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.

 

 

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.

[spoiler warning]

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 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.