Category Archives: Literature

Zola and Dickens

“I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don’t care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity. ” —Emile Zola

‘In the mid-nineteenth century critics routinely checked out novels for literal accuracy, as if this was understood that this was one of the products advertising promises and the novelist had better make good on it.’ He continues, ‘Novelists routinely accepted the unpleasant task of doing reporting, legwork, “digging,” in order to get it just right. That was part of the process of writing novels. Dickens travels to three towns in Yorkshire using a false name and pretending to be looking for a school for the son of a widowed friend – in order to get inside the notorious Yorkshire boarding schools to gather material for Nicholas Nickleby.

‘Social realists like Dickens and Balzac [you should read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835) for a better understanding of the social and literary background of the time] seemed often to delight in realism pure and simple that it was held against them throughout their careers. Neither was regarded as a literary artist in his own lifetime (Balzac was not even invited into the French Academy). From the 1860s on, literary people – as well as critics, I should add – began to develop the following theory: Realism is a powerful device but is of trivial interest unless it is used to illuminate a higher reality … the cosmic dimension … eternal values … the moral consciousness … a road that lead them right back to the classical tradition by and by, to the idea that literature had a spiritual mission, that it “speaks to men unborn,” that it is magic, fable, myth, the mythos. By the 1920s in both France and England, the novel of social realism already seemed gauche.’ —Tom Wolfe, p55, The New Journalism, Picador, London 1990.

Naturalism and the Experimental Novel

‘New writers found the Victorian tradition both aesthetically and morally constraining, an they looked elsewhere, above all to Paris – where, in 1880, two writers well known to [Henry] James published highly influential works. Guy de Maupassant brought out his frank tale of a fat working–class girl, Boule de Suif, and Émile Zola his sexually scandalous Nana, as well as the essay Le Roman expérimental [The Experimental Novel], a literary manifesto for the rising trend of Naturalism. Zola used the term “experimental novel” in a different, more scientific, sense than we would now expect. His experiment was sociological and deterministic; he urged that, using laboratory–style methods and documentary and journalistic techniques, novelists should explore systems and processes, the laws of economics, heredity, environment and social evolution, to determine the fate of the typical, representative characters. “A symmetry is established,” he claimed, “the story composes itself out of all the collected observations, all the notes, one leading to another by the very enchainment of the characters, and the conclusion is nothing more than a natural and inevitable consequence.” This was realism schematised; individuals were subject were subject to universal systems, typified general laws; as Zola noted, “A like determinism will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man.”’ —Malcom Bradbury, p21, The Modern British Novel, Secker and Warburg, London 1993.

Naturalism and Realism were the emerging forms of literature. Tom Wolfe compares these forms to the emergence of the New Journalism and points to similar criticisms levelled at both. The Naturalist view is that man is simply a part of nature and as such there is no need to seek explanations of man’s existence outside the physical world. This goes against the tradition of magic, fable, myth and mythos Wolfe talks about which came out of the Romatic period of literature. The Naturalists refuse to accept cosmological, religious, or super-natural explanations for man’s behaviour. Both Dickens’s and Zola’s work is predominantly a study of the working–class in a very real sense. They went out into the world and observed, condensing what they saw into novels such as Hard Times, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens and Nana, Thérèse Raquin and Germinal by Zola. Their work coincided with a general increase in literacy that allowed their novels to reach a wide audience. Both worked as journalists and Dickens’s fiction first appeared as serials in the periodicals of the day. So as far as research is concerned their methodology was very similar. However their narrative techniques are quite distinct, though neither was readily accepted during the authors’ lifetimes.


Zola saw himself as what today we might call a ‘social scientist’. In his preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin he says: ‘I had only one aim, which was: given a powerful man and an unsatisfied woman, to seek within them only the animal, to plunge them together in a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and their actions. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses’ — p2, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, 1992.

The introduction to the French edition sums up the portrait he paints: ‘Violence, fureur impitoyable, cannabalisme, sauvagerie, passion vivent cachés, nichés au plus creux des viscères de l’homme, de l’homme qui se targue justement (et pourtant) d’être supérieur, voire l’être supérieur. Mais qu’un petit grain de sable, qu’un vent chaud, qu’une passion vienne malgré les interdits de la société et de l’éducation, qu’une passion vienne à affleure jusqu’à la lumière des lèvres ou du cœur, c’est alors un raz de marée, un cataclysme qui s’empare du bipède le plus convenu, le plus dressé soit–il.’ — p5, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Le Livre du Poche, France.

Zola often suffers in translation to English because of his creative use of the wide variety of tenses of French prose. However the consistency of his technique can be demonstrated by comparing two sections from the begininng and middle of the book. Again this works better in French.

French p19-20, ‘Au bout de la rue…’ p99-100, ‘Laurent se donna…’
English p7 ‘At the end…mahogany boxes.” p74-75 ‘Laurant gave…grim laughter.’

Zola’ smain device is the massive use of metaphor. Germinal (Émile Zola, Penguin Books, London.) is itself one big metaphor for life with the miners being the ‘seeds’ planted in the ground to germinate. For example: p67 – the metaphor of ponies for miners, p47 – trains as phantom animals, p28 – the mine as a best devouring the miners.

‘Then, with the quiet skill of a good workman who has carefully thought out the job, he set to work. He began by sawing a panel out of the partition separating the escape shaft from the main winding shaft. By the short-lived flame of one or two matches he was able to ascertain the state of the lining and the extent of recent repairs.

‘Between Calais and Valenciennes the sinking of pit shafts met with appalling difficulties because they had to pass through enormous subterranean lakes that lay at the level of the deepest valleys. The only way to hold back these gushing springs was to construct linings of pieces of timber joined to each other like the staves of a cask. These linings isolated the shafts in tunnels through the middle of the lakes, the dark and mysterious waves of which lapped against the outside of th orlds. When Le Voreux was sunk two distinct linings had to be made; one for the upper part of the shaft where it went through the shifting sands and white clays found near chalky soils, and these were riddled with fissures and soaked with water like a sponge; and the other lower down, immediately above the coal measures, through yellow sand as fine as flour, flowing like liquid. Behind his lower lining was the Torrent, the underground sea that was the terror of the pits in the Nord department – a sea with its own storms and wrecks, unexplored, unfathomable, the black rollers of which heaved more than three hundred metres below the ground.’ p432.

When Souvarine is about to destroy the pit the detail adds to the tension:

“Look at these hands of mine – if they could do so they would take hold of the world like this and shake it into little pieces so as to bury the lot of you under the wreckage.” Souvarine – p383.

Catherine is suffocating in foul air: ‘She knew all about this foul air – dead air, miners called it – heavy asphyxiating gases at the bottom, light, explosive gases at the top which can blow up all the teams in a mine, hundreds of men, in one thunderclap. She had swallowed so much of it since early childhood that she was surprised to be taking it so badly n, with noises in her ears and a burning throat.’ p296.

Jeanlin after his accident – “he undressed the child himself, unfastening his ca, pulling down his trousers and lifting off his shirt with the skill of a nurse. And the pathetic little boy came into view , as thin as an insect, soiled with black dust and yellow earth and mottled with bloody stains. It was impossible to see anything; he had to be washed as well. The sponging seemed to make him thinner than ever, his flesh was so pallid and transparent that the bones showed through. It was pitiful to see this last decadent specimen of a race of starving toilers, this mere wisp of suffering, half crushed by the rocks. (p.189)


By the nineteenth century the serfs had become the ‘working class’, the aristocracy remained but a new ‘business class’ had arisen and were dubbed the ‘middle class’. The working class itself could be divided into the agrarian and urban, those who still worked on the farms, and those who had moved to the cities in search of work in the new industries that were being founded at this time. The only problem with this definition is that at times the distinction between the upper-middle-class and the upper class or aristocracy becomes blurred. Dickens concentrates on the plight of the working class. Hard Times was one of his more successful novels after a low patch in the 1840s despite the success of A Christmas Carol (1843), and Dombey and Son (1848). It has been said in Hard Times and his other writings Dickens captured the contemporary popular imagination ‘as no other novelist done’.

‘The chapters of the novels Dickens wrote for weekly serial publication, like Hard Times and Great Expectations, are much shorter than those in novels like Dombey and Son or Bleak House, originally published in monthly parts. The magazine instalments often had to meet a very precise and uniform length requirement.’ — David Lodge, p167, The Art of Fiction, Secker and Warburg, London 1992.

Dickens is a very visual author. This is his description of Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist (1838): ‘To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of the waterside people … The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream form the house–parapet and windows … he walks beneath tottering housefronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half–crushed, half–hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginabel sign of desolation and negelct.’

One accusation leveled at Dickens is that his characters are somewhat two dimensional but they are made three dimensional and given colour by the environments they inhabit which are described in rich detail. Dickens also uses symbolism as in Dombey and Son when describing the railway: ‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way – its own – defiant of all the paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Description weather can play an important role when aided by metaphor in setting the mood and aiding the description of the scene as in Bleak House: ‘London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting at Licoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, [a possible biblical reference] and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, [a reference to Darwinism] waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft balck drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in the mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umberellas, in a general infliction of ill temper, and losing their foot–hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.’ p49, Bleak House, Charles Dickens, Penguin Books, London 1985.

This continues: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it lows among green aits and madows; fog down the river where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon , and hanging in the misty clouds.’ p49 Bleak House.

‘The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord high Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.’ p50, Bleak House.

But Dickens is whimsical too: ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.’ p52, Bleak House.

He also uses the device of repetition. For instance in Bleak House describing the death of the crossing sweeper: ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.’

Dickens uses realism to good effect but it can become strained. This is the scene in Hard Times where Stephen Blackpool refuses to join in a Trade Union strike on conscientios grounds, note the use of vulgar speech: ‘“Stephen Blackpool,” said the chairman, rising, “think on’t agen. Think on’t agen lad, afore thour’t shunned by aw owd friends.”

‘There was a universal murmor to the same effect, though no man articulated a word. Every eye was fixed on Stephen’s face. To repent of his determination, would be to take a load from all their minds. He looked around him, and knew that it was so. Not a grain of anger with them was in his heart; he knew them, far below their surface weaknesses and misconceptions, as no–one but their fellow labourer could.

‘“I ha thowt on’t, above a bit sir. I simply canna come in. I mun go th’way as lays afore me. I mun tak my leave o’aw heer.”’ — Hard Times, Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, 1989.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


From the Birth of Tragedy to the Heart of Darkness

“When I do a novel, I don’t really use the script, I use the book; when I did Apocalypse Now, I used Heart of Darkness. Novels usually have so much rich material.” —Francis Ford Coppola

Nietzsche’s theory was new and innovative in terms of the age in which he published it. He had hoped to gain respect from his peers from it and, despite high praise from the Wagner family, it was generally poorly received.

His theories in Birth of Tragedy went against strong held beliefs of the day. God was not dead as far as his contemporaries were concerned. Nietzsche questioned the whole outlook of the society in which he lived and he found it to be stale.

He is not the sole originator of the ideas in Birth of Tragedy. He is strongly influenced by Schopenhauer who “has described the tremendous dread that grips man when he suddenly loses his way amidst the cognitive forms of appearance, because the principle of sufficient reason, in one of its forms, seems suspended.” (BT p.16)

Here the reason is that of Apollo. Suppress reason and you are left with the chaos and irrationality of Dionysus. Frazer tells us: “The god Dionysus or Bacchus is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of exhilaration produced by the juice of the grape.” (GB p.386)

Nietzsche quotes from Schopenhauer: “Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting to his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering the individual man calmly sits, supported and trusting the pricipum individuationis” (WR p.352).

Might not that same boatman be Marlow on his journey up the Congo or Willard on his way to Cambodia? It is quite possible that Conrad is referring to Nietzsche’s BT (p39); “True understanding, insight into the terrible truth, outweighs every motive for action, for Hamlet and Dionysiac man alike. No consolidation will be of any use from now on, longing passes over the world towards death, beyond the gods themselves; existence, radiantly reflected in the gods or in an immortal ‘Beyond’ is denied. Aware of truth from a single glimpse of it all man can now see is the horror and absurdity of existence; now he understands the wisdom of Silenus, the god of the woods: it repels him”

Thus Marlow says in HD (p112) “Destiny. My Destiny! Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Nietzsche’s theory embraces the WILL and the IDEA, which can also be compared to the Dionysiac and the Apolline, and he applies this dichotomy to art and music. This leads on to his idea of the “will to power” where the weak hold back the strong.

The closer you get to the WILL, the purer the art form. Therefore music is the purest form as it requires no intellectualisation to get its message across. However Nietzsche had a high regard for painting, though not as high as music.

The film, had it been around at the time, might concievably have topped the list as it is an ‘immersion’ experience, it draws you in. It is quite possible to follow Apocalypse Now without understanding a word that is said. Admittedly you are left with the ‘reality’ while you lose some of the insights.

Apocalypse Now is full of symbolism of the rationalisation of the Dionysiac. It is impossible to conquer the chaos and so it must be brought into the fold. For instance, the river is described by Conrad as a winding snake. This motif is carried into the film in the tattoo on Chef’s shoulder. The jungle is filled with insects, possibly dangerous but it is the giant insects, the helicopters, that bear the words “death from the sky”.

There is a fine line between the law and chaos and in Nietzsche’s view of the theatre, the Greek tragedy held the Dionysiac and the Apollonian in the correct balance. For instance in Sophocles immortal tragedy Oedipus Rex Apollo is represented throughout but Dionysus is represented through the chorus.

In Apocalypse Now this relationship can also be explored through the music, being the voice of Dionysus. When all is still the music is calm and flowing, like the mouth of the river, but when the destruction begins or when Willard is in internal turmoil there comes a change. The strains of the orchestra are replaced by the raucous sounds of the Doors.

At other times we here the Rolling Stones but one place in the film where music is used to particularly good effect is at the bridge where there is no longer a command. Without Apollo, Dionysus rules and Hendrix plays over the radio. Of course the most obvious reference to Nietzsche in the film is through Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as the helicopters begin their attack on the rebel village.

Robert Duval’s Colonel Kilgore is an interesting aside. Throughout the film ritual is rife, from the service for the dead soldiers to the barbaric rituals of Kurtz’s tribe. However no where is it better portrayed than in the ritual of surfing. It is also interesting to note the modern widespread use of the phrase “Charlie don’t surf”. It appears that Apocalypse Now has entered the modern mythos.

Kilgore also represents the two forces in balance. Of course he appears totally insane but in the heat of battle he alone remains calm, surveying the beach while shells explode around him—sure in the knowledge that he cannot be killed.

Here the film is disturbingly accurate to life. “I am a general. No one would dare shoot a general.” – Sir Michael Rose, British commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, on why he didn’t flinch when a sniper bullet came close to hitting him last week. (NW)

Then again this could be a reference to Nietzsche as quoted by Camus: “What is more pessimistic than the Greek maxim: ‘Happiness lies in not being’?” (YW p.141) This refers to the idea apparently accepted by the Greeks that it was far better to live a short and glorious life than a long and tedious one thus they gravitated to the Dionysiac.

The central character in Apocalypse now is Willard but his foil is Kurtz. Again they represent the oposite sides. The regimented soldier moving towards chaos, and the “man-god” ruling by absolute.

In Heart of Darkness the manager says; ‘”We must save it at all events – but look how precarious the position is – and why? Because the method is unsound.” “Do you,” said I, looking at the shore, “call it ‘unsound method’?” “Without doubt,” he exclaimed hotly. “Don’t you?”… ‘”No method at all,” I murmured after a while.’ (HD p102)

However Kurtz has gone beyond method. “It is surely undeniable that we take pleasure in dreaming, that we enjoy living in an imaginary life a hundred times more beautiful than reality. This is because we feel the need to forget our individuality and to identify with humanity as a whole” (YW pp, 139-140) Unless we take method to mean rhythm, the control of the Dionysiac. “They disciplined mystical frenzy by means of cadence.” (YW p. 141)

In Frazer’s Golden Bough there is an interesting comment: “a tradition of human sacrifice may sometimes have been a mere interpretation of a sacrificial ritual in which an animal victim was treated as a human being. For example at Tenedos the new-born calf sacrificed to Dionysus was shod in buskins, and the mother cow was tended like a woman in child-bed.” (GB p.392) Despite the insaninty of Kurtz the world of his creation is one of order and so the fine balance is retained. When Willard kils Kurtz he replaces him but he cannot rule because he has come back from the edge and so he must call in the air-strike.

In this essay the following abbreviations apply:

BT: Birth of Tragedy
GB: Golden Bough
HD: Heart of Darkness
NW: Newsweek
WR: The World as Will and Representation I
YW: Youthful Writings

Selective Discography:

Jimi Hendrix
Richard Wagner
The Doors
The Rolling Stones


Apocalypse Now by Francis Coppola – American Zoetrope 1979
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Penguin 1989
Newsweek – May 30, 1994
Poetics by Aristotle – ?
The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche – Penguin 1993
The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer – Penguin 1993
The World as Will and Represenation I by Schopenhauer – ?
Youthful Writings – Cachiers II by Albert Camus – Vintage, pub.

Lecture Notes – Peter Storfer

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


Humphrey Clinker

“When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude.” —Theodore Dalrymple

In Humphry Clinker, a novel written using the epistolary method, the case is put that the situation of the underclass cannot be entirely the fault of society.

Firstly let me explain what the ‘epistolary method’ is. It is a style of novel writing in the form of correspondence, or letters. It is very different from other methods as it shows a more ordinary view of the world, through the eyes of a ‘real’ person. Smollett was not the first to use this method and many followed him. Other notable authors who used this method include Richardson, Fielding and even Austen.

The ‘first person’ is an interesting form and is often used when writing a semi-autobiographical. Smollett’s earlier work Roderick Random is semi-autobiographical, however Humphry Clinker is not. Rather, it is a reflection of Smollett’s views on the society of the day told in an entertaining manner.

The ‘first person’ method can be limiting because the central character must be where the action is happening or have heard about it. Smollett gets around this problem by using multiple first persons. In this respect he was a pioneer of the epistolary method. There is a great contrast in style and subject of the various letters. Matthew Bramble, the country squire writes eloquently and at length as befits someone of his social standing . Tabitha Bramble, Matthew’s sister, however writes in a lyrical, if obscure style full of dreadful spelling mistakes. These mistakes serve to illustrate her lack of academic education but also provide light relief. For example, in a letter to Mrs Gwyllim dated June 14 (pp 189-190), she writes, “I can’t help thinking it very strange, that I never had an answer to the letter I wrote you…concerning the sour bear, the gander, and the maids eating butter…I wrote to doctor Lews for the same porpuss…I shall never favour him with another, though he beshits me on bended knees.” The language is robust but in general all the women are undereducated in this book.

The ‘first person’ is a narrative style, and while in Humphry Clinker there is more than one writer, Matthew Bramble emerges as our narrator while the other characters serve to fill out details, give different perspectives and tell stories of their own. They also illustrate class divides. Besides Tabitha they are Lydia, Matthew’s niece and Jery, Lydia’s brother and a student at Oxford. They are the wards of Bramble who is apparently reluctant about this situation. Winifred Jenkins is a lady’s-maid. The English in her letters is of an even lower standard than that in Tabitha’s. Here the class divide is really emphasised. The lack of education is clear as in her letter of May 15 (pp 101-102), “We are all upon the ving – Hey for London, girl! – Fecks! we have been long enough here; for we’re all turned tipsy turvy…”

One important aspect of the epistolary method is that it allows you to show yourself in your writing. You can say anything you want to by making a character say it in your novel. Thus opinions and ideas that would not be readily acceptable at the time of writing can be written without fear of reprisals. In this respect the Bramble character can be seen as an medium for expressing Smollett’s own views. In the text his observations are intended to illuminate ageing (Bramble himself), human suffering, filth, compassion and to illustrate Smollett’s own awareness of medical controversy and theory etc. However Bramble often contradicts himself but this has not stopped certain biographers looking to Humphry Clinker in attempting to chronicle the latter part of Smollett’s life.

Matthew Bramble’s views in particular portray the class separation idea. While staying in London he says of the rural working class (pp 118-119), “plough-boys, cow herds, and lower hinds are debauched and seduced by the appearance and discourse of those coxcombs in livery…They desert their dirt and drudgery, and swarm up to London, in the hopes of getting into service, where they can live luxuriously and wear fine clothes, without being obliged to work; for idleness is natural to man — Great numbers of these…become thieves and sharpers; and London…affords them lurking places as well as prey.”

Bramble is really saying that while London attracts these country men it is not the capital’s, or indeed society’s fault that they become thieves and brigands. He says that they were bound to because they came to London seeking to escape work in the first place. This idea reoccurs throughout the book.

Another idea that Smollett conveys through Bramble is that of the decadence of urban life. Even early on in his stay in Bath he writes, “What sort of monster Bath will become in a few years…may be easily conceived: but the want of beauty of these new mansions; they are built so slight, with the soft crumbling stone found in this neighbourhood, that I shall never sleep quietly in one of them, when it blowed (as the sailors say) a cap-full of wind; and, I am persuaded, that my hind, Roger Williams, or any man of equal strength, would be able to push his foot through the strongest part of their walls, without any great exertion of his muscles.”

When the party moves to fairer fields the sense of the serene is there, however, unlike Rousseau, Smollett does not value the wilderness for its own sake alone. Indeed, Smollett’s idea of nature is of properly maintained farms, of the successful exploitation of nature e.g. breeding cattle etc.

This idea of the great divide between the rural and urban becomes clear when the travellers leave the city for Scotland. Here there is evidence of the Romantic movement but Smollett is more down to earth. He presents a truer picture than that of the Romantic idealism of Rousseau. Bramble congratulates the Scots on gaining affluence (presumably in a manner described in Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality). However, Smollett does not consider the American Indian to be a noble savage. His view is portrayed in Jery’s letter of July 13 (pp 226-237). We join the story as Lismahago and ensign Murphy have been captured by Indians; “The intention of these Indians was to give one of them as an adopted son to a venerable sachem, who had lost his own in the course of the war, and to sacrifice the other according to the custom of the country.” He goes on to detail the tortures an humiliation that the pair were put through until Murphy finally dies singing the ‘Drimmendoo’. Perhaps it was symptomatic of the time that native Americans were idealised in England and Europe and that there was such a fascination with these ‘savage’ Indians.

Lismahago, a retired military officer, is essentially a character of fun, a generalisation of ‘Scots’ to Smollett. He presents himself very brusquely, almost in a manner befitting a modern day Scottish nationalist (p 316), “True (said he with a sarcastic grin), in debates of national competition, the sixteen peers and forty-five commoners of Scotland, must make a formidable figure in the scale, against the whole English legislature.”

In reference to the use of the epistolary method to present the truth it is fair to say that all the ‘pens’ of the letters firmly believe what they write. Indeed much of the content is purely factual. The party basically goes on a journey across the country picking up a servant called Humphry Clinker on the way (though not until p 113) and then relate their experiences to various other characters. They travel from Gloucester through Bristol, Bath, London, York, Scarborough, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow etc. on a ‘journey of discovery’. The underlying message is that the further north you go, or the further you get out of the urban wasteland the healthier you will become and the more pleasant will be your surroundings.

What is ironic is the discovered truths in the book, Humphry Clinker’s true origin of birth, and Wilson’s for that matter. The reactions to these two are completely changed. Jery suddenly finds Wilson very agreeable and Humphry is also held in high regard by the party where previously he was scorned. Indeed the change in Jery’s attitude when compared with his early letters is marked.

A further device used to give the epistles validity is the self reference (where Smollett complains bitterly how hard it is to write novels — p 28 “Writing is all a lottery…” He also refers to other authors of books on travels ad again he includes himself (p 29). This gives extra credibility to a story that attempts to be true to life.

Then, towards the end of the book Smollett changes tack. Baynard’s estate is rescued from insolvency. As Lydia writes in her letter of October 14 it is revealed that Humphry Clinker is actually the bastard son of squire Bramble. The various romances are brought to a conclusion as Lydia finds out that Wilson is in fact a gentleman. Something about the three romances reminds me of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There are two final twists however. Winifred marries Humphry but as he is the squire’s son she is effectively moving out of her class and scaling the social ladder. The other is in the fabric of the epistles themselves. While Jery sees writing as a worthwhile pursuit, Bramble is fearful of the “vulgarisation of the upper [class]” and (p 394) resolves to give up writing letters.

In conclusion it seems prudent to ask what Smollett is attempting to achieve. He appears to be looking to better things [than the metropolis he foresees]. He wants to give ordinary people a share of the land. The idea of property and independence is clear when he refers to the influence of the Scottish Chiefs over their clansmen (pp 293—). Smollett is also showing his own anxieties about mass dissent. Indeed he goes to lengths to demonstrate the difference between social and economic conditions of the rank and file, and the privileged in society.

He is also writing about writing. He humorously refers to the poor authors (p 156) who have been served with writs and may only venture out on Sundays. This illustrates the fact that writing for money in eighteenth century could be a very hazardous business. Smollett also tries to portray sense of honour and morality in his characters. Indeed the strength of these epistles is such that the only deviance from this method found in the book is the poem (p 287) and this serves mainly to illustrate the scenery in a way that simply cannot be done through a simple letter alone.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


Gulliver’s Travels

“The … greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.” —Plato

Lemuel Gulliver undergoes a Platonic education – from being the uninformed, prejudiced observer to being to someone with tragic self-knowledge of what it is to be human. Swift uses the Platonic Form for his narrative structure, and shows us what proper human beings should be like.

Lemuel Gulliver is a perpetual traveller, he is trained as a ship’s surgeon and has taken the time to set down his tales in a book. Each of the four books contain a different voyage and different people.

Swift uses Lemuel Gulliver as a dialectic narrator to guide the reader through the separate chapters of the book. Each chapter contains a different criticism of human nature and often eighteenth century England. These criticisms are often executed through Swift’s satire. The first person narration is a useful device in lecturing and teaching the reader about human life. Gulliver’s narration seems very innocent and objective, thus lulling the reader into a false sense of security. It can be argued that through Gulliver’s Travels, Swift sets a precedent for the development of the novel as he “provides a fully realised premonition of the dialectic encounter.” It was not until about twenty years later that the dialectic became a recognised device.

Swift attempts to demonstrate, through travel and experience, a Utopian state. He shows us how he thinks humans should behave towards one another. And how society should be based on reasoning, logic and rational thought. Perhaps one of the dilemmas the reader faces is, “Which is the real Utopian state ?” It is important to note however that Jonathan Swift is not Lemuel Gulliver, as this is an easy mistake to make due to the first person narration.

Plato envisaged an ideal society based on rationality and reasoning. A society where goodness and beauty are not skin deep. His writings were concerned with more than just aesthetics, but with what lay under the surface.

On his first adventure Gulliver reaches a country called Lilliput and finds an island inhabited by miniature people. The people are so small that Gulliver appears to them as a giant, and to Gulliver the Lilliputians seem aesthetically perfect because his eye sight is not as precise as theirs. He finds that although they look perfect, in actual fact they are corrupt and devious. An example is when the secretaries of state sell licences to people to view the “Man Mountain”, and when he is accused of treason.

One of Swift’s Utopian touches is in the communal education system for children. Although it seems cold hearted to place children in a communal state education system, it is a process based on rationality and reasoning. Parents forego their right to educate their children and are only able to see them twice a year. Presumably this would be one step closer to creating a better society. This is a theme slightly reminiscent of Swift’s essay “A Modest proposal” where he suggests ways of controlling the amount of children born to poor people in society.

Gulliver sees the education system in Lilliput as two tiered. It creates a division within society. The ordinary labourers keep their children at home because “…their business being only to till and cultivate the earth; and therefore their education is of little consequence to the publick.” The division in society has been established – the rich and the poor, or the educated and the uneducated. Here we see Swift’s own values come through. For although he believed in a class based system, he reasoned that power should be equally distributed between the different tiers of society.

When Gulliver makes his second voyage he travels to Brobingnag and finds himself in the opposite scenario. He is tiny compared to everyone else, and thus because of his size and novelty he is exploited as a circus attraction. He is used for personal gain by a Brobingnagian, this is similar to the situation in Lilliput where he is used as a weapon of defence against a neighbouring island. It is possible to argue that Swift is making the point that human nature is the same the world over. Shape and size make no difference, people will always try to exploit anything new for personal gain.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the inhabitants of the two countries. To Gulliver, the Lilliputians appear perfect to look at, their complexions are good and their limbs perfectly apportioned. However, when he looks at the Brobingnagians he can see the blemishes in their skin and they appear quite repulsive to him.

Although it is at times difficult to make a distinction between Gulliver’s thoughts and Swift’s beliefs, it is almost certainly Swift who is commenting on society when the King makes a fool of Gulliver over the gunpowder. Gulliver, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the king, offers to tell the him the exiting secret of gunpowder. The king is horrified by the thought of the destruction it can cause and he wonders how people can “entertain such human ideas.”

In Lilliput Gulliver realises his self importance as he is probably the single most important thing to happen to that country, conversely in Brobingnag he is made to feel his own pettiness and triviality. This is all to do with size and stature.

By the third part of the book Swift’s use of the Platonic Form more apparent. The island of Laputa is a satire of eighteenth century science and reasoning. Swift creates a flying, science obsessed island which hovers above everywhere else – demonstrating moral superiority. “Swift is hitting at what he considered to be abuses of reason.” He meets scientists who are incredibly intelligent but have no common sense. The inhabitants of Laputa are concerned with music and science, they have no powers of reasoning and whenever they describe things it is in a scientific way, “Their ideas are perpetually conversant in lines and figures.”

Swift considers the use of science without an application to human betterment futile. To the modern reader this may seem obvious, but to the eighteenth century reader it may not have been apparent. It is in chapter five that Swift addresses the point directly where he visits the academy of Lagado and meets a scientist trying to reduce human waste to its original food. In what way can this be used to improve human life?

In a voyage to Glubbdubdrib (also in the third book) Swift deals with corruption in office. “Here I discovered the true causes of many great events that have suprized the world; how a whore can govern the back-stairs, the back stairs a council, and the council a senate.”

It is the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels that is perhaps the most important in Swift’s demonstration of how humans should behave. The country of the Houyhnhnms can be seen as a Utopia of logic and reasoning The land is inhabited by horses and other creatures who bare an uncanny resemblance to humans. The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are the two classes in their society. The Houyhnhnms are intelligent and articulate creatures, who regard the Yahoos with contempt and disgust, often referring to them as thugs. Gulliver automatically identifies with the superior breed and comments upon his feelings for the Yahoos, “I have never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy.” When he first meets inhabitants of the island he is perceived to be a Yahoo, but it later evolves that Gulliver is neither. Gulliver is ashamed that he looks like a Yahoo and he often tries to defend himself. This is demonstrated in Gulliver’s letter at the beginning of the book. “Yahoo as I am, it is well known through all Houyhnhnmland, that by the instructions and example of my illustrious master, I was able in the compass of two years (although I confess with the utmost difficulty) to remove that infernal habit of lying, shuffling, deceiving, and equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very souls of all my species, especially the Europeans.”

Basically he looks like a Yahoo but thinks like a Houyhnhnm. This becomes apparent when he returns to England and spends most of his time talking to his horse. “My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day.” Gulliver is strongly influenced by the Houyhnhnms. They teach him that because of the devious nature of the human mind, reason and intelligence are not sufficient for the conduct of human life. While he is spell bound with the virtues of these great creatures, Gulliver cannot help realising the vices of human beings. It is easy to think that in this chapter Swift places all his criticisms of the human race into one creature – the Yahoos, and all his thoughts for a supreme race – the Houyhnhnms to highlight the short comings of mankind. What we probably see is Gulliver’s views of a supreme race through his obsession with the Houyhnhnms. and his behaviour on returning to England. It is unlikely that Swift would have advocated such a state. “Because they are guided by reason rather than by appetites their life is without conflict.” A world devoid of enthusiasm or passion. Life would be too boring and plain. In fact the Houyhnhnms have virtually a self governing state where parliament only meets for five or six days in every four years to settle outstanding business. Interestingly Swift does not remain consistent to the Platonic form in this book. Gulliver mentions poetry recitals in his accounts of Houyhnhnmland, and although Swift might not be particularly inspired by them, it is known that Plato had little use for poets and he excluded them from his republic.

It is right at the end of the fourth book that Swift seeks to distance himself from Gulliver, he does this by satirising Gulliver. This is executed in his behaviour when he returns to England.

Swift does not necessarily set out to show us how humans should behave, but he does highlight many of the vices of Eighteenth century society. In Lilliput Gulliver experiences malice at the hands of miniature people. In Brobdingnag he is seen to take a offence at the strong criticisms of the human race. The third chapter is really an attack upon science and Swift’s questioning of its importance. In the fourth chapter Gulliver finds his ideal nation among the Houyhnhnms and discovers all the vices of humanity. Thus each chapter highlights an aspect of the human race. However, it is worth remembering that, “His work is not an attack upon the common man, but on those who, corrupt by their passions or self-interest, misuse their reason to deceive and enslave.”

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature



“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” —Plato

Here I present a critical analysis and discussion of the song Stay, describing its structure, use of rhythm and meter, exploring its ideas, images and themes, use symbolisms and what the work is about.

The author asserts that this work was written in a stream of consciousness, practically writing itself and needing only one revision. It may be for this reason that what at first appears broken and uneven in fact flows well over the music. The version of the recording provided, the only one currently available, is a demo and it is not always easy to follow where the lyrics would go. On their own the words scan well enough but with the addition of the music they take on added meaning through their tonality. This of course varies with the interpretation of the singer.

As a rough guide the music is composed as follows: Four chords of introduction; Main riff (instrumental only); First through to third verses. Instrumental (slowing near the end); Final three verses; Outro. The lyrics fit the music to the specific chords so that the first line fits with the first chord, the second line with its modulation. The same follows for the third and fourth line. This is the first pattern of the verse. The fifth line fits with the second chord and the sixth with its modulation. The seventh and eighth lines follow in the same way making the second pattern. The second pattern is played in the same way as the first pattern so that they complement each other and form a steady rhythm that underlies the melody. In this way the words and music go together to conjure up a rhythmic sensation of movement from the ‘smoke’, to the ‘train’, ‘going up to her room’.

Movement is in fact one of the main themes of the song. However the title is Stay. From this we may gather that the song is about the desire to resist going ‘with the flow’ but finding the struggle hopeless. While the music in Stay has a standard rhythm, the lyrics do not. The rhyme pattern varies from verse to verse and though the verses flow smoothly there is no clear syllabic breakdown. In the first verse the rhyme pattern is ABCBDBEB but in the others it is ABCBDEFE. This is perhaps because the first verse sets the tone for the rest of the song. It is the background and within eight lines we have moved from the very real, the girl waiting, to the imaginary, her being ten feet tall. Thus when verse two comes the listener is taken into the motion of the song.

The recording was made on a four-track in the summer of 1992. Steve King plays an improvised lead guitar over Owen’s rhythm. The piano is played by Owen. One track was left empty for the vocals but they were never recorded. The problem is that the main melody is provided by the singer. If a ‘da’ is higher than the last note, and a ‘dum’ is lower and the first ‘da’ is the root note of the chord and all the notes are within the scale of the chord then the lyrics go: da da da— dum dum da da— (As she waits by the window…). The next problem is that the first line of the first and fourth verses begin two words before the music gets on to the next verse. However it is possible to get the gist of the song. The benefit of removing the lyrics is that you can sing the them yourself to see how you would fit them.

Why were the instruments chosen? Though usually it is due to the composition of the performing group it can be seen how the two electric guitars, lead and rhythm, and a piano, without any drums or a bass, can portray a different set of musical qualities than say a single acoustic guitar. Pianos can be synonymous with rain or other things falling, or emotions and memories falling away. Ideally, in the author’s opinion, it should be performed on an round-back acoustic guitar accompanied by an archtop, f-hole, jazz guitar, a double-bass, a piano, and drums played with brushes. A comparison can be made between this song and George Michael’s Cowboys and Angels. They both share a similar theme and a musical modality.

A consideration of the work should include a synopses of the story told in the song. The author remembers why the song was written but the listener receives their own message. For instance, the title of the song is taken from the last word and is also a counterpoint to the theme of motion.. The last line summarises the view of the singer of the song. The power of the song is that it is telling a story in that will continue to happen wherever anyone feels powerless. This is the basis of mass appeal. One possible received meaning of the song is that a girl is waiting for a man to come and see her. She lives in a world of dreams, out of touch with reality. She is in not in love with the man but someone else who does not love her. He embraces her knowing that she is using him as a substitute for emotional support that she cannot get elsewhere. The man, having done his best to sort out the situation then leaves her, to get on with his life, but feels regret that he cannot stay with her. He knows, however, that it could not work.

Imagery is a very important part of this song. Why for instance does the smoke loom by the wall, not drift or hang. It could be that the smoke is a representation of something that she is scared of which could be a part of herself, like a shadow, which does loom as the light strays from the area it hits. The smoke could be casting an unusually dark shadow on the wall. To do this it would have to be late at night. She is sitting by the window so there must be a light source other than that such as a lamp. She is waiting for the man, though it could be a woman as interpretation is subjective, to arrive so she is watching for him. Thus in four lines Owen has already painted a strong picture that sets the scene.

There is also the divide between the real and the surreal or perceived. This first manifests itself in the second half of the first verse. She can’t see him, although she is looking. She can’t hear him, although she is listening. The reason is that she is in a dream like state and she is listening to a side of her self. We are told she is in her own world, just to make sure we understood, and then told that she is ‘ten feet tall’. This cliché is generally used in association with euphoria, but under the circumstances can take on a darker tone, perhaps meaning that her inner self has power over her.

The momentum of the story continues as the girl is sitting by a window, then she is on a train. But then is it a window on the train and could the room at the end of the passage be, in fact, a train carriage. Because the train is going ‘nowhere’ we don’t even know if it is real and it could all be an illusion in her mind or in his. She doesn’t know where the train is going but when she gets there the man will be waiting. She could be thinking of someone else (she always is). This verse is completely surreal. The significance of the ‘midnight train’ could be said to be the journey of dream time. She is still physically located in her room as we learn later. She cannot tell where her thoughts will take her, hence the second line of the second verse. However, when she recovers from this dream like state she knows the man will be there. She looks out of a window, we do not know if it is the real window or her mind’s window but she sees the world in motion while she is in stasis. It is the lack of will or power to act that is being driven at. She then goes back into her past and feels regret in the last two lines of the second verse.

Reality comes back as we are introduced to the idea of habit in verse three. She drinks to get away from her problems and this dream like state is one of alcohol driven euphoria of alternate heights and depths of this state. She is plagued by ‘demons’ who are an aspect of herself. Slowly Owen peels back the layers of reality until a universal truth is at least in sight if it is not quite reached. Verses four to six propel the listener back into real time and close the story as described earlier but Owen hints at further meanings. ‘Is there a tomorrow? Should I wait just to be sure?’ is clearly another reference to the desire for action but the lack of power, which as we now know is due to drunkenness and loss of self respect. However the man still respects her. He holds her knowing that she can never be his. He too is trapped in an existence in limbo.

The final verse is the only awkward one in the song. However, if unintentionally, this emphasises the state of confusion in the mind of the man in the song who may or may not be the author or the listener. The story is told through various narrative techniques, descriptive at first, then suggestive, then recollective, and finally direct communication with the receiver – the listener.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Literature


Form and Content

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” —Alexander Pope

In Pope’s Essay on Man the content and form are both distinct. He conveys a strong and compelling message but he does so in poetry, specifically rhyming couplets. He could equally have used prose or essay form. These methods could be considered more suitable by someone else seeking to make the same argument but Pope is very effective.

He is arguing that mankind should value reason above passion, and explore science, not the supernatural (e.g. line 1, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan”). He wrote during the age of Enlightenment and Reason and it is of this age that the idea of man’s power over nature was first formed.

Pope says that man is “darkly wise, and rudely great” (line 4) and he is referring to both man’s knowledge and awesome power. However, he contrasts this view of man with one of weakness and fallibility, man is “born but to die, and reasoning but to err” (line 10). While man may understand the forces of nature there are still things that he is powerless to control, most notably his own death.

The value of man’s knowledge is also put into question. Hume, writing at the time, says that unless we can show how the mind works then how can we rely on any of man’s knowledge. This is echoed by Pope. Man, he says, has “too much knowledge for the sceptic side” (line 4). Man is aware that what he knows may be worthless because it cannot be explained. Pope carries this theme through to line 18.

In line 19 Pope calls man a “wondrous creature” and tells him to follow science. This was the age when it seemed that man would uncover all the secrets of the world through reason and understanding. Already there had been great progress in a wide variety of fields. Pope suggests man “measure earth, weigh air, state tides; Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, Correct old Time, and regulate the sun” while he is really alluding to what man has already achieved.

Under the guidance of eminent scientists, Newton in particular, the false science of alchemy was disposed of. Though Newton himself believed in astrology, the idea was that man had understanding of all things natural. Pope reflects this view when he writes “As Eastern priests in giddy circles run, And turn their heads to imitate the sun” (lines 27-28).

Pope continues “Superior beings, when of late they saw, A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law, Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape, And show’d a Newton as we show an ape.” Here he does two things; he demonstrates that man has understanding of nature. He also says that man’s knowledge is confined to the natural. Newton is to God what ape is to man.

In lines 35 to 38 Pope again demonstrates mans position. To paraphrase him; ‘Can man, who can chart the course of a comet, similarly map the course of his brain?’ If man cannot “explain his own beginning, or his end” then he must be careful what he believes.

In lines 41 and 42 Pope says, “But when his own great work is begun, What reason weaves, by passion is undone.” Pope’s last comment in this extract is that man should “Trace Science then, with modesty thy guide.” His argument then is that mans knowledge, a worthwhile pursuit, is limited by his ability to reason and so he must proceed aware of his own passions.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Literature


The New Prometheus

“Alas for the affairs of men! When they are fortunate you might compare them to a shadow; and if they are unfortunate, a wet sponge with one dash wipes the picture away.” —Aeschylus

Byron’s poem, Prometheus, an adaptation of a legend of Ancient Greece, was written in July of 1816. One month earlier that same year Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein. On reading the poem it is immediately apparent why Frankenstein was sub-titled the Modern Prometheus.

The argument in Frankenstein is often concerned with who is the real monster, Frankenstein or his creation. In the Grecian legend it is the creature who suffers the torments who is closest. However, in the Roman legend, Prometheus is the moulder who animates a human figure of clay. Here obviously Frankenstein is closer.

The essence of Mary Shelley’s concerns is that of man meddling in the business of God, and of trying to bring life into the world without a woman. There are many parallels in Byron’s poem concerning interfering with the natural course of man.

Because the creature is not human he can never find happiness. Thus, when Byron writes of Prometheus, “Refused the even the boon to die; The wretched gift eternity Was thine—and thou hast borne it well. All that the Thunderer wrung from thee” he could equally be speaking of Frankenstein’s creation.

Looking at it from another point of view one can see Frankenstein’s own suffering. As Prometheus has given fire to humanity, by Frankenstein giving his creature life he sees “The sufferings of mortality, Seen in their sad reality, Were not as things that gods despise.” It is the creature however who feels the sentiments in lines 5 and 6 towards Frankenstein, “What was thy pity’s recompense? A silent suffering and intense.”

Mary Shelley’s fears of the crime of imitating God are echoed in the third stanza. “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind, To render with thy precepts less The sum of human wretchedness.” In his act of creation Frankenstein presumes godliness. However, unlike god he spurns his creation and condemns it, and himself, to this same wretchedness.

As Frankenstein unleashes his creation on the world, his own world falls apart with the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval and Elizabeth. Byron writes, “Thou art a symbol and a sign To mortals of their fate and force; Like thee, Man is in part divine, A troubled stream from a pure source; And Man in portions can forsee His own funeral destiny; His wretchedness, and his resistance, And his sad unallied existence” and in doing so sums up Frankenstein’s story.

The creature is a sign to beware of mimicking god or tampering with the natural order of things. Man is divine through being created by God and thus the creature inherits that divinity which is why his nature is inherently good. However while the creature begins pure, his deformity and others reactions create the ‘troubled stream’. Throughout the second part of the book Frankenstein foresees his own death but at the monster’s hands. As the monster takes everything from him Frankenstein does indeed become wretched and lose his allies and finally his resistance.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Literature