Would YOU Pay $192.50 For This Post?

I read this morning in the Sunday New York Times that people (make that students who have taken leave of their senses) will actually pay over one hundred dollars for a really badly written essay on, say, James Joyce’s great short story The Dead. Well, I’m writing something about The Dead this afternoon, so how about it?

Trouble is, I can’t remember exactly how you go about writing one of those essays, it’s been that long since I’ve done it. In fact, before I arrived at college, I’d never actually written an essay over two pages. Faced with The Iliad, I decided to look up every passage about Odysseus and string them together and write little transitional sentences between them until I got to five pages and, hopefully, that would be considered an essay.

It was not. I got a B and was terribly sad, having never actually received a grade that low in English, a subject I’d been told I was good at. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the professor’s comments on this, or the next ten B papers I wrote using exactly the same method, because I was so horrified that I couldn’t do better. One of my regrets in life, and something I’m teaching my children not to do, is that I didn’t listen to his efforts to help me.

Two years later, an even longer string of bemused B’s behind me (these are apparently English sentences, but I have no idea what you’re saying, I can’t possibly read another one of these and, anyway, who let YOU in?), a frustrated T.A. (I still remember him, his name was Drew Clark and he was a dear. I hope he got a terrific job at some beautiful small New England college and has tenure and is treated really well by everyone) said to me after I’d asked for a six year extension on my paper about Twelfth Night: it would help if you begin by asking yourself a question like, Why is there so much sadness in this comedy? The essay is the answer to your question. There is a lot more to it than that, and not all essays are about explicating an inquiry, but this was the prodding I needed to turn an essay into an act of critical thinking rather than continue to simply retype the great writing of people other than myself.

I eventually began to get better grades, although I never did figure out how to talk about books in seminars. Entire 90 minute periods would go by and all I’d accomplish was a page of doodled made-up names and backstories for my classmates (Sartre was sleeping with Garbo: he ignored her when they were in public)– or a complex series of marks intended to tabulate my fellow students’ idiocy or sexiness or how many times they’d worn that shirt to the seminar before.

With that bit of background, which should dissuade you from buying an essay from me, I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t actually have any questions to ask about The Dead. Instead, I just want to talk a little bit about how much Joyce’s story reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s work, and how surprised I was by that because I thought she didn’t like Joyce very much. Still, she apparently liked him enough to imitate him. Come to think of it, this might be one of those compare and contrast essays, the kind people do shell out good money for. (I wouldn’t try to plagiarize it, because BikeProf will surely catch you and you will be in a lot of trouble which wouldn’t be worth it because it’s unlikely to get you much more than a B- and it will also not be the required five pages, and you’re not allowed to do the meta-essay thing at the beginning like I did.)

I begin with Woolf, who wrote in her diary (in August, 1922 to be exact) that she liked the first 200 pages of Ulysses. She describe herself as “amused, stimulated, charmed.” But, not long after that, she declares herself “puzzled, bored, irritated, disillusioned.” In the end, she decided that Joyce’s masterpiece was “an illiterate, underbred book . . . of a self taught working man.” Take that modernist master, you are UNDERBRED. (I’m sorry that won’t work here in the U.S. of A., where everyone is underbred.)

The Dead, which Joyce wrote when he was still in his twenties and had not yet struck out in quite the wild modernist direction he’d go in Ulysses, is a story that reminded me very much of To the Lighthouse, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the illiterate underbred Joyce, rather than the elegant, upper class Woolf. It’s true that the social milieu of The Dead is quite different from that you find in Woolf: Joyce’s people being Irish and mainly Catholic, a mixed lot of genteel and not quite; Woolf’s being much more socially and intellectually aristocratic. But at the heart of both The Dead and To the Lighthouse are parties and then nature — and a meditation on one of the essential mysteries of being human which is that as much as we wish to be connected, we are separate, or maybe not.

In To the Lighthouse, there is the beautiful moment with the beef en daube, which follows an extended meditation on the many ways in which Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner guests are not at all connected. But then something happens:

“Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.”

“Yes,” she assured William Bankes, “there is plenty for everybody.”

Several pages later, Mrs. Ramsey, her daughter Prue, and her son Andrew all die in heartbreakingly casual asides. Time passes in that great second book of To The Lighthouse (the one so many people hate), and the forces of time (the wind, the rain, heat, small animals) begin to take apart Mrs. Ramsey’s world.

In The Dead, the party is seen mostly through the eyes of Gabriel, a professor, the favorite nephew of his two elderly, musical aunts who are the hostesses of the party. What I liked most about the party was how generous and amiable it is, just the party you’d expect would be given by two women who “though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.” I don’t know what three-shilling tea is, but I liked the sound of it.

Despite how amiable the party is, Gabriel is seen as at odds with himself, uneasy with other people. As he prepares to give his toast, something he does every year at this party, Gabriel leans against the table, his fingers trembling (he’s a little nervous). “Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began….” At this moment of connection, we see him moving away from the people in the room, something he’s been doing all night.

And then, later, as he readies himself to leave, Gabriel looks up the staircase and sees his wife. “She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. . . . He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.”

The rest of the story then goes on to explore the gulf between Gabriel and his wife — the ordinary enough distance between all people — that we have loved others, that we do not always want the same thing.

But, in the end, there is a vision of what unifies all of us. It’s not beef en daube, or civilization. It’s death.  The passage is so beautiful that I end with it. I’m not in college anymore, and I don’t have to say anything else, although I would like to say that if you compare and contrast James Joyce and Virginia Woolf you will discover that it’s quite likely, from how lovely the passages about eating and parties are, that both of them got to go to a lot of dinner parties where they actually had a pretty good time, and quite a few where they wished they could be outside, walking in the snow or looking out across the water at the lighthouse or, at least, writing about it.

And here is the end of The Dead, in case you’ve never read it:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

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9 thoughts on “Would YOU Pay $192.50 For This Post?

  1. Yes! Your post brings back so many memories of university. I remember feeling intense resentment at being forced to read Ulysses and write an essay on it. I remember reading that very passage of To The Lighthouse. I remember getting long strings of Bs, and the joy when I finally broke into A territory.

    We have something in common! I used to spend seminars daydreaming about characters in my story, writing their names and drawing their portraits on my A4 pad. I remember one boy in a tutorial who I thought was particularly interesting and I put him the novel I was writing at the time… but didn’t even bother to change his name. Good job that one never became a blockbusting bestseller!

  2. It’s Ella, Ian and Lucy’s daughter, and I too have become completely addicted to your blog and prone to using it as a procrastination tool. However, you gave me the extra energy I needed to complete my own essay- alas, I have not even begun college and am already well into 5 page essays. If I had an essay to write on Woolf and Joyce I would say your post would be well worth $192, but until then I’ll have to stick to my own essay about a delicious passage (it’s about food) from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

  3. What a wonderful piece comparing Joyce-Woolf.
    If you think getting B’s was bad, I wrote a story in my first year English class about how I almost drowned in a canoe adventure. I thought it was so exciting that I would surely get an A. Problem was that the lessons had been on metaphor, which were unfortunately not present in my story. I got a C. It was a problem of not listening. I’ve been working on that for many decades since. We come to so many situations with our own precious assumptions without allowing for new advice, regardless of how clearly the assignment is stated.
    Your essays have a wonderful way of taking us back to memorable times. If I send you my old canoe story, would you edit it with proper metaphors? Set it in winter with a few snowflakes? Out to whom do I make the check?
    I actually did rewrite it once for Cllive’s Thursday night workshop. Maybe my freshman English teacher is still alive and would change my grade. Wouldn’t that be fun. It would be worth the $197.50.
    Do you take payments through PayPal?

  4. Wonderful reading on Joyce and Woolf (you’re always in the A’s with me), and boy, what a snobby thing for Woolf to say!! I remember clearly when I finally began to understand what writing on literature was about. I’d just read a book on literary theory, beginning by writing things like ‘ludicrous!’ in the margins, and then halfway through the penny dropped and I had to go back and rub them all out. That’s why I don’t depise theory when so many other critics do – I found it immensely reassuring to realise there was a structure to doing this, and various templates I could follow (and play with). And there’s nothing like a little bit of confidence for making your work improve, just as nothing gets better without it.

  5. There’s something about getting through the intellectual apprenticeship that is high school and college and into a place where you do feel, as litlove says, that little bit of confidence that makes your work improve, that makes getting older so well worth while. Helen, I’m terribly reassured to hear that a fine writer like you had a similarly trying time in college. And I’m certain that Ella, who is embarking on that wonderful essay about food in On The Road (what a GREAT topic) will be wonderfully prepared to begin college, and for her it will be a time and place where intellectual life will feel like play almost right from the start. But however you got there, and whatever bumps you had to endure while on the road there (poor Smokey with your canoe adventure that merited only a C!) I think it’s safe to say we’ve all arrived and get to have the fun of reading and writing, cooking and clearing out, living these rich lives where so much fun is to be had. (And if you haven’t looked at at litlove’s post about play, well, you should.)

    Ella — I’m just really thrilled to see you here and looking forward to hearing about your essay on Kerouac or anything else you feel like talking about.

    xxoo, Lily

  6. A marvellous essay, definitely worth good money (not that I condone the buying and selling of essays of course)! And you’re way ahead of the game, as I was plotting a Virginia Woolf story for our next discussion group selection. It would be great if you could cross-post this over at “A Curious Singularity” — it’s a perfect start for our discussion of the story.

  7. I’m afraid I had to skip over what you said about Joyce as I am Behind in reading the short story…will come back later! I find it frustrating sometimes (well lots of times) trying to write about what I have read. I feel like I don’t have the ability to really articulate what I want to say. I know how I feel, but when I write it, it is not how I want to express it. The words are all floating around out there, but I can’t get at all the right ones that I need. Your writing is wonderful!

  8. Hi Dorothy, Sometime it would be interesting to hear what a decent essay does look like — I think Danielle raises a very good question about how one might go about responding to literature in a way that’s satisfying to write and rewarding to read. And Kate, I’ll go and post this right now. It’ll be fun to read a Woolf short story too. Best, BL

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