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Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal is fantastic! It is a perfect book about the phenomenon of “frenemies.” Barbara claims to be self-assured but envies everything Sheba has, her marriage, beauty, sex-appeal, children and most of all social status. Sheba is connected and well-liked by people. Other than her cat, Barbara is totally alone. Barbara’s expresses disdain for everyone she knows, including Sheba. She says, “It’s not that Sheba is cleverer than me. Any objective comparison would have to rate me the more educated woman, I think. (Sheba knows a bit about art–I’ll give her that; but for all her class advantages, she is woefully ill read.)”(3).

Barbara seems desperate to demonstrate she is able to speak the language of the elite. The manuscript is gossipy and easy to understand but I kept tripping over unusual words and French vocabulary sprinkled throughout. It could be that as an American reader some of these words were unfamiliar to my ears, but the regularity and persistence seemed significant to me. She wants her reader to know that even with Sheba’s advantages, Barbara is a superior person. Yet, recording and repeating a “friend’s” intimate details of her romantic life is the act of someone of low character.

Barbara gives up Sheba’s big secret. Not expecting the disaster to be take her down with Sheba but it all works out best for Barbara. Sheba becomes an outcast like Barbara and both become notorious in the media. It takes Sheba the entire book to put the pieces together. She says, “You have such delusions of grandeur, don’t you? It’s fascinating. You actually think you’re somebody. Listen. Let me tell you something. You’re nothing. A bitter old virgin from Eastbourne.”(251).

“It’s there.”

“It’s there.”

Although I feel sad finishing “The Children’s Hour,” I think it is amazing. As I read, I thought of “The Crucible” and of “Othello.” Yet, it is distinct from those because of the tiny spark of truth used to build an elaborate lie. Mary is a remarkably cruel and implacable villain employing coercion and blackmail to force other children to corroborate her story. She escalates her story until she devastates her grandmother with fear. Mrs. Tilford, the most pivotal character in “The Children’s Hour” is also the only one who believes Mary is not a psychopath.  The climactic accusation is “whispered” presumably because it is “unspeakable.”  In the stage directions it says, “She [Mrs. Tilford] is no longer listening to MARY, who keeps a running fire of conversation.” This whisper spreads like fire to the other parents who without explanation remove their children for “safety.” In the subsequent confrontation Martha says to Mrs. Tilford, “But don’t get the idea we’ll let you whisper this lie: you made it and you’ll come out with it. Shriek it to your town of Lancet. We’ll make you shriek it—and we’ll make you do it in a court room.”

Sexual content is almost always the combustible ingredient of gossip. Karen and Martha have not done anything other than be inseparable friends and companions. There isn’t really an actual “open secret” other than the one implied. Mary plays upon other people’s own suspicions that these close women are capable of being lovers. Martha says, “There’s something in you and you don’t do anything about it because you don’t know it’s there. Suddenly a little girl gets bored and tells a lie—and there, that night, you see it for the first time, and you say it yourself, did she see it, did she sense it–?”(67). Martha had never previously acknowledged her romantic feelings toward Karen to anyone. Their friends however, do not seem to have as much difficulty believing the rumor as if they suspected it all along.

Public vs. Private Shame

Public vs. Private Shame

“Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had I one friend,—or were it my worst enemy!—to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby.”(124).

 One prominent recurring theme in The Scarlet Letter is the comparison between public and private shame. Hester Prynne though publicly scorned and socially ostracized, refuses to reveal the name of her child’s father. The child’s father, Arthur Dimmesdale morally and mentally deteriorates because of the guilty secret they accord to keep. The vicious talk and judgment are corrosive in both their lives regardless of whether the humiliation is public or private.

 Unlike Dimmesdale, Hester is not able to hide the truth of her actions and is the victim of severe public ridicule. She and her child Pearl are excluded from society and are cast out to lives of poverty. The destruction to Hester’s life is immediate but over time the tone of the gossip changes and the scarlet letter is perceived as a badge of courage and fidelity. The voices now say, “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester—the town’s own Hester—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!”(106). Over her years of exile, Hester’s charitable acts work to redeem her in the eyes of the townspeople.

 Dimmesdale’s identity remains concealed but he still suffers because of the guilt he feels. Hester’s husband, Chillingworth makes certain that the minister’s actions are not left unpunished. Dimmesdale is powerfully drawn to the site of Hester’s public scolding because the voices in his own head are relentless in their criticism. He experiences these as ghosts. The narrator says, “And now, through the chamber which these spectral thoughts had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast.”(96). He is literally haunted by his guilt and tormented by voices of his own judgment.

Gossip’s Allure

Gossip’s Allure

I clearly see why one of my favorite movies, Clueless, was based on Emma.  Both works are entertaining and compelling as they make a commentary about gossip’s powerful allure. In the book, the dialogue between Emma and Harriet is very manipulative and one-sided as it is in the movie. Emma cannot resist the enjoyment of meddling in the love life of her “pet” project, so eager for approval. She uses implications, pregnant pauses and rumor to steer Harriet toward the “right” choices, such as rejecting the marriage proposal from an appropriate choice like Mr. Martin.

Re-packaged as Clueless, Emma becomes the daughter of a corporate attorney with heart disease, Cher. When called upon by her father to explain her report-card she pleasantly explains the grades were just “a jumping off point to start negotiations.” The attorney piece is an interesting choice to add to the movie;s storyline because of their highly developed art of persuasion. Rumors rapidly and virally circulate because people either believe or simply want to believe them so badly they become deluded. This is definitely what happens when Mr. Elton writes a poem seemingly intended to spark interest from someone of Emma’s intellectual capacity and simultaneously designed to pass just over the intellect of Harriet. Yet, with Emma’s help Harriet quickly accepts Mr. Elton is in love with her and decides to pursue him.

Secret History

Looking at the cover of Secret History of The horrors of St. Domingo I was expecting a coming-of-age, abolitionist text written by a female author. I even wrote notes that women and blacks are both part of disenfranchised groups. I was surprised that this is a sentimental, epistolary novel set against the backdrop of the Haitian revolution. I was confused with the position the author took in a book taking place in a heavily politicized situation; she took no position at all. With all her references to violent oppression and exploitation of a subjugated class, women, it seemed odd Leonora Sansay did not feel more sympathetic to the island’s rebelling slaves. The “black” people fighting for freedom are characterized savage, merciless monsters rather than warriors defending themselves against brutality, degradation and murder.

Instead, Sansay’s focus is how women must marry in order to have any respectable life and if they are wise and lucky they will be rid of him as soon as possible. Therefore a woman finds her freedom only after she has become legally shackled. Once a woman has “achieved” a marriage, her husband should leave her to live her life in peace. Leonora is telling her own story as if it were her sister’s. She discusses Clara’s suitors and how their attention forces Clara to fend off attacks from her dangerously jealous husband. She also gushes about the beauty, charm and sophistication of her sister. It’s as if she is desperately gossiping about herself to get the attention of her lover, the recipient of the letters. The lack of letters in response was strange and little mention of anything said in the letters she does receive.

Exploitation in Panic

A Journal of the Plague Year makes me think of false panics from which people profit accompanied by actual disaster many have little warning or defense against.  In the time Defoe was writing there were no reliable sources for information and the plague situation was ripe for exploitation.

The poor are without the resources to escape and are more susceptible to believe stories, rumors and fraudulent claims for cure. What the narrator describes is how the fear and panic about the plague takes on a life of its own. He says, “and I must be allowed to say of both, I hope without breach of charity, that they heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appear’d; but the imagination of the people was really turn’d wayward and possess’d.”(20).

The poor are also the people taken advantage of financially in a panic. They are first made hysterical by reports of rampant death from plague and are then easy prey for those who profit. The narrator says, “Nay to a thousand worse Dealings with the Devil than they were really guilty of; and this trade grew so open, and so generally practised, that it became common to have Signs and Inscritpions set up at Doors.”(24).

It’s arguable that nothing spreads as quickly as panic. While reading this book, I couldn’t help but relate it to current events.  During the threat of the approaching Hurricane Irene, people were near hysteria emptying store shelves of batteries, canned goods and candles. In the Metropolitan area the storm was exaggerated but people still evacuated their homes and spent all their money. Not to mention the emotional cost of fear that houses would blow away.

Appearances in “Lady Windermere’s Fan”

 “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is a highly quotable and enjoyable play by Oscar Wilde. The world of London’s high society revolves around and thrives upon rumor, insinuation and scandal. Among people who deem too much talk a vulgarity, communication is reduced to wry irony and appearances.Wilde cleverly embeds an enormity of subtext into his well-written, compact lines.  For example, Lord Darlington defends himself when the Duchess of Berwick teases him by advising her daughter he is “wicked.” He says, “As a wicked man I am a complete failure. Why, there are lots of people who say I have never really done anything wrong in the whole course of my life. Of course they only say it behind my back.”(11) Lord Darlington claims he’s rumored to have a good reputation.

For Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, appearances are seriously misleading and consequences are nearly devastating. He is seen spending a lot of time in her home and rumored to have bankrolled her posh lifestyle, all of which is true. The puritanical denizens of London’s high society immediately leap to the only logical conclusion the relationship is sexual and convince his wife, Lady Windermere, to believe the same thing. She asks the Duchess of Berwick if all men are bad. The Duchess says, “Oh, all of them, my dear, all of them, without any exception. And they never grow any better. Men become old, but they never become good.”(15)  The Duchess’s low opinion of men is applied to Lord Windermere who only has the appearance of illicit behavior.

The integral fan is introduced when Lady Windermere threatens to use it as a tool to “correct” popular opinion that she either doesn’t know or if she knows tolerates her cheating husband. She tells Lord Windermere, “Yes, you gave me this fan today; it was your birthday present. If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with it.”(20). Lady Windermere’s comment, which becomes an empty threat, reflects how helpless she feels in this seemingly humiliating situation where her reputation is being attacked.

The relationship between the two main female characters is the essential secret of the play and Mrs. Erlynne decides to keep it from Lady Windermere for the sake of appearances. Mrs. Erlynne does not regret her choices nor how she has lived her life. She says, “I thought I had no heart. I find I have, and a heart doesn’t suit me, Windermere. Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old. And it spoils one’s career at critical moments.”(54). Mrs. Erlynne acknowledges her affection for her daughter but decides the best thing for all is to leave things as they appear.

 

Power of Words

Gossip and slander are so insidious they are difficult activities to avoid. Even on the most seemingly harmless level it can be damaging and dangerous. Othello is remarkable in how it depicts the extreme power of words. Shakespeare shows how insinuation, double entendre and misunderstanding lead to the tragic end. The unlikely relationship between Othello and Desdemona is fostered by his ability to speak to her relating colorful stories of bravery. She risks her relationship with her father and her social standing to marry him. As portent of their tragic end Desdemona’s father gives Othello warning. He says, “Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee.” (287-289). Brabantio levels the first insinuation against the innocent Desdemona that possibly planted a seed of suspicion in Othello’s mind.

Subtle yet brutal words are like a deadly weapon skillfully wielded by Iago. He understands Othello’s most vulnerable flaw of being too trusting. He says, “The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / and will as tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are.”(390-393). Iago realizes Desdemona’s affection for Othello is genuine and therefore must find another way to drive a wedge between them through verbal slight and insinuation. He efficiently manages to ruin the reputation of Cassio while also convincing Othello his wife is guilty of adultery based on flimsy evidence. Iago is repeatedly and ironically described as “honest” another of his falsehoods the main characters blindingly believe.

 

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