Clytie’s “Greek” background

I’ve been struck by one of the recurring images of Clytie in Faulkner’s story: she stands in the way of several people who want to enter the house – a gate keeper with her hand upraised (implied with Jones, seen with Rosa). Wondering how much of Faulkner’s characterization of Clytie might derive from Greek myth, I found a short description of Clytemnestra’s story as told by Homer and the classic Greek playwrights.  I’ve put the full story in a PDF.  Below are some highlights:
Who was Clytemnestra? … In most versions of the myth, Agamemnon is Clytemnestra’s second husband. He married her by force after killing her first, and chosen, husband, and in some versions also killed the infant son she had with her first husband. … Years later, he tricked Clytemnestra into thinking he had arranged for their daughter, Iphigenia, to marry Achilles. But when Clytemnestra sent the girl to him, he killed her as a sacrifice in order to procure favorable winds to send his war fleet to Troy.
Versions of the Myth … Homer – In Homer’s account … Clytemnestra played a passive role in Agamemnon’s death, merely permitting her lover, Aegisthus, to murder Agamemnon…  In this narrative, the driving force of Agamemnon’s death is Aegisthus’ desire to avenge his brothers and uncles, and take the throne which he believes belongs by right to his family.
AeschylusIn the play Oresteia … Clytemnestra is the motivating force who plans to kill Agamemnon to avenge her murdered family members. She commits the killing herself, with a double-edged axe called a pelekus.  Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon using the same method that would be used to sacrifice an animal to the gods: three blows, with a prayer to the gods uttered before striking the third. This is doubtless a reference to the sacrificial killing by Agamemnon of their daughter.
The Death of Clytemnestra … Aegisthus would remain as king for just seven years, for by that time Orestes was of age, and the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra returned to Mycenae to seek revenge upon the killers of his father.  Aegisthus was thus killed by Orestes, as was his half-brother, Aletes, but it was also said that Orestes committed a great wrong when he killed his mother despite her pleadings and prayers. The killing of Clytemnestra would bring forth the wrath of the Erinyes upon Orestes, and indeed it was said that the very ghost of Clytemnestra cajoled the Erinyes in their persecution of her son. Eventually, Orestes was released from the hounding of the Erinyes when he was cleared of murder by Athena, and Orestes would subsequently marry his half-sister by Clytemnestra, Erigone.

… In short, yet another story of Happy Families.

Clytemnestra’s Story (PDF for download – 2 pages)


Thomas Sutpen, Jay Gatsby and “The American Dream”

Faulkner & Fitzgerald 1925 (Gatsby’s pub.)

I’ve found an MA thesis online, written in 1977, that discusses specifically what I brought up in a general way at our first meeting:  that the concept of The American Dream is as important to Faulkner’s portrait of Thomas Sutpen, as it is to Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby. Sharon Shreve Strohmaier, a graduate student at Drake University, begins her thesis with an Abstract that I summarize below (using a good deal of her own language)

Strohmaier’s thesis discusses the ways that both Faulkner’s Sutpen and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby engage in “fatal pursuit[s] of the American dream,” which she defines a “goal of personal success … sought in a state of unlimited possibility.” The “dreamer” believes the success can be reached “by faithful and arduous pursuit” and that it will lead to social acceptance and even admiration.

Strohmaier draws the following parallels between the lives of Sutpen and Gatsby.
  • They share insignificant beginnings and lack of family ties
  • Neither has formal education and both rely on self-education
  • They create their own personalities through their own efforts (self-definition instead of social prescription)
  • They act with great discipline and have a clear timetable for achieving their dream
  • The accumulation of wealth is a secondary but integral part of their dream
  • Both use morally and legally suspect methods to obtain that wealth
  • Sutpen and Gatsby achieve initial (if qualified) success after they become wealthy
  • But both also wish to gain a measure of respectability in their very different societies. They never succeed and remain outsiders
  • In the end, both characters fail utterly to achieve their dreams, in part because of a trait I would call naivete – but which Strohmaier describes as their “over-simplification of reality [that leads them] to ill-founded assumptions of success”
Strohmaier concludes that pursuit of the American dream is often fatal for the dreamer “who fails to recognize the difference between the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the material” and who ignores the responsibilities at the core of human relationships. Strohmaier points to the great irony of the American Dream (especially as portrayed in literature and the arts): often the most a dreamer can accomplish is “to fail magnificently.”

I would add to this commentary that in classic American literature and popular myth the impossibility of realizing the American Dream has been portrayed in heroic (or mock heroic) terms, and has long been described as “an essential” part of American history and “the American character.” Since the shattering of old norms in intellectual discourse beginning in the late 20th century, the concept of “The American Dream” has become an object of ridicule or worse. But it seems to me that a good deal of American history, literature and culture cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the old Dream’s power to stimulate the imagination of Americans with diverse histories and backgrounds.  The Dream survived for many generations in spite of its inherent ambiguities and the continuing uncertainty about whether its ideals were achievable and noble … or whether they were pernicious illusions.

PDF Downloads:

Strohmaier, Abstract of MA thesis (1977) (1 page)

Strohmaier’s full thesis (below) doesn’t present the most sophisticated analysis nor does she write particularly well – but I find many of her points interesting, her quotations from sources are good (if, of course, dated) … and anyone who studied American Studies, history, or literature in the 1960’s and 70’s might enjoy rediscovering some of the old ideas and interpretations – for all that later scholarship has passed them by. The thesis a fairly quick, easy read for anyone interested, but it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.

An American Dream – The Fatal Gambit for Sutpen and Gatsby (Strohmaier MA thesis 1977)  (118 [typescript] pages)

Another Faulkner story (for future reading)

In 1933, three years before the publication of Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner wrote a short story called “Wash” that was clearly part of his warm up for the great novel.  Published in 1934, the story gives a straight-forward account of a climactic scene in Absalom between Wash Jones and Sutpen.  Of course Faulkner made a number of changes to the story when he incorporated it into his larger work, and this makes it an interesting read after we’ve finished the novel.  It also stands on its own as a fine short story and has often been anthologized.

Here’s a PDF of “Wash” … along with a corrected (and reformatted) version of “A Rose for Emily” – that shows Elisa was entirely correct in her assumption that we’d been reading a mildly expurgated text (vide the description of the workers whom Homer supervised).

Faulkner, ‘Wash’ (1934)

Faulkner, ‘A Rose for Miss Emily’ (corrected)

Images from the famous 1967 movie

The classic 1967 movie, with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp, was restored and re-released four years ago.  It’s probably just as well not to have seen the film before we read the book, as I imagine the faces of the cast would have made an indelible impression upon our imaginations.  In spite of the stellar credentials of the director (John Schlesinger) and the writer of the screenplay (Frederic Raphael), I can’t help wondering whether the melodrama of the story and the glamor of the casting overpowered the subtleties (and charms) of Hardy’s novel … but The Guardian published a rave retrospective about the movie in 2015, which I attach below.
Guardian Review, Far From The Madding Crowd (2015 retrospective)

Original Illustrations by Helen Allingham

Helen Allingham (1848-1928) drew twelve full-page engravings for the first edition of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).  The Victorian Web has very full descriptions of these illustrations, as well as a biographical note about Allingham.  (If the Slide Show doesn’t work on your computer, you can scroll down the page and access the images individually.)

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Individual Images

Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[British] Schoolchildren used to learn this resonant memorial to humble rustic folk, and they still should – Carol Rumens, The Guardian (UK), January 2011

Here are some excerpts from Gray’s Elegy, the poem from which Hardy derived the title for his fourth novel.  Below this, I’ve attached PDFs of the complete poem and of a fine introduction to the Elegy written by poet Carol Rumens as part of The Guardian’s long-running Poem of the Week series.

From Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth, e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave. . . .

. . .

Th’ applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet even these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. . . .

Carol Rumens on Gray’s Elegy, The Guardian Poem of the Week (Jan 2011)

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray (complete)

Farmer Oak (Hardy), John Farmer (Thoreau), and Flute Music

While reading the beginning of Chapter 2 in Far From the Madding Crowd [Penguin edition, p. 9-10], I found myself in a surprisingly familiar scene. Gabriel Oak is playing his flute while Hardy philosophizes around the music.  We’ve been here before – in a book published twenty years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic.  When reading Walden, we encountered John Farmer sitting in his doorway listening to a flute while Thoreau philosophized around him.
Below is the last paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden.  As Hardy’s passage is considerably longer, I’ve not posted it here but have put together a PDF file that contains both excerpts.

John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to re-create his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,—Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.—But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Final Paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau, Walden

John Farmer (Thoreau) and Farmer Oak (Hardy) (PDF file)

P.P. (Pedant’s Point) Speaking as a former flute player, I can’t avoid mentioning that flutist is the original form of the word (first appearance, according to the OED, was in 1603).  By contrast, flautist first occurred in 1860.  As I understand it, this change was instigated by 19th century English musicians and writers of program notes in order to distinguish their flute players from the French (flûtiste).  I’ve always thought (and been taught) that American flutists didn’t need to indulge in such Francophobic affectation.

Leo Marx on ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’

One of the great scholars of American Studies at Amherst College and MIT, Leo Marx, wrote an essay about Bartleby the Scrivener for Sewanee Review in 1953.  (Somewhere in my old files, I still have my notes from Leo’s lectures on Moby Dick and Bartleby in his American Literature course at Amherst in 1967.)  Below is a PDF for anyone interested in some classic insights into Melville’s mysterious story.

Leo Marx, ‘Melville’s Parable of the Walls’ (1953)

Thesis about ‘flying away’ in African-American folklore & a note from The New Yorker

Elissa has discovered an honors thesis (from Ball State University) entitled, Fly Away Home: Tracing the Flying African Folktale from Oral Literature to Verse and Prose, a chapter of which is devoted to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  I’ve posted below a PDF file of that chapter (it runs 10 pages) and another PDF of the entire thesis.  —  Many thanks to Elissa for some great research.

Elissa also found a short piece about the same subject in The New Yorker from earlier this year.  The writer is a documentary film-maker.

The New Yorker: Revisiting the Myth of the Flying African (March 7, 2019)

‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ by Ray Bradbury (vs. ‘I’ll Fly Away’?)

A few hours after our first discussion of Song of Solomon, I stumbled across an old short story by Ray Bradbury that echoed in a most bizarre way the imagery about “flying away” that we found so prevalent in Morrison’s novel.  Way in the Middle of the Air is one of the most famous (infamous? well, not really…) chapters in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and has been discussed endlessly in high school English classes ever since the 1960’s.  Given when it was written (late 1940’s) and its subject matter (a liberal northerner writing about the redneck south), there’s a lot of casual racism and stereotyping (Bradbury was no Faulkner). On the other hand, I can hear different layers of “group fantasy” wrapped around each other in fascinating combinations (white on white, white on black, black on white … not to mention north vs south, elites vs ‘good old boys’ etc.)  So as an exercise in “comparative imaginations,” I find this short science fiction fable interesting and not irrelevant to our discussion of the myths in Song of Solomon.  —  Tom

Ray Bradbury, ‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ from The Martian Chronicles