“LitRPG” – Game Text As Literature

 Criticism, RPG  Comments Off on “LitRPG” – Game Text As Literature
Jan 072009

From a post at Story-Games.com

David Artman  Jan 7th 2009 edited
First, thanks for backing off terms… so let’s back off “what is art” as that’s never been answered by even Rhodes Scholars. 😉

Posted By: TomasHVM– And let us discuss how the games-format may influence the reading.

  • What kind of qualities are present in a game-text, and in the reading of it, that makes it a strong communication device?
  • How can we make really readable game-texts?

NOW, we’re cooking with gas: something we can attempt to enumerate, techniques of writing and what they accomplish. *puts on dusty old Lit Crit hat and robes*

OK, one thing RPG manuals tend to have is a structure which is influenced by the procedural nature of play: when do you do what and why and what’s next? Other than technical manuals (in all their forms, from “How To” books to IT manuals), no other “genre” of writing does that. What does that buy us? I’d say it brings a sort of formalism and pacing: aside from authorial voice and varied diction, they are going to give a sort of “march” feel to the work. Maybe even meditative, as the pace is felt and matched by the reader.

They also tend to present information in referential manners, be they summaries of procedures, or just your typical charts and graphs of laundry lists of shit. This referential format strips out every nuance, dictional curlicue, and “voice” to present the bare facts. In that way, they can be like the “HALT!” shouted by a drill sergeant, to continue to (ab)use my marching metaphor–the cadence breaks as we rattle off a list of terms or numbers or both, like presenting arms. Compare that to, say, those statistics list one reads that convey a message, e.g. (stats not real, but close):
* Billions spent on heart disease research in 2007: 45
* Number of American death from heart disease in 2007: 500,000
* Billions spent fighting terrorism in 2007: 300
* Number of American deaths from terrorism in 2007: 16

The point is made crystal clear (above: our government spending priorities are FUCKED), but with nary a jot of expression or style. Editorialized by the timing and choice of what is listed, not by the tone or mood conveyed in the writing of the list.

I’ll stop there, for now, to see if I’m spring-boarding the right way (or hieing off into the trees). For obvious reason, I won’t bother to address “game fiction” or “setting fiction” at this point, as it uses all the same devices of a novel or short story, and that’s of minimal interest to me (mainly because there’s already a HUGE body of work that addresses how to do those forms). Readability, I’d say, falls into the same camp: a readable game text has the same qualities as a readable magazine article, novel, or biography. Clarity, diction, etc (or the opposite, if you’re going all deconstructive on us). Become a decent writer–poetry, prose, manuals, whatever–and you will be a good game writer.

– And measured against “ordinary” literature:

  • Is it possible that a games-format is a stronger read than say; a novel, in certain aspects?
  • Could a book of game-texts be as good a read as any collection of short stories?

Stronger? hard to say–what’s the point, what’s the theme, what’s the message? Every format suits some deliveries more than others. I want to woo a woman, a poem is going to go better than an 800-page novel. I want to explore a nuanced and complex theme, through the agency of several interrelated characters? I’m at the least going novella.

As for the second question, I’m going to go cheap and just say, “Sure.” Particularly with game text of the type you’re most suggesting: the RPG Poems With A Message. Time and tastes play a big part in that, though: a book of fan fic shorts about Star Wars will probably bore me FAR more than some witty, thought-provoking, or saddening RPG Poems that hit me square between the eyes with issues current and near and dear to me.

So, really, the better (or more interesting to me) question is what things can RPG Poems do BETTER than existing formats; and I believe I begin to explore that above, by unpacking a bit what an RPG format is and what that does to the reader’s expectations and reading behavior. And, as I said above, I’d like to be sure we want to go there before I do that heavy lifting–being a game writer AND editor AND technical writer, I can go into a fair bit of depth about atonality, neutral (AKA common) diction, procedural presentation and structure, projecting attitudes, and “writing between the lines.” Hell, you’d be amazed at the sort of shit a Major Corporation has me do, to “write around” flaws of design without admitting them–that’s, basically, the exact tack, flipped, that Somalian Children takes.

(Sorry so long, but that’s what you get for intriguing me.)
[edited for clarity and corrections]

TomasHVM  Jan 7th 2009 edited

First out: David; this is pure gold to me! Really interesting discussion of the topic. Your thoughts on “the procedural nature of play” is good!
This is really good: This referential format strips out every nuance, dictional curlicue, and “voice” to present the bare facts. I see what you are aiming at here, and it tingles my brain! I would very much like to read your thoughts on atonality, neutral diction, procedural presentation and structure, projecting attitudes, and “writing between the lines.” ALL of it, and more, if you would … please!

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

Shit, I had to offer. KINDA busy, today, but I’ll get us started.

Baseline writing and what’s left unsaid

So I’m going to write a “LitRPG” (I need a shorthand). I can approach it like Somalian Children, with an essentially neutral tone–no rants, reads like a tech manual–and let its very starkness carry my meaning. Here’s a chart, roll your d10s, consult the chart to see your fate. BUT, if you know anything about math, you see that you’ve got a 1:1000 chance of surviving–that’s not said in the text, that’s left for you to realize. And the realization of the unsaid carries the message and theme and impact. Now you can re-read and the whole tone is changed; the cynicism just drips off the page. HOW? The text hasn’t changed. The tone is still there, sill consistent and neutral. But now, having “got it,” you can imagine the author staring balefully at you, accusingly, his voice so flat he sounds like the dead. Becasue isn’t that the REAL point: what have YOU done to help these poor children? Isn’t that the takeaway message, the unsaid?

Projecting attitude

That neutral tone, however, needn’t be the whole bag… in fact, more and more “RPG texts” are conveying a strong authorial diction and style, moving away from (and even mocking) the neutral tone of a tech manual. So our LitRPG can take that tack, and present a seeming “game,” but with an editorialized voice that shows it’s clearly not meant to be played and, rather, is meant to carry a message or cause a change of thought. I’ll bring up HoL, here, as an easy and obvious example of this (IMO). Yeah, sure, the game is somewhat playable, with a lot of rule repair and addition (or a freeform-loving play group), but it’s REALLY suppose to be a screed. It’s a punk zine disguised as a game which (it seems) takes the piss out of all the “structure” of gaming–could they be one of the first “system doesn’t matter” writers? Are they trying to say, “look, just have fun and fuck the details,” or are they actually MOCKING those gamers or that gaming culture which get so buried in stat and crunch that they get twenty minutes of WOW for every four hours of play? (Sound familiar? HoL authors as first Forrgites?!?) Or am I bringing my own experiences into the mix; am *I* the one projecting meaning and attitude onto the book? For the record, I’d say no in this case: I read HoL when it came out, WAY before exposure to all this theory, and I still saw it as taking the piss out of many contemporary RPG systems. But another LitRPG could well work with ambiguity, leaving each reader to project onto it their own interpretation and intent, just as much poetry does.


So above we have the two poles of a tonal continuum: writing between the lines and bitch-slapping with editorializing. But there’s a third path, an orthogonal axis: one can use shifts in tone in a LitRPG to really hammer a point. If I have you lulled into the meditative march of neutral tone procedural writing and then, WHAM, start off on a screed about how this fucking chart is WORTHLESS if you don’t have a heart to care about the children, you fucking DICK!

Well, you sort of snap to attention, no? Where did all THAT come from, what did I just miss? Is this guy schitzo? Etcetera. You, as a reader, have to engage different mental gears to address this shift in tone… and then engage still more when I drop back into a staid and steady, neutral tone again. Done poorly, this atonality will seem like Tourette’s Syndrome (just as bad atonal music sounds like folks in different rooms, tuning up or adjusting their synthesizers). Done properly, it can underscore the moments of consistency AND convey a message, via contrasting tone, with the moments of insanity (just as the completion of an atonal music progression can make all the disjointed notes attain a sort of “metaharmony”).


This one is the big one, because for all the talk of tone, it’s the order of presentation which carries at least half the weight. In a typical RPG, we often see a color piece, to establish the mood of play for the game, followed quickly by a series of definitional sections, so that one isn’t totally lost as to what to do when the procedural stuff starts using the game jargon. Suppose that was tossed out the door? Suppose an RPG was written like A Clockwork Orange, with immediate total immersion in a nearly thoroughly different language? What is said, by that? One has to read it twice, just to get the sense–or jump to the glossary in the back of some editions, to try to get a baseline. A LitRPG can do the same thing, by eschewing the standard structure of a typical RPG.

But what is said by FOLLOWING the typical RPG structure: intro, define terms, establish character, present procedures of play, flesh out setting (again, fiction or reference material or monster lists or whatever). That goes back to tone and diction: is it homage or satire? Or is the fact that it’s hard to answer that question part of the exploration of the LitRPG?

Or, rather than eliminating common structure or following it to convey additional meaning, what about a disjointed structure? Cart before the horse stuff–all the procedures of play presented before you even know if you are a character or in author stance or what; absolutely no information about setting in the presentation of what is clearly NOT a generic system? Can a LtRPG carry surprises, nestled in the sequence of presentation, just like a novel can use flashback to clarify what was, prior to the flash, a very ambiguous or downright confusing scene? What is meant when such structure conventions are violated? A whole branch of “LitRPG Theory” can grow out of just the considerations of structure and how it informs the piece, just has been done with conventional (and, moreso, experimental) literature.

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

(Damn, a BIT too long….)

Anyhow, just another nudge–that’s why it’s mostly questions and not a list of rules. There’s more LitCrit tools we can bring to bear, as either measures of a LitRPG’s merits or as guides to creating an effective one (I prefer the latter, but that’s also the only reason I studied LitCrit: to be a better writer, NOT a good critic).

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

One more note on atonality, in conventional RPG (meaning non-LitRPGs):

We game designers use atonality all the time, but it’s to reinforce STRUCTURE, not theme or intent.

There is the cold and clear, neutral tone of a process or rule statement, highlighting its importance or canonical nature.
Then you get the more authorial and looser sort of writing which is, like, in sidebars or advice chunks or those little “talking head’ icons folks use to say, “Hey, now I’m just talking to you, to let you know what’s going on under the hood here.”
And, yeah verily, there be in-fiction tones that put thee into a mind to portray the shining heroes and scurrilous villains in a way which is meet.

See there? Three tones, each with a functional role in the text, but none of which is intended to layer on nuance of the overall book’s INTENT… because it’s only real “intent” is to teach you to play a game the way the author envisioned it. EVEN IF proper gameplay enables the underlying intent of a game to educate or inspire (think Grey Ranks, here).

But using atonality in a LitRPG would (should? could?) drive at the message, at the theme, at the takeaway of reading the text itself, without ever engaging in whatever “rules” or “procedures” are presented as carriers for that message.

OK, ’nuff for now. Your volley….

TomasHVM  Jan 8th 2009 edited

Baseline writing and what’s left unsaid

Posted By: David Artmanyou’ve got a 1:1000 chance of surviving–that’s not said in the text, that’s left for you to realize. And the realization of the unsaid carries the message and theme and impact.

Clear point, and very good!

I love the idea of readers discovering such content in the text, due to the instructive format. to have a table convey the central point, like in Somalian Children, is something I find very intriguing.

Projecting attitude

Posted By: David Artmanan editorialized voice that shows it’s clearly not meant to be played and, rather, is meant to carry a message or cause a change of thought.

An alternative, yes. Texts with attitude is nothing strange to ordinary literature either, of course.

To write games that are spitting at you, or teasing you to try them, or plainly have a laid-back stance to both you and itself … it is an idea that carries lots of opportunities.


Posted By: David ArtmanDone properly, it can underscore the moments of consistency AND convey a message, via contrasting tone, with the moments of insanity

I like this. It could be very effective in a text dominated by the neutral tone of rules.

As a game text is ordinarily broken up in more or less stand-alone elements, there is no saying how far you can go with this, both in the deconstructive and constructive way …


Posted By: David ArtmanCan a LtRPG carry surprises, nestled in the sequence of presentation, just like a novel can use flashback to clarify what was, prior to the flash, a very ambiguous or downright confusing scene?

I do think so! To play around with the structure in such a text can dig up many hidden effects, I think.

I really love the idea of going for instructions “in medias res”, and then informing about what this is all about. There is vast fields for fruitful misinterpretations here! I love misguided players!

David, I believe you have made a nice overview of the main elements at play in a literary game text. And you have made some very nice and thought-provoking speculations on what kind of tools and effects to be had for the avid writer.

Thanks to your analysis I now feel even more fired up on this idea! A thousand thanks to you for making the effort!

Mind you: I am not equaling this kind of game-texts with role-playing poems. The poems are made to be played. As such they are both interesting in themselves, with their narrow timeframe, and interesting as tools for research by designers. Writing role-playing poems are a great way for designers to test specific game-tools, and a great way for them to test how their writing in general translates into games.

Bernard Shaw’s Superman

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Sep 271993

The Defining Servant of the Life Force and Its Evolution

The search for the ideal man is pervasive in literature, beginning with the epic hero in the Western tradition and descending through history under various names, with even more varied ideals. The Modern period in British literature was not divorced from this tradition any more than other periods of crisis in history. The Romantic ideal was struggling under the sooty wheel of industrialism, and English imperialism was in its decline as their righteous self-justification wavered. On the island itself, internal strife, swelling poverty, and an unstable world balance of power contributed to a weakened national identity for the British, and produced in its intelligencia a craving for evolution. Bernard Shaw, an Irishman and a Socialist, in his play Man and Superman takes up this theme and addresses the evolution of man as a whole as a means to the ideal man of legend; his egalitarian sentiments find mankind’s savior not in an individual, but in the individual. He borrows, for his model of the “New Man,” the idea of the ubermenshen from Nietzsche’s existential ‘philosophy.’ In the mouth of Jack Tanner, M.I.R.C., (and his parallel, Don Juan) Shaw expresses his own version of Nietzsche’s “superman,” defining, in the process, the Life Force which exerts its evolutionary will to this end. An understanding, however, of this process of evolution is best begun at its end; by first elucidating the superman, his role as servant of the Life Force can be better understood and its ‘motives’ better illustrated.

In many ways, Shaw explicates the nature of the superman in the persona of Jack Tanner; and what is not illustrated by the character of Tanner is put in his mouth. In his description in the stage direction, he is “carefully dressed… from a sense of the importance of everything he does.” (p.47) This “sense” is the first glimmerings of the awareness that is the hallmark of the superman. This attention to significance is the passion of “moral sense,” and it is “the birth of that passion that turns a child into a man.” (p.73) Now this is not to say that paying attention to the mores of fashionable dress is the mark of the superman; rather, the superman’s general attention to all of Man’s acts is the initial step in his evolution through awareness. In the late-Victorian era, such perception is bound to lead to iconoclasm, as it does in Man and Superman. When Tanner declares, “I didn’t choose to be cut to your measure. And I wont be cut to it,” he expresses the freedom of thought of the ubermenshen and its desire to be judged in its own right, by its own values, not those imposed upon it through some moral heritage. (p.76-77) Tanner expresses contempt for his contemporaries’ “silly superstitions about morality and propriety and so forth;” “honor, duty, justice, and the rest [are] the seven deadly virtues” in Don Juan’s eyes. (p.82, p.127) His disgust with these ‘respectable’ Victorian ideals comes from the gross travesties to which they lead. His principle example of these moral failures is marriage of the period; it is but a social edifice which is a “means of escape” from jealous aging parents, where a woman is sold “to the highest bidder” and becomes a “slave:” unpropertied property. (p.97, p.96) But even more heinous to Shaw than the “Trade Unionism” of marital servitude is the appeal to love that is its vindication. (p.156) This ideal, out of all of them, is the most wrongly defined and undeservingly exemplified for its role in cementing the union of man and woman. For Tanner (and, therefore, Shaw) bread-winning is all that is ‘loved’ of man in woman; and it is the inexorable attraction in men to the goal of reproduction that carries that romantic tag in them. Shaw is thus calling for a transvaluation of values for mankind. He is disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the Victorians and rejects their servility to shame. The New Man is a proud, self-defining man; “the philosophic man: he who seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will, and in action to do that will by the so-discovered means.” (p.151) This man does not ask his ancestors for the truth, his father for the means, nor his servant to do the job; he is empowered with purpose.

It is this purpose that is the first elucidation of the Life Force, “the inner will of the world.” Life is “the force that ever strives to attain greater power of contemplating itself.” (p.141) With this in mind, the superman then becomes one of Life’s “innumerable experiments in organizing itself:

“that the mammoth and the man, the mouse and the
megatherium, the flies and the fleas and the Fathers
of the Church, are all more or less successful
attempts to build up that raw force [Life] into
higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual
being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and
withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in
short, a god?” (p.149)

This ideal individual is a superman, one who has risen above the petty hypocrisies of mankind to a higher awareness of himself; and, by association with this, its vessel, the Life Force completes its own evolution. Note that this is no apocalypse, as the Devil would have one believe: a need “for a more efficient engine of destruction.” (p.144) Life instead is “evolving today a mind’s eye that shall see, not the physical world, but the purpose of Life, and thereby enable the individual to work for that purpose instead of thwarting and baffling it by setting up shortsighted personal aims as at present.” (p.151)

So the superman is forged by Life to serve its evolutionary ends, and yet there still remains the actions of the New Man to this purpose. How are we to begin our service to evolution? The answer Shaw provides is quite simple:

“the first duty of manhood and womanhood is a
Declaration of Independence: the man who pleads his
father’s authority is no man: the woman who pleads her
mother’s authority is unfit to bear citizens to a free
people.” (p.97)

This freedom from the worn past leaves, in turn, the superman free for correction of society, elevation of their fellows. Ultimately, though, the superman is also a tool of “the world’s will,” serving its ends through proliferation and self-consciousness. (p.203) The individual who is to serve well, then, must “break their chains” and “go their way according to their own conscience.” (p.97) Now, it could be said that the Victorians are doing just that, and after all, Shaw himself confesses that the will of the Life Force will have its way no matter what devastation or degradation should come to mankind. Nevertheless, there are actions and beliefs which are expressly counter-productive; their damnation has been explained above, yet it should again be emphasized that the great banes of Life are blind servility and hypocrisy, the former because it shuts the mind’s eye, the latter because it discourages inward reflection by the mind’s eye (who, after all, will contemplate their own weakness?). Awareness, first and last, is critical for the superman; in all other things he is but a tool of evolution and should spawn and rear and die.

In concluding, it could be further said that to be a superman is only to open your eyes to your own puppet strings; this is in fact the common argument leveled against existential worldviews. The very last scene of the play verifies, in effect, this argument; however, its final meaning, however, is quite contrary. Tanner is ensnared by Life’s webbing, fired from Ann, and “solemnly” says that he “is not a happy man.” (p.208) But he is prepared, planning, acting already on their union; he is no longer “talking.” (p.209) There is certainly a pun in the final stage direction of “[Universal laughter].” It should laugh; it just won. But it also must mean that all among the company laugh—unqualitatively no less, unlike so much of the active direction—thus affirming the joy in realizing Life’s purpose in one’s self.

March 21, 1993

“The Relic’s” Hopeful Imagery

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Aug 271993

In “The Relic,” John Donne conducts a grand compliment to the woman he loves by way of holy and hopeful imagery. The poem is based upon the central image of a holy relic used to reference a simple lock of his loved-one’s hair, a lock which, “At the last busy day” of Final Judgment, will pull him and his love together, as their bodies re-assimilate upon holy disinterment. (ln.10) The piece goes on to present additional images, primarily religious, as in completes the concepts of reincarnation, profound love, and miracle.

The first stanza’s images are essential merely poetic devices of metaphor and metonymy. The “second guest” to be entertained by the grave “bed” which he once possessed are basically metaphors. (lns.2, 4) They suggest, however, that the stay in the grave is not indefinite; guests leave eventually, sleepers in beds wake up (even lovers leave beds eventually: a more fitting parallel because of the “women-head” polygamous suggestion). (ln.3) Thus already there is some suggestion of Christian mythology of reincarnation.

The second stanza is where the religious imagery congeals to set the holy tone for the entire work. Donne hopes, upon his digging-up, if this event occurs in a superstitious, idolatrous land, “where mis-devotion doth command,” that the digger will take his and his lover’s remains to “to the Bishop and the King” (thereby pegging Roman Catholicism, by association, as superstitious) to be made into “relics.” (lns.13, 15, 16) By this elevation of their base remains, they in turn are elevated (in the idolatrous society) to holy status—a status which Donne feels they deserve. They will then become “Mary Magdalen” and he “something else thereby.” (lns.17, 18) This religious allusion and his association “thereby” to it suggests perhaps that his lover is akin to a whore, though one forgiven, and that he is guilty as well and forgiven as well. (ln.18) It is tempting to suppose, at this point, that he and the women to whom he writes this poem had sexual relations, relations which her Roman Catholic upbringing has caused undue (in Donne’s opinion) guilt in her. The “harmless miracles” which the lovers “wrought” then could be an effort to both elevate this relationship of ‘sin’ as well as show its simple kernel. (ln.22)

Yet the third stanza opens with an enumeration of these miracles, and the foremost of them is chastity: “Difference of sex no more we knew,/ Than our guardian angels do.” (ln.25) They never, then, “touched those seals/ Which nature, injured by late law, sets free:” those of virginity or chastity. (lns.29-30) So the conciliatory tone of the poem is now nothing but celebratory or complimentary; there is no persuasion going on here; though Donne feels the freedom of sexual abandon to be injured by laws of chastity, he knows also that such resistance is miraculous and holy. The way is paved for the ‘Grand Compliment’ of the piece, where he expresses language and quantification’s inability to express “what a miracle she was.” (ln.33) He abandons the poem, almost anti-climatically, with a sense that this image of her miraculous nature must be expressed by not expressing it, by not ‘nailing it down’ in language or measure (meter).

Therefore, what begins as a poem suggestive of base and worldly matters, where sexuality is set up to be lauded in spite of Roman Catholic prudery, closes with a ‘double-cross’ of transcendence. The religious imagery of the piece, at first suggestive of Judgment, death, idolatry, forgiven sin, gives way to direct, non-imaginative language, where only the satisfying “meal” of a kiss intrudes its poetic device on the stanza. (ln.28) The holy transcends into the woman who is the subject, thereby making her, in effect, transcend the transcendent; though he could speak of death, Judgment, idolatry, and their actions on the earth with holy imagery, when the time comes to speak of “what a miracle she was,” no words, images, or verse will suffice. (ln.33) By not lauding, and explaining why, more praise than is possible is rained upon the lucky woman, Donne’s love.

May 5, 1993


 Criticism, Fiction, Writing  Comments Off on Union
Apr 221993

A Fictionalized Treatise On Modern Marriage

This is an essay comparing the treatment of marriage
in fiction by Virginia Wolfe, Bernard Shaw, and D.H.Lawrence
from within a fictional framing story in which the principle characters
of Mrs.Dalloway, Man and Superman, and Women In Love
meet at a dinner party hosted by the author’s alter ego.

“Everything must be exactly right, James, understand? These guests are very important people, all of them, and I will not have them disappointed by our hospitality.”

The man-servant nodded deferentially to his employer Carter Manart, commenting, “From what you’ve told me of them, Carter, I am certain that even our most lax attentions would be appreciated.”(1)

Manart considered this statement a moment, shrugging finally and saying, “True; the Tanners don’t really stand on ceremony much, and the Birkins are satisfied more by intellectual fare than pageantry. But the Dalloways… they are professional party-goers; and though never criticizing directly, laxness will be remembered by them.” He strode around the ancient oaken table, spot-checking its recent refinishing and shining the odd smudge in its polish.(2) James had just finished setting it with the simple, black edged crockery and smooth crystal glasses, and Carter could not help but admire the contrast between the placemats’ coarse and basic weave and the table’s solid ostentation.(3)

“How many years has this table been in our family, Jim?”(4)

“To be honest, Carter, I’ve no idea…. When my father taught me it’s maintenance,(5) he told me how it had been refurbished in his youth from a simpler style into these Victorian flourishes; see, this routing is newer as well as these corner pieces with the frills.”(6) The butler’s finger traced a chiseled flower from its pistole down to its swirling root at the table’s leg. “Kind of old-fashioned looking these days… especially with what you’ve done with this dining room.” He glanced about with one eyebrow arched, then fixed a wry look on Manart.

Carter was still staring at the table. “Yes,” he said, in regards to the its antiquity. “But I am afraid to do too much to it yet; it’s so old and… well, honorable, if you see my meaning, that I would not have it reworked when I refurbished it for fear of, I don’t know, denigrating it?”(7) He looked quizitively at James, to see if the older man understood his sense. The butler nodded knowingly and returned his attention to the rest of the room, inviting Carter, with teasing glances, to share in the observing.

“Yes, but I won’t hold back on more minor decoration; after all, the room can be bared without too much expense.”

They both surveyed the room’s decor, one admiringly, the other, amusedly.(8) The walls were a madman’s pastiche of Realist portraits of old men and women (not all necessarily old in the paintings themselves), Impressionistic luminary blurs and Surrealist distortions of landscapes. Manart’s prize side wall, across from the dining room’s wide, tall windows, caddie-cornered one of Rembrandt’s grotesques and Bruegel’s Dutch pastorals with Monet’s “Waterlillies”, Goya’s “The Third of May”, and young Salvador’s, “Persistence of Memory”.(9) Also adorning the walls were sconces modified into gas lamps around the turn of the century, then into electrics in 1920, seven years ago.(10) The room’s huge crystal chandelier had also been electrified, and was now glowing warmly, casting sparkling flashes on the walls through its yellowed rose crystal. The floor’s uneven, smooth mahogany panelling was covered in the center by an Oriental rug of, predominantly, grays and bright red, overshadowing blue and purple flourishes.(11) It was on this rug that the ancient table and its surrounding Indian rattan chairs stood.(12) The only other furnishings in the room were large downy pillows strewn before the windows and a brass bar of sorts, stocked with liquor — mostly gin and scotch — and sours; it also was a tea service on those occasions when Carter actually bothered with a formal tea, which was seldom.(13)

“And if my tastes should change next month, following the whimsy of this age,” he continued, “I am sure to keep most of the paintings, will profit on those I get rid of, and will always know Sergeant-Major Brighlington in the Colonies — he’s entrenched there, poor sod.” (14)

“Yes, well, I don’t know what your father would have thought–”

“Oh, he’d’ve hated it, of course; if only because I’d tossed out those dreadful trophies and beasts’ heads leering down and making one question the source of the dinner’s steaks.” They both laughed; Carter, more heartily. “But he was a kind enough old chap-” here Carter caught himself and glanced to see James’ still visage “-except to you, though…. Look, friend, I really am sor–“(15)

James’ mood lightened and he forced a grin. “No, Carter, don’t bother yourself, I’ve told you. It was the times….”

“Pathetic in so many ways, yes. I really am–”

“Enough. I must check on the hors-d’oeuvres and you’d better change; the guests are expected in an hour.”(16)

Carter watched James bow slightly, out of habit, and turn and walk out through the kitchen’s door, shutting it quietly behind him.

He turned and stepped toward the windows, his back to the table and prize wall, and stared out across the gardens.

The sun was dangling over the woods west of the house, about an inch away from hiding, casting a lurid orange haze on Manart’s young but wizenning face. He relished its glow and thought to himself how the sunset would thrill his sensitive guests an hour hence as it purpled the horizon and draped magic over the room. He would keep the electrics low until absolutely needed, set a close atmosphere for the night; for he wanted the truest confidence and advisement of these, his new friends. A few questions burned in him to be released from their spiraling, contentious gyres and he knew no better group to which to pose them.(17)

“So where exactly are these to be placed, Carter?” James held a small stack of cards, folded so that they would stand like little tents.

Manart snapped his right cufflink into place, shaking his wrist to get the loose jacket’s sleeve to lie. “Hell of a question, James; I’m not real certain of the etiquette of these things, or even if the guests will appreciate etiquette of this pigeon-holing sort.”(18) He took the cards from the black man’s pink palm. “I mean, there’s only the three couples, so if I put the couples side-by-side, then one couple must sit sort of at the periphery.”

“Does it really matter?”

“I don’t know; that’s why I’m so concerned about it. I would just seat them myself, but they’re all older than me, it would seem strange. And I don’t know if they would take to being seated by you — no offense, friend.”

“It would be their offense if they were so; relax, Carter.” He walked to stand beside the table, setting down a handful of flatware with a muted clatter. Pointing, he said, “Why don’t you have Mr. Tanner here,” indicating the right hand of the table’s head, “Mrs. Tanner here,” across from Jack Tanner’s seat, “then likewise boy-girl across from each other with the Birkins next down and the Dalloways furthest from the head. That way no couple is excluded, and age is the only hierarchy from the head –barring you, of course.”

Manart pondered this a moment, then said, “Fine, whatever; God I hate worrying over such niceties. I certainly hope they aren’t offended.”

James waved dismissively. “You said yourself that the Tanners were a relaxed crew; so too the Birkins. That should be a majority, so don’t worry about the Dalloways.”

Here Carter laughed aloud. “‘Don’t worry about the Dalloways’ he says! Richard’s ONLY an MP, for God’s sake…. Although, I don’t suspect he’d hold a grudge or anything of the sort. But it only takes a disapproving word to that meddlesome Bruton and she’ll have her ‘Cabinet’ dragging my shipyards through the mud in the press, no pun intended.”(19) He pulled out the flaring chair at the table’s foot and dropped heavily into it. “God I need a drink.” He turned to face James who had moved to stand near the kitchen door, behind and to the right of Carter. “Is it alright to serve a drink before the meal, James?”(20)

“Actually, one is supposed to do so; it’s called an ‘aperitif’.”

“Brilliant!” Carter exclaimed. “Be sure to; it should loosen our guests, and I know it will help me.”

Almost as if on cue, the men could hear the voice of the maid greeting someone rather loudly, probably to warn them. Manart dealt the placecards rapidly, like their gaming cousins, while James strode to the double doors to throw them wide with aplomb just as Jack Tanner and his wife Ann reached the threshold.

“Mister and Misses Jack Tanner, Mister Manart!” announced the maid to Carter, who now stood before the doors, legs planted wide (to forbear trembling) and arms spread in a gesture of welcome.

He visibly withered as Ann cursorily said, “Mister Jack Tanner and Misses Ann Whitefield-Tanner, actually, dear.”(21) There was a mischievous glimmer in her eye as she nodded to the maid, who had only the darkness of her skin to thank for hiding the flush of her embarrassment.

Carter recovered quickly, making his first mental note of the night.(22) “My apologies, madam; Margaret did not know the proper etiquette, for which I am solely to blame.” Her took her offered hand and lightly planted a kiss on its back, looking downward. “It is so good to see you again after our too-brief meeting in the Halls. You have honored the House of Manart by accepting my invitation to this informal dinner.” He bowed deeper, with flourish.

“Isn’t he cute, Jack?” Ann teased, turning to smile at her husband.(23)

Carter’s pale-skinned face did not mask his blush so well as had Margaret’s ebony.

“Oh, don’t let her addle you, Mister Manart!” Tanner heartily cried, clapping Carter on the shoulder and seizing his hand for a single, vigorous pump.(24)

“Please, feel free to call me Carter, Mister Tanner–”

“Not if you call me by my father’s name, I won’t! Jack, agreed?” His grin was infectious.

“And please call me Ann; my surname is a bit too unwieldy for friendly conversation.” Mrs. Whitefield-Tanner’s beauty struck Carter to his soul as her smile melted from wicked to confiding; her forties were treating her no worse than had her thirties or twenties.

Again Jack spoke: “And who is this” indicating James “an African! My, but you are an oddity here in the Dales; what’s your name, sir?” He extended his hand.(25)

“James, Mister Tanner,” the servant answered, clasping hands. “It is a pleasure to meet such an outspoken champion of human freedom.”

“An it is a pleasure to meet one of its inheritors,” Jack countered, beaming with a grand blend of honor and pride. “And call me Jack, alright?” He capered toward the door, leaning into the hall to holler, “Everybody call me Jack, do you hear?!” He traipsed back, his eyes laughing. “When is the aperitif served?”

“Hear, hear!” laughed Carter; and taking the Tanners one on each arm, he strolled into the room proper, gesturing for them to sit, his nervousness melted away in their warmth.

They sat side-by side on the right of the head before noticing the placards.

“Oh, apologies, good master Manart,” said Jack, holding up Ann’s (or, rather, Rupert Birkin’s) card, “we didn’t know this was formal.”

Carter blushed again, only slightly, and replied, “Well, it isn’t, really… I’m merely somewhat new to this sort of affair, and…. Oh, sit where you will!” he laughed, “I want friends here, and there are, after all, no Rolls at the podium, right?”

The Tanners laughed at the allusion to Parliament. “Good,” Jack said, “I would hate to break my long-held habits!” For he sat on the right, an odious rank for him, were this Commons.(26)

Just then there was heard footsteps in the hall, one set Margaret’s light quick tread, the other two sets mingling, but not exactly in unison.(27)

“Mister and Misses Birkin?” said the maid uncertainly, as she reached the open double doors. She stepped to one side and Ursula Birkin strode forward, side-by-side with her husband Rupert, who was looking somewhat quizzically at Margaret as he passed.(28)

Carter moved from Jack’s side, as he and Ann rose to greet the new arrivals, and with a sweep of his arm said, “Be welcome in the home of Manart,” trying his best to achieve oxymorous relaxed obeyance.(29)

“Why thank you, Mister Manart,” said Mrs. Birkin. Then, seeing the Tanners, said to Rupert, “look, dear, it’s the Tanners. Didn’t we meet in Ausberg?” This was to Ann in particular.

“Sure, we almost crashed into one another on the south slope of Mount Something-stein; I’ll never forget what you said: ‘Destiny forces all greats into conflict’, or something like that. It is good to see you again; what a shame it took our young lobbyist friend in Commons to bring us together here.” She moved to embrace Ursula, smiling warmly at Rupert in the process.

“We’re hardly ever in Britain,” spoke Rupert, finally entering the conversation, “Europe is so full of things to experience, each day offers fifty new lives to one who would take them.”(30) He stepped forward to shake hands with Carter and Jack.

“Well, I’m glad I ran into you two at The Boar and Board last week,” replied Carter. He turned to Jack, “We had the longest talk — the three of us- about your speech at Parliament, the one on women’s suffrage, and I said, ‘So I’ve invited the Tanners to a little dinner party with the Dalloways, sort of a meeting of the camps’ and they were so delighted by the prospect that I could not help but include them, much to Margaret’s dismay — she had everything planned already.” He was babbling, but the friendly air of this group of bright minds could only loosen his excitable tongue.(31)

“Glad you did, son,” said Jack heartily, then to Rupert, “and if I may ask, sir, where do you stand on the vote — though I suspect by your deference to this fair femme that I know?”

“Oh, of course women should have the vote; they have ever been the more practical of the species,” Rupert replied sincerely, his eyes flashing at the prospect of the night of intellectual communion to come.(32)

“But they have yet to develop the experience with national issues, affairs of state.” A new voice, clear, if a bit tremulous, rang in the room.(33)

“Mister and Misses Dalloway,” said Margaret, belatedly and a bit perfunctorily. “I’ll be getting the first course ready; dinner will be served in five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am!” said Carter smartly, saluting the maid and glowing with mirth over her obvious consternation at having her role as announcer usurped. “Welcome, Mister and Misses Dalloway.” He had tensed, but only a wee bit, at the surprise arrival and curt entrance into the debate; now, he played the perfect host.(34) “I trust you know Ann Whitefield-Tanner and Jack Tanner….”

The Dalloways nodded politely to Richard’s latest political rivals, exchanging customary murmurrings.

“And these are the Birkins,” said Carter, gesturing to Ursula and Rupert, “recent friends of mine.” Then, before any contention could get underway, he sweepingly indicated the table. “Shall we all have a seat, the aperitif is hot on the heels of the Dalloways.”

“Excellent,” said Jack, as he and Ann resumed the seats they had first occupied.

The Birkins sat across from them, Rupert at the head, laughing that his name was now ‘Ann.’ Mrs. Dalloway hitched for but a moment, finally taking her seat where her card was, beside Ursula, smiling and looking closely at her as while daintily lighting on the rattan’s motley cushion.(35) Dalloway moved to sit on her left, then noticed there was no place set there and circled the table to sit by Mrs. Whitefield-Tanner. He nodded civilly to her in sitting.

“Should be a Hell of a lot of fun tonight, Cart!” said Jack, reaching behind Ann to jovially clap Richard Dalloway on his shoulder.

Dalloway laughed politically, shaking out his linen napkin and placing it on his lap.

The first courses were consumed heartily by all, the lateness of the supper and the day’s heat having bred fierce appetites in them all. While waiting for the first entree, Jack had casually opened the discussion of suffrage which was the overt intent of Carter’s invitations of them.

As expected, the debate was heated, while remaining civil and respectful.

The Tanners, being its strongest proponents, argued the most convincingly for the vote. Jack’s combination of endearing witticisms and searing observation left the conservative Richard frequently on the defensive, a position with which he was, at least, familiar.(36) On frequent occasion, Ann would let flash some anger with Dalloway’s stubborn doubt over women’s capacities, but each time Jack calmed her with a stroking palm or redirection of the point of discussion.(37)

Ursula Birkin was, primarily, a supporter of Jack and Ann’s view, offering anecdotes from her travels which would serve to reinforce some nicety of the debate. She did, however, feel that a certain training period for women voters might be in order, if only to smooth the transition into this near-universal suffrage.(38) Rupert, meanwhile, stayed on the margins of the debate, preferring, with Clarissa Dalloway, to absorb the room and its view’s scenery.(39) At one point, he had tried to steer the conversation to the natural sublime; but this attempt had been made while Jack was marshaling a refutation of Richard, seeking it in a stewed potato, and the interruption was swept politely aside.

During this half hour of conversation and consumption, Carter had remained fairly quiet, offering only his support for suffrage –universal suffrage, a point too unwieldy to gain much interest in the heat of the smaller debate– and then reclining to watch the play of his guests. He most wanted to be assured that they were enjoying themselves, staying on friendly terms, and otherwise merely being themselves, for it was in their interaction that his true end in throwing the party was served.

As the discussion reached the impasse which it had reached for months in Parliament, he took it as his cue to open the floor for his debate. He cleared his throat, dabbed a corner of his mouth, and leaned into the group.

“Well, I can see that there is some strong difference of opinion here on this, understandable in light of our essential differences. Jack and Ann are of the radical cast — Jack in particular –, the Birkins are seemingly a bit above the issue, and our friends the Dalloways are from an older tradition of propriety and custom: something which should not too lightly be trounced.” He cast a wry look at Jack, who could not suppress a snigger, in part at Carter’s audacity, in part at his veracity.

With the debate thus closed by coming full circle, Carter continued, “But there is one point in which all of you seem to concur, one with which, lately, I have become concerned.”

The group looked to one another, trying to guess at the subject they shared, so crypticly expressed by their host.

“Why, I speak of marriage; you all agree that the institution of marriage is appropriate.”

There was a general exhalation or snort and a clamor ensued, nearly all speaking at once.(40)

“Oh, lad, you know where to push the buttons,” exclaimed Jack.(41)

“Oh, no; here we go,” sighed Ann.(42)

“It’s interesting you should say that,” mused Rupert.(43)

“There you are, dearest,” laughed Ursula to Rupert.(44)

“But of course,” puffed the Dalloways, nearly in stereo.(45)

A brief silence descended like a thunderclap on the room, everyone realizing that they were speaking over one another. Then laughter rippled around the table, and Carter said, “The reason I ask is that I’ve been involved with a delightful actress for nearly a year now, and I feel as if marriage is the next step.(46) The only rub is that I am not certain what exactly that institution is anymore, and I wish to know your opinions, being my only acquaintances who, if I may so say, are entrenched in the convention.”

“Not only may you say that,” stated Jack with gusto, “but you are most accurate in your choice of verbs.” This exclamation elicited an elbow in the ribs from Ann; she was smiling, however.

Rupert leaned forward, a penetrating look in his eyes, and replied, “But marriage need never be an ‘entrenchment’. It is possible to maintain a balance between the individuals and the union of those individuals.” He faced Carter. “You should resist with all of your soul that horrible fusion in marriage which is traditional in our heritage; a fusion which leads to such terms as ‘wedlock’.”(47)

Jack was intrigued by Rupert’s proclamation and sought deeper explanation. “You don’t feel that something is surrendered in marriage, that the forces in nature, in Life itself, which compel union forbear separate identity? Though I would like to call myself free and separate, I know full well, and accept, that a great part of my identity is tied up in this thing here.”(48) He thumbed towards Ann humorously, and had a bruise added to the one forming on his ribs. “You see? Where else but in matrimony would I tolerate the violence done on my person in just the past few moments?”

“Oh, come along, now,” countered Ursula, “you would take just such a jab from Rupert were it as good-natured and affectionate.(49) As I have come to understand Rupert’s idea of individuals in equilibrium, we enter into marriage to fulfill the individual’s purpose in being, on the one hand procreation, yet even more so self-definition.” She took Rupert’s hand.

He continued where she left off. “Yes, and via this ‘star- equilibrium’, where the two are bright and whole and held in balance by their own gravid attraction to one another, the individual’s orbit is perturbed — not in the sense of disturbed, but in that it achieves the wobble, if you will, that it is meant to have.” He sat back a bit; then his brow furrowed a bit as he saw Jack perk and anchor to his diction.

“Wobble, son; yes, you’ve got that right.” Jack chuckled and took a sip of sherry. “Wobbling like a drunken sailor down the road, leaving the sight where he was waylaid!”(50)

At this point, Clarissa spoke for the first time in some time. “But Mister Tanner, there is something to be said for the compartmentalization of home building. A married couple is partners in life, each complementing the other and helping the other overcome hurdles which would thwart the lone voyager in the world.” She looked at Ursula, almost as if for approval. Ursula faintly smiled, depth of meaning in her eyes as they held contact.(51)

Rupert softly said, “That’s certainly another way to put it.”(52)

Clarissa continued, burgeoned by the Birkins’ support. “And further, Mister Tanner, you are, after all, married yourself, to a lovely wife. How can you be so cynical about marriage then?”

Jack, rocking back with a creak of rattan, replied, “I am at the whim of the Life Force. I must succumb to its purposes and wed and mate and contribute my share of sperm to the gene pool so that Mankind may, over the generations, become the gods they are intended to be.”

Clarissa flushed at Jack’s crude statement, and Richard took this as his cue to speak up, “Listen, Tanner, this is no place for such barbarity; surely you can make your point without reference to bodily fluids.” He glanced at Clarissa to note her reaction to his defense of the women’s honors.(53)

Jack and Ann both rumbled with mirth, and he deferred to her, letting her point out, “But, Richard, you just did so yourself. And in the company of ladies and their honors!”

Richard flushed at being so caught in his own words, and the rest of the group laughed good-naturedly. Carter, nevertheless, saw that the conversation was straying into the dead ground already trod by the suffrage debate and redirected the people’s attention by saying, “But suppose, friends, that she does not turn out to be the right one? How can I be certain?”

“You can’t, really,” Ursula answered. “You have to trust what your heart tells you. If it proclaims your love for this woman resoundingly enough, that must be your guide.”

“Plus, the Life Force will let you know,” Jack added calmly. “If it has decided, you really have no choice.”

“I dare say we agree on something,” said Clarissa, somewhat surprised, “though I don’t think I would put it so mechanisticly, so inexorably.”

“But that, good Clarissa, is precisely what it is, ultimately,” Jack returned, smiling kindly, almost condescendingly. “The ends of the Universe are far stronger than one man’s aspirations or beliefs. We merely decide whether or not to fight them, fruitlessly. I, for one, know I am to lose my battle against this dove.”(54) Here he beamed at Ann, and she at him. If he had more point, it was lost in their silent communion, and Richard took the floor.

“But that choice to fight is a freedom we have. If we love our intended, we will not choose; if we do not, the din of battle will drown out Life’s pleas and arguments.”

“And leave you a wandering, lost star, shining into the void and seeing no light to answer your song.” Rupert was aglow and tears glistened in his eyes. Ursula bowed her head, but reached over to lay her hand on his forearm.(55)

“Take it from me, that is the truth.” Everyone turned to face Clarissa who had said this distantly and with faint tears in her own eyes.(56) Richard reached past his treacle to clasp her hand and whisper something the others did not hearken to hear.

Night had completely descended and the room was suffused with the steady, yellow glow of the electrics. The table was clear and Carter was lost in thought over all that he had heard from his new friends. Marriage today, it seemed, was more a partnership than it had been in his father’s day of property and possession. His love for the actress was strong, he knew; else he honestly would not have taken his precious time to concern himself with their future. He understood the demands of the Life Force as expressed by Jack. Further, he welcomed the polarity and individuality of Rupert’s star equilibrium. The idea of another helping one define oneself, rather that defining one (as with the Dalloways, specifically Clarissa) spoke to his inner need to be his own man, while ameliorating his frightening craving for union with another, a woman, a lover. That there could still be significance in the marital relationship, without self-insignificance being a result, empowered him, spoke both to the traditions of love which formed his herital core and the urge for isolation in the soul’s core.

He looked slowly at each of his guests, marveling at their love for their spouses and, in all but Richard, their truth to their selves. The couples were silent and happy. The Tanners held hands and stared into each other’s eyes; the Birkins softly touched one another’s arms and were lost in private reveries; the Dalloways still held hands across the table, Clarissa staring at her nearly empty glass and Richard looking over her shoulder at a David on the wall.

Carter cleared his throat and, as everyone broke their meditations, said, “Well, friends, I thank you whole-heartedly for you advisement on this most important concern of mine.”

“Was it of any assistance?” asked Rupert, feelingly.

“Why, yes, Rupert,” answered Carter slowly, a soft, distant smile creeping onto his face. “Yes, it was; and I would like to take this opportunity to invite you all to my wedding”—a pleased murmur danced around the table—”which should be in the fall, if my love accepts.”

“We’ll be sure to be in the country,” said Ursula, as everyone else also stated their acceptance of the invitation.

The party broke up a while later; and as the Tanners donned their coats and passed out the front door, James came up behind Carter and commented, “It will be nice to have a lady in the house again; it always seemed sort of empty without a mistress.”

“And I will be sure she is no mistress, James,” Manart responded, turning to face his friend with a loving smile.

The butler nodded and began to move toward the dining room, to straighten it up.

“By the way, James,” added Carter, “tomorrow I would like you to help me move the dining room table into the library. Then we shall go out to purchase a round table that suits the room.”

“Very good, Carter.”


1 ) James’s familiarity represents Modernistic rejection of class distinction and is suggestive of the relationship between Jack Tanner and Henry Straker in (A).

2 ) Throughout the work, this table will be symbolizing modern marriage, the thematic thrust of this Fictionalized essay. The refinishing and smudges in the polish represent the iconoclastic redefinitions of the institution of marriage attempted by the Modernists and their vagaries thus far. In particular, Shaw struggles with these new definitions in (B).

3 ) Basic setting symbolizes Modernist retreat from ceremony and pomp in marriage, placing emphasis instead on its practical character and ends.

4 ) The answer attempt to allude to antiquity, even Adam and Eve, for mating and marriage are as old as the humanity in homo sapien.

5 ) Suggestive of the patriarchal tradition of marriage prior to Modernism.

6 ) The Victorian refurbish is from the simple, natural Romantic past; specifically the constraint (“routing”) reintroduced by the Victorians.

7 ) Suggestive of Carter Manart’s uncertainty about the character of Modernism, specifically Modern marriage, the resolving of which is to be the frame story of this essay.

8 ) The room is symbolic of Modernism as a movement in general, encapsulating its past, influences, and character in its time.

9 ) The Rembrandt suggests Europe’s post-Renaissance; Bruegel, Romanticism’s pastoral ideals; Monet, Victorianism’s hazy, idyllic optimism; Goya, the dark side of revolution and change; and the anachronistic Dali, the quest to “make it new” and, as its title suggests, the persistent remnants of the past and tradition.

10) My ‘tip-o-the-hat’ to the Industrial Revolution’s positive achievements.

11) Grey represents the ambiguous moral posture of the Modern era, especially World War I, which is symbolized by the red. Purple and blue flourishes are symbolic of the old aristocracy, being overshadowed by the middle (gray) and working (red, for the Labor party and Communism) classes. Thus, the gray and red serve a doubly symbolic purpose.

12) Suggestive both of the fascination in the Modern period with the Orient and the fact that Britain’s society (the table, in part) rested on the backs of its Colonies, especially the non- white ones of China and India.

13) More iconoclasm; today, formal tea has become almost a joke throughout most of British society.

14) Like England was becoming complicated in the Indies.

15) James is black and old Mr. Manart was too like his Southern US counterparts.

16) James is older, and this, in keeping with Modernist semi- iconoclasm, commands respect over the employer-employee relationship. See Mrs. Dalloway and Ms. Kilman’s complex ‘bidirectional hierarchy’ in (H) for a parallel of this employer deference to employee.

17) Ha! I got you! I’m not spilling all of the frame story’s surprises at once. (Editor’s Note: please forgive such levity on Mr. Artman’s part; he is quite excited about this whole thing, you understand.)

18) The iconoclastic Carter has his reservations over which edifice to ignore: class, age, rank. One must implicitly be recognized due to the hierarchical nature of a long, square table.

19) By way of background, Manart is his own lobbyist in Commons, petitioning on behalf of his inherited shipping business. This, in effect, implies that the business is not doing very well, else he would have someone do this for him.

20) Like any busy youth in this pre-depression piece, he does not know all of the social mores and procedures. It will later be revealed that this is his first formal (though informal) dinner party.

21) At this point it should be explained that in characterizing each couple, I am trying to project their relationships into the future as would be most probable based on the thematic resolutions of their particular source authors. Subsequently, the couple’s will hold more and more similar views the longer they have been married. Thus, Ann Whitefield-Tanner is, in her choice of surname, asserting the power granted her in the relationship by the Life Force as well as her own individuality. Furthermore, she has developed more of the wry, playful humor that characterized Jack Tanner in (A) and has, it will become evident, lost her tendency to lie to cast a favorable light upon herself. This honesty only further emphasizes the fact that she has been victorious in Life’s eternal struggle between means and vessel of Its culmination.

22) This mental note is, simply, that Ann has an assertive character, even after marriage: she is the first of the Tanners to speak, and her first works are playful mockery of her host’s servant.

23) Ann has learned iconoclasm from her husband in their twenty-two years of marriage, and is amused by Carter’s bombastic formalities.

24) Marriage, for Jack, has still not come to mean deference to his wife’s whimsy.

25) Jack’s interest is far from racist, as should become evident.

26) He would, of course, sit on the left of Commons with Labor. I have had old Jack elected to Parliament, and this is, in fact, where he and Carter met on formal grounds; this party is the first informal meeting of their, thus the introductions.

27) The first allusion to star equilibrium is their nearly synchronized treads.

28) Not having been present for her previous introductory faux pas, Rupert wonders at the uncertainty Margaret evinces in their introduction.

29) As will soon be show, like the Tanners, the Birkins are recent acquaintances of Carter’s, and he is struggling to maintain a balance between the party’s informality and the reverence he feels is due to his seniors and unintimate friends.

30) The Birkin’s have remained true to their desire to break all connections with society and have been traveling in Europe the past seven years, since their union. Note also that Ursula asserts herself first. This is not an example of her sensual dominance, but rather merely indicates that she is not behind (in the sense of subservient) her husband. And unless they are to speak in unison, one of them must open his or her mouth first.

31) Here I should note that I do not, in this draft, intend to explore their opinions on women’s suffrage. Rather, this was the issue of the day and I feel it is the most appropriate one which would draw these diverse people together. It, thus, is a device more than a theme.

32) This echoes Rupert’s passion for the intellectual as portrayed in (E).

33) The only remotely respectable conservative argument.

34) This parallels Peter Walsh’s accusation of Clarissa Dalloway’s perfectionism in (H).

35) My crude, ignorant efforts at suggesting the homoerotic impulses to be found in Clarissa and which are emphasized by Jane Marcus in (L).

36) I am presuming that the obviously greater wit written into Jack’s character has proved quite difficult for Richard in Parliament.

37) This is not his dominance, but rather his matrimonial ability to sooth fruitless wrath, something I imagine he has had to do often when bringing her to Parliament’s highly formal halls.

38) In this dichotomy between the Dalloways and the Tanners, the Birkins are naturally assuming a middle ground, as would be appropriate for their rather distant association of late with Britain and its issues. Further, as the intellectuals of the group, they must seek the harmonious compromises, the balances which can satisfy both sides… much like their marriage arrangement.

39) Conversely, a middle ground can be found by leaving the field of battle all together….

40) What follows (while also being reminiscent of Churchill’s dialogging) is a succinct summary of the characters’ general attitudes towards the subject of marriage. While not exactly a thesis statement, the passage is a tone-setter.

41) Mating is Jack’s favorite subject in (A).

42) See the last lines of (A): “Talking!”

43) Ever the intellectual’s introductory statement.

44) An acknowledgment of Rupert’s ‘authority’ on this complex point. She has, I am assuming, come to his camp on the issue of star equilibrium while, in keeping with that idea, maintaining her individual self; later, she, too, will have her say on the subject, as is meet.

45) A good score for this stereo statement would be Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition.”

46) That actress is the first non-tonal hint at my Shavian leanings in the character of Carter, my analog.

47) A blending of nearly verbatim quotes from (E) and (G).

48) “Thing” is in part a jocular statement, and in part an expression of the embodiment of the female drive in woman, a drive which is the spawn of the Life Force.

49) Ursula is, now that they are married, no stranger to Rupert’s desire for a union with the other, a semi-homoerotic interaction with another man.

50) A jocular expression of the deterministic qualities of the Life Force’s press into mating.

51) I am really trying for homoerotic overtones here; be gentle in your mockery of their crudity. Woolf made Mrs. Dalloway into a woman with a bright memory of a past female love, and I am merely trying to show how an older woman can anchor this glimmer of the past in the present, giving it a new lease on life, if you will.

52) Birkin is not quite satisfied with this practical expression of his more idealistic belief in equilibrium, one which would not necessarily involve complementation, but more likely, reflection.

53) Note how it took an offense to draw Richard into this intellectual debate; he is no powerhouse of thought, but he will be riled by a affront to his conservative ideals of propriety and honor. The next sentence parallels his ‘love for effect’ which he practices in (H) with the surprise roses.

54) This note is here just because I had to toot my use of contrast between the metaphor of battle and the reference to dove of peace. Clever, eh? (Editor’s Note: Once again, I am force to make an apology for Mr. Artman’s levity….)

55) Suggestive of Rupert’s continuing pain over the loss of Gerald and also of Ursula acceptance of his need for the Other.

56) Clarissa shares Rupert’s sentiment for a lost other.


Bernard Shaw

  • Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman. 1903
  • “Preface to Getting Married”, 1908 (Ayot St. Lawrence Edition of The Collected Works of Bernard Shaw)
  • St. John Ervine, Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends. Morrow & Co.: New York, 1956.
  • Anthony S. Abbott, Shaw and Christianity. Seabury Press: New York, 1965

David Herbert Lawrence

  • D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love. 1920, 1922
  • David Cavitch, D.H. Lawrence and the New World. Oxford University Press: New York, 1969
  • Mark Spilka, The love ethic of D.H. Lawrence. Indiana University Press: Bloomington & London, 1955 (1966)

Virginia Woolf

  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. 1925
  • Jean Guiguet (transl. Jean Stewart), Virginia Woolf and Her Works. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York & London, 1962
  • Hermione Lee, The Novels of Virginia Woolf. Holmes and Meier: New York, 1977
  • Jane Marcus, Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987

Percy’s Rebuke

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Sep 271991

Author’s Note: The following essay is a fictional analysis of the recent Walker Percy novel Lancelot. Its aim is to present, in the first and second person, Percy’s thematic thrust by picking up where the novel ends: with the word “Yes,” the first spoken by Percy’s analog in the work.

Yes. Yes, I certainly do have something to tell you. For the past five days, I have patiently heard you, withstood your derision towards my faith, suffered your rationalizations of your crimes and sins, listened to your hopeless solution to this sad sphere’s plight—No! Do not interrupt me; you claimed two days ago that I was the only one with whom you could talk, and that my silence is the only conversation you can listen to. Well, Lance, your monologue, broken only by my infrequent prodding to keep your crippled discourse directed, was not conversation. No; now you will listen to me, you will receive my words and your silence is the only conversation I will tolerate.

Oh, now! Now who is pacing the room, staring out of the window? You would mock my “watered down” faith, you expect my vestment to be ceremony for my surrender. But I am not ‘acting’ today, Lance, and you know it. Christ may have lain down His sword, but He has not bound His hands. There is still a sense of human significance in Christianity; it needs nothing concrete and terrific to prove its importance—unlike yourself. Transcendence is the one distinguishing mark of human existence, and unfortunately you are incapable of such belief.

Silence! Do not dare to deny your triviality, you who would denigrate the human ideal to sweaty copulations; you have no sense of humanity’s magnitude! If you but knew how you fail your own standards of power and monochrome distinctions, you would kill—or should I say rape—and damn yourself. Silly man. To confuse orgasmic iterations of The Lord’s name with the transcendent and then turn around and reduce sexual intercourse to a mere rubbing of nerves defeats your own premise. Your illogic robs you of your own “rational” faith.

But what of that thin faith, that prayer to the holy orifice? Is that really all that is important to you, my child? What of the intellect, which you pretend to engage in yourself with your petty historical essays about a dead Southern ideal, which you attempt to marshal to make reasonable murder and rape? You would use your mind to explicate your base, physical profundity yet you do not see its necessary supervenience to the body to be able to reason so. You are a slave to the aesthetic who ignores the very faculty which delineates it: the mind, the ethical, rational, human mind. Yet, even more than this you fail. You also live your desperate life with no sense of the spiritual. You think you have found the answer with you perverse creed of rape as human purpose, but you fail to see that, by merely stating such an ethic, you need its cause, its fundament. These answers are only sought in despair—I should know—and are only attained through a blind leap of faith. But you have no legs to leap with, child; you are still crawling on your knees.

Yes, Lance, in your simple world, ruled by the almighty fuck, you drive yourself from moment to moment of forced allure, preaching a destitute profundity twisted by your obsession with evil. Look at me! Look here, in my eyes, not at my robes or the body they drape. This deification of sex and obsession with extrinsic evil has twisted your purpose of life to a destructive physical analogy: rape. Good God, Lance, even Anna knows better! You tried to elevate her as the New Woman simply because her mortal body was raped by villains such as yourself. But your Unholy Grail is not in this crass act; it is in the heart which cannot care enough about another human being to simply let them live. Anna’s rapists’ hearts, not their acts, are sin’s throne, just as your murdering, ignored heart is.

Oh. Oh, I forgot that you can do no evil because you are working for the New World. Yes, the ultimate justification for heinous deeds committed by a hopeless, shallow man: some ludicrous ideal framed by his base fundaments. This jihad you propose, it will have as victims of its righteous violence those of this world who plod through everyday life wasting their power, their gifts, on the trivial? Why do you have to think about it, Lance? Ah, you nod; you line these sheep up for slaughter by your sword. Well, then, join their ranks, mouse! Your whole New World Order hinges on simplicity, getting back to Man’s immature, wrathful basics, living for the moment you can ask your pretty beau if she needs a wrap… or a rape. Your ubermenschen must become kamikazes. You yourself have wasted time in this cell, destroyed your heritage, trodden every root of your being all because your wife—whom you professed to love, although now I know how thin this word’s definition is in your mind—all because your wife diddled some director! I’ve heard of triviality in action before, but you define it with what you have done or, more accurately, why you did it. You believe some apocalypse is pending, probably because of a suggestion in your mind which you acquired from those ridiculous movie people. Well, you are right; an impending doom does loom… over your own head.

You think that you will be leaving here today. I have something else to tell you, Lance. As the reviewing psychiatrist in your case, I have no choice but to deny your release from this facility.

What!? Oh, surely you are not that surprised, surely your humanity is not so buried in your delusions that you cannot see why they are detrimental to the rest of society!? You are unscrupulous, Lance. The void where your heart should be is not a pitiable excuse for your crime; it is your crime. You expect me to let you out into a society which you loathe and feel justified in slaughtering? Without even a significant guide in your being? You think I am going to let you pursue your dark lucidity without you even being lucid yourself? You believe I can let you wreck all the purposive work of Man to replace it with some Virginian ideal you plucked from a presumptuous porn film? You want me to proclaim you healthy when you cannot see past your own irises, feel beyond your own skin; when you think spreading pain and rape is the auspicious end of Humanity?

Forget it, boy.

Oh, don’t rail about, Lance. You may think my restriction of you wrong, my views and ideals slavish; just remember that my word has the power, now, and trust that I, too, have seen the Grail. Not a cracked, drained one: a mere shaped clod of earthenware; but one whole, and full enough to quench all men’s thirst. To be free in society requires responsibility. Look out there at your sign around the corner. “Free &…” responsible. Until you know that sign’s other half, you will never leave this cramped confessional.

November 20, 1991

Hamstringing Pride

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Oct 271990

Thomas More’s Utopia paints a fanciful portrait of an ideologically advanced society. The fictional ‘artist’ of this land, the Platonic skipper Hythloday, offers much commentary on the customs and attitudes of the Utopians during his recounting of his “travels” in their Republic. The language of one such commentary—concluding remarks on pride—presents a harsh view of this “prime plague” which harkens one’s memory back to passages recounting the Utopian view of gold, silver, and jewels. (p.453)

To begin with, More’s Utopians possess an inspiring opinion on the worth of “precious” metals and gems. Realizing the danger of placing value on such useless though pretty trinkets, they undermine the accepted value of them by forging the expensive metals into chamberpots, slave’s shackles, and children’s toys and baubles. The end effect of this, as the Anemolian ambassadors discovered to their shame, is that the significance of these riches is distorted or convoluted, and those taking pride in them are assumed to be “fools.” (p.445) It is the embarrassment of the ambassadors which makes the connection between this narrative passage on gold and silver and More’s deeper remarks on pride.

Hythloday (i.e. More) clearly condemns pride in man as “the begetter of all other [plagues].” (p.453) In an extended conceit in which he personifies Pride as a woman, More points out that “her riches [are] valuable only as they torment and tantalize the poverty of others.” Herein lies the link to the Utopian view of gold. Because “Pride measure her advantages not by what she has but by what others lack,” the Utopians have made possession the brunt of ridicule. (p.453) Therefore, if Pride is born of owning something of worth, they reverse the above rule by making the ownership of gold, silver, and gems something base or childlike; pride is circumvented by demeaning the object which would otherwise breed such strutting self-love.

Unfortunately, there remains, for the Utopians, a problem with such a view of worth. Granted, they do not worship and revere the Almighty boullion, but they are not as free from pride as they would like to seem. Hythloday makes a point of describing the amused reaction of the Utopians upon viewing the ambassadors. It is vital to note that their humor was bred of the self-same pride which they (pridefully) claim to have eradicated. By assuming the bejeweled ambassadors to be slaves, childish, or fools, they hold them up to ridicule for verification of their righteousness just as the ambassadors tried to do—but in reverse.

Therefore, though the Utopians have shifted the instigating impetus of pride away from useless, purposeless gold and silver, they have failed, ultimately, to eradicate that “monster.” (p.453) Instead, they take pride in finer, more virtuous things like hard work, equality (for all but slaves, of course) and the commonwealth. For this reason, they do deserve praise; that praise, however, should not be too generously showered upon them. They just might get even more swelled heads.

Blood Imagery In Macbeth

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Aug 141990

The Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth is filled with references to blood and gore. Three of the many functions which this blood imagery serves are to set the tone in the various scenes, to pace the wave of action throughout the play, and to characterize the nature of the death and killing in the play.

Frequently, blood sets the mood or tone in the play. When Duncan’s body is found, “his silver skin laced with his golden blood” sets a tone of horror for the rest of the scene. (II,ii,102) Although this particular imagery also sets a tone of reverence for the assassinated ruler, its main purpose is to fill one with disgust for the vile deed. This objective holds true throughout the play. When the witches recite the gory ingredients of their stew, the putridness of it is horrifying and disgusting. The witches’ bloody apparitions top off this feeling for the scene in which they appear. Blood, therefore, often sets the tone in the various scenes; and the tone most often established is one of horror and disgust.

A pattern established in Macbeth is that after each murder there is an abundance of blood imagery. The play, which had before a murder been moderately paced and subdued, is swept away in a flood of blood and gore after a murder occurs. For example, before Duncan’s murder there was very little mention of blood (except for the imagery in Act I, Scene II, which serves to foreshadow the action and killing to come); but afterwards, blood imagery literally flows wild. Donalbain is told “the fountain of [his] blood is stopped”; Lennox reports of Duncan’s guards being “badged with blood”; all “question this bloody piece of work”; and Donalbain warns his brother Malcolm, “the near in blood,/ The nearer bloody.” (II,iii,88,91,118,130) All of these images occur in but one scene. After Banquo’s murder there is a cluster of references to his blood and to his mangled body. Macbeth and the murderer speak of Banquo’s blood being better outside of the murderer’s body than inside of Banquo’s. Also, the murderer tells Macbeth of Banquo’s body lying in a ditch “with twenty trenched gashes on his head.” (III,iv,27) Then Banquo’s ghost appears, shaking its “gory locks” at Macbeth. (III,iii,51) Last, the play peaks with Lady Macbeth’s imagined blood and with the battlefield’s literal blood. These blood images form a sort of crescendo which conglomerates all of the murders. Thus, because the blood imagery is so prevalent during and directly after each murder, and because it then tapers off before the next murder, it paces the wave of action in the play.

Third, blood imagery characterizes the nature of the death and killing that occurs within the play. Macbeth is called “brave Macbeth” when he is unseaming the traitorous Macdonwald “from the nave to the chaps”; yet he is described by Macduff as “an untitled tyrant bloody sceptered” after killing Duncan, the rightful monarch. (I,ii,22;IV,iii,104) Also, Banquo’s murder is negatively characterized when Macbeth remarks to the murderer about Banquo’s blood: “‘Tis better thee without than he within.” (III,iv,14) Macbeth is no longer brave and honorable when saying this to the murderer; he has become the deceitful traitor that Macdonwald was. The killings are good when it is the enemy being dispatched; but when it is Macbeth’s liege, friends, and relatives being murdered, the killings are wrong, evil, and treacherous.

Blood imagery, by setting the tone, pacing the wave of action, and characterizing the nature of the death and killing, works to unify the action within the play. The blood begins to flow and a wave of action builds as murder occurs. Then, the images of blood and reeking gore set a tone of horror over the horrible killing of a friend and relation. This unification is constant throughout Macbeth. Blood images build up and become more frequent as Duncan is murdered, and the images instigate feelings of horror and disgust about this deceitful assassination. The same pattern holds true for both Banquo’s killing and the murder of Macduff’s family. When the blood flows quickly, so does the action.

Hamlet’s “Problem”

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Jan 201990

Over the years, many critics and scholars have written their opinions of Prince Hamlet’s “problem” in the Shakespearian tragedy The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Some of these people hold the belief that Hamlet is insane and that he delays in enacting his revenge upon Claudius for murdering his father and committing incest with his mother. Actually, the truth of the matter is that Hamlet is quite sane and he, in fact, goes about his revenge as efficiently as circumstances permit.

To begin with, it is important that Hamlet’s sanity be well established, as this is important in proving that he acted as quickly as possible in accomplishing his revenge. After first speaking with the Ghost, Hamlet comes right out and states that he will “put an antic disposition on” and tells Horatio and Marcellus to play along with his charade of madness. (I,v,197) Later, when he says, “They fool me to the top of my bent,” he is again clearly stating that he is putting on an act. (III,iii,391) Lastly, when he confronts Gertrude in her chambers, he declare that he is “essentially… not in madness.” (III,iv,209) Hamlet thereby proves his sanity by frequently declaring that his madness is all an act. Also, he gets into a number of contests of wit and often speaks quite profoundly during the play. For example, a simple discussion with Guildenstern provokes Hamlet to say that “though/ [Guildenstern] can fret [him], [he] cannot play upon [him],” meaning that Hamlet is sane enough to be wary to Guildenstern’s attempts to manipulate him. (III,ii,378-9) As another example, when he begins the confrontation with his mother, he is speaking cleverly by twisting her words into accusations. As a last example, when he is speaking with Osric, Laertes’s courtier, he toys with words and gets into a lengthy contest of wit. Therefore, it is clear that Hamlet is very much in control of his mental faculties because he declares clearly and often that he is putting on an act, and because he subsequently makes shrewd observations and arguments which draw from his keen wit.

It is important that Hamlet’s total objective be understood. If he had wanted to simply kill Claudius, he could have done it in Act I, scene 5 and the play would have been over. This, however, is not the case. Hamlet’s total objective is not only to see that Claudius is killed for his crimes, but is also to see that he is sent to Hell. Therefore, Hamlet goes about his total goal with as much efficiency as possible. The foremost objective in his pursuit is establishing his “insanity” in Claudius’s mind. This is done to prevent Claudius from suspecting any ill motives on Hamlet’s part. After spending a sufficient amount of time setting this “insanity” up, Hamlet immediately sets his second action in motion: determining the validity of the Ghost’s accusations. He does this by staging a scene in a play depicting his uncle’s dispicable actions and watching to see if Claudius’s “occulted guilt/ [Does] not itself unkennel.” (III,ii,81-2) When, at last, he is sure that Claudius is relatively unsuspecting, and that the Ghost’s story is true, then he begins to pursue Claudius’s demise. Even though he’s had a lot with which to deal, he is able to persevere at an efficient rate towards Claudius’s death. He even is willing to risk joining in with pirates in order that he may return to Denmark to kill Claudius. Though he has the chance to kill Claudius when Claudius is praying, he gives it up to wait for “a more horrid heat” so that Claudius’s “soul may be as damned and black/ As hell, whereto it [will go].” (III,iv,91,97-8) When Hamlet finally does kill Claudius, he does so when Claudius is lying about Gertrude’s passing out from the poisoning; and, thus, Claudius is doomed to the Hell to which Hamlet had wanted him sent. Therefore, it is clear that Hamlet went about his revenge as swiftly as circumstances allowed him, always keeping his total objective in mind.

So, Hamlet is, in fact, not insane but is actually of sound mind and he goes about his total objective with as much haste as possible, given the circumstances of his plan. He feigns maddness as a minute part of his elaborate plan to not only kill Claudius, but to also assure Claudius’s damnation.

The Interrelation Of Parts

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Nov 271989

The mystery play called The Second Shepherd’s Play, written around 1425, serves as an educational model in fictive and mythological form to the members of the Christian faith. It is broken into two distinct parts, each with its own storyline. The true lesson for Christians comes from the interrelation of these two parts with an emphasis on thematic connections. Before delving into the connections between each part, however, it is necessary to elaborate on the contents of the sections.

The first section runs from line 1 to line 628. This part gives the details of the theft of a ram from three shepherds’ fold. The three: Coll, Daw, and Gib—suspect an acquaintance of theirs named Mak of the crime, even though the man professes his innocence, “proving” it by the fact that he is sleeping when the three awaken from a night’s slumber. In actuality, however, after he had lulled the shepherds into trusting him to guard the flock, he made off in the night with a fine ram. He took the beast to his wife, and together they plotted a means to cover their deed: hiding the ram in a crib and pretending it is their newborn son. Unfortunately, the suspecting shepherds visit Mak’s domicile, and there, after initially falling for the “false wark,” they find the ram, bleating, in the crib. (p.333 l.614) Surprisingly, however, they forgo any punishment for Mak, despite their anger, and return to the moor at which they had left their sheep.

It is at the 629th line that the second part of The Second Shepherd’s Play begins. An angel appears to Coll, Daw, and Gib on the moor and bids them to travel to Bedlem or Bethlehem to view he “that shall take fro the fiend that Adam had lorn.” (p.334 l.639) The shepherds, moved by the vision, set off for the stable in which the newborn lies. Once there, each praises the “young child… sovereign Savior… full of Godhead.” (p.336 ll.710-28) The Virgin Mary then blesses them and they depart, singing, as the curtain falls.

Now, there are several parallels between these two parts, and these parallels serve to bind the sections into a unified piece. The first parallel is the one between the ram in the crib and Christ in the crib. Though they seem similar by circumstance, in actuality their parallel lies in their contrast. The ram is in the crib by deceitful means: Mak’s theft and his and Gill’s scheming. Conversely, the Christ child lies in his crib through the purest of means: virgin conception from God. In a similar vein, a second, further contrast is made between Gill and Mary. Gill is shown to be a nagging, conniving, hateful woman while Mary, as per popular myth, is a spiritual, concerned, honest woman. Gill, on the one hand, creates an elaborate plot to hide the ram from its rightful owners and curses them when they seek merely to view the baby she claims it to be. Diametrically opposed is the Virgin, who praises God along with the shepherds and who blesses them for their gifts and homage. Clearly, these parallels are there to maintain a flow from section to section and to establish an artistic consistency.

More importantly, however, is the thematic connection between the two parts that can be derived from the above similarities and contrasts. The forgiveness that the shepherds show for Mak is obviously allegorical for Christ’s impending sacrifice on the cross for mankind. In fact, the reader is even lead to believe, by the quick transition from their reprieve to the angel’s entrance, that they have been given the right to view the child because of their sacrifice to, and for, the sinful Mak and Gill.

Therefore, though the two parts seem to be unrelated, in fact, the second part would be nothing more than rehashed mythology were it standing alone. Only with the first story as a foil of the second does the overall theme of sacrifice and forgiveness become clear.  Christians, seeing the shepherds’ kindness, would make this connection to Christ’s kindness and further would realize the importance of similar attitudes in their lives because of the blessings that the shepherds receive. Thus does this mystery play serve to further spread the Word and prove to the believers the validity of their faith; thus does it educate them.

October 2, 1989

Contorted Blend

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Oct 271989

Elements of Nihilism in Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”

Anton Chekhov, a Russian author who wrote before the Communist revolution in that country, is most famous for his theatrical works of fiction. He is, however, an accomplished writer of short fiction as well; and his stories, just like his plays, contain significant philosophical messages in a fictive mode. One such piece is “The Bet.”

To begin with, “The Bet” has a rather simplistic plot. Because of this simplicity, it is obvious that a message is the story’s true purpose. Told in retrospect from the banker’s point of view, it involves, as the title suggests, a wager between a banker and a lawyer at a dinner party. These two get involved in debate over the moral issue of capital punishment versus life imprisonment. The focus of debate concerns which of these venues is the more humane and which is more cruel. The bet emerges when the lawyer takes the stance that he would, for two million of some undesignated coin, remain in solitary confinement in one wing of the banker’s home for fifteen years. The banker, being very wealthy at the time, confidently accepts the challenge. From there, the plot focusses on the drama of the lawyer’s solitary confinement. The first years for him are lonely and hard, but then he begins to request books of all sorts. He spends the remainder of his sentence studying book after book. Finally, fifteen years, less one night, later, the story reverts to real time. The banker has lost the bulk of his wealth on the Exchange and, seeing the lawyer’s emminant victory, fears he would become destitute in paying the agreed bet. The banker decides to kill the lawyer to avoid the impending ridicule and loss of position. He goes to the lawyer’s room, enters it, and finds the man sleeping at his desk, a letter before him. The banker plots to smother the man, but he reads the letter the prisoner has written. In it, the lawyer expounds upon his utter contempt for all things earthly and states his intention to break the conditions of the bet as an expression of this hatred for “all that [the] books call the blessings of the world” (1 1106). This contempt transfers to the banker and, feeling the full weight of his foolish deed, he leaves in guilt. The next morning, the lawyer executes his intentions, the banker is ‘victorious,’ and the story ends.

Now, as previously stated, there lies beneath the lawyer’s tragic dispair some message to the reading public. Chekhov chooses to draw from the leading contemporary philosophical movement in Russia for this crucial theme. Nihilism is a movement born in the mid-nineteenth century by the liberal youth. It has evolved with the revolution into several meanings, and Chekhov addresses each of its facets in “The Bet.” An understanding of these facets is required, however, to follow Chekhov’s progress through them. First, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, in his novel Road to Revolution, presents the anarchistic beginnings of nihilism. At the time of its conception as a belief, the nihilist was an “enlightened eqoist” (2). He sought to strike out at all social practices in an effort to determine which would survive the blows of reason and revolution. Those practices that survived were good; those failing and crumbling, wrong and deserving of their demise. The lawyer and banker’s debate at the party is clearly allegorical of this initial stage of nihilism. They begin by questioning capital punishment and end their party with a genuine rational effort of proof. Their bet, though in a practical sense foolish and wasteful, is a logical way to resolve the debate over relative cruelty. To them, if the lawyer can bear the imprisonment then it must be more just that one live in confinement than die. Second, the lawyer also embodies the quest for quality of the early nihilists in his greed for the “two million” (1 1103). This “hard-headed, materialistic” attitude of the lower and middle class radicals of Russia is one of the first characteristics of the lawyer presented by Chekhov. Clearly, the lawyer, before his confinement, is a symbol of early Russian nihilism.

Next, nihilism took a shift in meaning, both for Russia and Chekhov. The most overt message delivered by “The Bet” is the nihilistic opinion of moral justification. The banker bemoans, near the story’s close, the failure of their prison bet—a wager which has become an experiment or test of their debated views—to resolve their moral dilemma over capital punishment. He comes to realize that rational argument will not succeed in justifying moral standards, due to the subjective nature of morality. No solution to their debate is found, only misery. This misery, felt by the lawyer, introduces the next and most popular phase of historical nihilism. This phase was spawned from early nihilism and the increasingly popular athiestic philosophy. Russia, with the aid of Marx, had begun to doubt the existence of God. This lead them, in Nietzsche’s terms, to dispair over the triviality and emptiness of human existence without God. Industrialization was also key in this new nihilistic setting; but, for Russia at least, the profit-grasping materialists were lost. For Chekhov, the lawyer becomes lost as well within his cell. He, in his studies, seems to be “swimming in the sea among broken pieces of wreckage… eagarly grasping one piece after another to save his life” (1 1104). He reads work after work, and does so at a high rate… right after spending a year or more on the New Testament and other religious studies. Initially, one is tempted to fit this detail into a loss of faith parallel with nihilism; he seems to search for the God that is alluding him. At this point does Chekhov take control of the philosophy.

In taking control, Chekhov presents an alternative rational as support or impetus for nihilism. It seems that he does not appreciate the loss of God in nihilist, revolutionary Russia. Therefore, he includes, in the lawyer’s final letter, a strong belief in and responsibility to God. The wizened lawyer marvels “before God who sees me” at those “who have bartered heaven for earth” when he recognizes the emptiness of life on earth (1 1106). He knows the beauty of the earth, all of its “blessings and wisdom,” from his wide-spread studies; but he adamantly rejects them due to their non-divine and basic direction. The lawyer is a nihilist in his dispair, but not in his atheism, or lack thereof.

Thus does Anton Chekhov mutate the atheism of the nihilists of his period into an equally revolutionary and effective practical philosophy with a God. It can only be assumed that Chekhov feared the ruin of his nation under a goddless mind-set. He, therefore, through his effective power of pen, presents, in the flow of his plot, a case against the athiest-nihilists. He points an accusing finger at them for their despair and for its contagious effect. One can guess that the lawyer, in finding the importance of God in his life, went on after the story to live alone, but not disparagingly. Because he flees the goddless, industrial wailings and the trivial beauties of the earth, he is expected to find his heaven, even though he suffers on earth before ascention. This is Chekhov’s contorted blend. Nihilism hand in hand with anti-nihilism.

April 9, 1989


  1. Schrodes, The Conscious Reader.  New York: Macmillian Publishing, ed.IV pp.1102-7
  2. Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution.  New York: Crowell-Collier Publishing, 1962
  3. “Nihilism,” Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  New York: Macmillian Publishing and The Free Press, 1967, vol.V pp.514-6
  4. Glicksberg, “Nihilism.”  Gunner, The Course of Ideas.  New York: Harper and Row, 1986, pp.427-30