Posted in Reading, Teaching

Navigating Dark Passages

J.M.W. Turner’s “Slave Ship” (1840) / W.W. Norton

At first glance, the painting The Slave Ship seems primarily a showcase for the artist J.M.W. Turner’s use of light and color. But the painting’s title, its subtitle, and closer inspection of its details reveal that Turner’s painting speaks to the  consequences of slavery and oppression, as well as the ways in which we depict such injustices. Readers who encounter The Slave Ship in conjunction with other Victorian-age literature may be reminded not only of the words of John Ruskin–once owner of the painting, who described its “awful but glorious light” (385)–but also of the realization by Frankenstein’s monster that without money or social status, he was considered a “vagabond and a slave” (Shelley 107).

Those words of Shelley’s not only express the sentiments of nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, they also echo the words of her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When the monster recounts Saphie’s education, he observes how “[t]he young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage of which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion [Christianity], and taught her to aspire to higher levels of intellect, and an independent spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (110).

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Excerpt from “The Slave Ship.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. 385.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Turner, J.M.W. Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On). The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. C1.

Posted in Teaching

Nightmares in White Satin

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, ca. 1783-91 / W.W. Norton

My previous blog post features the sample assignment that I wrote for my British literature students. This post presents a second sample that I wrote along with them.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli depicts a blonde lying in her bed chamber with a demon crouched on her chest, eyeing her with a wicked grin. In the background, a wide-eyed, white horse gazes at the pair, his head parting the curtains that separate the irrational world of the nightmare from reality and reason. Though the painting’s title indicates that the slumbering woman is having a nightmare, her arched back and raised knees create an image that’s more erotic than horrific. The demon crouched on her chest heightens the eroticism of the painting, as the impish figure appears in the form of the iconic incubus of mythology and folklore, a demon who descends upon people in slumber, often to engage in sexual intercourse.

A painting of the Romantic era, The Nightmare evokes literature of the period as well works of earlier centuries that the Romantics turned back to for inspiration. With paint, Fuseli expresses the same themes that Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge convey with words: Victor Frankenstein’s Angel of Destruction (Ch. 3) and the Ancient Mariner’s vision of death and his mate (line 189). Pre-Romantic-era works that The Nightmare echoes include John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost–the source of Frankenstein‘s epigraph–“The Daemon-lover,” from the oral tradition of Celtic balladry, and the New Testament Book of Revelation.

 Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 448-64.

Fuseli, Henry. The Nightmare. The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C5.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

The Ring and the River

Both Members of This Club, George Bellows, 1909 / W.W. Norton

Each volume of The Norton Anthology of English and American Literature now features a full-color section of visual art that offers readers the opportunity to consider the parallels between the words on the page and the paint on the canvases of the same era. That opportunity prompted me to create an assignment series for my British Literature students that asks them to write a blog post about one of the works of art and make connections between that visual art and one or more of their readings. This blog post, “The Ring and the River,” is one that I composed as a model for my British Literature students. I chose a painting from the American anthology to avoid the risk that my students would think that the blog post they wanted to write had already been written.

As a member of the Ashcan school of artists, painter George Bellows championed the representation of American society in its many forms, in particular the working classes. Seeing Bellows’ painting Both Members of This Club in The Norton Anthology of American Literature brings to mind one of the novels included in the anthology: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Bellows turned to the boxing ring to depict America as Twain turned to the Mississippi River. The opponents in the ring evoke the racial conflict at the heart of Twain’s narrative, and the grotesque faces of the crowd mirror the images of the mob in Chapter 22. In the words of Colonel Sherburn, “[t]he pitifulest thing out is a mob” (200).

 Work Cited

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865-Present. 9th ed. Robert S. Levine, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 108-290.