Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“Casting” and Speculation in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe opposed his fellow English citizen’s feverish impulse to invest, or “speculate,” in 18th Century England’s burgeoning stock market. Critic Colin Nicholson states that the English, at this time, “… encountered what we now term finance capitalism as a system of credit that expanded and shrank as developing stock and money markets rose and fell” (xi). Defoe’s critical attitude towards speculation is evident in his novel, Moll Flanders, the tale of a woman who overcomes an ignoble birth in London’s Newgate prison, growing up to become one of the city’s most notorious thieves, and ultimately prospering as a Virginian plantation owner. It is important to point out that Defoe critiques speculation in his novel from the perspective of a disadvantaged woman. Primarily, it is men who are in control of the economy and Moll is the “other in this economic environment. In this essay, I will demonstrate how Defoe denounces the capitalist system in England and public participation in the stock market, in particular. Moreover, Defoe uses the character of Moll Flanders to reveal the pervasive, negative effects that speculation and capitalistic behavior, in general, has on individual lives.
The narrative places an obvious focus upon the points in Moll’s life when she is not married and is compelled to survive and compete in the capitalist economy. The survival tactics that Moll must employ to successfully navigate her way through this economy demonstrates the fact that capitalism has a denigrating effect on “womanhood,” a fact that would have been alarming to an eighteenth-century reading audience. When Moll Flanders makes prudent and reserved decisions, particularly in regards to money, Defoe shows that she is rewarded in her dealings with men and, later on, in her criminal endeavors. But prudence and reserve, commonly perceived as feminine traits, have been twisted by capitalism and are utilized by Moll to further her own interests and to insure her own survival. Also, when Moll displays uncontrollable avarice, she is punished with imprisonment or “imminent” poverty. With this concept in mind, Moll Flanders can be read as a social commentary endorsing Defoe’s conviction that his fellow Englishmen (and women) should be prudent with their money and refrain from engaging in the high-risk, unpredictable arena of the stock market, a world which both impassions and impoverishes people, compromising virtuous behavior. Moll’s repeated use of the term, “Cast,” which relates important choices to a roll of the dice, parallels the chances that individuals took in the speculation of Defoe’s day. Living in these socio-economic conditions, Moll must take chances and participate in the capitalist system or perish within it.
Only two years prior to the1722 publication of Moll Flanders, England experienced the devastating effects of the South Sea Bubble, where misguided investing caused severe and widespread economic ruin (Richetti 150). Critic John Richetti asserts that Defoe disapproved of joint-stock businesses like the South Sea Company that were appearing everywhere (145). Defoe also condemned stock-jobbers, who were individuals or companies that sold stock for businesses like the South Sea Company at wildly inflated prices (150). Defoe wrote Moll Flanders in this environment of economic instability.
Moll’s ability to assert herself in a capitalist economy that is teeming with “fortune-hunters” is put to the test when she enters “the Marriage Market” as a young woman. Moll’s first marriage to the younger brother of her lover in Colchester is marred by impassioned decisions and a disregard for consequences. While Moll is in love with the elder brother and loses her virginity to him in the heat of passion, she is forced to marry the younger brother after the elder one loses interest in her. It is made clear, however, that Moll’s social position is compromised, as she is told by the sisters in the wealthy family, who inform her that, “…if a young woman have Beauty, Birth, Breeding, Wit, Sense, Manners, Modesty, and all these to an Extream; yet if she have not Money, she’s no Body, she had as good want them all, for nothing but Money now recommends a Woman; the Men play the Game all into their own Hands” (Defoe 20). This key quote reveals the emphasis that is placed upon money in this society along with the fact that men are the ones that are in control. As a woman, Moll is at an extreme disadvantage.
However, Moll is determined to shrewdly orchestrate her second marriage when her first husband dies unexpectedly. She states assertively, “…the Game was over; I was resolv’d now to be Married, or Nothing, and to be well Married, or not at all” (50). Here, it is clear that Moll has become disillusioned and she realizes that she will have to be more proactive and opportunistic in order to succeed in this socio-economic system. Moll attempts to control the forces of the so-called “Marriage Market,” which operates much like the stock market, through impulse, greed, and the promise of instant riches. Though Moll saves a comfortable amount of money to subsist on, she instructs her female friends to represent her as a woman of considerable wealth. Moll’s accomplices assist her in perpetuating the illusion of fortune to her prospective suitors while Moll remains quiet and evasive in regards to her actual monetary holdings; this way she cannot be accused of misrepresenting herself and the man has only himself to blame for relying on hearsay. Moll’s artifice can be related to Nicholson’s description of “…market-oriented perceptions of individuality where passion and fantasy are encouraged to operate in constant flux” (xii). In this way, Moll is like one of her contemporary stock-jobbers, selling herself at an inflated rate and causing an economic “bubble” in the Marriage Market. The illusion and promise of wealth that Moll perpetuates seems to be a lucrative investment, but she is merely playing on the “passions” of her suitor, who is depicted as gullible by Defoe. Her own shrewdness in “The Marriage Market” is contrasted with her suitor’s caprice, and Moll is rewarded in the form of a wealthy husband whom she has effectively duped. Moll speaks dismissively of any woman that would not follow her lead in the matter of marriage, stating that, “…they are a Sort of Ladies that are to be pray’d for…and to me they look like People that venture their whole Estates in a Lottery where there is a Hundred Thousand Blanks to one Prize” (Defoe 62).
In his depiction of the marriage market, Defoe is not only positing the negative effects that capitalism has had on interpersonal relationships, he is also foregrounding the “corrupt” behavior that women like Moll are forced to resort to because of these conditions. Whereas “trust” and “naiveté” are generally regarded as positive female characteristics, Moll pities women who are too trusting and naive because they will be taken advantage of in the marriage market. Moll makes it clear that men are the primary speculators in the marriage market, stating that, “…Men made no scruple to set themselves out, and to go a Fortune Hunting, as they call it, when they had really no Fortune themselves…” (56). Moll realizes that she must “Deceive the Deceiver” (63) if she wants to win in the marriage market. It is apparent that Moll must resort to lies and trickery, because it is the sort of behavior that is perpetuated in a high-risk, unstable economy that has filtered down into every facet of society, even marriage. Clearly, the stock market and the marriage market are both a form of gambling, and Defoe’s depiction of these institutions can be read as a negative critique.
Moll’s obsession with her net value is highlighted in the episodes where she lives off of her savings and refrains from accumulating additional capital. Even in times of relative financial security, when Moll is not earning income she equates the dwindling of her money to a mortal wound. She states, “…as I had no settl’d Income, so spending upon the main Stock was but a certain kind of bleeding to death…” (86). Additionally, when Moll’s banker husband dies, his death appears to be linked directly to a bad investment and his subsequent bankruptcy. His financial irresponsibility leads tellingly to his death. Defoe seems to be advising his reader against spending or speculating beyond one’s means, for it can bring about not only financial devastation, but also physical death. While the banker husband’s demise seems to convey a cautionary tale, Moll is presented in an attractive light because of her keen financial awareness. However, in order to prevent herself from “bleeding to death,” Moll must commit transgressive acts, lying and manipulating others in order to further herself financially.
In fact, the popular 18th century reference to credit as an “Inconstant Female” is discredited throughout Moll Flanders (Nicholson 45-6). While Moll is guarded with money, most of the men in the novel are befuddled by money matters. Ironically, Moll’s banker husband is one of the biggest offenders in this regard. This can be seen in his recommendation to her that she invest her money in stocks so that she will receive semi-annual “dividends” (Defoe 106). His disregard in conveying the inherent risk of such a venture is alarming considering the fact that the South Sea Bubble debacle would still be fresh in the reader’s memory. In addition to financial incompetence, Moll’s husbands consistently die prematurely, leaving her to scramble and support herself by any means necessary. The fact that Moll has little to say regarding the times in her life when she is married suggests that she is secure and content. It is only when she finds herself on her own that she schemes and plots to keep poverty (a state equal to death) at bay.
When Moll believes her “marriageable” years to be behind her, she turns to theft as a means of survival. At this point in the narrative, the accumulation of capital and the drive towards speculation and hazard is brought to the forefront. Moll realizes the direct exchange value of the gold watches, the necklaces, the quantities of Flanders lace, and the other pilfered items that Mother Midnight fences for her. However, even when she has earned enough money by stealing to live comfortably for the remainder of her life, she persists in her “craft.” She states, “…Avarice stept in and said, go on, go on; you have had very good luck, go on till you have gotten Four or five Hundred Pound, and then you shall leave off, and then you may live easie without working at all” (160). Speculation, which is usually associated with the stock market, now references Moll repeatedly “casting” her life in order to steal when the penalty for those who are apprehended is either transportation to the New World as indentured servants or death by hanging for old offenders.
At this point in the narrative, Moll no longer views men as a means of financial stability. Instead, she relies on another woman, Mother Midnight, to assist her in the thieving “trade,” as Moll calls it. Moll realizes, however, that there is an inherent imbalance in her business relationship with Mother Midnight. Moll states, that Mother Midnight “…had a Share of the Gain, and no Share in the hazard…” (169). Here, Defoe seems to posit the idea that unmarried women, who are outside of the socially accepted economic system, must resort to criminally corrupt behavior in order to support themselves. Moll refuses to be a servant, in spite of her low birth, and resorts to pick-pocketing and other forms of theft to accumulate her fortune. Moll is a true capitalist in furthering herself by any means possible; however, Defoe clearly condemns her misdeeds, as stated in the Preface to the novel. Defoe writes, “…there is not a wicked Action in any Part of it, but is first or last rendered Unhappy and Unfortunate…nor a vertuous just Thing, but it carries its Praise along with it…” (5). Therefore, Moll’s criminal acts can be interpreted as a negative critique of the economic circumstances and the behavior that is encouraged by the capitalist environment that Moll is living in.
Moll succeeds in stealing and eluding capture for years owing to her cautious approach to each theft. She prefers to work alone (174), she avoids high-risk activities like counterfeiting, and she has escape routes (201). This is contrasted with her fellow thieves, whose carelessness is presented as a dangerous quality that soon sends them to the gallows. However, in what will be her final attempt at thievery after years of cautious criminality, Moll states that she is “…not at all made Cautious by my former Danger as I us’d to be…” and she is immediately caught (214). There is a direct correlation between the behavior of her suitors earlier in the novel and Moll’s inability to govern her passion for stealing. Defoe presents Moll as yet another example of the fact that, in an unstable economic environment, judiciousness is rewarded and carelessness is punished. With Moll’s capture, the novel suggests that avarice, a direct byproduct of capitalism, coupled with a lack of circumspection, will be punished sooner or later.
Moll escapes certain death through bribery and a legal technicality and she goes on to live a life of alleged repentance and financial prosperity with her fourth or fifth husband, depending on how you look at it. What is Defoe telling the reader with this ending? That it is alright to steal as long as you are repentant afterwards? That Moll is ultimately too lovable of a character to be killed and that her death would seem like martyrdom? The latter may contain a kernel of truth, but in a broader context Moll has set herself up financially to prosper after she escapes hanging, which is owed to the law’s defining of her as a “new offender” simply because she has never been “caught” before. Moll’s economic foresight is what truly secures her. While she is subject to the unpredictable circumstances of life and economics and she encounters disaster even when she takes the greatest pains to avoid it, Defoe posits Moll as being best served when she is prudent and calculating.
More importantly, however, Moll appears to repent her sins, though she does so by degrees. It is not until the final paragraph of the novel that Moll stops being deceptive and manipulative. She is honest with her husband about her past life and they “…resolve to spend the Remainder of our Years in sincere Penitence, for the wicked lives we have lived” (267). While the conclusion to Moll Flanders is a “happy” one, her long life of crime and deviant behavior does not seem to be acquitted by Defoe. Even though capitalism and “casting” eventually leads Moll to happiness and financial security, the novel suggests that avarice, speculation, and opportunism are unacceptable forms of behavior that she would not have engaged in if any of her prior marriages had lasted. Left alone as a fringe member of society and the economy, Moll does what she has to in order to survive. Defoe critiques the “immoral” economic system that brings about her desperate courses of action rather than condemning or punishing Moll for immoral behavior. Some critics may read Moll as behaving “monstrously,” in a Gilbert and Gubar sense of the word, but it is clear that in a money-driven society, “angelic” behavior is impossible.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Massachusettes: Blackwell, 2004. 812-25. Print.

Nicholson, Colin. Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xi-50. Print.

Richetti, John. “Moral, Social, and Economic Writings 1714-31.” The Life of Daniel Defoe. Massachusettes: Blackwell, 2005. 143-73. Print.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Merrick as the “Abject” Other in “The Elephant Man”

Theorist Julia Kristeva has argued her notion of the “abject” as the sense of revulsion that we experience upon encountering something that is at once repulsive, but is also an inescapable part of ourselves as human beings. This repulsive “object” can be anything from bodily fluids to a dead body to the concept of evil, or “deviant,” human behavior. In David Lynch’s 1980 film, “The Elephant Man,” the character of John Merrick is posited as this abject other. Merrick’s extreme physical deformities make him seem “not human,” yet his one perfectly formed arm and his unaffected genitals clearly establish him as a man. Merrick is “abjected” in that other characters in the movie are repulsed by the fact that Merrick is undeniably human, along with the fact that the undetermined source of his deformity is something that could affect any newborn child.
Upscale society’s “acceptance” of Merrick is proven to be nothing short of a farce in that they present him with gifts such as a vanity kit, when it is his very appearance that excludes him from society altogether. A key difference between Bernard Pomerance’s play, “The Elephant Man,” and Lynch’s film is the scene where Mrs. Kendal disrobes for Merrick, who has no experience with women. Of course, Dr. Treves steps into the room and is appalled by Mrs. Kendal’s gesture. This is a telling moment in the narrative because, while Treves seems to sympathize with Merrick, he clearly does not see Merrick as a man. Instead, Treves is shocked, both by Mrs. Kendal’s “unladylike” behavior and by the fact that Merrick has been viewed by a woman as a potentially sexual being. In Pomerance’s play it is clear that Mrs. Kendal is the only character who sees beyond physical “illusions” and perceives Merrick as a man. For Treves, Ross, and the remainder of society, Merrick cannot transcend his abject state. In both the play and the film, Merrick’s realization of this failure on society’s part to accept him as human, coupled with his rapidly declining health, results in his final act of self-assertion: suicide.

“A Clockwork Orange” and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Some compelling parallels can be drawn between the infamous “aversion therapy” scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Michel Foucault’s highly influential book, Discipline and Punish. Foucault discusses the fact that, prior to our modern-day prison system, public torture and execution was the prevailing form of punishment for criminals. Foucault goes on to say that an unintended consequence of this form of punishment revealed itself in the fact that crowds would inadvertently “identify” with the tortured individual and that mobs would break out in protest against the monarchy that was meting out punishment. In this sense, the tortured criminal becomes a victim, if not an outright martyr, and the monarchy is posited as an even worse criminal in the inhumanity that it shows towards its deviants.
This idea plays itself out in Kubrick’s film. While Alex is guilty of unspeakably inhumane acts, the aversion therapy that he undergoes (albeit willingly) makes him a sympathetic character. Alex volunteers to be a guinea pig, but it is clear that he gets more than he bargained for when his free will is taken from him. The medical and political audience that witnesses Alex’s torture is criminalized in that they inhumanely observe Alex’s suffering, and they are “panoptic” in the sense that their main objective is the transformation of Alex into a harmless, self-governing member of society. The idea of Alex as a sympathetic character is reinforced when one of his former victims, as well as his former gang members, beat and torture him because they know that he is unable to defend himself. In this sense, it is a triumph when Alex is restored to his “normal” raping and murdering self. One of the film’s messages is that the removal of free will is even more of a crime than rape and murder. Foucault, on the other hand, demonstrates how “real” society has chosen to remove the free will of criminals through imprisonment and a highly regimented schedule within the prison system. Through this analytical lens, “A Clockwork Orange” is a corrupted, social fantasy/nightmare where individuals like Alex are celebrated; as opposed to Foucault’s analysis, which demonstrates how our society deals with individuals like Alex in the most “humane” way they can.

Group Report: “The Elephant Man”

“The Elephant Man” group, consisting of Dylan, Catherine, Tiffany, and myself, worked very well with each other. Each of us brought great ideas to the table of knowledge and we worked together to weed out any proposals that seemed extraneous to our presentation. Dylan brought an incredible body of knowledge in regards to critical theory to our group and we benefited greatly from it. We decided early on, as a group, to compare scenes from “The Elephant Man” to another movie that was closely related ideologically (but not too closely related), and we decided on Catherine’s astute recommendation of “A Clockwork Orange.” We met as a group four times (three times before class and once at Catherine’s house) and all four of us brainstormed various critical approaches to both films and we chose key scenes from each movie that we would show to the class, allowing them to make their own connections and to establish their own critical evaluations. In our group, there was a complete absence of ego and we respected each other’s opinions and ideas completely. I would say that, in terms of my own individual contribution, my reading of the play version of “The Elephant Man,” by Bernard Pomerance, helped to shed some light upon the film adaptation. For example, in the play, Merrick’s character is much more aware and critical of the individuals who are supposedly “helping” him. This is in stark contrast to the movie, where Merrick is depicted as passive and completely trusting and grateful to his “guardians.” Our presentation was the direct result of a group effort and I feel that we were all eager to contribute and that we all found it to be a rewarding experience.

Bella Swan as “The Angel in the House”

note: the following analysis is based exclusively on the first Twilight novel. I have not yet read the rest of the series and any rebuttals to my argument are more than welcome.

In Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight series, the female protagonist, Bella Swan, is posed as yet another “Angel in the House,” as the concept is illustrated by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. From a superficial standpoint, Bella appears to be a strong, individualistic heroine who asserts her will and tries to hold her own in the world of vampires and werewolves. However, Bella actually represents many of the traits of an “Angel in the House.” In Twilight, there is a direct correlation drawn between a vampire’s insatiable desire for blood and the human sex drive. Bella’s rejection of a human boyfriend, her desire to hide her involvement with the supernatural world from her family and friends, and her biological exclusion from the vampire world posits her as an isolated “other.” In this sense, Bella is entirely “pure.” She is untainted by the human desire for sex and the vampire’s desire for blood. With Edward, Bella is made entirely passive, contrary to whatever delusions of control or trust that she chooses to hold on to. Edward loves to watch Bella sleep (the most passive state) and he makes it clear to her that she is physically powerless against him. Even Bella’s language is deficient in the world of vampires that she inhabits, since they can communicate at speeds that she is incapable of. Bella is reliant completely upon her vampire protectors. She is also posited as virtuous in that she chooses to sacrifice her own life to save Edward, her parents, and her vampire friends when James begins to hunt her down. Even in this selfless act, however, Bella proves to be duped by James and needs Edward to save her from certain death. It is unsettling to think that Bella Swan would be a role model for anyone. The fact that some women (and some men) feel such a strong attraction to Edward Cullen seems to parallel a desire to be made completely passive and ineffectual.

Judith Butler and Shamanism is Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, it is relatively easy to draw a comparison between Butler’s theory of gender as performance and the female protagonist in the section of the novel entitled “White Tigers.” However, a parallel also exists in the “Shaman” section of Kingston’s novel. The story of the mother, Brave Orchid, who trains to become a doctor in China, is enhanced when viewed through the lens of shamanism. Shaman are seen as mediators between the material world and the spiritual realm, healing individuals and the community from the inside (the spirit) out (the physical being). In the “Shaman” section, Brave Orchid serves as a shaman to her community of female student doctors when she rallies them together in order to defeat the “Sitting Ghost.” As a shaman, Brave Orchid’s own encounter with the Sitting Ghost is described in terms of a physical showdown; however, when the other young women are brought in, the vanquishing of the Sitting Ghost is more of a ritual; the other women do not actually see the ghost as Brave Orchid did. In this particular example, it is interesting that this sort of spirituality is juxtaposed with the more scientific, modern study of medicine. Brave Orchid helps her community of women doctors to overcome and vanquish their superstitious fear of a monster that haunts the dormitory by night. In this sense, Brave Orchid helps them to move beyond old world beliefs and to enter a more modern world of science and rationality. Brave Orchid is a mediator that effectively changes, or “heals,” her fellow doctors from the inside out. She asserts, “Run, Ghost, run from this school. Only good medical people belong here. Go back, dark creature, to your native country. Go home. Go home.” “Go home,” sang the women (Kingston 75).
Here, Kingston has constructed another “woman warrior.” While there are male and female shaman, warriors are traditionally identified as male. Thus the role of “attacker” that Brave Orchid assumes operates as a way to subvert social norms that dictate “female” behavior. Brave Orchid, as a warrior/shaman, is a powerful, complex, and assertive role, a role that displaces the “no name women” in the text.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.