Kafka and the Travelling Doll

What is better that a good  story to make you feel in harmony  with the entire universe at least for a while? “Kafka and the travelling doll” is a beautiful story penned by Spanish writer Jordi Sierra I Fabra,  which, in a way,  throws a different light on Prague-born author Franz  Kafka (1883-1924). Kafka has always been pictured as a gloomy and pessimistic sort of  man, but Jordi Sierra  shows us his sensitive side narrating  an episode which  occurred to Kafka just a year before he died. It is not important to know whether it truly happened or not: it is just heart-warming.

At the age of 40, Franz Kafka, who never married and had no children, was walking through Steglitz Park in Berlin, when he met a little girl who was crying because she had lost her favorite doll. Kafka tried to help the little girl find the doll, but without success.

Kafka told her to meet him there the following day to continue the search. The next day, when they still hadn’t found the doll, Kafka gave the little girl a letter, which, he claimed, was written by the doll that said:

 “Please don’t cry. I went on a trip to see the world. I’ll write you about my adventures.”

That was the beginning of a story that continued until the end of Kafka’s life. During their meetings Kafka read the doll’s letters about her adventures and conversations that the little girl found adorable.

Finally, Kafka surprised the girl telling that the doll had returned to Berlin and handed it to her ( of course, he had bought a new one). But the girl was disappointed:

 “It doesn’t look like my doll at all!”

So, Kafka handed her another letter in which the doll had written:

“My travels have changed me.”

The little girl hugged the new doll and carried her happily home. A year later Kafka died. Many years later, the now adult child found a letter inside the doll. In the tiny letter signed by Kafka  there was written:

 “Everything you love will probably be lost, but eventually love will return in another way.”

Malaussène Scheme

Haven’t you ever wished to have a Benjamin Malaussène in your family or circle of friends? That is, somebody always willing to take all the blame, even if it is you who has been caught with your hands in the cookie jar? Well, in case you have never heard about him, Benjamin Malaussène, is the protagonist of Daniel Pennac’s  popular saga of crime thrillers, and he works as ……scapegoat. Actually, he is in Quality Control of  “the Store”, but de facto he is the person called upon to take the rap when customers come in with complaints. It works more or less like this: Malaussène manages to assume all the blame, confessing his guilt in such an affecting way that customers take pity on him, so, “the Store” doesn’t have pay for any refund, and everybody is happy.

Being the scapegoat is Benjami’s fate outside “the Store” too. Even if the situations he finds himself are caused by a series of interests and precise logics which have nothing to do with him, he ends up hopelessly guilty. This scheme, which I would like to call Malaussène scheme, is fun on books, but when you realize that what you call fiction is nothing but the reality, you start to look at it with a different eye. In short, the scheme in constituted by the following 3 main steps : 1) spotting a problem, 2) finding the scapegoat, that is, demonstrating that somebody/something else caused the problem, 3) using the scapegoat as means to go back to the status quo ante or simply to upset the status quo, as scapegoats can be used both ways. The field of application I want to use to demonstrate how this pattern works is the one dearest to me: school.  

Step 1: PROBLEM. Every year in Italy there is a learning assessment that we call INVALSI.  It is aimed at measuring the level of competence in Italian, Mathematics and English of different groups of students: in essence, it photographs the state of health of our school system.  Well, it seems the  Italian school system is far more than sick, it has a foot in the grave, actually. Just to give you an idea 44% of high school students do not reach satisfactory levels in Italian , 51% in Mathematics, 51% in English-reading and 63% in English-listening in 2020/21. The figures for Italian and Mathematics are shocking, as for English, well, everybody knows there are no good English teacher in Italy, so, no surprise.

Step 2: THE SCAPEGOAT.  If data were  taken seriously, after such an outcome new strategies would have been studied, and quickly, but, of course, effective strategies have a cost,  particularly, if we think that there have been no investments on the school for decades here. Furthermore, I wonder whom the strategist might be, as I detect no such mind capable of drawing the guidelines of the new school or somebody who is not  in the pay of political forces. As it was crystal clear that there was no intent for a change and , of course, no money on the table, a scapegoat was necessary to justify such a downfall.  It  was not so arduous to find one, but  quite the opposite, it was handed on a silver  platter.  Since these were the first tests after the outbreak of the pandemic, the designated scapegoat couldn’t but become what had characterized education in the years of Covid 19: on-line learning.

Step 3: THE  SCAPEGOAT  EFFECT. Hence, on-line learning has become the source of any ill regarding school and more. Is a student depressed? It’s because of on-line learning. Anorexia or bulimia? On-line learning. Demotivation and frustration? The same answer. Even when talking to parents, on-line learning has become the perfect justification to any behaviour and achievement below the expectation, thus demanding indulgence on my side. The consequence? On-line learning has been banned. We are about to go back to school with more than 200.000 Covid cases per day, in small classrooms with about 30 kids, with no ventilation system working and with the most absurd plan to follow in presence of  Covid cases in class. In short, 6 months of on-line learning in two years have caused a drastic drop in the levels of competence of Italian students and mined their psychological stability. Is it to be believed?

THE VARIABLE. Scapegoats cannot always work, as sometimes significant events, let’s call them variables, happen.  These variables contradict mainstream narration so manifestly that they can neither be overlooked nor hidden.  The fact in questions was the selection of magistrates held from July 12 to December 2 2021: out of 5,827 candidates only 88 passed, and most of them were “rejected” because of the written test. The writing skills of the aspiring magistrates were regarded poor, as there were not only technical but also grammatical deficiencies . We are talking about candidates who have a university degree and a master at least and, this is no small detail for what I want to demonstrate, they must have been in their early thirties, so they could not be the product of on-line learning, but rather the clear effect of years of policies made of cuts only and reforms at zero cost. For years all the methods concerning education have constantly converged to one main goal: inclusion. What’s wrong with inclusion, some of you may ask? Absolutely nothing, it  is a very daring objective, but the only way we have to include all, and avoid what today is considered a mortifying selection, is by lowering learning standards. There is no other way, no other miracles can be done, unless governments decide to invest on education.  Hence, in order to avoid depopulation, universities couldn’t but lower their learning standards too. And this is the result.

You may now object that all this talking didn’t but demonstrate that scapegoats are ineffective. Quite the contrary. In case of variables, strategies have only to be integrated a little: you overwhelm means of information with contrasting data, thus creating chaos and wait till the event is forgotten. And this is how we keep proceeding to nowhere.

On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

I don’t know about you, but as tv series addicted,  I have grown annoyed with the massive unnecessary use of flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling. “ How to get away with Murder” drove me absolutely crazy because of the exaggerate use of this technique, thus making the narration somewhat predictable and BO-RING. Let alone “How I met your mother”.  After yet another flashforward in season six I had to wait till season eight to finally know who married who. Two entire seasons! Even a couple of days ago, while watching “Harlem”, the black, LGBT version of “Sex and the City”, the most unnecessary flash back –  an entire episode which meant to give light to some absolutely superfluous truths – was placed in the midst of the story. I understand that they want us to be glued  to the screen, but if these interruptions to a chronological narration are not skilfully planned, the outcome is just boredom rather than revived interest.

Flashbacks, in fact, help  find  the sense of a particular situation of the present, revealing  details  or  secrets from the past. While flashforwards provide anticipations. Their function  is  to enhance curiosity, as you are allowed to see a small fragment of the future, but as it is only a small part of a whole and being devoid of its context, it  is meaningless, but intriguing enough to make us want for more. Yet, their use should be dosed, pondered, otherwise flashbacks and flashforwards cannot but be downgraded to useless special effects.

The point is  that if you mean to write a story breaking here and there the chronological order of narration, there must be a good  reason to do it and you should figure the impact on the watcher.  On this purpose, I would humbly suggest to these screenwriters  the reading of a masterpiece of literature where there is an excellent use of flashbacks and flashforwards: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte  .

When the novel begins 95% of the story has already taken place. The first narrator, Mr Lockwood,  is “hired” only on the purpose of arousing our curiosity, but  as he is a total stranger to the events, how can he perform his duty? Just telling what he sees. In the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, in fact,  Lockwood only describes people and tells us his impressions about his neighbours: the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, his meeting with his rude, hot landlord named Heathcliff, the bunch of sullen, mysterious people who live there, whom  he can’t detect  how they are connected one to another, the night visit of a ghost and more. It is the detailed report of  his experience there, that triggers a great quantity of questions in the reader, but this narrator won’t be allowed to give the answers. This is the reason why Emily Bronte calls him Mr Lockwood, as to remark  that “unlocking” mysteries is not  his function here, but quite the contrary.

As Lockwood cannot tell us more than his impressions, a second narrator is needed. Somebody  who knows everything and can unravel the thread of the story, and Emily Bronte’s choice falls on Nelly Dean, a witness of the events. Being the governess of Thrushcross Grange , where Lockwood resides, Nelly is able to satisfy all his curiosities, therefore, she tells him the entire story starting from the beginning. From this moment a long flashback  begins, which stretches from the arrival of Heathcliff when he was a little boy to the present events.

I have to say  that the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are so rich and extremely powerful  in narrative tension that after the initial fireworks the chronological  narration proceeds in a sort of slow “diminuendo” rather than “crescendo” in emotion, despite the many twists in the story.  It is very likely that the necessity to enliven the end of  the novel  could be the reason why Emily Bronte employs the flashback stratagem in her the last three chapters too. Lockwood, in fact, comes back after six month absence and he is told the latest, shocking  news by Nelly, which includes: Heathcliff’s death, his reunion with his beloved Catherine after death – as their ghosts have been seen wandering in the moors – but also happier outcomes. Hence, Emily Bronte not only manages to engage once again her –exhausted – reader, but also balances the structure of the novel providing it with and effective “finale”.  

Read the classics, dear screenwriters, read the classics!

How Do I Love Thee?

What are soul mates? In his Symposium Plato gave a very fascinating answer: a soul originally was a perfect sphere, which was cut in two halves. One half of the soul went to your body, while the other found abode in your soulmate’s body. Since then, we keep searching that missing part for our entire life and if we are lucky enough to find it: BANG! It is like two magnets ‘attraction: strong, irreversible.  For Plato any other relationship different from the bond which arouse from that natural attraction could not work, just because it was not meant to be. In fact, if you reverse the polarity of one magnet,  they repel. Despite your efforts there is no way to keep together those repelling  magnets for long : it is not in the laws of nature. At that point  you may choose whether to live hopefully  a satisfactory but empty life with the wrong partner or to keep searching for that special kind of connection, which you can experience only with your soul mate.

Of course the paths of love are the most unexpected.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s path was poetry. Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone. She found consolation writing poems. This how her missing half, poet Robert Browning, found her. He had come across her writings and felt that power, that connection of the souls and wrote asking to meet her. They eventually fell in love and the intensity of their feelings can be felt in any line of the letters they exchanged before eloping to Italy, like in the following excerpt:

“For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you – I have come back for you alone…at your voice…and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you – I bless God for you – you are too good for me, always I knew.

In her famous sonnet “How do I love thee?” she means to define her intense feelings and the ways in which the love for her husband can be expressed. But how can love be explained when it stretches over the limits of reason?

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”

In fact, Elizabeth Browning  finds insufficient to measure it by means of a rational language – “depth”, “breadth”,” height”-  and chooses to express the immensity of their soul connection through words  such as  “soul”, “being” and “grace”. A spiritual, but passionate love at the same time which goes beyond the limits of death itself.

Also young Juliet knew well how the connection of two souls worked. Once she meets her  half in Romeo she finds herself in a whirl of emotions which transcends space and time:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

The meeting of the two magnets lights up the sparkle of love , which darts Romeo and Juliet in a new overwhelming dimension , where they are no longer bodies , where time and the disputes of their families can’t affect them, where there is no fear; there they become infinite in Plato’s unique perfect wholeness again.

But, what happens  if  the two soul mates cannot enjoy their love despite the force of  their magnetic attraction, for any reason? In Wuthering Heights , Catherine finds her soul mate in Heathcliff. She is well aware of that, in fact, she refers to him saying :“I am Heathcliff” or even more: “He is more myself than I am”. Rules of society forbids a connection to somebody so below to her station, hence, she yields to those rules, marrying the best catch the marriage market offered, Edgar Linton, who is even a good sort of man, but he is not her half. The comparison between the two men is merciless: Catherine compares the intensity of  her feelings for Edgar to images like “moonbeam” and “frost” while her love for Heathcliff takes the form of “lightening” and “fire”. Marrying Edgar, the tension between the two halves Catherine and Heathcliff, who remain close but cannot complete each other, becomes toxic and will inevitably lead to a tragic outcome.

A soul marriage doesn’t provoke any such tragedies. It cannot fear anything according to Donne, even a long separation. It is steadfast love. In his poem “Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”, which was written for his wife Anne before he left on a trip to Europe, Donne tells his wife that theirs is not a real separation , because their love is spiritual and transcendent, they are soul mates, and soul mates are always connected: a connection of minds rather than bodies. So there is no need to cry. Those who believe that love corresponds to physical attraction, those “dull sublunary lovers” cannot admit absence, because they love the body. Hence, if the body has to leave they cannot any longer have love, so let them cry.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

But his leaving cannot alter their love, because as she loves his mind, his mind cannot go away. It is ever present. Then he introduces one of the most convincing metaphor to describe how beautifully connected they are:  a compass. One leg of the compass  must be grounded to allow the other one to spread and go out to make a circle. So, the poet  says to his wife that to make a perfect circle he has to leave  and that the only way he can make that trip and come back is that she stays where she is. Because she grounds him.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home
.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

Progression or Regression?

I fell asleep. I fell asleep and for a couple of months I have been lulled by the sound of waves, sun kissed. I fell asleep and fluttered every single day on leisure-land where a pleasant and reinvigorating breeze weakened any attempt of the few sensible thoughts left hidden somewhere in a synapse of my dormant brain to make me quit that state of bliss. I would have slept even longer, in fact, but for that annoying bell, a school bell, actually , which forcibly brought me back to the dullness of the real world and duty. Good-bye leisure-land, I must go, uncertain of my fate.

When you have to start afresh, it is advisable to begin with baby-steps, something effortless and pleasant, if possible, at the same time, to break the ice, otherwise one always tends to postpone the initial effort, which is usually perceived as huge. I thought that filing all the works, projects, power points I had left scattered on the computer the year before would have been a good start and so I did. While watching the screen, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology had actually helped me beat my natural disorganization ( and laziness); in fact , all the school years with papers, tests etc. . were there, beautifully ordered before me. It is memory. Whatever I needed , with a click it was at my disposal.

And I clicked. I don’t know whether it was an evil school-elf or just curiosity which induced me to do so, but I clicked on year 2015 first, 2010 then to get to the early twenties and then I stopped, a bit puzzled. Evoking memories, even working memories can be cruel sometimes.  What remained of that summer state of bliss and dizziness definitely faded away as the facts were plainly before me and needed to be assessed.    

What facts? To make myself clear let’s take a class as example: the third year of high school , average age 16 and let’s follow how learning and expectations have changed in these last 25 years. I have always enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet at this stage, as the theme of love is captivating and it is a good starting point to get to know Shakespeare, but how has the way I do it changed in time and why?

LATE NINETIES: in those years I was a devout reader of the Arden Shakespeare editions with all those beautiful notes and explanations, hence, I wanted all my students to have one. Despite it was not so easy to find it as we are in Italy and there was no Amazon then, they found a way to get one eventually, all of them . As far as I can remember they enjoyed the accurate study of lines and sources of Romeo and Juliet. How do I know? Well, the following year they asked me for more, so I infer, they liked it. But, did it really matter in the late nineties whether students really enjoyed or not a lesson?

EARLY 2000s: all of a sudden it seemed  it had become quite hard to find the Arden edition anywhere, hence, I told them to buy whatever edition they could find, I would have provided them with the missing information . Of course,  there were always two or three students in the class  who managed to find the Arden edition, but the decline was now inevitable.

LATE 2000s: As in the last years I had found hard managing to read the entire play by the end of the school-year, I decided that they could have used a bilingual edition. We would have read and analysed the most important parts in class in English, while the rest could have been done even in Italian if they wanted, and they wanted .  After all, the knowledge of the main themes of the play was what really mattered I said to myself. It seemed a good compromise to me.

EARLY 2010s: These where the years when school started to be overloaded with projects of any kind, hence, as I was always running out time I decided that the reading of Romeo and Juliet would have been limited to the “Balcony scene” and the end of the play. I also made them watch the catchy “Romeo and Juliet version”  with Di Caprio. It seemed they truly enjoyed it. I was satisfied.

LATE 2010s: I thought it was I good idea to make them act  the “Balcony Scene” and shoot a video. I chose 6 couples e six directors, one for each couple, and gave them the lines. They shot from the balconies of their homes and eventually the films were assembled together with soundtrack, titles, backstage funny moments etc. . It was creative, it was fun. I was proud of them – and myself.

COVID YEARS: on-line learning has required a new way of communicating in order  to be effective. Words couldn’t but go hand in hand with images to be catchy. In this respect I have found useful GIMP,  a cross-platform image editor which I have adopted to embellish my power points. For Romeo and Juliet I decided to take and edit some shots from Di Caprio’s movie and create a sort of photo novel of the “the Balcony Scene” and make  William Shakespeare himself comment and explain the lines of the play:

It was fun, I have fun exploring the news frontiers of learning, I must admit it,  but looking back to what I used to do almost 30 years ago, I cannot help but wonder: what chances of success would my precious Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet have with today’s students? How should I consider all this process of continuous adaptation to new generations’ educational needs a progression or a regression in learning ? Are these needs real or I have simply surrendered, choosing the shortcut of light entertainment? Is it possible that eventually I am the one to be blamed?

Ada Lovelace

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, — not as now we part, But with a hope. –( Child Harold Pilgrimages, Canto III)

Ada Lovelace never saw her father, yet in a way he never left her. Her name Augusta Ada, for example, was always to remind her the scandalous liaison he had had with her aunt Augusta Leigh, actually, his step sister, who was so dear to him to dispose that his daughter should be named after her. Easy to guess, her parents’ marriage came to an end soon and the small talk concerning the circumstances of their divorce would follow her till her death. This may happen when your father is poetry super star George Byron. The swelling tide of rumours about his indecorous conduct forced him to leave the country when Ada was only five weeks old, never to come  back. He died in Greece, when she was only eight years old.

Her mother, who came from a rich family and was a renowned mathematician, in a way feared her daughter might be inclined to the study of humanities just like her father and introduced Ada to her own field of expertise. It was soon evident that the magic of words was not to be in her future, but rather the enchant of numbers. At the age of 12 she made the project of a steam power flight machine. As a true scientist she studied birds’ mechanisms of flight, and then examined various materials, including silk, feathers and paper, with which to build wings. She jotted down the results of her research and recorded each experiment in an illustrated guide, entitled Flyology . One of her tutors proclaimed that if a young male student had her skills “they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. But she was just a girl.

Lady Byron decided to enhance Ada’s natural aptitude to Math entrusting her training to Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who in 1835 would become the first woman to be accepted, as an honorary member, by the Royal Astronomical Society. Once out in society at the age of 17, it is Mary Sommerville that  introduced Ada to William King, who will become her husband and make her Countess of Lovelace and scientist Charles Babbage, the inventor the “Difference Engine”, a first model of automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

When Ada was invited by Babbage himself to see a demonstration of how the “Difference Engine” worked, she was strongly impressed. She couldn’t know it then, but the “Difference Engine” would change her life and would also be the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship with Babbage.The man, who at first underestimated that curious girl, began to change his mind and to open up more. They began to correspond about science and even to discuss his ever evolving projects. He also encouraged Ada to indulge her evident predisposition for numbers and to put her potential to good use. For those times, it was not at all easy: the Victorian patriarchal society was hostile towards the ladies who tried to overcome the intellectual, cultural and social boundaries imposed on them.

In  1835, a year before Ada married, Babbage had begun to plan the “Analytical Engine”, a computing system that used cards to multiply and divide numbers and perform a variety of data tasks. The mathematician was forced to seek support and investments on the project abroad, as the British government had tightened the purse strings and this is the reason why in September 1840 Babbage attended the Second Congress of Italian Scientists in Turin.

Among the people in the audience there was the engineer Luigi Menabrea, who offered to draw up a description of the analytical engine, hitherto non-existent. The article appeared two years later in French (Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage), in a Swiss magazine. Ada Lovelace, who knew French and every aspect of Babbage’s creature very well, proposed herself as a translator. No, actually she did something more.

She added to Menabrea’s writing some of her notes. The new text, almost three times longer than the original, was published in the British magazine “Taylor’s Scientific Memoir” in August 1843. It was signed simply A.A.L. (the initials of Augusta Ada Lovelace) to hide the author’s gender.

Ada Lovelace’s notes also contained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, the so called “Note G”.  In short, the first computer program in history. This is the reason why today Ada is considered the founder of the science of programming, at least in its theoretical aspects: for her, in fact, what mattered was the possibility of demonstrating that only one machine could really be applied for multiple purposes, thanks to the instructions that were provided.

Her intuitive mind was able to see even more: if, following instructions, those machines could manipulate numbers, then they would also be able to manipulate the symbols they represented, like musical notes or letters of the alphabet. In a way she was able imagine the behaviour of our modern computers.

Babbage never managed to build his analytical engine and Ada Lovelace could never test his program as she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Thus, for over 100 years after her death, no one remembered her, except as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. Her scientific contribution remained underestimated until the “father of computer science” Alan Turing rediscovered her notes in 1936. It is possible that the British mathematician was inspired by Ada’s ideas in theorizing artificial intelligence.

The greatest tribute to Lovelace’s work, however, came in the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence called ADA  the newly developed programming language DOD-1 (Department of Defense 1). Furthermore, since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated around the world on the second Tuesday in October, to acknowledge the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By the ways, Ada Lovelace was more alike to her father than her story tells, in fact, she did have the gift of poetry, but she applied it to science. She actually declared in a letter that she aspired to what she considered a “poetic science” and that “ imagination is also the faculty of combining“, that is, “of finding points in common between subjects who have no apparent connection”, but “pre-eminently it is the faculty of discovery. It is what penetrates into the invisible worlds around us, the worlds of Science ”. Those could be the words of any romantic poet; just like her father. When she died, she wanted to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Together at last.

The Prioress

If I told you to think about a woman who is commonly considered extremely elegant, refined with a great sense of fashion, one who enjoys food and a good company where she often delights in displaying her good manners and knowledge of languages, I am sure you would presume, and with reason, that I’m talking about myself, because I am all such things. But, if I told you that the subject in question is not actually Mrs Tink, but a nun, I am likewise sure that you would understand that there must be something weird in what I am saying, as our image of a “nun” does not , cannot match that description. The Prioress of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is exactly  all this: a character that does not fit stereotypes.

Chaucer’s description of the pilgrims, actually, is all about detecting their weirdness in behaviour or look, rather than giving you an exact picture of  their physical account, as if only spotting  their singularities, the poet could read their true nature. Chaucer proceeds with great elegance making a crafty use of gentle satire, which consists in the case of the Prioress in a sequence of flatteries, which actually mean quite the opposite of what it seems .

Since the very first lines we understand that this Prioress is somewhat ambiguous. The poet appears to be attracted by her way of smiling, which he describes  as “ simple and coy”. Nothing odd, you would say, this first image fits the behaviour of a nun perfectly, but then he soon adds that she is known as “Madam Eglantine” and eglantine is wild rose with fragrant leaves and flowers, which was in the Middle Age  a symbol of Christ but also of passion and love, and, well, this is weird. Hence, we wouldn’t be far from the truth if we assumed that her being “simple and coy” would refer to another more secular stereotype : the chaste, angel like woman of courtly love tradition.

Chaucer goes ahead telling us how beautiful she sings, even if she intones straight through her nose and also notices that she speaks English with a French accent, even if she is not French at all and very likely she has never been to France. So, we understand that this nun wishes to impress the people she interacts with, thus suggesting that she was once lower-class. Her strange mannerisms can be noticed also at meal time. In fact, she displays excellent table manners: she never lets a morsel of meat fall from her mouth onto her breast, nor does she dips her fingers into the sauce. She wipes her lips so clean that not a trace of grease remains after a meal and eats slowly as if she were not hungry. It is clear that the Prioress’s intent is that of imitating courtly manners and in a way, thus being noticed….. by men.

A nun must be “charitable”, of course, and Chaucer, I am sure, sneered , while emphasizing how sensitive this woman was. She wept if she only saw a mouse bleeding and used to feed “with roast meat, milk and fine white bread”……..her dogs. Chaucer’s satire lies here in what he omits to say, as her humane attitude is displayed only to animals, but there is not a single word of Christian compassion for human beings.

It seems hard to believe, but Prioress is not indifferent to the fashion of  the time, and this is strange indeed. She loves gathering her veil “in a seemly way, thus, keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered, she goes against monastic rules. That is why Chaucer tells us he appreciates the “graceful charm” of  her neck,  because he saw it and this was quite an unusual exhibition for a nun.

She also indulged on a little make up, as her soft and red lips suggest the use of lipstick which was considered, of course, unacceptable. Furthermore, she wears beautiful, expensive clothing and jewelry, while monastic rule forbade nuns to wear ornaments. The coral rosary with green beads, from which hangs a golden pin with an engraved “A” with the Latin phrase “Amor vincit omnia”- “Love conquers all”- reveals her materialistic interests, which are far away from  being  spiritual. This attitude is emphasized  through the fact that her “greatest oath was but by Saint Loy”, a saint who worked as a goldsmith .

In conclusion, this Madame Eglantine is more interested in profane things rather than fulfilling her religious role. Even the fact that she is far away from her monastery on a pilgrimage, a practice which had been forbidden by bishops several times in history and condemned by the Lollards, proves it . Hence, the target of Chaucer’s criticism is not the lady, but what she represents, that is, the increasing secularization of the church in the late Middle Ages, which by no means could be seen as “dainty”.

The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.

#WitchWeek2020 Day 2: A Gothic Reading of The Betrothed

Lizzie Ross

Today’s guest blogger, e-Tinkerbell, lives in Italy, so it’s no surprise that she brings this classic Italian novel from the 19th century to our attention. e-Tinkerbell is a high school English teacher who loves literature, history… and shoes. She blogs at e-Tinkerbell. All translations from the Italian are hers. Buona lettura!


The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi*) is well known as an iconic love story, like Romeo and Juliet, but it is actually much more than this. We are talking about the greatest Italian novel of modern times and its author, Alessandro Manzoni, is considered the main Italian novelist of the 19thcentury and leader of the nation’s romantic movement. “With the exception of Dante’s Comedy, no other book has been the object of more intense scrutiny or more intense scholarship” writes the Italian scholar Sergio Pacifici. The Betrothed, in fact, still forms an…

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Witch Week 2020

First witch : When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lighting or in rain?

Second witch: When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Third witch: That will be ere the set of sun.

First witch: Where the place?

Second witch: Lizzie Ross‘s blog. That is the place!!

It is Witch Week time! You don’t know what I am talking about? Well, let me explain it to you. It’s an event inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Witch Week, which is set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, that is the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Six years ago, Lory of “Emerald City Book Review” made of this week an annual event to celebrate fantasy books and authors.

This year Lizzie Ross  will host the event on her blog along with Chris at Calmgrove. 2020 ‘s theme is very dark indeed: Gothick. I have given myself a small contribution to this event, so I want to thank Lizzie and Chris for having given me the occasion to be part of the lot.

Here is the schedule:

Day 1: 31st October, Halloween
Chris takes us on a tour of Gothick castles and towers featured in more than 200 years of gothic literature.

Day 2: 1st November, All Saint’s Day
We travel to Italy, with e-Tinkerbell as our guide through Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century gothic romance, The Betrothed.

Day 3: 2nd November, All Soul’s Day
Is there a better place to visit on this Day of the Dead than a graveyard? We think not. Join us for an in-depth consideration of our read-along book.

Day 4: 3rd November
Gothic short stories move into the spotlight today, with Jean of Howling Frog Books giving us a taste of Montague Rhodes James’s collected works.

Day 5: 4th November
Lizzie reviews a modern gothic YA fantasy that features creepy puppets: Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms.

Day 6: 5th November, Guy Fawkes’ Day (Bonfire Night)
“Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America” (The Guardian). Kristen of We Be Reading tempts us with her review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-seller, Mexican Gothic.

Day 7: 6th November
Lizzie ends the celebration with the usual wrap-up post, and end by unveiling the theme for Witch Week 2021 (to be hosted on Chris’s blog).

Don’t be afraid to join us!!