Thursday, 10 March 2016

Is Emma Woodhouse a likeable heroine?

Austen once famously remarked that Emma is “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like,” and her rationale for saying this is obvious: unlike Fanny Price or Anne Elliot, Emma is not a particularly admirable character. Indeed, many of the novel’s greatest disasters (Box Hill, for instance) or near-disasters (Harriet’s near damnation to the fate of being “an old maid at last, like Miss Bates”) are caused by Emma and her famous lack of judgement. Emma, despite being clever, is, in the words of Claire Tomalin, “consistently wrong”. Moreover, she is an arrogant heroine, particularly when it comes to her obsession with class and hierarchy. And yet, despite her flaws, there is a certain appeal and allure in Emma that is perhaps lacking in the somewhat bland Fanny Price. We are attracted to Emma’s desire for excitement and her undeniable charm, and thus, though Emma is not a particularly admirable character, she is certainly a likeable protagonist.

One of Emma’s least attractive traits is her obsession with class, which comes across on a number of occasions in the novel but particularly in her attitudes to Miss Bates and the Coles. Austen emphasises the extreme differences in Emma and Miss Bates’s situation: Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich with a comfortable home,” whilst Miss Bates is “neither young, handsome, rich,” with “no intellectual superiority” and living “in a very small way.” Indeed, it is worth noting that Austen herself was very much like Miss Bates: a relatively poor spinster living on the benevolence of her brother Edward Knight with her mother (as Miss Bates does) and sister Cassandra. Austen’s arguable similarity to Miss Bates perhaps explains Austen’s pity for Miss Bates in Emma’s arrogance (Emma “seldom went near them” because she was afraid of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury”) and lack of concern (she does not contribute “what she ought” to their comfort), despite the fact that, when Emma does visit, she is “most cordially and even gratefully welcomed.” Emma’s attitude to Miss Bates, the novel’s moral compass, determines our opinion of her, and can be contrasted to Mr Knightley’s benevolence and care towards the Bateses (giving the rest of his apples and lending his carriage). Emma’s attitude towards the Coles is similarly unattractive (and also rather comic): she at first refuses to go to their party because they are “only moderately genteel” (not a “superior family”), preferring to remain in “solitary grandeur”. Again, this is another unattractive perspective on Emma.

Emma also shows her arrogance when it comes to her confidence in her own flawed judgement, which leads her to persuade Harriet to reject Robert Martin and to fall in love with Elton, who “never thought of Miss Smith” in the whole course of his existence. Emma mistakes Elton’s false and excessive gallantry regarding the painting and his charade to be directed at Harriet, when really it was directed at her (despite John’s warning her that Elton has “a great deal of good will” towards her). Emma mocks Martin’s proposal of marriage, despite the fact that he “expressed good sense” and rented “a very large farm” (with espalier apple-trees, indicating wealth), because he is a farmer and “must be coarse and unpolished”. This generalisation is also seen in her attitude to the poor family she visits, who must have no “extraordinary virtue” because of their poverty. Again, we see here Emma’s obsession with class, in this instance exacerbated by her lack of judgement.

However, there are a number of reasons that the reader cannot help liking Emma. Firstly, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse forces us to see the happenings of the novel largely from Emma’s own perspective, encouraging us to sympathise with her. As Gard argues, it is free indirect discourse that makes us pity Emma after Box Hill when Austen writes: “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?” Thus, the reader forms a connection with Emma, making it almost impossible to dislike her, though we are still more than aware of her faults. Moreover, this free indirect discourse means that, on first reading the novel, very many readers suffer the same ignorance and lack of judgment that Emma does: we may not notice that Mr Elton’s gallantry is in fact directed towards Emma, and we may not realise that Jane and Frank are engaged, although Mr Knightley does suspect Frank of “some indication to trifle with Jane.” Thus, we cannot help pitying Emma and sympathising with her mistakes.

We also pity Emma because she does, in fact, change throughout the novel, and thus the novel can be read as a so-called Bildungsroman. With the help of Mr Knightley, Emma learns to treat others less as objects and generalizations (she begins wanting to befriend Harriet because she will find her “useful”) and more as people (at the end “She wanted to be of use” to Jane, offering her carriage). This development breaks down the reader’s moral distance from Emma, allowing us to warm to her and pity her in her lamentations: “I seem to have been doomed to blindness.” Indeed, she changes her bigoted opinion of Mr Martin completely, telling Knightley “at that time I was a fool” and the narrator says: “It would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin.” And though it is possible to argue that Emma’s acceptance that her and Harriet’s “intimacy must sink” shows how she is still obsessed with hierarchy, this is perhaps more because Emma and Harriet never were good friends for one another: Knightley was right when he noted that Harriet’s “ignorance is hourly flattery.” Emma also makes amends with Miss Bates, and Austen uses the words “repentance” and “contrition” to emphasise Emma’s moral change. Thus, Emma’s change makes her a more likeable character.

Emma is also not, in fact, an ill-natured person: her mistakes are not caused by malice or cruelty, but by boredom. Her sense of the superiority of her own judgement can in a large sense be put down to the fact that she was, from a young age, “directed chiefly by her own” and was mistress of her house in a town that “afforded her no equals” (though this is not exactly true). Thus, Emma is not entirely to blame, just as Lydia is not entirely to blame for Mr and Mrs Bennett’s bad parenting that leads to her moral transgressions. It is the dullness of Emma’s society and life (she has never been to the sea or to Box Hill, despite its proximity, and her father “was unfit for any acquaintance”) that causes her greatest mistakes, particularly her venturing into match-making and her role as an imaginist.

Moreover, Emma is inherently a good person, as the narrator observes: “There were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.” For every section devoted to her mischief, Booth argues, “there is a section devoted to her self-reproach,” and it is this that makes Emma such a relatable figure. Despite her relapse (when she considers, after her resolve not to matchmake, whether Harriet could marry one of the Coxes or later Frank Churchill), she eventually learns the dangers of her meddling through her constant cycles of mistake and repentance. Thus, Emma’s unattractive qualities and actions, Box Hill for example, can be put down to her boredom rather than a purposeful cruelty. Unlike Mr and Mrs Elton at the ball, Emma does not purposefully harm anybody, and she always repents her mistakes.

Thus, it is clear that though Emma is a flawed heroine, she is still a likeable one. Austen is often seen as an anti-Jacobin, neo-Classical or Augustan writer, rejecting the obsession with the imagination and fancy that became prominent in the Romantic period. This is most evident in her two novels “Northanger Abbey” and “Sense and Sensibility”, and it is also evident in “Emma” as the heroine gradually realises she must submit to a “subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” Nonetheless, the reality is that Emma’s great attraction lies in her imagination and her “desire to make life vivid” (Morgan). As Gard argues, “she is the victim of her marvellous ideas,” marvellous because of their attempts to enliven a rather dull life. It is Emma’s emphasis on the imagination that, though it leads her astray, we so admire and love. Indeed, we applaud Knightley when he allows for “the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment,” showing that Emma’s exciting attributes and charm have influenced Knightley (he remarks that he, too, has changed). This exciting charm and obsession with the imagination leads Knightley, and indeed the reader, to view Emma as “the sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.” Emma’s sin is, as Lionel Trilling observes, the poet’s sin, and it is this that makes her such a likeable heroine.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Is Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” a feminist, socialist drama?

What differentiates Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” from many other feminist dramas is that, not only does it criticise the cruelties of patriarchy, it also points out the flaws of feminism and the dangers of what is known as intra-sexual oppression. “Top Girls” is a feminist play – Churchill once wrote that “what I feel is quite strongly a feminist position, and that inevitably comes into what I write.” However, it is not unequivocally so, since the play also dwells on the unattractive aspects of modern, radical, and capitalist feminism. “Top Girls” was influenced by Thatcher’s coming to power (a figure who embodies this capitalist feminism) and by Churchill’s trip to America touring her play “Vinegar Tom”. In America, she came across a type of feminism much more associated with business and success within capitalist structures, rather than the more traditional, socialist feminism she was used to. It is this capitalist approach to female emancipation that Churchill criticises, and in this sense it is a feminist, socialist drama.

The first act of the play begins as a celebration of female success and of Marlene’s recent appointment as Managing Director. However, this celebration swiftly transmogrifies into a chaotic scene of female suffering. Although we applaud the feminist attitudes held by these women, seen in Nijo’s questioning of male power (“Priests were often vagrants, so why not a nun?”) and Joan’s expression of female achievement (“I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me…”), these attitudes are soon proven to be somewhat ironic. These women, though they have achieved success, are all undeniably conditioned by society. This explains Isabella’s feelings of guilt (“Whenever I came back to England I felt I had so much to atone for,”) and Nijo’s blaming of herself for the flaws and cruelties of society: “The first half of my life was all sin and the second all repentance.” These feelings of guilt demonstrate the fact that these women still believe that male power is a part of the order of nature, thus making their success somewhat sardonic.

This is not to trivialise the success of these women: Joan became Pope and Isabella was asked to join the National Geographical Society. What it does show, however, is how these women have been conditioned. This is also seen in their responses to their own suffering: Joan describes her death with particularly bland language (“They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death”), perhaps suggesting that she feels she deserved to die. After all, Joan does refer to herself as a “heresy”, reinforcing this idea of self-blame. It is these feelings that make these women ignorant of their own incredible suffering, epitomised by Nijo’s response to Marlene’s questioning her experience of rape: “I belonged to him. It was what I was brought up for from a baby.” It is not until they hear of Griselda’s immense ordeals and they are spurred on by Marlene that they really comprehend the extent to which they suffered, epitomised in Marlene’s words: “O God, why are we all so miserable?”

The chaos of the scene’s end, as all the women describe their singular acts of triumph (even Griselda begins to challenge patriarchy), undercuts the previous sense of celebration In the act, with Joan crying and being sick in the corner. Thus, it is clear that Act 1, rather than simply focusing on the success of these women, demonstrates the ways in which women have been conditioned by society (as seen in Nijo’s obsession with clothes) and the ways in which they have suffered, epitomised by Griselda’s stoic submissiveness. Thus, Act 1 is the act that introduces and develops the theme of feminism through encouraging pity for the plight of women throughout history.

Act 2, on the other hand, presents us with a very different image, emphasising the brutality of modern feminism and so-called “yuppie” culture. It seems that the women of Act 2, particularly Nell and Marlene, have adopted typically negative male stereotypes of drinking and promiscuity in order to gain power. For example, Nell celebrates the fact that she has slept with two men over the weekend (“One Friday, one Saturday”), a story to which Win, in a typically macho-man style, responds, “Aye Aye.” This belligerence is also seen in the women’s reaction to the news about Howard: Marlene calls him a “Poor sod” and Nell brutally remarks: “Lucky he didn’t get the job if that’s what his health’s like.” These ideas of cruelty are also seen in the way in which Nell and Marlene seem to oppress other women. Marlene is brutal in her interview with Jeanine (she tells her that advertisement agencies are “looking for something glossier”), who ends the interview as a feeble wreck with the unconvincing words, “Yes, all right.”

Nell’s interview with Shona is similarly telling. Nell and Win both celebrate “Tough birds” like them, and Nell warms to Shona because she sees her as driven and successful, particularly when she says: “I never consider people’s feelings.” However, when Nell realises that Shona is lying about her identity and qualifications, she at once holds back any assistance she might be able to give her. This demonstrates the biggest problems with modern feminism and intra-sexual oppression: these women are prepared to help other “Tough birds”, but they will not lend a helping hand to those who need it most, those who, as Marlene says, have not “got what it takes.” This is perhaps most clear in Marlene’s cruel (though somewhat understandable) reaction to Mrs Kidd: rather than helping Mrs Kidd and comforting her in her realisation that her own life relies on the success of her husband, Marlene simply tells her to “Piss off”. Though Win is not quite as cruel as the others (she shows sympathy for Angie and Louise), the overwhelming sense of Act 2 is one of a lack of concern for the plight of other women, and thus Churchill criticises capitalist feminism. This is an idea also glimpsed at in Act 1 in the overlapping dialogue (showing a disinterest, perhaps, in the problems of others) and in the silence of the waitress. This implies that, throughout history, many women have been reluctant to help their female counterparts. Though there are moments of collective triumph in Act 1 (in Nijo and Gret’s stories), the self-obsession of these women demonstrates the need for a more socialist approach to feminism.

By placing the Angie and Kit scene before the office scene, Churchill ensures that Act 2 does not appear to celebrate the structures of capitalism. Moreover, the placement of the scene creates an ironic juxtaposition between Angie’s dismal circumstances (her garden has “a shelter made of junk”) and the cold glamour of the office scenes. This juxtaposition lingers until Marlene’s final words of the Act: “She’s not going to make it.” The futile and dreary depiction of Angie’s life (she is forced to invent tales of ghosts and vampires in order to add excitement to her life), along with the hopeless desire of Angie to escape (“If I don’t get away from here I’m going to die”) makes Marlene’s condemnation of Angie as a “Packer in Tesco” even more poignant and harsh. The inability of Marlene to recognise her daughter (“Have you an appointment?” she asks), along with Angie’s struggle to communicate with Mrs Kidd (Angie answers the wrong question) emphasise the brutality of Marlene’s abandoning of her child. Indeed, Marlene’s decision to abandon her daughter has created an irreversible rift between the two, a rift that is obvious through an analysis of vocabulary in particular. Marlene has had to reject a family life in order to succeed, and the image presented of Angie in Act 2 encourages us to dislike Marlene’s decision. In fact, Churchill commented that she “did want people to feel that Marlene was wrong… in rejecting Angie,” and thus Churchill criticizes the lack of humanity in capitalist feminism, since it necessitates the abandonment of an inherent maternal instinct.

It is in Act 3 that Churchill really drives home this feminist, socialist message. In the denouement, Churchill confronts two completely polarized political beliefs through the two sisters: Marlene believes “in the individual” and Thatcherism, whereas Joyce is a socialist who spits when she sees a Rolls Royce. The dismal circumstances of Angie and Joyce’s lifestyle (Joyce can only offer Marlene an egg) demonstrate once again the cruelty of Marlene’s attitude, an attitude summarized in her rejection of the working class as “lazy and stupid”. Marlene then goes on to defend Angie, telling Joyce “You run her down too much”, even though a year later she tells Win that Angie is “not going to make it”. The overwhelming sense of Act 3 is that it highlights the cruelty of Marlene: she has rejected her sister and her daughter for six years, and she tells Joyce she should not bother visiting her elderly mother. And although Joyce is not a perfect role model (Churchill herself said she was “limited and bad-tempered” as seen in her calling Angie a “fucking rotten little cunt”) she is certainly more humane than Marlene, as when she says: “Or what? Have her put in a home? Have some stranger take her would you rather?” Thus, though Joyce is not perfect, what Act 3 demonstrates is that the loss of humanity necessitated by success in a capitalist world is crippling and uncaring for other women.

What Churchill seems to advocate in this play is a collective, socialist form of feminism: she celebrates Marlene’s ambition, whilst also celebrating Joyce’s humanity and kindness. Likewise, she condemns the cruelties of Nell and Marlene, whilst also condemning Joyce’s inertia (though Joyce does at least go to evening classes and works four jobs). The real sadness of the play is that Marlene is prepared to subject her own daughter to the very life she herself desired to escape. It is this self-centred approach that Churchill condemns. Indeed, Roberts noted: ““Top Girls” states unequivocally that success within a system that ignores humanity must necessitate an analysis of motive and achievement.” If feminism, and indeed society itself, does not change its approach to female emancipation and the female predicament, then the future really will be “Frightening…” A collective, socialist feminism is, for Churchill, the way forward to a brighter, more equal future.

The Government Must Protect the Unaccompanied Children in the Calais "Jungle"

Read the article as published in The Huffington Post here:

Squalid hovels; flooded tents; expanses of mud, rubbish, and faeces: the conditions of the Calais ‘Jungle’ are truly awful. Indeed, in a recent Upper Tribunal decision, Mr Justice McCloskey stated that the camp’s conditions are “about as deplorable as any citizen of the developed nations could imagine.”

According to a recent census carried out by volunteers, there are currently 5497 refugees living in the makeshift camp, a number that has been gradually increasing over the last year. It is no wonder, then, that the French authorities have finally decided to address the problem: on the 12th of January, refurbished shipping containers supposedly able to hold about 1800 refugees were introduced into the camp.

Soon after this, a huge swathe of the camp was bulldozed and many refugees were moved into the new accommodation. Of course, the fact that these refugees now have secure and sanitary housing is a good thing, but by no means does it solve the problem.

In fact, on Thursday evening a French judge gave the local authorities the green light to demolish the southern part of the Calais camp. They estimate that 800-1000 residents would need to be relocated to the containers or to alternative centres of accommodation located around France.

But these numbers wildly underestimate the true population of this area, in which about 3455 refugees currently reside. With only 1156 alternative places presently available across France (as claimed in court), this eviction could leave hundreds of refugees stranded. To make matters worse, the French have stated that once the southern section of the camp is cleared, they will begin on the northern section, which houses 2042 residents, including 137 Syrian households.

The greatest victims of these demolitions are, without a doubt, the children. Latest figures show that there are 651 children living in the Jungle, 423 of whom are unaccompanied. These children are vulnerable to dangers like trafficking, violence, exploitation, and abuse, not to mention the risk of carcinogenic disease caused by the toxic white asbestos found throughout the camp.

It is estimated that 91 of these unaccompanied children have close family in the UK, explaining their presence in the camp. Under the current Dublin Regulation (“Dublin III”), if an unaccompanied refugee child has a relative with protection status in another EU member state, they can request to be reunited. The EU member state might then make what is known as a “take charge” request to the other member state in respect of the child’s protection claim. The child would then, in theory, be admitted into the country and reunited with family.

All sounds great, doesn’t it? But there’s a catch. The legal advice offered in the Jungle is extremely limited, and unsurprisingly, unaccompanied foreign minors are not legally competent to make a claim for asylum. These claims must be made on their behalf by a legal representative (appointed by a state-funded agency), and the process of registering a child’s asylum application takes at least three months. Indeed, the whole process of addressing “take charge” requests can take up to a year, making it a long and difficult procedure for anyone, particularly a child traumatised by war and violence. The complexity and red tape involved in the process perhaps explains why, during the whole of 2015, France made only 4 “take charge” requests to the UK, and none related to unaccompanied minors.

But this is where Article 8 of the 1998 Human Rights Act comes in. Article 8 states that, Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life…” Making use of Article 8, the aforementioned Upper Tribunal ruled that three child refugees and one adult refugee with a disability should be admitted immediately to the UK from the Jungle in order to be reunited with family members. The Upper Tribunal also stated that, in cases of similarly vulnerable refugees, the same course should be followed.

This means that a large number of the children in the Jungle have a legal right to live across the Channel. That’s why we need the government to introduce a physical presence of immigration officers in Calais who are ready, willing and able to give assistance and advice, ensuring that those minors who can assert a credible claim can make an application for asylum in France, so that they can then be admitted into the United Kingdom.

These actions would be consistent with the Upper Tribunal ruling in January (“Zat”) and the UK government’s August 2015 promise to monitor the camps in France for vulnerable individuals, offering advice and support in their applications for asylum in France, a commitment that has thus far been overlooked.

Citizens UK have details of all the unaccompanied children who fall within the Zat principles: all they need is for the UK government to take control of the situation so that young boys and girls, lost in the alien world of Northern France, can be reunited with their loved ones. The government must act if it wants to avert the possibility of a true humanitarian tragedy, a tragedy which would involve young children dispersing from the camps to become the victims of abduction, abuse, and worse.

The demolition is expected to begin next week. There are real human lives at stake, and there is only a small window of opportunity to make them just a little better. That’s why the government can, and must, act.

I Sat Down With a Refugee in Lesbos: This is His Story

The sky is clear tonight. A bitter cold seeps through Moria Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Men, women and children line up outside the clothes distribution tent, shivering. Somewhere amongst the crowd of chattering teeth and clasped hands is Zahir, a 23 year-old refugee from Afghanistan.

Zahir is one of the two and a half thousand refugees who reached the shores of Lesbos today. He is exhausted, wet, and caked with vomit, and with the darkness of night comes the risk of hypothermia, a risk that is all too real for the refugees passing through Moria registration camp in the cold of winter.

When Zahir has some dry clothes and a warm jacket, I take him over to the tea tent in the part of the camp nicknamed ‘Afghan Hill’. Hundreds of people wander confusedly through the mud, anxious and lost. Most refugees are driven in UNHCR buses to Moria as soon as they arrive on the Greek island, hardly certain of where they are or whether they are safe. Depending on where on the island their boat lands, the drive can take up to 2 hours through the winding hills of Lesbos.

“Are you a football fan? I’m a Gunner,” Zahir tells me. Surprised by his seamless English, I ask him how he has become fluent, and he explains that he worked for 2 years as an airport supervisor in Kabul after studying civil aviation in India. In fact, he speaks five different languages, all of which he practiced while working with Safi Airways in Afghanistan.

Zahir wraps his arms around himself to shield himself from the cold. Under the camp’s neon light, I can see his eyes twitching from side to side. Though he is evidently in a state of shock following the day’s events, Zahir says he is keen to tell his story. He wants the world to understand how dangerous the journey to Lesbos really is.

At 10 o’clock this morning, Zahir arrived with 65 people crammed into a small dinghy, barely floating above the water. The engine cut out three times in the middle of the sea. Children clung to their parents. Women screamed. One young girl was knocked into the ice-cold water, but luckily, because the boat was moving so slowly through the waves, she was pulled back in.

Zahir was sitting at the back of the boat, crushed on both sides by arms and legs sparring for space. All around him people were being sick. The larger waves flooded the sides, and despite efforts to bail water out of the dinghy, it was perilously close to sinking. Zahir had heard stories about the dinghies sent across the sea, about the refugees drowning and washing up on Turkish or Greek shores. Now it could be his body washing up on the beach.

“I still can’t believe I’m alive,” Zahir keeps telling me, shaking his head with amazement. He says that there have been two occasions in his life when he thought he would die. The first was on the 6th of August, 2015, when the Taliban killed at least 35 people and wounded hundreds in numerous bomb attacks throughout Kabul. One explosion went off just north of the airport where Zahir was working. The second occasion was today, when the dinghy’s engine cut out halfway across the Aegean, and when his ears rang with the terrified screams of those around him. He thought he might never stand on dry land again.

It was when the US army started leaving Afghanistan that life became horrifying, Zahir says. In an almost detached manner, he tells me how his best friend, a young law student just about to begin his practice, was one of many people killed by the Taliban during the seven-hour siege of a court in Mazar-e-Sharif. He was shot in the forehead by a gunman dressed in military uniform.

Zahir decided to leave Afghanistan in August, just days after the Kabul terrorist attacks. It wasn’t for economic reasons that he left – he had a good job earning $1500 a month, and he was greatly respected in his community. Rather, he left for his own safety – life, in his own words, had become unbearable, particularly for educated young men, frequently targeted by groups like the Taliban and Islamic State.

As it’s now nearly impossible to get hold of a Turkish visa, Zahir flew to Iran instead, where he contacted smugglers to get him into Turkey illegally. After 15 days in Iran, once his Iranian visa had expired, he met the smugglers at the foothills of the mountains of northern Iran, bordering Turkey. Zahir was one of about 150 refugees led through the mountains by night, a journey that left him physically and emotionally exhausted.

At this point, Zahir begins to shake his head again, but this time with a grave look on his face as he describes his experiences. During the perilous six hour trek, he saw bodies lying lifeless in the knee-high snow beside the mountain passes: the bodies of those too exhausted to go on and too weak to turn back. He saw families with young children giving up, unable to continue the hazardous journey through the blizzards and storms of the Iranian mountains. Most refugees who journey through the snowy mountains suffer from severe frostbite and hypothermia, adding to the dangers of their passage.

When he finally arrived in Istanbul, Zahir was put in touch with a smuggler called Ahmed, famous amongst refugees and Turks for illegal people trafficking. “I paid $2000 for a safe fishing boat, but when I got to the beach in Turkey, there was only a dinghy. A smuggler pointed his gun at me and told me to get in the boat. I thought he would shoot,” Zahir frustratedly explains. Some of the refugees tried to fight back, shouting and begging for another boat, but the smugglers held them at gunpoint and forced them in. Having already handed over their life savings, what else could they do but give in?

Zahir’s smuggling experiences are typical of what happens at Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Most refugees will, upon arrival, spend a number of nights on the streets of Izmir in makeshift camps. According to some estimates, there are up to 2000 smugglers in Izmir, so contacting one is easily done. Once refugees have spoken with a smuggler, and once they have been falsely assured that their journey will be safe, they wait to be told when and where their boat will be departing.

There’s a moment of silence. I catch Zahir contemplating the muddy wasteland surrounding us with a look of despair on his face. The terrible conditions of Moria registration camp, exacerbated by the careless approach of the Greek authorities, have left him shocked and saddened. Even though he collected his registration ticket as soon as he arrived, he will have to wait in the cold until about seven in the morning to be officially registered. That means up to ten hours standing in line, with no sleep and no food.

He also misses his family. When he begins to tell me about his girlfriend in Kabul, his voice falters and his eyes gloss over with tears. Because unmarried couples are looked down on in Afghanistan, Zahir and his girlfriend would see each other secretly about once a week, going to small restaurants and bars. When he told her he was leaving for Europe, she was heartbroken – her family wouldn’t let her accompany him. He also tells me about his mother, a doctor living in Kabul. She was too fragile to join him on his perilous journey, and she wouldn’t have survived the cold mountain passes and the treacherous Aegean, Zahir says. Though he was sad to leave them behind, he knows it was for the best.

“I would like to go to England,” Zahir says, “but I know it’s impossible.” His sister and his cousin have been living in Newcastle since 2001, and he has a number of friends living in the UK. But he’s seen the horrendous images of the Calais ‘Jungle’, and he knows how dangerous it can be to jump the trains to London – he’s not willing to risk his life yet again. Right now, he is just happy to be alive, and he plans to take every day as it comes. When he reaches Athens, he will decide where to go from there.

What strikes me most about my conversation with Zahir is his awareness of the problems Europe faces. He understands the trouble Greece is having in responding to the refugee crisis, and he worries that countries like Greece and Italy are not being supported enough by the international community. He sees it not just as a Greek problem, but a worldwide one. 

He is also anxious about what the future holds, not just for refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, but for the Muslim community as a whole. He has watched with fear the rise of far-right groups throughout Europe, and he has seen the increase in Donald Trump’s popularity in America. Astonished by what he sees as the ignorance of so many, he tells me with anger in his voice, “I’m not the kind of Muslim who interferes with others. We’re not all terrorists.”

When I say goodbye to Zahir and thank him for talking to me, he is standing outside the barbed-wire fence of the registration compound, once a detention centre for criminals. As I walk away, I wish I could believe that the sorrow and the brutality of his story are unique.

Sadly, however, every refugee has their own terrible story. Zahir is one of many young men who once lived a successful, happy life, but whose world was turned upside down by terror and violence. He is one of many people just like you and me, but whose dreams and ambitions were shattered by the horrors of war.

"Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" - A Brief Analysis of Stevens's Poem

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

This was, for a long time, my favourite poem. In fact, I chose the final three lines as my Leavers’ Yearbook quotation, because I felt they poignantly reflected my time at school and what I learnt.

The poem is, to an extent, an exercise in the philosophy of subjective idealism, the idea that the world around us is created by our own minds. Thus, Stevens says that he was “the compass of that sea” – he was at the centre of the wide world around him. His mind created the “golden ointment” on his beard and his “ears made the blowing hymns they heard.”

These ideas of a subjective world are synonymous with the philosophies expressed in Stevens’s essays and poetry. In his collection of essays The Necessary Angel Stevens wrote: “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” Likewise, in his poem “The Dove in the Belly” Stevens explains that “All of appearance is a toy” and questions how our emotions can influence how we view the world around us.

I recently noticed that a number of my favourite lines in poetry reflected these solipsistic ideas. In her poem “Apprehensions”, Plath desperately questions “Is there no way out of the mind?” and in Book 1 of Paradise Lost Satan exclaims: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” And really, I think these poets are right: it’s not necessarily always the case that what we see and experience affects our feelings; rather, our feelings often affect what we see and experience.

I think it’s also the exotic language that draws me to this poem. His use of inversion (“Not less was I myself…” and “Out of my mind…”) brings not only a cadence to the verse, but also a sense of outlandish mystery, reflecting this idea of individualism expressed in the final line: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” The images of purple robes (a symbol of royalty), golden ointment, and blowing hymns again suggest a distant and perhaps ancient world, encouraging our interest.

And finally, we must reflect upon Stevens’s use of the word “you”. Who is this person who has been talking about “the loneliest air”? Well, many have suggested that it is some philosopher, Freud or Nietzsche, but perhaps the most likely candidate for the addressee of the poem is “Hoon”, whoever he might be –this ambiguity again adds to our intrigue.

Overall, I think Stevens is reflecting on two things. Firstly, he is reflecting upon the philosophies aforementioned and the way our inner world affects the world around us. And secondly, he is suggesting that, despite the splendour and luxury of his attire at the palace, he is still himself. Indeed, his experiences of this grandeur revealed to him a new aspect of his personality, an aspect that is both true and strange.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Is Hamlet a likeable figure?

Prince Hamlet is one of the most equivocal and hotly-debated characters in all of English drama. Though he is the hero of a revenge drama, Hamlet is certainly not your typical revenger. He is, instead, a lover, a thinker, and an actor, and it is these qualities, contrasted with the bloodthirsty violence of Vindice and other tragic heroes, that make Hamlet a likeable figure. However, he is by no means perfect: he delays acting for five acts of the play (though some would claim this is no bad thing), he is at times cruel and immature, and he is, in the words of Kitto, “driven down into the gulf.” The play is a study in the spread of corruption and sin, and Hamlet is not exempt from this. Therefore, though Hamlet is a likeable and pitiable character, he is flawed and, like all tragic heroes from Oedipus to Lear, he does make mistakes.

At the opening of the play the audience is full of pity for the young prince Hamlet, who is deep in mourning for his father’s recent death. Shakespeare encourages us to contrast the grief of Hamlet and Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, who uses skilful rhetoric and political tropes to describe the extent of his false grief. Claudius refers to the deceased King Hamlet as “our dear brother”, making his mourning seem universal and of great importance. But despite the fact that, in his own words, “The memory be green,” he encourages the people of Denmark not to dwell in their mourning. His careful balancing of phrases (“With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,”) renders his speech undeniably contrived and deceptive. Hamlet’s speech, on the other hand, is honest and authentic, as he explains: “Seems, madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.” Claudius’ grief is, in Hamlet’s words, “but the trappings and the suits of woe,” whereas Hamlet has “that within which passes show,” words that encourage our pity for the tragic hero.

What is more, Hamlet’s reflections on suicide in soliloquy one (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”), though they may have shocked an Elizabethan audience (since suicide was blasphemous), would also have evoked pity, and thus our first image of Hamlet is that of a son sympathetically mourning his father. We also pity Hamlet in his grief over his mother’s remarriage (“But two months since – nay, not so much, not two”), and thus Hamlet is a likeable figure at the play’s opening. Moreover, Hamlet’s undeniable state of melancholy (later he exclaims, “What a piece of work is a man!”) might to an extent explain his cruelty and his mistakes later in the play: at the opening of the play, Hamlet is clearly not himself, “Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state,” (in Ophelia’s words).

We also warm to Hamlet as a character on account of his intelligence and his wit. We applaud his scholarly discernment in not only his judgement of Claudius’ character (when the Ghost reveals the truth, Hamlet exclaims “O my prophetic soul!”), but also in his suspicion of the Ghost, who might be a “spirit of health or goblin damned.” The audience respect Hamlet for questioning the nature of the Ghost, and we likewise respect his decision to hold the play in order to verify the Ghost’s words. Indeed, Hamlet’s love of acting (he begs the player king to recite Aeneas’ speech) and his own ability to act (“Speak the speech I play you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…”) are both rather redeeming features, particularly for the audience who share his love of the theatre. Hamlet’s use of his wit in mocking Polonius might also encourage us to like and sympathise with the prince. In these hilarious scenes, Hamlet provides the audience with amusement at the expense of some of the play’s most unattractive characters (Polonius’s cruelty is constantly evident, as when he tells Reynaldo to put on Laertes “what forgeries you please”). It is particularly amusing when Hamlet tells Polonius he is a “fishmonger”, one of the basest professions of the Elizabethan era. Thus, Hamlet is seen throughout the play as an intelligent and witty character, and it is these qualities that make him likeable.

We also admire Hamlet for his conscience, something that seems somewhat lacking in many of the play’s other characters. The reason Hamlet delays for so long is because of his conscience and because he knows, if he kills a possibly innocent man, then he will be eternally damned: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” Hamlet’s aversion from killing is most evident in the field soliloquy when he laments that the patch of ground “is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain.” It is undeniable that the audience would rather a thought with three parts coward and one part wisdom than a thought wholly bloody and violent , as Laertes seems to have: “Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit, / I dare damnation.” Where Hamlet has a conscience and fears damnation, Laertes, one of the play’s other revengers, has neither conscience nor fear (at least not until the duel scene). Moreover, while Laertes is willing “To cut his throat i’th’Church,” Hamlet is not, and we certainly are glad that Hamlet does not kill Claudius in cold blood while he is attempting to repent. And though Hamlet’s reasoning for this (he wants to kill Claudius “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage…” so that he goes to Hell) is, as Johnson has noted, very unattractive, it is very possible that Hamlet is being disingenuous in posing as the revenger he is not. Indeed, when Hamlet says “Oh from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth…” we somehow doubt that this is what he really believes or desires. And so, though Hamlet may call himself a coward for not acting, perhaps Hamlet’s inaction shows a positive aspect of his character, reinforcing our view of him as a mindful young man with a conscience, rather than as a mindless killer.

And yet, it is very possible to argue against this view of Hamlet. After all, he does send his two school friends to their deaths and then remarks: “They are not near my conscience.” However, this does not necessarily mean that he enjoys killing: he knew that it was either him that would die or them, and understandably he chose to kill them. Moreover, his decision to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shows that when he needs to act, Hamlet is able to seize opportunities. Indeed, Hamlet seems to take advantage of opportunities throughout the play: the arrival of the players, the killing of Polonius, and the final killing of Claudius, presented as a sudden decision by Hamlet’s words, “And the point envenomed too! Then, venom, to thy work!” Thus, though Hamlet is unattractive in his cold killing of his school friends, it is somewhat understandable, since they did indeed “make love to this employment” of espionage and trickery on behalf of Claudius. Moreover, it does not mean that Hamlet is a violent murderer, it simply means that, as H.A. Taine argues, he is a man with a conscience who will act against it if he must.

Hamlet’s behaviour to Ophelia, however, is harder to excuse. Johnson defined it as “useless and wanton cruelty”, and it is true that Hamlet is unattractive in his ability to use (or indeed “play upon”) Ophelia to his own advantage. He orders her to “Get thee to a nunnery!” in order to convey his fa├žade of madness to Polonius, and this causes Ophelia much upset: “O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!” she exclaims, after Hamlet has appeared in her room. Later, she tells him “You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” and we certainly dislike Hamlet in his cruelty. However, perhaps it can be excused to an extent: Levin argues that, when Hamlet asks Ophelia “Ha! Are you honest?” (changing into prose), he has seen Polonius skulking in the wings. This perhaps explains Hamlet’s anger at Ophelia: he sees her as complicit in Claudius and Polonius’ deceptive plans. Thus, though Hamlet’s acts may not be justified, they can to an extent be explained.

Hamlet’s acts at Ophelia’s funeral are similarly cruel. His arrogance and heartlessness is clear when he exclaims “This is I! Hamlet the Dane!” He is particularly unattractive when he compares his own love to that of Laertes, saying that “Forty thousand brothers” couldn’t make up his sum. We do not like Hamlet here because, not only has he arguably caused the tragic and sad death of Ophelia, he has also interrupted her funeral. Perhaps, however, this can be explained by Hamlet’s overwhelming sense of grief following his discovery of Ophelia’s death: it is possible that his extreme protestations of love are Hamlet’s attempts to overcome his sense of guilt. Thus, Hamlet’s cruel and unattractive actions may to an extent be explained by the position he is in and by the melancholy that has tainted him throughout the play.

Hamlet is a kind, intelligent and loving son and friend, “placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and perplex his conduct” (Mackenzie). Though this does not justify Hamlet’s actions, the melancholic cloud that hangs on him following his father’s death, accompanied by the incredible burden he groans under, may explain his errant and unattractive actions. Our final view of Hamlet is, however, a positive one: his exchange of forgiveness with Laertes marks him as a loving and kind friend. Moreover, Horatio’s view of Hamlet as a “sweet prince” and Fortinbras’ view of him as a soldier who will have “proved most royal” are both true and positive perspectives on Hamlet’s actions in the play. He is, as Cruttwell argues, a conscript in a war: he does things he should not and would rather not have done, but he believes his war to be just and he persists in it until the end. He is not perfect, but we as an audience should not expect perfection: in fact, it is perhaps Hamlet’s imperfections that make him such a realistic, relatable and indeed appealing character.