Books

Ravana: Fallen Hero or Fiend?

Intro

This character analysis was completed for a literature class at Grove City College. The Ramayana is a massive epic from India, and we read Narayan’s prose translation for class. I chose to focus on the character of Ravana because he interested me the most.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Analysis

In Narayan’s prose translation of the Ramayana, Ravana is the epitome of excess, warped desire, and unrivaled ambition. He stands in stark contrast to the figure of Rama, who sets a heroic ideal against which every character is measured and inevitably falls short. As a result, Ravana’s true nature can best be determined by comparing his attributes and actions to the moral perfection represented by Rama. By comparing Rama’s and Ravanna’s response to asceticism, dharmic roles, and power, an accurate picture of the antagonist’s identity can be drawn. Although Narayan provides insight into the more positive aspects of Ravana’s character, he is revealed to have been neither a fiend nor a hero before his fall. 

Ravana does not fit the role of the stereotypical antagonist. His pursuit of asceticism and excess are paralleled in conviction and intensity, providing him with a complexity impossible to replicate in a character who is purely evil. His episodes of meditation and self-sacrificing devotion grant him near-complete invulnerability and power. By comparison, Rama’s experience of  ascetism lasted a mere fourteen years, nevertheless resulting in more fulfilling and lasting rewards. Based on this discrepancy, it can be assumed that the benefits gained from devotion do not depend on the length of time one meditates, but rather the purpose of the ascetic’s sacrifice. The goals Ravana hopes to achieve through asceticism benefit only himself, while Rama undertakes the burden in obedience to his father’s mandate.

Ravana’s unwavering determination to accomplish his ambitions allow him to reach the peak of morality, while permitting him to fall into the depths of wickedness. While these abrupt changes in values may indicate he once showed heroic tendencies, it comes down to the matter of intention. Rama was driven to the forest by genuine concern for his parent’s reputation. If Ravanna pursued asceticism for the sake of others, or in order to improve himself spiritually, these are the marks of a hero. However, if his reasons were purely selfish, this supports his more fiendish tendencies; the desire to deceive and manipulate.

By placing himself above the gods, Ravana breaches the caste system by which all of Indian society was ordered and neglects his dharmic responsibility to revere and worship the divine. He acquires unnatural and “extraordinary powers through austerities and prayers”, and uses them to disrupt the cosmos (Narayan 4). However, Rama as Vishnu’s incarnation is equally defiant to the natural order, a dramatic change in caste. The difference is primarily one of authority. Vishnu has the divine right to restore order by whatever means necessary, and thus is justified in his transcendence of social rank. Ravana, on the other hand, has no right to usurp the gods’ power to achieve his personal desires. Rama once again shows he is not motivated by external desires when he cedes his kingdom peacefully to his brother and acknowledges Kaikeyi’s rights of inheritance. There were no barriers to prevent him from taking the throne, since the people and even Bharatha were willing to crown him. Rama, however, would not sacrifice dharmic responsibility for comfort or wealth. By comparison, Ravana spares his brother and considers sparing Jatayu only out of concern for his reputation and from disdain. His obedience to dharmic responsibilities stems only from a desire to preserve himself from dishonor and appearing unjust.

Ravana’s unhealthy relationship with power ultimately prevents him from achieving the heroic ideal. At the point when his meditation and devotion grant him nearly unlimited strength, he could be viewed with respect and admiration. However, he uses his newly obtained abilities to enslave the gods and humiliate them. For example, “Yama, the god of death, was employed to sound the gong each hour” and “Vayu, the god of wind, was there to blow away faded flowers and garlands” (Narayan 74).  If one was purely devoted to the gods, it would not be possible to subvert them with such blatant disrespect. Were he only to reign uncontested and provide meaningful positions for the gods, that may suggest that his reverence for them had been genuine. Instead, he abuses his benefactors and prevents them from completing their dharmic roles, carelessly wreaking havoc in the divine and mortal realms. His immense desire for power incapacitates his ability to rule rationally and fairly. Rama once again shows that not only do one’s actions matter, so do one’s reasons and intentions. His life demonstrates two major occasions in which he relinquished power. As Vishnu, he chose a mortal form, even though it weakened him, to restore order. As Rama, he willingly offered his kingdom and inheritance to his younger brother so that he could follow his father’s will.

The final encounter of Rama and Ravana reveals a startling insight into the antagonist’s character. While through power he was corrupted, as he lay dying “his personality came through in its pristine form” (Narayan 147). This raises questions about whether this transformation was entirely the work of Rama, or if the presence of Vishnu returned Ravana to a former, more glorious state. Narayan himself seems to paint Ravanna in a heroic light, while Ravana’s actions reveal that there is “evil stirring within him” (Narayan 147). The motives of one who demands protection from the gods after they are trapped by vows cannot be innocent. He would have no reason to fear the gods unless he was planning an immoral act, and after practicing austerities for extended periods of time, he would not ask for a gift and not use it. While the text claims that the “dross” of the fivefold evils was removed, suggesting that beneath the surface a shred of good was retained, it also mentions that Ravana’s face was “aglow with a new quality” (Narayan 146). The tainted nature of Ravana had never before been pure and heroic; he was barred from reaching his potential by his intense desires.

Taken in whole, the evidence suggests that Ravana was never a fallen hero, but was instead an ascetic who was “devout and capable of tremendous attainments” (Narayan 147). Potential does not make one a heroic figure; it must be paired with selflessness and righteous action. By comparing Ravana to the ideal set by Rama, it becomes clear that Ravana’s potential never came to fruition. His devotion never lead to obedience, his endurance never led to patience, and his ambition never led to any positive effect on the world. Yet before attaining his great power, he could not necessarily be called a fiend either. He was a highly talented asura in which the seeds of dissent and evil were just starting to grow, cultivated further by the accumulation of power and wealth. This converts him to the form in which Narayan first introduces him: Ravana, “The Grand Tormentor” (Narayan 74).

Works Cited

Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana, edited by Pankaj Mishra, Penguin Classics, 2006.

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Plays

Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine: Beatrice, Imogen, Viola, or Rosalind?

Intro

I wrote the essay adapted below for my Shakespeare class at Grove City College. Out of four heroines from Shakespeare, I chose the best heroine. Now, I haven’t read all of Shakespeare, so this is just out of these four plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Analysis

Shakespeare is famous for creating strong heroines who win over their audience with stunning lines and autonomous, creative decisions. To analyze these heroines properly, the definition of a heroine must be considered. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a heroine is a “woman distinguished by the performance of courageous or noble actions” and “a woman generally admired or acclaimed for her great qualities or achievements.” While this definition is suitable for real-life heroines, a great heroine in a play must have the added quality of being a great protagonist. To be a great protagonist, one should be a character who exhibits a range of emotions, changes over the course of the play, and is complex and engaging. Among Shakespeare’s heroines, those who stand out by fitting these criteria are Beatrice, Imogen, Viola, and Rosalind. Only one, however, can be considered Shakespeare’s greatest heroine. Arguably, the one who best demonstrates the qualities outlined above is Rosalind, the protagonist of Twelfth Night, who is distinguishable from the rest by her adaptability, by her role as deus ex machina, and by her function as the epilogue at the end of her play.

Another definition of heroine from the Oxford English Dictionary is “the central female character in a story, play, film, etc.; esp. one whom the reader or audience is intended to support or admire.” This definition is broader and thus applies easily to Beatrice, Imogen, Viola, and Rosalind. Due to its broadness, this definition alone is not sufficient for analyzing the heroines, but combined with the previous criteria, it does serve as a proper basis for analysis. As a result, the greatest heroine must be a distinguished woman who acts as a worthy protagonist and induces admiration in her audience; she also must be superior to the other heroines in some way.

The first heroine, Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, is the wittiest among the four. Her trained tongue always turns the conversation in her favor. When poking fun at Benedick and attempting to gauge his success during the war, Beatrice quips, “But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing” (Much Ado About Nothing 1.2.41-42). Rather than simply stating that she believes Benedick is incompetent, she brings up a wager she made with Benedick that reveals her expectations of his failures. Beatrice has more fun at his expense, saying “he is no less a stuffed man. But for the stuffing—well, we are all mortal” (Much Ado About Nothing 1.1.55-56) This is to say that he has the personality of a scarecrow or taxidermic creation, lacking depth and only at best having the label of a mere mortal. Her wit is further demonstrated when she and Benedick are in disguise at a party. Knowing very well who it is she is speaking to, she says of Benedick that “he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool” (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.131). Even Benedick comments on her masterful usage of wit, saying “Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy wit” (Much Ado About Nothing 5.2.53-54).

Beatrice has other positive qualities, such as a deep sense of empathy for her family. Beatrice’s love for Hero is evident when her cousin is falsely slandered. The injustice done to Hero wounds Beatrice almost as much. “Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?” Benedick asks her, revealing her profound sorrow (Much Ado About Nothing 4.1.255). In general though, she is cheerful, which is demonstrated by Don Pedro’s comment: “In faith, lady, you have a merry heart” (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.298). Moreover, her convictions are strong. When Benedick asks what he can do for her and their love, she says “Kill Claudio” without a second’s hesitation  (Much Ado About Nothing 4.1.288). In addition, she is a well-rounded protagonist who changes to recognize the love within herself by the end of the play.

These qualities all are becoming of the ideal heroine, but Beatrice also has several shortcomings. For instance, “though Beatrice and Benedick pride themselves on the acuity of their mental eyesight, one of their most striking traits is a kind of tunnel vision not far removed from blindness” (King 148). Beatrice is no love expert; in fact, she is incapable of acknowledging her own feelings for Benedick until she thinks that he is fallen in love with her. It is almost as if she is tricked into loving Benedick, although she likely had some residual feelings for him after their first affair that was alluded to multiple times within the play. Furthermore, “Beatrice is far less aware that she is a superb illustration of self-admiration” (King 147). Part of the reason she is set on remaining a bachelor is because of her pride—no man is good enough for her, bearded or otherwise (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.31-36). Because of her negative qualities, she falls short of the greatest heroine.

Imogen from the play Cymbeline embodies many of the traits expected in a heroine. According to Bonnie Lander, “Imogen was celebrated as the perfect embodiment of Victorian and feminine traits: she was the supreme product of her age, a textual figure shaped exclusively for and by her culture” (158). She is brave and autonomous, willing to go against her father — “His daughter…hath referred herself unto a poor but worthy gentleman” when she was “purposed to his wife’s sole son” (Cymbeline 1.1.5-7). Her integrity is worthy of remark, since she rejects Iachimo with indignation when he suggests they take revenge on Posthumus by having an affair. Imogen rejects Cloten just as firmly, indicating that even Posthumus’s garments are superior to anything Cloten has to offer, including himself. When she learns that Posthumus believes she is unfaithful, she is willing to die for her supposed crime, even though she knows she is innocent, because she feels that it is impossible to live while being regarded in this way by her husband. Indeed, “one would be quite justified in taking Imogen as an example of Shakespearean purity, undergoing extremes of personal suffering rather than giving in to corruption” (Lander 178).When Pisanio is unwilling to do the murderous deed, Imogen adapts well to her changing circumstances, donning the garments of a man and going undercover to avoid detection by her father and retribution from Posthumus. She makes this choice with conviction and trust, saying “I see into thy end and am almost a man already” (Cymbeline 3.4.167-168).

Additionally, Imogen fulfills the qualities of being an ideal protagonist. Her emotions are varied according to circumstance, rather than being regularly depicted as representative of a particular emotion—as a result, she is a dynamic character. She changes from being disobedient to her father’s wishes in the beginning to yielding to them in the end. As Lander explains, “the Shakespearean heroine willingly submits to masculine power” (162). Even though she and her husband Posthumus were next in line for the throne, she modestly cedes this right to her brothers when they are found. As for complexity, she conforms to the standards expected of her often enough that it makes her seem shallow.

Imogen has more negative traits that detract from her heroine status. For example, she shifts the blame for her actions on others, saying to her father “It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus” (Cymbeline 1.1.14). Furthermore, she is over-sensitive, as the queen explains to Cymbeline: “She’s a lady so tender of rebukes that words are strokes and strokes death to her” (Cymbeline 3.5.37-39). While Imogen is loyal to her husband, she does not show the same loyalty to Lucius, who has taken her into his service, indicating that his “life, good master, must shuffle for itself” even when he asks her to beg for his life (Cymbeline 5.5.105-106).

Viola from the play Twelfth Night is a strong heroine. She demonstrates her bravery when she decides to go disguised in a foreign land shortly after the supposed drowning of her brother. Unlike Imogen, Viola’s disguise is an idea that originates with her, revealing her adaptability. She is also a figure of integrity, wooing willingly on Orsino’s behalf even though she would rather be Orsino’s beloved. Even when Olivia offers her love, Viola preserves her integrity and her love for Orsino by refusing her unequivocally and without lying: “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, and that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it save I alone” (Twelfth Night 3.1.158-160.) Only those who know of her disguise realize that she is saying she is a woman, and thus is mistress of her own heart. This shows her intelligence as well. Not only does she woo for Orsino, she also does her best to win Olivia over even though she does not have to and even though that works against her own interests. The language she uses to do so is masterful, befitting a heroine, as she says that Orsino loves Olivia “with adorations, fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (Twelfth Night 1.5.250-251). In language reminiscent of Shakespeare’s early sonnets, she chastises Olivia, saying “Lady, you are the cruel’st she alive if you will lead these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy” (Twelfth Night 1.5.236-238). Viola is also remarkable for her generosity. For instance, “only Viola consistently gives freely and graciously with no expectation of profit or power” (Henze 269). As Richard Henze argues, by giving half her purse to Antonio and offering even her life to Orsino, “Viola becomes the embodiment of gracious, nearly divine Twelfth Night giving” (269).

Viola is a prime example of a protagonist. The change that she undergoes throughout the play is one that love wrought within her, as she becomes increasingly attracted to Orsino. As the play progresses, she becomes an expert in love, and she even tells Orsino “Too well what love women to men may owe. In faith, they are as true of heart as we,” for she has learned the depth of romantic and filial love her heart can bear (2.4.104-105). Her emotions vary from profound grief to deep happiness, as well as indignation. Overall, she is well-rounded and complex character with no clear weaknesses.

The final heroine, Rosalind of the play As You Like It, boasts many strengths. For one, she is as brave in the face of adversity as the aforementioned heroines. “Unless you could teach me to forget a banished father, you must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasures,” she says to Celia and not long after is banished herself and has to deal with the repercussion (As You Like It 1.2.3-5). It is her suggestion that she dress as a man, “because I am more than common tall, that I did suit me all points like a man” (As You Like It 1.3.113-114). She further demonstrates her adaptability and quick thinking when she is questioned by others. When Orlando mentions that she speaks as if she lived a courtly life, she says “I have been told so of many. But indeed an old religious uncle of mine taught me to speak, who was in his youth an inland man, one that knew courtship too well” (As You Like It 3.2.336-339). During this meeting with Orlando, she thinks of a plan on the spot, to have him woo her and prove his love to Rosalind, once again showing her quick decision-making skills. Her cleverness is further shown by her interaction with her father while she is still disguised as a man: “I met the Duke yesterday and had much question with him. He asked me of what parentage I was. I told him as good as he” (As You Like It 3.4.33-35). Even when she is honest in speech, she is able to hide her true identity.

As a heroine, Rosalind is especially empathetic toward others. Even though she is dealing with adversities herself, she is able to appreciate when goodness befalls Celia. “Well, I will forget the condition of my estate to rejoice in yours,” she tells Celia (As You Like It 1.2.14-15). When Orlando is getting ready to wrestle against the infamous Charles, Rosalind implores that he call off the match. She shows remarkable insight into his feelings when she promises, “your reputation should not therefore be misprized. We shall make it our suit to the Duke that the wrestling might not go forward” (As You Like It 1.2.172-174). She recognizes the dignity of Orlando and offers him a way out of the situation that would not harm his honor. Rosalind shows similar empathy toward Silvius. “Alas, poor shepherd!” she laments, “Searching of thy wound, I have by hard adventure found mine own” (As You Like It 2.4.42-43). Upon seeing and hearing Silvius, she realizes that the pangs of her heart for Orlando mirror the way that Silvius longs for Phoebe. Finally, her empathy is shown when she faints at the sight of Orlando’s blood on a handkerchief.

Unlike Beatrice, Rosalind is an expert when it comes to love. Her first experience of romantic love in the play is when Orlando participates in the wrestling match. “Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown more than your enemies,” she admits, revealing that her own heart has been overthrown by the prodigy (As You Like It 1.2.244-245.) It is truly love at first sight, occurring so quickly that Celia asks, “Is it possible, on such a sudden, you should fall into so strong a liking with old Sir Rowland’s youngest son?” (As You Like It 1.3.26-28). When questioned by Orlando, she not only fools him easily, she also poses to him a test of his love: “He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me” (As You Like It 3.2.397-399). It is clear that she does not believe the depth of Orlando’s love and seeks to find out if he truly loves her. Rosalind shows her expertise in love by looking for the signs of it in Orlando and finding him wanting— “There is none of my uncle’s marks upon you. He taught me how to know a man in love” (As You Like It 3.3.360-361). As Margaret Boerner Beckman suggests, Rosalind “is a woman presenting the voice of critical realism about love” (46-47). She is not one to believe without seeing proof. Furthermore, Rosalind demonstrates this realism when she is advising others on matter of love. When Phoebe is rejecting Silvius, Rosalind tells her wryly, “Sell when you can. You are not for all markets” (As You Like It 3.5.60). This may seem cruel, but it is a part of Rosalind’s honesty, and a sign of goodwill for the couple rather than any jealousy on her part. When Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind, who Phoebe knows by the name of Ganymede and thinks is a man, Rosalind adheres to the social mores of her time and rejects this love with repugnance. Knowing that Phoebe would not want to marry her if Phoebe knew she was a woman, Rosalind tries to reject her as firmly as possible. By the end of the play, Rosalind is well-versed in the language and experience of love.

Perhaps the reason that Rosalind stands out from the rest of the heroines is her importance and power as a character. According to Beckman, “while she seems as helpless as anyone in the play—under sentence of death, without a father or lover, without money, she also seems to have greater powers than anyone else in the play, directing others as she will and finally entering in Act V with the god of marriage himself” (51). Rosalind is truly a deus ex machina in the play, playing matchmaker for Orlando and herself as well as Phoebe and Silvius. In the end, she convinces Phoebe to marry Silvius and Orlando to marry herself by lifting her disguise at just the right moment, tying up all the loose ends in the play. Her importance is further underlined by her appearance as the epilogue at the end of play. It is Rosalind who gets the final word in As You Like It.

Rosalind is an example of a good protagonist because she demonstrates a range of emotions including sorrow, love, happiness, disgust, indignance, and frustration. Furthermore, she is complex due to her wit and creativity, which aided her during her period of banishment in the forest. Ultimately, Rosalind is the greatest heroine because of her profound empathy, her role of power within the play, her expertise when it comes to love, and her adaptability and intelligence.

Works Cited

  • Beckman, Margaret Boerner. “The Figure of Rosalind In As You Like It.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 1978, www.jstor.org/stable/2869168. Accessed 18 April 2020.
  • Henze, Richard. “‘Twelfth Night’: Free Disposition on the Sea of Love.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 83, no. 2, 1975, www.jstor.org/stable/27542964. Accessed 18 April 2020.
  • “heroine, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/86311. Accessed 18 April 2020.
  • King, Walter N. “Much Ado About Something.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 3, 1964, www.jstor.org/stable/2868316. Accessed 18 April 2020.
  • Lander, Bonnie. “Interpreting the Person: Tradition, Conflict, and Cymbeline’s Imogen.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 2, 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/40210262. Accessed 18 April 2020.
  • Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 298-332.
  • —. “Cymbeline.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 1479-1526.
  • —. “Much Ado About Nothing.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 223-255.
  • —. “Twelfth Night.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 337-369.

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Books

One Hundred Years of Solitude’s Melquíades as Prophet, Judge, and Guardian

Intro

I wrote the essay adapted below for my World Literature class at Grove City College. It is a character analysis of Melquíades, a gypsy from the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The book follows the trajectory of the Buendías, a family who founded the town of Macondo. We see the town change as it begins to be influenced by the outside world after being isolated for so long. The story is very bizarre with a wildly different cast of characters. A summary does not do it justice; it must be read to be understood.

Warning! Spoilers below!

Analysis

In One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, the first appearance of the gypsy Melquíades in Macondo is as a seller of magnets. The introduction of Melquíades alongside the magnets seems significant, since from that point on the Buendías were drawn to him, as if pulled by the strings of fate. The magnetism of that initial contact was mutual, and from that moment on, the old gypsy became intimately involved in the lives of the Buendías, ultimately chronicling their genealogy and history from the conception of Macondo until the elimination of the Buendías from the earth. Melquíades is described as a “heavy gypsy, with an untamed beard and sparrow hands,” a seemingly unlikely vessel for such prophetic pronouncements. Yet Marquez delights in the unlikely, and Melquíades is far more than a mere gypsy. Within the text, it becomes evident that Melquíades is a paradoxical figure; a charonic guide to the Buendías’ imminent destruction, a guardian of the family’s more virtuous traits, a deliverer of justice, and a prophet of doom.

Melquíades is above all a character of tension between opposites, as his multifaceted and frequently clashing roles suggest. Marquez uses bizarre images, such as false teeth left in a glass and sprouting vegetation, to consistently identify the gypsy with both death and life. False teeth are a sign of decay, and their abandonment suggests death, while plant growth itself is frequently a symbol of rebirth. The juxtaposition of images of death and life serve as reminders of Melquíades’ eternal connection to the Buendías, which endures while he is alive and even after his death. The gypsy is a frequent presence within the Buendía household, journeying with the family on their path to eventual destruction. Thus, Melquíades is depicted as a charonic guide—the gypsy equivalent of the ferryman for the dead, Charon, who retains the almost comedic insistence on proper payment that the peddling gypsies seem to share, but whose primary role is to passively guide the dead to their fateful destination.

Fittingly, the novel begins with transactions between the gypsy and the Buendías, paralleling the toll paid to Charon in Greek mythology. As a charonic guide, Melquíades is a personification of both immortality and death. In the stories Melquíades tells in Macondo, for example, the gypsy laments that “death follow[s] him everywhere,” and yet claims that it “never decid[es] to give him the final clutch of its claws” (5). Though Melquíades is frequently spared from death, death is nonetheless an inescapable part of his life, which attributes to the paradox of his character, and his identification as a charonic figure. The hat that he wears is described as looking like a raven or crow, two birds that often symbolize death. This also hints that Melquíades is in some way a harbinger of death. Additionally, when the gypsy returns after a long disappearance to visit Macondo, he recognizes immediately that the absentmindedness of José Arcadio Buendía is unnatural, as “cruel and irrevocable” as the “forgetfulness of death” (48). After this episode, Marquez reveals that the gypsy equates solitude with death, which is particularly evident when Melquíades recalls leaving the abode of the dead out of loneliness. Despite this conviction, the gypsy takes definitive steps that cause the Buendía family to isolate themselves from their family and community (49).

By leading the Buendías into isolation, Melquíades is sending them on the road to the eventual destruction of the entire family line. One way that he does this is by encouraging the Buendías to engage in certain isolating activities, especially those members who were previously inclined to actively working in the community, such as José Arcadio Buendía and José Arcadio Segundo. When José Arcadio Buendía withdrew from his family and the larger community by pursuing his scientific and alchemical interests, Melquíades provided him with a lab to do his work and sold him the tools he needed to continue on that path. Another instance of nurtured solitude occurred after Melquíades’ death. José Arcadio Segundo was struggling with the trauma of the massacre he witnessed, and became absorbed in Melquíades’ texts, closeting himself in the gypsy’s old room with the ghost of Melquíades for his only company. In both situations, Melquíades’ presence continually nudges the family to its eventual ruin.

Despite the destructive nature of Melquíades, which drives him to divide the Buendía family and promote solitude within its members, the gypsy also has a more constructive role as the family’s eternal guardian. As their benefactor, he attempts to drive them away from the evil deeds that merited the punishment of solitude; namely, incest and murder. The first example in the text where is apparent is when Melquíades acts to deter José Arcadio Buendía from making weapons for solar warfare (3). Even though he fails to prevent José Arcadio from pursuing this aim, the episode demonstrates an attempt to steer the family patriarch away from choices that might make him culpable of more deaths. Another instance, one in which improper sexual behavior could have occurred, was when Remedios wandered into the laboratory where Aureliano was working. Aureliano, overcome by desire for Remedios, “hated” Melquíades merely for being present; as a result, “all he could do” was offer a gift to the little girl (65). Despite Melquíades’ passivity, the gypsy put a check on any sexual impulse Aureliano otherwise could have gratified.

Melquíades also adopts the roles of prophet and judge, which are in some ways complementary, but are often contradictory in practice. They are complementary because, as a prophet, he is aware that the Buendías are condemned to eventual destruction after one hundred years of solitude, and as a judge he enforces that sentence. For instance, when members of the Buendía family were attracted to Melquíades’ room and absorbed in the task of interpreting his manuscripts, judgment and prophesy converged. The task isolated various members from the family as they attempted to decipher the prophetic books, and the translation of the manuscripts was a condition of the prophesy itself. On occasion, however, Melquíades’ judgments upon the Buendía family show a degree of care that would be difficult to maintain alongside his prophesies, which affirm that no matter how he intervenes in their lives, it will not change their fate. For example, he chooses to show himself to Arcadio, who eventually becomes a tyrant in Macondo. Even though he knows Arcadio’s future, he understands that Arcadio is innocent as a child and treats him accordingly.

A notable instance when the gypsy undertakes his role as judge is when a member of the Buendía family, José Arcadio Segundo, acted nobly. After becoming involved in union activities and witnessing a massacre during which he rescued a young boy, José Arcadio Segundo returns to Macondo. No one believes his story, but he is soon tracked down by the police. When the police search for him in Melquíades room, they cannot find him, even when they look directly at him. Since Melquíades continually influences the appearance of his old room and appears only to certain people, it is reasonable to assume that he could choose how the room would appear to an outsider. Just like Colonel Aureliano, the officer saw the room merely as a dusty room filled with chamber pots. He was judged unworthy to see the room in the same state in which most of the family could, while José Arcadio Segundo was judged worthy of seeing the room as it used to be, and of being protected from the unjust intentions of the police.

Melquíades acts solely as a prophet when he is making a firm pronouncement based on a vision, as well as when he is inscribing the fate of the Buendías in his manuscripts. Not only does Marquez present him as a prophet, he also demonstrates that Melquíades is remarkably accurate in his predictions. Once, the gypsy prophesied aloud, informing José Arcadio Buendía that Macondo would one day be a “luminous city,” but that the Buendías would no longer be in existence. The prophesy is met by rejection on the part of José Arcadio Buendía, but is eventually proven to be true, though Melquíades eventually realizes that the “luminous city” is not built of glass, but of “mirrors (or mirages)” (53, 416). In the final pages of the novel when the line of the Buendías ends, it is revealed in Melquíades’ manuscripts that “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude d[o] not have a second opportunity on earth” (417)

The gypsy Melquíades ultimately serves both constructive and destructive purposes for the Buendía family. Even though his actions push them toward their inevitable fate, there is a mildness and wisdom within his methods. Even in their solitude, he guides them away from the choices that brought this punishment upon them. Marquez deliberately uses the paradoxes that occur within the gypsy’s character to bring the story together; it is the gypsy whose prophecy fills the pages of the novel itself. Truly, he fulfills his role well, for when the last page is deciphered by both Aureliano and the reader, it is the voice of Melquíades, reaching past death, that has the last word.

Works Cited

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, HarperCollins, 1992.

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Books, Short Stories

Hester Prynne and Miss Polly Baker: Victims of Justice

Intro

This article is based on an essay I wrote for my American Lit class at Grove City College. I will not include a summary of the two works because I describe their notable aspects in the essay. Suffice it to say that both are about women who are victims of the justice system. The two works are The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Speech of Miss Polly Baker by Benjamin Franklin.

Analysis

It is hard to imagine two authors with more differing theories of human nature than Hawthorne and Franklin. Hawthorne depicts what he perceives as the darkness of sin that lies hidden in every human heart in his “tale of human frailty and sorrow” (453). Franklin is, by comparison, overwhelmingly optimistic, confident that individuals are basically good and should aim for moral perfection. While Hawthorne depicts the inescapable pull of the past and the insufficiency of the individual apart from the “magnetic chain of humanity” that connects him or her to the community, Franklin is the ambitious pioneer of the self-made man, asserting man’s power to singlehandedly improve his situation and boldly claiming that “God helps them who help themselves” (Male 144; “The Way to Wealth” 442). Yet despite their differences, the thoughts of these two great American writers intersect in The Scarlet Letter and The Speech of Miss Polly Baker. Through the unremitting punishment of Hester Prynne and Miss Polly Baker, Hawthorne and Franklin reveal the absence of true mercy in society; and depict so-called justice as the ultimate oppressor of the voiceless.

Within the first few chapters of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is imprisoned and made a public spectacle, set up on a scaffold before the eyes of the whole town for the space of three hours. This treatment was intended to punish her for adultery, and to serve as a warning of the consequences of sin to the Puritan community. However, the sentence was also believed to be merciful, since “death was the mandatory penalty for adultery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642” (Korobkin 197). Aware of this, the women of the town complain that the sentence is “merciful overmuch,” and that “this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Hawthorne 454). Only one woman ventures to acknowledge the massive psychological and emotional burden placed on Hester by the ignominious token. She begs them to stop condemning Hester, claiming that “not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart” (Hawthorne 455). Hawthorne gives evidence that this quiet suggestion is true to Hester’s actual mental state, as she “underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her” (456).

Of the magistrates, Hawthorne asserts that “it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart” (461). Armed with the Levitical law in one hand and the power to enforce it in the other, they emphasize the opportunity they have given her, as if they have treated her with great kindness. The Puritan magistrates enforced a legal system that was evocative of covenantal Israel before the coming of Christ, under which any sentence except immediate execution for an adulterer was considered merciful. In this “New Jerusalem,” the covenant established by Christ is disregarded; the magistrates struggle with their own private sins, and Hester’s “fellow-sinner,” the man with whom she has committed adultery, presides over the mock trial—and yet they have no qualms with throwing the first stone (Hawthorne 463). Hester has no illusions about the cruelty she will suffer under the subjection of the scarlet letter, convinced of the “inapplicability of what the majority of [her] contemporaries take to be inviolable moral law” (Colacurcio 462). The sentence that the magistrates choose fails in all it sets out to accomplish; it perpetuates the evil that it purports to dispel.

First and foremost, the scarlet letter was intended to be an instrument of justice, with a due degree of mercy. If it were merciful, its effect would not match or exceed the severity of the crime. Hester’s violation of the law was “a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” (Hawthorne 534). It was a one-time offense prompted by her marriage to a man many years her senior, towards whom she “felt no love, nor feigned any,” and who had been absent from her life for years (Hawthorne 466). Her punishment, however, is lifelong. Even when no one has the will to enforce her sentence, she has become so accustomed to the demeaning ornament that she no longer feels worthy to remove it. Furthermore, justice is never fulfilled, since Dimmesdale, the other adulterer, is not discovered until moments before his death, and is greatly esteemed by the community until then.

 A secondary purpose of the scarlet letter was to lead Hester toward repentance and redemption, so that “her daily shame would at length purge her soul” (Hawthorne 470). Instead, it drives her into the depths of despair. Rather than bring Hester to live in accordance with church teachings, the scarlet letter effectively alienates her from the church as the preachers make her the object of countless sermons against sin. Her virtue in providing for the poor does not appear to stem from the scarlet letter as much as from her own desire to make up for what she did. In fact, it is the living emblem of Hester’s adulterous relations with Dimmesdale, her daughter Pearl, who better accomplishes the purpose for which the scarlet letter was intended, provoking honesty and humility from Hester. If it were not for the influence of Pearl, she would have succumbed to the temptation of the occult as presented by Mistress Hibbens. “Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest,” Hester replies to the “witch” bluntly (Hawthorne 489). After the forest scene with Dimmesdale, it becomes even more evident that “Hester [was] nearer to ‘repentance’ at the very opening of The Scarlet Letter than she ever is again” (Colacurcio 481).

The third reason for using the scarlet letter was as an outward symbol of her sin, and a deterrence to the community. The magistrates likely did not consider the nature of the punishment, which violates Hester’s dignity by giving the eyes of the community permission to stare at her breast without rebuke. This leads to a horrible fascination with the emblem and its wearer that captivates the community while arousing the curiosity of strangers. The scholar Monika Elbert describes the result: “Woman’s body has become…the locus of public scrutiny: her sexuality has been controlled and regularized” (27). This fixation encourages an attraction to what Christians would call sin by making it socially acceptable to perversely examine Hester’s body in a way that is dehumanizing and allows Hawthorne’s Puritan community to sate their repressed sexual curiosity. Eventually, the scarlet letter loses the connotation of sin, and it becomes a familiar object that the townspeople see as a symbol of Hester’s kindness and good work in the community since the time of her trial. Many even interpret it to mean “Able,” and boast of her fine qualities when outsiders visit the community (Hawthorne 514).

A fourth purpose of the letter was to turn her into more of what the Puritan society would call a proper woman. Instead, it defeminizes her, ensuring that “all the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand” (Hawthorne 515). Hawthorne describes this process, saying that she has lost some essential quality that would have served to “keep her a woman,” and that her “tenderness” had been “crushed so deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more” (515). Her only “transfiguration” occurred in the short time that the letter was discarded, as her “sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty” returned (Hawthorne 515, 536). As soon as the letter was again affixed to what Pearl regarded as its rightful place, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine” (Hawthorne 541).

Finally, the scarlet letter was meant to keep Hester’s rebellious nature under control, and yet Hester reflects that the “whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than preparation” for the moment she decides to flee with Dimmesdale (Hawthorne 535). “The scarlet letter was a passport into regions where other women dare not tread,” Hawthorne explains (534). Hester’s desire is that society must be “torn down, and built up anew” and that the “very nature of the opposite sex” must change before “woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (Hawthorne 516). Far from encouraging her to comply with authority, her punishment only provokes her to further deviance from what would be considered socially acceptable, affirming beyond doubt that “the scarlet letter had not done its office” (Hawthorne 516).

In the Speech of Miss Polly Baker, the speaker suffers repeated punishments of a similar magnitude to Hester’s. Miss Baker has been brought to trial for the fifth time, and laments that “twice have I paid heavy fines, and twice have been brought to public Punishment” (“The Speech” 449). The magistrates that sentence her are even more condemning than those that presided over Hester’s case, and though her lover is not among them, he is a magistrate who has been “advanced to Honour and Power, in the same government that punishes [Polly’s] Misfortunes with Stripes and Infamy” (“The Speech” 450). Miss Baker’s punishment is religious, psychological and emotional like Hester’s, but also physical and monetary. Though she wears no representative article of her sin, the stigma is nearly as isolating for her.

Maestro indicates that Franklin believed punishments should be “proportionate to the offenses,” and that he thought that increases in crime were due to injustice and immorality in government (559). Furthermore, Maestro describes the punishments of whipping and large fines as “a product of puritanical attitudes” and indicates that Franklin’s treatment of Polly Baker’s case shows that he does not think her sentence is just (551). Franklin reveals his position on the matter by “having Polly ask several rhetorical questions of the court” which “showed that the whole penal code needed reexamination” (Maestro 551). The court is no more capable of just decisions than the one that determined Hester’s fate. Miss Baker makes it clear that she is not asking for mercy, because the magistrates have already demonstrated that they are unaccustomed to offering it; she asks instead for justice, which has equally been withheld. “I have not the presumption to expect, that you may, by any means, be prevailed on to deviate your Sentence from the Law” she claims, and instead asserts that the law is “unreasonable” and “particularly severe”; in effect, that it is unjust. (“The Speech” 449).

Additionally, Polly Baker has been effectively excommunicated from the church in her hometown by the mandate of the magistrates. “You believe that I have offended Heaven, and must suffer eternal Fire,” Polly points out, and goes on to claim that if her crime “is a religious Offense” then “religious Punishments” are adequate (“The Speech” 450). She cannot imagine why, if they truly believe she will be condemned to hell for her transgressions, they would believe it necessary to administer temporal punishment as well. Polly further admonishes the law for forcing sinners to commit “Barbarities and Murders” to avoid “Punishment and public Shame,” since it prevents their reconciliation with the community (“The Speech” 450). In this society, there is not the possibility of repentance offered in The Scarlet Letter. The magistrates have already judged Miss Baker to be a fallen woman, and therefore unfit to attend their worship services.

Throughout the rest of her speech, she continues to emphasize to the magistrates that the merciless laws that they enforce have only led to the perpetuation of worse vices. “What numbers of procur’d Abortions!” she cries, and then claims that mothers only seek out this option because of the “Terror of Punishment” (“The Speech” 450). She raised her children by her “own Industry,” but admits that she “could have done better, if it had not been for the heavy Charges and Fines” that the magistrates compelled her to pay (“The Speech” 449). The court was essentially accused of jeopardizing her children’s upbringing by keeping her in poverty and whipping her. She presses the point by bringing up that the colonists were encouraged to have many children to increase the colonial population, by officials who used biblical and economic arguments. One judge was so moved by her speech that he soon after married her, and she “was discharged without punishment” (“Reflections”42).

Hawthorne and Franklin portray Hester Prynne and Polly Baker as victims of the justice system in their respective times. Though the two women suffered under similar societal laws, they were separated by roughly a century. According to Mark Hall, if Polly Baker existed and had fifteen children after her marriage, her trial could have occurred in the 1730s at the latest (26). The trial of Hester was set in the 1640s (197). The Scarlet Letter pinpoints Hester’s trial in Boston, and Polly Baker’s trial was located “at Connecticut near Boston in New-England” (Hall 26). The proximity of the settings removes some variables from the comparison of their cases, and demonstrates even more powerfully how despite the passage of time the Law has continually failed to make allowances for extreme circumstances and to extend mercy to those whose punishment would not fulfill any redemptive purpose or provide any societal benefit.

Though the means of expression that Hawthorne and Franklin use to depict the fate of Hester and Polly are vastly different in form and delivery—Hawthorne used the novel and romance as his vessel, and Franklin used the medium of a newspaper article—their approach is similar. Hawthorne’s satiric caricature of the Puritans emphasizes their fundamental hypocrisy and monocovenental concept of mercy. Franklin wrote Polly’s speech as a satirical piece, which forced readers of his time to examine their own hypocrisy and question the hegemonic Law that was incapable of distinguishing between religious and criminal offenses, and frequently utilized a double standard to condemn women and esteem men who committed the same crime.

Despite their contrasting ideologies, Hawthorne and Franklin each present the story of a remarkably independent, eloquent woman who resists conforming to the conventions of society. By doing so, both men are able to keenly examine the faults of the judicial system and how undue severity in laws can lead to the denigration of society. Though both characters were able to make the best of their situations, their experiences are the product of a time when justice was prized over mercy, and punishment over penance. Polly believes she should “have a statue erected to her memory,” but her only tribute is the pity of society and the circulation of her speech—there is no respect for her. It is Hester that receives her monument after death, and it does not even seem to be adorned with her name—instead it is the immortalization of society’s merciless fixation on her greatest torment “on a field, sable, the letter A, gules” (Hawthorne 569).

Works Cited

  • Colacurcio, Michael J. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: The Context of the Scarlet Letter.” ELH, vol. 39, no. 3, Sept. 1972, pp. 459-494. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/2872195.
  • Elbert, Monika. “The Surveillance of Woman’s Body in Hawthorne’s Short Stories.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 23–46. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1080/00497870490267188.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A Beginning to 1820, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 449-451.
  • —. “The Way to Wealth.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A Beginning to 1820, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 442-448.
  • Hall, Mark. Benjamin Franklin & Polly Baker: The History of a Literary Deception. The University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume B 1820-1865, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 451-569.
  • Korobkin, Laura Hanft. “The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice.” A Forum on Fiction, vol. 30, no. 2, 1997, pp. 193-217. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/1345700. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.
  • Maestro, Marcello. “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 36, no. 3, 1975, pp. 551-562. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/2708664.
  • Male, Roy R., Jr. “Hawthorne and the Concept of Sympathy.” PMLA, vol. 68, no. 1, Mar. 1953, pp. 138-149. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/459912.
  • “Reflections on the Life of Miss Polly Baker.” New-York Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1, 1 Jan. 1795, pp. 39-45. EbscoHost.

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