Burton: Chapter 4

Reading Assignment: Chapter 4 (“Subalterns in the Floating World: Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) and The Holder of the World (1993)”) of Rob Burton’s Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary writers Between Cultures.

While I was reading this chapter on subaltern theory in Mukherjee’s work, my mind kept jumping around between two things: first, I began remembering the discussions on subaltern theory from my theory grad class last semester; second, I kept thinking about the roles of the three narrators within The Holder of the World, and if they all really have agency through their voice within the novel.

Now I know what you’re thinking, my faithful reader: “Three narrators? Megan, what are you talking about?” So, here’s a bit of backstory.

Last week during class discussion, many of my classmates brought up the idea that instead of this novel only having two narrators (i.e., Beigh in the present and Hannah in the past), there are parts of the novel where a third narrator peaks in and offers insight that neither Beigh nor Hannah would be able to chime in with. This is best seen as the end of the novel, where the narrative breaks and ends with some background on Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, which Beigh earlier informs us is based on Hannah’s life after she returned to Salem.

“And so all of this happened a century before the writer’s birth, a century and a half before he wrote his morbid introspection into guilt and repression that many call our greatest work. Preach! Write! Act! He wrote against the fading of the light, the dying of the old program, the distant memory of a shameful, heroic time. Time, O Time! Time to tincture the lurid colors, time for the local understudies to learn their foreign lines, time only to touch and briefly bring alive the first letter of an alphabet of hope and horror stretching out and back to the uttermost shores” (Mukherjee 286).

Backstory about three narrators over; let me rail this blog post back into my overarching point.

When discussing The Holder of the World, Burton notes that, in comparison to Mukherjee’s earlier book, Jasmine, Mukherjee’s novel:

“. . . examines how to give voice to this historic subaltern whose legacy has been buried by time and separated by geography” (Burton 91).

The “historic subaltern” is Hannah Easton as her life’s story has been lost throughout time and place, decades and different points of geography. Both Mukherjee and Beigh attempt to give Hannah a voice: Mukherjee as the author/narrator and Beigh as the narrator/researcher who uncovers Hannah’s life. Both of them allow Hannah to come through and speak on her own behalf as the narrator of her own life, which gives her agency and a voice. However, in Mukherjee’s effort to give the subaltern a voice, does she rob another of their own agency and voice?

In reality, how much do we know about Beigh Masters? Her name is rarely used in the text (so little, in fact, that I missed her name in the first section), we know she’s spent around eleven years of her life dedicated to her research on Hannah Easton and her search for the Emperor’s Tear, and that she works as an asset hunter, traveling throughout the world looking for items for her employers. Beside that? Not much, other than the fact that she is a distant descendant of Hannah.  Truthfully, we know more about her boyfriend, Venn: we know all the intricate details of his work (building a time traveling device), where he went to school, where he works, even stuff about his own family and culture. In terms of the three narrators, Beigh is there solely to lead us into Hannah’s life and narration, and when we are in the present time, in Beigh’s world, Beigh spends more time talking about Venn and his work then she does responding to Hannah’s story or telling us about her as an independent person (one of the most detailed passages we get about Beigh is when she tells us about her past romances before Venn, and even then she has to tell us about the phases in her life through the placeholder of a relationship with a man).

Of the three narrators, Beigh is the one with the least agency, the quietest voice. She is a mere sound box for Hannah’s story, and is more flat character than round. Mukherjee herself even has more agency than Hannah as she controls the framing of the narrative, coming and going as she pleases.

Burton highlights the following definition of the subaltern from Antonia Gramsci:

“The word [subaltern] literally translates, therefore, as ‘below the other.’ In military terms, a subaltern receives orders rather than issues them. Gramsci used the term both literally and metaphorically to describe those who had been marginalized, forgotten, overlooked, or ‘othered.’ As I said earlier, it’s not as if they weren’t literally mute or without voice to begin with; it’s more like their voices had not been heard or given airing in political and cultural circles” (Burton 80).

As both Burton points out and I’ve noted earlier, Hannah Easton is the historical subaltern, the one lacking a voice. However, as Mukherjee attempts to bring out her voice via Beigh’s narration, she ultimately silences Beigh and subverts her into the subaltern. Beigh becomes simply the girlfriend of the man who sends her back in time to find the Emperor’s Tear and she becomes defined by her research and her search for the truth of Hannah’s life. Yes, Beigh does help to give Hannah a voice, but in doing so she loses her own.

But please, tell me what you think below. Am I on to a brilliant revelation here, or am I completely crazy? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time.

-Megan Mann

Burton, Rob. Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures. 2007.

Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.


Mukherjee: Floating Through Time

As I will be discussing the end and major events towards the end of The Holder of the World, this is your friendly neighborhood spoiler alert. If you are planning to read this novel and would like to come upon the ending organically (much like our nameless narrator wishes us to experience Hannah’s life), then please skip this week’s blog post.

Reading Assignment: the rest (pg. 211 to end) of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.

Last week, I expressed doubt as to why Mukherjee chose to tell Hannah Easton’s story through a present-day Beigh, the narrator, (we finally learn her name within the last few pages of the novel) and where she was leading us with this narration choice. Something that I did not mention in my blog post last week was that within the present day portions of the text, Beigh’s boyfriend, Venn, is working on (essentially) a program for time travel, a note that the novel opens on.

“Eventually, Venn says, he’ll be able to write a program to help me, but the technology is still a little crude. . . Right now, somewhere off Kendall Square in an old MIT building, he’s establishing a grid, a data base. The program is called X-2989, which translates to October 29, 1989, the day his team decided, arbitrarily, to research. . . When the grid, the base, is complete, they will work on the interaction with a personality. Anyone. In five years, they’ll be able to interpose me, or you, over the grid for upward of ten seconds. In the long run, the technology will enable any of us to insert ourselves anywhere and anytime on the time-space continuum for as long as the grid can hold” (Mukherjee 5-6).

Now, reading this novel, I knew that this program was important for numerous reasons: first (and probably the most obvious), one of the first things we’re introduced to in this novel is Venn’s project. Second, Beigh frequently discusses how difficult it has been for her to find the Emperor’s Tear, a priceless diamond she is employed to find as an asset hunter, and that none of her extensive research has led her to the stone. Finally, Venn’s project shows up numerous times over the course of the novel, an emphasis that is is not just a fun fact about Venn as a way to build his character, but rather something that is important that the reader needs to know about (aka, foreshadowing, especially since Beigh remarks on at least two occasions prior to the third section that the program could be used for her research).

Ultimately, my hunches were correct as Venn ends up inputting Beigh’s research into the program as a way for her to go back in time and find the elusive Emperor’s Tear:

 “He has absorbed my manuscript and all the documents, the travelogues and computerized East India records, the lavishly illustrated namas, or chronicles, of the emerors of the Mughal dynasty. He is a thorough researcher; all this is to be expected, even on his own time. Literary prose, as he calls my book, poses certain hierarchial problems for a computer, or a way of rendering even my own words into images. And the diamond is the clue: the fact that is the biggest and most perfect crystal in the world may just be an accident, a kind of informational pun, but it gave him an idea. . . The program will give you what you most care about; your mind is searching through the program though you don’t realize it–it is interacting with my thousand-answer questionnaire–until it finds a place it wants to jump in” (280-281).

When the program does “jump in,” Beigh finds herself in the body of Bhagmati (whom by this point Hannah is calling Hester after her late friend from Salem) as she and Hannah are fleeing from the battle that is depicted in the painting set, The Unravish’d Bride, she found earlier in the novel. Through Bhagmati’s body, she interacts with Hannah, is shot, and eventually commits suicide, stuffing the Emperor’s Tear into her body before she dies.

“Hannah, my Pearl, is no longer visible. Light is spreading but it is not the light of dawn; it is the light of exinguishment. . . . I plunge the knife deep in my belly, watch with satisfaction, and now with the mastery of my pain, the blood bubble from my beautiful brown flesh. More, I think, and plunge the knife deeper, plunge it as Hannah had into the back of Morad Farah, and make a burrow inside me. I feel the organs, feel the flesh, the bowels of history, and with my dying breath I plunge the diamond into the deepest part of me” (282-283).

While this selection from an equally dramatic scene is the way Beigh finds the diamond she has been contracted to locate, it proves problematic for my questions regarding the narrative from last week. While Beigh’s research is what fueled this journey through time, how can we be certain that it is solely her research that has fueled her narrative? Last week, I highlighted the following passage as being the root of my questions regarding the narrator and her narrative choices:

“I am thirty-two years old, and I have devoted eleven years of my life, off and on, to the reconstruction not just of a time and a place, but also of a person. She and I, New England and India, Venn and–no, that’s not fair. I will not reveal her life before she leads it; that feels like a violation of the respect I feel and the methods I have chosen. It feels frankly, too much like the methods and wishes of Bugs Kilken” (118).

This begs the question regarding Beigh’s omniscience throughout the text, and makes me further question the credibility of her narrative.  Again, she is credible as she has done the research, but the depth of the narration is outstanding and very personal, as if she had witnessed it first-hand. This begs the question as to how much of the narrative is found via her research, own conclusions and speculations (which she would’ve use to fill in the gaps of Hannah’s life her research would have left), and other trips she may have taken into the past. While there isn’t a confirmation from Beigh that she has indeed traveled into Hannah’s life before within her narration, there are places in the novel where Hannah notes that Bhagmati’s character has changed:

“The servant woman appeared young and beautiful, regal in her posture! She had changed into fresh, fragrant garments. The bared lustrous skin of her arms smelled of floral oils and woody essences. Her hair, still wet from a bath or from the rain-churned river, cascaded in raven waves. Even her voice had a new confidence” (219).

When I originally read this passage (and the others where Hannah remarks on Bhagmati’s changing character), I thought that it was perhaps because Bhagmati was more comfortable in the new world and culture Hannah found herself in. However, after discovering Beigh’s possession of Bhagmati’s body, I have become suspicious of Bhagmati’s character.

I will admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this story and loved the ending, and after learning of Beigh’s time travel, I understand and appreciate the way Mukerjee has her float through time both literally and in narration. But this literal floating through time has also proved problematic as it, in a way, discredits Beigh’s narration and knowledge for me. I will have to reread the text to see if I can ease my distrust and answer my questions about the level of influence and personal experience that is in Beigh’s narration and Hannah’s life/story.

Until next time when I’ll be discussing Chapter Four of Burton’s text (the chapter devoted to Bharati Mukherjee).

-Megan Mann

Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.


Mukherjee: Narration and Story Telling

Reading Assignment: pages 1-208 of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.

This novel is a very interesting one as the narrator (who I believe up until this point has been nameless) frequently floats between the novel’s present day and the past. In the present, our narrator is on the hunt to both complete the story of her ancestor, Hannah Easton, and for a priceless diamond called “the Emperor’s Tear,” a relic her employer wishes this asset hunter to find. However, the past is composed of the narrator telling us, the reader, Hannah Easton’s tale: from her beginnings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where her mother ran off with her Native American lover to (so far) her separation from her eventual pirate husband, Hannah’s story is carefully weaved for us by the narrator as she consciously and carefully reveals elements of Hannah’s life in a way that mirrors a living narrative as if we were witnessing it unfold in real time.

This floating between time periods is indeed interesting and is a topic to reflect in regards to effectiveness after I’ve finished the novel, but a small passage caught my attention while I was reading the good chunk of text that was this week’s reading assignment. At one point, Hannah is told the story of a woman named Sita who is abducted by a demon king. The story that Hannah is told ends with Sita’s seeming redemption after she proves her virtue to her husband by “stepping triumphantly out of the flames” of her trial by fire with the narrator stepping in to say that the reason why she only knew that ending because that was the only ending her maid, Bhagmati, knew (Mukherjee 176). The narrator then goes on to discuss the different real endings to the tale of Sita’s life, saying this about the numerous variations:

“Orality, as they say these days, is a complex narrative tradition. Reciters of Sita’s story indulge themselves with closures that suit the mood of their times and their regions” (176).

The narrator reveals the numerous different endings and is ultimately dissatisfied with them all, questioning why there isn’t a narrative from Sita’s point of view:

“I make only one demand of Venn and is mother, and of Jay and his grandmother. Where is Sita’s version of her captivity in Lanka? I want to hear Sita tell me of her resistance to or accommodation with the multheaded, multilimbed carnivorous captor. Did Sita survive because of blind or easy faith in divine Providence? Or did she genuinely believe that deprived of Rama’s protection, she’d transformed herself into a swan whom a crow wouldn’t dare touch? I may not have Sita’s words, but I have the Salem Bibi’s; I know from her captivity narrative what Sita would have written” (177).

At this point, it is difficult to discern which portion of Hannah’s life forms the “captivity narrative” that the narrator is relying on for her much-needed version of Sita’s story. Is it her time with the Fitches? Her marriage? Her time as a factor and then pirate’s wife in India? Or has it not been revealed to us, the reader, yet? Numerous parallels are drawn between Hannah and Sita’s lives on page 174:

“Hannah finds herself attracted to the events in Sita’s life. Like Hannah, Sita was a foundling. The Fitches recovered her from their doorstep; a childless king, Janaka, had unearthed the girl infant with his plow and named her Sita, or ‘furrow.’ Sita adjusted to life as a king’s adopted daughter and a prince’s wife as willingly as Hannah had to her girlhood in Salem. And then, because of machinations against her husband, her life changes abruptly. She has to choose between continuing her breaking away and trying out new surroundings and whatever they will bring.

Sita chooses the new, and new temptations. She banishes herself from court life and sets up pastoral domesticity free of court customs and taboos. But one day she sees a beautiful deer grazing outside the hut. She has to own that deerskin; it is a passion such she has never known.”

However, while this fable seems like a mirror to Hannah’s earlier life, I’m not so eager to call her marriage to Gabriel the fodder that fuel’s the narrator’s designed captivity narrative for Sita. It’s very difficult to make judgement based on a half-life as I have no idea as to what the future events in Hannah’s life are, only where they lead. In the beginning of the text, we are immediately informed that Hannah becomes the Salem Bibi, and through the paintings that the narrator finds in a museum, we learn that her tale will most likely end in blood and death. It’s clear that the narrator is omniscient about Hannah’s life through her research, but she is not ready to reveal all of that life to us at one time, even stopping herself at points and telling the reader that they’ll essentially have to keep reading if they want to know the whole story:

“I am thirty-two years old, and I have devoted eleven years of my life, off and on, to the reconstruction not just of a time and a place, but also of a person. She and I, New England and India, Venn [her boyfriend] and–no, that’s not fair. I will not reveal her life before she leads it; that feels like a violation of the respect I feel and the methods I have chosen. It feels frankly, too much like the methods and wishes of Bugs Kilken [her employer]” (118).

While I appreciate a story that carefully unfolds itself and moves on a very life-like narrative strategy, I found this admission to be quite annoying and I began to lose trust in the narrator. I will admit that her credentials and background do give her credibility, I can’t help but wonder if she herself is “indulging herself with closures that suit the mood of her time.” This question further begs the question as to why Mukherjee wrote the text in a frame narrative-esque way: why have the narrator and the present-day story line? If the narrator is omniscient and wishes to reveal Hannah’s life as if she were living it, why not just let her live it within the pages of the text and lose the present-day story line completely. Within the selected quote above, the narrator does seem to begin to make some connections and draw parallels between herself and her long-lost ancestor, but it is too early to tell what they are and if they’ll truly justify the use of the dual story-line.

Perhaps the necessity of this narration choice and what exactly Mukherjee intended by floating between two time periods will hit me like a ton of bricks at the end of the novel, but as of right now I am skeptical of its effectiveness and am beginning to doubt the narrator.

Until next time where I hopefully will have an “ah-ha” moment and an answer to these questions.

-Megan Mann

Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.

Burton: Chapter 3

Reading Assignment: Chapter 3 (“Framing the Floating World: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974)”) of Burton’s Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures.

My two classmates who will be leading the class discussion tonight have sent us their questions early as a way to get us to think about them and brainstorm up some answers for class time. However, I’d also like to explore one of their questions here as my blog post for this afternoon’s reading.

“What ‘transformations’ (75) do we see throughout the novel? Specifically in the concept of ‘no-man’s land,’ and the frame that Bessie Head uses to replace the master paradigm (76)” (Shaffer and Rhine)?

One of Burton’s discussion points in this chapter is the idea that there is a tract of breaking down, dislocating, recovery, and repair of both frames and even Elizabeth’s character within this novel, a massive transformation, if you will. Section six of this chapter focuses on the breakdown and dislocation of both frames and Elizabeth herself, and this quote caught my attention:

“Above all, the barrier between mental and physical worlds is broken down in A Question of Power. The novel alternates seamlessly from one to another. If Elizabeth’s inner world lacks a framing perspective, her outer world helps ground her. In particular, the land of the farming cooperative is given value and meaning by its workers, Elizabeth included. The most ambitious project is the development of a hybrid fruit, the Cape Gooseberry. Significantly, Elizabeth’s nickname in the village is ‘Cape Gooseberry,’ a parallel whose significance is emphasized by Head toward the end of the novel: ‘The work had a melody like that–a complete stranger like Cape Gooseberry settled down and became part of the village life of Motabeng’ (153)” (Burton 75).

This point regarding Elizabeth’s work within the farming cooperative grounding her stuck out to me. From a narrative perspective, the scenes were Elizabeth is working in the gardens are moments where both the readers and Elizabeth can breathe and return to normality. In relation to the numerous aspects of religion and mythology, the garden is Elizabeth’s Eden, her paradise. She is the creator within this space, the one with all of the knowledge. An example of this seemingly all-knowing status can be seen when she first meets Tom:

“Elizabeth handed [Tom] her notebook. He sat down on the ground and bent his head in deep concentration over it. Elizabeth nearly laughed out loud with relief when he took it all quite seriously. Her version of agriculture was so poetic and fanciful, she was so liable to fill in her gaps of knowledge with self-invented agriculture. . .” (Head 112-113).

Like Elizabeth’s feelings of isolation and anxieties of being hated by her neighbors when she first moves there, the garden itself begins as nothing: a clean slate to be built up and to eventually become one with the surrounding area/community. Elizabeth herself is the one who has the talent and the vision for making the garden a thriving staple in the town’s life as crops spring up overnight under her care. Furthermore, she experiments with new crops in her own garden first, much like an inventor in her workshop, a creator of new life. This leads her to the discovery of the crop that both fully integrated both herself and the communal garden within the town and the community members: the Cape Gooseberry.

“The village women always passed by Elizabeth’s house to collect firewood in the bush. If they saw her in the yard, they stopped, laughed and said: ‘Cape Gooseberry’, to show how well they had picked up the propoganda. They did it so often that eventually Elizabeth became known as ‘Cape Gooseberry’.

The work had a melody like that — a complete stranger like the Cape Gooseberry settled down and became a part of the village life of Motabeng. It loved the hot, dry Botswana summers as they were a replica of the Mediterranean summers of its home in the Cape” (Head 153).

Once Elizabeth introduces the Cape Gooseberry and its jam into the community and its economy, the fruit and her place have been solidified. However, when Elizabeth enters the mental hospital, after not going to the garden for weeks and losing the balance in her life that she had gained through her work there, the garden begins to fail and the Cape Gooseberry, Elizabeth’s “creation,” fails along with other crops in the garden. It is only once she returns and resumes work that the garden returns to its Eden-like state once more and the Cape Gooseberry is brought back from near death, and with it, Elizabeth’s life returns to that normalcy that she had during the other sections about the garden within the text.

“[Elizabeth and Kenosi] began walking down Main Street or Broadway. Suddenly Kenosi raised her voice and said plaintively: ‘You left the garden. I don’t know how to do. . .’

That garden was hallowed ground to Kenosi. [Elizabeth] could see her over those months sitting at a table in her hut at night with a candle, frowning over all the entries she made, careful not to lose a cent. The record book looked so beautiful that Elizabeth kept quietly turning it over in her head — Ditamati, Dionions, Dispinach, Dibeans, Dicarrots — as she and Kenosi walked up and down the garden. Kenosi said they had no tomato seedlings and they ned more cabbage and she hadn’t been able to buy seed potato. She watched with pride as Elizabeth made a note of all the garden requirements. Whatever they needed, Elizabeth had always found by hook or crook. They began to think together again. Tomorrow they would plant out more carrots and beetroot; there’d be time today for seedling work. And so the mornings flew by. The world had returned to normal” (Head 203 & 204).

Ultimately, by the end of the novel, both Elizabeth and the garden have returned to their proper place in the community and a new frame in relation to both her garden and her place within Motabeng has been established: she is the woman of agriculture, the woman of creation.

Until next time, when I’ll be discussing the first 208 pages of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.

-Megan Mann

Burton, Rob. Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures. 2007.

Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1974, Oxford.

Head: Religion

I must again give a spoiler alert for this blog post. As I missed last week’s class discussion and blog post due to a migraine, I will be discussing the entirety of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. If you haven’t read the text to the end and would not like the ending and major plot points spoiled for you, please stop reading here!

Reading Assignment: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (last week: pages 1-100; this week: pages 103-206).

Religion is a very integral part of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. As Elizabeth struggles through her internal/mental encounters with Sello and Dan, she explores aspects of numerous religious faiths and mythologies. However, many readers may have questions about who the manifestations of Sello and Dan really are as they read through the text. At some point or another, both Sello and Dan are either God or Satan/Lucifer, but who are they representing really?

Through my textual analysis, I believe that Sello is the closest character to being a representation of God, while Dan is Lucifer himself. When Sello first appears to Elizabeth, he is described in a very traditional God-like manner:

“The form of a man totally filled the large horizon in front of her. He was sitting sideways. He had an almighty air of calm and assurance about him. He wore the soft, white, flowing robes of a monk, but in a peculiar fashion, with his shoulders hunched forward, as though it were a prison garment” (Head 22).

In comparison, Dan is first described as being far more sinister in nature:

“He assembled his soul and form in a wide, sweeping arc over heaven and earth. One half of him seemed to come shooting in like a meteor from the furthest end of the universe, the other rose slowly from the depths of the earth in the shape of an atomic bomb of red fire; the fire was not a cohesive flame, but broken up into particles of fine red dust. All put together it took the shape of a man, Dan” (Head 104).

There are numerous places in the text where Dan does things within Elizabeth’s mind that makes her doubt Sello, and all of his actions and “records” are done with great intent to discredit Sello for Elizabeth and lead her away from his teachings. This corruption is very similar to that of the teachings of Christianity, where Satan tempts you away from the teachings of the Lord, luring the sheep away from the flock (if you will). Dan’s malicious intent, while alluded to throughout the novel, is blatantly admitted through a piece of narration of page 129 of the text:

“The next day he was free to turn his attention back to his job, which was, of course, directing the affairs of the universe. The universe couldn’t be set right until Sello was either set right, or dead” (Head 129).

While Sello or his teachings weren’t perfect by any means in this novel, Dan’s mission is for Elizabeth to forsake him, which she does on page 140 by cutting the literal cord that connected them. After she does this, he becomes sickly with green splotches on his face, and Dan tries to further corrupt her. However, when she forsakes Dan by the end of the novel, Sello becomes rejuvinated and even apologizes for what he put her through with his teachings. During this apology, Sello directly names Dan as Satan and takes the blame for his influence on her. As Elizabeth regains some whisper of sanity, she eventually forgives Dan and is almost grateful for what he taught her:

“David’s song arose in her heart once more, but this time infinitely more powerful and secure: ‘I have been through the valley of the shadow of death, but I fear no evil. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ She treasured the encounter with Dan. The suffering she had endured had sealed her Achille’s heel; that of the brutal murder for love. . . Dan had blasted her to a height far above Buddha; he had deepened and intensified all her qualities. He was one of the greatest teachers she’d worked with, but he taught by default–he taught iron and steel self-control through sheer, will, abandoned debauchery; he taught the extremes of love and tenderness through the extremes of hate; he taught alertness for falsehoods within, because he had used any means to destroy Sello. And from the degradation and destruction of her life had arisen as still, lofty serenity of soul nothing could shake” (Head 202).

Elizabeth emerges stronger from her encounters with two extremes of faith: a representation of God and Satan. But in the end, she takes the power that they have over her life and soul back from them and turns it inward for herself, declaring that she is a prophet for the god that is Man.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to go over all of the aspects of religion that are in this book, but I will be covering some of them with my conference presentation later in the semester (particularly the aspects of Greek mythology and how they interact with different ideas and themes throughout the text).

I’d love to hear what you, my readers, think about this theory that Sello is God and Dan is Lucifer/Satan. None of these characters are the most reliable, so do you think the representation is reversed? Or what do you make of the aspects of religion that is found throughout A Question of Power? Please, let me know by leaving me a comment.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a quote from Sello himself on the question of power that may complicate the reading of his character and any of the religious-themed characters:

“If the things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer” (Head 199; italicized in text).

-Megan Mann

Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1974, Oxford.

Burton: Chapter 2

Reading Assignment: Chapter Two (“Narrative Tracks Across the Floating World: Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and Remains of the Day (1989)”) of Burton’s Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures

This week, a fellow classmate and I will be leading the class discussion on Chapter Two of our professor’s text. This chapter focuses on Ishiguro, both as an author and on his numerous novels/texts.

I’ll be posting a transcript of our class discussion later, but for now, here are some musing before class.

This is an excerpt from section four of the chapter (“An Artist of the Floating World (1986)”):

“By the end of the novel, Ono can claim, with a contented smile on his face, that he has spent his life well, can now, with confidence, pass on the responsibilities of his generation to the next generation. He believes, in effect, that he has kept his singular narrative tracks on course. The reader, on the other hand, may wonder whether or not the questions raised, inadvertently, by Ono have been fully addressed, let alone answered. According to one critic: ‘The narrative has no confident, authoritative centre, and in a deconstructed text, many things remain elusive to the eavesdropping reader’ (Sarvan, 97). Clearly, then, Ishiguro’s novel exposes an epsitemological gap between Ono’s investment in a grand narrative–a singular, narrative track–and the eavesdropping reader’s discernment of multiple, sometimes competing narrative tracks” (Burton 44).

Personally, I would argue that Ono’s exploration of his “patriotism” is the central narrative track of the novel. The events that transpired because of his “patriotic acts” are what he attempts to avoid while he is floating from memory to memory (this is evident when he suddenly stops pursuing a memory by saying “but I digress”) throughout the entire book. To me, this avoidance emphasizes how important and central Ono’s participation in the national narrative of Japan during World War II are to his story/narrative.

Now, there are numerous narrative tracks within this novel, such as interactions with Ono’s family, his youngest daughter’s marriage process, and the various stages of Ono’s career. However, I further argue that each of these narrative tracks relate back to Ono’s involvement in World War II Japan’s national narrative and his “patriotism” during the war. Here are some examples of this:

  • Ono’s interactions with his family display how an outsider may view his involvement in the war effort, as well as emphasize how Ono floats between old Japan and new, post-war Japan. I have already mentioned his oldest daughter’s remarks on Ono just being an artist and to not beat himself up for his “patriotic paintings” in a previous blog post, but this scene is also applicable here. His sons funeral also relates back to Ono’s present day questioning of the national narrative as he emphasizes both his son-in-law’s reaction to the funeral and that his son was killed because of questionable orders from his general.
  • Throughout the continuous narrative track of Noriko’s marriage process (and failed engagement), it is heavily alluded to that Ono’s involvement in the war effort, either as a propaganda artist or his aiding in Kuroda’s arrest, is what terminated her previous proposal. Once Ono figures this out for himself, he begins doing everything he can to make sure that those who are most familiar with his potential transgressions during the war would only say kind things about him and his past during the new marriage proceedings and investigations.
  • Finally, the various narrative tracks of Ono’s career illustrate how he developed his prestige and reputation, as well as show what led him to the propaganda artwork. Without his prestige and reputation, Ono would not have been able to turn Kuroda in for “unpatriotic practices,” and without making the specific career choices he made, he would not have met Matsuda, the individual who set him on the path to propaganda posters and artwork.

In my reading of Ishiguro’s text, every narrative track connects to the central idea of Ono’s participation in World War II Japan’s national narrative, and the fall out that may have happened because of this participation. At the end of the novel, Ono has accepted that the things he did in the name of patriotism and his country during the war were misguided and now seen as unacceptable, and he begins accepting the new national narrative. If this novel did indeed have no central narrative track, I do not think he would feel content with his life at the end of the novel he would not have made the same discoveries regarding his participation in the national narrative since he would’ve been floating aimlessly through his memories. Instead of floating aimlessly, Ono floats with a purpose, and even if he avoids the stream of that purpose at first, the current always pulls him towards it in the end.

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments down below. Do you believe that the central narrative track of this text is Ono’s participation in and struggle with national narratives, or do you lean on the side of Ono floating aimlessly through his life? I am curious to hear what you, my readers, think.

Until next time,

-Megan Mann

Burton, Rob. Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures. 2007.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Vintage Books, 1989, New York.

Ishiguro: Ono’s Evolution

I must prelude this blog post with a slight apology: some of this blog may not make utter sense. There may be words in places where they shouldn’t be and it may seem like I’m beating around the proverbial bush that is my point of this post (or that I’m repeating myself). I am a chronic migraine sufferer and have been having a migraine heavy week this week, so I am in a perpetual state of “migraine brain” (I forget words, how to form sentences, and, when I first come off of a migraine or am still in the clutches of one, I forget how to speak at all). Today, I am battling a migraine that was accompanied by vision loss earlier, so if the quality of this post seems a little wonky (for lack of a better term), I apologize and I will be sure to return to this post to fix any weirdness when I finally gain my wits back.  

Given the reading assignment for this week, it should go without warning that there are spoilers for the end of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. I will be discussing key plot and character details that unfold in the second and final sections of the book, so if you haven’t finished or read this book yet (which, I don’t know what you’re waiting for as this is a terrific read), then stop reading NOW! That is all; you have been warned.

Reading Assignment: the rest of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

November 1949 & June 1950

In the first section of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, Ono recalls a memory from his childhood in which his father, having discovered his son’s intention to pursue art professionally, burns his paintings in an effort to dissuade his son from his goals. When the memory first begins, Ono is directed by his father to bring all his paintings to the reception room (the room his father had reserved for business). Almost immediately, he asks his son to retrieve the few paintings he did not bring, the ones he was most proud of.

“Perhaps it was my imagination, but when I returned to the room a few minutes later, accompanied by my mother, I received the impression the earthenware ashpot had been moved slightly nearer the candle. I also thought there was a smell of burning in the air, but when I glanced into the ashpot, there was no signs of its having been used” (Ishiguro 44).

Later, after he runs into his mother in the hallway while his father is assumed to be burning Ono’s paintings, he vows to his mother that this incident has only kindled his ambition to pursue art as his career. He exclaims that he does not wish to become like his father:

“‘Once, I was terrified of Father’s business meetings. But for sometime now, they’ve simply bored me. Inf act, they disgust me. What are these meetings I’m so privileged to attend? The counting of loose change. The fingering of coins, hour after hour. I would never forgive myself if my life came to be like that. . .” (48).

Further in his career, a similar scene happens between his mentor, Mori-san, and him. Ono had begun painting not after his mentor’s subjects and techniques, which was indicative of the “floating world” consisting of the illusions of the pleasure houses disappearing by daybreak, but after his own experience of visiting a poverty-stricken town. His paintings, including the one entitled “Complacency” that sparked the animosity between himself, his peers, and his mentor, had gone missing, and Mori-san admits to taking them in an effort to dissuade him from pursuing that theme of work any longer, asking Ono to bring him the few paintings he had hidden away, again, the ones he was most fond of. Ono’s refusal marks the end of his time at Mori-san’s villa, the end of his studies with him, putting him on the path to create the “patriotic” propaganda art that would cause him and his family issues later on in their lives.

But, in his acts of patriotism, he becomes what he vowed not to as a child: his father. During a string of memories that float (if you will) into one another, we finally learn why Kuroda rejects Ono’s attempts at reconnecting with him as Ono turned Kuroda in for pursuing “unpatriotic” artwork.

“‘I am the man on whose information you [the authorities] have been brought here. I am Masuji Ono, the artist and member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department. Indeed, I am an official adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. . .” (182).

After his apprehension, Kuroda’s paintings are burned, being called by the police officers “unpatriotic trash.” While the smell of burning carries through the air like it did when he was a child, Ono is now met with the image of Kuroda’s paintings actually burning in a bonfire, the image he and us, the reader, were spared in the earlier memory from his childhood. Almost instantly, Ono realizes that his act of patriotism was more harmful than he anticipated as he laments that the works being burned were “fine” pieces.

On the surface, this book initially seems to be dealing with the question of intention and patriotism during the war in the scope of Ono’s propaganda artwork. However, by the end of the book, it is evident that Ono has deeper regrets of his actions during the war than the images he painted. A perfect example of this is when he recalls the conversation he had with his daughter on his comparison of himself and Naguchi (a composer who killed himself after he felt guilt that his songs were used as propaganda during the war)  towards the end of the second section of the book:

“‘Let me assure you, Setsuko, I wouldn’t for a moment consider the sort of action Naguchi took. But then I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end.’

My daughter seemed to consider this for a moment. Then she said: ‘Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong'” (192-193).

This divide between the outward causation of his guilt and the true cause is much like the idea of the floating world presented in this text: his propaganda artwork are the promises and sweet words whispered to him in the pleasure houses at night, but come morning, that facade has vanished, and the truth of his actions during the war are what is left in the morning.

Until next time,


Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Vintage Books, 1989, New York.