An Ocean of Style

I honestly enjoyed the visit to the Ackland Art Museum, and I feel like it was very important to the pacing of the class as a whole. My girlfriend is an art education major at UNCG, and I’ve taken a few art classes at high school, so I have a considerable appreciation for the effort that goes into creating professional pieces of art. Looking at adaptation through art was rather refreshing because so far our interpretation of adaptation had been primarily framed by written literature, which can feel like a slog sometimes. While I don’t necessarily think we had enough time to fully look at the pieces, it was still very helpful nonetheless in understanding the cultural and stylistic influences that go into adapting a work of art or literature. This was especially true when comparing Albrecht Dürer’s Fall of Man to Rose Piper’s Eve and the Serpent. Although I’ll admit, it is impossible to gauge how much time is “enough” to understand a work of art. It’s not like it has page numbers or anything to indicate when you are “finished.” Nevertheless, every piece we observed was bursting with meaning. Personally, I found the most interesting piece to be Howard Hodgkin’s Looking at the Sea. If you’ve ever seen a painting be taken from its frame and re-varnished, you’ll quickly notice that upkeep on this painting is probably a nightmare, as the frame itself is painted over and is part of the piece itself. The “canvas” (which is actually just oil paint on wood) bleeds all over and into the frame, running amok and without regard for its own preservation. Its disorganization is a direct emotional parallel to how the briny depths care nothing for those who pass over its surface. It is indifferent to all things, even itself. The paint on the frame looks like it has begun to chip over time from being moved to and from resting places. Brilliantly, it captures the viscosity and momentum behind the ocean, as it washes all over the picture frame. Not only that, but it shows how delicate humanity should be with the sea, as there are no second chances when it comes to framing the painting nor are there when handling the health of the ocean. Other than that, it is a hilariously irate painting when compared to Salomon van Ruysdael’s quaint River Landscape with Fisherman painting. Largely these pieces just go to show how much the meaning and feeling an image as simple as that of a body of water can vary through artistic style. It makes it all the more mind-blowing to think of how much writers can do with extremely complex concepts like a Robinsonia or a ‘Frankenstein’ style monster.

A Deeper Look at The Creature

Right off the bat, I would like to preface this blog post by saying that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the best novel out of the literary canon that I have read. Frankenstein’s reflection on the morally ambiguous aspects of nature, family, justice, and the human condition is what sets this book apart from the other pieces of literature I have read in terms of engagement.

In the narrative, the creature explains the crux of his earthly dilemma after reading Victor Frankenstein’s journal. “I sickened as I read. ‘Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.’” The creature is puzzled at Victor’s intentions in creating life, questioning how Victor could be so cruel as to thrust him into an existence that is arguably worse than that of the most scorned entity in history. On an even broader level, the creature is calling into question the ethics behind bringing another soul into being without their consent. These topics, such as the rights of the unborn and the duties parents should be upheld to, are still hotly debated to this day.

In relation to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, (which is the way the creature discovers the histories of God and Satan) the creature first sees himself as an abandoned Adam, who was created inherently flawed. As he experiences the hell of isolation over the course of months and is rejected by the Delacy’s, he comes to know himself instead as an allegory of Satan. Not so coincidentally, Satan is the best speaker/narrator within the book Paradise Lost itself, which parallels the creatures elegance of narration and solidifies the reference. Milton also frames Satan as reasonable and attractive, but we know as readers that we shouldn’t interpret him this way. In the same way, Shelley frames the creature in much the same way, even though we know as readers that the creature is a murderer, as well as (arguably) a sadist.

In all the ways stated above, the creature’s existence always reminds me of a passage from Macbeth. To quote Shakespeare, the creature’s life is but a walking shadow, dwelling in obscurity and isolation. He is a poor player who struts and frets, pondering the meaning of his hour of existence in relation to the greater stage of humanity that he fears he will never get to experience. The fate of his life has been dealt to him without care. In response, he vows to use his fury to inflict on Victor the same type of meaningless existence of isolation he so idiotically inflicted upon him.

As a text, I enjoy Frankenstein because of the way the tragic character of the creature is so three dimensional. He is in all ways fated to be tragic, tragic out of his own volition, and tragic at the hands of others.

Was Robinson Crusoe Absurdist?

Character development is generally regarded as one of (if not the) the most essential aspects to writing a believable character. Strangely enough, Daniel Defoe’s attempt at creating a believable story includes basically none of this.

After saving Friday’s father and the Spaniard, Crusoe internally remarks his famous quote which begins “My island was now peopled, and I thought my self very rich in Subjects; and it was a merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look’d.” (250) This paragraph was such an immaculate distillation of Crusoe’s character that it was gut-wrenching on a personal level to read. It flawlessly shows Defoe’s commitment to keeping his writing of Crusoe’s character integriful (read as in consistent/unwavering, instead of ‘moral’). After twenty-four years of perfect isolation, Crusoe’s first thoughts in regards to how he feels about his new associates is to akin himself to a king presiding over his subjects and that “they all owed their Lives to me.” Of course, this is of no fault of Defoe’s storytelling capabilities, as the concept of character development was most certainly not in existence during his era. Nevertheless, Crusoe’s inability to achieve basic character development after the many trials and hardships he had endured reminded me of undergoing a Sisyphean task. As a modern reader who always assumed character development was a given, this threw my perspective of Crusoe as a protagonist into an absurdist light.

With this interpretation, Crusoe becomes comparable to a force of nature, similar to the ones that cast him upon the island so many years ago. In this way, Crusoe is not a “possibility” to the people and places he encounters, but is instead an “inevitability.” He cares not so much that he has been reunited with people, but that his island has been “peopled.” Crusoe is an equation that, given an input, derives an output. If there is an ocean, he will sail it. If there is a predicament, he will conquer it. If there is are subordinates, he will subject them. In the context of the novel as a whole, this interpretation still makes sense. He places little inherent value in family, and his actions continually contradict the moral and religious values he spends dozens of pages contemplating. In addition, it would explain his thirst for sailing long after his series of shipwrecks and lost crews.

On a shorter note, this interpretation of Crusoe as an absurdist force of nature could explain his short role in John Coetzee’s Foe. In my previous paragraph, I described Crusoe as something that “happens” to others. This could be what happens to Susan Barton during her visit to Crusoe’s island. Her encounter with Crusoe, along with her stay on the island, “Crusoeifies” her to the point where Foe hires actors to attempt to bring her back into reality.

While I understand that Defoe certainly never wrote Robinson Crusoe to be interpreted in such a manner, my condition of taking character development for granted compels me to understand it as such. Still, I am unsure if this is an inherent value of the novel using a single narrator, as calling Crusoe’s psyche into question from any angle tends to thrust the entire narrative into a falling house of cards that could settle into any shape the questioner desires. You could even interpret Coetzee’s adaptation as a direct response to this phenomenon.