The Stain of Women’s Weapons

“Let not women’s weapons, water-drops,/Stain my man’s cheeks!”

(II.iv.304-305)

Among other things—mainly being narcissistic, self-pitying, and selfish—King Lear is sexist. He frequently rejects weakness, claiming it is a woman’s trait. He also expects nothing from his daughters other than unwavering love, loyalty, and servitude. He gives them nothing, no respect nor benefit of the doubt, even his gift of his land came with the condition that he would be welcome into their homes with one hundred other mouths to feed whenever he chose. Essentially, Lear passed on the duties of the crown just so he could live in luxury with no responsibility, while his daughters housed him and his retinue. He didn’t even give them love, as he mentions repeatedly that Cordelia was his favorite, directly in front of his other daughters, insinuating that they are less than. Lear is the biggest portrayer of the MALE+STRENGTH/female+weakness binary in the play. He loses his power, partially because of his daughters, and partially because of his insanity. Because of this loss, he feels a loosening in his grip of his masculinity. In his world, the two are one in the same, he only feels like a man when he is powerful and invulnerable.

Although Goneril and Regan are seen as the antagonists in King Lear, I see them as their own kind of protagonists. Where they are portrayed as conniving and traitorous, I see two women taking advantage of whatever they are able in order to make themselves a better life. Their main evil deed was supposedly lying to their father about their love for him. I don’t really see the issue. If a family member I didn’t like that much asked me to describe my love for them—which is pretty self-centered in the first place—I wouldn’t tell them that I didn’t like them. That would be cruel. I would give a white lie, in order to avoid giving unnecessary offense. This might not have been Goneril and Regan’s incentive, but just the same, telling their father they had no love for him would have been much more cruel. Later on in the play, both women do become violent and plan to harm others. However, they are made the villain before any of that occurs. Albany says his wife is “not worth the dust which the rude wind/blows in your face” just because of her actions to her father (IV.ii.32-33). All the daughters did was deny welcome to a hundred rude and rowdy men into the homes that were legally and rightfully theirs. Lear treats this denial as betrayal, but I see it as completely reasonable. They locked Lear out in the storm, but it was right after he said absolutely horrid things to and about them. And, to be fair, he walked out into the storm in the first place, with no intention of returning. To be clear, I do not believe that Goneril and Regan are good people, but I also don’t think they are monsters.

When reviewing the actions of the two villainous women, personally it’s hard to find a true, unforgivable fault. The factor that seems to direct their portrayal as antagonists seems throughout to be their disloyalty. They both deny to give the loyalty expected from them due to their gender. Adultery committed by men is completely acceptable, yet Goneril is a monster because she does not blindly love the man who says her female body is the only reason he doesn’t kill her (IV.ii.64-68). The characters in this play all expect women to be loyal servants they can either receive admiration from, or have sex with. Since Goneril and Regan refuse to complete those duties, they are the villains of the play. Women in this world are expected to be vulnerable and emotional. When the men are faced with powerful women, women who are strong and unafraid, they title them monsters in order to deny their own fear at not being inherently superior.

Who Wanted To Leave The Yellow Brick Road, Elton or Bernie?

Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from his album with the same name is an allusion to The Wizard of Oz. In the novel, Dorothy is lifted away from her drab life on a farm to a fantastical land. There’s magic, a seemingly reality-defying city, and a road made of yellow bricks. Regardless, Dorothy still prefers her own home, humdrum as it may be. The speaker of this song feels similarly. They are enveloped in a life quite different from the one they had when they were growing up on a back road farm. The yellow brick road they’re on is enticing and luxurious. It induces a kind of high, a disconnect from reality. The speaker is riding that high, and has only recently realized that living on the yellow brick road is no way to live.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

The word “dogs” has multiple levels of meaning. First, it straight out insults the members of this golden bricked society. It implies they are inhumane and dirty. Second, dogs are widely known as being incredibly obedient creatures, who love nothing more than pleasing their owners. Similarly, these golden society members will do anything to obey the whims of the media, and go to great lengths to please it. Another meaning stems from the word “dogging”. The people who share this brick road with the speaker are incessant. They are unrelenting in their criticisms and pursuits. “Plant” is another multi-level word from this passage. The speaker is being planted against their will in a fancy home, in a yellow brick lifestyle. They didn’t choose to be there, but they were forcibly placed. This line also brings the lavish plants that are tended to in extravagant penthouse homes to mind. These plants are inanimate, unable to speak or think. They exist only for background decoration, and are easily ignored in favor of gaudier centerpieces. The speaker feels dogged and ignored, and all around tired of this yellow brick road life. They want to go home.

Although his name is on the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John didn’t write the lyrics to its title song. The words were written by Bernie Taupin, John’s lyricist and co-songwriter. John was extravagant and campy, while Taupin preferred staying out of the limelight. This arrangement along with the usage of both first and second person pronouns in the lyrics creates the question: who is the speaker of this poem? Is this a message John wanted to send, and he asked Taupin to write it out? Or, is this a letter from Taupin to John, that John has been given to deliver to himself.

“Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground”

If Elton John were the first person subject here, the mongrels could be the record labels, searching for young artists to exploit and make money off of. John could be upset at how he was taken advantage of at such a young age, an idea reflected in the line, “this boy’s too young to be singing/The blues” The speaker’s objection might be that the boy singing is too young to be exploited by a record company, shown through the specific choice of the word “boy”. It could also be that this boy is too young to have anything upsetting to be singing about, as “singing the blues” usually means singing about struggle and hardships. The speaker might be upset that a boy at such a young age has enough emotional fodder to sing about it.

If Taupin is interpreted to be the first person subject, this is a message to John relating how John barely needs him anyways. The speaker feels like he’s nothing special, like he would be easy to replace. His “mongrels” are all the dirt poor artists hoping for a jumpstart to their career. John is the tidbits, the songwriters are desperately searching for anyone to work for, for any chance. Sniffing has connotations of desperation. It brings to mind rodents twitching their whiskers. It also means searching something out, following the wispiest trails. No matter how secretive they’d try to keep their potential split, people would sniff around and find out, and the news would be widely spread. The speaker also resents the fact that his leaving would barely have an effect on John. Maybe John would be upset by it, “It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics/To set you on your feet again” but he would soon get over it. After only a couple of drinks, John would be right back in the game, still able to follow his dreams and chase his success.

What do you think you’ll do, then?
I bet they’ll shoot down the plane

This description of shooting down the plane is an interesting action to include. It could be an expression of extreme pessimism. A feeling that the speaker will finally get on the plane, finally be on their way home, and their plane gets shot down before they can make it there. Another perspective could be that the other members of the yellow bricked society could be so desperate to keep the speaker within their reality-defying world, that they’d rather the speaker die than leave. The society members could also be shooting down the plane to create more miserable content for the gossip columns, another tear jerker that could produce clickbait and therefore more profit.

No matter who the truly intended speaker was of this song, it’s a highly interesting poem. A person living the high life, the life that so many yearn for and work towards, tries hard to get away from it. The first person and second person roles are never disclosed, leaving a deep layer of mystery over the song’s meaning. If the speaker is truly Taupin, that creates a kind of crazy dynamic. He might have written this song directed at John, then given it to him, making him sing another’s criticisms of himself to crowds of thousands. Through the different lenses and levels you can view this poem from, it is full of meaning and interesting considerations.

The Tragedy Competition

Pieces of fiction about the experiences of Others can be extremely helpful. They circulate stories and experiences, and help information reach far away readers. When reading a story, we are transferred to another world. The characters become our closest friends, and their issues become ours. It’s a wonderful experience, but it is very easy to disconnect it to reality.

When we enter these other worlds, it’s hard to forget that it’s truly our world, our Earth—just a fictional version of it. It’s easy to, in a way, glorify these experiences. To see them as legendary or mythical, and forget that real people go through these real things daily. It’s easy for these stories about Others to only alienate the Others more.

We see movies about girls carrying water in vases on their heads for miles. We read books about refugees fleeing death and gunfire that has consumed their homes. Yet instead of bringing us closer to these people, to creating a sense of similarity, we seethe with sympathy and grow our view of them as sufferers. Instead of increasing their humanity, these pieces of fiction can reduce them to their suffering, to their negative experiences. The person fleeing that death and gunfire, who is every day facing terrifying changes and situations, is transformed from a unique human being into just a Refugee. We simplify their complexity into just a label. Instead of being a person who had a complex and interesting life, who has complex and interesting emotions, and had a unique and traumatizing experience, they become just a story to be sorted into the general type of trauma they went through.

After placing a concrete label on these sufferers, we then place value only on their struggles. In the world we live in, suffering seems to come in different degrees, with the amount of sympathy given by onlookers dependent on the degree. This refugee lost his sister and his home, but was able to safely escape with the rest of his family, all in good health. Another refugee lost all of her family except her mother, who was severely wounded and lost the use of her arm. Should one refugee deserve more sympathy than the other? Should one receive more aid than the other? It’s as if those in developed countries have a certain amount of sympathy to expend, and choose who to give it to depending on the level of their struggles. Oh, you had to leave your entire home and country and life behind, but you didn’t lose any limbs and your family remains whole? Eh, I’ve heard worse. I’ll save my sympathy for someone with less remaining siblings.

You can see this sympathy dynamic all throughout our lives. Someone’s history of childhood abuse is only valid if they were beaten, if they have scars. Someone’s coming out story is only worth hearing if their parents disowned them. We compare our own struggles with others’ constantly in a corrupt effort to justify ourselves. It’s like a tragedy competition. Whoever is the most miserable gets the sympathy and a gold star!

While understanding the suffering of others is good, while feeling sympathy for those struggling is helpful, it’s incredibly harmful to reduce those who are suffering and struggling to just their misfortunes. It transforms a room of individuals with unique experiences into a mass who all have the same label. The focus of the life of the sufferers becomes their suffering. It’s not their hobbies or interests, nor their personality or traits. They are reduced into something less than human.

It’s so important to resist this, to remember that every single one of us here on this world is more than our negative experiences, more than the harm that we have been subject to, more than the trauma we carry with us. Yes, refugees deserve sympathy and care. But it’s not because they lost their leg, or lost their family. It’s because they aren’t labels, and they aren’t stories we hear about. They are real life, bona fide human beings.

Opt Out

I think of life kind of like being in high school, but if you were signed up for every single club. You graduate 8th grade and get shoved into the door of OPRF, your name on every club, group, and sport’s sign up list. From 8 am to when you go to bed, no 3:11 break, it’s all club after club. The only chance to get any free time is if you quit the club. This requires an awkward conversation with the group leader. It’s uncomfortable. It takes a lot of guts to walk up in front of the class, in front of friends, people you respect, and tell your superior that the club they run just isn’t for you.

Here’s the catch: you get re-signed up every day. Every hour. Every second.

Some clubs are easier to quit, and some are harder. It depends on your friend group, which teachers you have and which you like, what you identify as, your skin color or gender, the way you were raised. Some clubs you don’t even know you’re in. Some of them can benefit you, and those are the hardest to leave. Some don’t benefit you or harm you, but they’re comfortable. They’re all you know. Freedom, radical subjectivity, finding the true meaning of life, comes when you quit all of the clubs. When you get to go home at 3:11, that is what Camus calls freedom and happiness. Unstructured and un-systemized life.

There’s a racism club, a sexism club, a homophobia club, a xenophobia club, a club for every system, every prejudice, every discrimination – no matter how small. It’s so, so easy to stay in the club, to continue thinking the way you have been since you were born. It’s so easy to hold your privilege in your hands and simply not acknowledge it. It benefits you, it makes your life easier, so why get rid of it? Why feel guilty for it? White privilege is like that. Every day we with white privilege have to consciously make the choice to acknowledge it. We have to see it in our hands and look it straight in its face. We have to be aware of it in every word, we have to quit the club with every sentence.

It’s also easy to stay in a club that harms you. As a woman, I have never once stopped believing that all genders are equal in value, ability, and validity. Yet, as a woman, I have fallen victim to self-image issues enforced by society. I have been influenced by gender stereotypes. Quitting these clubs, the ones that target you, might seem easy. And for many, maybe it is. But the truth is that the work is grueling. Picking apart your identity and seeing what weeds have taken root there, what elements exist that you did not approve, is hard. Quitting these clubs is saying goodbye to something toxic, breaking away from a poison, yet in order to do so, you must be confident enough in yourself to know that you are different from what all of society tells you you are. That is no small task.

Opt out every day. Take your name off the sign up list every second. Maybe one day, some clubs will dissolve. It’ll get easier to opt out until it’s a subconscious process. Not all of the clubs will disappear, we’ll never be free from systems. But some of them don’t harm anyone. And the ones that do, we can burn down.

The Comfort of Rereading

In Vladimir Nabokov’s opinion, rereading is essential to being a good reader. In order to read a story to the best of your ability, you have to reread it, or at least reread the important parts. I somewhat disagree. To me, rereading is indeed an essential component of fully understanding and appreciating a story to its fullest extent, however, the most valuable benefit of rereading is the comfort that comes with rereading a good story.

There is nothing I love more than reading my favorite books. I can’t count the amount of times I have set down a newly-finished book only to think, “I can’t wait until I can read this again!” It’s like entering a world, only to leave bittersweetly, melancholy to go, but hopeful of your eventual reentry. After falling completely in love with the characters contained between the front and back cover, after yearning to be their best friends, you have to leave them. Rereading is like paying them a visit, seeing how they’re doing these days, relishing in your old friendship.

I have a terrible memory. I’ll forget conversation topics in the middle of the conversation, and what I was just doing in the middle of doing it. It’s a joke between me and my friends, but honestly I find that it has its uses. I can read a book or series as many times as I want. If I wait long enough, I’ll forget what happened, the characters’ names, the climax. I reread books, rewatch movies, re-listen to podcasts, and re-experience everything I can. Whether it’s a picture book from my childhood, each page bursting with nostalgia, or a novel I remember with well-written characters, there’s nothing more comforting. To me, it’s like getting under a blanket, soft and worn from use, and already warm. It’s like exploring a beautiful landscape for the first time, but knowing which corners the most gorgeous sights wait beyond. There’s no shame in rereading. There’s only comfort and the knowledge that you’ve made Nabokov proud.

Abnesti’s Profanity

After reading Escape From Spiderhead, I was in awe with the complex characters that occupied the story. Each character was completely fleshed out, even though it was only a short story. One poignant example was Abnesti. I think that Abnesti is an incredibly intriguing character, mainly because, regardless of his undeniable monstrosity, he is convinced that he is a good person. To me, the most interesting portrayal of this dimension of his personality was his refusal to swear. His usage of appropriate terms of exasperation instead or profane ones showed that he is completely convinced of his own goodness. The ridiculous extent of his appropriate swears, for example, “‘Jeff, you’re totally doinking with our experimental design integrity'” (Saunders 63), expresses his self-image. He thinks of himself as a goofy, appropriate, good guy. He’s a family man, who buys his subjects cream from the store, who doesn’t swear, and does things in the name of science. His abhorrent actions, his murder of Heather, none of those mean that he is a bad person. He’s a good guy because he doesn’t say potty words.