Wilderness, Snow & Solitude: The Beauty of Nature in Eowyn Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ & Anna Letitia Barbauld’s ‘Inscription for an Ice-House’.

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“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

A few weeks ago, we began studying some of the female poets of the Romantic period; Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson, among others. Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem Inscription for an Ice-House resonated with me long after the class; it reminded me of a novel by Eowyn Ivey that I have read recently entitled The Snow Child. The novel incorporates a magical blend of fairy tale and reality, dream-like essences blended with the harsh realities of daily life.

What drew this comparison to my mind was the effortless depiction of the snow in each text. In Barbauld’s Inscription for an Ice House, an atmosphere of oppression is created to personify the snow: “A giant sits; stern Winter” (McCarthy & Kraft 140). This personification is important as it develops the snow as an important, powerful element of nature.

However, this is contrasted to the gentle manner by which the snow protects the fruits of the summer:

“Congeals the melting peach, the nectarine smooth/Burnished and glowing from the sunny wall/Darts sudden frost into the crimson veins/Of the moist berry” (McCarthy & Kraft 140).

It is this contrast that fascinates me: the ability for the snow to be a cold, all-encompassing figure of power, yet a gentle carer of the nature within it.

This contrast can also be seen in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: the Alaskan wilderness brings both a sense of freedom and a crushing sense of loneliness for the character Mabel:

“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found” (Ivey 3)

“No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness. It was beautiful… but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all” (Ivey 8/9)

Mick Roessler – Snow Covered Log Cabin in Woods

Essentially, although the silence within nature presents an element of peace, particularly the depictions of snow, it also maintains a sense of loneliness. There is the feeling of being one with nature, yet being a solitary being within it with solitary experiences of it.

Nature presented itself peacefully to Mabel and Jack in The Snow Child as they built their snow child, and presented itself in all of its viciousness when Jack kills a moose to provide for the winter and must remove its innards. There is a sense of humanity causing a conflict to the eerie peace of nature within this Alaskan wilderness.

This can also be seen in Barbauld’s poem, whereby the snow preserves the fruits and labours of the summer, all the while contemplating its release:

“Sullen he plies his task/And on his shaking fingers counts the weeks/Of lingering Summer, mindful of his hour/To rush in whirlwinds forth, and rule the year” (McCarthy & Kraft 140). Again, the reader cannot help but feel as though they are infringing upon a source of natural power not meant for them.

In both texts, there is a sense of conflict between summer and winter, humanity and wilderness. They co-exist merely because they have no other choice – it is a forceful combination to imprison snow in the summer, just as it is to combine humanity with the properties of the cold Alaskan wilderness.

Harry Potter (set) – Hogsmeade Village under Snow

Barbauld’s poem and Ivey’s novel possess a particular beauty in their depiction of nature and wilderness. Though we cannot help but feel, as readers of their texts, that we are infringing upon a beautiful solitude within nature not meant for the eyes of humanity at all.

Works Cited

Barbauld, Anna Letitia. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry & Prose. Ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft. New York: Broadview Press, 2002. Print.

Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2012. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963. Print.

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The Pain of Living: Charlotte Smith’s ‘The Winter Night’ & J.K Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’

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During my research into Charlotte Smith for my research presentation a few weeks ago, I came across one of her Elegiac Sonnets entitled ‘The Winter Night’. During my final year in Galway, I was introduced to Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets within a Romanticism module I studied. I find her fascinating; her writing speaks to me as the ultimate embodiment of Romantic literature – inexplicable emotion, vast landscapes and a powerful realism to her depiction of living. Her difficulties as a woman, a wife and a human being are laid bare for all to see – it is a refreshing form of literature to behold.

‘The Winter Night’ maintains similar imagery to that of her other sonnets such as Sonnet LXVII ‘On Passing over a Dreary Tract’ or Sonnet XXXIX ‘To Night’ – dark, gloomy landscapes and an eerie sense of solitude. Upon reading ‘The Winter Night’, I was reminded of a poignant scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, where Harry returns to Godric’s Hollow to uncover the mysteries which surround both his birthplace and the death of his parents. At this final stage of the novels, we are presented with a grown man. However, the tragedies within his life have all culminated within Godric’s Hollow, which has caused him unhappiness and “abnormality”, in a cultural sense. For how else could we consider an orphaned child and his need for his parents to be living, breathing, by his side?

In the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry describes finding his parent’s resting place in vivid detail:
“…looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them” (Rowling 269).

Essentially, although I enjoy the cinematic angle of J.K Rowling’s novels, I feel as though many of the scenes are left unfinished in a sense; the descriptive manner by which Rowling depicts each scene in her novels is far superior and mesmerising.

Although this scene differs to that of the novel, the central themes are similar to that of Charlotte Smith’s ‘The Winter Night’. Both characters have a difficult past in which they are struggling to come to terms with; both characters are helpless to the anguish they suffer because of this past. Smith’s narrator exclaims: “As my sad soul recalls its sorrows past/Seems like a summons bidding me prepare/For the last sleep of death” (Curran 63/64). Although these texts are separated by centuries, the undercurrent remains the same: a traumatised soul attempting to come to terms with the horrors within their lives.

I found it unusual that Charlotte Smith’s sonnets would speak to me in such a manner and provide such a similar and tangible link to a modern cult fiction, if you will, such as Harry Potter. In modern day society, links to the past are difficult to decipher due to the idea of a construct of history as backward and alien to the times we live in today. While researching Smith’s ‘The Winter Night’, I found that her anguish in this poem stemmed from the loss of one of her children Anna Augusta Smith (Curran 64). This develops these two texts as mirrors of one another: Smith as an anguished mother standing over the grave of her daughter; Harry as an anguished son standing over the grave of his parents.

What impresses me about these texts is their effortless depiction of the suffering of humanity – the difficulty of living in a world swathed in misery and grief, where you are always battling to maintain normality and composure, and somehow managing to keep this level of dignity despite it all.

Frederich Nietzsche’s illuminating essay On the Use and Abuse of History for Life highlights this disconcerting relationship with history –
“If death finally brings the longed-for forgetting, nevertheless, in the process, at the same moment it destroys the present and life and thus impresses its seal on that knowledge that existence is only an uninterrupted living in the past [Gewesensein], something which exists for the purpose of self-denial, self-destruction, and self-contradiction” (1).

“In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we would have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self” (1).

History consumes both Charlotte Smith and Rowling’s Harry Potter not only in these scenes, but throughout their lives. Whether they embrace life in spite of it all is an interesting question for us all.

Works Cited

Curran, Stuart, ed. The Poems of Charlotte Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993. Print.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One. By J.K. Rowling. Dir. David Yates. Warner Bros; Heyday Films. 2010. Film. 16 April 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGH9OlTVoQA

Nietzsche, Frederich. On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. 1874. Trans. Ian Johnston. Nanaimo, 2010. Web. 18 April 2013. http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/nietzsche/history.htm

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2007. Print.

A Fear of the Unknown: The Benefits & Disadvantages of Theory

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Theories. Theories. Theories. I’m drowning in theories. What is a theory? What is literary theory? How do these concepts relate to one another? How does literary theory influence the development of modernism and postmodernism? ENOUGH! All of these questions and more have surrounded us Modernities’ students for the past few weeks; I continually find myself inquiring as to why I chose the “Contemporary Literature” module instead of the “Modernism/Postmodernism” module in my final year of the undergraduate degree.

Although my tone of voice may seem jaded, indifferent almost, that couldn’t be further from the truth; it feels as though I am the mythical Fionn Mac Cumhaill in pursuit of my own “salmon of knowledge”. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I always felt a sense of unease while I was studying Romanticism. I could never pinpoint what caused this feeling, but by the end of the semester and my pocket a little heavier with precious ECTS, I chose not to dwell upon it. How little did I realise the cause of this unease until I began my degree in UCC; at once this feeling crept upon me once more, and I have since realised that this feeling is nothing other than a fear of the unknown.

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This artist’s conception accurately portrays a fear of the unknown which I am attempting to express – form and content have no meaning, although we know it is art: thus creates our sense of unease and a distinctive lack of familiarity.

The theory element of any subject or any module is daunting, simply because it represents the beginning – the basis of all of our studies. At the beginning of this course, I was impatient to begin our analyses of the prescribed texts and was disappointed to discover that our first six weeks of college would consist of nothing but eating, sleeping and breathing theory. However, now that we are at the brink of the all-important transition from theory into literature, I realise that the purpose of theory is beginning the venture of learning how to express our own interpretations of literature, architecture, art… so on and so forth.

One particular element of theory which I have found laborious is the inefficacy of distinguishing between modernism and postmodernism. Some theorists such as Lyotard suggest that postmodernism is a reactionary approach to the stagnant waters of modernism. Others such as Jameson suggest that postmodernism is a non-existent entity which is confused with the alteration of the key themes within modernism – a newer form of modernism incorporating all spectrums of culture, high and low, to conform to a newer model of society.

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 These theorists have served an important purpose of informing my own sense of literary theory: modernism and postmodernism are both channeled by the need to formulate a reactionary response to that which preceded them. Baudrillard’s theory suggests that the importance of modernism was to expose the Victorian value system as cultural rather than natural – this allowed for the development of alternative forms of thought and expression. Eventually, modernism was usurped by postmodernism, yet another reactionary response to an ever-changing society.

Art by Picasso, architecture by Gehry – is it right to conform these modes of expression to such narrow terms?  It could be suggested that if we removed the boundaries of convoluted terms such as modernism and postmodernism, all forms of artistic expression may well be interpreted in an entirely new manner. The possibility of such an occurrence could be the prototype of post-postmodernism itself; a value-free method of looking at entire forms of artistic expression. Either way, these are the ramblings of an optimistic dreamer…

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Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations”. Modernism/ Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’. Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992. Print.

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Reflections on Theory and Relevance

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As I sit here attempting to express to the world my extensive knowledge, I am beginning to realise that I am faced with a challenge. My reflections on literature have been shaped by my undergraduate degree; they are now beginning to be remoulded into an irregular, misshapen object called an “educated opinion”. The challenge of confronting the extensive literature influencing and surrounding the formation of the modernist/post-modernist, structuralist/post-structuralist theories is no easy feat, quite a daunting task in fact.

It is not ambivalence towards the coursework which deters my exclamations of opinionated jargon from the rooftops of the nearest buildings, it is an attempt to unravel the changes in my trail of thought since I have begun the Masters in Modernities. Theorists such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, among others, have inspired from within a sense of discovery that there is another dimension to perceiving the world and the literature I am studying in college. It is as though my blindfold was removed during a game of “Pin The Tail On The Donkey”, only to realise that throughout my undergraduate degree I have been pinning the proverbial tail of the donkey to its face and assuming that this was the correct method.

A couple of weeks before I made the big move to Cork, I visited the cinema to view a screening of Anna Karenina. Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel is a majestic flair between theatre and cinema, play and film. The pulleys, ropes and props which patch scene-by-scene together are Wright’s unconscious reflections of theoretical perspectives, such as Baudrillard’s discursive conflict between fantasy and reality.

Baudrillard argues that it is difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, due to the fact that it is impossible to objectify all interpretations of what constitutes reality. Baudrillard also suggests that the world is permeated by pretentious scandals which are present in order to maintain order and distract the public from the real difficulties within societies. Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ focuses upon the tumultuous love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky in order to diffuse social tensions regarding the stationary position of women in 19th century Russian society; it also focuses upon the fantastical mode of theatrical production in order to juxtapose the realism of life during this era as a woman within a society that could not accept human nature and its imperfections.

Anna Karenina breaks 19th century conventions by presenting herself as a revolutionary character of the Enlightenment; she is emblematic of reason, rationality and modern resistance to the stagnant values of 19th century society. Lyotard’s theory discusses the notion of “the event”, a significant point in literature whereby the mould is broken and literature can no longer be seen in the same fashion; Tolstoy’s novel and Wright’s film adaptation both serve to break the conventions of literature in both their novel and visual forms. “The event” serves to reinforce a belief that change and revolution are possible in all forms of literature; it also envisions a hope that this reactionary approach could also impact upon and improve other areas of society such as politics and economics.

The study of theorists such as Lyotard and Baudrillard in the context of the MA in Modernities provides a sense of structure with regard to our discussion of novels, films, plays and other literary forms of expression. The ability of these theorists’ arguments to maintain such poignancy across many decades of literary expression indicates the timeless nature of their arguments, and the necessity of maintaining the students of their literary works.

However, this also raises an alternate question of whether attaching literary theory to text and film is appropriate in a postmodern society, which promotes the questioning of reality and fantasy and the constant search for modern and new forms of literature, literary expression, form and content. However, I feel as though that this will be a question which will both address itself over the coming weeks of my time at UCC and will undoubtedly have a hazy and unrefined response by the end of my studies. Well, here’s hoping at the very least!

Works cited.
Anna Karenina. Dir. Joe Wright. Universal Pictures. 2012. Film.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations”. Modernism/ Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. London: Penguin, 1997. Print.