Elsewhere in Literature
On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one. It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now. Then, it positively looms. It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced. By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing. On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover. Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness, a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.
Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)
The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres. After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow. Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him. He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect. He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.
The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)
Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all. The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry. What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.
Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,
Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)
Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.
Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852
The exquisite Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style. Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)
Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored. While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away. His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.
ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)
a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon
(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)
my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;
i am a shape that can but eat and turd
ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,
a coward waiting clumsily to cease
whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;
a hand’s impression in an empty glove,
a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.
I have never loved you dear as now i love…
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927
Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished. He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square. The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.
Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973
Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.
By Jeanie Riess
Smithsonian.com, September 13, 2012
Writers are often told to write what they know, so it should come as no surprise that many of the most famous characters in literary history are based on real people. Whether drawing inspiration from their spouses, friends and family, or finally, after decades worth of work, inserting themselves into the text, authors pull nearly every word and sentence from some element of reality, and most often, that element is people. Many characters, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (based on real-life beatnik Neal Cassady), come to mind as obvious, but this list is for the real-life literary characters that do not get recognized enough, and who deserve as much credit as their fictional counterparts.
Prospero (The Tempest, 1611)/William Shakespeare
Considered Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is the artist’s farewell to the theater. Prospero is the island’s great magician, and with his powers he controls the tortoise-like character of Caliban and the sprite, spry Ariel. Prospero’s magic is in his books, and he decides when the Tempest should arrive, and who should come along with it. Sounds an awful lot like a playwright, doesn’t it? Prospero writes the script and wonders, like Shakespeare understandably would, what the future will be without him and his power. With frequent allusions to “the Globe” (the world, but also the name of Shakespeare’s theater), it is difficult to miss Prospero’s likeness to his great creator. Shakespeare critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt says that the play brings up all of the “issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career.” By writing himself into his final play, Shakespeare reminded the world of his own immortality as a public literary figure.
Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719)/Alexander Selkirk
The real Robinson Crusoe, whose memoir Daniel Defoe adapted for his own novel, was the original “bad seed” of the modern nuclear family. After his brother forced him to drink seawater, Selkirk started a fight, and was summoned by the Kirk Session in Scotland to explain himself. Fearing he would not be granted clemency, Selkirk ran away to the sea and fought against the Spanish as a privateer. A brilliant navigator, Selkirk was eventually made sailing master. The captain of his ship, however, was a tyrant, and after many close calls with the Spanish, Selkirk feared that the ship would sink and decided to call it quits, demanding to be dropped off at the nearest piece of land. Unfortunately for Selkirk (but fortunately for Defoe), the nearest piece of land was the desert island 400 miles off the coast of Chile called Más a Tierra, and now referred to as Robinson Crusoe Island. After four years and four months with nothing but a musket, a Bible, a few articles of clothing and some tobacco, Selkirk was rescued. It turns out he was right to have fled his troubled ship; it sunk shortly after he abandoned it, with only one survivor. Selkirk made a fortune privateering before eventually returning home to England, dressed in silk and lace, but he could never get used to land and yearned for the open sea. He published a memoir of his adventures, but died on a privateering mission before he could read Defoe’s adaption of his little-noticed book.
Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)/ John Gray
A member of Oscar Wilde’s lively literary circle, John Gray was a lovely, boyish poet who could pass for a 15-year-old at age 25. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde describes the youth as a “young Adonis,” and judging by a black-and-white photo of John Gray, we can only suggest that he was not far off. Wilde met Gray in London at the home of a fellow artist, and, for a while was one of the author’s many romantic affairs. The similarities between Gray the character and Gray the poet were striking. Like Dorian, John Gray found himself easily corrupted by the city and the title character’s first name came from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians, who were famous for perpetuating love among men. After the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray people began to call John Gray Dorian, which made him so uncomfortable that he went so far as to sue a London publication for libel for making the association. The fate of this real-life hero was more dramatic than Wilde could have ever written: John Gray moved to Rome and studied for the priesthood.
Antonia (My Ántonia, 1918)/ Annie Sadilek Pavelka
“Every story I have ever written,” said Willa Cather “… has been the recollection of some childhood experience, of something that touched me as a youngster.” My Ántonia, Cather’s bildungsroman masterpiece, embodies that sentiment, detailing a young boy’s relationship with Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerdas and her acclimation to life on the western plains of the United States. Like her narrator in My Ántonia, Jim Burden, Willa Cather was born in Virginia. Then, like Jim Burden, at age 9 she moved with her family to the untamed plains of Red Cloud, Nebraska. In Red Cloud, Cather became friends with Annie Pavelka, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants recently transplanted there. Many years after leaving, Cather returned to Red Cloud and renewed her friendship with Annie in 1916. She published My Ántonia just two years later. Of her childhood acquaintance, Cather said, “One of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains.”
Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922)/Nora Barnacle
When asked if she was, in fact, the inspiration for the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s first wife, answered simply, “No. She was much fatter.” Joyce eyed the tall brunette in the street one afternoon, and set all of Ulysses to take place on the same date as his first date with Nora. Molly Bloom is a sensual, unfaithful woman in the novel, a part that Nora pretended to play more than she actually carried out. She and Joyce wrote intensely longing letters to one another when they were apart, and often she mentioned the attractions of various other men, though she never indulged in them. Joyce stuck to Barnacle, writing one of his most memorable characters after her, although his father warned him that the opposite would happen, given his daughter-in-law’s extraordinary name.
Emily Grierson (A Rose for Emily, 1930)/ Maud Faulkner
Although “Miss Maud” Faulkner did not dress and primp the corpse of her deceased betrothed from day to day, it is quite clear that William Faulkner’s mother did share much common ground with Miss Emily, the protagonist of the author’s eerie A Rose for Emily. The story is based on a young girl who, in Faulkner’s words, “just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.” Besides these aspirations, however, Miss Emily took after Miss Maud in an even more compelling way: As an artist. Emily’s living room displays a crayon portrait of her father, just as Maud’s home displayed original portraits of family members, both living and deceased. Miss Maud fancied herself a realist, and Miss Emily could be called that (preserving a dead body does seem like a facet of realism, after all). In New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s birthplace, Miss Maud was considered standoffish and guarded by the neighbors, just as Emily is spoken of by the close-knit, gossip-ridden fictional town of Jefferson.
Willie Stark (All the King’s Men, 1946)/ Huey P. Long
Huey P. Long, Louisiana governor and senator, famously declared after the gunshot that fatally wounded him, “Lord don’t let me die. I have too much left to do.” Whether he meant shaking Ramos gin fizzes or securing the future for the everyman, Robert Penn Warren was impressed. The author based his masterpiece on Long, also known as “The Kingfish.” Willie Stark may now be one of the most famous characters in American literary history, but his many eccentricities will never outshine the legacy of his real-life counterpart. Long could not live without that favorite cocktail and, taxpayers be damned, he flew the top bartender from the New Orleans Hotel Roosevelt wherever he went so that he would have the drink on hand at any moment. Willie Stark may be a bit less formal, but the sentiment is the same: Political corruption and unnecessary government spending are fine as long as you’re a man of the people.
Dill Harris (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960/ Truman Capote
Idabel Tompkins (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948)/ Harper Lee
“I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read. I can read anything you’ve got.” Dill Harris’s introduction in To Kill a Mockingbird is true to the character of his real-life inspiration, Truman Capote, who taught himself to read when he was just 5 years old. Capote, who lived next door to Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, and was her best childhood friend, first put Lee into two of his own novels before becoming the inspiration for Dill Harris, Scout’s precocious, wise-beyond-his-years best friend and neighbor. Capote’s most notable Lee stand-in was Idabel Tompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. We can only guess that Lee the tomboy lived up to her Idabel’s crackling dialogue: “Son,” she said, and spit between her fingers, “what you’ve got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: Hell, I’ve fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I’m a girl; you’ve got to remember that, or we can’t never be friends.”
Gary Lambert (The Corrections, 2001)/Bob Franzen
Before Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published, the author called his brother, Bob, to give him fair warning: “You might hate the book,” he said. “You might hate me.” Bob Franzen, with the unconditional love of any good big brother, responded, “Hating you is not an option.” Any writer with good sense would have been wise to warn him; Gary Lambert, whose character is based on Jonathan Franzen’s brother, is the only character in the book who never seems to learn anything. He is money-crazed and insensitive, with all the arrogance of the oldest family member and little of that position’s requisite compassion.
Searching for marriage in literature is like holding a kaleidoscope to the world—at the slightest movement the arrangement, colours, shapes, angles, relationships, and mood are altered. In literature as in life, there are good marriages and bad, good marriages that turn bad, and marriages that on any one day one shift from blissful to hellish and back. Compiling a list of representations of marriage in literature is a daunting task—so much is devoted to the theme. It goes without saying that the list you compile today wouldn’t necessarily be the one you’d put together tomorrow. Here is but one view from the kaleidoscope:
Epithalamium (Greek and Roman times)
Among the Greeks, the epithalamium is a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only, after the marriage guests had gone, and it contained much more of what modern attitudes would identify as obscenity.
Orpheus and Eurydice, 6th century BCE
While walking in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice falls into a nest of vipers and suffers a fatal bite. Her body is discovered by Orpheus who plays such sad and mournful songs in his grief that even the gods weep. On their advice, Orpheus travels to the underworld, softens the heart of Hades with his beautiful music, and Eurydice is given permission to return with him to earth. All Orpheus has to do is walk in front and not look back until they both reach the upper world. Even with the best of intentions and at the risk of the most severe consequences, Orpheus loses focus. Or perhaps his love is just not powerful enough. He turns to look at Eurydice and she vanishes for the second time, this time forever. (Those who know me will understand why this story resonates so deeply—from the snakebite to the backward glance to the second death.)
The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, 1591
I’ll attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why, then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute, and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
–Taming of the Shrew II.i.1013
Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1872
Each of the central characters of this novel builds castles in the air and then attempts to live in them. Because they are idealistic, self-absorbed, or otherwise out of touch with reality, they make serious mistakes that cause great unhappiness and eventually shatter their lofty illusions. Some characters learn from this process and others do not. The Chinese-fortune-cookie-moral of the story seems to be that those who learn not to build castles in the air generally end up happy, while those who persist are miserable.
The Egoist, George Meredith, 1879
Sir Willoughby Patterne, self-absorbed and arrogant, is jilted by his bride-to-be. Determined to marry, nonetheless, he vacillates between the sentimental Laetitia Dale and the strong-willed Clara Middleton before eventually deciding upon Clara. The thrust of the novel follows Clara’s attempts to escape from this engagement when she realises that Sir Willoughby desires nothing more than that she serve as a mirror for him. The Egoist dramatizes the difficulty contingent upon being a woman in a society in which women’s bodies and minds are trafficked between fathers and husbands in order to cement male bonds.
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927
Mr Ramsay is a typical Edwardian gentleman, well-educated, slightly supercilious and endowed with a strong sense of his own primacy. When Mrs Ramsey dies, he’s adrift. Without his wife to praise and comfort him during his crushing bouts of anxiety and customary anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work, he suffers. However, he still fails to acknowledge her lifelong support of his efforts.
Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce, A. Alvarez, 1981
Mutual assistance pacts can last a lifetime. They are not necessarily happy marriages in the accepted sense of the term—on the contrary, they are founded on hatred or contempt or distaste—but they may be the only way the partners can get through life without crumpling under the pressure of urges they will not recognise as their own, like a stunt man whose wife is frightened to cross the road: he takes the risks she secretly yearns for, while she personifies the fears he feels driven continually to conquer. The same coin, different faces.
There’s more, so much more…
Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, 1998
This slim volume of poems was published only months before Hughes died. However, his honesty is called into question in Birthday Letters for several reasons: the poems were published after the lapse of thirty five years and, when read in conjunction with Plath’s own poems, letters and diaries, differ markedly from her perspective. Questions remain: Was Plath a gifted but deeply troubled and mentally unstable woman who could not free herself from the past? Or was she the victim of Hughes’s serial infidelities and indifference? Is Birthday Letters a celebration of marriage or a last-stab defense of Hughes’ betrayal?
Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason, Anne Roiphe, 2011
This sudden and overwhelming desire to bring coffee to the side of a writer, to wash his socks, to stare down his enemies, internal or external, seems inexplicable in the light of the following turns of history, but at the time it was adaptive, the way the leopard got his spots and the snake his nasty rattle.
Describing her life as a young woman in the 1950s, Roiphe must reduce her own ambitions to only the faintest stirrings, make herself unaware that women’s lives are on the brink of drastic change and ditch the disillusionment that her freewheeling sexual abandon eventually creates. The standout moment? When a man refuses to sleep with her until he breaks up with the woman he’s been dating. Roiphe is so stunned by his sense of honour and integrity, something she had not previously encountered in a man, she marries him.
Aftermath, Rachel Cusk, 2012
It may be overstating things to illustrate Cusk’s deeply sad memoir of her marriage and it’s failure with a photograph of a victim of Hiroshima. Then again, maybe not.