears Caliban’s plot to murder Prospero, “within this half hour.” If he doesn’t tell Prospero, then Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban will be able to take him by surprise. If Prospero dies, then Ariel will be free, remember. And it’s only with Ariel’s help that Prospero becomes alert to this murderous plot hatching against him—therefore, in a very direct but subtle and easy-to-miss way, Ariel saves Prospero’s life here. “This will I tell my master.” This is a simple decision, but it’s a freely made choice, and a powerful one, especially because it’s not compelled by anything except Ariel’s sense of right and wrong. This is another instance where Ariel acts out on his sense of loyalty and moral rightness, rather than in a self-serving manner.

Ariel’s Moral Force: he convinces Prospero to have mercy and forgive (ACT V.i: 1-57)

Pelican ed. (p. 96-7)

Ariel seems to disapprove of Prospero’s “torture” of his enemies and claims that if Prospero were to see them his “affections would become tender” (lines 17-19). Prospero acknowledges this disapproval and acts on it immediately. He resolves to give up his magic and his revenge in favor of mercy and forgiveness: “Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part. The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance” (lines 26-28). Prospero makes an eloquent speech that testifies to the awesome power, which in his imperfect hands has become a “rough magic” that he will soon “abjure.” What’s going on in Prospero’s mind at this point? What has caused him to decide to forgive? This is a definite turning point in the play, a crucial moment when Prospero becomes more likeable, more sympathetic, more human.

Ariel’s Last Words before gaining his freedom (ACT V.i 241)

Pelican ed. (p. 105)

Ariel asks Prospero, “Was’t well done?” Clearly taking some pride in his work (not “toil” as he called it in ACT I), Ariel seems genuinely to care whether Prospero is pleased. Real feeling passes between them, it seems, here and elsewhere. Prospero also wishes Ariel well: “Be free, and fare thou well!” he cries at the end of the play.


Caliban is a fascinating character in this play because of his ambiguity. By the time we meet him, he has already rejected Prospero’s “civilizing” tutelage—his strong attraction to and desire for Miranda overpowered whatever love he might have felt for Prospero, whatever restrain he was expected to maintain. We are led to understand that his present status as a “slave” is just punishment for this intended violation—Prospero views him now as beneath human status and beyond rehabilitation. Under that heavy sentence, Caliban has been imprisoned and forced to serve them in menial tasks like gathering and delivering wood. In spite of his roughness, readers may see Caliban as a sympathetic character who’s been exploited unfairly. Although his humanity is questioned from beginning to end, he is intriguingly parallel to almost ALL of the other characters in the play!

Like Ariel, Caliban is a “servant” who craves freedom, but for complaining (like Ariel complains) he receives mostly insults and threats (I.ii 365 ff) (Pel. Ed., p. 46):

Prospero. Hag-seed, hence!

Fetch us in fuel; and be quick, thou'rt best,

To answer other business. Shrug'st thou, malice?

If thou neglect'st or dost unwillingly

What I command, I'll rack thee with old cramps,

Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar

That beasts shall tremble at thy din.

Caliban. No, pray thee.


I must obey: his art is of such power,

It would control my dam's god, Setebos,

and make a vassal of him.

Like Prospero, Caliban wants revenge for having his autonomy and “sovereignty” taken away from him by force (III.ii 38-56) (Pel. Ed., p.76-77):

Caliban. I thank my noble lord. Wilt thou be pleased to

hearken once again to the suit I made to thee?

Stephano. Marry, will I. kneel and repeat it; I will stand,

and so shall Trinculo.

[Enter ARIEL, invisible]

Caliban. As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a

sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.

Ariel. Thou liest.

Caliban. Thou liest, thou jesting monkey, thou: I would my

valiant master would destroy thee! I do not lie. 1440

Stephano. Trinculo, if you trouble him any more in's tale, by

this hand, I will supplant some of your teeth.

Trinculo. Why, I said nothing.

Stephano. Mum, then, and no more. Proceed.

Caliban. I say, by sorcery he got this isle; 1445

From me he got it. if thy greatness will

Revenge it on him,—for I know thou darest,

But this thing dare not,—

Stephano. That's most certain.

Caliban. Thou shalt be lord of it and I'll serve thee.

Note that Ariel, who is invisible to Stephano and Trinculo in this scene, does NOT sympathize with Caliban, but sides with Prospero. Caliban doesn’t sympathize much with him either, calling him a “jesting monkey.” In other words, Caliban accuses Ariel of getting on Prospero’s good side by playing the “fool,” by a kind of “court jester.” Why don’t these two, who are both serving Prospero, have any sympathy for one another? How should we understand their antipathy?

Like Ferdinand, Caliban is attracted to Miranda, though he has none of the graceful looks or fine manners with which to win her affections. His drives overpower any sense of right and wrong, and if it weren’t for Prospero’s intervention, Miranda would have been his innocent victim. Ferdinand is only slightly more trusted than Caliban. If you look at Prospero’s stern warnings to Ferdinand, it’s clear he doesn’t fully expect much restraint from either of them (or he’s pretending not to) (I.ii 344-351) (Pel. Ed., p. 46):

Prospero. Thou most lying slave,

Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,

Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honor of my child.

Caliban. O ho, O ho! would't had been done!

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else

This isle with Calibans.

Like Miranda, Caliban has been tutored by Prospero and somewhat by Miranda, too, in all the refined manners, speech, and customs of the Old World, but he rejects it all—except for the power of language, which he uses to free his mind even as he curses it (I.ii 363-65) (Pel. Ed., p. 46):

Miranda. Abhorred slave,

Which any print of goodness wilt not take,

Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,

Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour

One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes

With words that made them known. But thy vile race,

Though thou didst learn, had that in't which good natures

Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou

Deservedly confined into this rock, who hast

Deserved more than a prison.

Caliban. You taught me language; and my profit on't

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!

The Sparks Notes on Caliban may help readers quickly grasp his complex role in the play but they seem to do him an injustice, too, by calling him, along with the Europeans in the play, “a sensitive monster who allows himself to be transformed into a fool.” While this is in some sense true, if it’s so easy to brush off Caliban’s vulnerabilities, and the people in the play who have clearly exploited them, then who is really inhumane? Who is the real monster? If Caliban is a “sensitive monster” well then so are we; if he’s a “fool,” then so are we. Caliban is us and we are him. In an us and them world that may be hard for some people to see, but there are others who clearly see what Shakespeare had the instinct and the insight to vividly imagine.


Prospero is the play’s central character, but our response to him is anything but simple. We relate to him on many levels—as the former Duke of Milan, as Miranda’s strict, protective father, as a knowledgeable but sometimes frightening “magician,” as a powerful overlord with spirits who “serve” him, as vengeful revenge-seeker capable of inflicting mental and physical torture. In his overbearing manner, we see the makings of a tyrant, but in his gentle affection for Ariel and Miranda, we see his tender side, too. Most of all, we observe the dynamic aspect of Prospero’s character as we watch him change during the course of the play. What causes this change? Why does he give up his revenge fantasy?

The Sparks Notes, once again, provide an excellent quick summary of Prospero’s character. Especially helpful is the observation that Prospero quite appears to us as the consummate theater director and stage manager; the well timed events of this play seem to flow according to his command, or his inspiration. All readers may not agree, however, as these notes seem to imply, that Prospero has benign intentions from the beginning, that he has a “grand design to achieve the play’s happy ending.” My own interpretation is that Prospero’s plan is originally a lot more sinister and vengeful, that he is moody and provoked by the nearness of his arch enemies, tormented by the memory of their treachery and that only by following his muse, Ariel (who might also be his conscience), is a qualified happy ending achieved.

Prospero’s “passages” are really on every page of the play. Each time we see and hear him, he’s revealing another facet of his complex personality. What do you think are the most significant passages that give you insight into his conflicts and their ultimate resolution?


ACT I Reveals Character

The Tempest: Prospero, Miranda and Ariel, 1976 by Rosemarie Beck

Scene 1

The play opens in the middle of a loud, tumultuous tempest, the crisis of a ship being “wrecked” and the tumult of the crew and passengers believing they’ll soon drown.

  • Boatswain is a minor but memorable character who shows that status doesn’t make the man. He’s “below” the nobles but much more able and sensible. All they can do is be useless and curse him for no reason. Their curses are perhaps parallel with Caliban’s later; there are other parallels between Caliban and the Antonio/Sebastian alliance, but this is a first one.
  • Gonzalo is established as more sensible than the others; shows great faith in the Boatswain’s abilities; laconic observation about him hanging for insolence rather than drowning.

Scene 2

Static compared to the action of the previous scene—quite a contrast that would have been visceral in the theater. After the tumult of the ship, we are in the quiet presence of Prospero as he tells Miranda of their past. They both reveal important aspects of their character.

  • Miranda’s character
    • As sweet and compassionate, very empathetic (see her opening speech I.ii:1-13)
    • As intelligent, able to catch on fast to what Prospero is explaining to her despite her lack of experience in Milan.
    • Won’t blame her grandmother for her uncle’s villainy: “Good wombs have borne bad sons”
    • Her humility—she thought she was trouble to her father in their exile, but Prospero assures her that it was only her child’s resilience that saved him, gave him guts
    • Has a “beating mind”—she throbs with intelligence and curiosity; Shakespeare almost never writes about dumb or stereotypical women
  • Prospero’s character
    • As a powerful magician—he raised the tempest but it’s all a “show” and no harm is really done. This is just like in a play, where great actions take place in the safety of the theater and though great emotions are aroused—including the fine emotion of compassion in Miranda—there’s “no harm done” (I.ii:15 and 23-33). This is a deep theme in this play—the way art can be a “safe” and vivid experience.
    • As stage manager: “The hour’s now come;/ The very minute bids thee ope thine ear” – Prospero as stage manager has the timing down impeccably. Also, in his repeated reminders that Miranda must listen carefully to all of this exposition! Interrupts himself several times to make sure she’s listening
    • As a former Duke/failed politician—his head was in his books all the time and he neglected his duke duties, giving them over to his corrupt brother. (lines 89-92). He wasn’t paying proper attention. Before he knew it, the “role” he gave his brother to “play” became the reality. In Milan, apparently, he wasn’t as successful a “writer/director/stage manager” as he is on this island.
  • Gonzalo’s character (mentioned, also, we see him in scene i)
    • As the good man who made sure Prospero had his books and some necessary provisions in the boat they were sent out on
  • Ariel’s character
    • Prospero calls him a “servant” and that is what his role is; yet he’s a servant who will soon earn his freedom, which he is eagerly awaiting
    • It’s Ariel who performs the supernatural tasks at Prospero’s request, and he performs them willingly.
    • He is a spirit who can take the form of many elements (mainly fire and light)
    • Wants his freedom; challenges Prospero
  • Caliban’s character
    • As an “abhorred slave” (in Miranda’s words), since she feels he paid back her “kindness” (efforts to school him) with violence
    • Caliban is immediately a character to be reckoned with in evidence in his first lines in the play to Prospero and then to Miranda. (p. 45-46). He speaks surprisingly eloquently but feels his “education” is of no value; it’s taught him how to curse, that’s all. It’s enough of an education to let him know he’ll never be an equal. His complaint is that his home was stolen from him.
    • When Caliban protests “serving” (which parallels Ariel’s protest) Prospero immediately resorts to physical threats to control Caliban; he feels justified in it all the way, not as an act. Caliban must respect his power, his “art.”
  • Ferdinand’s character
    • Drawn to Miranda by Ariel’s spell and song, which is about his “drowned father” who is metamorphosed as a beautiful, strange and rich sea creature “full fathoms five”
    • No false modesty, calls himself the “best of those that speak this language” (i.e., highest ranking)
    • Falls in love with Miranda instantly, offers her to be his queen

Also of note in this scene:

  • Miranda asks: how did we come ashore, and Prospero tells her it was “divine providence,” echoing the language of pilgrims to the New World. We’re here on this island because we were meant to be here; God has provided this for us.
  • Because of their misfortune, Miranda has the benefit of being homeschooled by Prospero himself, which seems to be a great advantage to her.
  • Prospero must act now, right now, because if he doesn’t the wheel of fortune is sure to spin down—it’s at its height bringing all of these enemies within his grasp—the time motif might be related, too, to that sense of timing needed on the stage is at work on this island-stage
  • “brave”—Ariel is a “brave spirit” – this adjective is repeated often throughout the play in many different contexts; it becomes a single word “motif”
  • Prospero’s purpose in raising the storm is revenge; his first questions to Ariel have to do with making sure that his victims have suffered mentally (their “reason” infected) but not physically—he wants them unharmed. Is it because they must be safe, no harm done, like in a play, or because he wants to bring them in closer where he can take revenge on them in person? What are his intentions, do you think?
  • Prospero gets angry at Ariel and takes him to task for asking for freedom too early. He makes it clear Ariel must serve him in his plan—but his arguments are mainly those of moral, not physical force. But he has to keep making the same argument over and over, it seems, of the service he’s done for Ariel and that Ariel still owes him gratitude, and the debt of servitude. He chides Ariel for making him feel like a slave master, when Prospero feels he should be grateful and willing to pay his debt. Prospero ends his tirade with a physical threat, to back up his moral one. But he has clearly already made his case, and his meanness is perfunctory, an ACT (Prospero shows he can act, too).
  • Prospero’s comic description of the “brave” form of the human being: “it eats, sleeps and has five senses”
  • We learn in this scene that Prospero is plotting the love between Miranda and Ferdinand
  • Prospero sees that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love instantly but wants to make it harder for them. Why? Will trials make their love stronger? He wants them to prove it. They are only attracted to each others’ looks, but they need to get to know each other more, respect each other’s virtues.
  • Prospero make Ferdinand his “slave” too—he’s imprisoned by love
  • Miranda sides with Ferdinand rather than her father, which makes Prospero furious with her! “Silence! One word more/ Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee. What,/ An advocate for an imposter? Hush!” He then proceeds to take Ferdinand as his prisoner, and Ferdinand is happy to be taken as long as it means he can continue to see Miranda.
  • Miranda, however, assures Ferdinand that her father is probably just acting! She’s knows him well. “Be of comfort,” she tells him, because “my father’s of a better nature, sir, than he appears by speech.”