Friday, 23 April 2010

My Five Favourite Dance Performances

Tobias Mead in Britain's Got Talent 2010:

Benji Schwimmer and Heidi Groskreutz' stunning West Coast Swing. A study in interpretation:

Some of these moves were taken from their 2001 performance. I still can not see what they are doing with their arms at 1:55:

This is the group routine of "Five Guys Named Moe" from "So you think you can dance" season 4. The versions on youtube are of very poor quality and Fox tries to hinder every leak. Right now, downloading the film here seems to be the only option:

Look out, brother Eat Moe!

Similarly, footage of Mark Kanemura's performance to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the audition for that season is excessively hard to come by. The closest we get is this link.

Mark Kanemura seeing a little silhouetto of a man

“Don’t worry, I’m okay” - An analysis of “The Sopranos" as an appropriation of “Hamlet”

In the following I will analyse the HBO hit television series The Sopranos as an appropriation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although one might write extensively on the subject, I will limit this essay to discussing how the setting, protagonist and some themes can be seen as appropriations of the original play. All relevant terms are from Julie Sanders' Adaptation and Appropriation (i). I will focus my attention mainly on the first season, although my conclusions are representative for the series as a whole.

The plot in Sopranos takes place in a relatively limited setting. The crime family controls the New Jersey area in New York and, apart from a few very brief excursions like Tony’s visit in Italy in the second season and sporadic visits to Florida, most of the action takes place in the northern East Coast area. Most of the episodes are located in New Jersey with local sights frequently represented in order to emphasise its importance. Whenever the geographical setting changes in the series, it is always tied up with a parallel plotline interpolated in the episode in order to maintain the connection to the basic geographical setting. Likewise, the show never leaves its Italian American, masculine mobster milieu. At times, characters visit other social, vocational or ethnic groups, but always as emissaries if not in the context of the plot then as a tool for contrast and social commentary.

The temporal setting is also quite limited. Although there are a few flashbacks in episode 7, season 1, time in the series is often remarkably linear. The interconnectedness of the episodes further underlines this linearity. The series is built around the protagonist’s handling of different situations, conflicts and challenges that arise. Since there often is an overlap between these situations and since they often span more than one episode, the timeline does not only seem linear. It also seems to be rather limited and in real time. The show is supposed to be following the everyday life of Tony’s families and we see his private family developing like a family would; children passing through their teens and various educational institutions. The show was shot more or less consecutively from 1999 to 2007 so the visual development of characters closely follows that of the actors. In this way, the audience gets the impression that nothing is left out and that the order of events is genuinely linear.

Although transposed in time and geography, the setting shares several of these characteristics with Hamlet. Hamlet’s excursions from Elsinore are limited both in time, frequency and extent in much the same relative proportions to the play as those of the series. While both time span and geographical setting might differ in extent, “Hamlet” taking place in and around the royal seat of Denmark within a few months and Sopranos being played out across several states and several years, this may be seen as a product of genre since a television series generically can accommodate a more extensive setting. Features of the setting, like the general linearity of time and the relative conformity of geographical location are thus received in another genre. Furthermore, both source text and appropriation is located within a masculine power sphere, an environment of macro- and micro political struggles where perhaps the micro political dynastic conflicts are most clearly linked. However, even though Tony’s brushes with the FBI as a representative of overarching society are more prominent in the appropriation, the threat from Norway and the ambiguous role of its representative Fortinbras as representatives of macro politics are also ever present in the hypotext, albeit admittedly not as explicitly as in the hypertext.

This proximation entails added potential for both the hypotext and the hypertext. Sopranos, by mimicking the setting of Hamlet, can more easily explore personal issues that are accommodated by a limitation of the physical environment and like the play focus viewer attention on these issues rather than distracting them with constant change of setting and the implications this has for the plot’s effect in conveying themes. It also makes a further reception of themes, characters, character relationships, conflicts and other forms of analogy possible. Finally, the proximation gives Hamlet relevance for a new audience, one which might under other circumstances have remained unfamiliar with the archetypes, plot structures and issues discussed in the play.

Character, Characterisation and Conflict
Both the hyper- and the hypotext are dramatic forms of art, which puts an obvious stock in characters. Therefore, it is to be expected that many aspects of the appropriation’s relationship to the original would be somehow represented by the characters. A clear indication of this is given in the titles of the play and the series; Hamlet referring to its protagonist and The Sopranos referring to Tony Soprano and the two families that bear his name. With the connection between the protagonists made, we may proceed to explore how the characters of the series may have corresponding characters in the play, how relationships may compare and how the characters may represent received themes.

The eponymous Tony Soprano is the troubled prince of a feudal construct. The acting boss leads his own society, the Soprano crime family which partially overlaps with his private family and “there’s the rub”(ii) . Tony’s father, Johnny, is dead and his brother, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, thinks he is entitled to be the next boss. He strikes a note with Tony’s mother, Livia, and these two become a constellation with which Tony frequently has to grapple. Throughout the series, Tony acts as the de facto boss while Junior, without his knowledge, acts as a cover.

There are numerous ways in which the Tony character echoes and imitates Hamlet. Firstly, their situations are similar. Both have lost a father whose example guides them but also instils a sense of inadequacy. The series, in fact, opens with Tony seeking help from Dr. Melfi, the psychiatrist, because he feels that the golden age is passed and that his world is on the decline. He feels that his father requires him to run his criminal organisation as smoothly as he did. Both protagonists have trouble with similar constellations of elderly family members, and in a sense, both are individuals whose basic existence, at least for the duration of the play/series, is founded on opposition against established society. In Tony’s case this is an alternative form of government which pitches him both as an opponent of the established order but also as an individual within a limited dynasty. This, drawing on notions of American anti-statism, is an intercultural form of analogue as the basic motif of the individual vs. society is echoed, although in a different cultural setting (more on this below)(iii).

Secondly, and perhaps most decisively, the two protagonists correspond in personality. Both present a combination of violence and meditation. In Hamlet’s case, this is shown in his treatment of most of the other characters and in his soliloquies. For Tony, as well as for the medium, a soliloquy would be out of place but the basic motif for the series, a mobster in therapy, provides a channel for Tony’s inner self. Both characters have to put on a show to their surroundings for the sake of their being, the twist being that Tony has to act stong and mentally stable to avoid being seen as weak, while Hamlet has to act mad to avoid being seen as a threat. This is represented in the following passage from The Sopranos:

“Junior: Are you okay? You’ve been acting [mental] lately. I haven’t seen a long face like that since you were a kid.
Tony: I’m okay […] don’t worry about it” (iv)
While the hypotext presented aspects of Hamlet’s personality through soliloquies and the at times actual presence of his father the ghost, the proximated form of the hypertext does not allow such supernatural tools. The characterisation of Tony is brought about through the presence of his son Anthony Junior (AJ), Dr.Melfi and by some brief flashbacks. The relationship to Anthony Junior works as a tool for representing Tony’s relationship to his dead father, as crucial in the series as in the play. In episodes 4 and 7 in the first series, Tony worries about how his actions influence his son who is taking to fighting and stealing. In episode 7, we are also given some of the very few visual representations of the Tony’s father figure through flashbacks. Johnny Soprano is presented as what Tony in his therapy sessions presents as ideal; a loving family man and a tough and decisive mafioso. This influences how he relates to his role in society, which is closely linked to his idea of the idealised father, and also to his depression and dilemma of action vs. inaction (see below). As in Hamlet the father-son relationship largely dictates the characterisation of the protagonist as well as the plot, which revolves around the conflict of reality imposing itself between the ideal and the protagonist.

As mentioned earlier, Hamlet’s soliloquies are proximated as therapy sessions in the hypertext. These sessions are vehicles of characterisation in The Sopranos much like the soliloquies were in Hamlet. It is here Tony ponders many of the dilemmas and issues presented below and it is through the sessions the audience is brought into the characterisation of the protagonist; Tony and Hamlet both grapple with the same question; “Am I a good person?” Both behave badly towards their fellow characters, often with questionable justification. Hamlet has to deal with this question himself and does so, e.g. in the soliloquy at the end of act 2 (v). In Tony’s case, this task is given to the audience. In other words, where the hypotext provided both the process of characterisation and the conclusion, the hypertext only provides the process through the therapy sessions. This is one of the central functions of the series, for where the play settles the virtue of the protagonist, the series engages the audience in deciding whether the deplorable acts of Tony are justified by his intentions. In this way, the appropriation comments on what can be seen as a closed discussion of motivation and an assertive characterisation in the play. However, the mode of characterisation can also be seen as another privilege of genre as a series of six seasons can accommodate greater uncertainty of characterisation than a five act play.

Both the play and the series are structured around the personalities of the two protagonists and these are the basis for the themes and conflicts discussed. Since both hypo- and hypertext fundamentally deals with the personal issues of the protagonists, an analysis of these as central aspects of appropriation would fit logically alongside that of the protagonist.

Both characters struggle with depression brought on by dilemmas of action vs. inaction and how to relate to the world as individuals. At the start of the series Tony admits to being depressed just like Hamlet more or less directly does at the start of the play (vi). Indeed, later episodes, such as episode 11 of the first season, are episodes in which a thematical appropriation of Hamlet is apparent. In the episode, he knows some of his friends are working with the FBI and is unsure who to trust. His wife confronts his mother with regard to her effect on his mental state, and the following passages ensue:
(The following monologue ensues, interspersed with protestations and exclamations by Carmela)
“Carmela: You are bigger than life, you are his mother, and I don’t think for one second that you don’t know what you’re doing to him. […] I know [Junior] stops by a lot.”

Livia: He is my husband’s brother. He can’t check up on me once in a while? That’s not of anybody’s business. I know what you’re hinting at. Wait until you are abandoned. Johnny was a saint. Junior couldn’t carry Johnny’s socks. Do you think I would blacken my Johnny’s memory by getting mixed up with his brother? At least with Junior I’ve got some purpose in life. Somebody listens to me and doesn’t treat me like an old shoe” (vii) 
The reference to Hamlet is obvious. Later, Dr. Melfi diagnoses Tony’s feelings as one of impending doom, and not long after he says he’ll “take a gun and blow my brains out”(viii) in a vein reminiscent both of Hamlet’s suicidal ponderings in the “too too solid flesh” and “to be” soliloquies (ix). Hamlet’s depression is brought on by the lack of standards represented by his father, his perception of corruption within the world and all the other characters and by the union of his uncle and mother. For Tony, these causes are replicated in relation to his crew, Junior and his mother. Like Hamlet and Horatio, Tony only feels he can trust Dr. Melfi and that everyone else fails to live up to the standards he has inherited from his father. It is worth noting that he holds his mother responsible for his father’s death:

“Tony: my mother wore him down to a little nub, he was a squeaking little gerbil when he died.
Dr. Melfi: Quite a formidable maternal presence.”(x)
In an interesting analogy of plot, Tony’s preoccupation with his mother’s destructive powers is justified when she and Junior hire two assassins to kill him. In a proximated imitation of Hamlet’s account at the start of act 5, scene 2, the two assassins die in the attempt to kill the protagonist in a vehicle, just like Hamlet brings about the death of his erstwhile friends turned implicit assassins Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on a boat (xi). The scene nicely encapsulates the causes of Tony’s depression, and like the corresponding scene in Hamlet together with the closet scene (3.4) which is later mirrored in The Sopranos (xii), brings about a resolve and a new understanding of the causes for his depression. This is of course another reference to Hamlet’s resolve in act 4.

One might expect revenge to be a theme appropriated into a gangster series and it is, but three examples will show how, as in the play, revenge is tied with overarching dilemmas. First, in episode 9 of the first season, Tony considers having the coach of his daughter’s soccer team killed for molesting one of her teammates. He sees it as his responsibility to avenge “foul deeds”, implicitly because that is what his father would have done, but Melfi confronts him more or less directly citing Hamlet; “Why do you think you, Anthony Soprano, always have to set things right?”. As a telling twist, Hamlet informs our understanding of Tony’s conundrum as Hamlet more explicitly attributes this mission to his father, him being “born to set it right” (xiii). From episode 11, season 1 and onwards Tony struggles with issues of loyalty. Several times revenge becomes a response to members of his crew betraying him for the FBI or rival gangs. Especially the case with his close friend Salvatore Bonpensiero, whose fate is sealed on a boat, is not only analogous in plot to Hamlet but also in theme. Sal’s demise at the end of the second season is preceded by 16 episodes of mental stress and pondering for Tony which at times leads to suicidal thoughts and paranoia (xiv). When Sal proves to have betrayed Tony, Tony fails in his mission of running a crew after his father’s idealised standards. In both cases revenge acts as a motif for Tony’s idea of his role as an individual in a larger society and it also explores the dilemma of action vs. inaction. Finally, as a more direct form of appropriation, the motif of avenging a father is imitated in the opening episode of season 4 where Tony’s nephew Christopher, whom he sees as a potential heir to the position of boss, avenges his father’s murder by killing a policeman Tony identifies as his murderer. Throughout the episode, Tony functions like the ghost did for Hamlet, spurring him on.

As hinted earlier, the theme of individuality and conformity, or how the individual should relate to the world around him is present in both hypo- and hypertext. Tony is, as a mafia boss, fundamentally opposed to established society although he feels obliged to uphold some of its morals. In episode 10, season 1, the tries to enter established society for the sake of himself and his family (see AJ above), but he finds this lifestyle repulsive and hypocritical and decides to act in society from his alternative approach of organised crime. The episode debates breaking with one’s destiny, which for Tony is following his father’s example and acting as a boss, or to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet similarly pondered in the “to be” soliloquy. Like Hamlet, Tony decides to “let be” (xv), that is to adhere to his father’s command even though this will leave him outside and opposed to the established order.

I have analysed some of the ways in which The Sopranos is an appropriation of Hamlet. The most prominent are the proximated setting, the many aspects and relationships of the protagonist and many of the central themes to both texts. It seems that a certain open-mindedness is needed for such an analysis as few aspects of the hypotext have unambiguous or even consistent counterparts in the hypertext. It is also debatable whether what is appropriated stems from the play or from the universality of character traits, conflicts and themes represented in it. That being said, the play and the series share too much to ignore the possibility of the latter being an appropriation of the former. The director, David Chase, has made no allusions to the play, but that in itself does not effect this theory. Perhaps it’s fitting to conclude the essay the way the series was concluded in 2007, with The Sopranos’ take on “the rest is silence” (xiv); the sudden cut to black.

(i) Julie Sanders: Adaptation and Appropriation, London, 2006
(ii)William Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. by Philip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge, 2003: 3.1.65
(iii)Sanders 2006: 99
(iv)David Chase: The Sopranos Complete Series 1-6 Box Set, [1999-2007] (DVD), season 1, episode 6, 42:33. (Henceforth referenced as s #, ep. #, ##:##)
(v)Shakespeare 2003: 2.2.501-558
(vi)S 1, ep. 1, 28:00
(vii)S 1, ep. 11, 17:00-19:00
(viii)S 1, ep. 11, 11:08, S1, ep.12, 17:50
(ix)Shakespeare 2003: 1.2.129-159, 3.1.56-89
(x)S1, ep. 1, 30:53-33:22. This scene is a very good representation of Tony’s state of mind and perception of reality.
(xi)S 1, ep. 12, 27:40-28:40, Shakespeare 2003: 5.2.1-62
(xii)S 1, ep. 13, 52:00
(xiii)S 1, ep. 9, 41:26, Shakespeare 2003: 1.5.189-190
(xiv) This is especially apparent in s 1, ep. 12
(xv)Shakespeare 2003: 3.1.56-89, 5.2.196. For this analysis to work, one must assume that Hamlet in his soliloquy equates following his father’s command and killing Claudius with ”suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and suicide/remaining passive with “by opposing end them”. Lines 83-87 might suggest that suicide and remaining passive is the same thing. One might easily imagine Tony Soprano considering a life outside the mafia a slow suicide. His definitive break with established society echoes Hamlet’s conclusion when he answers “I’ll live” (S 1, ep. 10, 50:06)
(xvi)Shakespeare 2003: 5.2.337


Julie Sanders, Julie: Adaptation and Appropriation, London, 2006
Shakespeare, William: Hamlet, ed. by Philip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge, 2003

Television series:
Chase, David: The Sopranos Complete Series 1-6 Box Set, [1999-2007] (DVD)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Spring Urges

As spring approaches old urges reawakens. I, as many others .....

It is a good vital sign following a harsh winter when you can indulge in high-pitched falsetto singing. For those of you who would like to join me:

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Things You don't Need

Here's a refreshing filmclip I found. I know a number of people in my circle of aquaintance who could benefit from watching this.

So I guess I will not be ordering this Sarah Palin action figurine after all.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Blast from the Past: “Wuthering Heights” and Combined Perspectives

In this essay I will aim to describe how my experience of Emily Brönte’s novel “Wuthering Heights” has been altered as a result of my reading the critical essay by Susan Meyer included in the edition of the novel. The latter is the last in a number of critical essays concerning the novel, all of which argues for their different critical approaches and point to symbolism, hidden themes and aspects of the novel to which it would be advantageous for the reader to direct his attention. What sets Meyer’s essay apart from the others, is that she does not focus on only one perspective, but combines several to provide a fuller interpretation of the novel. I will argue that she, in addition to this, presents her own perspective. In order to find how my experience of the novel altered by reading Meyer, I had to make sure that my first reading of the novel was a process in which I passed judgment upon and decided how to relate to the actions of the characters and their conduct. In addition to this, an awareness of the fact that there were underlying themes and symbolism in the novel had to be present, in order to have something to compare the themes and symbolism of the critical essays to. How was my experience of the novel altered by reading Meyer, and in what ways did this essay prove to be more beneficial to the reader than the single perspective essays represented by the also included Wion essay?

Having read Susan Meyer’s essay and then reread the novel my awareness of several points of which I had been previously unaware arose. This was mainly in relation to theme and the role of the characters. My first reading had produced a notion of the novel conveying some sort of social criticism, but, having read Meyer’s essay, I came to acknowledge just how prominent this theme was. The novel is primarily thematically critical of various forms of social oppression enacted by contemporary society of the time, more specifically inflicted upon the colonised peoples and women, and to some extent the working class (i). However, having stated this, I found that the driving force in the novel, at least according to Meyer, is these oppressed groups fighting back and ultimately winning, primarily through the character of Heathcliff.

The essay’s interpretation of the role of Heathcliff, combined with the theme above, also enriched my experience of the novel. I had not really seen Heathcliff as a representative of anyone or anything but himself until rereading the novel. What seemed most intriguing were the ways in which Heathcliff was shown to represent the colonised peoples and the determined manner in which he reversed his relationship to those to which he had been subjugated (symbolic of the reverse imperialism). The essay also helped me become aware of the fact that the novel had close connections to the real world, not just in themes but also in small details such as Heathcliff’s three year long absence, which, “as a calculation of dates in the novel reveals, takes place between 1780 and 1783, the last three years of the American Revolutionary War” (ii). These enlightening facts are the result of a closer study that gives meaning to the novel, results that I may not have been able to achieve myself without the benefit of Meyer’s essay.

Is, then, Meyer’s approach in some ways more beneficial to the reader than the other approaches, being one that claims to be combining several perspectives rather than arguing just one? I would say that this is the case, but not in the manner which one may at first expect. In theory, any such essay that considers more than one perspective would have more to offer the reader than one that focuses primary on one. The perspectives are being weighed against each other in significance, and also, such a combination of perspectives provides a fuller picture of literary phenomena such as the roles of the characters. The single perspective essay, although useful in the thorough way it presents its perspective, is inevitably bound to consider only those aspects of the novel that support that particular perspective, thus giving an incomplete picture of the novel.

Philip K. Wion’s essay of psychoanalytic perspective “The Absent Mother in Wuthering Heights” shows ways in which a single perspective essay is less successful as a means of understanding the novel than an essay such as Meyer’s. Although Wion is touching central issues in the novel such as the identity of the characters, this is only a minor point. His main point, though not his only point, is that of the mother figure, and the basis for his focus on this is, I believe, his knowledge of the author’s problems with coping with the death of her own mother. I consider this to be slightly misguided, as Wion to a larger extent than the others fails to focus on the novel as an entity in its own right, and becomes too preoccupied with the author. A theme of little prominence and consequence is given too much attention due to similarities to the life of the author. Although the link between the author and the novel is present, the primary focus of such an essay should be the novel in itself. The essay suffers the fate of many other similar single perspective essays, it fails to focus on prominent and influential themes in the novel and through lack of hard textual evidence impose its views upon lesser evidence (iii). Instead of joining together several minor perspectives, which would have presented the reader with a sense of the variety of themes and possibly some interconnectedness, Wion has to lean on information that need not necessarily be of any consequence to the novel to grant his perspective validity. This makes the essay less successful as a means of understanding the novel than, in fact, all the other essays, but Meyer’s essay of combining perspectives in particular.

The status of Meyer’s essay as being a more effective tool in understanding the novel than the others is based in its dual goal of presenting a new perspective in addition to providing a combination of perspectives. The essay does not actually combine perspectives merely for the benefit of the reader as much as for the purpose of providing a basis for a new perspective, which leaves the reader with a myriad of impressions. The main one, though, is that of the novel as a testimony to reverse imperialism, as is indeed indicated in the very title of the essay (iv). Thus, the essay actually goes beyond the others, as it both presents a new perspective, as well as leaving the reader with an interpretation of decisive sections of the novel in accordance with the most befitting critical approach. Meyer recognises and takes into account that the novel does, in fact, have several themes and can be critically approached in an equal multitude of ways. In conveying this she provides an approach much more beneficial to the reader than the other critics. By using the other approaches as a basis for her own perspective, she gives the latter a status, or at least an air, of superiority as it is well founded, not only in the text, but also in a variety of other approaches.

“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brönte is a novel packed with various themes. It can be read and reread with focus on a new theme each time, and one would thus get several different impressions of the novel. However, an essay such as the one by Meyer can go a long way in touching on all the themes and thereby providing a much more effective and, to the reader, beneficial tool than the other essays. Also, it ensures that the themes it presents are of influence in the text, and often connected in some manner. My experience of the novel was certainly enriched by having read the essay, and this to a much greater extent than would have been the case after reading a single perspective essay.


(i) The same conclusion is reached by Linda H. Peterson in the introduction to Meyer’s essay (Peterson 479). The similarities between the situations of these groups as well became clear to me through the essay, as I had at first perceived Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship to be a purely amorous one.)
(ii) Meyer 495
(iii) The Wion essay is also a complete essay, it is not taken from a larger argument, so one would expect it to be more focused than it is.
(iv) Meyer 480


Emily Brontë, ‘Wuthering Heights’, edited by, and including introductions by, Linda H. Peterson (Boston and New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2nd ed, 2003).

Critical Essays included in this ed.:

Susan Meyer, ‘Your Father Was Emperor of China, and Your Mother an Indian Queen’: Reverse Imperialism in Wuthering Heights (Reprinted from ‘Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction’, Cornell University Press, 1996)

Philip K. Wion, ‘The Absent Mother in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights’ (Reprinted from ‘American Imago 42:2’, John Hopkins Press, 1985)

(original essay written for the course ENG1301, 07.04.2006)

Monday, 5 April 2010

Wodehouse and Carroll

Read these during the Easter break:

PG Wodehouse: Pigs Have Wings
A Blandings novel

Can the Empress of Blandings win the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Show for the third year running? Galahad Threepwood, Beach the butler and others have put their shirt on this, and for Lord Emsworth it will be paradise on earth. But a substantial obstacle lurks in the way: Queen of Matchingham, the new sow of Sir Gregory Parsloe Bart. Galahad knows this pretender to the crown must be pignapped. But can the Empress in turn avoid a similar fate?

In this classic Blandings novel, pigs rise above their bulk to vanish and reappear in the most unlikely places, while young lovers are crossed and recrossed in every room in Blandings Castle.

(Blurb from

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves 
A Jeeves and Wooster novel

Gussie Fink-Nottle’s knowledge of the common newt is unparalleled. Drop him in a pond of newts and his behaviour will be exemplary, but introduce him to a girl and watch him turn pink, yammer, and suddenly stampede for great open spaces. Even with Madeline Bassett, who feels that the stars are God’s daisy chain, his tongue is tied in reef-knots. And his chum Tuppy Glossop isn’t getting on much better with Madeline’s delectable friend Angela.

With so many broken hearts lying about him, Bertie Wooster can’t sit idly by. The happiness of a pal – two pals, in fact – is at stake. But somehow Bertie’s best-laid plans land everyone in the soup, and so it’s just as well that Jeeves is ever at hand to apply his bulging brains to the problems of young love.

I loved and can recommend both.

However, when I got home this was in my mailbox:

The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll

all his stories, acrostics, "phantasmagoria" and other comic writings.

All of it!

"Looking forward to it" seems hardly adequate....

It's Good to be Bad - The Appeal of the Villain

Recently I went to the cinema to watch Tim Burton’s ”Alice in Wonderland”. The film was visually astonishing and very Burtonesque but all the while I felt there was something amiss. It might have been the notion that all the 3D graphic splendor was obscuring something lacking, perhaps an erratic and unclear plotline or possibly an ad hoc, disconnected and irrelevant ending. Be that as it may, and granting Burton some leeway due to some rather erratic source texts, I came away with a newfound fondness for another literary character.

Two weeks later, the only character from the film that really sticks in my mind and retains its puzzling appeal is the Red Queen. In the film, she is a waterhead combination of Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays her, and Elizabeth I. In fact, for those with some knowledge of the British monarchy a study of the Red Queen’s family, castle and its décor in the film should add to the experience of the film. I spent the two weeks reading Lewis Carroll’s books and became further enchanted with the character after which it was promply initiated into my pantheon of literary exclusifs.

What characterises this exclusive society is that its members are all on the morally wrong side of their respective texts. The Red Queen joins Emily Brontë’s Heatcliff, Shakespeare’s Iago and Victor Hugo’s Javert, neither of whom would be asked to be the best man or expected to bring an apple for the teacher in class. None of the members can be said to have made their worlds better places by their sunny disposition or by their souls’ overflow of the milk of human kindness, which begs the question; why are bad guys so much more interesting, not to mention appealing, than the good guys?

Samuel Johnson meant that authors had a moral obligation to make the good seem rewarding and pleasant and the evil abhorrent. However, he seems to have been disregarded. To seek an answer to the question above I will take a closer look at the three members, starting with the first member accepted, Heathcliff. Heathcliff holds the peculiar position of being the protagonist of his text but embodying many of the characteristics generally attributed to the antagonist. Not only does he bring death and damnation to his rural Yorkshire community, but he probably does not do any good for anyone at all apart from himself. Probably as a result of a bad childhood, being abandoned by his parents and bullied by his foster family, Heathcliff spends 30 years getting his own back and succeds in doing so. (For those interested in Brontë’s motivation for this elaborate and time consuming revenge, I will soon be posting one of my papers discussing that very topic.) Heathcliff’s appeal is for me twofold; firstly, he is tenacious and consistent and secondly, he is justified. The commitment with which he exacts his revenge without losing sight of his goal and the effort he puts into achieving what he think is right is exemplary. This and empathy we have for him as he sets the record straight gives him an appeal which his actions, or rather the surface actions of the supraplot, don’t directly communicate. Perhaps it is the combination of doing something consistently bad, being able to justify it and getting away with it that is appealing for those of us who do neither.

It is suprisingly easy to find modern echoes of Heathcliff, especially in Hollywood movies. Beatrice Kiddo in Quentin Tarrantino’s “Kill Bill” shares many of Heathcliff’s characteristics, although her revenge is swift by comparison. John Travolta’s character in “Swordfish” similarly lives by the creed that to deter acts of terrorism one should respond to them by doing something so terrible that other acts of terrorism would be unthinkable. This also bears an eerie resemblance to the attitude of certain neo-con White House advisors and a certain ex-Vice President.

The Original and Three Copycats

Iago’s forte is his ability to lay great plans and to understand the personality, response and behavioural pattern of the pawns in his play. Even though his ends are foul the tenacity and the skill with which he creates appearances and steers the other characters of “Othello” towards their doom are astonishing. Thus, you might call him a Heathcliff with social skills.

Javert also shares the tenacious character of Heathcliff. His animosity with Jean Valjean, like Heathcliff’s to his foster family and neighbours, spans several decades during which his drive for what he sees as justice never diminishes. He is the only credible character, the others being flat; either too idealistic or too villainous. Javert, cold as he may be, is a man determined to do his duty even though he is a diametric foil to the angelic protagonist Valjean. There is a liberation in having a task to stick to irregardless of moral considerations which, I think, the reader envies Javert. This is not to say that one would like to be one of the many anonymous henchmen in literature, who do their duty without too much hesitation. Javert has an established and in the novel clearly presented view of his world and has a conscious relationship to his task. The crisis for Javert occurs when this understanding is rocked with Valjean’s mercy disproving the infallibillity of the law Javert follows. However, up to this point, Javert seems a force larger than life, as reliable a friend as an enemy or employee and in a world of constant distractions his doggedness and efficiency when on the case appears admirable.

"You'll Wear a Different Chain"

The Red Queen is a bad guy of a different sort. She is a mad bad guy. Her appeal lies in her mad and for her consequence free impulsivity. Her catch-phrase “off with her head” is uttered in an offhand manner as if resolving the most trivial requests rather than matters of life and death. In Carroll’s books, these sporadic death sentences are never carried through due to the Red King pardoning the unfortunate convicts. In the film, however, Alice has to jump across a moat using heads as stepping stones.

Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen

Perhaps the allure of the Red Queen is her whimsical use of her absolute power. Both man and beast bows for her often childish whim and she is allowed to act unquestioned by anyone but Alice. The Red Queen can do as many bad things as she like without having to face the consequences while we seldom can. Even if we avoid the judgement of our peers, there will always be some part of us which reacts to our transgression. However, all the characters above seem devoid of such qualms and, as they evade punishment from without, they appeal to an aspect of us which craves this freedom of action, possibly originating in our childhood.

We may trace the appeal of the villain way back, to Milton and further. Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost” serves to exemplify the allure of the villain. While God is aloof and rather flat, an unforgiving, immovable character, Satan is a dynamic force which overcomes obstacles and struggles to achieve. I think we are able to identify with bad guys because we recognise this struggle as our own justifiable existence. What we find sufficient reason for our actions can often be reflected in that of the villain. While the good guy’s actions get their virtue from being performed by the good guy, the bad guy’s actions are driven by more familiar motivations. Very few would consider “I’m a good guy” a valid reason for any action, but they might find zest and zeal for one’s job, pursuit of personal happiness or setting the record with your childhood bullies straight mitigating. As for the Red Queen, that might be a question of personal freedom and independence from social standards which is to some extent what the Alice books are all about.

In addition, it is easier to be really bad than to be really good…