The Lady in the Mirror

Francesco Casetti argues in his essay “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations” that adaptation is much more than just formal variation of the same themes (Casetti 83). Casetti states, “To present a story that has already been told, means to explore how cinema [the new adaptation] is capable of renewing and intensifying the relationship between text, representation, and spectatorship” (Casetti 84). Of course, Casetti’s essay deals with adaptations between literature and film, but the ideas he discusses can easily encompass any other form of adaptation. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1871 adaptation of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 poem creates a new discourse between the poem and the prose; Phelps’s focus on the poor of the nineteenth century city creates new meaning around Tennyson’s poem just as much as the connection to Tennyson’s poem creates new meaning around Phelps’s short story. The direct connection between Tennyson’s original poem and Phelps’s prose adaptation creates an area of discourse between the two works that illuminates the conditions of the poor in the emerging cities of the nineteenth century.

Phelps’s short story, “The Lady of Shalott” adapts the title and many of the themes from Tennyson’s poem by the same name. The adaptation from poem to prose serves Phelps’s story by allowing for greater levels of development within the story. The spare nature of Tennyson’s poem means that it has to rely heavily upon shared cultural knowledge in order to create a textured and affecting narrative. Tennyson’s poem draws heavily upon the tales of King Arthur and Camelot to create imagery and meaning while keeping the poem to a relatively short length. Phelps’s prose, on the other hand, has plenty of space to create its own context within its own text. Phelps’s story completely removes any mention of Camelot or any of the characters from Arthurian Legend. In fact, the only reference to medieval the feudal system comes from the title of lady given to The Lady of Shallot. The ability of prose to be more or less self-contained gives Phelps’s story the ability to reference other texts in a much more subtle way. The extra room for embellishment within a short story allows it to take on larger cultural concerns than that of a poem.

Phelps’s story does more than just reuse and repurpose the title and character of Tennyson’s poem; Phelps’s story makes a reference to the fictional nature of The Lady of Shallot by directly mentioning Tennyson’s poem within the text of the story. While referring to The Lady being crippled from childhood, the narrator states, “This is a fact which I think Mr. Tennyson has omitted to mention in his poem” (Phelps 1871). This mention of Tennyson and his poem, “The Lady of Shalott” in the text of Phelps’s short story, “The Lady of Shalott” creates a discordance within the logic of the story. The discordance brings in to question the validity of the name and title of Phelps’s Lady and allows for the possibility that Phelps’s narrator is disguising the character’s actual name as The Lady of Shalott. Phelps’s story also drops the title of Lord from Tennyson’s name and replaces it with the more common title of Mister. While calling into question The Lady’s title could be considered an attempt at making the character more relatable to the setting of a nineteenth century American city, the lowering of Lord Tennyson’s title can only be seen as an act of political subversion.

In Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shallot resides in an island tower outside of Camelot (Tennyson 1-18). Camelot stands as the beacon of riches and power in Arthurian Legend. And towers are military structures that symbolize the extension of military control over an area. The lord or lady of the tower would be responsible for the protection and military control of the lands all around, but The Lady’s tower controls little more than fields of grain. The poem’s narrator states, “On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye,” (Tennyson 1-2). Tennyson’s Lady sits atop her tower separated from Camelot by the river and by the people who till the field. These fields are outside of the limits of Camelot, and the farmers know that they are in need of protection because of this need they celebrate their unseen protector (Tennyson 14-31).

Tennyson’s poem shows the connection between protector and exploiter in the feudal system. Just because the farmers know that they are in need of protection does not mean that they should be taken advantage of. Tennyson’s narrator states, “And thro’ the field the road runs by/To many-tower’d Camelot” (Tennyson 4-5). This is only the first of many mentions of products moving towards the city. The road and the river both flow toward Camelot, the mighty symbol of civilization (Tennyson 4-5, 13-14). The road and the river bring boats, barges, and horses, carrying the grain and other products to the city (Tennyson 20-23). King Arthur’s tales are stories of feudal lords and in the feudal system the wealth only flows one way, away from the peasants and toward the king. The river ever flowing to Camelot separates the Island of Shalott from the fields (Tennyson 8-13). This separation symbolizes the conflict of interest that The Lady has. She makes the claim to protect the farmers under her charge, but the road and the river that are the corridors of trade stand between her tower and the fields. While her tower may extend a small amount of protection over the fields, it mostly provides oversight of the movement of goods towards Camelot.

However, Tennyson’s poem draws attention away from the plight of the poor farmers and the unfairness of the feudal system, and draws attention to the beauty and spectacle of Camelot and the lords and ladies heading that way that. Early on, Tennyson’s poem states, “And thro’ the field the road runs by/To many towered Camelot” (Tennyson 4-5).The poem plays up the image of Camelot by touting its military might with the mention of its many towers. And it continues to play up the inviting nature of Camelot by reiterating the idea that everything is moving toward the fabled city. The poem mentions Camelot eighteen times (Tennyson 5-167). In fact, only one stanza fails to include the name of the city, Camelot. The one stanza than fails to mention “Camelot” replaces the word with Lancelot, who is likely the best known of Arthur’s knights (Tennyson 77). The description of Lancelot continues on for thirty two lines (Tennyson 77-108). Lancelot is decked out with a gemmy bridle, a silver bugle, and a thick-jeweled saddle, and all of these riches travel along with him to Camelot (Tennyson 82, 88, 92). The critique of farmer’s treatment in Tennyson’s poem only comes to light after reading Phelps’s story.

In Phelps’s story, the political subversion cuts both ways. It comments on the feudal system that gives rise to the titles of lord and lady, and it shows the connection between the feudal system and the nineteenth century American version of capitalism. The Lady in Phelps’s story stands both condemned as oppressor of the poor and celebrated as one of the poor oppressed. In Phelps’s story the lady’s tower is the tenement building in which she lives. This building is in the middle of the ghetto, and the ghetto is in the middle of the city (Phelps 1871). The Lady’s tenement building shares none of the amenities of a medieval tower which houses a regal lady. The Lady lives in the attic room of an old ramshackle tenement. The room in infested with rats, a hole in the wall lets in the weather year round, and the stairs have no rail (Phelps 1871). In Tennyson’s poem, the fields separate the Lady from typical civilization on every side by food products that they do not have any claim to, and Phelps’s story does the same thing with the products of the people’s labor. Phelps’s tenement/tower is surrounded by people. These people, the residents of the ghetto could be considered to be her subjects that she watches over, and she watches over the flow of the products that they create from the poor of the ghetto to the coffers of the city. While the poor people of the ghetto are surrounded by the opulence and beauty of the nineteenth century civilization’s crown jewel, the modern city. Like the medieval feudal system the nineteenth century city is built on the backs of the poor for the benefit of the rich.

Phelps’s Lady only ever sees the world through her mirror (Phelps 1871). This mirror shows her dual identity, how she lives as one of the poor but sees the lives of the lives of the poor through the eyes of the eyes of the rich. When The Lady sees waves in the mirror, Phelps’s narrator says, “They have green faces and grey hair. They threw back their hands, like cool people resting, and it seemed unaccountable…. Besides this, they kept their faces clean” (Phelps 1871). The green faces and grey hair of the waves conjures images of American presidents printed on paper money. According to, American dollars had a green printed back and black ink printed on the front (United States Note). The back face of is green ink and the fine detail in the black ink of the portrait on the front makes the hair look grey. These waves of American currency double as people, as the poor of the ghetto. They have hands to throw back and rest. The “unaccountable” resting wave people mirror the typical stereotype of the poor as lazy and irresponsible. And the description of clean faces represents the way that the people of the city that benefit from the conditions of the poor can willfully ignore the cultural and economic pressures that force the poor into their lives in the ghetto.

In Tennyson’s poem, the poor farmers that provide the economic income that allows for the continued existence of the city of Camelot have a connection to the products they make by following the growth of the grain from planting to reaping. But Phelps’s story alienates the poor people from the process of production. The characters of Phelps’s story do not get the satisfaction of producing an entire product. This story shows the poor of the nineteenth century city as a cog in a much larger machine. Sary Jane is constantly sewing (Phelps 1871). She sews together the cloth that was created in a factory out her sight. And the workers in the factory that create the cloth are removed from the growing, reaping, and processing of the cotton that goes into the cloth. Neither Sary Jane, the people that create the cloth, nor the people that grow the cotton get to be involved with the selling of the nankeen vests that Sary Jane or any of the other countless seamstresses sew. As the only mention of jobs for the poor In Phelps’s story, Sary Jane’s never ending repetitive job stands in as a typical job of the nineteenth century poor worker.

Every time that Sary Jane shows up in this story, she is sewing nankeen vests, “at sixteen and three-quarter cents a dozen” (Phelps 1871). But for her labors she gets very little in return. According to, the rent for a New York tenement during the 1870s would run between eight and fifteen dollars per month (Lower Eastside Tenement Museum). In order to make the eight dollars for rent, Sary Jane has to sew at least five hundred and seventy-six nankeen vests per month and more if she and the lady want to eat. Sary Jane must average just over 19 vests per day just to afford rent. If she works sixteen hours per day, she has to sew one vest every forty minutes of every waking hour of every day. Sary Jane seldom makes enough to cover much more than just the rent. Just like in Tennyson’s poem, the goods flow away from the people that produce them.

When speaking about the grain that the farmers sew, Tennyson’s poem states that the grains of barley and rye “clothe the wold [sic] and meet the sky” (Tennyson 3). The narrator shows the importance of these grains with the romantic description. The grains clothe the world. To clothe the world literally would keep the planet warm and protected from the elements, but in this case, the world is referring to civilization. Sary Jane’s nankeen vests literally preform the function that the grain figuratively performed in Tennyson’s poem. Sary Jane’s vests cloth the world or at least the people in it. The clothing of the world with grain protects civilization by keeping fed the people that comprise the civilization. Her constant sewing references back the farmers working in the fields of Tennyson’s poem. But the farmers of Tennyson’s poem have an advantage over the poor workers of Phelps’s story. They are working with actual food products. If they are not being compensated enough to buy their own food, they can eat the grain that they are growing. However, In Phelps’s story, Sary Jane and other workers of the nineteenth century city make an inedible product. If they are not being compensated enough to buy their own food, they go without. In the scene that she goes in search of food, Sary Jane comes back with only a lemon for her dinner (Phelps 1871). And this lack of nutrition does not bode well for Phelps’s Lady, who had been crippled from a young age.

Both Tennyson and Phelps use the breaking of the mirror as the impetus for The Lady’s death. But Tennyson’s Lady dies because of a curse and Phelps’s Lady dies because the lifting of a curse. When the mirror shatters in Phelps’s story, The Lady is no longer cursed to see the world through the eyes willfully ignorant eyes of the rich. When the doctor comes to check on The Lady, His eyes are finally opened to the true horror of the treatment of the poor. He is shocked by the conditions in which The Lady lives and claims that she could be cured if only she gets moved to better conditions and given treatment. But Just like The Lady, who is incapable of changing her situation due to her inability to move, the doctor seems to be paralyzed by the by the enormity of the institutionalized problem that he is faced with. Instead of actually taking care of her himself, he sends for the board of health and goes on vacation. The doctor like so many of the others that had seen glimpses of the life of the poor hands off his responsibility to help to someone else. And The Lady follows the doctor and goes off to take her rest instead of doing something to fix the societal problems. Only, The Lady’s restful vacation from her stressful existence in the city is one in which she cannot return. The Lady’s restful vacation from her life is death.

Tennyson’s poem and Phelps’s story work together to create a field of discourse around the unfair treatment of the poor in the medieval feudal system and the capitalist society of the modern nineteenth century city. While Casetti shows that the ideas brought up in the original occurrence of a story inform the reading of the ideas that come up in the adaptation Tennyson’s poem into Phelps’s story shows that the ideas of the adaptation can also inform the reading of the original.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

“Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. <;.

Phelps, Elizabeth. “The Lady of Shalott | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Lady of Shalott | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott (1842 Version) | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Lady of Shalott (1842 Version) | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

“United States Note.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.

Powers’ Classical Realism and Wolfe’s Anti-ideal Ideal

The anonymous article, “The Process of Sculpture” details the typical artistic process for creating a sculpture in the 19th century and how the process was altered when Hiram Powers created his sculpture “The Greek Slave.” The sculptural process begins with the creation of an iron frame for support. On top of the frame, the artist applies clay until the sculpture is nearly complete. Then, the artist hires models from whom he or she derives the minute details of the sculpture. Finally, the artist directs the work of laborers to recreate his work of art in marble. However, Hiram Powers deviates from typical procedures by choosing a slave as his subject and by using a single model to sit for his sculpture. Powers’ slave is contrasted against Zeuxis’ picture of Hellen of Troy. And whereas Zeuxis had all of the beautiful women of Greece to blend together into the ideal Helen, Powers only used one model to create his sculpture (The Process of Sculpture 317-318.) The Realism in Power’s approach and the contrast between realist and classical approaches to sculpture take center stage in the discussion of Hugh Wolfe’s statue in Life in the Iron Mills; yet, Davis’s story shows that art, like life, defies simple categorization.

According to the article, “The Process of Sculpture,” true artistry was only attainable by those who went through several time consuming preparatory steps and were blessed with “high and refined mental gifts” (The Process of Sculpture 317-318.) And the actual carving of the marble was done by laborers. The article states, “The processes whereby it was now to be transferred to marble… are purely mechanical, and are performed, under the artist’s directions, by uninspired hands” (The Process of Sculpture 318.) However, Wolfe brings into question the validity of these ideas.

Both Powers and Wolf bucked the classical trend by creating sculptural works that used subjects that fit well within the Realist Ideal. The subject of Powers’ sculpture The Greek Slave, although modeled from classical Greece, is a slave, and the focus on the lower classes is one of the hallmarks of Realism. However, Powers departs from realist ideals in his choice of model. He found one model that satisfied almost every ideal standard of beauty (The Process of Sculpture 318.) And the reference to Zeuxis of ancient Greece in the article adds the feeling that Powers’ standard of ideal beauty did not stray far from that of the ancient Greeks.

Wolfe, on the other hand, maintains the standard of realism not only in the selection of a female worker as the subject of his sculpture, but also in the rugged standard of beauty in which he renders the sculpture. The dichotomy of ruggedness and beauty are exemplified when Doctor May admires the beauty in the sweep of muscles in the arm but says, “A working woman,—the very type of her class,” and Mitchel replies, “God forbid” (Rebecca Harding Davis 53.) To add on to the idea that Wolfe has created an object defies easy categorization as art (at least within the classical style of thinking), the narrator, describing the statue, says, “There is not a line of beauty or grace in it” (Rebecca Harding Davis 53.) With this thought even the narrator seems to be debating with him or herself the particular artistic merits of Wolfe’s sculpture. Therefore, Powers’ proclivity for minor deviations from classical style would not be enough let him enjoy Wolfe’s sculptural work. Powers would likely share Mitchel and Doctor May’s sentiment if he were confronted with Wolfe’s sculpture. But the mere fact that Mitch, Doctor May, and Kirby spend so much time discussing the sculpture proves its worth as an important work of art.

In the end, Wolfe’s sculpture is shown to have no real value other than its ability to bring up the question of how we define and value art without giving any definitive answers, but the contrast between classical and Realist styles in both “The Process of Sculpture” and Life in the Iron Mills shows that the process of sculpture is whatever process one chooses. Wolfe has chosen to create his sculpture without the aid of a master artist, and presumably, without the aid of early planning stages. The narrator never gives a definitive statement as to whether or not Wolfe has done any study sketches, carvings in miniature, or full size sculptures in clay prior to commencing work on the statue. However, Kirby does claim that Wolfe could have used any of his shirtless coworkers as inspiration and anatomical study (Davis 53.) While Wolfe skips many of the classical steps in the sculptural process, if Kirby’s assumption is correct, Wolfe has the realist equivalent to Zeuxis’ pick of all the women of Greece in his hundreds of coworkers, and by proxy Wolfe’s sculpture is the Hellen of the working class, the Realist ideal, the anti-ideal ideal.

Work Cited

Anonymous. “The Process of Sculpture.” Life in the Iron Mills. Ed. Cecelia Tichi. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 317-318. Print.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills. Ed. Cecelia Tichi. Boston: Bedford, 1998. Print.

Holding a Mirror to Society

Taken from ANTON OTTO FISCHER MARINE ARTIST; Katrina Sigsbee Fisher and Alex A. Hurst; Mill Hill Press; Nantucket; MA; © 1984; #159
Taken from ANTON OTTO FISCHER MARINE ARTIST; Katrina Sigsbee Fisher and Alex A. Hurst; Mill Hill Press; Nantucket; MA; © 1984; #159

In Crane’s story, “The Open Boat” the characters are kept from giving up in the face of an unrelenting and uncaring world by focusing their every thought on the work of survival. Similarly, Sary Jane spends her entire time just trying to survive. She constantly focus on her work making nankeen vests. This focus on her work keeps her from giving in to the unrelenting and uncaring environment of the ghetto. On the other hand, The Lady of Shalott is bedridden and unable to work. Being unable to lose herself in the repetition of mundane tasks, she uses her mirror to find beauty in the terrible struggle of day to day life in the ghetto.

Phelps’s story, “The Lady of Shalott” uses mirrors and other glass or glasslike objects to filter out the horrors of the naturalist world in which the characters live. Because The Lady of Shalott cannot move from her bed she is forced to view the world through the ten inches by six inches of mirror. Mirrors reflect a reverse image of the world, and The lady of Shalott’s mirror shows her a world of magic and beauty instead of the conditions in which she actually lives. And there is a sense that as long as she the beauty in the world she will not be affected by these terrible surroundings. In fact, she states that the reason that the people who live in the space below the sidewalk had a mirror they would not have succumbed to the inhuman heat of the summer. And The Lady of Shalott does not die until after her mirror gets destroyed.

But the mirror is not the only screen separating The Lady of Shalott from the reality of the ghetto. Her mirror gives her a view of a window which is the only way that she has to view the world in which she lives. Being shut up in this attack room since was five years old has given her the ability to understand the world from an elitist point of view hence the name The Lady of Shallott. The Lady of Shalott’s misunderstanding of the world mirrors the way that the rest of the population of the city can see the poverty of the ghettos without actually understanding how bad they really are. When the doctor comes to check on The Lady of Shalott, there is a sense that he has come down from his palace and can finally see the conditions in which the poor actually live. He is shocked by the conditions in which The Lady of Shalott lives and claims that she could be cured if only she was moved to better conditions and given treatment. But instead of actually taking care of her himself, he sends for the board of health and goes on vacation. The doctor like so many of the others that had seen glimpses of the life of the poor handed off his responsibility to help to someone else and their help was too little too late.

Fairytales and the Sounds of War


Ambrose Bierce’s story, “Chickamauga” furthers the argument from “Edison Realism Test” that sound emitted from the phonograph has the ability induce the same emotion that a live experience has. “Chickamauga” uses the premise that without sound one cannot register the appropriate emotional experience in the first place. This story also questions literature’s ability to portray the real with only print’s pale representation of sound. At the same time, the story uses the boy’s inappropriate emotional response to direct the reader to the appropriate emotional response even though there is a lack of auditory input.

Because the boy is only six years old and cannot hear or speak, he has had very little exposure to the world through education or actual life experience. Just like the average person who reads literature about the glory of war, he misinterprets the “ghastly gravity” of the wounded soldiers as “a merry spectacle” (Chickamauga). But more often literature about the glory of war did not delve into the wounds that soldiers received at any level of depth. Therefore, only someone like Bierce, who had seen the horrors of war first hand, would understand that the events depicted in this type of literature is not a merry spectacle because unlike Edison’s phonograph literature cannot pass the Edison Realism Test.

“Chickamauga” Juxtaposes language glorifying war with graphic depictions of wounded and dying soldiers. As the story goes on, the depiction of death and destruction takes precedence in the story and eventually the deaf child, who was a mighty conqueror, is reduced to a chattering ape or a gobbling turkey (Chickamauga). And like the fate of the boy the reader is taken on an emotional roller-coaster as the story begins like the telling of a fairytale and ends with the boy staring at the dead body of what is presumably his mother and watching his home burn (Chickamauga). This last picture of the death of the innocent town’s folk, of the family of the child leaves the reader with both the understanding of some of the hurdles that literature must leap in order to depict the real and an understanding of the importance of sound in signifying the real.

The Nosegay Effect: How to Smell Real


The snippet from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction,” he represents a novel (and other examples of art by extension) as a flower saying that some of these works of art have the smell of reality. He then his alters his metaphor to a nosegay (Henry James). While nosegay can refer to a posies specifically or a small bouquet of flowers in general, James uses words like air, air-borne, atmosphere, suspended, faint, and particle to play up the smell related aspects of the word, nosegay and bring one’s attention to the smell related meanings of the word such as sweet smelling flowers, herbs, or perfume (Oxford English Dictionary). When James relates a finished piece of art to a nosegay, he is saying that realist art (while not actually real) has suspended within its unreality the faint air-borne particle that reminds the audience of the atmosphere of reality. Therefore, art can never truly represent the real.

In James’ “The Real Thing,” the Monarchs are unfit subjects for realist representation in sketches because they are already a convincing representation of reality. The artist initially assumes that the Monarchs are celebrities, and the porter’s wife announces them as “a gentleman—with a lady” (The Real Thing, Chapter 1). However, throughout the story he receives several hints that they are not the upper-class individuals that they seem to be. They had once made a living taking portraits for advertisements but had fallen on hard times. Now, they have no money. They live in a small apartment. They are forced to beg the artist for work. And once the artist realizes that he cannot do anything with them, he continues to employ them as charity (Chapters 1-3).

If they were actual aristocrats, they would not have been working for their wages in the first place. And if they had fallen on hard times, they would have been taken in by their relatives or friends who had room and money for them. The simple fact that they had no family or friends to give them somewhere to live shows that they only pretend to be aristocracy. But the Monarchs ability to act and dress refined is so good that that artist never questions their airs of aristocracy. Therefore, the reason that the artist is unable to convincingly draw them any other way than the way they look is because he is being influenced by Henry James’ nosegay effect. The Monarchs have created an atmosphere with suspended particles of the scent of aristocracy.

Twain’s Covert, Overt Discussion of Racism

Mark Twain

Twain brings up an interesting conundrum in “The United States of Lyncherdom.” When considering the rise in lynchings, Twain writes, “Is it because men think a lurid and terrible punishment a more forcible object lesson and a more effective deterrent than a sober and colorless hanging done privately in a jail would be?” (Twain 194). Twain describes a lynching as lurid and terrible and a state sanctioned hanging as sober and colorless. If Twain is using the dictionary definition of the word lynching, he is making a strange statement by describing a hanging in contradictory terms. However, he does make this contradictory statement after giving the example of the Pierce City lynching that made little sense because the man that they lynched would have hanged anyway if he had gone to trial (Twain 194). After this example, Twain’s contradictory statement about lynching can be read as an unstated indictment of the racism inherent in the justice system itself. Twain hints at the problem of racism when he writes, “… There are but few negroes in that region and they are without authority and without influence in overawing juries (Twain 194). He only goes as far as to say that the black people in the area have no influence on juries and does not explain why they had no influence.

Twain writes his contradictory lurid, colorless terrible, sober linchings in the form of a question. Asking the reader to decide whether or not a mob run lynching is a more forcible punishment than an inevitable legally run hanging also gives the reader the time to contemplate just how different the two types of execution are. Also, When Twain compares two forms of execution that are essentially the same, only differing in who is carrying them out, but describes them with opposite adjectives, he is giving the reader the chance to think about the differences between the people that comprise the mob of lynchers and the jury. A mob of lynchers would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody, and a jury would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody. Therefore, even though Twain did not have the word racism set into type, “The United States of Lyncherdom” is a serious writing directly discussing the problem of southern racism.

Edna’s Transcendental Reading


Kate Chopin’s inclusion of the reference to Emerson creates an interesting intertextual dialogue within The Awakening. Emerson’s transcendentalism is an attempt to find knowledge, truth, and enlightenment through introspection and a one on one communion with nature. A follower of Emerson would retreat to a cabin in the woods and learn the secrets of the universe through direct observation of nature. Edna’s awakening follows the Emerson model in a few key ways.

Her process of awakening begins with her epiphany inside the ocean. She seems to have a miraculous shift from non-swimmer to swimmer (31.) But following Emerson’s logic, Edna did not miraculously or accidentally learn to swim; she had finally opened herself to the enlightening influence of nature. The ocean imagery shows where Edna’s sudden learning came from. Chopin writes, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in the abysses of solitude; to lose itself in inward contemplation” (16.) The next sentence goes on describing the touch and embrace of the sea (16.) The personification of the sea is not just a poetic flourish of language, but also the way of showing Edna’s transcendent interconnectedness with nature. Edna’s new knowledge was imparted to her from the seductive voice of the sea. And the sea is another source of solitude which is another of Emerson’s requirements for transcendence.

However, Edna’s strength to follow through with her Emersonian quest for transcendence is called into question on at least two occasions. Mademoiselle Reiz checks Edna for wings then says, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” (92.) This conversation brings into question Edna’s ability to follow Emerson’s path to transcendence. In fact, Edna had only been seeking transcendence through half measures. Edna seeks her solitude while still surrounded with people. While communing with nature in the ocean she is still surrounded by the rest of her party (31.) She glorifies in her solitude when her family leaves the house (80.) And in many other cases where Edna is alone she is able to see the world in a new perspective. But as Chopin writes, “Then Edna sat in the library and read Emerson until she grew sleepy” (81.)

Edna’s full transcendent potential is thwarted by an only partial adherence to Emerson’s teachings. She is not strong enough to remove herself from society completely, and therefore, she is continually held back from her goals of a happy fulfilled life. And in the end, when she comes to the conclusion that she must leave the city to truly commune with nature, Edna only makes it back to her family vacation home (125.) Since she is still surrounded by connections to society and her family life by the mostly empty vacation homes and her mostly empty happy memories, Edna is incapable of reaching the solitude and contentment. Because of her inability to let go of her past, the only way that Edna can reach total emersion in nature and undisturbed solitude is to strip naked and swim out into the ocean and drown (128.)

Painting “Real” Life

As paintings are generally considered to be examples of fine art, and fine art is intended for consumption by the upper class, I have a hard time reconciling it with the other forms of realism that we have been discussing in class. Photographs capture a scene in a short period of time with a high level of fidelity. Sketches take a little longer to capture a scene. And they do not typically capture the same level of detail as a photograph. But they can capture the motion that would blur in a photograph of the 19th century. Furthermore, due to the expense and difficulty of printing photographs to newspapers and magazines, sketches were a legitimate and respected form for the delivery of news. On the other hand, paintings take much more time to create an image than either photographs or sketches. Artists hire models that sit for hours. And painters require a knowledge of craft that far exceeds the needs of photographers or sketch artists. Therefore, photographs and sketches from the 19th century have a stronger association with “the real” than high art like paintings.

But paintings do have ways of creating reality effects. Like sketches photographs had the ability to capture the essence of movement. During the 19th century, painters began to pick subjects that aligned with realist sensibilities. However, the ability to create works of art in full color is one reality effect that photographs and sketches did not have.


The Fog Warning, 1885, Boston Art Museum, Boston

Typical of naturalist or possibly regionalist content, Homer’s The Fog Warning depicts a fisherman struggling against the choppy ocean to bring in the day’s catch. The ocean and boat are highly detailed. Yet, the figure rowing the boat is painted relatively small and the man’s facial features are simply done. The focus on the boat and the ocean and the readily identifiable fisherman’s clothing shows that the occupation and the natural setting are more important than the identity of the figure.


George Bellows, Both Members of This Club (1909), National Gallery of Art. Bellows was a close associate of the Ashcan school.

George Bellows Both Members of This Club makes the two boxers in the ring the main focus of the painting depicting making them highly detailed large and centered. However, due to the positioning of the combatant’s arms their faces are obscured. Because of the hidden faces of the boxers, the focus of the painting is on the event rather than the figures. And the realist subject of this painting becomes both the occupation of boxer and the pastime of the city dwellers who watch the fight.


George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

George Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers depicts the everyday struggle of life in the city. While there are many figures in the crowd on the street, they are rendered indistinctly focusing the viewer’s eyes on the crowd rather than on individuals. Most of the detail is focused on the buildings and the clothes lines, laden with drying clothes, strung from one building to the next. This painting seems to be focused on the unique struggle of daily life in the cities and the people’s fear of losing their identities among the faceless throng.

Realizing Morality

cadian ball

In “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” I noticed one of the aspects of realism that we have not discussed much in class. Characters in realist fiction are allowed to both portray more complicated morality, and accept more complicated morality on the part of other characters. After Calixta was observed poking fun at Bobinot, Madame Suzonne whispered to the woman next to her explaining what would happen if any of the other girls would have done the same thing. She says, “[Ozeina] should immediately be taken out to the mule-cart and driven home” (188.) The narrator follows the line up with the obvious interpretation, “The women did not always approve of Calixta” (188.) The narrator’s inclusion of the word, always, in this interpretation of the scene shows that there were times when the women did approve of Calixta. In fact, this scene shows that more often than not the other women approved of her by connecting the narrator’s statement about the women’s approval in connection with a specific event in which Calixta stepped out of line. But even if Madame Suzonne had felt that she had the authority to have Calixta punished for her flaunting of the social norms, she would only have been sent home to contemplate what she had done, and the next time they saw each other Madame Suzonne would not feel scandalized to be in her presence. Because of the realist filter on reality (which tries to communicate unfiltered reality), the other women at the ball are given the freedom to understand that people are not perfect and that occasionally straying from proper etiquette does not make Calixta a bad person. However, if this scene were written in the sentimental style, Calixta’s step away from proper etiquette would have been followed up with (instead of whispers and a flat statement of occasional disapproval) Madame Suzonne busting out into the center of the room, raising the back of her hand to her forehead, yelling out, “I declare,” and faking a swoon before working up the anger of the rest of the partygoers and having Calixta set apart as a pariah.

Life in the Iron Mills: Realistic and Sentimental Fusion

The narrator of the story uses direct address to the reader in order to manipulate the reader’s emotions with the use of sentimental language. The narrator says, “I want to tell you a story” (41.) The redundancy of informing the reader that the narrator wants to tell a story after the story has already begun is a sentimental writing technique used to reassert the importance of the story that is being told. By assuring the reader that the story is not going to waste his or her time, the narrator is attempting to manipulate the reader into believing the story through the narrator’s use of authoritative language. The narrator is attempting to achieve verisimilitude by informing the reader that there is something important that is about to be told. Therefore, when used properly, this technique achieves a reality effect by entreating the reader to believe that the story is real. In this story, the sentimental techniques are reinforced by nearly two full pages of beautiful concrete imagery that falls more firmly into the realism school of writing. The author uses phrases like: thick clammy air- Irishmen puffing Lynchburg tobacco- and black, slimy pools on the muddy streets (39.) These phrases bring the story to life in a vivid visual way, and further allow the reader to be drawn into the sentimental manipulation of the narrator’s want to tell the reader a story.