Consider the nature of female objectification in Surfacing, The Oval Portrait (and/or Berenice) & Girl Interrupted


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Intro to Fiction

December 12, 2009

Take Home Final

  1. Consider the nature of female objectification in Surfacing, The Oval Portrait (and/or Berenice) & Girl Interrupted.

Female objectification is present in many of the stories we read this semester. I will be discussing its role in Berenice, Surfacing, and Girl Interrupted and I will provide supporting evidence from the text.

We first learned about female objectification from Poe’s Berenice. Egaeus suffers from a disease called monomania; it is an obsessive disorder that causes him to fixate on objects. When he becomes obsessed with Berenice’s teeth, they consume his thoughts so much that he goes into a trance and removes them from her mouth. This is objectification in a very literal sense. He does not objectify her with an inanimate object like sex but with her teeth; an object that is physical. Egaeus is so frenzied with Berenice’s teeth that he must have them, no matter the cost. The violent act of removing them from her mouth reinforces the idea of the male dominance that feeds his obsessive behavior.

Next we see female objectification in Atwood’s Surfacing. David, in my opinion, was the main character that objectified women throughout the novel. David talks about women in a very sexual way; he seems to only see them as sexual objects. This is not a literal objectification like in Berenice but a sexual one. David cheats on Anna and sleeps with who ever will have him. He does not even try to keep this a secret from Anna because he has mastered the male gaze and has declared his dominance over her. He even makes her pose naked for his film when clearly it makes her uncomfortable and also hits on the main character repeatedly right in front of Anna. He knows he can get away with whatever he wants and she will not do anything to stop him. She may argue with him a little but Anna does not ever challenge David outright because she has been raised in a patriarchal society. What the man says goes and she better fall in line. David has Anna so anxious that she feels like she cannot go without wearing makeup because she is afraid of what he will do. He finds little things throughout the book to hold against her and use as a bargaining chip. David’s actions are the perfect example of a male using sexual objectification on a female.

Lastly, Girl Interrupted also illustrates female objectification. Susanna, Lisa, and the other girls on the ward may not be in the right frame of mind but they do not need to be institutionalized. They have been placed in the hospital because they refuse to be objectified and conform to what society says a female should be. Unlike Anna from Surfacing, who conforms to what David wants, these characters are who they want to be. They act and do whatever they feel like doing even if it is not what their patriarchal society says is appropriate. Kaysen uses the male gaze to establish the relationships that are present between the patients and the hospital staff. This type of male gaze is used to illustrate the impact that society has on an individual. While female objectification and social impact are hinted at throughout the entire story, they are presented greatly and with no doubt when the hospital releases Susanna because she receives a marriage proposal. She is considered cured when she becomes a house wife and acknowledges that as her place.

All three of these stories show female objectification but each one does it in its own way. Poe used literal objectification with Berenice’s teeth; Atwood used sexual objectification in David and Anna’s relationship, and Kaysen used gender roles, social deviance, and social impact. Even though each story uses a different path, each one brings up good points that include the male gaze, how it can declare dominance over someone, and the idea of a patriarchal society.

  1. Explore the concept of Freedom in Girl Interrupted & The Stranger & One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Freedom is a theme present in Girl Interrupted, The Stranger, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest. Each author approaches freedom in a different manner and each story have its own controlling force. I will explore these concepts and discuss their relevance in each story.

In Girl Interrupted freedom is approached with an indication of irony. First as readers we feel that the girls on the ward are being stripped of their freedom because their mentality does not merit hospitalization. We get the sense that they are forced to be there. As the story progresses readers begin to realize that the hospital may have taken away the girls outside freedom but it has also provided them with a sort of sanctuary that gives them freedom from the responsibilities of the outside world. The girls do not deserve to be committed but the irony that Kaysen portrays in creating two sides to their freedom made me as a reader question if they could handle the responsibilities asked of them if they were left in the outside world. As readers we can see that the girls do have problems and need help but most of them would have been fine with outpatient therapy. When we consider the freedom they have from outside responsibilities it brings up questions of how much they would work at their therapy. Susanna has an Inannian archetype and Lisa has Inannian moments but this is within the confines of the hospital. Outside of the institution I am not sure their archetype would give them enough self motivation to handle everyday tasks while also working on themselves in therapy. If Kaysen had not shaped her theme of freedom in this way these questions would never be asked. Due to the patriarchy established in the institution, the girls have domesticity forced upon them. This is also another way of taking their freedom. They lose their ability to be themselves and be independent. They are pushed to conform and become domestic house wives instead of keeping their individuality.

The Stranger also uses freedom as a key theme. In part two, based on society’s point of view, Mersault’s freedom is taken away when he is placed in jail. From Mersault’s perspective however, his freedom is never taken away. Society would see Mersault’s incarceration and execution as a way of taking his freedom and getting justice for the murder he committed. In actuality, if it was not for the court “taking his freedom” Mersault never would have fully developed his consciousness. Waiting for his execution is what leads Mersault into realizing that death is inevitable so nothing else matters. This realization allows him to let go of the hope for an appeal and accept his fate. It also frees him from the constraints of society. He does not feel remorse or shame for the murder and society no longer has the power to inflict this guilt on him. Society believes they are serving justice to Mersault but they have really given him what he needed to be set free.

Freedom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest serves a purpose much like it did in Girl Interrupted with a few important differences. The men have their freedom taken away when they are institutionalized but the control imposed on them by the staff is much tighter than it was for Susanna and the girls. These men are not allowed to do anything that varies from the schedule written by nurse Ratched. They are completely under her control and have no independence to choose, speak, or act on their own behalf. If they do anything she deems inappropriate or show any sign of something she does not like she sends them to shock therapy or uses manipulation to reestablish her control. Again we see the irony of freedom because while the men have to endure nurse Ratched, they are also free from outside responsibilities. Just like in Girl Interrupted, I question the need of these men to be institutionalized but I also question their ability to handle the outside world. A difference in this story’s portrayal of freedom is matriarchy, instead of patriarchy, as the controlling factor. The men lose their freedom of sexuality and are sexually repressed by nurse Ratched and the aides. This is the ultimate way of stripping the men of their freedom, power, and independence because the institution is removing their masculinity.

These three stories explore freedom in interesting ways. Girl Interrupted uses patriarchy to enforce domesticity on the girls and take their individuality, The Stranger uses societies’ idea of justice to take Mersault’s freedom, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest uses matriarchy to suppress the men’s masculinity. Even though each story is different they are all focused on the suppression of people’s freedom in one way or another.

  1. The relativity madness.” Out of everything read this semester, pick a text which you think best exemplifies the previous statement. Explain why (this should go without saying).

Every book we studied this semester shows that madness is relative. There are varying degrees of madness and society or the majority is who decides what is “normal”. The best example showing the relativity of madness is Girl Interrupted. There are many instances in the book that support the idea that madness is relative but I will only be focusing on the characters Susanna and Lisa.

First, Susanna tries to kill herself so obviously she needs some help but the degree of her madness or fragmentation does not require that she be hospitalized. Once she is in the hospital it seems to be more important to the staff that Susanna is promiscuous. They are more concerned with her sex life than they are of the fact that she tried to commit suicide. This is a perfect example of madness being relative. To society in the 1960’s promiscuity was considered unacceptable behavior in a young woman. The staff never tries to understand her reasoning or thought process so they can never get to the reasons behind her actions. They simply work to keep her medicated and away from the outside world. Until Susanna conforms to society’s standards of being a house wife she will not be released. While domesticity still exists, it is much more accepted for women to be empowered and be their own person. In today’s time Susanna would not be considered mad. Society would think she has low self esteem and low self worth. They may also realize she has obsessive tendencies and she struggles with the concept of time. They would not commit her; she would probably spend time with a therapist on an outpatient basis. The two of them would work together to figure out her though process and reasoning skills. If the doctors in the book had taken time to do this with Susanna they would have learned that she has a logical though process that just seems to get skewed every once in a while. By understanding her thought process you can see that her degree of madness is not that severe. This shows that madness is not only relative to society’s standards but also depends upon the person. As the time period changes so do society’s views therefore, madness is also relative to the time period.

Lisa’s story is another way of showing that madness is relative to society’s opinions and the person. Lisa is diagnosed as being a sociopath. Today this diagnosis is called antisocial personality disorder. In short, Lisa is defiant. She does not like to conform or do what is expected of her. She is her own person no matter what. There is nothing wrong with Lisa behaving this way, it gives her individuality and sounds like a typical teenager. The problem arises when these actions are chronic and obsessive. In our world today Lisa would be treated much like Susanna, with outpatient therapy. Today, people are only committed if they are a physical danger to themselves or others. Lisa is not a danger to herself; she simply needs guidance and someone to work with her so she can control her chronic behavior. Lisa, just like Susanna, is a good way of illustrating that madness is relative to society’s opinions during that time period. Based on the standards in the 1960’s, Lisa is lucky to have ever been released but based on today’s standards; she never would have been committed in the first place.

Susanna and Lisa do not exhibit symptoms that merit hospitalization when analyzed from today’s standards. When considering their situations form the standards of the 1960’s, though it is not right, it is understandable that they were committed. This realization between the two time periods is understood because madness is relative. Fragmentation depends on the person, the situation, their thought process, and most of all what society says is normal.

11. In what sense does Mersault triumph at the end of The Stranger? Does Mersault overcome society’s judgment, and thereby, its shackles? Or is it more important that he rebelled against conformity? And what’s up with him wishing for a large crowd of hating spectators at his execution?

Mersault triumphs at the end of The Stranger because he becomes fully aware of his consciousness. He realizes that death is inevitable and there is no difference in dying now by execution or later by natural causes. This gives him the freedom to enjoy his final days without worry and let go of the hope for an appeal. By doing all of this, Mersault triumphs over society because they no longer have the control in his life. If he were to show remorse or concern it would validate that the murder was wrong and his punishment was justified. His lack of emotion however, conquers society’s views and demonstrates his trial and sentencing as being irrelevant or pointless. In Mersault’s mind, he does overcome society’s judgment. Even though society will see their punishment through; they no longer have the control. They do not have the ability to make him feel guilty, remorse, or sorrow and they cannot make him repent. This was his way of breaking out of their shackles. He not only accepts his death but he also assumes that his views and actions make him a stranger to society. By wishing for a crowd of hating spectators the day he is executed, Mersault is hoping to be validated in his assumption. His anticipation of the crowd at the event shows that he is satisfied with being an outsider. Society may think they have won but to Mersault, society is not important anymore. He is simply content with living out his final days free from their control and wait for his execution.

  1. Consider the role and/or representation of nature in The Bluest Eye, Surfacing & Why We Left

Nature is a recurring theme in many of the books from this semester. In The Bluest Eye, Surfacing, and Why We Left nature plays a big role in structure and in the characters’ lives. The following is an in depth analysis of nature’s role in each of these books.

In The Bluest Eye nature is used in the story’s structure. The book is divided into parts, each titled with one of the four seasons. In the spring, Pecola is raped. This is extremely ironic because spring usually represents love, reproduction, and birth. It is a season thought of for its warmth and happiness but to Pecola it is a horrible time. In autumn, Pecola’s baby dies. This brings up irony again because autumn is supposed to be a time of harvesting when things are plentiful and alive. Morrison constructs the story this way to create a parallel between nature and human nature. By realizing that things in Pecola’s life do not fit the pattern of the seasons, readers can see that Morrison is showing them that there is no such thing as natural behavior in Pecola’s life. Her life experience is miserable and does not have a natural flow at all; it has been tainted by Cholly. Nature is used in another way as well. Claudia, Pecola, and Freida all notice the dandelions that grown along the sidewalk and in the play ground. To most people the dandelions would look like weeds; ugly and itchy. People do not stop to notice them or see their beauty but the girls do notice. Usually, they look at the dandelions and think their beautiful. Morrison uses this as a metaphor to help the reader understand the girls better. Most people would look at Claudia, Pecola, and Freida and think there ugly. These people would not stop to notice their beauty. They would simply over look them much like they do the dandelions.

Margret Atwood uses nature in Surfacing in a very different way than it is used in The Bluest Eye. In Surfacing the narrator finds nature comforting. After experiencing the loss of her baby and never quite dealing with the grief or guilt; the narrator turns to nature as a sort of sanctuary. Her time spent in the wilderness is transformative and seems to get her mind and body reintegrated. If she had not immersed herself in the forest she would not have been able to embrace its wildness and become whole again. At the end of the story she says she will refuse to be a victim and move on. The entire book is centered on her not having the power to do this but, in the end, nature gives her that power. In this story, nature is not a way of showing how horrible and unnatural things are for the main character but it is a way for her to process her emotions in a safe and comforting environment. For her, nature is home and she describes it so readers know it is real and not fictional.

Atwood creates a nature setting for her character that is actually there. However, in Why We Left, Ana Mendez, uses a nature setting that is imaginary. The woman narrator gives the readers many details describing the forest but they are whimsical and focus on the emotions she feels. There are little to no details describing the forest in a way that shows it may actually exist. For this character, the forest is an alternate world that she has created in an attempt to escape the pain she feels from losing her baby. She finds it comforting but, unlike in Surfacing, it is not healing to her. Eventually, when her grief consumes her, she returns to this alternate world to die. She does not feel empowered by nature and she does not use it as a way to recover. She lets it over take her as she passes away. Another way nature plays a role in Why We Left is through the weather in Miami versus the weather in the northern city. In Miami, the weather is bright and warm. There is sunshine and beaches. For someone feeling depressed the sunshine can help tremendously but the couple chooses to move to a northern city. Here the weather is cold and dark. Because of the cold, the plants and nature are dead. This is a constant reminder of their loss. In this story, nature does not work with the characters to pull them out of their grief; instead it hinders their healing process and for the women pushes her to death.

Nature plays dramatically different roles in all three of these novels. For the girls from The Bluest Eye nature illustrates their pain and suffering, in Surfacing nature is a sanctuary that heals the narrator so she can move on with her life, and in Why We Left nature sends the characters spiraling deeper into their grief. Even though each book’s use of nature is different, each uses nature to take on a big role in developing the story line.

Bonus Questions :

  1. Explore the theme of “intertextuality” in The Bluest Eye.(10 points)

Intertextuality exists in The Bluest Eye because Morrison uses the story of Dick and Jane along with writing her own novel; she creates a relationship between her writing and Dick and Jane’s story. She use Dick and Jane as an example of the mind set of people during the time her story takes place. Dick and Jane are perfect and they have the perfect family and the perfect life while Morrison’s characters are the exact opposite. Their lives are fractured and damaged. They see themselves as meaningless and ugly. By using Dick and Jane, Morrison creates a sort of framed narrative. As readers we get to see the extremely opposite relationship between both stories and use the relationship as a jumping off point to analyze Morrison’s characters.

  1. Explore the presence of the Absurd in “How to Tell a True War Story.” (15 points).

From The Stranger we learned that the absurd means we are all destined to die so nothing between birth and death matters. Everything but our destiny with death is meaningless. In How to Tell a True War Story the absurd is also used. The person telling the story makes it a point to show the reader that different details and different parts change or are elaborated on too much. After one guy tells the story of the men laying in the forest and waiting to call on back up he continually comes back to the narrator to change what he said or try to explain it better. The narrator just tells him that it is ok and that it is meaningless. Even at the end of the story when speaking to a woman he finds himself wanting to tell her that none of his story matters. This is all because of the theory of the absurd. Even though the men are at war it does not matter. Even though it may traumatize them it does not matter. They are all going to die at some point just like the rest of us so none of these things have meaning. The details of what goes on at war or how the men feel while they are at war are all rational thoughts placed on a world that is irrational. According to the absurd, things are random and the men dying at war is no different than them dying of old age at home. This is why the narrator makes it a point to say that the details are not important. In our world, society tells people when men die at war that it is horrible and we should all grieve for them. Based on the absurd, this does not matter. They simply died just like every other person will.


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