Macbeth: A Relatable Tragedy

Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth tells the tragic tale of King Macbeth, who falls from his heroic status after hearing a prophecy about his golden future.

Macbeth, a noble general of Scotland, is visited by three meddling witches, who prophesize that he will become Thane of Cawdor, and then King of Scotland. Currently, he is the Thane of Glamis, but after winning a war King Duncan awards him the title of Thane of Cawdor, and the first part of the prophecy comes true. This leads to Macbeth and his wife believing that the second part, therefore, must be true as well. In an impulsive act, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (his wife) murder Duncan. After the king’s two sons flee in terror, Macbeth is crowned the new King of Scotland.

However, Macbeth is fearful of what he has done, and attempts to keep his status as king and prevent any possibilities of his own demise. Drowned in his own ambition, Macbeth’s morality begins to burn away as he commits crime after crime in an attempt to maintain his status as king and prevent anyone else from taking the throne. Eventually, his humanity and morality crumbles as he succumbs to his underlying guilt and burning ambition, and ultimately causes his own downfall.

In his play, Shakespeare warns us of the dangers of ambition, and how we must not submit to tantalizing offers and allow them to destroy us. We must not abandon our principles and our morals just to pursue something– nothing in the world is worth throwing away our souls. Macbeth isn’t omnipotent– armed with the prophecy and foresight, he thinks he is, and therefore he tries to control his fate, control what will happen– and all that results in is chaos. In murdering Duncan, he has essentially committed suicide. Perhaps he acted too fast– as natural was his ascension to the position of Thane of Cawdor, he seized the crown by himself; he did not permit it to happen in due time, which, if it did, may have prevented all this mayhem. 

As Stephen Fry recently said, “the enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” We cannot believe that we know everything that’s going to happen, and hammer and twist the universe to fit our vision of the future. Shakespeare reminds us here that Macbeth, like the rest of us, is not God– and that we cannot try to control what we are not supposed to control.

 

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Futuristic Present

What makes George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 so chilling is the fact that its futuristic setting is extremely close to our present. Orwell imagines a dystopian society with a totalitarian government, the Party, in which the people are woefully trapped under the hand of its notorious leader, Big Brother (who is, apparently, always watching), a mysterious figure only seen on posters.

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Winston Smith’s homeland Oceania is in a state of constant war with the other two reigning lands, East Asia and Eurasia (who both have similar governments). This forces all supplies to be channeled in supporting the war, and thus the rest of Oceania remains poor. Winston Smith is a member of the lower tier of the government, and works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting past articles so that history always supports the Party. There is to be nothing in the past showing that the Party has made mistakes; the Party must always be right. The Party is always in rule.  The Party maintains a strict rule over the Proletariats (the lower-class citizens) by four main operations, located in four vast pyramid-like governmental structures overlooking the land: the Ministry of Truth (Winston’s workplace), which alters history (and consequently, reality), the Ministry of Love, which dealts out torturous punishments to criminals, the Ministry of Peace, which ensures constant warfare, and the Ministry of Plenty, which deals with economic affairs and checks that Oceania is in a state of endless starvation. We can see the irony in the buildings’ names.

Besides editing the past, the Ministry of Truth works hard each day to condense the language of Oceania (called newspeak) more and more, until it is it to be something that is merely a simple form of communication. This way, with less and less words to work with, the human mind shrinks and becomes less complex; this is one of the twisted ways the Party manipulates its people to become more and more ignorant, until they are nothing more than an animal.

The Party’s three slogans are: Slavery is Freedom, War is Peace, and Ignorance is Strength. These statements reflect the philosophy of doublethink, in which a person holds two contradictory beliefs as simultaneously correct; in doing so, we can see that the person lacks the ability to conscious awareness that these two ideals conflict, that the person lacks the ability to think. With their intelligence gone, the Proletariats are helplessly subject to any action of the Party.

Winston is one of the few people who are still fighting against the Party, desperately trying to hold onto his soul, waiting until the day the Party comes to take it away. And each day, the Party takes a small chuck of humanity away from the Proletariats. He eventually meets Julia, a young, lively woman with free will like him. Together, they team up and think of ways to take down the government.

But in a world so twisted, such a happiness can never last. Winston and Julia will fall, back into the dark, embracing arms of the government, welcoming them into a comfortable life of true sanity, where the only things that matter are the Party and Big Brother…

Although the society of 1984 sounds too scary to be true, our community today bears some striking similarities. The government is slowly taking over our privacy; with surveillance cameras in unknown places and with the Internet being tracked constantly, we can no longer trust that our backs aren’t being watched. And when will the government stop, if it is willing to? The Fourth Amendment, our right to privacy, is already being invaded; will a time come when it is completely abolished? And what about the First Amendment, our right to free speech? Will a time come where the government will begin to reduce our language, our ability to think? Alter our history, our reality as we know it?

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1984 is a must-read for all those who loved Hunger GamesUnwound, or any science fiction book. It contains a strong political message cleverly woven in a dystopian novel, and scarily accurate predictions about our world’s future. Orwell wrote this book during the times of World War II, and shows us the bitter consequences of totalitarian government. Although democracy still stands in America, we can already begin to see the effects of a too-strong government. Orwell calls out to all of us, to remain strong and to persevere. We must keep fighting for what is right, for what is ours. We must not let the future fall into the wrong hands.

 

‘Salem’s Lot: The Fantastical Apocalypse of a Small Town

Quick review on an old favorite.

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Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is sure to give you thrills and chills as you read. The name of the novel is based on the setting, a small, sleepy town in Maine called Jerusalem’s Lot, protagonist Ben Mears’s hometown.

Ben returns to Jerusalem’s Lot to get inspiration for his writing career– particularly, to get inspiration for the infamous, decrepit Marsten House, where he himself suffered a bad experience as a child. However, upon arriving, Ben discovers that, amazingly, the Marsten House has been purchased, by two furniture sellers: Richard Straker, whom the town meets, and Kurt Barlow, who is on an “extended buying trip.”

Things start to get troublesome when two young boys disappear. Ben Mears begins to investigate himself and finds that his town has been invaded by dark forces. In the end, the entire town is overtaken by the evil that has arrived.

This was the first Stephen King book I read– and the first horror book as well; I’ve always shied away from horror novels, afraid of their graphic and twisted content. I decided to give it a shot, though, and tried to pick a lighter-looking book off from the bookshelf to ease myself into the genre.

‘Salem’s Lot is not “light.” It is intense and complex, with a myriad of brilliant characters who are all interconnected, and, consequently, in the end, all kill one another off. King did an amazing job of making me flip the pages– I was always wondering who the next victim was, and when they would be killed.

However, it does not run too deep thematically– yes, there are horror themes, but mostly this is just a fun chiller for anyone to enjoy. If you’re looking to pick up a good scary story to enjoy on the road or at night with no one home, ‘Salem’s Lot is for you. Guaranteed to keep you on your feet, Stephen King’s 1975 horror novel is not one to miss out on.

Mesozoic Murder: A Mystery Rooted in Stone

A book that I read recently that is, admittedly, a bit on the “shallow” side. Still, a mystery book is always fun to read!

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Mesozoic Murder by Christine Gendry is the first book of a mystery chronicles, starring Ansel Phoenix as the paleoartist-turned-detective. Ansel is a half Native America half-Caucasian woman who draws dinosaurs for a living. However, on a trip with her paleontology class, she discovers the corpse of her former lover, Nick Capos.

The mystery of Nick’s death draws Ansel’s interest, despite the fact that she and Nick haven’t been together for a long time. Ansel soon finds out that Nick was working on a project worth killing for, and becomes wrapped up in trying to save what he has discovered.

Though I do enjoy mysteries, I’d have to rate this book on the lower side. The plot was all right, but did not live up to my expectations of a good mystery book; instead, it focused more on science, and the paleontology facts that Ansel uses to deduce the murderer and to figure out what Nick was hiding. Throughout the series, Ansel also struggles with her identity, and how others view her as a “half-breed.”

My favorite books are those that dig deep into a theme. While Gendry’s novel had Ansel’s ethnicity issue, it only skimmed the surface of it, and did not provide a deeper message. If you’re into geology and paleontology, and would love to see science with a little mystery, Mesozoic Murder would be a quick and fun read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Failed, Premature Coming-of-Age

A book I read a while ago in AP Lang, but still worthy of recognition. A truly marvelous read.

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Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, novel of American literature. Narrated from the very unreliable, very skewed first-person point-of-view of young Huckleberry Finn, it is the story of Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, as they float down the Mississippi River into the deep, dark heart of the Antebellum South.

Before his adventures, Huck spent his days playing with the romantic-minded Tom Sawyer and under the tutelage of a widow and her sister Miss Watson, both of whom try to teach Huck manners and try to quell his “uncivilized” behavior. However, his alcoholic father Pap comes back and takes his son back to his cabin, where he is forced to stay for a couple days before escaping. During his escape, Huck meets Jim and the two set out on the river on a raft.

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Huck first has qualms with himself about letting Jim onto the raft. Jim is, after all, a slave, and Huck’s been strictly told that slaves aren’t exactly the same as humans. What’s more, Jim is the slave of Miss Watson– someone who, despite her strict disciplinarian care, genuinely cares about Huck’s well-being– and thus, helping Jim escape is, for Huck, morally wrong (though we can clearly see that this is the very opposite of that). As Huck grows closer to Jim, however, he is forced to question the status quo that he has been taught. Huck and Jim aim for the Ohio River, where they can then begin to travel north and, for Jim (and Huck as well), towards freedom.

Eventually, however, they miss their destination, and continue to float down the Mississippi, where they are separated multiple times. Later, they pick up two con artists, on the run. The con artists take over the raft and begin to treat Jim badly, exploiting his status and shaming him– while Huck watches helplessly.

After a series of mishaps, Huck finally escapes from the con artists, only to find that they have sold Jim to a nearby farmer. Longing for his friend, Huck finally pushes free of his social barriers and resolves to free Jim once and for all. He heads to the farm to look for him, but finds that the man and woman living there are actually his friend Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunt. Coincidentally, Tom comes for a visit, and even offers to help Huck, which seems like a marvelous idea at first– until Tom begins to scheme ridiculous, humiliating plans for freeing Jim that fit with his storybook fantasies of a daring escapade. And despite his learning on his adventures on the raft with Jim, Huck goes along with it all.

What makes this book so bad, so sad, so terribly, terribly marvelous is the ending. Tom’s aunt and uncle find Tom hurt and Huck stumbling for help. Huck finally tells them of their little attempts at an “adventure,” and how they’d managed to plot under the adults’ noses, but receives a startling surprise himself: that Jim is actually free– Miss Watson had declared it in her will. Tom knew it all along, but had apparently decided not tell Huck and that this actually gave him the chance to try out his delightful, embarrassing plots on someone. Jim becomes nothing more than a plaything for the boys.

A picaresque, the novel is supposed to “depict the adventures of a roguish hero/heroine of low class society who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.” While most of this fits into the content of ‘Huck Finn, there is one key component missing– the hero. We can see that, in the end, it is not Huck who is the hero. In fact, is there even a hero in the novel? Are all novels supposed to have a hero? Why didn’t Twain have Huck grow? Why didn’t Twain have Huck save Jim? Why did Huck succumb to society’s racist views again?

These are questions that literary critics have debated over for decades, and still continue to debate. The ending of ‘Huck Finn is unexpected and depressing, and there are views over why Twain wrote it that way. Some think that he simply failed to convey a message he was trying to write in ‘Huck Finn, while others (and I am inclined to think so as well) believe that this outrageous ending was, in fact, his aim. Read critically, ‘Huck Finn is a satire. It is not a racist novel, for all its filtered narration and derogatory language. In fact, Twain depicts Huck’s racist thoughts as simply ridiculous– as if anyone would even dare to think that any human is below the rest! Yet, this was the reality back in the Antebellum South (believe it or not, in parts of the United States, and the world as well, it still is the reality). People did indeed believe, quite strongly and adamantly (yes, it even lead to a war), that African Americans were simply not as human as the rest of us.

If you haven’t picked up ‘Huck Finn yet, it’s about time to! Mark Twain’s satirical novel criticizing society and its many problems is a must-read, and, despite its less-than-appealing, grammatically-wrong, vernacular English language, it stands alongside other classic novels like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird as an iconic component of American literature. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of being with Huck and Jim on their raft, on the run from society’s grasping arms. It is definitely not the innocent, just-a-boy-having-fun book that people first perceive it to be (Huck’s adventures are more than just pure mischief), but at the same time is it not the serious, racist novel that others think it is.

Satire is sometimes hard to read; it takes skill and finesse to craft a novel that depicts such a dark and delicate topic through the lightness and joviality of a humorous boy’s adventure. Mark Twain’s talent is not to be ignored or chastised; it is to be appreciated, and considered. Anyone who reads ‘Huck Finn will surely enjoy floating along the Mississippi, listening to Jim’s stories and applauding Huck’s wit.

Twain lambastes the racist views of the Antebellum South, commenting how absurd, even comical those ideas are– and, unfortunately, reminding us that these views are still present in our society today. We must think about how we are treating others. Unlike Huck Finn, we are to be heroes.

But don’t worry, Twain reassures us. It’s okay– you won’t go to hell for treating people nicely.

The Casual Vacancy: The Civil War of a Small Town

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After years of writing books for the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling is back with a new, brilliantly-written, insanely moving novel, The Casual Vacancy, which tells the story of a small town constantly at war. Friendships hang on a thread, broken constantly by snips of gossip. There is a carefully drawn line between the rich and the poor, the two sides of Pagford so hostile towards each other it’s a wonder that they’re still a part of the same town. Family members fight amongst each other, close only by blood, and husbands and wives argue, grudgingly bound by the legal means of their marriage. Pagford is a town that does not rest.

The catalyst of the biggest fight of Pagford is the death of a council member Barry Fairbrother, a man who rose to prominence in the town by a rags-to-riches story. Serving as the bridge between the poor, drug-addled residents of the Fields and the wealthy, snobby citizens of the rest of the town, Pagford is torn apart as the rich, lead by First Citizen Howard Mollison, urge to redraw the town borders and have the Fields be a part of nearby Yarvil. Animosities spark in the council itself, as factions form within, one in favor of moving the Fields and another in favor of keeping it. Another consideration is the shutting down of the addiction clinic, Bellchapel, that helps the drug-users overcome their addictions.

If you love tragedy mixed with drama and comedy, I highly suggest reading The Casual Vacancy. However, Rowling leaves no stones unturned when it comes to addressing mature themes in her novel. The Casual Vacancy highlights how class can unfairly separate members of a community– for example, Krystal Weedon is a girl who lives in the Fields with a dirty, drug-addled prostitute of a mother and her baby brother, with simple dreams of growing up with her own family and a clean house. Due to her mother’s reputation, however, she is repeatedly looked down upon and this fuels her frustration and temper towards life.

Politics, and how poisonous it is, is also addressed in Rowling’s novel: slowly, Pagford tears itself to pieces, with family members going behind each others’ backs, friends betraying each other, and hostilities increasing amongst the council members themselves as everyone scrambles for the empty seat. It’s a madhouse in the small town that looks so peaceful on the outside.

Societal issues such as drug use, prostitution, and rape are present as well. The higher class citizens do nothing to help rid this issue within their town– in fact, they are advocating to shut down the addiction clinic and push the responsibilities of taking care of the Fields residents to another town. The citizens of Pagford, whether they are aware of it or not, are all interconnected, yet refuse to support each other. As we grow frustrated at this lack of empathy from the higher class, we must remember that this very problem is prevalent in our own communities. We must remember that the poorer, no matter how bad they might seem, are still human, and that they are a part of our communities as much as we are. We must remember not to judge them until we have heard their stories. Rowling’s brilliant quote in The Casual Vacancy sums up this message:

“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

I myself thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which speaks a lot to me with its myriad of societal issues. Towards the end, I did tear up– the ending, as the genre (tragicomedy) suggests, is, at most, bittersweet. As the war draws to a close, the members of the town are left to pick up the remnants of memories they have destroyed, and establish new ones.

If you happen to pick up The Casual Vacancy, I urge you to think of how the problems in Pagford may apply to your own community. Like the citizens of Pagford, we are all connected, and we must learn to help each other. Rowling urges us to appreciate the uniqueness of every human being, rich or poor, intelligent or doltish, man or woman, white or other– and together, we can work as a group to create a harmonious and peaceful society. Nobody is perfect– we are not God– but together, we can be.

The Help: One Small Step for Woman, One Giant Leap for Society

A novel I read on the side. Made me tear up.

[spoiler warning]

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Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a moving novel about small-town women in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi, who band together to voice their opinions about the inequalities of blacks in southern society. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young white woman with aspirations to become a writer (just like our Lana Winters in AHS: Asylum!), but her mother scorns her dreams and instead wants to get her married. Aibileen Clark is a black maid who works for Skeeter’s friend Ms. Leefolt, and primarily cares for her daughter Mae Mobley (who frequently views Aibileen as her mother instead of Ms. Leefolt). The death of her 24-year-old son Treelore often weighs upon her. Minnie Jackson is Aibileen’s best friend and another black maid who works for Ms. Walters, the mother of the snobby and prim Hilly Holbrook, the ringleader of Skeeter’s group of rich girlfriends.

Skeeter, with distant, unanswered hopes of her own, sympathizes with Aibileen, Minnie, and the rest of the black maids’ situations after learning the truth about the disappearance of her own maid, Constantine, who had brought her up as a child, just as Aibileen currently does so with Mae Mobley. She realizes the unfair working conditions for African American employees, and convinces Aibileen and Minnie to team up with her and to embark a dangerous and ambitious project: to write a book about the suffering of black maids in Mississippi.

With her growing support towards racial equality, Skeeter begins to get ostracized by her friends, but continues to work on her interviews with Aibileen and Minnie nonetheless. They initially have trouble convincing other maids to contribute, but after witnessing Hilly’s maid Yule Male get arrested for stealing a ring to pay for her twin sons’ college tuitions, the maids agree to help with the book.

Eventually, the book gets published, albeit anonymously, and secrets of maids’ unfair treatments by their white employers are exposed. The book contains both positive and negative views of southern society, but becomes a huge hit. Many of the white women start to recognize themselves in the various stories. Hilly herself is furious after one embarrassing moment with Millie is exposed. The book, a national bestseller, gives a voice to the black maids of Jackson, and forces the community as a whole to reflect upon the inequality prevalent in their society.

The new book sparks changes within the three women as well. Empowered by it (titled The Help), Aibileen sets out to seek a new life after being fired by Ms. Leefolt, while Skeeter moves to New York City on a new job offer, and Minnie finally finds the courage to leave her abusive husband.

I often don’t cry when I read books, but The Help is one such novel that made me tear up towards the end. It is guaranteed to be a heartwarmer to anyone who reads it, and the three women’s boldness and strength is highly admirable. Unlike some books where the heroes of the plot have an unusual amount of audacity and wit, the characters of The Help are portrayed very realistically. For anyone looking for an inspirational novel to read while sick in bed, on the go, or purely for leisure, look no further than The Help. (It is also, perhaps, one of the few that also has a fantastic movie adaptation, with a wonderful, award-winning cast.)

Stockett reminds us that it doesn’t take much to create a change, and we don’t have to be anyone extraordinary to do it.While everyone have dreams, it takes true courage to pursue them– and that potential is within all of us.