Ruth Hall and Homeopathy

Ruth Hall is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a “continuous story” rather than a novel.  It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity.  At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship.  Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself.  Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women’s writing and economics.  The “domestic tale” is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a liveable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.

Although Fern’s marriage of writing and economy stood out as noteworthy what seemed most interesting for me was the thread of medicine and its connection to women’s writing.  Like Madame Bovary in Flaubert’s classic tale, Hall is thrown with marriage into a world governed, to some degree, by medical discourse.  “The doctor,” Hall’s father-in-law is, like Charles Bovary, a mediocre physician.  His feeble attempts to govern the Hall home lead to his son and daughter eventually relocating, escaping the doctor’s negligence and “Mis. Hall’s” jealousy and frugality.

Moving away from the doctor’s home does not, however, put an end to the Hall’s interaction with the medical world. In fact, her exposure increases when Daisy, Halls’s first daughter, becomes deathly ill and eventually dies when “the doctor” is reluctant to attend to her.  The death of Harry, Hall’s husband, brings another episode that is framed by the medical field.  Again, traditional medicine fails and leaves Hall with overwhelming, nearly insurmountable, feelings of loss.

Hall is forced to strike out on her own after these two failures of traditional medicine leave her and her living daughters starving.  She takes up residence at a boarding house governed by Mrs. Waters where she is thrown into a different kind of medical discourse.  Waters proclaims herself to be a “physician — none the less for being female.”  Her room is lined with “boxes of brown-bread-looking pills” and bottles with “labels that would have puzzled the most erudite M.D. who ever received a diploma.”  Waters is quick to wait on Hall in her poverty-stricken sicknesses but Hall refuses her services; “if there was anything Ruth was afraid of, it was Mrs. Waters’s style of woman.”  Afraid of Waters’s brand of medicine Hall goes on suffering until she meets one of Waters’s other borders, Mr. Bond.

Bond is, like Waters, a dabbler in medicine.  Hall hears the whir-whir-whir coming from his room and is curious about its origin until he offers to heal her sick daughter with “homeopathy,” with which he “always treats” himself and has a “happy supply” always with him.  He has had the “pleasure of relieving others in emergencies.”  Bond has an air of “goodness and sincerity” that influences Hall to accept his help where she would not consider Waters’s offers.  Hall goes on to admire Bond as her “senior” who is so much like what she would want her own father to be.

Bond’s medicine is the only medicine in the novel that actually cures its patient.  Developing a relationship with him leads Hall to renew her trust in people and encourages her to reach out to Mr. Walter, a publisher who recognizes her writing talent and makes her an offer in a more humane position with good pay.

Walter is not blind to Hall’s talents yet he, too, must submerge her into medical discourse before he will proceed with his plans to increase her fame and fortune.  Upon meeting Hall he asks, “Have you ever submitted your head to a phrenological examination?”  She admits that she has no faith in this “science,” to which Walter laughs and hires a professor to do an in-depth analysis of the shape of Hall’s head.  The chapter in which the professor conducts this analysis is the longest chapter of the book.  Fern goes into great detail about the characteristics that phrenology reveals about Hall’s character: ultimately, she is a genius.

Feeling affirmed and confident, Walter undertakes raising Hall up from her drudgery.  Upon meeting her youngest daughter, who is much like Hall, Walter insists that she, too, should have her head examined.

The movement from traditional medicine (which is portrayed as quackery at its worst) to the outrageous branch of “female” medicine, to phrenology struck me as interesting.  Hall is so dredged in medical discourse that I found it problematic that phrenology — of all medical branches — is finally the outlet through which the truth is made evident.  It is, in fact, the tool that reveals the value of female authorship.  It is, too, the backbone of this “domestic tale.”


Songs that Shape the Land in LOTR

Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is a musical.

This was the second trait that jumped out at me during my first reading of this beloved fantasy novel.  I was startled by the important role that music, singing, and song played in each segment, how integral was the improvisational song as well as the memorized, ancient song to the forward movement of the plot and also to character development.  When a character dies, his friends make up a song on the spot.  When one wants to know about a certain location or character, he asks for or offers a song passed down through oral tradition.  When Frodo and Sam embark on their grueling journey, they often stop to ponder how they will be remembered in song.  In some — many — ways, song is its own character — perhaps the most important character — of LOTR.  Indeed, the function of story-telling stood out to me as a paramount concern: not only for Tolkien as a writer but also for each central character.  Well-being of body and mind depends upon learning the histories of lands and peoples, adventures are undertaken in the promise of becoming a character in the story — what seems the story of life, in general.  I was awestruck by Tolkien’s not-very-subtle way of  highlighting “the story”‘s particular relevance in modern times by showcasing its function in fantastical times gone by.  The mission is not only for Frodo to destroy the ring.  The mission is also — maybe more importantly — for him to return to tell his story to Bilbo, the historian, the author.  This goal is perhaps less iterated than the destroying of the ring, but it appears consistently throughout the novel in the mouths and thoughts of the Hobbits.  In fact — now that I think of it — it appears ONLY in the context of Hobbitly reflection.  The Hobbits — those whose songs are, ironically, mostly jest, fun, and celebration — are the most aware of song’s role in teaching the most important lessons of life: the struggle to conquer the shadowy self. I thought to myself that this epic would be a fantastic text to help me emphasize the critical role of storytelling in composition, creative writing, and literature courses.

I fell in love with LOTR when I saw Jackson’s films.  I thought, “these are very true to the novels,” even though I had never read the novels — isn’t that a funny feeling?  (Has that ever happened to you? — You think you know a lot about something because it is part of your literary culture?)  I was swept away by the sublime landscapes.  The nature in the films seemed to jump out of Burke’s Inquiry.  But as I read the novels, I understood that nature is, like song, its own character — maybe more important than any of the other central figures (except song).  Nature certainly could be vast and harsh, big and powerful.  But mostly, it was unknowable, quaint, and localized (maybe domesticated?) to such an extent that Tolkien takes a lot of time to describe its intricacies: much more than I expected.  Nature is, like song, above the outcome of the ring.  Tom Bombadil, is one representation of nature (like the Ents) who has been in Middle Earth before even the Elves.  He (and his nature) will continue even if everything else falls to “evil.”  Tolkien makes his point sharp with the Ents — actually bringing “Nature” to “life.”  In the films, I hated (HATED) the Ents.  In the novels, they were my favorite characters.  In fact, I cried when I learned that they never found their Entwives.  Even more than the destruction of the ring, I wanted the Ents to find the Entwives again.  The Ent/Entwives relationship is the first romantic one that is fully actualized in the work; and it is the only romance that ends unfulfilled.  The un-fulfillment of the Ents struck me hard.  Indeed, I wanted to undertake a writing of the history of the Ents/Entwives — it seems like it could be such a feminist epic!  Entwives, what happened to you in your Herland-like Brownlands?  How did you go up in flames, my sisters?

I wished that someone would have sung me the story.  Somewhere out in a quaint, dewy landscape fringed with bleak, sharp mountains in the background, I would have propped myself up on a tree and thought about companionship, relishing every last bite of my meager luncheon, casting warning glances at my darkening shadow as it tries to get closer to my heart.

The Good are Good in Stephen King’s Works

When I was 18 I foolishly threw away my enormous collection of every Stephen King novel ever published to that date.  I had read these novels with a voracious passion that I thought had to die before I entered college.  I must have imagined that to be a serious student of English literature I needed to divorce myself from best-selling horror.

Only today, about 13 years after the Salvation Army received a heavy barrel-full of my collection, I have picked up a King novel once again.

Reading King is pleasurable because it courses by almost through sheer verbs alone.  In other words, the story is really about what characters do and not necessarily how they do it, who they are, or why they do it.  Readers of King must believe that actions speak louder than words.

Cell was probably not the best novel with which to renew my vows with King.  It is dedicated to Romero and it reads like a pop-culture zombie apocalypse film.  Come to think of it, all of King’s works read this way, don’t they?

That is partially what I love about them (again).  Even in the shortest of short stories, survival of man is at stake (literally. There are really never any female heroines that make it to last scene in a King tale).  Every action is apocalyptic.

But the good are always good.

As a reader, I can clearly mark out the good from the bad, even when King tries to trick me in novels like The Stand.  If a character has goodness (even an ounce of it), he is good.

I appreciate the simplicity in this portrayal of humankind — mostly because I find myself feeling this way about people.  Like my dad, I have a hard time viewing any one person as “bad.”  King is like my dad.

My return to King may indeed be a return to the Father.