Photography, Capitalism, and Commodity Culture, Kerry Doran
In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images.” She makes this assessment after analyzing the way cameras and photographic images function in China – a country whose relationship to photography starkly opposes that of the United States, primarily because of political and cultural differences. Sontag uses China as a model of one kind of “dictatorship” that places limits on photographic use, and where many photographs remain private. Contrastingly, the United States is a country where photographic consumption is unlimited and often very public. Although Sontag’s analysis was written over thirty years ago, it still remains largely true. Why is it that an industrialized, capitalist society in the twenty-first century requires a culture based on images? Her word choice implies that capitalist society would not be possible without these images; they are cultural tools that have been commodified or express commodity culture. In other words, because of capitalism’s exploitation of the mass media, the primary venue in which images are proliferated, photographs have been commodified (in the sense that they have become a new form of an object) or promote consumption because of the ideas, messages, and objects they convey. These images dictate our lives, because commodity culture dictates capitalist society. Our culture is based around these images (as Sontag notes), and they are a requirement because they are the device implemented in order to fuel consumption.
In order to understand the way photographic images have been commodified or act as tools to express commodity culture, I will consider some of the ideas discussed by French situationist and Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, in his work The Society of Spectacle (La Société du spectacle) (1967). Debord’s text, a series of 221 theses divided into nine chapters, is an extensive reinterpretation of Marx’s work involved with commodity fetishism and its relation to contemporary mass media. The first chapter, “The Culmination of Separation,” is key to understanding the way that photographic images inform society, mediating social interaction and relations.
Debord’s first thesis reads: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” With this, Debord is referring to the central importance of images in the society of spectacle; everything that was once living has receded into representation, thus, imagery. Fundamental to interpreting this idea, one must consider Marx’s theory of alienation and the fetishism of commodities. In a capitalist economy, a boss objectifies his workers, viewing them as a means to earn capital. Objectification is connected to alienation (estrangement), because both processes reduce human beings to objects in a sense. Alienation, though, occurs in four ways: 1) Alienation of the worker from the work he produces, from the product of his labor; 2) Alienation of the worker from working, from the act of producing itself; 3) Alienation of the worker from himself as producer (“species being”); and 4) Alienation of the worker from other workers, or producers. As a result of alienation, the social character of people’s labor is no longer evident in the marketplace. The products of their labor are interacting in the marketplace, replacing human interaction; consequently, commodities are instilled with social characteristics. This process, the fetishism of commodities, demonstrates how objects have become representations of human life; therefore, authentic social interaction has been replaced by representation.
In relation to visual imagery, the image is the representation of the object, meaning it is twice removed from human life and social interaction. Discussing the image itself, Roland Barthes states, “the image is the re-presentation, which is to say ultimately resurrection, and as we know, the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to lived experience.” Images are removed from lived experience because they arerepresentations, depicting objects that are also representations of lived experience: “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” Unity of life is replaced by a unity of fragmented views of reality – a “pseudo world apart” that can only be looked at. Society is only unified through their consumption of this splintered reality – a reality of delusion and false consciousness.
Debord elaborates on this notion in his fifth thesis, stating: “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung, which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified.” The GermanWeltanschauung, (composed of Welt [world] and anschauung [view or outlook]) is used to imply that society as a whole exhibits the same fundamental cognitive orientation. Similar to the notion that society is falsely unified because of its consumption of false representations, society is also falsely unified because of its world view, one that is dictated by the images it consumes (material translations). One must not confuse the spectacle for the images though: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among the people, mediated by images.” Images then, are crucial in the society of spectacle – they are the tools that provide a reality removed from reality. It is the images that manipulate perception.
Caught up in the spectacle, society consumes images without doubt in their apparent truths; therefore, it cannot challenge the authority the spectacle has over the masses.
The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable, and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.
Images proliferated for society’s consumption, like the spectacle itself, “positive, indisputable, and inaccessible” – they must be in order to inform and mediate social relations. All of these attributes are necessary to prompt consumption: if something is positive, it will be desired; if something is indisputable, it is consumed without question; and if something is inaccessible, it is accepted as it is because it is out of reach. Combined, these three characteristics contribute to passive acceptance by the masses. The fact that images saturate society’s existence additionally furnishes society’s submissive relationship to the spectacle. “Its monopoly of appearance” is caused by a constant influx of imagery – new images relentlessly appearing at a seemingly endless rate, without there ever being an opportunity for dialogue. In fact, the spectacle is the “opposite of dialogue.” So, ordinary people can only remain spectators because of their consumption. Society remains passive by consuming without questioning and uncreative by consuming without contributing. As a result, the majority of people are powerless in the running of society, fulfilling their role as spectators.
It would seem that because of imagery’s incessant appearance, there would be an array of images that society could choose from; thus, spectators would be contributing something or creating a dialogue. In actuality, this is another illusionary effect of the spectacle, offering society the illusion of choice. This is also a factor in society’s passive role in relation to the spectacle. Thinking they have the ability to exercise choice, and that this choice gives them some sort of freedom, the people continue to consume without question. Sontag elaborates on this notion, stating: “Cameras define reality in two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.” Her assessment that cameras define reality “as spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)” coincides with Debord’s theses in regard to the positioning of power in the society of spectacle. She articulates the fact that in this image driven world, the masses equate their ability to choose from a variety of images to freedom itself. Their choices are controlled though: they are only choosing from a selection dictated by “the rulers.” Therefore, their choices are monitored, so in reality, there is no choice at all. It is only an illusion of choice, an illusion of freedom.
The ideas presented by Debord can be applied to evaluate the various forms of photography that act as commodities or express commodity culture, and how these images inform the society of spectacle. Spectacular society is inextricably linked to nearly every aspect of society as a whole, but I will focus on the limited sense of the spectacle, the mass media: “its most glaring superficial manifestation.” Living in an industrialized, capitalist society in the twenty-first century, “the mechanically or electronically reproduced image is the semantic technical unit of the modern mass media and at the heart of post-war popular culture.” This reliance on images to communicate messages is due to photography’s relevance as a technological development, as well as the fact that photographs are mechanically reproduced images. “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible,” but photographs can be mechanically reproduced, perhaps coinciding with the mechanical reproduction of objects in an industrialized, capitalist society.
Considering that all images in a capitalist society are impacted by the economic system from which they form, and culture is based on images, it is difficult to label which forms of photography are related to commodity culture. I will limit my discussion to portraiture, photojournalism, corporate controlled image banks (stock photographs), and advertising. All of these forms have been especially informed by capitalist ideologies, shaping the way in which society sees and interprets these images. Continued consumption of these images maintains the spectacle, society is subjugated, and the economy only develops for itself.
Photographic portraiture has rapidly evolved since its genesis, but what has remained constant is the impact capitalism has had on its development. Before the invention of the daguerreotype (c. 1837-39), portraiture was only available to members of the upper class who could afford to have their portrait painted. The daguerreotype, much more affordable in price compared to painting, was a form of portraiture that was available to both the upper and middle classes. Having a photographic portrait was reminiscent of what was once reserved for aristocracy, giving photographic portraits a sort of status symbol. Subsequent developments in photography, such as the carte-de-visite, Kodak Brownie box camera, 35 mm film camera, and digital point-and-shoot camera allowed an even wider group of classes to partake in photographic portraiture. As cameras became more accessible (and are becoming even more accessible), portraiture lost some of its status symbol, as anything does in capitalist society when it can be consumed by nearly everyone.
The relationship between painted portraiture and photographic portrait is helpful when initially deciphering how portraits were initially affiliated with capitalism and commodity culture; yet, today, photographic portraiture has new meaning. Because so many people own digital point-and-shoot cameras and are a part of social networking sites such a Facebook and Twitter, digital photographic portraiture has a unique relationship with the society of spectacle, apart from previous forms of portraiture. Images act as forms of social interaction when uploaded to these sites and are displayed for others to see. Viewing a photograph of someone online is a way of interacting with a person by means of their photographic representation. Their physical presence is no longer needed in order to interact with them. This interaction is like Marxist theory of the fetishism of commodities in a sense, because authentic social interaction has been replaced with its representation. Roland Barthe’s “dream of wholeness” is also noteworthy here, for these photos come to form an identity of this physical being through representations, a formation of “oneself” and of having “this self…recognized by others.” One can only be understood through the images they choose to display, meaning they recognize the fact that someone else will be viewing their images in order to interact with them, and perhaps understand them. These images give the illusion of bringing people closer together, while in reality they cause further separation. Seeing someone through photographs only brings us closer to “emotional detachment.”
Photojournalism is another form of photography seen throughout the mass media, informing the society of spectacle. Driven by the incentives of capitalist society, newspapers, magazines, and television news channels are constantly trying to beat out their competitors and make a profit. Images circulated by various news sources are taken and distributed with a purpose beyond that of telling a news story – they must capture the attention of an audience in order to encourage sales. Because of this, photojournalistic images are manipulated in a number of ways: First, when a photojournalist is capturing images, they are aware of the need for spectacular images. While shooting, photographer’s crop images so only a limited view of a scene will be shown to the viewer. In other cases, photographers provoke action or stage occurrences in order to achieve the desired image. Secondly, once received by news sources, images are often retouched, cropped, color adjusted, etc. so they appear to be more spectacular than the so-called glimpse of reality they originally depict. Photographic images manipulated by photojournalists and news sources are altered because it is the spectacular image that sells. Society consumes these images, believing the events depicted because of the spectacle’s “indisputable” authority. Furthermore, since there are various newspapers, magazines, and television news stations to choose from, society is manipulated into thinking they have the ability to choose what they consume.
Since photojournalistic images are commodities “sold” by news sources, society consumes the events the photos depict. Society has “a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs.” Prominent events that are depicted in the news not only become a part of an individual’s life experience, they also become a part of society’s experience as a whole. Discussing the archive, Allan Sekula writes that “the widespread use of photographs as historical illustrations suggests that significant events are those which can be pictured, and thus history takes on the character of spectacle.” Only the events that are captured on film, and are then brought to the public’s attention through major news sources, have the opportunity to become a part of the narrative of history.
Stock photography is the supply of images owned by image bank agencies found in online databases and available for purchase. These images are generic depictions of decontextualized subject matter, the main purpose of this being reusable consumption. “The more multi-purpose and generic they are the more reusable they are, and therefore the more they will sell.” Since their subject matter is decontextualized, these images are purely symbolic representations, and because of this, the viewer generally experiences no resonance. With no attachment to the image other than a sense of brief wonder, consumer’s move quickly from one image to the next: consumption is the very essence of the stock photograph. Unrealistic, cliché projections of a false world reveal corporate media’s intentions when producing these images. Stock imagery reflects how corporate media would like society to see the world; a world free of class, gender, racial, political, relations, a world free of exploitation, a world free of all the ugly underpinnings of capitalist society.
Even though all images in a capitalist society are part of the society of spectacle, advertising photographs are unique in the sense that they further fetishize objects that are already fetishized in the marketplace. To understand how advertising imagery achieves this, one can look to the visual messages within the representation – the denoted and connoted messages. Barthes describes the denoted message as the literal depiction that the photograph portrays, while the connoted message is the inferred or symbolic, evoking response based on social and cultural references. Advertising imagery must be evaluated by understanding the denoted and connoted messages because “the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional.” The signification is “undoubtedly intentional” because the producer of the image uses specific symbols to invoke a response in the viewer. For example, the denoted message is the representation of the commodity being sold, while the connoted message is conveyed in more subtle codes, prompting the need to consume. Even though viewers take part in decoding these messages, they are deconstructing a set of symbols constructed by the producer. So, while various interpretations may generate because of individual’s varying backgrounds, the producer remains powerful because they control what is seen. While semiotics is useful for understanding the rhetoric of the image, an in depth discussion is not necessary for understanding how advertising imagery is a commodity, expresses commodity culture, and is one sort of imagery that informs the spectacle as a whole.
Assuredly, these four forms of photography are not the only sorts of images that are influenced by capitalism and propagate the spectacle; however, they provide four examples of photographs that are commodities and express commodity culture. In general though, photography has a unique relationship to capitalist society and commodity culture, for it is the very nature of the camera and the photographic image to capture the world and make it become available by means of mechanical reproduction. Because of this, photography’s “main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.” Anything photographed is reduced to an object of consumption; consequently, the world society sees through imagery is the world of commodity.
1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 178.
2. Guy Debord, “The Society of Spectacle,” in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans et. al (London: Sage Publications, 1999), 95.
3. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1964).
4. Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans et. al (London: Sage Publications, 1999), 33.
5. Debord, “The Society of Spectacle,” 95.
7. Ibid, 96.
8. Ibid, 95.
10. Ibid, 97.
11. Sontag, On Photography, 178.
12.Debord, “The Society of Spectacle,” 98.
13. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, “What is Visual Culture,” in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans et. al (London: Sage Publications, 1999), 2.
14. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans et. al (London: Sage Publications, 1999), 72.
15. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).
16. Sontag, On Photography, 111.
17. Ibid, 156.
18. Allan Sekula, “Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital,” in Photography: A Critical Introduction, ed. Liz Wells (New York: Routledge, 2004), 182.
19. Anandi Ramamurthy, “Commercial photography, image banks, and corporate media,” in Photography: A Critical Introduction, ed. Liz Wells (New York: Routledge, 2004), 201.
20. Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display, ed. Ivan Karp et. al (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
21. Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” 34.
22. Ibid, 34
23. Sontag, On Photography, 110.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
—“The Rhetoric of the Image.” In Visual Culture: The Reader. Edited by Jessica Evans and
Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Visual
Culture: The Reader, edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999.
Debord, Guy. The Society of Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb. Detroit: Black and Red, 1970.
—“The Society of Spectacle.” In Visual Culture: The Reader, edited by Jessica Evans and
Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Resonance and Wonder.” In Exhibiting Cultures: the poetics and politics of
museum display. Edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Evans, Jessica and Stuart Hall. “What is Visual Culture?” In Visual Culture: The Reader. Edited
by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Edited by Dirk J. Struik. Translated
by Martin Milligan. New York: International Publishers, 1964.
Ramamurthy, Anandi. “Commercial photography, image banks, and corporate media.” In
Photography: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Liz Wells. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Sekula, Allan. “Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital.” In Photography:
A Critical Introduction. Edited by Liz Wells. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.
The Role of the Artist in the Composition, Content, and Reading of Ulysses, Lauren Sullivan
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a venerable and yet intimidating tome, slashing rules of plot, narration, and style with relentless acuity, and presenting a new vision of what the novel should be. When considering the intricacies that make this work function on the many levels that it does, the role of the author himself is called into question—for what sort of an author might Joyce have been to create such a work as Ulysses? And when considering Joyce’s role as author, the question of art itself surfaces in terms of the composition of the novel (i.e., what artistic vision prompted Joyce to write the novel as it is written), but also within the context of plot and characterization (i.e., how art is infused within the novel itself, affecting the characters therein). In lieu of the question of the role of the artist, one might look to a quotation regarding art and the artist from Joyce’s prior work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which presents the artist as being “like the God of creation, [in that he] remains within or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, paring his fingernails” (Joyce, A Portrait, 269). In light of that statement, bearing in mind Carlyle’s sentiments regarding the true nature of the Poet, and by examining the craftsmanship of Ulysses, particularly in the use of style and objective narration, James Joyce’s view on the artist emerges: the artist, whether he/she takes the form of the writer, the reader, or the characters themselves, is any individual that is able to see the world through untainted lenses, to rip aside illusory vestures in order to reveal the heart and meaning which lurks subtly within the innocuous events of daily life.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen ruminates on the role of the artist in the creation of his/her art, and determines that “the personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself.” Here, he suggests that though the artist himself is deeply immersed within the work, his personality “flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea,” he also takes great care to eliminate traces of his opinions and personal thoughts from the narrative. The work of art then becomes universally accessible, and is “no longer personal” (248). Joyce’s role in Ulysses mirrors Stephen’s notion, in that Joyce is simultaneously absent from the text and involved in it.
In order to examine how Joyce achieves this balance of objectivity toward and immersion within his text, we must first isolate the narrative devices he employs, for, as Stephen determined, the narration must be free of the artist in order for it to be read universally, and in order for the characters to be allowed to speak for themselves (249). Ulysses is renowned for its use of stream of consciousness narration. A classic example of stream of consciousness within Joyce’s Ulysses occurs in the closing segment of the novel, the “Penelope” episode, which features the unadulterated flow of Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she attempts to fall asleep. The episode is comprised of eight enormous sentences of no punctuation, and thereby effectively portrays the continuous flow from thought to thought. The following lines begin the episode, and stand as an adequate representation of the stream of consciousness method of narration:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan… (Joyce, Ulysses, 871)
In utilizing the stream of consciousness form to portray the psychological nature of his characters, Joyce is able to distance himself from the work, and to thereby portray the characters in an untainted, unbiased way. In order to illustrate the extent to which Joyce’s characters are made to speak for themselves, one might look to another novel with a psychological preoccupation. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf shares much in common with Ulysses; they both portray the happenings of one single day, and both focus on the psychological nature of the characters. Woolf’s style of narration is differentiated from Joyce’s in her frequent use of interior monologue, which allows for a third-person perspective to help guide the reader through a character’s thoughts. This is exemplified in the following passage: “How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did . . .” (Woolf 1). While the third-person guidance is helpful in navigating the thoughts of the character, Woolf’s use of interior monologue instead of straight stream of consciousness allows for an interlocutor in the character’s thoughts, thereby making the thoughts into less of a genuine or natural reflection of the character.
Joyce does employ third-person narration so as to portray the unfolding of action around the central character, but he uses it less frequently, and more seamlessly within the characters’ thoughts than Woolf does. This occurs, for example, in the following passage: “Mr Bloom, alone looked at the titles. Fair Tyrants by James Lovebirch. Know the kind that is. Had it? Yes. He opened it. Thought so” (Joyce, Ulysses, 302). There, a third-person narrator is present, but is integrated so intricately within Bloom’s thoughts that it is hardly noticeable, and hardly distracts from the thoughts themselves. Joyce’s form of narration, especially when compared to Woolf’s, depicts Joyce’s view of the artist: that is, that the artist “refines himself out of existence” in order to present an unbiased portrait of the characters’ thoughts. This allows an honest portrayal of daily life to emerge, from which the reader is then challenged to gather meaning and understanding. And this vision of reality is critical to the notion of art, as Carlyle explains in “Hero as Poet.” According to Carlyle, “The job of … the artist, is to reveal to us the divine mystery, to pull aside the vesture and to bring the meaning to the surface. That always is his message; he is to reveal that to us, that sacred mystery which he more than others lives ever present with” (Carlyle 2).
Though Joyce inserts no personal opinion within the narration on the characters’ thoughts, actions, and choices, he bears indisputable artistic presence in the novel’s intricate craftsmanship. This is particularly evident in Joyce’s use of style; the novel functions as a sort of compendium of Western literary style and form. Stylistic approaches in the novel vary from the journalistic approach (in Aeolus), the mathematical/scientific, naturalistic approach (in “Ithaca”), and the musical approach (in “Sirens”), and so on. An ideal example of Joyce’s stylistic control is “Oxen of the Sun,” an episode brimming with imitations and parodies of a full panorama of major English prose styles. The episode tours through English literary history, touching upon the most renowned works and authors of the language, such as Everyman, Morte d’Arthur, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Copperfield, andFaust. In his scrupulous stylistic rendering of this episode, which begins in the Anglo-Saxon period and ends in the garbled slang language of twentieth century America, Joyce implies disdain at the decline in the efficacy of the English language. Here, then, Joyce is present; through artistic craftsmanship, he calls attention to a personal concern or observation.
When considering the complexity of the composition of “Oxen of the Sun,” the reader is forced to ask the question: why? Certainly the episode is not just the product of some literary experiment. The constant fluctuation in style is Joyce’s way of calling attention to some greater idea, of alerting his readers to some greater truth. Multiple interpretations have been offered in regards to what that greater truth or idea may be. One critic, Lawrence, suggests that “Joyce is at pains to show that style confers a role on character; when the style changes, a new fictional role is created” (Lawrence 131). Evidence for that notion lies in the ongoing changing of the characters’ names: Bloom becomes traveller Leopold, Leop. Bloom of Crawford’s journal, and Mr Cautious Calmer (132). Rod Mengham purports that the episode stands as an indictment of literary anthologies, which are created with the intention of representing the English language. In keeping with that theory, “Oxen of the Sun” exemplifies the inability to anthologize Ulysses, because no one style reigns. The digression into common slang at the end of the episode, with the use of such phrases as “Lovey lovekin,” “sitinems,” and “chokeechokee,” is perhaps suggestive of Joyce’s most obvious criticism in this episode (Joyce, Ulysses, 558-560). For, in tracing the evolution of the English language, and in ending with the muddled slang of the twentieth century, Joyce points to the steady disintegration of the English language. Words are misused, phrases corrupted, and the eloquent prose of the past is reduced to nonsense. His presence is subtle, and yet Joyce, as the artist, calls upon and reveals an issue of great importance, upon which the reader is then challenged to contemplate and reflect.
“Oxen of the Sun,” and the novel as a whole, is so meticulously crafted that the reader senses a degree of authorial expectation. Ulysses is no breezy paperback to be read wistfully on the beach; instead, it seems that each word is charged with layers of meaning, ready to be unravelled by the careful reader. Joyce, then, expects his audience to commit to the novel, and to devote a good amount of reflection and contemplation to each word written on the page. Otherwise, the meanings of the novel are lost, and much time has been wasted. The difficulty of understanding the text requires that the reader be an artist him/herself. The scrupulous reading that Ulysses requires is a form of intricate craftsmanship, yes, but also, if the reader is able, by means of that craftsmanship, to understand the novel, to hear the whispered words of meaning latent in the text, a connection has been made, and a barrier between reader and writer has been felled. This calls to mind Stephen’s theory of aesthetics in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which claims that lyrical literature is effective when “the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others.” In reading Ulysses, the reader is involved in the text, or becomes a part of the novel itself, due to emotional involvement and discourse with the author, but also due to personal responses to it. In the words of Stephen:
To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand—that is art. (242)
And is that not the exact process undergone in not only the writing, but in the reading ofUlysses? The reader is presented with a text, which in a way represents the very “nature” that Stephen speaks of, and “slowly and humbly and constantly” attempts to understand it. And once it is understood, the reader is able to hold that understanding, that “image of beauty” within them, and to integrate that new knowledge within their own lives. In reading it, then, and in reading it well, the audience creates art, too. Echoes of Carlyle are heard here, for he affirmed that “We are all poets when we read a poem well” (Carlyle 2).
Joyce, as the artist, is present in Ulysses in his stylistic flourishes, and in his challenges and expectations of the reader, but is also present in a more straightforward way. As Stephen suggests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “the simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others” (Joyce, A Portrait, 269). Joyce as the artist encapsulates this notion, since he based the two main characters of his novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, after various aspects of himself. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been referred to as a semiautobiographical work; it chronicles Stephen Dedalus’ youth, including his boyhood experiences with bullying, burgeoning sexuality, and increased dissatisfaction with the constraints enacted by his country and by his religion. It is commonly understood that Joyce drew upon his own boyhood experiences for the writing of the novel, and indeed the parallels between fact and fiction are many: Joyce too was subject to bullying, was faced with his mother’s death, and was wrought with anger and confusion regarding nationalism and religion. Stephen is not a perfect echo of Joyce, of course; his character fluctuates persistently throughout A Portrait, and as Thomas Grayson suggests, “After the fourth chapter of A Portrait, the author’s attitude toward Stephen becomes one of estrangement. It is almost as if A Portrait serves to exorcize Stephen from the personality of Joyce, thereby permitting the emergence of the artist” (Grayson 2).
Correspondingly, A Portrait ultimately serves as Stephen’s (and perhaps Joyce’s, by extension) growing understanding of art, of what it means to him, and of what role art shall play in his adult life. Stephen comes to realize that he must shun those conventions which he finds limiting in pursuit of self-expression: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning." (Joyce, A Portrait, 286). The same can be said of Joyce, who shunned his religion, nation, and home in exchange for exile and a life devoted to literary self-expression. In A Portrait, Joyce masterfully imbues personal experience with artistic flourish. As Roy Pascal points out, “while a great deal in [A Portrait] could be taken over, as true fact . . . and is attested by his family and friends, at the same time it clearly is arranged and shaped by an artist’s hand; it is mysteriously lit . . . so that the distinctive features of the artist-hero are lifted into prominence” (Pascal 2).
While A Portrait can be seen as a reflection of Joyce’s youthful sparring with maturity, restraints of convention, and with the notion of art, Ulysses can be viewed as an expression of Joyce’s middle-aged identity. Indeed, upon examining the authenticity of Bloom’s character as a reflection of an aging man, especially in comparison to the youthful vivacity of Stephen in A Portrait, Harold Bloom suggests that “Ulysses might indeed be called A Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man” (Bloom 2). Joyce’s perception of himself as a middle-aged adult helped him to form the character of Leopold Bloom: “He was prodded to [Bloom’s creation] by a conviction that his own nature was cast in the heroic mould, although physically he was as cowardly as morally he was intrepid,” claims Richard Ellman, author of The Consciousness of Joyce (Ellman 11). In examining his own feeling of potential heroism, in combination with his physical limitations, Joyce came to the conclusion that “yet another heroism, too everydayish to be recognized as such, might be secretly at work in a seemingly unheroic age” (11). From such a notion blossomed the character of Leopold Bloom—morally and artistically advanced within a mundane, illusory world.
In fashioning the protagonists of his novels after former or current versions of himself, Joyce exercises the ultimate form of honest writing—that is, writing from experience. And as Stephen suggests in A Portrait, such immersion of the artist within his characters allows a naturalness that is unique to personal experience. Yet, because of his retraction from the narration itself, the characters are universally applicable and sympathetic. Stephen’s notion that an artist must be ingrained within the content of his work in order for it to be true art is echoed in Carlyle’s “Hero as Poet.” Carlyle claims that true art is not formed by mere effort and self-discipline; he posits that “in order for a Poet to be effective, he must be experienced with the matters which he discusses or portrays” (Carlyle 1). Carlyle’s notion of the Poet, used interchangeably with the notion of the Great Man, can be in this case extended to the artist in general. So, in keeping with Carlyle and Stephen’s claims, personal experience is necessary to effectively convey emotions or truths. As Carlyle claims, “To know a thing, what we can call knowing, a man must first love the thing, sympathize with it: that is, be virtuously related to it” (10). Only upon knowing a thing truly, through love or experience or sympathy, can the artist authentically replicate or portray that thing. Joyce’s personal intimacy with Bloom and Stephen allows for that authenticity, and allows for an emergence of truth and meaning from their relationship with each other, and from their separate wanderings through an ordinary day.
Stephen and Bloom, as extensions of Joyce himself, have artistic aspects to their characters. Stephen is identified as an artist in the very title of A Portrait, and his quest for art predominates in both that novel and Ulysses. Unfortunately, Stephen’s preoccupation with his as-of-yet artless life actually prevents him from creating anything, and prevents him from seeing the world from the artist’s perspective, which is one based on observation and understanding of underlying truths. Some critics, such as Peake, suggest that Stephen-the-artist is born through association with Leopold Bloom. While the theory is interesting, and perhaps even plausible, Stephen’s existence, obfuscated by religious concerns, political concerns, and self-imposed isolation, is not one of artistic bearing, as far as this reading is concerned. Trapped in his own mind, Stephen is unable to see the world around him, and is therefore unable to understand the world around him. Instead, it is Bloom who truly triumphs in terms of artistry, and who effectively observes, understands, and reveals truth about the world around him.
Leopold Bloom has more than just the touch of the artist about him, for he navigates through the inane trivialities of daily living, and in doing so, reveals underlying truths and meanings. Leopold Bloom’s perambulations through humdrum routines and everyday trifles may not be remarkable in and of themselves; it is Bloom’s understanding of those routines which is remarkable. Bloom is keenly perceptive, and is able to see to the heart of things, and to peel back the chimerical layers of falsehood, corporeality, and superficiality to reveal the essence and meaning within daily living. We see Bloom’s observant nature and understanding of that which he observes in the following passage:
Cityful passing away, other city coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. ... Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions. Slaves. Chine wall. Babylon. Big stones left. Round towers. Rest rubble, sprawling suburbs, jerry-built, Kerwan’s mushroom houses, built of breeze. Shelter for the night. No one is anything. (Joyce, Ulysses, 208)
This passage shows the extent to which Bloom is aware: he observes the houses, the street, the evidence of mankind stacked up, brick by brick all around him, and perceives in it the transience of it all, the insignificance of it all. He is able to understand the smallness of mankind and the mortality of man and all his creations. Of this passage, William Schutte contends, “In the eye of history, the individual is literally nothing” (Schutte 6). Bloom’s reflections on the streets of Dublin suggest that he “is not ... merely a commentator. Despite his detachment from many of the concerns of his fellow Dubliners, his musings reflect an intense involvement with the world that streams by him as he walks” (6). In this way, Bloom himself is an artist, for “he incarnates not only kindness and goodness, but high art’s vision of reality” (Bloom 2). Bloom embodies Joyce and Carlyle’s shared view on the artist: that individual who looks, sees, and understands, that individual who sees past the physical world and into the mystery underlying it all, and who reveals that mystery to those who might have difficulty seeing it.
Through the examination of Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man andUlysses, much evidence can be found regarding Joyce’s view of the artist, in reference to himself, and in general. Consistent with Stephen’s premise about art—that the artist is simultaneously within the text and above it—Joyce fashions his art around real experience and observation from his own life, while maintaining objectivity through the use of stream of consciousness and narration. His techniques, manipulation of style, and the characters he created all indicate Joyce’s notion of the artist as he who is able to see the meaning in life, and to reveal it to others. So be it reader, writer, character, or any innocuous wanderer of sidewalks and streets, if he or she sees the truth and expresses it, art has been created, and another artist has been born.
Bloom, Harold. James Joyce. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Print.
Carlyle, Thomas, and Carl Nimeyer. "The Hero as Poet." On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History.Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1966. The Literature Database. Web. 13 Aug. 2011.
Ellmann, Richard. The Consciousness of Joyce. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.
Grayson, Thomas W. "James Joyce and Stephen Dedalus: The Theory of Aesthetics." James Joyce Quarterly4.4 (1964). JSTOR. Web. 14 Aug. 2011.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking, 1964. Print.
Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student Edition. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.
Lawrence, Karen. The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.
Pascal, Roy. "The Autobiographical Novel and The Autobiography." Essays in Criticism IX.2 (1959): 134-50.Oxford Journals. Web. 14 Aug. 2011.
Peake, Charles H. James Joyce the Citizen and the Artist. London: Arnold, 1977. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1925. Print.
Collusion and Resistance, Emily Lozow
Political issues have a tendency to manifest in popular culture in an overwhelmingly polarizing manner. The content of such conversations often revolves around monologues in which opposing factions seek to one-up each other in order to emerge victorious, rendering true dialogues in which the nuances of complex issues are elucidated and actually discussed all but obsolete. Taken at face value, Antigone by Jean Anouilh can be interpreted as an inventive re-imagining of Sophocles’ Ancient Greek play of the same name. It can also be taken as an examination of the coming of age process in which idealism meets harsh reality. However, when viewed in light of the political climate of 1944 France, where this play was written and when it was first performed, Anuoilh’sAntigone emerges as a complicated exploration of the various responses to the Nazi occupation of France in the early 1940s. Beyond the political climate in which the play was written, the mere mention of the name Antigone conjures the tragic image of an inescapable fate. Thus, in presenting his political commentary through the frame of an already defined story in which the end result is known from the beginning, Anouilh creates a forum through which he is able to engage in the particularities of the issues at hand within a pre-defined scenario eliminating the mystery and focusing on the motivations. It is through Anouilh’s presentation of the conflict between Antigone and Creon that he is able to explicate the complex, multi-faceted motivations behind both those who resisted and those who colluded with the Nazi occupation of France in a way that neither condemns nor shows full support of either side. Instead, Anouilh’s argument can more effectively be seen as embracing the intricacies of both sides in a way that acknowledges the struggles and decision making practices that are used to justify standing as collaborator or member of the resistance.
At no point in Antigone does Anouilh claim to present a new story, or even a significant variation in plot from the familiar, original Sophocles version. In fact, at two separate times throughout the unfolding of events, Anouilh, through the characters of the Prologue and Chorus, speaks directly to the audience, reaffirming that the story will end as they expect. Anouilh’s manifestations of the characters here are introduced in the prologue not just as characters, but as actors who are playing the characters. This effectively blurs the line between performer and character, introducing an aspect of meta-theatre that serves to strengthen the impact of the allegorical relationship between the characters as they are written and the larger political ideals that they represent. The prologue explains, “the people gathered here are about to act the story of Antigone. The one who’s going to play the lead is the thin girl sitting there silent . . . She’s thinking she’s going to die” (3). This introduction clarifies that this is a set of actors enacting the roles of individuals who are written, the actors are merely performing parts. Beyond the audience’s assumed prior engagement with the material, Anouilh, with this prologue, provides a reminder that the actors too are aware of the events of the play. Anouilh goes on, “but there’s nothing to be done. Her name is Antigone, and she’s going to have to play her part right through to the end” (3). She has no choice but to portray a character meeting her death. Creon too is introduced in the prologue. His background is given as he is described “before, in the reign of Oedipus, when Creon was only the most influential man at court, he loved music and fine buildings, would spend hours prowling round Thebe’s little antique shops” (4). But, due to factors far outside of his own control, “Oedipus and his sons are dead. And Creon, forsaking his books and his collector’s pieces, has rolled up his sleeves and taken their place” (4). Anouilh then introduces a note of doubt into Creon’s character when he reveals that “he wonders whether it’s not pointless, being a leader of men. Whether it’s not a sordid business that ought to be left to others less . . . sensitive than himself” (4). Again, Anouilh makes no effort to reinvent the plot of the basic story. The characters find themselves in the same situations and under the same obligations as Sophocles’ characters. However, as early as the prologue, Anouilh begins to redefine their motivations.
Another aspect of the structure of the play paramount to developing Anouilh’s political exploration is the Chorus’s speech that occurs once the definitive events have taken place and the ramifications are beginning to be acknowledged. Anouilh breaks the action to remind his audience that he has written a tragedy, which is “nice and neat” (26). It is unlike a drama, which presents “glimmers of hope” in which “death becomes something terrible, a kind of accident” (26). No, Anouilh is dealing in tragedy in which “there’s no lousy hope left. You know you’re caught, caught at last like a rat in a trap, with all heaven against you” (26). He further explains that “tragedy is gratuitous. Pointless, irremediable” (26). Tragedy seemingly has no reason or cause and there is no cure. Once the events have been set into motion, there is no option but to see it through as any attempts to contest or change the structural factors of the situation will prove futile. It is within these parameters then, from which there is no escape, that Anouilh is able to present, in a non-threatening and exploratory manner, the complexity of the motivations of the different characters, namely Antigone and Creon, as they attempt to navigate their way through an unbeatable convergence of events. In presenting the seemingly opposed nature of Antigone and Creon as a representation of the struggle between the resistance and colluders of the Nazi occupation of France, Anouilh creates the freedom to work within a defined and definite space. He removes the importance of cause and effect, thus isolating motivation and paving the way for his intensive character study in which motivations are explored and justifications are attempted.
Now that his structure has been explored it is possible to examine Anouilh’s discussion of the nature of those who colluded with the Nazi occupation of France through his depiction of Creon, the world worn, politically savvy but reluctant king of Thebes. As is revealed in the prologue, Creon did not seek this position, but in a move that is vital to his character, he did not fight it once it was bestowed upon him. When he is presented with Antigone as the violator of his decree, his law, he is astonished and immediately attempts to devise a cover-up that would keep Antigone from suffering the consequences of her actions. He says to her, “Listen, then. Go back to your room, go to bed, and say you’re ill and haven’t been out since yesterday. Get your nurse to say the same. I’ll get rid of those three men” (31). In this moment, Creon demonstrates that he is not fundamentally committed to the law, as he appears only too eager to violate it in order to protect his family at the first instance of discontent. When Antigone refuses this offer, he launches into an explanation of the differences between his style of ruling and that which had previously been employed by members of Antigone’s immediate family. He claims that “what Thebes needs now is an ordinary king with no fuss. . . all I aim at now I’m king is to try to see the world’s a bit more sensibly run. There’s nothing very heroic about it – just an everyday job, and like the rest of them, not always very amusing” (33). Creon does not view his kingship as some kind of grand decree, bestowing upon him unlimited power over the Thebans; rather, Creon describes his relationship to the job as that of a typical laborer, charged with enacting a role. Further, he demonstrates his keen understanding of the political climate in which he exists. He tries to explain to Antigone, “don’t you realise that if anyone other than those three louts gets to know what you’ve tried to do, I shall have to have you killed?” (34). He does not have to kill her for her actions, but rather for the public perception of her actions. Essentially, to Creon, it does not matter what she has done on a moral or ethical level. What matters is that he is perceived as keeping the law, as he has defined it, by those over whom he is ruling. Not only is he aware that these are the motivations under which he operates, but he is willing to share his thought process with Antigone, apparently feeling no shame or regret over ruling in such a manner. While these acts and philosophies exist on a personal level for Creon, each of his moves can be seen as a calculated attempt to justify his behaviors and, by extension, the actions of the collaborators.
In a passionate attempt to convince Antigone to understand his point of view, Creon constructs a metaphor through which he attempts to paint his role as peacekeeper as not only more important, but also far more difficult than the role of rebel that Antigone ascribes to herself. Creon explains that
Someone has to say yes. Someone has to steer the ship. It’s letting in water on all sides. It’s full of crime and stupidity and suffering. The rudder’s adrift. The crew won’t obey orders. . . the sails will soon be in shreds, and the whole lot of them will die together because they think of nothing but their own skins and their own petty concerns. (39-40)
Creon paints a picture of widespread destruction that, as has been established of the nature of tragedy, cannot be curbed or escaped by any amount of heroics or effort. In such a situation, Creon believes that somebody must steer the ship, somebody must step in and contend with the conflicting forces attacking from all directions. Somebody must balance the threat of the Nazi forces, attempting to impose their power from the outside while simultaneously keeping some sort of peace in the kingdom that is already chaotic and in the midst of political upheaval. Without a central figure, a voice striving to keep these competing forces in check, the kingdom will either descend into anarchy, in which the citizens heave themselves into destruction, concerned only for their own ideals and well being, or they must relinquish power to horrific and unjust rule by force. Creon goes on to claim that “to say yes you have to sweat, roll up your sleeves, grab hold of life, plunge in up to the neck. It’s easy to say no, even if it means dying” (40). So not only is he able to establish his view as right and necessary for the survival of the state, but it is more difficult and requires more sacrifice and suffering, even more than, as he puts it, simply dying for a cause.
Creon, at this point realizing that there will be no rehabilitating Antigone and that she has resigned to die, decides to explain to her the truth behind the deaths of her brothers and his role in constructing the story behind their demise. He weaves a tale of their insolence and mistreatment of their father, their exile and attempts to end their father’s life and their eventual murder of each other (43-44). He then claims “it was necessary for me to make a hero of one of them. . . I gave orders for whichever corpse was least damaged to be scraped together for my national obsequies. And for the other to be left to rot. I don’t even know which was which. And I assure you I don’t care” (44). In this revelation, Creon attempts to paint this extreme act of obscuring the details surrounding the lives and deaths of the brothers and his decision making process that went into declaring one hero and one as traitor as normal and even necessary to maintain the balance that he is striving to project as king. In creating a hero and an enemy, Creon is able to harness the emotions of the people in such a way to affirm his own power as ruler. Once again, Anouilh imbues Creon with a thought process that attempts, on one level, to explain away and justify these, what can certainly be seen as, horrific and even criminal acts in the name of a semblance of peace and happiness, however surface-level this ideal may seem. In the end, Creon, and through him the colluders, exist to perpetuate the survival of their people, giving little thought to the quality of life they are able to achieve. Creon himself has had to give up his former passions, “music and fine buildings” (4) in order to keep the boat afloat. In fact, in the name of keeping the boat afloat, Creon turns his back on his entire immediate family, losing both his son (58) and his wife (59) to self inflicted deaths. All the while, after the tragedy and loss, Creon explains, “You can’t just fold your arms and do nothing. They say it’s dirty work. But if you don’t do it, who will?” (60). Thus, Anouilh presents a view of the collaborators as hard workers, more concerned with the survival and maintenance of the state than they are with any other aspect of life. Personal happiness, tragic losses and difficult sacrifices take a back seat to mere existence.
Antigone, on the other hand, encapsulates Anouilh’s depiction of the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of France. Antigone is the young, idealistic, and some might say stubborn niece of the king. Antigone is presented as an individual who is unwaveringly devoted to her cause. Whether or not she is able to conceptualize and convey exactly what her cause is, she certainly knows what it is that she stands against. From the beginning, Antigone has chosen a path, and nothing will deter her from burying her scorned brother and facing death for her actions. She explains to Ismene, “Everyone has his part to play. Creon has to have us put to death, and we have to go and bury our brother” (11). Not only does she stand firmly in her convictions regarding what act she will take, she does so with the full knowledge of the consequences of her actions. As the events of the play unfold, however, Antigone finds that her reasoning, her justification for her actions, is eroded away one excuse at a time. First, Creon calls to her attention the question of legitimacy in the burial process where the priests of Thebes are “scrambling through it like overworked clerks, gabbling the words, skimping the movements, getting the deceased out of the way as fast as they can so they can botch another one before lunch?” (35). In this moment, Antigone’s justification of providing her brother with a proper burial is problematized, as the burial rights she perceives as so important are not even taken seriously by the religious leaders of the state. She claims that she must bury him because there is “nothing else” she can do, “but at least I can do that. And one must do what one can” (35). Interestingly, here she backs up her actions with a justification similar to Creon’s own: doing what one can with the situation in which they find themselves. Antigone then frames her resistance in terms of her actions in opposition to Creon’s; she explains “I didn’t say yes! What do I care about politics and what you ‘have’ to do and all your paltry affairs! I can still say no to anything I don’t like, and I alone am the judge. You, with your crown and your guards and your paraphernalia – all you can do, because you said yes, is have me put to death” (38). Through this explanation, the resistance view can be seen as responding to the collaborator’s willingness to forfeit a certain degree of personal freedom and freedom of choice in order to perpetuate a way of life that is neither satisfying nor worth the sacrifice.
After learning of the true nature of her brother’s demise, Antigone is once again thrust into uncertainty as her justification, the moral center around which she has structured and defended her argument up until this point, has been effectively proven unworthy. Antigone admits to Creon that “Perhaps. I believed in it” (44). She, like the rest of the citizens, bought into Creon’s political spectacle in which the brothers died in their attempt to claim the crown over a sense of duty to the state. Antigone’s illusions are shattered and she, for the first time, abandons her convictions as she agrees to go to her room and let Creon orchestrate a cover up so that Antigone can continue to live as she has been. However, Creon takes his minor victory too far in his attempt to illustrate the type of life that Antigone has just reclaimed in escaping death. He describes a life in which he wishes her to “get married quickly, Antigone, and be happy. Life’s not what you think. It’s like water – and the young let it slip through their fingers without thinking. . . life is probably nothing other than happiness” (45). Using the word happiness is his fatal flaw as Antigone begins to wonder for herself what her happiness would consist of in the climate that Creon and the collaborators are securing. She exclaims,
You disgust me, all of you, you and your happiness! And your life, that has to be loved at any price. . . With just a little hope left every day – if you don’t expect too much. But I want everything, now! And to the full! Or else I decline the offer, lock, stock and barrel! I don’t want to be sensible, and satisfied with a scrap – if I behave myself. (47)
Thus the resistance stands strongest not for what it supports, not for its attempts to justify their actions based on individual acts or beliefs, but instead they gain their strength and backing in what they stand in opposition to. They are responding to a way of life that has forgone what they see as worth living for in favor of a mock happiness, content to survive but to the detriment of standards and a quality of life that Antigone, and by extension the resistance, deem necessary to maintain a worthwhile existence. Finally, just as Creon’s reality involves unimaginable sacrifices, specifically the loss of his entire immediate family, Antigone does go to her death, though in the end she too kills herself. However, Antigone does not go to death with the unwavering certainty she exhibited at the beginning of the play. She admits to the guard “’I don’t know any more what I’m dying for . . .’ . . . ‘I’m afraid. . .’ (She stops, straightens up.) No, cross all that out! It’s better no one should ever know” (57). Unlike the collaborators, members of the resistance, as captured by Anouilh, are unable to effectively articulate their position. They have no carefully constructed metaphor justifying their actions. They must rely on their instinct and passion to live a life that has more to offer than survival at any cost. Despite her never-ending attempt to justify, perhaps just for herself, her motivations for her actions, Antigone goes to her death, young and idealistic and without having truly experienced life outside of the comfort of childhood: an unnecessary death indeed.
The importance of Anouilh’s Antigone lies in its rare capacity to present a situation in which the cards have been dealt. There is no contesting the actions that have occurred or the end results that will follow. The contribution of this play centers less on whether or not it makes a persuasive argument for those who resisted or colluded with Nazi forces; rather it provides a forum for the vast complexity of motivations behind both positions to be explored and the harsh reality faced by both to be understood beyond the theoretical implications. Creon, as representative of the colluders, exhibits noble motivations in his desperate attempt to keep the ship afloat. He recognizes in himself the fact that he has given up on the way of life expected by youth. He knows he has sacrificed, but he does so in order to ensure the survival of as many people as possible. However, in trying to prevent death and destruction he plays a part in perpetuating just that in his own family. The colluders are painted as realists posed to sacrifice, perhaps everything they hold dear, for the benefit of the survival of the state. Antigone, as she typifies the resistance, also enacts complex but equally flawed ideals. She wants to sacrifice nothing, but with no regard for her personal well-being. She searches for a valid justification for her actions, unable to effectively articulate her position other than that she stands for what the opposition has forgone. Despite her flaws, she does not deserve death. In the end, Anouilh presents two flawed but passionate individuals representative of the opposing factions in a deep-rooted political, moral and ethical struggle. Antigone moves the discussion from polarizing political debates to a fully formed exploration in which Anouilh delves deeply into both sides of the issue, allowing his audience to engage in both arguments; neither fully condemning nor declaring one superior to the other.
Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. Trans. Barbara Bay. United Kingdom: Methuen Publishing, 2000.
Wyrd and Wyrm, Brenda Kessenich
In a revenge-driven world where war never ceases, Fate is a dominant force behind the relentless presence of death. Little solace exists for the humans struggling to survive in this harsh land. They turn to higher powers as reasons for earthly sorrow; Fate and God together explain the cycle of life and death, the cycle which all the people know they must complete—it is everyone's destiny to die.
Beowulf, the eponymous hero of the poem, dwells in a time and place particularly suited to investigating destiny in heroic stories. His is a land of perpetual feuding between and within various nations. The Geats, his people, know too well the violence between tribes. Old Scandinavia is a land of monsters and ruthless men; it places grim value on the Germanic hero-king, he who conquers with both physical and psychological strength.
In this role of hero-king, Beowulf faces three primary villains: the demon Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon. Each battle heavily involves two supreme powers, Fate, or Wyrd, and God. These two present an interesting paradox. At times they appear to work together, and at others they seem to be antagonists; sometimes the presence and power of one seems to contradict the presence and power of the other. They are principally involved in discussions of life and death.
God is primarily seen as a positive force, associated with life and the afterlife, while Fate's realm concerns death. If Fate is represented by the dragon, then God's favor is represented by sword, shield, and sheer strength. Beowulf's skills as a warrior and his weapons stave off death until the final battle, at which point Fate has her way and takes his life. However, the two forces seem to work in tandem sometimes, for Fate and God both allow Beowulf to triumph over Grendel.
During those earlier conflicts, Beowulf's destiny is often hinted at. His death in the dragon-battle is suggested throughout the poem, a reminder that he cannot escape Fate, the Wyrd hanging over every man and reminding him of his inevitable, eventual death. Beowulf's speeches before fighting Grendel and Grendel's mother make it clear he is aware of the possibility of death in the upcoming battle, for he acknowledges the hand of a greater power—Wyrd or God—governing whether or not he will triumph.
Young Beowulf, though, has great confidence he will triumph. He acknowledges the possibility of death seemingly as a mere formality rather than as a serious recognition. Old Beowulf, before fighting the dragon, ponders death with a much greater sense of finality. This test of the king has a far different tenor than that of previous fights; he senses his death nearing, senses Fate swooping in on the wings of a dragon. The dragon, or wyrm, represents more than a concrete brute threatening Beowulf's happy reign, for it is the definitive, fatal Wyrd finally coming to take him.
The dragon, in being a symbol for Fate, also represents Beowulf. Its journey parallels Beowulf's; it wakes after a long hibernation, disturbed by thievery of its hoard. Likewise, Beowulf is summoned to fight a monster after a long hiatus by the dragon's disturbance of the Great kingdom. Their battle is less man versus monster than man versus his Fate. Though Beowulf succeeds in killing the dragon, the fight also ends his life; he did not seize one-sided victory over Fate as he did with Grendel and Grendel's mother. Fate can be fought and killed, but not wholly denied.
The duality between Christianity and paganism has long been considered a defining feature of the work. Many past critics have cited it in arguing that the Beowulf Poet did not have a strong literary sense or intent (Tolkien), but close examination of the text reveals that Fate seems to have been left in intentionally by the probably Christian scribe. Thus the roles of Fate and God may be approached through a strictly literary lens and viewed as fully-realized characters within the plot of the story, not as mere historical blips resulting from the mixing of Pagan and Christian cultures at the time the poem was written.
Heroes may begin their careers by combating purely concrete monsters, triumphing by the grace of God, but they end their lives in battle against their Fate, the same Fate of death which awaits everyone. Wyrd governs everything from the doom of kingdoms to the doom of each man, represented in Beowulf by the dragon—the ultimate battle with Fate, Wyrd in the form of wyrm. There then remains the question of whether or not man can win against death, and what role God and Fate play in determining his destiny. Because Beowulf offers such a grim portrait of the hero, his surroundings, and his life, it provides the necessary elements of story in which to investigate God, Fate, and heroic destiny.
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation; Bilingual Edition, Seamus Heaney
In his translation of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney attempted to present the poem without resorting to the "archaic literary" (xxvii) feeling common in other translations. He favored capturing the meaning and music over the strict conventions of meter, alliteration, and direct translations of all the kennings.
Also included in this book is an informative introduction covering a brief history of Beowulf and some analysis of the poem itself. Heaney offers two ways of reading the poem. One might see it as a tale of the Fate of one hero, Beowulf, or as a tale of three peoples—Danes, Geats, and Swedes, and the Fate governing them. Fate, or Wyrd, plays a critical role in the often somber mood of Beowulf, for all the characters and their countries are locked in a cycle of bloody vengeance. Beowulf's death comes because of the dragon, who is "more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae" (xix), Fate arriving to take the hero's life as Fate takes all lives.
Direct quotes and line numbers of Beowulf used in this paper will be from Heaney's translation unless otherwise noted.
Beowulf, Francis B. Gummere (Translator), Charles Eliot (Anthology Editor)
Gummere's translation of Beowulf, included in Harvard's anthology of saga and epic, is much more in the style of "archaic literary" that Heaney sought to avoid. However, it does not translate particular Anglo-Saxon words, leaving Fate as Wyrd and so forth. Wyrdplays a more character-like role in this translation because it is often capitalized like a name, though it is left to speculation whether or not Wyrd is actually an entity or deity. Especially in descriptions of Grendel and in the dragon-battle, the use of the word "Wyrd" instead of "Fate" in the lines offers a different way to approach Fate's role in the poem.
The rest of the anthology contains various translations of other ancient European epics. Included are songs from the Elder Edda, which take place in the same harsh setting asBeowulf. They, too, leave the reader with a profound sense of Fate's stern governance in the honor-bound, bloodstained Old Scandinavia.
The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, George Kumler Anderson
A grave mood is also noted by Anderson in his book. This thorough investigation of themes in both story and style of Anglo-Saxon literature dwells often on the tension between Pagan and Christian references in old English poetry and story. He speculates that this results simply from the Christian scribe inserting his values into the text. If this paradox was intentionally inserted, it raises some questions. Does the "pagan goddess Wyrd" (68) or Christian God control each warrior's destiny, each nation's destiny? In whichever capacity, it is very clear that those involved in these stories are aware their eventual demise is governed by some power beyond their earthly, bloody lives.
Anderson strays into contempt of pre-Norman-Conquest English culture and remains disdainful of the shortcomings of the literature, including its ignorance of women and lack of aesthetic appeal, though elsewhere he speaks more highly of it. Redeeming qualities in his eyes are its "rude and direct power" and (though "naïve") its "ability to put its hand upon eternal truths" (411).
After investigating much of the writing recovered from the period, including the works of Caedmon, King Alfred, Aelfric, Wulfstan, other authors, anonymous epics, and shorter poems, Anderson concludes the overall theme of the literature—"all things must pass" (409)—is owed to the environment in which it was written. This created its "stout-hearted pessimism" (411) and harsh moral code.
"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," J.R.R. Tolkien
In this speech, Tolkien argues for treating Beowulf as art instead of solely an historical artifact. Though he acknowledges the poem's immense historical value, he challenges the critics who have overlooked its worth as literature: he sees much within the poem that makes it a great story, though many critics already have dismissed the poem as weak in literary structure and importance.
The monsters especially have been subject to much criticism for not belonging in the tale. Tolkien replies that the monsters are critical elements of Beowulf and give it much of its literary merit. For example, he says the "dragon is no idle fancy" and must be regarded as more than a mere beast (3). To support this, he mentions the essential themes of Anglo-Saxon literature, the grimness and constant reminders that all men must fall, and claims the dragon may be seen as a personification of the evils of men coming to kill them.
Importantly, he speaks about the mix of pagan and Christian elements in the poem, and declares them not confusion but fusion. "Scripture and old tradition" have not been smashed awkwardly together, they have been artfully combined in a new imagination integrating Christian with pagan imagery (Tolkien 11).
Tolkien's Art, Jane Chance Nitzsche
Jane Chance Nitzsche investigates how J.R.R. Tolkien played both the roles of the monstrous critic and artist/hero in his own creations. She begins with an explication of Tolkien's essay "The Critic as a Monster" and relates it to each genre Tolkien wrote in, from his children's stories to his epic Lord of the Rings to his medieval parodies. Often she relates his works to Beowulf and other previous literature, and frequently for the purpose of comparing villains.
Villains personify sins, according to Nitzsche's examinations. The Silmarils, Gollum, and Tolkien's dragon all represent pride, greed, lust, and so forth, just as Beowulf's dragon embodies Beowulf's own shortcomings. Heroes, then, must overcome their own vices to succeed over the monsters facing them, for indeed the villain is a metaphor for the vice.
IV. The Hero and Destiny
Close-reading Beowulf strongly suggests that the scribe intentionally left Fate and God in the text, despite the apparent conflict between the two powers. Though they may be expected to by virtue of their origins, they do not contradict the presence of each other in the poem, and as such are literarily acceptable elements of it.
The seeming conflict between Fate and God often appears only in historical considerations of the work and this is with reason, though the artistic sense must also be considered. Though originally a pagan work, Beowulf was most likely written down by a Christian scribe, for the written word was not prominent in England until Christian monks moved in (Anderson). Yet, though this scribe inserted many references to God, the paganWyrd was left in the poem (Anderson). Perhaps the intrigues of God and Fate were not meant to be a literary device at all, but there remains plentiful material to argue that the scribe left Fate in intentionally in some places, for only one major contradiction exists in the text; the rest of it is harmonious.
The blatant contradiction between the presence of Fate and the presence of God must be taken into account. The Danes are described as visiting "pagan shrines" (l. 175), for "Lord God… was unknown to them" (l. 181-3). However, they clearly invoke God not long after, in their treatment of Beowulf as His agent, and their constant references to God's favor in relation to their plight. This suggests that the scribe might not have been totally fastidious in making his interjections of God consistent with the story. Though a rather obvious deviation from consistency in the role of God in the poem, it is an aberrant and isolated incident; it does not provide enough evidence to support the claim that the use of God alongside Fate should not be critiqued as a literary device. Historical viewing of Beowulf need not be the exclusive manner of interpreting the presence of Fate and God.
Tempting as it is to investigate Fate and God in Beowulf through such a solely historical lens, saying that the presence of the two is a mix unintended by the poet and is simply a product of historical context, the rest of the poem offers sufficient consistency to argue for Fate and God being deliberately inserted plot elements. The two powers are the most obvious manifestations of the combination of new Christian influences with old pagan ones. Instead of combining in confusion, though, the fusion of cultures possesses art and finesse (Tolkien). Analysis of God and Fate through a solely textual lens does not unearth massive contradictions, so its historical context need not play an overt role in interpreting how the two powers interact.
From the poetic standpoint, it must be asked who exactly God and Fate are. Though God seems to be similar to the omnipotent deity known today, Wyrd has a more nebulous definition. Looking over the original Old English text does not reveal particular personification of Fate by capitalization of the 'name.' However, Fate is described as a "pagan Goddess" (Anderson 68) by some critics, and in different translations, the word is capitalized (Eliot). Though invoked before battles, no mention is made of treating Fate as a deity, so perhaps it—or she—is a nonreligious force, regarded warily but not worshipped. The identities of Fate and God may be best investigated through their connotations in the text.
In the opening lines of the poem, God is established as a positive, life-giving force. The birth of a prince is "a comfort sent/by God" (l. 13-14). Further than just associating God with birth, He is hailed as "the Lord of Life" (l. 16). Though death is also associated with God's name, dying and finding "friendship in the Father's embrace" (l. 188) keeps death from appearing too grim. In the first dialogue between Hrothgar and Beowulf, God receives frequent mention. Higher power, both feel, controls who lives and who dies; Hrothgar laments that "God can easily/halt [Grendel's] raids" but does not (l. 478) and Beowulf proclaims that God's judgment will determine whether or not he will defeat Grendel (l. 684). So God has their respect and trust in deciding their destinies, even if they do not always like His decisions.
Fate is introduced in a much less complimentary fashion. Beowulf speaks of it to Hrothgar when proposing to rid the kingdom of Grendel, saying "Fate goes ever as fate must" (l. 455) in reference to the possibility of a gory death. Fate is the force that "sweeps [Hrothgar's guard]/into Grendel's clutches" (l. 176-177), while God is looked to as the force that could halt the monster. Indeed, Fate is associated with the Devil by its connection to the demons Grendel and Grendel's mother, a enforcing its already negative connotation. Later, Fate kills a lord in a war because of his selfish and bloody feud with another nation (l. 1202-1207) and is further tied to death and revenge.
Thus Fate has been equated with unpleasant or vengeful death and God with life and a pleasant afterlife. The two very different connotations established imply an intentional effort by the scribe to make God and Fate separate entities, instead of mere oversight in the first transcriptions of the poem. As these connotations are maintained consistently throughout the text, they strongly suggest literary technique instead of historical influence.
Beowulf is received by the Danes as an agent of God sent to fight Grendel. He is "a lookout" (666) sent by God to fight this monster of Cain's Clan, a demon directly opposed to the goodness of God by virtue of his devilish ancestry. Instead of being subject solely to God's judgment, Grendel is a creature—even a pawn—of Fate, as suggested by the line "Wyrd forbade him" (Eliot 25) from wreaking his intended mayhem that night. While Beowulf appeals to God for victory, it seems Fate also has a hand in allowing Beowulf's triumph—though Fate receives little recognition in the post-fight celebration. God and Fate, then, do not always conflict, at least in the realm of the monster's death. Throughout this passage they have remained in their connotative realms, too—with God associated strongly with allowing Beowulf to live, and Fate with allowing Grendel's death.
While the Danes sing praises to God and Beowulf, Grendel's death sets off the next stage in the cycle of Fate. Fate, "the grim shape of things to come" [emphasis added] (l. 1234), now takes the form of Grendel's mother, who seeks to avenge her son. The next event continues to shape the conflict between God and Fate, for Beowulf, an agent of God, must now combat a manifestation of Fate, Grendel's mother.
By this point in the poem, everyone's eventual destiny, death, has been firmly etched into the narrative. For example, the man killed by Grendel's mother was "already marked for death" (l. 1241) when he took to his blankets that night. As Beowulf notes, the mere act of living "means waiting for [the] end" (l. 1387), and each man is fated to die somehow, someday. But the hero acts "indifferent to death" (l. 1443) as he prepares to dive into the mere to fight Grendel's mother, and he speaks very shortly and formally before jumping in. Despite the inevitability of death, the young hero allows himself a good deal of confidence in his ability to conquer, and in having God's will on his side. Perhaps, if he regards gory death as a realm controlled more by Fate than God, he feels he can use God to win over Fate.
Fighting Grendel's mother makes Beowulf call more upon God than he did when fighting Grendel. This time God must actively "redress the balance" (l. 1555) after the mere-dame throws Beowulf to the ground and nearly stabs him; God directs Beowulf's gaze to fall upon a giant sword, with which he is able to claim victory. He returns to Heorot to an abundance of praise, and makes clear his fortune in having God on his side. Importantly, Fate and God both have been given autonomy. Both have been described as being able to take action by permitting life or death. They are not passive elements in the poem.
The sword can now be interpreted as a symbol of God's favorable will. Without it, Beowulf could not have won against Fate's agent. That it melts after being slathered in the blood of Cain's Clan foreshadows the day when God's favor falls from Beowulf and allows an agent of Fate to kill him. Here, God and Fate are adversaries of each other, with God defending His champion and Fate sending forth her own champions to try to defeat Beowulf.
Consistent with the grimness of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf's story so far has helped establish the inevitability of death. "Death is not easily/escaped by anyone" (l. l001-1002) and other such statements appear often. Specific to Beowulf, Hrothgar offers many forebodings as the young hero prepares to leave Heorot for his home. Within Hrothgar's speech about the dangers of power are references to "hoarded" goods (l. 1756) and a warning that death may come in the shape of "sudden fire" (l. 1764), both seeming to foreshadow the fateful dragon waiting to take Beowulf's life. Also, a poet tells the tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer during the celebration of victory over Grendel, further hinting at Beowulf's eventual destiny. This suggests that no man may hold the favor of God forever and so survive where many have died; Fate will eventually destroy all men, no matter their status in the eyes of God.
After the deaths of Hygelac and his son Heardred, kings of the Geats, Beowulf ascends to the throne and rules well for fifty years before the dragon awakes. This fight is to be the final test of the hero: will God still grant him victory? Can Beowulf defeat Fate where so many others have fallen? He has previously destroyed two agents of Fate, but the dragon seems more than a mere agent. This wyrm is a manifestation of Wyrd herself.
If the dragon is Fate, Fate can now be interpreted as a character; the dragon, in representing her, represents "the evil side of heroic life" (Tolkien 7). Villains often represent the vices of the hero (Nitzsche), and there are many parallels between the dragon and Beowulf, even going back to Hrothgar's speech about the dangers of power. The devilish Seven Deadly Sins are suggested by his references to hoards and so forth, and here now is the sinful dragon and the powerful king.
After a long hibernation, the dragon awakes in anger because someone has disturbed its hoard, seeking to destroy those responsible; Beowulf, too, has been 'hibernating,' in the sense that he has not fought any monsters for years. The disturbance in his kingdom, his 'hoard,' forces him to consider one more fight. His choice to face the dragon alone reflects his slight overconfidence evident earlier. When he leapt into the mere to face Grendel's mother, he scarcely acknowledged death, for he felt confident in God and his victory. Now it seems this confidence will be his death—and in a sense, a "betrayal" of his people, for without his leadership they will be invaded on all sides (Nitzsche 32). Hrothgar's warning about the dangers of power appears pertinent now, with Beowulf in the position Hrothgar spoke of, the place where the old man still seeks to use the power of his younger self and forgetting the risks of relying on strength and heavenly backing he no longer has. The hero has reached the critical place where God ceases preventing Fate from destroying him. God and Fate remain literarily consistent in their associations with life and death at this crux. They both play a role in the death of Beowulf, with Fate associated with actively killing the hero, and God in simply no longer allowing him to live.
Fate, which lurked in the narrative's background for so much of the poem, rises out of the gold hoard on the wings of the dragon. Thus far, no one in Beowulf has been able to claim immunity from death; it eventually comes for all of them, and maintains a pagan atmosphere of Wyrd instead of the Christian God, an example of how Fate and God "wrestle… for supremacy" (Anderson 68) in the text. Who shall govern the death of the hero?
Wyrd is described as standing "ready to greet the gray-haired hero/to seize his soul-hoard, sunder apart/life and body" (Eliot 71) where God is never associated with similar violent death; Beowulf acknowledges Fate, not God, will be the determining factor in this battle, as he tells the dragon that the fight "shall end/…as Wyrd allots" (Eliot 74), without requesting any favors from God this time.
Now Beowulf must confront his own destiny. He decides to fight the dragon "for the glory of winning" (l. 2514). Against Wyrd, perhaps no other motivation than glory can exist—Beowulf and his people have always known that death follows life. There is no alternative.
Though disheartened and wondering if he has displeased God when the dragon burns his throne-hall, Beowulf still has "scant regard/for the dragon as a threat" (l. 2347), feeling that he can defeat it as easily as he defeated Grendel. Yet the eve of this battle has a different tenor than those previous contests. Beowulf feels "unsettled" (l. 2420), sensing his Fate skulking nearby, the proximity of his death undeniable this time. Never before has he felt that God has abandoned him ere a battle. This leads into a much longer reflection than preceded any other combat. Beowulf speaks of a long litany of feuds, bloody battles, and grim deaths, establishing his awareness that nothing better awaits him, and so he makes his final boast. He will fight the dragon as "king of the people" (l. 2513). He will try once more for glory, but his own awareness of his age makes it clear he is uncertain of the outcome, and he expresses no certitude in Fate or God's governance. He does not state his trust in Fate or God this time, instead only in "his own strength" (l. 2540), as he approaches the dragon and his doom.
Immediately, Wyrd bursts from the cave in the form of a wyrm, intent on destroying its long-withheld prey. It is then that Fate, not God, "denie[s]" (l. 2574) glory to Beowulf as his shield fails. The shield cannot hold back the fire, just as God's grace cannot keep death away from Beowulf any longer. Shortly after, Beowulf's sword also falters, forcing him to give ground—to concede in action, as well as in boast, that Fate will have its way with him. The snapping of his sword in the dragon battle was foreshadowed by the melting of the giant sword he defeated Grendel's mother with; then, God's favor allowed him to perceive the sword, and triumph with it. Fate has dominance now in the realm of killing men, still consistent with the connotations established at the beginning of the poem: Fate prefers to govern death, and God life. This incident may represent Fate and God working together to kill the hero, for his time has come. It seems a continuation of the cooperation evidenced by the Grendel episode, for Fate allowed Grendel to die, and God allowed Beowulf to live—together Fate and God permitted the triumph of the hero. Now, together, they cause his death.
Then the dragon deals Beowulf a mortal wound, and if not for the help of young Wiglaf, Beowulf would not have been able to reciprocate the fatal strike. But he does; and so Fate kills the hero even as the hero kills it. Perhaps Beowulf cannot triumph over Wyrd, but he can deal it a resounding blow on his way to the grave. But this action is no lasting victory. Fate will still bring death and destruction upon the Geats after their leader's death.
Fate and God, both very powerful, work at times in tandem and at others in conflict. For if the monsters (often associated with the Devil) in the narrative are interpreted as agents of Fate, and Beowulf as an agent of God, then clearly the two work against each other; yet they seem to work together in determining the triumph and death of Beowulf. All men must die. God receives them in Heaven, but apparently lets Fate do the killing: Beowulf's sword, symbolizing God's favor on him, fails and allows Fate's dragon to kill him. This bizarre partnership is further suggested by Fate's association with devilish monsters who were long ago cast out of God's kingdom.
Throughout, Fate and God are consistently enough characterized to defend an artistic versus an historic lens. The Christian scribe does seem to have intentionally left Fate in places—if not a premeditated literary device, certainly a present and intriguing one. Given the consistency of its usage, however, it appears the Beowulf Poet had literary intent in mind when writing, as argued by Tolkien and Anderson. So Beowulf remains as a piece of art independent of its historical context.
Pagan Fate and God function together in Beowulf. Though there are a few contradictions, the two overwhelmingly make sense in the narrative, despite the desire to interpret them as only a product of historical context and not as artistic or literary devices. Interpreting Fate and God through a strictly textual, not contextual, lens as advised by Tolkien, offers an analysis that can hold its own, evidencing the artistic merits of Beowulf.
Beowulf the hero triumphs in his fight against Grendel by grace of God's assistance and Fate's allowance of Grendel's death. Similarly, God steps into his battle against Grendel's mother, preventing Fate's creature from killing the hero. It is only in fighting the dragon that God steps aside and allows Fate an unfettered chance to destroy Beowulf. As Fate has been associated with death throughout the entire story, it makes literary sense thatWyrd strikes down Beowulf when God, associated with life, no longer protects him.
Death is a powerful presence in the Scandinavian setting of the poem. All people have a great awareness of how fleeting their lives are amid the constant cycles of war, revenge, and more war surrounding them. Fate and God then fit into the struggle with their powers over who lives and who dies and when death strikes. The heavy use of foreshadowing in Beowulf keeps the looming Fate important in the narrative, building towards the climax where Fate and God meet once more in battle over Beowulf, only this time to Fate's triumph.
Fate's role in governing monsters and death cooperates with God's role in governing life; the overall consistency of their roles suggests that the scribe deliberately used one or the other per situation. This supports the argument that "the poet was not indulging in an amateurish crazy-quilt of incident" (Anderson 73) when crafting Beowulf. The two powers act within their established realms without the contradictions that would well be expected if Fate and God were found in the same story by mere chance of history
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Eliot, Charles W., ed. Epic and Saga. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1935. Print. Vol. 49 of The Harvard Classics.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.
Nitzsche, Jane Chance. Tolkien’s Art. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Print.
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