Hamburg in Literature

The Elbe in the vicinity of Hamburgh is so divided, and spread out, that the country looks more like a plain overflowed by heavy rain than the bed of a great river- Dorothy Wordsworth- Alfoxden Journal 1798

Lately, I find myself surprisingly excited whenever I come across “Hamburg” in the works I have to read for my MA exam. Of course, the city comes up more frequently in the German texts. For example, Thomas Mann’s main character in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) comes from Hamburg, Part of this is because Hamburg is industrially a successful city. Lying (almost) at the mouth of the Elbe, the fourth largest river in Europe, which flows all the way through the Czech Republic, the city was obviously home to many traders for a long time. It’s a major import and export destination for which one can see its roots in the Speisekammern. At any rate, Hans Castorp comes from Hamburg because he is a dignified Burgher (one of Mann’s favorite types of characters), and Hamburg is a city full of them.

However, while I expected to come across Germany in my German texts, I was a little thrown aback when I read that Dorothy Wordsworth and her husband were there. I shouldn’t have been though, considering that all the Romantics made it their duty to visit continental Europe and the “old world.” Dorothy writes about their trip in her Alfoxden journal. Not everything she describes is flattering… for example, according to her the bakers and shopkeepers take pride in how they can cheat their customers– especially if they are foreign. Dorothy clearly prefers England to Germany (and I don’t blame her, necessarily), but it’s really fun to read about the parts of the city she describes and imagine her there. Some of my favorite passages:

We drank tea upon deck by the light of the moon. I enjoyed solitude and quietness, and many a recollected pleasure, hearing still the unintelligible jargon of the many tongues that gabbled in the cabin.

She describes the diversity of sounds and people she sees. To her they are strange; to me, they are like a waft of familiarity:

Hanoverians with round borders, showing all the face, and standing upright, a profusion of riband.. . . Fruit-women, with large straw hats in the shape of an inverted bowl, or white handkerchiefs tied round the head like a bishop’s mitre. Jackets the most common, often the petticoat and jacket of different colours.


Loreena McKennit and English Literature

What more enjoyable way to take in English literature than to be able to listen to it?

At least I don’t know most poems as well as I do these:

“The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes

“The Layde and the Knight” by Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, anyone?)

and my personal favorite, “The Lady of Shalott” by Lord Alfred Tennyson

edited to add “The Stolen Child” by Alfred Butler Yeats

Apparently, Lorena McKennit was very inspired by these literary works. I can understand why, and she produces beautiful renditions of these artworks. It helps that they are easily translated to music.

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Not to be confused with Johann von Goethe’s Faust (Books One and Two), or with Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, or with dozens of other theatrical, musical and literary reworkings of the story, this play is inspired by the same real life persona (sources differ on which one it is): Dr. Johann Georg Faust of the 15th century. The basic gist is that Faust is a learned scholar who becomes dissatisfied with all he can learn and do with human knowledge, and turns to alchemy and “dark knowledge.” It’s not so much the fascination with the dark magic that forms the crux of these tales, but rather the lengths to which a person’s soul will go to obtain that beyond his/her reach and what s/he does when s/he obtains it. One should probably elaborate on that further, but first I wanted to address the short summary on the back of my edition of the 1604 Quarto:

Marlowe was an English poet, dramatist and translator [no Oxford comma!] in the Elizabethan period. Faust is the famous story of a man selling his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. On a deeper level man’s decay from choosing material things over the spiritual is depicted.

I don’t think this is a bad summary of the play or the story. It’s not inaccurate and captures the main idea of the story pretty well. Faustus’s main goal is to gain knowledge and power after he has achieved the highest levels of learning in science, medicine, philosophy and theology. He wants more knowledge because it grants him, to some extent, more power. I see his greatest vice as being pride, with a close second as gluttony, but this does not contradict the summary. Where I find the summary lacking is the supposed “deeper level” of the play. I don’t think material wealth over spiritual is the main point at all. I see this interpretation weakly when the “Good Angel” and “Evil Angel” enter for the first time:

GOOD ANGEL. Sweet Faustus, think of the heaven and heavenly things.

EVIL ANGEL. No, Faustus, think of hounour and of wealth.

Clearly, the reader is introduced to two opposing forces here. Yet the struggle cannot be so deep when the one thing is as a “thing” while the other is tangible and strikes the desires more closely. I think the struggle lies even deeper, and to understand where I think one should look at where Faust is first tempted to repent. It happens right after Faustus  asks Mephistophilis about heaven and who created the earth. Mephisto explains how there are nine heavens and spheres, but will not tell Faustus who made the world. It is “against our kingdom.” Denied this knowledge, Faustus wants to repent and the Good Angel and Bad Angel enter again.

However, why did Faustus want to know? And why wasn’t he told? And why would not being told and still not knowing make him want to repent? I think this has to do with the nature of knowledge and the deeper struggle at work here. It does not have to do with wealth so much as with faith and the ability to accept that there are things unseen and unimaginable. Thus, it is humility that I think Marlowe tries to teach the reader with his play, not so much a particular religious message that spiritual wealth is better.

This interpretation is fueled in part by my knowledge of Marlowe’s other play, The Jew of Malta, which also walks fine lines between religious beliefs, tolerance, and stereotypes, but in the end questions other values.

Mephisto is always my favorite character. He’s neither good nor bad (I mean, why else would he speak in favor of the poor farmer who wants to buy Faustus’s horse?), but he’s more of a joker figure. Plus, when Arthur Darvill plays him, it’s only better.

So, while I appreciate what I got from this play through Marlowe, I still like Goethe’s better. In Goethe’s works, the moral ambiguity is more strongly portrayed and Faust isn’t irrevocably damned. He is able to redeem himself. Maybe I’m just a sucker for happy endings, I guess.

What I do instead of reading

Instead of reading, I do several things:

  • Think about reading, usually out of guilt that I’m not reading and should read
  • Think about what I’ve just read, like, when I fall asleep with the rhythm of the author’s words in my head
  • Blog/write about reading so that I feel sort of productive and think at least I’m doing something related to reading
  • Procrastinate by going out for a run or having impromptu dance parties in my living room: Basically, this looks like me trying out different dance moves and jumps in relation to a Pandora radio station I just turned on. I don’t know why I did this rather than read Book One of Faerie Queene like I’m supposed to, but that’s that.

I also don’t know why I’m finding it hard to get motivated to read Spenser’s epic English epic. It’s not that I don’t like adventure stories about knights who go off on missions to kill dragons (though, thinking about the tale as an allegory, and the dragon as described as “strange,” does this mean Spenser was xenophobic?). True, it’s in middle English with wacky spelling and I am annoyed at how Lady Una has a lambe tied to her girdle, but I actually enjoy reading the cantos. I’m just not motivated to read anything right now, and I think it comes from anxiety.

The problem is, I know that I should read, but I also know I should take breaks, but I’m running out of time to take breaks so the pressure is even higher.

But I took the break anyway and came up with some great (in my mind) choreography for “Major Tom,” “Paper Flowers,” and “30 Minutes.”

Now I’m back to reading, and hopefully I finish up the 16th and 17th century today.


Gosh darnint. Not only do I fail to update my readings on my other two works that I’ve completed, but I forget to save the write-up I did on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Oh well, at least this gives me the chance to rethink some things.

I had a hard time starting to write about this rather short novel due to its subject material, mostly, I am afraid to write anything that may seem racist or insensitive to cultural and historical fact, but I do have the Norton Critical Edition of Oroonoko that provides me with several articles about the history of slavery in the Americas and more information about the colonies. Therefore, I am fairly well informed, but still apologize for any ignorance I may show. I accept all constructive criticisms that you can provide me with.

In essence, Oroonoko is a confusing mix of romanticized and highly accurate recountation of the life of an African royal who, after an unfortunate series of events in his country, ended up sold as a slave in the British territory of Surinam. I write “romanticized” because I am not sure if I can believe the fantastic tale of Prince Oroonoko who fell in love with the most beautiful girl in his area, Imoinda, and marries her, but loses her to the lusts of his grandfather, gets her after all, and then is separated from her. Coincidentally they end up in the same colony of Surinam and are allowed to be together, but only as slaves. Parallel to this (but it is not clear if this is directly caused by Oroonoko’s desire to free himself, his wife, and unborn child), Oroonoko starts a slave revolt that fails. Oroonoko is punished, seeks revenge for the disgrace of the punishment, but before doing so wants to protect his wife by killing her. After killing her, he mourns so much for her loss (and is likely still not recovered from the extremely brutal whipping he receives) that he fails to carry out his revenge and is executed by quartering. It seems like an epic tale, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be true history. Yet, the truth of the recountation is confused by superlatives that Oroonoko, Imoinda, and the events are described with.

It is debated whether Behn observed these happenings, heard about them from others, made them up, or a combination of all three, It is reasonable to believe in the events. I learned a bi, though. I think that what surprised me the most is the way in which the indigenous people of Surinam are treated with more kindness, if out of the opportunistic desire to prevent upsetting the only people who know this “new land,” than the Africans. The interactions between the Africans and Europeans seem much more fraught by disturbingly matter-of-fact betrayal and distrust, and that must be due to a longer history between the two groups. As I know from my U.S. American history, the relations between the inindigenous people of North America and the Europeans were initially good, but quickly soured after the Europeans began moving westward and abusing trade relations.

Talking about the author is easier than talking about the text, I was excited to read something written by someone who seems to be a 17th century female adventurer. If Behn is known at all, she is known as one of the first professional female literary writers of the English language. She was also a spy (as debatable as that is, it’s pretty cool). Reading about her adventures proves that women in petticoats could have wild timelines, timelines that are full of questionable validity in a world that one imagines was run by men.Her works are not very known, but at least they have survived through the 21st century, something many of Behn’s contemporaries cannot say. I myself had never heard of her or her work, Oroonoko, but it’s refreshing to know that women were literarily active in the 17th century. I wonder if Behn’s success was promoted by taking the winning side in the English restoration period (she was a loyal Royalist supporter) and by crossing the vast barrier of the Atlantic Ocean that allowed her to cross social boundaries as well.

Yet most of her success has to do with the unusually straight-forward account she makes of Surinam and the tale of Oroonoko. His life was fascinating.

I would compare this work to those of Heinrich von Kleist, such as his tale “Verlobung in San Domingo.” Even more comparable is the work to Caroline Augustus Fischer’s “Wilhelm der Neger [William the Negro].” This is a German work from the 19th century about an African, Wilhelm, sold into slavery in England, but treated well by his master, Sir Robert, who sees Willhelm’s intelligence and and raises him like his own son. Wilhelm eventually goes to Santo Domingo and helps educate the slaves and helps them revolt.

Map: St. Dominigue (Haiti),

Again, Santo Domingo comes up. The split island of the Domincan Republic and Haiti has a rich and complicated history; it is perhaps most notable for having successful slave revolts early in the 18th century.

The story is complicated by Wilhelm’s love for a girl, Molly, but Sir Robert, while wanting the best for Wilhelm, also falls in love with her. In class at the time, my professor suggested looking at the complications provided by the relationship between Sir Robert and Wilhelm and suggested that Molly helped develop their relationship more than anything else. It is fairly obvious that Wilhelm der Neger was written later than Oroonoko, since literary style played a larger role.

At any rate, Wilhelm der Neger provides an excellent work to set in relation to Oroonoko, and the parallels extend even in the fact that the authors of both works were exceptional women.

Later, when I read Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, I’ll be able to discuss both works in relation again. It will be interesting to see how the 17th century and 19th centuries compare, as well as having the author write his own story and experiences, as opposed to having them written/determined for him.

Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and Heart of Darkness- Throwback Thursday

(Edited to add: as of March 6, 2017, I am a more sophisticated reader and writer. This essay was a draft from BA times and I see things in this essay that I cringe at with my present-day skills and knowledge. Most of all, I feel as though I handled the “natives” poorly in this essay, and if I wrote something now, I’d have a lot more to say about Comrad’s treatment  of the people living in the region and how his descriptions of them are part of his struggle of understanding what it means to be human. But, I also feel it’s a useful post and a good reminder, so I keep it)  

Yup. I know it’s Wednesday, but here’s a short response that I think does a good, short comparison of two works I am reviewing for my Masters comprehensive exam (I’ll update a real post soon):

The Mixture of Duality

        The rational and irrational sides of human character are described in the two classical English works The Heart of Darkness and Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. These works show the duality of man by proving that people can have different sides. Throughout Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the title character is split into two forms in the same body. The positive character, Dr. Jekyll seems to behave consistently rational, while his evil counterpart of Mr. Hyde behaves irrationally. On the other hand, in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, the split is less obvious. Through the use of many characters and pairs that seem to complement one another, one can suppose that everyone has a rational and irrational side. There are no clear shades of good and bad. Throughout these works, it becomes clear that the duality of man can exist in anyone.

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two sides of one character are displayed more clearly than in The Heart of Darkness. One character has two sides.  Dr. Jekyll is good and a positive member of society while the other side, induced by an external source, is negative and can be considered pure evil. However, Dr. Jekyll is the same person as Mr. Hyde. Even the house they live in is split. The setting of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reflects the morality of the present character.  The active character’s morality at the given moment will be reflected in his surroundings. The neat and orderly character of Mr. Jeckyll is reflected by his orderly household while Mr. Hyde’s half of the house shows negligence just like his character does.

“Two doors from one corner, on the left hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two stories high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower story and a blind forehead of a discolored wall on the upper; and bore in every feature the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor nocker, was blistered and distained.”[a] (Stevenson 7)

On the other side of Mr. Hyde’s house is Dr. Jekyll’s, which is neat and organized. The characters also have certain times where they are active. Dr. Jekyll is active during the day but, at night Mr. Hyde is active. Mr. Hyde also roams in the bad part of London while Dr. Jekyll roams in the sophisticated part of London. Through specific details, the morality of the character is clearly defined and determined as good or bad. Stevenson supports this idea even more with the fact that Dr. Jekyll must kill Mr. Hyde in order for his good character to survive. “The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll” (Stevenson 91). The two sides cannot coexist because a character could only be either good or bad.

On the other hand, in The Heart of Darkness, man can have two sides. There is much more ambiguity of the characters, perhaps due to the fact that there is a lot more detail in The Heart of Darkness than there is in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is more depth of how the characters feel and the amount revealed about the two moralities inside themselves. In The Heart of Darkness, Marlow goes on a journey to the jungle to transport ivory and ultimately to meet Kurtz. His mission on his journey is to bring Kurtz back. Marlowe begins the journey as an idealist. He known more about corruption than his aunt or the women in the “white sepulcher” do, but he does not know what could keep Kurtz in the inner station. Throughout his journey Marlow discovers different, darker sides of his character. The book refers to Europe being civilized and rational and the jungle being savage and irrational. However, it is proven in The Heart of Darkness that the two sides of man are mixed; Europeans can also be negative and the jungle natives could be positive. London and Brussels, European cities, are described with mixed negative and positive imagery. “Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute as if angered by the approach of the sun” (Conrad 46).

 Kurtz’s last words were “the horror” (Conrad 139). This refers to the horror of the cannibals, the horror of the difference between Europe and the jungle, but mostly the horror in the change that has taken place within himself. He has become savage and treated the natives cruelly to gain power over them. He has become what he had initially detested. In The Heart of Darkness good and evil is mixed within the same person.  The same person who is cruel and irrational can still feel love and affection. Kurtz has a good reputation in the outer stations and Europe but, inside the jungle Kurtz is cruel to the natives. Marlow shows two sides. He is savage in the jungle and civilized in Europe. The cannibals also, are civilized while in the company of white men by eating hippo meat but, while they are in the jungle, they will eat other humans.

“They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard. And I saw that something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there.” (Conrad 99)

 Within every person there is a heart of darkness as well has the good natured being. A human can also be inhuman at the same time. As Marlow is in a fight with the natives, before he reaches Kurtz, he feels the inhuman call out of himself. Marlow has also come to love and admire what he hates and detests.

It is expressed in both works that everyone has two sides. However, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two sides must live separately, or not at all. In The Heart of Darkness, many characters will have a good or bad side. The Russian Traitor was a traitor in his own contry, but loyal to Kurtz. Kurtz was cruel to the natives, but loved one of them. However, the difference between the two novels becomes clear when Marlowe decides to hide Kurtz’s last phrase “kill the savages” (142).  He displays an understanding of the mixed morality and his acceptance of the duality of man reminds the reader that maybe he/she too should accept the duality of man as a fact of life.