Both the novels that I am studying for this essay have been considered as hugely important literary works. T. S Eliot’s The Wasteland is thought of as one if not the greatest poetic triumph of the 20th century and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and outstanding tale of the affects of slavery has won many awards and has been talked about as one of the finest works of an African American author of all time.
For the writers both these texts were deeply personal pieces and what I will attempt to do during this essay is to try and discover whether the historical context of when the pieces were written affected its presentation to the readers. I am going to look at the situations that surrounded the writing of the two texts and look for any distinct similarities and how they might be represented. I am also going to see whether the two authors own personal experiences can be reflected in the two texts ands issues like economy, marriage and politics all play major roles within the two pieces.
I will look at events like the First World War and the depression that followed as well as the economic struggle that was 80’s America under Ronald Regan and I hope to try and show how these outside events could have significance within the texts. Thomas Sterns Eliot is best known for his poem ‘The Wasteland’ which literary scholars still study and acknowledge as the poem of the 20th century. He also wrote literary criticism and cultural philosophies. In confronting the world and its past, present and future in art and philosophy Eliot developed an approach to history as complex and mature as any professional historian.
During ‘The Wasteland’ the reader gets an idea of the vastness of Eliot’s knowledge as even the opening statement is written in Greek and Latin and throughout with different references to varying texts. It also shows Eliot’s ability to bring in elements of different texts but still maintain a palatable piece of writing. One of the main events that helped to shape Eliot’s bleak outlook to the world during this period of his life was the First World War (1914-1918) I believe that the war itself can be described as a wasteland and some lines in the poem reflect this.
Images of the wasteland in the first section of the poem (The Burial of The Dead) particularly in the 2nd stanza show us the baron landscape which seems to be featureless and dead, I think that this area could also be interpreted as the image of ‘no mans land’ The wasteland is described as ‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, The cricket no relief’ This could be interpreted as the no mans land area of a battlefield as so many lives were lost and become as described ‘ a heap of broken images’ and I believe that for the people that entered this area they ultimately became just memories.
This portion of the poem shows the fact that in the wasteland much like in war there is no where to hide and no where to gain sustenance. Eliot experienced the War at an early age he was in his mid to late twenties and although he did not serve he was deeply affected by the actions and events that transpired. There was a generation of poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves who evolved from pity to very sharp criticism of the war. One of the most important things to come out of this period and something that is clearly evident in ‘The Wasteland’ is the emergence of Modernism.
The term Modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities that were becoming evident in post WW1 literature. It offered a more realistic view then the optimistic Romantic view of much of the 19th century literature. This period saw the rise in popularity of members of the Bloomsbury group of writers. Bloomsbury was the name given to the literary group that made the Bloomsbury area of London the centre of its activities from 1904 to World War II.
Eliot was also heavily influenced by the philosophies of Henri Bergson Bergson’s philosophies were dualistic he believed that the world contains two opposing tendencies, the life force (i?? lan vital) and the resistance of the material world against that force. ‘Human beings know matter through their intellect, with which they measure the world. They formulate the doctrines of science and see things as entities set out as separate units within space. In contrast with intellect is intuition, which derives from the instinct of lower animals.
Intuition gives us an intimation of the life force which pervades all becoming. Intuition perceives the reality of time-that it is duration directed in terms of life and not divisible or measurable. Duration is demonstrated by the phenomena of memory. ‘ Eliot attended many of his lectures in Paris his work was affected by Bergson’s view on the world. One of the major points that came from Bergson that Eliot adapted and used in his work was the idea that our brains want everything to be logical but in this search for logic we often allow our minds to distort rather then reveal to us.
When I first read ‘The Wasteland’ without any other prior knowledge of it I initially thought that it was a fragmented work that seemed to be way above my own intellectual level but as I have studied more and read into Eliot and Bergson’s philosophies I realise that it is nearly impossible to try and define the poem in terms of logic as this doesn’t seem to be the writers intent. I believe that it is not so easy to pick out a particular line to reflect this but I would rather look at the structure of the poem as a whole.
The montage effect of overlapping sections of ‘The Wasteland’ seem at first to try and confuse but i believe that its meaning is in intuition and what the reader personally makes of it rather then attempting to generalise it and our sense of logic wants ‘The Wasteland’ to be like our ‘typical’ poem with an apparent flowing narrative which we don’t get with Eliot’s writing I think that this in turn shows another thought that was a big influence on the modernist writers and Eliot, Aldous Leonard Huxley described it as the nightmare of determinism’ This belief that nothing could exist outside of the gigantic mechanism of cause and effect was an idea that many modernist writers didn’t like.
My expectations of ‘The Wasteland’ as a run of the mill poem were not found to be true and unlike many other poems I have read ‘The Wasteland’ does not have that ‘typical’ determined structure of many poems even down to the inclusion of lines in German and French intercut with the English.
I do believe that the writings and philosophies of Bergson did play in the writing of ‘The Wasteland’ no so much in a major role not so much in the content as in the layout and structure which allow more for our mind to work then any ‘normal poem’ would. To move back towards the First World War’s effect on ‘The Wasteland’ I believe that the depression that followed the end of the war can be seen as an influence within the poem.
In’ The Wasteland’ this can be best reflected in the passage ‘Unreal City Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. With this section of the poem we see a new version of the wasteland, it has now developed from the ‘no mans land’ I described earlier to a more economic ‘no mans land’ caused by the war. By economic no mans land what I am trying to describe is the incredible economic suffering that many families went through with their sole breadwinner in most cases killed as a result of the war.
With this lack of income families were left in a state of economic desperation with no one to bring in the finances the depression hit hard as children were left as now the mothers had to go out and work. The way women as mothers, wives and daughters were affected by the war as well as children shows the line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’ to be quite true as not only were the effects of war seen on the battlefield but the repercussions were felt for years to come.
The post war depression can clearly be felt throughout this stanza with the workers silently filing to work no one talking but each person feeling the depression of inevitable labour. Eliot’s also had a fairly turbulent personal life. In 1915 he married an English writer named Vivienne Haigh-Wood . Vivienne was upper-middle class, smart and lively but, unknown to Eliot, unstable. I believe that his wife’s infidelity and the resulting breakdown that Eliot suffered had an obvious effect on The Wasteland especially in the section from line 140 – 170 in A game of Chess.
In this section we hear two friends talking about the imminent return of ones husband. This piece also talks about the woman’s infidelity and the fact that she may be pregnant with another mans child. You can see an element of Eliot’s personal life reflected in this section with the apparent infidelity of his wife during their marriage. It is clear to see that Eliot’s personal experiences played a large part in the way that The wasteland is presented to us the reader but I do also want to look at my second text Beloved by Toni Morrison and gage whether there is the same level of personal experience within this novel.
In 1988 African American writer Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel BELOVED, after an open letter, signed by forty-eight prominent black writers, was published in the New York Time Book Review in January. The novel failed to win the National Book Award in 1987, and writers protested that Morrison had never been honoured with either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents had moved to the North to escape the problems of southern racism and she grew up relatively unscarred by racial prejudices.
Her family were migrants, sharecroppers on both sides. Sharecropping was a way to continue post-slavery white supremacy over African Americans. Sharecropping by definition is the working of a piece of land by a tenant in exchange for a portion, usually half, of the crops or the revenue that they bring in for the landowner She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read many different books, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison’s father, George Wofford, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to another generation.
Although she herself did not suffer the harsh racism and prejudice she was determined to learn more about the suffering of her ancestors. Before Morrison there had been many tales of slavery and slaves but few as harsh and explicit as Beloved but Morrisons aim was to tell an undiluted story of the suffering that was felt not only within the confines of slavery itself but also the anguish that was suffered by liberated slaves and slaves that had escaped from their owners.
One law that was passed that has a huge impact on the whole of Beloved was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act this gave power to federal agents to recapture escaped slaves and send them back to where they were previously situated. This caused great emotional stress for escaped slaves as even if they were in the ‘free’ northern states they were still liable to be returned to their initial slave location. Beloved was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She had escaped with her husband Robert from a Kentucky plantation, and sought refuge in Ohio.
When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby, after the infamous 1850s Fugitive Slave Act, in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. The basis of the novel is this true story and Toni Morrison once said “I thought at first it couldn’t be written, but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art. ” Morrison wanted to try and make the story as legitimate as possible and one of the ways she did this was the use of BEV the Black English Vernacular within the novel.
As a language develops, its use by isolated and diverging people also becomes isolated and divergent. “Ebonics” is largely based on the South eastern American-English accent, an influence that has no doubt been reciprocal as the dialects diverged. The traits of Ebonics which separate it from Standard English include: Changes in pronunciation along definable patterns, distinctive slang, as well as differences in the use of tenses. Some of the changes can be traced to common similarities among West African languages. ‘ Nation Master Encyclopaedia
Sociologist and linguists generally believe that it is common for oppressed people (as, for example, African slaves in the Americas) to adopt a radically different dialect from their oppressors. This is done to subtly rebel against the oppressor and his culture, and to differentiate themselves, as well as to foster pride among their community. Slaveholders generally considered the changes in speech to be due to inferior intelligence. While many aspects of Ebonics seem like simplifications of standard American English, there are unique aspects that help make Ebonics as complex as any other language or dialect.
Morrison uses this to good effect in Beloved as nearly all of her characters speak in this form even the character of Amy Denver who is one of the only white characters speaks in a way which seems to reflect her position in society We can tell from the way she speaks that she doesn’t seem that highly educated although throughout her speech she does seem to carry a level of politeness. An element that I believe plays a big part in the novel is Economics.
Although the obvious story is concerning slavery and its effects I think that there is an underlying economic base to much of the storyline. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. ” W. E Dubois The African American race has been traditionally the poorer of the races in America. This is primarily down to the fact that the white majority of America made a profit from the race as a whole through the slave trade. This trade was one that benefited only the white settlers and left a huge economic gap between the slave owners and the actual slaves.
As slavery was abolished the African American community have struggled to gain the same kind of money and living conditions as the richer whites. Although I am not trying to say that all African Americans are poor and all white people in America are rich there has always been a sufficient gap between the finances of these two groups although in the last 50 years these gaps are beginning to close there has still been times where the African American community has suffered economically post slavery.
Marxist critics fiercely support the importance of historically contextualizing a work; it is the backbone of their theory. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton writes: “Marxist criticism analyses literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it; and it needs, similarly, to be aware of its own historical conditions” What I have come to see as the most important historical event is the evolution and expansion of capitalism throughout the United States of America, and specifically its influence upon the African American individual and collective community.
One of these times where the African American Community was hit hard was during the presidency of Ronald Regan around the same time as Morrison was writing Beloved. Under Regan there had been a distinct slide in Americas economy and his policy became known as ‘Reganomics’ under his policies the nations wealth and income were polarized and working class households suffered considerably as did the African American community. Throughout Beloved we see the economic struggle that is faced by Sethe and her family.
First as a free slave Sethe has to work her own land in an attempt to gain finances as well as working in the city and we see at one point in the book how the capitalistic nature of America shows us that the family’s happiest moment together is when Sethe pulls out her life savings to blow on a party, purchasing varying goods and that is what makes them happy not the fact that they have each other but the fact that they can purchase materialistic things for the enjoyment of blowing the money they have worked so hard to earn.
I believe that both of the texts Eliot’s The Wasteland and Morrison’s Beloved both have a significant personal and historical contribution. We can easily dismiss The Wasteland as a fragmented work but if we understand the historical context and elements like the First World War and the depression that followed we can better understand elements of the text.
This can be said also of Beloved as it is not simply a slave narrative as it does have significant historical value as it tells us that not only was suffering felt during slavery but also when people were freed the effects were felt for generations afterwards. But I also believe that events at the time of the writing of Beloved helped to shape the story as at the time of ‘Reganomics’ people might not have been slaves any longer but they were now something else they were slaves to the wage a slave to continued work in an attempt to stay afloat in a capitalist society.