On “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and Realism
By definition, realism is almost synonymous to verisimilitude – that is, depicting something similar to, if not exactly like, real life. In that sense, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is what one would call – on this day and age – a period piece. The back story of the short notwithstanding, the narrator (presumably Mark Twain himself) is relating in a very journalistic style the story as told by Simon Wheeler. The tale, in turn, is about the vagabond Jim Smiley, thus depicting elements of metafiction as it is a story within a story. But the story itself reads more like a news feature than anything else.
The story of Simon Wheeler itself is rather unbelievable. The tall tale of a man who would gamble over everything – “…curiousest man about, always betting on anything that turned up you could ever see…,” own a horse who would always catch up at the last moment, a dog who would attack other dogs strategically from their hind legs, and a frog who can be fed five pounds’ worth of shot sounds a little bit like nothing more than bollocks. But one must remember that this is just the story within the story: the real story is the narrator’s tale of Simon Wheeler telling a story.
The language used by Mark Twain in the voice of Simon Wheeler is arguably similar to how the coloured people of the time would speak: “And Smiley says, sorter indifferent-like, ‘It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, maybe, but it ain’t – it’s only just a frog.” The drawl is there, and if you read through the other works of Twain, you will see that his coloured characters behave in a similar manner. At the same time, the story within the story, despite its rather unbelievable factors, also is a good example of how people operated during the day. You can see how stories got around in the old days – how they got skewed to the point of unbelievability – and the carefree, small-town attitude of the citizenry as well.
The way Simon Wheeler tells his story, and the way he depicts the personages in his story, is a very telling, realistic example of how the coloured folks – and how people in general – operated during the late 1980’s.
On Daisy of “Daisy Miller”
During Henry James’ lifetime, society was all about propriety, something one learned while going through the social niceties of the journey to adulthood. Daisy Miller, in Joyce’s eponymous novella, is a typical woman who has to suffer from alienation from a society that she is not familiar with – resulting in rather dire complications for her. In a word, Daisy is suffering from plain innocence and separation from what she recognizes as something she considers as her own “mode.” As she herself states, “In New York, I had lots of society. Last winter I had seventeen dinners given to me; and three of them were by gentlemen … and … young lady friends too…”
This in itself isn’t a problem. In modern times, it’s normal for people to be unsure of themselves or how to act when in new society. The difference is that today’s society is more accepting than previous generations. While Winterbourne, a man of the world, knew how to move about in public society, Daisy knew nothing of the sort, except for what she knows of Schenectady – and that she acquired all by herself. Her mother, a weak-willed woman who cannot walk for very long, or who cannot stand society at all, is hardly going to be a source of inspiration and an ideal example.
Unfortunately for Daisy, society – her present society – is rather strict when it comes to social niceties. As taken from a conversation between Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker: “What has she been doing?” Winterbourne asks, to which Mrs. Walker replies, “Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.” There are norms to follow when in the public eye, and whether you realize this or not is not taken into consideration by your viewers.
Winterbourne is torn between loving the woman and conforming to the rules of society, but eventually decides to uphold the will of the many. This has rather drastic results, as one can see at the end of the novella, and one can assume correctly that despite her antagonistic attitude, it is indeed Miss Daisy Miller herself who is the protagonist AND the victim in this story. She is guilty of being innocent and rather true to that which she desires, and for this she is (indirectly) lynched and finally hanged for being an individual in an environment that does not adapt to people.
On “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the Gothic
The Yellow Wallpaper is a rather horrifying story. There exists within its text a very heavy element of late 19th century gothic that usurps everything that is normal in the story with its maddening air. Looking at the protagonist’s slow decline into delirium, the reader is left with the open subject of what it is that exactly drove her to madness.
The first and most telling thing about the character’s slow decline to mental impotence is her unusually animated obsession with the wallpaper. She deems it a “…smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight…” with an equally putrid yellow smell that she could not place, and attributes the slow deterioration of the said wallpaper to “women” trapped inside the paper itself. It was, formerly, just a woman but as the story progressed, the population of the imaginary prisoners increased, to the point where she could “see” them crawling around the grounds of the summer house on all fours.
The wallpaper’s deterioration does not go unnoticed, of course. Our protagonist believes that she is not privy to the happenings behind the wallpaper – her husband and her husband’s sister have been caught staring with vexed fixation on portions of the wall – but is adamant to keep the secret and eventual liberation of the prisoners-behind-the-wall to herself. This is a classic case of clinical paranoia, and the husband sees this, refusing the woman the right to exit from the house when she does ask for a reprieve.
There is also the case of the missing baby. It could be assumed that the woman had just given birth, or has a child – the constant mention of a child supports this. But then again – who are we to assume that all these references to an absent child are not figments of her imagination? She was able to make up a story of how her companions were plotting to steal her wallpaper-glory away from her. An imaginary child would not be too far off the mark.
And finally, there is the climax at the end. This is no more a clue than an assertion that the protagonist indeed was suffering from mild dementia, to say the least. The woman destroys the wallpaper, locks her husband out and throws away the key. She then demands that the husband look for the key in order to enter, and immediately goes unquestionably mad upon his entrance, not even recognizing the prone body of her fainted husband for what it is
“The Red Wheelbarrow” and the Practice of Economy
The Red Wheelbarrow is an exercise of saying plenty with an economy of words. WCW achieves this with a simple four-stanza poem that paints a concise picture – at least, with the explicit images imposed on the reader throughout the body of the text. But what looks like and what it underlies ultimately is a world of difference.
WCW uses a very strict form for this poem although this is not instantly visible. Meter-wise, there is no cohesion throughout the body, since the meter only comes to terms in the second line of each stanza. There is no rhyme scheme as well. This poem has been likened to Matsuo Basho’s haikus as opposed to the standard fare provided by western poets due to this rather exact focus on measure, but the similarities end there. The form used in the poem, though, is a method of stresses on certain parts of each line. There are alternating two stressed syllables for every stanza’s first line, while one stressed syllable for the second line of each stanza – stated by critics as the key to understanding the universal meaning behind the poem.
The very fact that The Red Wheelbarrow uses a complicated format to put in focus the gravity of the poem’s theme is rather startling. At one reading, one can easily see the socialist leanings of this poem – a wheelbarrow is the tool of a person who works with his hands. The fact that “so much” depends on this tool makes one think that the persona is a man who relies on manual labour for his living. The added image of the chickens adds to this picture. It could possibly be a meditation on how one needs to work hard to survive, no matter how difficult the weather (glazed with rain / water) can get. In this sense, it could be that this poem is inspirational in nature.
This is just one of the It is the enigmatic sparseness of The Red Wheelbarrow that makes this poem perhaps one of the most ponderous works of literature of the modern age.
Eckrich, Keith et al. The Best American Humorous Short Stories. Project Gutenberg, 2004.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. Dover Publications,
James, Henry. Daisy Miller. Digireads.com, 2005