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She does so through appealing to his pleasure in her company and offering to satisfy one of his current deepest desires, the possession of a cap. His childlike passion for it signifies the utmost in personal pleasure as well as a tacit public recognition of his growing older. In effect, she tempts him to indulge a desire of which he knows his mother does not approve, thereby creating for him an incipient ethical di- 20 t h e p ro s e e l e g y lemma.

Her phone call to Mary at the beginning of the chapter has made it clear that the two women possess other familial tensions including personality differences, ways of handling finances and expenses, and ways of handling social situations. None of these, however, is insisted on by either woman, for both tacitly regard them as no more than casual incidents of ordinary familial stress. By her polite attitude toward him, her briskly efficient shopping methods that please him, and her offer to buy him a cap, she inadvertently creates for him an aura of underlying and intensifying temptation.

Should he opt for a life of duty, self-abnegation, and denial of purely emotional desires, or should he reach out for a life of simple aesthetic pleasures, freedom from boredom, and the surge of sudden surprise, delight, and excitement at the unexpected realization of a long-sought dream? Each in different ways allows him to be aware of the differences between pleasure and moral obligation without having to choose between them. Between parts 1 the living father and 2 the dead one , three editorially determined interludes occur. They also point up the sharp difference between actuality and sentiment inherent in those realities.

The first interlude reverts to the anonymous point of view of the introduction and its tone of reverie. It suggests the author is reflecting on his own personal experiences out of which his narrative is finally to be shaped and brought into being. Leaves, street lamps, and curtains create a congeries of silent elements standing against the diverse sounds of the human world autos, a train engine, horses and buggies, creaking chairs, and voices.

In effect, this sense antedates his struggle to create a story that will accurately capture the personal feelings that existed prior to and that motivated the generating of the narrative. The first phase of this interlude yields to an almost anonymous lyrical voice poetically invoking and interrogating the surrounding darkness, which is regarded as thoroughly gentle and virtually a love object. The darkness is felt to hold all the sensory and emotional things the voice has experienced and loves: children of his age, older ones, his father and mother, all of whom dispel fear and loneliness.

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The second phase also is cast in lyrical rhythms, but it echoes those of the 23rd Psalm: I hear my father; I need never fear. I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love. When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.

For Agee, like Milton, the Muse invoked is in Christian accents and the invocation is couched as a prayer to an amorphous phenomenon, Darkness. The prayer gradually modulates into an invocatory request that darkness come close to him. It becomes a tacit appeal that he be relieved of the responsibility of and for individual consciousness.

He fugitively longs to be absorbed into an amorphous abandonment of personal identity. Such abandonment holds out an ideal of tranquility, a state devoid of the need for decisions and choices, and with that of seeming rejections and disclaimers.

Darkness is no longer beneficent, no longer a freeing from responsibility. Gradually, darkness increases its ominousness even while continuing to tempt the child to submit to the consequences of his prayer for suspension of personal responsibility: Only a moment ago, I was your friend, or so you claimed; why this sudden loss of love? Only be steadfast: for now, my dear, my darling, the moment comes when hunger and love will be forever satisfied. And darkness, smiling, leaned ever more intimately inward upon him, laid open the huge, ragged mouth— Ahhhhh.

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Child, child, why do you betray me so? Come near. Come very near. In short, the transformation of temptation from an external overture to an internal desire is the most insidiously destructive form taken by the abandonment of personal effort to deny death.

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It is the trauma of this recognition that leads to the dual elegy facing him. His second scream fuses with the revelation that Rufus is merely an infant able to talk in his crib. These two events signal two further points: one narrative and the other thematic. This is identified with the voices dimly heard talking just as he fell asleep. The second point is that Agee too recognizes the need to continue to struggle with and against mortality.

This struggle ultimately entails seeing that the idyllic idealized world of family when seen by the adult is but a dream like that experienced by Rufus.


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Though it too begins as a warm comforting place of supportive trust, it also turns into an entrapment in a dead end of passivity and tranquilized semiconsciousness ultimately indistinguishable from death and nothingness. All of these cohere into a rationale for the supportive feature of family life. Her pregnant condition suggests both the origin and growth of the family concept.

Gain to the family of a new member is accompanied by a temporary personal loss of parental sexual intimacy. For his mother, the connection between this gain and loss can only be intimated to Rufus through the evasive term surprise. Thus, the full complexity of family as a concept lies beyond the child at this point. This scene, thus, generates two things essential to the ideal concept of family. The first is the centrality of mutual sexual desire; the second is a gentle willingness to understand deeply another human being. At the same time, this scene introduces the fact that even the ideal family possesses gaps in understanding and lacks in sensitivity.

On the one hand, her singing gives him pleasure both in her company and the sound of the songs. Indeed, it is the singing of both parents together, despite their different ways of doing so, that produces for Rufus a sense of completeness and finality in the family setting which is the prelude to a dreamless sleep. In the third interlude, Rufus encounters full-scale change and with it some additional qualities involved with family. Fissures in family harmony appear both externally and internally. Internal fissures are dramatically revealed in the different attitudes taken by the father and mother to direct disclosure of the expected birth.

They, however, produce unsettlement, puzzlement, and apprehension rather than any clearly discerned meaning. These are elements not ordinarily associated by him with family. They suggest implicitly that the ideal family is a concept constructed by selectively disregarding the full range of human reactions and emotions and the world or society at large. In doing so, it presents a societal form of the elegiac in which varied conventional responses to sudden death vie to cope with the event and with its impact on others, notably Mary, the wife.

Disbelief, psychological denial and other avoidance mechanisms, sorrow, differing views of life from the tragic to the stoical to the sentimental, from the piously religious to the dogmatically rationalistic, all endeavor to frame answers to human mortality. Gone now is an unblemished harmony of nurture, support, and protection. Instead, there is a dissonance of dissent, stereotypical utterance, misplaced sentiments, and ineffectual efforts to decide in a singleminded fashion what Mary, the pivotal figure, should feel, think, and do.

Chapters 10 and 11 achieve his characteristic tableau effect by creating successive dramatic scenes between limited numbers of characters two or three at most. Each scene focuses on a topic of central importance to the individual characters.

These tableaux create a realistic depth of experience by exploring the minds of the principal characters and by concentrating on the mundane, homely details of everyday life. With this maturation, he pays his necessary farewell to the idyllic view of family. He does not, however, simply dismiss it out of hand. Instead, it is taken from him by time, the reactions of others, and historical circumstances. In its place, as part 3 reveals, there emerges an elegiac burden created by the loss of the ideal family.

This somber acknowledgment is borne largely unwittingly by Rufus as he fitfully disengages himself from his idyllic childhood view of his place in the family and, even more importantly, in the world. Between the societal elegiac response of part 2 and the personal one of part 3 are three more editorial interludes. These, however, focus not, as did the earlier ones, on the idealized family.

They consist largely of contacts with the external world both within and outside of the family. His view reflects his deep, passionate desire for sharing in a communal unity.

Brief Mention | American Literature | Duke University Press

The threat of the loss of such a world triggers or tempers his elegiac feelings whenever it occurs or is anticipated as likely to occur. The diverse but characteristic responses of the schoolchildren introduce him to the pleasures, confusions, and sadness of the social world at large. Thus, he is puzzled, like the very young Stephen Dedalus, at their responses to his name and his saying it. In embryonic form, this sentiment contains the core of the elegiac temper. It is compounded of a sense of loss generated by total isolation and a longing for a transformation of a painful situation into a supportive one.

Similarly, he finds himself confused and puzzled by the racially loaded questions that they ask him in rhymed riddle form. In a threatening and disturbing manner, such questions intensify the shaping of his elegiac temper. The confusion of ignorance and innocence is created by them and suffered or endured by him.

As this interlude unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that life is seen to be a game played by a group that first identifies a fool and then makes him a scapegoat. That Rufus is elected to play the fool is clear both to the other children and to him. The other children operate as a pseudo—lynch mob aiming at satirico-comic rather than tragic results, while he, like Charlie, serves as a helpless because unwitting victim.

Verbal teasing constitutes the first phase of this childish ritual. The second stage of his transformation into a fool is dramatic in that he sings and dances to a childish tune, one that he likes immensely. Gradually, the children cease to make direct fun of him; this, however, leads him to have an increased suspicion of their motives and so to be more reluctant to perform.

To keep the game going, the children now have to resort to a third stage— that of bribery—to get him to continue to play the fool.