Wednesday, March 28, 2012

“The Notion of Narrative is Necessary to the Notion of Self.”

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Narrative promotes increased self consciousness and identity in the characters of texts as well as the readers. This is achieved as narrative implements self knowledge through human survival and the consequent search for inner strength and truth. Narrative fiction is also a socially symbolic act which serves to address issues prevalent in society. Furthermore, the art of narrative approaches and considers questions of morality through the contrast of rationality and unlimited desire. While most narrative texts depict narrative as a necessity to the idea of self, “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman” penned by Angela Carter, “The Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood and “The Bell Jar” written by Sylvia Plath all vividly document this notion through their characters and their target of the reader. Thus, as both the characters and the readers suffer from increased self consciousness, it is evident that the notion of narrative is necessary to the notion of self.

Through narrative, increased self consciousness is clearly achieved through Carter, Atwood and Plath’s novels. Narrating a sense of human survival, the texts eloquently convey that the source of human survival is ultimately found within self knowledge (Bloom & Makowsky, 15 p 167). Facing a crisis which threatens one’s survival, particularly that of mental survival, forces one to search within themselves for strength and confront the truth about themselves and hence act in a way which will ensure their survival. Carter, Atwood and Plath eloquently demonstrate this coming of self knowledge through their characters of Desiderio, Tony, Charis and Roz and Esther, who are all forced to confront the truth about themselves when their mental and physical well being is threatened. Desiderio is indeed an instrument which suggests this as evident in his time with the River People. As a “fugitive from justice” (p 71), Desiderio is hidden and nursed back to health by Nao-Kurai’s family in the separate realm of the river gypsies. He learns the language of the gypsies and discovers, for the “first time” how it feels to be “happy” (p 71). In identifying with the notion of “home” (p 71), Desiderio quickly abandons his quest and slides into the life of a river gypsy. He evens agrees to marry Nao-Kurai’s nine year old daughter. However, on the night before the wedding, a drunken Nao-Kurai unwittingly reveals his plan to Desiderio. They plan to eat him � an act which they believe will enable all those who consume Desiderio’s flesh to read and write, a skill which continues to evade the river people. Although Desiderio admits that he “loves them all” (p 1), he is forced to face the truth; that those he loves wish him harm and that such love is plainly not good for his well being. Thus, Desiderio abandons the realm of the river people and returns to his own, dissatisfying life. Similarly, Roz’s devotion to her husband, Mitch, is unwavering. Even when he commits adultery, Roz still loves him and accepts his apologies for she feels that she remains the most important thing in his life. However, Mitch’s affair with Zenia “robs his of his soul” and Roz is no longer his anchor, and no longer important to him. Thus, when Zenia discards Mitch and he appeals to Roz to let him “come home”, Roz turns him down. Although she greatly wishes to again accept Mitch, she is forced to face the truth and acknowledge that any semblance of a relationship would be impossible. She also realises that in order to preserve her well being, and to ultimately survive, she must reject him. Plath’s character of Esther must also discard an element of her life in order to survive. Like Mitch and the river people, Esther’s illness, her “bell jar” is not good for her as it has caused her to attempt suicide and alienate herself from everyone she knows. It has also resulted in her incarceration in a mental hospital and numerous sessions of shock therapy. However, Esther comes to depend on her ‘illness’ as she appears to use it as an excuse for everything which she feels she fails. This is evident as she blames her lack of mental stability for her skiing accident. “I broke it on purpose to pay myself back for being such a heel” (p 1), Esther claims when recalling the accident. Yet when she recounts the episode, an onlooker tells her “you were doing fine, until that man stepped into your path” (p 10). Suggesting that Esther crashed because someone was in her way is a far more plausible reason for such a severe accident. A fallen Esther also conveys that she likes skiing and wants to “do it again” (p 10) which conveys that she clearly did not mean to fall. Joan’s death and subsequent funeral is the incentive which Esther requires in order to realise that she needs to hang with the world and recover. Chanting, “I am, I am, I am” (p 56), Esther acknowledges that her deviation from mental security is indeed threatening to her well being and in order to survive, she must improve and leave the asylum. Desiderio, Roz and Esther, when faced with a crisis which threatened their survival, were forced to confront the truth that the instigator of the crisis was not good for them and that they must reject it in order to live. Thus, they gained self knowledge for in rejecting something they loved, or depended on, they realised that not everything they liked was good for them, discovered they were stronger than they thought and were forced to depend on themselves.

Socrates claimed that a “life examined is a life narrated” (Riceour & Valdâes, 11 p 45). Narrative fiction is unerringly essential to the understanding of the self for narrative can only exist in life and life, as it is known, can only be comprehended and understood through the tales about which it is narrated (Riceour & Valdâes, 11 p 45). This is suggestive of increased self consciousness as narrative is a socially symbolic act which addresses issues prevalent in society and thus enables one to further understand themselves and their place in the world (Jameson, p ). Such increased self consciousness is demonstrated by Carter, Atwood and Plath’s depiction of feminist ideologies following World War Two. “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman” is set in a male chauvinistic world where the only females are used as toys for the endless use of males. Albertina is symbolic of this as she is Dr Hoffman’s slave; performing all the duties he requests of her despite those duties leading to her somewhat frequent rape and defilement by the Count and the Centaurs. She is also the object of Desiderio’s ultimate desire and is hence destined to “transcend mortality” (p 15) in an explosion of “pure sex and pure energy” (p 15) so her father can take over the world. The males in Carter’s narrative, namely Desiderio and Dr Hoffman are content to treat females this way and feel that it is the way of the world as evident by Desiderio’s treatment of Albertina. Although he is “pained” to see her suffer when she is raped by the Centaurs, this does not prevent him from constantly attempting to molest her at every given opportunity after she has physically recovered, nor does he understand when she fights him of “so skilfully” (p 04). Carter clearly conveys a masculine world, where females do not figure in the scheme of things and are only objects to be manipulated at the will of the male. Written during the rise of feminism, Carter’s novel is a social criticism of male behaviour and perceived perceptions. This is reflected in Atwood’s “The Robber Bride” proposes the question of whether women have to be victims or villains. Atwood suggests that if women concede to bury their “outlawed” (Bouson, 15 p 145) emotions as they were expected to in that period, then they allow themselves to be victimised. Roz, Tony and Charis are symbolic of Atwood’s victims; they repress their natural emotions such as jealousy, greed, and envy in an attempt to conform to social standards. However, in doing so, they allow themselves to be stepped on by Zenia, a female villain who promptly ensnares their lovers. The “competitive other woman” (Bouson, 15, p 150), Zenia is the essence of femininity, yet lures men for her own purposes and discards them as she wishes. Contrasting to Roz, Tony and Charis, Zenia is the quintessence of society’s prohibited emotions as evident in her avaricious and nonchalant remark, “Fuck the Third World! I’m tired of it”. Thus, Zenia is labelled as a villain, emphasising Atwood’s criticism of the post-war era in which women were either victims or villains as dictated by their behaviour. Similarly, “The Bell Jar” is also a feminist critique and is largely focussed on the required sexual behaviour of the unmarried female. This is evident in Esther’s preoccupation with sex and her claim, “when I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue” (p 86). Following her once admired boyfriend’s confession that he was seduced by a waitress, Esther is determined to lose her virginity. However, she is greatly stifled by the social stigma attached to premarital sex as conveyed by the article which her mother sends her. Titled “In Defence of Chastity” (p 85), the article stated that men and women were in two separate worlds and that men expected their wives to be “pure” (p 85) in order to “teach them about sex” (p 85). This chauvinistic attitude is furthered by the fact that contraception and abortion appears to be highly “illegal” (p ) in Massachusetts. Such attitudes are illustrative of feminist criticism as they clearly discourage and prevent females from engaging in sexual activities as that which men are suggested as enjoying. Reveal social criticisms of male and female stereotypes during the post war era, Carter, Atwood and Plath promote increased self consciousness and enable one’s understanding of the world around them. Thus, these narratives are evidently necessary to the notion of self.

The art of narrative is further necessary to the notion of self as it proposes questions of morality and identity through the contrasting of rationality and unlimited desire. This leads to increased self consciousness as it aids in the understanding of how one should behave to achieve order, happiness and self fulfilment. In all three texts desire is a powerful instrument and is used to explore the boundary between rationality and unfettered desire. Carter eloquently demonstrates this through the strict rationale of the Minister of Determination and the elusive Dr Hoffman, and shows that a medium sense of rationality must prevail to enforce a resemblance of order in the world and ultimately self-morality. The characters are essentially similar; both wishing for totalitatarian control to enforce their doctrines (Christensen, 14, p 64). The Minister is representative of “conservative common sense” (Christensen, 14 p 64) and Dr Hoffman is synonymous with unchecked desire. A “model of efficiency” (p 15), the Minister is a man of “austere and transigent objectivity” (p ) who resolves to fight Dr Hoffman’s revolution. Dr Hoffman wishes to dissolve the line between the “thinkable and the unthinkable” (p ) and is the man of ultimate desire, the man who can “make dreams come true” (p 1). Although the characters are similar, they represent opposite ends of the spectrum; from extreme rationality to extreme desire. Carter suggests that neither of the extremes are useful in the social world as the Minister’s world demands reality tests in Laboratories A, B & C which suggest “I am in pain, therefore I exist” (p ), while Dr Hoffman’s world is ruled by the cogito, “I desire, therefore I exist” (p 11) and conveys that disillusionment and lack of morality are the dangers of desire. Thus, Carter creates a medium as she destroys Dr Hoffman and his machinery which rids Desiderio’s city of illusions and extensive desire which would have allowed Dr Hoffman dictatorial control (Christensen, 14, p 6). This destruction also diminishes the need for the Minister’s extreme rationality for he no longer needs to battle illusions and unreality. With rationality’s triumph, Carter conveys the need for a balance between desire and rationality as excess of either leads to disillusionment, lack of morality and lack of reason. This line between rationality and unlimited desire is further emphasised through Atwood’s novel which focuses on women’s outlawed emotions. Zenia, like Dr Hoffman, is the epitome of unchecked desire, and is contrasted to the behaviour of Roz, Tony and Charis. Set in post World War Two, society expects women to behave ‘properly’ and not display any extreme emotions such as hate, revenge, overt sexuality, and greed. Any women who display such emotions are subtly ostracised as evident by the mothers of Roz, Tony and Charis who are suggested as either having had their child illegitimately, married hastily due to pregnancy or married the ‘wrong sort’ of person (one of different ethnicity). These actions cause Roz, Tony and Charis to be mocked by their peers and other adults throughout their childhood as suggested in Roz’s account of Julia Warden’s teasing; “You’re not a real Catholic, my Mum says. Where’s you father anyways? My Mum says he’s a DP” (p ). Although a typical comment from a child, this teasing leads Roz to believe that she is inferior and that as a grown woman, she must not conduct herself in any way which may incur ostracism. Tony and Charis arrive at the same conclusion and hence all three women strictly adhere to social expectations and hide anything which may suggest otherwise. However, this adherence leaves the women with hidden and repressed desires which prevent them from assertion and self fulfilment. Contrastingly, Zenia embodies all these repressed and hidden desires; she is demanding, selfish, envious, overtly sexual, contemptuous and greedy (Bouson, 15, p 150). A symbol of unlimited desires, Zenia does what she wants, when she wants, stating “I’ve always been a free agent” (p 44). In fact Zenia is the extreme; the opposite to Tony, Charis and Roz. Thus, Atwood suggests a medium, a sense of rationality between the extremes of repression and extraversion through the next generation of Roz’s twins and Charis’ daughter Augusta. Not bound by previous convention, Paula, Erin and Augusta are far more realistic than Roz, Tony or Charis (Bloom & Makowsky, 15, p 75) and are more likely to assert themselves. Most importantly, they understand something their mothers didn’t; that somebody always “had to be boiled” in life. “The Bell Jar” also suggests a balance between rationality and desire through the character of Esther. As an implied result of her mental illness, Esther is a character which, like Zenia, frequently displays emotions and actions which are selfish, demanding, and inconsiderate. She is totally self centered and acts only on her desires as demonstrated by her response to a sick Doreen, who she supposedly considers as a friend. Drunk and disorientated, Doreen appears at Esther’s door at the Amazon and pleads for Esther to let her into the room. However, Esther is unsatisfied with her “sad night” and believes that Doreen “had to wake (me) up and spoil it” (p ). Esther cannot ignore a half comatose Doreen, so drags her further down the hall, and proceeds to “dump her on the carpet and shut and lock (my) door” (p ). This action is clearly selfish and representative of Esther’s desire to sleep rather than help to her friend. Esther’s imaginative tales emphasise this lack of rationality and unlimited desires as illustrated by her visit to the doctor’s for a “fitting” (p 5). Esther desires for the doctor not to think ill of her and so considers telling him that she was engaged to a sailor and that she did not possess an engagement ring because “we were too poor”. This constant attempt to convince people that she is something she is not occurs throughout the novel and is demonstrative of Esther’s desires overriding her rationality for although she wishes others to think well of her, she does not seem to understand that her stories are relatively fanciful and unbelievable. Whether it is due to her mental illness, or just nature, Esther’s desires clearly override her rationality and hence Plath suggests a balance between the two as Esther’s lack of rationality only served to land her in a mental institution. However, by the time Esther leaves the asylum, Plath illustrates that her rationality has been restored. “The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman”, “The Robber Bride” and “The Bell Jar” contrast rationality and desire and suggest that life requires a balance of these elements in order to achieve happiness and self fulfilment. Through this balance, Carter, Atwood and Plath’s narratives lead to increased self consciousness and are hence necessary to the notion of self.

Cheap Custom Essays on “The Notion of Narrative is Necessary to the Notion of Self.”

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Angela Carter’s “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman”, Atwood’s “The Robbor Bride” and “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath all convey that the notion of narrative is necessary to the notion of self. All texts advocate increased self consciousness through the suggestion that human survival ultimately lies within self knowledge for when facing a crisis, humans are forced to search for their inner strength and confront the truth concerning their particular crisis. The act of narrative is also used as social criticism in order to address prevalent issues in society such as that of feminism during the post war era. Questions of morality further aid to increase self consciousness as they suggest the need for a balance between rationality and desire. Thus, as all narratives clearly convey increased self consciousness by the end of the texts, it is evident that the notion of narrative is necessary to the notion of self.


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Christensen, P. “The Hoffman Connection Demystification in Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 14, 14., p 6-70.

Jameson, F. “On Interpretation Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act”. The Jameson Reader. Eds. Hardt, M & Weeks, K. London, Blackwell. -60.

Plath, S. 16. The Bell Jar”. William Heinemann Ltd. UK.

Ricoeur, P. “Life a story in search of a Narrator”. Riceour, P & Valdâes, MJ. A Riceour Reader Reflection and Imagination. Harvester Wheatsheaf. 11, 4-0.

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