Hanif Kureishi’s short story “My Son the Fanatic” is frightening. It is frightening because of its realism. Religious fanaticism exists all over the globe. From racist, Christian affiliated hate groups to radical Muslims, religious cults definitely have their place in our modern society. As an agnostic, I’m not a fan of organized religion – I don’t mind religion itself, but when it’s organized, sometimes it can go a little sideways. Good and moral Christians and Muslims are intelligent enough to mix modern ethics with their religious ethics. But, the fanatics of such religions only follow the ethics of their ancient texts – and this can lead to very, very, bad things.
“My Son the Fanatic” is the story of an extreme form of religion taking hold of a young man and completely transforming him into a monster. This person (Ali) is not a person anymore – he’s a walking, talking Qur’an. He has been so indoctrinated, that the love and care he used to have for his parents and friends has been completely eviscerated. While reading, my main question was: How did they not notice their son’s transformation? How did his parents miss the signs? There were definite, concrete signs that he was evolving. Such as: Ali growing a beard (often adopted by males within the Muslim faith) and his apparent disregard for all of his previous desires and interests – such as his material belongings and education. These are significant personal changes, so why did his parents not recognize this metamorphism for what it was? Given his parent’s upbringing, surely they’re familiar with Islam?
Then, as I kept reading, I thought that perhaps their disregard for this truth was intentional. Clearly, neither of Ali’s parents appreciated Islam, as evidenced in their words and stories, “Many young people fall into cults and superstitious groups” (Kureishi 1207) and “The Maulvis had attached a piece of string to the ceiling and tied it to Parvez’s hair… After this indignity Parvez had avoided all religions…They made jokes about the local mullahs” (Kureishi 1204). Given the opposing views of both parties (Ali and his parents), one can see why and how the purposeful ignorance displayed by Parvez and his wife came to be.
I think of “My Son the Fanatic” as a warning. A warning to watch your children, and to question them when they display suspicious behavior. But, despite Kureishi’s story being a warning, it is also a lesson. A lesson of how quickly indoctrination occurs, and how young people are easy prey for such religious cults.
I have previously studied Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment,” and it’s just as riveting now as it was then. I have a passionate love for poetry that focuses on historical events – they are always fascinating, and something that I am drawn to time and again.
In the 20th c. Seamus Heaney wrote a series of poems that focused on “bog bodies.” In these poems, he concentrated on the juxtaposition of their murder and morbid beauty, “He probes the vexed relations between lyric song and historical suffering, ‘beauty and atrocity’” (1094). Heaney’s bog poetry represents a facet of poetry not often deeply explored: human suffering and poetic beauty. To read more about the fascinating subject of bog bodies, visit: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/europe-bog-bodies-reveal-secrets-180962770/
In “Punishment” Heaney chooses to focus on a female victim of Iron Age ritualistic sacrifice. This poem is quite morbid, and explores the victim’s physical appearance as well as speculating about her life story, and the betrayal that led to her death. In his speculation, he inserts himself into her story, which serves to make the victim more human – her story more tragic, “I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence…I who have stood dumb” (lines 29-31, 37). Modern readers may say, “Yes, I would try to prevent this” or “Yes, I would help her” but, would you? Complacency is a deeply complicated human issue, and further exploration shows that all humans may be subject to it. Perhaps an even more important question to ask is: What happens when murder becomes culture – and what does sanctioned murder say about the human condition? To read more about the history of human sacrifice, visit: https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199759996.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199759996-e-11
Seamus Heaney’s poem is ultimately about the barbarism of earlier cultures, and the pain that one feels when reflecting on such morbid history. But, reflection can lead to positive thoughts. The practice of human sacrifice reminds us that we have come so far in terms of decency, and the way in which humans treat other humans. History can be a fantastic teacher, and Heaney’s “Punishment” is a fantastic lesson.
What made me most excited to read “Heart of Darkness” was its themes of travel and adventure. When concluding the excerpt on Joseph Conrad (67), I thought that him and I were very much alike. Like Conrad, I too love to travel, and I deeply want and crave adventure. But unlike Conrad, who travelled to Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean Islands, I have only ever travelled to France – but even just that small taste of European adventure made me instantly want to travel more. So, in this way I think that I can understand Mr. Conrad. Perhaps our souls are similar – but of course I only speak one language.
An element of adventure in any story tends to make it more riveting and exciting. I of course am biased, but literature in which there is no adventure, or the characters only stay in one setting, tend to get a bit boring. The theme of adventure in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is further accented in his beautiful, detailed descriptions that came from his extraordinary mind. This, of course, is simply my opinion, but while reading I often thought that his descriptions were perhaps the most beautiful that I had ever read. Descriptions such as, “In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits” (74). As you can see – immaculate writing.
While reading Conrad’s work, you can almost feel the wind on your face, hear the ocean, and feel the rocking of the ship – and those, ultimately, are the sensations Conrad evokes with his writing. His writing is so descriptive and imaginative, that he transports you from your boring couch to a beautiful Caribbean Island.
Honestly, prior to reading Penelope’s excerpt from “Ulysses,” I knew next to nothing about this historic piece of literature. Of course, I had previously heard of Ulysses, but had never encountered the novel or read it. But, even just reading this small passage, I am delighted with what I read. What I really loved while reading Penelope’s “episode” was the frankness and humor that flowed from the unending thoughts that were flying around in her head. I mean really, this character is just simply hilarious. Contained in her thoughts are so many delightful insults and musings, that I found myself laughing out loud throughout, which is a very rare reaction. Spoken word humor is easy – written humor, not so much.
I feel as though Joyce’s Penelope is very personable and likeable. Her humor is contagious, and ultimately some of the best parts of her “episode.” Some humorous lines include, but are not limited to: “The ignoramus doesn’t know poetry from a cabbage” (604) and “My aunt Mary’s hairy etcetera” (605) and “We are a dreadful lot of bitches” (606). As a reader, one wonders if her husband would be appalled by her thinking – especially the hilarious sexual commentary.
Another aspect I loved about “Ulysses” is its ties to Homer’s “Odyssey,” which is a novel I’ve previously read. As a previous Classics major, ancient Greek history is an extremely riveting topic, so the correlation to Homer’s work was another positive aspect of Joyce’s novel. Perhaps the long-awaited return of Odysseus to his wife Penelope in the “Odyssey” was much more passionate than Joyce’s work, but both stories are equally brilliant. The “returning husband” seems to be a reoccurring theme in non-contemporary works of literature, and as such ancient works like Homer’s “Odyssey” are very relevant to later works, such as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” But, what I appreciated about Joyce’s work in particular was the different perspective of his Penelope, a Penelope that possessed humor and wit – unlike her ancient counterpart.
If you read the brief blurb about Siegfried Sassoon’s life in “The Norton’s Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries” you’ll know that he was quite a fascinating man. I especially loved reading the way in which his views changed from the beginning of the war to after its conclusion. It was quite beautiful when he wrote with such sincere emotional passion to his commanding officer, “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to stop it…I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defiance and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest” (Sassoon 149). Sassoon was brave enough to communicate his feelings and to write these words – words and feelings that, most likely, the everyday people of WWI America also felt.
Besides writing strikingly truthful letters to commanding officers, Sassoon also wrote beautiful poetry. In 1918, he penned the poem “Glory of Women” and as such took on a perspective that was often forgotten in wartime: the role of women. In his poem, he writes about the devotion women show to men when they are at war, and some of the hardships they endure when they are forced into such perilous, depressing times. The poem starts out hopeful with the line, “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave, or wounded in a mentionable place” (lines 1-2) but it ends in despair with the lines, “While you are knitting socks to send your son His face is trodden deeper in the mud” (lines 13-14). In just fourteen lines, Sassoon takes you from the hopefulness that blooms at the beginning of war, to the loss of life it ultimately causes. His poem itself is perhaps a metaphor for war: blooming hope to crushing despair. “The Glory of Women” shows the true face of WW1, and the different experiences men and women had.
I will be the first to tell you that I love scary stories – and I mean love. I love Stephen King, Bram Stoker, and now Robert Louis Stevenson. The 19th century boasted some of the greatest horror stories ever written. “Dracula” (c.1897) and “Frankenstein” (c.1823) and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (c.1886) really introduced readers to a type of genre that had been previously unseen. These stories were and are so fantastic, that they hold up (in scariness) to the horror movies of today. I mean, have you seen Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula in the screen adaption, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”? Pretty scary stuff.
What I like most about the horror genre is that it is so unlike reality. In the sense that horror characters really are kind of out there. I mean, vampires, zombies, and werewolves? Yes, the same can be said for fantasy novels like George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” but horror is different entirely. Yes, it’s mostly fantasy too, but horror takes it to another level. Horror mostly takes scary stories and puts them in semi-real situations. That is what makes them so scary! Some horror stories, such as Stephen King’s “Misery” (by the way, amazing movie staring Kathy Bates), are actually plausible – and that’s what makes them so frightening.
What I particularly like about Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is that it’s a slow build to the horror of the story. I personally love slow buildups, as it makes the horror seem more horrific; the anticipation adds more weight to the surprise. While reading, it’s almost as if you know more than Mr. Utterson does, and this gives the reader a sense of superiority. Stevenson’s story has strong similarities to Stoker’s “Dracula” – in both stories, the reader can sense the danger the characters are facing. For example, while reading, I want to tell Mr. Utterson to stop being so curious, because it seems that it will lead to trouble, and it’s the same with Stoker’s Jonathan Harker in “Dracula.”
The fantastic thing about these stories is the emotions that they evoke. I think that it’s amazing that words, literally words on a page can evoke such fear. So much fear that it makes one want to, I don’t know, maybe just check under your bed and behind your shower curtain.
William Morris’s “The Defense of Guenevere” is truly filled with wondrous writing, and demonstrates his fantastic creative skills. While reading, I found myself wanting to copy quotes in a ‘quote book’ just to save for later. Quotes such as, “I scarce dare talk of the remembered bliss” undeniably show his talent and knack for stringing together words and making them beautiful (Morris 563).
The history of Camelot, Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot is what first drew me to Morris’s work. I am a person that loves a good story, and the story of Camelot is a great one. Long before Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis coined the term ‘Camelot’ to describe her time with her late husband, it was known as a mythological tale of love and revenge. So popular, that it’s even been made into several television shows and movies.
But, unlike the overdramatic, slightly unsympathetic portrayals seen in film and television adaptions, the Guenevere William Morris writes is one of strength, love, honesty, and integrity. While on trial, Guenevere is fiery, and desperate for everyone to know the truth about her love for Lancelot. The brilliance of her character shines through when she refuses, absolutely refuses, to deny their love for one another. She does not act as a victim, but she acts as an accuser; she points out the hypocrisy of her trial – as the men that are judging her should be judged themselves. “Slayer of unarmed men” and “Stripper of ladies” are just two of the many delightful insults that she hurls at these unsympathetic men.
Yes, it is true that Guenevere does not save herself (she waits for Lancelot to save her), but she does fight for herself, and with a passion. She does not fall into the literary trope of a meek, frail woman. Morris’s Guenevere is a fighter, and proves herself to be one. While reading, it was easy to see her as a harborer of truth and a bringer of retribution. In his “The Defense of Guenevere” Morris brings a medieval Guenevere into the present, and transforms her into a relatively modern (19th c.) woman.
When I first read John Ruskin’s “Of Queens’ Gardens,” I was perhaps not as insulted as other modern day readers might have been. Despite the outdatedness of his writing, some of it can be perceived as flattering and truthful. I imagine that when 19th century women first read Ruskin’s work, they were flattered. Here was a man, writing about women in a way in which they were not often written about. He praised women, and shared with the reader how special he thought women were.
Yes, his writing does portray women as homemakers and housewives, but in reading his work in a historical manner; his writing must be seen and read within the lens of historical context. It is a truthful statement that most women of this age were homemakers or housewives. I’m sure that the large majority of these women were not appreciated, and neither was their work (much like today’s stay-at-home moms), and to read Ruskin’s work was a breath of fresh air to these women. In his work, he wrote that women were the heart of the home, that without them there would be no home, “But home is yet wherever she is” (Ruskin 661). No, Ruskin was certainly not elevating women’s position in society, but he was praising them for all that they endured and all that they did within their place in society – and quite honestly I feel as though this is much more than most other men did in this century.
While reading Ruskin’s work, it is obvious that it is from the past. But, the past can be very educational – and though outdated I believe that it shows Ruskin to be an informed man of his day. Yes, he was a 19th century man after all, and did possess some of the faults that accompanied that not so enlightened society, but I do not believe that his “Of Queens’ Gardens” should be vilified. I think that it is an honest critique of society’s treatment of women by a man who tried to have more respect for women than his fellow men ever did.