Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Conrad:  The Secret Sharer

(1)   Preliminary Notes

First,  don't be put off by the rather intricate grammar of the first paragraph.  The rest of the story is not written in that way.  We'll discuss why he uses such complicated sentence patterns.  Perhaps it's something to do with the narrator's loneliness.  Anyway, the main point at the opening, besides this complicated 'scene setting' is stated right at the end of this first paragraph when he says "And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam."

Before we meet, would you, if you can:

·       Read Part 1 of the story
·       Find out something about Conrad’s life
·       Think about
o   What makes the Captain uncertain of himself
o   Why he identifies so closely with Leggatt
o   Why he helps him without really thinking about it
o   Think of any other stories The Secret Sharer reminds you of in any way
o   How this might be called a ‘psychological’ story. And if you can find out what a 'doppleganger' is.

Secret Sharer:  Thoughts about Part One

     The new captain is young and inexperienced and has suddenly been placed with a well tried crew who all knew each other, and in the middle of a voyage.  He is also younger than all the officers but one.  He’s a stranger, then.   He is confident in his sailing skills, but no in his ability to deal with men.  He feels they are laughing at him when he’s not there.    He’s just a  little too ‘nice’.   And to them he’s untested, so naturally, he thinks, they’ll be wondering if he knows his onions.

      He’s something of a solitary too, as can be seen by the way he stands alone on deck and looks at every detail of the dim land, the temple, the trees, the line of the shore, and so on.

Then suddenly he behaves very unconventionally by offering to do the night shift until five in the morning – something captains don’t normally do.   This decision can only increase the crew’s speculations about him.   It may look like trying to curry favour perhaps,  or perhaps it allows him to be alone with ‘his’ ship for the night and settle himself with her, as a sort of partner.

     His decision is decisive in,  by chance, allowing Leggatt to get secretly on board, and then be hidden in the Captain’s room.   His sudden meeting with Leggatt provides him with a ‘secret friend’, perhaps comfort as it’s someone who is not a crew member.      It’s this coincidence followed by hiding and secrecy that make some reader’s think that Leggatt is imaginary.  The Captains solitude and anxiety produce him, as it were.   His name could be connected with the word ‘legate’ which means a kind of deputy.

No reason is given why the Captain decides to help Leggatt and break the law by hiding an accused, now wanted, man.   He manages to place Leggatt in parts of his quarters where he will not be seen by visitors coming for orders, or to clean, or the captain of Leggatt’s ship.  

    The Captain continually sees Leggatt as a second self, a double, a doppelganger even.  This is emphasised by the sameness of their nightwear.     And yet Leggatt is a different kind of person from the Captain.  He is, it seems, quick tempered, impatient, and violent, qualities which lead to his unintended murder of a crewman.   Quite the opposite of the Captain who is uncertain, indeed timid.    So in what sense does he think of Leggatt as his double?   In short, what does Leggatt, mean to him?

      Already we have got the idea that the Captain is dealing, not just with a mysterious stranger,  but with his own lack of self-confidence as a commander of a ship.   The story shows him coming of age as an adult, acknowledging the inner fears, which rise up from the sea depths of his unconscious and must be confronted and overcome.    We talk of ‘facing’ and also of  ‘getting rid’ of our fears.  As the Captain,  in Part  Two will face and get rid of Leggatt.   But his relationship with Leggatt is more complex than dealing with inner weakness, because the Captain, although he will eventually ‘get rid’ of Leggatt, is also very much drawn to him as a fellow-stranger, as it were.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Week 6 Liphook

Thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
What is her Relation on ‘her Girls’?

·       They are alternative lives for her now she is past her prime?
·      They are a ‘sounding box’ by which she avoids self-knowledge?
·      She gives them the best sort of education:  questioning, even  she herself?
·      They express her need to protest, be different, challenge values?
·       The exemplify for her some loss, bitterness, sense of failure?  What?
·       Could we say each represents a part of her own mind:  lover, betrayer, victim. . . ?
·       Does she ‘abuse her power’ or not?
·       Suppose the Head were not such a narrow person?

Sandy looked back at her companions and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice, and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Liphook: the communist

Week Three:  Liphook group, January 2016

On  The Communist
                                          by Richard Ford

I was moved by this story but somehow I don’t know quite how or why. It gave me several things to puzzle over.  Here are some of them.

·        Communist.   Is this a name he gives himself,  or that others give him?   In what sense is he a communist?   Communism doesn’t sit easily with shooting ducks (though perhaps it does with ‘poaching’).   Nor does it sit well with expensive cars like the ‘Nash’.   We get a sense of Ben as a sort of hippie but getting too old for the role -  outside mainstream society,  getting and spending as best he can.  Perhaps this is connected to his time in Vietnam?   He mentions shooting animals in Vietnam and Les speculates that he’d been thrown out for something he did there (again the assumption he’s an outsider).  Being a communist?  But he has been a trade unionist (‘labour man’) like Les’s father, and seems to believe in revolution  against the rich.  He says

“.  .  . the country was poisoned by the rich and strong men would need to bring it to life again.”

Or is his insecure life-style the result of his being known as a communist?  And also of being unable to adjust after Vietnam?    Again there’s a possibility that behind the individual character of Ben lies the paradox in communism – as it has so far been attempted – that an ideal ‘natural’ beauty of life somehow seems to end in even greater ugliness and death.

·        At the beginning of the story Aileen is on her own, and we’re not told what’s happened to Ben.   When he suddenly turns up she’s annoyed.  Perhaps she’s holding on to the remains of the quarrel which made him go?   Or angry at his leaving her?     She tries, in a very assertive way,  to stop Ben taking Les shooting.  But Les doesn’t allow himself to be dominated.    Perhaps Ben’s doing this to ingratiate himself in some way, at least with Les, who ‘likes’ him but not that much.    Then she turns up and goes with them, but then rather sulkily stays in the car, then joins them again,  then tries to make Ben show affection and/or susceptibility to her charms, by killing the wounded duck.  Which leads him to self-assertion and to withdraw his feelings, perhaps because he can’t deal with tenderness, and then do what she asked - but cruelly.    What is the matter with Aileen?   Is the point that she feels that can’t trust Ben to stick by her now she’s thirty-two and looking perhaps for a fixed relationship?  The point of her embarrassing question to Ben at the end about her femininity is to do with that perhaps, ‘left on the shelf’.   There’s just a hint that this whole story is about to be replayed with a new ‘Ben’.  We doubt if she’s really  going to college – a gesture towards greater independence, perhaps.

·        Les doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about either Aileen or Ben, and you get the sense that his feelings, whatever they are, are not such as he can express, but can embed in this story.  The story is his feelings.   He mentions his age, and at the end how almost a life time has gone by.   He’s now roughly the age Ben was then.   The moment of intimacy when his mother asks him about her attractiveness is not repeated, and almost as an afterthought he says:   “and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.”     This suggests at first that he’s left home, and perhaps he has.  In the story he’d thought about what she’d do when he did leave home.   But it just leaves open another, additional, meaning that he’s no longer able to respond to her feelings.

·        The ducks and the hunting.    The story was written in 1985, and so might well be drawing on a reader’s possible revulsion.  Why not just enjoy the beauty?   Why do you have to kill it?     Or is the killing a kind of selfie, a proof of how beautiful the ducks were by making one of them, though still and dead, mine?   This collision of the themes of love, fatherliness, and killing, needs more thought.   In one sense, of course, it’s good old conservative ‘manliness’,  the male asserting his powers -  originally , in the anthropological sense of feeding the family, surviving?   Here, the vision of the ducks spread out like that, does have the momentarily unifying effect that sharing a moment a beauty.   And perhaps there’s a parallel between the hunting, capturing, scene, and the personal relations involved.   Ben wants to capture that beauty in some way.  He can’t just ‘stand and stare’ in wonder. (I remember, much less dramatically, as a small boy taking birds’ eggs from the nests and being stirred by their beauty and otherness while shutting out thoughts of stealing, cruelty, killing.)     Or perhaps for some reason he feels he must ‘stamp out’ such moments by killing them, as if he’s guilty of something unmanly.  

·        The one person Les mentions with affection is his father, and the loss of his father is perhaps the ‘engine’ of this story.    The story as a whole made me think about the general problem of fatherless (or motherless)  children and step fathers/mothers.   This is made a problem, it seems to me, when the mother or father left is self-centred, perhaps, or dependent in one way or another on a partner.   There’s always, also, the sense that many children will have of the dead father or mother being irreplaceable like a ‘first love’, a kind of exclusiveness that makes it difficult to have or accept new relationships.   And then there are the ‘coping mechanisms’ people adopt, denying their feelings, loosing the capacity to feel, trust,  let go, and so on.    Les seems to cope by not allowing himself to have much in the way of feelings at all.    Much of this is connected with fear, and fear perhaps with loss of love and so of self.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Spring 2016:  American Short Stories   January 19

On   Collectors by Raymond Carver   

Best to think of this story as a kind of fairy tale puzzle.  It has plenty of interest as it moves along, and generates questions in our minds.  What’s happened that he’s out of work?   Why is he so suspicious when the door is knocked?  We begin to think perhaps he’s in debt, behind on the rent, or even that he’s a squatter.      He’s been there for some time as he knows the quirks of the floor sounds.  And yet later  we find he’s hardly ‘moved in’.

The person at the door does bring good news,  of a kind, but not for the narrator.    As they talk we wonder if the man is Mr Slater, the way he avoids acknowledging it.  And then where’s Mrs Slater who’s won the prize.    In all this story there are no explanations given.    But perhaps most people we come across casually in life are like this.

The demonstration by Aubrey Bell has its fascination, even though we feel – and he seems to as well – his hygiene is wasted on this flat which seems to be almost bare.     But why does Aubrey Bell go through with his so impressive display of skill?   It shows his ability in his job, but skill is often fascinating for its own sake.   And it shows his sense of duty in going through the routine whatever.   And it also focuses on dirt,  the large amount of gunge that our bodies leave behind is, and that we live in, forget, turn our backs on.   He shows the narrator how to clean,  how much of himself is left in and on what he touches, anonymous as he is,  outsider to society as he is.   Aubrey Bell has a job and is very professional in fulfilling its requirements – even though he’s not well.   It would have been so easy for him to skip this one.

So there’s an opposition between the outsider and the insider here, the man with a job and an income and so an identity and a pride, and the man with none of these.   And there’s the ‘winner’,  Mrs Slater, who has won, really, only the privilege to have this demonstration and buy a hoover.  She’s a winner by being a potential consumer.   She’s a winner without realising.   The narrator, by contrast,  is ‘not in the market’.

But Aubrey’s hygiene message is a philosophical one, too, perhaps.

“You’ll be surprised to see what can collect in a mattress over the months, over the years.  Every day, every night of our lives, we’re leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this and that behind.  Where do they go, these bits and pieces of ourselves?”

He answers this is physical day to day terms, of course,

                “Right through the sheets and into the mattress, that’s’s where!   Pillows, too.  It’s all the same.”

But the philosophical idea is still there, and with it perhaps the idea of Aubrey Bell as a kind of messenger -  whom the narrator can’t get rid of.    And his message?     The need to clean up, sort things out?    Unexpectedly,  he does make some knowledgeably academic comments, first about W H Auden the poey who wore carpet slippers, then about the German poet, Rilke who lived at the expense of a rich countess, which wasn’t “fair”.   He’s drawing a distinction between people like him and perhaps the narrator and people of a different class and degree of privilege.  Yet why do we assume a hoover salesmen would be ignorant about poetry?   Or is that itself a comment a bout the unpoetic nature of a buying and selling society?

The narrator adds more to the theme of collecting bits of ourselves, when he points out that the mattress isn’t his anyway.   He seems to have no roots.  Perhaps he is a squatter, and lives ‘nowhere’?  Like Rilke!

Then a letter does arrive and we think of the one the narrator’s expecting from up north, to do with a job.  But Aubrey Bell – surprisingly easily – prevents him picking up the letter, tells him it’s for a ‘Mr Slater’,  revealing he knows that the narrator is not Mr Slater, but never shows him, and then takes it off himself to return to the sender.  It’s as if the narrator doesn’t want to be identified as Mr Slate.    And we assume Aubrey’s got the idea that the man is a squatter.  He’s nothing to do with Mrs Slater, yet he’s still given him this demonstration.  Why?  To make a buck?

A more bizarre interpretation of the story would be that Aubrey Bell has come on purpose to intercept the letter, his demonstration being just a way of passing time till it comes.

But still, in the end, we’re left thinking, Well what was all that about?    Well, what about the title?  Who are the collectors?   They are all collecting dust and dirt as life goes on. Are they the dust itself?   Aubrey does collect a letter on behalf of the strangely absent Mr Slater.  Mrs Slater in a sense ‘collects’ her prize, but then it’s sent back on her behalf by the narrator.   The narrator collects nothing, except minimal dust and dirt, from which anyway he’s moving on.  He doesn’t collect a letter which would let him enter society.   He collects this experience.

So the story, perhaps, is about not belonging, not even having a home, not even having detritus of your own.   The story is about the empty vulnerable present.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

on The Whistle
by Eudora Welty

Approaching the story
Must try not to judge it by how sad or happy it is.   Reading literature not only enlarges our sympathy but also creates a kind of joy out of sorrow.   You might want to look at the study of the way listening to sad music helps us[i].  And Aristotle had something to say on this in his essay on tragedy.

Narrative Point of View
Welty keeps herself well out of the scene.  At the beginning she simply describes the moon, the shack, the people without giving any thoughts of her own.   Their cold and poverty, as it were, ‘speak for themselves’.
It’s quite a while before we get any thoughts of the characters, and then only Sara’s.   First her tiredness and coldness, then her dream-like thoughts of spring, part longing for next spring, part memories of others.   This memory allows us, the readers, to get some idea of the work they do, and we hear about Mr Perkins who ‘owned their farm now’.   And that implies that they’d had to sell up to survive and go on as tenants.   This gives us some ‘back-story’,   that is information about their circumstances before the events in he story began.

The moon is continually mentioned as an image of coldness, both physical and social.   There’s a coldness in the way they’re treated by society, and a kind of co-operative coolness between the two of them.  They don’t cuddle up together to get a bit warm.
The fire flickers in the background weakly, and eventually goes out, and then another fire is created by Jason’s burning the furniture.

Cold is a basis for the description of their postures, their anxieties, a threat to them, and also to the tomato crop on which they depend and for which they sacrifice covers and clothes.   The cold sinks into them ‘like the teeth of a trap’.

The cold and whoever’s let this all happen seem to be ‘characters’.  But the main characters are sparsely drawn, and we only have the thoughts, and few of those, of Sara. Though, of course, it’s Jason who acts, and passionately.

Narrative Form
Most of the story’s taken up with a description of their problem, which has also become their routine way of life.   There is the wider problem of being so cold and poor (and exploited), and the immediate problem of how to get warm now, and Jason’s ‘solution’ to that problem.    Jason’s act seems both inspired and reckless and possibly suicidal.   What does it express?

[i] What do nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder all have in common? They're all healthy, feel-good emotions. “For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects,” the researchers, led by psychologist Liila Taruffi, report. “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
The study also revealed that a high number of participants reported listening to sad music in situations of emotional distress or when they’re feeling lonely, so it could be a form of self-medication. “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the researchers add.
These findings appear to have some connection to previous research into sad music that suggests listening to it changes the chemistry in our brains to help us get over our grief. According to David Huron, a professor of music at Ohio University in the US, listening to sad music likely causes a spike in the hormone prolactin in the brain.
"Prolactin is the chemical that is used to help curb grief because it's also released during basic human activities - like when we eat, when women ovulate or breastfeed and (perhaps most importantly) when we have sex,” says David Taylor Sloan at "So sad music actually activates a chemical that tones down your grief - suggesting that being sad (and listening to sad music to get there) has deep evolutionary benefits.  -

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

handout for Liphook Group 7-9-15


1    There isn’t much ‘plot’.   GB goes off into the forest even though his wife doesn’t want  him to.   She feels vulnerable without him.  He feels a strong pull, just this once, to go.  At the outset we don’t know where he’s going, but gradually the quest gets clearer.  Nothing ‘happens’ except his new recognition  -   recognition of civic worthies at Satan’s gathering, and recognition that his faith is naïve.

2   His journey is portrayed first of all as a kind of duty, then as a temptation, especially when we meet his guide, like him but obviously sinister.  Like many journeys in literature it is a journey of discovery.   What he discovers is that all men are sinners.   And yet, should he be so distraught about that?  Surely that’s what the Bible teaches.   His reaction shows his character as, perhaps what later came to be called rigid or inflexible.  He’s naïve and he can’t get out of his naivety except into despair.

3  The story is very like a medieval mystery play in which Biblical themes are dramatised, and the characters personify ideas such as temptation, faith, or beings such as God or Satan. Perhaps when we first hear his wife’s name, though, we don’t think of her as a personification of the idea of faith.  

4  The atmosphere is strongly Puritan in its intense concern with virtue and faith and being devout.    What it brings out is the idea of hypocrisy, how the very people he’d respected as men and women of God in fact consort with the devil – like the Salem witches were supposed to have done.   Perhaps Hawthorne is saying that the dos and do nots of Puritanism are simplistic.

5  Faith is ambiguous.   She doesn’t want him to leave her (i.e. being a pious good man), but when he sees her among the gathering he calls to her to resist temptation.  We never know what happens next because  Hawthorne cuts at that point.

6  He wonders if the experience is a dream.   It’s never quite clear whether it is or not.  But certainly the atmosphere of the story makes it feel like one.  The dark wood is often seen as a frightening place where evil, pagans, and beasts live.

7   When he returns he refuses his wife’s kiss, and turns away from her.   Hypocritically he blames here for doing what he did.  But if he’d stayed at home with her?    Well, he’d not have learnt what the world was really like.  

8  Perhaps the story is a version  of the Fall of Man in Genesis.   GB ends the story no longer in his Garden of Eden.  He has found knowledge of good and evil.    But his wife does not seem much like Eve.   What is the meaning of her pink ribbons?  

9   How do we interpret the end of the story?  He becomes cynical?  He loses his faith?   Or she loses him?   What is he tempted by?   Sin as such?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Notes on
The Duchess and the Jeweller
by Virginia Woolf

The narrative is simple enough.    Oliver has a visit from the Duchess who persuades him to buy some pearls.   He is dissuaded from checking if the pearls are genuine by her offer of an invitation to her high class home where he will be able to spend the weekend with her daughter with whom he obviously is in love.

Oliver is very aware of his status as ‘nouveau rich’, having begun as a street boy and petty crook before getting into the diamond trade in a way which is only half described by sounds sleazy.   Now he is the richest jeweller in England.   But he is not content, though he drools over his drawers of jewels like a miser.

The crux of the narrative comes when the Duchess visits him needed money to pay a gambling debt which he husband mustn’t find out about.  She is potentially vulnerable to an unscrupulous man, especially if he should find at that the pearls she wants him to buy are fakes.   But she has a bargaining counter, her beautiful daughter.

There’s a tension while Oliver decides if he is going to buy the pearls, and this has some sexual overtones.   She is not offering herself, however, but herself at one remove, as it were.   And Oliver allows himself to be deceived because he is not really buying the pearls but Diana.

The story brings out the unpleasant and dishonest materialism of the English upper class with its ill-gotten gains and sex (indirectly) for sale.

A question which arose at the time Woolf published the story (and she tone done some of the story because of it) was anti-Semitism.   Oliver is a Jew (with the ironical surname of Bacon).    He is not just a poor boy made himself rich, but a Jew getting admittance into English high society, a stereotypical Jew with a prominent nose and a lot of not quite honestly gained money.  

Some critics have seen the story as not anti-Semitic because Oliver is shown as the dupe of the Duchess, and so a victim rather than an exploiter.   She knows he knows the pearls are fake but also that he cannot resists her bribe.   At the time the story was published, 1938, anti-Semitism was far more strident than it is  now, and there was nothing like ‘political correctness’.    The myth pedalled was that Jews were a threat because they ‘stuck together’ in business and did not have a sincere allegiance to England – or whichever European country they lived in.   They were seen – according to this ideology – as therefore a threat to English tradition and business.

However, the story is  also a psychological study of the emotional insecurity of a rags-to-riches man.   His continual recall of his mother is a reaching back for the social roots which he has left behind.

I can’t comment at all expertly on Woolf’s anti-Semitism.   She seems to have fallen into the prejudiced jargon of the time,  but  perhaps as she got older repented it. “How I hated marrying a Jew . . .   what a snob I was,”  she wrote about her husband, Leonard.