3 Category 3: ENGL 2020/2030

Quincy Vongratsamy; Molly Earnest; and Yanely Luna

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Vision of Dying: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Awarded to Quincy Vongratsamy for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Amy Fant in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture

In the wake of a breakneck confrontation with fate, how is one supposed to act? Perhaps more importantly, how is one supposed to react? As many portrayals of death in film have shown, it could be easy to imagine an outpouring of grief and anguish of the most dramatic kind. However, in Robert Enrico’s 1962 film based on the titular short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the exercise of the phrase “less is more” transcends the mere adage and becomes its own unique, ascetic experience. The filmmaker Robert Bresson, whose influence on this film could certainly be argued, said one should build his film “on white, on silence, and on stillness” (Bresson). Like death itself, a film about the subject should bring this sentiment to fruition and start as a blank slate, employing only the essential cinematic means to convey a completely ambiguous event. By using this technique to show a man in his final moments, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is, in many ways, Occam’s razor personified.

On the fourth of April 1862, Peyton Farquhar is to be summarily hanged. What precedes is an eerie bed of predominant silence, accompanied only by birdsong, a faintly ticking watch and the footsteps of scattered men, his executors, who seem to lack any emotion save that of apathy; Enrico materializes Bierce’s notion that “silence and fixity are forms of deference” (2) in the code of military etiquette by using few sounds other than those necessary to the reality of the scene. And so, like an insurmountable wall, the men betray nothing. Consequently, we, the audience, are forced to relate to the sole characteristic that links us to them: the gesture of the human body. The camera moves with non-provoking tracking shots on a dolly, surveying the scene of officers who stand firmly silhouetted with the fitting disposition of a Southern plantation. It is not until about the second minute of the film that we come face-to-face with our protagonist, Farquhar, whose stoic demeanor, at first, harbors few traces of grief or anxiety. At this point, the film hones in on a central character for us to identify with.

Despite a probable contention between Farquhar and the men orchestrating his hanging, there is an air of calm that permeates the environment; the natural state of life persists, indifferent to the life that will soon be lost. Butterflies land on the brims of leaves; driftwood floats down the current of a stream below. In a drawn-out sequence just shy of 4 minutes, we experience how it feels to watch a herd of impervious men decorate our necks with a noose.

Enrico choreographs the officers with simple yet elaborate blocking that paints them as statues of fortitude. The camera slowly maneuvers around them, emphasizing the juxtaposition between their composed stiffness and Farquhar’s shifty, growing nervousness. Just as the tension in the scene reaches an acme, the sun rises from the crevice of a valley and casts rays of light onto the bridge off of which Farquhar is moments away from plunging. Up to this extent, the film has primarily interspliced between portraying his point-of-view and his reactions. But, with a shot of an officer, presumably the captain, standing opposite of Farquhar on the temporary platform, peering at the sun over his shoulder, Enrico inserts the final moment of stasis before pushing the camera into Farquhar’s closed eyes and cutting to his dying thoughts: his wife running toward him. With a nod of the captain’s head, Farquhar plummets into the water beneath the bridge. After about a minute-and a half sequence of him freeing himself from his confines, he breaches the surface of the water, and the first instance of non-diegetic music plays. This sudden choice is what filmmaker and critic, Paul Schrader, would call a “decisive moment,” (Schrader) when a point in a film occurs that is completely disparate from the previously established style. By adhering mostly to realism prior to the music, Enrico has us grow accustomed to the verisimilitude of each action that Farquhar notices, a slight signification to remember what is actually real. However, for most viewers who come to expect standard film convention, the use of music finally grants us the dramatic sense of hope we desire, almost as if to say, “This is what’s supposed to happen.” Enrico fools us, and we buy into the potential of survival.

With the ice of the soundtrack broken, more peculiar uses of sound turn what was, for the most part, an objective film into one of subjectivity; distorted vocals as well as more instances of music effectively relate Farquhar’s subconscious frame of mind. Visually, the film becomes more frantic as he escapes, freeing us from the austerity of the film’s first five minutes; shots of the sky through trees, a loose hand gripping at sand and an ominous gate mysteriously opening all insinuate the freedom that Farquhar is supposedly experiencing. Despite how invested we become with his quest toward home, all of these images, with their unprecedented movement and subliminal nature, are ultimately suggestive of a fantasy. When the conclusive cut of the film arrives, and we see Farquhar successfully suspended by the neck, Enrico, through definitive contrast between fact and fiction, reaches the meridian of the Absurd; Farquhar’s desperate search for intrinsic value, love, falls hard against the bleak and sudden finality of death.

The cinematic form used by Robert Enrico in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is absolutely integral to the story it is telling. Were the film to follow typical Hollywood structure, it would inevitably have been of a far less potent strain. The techniques used not only depict a death happening at face value but go much further as to translate the concept of death holistically as it is being experienced. If there is to somehow be a singular moment that encompasses the whole of Enrico’s cinematic literacy in the film, it would certainly be the final jump cut of the film from Farquhar in his most blissful moment with his wife to his most tragic moment dangling from a bridge. By ending the film with the end of a life, Enrico employs Occam’s razor to show the absurd simplicity of death. Farquhar’s internal strife over the course of the film is all registered for naught with the juxtaposition of two images: the idyllic and the fatal. Through the voyage into a dying man’s psyche, Enrico affords us the realization that there is much beauty to be had in finite occurrences.

Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose Gwinett. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The San Francisco Examiner, 1890.

Bresson, Robert. Notes on the Cinematographer. Translated by Jonathan Griffin, Editions Gallimard, 1977.

Enrico, Robert, director. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. 1962.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1972.

Non-Zero-Sum Femininity: An Examination of the Contradictory Nature of Traditional Feminine Expectations

Awarded to Molly Earnest for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Dr. Matthew Brown in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture

The Harvard professor and American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is known to have said that “Well-behaved women seldom make history” and wrote a book around this assertion. The book likely answers the questions of What is a well-behaved woman? and Why is it that she can seldom make history? However, even without reading the book, it seems like many people could extrapolate exactly what she meant by that statement. In fact, many authors and historians have made it their lives’ work to delve deeper into these behaviors and expectations that have traditionally been, and are still today being, placed on women and how these affect women’s image and status in society. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich are about the constructed societal pressure on women to uphold traditionally ‘feminine’ values and behaviors, including balancing domestic duties and sexual roles, that are so narrowly constructed that they result in a non-zero-sum game in which women end up never being able to fully fulfill these roles and leads to disappointment, not only from society at large, but also from within women themselves.

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid shows the myriad of instructions given to a girl either by her mother or by herself of how to be a ‘proper’ woman. It ranges in advice from how to iron her father’s clothes to how to “walk/ like a lady”( 8-9). The expectations being placed on her as a young woman, or more accurately, as the title suggests, a girl are so numerous and nuanced that the long listing format of the piece becomes this almost overwhelming wave of demands to know, remember, and follow for not only the girl herself, but also the reader. There are demands to be both strong enough to handle yourself and take care of your family, but also to appear fragile enough that you don’t intimidate men. The sheer amount as well as the conflicting nature of the demands creates a tone of confusion and unworthiness. It seems like Kincaid is really trying to drive the point home of how all of these expectations are too much to expect out of a girl. Her repetition of the specific phrase “the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” with the variation “the slut I have warned you against becoming” shows the intense focus on controlling the feminine body and sexuality (9, 15, 28). Even from such a young age, girls have these expectations placed upon them that they must be these pure beings who must “walk/ like a lady” and not do anything that would make society view them as a sexual and inherently ‘wrong’ woman (8-9). The values that the mother or the narrator seems to be lecturing the girl about in this piece are also mostly domestic duties that have been placed in the traditional realm of a woman’s responsibilities. So, the girl is expected to fulfill these domestic duties for her family, but not show any deviance from this dutiful domestic role, especially not in any physical, let alone sexual, context. At the end of the piece, when giving instructions on how to get the freshest bread the mother or the narrator poses the question “after all you are really going to be the kind of woman the baker won’t let near the bread?” which shows how far into the culture these opinions of women based on their general behaviors and perceived bodily activity truly permeates (52-53). Overall, it seems that the message to girls in Kincaid’s piece is that in order to be anything close to respected by others, they must adhere closely if not exactly to the myriad of traditional domestic duties expected of them while not deviating in the slightest in any physical, or especially sexual, way. Furthermore, Adrienne Rich addresses the fact that if they were to try to deviate from these roles, the levels of guilt and shame would escalate on not only a societal level, but even more so on an internalized one.

“Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich expresses this intense guilt that one woman feels about living together before marriage caused by the sharp and exacting sexual restrictions placed on women contrasted by the man’s seemingly aloof attitude about their situation. The poem begins by describing the woman’s initial belief that she would not be weighed down by this guilt because she has made the choice to follow her love instead of the rules and then describes the depth to which she begins to be enveloped by it. Rich begins with soft words and phrases like “no dust upon the furniture of love” whose gentle sounds set a calm initial tone (2). She quickly follows these with terms like “heresy” and “grime” to show the shift in the atmosphere of the living place in the poem as well as in the poem itself (3-4). The fact that the woman feels that “each separate stair would writhe/ under the milkman’s tramp” shows the newfound intensity in which she feels she is being judged for her physical situation not only by society, but by the very world around her (8-9). The personification of her physical environment now feeling this agonizing need to shrink further away from the routine and small interactions with the rest of the world exemplifies her shame and guilt over her own bodily state. This intensity is contrasted sharply by a brief description of the man’s aloofness in which Rich again utilizes softer words like “yawn” and phrases like “shrugged at the mirror, rubbed his beard, and went out for cigarettes” (15-18). One of the final descriptions by Rich of the woman’s internal struggle between her love and her guilt is the phrase “jeered by minor demons” which seems to say that she has learned to tolerate or simply to carry these heavy emotions with her constantly rather than try to eradicate or even address them (19). The juxtaposition between the man’s basically emotionless state and the woman’s state of being constantly haunted by these guilts and judgments shows that these strict sexual standards are almost exclusively placed, at least to this extreme of an extent, on women. She is judged for her choices even if not verbally or actively from society because of this internalized judgment she feels from her own self. These traditional values are so embedded in the society that she was raised in that she cannot escape them. Overall, “Living in Sin” describes the extreme levels to which the societal judgement described in “Girl” becomes this internalized and inescapable guilt that is placed on and embedded within women based on their bodily choices.

Bodily choices, and more specifically, the contrasting decisions between dutifully fulfilling traditional domestic tasks and fulfilling one’s own sexual desires or expectations, are the defining factor of the femininity in these two pieces, and moreover, femininity in society as a whole. The girl in Kincaid’s piece is being told how to do these chores for her current family as well as how to do them for her own family in the future. However, in order to have a family in the future, she is expected to be sexually appealing enough to a man to become a wife and a mother. Then, while being a mother, she must also remain sexually appealing to her husband. In addition, throughout all of this, she must not become so sexually appealing that “the baker won’t let [her] near the bread” (Kincaid 53). These roles are not coexistent- there is no way for the girl to be all of these things at once. Kincaid’s tone of confusion and overwhelmingness points to the way that this girl will feel about these things for the rest of her life. Rich’s piece follows the timeline of a woman who thought that she could escape these feelings by defying some of the expectations. However, she couldn’t escape them because they are so embedded in the way that we think of femininity that the societal shame manifested itself as guilt and “demons” in her everyday life (Rich 19). Kincaid and Rich show that balancing between these feminine ideals of domesticity and sexual appeal is an impossible act that ends up being a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. This non-zero sum game of societal femininity shown in “Girl” and “Living in Sin” exemplifies the levels of disappointment in women by the society at large and from within women themselves about the inevitable act of never being able to fulfill and balance these unrealistic roles.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin, et al. “Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.” Biography, https://scholar.harvard.edu/laurelulrich/bio. Accessed 19 October 2021.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” Literature; The Human Experience, Thirteenth ed., Abcarian, Richard, et al., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2019, p. 105-106.

Rich, Adrienne. “Living in Sin.” Literature; The Human Experience, Thirteenth ed., Abcarian, Richard, et al., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2019, p. 849-850.

 

The Complexity of Racism in William Faulkner’s “Dry September”

Awarded to Yanely Luna for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Amy Fant in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture

On the surface, “Dry September” by William Faulkner is a story of how a rumor ruins one man’s life; however, this rumor does not only ruin one man’s life, but it also consumes the lives of the other men in the town. In this story, Minnie Cooper, an unmarried white woman, accuses Will Mayes, a black man, of rape. Henry “Hawkshaw” Stribling, a white barber, believes this accusation is false because he knows Will Mayes is a respectable man, and he thinks Minnie Cooper is a less respectable woman since she often finds herself stuck in the middle of stories like this. Many people in the town – like John McLendon, a former solider – believe that the word of a white woman should come before any facts that may prove Will’s innocence, so they plan to make Will Mayes an example for other black men who dare go near a white woman. Hawkshaw continues to argue with McLendon that Will is innocent, and Minnie cannot be trusted. In the end, even a white man like Hawkshaw cannot stop McLendon. Hawkshaw exhibits a desire to stop the racist, violent acts, but it is so deeply rooted in the society around him that he cannot stop it. Hawkshaw’s character represents a yearning for change and progressivism, while McLendon’s character represents the unrelenting racism and traditionalism that plagues the world. The story ties the two together by showing the differences between people who hate the prejudices yet cannot change it and the ones who perpetuate the prejudices and smile while they do it.

Throughout the story, Hawkshaw tries to convince the people in the barber shop that Will Mayes is innocent, but the characters’ feelings about Hawkshaw reveal their implicit bias against African Americans; therefore, they will not listen to Hawkshaw’s reasonings. For example, his client even tells Hawkshaw he is “one hell of a white man” when he says that he does not believe anything happened between Will and Minnie (1). This implies that he would not even imagine believing a black person above a white person because he thinks that white people should group together to ‘stay safe’ from black people. Then, the others automatically assume he is from the North, saying, “Do you mean to tell me you are a white man and you’ll stand for it? You better go back North where you came from. The South don’t want your kind here” (2). They are indicating primarily that they are not used to seeing a white man side with a black man in the South, but also that they are not welcome to change since they are telling him, essentially, to conform or leave. However, Hawkshaw says he is from the town and the other characters are baffled that a man like him is from the same place they are. This shows their disbelief that there could be any southern white man who thinks differently than they do.

Then, McLendon enters the barber shop and begins to provoke Hawkshaw even further since he won’t listen to Hawkshaw’s reasonings and instead wants to take immediate action against Will Mayes. He is angry and headstrong, and he will not stand for a white man allowing a “black son [to] rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson” (2). Hawkshaw keeps his ground though, insisting that they get the facts and make sure it happened before taking it into their own hands – which is precisely what McLendon wants to do. McLendon claims that the facts do not matter, asserting that it happening is not important. He asks Hawkshaw, “Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?” Later, Hawkshaw mentions calling the sheriff and “do[ing] this thing right” (2). This sentiment of calling the sheriff displays that Hawkshaw does want to stop them from getting violent, but with police brutality still a prominent issue today, the readers must wonder how much a sheriff in this time could help this situation without making it worse. This also raises the issue of implicit bias versus explicit bias. If the sheriff did come, he may not be able to express his personal feelings about the situation, but he would likely still be quick to assume that Will Mayes is guilty, since most white people in this story aside from Hawkshaw have assumed the same.

Since Hawkshaw cannot stop the group of men from trying to act against Will Mayes, he is incapable of achieving his desires of progressivism. This also reveals an obstacle in Hawkshaw’s desires: no matter how much he believes Will Mayes is innocent, no matter how much he wants to save Will Mayes from the violence that is inevitable in these situations, and no matter how much he believes Minnie Cooper is lying – there is nothing he can do about it when everyone around him has grown up believing that black people are criminals and are ready to prey on weak white women. Calling the sheriff would not save Will Mayes from death; it would only create a situation in which his death or incarceration is legal. In any case, McLendon still gets offended by Hawkshaw’s remark and tells everyone in the barber shop to get up and come with him if they agree with him. Some eagerly join McLendon while others hesitantly join, showing that there are other people who believe what Hawkshaw does, but that they are less willing to stand up for it, which only perpetuates the violence further. They are like the bystanders when bullying happens – they may not be doing the bullying, but they are letting the bullying happen. Hawkshaw tries to stop them again when they leave, but they still do, so he follows them.

Now, the reader can see a great difference between Hawkshaw and McLendon: Hawkshaw wants to stop the immediate judgement of black people, while McLendon has no qualms with immediately accusing a man of a crime if it is against a white person. When McLendon is introduced in the story, Faulkner gives only a brief description: “His name was McLendon. He had commanded troops at the front in France and had been decorated for valor” (2). McLendon’s being a former decorated soldier is a symbol of how there is personal prejudice and institutionalized racism, which is further solidified when he reveals his bias. We learn that McLendon is biased when he gets angry at Hawkshaw for disagreeing with him and when he disregards Hawkshaw’s suggestions to look at all the facts. Since Faulkner included that McLendon was a soldier, he is noting that McLendon is not just a man, but also that he was a part of a larger system that oppresses people of color. This reveals his role as a cog in a much larger machine. Additionally, Faulkner’s mention of McLendon’s commander past reveals that he is powerful. When McLendon becomes the leader of the group that leaves the barber shop, this increases his power and reveals to the reader how strongly he intimidates the other characters. They follow him because they are afraid of what he would do if they did not. McLendon is the main perpetuator of the racism throughout the story, whether he is actively assaulting Will Mayes or perpetuating the stereotype that black men rape white women. However, all the other people in the town – including Hawkshaw – contribute to the racism since they are unwilling or unable to save Will Mayes.

While McLendon is the clear perpetrator of racism in the story, Hawkshaw’s character is more complicated in contributing to the racism. Later, when McLendon and his group finally get to Will Mayes, Hawkshaw is there. One of the characters says to kill him right there, but McLendon denies. He says to put Will in the car, and the group listens, but they hit him before doing so. Faulkner includes, “And the barber struck him also,” in the middle of the commotion of trying to get Will in the car. Hawkshaw also hits him, which reveals that Hawkshaw is not completely innocent either and is contributing to the racist acts (5-6). He may say he wants to help Will, but then he joins in beating him as well. Then, when they get in the car, McLendon and Hawkshaw both ignore Will’s calls for them. This shows a similarity between the two characters even though they are ignoring him for different reasons. McLendon is ignoring him because he declared that he is done talking and he is out for action now. Meanwhile, Hawkshaw ignores him either because he feels guilty for being there and hitting him or because he is afraid of how the others in the car would react if he responded. Either way, they are both complicit in the crime at this point because McLendon is committing it while Hawkshaw is letting it happen. Granted, there is not much Hawkshaw can do, but that does not change his role – especially afterwards when Hawkshaw jumps out of the car to escape the reality of what McLendon is about to commit (6).

While Faulkner does not describe the violence of what McLendon does to Will, he does describe McLendon after the fact, further indicating McLendon’s aggression and power over others. McLendon goes home to his wife and is immediately abrasive towards her. Faulkner describes her as having “…her face lowered, a magazine in her hands. Her face was pale, strained, and weary-looking” (8). In this description, she seems to be afraid of him, and his anger only makes it worse. This again indicates McLendon’s power over others and how quick he is to judge others as lesser than him. He tells his wife not to wait for him, and when she tries to say her excuse, he hits her. Earlier, he said he could not stand for a black man hurting a white woman, but now he is hitting a white woman. This exhibits his hypocrisy, but also confirms his racial prejudice. If he really cared about women, he would not beat his wife. Therefore, there can only be one other motivator behind his actions towards Will Mayes: racism.

“Dry September” by William Faulkner seems like a story about racism, and it is, but it is written in a way that paints Henry “Hawkshaw” Stribling as the hero and John McLendon as the villain. In reality, racism is the villain and there is no hero. No one can save Will Mayes, so there is no hero. Throughout the story, McLendon’s and Hawkshaw’s actions are both driven by racism and result in no change. McLendon is driven by his own racism, and Hawkshaw is driven by his desire to stop McLendon’s racism. However, in the end, Hawkshaw is also complicit in Will’s murder through both his action of hitting him and his inaction of avoiding the situation. While Hawkshaw clearly wanted to save Will Mayes, Will was doomed by people like McLendon the second they heard what he “did.” Hawkshaw could try all he wanted, but McLendon – a symbol for power, institutionalized racism, and misogyny – won in the end, and dragged Hawkshaw with him. The story shows how racism cannot be stopped by simply wanting to stop it. It takes a lot of work and anti-racism to fix it, which is why we must be aware of biases even now.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “Dry September.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. Random House, 1950, pp. 1-8.

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The Gen Ed Magazine Copyright © 2021 by Quincy Vongratsamy; Molly Earnest; and Yanely Luna is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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