Delayed Judgement for King Lear

Within the first couple scenes of King Lear, it becomes clear that some characters are meant to be perceived as “good” and others as “bad.” Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are bad; Cordelia and Kent are good. Lear is maybe the only one whose goodness isn’t set in stone at the end of the first act. Although Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all have legitimate grievances tied to their lack of options to gain wealth and power in a patriarchal society dominated by inheritance, they are marked from the beginning as evil. In later acts, their evilness becomes clear in the violence that they either take part in or allow to occur, but in Act 1 their only bad action is trying to push back against an unfair system.

The reason for these snap good/bad divisions in the play is loyalty, but only loyalty to the “natural” power, which is Lear. This is shown through the treatment of Goneril’s servant Oswald, a very loyal character who is repeatedly harassed by Lear in Act 1 Scene 4 and Kent in Act 2 Scene 2 for showing Lear less than complete devotion. But it’s unclear why Lear deserves this devotion in the first place, when his unpredictable temper and lack of compassion for Kent and Cordelia suggest that he is not a capable or worthy leader. Why is Lear, who begins with the advantages of complete power via the “natural” system and still treats the people around him poorly, the one who gets a redemption arc?

Nature and Growth in “Fussy”

Fussy” by Malia from her 2019 album Ripe is a song that I would consider poetry. If poetry can either expand or deepen your experience, this song falls into the “deepens” category. It describes personal growth– growing up and learning to leave behind things and people that don’t make you happy, despite the judgement you might face, so that you can be more fully yourself. The song is directed at the people from the speaker’s past who had once held them back, and adopts a tone of peaceful freedom. 

The song maintains an extended metaphor surrounding plants and nature, shown through lines such as the repeated “The fruit off the tree ain’t sorry to be where it’s sunny.” Fallen fruit is typically a negative symbol, because it means the fruit will begin to rot, but in this case the speaker subverts expectations because they aren’t at all sad to be distant from the “tree” they grew up on; instead, they’re happy to have left it behind for the better times represented by sunlight. These references to growth in nature, to trees in particular, symbolize the speaker’s growth that is the theme of the song. 

Like the food I eat

That comes from the trees

Save flowers for bees

Only take what I need

Just keepin’ the peace

These lines show how the song also uses the nature metaphor to suggest peace and security, like everything in the speaker’s life is now in its proper place, just as every organism has a place in an ecosystem. The speaker is focusing only on what they “need” to be happy, and this mindset has allowed them to exist much more peacefully in the world, without the stress that they used to experience from trying to fit into a role dictated by someone else. The food from the trees represents how their personal growth has become a force that sustains them. 

The speaker also explicitly addresses their audience at times, with lines such as “I’ll be here when you come for me.” This line, particularly the use of the very direct “you” pronoun, shows their confidence– they’re at a place in their life where they’re happy and don’t care what others think of them. They also aren’t afraid of these people “coming for” them, both in the slang sense of trying to start a fight or argument, and in the metaphorical sense of the rest of the poem– these people can no longer disturb the speaker, who will continue to do their own thing in this nature-filled happy place.

Saeed’s Disdain for Nadia’s Robes

Hamid comments on gender roles and sexism throughout Exit West, but I felt this theme was somewhat separate from the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. On multiple occasions, Nadia is harassed, assaulted, or generally faces the threat of violence from men: a man swears at her when she’s stopped at a red light on her motorcycle (42), she’s sexually assaulted in a crowd at a bank (63), and near the end of the story, a man comes into her workplace and threatens her with a gun (216). But these events struck me as distinct from the story of the couple. Despite the two being together throughout almost the entire story and being very close, Saeed doesn’t really have to reckon with or address any of this danger, as all of these events occur when he and Nadia are not together, and they do not discuss them. 

I think the fact that Saeed doesn’t understand this aspect of Nadia’s lived experience is part of what causes them to split up. This disconnect between them is particularly clear in Saeed attitude towards Nadia’s robes, which she explained early on she wears “‘so men don’t fuck with me’” (17). It is understandable, after the many negative experiences she has had with men in her life, that she would continue wearing the conservative clothing as a form of protection. But Saeed doesn’t seem to recognize this, thinking that “it was inexplicable that she continued to wear her black robes, and it grated on him a bit…sometimes he wanted to shout, well take it off then” (187). This suggests that Saeed does not really understand Nadia at all. As is too common for people who experience sexual harassment/assault, Nadia’s experiences are not validated, and she is left to deal with them on her own. 

Can Existentialists Help Others?

When we discussed the premise of existentialism, I struggled with the idea of individualism above all else. If the only thing that truly exists is random, absurd suffering, then the only thing we can do that matters is to attempt to alleviate some of that suffering. Trying to help others live a happier, more secure, more comfortable life must be the only worthy goal. And to do this effectively, a person can’t be strictly independent; they have to consider the needs and feelings of other people as well.

But according to Frank Kappler’s article “A Torturous Road to New Morality” (linked in the existentialism resources on Classroom), which explains Sartre’s theory of existentialism, helping others is not necessarily at odds with existentialism. Sartre claims that it is in fact a way to escape the despair that comes with the knowledge that life is absurd, describing this principle as “engagement,” or as Kappler puts it, “Committing oneself by a resolute act of free choice to a positive part in human affairs.” As long as you chose this path yourself– in spite of the absurdity– you can remain an existentialist even as you try to fulfill a purpose (although I would argue that if you have such a purpose, then that gives life some meaning). I thought this was an interesting, surprisingly optimistic aspect of Sartre’s theory that made existentialism more understandable.

O’Connor’s Definition of a Good Story

Flannery O’Connor’s definition of a good story is one that needs “every word in the story to say what the meaning is” and “involves, in a dramatic way, a mystery of personality.” When I first read this definition, I didn’t understand what she meant in any concrete way, but after reading her short story “Good Country People,” I agree that these aspects are what make the story so engaging. 

The story had a really interesting structure, beginning with who was narrating the story/who the story was about. At first, I thought that the story was being told from Mrs. Freeman’s point of view, but she turned out to be more of a background character. Then, I thought the story was about Mrs. Hopewell, but while it is told partially from Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, in the end the story is really about Hulga. When combined with the twists and turns of the plot itself, these narrative misdirections give the reader a sense that the story is unfolding before them and anything could happen next. I felt like I didn’t know where the story was going until the very end, and so the story really did need every word to get its final meaning across.

“Good Country People” also creates a “mystery of personality” in the character of Manley Pointer (or whatever his real name is). The innocent country Christian persona he presents turns out to be a disguise he uses to take advantage of people and steal from them, as he does with Hulga and her prosthetic leg. This mystery creates intrigue throughout the story but also continues once the story is over, with the reader left wondering who this character really is and why he acts the way he does.

The World Outside Spiderhead

The short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders is an intense, dystopian tale that describes a system where criminals are forced to be test subjects in futuristic drug experiments. The scientists behind the experiments, particularly Abnesti, portray themselves as righteous knowledge seekers whose only goal is to advance science, no matter the cost. Abnesti viewed Heather’s death from Darkenfloxx as a regrettable event but one that could hopefully yield data, showing his indifference by saying, “‘Look, Jeff, these things happen…This is science. In Science we explore the unknown” (72). The world inside the Spiderhead is jarringly distant from our own, where laws protect the abuse of people, and prisoners specifically, in scientific experiments. But it prompts a question that isn’t directly explored in the story: what is the outside world that enables this system? It may not be as distant. One aspect of the story I found really interesting was the way the drugs are labeled, with a consumer-friendly, catchy name (“Verbaluce,” “SpeedErUp,” etc.) followed by a ™, just like a drug ad you might see on TV today. The drugs being tested in the story seem to be made to be sold in a capitalist society for a profit. While I don’t see something like these experiments happening in our society today, our world probably has some of the same incentives as the world outside Spiderhead that allows the horrific treatment of the people in Spiderhead to occur.