The Dwarf in “The Dwarf” as a Parody of Christ

The eponymous character in Pär Lagerkvist‘s novel The Dwarf sheds wonderful insights on the topics of being and cosmic harmony through his grotesque words and actions in the story. Chief among his points is the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. The dwarf has many convictions about himself, including that he is of an ancient race that predates “normal” humanity. This helps separate him from the people he hates so much. He insists that dwarves do not play and they only have one existence and do not pretend anything. The princess plays with her lovers and the astronomers play with the stars, despite having no effect on life at all. The dwarf is only himself and owns this existence. This is ironic because he is in reality owned by the Prince and is charged with putting on many performances for the normal people who laugh at his antics. All he does is play, and the games are mockeries of real-life events like communion and battle. By stating that he is never pretending, the dwarf is enforcing the idea that life itself is absurd, and he is revealing that truth by parodying real life.


His philosophy is also colored with intense hatred for humanity because of how he is treated by it. The games people force him to play are an extension of the philosophy they have of dwarves: that they are parodies of humans. Their grotesque bodies are only capable of grotesque parodies of real life, but the dwarf understands that because he can’t hide who he is, he is the only person not pretending. The games he is forced to play are attempts to hide the truth that normal life is grotesque. He is revealing the truth of life’s absurdity when he creates absurd retellings of “normal” life. When the dwarf disrupts a fake communion, he is punished, but his action is a statement on the absurdity of “legitimate” communion. The people can’t handle being told their lives are meaningless, so they take it out on the dwarf who is enlightened. That is another grotesque irony: that the subject of their scorn is actually a being that brings them truth, much like a messiah.

The theme of religion is brought up so often in this work (and most of the Grotesque). The dwarf continues to ponder the subject of Christ and how he is hated and killed by humanity. The dwarf continues to imagine himself on that cross being humiliated like Christ, taking the punishment all of humanity deserves. This brings up the idea that the dwarf is ironically the embodiment of Christ in our world: truer than normal people and showing that truth to them through his suffering. Christ was called a blasphemer by the religious authority of his time, and so is the dwarf when he disrespects their communion. He is the messiah returned to show the people the truth. That life is shit, and so are we.

Bernardo the artist expounds the theme of finding truth in his art and science. The dwarf’s reaction to his ideas is a reflection of the novel’s take on existence. When Bernardo proclaims life to be a miracle and all of Creation to be in cosmic harmony, the dwarf is disgusted and hates him. But when Bernardo laments over the meaninglessness of life, the dwarf is amazed. The dwarf uses examples of humanity’s ugliness to express his existential disgust, but Bernardo actually states that all of humanity is an attempt at something they can never achieve. All of mankind is pretending and playing at life while the dwarf simply lives it. They see his antics as a ridiculous retelling of their lives, but it is the truest retelling of it: the fakeness is the truest part. The dwarf in The Dwarf makes for an odd savior, but the point of a messiah is to enlighten the people who don’t understand and reveal that they have been living meaninglessly. The truth is harsh, and so is the dwarf that tells it.


Mantid Magazine!

The Grotesque, The Carnival, and The Joker

Please check out this link to my essay in the inaugural issue of Mantid Magazine! They’ve just published the first issue and hope to do more! It’s a brand new e-zine featuring weird fiction and art with a focus on diversity in media. It’s a passion project for many artists and writers, and we’d really appreciate the support! Thanks!

The Dichotomy in “The Day of the Locust”

A central theme to this novel is illusion, and the many façades – both physical and metaphorical – used as examples of illusion appear to make the world complex, but that supposed complexity is the larger illusion. Nathanael West’s message is that the people of the world are inherently awful and put on the appearance of being good. That itself is an oversimplification, but that’s the point of the novel’s outlook on the world. People are simply awful. They hide the fact that they have repressed sexual desires that can turn violent, and West shows them as only having these two sides: the fake exterior and the true, depraved interior. How characters react to this dichotomy sheds more light on this worldview.

The protagonist of the novel, Tod Hackett is a painter that judges everyone around him based on the position they fill, mostly because he’s planning to used them for a painting of Hollywood. This is the main embodiment of the dichotomy: seeing people as they are, as opposed as to how they appear to be. A painting will only depict something as it appears, so Tod wants to delve deeper into the illusions everyone creates for himself or herself. He doesn’t see people as complex and assumes they all fit into a role, even if they don’t want to. That’s where the repression comes in; Homer Simpson is meek because an awkward sexual encounter leaves him repressed. He feels strong desire for Faye but can’t express it. His façade is that shyness and his true self is the sexual violence that explodes at the end of the novel. Homer represents the Hollywood illusion shattering when prodded ever so slightly (when Adore throws a rock at him).

Faye is an important character because she sits at the core of everyone’s sexual desires that they leave pent up for most of the novel. She enjoys it however, using her mature sexuality as the façade that gets her through the world, when in reality she is a naïve child trying to make it in a world of men fawning over her. When she finally has sex with Miguel, Earle fights him (echoing the cockfights from before). This foreshadows the climax of the novel: when the illusion gives way to reality, violence erupts. Other characters that represent façades include Adore the bratty child that is supposed to be a cute child actor, Harry Greener who keeps up the image of a funny clown while working as a failed door-to-door salesmen, and “Honest” Abe Kusich who usurps the expectations of his own name by being a dwarf. He compensates his height by being belligerent and scorning Faye’s terrible acting. Like Homer, he hides his sexual desires, but with anger rather than shyness. Anger is the byproduct of Homer’s repression.

The last scene of the novel is the most important for the dichotomy; the hidden side of Hollywood bursts forth and the street flood with sexual violence. Tod tries to escape from the real-life violence by thinking about the fantasy violence he wishes to paint, which is almost identical to the reality before him. The dichotomy has come together, and reality can no longer be extricated from fantasy. To fully embody this occurrence, as Tod is pulled away from the riot, he cannot tell the wailing of the police siren from his own wailing and finds it hilarious. He used to be able to call everyone’s bluff and separate the illusion from the truth, but now he can’t. The once superior intellectual finally shows his true colors as a madman.

The Power of Disguise in Shakespearian Comedy Part 2: Further Androgyny

“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s more chaotic plays, with the events and themes tossing and turning like the boat Viola took to Illyria. Viola’s decision to dress as a eunuch is not inspired by love but by logic: “For such a disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him; It may be worth thy pains. For I can sing, And speak to him in many sorts of music That will allow me very worth his service” (I.iii.54-59). She figures that a male disguise would offer more work to her than her present female garments. She also can’t serve Olivia because it is said she refuses to speak with strangers. As the fictional Cesario, she goes to work for Duke Orsino and quickly becomes his favorite page. She also falls in love with the duke, who is convinced she is a man and has no mutual feelings. Under his command, she goes to deliver Orsino’s love messages to Olivia, but the noblewomen almost immediately falls in love with the disguise of Cesario, even after refusing to see any suitors. This causes some concern for Viola, who of course does not reciprocate and now finds herself in the strangest love triangle: she loves Orsino, who loves Olivio, who loves Cesario. The other two believe her to be a man, so she’s in the most uncomfortable position of power. This love triangle shows how Shakespeare has perfected how to structural use disguise for a good comedic plot, and beyond that, more truths are exposed in Viola’s deceit. Her situation is similar to Rosalind’s, when Phebe falls in love with Ganymede because of how well Rosalind chides.

The purpose of the event goes beyond the comedy of a women falling in love with a false man; Phebe reveals this when expressing her feelings for Ganymede: “Think not I love him, though I ask for him; ‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well. But what care I for words? Yet words do well When he that speaks them please those that hear. It is a pretty youth. Not very pretty. But sure he’s proud. And yet his pride becomes him” (III.v.109-114). She is not as attracted to the face she sees as she is the voice that speaks and the mind behind it, meaning her infatuation is very much real even though it is for a woman. If she knew the truth she would be less inclined to those feelings, but that would impede the honesty of her being. Phebe truly loves the kind of person Ganymede, not knowing that his true person is female. But that reveals people’s capacity for love unrestricted by gender. Olivia further shows this through her genuine infatuation with Cesario. Kimbrough has much to say on the topic concerning the relationship between men and women in the plays: “Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s ‘furthest venture into androgyny.’ Viola, who is far more troubled by the ‘sex of her sex’ than is Rosalind, must learn that androgyny is ‘not a physical state, but a state of mind.’ Assisted in this because she is a twin, Viola through her disguise makes Orsino more ‘confessional,’ freeing her as a ‘prisoner of gender,’ and teaching us that ‘many apparent differences between men and women are dissolvable” (Kimbrough 30).

Viola “dissolves” the differences between men and women by showing that women are capable of doing tasks that men are known for, including woo women. Rosalind does this as well, but Kimbrough claims Viola to be a stronger model because of her male twin. She shared a womb with a brother and because of their similar features is able to pass as a male page and cause trouble, until Sebastian shows up to rescue her from the love triangle and marry Olivia in place of the fictional Cesario. Sebastian concludes the message that Viola proposes: men and women are equal. Olivia falls in love with the visage and persona of Cesario, who in truth is a women, but she is still satisfied when a real man who matches her face (and arguably personality) appears to consummate the marriage. The twins represent the same person, the opposing genders symbolically canceling each other out in Cesario, who is (not accidently) a eunuch. This concept fits into the nature of “Twelfth Night,” as the Lord of Misrule flips gender on its head. Shakespeare has achieved the truth about gender that all his cross-dressing antics were attempting to find. By covering up their gender, the characters revealed that all of our true selves are without gender. This fits into the paradigm of Shakespeare using deceit to reveal truth.

Deceit is also used in “The Winter’s Tale” to influence events, but in a way unique from the disguises of the previous plays. King Leontes goes mad and has his pregnant wife locked up in prison after she gives birth to a daughter that he suspects is the product of infidelity. Paulina enters to announce that Hermione has died in prison, and Leontes grieves. Sixteen years later, after all the events of the play, the ensemble collects around a finished statue of Hermione. Before the unveiling, Paulina comments on how lifelike it is: “As she lived peerless So her dead likeness I do well believe Excels whatever yet you looked upon, Or hand of man hath done; therefore I keep it Lonely, apart. But here it is; prepare To see the life as lively mocked, as ever Still sleep mocked death: behold, and say ‘tis well” (V.iii.14-20). The language here foreshadows the reveal that comes soon after: Hermione is alive, and we assume she’s been hidden away by Paulina for the sixteen years of the play. The statue is “life as lively mocked, as ever still sleep mocked death,” which compares how identical sleep is to death and how identical the statue is to the dead Hermione. It isn’t a real statue; the true mockery is that she feigned death and was spirited away. Death is the disguise Hermione uses in The Winter’s Tale to avoid her husband’s wrath, and she only returns when Perdita is reunited with her family. Paulina’s last words are “Our Perdita is found” (V.iii.121) before her first words are spoken, which includes “Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? How found Thy father’s court? For thou shalt heat that I, Knowing by Paulina that the oracle Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved Myself to see the issue” (V.iii.123-128). Hermione says that she preserved her own life in the hopes that she would see her living daughter again as the oracle predicted. The queen doesn’t do anything to influence the return of her lost daughter, but her disappearance does punish for her husband, whose is responsible for the entire conflict. Her charade of faking death is similar to Falstaff’s feigning death at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. He employs the trick to avoid actual death at the hands of his enemies, and Hermione also saves her life by mocking its end. The disguise of death is used to preserve life in both cases, but with entirely different purposes. Falstaff is a coward and an egoist who claims that to truly die would be make one a mockery of a man because his perfect state is living. “Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed” (V.iv.114-119). His use of counterfeit reveals his personal truth about life and how best to live it. He fakes dying because he believes the man who preserves his own life at all costs, even going so far as you fake death, is living his life perfectly. This contrasts to Hermione, who saved her own life and lifted the disguise once she could complete her family. They are contrasting examples of how counterfeiting death can save one’s life for selfish and selfless reasons.

Hermione brings the happy ending of the play, while Falstaff is exposed as a fraud when he tries to take credit for killing Hotspur. Each gets their just deserts for their use of death, which speaks to the gravity of their actions. Death is not to be mocked, except for the most righteous of reasons, and Hermione’s was far more holy than Falstaff’s. Shakespeare used this kind of deceit very early in Henry IV, Part 1 and developed it to become a major positive catharsis later in his career with The Winter’s Tale. The truth of living brings joy to a grieving family, rather than to a fat old man trying to save his own skin.

Trickery is an essential device in a comedy, where misunderstanding fuels humor. A prolonged disguise provides a terrific fulcrum for a comedic play, and when that disguise crosses barriers between class and gender, it reveals something about how society views those concepts. People are still people, regardless of financial standing or assigned gender, but those biases create expectations that audiences hold when viewing them on a stage. Shakespeare has utilized those expectations in his work, when he introduces a character that plays upon these assumptions for his/her personal gain, he is exposing how people can be manipulated by their own biases. We are victims of a society that enforces those beliefs, and these characters are rebelling against that by merely jumping the line. Rather than Portia, Rosalind and Viola fooling the audience, we have already fooled ourselves into believing the fallacy of the gender binary. Hal remains the same person, but by consorting in a tavern with drunks, we immediately form assumptions about him. Theatre itself is a deceit, and all the characters are disguises that actors put on to fool the audience into learning some great truth. Young boys playing women speaks volumes about societal gender roles, but Shakespeare takes it further with his characters. The metaphysical layers of truth delve deep as disguised are mixed and deceit reveals truth. Shakespeare puts the world on a stage and reveals that androgyny and classless judgment are the greatest version humanity can reach for. Death gives way to life, and love (true, genderless love) can heal all.

Derose, David J., and Philip C. Kolin. “Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism: An
Annotated Bibliography and Commentary.” Tdr (1988-) 37.2 (1993): 32-35. Print.

Kimbrough, Robert. “Androgyny Seen through Shakespeare’s Disguise.” Shakespeare
Quarterly 33 (1982): 17-33.

Park, Clara C. “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular.” The
American Scholar 42.262-78 (1973): 100-16. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Albert Gilman. As You like It. New York: New American
Library, 1963. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Frank Kermode. The Winter’s Tale. New York: New
American Library, 1963. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part 1. New York: New American Library, 1965. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Herschel Clay Baker. Twelfth Night; or What You Will. New
York: New American Library, 1965. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Kenneth Myrick. The Merchant of Venice. New York: New
American Library, 1965. Print.

The Power of Disguise in Shakespearian Comedy Part 1: Falstaff and Cross-Dressing

Many characters take on disguises or employ deceit to influence events in Shakespeare’s comedies; this common device exposes an overarching theme in Shakespeare’s works of how these disguises subvert societal expectations of gender and class in Elizabethan society. While most scholars believe this rebellion is simply social, I believe Shakespeare was trying to reveal a deeper truth in his characters through their use of masks. By attempting to cover up their public identities, the characters access a truer self only fully realized in the safety of anonymity and androgyny. The subversion of gender plays a particularly part in the plays “The Merchant of Venice,” “As You Like It,” and “Twelfth Night,” and the trappings of class and status is central to “Henry IV, Part 1.” Deceit is also used in “The Winter’s Tale”, but our main focus will be how disguises specifically are used to reveal a deeper truth in the identities of the characters and in society.

“Henry IV, Part 1” is a play with deceit at its thematic center. It usually takes the form of counterfeit and the two largest practitioners are Hal and Falstaff. The characters incorporate concepts like social status and honor into their falsified personalities that act as masks allowing them to carry out their respective agendas. Falstaff’s deceit is his knighthood, which demands honor and integrity: traits Falstaff spectacularly lacks but even more spectacularly pretends to have. He puts on the mask of an honest and decent knight to have the power that comes with such a status. His deceit allows him the freedom to slip through class limitations and acquire happiness regularly limited to his kind. As with the other plays, the mask he wears reveals his true self, which is licentious and shameless. At the end of the action, Falstaff’s last lies are his feigning death to avoid getting killed and his lying about killing Hotspur to achieve glory. The latter fails to convince anyone, and he is punished as the story progresses. Falstaff’s deceit is meant to grant him power, like the other characters who assume disguises. And whenever the consequences of his actions get closer to affecting him, he prolongs the inevitable with the disguise of honesty. It catches up to him against his will, and the truth of his lowliness is revealed to everyone through his punishment. Rising from the shed identity, he will be the first example of the true self becoming more apparent after the mask is taken off.

On the other end, status can also be constricting, even when it’s the highest place in society. Hal has a lot of expectation piled onto him as the crown prince during a time of war. He cleverly lowers that expectation by putting on the charade of a lowly scapegrace consorting with drunkards and prostitutes. When the time comes, he subverts those low expectations by rising to the call of leadership and striking down the rebellion in the end. Hal does not take on a different gender, but he dances the line between social classes. This allows him the freedom to overthrow not only a dangerous revolution but also the heavy pressure that the crown can force on a person. In contrast to the other characters in disguise, Hal takes on a new name at the end when he accepts who he truly is, which is a responsible king. He is able to achieve this title by taking on the mask of an unscrupulous friend of Falstaff and turning on him in the next play, banishing him for his crimes of deceit. His true self is only accessible after he concedes the counterfeit self. This theme can be found to an even greater extent in the other plays employing false identities, when new names, occupations, and even genders are assumed.

Probably the most famous form of disguise that Shakespearian characters employ is cross-dressing, with Portia from “The Merchant of Venice” being one of the earliest practitioners. Throughout the play, the young girl had not been given the praise she deserved, while the conflict erupted around her. In Act 5, Portia takes matters into her own hands and assumes the disguise of a male lawyer in order to infiltrate the courtroom and provide legal information that saves Antonio’s life and transfers Shylock’s wealth and estate to his daughter and her husband. Nerissa assists her in the guise of a clerk, and with one swift act of deceit, the two women are able to turn the tide of the entire plot, while making a statement about her role in society. Portia’s disguise is not only a male, but also a lawyer, who holds essential power in the courtroom scene. She holds Antonio’s life in her hands and also acquires the freedom to overhear her husband voice his priorities concerning marital love and male friendship: “Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself; But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life. I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you” (IV.i.281-286). She responses appropriately rifled: “Your wife would give you little thanks for that If she were by to hear you make the offer” (IV.i.287-288). After using legal acumen to finagle Antonio out of his bond and defeat Shylock, Portia asks for Bassanio’s ring as payment for her services. It’s the same ring she gave to him to represent their bond of love, and he adamantly gives it to the judge and calls it a “trifle,” even offering to give more. Antonio too gives up his ring, not knowing Nerissa was also disguised as a clerk. They return at the end to expose their husband’s actions and challenge their intentions. The men are made into fools and are the better for it. Cross-dressing gave Portia and Nerissa the power to not only drive the plot to a happy conclusion using knowledge no man in the story possessed, but they also were able to test their husbands’ loyalty and find them wanting. Portia is endlessly clever and forceful, not letting Bassanio off the hook when he clearly did the wrong thing. She embodies the figure of the judge when punishing Shylock with the law and bringing judgment on Bassanio as well. Her truer inner self is revealed through her disguise, and it allows her to practice her abilities more freely. This kind of freedom exists in the social realm of Venice’s gender hierarchy and in the spiritual realm of Portia’s own identity.

Portia and Nerissa acquire personal and structural power to benevolently influence events and bring the play to a happy conclusion. Many writers comment on the power that cross-dressing bestows on Shakespearian women; Clara Claiborne Park focuses her essay, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” on that exact topic. “Male garments immensely broaden the sphere in which the female energy can manifest itself. Dressed as a man, a nubile woman can go places and do things she couldn’t do otherwise, thus getting the play out of the court and the closet and into interesting places like forests or Welsh mountains” (Park 108). For her, it’s about overcoming oppression that is directly linked to gender. The men surrounding Portia expect very little from her, so she is forced to take up male garments to have any power in the plot (as far as Park is convinced). She is intelligent and resourceful and uses these natural talents to shape the outcome of the play, but only once she assumes the role of a man in a male-dominated world. She is able to share in the power that men have, and Park is convinced that this is what exposes the biased nature of the patriarchy. Phillip Kolin seems to agree with her, writing that this is an acquisition of power for Portia that normally would not be granted to her because of the assumptions society makes about her gender and personality. “Catherin Wildermuth (1982, item 209) emphasizes that Portia is in complete control in Act 5. By giving Bassanio his ring, she removes the threat of cuckoldry and returns to an ‘unthreatening femininity’ for Anne Parten (1982, item 199). Portia’s double self (the Fair Maid of Belmont/Balthasar) is kept quite separate according to most feminist readers, though for Anne Parten again she is a ‘two-sexed figure’ (1982, item 199)” (Kolin 33). He references Portia’s double self and her being two-sex, which is the center of another theory about Shakespearian transvestitism.

This influential theory has philosophical roots asserts that Shakespeare’s female characters are not simply stripping the limitations of the female gender, but the limitations of gender itself as a concept in society. Robert Kimbrough writes extensively on this theory, stating that, “It is misleading to see only literal comedy behind the girl-as-boy disguises in Shakespeare. Renaissance Humanism saw androgyny as an ‘ideal goal, a secular dream’ because it allowed the individual to express ‘the wholeness and unity’ of ‘personhood’ and thereby escape ‘gender stereotyping’” (Kimbrough 25). According to him, the disguised women are not only acquiring power that women would not normally have in society, but they are also acquiring power any cis-gendered man or woman that isn’t connected to his/her androgynous self. When the women remove their disguises in the plays, they are more complete persons because of their journey across the artificial gender gap that society has constructed. Under the safety of their disguises Rosalind and Viola are able to pursue their suitors and test them in ways impossible while dressed as themselves. They also both face the threat of women falling in love with their disguised selves. As Ganymede scolds Phebe about love, she inadvertently incites the shepherdess to fall in love with the fictional male persona. These developments reveal things about humanity only possible when the limitations of gender is lifted.

Rosalind is lauded as one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters. Hailing from “As You Like It,” the determined and witty young woman drives the plot with her decision to accept her banishment and flee into the forest of Ardenne under the false male identity of Ganymede. She is able to use this persona to bestow her wisdom on her future-lover, Orlando, and others in the forest that she deems in need of help. Clara Claiborne Park admires her freedom as Ganymede, claiming it to be the proper subversion of societal pressures on femininity. “Once Rosalind is disguised as a man, she can be as saucy and self-assertive as she likes. The characters, male and female, will accept her behavior because it does not offend their senses of propriety… Male dress transforms what otherwise could be experienced as aggression into simple high spirits” (Park 108). Rosalind doesn’t show this kind of behavior to Orlando as herself, and for a woman to openly spar with a man would be unbecoming in that age. But her principles demand that she pare this would-be suitor down to a man worthy of her attention. By taking this initiative and practicing agency, Kimbrough claims this makes Rosalind more complete: “Rosalind ‘grows into a fuller human self’ because of her disguise; her wit is ‘indivisibly both masculine and feminine.’ She is a giddy girl, a saucy lackey, and a magician, roles which allow Orlando to be more open and honest and Rosalind to challenge, through her anti-feminine barbs, ‘attributes created for women by society’” (Kimbrough 25). He touches upon the theory of androgyny as ideal personhood and uses Rosalind as the prime example of a woman transcending gender altogether. As the audience, we aren’t to be fooled too so we can tap into the ideal androgynous energy emanating from the characters.

Robert Kimbrough argues that the message of “As You Like It” is supposed to convey the universal lesson that Rosalind is freeing herself by making her gender arbitrary, a lesson we are supposed to take to heart. “The boy actor who speaks the Epilogue emphasizes our need to accept our sex -and our common humanity- ‘instead of hiding behind the disguise of gender’” (Kimbrough 27). It’s no accident that he calls gender a disguise, when the characters take on the opposite one to achieve an end outside the reach of their own. Kimbrough exposes the impotence of gender categories, his example being the women who become men to exercise power they aren’t supposed to naturally have (based on Elizabethan standards). Society has constructed gender as a disguise to assert power over a particular one, when there is no validity to the claims society makes about the weakness of women. We limit our own potential, when our spiritual energy is filtered through an identity that acknowledges only half of our true nature.

There are feminine and masculine qualities in every person, and Rosalind (along with her Shakespearian sisters) exercises her full potential by displaying masculine traits while retaining her feminine qualities and becoming stronger by glorifying both. The women expose the falsity of all gender stereotypes by falsifying their own. Rosalind symbolically spreads this enlightenment to other characters in the play: “Catherine Belsey (1985, item 275) similarly concludes that Rosalind/Ganymede is sometimes feminine/sometimes masculine, a character who asks us to ‘celebrate the plurality’ of roles. For Barbara Bono (1986, item 323), Rosalind’s disguise softens the masculine views found in Petrarchianism and allows her to be a good companion to Orlando. Because of the disguise, she is able to test his love and help him revise his wrongheaded and idealistic views of love and women” (Kolin 34). Orlando is set in his views of women, and it takes the enlightened and perfected Rosalind/Ganymede figure to educate him and bring out of him the understanding that we are also expected to garner from the experience. Shakespeare has struck upon a noble truth to pursue using the dramatic device of disguise. He wades deeper into this outlook with the next play that utilizes cross-dressing to even more complicated effect.

Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 2: “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”

Patricia Waugh describes metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh 2). It is specifically fiction about fiction, forcing readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work, with the author maintaining a very direct relationship with the reader. David Foster Wallace gained fame practicing such writing, using irony and self-reflexivity to challenge the boundaries of fiction. Writing in a postmodern world means knowing that your writing will be analyzed, and Wallace expresses his own anxiety over this phenomenon through metafiction that addresses the reader he knows is judging him. Wallace’s writing is aware that it will be criticized and deconstructs that very idea in his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. “#20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” – an excerpt from this collection – is constructed with the narrator telling a story about an anecdote relayed by a different character in his story. That’s usually how complicated metafiction gets, and this is DFW on his easiest setting.

Although implicit in many other types of fictional works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction. “The narrator of a metafictional work will call attention to the writing process itself. The reader is never to forget that what she is reading is constructed–not natural, not ‘real’ (Waugh 16).” The narrator of “#20” is a fully-fledged character in his own story, while also narrating the anecdote within it, calling to attention the story as a story and making it a part of him rather than having himself (as a narrator) be a part of the story. He acknowledges that the interviewer will judge him for his brutally candid tone. Much like Wallace knows his stories can be harsh and critics will pan him for it. But beyond the metafiction, the interview is about the anxieties of sexuality, specifically in how it is an attempt at connecting with people.

The narrator is a cocky chauvinist whose pseudo-intellectual language belies a self-conscious need to be respected. He uses “irregardless” and “dash” as if he’s reciting a freshmen dissertation and inundates his overblown sentences with “quote… unquote” revealing a cynical approach to every concept he discusses. He reserves most of his contempt in this story for the woman he picks up and eventually falls in love with. He opens the story by saying he fell in love with her, and yet criticizes her use of the word the night he picks her up, stating the word, “has through over-deployment become trite and requires invisible quotes around it now at the very least.” But he shows a high degree of unawareness, which is ironic for a narrator that is not only aware that he is telling a story, but is aware that he will be judged harshly for it. He criticizes the Granola Cruncher girl and her ilk while he himself expresses many flawed opinions: “She had the unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself. I have to confess that it was the first time I did not find her one bit dull.” The narrator is unaware that his character could be drawing attention away from the story and onto himself, as he does many times to go on long tangents of vitriol. He goes on: “an unnatural calm the way some people affect an unnatural nonchalance about narrating an incident that is meant to heighten their story’s drama and/or make them appear nonchalant and sophisticated, one or the other of which is often the most annoying part of listening to certain types of beautiful women structure a story or anecdote.” He is trying to act sophisticated while relaying this story of mortal terror and life-changed encounters but shows his hypocrisy and sexism when criticizing women for doing the same thing. A narrator that is aware of himself and acknowledging that the reader will judge him, yet is unaware of the hypocrisy he shows in his description of the narrator of the inner story, is another staple of Wallace’s use of metafiction. It’s also a sign of the anxiety in such a person; constant fear of being judged and deflection of criticism are latent in his sophisticated and self-referential language.

Rather than have us empathize with the narrator, the story makes an effort to have the reader empathize with the wordless interviewer who clearly gets frustrated with the interviewee’s tangents and sexist pontificating. “I observe with interest that you are now interrupting me to ask the same questions I was interrupting her to ask, which is precisely the sort of convergence–” We know it is a woman because the interviewee outs her and insults her for being one. She continues to interrupt him and ply him for more of the story, making herself a surrogate for the reader eager to hear more about the psychopath story rather than listen to him rant. He is aware that the interviewer will judge his anecdote and manner of telling it – just as Wallace is aware that the audience will analyze his story – this establishes the metafictional relationship of Wallace as the hideous man and the reader as the voiceless interviewer trying to get a story from his blustery rants.

Fear of ridicule is a topic Wallace has talked extensively about, particularly in his essay, “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.”

“And to the extent that it [TV] can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naiveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier” (Wallace 63).

Wallace sees this fear as a widespread social anxiety, and Subject #20 is exactly the type of person affected by it. He judges the Granola Cruncher girl as naïve and conquers her, even admitting guilt at seemingly taking advantage of her. He knows that the interviewer is judging him for this behavior and this fear cracks his façade of confidence. “I… had formed judgments based on that. Just as I am watching you forming judgments based solely on the opening of things I’m describing that then prevent you from hearing the rest of what I try to describe. It’s due to her influence that this makes me sad for you instead of pissed off.” He is both sad and pissed off, and the ending shows it. The girl’s intense focus on the psychopath draws an emotional reaction from him. The female renders the male at the end. But not in the way that she treats him; in the way that she doesn’t treat him. Not loving back or affecting him in the way she affected the psychopath (and herself). She saved herself and shared a human connection more real than anything in her or the psychopath’s life. The narrator realizes she achieved what every human wants, and he wishes to share in it.

It seems that the woman in the story, whose seeming naïveté made her a target of both predators, is the only person in the story capable of real human connection on a spiritual level that they can’t recreate. That’s why both sob after having sex with her; she exposes the inefficacy of their enterprise. How empty they will always feel, and how fulfilled she feels without them. The narrator brings up the term Male Gaze to describe how he looked at her, and uses the term Female Gaze to describe how she looked at the psychopath. A connection is made between the rapist’s and the narrator’s attempts to connect to women via predatory means. While the rapist is more barbaric, his emotional dependence on sexual relations with – and animosity toward – the women are qualities shared by the narrator. And the rapist’s reaction to the girl’s efforts at a “soul-connection” compare to the narrator’s after her story.

The narrator’s explosion at the end showcases his true nature of sexist vitriol fueled by insecurity: “I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. This is your chance. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before me. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, cunt, slut, gash. Happy now? All borne out? Be happy. I don’t care. I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.” “End of story” is the literal ending of the story, and is spat out in a rushed flurry where his language degenerates into an insulting tirade. His honesty has finally come out in the catharsis from his story. He judges love and anyone who expresses it so harshly that he fears the woman listening to him will judge him the same way, and it sparks his already-present anger toward her to come out and transform him into a raving lunatic. This all begins because he met a woman that he thinks he loves and is afraid that other people will hate him as much as he hates himself.

When comparing these two stories, it becomes understandable why the boy in “Forever Overhead” would be anxious about growing up. The man in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a sexist and a borderline sexual predator, who is terrified that people will judge him and falls apart when he falls in love. The boy’s sexual awakening heralds an adulthood that might make him like that man, who is only one emotional disorder away from becoming the rapist in the girl’s story. Time is the common force present in all life that draws us toward entropy and destruction. Knowledgeable of this, our culture responds with shallow sexuality meant only to distract us from these fears, but it mires us in even more emotional problems. With these two stories, Wallace constructs an image of modern society that he views as plagued with psychological fears of ridicule and death. The universal fear of growing up in “Forever Overhead” and the mentally crippling fear of judgment in “Brief Interviews” form the challenges we must face as intelligent adults in the postmodern world, but Wallace helps us by connecting us with his writing. He turns these problems into a common struggle and suggests we overcome our fears by acknowledging them. The hideous man believes showing his love is a weakness, but David Foster Wallace shows it to be a strength in the Granola Cruncher, who uses a soul connection to save her life and ascend the failings of human interaction. Wallace wants us to admit our weaknesses so we can reclaim our strengths. We don’t have to stand atop the board in fear; we can dive in together and make a good life.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan, and K. Kvashay-Boyle. Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary
Short Stories. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. Print.

“David Foster Wallace Has Made My Students Yawn, and I Think It’s Making Me Mad.”
Web blog post. Draft the Blog of Process. N.p., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

“Time in ‘Forever Overhead.’” David Foster Wallace. University of Texas at Austin, 22
Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. .

Wallace, David Foster. “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A
Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement Address. Ohio,
Gambier. 19 Nov. 2014. Speech.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction.
London: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 1: “Forever Overhead”

In his writing, David Foster Wallace tackles topics like depression and anxiety, especially fear of ridicule, and how they affect members of modern generations. The two short stories “Forever Overhead” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, #20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” are great examples of his commentary on the anxieties of sexuality and trying to connect with other people. Fear of ridicule and judgment are mainstays of adult life as shown in “Brief Interviews,” and the worries of growing up form the basis for “Forever Overhead.” Wallace’s use of point of view in both stories reveal his agenda of trying to connect with the reader personally, thus making the works self-reflexive commentaries on life as a self-reflexive enterprise. These stories are Wallace’s devices in exploring neuroses in modern Americans by addressing them directly.

In contrast to his well-known postmodern style that challenges the structure of fiction, “Forever Overhead” is a more traditional short story told in second person about a thirteen-year-old boy on the cusp of puberty taking his first dive (literally and figuratively) into adulthood. Anxiety is inherent in any story about growing up, and Wallace carefully dissects the aspects of these fears finally finding a universal fear of time at the root of it all.

“Forever Overhead” is written in the second person imperative with the target being a young pubescent boy. The story speaks to the reader personally with every “you,” establishing a universal tale of growing up. It opens with “Happy Birthday. Your thirteenth is important.” It doesn’t read so much that the boy thinks this himself, as he has been told his thirteenth is important by society. The entire story reads like a mechanical process to echo the boy’s new life. Every verb is used either as a description of what is seen, heard, smelt, and felt, or as a command turning the boy (and reader) into a passive cog in the machine of life. The theme of machines is introduced to the story with the lines describing the wait for the diving board: “There is a rhythm to it. Like breathing. Like a machine,” and “She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.” The repletion of the phrase, “Like a machine,” mirrors the repetitive nature of waiting for the diving board, which goes eternally forward, impossible to stop, like time itself. “It is a machine that moves only forward.”

Another source of anxiety for the boy is thinking. “You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking.” Anxiety is rooted in over-analyzing things; the “decided” implies that the boy sees every new aspect of life as a discovery: he analyzed the act of thinking and came to the conclusion that it’s too scary to take on too often. Certain scenarios require thinking: “You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. At some point the wrongnesses have piled up blind… When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.” He’s an analytical child, as most are at that age, and is coming to mature conclusions very quickly when faced with new feelings like risk. The simple language used to convey complex ideas makes for beautiful writing. “Brown,” “blue,” and “white” are used to succinctly describe the pool and people’s skin. Because he has decided that thinking is scary, the boy perceives the world very basically with “hurt” and “sweet.” He is on the verge of growing up and will not be able to remain simple much longer. “Hurt” and “scared” crop up commonly to describe how the boy feels on his way to the diving board. The young boy’s perspective of the world is experienced so simply but interpreted so intimately, turning the voice from childish to realistic.

Every physical sense is accounted for in this story with smell being most important; the bee smells the sweetness it cannot reach, just as the growing boy’s new bodily functions are described with what smells emanate from the liquids made in his body. The pool too is introduced smelling exactly like the boy’s semen: “The smell is, more than anything, like this swimming pool.” This association of the pool with the boy’s bodily changes symbolically turn it into the new world he must jump into at the end of his adolescence (and the story). Something’s smell can be more important than the thing itself as in what the mother has in her can. The sweat bee that likes it perceives it as only something sweet, making its perspective comparative to the boy’s. The relation of the bee to the boy is one of the story’s most important aspects concerning the theme of anxiety. After the mother swats at the bee: “The bee is back right away, seeming to hang motionless over the can in a sweet blur.” It is drawn to something that it cannot have, but the anticipation makes it feel as if time has stopped and that the feeling will last. If the bee can stave off satisfaction forever, it can be satisfied. This mirrors the boy’s desire to stave off jumping from the high board and subsequently stave off growing up. The bee hovering over the can refers to the boy standing on the board: “If you wanted you could really stay here forever, vibrating inside so fast you float motionless in time, like a bee over something sweet.” This line is where the story gets its title; a perfect existence in the boy’s mind is remaining outside of time above everything forever. Never having to jump into the water and continue living into adulthood and death. “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” Standing still in time means moving as fast as time moves to appear standing still, which is why the bee looks like a blur. The boy wants to catch up with time and become motionless in it. He feels that he has found that on the high board.

Nearing the end of the story, the boy is startled back to reality and is pressed to finally jump. “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill tine with your heart. Everything takes time.” Time is an important concept in this story, as it is made into the main source of anxiety for the thirteen-year-old boy. “Now that there is time you don’t have time.” This line comes when the man behind him on the diving board shouts for him to jump. When one comes to terms with the reality that time will never stop existing, one feels no ownership of time as a concept and only knows it as a force that pushes them onward eternally into inevitable oblivion. It represents one of the foundational sources of anxiety in the story and thus is all our lives. The boy comprehends this finally. The pool looks hard from the board and the boy knows it will be soft when he falls into it. This brings up the line, “So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time?” It refers to the confusion over existence; were his senses fooled by the appearance of hardness? Is silence the way things are with time being the aberration? Or is time the struggle against the silence? This confusion fuels the final psychological pain for the boy as he falls into the future. It’s interesting that DFW decides to use “time and silence” suggesting they are opposites like “hard and soft.” When the thirteen-year-old is on the high board, it is described as “still and quiet… No time and no real sound but your blood squeaking in your head.” We know that time is the source of anxiety in the piece, so we can assume that its counterpart would be motionlessness, time not moving and silence/peace taking its place.

Wallace answers his own question with, “The lie is that it’s one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.” As we grow up we start to figure out what lies we were told in our childhood. We begin to think of life as divided into truths and lies, and this line succinctly describes the revelation that there is no clear distinction, and life is a swirling chaos. It’s an equally comforting and disquieting notion because we rely on that line to keep track of the world, and the aporia resulting from losing that distinction causes deep philosophical anxiety. Postmodernists generally believe that, when closely examined, all formalized claims describing phenomena, reality, or truth, rely on some form of circular reasoning and self-referential logic that is often paradoxical in nature. Thus, it’s important to uncover the hidden patterns of circularity, self-reference, and paradox within a given set of statements rather than feign objectivity. David Foster Wallace invokes this post-structurist critique in the line, “The lie is that it’s one or the other.” Our cultural childhood ended when postmodernism began criticizing some of our earliest lessons and taught us the malleability of “truth.” This whole story is about a child worrying what “truth” will mean as he grows up. He decides thinking is scary, but he discovers that his senses can lie to him. He undergoes rapid philosophical growth at this age that will lead him into the anxiety-laden battlefield of modern adulthood.

In his Kenyon College commencement address, David Foster Wallace described the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warned against solipsism, invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism: “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” The boy in “Forever Overhead” is just now confronting truth as an idea and deciding for himself how to see it, which is only the beginning of his problems, but Wallace shows optimism in revealing it as a universally shared problem.
(Continued in Part 2)