Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Relationship Between the Private and Public in Shakespeares Henry V – (Academic Essay)

I decided that once I had graduated from university I would post my English Literature essay’s on my site as a reference point for English Literature students. This essay and other’s on this site are my own work and have been referenced accordingly. Please feel free to use my essay’s but remember to reference my work to avoid plagiarism. 

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Henry V is the concluding episode in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of history plays. It was estimated to be written in 1599 during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Critics have found the play to be puzzling and Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Henry unclear. Rabkin suggested that Shakespeare intentionally created Henry V as a play with two interpretations which resulted in the audience making up their own mind. [1] Shakespeare’s depiction of King Henry was influenced by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as well as being integrated with the Tudor philosophy of The Kings Two Bodies. By using these approaches Shakespeare created a plot where Henry was able to weave between the private and public spheres. The audience may have perceived Henry V as either a well-rounded king or a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. The paper will discuss the relationship between the private and public in Henry V and will examine the theory of the Kings Two Bodies as well as relate some extracts from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ to the Kings behaviours and actions. Furthermore, the essay will explore the key scenes in which the king adopts his role as a politician both publicly and privately which creates the illusion of the perfect monarch and argue that whilst he was aware of the sacrifices he had to endure, his actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.

The Kings Two Bodies derived from the English jurists of the Tudor and defined the King as having both the body politic and the body natural. According to the theory, the body politic describes the king as an eternal entity; his body will not age or weaken. The king cannot do wrong or even think wrongly, therefore, the king has no weaknesses. In addition, the king is described as superhuman and invisible therefore sees and hears everything. The body natural is polar opposite of this and is subject to all the flaws of the average person such as old age, weakness, corruption and fallibility.[2] Shakespeare used both aspects of this theory in Henry V in order to create the impression of the perfect king. Katrotowicz explains that the kings ‘capacity to take in the body natural is not confounded by the body politic, but remains still.’ (p.12). The evidence in this essay will display how Henry V was fully aware of his body natural yet his actions were purely that of the body politic; maintaining that his relationship between the public and private was merely an act which fulfilled his role as the monarch.

Salamon suggested that ‘the private/ public polarity is somewhat less obvious, taking the form by and large, of a unifying structural concept.’[3] This was an intentional tactic by Shakespeare who chose to exemplify the King as a compassionate leader. Henry underplayed his ceremonial role when it was beneficial to blend in with his public and he was able to exaggerate the spectacular when he needed to exude the body politic.

The Shakespearian audience would have known the former king as Prince Hal from the tetralogy. He was unruly, his friends were thieves, he gambled and drank with commoners. It would, therefore, have shocked the audience that Price Hal could adopt his kingship so completely. For this reason, when Henry V flits from public to private, the audience is not surprised. Rabkin poses the question, ‘Can political resourcefulness be combined with qualities more like those of an audience as it sees itself?’ (p.281). Shakespeare’s effective transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V leaves no doubt that this is possible.

The transformation of Henry V is glorified by Canterbury who, in a conversation with Ely, establishes that the new king has fully adopted the body politic;

The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment,

Consideration like an angel came

And whipped th’offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise

T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.[4]

Canterbury described the transformation of Henry as a death of his former private self, this allowed his body to become a paradise in order to become god’s representative on earth. However, unknown to his council, the sudden change in Henry was always planned. According to Paris, Prince Hal’s behaviour in Henry 1V part two may have been a moral education for him. By associating himself with commoners he was able to increase his skills in dealing with a range of different people and by stooping so slow, he was able to achieve the grand effect of transformation he was looking for.[5] Shakespeare’s depiction of Prince Hal made his illusion of the perfect King in Henry V more accessible by exposing him as a private citizen. However; Prince Hal openly admits that his persona as a drunken thief and gambler is a deliberate and calculated act;

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mist

Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.[6]

This admittance from Prince Hal suggests that he is less comfortable with the body natural and will become himself when he adopts the body politic. For Rabkin, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prince Hal is deceptive, ‘the day has had to come when Hal, no longer able to live in two worlds, would be required to make his choice, and the Prince has had to expel from his life the very qualities that made him better than his father.’ (p.285) Prince Hal however, made his decision long before his kingship; his qualities were fabricated in order to assume a private persona which died the instant his father did.

When Henry V decided to invade France it is unclear whether the King believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry’s decision, however, may have been personally motivated due to his dying father’s suggestion that Henry should busy the minds of his public with foreign wars in order for them to forget the way in which he stole the crown from the former King Richard. It could be said that he did it to confirm his tyranny over his subjects.[7] Machiavelli states that it is ‘necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.’ [8] Shakespeare hoped that by presenting the morality in Henry in his previous plays that the audience would be convinced that he is torn between his public job and his duty to protect his citizens.

If Shakespeare succeeded in convincing his audience of the Kings morality, there must have been an element of doubt when the chorus asked the audience to imagine the grand spectacle of the ship at Hampton pier. The elaborate spectacle served to overshadow the England that was left behind ‘Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women.’, (King Henry V, iii.0.20) It is obvious in this instance that Henry V has little regard for his countries weaker civilians and is motivated by his own agenda. Debord described the value and importance of spectacle as ‘something enormously positive […] 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.[9] Shakespeare was able to display the disparity between the King’s private and public figures by involving the citizens in ceremony in order to motivate and distract them from the his true intentions. Later, the King declines the use of spectacle when after defeating the French, he has the opportunity upon his return to England to meet his public with a grand ceremony, yet he chooses not to do so. This action was an effective way of making the commoners feel that there was no public and private divide between themselves and the monarch.

Spectacle was also presented in Henry V in the form of speech. Henry V was able to use his skills as a public speaker to ensure his army felt equal to himself;

And you good yeomen,

Whose limbs are made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding which I doubt

Not,

For there is none of you so mean and base

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. (King Henry V, iii.i.25-30)

It is this intertwining of the public and the private that made Henry V such a good politician and increased his power as a monarch.

Shakespeare exemplifies the morality in Henry V prior to the final battle, when he has to muster a masterful speech to prevent his army from being defeated;

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It earns me not if men my garments wear:

Such outward things dwell not in my desires. (King Henry V iv.3.24-27)

Henry dismisses his position of monarch in this scene and the triviality of his royal garments; it is a cunning speech which deceives his soldiers into assuming that he is the body natural and that he sees no difference between himself and his subjects. Henry goes further than this by announcing, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he, today that sheds blood with me Shall be my brother.’(King Henry V, vi.3.61-62) Henry V is aware at this point that he has to combine the private and the public in order to gain loyalty from his soldiers and by treating them as brothers he gains their respect. Machiavelli wrote, ‘a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty’ (p.2). Shakespeare used this approach to demonstrate the effectiveness of personal persuasion for political necessity.

On the eve of the final battle, Henry delves into the private world and disguises himself as a commoner. In discussion with soldiers Williams and Bates, he tells them, ‘I think the king is but a man, as am I […] all his senses have human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. […] by showing it, should dishearten his army.’ (King Henry V iv.i.102-112) The response from the soldiers is that of doubt, they mistrust his reasons for going to war and describe the implications that the King will have to face from his people if they are defeated. It is at this point that Henry diverts any blame or wrongdoing, ‘Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own’ (King Henry V, iv.i.176-177) It should be noted that when Henry is speaking as a commoner his dialect changes from his usual verse to prose, the style of language used by the common citizens. This highlights the variation of private and public within Henry.

What Shakespeare has produced in this scene is the body politic trying to convince his soldiers that beneath the spectacle of the king is a person merely doing a job. This scene, although mischievous, displays the King as his true self. Henry V is aware that in order to effectively perform his role as monarch he must supress the body natural yet display it to his advantage. According to Machiavelli, ‘it is necessary to know how to disguise this characteristic and to be a great pretender’ (p.4).

It is only when the King is alone that he fully allows his personal thoughts to be presented;

What infinite heart’s ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

And what have kings that privates have not too,

Save ceremony, save general ceremony? (King Henry V, iv.i.233-237)

Are though aught else but place, degree and form,

Creating awe and fear in other men,

Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,

Than they in fearing? (King Henry V, iv.i.243-246)

By allowing the audience to indulge in Henry’s soliloquy, Shakespeare hoped to provoke a sense of empathy towards the King. This enabled him to fulfil his aspiration of presenting Henry V as the perfect monarch. Henry is, however, aware of the sacrifices he has had to make and this private moment is reserved only for himself and the audience.

Shakespeare’s ability to humanise the King enabled his acts of cruelty towards his friends to be digested more easily. In order for Henry to fulfil his public duty, he was forced to sacrifice his private inclinations and banish those he loved. At the end of Henry 1V, Henry publicly banished and humiliated his friend Falstaff in order to display his body politic. Furthermore, in Henry V the King ordered the death of his friend Scrope, who conspired to kill him. In addition, his friend Bardolph was sentenced to death for stealing from a church. These acts display Henry’s ability to uphold the law and disregard his former private life in order to be a sincere monarch.

In this paper I  discussed The Kings Two Bodies and how Shakespeare used this theory to explore the relationship between the private and public in Henry V. In doing so he was able to create an illusion that allowed the audience to view the King with two different interpretations, one as a well-rounded king and the other as a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. In addition, I incorporated some extracts from The Prince which Shakespeare used as a comparison to King Henry. In order to explore the relationship between the private and public, I described the character of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s previous plays which allowed the audience to feel empathy for King Henry’s actions. Furthermore, I discussed Henry V’s transformation from a private citizen to a public monarch and the challenges he faced when motivating his people to fight the war in France with him. As a result, I confirmed that Shakespeare integrated the private and public within Henry V which revealed that Henry’s actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.

Bibliography

[1] Norman Rabkin, ‘Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V: Shakespeare’s Quarterly, 28 (1977) ,279296 (p. 280)
[2] Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957)
[3]Brownell Salomon, ‘Thematic Contraries and theDramaturgy of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly,31 (1980), 343356 (p.345)
[4] William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed T.W. Craik (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995) i.i.25-30
[5] Bernard J. Paris, Character as a subversive force in Shakespeare: The history and Roman Plays (USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), p.80
[6] William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2001), i.2.201-221
[7] Erasmus, The ‘Adages’ of Erumus, ed, Margaret Mann Philips (Cambridge: CUP, 1964), p.349
[8]Nicolo Macheavelli, Extracts from The Prince, (1513) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/machiavelli-prince.asp [accessed 03 December 2013] p.1
[9] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel Libre, 1967), p.3

 

My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal – Book Review

‘…he misses the photograph of Jake and he has to close his eyes to remember it. He holds on to Big Red Bear and thinks about all the things he didn’t say to his mum. How long will it be for her to get better? When is she coming back for him? […] Will she come back? Where is she? Where is Jake?’ (My Name is Leon. p.78)

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Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, My Name is Leon (2016) by Kit De Waal is a heart tugging, sad yet hopeful book. Set in England the late 1970’s – early 1980’s, Leon and his baby brother Jake are living with single mother Carol.  Leon’s father is in prison and Jakes father is married and wants nothing to do with Carol or the child. Carol is terribly lonely and desperately unhappy. Struggling with deep depression, the mother’s fragile state leaves her  unable to care for her children :

Leon has begun to notice things what make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake, (p.12).

After Carol takes to her bed, Leon, at just nine years old,  takes on the role of carer and parent. Through the eyes of this young boy, the reader watches his world fall apart, fragment by fragment.

Eventually the boys are taken into care and find solace in the home of Maureen, an experienced foster carer with a deep love for both cakes and children. Maureen is a lovable character who feels a deep affinity for Leon, even though Leon is highly suspicious of anyone in the care system, but when Jake is adopted, it is Maureen who picks up the pieces.  It is perhaps her honesty rather than her role as parent that soothes Leon in his most difficult times:

‘Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth […] You will be all right, Leon.’ (p.55-56).

But when Maureen is taken into hospital, Leon is left with Maureen’s sister Sylvia, a less motherly role model than Maureen but with a desire to please her sister none the less. Their relationship is strained and often uncomfortable, but soon enough Leon finds comfort in a new friend, Tufty. Tufty is a young man who looks after a plot in his father’s allotment. The man and the boy form a friendship that grows alongside the seeds that they plant in the garden, so when they both find themselves in the midst of the Birmingham riots, they naturally come together to save each other. 

This is a coming of age story unlike any other, it is not a happy ever after but hope for a child and his future. 

I love this novel, it is clearly written with believable characters and honest emotions. At the start of the novel I was concerned about the character’s point of view – a third person limited perspective from the child’s perspective – but it is cleverly done. While the reader gathers glimpses of emotions from inside Leon’s head, there is still enough distance to feel the tug of the story from the outside. It is as if the reader is holding the child’s hand and experiencing his life with him as it unfolds. Brilliantly done and brilliantly written. Go Leon. 

 

Goblin by Ever Dundas – Book Review

‘They merge. Those years before the war. The long summers, the running wild, playing cowboys and Indians, Martians and humans. I don’t remember when we first found the worksite, or when David told me his dreams of the sea, or when I became friends with the Crazy Pigeon Woman of Amen Court. They merge, and I jump forward and back. I must bring order.’ (Goblin, Ever Dundas, p.22)

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Winner of the Saltire Society first book of the year award 2017, Goblin, by Ever Dundas is a brilliant and brave first novel. Set in both London during WW2 and in Edinburgh in 2011, the story is told in flashback. For me, the first half of the novel is the best, we meet Goblin as a nine-year-old tomboy with a love for animals and a passion for storytelling – both of which the protagonist collects.

Goblin has a difficult family life; a mother who doesn’t want her, ‘Goblin-runt born blue. Nothing can kill you. […] You’re like a cockroach,’ (p.5) a father who mends radio’s and barely talks and a brother (David) who spends most of his time in his bedroom. Left to her own devices, the protagonist, her dog Devil, and her two friends Mac and Stevie roam the neighbourhood and hang around in an abandoned worksite. As a collector of stories, Goblin enthusiastically attends the local church with Mac, ‘I loved the stories, turning them over in my head, weaving my own.‘ (p.24)  before meeting The Crazy Pigeon Lady who tells her tales of Lizards people from the realm below. The childhood innocence in these chapters, mixed with magic realism, break down the walls of adult reasoning and creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief.

But without giving away the story plot, the suspension of disbelief serves another purpose; to divert the reader (as well as the adult protagonist) from the truth. So, while the adult Goblin searches amongst her tangled past, she takes the reader along for the ride. We meet multiple parents, live life on the road, come alive on the streets and in the circus, explore love, death, desire, and hate – and somewhere in the middle we meet an impressive collection of animals – Goblin has it all. And as far as strong female protagonists go, she’s right up there with Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, to Janie Ryan in Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, characters who are so real you might just walk by them on the street.
The only teeny tiny criticism about the novel is that the second half spans over a lengthy period of time and it felt a little rushed. However, there is so much to say about this novel, so many angles to discuss, from Queer Theory to Religion, from Myth to Realism, and as a graduate of English Literature I could have a field day studying this book but for now, as a lover of good books, I’ll give it a big thumbs up and a huge recommendation, it’ll be finding a space on my ‘keep’ book shelve.

Goblin, Ever Dundas (2017) published by Saraband

Dirt Road by James Kelman – Book Review

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Kelman’s novel Dirt Road is story that takes both characters and reader on a journey right from the outset, but the journey is more than it seems. The novel begins in the West coast of Scotland where we learn that Murdo – a sixteen-year-old boy – and his father Tom are mourning the death of their mother/wife and sister/daughter. Searching for solace, they embark on a journey to Alabama, U.S.A to spend time with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen. For Murdo, family is just a happy memory, a moment in time captured in a photograph, ‘The family was four and not just him and Dad’, whilst for Tom, family is the bond that holds them together.
Throughout their journey, Tom strives to guide his son and keep him on ‘the right path’, yet Murdo, as we will learn, has a path of his own to find.  Stifled by the fathers influence, the boy has a tendency to stray, thus when they reach Allentown Mississippi, Murdo stumbles upon a family of musicians led by Zydeco performer Queen Monzee-ay. Murdo is as drawn to music as his father is to family, the boy himself is an accomplished accordion player, and when he is offered an opportunity to play a set with Queen Monzee-ay in two weeks’ time, we watch as the road between father and son diverges and choice and risk becomes the key plot in the story.

While this may appear a simple story line, Kelman’s exploration into the fragmented relationship between father and son gives the reader an honest analysis of family and grief. The third person narrator, with bursts of free indirect discourse from Murdo, allows the reader both an internal and external insight into the constraints of family. This parallel leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, yet with a conflicting heart. This is Kelman’s unique writing style at its best.  

Dirt Road is more than a novel of grief and family relationships though; it is a novel of risk, of following new paths with uncertainties, about leaving behind the familiarities and safety of the past and following the heart. It is about deep connections; for Murdo this is through music and the feeling of freedom that he associates with music, whilst for the other characters it is about cultural connections and Scottish ancestry. Kelman’s clever use of parallels shows the reader the intensity of human connections whilst suggesting that change and progression is possible. This great novel will linger in your thoughts for weeks after you put it down, and it brings to mind a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Dirt Road by James Kelman

Canongate Books (14 July 2016)

Nasty Women Published by 404 Ink – Book Review

‘Sometimes the role model you need is not an example to aspire to, but someone who reflects back the parts of yourself that society deems fit.’
Becca Inglis

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Nasty Women, published by 404 ink, is a collection of essays about what it is, and how it feels to be a woman in the 21st century. When I first picked up the book, I assumed, like I think most readers would, that it would be an easy book to just pick up and put down whenever I had a spare ten minutes. Wrong, I was sucked into this book right from the beginning, and read it all in a day. That doesn’t mean it was an easy read, or perhaps easy is the wrong word – it isn’t a comfortable read – and it isn’t meant to be. Nasty women is hard-hitting, eye-opening, and unashamedly honest.

The book opens with ‘Independence Day’ by Katie Muriel.  A story of mixed race and identity in Trump’s America, Muriel discusses her experience of inter-family racism, heightened by political differences, ‘This is not the first, nor is it the last family divide Trump will leave in his wake, but I refuse to think of him as some deity who stands around shifting pieces on a board in his golden war room.’ The anger in this piece is clear, but it is the rationalism and clarity of the writer that speaks volumes. Race, racism and xenophobia, is a prominent feature in these stories. Claire L. Heuchan, for example, talks about ‘Othering’ a term that readers will see repeatedly in this book, ‘Scotland,’ she writes, ‘is a fairly isolating place to be a black woman.’

Survival is a key trope in Nasty Women. Mel Reeve, in ‘The Nastiness of Survival,’ talks about being a survivor of rape and emotional abuse, ‘I do not fit the ‘right’ definition of someone who has been raped.’ This statement alone is filled with irony.

I was particularly drawn to Laura Waddell’s essay, ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls and Working Class Art.’ Laura talks about the difficulty of both gender and class inequality, and, in particular, the lack of working class writers and working class fiction being published, ‘I have read a lot of fiction’ she says, ‘I have read almost none from housing estates such as the one I grew up on. These stories are missing, from shelves, and from the record.’ As a Scottish fiction writer from a working-class background myself, these words resonate deeply.

Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the 21st Century’, is almost fun to read in a deeply devastating way. There is a desperate tone in this piece, and a desperate need to escape society. ‘There is beauty and bounty around us if we look for it, and perhaps that is all the magic we need. Or perhaps, what we need is real magic, whether that comes in the form of resistance and community or the form of blackthorn charms and skullcap tinctures, and howling to the moon.

I loved this book. This book gives women a voice. And it is loud! Well done 404 Ink, and all the contributors, for bravely breaking the silence.

Book Review – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

 

‘Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.’


Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma

 

This is a novel with nothing held back. While the title is light hearted and the cover art bright and cheerful, both are deceiving. The cover shows a silhouette of a young girl holding a giant red balloon against the backdrop of a Scottish suburban town. It is important to address the significance of this image. Readers may recall a similar painting by Banksy, named Girl With Balloon which was originally painted on a wall in London. Beside the painting was engraved “There Is Always Hope”. While Banksy’s painting shows the girl releasing the balloon, possibly representing lost hope or lost innocence,  Hudson’s cover shows the girl being lifted by the balloon.  Considering this when addressing the text, it is clear that Hudson wished to demonstrate that one can only hold on to hope by not letting go. Critics have described this book as containing bittersweet humour and Hudson cleverly intrudes in the second chapter by saying that this is in fact a ‘humorous cautionary tale’.   As soon as you begin reading, expect to get dirt under your nails. The author launches right into the location of the novel using regional Scottish dialect and local Aberdonian vernacular.  The story begins with the birth of out protagonist, Janie Ryan. Born to Iris (formally Irene), a single, homeless mother who comes from a line of women described as ‘fishwives to the marrow’, Iris has recently returned from London after trying to change her destiny (not wanting to become her mother). After falling pregnant to a rich and married American man, the relationship breaks down. Iris is forced to return to poverty in the back streets of Aberdeen but is keen to ensure that things have changed,’ I didnae go all the way to fuckin’ London to come back an’ be the same old Irene!’ Unfortunately, Iris falls back into her old ways and for Janie; this has a direct effect on her life. The reader follows the protagonist from her first home to temporary care and then to a string of homes over the UK in some of its poorest areas. Janie watches, as her mother gets involved in some abusive relationships, including one with alcohol, and watches helplessly as her mother loses hope.  Towards the latter end of the novel, it is clear that Janie is falling into the same habits as her mother, however, a string of unfortunate event forces her to reassess her life. The end of the novel, like the cover art, is left to the reader’s interpretation. Can Janie break the cycle and make changes to her life, or is she destined to become her mother? This is not only a well-written novel but also a powerful commentary on life within the poverty trap.

Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, 2012 published by Vintage Books

©Eilidh G Clark

 

Literary Criticism – Optimism v Pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide and Johnson’s Prince of Abissinia

 

 

Optimism in the eighteenth century derived from the period of Enlightenment where progress in scientific, political, and religious thought created widespread hopefulness.  Optimists such as Leibniz believed that ‘from among an infinity of possible worlds God has chosen for existence the one that is the best of all possible worlds.’ [1]  With the prospect of liberty and a claim for happiness, ‘faith in reason […] permeated even Christian thought’. Whilst many people were pursuing happiness, others were competing with fears of a cyclical history and the concept of political and religious regression. As a result, an abundance of philosophical questions arose about the nature of the world involving morality, reason, will, and faith. Progressive optimism, which was the driving force of hope in the eighteenth century became contested, and therefore, paralleled with pessimism. The existence of evil versus the nature of God’s good intention in the creation of the world became the defining argument of the pessimist. In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between optimism and pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide , and Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, and argue that optimism and pessimism co-exist and are subjective depending on observation, experience, and perspective, therefore, philosophy has its limitations.

Candide is a satirical novel that takes the reader through the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. The novel’s title is ironic. Candide or optimism suggests a positive narrative yet Candide is subject to a high degree of hardship, which suggests that pessimism also exists. The main theme in the novel is storytelling which Voltaire uses to demonstrate that optimism or pessimism is subjective and can alter depending on an individual’s experience and knowledge of the world. Written in the form of a travel narrative, Voltaire links both theories through the experiences of Candide. Optimism in the character of Candide is constructed and Voltaire demonstrates this through the innocence of childhood. This is presented in chapter one through uncomplicated language, humour, and ignorance such as, ‘[The] Barron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had a gate and windows’. [2] This is a very childish notion of power that establishes the character’s innocence. The word innocently is used on numerous occasions, which strongly enforces that the protagonist is unlearned and inexperienced.  According to Locke, children’s ‘notions are few and narrow, borrowed only from those objects they have had most to do with, and which have made upon their senses the frequentest and strongest impressions.[3] Candide receives his education from his tutor and philosopher Pangloss who is ‘the oracle of the establishment, to whose lessons little Candide listen[s] with all the good faith of his age and nature’, (Voltaire, p.4). Voltaire is demonstrating how easy it is to inscribe ideas into a young mind. Due to Pangloss’ theory that the world is the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, p.4) his young pupil accepts this as his own belief.

Candide is unwillingly ejected from his world after kissing Cunégonde. Voltaire increases the pace of the novel by writing episodic chapters where the character experiences a vast amount of misfortunes one after the other. In order to show a pessimistic theory of the world, the author uses a real account of war:

First, the cannons toppled about six thousand men on either side; then the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface. Next, the bayonet proved sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand more. The total may well have amounted to thirty thousand corpses (Voltaire, p.7-8).

At first glance, the above quotation is presented as Candide’s unbiased account of war. The language and detail prove this to be otherwise because, at the time of action, Candide is hidden out of sight. Even if he were to see most of the goings on, the approximations of the number of deaths and the details of military equipment would be impossible for an individual to observe. The author is, therefore, using free indirect discourse to combine the narrator’s voice with Candide’s. Voltaire’s knowledge of events allows him to satirise optimism, for example, ‘the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface’, (Voltaire, p.7). This sentence suggests that pessimism does exist in the world and ‘God ha[s] given reason to men, [which] should teach them not to […] imitate animals, particularly when nature has given them [no] arms to kill their fellow-creatures. [4] The author’s pessimistic views of war combined with Candide’s belief in optimism demonstrate that both theories co-exist in the text but are subjective depending on individual perspective and knowledge. The simile that ‘Candide trembled like a philosopher’, (Voltaire, p.8) reveals that Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism is unstable because Voltaire applies the simile to Candide, whose only experience of philosophy is the optimism of his tutor.

Voltaire draws the reader into his narrative by switching between past tense and historic present tense. The purpose of this is to attract attention to, particularly important moments in the story whilst demonstrating the ways in which different characters respond. An example of this is found when Candide and Pangloss reach Lisbon:

They feel the earth tremble beneath them; a boiling sea rises in the port and shatters the vessels lying at anchor. Great sheets of flame and ash cover the streets and public squares; houses collapse, roofs topple on to foundations, and foundations are levelled in turn; thirty thousand inhabitants without regard to age or sex are crushed beneath the ruins (Voltaire, p.14).

The above quotation refers to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Voltaire writes the account based on his own experience of the disaster.  In his poem The Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire says that the ‘lamentations which inspire [his] pain (6) Prove that philosophy is false and vain (7) (Voltaire, p.100).  There are three separate reactions to the earthquake in Candide. For the sailor, the theory of optimism is applied. He ‘dashes into the ruins,[…] in his search for silver;[…] seizes it, gets drunk, and […] purchases the first willing girl he finds’, (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss questions the sufficient reason for the earthquake whilst Candide assumes that it is the end of the world, therefore pessimistic (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss’ reaction to the earthquake shows that his firm belief in optimism falters temporarily. This demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are subjective and variable.

Eldorado is Voltaire’s representation of utopia. Everyone in Eldorado is happy and equal. Although the country is sealed off from the rest of the world, its people consent to never leave. For this reason, it has ‘preserved [their] innocence and […] happiness’, (Voltaire, p.46). This is due to the historical knowledge derived from the previous generation who experienced political upheaval and war. Optimism in this instance is, therefore, created. Candide first recognises pessimism once he leaves Eldorado and he describes Europe as ‘illusion and calamity’, (Voltaire, p.70). The metaphor of spectacle and illusion runs throughout the novel to demonstrate that optimism and pessimism can be manufactured. For example, after the earthquake, the sages of Lisbon decide ‘to give the people a fine auto-de fe, (Voltaire, p.15) where ‘the spectacle of a few individuals being ceremonially roasted over a slow fire [is] the infallible secret recipe for preventing the earth from quaking’, (Voltaire, p.15). The purpose of the ceremony is to create optimism for the people and, as a result, creates pessimism for the victims. Voltaire therefore, demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are dependent on circumstances, place, and reaction to events. This is clarified in the final chapter of the novel when Candide and his party finally end their journey. Armed with knowledge and having experienced both optimism and pessimism, Candide says ‘we must cultivate our garden’, (Voltaire, p.93). This is Voltaire’s final explanation that we must live in the now and make the most of what we have.

Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, is also a travel narrative, but unlike Candide, the characters journey is circular.  The two main themes in the novel are ‘the choice of life’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Written with a pessimistic tone, Johnson’s protagonist seeks to find optimism through happiness. The narrator summarises the moral purpose of the novel in the opening paragraph:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.[5]

In the above quotation, Johnson satirises optimism by explaining that those who believe in the fallacy of hope will be taught a lesson by the novel. Moreover, in relation to ‘hope’, the author juxtaposes words such as ‘fancy’ with ‘phantoms’ to present optimism as an illusion. The full quotation is written in the present tense in a singular long sentence, which contrasts the young and the old, the present and the future, expectation with accomplishment and shortages with supplies. These contrasts provide a clue as to the moral of the story which is that choice of life is to be found between these contrasting words which are to live in the now.  The word ‘whisper’ seems out of place in this sentence however, it comes from the Gospel when Jesus addresses his disciples “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” [6] According to Ham, ‘Jesus was making the point that we learn some things gradually. We may not understand something at first but with reflection […] we finally get it’ (Ham, 2014). The impression the reader gets from Johnson is that happiness can only be found in reflection, therefore should not be sought. Moreover, optimism and pessimism are subjective to a person’s perception of the present and co-exist as a state of mind.

In order to demonstrate the effects of constructed optimism Johnston describes the palace of Abissinia, which is closed off from the rest of the world. It is preserved by the ‘wisdom or policy of antiquity [and] destined for the residence of the Abissinian princes’, (Johnson, p.7). This reveals that the protagonist’s ancestors were pessimistic of the world and therefore, created optimism in Abissinia as a solution to bring up the princes in the best of all possible worlds. In this creation, ‘All the diversities of the world [are] brought together, the blessings of nature [are] collected, and its evils extracted and excluded’, (Johnson, p.8).  By creating optimism, the ancestors have proven that it is merely an illusion The author goes on to establish the flaws of manufacturing optimism by limiting Rasselas’s choice of life. Rasselas cannot perceive happiness in Abissinia; this is because he has not experienced pessimism. He believes that seeing the miseries of the world is ‘necessary to happiness’, (Johnson, p.13). The protagonist, therefore, seeks knowledge from the poet Imlac whose wisdom inspires him:

Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by natural desire, which every mind feels of increasing its ideas. Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced: it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction; and without knowing why, […] if nothing counteracts the natural consequences of learning, we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range (Johnson, p.31).

In the above quotation, Johnson is suggesting that knowledge is an important factor in achieving pleasure and Rasselas feels dissatisfied because this is what he lacks. By oppressing him in the confines of optimism, the protagonist is unable to feel happiness as his mind is confined within the boundaries of Abissinia. A similar situation occurs in Paradise Lost. When Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to convince Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge he suggests that Eve is ‘Deterred […] from achieving what might lead To happier life, [which is] knowledge of good and evil.’ [7] The difference between the two characters is that Eve has free will whilst Rasselas in imprisoned in his own country. Imlac suggests that learning is ‘one’ of the ways to feel enjoyment, which suggests that there are other means. Rasselas understands this because he presumes that God has ‘balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments’, (Johnson, p.11). In this instance, the author demonstrates that both enjoyment and suffering are necessary to guarantee equilibrium and that the perception of optimism and pessimism are equally essential in order to accept life in the present.

Johnson is determined that happiness is an illusion because an individual can never know how another is feeling. Rasselas explores the choice of life on his journey where he seeks answers through his observation of man. His continued unhappiness confuses him because he observes happiness in others. Imlac intervenes by telling the protagonist that  ‘We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself’, (Johnson, p.42). In The Adventurer, Voltaire suggests that happiness is comparative and that we compare our misery to the happiness of others. ‘We can never obtain as much happiness as we might enjoy.’ [8] Unconvinced, the protagonist seeks direction from a hermit whose advice states that ‘To him, that lives well […] every form of life is good’ (Johnson, p.50). The author is clarifying that happiness is not something that can be found, but is subjective to how one feels about their present situation. Imlac confirms this by telling Rasselas ‘that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live’, (Johnson, p.66). The author is, therefore, suggesting that living in the present is the best of all possible worlds because by looking for happiness, you are living in a pessimistic state. It is for this reason that the travellers return to Abissinia after searching for happiness and the choice of life and with a realisation that in order to live they must choose to make the most of what they have. Johnson concludes his novel with no answers. He is confirming that optimism, as well as pessimism, is subjective and that you can choose to live in the best of all possible worlds or the worst. Either way, philosophy is a state of mind and we should live in the moment before we look back with regret.

 

Both novels are pessimistic and satirise the Leibniz theory of optimism. In Candide, the essay established that optimism is constructed through the innocence both in childhood and in Eldorado, where external forces are shut out in order to maintain innocence, therefore, unnatural. This was also demonstrated by showing that optimism and pessimism can be manipulated by illusion, and so unnatural. The essay demonstrated that optimism and pessimism are subjective and co-exist depending on an individual’s perception of experience. For Candide, this was through his unfortunate experiences and how he felt in comparison to others. Similarly, the essay clarified that in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia optimism and pessimism are subjective. Happiness is the key to optimism in the novel and the essay demonstrated that pessimism has to exist in order to create hope. Overall, the essay argued that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are not fixed. Both theories fluctuate depending on what a person experiences and how they feel and are therefore subjective.

©Eilidh G Clark

Bibliography

Delon Michael, ed., Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)

Ham Rev John, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)     HTTP://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥

Johnson Samuel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Johnson Samuel, Francis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825)

Locke John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836)

Milton John, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013)

Rutherford Donald, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005)

Wright Henry Clarke, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846)


[1] Donald Rutherford, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.177.

[2] Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), p.3.

[3] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836), p.20.

[4] Henry Clarke Wright, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846) p.128.

[5] Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.7.

 

[6] Rev Ron Ham, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)      http://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥ [accessed 03 December 2014] (para, 4 of 17)

[7] John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013), p.220.

[8] Samuel JohnsonFrancis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825) p.105.