Time in Barnes' "Nightwood"

As I read Nightwood, I couldn’t help but think back to one of our initial course readings, Sherry’s piece that attempts to define modernism as an era/intellectual movement concerned with time. Sherry discusses the different definitions for this (the Avant Garde proclivity of the moderns, for instance, breaks with historical/aesthetic tradition and establishes its own time, birthed on its own terms with its own rules). When thinking about “time” and Nightwood, see a similar unifying thread as Sherry sees in modernism.

From the first page, Felix is born without connections to the past, with his father dying during pregnancy and his mother dying during birth. As a result, Felix only has the two portraits as artifacts, stories of his parents, and a separation from “exact history” (10). He seems to compensate for that with an “obsession for what he termed Old Europe” (11). We see the theme of time shoot through Felix and Robin’s first interaction. Felix notices the “timeless” in her eyes which contrasts with the symbolic discussion of woman that follows: “Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding… Such a woman is an infected carrier of the past” and the connection between the current generation and their “forefathers” (41).

If I’m reading this passage correctly, Robin is initially thrown in contrast with the typical housewife who is symbolic of patriarchal traditions and their continuance through children. Robin is not this, as we learn; but Felix is invested in this project, a correction of his own childhood. In the next scene, as he speaks with the doctor about marriage and children, Felix says “to pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future” (43). Through Robin and the children he wants her to bear, he is trying to forge temporal ties that more together the past and the future. Later we learn of Felix’s vision: “the destiny for which he had chosen [Robin]—that she might bear sons who would recognize and honour the past. For without such love, the past… would die away from the world” (49). As Felix attempts to tether Robin, she wanders in “exile” as Winterson’s preface would label it. Especially once the child is born, Robin is gone for “hours, days later” as she can sense an end to time: “a catastrophe that had yet no beginning” (referring to motherhood and perhaps family life more broadly) (52-3).

At the center of the text is a contest for possession of Robin, a ghost-like, ephemeral character who appears in the text mainly in conversation. In thinking about time, Nora’s desire to possess Robin is consistently equated with the end of one’s experience of time, death (63, 69). Barnes continues this discussion with Nora and O’Connor’s conversation in his apartment (see Nathan’s post for a breakdown of this). While Nathan convincingly connects this scene to a discussion of uncertainty and fluid identities, I see it as part of a discussion of death (90, 103) and thus a discussion of the interrelated concepts of time, memory, and history. Indeed, the second half of the narrative is mostly dedicated to Nora’s grief at losing Robin. It is a processing of a lost time and a lost person. Nora attempts to forge connections with that past with a letter, but does so in vain. Robin is unmoored from time, at least from the histories of the other characters in the narrative; perhaps the final scene is her departure from the world of human history and into the world of timeless nature.


In the introduction, T.S. Eliot brings up society’s different perceptions of people who dissent from the norm, referencing both Puritanical sentiments and more contemporary outlooks on the choices individuals make - and how it affects their satisfaction in life. He says that unlike the expectations produced by older (Puritan) morality that he recalls, wherein a person will succeed if they are prudent and practical, people in present-day are more likely to blame “society” for individual discontentment. He claims that what these different outlooks achieve is relatively similar - writing, “it seems to me that all of us, so far as we attach ourselves to created objects and surrender our will to temporal ends, are eaten by the same worm.” I found this interesting, and since he’s basically giving us a book review of his own, I carried this idea into the reading of the book. In the beginning, Felix’s character is explained, and we learn a lot about his mannerisms and beliefs. Barnes writes about how Felix “had insinuated himself into the pageantry of the circus and the theatre” (15). This part struck me, as it seemed to speak to Eliot’s earlier point in the introduction, which seemed to say that ultimately everyone is subject to the same perils of life, especially when they’re based primarily in material things. Some of the circus workers take on faux titles and names that poke fun at the nobility of Paris and elsewhere in Europe, such as Duchess of Broadback and King Buffo. I found a sort of connection between the old nobility, possessing all of the perks of such titles, and the faux nobility people created with false names. Even though the latter is not attempting to become noble, but rather playing against the implications of that status, I find that both groups are similar. They are both compelled to proclaim something about themselves for their positioning in society. It is obvious why someone of noble birth would want that to be known, which is why it is so ingrained in society that the nobility are to be so highly regarded in every way. On the other hand, the people who call themselves by these playful versions of noble-sounding names are not attempting to surpass others in importance, but it does help them create a persona and perhaps even allows them to obtain certain benefits in their place of work, even if it’s simply in the form of more attention paid or how memorable they are to others. Either way, both groups are surrendering in some ways to those “temporal ends,” and who could blame them? Eliot was certainly aware that people have to give themselves a leg up in whatever way they can, but especially those not born into wealth and status. Ultimately, caring too much about what the material world could offer you if you manipulate your talents, prospects, etc. enough - will still lead to the same dissatisfaction with life. Both groups can suffer from that, and both would stem from a fixed focus on the material things of life, and how much of those things one can obtain, and what that material would signify about an individual, including their work ethic, capability, beauty, talent, and a myriad of other factors people are measured by in society and even themselves.

"Horizontal Fear"

Dr. O’Connor sees himself embodying different national, religious, and gender identities. This embodiment is discussed with Nora in a conversation about “everything [the doctor] know[s] about the night” (79). His character and meandering yet compelling dialogue with Nora imports different gender identities (79-80, 96), national archetypes/stereotypes (90), religious identities (91), and languages (92-94) and combines them in the uncertainties that night symbolizes. Dr. O’Connor says,

“Do things look in the ten and twelve of noon as they look in the dark? Is the hand, the face, the foot, the same face and hand and foot seen by the sun? For now the hand lies in a shadow; its beauties and its deformities are in a smoke—there is a sickle of doubt across the check bone thrown by the hat’s brim, so that there is half a face to be peered back into speculation” (85).

Night represents uncertainty, and uncertainty produces speculation. For the doctor, this appears in the ways glossed above, turned inward, in terms of speculative identity. For Nora, speculations are turned outward, toward Robin. Nora’s pain is emphasized even more, as the doctor implies it, because of the way that otherness is understood among women. “She who stands looking down upon her who lies sleeping knowns the horizontal fear, the fear unbearable. For man goes only perpendicularly against his fate. He was neither formed to know that other nor compiled of its conspiracy” (87). The doctor seems to imply that, unlike men, women were formed to know “that other.” What might Barnes be getting across by having Dr. O’Connor describe this unbearable “horizontal fear”?

As an aside, the perpendicularity assigned to men here reminds me a bit of Vorticism, with its use of sharp, rigid lines and masculine overtones.

Nora's Salon and American Identity

One of the passages I was drawn to from Nightwood was the description of Nora’s salon and Nora herself. Barnes writers that “The strangest ‘salon’ in America was Nora’s” and that at any time you would see “poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine; all these could be seen sitting about her oak table before the huge fire, Nora listening, her hand on her hound, the firelight throwing her shadow and his high against the wall” (50). Even among this group of eclectic characters, “she alone stood out” (50). We are then told in what way Nora stands out: “She was known instantly as a Westerner. Looking at her, foreigners remembered stories they had heard of covered wagons; animals going down to drink; children’s heads, just as far as the eyes, looking in fright out of small windows, where in the dark another race crouched in ambush…” (50-51).

This passage points to two distinct narratives of U.S. identity that I think Barnes is interested in exploring in this transatlantic novel. Nora’s house (the land) is meant to parallel the multiculturalism of the United States and its “place at the table” as a globalized space where different cultures, religions, and people come together. Yet in this space, Nora stands out as distinctly American; she is described as signifying U.S. history, including the explorations of the West, native violence, and the abundant wildlife of the frontier. In this way, American identity is singled out from the American landscape creating an interesting national tension; is America American, or is it Multicultural? Nora’s American identity looms over her international “salon,” just as she looms over the lives of Robin, Felix, and Dr. Matthews in her transatlantic travel.

Robin in Nightwood (8/8)

While reading Nightwood, I was interested in the idea of Robin's memory wasting away as she dives deeper into the world around her. Robin's behavior kind of reminds me of the people in The Sun Also Rises, but it shows the effects of that behavior on the people around. I am not confident enough to say that Nightwood is also engaging with the party scene that Hemingway depicts, but I cannot help but notice some similarities. For example, Robin presents herself as a fun and energetic woman, but in the house she becomes a darker version of herself--especially after giving birth to Guido.

The part of the novel that made it more difficult to understand is that it is told from an outsider's perspective, so I am unable to really see into Robin's mind. The story feels a little voyeuristic as I am given all the details of the situation, but I am not let in to listen to the thoughts of any specific characters. Robin claims to not remember--maybe it is true--, but it could also be Robin's attempt to cope with something. 

Unlike The Sun Also Rises, the party scenes are not very prominent in this novel. Maybe "memorable" is a better word. Every time I reflect on this story, I remember the scenes locked in a house. The party scene for Barnes' characters is more like the hotel room for Jake.

Familial Terms in Hughes

There’s a family theme that runs across the selection of Langston Hughes poems we read for today. Hughes in the least uses familial language as a vehicle for exploring broader social relationships between African Americans, American Indians, and white Americans, rich and poor, and opulent and neglected environments. Hughes starts “Boogie: 1 A.M.” using a paternal address, “Good evening, daddy!” While a capital “D” in daddy might suggest an actual family relationship with the addressee, the use of a paternal address here appears tied to an intimate knowledge between speaker and addressee: “I know you’ve heard / the boogie-woogie rumble / of a dream deferred.” In using “daddy” here, Hughes knowns the experience of his addressee: “I know you’ve heard” which to me suggests a sense of familial intimacy. Like when I botch an explanation of something to a friend, then quickly following it up with “you know what I mean.” Hughes uses a similar sense of tacit knowledge in the line “I know you’ve heard.” Contrastingly, that assurance is questioned in “Dream Boogie”: “[A]in’t you heard”.

“Mother to Son” inverts the address of “Boogie: 1 A.M.” and “Dream Boogie,” from (metaphoric or literal) child to parent, to parent to child.

In “I, Too,” the speaker characterizes themselves as “the darker brother,” furthermore emphasizing kinship, if an implied and understated one, specifically in terms of family relation, and not other types of societal bonds.

In contrast to these familial terms across Hughes’ poems, the poem that most starkly highlights the ideological makeup of the United States is more individualized, even as it rhetorically and formally puts these individualized voices in conversation: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars/ I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— /And finding only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” These various I’s are amalgamated into “ME” further down, and then in the finally into “we, the people” (unlike with the Constitution, using a lowercase P), in a way that parallels/contrasts/compliments/undercuts the familial terms and themes of the other poems.


America, Past, Present, and Future

“America” by Claude McKay (1921) and “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes (1995) both discuss America as a work-in-progress through creating juxtaposition and tension by using the past to look forward to the future. The last four lines of McKay’s poem reads “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, / And see her might and granite wonders there, / Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, / Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” In these lines, the speaker positions themselves by looking toward the future as “priceless treasures sinking in the sand,” both inscribing the line with futurity while also emphasizing treasure, which can only be viewed as treasure because it is valued through a past process that has associated it with said value. Treasure, which McKay associates with America, is linked to both the past and future because it is something that has been ascribed with value in the past that can then be sought after in the future, even if buried in sand.

Hughes similarly uses imagery that integrates both the past and future in its signification. He writes “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be. / Let it be the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free.” In these lines, Hughes laments “Let America be America again,” implying a process that needs to take place in the future to reestablish a value that may have existed in the past (I say may, becomes Hughes makes it clear that the “dream” of America was never a reality for many). In these lines Hughes also conjures the image of the pioneer, another image which is both associated with the past of America but also the inherent concept of the pioneer as an explorer of the future.

These images in both poems create internal tensions between the past and the future, encouraging a reevaluation of how these two poles might help us make sense of present America. I think there’s a potential connection here to the reading on modernism and primitivism in regard to how these terms envision the past and future, and how all of these terms may be collapsed into a single definition rather than demarcated as separate entities.

Mckay and the Ambiguity of Home

I was drawn to two poems of Mckay’s for this week: “Subway Wind” and “To One Coming North.” In both, there is a longing for home, for “native” lands. When thought of together, though, there is an ambivalence that comes with the desire for home.

“Subway Wind” uses the image of a subway tunnel and the wind that rushes through it, as a vehicle for thinking about the “captive” state of people who live in the city yet “moan… for fields and seas” of more natural places. Here these places are seaports and islands, the tropics. Mckay connects these foreign locales with freedom, wildlife, ease, and an openness; ideas that runs counter to the crammed “packed” and stultifying subways that are emblematic of life in the city. The poem turns on the word “moan” wherein the narrator begins desiring something other than the intestines of the city scape in which they are stuck. The moan, an image of painful desire, unleashes an imaginative journey that illustrates the desire to escape to “native” lands at the heart of the home (a desire that doesn’t materialize).  This poem is a pretty clean rejection of urban, technological centers of life in the north and an embrace of more natural tropical settings.

“To One Coming North,” on the other hand, is more ambiguous in its theorizing/desiring of home.  The central image here is that of snowfall—it is, like the wind in the previous poem, what signals the foreign, the alien, the unhealthy, for the narrator. The snow is pleasant at first but then the “wind-worried void… chilly, raw” sets in and the narrator “long[s] for home.” Unlike the subway winds which are omnipresent in the cycles of the city, the snow is seasonal: as it arrives it alienate the narrator and inspires a desire for “flowering lanes… and spaces dry.” Yet as it disappears and warm weather comes back around, the narrator sees the beauty in the “Northland” as it is “wreathed in golden smiles/ By the miraculous sun turned glad and warm.”

While I see ambiguous ideas of home with each narrator, one key difference is the inherent subway winds (not seasonal, a permanent fixture of the city) and the transient snow. In “Subway Wind” the natural environment (or the evidence of) is always alienating. In “To One Coming North” the idea of home comes and goes with the seasons. The next question is the psychological impact of each of these experiences. Both poems show conflicted narrators and feelings of unbelonging and discontentedness for the narrators, yet in distinctly different ways.

Sounds of a Poem (Blog 8/8)

McKay and Hughes both have poems with distinct sounds. In McKay’s poem, the wind is trying to escape to freedom, and I can hear the sounds of the children along with squeals and screams that would add to another level of sound. The poem is building quietly, and then the poem crescendos in line 7.  Then as if slowly driving through the country, the sound of the wind moans, and then it turns sleepy and slow….drawing out its sound in the end with “the Trades float above them fresh and free” (16). 

Hughes’s poem Dream Boogie, starts out slow, but quickly builds to an exciting level “I’m happy! /Take it away!/Hey, pop!/Re-bop!/Mop!/Y-e-a-h!” (16-21). This poem seems more straightforward with a rush of excitement at the end. It has a low and slow build and then it quickly builds and then it is over.

North says that “a black voice informs much of what we identify as “American” in modernist literature and carefully shows that modernism owes much of its shape and quality to its engagement with black dialect” (11) and this is reflected in the Dream Boogie poem. I agree with this tone of literature and the volume that it gives to the poem by making it unique. 

Drumming to Hughes, McKay (8/8)

Both McKay and Hughes mimic rhythmic elements in their respective pieces and in doing so mirror the turbulent syncopation and rhythmically linear patterns of 1920s jazz. With this framework, I’ll address two representative poems that parallel with aspects of early jazz/blues drumming and label them accordingly:  

Choked Cymbals in “Subway Wind”:  

The popular drum tonality of a ‘choked cymbal’ is created by catching (with one’s hand) a cymbal directly after striking it, effectively ‘choking’ its vibration and thus preventing the note from ringing out. In McKay’s “Subway Wind,” the first three lines play with alliteration and consonance in similar ways–the sharp sounds of “great gaunt gut” ensure the reader quickly chops the sounds at the phonetic dental position, bringing it to an abrupt stop, the ‘tuh’ sound mirroring the catch of something akin to a small 8” splash cymbal. The plosive movements of the repeating ‘G’ sound function similarly. Now, one can envision a drummer ending the smooth flow of McKay’s first half of the line with three heavy down beats, a cymbal catch on each. After the silky flow of ”From down, down through the city’s” the reader is smacked with the striking, “Great! Gaunt! Gut!” (McKay 1). McKay, then, brings a razor-edged end to these lines with the last two words both linguistically and rhetorically mirroring a jazz trap set with the words, “breath cut” (McKay 3). As the reader’s breath is quite literally cut through the phonetic construction and shortness of “cut,” McKay’s poem employs a blunt stop such as a drummer would, giving a cesura for the reader to embody a clear ending before riding back into the longer vowels and more drawn-out syllables of his next verse.  

Brushstrokes in “Boogie: 1. A.M.” 

Most often performed in a circular fashion, a drummer will push a tool called ‘the brush,’ which sometimes are metal strands–and often are nylon–a complete 360 degrees around the snare drum, giving a faster, closer push on the last half of the circle, reproducing the traditional jazz ride/swing beat. In this, the slower unstressed begins the beat, and the faster stress ends it. This technique presents a sort of ‘drag’ feel that plays just behind the pocket of a steady, 4/4 rhythm, providing a slower, less frenetic feel than traditional swing tunes but still pushing the song forward on its down beats nonetheless. For “Boogie: 1 .A.M,” Hughes splices every two lines in one full circle sweep. Each line begins on the ‘upbeat’ and is carried down by the latter half of the line. Indicatively, Hughes employs only two feet of iambic in each line. If the reader wished to align the poem to a metronome, they would have to wait on certain lines to finish his cadence due to their length. Hughes further makes use of the dash between ‘cat’ and ‘gut’ to separate the line “Of cat-gut lace” (Hughes 8) into two halves; the first half reflects a slow pull on the first iamb: “of cat” (the first 180 degrees of the snare) and the second pushes the latter two words to a quicker stop–” gut lace” (8), or the conclusion of the brush’s journey. This way, each two lines becomes a complete circle, giving the reader an opportunity to embody the “boogie-woogie rumble” (3) themselves.  

Advertisement and Propaganda in the Atlantic Monthly

I am thinking along several different threads here that, I’m hoping, I can weave together by using the New Mexico travel advertisements in the Atlantic Monthly. I was drawn to Humm’s article for her discussion of the visible versus absent photograph of Three Guinea’s and the ways in which this then connects to memory. Humm writes that  the “…absent photographs…act in dialectical tension with the five visible photographs. It is the absent photographs, or rather the narrator’s memory of these photographs, which in a major way shape the narrative of Three Guineas and its dense visual plentitude” (197). Humm’s exploration of the visible versus absent images depicted in Three Guineas could also apply to the travel advertisements in the Atlantic Monthly.

Before I turn to those advertisements, however, I also want to briefly touch of Prevost’s “The Psychology of Propaganda.” Prevost writes the following on the distinction between propaganda and advertisements: “Propaganda has been compared with advertising; yet this is an error, for advertising is concerned always with commercial gain. On the other hand, propaganda makes itself felt in lands far removed—lands which are necessarily neutral in time of conflict and from which nothing is to be gained” (Prevost 674). This distinction of advertising versus propaganda seems to me interdependent not independent.

There are two advertisements for Nex Mexican tourism that could be interpreted through Humm’s ideas on printed versus absent photographs, and on the slippery distinctions Prevost seems to articulate for advertisements and propaganda. The first depicts a Native American with pueblos and mountains in the background, and advertises seeing “[t]he little-known and fascinating Spanish-Indian country…with its age-old inhabited pueblos and isolated mountains.” The second ad has copy that reads “You’ll see Strange scenes Unchanged by Passing Centuries” if you vacation to New Mexico, with the image depicting a man and woman next to a car overlooking native Americans in a village. The ad describes features such as “weird ceremonial dance,” “modern accommodations,” “Conquistadors,” and New Mexico as the “Land of Enchantment.”

These advertisements, to me, feel propagandic of perpetuating the volatile history of genocide in the American west by advertising Native American history only through the lens of enchantment and tourism. These ads conflate commodity (tourism) with “lands far removed,” both physically in the deserts of New Mexico and temporally by emphasizing the lands as unchanged by centuries. The decision of what is made visible in the ads obfuscates what is absent; that is, the history of genocide that the U.S now markets as a tourist destination.

Jean Prevost and Virginia Woolf - Blog 7/8

This article by Jean Prevost and Virginia Woolf’s book, reviews of propaganda and the false media build-up that contributes to the people combining patriotism and war together. Prevost talks about “propaganda urges your approval - and promises nothing in return” (674). This is where Virginia Woolf’s viewpoint of false propaganda comes in too, but her viewpoint is directed at women’s reactions and their ability in war.

Prevost also mentions, “For the most part, man accepts the reputation by which he is known. Our character is ours, suggested, perhaps, chiefly by others - because of the force of circumstance upon the individual is constant and strong” (674). This is why propaganda works when men, especially young men are building and developing their reputations. They based their character on how others and their country will see them. 

While Virginia Woolf focuses more on the limits of women and their parts in the war, “broadly speaking, the main distinction between us who are outside society and you who are inside society must be that whereas you will make use of the means provided by your position—leagues, conferences, campaigns, great names, and all such public measures as your wealth and political influence place within your reach—we, remaining outside, will experiment not with public means in public but with private means in private” (103). Woolf’s focus is on the ability of women to influence war based on their social standings. Women’s influences are limited and she urges for a war free environment. 

Maggie Humm

Maggie Humm helps illuminate the way Virginia Woolf utilizes photography in Three Guineas, and I found her analysis particualrly insightful, especially with the inital highligting of specularity. In combining two perspectives of memory through photographs, both private and public, I can see how that combination would invoke a deepened sense of empathy from the audience. Humm references the depiction of deceased children in one of the absent photgraphs in Three Guineas, including a quote from Woolf in regards to it which reads, "those photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye" (201). I felt that this was particularly powerful, and I looked at it a little differently after Humm's reading of it. Of all the pacifist literature that exists, a lot of really good and powerful literature, I think images will always just pull at readers differently, providing an added lens which won't be overlooked. For me, I find images of anything harmful or sad in nature to be difficult to look at, and I often try not to do so unless I have to. However, I do think that Woolf did a great job of appealing to the raw humanity of the audience, and I see its importance in general, especially as a statement which touches on anti-war sentiments. Even though this was more of an image description than an outright visual, readers can still picture it well. It still invokes pain and a sense of grief. It does not require extensive explanation, it just speaks for itself. I'm interested in learning more about the other functions this absence of photos has. This idea of memory being captured through photos, and creating a moment which just hangs in time as a still, could also be viewed as modernist in the sense that it also has that sense of urgency and temporality to it. Although the photos are portraying the past, they're able to exist in the now as people view them. They're consequential. I'm interested in the discussion of memory as it relates to photographs and image descriptions.  

The Psychology of Propaganda Atlantic Monthly 1938 (Blog 6 of 8)


   This article by Jean Prevost was very interesting, and much of what the author had to say reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”. Both authors take their time discussing and dismantling the idea of propaganda, and how it can be used to build up false narratives. While Virginia Woolf went after fascists, Prevost takes a different track and talks about the Anti-Kipling movement at English schools, and how students were struggling with old ideas of tradition. Perhaps they thought of Kipling’s books as propaganda for British colonialism and wanted to rebel against what they saw as the ‘old guard’ especially after WWI created such a schism between classical and modern ideals. 

I’m not sure what to make of his stance on Americans seeing Uncle Sam as a ‘displeasing figure.’ Perhaps the ones that fought in WW1 and felt they were manipulated? Not sure. 

   He hints at the disgruntlement of the Germans after their treaty and mentions their aggressiveness and bitter rancor. I’m assuming this is part of what lead to Hitler’s rise and the use of propaganda against Jews and militant advertising to prop up the German state. 

On page 677, Prevost says, “Likewise, a regime which does away with free criticism within its country will look for it abroad, seeking at the same time to change it through propaganda.” 

   This seems quite true of the time, as the fascist state of the time, Germany and Italy not only wanted to control their own people with an iron fist and state-run media, but eventually sought to influence and conquer other territories to spread their influence and power. When lies keep building, so too does each dictator want to build on their own carefully constructed image and make their status unquestionable. So, the lies must spread to more places, and these new places and information must be controlled. And with that also comes the control of new people. And on and on it goes until fought against or dismantled by the truth. 


Harnessing Stereotypes – Woolf and Steinbeck (7/8)

The inclusion of Steinbeck’s “The Harness” alongside Woolf’s “Women Must Weep- Or Unite Against War” feels conflicting. Where Woolf’s essay withholds few punches against male-dominance culture, “The Harness” responds with an overtly literal symbol in the inverse: the protagonist (Peter) is forced to wear a “web harness that pull[s] his shoulders back” (Steinbeck 744), a contraption that his wife Emma forces him to wear as to appear to be stately and masculine. This literal imprisonment is cast off when Emma, the stereotypical sickly, frail wife, dies from one of her many illnesses. Peter swears to never wear it again, professing his newfound freedom in anger-fueled chords reminiscent of a man starving: “I’m hungry for everything, for a lot of everything” (Steinbeck 745). While both pieces briefly touch on a woman’s domestic influence, “The Harness” slides the heavier weight to a woman’s control over men. For Peter, Emma’s death meant freedom in a myriad of senses. He no longer wears the harness, he’s free to drink and trudge in mud, and he can finally gamble on his sweet pea crop. 

Having read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” which is also set in Salinas Valley, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Steinbeck generally portrays gender this way. In the aforementioned text, the naive protagonist is painted sympathetically when a strange man discards the flowers she holds in such high esteem, leaving them abandoned on the side of the road. In this piece, Steinbeck shows the plight of a woman’s desire to bring about peace, to encourage others to plant seeds that might grow into something beautiful, but it’s left in a heap by the men who purely seek transaction. Her innocence likewise thrown away. “The Harness” does little to generate sympathy for Emma, though, aside from being perpetually sick. Perhaps Steinbeck sought to portray complicated relationships, instead. For Emma may tightly lock down her partner, but Peter’s new opportunities after her death end in sadness, the character reflecting that he ought to install lights in his house because “Emma always wanted electric lights” (Steinbeck 749). Peter wants to make his wife happy just once more. He misses her because he truly loved her, despite feelings of confinement.  

A more metaphorical reading might posit that there was never a harness whatsoever. Emma’s requests don’t seem especially ridiculous, outside of wearing the harness, of course. She wanted him to stand up straight, be respectful in public, limit his use of alcohol, keep the floors clean, and operate judiciously with his crops–their sole income. Perhaps psychologically, Peter felt as though he wore a harness, since his impulses scraped against her desires. In this lens, Peter casts off the harness as one might cast off a ring, never to put it on again but always to know that some part of their person will always belong to someone else.  

If Woolf and Steinbeck seem to clash here, it’s because they do. But they also converge on many points. They both stress the importance of influence in the domestic relationship. They both seek to dismantle unfair control. And they both attempt to deconstruct enforced gender roles.