Mar 04

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, was published anonymously on January 10, 1776 during the American Revolution.  A total of 500,000 copies, including pirated copies, were sold throughout the colonies, making it the best-selling American book (in proportion to the number of people living in America at the time). The pamphlet argues that America’s break from Great Britain is logical and natural, using references from the Bible (another highly influential book not on the list) to prove his point.  Paine donated proceeds from the sale of Common Sense to the Continental army.  Common Sense was thus both economically and ideologically influential in sparking the American Revolution.

Paine argues that government is a necessary evil.  It is necessary to protect the rights of the individual, but it is evil because in so doing, it detracts from the individual’s property: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer! Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”

This particular passage echoes Chapter 17 of Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which Hobbes argues that men join together to create commonwealths in order to protect themselves from constant war.  Paine argues that the best government is one elected by the people to represent their interests and protect their natural rights, complaining that the British king has done more to hurt the rights of the colonies than help them.  Paine’s ideas of man’s natural rights were heavily influenced by John Locke’s writings on the subject, and in turn, Common Sense heavily influenced the American Declaration of Independence.


Dec 13

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, and I must live in Hollywood.

I hate to end the semester with a negative blog post, but I didn’t like this movie.  First of all, whoever gave this film a PG rating is a sadistic child-hater– this should have been PG-13.  I’m not sure that I won’t have nightmares from this tonight, let alone an eight-year-old.

To be fair, I’m not such a thriller/suspense person– I favor musicals or romantic comedy.  But this movie kept me more in confusion than in suspense.  At the end I went on imdb to read the plot summary because I wasn’t sure what had happened– what was with the supposed girlfriend who didn’t know a thing about Caul, and then never showed up again?  Why did Caul spend the night with a woman who had just helped his enemy spy on him? What exactly happened at the end: did they murder the husband in the hotel room or did he die in a car crash?  Did the stuff that seemed to happen in the hotel room really happen, or was Caul imagining it?

Also, Caul seemed really stupid for a guy who is the best surveillance person around.  First of all, I would think that if you’re a really good surveillance person, nobody should know who you are– right?  I mean, wouldn’t that be more practical than being famous?  Then– just a tip– never let a famous surveillance guy at a famous surveillance conference stick anything in your pocket.  As soon as Moran put the free pen in his pocket I knew it was a bug.  It was a weird move– when a stranger gives you a pen they usually hand it to you, they don’t stick it on you.

You would think that after the “shocking” discovery that the pen was a bug and that the woman who had been hired by Moran to show off his bugs had– shocker– also been working for him when she got Caul to reveal his personal story while he was bugged, that Caul would be mad.  And he was– but only at Moran.  Our little genius somehow failed to put two and two together to realize that the girl was also working against him.  And Caul is fooled a third time when he doesn’t realize at the end that his phone– the phone whose existence he lies about all through the movie so as to protect his privacy, the phone that Moran shows him how to bug at the conference, the phone that is hinted to in his name “Caul”– is the bug.  No wonder this guy is great at surveillance: he suspects all the small stuff (like the Virgin Mary figurine) but completely ignores the obvious.

At the end Caul is going crazy, which is part of why I was confused.  I figured that the whole toilet thing was in his imagination– I mean, you can’t just flush all that blood down a toilet.  And if you had, flushing the toilet again certainly wouldn’t make it come back up.  But did everything in the hotel happen in Caul’s brain?  If the husband really was killed in the hotel, having heard the tapes, why did he go there alone and unarmed?  And why didn’t Caul just call his nice cop friend that we saw in the beginning as soon as he suspected murder in the first place?

I understand the ironies– that a guy who is so concerned with his personal privacy is a surveillance expert, and that the whole time we’re spying on him through the camera, and so forth.  But push comes to shove, this movie had a lot of holes.


Dec 06

If I had to rank the books we read this semester from favorite to least favorite, Notes on a Scandal would come at the very bottom of the page.  The very, very bottom.  (No offense or anything.)  I felt that the book was trying too hard, and the mechanisms it was trying to use became see-through and contrived.

The book employed the same “you know what’s going to happen in the end” device as Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but while Spark still managed to surprise us quite a few times even within that convention, Heller gave me no surprises.  Barbara’s development as the creepy power-hungry woman who gets a little too attached to her girlfriends was not so much a development as a straight-out giveaway by the 37th page.  Naming the adulterous female “Bathsheba” was blatant enough without calling attention to it with “Were your parents thinking of the Bible or of Hardy?” (page 15).  Heller gives her audience too little credit– in her fear that we might “miss it” she spells everything out for us, and in so doing, she robs us of the pleasure we might have had in doing the sleuthing ourselves.

Perhaps it really has to do with the purpose of the book.  I think a book like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was  written with the intent to provoke thought and discussion.  The book lends itself to such discussion by the specificity of its words and its literary conventions, and the layers of the microcosm of the school inside the micro/macrocosm of Edinburgh inside the macrocosm of Europe in the 1930s.  Spark incorporates ambiguities into her novel, so that you don’t completely “get it” as soon as you finish the book– you continue thinking about it because she forces you to fill in the blanks yourself.  But to me, What Was She Thinking? seemed to be written more with the intent to shock the reader or “creep us out”, rather than to actually make us think.

Aside from all this, I didn’t like the story or the setting, I couldn’t get behind any of the characters, and I didn’t understand the cover art.

Nov 15

Mary is Iago incarnate as a female child.  Like Iago, she has no definable reason for hating Karen and Martha, although she comes up with excuses.  Like Iago, she destroys people’s lives by fabricating stories of sexual affairs.

But most of all, Mary is similar to Iago in the way she works– by planting the seeds of an idea in her grandmother’s head without stating her story outright, allowing her grandmother, like Othello, to draw her own conclusions.  Mary claims she cannot tell her story outright, “I’d tell you but I got to whisper it” (page 42 in my book), much like Iago’s “I am to pray you not to strain my speech/ To grosser issues nor to larger reach/Than to suspicion” (3.3.218-220).  Mary plays up her innocence, claiming not to understand the “funny noises” she supposedly overheard.  (Martha counters this on page 59, “Where did you learn so much in so little time?”  “Innocent” Mary is ironically less innocent than the adult Martha– she is able to contemplate what Martha was unable to recognize in herself.)  Iago achieves the same effect through his questions– “Honest, milord?” “Think milord?”, maintaining his innocence and his reluctance to transmit the sordid details.  Mary does just what D.A. Miller proposes in “Secret Subjects, Open Secrets”– she “can’t quite tell [her] secret, because then it would be known that here was nothing really special to hide, and no one really special to hide it.  But [she] can’t quite keep it either, because then it would not be believed that there was something to hide and someone to hide it” (194).  Mary defers telling her secret to her grandmother and to the audience, only half-telling it really, and in doing so she tells her secret and keeps it too.

Mary does not only plant her seeds in Mrs. Tilford’s head, but in Martha’s head as well.  Without getting into the scientific question as to whether sexual orientation is innate from birth (which I am in no way qualified to answer), it seems clear that Martha did not recognize her homosexuality until Mary’s story circulated.  My question here is whether Mary’s story was actually responsible for Martha’s homosexuality– did the slander actualize itself?  Did thinking about Mary’s story, combined with Martha’s subsequent seclusion in the school with virtually no human contact except Karen, cause Martha to love Karen, as she says, “the way they said” (78)?  (Interestingly, when she didn’t know she loved Karen, she resented Karen’s marriage; once she realizes, she is desperate for the marriage to take place– perhaps signaling a shift in her own sexual feelings for Karen?)

Of course, there is a strong counter-argument to this suggestion.  Martha never loved a man, and she herself says, “There’s always been something wrong.  Always– as long as I can remember” (78), although considering the fact that she spent the last seven months dwelling on Mary’s slander during the court case and stuck in the school with Karen, we might say that she convinced herself of this during that time.  Martha is inordinately jealous over Karen’s wedding in the beginning of the play, but then a heterosexual woman might feel as much jealousy over a man taking her one and only friend away from her.  Mrs. Tilford’s remark, “You were always like that even as a child.  If you had a little girl friend, you always got mad when she liked anybody else,” (22) doesn’t necessarily refer to the girl friend liking a boy– just “anybody else”, making it seem plausible that Martha might just always have been jealous of her friends’ attentions, but not necessarily sexually interested in her girl friends.

I think there are arguments for both sides (1- that Mary’s slander brought Martha to recognize her own lesbian tendencies and 2- that Mary’s slander actually caused Martha’s lesbian tendencies).  But it is interesting to see in this play how slander can bring itself to reality, how fabrication can become the fabric of life.

Nov 09

I find that most of the time my papers grow into themselves.  I start with a basic idea or question in my head, and through the process of writing, I develop that thought.  That’s why I always hated it when teachers made us hand in outlines of our papers– because when I start writing my paper I don’t know what my conclusion is going to be.  (Sometimes I would just write the paper first, and afterwards write the outline.)

I felt a little bit of this frustration when approaching the draft prospectus assignment.  Especially because I didn’t yet know exactly what texts I would be using, I found it difficult to start writing the draft prospectus.  But once I got into it, I found the draft prospectus assignment, like the process of writing the paper itself, helped me think through and concretize some of my ideas and develop a plan for how to go about researching and constructing my thesis.

The hardest part for me was choosing one subject, because I kept waffling between several ideas, so working on the topic description for just one of them helped me settle on a plan for this monster of a paper.  Instead of brainstorming outward about possible topics to work on, as I had been doing, I started brainstorming downward about where I could go with one topic.  Here’s a picture:

Topic Idea       —      Topic  Idea       —        Draft Prospectus       —      Topic  Idea







I’m a little nervous about structuring this paper, especially because I’m planning to be working with so many texts and because there are several directions in which I might take this.  I guess that would be the question I’d like a reader to answer for me– which questions in my draft prospectus should I research and continue to work with, and which should I throw away?

I’m also nervous about whether there will be enough information and criticism for me to find on J. M. Barrie’s works, and in the back of my head there’s still a voice saying that maybe I should switch my topic to something dealing with texts that are a little more mainstream.  But I think (hope) that once I get my teeth into this paper, that voice will be quiet.

Nov 07

I just finished reading Summer.  I read the whole book tonight.  Couldn’t put it down.  And the whole time, I had this song stuck in my head, from The Heiress:


Nov 01

Like the The Scarlet Letter, the story of David and Batsheva is one that I studied in high school.  I would like to just give a brief overview of the Jewish perspective on this story, taking into account some of the secondary sources that accompany this text.

According to Judaism, the Bible was given to us along with an Oral Tradition, much of which was written down in 500 CE in the Gemara.  On the story of David and Batsheva, the Gemara famously writes, “Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring” (see an English translation here:  This is obviously not to say that David didn’t sin at all, as David himself says “I sinned to G-d.”  But, the Gemara explains, although a plain reading of the text seems to indicate that David committed adultery, this is not the case.  The Gemara goes on to explain that the custom of the time was for men to give their wives a divorce document when they went out to war, so that if they did not come back from the war, their wives could remarry without having to prove in court that their husbands had died.  So Batsheva was technically divorced when David took her.  A hint to this is in the text– it says that Batshva was purified from her menstrual uncleanliness (11:4), stressing that David did not sin by having relations with a woman who was menstrually unclean.  The text would not bother to stress that David did not commit this lesser sin if he had committed the greater sin of adultery.

Although nearly all Jewish commentators explain that David’s actions were for the most part within the letter of the law, although certainly not within the spirit, there is one notable exception.  The Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes flat out that David sinned by committing adultery with Batsheva and by murdering Uriah (and in an ignominious way– at the hand of the enemy).

The Kli Yakar (1550- 1619) brings point-counterpoint proofs against Abarbanel’s claim.  I’ll summarize:

If David had committed adultery with Batsheva, he would not have been allowed to marry her, because it is forbidden according to Jewish law for an adulterer to marry the woman with which he committed adultery.  The fact the David and Batsheva remained married after he repented — and that G-d gave their son Shlomo the kingship– is proof that David did not commit adultery with her.

Uriah was deserving of the death penalty because he disobeyed the king’s command to go home, and also because he referred to Yoav as “my master” in front of the king, as if he were giving Yoav precedence to David.

However, the Kli Yakar agrees with the Abarbanel that having Uriah killed at the hand of the enemy was a sin on David’s part– and indeed, we see in the text that the way Uriah was killed is emphasized: “You have smitten Uriah with the sword and you have taken his wife for yourself as a wife, and you have slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.”  The Kli Yakar writes that David should have brought Uriah before the court to be sentenced to death.

This defense of David is a very simplified account of my understanding of some of the Jewish commentary surrounding this story (there is a lot more literature on the subject).  All the commentators agree that we see David’s greatness in his reaction to Natan’s rebuke– he immediately said, “I have sinned to G-d” and repented.

I can see that Hawthorne may have had this Biblical story in mind when he was writing The Scarlet Letter, and I definitely see the similarities.  Nevertheless, King David was no Arthur Dimmesdale.  Nearly all Jewish commentators agree that David’s sin was not as heinous as a simple reading of the text makes it seem, and his immediate confession and repentance prove his heroism and ultimate righteousness.

Oct 26

In Casey Finch and Peter Bowen’s essay “The Tittle Tattle of Highbury”, Emma becomes Emma — the novel takes on the qualities of the main character in its propensities towards matchmaking, imagining stories, and gossip.  In this way, the novel we read is reduced to gossip about the characters within it, and we are the recipients of Emma’s gossip even as the gossip itself centers on the dangers of Emma’s gossip.

In my post from last week, based on Spacks’ article, I noted that the gossip in Emma is associated with the female characters and is dangerous because it is tinged with the imagination; here too, Finch and Bowen presume that the gossiping narrator characterized by her use of free indirect style is female (page 6).

It is interesting to see how Austen’s use of free indirect style translates to film versions of Emma.  In the Gwyneth Paltrow version, the filmmakers seemed to have difficulty in finding a substitute for the narrator’s voice, and employ a multitude of methods to both narrate and get inside the characters’ heads: there is a female narrator outside the story at some points in the film, at some points we hear a voice over of Emma’s thoughts, at one point we see Emma’s fantasy actually played out as a daydream, at other times, Emma reads aloud as she writes in her journal, and at one shocking moment, Mrs. Elton even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera!  The hidden narrator that Austen uses so well who has “access to ‘everybody’s feelings'” (11) and inserts her own ironies and gossips while remaining invisible cannot be translated to film, and the filmmakers in this version fail in their use of too many conventions to try to achieve the same effect Austen does in the book by using just one convention — free indirect style.

Amy Heckerling does a much better job in Clueless by sticking to one convention to replace Austen’s free indirect speech — allowing us to hear Cher’s voice over thoughts.  In this case we do not have access to everybody’s feelings as much as we have to Cher’s, although perhaps some close up shots do give us more insight into the thoughts of such characters as Josh.  But Cher’s rambling, somewhat ditzy storytelling achieves much of the same gossipy effect as Austen’s free indirect speech, allowing us to read the film, like the novel, as a product of female imaginations (Emma, Cher, Austen, and Heckerling) that manifests itself as gossip while telling a story about the danger of female imagination, storytelling, and gossip.

Oct 19

To make up for skipping last week 🙂

Oct 19

In Jane Austen’s books, much like in the Anne of Green Gable series and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, people seem to have no occupation other than that of gossiping to and about each other.  Gossip is integral to their “society” as Spacks terms it– indeed, Jane Fairfax is excluded from Emma’s intimate society because she refuses to take part in this gossip; she is “reserved” and rebuffs Emma’s attempts to glean information:

She and Mr. Frank Churchill had been at Weymouth at the same time. It was known that they were a little acquainted; but not a syllable of real information could Emma procure as to what he truly was. “Was he handsome?” — “She believed he was reckoned a very fine young man.” “Was he agreeable?” — “He was generally thought so.” “Did he appear a sensible young man; a young man of information?” —  “At a watering-place, or in a common London acquaintance, it was difficult to decide on such points. Manners were all that could be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than they had yet had of Mr. Churchill. She believed every body found his manners pleasing.” Emma could not forgive her. (End of Chapter 10)

We know why Jane is silent on this subject, but Emma doesn’t, and Jane’s refusal to gossip is mirrored by Emma’s refusal to take her into her intimacy.

Much of the Highbury gossip is harmless, if irritating, such as Miss Bates’s endless rambling.  But, as Patricia Mary Spacks suggests in her chapter “The Talent of Ready Utterances,” it is the “dangerous power of imagination” (155) that makes gossip injurious instead of innocuous.  We see this throughout Emma— it is Emma’s brilliant imagination, so endearing to the reader and yet so dangerous to those around her, that makes her gossip deadly.  Harriet’s own imagination, once sparked by Emma’s gossip, continues the mischief.

Despite its neat and happy ending, there is a darker element underscoring Emma.  Emma’s meddling could very well have ruined Harriet’s one chance of marriage (keeping in mind that Harriet was illegitimate and might never have found another suitor), and while Emma toyed with the idea of remaining single herself, she herself said that remaining single would only be feasible for a rich woman, which Harriet wasn’t.  Emma’s unfounded (or shall we say imagined) rumor about Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon could likewise have seriously ruined Jane’s chances of getting employment, had it gotten around.

Spacks writes (referencing John Bennet) that “women do not improve each other; in all-female company, they are far too likely to gossip.  Only men protect women… from one another and from the vacancy of their own minds.  And men protect mainly by enforcing a doctrine of repression” (152).  This is true in Emma’s case– it is Mr. Knightley (and not her female governess Miss Taylor turned Mrs. Weston) who curbs Emma’s imagination by insisting on her acceptance of cold, hard fact.

Spacks interestingly enough notes that the two Mr. Knightleys are the only ones with employment, which saves them from entrenchment in the Highbury gossip– John is a lawyer and George is busy managing his estate.  However, while John Knightley complains about the occasions on which he is called upon to join the Highbury society in their gossip fests, George seems to enjoy the harmless type of gossip at these parties.  John is therefore not particularly popular in the society– even though he is from London, and could therefore potentially be an interesting novelty bringing news from the outside (like Frank Churchill, whom I will discuss in a moment), his reluctance to gossip makes him an outsider.  George, on the other hand, is an insider in the harmless gossip while repressing the harmful gossip– the ideal man of society.

Frank Churchill, like the women, is unemployed.  He is also a dandified character, who glories in fashion, balls, and dress: Mr. Knightley vilifies him for leaving his parents to go to the city and get his haircut– we know that was not his main object, nevertheless, the fact that those around him believed that it was is indicative that Frank Churchill was the kind of man who would do something like that.

But most significantly, Frank Churchill takes part in injurious feminine gossip, which, as Spacks says, is characterized by imagination.  Mr. Churchill thus becomes a feminine character in the novel– and interestingly enough, in the 1995 Clueless transposition of Emma to a Beverly Hills highschool, the Frank character (Christian) is homosexual.

Come and Go