The Interior Monologue

The American psychologist William James, coined the expression stream of consciousness to define the chaotic sequence of thoughts of the conscious mind, a flow, which has no boundaries and cannot be stopped except by sleep. That is the truest, uncensored part of ourselves. When our thoughts become audible words, in fact, we use the filter of convenience and social convention, thus, wearing the mask of propriety, we become a “persona”, which was for modernist artists a less interesting  subject than that unconstrained current, as it lacked in authenticity. Virginia Woolf in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown says:

Mr. Bennett says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving. Otherwise, die it must. But, I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?

Reality, we could say, is, therefore, what hides under the many masks we wear. Behind a simple smile there could a great sorrow, desperation, fear, perplexity, but we cannot but stop at the surface of what we see: the smile. Virginia Woolf recognizes that if a writer aims at telling the truth, well, “the tools of one generation are useless to the next“, so William James along with Bergson and his theory of “la durée” provided modern writers with the theoretical basis from which new tools could take form.

Hence, if my target is to picture the complexity of human mind, without paying attention too much to its shell, I must bear in mind that that realm is dominated by the chaos of thought and the time which rules that chaos is no longer chronological, but subjective. In our mind past present and future, in fact, coexist randomly; time in our mind is infinite. The tool that modern writers created to put on paper the flow of thought was called ” the interior monologue”, of course, being true doesn’t always mean to be interesting or enjoyable, especially when the interior monologue technique is taken to its extreme in its direct form:

O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (Ulysses, chpt. XVIII)

These are the famous last lines of Molly Bloom’s monologue, which covers the last chapter of Ulysses. One chapter = 60 pages (about). Molly’s thoughts flow freely and, of course, while she thinks, she doesn’t care much about using the correct punctuation. It is a marvellous experiment, to be sure, but I would lie if I said that I enjoyed reading it, and I would lie if I said that I read it all ( I skipped some parts, I admit). Some years ago, a colleague of mine proudly told me that she had given as summer homework the read of Ulysses to her students. Poor lads, I thought, whether they did it or not I received no further information, but I have no doubts about it.

By the ways, if the narrator lets the character’s thoughts flow without control, but keeps a logical and grammatical organisation, the reading will be more accessible and even enjoyable, in this case we are talking about the Indirect Interior Monologue. Let’s see how it works. If we take Eveline, from Joyce’s Dubliners, as an example, we understand from the very beginning that the girl had been standing by the window for some times and that that night she would have done something that she perceives as an invasion, therefore, we imply, something negative:

“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” .

While she is lost in thoughts, she hears the sounds of some footsteps and when their “clacking” becomes “crunching“, she understands that the man has arrived to the red houses. The thought of the red houses leads to an association of ideas, hence, the images of the past and her youth related to those houses overlap for a while the present. Characters and events are introduced when they actually flow in her mind. For example, we had been left at the beginning with the impression that something unpleasant was to happen that night, but after a while we discover that it is nothing of the kind, as she was about to leave for Argentina with her lover to marry him:

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been.
From this passage it seems that she wasn’t or didn’t feel much considered and that the marriage would have been a great opportunity for her so that “she would not be treated as her mother had been”. Had this short story belonged to the pre modernist-style, we would have been informed with detailed descriptions of episodes on how exactly her mother had been treated and who actually had behaved so, on the contrary, we are left to figure the situation. That is because she knows the facts, so there is no reason why she should tell them, she is not talking to us, we are just intruder in her mind, who are granted every now and of a little piece of information which might throw some light on the puzzle of her story. In fact, what follows is not the explanation of her mother’s ill treatments but the introduction to her relationship with her father who, from the very first appearance in the story with a blackthorn stick in his hands, seems to be a very violent man and therefore, very likely to be the cause of her mother’s sufferings. This is what we imply, but after a while she says:
“Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mothers bonnet to make the children laugh.”
 He wasn’t that bad so. Reading the story we realize that his being good or evil depends on a process of Eveline’s mind, that is, she focuses on his negative aspects every time she needs more strength, one more reason to leave, but once she sets her mind about going, remorse and responsibility surface together with a milder version of her father. But, how old was her father? For a girl of 19,  a man of 40  is old, while for a woman of 60 he would be considered young. We don’t know anything about it. In an interior monologue physical descriptions and explanatory details are few and are given only if they appear in the flow of thoughts. In this short story only Eveline’s lover is partially described, his hair and his “face of bronze“, but not a word about the other members of the family or Eveline herself. They are left to our imagination. Only in the end and through the eyes of Frank, her lover, we are allowed to see her, but it is an image distorted by her sufferance and defeat, as she eventually decides to stay :
“He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”

 

 

Advertisements

The Oyster dilemma

mala7Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce‘s alter ego, knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. He also knew that Dublin restricted society was not the most fertile soil where his artistic vein might attain and blossom. Differently from Eveline, he was determined enough to turn his back to a present made of family expectations and people who loved and knew him in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” and explore “all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). He was the Daedalus, after all, he who could flee from that labyrinth represented by Dublin. Had he stayed, he would not have been able to express his talent, thus becoming the martyr of art, as his first name seems to predict, as St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity.  But martyrdom was not in his fate, hence, once put on his wax wings, he quitted as soon as possible with not so many regrets.

mala9What would the right decision be, then? Did Joyce’s choice to go into self-exile assured him that happiness that apparently Eveline was denied by remaining at home or not? Not exactly. Freedom does not necessarily mean happiness. For example, once in Argentina, Eveline might have found out  that Frank was already married with children or that there was no trace of that home she had so longed for, but she had to live with her sick mother in law and look after her, while Frank was somewhere around the world on a ship. Hence, alone with no family and friends in such a foreign, distant land, who might have helped her?

mala10The Italian writer Giovanni Verga, would have certainly supported Eveline’s choice to stay.  Verga was convinced that all men were subjected to a merciless and cruel fate that condemn them not only to unhappiness and pain, but to a condition of immobility. Those who try to escape from the condition in which destiny has placed them cannot find the happiness dreamed, but undergo more suffering. Particularly those who belong to the group of the weak, and Eveline was one of them, need more protection and must stay connected to those family values they have grown with as an oyster clutched to a rock, in order to survive and avoid that the world, like a big powerful fish, may devour them.

mala12 Verga developed the so-called “ideal of the oyster” in his novel: I Malavoglia (1881). There is little house by a medlar tree in the picturesque little village of Aci Trezza in the Province of Catania (Sicily).  The Toscanos, a numerous family of fishermen live there. Although they are extremely hardworking, they have been nicknamed  the Malavoglia (The Reluctant Ones). The head of the family is Padron Ntoni, a widower, who lives with his son Bastian and the wife of the latter called Maria and their five children. Their main source of income is la Provvidenza (the Providence), a small fishing boat. But when Ntoni, the eldest of the children, leaves for the military service, Padron Ntoni attempts a new business and buys a large amount of lupins, in order to try and make up for the loss of income which the  absence of his nephew will cause.

mala 15Rocks are harsh and sharp, but as long as you are clutched to one them, you are safe. Starting a new business, Padron Ntoni attempts to leave his rock to swim in a new sea, hoping to find maybe a better one, but his choice will eventually lead his family to a disaster that will mine their unity. Bastian and the merchandise are tragically lost during a storm, furthermore there is the debt caused by the lupins which were bought on credit and the boat mean to repair. As this were not just enough, a long series of misfortunes will follow till the beloved house near the medlar tree, symbol of the unity of the family, has to be sold in order to repay the debt. In the end, only Alessi, the youngest of the brothers, the only one who had remained a fisherman, manages with his hard work to rebuild the family fortunes to the point at which they can repurchase the house by the medlar tree.  Padron Ntoni, who is now old and sick at the hospital, is informed of the good news. It is the last moment of happiness for the old man, who dies on the day he was to return. His last wish to die in his old house, on that harsh and sharp rock will never be granted.

The Epiphany of the Magi

eve1

eve5I guess everybody is familiar with the story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction, they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is, a moment of a sudden revelation.

eve4Actually this narration may have another symbolical interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also represent the crisis of the modern age, where men, as modern Magi, seem to have lost many of their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their hollow lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ s interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.

Joyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, therefore being unable to change their lives and reverse the routines that hamper their wishes, they are all destined to fail.

eve2For example the protagonist of Eveline, one of the short stories included in Dubliners, has the chance to radically change her life, but she hesitates  She has been sitting at the windows for hours till the night “invades” her soul, forcing her to take a decision. Time is running out: should she leave that night with her lover and re-create a new life in Buenos Aires or should she just keep on looking after her family as she had promised her mother? Happy and sad memories fill her mind and contrasted feelings as well, till she hears a “melancholy air” that reminds her of the very last moments she was at her mother’s deathbed. Everything becomes clear. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother (quidditas). She must go away.

eve3But when Eveline arrives at the docks, all her determination fades away.  The illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires is only a black mass for her (claritas)  and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas). She feels that if she left, the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.